Planes were unbearable, but really, voyage by sea wasn’t much better – Quinlen Fluke hated both, to varying degrees. As he disembarked on French soil, the boffin wobbled on his accursed ‘sea legs’ and leaned up against his rolling luggage. Others going from ship to land giggle at him, and he put on a weak smile and waved gamely back. By now he had ‘tourist’ written all over him in neon, but at least he was finally on vacation.
For a workaholic like Quinlen, his hatred for traveling wasn’t much of a hindrance until he truly got stir-crazy. Working for the technical help department eventually got pretty dull, even when he now fixed gadgetry within the vaunted halls of MI6. Just thinking about his new job at Q-branch made Quinlen’s heart to an excited little flip – he’d only just been working at MI6 long enough to warrant vacation time, and was both relieved and secretly sad that he didn’t know enough about MI6 business to warrant excess watching now that he was out in the world. When he’d gotten the job at MI6, he’d had unrealistic ideas of decoding encrypted messages, engineering the downfall of evil criminal organizations, and being involved in undercover espionage. Instead, he did a lot of troubleshooting when computers stopped working – a lot of the times in the accounting department, which must have been manned by the technologically incompetent.
Then again, compared to Quinlen, most people were.
So here he was. All of the ‘I promise not to talk about my job’ paperwork signed, all of his things packed, and finally away from London and work. He had a hotel room booked in Paris, and even a few fun events to go to in the next week. All of his fellow IT friends had laughed and joked at his inability to leave work, but now Quinlen thought that he was ready to just take a breather. He’d just about given himself carpal tunnel last week and computer-screen blindness, so he figured he deserved some relaxation.
Snugging his layers of coat and windbreaker tight against the chill autumn weather, Quinlen regained his equilibrium from being on the boat, and strode purposefully off to find a taxi.
“This vacation business isn’t half bad,” he murmured to himself, approaching the Salle Gaveau and clutching his concert tickets close. Everyone was flowing in, a leisurely river of humanity eager to listen to Russian piano virtuoso Alexander Paley. Quinlen himself wasn’t precisely an expert on the matter, but he enjoyed classical music, and when the opportunity arose to get these tickets, he’d jumped on it.
He had also possibly done a bit of hacking to make sure that he got floor seats up near the stage.
The hotel room was nice and the wifi was passably fast. If Quinlen had been planning to do a bit of hacking this week (which he was not), it would quickly become a bother, but he’d come here to just enjoy himself. Therefore, Quinlen was carrying the minimum amount of technology on him as he now slid into his seat, struggling to get his coat off. “Bugger all,” he groused, finally wriggling his arms loose without elbowing anyone else. He almost dropped his messenger bag in the process, but managed to maneuver it onto his lap. Someone dressed officially in the aisle eyed him disapprovingly, but Quinlen waved him off with his most benign smile, making little hand motions that hopefully indicated that he had no plans to take pictures or cause any ruckus. The usher narrowed his eyes at the smaller man a bit longer before nodding and walking off to get everyone else settled for the concert.
Then, in a show of expediency rarely seen before concerts or shows, everything was getting under way. The house lights went down, Alexander Paley with his serious complexion stepped out and settled at the piano under tasteful blue lighting, and Quinlen breathed out a little sigh of contentment as music filled the hall right up to the balconies. It rang out beautifully, with nary an echo out of place, so that if Quinlen just closed his eyes he could almost see it like a pulsing, multi-colored ocean…
The music stopped like a severed head and Quinlen snapped his eyes open, hearing the staccato bark of gunshots. He immediately jumped up like everyone else around him, and only a quick grab of his hands kept him from dumping his messenger bag again. The young techie’s eyes widened as he stared ahead of him to see Paley swiftly exiting the stage, clearing the way for a balding man in a red shirt and denim jacket to come barreling across the stage. Split seconds later, a second man followed: slightly taller, clearly honed with muscle beneath an impeccable ash-grey suit, blond-haired. It was him that the gunshots were coming from. Quinlen had a second to register a bolt of visceral, almost surreal fear before the whole crowd bolted, and it was all the boffin could do to keep up with the stampede.
