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The Trust Of The People (Conspiracy Trilogy Book 2)

THE TRUST OF

THE PEOPLE

 

By

 

Christopher Read

 

 

BOOK TWO OF THE CONSPIRACY TRILOGY

THE TRUST OF THE PEOPLE

 

Copyright © 2015 by Christopher Read

 

 

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

 

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

1.3

The South China Sea

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

 

 

Contents

 

Prologue – Monday, October 17th

Chapter 1 – Friday, October 21st

Chapter 2 – Saturday, October 22nd

Chapter 3 – Sunday, October 23rd

Chapter 4 – Monday, October 24th

Chapter 5 – Tuesday, October 25th

Chapter 6 – Wednesday, October 26th

Chapter 7 – Thursday, October 27th

Chapter 8 – Friday, October 28th

Chapter 9 – Saturday, October 29th

Chapter 10 – Sunday, October 30th

Chapter 11 – Monday, October 31st

Chapter 12 – Tuesday, November 1st

Chapter 13 – Wednesday, November 2nd

Chapter 14 – Thursday, November 3rd

Chapter 15 – Friday, November 4th

Chapter 16 – Saturday, November 5th

Chapter 17 – Sunday, November 6th

Chapter 18 – Monday, November 7th

Chapter 19 – Tuesday, November 8th

Chapter 20 – Wednesday, November 9th

Chapter 21 – Thursday, November 10th

Map of the South China Sea

Prologue – Monday, October 17th

Moscow – 10:14 Local Time; 07:14 UTC

Apartment block, bookstore, prison and secret police headquarters: the infamous Lubyanka had been all of those things, the parquet floors trodden by future presidents and condemned traitors, the fate of thousands of Russia’s citizens determined within its walls. Its offices and dark corners were a haven for the suspicious and the intrusive, the building’s sole purpose that of searching out secrets. Despite the various changes as to its parent agency, that one goal hadn’t altered in over a hundred years and the Lubyanka still remained the key to Russia’s internal security.

The Moscow headquarters of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) wasn’t in fact a single structure, and over the years the two original buildings had been joined together and then extended. Yet, despite its impressive yellow-brick façade and the best efforts of half-a-dozen architects, to many in Moscow the Lubyanka still managed to exude an air of despondency, the walls somehow tainted by the tears of its many victims.

The Lubyanka had been Georgiy Alekseyev’s second home for some eleven years, it watching impassively as he had literally worked his way up from the ground floor. Now the building would be a silent witness to his final act, a moment of madness that could well be the most selfless thing he’d ever done or potentially the most desperate. Either way, Alekseyev knew he couldn’t back down – the alternatives were simply unacceptable. His daughter would never be likely to understand, but he prayed that one day she might find it in her heart to forgive him.

Alekseyev was a man burdened by regret and ashamed at the selfishness he had shown his family over so many years. Twenty-four years he had been married, his wife asking for little but giving so much, Alekseyev only realising how much he relied on her once she had gone. Perhaps it would have been easier if her death had been someone’s fault, but it had all come out of nowhere, his wife collapsing while out walking. Alekseyev had arrived at the hospital to be told his wife had slipped into a coma; two days later she was dead, a brain haemorrhage the diagnosis, the doctors keen to explain that there was nothing anyone could have done to save her.

Outwardly, Alekseyev looked to have coped well; inside, the depression that had gripped him during those first months had seemed never-ending, and he had turned to gambling as a way to dull the misery. Then, after ten months of self-pity, his daughter had announced she was pregnant. The joy in her eyes after three years of trying for a baby was the jolt Alekseyev had needed to bring him to his senses, a final opportunity to make up for past mistakes. Baby Yelena’s christening three weeks ago had brought family and friends together in an emotional celebration, Alekseyev not the only one struggling to hold back the tears.

He smiled again at the memory of that day, focusing for a moment on how his wife and daughter had once combined to describe him: ‘steady and dependable, easy-going but not someone who found it easy to forgive’. Alekseyev certainly couldn’t disagree with their analysis, although he sensed the dependable part really meant predictable and boring. Well, now he would prove the lie to such judgements.

A couple of minutes, no longer, and the two people he loved the most in the world would be protected, his debt paid in full. No point in regret or self-admonishment; little enough time to recall more than just a handful of cherished memories. Would the final act produce a moment of unspeakable agony, or just nothing? Dare he even hope for some wondrous light to beckon him into a better world?

Alekseyev shook the thought aside, forcing himself to concentrate on his allotted task. A deep breath to steady his nerves; then he moved towards the closed office door. Colonel Trukhin first – he’d always hated the arrogant prick…

Trukhin sat staring at his computer screen, brow furrowed in concentration, the early morning light from the office window bathing the room in a warm golden glow. Trukhin glanced up as Alekseyev entered, eyes darkening with irritation.

“What is it Alekseyev, I’m busy? If it’s important…” Trukhin froze as he saw the gun in Alekseyev’s hand. His body seemed to arch back slightly, as though trying to prepare himself for the first bullet; then abruptly he relaxed, common-sense overriding his initial shock. “What the fuck, Alekseyev! Get that fucking gun out of my face now!”

Despite his fears Alekseyev took time to savour the moment. “You’ve always been an asshole Trukhin; this is no more than you deserve.”

Some angry protest started to form on Trukhin’s lips, the words forever stilled as Alekseyev shot him once through the heart, the crack of the gunshot echoing loudly around the room.

Alekseyev pivoted quickly, turning left out of the office and striding towards his true target. Two young aides stood talking together further along the corridor, their expressions a mix of concern and puzzlement, one of them shouting out a warning as he noticed the gun. Alekseyev fired twice more, not aiming at them exactly, but uncaring as to whether they might be hit.

Standing orders meant that neither man was armed and they instantly retreated, the nearest door a quick route to safety. Alekseyev took a deep breath and then barged through into the General’s outer office. Sofia, his assistant, was already on her feet, backing away towards the left-hand wall, hands held out in front of her in silent pleading. Suddenly, the strident howl of the security alarm cut through the background hum of the building, a signal to Alekseyev that his time was limited.

Alekseyev had always had a soft spot for Sofia, almost jealous that she was at the General’s beck and call. Not that General Grebeshkov would ever take advantage – he was far too honourable and focused on his work to risk it all on an extra-marital affair. A hero the people called him, Grebeshkov seen by many in Moscow as the man who had led the fight-back against the terrorists of August 14 and so saved Russia. Alekseyev even half-believed it himself. In the seventeen months since Russia’s coup d’état, the new government had managed to gain a certain legitimacy despite its origins. A good part of that was down to Grebeshkov, his judgement, honesty and diplomatic skills impressing even the most cynical of Russia’s neighbours.

Alekseyev forced his genuine admiration for the General to one side, determined not to bail out now he had come so far. He raised the gun, arm wavering as Sofia closed her eyes. Abruptly, he changed aim and shot her once in the shoulder, angry with everyone – however innocent – for what he was being forced to do. It was hardly rational, but Alekseyev’s mind was already a swirling fog of guilt and self-contempt.

Sofia stumbled backwards, a half-scream of pain and shock dragged from her lips. The inner office door was unlocked and Alekseyev thrust it open, part of his brain separating out the far-off sound of voices from the insistent call of the alarm. He had thirty seconds, no more.

General Grebeshkov sat at his desk, managing to look composed and somehow defiant. No attempt to defend himself; no angry words, not even a frown of confusion. Alekseyev stood uncertain: he’d done as much as he dared to try and forewarn Grebeshkov, and in imagining this moment, he had always assumed it would simply end in a burst of gunfire, the final outcome unpredictable. Now it was to be in cold-blood, every action having to be deliberate rather than an instinctive fight for survival, Grebeshkov a far more emotive proposition than Colonel Trukhin.

A belated sense of duty forced Alekseyev to offer some explanation, a feeble justification for the murder of his superior. “I’m sorry, General; they left me with no choice.”

“There’s always a choice, Georgiy,” Grebeshkov said calmly, maintaining his air of composure. “We can talk this through and come up with a solution; think of your family.”

“I am, General; I truly am.” It was far too late for second thoughts and Alekseyev fired twice, watching with sad eyes as the elder man was knocked backwards, his head slowly slumping down onto his chest.

Alekseyev stepped forward, right arm reaching stiffly out to fire a single bullet into the General’s brain. Although there was some element of shock and terror at what he had done, there was also relief that he’d actually had the guts to carry it through. Over the years, the lofty ambitions of his youth had slowly been replaced by false starts and dashed hopes, but that was primarily down to his own failings, and there were many in the Lubyanka who would have considered him a friend. That might well have included Grebeshkov, a man who had deserved infinitely more loyalty than Alekseyev had been able to give.

Almost in slow motion Alekseyev brought the gun up to the side of his head. Without warning, tears began to stream down his face, Alekseyev ashamed for what he was about to put his daughter through, wishing to could have at least told her why – but that too was not part of the bargain he had struck.

As his finger tightened on the trigger, his last thoughts were of his granddaughter, a wordless prayer asking her forgiveness…

  • * *

Major Natalia Markova sat alone in the semi-darkness of her Lubyanka office, struggling to cope with the flood of emotion than coursed through her body. She had known General Grebeshkov for most of her adult life; he had been her mentor and friend, someone she thought of almost as a second father, one of the few men she truly looked up to.

Now he was just a bloodied corpse, one of three lying in the Lubyanka’s own morgue. The initial turmoil had affected the whole building, and it was late afternoon before a sombre form of normality reached up beyond the lower floors. The FSB’s own team of investigators – most of them having learnt their skills under Grebeshkov’s gaze – had already taken charge, although it was the Kremlin’s unique slant on reality that became the official version of the morning’s events.

Moscow’s news channels naturally had it as their top story, the scene of the attack cleverly shifting to the main Lubyanka entrance. The perpetrator too had also miraculously transformed into a much younger man: identified as a known Siberian separatist, he was said to have been shot dead by FSB agents. Alekseyev was named as an innocent victim of the attack, although his family and close friends would doubtless be confused as to the intimidating nature of the questions they were presently having to answer.

Grebeshkov’s murder had shocked Markova into a mental paralysis when the one thing she needed was clarity. Was this purely an attack against Grebeshkov or was it part of something wider, and was she too in danger? From whom exactly? Would running be wise or totally pointless? And why was she even thinking of such an extreme?

Alekseyev had been a conscientious and loyal member of the FSB, and it made no sense for him to murder anyone, let alone Grebeshkov, a man he respected, almost revered. Trukhin might be unyielding and autocratic, but like everyone else Alekseyev had learnt how to deal with him. Sofia never had a bad word to say about anyone, and treated generals and privates alike with equal respect. Whatever the reason for Alekseyev’s onslaught, it must have been something truly dramatic. Markova knew him to be easy-going and level-headed, and not someone to act irresponsibly or without good cause. The loss of his wife had hit him hard, but with the birth of his granddaughter he had seemed far more settled.

Markova was dismayed at her own emotional weakness, yet it took almost another hour for the cobwebs of despair to finally dissolve. Her team had every right to expect a show of leadership, not someone skulking alone in their office; they had even been considerate enough to leave her to grieve, with no impatient rap on the door or even the buzz of the phone to interrupt her reverie.

Markova switched on the desk light, gaze instantly drawn to the printouts and photographs strewn in front of her and pinned across the office wall. Paper records might be old-fashioned but Markova preferred to have something more tangible than a computer file, needing to physically move pages around in order to accurately gauge their relationship to one another. Not that it particularly mattered, as all she presently had was a tortuous paper trail leading absolutely nowhere.

For months now Markova and her small FSB team had ploughed their way through a mass of data, tracing and then eradicating the hidden links between the terrorists of August 14 and Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Agency, the SVR. It was just one element of a far wider purge of the SVR and not an assignment Markova had either expected or wanted; certainly, as an officer in Russia’s elite counter-terrorist Alpha Group, she had every right to anticipate a more appealing role. Sadly, the President had demanded someone well-versed in the subtle demands of such a challenge; hence Markova and her team of eight.

The President’s high expectations had extended into every aspect of government and the new regime remained far more popular than its democratic predecessor. The public also recognised the sacrifice made by those who had rescued Russia from chaos; two of the original five conspirators hadn’t even survived the first six months: one shot dead by terrorists, the other suffering a heart attack. Again, that had been the official line, the truth somewhat different: the first executed as a traitor, the second dying under mysterious circumstances, most probably poisoned.

The recent elections had been a dramatic confirmation of the regime’s favoured status, with the President picking up a healthy seventy-eight percent of votes. There were the usual claims of vote-rigging and intimidation, but even the International Observers had found it impossible to disagree with the outcome. Eastern Europe might still worry as to Russian expansion, but internally the country was relatively stable, the physical evidence for Russia’s late crisis all-but erased.

That success had been due to the impressive ability of the three remaining conspirators to work together as one. General Morozov maintained a tight rein on the military whilst Grebeshkov had used the FSB’s power to stifle the secessionists, before turning his attention to the problem of government corruption. For such a male-dominated country, it was still difficult to realise that both men had freely given their allegiance to the final member of the coup, Irina Golubeva – President Golubeva. She was proving an able and resourceful leader, the inevitable comparisons with Britain’s Thatcher and Germany’s Merkel misguided and often inaccurate. Golubeva was relatively approachable and prepared to listen to opposing views, even willing on occasion to change her mind – an assessment freely given by Grebeshkov during one of his more verbose moments. And attitudes were slowly changing, the chauvinism of old still there, just less likely to be spoken out loud.

Yet Grebeshkov had never truly trusted Golubeva, sensing that she too might have had some loose connection with August 14. Much of the terror group’s infrastructure in Eastern Europe had barely been touched and the exact source of their funds had still to be resolved; a final puzzle that was proving difficult to crack. With the purge of the SVR effectively complete and the agency’s key positions now occupied by those loyal to the regime, Grebeshkov had ordered Markova and her team to expand and adapt their search, his renewed obsession with Golubeva motivated by the desire to have some form of insurance for when his own political usefulness finally came to an end. Such was the politics of Russia, with no-one truly secure, political allies invariably temporary in nature.

Golubeva might well have nothing to do with the terrorists but there were still some aspects that had seemed worth pursuing, Amongst the President’s swarm of junior aides and advisers, at least one seemed to have free and immediate access to his superior, while also being particularly well-travelled. In the past month alone, Evgeny Sukhov had visited London, New York and Hamburg, as well as military bases at Khabarovsk and Vladivostok in eastern Russia.

Sukhov had only been appointed as a Presidential aide in February, having previously been an adviser to the Ministry of Economic Development. Fluent in English, he had a doctorate in Politics from Harvard and had worked as a political analyst in New York before eventually joining the Putin Administration in 2012. Forty, married with one son, apartment in Moscow, holiday home on the Black Sea coast: it wasn’t so much the man himself that had piqued Markova’s interest, more his wide-ranging role. Hanoi, Manila, Washington, London, Seoul and Taipei: six capitals visited in the last five months, Washington and London twice, just two or three days in each city, always travelling alone. Russia’s economy still had to make up ground lost since the annexation of Crimea, but Markova had found no evidence that Sukhov was pursuing some new economic initiative or attending a relevant conference, even one with a vaguely pertinent political agenda.

It was just five days since Sukhov’s last fleeting trip, and Markova’s persistence had finally paid off, able to learn whom Sukhov was meeting, if not exactly why. The five-star Hamburg venue was well used to ensuring their guests’ privacy was not compromised, but it taken only a few hours to name the American who had joined Sukhov there.

Like a complex variation of Chinese whispers, the American had dined that evening not with Sukhov, but with a young woman at a restaurant in Bremen, 120 kilometres away. To the watchers, it had appeared more of a business meeting than a romantic reunion; they had even managed to record a fragmented conversation between the two, some twenty seconds of intrigue just before they had parted.

Despite overstretched resources, the woman had in turn been followed to the town of Wilhelmshaven, home to Germany’s largest naval base. The next morning, she had driven from her hotel into the base’s high-security zone, leaving Markova with the difficult choice of abandoning the chase or asking the SVR for help. With little time to deliberate, she had judged the SVR a risk worth taking, her faith seemingly justified when just twenty-four hours later a set of photos had landed in her inbox. A quick analysis and the number of active targets had been increased to a grand total of eight.

Now, in retrospect, Markova’s decision had been an unbelievably stupid mistake, her hurried and thoughtless actions bringing swift retribution. The pursuit of Sukhov was no longer a secret – after all the evidence was plastered across the wall in front of her – and rather than providing a form of protection, it might well have led directly to Grebeshkov’s death. The coincidence of Grebeshkov’s murder happening so soon after Markova had first contacted the SVR was impossible to ignore; Markova had even been foolish enough to show the SVR the strength of her hand.

Then why wasn’t Markova already dead? Conjecture and paranoia were an unhelpful pairing, and Markova appreciated that Alekseyev’s motivation could easily be anything from jealousy to temporary insanity. In any event, there seemed little she could do to guarantee her own safety.

Decision made, she acted quickly before she changed her mind, gathering the papers from wall and desk, putting some to one side, shredding the rest. Fearful of the acumen of the smoke alarm, she opted to turn the tangle of torn paper into a sodden mess, trusting that would be enough. Next it was the turn of the computer files, with the ones relating to Sukhov first doctored then deleted.

Finally, it was back to the basics of pen and ink. While not exactly ideal for what she had in mind, such old-fashioned methods were the only option available; in the FSB’s closed world of mistrust and suspicion, the very act of trying to copy computer files to an unauthorised external device – such as a memory stick – would immediately generate a security alert. Even using the printer or photocopier was a risk not worth taking.

Thirty minutes later Markova stood, drink in hand, just one of the many colleagues who had congregated in a Lubyanka briefing room to pay their respects and share their memories. Grebeshkov was well-liked and universally respected, several in the room already openly blaming elements within the SVR even though the actual murderer was one of their own. More popular was the theory that Grebeshkov and his secretary had merely got in the way, and that Trukhin was the target. But why then did Alekseyev bother walking thirty metres along the corridor and into Grebeshkov’s office?

Markova took her time working her way round to Sergeant Nikolai Nechayev, a meaningful glance enough to warn him to be on his guard. Nikolai spoke little, listening intently to Markova’s detailed instructions while keeping his body language relaxed as though nothing of importance was being discussed. A brief nod of understanding; then he left her alone to mingle and chat, his left leg dragging stiffly.

Nikolai was ex-Alpha, his injury testimony to his own part in Russia’s internal struggle for power, the sergeant too proud to make use of a walking stick. The normal reward would have been an enforced retirement with a meagre pension, but Grebeshkov would have none of it, Nikolai almost having died protecting him. Now he worked on an informal basis as an FSB courier, coming in for work as and when he felt able, his salary artificially maintained at close to its former level. If anyone in the Lubyanka resented such obvious favouritism, then they wisely kept it to themselves – Nikolai might not be quite the man he was but few would dare to argue with him, and no-one could dispute his right to special treatment. In fact there was no actual damage to his leg, the weakness a result of a bullet permanently damaging the sciatic nerve. He had been hit by three bullets that day and had been lucky to survive – lucky too to have been on the winning side.

Markova had no doubt Nikolai would do exactly as she had asked, his task a way of ensuring Grebeshkov’s death might not be entirely in vain. Deep down she knew that all such precautions were doubtless a complete waste of time, and despite the Lubyanka’s obsession with security the deleted files would be easy enough to restore. Yet it might give Markova a few hours grace before someone came knocking on her door.

In fact, she didn’t even make it to her home…

[]Chapter 1 – Friday, October 21st

Marshwick, England – 14:04 Local Time; 13:04 UTC

Anderson stared at the package in confusion, puzzled but also intrigued. When he had left the previous week, the kitchen table had been totally free of clutter, but now a small brown cardboard box occupied pride of place at its centre. Charlotte was the only other person to have a key to the cottage but there was no note, and there had been no text message to say she had called. Still, it could only be from her, unless of course Santa Claus had got his dates wrong.

Roughly A4 in size and an inch thick, a lone handwritten word marred its surface – ‘Anderson’. It wasn’t even sealed with tape, a single flap holding it shut. Anderson turned it over, intrigued, but the back was totally blank: no name, no address, and no postage label – so definitely not Royal Mail. Even for Charlotte the use of just his surname was somewhat restrained, almost impolite, and Anderson realised that he wasn’t actually certain whether it was Charlotte’s handwriting or not. Non-verbal communication between them was invariably via a brief text, and the occasional note or irritating to-do list obviously wasn’t enough of a guide.

If Charlotte was merely the courier, Anderson was still disappointed that she hadn’t left a message and a simple ‘Welcome Back’ would have sufficed. With a frown of annoyance he let the back-pack slide from his shoulder down onto the kitchen table, knowing that he should really have phoned Charlotte last night.

