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The Rule Of The People

THE RULE OF

THE PEOPLE

 

By

 

Christopher Read

 

 

BOOK THREE OF THE CONSPIRACY TRILOGY

THE RULE OF THE PEOPLE

 

Copyright © 2016 by Christopher Read

 

 

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the author. The only exception is by a reviewer, who may quote short excerpts in a review.

 

This book is a work of fiction. All the names, characters, other entities, places and incidents portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, real-life entities, past or present, or actual incidents, is entirely coincidental.

1.1

The South China Sea

Map illustrating the various territorial claims, courtesy of www.southchinasea.org

 

 

Contents

Prologue – Thursday, November 10th

Chapter 1 – Friday, November 11th

Chapter 2 – Saturday, November 12th

Chapter 3 – Sunday, November 13th

Chapter 4 – Monday, November 14th

Chapter 5 – Tuesday, November 15th

Chapter 6 – Wednesday, November 16th

Chapter 7 – Thursday, November 17th

Chapter 8 – Friday, November 18th

Chapter 9 – Saturday, November 19th

Chapter 10 – Sunday, November 20th

Chapter 11- Monday, November 21st

Chapter 12 – Tuesday, November 22nd

Chapter 13 – Wednesday, November 23rd

Chapter 14 – Thursday, November 24th

Chapter 15 – Friday, November 25th

Chapter 16 – Saturday to Monday, November 26th to 28th

Map of the South China Sea

 

Prologue – Thursday, November 10th

Zhanjiang, China. – 16:36 Local Time; 08:36 UTC

Hypocrites, liars and opportunists: China’s near neighbours were finally showing their true nature, each prepared to do whatever was necessary to twist the truth in order to suit their own ends. It was a challenge China had neither asked for nor wanted, but if it was anticipated Beijing would shy away from the inevitable military confrontation then that would be a serious misjudgement and the Politburo was committed to defending its sovereign territory, whether that was an intractable region to the north or the island groups of the South China Sea.

Major-General Liang sat in the basement bunker of the Naval Command Centre, listening carefully as the Commander of China’s South Sea Fleet led a briefing on the latest military assessments, the Admiral’s combination of facts and suppositions producing a fairly unsatisfactory glimpse of what the immediate future might hold. An effective and experienced speaker, the Admiral’s outrage at those who condemned China was obvious to all, his fears rather more difficult to judge.

The greater part of the Admiral’s contempt was directed at the United States and the tactical display directly behind him revealed the U.S. Navy gathering its strength in the South China Sea with yet more vessels soon to arrive from Japan and Hawaii. Their intentions were unclear, the American Commander perhaps merely awaiting the order to attack and impatient for the White House to issue the command. The calming influence of diplomacy had definitely been abandoned for the time being and China’s Politburo seemed content to ride out the storm of accusations while preparing for the worst.

The financial cost of the accelerating crisis was already extreme, the Shanghai Composite Index down fourteen percent since Monday and the 2015/16 crash would be nothing compared to the turmoil a war – even a minor one – would bring. The Politburo had always managed to gloss over China’s many internal problems, a combination of sustained growth, increasing wealth and stability ensuring the silent majority had little cause to be anything other than compliant. Now that stability was under threat, the army likely to be needed to bolster the country’s internal security with every terrorist and dissident looking to take advantage.

China’s military command was led by the eleven men of the Central Military Commission (CMC), the President its chairman and Commander-in-Chief of China’s armed forces. General Liang’s position with the CMC’s Strategic Support Force meant he had a voice if not a vote at the recent crisis meetings and despite the posturing of the U.S. Navy, the Commission’s most immediate concern lay to the north, the Russian Bear finally unsheathing its claws. China’s north-west region of Xinjiang was already a hot-bed of dissent and nationalist tensions, thousands of Russian troops now poised to invade, their target Xinjiang’s oil and mineral wealth. A second Russian army was gathering strength to the north-east, between the cities of Khabarovsk and Vladivostok, ready to strike at China’s industrial base.

North, east and south: China’s enemies conspired together to subdue the dragon in their midst and Liang was well aware that it would be a struggle to defend the country from two or more separate threats. Yet Russia’s actions might still be nothing more than a diversion, the Kremlin perhaps content to wait whilst others – Vietnam or possibly even the Philippines – first tested China’s resolve. Vietnam’s mainly conscript army was certainly large enough to cause concern, as was its fleet of Russian-built attack submarines; to the south-east, the Philippines’ military forces might be relatively inconsequential but not so the two carrier strike groups from the United States.

Fear of China ran deep and how many more would be brave enough to throw in their lot with such an unstable and unwieldy coalition, its actions justified by nothing more than exaggeration and deceit? Intelligence suggested Australia might well be next, with South Korea and Taiwan – even Japan – nervously working out how best to respond while fearful that North Korea would then be forced into choosing China over Russia.

Like his naval counterpart, General Liang’s mood was also one of anger and frustration, his informal visit to Zhanjiang a way of ensuring the Admiral and his staff were fully committed to the difficult challenges ahead, whether real or simply exaggerated. The crisis had already seen scores killed and only the previous day Chinese and American fighters had traded missiles with four aircraft destroyed in a futile test of brinkmanship. Under different circumstances such over-enthusiasm could easily have merited a medal, maybe even a promotion; now each error of judgment merely pushed China closer to war.

Such acts were at least genuine mistakes, China accused of unprovoked attacks against two warships: one Vietnamese frigate sunk, the USS Milius damaged, no prior warnings given. The United States might have prevaricated in identifying those responsible, but others had been quick to blame both incidents on the Chinese submarine Taizong, the sonar evidence provided by the Americans and Vietnamese duly analysed and argued over, it all seeming to confirm their version of events. Yet the Taizong had been decommissioned earlier that year, the hull already broken up. Beijing had argued and ridiculed to no avail, and for many on the CMC it merely proved the existence of a US-led conspiracy with China the innocent victim, the collusion of China’s neighbours a truth that could no-longer be ignored. Russia too had been surprisingly quick to join the informal alliance against China, willing even to condone the shelling of its own people – anything to give Russia the excuse it needed to attack its neighbour.

Despite the turmoil of the past week, China’s political leaders still sensed an opportunity here, and control over three more of the Spratly Islands was considered a reasonable exchange for being a temporary outcast; it wasn’t just the strategic importance of the islands, the Politburo trusting that the natural resources hidden within the South China Sea would be a bounty worthy of some sacrifice. The political in-fighting which now consumed the United States, and to a lesser extent Russia as well, only served to encourage the long-term view, and many in the Politburo were fully prepared to dismiss the raw power of the U.S. Navy to urge that China should take what it could while America remained divided, its president unlikely to last out the day.

If there was to be a war, then it would be one where neither side could actually achieve a decisive victory, the nuclear threat one that could never be completely ignored. The CMC’s strategy was thus based on the assumption China could simply wear its enemies down, superiority in numbers ensuring that any Russian or Vietnamese land assault would soon falter; the key struggle would then move three thousand kilometres south of Beijing to the waters surrounding the Paracel and Spratly Islands. There might perhaps not be a single explosive battle, it more likely a conflict of cut and thrust, a tit-for-tat series of clashes with everyone wary of it escalating out of control. The U.S. carrier strike group led by the Gerald R Ford would soon be joined in the South China Sea by the Ronald Reagan, either of the American carriers more than a match for their lone Chinese counterpart, the Liaoning. Beijing’s second and newest carrier remained in port, recent sea trials revealing an unhappy set of problems; yet China’s navy still had plenty of other cards to play, the submarine and missile threats potentially able to overwhelm a strike group’s defences.

Or at least that was the theory, a range of differing scenarios due to be analysed in more depth at the end of the briefing, the Admiral and his senior staff well aware that they would be held responsible for any serious mistakes or misunderstandings, with only one outcome likely from the subsequent court-martial.

Liang might be the CMC’s representative but he had a very different opinion as to the relative dangers facing his country. He had no naïve belief that China could cope for more than a few weeks with a war on two fronts, and their only hope would be to neutralise either Russia or the United States, and quickly; the CMC clearly underestimated the determination of those arrayed against China, its members persuaded into believing that America was soft and Russia corrupt.

Lulled into a false sense of security by the forces at its disposal, the ruling Politburo was impatient to show the world the true worth of Asia’s sole superpower. In another ten or twenty years the politicians’ arrogance might well be justified, but for now it was merely an idle boast, the consequences for China and its people likely to be nothing less than a disaster.

[]Chapter 1 – Friday, November 11th

Washington, D.C. – 12:02 Local Time; 17:02 UTC

Anderson sat in the Smithsonian’s Moongate Garden, enjoying the peace and tranquillity, needing somewhere well away from the FBI’s mobile command centre to relax and reflect on why he was not already on a flight home to the UK. There was also the vague hope that the symbolism of the garden’s circles and squares would work some form of healing magic on his body, Anderson wincing with just the thought of eventually having to stand up.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if the bruises and scrapes had actually been as the result of something worthwhile, but true to form Pat McDowell had been unwilling to oblige. The FBI was still no nearer making an arrest, resources having to be diverted to deal with the aftermath of McDowell’s earlier actions and several parts of the National Mall remained cordoned off. Flowers and messages of condolence surrounded each bloodied scene, people standing in respectful silence while trying to make sense of what had happened just forty-eight hours earlier. Nine had died that day, the Mall the setting for a chaotic scramble to escape as without warning violence had flared. Two agents had also been killed, yet many observers were still keen to condemn the Secret Service and FBI for starting it all, the media over-analysing each new image in order to apportion blame. Anderson’s prominent role in the resulting melee was now part of a Department of Justice investigation, his every action subject to minute scrutiny.

Could he have really done more to prevent it? It was becoming a pointless exercise in self-doubt, others just as guilty as Anderson of mistakes or simple misjudgements, the animosity between the FBI and the D.C. Police revealed for all to see. With the Capitol Building virtually under siege and a beleaguered president struggling to tell friend from foe, the end result had seemed almost inevitable. Now America had a new and untested occupant of the Oval Office, Bob Deangelo’s whirlwind rise to power seeing him take a new oath of allegiance twice in less than twenty-four hours – first as Vice-President, then as President. The legal and constitutional experts were still arguing as to the validity of the accelerated process, with Congress apparently regretting its own impetuosity; yet many in America had demanded someone more dynamic in the White House, a person able and willing to lead the fight-back against Chinese aggression.

Anderson’s brief time in America had so far proved fairly contentious, his status seemingly varying from day to day: tourist, fugitive, FBI consultant – even Anderson found it hard to keep up. Although The Washington Post was keen to maintain contact, he was still theoretically at the Bureau’s beck and call, Anderson working hard to convince them that he really had paid his dues; he certainly couldn’t just get on a plane and head back to Heathrow, his passport, phone and laptop still being held somewhere inside the FBI’s Hoover Building.

For the moment such restrictions were merely an irritation, the conflict between his present commitments and his personal life rather more of a problem. Charlotte’s patience had already been stretched to the limit and she was starting to sense that Anderson was quite happy with his enforced stay in the U.S. Although he hadn’t admitted as much, to return home while the crisis in Washington remained unresolved would be idiotic; some unexpected political twist was being revealed every few days and the new man in the White House had set himself a tough agenda, perhaps even an impossible one.

The rapid demise of President Will Cavanagh had in turn led to a rash of conspiracy theories, some cleverly throwing Pat McDowell into the mix, a few assuming that Bob Deangelo was involved to some extent. The official news media were rather more generous, recognising that Bob Deangelo’s confirmation as President was an inevitable consequence of Cavanagh’s increasing isolation, the key moment when ex-Secretary of State Dick Thorn had broken ranks to show his contempt for Cavanagh.

From the FBI’s perspective, there were just too many unanswered questions to be certain who was involved and to what degree. McDowell and his sophisticated operation wouldn’t have come cheap, no expense seemingly spared; yet every new financial lead had quickly stalled as it came up against another dummy corporation or some foreign-based ghost company. Whilst a handful of McDowell’s accomplices had been arrested, several of the main players remained unknown, prime amongst them McDowell’s likely contact within the FBI. It was a problem that had dogged the investigation from the start, McDowell able to stay one step ahead and maintain the pressure on Cavanagh’s Administration.

Spying on the new President and his close associates might not be the wisest of options, even for the FBI, and that one crucial image or recording that would tie everything together now seemed likely to be buried forever. At the very least, the FBI’s Washington investigation would be reined in, its focus directed well away from the President and his inner circle – if the latter eventually turned out to include Dick Thorn then the conspiracy theorists could rightfully lick their lips in anticipation.

It wasn’t in Anderson’s nature to leave such mysteries for others to solve but by himself his resources were severely limited, and his relationship with the FBI was one based on mutual interest, Anderson very aware of the penalty should he ever abuse his special status. The Bureau still seemed unsure how best to make use of his slightly unpredictable skills, yet nor were they willing to let him go it alone: he was after all the supposed expert on Pat McDowell, a reputation based more on an unfortunate predilection for being in the wrong place at the wrong time than any true understanding of the American’s convoluted thought processes.

  • * *

Paul Jensen waited in the outer office impatient to get the meeting over and done with. He was feeling more bitter than he had expected, unhappy at it being the first time in his career he would suffer the ignominy of being fired, angry also that it would be the U.S. President doing the firing.

Jensen had spent the morning at Arlington National Cemetery, one of several Cabinet members attending the Veteran’s Day ceremony. The Deputy Defence Secretary had been primed to lay the wreath on behalf of the President but Bob Deangelo would have none of it, Arlington becoming his first official duty. It wouldn’t have been that unusual for a president to miss the ceremony, but it was the only time the organisers had spent the early hours of the morning making sure everyone actually knew the name of their nation’s leader.

Bob Deangelo’s speech afterwards has been suitably presidential, focusing on past sacrifices and future concerns, America committed to standing by those who had given so much to protect their country. The problem of the South China Sea was only briefly mentioned, the President hinting that the nation might again be touched by loss. It was a good speech, not overly sombre, with a suitable element of praise for the armed forces, yet illustrating Deangelo was well aware of the pain and hurt associated with even a single death in the service of one’s country.

It had been a competent start to his first full day in Office and Deangelo was no doubt keen to cement his authority, ridding the Administration of anyone who might not be totally loyal. Jensen was definitely in that category and still struggling to work out whether Deangelo had been involved in his predecessor’s demise by accident or design.

Jensen’s musings were interrupted by the buzz of the office phone, the secretary’s polite smile giving nothing away as she directed Jensen to go straight in. A deep breath to steady his nerves and Jensen strode across the threshold into the Oval Office, running through in his mind exactly how to react and what to say when told he no longer had a job; polite restraint and a few curt words of acceptance had been his favoured option, such stoicism now seeming totally inadequate.

“Paul, I appreciate you coming over so promptly; forgive the chaos, it’s going to a while before I get everything as I’d like it.” The President’s warm smile and proffered hand were not at all what Jensen had expected and he almost froze in surprise, struggling to mutter a suitable response. Deangelo’s handshake was firm but thankfully brief, the President waving him to a seat close to the fireplace.

“It’s a difficult time for us all,” continued Deangelo, seating himself opposite Jensen, “and I’m afraid that the worst is far from over. China seems determined to grab what it can in the South China Sea and their bargaining power increases with every acquisition. Russia has its own agenda and we would be foolish to regard them as allies.” He gave a resigned shake of his head, “Diplomacy must be allowed to run its course but the signs are hardly encouraging; if we reach the New Year without going to war, it will be a miracle.”

Jensen nodded politely, not knowing what to say, unsure whether China was to be excuse with the President about to fill his Cabinet with a hard-line clique committed to war. He and Deangelo had worked together for almost two years, more often allies in Cabinet meetings than adversaries, but he barely knew the man behind the professional mask. A respected and able colleague, certainly, yet not someone seemingly destined for the Oval Office.

Deangelo gave a rueful smile, sensing perhaps that he had revealed too much of his personal concerns. “Under the circumstances, I believe it is time for a more bipartisan and unified approach; however, wholesale changes to the Cabinet would be a mistake as well as being totally unnecessary. Your sensitive handling of the internal crisis has been commendable, Paul, and I am keen for you to continue as Secretary of Homeland Security. The political turmoil of the past few weeks cannot be ignored and if Pat McDowell is indeed part of a widespread conspiracy against this Office or Congress, then we need to identify those involved, whoever they are.” His gaze held Jensen’s, “Whoever’s involved, Paul; however high up this goes, we need answers and quickly. And I truly believe you’re the one person I can trust to do that.”

Jensen was still on the back foot, shocked at being praised rather than fired, unsure how exactly to respond. He had come in prepared to be defiant and assertive; now he found himself staring open-mouthed with nothing coherent to say. He was also being offered an opportunity to prove the President’s guilt or innocence, one way or the other – what more could anyone want?

The President looked at Jensen quizzically, still awaiting an answer. “Sleep on it, Paul, if you wish. The new Administration’s only immediate and obvious policy change will be to do with foreign policy, specifically our stance towards the twin problems of Russia and China; that too is an area where I am keen for you to contribute, Paul.”

Jensen finally found his voice, “I’m delighted to accept your offer, Mr President,” he said, forcing a smile. “I always hate to leave a job half-done and we have only skimmed the surface of McDowell’s actions.”

Deangelo acknowledged Jensen’s acceptance with a brief nod, “It’s obvious that pressure from Dick Thorn helped bring down President Cavanagh but that’s a long way from proving he and Pat McDowell were working together, and I won’t condemn him for sticking to his principles.” The President paused, a hint of a smile touching his lips, “Would I be correct in assuming your Kremlin theory is still just that?”

Jensen forced himself to hold the President’s gaze, not wanting to imply anything by looking away. If Deangelo really was part of some conspiracy, should Jensen be careful what he said? Or should he simply ignore his reservations? In his previous role as Secretary of Defence, Deangelo had been briefed as to Jensen’s suspicions, the evidence – albeit mostly circumstantial – duly noted, his conclusions always regarded as speculative.

“Of the various credible scenarios,” said Jensen carefully, “the Kremlin connection seems the most convincing and it fits the facts as we know them. Until we can conclusively identify the submarine that sank the USS Milius, there will always be an element of doubt; most likely, this strategy of misdirection was planned months ago, Russia keen to ensure that we join them in a limited war against China. As you yourself said, Mr President, the Kremlin has grown increasingly concerned by Beijing’s claims on Siberia and Russia’s Far East; we can also throw in the threat to Mongolia and Kazakhstan’s oil reserves.”

To Jensen, it was no longer simply speculation, the Kremlin clearly skewing the evidence to push the U.S. and China into a war neither country wanted. President Cavanagh had been publicly committed to a foreign policy based on diplomacy and conciliation, and it had needed McDowell to erode the President’s authority and so allow the hawks like Dick Thorn to be heard. The momentum for war was gathering pace, with virtually every news programme and media outlet supporting commensurate military action in response to the deaths aboard the USS Milius. Deangelo had publicly promised that America ‘would not ignore the pleas of our loyal allies’: that had been taken to mean the Philippines, possibly also Vietnam, and with every speech and press release the new Administration was rapidly backing itself into a corner.

Deangelo easily picked-up on Jensen’s change of emphasis from theory to fact. “Sadly, it’s a trap Beijing has willingly accepted,” he said sourly, “and I doubt either of us will now be able escape unscathed. The Kremlin has played us every step of the way, President Golubeva generously handing us a war that many in our military considered inevitable; for the moment at least, it seems Russia and the United States have become uncomfortable, if not entirely inconvenient, allies.” Deangelo’s options remained exactly the same as those that had so frustrated his predecessor: even if China was truly the innocent party, was it realistic – or even advisable – not to side with Russia.

Abruptly Deangelo redirected the conversation closer to home, “Dick Thorn – is there anything specific to suggest he’s actually involved with McDowell? Something definite, Paul; I can’t make key decisions based on innuendo or conjecture.”

Jensen shook his head, sensing that Deangelo was asking not just about Thorn. “There’s no evidence that Thorn or any of his close associates are working with McDowell or even some Kremlin contact.”

Deangelo still wanted something more, “And your gut feeling, Paul?”

Jensen felt himself squirming under the President’s gaze, pressured into giving a bad answer. “I just don’t know, Mr President; we need at least another couple of months to be sure.”

“As do we all,” said Deangelo wryly. “Unfortunately, some in Congress are keen to question this Administration’s legitimacy and any hint we are taking the rumours of a political conspiracy seriously could well be disastrous. Forgive me for stating the obvious, Paul, but it’s crucial the investigation is suitably discreet, with intelligence shared purely on a need-to-know basis. I know the Attorney General is keen to be supportive and I would ask that you keep her appraised as to progress, especially in terms of the search for McDowell.”

Jensen well understood the President’s concerns and the joint agency task force had struggled to determine the full extent of the conspiracy. Although led by the DHS (Department of Homeland Security), the FBI was the major agency involved, and if they were to make progress then the identification of McDowell’s source within the Bureau remained key, Jensen with no official authority over the FBI, that falling to the Attorney General.

“For reasons that will soon become clear,” continued Deangelo, “I must insist that you wrap up the inquiry into Dick Thorn by the end of the month. I can’t have it dragging on indefinitely and we must accept that it may well be necessary to give certain people the benefit of any doubt.”

Deangelo paused and gave a wry shake of his head, “I’m not trying to tell you your job, Paul, but I do need to emphasise the delicacy of what I am asking you to do. Such constraints are unfortunate and I trust you’ll be able to work within them?”

“Of course, Mr President,” affirmed Jensen with a nod. Being discreet was the norm but not the three-week timetable; limited resources, at least one traitor in their midst, and an impossibly tight schedule – it was a challenge Jensen could easily live to regret.

Their conversation moved on to the latest intelligence from South-East Asia. Despite Jensen’s title simply referencing Homeland Security, the President seemed to assume that he would continue to act as the lead member of the U.S. Intelligence Community, responsible for both domestic and foreign intelligence issues. At home, the Administration’s main concern was the need to restore public confidence in their leaders, the recent anti-Government protests and extreme voter apathy worrying signs as to future stability. Members of Congress might have grown used to negative publicity but the trend was close to becoming irreversible, the demands for change impossible to ignore. Washington itself was relatively quiet, with just a few thousand demonstrators camped out in the National Mall, the police and FBI leaving them well alone for the time being. Past experience had shown that their numbers could increase tenfold within just a few hours, the campaigners and their mainly right-wing agitators making full and effective use of social media.

The President’s wide-ranging questions continued, Deangelo for some unknown reason seeming as keen to waste time as pick Jensen’s brain, their conversation finally interrupted by the buzz of the phone. The President gestured at Jensen to remain where he was before answering the call, a few words all that were needed.

The outer door immediately opened and a tall figure entered, Dick Thorn seemingly not put out by the presence of Jensen seated beside the fireplace.

“Dick, delighted you could join us.” The President stepped forward and shook Thorn warmly by the hand. Jensen stood up and made to leave, but he was waved back to his seat by Deangelo.

The three of them sat down, Thorn and Jensen side by side, the latter attempting to look more at ease than he felt as he angled his chair slightly. It was barely three days since Jensen and Deangelo – as part of the previous Administration – had mulled over the wisdom of arresting Thorn; now he was welcomed into the Oval Office and treated more like an ally than a one-time adversary.

Apart from the jacket of his suit looking a little tight around the left arm, there was little to suggest Thorn had been one of the many victims of two days earlier, a bullet grazing his skin just above the elbow. The young woman he had been talking to moments earlier had been killed, the sight of a bloodied and shocked Thorn kneeling beside her body one of many enduring images from that day.

The pleasantries were duly observed, Jensen following the President’s lead with an update on the shootings in the National Mall. The day’s events were still mired in controversy and the initial Department of Justice report had highlighted the problem of conflicting witness statements, the FBI not yet exonerated of any wrongdoing.

“China is continuing to move reinforcements to the border,” said the President, moving the conversation forward and apparently keen to seek Thorn’s opinion, “but no sign yet of a Russian attack. Do you think Irina Golubeva is seriously considering an all-out war?”

“Not unless we help out, Mr President,” replied Thorn, his tone flat but not unfriendly. “Russia needs us to keep China occupied in the south, otherwise they’ll soon get bogged down, and China can soak up far more losses than Russia.” Thorn’s voice abruptly hardened, “I trust that you will be true, Mr President, to the promise made on the steps of the Capitol.”

“The reminder is duly noted,” Deangelo said, seemingly not irritated by the implied rebuke. “And that is why I asked you here, Dick; in the hope that together we can put aside the mistakes of the past and provide the right level of support to our allies in South-East Asia.”

“I am happy to help in any way I can, Mr President.”

“You might come to regret that promise,” said the President wryly. “Paul has been convincing me that I have an impossible decision to make, one where the just and honourable choice might well be impossible to defend. Should I be a pragmatic president or a righteous one?”

Thorn couldn’t hold back his smile, “That’s not for me to say, Mr President. Personally, I would always choose to do what I believed was right for this country of ours; someone cleverer than me can later work out why it was also the just and honourable option. Truth doesn’t always age that well and it often needs a little polishing around the edges; I’m sure Paul will tell you that.”

Jensen made no comment, unwilling to let Thorn provoke him into saying something he might later regret. The conversation had an unreal feel to it, Jensen sensing that the other two were each trying to outguess the other.

Deangelo smoothly changed tack, “I have asked Ryan Burgess to take over at the State Department. He is not one to be intimidated by Beijing and I’m looking for a fresh start to diplomacy, without past prejudices influencing any negotiations.”

Now it was Thorn who was being put in his place, Jensen noting that his reaction was more amusement than anything else.

“He’s a good choice, Mr President,” said Thorn. “Burgess won’t let you down and he’s tenacious enough to get the job done.”

“I still need a Secretary of Defence, Dick. The Cabinet would be the poorer without your wisdom and common-sense; together we can bring back some sanity to this fragile world of ours. Your nomination would send a clear message of intent to China; it might by itself even be enough to give Burgess a winning hand.”

Jensen found it difficult to judge whether Thorn was surprised at Deangelo’s offer or not, and it could well become a contentious appointment if Thorn accepted, his recent speeches not that complimentary as to quality of America’s elected officials. Most analysts had expected Deangelo to play safe with his Cabinet choices and Thorn was a brave if risky option.

Thorn opened his hands wide in a gesture of regret, “I somehow doubt any Cabinet appointment would make the Politburo think twice, Mr President. And we both know the Senate would block my nomination; I have been far too critical of Congress to ever hope for a majority vote.”

“Let me worry about Congress,” Deangelo said firmly. “And I think you underestimate how much support you still have in the Senate. My offer stands but I must press you for an answer.”

Thorn seemed to be fighting the urge to speak his mind, Jensen’s presence the only restraining factor. Thorn’s increased public profile might be another reason for him to decline, his aspirations perhaps a little higher up the chain of command.

“I would be honoured,” said Thorn after a long pause, “to accept your generous offer, Mr President.”

Jensen tried to keep his own thoughts to himself, the sparring between the other two men not quite confirmation as to his earlier fears but worrying nevertheless. Thorn’s body language and a subtle emphasis on various words definitely suggested there was some hidden message here, one only Deangelo would understand. And what precise purpose did Jensen serve by being there – was he simply an independent witness to what was said or was his presence supposed to be some sort of a warning?

Just a few hours in office and the President was already attempting to stamp his authority on his predecessor’s most influential critic. Two Cabinet members duly recruited: one a potential maverick, the other a potential spy – not the wisest appointments ever made by a U.S. president. Or maybe Bob Deangelo simply preferred to keep his enemies close at hand.

  • * *

Jensen walked at a brisk pace towards the National Mall, drawn like so many others to seek inspiration from its surroundings. In every direction stood some iconic building or structure, the Lincoln Memorial looking out across the parkland and on past the Washington Monument towards the Capitol Building two miles away.

It was walk Jensen tried to do at least once a week, his security detail concerned as to its regularity but not yet insistent he abandon such pleasures. It didn’t help that he tended to have his mind on other matters and somehow Jensen had to work out how best to juggle his Cabinet responsibilities while keeping a firm hand on the inquiry into Thorn. Conscious of the need for discretion, he had picked team leaders he knew well and trusted absolutely, initiative and tenacity essential ingredients if they were to have any chance of success.

With an icy wind and rain now threatening, much of the National Mall was relatively free of tourists, Capitol Hill and the tented city between 3rd and 4th Street attracting the attention of most of those brave enough to venture out. A mix of entrepreneurs and volunteers provided the encampment with the essentials of food and drink, a public-address system regularly booming out their message across the Mall. The D.C. authorities – specifically Mayor Henry – had worked hard to show their implicit support, everything from ensuring the police kept a low profile to arranging temporary toilet facilities, even a medical tent. A committed hard-core around a thousand-strong remained, all wanting to show their support for Dick Thorn and their anger at Congress’ many faults: immoral, unrepresentative and incompetent – it wasn’t just the narrow-minded opinion of a few Washington diehards, and millions more people across America were plainly embarrassed by the reputation of their elected senators and representatives.

The news of Dick Thorn’s appointment as Secretary of Defence was not yet public knowledge, Jensen guessing that it might just be enough to satisfy the majority of those camped outside the Capitol. But maybe not all, a few doubtless waiting until they saw something more productive, anything from a missile strike on China’s Navy to the U.S. Marines forcibly retaking every Chinese-held island and reef in the South China Sea. The President might baulk at such dramatic alternatives but the military options remained under review, nothing specific yet decided.

While the attack on the USS Milius was still not officially being blamed on China, the U.S. could easily use China’s seizure of three of the Spratly Islands to justify any hostile response. China’s ambassador was about to be summoned, a seventy-two hour deadline set for China to withdraw or face military action – no vague phrases about ‘just and proportionate retribution’, but a very specific reference to the use of military force.

Jensen slowed and headed west, following the tree-lined path as it paralleled the northern edge of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, his head down and apparently lost in thought. His protection detail kept a respectful distance, just out of earshot, an agent merely nodding in acknowledgement as a tall figure caught up with Jensen, the man slowing to match the Secretary’s pace.

“Good timekeeping, Agent Flores,” Jensen said quietly. “I’m sorry to drag you away from your nice warm office.”

“Exercise is good for the soul, Sir. And it wasn’t an office, just a stuffy thirty-foot truck parked near Independence Avenue; a spacious and air-conditioned office would be a welcome change.”

“Almost exactly what I have in mind for you,” responded Jensen glibly. “Just miss out the spacious part.”

They walked on, Jensen waiting until they passed an elderly couple seated on a bench before continuing, his voice low but not quite a whisper.

“I’m afraid I have need of your services for a while longer, Agent Flores. Our new President is keen to pursue the present inquiry: who’s involved, to what degree, and what precisely is their agenda. I’ve asked Derek Fitzpatrick to take over as SAC (Special Agent-in-Charge), with Bryan Walker now focusing solely on the search for McDowell. I need you and your team to work independently, somewhere discreet and well away from the Hoover Building. You’ll still have full access to the inquiry’s findings but with a different target in mind.”

Flores nodded in understanding but stayed silent, pleased that he wasn’t being overlooked. It was galling that the Bureau always seemed to be one step behind Pat McDowell and his fellow conspirators, and Flores for one was determined to prove the FBI was equal to the task. Chances had been lost, mistakes made, Flores as guilty as anyone of misjudging their adversaries.

“Bob Deangelo,” continued Jensen, almost sounding embarrassed at what he was asking Flores to do. “Go back over his every action for the past six months and see if there is anything to be worried about; I don’t care about any extra-marital affair or a troublesome tax return – we need to know if the President was directly involved with Thorn or McDowell to remove Cavanagh.”

Flores was still taking it all in, not sure whether to feel honoured or appalled. He had known Deangelo might be part of the conspiracy but to be the one to prove the President’s guilt or innocence was a challenge he hadn’t quite anticipated.

Jensen continued, “By going at it from a different angle, you might also pick up on something Fitzpatrick or Walker has missed. A month is all I can give you; after that we have to assume there’s nothing to be found.” His voice softened, well knowing what he asking, “Perhaps you should think about it, Agent Flores; it would be foolish to underestimate the risks.”

“I don’t need to think about it, Sir,” Flores replied positively, confident that his team would be of the same mind. “And I well understand the risks… How much does Fitzpatrick know about my role?”

“Neither he nor Walker have any reason to know of your specific line of inquiry and you’ll just be another layer of bureaucracy.” Jensen gave a frustrated shake of his head, “There’s just too much at stake not to take precautions; a single mistake or misjudgement and this Administration could easily follow Cavanagh into obscurity.”

With Flores duly signed-up, Jensen quickly moved on to what he hoped would be a rather less contentious issue, every available avenue needing to be followed in the search for the truth.

“Jon Carter is also prepared to make a deal; four days of hospital food and he’s already had enough. If you can persuade him to co-operate fully, then so much the better and he must know whether Deangelo was involved. We also need to find out from him if Pat McDowell’s work here is complete.”

“So not such a good friend to McDowell after all,” observed Flores drily.

“Maybe he doesn’t appreciate being left to take the rap, especially having been shot for his troubles. Carter’s on the mend but you’ll need to think carefully where you’re based; somehow I doubt he’ll be that co-operative if he has to sleep in a thirty-foot truck. Just make sure I get a daily update on progress direct to my office.”

Jensen paused and his tone changed, wanting to emphasise that what came next was simply a suggestion rather than a direct order. “I leave it to your good judgement, Agent Flores, but you might also want to make further use of Anderson; for some reason, he seems to have a flair for searching out trouble. And just to make life even more interesting, Dick Thorn is back in the Cabinet as Secretary of Defence…”

Jensen was still uncertain that he had done enough, the combination of a fixed time-limit and FBI traitor making it difficult to know how best to organise his various resources. It wasn’t just the complication of a political conspiracy; officially Pat McDowell was one of three men wanted for the murder of two Mississippi Congressmen and an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, and Congress was growing impatient, unhappy that it was taking so long to make an arrest. The FBI’s Director was soaking up most of the pressure but soon some of it would land on Jensen’s desk, the usual raft of excuses unlikely to satisfy an increasingly temperamental Congress.

Jensen slowed to halt, gazing out towards the marble columns of the Lincoln Memorial before turning to face Flores. “To find anything conclusive in a few weeks is a tough ask – we need to hope one of you gets lucky.”

“And if Deangelo is part of it?”

Jensen shrugged, “Let’s just see where it all leads…” There was still good reason to be positive and despite Jensen’s earlier fears there had been no powerful clique taking control and no military coup. To the American public, Deangelo was a virtual unknown; he was also not part of any specific faction within the Democratic Party, circumstances thrusting him into the Oval Office purely as a quick-fix. In two years, unless his approval rating was particularly impressive, the Democrats would almost certainly cast him aside – two years with Dick Thorn beside him every step of the way, watching and waiting.

“I’ve asked Fitzpatrick to keep an especially close eye on Thorn,” said Jensen pensively, resuming his walk. “State Department to Defence after a week in the wilderness – I’m just not sure how he’s gained out of all this. Thorn might be popular with the public but he’s made a good few enemies in Congress and despite the President’s optimism, I doubt he’ll get Senate approval.”

Flores’ eyes narrowed in surprise, reading more into Jensen’s words than he’d perhaps implied, “You still think a coup is possible?”

Jensen was uncertain in his own mind as to what he was actually suggesting, his suspicions based on a highly questionable interpretation of the facts. “Not perhaps a full-blown military takeover but maybe something more specific to D.C. itself. Two days ago Thorn had close to a million people in the Mall, the Capitol surrounded, members of Congress needing a police escort in order to vote. Now, from his perspective, it’s all fallen a little flat, his office in the Pentagon perhaps only temporary. The momentum is still with Thorn and if his ambitions extend beyond that of Secretary of Defence, then he’s in the ideal place to plan something dramatic.”

“A million people marching through the Mall isn’t reason enough for a coup,” said Flores, trying not to sound dismissive. “However flawed our present system of government might be, Thorn would never get the military to support him. Even if one rogue general somehow convinced his troops to storm the White House or the Capitol, ten others would be beating at the door to claim it back.”

“I hope you’re right, Agent Flores,” said Jensen with a broad smile, encouraged by Flores’ optimism. “Whatever happens, the country needs Deangelo to still be in the White House come Christmas…”

 

[][] Chapter 2 – Saturday, November 12th

Vladivostok, Russia – 19:17 Local Time; 09:17 UTC

The city was effectively under siege, no flights in or out, train and ferry services cancelled, access restricted via road. In the Soviet era, Vladivostok had been a closed city, not even shown on Russian maps, but that had all changed in 1992, the city pulling in investment as it worked to become the capital of Russia’s Far East. Its geographic position also ensured it remained a key resource for the military and even though the main submarine base was two thousand kilometres to the north-east on the Kamchatka Peninsula, Vladivostok took pride in being the home port and headquarters of Russia’s Pacific Fleet.

If a region could be considered loyal to one person, then Russia’s Far East was now firmly in President Golubeva’s camp, agents of the Internal Security Agency, the FSB, invariably regarded with suspicion and mistrust. In practice, the FSB’s struggle against Golubeva was now left to a few diehards like Markova and Nikolai, others within the FSB’s Lubyanka Headquarters forced for their own safety to keep a low profile. The sole public opposition to the authority of the President came from General Igor Morozov, her former Minister of Defence and Chief of the General Staff. On the run in Astrakhan Oblast with his back to the Caucasus Mountains, he still had many allies in the military and Golubeva’s hold on power was not yet totally secure.

Left to his own devices Nikolai would have long since joined up with General Morozov, loyalty to Markova the only thing holding him back. Yet their presence in Vladivostok was essentially at the General’s bidding and Russia’s border region was clearly hiding more than its fair share of secrets. The journey south from Khabarovsk had taken the two of them three days, one driving the other sleeping, hours spent going nowhere while yet another army convoy was waved past. The city of Ussuriysk a hundred kilometres from Vladivostok had been the worst, choked with traffic, thousands of Russian troops heading to the Songacha River and the Chinese border.

But there had been no invasion, Markova fooled like an amateur into believing it was all for real. Not that China could relax just yet, the troops still there and ready to launch an attack should the Kremlin decide it was in Russia’s best interests. Markova presumed that also depended upon how America in turn acted, its new President having to tread a difficult path between public expectations and not involving the U.S. in a drawn-out conflict – a war against China would hardly likely to be swift, even with Russia’s help.

The people of Vladivostok knew all of this, some of its 700,000 citizens desperate to leave, many stoically assuming they would be safe. The city was just 56 kilometres from the border, easily within artillery range and a high-value target for any enemy. With some twenty percent of its population ethnic Chinese, there was also genuine concern as the possibility of terrorist attacks, the various nationalist groups conspicuously more vociferous of late.

Markova and Nikolai had reached Vladivostok late that morning, the final three kilometres to the port area quicker by foot than car. The city centre was a chaotic shambles, traffic barely moving, shops being boarded up, some of them already empty of stock as people prepared for the worst, panic buying anything considered useful – even electrical goods. The police and military were on every street corner, weapons prominently displayed, and every now and again an air-raid siren would wail out its warning before stuttering into silence, the city’s systems being tested just in case.

The port area directly adjacent to Golden Horn Bay was equally hectic but in a far more organised and productive way. The berths were divided up between the fishing fleet, commercial shipping and Russia’s Pacific Fleet, the three elements seemingly jostling for position with a missile cruiser moored almost within shouting distance of a foreign freighter or an ageing trawler. Security was relatively tight, civilian traffic banned from several roads, including the main thoroughfare of the Korabelnaya Embankment, armed guards manning temporary checkpoints around Pacific Fleet Headquarters.

Markova and Nikolai were stopped twice and questioned at length, IDs scrutinised and scanned. Their documents were genuine, just with false details, compliments of the FSB. Adding her new name to the list of accredited journalists had also proved astute, the military as yet unwilling to detain reporters, especially those supposedly sanctioned by Moscow.

The ships from the Pacific Fleet presently in port looked as if they would soon be on their way, the naval facility too tempting a target; the dock area around the merchant vessels was similarly a hive of activity, captains desperate to get their ships ready for sea, no-one wanting to risk the port being attacked or blockaded.

And the threat wasn’t just from China: North Korea was only 130 kilometres to the south-west, its relationship with Russia always difficult, neither really trusting the other. China was the only ally North Korea could normally rely on, despite the occasional spat, and if countries were forced to pick sides, then few could doubt where North Korea’s allegiance would lie.

To the outside world, Russia was merely responding to provocation from its neighbour, Beijing unquestionably responsible for the murder of seventy-nine of Russia’s citizens. For Markova, it was far more complex than the media portrayed, with President Golubeva definitely playing some devious political game. Quite how Fleet Headquarters was involved was unclear, a link to events in the South China Sea as yet unproven; Markova didn’t even know whether she should be focusing on one rogue officer or if the conspiracy was far wider. Consequently, her next move was based on hope rather than any expectation of success, a vain attempt to persuade Nikolai that the drive south had actually been worthwhile.

Markova felt she had little choice but to rely upon gossip and rumour, desperate to search out the unusual and unexpected, that one whisper that might help to point them in the right direction. For once Nikolai was keen to make a start, the two of them trawling the waterfront bars and clubs, every overheard comment or intrusive question adding to the obvious risks, the whole city wary of strangers.

It was a task Nikolai excelled at and Markova was at best a silent spectator, at worst an obstacle to dragging out something interesting. By midnight they were both drunk, several dozen drinks bought to help loosen tongues, friends for life made and then immediately scorned.

Despite Nikolai’s social skills and the FSB’s roubles, nothing useful had been learnt, their money and time effectively wasted; Russia might well be a country bursting with state secrets but not apparently in Vladivostok.

 

Eastern United States. – 11:24 Local Time; 16:24 UTC

Jensen settled into his usual seat in the Cabinet Room, hand-written notes on the table in front of him, waiting patiently while the others worked out where best to sit. True to his word, Deangelo had made relatively few changes to the Cabinet, two Republicans adding a bipartisan feel; although that was one less than Obama’s first Cabinet, it was still a brave move and a sign that Deangelo’s politics were barely left of centre. The fact he had managed to pull it all together in less than thirty-six hours was an impressive achievement, the only contentious appointment that of Dick Thorn as Secretary of Defence.

The first meeting of the full Cabinet was set for early Monday; today, Saturday or not, it was the turn of the President’s inner circle to listen and then have their say, no-one quite sure how much influence they might have. Including Jensen, there were only six of them in total, each occupant of the White House having a differing view as to the precise makeup and number of their chief advisers; Ronald Reagan had even picked a group of business friends. President Deangelo was rather more traditional, although two of the six were still not actually members of the new Cabinet.

Directly opposite sat Dick Thorn, his Democrat credentials on hold of late and if he were to propose anything less than a massive retaliatory strike against the Chinese mainland, then Jensen would be surprised. Next came the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS), Admiral Adams an equally forthright if mellower version of the Secretary of Defence. The Attorney General, Ellen Ravich, was more difficult to categorise; having had some of her precious FBI appropriated by Jensen, she might just want to make a point, but in any case Jensen doubted she would be sympathetic to his more conciliatory point of view. Then there were the two new faces: Secretary of State, Ryan Burgess, and the National Security Adviser, Morgan Woodward. Jensen knew both men more by reputation than personal experience, Burgess very much in the mould of Thorn; Woodward was a close associate of Deangelo and formerly the U.S. Ambassador to NATO, his past comments contrarily suggesting he might be more open to a non-military solution than some of his colleagues.

Jensen’s rough analysis suggested that he and Woodward would be the only voices likely to urge caution. The President had come to Office on the back of a promise to stand up to China and defend the sovereignty of America’s allies, specifically the Philippines, and he would undoubtedly want to honour that commitment – to do anything less would be tantamount to political suicide. There might still be a Democrat in the White House but the flavour of the administration was becoming more Republican by the day.

Ryan Burgess and Dick Thorn still had to be officially confirmed in their respective roles and, unlike for a Vice-President, a Cabinet appointment simply needed a majority vote in the Senate. The ‘lame duck’ sessions of Congress which occurred immediately following the Midterms were generally used to finalise unfinished legislation with those members not returning in January simply going through the motions or – worse still – choosing to be obstinate. While Burgess could well coast through the committee hearings and subsequent vote, getting Thorn’s nomination passed by the Senate before Christmas was likely to be impossible; he had his supporters but his orchestration of the protests in the National Mall was seen by many in Congress as a form of blackmail and he could expect a hard time, even from the Democrats, and an ‘unfavourable’ recommendation was virtually certain. The next session in January would be equally difficult, the Senate’s new Republican majority doubtless readying themselves to do everything they could to discredit Thorn and belittle his reputation.

Alternatively, Deangelo could choose to bypass Congress and use his executive powers; the present session would soon be on a two week break either side of Thanksgiving before adjourning in early December, and at either point Deangelo would be able to make ‘recess appointments’. It wasn’t quite a permanent solution, only lasting until the end of the next session, but it was a trick all presidents adopted to counter an unpopular or dubious nomination, and Dick Thorn could easily fit into either category.

Deangelo also needed to nominate a Vice-President and whoever it was would face a similarly difficult and tortuous passage through Congress, the timescale for the hearings likely to be closer to the four months for Nelson Rockefeller than the single day it had taken Bob Deangelo. Several Republicans were already decrying the haste with which Deangelo had been confirmed and any goodwill seemed to have been exhausted even before a single name had been hinted at. Whatever their standing or reputation, every aspect of Deangelo’s nominee would be scrutinised for some anomaly or exaggeration, many in Congress determined to make amends for their previous lack of circumspection.

Jensen and the others stood respectfully as the President entered, Deangelo immediately waving them to sit back down. This first meeting might well set the tone for potentially the next two years and Jensen was desperate for it not to turn into a five-versus-one battle with him invariably on the losing side.

Deangelo was surprisingly relaxed, starting with the mundane and keeping the discussion moving, prepared to cut people off if they diverged from the point at issue, and it took barely an hour to move on to the more contentious problem of China.

“Admiral,” said Deangelo, glancing across the table at the CJCS, “I think it would help to have a brief summary of the situation in the South China Sea, and what military options are presently available should it be considered appropriate.”

Admiral Adams nodded his thanks, keen to make sure a suitable military response was agreed as soon as possible. “China has continued to build up its forces in the area, with more of the Spratly Group at risk. Having taken West York, Thitu and Spratly Island itself, the North Danger Reef is an obvious next target: occupied to the north-east by the Philippines and the south-west by Vietnam, its capture would give China a good part of the northern edge of the Spratly Group. Purely in terms of naval power, Vietnam and the Philippines are outnumbered ten-to-one, and without U.S. support they stand no chance of stopping China.”

Adams paused for a sip of water, allowing time for his key message to sink in. He had no doubt that China would keep snatching one barren reef at a time and it wasn’t just about the area’s natural resources; a third of the world’s shipping passed close to the Spratly Islands and China was determined to control the transition of each and every vessel. That desire could only be thwarted by the power of the U.S. Navy, Adams unwilling to simply sit back and watch Beijing grab whatever it wanted.

Adams continued, “Reinforcements from Japan including the Ronald Reagan Strike Group and Task Force 76 will be in position north-west of Manila by early tomorrow evening; the Gerald Ford is also moving south and is presently north-east of the Paracel Islands. We will consequently be able to mount an effective air or missile attack on any Chinese facility within or bordering the South China Sea by 02:00 Monday; 15:00 local time. That will still give China another thirteen hours before the deadline to withdraw expires – perhaps then the Politburo will sit up and take notice.”

Adams paused for breath and the President was quick to interrupt. “Relocating ships from Japan hasn’t created a different problem? We certainly can’t guarantee North Korea won’t side with China if it comes to a fight.”

Dick Thorn responded before Adams, “We’re reinforcing with units from San Diego and elsewhere, Mr President; at the same time taking the opportunity to ensure we can respond to any new threat.” It was polite and to the point, Jensen sensing nothing of the previous tension between the two men. As Secretary of Defence, Thorn was second only to the President in his authority over America’s military; as Secretary of State, he had often been far from the power base of Washington and with little chance to directly influence domestic events or military policy – now he would rarely be more than one time zone away.

With Deangelo’s concerns seemingly answered, Adams continued with his review. “Task Force 76 will increase the total marine complement to over three thousand and the retaking of any of the Spratly Islands should be a relatively simple task; however, in order to keep our own casualties to an absolute minimum we would need to use overwhelming force – that would make it very costly for the defenders.”

“The Vietnamese and Philippine losses,” interrupted Secretary of State Burgess, “do we have any figures?”

There was an awkward silence, Burgess almost seeming to suggest that China should be paid back in kind for what it had set in motion.

“Thirty-three killed on Thitu Island,” replied Thorn. “Six on West York. Vietnam has given no official figure for Spratly Island, but we estimate somewhere between fifty and a hundred.”

Burgess didn’t pursue it and Admiral Adams brought his update to a close by voicing the Joint Chiefs’ view, if not quite a recommendation. “Any military response will inevitably involve Chinese casualties; individually, the islands and reefs are all low-value targets, some relatively well defended, some not – a few almost too easy. Sometimes we need to think about the delivery as well as the message itself.”

“Thank you, Admiral.” Deangelo pursed his lips thoughtfully, the others waiting whilst he worked out where next to direct the discussion. “Do we have anything more on the search for this submarine that sank the USS Milius?”

“Nothing I’m afraid, Sir,” responded Adams. “It could easily take several more days, especially if the weather is poor. There’s also been a Chinese frigate sniffing around which hasn’t helped.”

“Very well,” said Deangelo, his mind made up. “Our action will be purely as a response to China taking over three more of the Spratly Islands. We’re going through the motions at the U.N. and together with our allies in the region putting together a set of suitable sanctions; Russia is also urging a boycott of Chinese goods although there’s no evidence they intend to shut off the gas pipeline into China. Personally, I’m not prepared to wait for a month or even a week; if the deadline is ignored there will be some form of military retaliation for China’s actions. Admiral, I know the Joint Chiefs have various alternatives in mind…”

Adams didn’t need any further encouragement, the specifics and relative pros and cons of four increasingly punitive choices gone through in detail, the number of U.S. casualties varying from zero to potentially as many as a hundred. It quickly became clear that the first option was a non-starter, dismissed out of hand by the President as too weak a response; Jensen started to promote the second alternative, ably supported by Ellen Ravich and to some extent Woodward. Adams, Burgess and Thorn all argued for something far more dramatic, emphasising that China would only see sense once America proved its superiority.

The discussion broadened, China’s potential response debated, the American public’s blessing – or otherwise – of concern but not a deciding factor. There was never any suggestion that it would come down to a vote, Deangelo merely seeking a range of opinions before he made the final decision.

To Jensen’s relief and Thorn’s silent disapproval, the President chose the second of the Joint Chiefs’ proposals, China to be given an additional few hours grace just in case there was a belated change of heart. Yet no-one around the table really believed the Politburo would accede to America’s demands. Deangelo had staked his reputation on standing up to China and Beijing had set in motion a vicious vendetta from which neither side could easily escape with honour intact.

  • * *

“I’m gonna throw up,” groaned Carter, pulling a face. “Get me a bloody bucket.”

“Use the bin by your foot,” Anderson replied without sounding at all sympathetic. “Failing that, try to avoid the computer – I find it works better without sick all over it.”

Carter reached down for the wastepaper bin and held it on his lap, looking white-faced but not actually being sick. It was barely five days since he’d taken a bullet in the back and by rights he should still be lying in a hospital bed being pumped full of drugs, a sympathetic nurse at his beck and call. Still, considering what he had been involved in, two out of three wasn’t bad: the nurse might actually be an FBI agent but the drugs were no different, and exchanging a hospital bed for a computer chair was surely better that the threatened alternative of a prison cell.

Making use of McDowell’s abandoned base at Terrill had been Flores’ idea: secluded, excellent facilities, good road network, close to D.C. – if the farmhouse and its outbuildings were good enough for McDowell, then the FBI would be foolish to simply let it gather dust, even if it was just temporary. The computer centre had already been patched into the FBI’s main network and Flores was impatient to make sure everything was working effectively. From his team of eight, at least three agents would provide security overnight, Anderson and Carter the only ones to actually call Terrill home. Flores had even managed to get Anderson’s passport and other belongings released from the quagmire of FBI bureaucracy, his laptop still in one piece, both phone and camera working just fine.

Carter’s return to Terrill had been confirmed only once an agreement of sorts had first been thrashed out, the promise of a lighter sentence traded for his help in the gathering of evidence against his former employers. Not that Carter had so far offered up any names, sticking rigidly to his story that he had simply followed McDowell’s orders. The plan now was for Carter to retrace his every action over the past three months, with a list of internet searches made, networks hacked into, details of files copied and modified. Somewhere in that mass of data might be the one clue that would reveal McDowell’s next move or conclusively prove Dick Thorn’s guilt; maybe even Deangelo’s innocence. There were no guarantees as to whether it would actually be worthwhile, but at least it potentially offered an insight into the complexity of the conspiracy, perhaps also identifying others who were actively involved.

Once Flores had reinforced the rules as to Carter’s special status, it became clear that Anderson’s consultancy role included that of chaperone, it down to him to try and get something constructive out of Carter. If Flores anticipated that their shared nationality would somehow create an immediate rapport, then he was very much mistaken; to Anderson, Carter was as much to blame as McDowell for the trauma of the past – he might not have been present when people had died, but he was equally guilty nonetheless, a dozen deaths on his conscience in the last week alone.

Allowing Carter access to a computer also seemed a very high-risk strategy and even though every tap on the screen and keystroke would be monitored, Anderson didn’t doubt he would find some way around it. It was a gamble Flores was happy to take and having Carter permanently based at Terrill was also a form of bait, it always possible that McDowell wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to try and contact his prize asset. With the farmhouse fully-alarmed and several armed agents never more than a room away, anything more adventurous would be a mistake. McDowell wasn’t an idiot and it didn’t take much intuition to realise Terrill was potentially a set-up. Carter had already commented as much and in reality, both he and Flores were simply waiting to see who would renege on the agreement first, neither man with any high expectations of the other.

Since the facility’s seizure on the Monday, the forensic and computer experts had tried to learn what they could, Terrill unwilling to give up its secrets easily; it had certainly given no hint as to McDowell’s future plans and so far the FBI was struggling to pin anything conclusive on any of those arrested there, other than Carter. Their case had been taken up by a respected Washington law firm, money seemingly no object, the legality of the arrest already under scrutiny. Even to Anderson it seemed an odd way to exact justice: one FBI agent had been killed in the attack on Terrill and the fact McDowell’s associates were arguing that they were the injured party was manifestly perverse, their lawyers quick to claim that the FBI hadn’t correctly identified themselves.

Now even Carter was being treated with kid gloves, his initial enthusiasm for his new task inexorably turning into one of grudging co-operation, the sporadic memory loss blamed on the drugs or lack of caffeine, even the presence of the FBI. Patience, civility, empathy – Anderson had tried his best but a couple of hours was all he could manage before a form of impatient pessimism had finally prevailed, coercion and bullying the obvious next step.

Carter well knew he was facing multiple charges, including terrorism and accessory to murder; however, none of it seemed to convince him that it was time to co-operate fully and he claimed to know nothing of significance: no idea as to where McDowell or his two remaining accomplices – Martin Lavergne and Lee Preston – might be, no clue as to McDowell’s next move. The concept of there being someone higher up the chain of command than McDowell, or with the money to fund it all, was invariably met with a blank look, it not part of Carter’s well-rehearsed cover story. A lighter sentence still depended upon his willingness to come up with something worthwhile and two weeks was about as long as Flores’ patience was likely to last, the name of McDowell’s FBI source the bare minimum he would settle for.

Anderson was similarly minded to give his new role some sort of time-limit, a fortnight maybe, definitely no more than a month. He had already broken one promise to Charlotte, her calm acceptance of him staying in the U.S. not a particularly good sign. Blaming the Department of Justice inquiry had seemed a good move if a little unfair, Anderson coerced into revealing more about the dramatic events of the past few days than had seemed wise. Even with Charlotte, he had stuck with his opinionated view that McDowell was still somewhere close at hand, the power struggle in Washington not yet completely resolved.

But maybe that was just Anderson being stubborn, unwilling to accept that McDowell might have escaped scot-free. Carter obviously knew far more than he was letting on and Anderson just needed to drag it out of him, preferably before Carter’s selective amnesia became terminal.

 

[][] Chapter 3 – Sunday, November 13th

Washington, D.C. – 00:36 Local Time; 05:36 UTC

A townhouse of three storeys, the building stood on a popular residential street close to Columbia Heights and its bars and restaurants; not that either of the house’s occupants had recently made much use of such diversions, Neil Ritter and his wife both too busy with the demands of work – Ritter as a Political Strategist, Karen as an attorney in the Department of Justice.

The house was in almost complete darkness, the only light that filtering in from the street outside. Ritter sat alone in the living room, toying with a cold beer, finding it hard not to worry, the complex events of the past months weighing heavily on his mind. Ritter had gone straight from Cornell University into the U.S. Foreign Service, a dozen years spent mostly in South-East Asia; then it was back to New York with his new bride to help the Democrats plan their election campaign. D.C. was next, Ritter’s experience and contacts ensuring he was always in demand. In his line of work reputation was everything and so far he had managed to match perception with a hefty dose of luck, quickly building up an impressive client list.

Almost by default Ritter had become the one person both Deangelo and Thorn were prepared to trust, their passion and rhetoric convincing Ritter as to the legitimacy of their cause. Since early December he had acted as liaison between the American side of the conspiracy and its billionaire backers, trips to London and Moscow finalising the precise means and the relatively inflexible timetable. To begin with Ritter had been somewhat blasé as to the risks, his occasional meetings with Pat McDowell adding a certain excitement to his day, the two men getting on better than Ritter had anticipated. Only in the last few weeks had he fully appreciated the dangers, the confidential nature of his assignment obvious, the murders blamed on McDowell and his associates not part of any agreement Ritter was aware of.

Somehow he had managed to convince himself that such sacrifices were justified, a necessary evil to ensure Deangelo’s place in history; then had come the deaths in the National Mall, followed soon after by a news update from London, the British police only now starting to release the names of six people murdered at a house in the village of Bray. The first name was the only one Ritter had recognised, his brain struggling to accept it, the fear that it had everything to do with McDowell difficult to ignore.

Yang Kyung-Jae: without Yang the conspiracy would have faltered at the first hurdle, his imagination and drive invariably persuasive, his influence and financial muscle helping ensure money was never a problem. Now someone had chosen to break that link, Ritter desperately wanting to understand who and why. And if a key figure like Yang was judged to be expendable, then could any of them ever be considered truly safe?

Certainly not Ritter. It was just five hours since he had met with Mayor Henry and Ritter had returned home close to despair, Henry all-too obviously motivated by self-interest, his true regard for Ritter now verging on contempt.

The degree of secrecy involving the cabal had led to various levels of understanding and Henry was firmly in the second tier: he might sense a far wider conspiracy but it was never admitted and Ritter had always regarded him as something of a loose cannon. Yet the Mayor’s very public support for Thorn and the implicit co-operation of D.C.’s Chief of Police, Sean Kovak, had been an essential ingredient in the conspiracy’s success, Henry’s reward the promise of a future Cabinet position. In six years he might even hope for something better, the ease with which Deangelo had crept into power proving that anything was possible. Or maybe he would continue to ride on Dick Thorn’s coat-tails, the latter’s high public profile and popularity likely to make him the Presidential front runner once Deangelo’s tenure in the White House had ended, whatever the elder Democrats might want.

Thorn himself had always privately expressed a wry acceptance that he would never be president, his objectives rather more complex, and Ritter truly believed that Thorn’s reasons for helping Bob Deangelo were motivated as much by patriotism as anything else. Somehow, that made his ready endorsement of McDowell’s actions even more unpalatable.

For everyone’s security face-to-face meetings were reserved for key updates and Henry’s request for an urgent meeting had immediately put Ritter on edge, the Mayor’s office not the most secret or convenient of venues. The bottle of champagne sitting on Henry’s desk and the congratulatory handshake had only further annoyed Ritter and he had merely gone through the motions of celebrating their success, the Mayor seemingly unconcerned as to the innocent lives lost, keen to promote the future advantages of the second phase. Ritter had always considered it the most dangerous part of their strategy and he was now worried that bloodshed would again spill out onto the streets of D.C. with yet more American lives sacrificed for some unclear gain.

