“We’ve got the woman,” Breem said into his phone.
“Your help in this project was the key I needed,” Walter Breem told his new contact in Lancaster, England. After listening to the caller’s response, he replied, “Yes, I will let Hamish know as well. His network in Leeds put me onto you, but you discovered the woman was on the train to Kendal, then on to that little burg farther down the line—the bit of information we really needed. If you ever find yourself in California, we’ll set you up for a great time, all on me.”
The man on the other end of the line, obviously pleased by the possibilities, responded for a few moments and then for a few more.
Breem listened to the man gibbering on, but growing somewhat impatient, he said into the phone, “Good deal. I’ll let you go now, and I’ll let Hamish know our business here is nearly complete. Thanks again. And make contact with us whenever you come to California.”
Realizing the time and hearing a grumble from his stomach, Breem left his room to find breakfast in the hotel restaurant before it closed until lunch. After walking along the brightly lit hallways and down the wide stairway to the hotel’s main level, he opened his cell phone once again to call one of his minions, Billy. The cell phone was a “burner”that Nicolas had picked up at Heathrow Airport in London upon their arrival in the United Kingdom. Breem was somewhat nervous about talking business on the burner phone, but he knew privacy laws in England were different from the ones at home in the United States. No one knew the three men were there, save for the contacts Breem had made through his new British acquaintance, Olly. Interestingly, Breem had been put in touch with Olly, a second-generation Kenyan Brit (and a second-generation drug dealer in London), by one of Nicolas’s dubious chums from the Sixty-Ninth Avenue gang back in Oakland. With an impressive network in the criminal underground of London, in and out of the drugs trade, Olly had connected Breem with people who could manage most anything he would need in the UK.
Breem made a mental note to call the man known as Hamishlater. And he wondered if Nicolas had taken control of Elisabeth or even if he had killed Billy yet. He hoped not. Billy was an idiot, but Nicolas had things on his mind about the woman that did not serve Breem’s immediate plans. First things first, he thought.
“Boy?” he said into the cell phone when the other end was connected. Billy was over fifty now, but the man still looked so young and pale that Breem often referred to him with that moniker. “Where are you, and did Nicolas catch up with you? He was pissed off at you when I called him and was finally able to wake him up,” Breem chided the man. He had always possessed a divide-and-conquer approach with his underlings, wanting to keep them at one another, not at himself and not questioning his orders.
“Yes, okay,” Breem said. “I’ll catch the train north this afternoon. I’ll be there early evening, I would imagine. Keep her quiet, and keep Nicolas away from her. He has been told to keep his hands off her, but something tells me you’ll need to remind him of my orders. When you get back to the—what is it?—a Days Inn. You tell him that.”
Breem continued talking into the phone. “Okay then. When you get there, take her to your room and call me when you have her settled,” he said as he entered through the restaurant archway. Then he clapped the phone closed with a loud snap and slipped it into his jacket pocket.
A youngish hostess with a shock of red hair led him to a table he had requested along the back wall. Breem slowly surveyed his surroundings and a smattering of the other guests. This habit of taking in the room and the people around him came from many years of looking over his shoulder, seeking out competitors and those who might have an axe to grind with him. He could always tell who was out to get him just by the looks on their faces—and even by the clothes they were wearing.
Since his late teens, Breem had worn dark suits and dark glasses. It had been the uniform of his ilk, an armor he felt most comfortable wearing when outside his spacious home in the Oakland Hills of Northern California. It was also a uniform of sorts worn by others in his type of business. His primary business was salvage, but that trade gave him access to a wide array of miscreants, from gangster wannabes on the docks at the Port of Oakland to the drug dealers of Sixty-Ninth Avenue. The salvage business was legitimate enough on the surface. Best of all, it gave his people greater access to other, less legitimate businesses and streams of dirty capital. The downside of this line of work, however, was that someone was always out to take turf away from others, and Breem’s people sometimes became caught up in the violence. For these reasons, Breem always kept the dirty stuff at arm’s length, leaving it to men like Nicolas and Billy. Breem had grown up on some rough streets with other kids from California’s working-class communities of the East Bay region, but he never outgrew a wariness he felt would keep him alive.
