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Table of Contents

A Social Killing

Part One

Chapter One

Daniel Nash sipped his cappuccino while thinking about the day ahead. It would start with a murder. He wasn’t sure how it would end.

It was a pleasant day for an assassination, he thought, warm and bright with filmy wisps of cloud drifting across the sky. Birds sang with the joy of summer and drowned out some of the background traffic noise. He felt relaxed and with a clear purpose. He liked his job and he knew he was good at it.

But killing somebody isn’t always easy, he reminded himself. He took another sip of coffee. Not the act of murder itself, of course, which generally wasn’t difficult. Killing people could, in fact, be remarkably simple. Nash knew that well enough from his own experience. No, he was thinking of the emotional cost of it. Killing people can really mess with your head.

He lifted the bill from the tray on the table and squinted at it. He frowned at the price. A street cafe on the Champs-Elysees might charge the earth for drinks, but the cost came with the venue. Some garden furniture outside a cafe in Middlesbrough could hardly compare as an equally desirable cosmopolitan location. The northern English town had a modern feel to its centre, but it was still industrial at its heart. It certainly wasn’t Paris.

He threw a fiver onto the tray in disgust and weighed it down with the salt cellar. The last thing he needed was an irate waitress chasing him for payment if it blew away, yet he begrudged paying so much for a spoonful of coffee with some foamy milk. He was tempted to wait for his change and forget about a tip, but it was almost time for his target to arrive and he could see his waitress was still inside serving other customers.

Glancing back towards Corporation Road he watched as the bus pulled up right on time. Most of the people getting off headed in his direction, probably to cut through the park into the town centre shopping precinct, or to go to the court or the council office. He spotted his target among the amblers at the rear of the group. Slim, pretty, and a killer in her own right. She wandered past the cafe oblivious to his presence. Nash reached beside his seat and lifted a camera bag onto his shoulder. He stood up and followed his target at a discreet distance.

Sharon Cadogan, thirty-three years old, single mother with a personality disorder, had no idea that she had been targeted for assassination. It wasn’t clear to Nash whether she was even conscious of her own wrongdoing. He found people like her difficult to read.

Sharon walked slowly, apparently without purpose or direction, but Nash knew she’d eventually head to the pool at the edge of the public square. She might wander across to the modern art gallery first, or over to the library before doubling back. But she always stopped at the pool and spent ten minutes staring into the shallow water and at the timed fountain display before heading for a contact session with her son. Nash often wondered what went through her mind at those times. Probably nothing sane.

Sharon had married young, to her childhood sweetheart Karl Cadogan, and went on to give birth to their first child - a girl - less than a year later. Bea Cadogan was sadly born with a rare genetic condition and her body was unable to produce a particular enzyme she needed. Bea’s early years were spent in and out of hospitals as doctors struggled to find a reason for her delayed development. Sanfilippo Syndrome was eventually diagnosed, the result of a recessive gene in both parents, but there were unusual anomalies in her symptoms which the paediatricians struggled to explain. One suggestion was that this was a variant of the disorder not previously recorded. In any case, there was no treatment and the prognosis was poor, with a death in her teens predicted. Bea didn’t last that long. She almost made it to seven. Almost.

Sharon and her husband grieved for a year and a half before deciding to try for another child. After all, there was a statistical chance the next child wouldn’t inherit the disorder. The odds were four to one against, but it seemed at first that the gamble paid off. Adam Cadogan was subjected to a battery of tests as a baby and was found to be free of any abnormality. He was a healthy child who hit all his expected development milestones.

Until he reached two years of age. Then Adam began to have disturbed sleep patterns, behavioural difficulties, muscle-wasting, speech problems, and a host of other issues. He was admitted to hospital and improved briefly, but the paediatricians were again at a loss to know the best treatment for the unidentified condition. It was similar in many ways to Bea’s condition, but some of the symptoms didn’t quite match.

For the next three years of his life Adam spent more time in hospital than at home. His overall presentation fluctuated regardless of the treatment he received. It was a classic case of taking one step forward and two steps back. The long-term prognosis wasn’t good and it was expected he would die young, as had his sister.

Then one day an intern voiced an unthinkable question to the treating consultant: “What if the parents are causing the symptoms?”

‘What if indeed?’ It had happened before - lots of times, in fact. A parent, usually the mother, would gradually poison her child to create symptoms of serious illness. Or tamper with specimens to skew medical test results.

Nobody really wanted to consider that a parent might be capable of doing those things to their own child. Who in their right mind would? It was difficult to comprehend a reason for a parent to poison their own child, though some felt it was a misguided attempt to gain attention for themselves - to gain some gratification from the involvement of so many professionals.

The condition used to be named after that infamous German teller-of-tall-tales, Baron Munchausen. Nowadays, it had the more prosaic title of ‘Fabricated or Induced Illness’. Regardless of the name, it was a recognised mental disorder of a parent which often culminated in the child’s death if not identified soon enough.

And the Cadogan’s first child had died.

The consultant took the obvious next step: he called in the police and social services. Covert surveillance was reluctantly agreed - it was an infringement of her civil rights after all - and Sharon was caught redhanded almost immediately. She was, and had been for years, subtly but systematically poisoning Adam.

It split up her marriage, of course. Karl had had no idea. He left the area and severed all ties with Sharon and, a little surprisingly, with Adam. Perhaps it was the only way he could avoid the guilt of having allowed it to happen in the first place.

Sharon denied any wrongdoing in spite of the evidence stacked against her. “I would never hurt my child,” she declared.

“You have permanently hurt your child,” the medical professionals told her. “He will never fully recover.”

She remained resolute. “You have it all wrong. I love him more than you can know.”

There was evidence, but there was also due process. Lawyers can argue for and against almost anything, particularly using technicalities of law, and there were discrepancies in the manner in which the police had used to gather the evidence against Sharon. There generally are if you dig deep enough.

Nash wanted to believe in a world where that didn’t matter. A world where the guilty were treated to a fair but firm justice. He had realised many years earlier that the world wasn’t like that and justice often relied more on knowledge of legal rules than actual evidence of actions. In Sharon’s case, the outcome went in her favour.

Sharon Cadogan had been caught on film poisoning her child. In all probability, she had done the same thing to her first child, Bea, and it had probably caused her premature death. And yet Sharon was never convicted of an offence against a child. She never spent a day in prison for her crimes.

Sharon had tried to kill her second child and had, in all likelihood, succeeded in killing her first. Yet she had no criminal record. The courts had thrown out the case and left not a blemish on her clean and pure character. But the medics, police officers and social workers knew different. And so did Nash.

Thankfully, there was still enough evidence to take Adam into the care of the local authority. Civil proceedings have a lower burden of proof than criminal ones.

Adam was reported to be thriving in his new foster family. Following the dictates of English fair play Sharon continued to have regular contact with him, supervised by a social worker of course. While it was considered in Adam’s best interests to maintain emotional ties with his birth mother, it wouldn’t be reasonable to give her an opportunity to poison him again, hence the supervision.

Nash ran the whole history through his mind as he followed her past the courthouse into the park. He needed to remind himself that she deserved to die. He always found killing women harder than men. Nothing could bring back Bea, he reminded himself, and Adam was now safe, so his initial thought when receiving this assignment had been that Sharon’s death would not achieve anything. He didn’t consider societal revenge as a reasonable motive on its own. But Sharon had started a new relationship a few months earlier with a local lowlife. Sources suggested that the couple were already planning a child of their own. That decision sealed Sharon’s fate and she was added to Nash’s hit list. There was no way she could be allowed to start the cycle again with another child.

