Art Heists, Murder and Revenge!

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In 1990 robbers stole paintings worth $500 million from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The paintings have never been recovered. Natalie’s Art, book 5 in the Frank Renzi crime fiction series, takes place twenty years later.

Gregor, a ruthless art thief, plans to steal several paintings from the Gardner. He forces Natalie to help him. But there is no honor among thieves, only treachery. After the heist, he intends to kill her.

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Natalie’s only friend lives in Boston’s Chinatown, but even he may not be able to save her. Not only that, NOPD Detective Frank Renzi is hot on her trail. In Natalie’s Revenge Natalie managed to escape him. This time, he’s determined to catch her.

Will Natalie escape? Don’t miss the explosive showdown between Frank and Natalie.

From Midwest Book Reviews
“To call Natalie’s Art a ‘ mystery’ would do it a disservice, though mystery is one element of its story. To call it a ‘ thriller’ would be too vague, though there are many plot twists and plenty of intrigues that would appeal to fans of this genre. ‘ Psychological suspense drama’ is much more accurate, though even this doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of the book’s complexity.

Natalie’s Art is not for the reader of light whodunits or espionage tales, but for readers who enjoy psychological depth and complexity. A young woman inadvertently falls into an association with a deadly character and a dangerous career. A ruthless art thief plans to use Natalie to steal two priceless paintings from Boston’s Isabella Steward Gardner Museum before he kills her.

Detective Frank Renzi is no stranger to danger. He is a dark warrior, fighting demons of his own – not your usual cut-and-dried investigator, but a man whose checkered background leads to both his gritty powers of determination and, sometimes, his downfall.

Natalie comes to realize that two thieves have placed her in the middle of their very dangerous game, and there is no easy way out from a chosen path of crime. There are many questions in Susan Fleet’s Natalie’s Art: Where are the stolen paintings? Who will die? Can Natalie truly be free from the choices she has made in her life?

The real tests of a superior novel are enough characterization to make protagonists feel real, and enough compelling, unpredictable twists to keep readers interested right up to the end. Natalie’s Art embraces all these facets and steers readers directly to a logical, yet surprising, conclusion. And that’s fine art, indeed.” – D. Donovan, Midwest Book Reviews

An Excerpt of Natalie’s Art

CHAPTER 1
June 18, 2010 – 1:05 PM – New Orleans

“What was he thinking?” Homicide Detective Frank Renzi said. “Steal a car and take the woman with him?” A complication he didn’t need right now. He wanted to study the report sitting on his office desk about some recent European art heists.

Focused on the road, Detective Kenyon Miller gripped the wheel in his large dark-skinned hands. “Gotta be a nutcase. Drive an old rattle-trap that fast? A tire blows, it might flip over.”

“Hey, the guy’s a bank robber, not Albert Einstein. No telling what he’ll do with the woman.”

Hot, humid air whipped his face as their cruiser rocketed up Elysian Fields Avenue in pursuit of the beat-up blue Chevy Cavalier one block ahead of them. The carjacker, a white male in his twenties, had held up a bank in the French Quarter. Frank and Miller had been eating lunch two blocks away when their handsets erupted: Carjacking in the Quarter, white male took off with the female driver, heading north on Elysian Fields.

With a screech of brakes, the Chevy swerved into Gentilly Acres, a new housing development.

Miller followed the Chevy. Frank got on his handset, identified himself and said, “French Quarter carjacker just drove into the Gentilly Acres subdivision. We’re in pursuit. Get some squads over there.” Fifty yards ahead of them, the Chevy’s speed increased.

Then, with a loud pop, one of the front tires blew. The car careened over a curb and slammed into a big oak tree. Miller slowed to a stop twenty yards behind it. Frank got out and drew his SIG-Sauer, eyes trained on the Chevy. Steam billowed out of the hood. Nobody moving inside the car. Maybe they could arrest the guy without a problem.

The car door opened and his breath caught in his throat. The carjacker yanked the woman out of the car and ran, pulling her with him, his hand clamped around her arm.

She had on a bright yellow dress with a long skirt, wailing in a thin, shrill voice, “My baby!”

“Damn!” Miller said. “There’s a kid in the car?”

“Stay with the child. I’ll take Einstein,” Frank said and ran after them. A rangy six-foot-one, he didn’t lift weights, but he ran five miles every day, a habit he’d acquired in high school when he played point guard on the basketball team.

