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Webster City

 

 

 

WEBSTER CITY

 

by

 

PETER MENADUE

 

 

Almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so. – Robert A. Heinlein

 

 

Published by Peter Menadue at Shakespir

Copyright 2016 Peter Menadue

 

Cover illustration: copyright Michael Mucci at michaelmucci.com

CHAPTER ONE

 

Mark Conrad, the captain of the Sector 11 Fire Station, was widely regarded as a good fireman and loyal citizen of Webster City. However, the Internal Security Bureau received an anonymous tip-off that he worked for the Freedom Alliance and was responsible for the recent assassination of an army colonel.

Such tip-offs usually led nowhere. They came from disgruntled employees, jilted lovers or envious friends. But the ISB had to check them out. So, on a gray Tuesday afternoon, Major Carl Davidson and Captain Tony Delray drove over to the dull ten-story apartment building where Conrad lived.

Davidson knocked on the front door and waited twenty seconds until a muscular guy in his early forties, wearing a white T-shirt and jeans, opened it. The guy saw their black ISB uniforms and, like most people, went pale.

“Fire Captain Mark Conrad?”

“Y-yes.”

“I’m Major Davidson and this is Captain Delray, from the ISB.”

“I see that. How can I help?”

“Can we enter?”

“Yes, umm, of course.”

They walked down a short hallway into a neat and tidy living room. Glass doors led to a balcony. Through them, Davidson glimpsed Lake Michigan.

“Umm, how can I help?”

Davidson nailed Conrad with a stare. “We’ve been told you work for the Freedom Alliance.”

Conrad’s lower lip quivered. “Garbage – absolute garbage. I’m a loyal citizen. Who told you that?”

“You don’t need to know. Can I search your apartment?”

“Umm, do you have a warrant?”

“I don’t need a warrant,” Davidson said truthfully.

“Well, of course – I’ve got nothing to hide.”

“Good.”

Davidson turned to Delray. “Stay here with Captain Conrad while I look around.”

Delray looked unhappy about being left to guard the suspect, but nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“Good.”

Davidson entered the kitchen and slowly looked through the cupboards, searching for evidence Conrad worked for the Freedom Alliance. He tapped all the walls for a false compartment and found none.

Next, he strolled into the bedroom and searched through the wardrobe and chest of drawers, before looking under the bed. Nothing. He tapped his way along the skirting board until he reached a point where it sounded hollow. The board felt loose. He yanked it away to find a small cavity with two objects wrapped in plastic and a photograph of a man he didn’t know. He sat on the bed and slowly unfurled the plastic to reveal a high-power two-way radio and a .357 Smith & Wesson pistol. He wondered if the pistol was the one used to assassinate the army colonel. It didn’t really matter. Ordinary citizens weren’t allowed to own either item. Their presence was clear evidence Conrad belonged to the Freedom Alliance.

At one time, Davidson enjoyed catching subversives like Conrad. He felt like he’d won a game. However, now he saw the human cost. He would have to take Conrad down to the ISB Headquarters and hand him over to the Interrogation Unit. If Conrad survived their brutal treatment, he would be executed or end his days behind bars. A terrible waste.

Davidson sighed, picked up the two objects and the photograph, and strolled back into the living room. Conrad sat on the sofa and Delray on an armchair opposite.

Conrad’s saw the objects in Davidson’s hands and immediately knew he had only a left-over life to live, full of pain and misery. His eyes gleamed as he reached down behind the couch cushion, pulled out a hidden pistol, rose to his feet and fired at Davidson.

Davidson had dropped what he was holding and was reaching for his pistol when the bullet buzzed over his shoulder and slammed into the wall behind him. Then he had his pistol out and fired twice. Both bullets hit Conrad in the chest and knocked him over backward onto the couch. Conrad’s arm jerked back and threw his pistol against the wall.

Davidson glanced over at Delray, still rising to his feet and trying to drag out his pistol. “Don’t bother.”

“Shit.”

Davidson’s heart pounded as he went over to Conrad. The two big red blotches near the middle of his chest said he must be dead. Davidson waved a hand over his open eyes. Not a flicker. Definitely gone.

He felt a surge of anger at Conrad for trying to kill him and Delray for giving him the chance. He scowled at Delray. “You were supposed to keep an eye on him. Why don’t you pay attention?”

Delray’s handsome features rarely betrayed self-doubt and didn’t now. “I did pay attention.”

“Really? You should have checked the couch before he sat down and stayed alert. You did neither.”

“I’m not perfect.”

“No kidding.”

Davidson wondered if Conrad always kept the pistol hidden in the couch, or he somehow found out two ISB officers were about to knock on his door. He stepped out onto the balcony and looked over the railing. All ISB officers drove a distinctive black Cadillac. He saw his in the carpark below. Maybe Conrad saw them arrive.

He stepped back into the living room, tension leaking from his system. “Alright, you’d better call the morgue and get them to send a clean-up crew.”

“OK. Are we going to search the rest of the apartment?”

Davidson was desperate to get out of there. “No, you are. Order some help if necessary. I’m going back to headquarters.”

Davidson was about to leave when he noticed the photograph he found in the cavity, and dropped during the shootout, now lay beside the couch. He picked it up and looked at a photograph of a handsome man in his fifties, wearing a dark suit, holding a glass of wine and smiling at the camera. The guy seemed to be at a social reception of some sort. His identity was still a mystery.

Davidson showed the photo to Delray. “Got any idea who this guy is?”

A big shrug. “Nope – zero.”

“Alright, you’re in charge.” Davidson tucked the photograph inside his tunic and headed for the door.

CHAPTER TWO

 

Davidson stepped out of an elevator onto the fifth floor of the Internal Security Bureau Headquarters and strolled down a narrow corridor to his small tidy office. He went straight over to the window and stared out across Webster City. In the far distance, the late-afternoon sun poured molten gold over the jagged stumps of Old Chicago. Many citizens wanted the shattered skyscrapers removed as an eyesore; others said they should remain as a reminder of the Dark Years and the Great Plague. Davidson wanted them to stay because they offered glorious scenic moments like this one. Right now, Old Chicago was not a graveyard, but a symbol of how great mankind once was and could be again.

He sat behind his desk and recalled shooting Conrad. He’d killed a lot of people during his 15 years in the ISB. But the older he got, the more their deaths affected him. At the beginning, he told himself he was serving God and protecting the City. Now he wasn’t sure if he believed in either.

Rage welled up inside him. He was angry at Conrad for joining the Freedom Alliance and trying to shoot it out, at Delray for not guarding Conrad properly and at himself for putting his faith in Delray.

If he stayed in his office, he would stew over the events in Conrad’s apartment. Best to go home. He put his pistol and gun belt in a wall safe and headed for the door.

 

Davidson and his wife, Barbara, lived in Sector 8, one of the best residential areas in Webster City, with lots of low-rise apartment buildings lining the shore of Lake Michigan. Their third-story apartment was about a hundred yards from the lake, with a large park in between, and had a good view of the greenish-blue water.

The apartment was furnished with Charles Eames furniture scavenged from a mansion in Arizona 100 years ago. After being checked for radiation contamination, it was brought to Webster City and had several owners before the Davidsons bought it.

When he got home, Barbara was watching television. Most men envied him his marriage. She was a beautiful woman, with raven hair, high cheekbones and an athletic body. When she walked down the street, men tracked her with their eyes. However, he now realized that, before their marriage, he paid too much attention to her looks and not enough to her personality, which was small-minded, self-centered and grasping. She was always asking when he would get promoted or get a pay rise, or they would move to a better address. Those questions were particularly annoying when his ambition was draining away.

He also suspected she was cheating on him. She’d recently had the chirpy air of someone in love, and he knew it wasn’t with him. He could have easily used his position in the ISB to obtain her phone records, to see who she was calling. So far, he’d resisted the temptation.

She looked up with her big liquid eyes. “Hello, Darling. How was your day?”

If he revealed that he shot a suspect, she would probably applaud his actions. She thought Freedom Alliance fighters were “scum” and “filth”, and was proud that her husband stood on the front line of the fight against them. But he didn’t want to bring the violent reality of his job home with him, nor see hatred and contempt for the enemy written on the face of his wife.

He said: “Pretty boring. Mostly paperwork.”

“You always say that. One of these days, you’ll have to tell me what you really do.”

“I just did.”

A lifted eyebrow. “Yeah, right.”

“What about you? How was your day? Any of the kids try to burn down the school?”

Barbara taught at the nearby Adolf Hitler Elementary School. She frowned. “It was very stressful. Some parents sent their child to school with a cold. Can you believe that? We called an ambulance and had the kid taken to a hospital.”

“Did you speak to the parents?”

“Of course. They claimed he didn’t look sick when he left home. That was obviously garbage. I gave them a tremendous tongue-lashing: told them they put all of the other children at risk and I would be reporting them to the police.”

“Did you?”

“Of course. The police went straight over to their house and arrested them. They said a judge will probably send them to prison.”

She went back to watching the television. It was broadcasting the blasphemy trial of the so-called Zen Ten. The accused were charged with deviating from the teaching of the New World Church by practicing Zen Buddhism. They claimed they were only trying to learn about meditation and exercise. However, they would obviously be convicted and executed by firing squad. That was how all blasphemy trials ended. At least they wouldn’t be burnt at the stake, as would have occurred 100 years ago.

While the trial judge screamed at one of the accused, Davidson went into the spare bedroom and spent an hour practicing karate. Hand-strikes. Elbow-strikes. Punches. Kicks. Blocks. Several times, he imagined himself punching Delray. Tension slowly leaked out of his system.

CHAPTER THREE

 

All schoolchildren in Webster City learned that, in the middle of the 21st century, overpopulation, environmental destruction, hunger and poverty killed billions across the globe. Hundreds of millions of people flooded across borders. Nations fought over food, water and energy. The European Union and Russia fired nuclear missiles at each other; Russia and China did the same.

In the United States, government and society collapsed. Millions of starving Mexicans swarmed into the southern states seeking food; millions of Americans poured into Canada seeking fresh water. Armed gangs turned the capital cities into smoking ruins. In 2155, the last US President left office and Congress disbanded.

Despite this turbulence, the major nations continued to develop deadly bio-weapons. At the height of the Dark Years, a genetically engineered fusion of deadly viruses, including Ebola and smallpox, escaped from a Russian military lab and rampaged across the globe, killing hundreds of millions every day. Within a month, “the Moscow Super-virus” had extinguished most of humanity.

At a US Army Disease Research Institute near Chicago, a brilliant bio-weapon researcher called Alexander Webster had developed an experimental vaccine to combat such super-viruses. He only had time to vaccinate about 20,000 local residents before the plague swept through. That group – and a few tiny pockets of humanity scattered around the globe that soon disappeared or reverted to a stone-age existence – became the sole survivors of the human race.

The 20,000 survivors had watched in terror as a tidal wave of death swept around them and left the planet strewn with unburied dead. Many went mad or catatonic; some committed suicide; all feared that Death, after a brief rest, would finish the slaughter. They craved a strong leader and were relieved when their savior, Alexander Webster, assumed the role. A man with tremendous energy and vision, he established a community near Chicago, on the shore of Lake Michigan, and proclaimed its mission was to rebuild civilization. After three centuries of desperate construction and breeding, it was now Webster City, a metropolis with almost 800,000 citizens.

Webster despised democracy, which he held responsible for the Dark Years and Great Plague, and ruled autocratically. Few of the survivors complained. The Great Plague burned into their psyches, and those of subsequent generations, a fear of chaos and love of stability at any price. They also lacked the energy or vision to build a mature political system.

Just before he died, Webster assumed the title of Chancellor and nominated his oldest son, Ezra, as his successor. Ezra set up a Council of Thirty Guardians to provide advice. But he retained all power and nominated his oldest son, Isaiah, as his successor. That firmly established the tradition that each Chancellor would bequeath his power to his oldest son. It had continued to the present day.

All Chancellors ruled with ruthless gusto. They created sophisticated security and surveillance organizations that crushed political dissent and easily defeated the occasional assassination or coup attempt. Information was tightly controlled, morals strictly enforced and criminals severely punished. Webster City Penitentiary grew to have 30,000 inmates working in its factories.

Every Chancellor tried to stop citizens leaving the City to establish new population centers that might compete with it. Despite that, from the beginning, citizens who wanted more freedom or feared arrest fled into the vast territory once known as the United States of America. Davidson had recently read an intelligence report that estimated there were now more than one million “Outlaws” in the “Badlands”. Most belonged to small communities that hid from the City and its military forces. However, many were brigands, who preyed upon the City’s agricultural and mining outposts, or troops fighting for the Freedom Alliance.

The Alliance was established sixty years ago when a Chancellor ordered the destruction of any Outlaw community that grew too large. He claimed they threatened the City and its mission to rebuild civilization. However, Davidson suspected the Chancellor felt he owned the whole planet and the Outlaws were mere trespassers.

Terror begat terror. Initially, the Alliance only had a few fighters and acted defensively. Now it had almost 12,000 troops dedicated to the destruction of the City. It had even started launching terrorist attacks on City streets. Only a few weeks ago, a suicide bomber blew himself up on the steps of the Hall of Guardians, killing a dozen bystanders.

Until recently, Davidson was confident the City, with its superior resources and firepower, would prevail over the Alliance. However, the Alliance had grown strong and resourceful. He had been taught, since childhood, that the City was the last hope of mankind. If it perished, so would humanity. Yet now there was a real possibility it would disappear. That was the abyss he stared into every day. And every day, he feared it less.

 

When Webster City was established, in the middle of the 21st century, it was impossible to preserve the most cutting-edge technology in existence. So the City reverted to technology used during the second half of the 20th century and did little to improve it. As a consequence, after 300 years, the City only had basic computers, no internet and no mobile phone network.

Most cars were replicas of models manufactured in Detroit during the 1970s and 1980s. They were built in factories inside Webster City Penitentiary, which meant quality control was not high. Davidson’s private vehicle was a Pontiac Sedan he bought five years ago to celebrate his promotion from Captain to Major. Back then, he didn’t care that it would take him ten years to pay off the loan. Now, he did.

The next morning, he drove out of his garage into cold and overcast conditions. Winter was approaching and the streets were lined with molting trees. He drove onto Howard Florey Expressway, which ran along the shore of the lake, and spent twenty minutes weaving past other commuters. Then he slid down an off-ramp onto Edward Jenner Boulevard and drove along it to Pasteur Plaza, a huge paved area in the heart of the City.

Only a few lonely looking pedestrians and shivering pigeons were abroad on the plaza. In the center stood the Plague Memorial, a 100-yard-high cenotaph. Next to it was a 50-yard-high gilt-bronze statue of Alexander Webster wearing a lab coat and triumphantly holding up a test-tube. “Savior of Mankind” was stenciled on its massive plinth. Smaller versions of the statue – though not much smaller – were scattered all over Webster City.

Spread around the plaza were the Chancellor’s Palace, the Hall of Guardians, the Webster Mausoleum, the New World Church Cathedral and the five-story Internal Security Bureau Headquarters. Despite their size and height, the buildings all seemed to hug the ground and pull the sky down towards them. Their forbidding facades scowled at passersby.

Davidson piloted his car into the underground car park of the ISB Headquarters and caught an elevator up to his office on the fifth floor. Once inside, he opened a small wall safe, took out his Glock 17 and put it in his hip holster. The pistol was his most prized possession. Replica Glocks were cheap and easy to buy. However, this one was a 320-year-old original in mint condition.

As he sat down, Captain Tony Delray stepped into his office. Delray had crisp blond hair, a square jaw and athletic build. In his standard ISB uniform – black with a double-breasted tunic and round collar – he looked magnificent, and knew it. Not surprisingly, his nickname around the bureau was “Captain Handsome”. Davidson regarded him as a friend, though with no great delight or conviction. Certainly, what happened in Conrad’s apartment had put a strain on their relationship.

Delray said: “Good morning.”

“Hello. Did you find anything when you searched the apartment?”

“Nope.”

“Alright. And what about Conrad’s pistols – were either used to kill the army colonel?”

“Don’t know. Ballistics is still checking.”

“OK. When they find out, let me know.”

“Colonel Prentice was over here ten minutes ago, looking for you.”

The Colonel was the head of the Internal Security Bureau. “What did he want?”

“Didn’t say. Just said he wants to see you when you arrive.”

“Thanks.”

Delray frowned. “You’re spending a lot of time with him these days. Are you his protégé?”

“No, I’m the only competent officer he’s got.”

“Hah, hah, very funny. You won’t tell him I’m to blame for what happened yesterday, will you?”

“You mean, me having to shoot Conrad?”

“Yes.”

“Of course not,” Davidson lied.

Delray disappeared and Davidson strolled around to see Colonel Prentice, holding the photograph he found in Conrad’s apartment. The Colonel’s elegant secretary, Jane, sat in his outer office, behind a rococo desk. She was so attractive that Davidson wondered how the Colonel focused on his job, if he did.

She looked up from her boxy Apple computer. “Hello, Major. You’re here to see the Colonel?”

“Yes, he wants to see me.”

She stood up. “OK, follow me.”

Davidson examined her long legs as she knocked on a heavy leather-lined door.

“Come in”, a voice yelled.

She pushed open the door. Davidson followed her into a massive corner office with panoramic views of Webster City and Lake Michigan. Two identical framed photographs of Alexander Webster – as if one wasn’t enough – were mounted on an inner wall.

The Colonel’s tall frame was hunched over a putter. He smacked a ball towards a practice cup and missed. “Goddamn shag-pile. Useless for putting.”

Davidson said: “You’re thinking too much. Don’t think about the target – just stroke the ball.”

A scowl creased his long face. “You play golf?”

“No.”

“Then keep your advice to yourself. I’m playing a round with the Chancellor this afternoon, at Cherrybrook. Got to improve my putting.”

The City’s elite all belonged to the Cherrybrook Country Club, nestled in the heart of Sector A, the most exclusive residential area of the City. Davidson had never crossed its threshold.

“Why bother practicing? Surely, you’ll let the Chancellor win.”

A cunning grin. “Of course. But I don’t want to look like a push-over.”

Many officers in the ISB thought Prentice was a smiling lightweight who only achieved his position because the Chancellor was his brother-in-law. However, most of them were smiling lightweights themselves and wouldn’t recognize a man of talent if their lives depended on it. Davidson had worked closely with Prentice for a couple of years and knew that a bright and devious mind hid behind his affable and off-center manner.

The Colonel leaned his putter against his desk and nodded towards an armchair. “Take a pew.”

Davidson sat down.

The Colonel remained standing. “I hear you shot a suspect yesterday. What happened?”

Davidson described what happened and didn’t bother to cover up Delray’s neglect.

The Colonel grunted. “That boy can be very sloppy. He thinks that, because he’s handsome, he can get away with anything. One of these days, he’ll find out that having a pretty face isn’t enough.”

“I also blame myself. I think Conrad saw me park my Caddie outside his apartment building and stashed the pistol behind the cushion.”

A shrug. “These things happen. Anyway, you say this guy was a fire captain?”

“Yes.”

“Any idea why he turned traitor?”

“No, that’s something we’ve got to check.”

“Bet you never find out. These days, it doesn’t take much to make people fight for the Freedom Alliance. It’s like a fashion statement. Any idea what Conrad was doing for the Alliance?”

“The anonymous informant claimed he shot the army colonel last week. Ballistics is checking to see if one of his pistols was the murder weapon. Apart from that, this is the only interesting evidence we found.” Gary held up the photo of the man in his fifties that he found in the wall cavity.

The Colonel leaned forward to study the photograph and looked shocked. “My goodness.”

“You know this guy?”

“Yes, he’s Professor Ronald Pettigrew from Webster U.”

“What’s his field?”

“Biology.”

“Why did Conrad have a photograph of a Professor of Biology in his apartment?”

“I don’t know. Pettigrew went missing several months ago. Maybe the Alliance asked Conrad to find him.”

“Why did he go missing?”

The Colonel recovered his composure. “You mean, you’ve never heard of Pettigrew?”

“No.”

“Or Project Marigold?”

“No?”

The Colonel looked pensive. “Mmm, you don’t need to know about either right now. But I might ask you to look for Pettigrew. If I do, I’ll tell you what I know.”

Davidson looked annoyed. “Why not tell me now?”

A warning frown. “You’ll be a lot safer if I don’t. Anyway, there is something else – something more urgent – I want you to do.”

“What?”

“I got a call about twenty minutes ago from a contact in the police department. He said there’s been a fatality in Sector 7. I want you to go over there and investigate it.”

“A murder?”

“Not sure. Victim went over the balcony of his apartment last night. Don’t know if he jumped or was pushed. The body is still at the scene.”

“Why me? I’m not a Homicide detective?”

“I know, but his death could have a security angle.”

“Why?”

“The deceased – a guy called Robert Meredith – is … was … a scientist at the CDC.”

The great fear of Websterites – the dark shadow hanging over their lives – was that another great plague would wipe them out. That meant the Centre for Disease Control was a cherished institution and any threat to it had to be snuffed out fast. But was that the real reason the Colonel wanted Davidson to investigate this death? Davidson wouldn’t be surprised if another swam below the surface.

He said: “What about the cops?”

“I told them to butt out, for now. They’ll send along some beat cops and a forensics unit, of course. Otherwise, we’ll handle this investigation.”

Prentice was far more powerful than the police commissioner, who didn’t play golf with the Chancellor.

Davidson said: “Understand.”

“Good. But you’ll need help from the CDC. I spoke to its head. He’s sending one of his security officers over to the apartment building – a woman called Helen Watkins. Liaise with her. But you’re in charge. Keep her on a short leash.” A sigh. “Hopefully, you’ll find out the guy committed suicide.”

“And if he didn’t?”

A faint smile. “We might call it suicide anyway. Let’s wait and see.”

The Colonel could create any form of reality he liked. That was his job.

“Alright, I’m on my way.”

On the way out, Davidson glanced at the two framed photographs of Alexander Webster on the wall and wondered if the extra one was a joke.

CHAPTER FOUR

 

Citizens of Webster City were not allowed to watch most movies made before the Great Plague. However, Davidson had watched many in secret and was struck by how vibrant 20th-century American cities looked. They had stunning buildings, abundant consumer goods, wealthy citizens and racial diversity. Everybody looked happy.

Webster City was very different. Most buildings were either crass civic monuments or crumbling concrete apartment blocks. Citizens worked long hours for low pay that could only be spent on a slim range of poorly made consumer products. There was no racial diversity because Alexander Webster only had time to vaccinate residents in a white area.

The cultural life of the city was just as bland. The television stations spewed out Government propaganda or narcotized viewers with game shows and sports coverage. A Morals Squad ensured all bars and restaurants were closed by ten o’clock. There was no live entertainment and the cinemas usually showed bio-pics about Alexander Webster or action films in which City troops slaughtered hundreds of hapless Freedom Alliance fighters. A few artists produced sterile paintings and a few novelists wrote thrillers about ridiculously upright heroes who saved the City from disaster.

Most movies and books made before the Great Plague were banned. However, proscribed movies circulated secretly on VHS tapes. That was why a good VHS player often cost more than a car. Banned books also passed quietly from hand to hand and were hidden in the nooks and crannies of homes.

Not surprisingly, many citizens were disillusioned with the City and had retreated into their own little worlds. Drug abuse and violent crime were rampant. People spoke with their eyes rather than their lips.

 

Sector 7 was a typical residential area: exhausted concrete apartment blocks were neatly arranged along grid-pattern streets. However, every so often there was a vacant lot where a shoddily erected block had collapsed. The television stations never reported such collapses. Citizens just heard rumors about how many had died.

Davidson left the expressway and drove through the sector until he saw a couple of police patrol cars and a forensics unit truck. A crime scene tape was strung across the pavement. Just beyond it was a large blanket which obviously covered a body. About a dozen neighbors gawked at the scene while shuffling around to fight the cold.

Davidson’s black Cadillac screamed “Internal Security Bureau”. So the neighbors looked apprehensive as he parked against the curb. They looked even more worried when they saw his black uniform. He strolled towards the body and they stumbled out of his way.

A tubby uniformed sergeant and a lean patrolman stood in front of the crime scene tape. Davidson approached the sergeant. “Good morning, I’m Major Davidson from the ISB. I’ve been assigned to investigate this death.”

“Morning, Sir. I’m Sergeant Whittaker, from the Sector 7 Police Unit. I heard you were coming. It’s a bit unusual for …”

“… the ISB to investigate a death?”

“Umm, yes.”

Davidson didn’t want to tell this cop anything. But if he got snooty, the guy might withhold information. “The deceased worked at the CDC, so his death may – I repeat, may – have security implications. Or it may not. I’m here to find out.”

“Understand.”

“Who found the body?”

“A man walking his dog, just after dawn. He called Emergency Services. Paramedics turned up and found he was already dead. They called us. We got here about 90 minutes ago and established this crime scene.”

“I was told a security officer from the CDC is coming here. Has she arrived?”

“Haven’t seen anyone from the CDC.”

“OK. Show me Meredith’s body.”

They stepped over the crime-scene tape and the Sergeant peeled back the blanket. Robert Meredith was in his mid-thirties, with blond hair, delicate features and a spidery build. He lay on his side, as if asleep. The only evidence of impact were two streams of dried blood running from his nostrils. Davidson imagined the pain his mother would feel when she heard of his death.

He picked up the arm. Lots rigor mortis and pooling of blood. Meredith had been dead for many hours.

He stared up into the overcast sky. The building had about 25 floors. Each floor had two apartments, each with a balcony.

“Which floor did he come from?”

“His apartment’s on the twenty-first. A long drop.”

“Have you been up there?”

“No, I was waiting for you.”

“Got a key?”

“Yes. Got it from the building supervisor.” The sergeant extracted a key from a trouser pocket and handed it over. “It’s for Apartment 211.”

“Thank you. Where’s the supervisor right now?”

“Scuttled back into his apartment on the ground floor. Want me to get him?”

“Not just yet. I’ll inspect the apartment first.”

“Want me to go with you?”

“No, stay here. Tell the forensic team to start examining the body.”

“Will do. What if the officer from the CDC arrives?”

“Send her up.”

Davidson strolled into a small, dark and dank lobby, pushed the elevator button and waited almost three minutes while the elevator clanked down from the fifteenth floor. A woman got out, pushing a pram. She glanced at Davidson’s uniform and pushed harder.

Davidson replaced her in the elevator and spent several minutes watching the indicator climb to “21”. He stepped out into a narrow passage with two doors. After donning a pair of thin rubber gloves, he carefully examined the door frame of Meredith’s apartment. No sign of a forced entry. He unlocked the door and found himself in a small living room with a faded yellow carpet and functional pine furniture. A large cathode-ray television sat in the corner. There had been rumors for a long time that the television factory was about to manufacture flat-screen TVs, but nothing happened.

The room was neat and tidy. The only splash of color was a large bunch of flowers in a vase on the wood-laminate coffee-table. He couldn’t name the flowers, but at least knew they were fresh.

No sign of a struggle.

The glass doors that led to the balcony were wide open. He strolled onto the balcony and inspected the metal railing. No scuff marks or scratches to suggest Meredith resisted being thrown off the balcony. He looked down at the cluster of shrunken people gathered around the body, including the forensic team, and shuddered slightly. Quite a drop.

He strolled back through the living room to reach a bedroom just as neat and tidy. Even the bed was made. Sitting on a small desk next to the window was a thin notebook and a book found in every home in the City: Saving Mankind, the Autobiography of Alexander Webster. Like most Websterites, Davidson could recite large chunks by heart.

He opened the notebook and found a jumble of mathematical and chemical formulae written in pencil. However, the last notation, about two-thirds of the way through the notebook, was very distinctive. Meredith wrote in pencil “EBOV and Variola antigens” and circled it several times.

The front door squeaked. Footsteps in the living room. Who? The woman from the CDC?

Davidson already had a bad feeling about this investigation. He sensed he wasn’t given the full story and might be hung out to dry. So he decided to keep this evidence to himself, in case it was important and could be used to his advantage.

He slipped the notebook inside his tunic and strolled into the living room, where he found a tall blonde woman crossing towards the balcony. She wore the uniform of a CDC Security Officer – all white, except for a red sash and red belt – and a big pistol on her hip.

“Hello.”

She turned, startled. “Hello, umm, Major Davidson?”

“Call me Carl. You’re from the CDC?”

“Yes, Helen Watkins – I’m the Deputy Chief Security Officer. I was sent here to assist you.”

And monitor his investigation, obviously. “Thank you.”

“Umm, why’re you handling this, not the Homicide Squad?”

“In case there’s a security angle. The CDC is an important organization that must be protected. That’s what I was told, anyway.”

“You’ve searched the apartment?”

“I’d just started when you arrived.”

She strolled onto the balcony and looked down at the clump of tiny people below. He stepped up beside her and she faced him. She looked to be in her mid-thirties, with a handsome, almost craggy face and thick eyebrows. Her unwavering gaze seemed to push him back. Women in Webster City rarely had much authority. She must be bright or well connected – probably the latter. “Sheesh, long drop. Any idea what happened?”

“You mean, did he jump or was he pushed? No idea. I was hoping you had some clue.”

She shrugged. “I don’t know much about him. I glanced through his personnel file before I came over here. Aged 34. Single. Got a degree in biochemistry from Webster U; graduated summa cum laude. Joined the CDC five years ago.”

“What did he do there?”

“Worked in the Vaccine Testing Unit. It makes sure serums are suitable for human use.”

Websterites were frequently vaccinated against disease. Indeed, every year the CDC organized an Immunization Week during which all citizens were inoculated against the latest bugs floating about. The next such week would start in four days’ time.

“Sounds dull. Did he have any reason to commit suicide?”

She shrugged. “Don’t know. But, like I said, I don’t know much about him, yet.”

“Can you think of a reason why he might be murdered?”

“You think that’s a possibility?”

“Of course.”

She shrugged again. “Afraid not.”

“There are no signs of a forced entry or struggle. So maybe he decided life was a burden and hurdled over the balcony. If we’re lucky, we might be able to put this one to bed fairly quickly.”

“I hope so. What do you want to do? Search the apartment?”

“Yes. Shouldn’t take long. This guy lived like a monk.”

They stepped back into the living room and she noticed the flowers. “Nice bunch.”

“What are they?”

“Peonies. They look quite fresh.”

“Most single guys I know don’t have flowers in their apartments. Maybe he was trying to impress someone.”

“A woman?”

“Yes.”

“Maybe. Or maybe the single guys you know are emotionally stunted.”

He enjoyed that jab. “Hah. That’s possible.”

They spent thirty minutes searching the living room, bedroom, kitchen and dining room together, without finding anything of interest. Robert Meredith obviously had an austere lifestyle. The last thing Davidson checked was the inside of the fridge. It was fairly bare. Just a bottle of milk, a few TV-dinners and a small blue plastic box that looked like it contained medicine.

Back in the living room, she looked at him. “Should we talk to the neighbor?”

“Good idea.”

They went outside and he knocked on the front door of the apartment next door. No answer. He banged again and heard someone shuffle towards the door. A bird-like woman in her 70s, with a once-elfin face and several big hairs on her chin, opened the door and nervously eyed their uniforms. “Hello.”

“I’m Major Davidson, from the Internal Security Bureau; this is Helen Watkins from the Centre for Disease Control. We’re investigating the death of your neighbor. Did you hear about that?”

“Umm, yes. I saw the commotion from my balcony and went downstairs to find out what was happening. Poor Robert. Terrible news.”

“Did you hear him go over the balcony?”

“No.”

“Did you hear any unusual sounds last night?”

“No. Robert was always quiet – an excellent neighbor. I heard nothing.”

“You’re sure? No yelling? No struggle?”

She grabbed the door, as if about to close it. “Nothing.”

“Can we chat in your apartment?”

She looked at his black uniform, understood that wasn’t a request and nodded reluctantly. “Please, come in.”

The apartment had the same layout as Meredith’s, but was far messier, with books and clothes piled everywhere. The smell of cat piss hung in the air.

The old woman pushed some unfinished knitting to one side and sat on a couch. Davidson and Watkins sat in creaking armchairs facing her. He noticed, on the side-table next to him, several battered Hemmingway novels she could be arrested for possessing.

He pulled out a pen and notepad. “Your name?”

“Ruth Singer.”

“You still work?”

“No, I’m retired. I worked at the Motor Vehicle Registry for 45 years, behind the counter.”

“You live on your own?”

“Yes. My husband died a few years ago. In fact, the Housing Authority is trying to make me move – says I don’t need all of this space – as if I’m in the lap of luxury.” An imploring look. “Will you help?”

He didn’t intend to get involved. “Yes, if you co-operate.”

She had small, darting eyes. “Of course I will.”

“Good. How well did you know your neighbor?”

A mangy cat trotted up and jumped onto her lap. She stroked its neck. “Hello, Snuggles.” She looked back at Davidson. “Robert? Umm, not well. We bumped into each other sometimes, but I never went into his apartment, and he never came in here. He was a bit of a loner, I think. So am I.”

“When you bumped into him, what did you talk about?”

“Not much: the weather, problems with the building. Like I said, he kept to himself.”

Helen Watkins interjected. “When was the last time you spoke to him?”

“Oh, a couple of days ago.” A smile. “He asked me about flowers.”

“Flowers?”

“Yes, he asked what sort of flowers women like. I asked if he was going to give some to a woman. He said: ‘No, she’s coming over to my apartment.’”

Davidson said: “Did he name her?”

“No. But he looked happy – romantic.”

“You’re sure about that?”

A frown. “Of course. I wasn’t born aged 75, you know.”

“Did you see the woman?”

“No.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes.”

“Did he have many women in his apartment?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t see any and he didn’t look like a ladies’ man. But I didn’t stand outside his door watching who went in.”

Davidson got to his feet. “Alright, thank you for your help. Where can we find the building supervisor?”

CHAPTER FIVE

 

In the elevator going down, Watkins turned to Davidson: “Do you think the woman he liked visited him last night?”

“Maybe. Or maybe she didn’t visit and that’s why he jumped off the balcony.”

