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Table of Contents

A Social Killing

Part Three

Chapter Eleven

The sash window was already half-open, so he simply eased it higher before climbing inside. Not the best security, he thought, but the occupant probably felt it unnecessary to do more for a second floor flat. Getting to the window had been straightforward for Nash, though a little exposed. After climbing a wall from the alleyway behind the flats, he’d used an old metal drainpipe and some ornamental wall mouldings to reach the sill. For a daytime incursion it carried a high risk of being seen, but he really had no choice. He needed to know if Sark was the mystery killer.

It was also the fastest surveillance job Nash had ever done. He’d driven to York that Saturday morning, arriving at 4 am, and found a vantage point to watch the property. Sark emerged from the building entrance a little after eight o’clock and drove away in a Land Rover. Nash had no idea how long he would be away from the house, but still went immediately around the back to gain entry. It was a risky move. His instructors at the Department would no doubt say it was foolhardy. He didn’t care. He felt like he was on a time limit -for all he knew, Sark could be setting up the murder of Philippa Trelling over the weekend - and Nash had to be ready for whatever move he made next.

The flat was sparsely furnished and cluttered with books. They were everywhere. The small living room had the highest concentration. They were stacked in piles on, and beside, the coffee table, along with writing pads scrawled with notes and diagrams. The bedroom also held an untidy stack of books beside the bed which looked set to topple – there were even a couple of books and dog-eared magazines in the bathroom beside the toilet. Sark clearly liked to read, though he had never shown any interest in literature during his army days. Nash picked up some of the books at random throughout the flat and read the covers and blurb. It only served to heighten his concern.

The books fell into three categories in Nash’s opinion: murder, military, and terrorism. The murder category represented the smallest fraction, but included accounts of the most notorious serial killers from around the world. The military books encompassed modern engagements and hardware – the earliest book was a true story of a sniper’s life during the Vietnam War and none of the books went back as far as World War 2 – and included tomes about tactics and high-tech weapons as well as autobiographical accounts.

The terrorism category was the most concerning to Nash. Alongside the factual texts outlining the rise of global terrorism – with Al Qaeda featuring highly – there were internet printouts of do-it-yourself guides from survivalist nuts and anarchists. They included instructions for making explosives at home, remote detonation of IED’s, urban warfare, and even a guide to culturing a biological agent in the fridge.

The notebook on the coffee table was open to a crude drawing of the river Tees with three crosses marked on the far bank and lines drawn to the middle of the bridge. Angles were marked beside each vantage point, with wind factor and bullet travel time calculations written alongside. It was the nearest thing to a confession he would find, thought Nash. Sark had done his homework before completing the sniper attack – he had always been an efficient marksman. Nash quickly flicked through the rest of the notebook to look for clues to Sark’s next planned attack, but nothing leaped out from the pages of handwritten scrawl. It doesn’t matter, he decided, because Sark will be dead before he has a chance to kill anyone else.

There was a gun cabinet in the bedroom secured to the floor in a walk-in wardrobe. It was large enough to hold a rifle and a few other weapons besides. Nash decided not to try and break it open – he didn’t want to leave any evidence of his visit - it would take too long and make too much noise. He had all the information he needed in any case. Sark was guilty and Nash would kill him before the weekend was out. Suicide would be too good for him – he had to suffer for his actions – and Nash felt something messy and painful with a blade would be appropriate.

Nash clambered back out the window and steadied himself on the ledge outside before lowering the sash to its previous level. He quickly climbed down the drainpipe and dropped into the rear yard. The alleyway beyond was silent and he felt confident he hadn’t been spotted. He grabbed the top of the wall and vaulted over, landing catlike on the paved alley.

“Find anything interesting?” asked Sark.

Nash turned around slowly. He had been caught like a rank amateur and felt stupid. And he would no doubt die for his mistake. Sark leaned casually against the wall, a compact .45 in his left hand. He held the pistol close to his body to hide it from any passersby looking into the alley, though it was unlikely anyone would be interested. It would just appear to an onlooker as if two men had bumped into each other and stopped for a chat.

Nash thought from his quick glance that the gun was a Para Ordnance compact, a P10-45, and at such short range it would only take one shot to kill him. Which would leave nine more bullets in reserve. It was twenty metres to the corner of the alley and, at full sprint from a standing start, it would take him at least five seconds to reach it – plenty of time for Sark to empty the entire clip into his back. It was a no-brainer. He was a dead man.

“You’re getting sloppy in your old age,” said Sark.

“Clearly.”

“And you’re still a fucking idiot.”

Nash spread his palms. “Just get it over with, you arsehole.”

“Tch, tch. Language, Nash.” He laughed, a brittle sound. “Don’t look so worried,” he said, then suddenly shoved the gun into his pocket motioned with his free hand. “Come and buy me breakfast and tell me why you’ve become a burglar.” Sark stepped past his shoulder and set off along the alleyway.

Nash watched his back as he hobbled towards the street. He didn’t have the faintest idea what was happening.

Sark glanced back over his shoulder. “Come on.”

Nash shrugged and followed him. He hated the feeling of not being in control, but he had no choice – he needed to know what Sark had to say. Killing Nash clearly wasn’t on Sark’s agenda, which made him question all of his other assumptions. Perhaps Sark wasn’t the killer, after all. And if it wasn’t him, then who was it?

Sark led him to a café a few streets away and ordered a pot of tea and two full English breakfasts without asking Nash if he had a preference, or even if he was hungry. He waved him into a corner booth and sat across from him with his hands resting on the table top. His right hand was also prosthetic, Nash noted, which surprised him – he thought Sark had only lost a leg in Iraq.

“Here we are,” said Sark, “and I’m guessing you have a long story to tell me.” He opened his palm. “Begin.”

Nash paused and simply stared at him.

“I’m not going to shoot you, if that’s what you’re concerned about.” He patted the pocket with the gun. “Safety’s on. Look, Nash, I haven’t seen you in ten years and then you break into my flat out of the blue. But you didn’t steal anything, which means you were after something else. And it certainly wasn’t to catch up on old times.” He gestured towards the door. “Leave if you want – I won’t stop you – but if you’re staying you need to tell me what the hell is going on.”

So Nash told him everything. He figured if Sark was the killer he already knew it all anyway. If he wasn’t then he still needed to know everything in order to understand Nash’s actions. He had never told anybody about the Department or its purpose, and he found it strangely cathartic. He also found talking it through with Sark surprisingly easy, more so than he imagined he would feel telling someone like Jenny. Perhaps it was because the man meant nothing to him – he had nothing invested in him emotionally – and they had never liked each other. A bonus was that Sark listened without interruption. Without judging.

Nash knew there would be serious consequences if the Department discovered he had revealed its existence to an outsider. They were a secret organisation for a reason, but he no longer cared about following the rules. The rules had already been changed.

The food arrived and Sark kept listening while eating, nodding occasionally or grunting in encouragement for him to continue. Nash barely touched his food. He watched as Sark skilfully wielded his knife with his prosthetic hand to cut his food, surprised by the dexterity it afforded him, and kept on talking.

He finished by outlining his reasons for suspecting Sark and his hastily planned visit to York. “And here we are.”

Sark pushed his plate aside. “I can understand why you’d suspect me,” he said, “because everything that has happened is, without doubt, a personal attack against you. Your man, Morgan, is a fool to think otherwise. And it makes sense that you would suspect me - you’re right to think I hated your guts in the army. I would have happily killed you back then.”

