FOX HUNTER

Charlie Fox book twelve

Synopsis

‘The dead man had not gone quietly … There was a time when I would have given everything I owned to be the one responsible for that.’

Charlie Fox will never forget the men who put a brutal end to her military career, but she vowed a long time ago she would not go looking for them.

Now she doesn’t have a choice.

Her boss and former lover, Sean Meyer, is missing in Iraq where one of those men was working as a private security contractor. When the man’s butchered body is discovered, Charlie fears that Sean may be pursuing a twisted vendetta on her behalf.

"Gritty, hard-hitting, all-around outstanding crime fiction."

Booklist (starred review)

Sean’s partner in their exclusive New York close-protection agency needs this dealt with—fast and quiet—before everything they’ve worked for is in ruins. He sends Charlie to the Middle East with very specific instructions:

Find Sean Meyer and stop him. By whatever means necessary.

At one time Charlie thought she knew Sean better than she knew herself, but it seems he’s turned into a violent stranger. As the trail grows more bloody, Charlie realises that unless she can get to Sean first, the hunter may soon become the hunted.

From the Author’s Notebook

This is a story that’s been a long time coming, in many ways. I’ve always known that sooner or later I was going to have to tell you what happened to Charlie when she was in the army, but I’ve held off doing so in any great detail. I try to include a different little snippet of that backstory in every book, but Charlie has always taken what happened at face value and tried to put it behind her—until now.

The four men who ended Charlie’s military career in such brutal fashion have been mentioned and alluded to in previous books in the series. It’s fair to say that when she’s in danger, and forced to respond to a situation with violence, they’re never too far from her thoughts. She is a product of her experiences after all.

But in FOX HUNTER I wanted Charlie to question what really happened back then, and why. With the scandal of the hazing of trainees at the Deep Cut army base resurfacing in recent months, it seemed especially relevant to add another layer to the story.

Setting the book in the Middle East, among the world of the Private Military Contractors, helped create another male-dominated environment, where women are treated very differently. I’ve travelled in Jordan and wanted to include the unique flavour of that country in this book. Najida’s story is fiction, but based on similar very real accounts.

To this mix I added more strong women to work against, with, or alongside Charlie. One of those women, Aubrey Hamilton, bid to be included in the charity auction at the Bouchercon Mystery Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. I was delighted to make her the no-nonsense character she appears in these pages.

Excerpt

The woman did not want to give us her real name. I couldn’t blame her for that.

“She says the doctors here call her Najida,” Dawson said, her voice soft and respectful as we sat alongside the bed. “It means—”

“—Brave,” I said. “Yes, I know. It suits her.”

The woman was, in truth, little more than a girl. She was in her late teens or early twenties perhaps, and had once been beautiful. Dark thick hair, dark eyes with an almond tilt to them, eyelashes with no need for cosmetic enhancement, good bones.

But the arrangement of her features was distorted by the wound to her face. It had ripped open her cheek, now bloated and discoloured, leaving the corner of her mouth torn, as if by a giant fishhook. Dressings and strips of micropore tape held the damage together. How well it would all heal was another matter.

But she met our gaze without arrogance or shame, just a calm acceptance of what had happened to her, of what might be still to come.

I made sure to maintain eye contact while her words were translated. I could follow a little of what was said, enough to know that Dawson’s Arabic was nuanced and fluent. And also that she was giving me the story straight.

“She was going to the market,” Dawson said. “With her mother and her sister.”

“Do they wear the burqa also?”

“Not the veil. Just the hijab. Her sister is younger. She would like to dress more … Western. But now she is confused … and frightened.”

“Did you feel unsafe before this? Uncomfortable to be out?”

Without translating first, Dawson glanced at me. “Are you asking why she wore the burqa?”

“Yes.”

She relayed the question, put more directly than I would have done.

Najida hesitated, then began to speak, looking at me rather than Dawson, as though she knew I was the dubious one. One eye was clear, the other bloodshot and swollen.

