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Wanted (Leopold Blake Series)
WANTED (LEOPOLD BLAKE SERIES)

  Copyright © 2013 Nick Stephenson

  The right of Nick Stephenson to be identified as the author of the Work has been asserted him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

  First published in Great Britain in 2013 by WJ Books Ltd.

  All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or otherwise, without written permission from the author.

  Table of Contents

  Wanted: A Leopold Blake Thriller

  About the Author

  More Books by the Author

  WANTED

  A Leopold Blake Thriller

  Nowhere to hide…

  What should have been a relaxing vacation in Paris turns into another unwinnable situation for expert criminology consultant Leopold Blake. Caught in the cross hairs of a ruthless assassin and on the run from the police for a murder he didn’t commit, Blake and his team must fight to clear his name before it’s too late.

  As enemies close in from all sides, Blake is about to learn who he can trust – and who is determined to destroy him – as The City of Light becomes a new hunting ground.

  Sign up for the author’s New Releases mailing list and get a free copy of the latest novella Paydown: A Leopold Blake Thriller.

  Click here to get started: www.nickstephensonbooks.com

  PROLOGUE: TWO WEEKS AGO

   

  The hazmat suit was stifling and Luca Ginelli could barely catch his breath as he studied the monitors. Thanks to the research laboratory's state-of-the-art microsphere nanoscope, the young lab technician could easily study particles as small as one nanometer in diameter – the equivalent of one billionth of a meter – with unprecedented clarity.

  The current specimen, a cluster of lung cells harvested from a pig, was no exception. He could easily make out the cell membranes, the nuclei, and even the tiny mitochondria that came together to form one of the most basic building blocks of animal life. But there was no time to stop and enjoy the view.

  With a steady hand, Ginelli introduced a sample of nanoparticles to the viewing plate and increased the magnification. Despite being many times smaller than the pig cells, the nanoparticles moved much faster – making their way toward the membranes that protected the larger bodies with surprising speed. Within a few seconds they had reached their targets and set to work. Ginelli stared at the monitors in disbelief.

  This isn’t supposed to happen.

  After years of research, nearly half a decade of refining, he was still no closer to a breakthrough. Instead of developing a revolutionary technique for locating and destroying cell mutations, all Ginelli had to show for his efforts was something even worse than the cancers he was trying to cure. If that weren't enough, senior management were now demanding daily progress reports and the pressure was starting to build. His workload had increased to the point where sleeping at the labs and starting work at dawn had become the only way to keep up. But what could be done about it?

  Company morale was at an all-time low and Ginelli had heard whispers of strike action among the other employees. He knew nothing would come of it, everyone was too afraid of what might happen, but it was always a popular topic of conversation. That, and the myriad of conspiracy theories surrounding their work – theories that seemed to get less farfetched as time passed.

  What if the theories aren’t just theories? Ginelli's head swam with a variety of scenarios, each leading him back to the same question: What exactly are we trying to create here?

  He took one last look at the monitor and shuddered. Shutting off the equipment, the young technician made his way through to the decontamination chamber and changed back into his lab clothes. As he pulled on his white lab coat, he took out his cell phone and took a long hard look at the screen. It would be easy enough to get in touch with someone, maybe talk to them about some of the concerns he and the others had. He didn’t have to give them his name. Management would never find out.

  With a final glance around him, Ginelli turned out the lights and made his way toward his sleeping quarters, checking his watch and wondering whether it was too late to make a quick phone call.

  ONE: TODAY

   

  Dieter Reiniger pictured the scene in his head and allowed himself a smile. Screaming through the air at nearly three thousand feet per second, the custom-made .338 bullet would punch through his target’s skull as though it were made of paper, ensuring an instant kill with minimum fuss. The mark would be dead before he even heard the gunshot.

  Perched high above Paris’ Notre Dame square, the assassin had found it easy to slip away from his tour group unnoticed and had made his way to the very top of the ancient cathedral’s Gothic parapets, giving him the perfect vantage point to carry out his mission.

  Thirty stories below, hundreds of people milled around the expansive plaza, completely unaware of the danger lurking so high above them. A good portion of the unsuspecting souls were dressed in business attire, probably waiting for a lunch table at any one of the overpriced restaurants nearby, while the rest were clearly tourists hoping to soak up some of the city’s famous landmarks. Dozens of Asian, American, and European holidaymakers huddled around the entrance to the famous cathedral waiting for their chance to see the impressive interior, while others took advantage of the public restrooms or chased their hyperactive children through the dense lunchtime hustle.

  The summer season had truly begun in earnest, and the baking sun glistened enthusiastically over the surface of the River Seine, catching on the waves and reflecting off the brilliant white tour boats that cruised up and down the waterways. Reiniger took a deep breath through his nostrils and savored the clean air, glad for the chance to get away from the noise and pollution of street level.