Basically they needed to spend some time together, and not just an odd day with Anderson either jet-lagged or distracted by the need to find the next pay-cheque. An intimate dinner for two immediately climbed up his priority list, a quick glance at his watch confirming that he had at least a couple of hours before Charlotte finished her stint at the estate agent’s. Coffee, unpack, shop, shower, dinner – even his sleep-dulled brain was quick to confirm such targets were well within his present capabilities.

Anderson’s relationship with Charlotte was at an awkward stage, the classic friends with benefits but shying well clear of something more permanent. Charlotte was generous enough to put up with Anderson’s frequent trips to anywhere and everywhere, but it wasn’t ideal knowing that he could disappear at a moment’s notice, off on a whim for a week or more while hunting for something newsworthy. Whenever he had a few days off, Charlotte seemed happy enough to split her time between his cottage and her home in Boston, but it always felt as if she was the one having to make all of the compromises.

It was seventeen months since Anderson had first set foot in the Lincolnshire village of Marshwick, his intrinsic stubbornness turning a routine news story into something far more dangerous. Meeting Charlotte had been an unexpected bonus, and despite an enforced detour to Russia their relationship had quickly blossomed into something worthwhile. Keen not to let it fade, Anderson had opted to leave the financial constraints of London and move north to Marshwick. He hadn’t quite made it the commitment some might have hoped for, choosing to rent rather than buy; nevertheless, to begin with everything had been fine, Anderson’s various contacts helping him to make a steady living out of enterprise journalism. Yet rural Lincolnshire couldn’t provide the challenge of London, and gradually the work had dried up, forcing Anderson to move further and further afield, past events ensuring a good proportion of his time was spent abroad, chasing elusive leads across Poland and the Baltic.

The rewards of looking towards Eastern Europe had been two-fold, Anderson’s journalistic reputation growing and his finances steadily improving. Articles on Russia and August 14 still had a popular appeal, both across Western Europe and America; Anderson had even been asked to give talks at a couple of events. But again, it all ate away at his time in the UK.

Charlotte had tried to be supportive, not that she seemed to know quite what she wanted anyway – certainly not a husband, but perhaps not a part-time lover either. One day soon, they’d have to sit down and sort it all out – and sadly that might mean a parting of the ways…

Anderson shook the thought aside, studying once more the intriguing challenge of the cardboard box. A year ago, Anderson would have treated the package with exaggerated respect, fearing that the contents were more likely to be a bomb than a box of chocolates. Sadly, the latter option seemed unlikely: the parcel might be about the right size, but the weight was all wrong, it heavy enough to be back to the parcel-bomb alternative.

Even though he knew certain people might well feel aggrieved he was still in one piece, Anderson threw caution to the wind and slipped the cardboard flap aside, flipping the package open.

Inside were an A4 envelope and a hardback book. But not just any book, one all-too familiar to Anderson, the garish dust jacket instantly recognised: Red Terror, Truth and Fiction by Charles Zhilin…

Anderson stared at it in part confusion part anger, his body automatically tensing as though the book represented some kind of physical threat. Definitely not from Charlotte then – she hated the book almost as much as he did. Red Terror: the title was as exciting as it got, the actual content a long-winded and uninspiring review of Soviet-sponsored terrorism. The sender doubtless realised its significance to Anderson, and he or she was clearly keen to get his attention.

“It appeared yesterday,” said an amused female voice behind Anderson. “Sitting on the table as if by magic; doors and windows all secure.”

Anderson swiftly pivoted around, almost falling over, his brain struggling to cope with too many surprises. “Bugger it, Charlie; you scared the shit out of me.”

Charlotte stood in the lounge doorway, sandwich in hand, Anderson confused by the sight of her in T-shirt and jeans rather than the expected smart suit. Although not a market day, Friday was one of Boston’s busiest, and Charlotte should have been snowed under with the pre-weekend rush of house buyers, not idling around scoffing his limited food supply.

“I’m afraid I couldn’t resist and sneaked a peak,” Charlotte explained. “Wished I hadn’t now. I wasn’t really hiding, but I just wanted to see the look on your face when you opened it, just in case medical assistance was required. Thanks for being less than an hour late – such excellent time-keeping is to be commended.”

Anderson ignored the sarcasm; his arrival home was suddenly turning rather surreal, his memories of the book interlaced with narrow dimly-lit corridors and bloodied bodies during Russia’s internal struggle for power. Someone obviously wanted to send a message and had used a most effective method, one specifically targeted to Anderson, which in itself offered a good clue as to the book’s sender.

“Shouldn’t you be hard at work,” he said, trying to give himself time to think. “Or has everyone in Boston suddenly decided they quite like where they live?”

“Switched my afternoon off.” Charlotte gestured with her sandwich at the package, “Not sure what’s in the envelope, I didn’t dare look – one heart-wrenching shock per day is all I can cope with. Having had a whole day to think about this, I’m betting it’s from one of your Russian friends.”

It was said with the hint of a smile and Anderson chose not to rise to the bait. He had always been deliberately evasive about what had actually happened in Moscow and Charlotte knew better than to try and drag it out of him. Anderson had maintained an interest in Grebeshkov but that was more or less it, certainly no clandestine emails back and forth to the Lubyanka; if anything was a shock, it was that Grebeshkov’s luck had finally run out, Anderson aware of at least two previous attempts to kill him.

Charlotte’s tone was suddenly more serious, “Russian TV is reporting that three more senior officers from the FSB have been arrested; supposedly corruption rather that anything to do with Grebeshkov. That makes at least four this week… If someone wanted to send you something important, then maybe this was the only safe option, the book a way of confirming it’s genuine.”

Anderson nodded his agreement, fairly certain in his own mind as to the identity of the parcel’s sender. Markova was just one of a select few who would appreciate the book’s relevance to Anderson, but such an odd calling card still seemed an unnecessarily cryptic way to prove the package’s authenticity.

Charlotte pulled up a chair, remaining silent as Anderson pondered his next move. In contrary mood, he opted for the basic essentials of food and caffeine, needing to clear his head after the shock of seeing the book. The look of thoughtful anticipation on Charlotte’s face was another incentive to wait awhile. Worryingly, he also sensed a certain nervousness, confirmation that she too thought it might not be good news, with Anderson chasing some news story a thousand miles from anywhere. The official line from Moscow was that August 14 was a spent force but there was still the danger that the terrorists would resurface with a new leader and a new campaign, reigniting the possibility of conflict between Russia and its NATO neighbours. Of course, it was always possible that the parcel had absolutely nothing to do with August 14, or even that it really was from Santa Claus.

It was another half-hour before Anderson’s attention moved back to the package, Charlotte moving her chair round to sit beside him.

The book itself seemed pristine, if perhaps not quite brand new. Despite the cold shiver of déjà vu running down his spine, Anderson quickly flicked through its many pages – nothing obviously added, nothing hidden inside. So far, so good, and unless Charlotte objected strongly, the book would quickly be finding its way into the kitchen bin.

With studied indifference, Anderson extracted the single A4 envelope and placed it carefully onto the kitchen table. A quick side glance at Charlotte and a mental drum-roll; then he let the contents slide out onto the table.

It all seemed a bit of a let-down, just several colour photographs, roughly A4 in size, clipped together. On top was the head shot of a woman, with ‘Hanson’ written in black pen across the bottom. Early-thirties, blonde hair, ice-blue eyes; the sort of woman any man would always look at twice. The image quality was relatively poor, as though taken with a cheap phone or from long distance and then blown up. The woman was leaving what looked to be a bar or restaurant; no clue as to its name or where it might be.

Without comment, Anderson passed the first sheet across to Charlotte. The second photo was of the same woman and a similar background, just from a different angle. The third image was almost the exact same shot but from further back, and now with an older man in the frame. Despite the fuzzy nature of the photo, Anderson instantly knew who he was, and he could never forget – or forgive – the beating McDowell had dished out while two of his men held Anderson upright. The American could be charming and amiable, but underneath he was a complete and unadulterated bastard.

Charlotte recognised McDowell virtually at the same instant, almost ripping the photo from Anderson’s grasp.

“It seemed too easy to believe he was dead,” she said finally. “At least he’s lost the ponytail.” She had every reason to hate McDowell, if only because he was part of the terror group that had murdered her father.

There were another three photographs: the first showed McDowell and Hanson sitting opposite each other while having a meal, the other two had just McDowell against a background of grey stone, possibly the side of some large building.

The final sheet wasn’t in fact a photo, but a handwritten A4 sheet. Whilst legible, it looked to have been written at speed, with a nominal attempt at punctuation.

 

12 October Germany – Hanson and McDowell meet for dinner, reason unknown. Hanson midway through two day symposium at Wilhelmshaven Naval Base with 1 thru 5.

Paige Hanson Naval Intelligence Washington DC

Patrick McDowell present location unknown

1 – David Brandt Thales Wilhelmshaven

2 – Walter Drummond John Hopkins University Baltimore

3 – Judith Gastrell BAE Systems Barrow-in-Furness

4 – Lukas Kramer Atlas Elektronik Bremen

5 – Adrien Mercier Thales Underwater Systems Valbonne

 

Following transcript hints at new terror offensive – London? No indication British Intelligence aware of threat.

[_ Wed 12-Oct 21:24:40 +02:00 _]

Hanson – …told to emphasise the importance of ensuring we all stick rigidly to the agreed schedule. London must be seen as the start of an unbreakable commitment; there can be no second thoughts and no unfortunate delays. One piece out of place and everything is likely to fall apart.

McDowell – There’s no reason to worry. Everyone, especially Marcelo, is well aware the attacks need to be properly co-ordinated and we’re all set for the 27th. So far the only complication is this symposium.

Hanson – The timing was unfortunate but any …(inaudible)… may not be that crucial. As long as…

Transcript ends

 

“Well that’s very helpful,” Charlotte said, heavy on the sarcasm. “It’s not even signed. Presumably, the sender wants you to pass everything on to the police.”

“SO15,” Anderson confirmed. “Although I’m not sure why I’m the one having to tell them the bad news.” SO15 was the Metropolitan Police’s anti-terrorist unit, also known as Counter Terrorism Command. With over 1500 staff and access to the combined assets of MI5 and MI6, SO15 was Britain’s main line of defence against any potential terrorist attack. He read the note again, more slowly, trying to digest precisely what it was saying. The comment about British Intelligence clearly seemed to put the onus on Anderson to do something constructive, but he couldn’t understand why Markova hadn’t just gone straight to MI6. And when writing under obvious pressure was her English really that good?

“So is it definitely from the FSB?” Charlotte’s tone was almost accusing, as though Anderson receiving such a package was tantamount to treason.

“I guess so; probably from one of Grebeshkov’s associates, name of Markova.”

Charlotte’s eyes narrowed, “Markova – she’s a woman?”

“Very attractive and very scary – a bit like you. I think her name is Natalia or Natasha but using her first name never quite seems appropriate; so let’s just think of her as Markova.”

“There’s a compliment in there somewhere,” replied Charlotte, not taking offence. “There’s obviously a power struggle inside the FSB and I imagine they’re not that keen on sharing secrets, especially with the West. Markova could have chosen to ignore protocol and do the right thing. Or perhaps she’s hoping you might persuade SO15 it’s not some sort of hoax?”

Anderson pursed his lips, just not certain how much use the information would be. “McDowell doesn’t actually say it’s London that’s going to be attacked; it could be anywhere. We don’t even know which month the 27th refers to.”

“McDowell is trouble,” said Charlotte positively. “And someone seriously needs to ask what McDowell and Hanson are up to, and why these other five; unless it’s more to do with who they work for.”

Anderson knew little about Atlas Elektronik, but BAE and Thales were involved in just about all of Britain’s defence contracts. A terrorist connection just couldn’t be good news, but the journalist in him was loath to involve SO15 unless he had to; after all, it wasn’t every day that he was presented with such privileged information.

August 14 almost split Russia apart,” Charlotte continued, determined to have her say. “Perhaps McDowell wants to try and do one better with the UK?”

“That doesn’t seem likely,” Anderson said dismissively, instantly regretting his tone.

Charlotte shrugged, “Just a thought. Markova certainly seems to believe McDowell needs stopping.”

Anderson stared down at McDowell’s photograph, still in two minds as to how to respond. Going to the media was probably a non-starter as the authorities would definitely slap a DA-Notice on any news story, citing concerns as to National Security. Contacting SO15 would also likely be a nightmare, with them asking a million questions he couldn’t answer. And he could hardly guarantee the information was genuine; he didn’t even know who had delivered it.

The silence stretched out to become almost embarrassing.

“Surely,” Charlotte encouraged, “we can’t just sit back and wait until McDowell sends a clearer message of intent.”

“Some might argue it’s safer to move on and forget McDowell,” Anderson said quietly, merely playing devil’s advocate.

Charlotte’s response was instant, “The 27th is just six days away. Whether it’s London or not, someone is going to be attacked, and more than once…”

Anderson half nodded to himself, knowing it was a problem he couldn’t just ignore – the potential consequences of simply doing nothing were unthinkable. Yet he was starting to worry that it was all some sort of FSB scam with him as the naïve victim. That was pretty much the norm for Anderson, with early expectations of glory invariably dashed by a subsequent dose of reality. An innate stubbornness ensured he tried anyway, and he was more a ‘glass half full but might soon be empty’ personality, always trying to look on the positive side while knowing it wouldn’t last.

Decision made, Anderson’s first task was to coerce Charlotte into going home, not seeing the need for both of them to be grilled by SO15. McDowell’s reach had once extended into the local police, perhaps even MI5, and as a form of insurance Anderson emailed a handful of key contacts, before finally contacting the anti-terrorist hotline.

Anderson’s past history ensured he was treated with a semblance of respect. He stuck rigidly to the truth – he neither knew the origin of the data nor its delivery method, although he assumed it was from someone associated with Russia’s Security Services.

An uncomfortable few hours followed, Anderson unsure quite what to expect, the landline and mobile unusually silent, his email inbox empty.

With nothing better to do, he reordered his earlier plans: coffee, shower, unpack, dinner. The final component had sadly been reduced to just dinner for one, contact with Charlotte off limits until SO15 had done their worst.

Even as Anderson finished his meal, the phone finally demanded his attention. It was SO15 once more, a different more authoritative voice, Anderson told to expect visitors the next morning.

It perhaps had been too much to expect to get away with one phone call and nothing more, but Anderson was still disappointed. Spending a morning, maybe even longer, being harangued by the police was not something he was looking forward to – to his mind, it fell somewhere between a root filling and a colonoscopy.

 

[][] Chapter 2 – Saturday, October 22nd

Marshwick, England – 11:23 Local Time; 10:23 UTC

It was well after eleven before the sound of a car on the gravel drive announced SO15’s arrival. A hundred and twenty miles up the motorway and clogged A-roads in a mix of driving rain and drizzle – not the best way to put Anderson’s inquisitors in a good mood.

A three hour grilling duly followed. There were two officers, both male, neither in uniform, their initial queries focusing on Anderson’s source and why he suspected it was the FSB. Then it was on to the information itself, and a whole raft of questions…

Did he know Gastrell? What about Hanson? And the others? When did he last see McDowell? Who else had he contacted? What exactly had he told them?

Anderson had nothing to hide but he still sensed SO15 didn’t fully trust him. For some reason they seemed to believe he knew more about Judith Gastrell than he was letting on. But he was only economical with the truth the once, blithely denying that Charlotte knew anything about the box or its contents.

Laptop and phone were examined, his insurance email duly read and copied. Anderson hadn’t actually disclosed anything in the email that he shouldn’t, merely requesting information on the ‘Wilhelmshaven Five’ as he’d started to call them; then – almost as an aside – mentioning that he’d heard McDowell might still be alive. He’d left Hanson out completely, preferring to keep certain aspects to himself for the moment. At the time such a lack of detail had seemed a good compromise between protecting Anderson and his source, while widening the search for information – now it just seemed an effective means of wasting a money-making exclusive.

Finally the cottage itself was put under the microscope, supposedly to check its security. Anderson had tried his best to get something useful out of the two officers, but neither offered any clue as to what would happen next, or even whether Anderson was merely reinforcing something they already knew. Whether Markova would have been satisfied with his persuasive skills was doubtful, Anderson happy to voice his opinion that London might not actually be the target.

It was late-afternoon when SO15 finally left. As expected they took the cardboard box and its contents with them, but fortunately not Anderson’s phone or laptop. In return, he was handed a formal but utterly useless receipt; he was also instructed not to discuss the matter any further with his target list, but for once dire warnings concerning the Official Secrets Act were left unsaid.

That had seemed about it. Problem over, SO15 had it all in hand; Britain was safe and secure once more.

Or maybe not… From Anderson’s perspective, having satisfied his conscience, he now felt justified in pursuing his own more selfish agenda. He had naturally photocopied Markova’s information, although he still had no idea what else he could do with it. Britain might have its political problems but it was hardly Russia, and the logic behind a McDowell-led terrorist campaign temporarily escaped Anderson – not unless some of the various nationalist movements had become desperate enough to resort to violence.

On the face of it, everything in the UK looked pretty normal: no obvious crisis, the economy struggling along, the stock market typically twitchy. Britain’s terrorist threat level remained as it had done for the past year at ‘Substantial’, midway between the two extremes of Low and Critical, and even the Government was just about managing to stay ahead in the polls.

Like Anderson, SO15 would doubtless scoff at the possibility of the Wilhelmshaven symposium being linked to some future political agenda; however, McDowell’s involvement just made everything a little bit more complicated. Although a key member of August 14, he had worked on the fringes of the terrorist campaign, his role a combination of security chief and frontman.

Anderson decided to ignore his preconceptions to try and work out a more logical reason for the symposium. Even ignoring the fact it took place at Germany’s largest naval base, the defence connection was obvious, and Atlas Elektronik turned out to be another major defence contractor. For no particular reason, Anderson first focused on the British and American links, basic details on Gastrell and Drummond readily available on the internet.

Judith Gastrell: age 46; five years as a senior consultant with BAE Systems; specialism combat systems and sonar. Previously principal software engineer and acoustic analyst at Thales UK Naval Division, covering data processing algorithms and modelling for the Director Submarines acoustic signature database.

Walter Drummond: age 50; Professor Applied Physics, John Hopkins since 2016; area of study sonar theory and analysis. Six years at Washington’s Acoustics Intelligence Laboratory as a senior investigator, working on behalf of the Office of Naval Intelligence.

Again the similarities were unmistakable, although their joint area of expertise wasn’t exactly the norm for August 14, the terrorists preferring car bombs and cyber-attacks to blasting a target with sonar. There was also the Naval Intelligence link between Drummond and Paige Hanson, and the answers were obviously there somewhere; Anderson just needed to tease them out. He even began to wonder if the terrorism link was simply an irrelevance with McDowell moving on to something new.

Frustrated, Anderson re-read Markova’s handwritten sheet, looking for a subtle clue that would help reveal all; basically all he was left with was one name, Marcelo. Spanish?

A potential Spanish link opened up a wealth of outrageous possibilities, prime amongst them Gibraltar and Argentina. Of course, Marcelo might be American like McDowell, the duo planning to blow up one of London’s many icons. Maybe they could somehow resonate Big Ben to bits from afar – first Big Ben, then the Tower of London…

Anderson’s mental trail of destruction was interrupted by the sound of his phone. Anderson saw the name and took a deep breath, answering on the fourth ring while preparing himself for an earful.

“I can’t say I appreciate being quizzed by SO15,” said an aggrieved voice. “In future, leave me out of your insane quests, it’s much too troublesome, not to mention bloody dangerous.”

“Adam, so nice to hear from you.” Anderson was completely unconcerned as to the caller’s tone, it being the norm for his one-time boss. Never one for wasted pleasantries, Adam Devereau was both a good friend and a well-used resource, someone who would invariably complain but always come through with something worthwhile.

Devereau had been high-up on Anderson’s target list for Markova’s data, his own contacts covering everyone from the local hack to the BBC’s Director-General. Of rather more relevance was his circle of associates from the security services, the quid pro quo principle still as effective as ever. Devereau also had his own purely personal reasons to want McDowell brought to justice, the slurring of certain words evidence that he still wasn’t quite back to his old self.

“Had to vouch for you again,” Devereau continued. “You need to let SO15 do their job and not go poking your nose in where it’s not wanted.”

“That’s not what you taught me, Adam; upsetting people was always supposed to be a good sign.”

“That was before someone bounced me off their moving car. Seriously Mike, leave it to the experts.”

“You know I can’t do that; it’s not in my nature.”

There was a long pause at the other end of the line before Devereau responded. “Very well; be it on your own head. In any event SO15’s pursuit of Judith Gastrell will take a little while. She’s apparently on holiday: South Africa, so I’m told. I know nothing about the others. If I can get anything on McDowell you’ll be the first to know… This has a slightly ominous sense of familiarity about it, Mike; it might be wise to watch your back.”

With that the line went dead. Anderson’s brain activity temporarily did the same – back just over a day and, with little more than a few dodgy photographs and a poison pen letter, he’d already managed to upset just about everybody.