“That would be an over-reaction.”

“I agree. But some men over-react where women are concerned.”

“Do you?”

“No.”

The building supervisor lived in a basement apartment. Davidson knocked on his door. It swung open to reveal a man about 50 years old, wearing a surly expression and a grubby overall. A big scar crossed his cheek. When he saw Davidson’s imposing black uniform, his eyes widened.

Davidson introduced himself and Watkins. “You’re the building supervisor?”

“Yes, Frank Lyndon. You’re here about the body outside, I guess?”

“Yes.”

“I’ve already talked to a cop – a Sergeant somebody.”

“He’s not in charge of the investigation. I am. Can we speak to you inside your apartment?” Davidson liked talking to people inside their apartments because that gave him a better feel for who they were.

The supervisor frowned. “It’s not very tidy.”

“We don’t care.”

He shrugged and limped into his apartment, with them behind him.

The apartment was physically smaller than the ones they had just visited, and was made even smaller by metal pipes, gardening implements, timber boards and other bric-a-brac. It looked more like junk shop than a home.

“There’s more room in the kitchen,” he said, and led them into a small kitchen with a grease-encrusted hot-plate, battered wooden cupboards with peeling doors and torn laminate benches. In the middle of was a pressed-pine table with rickety chairs.

They sat around the table and Davidson said: “What happened to your leg?”

“Wounded. Served for 20 years in the Armored Corps. Five years ago, we attacked an Outlaw village in upstate New York. Was supposed to be a surprise attack. Bullshit. Freedom Alliance was waiting. Missile zapped the troop carrier I drove and the ammo cooked off. There were 12 of us onboard. I was the only one to crawl out.”

Davidson remembered the fear he felt when he was a trooper in the Air Cavalry and his helicopter squadron swooped into Outlaw communities, usually at dawn. Some communities were defenseless; others were fortresses spitting fire. The memory made his pulse race. “You were invalided out of the Corps?”

A snarl. “Yep, and given this job.”

“You miss soldiering?”

A grimace and dismissive wave. “Of course. Look at this place. Wouldn’t you?”

Davidson responded with a silent yes.

Watkins interjected. “Did you know the guy who fell from Apartment 211?”

“A little. Robert Meredith, right? He sometimes complained that his windows leaked or the elevator didn’t work, and stuff like that.” A sigh. “People only talk to me when something goes wrong. Otherwise, I’m invisible. Any idea why he went over the railing?”

Davidson ignored the question. “Did you hear anything unusual last night?”

“Of course not.”

“Didn’t hear the body fall?”

“Nope. What time did he fall?”

“We’re not sure.”

“I was probably asleep. I turn in early these days.”

“Do you have security cameras in this building?” The law required that every apartment block have at least one camera.

“There’s one in the lobby.”

“That’s all?”

“Yes.”

“Can I see the film from last night?”

“Nope, the camera is broken.”

“You’re kidding?”

“No.”

“How long has it been broken?”

“A couple of days.”

“How’d it break?”

“Looks like someone smashed it.”

“Deliberately?”

“Think so. I checked the tape, to see what happened. Light in the lobby went off and then the tape stopped.”

If someone wanted to visit Robert Meredith and toss him off the balcony, that person would first destroy the security camera to hide his or her identity. Helen Watkins glanced at Davidson, obviously on the same wavelength.

Davidson said: “Maybe someone bumped it?”

“It’s eight feet off the ground.” A shrug. “Perhaps one of the kids in the building trashed it. Most are little hooligans. Kids these days have no respect. Their parents can’t control them.”

“When did you notice the camera was broken?”

“Yesterday. I called the company that installed it. They were going to send someone out to fix it. You think this had something to do with the guy taking a high-dive?”

“I don’t know. How long do you keep film used in the camera?”

“It’s on a loop, so it erases after a few days.”

“That’s hopeless.”

“Show me a law that says we’ve got to keep it longer.”

 

Davidson and Watkins left the building supervisor and strolled around to where the body landed. On the way, Watkins said: “Do you think the destruction of the security camera is suspicious?”

“Yes. I want to keep an open mind, but the odds of foul play have risen dramatically.”

In front of the building, Sergeant Whitaker stood next to the crime scene tape talking to the same uniformed patrolman. Behind him, forensic technicians in white overalls photographed and dusted the body. The number of rubber-necking neighbors had halved.

Davidson approached the Sergeant. “When the crime scene guys have finished here, send them up to his apartment to look around.”

“Will do.”

He turned to Helen Watkins. “Alright, let’s go and talk to Meredith’s colleagues.”

She looked alarmed. “You mean, at the CDC?”

“Of course.”

A frown. “Surely, that won’t be necessary.”

As Davidson suspected, her main objectives were to monitor his investigation and protect the CDC from embarrassment. Tough. “Are you kidding? If anybody knows why he went over the balcony, his colleagues do.”

“They’re busy people, doing important work.”

He reminded himself this woman was neither a friend nor ally, and he wore a black uniform that everyone feared; he scowled. “So am I, so don’t get in my way. I assume you drove here?”

A nervous nod. “Yes.”

“Then I’ll follow your car to the CDC. Let’s go.”

An ill-mannered shrug. “OK.”

Maybe he should have a social chat with her, to get her measure. “But I’d kill for a coffee right now. If you know somewhere that serves good coffee, stop and I’ll buy you one.”

A wary look. “Alright.”

He strode over to his Cadillac, got behind the wheel and watched her stroll to a Chevrolet Impala. She got inside and pulled away from the curb. He followed.

After driving for about a mile, she parked in the carpark of a diner called “Rusty’s”. He parked next to her. They got out and strolled into a long, narrow room with red-vinyl booths along the window facing the carpark. Above the counter was a gauche painting of Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley playing pool. A broken jukebox sat in the corner. For some people in Webster City, the 1950s never ended. This was obviously one of their haunts.

They slipped into a booth facing each other and he casually examined her long fingers. No wedding ring. He picked up a menu. Coffee – particularly good coffee – was in short supply since the Freedom Alliance launched a major attack on the agricultural colony in Florida that destroyed most of its coffee crop. He wasn’t surprised to see a cup of coffee cost $10.

He looked at her. “What do you want? I’m paying?”

She gave him a smile that he liked a lot. “Good. I’ll have a double espresso.”

He laughed. “Sure you don’t want a milkshake?”

“Don’t complain. I bet you earn a hell of a lot more than me.”

That was probably true.

A chunky guy in an apron approached and smiled when he ordered two double espressos. The guy departed and he turned back to Helen Watkins. “Tell me: how long have you been at the CDC?”

“Six years. Before that, I was a cop.”

“Uniform?”

“For a couple of years. Then I was a detective in the Drug Squad for five.”

“Enjoy that?”

“You kidding? Drugs are destroying our kids. We’re losing a whole generation.”

“What’s causing it?”

“This City. Kids are told in school that the future of mankind rests on their poor little shoulders. Then they grow up and find out they’ve got to follow orders and work in crappy jobs. No wonder they despair.” She realized she was being far too candid with an ISB officer and shrugged. “Anyway, I got tired of the Drug Squad and moved to the CDC Security Unit.”

“How big’s the unit?”

“About thirty officers.”

“Interesting work?”

“Not really. Our main functions are to guard the building and vet employees for Freedom Alliance sympathies.”

“Who’s your boss?”

“A guy called Eric Tanguy.”

“Really? I know him.”

“How?”

“We served together in the Air Cavalry: went through basic training together and were in the same platoon for about a year. Then I transferred to the ISB and he stayed on. I lost track of him after that. He was earmarked for a big career. What happened?”

She hesitated and shrugged. “Don’t know. You’ll have to ask him.” She twirled a salt-shaker. “Tell me about yourself. Why’d you transfer to the ISB?”

He transferred because he hated attacking Outlaw communities. The squadron usually helicoptered in at dawn, shot anyone who resisted and imprisoned any survivors who might belong to the Freedom Alliance. He didn’t mind that so much. But he hated how, after destroying all homes and property, they left the remaining Outlaws – mostly women and children – stranded in the open with nothing. So he joined the ISB, hoping the job would make fewer demands on his conscience, and found it made more.

He said: “I wanted a more contemplative life.”

She snorted. “Did you find it?”

“Definitely not.”

The waiter put their coffees in front of them.

He took a sip. Bitter. “Yuck.”

She took a sip and shrugged. “Better than nothing.”

“You’re easy to please. He’s obviously padded it out with something – maybe rat poison. I should arrest him.”

“I think we’ve got bigger fish to fry.”

“True.”

Most people in Webster City used the city’s favorite sport, baseball, to make conversation. While he watched her drink the coffee, amazed at the resilience of her taste buds, they discussed the upcoming World Series between the Sector 7 Braves and Sector 2 Yankees. She supported the Yankees, who hadn’t won a World Series for 50 years.

He said: “Now I’ve got you pegged: you’re a masochist.”

“I’m just loyal. My dad was a Yankees fan, and so am I. It’s in my blood. Anyway, I think we can go the whole way this time.”

She finished drinking her coffee, but he didn’t touch his again.

He paid the owner on the way out. “That coffee was garbage.”

The guy blanched, kicking himself for serving adulterated coffee to an ISB officer. “Sorry, sir. It’s pure blend.”

“Bullshit. You added something to pad it out, didn’t you? Whatever it was, don’t do it again.”

The owner cringed. “My apologies. You can have your money back if you want.”

“No, just don’t do it again.”

As they left the diner and crossed the carpark, she said: “You enjoyed doing that, didn’t you?”

“Doing what?”

“Intimidating him.”

Davidson was a little surprised. “Did I intimidate him?”

“Of course. He almost wet himself.”

He smiled. “I’m not to blame for my uniform.”

“It wasn’t just your uniform.”

“Well, I hope I don’t intimidate you.”

“I’m not sure, yet.”

She was very forthright. He liked that, a lot, though it was a dangerous practice in Webster City.

They stopped next to his car.

He said: “Alright, I’ll follow you to the CDC.”

“OK. I radioed my boss and told him we’re coming. He wants to see you when we arrive.”

Eric Tanguy obviously wanted to size up Davidson and assess whether his investigation could prove embarrassing to the CDC. Fair enough. Davidson would take the opportunity to size up Tanguy. “Fine.”

 

 

CHAPTER SIX

 

Shortly before he died, Alexander Webster drew up a masterplan for Webster City. He envisaged Pasteur Plaza in the center, near Lake Michigan, and six wide boulevards radiating out like the spokes of a wheel to the outskirts. Later Chancellors scrupulously followed his blueprint.

Soon after they left the diner, Davidson followed Helen Watkins down one those spokes – Jonas Salk Boulevard – until they reached Pasteur Plaza. She circled around the plaza and headed out along Albert Schweitzer Boulevard. They drove past the bunker-like Pantheon, in which all Chancellors were buried, and the huge statue of a screaming woman which commemorated the victims of democracy.

Next to the statue was a neo-classical building that housed the City Museum. A huge banner on the pediment announced a forthcoming exhibition would focus on “The Monstrous Crimes of George Washington.” All Websterites were taught in school that Washington was the evilist man in history because he started the global democratic movement that led directly to the Dark Years and the Great Plague. Adolf Hitler made a valiant attempt to free the world from that scourge. When he failed, Armageddon was inevitable. However, Davidson had now read enough banned information about the Old Times to know that was a huge over-simplification and didn’t plan to attend the exhibition.

After about a mile, Watkins reached the Centre for Disease Control building, a huge glass box marooned in the middle of a massive carpark. Wrapped around the carpark was an electrified fence topped with razor-wire.

The only way into the carpark was through a heavily guarded checkpoint. She stopped her car in front of a boom-gate and showed her ID card to a white-uniformed security officer, who nodded. She pointed back at Davidson’s vehicle and said a few words. The officer nodded again and hit a button that raised the boom-gate. After she drove through it, the officer left the boom-gate open and waved Davidson past.

She drove around the crowded carpark for about a minute before finding a vacant bay. Davidson squeezed into a nearby one. They got out and she led him across the carpark into a large marble lobby, where she got an officer at the security desk to give him a Visitor’s Pass. “You’ll have to leave your weapon here.”

He always carried his pistol while on duty and was deeply attached to it. “That won’t happen.”

She glared. “Standard procedure.”

“Not for ISB officers.”

She frowned and nodded. “Alright. But don’t use it.”

“I’ll try to restrain myself.”

“Good.”

They got out of an elevator on the top floor – the fifth – and she led him down a long pine-paneled corridor lined with blow-up photographs of famous medical scientists. He recognized Pasteur, Fleming and a few others he studied during Hygiene Class in High School. At the far end, she pushed open a door marked “Security Unit” and stepped into a huge room where half-a-dozen white-uniformed security officers sat watching surveillance footage on televisions. She exchanged waves with several as they crossed the room and stepped into a small office where a beady-eyed woman sat behind a desk typing on a computer.

Watkins said: “Hello, June, we’re here to see the boss.”

“I know. He’s waiting for you – charge in.”

“Thanks.”

They went through an open doorway into a large pine-paneled corner office overlooking the carpark. The Chief Security Officer, Eric Tanguy, sat behind his desk wearing the standard white uniform with red stripes. His hair was now gray and he was a good deal heavier than when Davidson last saw him, 15 years ago. Booze or drugs, or both, had blurred his features. However, there was still a reckless glint in his eye. When they served together in the Air Cavalry, Tanguy was the most trigger-happy and ill-disciplined of a wild bunch. Indeed, Davidson wondered if he was thrown out of the Air Cav for an infraction of some sort.

Tanguy stopped writing, stood up and pumped Davidson’s hand. “Hello, Carl. Haven’t seen you since you transferred to the ISB. You’re still there, I see, chasing enemies of the City …”

“There are plenty around. What about you? When did you bail out of the Air Cav?”

“Five years ago. Made it to major and decided I wanted something cushier and better paid.”

“That doesn’t sound like you.”

“We all slow down. Anyway, take a seat.”

Tanguy dropped into the chair behind his desk; Davidson and Watkins sat facing him. The large bible sitting on the desk reminded Davidson of the proverbial wisdom in Webster City that you should never trust a man with a bible on his desk.

Tanguy said: “I was surprised to hear the ISB is interested in this, umm, unfortunate death. Why not let the cops investigate it? It was probably just a suicide or even an accident.”

Davidson was there to obtain information, not provide it. “You’re probably right. But we love sticking our noses into other people’s business – you know that.”

A frown. “Very true. Anyway, I told the head of the CDC, Professor Fisher, that you were about to visit. He wants to meet you. Let me give him a call. He’ll be here in a minute or so.”

Tanguy picked up a phone receiver and punched several numbers into the keypad. After a brief pause, he said: “Tanguy here. Tell the Professor that the ISB guy is here, in my office … Good.” He put down the receiver and looked at Davidson. “He won’t be long.”

A minute later, a tall man with a high balding forehead spattered with freckles and a beaky nose strode into the office carrying a thick manila folder. He wore a white lab coat and distracted expression, as if he’d just been dragged away from an exciting scientific discovery. Davidson had often seen the Professor on television talking about disease eradication and good hygiene.

Tanguy stood up. “Professor Fisher, this is Major Carl Davidson from the Internal Security Bureau. He’s inquiring into the death of Robert Meredith.”

The Professor clasped Davidson’s hand and gave him a stare that was far from absent-minded. “Pleased to meet you. Sad news about Robert. I only met him a few times, but he was a good scientist and seemed like a nice guy. Are you the only person from the ISB conducting this investigation?”

“Yes, for the moment.”

“Why is the ISB interested in this death? Surely, you should leave it to the police.”

Davidson had to be frank with the Professor, who had plenty of political muscle. “You run a very important and sensitive institution. We want to make sure there is no threat to its security.”

“Have you seen any sign of a threat?”

“Not yet. But I’ve only seen Meredith’s body and searched his apartment. I don’t know why he went over the balcony.”

Did a trace of relief flutter across the Professor’s face? “Maybe it was suicide.”

“That’s quite possible. I just don’t know.”

“Well, I’m sure Chief Tanguy has already told you that the CDC will give you as much help as possible. What can we do?”

“First, I’d like a copy of Robert Meredith’s personnel file.”

A smile. “Way ahead of you. Here you are.” He handed Davison the manila folder. “I just glanced through it. Nothing of great interest, as far as I can see. Got good job appraisals. Nobody complained about him. Never late. Rarely sick.”

“Thanks. I’ll look through it when I get a chance. Now, I’d like to speak to his colleagues. Maybe they can shed some light on his death. Will you arrange that?”

“Of course. He worked in the Vaccine Testing Unit, in the basement. The head of that Unit is Doctor Tom Carpenter. You probably should talk to him first. If you head down to the basement, I’ll give him a call and say you’re on your way. Officer Watkins will take you there.”

“Fine. Does he know about Robert Meredith’s death?”

“Yes, I phoned him an hour ago. He was shocked, of course.”

“Did he have any idea why Meredith died?”

“If he did, he didn’t tell me.”

Davidson looked at Watkins. “Alright, let’s go.”

The Professor said: “Like I said: let me know if you need any help.”

“Thank you.”

Helen Watkins led Davidson back to the bank of elevators and they caught one down to the basement. They stepped out into a large laboratory with about a dozen parallel benches laden with microscopes, test-tube racks, small fridges, centrifuges and similar paraphernalia. About twenty lab-coated workers sat on stools, hunched over various instruments. Thirty or forty wire cages containing mice were stacked against the far wall.

Watkins led him along the side of the laboratory, past a heavy metal door with a sign above it that said: “Vaccine Storage Area”.

She said: “Vaccines are manufactured on the second floor and brought down here for testing before being used on the public. After testing, they’re stored in that area. There are millions of ampoules in there.”

They reached the end of the laboratory, turned right and walked up a short corridor to a door with “Head of Vaccine Testing” stenciled on it. She pushed it open and led him into a small ante-room.

A ginger-haired young woman sat behind a desk, typing on a computer. She looked up at Watkins. “Hello. You’re here to see Doctor Carpenter?”

“Yes. He knows we’re coming. This is Major Davidson.”

“Alright, I’ll tell him you’re here.” She picked up a phone, announced that Major Davidson had arrived and listened briefly before hanging up. “He’s coming out.”

The door behind her opened and a small balding man with a furrowed brow, wearing the ubiquitous white lab coat, emerged. His eyes darted between them and rested on Watkins. “Hello, Helen. I heard you were on your way.” He turned to her companion. “And you must be Major Davidson, from the ISB?”

“That’s right.”

“You want to talk about Robert Meredith? I’m shocked about his death. A lovely guy. Excellent scientist. Terrible, terrible news. Come into my office.”

He stood back and let them enter a small window-less office. A functional metal desk with a couple of chairs dominated the room; several gun-metal gray cabinets were squeezed against a wall.

He pointed to the chairs. “Please sit down.”

As they dropped into the chairs, he circled behind his desk and plopped into a swivel-chair.

He said: “I understand Robert was found beneath the balcony of his apartment?”

“That’s right.”

“Do you know why he fell?”

“No. That’s what we want to find out.”

“I was stunned to hear about his death. I mean, I saw him yesterday evening, just before he went home, and he looked fine. Now, he’s gone.”

“Did you talk to him?”

“Not really. He just strolled past and said he was off home. He looked quite cheerful – was even whistling, I think. I saw no sign anything was wrong.”

Maybe Meredith looked cheerful because a woman was going to visit him that night. “How long did you know him?”

“I’ve been his boss since he started here about five years ago. He was a good worker: diligent, smart.”

“He reported to you?”

“Yes, I assigned him tasks and monitored his work.”

“What sort of work did he do?”

“Down here, we basically do quality control. We test vaccines before they leave the building to make sure they have no impurities or adverse side-effects and the active ingredient works – that sort of thing.”

“Was he working on a particular vaccine when he died?”

“Yes. We’ve just finished testing the new seasonal flu vaccine. The CDC manufactures a new one every year to combat the latest strains of flu.”

“How did the testing go?”

“Fine. It’s been approved for use. In fact, it will be administered to all citizens during Immunization Week.”

Davidson knew that Immunization Week was due to start in four days’ time. “OK. Do you know much about his private life? Was he seeing a woman?”

“No idea. We only really chatted about work. But I assumed he was single: he didn’t strike me as a Don Juan.”

“Did he have an office?”

“Yes, a small one around the corner, where he kept his files and personal gear. But he spent most of his time in the main lab.”

“OK. Will you show me his office?”

“Sure, follow me.”

Davidson and Watkins followed Doctor Carpenter out of his suite and around a corner to a corridor lined with numbered doors. He stopped in front of door number “9”.

“This is it.” Carpenter pulled out a bunch of keys, inserted one into the lock and turned it. “Mmm.”

“What?”

“The door was already unlocked.” He turned the handle and the door swung open.

Davidson said: “Was it supposed to be locked?”

“Yes. Robert should have locked it when he went home.”

“You think he forgot?”

A shrug. “I guess so. Bit unusual, though.”

“Who else has a key to his office?”

“There are several master keys floating about. I’ve got one, of course, the Security Unit has one, and the cleaners another. There are probably several more around, but I can’t think who’s got them right now.”

“OK. Let’s go inside.”

They entered a small room, little bigger than a cubicle, with a computer bench running along one wall, a swivel chair and a filing cabinet. Very tidy, with no personal effects.

Carpenter frowned. “Mmm.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Can’t see his workbook.”

“Is it usually here?”

“Yes. He usually left it on his desk.”

Davidson realized Carpenter was probably referring to the notebook he found in the apartment and now had stashed inside his tunic. No need to mention that to Carpenter.

Davidson opened the top drawer of the filing cabinet and saw a dense array of hanging folders. He pulled one out and glanced inside. It was packed with charts and schedules.

Doctor Carpenter said: “They’re the results of experiments he undertook. The cabinet is full of them.”

Davidson replaced the hanging folder and looked at Carpenter. “OK. Did he work closely with anyone?”

“He had a lab assistant called Fiona Clarkson.”

“Is she here today?”

“No, she’s having a day off.”

“You mean, she was scheduled to stay home?”

“Yes. I phoned her apartment, to tell her about Robert’s death, but nobody answered. Must be out shopping or something.” A long sigh. “I’ll have to tell her tomorrow morning, I guess, when she arrives.”

“Where’s her apartment?”

A frown. “Why do you want to know?”

“I might drop in to see her.”

A frown. “She lives a long way from here and probably won’t be home. You can speak to her tomorrow. Let her enjoy her day off.”

Davidson wondered if Carpenter was trying to shield his employee from stress or prevent her supplying information. In any event, if he visited Fiona Clarkson’s apartment, she probably wouldn’t be there and he didn’t want to waste time locating her. “Alright, I’ll speak to her tomorrow. What time does she get to work?”

“About 9 a.m.”

“OK. I’ll be back around that time. When she arrives, don’t let her talk to anyone and don’t tell her that Robert Meredith is dead. I want to break the news myself.”

Another frown. “You sure?”

“Yes.”

A shrug. “OK.”

Helen Watkins looked annoyed. “I’m afraid I can’t be here at nine o’clock: I’ve got a few appointments. But I’m available later in the day.”

Davidson grabbed the chance to shake her off. “Too bad. I want to speak to Fiona Clarkson before she hears about Meredith’s death, so I’m afraid you miss out.”

“Can’t you wait for me?”

“That’s not an option. I’ll have to see her on my own.”

To his surprise, she shrugged. “Alright, let me know what she says.”

“I will.”

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

When Davidson got back to his office at the Internal Security Bureau Headquarters, he dropped the CDC’s personnel file on Robert Meredith on his desk and thumbed through it. As Professor Fisher said, Meredith got good work appraisals and there was no suggestion of Freedom Alliance sympathies. Davidson had hoped to interview Meredith’s parents about their son’s death. However, the file said they were both dead. Nor could he interview Meredith’s younger sister, Anna, because three years ago she fled the City and disappeared into the Badlands. The file didn’t mention why she fled.

The ISB maintained intelligence files on most citizens of Webster City. Hundreds of staff spent endless hours entering information about citizens into a computer system which, despite being one of the most advanced in the City, was slow and clunky, and often crashed.

Davidson turned on his computer and pulled up the intelligence file on Robert Meredith. Fairly skimpy. However, it contained the memorandum of an ISB officer who interviewed Meredith about his sister’s disappearance. Meredith said he had no contact with her for several years before she fled and had no idea why she went. The interviewing officer noted that his answers “appeared sincere”.

All ISB intelligence files gave citizens a Civic Reliability Rating. At the time of his death, Meredith scored 9 out of 10. One point was deducted because a family member had fled the City.

Davidson regarded most intelligence files and their CRRs as useless. This file told him that Meredith was either a good citizen or was good at hiding his Freedom Alliance sympathies. Davidson could take his pick.

He accessed the intelligence file on Anna Meredith and saw it was a good deal longer than her brother’s. She worked as an accountant before fleeing the City. Most citizens fled because they found the City too oppressive or were in trouble with the law. She appeared to fall into the second category. Her employer reported to the police that he suspected she stole $25,000 from his safe. The police interviewed her. The next day, she disappeared from her apartment and, it was assumed, fled the City. That was easy to do if you knew an illicit guide and paid his fee. Not surprising, her Civic Reliability Rating was zero.

He was about to turn off his computer when he remembered that he still hadn’t checked the ISB database for a mention of “Professor Pettigrew” or “Project Marigold”. They were on his mind because he found a photograph of an unknown man at Mark Conrad’s apartment. When he showed it to Colonel Prentice, the Colonel identified the man as Professor Pettigrew, a biologist at Webster University, who had gone missing. The Colonel also mentioned Project Marigold. When Davidson said he had never heard of the Professor or the project, the Colonel clammed up.

Now Davidson tried to pull up the intelligence file of Professor Pettigrew on his computer. “Access Denied” flashed on the screen. Jesus. He’d never been denied access to a citizen’s intelligence file before. The Professor must be very important to get that sort of protection. Next, Davidson searched the ISB database for “Project Marigold”. No hits. Damn.

Davidson was keen to know why the Professor was so important and why he had disappeared. However, right now he had to solve the mystery of Robert Meredith’s death. When he’d done that, he would focus on the good Professor.

 

Davidson drove home just before sunset under a salmon sky. Pawing through other people’s backgrounds on the ISB computer made him contemplate his own. His parents were high school teachers who died in a car accident when he was in his late teens. They were good solid people who taught their two sons, and their pupils, to believe in God and the City’s mission to rebuild civilization.

Davidson fully imbibed their beliefs. However, his older brother, Ted, was less docile. He despised authority and let his mind wander far beyond the City walls. Every Websterite was nostalgic about a particular era before the Great Plague. Ted’s was the age of space exploration. He read every banned book he could find about the Apollo missions and the establishment of the US colony on Mars. He often asked Davidson if descendants of the colonists might still be alive. Davidson said it was highly unlikely the colonists achieved self-sufficiency before the Great Plague caused their food and oxygen to be cut off.

Ted said: “But there’s a tiny chance, isn’t there, that there are still people on Mars?”

“You’re dreaming.”

Ted often said he couldn’t stay in the City for the rest of his life. “People in this city have the whole world to themselves and go nowhere. It’s insane. I can’t stay here.”

“We’ve got to stay and rebuild civilization.”

“Really? I think that, after the Great Plague, all the survivors – including Alexander Webster – suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and we still suffer from it. That’s why people in this city are terrified of the outside world. In fact, I think they’re terrified of themselves – of their capacity to do evil.”

Davidson felt a stab of fear. “Don’t talk like that. If someone else hears you, you’ll be in big trouble.”

A shrug. “So what? I’ll be gone soon.”

At nineteen, Ted started his two years of compulsory military service by enlisting in the Air Cavalry. A year later, during a raid on an Outlaw hamlet in Kansas, he disappeared. His squad chased a band of fugitives into a thick forest. He became detached and was never seen again. He was officially listed as killed in action. But Davidson often wondered if he deserted and was still in the Badlands, or maybe even on another continent. There was only a faint chance of that. But Davidson still prayed that, one day, they would talk again about space exploration.

 

 

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

Davidson usually disliked attending dinner parties his wife organized because he disliked her friends. That night’s dinner party was no exception. She had invited two couples: Bishop James Harding and his shrill wife, Megan, and Principal Francis Barnard and his shrill wife, Robyn.

Bishop Harding was a senior cleric of the New World Church and presided over the temple the Davidsons attended every Sunday morning. Principal Barnard ran the elementary school where Barbara taught and was presently trying to choose a new Deputy Principal. So, while Davidson wasn’t sure why his wife invited the Bishop, he was very sure why she invited the Principal.

As usual, she had spent days rushing around getting fine food from her black-market contacts or the Scavengers who snuck out into the Badlands for produce. This time, she had snared a large salmon, truffles and several bottles of fine wine made at an Outlaw vineyard in California.

When everyone was seated at the table, the Bishop said a prayer. “Beloved Father, thank you for sending Alexander Webster to save humanity from the Great Plague, and sending the Chancellors who have, for many generations, protected and guided our City and beloved Church. We ask that you bless this food and make us worthy of your love.”

Everyone said: “Amen.”

His mousey wife, Megan, popped some salmon into her mouth and smiled. “Barbara, where on earth did you get this salmon from? It’s divine.”

Barbara cackled. “I wish I could tell you. But, if I did, my husband would have to arrest me.”

Everyone laughed.

Davidson turned to the Bishop. “Tell me, James, where do you stand in the Divinity Controversy.”

Alexander Webster was a devout Christian for his entire life. He believed that God sent the Great Plague to punish human wickedness, and that God chose him to save a small portion of mankind and establish Webster City as an ark of humanity. He founded the New World Church to preach those dogmas and banned all other religious organizations. After he died, each new Chancellor automatically became the spiritual head of the Church with the power to make binding and infallible theological decrees.

Recently, several bishops had proclaimed that, instead of being just a special servant of God, Alexander Webster was a divine being, like Jesus. They demanded that his autobiography, Saving Mankind, be made the final book of the New Testament. So far, the Chancellor had kept quiet about the controversy.

Now, Bishop Harding popped some bread into his mouth, stroked his magnificent gray hair and spoke sonorously. “I’m a religious conservative, as you know, and I was brought up to believe that Alexander Webster was a flesh-and-blood man who God chose to carry out a divine task. So I guess that’s my position right now.” A chuckle. “However, I’m a lousy theologian. My marks in theology at college were terrible. So, if the Chancellor decides that Alexander Webster was one in essence with God, I will meekly bow to his superior wisdom.”

“You mean, you’re going to sit on the fence?”

A cawing laugh. “Yes, and hope I don’t get splinters.”

Everybody laughed.

Principal Barnard rubbed his bald head. “I think Alexander Webster should be treated as a divine being, but not for theological reasons. These days, lots of kids are adrift and alienated. They don’t listen to the authorities, their parents or their teachers. Something has to be done. The Church must inspire them. It should create some excitement and boost its message. One way is to making Alexander Webster a divine being.”

Davidson seriously doubted that disaffected youth were interested in whether Alexander Webster should join the Godhead. However, the Bishop nodded. “Good point. I think you’re right.”

Robyn Barnard was a spindly woman with a nervous expression. “Frank’s right about kids these days. I’ve even heard lots of them don’t want to fight the Freedom Alliance.” She turned to Davidson. “Is that true?”

All young Websterites were conscripted into the military for two years. Davidson said: “I’ve heard new conscripts are very apathetic. There are few warriors among them.”

“If they won’t fight, how can we beat the Alliance?”

“We’ve still got a lot more troops and firepower than the Alliance.”

“But the Alliance seems to be getting stronger; there are a lot more attacks. I’ve heard that places like Old New York and Old Boston are now no-go zones for our troops. We just don’t have the resources to police the Badlands anymore.”

Davidson trotted out the Government’s standard response to that sort of pessimism. “Don’t worry, the attacks are really a sign of desperation. We’re methodically hollowing out the Alliance’s command structure. It will soon collapse.” He was rather proud of the glib way he delivered the official line. “And don’t forget, the Alliance isn’t a monolith. It has divisions. It claims to be fighting for democracy and a secular state. But many troops come from warrior clans or religious sects fighting a holy war against our church. Right now, they all hate the City and the Church more than they hate each other. That could change.”

A sour expression. “I bet it won’t change until after they capture the City.”

Barbara patted Robyn Barnard on the back of the hand. “Don’t worry, Robyn, Carl and the rest of the military know what they’re doing. I have tremendous faith in them.”

Megan Harding leaned forward. “I’ve also heard a rumor that Commander Solon is black. Is that true?”

The inner workings of the Freedom Alliance were shrouded in mystery. The most important civilian leader seemed to be a man called Secretary Monroe who headed a governing council of nine. Commander Solon was the military leader. Davidson had heard rumors he had Afro-American blood, but had seen no evidence of that.

Barbara said: “How can he be black? Alexander Webster didn’t have a chance to vaccinate any black people. That must be wrong.”

“Maybe. Or maybe some black people survived the Great Plague without being vaccinated. Maybe he’s descended from them.”

Barbara snorted. “I don’t believe stories that unvaccinated people survived the plague and their descendants are wandering around the Badlands. That’s hokum. There’s no evidence. Everyone in the Badlands came from this city.”

“The Badlands is a huge place. They could be anywhere – even underground.”

Once again, Barbara’s desire to be a good host conflicted with her stubbornness. She frowned. “I disagree.”

Megan Harding turned to look at Davidson. “Is it true that Commander Solon is black?”

Davidson shrugged. “I’ve heard that rumor too, but don’t know if it’s true. We’ve never captured anyone who’s admitted meeting him. In fact, he might not exist: he’s a myth the Alliance created to protect its true military leader.”

Megan Harding leaned forward and raised an eyebrow. “Really? How can you be hollowing out its command structure when you don’t even know whether its commander is a myth?”

Davidson was impressed with her acuity and smiled. “Good question. My bureau should use you as an interrogator. Don’t worry. We may not know who’s in charge, just yet, but we’re getting closer to him every day.”

“Mmm, I’m not convinced.”

