Authors: Joseph Finder
Tags: #Mystery, #Fiction, #Suspense, #Thriller, #Thrillers, #Espionage, #Crime
There’s nothing more dangerous than stealing a powerful man’s most prized possession.
But I had no choice.
I was sitting in the passenger’s seat of an ambulance in a very wealthy neighborhood in Barcelona. It was two in the morning on a moonless night, and since there were no streetlights in this very upscale part of town, we were shrouded in darkness. The ambulance was a boxy white Nissan van whose black vinyl seats were cracked and sprung. The interior stank of stale cigarette smoke. The medical equipment did not inspire confidence. But I wasn’t complaining: The ambulance was borrowed.
“What I don’t get,” said the man behind the wheel, “is why.”
The man was named Benito, and he was a private investigator, formerly an officer with the Cuerpo Nacional de Policía. He was small and scrappy, with dyed black hair and a soul patch and an ugly white scar on his right jaw. He had the small dark button eyes of a rag doll. His teeth were tobacco stained. He smoked almost constantly, but out of deference to me, he hadn’t had a cigarette in over an hour. I’m not one of those antismoking fascists; that’s not why I don’t like being around lighted cigarettes. The problem was that, even though I hadn’t smoked in years, since the army, I was always on the verge of backsliding.
“Why what?” I finally asked.
“Why you do this.”
“I thought I explained.”
“Not what we doing now,” Benito said, “but why.” Benito’s accent was heavy, but his English was almost fluent. His British mother had moved to Barcelona to teach English and ended up marrying a Basque.
“Like I said, a guy hired me.”
“But you don’t need the money. This is risky. Really dangerous. Why would you do this if you don’t have to?”
I didn’t answer. Most people assumed I was loaded because my father was this famous Wall Street financier. “Infamous” was maybe more accurate. The only reason anyone had heard of him was because of all the news stories: how he went fugitive before he was arrested for a massive insider-trading scam, how they caught up with him and put him on trial and locked him up. People assumed he’d left his family a lot of money, hidden somewhere offshore. They didn’t realize that he’d left us with nothing.
“How much this guy pay you, anyway?”
“It’s never enough,” I said. “Not why I do it.”
“Hope it’s good reason, that’s all I say.”
I shrugged. “When it’s a dad trying to get back his daughter, I figure that’s a pretty good reason.”
“Yeah? He must be good friend.”
“I barely know him,” I said.
I’d been hired by a rich Ukrainian I’d met in London. His name was Vadim Kuzma, and he lived in a big white stucco house in South Kensington. He was obviously mega-wealthy. A mutual friend had introduced us at some boring client dinner party at J Sheekey in Covent Garden.
Vadim asked for my card. I told him I didn’t have one, but I gave him my e-mail. A few weeks later he sent me a desperate message that his fifteen-year-old daughter, Svetlana, had been kidnapped in Barcelona. I called him for more details. He was frantic. He never should have let her travel on her own, he said. She was far too young. He’d heard about a big kidnapping case in Boston I’d been involved in, and he offered me a lot of money to get her back, far more than I would have asked for.
“How much is the ransom demand?” I asked.
“I wish this was ransom,” Vadim said, his voice cracking. “Money I can pay.”
“Then what is it?” I asked.
“My intelligence network tells me she’s being held prisoner by José María Soler.”
“I’m sorry to hear this.” José María Soler was one of the wealthiest men in Spain, a billionaire who’d made his fortune in telecommunications. He also owned one of Spain’s most successful football clubs. He was immensely powerful, a man used to getting his own way. A man who probably had half the police in Barcelona on his payroll.
I grabbed the first flight out of Boston.
Benito drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. “This thing’s a piece of crap,” he said. He had a friend who ran an ambulance company and had agreed, for a wad of cash, to leave his vehicle yard unsecured for an hour earlier that day.
“If I’m ever hit by a car in Barcelona, remind me to walk to the hospital,” I said. “I think I’d get there faster.”
He looked at his watch. “Let’s just hope we don’t need this ambulance as an ambulance,” he said. “You’re not going to kill nobody, yes?”
“I’m a man of peace.”
“Yeah? You never kill people?”
I looked at him. He wasn’t smiling.
“I was in the Special Forces,” I said.