For a heart-stopping blur of time, it was all he could do to keep on his feet and keep his glasses on his face as people screamed and jostled, trying to run full-pelt in a room so cramped that only shoving and shuffling was possible. Thankfully, Quinlen’s floor seating put him closer to the exits, and he was being spat out into the street a few moments later. The air was crisp and cool, reminding him that he’d left his coat behind, and was still filled with the sounds of screaming and shouting. At least the gunshots had disappeared like lethal ghosts.
Until another one rang out.
It was instinct to run, as deep and animal as the kind of fear that made a person back away from fire or lightning. Not giving it a second thought, Quinlen took to his heels, calculating how far he’d have to go to actually grab a cab – the nearby ones were already being filled with frightened people. Anyone not fighting for a cab was standing in the way and staring like a whole herd of deer in the headlights, but Quinlen wasn’t foolish enough to do that. If there were gunshots, he wanted to be out of range and preferably within a metal vehicle.
Lamenting the loss of his coat, the dark-haired young man scurried down the street, trying to do nothing more at the moment than move away from the chaos. His single-minded movement paid off a few minutes later as he finally managed to hail a taxi that no one else was trying to get into yet. Quinlen slid in, taking a deep breath as he finally escaped the insanity. “So much for a calm vacation,” he said, not caring if the driver heard him.
The man was just turning around, asking, “Qu’est-ce que vous disez?” when suddenly his own door was yanked open, and there was much yelling in French followed by heavy hands grabbing the driver and bodily removing him. Quite before Quinlen could even react, the balding man from the concert stage was replacing the cab driver. Said driver was still yelling from the other side of the door when the vehicle was slammed into gear and peeled away from the curb.
Quinlen was still in the backseat, unnoticed and quite horrified. “Hey!” he yelled, grabbing the door handle but realizing that they were already moving too fast for him to think about leaping out – maybe a more daring soul would have, but Quinlen liked all of his pieces intact.
The car swerved as the fugitive driver jerked a look over his shoulder, wide-eyed to find that he had a passenger. Then he apparently decided that it didn’t matter, because he stepped on the gas again, and took off down a side-street to avoid the traffic.
“Hey! You can’t do this!” Quinlen yelled, and then, after a pause to collect his adrenalin-shot wits, repeated the phrase in French in case he wasn’t being understood. Languages were a pet hobby of his (along with about a million other technological things), but he’d never considered using what he’d learned in a situation like this. “Let me out!”
Quinlen nearly got his wish as the driver suddenly slammed on his breaks to avoid a car stopped in front of him – having not thought to buckle his seatbelt, though, Quinlen was thrown forward, and felt a crunch of pain in his left wrist. The technician cried out and crumpled over against the back of the passenger seat. His messenger bag fell down onto the floor next to him with a little thump, and then suddenly the passenger door was being thrown open, too – apparently the red-shirted fugitive hadn’t learned from his own stunts. Now the blond-haired gunman was back, too, lunging into the vehicle like a lion.
It all happened in vicious slow motion: the blond-haired man had his gun drawn, but instead of firing it, he pinned the other man against the door, pushing the gun under the balding man’s jowls. “All right, now would be the time to talk. To be frank, I’m hoping you don’t, because after making me chase you across the whole bloody city, I just want to put bullets in you,” the blond gunman growled menacingly, his threats unrepentant.
The balding man snarled back, but his accented voice sounded desperate even to Quinlen, “I’ll give you nothing!”
“Fine then.” As quickly as that, the blond-haired man switched his gun so that instead of aiming at the man’s throat, it was somewhere lower, out of Quinlen’s range of view. What he could see was the way the balding man’s eyes went horrendously wide, and he actually whimpered, which made Quinlen suspect that the weapon was now pointed down somewhere between his legs. “It’s a small target, but I’ll try not to miss,” was the almost pleasant rejoinder.
At that point, now that he was well and truly trapped with depleted options, the thickset man began babbling. “I do not know much! But I do know that the shipments will be delivered Friday at Warf #33. Go there at 7:00 PM, and you’ll see the drugs you want. That is all I can tell you!” The balding man was trying to reach behind his back subtly for the door-handle, but it was hard to tell from Quinlen’s position.
