Taking Care of Business
by J. D. De Roeck
by J. D. De Roeck
When Paul Smith travels to the south of France for a sales conference, events conspire to drag him into a world of kidnappings, blackmail and murder.
Following a violent incident, Paul instinctively offers refuge to a girl he believes to be a vulnerable lost soul in a desperate situation, only to find that all is not as it appears. Unwittingly, he finds himself caught between competing international crime syndicates as they go to war, and two powerful Russian families as they fight for control of a vast Russian conglomerate.
What begins as a routine business trip to Nice, turns into a journey of self-discovery that takes him to some of the most glamorous locations on the Cote d’Azur. Paul is compelled to confront each new escalating threat in turn, while his neatly ordered world spirals relentlessly out of control.
As events unfold, he is forced to challenge everything he thought he knew about himself, before finally embracing the danger and brutal violence he encounters along the way.
Can Paul get to the truth, and does he have what it takes to keep those he cares about safe, and himself alive?
Information about the Book
Title: Taking Care of Business
Author: J. D. De Roeck
Release Date: 3rd July 2018
Publisher: Clink Street Publishing
Read an Excerpt!
THREE YEARS AGO (JANUARY 2011)
ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA
It was dark, the modest chamber lit only by the flicker of a roaring fire that did little to warm him. He knew it was time and dismissed them all. He would do this alone.
The study was sparsely furnished, a large desk at its heart, aged and scarred from years of wear. His old chair was set behind it, as it had been for so many years, now dusty from lack of use. There was a Chesterfield and a small table, both from a previous life yet still treasured for the history he shared with them. The heavy curtains were drawn against a Russian winter’s night, but still the cold bit deeply into his failing frame.
It was a small room, lost among the vast halls and suites of the old palace that had been his home for so many years. It was his most private place, a refuge, pared back and simple.
The hour was late; the ornate clock on the mantelpiece recorded the passing of time relentlessly, its inevitability a stark echo of the life that was now ebbing from him.
He had achieved many things in his life, but, like so many great men in his country, he too knew regrets, the legacy of each tormenting him over the years, exacting a heavy toll.
There were many things he’d done in the early days that he knew would haunt him for the rest of his life. Now that the end was drawing near, he took some comfort in knowing that they did. At least he’d endeavoured to put things right, long ago accepting the full burden of his own guilt. He’d been complicit in all that took place, yet even now he only ever truly embraced the shame of it in private. He knew he could never be fully reconciled, and as the minutes ticked inexorably by, the torment that had plagued him for a lifetime troubled him more deeply than ever.
Over the years, Valentine had laboured to balance the scales, his philanthropy a price he was all too willing to pay. If there was a God, and, surely, he would have his answer soon, there would be a reckoning. He doubted that any God of worth would value such belated acts of kindness as fully paying down the debt. A debt stained with the blood of his enemies and those who stood in his way. That was how it was back then; surely any judgement would take such a context into account. But that was not his concern for now, at least not yet.
He’d done all he could to make his peace, and now one task remained. He clawed at the document on his lap, a pen painfully gripped between his trembling fingers. His eyes were failing; in the firelight no text was legible to him, but he knew where to sign. Now, with a shattering certainty, he accepted it was the right thing to do, the only responsible course of action and perhaps his last mortal act. He was resolved, and with the last vestige of his fading strength he would set this one remaining matter straight. It would define his legacy, and it would break the old man’s weary heart.
The pen tumbled from his grasp, the ink spilling viscous from the nib and forming a black pool on the oak floor. It was an unsettling image for the old man. He made no attempt to recover the pen, but stared, transfixed. There had been so much blood in those early days, as dark and indelible as the ink that now spilled from the broken tip. The pen was a treasured gift from a wife taken from him so long ago, but now it was nothing more than a shattered instrument, a mere device, complicit in one last moment of defiance.
Valentine had done the right thing, and although he knew there could be no redemption in this life, he slowly closed his eyes one final time, to face his judgement in the next.Chapter 11
Paul awoke suddenly. He wasn’t sure at first what caused him to stir, but something was wrong. There was a loud bang from the bedroom lobby and he heard a female voice. He was disorientated, and he couldn’t be sure if what he was hearing was real or imagined.