Ritter well knew that the others regarded him as little more than an inconvenient intermediary and Henry’s smug attitude had continued to get on his nerves, the alcohol influencing his judgement, and without warning Ritter’s ill-defined doubts and concerns of the past few weeks had boiled over into an uncontrolled tirade against McDowell, with Deangelo and Thorn quickly included as the bitterness took hold. A shocked Henry had struggled to calm Ritter down and it was several minutes before he had regained his composure, dismayed at his own lack of control and desperately trying to back-track. But the damage had already been done, Henry’s outward show of concern entirely forced, past comments proving that he was not someone who would sympathise with – or even understand – Ritter’s deep feelings of guilt and remorse. A glance at any national newspaper over the past week would only confirm the level of public frustration with America’s many problems and as far as Henry was concerned Deangelo had done everything asked of him; if he needed to be criticised and condemned, then at least he should be given two months, not two days.

Ritter had spent the rest of the evening struggling with his fears, an increasing sense of foreboding occupying his every thought. His wife had been quick to notice, Ritter merely shrugging it off as a headache. In truth, he was terrified of the consequences of simply doing nothing, becoming convinced that Henry wouldn’t just ignore his outburst.

Although Ritter had had significant input into the planning of the first phase, his main role was as the standard link to McDowell, thus keeping Thorn and Deangelo isolated from their principal agent and his various associates. That didn’t mean he was indispensable but nor could he simply resign and then continue on as before; he knew far too much, able to bring down a President and a good part of the D.C. hierarchy. Henry definitely no longer trusted him and Ritter realised he needed a form of insurance, something that would help guarantee his personal safety. With luck, it might also be enough to convince the others to offer him a convenient way out.

Contact with McDowell was via phones registered to a ghost company hidden within another shell corporation. To avoid the possibility of key words being tracked, voice messages were replaced by encrypted bursts of data – it was complex and frustrating but also very secure, Ritter confident that the chance of the FBI or NSA monitoring their messages was effectively zero. By themselves, the various phones, encryption app and computer files would only provide an unclear insight into the nature of the conspiracy, with no hint as to the identity of those involved. Sadly, there was no smoking gun he could threaten Henry with, only Ritter himself and the many secrets clouding his brain.

Was it now time to entrust such knowledge to someone else? And what would be the point unless he told Henry and the others what he had done? Wouldn’t that only make Ritter more vulnerable, an admission that he no longer trusted his fellow conspirators?

Ritter gave a loud sigh of frustration, annoyed by his lack of foresight, fearful of simply ignoring the dangers yet still resistant to sharing what he knew. On the table in front of him rested a 9mm Glock automatic, Karen wanting some form of protection for the many times her husband was away; with low recoil and a 15-round magazine, it was a capable enough weapon, if not exactly the handgun Ritter would have chosen for himself. He had grown up with guns and although it was a while since he had fired one, he was confident of his ability – and its presence close at hand was a suitably comforting security blanket. It might be a totally pointless precaution but he could still recall the look on Gene Henry’s face, the sense of forewarning too strong to ignore.

Beer finished, Ritter sat and mulled over whether to just have another beer or try to get some sleep. Abruptly he froze, a noise from the backyard a sign that his fears might not be that irrational after all.

Ritter grabbed the gun from the table and edged towards the kitchen: with its lack of internal doors and double-wide openings, the main level offered few defensive possibilities, no chance to hold-off a determined group of attackers. Ritter needed to warn Karen but he was terrified of revealing his presence – in any case maybe he was just being paranoid and it was nothing more than the neighbour’s cat chasing a rival.

Shadows danced behind the glass of the back door and a muted high-pitched whine sounded from outside. Ritter stepped back into cover, opting for the speed and relative quiet of technology to desperately key his phone, Karen perhaps only half-asleep.

The whine was silenced, Ritter hearing the back door ease open. His brain didn’t seize up as expected, the certainty of what was about to happen somehow focusing his thoughts, Ritter even curious as to whether it was McDowell or some of Kovak’s men that had been sent to silence him.

Run or hide? Ritter knew only one way to protect his wife and he chanced his luck, moving out into the open, instantly sighting the gun on the back door.

A bulky figure stood in the open doorway, night-vision goggles covering his eyes, gun held one-handed but pointed at the floor. This was no time for half-measures and Ritter went for a head shot, the double crack of the gun echoing loudly through the house as Ritter proved he was no helpless victim.

He retreated into the hallway, shouting out to his wife, somehow needing to get her safe. Even though he could feel the adrenalin kicking in, the panic was finally starting to cloud his thoughts, the lure of the top floor nothing more than a false hope.

He crouched down beside the front door, worried that concussion grenades would be next and unsure whether the street outside was their best option. Perhaps it was just one or two men who would be put off by such spirited resistance, the police hopefully already on their way – or would that just bring reinforcements?

A wary glance towards the shadows of the kitchen showed a lone figure lying face-down on the stone tiles; there was a flicker of movement behind and Ritter fired again, cringing back into cover as the wall beside him exploded with plaster and brick. A half-dozen shots, maybe more, and from at least two assailants – Ritter wouldn’t be able to hold them off for very long.

Silence closed in again, then from the floor above he heard Karen softly call his name. He could barely see her through the gloom, confident that she had the acumen to cope at least as well as him, convinced that she wouldn’t be allowed to go free.

He gestured at the front door and Karen instantly started to edge her way down the stairs. Suddenly, there was a second flurry of shots, Ritter giving a stifled grunt as a red-hot needle of pain lanced into his right thigh; desperately, he fired twice into the semi-darkness of the kitchen before wrenching the front door open, thrusting Karen ahead of him, silently urging her to run. She stumbled down the steps, Ritter following on close behind, leg dragging. He was halfway along the front path when there was a double flash from directly ahead, the gunshots echoing along the street.

Karen took a half-step forward before silently crumpling to the ground; Ritter slowed, mind numb, then something thumped him hard in the back and he collapsed to his knees, the Glock dropping from his hand. There was no real pain, just an overpowering sense of weariness.

Karen lay motionless on the sidewalk and Ritter watched transfixed as blood started to pool around her head. Unable even to move, tears started to stream down his face, the shock of it all and the realisation that he was to blame simply impossible to bear, the far-off sound of a police siren coming far too late to save either of them.

 

South China Sea – 15:35 Local Time; 07:35 UTC

The Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning cruised south of the Paracel Islands, a U.S. carrier strike group meandering its way four hundred kilometres to the north-east, both sides now well aware of the dangers associated with testing the other’s defences. For the moment, the main threat to the Liaoning lay elsewhere, the Chinese Task Force impatient to challenge the maritime exclusion zone jointly declared by the Philippines and Vietnam. Whether it was an effective barrier or merely a pretence, the exclusion zone was a test the Liaoning could not simply ignore, Beijing fearful of the loss of face should China’s navy take a totally passive stance.

Yet there were obvious dangers, the threat from Vietnam’s fleet of modern submarines a serious concern: ultra-quiet with the latest Russian technology and torpedoes, the Kilo-class was a powerful adversary. The Liaoning was in turn protected by a screen of escorts and their ASW helicopters; further out patrolled three submarines, while overhead a land-based AWACS extended the carrier group’s radar coverage out to some 300 kilometres.

The military planners in Hanoi and Manila well knew they were outgunned and technologically inferior to China but they were determined not to just hide in fear, and Vietnam’s military modernisation program had specifically been designed with China in mind, Russia keen to provide everything from tanks and missiles to submarines and frigates. The Philippines was in a military sense the poor relation, able to offer little except moral and logistic support.

Captain Tieu stretched his aching back and watched the radar plot with tired eyes, the lack of sleep starting to wear him down. It was four days since the Vietnamese corvette had set off from its base in South Vietnam, first heading south to Brunei, before turning north-east towards the Philippines. In total, they had travelled close to three thousand kilometres, Tieu pacing nervously every other furtive metre, fearful they would be attacked or warned away, not knowing how perceptive the Chinese satellites and spies might be. Repainted and with a few fibre-glass additions, the corvette now flew the Indonesian flag, her new pennant number merely confirming the lie.

Both Indonesia and Vietnam had purchased modular Sigma-class vessels from the Netherlands, Hanoi’s initial order of four corvettes first cancelled before eventually being renegotiated down to just two, three years wasted in the process. The newer Vietnamese version was seven metres shorter if visually very similar to the Indonesian design, the temporary modifications ensuring her radar profile and electromagnetic signature were not quite that of a Vietnamese corvette – but nor were they an exact match to their Indonesian equivalent.

It was a simple deception and Tieu doubted that it would work for long but it might just be enough; in any event, the mission could already be a complete waste of time, the latest intelligence report only able to give a rough estimate as the Liaoning’s position, her present speed and direction questionable. Even if Hanoi’s calculations were reasonably accurate, the corvette wouldn’t be allowed to get too close despite her Indonesian credentials, and Tieu’s one hope was that the Task Force’s AWACS was more focused on the threat from the Vietnamese coast to the west or the Americans to the north-east. The Indonesian Navy was an infrequent but not totally unusual sight in the South China Sea: the Natuna Islands south-west of the Spratly Group were part of Indonesia and – unlike Vietnam – their dispute with China was over maritime rights rather than a specific territorial disagreement.

Tieu moved to stare out towards the horizon, worrying as to how long it would be before some of the Liaoning’s aircraft came for a closer look. The corvette was well-armed for her size and with a good turn of speed, Vietnam willing to place one of its newest naval assets in harm’s way in order to prove a point.

“Aircraft! Two contacts; heading three-three-five; two minutes to contact. High probability Chinese J-15 fighters.”

Tieu ignored the radar plot and merely nodded in confirmation, his lack of a verbal response mainly due to his fear of revealing some hint of nervousness in his voice, there little real doubt as to the identity of the aircraft. The agreed plan called for the corvette to simply watch and wait, trusting that the Chinese would accept that they were Indonesian and simply warn them away; at worst, the enemy would be confused enough to delay blowing them out of the water.

The corvette slowly turned west as though steering away from the approaching aircraft, all the while maintaining a steady eighteen knots and doing everything it could not to appear a threat, targeting systems offline. The J-15 multi-role fighters raced ever closer, the radio silent, Tieu anticipating that there would be at least one verbal warning to leave the area before something more aggressive was attempted.

A lookout verified the sighting of the aircraft and Tieu watched as the lead fighter swept in low, flying directly over them. The radio finally crackled into life, a male voice speaking in English and ordering them to turn south-east. Tieu responded, again in English, meekly confirming his compliance, no attempt made to prevaricate or argue.

The corvette slowly started her turn, Tieu watching as the two aircraft circled low overhead, their persistence a worrying sign. Tieu knew he had but moments to either act or flee; time now to reveal their true character.

Four times that day they had practiced the same manoeuvre, eleven seconds their best; now fear added an extra element of urgency, their record well-beaten as two surface-to-air missiles leapt out towards the Chinese fighters. The range for the SAMs was ideal but just to be sure two more missiles joined in the chase, the J-15s twisting through the sky while frantically deploying flares.

The missiles skilfully ignored such counter-measures, each one eagerly locking on to its target, both aircraft destroyed by the first set of SAMs. The corvette was already increasing speed to her maximum of thirty knots, Tieu desperate to get away yet hoping that the Chinese carrier wouldn’t be too far distant. In fifteen minutes there would be more aircraft or missiles testing the corvette’s close-in weapon system (CIWS) and he had but one chance to strike back, one chance to make the mission a success.

For once Vietnam had chosen not to arm their two Sigma-class vessels with Russian weapons, opting instead for French systems. The first Exocet missile burst out from its launcher, joined soon after by three others. Tieu had an estimated position and now also a bearing from the two aircraft – it might just be enough, the Exocet’s radar-homing capability enabling it to make suitable corrections should a target come within range and satisfy a specific set of criteria. All Tieu could do was pray that at least one ran true.

The corvette raced south-east; theoretically she carried enough fuel to make it back to the Vietnamese coast but Tieu’s first priority was that of reaching the relative safety of the Philippines. Conscious that his fifteen minute limit was fast running down, Tieu risked one brief radio message, a coded confirmation as to the attack. Just one last thing left to do, the Vietnamese flag raised aloft with a triumphant blast from the ship’s horn.

  • * *

The four MM40 Block 3 Exocets flew just two metres above the sea surface, almost kissing the waves, covering three hundred metres every second. Their target coordinates had been pre-set across an angled spread of twenty kilometres, the missiles’ active radars finally switching on to search out a suitable target.

The first Exocet immediately started to track the Chinese frigate Sanya, the vessel acting both as an outer escort and a missile decoy for the carrier Liaoning some thirty kilometres to the north. The Sanya’s success in its secondary role was compounded when two more of the Exocets picked the same target. The final missile bypassed the outer ring of escorts to lock onto the destroyer, Haikou, the warship stationed just four kilometres from the Liaoning.

The Chinese AWACS had detected the missile launch, thereby giving the Task Force some seven minutes warning as to the imminent attack; however, the sea skimming approach of the Exocets ensured the Sanya only detected the first missile just five kilometres from impact, the Chinese frigate having less than twenty seconds to react. The ship’s CIWS proved more effective than its air defence missiles, two of the Exocets destroyed. The third stuck the Sanya just above the waterline, close to the hanger. The missile punched through the hull before exploding, the ship heeling to starboard as a fiery blast tore through a dozen compartments.

The fourth Exocet continued on its way, managing to evade the Haikou’s CIWS and missiles, before detonating alongside the destroyer’s operations room and killing virtually everyone inside. Yet the Haikou was still seaworthy, the fire-suppression systems doing their job, the bridge crew taking charge. For the Sanya there was no hope, a jagged tear in the ship’s side reaching down to below the waterline, the frigate already listing. Eighteen minutes after the Exocet struck, the Captain of the Sanya gave the order to abandon ship.

Tieu knew none of this, the corvette fighting her own battle against overwhelming odds. Well before the Sanya had slipped beneath the waves, four J-15 fighters had searched out the corvette, their crews determined to avenge the deaths of some thirty of their comrades.

Within seconds of the first fighter providing visual confirmation, the airspace around the corvette was buzzing with missiles, one J-15 damaged by a lucky hit from a SAM, four anti-ship missiles launched at the corvette in a needless example of overkill.

The corvette was a relatively small and quick moving target but a single missile hit would sink her, most likely with all hands. Like her Chinese counterparts, she was equipped with CIWS and missile defence, the French systems as good as any.

One missile malfunctioned, two more were destroyed, the fourth running true.

Tieu saw the bow of the corvette bathed in a fiery glow and then the bridge seemed to collapse inwards. Tieu heard himself scream and his body was swept upward, smashing against a bulkhead, a wave of intense heat incinerating everything in its path.

Of the corvette’s ninety crew, just four were pulled alive from the water, one man not even surviving long enough to realise it was a Chinese helicopter that had rescued him – or maybe he was the lucky one of the four.

 

Terrill, U.S.A. – 14:21 Local Time; 19:21 UTC

Anderson’s frustration with Carter was starting to create problems, both men irritated by the other’s demands, the retrieval of relevant data progressing far more slowly than the previous day. Flores had noted as much and had in turn told Anderson to push Carter harder, the latter’s transfer to a prison cell looking likely to happen sooner rather than later.

“You need to start focusing on why you’re here,” Anderson said, thrusting his chair back in annoyance. “This is just a waste of everyone’s time.”

“I’m doing my best,” protested Carter. “You can’t expect me to remember every little detail. Pat must have asked me to hack into scores of different networks; most of them were related to members of Congress but I just can’t recall every name and dirty little secret.”

“Forget the innocent and concentrate on the guilty,” Anderson prompted. “A couple of names would be useful; plus something definite to link them to McDowell or Thorn.”

“I’ve told you a million times,” Carter said, eyes squinting as though in pain, “I know nothing about Dick Thorn. I just did what Pat told me to do, anything to put pressure on Congress and the President. There was no conspiracy; it was simply a way of making a killing on the stock market.”

The others arrested at Terrill had generally stuck with a similar story and it was true that the political crisis had sent the Dow stuttering through various highs and lows, some blue chip stocks varying by as much as twenty percent in a week, a fortune to be made by anyone with inside knowledge. The initial finance had supposedly been non-existent, a virtual resource manipulated and utilised on the stock exchange until it materialised into something more tangible – but that still didn’t explain where the money had come from for resources such as Terrill.

“Forget the cover story,” said Anderson. “Just give me something very simple; like who supplied the money for all of this?”

“This?” asked Carter, frowning.

“The purchase of this site, the computer facility, all the vehicles, your food and McDowell’s scotch – all of that was bought and paid for months before the Dow started jumping all over the place.”

“It’s the same as I said yesterday and the day before,” intoned Carter. “Pat dealt with all the finances – I’ve no idea where the initial funds came from.”

Anderson still didn’t believe him but it was proving tricky to find that one piece of information that Carter was willing to share. Gentle persuasion was effectively now abandoned for dire warnings as to the consequences of remaining obdurate, but even that didn’t seem particularly effective, Carter proving far more slippery than Anderson or even Flores had anticipated.

Yet there were signs he wasn’t totally indifferent to the threat, two apparently unrelated news items dragging his attention away from the task in hand. The first was on the continuing search for Pat McDowell: with three murders now specifically linked to his name, he might have long since left D.C. and Carter would be foolish not to worry that he would be the one left taking the fall. The second news report detailed a double murder, the events surrounding the deaths of Neil and Karen Ritter still somewhat confused. Their neighbours had been woken up soon after midnight by the sound of gunshots, a dramatic firefight spilling out onto the street, one D.C. police officer also killed. The identity of the three assailants remained unknown, there nothing obvious that would somehow link it to Pat McDowell.

A bored Anderson had tried tapping into the relevant FBI report but there wasn’t one, the shooting apparently not considered a federal matter. That however had soon changed, the Ritters’ careers as political strategist and attorney finally grabbing the FBI’s interest, concern expressed as to why it took until late morning for the D.C. Police to inform their federal colleagues as to the names of the two victims and the precise nature of the attack.

Whether Neil Ritter – or perhaps even his wife – was involved with McDowell was open to conjecture but there was enough to at least look a little deeper. The police were unwilling to settle on a specific motive and the officer killed had been shot within seconds of reaching the scene, the attackers eventually pursued down and across Georgia Avenue before being lost in the complex of buildings which made up Howard University.

The Ritters’ neighbours had mostly kept their heads down, the occasional fleeting glance seeming to confirm the police’s version. Of more interest was a grainy video clip which had surfaced on the internet: obviously taken from one of houses opposite, it revealed a lone gunman standing in the street firing at several figures framed against the front of a house. It wasn’t much, the sequence lasting less than twenty seconds with the camera stationed a good forty yards away; the gunman was seen from the back, bare-headed, dark clothes, pistol held two-handed. If there was more footage then it had been redacted and the FBI was keen to urge anyone with information to come forward. Everything about the Ritters’ personal life and work was now subject to media speculation, their links to Washington’s political and legal community scrutinised for some clue as to why they had been murdered.

Flores remained non-committal as to Neil Ritter’s possible role in the conspiracy and it fell to his colleagues in the Hoover Building to pursue any potential connection with McDowell. It was still enough of a coincidence for Anderson to try and get something more from Carter, wondering out loud whether McDowell might be responsible for the double murder, with the Ritters merely a loose end that needed tidying away.

Carter stayed silent but the point was made. Eventually, one slow step at a time, intimidation and perseverance would drag something relevant out of him; Carter was definitely not that keen on spending more than a week stuck in a U.S. jail, the lure of warmer weather and a secluded beach a potential incentive Anderson was keen to promote at every opportunity.

 

[][] Chapter 4 – Monday, November 14th

USS Benfold – 10:51 Local Time; 02:51 UTC

The destroyer’s Combat Information Centre (CIC) was an uncomfortable environment for Tanner, his civilian clothes marking him out as someone who shouldn’t really be there, his presence merely temporary. It was always worse when the Benfold’s captain made an appearance, saying little and occasionally stopping to peer at the red-tinged images sent back from the ROV’s (Remotely Operated Underwater Vehicle) five cameras.

Tanner had never promised it would be a quick and simple process: they might have a good idea as to where the submarine had sunk but the sonar evidence from the attack on the USS Milius showed that it had broken apart before plummeting three quarters of a mile down to the seabed. For seven days now the ROV had been following a standard search pattern, traveling at a steady three knots with sensors probing the depths for any metallic or visual anomaly. The South China Sea was littered with wrecks, thousands rather than hundreds, with well over fifty from World War Two alone, including two Japanese aircraft carriers. Three more surface ships had joined that list in the past ten days, two frigates – one Chinese, one Vietnamese – plus a brave but foolhardy corvette. Vietnam was doing what it could to make Beijing pay for its aggression and the attack on the Chinese Carrier Group had been a suicidal attempt to enforce the exclusion zone.

Tanner’s specialist company was more used to being employed by the scientific community than the U.S. Navy; however, the ROVs operated by the Seventh Fleet were designed to neutralise mines not carry out deep-water searches, and the twenty-plus years Tanner had spent operating and working with ROVs ensured he was the preferred option – that and the fact he was based in Singapore with one versatile ROV immediately available for hire. Galene was her official name, called after the Greek goddess of calm seas; sadly, the South China Sea had been fairly unappreciative of such name-dropping, three days of storm-force winds severely restricting the number of hours the Galene could be deployed.

The Galene herself wasn’t the problem: a cube some four-foot in size, with multiple attachments added as if by random, she plainly lacked the streamlined elegance of the USS Benfold. However, the ROV would happily function on automatic mode whilst a hurricane thrashed the surface above, and it was the link to the base ship that restricted her operation. Power, control and data exchange between the ROV’s high-resolution cameras, the manipulator, and single grabber arm, were via an armoured umbilical cable and then a separate tether; a bucking ship could easily damage the 38mm thick cables beyond repair, or at the very least interfere with the signals to and from the Galene. If all else failed, the ROV had her own back-up power supply, the Galene’s automated systems able to bring her safely to the surface.

While the sea conditions were the main factor as to operational safety, it was Tanner who invariably had the final say – a fact which was causing a certain amount of tension with the Benfold’s Captain. Commander Vaughn hovered now, somewhere behind Tanner, his presence a reminder of the Navy’s need for answers, the pressure on Tanner to take risks subtle but still there even if not spoken out loud.

The Commander’s unease was also making Tanner more edgy, everyone aboard well aware of how volatile the situation in the South China Sea had become. And the USS Benfold was on her own, treading water uncomfortably close to the Chinese-occupied islands of the Paracels. The nearest U.S. carrier strike group, headed by the USS Gerald R Ford, patrolled well to the south-east and, even though air support could arrive within minutes, Tanner still felt a little isolated. The destroyer was a capable ship, upgraded in 2013, and her only serious deficiency was the lack of her own helicopter – the Benfold had a suitable flight deck but no hanger, the destroyer perversely able to refuel and rearm a Seahawk helicopter but not maintain one.

Despite the dangers around them, patience and persistence were essential if the search was to succeed, backtracking accepted as routine, it not helping that the various predictions as to the submarine’s likely position had proved inaccurate – either that or Tanner was being incompetent. The newly extended search area had brought its own set of problems and the maximum sea depth of some three miles was now dangerously close to the Galene’s limit. Optical visibility with the ROV’s four adjustable lights remained at around twenty feet, imaging sonar used to expand the viewing range by a factor of at least ten, and the Galene could typically take up to six hours to search a single square mile. The sonar images were automatically analysed in real-time with the software highlighting areas worthy of a more detailed look; that generally meant a delay whilst the ROV’s operator undertook a visual inspection, the colours optimised and enhanced to help the human observer.

Quite what Tanner and his team of three were required to do once the submarine was detected was still unclear; he assumed they would be looking to confirm the boat’s identity as one of China’s ageing Ming-class, but Vaughn had hinted that Tanner might be required to search out something very specific – precisely what hadn’t as yet been discussed.

The image on the control panel’s monitor abruptly flickered as an area ahead was highlighted; Tanner immediately slowed the ROV, switching to visual mode. It was definitely something metallic, circular and a couple of feet across, the amount of corrosion indicating it had been there for years. Fishing gear, oil drums, a metal seat, even a massive shipping container – the Galene had found them all in the last few days, but not yet a mystery submarine.

Tanner paused the search while he checked the Galene’s exact position, quickly becoming distracted by an animated conversation behind him; the atmosphere in the CIC was noticeably tense, the crew’s attention focused on a radar contact approaching from the north-west. Tanner tried to ignore it, concentrating on his own problems, thankful at least that something else had captured the Captain’s interest.

It was another forty minutes before he was relieved, Tanner’s place at the control panel taken by someone much slimmer and a good twenty years his junior: Coop was an Australian with a vicious sense of humour, his enthusiasm just about making up for his lack of experience – in any event Tanner always reviewed the various recordings and data at the end of every session.

With Coop duly updated, Tanner left the air-conditioned claustrophobia of the CIC and started to make his way to the stern, wanting to check that all was well with the Galene’s power and control module; securely fitted to the Benfold’s flight deck on the port side, the integrated winch gave the ship a splash of red amongst the boring grey, Commander Vaughn not yet insisting that it needed to be re-painted.

A call to the bridge forced Tanner to change his plans, unsure why he was being so honoured and worried that it was to tell him something he wouldn’t like. In fact Vaughn said barely a word, content to hand Tanner a pair of binoculars and gesture at a vessel sitting less than a mile off the Benfold’s starboard bow.

Tanner didn’t need the binoculars; the ships’ profile was one he instantly recognised and a large photograph of the vessel even adorned his office wall in Singapore, Tanner invariably jealous every time he looked at it. China’s new oceanographic research ship, Dayang Er Hao, translated as Ocean Two, was an impressive sight: much smaller than the Benfold, her sonar and imaging systems were second-to-none, the ROV at the stern far superior in every sense to the three year-old Galene.

“An unwelcome addition to our little party,” Vaughn said with a hint of annoyance. “We’ve suggested she might want to fuck off somewhere else but our recommendation was politely declined. We seem to have a race on our hands, Mr Tanner; one the U.S. Navy has no intention of losing.”

 

Bolshoy Kamen, Russia – 16:15 Local Time; 06:15 UTC

The drive from Vladivostok around the twisting curve of Ussuri Bay had been another tortuous crawl one slow kilometre at a time, over a hundred in total, the Lada Niva cramped and uncomfortable. The town of Bolshoy Kamen might only lie thirty kilometres to the east of Vladivostok but with no ferries running and the rail link closed, there had been little choice but the frustration of a six hour road trip. The fear of a Chinese attack might have started to fade but thousands were still determined to flee the city; the port was virtually devoid of ships, hundreds of containers unable to be loaded in time and even the smaller vessels had chosen to leave while they could. The ATMs had long since been emptied and even though Markova’s new ID had been backed up with a good amount of credit, a second drunken spree through the city’s bars had turned a minor difficulty into a serious concern.

On the plus side, the previous evening had at least proved rather more productive than the Saturday, the rumours surrounding the Zvezda Shipyard Complex in Bolshoy Kamen definitely worth pursuing. Government-owned, Zvezda was involved in both military and commercial projects, its workers’ expertise even extending to the decommissioning of nuclear submarines. It was interesting but not necessarily that relevant, Markova’s curiosity growing once details had emerged as to one recent project: ultra-high security, twenty-four hour working, outside specialists brought in and kept apart from the locals – it had to mean something.

The atmosphere in Bolshoy Kamen appeared equally strained, the Lada passing through two military checkpoints on its way deeper into the town, the habitual search not restricted to just their car or baggage. The local area had only been opened up to visitors in 2015, the shipyard and its military connection ensuring that strangers were invariably treated with suspicion. Although the town centre was virtually empty of traffic, there were plenty of pedestrians prepared to brave the weather and most shops looked to be open; yet for some reason hotels were hard to find, Nikolai eventually pulling into a mini-hotel on October Street close to the bay area.

They booked a twin room, Nikolai knowing better than to draw any false assumptions as to the actual sleeping arrangements. Markova regarded him as a trusted colleague and good friend, nothing more; Nikolai’s feelings were slightly more ambiguous, an almost brotherly affection battling with the fact Markova was both attractive and unattached – he would never try to advantage but it didn’t mean he was never tempted.

They left the Lada and headed out on foot, following the curve of the bay as it headed north, a flurry of snow quickly reducing visibility. Markova simply wanted to get a better feel for their surroundings and how best to play the next stage. The town had suffered badly with the collapse of the Soviet Union, a good third of the men having to leave to find new work; the last few years had witnessed a steady recovery, government money helping modernise and expand the shipyard complex, but the symbols of past decay remained, the crumbling concrete buildings adorned with graffiti still awaiting either a second chance or the heavy embrace of a bulldozer.

The Zvezda shipyard eventually came into view about a kilometre away, it proving difficult to get much closer without it being obvious. The yard had recently seen yet more investment and as far as Markova could tell it appeared to be operating as normal; she could even pick out two naval vessels berthed alongside the dock, a crane towering high overhead. Security looked to be tight, although no more extreme than the naval facilities at Vladivostok.

They turned east, walking slowly towards Karl Marx Street and the town’s shops and restaurants. Markova wasn’t in the mood to talk and she huddled up against the cold, lost in thought. The Beijing Government had fiercely denied responsibility for the attack on the USS Milius and with the White House oddly reluctant to apportion blame, conspiracy theories abounded. Most were variations on the theme that the submarine’s country of origin was not in fact China but the equally difficult alternative of North Korea; a few supposed experts were even prepared to blame Russia.

Markova had similarly done the research, the Ming design and its variants operated by several nations over the past sixty years. Russia’s Project-633 submarine had been exported to China in the early 1960’s before eventually evolving into the Ming-class. In turn China had exported their version to various countries, including Bangladesh and Egypt; North Korea had been a major recipient, dozens of boats assembled in-house from Chinese-supplied parts.

While North Korea might well have the desire to attack the United States, Markova knew enough about the Kremlin’s involvement to realise that in all probability the submarine was indeed Russian, and at least one of the original 633 boats had reputedly been retained for training purposes, the Zvezda Shipyard more than capable of bringing it back to life. Yet even if she could prove the Kremlin was responsible, what advantage would there be in telling the world of Golubeva’s deception? Markova would merely be encouraging the U.S. to retaliate against her own countrymen, hundreds of Russian lives potentially put at risk. Any attack would also hinder General Morozov’s hopes of ousting Golubeva, it invariably hardening support for Russia’s Government, at least in the short term.

Markova might have her concerns as to the advantage of such knowledge but she also had a responsibility to Morozov to get to the truth. Sadly, that could take time and it was doubtful whether Golubeva would allow Morozov the luxury of more than a few weeks grace before his forces in Astrakhan were overwhelmed. Somehow Markova needed to accelerate the process of unravelling Zvezda’s secrets, the standard recourse of bribery and intimidation likely to prove difficult without a dramatic influx of cash and at least one gun between them.

Markova almost stumbled as Nikolai nudged her arm, her thoughts dragged back to the present. She glanced across at him, the angry words forming on her lips stilled as she noticed his attention was elsewhere.

Up ahead were several police, two with assault rifles, stopping and checking everyone who walked past. It was too late to suddenly retrace their steps or turn aside, the two of them forced to keep going.

An elderly couple were already being questioned by a bored-looking policeman, and a second uniformed figure stepped out from the shadows to motion Markova and Nikolai into the relative cover of a shop front.

“Your papers, please.” The tone was polite, the policeman giving a half-smile despite the cold. They did as asked, Markova a little concerned to notice that the policeman’s insignia was that of a captain, it unclear why such a senior officer was bothering with the mundane task of checking IDs.

“You’re from Moscow?” The question was addressed to Nikolai, the officer’s gaze swapping between the two of them.

“That’s what it says; Moscow born and bred.” Nikolai was cold and fed up, not happy at being stopped just short of a warm and inviting restaurant.

“Journalists,” said the policeman thoughtfully, half to himself. “And why are you here exactly?”

“Bolshoy Kamen is in the news,” explained Markova, not waiting for Nikolai to say something they’d both regret. “Like Khabarovsk and Vladivostok it’s a potential target for China, and Moscow needs to see what people here are going through.” Markova tried to keep her tone relaxed, sensing that any further hint of annoyance would only be counter-productive; she was keen to stick to the truth where she could, too many lies always a dangerous strategy.

The officer thumbed through the IDs a second time, not bothering to have them scanned, knowing that the two of them would have already passed through several checkpoints. He was either very bored or very inquisitive, but hopefully not suspicious. The elderly couple moved on to be replaced by a snow-spattered figure struggling against the wind, the man searching feverishly through his pockets for his ID. From further back, another policeman idly watched the interplay between his officer and Markova, gloved hands slapping on his thighs to try and create some warmth.

“You drove here from Vladivostok?” enquired the captain, directing his question at Markova.

“We left Vladivostok early this morning; before that we were in Khabarovsk. For what it’s worth, you’re coping far better than either of them.”

The captain nodded in understanding although he still seemed unwilling to hand back their IDs, yet more questions needing to be asked. “And our small town is really of that much interest to you?”

“Of course, or at least until relations with China return to normal.”

“And you’re staying where exactly?”

“The Laguna on October Street.”

With a reluctant frown, the captain passed Nikolai’s ID back to him; as Markova reached out to take hers, the officer gave one final piece of advice. “We are a town that doesn’t always appreciate strangers, especially during difficult times. You have until Wednesday morning and then I expect to hear you’ve gone back to Vladivostok.”

The threat wasn’t specific, just implied, no reason given as to why their stay was being limited to some thirty-six hours. It wasn’t even clear if it was the police that they needed to be concerned about or whether the captain was actually trying to be helpful, perhaps hinting that the military had some odd grievance against journalists from Moscow.

More likely, the town had grown used to keeping its secrets safe, old habits form the Soviet era proving hard to forget. Markova’s visit to Bolshoy Kamen was proving more complex than she had anticipated, one full day hardly enough time to enjoy the sights, let alone open up the enigma that was the Zvezda shipyard.

  • * *

Nikolai’s impressive record of extracting information was fast deteriorating, the townspeople seemingly inbred with a natural reluctance to reveal anything worthwhile to people they’d only just met. Markova had tried the journalist card but that had simply made things worse, no-one willing to talk about their work; even the threat of conflict with China seemed off-limits. Club, bar, restaurant, hotel: it made no difference where they tried, rumour and gossip were not words recognised in Bolshoy Kamen.

By the time they walked back to the hotel, it was close to midnight, a couple of undercover police following-on behind; the two men didn’t yet seem to represent an actual threat and their presence was more intimidating than anything else, a reminder as to the dangers of prying too deeply.

Despite the frustrations, the evening hadn’t been entirely wasted, a few useful facts learnt here and there, and with time pressing Markova was again forced into considering more extreme measures. Of late her moral boundaries as to what was acceptable had become more elastic and she was fully prepared to do whatever it took to get to the truth, the KGB stand-by of intimidation and threat likely to prove far more effective than any possible bribe.

Nikolai would no doubt argue that it was a task better suited to his particular skills, something in the Russian psyche making men far less willing to bare their soul to a woman; not that Markova was in any mood to be dissuaded, the enmity and bitterness of the past month finally starting to boil over. Nikolai would still have a full part to play, the acquisition of two handguns and several spare magazines his first priority.

 

Eastern United States – 12:46 Local Time; 17:46 UTC

Carter was back on whingeing mode, feeling sick and decidedly white-faced. Flores was unsympathetic but didn’t push it, Anderson left to try and get Carter to focus on the job in hand. Anderson wasn’t optimistic, concerned that it would only get worse once Carter discovered that two of those arrested with him had been freed on bail, the evidence against them considered nothing more than circumstantial. That at least was the official line, Flores intimating that someone high-up had helped push for their release.

Such interference only hindered the task force’s ongoing investigation and it didn’t help that the FBI was still under a cloud for what had happened in the Mall and its relationship with the D.C. Police was steadily going from bad to worse, the Ritter case merely an additional bone of contention. Dick Thorn’s allies camped out close to the Capitol definitely seemed happy to lump the FBI in with Congress and China as being evil incarnate, it sometimes difficult to know which of the three was despised the most.

The focus for the news media had started to move elsewhere, CNN taking the lead in trying to predict Deangelo’s next move should China simply ignore the fast approaching deadline. Generals and other experts were quizzed, scenarios guessed at, no-one bothered that such conjecture was in danger of giving China vital intelligence. Every man and his dog seemed to have an opinion as to what the U.S. should do to support the Philippines and Vietnam, past enmity now totally irrelevant. Secretary of State Burgess would soon be on his way to Manila, followed by Hanoi, it assumed Beijing might well be the final stop on his itinerary. The President too was also on the move, Tuesday the start of the two-day G-20 summit in Cologne. Whether the two men’s absence from Washington would delay any military action was debatable, the White House certainly not giving any clues.

The ongoing tensions in D.C. were an added incentive to get Carter to talk and for some unclear reason responsibility for his welfare was shifting away from his FBI nursemaid and even more onto Anderson; a good part of his time was now spent listening to Carter complain, the search for evidence continuing to be dragged out, painfully so. It was depressing to realise that Terrill had become almost as much of a prison for Anderson as it was for Carter and his contribution to the wider investigation was virtually nil, hours spent staring at a computer screen while trying to second guess McDowell’s next move, a score of clever ideas pursued and then abandoned. Flores’ own pursuit of Deangelo was considered solely the purview of the FBI and Anderson was basically being well paid for doing very little, his feelings of guilt just about countered by the annoyance of Carter and the Spartan nature of his present accommodation.

Carter’s room was on the top floor of the Terrill farmhouse, one along from the computer centre. He sat looking sorry for himself, Anderson choosing to take a short break from his part-time role as deputy interrogator, staring out of the window at nothing in particular, the view one of a high chain-link fence and lines of bushes leading up to the wood beyond. For all they knew, McDowell could be watching from the treeline while planning Carter’s escape, Flores’ precautions perhaps not that impressive when put against McDowell’s ingenuity and Carter’s skills.

Flores had earlier chosen to have another go at questioning Carter, trying to tease out something constructive, even an obvious lie. Forty minutes had been as much as Carter could realistically handle, Anderson brought in at the end for a final ten-minute burst, not always remembering that he was supposed to be acting out the ‘good cop’ role. The FBI now had plenty on Carters’ own involvement, with the number of attempts to defame the political system and its members far greater than had been assumed; Carter still seemed shy of revealing names, steadfastly insisting that his only job was as hacker-in-chief.

“Did you check out Neil Ritter?”

Anderson turned back in surprise, not even realising that Carter was wide awake. “That’s down to the FBI,” he replied. “There’s no evidence yet that your friend McDowell was involved but it’s only a matter of time.”

“No; I meant did you check out what happened with Ritter?”

Anderson nodded slowly, although still not sure what Carter was after. “Two gunmen broke in through the back and when the Ritters tried to escape, there was a third man out the front; seems simple enough.”

“And you believe that?” Carter said sharply, obviously unconvinced.

Under normal circumstances Anderson wouldn’t have questioned the police version of events but he had also now seen the initial FBI report, it highlighting the problems of a badly contaminated crime scene and few independent witnesses, none of whom could quite agree. Two neighbours from across the street claimed that the police had arrived on the scene a good minute after the last shots had been fired. How then did a police officer get killed? And he evidently wasn’t your standard patrolman: SWAT trained, the officer had been promoted to detective two years earlier, joining an elite anti-crime unit. Then there was the crime scene itself: the FBI’s forensic team had first entered the Ritters’ house some thirteen hours after the attack to find it ransacked, mobile phones and computers missing, the police vehemently denying it had anything to do with them.

It had all the elements of a hurried cover-up, Anderson just not sure of the real sequence of events. His willingness to blame McDowell was purely to try and get under Carter’s skin, it fairly certain he wasn’t directly involved; as to the real perpetrators – then that was relatively simple, the D.C Police already near the bottom of Anderson’s Christmas card list.

“So what’s your take on what happened?” prompted Anderson. Carter seemed genuinely worried by the Ritters’ murder and the FBI’s laxity in not immediately linking it to the conspiracy was starting to look foolish.

“It’s obvious,” Carter replied. “D.C. police go in through the back not expecting trouble. Ritter kills one and they then fuck about trying to cover it up.”

“And why would they do that, Jon? You’re telling me Neil Ritter is a key part of all this?”

“I didn’t say that,” said Carter petulantly, realising he’d already revealed too much. “I saw his name on a file somewhere – that was all.”

Anderson persevered but the moment was lost, Carter reverting to the relative safety of amnesiac mode, the origin of the reference to Ritter joining a thousand other ‘forgotten’ facts.

“Still looks more like McDowell’s style to me,” said Anderson, back to being annoying. “We both know his work here isn’t yet complete and I guess Neil Ritter just got in the way.”

“What makes you think Pat’s not lying on a beach somewhere?” replied Carter with a half-smile. “You won’t catch him that easily; not like me.”

Anderson shook his head in mock disappointment, still hoping to get something more from Carter. “And I thought you were here to help, Jon. Ritter clearly outlived his usefulness and now he’s dead – maybe you should bear that in mind.”

Carter remained adamant, ignoring the dig, “Pat didn’t kill Ritter; that was definitely the cops.”

“So you say; personally, I’d be a little more worried about his likely policy on informers.” The fact Carter had come close to confirming Ritter was part of the conspiracy was a useful start, although the FBI would no doubt want something more convincing than just Carter’s off-hand comments.

“We all know why I’m here,” Carter said sourly. “If you want someone to take a potshot at me, just stick me in a wheelchair out the front; that’s bound to keep Flores happy.”

“You’re here to help sort out this mess, no other reason. And you’re far better off here than in jail.” Carter might not be too worried that McDowell was going to murder him in his bed, but the actions of the D.C. Police Department were rather less predictable. Terrill was hardly ideal but it was still a haven of security for Carter compared to the dangers outside, Anderson just not sure how important Carter’s secrets might actually be.

Carter rubbed at his head, deep in thought, looking rattled enough by the Ritters’ murder to perhaps want a way out. It was as near as Anderson had got to some sort of breakthrough, the steady drip of threats and innuendo finally paying dividends.

“Persuade Flores’ boss to offer a proper deal,” Carter said reluctantly. “All charges dropped and forget about me being a witness in any trials; also, a cast-iron guarantee that I get put on a flight out of the U.S. before the end of the month.”

Anderson took his time replying, dubious as to what Carter would be willing to provide in exchange. The potential charges against him were impressive and the authorities would expect something significant, perhaps more than just the name of one renegade in the FBI. “And what exactly do we get in return?”

“I can’t give you the name of the FBI informer; Pat always dealt with him directly. It’s the same with his police contacts.”

“Then what can you give us?”

“Proof as to election fraud; proof that the results of the Midterms were deliberately rigged.”

This was not at all what Anderson had expected. The U.S. election process had long since been in crisis, different systems used, with many of the electronic voting machines condemned as being outdated and insecure; however, the number of miscounted votes was always considered to be within acceptable limits. Now Carter seemed to be implying deliberate fraud on a large scale, it presumably just one more part of McDowell’s overall strategy.

It was an intriguing and potentially worthwhile bargaining chip but only if based on fact, and Anderson couldn’t help but be suspicious as to Carter’s motives – after all, he had been trained by an expert.

“Proof is a very slippery concept, Jon. What are we talking about here: computer files, emails, a paper trail?”

“Speak to Flores first; see if a deal’s even possible, then I can be more specific. Believe me, you won’t be disappointed.”

“And Neil Ritter? It would help if you could stop pissing about and just confirm he’s involved.”

“Speak to Flores,” repeated Carter firmly.

A thoughtful Anderson studied Carter with suspicious eyes, worried that it was all bluff and nothing more than another attempt to waste everyone’s time. He just had the sense that something now was different, the murder of Neil Ritter perhaps a step too far. Despite the brave words, Carter really was worried that he might be next.

  • * *

The safe house was an hour’s drive from Washington, an isolated ranch-style home with enough resources to keep the three of them self-sufficient for at least another month. It was only now that they could actually relax and as far as Lavergne and Preston were concerned their role in the conspiracy was complete, their bonus more than matching McDowell’s expectations.

To be fair, McDowell knew it was well deserved, every problem and difficulty countered, their strategy adapted to match the accelerating political crisis. Not everything had gone smoothly, especially that last week once Anderson had interfered more directly, but the fact McDowell’s face was black and blue from Anderson’s fists was more of an embarrassment than anything else, a blow to his pride that he would prefer to forget. The free-for-all in the National Mall had never been part of any plan and actually shooting Thorn – albeit in the arm – had turned out to be an inspired mistake, adding an impressive element of authenticity to the attack.

The loss of Terrill had been the one low point and since then McDowell had felt as if he was working blind, Jon Carter’s skills particularly missed, the Englishman never once failing to live up to expectations. Sadly, the same couldn’t be said for the D.C. lawyers tasked with his release; frustrated perhaps by their inability to pin something worthwhile on Carter’s associates, the FBI seemed determined to throw the book at him, accessory to murder their main threat, charges of conspiracy and terrorism also possible. The lawyers had access to an emergency account but that would soon run dry and McDowell was impatient for the investigation to be officially abandoned. With the new Administration needing to focus on more immediate problems, that might not happen for a few days yet and even then it might be considered ill-advised to release Carter.

For Yang Kyung-Jae and Neil Ritter the repercussions had proved even more severe. McDowell had little for concern for Ritter, but Yang’s murder had been a shock, McDowell taken aback by his own deep sense of regret. Yang had always treated him with respect, going out on a limb to offer encouragement and support, even persuading the others to let McDowell take charge; Yang had certainly deserved far more than an assassin’s bullet, affluence obviously no guarantee as to future good health.

One immediate concern had been far more selfish in nature, McDowell relieved to discover that his staged payment and hefty bonus had been transferred only hours before Yang had been killed. Only later did he wonder whether the two events were somehow linked, the attack deliberately timed to take place once McDowell had been paid – if so, that suggested both inside knowledge and excellent judgement. Neil Ritter’s murder so soon after could hardly be down to coincidence and the conspiracy was clearly tearing itself apart; with both naïve paymaster and hireling considered expendable, McDowell too would seem to be under threat – but not just yet, his unique set of skills still very much in demand.

McDowell had deliberately been kept isolated from the main American players and his only contact had always been through Ritter or Yang. Now necessity had helped ensure that protective element of separation had finally been abandoned, McDowell offered an unexpected role in the second phase, a first payment ready and waiting.

If there were concerns that McDowell’s continued participation might be influenced by recent events then they were left unsaid. McDowell could be as irrational as the next man in terms of how he defined loyalty and the murder of Yang was unfortunate; however, risking everything in a futile act of vengeance was stretching any such ties a little too far. Even so, he took his time responding: no well-equipped base, no computer expert, a relatively tight schedule – if McDowell was to stand any chance of success, he would need to call in a good few favours while trusting he could still work some sort of miracle. In twenty-four hours Lavergne and Preston were due to go their separate ways, Costa Rica and Mexico the lucky recipients; now McDowell might well need to ask them to hold on to their dollars for a while longer.

McDowell well recognised that the stress of the past few weeks was influencing his ability to think coherently, his decisions suddenly based more on some irrational desire to prove it was all possible than a logical appraisal of the risks. The precise schedule would be governed by factors well beyond his control, McDowell struggling to know how best to replicate Jonathan Carter’s essential skills. Another major worry was the unexpected tenacity of the various agencies arrayed against them and McDowell had anticipated – even been promised – a winding down of the investigation. His FBI source had already started to distance himself, worried that he in turn was under suspicion – a fact duly confirmed by Jon Carter.

Carter might be drugged up to the eyeballs and supposedly watched every minute of the day, but within twenty-four hours of his arrival at Terrill, he had managed to post an online message detailing the facility’s new role and Anderson’s presence there, also warning McDowell not to make contact. It was typical of the man, and despite his outward appearance and willingness to complain, Carter was well able to look after himself. Their one-sided exchange had also convinced McDowell as to his next move, his decision ensuring he would need to correct at least one unfortunate legacy of the past week.

McDowell had little respect for any politician, viewing D.C. as nothing more than a political abyss, made up men and women fully prepared to barter their own integrity in an attempt to justify their existence. If McDowell could subsequently give some of them a few sleepless nights, then that in itself would be worth a little extra risk.

[]Chapter 5 – Tuesday, November 15th

South China Sea – 13:50 Local Time; 05:50 UTC

In just two decades Fiery Cross Reef had been turned from a barren spit of land into the biggest military base in the Spratly Islands, a squadron of multirole fighters due to be based there within the year, the harbour large and deep enough to accommodate China’s hunter-killer submarines and warships. A hundred and forty kilometres to the east stood Johnson South Reef; fought over in 1988 with Vietnam the loser, Chinese dredgers had remodelled it into an artificial island, the five acres permanently above sea level transformed into a well-defended base with radar tower, anti-aircraft batteries and gun emplacements, it now home to well over a hundred Chinese marines.

Beijing argued that such additions were primarily for civil purposes, aimed at improving navigation and the reliability of weather forecasts, while also helping provide shelter and fishery assistance to ships of every nationality. Even in China that was regarded as little more than a convenient white lie, the public generally supportive of Beijing’s steady advance south, the natural resources of the South China Sea essential to help meet the country’s future demands. The islands might be a thousand kilometres from the Chinese mainland but Beijing was determined to dominate the region, ancient maps used to justify its territorial ambitions.

China’s military forces throughout the Spratly and Paracel Islands were already on a high state of alert, the U.S. deadline having expired almost ten hours earlier. Beijing had chosen to formally reject it, using the United Nations to defend the indefensible, reiterating China’s historical claim to all of the Spratly Group. It was a risky strategy and a slap in the face to the two non-belligerent countries with a permanent presence on at least one rocky outcrop; Taiwan might be considered by Beijing as nothing more than an recalcitrant region of China but Malaysia had been working hard to build a good relationship with its powerful neighbour. China was not just gaining new enemies, it was also in danger of losing its few remaining friends.

With an attack considered imminent, every new satellite image and intercept was high-priority, details fed first to the intelligence analysts in Zhanjiang before being passed on to Beijing. It thus took just six minutes from when the first U.S. Tomahawk missiles were launched for China’s forces in the Spratly Islands to be made aware that they were the likely target. That still gave the defenders a minimum of thirty minutes, a full half-hour in which to deploy their anti-missile systems; for some perhaps it was also a time to pray. The marines well knew the destructive power of the weapons sent against them, pinning their hopes on their own surface-to-air systems: with a maximum range of forty kilometres, they would have less than three minutes to stop the Tomahawks before the close-in air defence system with its Gatling gun became their final hope.

A total of thirty-six cruise missiles were launched from the two U.S. carrier strike groups, a fraction of the number available but enough to send a suitable message. Despite the missiles being the outdated version, they were still a formidable weapon; real-time data was supplied by satellites and aircraft, a random flight element in the final phase of the attack making them less susceptible to countermeasures.

The Tomahawk’s success rate had always proved to be excellent, sometimes close to 99%. China’s own anti-missile systems tended to be based around Russian designs, Chinese expertise in electronics on occasion making their version superior. The defences protecting Fiery Cross and Johnston South Reefs were untested, their operators unprepared for such a large-scale attack; yet this could still prove a stern challenge for the ageing Tomahawk, the first time it had come up against state-of-the-art defences based on Russian know-how combined with Chinese guile.

The U.S. Navy planners had studied the Chinese defences, various attack profiles simulated, the unexpectedly heavy losses assessed. Twelve Tomahawks headed towards Johnson South Reef, it calculated that at worst just two would get through, the island’s major structures their prime target.

For once the experts had erred on the side of caution, although it was still a disappointment, with eight of the twelve Tomahawks destroyed by missiles or the CIWS. The others hit within seconds of each other, turning the small island into a blazing concrete ruin, the Chinese marines struggling to hold back the fires sweeping through the main command centre, the top three floors collapsing around them.

The defenders of Fiery Cross Reef were slightly more successful. Of the twenty-four Tomahawk missiles, only six managed to pass through the storm of missiles and cannon shells. The airfield, harbour and command facilities were all hit, the small island finally living up to its name.

The second of Admiral Adams’ options had been predicted to keep casualties to an ‘acceptable’ level – that however now looked to be highly debatable, China already working on its own form of retribution.

 

Beijing – 16:44 Local Time; 08:44 UTC

General Liang held his impatience in check, thankful that at least his opinion was considered worthy of respect. His detailed analysis of the military situation was an unwelcome shock to many of those around the table but no-one was yet prepared to dispute his findings – the threat to China’s very existence was real and substantial, with virtually all of projected scenarios offering up a set of unpalatable outcomes.

The emergency meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) wasn’t the first Liang had attended but it was the only one where he had sensed a desire to accept the need for compromise. A minority of its seven members might be reluctant to fully accept Liang’s conclusions but the Central Military Commission had had no such doubts, the vote eight-to-two in support of his various recommendations; the one abstention had been their Commander-in-Chief, President Zhao unwilling to prejudice the PSC’s later discussions and eventual vote.

Liang well knew that the blame for allowing such a crisis situation to develop in the first place lay squarely on an ageing faction of politicians and the military. Impatient to reclaim China’s birthright, they had deliberately ignored the risks of alienating each and every neighbour, blindly assuming China’s economic and military strength would be enough of a threat to prevent a violent confrontation, especially with the United States. The economies of the U.S and Russia might well be dependent upon China’s electronic exports but such commercial muscle had needed to be wielded with more subtlety, without it looking to be a form of intimidation or blackmail.

Over the past three decades, it had become acceptable for even China’s middle-class to display the visible trappings of prosperity, the country’s wealth seen in every city and shouted out with every new enterprise. The people were rightly proud of China’s stature in the world and would invariably grow restless should it be threatened; the media might be under strict control but there were plenty of ways around such censorship and it wouldn’t be long before people’s concerns drove them out onto the city streets, a ban on demonstrations never having proved that effective in the past. The inevitable confrontations also had a habit of turning bloody and with a realistic threat of war perhaps only days away, Beijing was loath to adopt a conciliatory approach to internal dissent, fearful that it would be interpreted as a sign of weakness or indecision.

Liang certainly wasn’t alone in failing to understand why anyone would risk throwing away the hard-won economic successes of the past, and if some of the area’s vast resources had to be divided up amongst the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, was that really so unacceptable? Many might equate compromise with weakness, but the advantages for China were too significant to be simply ignored as unacceptable.

A month ago such liberal views were not ones that could have easily been shared, many – like Liang – on the fringes of power keeping their opinions to themselves while outwardly following the party line. Although more willing to speak his mind than most, Liang had still been seen as a faithful and efficient servant of the ruling elite, someone who under different circumstances might have even been invited to join the all-powerful PSC.

China’s system of government had served the country well for forty years, power resting with the Standing Committee rather than all 25 members of the Politburo. The PSC’s control extended to picking its own successors and in practice, selection was based more on family and influence than ability, with fixed five-year terms and retirement enforced beyond the age of 68. The flaws implicit in such a system were glossed over; those who appeared to abuse it were quickly dealt with, the innocent condemned as often as the guilty, even the strong quickly learning that reliable allies were essential.

Although his route from university to army general was not in itself a barrier to Liang becoming part of the Politburo, not being a member of the right family or having a powerful patron definitely was. For someone with Liang’s background and abilities, then in a couple of years and with no misjudgements – either military or political – he could have hoped to win enough prestige to be given command of one of China’s five combat zones; in twelve he might even be appointed to the Central Military Commission, probably still the youngest of its members at 62. But that would be as far as he could ever hope to reach.

That had all been true a week ago but no longer. For once China’s leaders had cast off their usual inertia, the accelerating crisis encouraging them to act with unaccustomed haste. Three members of the Central Military Commission had been arrested, four more dismissed; they were replaced by a younger and more pragmatic group of officers, among them a newly-promoted Liang. Even the PSC itself hadn’t escaped the cull, two of its number forced to resign. It wasn’t a coup or anything close but it was a palace revolution of sorts, new blood welcomed in the hope they could prevent the collapse of everything the Party has worked so hard for.

President Zhao’s previous attempt to modernise and weed out the inept from amongst the Politburo had merely come up against a brick wall, the old guard still with enough influence and know-how to take advantage of Zhao’s relative inexperience; now the President could promote those of proven ability without fear of compromising his own position, Liang an obvious candidate who had none of the political baggage of certain of his peers. Considered by many of his colleagues as something of an academic, Liang well-fitted the accepted mould, as interested in the great battles of the past as modern military strategy; he was also a chess player of renown and a capable pianist, yet too extrovert to be called a loner.

Liang had closely followed the accession of America’s new president, noting certain similarities to the means by which President Golubeva had crept unseen into the Kremlin. Although he had no reason to believe such parallels were anything other than coincidence, in both cases each new political scandal or terrorist attack had helped move the present incumbent a little closer to the seat of power, and both now seemed keen to test their mettle against a more intransigent obstacle, namely the People’s Republic of China.

Russia and the United States were not yet exactly allies and trust between them was likely to be fragile at best. Perhaps that was a weakness that could be exploited, a minor crack in the unspoken conspiracy to restrain China’s ambitions. The CMC’s priorities were complex, China needing to fend off Russia, America and Vietnam while simultaneously coping with a renewed separatist campaign. Vietnam and the Philippines still threatened the sea route to the south with their exclusion zone, and Taiwan had earlier cancelled all military leave, its diplomats working hard to garner support from Japan and South Korea. The commercial repercussions were mounting with the South China Sea a no-go area for the world’s merchant fleets, vessels diverted east of the Philippines with two days added to reach the key market of Japan. Yet almost half of that marine traffic was destined for China, it suffering as much as anyone.

Even when faced with the cold hard facts, China’s leaders found it hard to accept that China’s very survival was under threat and that the country’s military power was inadequate to meet such a challenge. An army of two million-plus was an impressive statistic but it didn’t give the full story, the many internal divisions and shortage of modern equipment glossed over as an irrelevance.

It was the same with regional conflicts, the lack of understanding and prejudices of those in power often making the situation worse, extreme measures the norm. Liang had previously warned that the situation in Xinjiang was becoming increasingly unstable, the region likely to be a target for covert Russian aggression; true to form, his recommendations had been accepted in full then effectively ignored, the various threats dismissed. Like any committee, the CMC had had its favourites, the local commander’s assurances given far too much credence.

Despite the tense border situation and the threat of military conflict, Russia had chosen to maintain the flow of natural gas through Xinjiang’s Altai pipeline, both countries wary of risking such a mutually convenient enterprise. Unfortunately, the region’s Uyghur separatists saw the pipeline less as a resource and more as a tempting target, finally acting to take the decision out of Moscow’s hands. In a series of terrorist attacks carried out over the past three days, they had cut the Altai and West-East pipelines, as well as putting two hydroelectric dams on the Kashgar River out of action. Repairs were likely to take weeks, the effect on China’s energy supplies potentially a worry but not impossible to deal with. Equally concerning was the message that it sent, militant groups in Inner Mongolia and Tibet likely to be encouraged into similar attacks.

Xinjiang had been a source of separatist conflict for fifty years, support from the Soviet Union then Russia varying from the subtle to the brazen. However, the terrorists had never become anything other than a purely local threat and there was nothing to indicate that the recent attacks were Russian-led or part of some planned incursion. For the moment, Russia seemed content to play a waiting game, watching as the U.S. and Vietnam exacted their revenge, looking for the ideal moment to strike.

That was seen by many on the CMC as a mistake, China still hoping to dismantle the coalition before it became a formal entity. The U.S. attack against the Spratly Islands might have proved the fallacy of underestimating American resolve but Deangelo had been in office less than five days; when better than now to throw at him a major crisis, one where thousands of American lives were likely to be put at risk.

The Politburo might still be arguing as to the actual level of any further military action but to Liang and his colleagues on the CMC there was but one brief window of opportunity to improve the odds in China’s favour. Even though it would never become a war China could actually win, an advantageous diplomatic solution was still a possibility – it would just need a little more guile than simply occupying every reef and sandbank throughout the South China Sea.

China’s old guard had planned for a bloody war of attrition and the U.S. would certainly baulk at significant losses in terms of military personnel; this was more likely to become a battle of missiles and laser-guided bombs, the first where remote-controlled weapons could prove their versatility, almost perhaps their superiority. Despite the recent changes to the nature of the Politburo and the CMC, neither body would settle for peace at any cost, and Deangelo and Golubeva still needed to be shown that the battle ahead would be long and bloody. The challenge was to do that while ensuring the conflict didn’t escalate out of control; only then might Beijing keep some of what had been gained. The consequences of a war were unthinkable: both America and Russia were essential for China’s future prosperity and with sanctions now in place, China’s neighbours would be quick to reap the reward of Beijing’s isolation.

In a few days, China would be at a crossroads, either plunged into a war it couldn’t win or revealing to the world its willingness to compromise. The crisis of the moment somehow seemed to draw out the leader from the pack, Golubeva a prime example, and if Deangelo was in the same mould as his Russian counterpart, then the American missile attacks would only be the beginning, further Chinese aggression met with devastating force.