Nash smiled weakly. “You don’t seem to feel the same way now. Mind telling me what’s changed?”

Sark held up his prosthetic hand. “Being blown up changes a man,” he said. “To be honest, I hated everybody in those days. I was the proverbial ‘angry young man’. But I hated you more than most.”

“Why me?”

“No reason. Maybe your expression, your mannerisms … who knows? You must have met people who you’ve immediately disliked – it’s a gut feeling kind of thing. You simply don’t gel with them. It was like that with you.” He lifted his cup and took a sip of tea. “And then there was the assault course.”

“Assault course? I don’t remember.”

“Basic training. I got caught on the barbed wire and you came back to free me. I already disliked you, but that was enough to make me despise you – to hate you with a passion – because it made me owe you something. And it made me second best.” Nash frowned. “You hated me for years because I helped you out? All the foul comments and dirty tricks you pulled were for that.”

He laughed. “Doesn’t make sense, does it? But then nothing does with hindsight. Especially not the flawed personality of an angry young man.”

“I had no idea.”

Sark shrugged. “We all have complicated life stories,” he said, “and mine isn’t really remarkable or interesting in any way.

Suffice it to say, after the IED in Iraq everything about me changed. As odd as it sounds, it was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

“Losing an arm and a leg seems a high price.”

“Maybe,” he agreed, “but nothing else was going to change me. I didn’t think there was anything wrong, you see. Everyone else was to blame – not me.” He took another sip of tea, then lifted the pot and topped up his cup. “The army really do look after you afterwards though. Months of rehabilitation. I started out being angrier than before – I hated the entire world and everybody in it for ruining my body – but gradually I realised that there was still value in being alive. In having a brain.” He laughed again. “It took a terrorist bomb to teach me how to be a decent person.”

Nash ran his fingers through his hair. “I don’t know what to say. You aren’t the man I expected to meet today.”

“Lucky for you.” He patted his pocket again. “Or else you’d be dead.”

“True. But what about the books in your flat? The weapons?”

“The bomb-making equipment?”

Nash frowned. “I didn’t see any …”

“Joking.” He held up his hand. “There is no bomb-making equipment. I’m not a terrorist.”

“What then?”

“I’m writing a book,” he said. “I should probably say I’m aspiring to be an author – I’m not published yet – but that sounds like I have doubts. So, yes, I’m a writer. Let’s leave it at that. I’m working on a book about global terrorism. Specifically, what we can do to counter it.”

“Jesus, a writer.” Nash shook his head. “This day keeps getting weirder.”

Sark held up his right hand and worked the mechanism inside the skin-toned plastic sheath, flexing the metal fingers. “I can even use a pen with this, which is perfect, because I’d never manage with my left hand.”

“And the guns?”

“I like guns.” He shrugged. “I’m a member of a local club. All fully licensed and above board.”

Nash sat upright and leaned forward as a thought occurred to him. “Listen, Sark, you can’t write about the Department in your book. That has to remain confidential.”

“Relax,” he said, “I’ve known about the Department for years.” He turned in his seat towards the waitress and waved her over.

“Another pot of tea, please.”

Nash waited until the waitress left. “What do you mean, you know? How?”

“That’s two questions, Nash.” He smiled. “Truth is, there are at least three separate Departments, not just yours. They won’t have shared that with you, will they? Yours is linked to social work, right?”

Nash nodded, bemused.

“Another is linked to the health service. Easy to kill somebody in hospital – overdose, surgical error – the possibilities are endless. The third one is more complicated – it seems to have a roving remit. They do hits in lots of different places – prisons, industry, even overseas – but still all accidental in appearance. Natural-appearing deaths, but unnatural.”

“Three departments? I didn’t realise.”

“At least three,” he said. “There may be more. The British government is nothing if not thorough. They might try to convince the public they’re against the death penalty, but they are actively killing their own people and have been for years.”

“How do you know all this?”

“Ah, that would be telling. There are no secrets anymore, Nash, not if you look hard enough for them.” He lifted the fresh pot of tea and filled both cups. “But I definitely don’t want to be suicided or to have a fatal car accident, or any other type of untimely demise. So I certainly won’t be writing about any of this in my book.”

Nash slumped back in his chair. “Bloody hell. What am I going to do now?”

“Cross me off as a suspect,” said Sark.

Nash waved the comment aside. “Listen, I’m sorry for breaking into your place. It was desperation, I know, but I needed to do something. I shouldn’t have suspected you.”

“No, you were right to suspect me.” He pulled the gun from his pocket and laid it on the table, covering it quickly with a napkin. “Take it, Nash. You’re going to need it.”

Nash didn’t move.

“I’m not your killer,” said Sark, “but I think you’re on the right lines. The man is somebody you know and, in all likelihood, somebody from your army days. Tell me, what first made you suspect me? My sunny disposition?”

“No. I think the killer has a prosthetic right leg.”

Sark glanced down at his own leg. “Interesting. And I was the only person you knew in the army who lost a leg?”

“No, of course not, but …”

“But you perceived me as a potential enemy?”

“Yes.”

He nodded. “So perhaps you should start checking your friends. I told you that being blown up changes a person – how could it not? – but it isn’t always a positive change. In my case, it turned an emotionally unbalanced, angry man into a reasonably normal, well-balanced person. Why couldn’t it do the opposite for your killer?”

Nash was again lost for words. Could the killer really be someone he considered a friend? Someone who had become bitter and twisted by a random terrorist act? It did make a perverse kind of sense. Not that anybody sprang to mind who fit the bill. Sark nodded down at the napkin-covered gun. “Seriously, take it. You may need it soon. You certainly won’t be able to suicide this man.”

Nash covered the napkin with his palm and scooped up the gun. He slipped it into his jacket pocket and pulled up the zipper.

“Thanks. What about your gun license though?”

“That one isn’t registered.” He laughed again. “I’m not lily white, Nash. I haven’t changed that much. I keep a gun like that for emergencies.”

Nash stood up and dropped a twenty pound note on the table for the bill. “I appreciate your help, Sark. Good luck with your book - I’ll look forward to reading it.”

“If you live long enough.” He held up his prosthetic hand in farewell. “You know where I am if you need me. Just use the front door next time.”

Nash nodded in agreement and headed back towards his parked car.

Chapter Twelve

Nash sat on a bench close to the library building reading a morning paper. It was an overcast day, but still warm enough for shirtsleeves. There were relatively few people moving through the park area, though he knew the morning rush would soon start. Nash folded his paper and set it down beside him, then picked up his steaming coffee and sipped it through the lid. He glanced across at the fountains near the town hall just as they began to spout on their programmed timer. He was sitting at a different vantage point, but it still reminded him of the Cadogan hit. It was the one of the reasons he could never settle in a town where he had worked – memorable places became indelibly marked in his mind with images of death.

Nash tried to remain calm. He counted his breaths, inhaling and exhaling slowly, in a sitting relaxation technique he had learned years earlier. It wasn’t as effective as middle density meditation, but that wasn’t suitable for a park bench with all its ambient distractions.