Two-story homes lined the street, roughed-in but unfinished, no shingles on the exterior or the roof. The mother was fighting the man, dragging her feet to slow him down. They disappeared behind a house. Frank sprinted to the corner and saw the carjacker drag the woman into the next house. A boxy white van stood beside it, THIBIDEAU ELECTRIC stenciled on the side.

He crept to the door and eased inside. The odor of sawdust and fresh-cut wood filled his nostrils. Someday this would be a kitchen, studs on the walls but no sheetrock, which allowed him a partial view of the next room. The carjacker, a scrawny kid in cutoff jeans and a white T-shirt, had the woman clamped to his chest. In his right hand, he held a butcher knife inches away from the woman’s throat. Red splotches stained his white T-shirt.

Frank’s heart jolted. Jesus, did he already cut her?

Then he realized the splotches were from the dye-pack in the money the man had stolen.

“Let the girl go!” said a man’s voice. Two men entered Frank’s field of vision, the electricians he assumed, white males in their thirties, one tall and wiry, the other short and pudgy. The tall one had an electric drill in his hand, the short one held a staple gun, advancing on the carjacker and the woman. A disastrous situation was about to get worse. Way worse.

Agitated, the carjacker screamed, “Get away or I’ll cut her.” Eyes bugged out, he brandished the knife, then held it to the woman’s throat.

Frank stepped into the room and said, “Hold it. Let’s all take a deep breath and calm down.”

The woman’s eyes locked onto his. Her mouth opened but nothing came out. A young, light-skinned black woman, five feet tall, weighed maybe ninety pounds. She looked a lot like Halle Berry, might have been prettier but for the look of terror on her face.

Fifteen feet away from the carjacker, the electricians stopped and looked at Frank.

“Detective Frank Renzi, NOPD,” he said. “I’d show you my badge, but my hands are busy.” Busy holding the SIG, aimed at the floor now, but ready to use should the need arise.

The carjacker’s lips drew back in a snarl. “You come any closer, she’s dead.”

“No need to harm the lady,” Frank said. “Stay calm and nobody gets hurt.” To the electricians, he said, “Thank you for your assistance, gentlemen, but I think it would be best if you left.” He jerked his head at the doorway behind him and gave them his don’t-fuck-with-me look. “Now.”

The taller electrician frowned. “Well … okay. If you say so.”

Reluctantly, the electricians lowered their makeshift weapons, the drill and the staple gun, and headed toward the doorway. Frank hoped they’d keep going and leave the house, but he didn’t dare turn and look, didn’t dare take his eyes off the carjacker.

“My baby,” said the woman, breathing hard, her eyes fixed on Frank.

“My partner’s with your baby. He’s got kids of his own. What’s your baby’s name?”

“Bella,” the woman said, her voice rising in panic. “She’s only sixteen months old!”

Frank studied the carjacker, who was growing twitchier by the minute, eyes darting this way and that, pinprick pupils, looked like he might be on crystal meth. Bad news. Oxy and heroin addicts tended to be laid back, but meth freaks were hyperactive and unpredictable. Dangerous.

He edged closer, twenty feet away now. “You’re having a rough day, buddy. The holdup didn’t go the way you planned, then you stole a car with a woman and a baby inside.”

“I didn’t know the kid was there!”

“Maybe not, but we need to let Mom get back to her little girl and make sure she’s okay.”

The woman nodded, her eyes bright with tears.

Sirens sounded in the distance. About time.

“Hear that?” he said. “More police will be here soon. Why not quit while you’re ahead? Nobody got hurt. Let the woman go and put down the knife.”

“No way!” The man clenched his forearm around the woman, pulling her close.

Her eyes widened, dark terror-filled eyes. “Please,” she said in a strangled voice.

Frank took a deep breath to steady his heart rate, sweaty hands clamped around the SIG. He didn’t want to use it, but push come to shove, he would.

Sirens whooped to a stop outside. The cavalry was here.

He got into a zone and locked eyes with the carjacker. “Listen carefully. You stuck up a bank and stole a car. Neither of those things will put you away for life, but then you took the woman. Now you’re threatening her with a knife. That carries big penalties. Nobody needs to get hurt. Let the woman go, put down the knife, and we’ll all walk out of here safe and sound.”