Eyes like laser sights saw the effort, and in a smooth, unhesitant motion, the blond-haired man raised the gun up to chest-level. His prey’s eyes widened, but then there was a torrent of movement and the two men were grappling. Just as Quinlen thought he saw the balding man slide something from the waistband of his pants, the blond-haired gunman grew grim and almost scarily calm. Then his gun moved, as easily as poetry. Raise. Shoot. Lower. As quickly as that, and Quinlen was seeing a dead body. The blond-haired man hadn’t even noticed Quinlen’s presence yet, and no more than two minutes had passed.
Things were happening too fast. Shocked at the realization that he’d just witnessed cold-blooded murder from scant feet away, and had heard information he shouldn’t have besides, Quinlen couldn’t move, and didn’t dare make a peep. The blond-haired gunmen, from this close, looked like frigid determination personified, with an expression that was as flat and hard as if chiseled from stone. He hadn’t even flinched when depressing the trigger, or when there had been the thunk of the bullet burying itself in the door. His lack of remorse was chilling. Now the gunman moved with the efficiency of much practice – not to mention a helluva lot of strength – to drag his victim over to his side of the car, freeing up the driver’s side for himself. “Bloody…” the gunman growled, letting the words trail off as he eyed where the bullet had ended up. There would no doubt be people coming to see what was wrong soon.
Quinlen got himself moving right then. He might have been slow to react before, but the shock had worn off like a shot of alcohol becoming a slow burn in his veins, letting him think. He lurched for his door, and probably would have made it out if not for two things: one, he still had his messenger bag strapped over his neck and shoulder, and the bag itself had gotten wedged under the seat when they’d stopped, and two, his left arm chose then to remember that he’d damaged it. The slender young man yelped and swore as his attempts were stymied by circumstance.
Immediately, in a repeat of two minutes earlier with the other wrongful driver, the gunman swiveled around. Blue eyes like pale chips of glass widened in surprise before realization set in. Quite suddenly, Quinlen realized that he was a witness.
Quinlen sensed more than saw the gun suddenly aimed in his direction, a lethal presence zoning in on him. The dark-haired man froze, his good right hand on the door handle, his left hovering over where it had been fumbling painfully with his blasted messenger bag. Fear curdled in his stomach and made him want to disappear into nothing as a low and lethal voice ordered him levelly, “Just take your hand off that door, nice and easy.”
Although Quinlen’s voice shook, somehow it was still coming out of his mouth, brittle and cutting like shale. “And what? You’ll shoot me?”
“I’ll sure as hell shoot you if you don’t do as I say. So be smart, and you’ll live that much longer,” was the answering growl. Tension had entered it.
The only thing that Quinlen knew for certain was that this man was entirely serious, and in this close range, there was no way for him to miss. Taking in a deep, shuddering breath, the boffin pulled his hand back, and then slowly settled back into his seat. He mutely regarded the gun now aimed at his chest, thinking of the deceased body in the front seat that had faced this weapon only seconds ago. Quinlen’s heart tried to beat its way out of his chest.
Blue eyes narrowed and a muscle flicking in his cheek, the blond-haired man glared past his gun, clearly unprepared for this eventuality and not liking it. Even if Quinlen had never heard of MI6 in his life, he would have known what happened to random strangers who heard about drug deliveries at random docks – if the blond-haired man was willing to chase a man down and shoot him for that information, he wouldn’t stop to silence a second person. Quinlen didn’t have it in him to ask again what his fate was, so he physically sagged in relief when the gun was withdrawn. Quinlen tugged his messenger bag free to return it to his lap, and received a sharp warning for his troubles, “Try anything else, and you’ll get a bullet in your leg. Move too quickly towards me, and you get one in your skull. This is the only time I’m going to warn you, and I will shoot you.” He turn forward and got the car moving again, swiftly returning to traffic and once again making it impossible for Quinlen to just leap safely out. Even if he were reckless enough to find jumping from a moving vehicle appetizing (and he was learning swiftly that he wasn’t, unfortunately), there was the memory of that gun and the body now bloodying up the passenger seat. The blond-haired man was probably twice his weight in muscle, but clearly fast, especially with his weapon. “Buckle up,” the gunman ordered almost disinterestedly, glancing edgily at him in the rearview mirror and scowling.