* * *
Nicolas Marcos, in his own dark suit and dark glasses, walked into the dining room of the Days Inn restaurant. The room was long and somewhat narrow with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Killington Lake all down one side. As he found his way to a table, Nicolas thought just how ridiculous it was for the room to have all that glass. “It’s almost always cloudy and rainy, so who gives a crap about looking outside?” he grumbled to himself as his own burner phone buzzed. From his corner table, he had a view of the entire room and the outdoors. He did not look beyond the glass wall, as there was nothing but countryside and lake out there. From where he sat, he could see all he needed: the entrances, the tables, and anyone in the room.
As he slid into a booth with its well-worn, faux-leather seats, he opened the cell phone to answer it, realizing that his boss was on the other end.
“So you got ahold of Billy, I take it?” Breem queried Nicolas before the waitress came to take his order.
“Yeah, Boss. He should be here soon. He has the bitch. But you already know that, I suppose,” answered Nicolas.
Breem did know Billy had Elisabeth. And he also thought his underling had seen too many damn gangster movies. Nicolas’s response of “Yeah, Boss” always reminded Breem of the low caliber of people he had working for him. However, they got things done and were willing to do anything he told them. For example, in this situation, Breem’s men flew to England, travelled around the country, and waited and waited some more before getting a call for further instructions. Once they had the needed information that only local heavies could get for them, Billy and Nicolas could carry out their dastardly plan. Ultimately, it was Billy who had moved to nab Elisabeth in the small village of Staveley. Breem knew it was pure luck that she had gone to a village, one small enough to make it easy for Billy to stumble upon her that morning. He was happy for the good fortune, to finally have some luck on his side.
From this point forward, they would get what they needed from her or take her back to California with them and force her to give them what Breem wanted. Finding her was the missing piece of the puzzle that almost made their plan complete. Breem would have control over her, and she would finally give him what he most desired. He knew for sure that nothing could stop him now.
* * *
“Billy is calling me. I’ll call you back,” Breem told Nicolas before answering the new call. “Are you there?” Breem asked into the device. “And is she cooperative?” Breem continued speaking. “All right, I’ll be there in a few hours. Don’t muck this up, boy. Stay there with her. Nicolas is around there somewhere. Call him, and he’ll help you keep an eye on her. You watch after him, though,” Breem said into the phone with a hushed bark.
Other hotel guests were seated nearby but did not seem to notice or to care about the tone of the man’s voice. Breem was aware that they had taken stock of him and his different clothes. Although no one paid any further attention to him after he had sat down, he was quite sure they knew he was an American.
* * *
Nicolas could imagine the conversation between his boss and Billy and was certain that he would be receiving another call from Breem very soon. He calmly finished his traditional English breakfast, a meal he found rather satisfying. Even the blood sausage, once suitably covered with egg yolk, was acceptable. It was not his mother’s Italian sausage—nowhere close—but he liked it all the same. His boss would be impatient as hell, Nicolas thought, to make the journey north to speak with Elisabeth, eventually getting what he wanted out of her. Also, Nicolas worried that Breem was so obsessed with this job that the old man might actually get his hands dirty and rough her up, if he needed to do so. It had been a long time since he had seen Breem put his hands on somebody directly. Nicolas only hoped that his boss would not mess Elisabeth up too much.
* * *
Breem exited an old taxicab under the hotel’s portico and immediately headed for the wide glass entrance. Nicolas had received his boss’s call from the train station and was in the lobby to greet the man. It was a silent greeting, a simple head nod of acknowledgment by both men to each other.
The only contemporary hotel in the area, the Days Inn had been the base of operations for Nicolas and Billy until they could find Elisabeth. A lower-rated hotel than Breem normally preferred, the Days Inn had served its purpose well and had even provided Nicolas and Billy with comfortable-enough surroundings. Neither of them liked England; the rain, the old buildings and narrow streets, and the fussy, overly polite people bothered both men very much. The country was too backward and musty smelling, they thought. Even Breem himself had once said, “Everything smells old; I hate this country.”
