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Authors: J. Carson Black

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Spectre Black

BOOK: Spectre Black
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PRAISE FOR J. CARSON BLACK

HARD RETURN

“Sweeping from suburban California to the New Mexico desert, from an assassins’ marketplace in Austria to the killing grounds of Iraq,
Hard Return
is an amped-up thrill ride showcasing one of the most enigmatic and unforgettable antiheroes in fiction today. Part Jack Reacher, part Jason Bourne, Landry is a loner, a lover, a father, a killer, and the last thing his enemies will ever see.”

—Michael Prescott,
New York Times
and
USA Today
bestselling author of
Final Sins
and
Around the Heart

THE SURVIVORS CLUB

“An utterly engrossing thriller.
The Survivors Club
grips us from the very start and simply doesn’t let go. The novel seamlessly achieves that rarity in crime fiction: making our palms sweat while bringing the characters and their stories straight into our hearts. Bravo!”

—Jeffery Deaver,
New York Times
bestselling author of
The Kill Room

“J. Carson Black’s
The Survivors Club
is a twisted, diabolical cat-and-mouse game that will keep you riveted.”

—CJ Lyons,
New York Times
bestselling author of
Hollow Bones

“Black serves up a breezy thriller with a killer premise: What if people who cheated death once weren’t so lucky the second time around? By the time the plot snakes through twist after twist, you’ll be asking yourself . . . do you feel lucky?”

—Brian Freeman, bestselling author of
Spilled Blood

“J. Carson Black delivers desert heat with her latest cool thriller,
The Survivors Club
. Detective Tess McCrae shows us again why she’s the southwest’s top cop.”

—Alan Jacobson, national bestselling author of
No Way Out

THE SHOP


The Shop
is a hair-raising thriller from start to finish. With a complex plot and finely drawn characters, J. Carson Black draws the reader into a world where nothing is as it seems. This book is both spooky and convincing, just what a thriller should be.”

—T. Jefferson Parker,
New York Times
bestselling author of
The Jaguar

“I’m a big fan of J. Carson Black and
The Shop
is a truly original nonstop locomotive ride of a thriller. You won’t even think of putting this book down.”

—John Lescroart,
New York Times
bestselling author of
The Hunter

“Fresh and imaginative, J. Carson Black’s
The Shop
is a riveting read and a compelling tale of character. From FBI agents to local cops, from heroes to villains,
The Shop
is an exciting, sweeping thriller that will linger in your mind for a long time.”

—Gayle Lynds,
New York Times
bestselling author of
The Book of Spies

“Infused with an original voice and packed with compelling characters, J. Carson Black’s
The Shop
is a thriller to pay attention to.”

—David Morrell,
New York Times
bestselling author of
The Brotherhood of the Rose

 

ALSO BY J. CARSON BLACK

Cyril Landry Thrillers

Hard Return

The Shop

Laura Cardinal Series

Darkness on the Edge of Town

Dark Side of the Moon

The Devil’s Hour

Cry Wolf

Standalone novels

The Survivors Club

Icon

Roadside Attraction

Writing as Margaret Falk

Dark Horse

Darkscope

The Desert Waits

Deadly Desert
(Omnibus)

Writing as Annie McKnight

The Tombstone Rose

Superstitions

Short Stories

The Bluelight Special

Pony Rides

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

 

Text copyright © 2015 J. Carson Black

All rights reserved.

 

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

 

Published by Thomas & Mercer, Seattle

www.apub.com

 

Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Thomas & Mercer are trademarks of
Amazon.com
, Inc., or its affiliates.

 

ISBN-13: 9781503947436

ISBN-10: 1503947432

 

Cover design by Stewart Williams

To Pam Stack, my dear friend and rainmaker

PART ONE

Chapter
1

Branch, New Mexico

Jolie Burke heard something.

There were plenty of noises in her house, a former miner’s shack with thin walls and a corrugated tin roof. Too many to categorize, but all of them were familiar. The sound the dog made when he dipped his tongue into the aluminum water dish. The sound of the house settling—a tiny cracking sound every once in a while. The hum of the refrigerator. A car driving by at night. Voices of neighbors outside. There were so many identifiable sounds that her subconscious—her cop mind—sorted them without her knowledge: This is annoying. This is the usual thing. Cars driving by late at night—that happened, since there were teenagers living two doors down.

But this is out of the ordinary.

What awoke Jolie was another sound—a car door opening quietly.

Not the sound of the car driving up the street, or the engine turn
ing off—

But the faint click of the car door opening, then closing. The car door coming to—just a kiss of metal and rubber suction.

Stealthy.

Her first thought was visceral: “The Inside Man”—a serial rapist who
had targeted women in three states. He broke into women’s houses and surprised them when they came home.

But The Inside Man was last year’s news. He hadn’t been active in over a year. The theory was he’d taken off for parts unknown.