Washington, D.C. – 16:50 Local Time; 20:50 UTC

Paul Jensen knew that the President was wavering; although of the five men and one woman seated in the Oval Office, he was the only one who seemed to believe there was a second option, something which would cleverly assuage North Korea’s concerns without upsetting Japan or the U.S. losing face. With the Midterm elections just two weeks away the President would need to act decisively, if only to prove to the doubters that he really did have that killer instinct; either that or America would have its second one-term president in a row, the instant turnaround set to be repeated once more.

In truth, apart from one serious foreign entanglement, President Will Cavanagh had had a relatively easy two years: no recession, no major scandal, and no serious domestic crisis. The war against terrorism still stumbled from one entanglement to another, but the decisions had come easily and the President had been able to keep his pre-election pledge of no boots on the ground. The situation in the Middle East was no worse than under Cavanagh’s predecessor, and until now even North Korea had kept its belligerence to a minimum, provoking new hopes of a more stable relationship between North and South.

The only real crisis had been of Russia’s making, the turmoil in the Baltic bringing NATO into direct conflict with Russia. It had been three days before common sense had finally prevailed – thanks in part to the willingness of Russia’s new president to actively search out a suitable compromise. Cavanagh had done what had been deemed necessary to support Poland and the Baltic States, and although later criticised for being indecisive, his approval rating had barely changed.

As to whether Russia or NATO had actually won was unclear: over thirty killed on both sides, including a dozen U.S. naval personnel. The NATO alliance had held firm, despite some disagreements, and the region was slowly returning to normal. Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic States had been publicly censured for their apparent willingness to harbour anti-Russian terrorists, but Moscow no longer had cause to consider August 14 a threat. The blame game was still ongoing, although most of the combatants seemed content to move on, Russia especially keen to rebuild its tattered relationship with its NATO neighbours.

“Very well,” said the President, mind finally made up. “To accede to any of North Korea’s outrageous demands is unacceptable and the joint naval exercise with Japan will go ahead as planned; any less would surely only increase Japan’s anxiety. I cannot believe North Korea has any intention of carrying out its threat of a military strike; in a week or so we’ll be back to the standard level of intimidation. Heaven forbid I’m proved wrong and if necessary we will action the Joint Chefs’ recommendations… Dick, I still need you back in Tokyo – Japan’s own attitude is hardly conducive to easing tensions.”

Secretary of State, Dick Thorn merely nodded, mentally readying himself for his third transpacific flight in as many weeks.

A deep sign of resignation, then the President glanced across at Jensen, “I believe you have something else, Paul? Not Korea but August 14?”

“Yes, Mr President.” Jensen twisted in his chair slightly so that he could turn easily from the President to face any of the other inner cabinet members. This was Jensen’s first real test in five months as Secretary of Homeland Security and he was conscious of the need to make his mark. His predecessor had been a victim of the fallout from the Baltic conflict, treating the terrorist threat as nothing more than a Russian problem and Jensen was determined not to make the same mistake. He could have temporarily buried the bad news, at least while he made additional checks, but he sensed there was little point.

“MI5 have passed across an intercept from Russia’s FSB,” continued Jensen. “The British are being coy at revealing how they got hold of it and some of the information has obviously been redacted; whether that’s the FSB or MI5 isn’t clear. What is clear is that the Russians have continued their search for the remnants of August 14 with a key target tracked to Germany; subsequently another six individuals were identified as being worthy of interest. The intercept includes details of all seven but photographs of only two; both American. A couple of the shots show them together, but it’s too early to confirm exactly when or where they were taken.”

Jensen knew he was being slow to get to the point, but facts without a suitable context were pointless. “Despite the disappointing quality of the photos, the two Americans have been relatively easy to identify; for very different reasons, both are well known to the Intelligence Community.”

A pause for effect, then Jensen pressed on, “One is Patrick McDowell, who the British reported as being killed when August 14’s base there was destroyed. We must assume he is still operating on behalf of the terrorists. The second is a Paige Hanson, Lieutenant-Commander Naval Intelligence, stationed here in D.C.”

The furore which greeted Jensen’s disclosure was no more than he had expected. Russia’s war against August 14 was still claiming the occasional U.S. victim, with at least a dozen pillars of the community – computer experts, university professors and the like – confirmed as providing logistical support for the terrorists. Such details were theoretically well outside of the public domain, although a combination of Russian accusations and home-grown leaks had eroded the various denials and outright lies.

The White House had skilfully managed to maintain a dignified silence over the complications posed by August 14’s British base, but in reality it had caused significant internal dissent. The Secretary of State had been especially critical of Britain’s security services, and despite most of the base’s operatives being American, he had argued that British laxity had in turn created problems for the U.S. and indeed the whole of NATO. Now it seemed the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) might be similarly at fault.

The U.S. Intelligence Community was an unwieldy beast of seventeen diverse agencies, often with overlapping interests. Theoretically, the Director of National Intelligence was responsible for ensuring they worked effectively together; hard enough under normal circumstances, let alone with a potential traitor in their midst. In practice, on home soil, the President looked to Jensen to take the lead, his Cabinet post giving him a certain implied authority over the FBI and CIA, and even the ONI. If Jensen was successful in getting them to co-operate fully, it would be no more than the President expected; if he failed, Jensen’s tenure in office would be embarrassingly brief.

Thorn was the first to seek clarification. “This is not some clever invention by the Russians?” His tone was curt, his eyes angry.

“It’s not clear either way,” Jensen replied quickly. “The FBI now has Hanson under surveillance while we check the veracity of the intercept. It’s certainly true that she was in Germany on the dates indicated; we just need to confirm who she met and why. At the moment the evidence linking her to McDowell is at best inconclusive; we can’t even be certain that McDowell is actually alive.

“As well as these photographs, there is also a transcript of a brief conversation, supposedly between Hanson and McDowell. In it, McDowell hints at a new terrorist campaign, possibly starting on the 27th, possibly against London. The potential repercussions of Hanson’s involvement are still being evaluated, but if true the best we can hope for is that she leads us to McDowell. I’ve already primed a team should damage limitation be necessary.”

The final admission was virtually confirmation of Hanson’s guilt, something Jensen was willing to accept might be precipitous. However, ignoring the risks would be professional suicide, and he had to prepare for the worst-case scenario. Personally, he assumed Hanson was a lone wolf and he couldn’t believe the woman was part of some wider U.S.-based conspiracy.

The questions continued, President Cavanagh now taking the lead, Jensen unable to answer most and unwilling to jump to conclusions. With North Korea in belligerent mood, the threat of a resurgent August 14 with a U.S. Intelligence connection was the last thing the President wanted to hear.

Jensen sensed the British were holding back on what they knew, but he had no reason to doubt their sincerity. Still, it was a time to tread carefully; fortunately, with over twenty-five years spent climbing up the slippery Intelligence ladder, from analyst to CIA station chief to Director for Counter-Terrorism on the National Security Council, treading carefully was something Jensen excelled at.

 

Maryland, U.S.A. – 19:30 Local time; 23:30 UTC

Despite his title and theoretical authority, Carl Irwin was not part of the President’s close circle of advisers. A compromise choice as Vice-President, his role under Cavanagh had reverted to the ceremonial and mundane, his influence over the White House no more than minimal. One of Irwin’s equally anonymous predecessors had claimed the office was ‘not worth a bucket of warm piss’ – a sentiment Irwin could wholeheartedly agree with.

After the first year his initial frustration had turned first to resentment, then a form of resigned acceptance, Irwin well aware that he hadn’t the necessary charisma essential to be President, nor even enough charm and good looks to at least try. In truth, his role offered much to make up for the early disappointments. With his family’s wealth to fall back on, the VP’s salary was not that relevant; a pension was also unlikely unless Cavanagh gained a second term. The prime advantage was purely one of perceived status, and the trappings associated with his present role were becoming addictive. At fifty-four he gave the ceremonial aspect enough gravitas to carry it off without suffering the ridicule heaped on certain other vice-presidents; the mundane tasks of spokesperson and second-string adviser also helped reinforce his high public profile, while ensuring his peers regularly sought his counsel.

In personal terms, there were other equally selfish benefits – two of whom lay asleep on the bed beside him. Kate was twelve years his junior, recently appointed as his Director of Scheduling; Erin was even younger, a rising attorney, her short blonde hair a magical contrast to Kate’s brunette locks. When Kate had seemed receptive to Irwin’s advances, he couldn’t quite believe his luck. Erin had joined them within a few weeks, their irregular threesome now into its fourth month. After some initial qualms, Irwin now considered such sessions an acceptable perk of his job. He still loved his wife but Kate and Erin provided the sexual excitement he had feared lost forever, and for the moment that more than made up for the guilt and occasional misgiving.

Today was one of the few where a guilty conscience made a post-coital nap an impossibility and Irwin silently slipped out of bed, padding downstairs to get himself a coffee. The beautifully furnished waterfront property was far too large for their needs, but it offered seclusion and a superb dose of luxury. Set in three acres and backing onto Little Seneca Lake, it was less than an hour’s drive from Washington. Irwin had snapped it up the very day Kate had seen it on the rental market, easily persuaded that it was ideal for their needs. The lease was for a year, but so far Irwin had found little difficulty in hiding the outrageous monthly payments from his wife, and it was hardly unusual for a vice-president to work long hours.

On a practical level the two-storey property also met with Secret Service approval, being private enough to allow a good level of security without compromising the identity of those inside. The role of Irwin’s security detail was to protect him, not to act as his moral guardians, and the agents had wisely kept their opinions to themselves. With the site regularly swept for covert devices, and additional checks made each time the VP visited, Irwin’s Security Chief was as confident as he could be that the Vice-President’s dalliance remained confidential.

  • * *

A half-mile north-west of the Vice-President’s rented property stood a much smaller residence, just three bedrooms on a small plot. It too was a rental but with a single occupant, although the actual individual varied from day to day.

The present incumbent was a middle-aged female, her attention focused on a large computer display. The monitor showed a semi-darkened living room, the timestamp revealing the various images were from some four hours earlier; an L-shaped couch was centre frame, a single figure sitting with coffee mug in hand, the man’s face slightly angled away from the camera. The picture had a subtle sheen on it, almost a hint of distortion, most noticeable around the outside edge. It was annoying but not serious, the fault caused by a combination of unavoidable deterioration in image quality and the consequent need for computer enhancement.

The woman was bored: the Vice-President’s sexual antics made for uncomfortable viewing, but she was required to inspect each separate image, one recorded every three seconds, needing to ensure the various pieces of technology had behaved themselves. Irwin’s Secret Service codename was Gymnast, which considering what she had seen over the past few weeks seemed fairly appropriate.

Irwin’s Security Chief might believe the Vice-President’s privacy had not been compromised, but the reality was somewhat different. Almost a full year’s preparation had gone into the operation, the house specifically chosen, modified and marketed with this one aim in mind. A detailed comparison between the house’s original plans and its present dimensions would have revealed the width of the living room was three inches less than when first built, thus allowing a minor but key addition to the property’s many facilities.

A spy camera or voice recorder was susceptible to detection in a variety of ways: through its energy supply, its method of recording the relevant data, the heat subsequently generated, or the RF signal created as the data was transmitted. Surveillance counter-measures comprised of both physical and electronic techniques, from one man with a flashlight to spectrum analysers and portable X-ray machines, the operators trusting that at least one of these methods would be successful.

But like any surveillance device, the detectors too had their own intrinsic flaws and loopholes. For Irwin’s property, the electronic components of the spy camera had been placed sufficiently far away from the living room wall to be invisible to the security team’s detectors, and all potential electro-magnetic and thermal signals were well shielded. The optical system consisted of low density components throughout, including multilayer dielectric mirrors, and an X-ray scan would reveal nothing to cause concern. The two mirrors reflected the scene captured by the outer lens back to the image sensor and memory card; the encrypted data was then transmitted in a short burst once the property was unoccupied, bypassing any RF detectors.

Which wall to adapt and the consequent position of the camera had been only resolved after some furious debate, McDowell’s view that the master bedroom would be subject to a more rigorous security assessment eventually winning through. Not that it had mattered: Kate was never one to follow convention and the living room was as convenient as any bedroom for making love. The camera lens was actually part of a glorious marble fireplace, Italian Neo Classical style with glass mosaic details at the top of fluted columns. So far, the system had done everything asked of it; time now to quit before someone made a mistake.

Kate had played her part to perfection, the innocent Erin a bonus no one could have predicted. In reality, it was a classic Soviet-style sting. Whilst not every kiss or caress had been recorded, there was more than enough to destroy Irwin’s marriage, his reputation, and especially his right to be considered next in line to be President of the United States.

 

[][] Chapter 3 – Sunday, October 23rd

Yaroslavl Oblast, Russia – 16:09 Local Time; 13:09 UTC

Muscles almost screaming in protest, Markova forced her legs to keep going up the hill, needing to beat her personal best. The autumn weather was starting to deteriorate, the mist threatening to turn into a fine drizzle, the cold air tugging at her lungs.

For five days now she had tested herself every afternoon and evening, covering the same route: north-west following the Volga River, down through the trees, and then back up the hill to the two-storey country retreat – it was much too impressive to merely call it a dacha. To refer to it as a prison also seemed slightly inappropriate, Markova’s captors polite enough, just not that talkative.

Fifty metres short of her Moscow apartment, Markova’s car had been blocked in by two others, four armed men ensuring she would not do anything too stupid. Bundled unceremoniously into the back of a van, it had then been an uncomfortable ride to a safe house in Moscow’s western suburbs, before a five hour journey north.

The country house was somewhere for its wealthy owner to enjoy peace and tranquillity well away from the stress of Moscow, the nearest town of Tutaev some fifteen kilometres to the south. There were a handful of regular staff, plus a dozen guards, with always at least six on duty when she wasn’t locked in her room. The guards wore no uniform, but their military training was obvious, Markova assuming that they too were Special Forces Spetsnaz. Not perhaps SVR, more likely Military Intelligence (GRU), their disdain for the FSB a natural part of their training.

The daily routine had never yet varied: her room unlocked at nine, breakfast downstairs, then two to three hours of questions. The afternoon and evening were hers to do as she pleased. Although most of the house was off-limits, she had free reign of the gated estate. The GPS ankle bracelet she wore had proved far more effective than Markova had expected, her attempts to escape or surreptitiously remove it invariably meeting with abject failure. Still, such episodes had provided a certain amount of entertainment for the guards, and it seemed to be expected that she wouldn’t just sit back and do nothing.

The morning sessions were always difficult: not that there had never been anything physical, no threats, and no intimidation other than the standard scenario of two interrogators – one male, one female – bombarding her with questions. For some reason the woman had been the worst, her soft-spoken and persistent tone rapidly getting under Markova’s skin.

Markova had given honest answers to some questions, been more evasive with others, occasionally being caught out with a lie, sometimes not. Initially the interrogation had centred on General Grebeshkov’s murder. Who would want him dead? Why might Alekseyev have killed him? How well did she know Alekseyev? And why would he kill Trukhin?

Eventually the focus had moved on to her specific role within the FSB. Why did she report directly to Grebeshkov? What was her present assignment? Had she ever investigated President Golubeva? And what about General Morozov?

Markova was in no mood to be accommodating, yet she had no wish to have the truth beaten out of her. For the time being she had opted to drip-feed relatively useless information, while trying to work out who exactly her captors worked for. The two interrogators often seemed to be unsure where to direct their line of inquiry, and when Markova had deliberately thrown in an off-hand reference to Wilhelmshaven, her comment had virtually been ignored.

That had seemed to rule out anyone associated with Sukhov or the SVR, and Markova had been forced to rethink her strategy. She had assumed she was merely expected to confirm certain facts, but now it seemed as if she knew far more than her two interrogators. There had been no questions concerning Pat McDowell and fortunately nothing about Nikolai. They were obviously working very much in the dark, guessing that Markova knew something worthwhile. Somehow she needed to turn that to her advantage, hopefully well before her captors finally lost patience.

It could have been worse, an elegant country house outside Tutaev far superior to an unheated cell-block in Siberia. Her room was the standard of a luxury hotel with overlarge bed, a massive TV and an impressive range of satellite channels; the food was excellent, and even the company was acceptable.

The TV was her single source of news, Markova’s self-reproach only increasing as she learnt of her colleagues’ arrest. She assumed it was driven by the need to protect Sukhov, the President perhaps also using the opportunity to stamp her authority on the FSB. Moscow too had abruptly returned to a more unsettled state, a new round of street protests bringing back memories of the previous year, the demonstrators unhappy at the military’s perceived interference in Russia’s newly-elected government. The police had been more restrained than usual, trying not to provoke the familiar running battles, hoping no doubt that the protests would die out once the weather deteriorated. Elsewhere, British TV was its usual mix of political and economic woes, with little to suggest that anyone had acted upon or even received Markova’s message, while CNN was more interested in the routine bellicose outpourings from North Korea.

There was certainly nothing to help explain what Sukhov and McDowell might be involved in. Markova’s instincts kept telling her to fight back – but to what end? And even if she escaped, where could she go? The area was sparsely populated, and whilst heading south to Tutaev was feasible, it was also a fairly obvious option. Forty kilometres north-west was the city of Rybinsk; to the east was a hundred kilometres of forest and farmland. Then there was the Volga: the river was in full flow, cold and unyielding, and without some form of boat the six hundred metres across to the opposite bank would be an impossible challenge.

Still, Markova was learning more each day while making sure her muscles grew accustomed to any future demands. Warm clothes, chocolate, a lighter: she was gradually amassing a few essential items – even a couple of thick plastic sacks and some strong garden twine just in case the Volga option should suddenly become more attractive. The fact no-one seemed bothered about searching her room might suggest her status was actually somewhere between prisoner and honoured guest – or more likely the guards knew she wouldn’t live long enough to use her badly-hidden hoard.

Markova now regretted her off-hand mention of Wilhelmshaven: despite the muted response there was no guarantee someone hadn’t pursued it, recordings of each interrogation no doubt passed on elsewhere for a more detailed analysis. McDowell habitually cut out any dead wood, especially if he sensed the authorities were ready to pounce. Maybe one day, McDowell too would be expendable, Golubeva or whoever he worked for, needing to protect their anonymity.

After six days with her stress levels jumping from extreme to another, there was always that nagging concern of not knowing how long her incarceration would last and what the next stage might be. She was even irritated by the fact that unless she just wore her uniform, then her choice of clothes was dictated by someone else’s guess as to her size and preferences – neither of which was particularly accurate.

She slowed to a walk as she crested the rise, her gaze following a black dot low in the sky as it moved ever closer, the hum of the helicopter’s rotor blades barely heard against the wind.

The military helicopter landed on the grassy bank opposite the house. Markova was still too far away to identify either of the two figures that were quickly escorted inside, but she sensed her time here might soon be at an end, one way or another.

  • * *

Markova sat in the arm-chair feeling distinctly awkward, unsure where the conversation was heading and suspicious of her questioner’s motive. Although she had been allowed to shower and change, sitting opposite the most powerful man in Russia while dressed in ill-fitting top and jeans was far from ideal. Bearing in mind she had been kidnapped and held against her wishes, it also didn’t feel right to accord him the deference appropriate to his rank.

General Morozov was known to Markova only through Grebeshkov’s occasional comments and the persona he revealed in the media: tough and uncompromising, yet still regarded as a moderate, he had won Grebeshkov’s respect if not quite his friendship. Stocky, but not overweight, the General’s physical appearance belied his fifty years, an old scar running down his left cheek somehow adding to his no-nonsense air.

For a good five minutes now Morozov had stuck with the pleasantries, skirting around the difficult questions while asking if Markova needed anything. She had managed to maintain a polite exterior, gradually becoming more frustrated, impatient for Morozov to get to the point. This was not the direct approach she had anticipated and she sensed he needed something specific from her, something that could perhaps even help buy her freedom.

“You should be thanking me for saving your life, Major,” said Morozov, finally deciding he’d been congenial long enough. “If my men hadn’t taken you off the street someone else would have done so, and it’s rumoured you were to be Alekseyev’s second target and not that pig of a Colonel. I would be lying if I said I can protect you indefinitely.”

“I don’t need anyone’s protection,” said Markova testily. “Nor am I the enemy you seem to believe.”

“That may well be true, Major, but you obviously know far more that you’re telling. Drugs and more physical methods tend not to be that reliable, and I would prefer that we try to work together. You gave us Wilhelmshaven but we can find nothing to explain its relevance to General Grebeshkov’s murder – that would be a useful start.”

“And if I tell you everything, then what?”

Morozov gave a thin smile, “I doubt it would be healthy for you to return to Moscow. Once I understand exactly why someone wants you dead, then we can work out where you’ll be of most use – a favoured member of Grebeshkov’s team certainly has the requisite skills.” His tone abruptly hardened, “When Russia was falling apart, five of us worked together to save our nation, risking everything; now just Golubeva and I remain. I need to know why General Grebeshkov was murdered, and whether I am likely to be next.”