Sharon turned at the bottle-sculpture towards Mima, the modern art gallery, though from Nash’s previous observations of her she probably wouldn’t go into the building. She would stare blankly through the glass frontage for a few minutes before heading towards the exit of the park and stopping at the pool. Nash kept walking straight ahead, but kept her in his peripheral vision. He was just another body heading into the town centre. One of the herd.

A week ago he had decided the ideal spot to deal with Sharon was a bench near the exit of the park with a clear line of sight to the pool. It was off the main path so he hoped few pedestrians would cross in front of him. He only needed a thirty second window to complete the task. As he approached it, he noticed an old man hunched on his selected bench. The man was wearing a long raincoat despite the warm weather and a trilby-style hat pulled down over his ears. A harmless old man, probably widowed, thought Nash. Perhaps he comes to this same bench every day just to pass the time. Time isn’t just wasted on the young, thought Nash. The old and lonely have nothing else to do with time but waste it. Nash felt sorry for the man.

Having a witness didn’t concern him, because there would be nothing to see. The death would appear natural. And anyone giving Nash a second glance would see only an amateur photographer - a tourist - taking some snaps in the park.

Five metres from the bench and the old man stood up suddenly and walked away in the opposite direction. Nash noted the man had a limp which lent him a hobbling gait, but with each shuffling step there was an almost imperceptible spring in the right foot. It isn’t arthritis, Nash noted; he has a prosthetic limb. Could be an ex-soldier, a war hero, unlucky enough to have stepped on a land mine. Or maybe a heavy smoker with an arterial disorder which led to gangrene and a life-saving amputation. Poor bugger either way.

Nash watched the man hobble from the park while thinking about getting old himself. He had no intention of doing it gracefully. He intended to kick and scream all the way. Assuming he lasted that long, of course, given his dangerous profession.

He sat in the middle of the bench and put the bag down next to him. He hoped it would discourage anybody from sitting down. Glancing back across the park he could see Sharon ambling in his direction towards the pool. Time to kill her, he decided.

Nash unzipped the camera bag and lifted out what appeared to be a digital SLR, but was rather a directed-energy weapon. A cable ran from the camera body back into the bag. It was its only flaw, he thought, that it needed more power than could be squeezed into its innards; the cable ran back to a heavy battery built into the base of the bag.

Nash had needed special permission to get the weapon released for this job. He had argued with Hollingberry that the most effective way to terminate Sharon was in public and there was a certain irony to inducing a medical condition in her. After all, she had done the same thing to her children. With agreement grudgingly given, he’d driven in the early hours to the nearest army base at Catterick Garrison to sign for the weapon. He had to return it later that same day. The government couldn’t afford to have the weapon in the open for too long because it didn’t officially exist.

Nash flicked the machine on and keyed in a seven digit activation code. Then he pressed his thumb to the rear plate to confirm his identity. The camera began to hum as it powered up. He glanced up and saw Sharon reach the side of the ornamental pool and stop to stare down into the clear water.

Nash lifted the camera to his eye and focused on a nearby statue. He slowly panned sideways until Sharon filled the viewfinder. The laser built into the lens bounced a beam from her body and read the range as six metres - well within the effective range of the weapon - and he checked each way to ensure there were no pedestrians about to cross his path. He focused the crosshairs on her forehead, depressed the shutter and held it down.

The weapon released a stream of high energy microwaves which, much like a domestic oven, excited electrons in her soft tissue. This in turn generated thermal energy in her brain - cooking her. Sharon reached up and rubbed her forehead briefly. She must be aware of something happening, thought Nash. Probably thinks she’s getting a headache when she‘s actually developing a tumour.

Nash released the shutter and lowered the camera into his lap. He quickly changed the frequency setting using the rear control panel. Creating a brain tumour was simply for insurance. A fall back plan if Sharon survived the actual attack. Nash lifted the camera again and focused on her midriff. He glanced quickly each way again to check that nobody would cross his path for another half minute or so, and pressed the shutter again. The invisible beam of high-energy microwaves stabbed into Sharon’s chest for twenty seconds. Sharon’s eyes widened in a sudden realisation that something was happening inside her over which she had no control. She clutched a hand to her chest and her face screwed up in pain. She straightened bolt upright for a moment, then doubled over and moaned loudly. Her eyes fluttered briefly and she screamed.

Twenty four seconds had elapsed on the camera’s counter when Nash finally released the shutter. Sharon’s heart spasmed. And stopped. She collapsed sideways onto the paving at the side of the pool and her right arm flopped over the edge into the water. Her body twitched spasmodically for a few seconds, and then lay still.

Nash put the camera back into the bag and stood up. A man walking his dog through the park had seen Sharon fall and he yelled for help as he ran towards her. A young couple strolling nearby turned at his cry. They both started to run towards the pool. In a few minutes a small crowd had gathered. Someone with first aid experience tried heart massage while others pulled out mobile phones to call for an ambulance. Most just stood and watched. It was a little drama for them in an otherwise dull day. Something to tell their friends in the pub.

Nash waited long enough to confirm that Sharon could not be revived. Satisfied that she really was dead, he settled the bag onto his shoulder and walked casually from the park. Like all towns in England the whole area was covered by CCTV, but Nash had already dealt with that earlier. He knew from experience that most council computer systems could be hacked - he did it all the time - and it wasn’t too hard to fool recording devices into overwriting themselves with digital noise. There would be no video footage of the incident for the police to examine. Zero evidence of his presence in the area following a hit was always preferable, he believed. He also felt confident that none of the witnesses in the park had even registered his existence - they had been too focused on Sharon. In any case, a coroner would conclude that Sharon had died of natural causes - from a heart attack - a myocardial infarction. Tragic for one so young, but it still happens all the time.

Job well done, he thought, as he walked away.

Chapter Two

Nash got home around eight and used his remote to open the heavy gate to the car park. He drove his Mazda into the parking area and pulled into his allocated bay. Soft blue lights embedded in the pavement lit the way to the front door of the flats. He locked the car and headed inside. His downstairs neighbour was coming out and held the door for him.

“Evening, Dan,” greeted his neighbour.

“Hey, John. Working tonight?”

“Yes.” He pulled a face. “Got to pay the bills somehow. Until the lottery win.”

Nash smiled. “Good luck with that. Catch you later.”

“Bye.” John waved over his shoulder and headed for his car, a BMW M6. Not quite brand new, but immaculate.

Nash headed upstairs, past John’s door on the first floor. He figured John was more likely to be eaten by piranha fish than win the lottery, although the guy had plenty of money regardless. He worked at one of the chemical plants dotted around Teesside in some sort of scientific job. Nash couldn’t remember the details because he only ever half-listened to his neighbours. Whatever it was, the job paid good money. John was happily divorced, no kids, and enjoying the single life again. Nash had warmed to him immediately. Not that he would foster a real friendship with him. He was never in one place long enough to put down those kind of roots.

He unlocked the door to his penthouse flat and deactivated the alarm system. Kicked off his shoes, threw his keys on the kitchen counter and poured himself a large whisky. Priorities, he thought. He padded across the hardwood floor and slumped into an armchair. He raised the glass to the empty room. “Home, sweet home,” he said, taking a good sip.

Nash loved this flat. Much better than his last place in Doncaster. Not that he had liked anything about his previous assignment; all the kills were problematic in one way or another. Middlesbrough was turning out to be much better so far, and having a comfortable, secure place to sleep made all the difference. A grade II listed building in the picturesque village of Great Ayton, his penthouse had great views across the Cleveland Hills and was a reasonable commute to Middlesbrough for work. It cost a small fortune to rent the place furnished, far more than most social workers could afford, even agency ones, but he used his cover salary solely for living costs. Like an expense account. His real job paid far better and he never spent a penny of it. Each month a deposit was made into a separate account and he was keeping it safe for the future. He intended to continue living in this style, or better, if he lasted long enough to retire. He might even get himself a new BMW M6 instead of a battered old Mazda.

