Sunday, June 13, 2010


Killer Instinct (by Zoë Sharp; 978-1-935415-13-8; trade paperback original; $15) On sale now!

Chapter One

I SUPPOSE I ought to state for the record that I don’t make a habit of frequenting places like the New Adelphi Club, which is where this whole sorry mess began. Maybe if I’d run true to form and avoided the place, things might have turned out differently.

The New Adelphi was a nightclub that had risen phoenix-like from the ashes of the old Adelphi, a crumbling Victorian seaside hotel on the promenade in Morecambe. It had a slightly faded air of decayed gentility about it, like an ageing bit-part film actress, hiding her propensity for the gin bottle under paste jewellery and heavy make-up.

I should have seen the changes coming, of course. Over the last eight months the Adelphi has had ‘under new management’ written all over it. The first inkling of a revolution had been a line of skips along the front wall of the car park. The next, a sheepish visit from Gary Bignold, the assistant manager, to tell me that I no longer had use of one of the upstairs function rooms for my Tuesday night class.

‘Sorry, Charlie,’ he’d said awkwardly as he’d broken the news. ‘We’ve got a new boss man and he’s sweeping clean. He’s decided that making a few quid every week so you can teach a load of frumpy housewives how to slap down flashers in the park just doesn’t fit in with his game plan.’

I teach women’s self-defence, have done for four years now. I use gymnasiums in local schools, indoor badminton courts in leisure centres, and even the converted ballroom of a country house that’s now a women’s refuge. Finding a replacement venue for this class wasn’t going to be impossible, but it wasn’t going to be a piece of cake either. I thought regretfully of the lost revenue, and shrugged.

‘Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it,’ I said. He’d caught up with me in the car park, near the skips. I was packing my jogging pants and trainers into the tank bag of my RGV 250 Suzuki for the ride home to Lancaster, only five miles or so away.

Gary hovered from one foot to the other until I’d double-zipped the bag and clipped it down. ‘So what’s happening to the old place then?’ I asked, tucking my scarf round the neck of my leather jacket. ‘They going to pull it down and build yet more luxury flats that nobody wants?’

‘Nah, this new bloke, he’s dead switched on,’ Gary said, relieved enough to be chatty. ‘He’s going to turn this old dump into a nightclub. I’ve seen the plans. It’s going to be absolutely excellent. Couple of bars, split-level dance floors, bit of food. The business. You’ll have to come. Opening night. I’ll get you in free, no trouble.’

I raised an eyebrow and he looked hurt at my scepticism. ‘I will,’ he repeated. ‘I’m going to run the bars for him. It’s all been agreed.’

I didn’t say anything as I swung my leg over the bike and kicked it into life. Gary sometimes lets his enthusiasm run away with him. He looks too wide-eyed to ever be put in charge of anything more than asking the next person in line if they want fries with that.

I gave him a cheery wave as I circled out of the car park, ignoring his shouted assurance that he’d give me a call when they were about to re-launch.

It’s a good job I wasn’t holding my breath.

The New Adelphi Club opened about six months afterwards, just after Christmas. In record time if the murmurs in the building trade are to be believed. It seemed Gary had been right about the new boss being a mover and shaker.

At night the neon on the outside of the building lights up low cloud with an eerie violet glow and is visible from halfway across Morecambe Bay. It’s become quite a local landmark.

I learned from the local paper that Gary did, indeed, become the bar manager for the new enterprise, but he never called to offer me those free tickets. I must admit I hadn’t really expected him to.

It came as quite a surprise to myself, then, that I ended up at the place only a month or so after it opened.

That was my friend, Clare’s fault, not mine. She’d dropped it on me over the phone a few days before. ‘There’s this karaoke competition on at that new club in Morecambe this Saturday,’ she’d said, out of the blue. ‘I fancied giving it a whirl, but Jacob won’t go, so will you come along and lend some moral support?’