She went into the bathroom where the narrow window overlooked the street. The glass was pebbled, but Jolie could see a white car parked on the street—couldn’t tell much but the shape was not curvy as the late models were.

Three dark shapes approaching the front of her house. Dark. Melting into the expanse of the front yard.

Three.

She thought they might have split up, one going around the back. If that were the case, these guys were good.

She was good, too, but there were at least three of them.

Decision time.

Call 911 and stay and fight them, or slip out.

She had an escape route—out through the kitchen side door and into the garage.

Whoever these people were, they were professionals.

Her cat and dog.

The cat was probably asleep in the linen closet.

And her dog was never much of a watchdog. Despite the fact that he was a Rottweiler.

Listen to him now: not one bark.

Her purse hung on the doorknob as it always did. She grabbed it up, along with the thumb drive from the bedside table. Where was her phone? She needed to get out! Where was her phone?

Heard voices, a scuffling of feet. Back window.

Then she saw it, lying on the floor. She must have knocked it off the nightstand while she was sleeping. She shoved it into her purse. There was no time to get her laptop from her office. She kept it hidden, but the hiding place wouldn’t fool a professional. She’d have to go without her service weapon, too. Earlier today a friend had come over for lunch with her three-year-old daughter. Jolie had locked her service weapon in the safe—

Jolie heard someone jimmying the window in the spare bedroom from the front. They’d found a way to disarm the alarm, and quickly. She had to go, now!

Jolie made it out the side door to the carport as quietly as she could. She could see two dark shapes—one at the window, one at the door. Weapons drawn, careful.

Where was the third?

She squinted in the vague moonlight and saw no one at the carport—her main method of escape. Why?

Her mind went to last night—the car behind her. At first she’d thought it was just another car, someone coming back from work at one of the agricultural farms, or from the small settlement south of here.

But when she’d turned, they’d turned.

When she’d reached her little pocket neighborhood, the car had turned off. One street before her street—as if they knew . . . .

Once was coincidence. Twice was—

A muffled voice. “Backyard.”

Jolie duckwalked around the hood of her car. Registered the smell of gasoline but ignored it.

From now on, it would get noisy.

She prepared. Did she really want to do this? Maybe it would be wiser to slip over the neighbor’s wall into their backyard, and then out to the alley. But what if there were more than these three?

She didn’t want to involve her neighbor.

She got into position, hand ready to yank open the door, and hit the alarm button to unlock the car. The shrill alarm was deafening. She dove inside, just as the two shapes in the front yard yelled and hurtled toward her. The car started immediately—she was worried the lever wouldn’t hit reverse the first time—but it did. Jammed it in reverse. Hit the gas and rocketed backward, nearly hitting one of the two men in black coming at her.

Instinct and training kicked in—think evasive driving maneuver—

The car swapped ends in the street and the next thing Jolie knew she was hurtling down toward the corner.

Within a minute a car was on her tail. Screaming around corners, headlights juddering in her rearview. She came to the Y in the road—make a decision! One way led to a lonely road with plenty of curves that slowed you to a crawl up the hillside to expensive homes—a maze of one-lane blacktop dead ends. The other shot through the last of Branch and out to the highway.

The lonely highway.

Neither choice was optimal.

But one was easier—turning right. Right on the road out of Branch.

The moment she turned she realized it might be a mistake. Why didn’t she swap ends again and head for the middle of town?

Afterburners on. Nothing ahead of her. Jolie peered in the rearview—no car behind her. No car speeding, no headlights. How could that be? They had to be running dark. She squinted at the mirror, almost willing a dark shape to come hurtling toward her from behind.

Out in the lonely expanse of New Mexico desert now.

This time she did see headlights, way back.

But coming.

Coming fast.

She goosed the accelerator, prepared for the car to respond.

But the car engine wasn’t as smooth.

Something was wrong.

She pushed on the accelerator again, hard, but after a halfhearted surge, the car slowed.

The engine was knocking. Out of gas?

But she’d filled the car yesterday. She looked at the gas gauge. The needle was on empty.

Smelled gas at the same time—how could she have missed that?

But I filled it yesterday, her mind insisted. Did they siphon her gas?

“Shut up,” she muttered. “And suck it up.”

Now what?

She had to ditch the car. Had to find a place where she could hide it.

There was an old ranch house on the right. Middle of the night, nothing stirring. The road led to the ranch house and two outbuildings. She drove onto the washboard dirt road, nursing the car and glad there was a slight decline in the path, her eyes cutting to the rearview mirror, looking for headlights, and then she was there. No lights on in the house. No cars.

The place was abandoned.

Jolie doused her lights, drove behind the barn.

Just in time. The car shuddered, stinking of gas, and died. She opened the barn door and saw piles of junk—but enough room in the aisle for her to push the car in.

