At the Sharp End . . .

The World of Zoë Sharp − Author of the Charlie Fox Thriller Series

Short Stories continued

Excerpt from Rules Of Engagement

A long time ago, when Angel was just starting out in the business, an old pro she met lurking in a doorway opposite the Russian embassy in Paris laid down the Rules of Engagement. “Get in. Take the shot. Get out,” he’d said, with the careful solemnity of a man not quite sober at ten o’clock in the morning.

To this advice Angel had since added a bitter rider of her own.

Always get the money.

The fees for Angel’s particular line of work were elastic, only sometimes connected to the difficulty of the shot. In this case, the money was nowhere near enough to justify attempting to evade capture across two hundred acres of jealously guarded parkland in Buckinghamshire. Not for an off-chance glimpse of her targets at the limit of her operational range.

There was only so much she could do for a decent covert photo―even with a 1000mm mirror lens.

“So, what exactly,” she’d demanded of George, when she’d buttonholed him in his office on the thirtieth floor and wheedled the assignment out of him, “are you expecting from this?”

“Pictures of the happy couple holding hands, bit of snogging maybe,” said the rumpled little man who was her occasional employer, scratching his chin. “Wouldn’t hope for much else. The groom-to-be isn’t so love-struck that he hasn’t twisted a deal with Blackley’s for piccies of the nuptials themselves. They’ll have that chapel sewn up tighter than a fish’s armpit.”

“How much?” Angel perched on the edge of George’s desk, reaching for one of her Turkish cigarettes.

George, a forty-year nicotine addict, yelped “Don’t!” jerking his eyes upwards. “They’ve turned up the sensitivity on the sprinkler system again―bastards.” He nipped the unlit cigarette out of Angel’s fingers and threw it into the filing cabinet behind him. He’d known her long enough to realise she’d light up anyway, just to watch the indoor rain.

“How much is Blackley paying, George?” she asked now, voice husky.

George shivered. That voice went straight through him, plugged into his cerebral cortex and set his nerve endings quivering. She knew exactly what effect it had―even on men a whole lot younger and less susceptible. He was determined it wouldn’t get to him―not this time.

“A mil,” he blurted, to his own dismay. “Look, what’s this to you, Angel? This is no bent judge or perverted politician. Just some pop star and some actress. I thought you hated celebrity fluff? You of all people.”

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Excerpt from Last Right

The youth arrived like a peasant, hitching a ride on the flatbed of a rusty pickup truck to the end of the driveway—two bales of straw, a goat, and an iPod, his travelling companions.

The guards watched him walk the last half-mile in, shouldering his rucksack and trudging between the citrus trees, his feet kicking up the dirt into the shimmer of the hot dry air. They took lazy beads on him with their rifles, and joked with each other about whether they should shoot him before he reached the main gates, just to relieve the boredom.

It was only when he drew nearer that they recognised his face, despite the simple clothes, and they shivered at the thought that they had even contemplated killing Manuel de Marquez's son, just for sport.

They had the gates opened before he'd reached them and he walked straight through without acknowledgement or thanks, as though it had never occurred to him that things would be otherwise. He demanded to be taken to his father and had barely skirted the two bullet-proof Mercedes parked near the fountain before old Enrique hurried out to greet him, taking the youth's hand in both his own and gripping it fiercely, his rheumy eyes filling.

'Julio!' he said. 'We feared you would be too late.'

'The old bastard's still alive then?'

Enrique tried to look shocked but couldn't quite bring it off. 'Your father is dying,' he said, quietly, as though afraid of being overheard.

Julio laughed and it wasn't a pleasant sound. 'He's been dying for years. Why the hurry now?'

'He's near the end. I think he has been hanging on, waiting for your return.'

The youth shook his head. 'More likely that he's bargaining with the devil over the terms of his admission.'

'The priest is with him.'

Julio turned in sardonic surprise as the pair mounted the front steps.

'You've managed to find another man of God who will stand his blasphemy?'

Enrique shrugged. 'Priests,' he said. 'It is their calling.'

Julio's amusement backed and died. 'For any that try to save the soul of my father,' he said, icy, 'it's more like a penance.'

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Excerpt from Tell Me

'So, where is she?'

CSI Grace McColl ducked under the taped cordon at the edge of the crime scene and showed her ID to the uniformed constable stationed there. The policeman jerked his head in the direction of the band shelter as she signed the log.

'You'll have your work cut out with this one, though,' he said.

Grace frowned and moved on. She was already dressed from head to foot in her disposable white suit and she made sure she followed the designated pathway, picking her way carefully to avoid undue contamination.