Breem and Nicolas crossed the lengthy lobby, and avoiding the glances from the receptionist, they made their way up a narrow staircase, Nicolas a half step behind his boss. He could tell that Breem was focused on one thing. He was not about to get in the man’s way, especially not now.
Billy had kidnapped the Austrian woman in the village of Staveley not far north of Kendal, where Breem had been told she was staying. Nicolas was angry, to say the least, that Billy had made the move on his own. That Billy had been so lucky to spot her simply by cruising the streets of a small English village cut Nicolas to his core. But they finally had Elisabeth. The only other upside he could see was that his boss was finally off his back for the first time in weeks.
Nicolas knew that Breem was completely obsessed with getting the woman. He knew, too, that Breem would do almost anything to get his hands on the Meekses’ collection. A collection of what, though, Nicolas did not know. But he had heard enough over many years to believe it was of magnificent value.
With Nicolas looking over his shoulder, Breem knocked on the door to Billy’s room. Billy quickly opened the door, and seeing the look in the old man’s eyes, he quickly stepped back so Breem could enter the room. Across the room, Elisabeth sat with her hands tied, one to each arm of a modern, metal-framed chair. Breem walked directly to her, noticing nothing more, not even caring if the room were on fire around him. He was on a mission.
Breem came to a stop in front of Elisabeth, who was looking up into his furious eyes. Standing over her, Breem gave Elisabeth a quick backhand to the face. Bolts of an excruciating sensation fired from each and every nerve on the right side of her face. The slapping, crushing blow had caused instantaneous and massive pain—just as the old man had intended.
With all the strength she could muster, Elisabeth squelched a scream of agony and dropped her head down toward one hand for support, a hand that could not respond as she commanded. Elisabeth felt a wave of recollection, suddenly remembering, through a darkening cloud of pain, another victim’s description of such a backhand to the face from a man. The specific victim was her roommate at university. Elisabeth was amazed at how accurate her friend’s description had been and how horrible it was to experience these circumstances personally.
“I don’t much like chasing you halfway around the damn world to find your ass, girl. You have cost me a lot of time and money. Why do you care so much about protecting the collection? Huh? What do you owe those Meeks people? The old man is dead, we have his daughter, and still you persist,” Breem said.
Elisabeth jerked her head up to look him in the eye, causing even more pain to shoot through her body. Nicolas and Billy also turned to him, surprised by what they had just heard.
“What? What do you mean you have Monica? Where is she?” asked Elisabeth with a shock of horror on her face and in her eyes, the pain deepening as she moved her jaw to talk.
“Since yesterday, the girl has been a guest in my home. My wife has actually taken a liking to her, though I’ve told her not to. Delva and my security guys have little Moni, who is not so little anymore, under control. She will stay under my control until I have the collection in my hands,” Breem happily reported to everyone in the room. “With little Moni, we have Cora under our control, too. She doesn’t want to see harm come to her little girl. Now, I have all the cards, you see, and you are going to give me what I want, right now.” Breem finished speaking, still towering over the Austrian woman.
Elisabeth was in shock over this new information. She again looked up at Breem. All that she needed to know was there in the man’s villainess eyes. He had Monica. This was a game changer.
* * *
Since that day when Huntington had sworn her to secrecy about his grandfather’s legacy, Elisabeth had protected the one thing he had put in her control. She was well aware that Breem wanted it, but she could not fathom the lengths to which he would go just to have it. She had no idea he would go after Monica and gain control over Cora by victimizing the Meekses’ daughter. She had no clear concept of how obsessed the man was with the one thing that had eluded him for so long.
Huntington had slowly communicated to Elisabeth what he feared the most and his need for her help. With her assistance and the support of his wife, Cora, he had fought to answer their questions and to rehabilitate his own power of speech. Without the knowledge of anyone but his wife, daughter, and Elisabeth, he had forced himself to speak as best as he could. Elisabeth was aware from the moment she had met the man that he was built of incredible personal fortitude. That he began to open his mouth and gurgle noises was of no surprise to her. From then on, she and Cora worked with him, encouraging him to speak. They quietly sought advice from the best speech therapists possible. All had requested to visit him, but he refused, hoping to keep the news quiet. Huntington wanted everyone, especially Breem and his men, to think he was still fully incapacitated.
