At the Sharp End . . .

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

Short Stories continued

Excerpt from Caught on Camera

In her head, Olivia was already practising the excuses she was going to have to make for committing the cardinal sin of being late on her first day in a new job. But that’s just how they came across—as excuses.

"How could you be so stupid?" She should have known it was going to be bad. They’d been digging up this section between West Acton and the White City toll plaza for months. One snarl-up after another.

It was all supposed to have got better after they privatised the major arterial routes into the capital. Olivia had only made sporadic visits into the city from her family home in Northolt while she’d studied for her degree at Oxford, but she couldn’t say she’d noticed much of an improvement.

And now it was going to make her woefully late for her first day on the job. Not just her first day, but her first job. First proper job since the mandatory community tasks to build enough citizen points to attend uni in the first place, anyway.

The car in front re-started, travelled another two yards, and stopped again. The hope that had begun to bloom in Olivia’s chest stopped with it.

Still, at least she could see the squat grey concrete structure of the toll plaza up ahead. There were only three lanes open, according to the in-dash monitor, which probably accounted for the delay as vehicles jockeyed for position.

Left to their own devices, the auto self-drive would feed everyone through the plaza in no time, but as soon as people with high-end models hit their priority overrides to jump the queue, you were back to chaos again. They were also the only ones who could afford the annual passes, which had their own express lane. Everyone else—Olivia included—had to buy the shorter duration tickets. Her parents had celebrated her graduation by chipping in towards her first month’s pass.

But it was the far left-hand lane—the cash lane—that always caused the most problems. The amount varied according to pressure of traffic and time of day, so you could never be quite sure in advance how much. Half the time people failed to bring the right money, or simply didn’t have enough for the toll. In fact, Olivia could see a young man standing by the cash window now, arguing with the woman behind the glass. His body language was pleading.

Olivia was too far away to hear anything of the exchange, but his thin arms windmilled. There were nervous stains on the back of his hooded sweatshirt.

The young man stepped back, shoulders slumping, and for a moment Olivia thought the argument was over. Then he reached inside the unzipped sweatshirt and when she could see his hands again, he was holding a gun.

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Excerpt from The Wife

He smiled, quickly releasing the two other women Gracella had been tied to. Susan Treacher first, then Cassie Warner, as if he recognised the hierarchy.

Gracella rubbed absently at her wrists, inspecting the damage. Clovis would know immediately if it didn’t look like she’d been a genuine hostage. But the skin was raw where the plastic ties had bitten in deep. It might even be enough to convince him.

She got shakily to her feet, legs barely able to support her, and went to Lottie Amaya. The maid was still on the chair where the robbers had put her after she’d struggled from the couch. She was clutching her injured leg, her face sheened with the sweat of genuine pain, although Gracella wouldn’t put it past her to ham things up a little.

"You were brave to try, Lottie," she said, lifting the melting bag of ice from the woman’s ankle. It was swollen and already starting to bruise. She clucked. "But foolish. Look what you did to yourself."

"I’m sorry, Ms Gracella," Lottie moaned. "It’s just, I—I thought maybe they were here to kidnap you, and I couldn’t help myself.

Like hell you couldn’t.

Gracella straightened, steadier now, put a hand on the woman’s shoulder, and managed tomurmur, "Thank you, Lottie," with a straight face. She glanced across to where Martinez and one of the other deputies were releasing Traynor. "We heard gunfire, and explosions. Is anybody else hurt?"

After a moment’s hesitation, it was Martinez who answered, "'Fraid so, ma’am. They were dropping Molotovs from an airplane, from what we can gather. One of the guys is out cold, and a couple of the others are burned pretty bad."

"Them sons o’ bitches," Traynor swore, then flushed. "Beggin’ your pardon, ma'am."

Gracella waved a distracted hand in his direction. Her heart rate stepped up. Nobody was supposed to get hurt—except Clovis, of course. A kick in the bank balance, where it would sting the old bastard the hardest.