There was simply too much going on for him. He knew that the mystery killer was still out there, possibly even watching him at that very moment. There were a number of buildings overlooking the park, most with glass windows reflecting the early morning light which Nash’s vision couldn’t penetrate. The killer could be lining up a rifle for a shot at Nash at that very moment and he would never know about it – he would die before he heard the shot coming. It was unlikely, he knew, because the rooftops around him seemed clear and they were the best vantage point for a sniper, but anything was possible. Or the killer might already have packed up and left Middlesbrough for home. He would know from the mole that the game was up – the Department was actively pursuing him – and it would be safer to retreat until a new opportunity presented itself. Perhaps after this assignment had ended and Nash was in another town or city, the killer would resurface and make another move. It would force the Department to change its entire approach. Maybe even to retire Nash if the killer only ever moved against his targets.

It wouldn’t take Morgan long to realise that it actually was a personal matter, and not aimed at the Department itself.

It was the stress of not knowing what was coming next which played constantly on his mind. The killer might choose to act today, tomorrow, or never. If he did act, it might be to kill Nash himself, or the next target, Trelling, or some entirely random person. Nash simply didn’t know.

Hollingberry had called him the day before and had only confirmed his fears that the mole had still not been identified. Whoever he was, he had effectively covered his tracks in the Department computer system. Telephone records were being checked next, but Nash knew that only a fool would have used a registered phone to communicate with the killer. The mole was no fool. Nash didn’t tell her about his visit to York, his meeting with Sark, or his speculations about the possible identity of the killer as an ex-army buddy. He wanted to avoid anything being recorded in the database, because it would become immediately available to the mole. And he simply didn’t know who to trust. He had known, and worked closely with, Hollingberry since he had started with the Department – they perfectly complemented each other – and Morgan had referred to them in the past as the ‘dynamic duo’.

And yet now he didn’t feel he could trust her.

It made their conversation brief and stilted. He was monosyllabic in his responses and she had known he was holding out on her.

She had sounded wounded when she’d ended the call.

Hughes had also returned from her visit to her sick mother the day before. Nash had picked up both her and her sister from the station and taken them back to Hartlepool. He had tried to present himself as a happy, relaxed person to them both and felt he was successful to some extent. But there were undercurrents to their conversation, subtle nuances which hinted at his real feelings, and Jenny knew him well enough now to pick up on them. She hadn’t said anything, but she also hadn’t asked him to stay. She had instead kissed him tenderly, told him to take care, and arranged to meet later in the week. They both knew it was to give him a little longer to sort his head out.

Nash finished his coffee and set the empty carton on top of his folded newspaper. The open park area was becoming busier as office and shop workers passed through towards their places of employment.

At the entrance a street cleaner stopped his trolley to pick up a discarded drinks can with an extendible grabber – he dropped it in his bin and set off again towards the shopping centre. Nash thought that would be a great job – outdoor work, keeping the place clean and tidy, and no real responsibilities or stress to deal with. Pity it doesn’t pay as much as assassination, he thought, but in my next life I want to have a simpler existence.

Nash watched the people passing through the park. He was waiting for Trelling to arrive for work. His intention was simply to tail her to the clothes shop and check her initial location in the store – at the tills, doing stock control, floor walking – to start to establish her routine. It wasn’t going to be an extended surveillance, so he wouldn’t stay long enough to verify her break times or what she did with them. That would come at a later date. His real purpose was to appear to be taking the appropriate first steps in dealing with a new target. Once fed back to Hollingberry, the information would tell the mole, and the killer, that the Department was going ahead with its normal business. And that would draw out the killer, or at least make it easier to identify the mole, according to Morgan.

If both the mole and killer are morons, thought Nash, or if they both have a death wish. He really expected the plan to fail – it was too obvious and simplistic. It was far more likely that the killer would do something unexpected and the real danger, he thought, was that the crude attempt to identify the mole could precipitate a worse event than might otherwise have happened.

Nash picked up the newspaper and carton and carried them to a nearby bin. He went back to the bench and looked again at the moving river of people filtering into the town centre. Still no sign of Trelling. He checked his watch – 8.15 am – the store didn’t open until 9, and he would expect her to arrive at least a quarter of an hour early – still a thirty minute window. He folded his arms and relaxed back in the curved bench seat.

His phone suddenly rang. Not great timing, he thought, as he pulled it from his inner pocket. The screen informed him it was a blocked number. Must be Hollingberry, he surmised, but why call me now? Nash had clearly told her of his surveillance plans for this morning.

He flicked the answer key. “Hello.”

“Have you guessed yet, Nash?” The voice sounded distorted, metallic.

Simple voice changing software, he thought, easily available. It was immediately obvious it was the killer speaking – the mole must have provided Nash’s confidential mobile number – and the necessity to disguise his voice spoke volumes. It implied Nash would recognise his voice; that he knew the killer. Which he had already suspected, of course, but it was gratifying to have it confirmed. “I’ve guessed that you’re a psychopath. Good shot on the bridge, by the way.”

“You always were a funny man, Nash, but this isn’t a game. Making jokes isn’t going to help you. But my question was: have you guessed who I am yet?”

“I really don’t care,” said Nash.

“You don’t care? I find that hard …”

“You’re dead,” he snapped, “that’s all I care about. I’m going to find you and kill you. Slowly and with extreme prejudice.”

“Really? Good luck with that.” He chuckled. “You’ll never find me. In any case, I’m going to kill you first.”

Nash sat upright on the bench and used his free hand to slap his chest. “Go ahead; I’m right here. Fucking do it,” he yelled.

His shout caused a passerby to glance quickly in his direction and just as quickly look away as she saw the look of anger on his face. “I’m not scared of you and I’m not scared of death. Just get it over with.”

“Not yet, Nash. The plan needs to unfold in its own time. Don’t worry though – it won’t take long to reach the end.”

Nash slumped forward and lowered his voice. “What have I ever done to you?”

The speaker paused again for a moment, ignoring the question. “You look tired, Nash. Stressed out. You look like you need a holiday. Or just a night out with a few drinks. I hear Hartlepool has a good nightlife.” He chuckled again. “How is Jenny anyway?”

“Jenny is nothing to do with this,” he snarled. “Leave her out of it.”

“Sorry. No can do, Danny boy.” He laughed loudly. “She calls you that doesn’t she: Danny boy? So sweet.”

“You fucking psycho, I’m going to find you and …”

“Yes, yes. Find me and kill me – you said that already. I’ll tell you what you’re going to do, Nash: nothing. A big fat zero. You’ll never find me because you don’t know who I am, where I am, or what I’m doing. But I know you and I know Jenny. So I’m going to kill her and then I’m going to kill you.”

Nash scanned the surrounding buildings for any sign of the caller, but he couldn’t see anyone in the open using a phone or looking in his direction. He must be behind one of the many office windows, thought Nash, watching me and gloating. “Please, I’m begging you, don’t hurt Jenny. I don’t care what you do to me.”

“Precisely my point. The only way to hurt you is through other people.” He started breathing heavily as if pacing up and down as he talked. “You’re pathetic, you know that? Fucking pathetic. Worried about a woman. Not a thought for your poor victims. What about them, Nash? What about all the people you’ve killed?”

“They were scumbags,” he said. “They deserved to die. I’m not going to debate ethics with you, because you’re one of the same scumbags and you need to die too.”

“And who decides who is a scumbag and who isn’t? You? Or your precious department?”

“The Department improves society; makes Britain a better place to live. I don’t expect a psycho like you to understand.”

“So you’re just following orders, are you?” he asked. “That’s what the Nazis used to say.”

