FIRST DROP

Charlie Fox book four

Synopsis

'The guy in the passenger seat was closest. He got out first, so I shot him first. Two rounds high in the chest.'

It should have been an easy introduction to Charlie Fox's new career as a bodyguard. In fact, it should have been almost a working holiday. She just has to look after the gawky fifteen-year-old son of a rich computer programmer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Trey Pelzner is theme park mad and in theory all Charlie has to do is baby-sit him on the rollercoasters.

"Sharp's aim is dead on in her stunning US debut"

Publishers Weekly boxed and starred review

The last thing anyone expected was a determined attempt to snatch the boy, or that Trey's father and their entire close protection team − including Charlie's boss, Sean Meyer − would disappear off the face of the earth at the same time.

Now somebody out there wants the boy badly and they're prepared to kill anyone who gets in their way. Evading them, in a strange country, takes all the skill and courage Charlie possesses.

As she soon discovers, once you've hit the first drop there's no going back, and you'd better hang on tight because you're in for a wild ride.

From the author's notebook

The idea for FIRST DROP came about back when I was still working as a photo-journalist, which used to take me out to cover the big Spring Break event at Daytona Beach in Florida just about every year. The place is crawling with teenagers from all over the States who come to hang out and look at the cool cars and the cooler car stereos. What better place, I thought, for Charlie to try and hide a wanted kid?

The biggest problem writing the book was trying not to make it too American. I had to do it for much of the dialogue but I knew Charlie wouldn't think in American, so I kept having to go back and alter things like 'parking lot' to 'car park' and 'trunk' to 'boot' in her mind.

Excerpt

We were moving further out of the built-up area now. The buildings had thinned out and were punctuated by longer and longer clumps of scrubby trees and palms. I found my fingers had locked into tense claws round the steering wheel and I flexed them a few times, trying to relax a little more with every mile we were putting between us and the motel. I'd almost begun to think we might have made it clear.

And then, just at that moment, I saw the flashing lights come on in the rearview mirror.

The cop didn't switch his sirens on straight away, as though he didn't want to spook us into running. He started out just with the lights. It was only after I'd ignored the first three or four convenient places to pull over that he hit the loud button.

Trey jerked upright as the screeching wail started up and squirmed round in his seat to stare out through the back screen.

'Aw shit,' he said. 'You gonna stop, or what?'

'What, probably,' I murmured. I reached behind me, awkwardly, with my right hand and pulled the Sig out from under my shirt. I wedged the wheel with my knee just long enough to yank back the slide with my left hand, snapping the first round into the breech. Then I stuck the gun just far enough under my thigh so that it was out of sight of anyone leaning in through the window, but within easy reach.

I glanced over at Trey. He was staring transfixed at the little bit of the pistol grip that he could see peeping out from between the seat cushion and my leg. When he lifted widened eyes to mine they were suddenly a whole lot more guarded than they had been.

'Keep quiet and leave it to me. We'll try and talk our way out of this first, hm?' I said tightly. 'But be ready to make a run for it.'

Then I indicated and pulled over onto the sloping dirt shoulder of the highway.

I let the car roll slowly to a halt, raising dust as we did so. There was a ditch and a post and rail fence to the right-hand side of the car and beyond that I could just make out a sandy piece of waste land, probably an undeveloped building plot.

On the other side of the highway were lock-up industrial units with chain link fencing round the boundary and orange sodium lighting. A little further on I could see a stuttering neon sign advertising a small bar.

The cop brought his cruiser to a halt about three or four metres behind our rear bumper. He cut out the siren but left his lights on, which made it impossible for me to tell what car he was driving. All I knew was that the red and blue light bar meant he was with the county police.

I palmed the Mercury's column gearlever up into neutral, keeping the engine running and my foot on the brake pedal so our lights cut down his visibility into the rear of the car. Then I released my seatbelt, put both hands on the top of the steering wheel and faced forwards. All the time I was covertly watching his approach in the driver's side door mirror.

Any hopes I might have been harbouring that this was just a routine traffic stop went out of the window as soon as the cop got out of his car. When you ride a motorbike you're used to being pulled over, but this guy didn't swagger up with all the confident bravado of someone who has the power at his disposal to take your driving licence away from you and the temperament to abuse it.

Instead, he came out in a fast nervous crouch, his gun already in his hands, and started to crab towards my door.

'Out of the car! Out of the car!' he was yelling, his voice pitched high and close to breaking point. Even in the poor light he didn't look old enough to shave, let alone drive a car or graduate from a police academy.