“I don’t mean in combat.”
“Never.” I paused for a moment. “Hardly ever.”
“Hardly ever,” he repeated, thinking it over.
“Sometimes you have no choice.”
“It’s the, how you say, self-defense.”
“And other than that?”
“Never,” I said. I was staring out the window, but I could feel his doll-button eyes on me. “Hardly ever,” I amended.
“Hardly ever,” he repeated, and snorted.
“It’s always something you want to avoid. If possible.”
Benito grunted. “So it’s a fallback. A Plan B.”
“It’s not going to come to that tonight.”
“You never know what might happen.” Benito was chewing the skin on the side of his left index finger. “The Spanish, they have a saying. ‘
Cuando menos piensa el galgo, salta la liebre.’
It means like, just when the hunting dog least expects it, the jackrabbit jumps out.”
“I’m not worried about rabbits,” I said.
“I get what it means. But don’t worry. You and I and the girl are going to get out safe and sound. Anybody gets in the way of that—well, I didn’t bring a Havahart trap.”
He didn’t seem reassured. “We ready?”
“Five minutes,” I said, glancing at my watch. “That’s when the guards’ shift changes.”
Carrer de la Font del Lleó was a narrow street at the foot of a steep, scrubby incline, its sandy soil overgrown with stunted, windswept trees and tangled vines. On one side was a narrow sidewalk bordered by a neatly manicured hedgerow into which were cut driveways fortified by gates and guard booths, the entrances to humbler residences, and the occasional utility pole.
Carved into the steep slope of the Collserola mountain overlooking downtown Barcelona was a vast estate: a sprawling villa with a red barrel-tile roof, an Olympic-size swimming pool and a clay tennis court, a lot of terraces and a manicured lawn and ornamental trees and shrubs and all that.
Between the terrain and the foliage and the high stone wall surrounding the property, you couldn’t see much of the house from the street. But Benito had obtained the architect’s blueprints from the city registry. And for the last two days I’d been conducting surveillance of the house from various vantage points in the area, using a high-powered scope and a good camera with a telephoto lens. I’d borrowed Benito’s Labrador and taken a couple of leisurely strolls around the property. Once I even let him slip the leash and watched him scramble up the slope bordering the southwestern wall. I was a frustrated neighbor with an unruly pet. I followed him through the spiny gorse and the dry, thorny brolla shrubs, nearly losing my footing as the sandy soil gave way, grabbing on to the branch of a gnarled almond tree. Geckos scuttled by.
Soon I knew the make and model of the thirty-six CCTV cameras that ringed the property. I knew that anyone who came within twelve feet of the wall would appear on a monitor inside. I’d noticed the five strands of high-tensile wire atop the eight-foot stone wall through which ten thousand volts pulsed at one-second intervals. If you touched it, you fried. If you tried to cut it, you’d trigger the alarm. Also, I saw the taut steel wire threaded through the anchor posts: an electromechanical anticlimb sensor. Grab it, tug at it, and you’d set off the strain gauge, kicking off the alarm.
Not bad. Not bad at all. But it made for quite a challenge.
As far as perimeter security went, an electric fence was pretty good. Not as ugly as coils of razor wire, and more effective. Of course, any security measure could be defeated, given enough lead time and intelligence and preparation. And Soler’s system wasn’t perfect. A utility pole, for instance, was less than six feet from the southwest corner wall. Theoretically you could climb the pole and vault over the fence, but as long as the electric fence was powered up, you risked hitting the wires on the way down and turning into a churro. Even if you did make it over the wall intact, all of the house’s doors and windows were wired into an alarm system, with video cameras trained on every entrance.
Then there were the armed guards inside the residence. Benito’s police sources had told him that fifteen firearms licenses had been issued for the household security staff, but that didn’t tell us how many guards would be on-site at any one time. My observations told me that while he was in residence, Soler normally had four. I also took note of when the guards’ shift changed. I saw Soler leave the property several times in his armored Maybach limousine, accompanied by a duo of bodyguards.
“Imagine you live in a house like this one?” Benito said.
I was quiet for a moment. “Yeah.”
“Oh, right,” he said, embarrassed. “You did, yes? When you were a kid?”
“It can be like living in a prison.”