Despite being a confirmed atheist, Liang closed his eyes in silent supplication, praying for guidance, trusting as to his own innate judgement. He had no family, only an ex-wife whom he still loved, nothing that would hold him back; no reason – other than fear of failure – not to put his and his country’s self-belief to the ultimate test.

 

Eastern United States – 10:20 Local Time; 15:20 UTC

Anderson was having a bad morning, his version of events in the National Mall challenged, his integrity questioned. He steadfastly resisted the sarcastic response, answering everything as politely as he could, constantly irritated by the tone of the questions. To Anderson, the inquiry into the Mall shootings, held under the auspices of the Department of Justice, seemed blatantly prejudiced against the FBI; the Bureau might effectively be the Department’s own agency but there was no sense of holding back, and the inquiry’s three members already seemed convinced that one or more agents were guilty of over-reacting; that apparently also included Anderson, his journalistic impulses supposedly getting the better of him.

For well over an hour he was quizzed and criticised, the inquiry’s chairman particularly scathing of Anderson’s account. Whilst the chairman didn’t go so far as to actually call Anderson a liar, the clear implication was that Anderson was paranoid enough to blame Pat McDowell for everything, seeing him even when he wasn’t there. Although the detailed analysis of thousands of hours of video was incomplete, the identity of the man Anderson had assaulted was still open to question, the supposed experts and their software presently split two-to-one against it being McDowell. The fact there was no specific forensic evidence to support Anderson’s tale was unfortunate, his word seemingly not considered proof enough.

Ray Flores was the next to have his deposition torn to shreds, roundly condemned for putting so much faith in the opinions of an amateur, and a British one at that. Hindsight seemed to be the main weapon used to belittle the FBI’s actions prior to the shootings, it argued that their very presence in the Mall had been unnecessarily provocative.

Flores was philosophical afterwards, more used to the style of such investigations, and not one to dwell on what the final report might say or where exactly blame would be placed. Anderson was consoled with a belated lunch courtesy of the FBI, the diner on 8th Street crowded but offering a welcome change to the stress of earlier. A corner table had already been set aside for them, burger, fries and black coffee the staple diet with the booths cleverly designed to ensure any conversation was kept as private as possible.

The reason for such precautions became clear once Paul Jensen sat down opposite. Anderson was unsure whether to feel pleased or intimidated, left wondering whether Jensen’s presence was in response to the morning debacle.

For most people, the topic of the day was the U.S. military strike against China and the President was due to give his first prime-time TV address later that day, no doubt keen to defend America’s actions. Deangelo’s choice of target and the level of response appeared to have met with almost universal approval from America’s Asian allies and even the U.S. media. The public were similarly supportive, most Americans prepared to give the President and his revamped Cabinet the benefit of the doubt in deciding whether to applaud or be critical. China’s claim that over a hundred lives had been lost, the majority civilians, was invariably treated with a degree of indifference and suspicion, many observers keen to remind everyone of the earlier Vietnamese and Philippine losses.

Washington itself seemed to have put aside the problems of the past few days and reverted to its more usual frenetic state, the number of those camped out close to the Capitol now reduced to just a few hundred; the police were happy to leave them well alone, Dick Thorn’s supporters still active although rather more inconspicuous than before. Despite Anderson not being party to the FBI investigation into Thorn, Flores had hinted that nothing incriminating had yet been found, the delicate nature of the operation adding significantly to its complexity. A breakthrough seemed as far away as ever, Jon Carter not quite the helpful source any of them had hoped.

“What’s happening about Carter’s offer?” asked Anderson between mouthfuls, “He seems genuinely keen to give us something.”

It was Jensen who answered, willing to allow the FBI’s newest recruit a certain leeway. “We’re not interested in re-negotiating the present deal; the Midterm results are already part of an official review and I’ll pass on Carter’s allegations… You’re convinced his change of heart was down to the murder of Neil Ritter?”

“Definitely; Carter’s convinced that Ritter was murdered by the D.C. Police and worried that he might be next.”

“As to who’s responsible for killing the Ritters is still open to question,” responded Jensen, voicing the official line. “The motive might have more to do with the wife, so let’s not jump to conclusions.”

Neil Ritter’s job as a political strategist had involved regular contact with a host of potential conspirators but there was nothing that stood out as being overly suspicious, and Jensen wasn’t willing to refocus the investigation purely on some arbitrary comment from Carter. Similarly, D.C.’s Chief of Police might be a supporter of Dick Thorn and the FBI might have issues with some of its officers but that was no reason to condemn a whole department, and until there was clear evidence to the contrary, then the police version of events over the murders of Neil and Karen Ritter would stand.

“We also assume nothing about McDowell,” continued Jensen, “either in terms of where he is or whether he still has some role to play. Thorn’s nomination as Secretary of Defence is meeting stiff opposition in the Senate and there’s no chance he’ll be confirmed before they adjourn on Thursday; maybe that will be enough to galvanise McDowell into activity.” Jensen’s tone hinted at his sense of frustration, Anderson one of those who needed to pull their finger out, his supposed expertise in everything McDowell the main reason he was on the FBI’s payroll.

Their conversation returned to Carter and how best to keep him working, the occasional reference to Dick Thorn or Mayor Henry kept to a minimum, nothing sensitive revealed. Whilst the two agents from Jensen’s protection detail seated in the next booth might be deaf to what was being discussed, the same couldn’t be said for the general public or the diner’s staff and trust was proving a fairly rare commodity in Washington at the moment, with D.C. Police, FBI, Secret Service and even White House staff all under investigation.

It was early evening by the time Anderson renewed his jailer duties, Carter looking shocked at the Bureau’s lack of interest in re-negotiating his present deal.

“I guess it’s give them McDowell or it’s nothing,” said Anderson unhelpfully. “Accessory to murder: what’s that, ten years, fifteen? With a reduced sentence, that’s probably down to eight; out in four. That’s not so bad… Hang on though, it was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court that was murdered, plus Flores wanted your FBI contact – so I guess we’re back up to at least fifteen, maybe even twenty.”

“Fuck off,” Carter muttered. He retreated back into his shell, ignoring Anderson’s attempts to rile him further. Anderson gave up, annoyed with himself for getting carried away, now worried that Carter might just refuse to co-operate at all. Anderson – and the FBI – desperately needed some luck, a breakthrough that would help them confirm exactly who the major players were and precisely what they were trying to achieve. Even then, Anderson could sense difficulties ahead, no-one quite sure what would happen if – or when – they actually found damning evidence against America’s new President and his Secretary of Defence.

Carter’s meals were brought to him in his room, the bedroom door always locked, windows alarmed, an irregular check made even at night. Deactivating an alarm should be child’s play to Carter but he certainly hadn’t made any attempt to try and escape, his present level of fitness meaning he might just about reach the fence before collapsing – or that’s the impression he liked to give.

Anderson idly checked the window lock just to be certain, deciding to wait until Carter had finished his meal before leaving him in peace. Carter ate slowly, looking even more morose than normal, before downing his usual concoction of drugs with a resigned flourish.

Abruptly the bedroom door opened, Flores shutting the door softly behind him and leaning back on it, angry eyes glaring at Carter. Anderson watched confused, sensing that it was more than just Carter being difficult, his daily petulance a pain in the neck but not yet worthy of physical harm, that looking to be Flores’ likely intent.

Carter glanced at Flores, not able to hold his gaze, well aware that something was very wrong. “It’ll be Pat,” Carter said nervously, as though that explained everything.

“Quite right,” Flores confirmed, almost whispering. “He was kind enough to text; my wife’s phone.”

Anderson caught the fear in Flores’ voice, Carter simply staring wide-eyed and unwilling to say anything else just in case. It was obvious McDowell had issued some sort of threat, Anderson aware that Flores lived south of Washington and had a son at university somewhere on the East Coast but that was about it; he didn’t even know the wife’s name.

“A simple exchange,” Flores explained, a dangerous edge to his voice, still looking at Carter. “My wife for Carter.”

“She’s in no danger,” said Carter quickly, managing a hesitant smile. “Pat’s not like that.”

Flores remained silent, Anderson merely an unhappy spectator, feeling guilty that somehow it was all his fault. Carter’s faith in McDowell’s nature was definitely ill-placed, Flores well knowing that McDowell wouldn’t hesitate to kill if it served his needs.

“When?” Carter asked, still looking apprehensive but gaining confidence from Flores’ silence.

“Tomorrow morning,” replied Flores, for some reason turning towards Anderson. “You, me and one other agent; McDowell wants you to make the actual exchange – seems he doesn’t trust me.”

Anderson stared back at Flores, appalled as to what he was saying. “I get within a hundred yards of McDowell and I’m dead meat. Forget anything face to face; I just don’t trust him.”

“You don’t trust him,” repeated Carter unhelpfully, “Pat doesn’t trust the FBI – seems fair to me.”

“Just shut it,” said Anderson, realising that Carter’s attitude wasn’t helping. It would have been far better to have kept Carter in the dark and Flores obviously wasn’t thinking straight, too worried about his wife to know how best to cope. There was no suggestion from Flores that he had passed the problem higher-up the chain of command, and true to form McDowell was turning this into something far more personal than a simple battle of wills.

Anderson grabbed hold of Flores and pulled him towards the door, both of them needing to get away from Carter before the latter suffered a serious mishap. Flores started to resist, then nodded his understanding, it obvious a clear head was needed to plan out their part of the exchange. His wife’s life was dependent on Flores making the right decisions and at least they had a few hours to work something out, maybe even weigh the odds more in their favour.

Two hours later, Anderson was one of ten seated in the farmhouse kitchen, Flores back in control and working on a suitable counter. Rachel Flores had been snatched from their home outside Centreville, the house itself offering no clues, just left unlocked with Rachel’s car still parked on the drive. A trace on her phone proved equally unhelpful: it confirmed that McDowell’s text had been sent from Centreville but then nothing, the phone’s battery presumably removed.

McDowell’s instructions for the first part of the exchange had been explicit: two cars only, set off dead on eight, Anderson and Carter leading, stick to the speed limit, the route from Terrill specified as far as the Potomac. Further instructions would be sent once they reached D.C; any deviation, any tricks, any sign of other agents and it would be a no-show, Flores given just one chance to get it right.

With the FBI mole still unaccounted for, Flores had put his total trust in those agents stationed at Terrill. No-one else in the Bureau had been informed of the exchange or even the kidnapping, Flores prepared to worry about the potential repercussions once his wife was free; that meant no helicopter support and very limited resources. If the other agents had concerns about the exchange, then they kept such thoughts to themselves, all of them knowing Flores would do as much for them. McDowell was no doubt expecting that Flores would try something but he too had limited help – Lavergne and Preston certainly, but that might be about it.

Until they knew exactly where the exchange was to take place, then it was difficult to plan effectively, but at least Anderson was finally on board. His earlier reluctance was no more than a gut reaction, his various meetings with McDowell never turning out well. In practice, his desire to get even with the American was as compelling as anyone’s, even Special Agent Flores.

[]Chapter 6 – Wednesday, November 16th

Bolshoy Kamen, Russia – 02:11 Local Time; Tuesday 16:11 UTC

Daniil Chavkin jerked awake, confused as to why he was sitting and not lying in bed, his head throbbing as though from a hangover. He opened his eyes but saw only darkness, his bewilderment growing as he realised there was something covering his eyes. He made to speak but his mouth was taped shut; panicking, he realised his arms and legs were held tight, wrists also bound to the chair, fingers free to flex and clench but nothing more. A surge of adrenalin raced through his bloodstream and his whole body shook, Chavkin trying again to speak, wanting – needing – to know what was happening to him. He could remember his sleep being disturbed by a noise, then nothing, no sense of being moved or tied up, no clue as to whether his wife and son were close by.

“No need to panic,” said a soft female voice. “Relax and you’ll be fine; a few questions and then your life can return to normal.”

Chavkin took deep breaths through his nose, working hard to control the panic, becoming more conscious of his situation and his surroundings. It was chilly but not freezing, Chavkin sensing that he was still wearing his t-shirt and shorts. The chair had a familiar feel to it, high-backed and robust, Chavkin’s bare feet pressing against the smooth surface of a wooden floor. There were no sounds, other than his breathing, and the only smell was a faint hint of polish, Chavkin realising now that he was in his own study.

“That’s better,” said the woman. “Co-operate fully and no harm will come to you or your family.” He felt her head close to his, the woman now almost whispering. “Sometimes people choose to lie and stonewall; that’s when it becomes difficult. Someone always gets hurt as a result and there’s no reason to see a person you love suffer; a single scream of pain, a plea for mercy, and it will haunt you for the rest of your life. You might not care for your own life but the lives of your wife and son also depend on what happens here.”

The woman lapsed into silence, letting what she had said sink in. Chavkin was utterly defenceless, his family threatened, yet he had no idea why. He could be a selfish and stubborn man but few could doubt he doted on his family, his wife his first and only love; sixteen year-old Mark might be difficult, even on occasion defiant, but Chavkin was proud to be his father, proud of what one day he would become. Chavkin would do all that he could to protect them both and he fought to clear the confusion from his brain, not wanting to make a stupid mistake.

Abruptly the tape over his mouth was wrenched free. Chavkin let out a gasp but made no other sound, not prepared to give the woman the satisfaction of hearing him give vent to the expected outrage and indignation.

“I’m impressed,” said his captor. “No words of anger, no demand to be released – your family should be proud of you. You have a lovely house, Daniil Aleksandrovich, and a generous plot of land, so please shout and scream if it helps, we both know no-one will hear you.”

“I want to see my wife and son,” said Chavkin, the words coming out almost as a croak. “I need to know they’re okay.”

“Not yet; as I said, answer my questions truthfully and no harm will come to you or your family. It’s nothing that difficult and we already know most of what happened at Zvezda, so there is no point in lying; do so and it will go hard for your son and your wife – my associate tends to be over-zealous in such matters.”

Chavkin was coming to terms with what the woman might want while struggling to work out whether she was FSB or some foreign agency. She spoke with a self-assurance that was difficult to ignore and although tainted by a good few years in Moscow, her accent was from somewhere not too far away. Chavkin still didn’t want to believe his life and those of his family were truly on the line but nor was he willing to take some foolish risk; whatever he ended up saying, there was no guarantee any of them would be left alive to tell the tale. He seemed to be alone in the study with the woman, no proof given that his family were also being held captive or even whether they were still in the house.

“Let me see my wife and son,” he repeated, more forcefully this time. “Otherwise you get nothing.”

There was a long pause, Chavkin hearing the study door open, the woman talking quietly to someone else. “Very well,” she said finally, moving to stand behind Chavkin. “See, but that’s all I can offer; don’t try to speak.”

Chavkin felt a hand on his forehead and suddenly his eyes were uncovered. The study was in semi-darkness, Chavkin facing the open doorway and able to see into the lounge area beyond, the room lights dimmed and casting a dull glow over the two figures taped to a pair of chairs. Both were blindfolded, black tape covering their mouths and they sat with heads bowed, breathing heavily. Chavkin could see no-one else in the room but sensed someone just out of view.

Strong hands forced Chavkin’s head rigid. “Eyes straight ahead, Daniil Aleksandrovich.”

He didn’t fight and was just relieved to know his family were alright. His wife lifted her head, reacting to the woman’s words. She tried to speak, her obvious distress affecting Chavkin more than he expected, tears starting to well up.

Chavkin’s blindfold was replaced, the study door slamming shut an instant later. “They’re safe for now,” reiterated his captor. “All I ask in return is the truth, Daniil Aleksandrovich.”

“Get on with it then,” spat out Chavkin, his fear slowly being replaced by a mix of anger and bitterness: he had no wish to help his captor but he could see no way of it ending happily unless he did.

“Let’s start with something very simple,” said the woman pleasantly. “How long have you been Senior Project Director at Zvezda?”

“Four years,” Chavkin muttered.

“And that makes you responsible for overseeing all of the major repairs and refits that the shipyard takes on?”

Chavkin was now certain where all this was leading and despite the chilly atmosphere of the study, the sweat started to drip down his face. “Not every single one; it depends on the type of work involved.”

“You’re too modest and I know you worked on the recent refit of a submarine. I simply wish to confirm the identity of those who authorised it and precisely what was involved.” The tone was deliberately encouraging, with no hint as to the implicit dangers of such a question.

“You’re FSB,” Chavkin said, making it a statement of fact. “This is a mistake; check with Moscow, I have always done everything asked of me.”

It was several seconds before the woman responded, Chavkin sensing her face close to his. “Of course you have, Daniil Aleksandrovich,” she said softly. “We both know it wasn’t a Chinese boat that attacked the Americans but a 633 rebuilt at Zvezda; now Moscow needs someone to blame.”

Chavkin had his response ready, letting the woman’s words hang for a few brief seconds as though confused by them. “There was no such refit; that class were all decommissioned years ago.”

“You’re sure of that,” said the woman softly, a dangerous edge to her voice.

“The only submarine at Zvezda is a damaged Varshavyanka,” Chavkin replied, sounding breathless. “There was a refit to a Paltus-class over the summer but that was completed late October.”

There was a long pause before the woman spoke. “You disappoint me, Daniil Aleksandrovich. I thought we understood each other; now one of your family will have to suffer the consequences. Your son, I think; I imagine he’ll still be able to walk once they replace the knee. Would you care to watch?”

Chavkin felt a chill shiver of despair run down his spine, mind numbed by his captor’s words. “It’s the truth! The refit was to a Paltus-877 not a decrepit 633; I have no reason to lie!”

He felt the draught as the study door was opened once more, the woman again talking to someone, her words indistinct. The blindfold was pulled from his eyes and Chavkin blinked away the tears to see his son sitting upright, struggling against his bonds; beside him knelt a dark-suited figure, handgun hovering above his son’s right knee.

“I’ll ask again,” said the woman, standing behind him. “I just need you to confirm the hull number. Lie and your son will suffer; then we’ll move on to your wife.”

Chavkin wanted to protest and argue, to show at least some fight, but not at the expense of his family and he simply couldn’t take the risk that the woman would carry out her threat.

“Yes, alright, it was a 633!” The panic sounded clearly in his voice, Chavkin regretting his futile attempt at defiance. “Please don’t hurt my family,” he pleaded. “I’ll give you whatever you want.”

“Hull number?” insisted the woman.

“C-102.” Chavkin was transfixed by the gun, thankful to hear the woman telling her associate to wait. The blindfold was pulled back down over his eyes, Chavkin trying to shake it aside, desperate to see that his son was safe.

“No more lies, Daniil Aleksandrovich; next time, I won’t be so forgiving.”

No secret was worth the mutilation of his son and with the woman prompting him for specific facts, the truth came tumbling out. The decommissioned 633 had spent a full six months being turned into an acoustic replica of a Chinese Ming-class, one of the massive warehouses converted to ensure the American and Chinese satellites had learnt nothing of Zvezda’s covert role. A decoy submarine had been used to explain the additional work, with everyone subject to intense security checks and random searches, even the senior staff.

Chavkin was quickly growing exhausted, terrified that whatever he said it still wouldn’t be enough to save them. Once the barrier to his resolve had been removed, there seemed little point in holding back. Names, contacts, dates: Chavkin freely revealed all of what he knew but he had no way of sensing how his revelations were being received – no visual clues to help him judge whether his family would be safe.

“And your only direct contact with Moscow was through Evgeny Sukhov?” His captor seemed determined to drag out every useful fact, uncaring as to Chavkin’s state of mind.

“He wanted regular updates, that was all,” Chavkin confirmed, his voice hoarse.

“Tell me about the crew of the submarine. Were they all regular navy personnel?”

“I guess so; the crew were kept isolated and, apart from during the shake-down cruise in September, personal contact with anyone from Zvezda was rare. I saw a few of the crew from a distance but that was it.”

The woman stayed silent, seemingly mulling over everything Chavkin had said. He had lost all track of time, guessing that it was around three in the morning and he was desperate for a piss. His captor had told him to go where he was but Chavkin was determined to hang on for as long as he could, his present predicament already bad enough without him wetting himself.

“You’ve done well, Daniil Aleksandrovich. It’s unfortunate you lied at the beginning; I fear my associate will expect some form of recompense.”

“I’ve answered your every question,” said Chavkin desperately. “With nothing held back – what more do you want?”

“Something… anything… just one final secret to put against the safety of your family; surely that’s not too much to expect?”

Chavkin let out a sob of despair, “I’ve told you everything I know! All you offer in return is more threats; I can’t even go for a piss.” He knew he was close to collapse, unable even to think straight.

“Give me what I ask and I promise you and your family will not be harmed. I can’t release you but it won’t take you more than an hour to break free. Think hard, Daniil Aleksandrovich and this can all be over.”

Chavkin stayed silent, not sure what to believe, daring to hope yet knowing he still had to give the woman something. The strained silence stretched out, office gossip his only recourse.

“None of us knew the purpose of the refit,” he said softly. “The Navy made sure all the relevant paper records and files were destroyed; a couple of men were caught with a phone and we never saw them again but no-one said anything – the double pay and bonuses were a good enough reason to stay silent.”

Chavkin was skirting around what he wanted to say but for once the woman seemed to understand the need for patience. He still couldn’t be certain that it would be enough to save his family or even if it would merely seal their fate.

“Once the refit was complete,” Chavkin continued, “the rumours started. The boat even a new name, Koschei; its captain reputed to be Valeri Karenin.”

It might be just hearsay but Karenin’s reputation somehow fitted in with the nature of the refit. He had gained a certain notoriety for his actions in the Baltic the previous year and had been publicly censured, the resultant inquiry held behind closed doors. Whether simply inept or a convenient scapegoat, Karenin had been fortunate not to have been court-martialled, demotion and a desk job his eventual punishment.

Chavkin sensed the woman wasn’t sure whether to believe him, perhaps thinking Valeri Karenin was nothing more than a well-known name to make it sound vaguely credible. But it was all he had left to offer, a possible truth better than merely staying silent.

“You have done well, Daniil Aleksandrovich.” For once the woman sounded pleased, Chavkin daring to hope that he had done enough.

“Some may not understand that you had no choice,” she continued. “And a few bruises and a sore head could well be the least of your worries. For the sake of your family, you might be better to forget what has happened here…”

 

USS Benfold – 14:40 Local Time; 06:40 UTC

The Galene was hunting down yet another sonar anomaly, Tanner temporarily abandoning the standard search pattern simply because the trace looked more promising than anything he’d seen so far. For the moment he focused on one specific camera image, the light from the ROV probing along the dark recesses of the sea bed, the depth counter hovering at around 3200 metres. It was inevitably a slow and painstaking task but not especially boring, the search always hinting at the promise of success before bringing Tanner back to reality when it turned out to be something typically mundane.

Tanner sensed that the Galene was already on borrowed time, the crew of the USS Benfold called to General Quarters just after dawn before settling back to a heightened alert. Commander Vaughn was still left with the problem of two mutually incompatible choices, that of protecting his ship and completing his mission. Once the Galene was deployed, she severely restricted the destroyer’s defensive capabilities, Vaughn given the leeway to abandon the ROV should it be necessary. The fact that China’s research ship, Ocean Two, was keeping station not far from the Benfold was regarded by Washington as a dubious incentive to continue the Galene’s search, the U.S. still working out its options, the identity of the submarine now almost becoming an irrelevance.

The image on the screen in front of Tanner flickered and a rounded shape slowly emerged out of the gloom. Tanner instantly increased the magnification, something about the image just looking artificial. As the ROV crept closer, the other sensors confirmed his suspicion – definitely metallic, the anomaly gradually becoming more defined.

Within seconds, Tanner was able to pick out the specifics of the forward torpedo tubes and a straight-edged bow, the Ming-class lacking the teardrop design of modern submarines. Necessity had ensured that Tanner now had a clearer idea as to the complex nature of his task and the possibility that the submarine might be a Russian-built clone had added a significant element of spice to the task in hand.

Although Tanner was concentrating hard, he sensed a disturbance around him, the flurry of orders more demanding than usual. Abruptly, there was a hand on his shoulder, Commander Vaughn standing close, staring down at the screen.

“Well done, Mr Tanner,” Vaughn said quietly. “Sadly, I fear we’re a little late.”

“A couple of hours,” replied Tanner, “and I might have some answers. If the boat’s Russian, we could well find something conclusive fairly quickly.”

“It’s too risky, I’m afraid. Two more Chinese ships look to be heading our way and we’re too vulnerable with the Galene deployed. If we don’t abort the dive, they’ll know we’ve found something.” Vaughn shrugged, “Maybe they’ll check us out and then go find someone else to harass; in which case, Mr Tanner, you can have your couple of hours… How quickly can you get the Galene aboard?”

Tanner kept his disappointment to himself, knowing it was pointless arguing. “Ninety minutes; an hour at a push.”

“As quickly as you can, Mr Tanner.”

Tanner nodded and with a final glance at the submarine turned the Galene towards the USS Benfold. Coop arrived soon after, control of the ROV transferred to the main unit on the flight deck. The first stage was to pilot the Galene back into its garage: known more formally as the Tether Management System or TMS, the Galene used it as a temporary haven and a protective shell during the launch and recovery phases. The TMS was in turn connected to the winch by six hundred metres of cable and, depending upon the sea state, the retrieval operation tended to be a delicate and occasionally nerve-wracking experience, with damage to the TMS, the winch or even the Benfold always a possibility.

For now the sea was a flat calm, the air humid and oppressive, a storm forecast for early evening. Tanner could see Ocean Two no more than half-a-mile away, waiting patiently whilst her underwater vehicle carried out its own search. So far, they hadn’t actually trodden on each other’s toes but the Chinese ROV could operate for longer and cover more of the sea bed per hour than the Galene, and Tanner guessed it wouldn’t take more than a few days before the Chinese also found the wreck. If the submarine was Russian then the arrival of more Chinese warships was counter-productive, preventing the U.S. from obtaining the necessary evidence to prove the boat’s origins. Or maybe that was the plan, with China needing to cover-up its own lies.

The Galene was safely hoisted aboard just outside of Tanner’s sixty minute estimate, the new arrivals – one frigate, one destroyer – taking station between Ocean Two and the Benfold, the South China Sea seeming rather more claustrophobic than it had been an hour earlier.

Tanner headed back to the CIC, wanting to re-examine the latest set of data, hoping that there might still be something useful to be found, one of the Galene’s five cameras perhaps picking out something unexpected. In practice that meant almost an hour’s worth of recordings, Tanner scrolling through the sequence of images slowly and meticulously, zooming in on certain areas to compare the results with the U.S. Navy’s database on China’s Ming-class. Everything the Galene recorded – whether thought relevant or not – was automatically passed on to Washington and the Office of Naval Intelligence, the ONI’s experts carrying out their own more detailed analysis. So far the ONI had left Tanner to his own devices but with the discovery of the submarine that would undoubtedly change, specific sectors of the boat likely to be of particular interest.

Without warning Tanner’s ears were blasted with the pulsing beat of the alarm; even as the loudspeaker called the crew to Battle Stations, the throb of the engines magnified, the Benfold surging ahead in response to some threat.

Tanner glanced around, not sure whether his presence in the Combat Information Centre was a problem or not, unsure what to do. In the end it seemed best to sit tight and do nothing.

The Captain’s concern was focused on a pair of approaching J-15 fighters rather than the two Chinese warships, Commander Vaughn having to assume an attack was imminent. China and the U.S. had agreed to suspend air patrols near to areas of potential conflict, and Tanner was starting to worry as to why the Benfold’s lonely vigil was considered the exception, the destroyer now seriously outnumbered.

Tanner could more or less work out what was happening from the orders given, Vaughn and the Tactical Action Officer prepared for the worst but waiting for the Chinese to make the first aggressive move. Four Hornets from the carrier Gerald Ford would arrive to join the party within minutes, Tanner not the only one unsure what then might happen.

Even inside the well-insulated capsule of the CIC, Tanner heard the fly-by of the Chinese fighters, the two aircraft choosing to sweep in close overhead and trusting the Benfold not to blow them out of the sky.

They circled back round in a wide arc, lining up for a second mock attack. The radar plot revealed the Hornets racing in from the south-east, two angling towards the J-15 fighters, the second pair heading for the Chinese destroyer.

The six aircraft weaved through the sky, one of the Hornets practising a low-level attack against the destroyer before pulling sharply away. It was all becoming a dangerous game of chicken, the likelihood of a mistake increasing with every risky manoeuvre.

Abruptly, the J-15s turned north, their presence more of a provocation than a threat. A pair of Hornets started to follow before abandoning the chase, their message duly noted and understood.

The tension in the CIC noticeably eased and even though the Benfold had received a reprieve, Tanner wasn’t certain the Galene would be allowed to complete her task. Vaughn was generous enough to seek Tanner’s opinion before consulting with his superiors, the fact they had found the submarine surely counting for something.

Twenty minutes later, Tanner had his answer – the Galene still fully employed, Commander Vaughn’s persuasive abilities eventually winning through. China had tried to intimidate and bully, determined not to share the submarine’s secrets; now it was simply a race to the finish.

 

[]Beijing – 18:49 Local time; 10:49 UTC

The small restaurant was on a narrow lane close to the shopping magnet that was Qianmen Street, the tourists still spending their money after first stopping off at one of the many other attractions no more than a few minutes’ walk away. The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the Temple of Heaven – there were a dozen or more essential highlights within a kilometre for Beijing’s millions of visitors to enjoy, the scores of bars and restaurants seemingly always busy, whatever the hour.

General Liang ignored the main restaurant area and took the steep stairs up to the third floor. He knew he was being watched every step of the way but there was no concern written on his face – after all, some of the watchers were his people, each of them well aware of the implicit dangers of the next few hours. In a world so close to war, it was necessary to take the occasional risk, this merely the first of four such meetings planned for the days ahead.

Liang followed a narrow corridor to a room at the rear. Two guards stood outside; neither were Liang’s men, one more Caucasian than Chinese, their guns still as yet hidden. It was a clear sign that lack of trust remained a key issue, the mistakes of the past impossible to ignore; nevertheless, Liang’s very presence here proved a commitment of sorts had been made.

As to whether that would be enough was unclear. No promises had been given or asked for, Liang having no idea as to the identity or even the number of those tasked to join him there. Not that it mattered and the Politburo was fully prepared to negotiate with anyone, even the Americans, if it were to China’s advantage. While many in the Politburo remained unconvinced as to the wisdom of such talks, they were willing to delay judgement, Liang an obvious scapegoat should it all turn out badly.

One of the guards held the door open as Liang approached, a respectful nod a far more encouraging sign that the anticipated body search. He entered a small room, discreet lighting revealing beige walls broken-up by carved wooden panels. In its centre stood a circular table with just two chairs, a long cabinet the only other item of furniture.

Liang moved to stand behind one of the chairs, impatient to begin and trusting that he wouldn’t be kept waiting for long. It was barely a minute before he heard the tap of a cane along the corridor outside and a portly man crossed the threshold, breathing heavily as he struggled into the nearest chair. He barely even glanced at Liang, more concerned with getting himself comfortable, the cane delicately balanced against the edge of the table.

The normal business etiquette involving introductions also seemed to have been abandoned and Liang simply sat down, waiting whilst the other man recovered from his exertions. Mid-sixties, his features suggested he would be more at home in Ulaanbaatar than Beijing, the Mongolian influence confirmed as soon as he spoke.

“My apologies, General Liang; my body and stairs are not compatible at the best of times.” He sucked in a wheezing breath before continuing, “My name is Dagvyn Sharav, sometime entrepreneur and arms dealer. I’m told your colleagues in the Ministry of State Security have a rather thick file on me; sadly, most of it is true, although these days I live a rather more sedate existence.” He finished with a spate of coughing, silk handkerchief pressed to his lips.

Liang felt a strange sense of rapport with his new adversary, immediately liking the man and knowing that he would be foolish to underestimate Sharav. Yet he hadn’t the time to waste on pleasantries, needing to know how much influence Sharav might actually wield.

“I’m grateful for the introduction,” said Liang with a polite smile. “But I’m more concerned as to whether you are the man with the power to strike a permanent deal.”

Sharav pulled a second brightly coloured handkerchief from his pocket, cleaning the thick lenses of his spectacles before choosing to answer, his every action slow and deliberate. “I have no such power, General. I listen and make suitable recommendations; that is all. We are the same in that respect, no?”

“Perhaps,” replied Liang. “I at least have come with some specific proposals to put on the table.” He struggled to keep his frustration in check, unhappy that yet another layer of diplomacy would delay any chance of real progress. “You are not quite what I expected,” he said, instantly regretting his choice of words.

Sharav had managed to control his heaving chest, able now to smile at Liang’s discomfiture. “An overweight, half-blind and rheumatic Mongolian – in your shoes, I’d be disappointed too.” The words came in short rushed phrases, Sharav still struggling to breathe. “No doubt you anticipated a professional diplomat or a high-level politician, someone who would listen politely while you promised the impossible; I’m not even the right nationality.” Sharav’s crooked smile grew ever wider, “That’s what makes me the ideal negotiator. I have no preconceptions, no prejudice as to what is right or fair; if it is a good deal, then I will simply say so. And the fact Beijing is desperate to find some form of agreement would seem to put my clients at a distinct advantage.”

“We both have to sell any agreement to a sceptical audience,” said Liang. “If either side is seen to have lost face then we are wasting each other’s time. Compromise can be a way forward to something far greater, where both parties are seen to have won something worthwhile.”

“Well said, General,” Sharav acknowledged with a smile, “but please spare me the rousing speeches. Let’s just focus on what the Politburo is prepared to offer.”

Liang eased himself back in his chair, getting himself comfortable for the long haul of bluster and debate. China desperately needed to reduce the number of threats arrayed against it but not at any cost. Some in Beijing expected little more than a second-rate agreement that could be passed off as a historic victory, however improbable, and the media were well used to twisting a story to best advantage. Yet Liang knew that still wouldn’t be enough to persuade the many doubters in the Politburo and he needed far more from Sharav and his clients than China had any right to expect.

It was the best part of three hours before the debate moved away from the abstract and on towards an uncertain future. Sharav’s influence over those who would make the key decisions was debatable but Liang was regaining his optimism of earlier, impressed by Sharav’s grasp of the geopolitical nuances of even a minor concession.

If it ever came to anything worthwhile, then it would be a compromise where both sides would be willing to take the risk despite knowing that they had given far too much in exchange. If their respective masters followed the line of argument and prevarication, then the greater the chance it would all come to nothing, and whatever agreement Sharav and Liang might hammer out between them could easily be overtaken by events elsewhere.

For Liang this was just the first stage of the Politburo’s complex strategy to blunt the various threats, other equally difficult promises needing to be made. Ultimate success would depend on Beijing’s ability to meddle outside of China’s borders, and at the very least they had to delay the threatened squeeze from both north and south.

Liang had his own more personal doubts, wondering whether it was self-interest or cowardice to want to avoid a fight. He was not someone who had ever experienced war, but he was sensitive enough to abhor such needless sacrifice. If he could save a hundred lives that would be something; if he could save a thousand then that would be a miracle.

 

Eastern United States – 08:00 Local Time; 13:00 UTC

The two car convoy set off exactly at eight: two black SUVs, no markings. Anderson led with Carter in the passenger seat handcuffed to the door, a week’s supply of pain killers and other drugs stuffed into his jacket pockets – Anderson would have let Carter take his chances but Flores had been more amenable, even resisting the temptation to add in a tracking device.

An anxious Flores followed in the second car, another agent driving. Five more unmarked vehicles were in position in and around Washington, everyone impatient to discover exactly where the exchange would take place; even if McDowell dragged out revealing the final location then each text sent could be traced back to specific cell towers, perhaps giving Flores’ team a few minutes advantage, time enough to get some more agents into place.

They had to assume that McDowell was in turn tracking them, Flores not willing to risk his wife’s life with some misjudgement or a stupid mistake. He had dealt with several hostage situations and not all had ended happily, patience an essential ingredient for success. Not an easy ask under the circumstances, Flores having no choice but to rely upon Anderson to play his part, McDowell seeming to have more faith in him than anyone from the FBI – or perhaps he would just be less of a problem should the shit actually hit the fan.

The traffic on Interstate 95 was typically heavy for the time of day, Anderson not too sure whether McDowell had made allowances for such problems or even if it mattered. For the first stretch Carter tried making conversation but he quickly gave up once it became clear Anderson wasn’t interested and the rest of the journey towards the Potomac was made in relative silence. Contact with Flores was via an earpiece and lapel microphone, Anderson also wearing the essential of a bullet-proof vest. He perhaps should have waited until the actual exchange before putting it on but Anderson was wary of McDowell doing the unexpected, worried that the SUV might suddenly find itself rammed or blocked in.

For once, McDowell had decided to stick to the script, the journey north a routine rush-hour crawl with it taking almost two hours before the Pentagon appeared to the left, the bridge over the Potomac straight ahead.

“Follow 395 onto 695,” announced Flores’ voice in Anderson’s ear.

“395 onto 695,” Anderson repeated. The route meant nothing to him, the satnav indicating that they would be turning east towards the Washington Navy Yard. He was having to concentrate hard, a quick glimpse in the mirror showing that Flores was still on his tail.

“Exit 2B for 295 north.”

Anderson could feel the stress beginning to build, uncomfortable with having to make belated changes into the correct lane. If Flores had worked out where they were going then he wasn’t letting on, the phone trace likely to confirm that someone was following close behind. The freeway couldn’t seem to make up its mind how many lanes it wanted to be, vehicles continually merging from the left, the signs seeming to suggest either Pennsylvania Avenue or Andrews Air Force Base.

The west exit came and went, the traffic now much lighter than before. Anderson kept his speed as near fifty as he could, the road taking them north-east, following the Anacostia River.

“It’s Kenilworth Park,” muttered Flores. “Take the Burroughs Avenue exit, then Deane Avenue through the park.”

Anderson did as he was told, using the satnav as a guide, the park’s access road scything through the park, acres of flat and open ground to the right, ideal for a few games of football.

A final instruction from Flores and Anderson pulled over onto the grass, the second SUV halting directly behind. Flores immediately jumped out, striding across to help Anderson get Carter out into the open, keen to emphasise to those watching that he was sticking to his part of the bargain. The park area looked to be virtually empty, the sky overcast with a crisp breeze making it feel distinctly cold.

Anderson stood and nervously scanned the treeline to the north: there were some three hundred yards of open ground before the first scattering of trees and beyond them the Anacostia River. The exchange was supposed to follow the classic pattern and take place roughly in the centre of the play area – just Anderson, Carter, McDowell and Rachel Flores.

“Let’s get on with it,” encouraged Flores, gesturing at Anderson to help Carter. The latter was already looking a little pasty, right hand resting on the SUV for support, no apparent need for handcuffs.

A reluctant Anderson grabbed Carter’s left arm, guiding him forward, the two of them trudging towards the far-off trees. Flores and the second agent waited beside the two SUVs, both using binoculars to scan the park to the north, their FBI jackets a warning to any casual observer that something unusual was happening. To both left and right, even behind them, was a swathe of open ground before a belt of close packed trees – certainly plenty of cover for a sniper.

That was just one aspect of many that worried Anderson about the whole sorry experience. Lavergne had already proved he could hit a moving human target at four hundred yards and he found himself checking for the tell-tale laser dot on his chest; not that Lavergne would make it that obvious, especially if it seemed likely the FBI might be shooting back.

Carter was finding it hard going: the ground might be grass-covered and flat but today was the first time he’d walked more than ten yards since he’d been shot. Anderson slowed, their pace now barely a shuffle.

They were close to halfway to the treeline. Away to the right a woman was walking her dog, a couple of joggers further on. If any of them thought it odd to see two men – one in a bullet-proof vest, the other obviously ill – walking at a snail’s pace towards nowhere in particular, then they politely didn’t give them a second glance. Maybe all three were FBI, some of the other agents surely having had enough time to have reached the park; the addition of a dog was an unexpected if clever ploy, or maybe Anderson was just being overly hopeful.

“That’s far enough,” said Flores’ voice in his ear. Anderson stopped and studied the trees opposite, finally noticing two figures striding out from away to his left; one all too obviously was McDowell, his six-foot four frame dwarfing Flores’ wife.

Carter seemed to perk up immediately, his back straightening, a smile of relief touching his lips. Anderson merely watched in silence, trying not to say something he might later regret. One consolation was that McDowell’s bruises looked worse than Anderson’s and he was walking more stiffly than usual. Rachel Flores seemed to be holding up well, a little dishevelled but no sign she’d been hurt, hands not even tied.

McDowell halted some ten feet away, giving a brief nod of welcome to Carter. “You’re looking better than I thought possible, Jon; I’m pleased to see Mike’s been taking good care of you.”

Anderson interrupted before Carter could respond. “Let’s just make the exchange,” he said harshly. “That’s what we’re all here for.”

“Of course, Mike,” McDowell said, an amused edge to his voice, “I know the rules. I was just hoping we could discuss something of mutual benefit to both of us.”

“He’s up to something,” muttered Flores, sounding agitated. “Remember why you’re here.”

Anderson was finding it difficult coping with McDowell let alone having Flores whispering instructions in his ear and he pulled the earpiece out in frustration. “Rachel first; then if you want to explain why you’re murdering the odd politician, I’m all ears.”

McDowell gave Anderson a thoughtful look as though working out whether to comply. “No tricks, Mike; that vest won’t do you any good if Lavergne goes for a head shot.”

Anderson hardly needed the pointed reminder. “Just stop fucking around and let Rachel Flores go,” he said, eyes warily watching McDowell’s every move.

McDowell acknowledged Anderson’s words with a shrug, gently pushing Flores’ wife forward, trusting in Anderson to follow suit.

For a brief moment Anderson hesitated, then he released Carter’s arm. Rachel somehow stopped herself from running and Anderson gestured at her to keep walking towards the two SUVs. Carter instantly made a dramatic recovery, striding out to join McDowell, a glance back and a broad smile merely another annoyance to Anderson.

McDowell kept his greeting to a minimum, whispering quickly to Carter, the latter responding in kind, his expression slowly returning to one of concern. Finally he stood a pace back from McDowell looking uncomfortable, hands thrust into his jeans.

Anderson also needed to put his trust in someone else; not just McDowell but also Ray Flores, and the only thing stopping the FBI from trying to apprehend McDowell was the threat that Anderson’s future wellbeing would be at risk.

“I regret needing to involve Flores’ wife,” McDowell said quietly. “Make sure he understands that.”

Anderson glanced behind him to check that Rachel had reached safety before answering. “At least she’s better off than Karen Ritter,” he said, choosing to be petty. “Did you regret killing her?”

McDowell stayed silent, a brief hint of annoyance showing in his eyes. Anderson duly noted the fact, pleased that at least he’d got some sort of reaction. “I think we’re done here,” he said curtly, turning to leave.

“Two names,” said McDowell quickly. “Between them, they’ll give you everything you want. Just drop all charges against Jon; the rest of us will take our chances.”

Anderson turned back, not sure he had heard correctly and instantly suspicious of anything freely offered by someone as devious as McDowell. Carter’s smile had returned, McDowell not just a better negotiator than him but able to offer far more in exchange.

“That’s seems unusually noble of you, Pat. What exactly is in it for you?”

McDowell shrugged, picking his words carefully, “I owe Jon a favour; let’s just leave it at that.”

Anderson remained sceptical and he still needed to understand exactly what was on offer. “Thorn and Deangelo; they’re the only two names the FBI will settle for.”

“I know nothing about them,” said McDowell with emphasis. “Banker and FBI contact – that’s your two names.”

Anderson was conscious that their conversation was starting to draw an audience, with several bystanders watching them away to his right; it was also getting noisier, shouts and cheers from further back. By now there had to be more of Flores’ team in the park but for some reason McDowell didn’t seem in any hurry.

“Check with Flores,” advised McDowell helpfully.

Anderson grimaced and replaced the earpiece, not too sure how Flores would react to being ignored. “Did you get all that?”

“Banker plus agent,” Flores shot back. “Confirm that’s exactly what he’s offering.”

McDowell merely nodded when Anderson repeated the question, Flores able to pick up the response through his binoculars.

“Very well,” muttered Flores unhappily, “it’s the best we can do…”

The clamour to Anderson’s right was getting far louder, a game of soccer starting up. The eldest player was no more than thirty, it seeming to be men versus women, the play moving inexorably closer.

“Names?” Anderson encouraged.

McDowell seemed to want to delay, Anderson suddenly realising that the soccer game was a McDowell-inspired diversion to give him a chance to slip away, the threat to shoot Anderson maybe not considered enough of a deterrent.

McDowell spoke softly to Carter, something far more complex than two names and a simple goodbye, it taking a full minute. Once Carter nodded in understanding, McDowell gently pushed him towards Anderson.

“Jon will give you the names once he’s got his guarantee,” said McDowell. “Just find someone with rather more authority than Special Agent Flores… Give it thirty seconds, Mike; otherwise Lavergne might just think you’re trying something.”

The soccer ball suddenly landed just a few yards away, a half-a-dozen players swarming around it. McDowell loped away, leaving Anderson and Carter standing like statues, unsure quite what to do, Anderson for one not wanting to risk a bullet.

He gave it until Flores started bellowing in his ear, then shoved Carter towards the access road, not bothering to offer a helping hand. Assuming McDowell had been true to his word then the outcome was certainly one Anderson would have settled for earlier that morning. Flores too had to be happy that it had ended with his wife freed and unhurt.

Whether Paul Jensen would feel quite the same about the handling of the exchange was open to question and Flores’ lack of consultation was unlikely to be ignored, the embarrassment of a hefty slap on the wrist perhaps the best he could hope for.

  • * *

Jensen had read Flores’ initial report with mixed feelings, impressed by his ability to deal with everything in such a detached way, angry that he had let the opportunity to catch McDowell pass; there was outrage too that McDowell had felt the need to involve Flores’ wife. Nevertheless, while McDowell’s methods were unfortunate, his willingness to betray two of his fellow conspirators represented the breakthrough Jensen had been so desperate to achieve and for that at least he should be grateful – if not to McDowell, then perhaps Rachel Flores.

Carter had duly received his formal guarantee, his preferred destination of Panama entirely dependent upon the authenticity of the two names; however, there was now little doubt that McDowell had been true to his word. In the end, the identity of his FBI contact had come as no real surprise, Special Agent Bill Yorke already near the top of a shortlist of just five, twenty-three years unblemished service now counting for nothing. Such easy confirmation had thus given added credence to McDowell’s second – and possibly more important – offering.

David Solomon was a New York-based hedge fund manager, someone whose profile would never have singled him out as being worthy of a second look. His personal wealth was significant, several million at least, but it perhaps wasn’t enough for Solomon to have funded the conspiracy by himself; more likely he was simply an intermediary, his every financial transaction and those involving his clients now under intense scrutiny.

Ritter, Yorke and Solomon – the minor players were gradually becoming known and a relieved Jensen finally felt they were making progress, the release of Jon Carter a worthwhile exchange in order to spur the investigation forward.

Despite there being no definitive evidence as yet, it seemed certain that Neil Ritter was also some sort of go-between, meetings with Washington’s political elite – including Mayor Henry – a normal part of his weekly routine. Yet even if the task force could link him to Thorn and eventually McDowell, it still wouldn’t be enough to prove a McDowell-Thorn conspiracy: a score of other politicians had met with Ritter over the past month – were they all to be considered equally guilty?

The investigation into Mayor Eugene Henry remained a futile search for something incriminating: no hint of any link to McDowell, phone and email records revealing nothing out of the ordinary. The Mayor’s security detail was provided by the D.C. police, a dozen officers for whom it was second-nature to check for signs of a tail; so far they had given no indication that they were aware the FBI were targeting Henry, but by their very nature the bodyguards’ standard precautions were hardly designed to give the surveillance team an easy ride.

The pursuit of Dick Thorn was similarly turning into a morass of conjecture and paranoia, and virtually everyone on Thorn’s contact list had some degree of political or military influence. Jensen had been foolish to expect anything less, and the fact Thorn was on first-name terms with a general or two and popular with the public was hardly good reason to suspect him of planning something underhand. Few in the Intelligence Community really believed a full-scale military takeover could ever succeed, the American people not that easily pushed around, and while many might be dissatisfied with certain aspects of democracy, specifically Congress, it was too ingrained a principle to seriously contemplate change.

Deangelo’s decisive actions against China had also been exactly what Thorn’s supporters had demanded and Jensen was now convinced his fears of an imminent coup were exaggerated, the joint task force investigation into Thorn needing to be more focused on past actions than any imaginary future concerns.

It was just one of various revisions having to be made, Jensen particularly irritated by Flores’s reckless disregard for protocol and the fact that Anderson’s personal feud with McDowell now directly involved members of the FBI. Flores’ ability to remain detached was certainly open to question and, in retrospect, Jensen’s continued faith in him had been unwise – three times Flores had had McDowell within his grasp and each time he had managed to slip away.

Jensen also had significant doubts about Anderson; his usefulness was increasingly debatable and the Englishman was becoming party to far too many secrets, the FBI’s ability to prevent any future revelations uncertain. And with Carter’s role finished, what purpose did Anderson – and indeed Terrill – actually serve? Anderson had clearly failed to anticipate McDowell’s next move and all he’d really achieved with Carter was to confirm that the campaign against Congress was primarily based on exaggeration and lies. Two government officials had been disciplined as a result but it was little enough to justify Anderson’s continued employment.

Public frustration with Congress showed no signs of ending anytime soon, it resurfacing once it became clear that Dick Thorn would struggle to be confirmed as Secretary of Defence; there were no second chances and unless Deangelo could guarantee a majority vote in the Senate, he was unwilling to take the risk of Thorn being rejected. Ryan Burgess had met no such problems, the committee hearings routine, and he had been duly confirmed as Secretary of State on the Tuesday with barely a murmur of dissent.

Jensen’s dossier of evidence as to a conspiracy against both President Cavanagh and Congress was growing steadily, virtually all of it circumstantial, and he was still undecided what he would do if the contents ever moved on from conjecture to become something rather more convincing; even now it seemed unlikely that they would ever find irrefutable proof, more a pattern of evidence that would merely indicate differing levels of guilt, with Thorn and Henry the prime movers alongside McDowell.

But that didn’t seem to include Bob Deangelo. Flores and his team had so far found nothing to directly implicate Deangelo, other than the fact that – like most of his peers – he knew Neil Ritter; even his relationship with Thorn wasn’t considered to be that close. No rumours of clandestine meetings, no links with anyone on Jensen’s target list, no past record of manipulating his way into power – Deangelo’s involvement in the conspiracy was clearly unproven.

Jensen had been surprised but also reassured, and he could hardly be accused of a cover-up if he simply chose to pass the dossier on to the President. Not that Deangelo would be left with any easy choices, the Administration somehow needing to maintain its veneer of stability while somehow ridding itself of Thorn.

There was one other possibility that Jensen had never thought he would consider, it almost a cowardly response to the problems the dossier would unleash. He could simply bury it.

The combination of Deangelo and Thorn was as yet unproven but at least it seemed to offer the chance of a robust and effective Administration, and one better able than its predecessor to stand up to China. Deangelo’s dilemma of justice or expediency was now equally relevant to Jensen, the consequences of the righteous approach far too complex to predict.

For the moment it was nothing more than a tempting option and Jensen put the thought to one side, trusting that the decision would be obvious nearer the time. So far only two of those named in the dossier were in the military, both in Naval Intelligence, and Jensen’s greatest fear was that the number would increase; maybe even enough to suggest Dick Thorn had significant support within the military. Then it could well prove impossible to conceal America’s frailty, every future President needing to look over their shoulder, wary of whom they hired and fired.

Chapter 7 – Thursday, November 17th

[]Vietnam – 06:28 Local Time; Wednesday 23:28 UTC

The Hongniao cruise missile checked its precise position with the American GPS network before confirming the coordinates via China’s Beidou equivalent. Attack profile duly re-calibrated, missile eighteen dove down to its cruising height of thirty metres, hugging the waves. With its small size and radar-absorbent surface, the Hongniao was designed to be almost invisible to enemy radar, a complex set of evasive manoeuvres helping it to bypass Vietnam’s anti-missile defences.

Hongniao: Red Bird was the English translation, a gentle name which gave no hint as to the missile’s real power. Based on a Soviet design and improved by ex-Soviet scientists working for Beijing, the original version had spawned a host of successors, and the latest Russian technology had even been reverse-engineered through missiles China had obtained from Ukraine. Accurate, effective, versatile, easy to maintain and – most importantly – cheap, China had taken the best from America and Russia to create a potent weapon, a decade spent building up its cruise missile inventory, Beijing’s military planners looking to overwhelm any U.S. strike force by sheer numbers. Their stockpile now exceeded three thousand – more than four times the number of Tomahawk missiles launched by the U.S. during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Different versions of the Hongniao could be launched by surface ships, submarines and ground-based launchers, the two hundred and twenty missiles of the first phase now heading for a range of targets spread across a thousand kilometres. Missile eighteen had been launched from a destroyer cruising off the coast of Vietnam, China following the example of the U.S. by choosing to expend some of its stock of older missiles, the more modern HN-2000 kept in reserve. With the last waypoint reached, missile eighteen started its final approach, seven of its compatriots following-on close behind. Their target was Vietnam’s Phuc Yen Air Base, north of Hanoi, and its squadron of fighter aircraft. Three kilometres from impact, the defenders reacted with a swarm of surface-to-air missiles, the upgraded Soviet-era system struggling to cope. Missile eighteen skimmed a few metres above the ground in a relentless pursuit of its goal, the SAMs streaking past, just two cruise missiles destroyed. Moments later missile eighteen exploded, the airstrip’s control tower blown apart, the flaming debris seeming to entice the next Hongniao missile towards it. Within five minutes of the first strike, the air base was enveloped in an expanding cloud of smoke and dust, its buildings shattered, the two runways pockmarked and cratered, eight aircraft destroyed.

Seven more missiles streaked along the Lao Cai to Hanoi expressway, staying no more than twenty metres above the road surface. One Hongniao malfunctioned but the other six sped towards the Ministry of Defence building, no SAMs deployed against them. Despite the early attacks the Ministry was not evacuated until a bare five minutes before the first missile struck, the front of the massive building eventually collapsing in on itself.

Over the course of three explosive hours, every major army, air force and naval base was attacked, Vietnam’s command-and-control structure specifically targeted. The initial intelligence analysis put the Hongniao’s success rate at well over eighty percent, some 360 missiles achieving their objective. The number of casualties was anticipated to be high, U.S. analysts predicting anywhere between one and as many as three thousand.

China’s response to Vietnam’s missile attack on the Liaoning was far in excess of what might be considered ‘proportional and just’. One hour after the cruise missile attacks had ceased, a massive artillery bombardment pummelled the Vietnamese defences along the border. Hanoi was barely a 150 kilometres from the Chinese border, Beijing showing what it was capable of, determined to reduce the number of those arrayed against it by at least one. That was the stick. The carrot was presented to the Vietnamese Ambassador later that morning – a bribe of favoured economic status and financial inducements, even a share in certain resources garnered from the Spratly Islands.

It wasn’t accepted, but then nor was the offer formally rejected, Hanoi first waiting to see how the U.S. would react.

 

Russia – 16:53 Local Time; 13:53 UTC

The President’s suite of offices lay on the top floor of the triangular Kremlin’s Senate building, Evgeny Sukhov having his own numbered office just three doors down from Irina Golubeva. The President was still in Cologne, joining with certain other G-20 leaders and the U.N. Secretary General to try and thrash out some compromise over the Spratly Islands. That simply wouldn’t happen, none of the key players yet prepared to offer anything that might be even vaguely acceptable. China had certainly not given any indication that it was willing to return to the status quo, its actions of earlier that morning focusing the world’s attention far more than any pointless discussions.

The sustained attack on Vietnam had met with almost universal condemnation, the U.S. leading the verbal assault against the Politburo. Secretary of State Burgess had even given a brief interview from a Hanoi street, the rubble of the Ministry of Defence pictured behind him. Under such circumstances, with the injured and dead still being recovered, it was inconceivable that anything constructive would be decided. China had shown what it was capable of, daring America and Russia to do their worst.

Sukhov sat in semi-darkness, alone with his thoughts, wondering how long it would be before his fears for the future and the stress of his dual life ground him down. Forty would be young for a heart-attack but he wasn’t convinced it was that unlikely: the clandestine nature of his work had been exciting at first; now with every secret trip and phone call the twitch in his right eyelid threatened to become permanent, his conscience still struggling with what he had willingly ordered others to do.

Sukhov believed himself to be capable rather than accomplished, trusting that loyalty and reliability would make up for the occasional lack of inspiration. Over the past nine months he had travelled the world, reinforcing President Golubeva’s message and working with people he once would have assumed were – at best – untrustworthy and no friend to Russia. Sometimes he felt overwhelmed with knowledge, fearful of forgetting which aspects were secret and which were not, worried as to what he would let slip and to whom.

So far – with one crucial exception – everything had gone far more smoothly than anyone could have anticipated, the situation in the South China Sea following the predicted pattern; it might all be happening a little quicker than planned but that was all to the good. Public pressure on the U.S. to act against China was unrelenting with a New York Times/CBS poll indicating that 62% of Americans would support military action against the Chinese mainland.

The sinking of the Koschei had been unfortunate, the wreckage now a potential embarrassment – but nothing more, no smoking gun. Even if ‘incontrovertible’ evidence came to light, or more specifically was dragged up from the sea bed, Moscow would merely cry foul and conclusively prove it was all a fabrication, the convenient truth the one that most people would believe. Conspiracy theories were common enough for it to be an expected response to any extreme event, books written and fortunes made, most generally treated with a hint of derision. The idea of converting a Project-633 submarine into a Chinese clone had always been controversial, it seen as a necessary evil to provoke America into a war; yet the Koschei’s attack on the USS Milius had blatantly failed to achieve that objective, China’s own actions potentially a far more effective trigger.

Sukhov’s most immediate concern lay not with China but Astrakhan Oblast some thirteen hundred kilometres south-east of Moscow: Russia’s secessionists might be defeated but one very potent danger still remained. If the dissenting voice had been anyone other than General Morozov, then he and his few remaining troops could have been left bottled up outside the city of Astrakhan until the spring. With Morozov, that would be too much of a risk, the army’s allegiance not secure until the General was dead.

Dissent amongst the military was sporadic and the majority of Russia’s armed forces seemed content not to choose sides, only doing so when forced to become directly involved. The 58th Army of Georgia fame had shown the difficulties the President faced, with some of its units joining Morozov, others staying loyal. Their base north of the Caucasus Mountains was now a Golubeva enclave in what was effectively hostile territory, with even the civilian population of dubious allegiance. The major routes south from Volgograd towards Georgia and Azerbaijan, and east from Elista towards Astrakhan city, were presently impassable, while other roads in Astrakhan Oblast were only safe during daylight hours and in sufficient force. General Morozov was proving adept at making the most of his small numbers – no more than a thousand men, probably closer to five hundred. The city of Astrakhan and its population of half-a-million had cleverly managed to stay detached from the more extreme aspects of the conflict, Astrakhan’s mayor working hard to preserve a slightly suspect neutrality – the city hadn’t as yet declared for either side but nor was it specifically a no-go area for the military, and Astrakhan’s small naval facility had already chosen to ally itself with Morozov.

The General had twice managed to evade Russia’s Special Forces and President Golubeva wanted the problem resolved before Russia started to press China from the north. Yet it wouldn’t be easy, the army needing to commit a large number of troops to have any hope of quickly completing the task. Loyal units were presently being transferred from the Central Military District, Sukhov concerned as to the wider implications and having to hope that the generals knew what they were doing.

Morozov’s allies included significant elements within Russia’s intelligence community, primarily the FSB, and the Lubyanka Headquarters was gradually being culled of its more unreliable elements. One officer in particular had been a constant thorn in the Government’s side, stirring up concern in the Federal Assembly and State Duma with images of the military build-up in the Far East. Major Markova was proving both persistent and elusive, the Lubyanka network apparently reaching out as far as Bolshoy Kamen, and Markova’s confederates were obviously far more than just one infirm FSB sergeant.

The interior troops of the MVD might have long since transformed into the National Guard of Russia, but the old inadequacies remained and they always seemed to be at least forty-eight hours behind Markova, it taking a combination of police persistence and teenage angst to redirect the search away from Vladivostok and towards Daniil Chavkin. The National Guard had reacted in their usual heavy-handed way, Chavkin bullied into revealing some of what had happened but terrified in case he said too much. It would take time to drag out exactly what he had told Markova and even though he was unlikely to have directly implicated the President, it had seemed prudent to allocate additional resources to assist the National Guard. It would be unhelpful for Markova to publicise Chavkin’s revelations but again not a disaster, the Kremlin braced to ridicule every accusation, Chavkin’s personal history and political affiliation already being manipulated to promote a more believable truth.