* * *
“So, what’s it going to be, girl?” Breem asked with relief in his eyes. He had all the cards and was going to get everything he wanted from Elisabeth. Then he would let Nicolas have her—just for the sport of the thing.
“I… I cannot get it to you here, of course. And I will want to see that Monica and Cora are safe before you get what you are so desperate for,” Elisabeth replied. She knew all too well that Breem’s desires went beyond desperation. She could see it clearly in his eyes; the man was sick with an obsession that drove his every thought, his every action—no matter the cost. “You will need to take me back to California. That will be fun—won’t it?—what with customs and security.” First, Elisabeth was attempting to shine a light on the difficulties Breem faced in getting her out of the UK and back to California. Second, she was stalling. She had Michael, if she could get word to him and if he was the kind of man she thought he was. Moreover, Breem had no idea of the American man’s very existence.
“You think me an idiot, don’t you, girl?” replied Breem. “Since coming to this wet, miserable, damn country, I’ve made a few friends, people who can do most anything without the authorities having a clue.” He could see that Elisabeth was trying her best to remain stoic, to make a strong face of it, but she was learning fast just how much she did not know.
“I will not give you access to the Meekses’ collection until I am certain Moni is safe. You can count on that,” Elisabeth said, her voice sounding more assured than how she actually felt inside.
“There it is: your persistence. I’d still like to know why you are protecting the family’s property so willingly. They’re a bunch of rich pricks who never had to struggle for anything. I grew up on the streets and created a successful business by working hard and by banging a few heads along the way. What did they do? Nothing. Not a damn thing. Then you come along from this shithole country and go in with them. Did you fall in love with Meeks, is that it? I heard you two were pretty tight. I’ll bet that’s it. Did Cora know?” Breem finished off his question with a huff, his blood returning to a boil and his face turning red.
Elisabeth could see that the old man was beginning to lose it, and she was not sure if she should rile him up further or soft-pedal her next response. “I did not fall in love with Huntington. I fell in love with the family. They are—he was—good people, as you Americans would say.” She feared speaking more, not wanting another backhanded slap. Breem was still boiling mad, and Nicolas stood nearby.
“Nicolas. Billy. You two watch her. I’m going to make a call to our new British friends and get us out of here, get her back to the States,” said Breem. He could see a broad grin form on Nicolas’s plump face. “Keep your hands off her, for now. You’ll get your chance with her, once I have what I want.”
“Yeah, Boss, no problem,” replied Nicolas, the grin still present on his face as he looked directly at Elisabeth. He would get his chance, and right now, he would help Breem to maintain a healthy amount of fear in her mind, keeping her under their control.
To make a private call to Hamish, Breem wanted to go to the room that Nicolas had reserved for him. Breem took the proffered key, slowly opened the door, looked down both directions of the hall, and stepped out of Billy’s room. He would make his call, bring Hamish up to speed, and see if Hamish and his associates would assist him in getting Elisabeth out of the country without any fuss from the authorities. He had explored all possibilities for trouble and used the capture of Monica Meeks as an insurance policy to force Elisabeth and the Meeks family to cooperate with his scheme. He would have his way. He would get what he wanted, and soon.
* * *
“I need to use the restroom,” Elisabeth told Nicolas. She could still see that stupid grin on the ugly man’s face. He would never have her, she promised herself.
“I bet you do,” he said as he sat down on the bed nearest to her.
“I’m serious, you ass. I have been tied up here for hours. I need to go, now!”
“All right, all right. Keep quiet, or I’ll slap you myself. I’ll untie you. Do your business and come right back here,” Nicolas said as he leaned forward and began to untie her hands. “Don’t get any stupid ideas, though. We don’t want another bruise on that pretty face of yours, do we?”
