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A Virtual Killing

Chapter One

Coventry, England

Daniel Nash had only a fraction of a second to take the shot as she ran across his field of view, but he made a snap decision and kept his finger off the trigger.

Nash just didn’t feel that he could shoot her and it wasn’t because the target was female, it was because she was a child. The girl vanished from sight and Nash paused briefly to glance back through the warehouse doors. Dawson was kneeling and holding his left side. Blood seeped between his fingers and his teeth were gritted in pain.

“I’m fine,” he gasped, “go get her.”

The girl had burst from the compound gates at full sprint as if pursued by the hounds of hell, her backpack swinging as she desperately pumped her arms in a fear-fuelled dash. By the time Daniel Nash ran onto the street in pursuit the girl was already out of sight.

“Damn it,” he said, quickly holstering his Glock and thumbing his radio. “VM1 to Control. I’ve lost her. Does the drone have her?”

“Control to VM1. Yes, we have you both. The subject seems to be heading for the town centre. Turn left and at the next junction go right.”

Nash set off running and keyed the mike again. “Please contact the local constabulary and tell them not to engage. That girl is armed and decidedly dangerous.”

“Roger that, VM1.”

As he ran, Nash wondered how such a straightforward mission could go so wrong. His old job had been so much simpler, though perhaps a little morally ambiguous in comparison to his new one. Daniel Nash used to be an assassin for a clandestine sub-division of MI5, known simply as the Department, but had transferred into an anti-terrorist unit a year earlier. He planned to get married in the near future and didn’t feel assassination was a suitable profession for a husband and, hopefully one day, a father. To be totally honest nor did his fiancée, and she had had a significant impact on his decision to change roles.

His first few months with the anti-terrorist unit had been tied up with basic training - learning to transfer his skills from the simple task of killing people as ordered, to the infinitely more complex task of deciding if a suspect should be killed - after which he started to get assignments. He was given easy cases to begin with, but they quickly became more complex and time-consuming. He found that all of the cases involved far more data analysis than actual engagement with terrorists, but the job overall suited his needs and he didn’t complain. Nor did his girlfriend, Jenny, because it meant he was able to spend most nights at home with her and their relationship had deepened as a result. It helped that she also had no issues with his work of dealing harshly with terrorists, whereas she had struggled with the morality of his previous role of assassinating people merely for being poor parents, regardless of the fact that they abused or even killed their own children. Not that she disagreed with child abusers being punished; it was just that she struggled with the concept of executing child abusers for their crimes. He guessed that she secretly believed they were merely flawed people; she thought that no parent would consciously decide to hurt or abuse their own children. She was wrong, of course, but he didn’t blame her for holding that opinion.

Everything had been going well with the new job until a few days earlier when he’d travelled to La Rochelle in France on a routine surveillance job. Nash and his current MI5 partner, Hugh Dawson, had tailed a terror suspect from Birmingham to Dover, crossed the Channel by ferry, then followed him again from Calais to La Rochelle in southern France. Dawson was a taciturn companion, but they had travelled in separate cars to leap-frog the pursuit without being seen, so their radio chatter was kept to a minimum in any case. Nash considered Dawson to be a little boring, with apparently no interests outside the service, or certainly none which he’d shared, but he was also a consummate professional with a distinguished service history - and was a crack shot with a pistol - so Nash didn’t want anybody else to cover his back.

Intelligence reports had suggested that their suspect, Khan Mohammed Khawaja, was the leader of a terrorist group situated in the Birmingham area. The group was alleged to be seeking explosives for an as-yet unknown attack somewhere on the British mainland. It had therefore been inevitable that when Khawaja set off on an unscheduled trip to France, Nash and Dawson had followed.

“This is a waste of time,” Dawson had squawked, somewhere along the A28 towards Le Mans after the first day and night of a tiring pursuit.

“Maybe.”

“C’mon, Nash. He’s got his niece with him. What sort of terrorist brings a teenage girl along when buying weapons?”

