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Imay not always know where I'm going--or even why--but that's fine. It's the journey that rocks my world.
The back door of the car I sat in, a charcoal Audi A8, swung open. Glancing in the rearview mirror, I eyed the masked face that popped inside the backseat. Two dark eyes sought my calm stare.
"Pickup?" the urgent male voice questioned. His French accent made it sound like peek-up.
"Three passengers?" I volleyed back.
"Oui," he gasped. "La lapine?"
"Yes. Are you being followed?"
The hiss of a gunshot zinged past the passenger side window at the same time that the man snapped, "Oui!"
Behind him, still on the sidewalk, a female's nervous squeal prompted his resolve. He slammed an insistent palm against the headrest of the passenger seat. "Get in!" I urged.
The man slid across the leather backseat. A woman clothed in a pink velour running suit followed. Her face was masked with a black hood, and her hands were bound before her with thick, dirty rope. Shoved into the center of the seat by another masked man, she murmured frantically.
Another bullet pinged the back bumper. So it was going down like this? And here I'd thought today's pickup would be different.
I laid the accelerator pedal to the floor. The last man in closed the back door. The woman cried out a mournful note.
The Audi peeled across the ancient cobbled street that wound through the narrow 2nd arrondissement and passed behind the seventeenth-century walls of the Bibliothèque Nationale. The building was no longer used as a library; modernization, you know.
With an eye to the rearview mirror, I surveyed our wake. Twofigures dressed in black and wielding guns fired at our retreat. I winced as a bullet nicked the upper glass of the backseat window. A spiderweb cracked across the entire window. Good thing my trusty BMW was in the shop.
Had it not been five in the morning, the gunfire might have attracted the city police. As it was, the street was relatively quiet as the city began to stir and sniff the aroma of coffee, baguettes and street sweepers'soap. Excellent driving conditions. The sweeping vehicles that sprayed down the walks were about the only hazard to watch for.
"Location?" I called to the backseat.
I knew the drop-off location--had already entered it in the GPS--but I needed to verify it to ensure I'd nabbed the right pickup. An added precaution. Likely the threesome were not innocent bystanders. How many hooded passengers fleeing gun-toting thugs were there to be found on a Paris street corner?
"Gare du Nord!" one of the masked men offered in clipped French. "En avant!"
Right answer. Wrong attitude. I'd en avant them as quickly or as slowly as I desired.
The address would take us to the train station in the 10th arrondissement. Not far from here, but a twisted route of turns and narrow streets. The traffic would be moderate because the real work rush didn't kick in until after 6 a.m. An added bonus was that I could exceed the usual slow pace of about nineteen kilometers an hour.
Adjusting the driver's side window down a few inches drew in the greasy-sweet fumes wafting from the pâtisserie across the street that zoomed by. The bakery served up delectables in waxed pink boxes tied with white string. Should I mention my fetish for pain au chocolat? It's all about the ritual. Test with a few nibbles, then tongue out the middle, then devour--quite opposite my philosophy, which was devour first, then test.
I'm a reactor, you see. Diving in--and asking questions later--is my forte.
Petrol runs through my veins. Speed is my fix. The road speaks to me. I love this city and its every twisting, cobbled road. A lifeline, these streets. And like a network of life-giving blood veins, I know every street like I know the entrails of my BMW 5 series. The Audi is merely a fill-in until the Bimmer is finished up in the shop.
I lowered the window halfway, another two inches, to allow me to hear sounds outside the vehicle. While concentration was key, I needed to hear everything, from car horns to pedestrians to--
Another gunshot drilled the air. It didn't hit the Audi. Eyes darting left to right and forward and back, I performed constant periphery surveillance. Merci, there were no pedestrians on this narrow road.
Shifting into third, I navigated the narrow shop-lined rue Vivienne that would spit us out onto a five-way exchange along the busy rue Montmartre. It was tricky at this speed. But the solemn brown Peugeot that had attached itself to my tail wasn't about to let up.
While keeping one eye to the road, I checked the auxiliary mirror installed above the passenger side at the corner of the ceiling, angled for a view of the backseat and observed the hooded woman. Each man held her by the upper arm. The pink jogging suit appeared girlie soft and prim next to the heavy canvas hood tugged over her head. Nervous moans muffled behind the hood competed with the schuss of outside noises. I'd seen this before. Nothing new. They never removed the hood while in transit, but not because revealing the route would compromise their identities. It seemed to keep the abductee a bit calmer, like one of those hooded falcons.
Abductee. That's a harsh word for this situation. The men in the backseat? They were the good guys. Soon enough, the frightened woman's adventure would come to an end. And I would be responsible for making that happen.
I swerved sharply onto the avenue. "We've less than ten minutes before the drop-off," one of the masked men insisted in perfect English.
So state the obvious.
I glanced in the mirror at the man.
The dashboard clock flashed 5:13 a.m. The pickup had been delayed five minutes. Not on my part. The passengers had been late. I had been revving the engine, prepared to depart, when the warehouse door had slammed open and out ran my passengers. Numbers Three and Seven, I knew. Today's client always used numbers to identify their agents. I liked the anonymity. That's why I, Jamie MacAlister, was known to my clients only as la lapine--the rabbit.