Bishop Harding nervously fingered a salt shaker. “But, umm, tell me this: if the Freedom Alliance is victorious, what will it do?”

Davidson shrugged. “According to Alliance propaganda, it will establish a democratic government.”

Barbara interjected. “A democratic government? How disgusting. Mankind spent 300 years experimenting with democracy, and all it got were the Dark Years and the Great Plague. The Alliance is made up of fools. Every society needs a strong leader, chosen by God, like the Chancellor.”

Davidson said: “Like I said, it’s hard to know what will happen if the Alliance wins. It could easily fall apart into warring factions.”

The Bishop frowned. “I agree. But I was really asking whether there will be any reprisals.”

Davidson knew he had the most to fear from a Freedom Alliance victory, because the Alliance would not forgive or forget that he killed, captured and interrogated many of its fighters. Indeed, if he was caught wearing an ISB uniform, he would probably be shot out of hand. However, the Bishop also had a lot to fear, because his church was an integral cog in the repressive machinery of Webster City.

Davidson said: “You mean, will they put us against a wall and shoot us?”

“Well, umm, yes.”

“It’s not clear what the Alliance will do. It claims there will be no retribution. But all insurgency movements say that until they grab power, don’t they? I mean, it’s hard to believe the Chancellor would survive a takeover. Then it’s a question of how far down the chain of command their reprisals go.”

“What will you do if the Freedom Alliance wins?”

“Hah. Like I said, the Alliance won’t win. But, if I’m wrong, I’ll put on a pair of snowshoes and head north.”

The Bishop turned to Barbara and smiled. “What about you, Barbara: will you go with him?”

A tight smile. “And live like an Eskimo? No, it’s much too cold up there. I’ll stay here and make do.”

Nobody laughed and everyone returned to eating their food. Eventually, Principal Barnard frowned and shook his head. “Why are the Outlaws treating us like this? We extended the hand of friendship to them and they spurned it. They started this fight, not us.”

Davidson recalled how his Air Cavalry unit choppered into Outlaw communities to destroy them before they grew too large. “Who says that?”

“The Chancellor often says it and he’s right. The Freedom Alliance’s attacks are totally immoral.”

 

After their guests had left, the Davidsons stood over the sink, washing the dishes. He tried to be emollient. “That was fun. They were good company.”

“Yes, except for their pessimism. They’re all worried the Freedom Alliance will win. That sort of attitude saps morale and ends up bringing about what everyone fears.”

“I said we would win.”

“You did, but you didn’t sound confident.”

“I am confident.”

“Really? If you were, you wouldn’t have talked about putting on snowshoes and heading north.”

“That was a joke.”

“It didn’t sound like one.”

As he toweled off the last few plates and put them away, he wondered what would happen to their marriage if the Freedom Alliance did breach the City wall. If he survived the assault, he would have to flee the City to avoid retribution. Would Barbara go with him? Probably not. She was young and attractive, and would survive under a new regime. Why make a big sacrifice for a failing marriage? He certainly wouldn’t try to persuade her to join him.

She said: “The Hardings have bought a house in Sector A. They’re moving in next week.”

Sector A was the most exclusive residential area in Webster City, a walled community full of mansions and bungalows, where the rich and powerful lived.

“Really? That’s good.”

“I hope we can move there one day.”

“We can’t on my salary.”

“Isn’t it time you got a promotion?”

“The only person I can replace is Colonel Prentice. But when he retires, I probably won’t get his job.”

“That’s too bad,” she said cryptically.

When they got into bed, he turned off the light and, to his surprise, thought about Helen Watkins. He didn’t know much about her. But he liked her directness and bold laugh. And he liked the fact that she wasn’t his wife.

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER NINE

 

Colonel Prentice occupied a huge corner office on the top floor of the ISB headquarters. A ceiling-to-floor window gave him a panoramic view of Pasteur Plaza, the pharaonic monuments that surrounded it and Lake Michigan beyond.

When Davidson reached the Colonel’s office early the next morning, the Colonel’s secretary had not arrived. The door was open and he strolled into the office. To his surprise, the Colonel sat behind the big rococo desk wearing a Roman toga. Jesus.

The Colonel smiled. “Hello, Major, glad to see you’re early.”

“Sir, what on earth are you wearing?”

“Isn’t it obvious? A toga.”

“Is that our new uniform? Did I miss the memo?”

A hearty laugh. “No, there’s a fancy dress ball at the Chancellor’s Palace tonight. I’m trying on my costume. I’m going as Julius Caesar.”

“Is there a theme?”

“I don’t think so. Unfortunately, my wife wants to go as Cleopatra. I told her we all have our limitations. She accused me of being ungracious. Do you think I’m ungracious?”

The only glimpses Davidson got of the Colonel’s private life were when he complained about his wife or praised his mistress. “I’ve never seen any signs of that.”

“Very diplomatic.”

The Colonel stood and put a laurel wreath on his head. “So, how do I look?”

“Like Julius Caesar.”

“Thank you.”

The Colonel dropped the wreath onto his desk and sat down. “Anyway, how’s your investigation of Meredith’s death going?”

Once again, Davidson sensed that Prentice knew more about the death than he had revealed. However, there was no point challenging him about that, because he would just stonewall.

Davidson said: “You want the details?”

“No, just the bottom line.”

“OK. So far, it’s not clear whether he jumped or was pushed. There’s evidence going both ways.”

A frown. “Alright. Let me know when you’ve got some firm evidence. Then make sure you speak to me first.” The Colonel strolled over to the huge window and stared down at Pasteur Plaza. “I don’t trust anyone these days. You know, I think there’s a mole in this bureau.”

“You’re serious?”

“Yes. I’ve suspected for a while that we’ve got one – maybe more than one.”

“Why?”

“Every so often, for no apparent reason, a suspect flees, an undercover agent is blown, Alliance fighters avoid an ambush – a pattern is emerging.”

Davidson had harbored similar suspicions for a while, without daring to raise them. Why was the Colonel confiding in him now? Because he trusted him? Or did he suspect Davidson was the mole and was trying to panic him? “What are you going to do about it?”

“Keep my eyes and ears open, of course. So should you.”

“Will do.” Davidson shifted on his feet and tried to lighten the mood. “So how was golf yesterday?”

“The Chancellor won, of course.”

“You mean, you let him win?”

“No, I didn’t have to.”

“Why not?”

“He cheated.”

 

 

CHAPTER TEN

 

Davidson used his ISB uniform – and the Visitor’s Pass he was given the day before – to drive through the heavily guarded checkpoint into the Center for Disease Control carpark. He parked and strolled into the building, where an elevator took him down to the huge laboratory in the basement, already crowded with laboratory staff.

He wandered into the ante-room of Doctor Carpenter’s suite and presented himself to the secretary. She picked up a phone and notified her boss that he had arrived. Dr Carpenter emerged from his office, looking a little flustered. “Ah, Major Davidson. You’re here to see Fiona?”

“Of course. Has she arrived?”

“Yes, about fifteen minutes ago. I collared her before she could talk to anyone and took her into my office. I haven’t told her about Robert’s death. I just said that someone from the Internal Security Bureau wanted to talk to her.”

“How’d she react to that?”

A raised eyebrow. “She got worried, of course. You guys are quite frightening. I told her she’s not in trouble – you just need help with an inquiry.”

“Good. She’s still in your office?”

“Of course. Come in.”

Davidson followed Doctor Carpenter into his office, where a woman in her early twenties, with curly ginger hair and elfin features sat on a chair facing the desk. The City Regulations said a woman’s hair could not touch her collar. Her hair came very close. She also had a small tattoo on the back of her wrist, which was forbidden.

She jumped out of her chair and looked fearfully at Davidson’s uniform.

“Good morning. My name is Major Carl Davidson. I’m from the ISB.”

She squeezed her hands together. “Umm, ah, Doctor Carpenter said you want help with an inquiry.”

“Yes, But first, I’m afraid I’ve got bad news.”

She sat and clutched the armrests with white knuckles. “Really?”

“Yes, your boss, Robert Meredith is dead.”

He’d wanted to break the news himself, to gauge her reaction.

She looked genuinely stunned. “He’s what?”

“He’s dead. He fell from his apartment on Tuesday night. His body was found yesterday morning.”

She bent over and sobbed. “Oh, that’s terrible – terrible.”

Doctor Carpenter picked up a box of tissues sitting on his table and passed it to her. She desperately extracted a couple and used them to mop her eyes and blow her nose.

Davidson gave her about a minute to recover and said: “Have you got any idea why he fell?”

She took out more tissues and sobbed into them. “No.”

“Is it possible he jumped?”

She looked up from the bed of tissues, surprised. “Why would he do that? He was a happy, sensible kind of guy.”

Davidson flung a thigh over the corner of the desk, and pulled out a pen and notebook. “Alright, I’d better get a few details: where do you live?”

“In Sector 12.” That sector was far inland, near the City Wall.

“By yourself?”

“No, with my parents.”

“Where were you on Tuesday night?”

She looked nervous. “I went to the movies, with a couple of girlfriends.”

“What are their names and where do they live?”

“Do I have to tell you?”

“Yes.”

She sighed and gave him the details, which he jotted in his notebook.

He said: “There’s evidence that Robert Meredith was seeing a woman. Do you know anything about that?”

She rubbed her nose. “No. I mean, he didn’t mention anything to me about a woman.”

“If he was seeing a woman, would he have told you?”

A shrug. “I don’t know. Maybe, or maybe he’d have been afraid I’d tease him about it. I can be a bit annoying. It’s hard to say.”

“Alright. Now, when was the last time you saw him?”

Before she could answer, a siren hooted three times and a metallic male voice said: “Intruders in the building … intruders in the building … intruders in the building.”

Christ. Davidson looked at Doctor Carpenter. “Have you ever heard that before?”

“Not for real – only during a practice drill.”

“Is this a practice drill?”

“I don’t think so. They always say so.”

“OK. You both stay here; don’t move.”

Davidson pulled out his Glock 17, slipped through the ante-room, past the cowering secretary, and pushed the door slightly ajar. Nobody outside. He slipped into the corridor. Several lab-coated staff scurried around a corner and dashed towards him. He raised his pistol and took up the trigger slack, before letting them pass.

Heart thumping, he slid along the wall to the corner and peered around it. The huge laboratory area looked empty: the technicians had either fled or were hiding under the benches.

He was about to step out when four men and a woman wearing white overalls, all armed with automatic rifles, emerged from a corridor on the far side of the lab and headed down a narrow lane between the benches. They were about 50 yards away, coming straight towards him. Jesus. They weren’t CDC security officers or police. Definitely intruders. Must be Freedom Alliance fighters.

As if to confirm that, three security officers stepped out of an elevator to the right of the intruders, raised their pistols and immediately started shooting. The female intruder screamed and went down, but the rest swiveled around and sprayed bullets at the officers, cutting them down. Their coolness and precision said they had plenty of combat experience. Definitely from the Freedom Alliance.

While they directed their fire at the security officers, Davidson dashed towards the nearest laboratory bench while firing off several shots that knocked an intruder over. He’d just reached the bench when the three survivors turned and hosed the area around him with bullets. The cough, bark and chatter of the weaponry made his ears ring and heart batter his chest bone. Cordite tickled his nostrils.

He peeked around a corner of the bench and saw three more security officers emerge from a side corridor and exchanged gunfire with the intruders. Two were cut down and the third retreated back up the corridor.

After a long pause, two intruders stood up and sprayed bullets in Davidson’s direction while a third, wearing a heavy pack, leaped to his feet and dashed across the laboratory towards the Vaccine Storage Area. Davidson crawled to the other end of the bench, got a bead on the third intruder just before he reached that area and put a couple of bullets into his chest. The intruder crumpled to the ground.

The two surviving intruders stopped shooting and ducked below a bench. One yelled to the guy Davidson had just shot. “Zorro … Zorro …” No response.

The survivors had a hurried and inaudible conversation. Then they sprayed more bullets in Davidson’s direction and sprinted back towards the corridor from which they had emerged. Davidson leaped up and nailed the trailing one, who topped over. The other one already had a big red blotch on his left shoulder and was limping badly. Davidson fired a couple of shots that missed. Then the intruder disappeared into the corridor.

Heart buzzing and ears ringing, Davidson ejected the empty magazine in his pistol and inserted another he took from a pouch on his belt. He had stopped breathing long ago and his lungs were empty. Breathe hard; breathe hard. After sucking in several deep breaths, he dashed across the laboratory towards the fleeing intruder. As he passed the blood-drenched bodies of the other intruders – two men and a woman – he covered them with his pistol in case they could still retaliate. None moved.

He dashed up the corridor, following a trail of blood on the floor and reached a bisecting corridor. He turned left and followed the blood for about thirty yards, until he reached another intersection. He glanced around the corner and saw the fleeing intruder, about twenty yards away, laying on his back, pistol gone, in a growing pool of blood.

To his surprise, Helen Watkins stood over him, pointing a pistol at his head. She had said she couldn’t join Davidson in the basement because she had appointments. Yet now she was down here. She must have heard the announcement there were intruders and sprinted downstairs.

He was about to step around the corner and approach her when the guy on the ground croaked: “Do it.”

Her pistol shook and she shrieked: “I can’t.”

He wheezed through clenched teeth. “Do it, do it – you must.”

“No.”

“You must. I can’t be captured. Do it, please.”

While Davidson watched, transfixed, she sobbed loudly, turned her head away and fired three bullets into the intruder’s chest.

Davidson suppressed a gasp, slipped back out of sight and leaned against the wall, heart thumping and brain churning. The intruder begged Watkins to kill him to avoid capture and she obeyed. She was obviously on their side – a traitor.

He was tempted to step around the corner and confront her. But he didn’t want to be hasty. Maybe he could use the fact she was a traitor, who didn’t know she’d been unmasked, to his advantage. Best to back off and consider his options.

With a trembling hand, he holstered his pistol and strode back the way he came, still shocked at what he’d just seen. When he reached the laboratory, five or six security officers were running about, waving automatic rifles or pistols, looking for targets. A couple trained their weapons on him, then recognized his uniform and lowered them.

Eric Tanguy, holding a sawn-off shotgun, stood over the corpse of an intruder – a pretty woman with short blonde hair.

Davidson approached him, still regularizing his breathing. “One of them got away. I followed him up that corridor and lost him.” He used his thumb to point over his shoulder. “I think he’s wounded.”

Tanguy turned to a security officer next to him. “You heard that. Take three men and find him. Take him alive if possible.”

“Yes, sir.”

The officer summoned three comrades and sprinted up the corridor.

A red-faced Tanguy looked around. “What a mess. Looks like four intruders are already dead, and five of my men. How many did you kill?”

“Your men took down one; I took down the other three, including that guy over there.” He pointed at the corpse outside the Vaccine Storage Area.

“Good work – damn good. Sorry I missed the party, though. Not fair.”

“Who are they?”

“Must be Freedom Alliance. Seems they drove a sanitation truck through the main gate, using fake IDs, then used a swipe card to slip into the building. Fortunately, one of my officers saw them on a surveillance monitor, walking down a corridor with their weapons. He raised the alarm.”

“What was their objective?”

“Not sure.” He pointed at the corpse outside the Vaccine Storage Area “But that guy over there has a backpack full of plastic explosives. It looks like they wanted to destroy the storage area, or maybe even the whole building; would have succeeded if you weren’t here.” He looked around. “Where’s Helen? Wasn’t she with you?”

He resisted the temptation to say he had just seen her mercy-kill a Freedom Alliance comrade. “No, she had appointments this morning. I came down here by myself.”

A frown. “Really? Then where is she?”

“I’m here,” a frail voice said.

They turned and saw Helen Watkins strolling towards them, eyes gleaming and face ivory white. The pistol she used to kill her Freedom Alliance comrade was now in its holster.

Davidson wasn’t surprised she looked shattered and was curious to see how well she played the role of loyal citizen.

Tanguy said: “Where have you been?”

Her voice quivered. “I had some things to do this morning. When I heard the siren, I sprinted down here.” She pointed back the way she came. “Bumped into an intruder back there, running away.”

“You got him.”

“Yeah, he’s dead.”

“Good, good. Well done.”

She looked ready to faint. “Thanks.”

“You OK?”

“Why do you ask?”

“You look upset.”

She gulped. “I – I’ve never shot anyone before.”

Tanguy waved dismissively. “Forget about it. They’re scum. You’ll get used to it. I’m just sorry I couldn’t bag one.” He glared at Davidson. “Some people get all the luck.”

Davidson shrugged. “Sorry about that. Next time I’ll give you a phone call.” Davidson remembered that he left Doctor Carpenter barricaded in his office suite with Fiona Clarkson. “Now, I’ve got to rescue Doctor Carpenter. I’ll be back.”

He strolled around to Carpenter’s suite and found the door locked. He knocked hard. “Doctor Carpenter, it’s Major Davidson – open up. You’re safe.”

A voice behind the door yelled. “There was a lot of gunfire. Is it all over?”

“Yes, it’s all over. The bad guys are all dead.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes. Don’t worry, you’re safe.”

He listened while Carpenter moved furniture away from the door and inserted a key in the lock. Eventually, the door opened slightly and Carpenter exposed one eye. “You’re on your own?”

His fear would have been funny in funnier circumstances. “Of course. Open up.”

The door swung open and Davidson stepped into the ante-room. He followed Carpenter into the office, and found Fiona Clarkson and Carpenter’s secretary standing with their backs against the far wall, braced for death. “Don’t worry, you’re safe.”

Fiona Clarkson’s eyes glowed. “You sure?”

“Definitely.”

Both left the waiting room of death and started their long journey back to the land of the living.

Carpenter said: “What happened? What was going on?”

“A Freedom Alliance team broke in and tried to blow up the building.”

“They’re all dead?”

“Yes.”

“Thank God.”

Davidson was too busy to continue his interview with Fiona Clarkson, who looked almost catatonic anyway. He’d complete it another day. “Can I use your phone?”

“Yes, of course.”

He picked up the receiver, phoned Colonel Prentice and told him what had happened. The Colonel said he would be there very soon.

 

Davidson strolled back to the laboratory. The full impact of taking three lives had not hit him yet. His mind was still focused on handling the aftermath. However, past experience and his trembling hands told him there would be a reckoning.

He found Helen Watkins, standing alone, watching her boss and several other security officers check those shot to make sure they were dead, and search for evidence.

He said: “You OK?”

She spun around, eyes primed with fear and guilt. “Yes, of course. Just shocked.”

Until the shootout, he’d pegged her as a pushy career woman loyal to the City. Now he knew she was a traitor. A lot of questions washed through his mind. Why was she working for the Freedom Alliance? When did she start doing that? How much damage had she done? One thing was certain: she gave the Freedom Alliance fighters the fake IDs and swipe card they needed to access the CDC building. She obviously didn’t accompany him to the laboratory that morning because she was warned of their attack and expected him to be killed. Big mistake.

However, the big question was whether to denounce her. It was his job to do so. But he was becoming increasingly tired of his job: he was no longer convinced the cause he fought for was just and already regretted killing three FA fighters. He wasn’t in the mood to arrest and torture a woman he’d got to know and was starting to like.

It also occurred to him that, until he knew what the hell was going on around him, he should keep a few cards up his sleeve. For the moment, he would let her run and monitor where she went; he would attach an invisible string to her that he could tug any time he liked.

He said: “I’m not surprised.”

She shuddered and looked ready to throw up. “I’ve shot at lots of targets. That was the first time I’ve shot at someone.”

Davidson couldn’t remember the first time he killed someone: it was so many years and deaths ago. “Did he shoot at you?”

A pause. “Umm, no. He was on the ground when I found him. I tried to take him alive.” Her face crumpled. “But he reached for a pistol and I had to shoot him.”

He was impressed that, despite being under immense stress, she lied so smoothly. “I see.”

Professor Fisher trotted down a flight of stairs wearing a disheveled expression and a smooth lab coat. He made a bee-line for Eric Tanguy who was talking to an underling. Davidson and Watkins sidled over to hear what they said.

The Professor stumbled over a blood-soaked corpse, recoiled and glared at Tanguy as if he was to blame. “What the hell happened? Who broke in?”

“Freedom Alliance fighters.”

“They’re all dead?”

“Yes, all five, and five of my men.”

The Professor offered no commiserations. “Why did they attack us? What did they want?”

“Looks like they wanted to plant a bomb.”

“A bomb? You’d better explain what happened.”

Tanguy explained how the Freedom Alliance team appeared in the laboratory and shot it out with Davidson and several security officers. He then took the Professor over to the corpse of the intruder outside the Vaccine Storage Area. “Major Davidson shot this guy. He has about ten kilos of plastic explosives in his pack. That’s enough to destroy the whole storage area and most of the building.”

The Professor looked shocked and edged away from the corpse. “My God. Are we safe? Will the explosives go off?”

“No, one of my men removed the detonators.”

“Thank God.” The Professor frowned. “But you haven’t explained how five heavily armed subversives with high-explosives got into this building …”

Tanguy lost some color. “Umm, they entered in a sanitation truck using fake IDs. Then they used a swipe card to enter the rear of the building. One of my men saw, on a surveillance monitor, that they had rifles. He set off the alarm.”

“How did they get the IDs and the card?”

“That’s something I’ve got to investigate.”

“Make sure you do.” The Professor frowned and turned to Davidson. “Thank you for your help. Without you, we’d probably all be dead.”

A shrug. “Just doing my job. Helen Watkins downed one of the intruders and a security officer got another. They were all very brave.”

The Professor turned to Watkins. “Thank you, Helen – well done.”

She nodded and was barely audible. “Just doing my job.”

Davidson looked at the Professor. “Any idea why they would want to destroy the storage area?”

A shrug. “Not really. That’s where we keep our vaccines while they’re tested and before they’re distributed. Maybe they wanted to disrupt Immunization Week, which starts in a few days; or maybe they wanted to show they can strike anywhere in the City – this was really an attack on our morale.”

Davidson found neither explanation convincing. “Maybe.”

The elevator doors opened. Colonel Prentice steamed into the laboratory with the beautifully coiffed and groomed figure of Captain Tony Delray striding behind him. Their stark ISB uniforms attracted a lot of stares. They crossed the laboratory, casually noting the corpses on the floor.

The Colonel smiled at the Professor. “Hello, Ted.”

The Professor looked surprised. “Robert – what are you doing here?”

“Major Davidson phoned and told me what happened. I called the Chancellor and told him. He was very concerned to hear about a major security breach at a vital institution. He ordered me to assess the situation and make sure nothing is, umm, swept under the rug. He expects you will give me whatever assistance I need.”

Davidson enjoyed watching the masterful way Prentice threw his weight around. While Prentice did that, “Captain Handsome” stood behind him looking handsome.

The Professor nodded dumbly. “Of course.”

“Good. I understand there were five intruders, all accounted for?”

“Yes. In fact, your Major Davidson killed three.”

A shrug. “As I would expect. So tell me: how did they get in?”

The Professor took a half-step back. “I’ve just discussed that with my Chief Security Officer, Eric Tanguy. He can explain.”

Tanguy obviously saw his job and pension circling a drain, and shifted on his feet so quickly he was almost dancing. The reckless teenager Davidson knew in the Air Cavalry was a distant memory.

Slowly and haltingly, Tanguy repeated what he told the Professor.

Prentice’s eyes launched a nuclear strike. “Fake IDs? A swipe card?”

“Yes.”

“Jesus. How the hell did they get them?”

“That’s something, umm, I’ve got to find out.”

“They must have had inside help.”

“That’s possible.”

“It’s certain. You’d better find the rat.”

“I will.”

“Good.”

Davidson was again half-tempted to reveal that Helen Watkins was the rat, but bit his tongue. He’d keep that card up his sleeve.

The Colonel looked around. “Alright, I want Major Davidson to tell me what happened. The rest of you are free to go if you wish.”

The Professor fidgeted. “I’m going back to my office. If you need any help, let me know.”

“I will.”

The Professor strode off, leaving his Chief and Deputy Chief Security Officers behind.

The Colonel looked at Davidson. “Alright, Carl – what happened?”

Davidson spent ten minutes strolling around the laboratory, describing how the firefight unfolded, while the other four trailed behind. Then he took them to see the corpse of the FA fighter who Helen Watkins shot. When they reached it, Prentice got her to describe exactly what happened. With a gaunt expression, she reported, in a clipped fashion, how she found the wounded fighter on his back. “He reached for his pistol and … and I had to shoot him.”

The Colonel nodded. “Smart move. No point taking any risks.”’

The last stop on their tour was the corpse of the intruder shot in front of the Vaccine Storage Area. He lay on his stomach and still wore the backpack containing explosives.

The Colonel said. “You’ve disconnected the explosives?”

Tanguy said: “Yes.”

“Roll him over.”

Tanguy rolled over the corpse, exposing the regular features of a man in his thirties.

“Jesus,” Prentice and Davidson said in unison.

Tanguy frowned. “What?”

Prentice said: “That is Captain Zorro. He ranked third or fourth in the Freedom Alliance chain of command. We’ve never killed someone as high-ranking as him. Why would they send someone like him on a mission like this?” Prentice pointed at the sign above the door. “You store vaccines in there?”

“Yes. They’re manufactured on the second floor and stored in that area while they’re quality tested. Then they’re distributed throughout the City. There are millions of ampoules in there.”

“What would happen if it was destroyed?”

“I guess we’d have to delay Immunization Week for several months while new vaccines – particularly a new seasonal flu vaccine – were manufactured.”

“I see.” Prentice glanced at Tanguy and Watkins. “Alright. Thank you for your help. I now want to have a private discussion with Major Davidson, so please leave us – though don’t go far; I won’t be long.”

They nodded and wandered off, leaving Colonel Prentice and Captain Delray with Davidson.

Davidson realized this was his last chance to expose Watkins as a traitor. If he didn’t do it now and tried to do it later, he would attract suspicion. Despite that, he couldn’t bring himself to spill the beans.

The Colonel turned to Davidson. “You think the purpose of the attack was to destroy the vaccines in that area?”

“It looks like it. I can’t think of another one.”

“But that makes no sense.”

Delray interjected. “Why not, sir?”

“It’s a minor objective. I can’t believe that the Freedom Alliance really cares whether Immunization Week starts in a few days’ time or a few months’ time. There is no way it would have sent a senior commander and a highly-experienced team on a suicide mission – because that is what this was – to achieve that goal. It must have had another – bigger – purpose.”

Davidson considered repeating Professor Fisher’s theory that the Freedom Alliance wanted to demonstrate its ability to strike anywhere in the City, and decided not to. It was a silly theory. The Alliance wouldn’t send a top team on a suicide mission to achieve that goal either. “Maybe, like many things in life, this attack was a big cock-up.”

Prentice smiled. “That’s possible.” He watched a couple of police forensic technicians get out of an elevator and sighed. “Anyway, whatever the purpose of the attack, it’s very embarrassing for the ISB.”

Davidson said: “Why?”

“An elite Freedom Alliance team penetrated deep inside this City and attacked an important institution, and we knew nothing about it. Thank God you stopped them. Otherwise, I’d have had to resign. Hell, I still might have to.” He smiled. “However, fortunately, right now the Chancellor wants to declare victory and put a positive spin on the attack.”

“How?”

“For a start, he wants to give you a medal. I told him how one of my officers single-handedly fought off the attack and he said you should be decorated.”

“Really?”

“Yes. He’s going to hold a press conference at 11 a.m. to announce the defeat of a dastardly Freedom Alliance attack and give you, and anyone else I care to name, a medal.”

“What sort of medal?”

“The Chancellor’s Medal of Valor, of course.”

That was the highest award for bravery the City bestowed. There were only about twenty living recipients. Davidson felt a mixture of deep skepticism and childish glee. “Who else will get one? You?”

The Colonel pondered that and shook his head. “No, I’ve already got one. Getting another – particularly when I wasn’t even here – would look rather greedy, don’t you think?”

Delray looked agitated. “I’d love to get one, Boss.”

The Colonel laughed and shook his head. “Sorry, Tony. I know you’d look wonderful with a big medal on your chest but, if you want one, you’ll have to earn it the old-fashioned way – with bravery. Anyway, I’m sure you don’t want to earn one on the cheap.”

Captain Handsome’s expression said he did. “I’m not fussy.”

“Well, I am.”

“You could nominate Officer Watkins. She shot one of the intruders.”

Davidson realized that Delray, the envious bastard, didn’t want him to be the sole recipient of a medal.

However, the Colonel frowned and shook his head. “No, I won’t do that. On reflection, I think the ISB should get all of the glory for forestalling this attack, don’t you?” He glanced at his watch. “Like I said, the press conference is at 11 a.m. We’ve got about 60 minutes to get to the Chancellor’s Palace. We’d better get moving.”

The three ISB officers wandered over to where Watkins and Tanguy stood chatting.

The Colonel said: “We’re heading for the Chancellor’s Palace. In an hour, the Chancellor is going to hold a press conference to announce that the City has foiled a Freedom Alliance attack and give Major Davidson here a medal.”

Tanguy frowned. “You mean, no medal for any of my officers?”

Prentice frowned. “Not my decision I’m afraid. That’s the Chancellor’s call.”

“Helen should get a medal, at least.”

She shook her head. “I don’t want one.”

Tanguy looked surprised. “You don’t?”

Watkins spoke with surprising urgency. “No, I don’t deserve an award. I didn’t do anything special. I just did my job.”

She was a traitor who was forced to shoot a Freedom Alliance fighter to prevent him being captured. So Davidson wasn’t surprised she didn’t want to be awarded the City’s highest medal. Indeed, it was deeply ironic that he would receive a medal, despite knowing of her treachery and saying nothing.

Prentice looked at Watkins. “I admire your modesty. Time for us to go.”

 

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

Colonel Prentice ambled across the CDC carpark, with Davidson beside him and Delray trailing behind. The Colonel said to Davidson: “What do you know about that Watkins woman?”

“Not much. I only met her yesterday. Why do you ask?”

“She claims she shot the FA fighter because he reached for his pistol …”

“Yes.”

“The pistol was at least four feet away. He couldn’t have reached it – not while on his back.”

“Maybe she kicked the pistol away – we didn’t ask.”

“Maybe. She also turned down a Medal of Valor. Few people do that.”

“Like you said: she was being modest.”

“Which I find very suspicious. Keep a close eye on her.”

“You don’t trust her?”

“I don’t trust anyone – including you, or me.”

A smile. “Fair enough.”

Delray sidled up beside Davidson. “Congratulations. Three dead, huh? Good shooting, though I’d have bagged all of them.”

Davidson hated Delray’s jovial attitude to a shootout still a raw wound. “I’m sure you’d have shot yourself as well. I’m sorry you won’t get a medal, but that’s not my fault. What are you doing here anyway?”

“The Colonel needed a driver and I volunteered.”

“You mean, you’re now his chauffeur?”

“No, I’m assisting him.”

“Really? Make sure you drive carefully.”

Like most of the elite in Webster City, Colonel Prentice drove around in a huge armor-plated black Lincoln sedan. When they reached it, Delray got behind the steering wheel and Davidson sat next to him. Prentice sat on the back seat.

A common saying in Webster City was: “If it’s been designed before, why design it again?” The Chancellor’s Palace was a massive edifice modeled on Buckingham Palace that faced onto Webster Plaza. Three Palace Guards, wearing their distinctive bright red uniforms, stood in front of the wrought-iron main gate. The Palace Guard Regiment was originally set up to guard the Palace and provide the Chancellor with personal bodyguards. Then it morphed into a 3000-strong para-military unit that also provided the army with elite troops and monitored the whole security apparatus – including the ISB – for any signs of disloyalty to the Chancellor. It was, without a doubt, the most powerful organization in Webster City. Even Colonel Prentice and his officers danced to its tune. Not for nothing were Palace Guards known as “the Chancellor’s Dogs”.

Delray stopped at the main gate and showed his ID to one of the guards, who waved him through. He parked the car beside the iron spiked fence. They all got out and walked through a massive portico with four Doric columns into a huge marble entry hall.

Several Palace Guards relieved them of their side-arms and put them in small lockers. Then they were frisked and made to pass through a metal detector. No exception was made for Colonel Prentice, despite his rank.

A tall, thin man in a red uniform approached. He had a razor-sharp part in his black hair and gimlet eyes. “Colonel Prentice?”

“Yes.”

“Captain Roger Archibald of the Palace Guard. I’ve been told to escort you to the Chancellor’s office. Please follow me.”

Davidson had only ventured into the Palace a few times and looked around with interest as Archibald led them up a wide curved staircase to the next floor.

They passed through a huge marble rococo hall lined with big oil portraits of Alexander Webster and the seven other Chancellors, including the present one. Davidson had heard rumors that, during the second century of the Webster Era, a ninth Chancellor went crazy and a clique of senior officers of the Palace Guard had to assassinate him. His name was erased from the historical record and no portrait of him was hung in this room. However, it was impossible to know the truth.

The group passed through two more marble halls, each lined with Old Masters rescued from derelict museums all over the globe, and entered a long corridor with offices on both sides. Loud voices, chattering computer keys and murmuring televisions wafted out of open doorways. Young people in business suits rushed back and forth.

At the far end, Archibald ushered them into an elevator which took them up two floors to a circular rococo hall with a massive chandelier. The chessboard marble floor was dotted with original ancient Greek statues that Davidson learned about at High School. On the far side, a raven-haired woman in a pencil dress sat behind a Louis XV-style desk. Behind her, two beefy Palace Guards, bearing automatic rifles, stood on either side of a huge red-leather door.

Captain Archibald approached the woman. “Ruth, this is Colonel Prentice and his party. They’re here to see the Chancellor.”

She stood on a great pair of legs. “Good. He’s expecting them.”

Archibald glanced at the visitors. “When you see the Chancellor, don’t forget to kiss his ring of office.”

Websterites were reluctant to touch each other in public lest they catch a disease. Indeed, shaking hands was frowned upon. However, it was traditional, when introduced to the Chancellor, to kiss his ring.