“You’re boring me,” said Nash, standing up from the bench. “I’m going to hang up now and leave.” He knew the chances of finding the caller in the flood of people around the town centre were slim, but he needed to try. The caller wasn’t in the open or on the rooftop garage of the shopping centre or Nash would have spotted him. It was also extremely unlikely he had a vantage point in the town hall or magistrate’s court. And that left only two office blocks with a clear view of the park, but they were at opposite sides, flanking the shopping centre. Nash needed to choose one and hope for the best – check all of the people leaving the building for the one man with a limp. “I’m sure we’ll speak again soon.”

“Wait,” the caller shouted. “A minute longer, Nash, please. You’ll like this.”

“What?”

“Look to your right. Past the fountains, over towards the registry office. See? That crowd of people from the number 37 bus. The dumpy woman in the middle, floral-patterned dress – she’s your next target, Phillipa Trelling.” He laughed. “Ugly woman, isn’t she?”

“What are you going to do?”

“Just watch. See that litter bin – the one she’s approaching.”

Nash suddenly realised the killer’s plan – not a bullet, but a bomb. “Don’t …” he cried. He took an involuntary step forward and raised his free arm as if to warn her, but she was two hundred metres away and facing away from him.

There was a bright flash and a roaring boom as the bin disintegrated. The smoke and flame expanded in a millisecond to encompass Trelling and three other nearby pedestrians. The metal bin casing broke apart and shot outwards in a shower of shrapnel shards – everyone walking in the surrounding ten metres fell like bowling pins as they were struck by flying debris. The sound wave from the blast reflected from the encircling buildings and then rolled away to leave a deathly silence.

It was clear to Nash immediately that there were a number of fatalities – the bomb had never been intended to only target Trelling - and dozens were injured from shrapnel. As the dust from the explosion settled to earth, the wailing of the wounded could be heard, breaking the hush.

Nash stared in disbelief at the scene. He still held the mobile to his ear – frozen like a statue. He felt helpless. Morgan and Hollingberry had not foreseen this type of escalation as a response to their investigation. Nor had he. In one brief act, the killer had turned Middlesbrough into a war zone. This man has to be stopped, thought Nash, because this is only going to get worse.

“I should get a bonus,” said the caller, “for doing your job for you. Speak to you soon, Nash.” The call clicked off to be replaced by a continuous dead tone.

Chapter Thirteen

Nash leaned forward to tie his shoelaces while keeping an eye on the computer screen in front of him, and then sat back in the armchair. His tie was looped over his shoulders and he lifted his collar to set it in place. Morgan watched patiently through the secure video link. “You’re sure you want to go to work?”

“I have to,” said Nash. “Nothing would make me look guiltier than suddenly leaving the area. I’ve been witness to two major crimes in less than a week.”

Morgan nodded. “It makes sense, but you need to work your notice and get out of Middlesbrough as soon as possible. No more targets.” His tone was flat and subdued. It was clear he blamed himself for the bombing. With some justification, thought Nash. Morgan’s decision to dangle a target in front of the killer had been catastrophically flawed. “Any clues about the mole’s identity?”

“None.” Morgan leaned forward on his desk – closer to the camera lens. “The committee are meeting in emergency session today. My guess is that operations will be suspended.” He sighed. “Or the Department may be disbanded entirely.”

“Seems a bit extreme. Don’t they want to catch these bastards?”

“Of course they do. But we have to deal with this problem internally – the Department can’t be exposed to other agencies of the government – and we’re too small and ill-equipped to handle an investigation ourselves. Especially when the mole can feed information to this terrorist about our every move.”

“And what if he kills me in the meantime?”

Morgan grimaced. “Then we’ll give you a very nice funeral.”

“Thanks.”

“I’m sorry, Nash. This is unprecedented. I’m still not convinced this is solely about you, but I accept that you’re in significant danger.” He spread his palms on the desk. “The bombing has changed everything. This terrorist even had the knowledge to disable the CCTV cameras in the town centre so he could set things up, and that’s straight from the Department’s own operational manual. The only positive outcome for us is that the police are out in force in Middlesbrough right now, and anti-terrorist units are being pulled in from across the country. At the very least that will make it extremely difficult for the terrorist to take any further action against you. Certainly for the next week or so. That’s why you have to get out of there as soon as possible. Give your week’s notice and get back here as soon as possible.”

“Will do.”

“And believe me when I say this: if anything happens to you I will not rest until the terrorist is brought to justice. I haven’t been in the field for years, but I still know how to kill a man.” He clenched his fist. “And as for the mole, I’m going to gut him and strangle him with his own intestines.”

Nash smiled. He had never seen Morgan angry before. It would be comical if he wasn’t so impassioned. Nash believed he would do everything he said, and momentarily felt sorry for the mole when he got his hands on him. “Thank you, sir.”

“No problem,” he said. “Just to be clear then, Nash: you are only completing the minimum work necessary in your social work role to keep up appearances. And then you will come back to base. In the meantime, you will make no contact with Hollingberry or any other controller in the Department, unless the terrorist makes a further move or contacts you directly again. If you need support for any other reason you will contact me directly.”

“Understood, sir.”

“And this girlfriend of yours?” he said. “The terrorist mentioned her by name, yes?”

Nash nodded.

“She has to be considered at high risk also.” He laced his fingers and tapped his thumbs together, thinking. “I’m going to request through police channels that she be urgently reassigned. That will at least get her out of harm’s way. You are not to tell her about your work with the Department under any circumstances. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir. Crystal clear.”

“Good. That’s it then, Nash. See you soon. And good luck.”

“Thank you, sir.” Nash stood up and closed the laptop. Time to go to work.

The drive to the office seemed to take no time at all. He drove on autopilot, his mind working overtime. Nash wanted to catch and kill the terrorist – he couldn’t think about anything else. But he still had no idea about his identity. He worked through all of his friends and acquaintances from his army days – he knew at least a dozen who had lost limbs from IEDs, five of them well – but none of them struck him as the terrorist type. Having said that, he hadn’t kept in touch with any of them after they’d been brought home for rehabilitation.

The atmosphere in the office was subdued. The bombing had everybody scared. The usual mundane tasks of social work seemed somehow meaningless in the face of the terrorist act. It was as if a cloud of despair had descended across Middlesbrough overnight.

The team were all in the office sitting behind their computers, but there wasn’t a lot of work being completed. Most people simply stared at their screen, occasionally tapping the keyboard, and then pausing to reflect once more upon the events of yesterday. Nobody had plans to make home visits.

Nash sat behind his desk and logged into the network. He pulled up his task list and opened an assessment and stared at the blank page for a moment. He shared his colleagues’ low mood and had no real desire to complete tasks which had suddenly become pointless. But he needed to do it. He had to leave Middlesbrough with a clean slate in his social work role to allay any suspicions.

Young leaned round her monitor and smiled. “You were there again?”

“Yes. It was supposed to be a relaxing start to the day after last week on the bridge. Just a coffee in the sun.” He smiled ruefully. “I always seem to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Young simply nodded and moved back. “Terrible business,” she said from behind her screen.