Markova had already made up her mind, the General’s words only reinforcing her own concerns. It might be foolish to put her trust in Morozov, but she really had very little choice. And what harm could it do now anyway?

It was a complex tale to explain quickly. General Morozov asked the occasional question but was generally content just to listen, not needing to take notes. Markova left out any mention of Anderson and Nikolai, preferring not to muddy the waters still further.

“The CIA,” said Morozov, once Markova had finished, thinking out loud. “Do they know about McDowell and Hanson?”

“I honestly don’t know,” Markova replied, sticking with the truth as best she knew it. “Of course, it’s always possible that McDowell is actually working for the CIA.”

Morozov frowned, “Is that likely?”

“Probably not,” responded Markova with a shrug. “He had contacts there once and it would be best to assume that McDowell, and through him Sukhov, have inside knowledge of any relevant U.S. intelligence investigation.” She gave a wry smile, “McDowell is always pretty thorough in that respect.”

Morozov remained persistent, “And no-one thought to warn the British about a possible attack on London?”

“As far as I’m aware, no-one in my section has been in contact with any Western intelligence agency.” Markova said it with emphasis, almost daring Morozov to challenge her assertion. Not that she was actually lying: officially, Nikolai had nothing to do with her and Anderson could hardly be considered an intelligence agency.

The General gave her a studied look then chose to move on. “Why London, and not Paris or New York.”

“I’m not sure; it might even just be a diversion.” She lapsed into silence and it was several seconds before Morozov spoke, his tone returning to its earlier congenial mode.

“I appreciate your co-operation, Major. Golubeva’s people already have effective control of the SVR and Grebeshkov’s murder has now opened the door to the FSB; the GRU east of Moscow is similarly of unclear allegiance. For the moment, I have a certain authority but give the President another three months and I too will be redundant.”

“That’s not what the protestors in Moscow seem to believe,” Markova observed pointedly.

Morozov merely reacted with a shrug of frustration, “Government policy is now entirely in the hands of the President and despite what you may believe, I have no wish for it to be otherwise; the army’s role has been to ensure stability and that is all. Sadly, some of Golubeva’s supporters now see me more as a threat and are stirring up animosity to ease the final transfer of power; we are all on borrowed time here, your colleagues in the FSB suffering more than most with four section heads culled in less than a week.”

“Then it would seem we are definitely on the same side after all.”

Morozov appeared to have reached the same conclusion. “Golubeva is clearly working to some secret agenda and I need to understand why Evgeny Sukhov visited Khabarovsk and Vladivostok. The Commander of the Eastern Military District seems to have allied himself with the President, along with everyone else of consequence in the Far East; worryingly, there have been persistent rumours of military redeployments, but none have been authorised and the relevant satellite data may well have been doctored.” Morozov gave a shrug of resignation, “I sent two of my best men to Vladivostok to investigate but it’s been three days and I’ve heard nothing back; I have to assume they’re most probably dead. Golubeva must either be over-confident or desperate to have gone to such extremes.”

Markova nodded in understanding, “So maybe it’s nothing to do with London at all. Could Golubeva be looking to interfere in North Korea?”

“More likely it’s Mongolia or even China… Pursue your investigation into Sukhov, Major, and maybe we can both come out of this in one piece.” Morozov gave a wide one-handed gesture at their surroundings. “There is a limit to what I can do without compromising my own safety. This house is the best I can offer; that and half-a-dozen staff. There is also a direct link to GRU Headquarters at Khodynka; they are loyal, at least for the moment.”

He stood up: now the decision had been made, he was keen to return to more urgent matters. “I am not a patient man, Major. We are all taking a risk here and I expect to see results. You have a week; after that I will need to rethink whether such risks are actually worthwhile.”

 

Bray, England – 21:20 Local Time; 20:20 UTC

Pat McDowell didn’t consider himself a romantic but if ever settled down then Yang’s lifestyle – indeed this house – would do very nicely indeed. Yang’s home did in fact have certain similarities to the Vice-President’s hideaway outside Washington: waterfront property, large secluded plot, beautifully furnished, just a short distance from the capital – but in reality the two just couldn’t compare. The Bray house exuded old-fashioned elegance, from its entrance hallway and curved staircase, to the landscaped gardens and the River Thames beyond. Grade II listed, nine bedrooms, three storeys, swimming pool and a hundred yards of river frontage – it was simply breathtaking. And this was merely one of Yang’s four residences, his second in the UK and worth barely a quarter of his London residence.

Yang Kyung-Jae was only one of the five men whose millions had turned August 14 into a genuine threat, but if anyone deserved to be called its leader, McDowell judged it to be Yang. He was certainly the driving force, yet pragmatic enough to pick others who could turn the cabal’s ambition into a reality. To date their success had been far greater than any of the key players had believed possible, the coup in Russia a reward for the many sacrifices made. Golubeva’s elevation from covert manipulator to President of Russia had been totally unexpected, her sudden rise to world prominence a concern, no-one quite sure how she would handle such power. Yet so far she had continued to prove a worthy asset, still mindful of the debt she owed and fully prepared to play her part.

The second phase of the cabal’s dream was more complex than had been required with Russia, where its own internal divisions and the fears of Russia’s East European neighbours had been profitably turned against it. August 14 had been a convenient vehicle for Russia but this time the tactics were less extreme, the target far more stable, and a dozen tangled threads needed to be pulled together to ensure a successful and effective outcome. If one failed, no matter; more than one, and a year’s planning would most likely be wasted. The timing of each individual event also had to be precise; a couple of days out and the steady build-up of momentum would be irretrievably lost. The budget had been set at a generous hundred million dollars – a fortune to some but when put against the cabal’s total wealth of well over twenty-five billion it was considered an acceptable expense for such a laudable aim.

McDowell and Yang sat in the large study, a half-empty bottle of scotch resting on the table between them. A liking for good whisky was about all they had in common, although the physical differences between them were not that extreme – McDowell; forty, six foot four, muscular; Yang: sixty-three, five foot ten, and a regular user of pool and gym.

It was two hours since the main meeting had broken up, with six of the ten participants preferring to make use of the ultra-secure video-link rather than attending in person. Paige Hanson’s American associates now had their ‘unbreakable commitment’, the various elements already moving into place.

“The symposium at Wilhelmshaven,” Yang said, giving McDowell a questioning look. “I sense you were more concerned than you let on.”

“Concern’s too strong a word,” responded McDowell, picking his words carefully. “Despite Sukhov’s assurances, I’m not so convinced the proposed changes are irrelevant, and with this leaked report linking me to Hanson, that makes her a serious risk.”

Yang drank down his scotch in one. “Let’s not worry about what we can’t control. Which leaves us with Hanson; I assume you have a suitable solution in mind?”

McDowell nodded, “It makes sense to resolve the problem as quickly as possible before it too is taken out of our hands.” He didn’t elucidate further, knowing from past experience that Yang wasn’t interested in hearing the exact details. He had put his faith in McDowell and the American had never yet let him down, a good chunk of the total investment put aside to reward McDowell and his accomplices. A total payroll of just forty-five men and women – it seemed a ridiculously small number, and a mere fraction of the total personnel involved in bringing Golubeva to power.

The three basic principles this time around were the same as with Russia, even though the means of achieving them were rather different: an external threat, an internal crisis and a complete lack of faith in the government’s ability to solve either. Most governments were quite likely to face such a scenario at some time during their administration, and the key was to ensure that each discrete component was sufficiently potent to complement and reinforce the others, as had been achieved with Russia.

It sounded easy enough, as long as you also had an enormous amount of luck and the right sort of inside help. In Russia’s case that had included significant elements within the SVR; this time, they had decided to be rather more selective, personal ambition and selfish greed ensuring McDowell had a tentative foothold within America’s Intelligence Community. And if that wasn’t enough, then there were always the basics of blackmail and extortion.

McDowell, however, did have one immediate concern that was entirely personal. The police and the various intelligence services were once again searching for him, and there was a limit to how many times he could chance his luck. The UK was now too great a risk, and even a return to the U.S. would be dangerous. McDowell had grown used to bypassing the security forces, but his options were daily becoming more limited.

Yang seemed to read his mind, “Do the British know you’re back in the UK?”

“They have a good idea,” McDowell confirmed, “but they don’t know enough to cause concern. Hanson created the problem with her mention of London but she’s also done us a favour, keeping everyone’s focus well away from the main event.”

Yang poured them both another drink, moving the topic of conversation on to something more mundane. He liked McDowell, and even though placing him in total charge of the second phase had been a risk, it was a well calculated one. The American had well learnt the lessons of Russia, growing into his role as each month had passed. Yang had quickly come to respect McDowell’s judgement and he trusted him implicitly – or as much as Yang trusted anyone.

If there was a weak link, then it wasn’t Pat McDowell. Initially Yang had been concerned that McDowell might have certain reservations as to their target, a natural reluctance born out of misplaced patriotism – after all he had served in the U.S. military. But such worries had been totally unfounded, McDowell more intrigued than fearful of the challenges ahead.

In terms of wealth, Yang’s three billion made him the poorest of the five members of the cabal, but their hopes and ambitions were the same. Just four more days and they would start to see whether the months of planning had actually been worthwhile. And that wasn’t even the end, just the beginning of the final chapter.

Whatever the eventual outcome, and however history judged him, Yang had no regrets. Success, wealth, respect – he would gladly discard them all if it would guarantee victory.

 

[][] Chapter 4 – Monday, October 24th

Washington, D.C. – 08:31 Local Time; 12:31 UTC

Raymond Flores sat in the FBI’s mobile command centre and watched the central display as it tracked Hanson’s car turning right onto Swann Road, heading south towards the ONI’s Technical Analysis Centre. Paige Hanson’s security clearance was TS/SCI – Top Secret, Sensitive Compartmented Information. That was the same as Flores, neither of them quite making it up to the top level and so requiring a polygraph test.

Special Agent Flores hadn’t been kept completely in the dark as to why Hanson merited a twenty-two strong FBI surveillance team, but he sincerely doubted he’d been told everything. Twenty years in the FBI, the last four as part of the National Security Branch, Flores exuded an air of quiet confidence, rarely if ever rattled and never yet heard to swear. If someone needed a rebuke, then a simple cold stare and a quiet word were generally enough.

Paige Hanson’s personal profile certainly looked fairly routine: married, now divorced; no steady boyfriend; social drinker; finances secure; fitness fanatic. There really was nothing unusual, no extremist political leanings or any obvious reason as to why she would betray her country.

Thus far it had been forty hours of boredom: Hanson out for a run on the Sunday morning, then at her sister’s for the afternoon; the rest of the weekend had been spent at home, no visitors. Her phone calls and emails were equally uninteresting, just family and a couple of friends. The FBI had hacked into her computer, an agent with the appropriate security clearance following her every tap on the keyboard. Hanson’s profile hadn’t labelled her as a workaholic, but a good proportion of her free time had been spent on work-related aspects – nothing though that seemed to threaten National Security.

Overall, it was difficult not to believe Hanson’s job was done, the chances of her leading them to Pat McDowell already looking remote. But that’s what made Flores’ job so intriguing, the target lulling everyone into a false sense of security and then suddenly doing the unexpected.

Once Hanson walked through the doors of the ONI building, she would be outside of the FBI’s view and their authority, others no doubt taking on that particular responsibility. If nothing else, such investigations taught the art of patience, Flores certain that Hanson would eventually make a mistake – he just hoped she did it sooner rather than later.

Hanson parked in the main car park, walking quickly across the tarmac towards her office in the Farragut Building, her breath showing clearly in the cold morning air. There were still two cameras on her and six agents; another thirty seconds and they could all relax, Hanson likely to be out of their jurisdiction for at least three hours.

Abruptly Hanson seemed to stumble; her body lurched a second time then she crashed face down to the ground. Flores saw it all on the central display, the camera revealing the blood-red stain spreading across the back of her jacket.

“Shooter! From the north-west!” Other voices now added to the clamour from the loudspeaker to Flores right. Instinctively, he knew where the sniper was, seeing in his mind the layout north-west towards Washington National Cemetery.

“The water tower!” he ordered. “All units – the shooter’s atop the water tower at Swann and Suitland.”

It was all too easy. The tan-coloured water tower was a prominent landmark, the recreation centre at its base even available for hire. It was maybe four hundred yards from where Hanson’s body lay – too far for a rank amateur, but still a relatively easy shot for a trained sniper. That meant someone either from the military or the police, and with very steady nerves.

It took just seconds to confirm Hanson was dead, the two hollow point bullets less than two inches apart a lesson in overkill. It was another full minute before the first report came through from the Suitland Water Tower: one community worked murdered; no sign of the shooter; one possible suspect – a white male, traveling in a black sedan heading north-west.

Flores made the appropriate calls, the suspect’s details so vague as to be completely useless. Only now did he realise that the sniper most likely had an accomplice tailing Hanson, someone to warn that the target was approaching the ONI. The FBI team hadn’t noticed anything, but then they hadn’t been looking.

Flores belatedly ordered a review of the video records. Not that he expected to discover anything worthwhile, resigned now as to it being just another missed opportunity. It was the worst possible start to his morning. And no doubt someone was going to get it in the neck – most likely Flores himself.

 

Marshwick, England – 14:32 Local Time; 13:32 UTC

Breakfast had been a rushed affair, Charlotte heading off home after coffee and toast to change before opening up the agency at nine. By mutual agreement they had kept the Sunday free of anything controversial or related to mysterious packages, the two of them spending the day in Lincoln, avoiding the showers by strategic visits to the castle and shops.

It was early afternoon before Anderson returned once more to his quest. Although mindful of Devereau’s belated warning and the potential dangers, such concerns had never stopped him before, and there seemed little risk in pursuing it for a while longer. He still had several more possible avenues for research: Brandt, Kramer, Mercier, Marcelo – it might take time but Anderson was confident there was an answer somewhere in the electronic aether of the internet. And, if he were honest, he didn’t actually have anything better to do.

In fact it took him less than fifteen minutes to search out a brief CV on the first three, each of their individual areas of expertise an impressively close match to those of Judith Gastrell and Walter Drummond. The results doggedly continued Saturday’s sonar theme, the frequent use of it in combination with algorithm forcing Anderson to ensure he really did know what the latter word actually meant. ‘A set of rules for solving a problem’ seemed to be the simplest definition, Google itself using algorithms to come up with its search results; similarly, dating sites used them to pair couples together and even his phone’s news feed was based around an algorithm.

Anderson obstinately delved deeper into the companies Gastrell and the others worked for, gradually becoming bewildered by the incestuous links between Atlas Elektronik, BAE and Thales. All of them seemed happy to co-operate on various defence programmes, often working on joint ventures with a diverse selection of countries, buying and selling subsidiaries along the way. Various U.S. conglomerates, such as Lockheed Martin and General Electric, also seemed keen to join the merry-go-round of joint ventures, mergers and restructuring.

Not that any of it helped him work out the precise nature of the symposium or what McDowell was up to. A search on Marcelo came next, Anderson’s initial enthusiasm for the task slowly waning with each fruitless hour.

When Charlotte returned just after five, Anderson was back on track with his oft-delayed dinner plan, except it was now the local pub rather than something more personal. Sadly, Charlotte seemed keen to return to the problem of McDowell.

“If sonar and algorithms are potential links,” Charlotte suggested, “what about adding them as keywords to different combinations of the other names.”

Anderson tried not to sound petulant, knowing that Charlotte was working hard to be helpful. “Been there, done that. Bet you didn’t know there’s a big music festival called Sonar, and Marcelo Castelli had a hit with his track of the same name. I’ve combined every keyword we have, plus a billion other permutations. Same result. I just can’t work out what the link to McDowell might be.”

Charlotte nodded in understanding, “Perceptive deductions always take time, Mike; hopefully though, not forever.”

It was proving to be an exasperating day, Anderson almost wishing Charlotte had left it another twenty-four hours before interfering so directly. Now they were both getting cranky, which didn’t bode well for a good end to the evening.

For once, Anderson’s diplomatic skills proved equal to the task, Charlotte persuaded to abandon the internet for The Farriers Arms. Despite the pub suffering from its usual Monday-evening lack of atmosphere, dinner proved to be a relaxed and pleasant affair, Anderson working hard to keep the conversation away from anything too controversial.

It was well after nine before they returned to the cottage. Charlotte led the way inside, stopping suddenly the instant she turned on the kitchen light.

Anderson almost stumbled into her, confused eyes following her gaze to the kitchen table.

Santa Claus had been back.

[]Chapter 5 – Tuesday, October 25th

Berlin – 14:08 Local Time; 12:08 UTC

Anderson knew he was being led by the nose and didn’t like it, not one bit. His latest Christmas present was gratifyingly expensive, although this time it hadn’t come in a nice cardboard box and there was no helpful handwritten note – merely a pre-paid mobile phone and an open return e-ticket to Berlin.

The first episode had seemed merely an inconvenience, an unfortunate invasion of privacy that wouldn’t be repeated, and it had seemed gracious to allow Markova’s courier a certain leeway. But now it was threatening to become more of a nuisance, even if it also offered up an intriguing challenge.

To accept it had a possible element of risk; to reject it would be foolish, especially as the airline ticket was business class. And Anderson was basically getting nowhere investigating Markova’s list.

It had been a pain having to drive first to Heathrow, but the early-morning flight itself had been uneventful – a final two hours for Anderson to worry and fidget while trusting he’d made the right decision.

Not that his benefactor was being particularly helpful, Anderson’s newly-acquired phone remaining silent until he’d landed at Berlin-Tegel. The subsequent text message continued the brusque theme, merely instructing him to deposit backpack and personal phone in the airport’s left luggage.

Anderson did as he was told, assuming that someone was watching everything he did. He didn’t even have time to put the receipt in his pocket before his new phone chimed again.

Message duly read, he took a taxi into Berlin proper, Anderson now more annoyed than apprehensive, impatient to learn the purpose of his travels. He assumed it was something to do with the two German experts; maybe he was even meeting one of them – if indeed they were still alive.

At least it wasn’t a secluded back street or some isolated Berlin outpost. Friedrichshain Park was peaceful yet busy, and Anderson sat on a wooden bench close to a long line of boulders. Covered with graffiti, the rock wall had two teenage climbers honing their skills against it; further on were several family groups – it all helped to put Anderson slightly more at ease. As instructed, his new phone rested on the bench beside him, fate as yet unknown.

After some five minutes, an elderly man approached along the path, warmly dressed in coat and hat. With a stifled grunt of discomfort, he sat down heavily next to Anderson, gaze studying the view straight ahead.

“Old age is a terrible thing, Mr Anderson; each new pain has a certain sense of permanency about it, a warning as to what is to come.” The German accent was almost non-existent, the man’s tone friendly.

“I’ll take your word for it,” Anderson said. “You obviously know my name; I also find it useful to know who I’m talking to.”

“I always liked the name Thomas; that’ll do nicely. I hope you appreciate I’ve gone to a lot of trouble on your behalf, up most of the night. It’s not true what they say about needing less sleep as you get older; I always prefer a good eight hours.”

“I’m sure you’ll get a suitable reward; maybe in the next life.” Anderson’s irritability was returning, frustrated by Thomas’ delay in getting to the point. “Shouldn’t you be checking me for a wire, or something?”

“Just so, Mr Anderson; except it’s already been done. This new technology always amazes me – I can still remember when computers used punch cards.”

Thomas was obviously not someone to be hurried and Anderson leant back in exasperation, patiently awaiting the next piece of the drama to unfold. It was hardly surprising they didn’t trust him, and nowadays such concerns seemed part and parcel of being a journalist, Anderson assuming politicians felt pretty much the same.

“I can only,” Thomas continued, “report fully on Kramer. Both he and Brandt were questioned late on Saturday, and I understand Brandt’s version is very similar. Unfortunately, Kramer’s account was interspersed with complex terminology and I wasted half my time having to replay the recording while trying to make sense of it. I trust you’ll forgive the inevitable inaccuracies; it’s hard to remember everything and as I said, the technological terms were often well over my head. I felt obliged to do a fair bit of background research but there’s a limit to how much Wikipedia can help.”

“Is that genuine inaccuracies or deliberate distortions?”

Thomas gave a broad smile, “In our world, what’s the difference. I would have given you a written copy of Kramer’s full interview but we both know that’s not possible.”

He paused, as though getting his facts in order. “The symposium at Wilhelmshaven was purely routine: two full days, Wednesday and Thursday, 12th and 13th of October. Similar meetings are held once or twice a year in order to keep up-to-date with submarine upgrades, specifically those made by non-NATO countries. The venue rotates; Germany this time; the U.S. and France before that. All the participants are acknowledged experts in their field, with the individuals involved varying depending on who is available and where the symposium is being held; only Drummond, Gastrell and Kramer had been at the Washington meeting in May.”