The girl was on the stone steps in front of the band shelter, no more than sixteen years old but still a child, with dirty blonde hair. As Grace approached she could see the girl had her thin arms folded, as though hugging herself against the cold. And she must have been cold, to be out in the park in this weather in just a mini skirt and a skimpy top. Unless, of course, he'd taken her coat with him when he'd left her . . .

Over to the right, the rhododendron bushes grew thick and concealing. It might have been Grace's imagination, but she thought the girl's eyes turned constantly in their direction, as though something might still lurk amongst the glossy foliage.

Grace squatted down on her haunches next to the girl and waited until she seemed to have her full attention.

'Hello,' she said quietly. 'I'm Grace. I'm going to be taking care of you now. Can you tell me who you are?'

There was a long pause, then: 'Does it matter?'

Grace eyed her for a moment. The girl might have been pretty if she'd taken a little time, a little care. Or if someone had taken a little care over her. Her hair was badly cut and her fingernails were bitten short and painted purple, the varnish long since chipped and peeling.

'Of course it matters,' Grace said, keeping her tone light. 'Finding out about you will help us find out who did this to you. Help us to catch him. You want that, don't you?'

''Spose.' The girl shrugged, darting a little glance from under her ragged fringe to see if her attitude achieved the desired level of sullen cool. The action revealed the livid bruise, like spilt ink on tissue, that had formed around her left eye.

Grace tilted her head, considering. 'He caught you a belter, didn't he?' she murmured.

'I bruise easy,' the girl said, suddenly defensive now. 'And I'm clumsy.'

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Excerpt from The Night Butterflies

"Last name I woulda picked out for you is somethin’ lame as Tommy Renshaw," Manfrotti said, lifting the drink with the fruit and the parasol wedged amid the rapidly melting ice. He was a big man not coping well with the high humidity that came before the monsoons. "What made you go for that, for cryin’ out loud?"

The man who had become Tommy Renshaw shrugged and gave a fractional smile. "Possibly because it’s the last name you would have chosen," he said.

He, too, had a drink in front of him on the weathered table. A bottle of the local Bintang beer. Condensation ran down the outside as freely as the sweat along the fat man’s temples.

They were sitting in the little open bar, looking out over one of the black sand beaches that fringed the north side of Bali. It was the last place Renshaw had expected a man like Manfrotti to be found—too far from five-star resorts in the south of the island, or the nightclubs and bars near the airport at Kuta. Too far from the air conditioning and the kupu kupu malam—the so-called ‘night butterflies’—that were his noted predilection.

The diving up here was good, but lieutenants like Manfrotti did not dive. If there was diving to be done, they relayed the order for others to do it. Men like Renshaw.

Until a year ago.

Should have known I couldn’t run forever.

Manfrotti put down his drink with an exaggerated smack of his fleshy lips. "Ah, Tommy, Tommy, Tommy," he said, shaking his head as he rolled the name around his mouth, like he was trying out some new dish at one of the New Jersey restaurants where he ate frequently but never paid. "What’re we gonna do with you, huh?"

"I don't suppose you could forget you ever saw me?" Renshaw suggested, without any serious expectation. The question was a formality, as was Manfrotti’s response.

"Aw, you know I can’t do that . . .Tommy," he said. He shook his head again, palms lifted up and outward in crocodile regret. The action caused the perspiration to drip from the fat man’s nose, landing on the table like blood spatter. "Sends the wrong message, know what I mean?" He let out a rich chuckle. "'Course you do. When it came to sending messages, you were the best, am I right?"

Renshaw watched the droplets soak into the rough surface, staining it dark. He sat with customary stillness, his hands resting lightly on the table top, long fingers tanned now where once they’d been New York City pale, nail beds very pink against the skin.

He had finally lost the slight callus that had built up around the last joint of his right forefinger, scrubbed clean by the salt surf and lost amid the general roughening that came from more honest endeavours.

"I left all that behind me," he said softly, and his gaze flicked to the girl with the dark silk hair and the dark silk eyes, who watched them covertly from across the bar. Pia was wiping glasses, getting ready for the first of the evening rush—maybe half a dozen regulars, and perhaps a few families staying in the simpler accommodation offered by this less brash side of the island.

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Excerpt from Across The Broken Line

Fifteen minutes ago . . .

Shoving a loaded gun in somebody’s face is never going to make you friends but it certainly works for influencing people. The uniformed guy on the business end of my SIG Sauer P229 looked both unfriendly and influenced, that was for sure.

He froze halfway through bringing his own weapon clear of the holster on his hip. From what I could see of the hammer and the top of the slide it looked like a big Colt. A useful piece. I was glad he didn’t get chance to finish the draw.