A little later, Meath, the team manager, came into the team room and positioned herself halfway along the line of desks. “I know you’re all feeling down,” she announced loudly. “That is to be expected. There has never been anything like this bombing in Middlesbrough before, so it’s natural to be scared and upset.” She glanced quickly from one worker to another, lingering slightly when she caught Nash’s gaze. “And if you all feel like that, imagine how our families are feeling. They all live here in the boro – most of you don’t. They’re probably scared to leave their homes. Scared for their children’s safety. How do they know when another bomb might go off? Or where? They don’t – nobody does.” She swept an arm to take in the room and stabbed a pointing finger at each desktop. “So call them. Get on the phones right now and give them some reassurance.” She turned and headed for the door. “No more moping around. We have a job to do.”

As pep talks went, thought Nash, that was pretty good.

There was silence for a moment after she left, and then everyone reached for their phones and began dialling numbers. Nash pulled up his list of families and started from the top downwards. He knew the calls would take all day, but it would serve to take his mind away from his own troubles. And Meath was right: if he was scared, then the average citizen would be terrified. By mid-afternoon he’d worked through his entire caseload. Most of the parents he’d spoken to were trying to act normally, though a couple had kept their children off school for the day, and nobody had any plans to go into the town centre any time soon. All of the calls involved a variation on the question: why? It was the one question that Nash couldn’t respond to truthfully, even thought he knew the answer. He had simply echoed Young’s words from the morning and said, “It is a terrible business – who knows why terrorists do these things?”

Afterwards, he spent the last few hours in the office completing paperwork. It would be difficult, he knew, to bring his work up to date in a week, but he intended to try his best. He didn’t want to stay in Middlesbrough any longer than necessary. He went to see Meath on his way out the office and handed her his notice in a sealed envelope. She took it silently, but didn’t open it. She simply nodded. She knew what it was without looking. “I’ll miss you, Nash,” she said, as he turned away.

“You too, Rosie.”

Nash made a call to Jenny from the car, but she was already at work for a late shift and so she quickly ended the call. At least she’s safe at work, he thought.

Nash headed home.

John was outside waxing his BMW when Nash pulled into the parking area. He lifted a polishing cloth and waved him over with it.

“Look at this,” he said, pointing at the bonnet. Gleaming, isn’t it? Two coats of wax.”

“Lovely,” said Nash.

“Yeah. Lovely. And I daren’t go anywhere in it in case I get blown up.” He laughed to himself. “Pointless having a nice car with nowhere to go.”

“Yes,” he agreed, smiling. “It’s a terrible business.” He started towards the door.

“Hang on,” called John. “A friend of yours came by today.” He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a crumpled envelope. “Left a message for you.”

“Don’t tell me,” said Nash with resignation in his tone, “he had a prosthetic leg.”

“Not sure about that.” He rubbed his forehead with the back of his hand. “He did bounce a bit when he walked, so maybe he did. I thought he just had a funny walk. Know who it is?”

Nash shook his head. “I know of him, but not sure what he looks like. Except for the leg, of course. Catch you later.”

Nash tore the envelope open as he headed up the stairs. It didn’t surprise him that the terrorist knew his address – he seemed to know everything about him – and it didn’t particularly concern him. It just rankled that the guy had brazenly come here during the day and spoken to his neighbour. Nash would have happily shot him in the head if he had been at home. He patted the jacket pocket holding the P10 he’d got from Sark; he never left home without it.

The note from the terrorist was written in scruffy block capitals and read: ‘Check the news. I’m drawing off the heat. Regards, your friend.’

Nash opened his flat door and disabled the alarm, then crumpled the paper into a ball and tossed it into the kitchen from the living room. He walked over to flick on the TV and scrolled through the menu to the 24 hour news channel. He had a fair idea what to expect, yet he had a feeling of dreadful anticipation.

The images which flashed onto the screen told the whole story. They were from an outside broadcast and the ruins of an abbey high in the background of the shot told Nash they were taken in the nearby fishing town of Whitby. A police cordon behind the presenter hid the scale of the carnage from view, but a pillar of smoke rising into the sky said it all. Nash barely heard the bland delivery of facts from the newscaster, but he didn’t need to – it was clear that another bomb had been detonated.

A scrolling subtitle repeated the news: ‘Eight confirmed dead, many more wounded’. Bastard, thought Nash. Eight innocent people dead.

Nash could understand the twisted logic the terrorist had used to justify another bombing, whilst simultaneously hating him for it. The terrorist knew that he wouldn’t have an opportunity to move against Nash with the massive police presence in Middlesbrough. He needed to spread their resources - get them looking countrywide not simply in a small town - and for that he had to convince them that he had moved on to pastures new. Choosing a tourist hotspot an hour away from Middlesbrough provided the terrorist with an ideal location to slip a device into a litter bin without being noticed. And the ever-present crowds of people in the resort town virtually guaranteed a high body count.

Nash sat and watched the broadcast unfold. There were brief interludes in the studio – with anti-terrorist experts and psychologists debating the rationale of the terrorists – followed by a return to the outside broadcast unit and a repeat of the same sparse information. There was no official comment yet, and all that anyone really knew was that another bomb had gone off. The TV did, however, make the assumption the terrorist had intended: that the bombers were moving from area to area. The TV didn’t realise there was only one man involved – they assumed, like the police, the bombings were the work of a terrorist group. If they could identify the group, they might understand their motivations, and hence be more likely to catch them. Nash knew that assumption to be false.

Nash also realised that this one additional bombing wouldn’t be enough. There would have to be another, either to the north or south - it didn’t really matter which – to really convince the authorities that Middlesbrough wasn’t a point of interest to him.

“Hey, Dan,” called John through the door. “Got a minute.”

Nash sighed and pushed himself up from the armchair. He opened the door to John’s grinning face. He held a tablet computer firmly at his side.

“Don’t tell me technology is no good,” he said, waving it up and down. “Remember those wireless cams I bought last year.”

Nash looked blank.

“No, ‘course not,” he said. “You didn’t live here then, did you? Anyway, they pick up movement. I got them to keep an eye on the car, but they’re good for other things, if you know what I mean.” He winked and held up the tablet, using his fingers to zoom into the screen. “The picture’s a bit grainy,” he explained, “but there’s your fella.” He held the tablet out to him triumphantly.

Nash squinted at the low-res image. It was taken from behind and above the car and the bottom of the picture was dominated by the vehicle’s roof and bonnet. Towering above the car he could make out the back of John’s head with his distinctive curly hair and, in front of him, the head and shoulders of the terrorist facing him, still wearing a beanie cap. The set of the man’s right arm suggested he was holding something out to John - an envelope.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” cursed Nash, as the image of a dead man gradually resolved in his mind from the blocky pixels. “Edward fucking North.”

Chapter Fourteen

The office was sweltering. Trust the British, thought Nash, to be woefully unprepared for any extreme of temperature, be it hot or cold. The heat wave sweeping the country would no doubt be short-lived – probably be torrential rain by the weekend – but in the meantime, he was uncomfortable and sweaty. The inadequate fan sitting on his desk only managed to recirculate the heat and the open windows provided no breeze.

Despite the sticky conditions he had made good progress on his social work. The few days of respite provided by the terrorist ‘drawing off the heat’ had allowed him to bring most of his social work up to date. All of his allocated families had been told he was leaving and knew their cases were either being closed or reallocated. He needed another day or so to tidy up loose ends and would be free to leave.

