First a note – I don't actually think this is how it would all end (it's just a little too neat) but I did want one more meeting between Aaron and Byer so this is my version of that.
The Watson's had lived in the town since 2009 and had become respected members of the community. Andrew Watson had been made redundant from some large brokerage firm after the 2008 crash but had managed to afford to buy the old Kirk place by the lake on his severance pay. Since then he had been dividing his time between running the smallholding, building some very nice wooden furniture and volunteering with the wardens in the nearby national park; he liked to say that he'd had enough of the pressure of big business.
Mrs Anne Watson had come with her husband and had soon given birth to their first born, a well-liked and intelligent boy called Kenneth, quickly known as Kenny to all his friends. The twins had followed five years later and, while they were good kids, everyone around town had started calling them Fred and Georgina after the famous 'Harry Potter' twins, simply because they were always up to something; Anne and Andrew had often joked at PTA meetings that they were registering the twins as WMD's. Still there wasn't a bad bone in their bodies and young Phillip and Karen were favourites around the community.
Anne had worked from home as the kids grew but now, as the youngest were at school, she had taken a post at the local high school as a teaching assistant. Mrs Watson was considered to be a 'looker' by the older teenagers but everyone knew that she only had eyes for her husband and that he, in turn, worshipped the ground she walked on.
They were a very normal family, well liked, friendly with just one quirk; they refused to have their photographs taken for anything. Christmas fair – no, Spring dance – no, School sports day – no; rumours began spreading that they were in some kind of witness protection programme, but they were good people and no one wanted to cause them trouble so it was just left; like the Maclintys' habit of keeping old prams or Martin Cooke's eccentricity of always wearing orange, these things were just the way it was in communities.
Andrew's wood crafting business was also very useful around town. He could fix anything, doors, frames, cabinets, as well as make anything from scratch. As a family they weren't rich but they had sufficient to be happy and enough to be generous with neighbours; everyone enjoyed the Summer BBQ they had held at the house for the last 10 years and Mrs Scott, the Junior Head, had persuaded Andrew to become the schools Father Christmas after Mr Palmer had retired the year before.
So it would come as a complete surprise to everyone in town that both Andrew and Anne kept a stock of firearms, that Andrew had built a bunker with a concealed entrance from the house and an escape route underground to a boat house on the lake. They would be shocked to discover that all the family had a number of fake passports and that they had 1000's of US dollars hidden around the property.
Everyone would be surprised apart from the owner of the dark blue SUV that pulled into the Watsons' driveway just after 11am that Saturday morning. Anne had taken the children into town just 15 minutes before leaving Andrew to work on his latest project in his workshop.
Andrew saw the SUV approach the house and stood by his workbench watching as the driver's door opened. What he saw then made his heart clench, his pulse race and his hand reach down for the handgun concealed under his jacket. The man, whose arrival had sparked this response, did not move from the car but very slowly lifted his hands palms outwards.
'Aaron, you and your family have nothing to fear from me, I have just come to talk.'
'That name died in Manila, my name is Andrew and I promise you if you have harmed my family I will destroy you.'
Silence settled for a few seconds before the intruder nodded and took off his sunglasses looking Andrew straight in the eyes. 'Andrew then; it is just me, there is no one else who knows I am here and,' he paused looking down, 'my life isn't worth much right now. Can we talk?'
Andrew's muscles in his jaw clenched before he gestured with his gun, 'Back of the house, six paces in front, but first open all the doors of your SUV so I can check.' The intruder did as demanded and finally stood waiting, in the rear garden of the house, as Andrew approached cautiously checking him for weapons and bugs.
'Why are you here Byer?' Was the terse question, 'What do you want?'
'I've come to set you free Andrew and to apologise if you will accept it.'
'You've got a fucking nerve! Apologise! Where would you even start?'
'I would start by saying sorry to Kenneth, for everything I did to him and go from there. I am sorry Andrew, I am. My only excuse is that I thought I was doing the right thing; I have come to realise just how wrong I was and, I know that it can't undo all the damage that I have done, but I wanted to let you know that you are free, that you and Marta, sorry, Anne are safe; you and your children.' He took a breath then in a quieter voice, 'I know you won't believe me but I am happy for you, I am glad that you made a real life with a real family.'
'I can't believe a word you tell me. I am stood here waiting for others to turn up to take me in, a sniper to take me out, and I am terrified about what might be happening to Anne and the children and you expect me to believe that you just dropped in to say you are sorry? Give me one good reason why I shouldn't just shoot you now and go to try to save the only people that have ever meant anything to me? The only reason that we are stood here talking right now is that I can't figure out is why you would come in on your own first.
'I get it Andrew, I do. You have no reason to believe me and I don't know what I can do to prove it to you but, for the sake of your family, will you listen?'
'So if I don't listen and do what you want my family is forfeit is that it?'
'No! Nothing like that, you could shoot me now and nothing would happen. No one knows I am here, no one knows that you are here; in fact I went to a great deal of trouble five years ago to make sure that everyone thought that Aaron and Marta were dead. No one has been looking for you for five years Andrew and no one will – everything about you, Marta, all the outcome programme has been cleaned. You don't exist and you never existed. You are safe.'
Silence stretched between them. Byer could hear Andrew's breathing settle and finally he put the gun down. He shook his head as if trying to adjust his thoughts before whispering, 'Why? Why would you do this for us?'