Nash finished his whisky and went into the kitchen for a refill. He noticed his mobile on the worktop and switched it on. He never took it with him on a hit. There were three text messages. One from work reminding him of a team meeting planned for the next morning - boring. He deleted it. One from Jenny asking to change their date from Saturday to Friday - no problem. He would ring her in a bit. The last from a blocked number which simply said, “Ring Mom.”

He carried his glass and the phone back to the armchair. Set the drink down on the coffee table. Dialled a number from memory and waited for the sultry voice to answer. “Hello.” Pity the face didn’t match the voice. He liked Hollingberry, but she was no looker.

“Hi Mom,” he said. “It’s me.”

A pause. “Go secure.”

He lifted the phone from his face and keyed in a code. Waited for the beep. “Done. Ready for debrief.”

“Good job today, Nash,” she said. “How are you feeling?”

He smiled. “I feel fine.” Always the first question and it couldn’t be more irrelevant, he thought. He’d been employed by the Department because killing people didn’t bother him, as long as he felt it was justified. He didn’t feel guilty, remorseful, conscience-stricken or penitent. Nor did he feel any satisfaction or gratification. Nash genuinely believed that Sharon Cadogan had deserved her fate. He had simply completed a task. He felt fine.

“Preliminary medical report says she had a massive myocardial infarction. Doubtful an autopsy will say any different. I’ll keep monitoring the NHS databases just to be sure.”

“It makes a change for everything to go smoothly,” said Nash. “I wish they were all that simple.”

“You don’t fool me for a second,” she said, “you love the complicated hits. Makes it more of a challenge.”

Nash laughed. “You might be right, Hollingberry. And I’m fairly sure the next one will be trickier. Has approval been given?”

“Not yet, but I don’t foresee a problem. The guy’s a scumbag. Morgan’s reviewed your report and agreed in principle. We’re just waiting on the Board. You can begin preliminary surveillance though.”

“Good. I’ll make a start this weekend. Let me know when I have a green light.”

“Will do,” she said. “Chosen your method?”

“Not yet.” He took another sip of whisky. “Probably suicide.”

That was the difficulty with a job where all the deaths had to appear natural. In the whole of the UK there are well under a thousand murders each year and small towns like Middlesbrough might only have one or two, or none at all. It would be big news if Nash was let loose with a gun and openly killed half a dozen people in three months. He’d look like a serial killer. But a couple of suicides, a fatal road traffic accident, a heart attack, a house fire caused by smoking, even an occasional drowning - nobody noticed those things. Tragedies like that happen all of the time in every corner of the country. And deaths by suicide run at ten times the number of murders in Britain. It was his most-used method.

“Makes sense. Drug overdose?”

“Uh huh.” Easiest way: slip the guy a benzodiazepine in his drink at the pub. Not for a ‘date-rape’, just to make him tractable. Follow him home, then persuade him to ingest a cocktail of other drugs - benzos, barbiturates, ketamine, paracetamol - and compose a suicide note. Simple, and yet another undesirable would be conveniently dealt with.

Nash could hear her tapping keys in the background; writing her debriefing notes on the fly. “We can talk about it next week,” she said. “once we have permission.”

“Well, if there’s nothing else…”

“Just one more thing,” she said, her voice soft as silk. “How’s the girlfriend?”

“Fuck sake, Hollingberry,” he snarled back at her. “Can’t I have any privacy?”

“No.”

Nash sighed. “I hate being tapped. I am allowed to have a life.”

“Yes, you are allowed a life and I’m allowed to monitor it.” Then sarcastically, “is she nice?”

“Look, you obviously already know all about her.”

“And what do you know about her?”

“Enough,” he said, “we’ve only had one date. She’s a copper, here on a six-month assignment. Staying at her sister’s in Hartlepool.” He smiled to himself. “And she’s lovely.”

“She’s CNC.”

“What?”

“CNC,” she said, “Civil Nuclear Constabulary.”

“I know what it is, Hollingberry.”

“Didn’t tell you that, did she?”

“So what? We’ve only had one date, for chrissake!”

“Listen, Nash,” she said, “I’ve run a background on her. Hughes is an expert in anti-terrorism. Highly trained in firearms; a skilled marksman. Ex-army, like you. In Hartlepool as a security consultant for the nuclear power station. She’s one of their best.”

Nash sat up straight and slashed his free hand downwards for emphasis, despite the fact that Hollingberry couldn’t see him. “None of that matters.” Opened his palm. “I like her, Hollingberry.”

“There are easier ways to get sex,” she snapped. Then softer again, “I’m not really your mom, Nash, and you can see whoever you want. It’s just that you’re exposed when you’re on a posting. I need you to realise this woman could be dangerous for you. She’s trained to kill. That’s all she is trained for. Don’t you think she might spot the same talent in you? That she might see through the social worker facade?”

Silence. Nash didn’t know how to respond. He hadn’t considered that.

“I’m just saying: be careful. Try not to get too attached. There will be lots of time after this posting to meet someone. Plenty of fish in the sea, you know?”

“Alright,” he agreed. “I’ll try not to get too serious.” He finished his drink in a throat-stinging gulp. “Is that it?”

“Yes. Stay in touch.” The line went dead.

Nash put the phone down and stared into space for a moment, thinking. Hollingberry had annoyed him, but he had to accept that she did make sense. He wasn’t buying it though. He didn’t think that starting a relationship was incompatible with his role. In a few months he would move on, and so would Hughes. If anything developed between them it would need to survive long distance in the future, which would probably be harder than keeping his line of work a secret from her, he thought.

They hadn’t discussed being in the army, either of them, but he wasn’t keeping his past a secret - it simply hadn’t come up. “And I am a social worker, Hollingberry,” he said to the empty room, “it’s not a facade.” Nash felt certain that he could convince her that any martial skills she detected in him were from his past. She might see a killer, but then again, all soldiers are killers. No reason for her to think he still did it for a living.

He picked the phone back up and quickly dialled her number.

“Hey you,” she said after only two rings. He smiled. Her voice had a face to go with it. Blue eyes, dimpled cheeks, faint freckles across her nose. She didn’t look like a trained killer to him.

“Hey. Not too late to call, is it?”

“Not at all. Been working late?”

“Yeah. You know how it is. Just got your message, forgot my phone,” he said. “So you want to change our date?”

“Is that ok? I’ve had a shift change. Got to work Saturday night.”

“No problem. I’m happy to see you anytime.”

She laughed. “Smoothy. Same time?”

“Yeah. I’ll pick you up.”

“Bye then. See you Friday.” Blew a kiss.

“Bye.”

Nash put the phone on the table and slapped his hand on the arm of the chair. “Deserves another whisky,” he said aloud, grinning to himself. He felt elated. Only two days until he would see her again, not three. Picked up his glass to toast the air. “Hollingberry, may you find something in life worth living for. I have.”

He carried the drink back to his seat and flicked on the TV. Watched an hour of American sitcoms without really taking anything in. Finished his drink and went to bed feeling content.

Chapter 3

The team meeting seemed to last for an age. Nash sat with a fixed expression on his face which he hoped made him appear at least vaguely interested. He half-listened as the manager went through new file recording requirements. Every few weeks there seemed to be yet another new form to complete. For a profession supposedly focused on people, social work was swamped with paperwork. Visit a child for an hour, thought Nash, and spend two or three hours writing about it. He spent most of his week in the office behind a computer, as did everybody else.