“No!” The carjacker’s face contorted, a crimson mask of fury, like he was about to explode.

Situation critical. A metallic taste flooded Frank’s mouth. He clenched his jaw, raised his weapon and set his finger on the trigger. “Touch her with that knife and you are dead.”

“Go ahead! Shoot me!” The man shoved the mother to the floor and charged, brandishing the knife, staggering now, his movements uncoordinated.

His heart slammed his chest. Shoot him, or not? Two seconds to decide.

A life or death decision.

At the last instant, he pivoted and slammed the SIG against the bridge of the man’s nose. Screaming obscenities, the man dropped the knife and fell to the floor, clutching his bloody nose.

Frank kicked the knife away. As it skittered across the floor a half-dozen police officers charged into the room and subdued the carjacker.

He holstered his weapon and helped the woman to her feet. She leaned against him, chest heaving, sobbing as though her heart would break.

“You were very brave,” he said, patting her back. “Let’s get you back to your little girl.”

“Thank you,” she said, wiping away tears. “I was afraid he was going to hurt Bella.”

“But he didn’t. You’ll be fine.” But not right way, Frank thought. For the next few months, she’d have nightmares about what might have happened. He should know. It had been two years since Natalie Brixton shot him and he was still having flashbacks.

Natalie, the long-legged woman with the distinctive walk. The report on his desk contained details about several European art heists. After the most recent one, four months ago in London, a witness had told the investigators he’d seen the robber leave the museum and he was positive it was a woman. Because of her long-legged, hip-swinging stride.

_____

June 19, 2010 – 2:55 AM Oxford, UK

“What should I do?” said the security guard, gazing at her, his eyes wide with fright.

All he could see was her eyes. The rest of her face was hidden by a black balaclava.

She took out her weapon, a Beretta 92FS with an Evo 9 Suppressor attached to the barrel. The weapon she thought she would never have to use.

The guard raised his hands. “Please! I didn’t know he was coming, I swear it! Sometimes he stops by without warning.”

Maintaining a calm demeanor, one that belied her inner turmoil, she strode to the security desk. One monitor displayed video from the security camera outside the entrance. The Security Director stood outside the door, a burly older man with a Van Dyke beard. He did not appear to be armed. The security guard wasn’t either. Brits were touchy about civilians carrying firearms.

“Let him in,” she said. “I’ll hide in the closet near the entrance.”

The guard, a slight man with sandy hair and an acne-pitted face, frowned. “Then what?”

She flicked the Beretta. “Hurry up. Unlock the closet.”

Fumbling with his key ring, he preceded her into the six-by-eight-foot foyer near the entrance. He stopped at a door on the left-hand wall and unlocked it.

“Do what you are being paid to do,” she hissed. “Let him in. Act normal.”

He nodded, but his eyes were full of fear.

She entered the closet, a claustrophobic space, dark and smelly. After they put on their uniforms, the guards stored their clothes here. She pulled the door toward her, leaving it open a crack. Now she couldn’t see the guard. Would he do what she said? What if he didn’t?

What if this was a set-up?

She stood there in the dark, her heart racing. The next few minutes were crucial. She drew in a deep breath and held it, willing her heart to slow, a trick she’d learned years ago from her Taekwondo teacher. Don’t allow your body’s automatic response to fear overpower your discipline and focus. She released that breath and took another, and another.

As her panic died away she heard the guard say, “Hello, sir. I wasn’t expecting you tonight.”

“Why would you?” said a gruff voice. “That’s the point.”

The words failed to reassure her. Shifting the Beretta to her left hand, she took a steel baton out of her knapsack and waited in the darkness, tense and alert.

After several agonizing seconds, the Security Director walked past the closet.

She pushed open the door, stepped forward and slammed the baton against the side of his head. The man grunted and slumped to the black-and-white tiled floor.

The security guard stared at her, horrified.

She stuck the baton in her knapsack and held the Beretta in her right hand. Her shooting hand.

“What do we do now?” the guard asked in a shaky voice.

“Tie him up,” she said curtly. “Use the twine. Put duct tape over his mouth. Hurry!”

The guard took a ball of twine off the security desk and knelt down beside the Security Director.

She checked the time. She’d been here almost thirty minutes. Much too long.

Her cellphone vibrated against her leg. Her mouth went dry. Her hands trembled as she took out the phone and answered. “Yes.”