There were a few seconds of silence followed by the same sound again. There was no mistaking it this time. The bang wasn’t so loud on this occasion; it seemed further away perhaps, and then he heard the female voice again. No words were spoken, just a muffled cry followed by a groan. No discernible words, just sounds.
Paul couldn’t be sure. Was someone in trouble or was it something else? Whatever was happening, it was playing out in the lobby of room 733, in his bedroom or perhaps in the corridor just outside. Paul was momentarily torn. Did he switch the lights on or just shout out? What the hell is going on?
More cries – more of a whimper this time – and then silence once again.
Paul tried to shake the sleep from his mind and assimilate what was happening. There was limited evidence of anything sinister taking place but, for reasons he couldn’t yet fathom, he felt a deepening sense of foreboding. He heard the sound again and felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise.
Something was very wrong, and he couldn’t just hope it went away or convince himself it was nothing to do with him. It was happening and he couldn’t just ignore it. More cries. This time they were more urgent. He was certain it was panic he could hear; there could be no doubt about it.
A man’s voice broke his malaise. It was suppressed, as if trying not to be heard, but there was no disguising the ferocity of the outburst.Chapter 24
THREE MONTHS EARLIER
The man jumped from the train into a deserted and desolate wasteland, and a fresh covering of snow broke his fall. The icy winds clawed at his skin and the crisp fresh air filled his lungs. The contrast was stark: the dark foul-smelling claustrophobic gloom of the railway carriage replaced by an unending monochrome landscape under a leaden sky.
There was little hint of nature to give the land definition. All around him the frozen ground was strewn with the debris of decades of industrial neglect: machinery, piles of waste and crumbling abandoned buildings, all ravaged by yet another unforgiving winter.
He took in the scene. It was familiar, enduring, depressingly constant, and nothing much had changed with the passing of time. Behind him, the train crawled noisily away in the direction of the dilapidated unmanned station. He knew it wouldn’t stop. The freight transport would just rumble through en route towards its final destination, the city’s freight yards another five kilometres to the east.
Knee-deep in the snow he waited, scanning the platforms for life. There was none. But unmanned or not, the station wasn’t his destination – the marshalling yard was as close as he would get.
As the last few wagons passed, he settled on his haunches, low against the biting wind and static in the bleakest of landscapes. The ageing diesel locomotive laboured onwards. Fifty carriages, maybe more, a combination of rusting tanker wagons, open tops and the putrid enclosed rolling stock that had been his refuge for the journey. Each battered wagon was now en route to receive their first payloads of the season, the weather having finally relented. It would be twenty-four hours before that same train headed back to Dudinka. Twenty-four hours was all he had.
He already knew the journey back would be worse than the one he’d endured on the way in. The locomotive would labour again, struggling to cope under the massive increase in weight, each wagon fully loaded from the stockpiled output of the winter’s smelting and mining operations. Finding shelter among it would be a challenge.
As he waited, his breath formed crystals in the air that billowed wildly on the arctic wind. A few chilling minutes later he was completely alone in the marshalling yard, still half a mile from the station and as anonymous as he’d hoped. He scanned the route just travelled for signs of life but there were none.
In the distance, the city was waking up. He pulled his collar close and plunged his double-gloved hands deep into his pockets. Heading out across open land, he braced himself against the freezing gusts and made his way to the road, a narrow single-lane strip of tarmac visible only as a grey shadow as it cut its way through the vast snow-covered wastes to the north.
It was late June, the start of the all too short summer season, and still the thermometer barely passed zero. The journey was slow, bitterly cold and hideously uncomfortable, back to Norilsk this one last time; he’d already determined he would never return again. If it hadn’t been for the job, he would never have returned at all.
The winds had caused the fresh falls to drift, and he waded through them towards more open ground, where the going would be easier. As he left the drifts behind, the snow crunched angrily under his boots as he walked. It was frozen and compacted like concrete, and it had a permanence that implied it might never thaw at all. The road was still covered with a thick icy crust, stained and soiled, still supercooled by the all-pervasive permafrost that left the land bleak and lifeless.
The industrial plants continued to take their toll too. The air was tinged with a hint of sulphur and laden with a fine corrosive grit. It irritated his eyes and scoured the exposed skin on his face. Nothing much could live in such conditions, the soil long since rendered poisonous from years of acid rain and unending falls of dangerously contaminated acrid dust. Nothing had changed; nothing had changed at all.
