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The Girl In The Dark excerpt

Inside the cover of Zoë Sharp’s gripping new thriller, Book 2 in the Byron and Blake series:

The Girl In The Dark

Chapter 1

Watney Market, Shadwell

If I’m late, he’ll kill me.

The thought dominates Tess’s mind as she scurries between the stalls of the crowded market. She clutches her bag to her chest, desperate for a cigarette to calm her tattered nerves.

Smoking is something else he disapproves of. Every time Tess lapses, he can tell as soon as he walks in. Once, she tried to explain how his expectation made it harder to resist the craving. Only once.

It took days for the bruises to fade.

There’s a young Ukrainian woman who works as a carer in the flats across the street. She and Tess bump into each other coming and going, often enough that the woman noticed the marks. Tess told her she’d tripped on the stairs, knowing – maybe even hoping – that she’d see straight through the lie.

He makes sure Tess avoids the neighbours now.

Still, at least she gets to shop on her own – if she doesn’t dawdle. She fumbles in her pocket for her phone and checks the countdown timer. She has to send him a picture every fifteen minutes, just to prove where she’s got to. It’s almost time. She should be at the dry cleaners by now, to pick up his shirts, but there was a queue in the chemist’s…

She picks up her pace. Distracted by the rolls of pretty fabric on one of the stalls, she isn’t prepared when someone cannons into her shoulder, knocking her off balance and spinning her round. Tess almost drops her bag.

‘Sorry,’ she mutters, a reflex now. ‘I’m so sorry.’

The stranger lurches on without speaking. A woman, Tess sees. She is relieved because if anybody sees her talking to another man – however innocent it might be – and he checks up on her…

But as Tess watches, her relief turns to anxiety. The woman staggers, tripping over her own feet. She collides with the side of a big wheelie bin, hard enough to make Tess wince, and folds over the railing next to it like falling cloth. Halfway down, she grabs for the top rail and clings to it.

Tess hesitates, torn. She’s unwilling to simply walk away, equally reluctant to get involved – to provoke scrutiny on her world.

She’s probably drunk

But the woman looks at her then – right into her eyes. And where Tess expects to see glassy oblivion, instead a terrified awareness stares back. As if the woman is trapped inside her body as it fails her, and neither of them have any idea how to make it stop.

Tess glances across at the dry cleaner’s shop on the far side of the stalls. She bites her lip. Then she turns her back on it and leans over the woman, reaching out.

‘Are you all right?’

An inane question. From the way she’s wrapped one arm around her head, the woman is in agony. Maybe a migraine – they can make people sick and dizzy, Tess knows. She is close enough to see the mist of sweat on the woman’s upper lip, the waxy tint to her skin.

The woman says something Tess doesn’t quite catch. She frowns, tilts her ear closer. The woman speaks again, louder this time, and Tess realises it’s not her hearing that’s at fault.

The words are scribble – a meaningless jumble of sounds.

The woman blinks in surprise, as if she can’t understand it either. She tries again, with the same result.

‘I’m sorry,’ Tess says again, feeling helpless. ‘I don’t…’

The woman tries to take a step closer, but as soon as she lets go of the railing, she can’t keep her feet. Her right leg buckles. Her right arm now dangles useless by her side. If she were older, Tess would think she was having a stroke, but the woman looks to be maybe in her forties. Not young, but not old either.

Tess casts about her, hoping someone else will take over. For once, she would welcome being taken charge of, being told what to do. Even by him. The market is busy, but suddenly no-one is looking. Not long enough to count, anyway. Just hurried glances – their disapproval diluted by distance and indifference.

Each gaze melts away when Tess tries to catch hold of it. She can tell they think her a fool for stepping in, and they have no wish to add their foolishness to hers.

From Tess’s pocket comes a warning buzz. She grabs her phone to silence the timer, aware of a momentary spike of fear that it’s sounded when she is not yet where she should be. Only then does she remember what is in her hand – what else it does.

‘I’ll get you some help, OK?’ she tells the woman, hitting the first of the three nines. ‘They’ll send someone.’

The woman paws at Tess’s arm and speaks again, making a colossal effort to produce two slurred but almost recognisable words.

Tess freezes.

Did she just say ‘No, please’? Or was it ‘No police’?

The woman drops to her knees, slumps onto one side. She is still gripping one stanchion of the railings with her left hand. Her body begins to shake and twitch, her limbs to thrash. Tess is horrified by the hollow clunk of the woman’s skull bouncing against the paving slabs, by the way her eyes have rolled back in their sockets so only the whites show. Vomit spurts from the woman’s mouth, and Tess jerks back.

Around them, everyone keeps walking. In a burst of shameful selfishness, Tess wishes she had, too.

Then the phone connects and the operator says, ‘Emergency services, which service do you require?’

‘Ambulance!’ Tess hears the squawk in her voice, swallows. ‘You need to send an ambulance. Watney Market. This woman… she just collapsed in front of me. I think she’s dying!’

On the line, the operator is asking if the casualty is breathing and conscious. On the ground, the woman quietens to a shiver. Tess can see her eyes again. They swivel upwards, lock with hers, showing a mix of panic and resignation.

‘No,’ Tess whispers. ‘Come on. Don’t do this…’

But the woman takes a deep, hitching breath, and says one word with calm precision: ‘Blake.’

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