Trey had started to fidget in his seat.

'Keep still for God's sake and stop giving him a good excuse to shoot you,' I snapped under my breath. The kid froze.

I didn't move either. The cop's advance stalled about four or five feet away, reluctant to come any nearer. He was only too aware of the possibilities of my trying to make a break for it by thumping the car door into him. He didn't want to come and get me, and I didn't want to go to him.

Stalemate.

Closer to, I could see he was holding a large-calibre Glock semiautomatic and his hands were shaking. He was still bawling at me, sounding breathless now, as though he hadn't stopped to draw in air.

Because of the lights from the cruiser I didn't immediately see the second car pull up softly behind the pair of us.

When I did notice it my first reaction, with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, was that the cop had called for back-up. If we were as dangerous as his manner clearly suggested, he'd been taking a huge risk stopping us on his own to begin with. I reckoned that a keen and youthful brand of inexperience had probably come into play there.

In my mirrors I saw the car doors on both sides of the newcomer open. The young cop whirled round but he didn't look relieved. Not more cops, then. He seemed unable to decide which of us now presented the greater threat. He ended up dancing a fretful jig in the middle, the barrel of his gun swinging wildly between the two of us.

'Stay back!' he barked. 'Remain in your vehicle!'

I ducked my head a little, trying to see what was going on behind me without actually turning but I couldn't make out anything clearly. The cruiser's lights acted as a shield.

The cop cast another look at me, still sitting immobile behind the wheel and made his decision. He took a couple of steps back towards the newcomers. That was as far as he got.

Both men from the car behind the police cruiser opened up at the same moment. Small arms, probably, but I couldn't see what they were using.

At least four rounds hit the young cop in the head and upper torso. In the rotating swirl of the lights I saw his body jerk like he'd just been wired to the mains. He dropped to his knees, giving a soft surprised gasp as his lungs emptied for the last time. He let the pistol trickle from his lifeless hand, then he pitched forwards very slowly onto his face in the dirt.

I had the gearlever rammed down into drive almost before the cop realised he was dead.

I stamped my foot down hard onto the accelerator, sending the car scrabbling for grip along the earth shoulder while I wrestled with the wheel, trying to steer us back onto the highway.

The two men who'd shot the cop started pouring bullets into the back of the Mercury. The rear screen shattered and Trey gave a squeal, balling himself up in the seat.

Either by luck or by judgement, our attackers took out the passenger side rear tyre when we'd barely made fifty metres. The car reacted immediately to the hit, lurching onto the rim. I lost my battle with the ditch. We slithered into it nose down and the passenger side front corner slammed into one of the upright fence posts, tearing it out.

The charges in both the Mercury's front airbags exploded instantaneously. I'd always assumed those inflatable white sacks were soft and pillow-like, but they're not. It's like being hit in the face with a bag of wet cement. Still, considering I'd taken off my seatbelt, at least mine saved me from heading straight out through the windscreen.

The bag started to deflate at once. I paddled it away, aware that the whole of my face was burning and there was blood coming out of my nose. I shook my head to try and clear the ringing in my ears but it wouldn't go. Even so, I heard the sound of an engine revving up behind us. Shit!

I twisted round in my seat and saw that the two men had jumped back into their car and had swerved out round the cruiser and the fallen cop. They were now bearing down on us with the doors still wide open.

I clutched at the boy's shoulder, shaking him. 'Trey, come on, we've got to move now!' I was rewarded with a dull groan. He wasn't going anywhere.

I reached under my thigh and found, in spite of the crash, that the Sig was still wedged there. I hauled it out and tried to open the door. It was jammed and I had to hit it twice with my shoulder before it gave way with a sharp crack. Because of the cockeyed angle we'd come to rest I had to wedge it open with my feet so I could struggle out on the uphill side.

I dropped straight onto my hands and knees on the sandy bank of the ditch, just as the other car squealed to a halt at a slant on the road above us. It was a light-coloured Buick. Either the bikers I'd set on the two men who'd tailed me from the Pelzners' place had failed to catch their prey, or they hadn't inflicted any lasting damage when they had. More's the pity.

I held the Sig in both hands with my elbows resting on the ground, keeping low as I waited for my chance. The guy in the passenger seat was closest. He was big and still wearing the suit that had made him look like a salesman when I'd seen him outside the house. He got out first, so I shot him first. Two rounds high in the chest. He let go of his gun and fell backwards into the car with a kind of heavy grunt.