First Response

By: Stephen Leather

cleanskin n.

an unbranded animal;

a terrorist with no obvious links to terrorist groups, and who therefore does not appear on any watch lists.

Sarah Khan sat down in the last free seat in the carriage and took a deep breath. She looked at her watch. She had plenty of time before her interview. She never enjoyed interviews, probably because she didn’t like being judged. They would look at her and ask probing questions and on the basis of that would decide whether or not she was suitable to work for them. If she said the wrong thing, if she made a joke that was taken the wrong way, her CPS career would be dead before it had even started.

Sarah knew she had a tendency to be flippant when she was nervous. It was a defence mechanism, an attempt to defuse a moment of tension. She was going to have to be careful, but not too careful because her interviewers might mistake hesitance for duplicity. She knew that she had to smile, but not smile too much. She had to maintain eye contact but not stare. She closed her eyes and tried to think calm thoughts.

She had spent the last week running through every possible question she might be asked. Why the CPS? Why not join one of the big law firms? Why criminal and not corporate? How would she cope with the long hours, the stress, the responsibility? She had all her answers prepared. She wanted to make a difference. She wanted to make her city a safer place to live. She wanted to protect its citizens. She wanted to be a superhero. She smiled to herself and opened her eyes. Maybe that was going too far. But she had never spent all those hours studying law to spend her time in a corporate environment helping to make rich people richer.

She sighed and looked around her, wondering how many of the people sitting in the carriage she might come across when the CPS hired her. How many were planning criminal acts? How many had already committed offences and had yet to face justice? The businessman with his metal briefcase perched on his lap: had he defrauded his employer? The teenage girl in an army-surplus jacket with the sleeves rolled up: had she killed her cheating boyfriend and buried him underneath the patio at the back of her house? The young Asian man standing by the door with a backpack slung over one shoulder: was he carrying cannabis in his bag? Or cocaine? On the way to a drugs deal?

She realised he was staring at her and looked away, feeling guilty and wondering if he’d read her mind. She gave it a few seconds, then looked back. He was still staring at her with his deep-set eyes. They reminded her of a bird of prey she’d once seen on a school trip. A peregrine falcon. She’d been only eight years old but she’d never forgotten the way the bird had seemed to stare at her with cold, unfeeling eyes, as if it had not the slightest interest in her. She smiled at him, but that seemed only to intensify his stare.

The train picked up speed. Sarah looked away from the man with the baleful stare and tried to concentrate on the interview ahead of her. She had to show all the qualities they would be looking for. Intelligence. Diligence. Honesty. And a desire to work long hours for a lot less money than she would earn in the private sector.

She found herself staring at the man again. He wasn’t looking at her any more: now he was staring at a woman with a young daughter. The girl was three or four years old, holding a small Paddington Bear. She smiled at Sarah and Sarah smiled back.

The man straightened and raised his right arm. He was holding something in his hand, something metallic. He took a deep breath, threw back his head and screamed at the top of his voice, ‘Allahu Akbar!’

There was a blinding flash, then everything went dark.

BRIXTON (10 a.m.)

Father Morrison was getting towards the end of the mass and had to consciously focus to stop his mind wandering. How many masses had he taken during his thirty-seven years as a priest? Thirteen thousand? Fourteen thousand? Was it any wonder that he had a tendency to switch onto autopilot and say the words without connecting with their meaning? He forced himself to concentrate, knowing that his congregation deserved his full attention.

There were two dozen worshippers, and Father Morrison knew them all by name. It was mid-week, when only the most devout of his parishioners came to mass. Sunday was a different matter. There were four Sunday masses at the Corpus Christi Church in Brixton Hill. Sunday was an easy day to go to church, but mid-week required more of an effort. Most of the men and women in the pews were old, and Father Morrison couldn’t help but think that in some cases it was loneliness rather than devotion that had brought them to the church. But there were some eager young faces, mainly recent immigrants from West Africa, who seemed to be hanging on every word of his homily.

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