At one point he looked across the table and caught the eye of Annabel Young. She mouthed, “Boring”, and grinned. He smiled back. Nash had always liked Young. Not that her name matched her appearance anymore. Probably hadn’t for twenty years. Her face was wrinkled like an overripe prune, but she had a sparkle in her eyes and a glow in her smile which hinted at the beauty she’d once had. She’d been a social worker since before the term was coined. He winked across at her.

“Are you listening, Daniel?” asked Meath, the team manager, a tone of irritation in her voice.

He nodded. “Of course, Rosie.”

“What was I saying?” She arched an eyebrow at his rueful shrug. “It’s not asking much, is it, that you pay attention for half an hour every two weeks?”

“Sorry.”

“Just sit still and listen. Now, as I was saying …”

Nash listened attentively for the rest of the meeting. He didn’t like the way that Meath could make him feel like a naughty child with a few disarming words. It was the way she said it, he realised, alongside the disapproving looks. She reminded him of his mother, God bless her soul!

At the end of the meeting there was a quick shuffle towards the door. “Nash, a moment,” said Meath. The rest of the team filed past him and Alice, the team clerk, gave him a reassuring pat on the shoulder in passing. Another lecture coming, he thought.

“We’ve had a referral this morning,” she said. “Serious domestic violence.”

“Is there any other sort?”

Meath gave him a withering look. “Will you go with Young to check it out? That’s all I’m asking.”

“No probs.”

“Good. Young has the details.” She picked up her papers and waddled out.

OK, he thought, no lecture. Just her usual sexism. He had concluded weeks ago that domestic violence was Meath’s only weakness in social work. For every referral where domestic violence was a feature she made sure a male social worker went along on the first visit. That meant Nash or Wadd - the only males in her team. And there were a lot of domestic violence referrals.

Meath had never adequately explained her reasons, but it seemed to be a misguided idea that a man would provide protection if some aggression was sparked by the visit. Which meant she thought the male social worker had some in-built duty to protect the female worker. Did it also mean she thought the male social worker had less inherent value? That he was expendable and should sacrifice himself to save his female companion?

Meath would never accept that her decision was sexist and Nash just went along with it. It was easier than getting into a debate.

Back in the team room, Young was flicking through a fax. She looked up as he entered, and smiled. “Drew the short straw again, Nash?”

“Nah, you and I are the social work dream team. How could I pass up an opportunity to see you in action again? Anyway, it keep’s me out of trouble.”

“Fool.”

He grinned. “Let’s just get it done. I’m ready whenever you are.”

“Alright, give me ten minutes to read the details and we’ll head out.”

Nash nodded and wandered to his desk. It was in the far corner of the office with no window nearby and a harsh striplight above - the worst seat in the house, so naturally it went to the temporary worker. Nash loved it; with his back to the wall he could see everything that went on in the office. In contrast, nobody overlooked his computer monitor so had no idea what he was doing. He used that to his advantage on a daily basis.

He flicked the computer on, but didn’t log in as himself. In his first week in post he’d hacked the council network and now he bypassed layers of software security whenever he worked at his real job. Like most computer systems, his login activity as Nash was recorded and he didn’t want an audit trail leading back to him. None of his hits were linked to his social work caseload, so he had no valid reason to look at their details using his own login. The backdoor route avoided any problems. It allowed him to access the database obliquely and if anyone tried to unravel it they would discover the access happened from a computer in another building because he also rerouted the network access protocols. Nothing could tie Nash to the hack, even if the IT department suspected something, which they never would. They had no reason to suspect anything, because none of his hits appeared suspicious. But it was better to be safe than sorry, he thought. Let them audit Sharon Cadogan’s file, for instance - they wouldn’t find his name linked to it in any way.

After logging in as Mister Generic Hack, Nash pulled up the files on Patrick McCalman, his next planned hit. Hollingberry still needed to confirm that approval was given, but if he was going to start some surveillance he needed to refresh the details in his mind.

McCalman could only be described as a sexual predator. Now in his early-50’s, he had a police record stretching back to his teens - some theft, but mostly violent and sexual offences. He had somehow managed to avoid prison through his teens and twenties, despite an allegation of rape and a conviction for grievous bodily harm. Age 23 he got married and appeared respectable for a while - even got a job at a local timber yard. The couple had two children, both girls, and the family never came to the attention of social services. Until his youngest daughter turned four.

She was taken by her concerned mother to the GP with a suspected urinary tract infection. Tests were completed - she actually had gonorrhea. So did the older daughter and McCalman himself, but surprisingly not the mother. They didn’t have sex anymore, the mother explained, not for a few years at least. She thought it was normal. She didn’t realise he was still having lots of sex - with anybody who would let him - including their two daughters.

McCalman denied it of course. Admitted having lots of one-night stands. “What’s wrong with that?” he asked. “Every man gets bored with the missus eventually.” Admitted having gonorrhea. “One of them slags at the club must have given me it.” Denied any abuse of his children. “I’d never do anything like that. Ask them. They must have got the clap from bathroom towels.”

“Your wife doesn’t have gonorrhea,” pointed out the police, “doesn’t she use towels?”

The children had been well coached by him, of course, and didn’t disclose anything initially. The medical evidence was pretty conclusive though and eventually the girls did begin to talk to social workers about their ‘secret games with daddy’.

McCalman served six years. He continued to deny any wrongdoing the whole time. His now ex-wife and children left the area and he never saw or heard from them again.

Instead, he had spent the past 15 years targeting single mothers with daughters. He would begin a relationship with the mother and then, presumably, intended to groom her child to be abused by him. Thankfully it never got that far, because in every single case the police and social services intervened. Disclosing his background to the mother tended to end the relationship before it really got going.

McCalman kept trying. Professionals kept stopping him.

Despite his age he was described as being in good shape - no middle-aged spread - and had always had a talent for charming the ladies. He would probably keep trying for a new victim until he dropped down dead. It was costing a fortune in resources to monitor him and that made him an ideal candidate for Nash.

Police intelligence reported he had been seen recently with a single mother on two separate occasions. He had a new target. She was described as emotionally vulnerable due to her own experiences of childhood abuse and of adult domestic violence. And she had four children, three of them girls, aged from two to nine years.

Enough was enough. McCalman had to die.

Nash nodded to himself. Begin surveillance this weekend - approval should be given by Sunday - so the hit could probably happen in a fortnight or less. Perfect, he thought. He shut down the computer.

Looked up and saw Young staring at him, quizzically. “You just looked really intense,” she said. “Angry, even.”

He shrugged. “Just concentrating. The amount of work makes me angry, I guess.” He stood up. “Are we ready?”

She nodded. “I’ll drive.” She scooped up her bag and turned to the door. Nash followed her out.

Young drove a nearly-new mini. It was filthy with spattered mud; she spent a lot of time in the countryside and no time at the car wash. The inside wasn’t untidy, but every square inch of the interior was lined with dog hairs and it had that lingering smell left by damp canines. Young had two labradoodles - her babies - and they used the seats like every other passenger. Nash hated making visits in her car. His black work trousers attracted the dog hairs like a magnet.

“What’s the story?” he asked, as she pulled out of the car park.

“DV referral from the police.” She shrugged. “Bit weird though.”

“How so?”

“Neighbour called the police because of loud noises from next door. A young couple called Poole, with a six year old son. Police attended. Then it says nothing about a domestic or any injuries to anyone. The whole report is about how Mr Poole refused to leave the property. They used CS gas and a taser on him. Then in the early hours he was bailed without any conditions and went home.”

“He assaulted the police and they just sent him home?”

“Exactly. Weird, right?”

Nash nodded. “Yeah. Not like the police to be heavy-handed.”

“Ha,” she said. Like a snort laugh.