I couldn’t blame the guy for trying, though. I’d just crashed a reinforced Lincoln Navigator through the security barrier he was supposed to be manning. That kind of thing tends to have that kind of effect.

Behind us was a huge warehouse, looming. Even by American standards it was enormous―practically big enough to have its own motto and design of flag. It stood in rather sterile landscaped grounds, made bleaker by the unmarked covering of snow. The place was apparently deserted apart from the security post―and the slightly dented Navigator I’d just skid-parked by the main entrance.

“Where are they?” I demanded.

The security guard didn’t answer, nor did he take his eyes off the gun in my hands, watching for his opportunity. Now I got a good look at him I saw he was at least six-four and probably two hundred and thirty pounds, most of it muscle. He also had the narrowed calm of previous armed contact―an ex-military man.

Just my luck.

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Excerpt from A Bridge Too Far

I watched with a kind of horrified fascination as the boy climbed onto the narrow parapet. Below his feet the elongated brick arches of the old viaduct stretched, so I'd been told, exactly one hundred and twenty-three feet to the ground. He balanced on the crumbling brickwork at the edge, casual and unconcerned.

My God, I thought. He's going to do it. He's actually going to jump.

'Don't prat around, Adam,' one of the others said. I was still sorting out their names. Paul, that was it. He was a medical student, tall and bony with a long almost roman nose. 'If you're going to do it, do it, or let someone else have their turn.'

'Now now,' Adam said, wagging a finger. 'Don't be bitchy.'

Paul glared at him, took a step forwards, but the cool blonde-haired girl, Diana, put a hand on his arm.

'Leave him alone, Paul,' Diana said, and there was a faint snap to her voice. She'd been introduced as Adam's girlfriend, so I suppose she had the right to be protective. 'He'll jump when he's ready. You'll have your chance to impress the newbies.'

She flicked unfriendly eyes in my direction as she spoke but I didn't rise to it. Heights didn't draw or repel me the way I knew they did with most people but that didn't mean I was inclined to throw myself off a bridge to prove my courage. I'd already done that at enough other times, in enough other places.

Beside me, my friend Sam muttered under his breath, 'OK, I'm impressed. No way are you getting me up there.'

I grinned at him. It was Sam who'd told me about the local Dangerous Sports' Club who trekked out to this disused viaduct in the middle of nowhere. There they tied one end of a rope to the far parapet and brought the other end up underneath between the supports before tying it round their ankles.

And then they jumped.

The idea, as Sam explained it, was to propel yourself outwards as though diving off a cliff and trying to avoid the rocks below. I suspected this wasn't an analogy with resonance for either of us, but the technique ensured that when you reached the end of your tether, so to speak, the slack was taken up progressively and you swung backwards and forwards under the bridge in a graceful arc.

Jump straight down, however, and you would be jerked to a stop hard enough to break your spine. They used modern climbing rope with a fair amount of give in it but it was far from the elastic gear required by the bungee jumper. That was for wimps.

Sam knew the group's leader, Adam Lane, from the nearby university, where Sam was something incomprehensible to do with computers and Adam was the star of the track and field teams. He was one of these magnetic golden boys who breezed effortlessly through life, always looking for a greater challenge, something to set their heartbeat racing. And for Adam the unlikely pastime of bridge swinging, it seemed, was it.

I hadn't believed Sam's description of the activity and had made the mistake of expressing my scepticism out loud. So, here I was on a bright but surprisingly nippy Sunday morning in May, waiting for the first of these lunatics to launch himself into the abyss.

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Excerpt from Postcards From Another Country

Somebody once said that the rich are another country—they do things differently there. It didn't take me very long working in close protection to realise that was true. Hell, some of them were a different planet.

The Dempsey family were old money and that put them at the outer reaches of the solar system as far as real-world living was concerned. Personal danger came a distant second to social disgrace, which was always going to make life tough for those of us tasked to keep them from harm.

The family didn't seem bothered so much by the attempted assassination—and that was how they referred to the botched hit that sparked my involvement—so much as the fact it was carried out with no regard to the correct etiquette.

So, they put up with the movement sensors in the grounds and the increased numbers of staff who regularly patrolled the boundaries, but they baulked at having the infrared cameras I'd recommended to blanket the exterior of the house, and absolutely dug their heels in about close-circuit TV coverage inside. It was my job, I was told firmly, to stop anyone from getting that far. No pressure, then.

The radio call came in at just after 3:00 AM, when I was in the east wing guest suite I'd commandeered as a temporary central control.

'Hey, Charlie, we just apprehended someone in the summer house,' came the crackling voice of one of the new guys. 'I think you'd, er, better come and take a look.'

