ABSENCE OF LIGHT

Charlie Fox book eleven

Synopsis

A major earthquake sees ex-Special Forces soldier-turned-bodyguard Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox on a transport plane headed for the scene of devastation.

The way things are coming apart at home with Sean Meyer, she welcomes the chance to get away.

Tasked as security advisor to the specialist team at the centre of relief efforts, Charlie knows it won’t be easy. The team members are willing to put themselves in constant danger as a matter of course. But what kind of other risks are they prepared to take?

"Zoë Sharp and Charlie Fox both kick ass"

Best-selling crime author, Mark Billingham

As Charlie soon discovers, it’s not just the ground beneath her feet that cannot be relied on. Her predecessor died conveniently while investigating rumours that the team were on the take, Charlie’s been instructed to quietly uncover whether his death was as accidental as the official verdict suggests. If it was an accident, why are they so obviously lying to her?

Charlie must move with care through a shifting landscape to find the answers before there are more than just earthquake victims buried in the rubble. And when disaster strikes she will learn not only whom she can trust, but whether she can she survive the darkness that comes with a total absence of light.

From the author's notebook

For some time now I’ve been kicking around the idea of setting a book around the activities of a rescue and recovery team working as first responders after some kind of major natural disaster. It would be a fully international group, each with his or her very personal reasons for wanting to do this kind of work. I’d put together some character sketches and that was as far as I’d got.

Then in the summer of 2013 two things happened. The first was that I decided to write a novella featuring Charlie Fox and I needed a suitable situation for her to be plunged into that somehow felt different to the longer books in the series. I’d left Charlie and Sean’s relationship in a precarious state at the end of the previous instalment, DIE EASY: Charlie Fox book ten. I already had an idea of where the next book was going, but I wanted to bridge the gap between the two, and a novella seemed an ideal way to do it.

The second happening was hearing about an illustrated lecture being given by a friend, Home Office Pathologist Bill Lawler, at a local venue. The lecture documented Bill’s experiences with the Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) team which went out to New Zealand after the earthquake in Christchurch in 2011, to help recover, identify and reconcile the victims of that disaster. Hearing and seeing the fascinating details from such an expert clinched it, and ABSENCE OF LIGHT really began to take shape.

Obviously, Rescue & Recovery International do not exist, and in fact their brief is greater in scope than that of the standard DVI teams, but it’s the job of an author to take reality and ask, “What if …?” at every available opportunity. So, that’s what I’ve done here.

And while Charlie leaves the R&R team behind at the end of this book, I have a feeling that one day I might just return to find out how they’re getting on.

Excerpt

When I walked out of the hospital it was to find Joe Marcus waiting for me.

He was leaning against the front wing of a dirty white Toyota Land Cruiser, drinking from an insulated aluminium mug. As I neared I recognised the smell of strong coffee.

“Jump in,” he said. “I’ll give you a ride back to base.”

“I didn’t think the roads were clear enough to get through.”

“Well, that was yesterday,” he said. He peeled the top off his mug and threw away the dregs. “You all set?”

I shrugged and opened the passenger door while he got behind the wheel and cranked the engine.

“So, what did you get from him?” he asked as he swung the vehicle round in a wide circle and headed out.

“From the survivor? His name is Santiago Rojas—the owner of the jewellery store where we found him. He reckons he was probably there alone when the quake hit. His memory’s a little shaky, which is not surprising considering the crack on the head he took.”

Marcus nodded briefly but there was something vaguely disapproving about him. I tried to work out if it was a general demeanour or if it was something I’d done—or might do. Well, if he was giving me the cold shoulder because he had a guilty conscience that was his problem.

The first half mile was slow. We were still moving through the city. Buildings had fallen sprawling across the roadway and had yet to be cleared. In places the road was only passable because the Toyota had four-wheel drive, all-terrain tyres and Joe Marcus had clearly driven off road before.

“Rojas thought he might know the couple we found nearby—that they might be customers. He said if that was the case the woman would be wearing a ruby engagement ring, and he asked if he could take a look at her, just to be sure.”

“At the body?” Marcus shook his head. “Not happening,” he said. “We learned a long time ago that visual identifications are a waste of time.”

“Even by close relatives?”

“You got any siblings, Charlie?”

“No.”