“I agree, but we’re here now so we might as well see it through.”

“No problem. I’m just saying it all seems a bit weak.”

“Roger that.” Nash didn’t want to believe that Khawaja would bring his niece along on an arms deal, but then the guy had driven virtually non-stop across Britain and France with the poor girl in tow. He certainly wasn’t taking her on holiday. Perhaps, thought Nash, he is planning to use her as part of his terrorist group. It wouldn’t be the first time a child was indoctrinated into a terrorist cause. Or perhaps Dawson was correct in thinking the trip to France was genuinely innocent.

Khawaja stopped at a motel near Marans and, after a meal in a local cafe, he and his niece settled into a twin room and settled down for the night. Nash and Dawson took turns to watch the hotel while the other slept. At dawn Khawaja left the hotel on his own and drove towards La Rochelle. The early hour made pursuit difficult because of the lack of other traffic, but they managed to keep a reasonable distance from the car while continuing to leapfrog each other, and Khawaja didn’t show any signs that he’d spotted them.

Khawaja drove to the port of La Rochelle and it was obvious by his lack of hesitation that he already knew the area. He drove through the town itself and weaved his way through industrial complexes to the dockyard.

Khawaja met a worker at the docks in La Rochelle. He parked his car and walked confidently to the waiting man and shook his hand before pulling him forward firmly and embracing him.

Dawson had parked on a bluff overlooking the dockyard while Nash remained a half mile away and listened to the radio chatter. “He seems to be friends with a dock worker. The man looks Afghani as well.”

As Dawson watched through binoculars the unknown dockyard worker opened a cargo container and helped load boxes into Khawaja’s car. “I don’t believe it,” he said. “It’s fags.”

“What?”

“Cigarettes. He’s loading the van with cartons of Marlboros. Khawaja is a tobacco smuggler, for chrissakes.”

Nash slammed his palm down on the steering wheel. “Shit.”

“What a waste of fucking time,” cursed Dawson.

Nash did some quick calculations in his head about the value of a van load of tax-free cigarettes, but it still made no sense. There simply couldn’t be enough profit in it to fund any sort of terrorist activity, and that was assuming he even made it safely through customs.

There was nothing left to do except follow Khawaja home, but both agents felt despondent about the entire affair. Khawaja collected his niece from the hotel after leaving the docks and then headed on the long journey back to Calais to catch the ferry home. Nash and Dawson followed at a respectable distance because they still didn’t want Khawaja to know he was under surveillance.