I hesitated. Clare’s a mate. I’ve known her and her feller, Jacob, ever since I first moved to Lancaster, but I thought such a request was stretching a friendship too far. ‘I didn’t know you were into that sort of thing,’ I said cautiously, playing for time.

She laughed. ‘Well, Jacob says I haven’t much of a voice. He says my strangled mewlings make the nocturnal warbling of our elderly tomcat sound like Pavarotti, but I reckon he’s just too much of an old fogey to want to go to a nightclub.’

I vaguely heard rude mutterings by someone at the same end of the line as Clare, and she laughed again. Jacob must be in his early fifties, his dark wavy hair streaked through with grey, but he’s one of those men who oozes sexual attraction. Always laughing behind eyes the colour of expensive plain chocolate, and just as tempting. If he could reproduce that kind of chemistry in a lab he’d be a millionaire.

Clare is twenty-five years his junior, more my own age. Tall, slender, she has endless legs and a metabolism that means she can binge peanut butter straight out of the jar without putting on an ounce. I recognised years ago that food was not going to be one of my indulgences in life if I wanted to stay in a size twelve.

I envied Clare the ability not to gain weight more than I envied her her looks, which were stunning. She had long straight hair to go with the legs, golden blonde without bottled assistance, and a sense of style I guess you just have to be born with.

She also rode a ten-year-old Ducati 851 Strada motorcycle like a demon and had the distinction of once having outrun a bike copper through the local Scarthwaite bends at well over a hundred. He’d pulled her over out of curiosity and his chin had bounced off his toecaps when she’d taken off her helmet. Where anyone else would have had their licence taken away for three months, she didn’t even get a producer.

‘So, Charlie, what do you say?’ Clare prompted now. ‘I don’t really want to go by myself,’ she admitted.

I heard Jacob in the background again, loudly this time. ‘You’re not going alone until they’ve caught that bloody rapist!’

‘Yeah, that too,’ Clare said. ‘You’ve heard about that, I suppose?’

I agreed that I had. It was a vicious attack that had only happened a few weeks previously. I’m not the morbid type, but I took a professional interest in the crime. Enough to keep tabs on the progress—or lack of it—in the news reports.

When you make your living teaching people, mainly women, how to avoid potentially ending up in the same situation, you tend to notice anything that affects business. When new pupils turn up at my classes with a sudden burning desire to learn how to reduce a large, hairy would-be mugger to a jellied heap on the pavement, you tend to ask what sparked off their interest. You don’t come out of it looking too good if you haven’t heard all about the latest stabbing, rape, or murder. Particularly if it took place on your own doorstep.

In this case, the victim was just turned eighteen, walking home along a gloomy footpath near the River Lune late one Thursday night and not smart enough to take a taxi. When she’d regained consciousness two days later she was only able to give a hazy description of her attacker.

He’d raped her with a knife held at her throat, then beat her savagely around the head. The police announced piously that it was a miracle she wasn’t dead. As it was, the doctors predicted that she was going to need months of physio, speech therapy, and counselling. The surgeons had managed, after a fashion, to save her right eye.

Lancaster may have its share of violence, but it’s still not the kind of town where things like that happen on a regular basis. The local paper was having a field day with tabloid-style headlines it never normally got to air. Public figures expressed their outrage. Worried citizens wrote to their MP.

Prominent policemen promised early results. It was a brutal and senseless attack, their spokesman said. The culprit must have been covered in his victim’s blood. He must have been spotted arriving or leaving along the busy main road which shadows the river. He must have got home in a dishevelled and excited state. He would, they prophesied, soon be under lock and key.

As it was, several weeks had now gone past. Nothing happened. Appeals were made on the television and would-be witnesses obligingly came forward by the dozen. Unfortunately, none of them had anything of real value to tell. It appeared that the only witness of any sort was a derelict wino called Jimmy.

Jimmy thought he might have seen a car, and he even thought it might have been on that evening, but through the fog of his perpetual alcoholic stupor, he couldn’t quite recall the registration number. Or the model. Or the colour.