The woman pushed open the red door and led them into a large office in which everything – the desk, the bookcases and even the floor – looked like it was carved out of a single piece of mahogany. Two men stood talking at a long lead-lined window that overlooked a courtyard with a lush lawn, bubbling fountain and faun statues.

One of them was Joshua Webster, the eighth Chancellor of Webster City. Davidson had often seen him on television or in the pulpit at the Cathedral. But he’d never been this close. So he studied him intently, trying to understand his youthful appearance. Webster became the Chancellor, 40 years ago, at a huge inauguration ceremony in the Cathedral. He was then aged 32. That meant he was now 72 years old. However, he was a short and chubby man with a smooth face who looked to be in his early forties. Sometimes, when complimented about his youthful looks, he attributed them to clean living, pure thoughts and devotion to God. However, Davidson knew that, in the years just before the Great Plague, medical science made huge advances in human organ transplants and longevity drugs, and wondered if someone had salvaged that technology.

Like most Websterites, Davidson knew little about the Chancellor’s private life, except that his wife died about ten years ago and he had a grown son, Abraham, who was designated to replace him. However, Davidson had heard scuttlebutt that, despite his age and religious authority, the Chancellor led a dissolute lifestyle. He was said to have several mistresses and at least seven illegitimate children, and to host drunken orgies on his luxury yacht as it sailed around the lake. It was even rumored that he recently ordered a dozen mechanics to restore a 300-year-old rollercoaster at a disused amusement park just outside the City, so he could ride it. Most were killed when the Freedom Alliance ambushed them and the work had to be abandoned.

The Chancellor was chatting to the Commander of the Palace Guard Regiment, Edward Mellon, a cadaverous man whose red uniform was heavily laden with medals as if he’d won several wars solo. Mellon was a shadowy figure. Indeed, Davidson had only glimpsed him a few times at official functions. However, his closeness to the Chancellor and control of the Palace Guards made him the second most powerful man in Webster City. It was said that he knew where all the bodies were buried, because he buried them.

Both men turned to face their visitors.

The Chancellor looked at Prentice. “Ah, Bob, good to see you. You brought our hero?”

“Yes. This is Major Davidson. He was instrumental in repulsing the attack.”

The Chancellor looked at Davidson with pale blue eyes and casually proffered his ring. Davidson stepped forward, kissed it and stepped back.

The Chancellor said: “On behalf of the City, I thank you. We can all sleep safer in our beds because of your efforts.”

“Thank you, your Worship.”

The Chancellor looked inquiringly at Delray.

Colonel Prentice said: “Oh, this is Captain Delray. He is my, umm, aide. He wasn’t at the CDC when the terrorists broke in.”

The Chancellor looked annoyed he wouldn’t get to pin a medal on the chest of such a heroic looking specimen. After letting Delray kiss his ring, he nodded towards Mellon. “Let me introduce the Commander of the Palace Guard Regiment and my strong right arm, Edward Mellon.”

Mellon nodded and launched a smile that never left his face.

The Chancellor turned to Captain Archibald. “What time is the press conference?”

“Eleven o’clock, in the Hall of Mirrors, your Worship.”

The Chancellor glanced at his original Rolex. “Fifteen minutes. You have the medal ready?”

“Yes, your Worship.”

“Good. Make sure everything is in place and fetch us when we are needed.”

The Captain left the room and the Chancellor turned his pale blue eyes on Davidson. “Now, Major, I want to hear what happened at the CDC. But first, you should tell us what you were doing there.”

Davidson didn’t know how much Colonel Prentice wanted him to reveal about his investigation into the death of Robert Meredith and was relieved when the Colonel interrupted. “Oh, I assigned the Major to investigate the death of a biochemist who worked at the CDC. The guy went over the balcony of his apartment a couple of nights ago.”

The Chancellor’s eyes narrowed. “Really? You mean he was murdered?”

“We don’t think so. The evidence we’ve turned up so far points to suicide.”

Davidson wondered why the Colonel was trying to downplay the cause of death. Did the Colonel fear the Chancellor was, in some way, behind it?

The Chancellor looked a touch relieved. “So, you’re going to drop the investigation?”

“Yes, it’s a wild goose chase.”

A shrug. “That’s a matter for you.” The Chancellor turned to Davidson. “Anyway, tell us what happened this morning.”

Davidson described how five Freedom Alliance fighters, using fake IDs and a swipe card, entered the building and got into a firefight with him and some security officers. Each time Davidson described shooting an intruder, the Chancellor squealed with savage delight and said: “Well done, well done.” He sounded far removed from the man who gave sermons about peace and tolerance.

When Davidson finished, the Chancellor smiled. “Excellent. Just what the scum deserved. The Bible says, at Matthew 3.10: ‘The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.’ That is what you did: you cut down bad trees and threw them into the fire. Congratulations.” The Chancellor turned to Prentice. “It sounds like they were trying to destroy the vaccines in storage to stop Immunization Week going ahead.”

“Maybe. That’s something I want to investigate further.”

“Well, whatever their mission, I want a much stronger guard placed on the CDC building. I’ll send over an army detachment.” The Chancellor turned to Mellon. “Please organize that.”

“Yes, your Worship.”

The Chancellor looked back at Prentice and frowned. “Why didn’t you find out about this attack? You’re supposed to my eyes and ears.”

“I have limited resources and the Alliance obviously sent in a small, self-contained team. They’re very hard to detect.”

A frown. “I don’t agree. But we’ll discuss that later. In the meantime, I want you to find out how the terrorists got the fake IDs and swipe card. Sounds like an inside job.”

“I will.”

A grim smile. “Good. You know how heavily I depend on you.” The Chancellor looked around. “Alright, we’ve still got a few minutes to wait before the press conference starts. Please be seated.”

As the three visitors sat on leather armchairs and couches scattered around the office, the Chancellor wandered over to a bonsai tree on the window ledge and stared at it reverentially. “You know, Alexander Webster was a keen bonsai artist. This was one of his trees. It’s more than 300 years old. This City is like a bonsai tree. It must be carefully trimmed and pruned to make sure it stays just the right size and shape. That’s what Chancellors have done for the last 300 years. If we don’t, there will be a return to the Dark Years that led to the Great Plague.”

Davidson saw Colonel Prentice wore a glazed expression, as if he’d heard that speech before. He also realized that, several years ago, he would have been a lot more impressed with the Chancellor than he was now.

Fortunately, the Chancellor lost interest in the bonsai tree, strolled over to Mellon in the corner and resumed their inaudible conversation.

A few minutes later, Captain Archibald returned and approached the Chancellor. “Everything is ready, your Worship.”

“Good.” The Chancellor turned to the others. “When we face the press, please let me do all the talking so we stay on-message.”

Everyone except Mellon followed the Chancellor towards the door.

As Davidson passed Archibald, he said: “What if a reporter asks a question?”

A surprised look. “There will be no questions.”

As Davidson strolled through the circular hall, he turned to Delray. “What the hell are you doing here? You’re not getting a medal.”

A big grin. “I’m adding some sorely needed class.”

A roll of the eyes. “If only you were half as good as you think you are.”

 

The Hall of Mirrors was a half-sized replica of the hall in Versailles Palace that was obliterated 310 years ago when a Russian nuclear missile turned the palace into ground zero. The Chancellor and his party entered to find a dozen cameramen, photographers and reporters from government-owned media organizations standing in a horseshoe around a small podium.

The Chancellor stepped behind the podium and Captain Archibald shepherded the other three into a line behind him. Davidson stood at one end, Colonel Prentice in the middle and Captain Handsome at the other end.

The Chancellor looked directly at the cameras. “Fellow citizens, God gave Alexander Webster the task of saving mankind and created this City as an ark for humanity. He gave us – His chosen people – a special mission to rebuild civilization. We have taken great strides towards that goal, but haven’t reached the mountain-top. Unfortunately, scum and vermin in the Badlands want to stop us and plunge humanity back into darkness.

“Fortunately, our morale is strong and our armed forces are powerful. This morning, twenty Freedom Alliance terrorists attacked the Center for Disease Control. However, our brilliant Internal Security Bureau obtained advance warning and laid an ambush. It killed all of the terrorists, including a high-ranking officer called Captain Zorro.

“One officer showed special bravery during the attack: Major Carl Davidson, who killed six terrorists. Because of his courage – and the courage of citizens like him – the City is winning its war against the Freedom Alliance and will soon achieve final victory. I now intend to bestow upon him the highest award for courage that the City can bestow: the Chancellor’s Medal of Valor. Will he please step forward?”

Davidson obeyed his instruction. A small man in a dark suit scurried forward, holding a red-velvet cushion on which the medal was displayed. The Chancellor pinned it on Davidson’s breast and patted him on the shoulder. “Congratulations. On behalf of the citizens of Webster City, I thank you.”

Despite his amused contempt for the Chancellor’s lies, Davidson felt a flutter of childish pleasure at being feted as a hero and smiled broadly at the cameras.

Without further ado, the Chancellor turned on his heels and strode out the way he entered. None of the press tried to ask any questions. They just started packing up equipment and chatting among themselves.

Davidson realized he hadn’t called Barbara to tell her about the shootout or the medal presentation. When he got home, she would be very happy and very unhappy. Which emotion would triumph? Hard to say. Well, there was nothing he could do to repair the damage until he got home.

Prentice approached him. “Congratulations. A well deserved honor.”

As usual, Davidson couldn’t tell if Prentice was serious or not. “Thank you, sir.”

Prentice looked around. “Where’s Delray?”

Davidson had seen Delray slip out the way they came in. “I’ll get him.” He strode across the room, opened the door and found Delray standing in the corridor, chatting to Edward Mellon. They looked around, startled.

Davidson said: “Sorry to interrupt.”

Captain Handsome shrugged. “No problem.” He turned to Mellon. “Good to meet you, sir. I hope we meet again.”

Mellon nodded and strolled off.

Delray frowned at Davidson. “What do you want?”

Davidson ignored his question. “What was that about?”

“What?”

“Chatting to Mellon?”

“Oh, I was doing a bit of networking. I like to ingratiate myself with my superiors, as you know. What do you want?”

“The Colonel wants to speak to you.”

Delray held out his hand. “Alright, after you.”

When they reached the Colonel, he frowned at Delray. “I’m going to stroll back to headquarters with Major Davidson. You drive the car back.”

Delray looked annoyed. “I can stroll too.”

“Did you just win a medal?”

“No.”

The Colonel scowled. “Then follow my orders.”

Delray realized he’d gone too far. “Yes, sir.”

Prentice turned to Davidson. “Come on, let’s stretch our legs.”

 

CHAPTER TWELVE

 

Prentice and Davidson strolled across Pasteur Plaza towards the Internal Security Bureau Headquarters. The sky was gray. A cutting wind ruffled the feathers of pigeons waiting for crumbs and whispered that winter was coming. It even made the medal on Davidson’s chest dance about. He wanted to drop it in a bin, but resisted the urge.

Prentice said: “What was Delray doing when you found him?”

“Chatting to Edward Mellon.”

Eyebrow lift. “What about?”

“I didn’t hear. Afterward, he said he was networking.”

“Really? I thought he worked for me. Maybe I should send him out into the Badlands. There is a vacancy on the Alpha Team. I might assign him to that.” The Alpha Team was an elite squad that roamed the Badlands trying to assassinate Freedom Alliance leaders. It was an attractive assignment for a sociopath with suicidal ideations.

“I understand he likes camping out.”

A deep laugh. “Good.” They strolled past a newspaper kiosk. “I should thank you again for stopping the FA attack. You saved my bacon – at least for now. If the attack had succeeded, I’d already be out the door.”

“The Chancellor would have sacked you?”

“Of course. He might still give me the boot.”

“Why?”

“You heard him: for failing to warn about the attack.”

“He can’t expect miracles.”

“Yes he can.”

“You’re his brother-in-law – you play golf with him.”

“So what? He’s a smart and ruthless bastard, and the Freedom Alliance is winning. He doesn’t want to be the last Chancellor of Webster City and the first to die with his boots on.”

OK. What do you want me to do now?”

“What the Chancellor wants: find the traitor who provided the fake IDs and the swipe card to the FA fighters. I want to give him someone’s head on a platter before he asks for mine.”

Davidson already knew the traitor was Helen Watkins. But it was too late to tell the Colonel that, even if he wanted to, because his delay would look suspicious. “I will. And what about Robert Meredith’s death? The Chancellor doesn’t seem keen on us investigating that.”

“I think you’re right.”

“Do you know why?”

“Of course not.”

Davidson sensed his boss was lying. “So what should I do about Meredith?”

“Investigate his death when you get a chance, but keep quiet about it. Don’t let the Chancellor find out what you’re doing.”

“I understand. Can I ask you something?”

“What?”

Davidson felt obliged to ask his next question, even though he didn’t expect an honest answer. “Why are you so interested in Meredith’s death? Do you know something I don’t?”

A blank look. “Of course not. I just want to make sure there’s no threat to the CDC.”

Davidson didn’t believe a word of that. “You know, I feel like I’m exploring a cave and you’ve got the flashlight.”

A throttled laugh. “Then you’re mistaken.”

They flashed their ID cards at the guards outside the ISB Headquarters and strolled into the marble lobby. While they waited for an elevator, Prentice looked pensive and shook his head. “How are we supposed to beat the Freedom Alliance?”

“What do you mean?”

“The team that went into the CDC this morning was on a suicide mission. They knew they weren’t coming out alive, but went in anyway. I wish I had officers like them, I really do. But I don’t.”

Davidson wondered if he would go on a suicide mission for the City, and decided he wouldn’t. The elevator arrived and they rode up to the fifth floor in silence.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

 

Barbara was already home, watching a TV game show called “Know Your Bible”, when Davidson walked through the door. She sprang off the couch and charged towards him, pleasure and annoyance wrestling for control of her face. “Darling, you killed some FA fighters and won a big medal. I saw that on the evening news. Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you invite me to the ceremony?”

A polite kiss. “I’m sorry. It happened very fast. One minute I was involved in a fire-fight at the CDC; the next I was dragged off to the Palace to be awarded a medal. It was a big public relation exercise. If you’ve got a complaint, take it up with the Chancellor.”

She frowned and bit her lip. “Have you got your medal with you?”

He fished it out of his pocket and handed it over. She studied it closely – both sides – as if making sure it was real, and smiled. “It’s beautiful. I’m so proud of you.”

“Thank you.”

She took his hand and got him to sit with her on the couch. “Now, tell me what happened this morning.”

He briefly described the attack on the CDC without mentioning his discovery that Helen Watkin was a traitor. Like the Chancellor, Barbara expressed great delight whenever he described shooting a Freedom Alliance fighter. When he finished, she frowned. “The Chancellor said you shot six terrorists.”

“I only shot three. He was gilding the lily.”

Her scowl impaired her beauty. “He wouldn’t do that.”

As usual, her black-and-white view of the world annoyed him. It would be nice if, just once, she stopped believing everything the Chancellor said or parroting the latest slogans from the Office of Information. Still, he didn’t want a fight. “You’re right. He must have got confused. He asked me what happened at the CDC. I said I shot three and he must have heard six.”

“Well, I suppose that could happen. Anyway, I’m proud that you killed some FA fighters, even if only three. They’re scum – disease-carrying vermin – like the Chancellor said.”

He suppressed a sigh. “Of course.”

“So you met Chancellor and kissed his ring of office?”

“Of course.”

“Then you talked to him?”

“Like I said, I told him what happened.”

“What was he like?”

A short, fat liar. “Very impressive. The City is in good hands.”

“I know that.”

Barbara spent the rest of the evening praising his bravery and proudly fondling his medal. After dinner, they sat in front of the television and watched the first game of the World Series between the Sector 7 Braves and Sector 2 Yankees. Between innings, Barbara pulled out a piece of red paper and started folding it.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m teaching the kids how to do origami tomorrow morning.” She spent a couple of minutes creasing and folding the piece of paper until she had a little object which she held up. “What do you think?”

“Excellent.”

She looked suspicious. “What is it?”

He took a wild guess. “Umm, a horse.”

She smiled. “Well done.”

Later, in bed, she cuddled up and kept whispering how proud she was. Their sex relieved his tension, without providing joy.

After switching off the light, he lay on his back and stared into the darkness, pondering the day’s events. When the FA fighters confronted him, he reacted like a cornered animal. Now he regretted shooting them and felt deep remorse.

He couldn’t point to a particular time when he lost his faith in God and the Chancellor. For a long time, he thought he was an honorable soldier fighting for a just cause. When he performed dirty deeds, the ends justified the means because he was defending the ark of civilization. However, he now realized he was fighting on the wrong side. The Chancellor maintained power by terrorizing his own citizens and massacring Outlaws. No just God would allow such acts to be performed in his name.

The medal ceremony that morning crystallized his discontent. After listening to the Chancellor lie and dissemble, Davidson realized he had killed and interrogated Freedom Alliance fighters with much finer characters than the Chancellor’s. The cause they fought for was not perfect, but much better than his.

He had already killed too many people for the Chancellor. He would not kill another. Nor would he arrest or interrogate for him. He would feign loyalty, but the moment an opportunity arrived to help the Alliance and wash some blood off his hands, he would seize it.

He felt a strange joy. A tear ran down his cheek. He brushed it off and realized that, for the first time in his life, he felt free.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

 

Colonel Prentice had ordered Davidson to find out who helped the Freedom Alliance fighters access the CDC building. Davidson already knew that Helen Watkins was responsible. However, because he didn’t intend to arrest her, he would have to go out to the CDC building and conduct a sham investigation.

He wanted to know, before he did, why she became disillusioned with the City and drifted into treason. The next morning, when he reached his office, he turned on his computer and pulled up her ISB intelligence file. It said she was 35 years old. Both her parents were civil engineers. After studying criminology at Webster University, she joined the police department and quickly rose to become a detective in the Drug Squad. Ten years ago, she married another detective called Tony Bradstreet. A year later, they had a son, Felix. However, Felix died of pneumonia in Webster Central Hospital at the age of three. His parents complained to the Director of Health and the Medical Board that their son received incompetent care. Their complaints were dismissed.

About a year after Felix died, she got divorced and became the Deputy Chief Security Officer at the CDC. Davidson suspected that Felix’s death triggered the divorce and change of job, and anger about his medical treatment made her turn traitor. It would be interesting to find out.

The Intelligence file originally gave her a Civic Reliability Rating of 10 out of 10. However, when she started complaining about her son’s treatment, it dropped to 8. If it had dropped one more point, the ISB would have interviewed her and conducted random surveillance. She certainly wouldn’t have got a job at the CDC.

He picked up his phone receiver and dialed her direct number at the CDC building.

She answered, sounding tired. “Hello, Watkins here.”

“Hello, Carl Davidson. I thought I’d warn you that I’m heading over there. I’ll be there in about half an hour.”

She sounded annoyed: “Why are you coming out here?”

“I’ll tell you when I get there.”

A long pause. “Alright. There’s a lot of security now. The army is here. I’ll have to meet you at the main gate and let you in.”

“Fine. I’ll let you know when I arrive.”

Davidson left his office and strolled down the hallway to the elevators. Already waiting for one was a large, gaunt man in a black ISB combat uniform. Major Clive Jenkins was a semi-legend in the bureau who commanded the Alpha Team assassination squad. As a result, he often disappeared for weeks at a time.

Davidson knew him reasonably well because, for the last three years, they had fought each other in the final match of the ISB Karate Competition. Davidson lost the first year and won the next two. Jenkins looked unhappy when he won the tournament and even unhappier when he lost. That was his default expression when he met Davidson.

Davidson said: “Hello, Clive, how long are you back for?”

Jenkins’ expression seemed to accuse Davidson of an unspecified crime. “For a month or so.”

“How did your last mission go?”

Jenkins’ face turned even darker. “Not so good. Got ambushed near Boston. Lost six men before we could be extracted.”

“I’m sorry to hear that – very sorry. How did the FA locate you?”

Jenkins shot fireballs from his eyes. “I don’t know. But I’d love to find out.”

 

When Davidson reached the main gate of the CDC, he saw that Helen Watkins was right about the extra security. Sandbag emplacements sat on both sides of the gate. Three armored cars with heavy machine-guns were parked near it. Several squads of soldiers with dogs were patrolling the wire fence around the carpark, which seemed quite empty.

Davidson parked outside the main gate and strolled up to a tubby army captain who commanded about twenty unfit-looking kid soldiers. Davidson showed his ISB pass and said he had an appointment to see the Deputy Chief Security Officer, Helen Watkins.

“She’ll have to come out and collect you.”

“Sure.”

The Captain ducked into the guardhouse to call Helen Watkins. A minute later, he returned and said she was on her way. Soon afterward, she strolled out of the CDC building in her white uniform and headed towards the main gate. Not surprisingly, in view of the previous day’s events, her hair was bedraggled and she looked desperate for sleep.

He said: “Hi. How do you feel?”

A shrug. “OK. Still a bit shocked.”

“That’s understandable. Maybe you should see someone – a therapist – for a chat.”

“That’s been suggested. But I don’t need to see anyone; I’ll be fine.” Her cold tone indicated she wanted no sympathy or personal chit-chat.

She turned towards the tubby captain. “He can come in.”

“Sure.”

She followed Davidson over to his car and got into the front passenger seat.

He drove through the main gate and had no trouble finding a parking spot near the CDC building. “Not many people here today?”

“After what happened yesterday, that’s no surprise: a lot of people decided to stay home.”

As they strolled across the carpark towards the building, she said: “You can use the Visitor’s Pass you were given yesterday.”

“OK.”

Inside, they got into an elevator and she made a stilted effort to be polite. “Congratulations on your medal.”

“Thanks. You deserved one too.”

“No, I didn’t. Why are you here?”

Davidson almost giggled. He now had to go through the charade of trying to find out who gave ID passes and a swipe card to the Freedom Alliance fighters, when he already knew she did. Further, because he had turned traitor, he had no intention of arresting her for that. He had no idea when or how this game would end. Maybe it never would.

He cleared his throat. “Colonel Prentice wants me to find out who helped the Freedom Alliance fighters get into the building. Do you have the ID passes and swipe card taken from their corpses?”

“Yes, they’re in my office. You want to look at them?”

“Yes.”

They got out of the elevator on the fifth floor. She led him along a long corridor and opened a door with “Deputy Chief Security Officer” stenciled on it. She had a fairly bare office, devoid of personal effects, overlooking the carpark. A small pile of clear-plastic evidence bags sat on her desk. They contained the fake IDs and swipe card the Freedom Alliance intruders used.

He picked up a bag and looked at a blood-smeared ID. The photograph showed an attractive woman with frizzy blonde hair and a broad smile. Though he didn’t shoot the female fighter, his heart sank. “This ID pass looks genuine. Do you know how it was made?”

“The photo was obviously taken somewhere else. But I’m pretty sure the pass itself was created in this building. Someone in here also activated the swipe card.”

“Who?”

“I don’t know.”

“OK. Where are those things done?”

“The ID Section on this floor creates passes and activates cards.”

“How many in the section?”

“Three. But all security officers have access to that area, and it’s easy to create passes and activate cards.”

He frowned. “You’re kidding? You mean the security department has lousy security?”

“I’m afraid so. It is – has been – lax. I admit that. It has to improve.”

“You bet it does. So the traitor could be any one of your security officers?

“Basically, yes.”

He was impressed that she didn’t try to frame one of the three officers in the ID section to deflect blame from herself. She seemed a decent woman. “Then how are we going to find the culprit?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe we should first interview the officers in the ID section to see what they know. That might provide a lead.”

Davidson didn’t want to waste his time investigating who helped the Alliance fighters get into the CDC building, particularly when he was face-to-face with the real culprit and didn’t intend to expose her. But he still wanted to know why Robert Meredith plunged off his balcony. “Look, I want you to interview the staff and get written statements from them. Then I’ll review those statements and decided where we go from there.”

She looked surprised and a little relieved. “Really?”

“Yes.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I was interviewing Robert Meredith’s lab assistant, Fiona Clarkson, yesterday morning when the FA fighters turned up. I’d better finish our chat. Is she here today?”

“I don’t know. I’ll call Doctor Carpenter and find out, if you want.”

Davidson wanted to cast his eye over the laboratory again. “No, don’t bother. I’ll stroll down to his office and ask him myself.”

She looked puzzled. “Are you sure?”

“Yes. Start interviewing the staff in the ID section. I’ll be back in a while.”

A shrug. “Alright.”

Davidson strode around to the elevators and caught one down to the basement. There were only a few people working in the huge open laboratory. The only signs of the shootout the day before were a few bullet holes in the walls and smashed glass panels. Even the blood on the floor had been wiped away.

He strolled around the corner to Doctor Carpenter’s office suite, pushed open the door and entered the vacant ante-room. The door to the doctor’s office was closed. He knocked and heard a nervous voice. “Who is it?”

“Major Davidson from the ISB. We talked yesterday.”

Twenty seconds later, Carpenter opened the door, wearing his lab coat, looking even more careworn than yesterday. His forehead buckled. “Ah, Major, please come in. How can I help?”

Davidson followed him into his office. “No secretary today?”

“No. Not many people have turned up to work, which is hardly surprising. I was going to stay home, but felt the call of duty. I saw on TV that you got a medal for what you did yesterday. Congratulations. Most appropriate. You saved all of our lives.”

“That’s an exaggeration.”

Carpenter sat behind his desk. “Anyway, how can I help?”

Davidson sat facing him. “I was speaking to Fiona Clarkson yesterday morning when we were rudely interrupted. I want to finish our chat. Is she here?”

“Umm, no. I’m afraid she stayed home. She phoned about an hour ago and said she doesn’t feel well.”

“OK. Do you have her address?”

A deep frown. “You mean, you want to go out and see her?”

A shrug. “I may as well.”

“Well, umm, maybe you shouldn’t. Like I said: she doesn’t feel well.”

“Don’t worry, if she doesn’t want to talk to me, I won’t insist.” That was a lie. “Now, please give me her address.”

“Alright.” Carpenter tapped on the keyboard of his computer, found the address, wrote it on a piece of paper and handed it over. “She lives in Sector 12. Do you want me to come with you? I think that would be a good idea.”

Carpenter seemed unhappy about Davidson talking to Fiona Clarkson on his own, or at all. As Davidson slipped the piece of paper into his breast pocket, he wondered why. “No, I won’t need your help.”

“You sure?”

“Yes.”

A frown. “Alright. Let me walk you to the elevator.”

“Thanks.”

They left the suite and strolled along the side of the laboratory until they reached the entrance to the Vaccine Storage Area. It seemed the Freedom Alliance fighters broke into the CDC building to destroy that area. Davidson couldn’t understand why they made such a huge sacrifice to achieve that goal. But he might as well look inside that area while he was there.

He stopped and pointed at the entrance. “Can I have a look in there?”

Doctor Carpenter’s eyes narrowed. “Why do you want to do that?”

“Mild curiosity. I want to see what the Freedom Alliance intended to destroy.”

“There’s not much to see, I’m afraid. It’s just a big room with a lot of large fridges.”

Davidson again sensed that Carpenter was trying to thwart his investigation. “Then it won’t take me long to look around, will it?”

A stifled sigh. “Alright, follow me.”

Carpenter punched a number into a code-lock on the wall and pushed open the big metal door. They stepped into a narrow room, about 80 yards long, with huge fridges lining each side.

Davidson said: “What’s in storage at the moment?”

“Mostly the new seasonal flu vaccine. We keep it here until it’s transported to clinics for injection. It must be stored at 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Otherwise, it loses its potency very fast.”

“Can I look inside one of the fridges?”

A shrug. “Of course.”

Carpenter opened a huge fridge door and revealed two sets of racks facing each other. There was enough space between them for a large man to turn around. The racks were piled high with small blue plastic boxes, which looked familiar.

“What’s in the boxes?”

“Vaccine ampoules, of course. Each box holds about twenty. Here, let me show you.”

Carpenter opened a box and Davidson saw it had twenty ampoules neatly arranged. On the side of each was a small printed label: “Flu-shot – IW: 305WE.” The ampoule obviously contained the seasonal flu vaccine to be administered during the forthcoming Immunization Week, which would occur in the 305th year of the Webster Era.

“Have you had your shot yet?”

“Of course not. Nobody is allowed to remove the flu vaccine from this area until Immunization Week starts. We’re very strict about that.” Carpenter put the box back on the rack. “Seen enough?”

“Yes.”

Carpenter closed the fridge door and led Davidson out of the storage area.

Outside, Davidson said: “Thank you. I’ll go and see Fiona Clarkson.”

Another frown. “You sure you need to see her today?”

“Yes. Don’t worry, I’ll be pleasant.”

An unhappy shrug. “Matter for you.”

As Davidson strolled out of the CDC building towards his car, he wondered why the small blue plastic boxes he just saw looked familiar. Then he realized he saw a similar one in the fridge in Robert Meredith’s apartment. Did that box contain ampoules of the new seasonal flu vaccine? Carpenter said nobody was allowed to remove vaccines from the storage area. Did Meredith defy that instruction and take some home? If so, why did he do that?

Davidson decided to visit Robert Meredith’s apartment and inspect the blue plastic box in the fridge. He drove to Sector 7, parked outside the apartment block and knocked on the door of the building supervisor, Frank Lyndon.

The door opened. Lyndon was dressed in a dirty overall – probably the same one he wore last time – and looked wary. “What do you want?”

“You remember me?”

“Of course.”

“I need a key to Apartment 211.”

“OK.” The supervisor retreated into his apartment and returned with a key that he handed over with a grubby hand. “When are you guys going to release that apartment and let us rent it out again?”

“Not sure. Fairly soon, I guess.”

“Something’s got to be done.”

“You will be told.”

Davidson rode the clanking and grinding elevator up to the 21st floor and saw a crime scene tape was stretched across the front door of the apartment. He tore it off and opened the door.

In the kitchen, he opened the fridge and saw the blue plastic box was still there. He pulled it out, opened the lid and saw that it contained only one ampoule with “Flu-shot – IW: 205WE” printed on the side. So, contrary to instructions, Meredith removed some of that season’s flu vaccine from the Vaccine Storage Area and brought it home. Why did he do that? Was there something significant about this vaccine? Davidson decided to show the ampoule to Fiona Clarkson and ask her why Meredith had it in his fridge. He tucked it into his pocket and headed out the door.

As he drove towards Sector 12, he remembered he still had the notebook he found in Meredith’s apartment during his first search. It was in his briefcase on the back seat. He might as well show that to Fiona Clarkson as well.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

 

Sector 12 was established 100 years ago, when the City’s planners were hastily throwing up apartment buildings in a desperate attempt to house a fast growing population. Many buildings now had terminal concrete cancer. Their diseased facades were chipped and stained, and many balconies had either sagged or fallen right off. The apartments themselves were small, cold and dark.

As Davidson drove along the sector’s cracked and buckled streets, he saw obvious signs the government was losing its grip. Five years ago, the police would have ensured there was no graffiti on the walls. Now it was everywhere, either criticizing the Chancellor or supporting the Freedom Alliance. The police would have also rounded up any unemployed youths wandering the streets and sent them to a work camp. Now, dozens strolled about or stood in conspiratorial groups with impunity.

He parked outside the six-story apartment building in which Fiona Clarkson lived, and enjoyed the worried looks of several loitering youths as he crossed the pavement and entered the building. There was no elevator, so he walked up the fire-escape to the top floor and knock on a warped pine door.

“Who’s that?” a female voice said.

“Major Davidson from the Internal Security Bureau – we spoke yesterday.”

A long silence.

“Open up or I’ll knock down the door. I mean you no harm, seriously.”

Another long silence. “What do you want?”

“Open the door,” he said wearily.

After another long wait, the door slowly swung open. Fiona Clarkson wore a terrified expression and a plain floral dress. She glanced nervously at his face and the pistol on his hip.

He said: “Don’t worry, I just want to ask a few more questions.”

“W-w-w-hy are you here? We can talk at work – at the CDC.”

“True. But I’m here now, so let’s get this over and done with. Can we talk inside?”

A nervous shrug. “OK.”

He strolled past her into a small two-room apartment with worn-out furniture on a half-dead rug, and plenty of clutter. “Who do you live with?”

“My parents. They’re at work right now.”

“What do they do?”

“Dad’s an assembly worker at the car factory; Mum’s a nurse.”

“Alright. Where do you want to talk?”

She pointed at a lumpy couch. “Sit there.”

He sat and she perched bird-like on the armchair opposite, as if ready to flutter out the window.

She said: “What do you want to know?”

“For a start, what was Robert Matthews testing at the CDC when he died?”

She knotted her fingers. “I think he was testing a new vaccine against measles.”

“Really? What about the latest seasonal flu vaccine? Was he involved in testing that?”

Her face flushed. “No, we were … we were told we didn’t need to test that.”

“Really? Who told you that?”

“Doctor Carpenter. He said there was no problem with this year’s batch and it didn’t need testing.”

“Is it usually tested?”

“Yes. This is the first year it wasn’t. I mean, we don’t give the latest flu vaccine the full range of tests we’d give a brand new vaccine, because it’s just a variation of the previous year’s, but we usually do some testing.”

“Did Doctor Carpenter say why it didn’t need testing?”

“Not really. He just said there were no safety issues.”

“How did he know there were no safety issues if it wasn’t tested?”

“That’s what I thought. So I assumed someone else did it.”

“Any idea who?”

“No.”

“Then why did Robert Meredith take some of the new flu vaccine home with him?”

Her eyes widened. “He did?”

“Yes. I found this ampoule in his fridge.” He took the ampoule from his pocket and handed it over.

She studied the writing on the side. “My God. You got this from his fridge?”

“Yes. What was it doing there?”

“I don’t know. He shouldn’t have taken home any of the new flu vaccine. It’s all kept in the Vaccine Storage Area and nobody is supposed to touch it.”

“Maybe he tested it himself, without authority?”

“That’s possible, I guess.”

“In his apartment, I also found a notebook.” He extracted the notebook from his breast pocket and handed it to her. “Is that his handwriting?”

She flipped through the pages. “Yes. This is his lab book. It’s where he noted up the results of his tests.”