“I wouldn’t mind living in a prison like this one.”
“A security system this elaborate is sometimes just as much about keeping people inside as keeping them out.”
“How solid is your intel on Soler?”
Benito turned to look at me. His eyes blazed: indignation, but also a little defensiveness. “Come on, Nick. I myself saw him get into his Maybach and leave here at four o’clock this afternoon. I followed him to El Prat. His private helicopter filed a flight plan with a five o’clock departure. His chopper left right on time. My guy in Madrid observed him arriving at his flat on Calle de Alcalá at six twenty this evening in one of his other Maybachs. He’s not here.”
“Gotcha,” I said. “Nice work.”
He drummed on the steering wheel some more. “We don’t know how many guards he keeps here when he’s out of town. That’s what I don’t like.”
“Agreed. But if we do this right, it won’t make any difference if he has an entire battalion.”
“If,” Benito said.
“I like to think positive.”
“A guy like this, he always takes measures.”
“He’s a billionaire. He makes a lot of enemies. He spares nothing for his protection. He gives his guards every weapon he can buy.”
“He’s also not here. Which means his guards aren’t going to be on high alert.”
“I am not so sure,” Benito said. Anxiety had begun to seep into his voice, and I didn’t like that. Anxiety often leads to mistakes. “Just because he’s gone doesn’t mean he doesn’t have something to protect.”
We both knew what he meant: his valuables. His possessions, as he saw it. Which included a fifteen-year-old girl named Svetlana, his latest acquisition, who was being held prisoner inside.
The night she disappeared, her father told me, he got a brief, panicked call from her cell phone. The call was cut short after a few seconds, and she never called back. Nor did she answer his repeated calls and texts.
The next day, Kuzma had hired an attorney in Madrid to put pressure on the Spanish legal authorities. They’d made perfunctory inquiries, Vadim said. Soler not only denied she was there, he denied ever having met the girl. But when I checked with Svetlana’s wireless provider, I was able to confirm that her mobile phone was indeed inside Soler’s house.
So there was really only one way to get her back. Sometimes the best way to deal with criminals is by committing a crime. That’s the only language they understand.
“All right,” I said. “Let’s go test his security.”
* * *
Benito started up the ambulance and let out the emergency brake, and we drove a few blocks downhill in tense silence. I could tell he was starting to regret getting involved. It had begun to sink in how dangerous this job was. Up until now it had been routine, low-risk stuff: Dig up some background on Spain’s richest man, help me figure out a plan. Borrow an ambulance.
Now he was thinking about the guards with their submachine guns and his eight-year-old son being left without a father.
I said, “I can handle this myself, you know. You don’t have to go with me.”
I really didn’t want to work with someone who was going to go all wobbly on me.
He just stared.
“You don’t need to go through with this,” I said.
He scowled, looked insulted, didn’t reply. He switched on the light bar and the flashers and the red strobe light. He flicked a switch on the dashboard and the siren began to whoop. We looped around a couple of blocks, taking the long way, so it looked as though we’d come up from downtown. By the time we reached the entrance to Soler’s estate on Carrer de la Font del Lleó, we were speeding like an ambulance is supposed to.
Benito shut down the siren and lowered the window, and a voice crackled over the intercom. Benito replied in rapid-fire Spanish. I could make out only “
” and “Soler” and “Consulado Americano.” A video camera hummed and swiveled and looked right at his face.
There was a pause. I assumed the guards were consulting with one another. Soler was not in residence, and they had to make an executive decision.
We were idling in front of a pair of tall, wrought-iron, motor-driven double-swing gates, controlled by an electronic keypad and video intercom and topped with spikes. But the spikes were as ornamental as the ironwork scrolls. Between the anticlimb sensors and the CCTV and the ground-loop vehicle detector embedded in the pavement surface, no one was going to climb over the gate, or the fence, without being noticed.
A minute later the guard’s voice came over the intercom again. Benito said something and the guard replied.
Benito muttered, “This idiot says no one called for an ambulance.”
“Translate for me,” I said. I leaned across him and said out the window, “Look, I don’t know who you are, and I don’t really care, but the American ambassador himself just got me out of bed because José María Soler demanded an American doctor for some foreign guest he’s got staying in his house. He said it was an emergency.”