There was an air of fear in the city that you could almost reach out and touch. I’d noticed it in my students, seen it on the street. Even over the distortion of the telephone system I could hear it now in Clare’s voice—and in Jacob’s, too.

I sighed.

‘OK,’ I said. ‘I’ll come with you. Just don’t expect me to sing!’

Which was how, a few days later, I came to be waiting for Clare in the car park of the New Adelphi Club, twiddling my thumbs and rapidly having second thoughts about the whole exercise.

It was partly because the noise level belting out of the place was so high I feared permanent hearing damage if I ventured any closer. The bass could be physically felt across the other side of the tarmac. I could well imagine that at closer proximity the high frequency would qualify as an offensive weapon.

In the ten minutes or so since I’d parked up and sat, watching people arrive and go in, I’d come to the conclusion that I was probably ten years too old to be there, which made most of the clientele too young to buy cigarettes, never mind alcohol. Also, in a clean pair of black jeans, an almost-ironed shirt, and my least tatty leather jacket, I was wearing way too many clothes.

Despite the chill of the evening—it was February, after all—the boys were all wearing tight little vests that showed off how many hours they’d spent down the gym, or untucked luridly coloured shirts that tried to hide the fact they didn’t know where the gym was. The girls looked like they’d come out in their night-dresses. God, I felt old.

A new set of lights swept into the car park, and Jacob’s rusty old cream Range Rover pulled up next to where I’d parked the bike. Clare waved through the window as she killed the motor and hopped down out of the driver’s seat.

‘Hi,’ I said. I nodded to the car. ‘I thought for a moment Jacob had changed his mind about coming.’

‘Oh no,’ she replied with a little grimace. ‘He drew the line at just lending me the car.’

I eyed the skimpy little frock Clare was nearly wearing as I dumped my helmet on the Range Rover’s back seat. ‘The way you’re dressed I won’t ask why you didn’t come on the bike.’

She looked down at herself with a wry smile. ‘It would have been cold, wouldn’t it?’ she agreed, then nudged my arm. ‘Come on, Charlie, lighten up.’

‘Lighten up? You’ll be beating them off with a shitty stick looking like that and I’m the one Jacob’s relying on to get you home in one piece,’ I grouched. In view of her glam appearance I tried to do something with my untidy mop of pale reddish blonde hair, but it spent too much of its time stuffed under an Arai bike helmet to pretend to have a style now.

She grinned at me again. ‘Don’t worry, if we walk in holding hands they’ll all just assume we’re gay.’

‘Yeah,’ I said sourly, ‘and I don’t have to ask which one of us they’ll think is butch.’

Clare locked the Range Rover’s door and linked her arm through mine. ‘Well,’ she said, a smile dimpling her lovely face, ‘we should both be safe then, hm?’

To start with, we nearly didn’t get into the New Adelphi Club at all. Gary’s new boss man had employed some very useful-looking door staff. Two big guys I didn’t recognise, which came as a bit of a surprise really, when I think about it. I thought I knew all the local hardcases.

Clare didn’t have a problem. They waved her through staring at her legs so hard that afterwards I doubt they would have been able to pick her face out of a line-up.

I didn’t merit such appreciation. I just got an arm like a steel girder across my path as one of them grabbed hold of the front of my jacket.

‘Oi, can’t you read?’ he demanded. He jerked his head to the six-inch square sign half-hidden behind him on the wall, which was headed ‘Dress Code’. ‘No leather jackets and no denims!’ he stated, stabbing a finger at the appropriate lines. God knows what he would have done if he’d known about the Swiss Army knife I always kept as an emergency tool kit in my jacket pocket.

I looked down at the meaty fist screwing up the leather. He had gold sovereign rings on three out of four fingers and a blurred blue tattoo disappearing up his wrist into the sleeve of his dinner jacket. It reappeared again over the top of his shirt collar, an indecipherable squiggle just to one side of the knot of his clip-on bow tie.