It was not easy, but she managed. The last little bit, there was a slight decline. The car rolled to a stop.

She pulled the doors closed and barred the gate.

Pulled out her phone.

No bars.

“Shit!” she muttered. She looked around. Jolie knew this area well. There was a lot of land, but very few houses. Hardly any around here. As she recalled, the closest building was abandoned—the Circle K.

It had been closed a couple of months ago.

But Jolie remembered the pay phone on the wall outside. She hoped the pay phone still worked. It was a shot. No way would she stand by the road and hang her thumb out—whoever the people were who came to her house would still be looking for her.

She estimated that the Circle K was five or six miles away. She’d been a long-distance runner in high school. She’d also had to run to pass the fitness requirement as a sheriff’s recruit in Florida, but that was over fifteen years ago. Unlike many of her hard-ass, gung-ho friends in the Branch Sheriff’s Office, she was in good shape. Good shape, not great shape. That hadn’t mattered—until now. She would go cross-country, in the desert.

Hell, they gave death row inmates one phone call.

She’d make sure hers would count.

There wasn’t much cover but there was some—creosote bushes, mostly. Jolie kept track of the road but stayed about ten lanes off it, on the far side of the barbed-wire fence that seemed to go on forever. She’d stuck to a jog-trot as long as the moon was bright.

No one had driven by on the two-lane rural road. Not surprising—it was probably around two in the morning.

Way up ahead she finally saw it. A square building paralleling the road. She squinted. Black against the dark gray of the surrounding terrain. The pole sticking up into the night sky.

The Circle K.

She tried her phone again. Still no bars.

Jolie always thought she was good, but not lucky. Now she hoped she would be both good
and
lucky. She altered her path, moving diagonally in the direction of the store.

At the barbed-wire fence thirty feet back from the road, she removed her shirt, doubled it up and placed it over the lower strand of wire. Held it down, bent it in half and stepped through. Donned her shirt again on the other side.

The moon had slipped behind a cloud. Everything got a whole hell of a lot darker. Jolie slowed to a cautious shuffle—there were gopher holes out here and she didn’t want to break a leg—but kept moving in the direction of the Circle K.

The road was empty at this time of night. Flat around here, just some low hills far away to the south.

Jolie tried not to feel disheartened.

She told herself she would be careful. If she heard an engine she would hide in the tall grass growing in the ditch alongside the road. It wasn’t much cover, but some.

It was one of those old Circle Ks built in the seventies. It sat there like a building block against the navy blue of the night sky and a billion stars. The front plate-glass windows and door had been boarded over with plywood.

But, as she remembered, there was the pay phone on the side wall.

Crazy.

It felt too much like a nightmare where you thought you had help but you didn’t. Where your last hope was an old pay phone at an abandoned convenience store in the middle of nowhere and you expected to hear a dial tone but of course there wasn’t one. That would fit in with the way things had been going of late. In what dream could this phone possibly work?

Not gonna happen.

It’s there. Try it.

She darted across the patch of ground, aware of how exposed she was. Pressed against the wall, picked up the receiver. “This is crazy,” she muttered, just as she heard the dial tone.

She punched in the number of the only person in the world she knew she could trust. The one number she had committed to memory.

The phone rang. The message came on.

“Talk.”

Jolie heard the rumble of an engine, way off in the distance, finished her message and headed for the brush by the side of the road. She squinted in the direction of the sound, but saw nothing.

But a car was coming. No headlights; it was running dark. Way out there on the road. A big engine—

A muscle car.

The engine idling along, the car moving slowly. The sound of the deep-throated engine reverberating off the pavement.

But she couldn’t
see
anything.

Every instinct told Jolie the driver was looking for
her
. That might not be logical, but instinct trumped logic every time—especially in this kind of situation. So if she was going to hide, it had to be now. She stayed behind the Circle K, climbed back through the fence and into the dark and fallow field.

She lay flat on the ground and squinted at the road. The car came closer, the shuddering engine loud—

But
still
she couldn’t see it.

She needed to make sense of this—now. Someone was looking for her.

She was surprised, but not as surprised as she would have thought. Jolie disciplined herself to clamp down on the adrenaline, use her head. She knew the car. She knew the owner.

The car was now right in front of her. Virtually invisible. But then she saw
something—
a diffused red glow, possibly the interior of the vehicle, barely there. She couldn’t see the car but she could see negative space: what resembled a cutout of the inside of the vehicle, dim but there. Just enough light to illuminate some of the driver inside.

As the car came abreast of the Circle K she could see the ghost of the door strut, the shape of the window, one or two shapes reflected off the dash inside.

But nothing else.

Jolie was ninety percent sure the car belonged to the kid, but there were plenty of black muscle cars in this town. She could be wrong. She needed to expand her horizons, think of who else might have a car like that. She couldn’t assume anything at this point.

BOOK: Spectre Black
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