There was a second drawn-out pause, Thomas seemingly determined to ensure he got everything just right. “Upgrading a submarine is a cheap way of modernising a country’s deterrent, but any such improvements affect NATO’s ability to detect and identify a potential threat. Hence the need for regular appraisals. The group would assess a submarine’s upgrades and try to work out how such modifications would affect its acoustic signal; not just one basic scenario, but under various conditions such as at different speeds and sea temperatures.”

Thomas gave a self-satisfied smile, “Kramer himself couldn’t have explained it any better. He seemed genuinely shocked when the police turned up on his doorstep and there was no indication he was trying to hide anything. Apparently, the only unusual aspect over those two days was the presence of Hanson; she was a late addition to the group and acted merely as an official observer. Kramer has been to five of these meetings, two in the U.S., and this was the first time anyone from the Intelligence Community had shown an interest.”

Thomas seemed to have reached the end of his account, content to await Anderson’s obligatory round of questions.

Anderson assumed Thomas was either in the counter-terrorist section of Germany’s Federal Police, the BKA, or had access to someone who was. What wasn’t clear was how much Thomas knew about Markova’s note, and where exactly his loyalties lay – the FSB’s reach stopped at the Russian border unlike their Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR.

“McDowell, Anderson asked, “what does Kramer know about him?”

“Nothing; he claims he’s never heard of him, and he stuck to his story even when shown McDowell’s photograph. Apart from Brandt who went home on the Wednesday night, the rest – even Hanson – stayed at a local hotel. Kramer can’t remember any of the group chatting to any other Americans, but it wasn’t as if they were kept under lock and key. Hanson disappeared for most of Wednesday evening – obviously to meet McDowell – but Kramer himself had no idea where she went or why.”

Anderson picked up on something that Thomas had said at the start, “Was the timing of this symposium moved up for some reason? You said the previous meeting was in May; that makes it barely five months between meetings.”

The question seemed to take Thomas by surprise and he had to think hard before answering. “I’m not sure; I don’t think Kramer said either way.”

Anderson moved quickly on, “Am I right in thinking that certain rules – algorithms – are used to match the acoustic signature picked up by sonar to a particular submarine; that way a warship would know exactly what it’s tracking?” He wasn’t sure whether the question had already been answered, but it seemed important to check.

Thomas nodded in agreement, “That’s how I understand it. If the present algorithms aren’t valid because of an upgrade, then the group either make recommendations as to changes, or the problem is passed on for more detailed analysis.”

“Passed on where?”

“No idea; Kramer never said.”

Anderson tried again, “What sort of upgrades are we talking about?”

“New engines; different number of blades on the propeller; adding stealth technology – apparently they can even stretch the hull.”

“And they get information on upgrades from what: satellites, spies?”

Thomas ignored the taunt. “Throw in security breaches, phone hacks and even social media.” He gave a thin smile, “I’m just guessing as to what Kramer would have said if someone had asked him. Use your imagination, Mr Anderson.”

“Okay, so if the group recommend changes to the algorithms – then what?”

“The various submarine databases are updated; both the national database and the computer systems aboard NATO warships.”

Gastrell’s profile had also mentioned a submarine database. Britain, France Germany: each country seemed to maintain a list of acoustic profiles, for surface ships as well as submarines, with the most comprehensive at the Naval Surface Warfare Centre in Maryland.

Anderson persevered, “Which actual countries were they looking at? Surely there can’t be that many subs upgraded since May?”

“It’s not just recent upgrades; it’s also where additional data has come to light, maybe from an actual sonar contact. If there’s an anomaly in what the algorithms have identified, then that might suggest some modification NATO aren’t aware of. That could have happened anytime.”

Thomas hesitated, brow furrowing as he dragged up yet more facts. “An upgrade tends to be unique to an individual submarine rather than it being applied to every vessel in the same class. The group looked at four subs in total but Kramer refused to reveal individual pennant numbers, citing national security. Do you really need each country and class of submarine?”

“That’s what I’m here for.”

Thomas gave Anderson an annoyed look, before slowly reeling off the list. “They’re all attack subs; North Korea: Ming-class; Russia: Kilo-class; China: one Yuan and one Shang-class. Have you got all that?”

Anderson nodded his thanks, repeating the names over in his mind, not daring to appear feeble by asking to write them down.

“That’s about it,” Thomas announced. “I trust I’ve been of some help.”

“I appreciate it, thank you. I guess you’ve no idea where McDowell has hidden himself?”

“Not my department.” Thomas picked up Andersons’s new phone and struggled to his feet, before turning so as to directly face him.

“Good luck; Mr Anderson. I believe any debt owed is now repaid in full.”

Anderson smiled briefly in understanding, “Do svidaniya.”

Thomas moved as if to walk away, then abruptly he changed his mind. “McDowell stayed two nights at the Hotel Regent in Hamburg, name of Mark Wheeler, suite 510. Keep the phone; you never know when it might be of some use.” Almost reluctantly, he lobbed the phone towards Anderson, before striding stiffly away.

Anderson waited a full five minutes before heading off to find a taxi. So far the trip to Germany had been useful if not earth-shattering, the Wilhelmshaven Five looking to be innocent participants in McDowell’s plans. He decided it was too late to head back the UK, and opted instead to find a suitable hotel. Not Berlin; instead he fancied somewhere a bit nearer the coast – and he’d never been to Hamburg.

 

Greenville, U.S.A. – 12:04 Local Time; 16:04 UTC

McDowell sat in the passenger seat of the Chevy Camaro, stifling a yawn, jet lag and the many hours chasing from one continent to another finally catching up with him. Once the Hanson problem had been resolved, he had chosen to move forward with a previously rejected option, the potential benefits well worth the extra risks; hence the detour to Greenville, Mississippi.

Beside him sat Lee Preston, ex-highway patrol, a good man to have in a crisis but with a tendency to dismiss the dangers. McDowell felt he had put together a capable team, although today was their first real chance to work together as a single unit. Other concerns had meant they’d only done a serious dry run the once, it going as smoothly as McDowell could have wished, and so convincing him Preston’s plan would work for real.

Preston checked his watch for what seemed the tenth time, McDowell also conscious that they were running far later than anticipated.

“Zulu-one and Zulu-two leaving now,” announced a voice in McDowell’s ear, the French accent slightly slurring the words together. Martin Lavergne was ex-Special Forces and – as Paige Hanson had found – totally reliable, Lavergne and Preston dealing with her without fuss or complaint.

Lavergne’s message seemed to ease the tension even though it meant the difficult part was about to begin. Now all they needed to know was which one of the two possible routes back to Brandon the Congressmen would actually take.

“Confirm Zulu-one and two traveling together in the Merc,” Lavergne reported. “One minute to interchange.”

Preston started the Chevy’s engine, pulling out onto Cannon Street to head north towards Highway 82. Behind them a Toyota SUV followed suit; the final member of the four-man team was also ex-Special Forces, Gary Steele the youngest of the four at just thirty-one.

“Going south on Mississippi Highway 1,” announced Lavergne. “No security; traffic good.”

“Copy that, Alpha-three; south on MS-1”

Alpha-one was McDowell; Alpha-two Steele in the Toyota; Alpha-three Lavergne’s lead car, a Nissan sedan.

The Chevy took the interchange onto MS-1, the highway roughly following the line of the Mississippi as it snaked south. It would be well over two hours before they reached Brandon, this first stretch some thirty-five miles of single carriageway, presently five lanes. It was a pleasant enough journey through countryside, houses few and far between, high levees blocking the view of the Mississippi to the right.

It was another five minutes before Preston eased up some hundred and fifty yards from the lead car, Steele keeping station immediately behind the Chevy; a quarter mile ahead and travelling at a steady 55 was the Congressmen’s Mercedes.

McDowell spoke into the radio mike, “Alpha-one and Alpha-two in position.” Traffic was surprisingly light and there was little else to do for the moment except sit back and enjoy the ride, McDowell’s hand-written notes from an earlier tour of the area resting on his lap.

The meeting in Greenville had been an attempt by the Republican Party to sway a few more of Mississippi’s voters, the optimists amongst them hoping to ensure a clean sweep in the Midterms. Now two of the incumbents were heading home for a well-earned rest, the Congressmen following good practice by sharing a car. Two for the price of one – whilst not an unexpected bonus, it made McDowell’s decision to proceed the correct one. And no security: the Congressmen obviously felt they had nothing to fear in their home state even when visiting a Democratic stronghold.

A mile short of the Arcola turn-off, McDowell ordered Lavergne to overtake, the Nissan matching the Mercedes’ speed to stay roughly a hundred yards ahead. The four cars cruised past the turn-off, the lanes merging down to just two. It was now a relatively straight stretch, the lead car able to see well into the distance.

McDowell carefully checked his notes, three short sections of the road ahead highlighted in red. The highway was a popular location for a police speed-trap but McDowell had been promised a clear road, routine police patrols directed elsewhere.

It was another ten minutes before the Mercedes closed in on the first highlighted section, McDowell keying the radio to ask the lead car for a sitrep.

“Farm tractor ahead,” Lavergne responded. “One car heading north; possibly clear after that.”

“Copy that; give an update in two. Alpha-two, check the rear.”

“Nothing in sight,” advised Steele with barely a pause.

“Copy that.”

McDowell watched as Lavergne’s Nissan overtook the slow-moving tractor, followed by the Congressmen’s Mercedes. The other two vehicles had to wait whilst the northern lane cleared before accelerating past, ignoring the speed limit to close up steadily behind the Mercedes.

It was a good minute before Lavergne gave a second update. “Road clear ahead; ready on your mark.”

To either side of the highway was a clear run-off into grassland, not even a ditch or a fence. Ahead, no more than a quarter-mile away, was one of relatively few sections where trees stood guard to both left and right.

McDowell saw no reason to wait. “Begin squeeze in three.”

Moments later the lead car started to slow whilst the Chevy and Toyota accelerated. Fifty yards short of the Mercedes, Preston pulled out to overtake, letting the Chevy draw just ahead of the Mercedes before immediately slowing to match the other car’s speed. The Toyota had rapidly closed up from behind, with the Nissan boxing the Mercedes in at the front.

The Mercedes’ driver had a few seconds in which he could have evaded being blocked-in on three sides, but by the time he reacted it was too late. The Toyota was barely a yard from the Mercedes, the Chevy stopping it from pulling out, the Nissan completing the squeeze. There was still one chance for the Mercedes, its muscle power more than enough to force its way out of the trap, the lead Nissan the lightest of the four vehicles.

“PIT In three,” McDowell ordered.

On the count of zero, Preston led the Mercedes slip ahead, aligning the Chevy’s front wheels with the Mercedes’ rear wheels – difficult enough for Preston without McDowell’s bulk partly blocking his view. The Nissan pulled out slightly into the left-hand lane, trying to make sure the Mercedes couldn’t squeeze past. The Toyota slowed, increasing the distance between it and the target vehicle.

A flick of the steering wheel and the Chevy clipped the side of the Mercedes in a variation of the police PIT manoeuvre. First adopted by Virginia’s Norfolk County Police, the Precision Immobilization Technique was designed to send a vehicle sliding out of control in front of the pursing police car. Preston’s modification was to significantly increase the force of the shove and to slightly change its direction, the slide now becoming something more extreme but still relatively predictable.

That at least had been the plan, the one that had worked so well in practice.

The Mercedes tried to flip then righted itself, the car slewing violently left and catching the side of the Chevy. Both cars momentarily became locked together, before they split apart, the Mercedes continuing its turn. The Toyota was travelling too fast and too close to avoid hitting the Mercedes side-on, spectacularly cartwheeling over it before crashing back down onto the highway. The Mercedes was no more fortunate, sliding along on its passenger side in a shower of sparks to smash into a large tree.

The Chevy shuddered to a halt. McDowell had been jerked back against the head-rest but none of the air bags had inflated. Preston looked to be okay and McDowell’s training helped him to keep a clear head, instantly able to adjust their plan to cope with the sudden change in circumstances. He even remembered to keep to the agreed radio protocol.

“Alpha-three: no-one within a hundred yards – check the north side as well. One minute max, then we’re all out of here; no arguments!”

McDowell knew that if he didn’t work quickly it was going to be a complete fuck-up. The Toyota was starting to smoke, a bloodied arm hanging from the smashed driver’s window.

Steele became his new priority, McDowell’s fear of leaving a potential loose end greater than his concern as to the Congressmen’s fate. Steele was unconscious, his face and head covered in blood, barely breathing. McDowell ignored the smoke rising from under the bonnet and wrenched the driver’s door open, unbuckling the seat belt to drag him clear. He sensed Preston beside him and together they carried Steele to the Chevy, unceremoniously dumping him across the rear seats.

A single gunshot jerked McDowell’s thoughts back to other dangers and he glanced around, fearing what he might see. To the south the highway was still empty of traffic; to the north sat a white sedan, its driver warned off by Lavergne and his assault rifle.

Satisfied that Lavergne had it all under control, McDowell focused once more on the Mercedes, the car resting on its side some twenty yards away. Gun held two-handed out in front of him, he moved warily towards the front. The Congressmen might not have a security detail but that there could easily be a gun hidden in the car’s glove compartment. It was perhaps a foolish risk but with Steele now safe, McDowell couldn’t just leave the rest to chance.

Both men were badly injured, one unconscious. McDowell shot them both, each a double-tap to the head.

A gesture to Lavergne and then he raced back to the Chevy, Preston immediately slamming his foot down, heading south.

“Ranger, this is Alpha-one; pick-up is option Romeo; repeat Romeo; one injured.”

There were again no concerns as to the speed limit, the two vehicles traveling closer to eighty. Only now did McDowell curse his stupidity at not making sure the Toyota was well alight: it was likely that any evidence would be unhelpful, but that was still a poor consolation.

Even as they turned left onto the single-lane track that was Riverside Road, McDowell heard the welcome sound of the helicopter coming in from the east. Although more visible than simply swapping to another car, the helicopter could get them to safety far quicker than Mississippi’s roads – something which might just save Steele’s life.

Less than five minutes later the helicopter was heading south-east towards safety. Below them, flames started to envelop the Chevy and Nissan, matching a second pyre some three miles to the north. It wasn’t yet the 27th, but as far as McDowell was concerned, his campaign had already begun.

 

Hamburg, Germany – 20:41 Local Time; 18:41 UTC

The five-star Hotel Regent was significantly more salubrious than Anderson was used to, his room impressive, the service excellent, the staff invariably polite, some more friendly than others.

Although a language barrier was never helpful, three years as a journalist had taught Anderson that friendly persistence was his best weapon when it came to dragging information out of people, with bribery a close second. The majority of the hotel staff were in their early-twenties and from Eastern Europe; a good few spoke excellent English, Anderson’s own schoolboy German helping overcome any serious difficulties. The biggest problems were the sheer number of staff and their unwillingness to say anything out of turn. Whether the latter was due to fear of being sacked or good training wasn’t clear, but for whatever reason Anderson had so far struggled to learn anything at all about McDowell, not even if he had arrived alone or whether he had met someone there.

The hotel bar was normally the most productive source, although the Regent’s sole barman was proving equally immune to Anderson’s attempts at small-talk. By mid-evening, the bar was busy enough to require an additional helper, a younger man barely out of his teens, more Spanish than East European, although once again Anderson got absolutely nowhere.

Anderson gave it until well after ten, the bar now almost empty after the earlier rush. Feeling a little drunk and slightly depressed, he downed his drink with a flourish; his room was just one along from where McDowell had stayed and Anderson’s remaining hopes rested on either a bored room-service waiter or a chatty maid.

Noticing Anderson was about to leave, the younger of the two barmen moved swiftly to clear the table.

”You’re English?” he asked, his tone more of a challenge then one of curiosity.

“That’s right; returning home tomorrow.” Anderson wasn’t too sure where the conversation was going, but he was happy to play along. The man’s English was impressive and his name badge identified him simply as Gabriel, which could only be a good omen.

“You’re not police?” Gabriel demanded.

“Journalist,” Anderson explained. “A freelance journalist based in England; definitely not the police.” He was feeling a little on the defensive, more used to being the one asking the questions.

Gabriel nodded slowly to himself, Anderson’s admission seemingly confirmation of something. “I remember Wheeler,” the barman continued, speaking softly. “Two nights, beer with a whisky chaser, and a good tip when he left. The second night he sat with another man: I didn’t get his name.”

“Another American?” Anderson asked, before deciding he should shut up and listen.

“No, he spoke with an American accent but he wasn’t American. He left just after ten, and Wheeler and I got talking about America and the best places to visit; I’ve only been to New York.”

Anderson smiled encouragingly, unsure whether Gabriel’s comment about Wheeler being a good tipper was a hint or not. Payment by results was always his motto, but the barman looked like he might just need a financial inducement.

In the end it wasn’t necessary, Gabriel telling what he knew without the promise of any reward. Even though he couldn’t quite work out how Gabriel’s information would help, Anderson felt obliged to leave a suitable tip. After all, adding another fifty euros to what McDowell already owed him wouldn’t make a great deal of difference.

[]Chapter 6 – Wednesday, October 26th

England – 12:50 Local Time; 11:50 UTC

Anderson had much to think about on the way home, still unsure quite what to make of Gabriel. The man had certainly seemed genuine and his story believable. The information was also exclusively Anderson’s to do with as he saw fit, Gabriel fervently denying he had said anything to the police.

Not that Anderson had actually learnt a great deal about McDowell’s movements, just his dining schedule: he’d arrived at the hotel on Wednesday the 12th, followed soon after by a trip out for a meal with Hanson. Thursday evening was dinner at the hotel with a middle-aged male associate, finished off by drinks at the bar.

McDowell’s drinking companion remained something of an enigma. Wealthy enough to afford a suite on the top floor, he looked to have stayed the same two nights as McDowell. Yet none of the staff were prepared to reveal anything particularly helpful about him, Gabriel the only one to supply a vague physical description, his best guess as to the man’s nationality being Russian.

That wasn’t quite what Anderson wanted to hear, putting him a bit of a quandary. Passing on what he had learnt to SO15 would in some senses betray what Markova and Thomas had told him. Anderson’s expulsion from Russia the previous year had also been dependent on his silence regarding the terrorists’ links with Russia’s SVR. If this man was indeed Russian would Anderson be breaking his earlier pledge? And did it really matter anyway?

Anderson kept coming back to his original fear that he was being played. Whether it was the FSB or even McDowell, he wasn’t sure. Thanks to him SO15 and the Met were out looking for a specific threat to London, the terrorist threat level now increased to ‘Severe – an attack is highly likely’. But what else could he have done? To have ignored the package would have irresponsible, and SO15 needed to at least take some of the blame.

The news reports had kept him updated with the latest on the shootings in Mississippi and Washington. Hanson’s murder had shocked then confused Anderson, and he still wondered whether Russia had decided to interfere rather more directly, their reasons unclear. Maybe Paige Hanson wasn’t even the first to die, McDowell’s Russian associate similarly paying his respects to the coroner.

It was something else to add to his long list of unknowns, which brought Anderson back to Gabriel’s final offering. The friendly exchange between Gabriel and McDowell had moved beyond east coast cities to sights further inland, McDowell offering a flippant endorsement of one particular U.S. State. Even though Anderson knew the comment was probably meaningless, he felt he had to at least try and make sense of it – Charlotte would settle for nothing less.

There’s nowhere better than Virginia, even though you can’t breathe indoors and the bears lie in wait outside.

Anderson had checked twice with Gabriel that he’d got it correct: the wording might not be exact but Gabriel insisted it was close enough. Whether such trivia was actually worth fifty euros was highly debatable, yet Anderson found himself twisting the comment around in his mind, it almost sounding as if McDowell was speaking from bitter experience.

Anderson had no idea where in the U.S. McDowell was actually from, but Devereau’s sources soon supplied the answer: born in Sacramento, brought up in Seattle, parents now living outside Portland. All three cities were near the west coast and well over two thousand miles from Virginia, which suggested that McDowell’s words of advice were unlikely to be a consequence of his upbringing. His old unit of the 82nd Airborne was based at Fort Bragg, in North Carolina; the Virginia State Line lay to the north, just a hundred miles away, so that at least offered a possible answer. Other than those few basic facts, no-one seemed to know whether McDowell had ever lived in Virginia, or even if he was married.

McDowell’s comment kept gnawing away at Anderson. For some reason Virginia was worthy of a special mention. And what was this about not breathing indoors? He realised he was in danger of turning an offhand remark into something it wasn’t, but apart from a dubious Russian link it was the only useful thing he’d got from his visit to Hamburg.

It was late afternoon by the time Anderson reached Marshwick, brain still struggling to come up with a sensible solution to the puzzle. He knew he’d already wasted too much time on the problem; best now to accept defeat and let Charlotte put in her two pennyworth. As to what he should about McDowell’s associate and the fact he might be Russian – then that was a problem to put aside for another day.