“What’s going on?” said a gravely voice, a voice that sent chills through every inch of her body.

Gregor. She had never met him, but she knew he was nearby. Watching.

“The Security Director paid us an unexpected visit. I disabled him.”

“Kill them.”

Paralyzed with shock, she couldn’t speak. Kill them? No! She only carried the Beretta to intimidate the security guards. She wanted to scream, wanted to tell Gregor she wouldn’t do it.

But she knew it would do her no good.

“Adam didn’t know he was coming,” she said. Adam was the guard’s code name, not his real one. When she said this, his head jerked up. He had already bound the Security Director’s wrists and ankles together.

“Shoot them. If you don’t, you will die, too.”

She had no doubt of it. “Got it,” she said, and closed the phone.

The guard rose to his feet and backed away, staring at her eyes, the only part of her face not hidden by the balaclava. “I didn’t know he was coming. I didn’t!”

“I believe you, but we have to make this look like you weren’t involved, remember? Give me the twine, turn around and put your hands behind your back so I can bind your wrists.”

Docile as a Shropshire sheep, he gave her the twine, turned around and put his hands behind his back. Bile rose in her throat. She didn’t want to shoot him, but what choice did she have?

She pulled the trigger. The Beretta made a soft popping sound, and the guard fell to the floor, blood spurting from his head.

A flashback blindsided her. Shooting Tex in the back of the head in New Orleans.

Sickened by the memory, she gritted her teeth, willing the vision away.

She had to get out of here, fast. But first she had to finish the job. Kill them. Or you will die, too.

The Security Director’s body was curled up on the floor. Mercifully, his eyes were closed.

She stood over him, extended the Beretta, then lowered it to her side.

Shoot them. If you don’t, you will die, too.

Tears flooded her eyes. Why did it always come down to this? Her life or someone else’s?

But how could she kill this defenseless man?

He uttered a soft groan and his eyes fluttered.

Startled, she shrank back. The Security Director was innocent and utterly defenseless, his wrists and ankles bound together. No way was she going to kill him.

But she had to get out fast before he regained consciousness and saw her.

With grim determination, she jammed the Beretta into the knapsack, grabbed the metal container that held the Rembrandt, dashed to the entrance door and tried to calm herself.

Her heart refused to cooperate, pounding her chest like a wild thing.

Where was Gregor? Somewhere near the museum.

Not close enough to hear the gunshots perhaps, but close enough to see her when she left.

Her shoulders tensed as she opened the door and stepped outside. Thick clouds filled the dusky sky, obscuring the moon. She shut the door, averted her face and strode past the security camera. Only then did she remove the balaclava.

She stuck it in her pocket and set off down the sidewalk with a purposeful stride.

Walk, don’t run. Running attracted attention. The last thing she wanted while she was carrying a painting worth several million dollars. The getaway car was two blocks away, a stolen Toyota Yaris. The license plate was also stolen, stripped from a different vehicle, one that would cause no problems if the police stopped her. She’d been given a cover story in case that happened. Be prepared. Leave nothing to chance.

But the Security Director had foiled that part of the plan.

She reached the first intersection and crossed the street. So far so good. Usually, she was afraid witnesses would see her, or the police. Not tonight. Where was Gregor?

Kill them or you will die, too.

Her breath came in shallow gasps and her neck prickled, a spidery warning. She rotated her head and arched her neck. Was Gregor positioned inside one of the brownstones that lined the deserted street? Standing in an upper window, holding a Bushmaster, drawing a bead on her head?

Gripping the metal container, she strode along the sidewalk and tried to reassure herself.

He wouldn’t shoot her while she had the painting, would he?

She walked faster. Get in the Yaris where she’d be less of a target.

In the distance, she heard a car engine start behind her. Her heart catapulted into her throat.

Rigid with fear, she glimpsed the glow of headlights behind her, closing fast, the car engine roaring. She broke into a dead run. The headlights came closer.

In thirty seconds she reached the Yaris.

With trembling hands, she unlocked the door, yanked it open and jumped inside.

A black Mercedes passed her and flashed its lights. Gregor.

Sick with despair, she started the Yaris and pulled out of the space.

Ahead of her, the street was deserted. No cars. No black Mercedes. But so what?

Now they had a club to hold over her.

Stealing a painting was one thing. Murdering a man in cold blood was another.

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