He paced up and down under the soft haunting glow of a solitary street light. Incongruous in its setting, it was miles from anywhere. There seemed to be little point to it other than to mark out a single location in an otherwise featureless stretch of carriageway. “Wait by the street light,” had been his instruction, but standing out in the open in the middle of nowhere was the last thing he intended to do.
It was a dangerous secretive place, with access to the city itself strictly controlled and monitored. Norilsk was a “closed city”, its existence denied, a national embarrassment, an industrial schism in an ancient wilderness.
He needed to stay unnoticed, but once in the city itself he knew it would be almost impossible. He didn’t care for scrutiny, but in such a place, it wasn’t so much if he was being observed, but who was doing the observing that really mattered. He self-consciously stepped away from the light, taking cover in the lee of a huge earth-moving machine. It was a mere carcase, way beyond any possibility of repair and long since abandoned.
There was daylight but it was subdued and reluctant. He knew the quality of it would get better as summer went on, perhaps for six weeks more, before finally giving way to months of darkness, an unnatural all-consuming perpetual night-time. The seasons were brutal, a period of constant daylight followed by months of unrelenting gloom. Even now the sun was so low on the horizon it shone pitifully, barely visible through the pall of smog that belched from the chimneys that gave the city its only reason to exist.
The streetlight buzzed in the silence and flickered in the half-light.
He checked his watch. Twenty minutes before his lift was due to arrive.
He studied the grey outline of the city in the distance, the ghostly scare he’d once called home. That hadn’t changed much either; it was just as he recalled. It was a truly vile place. Norilsk was nothing more than a godforsaken Siberian outpost, bleak and isolated, its history as bleak as its setting. He knew its origins well enough, built on the agonies of thousands of forced labourers, all victims of the Gulag and the unwilling founders of Stalin’s industrial dream city in the north.
The result was nothing less than a dystopian landscape made nightmare by its grotesque proportions and impossible, life-reducing living conditions. It was still the most polluted and coldest city on earth, and to him it appeared to be just as much a prison now as it had ever been. His own childhood had slipped neglectfully away amid its filthy, crumbling tenements. There were no walls even then, no fortifications or guards, but even so, there had been no possibility of escape. The city was so remote, so removed from the rest of the country, stripped from the nation’s conscience and embargoed to keep its appalling legacy hidden. There was nowhere within a credible distance to go and, then as now, no legitimate means to get in or out.
And now he was breaking back into the nightmare. He didn’t have the papers, the state ID card or any of the other numerous bureaucratic approvals required to make his journey, but who on earth would really care? Who, that mattered, would even know?Chapter 38
Paul shifted uneasily in the bed, opened his eyes and began assembling a jumble of fragmented thoughts into some sort of order. He’d awoken suddenly from a fretful sleep, his mind racing and his heart pounding in his chest.
It was six o’clock according to the digital display permanently illuminated on the vast TV, a full eighteen hours since they’d received the text message. It seemed like an eternity ago, and now events began to replay themselves unbidden and in no particular order as he shook the sleep from his eyes.
Since that one single text message, Boris and Giorgi had remained totally silent. No further text messages and no phone calls. Just one chilling message with its haunting video and sickening threats. It was dictating everything they did, and that, Paul reluctantly acknowledged, was exactly how Boris and Giorgi would have wanted it. That realisation hit him hard, and he cursed his stupidity. The threats were unsettling and utterly compelling, but allowing Boris and Giorgi to dictate their response was surely the wrong thing to do. He felt his pulse surge, his chest tightening. But what should his response be? What should it have been? Why was he waiting for them to make the next move? The bedside phone rang and Paul picked it up immediately. It was the front desk; the hire car had arrived. It was time to take the initiative.
In the dark, Paul’s reflections drifted back to home, and as one day slipped silently into the next, his thoughts turned to Sophie and the first time they were in Nice together. He saw them both standing arm in arm at the viewpoint of the Quai Raubu Capeu, where so many couples before them had spent the last few moments before sunset, staring indulgently out to sea. As he closed his eyes he could almost feel the sun’s gentle warmth. He recalled the mellowing red glow of the approaching dusk as it consolidated into a flaming yellow haze. Time seemed to stall, the sky becoming a brooding canvas as the day melted into the horizon.