 

Yaroslavl Oblast, Russia – 20:10 Local Time; 17:10 UTC

Markova was left in little doubt that she was an interloper, her supposed authority only temporary until she made a mistake or Morozov lost patience. True to his word, the General had sent six staff to operate the house’s small communications and data network, the facility a recent addition to what had become Morozov’s favourite refuge from the political claustrophobia of Moscow. With the house, its contents, and its upkeep paid for by the Russian Government, it seemed ironic that Markova was using it to counter Russia’s elected Head of State.

The additional staff were all GRU, their natural hostility to the FSB surprisingly muted, possibly due to the fact that all bar one were female. They certainly seemed to find it a pleasant change to have another woman in charge, although it was debatable whether Markova had any real authority, with the single male operative – a young Lieutenant named Belinsky – having to confirm her every command.

The GRU was Russia’s military intelligence arm and larger by far than the SVR; it could also call upon its own special forces, the spetsnaz operating in a dozen conflicts in the last decade alone, including Ukraine and Lithuania. From its headquarters at Khodynka in Moscow’s north-west suburbs, the GRU gathered intelligence from a variety of sources, primarily foreign agents, satellite data, and electronic intercepts. Now a small part of that expertise was also being turned inward, Sukhov’s movements over the last two weeks being looked at in more detail.

In addition to the usual intelligence gathering, the GRU had also accessed Sukhov’s phone records, the data passed on to Markova’s team for more detailed analysis. Such records were far more comprehensive than a standard domestic bill, in that the relevant cell towers were identified for both the caller and recipient, thereby giving an indication as to each person’s location.

It was a dangerous game they were playing, and by its very nature their action opened them up to detection by other agencies, their main concern the Ministry of Internal affairs and a newly compliant FSB. To Markova’s disappointment, there was nothing that unusual about Sukhov’s phone calls: no unexpected hotspots and no suspicious recipients or callers. A week after his return from Hamburg, he had made one further long-distance trip, a repeat visit to the Russian city of Khabarovsk north of Vladivostok, but again the phone data revealed nothing out of place.

Frustrated with the lack of progress, Markova abruptly moved the focus to London, the threatened terrorist attacks possibly just hours away. Sukhov’s two trips to London had been in late-June and mid-September, and the team’s first task was to work out where exactly he might have gone. Historical phone data generally only identified a single cell tower for each call made, and triangulation to give an exact position was thus impossible. If the caller was moving then the connection might switch from one tower to another, but without real-time access it was far from an exact science.

The data from Sukhov’s phone records pinpointed just five cell towers where multiple calls had connected, the results the same for both of Sukhov’s trips. Two were adjacent to Heathrow Airport, the remaining three forming a triangle centred on the village of Bray.

Markova looked closer, but apart from Bray having a so-called Millionaires’ Row and more than its fair share of Michelin-starred restaurants, there was nothing to excite interest. Still curious, she checked as to what additional records might be available, Belinsky taking great delight in revealing that Khodynka could access historical data for a specific cell tower, wherever it was.

Now, Markova’s team were set the wearisome task of checking the destination of every call connected to Bray’s three cell towers during Sukhov’s two trips to London, plus a week either side as well. For completeness, she also threw in satellite phones, the relevant calls identified through their GPS location. In total that would give her thirty-two days of data, enough surely to at least see if there was something, anything, which might provide the breakthrough she needed.

General Morozov’s time limit, if it were that, was edging ever closer. And despite Markova giving the orders, she remained a prisoner, ankle bracelet intact, denied direct access to any phone or computer, unable even to tap out a single command. Escape was still an option, the exact means finally decided, the necessary resources more or less acquired. Now all Markova needed was an acceptable set of circumstances to make the risks worthwhile.

Markova assumed the FSB would think her on the run, although she had slowly come to realise that the GRU and FSB were co-operating together rather more effectively than normal. By default, some in the FSB – like Markova – seemed to have chosen to side with Morozov over Golubeva, and even the attitude of Markova’s GRU guards was more relaxed than previously, the FSB not quite the rival of a week earlier.

Whether Morozov was actually the lesser of two evils, she had yet to decide. Just four days left until his deadline expired.

 

Washington D.C. – 17:30 Local Time; 21:30 UTC

Jensen sat in the Oval Office, the National Security Advisor – Amy Pittman – to his right, the President seated opposite. Just the three of them, the President wanting to be kept appraised of developments prior to the 27th and the threatened attacks. London, Washington or even Moscow – basically they had no idea which city was the target.

Of the three, Jensen would have picked Moscow, the number of demonstrations mounting, and a violent protest outside the Kremlin had finally persuaded the police to make us of batons and tear gas. It wasn’t so much President Golubeva that had provoked the crowd’s anger, more the repeated fear that the military held too much sway in Government, with General Morozov still a major figure in the ruling clique.

Elsewhere, the verbal spat between North Korea and Japan had cooled a little, Thorn successfully putting pressure on the government in Tokyo, the North Koreans helpfully managing to keep silent. China was once more embroiled in an argument with its neighbours over territorial claims in the South China Sea, with Vietnam demanding the withdrawal of a drilling rig from the disputed Spratly Islands.

At home, the Midterm Elections were the main political focus, the recent disappointing news on the economy adding a little more spice to what threatened to be a non-event. Voter apathy continued to be a serious problem, some regarding it as a national embarrassment. Even with the turnout predicted to be less than 35%, the prize of Senate control might still elude the Republicans. The President’s approval rating had in turn dropped another two points, more through disinterest than any obvious concerns, and at 48% it compared favourably with the two previous incumbents at a similar stage.

On a more personal level, the murder of two of Mississippi’s four Congressmen had only added to the meeting’s sombre mood. The FBI had already spent almost a whole day crawling over the scene with as yet no definitive answer as to who was responsible. The motive was also an unknown, the hit obviously the work of professionals. A week ago, a terrorist attack would have seemed an improbable scenario – now, after the communique from across the pond and Hanson’s own murder, such a possibility seemed far more likely.

“Hanson first,” President Cavanagh directed. “Security issues and the follow up to her murder. Then we can deal with Mississippi.”

Jensen quickly consulted his notes, “Hanson’s visit to the Wilhelmshaven Naval Base was authorised directly from the ONI and signed-off by her section head, a Captain Nolan. We have Nolan under investigation, and Hanson’s sister was certainly under the impression that the trip was official; however, ONI records show that Hanson was on a week’s leave during her trip to Germany. For the moment, as far as Nolan and his department are concerned, the FBI’s interest is purely a consequence of Hanson’s murder. It will take time to work out whether Nolan or anyone else in the ONI is involved, and we’ve only checked Hanson’s routine as far back as the end of August – nothing unexpected has yet turned up.”

That was as good as it got, and the rest of Jensen’s report was a whole lot of nothing. “The FBI have identified the car the sniper escaped in, but that’s all; no clue as to where it is or who its two occupants were. DNA results from the water tower have proved unhelpful: no match to McDowell or anyone else associated with the U.S. military or police, either past or present.”

The follow-up questions only confirmed what little the Intelligence Community actually knew about Hanson – no idea as to her relationship with McDowell, her possible role within his organisation, or even her motivation to betray her country.

And still no real clue as to why she was at Wilhelmshaven, as all she did for the two days was observe – nothing more. Jensen had set up a specialist team to deal specifically with the problem of Hanson, its members drawn from the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the CIA, and the National Security Agency. Hanson theoretically had access to the U.S. Navy’s Acoustic Intelligence Database and no-one had yet produced a compelling explanation for her presence at the symposium. The discussions were supposedly complex, especially for someone inexperienced in algorithms, and the only recommendations to come out of the two-day meeting were relatively minor, just slight modifications to NATO’s submarine database.

“We’ve offered our full assistance to the British,” Jensen continued, “and we’ve increased the threat level at embassies and diplomatic missions across Western Europe. There’s been no definite sightings of McDowell or anyone else associated with August 14; we assume he’s somewhere in the UK.”

The President asked, “And you believe it is August 14 that are responsible for all this. They were supposedly anti-Russian, not anti-British.”

“It’s not clear, Sir. But it does seem that the remains of the terrorist group have reformed with some new agenda in mind. We certainly don’t know who this offshoot is out to target, and the evidence for it even being London is tenuous at best.”

Amy Pittman was quick to interject, “Wasn’t Pat McDowell just some sort of security man for the terrorists? Shouldn’t we be focusing on someone higher up the chain of command?”

“He was far more than just that; maybe even August 14’s second-in-command. He’s obviously moved on and it would be unwise to misjudge his ability.”

“This British connection,” continued Pittman. “I seem to recall that there were several British associates of McDowell’s who are still unaccounted for; a Jack Carter for one?”

“Jonathan Carter,” Jensen confirmed. “There was a sighting of him in Quebec last December, but nothing since; two others are also on the run. Carter was August 14’s main computer specialist and if McDowell is working with anyone from last time, then I guess it would most likely be Jon Carter.”

Pittman persisted, “And these photographs the Brits intercepted – have they been of any use?”

Jensen tried to sound positive, “The restaurant shown behind Hanson has been identified, CCTV confirming McDowell and Hanson ate there. The staff members have been interviewed but there was nothing of real interest. The two photographs of just McDowell have him standing in front of a stone facade that could be part of a hundred buildings in Bremen, or indeed any other German city. We’ll obviously persevere in trying to identify where exactly they were taken, but I’m not hopeful.”

“It seems,” muttered Pittman with a hint of frustration, “that we actually know very little.”

Jensen chose not to comment. The questions continued, Jensen putting a brave face on what was essentially a pointless and unhelpful briefing, and a single-page written report would have served just as well.

It was an unfortunate truth that Jensen’s task would be far easier once the first attack had actually happened. The present hit-and-miss approach was never going to be effective, and they needed something specific in order to focus their resources more accurately. Jensen could only hope that when the attack came and wherever it occurred, it was significantly less bloody than those suffered by Moscow during the terrorists’ previous brutal offensive.

Of course, it was always possible that the murders in Mississippi were somehow related to McDowell – a prospect the President also seized upon.

“Mississippi – is that part of this?”

Jensen was forced to stay with his know-nothing theme. “It’s no more than a possibility, Mr President. DNA from one of the vehicles has been matched to a Gary Steele; he’s ex-Special Forces, served in Afghanistan, present whereabouts unknown. We also have vague descriptions of three other men, but nothing that specific. One of them is described as being white, six-two, two hundred pounds – McDowell’s six-four, so it might be him.” Jensen shrugged, “We need to be careful and not jump to the wrong conclusion simply because it’s convenient. Maybe this is part of some local campaign against the Republicans or the State of Mississippi; it’s just too early to tell.”

The final phrase said it all, Jensen trusting that the breakthrough would come. Unfortunately, time had now run out, the 27th already making its pre-dawn appearance in a cold and wet London.

[]Chapter 7 – Thursday, October 27th

Moscow – 10:16 Local Time; 07:16 UTC

Nikolai drove south following the Boulevard Ring, the traffic still crawling along despite it being well after the normal early-morning commute. His job as an FSB courier was often a frustration, sometimes just plain boring, but thanks to Grebeshkov’s influence it paid well enough. Whether that would continue beyond the next month seemed unlikely, the General’s replacement already making changes.

Not that President Golubeva’s man would have an easy task, the Lubyanka a haven for the disaffected and the insubordinate, their anger directed mainly at their colleagues in the SVR and on occasion those who wielded power in the Kremlin. Such animosity extended throughout the FSB, although those not directly associated with the Lubyanka tended to be rather more circumspect in their opposition, with relatively few senior officers willing to voice their support in an outward show of solidarity.

The persistent rumours of friction between Golubeva and Morozov had in turn become an incentive for the Lubyanka to work more closely with the GRU, the odd secret shared, a rumour confirmed. The GRU’s Headquarters at Khodynka seemed keen to reciprocate and the subsequent exchange of information was carried out on a totally informal basis. The preferred option was via couriers like Nikolai, both sides concerned as to how secure the speedier electronic methods might actually be.

Nikolai’s special relationship with Grebeshkov had always given him a certain status within the FSB; more so since the General’s murder. As a result, his regular sources within the Lubyanka had gone out of their way to keep him in the loop, and there was almost a sense that Nikolai needed protecting, his route through security nowadays greeted with a smile and a wave, the guards seemingly more concerned with who else might be watching. Nikolai had certainly pushed his status to the limit, disappearing for days at a time without explanation: in response, his section leader had merely asked if Nikolai was okay and then left it at that, no criticism, no complaint.

With Grebeshkov’s murder and Markova’s subsequent unease – even going so far as to warn Nikolai to take extra care – he had wanted first to protect his own family. In any case, her instructions with regard to the information on Hanson had seemed more of a personal request than a direct order, and Nikolai had felt able to adapt them accordingly. It was thus twenty-four hours before he had finally taken a flight out of Moscow, paranoia ensuring he chose a roundabout route to London; as result he hadn’t actually reached Marshwick until early on the Thursday.

With his mission duly completed, Nikolai had initially been happy to leave Anderson to his own devices. That had all changed once he had returned to Moscow, only then learning of Markova’s disappearance. Five years they had worked together, worlds apart in rank but separated in age by just two years, with Markova the elder. For some unclear reason Nikolai had always been protective of her and now he worried that he had let her down, his delay in contacting Anderson not what Markova would have wanted.

Despite the risks, he had decided to help Anderson where he could, Nikolai pulling in a reluctant favour from the GRU. Old enmities were slowly being put aside as President Golubeva’s opponents began to work together, all of them wary of putting too much trust in the others and fearful lest the West take advantage.

Markova hadn’t been the only FSB agent to disappear, two others from her section missing, another found drowned. In the ten days since Grebeshkov’s murder, five senior staff from the Lubyanka – all considered loyal to the General – had been arrested on trumped-up charges; another eight had been transferred away from Moscow. Yet each incident only served to reinforce the Lubyanka’s intransigence and resentment. Such purges had always been an accepted risk to those who worked for Russia’s Security Services: after the failed coup of ’91, Boris Yeltsin had split the KGB into separate foreign and domestic agencies, eventually to become the SVR and FSB – now the two agencies were more like jealous brothers, each suspecting that the other was the favoured son.

The FSB investigation into Sukhov had now been abandoned; even the search for the Lubyanka’s missing agents had been taken out of the FSB’s hands – officially that was. Unofficially, every possible lead was being pursued, no-one willing to give up just yet. The inquiry into General Grebeshkov’s murder had similarly been reassigned to the Presidential Security Service, it already clear that Alekseyev had amassed significant gambling debts. There was also some evidence to suggest his daughter’s family had been threatened, those responsible as yet unknown.

With the help of the GRU, the FSB was also keeping tabs on Anderson, just in case he might somehow get lucky. The FSB could do with some luck for itself: the President’s purge of the agency might be encouraging dissent, but one edgy day at a time, the Lubyanka was slowly being beaten into submission.

 

Marshwick, England – 09:47 Local Time; 08:47 UTC

Anderson was feeling a little guilty, the good news of having an article published in The Washington Post somewhat tarnished by his genuine concern as to London’s possible fate. He still couldn’t decide whether to tell SO15 about Hamburg, hoping that his knowledge wasn’t actually that crucial.

He sat at the kitchen table, laptop in front to him, determined to make the most of his success by swapping topic from August 14 to the more complex Russia-Poland-U.S. relations. The Post had even been in touch, Anderson invited to Washington to discuss a series of related articles, with the possibility of there being something more permanent – bearing in mind Anderson had been back in Marshwick for less than a week, Charlotte’s hug of congratulations had been particularly gracious.

For the moment, the delicate nature of Poland’s relationship with Russia was his first priority, neither country willing to trust the other, with both economies suffering as a result. Anderson was also half-listening to Sky News, his brain programmed to react to the three keywords of London, Attack, and Marcelo, while cleverly filtering out everything else.

By late morning there was nothing that relevant: FTSE down fifty points, fears of a new recession, various banks in trouble for something, NHS in crisis – it was all fairly normal. The terrorist threat level remained unchanged, and the main news story couldn’t work out whether it should focus on the NHS or move on to rumours of a cabinet reshuffle. In Moscow, there was yet another demonstration outside of the Kremlin walls, the numbers surging despite the chaos of the previous day, with well over a hundred thousand standing in silent protest.

It was only when the New York Stock Exchange opened that the news edged away from the ordinary. The Dow began to fall steadily, losing over three hundred points in the first hour. Analysts muttered about nervousness fuelling rumours or vice-versa, and then it became more to do with realignments and profit taking. Some experts even blamed it on the day’s date, it being the 25th anniversary of a memorable mini-crash. That had been caused by an economic crisis in Asia, and the New York Stock Exchange had eventually been forced to close early, the Dow Jones Industrial Average having plummeted by over 7%.

It wasn’t quite what Anderson had in mind: August 14 had shut down the Moscow Exchange twice the previous year due to cyber-attacks, but this was more an attack of jitters. Within a couple of hours, the Dow slowly started to settle, with some stocks clawing their way back. The FTSE belatedly fell further then rallied, eventually closing 110 points down.

With nothing else happening in London, Anderson resorted to a news search on Marcelo. It took less than minute before two of his brain’s keywords slotted neatly into place beside each other.

It was indeed an attack, and it was by someone named Marcelo – but not against London. By Anderson’s reckoning Marcelo was presently located about six and a half thousand miles away from the UK, her ‘attack’ purely a verbal one.

A middle-aged Senator from the Philippines wasn’t quite Anderson’s ideal for a terrorist, but he still he ended up listening to a good portion of Louisa Marcelo’s speech, or at least those parts that were in English. Even to someone as cynical as Anderson, it was an impressive and skilful play on people’s emotions, Marcelo coming across as ebullient and self-deprecating, someone able to hold an audience in the palm of her hand while directing her eloquence against some unfortunate victim. The latter seemed to include a good few nations and their leaders, her cutting remarks aimed mainly at the Chinese Government and her own President.

The senator had spoken out at a rally in Manila, decrying the expansionist policies of China in the South China Sea and the feeble response of its neighbours. Almost in tears, she had called upon the nations of South-East Asia to put aside their differences and stand united against China’s illegal occupation of the Spratly Islands, Marcelo pleading for everyone who could to join her in a peace armada – a signal that the people of the Philippines were determined to protect what was rightfully theirs.

Marcelo’s words had been greeted with boisterous acclaim, the local media generally positive as to her aims despite her criticism of the President. The islands in question seemed to be barely worthy of the name, the largest just over a hundred acres in size; most were uninhabited reefs, China laying claim to a massive area of the South China Sea, including the Paracel Islands further north. With the two island groups sandwiched between the coastlines of half-a-dozen countries, the real prize appeared to be the natural resources thought to exist offshore, an economic gamble where the dice were already heavily loaded in China’s favour.

According to the news report, several other Philippine Senators had already publicly backed Marcelo’s campaign and the principle of the armada, social media sites acting as her mouthpiece to the wider world. Similar anti-Chinese rallies were already being planned for Malaysia and Vietnam.

Anderson didn’t know whether to feel relieved or foolish, half expecting a phone call from SO15 to give him a bollocking for wasting police time. Everyone made mistakes, and if he’d got carried away with thoughts of terrorist attacks on London, then he wasn’t the only one.

And, whatever else, someone still needed to get to grips with McDowell – having him stirring things up in South-East Asia just couldn’t be good news…

  • * *

It was almost six before Charlotte swept in, definitely looking pleased about something but determined to keep Anderson guessing, insisting he explain abut Louisa Marcelo first.

“And definitely no terrorist attacks?” she asked, once Anderson had finished.

“Not yet; I guess MI6 will be in touch with Manila about McDowell, but it’s still not obvious what he’s up to.”

“Talking of McDowell,” Charlotte said with a superior smile. “I had some success with his comment about Virginia.”

Anderson had guessed as much, annoyed with himself for not persevering. “I would have solved it; I just had more important things to do.”

Charlotte shook her head in exasperation, checking her phone to ensure the relevant facts were correct. “Of course you did, Mike… McDowell’s remark about not breathing indoors is to do with Radon gas. There’s hotspots in most states with buildings needing to add extra ventilation; worst for Virginia is Highland County. The state’s black bear population is mainly concentrated around the Blue Ridge and Alleghany Mountains, plus the unfortunately named Great Dismal Swamp. Intriguingly, it turns out that the Alleghenies form Highland County’s western border.”

Anderson tried hard to sound impressed but failed miserably, “So you think McDowell was referring to one particular area of Virginia, specifically Highland County. How can you be sure he wasn’t just repeating something he’d heard; a piece of Virginian folklore to keep Gabriel happy?”

Charlotte chose to ignore Anderson’s sarcasm and his obvious lack of enthusiasm, “It gets better. The capital of Highland County is Monterey – a bit smaller than it’s more famous Californian namesake. There was a Civil War battle just a few miles to the east, known as the Battle of McDowell.”

Anderson just stared at her, mind numb. Eventually he found his voice, “McDowell: and it’s spelt the same way?”