“Look at the last page. He’s written “EBOV and Variola antigens” and circled that several times. Why did he do that?”

Her eyes almost exploded. “My God. EBOV and Variola are the scientific terms for Ebola and smallpox.”

“So what?”

“An antigen is the active agent in a vaccine. It’s a disable or dead form of a bacteria or virus. It stimulates the immune system to make antibodies that will fight the real disease when it arrives. So he’s written that he detected Ebola and smallpox antigens in something he tested.”

“Was he testing a vaccine against them?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Would he have told you if he was?”

“Yes.”

“Maybe he found the Ebola and smallpox antigens in this year’s flu vaccine.”

She shook her head vehemently. “Impossible. There is no way those antigens would be in that vaccine – no way. It was intended to protect against the flu, not Ebola or smallpox.”

Davidson felt his stomach drop and head grow faint. A dark thought seeped into his brain. “Can you examine the flu shot I just gave you and see if it has Ebola and smallpox antigens?”

“There’s no point – it won’t.”

“Will you examine it anyway?”

She shrugged and stood up. “OK, if you insist. I’ve got a microscope in my bedroom. I’ll get it.”

“Thanks.”

She strode into a bedroom and returned, 30 seconds later, with a large microscope that she put on the coffee table.

He said: “If the vaccine has Ebola and smallpox antigens, is it dangerous?”

“No. Those viruses will – should – be disabled. That’s the whole point.”

“OK. Go ahead.”

She used a pin to puncture the seal on the ampoule he gave her and smeared a small amount on a slide, which she pushed under the lens. She studied the slide and her feet started drumming on the floor. “Wow. Wow. Yes, there’s a smallpox antigen: Variola has a very distinctive sushi-like shape.”

“What about an Ebola antigen?”

“I don’t know what that looks like, I’m afraid, so I can’t tell you.” She looked up, eyes glowing with excitement and fear. “There is absolutely no way that a smallpox antigen should be in a seasonal flu vaccine. What’s it doing there?”

Davidson remembered the Chancellor’s description of the City as a bonsai tree that had to be trimmed and pruned to make sure it stayed just the right size and shape. The Chancellor obviously intended to release a super-virus to prune back – wipe out – the Outlaws. But first, he had to give the citizens of the City a seasonal flu vaccine with antigens that protected them against that super-virus.

The enormity of the crime Davidson suspected almost made his head explode. He stood up, walked over to the balcony and tried to suck oxygen into empty lungs. The rickety balcony was dotted with dead pot-plants; a gaping hole framed the street below.

He knew he should keep his fears to himself. But it was impossible to stay quiet about such a monstrous crime. “The super-virus that caused the Great Plague included genetically engineered Ebola and smallpox, didn’t it?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Then, isn’t it obvious? The Chancellor intends to release the same sort of super-virus.”

“My God. Why would he do that?”

“To wipe out all the Outlaws, including the Freedom Alliance. But first, he has to make sure that the citizens of Webster City will survive the plague. So, during Immunization Week, they will be given a flu vaccine with antigens that protect them against the super-virus.”

“That’s crazy.”

“Not to him. The Outlaw community grows bigger every day and the City is losing its fight with the Freedom Alliance. This is his last throw of the dice. Militarily, it makes perfect sense.”

“You’re talking about mass-murder. This City was founded by people who survived a pandemic. The Chancellor wouldn’t start another one.”

A shrug. “Why not? He loves power and doesn’t want to die. That gives him a big incentive.”

“He’s the head of our church.”

“He inherited that title; he didn’t earn it with good works.”

“I think you’re wrong.”

“If you’ve got a better theory, tell me.”

A long pause and a shudder. “Maybe you’re right. I mean, your theory would explain why Robert argued with Doctor Carpenter just before he died.”

Davidson felt a jolt. “He did?”

“Yes, I saw him as he left work that day. He looked upset. I asked him what was wrong. He said he’d just had an argument with Carpenter.”

“Did he say why?”

“No, he wouldn’t tell me. Then he disappeared.”

It was now obvious why Robert Meredith plunged off the balcony of his apartment. When Carpenter told him not to test the new seasonal flu vaccine, he got curious and put it under a microscope. He saw the Ebola and smallpox antigens and realized a deeply evil plan had been hatched. Maybe he even suspected a conspiracy to release a super-virus to wipe out the Outlaws. Anyway, he told Carpenter about the antigens, not realizing Carpenter was part of the conspiracy. Carpenter told him to keep quiet. They argued and Meredith went home. Carpenter informed a fellow conspirator – maybe even the Chancellor – that Meredith was a threat. That fellow conspirator dispatched a killer to Meredith’s apartment who threw Meredith off the balcony.

Davidson said: “So, now we know that Meredith was murdered.”

“He was?”

“Yes. Carpenter is obviously part of the conspiracy to release the super-virus. When Robert told him about the antigens, Robert sealed his own fate. He was thrown off the balcony to keep him quiet.”

“That’s horrible – horrible.” She leaned over and sobbed. “Bastards.”

“Were you having a relationship with him?”

Her eyes flickered away. “Why do you ask?”

“Just curious. He bought some flowers for his apartment just before he died. A woman was obviously going to visit. Were you that woman?”

A long sigh. “Yes. I sometimes stayed overnight. He was a lovely guy – lovely.” She sobbed some more.

“It sounds like it. My commiserations.”

Davidson strolled back to the balcony glass doors and stared at the diseased facade of the neighboring apartment building. His doubts about the integrity of the Chancellor and his oppressive regime had grown steadily over the years. Now he had indisputable proof the Chancellor was rotten to the core. Time to face the ugly truth that he had fought for the wrong side and done many evil things for which he must make amends. He also realized that if his brother, Ted, was still alive in the Badlands, the super-virus would kill him. The chance of Ted being alive was slight, but Davidson couldn’t take that risk.

She said: “Are you alright?”

“Why do you ask?”

“You look upset.”

“Of course I’m upset. I’ve just found that the Chancellor and his pals want to release an Armageddon virus to wipe out a million people.”

“What are you going to do about that?”

Somehow, he had to stop the Chancellor releasing the super-virus. If he did, he would at least wipe off some of the blood on his hands. “I’m going to stop them.”

“How?”

“I don’t know yet – but I will.”

It occurred to Davidson that, if the conspirators silenced Robert Meredith for getting a sniff of their plans, they would probably try to silence anyone close to him, like his laboratory assistant. Indeed, if they discovered Davidson knew about their plans, they would target him as well.

He was about to warn Fiona of the danger she faced when he heard a knock on the door.

His heart rate jumped. Their eyes swiveled around to stare at it.

He spoke softly: “Who’s that? One of your parents?”

“No, they’ll still be at work.”

“OK. Find out who it is and get rid of him.”

“I will.”

He smiled. “And sound relaxed.”

Like most apartments in Webster City, this one had a small kitchen near the front door, off the hallway. As Fiona Clarkson approached the door, Davidson slipped into the kitchen, took a silencer out of a belt pouch and screwed it onto his Glock.

Fiona sounded nervous. “Hello, who is it?”

A male voice that sounded familiar. “The mailman. I’ve got a parcel to deliver.”

“Oh? Who’s it from?”

A pause. “I don’t know. It doesn’t say on the package.”

“I’m, umm, getting dressed. Put it down outside and I’ll collect it later.”

“You’ve got to sign.”

“Do what I say.”

Davidson suddenly heard the sound of the door being busted down. The flimsy frame shrieked as it came off its hinges.

Fiona screamed.

The intruder yelled: “Don’t fucking move or I’ll shoot you dead. Get inside.”

A loud gasp. “Why – what do you want?”

“Shut up and get inside.”

From where he stood, against a wall, Davidson could only see a sliver of the hallway. Fiona Clarkson and a large man with blond hair, wearing dark clothes and holding a pistol, flitted past. However, Davidson now had a good idea who the intruder was.

They reached the living room and the man said: “Get on the couch.”

“W-w-what do you want? What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to shut you up for good. But seeing you’re kinda cute – a bit chunky, but cute – I’m gonna have some fun first.”

Davidson was now certain who the guy was. Pistol extended, he slipped out of the kitchen and edged along the hallway. A tall man with golden hair, wearing an ISB uniform stood over a cowering Fiona Clarkson. The man had put his pistol on the coffee table and was fumbling with his pants.

Fiona screamed. “No, don’t.”

Davidson said: “Freeze, right now.”

Captain Tony Delray, a.k.a. Captain Handsome, turned and glanced at Davidson’s face and pistol. His eyes ignited. “What the hell? Hello, Carl. Umm, what are you doing here?”

“Don’t move a muscle. You reach for your pistol and I will shoot you dead, understand?”

Delray glanced at his pistol on the coffee table and knew Davidson would cut him down long before he reached it. “What are you talking about? We’re both on the same side.”

“We’re not. So don’t make me shoot you.”

Delray showed his palms and looked perplexed. “OK, OK, I won’t. But of course we’re, ummm …”

“No, we’re not colleagues or friends. You kid yourself that we are, and I will have to kill you. Now, tell me: why are you here?”

“Why do you want to know?”

Davidson raised his pistol to eye-level. “Tell me or I shoot you dead, right now.”

For the first time, Delray showed real fear. “OK, OK. I came to, umm, talk to this woman.”

“What about?”

“That’s confidential.”

“You’re even dumber than I thought. You were sent here to kill her, weren’t you?”

“That’s none of your business.”

“Answer my question or I’ll kill you and go have lunch.”

“We’re on the same side …”

“We’re not. So talk or die – that simple.”

Delray glanced nervously at his pistol on the coffee table and decided again he would never reach it. “OK, OK. I was sent here to, umm, kill her.”

“Who sent you?”

“I can’t tell you.”

“Why not?”

“I’m not allowed to say.”

Davidson chuckled. “Really? You’ve seen me kill before and I’ve now threatened to kill you. Do you think I’m joking?”

Delray’s eyes darted about and sweat broke out on his high forehead. “Alright, alright, if you must know, it was, umm, Colonel Prentice.”

Davidson was a little surprised. “Really? Why does he want her dead?”

“He didn’t say.”

“You mean, he told you to kill someone and you didn’t ask why?”

A nervous shrug. “He’s the boss. He tells me to do something and I do it.” A dry giggle. “You know me, I’m a bit of a suck-ass; I do what I’m told. Now, put down the pistol and let’s go have a beer.”

“Prentice also told you to kill Robert Meredith, didn’t he?”

A deep frown. “Look, put down the pistol. This isn’t funny anymore.”

Davidson waggled his pistol. “Answer my question.”

“Yes, yes, he told me to kill Meredith. So I tossed him off the balcony.”

“Why did he want Meredith dead?”

“Once again, I didn’t ask. I just followed orders. Now come on, pal, stop being a hard-ass and let’s have a drink together.”

“You mean, after you’ve killed this woman?”

“Of course.”

Davidson had no intention of letting Delray kill Fiona Clarkson. Nor could he let Delray live after this face-off. His heart rate lifted a gear and he sighed inwardly. “I can’t let you do that. In fact, now you have to die.”

Delray’s eyes exploded with fear and he opened his mouth to respond. Before he could, Davidson’s pistol plopped three times. The bullets slammed into Delray’s chest and toppled him over backward onto the floor.

Fiona Clarkson screamed.

Davidson yelled for her to shut up as he strode over to Delray’s body and looked down. Lifeless eyes stared out of a noble face that death did nothing to diminish.

Fiona sat quivering on the couch. “He’s dead?”

“Definitely. You OK?”

She dry-retched and croaked: “Of course not. You just shot him.”

“He was going to rape and shoot you.”

“You mean, he was really going to do that?”

“Of course. He wasn’t playing games. You need a glass of water?”

“Y-y-yes.”

Heart still thumping, he ducked into the kitchen and used a trembling hand to take a smudged glass out of a cupboard. He filled it with tap water, returned to the living room and passed it over. “Here.”

She gulped down the water, spilling plenty onto her dress, while he unscrewed the silencer.

She dry-retched once more. “W-w-why did he want to kill me?”

He holstered his pistol and tucked away the silencer. “Same reason he killed Robert Meredith – to shut you up.”

“But I didn’t know the Ebola and smallpox antigens were in the vaccine until you came here.”

“They didn’t know that. You worked as Robert Meredith’s lab assistant. There was a good chance he told you about it. That was enough to make them kill you.”

“And will they, umm, try to kill me again.”

“Of course.”

“Jesus.”

“That’s why you’ve got to leave this apartment now – with your parents – understand? Your life’s in real danger. In fact, if you can get out of the City, you should. Do you know how?”

A wary look. “Why are you helping me? Why did you shoot him?”

“I’m not a good person, but I can’t let them release the super-virus. Can you get out of the City?”

“Maybe. I think I know someone who will help us.”

“Good. Then get out, fast.” He nodded towards the opened vaccine ampoule on the coffee table. “Can you still use that vaccine?”

“I don’t know. It might not be effective anymore.”

“Take it and use it if you want.”

“You don’t want it?”

He smiled. “I don’t like injections.”

She nodded towards the corpse on the floor. “What about him? What are you going to do with his body?”

Davidson turned his attention back to Delray. Like most ISB officers, Delray kept a notebook. Maybe it contained some information about the plot to release a super-virus.

Davidson bent over, reached into Delray’s tunic pocket and extracted his small leather-bound notebook. As he opened it up, a small red paper object fluttered out and landed on the threadbare rug. He picked up an origami model of a horse, exactly the same as the one Barbara created the night before.

Jesus. He’d suspected Barbara was cheating on him. This model proved he was right. His heart thumped and anger at both of them surged through him. But his main emotion was relief. He now had proof that his marriage was a sham and a good excuse to move on, which he would do.

Fiona Clarkson said: “What’s that?”

“It’s an origami model of a horse.”

“You look surprised.”

“I am. My wife made it.”

“Really? How did he get it?”

“She must have given it to him.”

A long pause and raised eyebrows. “Oh, I see. You mean, you think they …?’”

“Yes, I do think that.”

“Wow. Then I guess you’re glad you shot him.”

A half-smile. “I’m not upset.”

After slipping the origami model into a trouser pocket, he glanced through the notebook and saw Delray hadn’t been using it for long. There were only a few entries and none mentioned a plot to release a super-virus. However, scrawled at the bottom of one page was the phone number of the school where Barbara worked – further proof they were having an affair.

Fiona Clarkson said: “What are you going to do about the body?”

He tucked the notebook inside his tunic and turned to her. “Can I borrow your rug?”

She shrugged. “I guess I won’t need it now.”

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

 

It wasn’t easy for Davidson to carry the rug-wrapped corpse down to his black Cadillac. A couple of times, the weight shifted and he struggled to stay on his feet. However, nobody paid any attention to him as he tottered across the pavement and dumped it into the trunk of his vehicle.

He sat behind the steering wheel and took some deep breaths while pondering recent events. The Freedom Alliance must already know about the Chancellor’s plan to release a super-virus to wipe out all of the Outlaws, including them, but couldn’t locate and destroy it. That was why the Alliance sent a team into the CDC building to destroy the seasonal flu vaccine that contained the super-virus antigens. If the vaccine was destroyed, the Chancellor would have had to wait several months, until a replacement batch of vaccine was manufactured, before he released the super-virus. In the meantime, the Alliance could step up its efforts to locate and destroy that virus.

However, due to Davidson’s intervention, the flu vaccine was not destroyed and would be administered during Immunization Week, which started in a few days. That meant the Chancellor could release the super-virus in eight or nine days’ time.

Davidson wanted to help the Freedom Alliance find and destroy the super-virus. But he had to get in touch with it first. How could he do that? The best avenue was Helen Watkins. He gave her a lot of rope after he discovered she worked for the Alliance. Time to give it a tug.

As he drove towards her apartment, he considered dumping the corpse somewhere along the way. However, if she doubted his sincerity, he would need to prove his bona fides. The corpse should give him plenty of credibility. Fortunately, it was a cool day.

 

Helen Watkins lived in Sector 11, one of the most up-market sectors of the City. Indeed, her ten-story apartment building had little weathering and few cracks.

Davidson parked against the curb and caught an elevator up to the seventh floor. After picking the cheap lock on her front door, he stepped inside. She lived in a neat and tidy two-bedroom apartment. Quilted cushions, durries and posters of Hollywood musicals gave it some warmth. There were also half-a-dozen photographs of a small boy on the side-board. Obviously her son, Felix, who died aged three from pneumonia.

Davidson wanted to know more about her. Did she have a boyfriend? What were her hobbies? Who did she contact in the Freedom Alliance? He searched through her cupboards, wardrobes, desk, dressing table, fridge and kitchen bin, looking for clues and found none. He even rummaged through her underwear drawer and noted the contents were fairly bland. It was as if, like any sensible traitor in Webster City, she expected her apartment would be searched.

The only item that raised his eyebrows was a birthday card left on the kitchen bench. He opened it. “Happy Birthday darling, love Eric. XXX

Who was “Eric”? Her boss, Eric Tanguy? Davidson vaguely recalled that he wore a wedding ring. Maybe they were having an office romance.

He glanced at his watch. Almost three o’clock. Still several hours before she would return home from the CDC. A half-drunk bottle of Jack Daniel’s Whiskey and a couple of shot glasses sat on the sideboard. The imitation “Jack Daniel’s” made at the Webster City Distillery wasn’t nearly as good as the real stuff made before the Great Plague. But he poured a glass anyway and sipped it while staring through the balcony glass door. The rooftops of the surrounding apartment buildings were full of rusting sheds and broken equipment that made them look like tiny shanty-towns. Most of the City was garbed in gray and brown, with only a touch of green.

The alcohol cut away some of his stress. He wondered who was involved in the conspiracy to release the super-virus. Obviously, the Chancellor was at the center of the web, and Professor Fisher and Doctor Carpenter were assisting him. Delray claimed Colonel Prentice dispatched him to kill Robert Meredith and then Fiona Clarkson. That suggested Prentice was also a conspirator. But, if Prentice ordered Delray to kill Meredith, why did Prentice ask Davidson to investigate that killing? That made no sense. So maybe Delray lied about Prentice ordering him to kill those two. It was hard to know.

He considered phoning his wife, Barbara, and telling her he knew she was cheating on him and never wanted to see her again. He could even mention that he’d just shot her lover dead. However, he killed that idea. He really didn’t want to have any further contact with her. She could find out from a third party that he wasn’t returning home and Delray was dead. It was also possible that his call would be traced back to this apartment.

After a couple of hours of pacing about, he used the remote control to turn on the television and watch the evening news. As usual, the “news” was just heavily censored propaganda. The first item was about an army attack on a Freedom Alliance base near Old Boston. The female announcer said it was a resounding success that left many enemies dead. The next item showed the Chancellor opening a new shopping mall in Sector 8. During the ceremony, he gave a long speech about the importance of hygiene and cleanliness which seemed to bore even him. The third item was about Immunization Week, due to start in a few days’ time. A reporter interviewed Professor Fisher in his office. The Professor, wearing a white lab coat, said: “We’ve manufactured all of the vaccines we need for Immunization Week, including the new seasonal flu shot. I want to emphasize the importance of every citizen, particularly the young, getting their jabs. Don’t give those nasty bugs a chance.”

Davidson wasn’t surprised that the news program didn’t mention that Captain Delray was missing. It was highly unlikely that anyone at the ISB knew Delray had disappeared yet. And when someone did, that fact would not be broadcast on a television news program. In Webster City, real news never was.

The news program started its sports coverage and Davidson switched to a channel showing a movie about Alexander Webster. At least 20 bio-pics about him had been made in Webster City over the years. To Davidson’s surprised, he hadn’t seen this one. It had obviously just started, because Webster was still a teenager, playing with test-tubes in the garage of his family home, a brilliant biochemist in the making.

Davidson turned off the television and stood at the balcony glass door, sipping whiskey, while the falling sun dripped gold paint onto the rusted roof-top structures of surrounding buildings. Despite the danger he faced and the enormous stakes he was playing for, he felt oddly excited, even happy, because he had cut his bonds with the City, his job and his wife. His future might not be bright, but he would be free.

Just after seven o’clock, a key scraped in the lock of the front door. He slipped across the living room and stood in the corner. The door opened and feet – a woman’s? – marched up the hallway.

Helen Watkins, wearing a padded jacket over her white uniform, stepped into the living room. No pistol in her holster. She must have left it at work.

He aimed his pistol at her. “Don’t move a muscle.”

She half-turned, goggle-eyed and started to scream.

“Shut up.”

She went quiet and stared saucer-eyed at his pistol, body quivering. “Y-y-you – what are you doing here? Why are you pointing that at me?”

He showed a palm. “I want to chat. I won’t harm you, I promise, if you keep quiet – but you’ve got to keep quiet.” He waggled his pistol. “Can I put this away?”

Immediately after the shootout yesterday, she looked like she’d aged five years. Now she’d aged five more. A slow nod. “Y-y-es.”

“Good.” He holstered his pistol.

“W-why’re you here? How did you get in?”

He tried to sound soothing. “I let myself in. It wasn’t hard. Your lock’s useless.”

“W-why are you here?”

“It’s simple: I want to get in contact with the Freedom Alliance.”

She looked stunned. “What?”

“I want to get in touch with the Freedom Alliance.”

She resumed trembling. “I-I don’t know anything about the Alliance.”

“Yes, you do. I know you’re working for it. Yesterday morning, I saw you shoot the Freedom Alliance intruder. He didn’t reach for a pistol. In fact, he begged you to kill him, so he wasn’t captured and tortured. You obviously knew him and he knew you. You gave the FA team their ID passes and swipe card, didn’t you?”

Her eyes bubbled with fear. “Y-y-you’re totally wrong.”

“I’m not. But don’t worry. I’m not here to arrest you. In fact, I’ve switched sides.”

She looked even more stunned and deeply suspicious. “You’ve what?”

“Switched sides.”

“Really? You shot three Freedom Alliance fighters yesterday morning.”

“I know. But, when I did, I didn’t know why they were attacking the CDC building.”

“Why did they attack it?”

“Because the Chancellor is planning to release a super-virus that will kill all of the Outlaws.”

Her eyes shimmered. “Who told you that?”

He described how he found an ampoule of the latest seasonal flu vaccine in Robert Meredith’s fridge and showed it to Fiona Clarkson, who detected Ebola and smallpox antigens. “The Chancellor obviously intends to inoculate all citizens during Immunization Week and then release a super-virus. That’s why the Freedom Alliance team attacked the CDC building: to destroy the vaccine and buy time to locate the super-virus.”

Furrows rippled across her brow. “How do I know you’re telling the truth?”

“When I was with Fiona Clarkson, someone turned up to murder her.”

“My God, are you serious?”

“Yes. Captain Delray from the ISB. You met him yesterday morning.”

“I remember him. What happened?”

“I shot him dead.”

A vehement headshake. “I don’t believe you.”

He pulled out his car keys and proffered them. “My car’s parked downstairs. If you look in the trunk you’ll find his body in a rug.”

She ignored the keys. “Jesus. He was your colleague.”

“Actually, we were good friends, once. But I couldn’t let him shoot Fiona and I won’t stand idle while the Chancellor wipes out most of humanity. He got in the way and paid the price.” He smiled. “I may be a bastard, but I’m not a fucking bastard.”

She studied his face for a long time and half-sighed. “You want to contact the Freedom Alliance?”

“Yes.”

“Why should I trust you?”

He held out his keys again and made them tinkle. “Look in the trunk. He’s got three bullets in him.”

She eyed the keys for a long time and grabbed them. “Alright. I’m going out for a stroll. While I’m gone, I’ll have a look in the trunk. If you’re telling the truth, I’ll ask someone what to do. I’ll be back in two or three hours. You wait here.”

She disappeared out the door and he paced around, wondering whether she would return with a Freedom Alliance contact, his colleagues from the ISB or even a police unit. Or maybe she wouldn’t return at all.

He poured himself another glass of whiskey and sipped it, careful not to drink too much. The whiskey made him hungry. He strolled into the kitchen, made a couple of ham and tomato sandwiches, and scoffed them down.

Almost three hours later, a key scraped in the door. He whipped out his pistol and retreated to the corner of the living room where he took up station before. Familiar sounding feet strode up the hallway.

She stepped into the living room, saw his pistol and jumped. “Shit.”

He lowered the weapon. “Sorry.”

She clutched her chest and emitted a deep sigh. “I can’t get used to that.”

“Nobody can. Did you talk to your contact?”

“Yes. We’re to wait here until someone arrives.”

“Who?”

“I wasn’t told. I was just given a password.”

“How do I know this isn’t a trap?”

“I should ask you that question. In fact, give me your pistol.”

“No.”

She extended her hand and clicked her fingers. “Give it to me or nobody turns up. I don’t want to end up like the guy in the trunk.”

He hated giving up his pistol, but had to build trust. Anyway, he could probably over-power her and get it back, if necessary. He put on the safety-catch and offered it butt-first. “I’d like it back, in good condition, if you don’t mind. I’m very attached to it.”

She studied the Glock 17. “Is this an original?”

“Yes, made in Austria 320 years ago.”

“Wow.” She tossed him his car keys. “They’re yours’.”

He pocketed them. “Thanks. How long do we have to wait?”

“At least a couple of hours.” She put his pistol in her jacket pocket.

He strolled around the living room and pointed at the Jack Daniel’s. “Can I offer you a glass of your own whiskey?”

She smiled. “Sure.”

He poured two glasses and handed one over.

They both took sips and he said: “Umm, I’m sorry about what happened yesterday – I really am.”

She frowned. “You mean, you shooting the FA fighters or you forcing me to shoot one of them?”

“Both.”

A flash of anger. “You should be sorry, so let’s not talk about it.”

“OK, OK.”

“But you know your trade, don’t you?”

“What trade?”

“Killing people.”

A shrug. “I try to avoid it if I can.”

“Really? People seem to get very unhealthy when you’re around.”

“That’s not usually my fault.” He studied the photographs of the little boy on the sideboard. “Your son?”

She frowned. “Yes.”

“I looked in your ISB intelligence file. He died in Webster Central, right? You complained about his treatment.” He didn’t like intruding into her personal life, but wanted to know what made her tick.

She frowned. “I did. We took him to a hospital with pneumonia. Because he was vomiting, the doctors diagnosed a stomach complaint and didn’t give him antibiotics until it was too late. They were hopeless; the whole place was a shambles. He would have survived if we were rich and powerful. So we complained to the Director of Health and the Medical Board and there was a big cover-up.”

“Your marriage ended soon afterward?”

“Yes. Tony told me to stop causing trouble, because it would hurt his career. I kept pushing and he left me. There wasn’t much left in our marriage anyway after Felix died.”

“So you left the police force and started working at the CDC?”

“Yes. I didn’t want to be around Tony anymore and needed a change.”

“You also joined the Freedom Alliance. Was that because of what happened to Felix?”

After a long pause, she obviously decided the time for games was over. “Yes. I realized this City is corrupt to its core. I also noticed, for the first time, that everyone in power is a man. Women in this city are treated like dirt.”

He smiled. “According to Alexander Webster, feminism was a cause of the Dark Years and the Great Plague.”

She didn’t smile back. “Webster was a fool. Anyway, I suspected some friends were FA sympathizers and hinted to them that I wanted to join up. They put me in touch with someone. You’d be surprised how many FA supporters there are in this City. Lots of people have stories like mine. If the FA launches a major attack, this place might fold like a paper bag.”

“I know. Even ISB majors are turning traitor.”

She smiled. “Exactly.”

“In fact, that’s why the Chancellor is going to release a super-virus – because he’s losing his grip.” He took a sip. “You didn’t remarry, did you?”

“Of course not.”

“No boyfriend?”

A smile. “No. It’s hard to have a good relationship when you’re a traitor. There are too many parts of your life you’ve got to keep secret.”

He was tempted to ask who “Eric” was, but didn’t want to reveal he’d been looking through her stuff. “Really? Sounds like a normal relationship to me.”

She laughed and took a sip. “What about you? I see you’ve got a wedding ring.”

A shrug. “Yes, I’m married – even got a piece of paper to prove it.”

“It’s not going well?”

“It’s a disaster. We’re not compatible. We want different things out of life. In fact, I’ve just discovered she was cheating on me.”

“Really? With whom?”

“The guy in the trunk of my car.”

A stifled laugh. “You’re kidding?”

“No.”

“Is that why you shot him?”

“No. I only found out after I killed him and searched his body. He had something – a token – she must have given him.”

“My God. You must be upset with her?”

A shrug. “Not really. I withdrew my emotional investment long ago. This makes it easier to call it quits.”

“Does she know that you’ve gone rogue?”

“No, though I expect she’ll find out fairly soon.”

“But not from you?”

“I don’t plan to see her again.”

A heavy knock on the door.

Watkins looked at it, surprised. “The contact the FA is sending isn’t supposed to be here for another hour, at least.”

“Then you’d better find out who it is.”

She yelled out. “Who’s there?”

A drunken voice. “It’s Eric, baby. I thought I’d drop past on the way home to give you a cuddle.”

She looked at Davidson. “Jesus, it’s Eric Tanguy.”

“You’re having an affair with him, aren’t you?”

“How do you know?”

“I saw the birthday card.”

“Shit.”

“Get rid of him.”

She yelled again. “Go home Eric, I’m … umm … going to bed.”

A key scraped in the door and Davidson barely had time to jump into the bedroom before it swung open. He heard Tanguy stumble down the hall, slurring his words. “Why so unfriendly, Honey? I’ve had a terrible, terrible week. FA fighters shot up the laboratory and then everybody blamed me. Fucking unfair. Fisher wants to sack me, did you know that?”

“He said that?”

“No, but it’s obvious.”

“You’re drunk. Go home to your wife.”

“I want to stay here for a while. Don’t throw me out. Come on, let’s have a drink together.”

“No, not tonight. Maybe tomorrow night. Definitely tomorrow night.”

“Don’t you love me no more?”

“Of course I do. But tonight’s a bad night.”

“Why? Have you got someone else here?”

He obviously wouldn’t go. So Davidson stepped out of the bedroom. “Yes, I’m here, so go home.”

Tanguy, dressed in a sports jacket and jeans, spun around and looked stunned. “What the fuck’re you doing here?”

“I’m here to fix the television, you idiot.”

Tanguy scowled at Watkins. “Oh, I see. You’ve decided to upgrade, huh? Found yourself a big hero – the man who won a medal.”

“Go home.”

For a few moments, Davidson thought he would have to kill Tanguy. However, Tanguy was sober enough to realize that tangling with an ISB officer was a very bad idea. A floppy nod towards Watkins. “OK, OK, I’m going. I’ll leave you here with lover-boy. But I’ll see you at work tomorrow, and I won’t be happy.”

“Sure.”

She hustled Tanguy up the corridor and forced him out the door. Then she strolled back, looking embarrassed and annoyed.

He said: “I thought you didn’t have a boyfriend?”

“I don’t. He’s married. I just sleep with him sometimes to keep him quiet and stop him getting suspicious. It makes my life easier.”

“I understand.”

She sighed. “It’s not easy being a traitor: it’s rough on your social life. Anyway, we’ve got a couple of hours to kill. What do you want to do?”

He was tempted to ask what jobs she had done for the Freedom Alliance. But she seemed to accept his bona fides. Why make her suspicious?

The second game of the World Series was being played that night. Watching baseball on television while a plot to kill a million people was whirring forward seemed rather odd. However, they couldn’t do anything until the Freedom Alliance contact arrived. He said: “We could watch the second game of the World Series.”

She smiled and shrugged. “Why not?”

They sat on the couch and she turned on the television with the remote. The teams had already played one innings. While they watched the second innings, she took some knitting out of a wicker basket and started purling.

He looked at her. “You like knitting?”

“I do it when I’m tense.”

“Like now.”

“You bet.”

While they watched the baseball, he started to feel aroused. She was an attractive woman and the proximity of Armageddon boosted his desire. Too bad he couldn’t do anything about it.

Despite his lust and the Chancellor’s murderous plot, he was able to devote at least half of his brain to the game. It was in the ninth innings, with the Sector 2 Yankees well ahead, when they heard another loud knock on the door. They both jumped to their feet.

She dropped her knitting, turned off the television and took the Glock out of her pocket. Then she yelled: “Password?”

A male voice said: “Veni, vidi, vici.”

When Davidson heard the password, he felt a stab of surprise and panic, before laughing.

“What’s so funny?”

“I know who it is.”

“Who?”

“Let him in.”

She walked up the hallway and nervously opened the door to reveal, as Davidson expected, Colonel Prentice, looking resplendent in his black ISB uniform.

She gasped. “My God, Colonel. You work for the Alliance?”

A broad smile. “Good evening.” He looked past her at Davidson. “Hello, Major. I was told I’d find you here.”

Davidson smiled back. “Really? Who told you that?”

A casual wave of the hand. “Oh, a friend in the Freedom Alliance.”

“That so? How long have you known your friend?”

A wry smile. “A few years now. I’ve never mentioned him to you, have I? Sorry about that – slipped my mind. I’ll introduce you when I get a chance.”

“I look forward to it.”

Davidson realized that, on reflection, he wasn’t surprised that Prentice was a traitor. Prentice might truly believe in the cause of the Freedom Alliance. But, even if he didn’t, he would have turned traitor for the sheer thrill and challenge of working for both sides of the conflict. For him, the game was everything.

Davidson said: “You told me a few days ago that you were worried a mole in the ISB was blowing up operations. You were talking about yourself, weren’t you?”

A chuckle. “Yes, though there could be another mole besides me.”

“You mean, someone the Freedom Alliance hasn’t told you about?”

“Of course. It doesn’t tell me everything.”

“So tell me, why did you switch sides?”

A dismissive wave. “I’ll explain that when I get a chance. Right now, we must get down to business. I understand you found out about the super-virus the Chancellor is going to release.”

“You know about that?”

“Of course. I’ve known about it for a couple of weeks. In fact, I told the Alliance about it. But I haven’t been able to locate it. We’ve got to do that before the end of Immunization Week. After that, the Chancellor will release it.”