Paul remembered how Sophie had gently pulled him to her as the sky burned red about them. He remembered her turning to kiss him. He recalled her tenderness, a tenderness that had seemed sadly remote of late, yet the memory of it transported him back to those early days, as their love for each other had taken root, and on that first night in Nice, it began to blossom into something he thought would last a lifetime. Their lips had met in a soft lingering embrace as the dusk settled. It had all been so completely perfect. But, as Sophie slowly pulled away, her hair was burnished golden by the dying embers of the fading sun, and it was only then he realised it was Alisa’s smile that met his gaze. In that moment, and with so many miles between them, he knew for certain that nothing would ever be quite the same again.Chapter 43
For Paul, the prospect of spending the day alone with Alisa was a welcome one, and it started well. The carriages were sparsely occupied despite the time of day. Blocks of empty seats faced each other with tables in between; all but a few were free.
Paul gravitated towards an empty section of the carriage on the side of the train that offered at least some prospect of a view of the sea as they travelled west towards Cannes. Alisa had consciously chosen to slip in beside him instead of taking the seat opposite. She instinctively took his arm as they both stared out of the window together, casually watching the villages and towns of the Côte d’Azur slip steadily by.
He placed his hand on hers, as if to reassure her, and she smiled sweetly, closing her fingers around his. Paul’s mind drifted back to the early hours of the morning and to the reconstructed memory of his first night in Nice with Sophie four years earlier. He and Sophie had been a couple in the early throws of a genuine love affair, but this was very different. Why did it all suddenly feel so very real to him?
“You’re very quiet,” she said. “Is everything okay?”
“It’s fine,” he said unconvincingly.
She gave his arm a gentle squeeze and snuggled in a little closer.
Such a gentle act conferred an honest affection. It felt totally natural, yet there remained an unresolved ambiguity in her touch. It was becoming increasingly difficult for Paul, Alisa had never been far from his thoughts, her beauty and vulnerability captivating him from the very first moment he saw her in the restaurant. And now, as she laughed and smiled spontaneously at his side, he felt drawn to her as never before.
She was beautiful, seductive and utterly intoxicating, and he found himself regretting the brevity of the journey as the train slowly pulled into Cannes station. The time alone together had been all too short, a few fleeting minutes that had quickened his pulse and softened his resistance to her, but the allusion of her intimacy remained a mystery, an enigma still to be revealed. Paul wondered, with a growing sense of sadness, if he would ever really know the girl at all.****
Alisa had once again, contentedly bound herself to his arm. It all felt so familiar, she seemed totally relaxed and, at least for now, completely at ease with Paul by her side. He occasionally caught a fleeting glimpse of her reflected in the windows of the boutiques as they wandered by. She had a seductive elegance, an inherent grace and each step had its own engaging rhythm that drew him closer to her. Her soft features seemed to glow in the sunshine and her thick mane gentle bobbed and swept at her shoulders as she walked.
Paul allowed himself to imagine, if only for a moment, what it might be like to be an ordinary couple, together through choice and in the early flush of mutual attraction, perhaps without a care in the world.
He determinedly shook the thought from his mind.
Finally, they stopped to admire an exquisite light blue summer dress. It was beautifully displayed in the window of a boutique so exclusive as to negate the need for price tags. Alisa loved it, and Paul was certain there were few girls that could wear such a dress to better effect. He could contain himself no longer.
“Alisa…” he began, almost entirely against his better judgement, “there’s something I need to tell you…” But whatever it was, the words just wouldn’t come. “I think… what I’m trying to say…”
She just smiled softly. It was as if she already knew, but she allowed him to pursue his cause a little longer.
“Alisa, these last few days with you have been incredible.” He struggled on. “It’s true that we’ve only just met. I know we barely know each other, but I was thinking—”
“What were you thinking, Paul?” she purred, as her smile broadened.
“Well, I was thinking that maybe, once this is all over, perhaps…” He paused for a deep breath.
Paul was floundering hopelessly, and she took pity on him. She raised a single delicate finger to his lips.
“Let’s eat,” she said, with all the ambiguity in the world.
At 2.30 am, Maria had been missing for eighty-seven hours.