The rue Montmartre was clear, save a few vehicles spaced far enough apart to allow easy passing. Rosy sunlight shimmered on the silent building windows as we sped by. Beyond and straight ahead, the domed ceiling of Sacré Coeur sitting on the hilltop, one of the highest points in Paris, glittered like a bronzed rose.
Stepping on the brake, I downshifted, then angled sharply into a left turn. One of the men in the backseat swore. I love a Frenchman's oath, no matter how nasty. The accent gave it élan. That's French for enthusiastic self-confidence and style. See, this Scottish lass has been studying.
The smell of petrol spurred my adrenaline. It was a sweet perfume, like the expensive kind the Vendôme vixens purchase by the ounce--and for the five euros I laid out per gallon of petrol, it was a comparable comparison.
On the sidewalk, a toddler, clad in striped pajamas and clasping a dog's leash, dropped his mother's hand to make driving circles with his gripped fingers and revving noises with his sputtering lips. The white poodle yipped and began to dance around the mother's feet, effectively wrapping her ankles with the leash.
I had to smile. Gearhead that I am, I completely understand a child's fascination with cars and speed. Pa had taken me to my first street race when I was four and ever since, my veins had been infused with motor oil.
Now to navigate the rue La Fayette at a moderate speed, yet shake the tail before I got too close to the drop-off. It wouldn't do to send off my passengers and leave them to battle the bad guys. My job required a clean drop, no ragtag bringing up the rear.
Behind, the Peugeot took the corner and, in the process, nicked the front quarter panel of a slow-moving green coupe. They were determined not to lose me. As were all tails. Were they not, my job would become obsolete.
Funny how the journey never changed, even though the destination had. Did I mention I was working for the good guys now?
Ahead, the traffic thickened. The train station was always busy. Clutching the steering wheel with a comfortable, sure grip, I manipulated the faithful Audi into two-lane traffic that would choke us to a snail's pace if I allowed it.
That wasn't about to happen.
The Peugeot kissed my bumper. One of my passengers gripped the headrest. With a frantic look at the cracked rear window, he then swung a masked gaze up to the rearview mirror. Wide, dark eyes met mine.
I never offered the oft-sought reassurance. Who had time to play babysitter?
I held the man's querying eyes briefly, but a flash of sunlight struck the Peugeot's lion rampant hood ornament and redirected my attention. A hand holding a gun jutted out from the passenger window of the tail.
"Down!" I ordered. "En bas!"
The passengers dropped their heads. Keen. This crew knew how to take orders.
A jerk of the steering wheel forced a red Vespa scooter onto the sidewalk, clearing a space in the far traffic lane. I fit the Audi into the spot the idiot scooter should not have filled.
Paris and its relentless attempts to insinuate motorized scooters into the traffic!
Another gunshot roused a few screams from pedestrians wandering the sidewalks. No hits to the Audi--at least, none I had heard. But what kind of idiot continued to fire around innocents and witnesses?
Behind me, the female now clutched one of the masked men's hands, her bright pink fingernail polish chipped, or, likely, chewed ragged. She must have been through hell.
I was determined to end it quickly.
This lane moved slower. The boulevard de Denain lay less than a mile up--my target. The Peugeot began to pull parallel to the Audi. You had to love that boat of a Peugeot, though, it was a beast to handle compared to this slick little number.
With one eye on the road and the other on the passenger-side mirror, I spotted the gun. From this distance, I couldn't determine the make of the weapon, only that it looked large enough to do serious damage. The shooter wore a black facemask and jacket.
Why did they always wear black? Villain couture sorely lacked panache. The occasional blue, or even a subtle violet, would really spruce things up nicely.
A survey of the backseat noted the good guys also wore black. I smirked. Two months ago, who ever would have thought I'd be working for the good guys? Perhaps I should put in a requisition for a black suit myself.
Nope. I preferred skirts that didn't constrict when sitting behind the wheel and loose blouses.
Giving a piston-charge chew to the peppermint gum lodged in my cheek, I worked my jaw as I revved up courage.
Scratch that. Courage wasn't required to wheel the getaway car--it was one hundred percent raw female balls.
And mine are big, thank you very much. Gears, grease and drive, that's what I'm made of. If I'm not behind the wheel, then somebody had better check me for a pulse.
"Keep your heads down!"
Maneuvering left, I nudged the Peugeot, which made it swerve long enough for me to squeeze in ahead of it. A massive garbage vehicle led the line of growing traffic.
Glancing to the car on my left, I made eye contact with a handsome man on the passenger side, sun-tanned arm dangling as he tapped the car door to tunes I couldn't hear. An Italian? I ran my fingers through my wavy blond hair and blew him a kiss. He returned it and gestured to the driver of his car. A space opened up for me to slip in front of them, leaving the Peugeot veering behind the garbage truck. Love those Italians.