“I know. How are we going to find it?”

“I don’t know just yet. But before we start looking, I want to show you a place outside the City.”

“How far outside?”

“About an hour from here, in Old Chicago.”

“What’s there? Why do you want to show it to me?”

“You’ll see. Let’s go in your car. I understand you’ve got Delray’s corpse in the trunk. Congratulations on shooting him. I never liked the bastard. We can dispose of it on the way.”

Helen Watkins said: “Do you want me to go with you?”

“Of course. You’ve got a big role to play.”

Davidson looked at her. “Before we go, can I have my pistol back?”

Watkins looked inquiringly at Prentice, who nodded. “Give it to him.”

“You sure?”

“Yes. If the Major wants to kill us, he won’t need a pistol. You won’t, will you Major?”

A modest shrug. “Probably not.”

She shuddered and offered Davidson his Glock on her open palm. He holstered it.

Prentice said: “Have you got a pistol stashed away somewhere?”

“Yes.”

“Get it.”

She went into the bedroom and returned with a pistol in her holster. They caught the grinding elevator down to the ground floor and strolled out to Davidson’s Cadillac, parked against the curb. Davidson sat behind the wheel with Prentice next to him and Watkins in the back.

Prentice said: “Head for the South Gate.”

Davidson pulled away from the curb and drove along Jonas Salk Boulevard. The street lights in Webster City were notoriously weak. But a full moon covered the City in a veiled light.

Davidson said: “How did you find out about the Chancellor’s plan to release a super-virus?”

A grin. “One reason I get the bureau to do a lot of phone tapping is to gather dirt on powerful people, in case I have to blackmail them. Anyway, I heard that Professor Fisher was selling official drugs on the black market and got our unit to monitor his calls. It intercepted a call from the Chancellor in which he talked about releasing a super-virus after vaccinating everybody in the City during Immunization Week. Unfortunately, he didn’t mention where the super-virus is being kept.”

“Why didn’t the Chancellor include you in his conspiracy to release it?”

“He’s obviously got doubts about me, which is a worrying sign. And let’s face it, if you’re going to murder a million people, you want to be 100 per cent sure that everyone on your team is committed to the cause.”

“I guess so.”

“Anyway, I told my contact in the Freedom Alliance what the Chancellor said on the phone. He panicked. So did everyone else in the FA. Then Robert Meredith plunged off the balcony of his apartment. I got suspicious because he was a biochemist at the CDC. Maybe his death had something to do with the plan to release the super-virus. So I ordered you to investigate.”

“Why me?”

“You’re my smartest officer. I also suspected that, when you found out about the plot to release the super-virus, you would turn traitor, as you’ve done.”

“Why’d you think I would turn traitor?”

“Because I’ve suspected for a while that you weren’t happy with the, umm, moral compromises you’ve had to make. I was also confident that you wouldn’t let the Chancellor release a super-virus that would kill your brother, if he’s still alive.”

Prentice had never mentioned Ted before. Davidson felt a kick in the guts. “What are you talking about? My brother’s dead?”

“Is he? He disappeared during an Air Cav raid on an Outlaw hamlet in Kansas. His body was never found. Maybe he was captured; maybe he deserted; maybe he’s still out there. You just don’t know, do you?”

“He’s dead.”

A shrug. “Maybe.”

“But if you thought I would turn traitor, why the big game? You could have just told me about the super-virus instead of forcing me to investigate Robert Meredith’s death.”

“Yes, I could. But my life was on the line. I had to be 100 percent certain you would not betray me. So I wanted you to turn traitor under your own steam, as you’ve done, rather than have to recruit you, if that makes sense.”

Davidson saw the fiendish logic behind the Colonel’s plan. If only the light-weights in the ISB who thought the Colonel was a light-weight could hear him now.

Davidson said: “Did you know the Freedom Alliance was going to attack the CDC building to destroy the vaccine?”

A frown. “No. The Alliance doesn’t tell me everything, understandably. I got a big surprise when I heard you thwarted the attack.” A shrug. “But, even if the attack was successful, it would have only delayed the release of the super-virus for a few months, until a replacement batch of vaccine was manufactured. We’d still have had to find and destroy the super-virus. That issue won’t go away. But tell me: did you discover why Robert Meredith plunged off his balcony?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

Davidson explained how he learned, while talking to Fiona Clarkson, that Robert Meredith identified Ebola and smallpox antigens in the latest seasonal flu vaccine. “Meredith mentioned the antigens to Doctor Carpenter, who must have told the Chancellor, or someone working for him, what Meredith discovered. Then Delray was dispatched to throw Meredith off his balcony.”

“That all makes sense. Then, this afternoon, Delray tried to kill Fiona Clarkson, right, and you shot him?”

“Correct. But, before I did, he claimed you sent him.”

“He was lying, of course. I’ve known for a long time that he was really a Palace Guard officer planted in the ISB to spy on me. His loyalty was to the Chancellor and Mellon. They obviously sent him to murder Meredith and Clarkson.”

Davidson remembered seeing Delray chat with the Commander of the Palace Guard, Edward Mellon, after the medal ceremony. Prentice was obviously right.

Davidson said: “Which means they are wondering, right now, what happened to Captain Handsome.”

Prentice nodded. “They surely are.”

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

 

The main wall around Webster City was fifty miles long, thirty feet high and topped with electrified razor wire. High guard towers stood a mile apart and a 50-yard-wide minefield lay in front of it.

The South Gate was one of five access points into the City. Like all the others, it had several machine-gun bunkers clustered around it and a heavy boom-gate across the road. The main users of the gate were farmers living in the rural belt around the City and troops sent out to sweep the hinterland for FA fighters and Outlaw brigands. Until quite recently, it was also a popular exit point for citizens who wanted to camp or hunt in nearby forests. However, when unknown assailants – probably FA fighters – started murdering them, their number dwindled rapidly.

Colonel Prentice handed his ID card to a fresh-faced soldier standing next to the boom-gate. The soldier lifted his clipboard to make a notation.

Prentice said: “Don’t record me leaving.”

“But sir?”

“You record it and you’ll spend the next five years walking around an exercise yard, understand?”

The kid’s lower lip trembled. “Yes, sir.” He handed back the ID card. “Umm, sir, I should warn you that FA fighters have been sighted in the forests. Be careful.”

A smile. “Thank you, son. In your shoes, I wouldn’t have bothered to warn me. I’m grateful.”

As Davidson drove under the boom-gate, Watkins said: “Nice kid.”

Prentice said: “Yes, but too nice to beat the Freedom Alliance.”

Davidson drove past a big sign that said: “YOU ARE NOW LEAVING WEBSTER CITY, THE ARK OF HUMANITYPLEASE DRIVE CAREFULLY”. Better advice would be to watch out for snipers. He followed the highway south under a full moon. After about twenty miles, the farms on each side slowly gave way to forest.

Prentice said: “I think we should offer Captain Handsome to the crows, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

Davidson turned up a dirt trail and stopped after twenty yards. He and Prentice dragged the rug-wrapped corpse of Captain Delray out of the trunk and into a clump of fir trees, where they sat it up against a tree.

Davidson tried to summon up some anger at Delray for sleeping with his wife, but couldn’t manage it. Delray had paid a big enough price for the sins he committed and Barbara wasn’t worth the emotional energy required.

Prentice looked pensively at the rolled-up rug and, to Davidson’s surprise, launched into a eulogy of sorts. “Well, Tony, I guess I should say a few words before we go. To be honest, you weren’t much of an officer, and you weren’t much of a mole either – it didn’t take me long to see your game. But you were the most handsome man who ever served under me. I guess that means something. In fact, I bet you thought you were too good-looking to die – God would always smile on you. Doesn’t work like that, I’m afraid.” Prentice stepped back and gave Davidson a sly look. “Anything you want to add?”

Davidson considered castigating Delray for sleeping with his wife. But Prentice didn’t need to know about that. “No, I think you’ve covered everything.”

A smile. “Good, then let’s get moving.”

They climbed back into the Cadillac and Davidson reversed onto the roadway. As he did, Helen Watkins said: “What was all that about?”

Prentice said: “What?”

“Talking to the corpse?”

“Oh, just saying goodbye.”

“You don’t seem very upset.”

“I’m not.”

Davidson drove along the road for another ten miles, until the forest thinned out and they entered Old East Chicago. He followed Prentice’s directions and slowly drove through suburbs uninhabited for 300 years. The roads were cracked and pot-holed, and littered with rusted-out vehicles, tall grass and some trees. Most of the houses were tumbled-down wrecks buried in dense foliage and grass. Dogs and wolves prowled along the sides of the roads and eyed them suspiciously. Davidson had driven through Old Chicago several times, during daylight, without feeling concern. Now though, he sensed the ghostly presence of the millions who died agonizing deaths in this place during the Great Plague. Most never reached the medical help that wouldn’t have saved them and their bodies became food for animals. Adding to his discomfit was the real possibility that Freedom Alliance fighters or Outlaw robbers might lurk in the shadows and, without warning, hose the Cadillac with gunfire.

After about fifteen minutes, Prentice ordered Davidson to stop in front of a large brick building marooned in the middle of a weed-encrusted concrete carpark. The twisted cross above the gable said it was once a church. The shattered building looked like it was etched on a gray background.

Prentice said: “Got a flashlight?”

“In the glove compartment.”

Prentice pulled out the flashlight and turned it on. “Alright, let’s go.”

All three got out of the car.

Prentice looked around at the ghostly suburban landscape and sighed. “I could do with a glass of Scotch right now.”

Davidson said: “Why are we here?”

“You’ll find out. Don’t worry, if it’s not worth your while, you’ll get a refund.”

A wave of fear rippled through Davidson’s body and washed up against his heart. Maybe Prentice brought him and Watkins out here to kill them. But that made no sense. Prentice could have done that long ago. Still, his hand hovered near his pistol.

Prentice used the flashlight to lead them across the overgrown carpark to the crumbling brick steps. The entrance was just a big gaping hole. Prentice led them inside, where they found a near-empty shell, with scorched walls and a smashed tile floor. Weak light dribbled through huge gaps in the roof and broken stain-glass windows. It looked like a monster had tossed the few remaining pews against the side walls. A statue of Jesus on the Cross was mounted high on the back wall.

Prentice realized he didn’t need the flashlight and turned it off. “I brought you here because this is where Webster City really began.”

Watkins said: “What do you mean?”

“This was originally a Presbyterian Church. Then Alexander Webster seized control of it and turned it into the headquarters of his cult.”

Davidson said: “His cult? What are you talking about?”

Prentice half-smiled. “What do you know about Alexander Webster?”

A shrug. “What I was taught at school and read in Saving Mankind … oh, and saw in dozens of movies and mini-series about his life.”

He looked at Helen Watkins. “And you?”

“Pretty much the same.”

“Well, none of that was true. All lies.”

Davidson felt giddy. “What?”

“Everything you’ve been told about Alexander Webster is a lie – everything. You’ve been brainwashed into believing he was a great man. He was not. In fact, he was a genocidal maniac. He did not create a vaccine to protect mankind against a super-virus. In fact, he released the super-virus that destroyed humanity.”

Davidson’s mind was in free-fall, corkscrewing wildly. “He released it?”

“Yes.”

“Who told you that?”

“I found out myself. You see, about five years ago, I arrested a historian at Webster U call Daniel Kline. I suspected he was a Freedom Alliance sympathizer – which he was. His field of expertise was Ancient History, of all things. He certainly didn’t study the Dark Years or the Great Plague. In fact, no professional historians study those events. Only the Church does that. Have you ever asked yourself why? Anyway, I searched his apartment and discovered he’d been privately researching the life of Alexander Webster, and had some documents which cast doubt on the official version. I confiscated them and told him to return to studying Ancient History, which I assume he did.

“However, I caught his disease and started doing my own research. The Great Plague tore history in two. So I spent years searching Old Chicago for abandoned computers that might mention Webster and then restoring them. Webster also made numerous enemies when he established Webster City. Several fled into the Badlands and wrote alternative accounts of his life and deeds which were not complimentary. Those accounts have floated around out there for centuries. I paid some Scavengers to look for them and they got their hands on a few.”

Helen Watkins said: “Wow.”

Davidson had trouble breathing. Oxygen crawled into his lungs. “What did you find out?”

“For a start, Alexander Webster – the real Alexander Webster – was not a biochemist. He knew as much about biochemistry as you or me. He was born in Chicago at the beginning of the Dark Years. His father was a cop, shot dead in the line of duty when he was four, and his mother an alcoholic who worked dead-end jobs. It seems he left school at twelve and joined one of the many street gangs killing and robbing to survive.

“At that time, not surprisingly, doomsday cults were springing up everywhere. One was a white-supremacist cult called the New World Church. Ring a bell? It believed the day of judgement was nigh and only chosen members of the white race would survive. Webster joined the church and discovered he had a gift for fire-and-brimstone preaching. Within a few years, he was its leader. Soon, he had about 20,000 followers. A familiar number? I even found a few photographs of him delivering a sermon in this church.”

Prentice took a photograph out of his breast pocket and showed it to Davidson. Alexander Webster stood behind a pulpit, wearing a purple and gold robe, mouth open and arms outstretched. He had wild hair and looked much younger than in the photos of him that Davidson had seen.

Prentice said: “Anyway, he eventually decided to turn his prophecy of the end of the world into a reality. By the middle of the 21st century, the US military had made huge strides developing biological weapons, particularly genetically engineered plagues. Most of the work was done at its Institute for Biological Weapons near Chicago.

“However, as society fell apart, so did the institute. Eventually, it only had a few staff and no guards. Webster and some of his followers seized its most potent bio-weapon: a genetically engineered super-virus called Agent Pandora, and a vaccine developed to neutralize it. You see where I’m heading, don’t you? Webster inoculated all of his followers and released Agent Pandora at every airport and transit hub still operating. Within months, he was the lord of all creation or, at least, what was left of it. That was the original sin upon which Webster City was built.”

Davidson was so stunned he could hardly breathe. He desperately squeezed air into his lungs. “You mean, the plague didn’t start in Russia?”

“Of course not. It had nothing to do with Russia. It was a homegrown catastrophe. I can see you’re both shocked; I’m not surprised – I was stunned when I found out. Everything I was taught to believe was swept away. My whole world collapsed. But, at the same time, I knew I’d discovered the truth. It all fitted together. I felt like I’d recovered a long-lost memory. Then I got incredibly angry.” He stared at them. “Are you alright? Do you need time to recover?”

Davidson took a few deep breaths. “No, keep going.”

Helen Watkins nodded dumbly. “Don’t stop.”

A shrug. “OK. After the Great Plague, Webster decided, not surprisingly, that he wanted to be remembered as the savior of humanity, not its destroyer. So he claimed he was a heroic biochemist who invented the vaccine. That was easy, because few people knew the full story and the rest didn’t want to know it. Then, after he died, his son, the second Chancellor, got someone to write a fake autobiography that repeated all of the lies he told.”

Saving Mankind?”

“Yes. It’s a fairy tale from beginning to end. But the second Chancellor couldn’t tell everyone they were alone on the planet because the founder of their city committed genocide. That wouldn’t promote obedience. So, within a generation, the true story disappeared and Webster became the man who saved humanity from extinction.”

“And gave the City its special mission to rebuild civilization.”

“Correct.”

After trying hard to push away what the Colonel was saying, Davidson gave up. The Truth penetrated him like a barbed spear. He thought about the billions of people Webster murdered, and those he killed in the name of Webster and his city, and shook with rage. “And that was why you switched sides?”

“It was one reason. I didn’t want to keep hiding such a monstrous lie. But it wasn’t the only one. When I joined the ISB, I truly believed in the City and its mission. I thought it was the ark of humanity. Then I fell in love with the cloak and dagger, and lost sight of myself for a while. But I eventually had to face the truth: the Chancellor and his cronies are evil men crushing human freedom. They’ve turned the City into a prison and the Freedom Alliance is the only hope of escape. After that, my only loyalty was to my uniform, but that wasn’t enough.”

“I’ve had the same journey.”

“I’m not surprised. You see, the City made a big mistake when it recruited us into the ISB, because we’re true believers. That means we’re capable of disillusionment. It should have stuck to recruiting nasty opportunists. They’re far more dependable. Anyway, that’s why, a couple of years ago, I offered my services to the Freedom Alliance.”

“You did the right thing.”

“I hope so. But, whatever I do, I won’t be able to wash all the blood off my hands.” The Colonel loved pretending that life was a big game, so his somber tone was surprising.

“Does your wife know you’re a traitor?”

“Hah. Of course not. She’s a simple creature: she shops, plays tennis and gossips. I tell my mistress more than I tell her.”

“You have two children, don’t you?”

“Yes, both adults. I worry about what will happen to them if I’m caught. So I tell myself I’m doing this for them.”

Watkins sounded raspy. “Are you the only person who knows the truth about Alexander Webster?”

“No. There are, of course, people in the Badlands who have a good idea, but nobody in the City hears from them. And, of course, every Chancellor has known the truth.”

“Really? Joshua Webster knows?”

“Yes. You see, a secret dossier which contains the true story is kept in a safe in the Chancellor’s office. There’s only one key. When a Chancellor dies, the Palace Chamberlain takes the key off his corpse and gives it to the new Chancellor.”

“How do you know that?”

“The present Chamberlain was recently accused of raping one of his staff. He told me about the safe, the key and the dossier. In return, I made his problem go away.”

“My God.”

A shrug. “Chancellors have to know the truth so they can guard against it ever surfacing. The dossier also reveals the location of three sealed containers of Agent Pandora that Alexander Webster did not use, and a sealed container of cultures that can be used to manufacture a vaccine against it. The contents of those containers will last for centuries if kept closed.”

“You mean, the Chancellor used those cultures to create the vaccine against Agent Pandora that will be injected into every citizen during Immunization Week?”

“Correct.”

“Then he’ll release the Agent Pandora and wipe out all the Outlaws, including the Freedom Alliance?”

“Yes.”

“He’s insane.”

“Of course. But there’s logic to his madness. After 300 years, Webster City is on the verge of collapse. The birthrate is falling and morale is crumbling. The Outlaws are out-breeding us and the Freedom Alliance is getting stronger. Unless the City turns the tide of battle soon, it will be crushed. Then the Chancellor will end up swinging from a lamp-post, along with his family and friends. He has a lot to lose.”

Davidson grinned. “It’s no wonder we’re losing the battle when the head of the Internal Security Bureau is a traitor.”

A sly smile. “I must admit that I haven’t been earning my paycheck recently. Unfortunately, my poor performance has been noted. I don’t think the Chancellor trusts me as much as before. Indeed, my days in charge of the ISB may be numbered.”

Watkins said: “If he releases the Agent Pandora, everyone in the City will know he’s a mass murderer.”

“No, they won’t. They’ll be told the plague originated outside the City, among the Outlaws, who are diseased creatures vulnerable to plague. Indeed, the plague will prove it’s safer to live in the City. Beautiful, huh?”

“But you don’t know where the Chancellor keeps the last three canisters of Agent Pandora?”

“Correct.”

“How can we find them?”

“I’m not sure. I want to discuss that with the Freedom Alliance.”

“When will you do that?”

Prentice smiled and glanced around. “Very soon, I hope. That’s the other reason I brought you here.”

Davidson spun around and looked into every dark corner of the church. “They’re sending someone?”

Prentice studied his watch. “Yes, he should be here in a few minutes.”

“Who?”

“I don’t know.”

“Nobody move,” a deep voice growled in the darkness. Davidson resisted the temptation to grab his pistol as five men wearing the standard red berets and khaki camouflage uniforms of the Freedom Alliance stepped through the facing side doors. They formed a horseshoe around the three from the City and cover them with automatic rifles. One false move and a withering cross-fire would cut down all three.

The closest FA fighter was a tall guy with a heavy beard. He waved his rifle. “Take your pistols out, very slowly, and lay them on the ground.”

All three did as he commanded, very slowly.

“Now take two steps back.”

They obeyed.

The man turned and stared at Prentice. “You’re Colonel Prentice?”

“Yes. Were you sent to talk to us?”

“No, I’m just a grunt.” The FA fighter turned towards a side door. “You can come in now, Commander.”

Everyone turned and watched a man in an FA uniform enter the church. Normally, Davidson would have been impressed by his huge frame. However, he barely noticed that, because the guy was the first black man he had seen in the flesh. His skin was just dark enough to reveal his Afro-American heritage. It was like meeting an extra-terrestrial. My God.

The man looked at Prentice. “Hello, Colonel.”

Prentice smiled. “Commander, I didn’t expect you would turn up.”

“We have important matters to discuss. I’m sorry you all had to lay down your weapons. However, this is the first time I’ve met your two comrades.”

“I understand.” Prentice turned to the others. “Let me introduce Commander Solon, the military leader of the Freedom Alliance.”

Davidson realized the rumors that the military chief of the Alliance was called Commander Solon, and he was black, were true. For once, myth and reality meshed perfectly.

Prentice said: “Commander, let me introduce you to Helen Watkins, who’s been working for the Alliance for some time.”

The Commander turned to Watkins and nodded. “Please to meet you. Thank you for your help.”

“A pleasure.”

Prentice said: “And this is Major Davidson, from my bureau. He is, umm, a recent convert to your cause.”

Solon said: “You vouch for him?”

“Yes.”

“He shot several of my people yesterday?”

“I know. But he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and just doing his job. If I knew about the attack, I would have kept him well clear.”

Solon frowned at Davidson. “They were a crack team – my best – so you must know what you’re doing.”

“I’m sorry that happened. It was a big mistake.”

A shrug. “Nothing we can do about it now. Fortunes of war, I guess. You were surprised when you saw me. You’ve never met a black man before, have you?”

“Of course not. I heard rumors you were black and didn’t believe them.”

“Why not?”

“Only white people survived the Great Plague.”

“Not true. Alexander Webster was a racist who only vaccinated his white followers. But several thousand people in the Badlands who weren’t vaccinated survived the plague. They were from all races. Not surprisingly, their descendants kept a low profile. That wasn’t hard. The Badlands is an enormous place.”

Colonel Prentice said: “Enough history. We’d better get down to business.”

“Yes. Have you located the canisters of Agent Pandora?”

“Afraid not.”

The Commander frowned. “Damn. That’s bad news – very bad. We’re running out of time.”

“I know. Immunization Week is about to start, so we’ve only got about eight days.”

“We’ve got a lot less than that, because I’m about to launch Operation Lightfoot.”

“What’s that?”

“A full assault on the City.”

Prentice and his companions gasped. “My God, are you serious?”

“Yes.”

“When does this operation start?”

“Tomorrow morning, at seven – just after dawn.”

A hunched eyebrow. “Wow, that soon?”

“Events are in the saddle. I’ve got 7,000 troops and their equipment concealed in the buffer zone around the City. There’s a huge danger they will be detected or betrayed. We must attack tomorrow morning.”

“Do you have enough firepower to take the City?”

“Of course. We’re not here to lose.”

“What about the wall and the minefield?”

“I’m not worried about them. They make the City weak, not strong, because they breed complacency. General Patton once said that ‘Fixed fortifications are monuments to the stupidity of man’. He was right.”

“I suspected you were planning an attack on the City; I just didn’t realize it would be this soon.”

Commander Solon looked askance. “What made you suspicious?”

“Oh, bits of intelligence that came across my desk.”

“Did you tell anyone?”

“Of course not.” A wicked grin. “I really have been terrible at my job recently; I completely took my eye off the ball – the Chancellor should have sacked me.”

A laugh. “I’m glad he didn’t.”

Davidson said: “What will you do to the City if you are victorious?”

“There will be no retribution. Many of my fighters fled the City and most still have family and friends inside it. The Chancellor and his clique are the only people with anything to fear. But, if they surrender, even they’ll be spared.”

Prentice shook his head. “I guarantee the Chancellor won’t surrender. He won’t trust your word and has too much to lose. In fact, if your attack looks like succeeding, he’ll release the Agent Pandora.”

“But, if he does, he’ll die as well.”

“No, he won’t.”

A frown. “Why not?”

“He’s already been vaccinated.”

A deep frown. “What are you talking about?”

“In Webster City, the elite get vaccinated before the start of Immunization Week. It’s one of the little benefits that makes them feel special. They don’t stand in queues.”

“Damn. Have you been inoculated?”

“I had my seasonal flu shot a week ago. You can be sure that the Chancellor and his minions got theirs’ about the same time.”

Watkins said: “I’m sure the Colonel’s right. About a fortnight ago, two officers from the Palace Guard arrived at the CDC building and asked to see Professor Fisher. I wondered why they were there. Now it’s obvious: they were picking up a batch of the new flu vaccine.”

Commander Solon looked at Prentice. “If he releases Agent Pandora early, he’ll kill all the Outlaws and most of his own citizens. He’ll end up ruling a few cronies.”

“But he’ll still be alive, he’ll still have a few followers and he’ll be victorious. Believe me, if the Alliance look like winning, he will release Agent Pandora.”

“Jesus. What do we do? Like I said: I can’t call off the attack.”

Prentice’s eyes gleamed. Despite the enormous stakes, he was obviously enjoying himself. “But we have to locate the three canisters of Agent Pandora and neutralize them before your attack starts. You must delay the attack to give us more time.”

A vigorous shake of the head. “No. Our plans are in place. They can’t be changed. At seven o’clock, we roll.”

“Damn.” Prentice glanced at his watch. “It’s almost midnight now. That means we have seven hours to find the Agent Pandora.”

“Yes, do you have a plan?”

“No. But don’t worry, I’ll think of something.”

“Good. I’m relying on you.”

“You don’t have much choice, do you?”

Solon’s boyish smile explained why the Freedom Alliance chose him to lead 7,000 troops in a frontal assault on the only city left on earth. “I guess not. But I’ve got great confidence in you. I look forward to seeing you all on Pasteur Plaza around noon tomorrow. Don’t be late.”

Prentice laughed. “We won’t be.”

The Commander started to turn and stopped. “Oh, if you meet any of my troops tomorrow, and need help, our code-word is ‘Black Fox’. Good luck.”

Commander Solon and his men seemed to dissolve into the darkness.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

 

Davidson put his Cadillac into gear and drove away from the derelict church. Prentice sat beside him and Watkins sat on the back seat. As Davidson carefully drove through Old East Chicago, he wondered how many of Commander Solon’s 7,000 troops were watching their progress. Probably quite a few.

Prentice said: “He’s an impressive guy, don’t you think?”

Davidson said: “Yes. But his troops will be heavily outnumbered, and they do have to cross the wall and minefield.”

“True. But our generals are hopeless – most got their jobs because they’re pals of the Chancellor – and our troops are suspect. The Palace Guards will definitely fight it out. They’re fanatics. But I’m not sure about the rest. Fighting for their city might inspire them. Or they might run like rabbits. We’ll see. Anyway, we’ve got to find three canisters of Agent Pandora by seven o’clock. Otherwise, the Chancellor and his gang will become the last survivors of the human race.”

“Got any clue where they are?”

“No. They could be hidden anywhere in the City. But there are a couple of ways we can locate them.”

“What?”

“One option is to break into the Chancellor’s Palace and read the secret dossier that identifies their location.”

“You mean, we just waltz into the Palace, pull the Chancellor out of his bed, steal the key to his safe, smash into his office, open the safe and hope it contains some mythical dossier?”

“I admit that plan has significant obstacles. And, even if we’re successful, there’s no guarantee the canisters are still located where the dossier says they’re located. The Chancellor might have moved them while preparing to release the Agent Pandora. So I think we should, at least initially, try an easier option.”

“You mean kidnap Professor Fisher?”

A laugh. “You always were my brightest officer. In better times, you’d have succeeded me. Yes, I think we should kidnap the dear Professor. The Chancellor doesn’t have the expertise to release the plague himself. He must have delegated that task to the Professor. So let’s call on the Professor’s abode and ask, politely at first, where the canisters are located. You agree?”

Davidson’s thoughts had traveled in a similar direction. “Yes.”

Prentice politely looked over his shoulder at Helen Watkins. “And you?”

“You two seem to know what you’re doing.”

Prentice chuckled. “That’s a bold assumption.” He looked at Davidson. “Head for Sector A.”

“That’s where he lives?”

“Yes. He’s a neighbor of mine.”

When they re-entered the City through the South Gate, a burly middle-aged soldier checked Prentice’s ID. The soldier didn’t look like he’d provide the Freedom Alliance with much opposition in the morning. The kid on duty when they left the City didn’t seem to be around. Davidson hoped he still wasn’t around at seven o’clock.

As Davidson drove back along Jonas Salk Boulevard, his nerves made him talkative. He glanced at Prentice. “Out of curiosity, what did you wife wear to the fancy dress ball?”

Prentice giggled. “She carried out her threat to go as Cleopatra. Can you believe that? She’s forty-eight and looked ridiculous. She certainly didn’t look like the woman who launched a thousand ships.”

“That was Helen of Troy.”

“Whatever.”

Davidson drove for another minute. “How did you know that my brother, Ted, went missing in the Badlands?”

A thin smile. “I investigate the background of all my officers, looking for any secrets that will increase my control. I was very interested to learn he disappeared out there, presumed dead.”

“Did you find out the true story?”

“Afraid not. But I wondered if he deserted. Has that ever crossed your mind?”

“Often.”

“If he did, would he have told you?”

“I’m not sure. He might have pretended he was dead to protect me.”

“Were you close?”

“Yes, though we thought differently about the City: I was loyal, he was not.”

“And now you think like he did?”

“Yes.”

“Will you search for him, when this is all over?”

Davidson hadn’t thought about that. “I guess so, if I survive.”

“Hah. I’m afraid our chances are pretty slim. But, you know, I’ve waited all my life to fight – and die – for something I truly believe in. So I’m relaxed about my fate – I’ll take what’s coming to me.”

Davidson wished he was as calm about Death. How would he react when he looked it in the eye? At least, he wouldn’t have to wait long to find out.

 

 

CHAPTER NINETEEN

 

Sector A sat on the shore of Lake Michigan. A ten-foot-high wall that looped around for eight miles cut it off from the rest of the City. Apart from providing residents with security, the wall stopped non-residents looking enviously at its luxury mansions, well-funded schools, high-end shopping malls and the exclusive Cherrybrook Country Club.

Entrants had to pass through one of three heavily guarded checkpoints. Davidson had no trouble driving through one of them. A soldier on duty recognized Prentice in the front passenger seat and waved the car past. Prentice waved back.

Davidson said: “Which way?”

“Keep going straight until I tell you to turn right.” Prentice glanced over his shoulder at Helen Watkins. “Have you been in here before?”

She looked around, goggle-eyed. “No, it’s amazing. I heard it was nice, but not this nice.”

“The rulers of our fair city don’t make a big song and dance about how well they live, because that kinda upsets the little people. They’re very considerate in that way. You know, we’ve already passed the home of the Chancellor’s favorite mistress.”

“You’re kidding? His favorite mistress?”

“Yep. There are three more scattered about. He likes to keep them well separated.”

“Kids?”

“About a dozen in total.”

“He’s supposed to be a man of the cloth?”

“He’s also a man with basic urges.”

“Wow. There’s something I don’t understand, though.”

“What?”

“Why did you turn traitor and risk losing all this?”

Prentice giggled. “I sometimes wonder that myself. But, for some reason, I’ve always hated these people – hated them. I guess I’ve always been an outsider of sorts. Now, tell me, Professor Fisher lives alone, right?”

“Yes, I think so. His wife died a few years ago. They had no kids.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“But it won’t be easy to get into his house. He’ll have a lot of security.”

“I’m hoping you’ll get us inside.”

“Me? How?”

Prentice explained his plan.

She nodded. “OK, I think that will work.”

“Good.”

Prentice gave Davidson directions for another ten minutes and then told him to pull over to the side of the road. Davidson stopped in front of a large Spanish-mission mansion with an eight-foot wall running around it. Fortunately, the front gate was ajar.

Davidson said: “Will he have guards?”

Prentice said: “I doubt it. But there’s only one way to find out.”

They all strolled up the pathway, pistols drawn, and Watkins pressed the door buzzer.

Thirty seconds later, a voice behind the door said: “Who’s out there?”

Watkins said: “Professor Fisher, this is Helen Watkins, the Deputy Chief Security Officer at the CDC. Doctor Carpenter asked me to deliver an envelope with a message. He said it was urgent.”

“What’s the message about?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t read it.”

Davidson was preparing to shoot the lock off the door when it swung open. Professor Fisher faced them, gray hair unkempt and wearing a dressing-gown over pajamas. He looked bored until Prentice and Davidson, still wearing their ISB uniforms, stepped in front of him and poked pistols in his face.

“Don’t move,” Davidson growled.

The Professor recoiled as if the pistols stank. “Christ. What is this about?”

“You live alone, right?”

“W-w-what are …?”

“Shut up. You live alone?”

“Y-y-yes, of course.”

“Good. Take us to your study.”

“Look …”

Davidson had a visceral dislike of Professor Fisher and enjoyed stepping forward, grabbing his ear and grinding the barrel of the pistol into his left eye socket. “Listen, when I tell you to do something, you do it. Otherwise, I’ll shoot off body parts until you do.”

Fisher shook like he was naked in a blizzard. “Alright, alright, the study’s upstairs.”

Davidson stepped back and trained his pistol at Fisher’s gut. “Good, take us there.”

The Professor slowly climbed the stairs, rubbing his eye socket, the intruders behind. They reached a wide landing with four doors. He pushed open the closest one and led them into a large study with a balcony that overlooked a wide lawn with in-ground lighting around the sides. Bookshelves lined two inner walls. The third had a ten-point buck mounted above a side door. The City claimed that it left a small imprint on the environment. But the elite often flew up to Canada on hunting expeditions.

Davidson slid over to the side door, opened it slightly, peeked through the gap and saw an empty bedroom. He closed the door and looked at Prentice. “Just a bedroom.”

Fisher looked at Prentice with bright eyes while his hands fluttered about like startled birds. “You’re the Head of the ISB. Why are you here? What do you want?”