After a further tiring day and night of pursuit, Nash tried not to succumb to daydreaming as he crawled along the motorway in the slipstream of an articulated lorry. He had to concentrate to keep his car at a steady fifty miles an hour while all around him other vehicles shot past in a blur as if trying to break the land speed record. It had been a long haul from La Rochelle to Calais for an overnight ferry to Dover, followed by another drive heading up to and around London. With the sun now rising, Nash could only hope that the journey would soon come to an end so he could get some sleep. The radio clipped to the dashboard suddenly squawked. “He’s turning off onto the M45.” Nash nodded. “Birmingham?” “Probably,” replied Dawson, “but could still be Coventry.” “How close behind him are you?” “Six cars back. About three hundred metres.” Nash checked his mirror and accelerated as he pulled out into the middle lane. “I’m coming up.” He quickly increased his speed to ninety mph and overtook cars and lorries for a few miles before easing off at the exit onto the M45 to join the queue of traffic, then accelerating again as soon as he merged with the new motorway. Despite his speed it still took him five minutes to catch up with Dawson. As soon as his car came into sight, Nash began to slow down until the two vehicles almost matched speed. Dawson decelerated further to open a gap in front of his car and Nash pulled into the space. “Falling back,” said Dawson. “He’s passed the Birmingham exit. Looks like he’s heading for Coventry after all.” “That’s a surprise, isn’t it?” “Unless he’s got a buyer for his fags.” Nash glanced in his mirror and saw Dawson’s car receding as it was brought back down to fifty miles an hour. The slow moving car was quickly overtaken by other vehicles and dropped out of sight. The two men had used this leapfrogging method for the previous 600 miles, taking it in turns for one of them to stay close to Khawaja while the other dropped back a mile or two. The method tended to work better with at least three cars in pursuit, but so far there was no sign that their quarry had any inkling that he was being followed. Nash smiled to himself. Dawson wasn’t the most gregarious companion and seemed to have no life outside the service, or nothing of interest to talk about in any case, but he was such a professional operative that Nash wouldn’t have wanted anybody else watching his back. Since Nash had moved into MI5’s Counter-terrorism unit twelve months earlier, he and Dawson had worked on three cases together and seemed to make an effective team. Certainly their Unit Leader seemed to think so, because he was putting them together more frequently of late. Three cars and a lorry ahead of him Nash could see Khawaja’s blue Transit van making steady progress along the motorway. Khawaja had been smart enough to stick within the speed limit for the entire journey to avoid any complications with traffic police, but it still surprised Nash that customs officers at Dover had shown no interest in the van at all. It seemed unlikely that Khawaja could have bribed customs to overlook him, especially for something as innocuous-appearing as cigarette smuggling, but then those same workers had tried to pull Nash to one side as he drove through the green ‘nothing to declare’ lane behind Khawaja and only a quick flash of his MI5 identity card had avoided a lengthy search of his car. He could only assume that British customs officers felt a man travelling alone by car was of more concern to them than a man with a young child who just happened to be in a panel van full of cigarettes. Nash and Dawson weren't entirely sure of the child’s identity, but suspected she was Khawaja’s twelve-year-old niece and, as her family lived in Birmingham, that had given them the idea of a West Midlands base of operations for Khawaja’s terrorist activities. It was a bit of a stretch from the available facts, but the van’s current destination seemed to be lending the idea some weight and he certainly wasn’t based in Pakistan anymore. The traffic started to slow as the van worked its way closer to Coventry and left the motorway for single carriageways. Nash gradually closed the gap. He kept glancing at the GPS display on the dashboard and began a running commentary of his position for Dawson to follow in the trailing car. “He seems to be bypassing the centre of Coventry.” He glanced at the map. “He’s heading south west.” “There’s an industrial estate in that direction,” said Dawson, “one road in and out.” “Or he could be taking a long route to Birmingham.” “We’ll know soon enough.” “If he makes the turn into the industrial estate I’m going to park up and launch the drone. Less likely we’ll be spotted than if we’re driving circuits.” “Good idea.” Eventually, Khawaja did make the turn into the industrial estate. Nash drove a hundred metres past the junction and pulled into a lay-by. He jumped out and stepped quickly to the back of the car and opened the boot. Nestled in a protective case of Styrofoam was a grey model aircraft with a streamlined body just over a metre long, with a bulge towards the rear for the turbofan engine and another bulge at its nose which held a downward-facing camera. The metre-long wings lay in foam inserts beside the main body because the assembled plane was too large to fit inside the boot. Nash pulled each of the separate sections out of their packing material and laid them on the grass verge beside the car. He ignored the occasional car driving past and put the drone together in a well-rehearsed sequence. First, flip open the battery compartment to make the drone active. Second, attach the wings into their sockets and turn the restraining bolts to hold them in place. Third, open the drone app on the tablet controller which also fired up the plane’s engines. Finally, lift the drone to shoulder height and launch into the air at a forty-five degree angle. The plane’s turbofan increased its rate of revolution as it detected the launch using internal gyroscopes. The roaring engine lifted the craft into the air and it began to describe an expanding cone shape as it forced its way upwards to its operational altitude of 2000 metres. As soon as it reached the correct height the sound of the engine decreased as the drone reduced speed to simply hold itself in place. Apart from the physical launch into the air performed by Nash, the whole process was automatic and, assuming no further input from an operator, the drone would continue to follow a circular holding pattern until its batteries ran out and it crashed back down to earth. Nash got back into the car with the tablet controller. In total, it had taken less than two minutes to launch the drone and he estimated that less than eight cars had passed him during that time. Most of the drivers wouldn't have given him a second glance; the few that had probably thought he was a geeky radio-control hobbyist. “Control,” he spoke into the tablet, keying the mike. “VM1 on active assignment.”