Russia’s military preparations against China were in the final stages, the key elements already in place, their strategy based on a rapid land grab south through Xinjiang and west from Vladivostok. Chinese immigrants had flooded into Russia’s Far East for decades, the population imbalance a serious threat to Russia’s security. Vladimir Putin had dallied with the concept of some Sino-Russian pact, but neither side had trusted the other enough for it to become a reality. Irina Golubeva was more mindful as to future dangers, and with each year that passed China was fast becoming the natural enemy of both Russia and the United States.

The Cold War might have been reignited with the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in the Baltic but Golubeva had worked hard to restore normal relations with the West. Publicly, America’s new Administration had distanced itself from supporting Russia, but support didn’t have to exist as some formal agreement – and Bob Deangelo seemed more than willing to play his part. Despite the Tomahawk attacks on Fiery Cross and Johnson South Reefs, America’s military commitment was still not yet sufficient to convince Golubeva that it was time to act; however, Beijing was conducting a very risky strategy and the assault on Vietnam was set to become a defining moment, the deaths of so many virtually certain to force Deangelo’s hand.

The analysts predicted it would be at most a week before the American public finally got their wish, the U.S. expected to launch a massive missile attack at key targets on the Chinese mainland. Then it would be Russia’s turn, China facing attack on at least two fronts, the various simulations indicating that Beijing would fold within a month.

A major unknown remained the attitude of North Korea: always difficult, threatening to plunge the world into a nuclear winter one minute and then offering eternal friendship the next, it was impossible to judge how Pyongyang would react. Their National Defence Commission was strangely silent on the unfolding crisis, North Korea apparently unwilling to antagonise Russia by publicly coming out in support of China. The economic and internal stresses of the past two decades had taken their toll but it would be foolish to underestimate North Korea’s military strength. Its relationship to China was complex, Beijing unhappy at the reputation of its ally but still wanting a suitable buffer; the two countries unquestionably shared fundamental national interests even if their means of achieving them was subtly different, China normally prepared to at least make some vague attempt at gentle persuasion. The U.S. – and indeed Russia – had ignored the problem of North Korea for far too long and future events would surely test the patience of their most inscrutable neighbour.

Once the G20 leaders had returned from Cologne then the battle over the Spratly Islands could resume apace. Even if they delayed their departure until the Friday, that would give Golubeva three days at most to finally deal with Morozov. And this time there could be no mistakes.

  • * *

Markova had known their escape from Bolshoy Kamen was going to be difficult, the obvious choices of north and east needing to be avoided if at all possible with just one road in each direction snaking through the dense forest and mountain peaks. Markova’s alternative had been rather more convoluted, its sole advantage a clear route past the encircling police.

The Lada Niva remained in Bolshoy Kamen, its new owner presumably either stripping it for parts or changing its colour and registration plates. In exchange, they had experienced the gut-wrenching comfort of a small fishing boat, the vessel fighting its way west through a night-time storm and across the Ussuri Bay to pass south of Vladivostok; the Amur Bay was next, their trip some eighty-five kilometres in total, Markova and Nikolai eventually dropped close to the town of Slavyanka.

By early afternoon Nikolai had somehow acquired suitable transport, the six year-old black Volkswagen Tiguan speedy and comfortable, its four-wheel drive proving an essential option with snow sweeping down from an ominous-looking sky almost as soon as they had set off. There was virtually no traffic and the journey along the two-lane highway had been relatively stress-free, the road winding its way gently through the low mountains.

With China just twenty kilometres to the west and the North Korean border to the south, Russia’s military presence was a constant worry if not necessarily a threat; so far that had involved a lone helicopter flying low to the west and a line of ten army vehicles, heading south. Steep banks, rocky mountain slopes, innumerable rivers, bogs and forests: the local terrain offered its own protection against serious incursions from either side, and Russia’s forces were gathering much further to the north where the topography was rather less intimidating. The weather was hardly ideal for any invasion and by the end of the month the daily high would be below freezing, with a fifty-fifty chance of snow.

The military build-up around Ussuriysk to the north would mean incessant road blocks and security checks, Markova still unsure how best to avoid them. It would be foolish to assume Chavkin had stayed silent and it wouldn’t take much to link the attack to the outsiders staying at the Laguna, their real identity unlikely to remain a secret for long. That meant their IDs were most likely worthless, their description sent to every police officer and security agent within a thousand kilometres. With all local civilian flights grounded because of the crisis, it would be a long crawl back to safety, Markova not even sure where exactly that might be. Nikolai was increasingly determined to push the General Morozov option, the lure of Astrakhan and the Caucasus beginning to look the only sensible alternative.

Markova felt she had certainly done more than enough to gain the General’s trust. Better too that he should be the one to decide how best to profit from what they had learnt, the implications far too complex for someone who had barely slept in forty-eight hours. Chavkin had made no specific mention of Golubeva, but Sukhov and the Commander of Russia’s Pacific Fleet had clearly been part of the project from the very beginning. The involvement of Valeri Karenin was of unclear significance, Markova needing to listen again to Chavkin’s revelations, every whispered word and strangled plea recorded on an audio file.

Each time she heard it, there was always the thought of what would she have done if Chavkin had lied or played for time. Would she really have let his son be mutilated just to satisfy her personal quest? The fear was that she would have done so without a moment’s hesitation and she had no doubt Nikolai would have followed her orders without any qualms of conscience. Necessity and morality were often uneasy allies, and Golubeva’s Russia had left little place for sentiment, Markova with her own scores to settle.

A copy of the audio file had been sent to Morozov whilst they had still been in Bolshoy Kamen, the satellite phone often their only viable link to the outside world. Russia’s satellite intelligence network was second to none and each brief call became a calculated risk, a safer alternative rapidly climbing up their list of priorities. Cash, food, fuel – their resources were increasingly limited, Markova with no clear plan other than that of trying to reach the urban sprawl of Khabarovsk.

The VW bucked suddenly, Markova’s thoughts jerked back to the present as Nikolai fought to keep the car under control, the road icing up under the continued onslaught of sleet and snow. The car slid to a stop just off the highway, the lethal combination of encroaching darkness and foul weather persuading Nikolai that it was time to reconsider their options.

Despite the lack of traffic, it seemed unwise to simply spend the night parked beside the highway and after a short break Nikolai pulled the car round, heading back the way they had come. Five minutes later, he turned right onto an unmarked track heading west, it quickly narrowing to barely a car’s width. Another three kilometres and Markova called a halt, the weather and night closing in around them to offer a dubious element of privacy.

They had food and a couple of blankets, past experience proving that Nikolai could sleep anywhere, Markova finding it harder not to dwell on the dangers ahead. It surely couldn’t be long before Russia was at war, Golubeva manipulating events with little concern as to the thousands that would die as a consequence. Markova might not be able to stop her but nor was she prepared to be just a passive observer, determined at least to try and make a difference. However she looked at it, General Morozov seemed to offer the only genuine hope for Russia, his own future survival perhaps even more tenuous than Markova’s.

 

Terrill, U.S.A. – 15:04 Local Time; 20:04 UTC

The repercussions of the previous day seemed significantly more extreme than Anderson had anticipated and for some unknown reason both he and Flores were taking the fall, Anderson’s temporary contract terminated, Flores ordered to take two week’s leave. The base at Terrill was also a casualty, most of the agents already re-assigned, the computer centre due to returned to its pre-FBI state the following morning.

Anderson was allowed one more day to enjoy the dubious privilege of being an FBI consultant, then it was back to a lower rate of pay and no stylish jacket. Carter similarly had one more night of Terrill hospitality to endure before the promise of an early-morning flight to Panama, the FBI seemingly content to abandon him to his fate. Carter was annoyingly cheerful, some offshore bank account doubtless about to suffer a large withdrawal, the stress of the past week needing to put behind him.

Rachel Flores would have to try and do the same, the FBI first teasing out everything they could from her time with McDowell. Imprisoned in a windowless room, there had been no obvious indication as to the type of house or where it might be, and the journey from her home and back to D.C. had taken well over an hour each time, no sense as to the direction or any audible cues. The FBI’s profilers would now be attempting to match her evidence to what they already knew about McDowell’s preferences: a Virginia house or farm, isolated yet close to good road links, bought or rented around the same time as Terrill. If that didn’t work, they’d spread the net wider, trusting that McDowell wouldn’t choose to break the mould by hiding out somewhere unexpected, like a commune in the heart of Baltimore or a houseboat on the Potomac. Carter had made an off-hand comment about McDowell lying on a beach – that too would be added into the mix.

For some reason McDowell was still close at hand, his FBI contact and the conspiracy’s banker sacrificed for what had to be more than just Carter’s freedom. It was a bargain which Jensen might have cause to regret, no doubt prejudiced by the fear that political manoeuvring could well free Carter anyway. The actual names of those given up by McDowell were considered well outside of Anderson’s reduced role and even his computer access had been restricted to that of a visitor. Flores had been apologetic, unwilling to speculate as to why Anderson was out in the cold – but at least he wasn’t being put on a plane to Panama. Despite being reminded as to the dire consequences of revealing anything of his time at Terrill, Anderson was already working on a piece for The Washington Post, drawing comparisons between Golubeva and Deangelo and their respective routes to power.

The FBI had insisted on extracting a final day’s work out of Carter, Anderson supervising, two agents remaining at Terrill to ensure he didn’t disappear off somewhere. Overall, it was a pretty pointless exercise, Carter unwilling to do anything too onerous, the two agents more interested in watching the TV downstairs than listening to Anderson’s woes.

Carter sat at the workstation two along from Anderson, official duties completed, his time now spent investigating the delights of Panama. Like Anderson he had been logged on as a visitor, no-one concerned that he could do anything too outrageous – but just to be sure, everything related to the data link to the Hoover Building had already been deleted.

Anderson mostly ignored him, busy researching his Post article, relevant pages sent to his phone for later perusal; he had most of the content already sorted in his mind, just needing a few more facts to draw it all together rather more effectively. Or that had been the plan, Anderson having to swap focus once the House of Representatives abruptly chose to lead the fight back against Dick Thorn.

The news article was barely minutes old, Anderson needing to read it several times to grasp the complex constitutional processes that were being used to block Thorn’s confirmation. If the President wanted to use his executive powers to confirm Thorn as Secretary of Defence – through a recess appointment – then the Senate had to actually be in recess. An adjournment of longer than three days had once been the accepted norm, later increased to ten by a Supreme Court ruling; however, in order for either House to adjourn for more than three days, it needed the other’s approval.

With a seventeen-day recess for Thanksgiving on the calendar, the House of Representatives had voted not to give the required consent and the Senate would now be forced into holding pro forma sessions every third day, a single senator going into the empty chamber and banging the gavel, no formal business completed.

The article detailed various precedents, Anderson shocked to realise he probably now knew far more about the U.S. Constitution than the UK’s diverse set of laws and conventions. The Republican-dominated House of Representatives had clearly thrown down the gauntlet to Thorn and his supporters, the ones still camped out in the National Mall likely to be stocking up with their eggs and expletives.

Anderson’s musings were interrupted as the computer screen in front of him abruptly changed to show a man’s photograph, his personal profile detailed alongside. Confused, Anderson tried to return to the news page but without success, the screen acting as if frozen.

“David Solomon,” explained Carter, as though just making conversation, “Pat’s so-called banker, except he’s actually a hedge fund manager. It’s just as I’ve always said: the money came from targeting specific investments, Solomon the frontman. Most of the info is copied from the FBI’s recent research into Solomon, the rest picked up here and there – I’ve kept it to the basics.”

Anderson glanced to his right, Carter still apparently focused on Panama City. With most of Terrill’s security system offline and the two agents otherwise occupied downstairs, there was little real need for such a charade; but then that was just Carter’s style, always wanting to add a bit of drama to everything, always keen to impress.

Anderson took the easy option and simply went with the flow; there seemed no advantage in ignoring Carter’s help and plenty of reasons to accept it – he just had to trust the information in front of him was genuine. The fact Carter was still able to hack into the FBI’s data centre was impressive but also slightly worrying. Anderson briefly condemned himself for sinking to McDowell’s level, then moved on, determined to get as much out of Carter as possible. For some reason, simply reading it all off the screen seemed less of a crime then copying the data to his phone and Anderson tried to memorise the key facts as quickly as he could, concerned as to how much longer it would be before Carter’s hacking skills got them both into trouble.

To his disappointment, there was nothing that dramatic or controversial, and no obvious link to the other key players. A joint DHS-FBI team had raided Solomon’s Manhattan office within an hour of Carter passing on McDowell’s two names and he was still being questioned, charges of money-laundering the least of his worries. Most of the financial information was well over Anderson’s head, unsure even of the difference between a hedge fund manager and a stock broker. Still single at 39, Solomon’s one aim in life appeared to be that of making money and in the six years he’d been working for himself, he had built up an enviable reputation as someone who could balance risk with profit, and as yet there was nothing to indicate he was either corrupt or involved in anything illegal.

“One specific hedge fund seems to be the FBI’s main focus,” said Carter, for once sounding vaguely enthusiastic. “There’s a client list plus separate profiles on each person; that’s as much as I could get without it being traced back to Terrill, so it’s okay to take your time.”

Anderson took Carter at his word, finishing off with Solomon to then view details of the hedge fund. The initial analysis by the FBI’s financial experts suggested that while it had made some gains over the past six months it was nothing extreme, the profits duly accounted for with no evidence they had been used to fund McDowell’s campaign. If Solomon had been involved in other – more secret – investments, then that would obviously take time to determine, weeks at best, maybe never.

Anderson started to work his way through the individual FBI profiles for the hedge fund’s five members; he wasn’t looking for anything specific, just wanting to get some background as to the type of client Solomon favoured, hoping to see some sort of trend other than the fact they were all billionaires. It was only when he reached the last name that the information became far more intriguing, an FBI analyst also highlighting certain details. Anderson recognised the name simply because it had been in the news, never once guessing that the man might have some obscure connection to Pat McDowell.

Yang Kyung-Jae: Taiwan national, worth in excess of three billion dollars, his fortune made as a property developer of large-scale commercial projects. Yang had become something of an Anglophile, spending a good proportion of his time in England; now that faith had been cruelly repaid, the bloodbath at his country house beside the Thames still attracting daily media attention in the UK a week after the event.

The FBI had dug deeper, Yang politically astute yet not actively involved in politics, a generous proportion of his wealth spent on good causes in Taiwan and the UK. If it hadn’t been for the fact and tone of Yang’s murder, then the Bureau’s interest would easily have roamed elsewhere; now, ever so slowly, the precise nature of the conspiracy was becoming clearer, the Taiwan connection perhaps helping explain America’s more assertive policy towards China. The other members of the hedge fund were spread across the world, one each from America, the Philippines, Russia, and South Korea, all perhaps with good cause to be worried by China’s creeping invasion of the South China Sea or its claims on Russia’s Far East.

A word to Carter and the data was instantly deleted with no trail left as to their meddling. It just worried Anderson that McDowell and Carter were being so helpful, their motive unclear. McDowell might well have had nothing to do with Ritter’s death and he would have been hard-pressed to reach Bray in time to have murdered Yang – which could imply it had more to do with self-preservation or vengeance than a sudden desire to do the right thing.

Anderson remained unconvinced, fearful that he was merely being played by McDowell. The deal accepted by Jensen was hardly perfect, and McDowell and Carter could easily resume their working relationship once the latter was safely ensconced in Panama. In a day or a week, McDowell would again make his presence felt, of that Anderson was certain, the two of them not yet finished treading on each other’s toes.

Chapter 8 – Friday, November 18th

Sino-Russian Border – 08:26 Local Tine; Thursday 22:26 UTC

The dawn sky was cloud-free, the temperature hovering around freezing with the forecast for light snow late in the afternoon. Breakfast was a low-key affair, Markova worried as to what the next few hours might bring, Nikolai merely content to escape the claustrophobia of the car. Since leaving the main highway, there had been no sign of any other vehicles, no sense that China lay just a few kilometres distant. The physical barriers meant that the border region was effectively unguarded but not completely so, the long-range eye of a helicopter their main concern.

Their luck couldn’t hold forever. The A189 highway was the only route north and the risks of following it were all-too obvious, allies increasingly few and far between. The FSB would soon be forced to focus its full attention on the struggle against China and Markova was becoming nothing more than a renegade agent with nowhere left to call home, not even the Lubyanka.

“The audio file,” said Nikolai suddenly, “what if Morozov passes it on to the Americans?”

“The Americans?” repeated Markova, her thoughts still stuck in Moscow. “That might not be too helpful for Russian-U.S. relations.”

Nikolai still saw it as a good option, “The file proves Sukhov’s involved and he leads directly to Golubeva. If the Americans understood that, it might just let China off the hook and make Golubeva think twice before invading. Isn’t that what we want – to stop a war?”

“If we can,” Markova said frowning, “but it’s just not that simple. Deangelo is already committed to helping the Philippines and the origin of the Koschei has become a complication no-one wants. In any case, Chavkin would have said anything to protect his family – that’s the only argument the Kremlin needs. By itself, his account means nothing.”

“Facts, names and dates – they could all be checked and verified. Morozov’s outnumbered and surrounded in Astrakhan: he needs to put the pressure back on Golubeva; perhaps even persuade a few more doubters to support him. Morozov could even threaten to give the file to the American and Chinese media.”

Markova simply sat and stared at Nikolai, seeing the logic in what he was suggesting just not convinced it would be the right thing to do. Threaten Golubeva, certainly, but actually publicising such politically sensitive material for all to see was clearly a step too far, the repercussions impossible to judge. Would General Morozov really risk turning the whole world against Russia out of spite for Golubeva? And how would America react knowing that they had definitely been tricked into a war?

“Morozov’s got no choice,” said Nikolai, determined to win the argument. “And if he doesn’t give it to the Americans, what use is it?”

“You’re wrong, Sergeant,” said Markova, finally finding her voice. “Morozov’s not that desperate.”

Nikolai made as if to reply but was distracted by the deep-throated drone of a helicopter, both of them turning instantly towards the sound. The camouflage of browns and grey left little doubt it was military, the profile suggesting a Russian Mi-17 transport. It was approaching from the north, flying low while possibly tracking the main highway. The crew might miss Markova and Nikolai but not the VW Tiguan, its regular black shape standing out against the white of the surrounding snow.

Nikolai glanced pointedly towards the car and Markova nodded her agreement, hoping that the helicopter might simply be a routine patrol and nothing to do with them. Away from the highway the landscape was of low mountains clothed in forest, their vehicle unlikely to cope beyond the first score of a hundred small streams or an ice-covered slope. They could split up and force any pursuers to make a choice but on foot in autumn their chances of survival were fairly slim. Nikolai well knew he could bail out at any time with merely a nod of thanks – maybe even a hug – for all that they had been through together, but that was simply not an option, and despite Markova’s penchant for being high-handed and obstinate, he wasn’t yet willing to relinquish his role of protector.

Markova sat in the passenger seat and watched in silence as the helicopter swept ever closer. It was still following the highway, seemingly not interested in what lay to either side. Abruptly it turned west, angling down directly towards the Tiguan.

A shouted command from Markova and the car engine burst into life, the Tiguan accelerating forward and lurching its way deeper into the trees. The overgrown and icy track was proving a severe test even for the four-wheel drive of the VW, the vehicle slewing from side to side, Nikolai having to fight to keep control. Markova couldn’t now see or hear the helicopter but knew it would be closing in. Even without infra-red, the pursuers would easily be able to track the Tiguan, the trees not yet providing a thick enough canopy to cover their escape.

Above the strain of the VW’s engine, there was the rattle of gunfire and Markova instantly ducked. Nikolai merely speeded up, powering through a small stream to follow the track as it twisted and climbed.

There was a second burst of gunfire, bullets exploding into the trees to the left, splinters ricocheting from the car. The Tiguan bucked suddenly as a front tyre shredded, the car careering left. It ploughed through the undergrowth, bouncing off one tree to smash into another, air bags instantly deploying to cushion the impact.

Markova’s face was on fire and she sat stunned and unmoving before the survival instinct kicked in. She wrestled the car door open, gun dragged from her jacket as she fought her way into the open air. Belatedly, she looked back to see Nikolai sliding out through the driver’s door, face bloodied.

Markova moved round to help, pulling Nikolai away from the car, and the two of them stumbled through the trees, moving higher up the slope while hoping for some sort of miracle. Markova couldn’t hear the sound of the helicopter, her ears bombarded by a loud high-pitched hiss, no time to work out why.

The trees were denser now, Markova not wanting to stop but knowing that Nikolai was struggling badly. They slithered down a rocky incline and lay on the ground, Nikolai’s chest heaving, blood still dripping from his nose.

Markova scanned the trees, a gentle breeze barely enough to disturb the remaining leaves. With its complex mix of broadleaf and coniferous, the forest undergrowth was a thick and yielding cushion, footsteps deadened to become almost silent. The background hiss in her ears was slowly easing and Markova looked again at Nikolai, needing to know whether to make a stand or try and flee.

Two minutes later they were hugging the ground and heading north-west, edging closer to the border. The trees slowly began to thin out, the steep slope becoming rock-strewn and bare, Markova pausing every few minutes to let Nikolai catch his breath; he would never complain and was doing his best, but the wounds of the past were taking their toll.

Markova guessed they’d come as much as a kilometre; still no sign of the helicopter or anyone on foot but it was just too much to hope that the pursuers had abandoned the chase.

“I’ll catch up,” said Nikolai softly. “You go, Major.”

“We go together, Sergeant.” Markova was growing tired of running from one problem to another; time now to make a stand. Somehow she needed to forget those chasing them were simply Russian troops following orders – worse still, they might even be fellow Special Forces, the elite spetsnaz.

The first clatter of feet on stone came from their right, then more sounds from further down the slope. Markova and Nikolai separated; handguns against assault rifles was never likely to be a winning combination and the pursuers could take their time, maybe even under orders to keep them alive.

The rattle of automatic weapons dispelled that hope, bullets pummelling the rocks around Markova, something grazing her cheek. She squirmed left, firing at a figure kneeling beside a tree, seeing his body jerk back.

The gunfire from both sides intensified, Markova judging at least four attackers. She eased her body further up the slope, hugging the ground, knowing that she had but a few shots left, the final outcome inevitable.

There was another flurry of shots, Markova hearing a grunt of pain from away to her left. She glanced across to see Nikolai lying motionless, blood pooling under his head, eyes staring blankly.

Markova tore her gaze away, firing wildly, uncaring now as to what happened next, Nikolai’s sacrifice proving the futility of the past two weeks. There was a sudden sound from behind her, a heavy weight thudding into her back, the gun torn from her hand.

Seconds later she was hauled upright, her captors’ Russian army uniforms and insignia belying the fact they were definitely Special Forces. With hands tied behind her, Markova watched in silence as Nikolai’s body suffered the ignominy of a search, anger and bitterness overwhelming her sense of despair.

A hefty shove encouraged Markova back down the slope, Nikolai left for others to recover. Two of the spetsnaz team of six had been wounded, one struggling to walk unaided, but there was no outward show of resentment and except for an occasional curt word of command Markova was barely even acknowledged.

After some twenty minutes, they emerged through the trees, the final few hundred metres a steep climb onto a rocky plateau where the helicopter waited. Abruptly, the lead spetsnaz paused just thirty metres short, waving the others to a halt, some sixth sense warning him as to danger.

Markova waited, body wavering slightly, trying to control her emotions, no idea as to what had so spooked her captors. Even as one of the spetsnaz shouted out a warning there was the sudden staccato chatter of gunfire and the man beside Markova took a hesitant pace back before sinking to his knees, blood bubbling at his lips. Markova stood stock-still, somehow knowing she wasn’t in danger, watching transfixed as the lives of those around her were brutally extinguished. The spetsnaz barely had a chance to fire back, a dozen or more guns used against them.

Silence returned. A single figure dressed in winter camouflage appeared from near the helicopter, his features clearly marking him out as Chinese. More men emerged from cover to Markova’s left, assault rifles aimed vaguely towards her. Her rescuers seemed to know exactly what to expect and Markova was evidently not some random victim of a cross-border incursion. One at a time, each of the spetsnaz was expertly searched, Markova last of all, no allowance made for her sex but no liberties taken either. Everything considered important was placed in a backpack resting on the ground, Markova surprised to see the bags from the VW Tiguan standing alongside.

Despite her animosity towards Golubeva, the role of traitor had never been one Markova had felt she deserved, until now. Thanks to her, the future of the audio file and Chavkin’s tale of deceit was no longer for General Morozov alone to decide, and China now had a key piece of evidence to help prove their innocence. The Kremlin’s strategy of coercing the United States into a war with China was rapidly turning sour, Russia herself perhaps equally likely to become the surprise target for American anger.

It was barely five minutes before the group moved off on foot, heading roughly west and always uphill, an occasional prod from a rifle an incentive to Markova not to tarry. Russia’s military wasn’t the only obvious danger, the region home to the endangered Amur Tiger and the even rarer Leopard, a few hundred in total roaming south of Khabarovsk and into China.

After some ten minutes the leader called a halt, the trees far more sparse now. A dejected Markova waited uncertainly, trying to prepare herself for what was next but no idea what it might be. Strong hands on her shoulders forced her to her knees, head held rigid. She tried not to resist but it was an instinctive reaction, worse still when something damp was thrust across her mouth and nose. There was an unpleasant tingling as the anaesthetic took effect, Markova strangely content that it wasn’t going to be an injection or a simple rifle butt to the head.

  • * *

It was a nightmare from which she couldn’t escape, Markova standing in a bare circular room with the wall seeming to close in around her, a pair of doors facing her no matter which way she turned. She knew she had to make a choice but the doors all looked the same, no clear sense of colour, just a bland grey.

She picked one randomly, needing to know what was on the other side. With the barest of touches, it slid open; beyond lay a swirling darkness, beckoning her into the unknown. She walked forward across the threshold and instantly a cold shiver of dread gripped her body, no logic or reason as to why; she stumbled but somehow didn’t fall, the door closing silently behind her.

The darkness dissipated, sucked up into some mysterious void and Markova realised she was back in the circular room. The twin doors could almost be laughing at her, their image shifting and changing, yet somehow always the same. It was a game she couldn’t seem to win, let alone understand, and whichever door she opened the oppressive sense of dread was her only reward. Back where she started, she seemed unable to resist the need to keep trying, something – or someone – always urging her on.

She could hear voices, her own included, but had no idea what she was saying; if she tried to ignore the room and focus on the voices, then the wall accelerated towards her, instantly grabbing her attention. The fear never quite went away, her body cringing in trepidation as she touched her chosen door, the darkness beyond always inviting, always false.

Time meant nothing. It could have been a few minutes or even a full day, Markova stuck in a whirlwind of confusion, unable to break out. She desperately wanted to sink into a peaceful dreamless sleep, accepting the urge to race ever faster through the doors as though they might eventually lead somewhere.

And so they did; darkness and warmth finally enveloping her, pulling her close, the welcoming embrace of unconsciousness an acceptable reward.

 

USS Benfold – 15:38 Local Time; 07:38 UTC

The Galene edged forward from the submarine’s sail towards the bow, the ROV’s lights probing a narrow fissure which stretched along the port side. The submarine was effectively in two parts, the larger section some fifty yards long: control room, living quarters, galley, forward torpedo room – Tanner could just about gauge something of the internal structure but access was proving impossible. Based on the blueprints Tanner had been given, the submarine patently matched the original Ming design; there was even clear evidence of strengthening for a gun close to the bridge, an anomaly that had been repeated for all the Ming-class, even though no such weapon had ever been mounted.

Working out which part of the submarine might offer the best chance of tracing its origin was becoming something of a lottery. There were no external markings and all that was left of the aft section was a tangled mass of metal, various elements fused together. Tanner was shocked at what a single American Mark-54 torpedo could do: the sub might have been built fifty or more years ago but it had been designed to withstand massive pressures, happily able to operate at a depth of some 300 metres, its theoretical maximum closer to 500. The torpedo had blasted through the boat’s double-hull and Tanner could only imagine the desperation of the submarine’s final moments, the crew knowing that death was an instant away.

Tanner was again under time pressure, Commander Vaughn trying to make it appear that the USS Benfold was matching the ROV’s standard search pattern while the Galene used the full extent of the tether cable to stay roughly in one place. Ocean Two had eventually grasped that something odd was happening and had closed to within a quarter-mile, the Chinese ROV now knowing where to focus her own search. Vaughn had duly consulted and even argued Tanner’s cause, but his new orders had been very specific: the Galene had the rest of that day to inspect and photograph, and then it would be back home to Singapore.

The afternoon session was almost over, Tanner wanting to try and get a close-up view along and inside the fissure, something at least for the submarine experts to study at their leisure. Some parts of the hull had almost folded in on themselves, forming a buckled and pitted coffin, the remains of some fifty crewmen buried deep inside. A small amount of debris was scattered around the wreck but it was typically unhelpful and even if Tanner managed to photograph something with a Russian code or Cyrillic lettering, it would prove nothing, the early Chinese-built submarines having had little option but to use Soviet components and systems. Finding a crate of vodka or caviar would have been intriguing but perhaps still not enough to convince anyone, let alone to condemn the Kremlin for trying to start a war.

Tanner settled the Galene over the fissure as near as he could to the sail, the ROV able to maintain a fixed position, thus leaving Tanner free to operate the other controls. The Galene’s four lights could be individually adjusted, Tanner searching for some small gap that would lead directly into the control room. It was an intriguing challenge but the Galene wasn’t yet beaten: the snake camera was a tricky beast to control at the best of times but it was Tanner’s only real chance to get a decent image. Stretching out to just over ten feet, the attachment required a mix of luck and patience to work effectively, Tanner delicately trying to thread it through the tangled clutter of metal. The Galene might have autonomous control over the thrusters but even the slightest twitch made Tanner’s job that much harder. The image from the snake camera was invariably distorted, especially the outer third but Tanner was finally able to distinguish something of the control room, or maybe it was the sonar centre.

Abruptly the picture twisted sharply then flickered into blackness. Tanner was so absorbed in what he was watching that he jerked his head back. The camera feed was dead, Tanner quickly checking the status of the other systems, noticing now that the Galene was struggling to maintain position.

He regained full control and flicked the image to the main optical camera, trying to understand what was happening. Immediately the Galene lurched sideways, Tanner unable to react quickly enough and the image spiralled around, the ROV apparently caught in some fierce current that was dragging her backwards.

Realisation suddenly dawned, Tanner flipping the view to the aft-facing camera. The tether was rigid as though some sea monster had grabbed it in its jaws and was reeling the Galene in. Tanner shouted out a warning to anyone who would listen, instantly accelerating the Galene in the direction of the pull then spinning her around, using the sonar to get a trace on the usurper. Not that he really needed any such confirmation, certain in his own mind that it was indeed a sea monster; he could even give it a name, Sea Dragon.

Developed by the People’s Republic of China, the ROV was twice the size of the Galene and weighed five times more, the Sea Dragon using her strength to rip the Galene aside. The Benfold’s XO seemed to understand what was happening, the CIC coming to life, an officer standing beside Tanner asking what needed to be done.

Tanner simply shook his head, the link with the Galene suddenly severed. He guessed the tether had finally snapped or even been cut, the image on his screen frozen with a dark shape looming out of the gloom, two bright eyes searching out the Sea Dragon’s victim.

Tanner angrily thrust his chair back, hands running through his hair in frustration. The Galene should still survive to fight another day and the emergency system had enough power to ensure the ROV surfaced, but that was poor consolation for what had effectively been an unprovoked attack. Tanner could even argue that the Galene was under U.S. protection – China, however, seemed unconcerned by such niceties, willing to do whatever it took to steal the Galene’s glory.

 

Eastern United States – 10:31 Local Time; 15:31 UTC

For some reason Carter had persuaded Flores that Anderson should accompany them to Reagan National Airport, the assignment officially bringing to an end Anderson’s own role within the FBI and the start of Flores’ enforced holiday. Once Carter had been fast-tracked through security, the three of them sat uncomfortably together in a corner of the departure lounge, a taciturn Carter seated in the middle. With Flores still unhappy as to how everything had turned out and believing he’d effectively been fired, conversation between them was invariably rather stilted, the usual British topics of the weather and holidays soon exhausted.

CNN proved to be a useful distraction: the main headline remained Vietnam, the latest images a powerful proclamation as to China’s intent. Deangelo was already back in Washington from Cologne, no resolution to the crisis having been reached with China, a temporary ceasefire the best that could be negotiated. America’s response – whether further sanctions, a military attack or a combination of both – was very much the topic under discussion, and several public protests were due to take place around the country; while most were planned as a gesture of support for Vietnam, a handful were expected to demand the U.S. reject further military strikes. The National Mall was once again the focus for the D.C. protest, a mass demonstration against China’s actions planned for Sunday.

Yet many feared it might already be too late and China’s attempt to remove Vietnam from the military equation seemed to be working, the Hanoi Government reportedly prepared to negotiate Beijing’s offer. Apart from condemning China’s attack, the Philippines had made no official comment and it was assumed they were also in discussions with Beijing. The U.S. could well be running out of allies, people confused as to why America was having to fight someone else’s war, the Spratly Islands perhaps not that important after all.

Deangelo was due to hold a press conference later that day, the number of issues likely to be discussed mounting by the hour, the White House Press Corps eager to get answers. Various reports suggested that the President would definitely use his executive powers to confirm Thorn as Secretary of Defence if Congress ever went into recess, news which was quickly overshadowed by something far more intriguing: Republican Jack Shepard, the Senate Minority Leader, was presently in talks with Deangelo, it rumoured that he was about to be nominated as Vice-President.

Such a possibility was causing senior Democrats heart-failure, many upset that there were already two Republicans in the Cabinet. Chaos and disunity seemed to be the favoured words to describe such an Administration, the last example of a bipartisan Vice-President being when Lincoln picked Andrew Johnson during the Civil War. The New York Times was one the few to buck the trend, even going so far as to call it ‘politically astute’.

The Vice-President’s role was at the discretion of the President and with less than two years until the next election, it was seen as a short-term attempt to unify the country during a time of crisis. In seven weeks the new Congress would convene, the Republicans taking control of both the Senate and House of Representatives, and a Democrat President would likely struggle to force through his policies whatever the political allegiance of his Vice-President. Or so most analysts assumed, a few predicting Deangelo might well have the political skill to turn it to his advantage. He had arrived in the Oval Office having made just the one promise, and if he was still there come January, he could cherry-pick his policies without fear of abandoning a vote-winning pledge.

Such intrigue seemed of little interest to Carter. And with the Panama flight delayed by an hour, it was quickly turning into a frustrating morning for them all. Anderson assumed that Carter would be kept under 24-hour surveillance whether he stayed in Panama or not and there was always the hope that at some point he would make contact with McDowell. Eventually the U.S. authorities would get lucky, although Anderson doubted McDowell would ever see the inside of a prison cell; shot whilst resisting arrest seemed the most logical outcome, with McDowell no doubt encouraged to take his many secrets to the grave.

“There’s one more name,” said Carter, breaking into Anderson’s thoughts.

“What?” Anderson stared at Carter, only now noticing that Flores had disappeared off somewhere.

“You need to speak to a Charles Nash; a professor at Harvard. That’s all.”

“Nash? Harvard?” Anderson repeated parrot-fashion. “Why?”

“Treat it as a sort of reward,” replied Carter with a grin. “Payment for not beating the shit out of me even though you wanted to. Just don’t tell the FBI anything ‘til you’ve spoken to Nash.” He lapsed into silence, watching Flores as he walked back towards them.

There was no chance to pursue it, Anderson hoping that he wasn’t being sent on a wild goose chase out of nothing more than spite. Carter knew full well Anderson wouldn’t just ignore a potential lead, the lure of a good story outweighing basic common-sense. There definitely seemed to be a worrying trend here, McDowell and Carter’s motives suspiciously unselfish.

With Carter finally on his way, Flores tried his best to make up for the FBI’s cavalier dealings with Anderson, a free coffee and muffin all he could formally offer. Even then he seemed to have something else on his mind, Anderson apparently taking on the role of confidant for both Carter and Flores.

“Where to now?” asked Flores, picking apart a doughnut as though not really wanting to eat it.

“Not sure; probably back to being a tourist – my last holiday sort of got interrupted. No need to worry, I promise not to skip the country.” It wasn’t as if Anderson could actually run away just yet: the Department of Justice were readying themselves for a second inquisition as to Anderson’s motives, he and Flores due to give more evidence on the 28th.

“And McDowell?”

“You’re welcome to him,” said Anderson flippantly. “I’m all out of ideas.”

Flores looked thoughtfully at Anderson before deciding not to push it. “If you need somewhere to stay for a few days, we have plenty of room. I know Rachel would be happy to help out.”

Anderson didn’t quite know what to say, English reserve making his response seem somewhat less grateful than he intended. “That’s kind of you both but not necessary; maybe some other time.”

Flores still seemed keen to be supportive, “Give me a call if you need help. Jensen’s probably put a surveillance team on you, at least for a couple of days; so no need to watch your back.”

  • * *

Paul Jensen sat in his office, able finally to catch up with the backlog of work and confident now that his decisions with respect to Flores and Anderson had been the right ones. His mood of optimism was one shared by many in D.C., people generally reacting positively to the President’s attempts to deal with China and unite the country. Past events had shown the dangers of being without a Vice-President, even for a day, and if the rumours as to Deangelo’s choice were correct, it showed he wasn’t afraid of making tough, even inspired decisions, prepared to do whatever it took to defend America and her loyal allies.

Deangelo was well aware that what happened five thousand miles away invariably affected security at home and Jensen had already been briefed as to the lack of progress in Cologne, a meeting of the President’s inner circle arranged for midday Saturday. China’s actions against the Benfold’s ROV was an obvious provocation but not enough to abandon the ceasefire agreement, and like so much else of late the origin of the submarine was becoming something of an irrelevance, it politically convenient to blame the Chinese.

Jensen well understood the nature of political convenience, prepared now to accept that Bob Deangelo was likely innocent of any wrongdoing, with President Cavanagh brought down as much by his own weakness as external meddling. He was also starting to wonder whether Dick Thorn’s involvement might be rather less proactive than he had earlier assumed, every avenue of inquiry related to Thorn effectively stalled. Less proactive – but not perhaps entirely blameless, Dick Thorn a man who might well seek to take advantage should another opportunity present itself.

Even though Jensen knew the gist of what the President was going to say, he was impatient for the planned Press Conference to begin. The oversize TV in his office showed the East Room of the White House, the assembled Press Corps coming to their feet as Deangelo walked down the central aisle and up onto the podium.

“Good afternoon everybody; please take a seat. Before I talk in general terms about America’s response to the missile and artillery attacks on Vietnam, I want to again express my deepest condolences to the families of those who died in the tragic and terrible events of Thursday. The heart-wrenching scenes of the injured and dying, and the overwhelming sense of injustice that is etched on the face of every Vietnamese, adult and child, is not something America is prepared to ignore.

“I have spoken at length to President Zhao and I find it difficult to convey the sense of frustration that every discussion brings. The Government of the People’s Republic of China seems set on a course of action that will inevitably lead to war, the seizure of three of the Spratly Islands regarded by them as just and permanent. Vietnam’s attempt to defend its territory is something we can all understand, and China’s disproportionate response was delivered with an outrageous disregard for the loss of life, creating a precedent that sadly others may well choose to follow.”

Deangelo was speaking without notes or teleprompter, none of those watching in any doubt as to his strength of feeling. A quick sip of water, then he continued, his select audience already sensing that the President would not let China dictate what happened in the South China Sea.

“I understand the enormous pressures that have been brought to bear on the governments of Vietnam and the Philippines, President Zhao offering a dubious peace with one hand immediately after striking a vicious blow with the other. Is that truly the way to bring peace to the region? Prior to this meeting, I issued an executive order enforcing a wide range of financial sanctions against China, including banning various business transactions and the freezing of assets; similar sanctions will also be imposed by the E.U., Japan and Australia, as well as seven members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

“I am confident that China will find it hard to shrug off the economic implications but sanctions, even when fully effective, take time to work; I also fear that by themselves they will not be enough to make China seek a genuine and lasting compromise. The ceasefire agreed in Cologne is due to expire at one p.m. Eastern Standard Time, Monday the 21st November, and we fully intend to honour that commitment. However, should our forces or those of our allies be attacked, we will respond in kind without prior warning or delay.”

Deangelo paused, as if to reinforce what came next. “Let no-one be in any doubt, the United States has the necessary strength of will and the military muscle to defend its friends and allies against any nation, anywhere in the world. In consultation with our allies in the region, the United States demands that the People’s Republic of China withdraws from Spratly, Thitu and West York Islands before the end of the ceasefire period. Unless China willingly evacuates its military forces from the illegal occupation of these islands, the United States will have no option but to use all possible means to achieve that end. In the strongest possible terms, I urge President Zhao to listen to the voice of reason and withdraw his forces before the crisis that is enfolding before us escalates still further.”

Deangelo broke off, opening up the session to questions, each member of the Press Corps desperate to speak. It was America’s second such deadline in a week and the President had pointedly left himself no room for manoeuvre; his threat to China was very clear and specific and the United States was irrevocably committed to reclaiming three rocky outcrops from China’s clutches. By any sensible definition, they could hardly be considered proper islands and even the largest – Thitu – was barely half the size of the National Mall; nevertheless, Deangelo was willing to spill the blood of potentially scores of U.S. Marines and Navy personnel in order to satisfy America’s conscience.

The tumult from the barrage of questions was silenced as Deangelo picked out people by name, answering some questions fully, others rebuffed. It was always done politely, often with a smile and a suitable comment, Deangelo’s time as Secretary of Defence making him adept at dealing with the obtuse and prejudicial aspects of the press corps.

Eventually the questions moved closer to home, the House of Representative’s success in blocking Dick Thorn’s appointment as Secretary of Defence drawing a frustrated shake of the head from the President.

“Dick Thorn is the ideal person to take charge at the Pentagon, a patriot and a reformer, someone who has proven ability to get the job done. Our national security is under threat and I would feel far safer with Dick Thorn standing beside me. I know many across America will share that view and they can be assured that I am working with members of Congress to try and resolve their concerns.”

Deangelo moved on, his choice of Vice-President next on the press agenda, it not yet known whether the rumours regarding the Senate Minority Leader were true.

“My nomination for Vice-President?” repeated Deangelo with a broad smile. “A good question and one I am more than happy to answer. I am delighted to announce that my nominee for Vice-President of our great nation is California Senator Jack Shepard…” Deangelo stepped to one side, leading the applause as Shepard walked forward to the podium, unnoticed until now.

Shepard’s turn on the podium allowed the President to avoid any further questions, the Senator well able to field the remainder, reinforcing the theme of an Administration based on unity of purpose and perspective. It could easily be argued that the office of Vice-President was a fitting reward for Shepard’s twenty-six years representing California. Aged 63, he had long since abandoned all thoughts of the White House: his new office might not actually be oval but it was certainly in the West Wing, Shepard determined to grab the one-time opportunity with both hands.

Jensen muted the TV, pleased that Shepard had accepted Deangelo’s offer, the Administration stronger as a result and better able to withstand any renewed internal threat. Whether that might involve Thorn or even McDowell was uncertain, but what had once been seen as a dangerous conspiracy had abruptly turned into a cut-throat scramble to silence the fainthearted, Neil Ritter perhaps not the last to die. Logic and circumstantial evidence might suggest the Ritters had been murdered by the D.C. Police but for the moment it was proving impossible to break through the web of lies that had been concocted to hide the truth; Mayor Henry’s political allies were pushing hard to have the FBI taken off the Ritter case, their interference merely confirmation as to the wider nature of the conspiracy.

McDowell remained elusive, Solomon virtue personified, Carter yet to make a mistake; even Special Agent Yorke seemed unwilling to offer up anything useful. Jensen might still hope for a conclusive answer regarding Thorn’s guilt or innocence before the President’s time limit expired, but sometimes there was little choice other than to accept the inevitable and move on. For everyone’s sake, Jensen could only trust that Dick Thorn would be inclined to do the same.

[]Chapter 9 – Saturday, November 19th

China – 10:17 Local Time; 02:17 UTC

Markova awoke with a start, a wave of nausea sweeping over her as she tried to lift her head. Her body seemed unwilling to act as she wanted, needing to be coerced into co-operating, fifteen minutes wasted just lying there feeling sorry for herself. Yesterday was a dull memory of a windowless cell and a barrage of questions, the drugs sapping away at her ability to resist. Markova couldn’t even visualise the faces of the interrogators, just different voices constantly demanding answers to the same questions, over and over again. More vivid was her recollection of the circular room with its never-ending pairs of doors, the nightmare a drug-induced fantasy of truth and lies – Markova just not sure how much she had actually revealed. And what did it matter anyway? The audio file of Chavkin was a far more reliable guide as to the Kremlin’s secrets, Markova just the incompetent courier.

There was no sense that she had suffered any actual physical harm and more slowly this time she levered herself to a sitting position, only now realising that all she was wearing was a long nightdress, its silky elegance an unexpected luxury after weeks spent living out of little more than a suitcase. Light streaming in through full-length windows showed an ornate and well-furnished room, its Chinese origins revealed by everything from the sumptuous wall coverings and lacquered cabinet to the overlarge wooden bed.

Markova tried standing before taking a few tentative steps, hands held out in front of her just in case. Confidence growing, she moved to test the two doors and then every cabinet and drawer. The outer door was locked, the other leading to an ultra-modern shower and toilet. Her bag lay beside the bed, everything better packed than she’d ever managed and the only thing obviously missing was the satellite phone.

Various personal touches suggested the room was part of a family home rather than some lavish hotel. The windows looked out onto a wide stone courtyard, a fountain at its centre; three uniformed guards stood beside it having a smoke, one glancing up to make sure Markova understood she had been noticed.

Although Markova still felt a little disoriented, she had no headache, a shower driving away the cobwebs from her brain. Her host was obviously keen to create a good impression, the range of toiletries and a choice of toothbrush suggesting she was far from being a typical prisoner. It all had a very familiar feel, it less than a month since she had experienced General Morozov’s own unique version of hospitality and for some reason Markova was never quite considered expendable, the Chinese still obviously wanting something more.

A tray of food had magically been laid out in the bedroom, both tea and coffee prepared. Markova ate greedily, starting to feel more at ease, finally curious as to why she was being so honoured. Yet it was another hour before two guards escorted her down wide curving stairs and into a formal dining room, a smartly-dressed middle-aged woman waiting to greet her.

“My name is Cheng, Major; I trust you will be able to forgive the nature of your journey here and the way in which you were questioned – I am assured any after-effects of the drugs will soon pass.”

The language was English, the tone respectful, the fact the woman was a potentially a civilian unexpected. Markova ignored her natural inclination to be difficult, choosing instead polite acceptance. “I assume my answers were what you expected? I’m afraid my recollection is a little hazy.” It was said in a neutral tone with the barest hint of sarcasm, Markova trying to give no clue as to her present state of mind.

“The methods used were unfortunate, Major,” said Cheng, waving Markova to a seat, “but under the circumstances I fear they were necessary. China is being accused of a deliberate attack against a U.S. destroyer and we needed to be certain as to the truth of what you had discovered in Bolshoy Kamen.”

Markova chose to stay silent, sitting down opposite Cheng at an antique rosewood table, water, a pad and pen close at hand.

“Please excuse my lack of manners, Major,” continued Cheng, trying to lighten the mood, “I should have formally welcomed you to the ancient city of Tieling; if it helps, we are seven hundred kilometres north-east of Beijing and about two hundred from the border with North Korea. This house was once the home of the local Governor, his interest in the history of our country extending to stealing its many antiquities; now its main use is as a base for visiting dignitaries.”

Markova’s surroundings might be impressive but she was no dignitary, merely a prisoner, her future very much in doubt. For some reason, China was now following the more diplomatic style of persuasion, Markova concerned that the next stage would be a polite enquiry as to her family.

Cheng was close to thinking along the same lines. “Major Natalia Markova,” she recited, reading from a thin file. “Natasha to family and friends; FSB Alpha Group and confidant to the late General Grebeshkov; now wanted by the Russian authorities for conspiracy and murder.” She looked up, forcing a smile, “That’s all very intriguing, Major.”

Markova remained silent, Cheng’s seemingly random set of facts proving nothing.

“And then we have General Morozov,” Cheng continued, taking her time. “I understand you worked closely with the General, part of a specialist team at Tutaev.” She let the statement hang for a second, as though waiting for Markova for comment. “It’s an impressive record, Major; one many people would be proud of.”

Markova ignored the sarcasm, focusing more on what Cheng didn’t say. The fact she knew about Tutaev indicated a source high-up in Russia’s military or perhaps the National Guard, Cheng’s willingness to share such information an ominous sign as to Markova’s eventual fate.

Cheng pressed on, seemingly keen to impress her captive audience with the quality of China’s intelligence network. “We both know China is the innocent party here, falsely accused of the deaths in Khabarovsk and those aboard the USS Milius. We had feared this phantom submarine might be North Korean and only linked it to Zvezda once Daniil Chavkin had been arrested; at which point our interest in you redoubled. It took time to work out your precise escape route and get a unit in place, and we were both fortunate your Russian spetsnaz didn’t pick you up an hour earlier. To then hear Chavkin’s detailed admission was a welcome bonus for which we are very grateful.” Cheng gave a thin smile, “You in turn should thank us, Major. Daniil Chavkin and his family have disappeared, most likely killed; I imagine that too would have been your fate.”

It was a lot to take in, Markova’s actions apparently playing into Beijing’s hands. And as to whether she was better off in Tieling than the National Guard’s custody was clearly debatable.

“What now?” Markova asked softly. “Keep me alive to confirm what Chavkin has said? Without independent verification from the South China Sea, it’s all meaningless.”

Cheng lifted her hands in pretend shock, “You misunderstand, Major; the sea bed will soon give us everything we could possibly want. It is your relationship with General Morozov that is important to us now. You are obviously someone the General trusts and we wish to make him an offer, a gesture of friendship for the future.”

Markova tried to grasp what Cheng might have in mind, it clear that in China’s eyes Morozov was a far better alternative than Golubeva. “A gesture of friendship,” Markova repeated slowly. “That’s seems hard to believe.”

“The relationship between our two countries is at a difficult stage,” said Cheng, picking her words carefully. “Your President appears set on a path to war, prepared to manipulate events and even murder her own people. China is sympathetic to General Morozov’s present difficulties and we would be willing to offer a form of assistance. Nothing obvious, but it could tip the balance in the General’s favour.”

Markova didn’t see how, not unless a Chinese armoured division suddenly materialised outside the city of Astrakhan. The Politburo’s offer was purely one of self-interest, it trusting that Russia would be forced to wait until Morozov was neutralised before joining the anti-Chinese alliance. Yet whatever China’s ploy, it was a dangerous game they played: should Golubeva win through, Beijing’s interference in Russia’s internal struggles would only give Golubeva one more pretext to make use of the military option. The risks for General Morozov were similarly complex and any obvious military support from China would effectively destroy his credibility; without it, his forces in Astrakhan would likely be annihilated.

Markova poured herself some water, needing a moment to think. “Assistance comes in many forms; what exactly have you in mind?”

Cheng’s brow furrowed and again she searched for the right words. “First you must understand that China has no wish to go to war with Russia or the United States. All we are trying to do is ensure the desire exists – in Hanoi and Manila as well as Moscow and Washington – to work together for a more lasting peace. China is willing to put everything on the table for discussion, but others must also be prepared to compromise.”

Cheng paused, only now ready to answer Markova’s question. “General Morozov is working blind, no clear idea as to the forces arrayed against him or exactly where they are; his supporters elsewhere are similarly operating in a vacuum, unable to co-ordinate any future response. We can provide regular and comprehensive intelligence updates; we even have access to a high-level source within your Southern Military District.”

If true, it was an admission which helped illustrate China’s commitment to helping Morozov, one key agent effectively sacrificed to prove the offer was genuine. If the forces trapped in Astrakhan were to stand any chance, then Morozov first needed to break the grip of the blockading troops; only then would others risk joining him. His main hope lay at Voronezh, five hundred kilometres south of Moscow, home to the 20th Guards Army Group; it was barely two weeks since many of the troops there had been confined to barracks, their exact loyalty still in question.

“And what do you expect in exchange,” Markova asked slowly, feeling her way.

“Nothing,” Cheng said with emphasis. “We all understand Russia needs a strong leader but that must also be someone China can trust; that can never be Golubeva. As I said earlier, it is a gesture of friendship; one we hope will eventually be reciprocated.”

Markova backtracked, needing to understand each subtle twist. “What of Chavkin’s revelations?”

“As you yourself said, without something more conclusive no-one would believe it; certainly not the Americans. General Morozov has known about the Koschei for over three days, yet he has done nothing. It is a truth all of Russia would prefer to bury.”

Markova sipped her water, mulling over the Politburo’s offer, trying to work out the potential flaws and repercussions. The Politburo might want nothing in exchange but if Morozov eventually regained some semblance of real power, China’s past assistance could easily be used against him, and it was unlikely such support would be greeted with much enthusiasm on the streets of Moscow or Saint Petersburg.

That was obviously not for Markova to decide and she had no authority to argue or debate; yet she had no intention of merely being the messenger, needing to be certain as to how much faith could be placed in the words of a total stranger.

“We are simply providing General Morozov with a lifeline,” Cheng continued, “and he needs to break out of Astrakhan if he is to survive. We are certainly aware of significant divisions within the General Staff. One symbolic victory for Morozov might well be enough to force Golubeva to seek some form of compromise; something I believe you too would want for Russia.”

Markova was far from convinced Golubeva would give up so easily. The President had run rings around most of her opponents and – like Morozov – she seemed able to engender a fierce loyalty; something not that easy in a country as chauvinistic as Russia.

Deep down Markova still suspected it was all a trick, China’s motives far more selfish than Cheng implied. “And what happens when you get your breathing space?” she demanded. “With Vietnam shattered and the Philippines blackmailed into submission, it makes sense to try and keep Russia distracted while you convince America as to your innocence. What then for Russia? Is that the true cost of your offer to Morozov?”

Cheng seemed taken aback at Markova’s intransigence. “I assure you that is not what we intend. We need time for diplomacy to work its magic and convince others of the stupidity of war. In a few decades China will have become a true world power, our economy outstripping all others; why would we risk it all for so little gain?”

Markova shook her head, unconvinced that China’s motives for helping Morozov were quite so straightforward. General Morozov had once been brave enough to put his faith in her judgement and she was merely trying to repay the debt, doing what she thought was right.

Cheng seemed to sense that the argument was being lost. “I suggest we take a break,” she said, pushing back her chair. “Perhaps I can find some other way to convince you of our sincerity.”

  • * *

The first anti-war protests had started the previous day, a few hundred demonstrators gathering in Beijing’s Wangfujing Street. Home to chain stores, boutiques and restaurants, the long pedestrian mall well illustrated China’s multinational standing, the street’s businesses and shoppers nervous as to how the threat of war might affect them. The gathering had been well organised and relatively polite as protests go, with just a dozen or so homemade placards pleading for a bloodless resolution to the crisis. Most people had given the demonstration nothing more than a cursory glance; however, by early afternoon it had pulled in a watching crowd several hundred strong – not exactly supporters but the curious and the concerned, people listening in polite silence as a speech had extolled the virtues of diplomacy and peaceful co-operation.

The police had kept a careful eye on events but not interfered, the problems only beginning when a larger counter-protest had formed less than fifty metres away, outside the McDonalds restaurant. The second group had been far more vociferous than their neighbours and eventually some had turned their attention to haranguing anyone who spoke out against China’s aggressive stance; even the watching Friday-afternoon shoppers had been targeted, jeered for their American-style clothes, those trying to eat in the McDonalds and KFC intimidated, their entry blocked.

The authorities’ use of ‘civilian’ enforcers to break up such protests was a well-rehearsed tactic, it usually proving more acceptable than police batons and pepper spray. This time however the sympathy of those not directly involved had abruptly turned from passive observation into something more assertive; violent scuffles had spread along the mall, several shop fronts smashed, the police finally forced to intervene.

Within an hour the mall had effectively been cleared of the anti-war protestors, workers erasing all evidence of the violent confrontation well before Saturday opening. Officially no injuries had been reported and it had been left to social media to reveal the true cost of such public dissent. One image had quickly spread across the world’s news media: a young woman on her knees, face bloodied, two police standing over her with batons raised – the message to those advocating peace was now very clear,

The Beijing authorities had resisted the temptation to block the various images and video clips, initially regarding the demonstration and the resultant outcry as a fairly minor example of the expected opposition. Government policy in the South China Sea was hardly likely to gain unanimous public support and they were happy to try and weather the storm, the Politburo’s policy on human rights already subject to worldwide disapproval.

However, Beijing’s indifference soon changed once Saturday had started to edge towards mid-morning. As with the Russian protests of the previous year and the more recent turmoil in Washington, social media was the catalyst for a surge in numbers of those heading to Wangfujing Street. Virtually all of them seemed happy to show their support for the peace movement, many obviously prepared for the long haul. This was a more determined and assertive movement than the routine protests of the past decade and also far wider, with Hong Kong and Shanghai just two of several cities simultaneously holding some form of march or protest.

The large police presence around Wangfujing Street quickly encouraged a change of tactics, a crowd several thousand strong heading west towards Tiananmen Square. Like the other demonstrations across China, the Beijing protest didn’t really have a key leader or even a single organising group; people were primarily drawn in by a spontaneous desire to vent their frustration, fearful of what the next few days and weeks might bring.

China had grown accustomed to letting an elite clique of supposedly able men guide their country forward, the stability and prosperity of the last fifty years an acceptable trade for a very restricted form of democracy. But recent events had shaken the foundation of that understanding, China’s leaders taking its people along a very dangerous and unclear path.

The biggest demonstration – far outstripping that in Beijing – was in Hong Kong, and by noon an estimated ten thousand people had found their way to the accepted meeting point of Victoria Park, several hundred students then leading the way to the high-end shopping area of Causeway Bay. Even though the warning signs had been seen and understood, the authorities’ response was slow and inadequate, the police unable to prevent the protestors from gaining a foothold on their chosen territory. The two sides seemed to be on a collision course, both gathering their forces and preparing for the inevitable confrontation and defiance, the violence of the past never forgotten.

  • * *

The break turned out to be far longer than Markova had expected, the rest of the morning spent in the house’s magnificent library. Although unable to read virtually any of the books, she could grasp what many related to, the breadth of content and the quality of the hand-drawn images breathtaking. There was little else to do, no electronic distractions and no chance to even go for a walk. The guards were ever-present but careful to keep a respectful distance; not that Markova had any interest in trying to escape, knowing that her best chance of freedom still lay with Cheng and her ability to persuade her superiors to be more forthcoming.

They met again briefly over lunch, Cheng deliberately avoiding any mention of Morozov, the United States a slightly less contentious topic. Unlike the ill-informed hatred for America shown by many in Russia, Cheng’s attitude was rather more forgiving and to Markova it revealed a subtle shift in China’s own mind-set, the desire for a peaceful accord perhaps more widespread than she had anticipated.

Cheng even revealed something of her own background, her school-learnt English skills enhanced by virtue of eighteen months in India, plus eight more as part of a U.N. peacekeeping force in Liberia. Despite her civilian clothes, Markova’s best guess was that Cheng was in Military Intelligence, Chinese protocol doubtless ensuring that her rank matched that of Markova.

The early afternoon had started to drag and it was almost a relief to be called back to the dining room. If Cheng hoped that a few hours’ reflection would make her guest more receptive then she would be disappointed, Markova ready to dismiss any quid pro quo inducements, such as a free ride back across the border.

This time Cheng was accompanied by an officer in army uniform, the two stars of his insignia suitably impressive. “Lieutenant-General Liang Qinglin,” introduced Cheng formally, “Deputy Chief of the General Staff.”

Liang surprised Markova by stepping forward to offer his hand in greeting, the General seemingly unconcerned at the risks involved in consorting with a potential enemy.

He waved Markova to a seat, “I’m told, Major, that you need convincing our offer is sincere and I trust that my presence here will suffice. For what it’s worth, you also have my word that the satellite images you’re about to see have not been altered in any way and were downloaded just two hours ago.”

The language remained English but Liang could have just as easily swapped to Russian. Military co-operation between Russia and China had been particularly popular during the Putin era, no real secrets shared, it more a show to irritate the West. As an expert in military history, Liang had given several lectures at the Frunze Military Academy in Moscow; he had even once met Morozov there, although the memory was an unclear one.

“Unfortunately,” Liang continued, “the situation in Astrakhan Oblast has altered significantly in the last twelve hours. If you wish to help General Morozov, I’m afraid time is fast running out.”