I couldn’t help getting the feeling that if Clare and I had been dressed the other way round, she probably would have still walked straight in, but now wasn’t the time to lose my rag. I always have the greatest respect for someone whose pain threshold allows a tattooist to stick so many needles into their neck.

‘How about you let go of me and we’ll start this again?’ I said, keeping my voice reasonable.

‘How about you just fuck off and come back when you’re properly dressed?’ he sneered, shoving me backwards half a step.

‘How about you learn to pick up your teeth with broken fingers?’ I shot back. He was pissing me off big time, and this was not professional behaviour. He was muscle and menace, not the right material for working the door. They should have kept him in a cage somewhere until they needed real trouble sorting out. I didn’t think I qualified for the strong-arm tactics straight off.

‘Hey, what’s going on? You causing problems already, Charlie?’

We both turned, which is not easy when you’ve got someone practically lifting your feet off the floor.

It was Gary. He was wearing a white dinner jacket to distinguish himself from the underlings, and trying to look like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. I don’t think he quite pulled it off.

‘It’s all right, Len,’ he said. ‘Charlie Fox is OK. I know her. What’s the problem?’

The doorman slowly, and with great reluctance, uncurled his fingers from my jacket and put me down. ‘She’s not properly dressed,’ he muttered, a bully caught in the act by one of the teachers. He didn’t quite shuffle his feet, but he came pretty close to it.

Gary gave me a studied glance. ‘That’s about as properly dressed as she gets,’ he said, flashing a quick smile. ‘I think we can bend the rules about the jeans just this once, but the boss man’s in tonight so you’ll have to lose the jacket,’ he told me apologetically. ‘I’ll check it for you.’

I shrugged out of my jacket and let him hand it over to the cloakroom staff. Len stood and glared at me like a lion that hasn’t made a kill for weeks and who’s just been whipped back from a freshly slaughtered antelope.

The other doorman was also dressed in a dinner suit, and sporting that comedy blend of joined beard and moustache that just circled his mouth. The rest of his head was shaved smooth of hair. Both of them were wearing walkie-talkies with clip-on mics and earpieces. Curly wires disappeared under their jacket collars.

The bald doorman had been leaning against the wall during the whole exchange. His only energy expenditure was to chew gum. He made no moves to get involved on either side. Now he grinned at me slyly as Clare and I passed through into the bowels of the club. It made my scalp itch.

‘You’ll have to tell me what you think of the place now it’s been re-done,’ Gary yelled down my ear over the thunderous beat of the music.

The narrow entrance way had opened out into the club proper. It had changed so much since I’d last been inside the old Adelphi that if it hadn’t been for the unaltered façade I’d have thought they’d pulled the whole place down and started again.

We’d come out on what was now the first level, overlooking the basement dance floor. I looked up and saw the cellars weren’t the only thing that had become open plan. The ceilings of the next two floors up had been partially dismantled, revealing bars and more dance floors. I didn’t want to be impressed, but I couldn’t help it.

Clare and I fought our way through the crush to one of the bars on the next level up where Gary gave us both a drink on the house. The full extent of his generosity became apparent when I looked at the prices, even though Clare just had a glass of dry white wine and I stuck to mineral water.

‘So, when’s the karaoke start?’ Clare asked him, leaning close so he could hear her over the din.

‘Oh you’re going to have a bash at that are you?’ he said, preening under the attention. Like most fellers he had to look up slightly to make straight eye contact with Clare. Particularly when she was wearing four-inch heels. ‘That’s terrific,’ he told her. ‘To be honest, it’s been a bit slow to take off. The girl who’s won it the last three Saturdays in a row isn’t much cop, but she’s got enthusiasm. The crowd seem to like her.’

He offered to take us up to the smaller dance floor where the contest was taking place and introduce Clare to the DJ who was in charge of it. ‘Dave Clemmens is a scream,’ he said. ‘Just tell him what you want to sing and he’ll look after you. No trouble.’