“Yup; it’s named after a James McDowell, Governor of Virginia 1843 to 46.”

Anderson didn’t know quite what to say – after all it was just a name; the fact it was the same just coincidence. “Let’s just take a step back here, Charlie. What exactly are you suggesting?”

Charlotte bit her lip, trying to put in words what didn’t really make a lot of sense, “McDowell’s comments about Virginia are too personal for him not to have lived there, at least for a while. I know he could be anywhere; I just thought it was somewhere to start…”

The sentence trailed away as Charlotte saw the look on Anderson’s face. “Well let’s not argue over it,” she said huffily. “It’s obviously a stupid idea. On a totally unrelated matter, I thought it would be a good plan to extend your Washington trip into more of a joint holiday. Since you always leave everything up to me, I used my initiative and booked a ten-day break starting Monday; I’ve even sorted out the plane tickets.”

“Ten days,” Anderson repeated slowly, it taking time for him to digest what Charlotte was actually telling him. “That’s great, Charlie.” The second sentence at least sounded more enthusiastic than the first. And he really was pleased that Charlotte was tagging along – a couple of wasted days spent traipsing around the wilds of Virginia while searching out irradiated bears seemed a not unreasonable trade.

Charlotte gave him a hard look, sensing his concern, her eyes brooking no argument, arms metaphorically folded. “My treat, unless The Washington Post decides to pay; hire car already booked. I’m really looking forward to it; should be nice to see Virginia in the fall and experience a proper American Halloween.”

 

Washington, D.C. – 14:12 Local time; 18:12 UTC

Jensen believed that he was fairly competent when it came to technology, but he had been amazed by how much could be garnered from a few grainy photographs. The two images of the stone blocks shown behind McDowell had been enhanced and analysed, the blocks measured, their colour and texture assessed. The details had then been compared with buildings throughout Germany, the hundred most likely then receiving a visit from Germany’s Federal Police, the BKA. The Hotel Regent had been number sixty-three on the list, a second call from the BKA ensuring Homeland Security had access to the hotel’s records and security files. Having confirmed McDowell had spent two nights there, the next step had been to search out any possible associates.

Evgeny Sukhov had been the first to be identified, Jensen learning more about the Russian by the hour. For one of Golubeva’s aides to be working with McDowell had been a shock, Jensen unsure how it all fitted together and what relevance Wilhelmshaven played. The symposium had discussed all four submarines on both days, their final recommendations left until the second afternoon. So why then had Hanson and McDowell met on the first evening and not once the decisions had been finalised? It just made no sense.

The specialist group looking into Hanson’s involvement had come up with several unlikely possibilities as to what McDowell was after. Their present favourite was a decoy programmed to match the acoustic signature of one of China’s Attack Submarines, its purpose as yet unknown. Now, with Sukhov’s involvement, the group would most likely need to think again.

Then there was Michael Anderson. To call him an associate of McDowell’s perhaps wasn’t quite correct, but they certainly knew each other. However, it could hardly be a coincidence that Anderson had turned up at the Regent just two weeks after McDowell and asked for the same suite number, even if he’d actually ended up in the room next door. Anderson had recently led a somewhat charmed existence, with a knack of being in the wrong place at the right time. Jensen assumed Anderson was also looking for McDowell, and so far he appeared to be doing rather better than America’s Intelligence Community – not an encouraging sign.

Now that the British intercept seemed to be gaining credence, there was one other aspect that concerned Jensen. The transcript of the conversation between Hanson and McDowell had begun with the words ‘told to emphasise’. That indicated Hanson was under orders from someone, quite possibly someone else in the ONI. The trouble was that didn’t appear to be her head of department, Captain Nolan incompetent and lazy but probably not a traitor.

Overall, they were making progress, just not quickly enough. If the South China Sea was to be the new focus for McDowell and his associates, then what had actually happened in London, and was the murder of two Congressmen in Mississippi part of the same campaign or not?

Jensen knew all the right questions, just none of the answers. The other three men involved in the Mississippi attack had still not been positively identified, and there was nothing definite to suggest that McDowell was anywhere other than in Europe.

Despite his unwillingness to jump to conclusions, with every day that passed Jensen was becoming more convinced McDowell was the key player in recent events, the similarities to last year’s crisis in Russia becoming difficult to ignore. There might not be terrorists planting bombs but the American people’s trust in their leaders was slowly being eaten away all the same, some new political scandal hitting the headlines seemingly every other day. Taken separately each incident was fairly insignificant; taken together they were fast becoming an unfortunate trend, the cumulative effects just starting to provoke public comment.

President Golubeva’s own rise to prominence had been due in part to the terrorist murder of a Kremlin rival – just one more parallel to what was now happening in the U.S. The political response to Mississippi had quickly moved from shock to outrage. Congressman Dan Quinn had been highly regarded, his recent election as House Majority Leader making him the Republican Party’s most influential voice behind the Speaker of the House. His younger colleague was in his first term as a Congressman, carrying forward a long-standing family tradition; yet he was still a virtual unknown and a political motive for his murder seemed unlikely.

The widespread outage at the Mississippi shootings had begun to wane after the first twenty-four hours, social media happy to suggest a variety of potential motives, anything from a jealous lover to political divisions in the Republican Party. Pushed off the road and then shot twice in the head seemed an extreme reaction in either case. The news media had toyed with the possibility of a terrorist attack, and then quickly moved on to something else.

Jensen had grown more frustrated by the hour with the Intelligence Community’s slow progress; although the investigation into Hanson was led by the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI were effectively the lead agency, agents specifically looking into the political repercussions of the attack in Mississippi – who gained, and what precise implications would it have for the Republican Party and the political system as a whole.

Personally, Jensen was keeping an open mind as to whether McDowell had anything to do with Mississippi, but he was not prepared to ignore the possibility of some complex operation against the United States. If the world had learnt anything from last year’s terrorist campaign, it was that Russia had wasted months simply reacting to August 14, apparently unable to wrench the initiative back from the terrorists until the very end.

Or maybe Russia hadn’t even managed that, the link between the terrorists and Golubeva now revealed: August 14 – McDowell – Sukhov – Golubeva. If the Russian President’s grab for power had been deliberately driven by August 14 and its murder of hundreds of Russians, then Golubeva was no different to the worst of her Soviet predecessors. If she could do that to her own people, she would hardly care what new terror McDowell planned to unleash upon some other nation.

And might that nation actually be the United States?

It was a slightly improbable thought, but Jensen kept it handy at the back of his mind, just in case future events showed that the improbable was about to come true.

[]Chapter 8 – Friday, October 28th

South China Sea – 03:10 Local Time; Thursday 19:10 UTC

Buffeted by wind and rain, Allan Valdez stood on the cargo ship’s deck and gazed down at the waves, trying not to throw up as the vessel began its next laboured roll. For some reason it felt far less stomach-churning to be outside in the open air, the darkness broken by the shimmering glow of the moon and the lights from the ship’s bridge. It was bright enough for Valdez to see the waves directly below him, and they certainly looked far less intimidating than he’d expected, just an occasional speckle of white amongst the dark-blue of the ocean swell. He could also breathe easier standing here, the cabin a stinking prison of sweat and vomit, four of its six occupants suffering with differing degrees of sea-sickness.

No-one had expected it to be a problem: at 1600 tonnes, the Sierra Leone-registered MV Anaconda was of a similar size to the ferries they were all familiar with, and in four months of working with the Zodiac inflatable, they’d only ever had one bout of sickness between them. Yet it had taken less than twelve hours before Valdez began to feel queasy, another two until he threw up. Sea-sickness wasn’t the best preparation for the task ahead and their roundabout route meant it would be two more days until landfall. A plane flight to the island group’s only airfield would have been a far quicker and less gut-wrenching option, but not ideal when your hand luggage included assault rifles and explosives.

It was a lot to ask of six men, especially with one of them half Valdez’s age and the others still in their mid-twenties. Whatever their age or experience, six was barely enough – but it would have to do. With six Valdez could send a message that would be difficult to ignore; with six he might even persuade the doubters and cowards that it was better stand up to the Chinese invaders than lie down and hide.

Valdez smiled at the thought, knowing that he was making light of the potential difficulties – but there was nothing wrong in daydreaming. What else could he do stuck on a floating metallic box just sixty metres long and ten metres wide?

Strangely, he didn’t even know what official cargo the Anaconda carried. But then, he didn’t actually care. Valdez glanced again at the moon, his thoughts moving a thousand kilometres to the south, praying that those carrying out the next part of McDowell’s grand strategy would do their duty: timing was the key and by now they should be no more than a few kilometres from their target, a bullet in the back far more of a worry than something as trivial as sea-sickness.

  • * *

Sea-sickness was certainly not the two men’s prime concern, and the sea swell for them was far less than that affecting the Anaconda. Thirty-five kilometres, at night, past Chinese and Filipino patrols – father and son had already done the hard part, yet both of them were now starting to have second thoughts, neither voicing their fears, worried in case the other did actually feel the same.

Ram knew it was entirely his decision whether to continue or not, and while his son might argue and sulk, Roberto wouldn’t ever disobey. That almost made it harder, Ram wanting to do what was right for his son, wanting to give him a better start in life than he had ever had. Five thousand U.S. dollars they’d been promised – more than two years’ wages for just one day’s effort and Ram would have been stupid to have turned it down.

Their new satellite phone had been the down-payment, it making night-time navigation relatively simple, and their utilitarian pump-boat had proved ideal for the task, the recycled engine powerful enough without being too noisy. Ram cared little for politics; that was until it affected his living as a fisherman. Sixteen year-old Roberto was definitely the more politically informed of the two, just about understanding the complex feud that so upset his father.

China’s territorial claim over the thousands of islands and reefs of the South China Sea was based on an unclear history and ancient maps. Vast oil, gas and mineral resources were the ultimate reward, two Chinese drilling rigs already doing exploratory testing prior to something more permanent. China’s neighbours were equally determined to grab their own share of any future wealth. Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam – all of them disputed each other’s and China’s claims, with small islands and barely visible reefs argued over and then occupied.

Father and son lived on one of the largest of the Spratly Islands. Thitu most people called it, although to Ram it was always Pagasa – ‘Hope’. Ram had taken his family there in 2002, one of a hundred civilians whose living costs were still being subsidised by the Philippine government. The island was also home to a similar number of Philippine marines, Manila keen to make Thitu into an effective military base but not yet prepared to spend the millions of dollars actually required.

Five of the seven rival countries now had a permanent presence somewhere within the Spratly group, varying from a small island to a half-submerged rock, each government fearful of letting someone else set foot upon what they vehemently argued was rightfully theirs. China regarded the vast area as a core interest comparable to Tibet or Taiwan, and with a third of the world’s shipping traversing through its waters, the United States automatically became yet another important player.

It was no environment to bring up a family, Ram fearful every time he saw a Chinese aircraft or boat, their patrols becoming more frequent, their arrogance more insulting. Which made what he was about to do seem far more than just an act of betrayal, despite the promise that it was in the Philippines’ best interests. He and Roberto had argued about it too much already, his son convinced it was the right thing to do, Ram terrified should their secret ever be revealed.

Abruptly Roberto raised his arm and pointed ahead, Ram staring through the moonlit night to try and pick out the coral bank that was their destination. The sound of the breakers was a better guide, a thin ridge of sand now visible. Lankiam Cay was its official title, a rocky outcrop battered by wind and waves, of no use to anyone except as a territorial marker.

It took another hour before their task was done, the photographs uploaded via the satellite phone as instructed. The sky was starting to lighten as they left, the makeshift structure with its large Chinese flag rather more impressive than Ram had anticipated.

  • * *

Thirteen kilometres to the south-west lay Loaita Island, another Philippine outpost with a permanent if small complement of marines. Lankiam Cay came under their jurisdiction, regular checks made as to the coral bank’s status via Loaita’s observation tower and the occasional visit.

That was the theory – in practice, little notice was taken of Lankiam, the boredom and isolation of their temporary home encouraging the marines to seek more worthwhile pursuits: snorkelling, gambling, sleeping.

The only officer was busy fishing when the first radio call came in from the mainland just before noon. By the time a second message demanded action some forty minutes later, six armed marines were already on their way to reclaim the bank for the Philippines.

By then it was far too late, the images shared worldwide. A plane from the Philippine mainland with a TV crew aboard had long since been and gone, their pictures confirmation that it was no computer-generated lie, and even as the marines beached on the coral bank, a helicopter hovered offshore, this time with the markings of China’s Coastguard.

Whilst it was more an embarrassment than anything else, the Chinese media made the most of their neighbours’ humiliation, one TV news reporter commenting that if that was an illustration of the Philippines’ level of readiness, then maybe China should plant more than just a flag the next time.

For Louisa Marcelo and her supporters it was the perfect stimulus, the calls to her office regarding the peace armada trebling in just one hour.

 

Marshwick, England – 10:13 Local Time; 09:13 UTC

Anderson had known it was pointless arguing, consoling himself with the thought that combining business and pleasure was actually an excellent idea. It was also true what Charlotte had said: when it came to holidays, she tended to organise everything. If there were any subsequent financial discrepancies, they were invariably resolved amicably, and money was not something they ever argued about. With luck, he might well be able to squeeze something out of The Washington Post, their meeting confirmed for the Tuesday morning.

Charlotte obviously had other plans, and deepest Virginia would definitely be a trip into the unknown. New York was a favourite destination for Anderson, and as a commercial pilot he had travelled to a score of U.S cities, including Virginia Beach. The small community of McDowell didn’t quite seem to have the same allure, but Anderson was content to give it a go, happy to try and gain a few brownie points.

If anything worried him about the trip, it was the simplicity of Pat McDowell’s Virginia message. As with Markova’s package and Berlin, Anderson felt he was being manipulated. McDowell was almost placing a big pin on a map and saying ‘Here I am’, and it just couldn’t be that simple. Gabriel’s information had seemed genuine, but Anderson was starting to have serious doubts about everything that had happened in the last week.

If Charlotte had similar doubts then she was keeping them to herself, and packing for Washington was already well in hand. The British Airways flight was booked for the Monday morning, landing at Dulles. Anderson had no idea where they were staying and he sensed Charlotte was regretting her impetuosity, her stubborn streak meaning she couldn’t just back down. In that respect, they were both very similar.

The U.S. was undergoing a similar crisis of confidence, the Dow fluctuating wildly with the latest turmoil in the South China Sea adding to nervous trading. The other world markets were following suit, the Nikkei and Hang Seng suffering more than most. Other U.S. economic news was similarly depressing, an article in The Wall Street Journal emphasising the hidden flaws in the Administration’s economic policy; then there was the drop in home sales and a predicted rise in unemployment. November looked like it was going to be a tricky month, the Democrats suddenly apprehensive about the Midterm elections on the 8th.

Secretary of State Thorn was once more on the move: from Tokyo he had moved on to Taipei; now, instead of returning to Washington, he was heading on to Beijing, America quickly reacting to the Philippines’ discomfiture over the incident on Lankiam Cay. Japan’s disagreement with North Korea was still on hold, the five-day naval exercise with the United States due to go ahead as planned on November 1st.

Consequently there was nothing new in the media about Paige Hanson, her murder overtaken by events elsewhere. Overall, there was a lot for a journalist to get his teeth into but not when he was several thousand miles away from the action. Anderson’s interest in Markova’s report was waning and in a week he hadn’t actually achieved anything worthwhile: algorithms, acoustic signatures, submarine updates – it was all just too confusing.

Annoyed and frustrated, Anderson decided to make one final attempt to put the problem of Hanson and Wilhelmshaven finally to bed – he just needed someone rather more knowledgeable, preferably an expert who could translate submarine-speak into plain English.

  • * *

The study looked to be a well-ordered refuge, the rear wall one large book-case, the shelves overburdened with books and files. The Professor sat at his desk, looking relaxed, obviously well used to the intricacies of a video link. Anderson would have preferred to visit the man in person, and Cambridge wasn’t that far away, but Roche had been unwilling to waste yet more of his Friday.

A professor of physics, author of several dozen books and publications, Callum Roche was an internationally renowned expert in submarine acoustics. So far he had been very helpful, only once referring to algorithms, and with enough experience of journalists to be able to talk down to them without appearing to be patronising.

Anderson’s pretext of a future article on anti-submarine warfare was accepted without question, his first priority to ensure that he had a reasonable understanding of the factors affecting a sub’s acoustic signature, and how any upgrades would be likely to alter it.

It was only when Anderson gave Roche the hypothetical scenario of terrorists having access to a submarine database that the professor’s slightly superior air turned to one of puzzlement.

“You mean by hacking into the database? That’s not likely; security nowadays is extreme. And what would be the point?”

“I just wondered whether you might have some idea as to the point – assuming such a thing were ever to happen? Maybe, rather than hacking into the database, what if the terrorists had somehow acquired an inside source.”

Roche stared at Anderson, the computer screen flickering as though in sympathy. “I can’t think of any sensible reason why such a database would be of any interest.” He rubbed his chin reflectively, “I find it helps with these hypothetical questions to give the insider a name. How about Paige Hanson – it has a particularly nice ring to it.”

Anderson had to work hard to control his surprise: Roche was either very perceptive or someone had already asked his opinion. “Paige Hanson sounds good,” he said after a brief pause. “So you’re saying that if Hanson had a copy of the submarine database, it would be pretty useless.”

“I imagine so. If Hanson happened to work for the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence then she would certainly have had access to it. The database is there to identify submarines – what would terrorists do with that information? China or Russia might quite like to compare it with their own database, but I doubt it’s a high priority.”

“And if this Hanson attended a symposium looking at recent submarine upgrades and whether the relevant algorithms are still valid – why would that be of interest to her?”

Roche paused, looking thoughtful. “A good question, Mr Anderson. It would obviously give her a heads-up as to future changes to the database, but I don’t know why that would be of any use…” He gave a broad smile, “I checked your profile after you phoned up; you’re a bit of an expert yourself it seems – August 14, so I understand.”

“Not an expert, just someone who knows a little more than most.” Anderson decided to move on, keen to eliminate various other possibilities. “Could a decoy be programmed to fool a warship’s sonar? Make the ship think it’s tracking a submarine?”

“Such decoys exist; the more complex ones produce a similar acoustic signal to the parent submarine but a good sonar operator can still tell the difference. They’re mostly used to distract torpedoes away from their intended target rather than trying to fool the sophisticated array on a warship.”

“What about somehow altering an actual submarine’s acoustic signal so that it appears to be a friendly?” Anderson was quite taken by his idea of some mythical submarine marauding its way through the South China Sea while pretending to be what it was not.

Roche slowly shook his head, “Submarines are complex animals; minor differences can have significant effects on an acoustic signature, even within subs of the same class.” He hesitated momentarily, “What submarines might have been discussed at this purely hypothetical symposium?”

Anderson checked the list he’d made after his visit to Berlin, reading out the details.

“No pennant numbers,” Roche said, frowning. “That makes it a little more difficult. Forget the Shang-class: it’s a nuclear attack sub and the design is unique to China. The same for the Yuan-class: it’s supposedly based on a Russian Kilo but it’s not that close a match.

“The Ming is a Chinese export of the original Russian Romeo design; North Korea has about twenty boats left in service, Bangladesh and Egypt three more. Russia decommissioned their boats decades ago; China still has a handful left but not for much longer. I guess you could adapt a Chinese Ming to match one from North Korea, or indeed vice-versa; although I can’t imagine why China would want to. North Korea might see some advantage in doing so – assuming they really wanted to start a war.”

Roche mulled over the remaining option. “That just leaves the Kilo-class itself. India, Vietnam and Indonesia also operate Russian-built Kilos. Maybe a Kilo could be modified to approximate the signal from another sub of the same design. Such modifications would surely be well beyond any terrorist group; you’d need a Kilo to start with and some serious cash, not to mention a shipyard. That puts it more in the league of one of the aforementioned nations.”

Anderson hadn’t given up just yet, “What if Hanson was working for the Russians – that would give you a Kilo-class submarine.”

Roche looked more puzzled than surprised at Anderson’s suggestion, perhaps getting used to Anderson’s offbeat ideas. “That makes no sense. The Russians sold the Kilos to those countries – they would have a far better idea of their acoustic signature than any Western database. If Hanson was working for the Vietnamese, for example, that would be more logical – maybe alter one of their Kilo-class to make the U.S. Navy think it’s Russian. It still seems a little far-fetched to me.”

It was nothing more than Anderson had expected, his clever ideas shot to pieces, his naïve assumptions shown to be foolish. Maybe the database was irrelevant and Hanson was after something else… or maybe Anderson was simply out of his depth.

Time now to move on and leave the complexities of Wilhelmshaven to the experts. A couple of days and Anderson would be driving through the heart of Virginia, studiously avoiding any irate black bears whilst trying not to breathe too hard. For the time being, that was more than enough to worry about.