While Quinlen was about as far from brash as anyone could get, the driver was the opposite: soon they were sweeping through traffic as if driving laws didn’t exist. In fact, a few times it seemed that physics didn’t either, and Quinlen was forced to scramble to get the strap buckled across his torso. “So you’re not going to shoot me – but you’re going to kill me with the car?!” Quinlen gasped spontaneously, gripping at the door and the seat and forgetting entirely his damaged wrist. They jumped the curb and nearly took out a dog-walker before reentering traffic again.
“If you’d prefer the other, I’d be happy to oblige,” the larger man retorted through gritted teeth.
Quinlen forced himself to be silent. Gulping as they dodged what was clearly a police vehicle, Quinlen’s counted off seconds in his head, because he was shocked with every new one they lived through – or, more specifically, that he lived through. Already, somewhere behind the fear and adrenaline, a part of Quinlen was screaming that this was not what he’d signed up for.
“Shit,” the gunman hissed as another police vehicle swerved in front of them, blocking their path. For a wondrous second – second number 143, counted off as evenly as clockwork – Quinlen thought that salvation might be at hand. It would take but a moment to explain what had happened, and that he had nothing to do with his madman except being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and then Quinlen would be effectively safe and free.
Suddenly, the blond-haired killer in the front seat made up his mind about something, and he stepped on the gas instead of slowing down. Before Quinlen could so much as say “Holy shit!” they were picking up speed and devouring the road as if this were a racecar instead of a taxi. The crunch as they hit the nose of the police car radiated through the body of the taxi, and Quinlen slammed his eyes closed and gritted his teeth against the fearful crash.
“Barricade that,” the gunman muttered with grim challenge in his voice as he just kept moving. He’d aimed well: instead of just totaling his stolen car, he’d hit the nose of the police vehicle, twisting it out of his way just enough to slip on past with a nasty grinding sound of metal on metal. By now, Quinlen could hear all sorts of people shouting and yelling at them from outside, and he wanted nothing more than to shout back that he was not involved. Actually, he wanted nothing more than to wake up and find out that this was all a very bad and elaborate dream.
“You’re a lunatic!” he found himself accusing breathlessly, straightening out his glasses with a shaking hand. He found hysteria rising like a fizzing sensation in his veins. “An absolute, fucking lunatic!”
“Sure, now you raise your voice, when I’m too busy driving to point a gun at you,” the other man snapped back, irritable but on-task. He kept driving at an unhealthy speed with only a quick glance back to check that his prisoner/hostage was still as he’d left him. He took a hard right that sent him right into oncoming traffic, and Quinlen was sure that they’d die – as it was, he himself nearly had a heart-attack, but they ended up somehow avoiding oncoming traffic long enough to slip down another street. This one was less populated, and the gunman nearly ran the beaten taxi up onto the curb to park it. Instantly, he was out the door and opening up the backdoor just behind the driver’s seat. “Get out,” he ordered, the beckoning muzzle of his gun providing the added emphasis to hurry Quinlen along. Heart tight and painful in his throat, Quinlen scooted reluctantly closer, and his upper arm was grabbed as soon as it was within reach.
The blond-haired man was just as strong as he looked, and Quinlen felt like a toy as he was dragged along. “No, no noise,” was the immediate, calm warning almost before the smaller man had opened his mouth. “Let’s keep in mind that I’m still the armed one here.” They were already circling around the car and heading down the pavement, which was so abandoned that it was almost eerie after the noise of the car-chase. Quinlen yelped as he was pushed against a little white car, but quickly remember the order to be quiet as he saw the gun, pointed at the ground but still near him. One hand now free, the larger man fished something out of his pocket and jammed it into the car’s lock, and there was a rapid clicking noise. Despite the circumstances, Quinlen found curiosity rising up in him, but just as he was leaning to get a better look, the shooter glanced at him. One pale eyebrow raised in a faintly challenging fashion, and then the door popped open. “Get in. Go.”