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Excerpt from The Night Butterflies

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 Lost And Found

There should be lights in the alley, but he’s taken care of them. Something else you taught him − not to let anyone see.

It’s fitting you should die here in the dark, amid the rats and the filth and the garbage. You are what they are − the detritus of life.

And he is what you made him.

He hopes you’re proud.

But right now he just hopes you’re ready. That he’s ready. He’s dreamed of this so often down the years between then and now that he feels suddenly unprepared, naked in the dark.

Shivering, he’s a seven-year-old boy again, with all the majesty fresh ripped out of him, howling as he’s punished for truth, punished for faith.

Punished for believing, when you told him you would take very special care of him indeed.

He’s punished himself and those around him ever since. Lived a life stripped to base essentials, where refined means cut with stuff that’s only going to kill you slow.

Lost.

And now he’s found you again, and he thinks, if he does this right, he may find himself again, too.

He hears the footsteps, familiar even loaded by the drag and stagger of the years. He folds his hand tighter around the knife, takes in the sodden air, feels the pulse-beat in his fingertips.

Feels alive.

It’s a privilege only one of you can share.

Attuned, he sees your figure sway into the open mouth of the alley, hesitating at the unexpected gloom. A stumble, a smothered curse, but he knows you won’t play it safe. You never have. Going around will take time, and you’re loath to be away from your latest pet project, whoever that might be.

He wonders if he will be in time to save them − not from what’s been but from what’s to come − even as he steps out of the recess, a wraith in the shadows, the knife unsheathed now and eager for the bite.

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Excerpt from Rules of Engagement

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 know she’d light up anyway, just to watch the indoor rain.

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Excerpt from Served Cold

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.

At least the work came easy. Depending on how much she covered up, she could get anything from selling lingerie or perfume in a high-class department store, to exotic dancing. She soon learned to slip on different personae the same way she slipped on a low-cut top or a demure blouse.

Tonight she was wearing a tailored white dress shirt with frills down the front and a dinky little clip-on bow tie. Classy joint. The last time she’d worn a bow-tie to wait tables, she’d worn no top at all.

The fat guy in charge of the wait staff was called Steve and had hands to match his roving eye. That he’d seen beyond Layla’s homely face was mainly because he rarely looked his female employees above the neck. Layla had noted the way his eyes glazed and his mouth went slack and the sweat beaded at his receding hairline, and she wondered if this was another gig she was going to have to try out for on her back.

She didn’t, in the end, but only because Steve thought of himself as sophisticated, she realised. The proposition would no doubt come after. Still, Steve only let his pants rule his head so far. Enough to let Layla know that he’d be taking half their tips tonight. Anyone who tried to hold anything back would be out on her ass.

Layla didn’t care about the tips. That wasn’t why she was here, anyhow.

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Excerpt from Off Duty

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 Tell Me

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 Getaway

'Come on, come on,' he muttered, flexing his skinny fingers around the rim of the Accord's steering wheel. 'What's taking you so long, for heaven's sake? Just get the money and get out of there!'

As if on cue, the building society's door was thrust open. A figure emerged, carrying a large bag, and hurried across the road towards him.

'At last!' Lenny said under his breath. The rear passenger door opened and the bag landed heavy on the cloth upholstery, followed by its owner. By the time the door slammed shut again Lenny had the transmission into Drive and was already moving out into traffic.

'Not too quickly, Lenny dear,' Mrs Esmé Wendover said from the back seat. 'I should hate you to get a speeding ticket on my behalf. My poor Harold never got one, you know, not in forty years of driving.'

'But you'll miss your train if we don't get a shift on, Mrs Wendover,' Lenny said. He flashed her a cheeky grin in the rear-view mirror. ''Sides, it's your car, so you'd be the one who gets the ticket.'

'Quite so,' she murmured, dragging her voluminous handbag towards her and burrowing through the contents. She paused long enough to favour him with a regal smile over her half-moon glasses. 'All the more reason to go steady, then, wouldn't you say?'

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Excerpt from Postcards From Another Country

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 A Bridge Too Far

'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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