The delay response was less than five seconds. “Go ahead, VM1.”

“Request drone monitoring. Launch activation code …” he said, then glanced down at the tablet controller, “…AZ12765.”

“Stand by.” Another five seconds of silence. “Roger, VM1. Drone is now tethered. Target?”

Nash gave the registration and description of Khawaja’s van and then described a circle with his finger on the tablet screen to encompass a satellite view of the industrial estate. “Area marked.”

“Roger that - search co-ordinates set,” said control. A few more seconds passed in silence. ”OK, I’ve got it. Vehicle is turning into a car park.”

A zoomed-in map appeared on the tablet showing the blue transit van making a right turn into a fenced parking area outside a small warehouse unit. It came to a stop at an angle outside the main entrance to the building and Khawaja and his niece both climbed out and walked inside. Nash noticed that the girl had a pink backpack over one shoulder.

Nash glanced in his mirror and saw Dawson’s car pull in behind him. Dawson jogged over and got into the passenger seat. Events seemed to unfold quickly after that. The radio squawked almost the moment Dawson sat down.

“Control to VM1.”

“Go ahead, Control.”

“Immediate incursion authorised. Local police armed response unit are en route to your location to assist.”

Nash and Dawson looked quizzically at each other. Nash spread his hands but seemed at a loss for words. Dawson reached over and keyed the mike. “Control, this is VM2,” he said. “We’ve been trailing this guy for two days. He’s a tobacco smuggler, nothing more.”

“Intel says otherwise, VM2. Immediate assault authorised. Do not allow those cigarette cartons to be opened.”

Dawson raised his eyebrows and shrugged. “Roger that, Control.”

The local armed response unit arrived less than a minute later and the four men bent over the tablet on Nash’s bonnet to get the lay of the land. An unknown man from the warehouse came outside to reverse the panel van into the workshop area, but the drone showed that the front gate remained open to the street.

“Ok,” said Nash. “Nothing fancy. We go in the front gates at speed. Dawson,you go through the garage doors. I’ll take the front entrance. Pitt, you and Carruthers go around the back.” Both officers nodded curtly, but Nash noticed Carruthers looking a little nervous. “First time, mate?”

“Yes, sir,” he said. “First live fire, sir.”

“You’ll be fine, Detective. Just remember, this is a potential terrorist situation. We aren’t here to make friends or to waste time. If we had the leisure I would prefer to spend a few hours planning this, but unfortunately we don’t have that luxury. We go in fast and,” he said, pausing to lock eyes with Carruthers, “we put everybody down without hesitation. Do not give quarter. If it moves, shoot it. Clear?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Good.” He clapped Carruthers on the shoulder. “You don’t have to take a kill shot, Detective, but make sure you put them all down. You can be sure they will do the same to you if you let them.”

“Yes, sir. Won’t be a problem, sir.”

“Ok. Let’s go.”

Nash and Dawson went in one car and the police followed in their own. The two vehicles screeched to a halt inside the compound and the four men were out and moving in a heartbeat. Nash plunged through the front door with his Glock 9 held forward. Behind the reception desk stood a startled grey-haired man who looked up with surprise. Nash shot him in the right shoulder; a painful wound but not fatal. He vaulted the desk and plunged through into the workshop.

Dawson had already entered the garage doors and put down one other unknown terrorist/warehouse worker as Nash burst through the inner door. A set of internal stairs led up towards a suspended office above them. The lights in the office were out but that didn’t mean it was unoccupied. Nash motioned for Dawson to check upstairs and he got a nod in response while Dawson simultaneously flicked his head towards the rear of the workshop. Nash nodded in return and headed through the workshop towards the warehouse proper.