With her hands freed, she made slow moves, bringing them together and rubbing her wrists, one hand and then the other. Billy had taken her cell phone away, and she would never get to use the hotel phone in the room. Slowly, making plans up in her mind as she rose, she stumbled and fell toward the bed and nightstand. That move took a fair bit of acting, she thought as Nicolas maneuvered quickly to pull her up. He was happy to have his hands on her. As swiftly as she could, she regained her footing and said, “Let me go. You had your feel, now let me go.” Nicolas loosened his grip, and she made her way to the other room. Billy was already half asleep on the other double bed, but he managed to pick up his head to remind Nicolas of Breem’s orders about the woman.
“Keep out of this, asshole. And you, girl, you keep your voice down, and don’t get any funny ideas while you’re in there. You can’t get out that little window, and even if you do, it’s a long fall to the ground,” Nicolas said with confidence.
A mock look of defiance on her swollen face, Elisabeth continued to devise a plan in her mind as she walked across the room. She entered the restroom and closed the door. Pressing a tiny mechanism at the center of the doorknob, she locked herself in the room. She confirmed the tiny window’s size with a quick glance, and she slowly turned to survey the remainder of the room. She felt an overwhelming sense of anxiety as she considered her very limited options. She must get word out, but how? she thought. Her appraisal completed in a few short moments, and quashing the anxiousness as best as she could, she sat on the toilet, continuing to play the part. She did have to go, so that made it easy to give the proper sounds and perceptions to Nicolas on the other side of the restroom door. Nicolas, she was sure, was close to the door, getting his jollies.
Right on cue, Nicolas called out, “Remember what I said. No funny ideas in there. Breem will be back at any moment, and he won’t be happy you’re not still tied up.”
Elisabeth was not paying the thug much attention. As she sat there considering her options, she pulled out a tiny tablet, one with only a few pieces of paper and a simple black pen, that she surreptitiously managed to take from the nightstand in Billy’s room. She formulated a note for Michael Seltzer in her mind. With a final debate rolling about in her head, she realized she could never safely get a note out of the room and to Michael, or to anyone else for that matter. Recognizing that they were now worthless and even dangerous to her, she hid the pad and pen in the toilet’s tank. She must hope for the best. Hope was all she had. She was not certain of the reason, but she truly thought Michael was someone she could trust. But how could she get him involved? Did he understand the look in her eyes on the street that morning when Billy had snatched her up at the old B and B? Would he be looking for her? And why should she believe he would?
* * *
Days earlier in London, Elisabeth’s whereabouts had been leaked on social media, which made it easier for Breem and his men to locate the woman they had been seeking for months. While travelling overseas, Elisabeth had found it nearly impossible to keep the news of her arrival in England a secret from some of her old friends living there. Staying with those she thought she could trust, Elizabeth decided against asking her friends to maintain her privacy, worrying that she would have to explain her unusual predicament to them. However, when one of her friends innocently posted some pictures of her (in front of various London landmarks) online, she feared the worst. Breem would be onto her leaving California with the information he desperately wanted. Thus, she made the rather safe assumption that he would be sending his goons after her very soon. She would need to run—and to seek help from someone she could trust.
The very next day, Elisabeth received a text from Nina, a delightful Swiss friend she had met on a Camino trek in Spain. They texted back and forth with pleasant updates. Elisabeth never gave her true location. But that text conversation reminded her of a man she had also met in Spain when she was with Nina—a Michael somebody, she thought. Feeling a wave of inspiration that came from nowhere, she found his full name in a journal she kept privately online and then looked him up on her social-media feeds. There he was, in England at the moment. How was that even possible? she thought, until she remembered how she had been driven to pursue this path. Something or someone was looking out for her.
This man—Michael Seltzer was his name—had been posting a few pictures from a cycling adventure in the north of England. Why her mind had taken her down this particular track was still not clear. Nevertheless, she made plans to find him and to see if he was the man of character she thought him to be. She and Nina had spent only a brief evening together with Michael and another man from the Camino, but she had judged Michael to be someone she could trust, and he was there, in England. Moreover, she had few options remaining. But there was one thing she knew for certain: Michael Seltzer was not acquainted with Walter Breem. That he might be someone she could fully count on was her only true consideration.
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