We followed him deeper into the club, up a winding spiral staircase. Out of habit I checked out the nearest exits as we went. Dave the DJ held court at one side of the raised stage area on the other side of the floor. Gary guided Clare across with his hand resting lightly on the small of her back. I was deemed strong enough to make my own way there unaided.

Dave was another of those blokes who obviously spent more time admiring himself in the mirrors down at the gym than he did slouched in front of the TV at home. He’d worked hard on the vanity muscle groups, emphasising his biceps and pecs.

As Gary introduced us to him, his eyes flickered from Clare’s face down her body to her legs and back again, with a slow smile forming on his lips as he offered her his hand.

‘Delighted, Clare,’ he said, holding on to her fingers slightly longer than was necessary. Clare gave him the sunny smile of someone who’s used to eliciting such a response from men.

The stare he treated me to was less driven by lust, more by curiosity. I could see him playing mix and match with the relationship between the two of us. Frankly, I didn’t much care what combination he finally came up with.

He soon switched his attention back and started asking a few questions about Clare’s background. Had she sung before? Had she entered a competition like this before? She answered them all easily enough, leaning forward to talk to him. ‘So where are you from, Clare?’ Dave asked now, scribbling notes on a pad balanced in front of him. His other hand worked the controls of the deck with the sureness of long familiarity.

‘I live near Caton village, just the other side of Lancaster,’ she said.

‘Uh-huh, and what’s your phone number?’ It was tagged so neatly onto the back of the other questions that Clare nearly fell for it, opening her mouth to speak, then closing it again quickly. She shook her head with a smile and wagged her finger at him.

‘Ah well,’ he said, ‘you can’t blame me for trying.’ He checked the list on his pad. ‘You’ll be up last, but there’s only eight tonight, so don’t stray too far. If your friend wants to stay about here she’ll get the best view.’ He put just enough emphasis on the word friend to give it a whole host of meanings.

I smiled sweetly at him and said nothing.

He shrugged, reaching for his microphone. ‘OK, ladies and gents, this is what you’ve been waiting for! Another chance to hear the least-talented people in the area step up to the mic and make arse-holes of themselves!’

I was surprised at the intro and didn’t try to hide it. Dave grinned at my reaction.

‘OK, first up, as always is the reigning champion from last week. Where is she? There she is, can’t carry a tune in a bucket, but what she lacks in being musical, she makes up for in volume and guts. Step up to the mic, Susie Hollins!’

Despite this remarkable lead-in, the girl who scrambled up onto the stage was flushed with excitement rather than anger. She was pretty in a conventional sort of way, medium height, blonde streaks running through naturally dark hair, and a blouse that went see-through enough under the artificial lights to show the generous cut of her bra.

There was something vaguely familiar about her that I couldn’t place. Funny how you can never recognise someone out of context. I frowned while I dredged through my memory files, but came up empty.

Now, Susie stood fiddling with the microphone and primly adjusted her micro-length skirt as Dave gave his spiel about her.

‘You all know Susie. She works behind the meat counter at our local supermarket, and she can weigh out my sausages any time! She’s here tonight as usual with Tony—give us a wave, Tone—there he is! Got your own groupie, haven’t you, Sue? Mind you, with a voice like this, she needs all the help she can get. Give it up now, ladies and gents, for Susie Hollins!’

Susie launched straight into her number with plenty of gusto, but Dave was right. She did need a watertight container to carry the tune. She didn’t have the range to hit the high notes, or the breath control for the phrasing of the song.

Still, you had to hand it to her, she was up there giving it her all, and the crowd were cheering her on. Or maybe they were just trying to drown out the sound of her voice.

One thing was for certain, though. Susie Hollins may have been no great shakes as a karaoke singer, but I didn’t think that was reason enough for anyone to want to kill her.


Find Killer Instinct, the first Charlie Fox thriller (never before published in the U.S.!), at your favorite bookseller or online retailer! Here are a few links:
Mysterious Galaxy
Poisoned Pen
Barnes & Noble

And look for us to post Zoë's U.S. Killer Instinct tour tomorrow!!

1 comment:

怡孜 said...