“We’ll know soon enough.”

Young didn’t say anything else. Just concentrated on her driving, which he was glad about, because she had a tendency to drift across the central divide when talking. She finally pulled up outside a semi-detached in a nice neighbourhood. The garden was edged with neatly trimmed privet.

“No wonder the neighbours complained,” said Nash. “Doubt much goes on around here.” He stepped from the car and brushed some of the more obvious dog hairs from his trousers.

Young ambled up the drive and rang the doorbell. Nash stepped alongside her and pulled his ID out.

Mr Poole opened the door. It was immediately obvious why the police had needed both gas and taser to subdue him. He was wearing a tatty T-shirt with a small bloodstained tear across the chest and his shoulders were so broad they touched each side of the doorframe. Nash couldn’t see the top of his head because of his height and the angle from the bottom step. Mr Poole leaned forward slightly and snarled, “What do you want?” His voice sounded like a gorilla. He curled a hand around the edge of the doorframe and flexed his arm. His bicep was bigger than Nash’s thigh.

Young stepped forward and flashed her ID. “Annabel Young, Social Worker.” Nodded towards me. “My colleague, Daniel Nash. Can we come in?”

He smiled. “Of course.”

Said the spider to the fly, thought Nash, looking apprehensively at his huge frame.

Poole stepped back into the hallway and Young stepped straight inside and squeezed past him in the narrow space. Nash reluctantly followed.

Chapter Four

Jenny Hughes laughed and took a sip of her drink. Nash liked the sound of her laugh. He grinned back.

“I’m serious,” he said, “the guy was half-gorilla. Probably a missing link. Homo Massive-Bicepticus, or something.”

“And you thought you might have to fight him?”

He shook his head. “Not really, I guess. Most people just lose their temper and shout and bluster at social workers. Actual assaults are fairly rare, thankfully.” He shrugged. “Which is just as well, because he’d have snapped me in half.”

She laughed again. “I thought you were tough.”

“Did you really? Interesting.” Took a drink. “I suppose I can handle myself - that’s not boasting - but a guy that size in a confined living room. I’d have nowhere to run and once he got his hands on me I’d have no chance.”

“So what happened?”

“He cried.”

Hughes frowned. “He cried? Just like that.”

Nash finished his drink and motioned for the waiter. “Ready for another?” She nodded. “Same again, please,” to the waiter. Turned back to Jenny. “Not straight away, no, but it was a classic case of everybody getting it wrong.”

“How so?”

“The wife was the aggressor.”

“No way.”

Nash nodded. “The guy is huge, right? Six foot six. A bodybuilder. Works as a bouncer at the Madison nightclub. His wife is this petite dot. About four foot ten in heels.”

“And she started the domestic?”

“Yes. She thought he was having an affair. Lots of affairs. One-night stands.”

“Is he?”

“I don’t think so.” He shook his head. “Definitely not. Did I mention the guy was huge?”

Hughes laughed. “Once or twice.”

The waiter returned with their drinks and Nash paused until he’d moved away. Lifted his glass for another sip. “The guy is huge because he works out. But since their son came along and with his late nights at work he doesn’t have as much time for the gym. So he’s been taking shortcuts.”

“Steroids?”

“Exactly. And they’ve been gradually reducing his sex drive.”

Hughes leaned forward. “So how could he be having an affair?”

“He couldn’t, but he didn’t tell his wife about the drugs. All she knows is that they don’t have sex anymore and he works late at a nightclub full of attractive women. She accused him of cheating. He denied it. So she attacked him. Probably bounced right off him and started throwing ornaments instead. Then the police came.”

She frowned. “But why taser him if it was her?”

Nash spread his palms. “All the police saw was a sobbing woman, some smashed ornaments and a muscle-bound giant telling them to get out of his house. In those circumstances you ask questions later. I guess they tried CS first and realised only a taser would put him down.”

“Poor guy.”

“Yeah. Probably could have avoided it all if he’d been honest from the start. But he felt it belittled him. Made him less of a man because he couldn’t get aroused by his wife.”

A sly smile. “So that’s why he cried? When the truth came out.”

“No. At least, it was a different truth. My colleague, Young, gave him a lecture about the effects of domestic violence on his son. The emotional damage it causes. Then she asked him what his son thought about the police.

“‘He wants to be a policeman when he grows up,’ Poole told her.

“‘So he thinks they’re the good guys?’ Young asked.

“Poole just nodded at that.

“Then she finished him off with: ‘So when your son woke up because of the noise, what did he see? He saw the police tasering you, pinning you down and handcuffing you. And if they’re the good guys what does that make you? It makes you a bad guy.’ Young has a knack for making people feel guilty. That’s when he cried.”

“Poor guy,” Jenny said again. “So what now?”

Nash shrugged. “Not much. He needs to stop the drugs. We’ll offer some family support and see if they can sort things out.”

The food arrived then and they both waited silently until the waiter set the plates down and left. Nash looked at the huge portion in front of him; he already felt full from the starter. Hughes didn’t seemed fazed. She cut straight into her steak as if she hadn’t eaten in days. “So that’s what you do?” she said, popping a forkful into her mouth.

“Yes, that’s what I do. It’s a living.”

“And you like it?”

He nodded. “I really do. See, you take somebody like Mr Poole, he’s actually a nice man. Probably should have been a bit more honest with his wife, but he’s still a good guy. That’s at the root of social work - people are generally good, or want to be. My job is really about helping people be effective parents. To be the good people they want to be, when some simply lack the knowledge or the skills.”

“So there are no bad people in your world?”

“Oh, there are bad people - lots of them - and some could even be described as evil,” he said, “but they’re still in the minority. There are more good than bad.”

Hughes finished another mouthful. “What do you do with bad ones?”

“Try and keep them away from decent people. From children especially.” And kill some of them, he thought.

“Interesting work.”

He nodded. “And what about you? Police work must be pretty exciting.”

“Less exciting than you might think,” she said, looking down and concentrating on her steak. She can really eat, he thought. “My job is about security for nuclear power facilities, which might sound impressive, but really it isn’t.”

“What do you mean?”

She looked up and waved her knife for emphasis. “There are only two reasons for terrorists to get into a nuclear power station: to cause a meltdown, or to steal stuff to make a bomb.”

“Sounds exciting so far.”

Hughes smiled and started back on her steak. “Except that most terrorists realise they’re wasting their time. Firstly, causing a meltdown is really quite difficult. They would have to take over the whole plant and have a knowledgeable crew. So that’s fairly unlikely. Without armour they wouldn’t get through the front door and you can’t buy working tanks at your local secondhand car dealership. Secondly, we don’t leave weapon-grade plutonium or enriched uranium just lying around.”

Nash laughed. “You don’t have a gift shop?”

“Uh huh.” Grinned while chewing. “Good steak,” she said. “Anyway, most terrorists know its not possible to achieve anything with an assault.”

“So why have you there at all?” he asked, even though he knew the answer.

“The lunatic fringe.” Popped in another forkful and finished it before continuing. “There are always fanatics. Some idiot probably thinks they can drive up to the front gate with a car bomb and trigger a meltdown. They can’t, of course, but my job is to stop them.”

“Still sounds exciting.”

She shook her head. “It’s never happened and probably never will. The fanatics generally want lots of civilian casualties from their bombs and they wouldn’t get past the front gate at a nuclear power plant. Taking out a couple of coppers isn’t worth the effort.”

Nash finished his meal and slid the plate forward so he could rest on the edge of the table. “So you’re really just a deterrent.”

“Precisely. Simply by being there we stop anything from happening.”

“What about an inside job?”