He gave a snort. “Figures,” he said. “I got a brother I haven’t seen for twenty years. I could walk right by him on the street and never know. For all I know he could have a shaved head, be covered in tattoos and every hole in his body pierced.”

I didn’t point out that apart from the silver in his hair and the lines cut deep around his eyes, Joe Marcus probably hadn’t changed a bit in the last two decades. His brother, I decided, would know him anywhere.

“We tried visual IDs in the past,” Marcus went on. “People are either so desperate for their loved ones to be found, dead or alive, that they’ll claim anyone even vaguely similar, or they’re in complete denial. Too many false positive and negatives.”

“OK, that sounds logical, but can we at least check the woman’s possessions for the ring he mentioned?”

“I’m sure that’s one of the avenues Dr Bertrand will explore,” he said and there was a finality to his words.

OK, that’s me told.

I turned and stared out of the passenger window. Dusk was starting to fall hard, creating gloomy shadows from the ruined buildings. The streets were devoid of human life but we passed a pack of assorted dogs, half of which wore collars. They looked up hopefully and picked up their pace as we passed, like hitchhikers at the prospect of a ride, then fell away when we didn’t stop. The animals would be as lost and confused as everyone else.

“You coping OK?” Marcus asked suddenly.

I turned back. “With what?”

“Your first day out there. Digging out the dead.”

“And the living,” I put in. I paused. “Tell me, did you ask Kyle Stephens the same question?”

His face gave a tic that might have signified irritation. “Meaning?”

“Meaning that do you think someone like Parker Armstrong would have sent me out here if he didn’t know I could cope with whatever came up?”

“Everyone has their limits,” Marcus said. “And yes, I did ask Kyle Stephens the same question.”

Something in his voice alerted me. “But you didn’t like his answer.”

He glanced at me sharply then, no expression on his face. He had cool grey eyes very much like Parker’s—a little darker maybe, a little closer to stone.

“Not much,” he said. “It’s a fine line we tread here between empathy and self-preservation. Some people have difficulty maintaining that balance.”

And Stephens, I guessed, had been all about himself.

“You have to care, but not to the point of burn-out. I get that.”

“You should do in your line of work,” Marcus said. He flicked me another assessing look, only taking his eyes off the road for a second. “You lost a principal not so long ago.”

That rocked me. “It happens. I’d be foolish to think it was never going to.”

“Since then your boss, Sean Meyer, has not been back into the field,” Marcus said, his neutral tone sending my heart rate rocketing, “but you have. And that makes me wonder which side of the line you tread.”

“I care but I put it behind me and do my job—and technically he wasn’t our principal,” I said. “How do you know about that anyway?”

Marcus’s voice hardened. “You think I’d let anyone just walk into my team without checking them out first?”

“No. I just didn’t think you’d had the time.”

“I made the time.” He gave a dry smile. “And from what I hear, you’ll go out on a limb for what you feel is right. That a fair assessment?”

“Pretty fair,” I agreed.

“And who gets to choose what’s right—you? What makes you qualified to take that decision?”

The intensity in him ensured I didn’t come straight back with a glib reply. Eventually I said quietly, “Why not? You’d rather I abdicated responsibility to someone further up the line? So I could say, ‘I was only following orders’?”

“But you’re not much of one for following orders either, are you?”

“Depends on the orders—and who’s giving them.”

His fingers tightened on the rim of the Land Cruiser’s steering wheel. “When I give an order I don’t do it just to hear myself speak.”

I recalled his order to Riley, back there above the fallen section of roadway, to put himself and his aircraft in serious jeopardy to effect a rescue that had turned out to be in vain anyway.

“Did Stephens follow orders?” I asked.

“Sometimes,” Marcus returned. “When it mattered.”

Hope had told me Stephens died because he didn’t do what Joe Marcus told him. But given the number of conflicting stories I thought a fishing trip was worthwhile.

So I said, “Is that what he was doing when he died—following your orders?”

We’d cleared the city boundary now and were into an area that had escaped relatively undamaged. Marcus put his foot down and the Land Cruiser picked up speed.

“Kyle Stephens was a damned fool. He’d come through two Gulf Wars without a scratch and he thought he was indestructible,” he said. “But are you asking me do I blame myself? Am I responsible for what happened? Then yes I am.”