“We’re here to talk about Agent Pandora.”

Fisher shuddered and spoke with a burr. “About what?”

A menacing smile. “Don’t lie. You know what I’m talking about.”

“No, I don’t.”

Prentice pointed at a swivel chair. “Sit down.”

“I don’t …”

Prentice wangled his pistol. “Remember what Major Davidson said about body parts?”

“OK, OK.” Fisher stumbled over to the chair and slumped down, shiny eyes jumping between the three pistols pointing at him.

Prentice strolled behind Fisher, bent over and spoke into his ear. “In the same way that you are a leading expert in the study of disease, the Major and I are leading experts in the infliction of pain. In that sense, we are all pre-eminent in our fields. So, if you don’t tell us what we want to know, you will visit regions of pain you did not know existed. First I will shoot off your fingers, then your toes, then each testicle. Death will seem like a dear old friend. So tell us about Agent Pandora.”

Fisher’s eyes swiveled from side to side and he rubbed his nose. “I – I – I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Prentice strolled around in front of Fisher. “Yes you do. The Chancellor has three canisters of a super-virus called Agent Pandora. They’re the canisters Alexander Webster didn’t use when he started the Great Plague. The Chancellor plans to open them after Immunization Week to kill all the Outlaws.”

“You’re crazy? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Bullshit. The Chancellor doesn’t have the expertise to open the canisters himself, so he’s given you that task, hasn’t he? Your job is to murder a million people.”

“That’s rubbish.”

“Why won’t you talk? Are you afraid of the Chancellor? Don’t be. By lunch-time tomorrow, he’ll be dead.”

“What do you mean?”

“In about five hours, the Freedom Alliance will launch a major offensive against this City.”

“H-how do you know that?”

“It’s my job to know. So don’t worry about how the Chancellor will react. He won’t be alive much longer. Help us and you’ll live; refuse and you’ll die an agonizing death. Very simple.”

“I still don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Prentice frowned. “You heard Major Davidson: if you don’t tell us what we want to know, he will blow off your body parts, one by one. I dislike the sight of blood. But, since you are a particularly revolting specimen of humanity, I’m prepared to make that sacrifice.”

The Professor’s jaw quivered and saliva flecked his chin. A childish whine: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

A shrug. “Then we’d better move along to the next stage of proceedings. Major Davidson, will you do the honors?”

Davidson moved towards Fisher wearing a dark smile. “Just to be nice, you can decide which finger I shoot off first. You must have one you don’t like much – we all do. Which one?”

Fisher realized Davidson was totally serious and felt he had to justify himself. “I can’t tell you where the canisters are located – I can’t.”

“You mean you know where they are?”

“Yes, but I can’t tell you where.”

“Why not?”

“The Outlaws must be destroyed. They are scum, vermin who threaten the City. This City is the ark of humanity. It must be saved at all costs.”

Davidson groaned inside. He’d hoped Fisher was a vicious opportunist. Instead, the guy was a fanatic. Now Davidson had to test the depths of that fanaticism.

He grabbed Fisher’s wrist, dragged him over to the desk and forced his hand down on the leather surface, palm up. While Fisher looked on, horrified, he pushed the barrel of his pistol into the palm of Fisher’s hand. “Well, Professor, we’ve reached the business end of the evening. Ready to talk?”

Fisher’s whole body shook and he shrieked: “No, no, I can’t. We must protect the ark of humanity.”

Davidson was about to pull the trigger when a loud voice behind him yelled. “Nobody move.”

Davidson let go of Fisher’s hand and spun around. Two men in combat fatigues had entered the room through the second door. They stood under the moose head, aiming their pistols at Davidson. One was Captain Archibald from the Palace Guard. What the hell was he doing here?

Prentice ignored the instruction, lifted his pistol and fired two shots, which missed. Both intruders swiveled and returned fire. That gave Davidson time to lift his pistol and shoot Archibald in the chest. Archibald went down. His companion rotated back to shoot at Davidson. However, Davidson drilled him in the throat and chest. He flopped over backward and landed on Archibald.

Davidson heard a noise behind him and turned to see Professor Fisher pull a pistol out of a desk drawer. As Fisher aimed it at Davidson, Watkins shot him twice. Fisher fell backward, putting two bullets in the ceiling.

Ears ringing and heart thumping, Davidson glanced at Watkins, half-crouched with her pistol still outstretched, eyes huge. “Thanks.”

The two intruders were not even twitching, obviously dead or close to it. Davidson dashed around the desk to Fisher, lying on his back, praying the guy was alive. Blood was pumping out of a large bullet wound in his chest, which rattled and wheezed each time he breathed. His time was very short.

“Where are the Agent Pandora canisters?” Davidson said desperately.

Fisher looked up with glazed eyes. A bubble of blood appeared on his lips and he croaked: “The ark of humanity.”

Davidson felt impotent rage. “Where are the canisters?”

“Preserve the ark of …”

“Jesus, where are they?”

Fisher’s eyeballs froze and he stopped breathing.

“Shit, shit.” Davidson staggered to his feet, thinking about the million who would die because they couldn’t locate the canisters of Agent Pandora.

Watkins stooped over the Professor. “He’s dead?”

“Yes.”

“I’m sorry I shot him.”

“Forget it. You had no choice. What happened to the Colonel?”

“I didn’t see.”

A loud groan made them spin around. Prentice lay on his back, holding his left shoulder, blood oozing between his fingers.

Davidson took a few quick strides and knelt beside him. “How bad?”

Prentice screwed up his face. “Hurts like hell. I think it went right through, but took some bone and maybe nicked the lung. I couldn’t see any point talking to them. Best to kick off the party straight away.”

“You did the right thing.”

“Too bad I’m such a lousy shot.”

Davidson looked up at Watkins. “You know first aid?”

“Some. I’ll find something to use as a bandage.”

“Good.”

She dashed out of the study.

Prentice groaned again. “Shit. What the hell were they doing here?”

“One’s Captain Archibald from the Palace Guard. We saw him at the Palace. He must have been assigned to guard Fisher until Agent Pandora was released.”

“What happened to Fisher – he dead?”

“Yes. He grabbed a pistol and Helen shot him.”

“Damn. That’s a lousy development.”

Watkins returned, carrying a pillow, a bed sheet and a couple of small towels. She put the pillow under the Colonel’s head and tore the bed sheet into several long strips. After pressing the towels against the entry and exit wounds, she strapped them tightly in place. Prentice groaned softly the whole time and the towels were soon soaked with blood. He was obviously badly hit. His life was leaking away.

While she worked, Davidson checked to make sure that Archibald and his confederate were dead. Archibald was definitely gone. But his companion – a tall blond still holding a Smith & Wesson .357 – groaned slightly. Not wanting to take any risks, Davidson put his pistol against the guy’s temple and pulled the trigger. A fine red mist spattered the sleeve of his uniform.

Watkins looked over at him, alarmed. “You alright?”

“Yes. Just cleaning up.”

He pulled out the guy’s Palace Guard ID. His name was Sergeant Derek Olsen. The fact that the Chancellor assigned a captain and sergeant of the Palace Guard to protect Fisher showed the Chancellor intended to use Fisher to release the Agent Pandora. But the Chancellor could still order someone else to do the job. In fact, he must have a contingency plan. That meant the Chancellor had to die – very soon – before he could trigger it.

Davidson got to his feet and went back to Prentice and Watkins. The room was quite cool. Prentice shivered slightly. A heavy fleece-lined bomber jacket lay on an armchair. It looked out of place, because the weather wasn’t cold enough yet to justify such a heavy garment. Davidson picked it up and used it to cover Prentice.

“Thank you. I knew I’d have to pay for my sins at some point. This is quite a bill.”

“What do we do now?”

“You’d better search this room. See if you can find a clue to where the Agent Pandora is hidden.”

“What if we can’t find one?”

“We move to Plan B.”

“What’s that?”

A rictus smile. “We visit the Chancellor, and get him to open his safe and show us the secret dossier.”

“And if the dossier doesn’t give the location?”

“We assassinate the Chancellor before he can order the release of the Agent Pandora. In fact, whatever happens, we kill the bastard. He must die.”

Davidson smiled. “I thought that was our next step.”

Prentice laughed and winced. “Great minds think alike.”

“Alright. What will you do while we look around?”

Another tight smile. “I’ll lie here quietly and preserve my energy. I want to be there when we shoot the son-of-a-bitch. In fact, I want to pull the trigger. Get moving.”

Davidson doubted the Colonel would leave the room alive; he stood up and looked at Watkins. “Alright, let’s see what we can find.”

They spent two hours rummaging through drawers, rifling filing cabinets and even opening books in case a slip of paper was hidden inside one. However, they found no clue to where the canisters of Agent Pandora were located.

Watkins dropped the last book to the floor and looked at Davidson with a despairing look. “Nothing. We won’t find anything here.”

“Agree.”

Davidson strolled over to Prentice, still on his back with his eyes close. Maybe he was dead. Davidson felt a surge of panic. “Colonel?”

Prentice opened his eyes and winced. “Yes. Any luck?”

Davidson breathed easier. “No. Looks like it’s time for Plan B.”

“I’m not surprised. In fact, I’m glad.”

“Why?”

“I want the honor of shooting the bastard stone dead.”

“You can’t come with us. We’ve got to break into the Palace, find the Chancellor, take him to his office and get him to open his safe. The whole thing is suicidal. It’ll be even harder with you along. You’ll just get in the way. We’ll drop you off at a hospital on the way to the Palace. You can say someone tried to assassinate you. You’ll think of something.”

“No, I’m going with you. I’ll be alright. In fact, I’m the only person who can get you into the Palace and face-to-face with the Chancellor without a lot of trouble. You need me, I’m afraid.”

“Really? How are you going to do that?”

A half-smile. “You’ll see. Help me out to the car.”

Prentice winced and groaned as Davidson helped him to his feet and supported his elbow as he walked to the door.

“You OK?”

“No. But I’ll make it.”

Prentice leaned on Davidson as he slowly walked down the stairs and out through the entrance to the Cadillac. Watkins opened the rear door and they gingerly eased Prentice onto the back seat. Watkins sat beside him.

Davidson got behind the steering wheel, put the car in gear and pulled away from the curb.

Prentice emitted a laugh which turned into a painful cough.

Davidson said: “What’s so funny?”

“You’ve been wondering, haven’t you, whether I really joined the Freedom Alliance or was a double agent?”

“Of course.”

“I don’t blame you. I hope I’ve proved my bona fides.”

Prentice’s blithe exterior obviously hid a strong moral core and deep reserves of courage. Once, those qualities served the City well; now, they served its enemy just as well. Davidson had always found Prentice an interesting and elusive man. Now he realized the guy was the most amazing person he had ever met.

“You certainly have.”

A tight laugh. “Good.”

“Where to now?”

“Take me to my office. I’ve got to call Edward Mellon.”

“Why?”

“To arrange an urgent conference with the Chancellor, of course.”

CHAPTER TWENTY

 

Davidson parked his Cadillac in the underground carpark of the Internal Security Bureau Headquarters and glanced at his watch. Almost six o’clock. In an hour, the Freedom Alliance would launch its all-out assault on the City and provoke the Chancellor to open the canisters of Agent Pandora. Time was very short.

He glanced over his shoulder at Colonel Prentice. “How do you feel?”

“Half-dead. Help me out of the car and up to my office.”

As Davidson helped Prentice out of the car, he saw that the towels strapped to his shoulder were drenched in blood. Prentice must have lost a pint at least. He couldn’t keep going much longer.

Davidson supported Prentice’s right elbow and Watkins his left as they all headed towards an elevator, which took them up to the fifth floor. As the elevator door opened, Davidson prayed nobody had come to work early. If someone had, he would have to kill him. For that reason, he supported Prentice with his left arm and held his pistol in his right.

His prayer was not answered. They had almost reached the Colonel’s office when Major Jenkins, the head of the Team Alpha assassination squad, came around a corner, whistling. He wore the standard black combat fatigues of the ISB and had a big pistol strapped to his hip. Endless months living by his wits in the Badlands had made him sensitive to the slightest danger. His dead eyes flitted between them. Then they looked down at the floor.

Davidson followed his gaze and saw a big splotch of the Colonel’s blood. Jesus. He considered trying to reassure Jenkins that everything was alright. But Jenkins was too smart and suspicious to be fooled. Any moment now, Jenkins would reach for his pistol. No point delaying the show-down.

Davidson lifted his pistol as Jenkins reached for his. Because he started first, he put two bullets in Jenkins’ chest before Jenkins got his pistol out. As Jenkins fell backward, he fired a shot that breezed over Davidson’s shoulder and smashed into the wall behind him. Then he hit the ground and his pistol skittered across the linoleum floor. Davidson considered putting another bullet into Jenkins, but the guy lay deathly still.

The shots had made a huge sound in the hallway. Davidson stood still, chest heaving, waiting for someone to respond. Nobody. He picked up Jenkins’ pistol and stuck it behind his belt.

Prentice drew a deep breath. “Jesus, get me into my office.”

They helped Prentice hobble past the corpse into his office and over to the chair behind his desk.

Davidson went back into the hallway, grabbed Jenkins by the collar of his uniform and dragged him into the office. Then he pulled off Jenkins’ jacket, went back into the hallway and used it to hastily wipe away the blood on the floor. Mission accomplished, he re-entered the office, stepped over the corpse and tossed the bloody jacket into a corner.

Prentice was slumped over, deathly pale, with Watkins standing next to him. He looked up. “All OK?”

“Yes.”

“Good. I thought he was un-killable.”

A smile. “I had the drop on him.”

Prentice looked at Watkins. “There’s an overcoat in the cupboard. It should hide the blood. Will you get it out?”

She opened the cupboard and took out a black leather overcoat which ISB officers wore on formal occasions. A Chancellor’s Medal of Valor was pinned to a lapel.

She said: “There are some shirts in there too. Do you want a new one?”

“No point. You try putting a new shirt on me and I’ll probably bleed to death. Just help me into the overcoat.”

Prentice stood and endured great pain while Watkins and Davidson gingerly helped him put on the overcoat. Luckily, it was a roomy fit.

Prentice got them to strap his pistol belt outside the overcoat and sat down, breathing heavily; he looked at Davidson and nodded towards a tray on his desk. “You’d better read the bulletins in that tray. See if Delray has been reported missing.”

Davidson quickly flipped through half-a-dozen bulletins which up-dated investigations, interrogations and surveillances. “No mention of Delray.”

“Good. Everyone probably thinks he’s off fucking some woman. You don’t seem to be under suspicion yet. Alright, I’d better call Mellon.”

As the Colonel picked up the phone, Watkins sat in a chair and Davidson strolled over to the window and looked down at the massive flood-lit statue of Alexander Webster on Pasteur Plaza. For a long time, he had thought it was a crass and undignified memorial to a truly great man. Now, he realized it was a repulsive shrine to a mass-murderer.

The Colonel dialed a number and someone answered. “Hello, that Eddie Mellon? … Yes? Good. Bob Prentice here. Sorry to disturb you at this hour. But I’ve just received very sound intelligence that the Freedom Alliance is going to launch a major assault on the City during the next day or so … I know, I’m surprised too. I want to give the Chancellor a briefing as soon as possible … His office in twenty minutes? … Good, I’ll bring my aide, Major Davidson, the medal winner. See you there.”

Prentice put down the telephone and gave Davidson a tired smile. “Mellon says the Chancellor will see me, at the Palace, in twenty minutes. You’ll have to come too, I’m afraid. I can’t do this without you.”

Davidson’s gut went hollow. Neither of them would get out of the Palace alive. This was a one-way trip. Fear flooded through him and he had to stomp on it hard. “I understand.”

“You sure? This is easier for me than you. I’m almost dead anyway.”

“I’m going with you. Why should you have all the fun?”

Prentice started laughing and ended up wheezing. “Good. Unfortunately, they’ll search us for weapons at the front entrance. You understand that? Can you conceal one they won’t find?”

Davidson had already pondered that problem. “No chance. I have to go in unarmed and get another weapon when we’re inside.”

Raised eyebrows. “How are you going to do that?”

“I’ve got a plan.”

“What plan?”

Davidson explained it.

A doubtful look. “That’s an, umm, interesting plan. You think it’ll work?”

“It’s got to work.”

A shrug. “True. Anyway, I’ll leave that to you. Just remember, I won’t be able to help you.”

Helen Watkins said: “What about me? What do you want me to do?”

“You can’t come with us. They won’t let you in and you’ll just make them suspicious.”

Watkins looked a little relieved. “OK.”

“But you’ll have to drive us to the front gate. I don’t think I can walk that far. And, after we go in, wait around in case Carl needs to make a getaway.”

“What about you?”

A deep sigh. “I won’t be coming out.”

“Umm, OK.”

Prentice glanced at his watch. “We’d better wait a few more minutes to give the rats a chance to assemble. Don’t want to be early.”

The Colonel spun around in his chair and stared out the window, with a somber expression, at Pasteur Plaza. Dawn had just broken. The slanting sun had struck the cenotaph, which created a dagger-like shadow; the gilt-bronze statue of Alexander Webster gleamed heroically.

Davidson wondered if he would see another dawn. He kept trying to calculate his chance of coming out of the Palace alive, and kept coming up with a ridiculously low percentage. Fear put an icy hand on his back.

After a few minutes, Colonel Prentice spun around in his chair and looked at Davidson with haunted eyes. “I’ve always loved that view, particularly at this hour. Can I ask a favor?”

“What?”

“If you get out alive – which is damn unlikely – I want you to give some flowers to my mistress. Her name’s Dora. She’ll introduce herself, I’m sure.”

“OK. Anything you want me to tell her?”

A deep frown. “Yes, tell her … tell her … tell her … to enjoy the flowers.”

“That’s all?”

A shrug. “It’ll have to do.”

“OK. And what about your wife?”

A peevish look. “What about her?”

“Do you want me to give her flowers?”

“Her?” After a long frown, he shrugged. “Yes, why not? Fuck it, give her some flowers too.”

“Do you want me to tell her anything?”

“No. Let’s go before I change my mind.” He slowly rose from his chair and glanced one last time at the golden dawn.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

 

Helen Watkins drove the Cadillac out of the underground carpark with Prentice and Davidson on the back seat. Davidson looked out across Pasteur Plaza. The sun’s rays had slipped through gaps between buildings and were creeping across its paved surface; the sky had a nuclear glow.

Two Palace Guards, rifles shouldered, stood in front of the main gate of the Palace looking frozen and bored, bored and frozen. Watkins stopped the Cadillac about 20 yards from the gate and looked over her shoulder at the two men on the back seat. “I want to go with you.”

Prentice smiled painfully. “You can’t, I’m afraid. They aren’t expecting you and won’t let you in. Stay here and stay well.” He looked at Davidson. “Ready?”

“Yes.”

“Good. And remember that, whatever happens, the Chancellor must die.”

“Understood.”

Prentice climbed out of the vehicle on the side opposite the guards with surprising agility and strolled around to join Davidson. They approached the guards together.

Prentice showed his ID to a pink-cheeked guard. “Colonel Prentice, head of the ISB. This is my aide, Major Davidson. The Chancellor is expecting us.”

The guard said: “I’ve been informed, sir. Please, go through.”

Prentice and Davidson strode under the huge portico into the massive entrance hall where several bored-looking Palace Guards, toting automatic weapons, stood beside two metal detection machines. Prentice approached the enormous Sergeant in charge and held up his ID pass. “Colonel Prentice from the ISB. This is Major Davidson, my aide. We have an urgent appointment to see the Chancellor.”

The Sergeant saluted. “I’m aware of that, sir. But you will have to check in your pistols and go through a metal detector.”

“Of course.”

Prentice winced slightly as he took off the pistol belt strapped around his overcoat and gave it to the closest guard, but only Davidson seemed to notice his pain. Davidson unholstered his pistol and handed it to another guard.

A third guard patted them both down but, fortunately, didn’t ask Prentice to open his overcoat and see the bloody mess inside.

The Sergeant said: “Now, please go through the metal detector.”

Davidson strolled through the machine without causing a disturbance. However, Prentice set off the alarm. He smiled casually and tapped the Medal of Valor on his chest. “I think this set it off.”

The Sergeant closely inspected the medal and looked impressed. “I think you’re right. Thank you, sir. Corporal Nesbitt will escort you up to the Chancellor’s office.”

Davidson planned to relieve their escort of his pistol and use it to break into the Chancellor’s office. So he was glad the Sergeant, with his massive build, chose not to escort them. However, Corporal Nesbitt had a deep chest and powerful biceps, and would be no push-over. As he stepped forward, Davidson greedily eyed the Smith & Wesson .357 flapping on his hip.

The Corporal had close-cropped ginger hair and a snub nose on a pleasant face. “Sirs, please follow me.”

He briskly led them along the same route they took two days ago when they went to see the Chancellor. However, this time, the halls and corridors were cold and ghostly quiet. Their footfalls rang out like gunshots.

Davidson kept a close eye on Prentice who was straining to keep up. Indeed, a couple of times, blood dripped from the bottom of his overcoat onto the floor, and once dribbled from the corner of his mouth. Fortunately, he quickly noticed the drool and wiped it away with his sleeve.

To distract the Corporal, Davidson chatted with him about how long he’d been in the Palace Guard and whether he enjoyed night duty. The corporal was a genial guy who said he had only been a guard for a few years and enjoyed the stillness and quiet in the middle of the night.

They passed through three huge marble halls and entered the long corridor that ran through the administration wing. At the far end, the Corporal ushered them into the elevator which would take them up two floors to the circular rococo hall outside the Chancellor’s office.

Davidson had planned to seize the Corporal’s weapon in this elevator. However, he had forgotten it was so small that he wouldn’t have much room to punch or kick. So, when he entered, he stood at the back to ensure the Corporal stood in front of him. As the elevator door closed, he stepped forward and put his left arm around the Corporal’s neck to apply a choke hold. He grabbed the Corporal’s pistol with his right hand.

The corporal was even stronger than Davidson expected. He grunted, arched his back and grabbed his pistol before Davidson could remove it.

While Prentice kept his finger on the “close door” button, the Corporal desperately gasped for air, squealed loudly and collapsed to the floor. That was a mistake, because Davidson landed on top of him and slammed the last air out of his lungs. The Corporal lost his grip on his pistol. Davidson pulled it out and used it to club the Corporal three times on the back of his head. The Corporal went limp.

Breathing hard and shaking, Davidson leaned close to the Corporal to see if he was dead. No, breathing softly. He looked up at Prentice, standing next to the control panel, finger still on the “close door” button, blood dribbling again from the corner of his mouth. “Jesus, he was strong.”

“I was worried you might need help. Well done.”

“Which floor are we on?”

“The Chancellor’s floor.”

“Good. You OK?”

A bloody grin. “Peak condition.”

“You’ve got blood coming from your mouth.”

The Colonel wiped it away with the back of his sleeve and frowned. “Don’t worry, I’m not dead yet. Let’s get this done. You ready?”

“Wait a moment.”

Davidson checked the pistol to make sure it was fully loaded and in good working order – it was – and fished a spare clip out of a pouch on the Corporal’s belt. He took several deep breaths and looked at Prentice. “Alright, open it.”

The last time Davidson stepped into the circular rococo hall outside the Chancellor’s office, two Palace Guards stood in front of the office holding automatic rifles. He expected a similar arrangement. So, as soon as the elevator door opened, he ran straight across the chess-board marble floor, past original ancient Greek statues, pistol barking.

The two guards standing outside the red-leather door barely had time to look startled before they fell under a hail of bullets. Davidson hurdled over them, burst through the unlocked door and found the Chancellor, wearing his traditional cassock, sitting behind his desk. Mellon in a blue jacket and gray slacks stood next to him. Both looked up, shocked.

Davidson aimed his pistol at them. “Don’t move an inch – not an inch.”

The Chancellor’s face vibrated with fear and anger. “W-what the hell are you doing here? You’re Major Davidson, right? I gave you a medal. Why are you pointing that pistol at me? I am the Chancellor. Don’t you understand that?”

Davidson strode towards them. “Shut up. Both of you get in front of the desk now. I won’t ask again – I’ll just start shooting.”

They nervously shuffled around in front of the desk. Davidson stepped forward and frisked them with one hand. No obvious weapons.

The Chancellor trembled. “What do you want?”

Colonel Prentice marched through the door, holding an automatic rifle he had souvenired outside, wearing a lopsided grin. Blood was still flowing from the corner of his mouth. “Perhaps I should explain.”

The Chancellor’s head snapped around and he looked even more confused. “Bob. What is happening? Why are you pointing that rifle?”

Prentice looked at Davidson. “You’d better lock the door.”

Davidson strode over to the door and slid home a heavy bolt.

Prentice slumped into an antique chair, still aiming his rifle at the Chancellor and Mellon. He coughed a few times and coated his chin with blood. “I’ve got some bad news for you: in about ten minutes, 7,000 Freedom Alliance troops are going to launch a major attack on this City. I spoke to Commander Solon last night. He expects to have your head on a pike by noon.”

The Chancellor went white. “Commander Solon – you talked to Commander Solon?”

“Yes.”

“You’re kidding right?”

“No, deadly serious.”

The Chancellor jumped about and looked frantic. “I’ve got to warn our troops about the attack.”

Prentice smiled and waved his rifle. “You’re not warning anyone.”

Fear had enthroned itself on the Chancellor’s face. “You’ll stop me?”

“Of course.”

“You mean, you’re a traitor?”

An airy wave. “Use any word you like. You must be destroyed.”

The Chancellor gobbled a few words. “You’re married to my sister.”

A laugh forced up more blood. “You can have her back if you want.”

“Why? Why have you betrayed me?”

“You’re a monster who has enslaved this City.”

“That’s not true. God sent me to protect this City and mankind.”

“Oh, spare me your mumbo jumbo. If God chose you as Chancellor, which I seriously doubt, he made a hell of a big mistake. You’re just a cheap thug looking after yourself. I also know that Alexander Webster was a mass-murderer and you want to follow in his footsteps.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You plan to release Agent Pandora after Immunization Week, to kill all the Outlaws.”

“Who told you that?”

“You don’t need to know. That’s your plan, isn’t it?”

“Why do you care?”

“Because we are going to stop you. Give me the key.”

“What key?”

“The key to the safe in which you keep the dossier that identifies the location of Agent Pandora.”

A stunned look. “There is no dossier.”

Prentice sighed. “Bullshit. You have three seconds to give me the key. Otherwise, I take it off your corpse. One … two …”

Fear writhed across the Chancellor’s face. “I don’t have a key.”

“Then say your prayers.”

The Chancellor looked straight into the muzzle of the automatic rifle and realized Prentice was serious. “Alright, alright. I’ll give it to you. But there’s nothing in the safe – no dossier.”

“Throw the key to Major Davidson, carefully.”

The Chancellor slowly reached into a pocket, took out a golden key and threw it to Davidson, who caught it with his left hand.

Davidson said: “Where’s the safe?”

The Chancellor pointed to a spot on the bookshelves. “Behind those books.”

Davidson strode to the spot, tore away several leather-bound tomes and found a small silver safe. He unlocked the door and found the safe was empty – empty.

He looked at Prentice. “He’s right – it’s empty.”

Prentice looked back at the Chancellor. “Where’s the dossier?”

A smug expression. “I moved it.”

“Where?”

“To a safer place.”

“Where?”

“I won’t say.”

“Alright, last chance: where are the three canisters of Agent Pandora? Tell me or die.”

The Chancellor straightened up and laughed. “Don’t be stupid. You kill me and the Agent Pandora will be released straight away – straight away, understand? Those are my orders. The Outlaws must be culled to preserve Webster City as an ark for humanity. So you can’t shoot me. Now, let me warn our troops about the attack.”

Despite the Chancellor’s threat, Davidson knew they had to kill him. If they let him live, he would definitely release the Agent Pandora; if they killed him now, there was a chance he was bluffing and the super-virus wouldn’t be released. Humanity deserved that chance.

Davidson looked at Prentice. “He’s got to die.”

“I know.”

The Chancellor gave Prentice a frightened look. “You can’t shoot me – you can’t. Don’t, don’t! I can offer you another 100 years of life – a hundred years!”

“What are you talking about?”

The Chancellor’s eyes and hands danced around. “I can give you a drug that will stop you aging. Before the Great Plague, medical science made huge advances developing longevity drugs. One initiative was Project Marigold at the Mayo Clinic. Seventy years ago, biologists from Webster U recovered a lot of data from the clinic. But nobody could make sense of it until Professor Pettigrew looked at it, 30 years ago. He created an anti-aging drug that extends life by at least 100 years. Look at me! I’m supposed to be 72. And look at Edward! He’s supposed to be 90.”

Prentice grinned. “Actually, I know all of that.”

“How?”

“I’m your intelligence chief, remember. But Pettigrew’s missing. Where is he?”

The Chancellor cackled. “Six months ago, we took him to a safe place to maintain our, umm, exclusive access to the drug. Help me and I’ll take you to him; in fact, I’ve got some pills I can give you now. Let me live and you’ll get another 100 years of life, I promise.”

Normally, Davidson would have been stunned and intrigued by the Chancellor’s revelations. However, this was no normal time. They had to kill the Chancellor and then meet their own deaths. Soon Davidson would have no life to extend.

The red-leather door rattled and someone outside yelled: “Chancellor, open the door – open the door.” Someone fired shots at the door lock.

“I’m not interested.”

The Chancellor sobbed. “Why not?”

A hacking laugh. “I’m shot to bits. My time’s up and so is yours’.” Prentice looked at Davidson. “It was a pleasure knowing you, Major.”

“And you, sir.”

Prentice rose, coughing blood. He tottered towards the Chancellor and fired half-a-dozen bullets that made the Chancellor jump and twitch, before falling over, a corpse while still on his feet.

The door burst open and two Palace Guards wielding automatic rifles rushed into the room. Davidson shot the first in the chest and put him down. The second fired a burst that hit Prentice in the side and knocked him over, obviously dead. Davidson shot that guard in the neck and head, making him flop down.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a bookshelf swing open and Mellon duck behind it. Jesus, a false door. He spun around and fired three shots that plowed into the now closed door. Hell.

He desperately scrambled around looking for the mechanism Mellon used to open the false door and couldn’t find it. He had no more time. Mellon must be heading for wherever the Agent Pandora was hidden, intending to release it. Davidson had to escape the Palace and somehow work out where Mellon was going.

He heard a ripple of thunder in the distance, as if a storm had broken out. Then he realized the Freedom Alliance had started its artillery barrage a few minutes early. The City and Palace would soon descend into chaos. Hopefully, that distraction and his ISB uniform would get him out of the Palace.

Before leaving, he glanced at Colonel Prentice on the floor, still clutching the automatic rifle. The bullets that pummeled his body had added another coat of blood. His mouth gaped open, as if about to scream. Davidson wanted to mourn, but had no time.

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

 

While artillery fire boomed in the distance, Davidson crossed the circular marble hall to the open elevator. He stepped over Corporal Nisbett’s body, pressed a button and descended to the administration wing. As he got out, missiles or artillery shells screamed overhead and huge explosions rocked the building.

He raced down the long corridor with offices on both sides, past several terrified civilians who’d just arrived for work. They were too focused on the explosions to notice him.

He strode through a large marble hall lined with Old Masters and saw a ten-man squad of Palace Guards striding towards him. The Corporal in front ordered them to stop and pointed his rifle at Davidson. “Halt”.

Davidson stopped and immediately took command of the situation. “You have no right to stop me. I am on urgent business.”

The Corporal looked uncertain and afraid. “What business?”

“I have just spoken to the Chancellor. The Freedom Alliance has launched a major assault. He has lost contact with the High Command and wants me to deliver an urgent message. Now, get out of my way.”

“I can’t let you go.”

“Why not?”

“I have to speak to my superior first.”

A black scowl. “No time for that. This is an emergency. The Chancellor only has two bodyguards. Go up to his office and make sure he’s safe.”

“I have to …”

“You mean, you will leave the Chancellor in danger?”

The Corporal’s forehead buckled and he nodded slowly. “Umm, alright.” He turned to his men. “Follow me.”

Davidson watched them disappear around the corner and hurried towards the palace entrance. He soon reached the hall lined with portraits of Alexander Webster and the other Chancellors. An explosion, quite close, shook dust off the ceiling and made him flinch.

He’d almost reached the end of the hall when the enormous Sergeant he saw at the main entrance entered it and headed towards him. Davidson set a course to avoid him. However, the Sergeant veered across and blocked his path.

They stopped face-to-face and the Sergeant, eyes leaking tension, gave him a suspicious stare. “Where’s Corporal Nesbitt? He didn’t return.”

“He’s guarding the Chancellor, in his office.”

Where are you going?”

“The Chancellor’s lost contact with the High Command. I’m taking an urgent message.”

“What message?”

“It’s top secret.”

The Sergeant glanced down at Davidson’s chest and his eyes widened slightly. “Alright. Be on your way.”

As the Sergeant moved past him, Davidson looked down at his chest and saw several large specks of blood. Oh, God.

The Sergeant took two steps and spun around, raising his pistol. However, Davidson was already crouched with his pistol drawn, waiting. His three shots hit the Sergeant in the chest and threw him backward. The Sergeant’s big skull made a loud thud as it hit the marble floor and his pistol skittered ten yards away.

Fortunately, because of the racket that the Freedom Alliance was making outside and the commotion inside, nobody else seemed to hear the shots. However, Davidson didn't wait around for confirmation. He strode out of that hall and down a flight of stairs to the entrance hall, where half-a-dozen worried- and uncertain-looking guards stood beside the metal detectors. They weren't interested in an ISB major who was stupid enough to venture into the maelstrom outside and didn't try to stop him.

The Freedom Alliance wasn’t supposed to have helicopters. But when he reached the portico several unusual-looking choppers – bulkier than the standard model – swooped past the huge statue of Alexander Webster and fired missiles at the Palace and the Hall of Guardians. The explosions almost knocked him off his feet. Several artillery shells landed on the plaza and shook the ground.

