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Black Book: Black Star Security by Cynthia Rayne (1)

Chapter 1

Québec Provence, Canada

A few days ago…

“Good morning, Madame!”

En français, Monsieur Quinn.”

Jonathan Quinn, AKA John Doe, spoke many languages, including Arabic, Farsi, Mandarin, and Persian.  He’d also taken French in high school, but apparently, it hadn’t stuck with him.

Bonjour Madame.” Madame Dubois was nearly eighty years old and hard of hearing, so he always spoke loudly around her.

Bon.” She smiled indulgently. Madame refused to get a hearing aid, saying they were “ugly beyond belief.” The old girl needed one, although she'd never admit it.

He’d been staying in her guest cottage for the past few weeks and he’d grown fond of her.  Quinn didn’t have a family of his own, and liked the way she mothered him, pushing him to do better. 

“Can we speak in English now?”

It was early in the morning and he hadn’t even had his first cup of coffee yet. Madame had a very strict schedule and she got out of bed at 6 a.m. with no exceptions. She’d nagged him, until he’d adopted her routines as well.

 “Si tu dois, but French is a far more beautiful language.”

“No argument here.” It was a lovely, lyrical language.

“Come inside, I’ve made some café au lait.”

Madame lived in the country on several acres, outside of Charlevoix.  He followed her inside the farmhouse, which had been in her family for several generations.  When her father died, she’d inherited it. It had been built at the turn of the century and Quinn loved the place. The structure had a lot of character, small touches you didn’t see with modern day buildings, like decorative moldings in all the rooms.

She gestured to the counter with her cane. “Go ahead and help yourself.”

“Thank you.”

He poured himself a cup of coffee from the French press and added some steamed milk from a saucepan.  After adding a teaspoon of local honey, it was ready to go.

“What are you up to today?” she asked, sitting down leisurely at the kitchen table.

Madame had to balance her weight with the cane. Time had ravaged her body and she had trouble getting around.

Back in the day, she’d been a ballerina. Her legs and feet had taken a lot of punishment. He’d seen countless black and white photographs from her early days on the stage. Madame had been a real looker, the toast of the town.  

She was small, barely five feet, with long white hair tucked into a bun at the base of her skull. Madame had bright blue eyes and never failed to wear red lipstick and rouge on her cheeks.

 “I’m going to cut the grass in the backfield, and later on tonight, I’ll drop by the store.” His tiny fridge only held a few days’ worth of supplies, so he continually had to stock up.  Quinn didn’t mind.  He loved fresh produce and this way nothing wilted on him.

 In the prison system, he’d eaten a lot of processed and packaged foods.  A simple salad tasted like a gourmet meal. Agriculture drove the economy, so there were a lot of farmer’s stands.

“Will you pick me up some eggs and milk?” There was a small dairy in the town and the farmer had chickens, too.

“Of course.  What will you be doing?” She always kept busy. “Are you going on one of your adventures?” Madame loved going to the theater, ballet, museums, and other cultural activities.  She traveled with a group of senior citizens.

“This afternoon, we’re going to the symphony. They’re playing for a charity auction, so we won’t be gone long.”

Quinn had been lonely for years.

He’d been hiding in the shadows and refusing to allow himself to get close to anyone. The last time he shared his burdens with another person, she ended up dead. He couldn’t live with another tragedy on his conscience.

But you aren’t quite alone, are you? What about her?

He subconsciously touched the burner cell phone in his pocket.  Quinn had been texting Mackenzie Pierce, a former FBI agent, and a current member of the Black Star Security team.  She and her co-workers had been hunting him down before he jumped the border. Every time they communicated, he risked being discovered.

And yet, he couldn’t stop himself.

For some reason, he couldn’t stop thinking about her. She was beautiful, accomplished.  And she wanted to put him behind bars again. Contacting her was stupid.   

What the fuck is wrong with you?

 Maybe it’s because you haven’t been with a woman in the past few years. Nah, this wasn’t lust. In his experience, lust could be quenched without much effort.  And then easily forgotten.