The calculation helped to keep Paul awake at first, playing on his mind and inviting unwanted images of a woman he barely knew. Each image felt darker than the one that preceded it. Maria tied to a chair, tears streaming down her blood-smeared features, beaten, lying on a featureless floor in an anonymous room. The images began to flash in sequence: Maria, then Alex, Maria again. Now the floor was smeared with blood, Alex’s blood, as he lay bound with the cables ties that had become Boris and Giorgi’s signature. The darkness and isolation of the quayside taunted him. He felt a chill. He felt Maria’s loneliness and sensed her fear. Outside the car every sound carried a threat, every shadow was filled with uncertainty.
A noise startled him, nothing more than a cat calling out in defence of its territory, but the picture in his mind was of Maria calling out in pain and desperation. Paul let down the window, fresh cold sea air filled the car and his body shook with a chilling apprehension. When would they come? Surely, they would come…
As a distraction, he re-read the email he’d sent earlier. He considered all the details he could have added to make it even more compelling than it already was. He closed the window as something close by fell to the ground, or was it kicked, a clattering sound that echoed in the stillness? The cat perhaps, or was there someone else out there in the dark, watching him? He scanned the road ahead and then each mirror in turn as he sat alone in the car – nothing, there was nothing at all. But they were out there somewhere. Giorgi and Boris were both out there, planning their next move. He watched the shadowy form of a street cat mount the sea wall and drop down out of sight. Silence returned and the darkness closed in around him, a little blacker than before.
Chapter 63The engine note changed and the tender picked up speed. He could only speculate that they were out into open water and free of the restrictions of the tiny harbour.
He renewed his grip on the sturdy steel bar in his hands, the wheel brace seamlessly morphing from wrecking tool to weapon, and he felt emboldened by its cold utility. His mind drifted back to the violence he had witnessed, Boris launching a brutal assault. The violence was extreme, yet controlled, and completely uninhibited. It was Boris’s cold-blooded disregard for any consequence, that made the attack so totally overpowering. Paul determined then that he would suspend all caution, any regard for outcomes, if he got the chance. He would take any opportunity that came his way, and he would take his lead from Boris.
Still they headed out to sea, and suddenly a sense of dread washed over him. What if they weren’t going out to Barabus after all? What if the Russians were just taking Maria out to deep water? No witnesses! No loose ends!Chapter 65
Maria released what little grip she still maintained on the massive handgun as Boris closed his enormous fist around its handle. Paul looked on as Boris fixed his finger on the trigger.
“Shoot him now!” Paul screamed in frustration as the red dots danced frantically around the deck. “Shoot!” But his cries were lost as the engines roared and the massive concussive plume of water churned and boiled behind them. It would have to be him. He would have to take the shot himself. Paul felt the trigger of Dimitri’s gun firm against his finger… just the slightest squeeze would discharge the weapon. Paul waited.
But now Boris held the gun in his left hand. With his right he pulled Maria to one side and behind him. It was as if he was protecting her. Why would he? Something had definitely changed. Boris raised the gun and, in a single action, aimed and fired.Chapter 66
Paul launched himself down the stairs, leaping from the fourth step and leading with his knee. He piled into the man, who was ill-prepared and stunned by the speed of his reaction to his presence. He drove his knee hard into the man’s face and he crumpled to the deck at the foot of the stairs. He felt the bone in his adversary’s cheek fracture, deforming under the weight of the impact, and then, without a second thought, he attacked. There was no hesitation, no restraint at all, Paul’s fists clenched as he tore into him, his face, his throat, both unprotected and open. He was defenceless now, pinned down helplessly by the full weight of the assault. Paul felt a sickening sensation as the flesh on his own knuckles tore and peeled back as he struck. But he couldn’t stop now; he wouldn’t stop. Again and again he hammered his punches home, his victim was barely conscious, but still he continued. It was instinctive, brutal and completely overpowering.
Paul screamed insanely as he vented the full depth of his fury. Previously controlled and repressed, he found release in yet one more series of crushing blows.
And then it was done. Paul stood over his victim, a man he’d never seen before, and the extent of the wounds he’d inflicted suddenly sickened him and a deep churning clawed away at the pit of his stomach…About the Author
Residing in the East Midlands, J. D. de Roeck is a career hotelier and company directory. He loves travel and regularly visits the South of France, Nice, Monaco and Cannes. Taking Care of Business is his first novel. The inspiration for this novel came from one of his many trips abroad.
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