“Please, I don’t actually know enough to be trouble. If you just-”
“I know what you’re going to say, and I don’t have time for it. Now get in.”
The techie did as he was told as a strong hand pushed him down and in. “No, guess I didn’t think that would work anyway,” he sighed to himself, and was subsequently ignored. The larger man followed him into the car quickly enough that there was really no option of escaping out the far door.
Immediately, the gunman began a quick search of the car, pulling out cup holders, CD compartments, and even reaching past Quinlen into the glove compartment. In the overhead visor, he found what he was looking for, and grinned. “Spare keys,” he murmured appreciatively and with a shake of his head at whoever was foolish enough (or altruistic enough) to hide keys where someone else could find them. Losing the smile and growing wary again, he glanced over at Quinlen, who eyed him with tense, alert green eyes in return. “Different car, same rules,” he informed the smaller man briefly, showing with a flick of his jacket that he’d stowed his handgun within easy reach.
While the fear of being kidnapped hadn’t exactly worn off, now that Quinlen was removed from the utter chaos of the car chase, he felt as though he had room to think a bit. Of course, that meant he just had more opportunity to think about how bad a situation this was and how much he wanted to get out of it. In an effort to fix this problem, he wet his lips and said quickly as the gunman started up this new stolen car, “Look, whatever is going on, I have – and want – nothing to do with it, and it would be better for all involved if you just let me go.”
The car came to life with a healthy purr. “Believe me, I hate this situation as much as you do,” the gunman grunted.
“Good, then we’re in agreement. I’ll just leave now-” Quinlen froze with his hand on the door and let out a breath that was almost a whine when he heard the click of a gun safety right behind his head. He’d just turned away to make his exit, but now realized that there was no hope in that course of action.
There was a sigh that sounded half like an irked growl, but finally the gunman spoke, “I’m sorry, but I can’t just let you leave.”
Quinlen still didn’t dare move from where he was facing the door, the presence of the gun like a chill behind him. “Why? I don’t know anything.”
“You do. Clearly you’re not deaf, and you were most definitely in the car listening when I learned about the drug delivery,” the gunman argued back sensibly. When something touched Quinlen’s shoulder, he jumped horribly and bit his lip, but the gun must have been removed – it was only a hand gripping his sleeve to turn him back around and then push him back against his seat. “So put on your seatbelt, sit back, and relax – and don’t touch that door-handle again.”
At least the blond-haired shooter wasn’t angry. Quinlen reminded himself that a calm captor was at least less likely to fly off the handle and plug him full of bullets, and he clung to that small assurance of safety like a lifeline. Hands shaking, he once again buckled in, and fisted his hands on top of the messenger bag he was still carrying. His phone was still in his coat pocket, he realized suddenly – left in his seat at the Salle Gaveau. That knowledge hit him like a punch to the sternum, and suddenly he was lamenting the loss of his coat for more reasons than it made him cold right now. All he had in his messenger bag were his iPad, MP3-player, and maps, as well as his wallet – things that were either too unwieldy to use for sending a call for help, or utterly useless in that respect. Feeling more defeated than before, he thumped his head back against the seat and sighed while his captor pulled away from the curb and began driving. By how quickly he moved them along, he knew that pursuit couldn’t be far behind. “We’re going to trade cars again soon,” the gunman informed unexpectedly.
“Oh, don’t worry, I’m not getting comfortable.”
“Just don’t get any smart ideas about running or calling attention to yourself,” was the implacable end of the conversation, and with that, they were back in traffic again. Quinlen’s wrist was throbbing, and now that he stopped to look, it appeared swollen.
Great. Just his luck. Not only had his vacation ended in overhearing criminal – or at least sensitive – information, but he’d possibly gotten a broken wrist in the bargain. Now he was sharing space with a coldblooded killer and well on his way to being an accessory to car theft.
Multiple car thefts, at this rate.
They drove in tense silence, Quinlen trying to become invisible and think of a plan for escaping alive. The gunman was driving less insanely but no less defensively, slipping deftly through traffic and putting distance between this car and their last. “You realize that when they find that car with the body in it, it will be all over,” Quinlen made himself say, keeping his voice level and his eyes forward. He sensed more than saw the blond-haired man’s attention switch to him, heavy like the heat of a fire as the wind shifted. Quinlen closed his eyes deeply and took in a steadying breath. “You shot a man for no reason. Don’t make it worse for yourself.”