He couldn’t get Mackenzie out of his head.

Madame cackled. “You are thinking of her, non?”

He blinked, thrown back to the present. “I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Madame, we’ve been over this several times. I don’t have a girlfriend.”

“Then why do you stare at your phone with such a wistful expression?”

Damn. Quinn couldn’t think of a plausible excuse.

  “Ha! I knew it.” She clasped her hands together. “Whoever this woman is, you should go to her.”

Quinn took a sip of his coffee.  “I don’t think that would work out for anyone.”

“What is the problem? Another man?”

“No, I don’t think so.” She hadn’t mentioned a boyfriend. Great. Now, this is gonna bug me.

“She doesn’t like you?”

He chuckled. “She likes me just fine.”

“Then you must pursue this woman and tell her how you feel about her.”

“Trust me, this thing between us would crash and burn.”

Her face sobered. “Love won’t be denied, even if it ends in tragedy.”

“I’ve had more than enough heartbreak.” Karen’s death had gutted him, and Quinn couldn’t take anymore.  “Don’t you have any regrets?”

She shook her head.

Some people were simply resilient.  The misfortunes Madame had suffered didn’t seem to faze her. Quinn had dozens of regrets, and nightmares that came for him in the dark.

“None at all?”

 “Even though I divorced two of my husbands and buried the other two.  All the pain was worth it in the end.”

She’d lead an interesting life.  Madame hadn’t wasted even one day of her time on Earth. Quinn hoped when he was an old man, he’d be able to look back with a sense of satisfaction on the things he’d done.

  If you make it that long.

He was living on borrowed time. Quinn was wanted for a series of robberies. He'd escaped a few months ago from a federal prison and the feds were looking for him, but the trail had gone cold. For now, he was safe.

 And he’d done his best to enjoy the freedom, take in the fresh air and enjoy tasty food, not to mention, he loved the ability to go wherever he wanted whenever he wanted.

The simple things were incredibly important.

Quinn stood. ‘Thank you for the coffee, Madame. I should be gettin’ to work.”

“Is this your way of changing the subject?” She raised an imperious brow.

Quinn snickered. “Maybe.”

Bien. I’ll see you later on tonight, but this isn’t the end of the conversation.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’m lookin’ forward to it.” With that, he headed out into the fields.

***

Send me a picture, Mackenzie.

Quinn typed the words and sent the text message, before he could stop himself.  He was halfway through cutting the grass and sweat clung to his body, pooling at the base of his spine. It also trickled down the sides of his face and he wiped his brow. He’d set the lawnmower aside and sat down beneath a tall tree with a bottled water to rest for a bit.

The truth is, he was hungry to see Mackenzie again. She insisted on being called Mack, but the nickname didn’t suit her. And he refused to use it.

Of what? Her reply came back almost instantly. 

A selfie.

What kind of selfie?

Did she think he was fishing for nude pictures? Groaning under his breath, Quinn closed his eyes at the mental image. He definitely wanted to see her naked, but Quinn preferred to catch the live show.

Christ. You need to find a woman. You’re going to grow hair on the back of your palms if you keep this up.

The problem was, he didn’t want anyone else. Quinn had been a mess since he’d seen Mackenzie at the airport. He’d tried to pick up a girl at the local bar, and his heart, and other parts of him, hadn’t been in it.

I just want to see your pretty face again.

A few seconds later, an image appeared on his screen.

She was even more beautiful than he remembered. Mackenzie was thirty-one years old with curly red hair, a snub nose, and wide-spaced blue eyes. A light dusting of freckles dotted her face.

She was only an inch or two over five feet tall, but what she lacked in height, she made up for in attitude. He’d certainly never want to cross her. Or maybe he did.

When she’d been arguing with him at the airport, right before he’d fled to safety, her blue eyes blazed with anger. A hectic red flush had stained her cheeks. She’d been breathtaking, a sight to behold.

