At the Sharp End . . .

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

Chapter One of FOX HUNTER: Charlie Fox book twelve

FOX HUNTER UK

The dead man had not gone quietly. If what had been done to him was any indication, he had died begging, cursing, screaming, or a mix of all three. There was a time when I would have given everything I owned to be the one responsible for that.

Not anymore.

If Jack Reacher were a woman, he'd be Charlie Fox
Lee Child

At least, that’s what I told myself when I looked down at what remained of his body. A part of me even believed it.

The dead man had not gone quickly, either. Most people will cling to life long past the point of logical expiry. I had a feeling that for Michael Clay his final moment could not have come soon enough. I kept my expression bland, neutral, by pure effort of will.

“I understand you didn’t like the bloke much,” Garton-Jones said from the doorway in the cut-glass tones so at odds with his skinhead appearance, “but the poor bastard certainly didn’t deserve to go out like that.”

He’d led me as far as the makeshift mortuary but left it to the medics to pull back the sheet. Not squeamish, I judged, just tired. He’d seen it all before, and didn’t need to see it again.

I glanced across at him.

“No,” I agreed, without being more specific.

In truth, saying I hadn’t liked the dead man much was wildly understating it. I reckoned that under the circumstances my opinion on the manner of his demise was probably better left unvoiced.

Garton-Jones seemed to guess anyway. He shifted his weight as if to make an issue, then decided it wasn’t worth the effort. He was a big man leaned down by heat and tension until the body armour he wore like a business suit fit slack on his frame.

“How long had Clay been out here?”

“About eighteen months, on and off.” A shrug. “So he claimed.”

Something in his voice nudged me. “Oh?”

“Streetwise International has only recently picked up the contract, as I’m sure you’re aware,” Garton-Jones said levelly. “Clay worked for our predecessor. He wanted to stay on. We needed local knowledge.”

I studied him for a moment, head on one side, decided, “You didn’t like him much either.”

“I’m not running a popularity contest, Ms Fox. I didn’t have to like the bloke. His experience was solid and he came recommended. As long as he could be trusted to do the job, that’s as much as anyone can ask.”

“And could he?”

“What?”

“Be trusted to do the job?”

There it was again, that fractional pause, the stiffness in his voice when he answered. “I expect everyone here to give a hundred and ten percent,” he said at last. “Sometimes I got the feeling Clay’s mind was not altogether on the task at hand, that he might have had a little something extra going on the side. I kept a close eye on him, but he knew how to toe the line—there was never anything actionable.”

“It’s an unwritten rule in any business that you hire people for their professional qualifications,” I said, “and fire them for their personal failings.”

“If you’re asking would I have fired him if I’d had cause, then the answer’s yes, I would have done so.” He sighed, eyes flicking to the dead man. “He was a decent enough soldier, I suppose.”

I felt my lips twist. “That has the ring of consolation praise.”

“There are worse ways to be remembered.”

As a treacherous coward, I thought. As a monster.

I turned away, nodded to the medic, who drew the sheet back over the man’s mutilated face.

Ex-soldier, surely? I thought both Gulf Wars were officially over. That you and your people were here simply in Ö how did you once put it? A clean-up capacity.”

For a second he stilled and I knew he remembered those words—they were his own repeated back at him from our first encounter years before. Another country, another time. We had parted with a grudging respect for one another that I had not mistaken for friendship.

His lips widened into a mirthless smile but when he spoke his voice was cold.

“Reminding me of my roots are you, Ms Fox? Trying to rub it in that the last time we met I was in charge of a bunch of glorified security guards trying to bring a degenerate sink estate in the north of England to heel?”

“Not at all.” I waited a beat. “They didn’t have enough finesse to be security guards.”

He grunted. I eyed the pair he had standing just outside in the corridor. A man and a woman. Like Garton-Jones they wore tan cargo pants and black polo shirts with the Streetwise company logo on the left sleeve. But the equipment strapped on top was all high-grade military spec, and from their eyes, their hands, their stance, I judged this was not their first time at the fair.

I didn’t recognise the faces but I knew the look all the same. I made a mental note not to turn my back on any of them.

I shifted my gaze pointedly back to Garton-Jones. “More like glorified thugs.”

The lines around his eyes tightened minutely. “Well, I seem to recall that you were little more than an interfering do-gooder whose only income derived from prancing around in a leotard part-time at the local gym.”

It was no lie that I’d been drifting in those days, still lost after the army, but the gym where I’d worked had been more spit-and-sawdust than leg warmers and aerobics. I’d nearly died there. And again when Garton-Jones’s heavy-handed methods had turned that “degenerate sink estate” into a battleground.

But I smiled back, mainly because I knew it would annoy him, especially when we were both aware he’d been asked to afford me every courtesy.

“And yet here we are, Ian, both of us. Who’d have thought it?”

He gave another grunt that could have meant anything or nothing and turned on his heel, jerking his head in a kind of universal “follow me” gesture. I took my time complying, let my eyes roam over the shrouded figure one last time.