The top of the rosewood table had the usual of water, pad and pens, plus a digital display for each of the participants, the screen in front of Markova presently blank. Liang nodded to Cheng and a composite satellite image instantly appeared on the display. “A hundred and fifty kilometres south-east of Volgograd,” said Liang in explanation.

It took Markova a few seconds to make sense of what she was seeing, the armoured vehicles and troops parked up as though awaiting orders. She was able to zoom in to pick out individual soldiers, even get close enough to work out their officer’s rank. The number of armoured vehicles suggested at least one company, some ten tanks in total. Markova scrolled to north and south, trying to get some indication as to the veracity of what she was being shown. Given a few hours she could have checked more definitively and for all she knew the pictures could have been taken a month or a year ago.

Liang seemed content to wait for Markova to finish her analysis and made no attempt to hurry her. “28th Brigade,” he said helpfully.

Markova nodded her agreement, “I assume there’s more?”

There were another eight composite images, each one showing something similar and taken together they revealed the deployment of a full armoured brigade of four thousand men. A final map view put the nine images into a geographic context: the army units were concentrated to the north and west of the city of Astrakhan, with Morozov hemmed in to the east and south by the political and physical barriers of Kazakhstan, the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus Mountains. The Russian army was finally moving in force to neutralise Russia’s one-time Chief of the General Staff, the 28th Armoured Brigade transferred from its base 1400 kilometres east of Moscow. Veterans of the Ukraine conflict, the Brigade was a loyal and capable Kremlin enforcer, its commander presumably unimpressed by Morozov’s recent exploits.

“We estimate General Morozov has some eight hundred men,” said Liang in conclusion. “They’re relatively well armed with perhaps a dozen tanks and some air support, even two corvettes from the Caspian Flotilla. But they’re outnumbered five-to-one with the Russian army closing in from at least three directions. We’re aware Morozov has his supporters in Volgograd and to the north but they certainly won’t act while he is holed-up in Astrakhan. According to our source, Special Forces will be landing at the port area of the city before daybreak – by then the trap will already be shut tight. No doubt Morozov will try to fall back to the city centre or the Volga Delta but the final outcome is inevitable.”

“Then why not just release this information to General Morozov?”

Liang opened his hands wide in a gesture of frustration, “General Morozov would be foolish to place his trust in such unsubstantiated and unsolicited data. We can turn the odds more in his favour but only if he acts quickly.” He let the thought hang for a second, Markova knowing what he was about to say. “You, Major, are the only one who might convince him that he cannot defend Astrakhan and hope to survive; if he assumes we are exaggerating and attempts to do the impossible, then President Golubeva will have her victory. That will be of no help to any of us.”

Markova stared at the map image, visualising the red icons representing the spetsnaz and 28th Brigade moving to encircle Astrakhan, their grip tightening with the defenders nowhere left to run. It made absolute sense but she still had no real guarantee that it wasn’t just some clever Chinese fantasy, with Morozov being offered up on a plate to Golubeva as some sort of bribe; victory would come easily if Morozov could be persuaded to abandon well-prepared positions and retreat.

But retreat to where? Both Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan would be unlikely to risk upsetting their powerful neighbour whatever inducements were offered, and the loyalist elements from the 58th Army effectively blocked Morozov’s route through the Caucasus Mountains and into Georgia. Eight hundred men, plus armoured vehicles – there was just nowhere for them to go.

Liang seemed to have read her mind and the display changed to show a satellite image of the city of Astrakhan, the single route east across the Volga highlighted. The E40 was an International Highway which ran all the way from Calais almost to China, Astrakhan just seventy kilometres from the border with Kazakhstan.

“We’re aware that certain elements in Kazakhstan are willing to offer Morozov sanctuary,” said Liang, studying Markova carefully. “It would be limited to Morozov and his close associates; twenty men at most. Not perhaps ideal but it would give him a chance to regroup.”

Markova stared at Liang, appalled at what he was suggesting and bewildered as to how such a betrayal could possibly help China. Morozov would never abandon his men. And if he did, he would be seen as nothing more than a coward, willing to sacrifice everything to save his own skin. There simply had to be some other way.

Liang’s face broke into a broad smile, “Relax, Major; General Morozov has steadfastly rejected all such offers. Death or glory seems to be his intention; something I can admire if not necessarily agree with.”

Markova frowned in confusion, trying to make sense of what Liang was saying. “If he sits tight or retreats, he’s annihilated; with eight hundred men, Morozov can hardly attack four thousand.”

Liang gave a slight nod of agreement, before explaining exactly what the CMC had in mind. To begin with the plan had merely been a set of vague ideas, Liang and others curious as to what they would do in Morozov’s shoes. Markova’s presence so close to China’s border had given it added purpose, the final more detailed plans cobbled together in just twenty-four hours once she had reached Tieling. The projections were consequently based on a range of dubious assumptions and an idealistic appraisal as to General Morozov’s skills, the odds of success suggesting that he might well be better off choosing the Kazakhstan route. The pitfalls for China were also significant, the CMC prepared to throw away several key advantages in its support for Morozov.

Markova listened intently, questions asked and answered, the data pulled apart to see if there was some better way forward. Large-scale military actions were well beyond Markova’s expertise, and she used common-sense to try and plug the gaps in her understanding, seeing the potential while worrying as to the complexity of what was being proposed.

“A decision must be made soon,” encouraged Liang. “If Morozov agrees, there can be no second chances and the timing is crucial.”

Seated thousands of kilometres away from Astrakhan, it was impossible to know what was best. Markova sensed that Liang was very much in the mould of Morozov, her instincts suggesting he was holding nothing back, a temporary understanding with Morozov the best that China could hope for.

Markova felt she’d heard enough to at least pass on Liang’s offer directly to her superior, together with a suitable recommendation. The blurring of the line between allies and enemies was all-too common of late, General Morozov and China each searching for their own form of salvation.

  • * *

General Liang boarded the helicopter with a sense of failure, even though he knew there was little more he could have done. His persuasive abilities had been used to the full but Morozov remained unconvinced, the satellite data greeted with wry acceptance. The CMC’s proposal was still on the table but he wasn’t optimistic, and every hour wasted in prevarication would merely lengthen the odds against success. Perhaps he had been stupid to expect anything else: Morozov’s reluctance was based on an understandable lack of trust; fear too of the potential repercussions should China’s assistance ever become general knowledge.

The Politburo’s hopes of being able to delay a Russian invasion were fast evaporating, the strategy of reducing the number of threats to something more manageable faltering before it had barely begun. Negotiations with Vietnam and the Philippines were close to stalling, both countries keen to await America’s next move. While the situation in Xinjiang had stabilised, the internal problems had merely shifted focus, moving on from the nationalist aspirations of the border regions to become a peace movement affecting several major cities.

Success for those pressing for a more progressive China was typically measured over decades rather than days, and their numbers had never quite been enough to worry the Government into a rapid change of heart. Now that complacency was under threat, the anti-war sentiment across China far stronger and far more vociferous than even Liang had imagined. The latest intelligence reports predicted that Sunday would see the number of protestors reach a million or more, with virtually every major city in China affected.

For now, the silent majority was still supportive of the Government and a Russian invasion would only provoke a sense of patriotic fervour, at least in the short term; the danger was it would quickly disappear as China’s difficulties mounted. For the Politburo, the peace movement was an unwanted distraction, China needing to show unity if it were to have any chance of negotiating its way out of the crisis and allowed to escape with honour intact. President Zhao was still hopeful that America would be the one to back down, convinced that the frequency of Deangelo’s various deadlines proved the U.S. was wary of actually going to war. The Politburo’s Standing Committee had even gone so far as to discuss a pre-emptive strike against the U.S. naval forces presently in the South China Sea before quickly rejecting the idea, the spectre of a widespread and unrestricted war a powerful incentive to continue the search for a peaceful resolution.

It was still possible that the threat from Russia was exaggerated, with Golubeva preferring to wait until America had brought China to her knees. Nevertheless, President Golubeva’s patience did not seem to extend to matters involving General Morozov and the armoured thrusts towards the city of Astrakhan were timed to coincide with the pre-dawn attack on the port by Russia’s Special Forces – that gave Morozov no more than eighteen hours to plan his response.

As if on cue the co-pilot’s voice sounded in Liang’s headset, an urgent message from Cheng needing an immediate answer. Liang listened intently before responding in the affirmative, eyes closing in silent thanks to whatever gods had chosen to answer his prayers. The desperation of Morozov’s predicament had finally forced his hand, the CMC’s offer accepted as being the best from a set of impossible choices.

It was a time for them all to be blasé as to the risks, where simply doing nothing was in itself a significant gamble. The Politburo’s strategy would now be put to its sternest test, the key player a Russian general with little love for his unwanted Chinese allies.

  • * *

The surge of support across China for those advocating peace seemed to be gathering its own momentum; whatever the city, University students invariably formed a relatively large proportion of the protestors, their disillusionment with the Government an especially powerful motive for change. In cities where the number of demonstrators remained small, the police presence was enough of a deterrent to ensure the protests simply fizzled out, and the official media blatantly ignored all such protests. It was a policy which utterly failed in the major power-bases of Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai, the unofficial TV networks finally proving their worth. As darkness settled, each of the city centres was emblazoned in yellow, the colour borrowed from past protests with a simple ribbon now the favoured symbol over the more obtrusive umbrella. Police reinforcements were not yet in position, the military ideally needed elsewhere, and to make matters worse China’s skill in cyber-espionage was turned inward, police communications disrupted and computer systems frozen.

The mood in Beijing remained relatively restrained. Independent reports estimated there were now close to forty thousand demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, well short of the peak of 300,000 that had gathered there in 1989 and far less than the protests in Moscow and Washington that had swept Golubeva and Deangelo to power. Whether police or protestor, everyone was very conscious of Tiananmen Square’s special place in history, both sides keen not to provoke trouble. Music and speeches provided a focus for some, a pleasant distraction to others, the tents and sleeping bags slowly spreading to occupy a good third of the square, everyone a little nervous as to what the authorities might do come morning.

For Hong Kong, it was another chance for its seven million people to prove they would not be bullied by the Government in Beijing and, for a few hours at least, Hong Kong Island effectively became cut off from the rest of China, the additional security units struggling to cross from Kowloon. Close to a hundred thousand people were now in Victoria Park or marching through the city, various streets blocked, the island’s traffic grinding to a halt. Several thousand demonstrators gathered at the three-metre high barrier that protected the Civic Square and the Central Government Offices, the metal railings festooned with yellow, protest songs sung, the atmosphere one of exuberance and hope, not yet one of anger or despair.

Such public dissent could not be allowed to go unchallenged and hundreds of government supporters started to gather in the side streets, their blue ribbons a deliberate colour match to the police uniforms. They quickly forced their way through to Civic Square, the two sides trying to out-shout each other. The vocal battle soon changed to become one of bottles and bricks, fist fights raging across a dozen streets. The government supporters were vastly outnumbered but more vicious in their attacks, the defenders falling back while trying to carry their wounded away. The police once again simply stood by and watched with no attempt made to interfere or separate the two groups; even ambulances came under attack, the crews facing a barrage of abuse and an occasional bottle.

As word spread of the brutality of the response, the protestors started to arm themselves with whatever was available, their frustrations taken out on the metal barrier safeguarding Civic Square, a vehicle winch the attacker’s most effective weapon. The police finally responded with the usual of batons and pepper spray, the searchlight from a helicopter picking out individuals to target; the height and nature of the barrier made it more difficult for the police to defend it effectively, hundreds of demonstrators reinforcing those attempting to break through into the square. Fighting soon spread to the area around the High Court Building and even Police Headquarters, the sound of gunfire finally cutting through the tumult.

Unsure what was happening, the protestors immediately pulled back, regrouping just a few blocks away. The local hospitals were already struggling to cope with the influx of wounded and volunteers began combing the streets to help where they could. The Hong Kong news media were used to a certain independence and support for and against the protests was split, the estimated number of casualties varying wildly from a few dozen up to several hundred, one hospital claiming at least five demonstrators had been killed, two with single gunshots to the head.

Both sides now needed to lick their wounds and plan out the new day. Despite the authorities belatedly choosing to shut down the internet and mobile phone networks, the scenes of brutality – not just from the police – were still finding their way on to social media; the peace movement claimed to be uncowed by the police response, online videos urging others to join the protests and so prove people’s true strength of feeling. Those in Tiananmen Square learnt of events from Hong Kong with a growing sense of unease, several thousand choosing to pack up and leave, the risks now simply too great.

 

[]Boston, U.S.A. – 13:55 Local Time; 18:55 UTC

Anderson was finally back on track with his obligations to The Washington Post, the article drawing comparisons between Golubeva and Deangelo due to published on the Monday, a second more controversial one on the shootings in the National Mall still trying to work its way past the worried frowns of the paper’s lawyers. Conscience and bank balance duly satisfied, Carter’s parting gift of Professor Charles Nash had proved impossible to ignore, Anderson’s reservations temporarily put on hold.

A weekend meeting at short notice was always likely to be difficult but as soon as Nash had heard Anderson’s accent nothing was too much trouble. A native of Kent, Nash’s fifteen years in the U.S. had been spent mostly at Harvard, a wife won and lost along the way; the three-storey townhouse in Charlestown had been purchased soon after the divorce, it now filled with an assortment of antiques, no corner left bare. The large study was even more chaotic, two walls covered with bookshelves, Nash’s background in History and Political Science revealed by the hundreds of books and magazines stuffed on shelves and piled high on the floor, a paper version obviously preferred to any online resource. Technology did make a tentative appearance in the form of a closed laptop, it resting on the green leather inlay of an antique desk, alongside a selection of chunky hardbacks.

Physically, Nash was nothing like Anderson had imagined: late-forties, the upper-class accent had conjured up a vision of someone tall and skinny, probably with an unlit pipe in his mouth. In reality, Nash’s physical appearance was suited to that of a wrestler, his handshake as bone-crunching as Anderson had feared. The expected offer of sherry was instead replaced by various less alcoholic options, Nash seemingly determined to make sure his guest was well looked after.

Although Anderson was supposed to be directing the conversation, Nash obviously had other ideas and an abridged version of Anderson’s own journey from one Boston to the other was dragged from him, no reference made to Carter or McDowell. Nash, however, seemed to have drawn his own conclusions from their initial phone conversation, the intervening time well spent doing his own checks as to Anderson’s background.

“I’ve read of your exploits in D.C.,” said Nash with a broad smile. “Fugitive reporter suddenly turns up in the National Mall with the FBI in tow – I’m intrigued, do tell me more.”

Anderson returned the smile, “Sorry; I’m under orders not to say anything. Suffice to say, I was trying to do the right thing… Your name was actually given to me by another English export, name of Jonathan Carter.”

Nash frowned, “It’s a common enough name but it doesn’t ring a bell. Are we talking student or colleague?”

“Neither I’m afraid. If Carter means nothing, then what about Pat McDowell?” Anderson was definitely feeling his way, no clear idea as what relevance the Professor might have to anyone, let alone Deangelo or Thorn.

Nash looked curiously at Anderson, more puzzled than anything. “You mean the man the FBI are hunting for various murders? Am I supposed to know him?”

“I guess not. It was Carter who suggested I should speak to you, so there must be some connection.”

“And Carter has something to do with McDowell?” Nash didn’t wait for an answer, brow furrowing as he recalled a past news item. “My apologies; I was being a bit slow. Wasn’t Carter one of those arrested for hacking into government databases?”

“That’s him; Carter and the others were working under orders from McDowell, which makes it all the more intriguing as to why he gave me your name.” Anderson was annoyed that he hadn’t got more about Nash out of Carter, already convinced that if the Professor really was involved then it was more by accident than design.

Nash quizzically raised one eyebrow, “Since I know nothing of either of these men, how precisely am I expected to be of help?”

Anderson shrugged, “Sadly, Carter didn’t say. I’m guessing that someone might have been in contact with you at some stage; maybe three or so months ago, maybe longer. Perhaps they wanted to pick your political brain about something.” He knew it all sounded a bit vague but he was struggling not to imply anything too close to the reality, conscious that the FBI would likely be following up on his every question.

Nash slowly shook his head, “There’s nothing obvious, I’m afraid.”

“No-one, say, wanting advice about a plot for a book or a film?”

“I wish,” replied Nash with a wry smile. “A film credit would nicely finish off my CV.”

“What about Neil Ritter? Did you know him?”

Again the raised eyebrow, “You’re certainly coming up with an interesting selection of names. Yes, I knew Neil; not that well but our paths had crossed now and again. We last met at a conference in New York; April sometime I think it was. He always seemed a fairly serious sort; not someone likely to be murdered… You’re suggesting Neil has some connection with Carter and this McDowell character?”

“It’s a possibility, nothing definite.” Anderson decided it was time to give up dodging the issue, sensing that it was the only way to make progress. “Maybe it’s more to do with your political connections. Presumably there must be a good few rumours about Dick Thorn and how Bob Deangelo eased his way into the White House?”

Nash took the question in his stride, unwilling to let Anderson’s name-dropping intimidate him into saying something he might later regret. The political machinations of the past month had added an extra dash of realism to Nash’s lectures and tutorials, the dramas played out in the corridors of power discussed and argued over at length. Nash carefully mulled over his answer, curious now as to what Anderson was implying.

“With respect, Mr Anderson,” Nash said finally, “I would hardly reveal the content of private conversations to someone I had only met less than an hour ago. We’re a fairly close band of political introverts, and we debate and argue with each other like any other circle of friends. Deangelo’s succession surprised just about everyone but there’s been no serious hint of anything underhand… Before you ask, Deangelo’s not someone I’ve ever met; Dick Thorn I’ve known for several years and if I’m honest I share some of his frustration with America’s political system; however, I wouldn’t go so far as to call him a friend.” Nash paused, looking straight at Anderson, “Are you suggesting that Thorn and Deangelo were part of some conspiracy to seize power?”

“Not exactly; not just yet anyway,” said Anderson, playing safe. “Would your area of expertise fit in with that type of scenario?”

“I’m afraid my interest lies mainly with the history and development of political systems not how to disable or overthrow them,” responded Nash. “It’s not as if any so-called expert holds all the answers and can tell someone how to take over the government in five easy steps, and certainly not after one casual conversation like this. We could all come up with ways to make life more difficult for the President or Congress but I sense you’re implying something more along the lines of a palace revolution. That’s not quite what happened with Deangelo; he was after all nominated by his predecessor.”

Anderson knew they were going round in circles, Carter no doubt having a good laugh at his expense. “What if Congress had rejected Deangelo?” he asked curiously. “Could someone like Thorn have taken over? He obviously had plenty of people wound up in the National Mall.”

“You’re talking of a coup,” said Nash, trying not to sound patronising. “Popular support is never usually enough; the military need to at least offer their implicit approval.”

“And is that actually feasible here?”

“In the United States?” Nash’s brow furrowed in concentration, not willing to totally dismiss Anderson’s question as ridiculous. “It’s highly unlikely and I’m not sure what the justification might be. Bob Deangelo’s nomination was a rushed affair but the democratic process was still followed to the letter; what made it so unusual was the rapid and sustained sequence of problems which led to the crisis in the first place.”

“Okay, so no palace revolution and no chance of a coup…”

“I didn’t exactly say that, Mr Anderson, and history proves we would be foolish to totally ignore the possibility.”

Anderson stayed silent, confused as to why Carter had bothered mentioning Nash. He was convinced the professor was trying to be helpful – it was more that he wasn’t asking the right questions. For Carter to simply waste Anderson’s time seemed a little pointless, childish even; Nash was the key to something, Anderson just needing to work out exactly what.

Nash was similarly intrigued as to why he was on a hacker’s contact list. One possibility kept nagging away at him, even though it was years old, a free exchange of ideas that in turn had led to something more permanent.

He pulled open the laptop and searched for a file. “After the budget impasse of 2013, I wrote a series of articles on the role of Government; the final one considered the scenario of a president choosing to dissolve Congress.”

“Dissolve how exactly?” said Anderson, pleased that inspiration had finally made an appearance.

“I didn’t specify. It was just a discussion document, looking purely at the potential repercussions and even the odd advantage as to how the government might function.” Nash twisted the laptop around, the article duly found.

Anderson scanned through the first few paragraphs before opting to stick with Nash rather than some wordy document. “I take it the President can’t just order Congress to shut up shop when he feels like it, even if he could come up with some good excuse?”

“Normally the simple answer would be no,” said Nash thoughtfully. “However, a clause in Article II of the Constitution allows him – under exceptional circumstances – to adjourn Congress if the two chambers disagree as to the date of adjournment; now, with the House of Representatives trying to prevent Thorn’s confirmation, that particular clause has suddenly become rather more relevant. The President can also invoke emergency powers to suspend or enact laws, but he can’t use them to dismiss Congress. Lincoln and Franklin D Roosevelt exercised emergency powers during times of crisis but they were still subject to oversight from both chambers. And Congress can always seek to impeach a president who oversteps his authority.”

“And they can impeach him even if they have to meet in secret, say in New York?”

Nash pulled a face, “It’s not that simple. Article I forbids either House from meeting other than in the Capitol unless the other agrees. If the Capitol Building is off limits, it’s a moot point as to whether any such meeting would be legal.”

Anderson was just about keeping up. “So under normal circumstances, physically preventing members of Congress from entering the Capitol would be enough to stop Senators and Representatives from legally enacting any laws? And they couldn’t even impeach the President?”

“In theory, yes,” said Nash looking uncomfortable. “I imagine Congress would still try to meet somewhere else and worry about the consequences later. It would all come down to whether one illegal act by the President justifies a reciprocal illegal act by Congress. The lawyers could end up tying themselves in knots for months.”

“What if instead of trying to prevent members accessing Congress, they were held incommunicado inside the Capitol Building itself or detained elsewhere?”

Nash shook his head, instantly dismissing the whole idea, “Now you’re definitely voyaging into the realms of fantasy, Mr Anderson. It would immediately create a constitutional crisis. Whatever scenario you want to pick, someone – the FBI, National Guard or the army – would act to restore Congress’ authority; they wouldn’t just allow a president to physically hold Congress hostage or sit back while armed guards blockaded the Capitol. The Supreme Court and every key government building and agency would have to be under the coup’s control – that would take some serious manpower.”

Anderson persevered, curious to see where his questionable logic might lead. “Which conveniently brings us back to the army. Presumably the D.C. Police by themselves would have the resources to isolate the Capitol Building?”

“I guess so,” said Nash, not wanting to commit himself. “Although I rather doubt the Capitol Police would be that accommodating… I seem to recall a follow-up paper from Professor Oscar at Princeton did concentrate on how a president might use the military to bring Congress to heel, and knowing Oscar he would have made sure the army shot a few Senators while they were at it. Maybe that’s what your man Carter had in mind.”

“Professor Oscar?” repeated Anderson. “Then wouldn’t Carter have simply given me his name in the first place?”

“Oscar passed away about three years ago – cancer. Perhaps I’m considered more approachable than a decaying corpse.”

Anderson was minded to agree and Carter obviously didn’t want to make it too easy for him, something else he had no doubt learnt from Pat McDowell. “And both of these articles are in the public domain?”

Nash reclaimed the laptop and quickly logged onto the Harvard website, talking as he worked. “The Harvard Library runs an open access repository and they can be downloaded from there. A handful of authors have cited my article over the years so it’s not totally obscure.” He studied the screen in front of him, checking out various pages. “The repository’s stats are a little basic, just number of downloads and little else; unfortunately, neither article has been downloaded in the last month – that’s about as much as I can get out of it.”

He again turned the screen towards Anderson so that he could see for himself the lack of information. It was another frustrating barrier to making sense of Carter’s offering, Anderson worried that he would need to read through several long-winded papers to get to a single key fact – and even then he wouldn’t know whether it was actually that relevant or not.

Nash was still keen to play the detective and unwilling to give up just yet. “Give me twenty minutes,” he said positively. “I’ll see what else I can come up with.”

Anderson didn’t argue, pleased to let someone else do the hard work. Earl Grey and a packet of Hobnobs duly made a welcome appearance with Nash apparently determined to maintain some key links with his homeland. Sadly, the twenty minute estimate turned out to be wildly inaccurate and Nash spent most of the next hour on the phone, his persuasive skills struggling to make headway.

An underemployed Anderson used the time to study Nash’s book collection. Not all were related to Nash’s political interests, a whole shelf filled with books on antiques, another with classic fiction, even Jane Austen. For some odd reason it all helped convince Anderson that Nash had nothing to hide, his surprise at being named by Carter almost certainly genuine.

“This may or may not be useful,” said Nash, phone calls finally complete. “The Congress article was downloaded just once in the past year; June 23rd to be exact. The same visitor also downloaded two other articles that same day: the one by Oscar and one published in 2000 by a Professor Daniels at Yale. My contact wouldn’t give me the visitor’s IP address but she did give me a rough location: Fredericksburg – does that help?”

Terrill was barely sixteen miles from Fredericksburg and it was enough to convince Anderson that he was on the right track. With Anderson now a captive audience, Nash reverted to teaching-mode, re-assessing each article in the light of President Cavanagh’s demise before offering his expert opinion as to how they all fitted together.

Anderson listened politely, more intrigued by the content of the overlong Yale article. Professor Daniels had undertaken a step-by-step analysis of the various legal challenges made in response to the 1999 military coup in Pakistan. In an unexpected and controversial judgement, the Supreme Court had finally declared the coup legal and justified, Pervez Musharraf continuing on as Pakistan’s President until 2008.

The fact someone had looked up a shady legal judgement together with a hypothetical means of suspending Congress proved nothing; even if Carter or McDowell was the person actually doing the looking, it could still be little more than an idle piece of research rather than a hint as to some future event. Intriguing at best was Anderson’s first thought, pleased that his trip to Boston wasn’t quite a total washout.

In the end Anderson stayed for another two hours, Nash an entertaining if occasionally eccentric host. Their parting handshake was as bone-crunching as earlier and Anderson’s warning that the FBI would likely be in contact was met with a broad smile of anticipation; such attention was to be welcomed, the Professor delighted that his political speculation was being taken so seriously, his kudos amongst his Harvard colleagues rising by the hour.

For Anderson a flight back to D.C. seemed as good a next move as any, especially with the possibility that Congress might still be a target. Professor Oscar’s concept of how Congress would be dissolved was the Capitol Building shut down, key Senators and Representatives arrested. He had also assumed that only the military would have the resources to enforce and maintain such a divisive act, and he had looked at two distinct scenarios, a couple of retired generals lending their professional insight.

The first had the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, more commonly referred to as the Old Guard, striking out from its base across the Potomac to support National Guard Units as they sealed off key government facilities: the Capitol, House and Senate Office Buildings, the Supreme Court, the Hoover Building…

More complex was the second of Oscar’s blueprints, units from the 82nd Airborne Division alone tasked with securing Washington. Based at Fort Bragg some 280 miles south of D.C., the Airborne Division had changed significantly since Oscar had written his paper, and the more recent follow-up comments had focused on the Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team and its ability to handle such a challenge. Whether three parachute battalions and a squadron of tanks was overkill or not was well outside of Anderson’s understanding, public reaction to any takeover likely to be the deciding factor. Congress might have a record low approval rating of just six percent but that didn’t mean people would happily settle for an all-powerful president, especially one they hadn’t even voted for.

And what about the various security agencies such as the DHS and FBI, or the rest of the military – would they simply sit back and do nothing? What if some members of Congress resisted and were hurt or even killed, would that provoke more of a reaction? The Senate’s Sergeant at Arms had the authority to arrest anyone violating Senate rules and that included the President of the United States, although Anderson wasn’t convinced Deangelo’s Secret Service detail would necessarily be that obliging.

Compared with Oscar’s first option, the airborne alternative seemed to lack a certain spontaneity, it needing significant pre-planning to move hundreds of men all the way to Washington. Yet it had already happened once before: the 1971 May protests against the Vietnam War had seen transports fly in four thousand men from the 82nd Airborne to Andrews Air Force Base just ten miles from the Capitol, some then taken by helicopter direct to the National Mall; that was in addition to the six thousand Marines, two thousand National Guard, and five thousand police already assembling in D.C. Together, they had protected every key building, monument, bridge and road; over seven thousand people arrested that day alone as the protests turned violent, some twelve thousand over the course of a week.

Anderson would still have made it an unlikely second choice except for one worrying fact – Pat McDowell was ex-82nd Airborne. Was it really that difficult to imagine that instead of the target being thousands of angry protestors, it would change to become a few hundred stubborn members of Congress? The ‘it could never happen here’ response was starting to wear a little thin, history showing a coup was eminently feasible, but not whether it would actually last for longer than that first day.

The lure of a renewed political crisis ensured Anderson would continue to put everything else on hold and his personal life was again having to take a back seat. His promises to Charlotte were becoming more elastic with each day that passed, Anderson readying himself for a double helping of humble pie.

Chapter 10 – Sunday, November 20th

Shanghai, China – 04:17 Local Time; Saturday 20:17 UTC

Huang Meilin stood and watched in silence as extra police were bussed in, her vantage point giving her a good view of the gathering reinforcements away to the east, the sight of an occasional army uniform a worrying escalation. The emergency lights from the police lines were a dazzling distraction, most people unable to sleep, everyone anticipating some sort of attempt to drive them from the square come morning. It was eerie and unnerving, the crescent moon visible in the night sky even though People’s Square was as bright as day, long sombre shadows dancing and weaving amongst the tents and sleeping bags.

Meilin was perched atop the outer facade of the Shanghai Museum, its massive granite blocks only recently celebrating twenty-five years at the very heart of the city. The age of the exhibits inside could mostly be measured in terms of centuries and millennia rather than a few years, a testament to the enduring power of China and its people. Proof of that could easily be seen whichever way Meilin turned, the area ringed by skyscrapers, Shanghai a thriving metropolis of over twenty-five million.

The museum stood at the southern extreme of People’s Square, with the Municipal Government Headquarters marking the northern edge some two hundred metres distant. Beyond that lay the People’s Park, the area’s origins as a race course still apparent despite the formal gardens and play areas with their twisting paths.

The Square and Park were the accepted places for protestors to gather, simple to get to with the Government building an easy and convenient target. Sixty thousand had gathered there during the protests in 1989 but this time the number was slightly less impressive, ten thousand at most, the overwhelming majority aged under twenty-five.

Meilin was in her second year at Shanghai University, her political experience more one based on cynicism than outward rebellion. Like many of her peers, she saw the Politburo as an outdated haven for the old if not necessarily the incompetent, the pace of change still too slow and inconsistent. The Politburo’s bullying tactics against China’s weaker neighbours now threatened to destroy the country’s relative prosperity, together with those freedoms that had been so long in coming. The needs of the vulnerable or the young – never that high on the Government’s list of priorities – would continue to be ignored and Meilin was determined not to allow such arrogance and selfishness to go unchallenged. Her own future too was now in jeopardy.

Shanghai University had been a hotbed of vocal resistance over the years, regularly leading the fight against corruption and human rights’ abuses; yet it had often proved difficult to turn the students’ opposition into something more effective, many unwilling to risk the potential consequences of imprisonment or expulsion. The Government might claim that it had nothing to do with the attacks on the USS Milius and the Russian city of Khabarovsk but its later actions suggested otherwise, the murder of so many in Vietnam an unpalatable and embarrassing truth.

The public mood across Shanghai was one of increasing resentment, the scenes from Hong Kong and the subsequent censorship creating a palpable backlash. The ten thousand protestors in People’s Square was twice as many as the previous day and it might well double again by the afternoon, the authorities obviously choosing to act before the numbers became too great. The police could expect a disciplined if determined welcome, the protestors supposedly working to an agreed plan, one where violence was not even a last resort.

Beside Meilin stood her boyfriend of three months; Biao was a year older but for both of them this was a unique experience, neither quite sure what to expect or how to react. Like many of their university friends, they didn’t want to meekly abandon the Square but their options were limited, the forces arrayed against them well prepared for trouble.

Dressed in full riot gear with shields and batons, the police reinforcements were already starting to form a line several deep, the obvious intention to sweep in and drive the demonstrators west and reclaim People’s Square. More riot police had moved to the north to protect the Municipal Building and the Grand Theatre, buses used to blockade the south and west. The Square was now effectively cordoned off from the rest of the city, the police looking to channel the protestors west along Wusheng Road, and even to Meilin’s inexperienced eyes, there seemed little chance they would wait until morning.

It was another ten minutes before a raucous announcement blared out from a loudspeaker, the police going through the motions of ordering the protestors to pack up and leave; they were given just fifteen minutes in which to comply, the consequences of not doing so left unsaid. Not that it mattered, and everyone knew what to expect, a bloody nose or a few bruises the best many could hope for.

A mood of apprehensive expectation settled over the Square, several thousand anxious eyes watching the police preparations, everyone now fully awake. Several of the protestors had previous experience as to the brutal side of the Shanghai police, their persistence born of the conviction that they were in the right; yet there was still no single leader that everyone would recognise or obey, a score of diverse groups acting together purely out of mutual interest.

An earlier rumour that armed troops had been seen waiting in the streets further back had mostly been ignored; now whispered instructions were quickly passed from person to person, no-one quite sure how effective their tactics would be. With encouragement from those gathered around the circular fountain, people slowly started to move, not west away from the line of police, but towards them, the demonstrators closing together to become a dense band rather than separate small groups. People started to link arms, the front row standing defiantly just thirty paces from the police. Meilin and Biao scrambled down to the ground to join near the centre, the human barrier in places some fifty people deep.

The police watched impassively, sizing up the challenge and waiting patiently while the last pieces moved into place. Meilin couldn’t really see what was happening but she sensed the moment when the police started to move forward, a ripple of anticipation coursing through the waiting throng; the background sounds suddenly became more strident with the clatter of batons on riot shields mixed in with the shouts from the front rank of protestors.

From further back came a familiar chant of defiance, anything to give courage to those who feared what the next few minutes would bring, and the mantra was rapidly taken up by hundreds of others. The police tried to push the front rank back or break it apart, intimidation their main weapon with no real attempt to use excessive force. The row of people flexed and swayed but held firm, the rear lines spreading out to prevent any attempt to outflank them.

The pushing and shoving continued for several minutes, a fruitless exercise which only served to confirm that more drastic methods were needed. Abruptly the police’s tactics changed, shields and batons now used to batter people aside, blood spilt for the first time that weekend.

Some people ignored the agreed protocol of non-violence and tried to fight back; most retreated, a fresh group of demonstrators stepping forward to be bloodied. Every beating, virtually every blow, was caught by a hundred cameras; social media access might be blocked but the images would still find their way to the world media – it might just take a little longer than normal. The police were well aware of adverse publicity and cameras were unceremoniously ripped from people’s grasp, phones smashed underfoot. Very slowly the crowd was driven westward, one painful metre at a time; the more tenacious of the protestors were either squirted full in the face with pepper spray or pulled from the arms of their comrades to be handcuffed and thrown into the back of a police van, some beaten unconscious for no other reason than as a warning to others.

Urged on by those brave enough to take a lead, the protestors’ tactics abruptly changed and they started to sit down wherever they were, arms entwined to form a close-packed mass. The police advance slowed, people dragged aside, others battered and kicked, anything to get them to move.

Meilin sat with head bowed, conscious of what was happening around her but not wanting to look, her ears bombarded by the screams and cries of the injured. Someone started singing a version of Do you hear the people sing from Les Misérables and the refrain was quickly taken up by others, the song’s universal message of defiance somehow helping to temper their fears. Biao joined in, Meilin eventually following suit, head lifting to watch as the police tried to regain the initiative, people wrenched from those around them to be carried or dragged away.

Scores were arrested but despite the early hour more demonstrators, young and old, had started to gather in the surrounding streets, the encircling police struggling to hold them back. Missiles began to rain down on the police, the anger of the past erupting into a series of violent confrontations along the outer fringe of People’s Square.

Meilin saw little of any fighting, hundreds of people still between her and the approaching police, the chaotic sounds coming from virtually every direction warning her as to what was to come. Abruptly she began to feel queasy and seconds later tears started to stream down her face; there was no smell, the wispy white tendrils of tear gas slowly floating south across the Square. Unlike some, Meilin and Biao had come with extra supplies of water, it willingly shared out to help wash away the effects of the tear gas. The main confrontation now seemed to be close to the Grand Theatre, police reinforcements having to be moved to prevent the units there being overwhelmed.

With the situation threatening to deteriorate further, the use of tear gas became more widespread and it became impossible to simply sit and let the stinging smoke take control. Meilin clambered to her feet, eyes and nose streaming, her throat feeling as if it were on fire; she had to get where she could breathe and half-blinded she staggered towards the fountain, trusting that Biao would follow on.

People were still sitting arm in arm and Meilin struggled to negotiate a clear way through, her desperation growing with every trip and stumble. Others soon began to follow her example and just a few metres short of the fountain she was hit hard from behind, dragging another person down with her as she crashed to the ground. Quickly she scrambled to her knees, left arm almost numb, her ears bombarded by new sounds. Above the clamour of the fighting came the unmistakable rattle of gunfire, not a single weapon but several, and Meilin twisted around trying to understand what was happening. Scores of protestors streamed past her, the combination of tear gas, pepper spray and police batons finally winning through.

Fifteen metres away a tall figure in full riot gear emerged from the chaos of the thinning crowd, the policeman’s face obscured by visor and gas mask. He stood uncertainly, before seeming to notice Meilin cowering helpless close to the fountain.

Meilin was still struggling to see, eyes blinking rapidly, the rest of her body frozen in fear. The policeman strode towards her then suddenly he seemed to lurch back a step, Meilin watching bewildered as he collapsed to the ground, the dark stain of blood slowly spreading out from beneath his body.

Even though she knew the man had been shot, she simply stared at him, Meilin more confused than frightened, there no sense that she personally was in any danger. Strong hands dragged her upright, Biao pulling her in close and guiding her towards the safety of the Museum.

Meilin couldn’t help but take a glance back: the centre of the Square was clearing rapidly, the police also pulling back. If it was a victory then it was unclear which side had won, both police and protestors looking to have paid a heavy price.

  • * *

The many channels of Chinese Central Television were quick to broadcast the bloody scenes from Shanghai, no image too gruesome, it as much for world consumption as the early-morning Chinese viewer. The international CCTV News focused its entire output on the chaos of those minutes and their aftermath, eye witness accounts and video evidence used to emphasise the sequence of events.

The news anchor helped ensure viewers never lost sight of one basic fact: the police attempt to disperse the protestors had been met with deadly force, automatic weapons used against them by at least four gunmen. The casualty reports only emphasised the brutality of the moment, with six policemen killed, fifteen wounded, the violent scenes caught on innumerable cameras, no attempt now made to censor the images.

Three protestors had also died, all as a result of gunshot wounds. The authorities again blamed their deaths on the four gunmen, two of whom had in turn been shot by police, one dead, the other critically injured. No names were given, although it was stated that they were both third-year students at Shanghai University and part of a radical faction opposed to the Politburo.

Independent sources were able to corroborate most of what Beijing claimed, the Western media offering a slightly more balanced view with video of the police dragging protestors away, some beaten and bloody. Unconfirmed reports suggested that at least sixty demonstrators had been seriously injured, and around four hundred arrested.

Across China there was an immediate public backlash, people’s righteous anger now firmly directed at the anti-war protestors, everyone shocked by the carnage in Shanghai. Within hours the numbers in Tiananmen Square had almost halved, the police presence similarly winding down, other cities quick to follow Beijing’s lead.

The one exception was Hong Kong; yet even there the mood that morning was one of restraint, the shootings in Shanghai causing many to re-think. A strategy of perpetual confrontation was never likely to win through without popular support – that was now in question, the moderates concerned as to the nature of their more fervent allies.

The police’s sacrifice in Shanghai had given the Politburo a breathing space free from the political concerns of an active peace movement. As to how long it would last could well depend on the nature and extent of American reprisals, Beijing not yet willing to relinquish its recent gains.

 

Astrakhan, Russia – 06:40 Local Time; 03:40 UTC

Colonel Vorotaev sat in the mobile command post and studied the main display, pleased that the hours of waiting were finally over, now with a one-time chance for him to impress under true battlefield conditions. This wasn’t just about defeating General Morozov; this was also a race to break through to Astrakhan, the commanders of the 28th Armoured Brigade’s three battalions each determined to gain the subsequent bragging rights.

And it wasn’t just Vorotaev who was desperate to win, most of the Battalion having a sizeable bet as to who would be first to reach the Astrakhan Kremlin. The city might supposedly be neutral but with its eleven islands and many bridges, General Morozov would be foolish to forgo such a strong defensive position, everyone expecting he would make a final stand somewhere in the city.

The noose around Astrakhan was slowly being tightened, every escape route effectively blocked. The Brigade’s 1st and 2nd Battalions were moving south-east on either side of the Volga River, the 3rd Battalion east from the city of Elista; between them lay the grasslands of the Eurasian Steppe, it now the domain of the spetsnaz and helicopter gunships.

The 1st Battalion, commanded by Vorotaev, had by far the easiest route into Astrakhan, the two lanes of the Caspian Highway well-maintained and leading directly to the city. The latest intelligence indicated it would also be the most hazardous and the usual Battalion Groups had been resized to suit, the 1st Battalion augmented with a tank company and other support units, almost eight hundred men in total, superiority in numbers no longer quite so relevant.

Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance – the C4ISR system gave the Battalion the operational flexibility to react instantly to changing circumstances, the network reaching all the way from the joint operations centre in Moscow to a tank commander leading the charge into Astrakhan. With a single tap on the screen, Vorotaev could scroll through each of the units under his direct control, able to adjust the deployment of a whole company to an individual IFV (Infantry Fighting Vehicle).

In fact it was exactly like some computer game, friendly vehicles and sensors all integrated together to show a real-time view of the combat area. At a basic level, the battlefield tracking picture was a highly detailed map; overlays could then be added as required – position of friendly units, planned deployment, status etc. Vorotaev could view the road ahead from the lead vehicle or map out exactly where he wanted each tank to go and what they should target – a quick sketch onto the computer screen, a tap of confirmation and his new orders would instantly be passed on to the relevant units. Once contact was made with the enemy, targeted updates were distributed automatically, local commanders quickly able to adjust their tactics.

The one disadvantage of such an over-abundance of data was that everyone’s actions could be later analysed and dissected, every mistake and misjudgement criticised; Vorotaev might even have his orders over-ruled, his Brigade Commander or some Moscow general perhaps deciding that he was being too aggressive or too cautious. General Morozov’s usual hit-and-run tactics would struggle to be effective against the armour and speed of the 28th Brigade, and the Brigade Commander was anticipating a relatively straightforward mopping-up operation – or at least until they reached the first bridge across the Volga.

Vorotaev’s tactical plan had no need for subtlety: the Volga was never more than a few kilometres to the east, the only choke points an occasional small town between the highway and the west bank of the Volga; his right flank was secured by an overflight of helicopter gunships, with at least two always on station. Regular satellite updates and intelligence reports had helped build a clear picture of the enemy’s dispositions, Morozov’s main defence line situated six kilometres outside of Astrakhan. Several of his armoured vehicles were already reported to be withdrawing from further north and west, others taking up new positions close to the Astrakhan Kremlin.

Vorotaev had little choice but to try and forget about Moscow’s all-seeing eye. In a few years, the generals might well choose to take the men out the tanks and simply control everything from the command post, the operators becoming even more removed from the consequences of their actions. Drone aircraft and tanks would be battling it out with money and technology overtaking the need for coolness under fire and something as basic as bravery, the medals given to someone who had been a thousand kilometres from the actual fighting and never actually seen a dead body.

The mobile command post was in fact made up of a pair of command vehicles protected by an under-size HQ section. Vorotaev was one of six men squeezed into the confined space of the lead vehicle, the atmosphere already stuffy and oppressive, sweat slowly dripping down the back of Vorotaev’s neck. Unlike its outdated predecessors, the command post was relatively quiet; operational protocols restricted radio communication to the combat phase and even individual reports from unit commanders were generally displayed as text, graphics or some combination of both – unless of course it was a desperate plea for help.

It might seem a less chaotic environment than in the past but Vorotaev was already fighting a headache, the flickering of the computer screens and the background hum of the air-conditioning a subtle but irritating combination. Vorotaev invariably drank several bottles of water with every stint in the command vehicle and his throat always seemed to be dry and parched, the stress and claustrophobia of their situation affecting each man slightly differently.

For the moment, the two command vehicles were stationary seventy-five kilometres north-west of Astrakhan, Vorotaev expecting to be on the move again in two to three hours, once the first units approached the outskirts of the city. By now the spetsnaz should have already captured the port area, additional units moving in to cut off the rebels’ escape routes to the east and south.

Vorotaev only knew Morozov by reputation and he had no particular feelings for him one way or the other, the General’s beef with Golubeva not any of his concern. Vorotaev had his orders and that was enough, Morozov just another target for the Kremlin’s displeasure and certainly not the last general to suffer the consequences of over-ambition.

Vorotaev idly scrolled through the various map displays, checking to ensure everything was as it should be: sunrise was fifteen minutes away and so far the lead platoon had met zero resistance, not even an anti-tank mine. The landscape had quickly turned from lush grassland to sandy semi-desert, the terrain now sparsely covered with vegetation, farms and villages nestling up against the west bank of the Volga River.

Abruptly the map display flickered before defaulting to show the most dangerous threat – or in this case the only one – the lead platoon reporting contact with an IED (Improvised Explosive Device), one vehicle damaged but still operational, two men slightly injured.

Vorotaev saw no need to respond: the platoon was commanded by one of the Brigade’s most promising officers and for the moment he was keen to see how well the Lieutenant coped; if he met a serious problem then Vorotaev could easily vector in air support or move up reinforcements, the rest of the Battalion keeping pace just a few kilometres behind the lead unit.

The occasional IED was to be expected, Vorotaev just surprised at how ineffective Morozov’s tactics were, anticipating something more resourceful. The first serious challenge lay fifty kilometres from Astrakhan on the outskirts of Narimanov: at least sixty troops and two IFVs armed with anti-tank missiles guarded the town and the route south – by themselves that would have been routine, but in well-prepared positions and backed-up by a surface-to-air missile system, it was a much more interesting proposition.

After Narimanov it was a relatively clear ride to Astrakhan, the first smattering of buildings situated some eight kilometres from the city centre. Moscow hoped that the civilian losses would be kept to a minimum but it wasn’t something high-up on Vorotaev’s list of priorities, and he had no specific orders concerning built-up areas; he would try to limit casualties but not at the expense of his own men and certainly not for the sake of saving some rundown wooden shack.

The lead platoon paused four kilometres shy of Narimanov, two reconnaissance drones sent to confirm the veracity of the intelligence reports. Both were disabled within minutes by a radio-jammer but not before they had established the presence of the IFVs and a short-range SAM system, two machine-guns also covering the highway.

Vorotaev sat and watched via video-link as a missile strike obliterated each target, two MI-28H helicopter gunships sweeping in from the north-west to tidy up – not that they were actually needed. Ten minutes later the lead platoon drove cautiously past, pausing briefly to check for survivors; in fact, apart from the still burning vehicles, the area was deserted – no bodies, no wounded, the human defenders looking to have abandoned the position soon after the drones were detected.

That still left Vorotaev with the problem of whether to waste time securing the town or splitting his forces. With a historic dam and a shipyard complex to the south, it was always going to be difficult should the defenders now choose to make a stand. It didn’t help that Narimanov was also home to Beluga caviar, the Brigade Commander ordering Vorotaev to adapt his plans accordingly.

Quite how he was supposed to avoid upsetting the sturgeon presently thrashing about in Narimanov’s fish farms wasn’t made clear and an urgent request for air support was put on hold, no reason given; fifteen minutes later, a probe deeper into the town illustrated the potential problems – five killed, the defenders well-entrenched with mortars as well as machine-guns, their former brothers-in-arms making no concessions as to past loyalty.

Vorotaev was growing impatient, the decision finally taken out of his hands as the order came down from his superior to bypass the town and press on towards the south. While a convenient solution to Vorotaev’s obsession with Astrakhan, it was a significant change to the operational plan. However, the total destruction of General Morozov’s forces remained a key objective, the fate of those still in Narimanov left to a holding force of a rifle company and the overdue air support.

Yet it was almost an hour wasted and Vorotaev soon found himself beginning to interfere more than he should, even urging the lead platoon to take unnecessary risks. At least he could argue his impatience was justified: the highway was empty, the civilian population hiding in their homes and, despite everyone’s fears, the road hadn’t been mined, an infrequent IED the only real danger.

If anything, the biggest hindrance to reaching Astrakhan lay with the data and communication network, it suffering from irregular bouts of interference, and Vorotaev decided to move the command post earlier than he’d anticipated, willing to give up the convenience of a prepared position in the hope of securing a more stable signal.

By the time they reached the first alternate command site south of Narimanov, it was almost ten o’clock. While the security of the command post remained a priority, the flat and often featureless terrain offered little in the way of concealment, and the HQ unit was left with little option but to make do with a dry hollow and some camouflage netting.

The tactical overlay remained an encouraging sea of blue, helicopter gunships finally on their way to solve the problem of Narimanov, the sturgeon having to take their chances. There was still nothing on the spetsnaz assault and Vorotaev flicked the display to check on the 3rd Battalion’s thrust east from Elista; it took just seconds to see a detailed record of their progress, Vorotaev noting with a relieved smile that they were well behind schedule and still ninety kilometres short of Astrakhan, land mines already taking out two vehicles with six men killed. The 2nd Battalion east of the Volga had made steady progress early on, snipers and anti-tank mines becoming more of a problem as they got closer to the city; ten dead, one tank destroyed; thirty-five kilometres to go.

Vorotaev’s lead platoon had no such difficulties; resistance remained light, just small-arms fire, IEDs and the occasional booby-trapped vehicle blocking the road. Eighteen kilometres to Astrakhan – the race to the city was as good as won…

Yet Vorotaev was starting to get nervous, sensing that maybe it was all just a little too easy and the leading units were moving far faster than anyone had anticipated. General Morozov could well have decided that it was best to pull back to the south or east but would he really ignore the excellent defensive options offered by the city’s streets and buildings? Special Forces would now be blocking the highway south to Azerbaijan and Georgia; which left the road east to Kazakhstan… Vorotaev knew that would be the worst of various bad options for Morozov: it might not be that far to safety but a single bridge destroyed would turn the highway into a death trap. And what incentive could Morozov possibly offer to persuade the Kazakhs to help him?

Vorotaev sat and studied the video feed from the lead platoon, before swapping to each of the Battalion’s other units. The interference now only affected a lone company, it presently starting the process of clearing out any remaining defenders from Narimanov. Of their ten networked cameras, just one from an IFV produced a discernible image, it never showing anything more than a bland building and an empty street; that shouldn’t have been a problem but for some reason it just seemed wrong, it almost too mundane to be real.

Although none of the data showed any cause for concern, Vorotaev suddenly felt isolated from what was happening to north and south. Stuck in a small insulated metal box, he was totally reliant on what the C4ISR system deigned to show him: the data said that the mopping up operation in Narimanov and the drive into Astrakhan were both proceeding perfectly but for all Vorotaev knew the whole Battalion could have driven into the Volga or be drinking champagne in the centre of Astrakhan.

Narimanov was his immediate concern and Vorotaev ignored the protocols to key the radio, wanting to get in personal touch with the company commander, needing to put his own mind at ease. The radio link merely crackled with static, no voice contact possible; Vorotaev muttered in exasperation, the officer beside him swapping to the tactical satellite system.

Whatever alternative they tried, Vorotaev was unable to physically speak to or hear any of the units directly under his command. And the problem seemed to be restricted purely to the 1st Battalion, a key part of the command network either inoperative or being deliberately jammed.

Their only line-of-sight vantage point was atop the command vehicle, it still less than ten kilometres to the horizon, Narimanov another five kilometres further on. Vorotaev flicked views to the outside camera, twisting it around to point towards the town, eyes instantly drawn to the smoke rising in the far distance. It was barely twenty minutes since the long-delayed air attack had ended and perhaps it would be foolish to expect anything less; it certainly fitted in neatly with what the tactical overlay revealed, one platoon already closing in on the shipyard complex.

Despite the evidence to the contrary, Vorotaev still sensed something was very wrong and he tried not to over-react, unwilling to let those in Moscow think that he wasn’t fully in control. He ignored the increasing frustration of those around him to focus once more on the lead platoon, the data display showing it approaching the northern suburbs of Astrakhan and still well ahead of schedule, enemy resistance light to non-existent. The electronic intelligence overlay showed the defence line some six kilometres from the city centre; air units had already been vectored in to provide support and there was nothing from any of the platoon or company commanders to suggest that anything was amiss.

Vorotaev swapped back to Narimanov then to the air operations centre, trying to get a video feed from one of the helicopters or a drone and ready to order an overflight of the town; again all he got was static. Abruptly the display froze, Vorotaev unable to contact anyone yet still able to see the tactical map. The atmosphere in the command vehicle was one of confusion, the normal sense of purpose temporarily on hold.

For fifteen minutes they struggled to bring the system back online, a screen flickering every now and again before becoming blank, back-up units equally unresponsive. Vorotaev couldn’t even control his emotions let alone a potential battle to take Astrakhan, his hopes of impressing his superiors all but forgotten. One option was to reboot the whole system, Vorotaev desperate enough to order it done.

Frustrated, Vorotaev flung off his headset and struggled to his feet, needing to clear his mind and work out what to do once the technology co-operated. If he could anticipate the likely status of his various fighting units then just maybe he could retrieve the situation; if he was unlucky, one of his senior officers would have already used his initiative to make his name and earn Moscow’s respect, Vorotaev no doubt condemned as incompetent.

Even as he stepped out into the cold air of a cloudless morning, there was a shouted cry of alarm from away to his left. Vorotaev instinctively turned to look and an instant later he was buffeted by the shock wave from an explosion, his body carelessly cast aside, a rolling wave of pain engulfing him as he crashed into the hard earth. There was a second, then a third explosion, Vorotaev cringing down as a blast of hot air surged over and around him.

Slowly he staggered to his feet, eyes focusing to see both command vehicles on fire; several bodies lay burnt and mangled alongside, the rattle of gunfire indicating that someone at least was trying to fight back.

Vorotaev just stood and stared at the chaotic scene, a vague sense of understanding gradually emerging from the fog that clogged his brain. Some of Morozov’s forces hadn’t chosen to retreat, cleverly managing to circumvent the forces heading down the Caspian Highway while remaining hidden from the helicopter gunships protecting the right flank. He couldn’t yet grasp the how but the consequences were right here in front of him and with it the end of Vorotaev’s military career, his only defence an over-reliance on the vagaries of technology.

The command post might be an easy target but knocking it out wouldn’t alter the eventual outcome, and the generals in Moscow or the frontline commanders would be quick to re-establish control. That was the theory, one part of Vorotaev’s mind able to wonder whether this might be something more ambitious than just a spoiling mission. Support for Morozov had resurfaced in Volgograd of late and if he could actually make it to the city, then he might just survive. The gunships could still stop him – someone just needed to point them in the opposite direction.

  • * *

Senior Lieutenant Ryabtsev was angry and didn’t particularly care who knew it, his chance of glory in the race to Astrakhan now officially over. An hour ago he had proudly stood on the first bridge across the Volga only to be ordered back to Narimanov, the Battalion’s Deputy Commander wanting answers which apparently only Ryabtsev could supply. Communications with the command post and the units at Narimanov were a mess and the whole command system was only working intermittently, protocols ignored as unit commanders turned to their cell phones.

Up until his new orders, Ryabtsev had enjoyed a stop-start and fairly stress-free ride down the highway; apart from the sight of a few burning vehicles, he had seen little of the enemy, the only excitement several helicopter gunships passing overhead on their way to Astrakhan. Morozov’s forces looked to have withdrawn from the defence line outside the city well before the Battalion had arrived and Ryabtsev had counted eight vehicles simply abandoned beside the highway. With the port area and international airport safely in the hands of Special Forces, and the 2nd Battalion making good progress through the city’s northern outskirts, the race to the Astrakhan Kremlin had become something of an unworthy challenge, all bets off.

Ryabtsev hadn’t been the only one to think it odd that they had met so little resistance, a rare sniper often the sole representative of Morozov’s vaunted command; the General could have made a stand at a dozen places along the way and the Battalion would have been hard pressed to continue even with air support. Yet Morozov couldn’t simply keep on retreating forever, Ryabtsev wondering whether the gunships had already caught up with him in the marshlands south of Astrakhan.

For Ryabtsev such concerns were now entirely academic and his immediate responsibility lay in the opposite direction, the platoon’s three IFVs heading at speed north towards Narimanov, contact with the town and the command post varying from difficult to non-existent. Recent images from a surveillance drone had confirmed that there was nothing serious amiss, the town and shipyard now secure, one of the two command vehicles to the south suffering some sort of breakdown. Colonel Vorotaev was no doubt sitting with his feet up enjoying some free black caviar, a few tins hidden away for later.

Ryabtsev checked his watch: 14:50, his promise to reach Narimanov by three o’clock now impossible, it still some twenty kilometres away. The platoon had been delayed getting out of the city and the Deputy Commander had been hounding him ever since, but it was only now that Ryabtsev started to share something of his superior’s unease. Up ahead a smoky grey haze hung lazily in the air, the sight an ominous mismatch to what the drone had revealed; Ryabtsev tried the radio but it was silent, the dead zone affecting everything, even cell phones.

Ryabtsev took it as a second warning and their charge north slowed, sensible precautions taken just in case. The mobile command post appeared within minutes, the evidence indicating it had been attacked several hours earlier, vehicles long since burnt-out; there were no survivors, bodies lying where they had fallen, Colonel Vorotaev one of a handful who had obviously tried to make a fight of it.

It was another twenty minutes before Ryabtsev drove slowly into the town of Narimanov. Smoke was still rising up from several buildings, the bloodied and broken bodies of his fellow soldiers telling the story of a battle that should never have been fought. One whole company from Vorotaev’s 1st Battalion – ninety-six men – annihilated, overwhelmed by a vastly superior force, some killed even as they’d tried to run away.

Ryabtsev stood and stared at the scene, almost unwilling to accept what had happened. Technology was the real traitor, the C4ISR system somehow manipulated to show its own sullied version of events. Dozens of vehicles looked to have driven out of the town to head north at speed, maybe as many as eight T-90 tanks amongst them.

With an angry shake of his head, Ryabtsev climbed back aboard the lead vehicle. This wasn’t just a few stragglers trying to get away; this was a mass breakout by General Morozov with Volgograd their only possible haven. It was four hundred kilometres to the city, a good eight hours for Morozov’s tanks and close to the limit of their range without refuelling; they had three, maybe four hours start, Ryabtsev desperate to warn the Brigade Commander.

All means of communication had been cut – no landline, radio net jammed, satellite and cell phone signals unstable. Ryabtsev headed north, a cell phone signal still his best hope. And if he could gain some ground on Morozov, then so much the better.

 

[]Washington, D.C. – 11:58 Local Time; 16:58 UTC

Anderson had picked the Holiday Inn just south of the National Air and Space Museum as a convenient base, wanting to be close to the key buildings of the White House and Capitol. The National Mall had been the scene of Dick Thorn’s rise to prominence and Bob Deangelo’s victory, the Capitol Building and its future decisions still crucial to both men, and Anderson was fully prepared to set up a tent alongside the rest of the protestors if he had to.

Until that became necessary, the Holiday Inn was the preferred alternative, it certainly the winner in terms of space and comfort. Anderson’s room missed out on a view of anything dramatic, a quiet courtyard perhaps a better option than the rail line at the back. Massive TV, Starbucks in the lobby, a McDonalds just down the street, the National Mall within easy walking distance – Anderson was happy with his choice, trusting that his FBI followers had managed to get as nice a room.

Sadly, D.C. wasn’t quite proving the inspiration he’d hoped, the combined thoughts of too many academics confusing the issue with Anderson still struggling to know whether the threat to Congress was genuine or part of McDowell’s night-time reading. It might even have been a back-up option in case Deangelo had failed to get into the White House, Carter trying to be helpful without actually giving Anderson anything that useful. The Washington Post had put Anderson in touch with one of their military contacts, and while Oscar’s two scenarios remained eminently viable, the idea that a few hundred paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne might suddenly land in the Mall still seemed one step beyond far-fetched.

Anderson stood some two hundred yards from the Lincoln Memorial, the National Mall a seething mass of people, tens of thousands turning out in the cold and wet to pledge their support for America’s allies in South-East Asia. The mood was very different to the demonstrations against President Cavanagh, with people now wanting to support their president not condemn him and the event was seen as a way to prove to the world that Deangelo truly did have a mandate to take on China, the anger at what had happened in Vietnam palpable.