Hughes put down her cutlery and pushed her own plate aside. “You’re smart,” she said. “And you’re right, there is a slim possibility a worker could get hold of some nuclear material to sell. But we stop them.” She dabbed her mouth with the napkin and dropped it next to her plate. “Its all very mundane really. I’m only here to train the locals anyway. Hartlepool isn’t likely to be a target even if some group did try something in Britain. They’d go for an enrichment facility or a cross-country shipment.”

The waiter came and began gathering the plates. “Would you like to see the dessert menu?” he asked.

Nash glanced at Hughes and she raised her eyebrows, nodding. “Yes, please,” he said to the waiter. Turned back to her. “Should you be telling me all this? Isn’t it classified?”

She shook her head. “You can find it all on the internet. There are no secrets left anymore.”

There are a few, he thought. “You seem very blasé about it.”

She simply shrugged. The waiter came back with a dessert menu and she flicked her eyes over it. “I’ll have the brûlée, please,” she said and handed it straight back.

“And you, sir?”

“No. I’m fine.” Nash felt on the verge of being uncomfortably full; he wondered where Hughes was putting all the food. The waiter nodded and walked away.

Hughes leaned forward and placed her right hand over his. “Where did you serve?”

He wasn’t surprised that she knew he was ex-army. It was written in his expression, the way he moved his body, even in the way he spoke - to somebody with the same experiences. “All over,” he said, “the Gulf, Afghanistan.”

“Me too.” Her eyes took on a distant glaze. “You know how it is - you must have seen things you’d rather forget. But those things are still inside you. They change you. Some of those changes are for the better, and some aren’t.”

Nash simply nodded. He knew exactly what she meant.

“So now I seem blasé about my work because it is mundane. The odds of a terrorist attack are about a billion to one. I’m more likely to win the lottery.” She laughed. “But if somebody does attack I won’t have any hesitation in making them very, very dead.”

Nash sat silently, watching her. He saw the glaze over her eyes - the dispassionate soldier - slide away gradually. She smiled then and the twinkle came back.

“Enough with the seriousness,” she said. “Talk about something else.”

The waiter arrived with dessert and set it down. She picked up her spoon and winked at Nash. Dug straight in and made contented noises while she ate.

“So what do you do for fun?” he asked. “Apart from eat.”

She laughed. “I do like my food.” Popped another spoonful. “I rock climb too. And my sister has a big, old Alsatian. I like walking him on the beach. You?”

“Not much. Anything in the countryside, I suppose. Walking, running.” Thought for a moment. “Oh, and movies. I love movies on the big screen.”

“What sort?”

“Anything and everything. Big budget blockbusters - no brainer movies with lots of special effects.”

“Explosions?”

He laughed. “Yeah, I love explosions.”

She grinned back. “Big kid!”

“I am, it’s true,” he said, “but going to the pictures could be something to do on our next date.”

“Oh, is there going to be a next date?”

Nash raised an eyebrow. “Yes, I think there is.”

“Yes, there most definitely is,” she agreed.

They haggled briefly with each other when the bill arrived, but Nash insisted on paying. Hughes finally agreed only as long as she could pay next time. Nash laid a neat pile of cash on the table and pushed back his chair. He held out his hand for her and led her through the knot of tables to the exit.

On the pavement outside Hughes linked arms with Nash. “Fancy another drink?”

He smiled. “Why not?”

As they walked away from the restaurant neither of them paid attention to the rows of parked cars, so neither noticed the shadowy occupant of a Ford Focus across the street who followed their progress intently.

Chapter Five

Nash sat at the bar nursing a pint with his body half-turned to watch the football game on the big screen TV in the corner. Somewhere over his shoulder, McCalman sat hunched over a drink at his own table, a newspaper open to the crossword in front of him. He had played a game of pool earlier and obviously knew a few of the regulars. Nash had clocked McCalman when he first came in and hadn’t glanced in his direction since, but he caught a lot of detail in his peripheral vision. It was clear that nobody in the pub knew anything about McCalman’s background as a child abuser. That would likely get him beaten up on a regular basis in this kind of bar. In any establishment probably. Instead, he had engaged in a long conversation about the poor performance of Middlesbrough football club with a couple of regulars. He was both known and liked; a distinct disadvantage to Nash’s plan.

Nash took his time with his drink. He didn’t want to appear too eager to leave, although he’d decided earlier that his plan to spike McCalman’s drink wasn’t going to work. The pub was McCalman’s regular haunt and it was simply too quiet. There were hardly any customers even on a weekend and Nash stood out as a stranger. McCalman didn’t.

It’s just the way it is, he thought. The poor economy of the past few years had hit the local pubs and clubs the worst. Regular drinkers had turned to cheap supermarket booze to drink at home rather than pay the higher prices charged at pubs. Apart from a few diehards, like McCalman, the local pub trade was dying out.

And the problem for Nash was that he couldn’t befriend McCalman, spike his drink, and leave the pub with him to complete the hit without being noticed. In a busy venue it would be easy. Nobody would remember two people drinking together and staggering out the door. But in a quiet, dingy dive like this it would be hard to miss, especially when McCalman turned up dead the following morning. “Yes, Officer,” he imagined the barmaid saying, “a complete stranger spent all night drinking with McCalman and they left together. He must have killed him. And yes, I can describe the stranger.”

Nash would need another plan. He finished his pint, nodded thanks to the barmaid as he set the empty glass on the counter, and walked out without a backwards glance.

It was a cloudless night and still warm from the day’s sunshine, but he could feel moisture in the air which hinted at thundery weather to come. Nash set off through the estate to where he’d left his car parked in an all-night supermarket a couple of miles away. It wasn’t the best neighbourhood in Middlesbrough, but random street muggings were almost nonexistent except among young adult males with something to prove, so he didn’t feel concerned. Perhaps he would feel differently if he was dripping wealth and looked like a target himself. Or if he was a teenager. Not that Nash ever really worried about physical confrontation. He didn’t go looking for it, but if it presented itself he was quite willing to use extreme violence in self-defence. He liked a good fight.

Nash took a circuitous route to pass McCalman’s house, a nondescript mid-terrace in an area dominated by council-owned properties. There was a dim light showing through a gap in the curtains, obviously left on for security, but no other signs of life. A break-in now would be easy, he reminded himself, but would present too many variables that could lead to disaster. Lying in wait for a target to return home would make it virtually impossible to appear as an accidental death. It was always risky to take on a person directly in their own home - it was their space, after all - their territory. And a murder during a foiled break-in would provoke a massive police investigation. Nash unconsciously shook his head as he walked past the house.

The suicide plan had seemed appropriate for McCalman, but was going to be difficult to set up. A house fire was also out of the question, he realised, because it could end up burning the whole terrace and killing half the street. Zero collateral damage was a cardinal rule of his trade.

He needed to come up with another plan.

He was almost at the car before the solution presented itself, although the idea carried a high risk of exposure if not approached correctly. That risk was the reason he had never used the method before, though he knew it had been done by other agents. If the circumstances of McCalman’s death raised any suspicions the police would seek a culprit and there was no way to avoid leaving some evidence behind, even if well-hidden. The last thing he needed was a murder inquiry with him as number one suspect.

Nash crossed the car park and jumped in his car. He retrieved his mobile from the glove box and unlocked it with his pin number. There was a missed call from Jenny, but that would have to wait until he got home. He quickly dialled Hollingberry and went through the security process. A nasally, effete voice answered. “You are secure, Nash. How can I help?”

Oh God, thought Nash, its that pompous git, Davis. “Where’s Hollingberry?”

“Night off,” he explained, “we don’t work 24/7, you know.”