'It's a long story, but you deserve to hear it. Can I sit?' Andrew nodded his head towards a garden seat he had made for the family. Byer sat but Andrew remained standing, not tense but still very much on guard.
'You know that I kept hunting you and Marta after the Philippines. We came close three or four times but finally lost you in Johannesburg. I confess I was furious. I had never failed in a task before and your evasion had put a black mark on my previously spotless record. We, the organisation, were now focusing on our next generation of agents and world events moved our attention on. You were still on our watch for list but we had stopped actively looking for you. Well they had, but I hadn't. I still hadn't forgiven you for the humiliation I felt at my failure.' Byer took a deep breath and gazed into the distance. 'I'm glad I didn't find you then Andrew because I would have killed you both without a thought.'
'In the meantime the LARX agents were fully on line and doing everything we asked them to without a hitch. They were deadly, focused, efficient, everything I thought that we wanted. But as they turned in mission after mission I began to realise that we were no longer eating the sins of others we were making our own sins in the first place.'
Byer looked up at Andrew, 'You remember that mission in Afghanistan that went so wrong? How chewed up you were because our intel was wrong and that two children had died in the fight?' Andrew nodded, 'That was the first time that I questioned what I was doing, the first time I doubted you.'
'Yes I know, you were right to.' Byer took a slight pause before continuing. 'Seven years ago there was an operation in The Sudan, we had information about a terrorist training base that we decided to take out. We sent in two LARX agents, they took out the base without any problem at all, but they also took out a small school attached to the base. They, we, I, were responsible for the death of 17 children. Oh we justified it to ourselves of course, the kids would have grown up as the next generation of terrorists after all and we cleaned the site making it look like a fight between factions; but all I could think about afterwards was how you had looked in Afghanistan and how nobody now seemed to care. That was when I began doubting myself and what I was doing.'
Byer paused for a breath, head down, shoulders bowed as if under a terrible weight. Andrew thought to himself how changed the man before him was. 'What did you do about it Colonel?'
'What could I do? I was like Frankenstein, I had created a monster I could no longer control, no longer stop. I did the only thing I could do at that point; I took a long hard look at myself and saw just how far I had fallen from my own ideals. That was when I made up my mind to repair what I could, sadly it wasn't much; you and Marta were the only ones that had escaped my control and for that I am now grateful.'
'I still believed that you were both out there in the world somewhere, so I began to put things in place to finally free you from your pasts. Gradually your files were erased. Not all at once that would have been too obvious. Searches that had been made, algorithms containing pursuit patterns, even your pictures were wiped as only government techs know how. Never the same tech, never the same department.'
'Then five years ago I found you. It was purely by chance, a chance in a million. I was in Canada at a meeting in Toronto when I was given a recommendation about a skilled furniture maker. I wanted a gift to oil some political cogs and thought that a bespoke cabinet would do the job – extravagant without being obvious. I drove into town and as I was passing the school I saw Marta picking up your Son. Obviously she didn't see me but I parked up and watched them both. I couldn't get over how much he looked like you had when I first met you.' Byer smiled a broken smile, 'I'm glad you called him Ken, I'm glad something of that young man I killed survived.'
Now Andrew's legs felt like giving way; God how close they had come to being torn apart; how easy it would have been for Byer to have removed the black mark from his record and completely destroyed him and his family in the process. Andrew felt sick and listened intently as Byer continued.
'Now that I knew where you were I could finally put into place the last part of my plan; a house fire in Mexico, two bodies burned beyond recognition, planted DNA and a little bit of twisting of facts had you and Marta declared dead. Your few remaining files officially closed. I could now go about making even those fade away. I wanted to come and tell you straight away but that would have been too much too soon so I waited until I was free to return. And now here I am. I officially retired at the beginning of this year and, as far as anyone who might want to know is concerned, I am simply touring North America as newly retired people are want to do.' He looked down again. 'That is all Andrew, that is all I came to do. Like I said, to let you know that you are free and that I am deeply sorry for all that I did to you.'
Once again silence dropped between them.
'I don't know what to say to you Colonel. I can't say that I forgive you because there is just too much to forgive, but, I think that I can say thank you. Thank you for my family, thank you for keeping them safe and thank you for our freedom. I think I know just how much that cost you and I am grateful. What happens now? What will you do?'
Byer gave a short laugh, 'The only thing I can do, finish my retirement tour and play golf until I die, what else do old warriors do?' He stood again, facing Andrew and offering his hand. 'If you don't take it I understand, but I do want to wish you well Andrew and hope that one day you will find it in your heart to forgive some of what I did.'
Andrew looked for a moment then hesitantly took his hand, 'Goodbye Colonel and good luck.'
The men parted and Colonel Byer walked away sliding his sunglasses back on as he left. Andrew knew he would never see him again but that was fine; his old life and his new life had no connections and that was how it should be. It was strange, his training said that he should now take the family and run for cover, but something in him knew that he could finally stop running and looking over his shoulder, and it was odd to think that he owed that to the man he was once sure would destroy him.
That night, after the children had been put to bed, Andrew told Anne all about his visitor. He felt her shiver in his arms as he explained how Colonel Byer had seen her and Ken in town and then re-assured her that he truly believed that they were now safe. They were both unsurprised when the National news reported the suicide of a retired American Air Force Colonel later that year, unsurprised but relieved.
Mr and Mrs Watson were happy to join in the Christmas festivities as always but this year, for some reason, Andrew didn't mind his photograph taken as he played the part of the best Father Christmas the town could remember.