At the Sharp End . . .

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

Chapter One of FOURTH DAY: Charlie Fox book eight


Nothing brings home a sense of your own mortality like being locked up alone in the dark.

Which was, of course, precisely why they’d done it.

My entire world had shrunk to these four rough-rendered walls. The room was barely the length of the narrow cot that filled one wall and took up almost half the floor space. The bed base was welded to the frame, which itself had been bolted to the floor. There was no window, just a stainless steel toilet in one corner, a small cold water sink in the other, and a steel door in between with no handle on the inside.

Adrenaline-packed follow-up to Third Strike . . . raises the emotional stakes
Publishers Weekly

Apart from that, there was just me alone with my thoughts.

Without sight, every sound became amplified. The quiet rustle of my torn shirt as I moved, the creak of the compressed foam that formed my mattress. I could smell my own sweat, the rising odour from the toilet pan, and the musky dampness of stale air conditioning.

The only lighting provision came from spots recessed into the ceiling and covered by anti-tamper grilles. The switch that controlled them was somewhere on the outside. They’d taken away my watch, so my grasp of time had grown hazy, but there seemed to be no logic to the pattern of my artificial nights and days.

Right now, someone had decided it was night, but maybe they just liked keeping me in the dark. Or maybe they were getting their own back.

I sat on the bed, directly facing the doorway, back to the wall, with my knees hunched up and my bare feet tucked in, staring into the confronting darkness as if searching for answers in the visual static.

I flexed my hands out before me. Although I couldn’t see them, the knuckles of my left felt stiff and inflamed. I probably should have iced them. If I’d had any ice.

I probably should have done a lot of things.

I rolled my shoulders, felt the sharp stab in the back of the joint where I hadn’t got a decent break-fall in fast enough, the long burn of torn muscles in my forearm and thigh, the tenderness of fresh bruises that were rising just about everywhere. If the fluid puffiness along my cheekbone was anything to go by, I was well on the way to a belting black eye.

Must reading for fans of action-packed, hard-edged thrillers
Michele Leber
Booklist starred review

But, all in all I was still intact, still together − physically, at least. I told myself it was nothing I hadn’t been through before, in one form or another.

But not quite like this.

The resistance-to-interrogation exercises I’d undergone in the army had been just that − exercises. Brutal, frightening, but ultimately little more than visceral make-believe. This was different. There was no instructor with an armband about to walk in through that door and tell me it was all over, pass or fail.

And the one person who might conceivably have come to my rescue, as he had before, was the last person, right now, I either wanted or expected to see.

You asked for this.

That I couldn’t deny. After all, I had gone willingly into the cult calling itself Fourth Day, apparently well briefed and well prepared for what lay behind their walls, except for what I might find inside myself, if I was forced to look deep enough, for long enough.

And Randall Bane was the kind of man who could force you to take that look.

I’ve come face to face with some pretty scary people in my time. Stone cold killers. People who would go straight through another human being because it troubled them less than going around. But for Bane, the man behind Fourth Day, I had a feeling that mere surrender was only the beginning of what he wanted from me.

The soundproofing was good enough that I didn’t hear them coming. The first indication of company was the metallic slither of the bolt on the outside of the door dragging back, then a bright white spike as the leading edge cracked open and light flared in through the widening gap.

I shut my eyes, brought up a shielding hand my face, to give myself space as much as anything else. By the time my sight had readjusted enough to see past the shelter of my fingers, Bane himself stood leaning in the doorway.

His arms were folded across his broad chest, smooth shaven head slightly tilted. His back was to the light so I couldn’t see his face, but I knew by his stance that he was watching me intently.

‘Going to lend a hand personally with the softening-up process this time, are you?’ I asked lightly, aware of the rawness in my throat. I let my wrists drape over my knees, striving to keep the tension out of my arms. ‘Or are you just here to watch?’

Bane gazed at me without emotion. There was no hurry to him, no impatience. Everything in here adjusted its stride to fit with his.

The prose sparkles like a diamond under a spotlight
Graham Smith
CrimeSquad 5-star review

‘This was all so unnecessary, Charlie.’ His voice was deep, neutral, almost without class or nation, and seemed to fill all the corners of the room.

‘Yeah, well, you can’t say I didn’t warn you.’

‘You did,’ he allowed. ‘And then you put three men in the infirmary.’

But there was no disgust in his voice, no recrimination. His curiosity was almost palpable. If I’d failed to get his attention before, I certainly had it now. I blanked out what I’d had to do in order to achieve that aim.

I shrugged, carefully. ‘Maybe I just don’t like being manhandled.’

‘You don’t like letting go of control – on any level,’ he corrected. ‘That scares you, doesn’t it?’

‘Don’t you think it should?’ I countered, striving to match his matter-of-fact tone but only reaching weariness. I let one hand lift briefly and flop again. ‘Hey, you’re the one who’s three men down. You tell me.’

‘Perhaps,’ he agreed. ‘But in your case, you know that if you lose control − of the situation, of yourself − people die. How many is it now? Do you even keep a count any more?’

Sitting with my back hard up against the blockwork, I felt the moment my heartrate began to climb. How could he possibly know that − any of that? I stared at him and said nothing, and Bane nodded as if I’d spoken anyway.

‘Ah yes, I know who you are, Charlie. More to the point, I know what you are.’ His voice was utterly calm. There was nothing in it for me to latch onto, to rail against. It was as if I could feel myself begin to slide down a steep sheer surface into oblivion with nothing to arrest my descent. ‘Did you think that story you concocted would hold for long?’

I gave a mirthless laugh. ‘Longer than this, clearly.’

‘Some things you just can’t disguise,’ Bane said gently. ‘And ordinary young women do not carry the kind of old knife and bullet wounds that you bear without an extraordinary history of violence.’

Apart from the fading jagged scar around my throat, the other reminders etched onto my body of that violent past were all well hidden. Thinking about the circumstances under which Bane might have seen them brought a sudden tightness in my chest, an ache in my hands that fast became active pain. I realised I had them clenched into fists.

Scrabbling for grip, I said, ‘I’ve saved more lives than I’ve taken, if that makes any difference.’

‘Is that how you justify it to yourself?’ he murmured. ‘How interesting.’

He began to turn away, this audience over. Then he stopped, halfway into the light now, so I could see his brooding expression for the first time. It did little to reassure me.

‘Tell me, Charlie, do they haunt you – the faces of the ones you killed?’

I tipped my head back against the wall. ‘Does it matter?’

For a long moment we locked eyes, and there was profound disappointment in his level gaze, like I had let him down. Maybe it was shame that made my face heat. Or maybe not.

‘To you, it should,’ he said at last, finally allowing the steel to brush surface. ‘What do you hope to gain from this attempt to infiltrate our community, Charlie? There is nobody here needs protection from anything − except possibly from you.’ He smiled, a little sadly, and asked in that utterly calm and reasonable voice, ‘Can you suggest one salient reason why I shouldn’t follow my first instincts and rid myself of you at the earliest opportunity?’