Nash had made two calls the night before – one each to Morgan and Lancaster. Morgan had agreed to liaise with the Ministry of Defence and, via them, leak the information about the identity of the terrorist to the police. He had no longer argued that the events were anything but personal against Nash and had reiterated the importance of completing his work and returning to London without undue delay. Morgan had seemed pensive on the phone; recent developments had clearly turned his world upside down. The committee had, as expected, suspended operations of the Department. All active agents were being recalled from their assignments around the country. Whilst the intention might be to resume operations as soon as the terrorist was caught, Morgan clearly held a fear that this might actually be the end of his organisation.

Lancaster had also appeared pensive, but for a different reason. He had, like Nash, believed North to be dead, killed behind the lines in Afghanistan during a covert operation. For North to be alive meant that his return and recovery had remained confidential and Lancaster had difficulty understanding the reason for keeping him out of the loop. But he was more concerned that the recent events - the bombings and sniper killing - were the work of a sole terrorist, a Special Forces veteran, because that news would tarnish the British armed forces when it came to light. Lancaster had agreed to make enquiries, but admitted that he would also have to speak to his superiors to share the information.

Nash rubbed his gritty eyes and yawned. The constant staring at the computer screen was giving him a headache and he had to force himself to concentrate. He paused to finish off his lukewarm coffee, hoping the caffeine would give him a boost.

After making his calls to Morgan and Lancaster the night before, Jenny had called him. She had told him that she was being urgently reassigned to Sellafield. Given the terrorist attacks in Middlesbrough and Whitby, her bosses naturally felt the terrorists might change targets from the general populace to a nuclear facility, and Sellafield was the most obvious choice – an explosion in the right place would cause the highest fallout of any facility in the UK. The decision made perfect sense to her and Nash didn’t say anything to make her think otherwise.

Hughes and her sister were planning another weekend visiting their parents and Nash had agreed to again take them to the station on Friday morning. Hughes would not be returning to Hartlepool – she would go straight to Cumbria following the visit. She had sounded sad when she had told him, fearful that this marked the end of their relationship.

Nash had tried to reassure her that, despite his concerns about becoming a radioactive mutant with three eyes, he could think of nowhere he would rather visit than Sellafield.

“I’ve fallen for you,” he had said, trying to avoid the L-word which fought to come out, “and I can’t be without you.”

“I feel the same,” she’d said, meekly.

He didn’t tell her that he had taken her call while sitting outside in his car a scant fifty metres from Fiona’s front door. Nash took the terrorist’s threat seriously – he still didn’t like to think of the faceless killer as his old friend, North – and wouldn’t rest until Hughes was safely out of the area. So he had sat all night in the car watching the house, Sark’s gun in his pocket, cocked and ready to fire. He had waited until there were signs of life in the house in the morning before driving straight to work.

Nash rubbed his hand across his stubbly chin. He knew he couldn’t keep up this pace, or manage with the lack of sleep, for very long, but reminded himself that after one more night’s vigil Jenny would be safely out of the area. His phone suddenly buzzed with a message to call his mum – Morgan. He stood up abruptly and announced to the office he was nipping to the shop. He didn’t wait to ask if anybody wanted anything; he simply stepped briskly outside.

“Sir,” he said, after going through the security process, “any news?”

“Yes,” said Morgan, “none of it good. Except that the MOD have given photographs of North to the police. At least they know who they’re looking for now.”

“He does like disguises though. Do they know that?”

“Give them some credit, Nash. They know what they’re doing.”

“Sorry, sir. I know they do,” he said, “but North is still out there and we still have no idea what he might do next.”

“You still believe he’ll bomb another town?”

“Yes. I’d almost guarantee it. The police presence in Middlesbrough is still high despite the bombing in Whitby. If he really wants to come after me he needs to thin their numbers out a bit. It’s been two days since Whitby, so I’d guess something might happen today or tomorrow.”

“And then he’ll come back for you?”

“Yes, but he’ll have to be quick. I’ll be ready to pull out by Tuesday.”

“Good. And we can only hope he gets caught in the meantime – he isn’t giving himself much time to set these things up, so he might slip up somewhere along the line. He must be pretty exposed when planting these bombs. Somebody might spot him.”

“He was Special Forces,” explained Nash. “Pathfinders. He won’t be easy to spot if he doesn’t want to be.” Morgan sighed. “Quite so.” He paused and cleared his throat. “The army wouldn’t tell me all the details of his recovery – not surprising really, they don’t like to wash their dirty laundry in public, even to the secret service – but they were clear that North blamed you for his capture. Well, you and another soldier,” he said, consulting his notes, “a man named O’Leary.”

“Yes, the three of us were behind the lines in Afghanistan. It was a covert operation – HALO jump in, extraction through Russia of all places – and it all went wrong from the start. We walked into an ambush – they were prepared for us. It was as if they knew we were coming. North was hit early on. We were separated and pinned down.” He paused, breathing heavily; reliving the shadowy images in his mind as if he were there again, fighting in the darkness of a strange land. “O’Leary and I were lucky to get away ourselves. We had a running firefight for an hour until we managed to steal a truck and head into the desert. It took us two weeks to get back – the truck only got us fifteen miles before we had to abandon it. We barely stayed alive ourselves – heat stroke and dehydration. Believe me, if we could have saved North, we would have.”

“You don’t need to convince me,” agreed Morgan. “All I know is that North was held in captivity for 18 months and was tortured the entire time. He was rehabilitated for another two years and his therapists state he never forgave you or O’Leary for leaving him behind. They didn’t think he’d actually do anything about it though. Naïve of them, I’d say.”

“And O’Leary?”

“Committed suicide six months ago.”

“Really?”

“It may have been North. We’ll never know,” said Morgan. “Sadly, many servicemen kill themselves after they’re mustered out. O’Leary might be another regrettable statistic. Or North might have suicided him.”

“So I’m all that’s left for him?”

“Precisely. Look, Nash, the Department has been suspended, you know that. None of this is being recorded, so the mole can’t possibly know the details of our conversations, but – whoever the hell he is – he does know that our agents are being recalled. So North also knows that and he knows that gives him a tight time scale. Whatever he’s planning, he needs to do it soon. He must realise that as soon as you get back to London you’ll be in a safe house and he won’t be able to get at you.”

“Yes, sir, I know.”

“The next few days are crucial. Keep your head down and stay safe.”

“Yes, sir, I will.”

“Good luck, Nash.”

Nash put the phone in his pocket and walked slowly back into the office. He wondered how many times he had been told ‘good luck’ by handlers in the Department. Hundreds, at least. It had always seemed perfunctory in the past, but Morgan had at least sounded sincere. He genuinely wanted Nash to make it through this, and not simply to save the Department.

The atmosphere back in the social work office was getting back to normal, with some playful banter and more social workers heading out to make home visits than earlier in the week. The increased police presence in Middlesbrough – they seemed to be lurking on every street corner – leant an air of confidence that nothing else could go wrong in the town.

Nash jumped straight back into his paperwork and spent the next few hours lost in the mundane task of turning handwritten notes into meaningful, descriptive prose. The time passed quickly and he didn’t lapse into any depressing thoughts.

It was almost four when his phone buzzed again. A text from a blocked number – ‘Who do I have in my crosshairs? Bang, bang. She’s dead.’

Jenny.

Nash grabbed his keys and ran for his car, oblivious to the startled shouts of the few workers in the office. He jumped into his car and clipped his phone into its cradle, quickly keying in Hughes’ number – after a few rings the voicemail cut in and he switched it off. She’s at work, he thought. He gunned the engine and accelerated from the car park in a squeal of burning rubber.