Nash had never really liked Davis. He was ex-army too, though he’d never seen the front line, or action of any sort. His work had always been in logistics. It was a task in which he excelled, but Nash had always disliked his manner. He had an upper class accent and Nash felt his privileged background lent him an air of arrogance. Davis had a way of talking down to people that made Nash want to punch him in the face.

“When’s she next on duty?”

“You can talk to me, you know. We all work for the same organisation.” There was a tapping of keys. “Is this concerning the McCalman hit?”

Nash sighed. “Yes.”

“And?”

He gritted his teeth. Might as well just tell him. “I don’t think the suicide plan is feasible. I want to try carbon monoxide poisoning.”

“Risky. You’ll need to access the house.”

“I know.”

“And it may not kill him. He might realise what’s happening and get out.”

“I know.”

“And it leaves physical evidence - a blocked flue, a leaking valve.”

“I know.”

“And it is summertime - no reason to even have the central heating on.”

“He needs to heat water,” said Nash, “and the whole point is to have a fault in the system. It doesn’t matter if he doesn’t have the heating on.”

“Ok, I’ll give you that. I just need to ensure you’ve considered everything.”

Nash sighed again. “Let me tell you what I’ve got. McCalman goes drinking every Tuesday night - he has for the past two weeks anyway. I’ll check for another fortnight to be sure it’s a pattern before I make a move. He goes for a drink on other days, but only has a couple of pints generally. On a Tuesday, though, he has half a dozen at least. When he gets home he sits in the living room watching TV and has a few more drinks. The past two weeks he’s then fallen asleep on the sofa.”

“So you want to time the carbon monoxide leak for around midnight on a Tuesday so it - shall we say - encourages him to sleep and then kills him?”

“Precisely.”

“Sounds feasible,” agreed Davis. “What about getting in the house to set it up?”

Nash laughed. “That’s the simple part, Davis. Believe me, getting into a house in broad daylight is easy, and even if someone sees me they won’t be able to recall it a day later. People don’t even register certain visitors - council workers, telecoms fitters, gas meter readers and the like. And it won’t matter anyway. The police won’t be looking for a culprit. It will simply be a tragic accident.”

“Unless a gas inspection shows deliberate tampering.”

“It won’t. I’m not that clumsy.”

“That’s what Johnson thought. He tried a similar thing last year and it didn’t work.”

“I’ve read the report,” said Nash, “and it was completely different to my approach. Johnson’s target didn’t have a pattern of drinking and the plan relied too much on a pre-set timer turning on after the guy was asleep. Hard to know when somebody will sleep with any accuracy. It was bad luck that the man was still awake when the timer kicked in and switched the heating on - doubly bad that he heard it fire up and switched it straight off. But the target didn’t know there had been any tampering with the central heating - he probably thought there was a problem with the timer - and Johnson simply resorted to another plan. Didn’t he suicide him?”

“No. Car accident.”

“Whatever. He got the job done. If one plan fails, we switch to another. And he even went back later to remove the evidence from the central heating.”

“All well and good,” remarked Davis, “but what if your chap also notices the heating turn on? Most boilers make a noise when they fire up.”

“Simple. I’m going to wire a remote switch into the timer circuit. Somewhere it won’t be found without ripping the floorboards up. Then I’ll block the flue and leave the system off. On the night of the hit I’ll verify he has fallen asleep on the settee before switching it on remotely. He won’t hear it in his sleep.”

“And the physical evidence?”

“The blocked flue will appear like an accident. Nobody will be looking for a remote. I’ll wait a week or so until McCalman’s in the ground and then retrieve the remote switch before the council reassign the house.”

Davis tapped keys. “Alright. It does sound like a workable plan. Sorry to ride you like that, but I’m sure you understand the reasons. I’ll forward a report to Morgan and see if we can get you approval. No doubt Hollingberry will be in touch shortly.”

Nash smiled to himself. Perhaps the guy wasn’t so bad, after all. “Thanks, Davis.”

“You’re welcome. Goodnight, Nash.”

“Goodnight.” He flicked the phone off and tossed it onto the passenger seat. “You’re still a posh git,” he said to the empty car. Time to head home and ring Jenny.

Chapter Six

“The woman is crazy,” announced Young, “absolutely crazy.”

Nash sighed and looked up from his work. Young was talking to an otherwise empty office and obviously wanted a response from him. All of the team were out on visits or at meetings and Nash had decided to use the relative peace and quiet to catch up on overdue paperwork. The last thing he needed was to be hauled in about the quality of his social work, because it was a necessary cover to his real job. And he genuinely felt he was making a positive difference for some decent people.

“Who is crazy?” he asked, patiently.

“Vicky Regan.” She slumped into the chair across from his desk. “She’s a loon.”

“Who?”

“Vicky Regan, single mum. She’s started a relationship with Patrick McCalman.”

Nash tried to look blank. “And he is?”

“Sorry, Nash, I keep forgetting you’re new. McCalman is a sex offender. Nasty piece of work. We get new referrals linked to him every few months – every time he meets a new woman with children.”

“Oh, ok,” he said. “I take it she didn’t take the warning.”

“Not at all. I should have known when I found out her daughter was named Tia.”

“Nice name.”

“Middle name Maria.”

Nash laughed. “No way.”

“Yes way! Tia Maria Regan.”

“Poor kid.”

“Yeah.” Young laughed too and shook her head. “I’ve just been there for two hours with Rick from the Police Public Protection Unit. Two hours, and she doesn’t believe anything we told her. She even thinks the guy was set up by his ex-wife and shouldn’t have gone to prison. Like his ex-wife would make her daughter say she was sexually abused for the hell of it. He’s done a great job grooming Vicky and it will be her kid next.”

“So what now? Child protection conference?”

She nodded. “And I can see this ending up in court. Probably have to remove Tia if mum won’t see sense.”

“There are always people who don’t see reason.” Nash stood up. “Fancy a cuppa?”

Young smiled and nodded. “Thanks for listening, Nash. It helps to sound off sometimes.”

“Don’t I know it?”

After a hot coffee and a bit more whinging, Young went back to her desk and got her head down to her own paperwork, of which she had “masses” to complete. Nash tried to pick up where he’d left off, but his flow had been broken. He decided instead to log in through his ghost account to check out his next hit. Hollingberry had sent a secure email with the details, even though he hadn’t yet completed the McCalman job. At least his carbon monoxide plan had been approved and he was hoping to set things in motion later that week.

That was always the way – start researching the next job before the current one was completed. Avoid any thought of failure, thought Nash, by assuming everything will go smoothly. The department was sometimes quite simplistic in their reasoning. Nash had taken no part in the selection of his next target. That was also part of the pattern – he picked some and they picked some – with every choice having to be approved by committee. He had never been able to discern the criteria they used for selection. Each time he thought he had it worked out they threw him a bizarre choice of target. Like William ‘Billy’ Wake. The first thing Nash noticed about Billy was his age – not quite twenty years old. It would make Billy Wake his youngest planned hit, notwithstanding the young men he’d killed during his army years, and the idea didn’t sit comfortably with him. In Afghanistan and the Gulf Nash had been a young man himself, a contemporary of his enemy. But now that he was older and, hopefully, wiser he considered Wake to have barely left childhood behind. If he completed the hit, Wake would never have a chance at an adult life. No chance for redemption.