Shots sounded from inside the cavernous space as he entered and Nash scanned for the source. Carruthers was moving forward from the back door, tracking a fallen worker who he’d shot in the leg. He glanced in Nash’s direction. “Clear,” he shouted. Close behind him, Pitt provided cover.

Nash moved past them towards the back of the warehouse. “Where’s Khawaja?”

“We haven’t seen anyone else,” said Pitt.

Nash stepped out into the rear yard and looked both ways, but nobody was in sight. He jogged around the perimeter of the building in the opposite direction to that taken by the police. Nobody was in sight. As he approached the front of the building he heard shouts coming from the garage. “Don’t move.” Then something in Arabic. Two gun shots. More Arabic. Another gun shot. He raised his Glock as he moved forward.

A young girl dashed past him, a gun in her hand and a pink rucksack on her back, and he hesitated.

Nash had never had a problem with killing, but he simply could not pull the trigger. Killing a child was an order of magnitude removed from killing an adult, in his eyes.

The girl sprinted past the parked cars and crossed the compound in barely a moment and vanished from sight. Nash stole a glance into the garage and saw Dawson nursing his side.

“I’m fine,”gasped Dawson, “go get her.” Behind Dawson, Nash noticed a body on the ground with blood pooling beneath it. Probably Khawaja, he thought.

Nash set off in pursuit of the child, still unclear in his mind about what he would do when he caught up with her. He chased the girl all the way from the industrial estate into the city centre. She remained just beyond his sight the entire time, but the drone operator guided him every step of the way so he could follow her route.

“She seems to be heading for Broadgate,” said Control. “Towards the Godiva statue.”

“Godiva?”

“You’re kidding, right?” said Control, in an uncharacteristic burst. “Godiva. As in Lady Godiva. She rode naked through the streets of Coventry.”

“Right,” said Nash. He’d heard of Lady Godiva, of course, but didn’t have any idea before that moment that she had hailed from Coventry. He didn’t even know Godiva’s reasons for taking to the streets naked on horseback, although he liked the image it conjured in his mind. “Stick to the point, Control. You’re distracting me.”

“Roger that, VM1.”

The pursuit of the girl continued though the winding pedestrianised streets of the city centre until Nash burst into a wide-open square. He could see a church across from him, and around the square were dozens of commuters wandering in each and every direction or else sitting on benches eating sandwiches for their lunch, but his gaze focused on the statue a hundred metres in front of him. Even from that distance it was clear the statue was of a naked woman astride a horse, but his focus was entirely upon the girl straddling the statue just behind the naked figure of Godiva. The girl had her rucksack on her lap and she was tearing at the packaging of a carton of Marlboro cigarettes. A few feet away stood a police officer with an outstretched arm, clearly trying to talk the girl down from the statue.

“I said no police,” yelled Nash into the radio. He drew his Glock and started walking slowly forward with his gun raised. “MI5,” he shouted, “please step back from the statue. Officer, please step back.”

The girl looked straight at Nash and locked eyes with him. She smiled and reached down to the cigarette carton. She shouted something in Arabic but he wasn’t yet proficient enough to understand anything she said except the word “false”. His Arabic was improving but could not yet be considered good. The girl glanced down at the cigarette carton on her lap and Nash saw her hand clench.

The girl disappeared in a light brighter than the sun.

A millisecond later the figure of the policeman was consumed by a fireball and a concussion wave of air hit Nash and lifted him from his feet. He banged his head on the tarmac as he fell backwards and was momentarily stunned as the wave of heat passed over him.

It was in that moment that he finally understood the intel. The cartons were not cigarettes and this really had been a legitimate terrorist threat. Seven people close to the Godiva statue were obliterated by the explosion as his realisation dawned. Another seventeen were seriously injured from shrapnel and twelve more, including Nash, received minor physical injuries.

“Not cigarettes,” thought Nash as the cloud of smoke and debris from the explosion rolled across him. “Semtex.”

Fiction


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