“When she was younger she didn’t mind the stares of men,” Dawson said, her tone bloodless, slightly hollow. “But after she went to university she started to resent them looking at her. They had no right. And she wanted to be judged not for how she looked.”

I nodded, didn’t quite trust myself to speak.

The undamaged half of Najida’s face gave a twitch approaching a sad smile. “You do not agree,” Dawson said. It was not a question.

“It is not my place to agree or disagree,” I responded. “Your culture is far different from mine … but not your experience.”

Out of my peripheral vision I saw Dawson’s head snap around, but I kept my eyes on Najida as the translation was made.

She let her own gaze drop away and nodded, as if that made sense. As if no Western white woman would have bothered coming to see her without such a connection.

Knowing my arguments would not persuade her otherwise at this stage, I said nothing. After a minute or so she let out a breath and started into her story.

They grabbed her without warning, she said. One moment she was walking along the side of the street. Her mother was in front. Her sister had dropped a little way back—something on one of the stalls had caught her eye. Najida stopped to wait for her.

The next thing, she was taken. Not hard to bind her hands, to gag and blindfold her. They used her own clothing—the very clothing she wore to give her a feeling of safety, of privacy.

They were very fast—practised, even. They shoved her into a van that had stopped beside her before her sister looked up or her mother looked back. The van did not hurry away, but moved off slowly. So slowly the two women paid no attention to it, even as their surprise at Najida’s sudden vanishing act turned to alarm.

Her abductors drove with her for what seemed like a long distance. There were many turns, and the road was rough—she was thrown around on the floor of the van. The man who had grabbed her stayed in the back of the van with her throughout the journey. He held a knife at her throat. She was too frightened to struggle, but she pleaded, over and over, for them to let her go unharmed.

“Even though she knew it was probably too late for that already,” Dawson reported.

“Is that your opinion or hers?”

“Hers.”

I nodded to Najida. “Tell us only what you feel able to.”

The one with the knife, she said, was a big man—tall and muscular. They both smelled … foreign. When I queried this, she came back with:

“Of foreign food, maybe? Different spices. He did not smell like her brother, or her father.”

And their voices were foreign, too. They spoke English. She knew enough to recognise a few words, but couldn’t say if they were Americans or Brits.

Eventually they stopped the van. The driver climbed into the back. Between them they stripped her, cutting away her clothes. They secured the blindfold in place with tape.

Then they raped her, taking turns. And while they did so they laughed and goaded each other. It seemed they were more … excited if she cried out. She did her best to keep silent. It was not always possible.

When they were finished, they took her to within half a kilometre or so of where she had been abducted. There they dumped her, naked and bleeding, on the roadside. She had been a virgin.

“Was there any kind of investigation?” I asked. “If these men were indeed foreigners, surely the police—”

La alshshurta!” Najida said.

I got that without any need for Dawson’s language skills. No police.

“Whose choice was that—yours? Or your family’s?”

“Her father said she had brought great shame onto the family name, that she must have done something to provoke these men. He told her she was … soiled, that no good man would ever want to take her as his wife.” Dawson’s voice was flat, level, but still betrayed the barest hint of her contempt. “Her mother wept and said she now had only one daughter. They would not let her into the house.”

I stared at the woman, saw the untold sadness in every line of her body, in the acceptance of her disfigured features, and said slowly, “The men who attacked you did not do that to your face, did they?”

“She would not leave the family home. She was distressed, crying for her mother,” Dawson said. “So her father and brother took up their guns, and they chased her away. And when she fell, still crying, her father walked up to her where she lay, and shot her in the head. She flinched at the last minute, and the bullet hit her in the face—knocked her unconscious but didn’t kill her.” Dawson swallowed as if her mouth was suddenly dry, or to combat a rising nausea. “And when she came to, she had to dig her way out of her own shallow grave.”