To his relief, despite the aerial assault, the Cadillac was still parked outside the main gate with Helen Watkins behind the steering wheel, nervously watching the tumult around her.

He jumped in the passenger seat next to her. “Thanks for waiting.”

She turned, startled. “Carl – what happened?”

“The Chancellor’s dead; the Colonel’s dead; Edward Mellon got away.”

“Who’s Mellon?”

Her ignorance didn’t surprise him. Mellon was a shadowy figure. “The Commander of the Palace Guard. I think he’ll try to release the Agent Pandora. We’ve got to find him. Did any cars leave the Palace in the last ten minutes?”

“Only a black Cadillac like this one. Had a guy behind the wheel; no passengers.”

“What did the guy look like?”

“Umm, gray hair, thin face, I think.”

“That’s him. Which way did he go?”

“South, towards Salk Boulevard.”

If Mellon kept heading up that boulevard he would pass the army base and the air base, and then reach the South Gate. Was he trying to leave through the South Gate because the Agent Pandora canisters were hidden outside the City? That was unlikely. Further, the South Gate would be contested ground right now. The Freedom Alliance certainly wouldn’t let the Commander of the Palace Guard pass through its lines unmolested.

Maybe Mellon was heading for the army base or the air base.

The air base. Davidson remembered seeing a heavy bomber jacket at Professor Fisher’s house. Maybe Fisher had planned to release the Agent Pandora from a small plane to ensure it spread far and wide. And maybe Mellon was now going to step in and perform that task. Davidson had no other theory of what Mellon intended. “Head for the air base, now.”

“Why?”

“I think Mellon’s going to release Agent Pandora from a small plane.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” he said with more confidence than he felt.

“You think Mellon is evil enough to do that?”

“When the Chancellor was alive, Mellon was the second most evil man in Webster City. He just got a promotion.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

 

The Webster City Air Base was fifteen miles from the Chancellor’s Palace and five miles short of the South Gate. To reach it, Davidson and Watkins had to stay on Jonas Salk Boulevard, which ran right past it.

The boulevard had three lanes going each way and a wide nature strip in the middle. Both sides were clogged with military vehicles – mostly troop trucks – and a surprising number of civilian vehicles. It was impossible to know from the traffic flow whether the Freedom Alliance assault was succeeding or not.

As Watkins wove through the traffic, Davidson turned on the radio and channel surfed, hoping to hear a news bulletin. All he got was light-and-easy music. The media in Webster City had no experience covering breaking stories, no matter how big.

Watkins drove for about three miles until another strange-looking helicopter appeared on the horizon and zoomed towards them. About half-a-mile away, its forward cannon opened fire. Shells slammed into vehicles on the other side of the boulevard, making them flip over or slam into each other.

They had no time to turn off or even stop the car and run. Davidson watched mesmerized as the shells stitched a blazing furrow of devastation on the other side of the road. As it passed them, debris spattered the Cadillac and shattered the back window.

Davidson sighed. Thank God.

Watkins breathed hard. “Wow. I didn’t know they had copters?”

“I didn’t either. They seem to have a big bag of tricks.”

Davidson looked over his shoulder and saw the chopper circle around, obviously preparing to strafe the other side of the boulevard – their side. Jesus. “It’s coming back. Turn off somewhere, anywhere.”

She sped forward another fifty yards and tugged the steering wheel so hard that the car slewed wildly until its tires gripped and it ducked into a side-street. Cannon shells tore up the road behind them.

Davidson caught his breath and looked around at a dreary neighborhood with exhausted concrete apartment blocks. Worn-out cars were parked on both sides of the street. He was about to tell Watkins to return to the boulevard when the car juddered and wallowed around.

She said: “Shit.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I think we burst a tire.”

“Oh, Christ. Pull over.”

She stopped between two parked cars. “What the hell do we do now?”

“We steal another car. Come on.”

They got out and Davidson glanced down at the tires. The rear one was almost flat. Damn.

He looked around for a vehicle to commandeer and saw none. But he did see about eight men in civilian clothes, brandishing an assortment of rifles and pistols, coming towards them. Who the hell were they, and why were they approaching? They obviously weren’t Webster City soldiers or Freedom Alliance fighters.

One pointed at Davidson and yelled. “ISB – he’s ISB. Let them have it.”

A couple of the men stopped, raised their rifles and fired at Davidson and Watkins. Bullets thudded into the Cadillac and a stone fence behind them.

Davidson looked around and saw a narrow gap between the two closest apartment buildings. “Come on.”

They dashed through the gap and sheltered behind one of the apartments buildings.

Watkins sucked in air. “Who the hell are they?”

“Must be Freedom Alliance sympathizers out to cause trouble.”

He glanced around the corner of the building and saw several of the men rushing towards them clutching weapons. He stepped out and fired a couple of shots which made them duck for cover.

They couldn’t stay where they were, because the attackers, though amateurs, would soon out-flank them. “Come on, we’ve got to keep moving.”

He turned, dashed across a street and through another gap between apartment buildings, with Watkins hot on his heels. As they ducked behind a building, several bullets stitched a line above their heads, showering them with concrete chips. Their pursuers were obviously not going to give up anytime soon.

He looked up and down the new street. No traffic. A couple of pursuers dashed across the street a hundred yards away, trying to out-flank them. “Come on, one more street.”

They ran across the street and behind another apartment building which, fortunately, faced onto a wide street with some traffic. An olive-green army truck rumbled past, then a Lincoln Continental approached. Davidson dashed in front of it and aimed his pistol at the driver, praying the driver didn’t just run him over. The car screech to a halt. He ran around, yanked open the rear passenger door and jumped onto the back seat. Watkins slid in after him.

A terrified young man, neatly groomed and wearing a white shirt and blue tie, looked over his shoulder at the pistol aimed at his head. “W-w-what are you doing?”

“Drive.”

“What?”

“Drive this goddamn car, now, or I’ll shoot you dead.”

Someone fired a couple of shots which thudded into the Lincoln and shattered the rear window. That gave the kid a big incentive to stomp on the accelerator. The car shot down the road.

“Good. Turn at the next corner.”

The young man spun the steering wheel. The car screeched around the corner and was soon shielded from gunfire.

Davidson sighed with relief. “Good work. Now slow down before you crash.”

The kid’s face was flushed. “I am slowing down.”

The car arrowed forward. “No, you’re not. Slow down.”

The driver took his foot off the pedal and the Lincoln decelerated.

Despite the urgency of his mission, Davidson had to satisfy his curiosity. “Why are you driving around right now?”

A puzzled stare. “I’m driving to work.”

“Are you kidding? The Freedom Alliance has attacked this City with 7,000 fighters.”

Open-mouthed astonishment. “It has?”

“Christ. Pull over to the side.”

“Why?”

“Pull over now or I will kill you.”

“OK, OK.”

The young man parked against the curb.

“Leave the engine running and get out.”

“W-w-hy?”

Davidson jabbed the back of the kid’s neck with his pistol. “Because I told you to. Don’t annoy me anymore.”

“OK, OK.”

Davidson had been impressed with Watkins’ driving skills and wanted to be ready to jump out of the car if necessary. As the kid got out, he looked at her. “You drive.”

“Me?”

“Yes.”

“OK.” She dashed around and got behind the steering wheel. Davidson sat next to her.

She drove back onto Jonas Salk Boulevard, where pandemonium now reigned. Panicking drivers had started ignoring traffic lights, so intersections were clogged with army and civilian vehicles heading in different directions. Davidson was impressed with the way Watkins bumped, squeezed and yelled her way through several intersections. But it took them twenty minutes to travel ten miles.

As they approached the air base, the sound of explosions and gunfire grew much louder, and the number of choppers flitting overhead increased markedly. Plumes of ropey black smoke rose from the area around the South Gate. Davidson sensed the Freedom Alliance had a foothold in the City, but had no idea how firm it was.

Webster City Air Base covered an area of nine square miles and had a high wire fence around the perimeter. A heavily guarded main gate on the northern side controlled access to the base. On the far side, beyond the runways, stood a control tower, a three-story administration block and a dozen hangars that housed the City’s air force: three squadrons of helicopters; two squadrons of low-level prop-jet bombers and an assortment of transport planes.

A couple of hundred yards from those buildings was another hangar which housed several small planes reserved for the personal use of the Chancellor and his cronies. That select group often used them to go on hunting or fishing trips around the Great Lakes, visit the City’s colonies or sight-see the ruins of US cities that weren’t too radioactive.

When the Lincoln Continental approached the main gate, the boom-gate was down and several bewildered-looking soldiers stood next to it.

Davidson turned to Watkins. “Bust through.”

“You sure?”

“Yes, we’re out of time. Floor it.”

She stomped on the accelerator and crashed through the boom-gate, splintering the wooden planks and sending them flying. By the time the guards realized what had happened and raised their rifles, the Lincoln was well past. Some fired desultory shots; the rest didn’t bother.

Watkins laughed as the vehicle careered across a huge concrete expanse. “Wow, where to now?”

He scanned the air base, hoping to see a black Cadillac with Mellon behind the wheel. No such luck. All he saw were a few bombers and several choppers taking off. Hopefully, Mellon wasn’t on one of them.

He pointed towards the Chancellor’s hangar. “That way, and step on it.”

She veered left for a couple of hundred yards until she reached a north-south runway and turned onto it. A bomber headed towards them, gathering speed. But the runway was wide enough for her to hug the side and let it scream past. The wash from its engines buffeted the Lincoln and she struggled to keep control.

When they were half-way along the runway, a couple of Freedom Alliance helicopters appeared above the main hangars and sprayed cannon fire at half-a-dozen choppers parked in a line, incinerating most of them and forcing the surviving ground crew to flee.

A Webster City helicopter flew over their Lincoln and fired several air-to-air missiles at the FA helicopters, which all missed. The FA helicopters spun around and plastered the chopper with cannon fire. It spun around several times, trailing smoke, before crashing and exploding on the grass between two runways.

A couple of missiles or artillery shells, fired from outside the air base, screamed through the air and exploded inside two hangars.

It was impossible to tell who was winning the battle. But the Freedom Alliance was obviously up for the fight. Davidson had to make sure its effort was not in vain.

They were still several hundred yards from the Chancellor’s hangar when Davidson saw a big black Cadillac parked to the side. Must be Mellon’s. Every nerve ending jumped and sparked like a live wire.

He said: “Stop next to the Cadillac. I’ll go inside.”

“You want me to go with you?”

“Stay in the car, in case we have to move fast. I’ll tell you if I need help.”

“OK.”

She skidded to a stop next to the black Cadillac. Davidson leaped out and raced towards the hangar, pistol drawn.

It was an open hangar, about one hundred yards wide, with three Cessna aircraft parked at evenly spaced intervals. The propeller of the furthest was spinning hard. Mellon stood next to it, wearing a fleecy flying jacket, talking to a man in overalls. That man saw Davidson running towards them and yelled something. Mellon turned, holding a pistol.

Still running, Davidson fired a couple of shots. One hit the man in the overalls and he went down. But Mellon cranked off three shots, which buzzed past Davidson, and clambered into the plane.

There was obviously a pilot onboard because the plane was already edging forward. It accelerated and Davidson realized it would soon be past him. He dropped to one knee and fired at the cockpit, hoping to hit the pilot. Though the plane was about sixty yards away and traveling across him, he put five shots in the right area. Despite that, it gathered speed and went past him.

Oh, Jesus.

The plane shot across the apron in front of the hangar, heading for the runway they drove down. Davidson desperately fired his last bullets at the plane, to no avail.

He had started to panic about the prospect of the Agent Pandora being released from the plane, when he heard the tires of the Lincoln squeal and it sped across his vision towards the Cessna. What the hell was Helen doing?

The plane was now a hundred yards down the runway, close to take-off, with the Lincoln closing fast. Surely she didn’t intend to ram it. God, she obviously did.

He looked on in amazement as the Lincoln plowed into the back of the Cessna, destroying its undercarriage, and creating a roar of metal and shower of sparks. The Lincoln and Cessna spun down the runway, side by side, until the Lincoln flipped over and the Cessna stopped on its belly in the grass.

Davidson ran up the runway several notches above his top speed. He was desperate to find out if Helen survived the crash and needed help. However, smoke billowed out of the Cessna. He had to salvage the canisters of Agent Pandora – if they were still intact – before the plane burst into flames.

His lungs were screaming and scooping in only tiny particles of oxygen as he got close to the plane. To his amazement, the pilot staggered out and dropped to his hands and knees on the grass, gasping and vomiting. The guy looked near death. However, Davidson had to eliminate him as a threat before he tried to grab the canisters. He was about to shoot the guy when he realized his pistol was empty. He tossed it away and, without breaking stride, kicked the pilot behind the ear. The pilot spun to the ground and lay still.

Flames sprouted from the engine. Time was desperately short. He opened the cockpit door and looked inside. Mellon was slumped forward with his blood-drenched head resting against the instrument panel. A large pack lay at his feet. Davidson scrambled over, pulled open the top flap and looked inside. Three slim canisters looked intact, thank God. He grabbed the pack, climbed out of the plane, ran across the heaving grass for about thirty yards and tumbled onto his back. His lungs scratched at solid blocks of air.

After a few seconds, he thought about Helen. Had to help her. Despite his exhaustion, he was about to rise when he heard a female voice.

“You alright?”

He looked up and saw her grinning face.

A tight smile. “You’re OK?”

“Yep. I was wearing my seatbelt, like a good girl. Only got a sore neck, I think.” She rubbed her neck and nodded at the pack in his arms. “You’ve got the canisters?”

“Yes.”

“Intact?”

“Looks like it.”

She smiled. “Then I guess we just saved humanity.”

Davidson now had enough oxygen in his lungs to laugh. “Looks like it.”

“What about Mellon?”

He sat up. “He’s still in the plane.”

They turned and saw the flames had reached the cabin of the plane. After about thirty seconds the whole plane exploded. Flaming wings spun through the air. If Mellon wasn’t dead before, he was now, at the ripe old age of ninety. Davidson considered mentioning his age to Helen, but decided to wait until he could provide a full explanation.

He looked around. Several more of the unusual-looking choppers flew over the air base, heading towards the center of the City. The heavy clouds of smoke spiraling up from the South Gate looked even thicker. The explosions and gunfire sounded a lot closer.

As he got to his feet, a large truck with camouflage markings headed towards them. A man wearing a Freedom Alliance red beret stood on the tray, manning a heavy machine-gun mounted on the cabin roof. The truck stopped about twenty yards away and the machine-gunner trained his weapon on them. The muzzle was huge.

Davidson sensed the Freedom Alliance attack was going well. He also realized the ISB uniform he wore could have a very harmful effect on his health. Fear, anger and incredulity washed through his brain. After saving most of mankind, it looked like those he helped would gun him down. He tentatively raised his hands and waited for bullets to shred his body. Helen, still wearing the uniform of a CDC security officer, also raised her hands.

A tall blond man, wearing a red beret and khaki fatigues, climbed out of the cabin carrying a Kalashnikov like he was born with it. Half-a-dozen men wearing similar uniforms jumped off the back tray, fanned out and pointed their weapons at Davidson and Watkins.

The blond guy wore the shoulder patch of the George Washington regiment, part of the pro-democracy Liberty Brigade that formed the backbone of the Freedom Alliance. He scowled. “Who are you?”

No point lying. “Major Carl Davidson from the Internal Security Bureau.”

The guy aimed his rifle at Davidson’s chest. Killer eyes glittered. “I should shoot you right now.”

“Commander Solon will be very unhappy if you do.”

A frown. “Why?”

“I saw him last night. I – we – are working for him.”

A hard grin. “Really? Doing what?”

“Saving humanity.”

“What are you talking about?”

“He asked us to stop the Chancellor releasing a super-virus that would kill all the Outlaws.”

Another scowl. “I kill people who mess with me. I have no sense of humor, whatsoever.”

Davidson forced moisture into his mouth. “I’m not joking. Edward Mellon, the Commander of the Palace Guard was about to take off with the super-virus when we stopped him.”

“Really? Where’s Mellon now?”

“Cooking in that plane.”

The blond man looked at the flaming wreckage. “You don’t say? And what happened to the super-virus?”

Davidson nodded at the pack on the ground. “It’s in there – intact.”

“That so? Then it seems to me you’ve got only one problem.”

“What?”

“My momma told me to never believe anything an ISB officer tells me – particularly a major.” The blond man lifted his rifle to his shoulder and squinted down the barrel.

“I can tell you today’s code-word.”

The blond man lifted his eyebrows and the rifle wavered. “Really? What?”

“Black Fox.”

After a moment of hesitation, the rifle lowered and the blond guy turned to the driver of the truck. “Get headquarters on the radio.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

 

While the driver tried to make radio contact with Freedom Alliance headquarters, Davidson looked around and saw several other Alliance trucks drive through the main gate and head towards the air command building. Nobody tried to stop them. Overhead, Alliance helicopters kept flitting towards the center of the City. Then a couple of small tanks came through the main gate and scurried towards the main hangars, firing their cannon.

After about a minute, the driver yelled that he’d made contact with headquarters. The blond guy swaggered over to the cabin, sat next to the driver and spoke to someone on a hand-held two-way radio. After about three minutes, he puts his head out of the window and yelled at Davidson. “Commander Solon wants to talk to you.”

After breathing a sigh of relief, Davidson picked up the pack containing the canisters of Agent Pandora and strolled over to the truck. Helen Watkins followed him.

He took the radio from the blond fighter and said: “Davidson here.”

“Solon here. You’ve got the canisters?” Solon sounded remarkably calm for a general fighting the climactic battle of a decades-long war with planetary domination at stake. He certainly didn’t sound like he was losing it.

“Yes, all three, intact.”

“Excellent. Well done. Where is Colonel Prentice?”

“Dead, I’m afraid. He killed the Chancellor, but didn’t make it out of the Palace.”

Solon’s tone rose. “The Chancellor is dead?”

“Yes, in his office.”

“You’re sure.”

“I didn’t hang around to give him an autopsy. But the Colonel put about six bullets in him and even killed his ghost.”

The Commander’s voice wore a big smile. “That’s great news – wonderful. We’ve been wondering why the City’s defense seemed so uncoordinated. Well done.”

Davidson wanted to ask how the tide of battle was going, but the Commander obviously had no time for chit-chat. “Glad to help. Now, will you tell your man here not to shoot Helen Watkins or me?”

A laugh. “Of course. Put Captain Tucker back on the radio.”

Davidson handed the radio back to the blond fighter who listened for about a minute and said: “Roger.”

Tucker handed the radio back to the driver and turned to Davidson. “Looks like I’m not allowed to kill you or your friend.”

“Good.”

“In fact, I’ve got to take you both to the Palace, with the canisters.”

“The Palace? We should take them to your headquarters.”

Finally, a smile. “Commander Solon expects to set up his headquarters outside the Palace in about twenty minutes.”

“You’re kidding?”

“No, we’ve gone through this city like a knife through butter. It’s a bit spooky really. I’m worried it’s some sort of trap. But I’m glad we came across you. We were sent to secure the air base. Now we can watch the fall of the Palace. Amazing. Come on, let’s get everybody on-board.”

Captain Tucker jumped out of the cabin and yelled for his men to get back on the truck. “We’re going to the Palace.”

That provoked a loud cheer and everyone scurried towards the back of the truck.

Tucker looked at Davidson and Watkins. “Come on, we’ll ride in the back.”

The rear of the truck had an open tray with a bench on each side. Davidson climbed aboard, careful to ensure he didn’t bump the pack containing the Agent Pandora. He sat next to Watkins with the pack between his knees.

Tucker sat opposite and looked at Davidson. “I’d better get you both something more appropriate to wear.”

He reached under a bench, pulled out two camouflage jackets with the Freedom Alliance insignia and proffered them. “Here, put these on.”

Davidson and Watkins thanked Tucker and did as told.

As they drove off the air base, Tucker introduced himself as Captain Rene Tucker. He was born in an Outlaw community in Kentucky and had been in the Freedom Alliance for almost ten years. “My grandparents escaped the City about 40 years ago, so I’ve got lots of relatives in this place I’ve never met.”

“How did you get into the City this morning?”

The Captain proudly described how Alliance engineers worked throughout the night to clear paths through the minefield in front of the main city wall. “As soon as the artillery bombardment started, squads like mine crawled forward and blew holes in the wall. Once through, we circled around to help capture the South Gate. Then we joined the battalion responsible for capturing the air base.”

“Where did you get the helicopters from?”

A laugh. “Big surprise, huh? The US Army stored sealed kits of those copters in tunnels in the Arkansas hills, for use after a nuclear war. It took us years to assemble them and get them working. Fortunately, a couple of defectors from Webster City, who were aircraft engineers, helped out.”

The pandemonium on Jonas Salk Boulevard had abated. Freedom Alliance armored vehicles and troop trucks were now streaming towards Pasteur Plaza. The only impediments to their progress were the crashed and burnt-out vehicles that dotted the route. However, the truck driver weaved his way past them.

Most of the fighters on the truck stood and trained their rifles on the apartment buildings, wary of snipers. However, Freedom Alliance flags already hung over many balconies.

Davidson scanned the fighters on the troop trucks around him. Their helmets and shoulder patches showed most belonged to the Liberty Brigade. However, the Badlands was infested with religious sects, many of which taught that the end of the world was nigh. Many sects had sent troops to join the Freedom Alliance. So Davidson also saw troops from the Branch Davidian, Episcopalian, Muslim and Buddhist regiments. A large flag with a star and crescent fluttered above one truck.

Captain Tucker shook his head. “I’ve waited years for this moment. It doesn’t seem real.”

It seemed even less real to Davidson. He had spent years fighting the Freedom Alliance. Now he sat on one of its trucks as it drove victoriously towards the center of Webster City.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

Freedom Alliance vehicles, full of jubilant fighters, converged on Pasteur Plaza from all directions, created a bottleneck. The truck on which Davidson sat took almost twenty minutes to squeeze through to the southern end of the plaza, opposite the Palace. Hundreds of vehicles were parked all over the place. More than a thousand fighters were building firing positions or wheeling artillery pieces into position. Helicopters buzzed overhead.

Commander Solon stood half-way up the main steps of the City Museum, amidst a dozen staff and bodyguards, scanning the Palace through binoculars. The truck stopped at the bottom of the steps. Captain Tucker jumped out and strode up them. Davidson followed with the precious pack slung over his shoulder. Helen Watkins trailed behind him.

When they got close to Commander Solon, someone touched the Commander’s arm and nodded towards Tucker. The Commander lowered his binoculars and smiled. “Hello, Captain. I hear you have the canisters of Agent Pandora?”

Tucker pointed at the pack on Davidson’s shoulder. “They’re in there.”

“Good. We’ve already secured the CDC building. I want your squad to take the canisters over there and put them in a sealed room. Keep them under close guard. We’ll destroy them later.”

Tucker looked dismayed. “But sir …”

“What?”

“I don’t want to miss the big show-down.”

Solon frowned and shook his head. “I’m sorry, Captain, but this is a vital task. I’m giving it to you because I trust you more than anyone. Believe me, you will have my sincerest gratitude.”

Captain Tucker sighed and saluted. “Yes, sir.”

“Thank you. Treat those canisters like they’re new-born babies.”

“I will.”

The Captain gingerly took the pack off Davidson, strode down the steps and got into the cabin of the truck.

As the truck drove off, Commander Solon glanced at Davidson and Watkins. “Well done. You’ll have to tell me what happened later. As you can see, I’m rather busy right now.”

Davidson looked across the plaza, past the cenotaph and the statue of Alexander Webster, at the Palace. “What’s happening?”

“We now control the whole city, except for the Palace. I’ve just sent an officer inside, under a flag of truce, to see if the Palace Guards will surrender.”

“Surely, now the Chancellor is dead, they’ll throw in the towel.”

A shrug. “I hope so. Now, if you don’t mind, I have work to do …”

“Of course.”

Davidson and Watkins strolled to the other end of the Museum steps and stood watching the unfolding drama.

Watkins said: “You tired?”

Davidson realized that he hadn’t slept for almost 30 hours, but was too excited to be tired. “Not yet. You?”

“Nope. I don’t think I’ll ever need to sleep again.”

For the next ten minutes, Freedom Alliance vehicles kept arriving and disgorging excited fighters who assisted those already preparing for the siege of the Palace. Then a man wearing Alliance khaki fatigues, carrying a large white flag, walked out of the main entrance of the Palace. It took him five minutes to stride through the main gate and across the plaza to where Commander Solon stood on the steps.

Davidson and Watkins moved closer to hear what was said.

The fighter furled the white flag and saluted. “Sir, the Palace Guards know the Chancellor is dead and want to surrender.”

“All of them.”

“Yes. I said that, if they leave the building unarmed, we will let them go home. They agreed and will start coming out in about ten minutes from now.”

“Excellent. Well done.” Solon turned to his staff. “Spread the word: when the Guards come out, no shooting or reprisals. In fact, I’ll shoot anyone who disobeys.”

Half-a-dozen staff officers scattered to carry out his instructions.

About ten minutes later, a few unarmed Palace Guards left the Palace and, under the muzzles of hundreds of weapons, nervously crossed the plaza to the far end. When they reached it, Alliance fighters patted them down for weapons and sent them home.

When the remaining Guards saw those who surrendered were not mistreated, a swelling tide left the Palace and followed in their footsteps. Within about twenty minutes, almost 1200 Guards and 50 civilians left the building and surrendered. All were searched for weapons and sent home.

Most of Commander Solon’s staff had re-gathered around him. He looked around until he saw Davidson and Watkins. “I’m going inside. Do you want to come?”

“Of course,” they said in unison.

Solon, his staff and about 50 grizzled fighters who seemed to be his personal bodyguards, strode across the plaza towards the Palace. Davidson and Watkins trailed behind.

The group passed about a hundred Muslim troops from Florida kneeling on mats, praying to Allah while facing where Mecca would be if a suitcase nuclear device hadn’t destroyed it. About 50 years ago, an Outlaw in Florida proclaimed himself an Iman and started preaching from an English translation of the Koran. There were now almost a hundred thousand Muslims in the area.

Everyone in Solon’s group looked solemn as they passed under the Palace portico and entered the building, treasuring their moment of triumph. When they reached the main entrance hall, they were awestruck by its opulence. Solon looked up at the large fresco on the ceiling and glanced at Davidson. “The Chancellor lived well, didn’t he?”

“He enjoyed the finer things in life. Will you move in here?”

A laugh. “No. It looks a bit draughty. Which way to the Chancellor’s office?”

“I’ll show you.”

Solon selected four mean-looking fighters to accompany them and told everyone else to search the Palace for any Guards still holding out. “And remember: no looting – this is a public building, it belongs to everyone.”

Davidson led Solon, his team and Watkins up a long flight of stairs into the first large marble hall. The corpse of the Sergeant who Davidson killed still lay on the floor.

Solon glanced down. “Who killed him?”

“I did, I’m afraid, on the way out.”

A wry grin. “You’re a dangerous man. So, tell me: what happened last night, after we parted company?”

While they strode through the next two marble halls and the long corridor that ran through the administration wing, Davidson summarized what transpired.

When he’d finished, Solon smiled at him and Watkins. “You two had a big night, didn’t you? I thank you both. You say Colonel Prentice was already wounded when he entered the Palace?”

“He was half-dead; he knew he wasn’t coming out.”

A rueful smile. “You know, I always feared he was a double-agent. I shouldn’t have.”

“Don’t feel bad: he would have admired your suspicion.”

A chuckle. “I guess so.”

When they reached the elevator, Davidson was pleased to see no sign of Corporal Nesbitt, who must have recovered from his attack and left the building.

Everybody squeezed into the elevator and it climbed two floors to the circular marble hall outside the Chancellor’s office. When Solon saw the corpses of the two Palace Guards outside it, he looked at Davidson. “You again?”

“Had to kill them to reach the Chancellor.”

“I’m glad you changed sides.”

Davidson led everyone through the open door into the office. The corpses of the Chancellor, Prentice and the other two Palace Guards lay where they fell.

Solon looked down at the bullet-riddled corpse of the Chancellor, staring up at the ceiling. “You know, I feel cheated. We planned to put him on trial for his crimes.”

“You mean, you weren’t going to shoot him out of hand?”

“That wouldn’t have achieved anything. That’s the wrong kind of thinking.”

“I guess I’m a bit old-fashioned.”

A chuckle. “You’ll have to change.”

Prentice’s corpse lay on its side, covered with dried blood. Davidson bent down, rolled him onto his back and neatly folded his arms over his chest. His blood-stained face looked oddly peaceful.

Davidson felt a lump in his throat as he stood up. “Goodbye Colonel, I will miss you.” He turned to Solon. “You know, he said he had a lot of blood on his hands that he wanted to wash away. I think he succeeded.”

“He certainly did. When you’re fighting for the wrong side in a war, it isn’t easy to cross over to the right side. But he managed. He was a brave man. You know, l never found out: does he have a family?”

“Yes, a wife, two children and a mistress. He asked me to give flowers to both women. I’ll tell them what happened.”

“Good. Let me know when the funeral’s going to be held. I’d like to attend.”

“I will.”

Solon looked around and smiled. “Nice office.”

“Are you going to use it?”

“No, that would send the wrong message, don’t you think? I’ll set up my headquarters in another building.”

“Will you be the new Chancellor?”

“Of course not. Secretary Monroe and the rest of the High Council will arrive in a few hours. They’ll take over the civil administration of the City. I’ll help them, of course. But I’m tired of fighting. I want to go back to Tennessee and start a farm. Outlaw communities will blossom now. In 30 years, there will be lots of cities like this one.”

“What about food and fuel? Can you keep them flowing into this city?”

“Fortunately, the Chancellor was a hoarder. There’s plenty of food and fuel in storage, and we’ve got plans to bring in more. In a year or two, the City will hold elections and govern itself.”

“You really mean that?”

A smile. “Yes. We’re called the Freedom Alliance. You can trust the label.”

“The citizens of Webster City aren’t used to freedom.”

“Maybe. But they aren’t the citizens of Webster City anymore. This place is now called New Chicago. And don’t worry, Outlaw communities understand democracy. We can make it work here.”

“What about your comrades? What about the religious groups? Will they give up power? What if they start fighting each other?”

Solon’s face clouded. “I guess that’s possible. We fought so the future could get started. We’ll have to wait and see what it brings.”

The radio on Solon’s belt crackled. He put it to his ear. “Solon here.”

The Commander listened for about thirty seconds and smiled. “Understand. We’re on our way out.”

He clipped his radio back onto his belt and turned to Davidson and Watkins. “Let’s go outside. I’ve got a big surprise.”

Watkins said: “What?”

“Come on, you’ll see.”

The whole party returned to the elevator and rode it down to the administration wing. As they walked down the long corridor, Solon chatted with one of his men, and Watkins moved up next to Davidson.

She said: “What are you going to do now?”

“Well, first I’ve got to deliver some flowers and arrange a funeral.”

“You need help choosing the flowers?”

“Definitely.”

“What will you do after that?”

Davidson considered searching for Professor Pettigrew and asking him for extra life. But he wasn’t sure he wanted to live longer than his allotted span and put that on the backburner. “The new regime won’t want ex-ISB officers with blood on their hands, and I’m tired of this city. I’m going to travel in the Badlands. I think I’ll go to Kansas first and look around.”

“You mean, to find your brother?”

“No, to find out what happened to him, that’s all.”

“You taking your wife?”

“Of course not. Like I said, that’s over.”

A pause. “Can I go with you?”

His heart fluttered like a bird soaring above the City. “Sure. It’ll be rough.”

She smiled. “Maybe. But I think it’ll be rougher in this city.”

He laughed. “You’re probably right.”

On the way out, they passed dozens of Alliance fighters wandering around the Palace, gawking at its luxurious trappings. Many yelled their congratulations to Solon as he strolled past; he waved back and congratulated them.

When they emerged from the building, Davidson saw the surprise that Solon had in store. A heavy truck was parked beside the massive gilt-bronze statue of Alexander Webster. Ten fighters were unloading large crates and stacking them around the concrete plinth. Davidson realized with trembling excitement they were going to blow it up.

He glanced at Solon. “Good idea.”

A big smile. “I’ve dreamed of doing this since I was a kid.”

The fighters finished stacking the crates and most climbed aboard the truck, which drove off. However, two remained behind and spent fifteen minutes attaching wires to the explosives inside the crates. Finally, they strode off together, unspooling a wire for several hundred yards.

They attached the wire to a detonator and looked across at Solon, who gave a thumbs-up. One of them pushed down the plunger of the detonator. A deafening roar echoed around the square. Huge chunks of masonry heaved out of the plinth. Smaller pieces peppered the watching fighters like shrapnel, without causing serious injury. Dust and smoke enveloped the bottom half of the statue.

For a few moments, Alexander Webster refused to move. Then he slowly toppled forward. The arm holding the test-tube seemed to reach out to break his fall and shattered on impact. The torso slammed onto the ground and rocked several times before settling. A dust cloud rolled across the plaza towards the Hall of Guardians.

Enormous cheers echoed around the plaza. Fighters danced and wept.

Davidson realized he held Helen’s hand and they were both cheering. Colonel Prentice said the Freedom Alliance was trying to liberate the City and he was right. Davidson felt like he had stepped out of a dark prison cell into blinking sunlight. The world glowed with potential. However, at the height of his euphoria, doubts about the future intruded. What monsters would this new age produce?

Commander Solon appeared at his shoulder, beaming. “That was magnificent. Maybe we should raise a new statue of Colonel Prentice.”

Davidson shook his head. “You know, I don’t think he’d want that.”

A grin. “You’re probably right. What are your plans now?”

“After we’ve buried the Colonel, we’re heading into the Badlands.”

Solon looked downcast and his shoulders slumped. “I wish I could go with you. But I might be here for a lot longer than I thought.”

 

 

THE END

 

 

194

 


Webster City

  • ISBN: 9781370820771
  • Author: Peter Menadue
  • Published: 2016-12-02 08:05:19
  • Words: 53757
Webster City Webster City