Nash was given the option to question an agreed target, but it wasn’t the done thing. The authorising committee had already debated the selection, so to voice any concerns would imply their decision-making was flawed. The second thing he found in the database was that Billy had lived a troubled childhood. Social workers had been involved with him from an early age. His father had beaten him systematically for years and he had been emotionally abused and neglected by his mother. There were four separate episodes where he had been taken into foster care – three of them where he was returned to his parents’ care following some social work intervention. The final episode, which began when Billy was twelve, led to a care order. He remained in foster care for a year and, as his behaviour became harder to manage, was moved into a children’s home until he was almost seventeen. As is often the case with social work involvement, the decision to finally say ‘enough is enough’ probably came too late. The temptation – the ethos of the social work profession – was to keep a child with his birth family as long as possible, even when all the evidence suggested it was a waste of time. And the outcome was an emotionally-damaged child who could never fully recover – you can’t go back in time to offer real love and guidance during his formative years - because by then the opportunity to develop a balanced individual has been lost forever.

The final thing Nash noticed was the outcome of Wake’s childhood experiences upon his character. He was a scumbag. While Nash might feel that his background explained Wake’s personality and behaviour, it couldn’t excuse it. There was a catalogue of offences from a young age, mostly petty to begin with, but increasing in severity throughout his teenage years. Aged thirteen he had visited his dad for an agreed contact session. During the visit he decided to break both of his dad’s shins with a ballpein hammer, retribution for years of physical abuse at his hands. Before leaving he cut the phone line in his dad’s house and tied him to a radiator. His dad lay there for a day and a half before his cries were heard by a passerby. Professionals wondered if his mother would receive the same treatment, but Wake idolised his mother despite her mistreatment of him. He openly admitted to police that he intended to “go back and finish the job” on his father when the time was right. He miraculously received only a community order – “a piece of piss” as Wake described it.

Aged fourteen he anally raped his eight-year-old cousin – “just to see what it was like”. He argued with therapists that his cousin was deliberately provocative with him and was “asking for it”. Assessments suggested that he felt no remorse about his actions and continued to be considered a high risk for further sexual offences. It was a miracle that he avoided custody for that offence, but courts can be sympathetic to children looked after by the local authority. Still aged fourteen he began using drugs - mostly marijuana with some cocaine - and by fifteen he was working for a local dealer transporting drugs around town to other addicts. By sixteen he was a dealer in his own right with his own ‘mules’. And so it went on. Offence after offence. Shoplifting, joyriding, drug dealing, arson, assault and affray – there seemed to be nothing Wake wouldn’t do.

Since turning eighteen he had been accused of two separate rapes, only six months apart, but in both cases the victim had withdrawn her complaint. It was only a matter of time, professionals thought, before he did something to land himself in jail. Possibly even murder. He was certainly capable of it.

From the Department’s point of view there were sufficient reasons to justify the killing of Wake. Certainly his age wasn’t a deterrent to his selection. To have done the things he had done before reaching twenty years of age only suggested that worse was yet to come. Better to do away with him now and save the local community from the misery of his future actions.

Nash didn’t really like it but he could understand the reasoning. Wake needed to die and Nash would do it. Reluctantly, but professionally.

He exited through the backdoor of the computer system and logged back in as himself. He was determined to complete some of his social work tasks before the day was over. Glancing up at the wall clock he realised it was lunchtime, so decided to grab a sandwich before getting embroiled in paperwork again.

“Do you want anything from the shop?” he asked Young.

She glanced round from her monitor. “No thanks.” He noticed she had a dog grooming website on her screen. So much for her “masses” of paperwork, he thought.

“Ok, won’t be long.” He pulled out his mobile as he walked downstairs and selected Hughes from his limited contact list. It rang a few times and Nash wondered if she was already at work. He had been sure she didn’t start until later that day. Just as it was about to switch to voicemail there was a sudden click.

“Hey,” she said, out of breath.

“Hey. Haven’t interrupted anything, have I?”

“No. I was just in the shower. I’m dripping all over the bedroom.”

“Oh. Nice image,” he said.

“You’re so naughty.” She giggled. “I like it.”

“Me too. Sorry for the bad timing.”

“No problem. What’s up?”

Nash smiled. “Nothing really. I just wanted to hear your voice.”

“Careful, Danny boy, anyone would think you’re falling for me.” She sounded happy about the idea.

“Too late,” he laughed. It was true, he thought, Jenny was perfect in every way. Nash didn’t voice it, but he realised he was falling in love with her. The idea was exciting and scary at the same time. “You working tonight?”

“Yes, late shift,” she said, “but then I’ve got two days off.”

“Do you want to go out tomorrow night then?”

“Love too. Oops, sorry, I said the L word.” She laughed.

“Careful, Jenny girl, anyone would think you’re falling for me too.”

“You wish,” she snorted.

“What do you want to do?”

“Surprise me,” she said. “Pick me up at seven?”

“Ok, see you tomorrow.”

“And Nash, if you show me where you live I’ll bring a toothbrush.”

He smiled. “It’s a deal.”

“See you tomorrow, honey.” She clicked off.

Nash put the phone in his pocket and grinned. Hughes made him feel so happy. Their relationship had developed quickly after their first few dates. Their personalities did gel perfectly, he thought, and they never struggled for topics of mutual interest to discuss. A week earlier they had slept together for the first time and it had served only to heighten his feelings for her. It had been a ‘typical’ date to begin with. Hughes lived with her sister in Hartlepool and Nash lived on the other side of Teesside, so he could never have much to drink during a date. There was also never a convenient way to invite her back to his flat without the obvious implication that it was for sex. He had wondered for weeks how he could progress things physically with her, but didn’t want to be too obvious or pushy. Nash realised that his reluctance to make a move hinted at the strength of his early feelings for her. In the past he had always been quick to initiate sex with girlfriends, with no concern about rejection. Plenty more fish in the sea, he thought. But with Jenny he wanted things to be right, and there simply never was a right moment. Until Jenny had raised the subject herself.

They had just been served dessert during a meal a week ago. Nash was again thinking about how much she liked her food when she uncharacteristically paused, a forkful of cheesecake halfway to her mouth, and said, “Fiona has gone to visit our parents for the weekend.”

“Oh,” Nash had responded.

“I have the house to myself,” she’d said. “Do you want to stay over tonight?” He would like to think he had been cool and measured in his response, but he’d actually choked on some biscuit crumb and coughed a few times before simply nodding.

She’d laughed aloud at his discomfort. “Good. I’m glad.”

The sex had been great, both that night and the following morning. Jenny was an accomplished lover, playful and energetic, and it had taken a lot of concentration on Nash’s part to maintain control long enough to be satisfying for them both. Nash had slept with a lot of women over the years, but found he connected with Jenny unlike anyone from his past. He hoped she felt the same way about him.

That night had also given him one of the most relaxing sleeps he could recall – he had had night sweats and disturbed sleep since his first army tour - and to awake with Jenny in his arms had been akin to a revelation. The sex that morning had been slow and tender, almost as if they were rediscovering each other afresh and wanted the feeling to last a lifetime. They had barely spoken over breakfast that day and Nash believed it was because they both felt the same strength of emotion - they had not merely had sex, they had made love to each other. It had always been just a platitude to him until the moment he finally understood it – there really was a difference between sex and love.

It made him nervous for the future. He had always hoped to meet the ‘one’ – and he was beginning to realise that Jenny fit the bill – but he also knew that being an assassin and a husband were mutually exclusive. For the first time since joining the Department he began to seriously think about retirement.

But that would have to wait. He had to make three more hits after McCalman to complete his current assignment and he couldn’t make plans to do anything until they were done. He was too much of a professional to stop in the middle of a job. In the meantime, Nash decided not to worry about the way their relationship was developing. He decided to simply enjoy it. Time enough to plan for the future when his current assignment was completed, which was also likely to coincide with the end of Hughes’ local placement. That would be the right time to discuss things, he decided.

Nash stepped into the sandwich shop for his lunch, a satisfied smile on his face. At least he only had a day to wait until he would see her again.

Fiction


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