It took fifteen minutes of reckless driving to reach the power station. Nash didn’t care if the police spotted him – he had to know Jenny was safe. As he sped along the A19, cutting in and out of traffic, he did consider that the terrorist was simply toying with him. He knew the approach to the power station was flat and open – good for the guards, bad for any assailants – and had no vantage point for a sniper. To get a shot he would have to be close and that would expose him to return fire. And the police manning the security booth at the entrance were all expert snipers. Not a good choice of location for the terrorist to act. But Nash was also convinced that North was crazy – he had to be – and psychopaths rarely do the logical.

He slowed down as he made the turn into the approach road. It wouldn’t help anyone if they thought he was a terrorist and opened fire. He pulled into a layby just before reaching the barrier and smiled as a quizzical Hughes stepped from the booth, flanked by another officer. At least she’s safe, he thought.

Hughes was wearing body armour and had a Heckler & Koch MP5SF slung across her chest. Her colleague had a G3 variant – a sniper rifle – held in a half-ready to deploy stance. She held her hand up and said something to him when she realised the car belonged to Nash, and he quickly retreated into the security booth. Nash climbed out of the car, thinking furiously of a plausible explanation.

“Dan,” she said. “What are you doing here?”

“Not much,” he said. His mind was blank. The emotional relief of seeing her unharmed robbed him of any semblance of rational thought. “I just had a bad feeling and I needed to see you were alright.”

“I’m fine.” She was frowning as she looked at him. “You’re acting weird, Danny boy. I’m a big girl, you know.” She patted her rifle stock. “I can look after myself.”

“I know.” He laughed, both embarrassed and relieved. “I’m sorry, Jen. I … look, I’ll just see you later, ok?”

“Alright, hon. And don’t worry about me. Nothing’s going to happen, I promise.”

He smiled and pointed at her as he opened the car door. “You look great in that get-up. Powerful. Scary and sexy at the same time.”

“Get gone, you loon,” she laughed. “I could have shot you.”

“Glad you didn’t. See you later.”

“Bye.”

Nash completed a U-turn and headed back towards the main road. Idiot, he chastised himself. North is just pulling your strings and watching you dance.

He drove at a more sedate pace back to the office, though knew he might already have been caught on camera on the drive over. Not that a speeding ticket concerned him and, in any case, he knew how to fix them. There were some advantages to being able to hack computer systems.

Nash thought about his next move. He knew that North would be back in Middlesbrough soon, if he wasn’t already, and he always seemed to remain one step ahead. The text message that afternoon had made Nash react instantly – foolishly, as it turned out – and that couldn’t be allowed to continue. Nash needed to find a way to even the odds; to play North at his own game so he could see what was coming instead of having to second guess him all of the time.

A plan began to form in his mind, but it wouldn’t be easy. It would mean stepping outside the boundaries of the Department and possibly even revealing its existence to outsiders. But he decided he simply had no other choice. His phone buzzed. ‘Bang, bang. She’s dead. Who will be next?’

So North has killed somebody, he thought, though, thankfully, not Jenny. The text messages might be intended to unsettle him, but North was also telling him something about his actions. Nash flicked the radio on and cycled through the music channels to find the news.

He quickly found the relevant report of breaking news. Another sniper attack had taken place, this time in Hull, and there were two people confirmed dead. Initial reports were sketchy, but it appeared to involve a couple walking hand-in-hand through the park. The police had yet to make any meaningful comments – they’d shared only the usual platitudes expressing regret that such a tragedy could occur – but the radio was already suggesting a link between the bombers and the sniper. Surely, they argued, two such rare crimes being repeated in a short time scale must be linked.

Nash thought back to the note left at his flat. “I’m drawing off the heat.” North had clearly managed that – the police would no doubt now believe the terrorists were working their way south through England, and would have to deploy their forces accordingly.

Nash understood the opposite to be true. North would right now be heading back to Middlesbrough.

He vowed to be ready for him.

Chapter Fifteen

Nash drove south, his mind clear and purposeful.

He had spent a memorable night with Hughes and then, this morning, he had taken her and her sister to the train station. Fiona had agreed for him to stay at her house and the three of them had spent the evening drinking wine, talking about anything and everything until the early hours. It had been a relaxed affair, ignoring the troubles in the area, the visit to their sick mother, or the imminent departure of Jenny back to Cumbria. It had felt more like a casual family gathering to Nash and he’d felt happy for the first time in weeks.

Hughes had wanted to respect the fact that they were in her sister’s house so they hadn’t made love when they retired for the night. Instead, they had cuddled together and fallen asleep in each others arms. It had been a more tender and loving experience as a consequence.

At the station, all three had feigned normality as they departed. Fiona kissed him chastely on the cheek and promised to see him soon, as she might to a brother. Or brother-in-law, he’d thought. Jenny had hugged him tightly and whispered, “I love you,” in his ear.

“I love you too,” he’d replied, before promising to see her soon. In his mind, he promised himself to propose to her soon. Jenny was the one, he had no doubt of that, and as soon as North was captured or killed he wanted to move on with his life. Marriage had always before seemed as frightening as the L-word, but Jenny made all of his doubts fade away.

When the train had pulled from the station he’d had tears in his eyes, but he was relieved that she was out of harm’s way. He watched the train from sight and then returned to his car to drive to Catterick Garrison. Lancaster had agreed to contact the base and try to set up a meeting for him, but hadn’t been hopeful that he could arrange something on such short notice. Nash didn’t care. He would beg and plead if necessary, but he had to get in.

The Garrison itself was like a town, a sprawling conurbation with barracks and training facilities spread across a wide area, but Nash knew his way around. He pulled up at the relevant security barrier and wound the window down for the waiting guard. He passed over his MI5 identification papers – the Department technically operated outside their influence, but he carried identical Security Service credentials – and nodded towards the clipboard held in the guard’s hand. “Daniel Nash. I have an appointment with Brigadier Nolan.”

“One moment, please.” The guard went back into his hut while two other soldiers went around his car with a wheeled mirror, checking his vehicle for hidden explosives. A fourth guard, beyond the barrier, stood alert and ready to respond in an instant, if required.

Two minutes later the guard returned and handed back his ID badge. He motioned for the barrier to be lifted and pointed ahead.

“Follow this road through to the HQ building, third one on the left. You can’t miss it – big building. Reception staff are expecting you.”

“Thanks.” Nash followed the directions and parked outside the main building. He introduced himself again at reception and they repeated the process of checking his identification. They didn’t write anything down, he noticed, which he thought was unusual. He was directed to a waiting anteroom and left for ten minutes before being ushered into the Brigadier’s office.

“You must be Nash,” said Brigadier Nolan, without preamble. “Secret Service, eh?” The Brigadier didn’t fit any of his expected stereotypes, thought Nash. No waxed mustachios, no pomposity. Just a hard-muscled fighting man, a little past his prime, who nevertheless appeared out of place behind a desk.

“Yes, sir.”

“No need for formality, Nash. You aren’t in the army anymore. Take a seat.”

“Thank you, sir.” He sat down in a solid chair designed, no doubt, to encourage an erect posture. It certainly wasn’t built for relaxing, he thought.

“I was a little surprised to hear from Major Lancaster,” he said. “MI5 is nothing to do with us, I told him. But Nash used to be one of us, he told me. And he needs our help.” Nolan flipped open a paper file in front of him. “You were a Pathfinder, weren’t you, Nash? Impressive record, I must say.” He closed the file. “But the past is the past.”