 And the picture she’d just sent him was every bit as lovely.

You’re gorgeous.

Thank you. Do I get a picture too?

Quinn thought about it a moment. What kind of information could she get from the picture? He already knew she’d study the background, looking for clues about his location.  Quinn framed up the shot, zooming in very close, just to show his face, along with the tree bark behind him. It wouldn’t give her much to go one. He snapped a picture and sent it.

There was no reply for several seconds.

Well? What do you think? Have I gotten homely?

You know very well how handsome you are.

Quinn grinned. Maybe, but it’s always nice to hear it. Back to work.  Talk later.

Bye.

With a sigh, he went back to the task at hand, but thoughts of Mackenzie drifted through his mind, as well as Madame’s words of wisdom.

What if Madame was right?

*** 

“Madame? Are you home?” Quinn asked as he knocked on the front door again.

Unfortunately, she didn’t answer him.

Quinn had just gotten back from the farmer’s stand.  The thought of eating alone didn't appeal to him, so he wanted to ask Madame if he could make them both a quick bite to eat.

Quinn sighed. “Madame?”

Again, there was silence.

Quinn checked the driveway, but her car was still there. She didn't drive it often, and never in the evenings, but she still got around pretty well. The sun had already slipped below the horizon and it was starting to get dark.  

“Madame?” Quinn tried again. Was she still at the charity auction?  

He shaded his eyes and peered in the front window, but he didn’t see any sign of her.

Quinn knocked again.  “I picked up some of the ham you like. I was hoping we could have dinner together. I’ll try to make croque-monsieur again.” The last time he’d made one, she hadn’t been impressed, saying he’d used too much Dijon mustard.  “Madame, are you there?”

No answer.

His instincts were screaming at Quinn, telling him something was wrong.

Quinn tried the door, and to his horror, it slid open. Madame was almost religious about locking up, convinced an army of prowlers lurked in her shrubbery, ready to invade her farmhouse like marauders.

Little did she know, a world-class thief was residing in her backyard. Although, he wouldn’t dream of stealing from her. He made a point of only robbing assholes. To fund his crusade, he'd gone after people who deserved to lose a thing or two.

This didn’t feel right.

 Quinn just knew it. He'd spent years being an FBI agent, and before that, he'd been in Special Forces. Exposure to dangerous situations had honed his intuition over the years.

Quinn tossed the grocery bags aside, pulled his Glock, and slipped inside the door.

It was eerily quiet.

Normally, old French music played, or she watched classic movies. She always found something to do, art projects, decluttering, or puttering around the house. Madame was never idle.

 What if something happened to her?

For the past few years, murder and mayhem had been his constant companions.  And the people around him suffered the most, but somehow, he'd always managed to survive.

Quinn walked around the corner. And he found Madame, lying on the floor, next to her cane. What the hell happened? Had she fallen?

 He rushed over, kneeling beside her. Quinn put the gun down and placed two fingers to the side of her pale neck, against the spidery veins but didn’t feel a pulse. She was dead.

“Goddammit.”

A wave of guilt washed over him. It's all your fault. You should never have come here and put an old lady's life in danger. Madame was healthy for her age, and she should’ve had at least five more years. She wasn’t the first woman who’d died because of him, but he prayed she’d be the last.

And what if it’s Mackenzie next time?

Just then, a man stepped from the shadows. 

“Who are you?” Quinn snatched up the Glock immediately and got to his feet.

“It doesn’t matter.” He had a gun aimed at Quinn’s chest.

“No, I guess it doesn’t. I know who sent you.” Harold.

Quinn sized the guy up, looking for any weaknesses and didn’t see any. The man was probably in his late twenties with blond hair and blue eyes. He was a bit shorter than Quinn but heavily muscled.

“You didn’t have to kill her.”

“No, I didn’t, but she wouldn’t do as she was told.”

Quinn swallowed a lump in his throat. “Yeah, she was a fighter.”

“And none of this was my idea. You should’ve stayed gone.”