  The assassin knelt, unclasping the heavy Samsonite luggage he had carried up to the roof with him, and dug deep underneath a layer of carefully folded clothes to the hidden compartment installed at the bottom. Inside, the components of a modified AX338 sniper rifle were strapped tight to the case’s toughened frame, and he caught the faint smell of gun oil as he leaned in close to remove the parts. He checked each component carefully and assembled the high-powered weapon in less than thirty seconds, laying the rifle by his feet once he had finished. He turned his attention to the ammunition.

  Reiniger fished out six low-drag rounds from a small holster disguised as a glasses case and inspected them for any defects. Satisfied, he slipped them into his shirt pocket and closed up the bulky suitcase, making his way over to the edge of the roof and the two hundred foot drop below. At this elevation, the German could see across most of Paris and he gave himself a moment to soak up the glorious view. Facing west, he could make out the looming gray silhouette of the Eiffel Tower in the distance, one of only a handful of structures in the center of the capital that were taller than the cathedral itself. A little further on, just about visible on the outskirts of the city, the skyscrapers of the La Defense financial district glittered in the sunshine.

  Taking up a position flat on his belly next to a particularly grotesque gargoyle, Reiniger flipped open the lens cap on the rifle’s long range scope and peered through the glass. A little over a thousand feet away, he could clearly make out the steps leading up from the subterranean Notre Dame metro station as though he were standing just a few paces from it and he adjusted the lens to ensure the focus was perfect. The constant pour of commuters streaming out of the tunnels would make his target
difficult to hit, but the assassin was prepared for that. All he had to do was breathe, focus, and take his time – and the rifle would do the rest.

  Thankfully, the ambient conditions were perfect. The hot, humid air was the optimum density for working with a rifle and wind speed was minimal, meaning there was very little chance of a bullet veering off course. After the job was done, the suitcase would be left on the cathedral roof for the police to find, allowing the German a speedy getaway down the narrow staircase and onto the streets below with the rifle packed up in its carry case and slung over his shoulder.

  Closing the lens cap to avoid giving away his position in the bright sun, Reiniger allowed himself to relax and thought back to his mission briefing. The client, some balding American, had been nervous, as most usually were, but he was very clear about one thing: it wasn’t enough for the assassin to simply kill the targets. The client had tossed a set of photographs across the table and explained the objectives. It all sounded simple enough, Reiniger had said, before immediately doubling his price. The American had agreed. Perhaps a little too easily.

  While this was no ordinary job, all the preparations had been made, payment had been received as usual, and the escape route was all mapped out. The only thing left to do was wait and keep watch. In just a few short hours, Dieter Reiniger would be well on the way to getting his hands on the last paycheck he would ever need.

  TWO

   

  Juliet Reno had waited in line at the Louvre for more than an hour. After standing outside in the baking lunchtime heat, the cool blast of the air conditioning inside the Renaissance Gallery was a welcome reprieve. As a third year Art History major, Juliet knew her Michelangelos from her Raphaels, but something about the sprawling museum always brought her back for more. As the crowds began to wane during the lunchtime rush, the young student found herself enjoying the rare luxury of an undisturbed stroll down the impressive hallways. 

  Without the usual hordes of tourists spoiling her view, Juliet allowed herself more time than usual to walk through the giant corridors, pausing several times along the way to soak up the finer details of some of the world’s most famous masterpieces. As she reached a particularly impressive Mantegna, a young man with scruffy hair sidled up next to her, clearly as engrossed in the painting as she was. The stranger glanced over at her and smiled.

  “Do you know this oil painting?” he asked in an American accent.

  “Yes, of course,” she replied, her English accented but otherwise flawless. “Da Vinci’s ‘The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne’.”

  “Anyone can read the plaque,” the stranger said. “What’s more interesting to me is whether you have any opinions of your own. What does this painting say to you?”

  Juliet took a step back. “What makes you think I want to answer your questions?”

  “You’re an art student, right?”

  “Yes? How did you know?”

  “I watched you examine nearly every painting in this hall before you settled on this one. Nobody your age takes so long wandering the hallways leading up to the Mona Lisa. Most just charge straight on through. So, tell me about this painting. Tell me what it means to you.”

  Juliet folded her arms. “Okay, so you have a good eye. We know that Da Vinci painted this in the early sixteenth century, and it depicts the infant Christ grappling with a sacrificial lamb while his mother tries to restrain him.”

  “Yes, yes – these are the figures in the painting, but what does it mean to you?”

  “The Virgin Mary appears to be sitting on Saint Anne’s lap,” Juliet continued, “which I suppose suggests some kind of strong bond between the two women. Perhaps a maternal relationship, much like the relationship between Mary and Jesus. To me, this is a scene of love and family – but with the foreshadowing of Christ’s eventual death symbolized by the lamb. It is at once comforting and very disturbing.”

  “Good, very good. You’re aware of the Freudian interpretation?”

  “Of course. Freud theorized that the Virgin’s cloak painted here,” she traced the outline with her finger, just a few inches from the frame, “was designed to represent the shape of a bird of prey that Leonardo Da Vinci had dreamed of. A dream, Freud argued, that suggested latent homosexual tendencies in the young painter. Of course, for Freud, everything is about the penis, isn’t it?”

