"Zoë Sharpe will keep you turning pages till dawn."Jeffery Deaver
The cult calling itself Fourth Day is well funded and highly jealous of its privacy. Five years ago Thomas Witney went in to try to get the evidence that the cult’s charismatic leader, Randall Bane, was responsible for the death of Witney’s son, Liam. Witney never came out. Now, Charlie Fox, and her partner, Sean Meyer, have been tasked to get Witney out, willing or not. But planning and executing a clean, surgical snatch is only the beginning. Five years is a long time to be on the inside and the man who comes out has changed beyond all recognition.
Can Witney be trusted when he says he now believes Bane is innocent of the crime and, if he is, who was behind the boy’s demise? Searching for answers, Charlie agrees to go undercover into Fourth Day’s California stronghold. A fast covert-op. No real danger for someone with her mind set and training. But Charlie has her own secrets, even from Sean, and she’s not prepared for the lure of Randall Bane, or how easily he will pinpoint her weaknesses.
About the Author
Zoë Sharp's novels have been nominated for numerous awards including the Edgar, Anthony, Barry (twice), Benjamin Franklin, and Macavity Awards in the United States, as well as twice for a CWA Dagger Award in England, where she lives.
Read an Excerpt
A Charlie Fox Thriller
By Zoë Sharp
PEGASUS BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Zoë Sharp
All rights reserved.
Nothing brings home a sense of your own mortality like being locked up alone in the dark.
Which was, of course, precisely why they'd done it.
My entire world had shrunk to these four rough-rendered walls. The room was barely the length of the narrow cot that filled one wall and took up almost half the floor space. The bed base was welded to the frame, which itself had been bolted to the floor. There was no window, just a stainless steel toilet in one corner, a small cold-water sink in the other, and a steel door in between with no handle on the inside.
Apart from that, there was just me alone with my thoughts.
Without sight, every sound became amplified. The quiet rustle of my torn shirt as I moved, the creak of the compressed foam that formed my mattress. I could smell my own sweat, the rising odour from the toilet pan, and the musky dampness of stale air conditioning.
The only lighting provision came from spots recessed into the ceiling and covered by anti-tamper grilles. The switch that controlled them was somewhere on the outside. They'd taken away my watch, so my grasp of time had grown hazy, but there seemed to be no logic to the pattern of my artificial nights and days.
Right now, someone had decided it was night, but maybe they just liked keeping me in the dark. Or maybe they were getting their own back.
I sat on the bed, directly facing the doorway, back to the wall, with my knees hunched up and my bare feet tucked in, staring into the confronting darkness as if searching for answers in the visual static.
I flexed my hands out before me. Although I couldn't see them, the knuckles of my left felt stiff and inflamed. I probably should have iced them. If I'd had any ice.
I probably should have done a lot of things.
I rolled my shoulders, felt the sharp stab in the back of the joint where I hadn't got a decent break-fall in fast enough, the long burn of torn muscles in my forearm and thigh, the tenderness of fresh bruises that were rising just about everywhere. If the fluid puffiness along my cheekbone was anything to go by, I was well on the way to a belting black eye.
But, all in all I was still intact, still together – physically, at least. I told myself it was nothing I hadn't been through before, in one form or another.
But not quite like this.
The resistance-to-interrogation exercises I'd undergone in the army had been just that – exercises. Brutal, frightening, but ultimately little more than visceral make-believe. This was different. There was no instructor with an armband about to walk in through that door and tell me it was all over, pass or fail.
And the one person who might conceivably have come to my rescue, as he had before, was the last person, right now, I either wanted or expected to see.
You asked for this.
That I couldn't deny. After all, I had gone willingly into the cult calling itself Fourth Day, apparently well briefed and well prepared for what lay behind their walls, except for what I might find inside myself, if I was forced to look deep enough, for long enough.
And Randall Bane was the kind of man who could force you to take that look.
I've come face to face with some pretty scary people in my time. Stone-cold killers. People who would go straight through another human being because it troubled them less than going around. But for Bane, the man behind Fourth Day, I had a feeling that mere surrender was only the beginning of what he wanted from me.
The soundproofing was good enough that I didn't hear them coming. The first indication of company was the metallic slither of the bolt on the outside of the door dragging back, then a bright white spike as the leading edge cracked open and light flared in through the widening gap.
I shut my eyes, brought up a shielding hand to my face, to give myself space as much as anything else. By the time my sight had readjusted enough to see past the shelter of my fingers, Bane himself stood leaning in the doorway.
His arms were folded across his broad chest, smooth-shaven head slightly tilted. His back was to the light so I couldn't see his face, but I knew by his stance that he was watching me intently.
'Going to lend a hand personally with the softening-up process this time, are you?' I asked lightly, aware of the rawness in my throat. I let my wrists drape over my knees, striving to keep the tension out of my arms. 'Or are you just here to watch?'
Bane gazed at me without emotion. There was no hurry to him, no impatience. Everything in here adjusted its stride to fit with his.
'This was all so unnecessary, Charlie.' His voice was deep, neutral, almost without class or nation, and seemed to fill all the corners of the room.