“Yeah, well, that was the plan and until you showed up and took a shit on it.” Quinn had been so careful.

 “In a way, I didn’t hurt the old lady. You did.”

There was a bit of truth in what the prick said, but Quinn didn’t allow himself to go there.  There would be plenty of time for self-recriminations later.

The assassin took a step forward.

Quinn cocked the trigger. “Stay right where you are.”

“You know I can’t do that.  This is only gonna end one way.”

“Yeah? How?” Quinn stalled for time, glancing at the exits.  There was no way out of this room without getting shot in the back.

“You’re gonna put down your gun, and let me take you in.”

“Take me in?” Quinn frowned.

“Harold wants to see you.”

Quinn chuckled.  “So, you have to bring me in alive?  Good to know.”

Of course, the bastard did. Harold wanted to debrief Quinn before he took care of business and assess how far the damage went.

 “Fuck it all.”

“Yeah, you screwed the pooch on this one.” If Harold wanted him alive, his kidnapper wouldn’t be using lethal force, which gave Quinn an advantage. “Why’d he send you anyway? You’re still wet behind the ears.”

“I’ve had plenty of experience. Toss your weapon down, and we’ll get this over with.”

As soon as Harold had his answers, Quinn was a dead man.  There was no way he could allow himself to be taken in.  It was just a delayed death sentence.

Quinn sidestepped the order. “What’s Harold up to?”

 “None of your fucking business. Lay down on the floor.”

Quinn doubted the kid knew anything. Harold always did like to keep his cards close to the vest. Harold was a devious son of a bitch and he wouldn’t show his hand until he was damn good and ready.

“Why don’t you come over here and make me?”

A muscle pulled in the man’s jaw.  “I should put a bullet in your head and be done with it.”

“Funny. I was thinkin’ the same thing, but Harold will take care of ya if I miss.” He was just that kind of bastard—no boundaries, no morals.  He’d lie, cheat, kill, and steal to get ahead, and not even think twice about it.

“Maybe.”

“Definitely.”

“Fine, we’ll do this the hard way, since you refuse to cooperate.  But I promise you, I’ll make you pay for it.”

Quinn shrugged. “Works for me.”

 “Don’t try anything.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”

“Lower your weapon.”

 “Sure. Why not? I’ll give you a sportin’ chance.” Quinn lowered the barrel.

“Drop it and kick it over here.”

“Fuck you.”

He faltered.

“Come on. I ain’t got all damn day.”

The kid approached warily.

 Quinn tensed, ready to strike. 

When the dickhead got within a few feet of him, Quinn punched him in the face, and then the throat.  Gasping and wheezing, he stumbled back against the wall. His grip on the weapon tightened but Quinn grasped the man in a chokehold, slowly siphoning off his would-be kidnapper’s air supply.

“Why aren’t you shooting me?” he wheezed.

“I’m tired of leavin’ a trail of bodies behind me. But it’s not all sunshine and light for you, son.”

The man tugged at Quinn’s arm, but he didn’t release his hold.

“When I leave here, I’m gonna phone in an anonymous tip to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. You’re gonna get 25 to life for murdering Madame. And if you ask me, it’s a cryin’ shame Canada don’t have the death penalty.”

“No, wait I—”

“No sense in arguin’ about it. You won’t change my mind. And do yourself a favor, don’t rat Harold out to the cops, or you won’t live to see your trial.”

The man gurgled and gasped.

“But first, you’re gonna give me some information. Has he given you any other assignments? If so, what were they?” Quinn loosened his hold, so the man could speak.

“And why the fuck should I answer your questions?” he asked hoarsely.

“Because if you don’t, I’m gonna rethink my generosity.”  Quinn squeezed even harder and the kidnapper choked.

When Quinn let him speak again, he started spilling every secret he knew, which wasn’t much. Apparently, Harold had a hit list, a black book of sorts, but his kidnapper only knew a couple of people on it.

When he told Quinn one of the names, his heart almost stopped. 

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