A few of those around Anderson had borrowed the concept of yellow ribbons from the demonstrations in China, their peaceful connotations at odds with the majority’s desire to somehow punish Beijing. The number of Vietnamese dead had climbed to over three hundred, some two thousand injured, and a candlelight march and vigil were also planned for the Friday evening, the National Mall maintaining its position as the main venue for protests.

Despite continued concerns as to public safety, uniformed FBI were conspicuous by their absence, and park security seemed to be totally the preserve of the police, officers keen to keep the inquisitive away from the hard-line protestors camped out at the other end of the Mall. Although not quite within shouting distance of the Capitol, their sound system had made up for any lack of vocal power and the tented city was now viewed more as a nuisance than anything else, it taking Mayor Henry to broker an exit deal acceptable to everyone. For the time being the protestors were free to berate Congress all they wanted, the organisers promising to keep it civil and to decamp immediately after Thanksgiving on the 24th.

There might well be differing opinions on how to deal with China but the atmosphere remained good-natured and the various speakers who appeared on the steps in front of the Lincoln Memorial were all greeted with enthusiastic applause, it doubling in volume when Mayor Gene Henry duly arrived.

The Mayor’s speech was short and suitably belligerent, the crowd patriotic and appreciative, a minute’s silence held for the hundreds of lives lost across Vietnam. His caution that people would need to brace themselves for the sight of American dead was greeted with a low murmur of understanding, it accepted that a peaceful outcome was becoming increasingly unlikely. Henry finished with a plea to those on Capitol Hill, urging them not to block the President from doing what was right.

It was a popular dig at members of Congress and perhaps also a warning. Dick Thorn might not yet be confirmed as Secretary of Defence but he still had a big office in the Pentagon and was ideally placed to mount his own version of Professor Oscar’s ideas. Nine days back in the Cabinet and Thorn already seemed keen to influence policy, the Pentagon Press Secretary using his mid-morning briefing to produce a detailed statement as to the identity of the USS Milius’ attacker; no apparent deference made to the views of the White House.

Images of the sunken submarine were produced, a panel of defence experts unanimous in their opinion that it was a Chinese Ming-class; a fact backed-up by the acoustic data and unnamed intelligence sources. Media speculation that the submarine might in fact be North Korean or Russian was dismissed as being both incorrect and unhelpful, satellite photos showing that Russia’s only remaining boat of that class was still in use as a training resource. China’s aggressive actions in preventing the American ROV from pursuing its search were roundly condemned, the Press Secretary merely citing it as a further example of China’s guilt, it clear little credence could be given to any future evidence gathered from the sea-bed.

Anderson could hardly prove it was a deliberate misreading of the facts but it was all very convenient for Thorn and his hard-line faction. They seemed determined to press for a military confrontation with China, the public equally bellicose; yet many senior political figures – from both parties – were rather more guarded, Deangelo urged not to abandon the search for a peaceful solution.

The U.S. Constitution effectively forced the President to judge whether Congress would be prepared to vote for military action. Rather than seeking their approval for an attack against China and risk being rejected, he could act unilaterally and accept the consequences. The War Powers Resolution gave him the leeway to respond to attacks while requiring he notify Congress within 48 hours of committing armed forces, their actions restricted to sixty days unless there was subsequent Congressional authorization or a declaration of war. With Grenada in ‘83 and Panama in ’89, everything had been tied-up inside the sixty-day limit, Congress effectively bypassed. That might well prove impossible in China’s case – the recapture of the three Spratly Islands maybe, but could a suitable accord also be achieved in the same rigid time span?

McDowell had worked hard to promote the idea that Capitol Hill was nothing more than a haven for the corrupt and the complacent, and Nash had shown the feasibility of simply shutting Congress down, its powers devolved to the President. For some odd reason that specific scenario didn’t seem to have the same stature as a full-blown military coup, it more an unsubtle adjustment of the President’s power. Sanitising Congress would always be a risk but if handled the right way, without loss of life while somehow managing to avoid universal media condemnation, then Anderson sensed it might just stand a chance. The first twenty-four hours would be crucial, the external threat a necessary element in ensuring its success; Deangelo might even argue it was purely a temporary measure, emergency powers essential until the crisis in the South China Sea was resolved.

Public opinion was a contrary animal and the hardliners would need to act soon before the moment was lost. How would people feel if the number of U.S. dead reached twenty, or a hundred, or a thousand? China effectively held America’s political future in its hands, U.S. democracy now also under threat.

If it were a fantasy, then at least it was an intriguing one. Waste of time or not, Anderson was determined to see how it all played out, strangely confident that sooner or later McDowell would make his presence felt.

Chapter 11 – Monday, November 21st

Beijing – 11:20 Local Time; 03:20 UTC

The meeting of the Central Military Commission was proving to be another battle of pragmatism over political expectations, Liang leading the way, the problems facing them too extreme to allow the amateurs in the Politburo Standing Committee to dictate military strategy. Yet even the PSC were fully committed to reducing the number of enemies arrayed against China, the negotiations conducted under the aegis of Dagvyn Sharav progressing particularly well. Malaysia and – more importantly – Vietnam had been bought off with future promises, an official announcement due to be made at the United Nations later that day. In Vietnam’s case, it wasn’t exactly peace, more a mutually convenient cessation of hostilities, the politicians still keen to publicise such a morale-boosting feat.

Good news too in the north, Russia now having to cope with its own resurgent set of problems. China had spent billions to become a leader in cyber warfare, the blocking and falsifying of real-time data a basic requirement – just not normally carried out to aid one Russian general fight another. The vulnerability of the C4ISR system had effectively been a single-use weapon, Liang and his team forced to continually adapt and refine their strategy, disrupting the Armoured Brigade’s communications while re-interpreting certain key orders and visual feeds. China’s intelligence and cyber experts had earlier ensured a seventy-minute window for General Morozov’s overnight move to Narimanov, the transfer successfully kept hidden from Russia’s satellites.

The pretence of a staged withdrawal towards Astrakhan and the south had still needed to be maintained and close to twenty vehicles regarded as being too slow or unreliable had been sacrificed to achieve that end, thirty of Morozov’s men risking everything to portray twenty times that number; others had given their lives to delay the advance from Elista and along the east bank of the Volga. Even though the element of surprise had been total, for most of that Sunday the outcome could have gone either way, the power and speed of the helicopter gunships a major concern, and Morozov had only been truly safe once he had reached the outskirts of Volgograd.

Within hours the 20th Guards Army Group at Voronezh and two army bases in the Central Military District had declared for Morozov; there were also reports of skirmishes closer to Moscow but so far nothing to indicate President Golubeva had lost complete control and Russia’s military continued to posture north of Vladivostok. Nevertheless, for the time being at least, the threat from Russia appeared to have diminished, China’s interference just one more secret to be hidden away as an inconvenience. And in a world of the outrageous truth, few would believe it anyway.

North Korea certainly wouldn’t understand Beijing’s motives, the nature of China’s relationship with its mercurial neighbour varying from difficult to impossible. With China’s potential adversaries slowly decreasing, Pyongyang’s outpourings against America would likely become more extreme; somehow the Politburo would need to restrain Korea’s enthusiasm, unpredictability not that helpful when juggling several more pressing concerns. China’s various internal problems were no longer within Liang’s extended area of responsibility, others working hard to create harmony out of chaos. In Xinjiang that had partly been brought about by a heavy-handed crackdown on known dissidents and nationalists, success measured by a significant reduction in the number of terrorist attacks. Elsewhere – even Hong Kong – the attack on the Shanghai police had curtailed the peace protests to a more acceptable level, Liang not alone in assuming the real gunmen were actually under instructions from the Ministry of State Security.

America’s own contempt for the truth was clear from the Pentagon’s lies as to the origin of the doppelganger submarine. Several hours prior to the Pentagon statement, Chinese officials at the U.N. had met with their U.S. counterparts, Chavkin’s admission just one part of a package offered up as proof of China’s innocence. The blame had been put squarely on President Golubeva, the Politburo doing what it could to try and shield General Morozov; yet no attempt had been made by the Americans to seek any form of clarification, the wealth of detailed evidence simply ignored.

In retrospect, such blind trust in assuming Deangelo would want to know the truth had been a serious misjudgement and the Politburo had tarried too long in publicly revealing the nature of the Kremlin’s deceit. Now its impact would be blunted, the Americans evidently conspiring with Russia in order to keep the initiative, Deangelo as much an enemy to China as Golubeva. An exaggeration perhaps but Liang was angered by America’s show of arrogance, it revealing something of the new Administration’s more sinister motives.

Deangelo’s latest deadline was just over four hours away, the Politburo Standing Committee divided as to how best to respond, a minority doubting America would be prepared to chance hundreds of casualties. Would Deangelo really go to war over three insignificant islands in the South China Sea, their only link to America the occasional visit of a TV crew?

The rest of the world looked on and prayed for a speedy resolution, people’s fears increasing with each percentage fall in the stock markets. China was already paying a heavy price and the People’s Bank had been forced to step in with emergency measures, trading in hundreds of companies suspended early on Friday; additional restrictions had come into force at the start of business that morning, with many investors effectively blocked from being able to sell their shares.

Each such move merely increased the pressure on the Government. China’s business leaders and entrepreneurs had helped create an economic miracle and their key markets were rapidly drying up. Together they were far more influential than any protest movement and the Politburo was having to barter their support in return for future incentives. For those unwilling to co-operate, even senior figures, the Ministry of State Security had a well-established protocol to ensure a change of heart, opposition to the party line dealt with quickly and effectively.

Liang felt some of the same pressures, frustrated by the spurious arguments and exaggerations of those around him who couldn’t seem to comprehend the dangers of prevarication. For four hours the emergency meeting of the Central Military Commission debated and bickered, basically getting nowhere, still unable to equate the varying and complex demands of their political masters with the reality of America’s military power. The U.S. Navy had the resources to take whatever rocky outcrop it wanted and somehow the CMC would have to calculate the most effective riposte: too weak and the Politburo would regard them as nothing more than cowards; too harsh and the chance of an acceptable compromise might be lost forever.

 

Washington, D.C. – 12:32 Local Time; 17:32 UTC

Anderson had managed to get on a morning tour of the Capitol, embarrassed to admit that he’d never actually visited it before. Normally he hated organised tours, preferring to go at his own pace, but the young guide was entertaining and knowledgeable, coping well with the usual raft of questions and happy to explain the logic behind the Senate’s ongoing pro forma sessions.

Anderson used his camera to the full while trying not to make it obvious he was equally interested in the various layers of security. The physical checks were verging on the laborious, Anderson sensing they were taking even more care than usual and there were plenty of Capitol Police in evidence. Security outside was also tight, with a fair smattering of FBI uniforms in view. Such arrangements might stop McDowell but not the 82nd Airborne, Anderson curious as to whether the heightened security was in direct response to what Carter had implied. Professor Nash had in turn been interviewed at length by the FBI, their warning that he should say nothing of their visit to Anderson ignored after barely an hour.

With Deangelo’s one o’clock deadline having expired, Anderson had anticipated the South China Sea would soon become the main news topic of the day but the headlines were all related to events much closer to home, the majority centred firmly on Congress itself.

In a compromise deal thrashed out between senior members of the two parties, Congress would hold a joint meeting on the Friday after Thanksgiving, the Senate’s first item of business that of rubber stamping Dick Thorn as Secretary of Defence. The confirmation process for installing Jack Shepard as Vice-President would follow-on immediately after, Saturday also set aside should it be necessary. Whilst unusual, such arrangements weren’t unprecedented and although Shepard theoretically now had enough votes, he certainly wasn’t guaranteed such any easy ride as Thorn, Congress needing to at least go through the motions of asking the usual awkward questions.

For everyone it looked to be a fair solution, ending the complex machinations of the House of Representatives while ensuring America at least had a chance of a well-understood presidential line of succession. It would doubtless make for a lively one or two days in Congress, those members due to retire or having lost their seats likely to want a final chance in the limelight, the Democrats keen to get their teeth into Shepard.

The mood of optimism quickly changed as the afternoon progressed, the frustrations and political differences between the two parties boiling over into a public display of intransigence, any promises made definitely not agreed to by all. In part the antagonism had been encouraged by yet more online revelations, copies of recent emails posted to prove that Congress was perhaps no closer to making life easy for its President.

It was a familiar tale of two-party rivalry. Some Republicans were desperate to ensure Dick Thorn would never be confirmed as Secretary of Defence and even if the President eventually tried to used his executive powers, they would do all that they could to block it; if necessary, some were fully prepared to try and force through additional pro forma sessions well beyond the New Year, thus leaving Deangelo with little choice but to nominate someone more acceptable.

Several Democrats were sympathetic to that point of view, even ready to abstain when it came to a vote. Yet Thorn wasn’t entirely without friends and they were similarly unwilling to accept Shepard as Vice-President without something in return – and for the time being the Democrats had a majority in the Senate. In the present state of nervous anticipation over events in the South China Sea, Deangelo might have hoped to push through Shepard’s confirmation without too much controversy, but that now looked to be unlikely.

The President’s attempts to form a stable and effective Administration were falling at the first hurdle, the earlier agreement now jeopardised by the strong opinions revealed in the emails. Anderson had instantly assumed the revelations were down to Carter, some of the emails no doubt genuine, others possibly nothing more than a figment of McDowell’s vivid imagination. The media might consider it newsworthy to see members of Congress fighting amongst themselves but for once the wider reaction was relatively muted, people becoming bored with a daily dose of outrage, their thoughts now more focused on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Not so the protestors camped out in the National Mall, and Anderson sat and watched as they responded in typical fashion, the loudspeakers booming out in exasperation at those closeted in the Capitol. Sadly, few of their target audience would actually be listening, the handful still there busy rearranging their travel schedules to fit in with a truncated recess. The police simply stood and watched, either under orders to do nothing or unwilling to get involved.

Democracy might literally mean the rule of the people but for many in America, Congress no longer seemed to be part of that political union. Certainly as far as those in the Mall were concerned, it was time for a clean break from those on Capitol Hill and their dubious morals. The public clamour for change that had resulted in President Cavanagh’s demise had clearly gone unanswered and now there was no unpopular President to divert people’s attention away from an equally unpopular Congress. The latter’s apparent dislike of Dick Thorn had only made matters worse, no-one now sure what was happening come Friday: one minute Thorn was being told the Senate would definitely confirm him as Secretary of Defence, the next it was once again all up in the air. How long would it be before he lost patience and decided to take matters into his own hands?

By the time Anderson returned to the Holiday Inn, the problems of the South China Sea were finally re-asserting themselves to provide a suitable distraction from the problems of Congress. With three of the Spratly Islands still waiting to be liberated, Deangelo’s rhetoric had turned the world’s focus towards the United Nations and its feverish attempts to broker a peace. China too had been busy on the diplomatic front, a shambolic press conference publicly illustrating the disarray that existed even within America’s supposed allies.

Vietnam had become the first to break ranks when their ambassador to the U.N. formally announced the immediate cessation of hostilities with China and the ending of its support for the maritime exclusion zone. Seconds later his colleague from Malaysia was interrupted mid-statement by one of his aides and literally pulled from the podium. After several minutes, a slightly dishevelled ambassador returned to affirm that Malaysia had no intention of abandoning its just and rightful claim to any territory within the Spratly Islands.

Vietnam wasn’t the only country struggling to make sense of what was happening, China’s representatives barely able to hold back their anger. Soon after had come the latest reports from Moscow, the city on lockdown with armed troops once more patrolling the streets, tanks stationed outside the Kremlin. President Golubeva had seemed impregnable but that was obviously just an illusion, the Russian military apparently divided as to their loyalty.

Despite the setback with Malaysia, China was cleverly managing to make headway in curtailing the number of its potential foes. Now the U.S. Congress needed to do the same, its future very much in its own hands. President Cavanagh had survived barely a week once the knives were out, and the 535 Senators and Representatives would be well advised to at least try and learn from his mistakes. If not, then the white shapes floating down from out of the night sky might well be more than just snowflakes.

[]Chapter 12 – Tuesday, November 22nd

Russia – 13:39 Local Time; 10:39 UTC

Morozov’s break-out north from Volgograd had been just one element of a co-ordinated series of attacks, Beijing’s continuing complicity ensuring it had met with early success, more army units quickly choosing to swap sides. Much of Russia’s military might was now effectively paralysed, the Kremlin unwilling to go so far as to call it a mutiny; to Morozov’s supporters, it was a just and noble fight, a final opportunity to prevent Russia returning to the authoritarianism of the past.

The General now commanded a force more than fifteen thousand strong, albeit one split into small pockets of control across Russia’s south. The Air Force had avoided a potential split by simply refusing to take sides, it a policy likely to be taken up by others too hesitant or too frightened to fully commit. For the generals in the east waiting close to the border with China, the choice was never in doubt, several of them outspoken supporters of the President; yet even they seemed to recognise that China was no longer the priority, some units already starting to withdraw from their forward positions.

Morozov’s reinforced armoured units had continued to sweep north-west from Volgograd, following the Caspian Highway before diverting west towards the city of Voronezh. It had been a nervous two days, their route a little too obvious to ever feel safe. Everyone had anticipated some large-scale attack or ambush, but apart from one serious incursion there had been nothing. The armoured column had slowed at every village and town before speeding up once back out into the open, and for a thousand kilometres the road had miraculously been empty of traffic, never more than a handful of people watching curiously as the tanks rolled past.

The reconnaissance unit some five kilometres ahead had taken virtually all of the risks, ten men killed and three vehicles destroyed when two helicopter gunships had made a lone foray against them before disappearing off to the north. Since then, a tentative and purely unofficial ceasefire had been agreed with the Commander of the Southern Military District, if left to those in Moscow to work out how best to stop General Morozov.

The four lanes of the M4 highway skirted Voronezh to the east, the city home to Morozov’s 20th Guards Army and for the first time since leaving Astrakhan, he actually felt welcome. Hundreds lined the city streets, the Russian tricolour waved enthusiastically, flowers thrown; it was almost as though they had already won the war, Morozov the saviour who would protect them from the warmongers in Moscow. The irony of such a label was not lost on Morozov: born and bred in the capital and following in the footsteps of three generations dedicated to the military, his forebears would have been eager to support Golubeva’s campaign against China, not actively trying to stop her.

The convoy halted north of Voronezh to review the next stage. The highway would take them all the way to the centre of Moscow, no-one yet sure where the final battle would be or even if the President would abandon the fight. The nature and purpose of Morozov’s armoured convoy was hardly a secret, its every step tracked by satellite; there was even footage on several social media websites, an app available to provide regular updates as to its position. The fact such trivia belittled Russia’s internal struggles seemed to work more against Golubeva than Morozov, her authority diminished with every kilometre the convoy crept closer to the Kremlin.

Markova sat on the central barrier between the two carriageways, feeling more relaxed than she’d been for weeks. Her journey back to Russia had been easier than she’d had any right to imagine, General Liang doing all that he could to smooth the way. From Tieling it had been a flight to Kazakhstan’s capital and then another to the border, before a bone-crunching truck ride into Russia. With new papers and a change of vehicle, Markova had eventually joined the Caspian Highway north-west of Volgograd, her own welcome from General Morozov restricted to little more than a nod and a frown of disapproval at her casual attire.

An ill-fitting and slightly-worn uniform had duly arrived within the hour, the Major’s insignia newly added. Markova had still put it on with a sense of pride, happy to be part of a determined effort to rid Russia of its first female president. The motives of those around Markova were many and varied – for her it was vengeance, pure and simple.

 

Washington, D.C. – 08:27 Local Time; 13:27 UTC

The mood in the White House Situation Room was one of shock, the President sitting grim-faced as Secretary of State Burgess detailed China’s latest attempt to take another potential aggressor out of the game, a diplomatic masterstroke if it ever came to fruition. Of the other Cabinet members present, only Jensen had known what Burgess was going to say, the CIA the first to make sense of what Beijing was trying to achieve.

The secret negotiations between China and Taiwan had been ongoing since at least the weekend, an historic agreement formally put on the table with both sides apparently just arguing over semantics. The CIA had somehow obtained an early copy, the repercussions of releasing it before any official announcement likely to be messy with no guarantee it would achieve anything worthwhile. If the Government in Taipei simply denied it, Taiwan’s relations with the U.S. would already have been soured, perhaps enough to destroy the alliance anyway. And what if Taiwan was merely playing her own clever game with no intention of ever signing such a divisive agreement?

The early copy obtained by the CIA was certainly detailed enough to be credible: China and Taiwan would each recognise the other as sovereign nations in their own right; relations normalised; all territorial claims against the other relinquished. A formal conference under the auspices of the United Nations would also be held in the New Year to sort out any remaining difficulties, the official name of each nation one of the matters to be discussed.

One more key component to the agreement was the status of the Spratly Islands. In return for a multi-billion dollar package of economic inducements, Taiwan would renounce its claim to all islands, reefs and other features within the Spratly Group; its two bases – on Taiping Island, the largest of the Spratly group and Zhongzhou Reef – would consequently be added to the growing list of China’s recent acquisitions, specific details as to the actual exchange due to be thrashed out at the January conference.

Jensen well understood the shock on the faces of those around him, and if confirmed the news would be a slap in the face to the people of America. For decades the United States had acted as Taiwan’s ultimate guardian; now such ties could forever be broken, the deal offered by Beijing a one-time opportunity Taipei might well be foolish to ignore. Taiwan’s Ambassador had only the previous day requested a Friday meeting with the President, the purpose now all-too clear, it always possible that Taipei wished first to consult with Washington before accepting.

Whether such a betrayal would – or should – alter America’s present stance with respect to China was just one of many questions needing to be answered. The Philippines and Malaysia might have rejected China’s bribes but was that enough to risk yet more American lives?

“Taiwan’s potential rapport with China changes nothing,” said Deangelo forcefully, once Burgess had finished. “This fight has always been about two countries vying for superiority, China and America, and there is too much at stake to simply cut our losses and settle for some fragile diplomatic solution. We need to prove that America has the military will to stand up to China; if not, they will turn every submerged rock in the South China Sea into a fortress.”

The consequences of China exerting such control were left unsaid, the shipping lanes criss-crossing the South China Sea far more important than any unproven natural resources. How long would it be before China made full use of its stranglehold on world trade, with Japan, South Korea and even Taiwan starved of oil?

Around the table there was not a single voice of dissent, Thorn and Admiral Adams quick to support the President, his promise to reclaim the islands recently occupied by China the most pressing item on the agenda.

“I assume all of the necessary assets are in place?” continued Deangelo, looking across at Adams.

“Yes, Sir,” Adams responded. “We are simply awaiting your authorisation. The lead elements are due to be deployed in just over an hour.”

Deangelo pursed his lips, deep in thought; if anyone around the table had concerns then they kept them to themselves, only one man able to make the final decision, one way or the other.

“Very well, Admiral,” said Deangelo, resigned to the inevitable. “The time has come to win back some respect. Proceed as planned.”

Adams leaned back in his chair and spoke quietly to an aide, his orders setting in motion America’s first island conflict since Haiti in 1994. The President quickly moved on, wanting to re-examine China’s likely response, preparing himself for the storm of protests at home and abroad. Some would doubtless argue that Deangelo had over-reacted but if the polls were anything to go by then the majority of Americans would be supportive. The President was still in the brief honeymoon period before a bad decision changed everything, his standing depending in part on what happened over the next few hours.

As to whether the day’s actions would help convince Congress to confirm Shepard and Thorn was debatable, the latter’s critics vociferous in their condemnation of his past betrayal and uncaring as to his wider popularity – or indeed any potential backlash. Jensen had followed Anderson’s travels with interest and, despite significant reservations, Professor Oscar’s article had been duly noted and acted upon. The possibility of a military coup had never been completely ignored, Jensen just reluctant to act on little more than a hunch and a set of confused indicators. Even now, there was nothing to suggest the military was actually planning anything so extreme and the single objective of the Capitol Building seemed eminently more achievable than a full-blown takeover of the whole country. Sean Kovak could easily deploy enough D.C. Police to carry it out and the Capitol’s Assistant Chief of Police was even a good friend of Kovak’s, his name added to the task force’s growing list of suspects. If necessary, following the President’s authorisation, Mayor Henry could also activate the District of Columbia National Guard, its Brigadier already under investigation.

Jensen might still have his doubts but it would have been criminal not to at least put some form of counter in place; Homeland Security was after all supposed to be his responsibility, the safety of Congress and its members not something he could afford to leave to others.

[]Chapter 13 – Wednesday, November 23rd

Mischief Reef – 02:01 Local Time; Tuesday 18:01 UTC

The reef was a ring of jagged rock a few miles wide, the central lagoon shrinking year on year as China began the long-term conversion into an effective military base. Beijing’s military power stretched a full eight hundred miles from the Chinese mainland, the base and its missiles a clear threat to the Philippine island province of Palawan barely a hundred miles to the east. Already with the basics of port facilities and airstrip, the reef’s defences had been feverishly augmented over the past month, its marine detachment almost doubled to some two hundred and sixty.

Two miles north-east of the reef and flying high above the waves floated dozens of minute gliders, each just four inches wide. Dropped by plane from 50,000 feet, printed circuit boards doubled up as wings; they had no means of propulsion and were totally silent, GPS guiding them to their target. With an accuracy of a few yards, the glider’s various sensors allowed it to act as a relatively sophisticated spy drone – an impressive achievement considering each one cost less than four hundred dollars.

Unlike its insect namesake, the CICADA (Close-In Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft) operated in a swarm of just a few hundred rather than several thousand, it taking barely an hour from launch before the resultant data was being interlinked to produce a real-time tactical display of the reef’s defences; some of the drones could even listen in on the defenders’ conversations, others working in concert to pinpoint a moving vehicle or a heavy footfall. A simplified representation of the key elements was in turn fed to the Special Forces – SEALs and Marine Raiders – already en route, where necessary rapid adjustments made to the plan of attack.

The fact those in the first wave would be slightly outnumbered was considered an irrelevancy, the element of surprise and quality of the units involved expected to move the odds firmly in their favour. It was obviously a risk but America’s military planners had factored in a variety of potential problems, the likelihood of success considered well within acceptable limits.

The reef could easily have been obliterated with missiles but the Pentagon wanted a better bargaining chip, the capture of Mischief Reef with minimal losses the single priority. While the President had set America the task of reoccupying the three islands seized by Beijing, attacking the Chinese on their own territory was considered an acceptable alternative, a simple exchange likely to be part of any peace initiative. Such an indirect strategy also had the advantage of severely degrading China’s military build-up and the reef was likely to be significantly less habitable once – or if – the U.S. returned it to Beijing.

And Mischief Reef wasn’t the only target this day. A second force of SEALs and Marines would simultaneously attack the slightly smaller Subi Reef: a hundred and twenty miles to the north-west, the reef had undergone the same program of land reclamation, the reinforced sea walls now enclosing a range of military facilities, helipad and airstrip. Guarded by close to two hundred marines, modern missile systems had recently supplemented the 37mm naval guns.

Owen Metzger had been a Navy SEAL for almost six years and as proud as any to be part of such an elite team, comfortable with the extra responsibility placed on him as a platoon leader. The specialist SDV (SEAL Delivery Vehicle) platoon had practised most aspects of the proposed mission a hundred times in training; the fact it was now for real was not something that unduly worried Metzger and for all of them over-confidence was as much a danger as the enemy.

Deployed from a U.S. submarine, the six men rode squashed together in the flooded submersible while breathing from the vehicle’s compressed air supply. The vehicle’s similarity to a tubular coffin was always difficult to completely ignore and Metzger sat behind the pilot, nothing to do except stay relaxed, the electric motor giving the SDV a range in excess of thirty miles and a sprint speed of eight knots. The final twenty minutes were a heady mix of anticipation and fear, the SDV having no defensive options should it be detected.

The delivery vehicle was abandoned close the western edge of the reef, the platoon swimming the final two hundred yards before emerging into the almost total darkness of a cloudy sky and a new moon. Metzger clambered up onto a half-submerged rock, equipment unpacked, the rest of the squad closing up around him; few words were spoken, their exact position checked with reference to the military facility and the two security towers, the live updates from the CICADA network hopefully ensuring there would be no unfortunate surprises. In total the reef had six surveillance towers, guards backing up the electronic sensors; to take out all six towers and evade the guards without triggering an alert was likely impossible, and once over the sea wall a few minutes grace was the best Metzger and his men could hope for.

A second squad of six SEALs emerged from the inky blackness of the sea, the platoon now complete, no acknowledgement made or expected. The seconds dragged by, Metzger increasingly impatient to get moving. The reclaimed area of the reef was virtually flat, no trees and hardly any vegetation, the surface a sand and coral expanse dredged up from the sea bed. Almost directly ahead, light spilled out from a complex of single and two-storey structures, it one of three military facilities spread out across Mischief Reef. Built on a concrete platform roughly 1000 feet by 700, the western complex was in the process of being expanded into a sophisticated military base; at its heart would be a ten-storey defensive fortress similar to that of an old-fashioned blockhouse, the future headquarters expected to include elevated firing positions and dedicated CIWS.

North of the complex there was yet more building work, a solar farm due to supply electricity to an adjacent sensor array. Once finished, that would leave the Pentagon with a serious problem, the military experts predicting the array could be used with China’s anti-ship ballistic missile, the DF-21 theoretically able to knock out a supercarrier.

The process of stabilising the reef and expanding its military facilities was continuing seven days a week during daylight hours, a smaller base also being created some two miles to the south-east. On the northern rim stood a three-thousand yard runway and associated buildings, and at its peak some thirty cranes and a similar number of trucks had been employed to get the airstrip operational. Two helicopters were permanently based there, their main function seemingly that of driving away the occasional Philippine fishing boat or protestor. The enmity between the two countries had been increasing steadily for more than a decade, it boiling over with China’s capture of West York and Thitu Islands.

Further east beyond the airstrip came the concrete plants and temporary radar antennae, then the fisherman’s huts that had once given the reef a certain innocent legitimacy; not so the line of concrete piers inside the lagoon, two large dredgers and four smaller boats tied up alongside. Twenty-four hours earlier, there had also been a frigate and several patrol boats, the vessels now dispersed in case of a U.S. Tomahawk attack.

“Charlie-One, all units,” announced a gruff voice in Metzger’s right ear. “Be advised Box-One to Box-Six down in ten; proceed as planned.”

“Sierra-One; copy that,” replied Metzger softly. With the electronic sensors of the six towers temporarily frozen, the SEALs would have a fighting chance to keep the initiative. Random patrols were always a danger, the CICADA display showing only one in operation, it now some eight hundred yards to the north. The Pentagon planners had taken the pessimistic approach, it assumed that at least one of the attacking units would be detected; if not, then all to the good, the next phase of the assault able to start without the stress of having someone shooting at you.

Seconds later the two squads were over the sea wall. Metzger led the way, the MP7 sub-machine gun produced by Heckler and Koch his weapon of choice. It was less than a hundred yards to the protection of the first building, a darkened warehouse, its southern edge out of direct line of sight from either of the two western security towers. Metzger slid to a crouch beside it, body tensing as he waited for the strident wail of an alarm.

The only sound was the breathing of those beside him and the muffled crash of the waves against the sea wall. There was certainly nothing to suggest the enemy had any inkling as to the attack; no sign either that additional SEALs and U.S. Marines from the Raider Regiment were also moving into place, a total of ninety-eight men sent to take out the one hundred and ten Chinese defenders stationed on the western complex. The fact that they too were marines meant it would be foolish to underestimate their abilities or their commitment.

Metzger checked his watch: 05:04 local time – fifty-seven minutes to sunrise. Some seventy yards to the south stood one of the new truck-mounted anti-missile systems and further on an open gun emplacement, two soldiers standing idly beside it. The CICADA network indicated that the platoon should have a clear route past the warehouse and an empty utility building before reaching their initial target of the temporary command centre, and Metzger flicked to his night-vision goggles, wanting to make sure nothing had been missed, his world momentarily turned into various eerie shades of green.

Abruptly a voice crackled in his ear, “This is Charlie-One; confirm all units are clear. Wrecker set for one minute.”

Metzger spoke quietly to the SEAL next to him. A nod of acknowledgement and with help of two others, the man hoisted himself up onto the roof of the warehouse. The sniper skills of Sierra-Eight – known to everyone simply as Chad – were of better use atop the building, his first priority that of protecting the rest of the platoon. If they stuck to the original plan, then the full troop of forty SEALs would meet up just shy of the blockhouse complex, it already a defensive strongpoint.

The slope on the roof was relatively gentle and Chad squirmed his way carefully up to the ridge, managing to anchor himself. The warehouse wasn’t quite two storeys high but his new position gave him a clear sight of the northern half of the complex. On a personal level, the biggest danger would come from the roofs of three two-storey buildings, his helmet and body armour giving a slightly false illusion of security.

Although the lights from the surrounding structures were a distraction he stuck with the night scope, able to switch aim quickly between the two most obvious targets. At just under two hundred yards both should be a relatively easy shot, the choice of brain-stem at the base of the skull, the centre of the chest or a bullet in the back not a decision Chad had ever had to make for real. He tried to keep his mind from over-thinking the next few minutes, studying the near buildings while trying to anticipate likely dangers. He needed to stay focused, the lives of his friends and those of other Americans depending upon his actions that day.

Owen Metzger was also trying to predict what the major obstacles might be. The safe option would be to secure the warehouse and utility building first but that could well be a waste of time, every second’s delay crucial. He edged around the south wall heading east, the two-storey command centre away to his right. The rest of the platoon bunched up behind him, everyone knowing what part they had to play.

“Wrecker in ten,” announced the team leader. “All units stand by.”

Sierra-Eight refocused on the two soldiers standing beside the gun emplacement, mentally counting down the seconds. Moments later the lights across the compound flickered into darkness; in one fluid motion Chad gently squeezed the trigger, noting with a detached air the first soldier being punched backwards. He used the gun’s recoil to shift aim slightly, brain coldly assessing his next victim, the second man barely having time to react before Chad shot him through the chest. Instantly, he swapped aim to acquire a lone figure standing transfixed outside the main barracks, a chest shot again the preferred option. A rapid double-blink to regain focus and he resumed his search, no sense yet of regret or guilt, the soldier lying motionless on the ground.

Metzger was already barging his way into the command centre: in twenty-four hour use, the doors were neither locked nor guarded, communications suite on the first floor, operations room above – or so the intelligence reports surmised.

Metzger raced up the stairs, a burst from the SMG instantly grabbing everyone’s attention. As the rest of the first squad joined him, the emergency lights suddenly came on, the half-light almost blinding Metzger. One of the men beside him fired a second warning, gunfire also erupting from the floor below and Metzger ripped the goggles from his face, amazed that no-one had yet tried to shoot him.

It definitely looked to be some sort of operations room: a triple line of consoles and large-screen display, offices to left and right. As four SEALs targeted the offices, Metzger stepped forward, SMG wavering uncertainly, the final squad member matching him on the right. Metzger counted six men, most standing in shock, two crouching down in an attempt to find cover.

Metzger’s training told him to shoot first and quickly move on; that however was not the plan and Chinese casualties were also expected to be kept to a minimum if humanly possible. Now, with every man having a weapon at his hip, such niceties seemed a highly dangerous proposition. Metzger barely knew five words of Mandarin – English and the threat from the SMG would have to do.

“Everyone on your knees,” he shouted, “hands behind your heads.”

An explosion from somewhere outside rattled the windows and Metzger took another pace forward, gun pointing menacingly at the nearest officer. The man reluctantly dropped to his knees, Metzger pleased to note that most of the others started to follow suit.

But not all; one officer stupidly reached for his sidearm, a three-shot burst from Metzger’s partner catching him in the chest, his gun dropping from lifeless fingers. For a brief instant Metzger feared the rest would abandon common-sense and try and avenge their colleague’s fate, then the moment passed, the top floor finally secure.

In total the command centre delivered up thirteen prisoners with just the one man killed. The SEALs had suffered no injuries, Metzger shocked to realise that the whole assault had lasted barely two minutes.

From the south came the steady rattle of automatic weapons, rapidly increasing in intensity. Metzger’s next priority was the barracks and with the element of surprise now completely lost, it would clearly be a sterner test as to the platoon’s skills. At least one of the other two SEAL platoons should have reached the barracks building by now, Metzger unwilling to delay any longer.

Lying on the warehouse roof, Sierra-Eight had an impressive view of the complex-wide assault, watching as the rest of the SEAL troop swept in from the west, the Marine Raiders from the south. Early-on a tremendous explosion had hit the southern edge of the facility, the dirty grey smoke rising lazily into the night sky partly blocking Chad’s view; the angry sound of gunfire was now virtually continuous, the Marine Raiders in particular meeting stiff resistance.

A second group of U.S. Marines was tasked with attacking the smaller base to the south-east and a series of vicious fire-fights started to spread out along the curve of the reef. Chad risked a glance behind, seeing the glow of burning buildings close to where the airstrip would be; the central lagoon was also under attack, flames engulfing a small boat from bow to stern.

Chad’s gaze turned back to the main complex. The smoke and dense nature of the buildings offered no easy targets, an occasional vague shape appearing briefly with never a clear shot. Always conscious of being a target himself, he had been lucky so far, two of the three buildings that had earlier worried him now cleared out by his colleagues. Hovering high above them all, more U.S. drones sent back real-time images to be assessed and acted upon, the possibility of a clinical missile strike always an option.

The emergency lights were fairly ineffective and despite the encroaching dawn, Chad stuck with the night-sight. As the platoon moved further south from one building to the next, his present position was becoming far too restrictive; he could help ensure a few of the defenders kept their heads down but that was about it.

“Sierra-Eight to Sierra-One; request alternate.”

“Copy that Sierra-Eight,” responded Metzger’s calm voice. “Break off and proceed to Rebel-One-Four.”

Rebel-One-Four was a large workshop, its concrete and steel adding to the fortified feel of the rest of the facility, everything constructed with an eye to defence. Metzger might sound calm but the workshop was proving a stubborn challenge, it needing to be secured before they could move on to the final challenge of the blockhouse complex. Even so, it was not yet thirty minutes since the assault had started and it was to be expected that some of the defenders would prove obdurate. The co-ordinated attack from the SEALs and Marine Raiders was squeezing the defenders from north, west and south, Metzger for one hoping that they could capture the facility well before the second wave of Marines landed, the Corps no doubt anticipating that they would take all of the credit.

The attack on the airstrip also looked to be meeting stiff resistance but there were never any concerns that the assault would actually fail. The guided-missile destroyer USS Zumwalt would soon be on station north-east of the reef and together with the air power of the Ronald Reagan, the U.S. had the resources to overwhelm a score of such reefs with barely a pause for breath.

By the time Chad arrived the workshop was secure, the bodies of several Chinese marines a sad illustration of what continued to be a dogged – if pointless – resistance. The SEALs too had suffered losses, Metzger now acting troop commander; gunfire was sporadic, the majority of the defenders holed up in three buildings running along the edge of the lagoon.

Chad clambered up onto to the workshop’s top tier. Metzger was already there, thoughtfully studying the barracks directly opposite, trying to work out how best to break the deadlock. Set between the two-storey barracks and a reinforced warehouse was the imposing square structure which would eventually become the new headquarters building. Covered with scaffolding, a fixed tower crane was waiting to raise it ever higher, the three buildings soon to be integrated into first phase of the blockhouse complex, each designed to withstand a direct missile attack. Taken together they were proving to be a capable defensive position and the safest method to nullify them was also likely to be most unacceptable, America not yet ready to order a massacre. The Marine Raiders were similarly bogged down and it would take something more to get the defenders to understand that their position was totally hopeless.

China’s marines had certainly fought bravely but had struggled to mount an effective defence early on, their superiors anticipating an air or cruise-missile attack. The anti-frogmen defences and nets were not yet in place, and China’s mutually supportive defence strategy for its island territories was still several years from completion. It was barely a month since the defenders had been more concerned with an assault from an irate Philippine fisherman or a typhoon, than a close-quarters attack from U.S. Special Forces.

Chad’s skills might be deadly but the cumulative effect was relatively gradual. A second SEAL sniper was stationed away to Metzger’s right, the defenders now well aware of the risks of a moment’s lack of concentration. A strange silence seemed to have settled over the base, broken only by an occasional deep-throated rumble of an explosion from the airstrip, the forces stationed there similarly putting up a spirited defence.

Pockmarked and battered, with chunks of concrete blasted away, the barracks was still held by at least a dozen defenders, apparently none with heavy weapons; another twenty to thirty occupied the other two buildings. Metzger had thirty fit men to command, the sensible option to simply wait for the second wave or the Raiders to break through.

Metzger climbed back down to the bottom level, the standard attack plan of a mad dash with plenty of covering fire not yet abandoned. If he could take the barracks then the remaining defenders’ position would be untenable – just one more building and it would all be over.

It was another five minutes before the silence was abruptly broken by two gunshots barely seconds apart. Chad had fired first, a shadowy shape moving into view beside a window opposite; the second SEAL sniper had matched him, both men confident they had hit their target.

Metzger instantly seized his chance, ignoring his new responsibilities to lead the charge across the open ground and into the barracks. The enemy response was a torrent of automatic fire, both sides opening up with whatever they had as if to prove a point. The wall beside Chad was peppered with bullets, chunks of concrete and splinters flying everywhere, a cloud of grey smoke and dust almost making him gag. A series of explosions shook the building, the gunfire reaching a crescendo before easing once more to an ominous silence.

Metzger hadn’t quite abandoned common-sense for glory, his attack on the barracks co-ordinated with a push north from the Marine Raider Regiment. With the barracks now in American hands, the defenders finally accepted the inevitable and Chad watched from a new vantage point as with hands raised high several Chinese marines stumbled from the buildings opposite; no weapons, their uniforms bloodied, some only half-dressed. A handful held onto a colleague for support, stopping to show they were unarmed.

Chad counted upwards of twenty, each man ordered to his knees and searched before being hauled away. Only then did several U.S. Marines start a thorough search of the area, looking for survivors while wary as to booby traps, it still not certain that all of the Chinese marines had given up the fight.

Metzger stood alongside the barracks, gun held ready, relieved to have come through it all relatively unscathed. The planners had hoped for the human cost to be acceptable to those back home, Metzger uncertain as to whether that had actually been achieved; nevertheless, America had started to live up to Deangelo’s promise.

Two Marines crouched at the double doors of the warehouse, waiting for it to be declared safe. Suddenly one of them raised his left hand, a shouted warning coming too late to save his life or any of those close to him. An instant later, two massive explosions tore through the warehouse and the headquarters building, a deadly fireball engulfing the whole of the blockhouse complex.

Chad was blown backwards, his body bouncing down from one level to the next before crashing to the floor. He felt his right leg crack, left ankle viciously twist. He lay spread-eagled on his back, for some reason ashamed that he had heard himself scream. Yet even as a spasm of pain gripped his body, Chad still understood that he was one of the lucky ones, there no way Metzger could have survived. A second spasm dragged a torrent of abuse from his lips, his back arching, Chad finally sinking into unconsciousness.

A thousand yards south-east of Mischief Reef, the helicopters carrying the second wave of U.S. Marines bucked slightly as the blast hit them, a rolling black cloud slowly clearing to reveal the devastation ahead. A dozen fires raged around a blackened tear in the western edge of the reef, no building within a hundred yards left unscathed by the ferocity of the explosion.

 

Russia – 13:16 Local Time; 10:16 UTC

Markova stood beside the M4 highway and watched as the armoured column spread out to east and west, forming a rough defensive line facing north. The truce of the past two days might still be holding but clearly visible a kilometre away sat tanks of the 1st Tank Army. Moscow’s city limits lay just a few kilometres further on and the experience was all a little bizarre, the two groups facing off against each other in typical cowboy fashion.

The unofficial ceasefire might have stopped it from becoming a civil war but Golubeva was far from beaten, enough units staying loyal for the final result to remain uncertain. Perversely, the present confrontation was supposed to be a tentative first step towards a peaceful and permanent solution and it was assumed there would have be some sort of compromise thrashed out, Markova just not sure how either side could trust the other – history certainly proved that Golubeva would stab General Morozov in the back as soon as she had a chance. A year ago General Morozov would have automatically been the military’s preferred candidate but Golubeva had worked hard to build up a power base in the Far East and, if the recent elections were anything to go by, she was definitely the people’s choice; Morozov might be the one person trying to keep Russia out of a war, but few in Russia actually wanted a general to run their daily lives.

Markova would be nothing more than an interested spectator during the negotiations, her new role as one of the General’s senior aides still giving her far more authority than she had known for a while. The terms of the proposed meeting followed the classic theme: four from each side, no weapons, meet midway. This was purely a face-to-face meeting of military and police representatives, the political complications set aside for the moment.

There was a rasped instruction from the radio and Morozov’s delegation strode out along the highway. Markova pressed her hand to her earpiece, listening intently as the first words were exchanged; there was no obvious animosity, the tone polite if not exactly relaxed, both sides wanting a quick but binding conclusion. In the days of the Russian Empire, hostages would have been exchanged, the lives of family bartered for a suitable peace; in today’s world that never seemed to be an acceptable option, a handshake or a piece of paper somehow felt to be more acceptable. Most of the eight already knew each other, if not directly then by reputation, the lowest rank that of a lieutenant-colonel. It was clear that many within the military wanted to remain neutral, the National Guard and Moscow’s police keen not to be dragged into a fight that wasn’t theirs.

Morozov’s aim was to open up the road into Moscow, strangely confident that the city would rally to his cause. The number and nature of their enemies remained open to debate, the six thousand men of the elite Kremlin Regiment under the direct control of the President but not necessarily totally loyal to Golubeva herself. Four hundred spetsnaz from the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service) had already been transferred to Moscow to bolster her support; conversely, few doubted that the FSB and GRU (Military Intelligence) would back Morozov if it came to a fight.

Whilst allowing Morozov free access into the capital was something of a risk for Golubeva, she might well see it as one worth taking, confident that she would be able to finish him off once and for all. If the military-brokered compromise were to fail then a vicious if possibly short-lived civil war would be the inevitable consequence, it likely signalled by a tank battle on the southern outskirts of Moscow.

The discussions lasted barely forty minutes before a break was ordered, the grey light of a cold afternoon starting to fade into darkness before the specifics as to a possible agreement were finally passed higher up the chain of command.

It then became a waiting game and it was well after seven when new instructions were passed down the line of men and vehicles. To many, it wasn’t quite the outcome they had expected or indeed wanted, an unorthodox battalion of twelve tanks and just four hundred troops to be allowed to pass through the lines of the 1st Tank Army and into the city.

General Morozov had no intention of waiting until morning, his forces reorganised, new orders given. Markova duly became one of the four hundred, unsure whether to feel honoured or not, and trusting that they would at least be given the chance to put up a good fight before being annihilated – or maybe she was just being defeatist, no-one quite certain what awaited around the next corner let alone the next day.

A lone tank led the way, the well-lit highway into Moscow empty of traffic, no police or military in evidence. Other than a few people standing and staring, most Muscovites kept a low profile, the sight of an occasional Russian tricolour interpreted by Markova as a positive sign; even so, the atmosphere was more sinister than welcoming, the cheering crowds of Voronezh now a distant memory.

The convoy followed the Third Ring before finally turning away from the city centre, heading north-west; the Kremlin might be their eventual target but the suburb of Khodynka was an essential first stop, Morozov needing to gauge the true level of his support and the exact nature of the forces at Golubeva’s disposal.

The further they travelled, the more people were prepared to watch other than from behind half-closed blinds, a few hundred even willing to wave or clap. That became almost a throng as they approached the headquarters of the GRU, their reception significantly more enthusiastic than elsewhere. The GRU had been a loyal supporter of Morozov and their HQ still showed clear signs of Golubeva’s enmity; scaffolding now surrounded the main building and it was barely three weeks since the top floor had been gutted by fire, twenty killed as the President’s supporters wrested control. Golubeva’s recent appointees had wisely chosen to be elsewhere, her corresponding purge of the FSB ensuring the two agencies were again sharing what they knew – their alliance might be based purely on mutual interest but it had worked well enough once, Markova’s own survival evidence of that.

Within an hour, the Khodynka complex had been turned into a well-protected enclave, armoured vehicles stationed close to every junction, the soldiers reinforced by GRU and FSB volunteers. The President’s own forces were similarly readying themselves for the expected attack and despite its age the Kremlin remained an impressive fortress, its massive walls and towers standing at the heart of the city for over half a millennium.

General Morozov might presently have relatively few resources at his disposal, certainly in Moscow, but with Russia’s Military and Security agencies both working on his behalf, Golubeva’s superiority was not quite as impressive as just twenty-four hours earlier. The real test would come tomorrow, Morozov well aware that to delay would change nothing. President Golubeva had risen on the backs of others more able than her – now it was time to see whether she had actually learnt anything from her eighteen months in power.

 

Washington, D.C. – 16:49 Local Time; 21:49 UTC

The President’s routine on the afternoon before Thanksgiving traditionally involved pardoning a turkey or two, the ceremony now postponed because of self-sacrifice of the human kind, a meeting of the President’s inner circle the new priority. The fact its start had been delayed by two hours was a worrying sign, Jensen assuming that the casualty figures were even worse than the earlier reports had suggested. Or was it because China was readying its own form of retribution?

Information as to the actual capture of Mischief and Subi Reefs had been quick to reach the public domain; not so the precise details as to how it had been achieved and at what cost. Beijing had been similarly reticent in revealing specifics, confirming that U.S. forces had attacked both reefs with the number of casualties reported as being ‘substantial’; it was also implied that the battle for Mischief Reef was not yet over.

Deangelo left if to Admiral Adams to reveal the truth of what had taken place, the Admiral’s tone one of sombre resignation despite his initial good news.

“By any measure, the attack on Subi Reef was an unqualified success, the Special Forces able to achieve total surprise. We lost five killed, eighteen injured, four seriously. The losses to the Chinese marines were less than we had anticipated – twenty-six killed; just over a hundred and sixty taken prisoner. The reef is secure, the Ronald Reagan providing air and anti-missile support.”

Adams was giving them the short version, the bravery of those involved to be discussed later, it not yet the time to praise individuals or apportion blame for any mistakes made that day.

“At Mischief Reef,” continued Adams, “the initial attack progressed as hoped, but at both the main facility in the west and the airstrip, the defenders were able to regroup, certain buildings proving difficult to clear without the risk of serious losses either to our forces or to the Chinese.”

There was an unsubtle emphasis on the final phrase, Deangelo for one wanting a quick, emphatic and relatively bloodless victory. In hindsight, maybe achieving all three had always been an impossible ask; certainly they should never have risked U.S. lives once the Chinese marines had established a strong defensive position and the use of the USS Zumwalt’s precision firepower should have been an early option. Adams seriously regretted not arguing more forcefully for that to be the case but the Special Forces’ commanders had been confident they had enough resources at their disposal, the defenders single-mindedness never considered a serious problem.

Adams continued, “The Chinese marines occupying the headquarters complex and the adjoining buildings had started to set-up a series of booby-traps, some linked together with a single trigger; apparently they ran out of time, one man choosing suicide over a temporary internment. Many of his countrymen were also caught in the blast, the headquarters complex almost completely destroyed. In total, out of the first wave of two hundred and forty men, thirty-nine Marine Raiders and twenty-three SEALs were killed; we have another thirty men seriously injured. The Chinese casualties were even heavier, almost ninety dead.”

It was worse than Jensen had feared, the President visibly angry at the loss of life. In what seemed a moment of genuine regret, Deangelo accepted the ultimate blame, his unwillingness to countenance heavy Chinese losses the single clear mistake.

Adams met the inevitable questions with stoic fortitude, no-one doubting the efforts of those who had fought and died that day. What had been a highly successful mission by U.S. Special Forces had been turned into an act of murder by the Chinese themselves, that single event killing twenty-six Special Forces and some twenty Chinese marines, many of whom had already surrendered.

The origin of the submarine resting on the sea bed was now definitely an irrelevancy, China and America locked together in a battle neither might have deserved or even wanted. The public reaction to so many sons and fathers lost was impossible to judge, the cost needing to be justified in terms of what had actually been gained. The onus was back on China and the tit-for-tat exchange would have to stop sometime, the carrier strike groups led by the Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford always potential targets if China so desired.

The diplomatic channels remained wide open, China offering little, America demanding too much. The mood amongst those around the table was still more belligerent than Jensen had expected, Adams and Thorn making a persuasive argument for hitting China ever harder, wanting the message as to America’s superiority to hit home. The President, however, was proving difficult to convince, the hawks now only just in the majority; Deangelo might not yet believe he had done enough to satisfy his own expectations but he was minded to proceed with caution.

“To return to the status quo will be seen as a defeat,” reiterated Thorn brusquely. “We either need to remind China as to the nature of a true superpower or accept they can choke off the oil supplies any time they want. We have suffered losses but we have taken back the initiative and should continue to push hard; America needs to break Beijing’s hold both on the Spratly Islands and also the Paracels.”

Admiral Adams was quick to agree, “We have sufficient forces already in place, Sir. The John Stennis Strike Group will also reach the Philippines early on Monday and if necessary be able to provide immediate air support.”

Five more days and America could sweep through the Spratly and Paracel Islands, and save the world from Chinese blackmail – but then China could say the same about America. To Jensen, a bloody fight for every single piece of rock was a quick route to a full-blown war. China was rightly concerned that other nations would seek to gain out of any conflict; perhaps not Russia or Taiwan any longer, but South Korea, Japan and even India might just see a one-time opportunity, whatever their protestations of neutrality. And then there was North Korea, their leader’s often arbitrary rhetoric still missing from the equation, no-one willing to guess how they would act from one day to another.

“Beijing’s likely response,” asked Deangelo, not willing to be pressured, “has that changed in the light of these losses?”

The U.S. forces in the South China Sea had been prepared for anything, from a full-scale missile attack to an underwater assault from China’s modern fleet of attack submarines. So far, there had been nothing on the military front, merely a barrage of condemnation from the Chinese media, America accused of doing exactly what China had done with Vietnam – attack with a brutal disregard as to the number of casualties.

“It makes a missile strike against one of our carriers even more likely,” Adams replied. “The USS Zumwalt would also be high on their target list.”

Deangelo nodded in understanding, the outrageous research and build costs of the Navy’s stealth destroyer making the Zumwalt a five billion dollar prize and a worthy test for China’s new breed of anti-ship missiles.

“Beijing has little choice in terms of a realistic target,” added Thorn quickly. “It has to be the Navy; if not a carrier or the Zumwalt then they’ll try to take out several of our other ships, two at least.”

Jensen was inclined to agree, intelligence from the CIA confirming that China’s Navy was more than ready to try out its ‘carrier-killer’ anti-ship missile. Designed specifically with the U.S. in mind, the missiles could easily sound the end of an era, with America’s supercarriers following the battleship into obscurity. Despite the heavy Chinese losses, the Politburo might still baulk at such an over-reaction and China’s capabilities in cyber-warfare offered up various less aggressive possibilities, America’s communications network and military satellites also potentially at risk.

Deangelo still wanted Jensen’s specific opinion, “Paul, forget the military arguments; how do you read it from the Politburo’s perspective?”

“There’s definitely serious disagreement within the Politburo as to the extent of any response,” said Jensen, choosing his words carefully. “The appointment of General Liang to the Central Military Commission is a sign that President Zhao is gaining the upper hand, but the old guard will still demand suitable recompense. The USS Zumwalt would also be my guess: a high-value target to make America think twice and so prove China’s technological advances are at least equal to our own.”

The political split in Beijing wasn’t that of Moscow and public opinion was clearly being manipulated to ensure the Politburo’s militant stance was now accepted without serious dissent, the authorities even regaining a measure of control in Hong Kong. Beijing’s willingness to compromise over Taiwan was still not public knowledge, no formal agreement signed and no obvious indication that the two governments were even talking to each other. Deangelo was similarly reluctant to act purely on what the CIA had learnt, prepared to hear out Taiwan’s Ambassador first. The most optimistic assessment was that it wasn’t yet a done deal, Deangelo with a chance to have an input and perhaps even to veto the Spratly exchange. China would no doubt herald it as an opportunity for both countries and the positive aspects were fairly obvious, especially for Taiwan; yet many in Beijing close to the seat of power would expect something dramatic in return for giving up the island of Taiwan, two rocky outcrops in the South China Sea unlikely to be enough.

In Washington too, the problem of conflicting views would be conspicuously displayed during Thanksgiving and America’s recent show of belligerence had already become the spur for further protests. A peace march from the Lincoln Memorial to the Pentagon was planned for the morning, and with Mayor Henry due to say a few words before the formal winding down of the tented city, the National Mall was about to be squeezed between those for and against the President’s actions against China.

Comments from various members of Congress, whether Democrat or Republican, as to the capture of Mischief and Subi Reefs were again surprisingly restrained, almost neutral, and Deangelo wasn’t quite getting the political backing he might have hoped for. It was as though by voicing their support for the attacks, they were somehow also helping endorse Dick Thorn’s credibility, his future confirmation still open to question.

The Capitol Building was as secure as it could it be without officially going into lockdown, the official excuse kept sufficiently vague with a terrorist threat implied but not confirmed. All leave for the Capitol Police had been cancelled and scores of heavily-armed FBI agents remained on standby in the adjacent office buildings, even patrolling the tunnels underneath. It might only be for a few days but there had been no point in trying to keep such precautions a secret; if there was to be some attack, then Sean Kovak and the D.C. Police would surely now realise the impossibility of success and the National Guard was the only remaining danger, Jensen unwilling to countenance some dramatic assault from the 82nd Airborne.

Whether recent events would influence the number of demonstrators attending the Thanksgiving protests would soon become clear. For some the memory of Iraq and Afghanistan was still raw, a peaceful resolution their one demand; others could simply point to the scenes from Vietnam, vengeance for the innocent lives lost a powerful and worthy cause.

The FBI were hoping to be able to watch the complex arguments from afar, a visible presence in the National Mall just as likely to start a riot. For Jensen too, Thanksgiving would be another holiday missed and he anticipated a busy day stuck in his office while trusting that the CIA or ONI could give the U.S. Navy a few hours warning as to where China might possibly strike.

[]Chapter 14 – Thursday, November 24th

Zhanjiang, China – 10:48 Local Time; 02:48 UTC

General Liang stood in the Naval Command Centre watching the latest dispositions as to the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea, the two carrier strike groups soon to be joined by a third. So far China’s navy had chosen a cautious line in the conflict, fully prepared to test itself against its powerful foe, just waiting for the necessary orders from Beijing.

The problem remained as it always had done, the Politburo – like the White House – wary of the conflict escalating into a more vicious war. America’s capture of Mischief and Subi Reefs had been the first serious set-back, President Deangelo’s rapid response and the Pentagon’s choice of target unexpected. It was assumed at least one more reef would be attacked, America able to pick them off at its leisure, every one of China’s island territories at risk. China’s decision to step back from a direct confrontation with America was clearly now unsustainable, a cycle of attrition the likely next stage with each side trying to seek some small advantage before the aggression turned into a genuine search for peace. The counter would have to be chosen carefully, China’s missile systems ready to exact revenge, the navy and air force potentially with the ability to take out as least one of America’s carriers.

A month – even two weeks – ago that would have certainly been the preferred choice; now the Politburo was looking for a way out, one last attempt being made to persuade America as to the real dangers of the path ahead before the inevitable concessions could be thrashed out across the negotiating table. Whatever the final accord, it would need to be sold as a clear victory, otherwise the agreement over Taiwan would in turn be seen as nothing more than a step too far, Liang likely to be one of the first to suffer the subsequent backlash.

“One minute to go, Sir,” said an officer politely. Liang nodded in thanks, moving across to join the Admiral, both men keen to see how the Americans reacted to this new threat. It was a ploy Liang had once regarded as too great a risk and simply one more factor the CMC would be unable to control, barely even to influence; now, it was seen as a quick and effective way to strengthen China’s hand.

The first news report flashed across the screen, it at least on time. The Western media took a few minutes to respond, Reuters quickly spreading the word. One brief statement from the state-run news agency of a Third World country and the rest of the world immediately sat up and took notice – it was impressive and at the same time disturbing.

Liang guessed at a couple of hours for the U.S. to react, prepared to wait it out. He would have preferred to have remained in Beijing; however, the Politburo had wanted a steady hand in Zhanjiang, worried as to what President Deangelo might do, Liang able to override the Admiral’s subsequent orders if he saw fit.

In fact it took less than an hour for a surge of activity in the Command Centre to warn Liang that something was happening, the Admiral quick to confirm the Americans had taken the bait.