'Yeah, well, you can't say I didn't warn you.'
'You did,' he allowed. 'And then you put three men in the infirmary.'
But there was no disgust in his voice, no recrimination. His curiosity was almost palpable. If I'd failed to get his attention before, I certainly had it now. I blanked out what I'd had to do in order to achieve that aim.
I shrugged, carefully. 'Maybe I just don't like being manhandled.'
'You don't like letting go of control – on any level,' he corrected. 'That scares you, doesn't it?'
'Don't you think it should?' I countered, striving to match his matter-of-fact tone but only reaching weariness. I let one hand lift briefly and flop again. 'Hey, you're the one who's three men down. You tell me.'
'Perhaps,' he agreed. 'But in your case, you know that if you lose control – of the situation, of yourself – people die. How many is it now? Do you even keep a count anymore?'
Sitting with my back hard up against the blockwork, I felt the moment my heart rate began to climb. How could he possibly know that – any of that? I stared at him and said nothing, and Bane nodded as if I'd spoken anyway.
'Ah yes, I know who you are, Charlie. More to the point, I know what you are.' His voice was utterly calm. There was nothing in it for me to latch onto, to rail against. It was as if I could feel myself begin to slide down a steep sheer surface into oblivion with nothing to arrest my descent. 'Did you think that story you concocted would hold for long?'
I gave a mirthless laugh. 'Longer than this, clearly.'
'Some things you just can't disguise,' Bane said gently. 'And ordinary young women do not carry the kind of old knife and bullet wounds that you bear without an extraordinary history of violence.'
Apart from the fading jagged scar around my throat, the other reminders etched onto my body of that violent past were all well hidden. Thinking about the circumstances under which Bane might have seen them brought a sudden tightness in my chest, an ache in my hands that fast became active pain. I realised I had them clenched into fists.
Scrabbling for grip, I said, 'I've saved more lives than I've taken, if that makes any difference.'
'Is that how you justify it to yourself?' he murmured. 'How interesting.'
He began to turn away, this audience over. Then he stopped, halfway into the light now, so I could see his brooding expression for the first time. It did little to reassure me.
'Tell me, Charlie, do they haunt you – the faces of the ones you killed?'
I tipped my head back against the wall. 'Does it matter?'
For a long moment we locked eyes, and there was profound disappointment in his level gaze, like I had let him down. Maybe it was shame that made my face heat. Or maybe not.
'To you, it should,' he said at last, finally allowing the steel to brush surface. 'What do you hope to gain from this attempt to infiltrate our community, Charlie? There is nobody here needs protection from anything – except possibly from you.' He smiled, a little sadly, and asked in that utterly calm and reasonable voice, 'Can you suggest one salient reason why I shouldn't follow my first instincts and rid myself of you at the earliest opportunity?'
I swallowed. Now came the risk, the gamble. 'You think I've come here simply to spy on you?' I said, keeping it flat, devoid of emotion. 'Alone and unarmed?'
'Oh, I think you've given a more than adequate demonstration of your ... fitness for any such task,' Bane returned. 'What other interpretation can I put on your presence here at this time?'
At this time ...
'I've told you already,' I said with a tiredness I didn't have to fake. 'I came because I thought you could help me.' If that was no direct lie, it was as much of the truth as I was prepared to tell him.
'You will not accept my help because, deep down, you do not want it. All I see in you is rage and sorrow, and without them you have nothing to sustain you.' The coolly delivered assessment sliced all the deeper for its icy objectivity.
I looked down at my hands, noticed for the first time I had blood under my nails that didn't seem to be my own.
'It's better than feeling nothing,' I muttered. 'Or, I thought it was.'
'Ah, and now, suddenly, you've had some kind of epiphany,' Bane said with an edge to his voice that, in a lesser man, might have stooped to sarcasm. 'When, exactly, did you reach this desire for such a fundamental change in your life?'
I'd been warned, before I'd gone into Fourth Day, that I'd need a story within a story. I'd expected Bane to break through my primary cover, if not so easily, and I'd considered and rejected a number of options before finally deciding, at the last possible moment, what to tell him. The truth – or a version of it.
I raised my head very slowly.
'When I discovered I was pregnant.'
Smoothly, he stepped forwards, loomed over me and, before I could react, his fingers had brushed down the side of my face, lingering almost delicately at the swollen area under my eye. I flinched, and he caught my chin, his grip deceptively light. I wasn't fooled for a moment, but refused to give him the satisfaction of trying to twist free, of letting him see how badly he frightened me.
He stared straight down into my eyes and stripped my soul bare.
'There,' he murmured eventually, 'that wasn't so hard, was it – that first step?'
I glared back at him until my vision began to shimmer.
He sighed, a quiet outrush of air. 'We'll continue this later, I think. When you've had a little more ... time to consider.'
He released me and stepped back into the corridor outside my cell. I resisted the urge to rub the skin where he'd touched me, but could still feel the imprint of his fingers. He nodded to someone I couldn't see, and the door closed him out with the heavy clang of finality, leaving me in darkness once more.