“Rot in hell, Clay,” I murmured. “You earned your place there.”

And I walked out of the morgue without looking back.

Garton-Jones was waiting for me a little farther along the corridor, impatience apparent in the set of his shoulders. The couple flanked him like a pair of Sphinxes. The bare blockwork walls showed more expression than their faces.

In the entrance to the building they paused just long enough to slip on their Wiley X antiballistic sunglasses. Oh yeah, they had all the right toys. They did a vehicle check on the Streetwise up-armoured SUV before waving us out.

It was showy and unnecessary, in my view. One look at the group of street kids who crowded round them with outstretched hands should have been enough to tell them nobody had planted any nasty surprises. Otherwise, those kids would have stayed well outside the blast radius. You grow up fast and canny in southern Iraq. Or you don’t grow up at all.

Maybe the performance was for my benefit. Or rather because the two of them knew I worked for the prestigious Armstrong-Meyer private security agency in New York and hoped I might be talent spotting. Just in case, each had their name helpfully embroidered into their shirt above the left nipple, complete with blood type. Tasteful.

Out in the street it was 40įC. The kind of dry-bone heat that sucks the spit off your tongue and cracks your lips in the space between heartbeats. The SUV had dark glass all round but even with the air-con going full blast, for the first few minutes it was like sitting inside a fan-assisted oven.

I’d studied the maps of Basra before I landed in neighbouring Kuwait, only twenty-four hours ago. I knew we should have been heading nominally south, even allowing for a circumspect route. It was now just past noon local time. The sun was flaring from the oversize side mirror back into my eyes, when it should have been somewhere ahead of us.

I glanced at the guy alongside me in the rear seat. The sleeves of his polo shirt were tight around overdeveloped biceps, his hair was close-cropped without having the same razor-cut as Garton-Jones. According to the needlework on his company polo, his name was Bailey (Type O Rh-positive). I was sitting on his right, directly behind Garton-Jones.

The woman was at the wheel. Her name was Dawson (Type A Rh-positive). She had a smaller, compact figure—the type that tends towards hourglass shape if left to its own devices—kept rigorously in check. I suspected they both spent a lot of time in the hotel gym when they weren’t on duty.

Their positioning made sense, to a point. The driver’s hands would be full controlling the vehicle, so Bailey had field of fire to the left. Garton-Jones had the right. They had not seen fit to offer me a weapon, and I hadn’t asked for one. Maybe they’d checked out the bandage on my left forearm and decided I wasn’t capable of holding it anyway.

“Excuse me, folks, but where are we going?”

“Back to base,” Garton-Jones said without turning in his seat.

Lie.

Outside the shaded windows the traffic was chaotic. Donkey carts mingled with overloaded trucks, new pickups and elderly Japanese saloon cars not imported into the UK or America. The lanes on the carriageway were only a suggestion. If a gap opened up at least two or three vehicles attempted to surge into it. Most flew pennants I had yet to learn the meaning of and suspected I would not like when I did.

The buildings lining our route were mainly low-rise, dirty and dust-blown, some just a bare concrete framework where construction had long ceased. The tallest structures by far were the ornate towers of the mosques.

I leaned towards Bailey to peer at a particularly grand one going past on his side of the car, pointed across him at the window.

“Sorry, but do you know what that—?” I began.

As he automatically twisted to follow my sightline, I hit him in the throat with a clenched backfist, ignoring the spike of pain that jolted through my left arm as I did so. Then I picked the Glock pistol off his hip while he thrashed, gasping.

I yanked on Garton-Jones’s seatbelt and shoved the muzzle against his ear, leaned in close.

Where did you say we were going?”

Dawson almost sideswiped an ancient minivan with decals of what looked suspiciously like Bin Laden on the side. She stood on the brakes and was nearly rammed from behind by a truck towering with cement blocks. She hit the accelerator again. Horns sounded all around us.

Garton-Jones roared, “Jesus Fucking Christ, woman. Will you calm down before you kill us all!” and it wasn’t clear which of us he meant.

“I am calm. Tell your boys to stand down, and then—for the last time—tell me: Where. Are. We. Going?”

For a second he considered stubbornness, just for the hell of it. It was to his credit that he jettisoned the idea as fast as it arrived. He nodded to the driver, who hunched her shoulders and scowled into the rearview mirror.

I let go of Garton-Jones’s seatbelt, reversed my grip on the Glock and surrendered it to him, butt first. It seemed a better option, at that moment, than giving it back to Bailey. Garton-Jones looked down at the gun and flicked me a glance. There was the glimmer of a grim smile flirting around his lips.

“That’s not the first time you’ve pointed one of these at me. I do hope it will be the last.”

“That depends more on you than on me,” I said. “And you haven’t answered the question.”

“We’re going to the scene.”

“The scene?”

“Of the crime, Ms Fox. I’m taking you to the place where Clay died. The place where Sean Meyer tortured him to death.”