“The Carrier Group headed by the USS Gerald Ford is definitely turning north-east and away from the Spratly Islands; Japan and South Korea have also increased their state of alert.” The Admiral was nervous, well aware of the dangers ahead, others now controlling China’s fate.

More reports came in, Liang deeply worried yet also a little relieved. So far, the Politburo’s tactic had worked as planned, the U.S. having to redeploy her naval forces to protect against an additional threat.

The joker of North Korea had finally been played, a typically bellicose announcement from the government in Pyongyang just the first step. It was barely a hundred words, confirming that North Korea’s military had been ordered to support its ally the People’s Republic of China, every possible means to be used to assist China in its defence of the Paracel and Spratly Islands.

Now America had a second adversary to worry about, one whose actions not even China could predict, Pyongyang as likely to order a missile strike on Seoul or Tokyo as do absolutely nothing.

 

Moscow – 09:44 Local Time; 06:44 UTC

Markova led the way cautiously along the northern edge of Vozdvizhenka Street, careful to ensure she was never too far from the protection of a doorway or wall. Other than her ten-man section, the street was completely deserted – no people, no traffic, and everyone had either moved out or were in hiding, well knowing what would happen next. Less than half-a-kilometre to the east the Kremlin’s Trinity Tower stood out proud and tall, beckoning them forward.

Markova’s one night at Khodynka had been as difficult as any. Starting soon after midnight the sound of far-off gunfire had become a regular companion, several explosions lighting up the sky to the south-east. The fighting didn’t seem to be confined to a single street or even a small area; never that close, it had covered a good part of the city to both south and east. One GRU patrol had tried to circle round to the north and get through to Red Square but had come under attack from at least two snipers; bodies lay as they’d fallen on virtually every street, the patrol counting well over twenty.

Surveillance drones had revealed some of the truth behind the rumours reaching Khodynka, with the Kremlin Arsenal the centre of a fierce gun battle. The Kremlin Regiment had finally chosen to declare its own divided loyalties, friends and comrades apparently engaged in a vicious battle for supremacy, no quarter given. The fighting had lasted until early morning, several parts of the three hundred metre long Arsenal building on fire, the Kremlin’s stone courtyards stained red all the way to the Senate.

A more detailed account had emerged from those that had managed to slip away: the faction supporting Morozov had first attempted to break through into the Senate but had been beaten back, taking refuge in the Arsenal. The rest of the Regiment had been forced into taking sides and even those wishing to remain neutral had come under fire. A tenacious stand of defiance had soon turned into a struggle to survive, hundreds having to battle their way out of the Kremlin, the exchange of gunfire spilling over into the surrounding streets.

More reports told of fierce fighting outside the Ritz-Carlton hotel and again near to the Ministry of Defence. A live feed from the Lubyanka, less than a kilometre to the north-east of the Kremlin, had shown several armed gangs moving through the semi-darkened streets, all heading south. As far as anyone could judge, they were pro-Morozov, some perhaps a little too keen to exact their revenge.

Now Markova was about to do the same, the memory of eighteen months earlier when she and Nikolai had fought through the corridors of the Senate Building still fresh in her mind. General Morozov and his troops had been their saviour that day, persuaded by Golubeva to intervene. Now the main fight could well take place outside of the Kremlin walls, T-14 tanks ready and waiting in Red Square, the rumours that Golubeva had fled Moscow obviously nothing more than that.

Although some parts of the Kremlin were normally open to visitors, it remained the preserve of Russia’s president, the key building of the Senate just visible from Red Square. Roughly triangular in shape, the apex of the Kremlin points due north, Red Square to the east, Alexander Garden to the west, the southern edge facing the Moskva River; in places the protective red brick walls are more than six metres thick, up to nineteen metres high.

Outnumbered and quite possibly outgunned, General Morozov’s hopes rested almost entirely on a renewed surge of support and to some extent his optimism had already proved justified. Overnight their small force had grown to some two thousand and it now included four APCs (Armoured Personnel Carrier), all armed with a 30mm cannon, Morozov trusting it would be enough to give them at least a chance of winning what would be the final battle. The people, the army, everyone – they all needed to see a clear-cut victory, not some drawn-out siege and yet another short-lived leader emerging from the shadows.

General Morozov might be determined to put an end to Golubeva’s presidency but his experience with urban warfare was insignificant, and his plan was for a slow and steady advance – no point in wasting such frugal resources in the vain hope of a quick victory. On the plus side, the General had a clear advantage in terms of intelligence, the FSB and GRU shrugging of Golubeva’s authority to work together, ably assisted by everything from rumour to high-resolution images from both satellites and drones. Whether it was down to Morozov’s reputation or the fact that – unlike Irina Golubeva – he was actually from the military, then the President’s allies now numbered far less than anyone had anticipated. A handful of the tanks and IFVs that had been tasked with protecting the Kremlin had already swapped their allegiance and it was almost as if everyone expected Morozov to win with ease, Golubeva’s support haemorrhaging by the hour. The latest estimate of around twenty tanks and three thousand men still gave her a clear advantage, the five hundred men of the Presidential Security Service (PSB) likely to be totally loyal: similar in function to the U.S. Secret Service, any lack of heavy weapons could easily be rectified from the Kremlin’s vast supply.

General Morozov was attempting multiple attacks, various routes towards the Kremlin being probed for some weakness; he had been insistent that it would be criminal to try and breech the massive walls and somehow a more acceptable alternative had to be found – if it duly came at a relatively high cost, then so be it.

Markova kept to the sidewalk, wary of direct line of sight from the eighty-metre high Trinity Tower. It in turn was guarded by the outer Kutafya Tower, a narrow hundred metre ramp – the Trinity Bridge – arching over the Alexander Garden to join the two towers. The Trinity Gate formed the main visitor’s entrance to the Kremlin, the Senate another two hundred metres beyond.

Strung out behind Markova was the rest of her section, all with military experience, half of them – like her – members of the FSB’s elite Alpha Group. Looking like some ragtag company from some long-forgotten war, well over two hundred more fighters followed on, keeping to the side streets to north and south. Kremlin Regiment, army, FSB, GRU, National Guard, police and civilians – they wore a wide range of uniforms and insignia, some casually dressed in padded jacket and jeans, a blue ribbon or a piece of cloth signifying their allegiance to General Morozov’s cause. All of the civilians claimed they’d had significant military experience, their average age at least fifty, their reasons for joining Morozov varied and often confused, Markova having to hope they were all genuine. The National Guard and police volunteers were going against the compromise thrashed out the previous day but again no-one turned them away, every additional man and woman welcomed without comment.

For those risking their lives on the deserted and icy streets of Moscow, the chain of command was often a debatable concept. The few in an officer’s uniform generally had some semblance of authority and while Markova’s decision to lead from the front was outdated, it seemed the quickest way to gain the unit’s respect. Loosely organised into five platoons, most of the makeshift unit were armed with assault rifles, anything from a brand-new AK-12 to a sixty year-old AK-47; other than six anti-tank rockets and two reusable launchers, they had no heavy weapons and just one APC, the General’s own attack on Red Square considered the priority.

The chatter of gunfire could clearly be heard in the distance, together with the dull thump of an occasional explosion. Markova had already lost three men to a sniper stationed in the Trinity Tower and the route south then east was proving slow and tortuous, every building and alleyway treated with suspicion. Beyond the tower a dark ribbon of smoke floated gently upwards, the battle for Red Square having begun almost an hour earlier. Golubeva’s protective line of tanks would prove a difficult challenge for Morozov’s own armoured units, the General also lacking in suitable heavy weapons.

Markova’s approach to the west wall of the Kremlin might be less open than a broad square but that didn’t mean it would be easy. Reports suggested the PSB had occupied several key buildings close to the Kutafya Tower, a single T-90 tank sitting patiently alongside. A drone had managed to confirm the position of the tank but nothing more, it shot down almost immediately.

Markova waved everyone to a halt while she studied the way ahead, the edge of a building offering some protection. Diagonally across the street was one of several buildings which together formed the State Library; a couple of snipers hidden there could wreak havoc, able to cover an attack from virtually any direction. To simply bypass it would save time but it was a significant risk, Markova quick to realise she had little choice.

Using a whole platoon was probably overkill but Markova played safe, watching as the attackers gradually worked their way into the library buildings from the south and west. Markova tried to stay patient, not expecting miracles, just wanting the rooms facing Vozdvizhenka Street to be cleared first.

It was a good fifteen minutes before she heard the first shots. This wasn’t just one or two snipers, the Library occupied by at least a dozen men, maybe as many as twenty. The attack was quickly becoming bogged down with booby-traps a constant fear, the number of casualties steadily mounting.

Markova accepted the inevitable and sent in a second platoon, a third moving cautiously along Vozdvizhenka Street in support. Abruptly a machine-gun opened up, men and women scattering to take whatever cover they could as bullets whizzed past, ricocheting from walls and the road surface. There was a second and more sustained burst of gunfire, the flicker of muzzle-flashes coming from a tall corner building close to the Kutafya Tower, several more guns blazing from the third-floor windows of the State Library.

Markova spoke rapidly into her body mic, trying to target every problem, her immediate priority the machine-gun. Within seconds their sole APC moved out from a nearby side-street, its 30mm cannon raking across the Library windows before quickly turning towards the corner building, a line of tracers gradually climbing ever higher.

The APC was dallying too long, Markova’s orders ignored as its commander tried to prove his worth, no thought given as to other dangers. There was the crackle of return fire and moments later a dull thump as the T-90 tank revealed its power. The APC seemed to give an angry shudder then it simply disintegrated, a lethal spray of jagged metal flying through the air, the sound of the explosion drowning out the screams of the wounded and the dying.

Markova knew she should pull everyone back and regroup but that too was a risk. A choking cloud of dirty-grey dust was swirling along the street and, driven by adrenalin, she raced forward, thudding into the protection of a doorway before barging her way inside, the door not even locked; half-a-dozen others were quick to join her, anywhere safer than the killing zone of Vozdvizhenka Street.

The sign inside was a warning that Markova had made a serious mistake, the building just one of many properties run by the Kremlin for the privileged few, and she stood uncertainly, momentarily struggling to understand why the woman standing beside the reception desk was all dressed in white.

In fact it was a lavishly equipped medical centre, the staff already getting ready to receive the wounded, no indication given that it mattered which side they were on. In anticipation of an attack, the few patients staying overnight had been moved hours earlier to the rear of the building and Markova’s section was quick to occupy the third floor, trying to provide cover for those struggling to survive out on the street.

For the time being the State Library became the unit’s only priority, well over a hundred men and women working to flush out the defenders, one treacherous room at a time. From the first shots to the last, it took them close to two hours, a handful of Golubeva’s men managing to make their escape; many more did not, each brief but intense firefight a bloody example as to the tenacity of both sides.

A form of relative quiet returned, broken only by the cries of those no-one could help. The unit’s casualties were as bad as Markova had feared, fifteen dead, close to forty injured. The rest of General Morozov’s units were similarly struggling to make headway, three tanks lost with nothing to show for it. Every separate attack was meeting stiff resistance, Golubeva’s forces with time enough to prepare and plan.

For Markova’s unit, the Trinity Gate had now become their sole objective, at least for the first day. The T-90 tank still sat immobile on the pedestrian square outside the Kutafya Tower: armed with a 125mm cannon and two machine-guns, it was a brute of a tank, its laminated front armour impervious to Markova’s only anti-tank weapon, the RPG-32. General Morozov’s increasingly inadequate arsenal lacked even the basics of a single attack helicopter and his own tanks were obviously needed elsewhere, it down to Markova to find a suitable way forward.

The RPG-32 was purely a point-and-shoot system, simple to use, and under the right circumstances its HEAT (High-Explosive Anti-Tank) rockets were relatively effective. The T-90’s armour thinned out from front to rear, and while the side skirts and hull were vulnerable, the tank was already immobile by choice. The armour thickness protecting the turret sides was close to the limit of the rocket’s abilities but unless Markova could find a way to get behind the tank, it was their only option; even then, one chance might be all they got before the tank’s semi-automated systems blasted them into the next world. To delay and wait for night would in all likelihood not make the task any easier, night-vision goggles a relatively scarce item in Morozov’s armoury but sadly not the Kremlin’s.

The right flank of the T-90 was protected by the corner building; on the left was the Manege, a historic oblong building used as an exhibition hall – occupied by at least twenty defenders, it was also overlooked by the corner building. By default, the latter had become the key to any further advance, Markova accepting there was no quick and easy solution.

The corner building was part of a group built in the 1840s and later extended; Ho Chi Minh had even been one of several communist activists renting office space there in the 1920s. It was now part of the State Library’s publishing arm and any attempt to approach it from the Alexander Garden would bring the attackers into direct line of sight of the tank’s machine-guns and Trinity Tower. It would be the same for the Manege, the defenders ensuring that virtually every attempt to break through could be hit from at least two directions.

The corner building still wasn’t invulnerable and Markova chose to approach it from the south, leading a squad of twenty-four through the network of other buildings and past an inner courtyard. It was a slow and nerve-wracking task even though there was no opposition; in fact, no sign of anyone at all, the only loud sounds that of a lock snapping.

It took close to an hour to reach their initial target, a suite of offices belonging to the Russian Academy of Sciences. Across a small paved area stood the corner building, its ground-floor windows dark and inviting, no hint of any movement inside, the only light that shining down from the upper floors.

Markova checked to ensure the other units were ready: suppressing fire from the State Library and an assault on the Manege would hopefully be enough of a diversion to give Markova’s squad a chance – whether the Manege in turn became something more productive was at their officer’s discretion, Markova trusting that he wouldn’t risk everything in a foolish grab for glory.

Abruptly the street outside erupted into gunfire, those in the State Library unwilling to wait any longer. With Markova leading the way, the squad raced across to the far building, windows smashed as they fought to get inside; six of the squad had a different target in mind, breaking into the rear of the adjoining building, next to the Kremlin Ticket Office.

Markova found herself in a small office; outside was a narrow corridor and far too many doors, the layout not making it easy to work out which way to go. The ground floor seemed unoccupied, the steady crackle of automatic weapons from the floors above encouraging them to move ever higher, the machine-gun Markova’s prime concern.

The building was a warren of rooms and offices, the squad having to work by sound and instinct, there no time to clear it floor by floor. It quickly turned into a series of minor skirmishes, not quite hand-to-hand, a grenade often needed to clear the way forward. Markova was close to losing track of what was happening around her, unsure even what floor she was on, always trying to work her way towards the insistent clatter of the machine-gun. It was all taking far too long to neutralise the building and she was increasingly worried as to what was taking place in the street outside, certain now that – despite their orders – the rest of the unit was moving forward in support. Markova’s own attack was slowly losing impetus, the squad reduced to half its number, ammunition running low.

On the second floor of the adjoining building, the six-man section had managed to work their way unnoticed to the front. Two of the six each carried an anti-tank launcher, only one of them having ever fired something similar before. The resultant back-blast meant it was ill-advised to use the launcher in confined spaces but better that than outside in full view of the T-90 tank.

It sat some fifty metres away, not quite side-on. One shot each, maybe two, that was the very best they could hope for, the chance of a kill perhaps fifty-fifty.

The tank commander’s concentration was focused more on the dangers he could actually see than those hidden away to his left and the T-90 abandoned its static vigil to edge forward, the tank’s two machine-guns first targeting the attack on the Manege. Job done, the tank pivoted around to the left, the State Library coming into view; the Library buildings had previously been sacrosanct, now each and every threat would meet the same explosive response, necessity having no place for sentiment.

To those waiting on the second floor, it was the ideal move, placing the turret almost perfectly side-on. The first operator needed no further encouragement, the rocket striking the base of the turret, a bright flash of light followed on instantly by a disappointing puff of smoke. The second operator wasn’t quite ready and he raced to follow suit, the rocket deflecting off the rounded turret. Not that the operator saw any of this, the effects of the back-blast magnified by the small office in which he stood, he and one of his comrades killed instantly.

The tank was hurt but not out of action, the turret turning, the remotely controlled machine-gun peppering the building, no specific target yet identified. That changed instantly when the third rocket was fired, it hitting close to the rear of the turret and punching its way through.

The sound of the explosion reached those still fighting on the top floor of the corner building, windows shattering in sympathy. It didn’t quite signify the end of the battle for the Kutafya Tower but the eventual outcome was no longer in doubt. The remaining defenders were outnumbered four-to-one, the corner building the first to fall, the T-90 tank still wreathed in smoke and flame.

By the time darkness fell just after four o’clock, the Manege was also under Markova’s control, the gates of the Kutafya Tower open and inviting. The cost in human lives had been severe with another twenty dead to be added to Markova’s conscience. Her unit had fought together for just seven brutal hours, their strength already reduced by some forty percent, Markova not even sure they had the will to continue for a second day.

And that would certainly be necessary. General Morozov’s tanks were still fighting a war of attrition with Golubeva’s forces, each waiting for the other to admit defeat. Morozov’s favoured status was inevitably starting to fade and if the stalemate continued for too long, more of the military would begin to take sides, President Golubeva perhaps the sensible option.

 

Washington, D.C. – 09:44 Local Time; 14:44 UTC

Anderson was back again in the National Mall, unsure whether the lack of an FBI tail meant they realised he was getting nowhere fast or he had simply outlived his usefulness; having done all the leg work to give them Nash and Oscar, it seemed ungrateful just to let him loose, and not even a single word of thanks.

The morning was cold and frosty, a good sprinkling of snow expected for the weekend. With camera in hand, Anderson was effectively just one of hundreds of tourists in the Mall, most looking to find the perfect picture to send to those back home, the soft autumn light bathing everything in a welcoming glow. Even though Anderson’s phone camera was a very capable alternative to his trustworthy Pentax, familiarity and simple pride invariably made him favour the more expensive and showy option. Yet Anderson was also trying to earn his keep, trusting that the newspapers would be rather more appreciative than the FBI of his take on recent events; if necessary, he was happy to tone down his opinion as to the threat Congress faced, prepared to make only a vague reference to members potentially being denied access to the Capitol.

Despite the losses at Mischief Reef, a snap poll showed that the public were generally supportive of the President’s response. China’s own attack against Vietnam remained fresh in people’s minds and it was obvious that China couldn’t be stopped without lives being put at risk. It was a view the Pentagon was keen to promote, the Press Secretary at pains to confirm that it was clearly a victory: two fortified islands defended by some four hundred and sixty elite marines defeated with the loss of sixty-seven men – every such sacrifice was regrettable but America had a duty to help her allies. Television pictures revealed the ferocity of some of the fighting and the scenes from Mischief Reef were particularly grim, with buildings flattened and the dock area a smoking ruin, two fire-blackened hulks lying alongside. Beijing had finally admitted that both reefs had been captured, their own estimate of Chinese dead and injured much lower than the U.S. reports. According to Beijing, the number of marines guarding the two reefs totalled just under three hundred and, despite being outnumbered some three-to-one by the Americans, had put up a brave fight to defend China’s ‘sovereign territory’.

The various U.S. military experts tended to be more dispassionate in their views than the Pentagon’s Press Secretary, the pros and cons duly analysed, America’s strategy more often than not regarded as sound. Similarly, Deangelo’s nomination of Thorn might have set Congress alight but the broadsheets had been more balanced as to Thorn’s strengths of late, the needs of the moment definitely requiring a strong hand at the Pentagon. Opinions were far more divided as to the President’s selection of Jack Shepard as Vice-President and the political analysts were still arguing as to whether it was a brilliant move or a potential disaster.

The peace march was due to start at eleven, the organisers anticipating that North Korea’s statement of intent would help double the numbers and people were already spilling out from the Lincoln Memorial’s east plaza and onto the frost-covered grass. The essentials of giant screen and public-address system had been in place since early morning and after the usual round of speeches, it would be a banner-waving march across the Potomac and then on to the Pentagon.

With Mayor Henry due to speak at the other end of the Mall around noon, the police were again high-profile, ready to act to keep the two sides apart should it be necessary. Many of those who had camped out in the National Mall for over a fortnight were already packing up to leave, perhaps hoping to ensure they got home in good time to cook the celebration turkey. For the time being the tourists were in the majority and it looked as if Henry wouldn’t need much more than a soap box and a loud voice to make himself heard. Whether anything that happened in the National Mall or outside the walls of the Pentagon would be enough to persuade the hardliners that it was time to act was still to be seen. The forced suspension of Congress was a clear first step, tomorrow the last chance until December to guarantee most members would be in one spot.

Or would they prefer Congress to be in recess? With the country’s Senators and Representatives safely away from the Capitol Building, there was obviously less chance of anyone influential getting hurt, it perhaps considered important not to start by accidently shooting a Senator or two. Deangelo or Thorn: Commander-in-Chief or unofficial Second-in-Command – which one would be prepared to risk everything and order the military into Washington?

There was just one thing about it that worried Anderson, the evidence falling into place a little too readily. Every individual component had been spelled out in almost perfect detail: means, motive and opportunity – it was all there. Carter, Nash, Oscar and Anderson: knowingly or otherwise, each had played their part, the FBI no doubt happily following-on every step of the way.

Anderson guessed the computer IP address obtained via the Harvard site would lead straight back to Terrill and maybe someone there had actually read up on Nash and Oscar – Anderson just wasn’t sure whether it was that relevant. In any case, it still seemed too basic a clue, especially when it was second-nature for Carter to hide his tracks. It could so easily be a deliberate false trail and Carter might simply have adjusted the IP address and date once he’d reached Panama.

Even if the FBI – or indeed Jensen – thought the same, it would have been foolish not to have improved security in and around the Capitol Building. In which case, what ulterior motive did McDowell actually have in mind?

Carter wouldn’t do anything without McDowell’s say-so, which could definitely make it all smoke and mirrors, the authorities’ attention drawn away from what McDowell really had planned. It would certainly be typical McDowell – but so would a subtle act of betrayal. Maybe he had good reason to be disloyal; vengeance for Yang or Ritter perhaps, or a belated sense of patriotism?

Anderson stood staring up at the Capitol Building, his eureka moment not as helpful as he would have liked; basically, he was back to the drawing board, gut feeling and guesswork all he had left. McDowell, Deangelo, Thorn, Henry and Kovak – some or all of them were still part of it, of that he was sure.

By eleven o’clock there were upwards of fifty thousand people near to the Lincoln Memorial, plus hundreds of police and media, Anderson watching from the grass bank as various speakers did their best to stir up the crowd. With placards in hand, they soon set off towards the Pentagon, the route lined by yet more police. Throughout it all the atmosphere was fairly good-natured and the more militant groups at the opposite end of the Mall kept their distance, no-one apparently wanting to provoke a confrontation. Anderson took the obligatory photos and asked pertinent questions, and many of those he spoke to were not so much anti-war as worried that the fight had more to do with oil supplies to Japan and South Korea than sticking-up for the Philippines.

It was well after twelve by the time Gene Henry stepped up onto a hastily-built platform to address those gathered close to 3rd Street. Pro-war, pro-Thorn, anti-Congress – those standing in front of the Capitol Building had a variety of reasons as to why they were there, but if there was one common factor it was their sense of frustration with the members who sat in the building opposite. The number of protestors had swelled significantly since earlier but at around five thousand it was still less than some might have hoped for. What also came across clearly to Anderson was the crowd’s willingness to praise Deangelo: two weeks in and the President’s approval rating had risen to the dizzy heights of 83% – not bad for a virtual unknown.

Although not as good a speaker as Dick Thorn, Henry’s words were emotive and seemingly from the heart, praising those who had camped out in the Mall for their understanding in bringing the protest to an end. He quickly chose to make specific reference to Dick Thorn, extolling what he had done for his country and could do as Secretary of Defence. The political stalemate in Congress and the apparent reluctance of many of its members to publicly support Deangelo was condemned, Henry moving on to express his own very personal approval of America’s actions in the South China Sea and the bravery of those continually risking their lives. He skilfully managed to avoid repeating what he’d said during his last diatribe but was still able to imply Congress was blind and incompetent, happy to leave Thorn out in the cold because of an unfair prejudice. The protest might formally be coming to an end but Mayor Henry seemed quite happy to twist the knife.

The crowd applauded enthusiastically, Henry adding in the hope that the people of America would stand united with the Philippines and fully committed to the fight for freedom, the authoritarian and expansionist ideals of China’s Politburo needing to be resisted.

Even Anderson applauded this time, a little ashamed that America and the Philippines were now pretty much left to fight alone. Naval units from Australia had recently moved into position south of the Spratly Islands but that would change little; Japan, South Korea and Taiwan still seemed content to sit uncomfortably on the fence, the threat from North Korea a worrying escalation. But then the reasons for China and the U.S. to be close to war were far more complex than just an argument over a few pieces of rock, Thorn for one not quite the innocent Henry portrayed him.

The crowd started to disperse, workers already moving amongst the remains of the tented city. Anderson headed back to the Holiday Inn deep in thought, needing to look with fresh eyes at everything that had happened, pre-conceptions put to one side. Inspiration was always an unpredictable beast and eventually he would come up with something clever; hopefully, sooner rather than later.

  • * *

The meal was the first proper Thanksgiving spread Anderson had ever had: squash soup, turkey and cornbread, a dozen different vegetables – he was already well overfed but it seemed churlish not to move on to the pecan pie. The family tradition of eating the Thanksgiving meal sharp at 3 p.m. had not helped his digestive struggles, Anderson making do with just one helping of pie and no pumpkin cake. He had actually made the number around the table an uneven nine, but both Ray and Rachel Flores had been insistent he join them, no excuse accepted.

Anderson had felt awkward at first, taking his lead from Rachel Flores, the consequences of her ordeal at McDowell’s hands well hidden. A welcome hug and kiss had seemed a generous recognition of Anderson’ minor role in her release, especially as he was still feeling guilty that somehow it was his fault, in part at least. By some unspoken and mutual consent, the topic of conversation stayed well clear of U.S. problems, briefly settling on Russia and the news that the Kremlin was under siege. Anderson had idly wondered whether Markova might be part of it somehow, not even certain whether she was still alive; under the circumstances, it seemed best to keep his word to the FSB and he made no mention of his involvement in the previous year’s events, unsure how much Flores might actually know.

Rachel Flores was a considerate if overworked hostess, well aware that Anderson had an ulterior motive for accepting their offer of dinner. By six-thirty there was just the three of them left, Rachel happy to leave the two men alone to discuss strategy.

Anderson was conscious that Flores might well prefer to move on from the problem of McDowell or even be annoyed that Anderson had kept Carter’s revelation to himself, but that was certainly not the case; Flores just needed convincing there was something actually worth pursuing. Anderson’s dubious logic involving a shut-down – or not – of Congress was at best speculative, there no single persuasive piece of evidence to prove it either way.

From Anderson’s perspective, Flores was an important ally, someone with the right connections and the understanding to help work out what if anything came next, it still taking an hour of argument to get him thinking along the same lines as Anderson.

“I get that the threat to Congress could be real or exaggerated,” Flores confirmed, trying to make it sound positive rather than patronising. “And the fact it was McDowell not Carter who gave you Nash – I’m just not sure I agree as to why.”

“Let’s just go back a few weeks,” said Anderson, still uncertain in his own mind as to how the various aspects fitted together. “McDowell spent months helping put someone more hard-line than Cavanagh into power, someone willing to risk a war with China, Yang and his friends prepared to bankroll it all. Plan A was for Russia to then attack from the north; America, the Philippines and Vietnam squeezing China from the south. If there was a plan B, then this isn’t it and Deangelo is now facing a much more difficult challenge. So far he’s done what people seem to want and the way things are going, there’s little reason for him to worry about Congress not backing him over China, at least for a while. There’s no advantage to Deangelo of a coup and McDowell could simply be trying to divert our attention. The question is, from what?”

Flores still didn’t see it that way, “If Congress isn’t a target then giving us Nash just seems pointless. The Capitol’s now crawling with extra security – how does that help McDowell or anyone else?”

“Maybe the extra security’s essential for some reason,” said Anderson with a shrug, desperately trying to think of something sensible. “Perhaps it’s a bizarre way of actually getting someone inside the Capitol.”

“To do what exactly?”

“No idea; blow it up if Thorn gets his way…”

“You’re certain McDowell’s not just following orders?” offered Flores. “And deliberately trying to sabotage a very specific threat to Congress? Maybe the murder of Yang persuaded his friends it was time to cut and run?”

“Then do that; why even bother giving us Nash?”

“Revenge, spite, temper – who knows?” said Flores, exasperated. “You can’t be certain it’s a McDowell trick. Perhaps he’s even trying to be helpful?”

“So Pat McDowell’s suddenly developed a conscience – that would be a first.”

Flores persevered, not yet willing to let a good idea be so easily dismissed. “There’s no guarantee Congress won’t make life difficult for Deangelo over China, especially if Russia ends up a potential ally. And nominating Thorn was always going to be controversial – being able to forget Congress just makes everything easier. For someone like Thorn, that could be as a good a reason as any to bring in the 82nd Airborne.”

Anderson gave a frustrated shake of his head, “That was true a month ago but not now; Deangelo gets nothing from a coup except a lot of angry people thirsting for his blood – he’d be worse off than Cavanagh…”

The discussion was getting heated, it not yet an argument, both of them hoping for some sudden insight that would convince the other.

“Let’s assume you’re right about Deangelo,” said Flores graciously, a better idea finally taking shape. “It’s different for Thorn; he and his friends are continuing to push two clear messages: China is the enemy and Congress is corrupt – for them, neutralising Congress still makes good sense. To Deangelo, a takeover has become high risk for minimal gain, and if he wants out he either convinces the others to abandon or he makes sure an attack on Congress can’t possibly succeed. One casual comment from Carter is about all it takes – job done.”

Anderson realised it made as much sense as anything else they had and maybe Flores had a point. “Thorn’s still a problem,” he said slowly. “He’s risked his career to help Deangelo and he might not even end up as Secretary of Defence. Nor can he guarantee the Democratic presidential nomination in the future. If it all now falls flat, he’s lost everything; Thorn can’t just sit back and do nothing. Or is Deangelo that much of a friend?”

“Colleagues but hardly friends,” responded Flores thoughtfully. “There’s nothing to suggest they socialise outside of work; very different backgrounds and interests. However, Thorn and Henry have known each other for years, good friends for at least the last five.”

Anderson was impressed, “It sounds like you’ve been doing some homework.”

“Just picked up a few things along the way,” said Flores with a smile.

Anderson was just wary of automatically assuming Deangelo would be the one wanting out. “Let’s not forget Henry; this would have all been far more difficult without him. As Mayor, he lent his support to the protests in the Mall, his friendship with Kovak ensuring the D.C. Police backed him up. Deangelo wins the biggest prize and even Thorn gets a sniff at a Cabinet job, but for Mayor Gene Henry there’s nothing more than ‘thanks’ and a whole lot of aggro from the FBI. Even his standing in the Democratic Party has been tainted by his association with Thorn… I assume there’s nothing to suggest Henry missed out when Deangelo became president? A promise made but unfulfilled?”

“Not that I’m aware of,” Flores replied. “D.C. thrives on rumours but there’s been nothing. Maybe Ritter’s murder was more of a falling out than simply tidying up a loose end.”

G-man and journalist, they might well be out of their depth in understanding the subtle nuance of D.C. politics but they were doing their best. All Anderson wanted was to link everything together in one neat and logical package, the unexpected combination of Bourbon and pumpkin cake hopefully helping it along. There were far too many unknowns to work out a clear way forward, Anderson unable even to sort out the guilty from those who merely gained by default.

“Deangelo knows Congress would do everything it could to block Thorn,” said Anderson, rethinking it through, “but he still nominated him. He’s tried swinging the vote but that could easily fail. Either Deangelo was convinced he could control the vote or he’s always had something else in mind…”

“The hacked emails,” Flores interrupted. “Publicly Deangelo’s pushing Thorn’s confirmation but maybe he wanted to make sure the Senate would never agree; the emails haven’t just stirred up public opinion they’ve re-ignited party divisions.”

“So you’re suggesting he’s also using McDowell to sabotage Thorn’s chances?” He’s doing a pretty good job of that himself, I’m not sure he needs anyone else’s help.”

“It’s insurance, I guess…” Flores reached for the bourbon, needing another dose of inspiration. “But then that makes no real sense: if both Thorn and Shepard fail to get confirmed, Deangelo’s lost a lot of credibility.”

“Basically,” said Anderson with a resigned shake of his head, “we’re still going round in circles. If it wasn’t for Thorn, Congress might just be willing to compromise on Shepard. Maybe we need to forget Henry and Kovak; this is really about Thorn and Deangelo. They might have started out with a common aim in mind but circumstances change.”

Flores stuck with the concept of a falling out, Thorn’s views always seeming more extreme than anything Deangelo had ever professed. “When you read what Thorn has said over the years, he’s consistently warned as to the threat from China. Deangelo stood on the steps of Congress to promise that America would be a good friend and a fierce enemy – Dick Thorn’s not the type of man to let him forget a single word of that very public commitment. The way things are going, Deangelo could easily seek a compromise with China that Thorn finds unacceptable and, as you said earlier, from his perspective everything will have been for nothing. Deangelo is then treading on very thin ice, never quite knowing what Thorn might say or do… Look at how he stabbed Cavanagh in the back.”

Flores lapsed into silence but Anderson was already one step ahead, “So you think McDowell’s real target might actually be Dick Thorn?” It came across as a question but was virtually a statement, Anderson already warming to Flores’ idea as more than just another vague theory.

“Get rid of Thorn and a good part of Deangelo’s problems will simply melt away,” said Flores with a shrug of resignation. “One well-aimed shot from Lavergne is all it takes.”

Anderson slowly nodded in agreement. If Deangelo or Henry had got cold feet then McDowell and his friends would be an effective panacea, Congress saved and Thorn finally dealt with. Maybe the earlier shooting in the Mall hadn’t just been for effect, Thorn far luckier than Anderson had ever anticipated. Killing Thorn might even strengthen Deangelo’s position with Congress and a dubious public, especially if were seen as yet another terrorist act.

The fact he and Flores could sit having a friendly drink while discussing a man’s potential murder was a sad reflection as to their present state of mind, yet necessary if they were to work out a way forward. Their twist on McDowell’s role might be nothing more than a paranoid fantasy but still worth pursuing, if only to be proved wrong. And despite everything, it had a perverse logic which well-matched the conspiracy’s past endeavours…

[]Chapter 15 – Friday, November 25th

USS Benfold – 11:45 Local Time; 03:45 UTC

Tanner swore softly under his breath, cursing everyone and everything as he sought to repair the damage to the Galene. The tether was basically a fibre optic cable and easy enough to replace, but its physical connections to the ROV and the TMS had been damaged as the Galene had been wrenched backwards. Several circuits had also been fried, the snake camera wrecked, two of the ten thrusters out of action.

With Ocean Two and the Sea Dragon jealously guarding their prey, Tanner had expected to be shipped back to Singapore, the search abandoned; that had initially been the plan but within twenty four hours it had all changed, the Galene with a new and unexpected role. She might not exactly be ideal for the assignment but she was all that was presently available, Tanner’s bonus climbing steadily by the hour.

Once spare parts had been flown in by helicopter, Tanner and his team had begun the painstaking task of making the Galene operational, having to strip the main console and cannibalise certain components. The weather had been foul, a typhoon passing across the Philippines before moving north. Tanner was tired and irritable, the Galene’s systems proving equally temperamental, the first dive planned for later that day.

Tanner knew he needed a break before he made things worse and he clambered back down onto the deck, telling the others to give it thirty minutes. For once there was blue sky overhead and Tanner grabbed a Coke, staring out at the line of breakers in the far distance; that was all he could see of the reef, there never more than a thin strip of sand visible even at low tide. Known as Hardy Reef, or Halfway Reef in Chinese, the relevant charts were incomplete and often inaccurate, the Benfold very wary of getting too close; even the fishing boats from China and the Philippines tended to give it a wide berth.

Tanner turned away and took in the rest of the warships stationed away to the west. Most impressive was the USS Zumwalt, her sharply angled clean-cut design looking alien compared to the other two vessels; even her hull number of 1000 somehow added an unreal touch. She was an able guardian but also a potential target and there had been three alerts already that morning; Tanner and his team had worked on regardless, Commander Vaughn well aware that the Galene’s operational status was a priority.

The Gerald Ford Strike Group had similarly suffered an uncomfortable few hours, a missile attack from the Chinese coast abruptly aborted well before it broached the carrier’s exclusion zone. Closer to the Spratly Islands, the threat was more from China’s submarines, the protective screen of helicopters and warships around the USS Ronald Reagan responding to several potential incursions, anything coming closer than a hundred nautical miles liable to be attacked without warning.

A viable supercarrier-busting missile and elusive Kilo-class submarines – China might have the means but perhaps not yet the will. That at least was Tanner’s slightly-prejudiced hope, the USS Benfold likely to be put in harm’s way should Beijing decide to test the Zumwalt’s oft-repeated claim of ‘improved survivability’.

 

Moscow – 11:28 Local Time; 08:28 UTC

Markova had managed to grab no more than an hours’ sleep, the surrounding streets once again echoing to the sound of gunfire, looters and those seeking vengeance taking full advantage. The police were slowly starting to exert some control, justice handed out without the need for any trial, and the wail of a police siren had become less intrusive as dawn had approached. Daylight had also brought reinforcements and Markova’s unit was almost back up to full strength, the Kremlin Arsenal next on her target list.

The snow was coming down in a driving blizzard, almost horizontal, and Markova was struggling to see more than a few yards ahead. It was perhaps the best the attackers could have hoped for but the morning had already cost them dear, the assault across Alexander Garden resulting in another forty dead and injured, the shattered remains of the two gates protecting Trinity Tower a visible testament to their struggle to break through into the Kremlin.

From the direction of Red Square, the chatter of automatic weapons was now virtually continuous; General Morozov’s forces were closing in one remorseless metre at a time, a second unit sweeping around to the south to attack the Borovitsky Gate, its target the President’s official – if purely ceremonial – residence of the Grand Kremlin Palace. It was a final throw of the dice, Morozov well knowing that his men were close to exhaustion.

A gesture from Markova and two squads chased across the cobblestone courtyard, one heading for the glass and concrete of the Palace of Congresses, the other for the Kremlin Arsenal directly opposite, both buildings revealing the scars of the Kremlin Regiment’s earlier battle. It was no more than twenty-five metres to the relative safety of a stone wall or a slab of concrete, everyone nervously awaiting the inevitable torrent of gunfire… yet there was nothing.

A word of command and the first squad cautiously edged their way into the Palace; still nothing. There had been unconfirmed reports that Golubeva’s forces were starting to pull back towards the safety of the Senate Building and now it seemed the rumours might actually be true, the Palace of Congresses theirs for the taking.

The Palace might have been abandoned but not yet the Kremlin Arsenal. Although defended by no more than twenty men, it quickly became another tortuous scramble to clear the building; the central section was almost completely gutted by fire, Markova’s recruits from the Kremlin Regiment once again having to fight their less choosy – or arguably more loyal – comrades.

Although the attack across Red Square had faltered for a third time, by early afternoon the southern half of the Kremlin complex was firmly in General Morozov’s hands, the various skirmishes finally giving way to a wary silence.

Yet it still wasn’t a victory. Morozov might control most of the Kremlin but the attackers presently lacked the strength to break the deadlock, and the Senate building remained the key symbol of Golubeva’s power and authority. Despite being surrounded and quite possibly outnumbered, she might still be willing to try and wait it out, unconfirmed reports suggesting that an airborne regiment was on its way to Moscow from Khabarovsk. Golubeva still had significant support in Russia’s Far East, with many generals there nervous of a cull should Morozov regain the ascendancy.

In truth, the battle for the Kremlin could still go either way, Markova not shocked to hear that the two sides were once again in talks. From Markova’s fairly jaundiced perspective, the President had brought Russia close to disaster, hypocrisy and deceit Golubeva’s prime weapon, with hundreds of Russian lives needlessly squandered. The personal loss for Markova had been significant, her mentor murdered, good friends such as Nikolai sacrificed with nothing to show for it. For Golubeva to escape now or perhaps even remain with some semblance of authority would be an unacceptable concession, Markova determined to have her say.

The secure comm-link to General Morozov eventually sprang to life, Markova struggling to contain her anger and frustration as to her new orders, arguing her case while trying to be more subtle than simply making some impossible demand.

Morozov was sympathetic but immovable, his high regard for his new aide not extending to her being anything other than a silent observer to the main event. Both sides were once again actively searching for some acceptable compromise, the President’s Ceremonial Office in the Senate regarded as a suitably appropriate setting to decide Russia’s fate.

It was another hour before Markova followed the rest of the General’s delegation into the Senate Building and on up to the second floor, before finally entering the ornate Ceremonial Office. To their left, the presence of the Russian Flag and Presidential Standard ensured Golubeva’s legal authority was clearly understood by all of the Office’s many visitors, its pale green walls hung with portraits of state figures and famous generals.

Markova sat down with the others along one half of an elegant and impressive oval table, the four of them noticeably impatient to begin; none of them had been searched, the element of trust encouraging despite the presence of several armed guards.

Within seconds, Evgeny Sukhov led Golubeva’s delegation into the Ceremonial Office, the guards departing as the two groups started the impossible process of finding some common ground.

It quickly became clear that this wasn’t a capitulation or anything close, Sukhov proposing an interim period of at least a year with both Golubeva and Morozov jointly holding the reins of power; only then could new elections even be considered. General Morozov’s chief negotiator was a gruff and taciturn Colonel named Dorokhin and he listened in silence as Sukhov detailed every minor point: Morozov would regain his positions as Minister of Defence and Chief of the General Staff, Golubeva staying as President, although key policy decisions would be by mutual consent.

If Sukhov was put out by Dorokhin’s demeanour he didn’t show it, finally sliding across a thin folder. “Everything is in there, exactly as I’ve said. It’s a fair offer, Colonel, and we owe it to the people of Russia to reach an acceptable compromise. You cannot simply ignore the wishes of the majority who elected Irina Golubeva as their President.”

“And China?” asked Dorokhin coldly.

Sukhov frowned, “If they should be foolish enough to try and take advantage and attack, we will respond appropriately; I imagine General Morozov would expect nothing less. Or have the Chinese suddenly become our loyal allies?”

Dorokhin simply ignored the question. He reached forward to touch the file in front of him but didn’t open it. A thoughtful tap of his finger, then he casually flicked the papers back towards Sukhov.

“We were led to expect something sensible and not a set of ridiculous demands.” Dorokhin thrust back his chair, “I think we are done here; one hour, Sukhov, and those still in the Senate will be driven from it.”

Markova almost smiled in relief as she too stood up, just not sure whether Dorokhin was playing for effect – either way, Golubeva’s situation must be more vulnerable than Markova had imagined.

“Wait!” said Sukhov, half-shouting.

Dorokhin paused; Sukhov was now also standing, the two men staring at each other across the table.

Sukhov placed his hand on the file and very deliberately moved it to one side. “We have come this far,” he said, regaining his composure, “and it would be foolish not to at least try and reach an accord. President Golubeva will step down, Colonel; we can accept that. However, we will not simply surrender without some guarantees.”

The first verbal skirmish had been met and countered, Sukhov and Dorokhin with their respective leader’s minimum conditions to satisfy, neither man wanting to settle for anything less.

Dorokhin motioned to the others and sat back down. The exchange had quickly set the standard for future distrust and uncertainty, the chance of a binding agreement potentially as far away as ever.

Yet both sides were still prepared to give a little and Markova sat in silence, her resentment and enmity growing with every concession, however minor. Evgeny Sukhov was an able negotiator but his own part in Golubeva’s abuse of power also condemned him in Markova’s eyes. The pistol at her hip was a constant reminder as to the debt she owed to so many, Markova’s thoughts verging on the macabre as she idly planned out Sukhov’s fate.

In the end it took two separate meetings spread over three hours to thrash out an accord which might just be acceptable to both parties. Golubeva’s hold on the presidency was slowly slipping away, her willingness to negotiate revealing the deep divisions within her supporters. For Markova, whatever was eventually agreed would always be too much and she was surprised as to what General Morozov was prepared to offer, with even Sukhov given the sinecure of a minor government post.

  • * *

The Kremlin’s Taynitsky Garden revealed nothing of the battle that had taken place to the north and Markova stood on the steep bank facing the helipad, her thoughts a bitter mix of anger and resentment.

Would she have actually done anything? Perhaps, but once Dorokhin had noticed her reaction in the Senate, the decision had been taken from her. Two guards now stood close at hand just in case she tried something stupid and even her pistol had been seized, Markova at least spared the indignity of actually being arrested.

The snow had eased into an occasional gentle flurry, the evening sky and artificial lighting managing to turn the scene below into a ghostly parody of reality: a civilian helicopter sat on the helipad, its black and silver livery seeming to flicker with anticipation as each of the six passengers climbed aboard. Evgeny Sukhov was the last, pausing for a final look towards where General Morozov stood before giving him the respect of a slight nod of acknowledgement, perhaps even thanks.

Markova felt her body tensing, the anger seeming to mount with every turn of the helicopter’s rotor blade. Finally it climbed skywards, pulling around to head north-west. A second helicopter swept in from the south, stationing itself behind the ex-President’s transport, its role both that of chaperone and guardian.

Markova turned to follow the navigation lights, St. Petersburg the lead helicopter’s eventual destination. Golubeva was doubtless already planning her triumphal return, today a minor hiccup to be countered as soon as the opportunity presented itself. How many more would need to die in the months ahead to satisfy Golubeva’s thirst for power?

Markova assumed Yang Kyung-Jae had been murdered on Golubeva’s orders and the British police were now definitely linking it to the Russian Mafia rather than the Americans. The cabal had learnt of Golubeva’s true nature too late to save one of their own – now General Morozov’s judgement was equally at fault, Golubeva too dangerous an enemy to leave alive.

“Did you know Morozov had a son?” said a voice behind her.

Markova twisted around, surprised to see Dorokhin. “One son, one daughter,” she recited. “Both in their early twenties; Kristina and Petr…” She gave a frown of confusion, “You said ‘had’ – I wasn’t aware that the boy was dead.”

Dorokhin idly gazed up at the lights from the two helicopters, “Petr was killed three weeks ago outside Volgograd; twenty-three and your life is ended. To have lost a son is never easy – Irina Golubeva should have borne that in mind.”

Markova was quick to understand and she sought out the two helicopters, now just a pair of flashing strobe lights high-up and moving steadily north-west. Abruptly a flickering line of tracers reached out from the second helicopter to touch the first, the latter twisting and weaving.

There was only ever likely to be one outcome, Markova breathing a sigh of gratitude and only turning away once the sound of the explosion rolled dully over her. She was the one being naïve, not Morozov. The General was quickly learning the ways of Russian politics, particularly those of a president, and there was just one simple rule – kill your enemies before they killed you.

 

Washington, D.C. – 11:45 Local Time; 16:45 UTC

Anderson had suffered a restless night, twisting and turning, his thoughts tumbling from one impossible premise to the next, still trying to find a better solution to fit the facts. Speculation and gut instinct were not necessarily that reliable, and in the light of day and fully sober the assumptions of the previous evening looked rather less convincing, the contradictions more obvious; yet the idea his time would be better spent joining those making the most of Black Friday was never a consideration – once Anderson had got his teeth into something, he was loath to let it go, especially if it involved Pat McDowell.

Flores might be on enforced leave but he wasn’t suspended, still with friends willing and able to confirm the odd fact and pass on the latest gossip. Too pushy and Flores would have had someone important on his back, maybe even Jensen if he was unlucky. Yet he had learnt enough to add some substance to their suspicions, the relationship between Deangelo and Thorn visibly growing ever more difficult once Vietnam had been attacked. Henry too had good reason to resent the President, it implied he had indeed lost out on a Cabinet post. If there had been some private understanding between the three of them then it was clearly beginning to unravel, and the President’s public support of Thorn was starting look more and more like a charade.

Then there were the billionaire investors of Solomon’s hedge fund, each with a potential axe to grind – although, if the reports as to the identity of Yang’s murderers were to be believed, then the person most likely deserving of their vengeance had already been killed in a helicopter crash. It was too early to know whether Golubeva’s death would have any bearing on U.S.-China relations, the complication of North Korea forcing other countries to follow the example of Japan and South Korea by raising their military state of alert. One serious incident and the whole region could become embroiled in a vicious war, few willing to guarantee that a nuclear weapon would never be used.

With respect to McDowell, Anderson’ strategy remained as it always had – bumble along and hope that something worthwhile would turn up, Flores apparently happy enough to do the same. If they were right and Thorn was indeed a target, then McDowell would need to act before there was any hint of compromise with China, Thorn and his allies perhaps already working behind the scenes to undermine any indirect approach from Beijing.

The future security of the Capitol Building remained more Jensen’s purview than Anderson’s and despite sitting since early that morning, Congress had made little progress in its confirmation of the Vice-President, Jack Shepard subject to hours of questions, the Democrat majority in the Senate the sticking point to any consensus. Thorn’s confirmation hearing had been put back to the Saturday, it still hoped that the agreement made earlier would hold.

The National Mall had been the focus for every key event of late, and Anderson and Flores had already that morning walked all of its two miles and more, from the Capitol Building to the Lincoln Memorial, then back to stand beside the reflecting pool close to the National World War II Memorial.

Anderson had randomly given McDowell one week to do his worst and with Thorn’s public schedule proving difficult to pin down, they had been forced to second-guess the Secretary’s itinerary. The candlelight march and vigil for the victims of China’s attack on Vietnam was due to set off from the War Memorial just after six o’clock, once the obligatory speeches and platitudes had been completed. Such events were a regular sight somewhere in the Mall, the giant screen and sound system already in place, politicians and celebrities often turning up out of the blue to show support. For Dick Thorn it might even seem prudent to make it a priority: address, march or subsequent vigil – any of the three would provide a convenient photo opportunity to reinforce the Administration’s own message. The War Memorial’s granite pillars and two arches were a solemn reminder of America’s past commitment, the sacrifice of the Philippines also recognised; the Freedom Wall was simply a mass of stars, each one representing a hundred American servicemen who had died serving their country.

The Washington Monument towered away to the east, its observation deck a perfect location for a skilled sniper such as Lavergne – just not that practical, its high security problematic even for McDowell. Anderson used the zoom on his camera to focus instead on the Lincoln Memorial, west across the reflecting pool.

“Half-a-mile,” he said without conviction. “I guess that’s within Lavergne’s capabilities, assuming the video screen doesn’t get in the way.”

“Forget it,” said Flores dismissively. “The plaza is about six feet lower than the surroundings and the Freedom Wall cuts off line of sight; Thorn’s tall but he’s not eight foot.”

Anderson gave a shrug of frustration, their walk around the War Memorial fairly inconclusive. Thorn was protected 24/7 and McDowell’s options were fairly restricted, especially if his time-scale was relatively short. It was anyone’s guess as to when or whether America and China would work out their differences but North Korea’s recent announcement could surely only accelerate the desire, and despite the media regularly reporting some new diplomatic effort, there was never anything definite. Secretary of State Burgess was in Manila before returning on Sunday via Canberra, seemingly more interested in cementing an anti-Chinese alliance than promoting a peaceful resolution.

Anderson hadn’t ever been to a vigil, Flores not since 9/11, and it wasn’t as if either of them had anything better to do. If Thorn passed up the opportunity to join them, then Anderson was happy to lump in Mayor Henry as another potential target for McDowell, the idea that he might try to take both of them out at the same time intriguing if a little extreme. Having discarded the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, there were no tall buildings within line of sight; even if Lavergne could find somewhere high-up and safe from the prying eyes of police and visitors, he would have no easy shot past trees and a crowd of several thousand.

If not the address, then the march or vigil – even Thorn’s next visit to Congress – were realistic possibilities, McDowell with perhaps enough inside influence to access the Capitol Building itself despite the extra security. He had certainly never shied away from taking chances: Memorial, Capitol or Pentagon – it was impossible to predict McDowell’s next move, Anderson just having to go on instinct and hope for the best.

Flores had done his duty and informed Jensen as to their suspicions, the evidence – such as it was – met with polite disapproval; Jensen had even been unwilling to comment as to whether the alert on Capitol Hill was related to Nash or not. Flores’ earlier mistakes obviously still counted against him and as far as the authorities were concerned McDowell was either long gone or in hiding.

Anderson took such scepticism in his stride, more confused by the moral complexities of what he was presently trying to do: Dick Thorn had likely conspired to cheat the people of America of their rightful leader; now Anderson was doing everything he could to protect Thorn – somehow it just didn’t seem right.

  • * *

For the first time the President’s inner circle showed signs of a serious rift on China, the atmosphere acrimonious and ill-natured, with just Admiral Adams and Dick Thorn continuing to advocate further island-hopping all the way to the Paracel Islands. Via video-link from Manila, Secretary of State Burgess led the way in urging a more cautious approach, concerned by the threat posed by an unpredictable North Korea; the South China Sea was becoming a crowded setting for a war of nerves and China’s submarine fleet was evidently probing for some weakness, a clash now virtually inevitable.

Somehow they had to break out of the present action-reaction cycle, neither country wanting to be the one to blink first. The introduction of North Korea into the equation did however have one positive, it offering Deangelo a convenient way out of the present impasse: the American people were well aware of the nature and temperament of their new enemy, and would be more understanding should the President now choose to adopt a softer line. China’s own restraint in not yet retaliating for the loss of Mischief and Subi Reefs was unexpected, but perhaps it too was a sign of a willingness to seek compromise.

That was certainly how Jensen saw it, his opinion backed-up by Ryan Burgess. The CIA and State Department had rather different channels into the hearts and minds of China’s Politburo but their conclusions were the same – compromise was a possibility but not surrender. The United States would also need to give a little and the meeting with Taiwan’s Ambassador had proved that even the most loyal of America’s allies were struggling to reject Beijing’s sweeteners. For the moment Taiwan and Malaysia would toe the line, the immediate priority a new ceasefire before yet more lives were needlessly thrown away.

The confrontation with China had already seen two Presidents fall from power and Deangelo or Zhao might well be next. The situation in Russia remained tense and General Morozov was expected to take over formally as president within the hour. For Morozov, China would be a low priority, and Beijing was already pulling its forces back from the border with Russia, able now to reinforce the south without fear of a Russian attack.

Thorn had grown increasingly exasperated by the passive nature of some of the arguments, angry that the sacrifices already made might soon be worthless. Unable to hold his frustration in check any longer, Thorn finally spoke his mind, no deference made to his Commander-in-Chief.

“You talk of compromise,” he said bitterly, not addressing anyone specifically but clearly aiming his comments at Deangelo. “Beijing will only throw it back in your face; if not in a year, then in five or ten. It won’t then be a handful of poorly protected reefs but a well-defended island network, and truly a sea China can call her own. The whole of the South-East Asia will effectively be under Beijing’s control, and we sit here and argue over whether to reward Beijing for murdering three hundred Vietnamese and a hundred Americans. Their sacrifice cannot just be ignored.”

“That assumes,” responded Deangelo, his tone curt, his eyes angry, “the status quo returns to that of a year ago. That simply won’t happen. China’s economic survival is also under threat and they need a long-term resolution as much as anyone. Any peace will only come with suitable guarantees…”

Thorn still wouldn’t let it lie, “Guarantees mean little to Beijing. We need to push them to the limit; maybe the Paracel Islands is a step too far but the Spratly chain is seven hundred miles from the Chinese mainland; China’s claim is based on some romantic notion of history and they must be forced to abandon it.”

“We can’t change their view of history,” interjected Burgess. “If we offer them a convenient way out, Beijing will listen. China is still sitting on more than a dozen other reefs in the Spratly Group; are we really willing to risk another few hundred American lives just to frustrate the Politburo?”

Thorn and Adams apparently were, Deangelo not yet convinced. The hardliners were now definitely in the minority, Jensen’s earlier analysis of Burgess well wide of the mark, and if it wasn’t for Thorn then some sort of accommodation would already be resting on the table in front of them. Jensen knew he might be reading too much into every gesture and word but the relationship between the President and his Secretary of Defence wasn’t quite that of world leader and adviser. Thorn always had a habit of speaking his mind but there was an added element here that had never been present before, even with President Cavanagh, Thorn seeming to expect a certain influence as of right.

“Admiral,” said Deangelo, his mind finally made up, “for the moment we will maintain our forces on alert but make no aggressive moves. If we need to force Beijing to the negotiating table, what’s the earliest we can start occupying the remaining reefs?”

“Three days, Mr President,” replied Adams without needing to check. The lessons from Mischief Reef had been well learnt, the operational plans modified to ensure the unacceptable loss of life would not be repeated. As to whether America opted for a full-blown offensive or staggered the attacks was down to Deangelo, the U.S. Navy and the Marines having to cope with multiple threats, the fear of intervention by North Korea and a subsequent escalation very real.

It was another fifteen minutes before Deangelo took the easy option, the final decision put on hold until the Sunday; in the meantime every avenue was to be pursued in order to persuade Beijing it was now time for formal talks with no pre-conditions, a deal best for everyone. It was an outcome Thorn had fought hard to avoid and he made no attempt to hide his irritation, a second angry exchange with Deangelo his parting gift as the meeting broke up.

Jensen left the White House feeling equally frustrated and his concerns as to Thorn’s undue influence continued to plague him throughout the afternoon; on reflection, he was even willing to accede that Flores’ suspicions had some merit. Thorn was becoming a serious problem for the President, one which was entirely of his own making and ridding himself of the Secretary without some embarrassing about-face would be difficult.

Jensen sat at his desk in semi-darkness, slowly convincing himself that Thorn would ensure Deangelo couldn’t back down and settle for some inferior accord with Beijing. The willingness of the Pentagon to act unilaterally was a prime example of Thorn’s special status and the news media would soon wake up to the fact, invariably casting doubt as to Deangelo’s perceived authority. Thorn might yet be confirmed as Secretary of Defence on the Saturday and having fought so hard to have him in the Cabinet, the President could hardly sack him; Jensen even wondered whether Deangelo still secretly hoped Congress would come to his rescue, thereby saving him from admitting he had made a mistake.

Anderson and Flores might have a differing perspective as to Thorn’s ultimate fate but Jensen remained sceptical, their reasoning based mainly on personal prejudice than cold hard facts. Yet, if he was honest, it did have a certain appeal, and almost by default Jensen was becoming one of Deangelo’s closest allies. Dick Thorn’s influence would continue to be divisive, the Secretary of Defence doing all that he could to push America ever deeper into a war with China – if Flores and Anderson were right, then maybe McDowell should be roundly applauded and left to do his job.

The FBI investigation into Thorn’s personal contact list had been complex but thorough, it made more difficult by Jensen’s refusal to use the counter-intelligence skills of the Defence Department’s National Security Agency. Even so, many of Thorn’s private messages had now been duly analysed and dissected, an unexpected pattern or hidden meaning searched for. A handful of the subsequent intercepts had been intriguing if inconclusive, suggesting much but proving little. However, if Thorn intended to mount some form of coup or force America into a war, the Chief of the National Guard Bureau and the Admiral commanding the U.S. Pacific Command would be useful allies, the latter responsible for all military operations from America’s West Coast to India, reporting directly to the Secretary of Defence. Whether almost daily personal contact with each of them over the past week should be considered routine or suspicious was a question Jensen was struggling to determine, the content of the calls seemingly legitimate and relatively mundane.

Whatever Thorn’s true plans, he would be unwise to delay for more than a day or two, and Beijing was finally opening the door to formal talks, everything moving swiftly after the first tentative steps. Ryan Burgess was due to arrive in Kazakhstan in a couple of hours, his planned trip to Canberra put off for at least two days; China’s Foreign Minister was already in Kazakhstan’s capitol, Astana, and representatives from Russia and the Philippines would soon be joining him. Quite what was on offer was debatable and it might still come to nothing, but from Thorn’s perspective even a ceasefire would be a serious setback.

Jensen himself had argued that Thorn wasn’t one to give-up easily, perhaps willing to push his luck to the very limit, and Jensen slowly scrolled back through the long list of Thorn’s recent contacts, focusing on the last twenty-four hours. The FBI’s experts had already examined each email, text message and phone call, nothing incriminating reported, and Jensen was merely trying to put his mind at rest, worried that he was missing something obvious.

One forty-minute conversation was more of a curious anomaly than anything dramatic, the video call from Thorn to his son unusual for its length and the fact it was instigated by Thorn, rather than his wife. Captain Jake Thorn was halfway through a six-month secondment to Hawaii, and while post-Thanksgiving might be a good excuse for a father-to-son chat, it just seemed out of place. If a war with China and North Korea was inevitable then maybe it might seem necessary. Or was Thorn warning his son about something much closer to home?