“What’s your name?” the driver shot back unexpectedly instead of addressing any of Quinlen’s words. It was an almost flippant question, idly curious. It caught the boffin off-guard, and she spun to stare at the gunman’s rugged profile.
“Q-Quinlen,” he answered shakily.
“Hmm,” the gunman hummed, nodding. “Quinlen, I think you should stop talking about things you know nothing about,” was the more vexed response, “Although, for the record, I had a reason.”
Apparently now that his mouth was moving, stopping it was a problem, because Quinlen narrowed his eyes fractionally and challenged quietly, “Really?”
Pale blue eyes slashed his way, a little surprised and a lot irritated (which should have worried Quinlen), but before he could answer, the driver caught sight of something in his rearview mirror and his expression soured more. “Shit.” He picked up speed.
“What?” Quinlen asked, twisting a little to look back. He wasn’t precisely part of his criminal enterprise, but for a split-second he felt the same sort of nervousness that would probably be felt by an escaping convict sensing pursuit.
“You ask an awful lot of questions.”
They were racing through traffic yet again, eliciting a lot of honking horns and squealing brakes, but this time Quinlen couldn’t see any police vehicles, which puzzled him. Having been berated just now on his constant queries, the smaller man kept his words behind his teeth this time, but he couldn’t help but wonder who they were running from now. Maybe he just couldn’t identify the official vehicles?
“Gun!” Quinlen yelled suddenly, the words popping impulsively out of his mouth, followed by two more words that were probably more useful, “Red car!”
Although if he’d had more time to think about it at a leisurely pace, the bespectacled young man would perhaps have reconsidered giving tactical information to his own kidnapper. Did this count as aiding and abetting? Barely seconds later and Quinlen wasn’t questioning his decision any longer, as the blond-haired man caught sight of the indicated car and swerved – a bullet thudded into the body of their car somewhere. More swearing from the gunman. More irate drivers trying not to end up in a wreck as Quinlen and his lethal companion zigzagged as if this were an obstacle course and not a busy road. More bullets followed them. ‘Those are not the police,’ Quinlen labeled in the part of his head that wasn’t exploding with fright. Another bullet shattered the rear, driver’s side window.
Through all of this, the gunman in Quinlen’s car was remarkably calm, like he did this every other day. His jaw was set in a hard line and his whole body was tense, but he maneuvered the car ferociously through traffic, making impossible turns and near-misses look almost easy. When there was a thud somewhere that made the whole car jerk, and suddenly Quinlen’s kidnapper looked ten times more annoyed. The car grew exponentially harder to control after that, but the gunman still managed to make a sharp right that their pursuer couldn’t keep up with. “It just couldn’t be easy,” the blond-haired man growled as he parked the car clumsily. Although Quinlen specialized in more detailed electronics, he knew enough about cars to be sure that something had been seriously broken in this one – which hopefully meant that his kidnapper couldn’t run him down with the car if Quinlen made a break for it…
Quinlen was pushing his door open and bolting as soon as he could, hearing curses behind him that were almost as sharp as knives themselves. Not sparing time or breath to make a bunch of noise, Quinlen just ran, hoping that the killer wouldn’t follow him into a crowd. Unlike last time, when the gunman had apparently chosen his parking location at leisure, they were in a fairly populated spot, and Quinlen dashed for where he heard the most speaking. He had to clutch his bag awkwardly to keep it from bouncing against his leg, his left wrist still hurt, and now he was cold without his coat and out of breath – but at least he was free, which felt spectacular for all of two minutes. Then something wrapped like steel around his right bicep, and Quinlen was pulled to an abrupt and complete halt with a little ‘Urrk!’ noise of surprise. He was in a crowd of people by this point, but before he could drag in a much-needed breath to call for help, he felt a sharp pain on his ribs just to the right of his lower spine.
“One noise, and we’re going to no longer get along,” the words came with an annoyed, gravel edge directly into Quinlen’s ear.