  He grinned. “Sometimes he has a point. And like many Da Vinci paintings, you’ll notice the horizons are at different levels on each side of the main figure’s head.”

  “Yes, like the Mona Lisa, it’s the first thing most people notice. The technique is used to draw the eye to certain parts of the painting. In this case it pulls us in to focus on the face of Mary, so that we almost don’t notice Saint Anne holding her up. Here, Da Vinci portrays a very strong figure, but one that keeps very much to the background. He had tremendous respect for her, I think.”

  “And you are aware of the more recent controversies?”

  Juliet shook her head, wondering where this conversation was going. Is he going to ask me out or something? she thought, wondering what she would say if he did.

  “In 2011 the painting was removed from the display to be cleaned and restored,” he continued. “However, the work carried out on the oil paints caused the work to become brighter and more vibrant than before. Many argued this was not the artist’s original intention. There was quite an uproar. I’m surprised you didn’t read about it.”

  “It was a little before my time,” she replied, pushing back a strand of hair. “But why are you so interested?”

  “It’s my job to pay attention.”

  “And what job is that?”

  “I get paid to notice things. I get paid even more to keep them to myself. Sometimes, I’m faced with a situation where I’m compelled to tell the secrets that I know. Today is one of those situations.”

  “Very mysterious,” Juliet said. “And just what secrets do you have today?”

  “I suppose I can best illustrate with this,” he replied, pointing to the Da Vinci. “You can see where the artist has used such a muted palette?” he waited for her to nod. “Good, then you’ll also see where the dust and other atmospheric particulates have accumulated over the years the whites and grays have become slightly inconsistent across the scene. They are brighter in some places than in others. A product of natural aging.”

  “Yes, very common.”

  “So, if the painting was cleaned and restored in 2011, why does this painting look like it hasn’t been touched in hundreds of years?”

  Juliet opened her mouth to reply, but couldn’t find the right words. For the first time she could remember, the young student found herself speechless.

  “The secret, you see,” the scruffy man stepped forward until he was just a few inches from the elaborate golden frame, “is that any good restorer will leave in certain details of the painting that the artist intended to preserve. The color palette, for example. With this painting, however,” he reached out gently and touched the wood of the frame, “the restoration team screwed up and brightened everything too much. Meaning whatever’s hanging here today…”

  Too late to stop him, Juliet lunged forward as the stranger wrenched the priceless masterpiece off the wall, setting off the security systems and filling the cavernous hall with a piercing klaxon alarm. The other visitors still meandering through the corridors froze as a security guard burst through the doors at the far end of the hallway and sprinted toward the cause of the disturbance.

  “Meaning whatever’s hanging here today,” the stranger continued as though nothing unusual had happened, “is a fake. A very good one, but definitely a fake – one that was based on how the painting looked before the restoration messed with all the colors. In short, this doesn’t belong here.” He hoisted the frame up over his head and began to walk away. “Thank you for the conversation, but I need to be going. The art director is going to have a few questions. I’m sure this gentleman will be kind enough to escor
t me,” he nodded toward the security officer running in their direction.

  “Who are you?” said Juliet, stepping away.

  “Of course, where are my manners?” he held out his hand. “Leopold Blake. Nice to meet you.”

  Eyes wide, Juliet shook the young man’s hand and watched dumbstruck as he carried the painting toward the exit.

  THREE

   

  The piercing noise woke Mary Jordan at seven A.M. with a jolt, interrupting a particularly violent dream. Fumbling in the dark, the NYPD police sergeant felt across her nightstand for the alarm clock and succeeded in knocking over her lamp. Still half asleep, she located the offending device and slammed her palm down on the snooze button.

  For the fourth morning in a row Mary had fallen asleep fully dressed and, after two full weeks of working nights, the seasoned cop had reached her limit. New York’s finest had trained her to deal with violent criminals, perverts, and street gangs, but nothing had prepared her for fourteen days with no sleep. Resisting the urge to groan, Mary swung her feet out over the side of the bed and stumbled into the bathroom, pulling off her crumpled clothes and tossing them onto the floor. She turned on the shower and waited for the pipes to stop rattling before stepping into the cubicle, letting the hot water do its work.

  Thoroughly scrubbed, she wrapped a towel around herself and stepped out of the shower to inspect herself in the mirror. Wiping the condensation away with her palm, she forced her eyes open. The results were not good. Swearing under her breath, she rummaged through her bathroom cupboards and eventually located her makeup bag behind a stack of Xanax bottles. She fished out the bag of lotions and powders and dumped the whole thing on the edge of the sink.

  After a cursory layer of foundation had covered up the worst of the damage, Mary headed back to the bedroom. She threw on something warm and comfortable – a nice change from her usual duty uniform – and fished out the airline tickets and passport from her underwear drawer. In less than two hours her flight would be boarding, which didn’t leave much time for packing.

 
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