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Excerpt from Served Cold

Layla's curse, as she saw it, was that she had an utterly fabulous body attached to an instantly forgettable face. It wasn't that she was ugly. Ugliness in itself stuck in the mind. It was simply that, from the neck upwards, she was plain. A bland plainness that encouraged male and female eyes alike to slide on past without pausing. Most failed to recall her easily at a second meeting.

From the neck down, though, that was a different story, and had been right from when she'd begun to blossom in eighth grade. Things had started burgeoning over the winter, when nobody noticed the unexpected explosion of curves. But when summer came, with its bathing suits and skinny tops and tight skirts, Layla suddenly became the most whispered-about girl in her class.

A pack of the kind of boys her mother was usually too drunk to warn her about took to following her when she walked home from school. At first, Layla was flattered. But one simmering afternoon, under the banyan and the Spanish moss, she learned a brutal lesson about the kind of attention her new body attracted.

And when her mother's latest boyfriend started looking at her with those same hot lustful eyes, Layla cut and run. One way or another, she'd been running ever since.

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Excerpt from Off Duty

The guy who’d just tried to kill me didn’t look like much. From the fleeting glimpse I’d caught of him behind the wheel of his brand new soft-top Cadillac, he was short, with less hair than he’d like on his head and more than anyone could possibly want on his chest and forearms.

That was as much as I could tell before I was throwing myself sideways. The front wheel of the Buell skittered on the loose gravel shoulder of the road, sending a vicious shimmy up through the headstock into my arms. I nearly dropped the damn bike there and then, and that was what pissed me off the most.

The Buell was less than a month old at that point, a Firebolt still with the shiny feel to it, and I’d been hoping it would take longer to acquire its first battle scar. The first cut is always the one you remember.

Although I was wearing full leathers, officially I was still signed off sick from the Kerse job and undergoing the tortures of regular physiotherapy. Adding motorcycle accident injuries, however minor, was not going to look good to anyone, least of all me.

But the bike didn’t tuck under and spit me into the weeds, as I half-expected. Instead it righted itself, almost stately, and allowed me to slither to a messy stop maybe seventy metres further on. I put my feet down and tipped up my visor, aware of my heart punching behind my ribs, the adrenaline shake in my hands, the burst of anger that follows on closely after having had the shit scared out of you.

I turned, to find the guy in the Cadillac had completed his half-arsed maneuver, pulling out of a side road and turning left across my path. He’d slowed, though, twisting round to stare back at me with his neck extended like a meerkat. Even at this distance I could see the petulant scowl. Hell, perhaps I’d made him drop the cell phone he’d been yabbering into instead of paying attention to his driving . . .

Just for a second our eyes met, and I considered making an issue out of it. The guy must have sensed that. He plunked back down in his seat and rammed the car into drive, gunning it away with enough gusto to chirrup the tires on the bone dry surface.

I rolled my shoulders, thought that was the last I’d ever see of him.

I was wrong.

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Excerpt from Truth And Lies

As long as they didn’t strip-search me at the airport, I knew I’d be OK. Not that I was trying to bring in anything suspicious, never mind illegal. The government security forces were jumpy enough without giving them more of an excuse to imprison or expel yet another foreigner.

But I was attempting to enter the country as a harmless civilian, and I knew if I was forced to undress there was no way anyone could misinterpret my scars. Old knife and bullet wounds are hard to disguise, especially from people who are experts at inflicting them. To me they were a physical reminder of past mistakes—lessons painfully learned and not forgotten.

Three of us had set off from New York twenty-four hours earlier. A rush job—emergency evac. Some news team who’d got in deeper and stayed in longer than was good for them and suddenly needed out. Now. Probably a month after common sense should have told them to leave.

I’d seen it happen before to those exposed to long-term danger. A gradual dulling of the natural flight response until a fifty-fifty chance of living or dying on the job seemed like workable odds.

I had some sympathy with that. Before the evac team left, we’d been briefed by experts on the current political situation here. When they’d told us our chances of survival were not much better, we’d shrugged and carried on packing.

We travelled separately, via half a dozen different neutral countries. I’d dressed with authority rather than intimidation in mind, safely dowdy, and careful to avoid any kind of contact—eye or otherwise—that might have aroused attention. I’d also reverted to my British passport—the one without the Israeli stamps. But in the end I think the success of my infiltration was down to good old-fashioned chauvinism.

The soldiers who’d taken over the immigration process, with casually slung AKs and obligatory dark glasses, simply did not believe that a woman travelling alone posed any significant threat.

Maybe they were right.

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