HARD KNOCKS

Charlie Fox book three

Synopsis

'Perhaps if the army had known what was inside me, what I would eventually turn into, they might not have been so keen to let me go.'

In book three in the series Charlie Fox finds herself in Germany, fighting for her life.

Charlie really didn't care who shot dead her traitorous ex-army comrade Kirk Salter during a bodyguard training course in Germany. But when old flame Sean Meyer asks her to go undercover at Major Gilby's elite school and find out what happened to Kirk she just can't bring herself to refuse.

"action nail-bitingly well described . . . would make an excellent film"

Judith Rhodes
Tangled Web

Keeping her nerve isn't easy when events bring back fears and memories she's worked so hard to forget. It's clear there are secrets at Einsbaden Manor that people are willing to kill to conceal. Some of the students on this particular course seem to have more on their minds than simply learning about close protection. Subjects like revenge, and murder. And what's the connection between the school and the recent spate of vicious kidnappings that have left a trail of bodies halfway across Europe?

To find out what's going on, Charlie must face up to her past and move quickly before she becomes the next casualty. She expected training to be tough, but can she graduate from this school of hard knocks alive?

From the author's notebook

This was another of those creepy coincidences. HARD KNOCKS involves eastern European gangsters kidnapping the children of the rich. A month after I'd finished it, a group of Albanians were exposed plotting to kidnap David and Victoria Beckham's two young children. This is starting to get spooky.

The handguns used at the bodyguard training school in the book are Sig Sauer P226s, so I made sure that I had the chance to fire one on a recent trip to the States. I discovered at this point that it's a really bad idea to wear an open-neck shirt while you're standing on a shooting range to the right of someone firing a semiautomatic handgun with a right-hand eject mechanism. The first time he fired, his gun spat a hot shell casing straight down the front of my shirt. That spoils your aim, I can tell you!

Excerpt

Iwas about to ask more, but the door of the shed opened and the scarred man with the clipboard stuck his head inside.

'OK,' he said. 'They want the three of you to head on up to the house now.'

We picked up our bags and stepped back out into the rapidly encroaching darkness. After the stuffily overheated shed, the cold was dazzling.

Declan shivered, looking round. 'So where's the transport?'

'There isn't any,' the man said, with a certain amount of relish. He waved a hand along the barely discernible track towards some hidden point in the distance. 'It's only a kilometre or so. You walk.'

The three of us looked in the direction he'd pointed. The sky had darkened through indigo towards an inky darkness, but above the jagged black outline of the treetops, a waxing moon had risen.

'Oh you have to be feckin' kidding me,' Declan muttered. Elsa squared her jaw. 'If you want to stay, stay,' she told him, dismissive, 'but I am going. Charlie?'

I hoisted my bag higher onto my shoulder. 'I'm with you,' I said with a smile. Declan groaned. 'Ah well, I suppose I can't let you two ladies venture out alone on a night like this.'

Elsa threw him a withering glance and set off at a determined pace. I fell into step alongside her. Within a couple of strides, Declan had caught us up. He immediately started up the conversation, as though he was using the sound of voices to keep at bay whatever might be lurking in the trees. He asked where we were from, and I learned that Elsa was born in Bochum, and had lived most of her life there. Declan's family owned land outside Wicklow.

'Before you arrived we were swapping our life stories,' he said to me then, grinning suddenly in the silvery light. 'So, Charlie, what do you do in the outside world that bores you so much you want to be a bullet catcher?'

I returned his grin. It was difficult not to. 'I work in a gym,' I said. Supervising weight training programmes was something I'd only begun in the last year. It kept me occupied and fit, although lately I'd found the monotony suffocating. Sean had warned me against telling anyone about my army background, or the women's self-defence teaching I'd done after that.

'Keep it simple, but keep it light,' Sean had said. 'Invent as little as possible, just leave a lot out. They'll be watching the best and the worst more closely than the middle ground. You're just going to have to hold back a little, and keep to the centre of the pack.'

'What if they check up on me?' I'd fretted.

'Don't worry,' he'd said. 'Madeleine will make sure they only find out what we want them to.'

'So what's your story, Declan?' I asked now.

'Oh, my old man is in this business − works out in the States wet-nursing rock stars. He wanted me to join up first. You know, see the world, meet lots of interesting people, and kill them.' He laughed. 'I thought I'd miss out the rough-arsed bit where you have to spend four years cleaning out lavatories with your toothbrush, and go straight to baby-sitting the Hollywood babes.'

'What about you, Elsa?'

She inclined her head slightly. 'I was a policeman here in Germany,' she said, and although I caught the dim flash of Declan's smile, we neither of us corrected her. 'I left to get married, hoping to have many babies but, my marriage did not work out.' She shrugged. 'And so, here am I.'

The simple words belied a good deal of pain, I considered. Even the Irishman didn't come back with a smart remark to that one, and for a few minutes we trudged on in silence. Until Declan put his foot into a particularly deep pothole, and picked up a bootful of cold dirty water for his pains.

'Oh Jesus, will you look at that?' he complained. 'What the feck do they think they're doing leaving us to wade through this shit? And to think I've paid out good money for this.'

'Don't whine, Declan,' Elsa said calmly, 'it will probably be the same for everyone.'

'So, Charlie,' he went on, ignoring her, 'what's your story? I'm escaping from dead boredom, Elsa here is escaping from a dead marriage − what's your little dark secret?'

I didn't get the chance to think up a believable lie.

'Ssh!' Beside me, I almost felt Elsa tense and come to an abrupt halt. 'Did you hear that?'

'Hear what?' Declan said, although I, too, could have sworn I caught the quiet crackling of dried branches, somewhere off to our left in the trees. 'Oh don't start getting paranoid on us now, Elsa,' he said, but there was a nervous tickle to his voice, 'you'll be giving the lot of us the jitters.'

He went on a few strides, moving close to the edge of the track. 'Hello, hello,' he called, out into the forest. The trees took his voice and sucked the power out of it, handing it back to him somehow small and lonely. 'Are there any ogres, wolves or bogeymen out there?' He turned back towards us. 'You see, fair ladies, noth−−'

Out of the blackness a dark shape flowed up. In less than a second it seemed to utterly engulf the Irishman, taking him down like an animal kill. He fell as a dead weight. The only sound made was the breath exploding from his body as he hit the ground.

Memories and images I'd thought were buried deep reared up, vivid as a nightmare. Shock and fear clutched at me, and it was the fear that held on hardest. It gripped my heart, my throat, my gut, with steel-tipped talons. Just for a second it stopped my breath, and froze my limbs.

Then, almost in unison, Elsa and I dropped our bags and started to turn. Instinct made me keep low as I spun round and I felt the slither of something sweep across my back. An arm. It gave me a bearing and I lashed out, chopping the side of my fist into a leg at the knee. I was rewarded by a grunt of pain.

I dived sideways, hearing the German woman's wrenched-off cry as she was overwhelmed by the shadows. They seemed to swallow her up whole. And then there was just me.

I rolled to my feet, tensed into a crouch, eyes raking the darkness. My blood was thundering through my veins, scrambling oxygen to my muscles. Every nerve and instinct told me to flee while I still had the chance.

Then, in the back of my head a tiny thought flared. 'They like to play mind games with you,' Sean had told me. 'Like seeing how you react . . .'

Another heartbeat. The shapes surrounding me converged another step. The edge of the tree-line was less than two metres to my right. I could still make it . . .

I straightened up, stood still, and let them come and get me.