“Yes, sir.”

Nolan leaned forward and pressed an intercom button. “Would you like tea?”

“Er, yes. Thank you, sir.”

An aide entered and Nolan politely asked for a pot of tea for them both. The aide nodded and left the room quickly. Nolan sat staring into space for a moment after he’d gone, drumming his fingers on the desk. “The armed forces of this country always fulfil their duties, Nash. There are many occasions when that has involved offering support to the Secret Services. I notice, in fact, that you borrowed a DEW from us a few weeks ago.”

“Yes, sir. That is correct.”

“An interesting weapon, the DEW. Microwaving a man’s brain hardly seems sporting, does it? And it is above top secret, as well. Which means it doesn’t officially exist.”

“Yes, sir.”

There was a knock at the door and the aide returned carrying a silver tray. He set it on the corner of the Brigadier’s desk and swiftly retreated.

“Don’t mind if I pour?” asked Nolan. He lifted the pot without waiting for an answer and quickly filled two cups. “Milk?”

“Please.” Nash stood up to take the proffered cup and saucer, then just as quickly sat back down.

“Yes, an interesting weapon,” repeated Nolan. “But then, of course, I received a formal request from MI5 to borrow it. An official requisition through official channels.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well then.” He lifted his cup and sipped a noisy mouthful. “I don’t recall any such request for this meeting today. Only a phone call from a Major who really ought to mind his own business. Friend of yours, is he?”

“Yes, sir. Please, if I could explain…”

The Brigadier lifted a hand to silence him. “No need.” He opened another file on his desk. “Edward North, now there is an interesting fella. Also a Pathfinder.” He sat back in his chair and took another sip of tea. “But there the similarities between the two of you seem to end. They tortured him, you know?”

Nash nodded. “I don’t know the full details, sir. Major Lancaster advised me the file is classified.”

“So it is. Not comfortable reading for the faint-hearted, Nash.” He reached forward and flipped the file closed. “And I’m afraid I can’t tell you the finer details. Suffice to say, you and O’Leary had a clear directive for your covert mission. Not so, North.”

“Sir?”

He sighed. “Your mission was to assess anti-aircraft capabilities of the Taliban, yes?”

Nash nodded. “And ground force deployment.”

“Quite.” He set his cup down with a clatter. “North had different orders. Your covert mission was actually a cover for his objective. He simply never completed it.”

Nash was speechless. It had never occurred to him that there could be a secret mission within a secret mission.

“And now you work for that most duplicitous of organisations, MI5,” he said, “where lying and double-dealing are everyday occurrences, only to find that the good old dependable British Army is far more devious. That you’ve been lied to for years.”

“I am shocked, sir, I must say. I had no idea.”

“Well, all’s fair in love and war, as they say. War, especially. The army does what it does, because it has to. Because sometimes it takes lying and dishonesty to win. And sometimes sacrifices have to be made.”

“Like North?”

Nolan nodded. “It wouldn’t do to let the Taliban know he was important to us. He had to be seen as just another soldier lost behind enemy lines. If the opportunity presented, we would have taken him back in a heartbeat, but we couldn’t do anything unusual. Couldn’t mount a special operation just to rescue him.”

“Does he know?” asked Nash. “Know that he was abandoned.”

“Of course. I can only assume that the Army as a whole is too large a target for him to take on. Far easier for him to blame you and bring misfortune to your door.”

“And kill me?”

“I’m sure that’s his ultimate aim.” Nolan raised the teapot. “Refill?”

“No, thank you, sir.” Nice that he can sound so calm discussing my potential murder, thought Nash.

Nolan refilled his own cup and added a drop of milk. “We clearly don’t want North to continue his little revenge spree – innocent people are dying and it has to stop – and we also don’t want anything to happen to you. But you must understand that the army cannot become directly involved. North was one of us, but now he sits firmly in the civilian realm. The public are already going to point a finger at us when he’s finally caught and we must try to maintain the reputation of the army.”

Nash nodded agreement. “I understand, sir.”

“Good.” Nolan linked his fingers and rested his arms on the desk. “Now I’ve told you what I can’t do, tell me what you’d like me to do.”

Nash took a deep breath. “I’d like a SWARM unit, sir, with two operators.”

The Brigadier laughed - a belly rumble. “You’re a piece of work, Nash. The SWARM doesn’t officially exist. What makes you think I have one?”

“You have three, sir,” declared Nash. “One prototype and two working operational units. And six trained operators on the base that I know of.”

Nolan shook his head. “You couldn’t possibly know that, Nash. It’s above top secret.”

“So is the directed energy weapon, sir. Intelligence is my business, after all.”

The Brigadier nodded slowly. “You’re sure he’s going to strike again? Not simply come after you.”

“Yes, sir. I think he’s trying to wear me down. The killings are just his way of proving how powerless I am. And how powerful he is in comparison. I’m sure he’ll want to do something dramatic, something suitably spectacular, before he tries to finish me off. I need to stop that from happening.”

Nolan tapped a finger onto the file on his desk, thoughtfully. “The Taliban suspected there was more to North than appeared, you know. They patched him up initially; he only had a minor chest wound. It was a concussion grenade which floored him during your firefight, not a kill shot. That’s why he blames you – he thinks you and O’Leary knew he could be saved, but were more intent on saving yourselves.”

Nash didn’t deny it. There was no need. He had genuinely believed North was dead, killed instantly with a shot to the chest, and so did O’Leary. They would never have left him otherwise. Pathfinders don’t abandon their own.

“After a while, the Taliban lost patience with North. They wanted answers and he wasn’t talking. They even tried water-boarding. A lovely technique they learned from the Americans.” Nolan shook his head. “An awful way to make war. Not that it worked. So they started to cut the toes from his right foot. One at a time. A day at a time. Then they waited a week and took an axe to his foot. Patched him up, waited another week, and then chopped off another three inches of his shin. And so on.” He slipped North’s file to the bottom of his pile of papers, as if to distance himself from the horrific information it contained. “I can’t imagine how that must have felt – the agony of barely healed flesh being hacked off again and again. The brief respite, followed by another wave of agony and another few inches of his leg gone forever. They got to his knee before he finally caved in. He told them everything. I wouldn’t have lasted that long.”

“Nor would I, sir.”

“Quite. Regardless, he at least managed to end the torture. He just had to spill his guts. They moved him around after that, passed him from cell to cell, and it was almost a year after the torture ended before an American patrol rescued him, purely by chance. He was brought home for rehabilitation. I don’t think anybody can ever understand the damage that has been done to him - up here.” He tapped the side of his head for emphasis. “The army was naïve to think they could cure him of that.”

Nash coughed to clear his throat. “I do understand, sir, but about …”

“You were never here,” said Nolan brusquely. “You did not visit this base today and we have never met. Understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

“One week only. A SWARM unit and two operators under your command.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“My aide will take you to the Quartermaster and you can arrange deployment. Any hint of a problem and I’ll recall the unit and deny all knowledge. Clear?”

“Yes, sir. Thank you again, sir.”

The Brigadier bowed his head back to the paperwork on his desk. “That will be all, Nash. And good luck.”

People need to stop telling me that, he thought. He stood up quickly, saluted out of habit and respect, and left the Brigadier’s office. Finally, he felt he was making some progress. Now all he had to do was catch the bastard.

Fiction


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