With no pride left to hold them back, the tears streamed hotly down my face. Because, much as I hated to admit it, what Randall Bane had said was absolutely true. For years I had allowed my anger to drive me forwards, to dictate my thoughts and override my actions. It had brought me inevitably to this point, as if seeking the means of my own destruction. My timing, as always, was impeccable.
Alone again in the dark, I thought a good deal about life and death.
But mainly about death.CHAPTER 2
The first time I saw Fourth Day's California stronghold was through a pair of Zeiss ten-power binoculars from a little over six hundred metres out. I was propped on my elbows amid the dusty scrub, feeling the gathered warmth of the earth releasing up slowly into my body.
It was mid afternoon in mid January. Everyone had told me to watch for the chill factor, but I'd just been on assignment in London, where it had been mostly cold and sleeting and miserable. In the current windless fifty-five degrees, I was a basking lizard by comparison.
'How's our target?'
Sean's voice was low, clipped, at my shoulder. He spoke without moving, without even a vibration. There was a preternatural patience about him that made him a master at covert surveillance operations such as this. He could have laid up for days, watching, waiting, if he had to.
'Still in position,' I said. We were taking turns to keep obs and it was easiest to pare our blips of conversation down to emotionless terminology. At least, that's what I told myself.
I scanned across the area in front of us, keeping my movements slow. We were in the south with the sun behind us, where the twin lenses of the binocs would not readily catch and return the light, and where people were less likely to stare long enough to spot us in our careful concealment.
The compound itself was a huddle of squat prefab buildings, rather like construction site Portakabins, clustered around a dusty central courtyard. I assumed that was a defensive layout, although the building walls didn't look able to withstand a hard-kicked football, never mind stronger ordnance.
There was an accommodation block to one side, and a main building with a higher pitch to the roof that I took to be some place of worship. Apart from that, all it needed was a flagpole and it could have been a barracks.
Throughout our observation, there had been activity in the compound. The land was not suitable for large-scale agriculture, but citrus and avocado trees had been planted around the buildings, fanning out into the scrubland beyond. From what we could see, there was also some kind of hand-dyeing fabric thing going on. Rainbows of it hung out to dry, draping listlessly in the still air.
The men and women who formed Fourth Day's membership appeared to share the labour equally, with little regard for traditional male and female roles. And so, in the centre of the compound, on a bench set beneath an ancient juniper tree with a group of children clustered round his feet, sat a man who'd been identified to us as Thomas Witney.
Witney sat slightly hunched forwards, leaning in towards his class, some of whom looked as young as four or five. His file had listed him as a teacher by profession, probably a good one. He spoke with animation, using his hands to give additional shape and colour to his words. I couldn't help but wonder at the doctrine he was spouting to hold their attention so absolutely.
He wasn't a big man, with a close-shaved head tanned to caramel. He looked so different to the photograph we'd been given that we had initially hesitated over confirming acquisition of our target.
The old picture had showed an altogether thinner, paler man, with a haircut designed to cover his inadequacies, and thick-framed glasses. He'd discarded both somewhere along the way. It was only his prominent Adam's apple that had finally settled his identity.
Now, in khakis and a baggy hand-knitted sweater the colour of old moss, he looked a far cry from the successful vice-principal of an exclusive private school. Before he'd dropped out, gone in, gone under.
Amid all the other activity, I didn't initially clock the girl who came out of one of the buildings with a still-chubby young child balanced on her hip. She was perhaps in her early twenties, small and dark. Her movements had a furtiveness about them, like a feral cat that's consented to domestication but isn't entirely happy to walk in human footsteps.
But Witney caught sight of her the moment she emerged, and I saw his hands falter as his thought process stuttered. A momentary hesitation, then his attention returned to his little al fresco class. But from the stiffness in his back, the sudden self-consciousness in his movements, it was obvious he was minutely aware of her.
The girl jiggled the child as she carried him around the edge of the dusty square, frequently glancing towards Witney. I read nothing but anxiety and distraction in her body language.
'Report,' Sean said, reaching for the camera with its telephoto lens.
With a wrench of effort, I closed out the image of the girl and the child. 'We still have eyes on our target, but he's surrounded by civilians. Minors,' I added, just in case that wasn't enough. I glanced across at Sean's face, all hard planes and angles. 'Lucky coincidence, or deliberate defensive position?'
'Does it matter?' Sean asked, the last vestiges of his Lancashire accent flattening his vowels. 'Either way, he's going to be bloody difficult to extract.'
'Of course it does. Whereas one is unfortunate, the other means they know we're coming for him, in which case—'
'Two Bravos,' he interrupted as movement flared in my peripheral vision. 'Inbound. Northeast corner. Rifles.'
Still keeping it slow and smooth, I eased the glasses across. Two men had stepped into view between the buildings. One was tall, with skin so black it had a tinge of blue. He was built like an American football player, that impression emphasised by the way he carried himself. The other man was smaller, lighter skinned, with overtones of several races in his Eurasian features, combining to give him a certain regal air. From the way they interacted, the Eurasian was in charge, and it wasn't just the way they were dressed that set them apart from the other occupants of the compound.
Excerpted from Fourth Day by Zoë Sharp. Copyright © 2011 Zoë Sharp. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
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