It was barely enough to be of concern but Jensen’s intuition was working overtime, the consequences of simply waiting for something more conclusive potentially disastrous. The lack of time was proving a problem for everyone and decisions were having to be made without a full appreciation of the facts, the embarrassment of a false accusation needing to be carefully weighed against the fear of future regret.

Thorn’s allies were well-placed to exploit any opportunity, however slight, and Jensen’s next move would likely involve a certain element of personal risk; yet he needed something definitive to take to the President, one fact likely to be far more compelling than any amount of conjecture or suspicion.

  • * *

People started to gather for the vigil soon after five, visitors invariably drawn to the WW2 Memorial once it became dark, the walls and fountain bathed in light with the Washington Monument a towering beacon away to the east. If Thorn was going to get maximum publicity out such an event, then Anderson was guessing that either the initial address or the vigil on Capitol Hill would seem a good choice, each with their own significance. McDowell’s inside sources would doubtless give him a detailed heads-up on the Secretary’s routine for the day but maybe this would be more of a spontaneous act by Thorn – even perhaps a genuine gesture of sympathy for the people of Vietnam.

By six o’clock numbers had grown to around three thousand, the master of ceremonies leaving it for another few minutes before starting. An experienced speaker, he stood in front of the Freedom Wall, his introduction a clever blend of eloquence and emotion; on the giant screen behind him, the tragic images from that brutal day were revealed, each one only serving to emphasise the depth of Vietnam’s suffering. The next four speakers had actually been in Hanoi during the attack, the first unable to hold back the tears as he described the scene outside of his hotel; finally it was the turn of a Vietnamese mother of three, her son killed that day in front of her, her own injuries clear to see.

The handing out of the candles in their protective shields was a slightly less sombre affair than the address; large candles first, one for each victim of the attack, some with a name painted in red. The glow of lit candles quickly spread out from the Freedom Wall, people sharing a few words with their neighbours while they waited. The snow that had threatened all day finally made an appearance as prayers were said, a minute’s respectful silence again held to honour those that had died. To Anderson it was a fitting tribute, people standing silent and motionless, the snow and flickering light from several thousand candles almost magical.

But that wasn’t why he and Flores were there. They stood on the fringe of the crowd, facing north-west, Anderson definitely feeling out of place, guilty that his main focus was somewhere other than the vigil. The march would progress along the Mall to finish at the steps of the Capitol, the organisers wanting to stretch out the line of candles so as to make it more effective for the cameras. Although the number of those taking part might be less than had been hoped for, the media were well represented, public opinion needing a gentle reminder as to why America might soon be at war. Some of those presently there could well have been part of the anti-war protest from the previous day, the vigil illustrating the pointlessness of war as much as the need to punish China.

The start of the march was pretty much a free-for-all, people setting off as they saw fit and at their own pace, the candleholders and plastic shields not always proving that effective against the snow and a gusting wind. Mayor Henry appeared almost immediately, a few dozen hands shaken, a single candle lit, the media taking the obligatory photographs – then he was gone, the TV crews and reporters also taking it as their cue to leave.

Anderson hadn’t even manged to get close, Flores doing little better. McDowell would have found it equally tricky if he’d bothered to turn up, the Mayor swallowed-up by the crowd within seconds. His bodyguards certainly seemed to have had everything well in hand and the single argumentative protestor had been quickly bundled away. Anderson had even reverted to scanning every face in his search for McDowell, his actions drawing the odd look and comment; not that he could have done much anyway, Flores the only one of them carrying a gun.

With Mayor Henry safely back in his bullet-proof limousine, Anderson tracked the leading marchers from the south as they walked slowly towards the Washington Monument. The snow was getting heavier by the minute, the Mall now lightly covered and it was becoming harder to see beyond the far fringe of trees; yet Anderson still wasn’t yet ready to give up for the day, prepared to spend another hour or so trudging his way through the snow.

Flores followed-on to the north, slightly fed-up, his expectations verging on the non-existent, but at least he was doing something more constructive than simply sitting at home and moping. Pat McDowell had turned his house from a welcoming sanctuary to a place where his wife was nervous to be alone or even open the front door, and it would take time to get back to something approaching normality. McDowell needed to be repaid for the pain he had caused and if a cold and lonely trek along the Mall could offer a slim chance of vengeance, then so be it.

  • * *

It was well after six o’clock when Jensen left his office, official transport and security detail abandoned for the anonymity of his Buick crossover. Fort Meyer was a twenty-five minute drive away and the base’s Grant Avenue was always a drive through U.S. military history, Generals Eisenhower and McCarthy once residents there. Quarters Six was the official home of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Admiral Adams greeted him at the door, curious as to why such a late meeting and why the request to keep it confidential.

They moved into the privacy of the sun room, it offering a magnificent sweeping view across the Potomac of the National Mall, the lights of the Capitol lost in the distance, and Jensen even managed to feel nervous, worried he was going to make a fool of himself and that his fears would prove totally groundless. Adams gestured Jensen to a chair, his offer of a drink politely declined, the pleasantries kept to a minimum.

“Your call was intriguing,” said Adams with a half-smile. “I assume your wish to talk in private has something to do with China or are we back to your conspiracy theory?”

“Possibly both,” replied Jensen, feeling his way. “It’s also to do with Secretary Thorn.” Whether he was wise to put his trust in Adams would soon become clear: the Admiral might be a hardliner like Thorn but that didn’t make him a willing ally in some nefarious deed.

Adams didn’t seem particularly surprised at Jensen’s continued pursuit of Thorn, resurgent paranoia an expected characteristic of Jensen’s security role. “I sense you’re still reading too much into things,” he observed drily. “Bob Deangelo became President because of Cavanagh’s mistakes and a free vote from Congress; he then picked by far the best Secretary of Defence we could get, someone committed to the military. Dick Thorn might be overly keen to put forward his point of view but that doesn’t make him complicit in some imaginary coup. You couldn’t find any evidence of it before and I’m guessing you haven’t got any now. And if you’re suggesting Bob Deangelo was also part of a plot to overthrow Will Cavanagh, then I would strongly advise you leave while you can.”

This wasn’t going as well as Jensen had wanted – less than five minutes in and he’d already got the Admiral’s back up.

“I’m not blind to the possibility of some political manoeuvring to get rid of Cavanagh,” continued Adams with a shrug. “And I’m happy to admit I support what Thorn is trying to do. Does that make me one of your conspirators?”

Jensen sidestepped answering, trying to move the conversation forward. “We all have an agenda here; me as much as anyone. And you’re right to question my concerns. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest Bob Deangelo has acted in any way other than honestly. With Dick Thorn, there is a certain amount of circumstantial evidence but that’s as far as it goes.”

“Then why exactly are you here, Paul?”

Jensen picked his words carefully, needing Adams’ help but unable to offer anything convincing to guarantee he would get it. “I appreciate we have very different views as to how to deal with China and that is not the issue here. I can’t be specific but there are indications the talks in Kazakhstan may be sabotaged even before they begin; not because of some attack in Astana but something related to the South China Sea.” Jensen was making most of it up as he went along, the ‘indications’ little more than his own personal interpretation of events and the key names of Thorn’s recent contacts. He had come this far and if he ended up exiting via the window then at least it would be a good story to tell the grandchildren.

Adams looked at Jensen in surprise, not quite open-mouthed but certainly taken aback at what he was suggesting. Jensen knew he could always throw in the FBI or even the National Security Agency as the source, national security invariably a good excuse not to go into details, especially when they didn’t actually exist.

Jensen pressed on regardless, needing to get to specifics. “I have the greatest respect for your office, Admiral, and that of the navy. I’m just concerned the Secretary of Defence might be circumventing the President with regard to the South China Sea; specifically within the last twenty-four hours in terms of the future deployment of our forces or new orders involving some sort of attack.”

“An attack? Against what – another reef?”

“That I can’t say, Admiral. But I can assure you it would derail any possibility of peace with China… I trust you can understand my concern.”

“As you know,” Adams hedged, his frown deepening, “my role is purely advisory but I have oversight of planning and resources; if the Secretary has made any unilateral changes, I’m not convinced he would be able to keep them secret.”

Adams was still trying to make sense of what Jensen was suggesting. Although the office of CJCS was a prestigious appointment, the Admiral had no executive authority over combatant forces. The chain of command went from the President to the Secretary of Defence and then directly to the unit commanders, Adams merely a convenient conduit for passing on suitable orders.

Jensen wouldn’t let it lie, “All I’m asking is that you check.”

“And when are you anticipating this attack will take place?”

“It’s not yet dawn in Astana and the talks are due to resume in about four hours… I have no definite time scale but I guess in four to eight hours.” Jensen was struggling to know how broad to make Adams’ search, every Chinese military facility or ship a potential target.

Adams gave Jensen a hard stare, “I need something more than just a vague suspicion. Dick Thorn might disagree as to the extent of America’s response but to suggest he’s overriding the President’s authority is extreme.”

“I’m sorry, Admiral; I can’t reveal the specifics, except to say the source has proved totally reliable in the past. If you are happy to confirm that Secretary Thorn has always acted under the full authority of the President then this conversation never happened.”

Jensen had put the onus back on Adams. The Admiral had to assume Jensen had a source inside the Pentagon, perhaps even someone close to the Secretary of Defence.

Adams said, “And if Secretary Thorn has used his initiative and issued orders which might conflict with the President’s present policy on China – what then?”

Jensen shrugged, curious as to why Adams had phrased it so deliberately, “That is for the President to decide.”

The Admiral rubbed at his chin, not looking at Jensen. Abruptly he stood up and gazed out towards the fuzzy lights of the National Mall, standing with his back to his somewhat irksome guest. Adams might not believe any of it but could be really ignore the vague possibility that Jensen was actually right?

It was almost a full minute before he turned round. “Very well, Secretary Jensen,” said Adams formally. “I will do as you ask…”

Jensen had expected to be left alone while Adams made the necessary calls but the Admiral had other plans, keen to show that he had nothing to hide. It then become a waiting game, Adams more relaxed now he had set everything in motion. Strong coffee also helped break the tension and Jensen was treated to a tale of daily life in the Pentagon, the building almost a city in itself with close to twenty-five thousand military and civilian employees. If Adams was trying to convince Jensen they were both on the same side then it was working and it was virtually the first time they had talked one-on-one about nothing in particular, Jensen seeing a side to the Admiral he never even glimpsed before.

It was a good twenty minutes before the Admiral’s cell phone rang, Adams again not seeking privacy. He barely spoke until the end, a worried frown creasing his brow.

“It’s possible,” said Adams to Jensen, “that you’re misgivings have some merit. There’s one matter that needs further clarification: a coded order was sent from Secretary Thorn to Admiral Lucas which seems to be at odds with the agreed rules of engagement.”

“Lucas – Pacific Command?”

Adams nodded, looking distracted, “If one of our carriers is attacked, Lucas has orders to target the Liaoning and her escorts. This new instruction seems to give Lucas the leeway to attack the Chinese carrier immediately an alert has been confirmed rather than waiting for an actual attack.”

“And these new rules of engagement are effective now?”

“It would appear so.”

Jensen was slow to grasp the practical aspects of what Adams was implying. China’s submarines had continued to probe the American carriers’ defences, minor incursions of the hundred-mile exclusion zone merely targeted with a warning ping from a helicopter’s dipping sonar. Was that now to be met with an immediate and senseless retaliatory strike? If so, Jensen’s four to eight hours was nothing more than a wild exaggeration, a U.S. missile attack liable to happen at any time.

Adams had the same concerns, “If it’s confirmed, I’ll need to speak directly to the President; only he has the authority to countermand this order.” He stood and stared down at his cell phone, unsure whether to contact the White House immediately or go first to the Pentagon.

“Forget the phone,” said Jensen, taking the initiative, “This is too serious for anything other than a face-to-face meeting with the President. We can take my car… I trust you understand the need to bypass your protection detail?”

Adams glared in confusion at Jensen and made as if to argue before abruptly changing his mind. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adams’ protection detail was part of the Army Protective Services Battalion, the same unit that had responsibility for guarding the Secretary of Defence – Adams knew he was sinking to Jensen’s level of paranoia but why take unnecessary risks?

It was barely fifteen minutes by car to the White House, the circumstances requiring significantly more than an impersonal – and potentially convoluted – phone call. A frustrated and resentful Dick Thorn had finally made his move, and they couldn’t take the chance that American missiles might soon be racing their way towards the Liaoning. Thorn was clearly determined to halt Deangelo’s search for a peaceful resolution, and the Liaoning wasn’t some small reef of dubious worth but a symbol of China’s new superpower status. However, if Thorn expected Beijing to crumble as a result then he had seriously misjudged the nature of the enemy, China more likely to seek instant retribution than abandon the Spratly Islands.

The evening traffic was less than Jensen had expected but that advantage was more than countered by the weather, the driving snow making visibility relatively poor. Jensen tried to keep his focus on the road ahead but the problem of Thorn kept invading his thoughts, so many questions still needing to be answered. Admiral Adams held his cell phone tight as though it would somehow try to escape, there still no absolute confirmation that Admiral Lucas was somehow in league with Thorn to circumvent the President’s authority.

The Buick started to lose grip as they crossed the Roosevelt Bridge and Jensen slowed, the snow already covering the road surface; this was looking to be a far trickier journey than he’d anticipated and winter driving in D.C. was more often a lottery than not, there far too many rear-wheel-drive vehicles driven by the inexperienced and the downright incompetent.

Jensen took the exit towards the East Street Expressway, the glare from the passing lights a distraction, wipers not proving as effective as he would have liked. A quick glance in the mirror showed a black SUV tailgating him and Jensen swore under his breath at such stupidity; it was only then that past concerns resurfaced, a check of the slow lane revealing a silver sedan easing up alongside.

“We may have some company,” he said to Adams. “Better hold on.” The road climbed and twisted, and as soon as it straightened out Jensen put his foot down, still uncertain as to whether his fears were justified or not.

The other two vehicles dropped back but only for an instant, racing to catch up. Jensen had his answer and he struggled to work out how best to react; beside him, Adams was already talking on his phone, angrily demanding Secret Service backup, then the Buick abruptly shuddered as the sedan nudged it from the side.

Adams was flung to the left, his arm smacking into Jensen as his seatbelt locked. Jensen desperately tried to keep control but he was unable to prevent the Buick’s front wheel from tapping the central kerb; an instant later, the tailing SUV smashed into the rear of the Buick, the latter bounding up over the kerb.

The Buick caught a glancing blow against the low metal barrier and bounced right, sideswiping the front of the SUV. There was the screech of tortured metal, the Buick spinning around full circle, its rear also hitting something solid.

The car slid to halt, Jensen shocked but still conscious, Adams with blood on his face. The SUV was also stationary, engine smoking; just ten feet away to Jensen’s right sat the black sedan, passenger door opening to show a heavyset figure with gun in hand.

The Buick’s engine was still running, the airbags not even deployed, and Jensen jammed his foot back down, tyres squealing as the Buick accelerated away. He wrenched the wheel around to head east once more, struggling to see his way through the swirling snow, one headlight not working.

The tunnel under Virginia Avenue seemed to appear almost without warning; Adams had his seat-belt off and was scrabbling around in the passenger foot-well searching for his cell phone, Jensen only now aware of an unhealthy growl from the car engine.

As they sped out of the tunnel, the Buick hit the lying snow and skidded left, bucking up onto the median strip; this time there was no metal barrier and the car careered onto the opposite carriageway. Jensen heard the squeal of brakes and a large dark shape powered past, horn blaring. Despite being half-blinded by the lights from the oncoming traffic, Jensen stamped on the accelerator, pushing his luck; he kept well to the right, cursing out loud at every other driver, innocent or not. Two more cars swerved past, those ahead squeezing their way into the slow lane.

Jensen glanced to his right: Admiral Adams lay slumped in the passenger seat, head lolling against the side window. The sedan hadn’t given up; it paralleled the Buick, a belt of trees now separating the two carriageways. Up ahead was the intersection with 20th Street, Jensen unable to think clearly as to which way to turn.

Decision made, he twisted the wheel sharply left, heading north, almost colliding with another car. Jensen still couldn’t see properly, dazzled by lights, the snow flying almost horizontal as it hit the front windshield.

Every few seconds, there seemed a new problem and the Buick was now pulling steadily to the right, steering heavy, the rest of the vehicle juddering in sympathy. Jensen could hear an emergency siren but that was no guarantee of anything, certainly not his future well-being, and he careered into F Street, now barely half-a-mile from safety.

The headlights from the sedan were once again visible in the rear-view mirror. The Buick was struggling to go over forty and the sound from the engine was becoming a throaty rattle. The front-right tyre was definitely blown, sparks starting to fly up from the road surface. Uncaring, Jensen sped across 19th Street, the traffic lights a welcoming green.

There was a loud crack as a bullet punched its way through the rear windshield. It thumped into Adams’ seat, the Admiral’s listless body flinching in sympathy, a half-heard groan reluctantly dragged from his lips. Jensen tried to swerve from side to side, but it was impossible to keep control, the intersection with 18th Street just ahead.

Jensen didn’t care what the traffic lights were at and he just kept his foot down. The instant he reached the intersection, he knew he’d pushed his luck too far, a half-seen shape smashing into the front of the Buick.

Jensen felt himself rolling over and over, the airbags finally inflating. As the Buick tumbled to a stop, Jensen fought to release his seatbelt but he couldn’t seem to work out how to do it, his fingers fumbling uncertainly; he could barely move his head, something warm and sticky stopping his eyes from opening, the sound of the siren much closer now. And another, more annoying noise, Jensen slow to realise it was the ringtone from Adams’ cell.

Strapped in his seat and unable to do anything, it was almost a relief when the heavy weight of unconsciousness swept down over him, the despair of having come so close and failed too much to bear.

  • * *

The idea that McDowell could be tempted out by an unscripted appearance from Thorn was growing on Anderson – there might be no chance to prepare beforehand but McDowell would be happy enough with that, and it might well offer a better opportunity than the other options. The rumours that a ceasefire was close to being agreed were becoming more persistent, some reports indicating that a permanent deal covering all of the Spratly Islands was also under discussion. If true then everything Thorn had fought so hard for would soon be wasted. What then for a very pissed off Secretary of Defence?

The McDowell-Thorn theory was still one hundred percent speculative; not that Anderson was that bothered and despite the snow he was quite enjoying his walk in the park. He had taken plenty of photos, always hoping for something spectacular and occasionally getting one or two shots a real professional might actually be proud of. Photo or investigative journalist: Anderson still hadn’t the skill of the former, his persistence seemingly better suited to the latter.

Most of those involved in the candlelight march had now reached 3rd Street, people standing around and waiting for the stragglers to join them. Security concerns had changed the location of the vigil from the steps of the Capitol to between 3rd Street and the Capitol Reflecting Pool, the public-address system already moved there from the WW2 Memorial. There was no giant screen and because of the weather the organisers had reduced the vigil to no more than twenty minutes, prayers and music the plan.

Anderson walked across 3rd Street to stand beside the reflecting pool and stare up towards the lights of the Capitol Building. It was still snowing but not quite as heavily as before, and the setting and elements cleverly combined to make it all rather surreal, the sound of a siren in the far distance slightly spoiling the moment. A handful of police had kept pace with the march but they were the only ones he had noticed; under the circumstances that seemed surprisingly few and Anderson couldn’t help but wonder where the rest were waiting – or maybe the few B-list celebrities amongst the marchers weren’t considered that important.

If Thorn deigned to make an appearance, 3rd Street would seem the most likely place for his convoy of cars to park, leaving the Secretary a sixty yard walk to the vigil. The high buildings to either side might provide suitable line of sight for Lavergne but most were government controlled – would McDowell really have enough time to plan something so complex? The tree cover was also relatively sparse now, nothing else leaping out as offering a viable alternative.

An icy trickle was working its way down the back of Anderson’s neck and he sought the protection of a large elm tree before phoning Flores with an update, both men prepared to wait it out just to be sure. McDowell was doubtless wise enough to stay in the warm and let others do the worrying, Thorn’s D.C. residence or his Massachusetts home no doubt providing a rather more predictable setting if McDowell were so minded, perhaps also a better chance for Lavergne’s skills with a rifle.

Apart from those taking part in the vigil, Anderson had seen hardly any other visitors in the last hour and he waited beside the elm tree, watching as the organisers gathered everyone together for a final symbolic march across 3rd Street. Relatively few of those that had attended the lighting ceremony looked to have given up because of the snow and it was questionable as to whether they’d all squeeze into the area between the road and the reflecting pool. 3rd Street was pretty much empty of traffic, two police officers ready to do their duty as crossing guards.

“No sudden movements, Mike; you don’t want to make me nervous.”

Anderson felt the cold tingle of fear run up his spine as he recognised McDowell’s voice, and he noticeably flinched as the hard metal of a gun pressed into his back, McDowell’s instructions somehow superfluous. Their roles of adversary and prey had instantly been reversed, the consequences of Anderson’s brief lack of concentration likely to be unfortunate.

“Hands where I can see them,” added McDowell curtly. He patted Anderson down one-handed, phone pulled from his side pocket, before positioning himself slightly behind Anderson and to his right.

Anderson risked a quick glance, McDowell standing with the gun now cradled in the crook of his arm, only a small part of the silencer actually visible. It was enough to suggest running might be a second serious mistake, Anderson still with the presence of mind to wonder where exactly Lavergne and Preston might be.

“Persistent as always,” McDowell said, his tone almost friendly. “And no FBI tail other than Special Agent Flores – you really need to care more care, Mike.”

When Anderson didn’t respond, McDowell turned to view the trail of candles as the first group of marchers crossed 3rd Street. “Will Secretary Thorn honour the vigil with his presence or not?” he asked rhetorically. “He was thinking about it an hour ago but you never can tell with these politicians. Sadly, it seems there’s some new problem at the Pentagon which might well take precedence.”

“Your doing?” said Anderson, finally finding his voice.

“Not down to me, Mike; I’ve been here, watching you. I hear you’ve been busy: Boston and then a daily visit to the Mall, even a tour of the Capitol.”

Anderson didn’t bother asking how McDowell knew all this; phone tracker or tail – it was all irrelevant now and McDowell wasn’t likely to let him off with anything less than a bullet in the brain.

McDowell continued, “I wouldn’t get your hopes up that Agent Flores will come and rescue you; he seems quite happy on his side of the Mall. Personally, I’d rather just deal with Thorn then we can all go our separate ways – even you, Mike.”

“Generous as always, Pat; you deserve a gold star. Forgive me if I choose not to believe you.” Past experience had proved McDowell’s promises were generally meaningless, nothing more than empty words to try and smooth the way forward. If there was to be a way out of this mess, it would down to Anderson alone.

“Bob Deangelo owes you a big favour,” said McDowell cheerfully, “and that has to be worth something. He was never that keen on muzzling Congress but it was Thorn’s price for risking his career; now thanks to you it’s a non-starter.”

Anderson certainly didn’t want the credit, angry with everyone, especially himself. “You gave me Nash; I was just the sucker who did all the hard work.”

“Well, think of how grateful our nation will be to the man who helped save U.S. democracy; just make sure you’re still around to receive a personal thank you from the President and a congratulatory handshake.”

Despite the cold, Anderson felt the sweat running down his face, not knowing how long he could delay the inevitable. A couple of friends having a chat while watching the vigil wasn’t going to make anyone curious, and even though Anderson’s sudden collapse into a heap might create a stir of interest in the Mall, it was a chance McDowell would eventually be forced to take.

The rest of the marchers were steadily making their way across 3rd Street; for the moment they were staying close to the centre of the Mall but any further south and McDowell might start getting nervous. Anderson kept scanning the trees on the other side of the park but he couldn’t see any sign of Flores, not that he had any idea what to do even if he could.

“You should give it up,” said Anderson, hoping for a miracle. “Three men against Thorn’s protection detail – it’s a suicide mission. The Capitol is crawling with police and FBI; the first shots and you’ll have a hundred more armed men to deal with.”

“You’re probably right,” McDowell responded, his tone still annoyingly complacent. “But with a ringside seat, it’d be a shame to miss all the excitement.”

Anderson couldn’t work it out, it sounding as though McDowell was happy just to stand and watch. “You’re leaving it to Lavergne and Preston?” he said, unable to hold back his surprise.

“The art of delegation; you should try it sometime. My face is too well-known to take unnecessary risks. But don’t worry, Mike; if Thorn turns up, we’ll make sure he gets a suitable welcome.”

  • * *

The five-car motorcade swept into the Mall and pulled up along the east side of 3rd Street, police already in place to establish a safe zone with people kept back a good ten yards. In a well-practiced routine, the protection detail closed up around the Secretary, the crowd parting to allow Thorn free access towards the main speakers standing close to the Capitol Reflecting Pool. It was a narrow channel of relative security, a dozen agents guiding Thorn forward, but within seconds the initial murmurs and words of support had turned into a spontaneous ripple of applause. Thorn slowed, almost embarrassed and unable to hide his smile of appreciation, reaching out to shake peoples’ hands.

Cameras flashed but the media had long since gone, the majority of the public still favouring Thorn’s hard-line stance. A middle-aged woman stepped forward into his path and an agent instantly blocked her view, strong hands half-guiding half-pushing her backwards; she almost stumbled and Thorn instantly reached out to hold her upright, getting a smile and a few words of thanks in return.

It took Thorn a good five minutes to walk through the crowd to reach the earlier speakers, the Vietnamese mother one of the first to be introduced. He shook the woman’s hand warmly, a few suitable words of sympathy offered before he moved on to the next person in line. He never quite felt comfortable in such an environment but his words were sincere, Thorn not someone who found it easy to act out a role. Paul Jensen would no doubt argue that’s what he had been doing for the past few months but Thorn had been true to his ideals, pushing as hard as he could for America to re-assert its power and curb China’s drive to control South East Asia. An assertive China, an unpredictable North Korea – it was a lethal combination, and a war in Asia was a price that at some stage would have to be paid. Thorn might be a long-time Democrat but that didn’t mean he was afraid to confront China, and for far too long America had warned and condemned but been reluctant to act, her military and technological superiority an underused threat which others had learnt to ignore.

The petulant nature of Congress’ two-party system was a major part of the problem, the essential difficult decisions invariably meeting delay and rancour, a feeble alternative the best that could ever be achieved. Without the shackles of Congress, problems such as China and North Korea would never have arisen, every U.S. president since Richard Nixon held back from doing what was right.

Thorn’s new vision for America was one Bob Deangelo had once shared, the two men reaching an understanding despite differing as the magnitude of the problems. Yet within days of taking office the President had stepped back from the easy promises of the past, and the relationship between the two men had quickly grown fractious, Thorn determined not to water-down America’s response and settle for an unclear victory; for Deangelo, the weight of responsibility was proving a heavy burden, his commitment to a strong and forceful America apparently more fragile than Thorn had hoped. The nomination of Jack Shepard for Vice-President had been another surprise move by Deangelo and the President was evidently working to his own specific agenda, one over which Thorn had minimal influence.

When Yang Kyung-Jae had proposed an alliance, Thorn had regarded it as a one-time opportunity to change history; now the conspiracy had turned into a struggle of personal aspirations over the needs of the nation, the weak – like Ritter and Yang – discarded along the way, and in the end even Golubeva had proved unworthy. Thorn himself felt as if he had been stabbed in the back: he had willingly played second fiddle to Deangelo but that agreement was now in ruins, the President’s change of heart clearly revealed by the Secretary of State’s presence in Astana.

Thorn couldn’t – wouldn’t – allow China to escape so easily. Many would see his actions as dishonourable, a betrayal of his country; yet it was the only way to protect America’s future status. The conspiracy might be stuttering towards an eventual collapse but the Ronald Reagan Strike Group had its new orders and Thorn was confident they would be carried out to the letter; if anything, he was just surprised it was taking so long to hear back from Admiral Lucas, Deangelo’s peace initiative soon to be blown apart along with the Liaoning.

It was a second-rate solution but better than nothing. A month ago Thorn had been riding high on outrage, China and Congress both within his sights – now he was having to sacrifice a good friend’s reputation in order to force Deangelo’s hand, a limited victory over China the best he could hope for. Congress was certainly out of reach, the tightened security making it too much of a risk even for the D.C. National Guard, and Thorn was left wondering whether that too was down to Deangelo. Allies once, now effectively bitter enemies, the similarities between what had just happened in Russia were not lost on Thorn. Morozov’s victory was a lesson in perseverance but the spectre of a full military takeover in America was never an option, it a step too far even for Thorn.

Jensen’s blind refusal to let matters take their course had been unfortunate and Thorn had been pushed into a hasty response; as yet there had been no confirmation as to the outcome and Thorn genuinely regretted the need for such draconian measures. Adams for one was a respected colleague, Jensen capable enough if naïve.

To show any prior knowledge as to their potential fate would be foolish and Thorn had stuck with his earlier schedule – despite what the cynics might think, the scenes from Vietnam had affected him as much as anyone, the vigil simply an affirmation as to his own actions.

Handshakes and words of condolence completed, Thorn duly lit a candle and stood with head bowed as a final prayer was said. There were then more people to acknowledge and speak to before a whispered word from one of his security team urged Thorn to cut it short, the car chase west of the White House already starting to create waves.

  • * *

Anderson had watched Thorn’s arrival with a mix of concern and hope, certain that Flores would eventually try to phone. He hadn’t heard the familiar ringtone but McDowell could have easily turned the phone off. Flores would be suspicious if it were ignored or went straight to answerphone – either way, McDowell could have a problem.

Yet a good five minutes had passed and there had been nothing. McDowell was obviously aware that Flores was hovering nearby, overconfidence one of his many annoying traits, and Anderson was still struggling to understand how Lavergne and Preston could possibly succeed.

Distracting McDowell seemed as good as ploy as any, Anderson still hopeful Flores was creeping ever closer. “Martin Lavergne might be good,” he said, heavy on the sarcasm, “but unless he’s grown wings, he’s got no shot to take out Thorn.”

McDowell frowned, his concentration wavering between Thorn and Anderson, left hand pressed to his earpiece. “Who said it was down to Martin; he’s just the diversion. And all Lee’s got to do is turn the clock back – shouldn’t be that hard.”

Anderson was fast losing faith in Flores and he needed to keep McDowell talking. His right hand edged across the front of his body, the sacrifice of a good and faithful friend perhaps his one chance to save himself.

“Turn the clock back,” Anderson repeated softly, finally understanding something of what McDowell meant. “It’s still a suicide mission; one shot’s all he’ll get.”

Anderson kept his gaze focussed on the police standing close to the motorcade, needing McDowell to think they were his only concern. Any of the six officers could be Lee Preston, his uniform and badge no doubt compliments of Sean Kovak, and his past profession as a cop would make it easy enough for him to fit in. All six were well bundled up against the snow, their attention mainly directed at the crowd surrounding Thorn.

“Whatever you say, Mike,” said McDowell. “We all know…”

It was now or never. With the camera strap held right-handed, Anderson swept his beloved Pentax round, it arcing upwards towards McDowell’s head. McDowell sensed rather than saw what was happening, firing and trying to twist aside at the same instant.

Anderson felt the bullet slice across his chest, the pain razor sharp, then his whole body seemed to shudder as the camera glanced off McDowell’s shoulder to smash into the side of his face. McDowell stumbled backwards, arms flung wide to try and keep his balance. Anderson’s chest felt as if it was on fire but he was on adrenalin overload and he launched himself at the bigger man, his prime aim to somehow wrest the gun free.

McDowell was slow to react, still stunned, blood pouring from his face and forehead, barely able to see. The sensible money was still on McDowell, his size and weight advantage bolstered by his training and level of fitness. He tried to fend Anderson off and the two men crashed to the ground, the gun knocked from McDowell’s hand as his elbow hit.

Anderson still had his camera, close to two kilograms of metal, plastic and glass. Desperate now to end the fight, he struggled to his knees, grabbing the camera and swinging it down hard. McDowell’s arms came up to protect his face and the camera lens smashed down onto his right forearm, an agonised cry dragged from his lips. Anderson swung again but doubled over as the pain lanced through his chest, desperately rolling left to scrabble for the gun.

A vicious kick slammed into his thigh, McDowell’s left arm stretching out to make a grab for the back of Anderson’s jacket, anything to stop him from reaching the gun. Despite the gut-wrenching pain and part of his mind screaming for him to give up, Anderson ignored it all to twist around, the gun pulled left-handed from under his body. He fired twice, not even sure where the gun was aimed, just hoping for a lucky hit.

McDowell had levered himself to his knees and he looked wide-eyed in shock at Anderson, a deep shuddering sigh dragged from his lips. He tried to get to his feet then his body simply gave way, toppling sideways to crash back down onto the ground.

Anderson’s every gasping breath was like a knife slicing deeper but he didn’t dare release the gun, not yet certain that he was safe. He stared down at McDowell, simply watching and waiting for any sign that he was still alive, fully prepared to empty the clip into McDowell’s chest.

Abruptly, he heard movement behind him and he half-turned to see Flores approaching at a run, gun held one-handed, it pointing down at McDowell’s lifeless body.

One look was enough for Flores to know there was no longer any danger from McDowell and he moved quickly across to check on Anderson.

“Sorry, Mike,” he said breathlessly, “I should have realised earlier…” The rest of the sentence was lost as the chatter of gunfire erupted from away to their right; six or more shots.

Flores instantly turned back towards the vigil, the routine sounds of the crowd changing to shrieks of panic as chaos took control, at least one person lying motionless.

Anderson grabbed Flores’ arm and gestured weakly in the direction of the motorcade while struggling to speak, every syllable a red-hot needle of anguish. “Diversion… Get Preston… 3rd Street cop…”

Flores nodded as if in understanding, gun thrust back into his pocket as he reached for his phone. Moments later, he was racing towards the motorcade, ID card and badge held out in front of him as though it were some sort of shield. There were no more shots, Lavergne’s job already complete, escape his new priority.

Anderson pulled himself to his feet and leant against the tree, his breathing gradually slowing. The sharp pain seemed to suggest at least one broken rib but he wasn’t spitting up blood just yet and he looked out at the turmoil overtaking the Mall. Hundreds lay cowering on the ground, apparently unhurt; the rest were desperate to find safety and a river of people streamed north while trying to keep well clear of the motorcade, Thorn clearly the gunman’s target.

Thorn’s protection detail had closed ranks, the Secretary escorted by two agents as they ran in a half-crouch back towards the safety of his armoured limousine. The attention of the other agents was directed to the south-east, the police also moving to protect against the same threat, one at least shouting something at Flores.

A single officer stood close to Thorn’s limousine on its western side, gun held ready – it had to be Preston. Flores was still a good forty yards away, arms waving, shouting out a warning, the cries of others drowning him out. Preston was already starting to back away from the motorcade, his gaze seemingly more focused on Thorn’s car than what was happening elsewhere, no hint that he had even noticed Ray Flores.

Thorn’s bodyguards were clustered around the car, guns drawn, the priority to get him safely away from the Mall. As the rear door to the limousine was pulled open, Preston abruptly turned and started to run; an instant later there was a bright flash, the rear of the limousine leaping a foot into the air, smoke and flame bursting outward to engulf Thorn and his security detail.

The deep-throated boom of the explosion rolled across the Mall and Anderson stared appalled at the carnage surrounding Thorn’s limousine, eight or more bodies lying alongside, several people still trying to crawl to safety. He searched but couldn’t see Flores, the black smoke moving south across the Mall an ever-expanding sign as to Lee Preston’s handiwork.

The blast wave would have likely rattled the windows of the Oval Office, Anderson left wondering whether Deangelo even realised it was down to McDowell. Would the President experience a twinge of regret at the lives lost or would he consider them a fair exchange for removing the headache that was Dick Thorn?

It might seem illogical but Anderson was angry at himself for having let it happen, and even if the sacrifice of ten or twenty helped save ten times that number in the South China Sea, it was an immoral justification for murder, Bob Deangelo no better than Pat McDowell.

  • * *

Jensen came to as he was being laid gently down onto the sidewalk, the blood cautiously wiped from his eyes and face, strong hands moving over his body to try and work out the extent of his injuries. Still disorientated, it felt as if he had been unconscious for hours but it could just have easily been a few seconds, his mind struggling to remember what exactly had happened.

Jensen’s eyes flickered open and he watched almost mesmerised as the snowflakes cascaded down from the night sky; he was just so cold, his breath casting a fine mist over his face. It took the loud squawk from a fire truck’s horn to break into his reverie and he tried to speak, it coming out as a meaningless croak.

“Mr Secretary,” said a male voice close beside him. “An ambulance is on the way; you’re going to be okay, Sir.”

Jensen struggled to sit up, his rescuer having to help; the latter was Secret Service, Jensen recognising him by sight even though he couldn’t quite place the man’s name. Jensen’s body felt bruised all over but there were no sharp pains or numbness, and most of the shiny splashes of blood staining his clothes were likely from Admiral Adams.

Jensen turned to look at the Buick, it sitting upside down with two Secret Service agents struggling to wrench open the passenger door, several firemen running to help, no sign of Adams. Another agent stood a few yards further on, tasked with keeping a small crowd of bystanders well away from the scene of the crash. At least three other vehicles had been involved, one struck side-on and totalled, a wisp of smoke trailing up from somewhere inside. Only now did Jensen realise it was the black sedan that had been chasing the Buick and he stared in confusion at the two bodies lying sprawled a few feet from it, their faces covered, the dark suits marking them out as anything from businessmen to security agents, even FBI.

“We got them both,” said the agent, seeming to expect Jensen would understand. “But I’m afraid Admiral Adams is badly hurt.”

Jensen used his helper’s arm to get to his feet. He was unsteady but could stand unaided, his still-hazy brain finally remembering the urgency of his task. “Your name,” he said hoarsely, “what’s your name?”

“Howard, Sir.”

“Very well, agent Howard; it’s imperative I get to speak directly to the President.” He gestured vaguely in the direction of the White House. “Now, agent Howard.”

Howard didn’t argue, the events of the past few minutes speaking for themselves. He spoke briefly into his wrist mic before helping Jensen towards a black Chevrolet SUV, a second agent moving across to join them.

Abruptly there was a bright flash in the sky to the south-east and Jensen instinctively stopped mid-step before Howard urged him forward, neither agent making any comment as they heard the muffled sound of an explosion. Jensen sat in the Chevy and tried to make sense of what was happening, worried now that Thorn was going for broke, the explosion signalling the start of some attack on the Capitol Building or even the White House.

With lights and siren it was barely a minute’s drive to the White House; three more for Jensen to be helped inside and reach the final barrier of the President’s personal secretary. The West Wing was in turmoil, close to lockdown, Deangelo in a meeting with the National Security Adviser, Morgan Woodward. The Capitol at least seemed secure, the Secret Service already informing Jensen that the explosion had been a bomb targeted at Thorn, no indication yet as to casualties.

Jensen could feel the secretary’s eyes on his bloodied clothes, the brighter lights of the office merely emphasising what he had gone through, her call to the President reinforcing that fact.

“Please go straight in, Mr Secretary.”

Jensen straightened his back and strode through into the Oval Office, Deangelo and Woodward standing to greet him, the President’s shock at how he looked apparently genuine.

Deangelo stepped forward to grip Jensen’s right arm, unsure whether to also shake him by the hand, “You’re hurt, Paul; we need to get the doctor to see you.”

“It’s Admiral Adams’ blood,” replied Jensen gruffly. “You need to speak immediately to Admiral Lucas, Sir. Secretary Thorn has issued new orders committing our forces in the South China Sea to a missile attack against China’s carrier – they need to be countermanded before it’s too late.”

“Thorn’s dead, Paul,” said Woodward softly. “A bomb attack in the Capitol Mall.”

“Then so much the better!” said Jensen, the anger finally taking control. “Dead or not, the President still needs to countermand the order!”

Deangelo stared at Jensen, his insistent tone not something a president would normally appreciate; that in itself somehow emphasised the need for haste, the anguish in Jensen’s voice obvious, the blood on his clothes a mark of what he too had gone through.

The President gave the briefest nod of understanding and he quickly stepped across to his desk to pick up the phone, keying a pre-set number.

“I need to speak to Admiral Lucas, Pacific Command, immediately,” he instructed. “Also patch in Rear-Admiral Espada aboard the Ronald Reagan and Admiral King…” Deangelo might have taken his time to weigh up his options in the South China Sea but he now acted decisively, commands given without the need for detailed consultation, the President with a clear grasp of the chain of command in the Pacific, even knowing the names of all the senior staff.

By the time they reached the Situation Room the calls had been made, Deangelo speaking directly to the commanders of the Gerald Ford and John Stennis Strike Groups. For some unclear reason, Pacific Command’s Admiral Lucas was unavailable, his deputy similarly so; Rear-Admiral Espada on the Ronald Reagan was also taking his time to confirm that Deangelo’s new orders had been implemented, the President’s impatience revealed by a curt comment to every new negative.

Although reports coming in from the South China Sea remained the priority, there was also a need to understand exactly what was happening closer to home. Thorn dead, Adams critical, Jensen covered in blood – to an outsider it had all the indications of a co-ordinated attack on the U.S. Administration and security for the other Cabinet members had immediately been increased, the units guarding the Capitol also put on a heightened alert. The National Mall was being swamped with police and FBI, initial reports indicating that the bomb blast had injured at least twenty, nothing definite as to the number of those killed.

Almost ten minutes had passed and there was still no confirmation from the Ronald Reagan, the atmosphere in the Situation Room becoming increasingly tense as the seconds dragged by: no-one could be certain how deep-seated Thorn’s influence might be and Deangelo was prepared to do whatever it took to stop any such senseless reprisals. The talks in Astana were a fragile first step towards peace, the negotiations likely to end once a single American missile struck home. Beijing certainly wasn’t making it any easier for Deangelo and at least two of their attack submarines were always sniffing around close to the Ronald Reagan’s exclusion zone, apparently happy to push their luck.

China’s lone aircraft carrier patrolled to the north-west of the Reagan, the Liaoning a forty-minute flight for the strike group’s anti-ship missiles. Under normal circumstances that would be plenty of time to abort an attack but now it seemed unbelievably short, America’s Commander-in-Chief barely in charge of his Cabinet let alone a naval unit over eight thousand miles away. The status and standing orders for every other vessel and military unit were also being re-assessed, Deangelo needing to know whether Thorn’s subtle adjustment to the rules of engagement was merely a one-off.

It was twelve minutes before Rear-Admiral Espada finally confirmed the change in orders, no excuse given for the delay. Admiral Lucas and his deputy were proving harder to pin down and Deangelo quickly lost patience, the next in line given temporary command. With the situation seemingly now under control, the Secretary of the Navy and the Deputy Secretary of Defence joined those taken to task, Deangelo demanding answers before he was forced into a Russian-style purge.

Jensen sat drinking a lukewarm coffee, still spilling it despite having both hands on the cup, the shakes having started as soon as he’d sat down. Clean clothes had eventually arrived, a medic patching up the cuts and grazes to his face. Injured and in shock he might be but he was still Secretary of Homeland Security and determined to do his job, a briefing from the FBI’s Deputy Director bringing him up-to-date as to the identity of his attackers as well as Pat McDowell’s part in Thorn’s murder.

Jensen mostly just listened, his opinions kept to himself, mentally filling in the various gaps to the FBI’s understanding. Under different circumstances the situation would have almost been laughable: Jensen and Adams attacked by Thorn’s allies in the Pentagon as he in turn was murdered by the President’s hitman. Once Deangelo had made it into the Oval Office, the conspiracy had quickly twisted itself into knots, the pledges made discarded as a more complex reality hit home.

For the moment, Jensen certainly couldn’t prove Deangelo’s guilt. In any event he was still struggling with the dilemma of justice or expediency, the latter becoming ever more tempting as he considered the alternative. Dick Thorn had been willing to risk hundreds of American lives in his personal quest – a quick death was by far the best he had deserved.

[]Chapter 16 – Saturday to Monday, November 26th to 28th

[]Beijing – Saturday, 21:26 Local Time; 13:26 UTC

The meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee was quickly becoming an edgy affair, the reality of China’s problems – military, economic and domestic – well understood by most but still not all of its seven members, and the President was keen to emphasise that even with a peaceful resolution a sustained economic recession was virtually inevitable. America’s offer of peace had come with a list of conditions, with just enough positives for Beijing to give it serious consideration.

General Liang sat in as a military adviser, his success in neutralising the Russian threat ensuring that his opinion was more highly regarded then he had anticipated. Asked to summarise the military situation, his evaluation was based not just on America’s actions over the past two weeks but the mood of its people and the words of its President. Deangelo had been steadfast in his defence of the Philippines, promises made and kept to, and America seemed utterly determined to force China to surrender its island conquests. The murders in Washington might have rid the Administration of two of its hardliners but the subsequent outcry had only strengthened Deangelo’s hand, and the likely appointment of a Republican as Vice-President merely underlined America’s resolute stance.

China might still control several of the Spratly Islands but all were effectively at the mercy of the U.S. Navy and its strike groups, reprisals only increasing the likelihood that the Chinese mainland would be the next target. The tactic of involving North Korea could very easily backfire, Liang noting the looks of concern as he detailed Pyongyang’s military build-up close to the border with South Korea; most of North Korea’s submarine fleet had already set sail and the Sea of Japan could soon become a second region of conflict, it potentially far worse than anything yet seen in the South China Sea.

The deal thrashed out in Kazakhstan had involved not just the three superpowers but the five other countries having some claim to the Paracel or Spratly Islands. The accord was more a set of principles than a definitive agreement and while it was never going to be ideal, President Zhao could still claim China had gained from it, the main selling point China’s undisputed sovereignty over the Paracel Islands, suitable guarantees given. The principle area of controversy had always lain with the concept of territorial waters and a compromise proposal of just five kilometres – the old ‘cannon shot’ rule – had been accepted by all parties, with the exclusive economic zone set at double that distance. Although subject to formal ratification via the United Nations, it was a simple way to cut through past arguments, offering a degree of territorial control without it becoming excessive.

The status of the Spratly Islands was more complex, Beijing’s earlier agreement with Vietnam overturned. All islands, reefs, banks and shoals would be returned to their pre-crisis occupiers, further land reclamation by China and other claimants abandoned for a minimum of five years. The precise governance of the various islands and other features could then be argued out at a conference in February, any future agreement binding on all parties.

It was a compromise the minor players would do well to accept: Malaysia effectively gaining by default, while the Philippines’ claims on the Spratly Group were now seen as equally valid to those of China; for Vietnam, it was potentially a better deal than earlier, Brunei bought off with a joint U.S.-China financial package. Taiwan had already shown its willingness to reach some mutually convenient settlement with its neighbour and America was now prepared to give its blessing, the benefits far outweighing any perceived disadvantage.

Nor had General Morozov’s obligation to Liang been forgotten, Russia’s new president prepared to discuss the border situation without pre-conditions. Major Markova was once again on the move, this time to Beijing, her imminent arrival further confirmation as to her favoured status within Morozov’s inner circle. Liang might not yet fully trust the latest occupants of the Kremlin but Markova had already earned his respect and – if he were honest – a certain admiration. And without her persistence, who could say how it all would have ended?

The evidence as to the origins of the Koschei remained contentious and it was proving counter-productive to force the issue; in a few months, once the dust had settled, Beijing could back-up its denials with a detailed account of the Koschei’s refit, perhaps even be able to reveal the names of its crew. Maybe then Morozov would find it in his interests to confirm the tale or more likely treat the Koschei as a rogue submarine, its captain once again a convenient scapegoat.

The Kazakhstan talks had left certain other countries out in the cold, notably North and South Korea. Both were publicly voicing their anger at not being fully involved in the negotiations but they too would gain something from the deal, it clearly to everyone’s advantage – especially the three major powers – to make it work. The fact President Zhao was already preparing to fly to Pyongyang to secure North Korea’s support was clear proof as to his own personal commitment, no-one able to guarantee he would still be president by the time he landed back in Beijing.

Peace and the hope for a return to prosperity were within touching distance, the few remaining doubters on the Politburo just needing to understand that there really was no other choice. Zhao was close to exhaustion, his well-honed skills of persuasion and intimidation being used to the full in order to save China from disaster.

The meeting broke up just before midnight with the PSC split six to one in support of the accord. President Zhao insisted on it being unanimous, impressing the need to show the people of China that there were no dissenting voices. Early tomorrow the arguments would all start afresh and, one way or another, the President would have his unanimous vote, the mandate for peace now virtually assured.

 

Washington, D.C. – Sunday, 19:44 Local Time; Monday 00:44 UTC

Bob Deangelo sat in the Oval office, running through in his mind the words to his prime-time address, trying to make sure the earlier changes were exactly what he wanted. In the seventeen days of his presidency, he had taken his country to the edge of a brutal war, betrayed friends and set in motion the murder of his closest political ally. Dick Thorn might have been dismayed by Deangelo’s willingness to compromise but Yang Kyung-Jae’s dream of a sovereign Taiwan was about to be realised, the cost far less than any of them had ever imagined.

Deangelo didn’t consider himself a tyrant; a realist maybe. His actions had undoubtedly brought personal gain but he could argue America was the stronger for it, Deangelo able to reaffirm America’s position as the dominant world power. The fact he had needed to manoeuvre his way to the top was no different to any presidential campaign, there always plenty of tears shed and a modicum of blood spilt; the principle of ‘the end justifying the means’ was a standard defence, accepted by history if not always the public, some presidents more successful than others at hiding their misdeeds. Thorn’s own betrayal had also proved the wisdom of using McDowell, Deangelo safe in the knowledge that while Jensen might well believe he was complicit, he had chosen to stay silent.

Deangelo had been deeply impressed by Paul Jensen, seeing him as a truly honourable man, yet someone who was also prepared to put his own conscience on hold for the sake of his country. Jensen had never yet admitted as such but it was clear he well understood the intricacies of Deangelo’s complex involvement in the conspiracy and perhaps even Thorn’s murder. McDowell’s methods had certainly been more brutal than Deangelo had wanted or anticipated, every innocent life wasted one too many. Having started along that particular route it had been almost impossible to pull back and who better than McDowell to deal with an intractable Secretary of Defence.

Earlier that morning, an emotional meeting of the Cabinet had been held, Jensen prepared to accept responsibility for not stopping McDowell and the deaths of his two Cabinet colleagues, his letter of resignation already written. Deangelo would have none of it and, unlike with Thorn, he truly had no ulterior motive in mind; Jensen had always been his first choice as Secretary of Homeland Security and nothing that had happened since had changed that opinion.

It was the same with Jack Shepard; Deangelo had picked the best man for the job and the fact he was a Republican was almost irrelevant. Shepard’s confirmation as Vice-President on the Saturday had gone as smoothly as anyone could have hoped, Congress still reeling from the death of Dick Thorn; the ring of FBI agents around the Capitol Building might have had some influence on the vote but it had become a time to put aside petty squabbles, the events of Friday once again proving the need for an unbroken presidential line of succession.

In a rare show of equanimity and compassion – or was it guilt – the Senate had even unanimously confirmed Dick Thorn as Secretary of Defence, the applause at the vote rippling through the chamber. Pointless maybe and probably illegal but no-one seemed to care; despite everything that had happened, it was still a fitting recognition of Thorn’s past service.

Democracy could be a fickle animal at best, America’s president and Congress not always working together as one, their own selfish needs often outweighing the needs of the nation. The conspiracy had simply redirected Senators and Representatives towards the acceptance of a more dynamic bipartisan leadership: Deangelo, Shepard, and Congress – each would now have a full part to play in maintaining America’s world role and superpower status.

“Ten seconds, Mr President.”

Deangelo took a deep breath and composed himself, wanting to sound sombre yet positive, the success of the Astana accord something to be proud of. Diplomacy was a difficult art, Deangelo needing to justify his actions at home while being careful not to be too outspoken against China, the ink on the formal agreement barely dry.

“Good evening. Over the past month we have all seen how dangerous a world we live in, the missile and torpedo attacks in the South China Sea taking hundreds of innocent lives, families driven from their homes, the security of our nation and those of our allies under threat. The Philippines has been a staunch ally of the United States and in direct response to China’s assault on the Spratly Islands our Armed Forces have been engaged in a bitter struggle to reclaim the occupied reefs.

“The sacrifice of our brave servicemen and women has been significant but it has not been in vain. The United States, the Philippines and the People’s Republic of China, together with other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have today reached agreement as to the principles regarding the governance of the Spratly Islands, specifically the sovereignty of its many reefs and shoals and the fair allocation of the region’s natural resources…”

Deangelo tried not to make his statement too dry and factual, keeping to the basics while emphasising the key aspects; full details would be available online immediately after he had finished speaking and Deangelo wanted everything out in the open, the many positives of the agreement far outweighing the occasional negative. He was also very conscious of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s ‘peace for our time’ speech following the Munich Agreement in 1938, Deangelo knowing that the inevitable comparisons would be made. However, this was not a package of appeasement by a pacifist head of government; America would maintain and expand its presence in the South China Sea, its commitment to the Philippines as strong as ever.

With the external threat dealt with, Deangelo moved on to more personal matters. “In a difficult situation for our country, the enemies of our nation sought to take advantage, targeting the members of this Administration in the hope we would falter. Admiral Wade Adams and Secretary of Defence Dick Thorn gave their lives for their country, their service in the military and as part of two Administrations an example to us all. Nor should we forget that six of their protection detail were also murdered doing their duty, each one a tragic loss to the nation they loved.

“The United States will not be deterred from doing what is just because of acts such as these and you can be assured that this Administration remains steadfast in its commitment to fight terrorism, whatever form it might take. With men such as Wade Adams and Dick Thorn we can and we will prevail.

“Thank you. Good night and God bless these United States of America.”

  • * *

Anderson was reacquainting himself with the delights of Dulles Airport, a seat on the late evening flight to Heathrow courtesy of the FBI. It wasn’t exactly a reward or even a bribe, more a hint that he should let America deal with its own problems from now on. There was evidently no chance of a belated invitation to the White House, Anderson having to settle for a free one-way airline ticket and a handshake from Ray Flores.

Anderson’s chest wound would forever be a reminder of Pat McDowell, the FBI feeling guilty enough to foot his medical bill. For eighteen months McDowell had escaped first British then American justice and his political meddling had come at a high cost; most of those killed might not have actually been by his own hand but he had condemned them nevertheless. In an apparent change of heart, the Department of Justice inquiry had put responsibility for the earlier shooting in the National Mall squarely on McDowell and his associates, the FBI exonerated, with Anderson and Flores saved the embarrassment of a second grilling.

Despite almost getting shot by Thorn’s protection detail and then being caught at the edge of the bomb blast, Flores had emerged with nothing more than a cut to his face. The bomb itself had been C4, the plastic explosive artfully transformed into a standard police bullet-proof jacket, Lee Preston kicking it under Thorn’s limousine once the protection detail had been distracted by Lavergne – simple but obviously effective. Detonated remotely, Preston’s timing had been brutally impressive, Thorn and three agents killed instantly, four more critically injured.

Thanks primarily to Flores, the FBI had swamped the National Mall and the surrounding streets within seconds, Lavergne cornered near Independence Avenue and shot dead resisting arrest. Two hours later, Preston had been killed by the Arlington County Police, apparently also trying to make a fight of it.

It was all very convenient, both men with more than enough secrets to reignite the political crisis. Anderson didn’t know the whole story with respect to Adams and Jensen but he could guess, and the President’s TV address was all part of a state-organised whitewash with Thorn turned into a hero. It was a familiar tale to Anderson, the White House and Kremlin not that dissimilar in the way they dealt with their enemies.

The fallout from that day hadn’t yet spread beyond the minor players and Mayor Henry was still enjoying life in the public eye, his past support of Thorn ensuring a regular slot on the news reports. Henry had been quick to blame Pat McDowell for being behind the murders of both Adams and Thorn, a fact duly confirmed by the White House during Sunday afternoon’s press briefing.

Anderson might be sceptical of various aspects but there was little he could do and The Washington Post would expect something conclusive, especially if Anderson went so far as to accuse the President of being an accessory to murder. The evidence was out there, it just needing to be found: money-trail, CCTV image, someone wanting to make a deal – if Jensen was minded to continue the search then something damning would turn up eventually.

That clearly was no longer Anderson’s concern, his departure from the U.S. long overdue. Whether he’d be able to settle back down to a more relaxed routine was a major concern; Charlotte certainly deserved something more permanent than he seemed able or willing to offer. Three months, a year at most, and he’d get frustrated with the confines of domesticity, always wanting something that was forever out of reach.

Or perhaps he’d actually learnt something important from his month in America – no-one was invulnerable and how many more times could Anderson chance his luck and get away with it? Maybe it really was time to settle down and opt for a slightly quieter life, the challenge of domestic bliss possibly a little less risky than involving himself in the intrigues of a superpower and its leaders.

 

USS Benfold – Monday, 14:12 Local Time; 06:12 UTC

Tanner and his team had worked virtually around the clock sonar-mapping the reef, the Galene pushed to the limit of her capabilities with the normal safety protocols temporarily put on hold. The dangers were obvious but the financial inducement was substantial, the guarantees if it all went wrong enough for Tanner to take the gamble. To everyone’s relief, his faith in the Galene had proved entirely justified, and although the mapping would take at least another three days to complete, they had enough data for the dredger to make a start.

Tanner stood on the deck of the USS Benfold and watched as sand and sediment was pumped from the shallower parts of the sea bed through a long flexible pipe before being sprayed out onto the reef. A single dredger would take years to make a difference, China employing as many as twenty at once to turn a half-submerged rocky outcrop into an artificial island. One cubic yard at a time Hardy Reef was now following suit and more dredgers were apparently on the way, plus a massive floating platform.

Although uninhabited, Hardy Reef was just one more reef in the Spratly Group claimed by at least two countries, the Philippine Navy regularly sending out patrols to remove any territorial markers placed by China, it turning into a test of the other side’s persistence. For both, Hardy Reef was of minor interest, it thought to be too dangerous and difficult to be worth any serious effort.

Not so for the United States. The agreement regarding the freezing of land reclamation in the Spratly Islands had been very precise, explicitly naming the five nations it applied to; the U.S. was not even mentioned, the omission again slipping past the Chinese negotiators without comment. Whilst perhaps not in the spirit of the accord, Deangelo was prepared to take the risk of it all falling apart; the U.S. needed a foothold in the Spratly Group, something to act as a visible deterrent once the Chinese dredgers returned. There was a lot of time to make up, America with a five year period of grace to create its own unsinkable aircraft carrier.

Tanner was no expert but he assumed America’s occupation of the reef would break some aspect of international law or a particular U.N. convention, and the U.S. legal experts would struggle to find a convincing argument to justify their right to simply sit tight. Having made a suitable protest, the Philippines would no doubt be persuaded to worry about something else; China would be more vociferous but was hardly in a position to do much about it, not unless the Politburo was willing to go to the extreme of ripping up the agreement and starting all over again.

Tanner well understood the rationale and in a few months, six at most, the U.S. could start to build something permanent on the reef; in the meantime the floating platform could easily house enough Marines to show the flag and prove intent. The United States was staking its own claim to one of the Spratly Islands, the principle of possession being nine-tenths of the law as valid in the South China Sea as anywhere else.

Tanner gazed out across the reef and towards the north, wondering if it would all flare up again in another five years. The Politburo had merely tested the water and come away with the Paracel Islands and a scalded toe; for the moment China’s creeping invasion of the South China Sea had temporarily been put on hold, and its leaders certainly wouldn’t make the same mistakes next time, the strategic importance of the remaining Spratly Islands and the uncertain promise of their natural resources a prize far too precious to simply ignore.


The Rule Of The People

The battle for control of the reefs and shoals of the South China Sea intensifies as Russia and the U.S. squeeze China from north and south, their own internal threats not yet resolved... Set immediately after the events of The Trust of the People, the story forms the final part of the Conspiracy Trilogy. Covering a chaotic two week period, the repercussions of the past move rapidly between Beijing, Moscow and Washington, the truth invariably nothing more than a political inconvenience. Determined to make sense of the complex schemes played out by those now in power, Michael Anderson’s search for answers inevitably leads him back to Washington’s National Mall, the perpetual struggle between the White House and Congress threatening to spiral into something far more violent than the usual war of words. In the South China Sea, the fight-back against Beijing’s increasing dominance escalates into a bloody war of attrition, the fear that others will ally themselves with America forcing China into a series of desperate gambles. Russia becomes one such gamble, Natasha Markova drawn into a fight for survival as the conflict reopens the divisions within the Kremlin.

  • ISBN: 9781370638147
  • Author: Christopher Read
  • Published: 2017-05-07 16:35:14
  • Words: 103319
The Rule Of The People The Rule Of The People