 

Eastern United States – 14:45 Local Time; 18:45 UTC

McDowell sat and studied the various computer displays, trying to make sure he was fully up-to-date with the progress of each specific thread. His interest was instantly drawn to one particular segment, it showing an internet video, the clip uploaded just an hour earlier but already generating a healthy number of hits; the corresponding audio had just been broadcast on talk radio, the hit count accelerating even as McDowell watched.

The video showed one of California’s two Senators verbally abusing a hotel maid, the two women face to face, the Senator literally spitting with rage. What had upset her wasn’t clear, but the language used was exceedingly colourful, the Senator’s right arm raised high, almost as if to slap the maid.

McDowell gave a thin smile: it had taken several thousand man hours to get just one thirty-second clip of a Senator misbehaving – not a particularly good return when compared with the relatively high outlay. Still, they hadn’t known quite what to expect when they’d started and the clip was enough to maintain the momentum from earlier stories. Since the beginning of October, there had been a steady trickle of minor political scandals, some genuine, some based on innuendo or rumour. Apart from the standard drug and call girl revelations, there were the more sellable ones such as an angry mistress, a sextortion scam, or an obscene email sent in error. Thanks to an influential associate within The Wall Street Journal, the stories often received a higher profile than might normally be the case, the profusion of incidents in turn creating its own headline.

Surveys regularly illustrated the public’s distrust of politicians and the political system, the two-party status quo too rigid to allow for much variation and differing opinions. The disillusioned were now being given a regular dose of evidence to reinforce their complaints, the Establishment invariably unwilling or too slow to mount an effective defence.

McDowell’s occasional residence for the past five months had once been a farmhouse, the improved facilities and systems a result of lessons learnt from August 14’s British base. The state-of-the-art computer facilities required far fewer operatives than in the UK but were no less sophisticated, the room dominated by the curved bank of computer consoles and the massive monitor above. The latter was able to show any number of separate displays, although there were presently just eighteen on show, covering the latest from relevant areas of interest: TV news and business reports, live satellite images, projected Midterm election turnout and results – even the weather in the Spratly Islands.

One difference to before was the decision to move the command-and-control centre to the target country: for Russia, they had been dealing with a spread of agents and data feeds across a dozen countries and some six thousand miles; this time, the main focus was generally never more than fifty miles from Washington, and with limited human resources it had seemed sensible to be much closer to the capital.

The small community was isolated enough to be secure, yet still with good access to major highways, Washington roughly an hour away by road. The farm buildings had been extended and modernised from their original function and were hidden from casual view by a line of trees, McDowell presently more concerned by the prying eyes of the curious and the unwary than the FBI. So far, the façade of an agricultural research centre had worked well, local concerns allayed once Lee Preston had joined the local Agricultural Committee. And with a meeting every three months it was hardly an onerous challenge to Preston’s newly-acquired agricultural skills.

Behind McDowell was the more low-tech area of coffee-machine, chairs and whiteboard; it also served as Jonathan’s Carter’s favourite place to explain his latest brainwave to a generally sceptical McDowell. Their business partnership had now lasted almost three years, their success based on a combination of Carter’s computer skills and McDowell’s ambition.

Carter’s hacking skills were legendary but the last few years had seen a dramatic improvement in cyber security. The hack of Sony Pictures in 2014 had caught the public’s imagination, proving to everyone the true power of cyber warfare, the White House shocked into treating it a National Security issue. Russia’s cyber-attack on Estonia in 2007 had better shown what was actually possible: the websites of parliament, government agencies, banks, newspapers and broadcasters disabled, the internet effectively shut down.

For two decades now China, Russia and the U.S. had attempted to hack into each other’s systems almost on a daily basis, cyber-warfare cheaper in terms of hardware and human lives than other forms. Army, Navy, Air Force – the cyber domain had become a fourth element in a country’s military forces, proving a potent sphere for potential conflict. August 14 had tried to repeat the Estonian model with Moscow as its target, but – other than with the soft targets of transport and energy infrastructure – their success had been sporadic, and the days of being able to hack into major computer networks without difficulty had passed. Even small companies had grown fearful of the possibility of a denial-of-service attack or their database being hijacked and cyber-security firms had consequently made a killing, offering a package of measures designed to protect even a modest network – anything from deliberately trying to outwit a company’s cyber defence and so identify problems, to an automated threat analysis providing a real-time warning of an attack. U.S. Government systems were safeguarded by various layers of protection, any unusual activity instantly grabbing the attention of the National Security Agency’s massive cyber-security centre at Bluffdale in Utah.

Nowadays, when systems crashed, it was more usually due to a software glitch, often because of some update, rather than a specific cyber-attack. Carter and his team of three were thus having to be ever more subtle, searching out the vulnerable networks to then find some way through to the more secure areas. Mostly they failed, and success relied upon a high-level of skill, backed up by a significant amount of persistence and luck.

So far, the research centre and its operatives had done all that had been asked of them; the team supplemented when necessary by other experts. The initial drop in the Dow had been brought about through rumour and complex manipulation of various stocks – the ability to access funds of up to $600 million had doubtless helped, with hearsay working its own nervous miracle. Yang’s expert broker had even managed to restrict the cabal’s own losses to just over $18 million. Such a sum was peanuts to Yang and his friends, Carter idly working out that it would take them just six days to recoup the sum from interest payments, and they’d probably be in profit once the stock market bounced back. Further dabbling in specific shares had kept the Dow Index in restless mode, fear of a serious crash spreading its own insidious message.

There was far more to come, the ground prepared weeks earlier, the usual techniques of bribery and intimidation ensuring inside help was always available when needed. Some attacks would fail simply because the systems had been updated or security improved; others because the information received was intrinsically wrong; in certain cases, Carter might even have met his match. That was all to be expected. Yet some cyber-attacks would still be successful, and a paltry one-quarter success-rate was McDowell’s working target, Carter willing to guarantee it would be more like a third.

McDowell’s various sources indicated that while the FBI and Homeland Security had picked up on certain concerns, no one had yet tied it all together as representing a single co-ordinated strategy with just one very specific aim in mind. That would change soon enough, but by then it should be far too late. Another week without any outside interference was all they needed, enough time to get everything into place and for the South China Sea to fully grab the news headlines.

[]Chapter 9 – Saturday, October 29th

South China Sea – 14:25 Local Time; 06:25 UTC

It was another beautiful afternoon, with a gentle breeze and not too hot; the forecast was for much of the same over the next few days, and typhoon activity generally decreased rapidly once September had passed.

Louisa Marcelo glanced back at the assorted armada streaming behind, silently urging them all forward. To call them an armada seemed slightly generous, the eighteen vessels more a flotilla than even a fleet. Ranging from ageing wooden fishing boats and modern dive vessels to a luxury yacht and a twenty-five metre power catamaran, it was a confusing collection of craft, their intent a peaceful if slightly disorganised protest.

Louisa was also hardly the classic choice for the leader of anything naval: before today the smallest boat she’d ever been on was a large ferry, she was obviously the wrong sex and she couldn’t swim – although even she had to admit her ample proportions might possibly assist in terms of buoyancy. Her flagship was the power catamaran, its owner a good friend and supporter, somewhat foolishly prepared to risk the luxurious vessel and her crew to Louisa’s tender mercies.

Louisa had even managed to acquire a naval-looking hat, although she felt the overall image was spoilt by a life-jacket adding yet more bulk to her upper body. The one advantage was that no-one could fail to miss her and despite the radio option, she far preferred to pass on her instructions to the rest of the flotilla via lots of arm waving and the occasional shout.

Not that the Chinese Coastguard seemed keen to let them proceed any further, two patrol boats closing in to block off the way ahead, water cannon ready. With their distinctive red, white and blue striped livery and ‘China Coast Guard’ emblazoned in English across the side, the vessels were an imposing threat. They’d also had plenty of time to plan their response, details of the flotilla headlining the TV news since early that morning.

Five kilometres to the north-west lay Mischief Reef, one of over 750 rocky outcrops and coral reefs which formed the Spratly Islands. Made up of a ring of jagged rock with a central lagoon roughly six kilometres wide, it was occupied by some two hundred Chinese marines, part of the creeping invasion which had seen underwater reefs turned into military bases, the massive Tian Jing Hao just one of several dredgers sucking up tonnes of rock and sand to create a legitimate island, enclosed soon after by a concrete sea wall. Mischief Reef was high-up on China’s transformation list, part of a ten-year billion-dollar commitment to create a series of military bases in Manila’s backyard.

The nearest land mass was the Philippine island province of Palawan, 240 kilometres – 130 nautical miles – to the east. Many of the reefs were thus well inside the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone guaranteed under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea; China was a thousand kilometres to the north-west, a two day journey away by boat. However, the Philippines’ claim over the islands was based on far more than just a single premise, the complex arguments going back and forth to the United Nations for some seventy years.

To date, the number of fatalities due to the ongoing feud had been relatively low, the region more used to hearing the sound of fishing boats clashing than the rattle of gunfire. Attempts to resolve the various disputes had invariably met with failure, an agreed Code of Conduct quickly ignored. In 2012, despite a deal brokered by the United States, the Chinese had simply annexed the Scarborough Shoal west of Manila. America’s weakness in allowing Russia to steal large chunks of Ukraine had merely acted as a spur to further Chinese ambition, its stranglehold on the South China Sea growing year on year.

Soon it would be too late, China’s control impossible to subvert. Louisa’s hope of provoking the Chinese into something foolish was a dangerous strategy, but like many in the Philippines she was desperate. If she had to risk getting soaked or sustaining the odd bruise, then so be it, and what better place than the aptly named Mischief Reef, even if it was named after a German sailor.

Louisa and her allies had encouraged, cajoled and pleaded, hoping to get half-a-dozen boats to join her, maybe even the bonus of a TV crew. Thanks mainly to China’s recent taunts, over thirty vessels had turned up, several of dubious seaworthiness, Louisa able to pick and choose, eventually opting for the robust and the agile. Aboard were close to a hundred and fifty civilians, including the world’s media and a heady mix of Filipino politicians and celebrities. As they had set off from Manila on the Friday, she had again been close to tears, proud of all those that had volunteered to help, proud of herself.

The fact that it hadn’t actually been the Chinese who had planted the flag on Lankiam Cay was something Louisa was very happy to ignore. She had always had concerns as to that part of the overall strategy, and had insisted that an alternative be put in place just in case. In retrospect, perhaps she should have had more faith in McDowell’s judgement, and Ram and his son had fully deserved their reward, the five thousand dollars in cash awaiting them when they next visited Manila.

Louisa’s musings were cut short as one of the Chinese boats sounded its fog horn, stirring her into activity. She started to wave both arms, the flotilla beginning to spread out, forming a haphazard line almost two hundred metres wide, the catamaran at its centre.

From the second Chinese boat, a loudspeaker blared, a man’s voice ordering them from the area. The demand was repeated, the two Coastguard boats sweeping around, no more than a hundred metres distant. Alongside them cruised three RHIBs (Rigid-Hulled Inflatable Boats), which to Louisa’s eyes looked a good bit larger than the more common Zodiacs.

The Philippine line edged forward, overwhelming superiority in numbers their sole advantage. Virtually every allied boat had someone with a camera, every action of the Chinese recorded. Although it could be argued that the flotilla was asking for trouble, the Chinese faced a publicity nightmare, better able to cope with a terrorist attack than a protest by unarmed civilians.

With a throaty whoosh, a stream of high-pressure sea water raced out towards the leading vessels. Instantly the Philippine line split apart, each boat increasing speed and turning aside in a pre-arranged pattern.

The Chinese RHIBs merely tried brute force, picking out the smaller allied boats and ramming them from the side, often too light to be effective. The patrol boats attempted to stop the larger vessels but they had also set themselves an impossible task, the numbers just too great; some were still forced aside, at least two people knocked overboard, their screams and cries piercing through the sounds of water cannon and engines. The catamaran was twenty-five metres of elegant power but not ideal for battling a water cannon, Louisa soaked, eyes stinging. It was fifteen minutes of complete chaos, the Chinese Coastguard eventually having to accept defeat and turning to head back at speed towards Mischief Reef. A ragged cheer immediately sounded out from the flotilla, horns and klaxons joining in the celebration, Louisa even managing to raise a smile.

It was time to take stock and work out what next, Louisa checking with each captain as to how they had fared. There were a couple of broken bones, many more minor injuries, and four boats were damaged enough to be sent home with a suitable nursemaid. The remainder were unanimous in their desire to continue.

Five vessels down – Louisa was angered by the brutal tactics of the Chinese but delighted with her flotilla’s resilience. Round two might yet be a little trickier.

The Philippine line reformed, moving once more towards the reef. This time the Chinese looked to be more determined, the twin machine guns on both patrol boats manned, the marines aboard the RHIBs also now openly showing their weapons. From away to the north, a helicopter raced towards them, flying low.

Louisa had no intention of stopping now. Everyone had been told to turn back whenever they wanted, no judgement made, but she and the crew of the catamaran were determined to push as hard as they could. The Philippine military had few aircraft, fewer warships and only one submarine – a fair fight just wasn’t possible. However, there was more than one way to stand up to the Chinese, the media more than willing to play their part.

The two Chinese patrol boats were now no more than a hundred metres away, Mischief Reef barely two kilometres further on. Above the wind came the unmistakable sound of the helicopter, Louisa following it as it flew over the Chinese boats to hover above the catamaran, a pair of soldiers armed with automatic weapons staring down at them from the open cabin door.

The patrol boat’s loudspeaker repeated its warning, the posturing of helicopter and patrol boats sending a more forceful message than previously.

Louisa spoke quickly to the catamaran’s captain, asking what he wanted to do. The man shrugged, letting Louisa make the final decision.

A nod of affirmation and the catamaran surged forward, leading the gaggle of ships closer towards the reef. The throbbing from the helicopter increased in intensity, then suddenly there was the rattle of gunfire, the water’s surface ahead of the catamaran shattered by a leaping dance of splashes.

Louisa closed her eyes, trusting that the cameras were still recording, trusting to God to see her through the next minutes. The catamaran stayed on course.

There was more gunfire from the helicopter, creeping ever closer. One of the patrol boats also opened fire, looking to be aiming high. Louisa glanced left and right, the line of craft now thinned out to less than half, five brave or foolish captains following her lead.

The gunfire seemed to intensify, Louisa almost sensing the air around her buzzing with danger. Away to her left, the wheelhouse of a fishing trawler seemed to explode, the boat giving a momentous upward lurch before plunging back down. Above the tumult, she could hear someone screaming and the tortured shriek of wood on metal.

Abruptly a line of splinters were chipped from the catamaran’s deck and with a deafening crack the bridge window shattered. Louisa cowered down; a shouted warning from the captain and the catamaran started to turn, more bullets smashing into the bulkhead behind her.

The explosion of noise suddenly ceased. Louisa waited a few seconds, and then slowly raised her head, terrified as to what would be revealed.

The sea was still a churning swirl of ships, the protest line now a confused mess as the vessels turned back as best they could. The fishing trawler looked to be crippled, another boat alongside and trying to help. At least two more vessels had sustained damage, Louisa fearful of looking too close, knowing that people had died that day.

If she had pushed too hard, then that was on her conscience – but it was the Chinese that had pulled the trigger. However long it took, whatever the personal cost, she would not let them forget.

 

Yaroslavl Oblast, Russia – 15:33 Local Time; 12:33 UTC

Markova might not quite have the breakthrough she needed, but she felt it was close, with some sixteen million voice calls and texts filtered down to just over four hundred.

For Sukhov’s two visits to London, the phone checks of the cell towers surrounding Bray had in turn highlighted thirty-four non-UK locations worthy of further investigation. They weren’t quite hotspots of activity, more like a series of clusters, Markova artificially setting a minimum of five calls per cluster – 374 calls in total. Outside of the clusters, there were just 43 other calls made to various locations within the Russian Federation.

All of these 417 calls were then analysed in detail, where possible each caller and recipient identified with a name, address and profession. While some might relate to a husband sexting his mistress or a director in search of a business deal, there looked to be several which had potential. In a few cases, the pairings could be instantly discarded, the mundane nature of the calls obvious from the data. However, the majority had to be assessed more rigorously, the backgrounds of those concerned examined in detail.

It all took time: a name and an address by itself meant very little, and Markova was keen to search out any falsified details or the phone that was registered to a ghost company. There were several ways to hide personal information but not the basic phone data, even if it was just a SIM-card reference and a financial transaction which led absolutely nowhere. Whatever tricks were tried, the GRU had long-since found a solution, Russia determined to keep a close eye on its many enemies.

In the end, the team’s painstaking trawl of data proved to be a frustrating and often fruitless exercise, with every one of the cluster calls eventually discounted. The calls specific to the Russian Federation proved to be more intriguing, all but two duly checked and discarded. The final pair were to the same number, the timings matching Sukhov’s presence in Bray; of equal importance was the fact that the caller’s phone account was in the name of a ghost company supposedly based in Warsaw, the recipient similarly using false details.

Now it became a simple exercise in data retrieval: the detailed phone records over the past six months for caller and recipient checked to see where they in turn would lead.

Eventually, they identified eight separate numbers where the users seemed keen to keep their identity to themselves. The various calls had been made at irregular times and days with no discernible pattern; to begin with it was less than one call a week per phone, now the frequency was more like one call per day.

For each phone, the various rough locations were plotted, one clearly matching Sukhov’s movements. A second jumped from one country to another: the Philippines, Vietnam, Britain, Germany, but mostly the U.S. – that surely had to be Pat McDowell. The others were slightly less mobile, with three based in Russia.

The Russian locations were all cities east of Moscow: Khabarovsk the Headquarters for the Eastern Military District, Vladivostok the home of Russia’s Pacific Fleet. Finally, there was Nizhny Novgorod, the city a major engineering base and a key centre for IT research.

Quite how it all fitted in with McDowell and Louisa Marcelo wasn’t obvious, the link with Vladivostok presumably related somehow to Hanson’s trip to Wilhelmshaven. If Markova was correct with her guess as to which phone was McDowell’s, then he now seemed to be based somewhere near Washington and thus a puzzling fourteen thousand kilometres from the key events in the South China Sea.

Markova was still annoyed with herself for assuming London had been the terrorists’ target; the South China Sea had long been a powder-keg waiting to explode, but she doubted whether the U.S. and China going to war would benefit anyone – even Russia was likely to lose out in economic terms.

The GRU’s dedicated signal intelligence unit with its 140 satellites was now brought into play. The present locations of the eight phones were unknown, but that would change once the batteries were inserted, it taking just twenty seconds to fix a phone’s position to within a metre.

Markova felt she had done enough to at least earn some more time. Whilst technology had done the job of extracting the data, the processing had needed human input, and Markova and her new team were exhausted.

For the moment, she was out of ideas – if Morozov expected more then he would just have to wait.

 

Brandon, U.S.A. – 10:20 Local Time; 14:20 UTC

The President was almost embarrassed by the warmth of his reception, Dan Quinn’s wife gladly opening up her home – and her heart – to someone who was basically a stranger and who had been, in one sense at least, an opponent of her husband’s.

For Cavanagh, it was an opportunity to express his personal sorrow for her loss: not because it was expected of him, but because it was something he needed to do. The two Congressmen had died in the service of the United States Government, and it was only right that their sacrifice be recognised.

Quinn had always been a man of high principles, a fierce but fair opponent who had served the Republican Party particularly well. Two children, both married, Quinn would have been a grandfather in a few months. Now the family unit had been forever scarred, the nature of his death difficult for them to come to terms with.

Cavanagh stayed for over an hour. Next on his day’s itinerary was Quinn’s colleague, the younger man also leaving behind a wife and children. Their home was in Lowndes County, a hundred and twenty miles north-east of Brandon, but just a small hop for Marine One. Both funerals were planned for next Tuesday, the President deciding that it would be best not to attend, his respects better served by today’s more personal visit.

It was a short walk from the Quinn’s front door to the waiting car, a small but respectful group of onlookers watching from behind a line of police. At the end of the street stood a much larger crowd together with the media, more police forming a protective barrier. The President’s arrival had not been made public but many had assumed he would turn up at some stage.

The residential street was tree-lined, just wide enough for two cars, the houses well-spaced from each other. The President sensed that a broad smile and a wave might not suit the occasion, but he stopped to speak to some of the onlookers, picking out a young couple with a toddler between them.

Pleasantries were duly exchanged. Cavanagh generally coped well with such public displays; he just needed to keep his wits about him in case of unexpected questions, the media having a habit of picking up on a confused look or an inane comment.

Job done, he turned back. From away to his left came a double-crack, sharp and loud as though very close.

Cavanagh was instantly barged to one side, a large dark-suited figure moving around in front of him. There was a third report, even louder, and he heard a woman scream. Cavanagh stood confused, not quite grasping what was happening; then someone grabbed him across the shoulders and propelled him, knees half-bent, towards the armour-plated safety of his limousine. To either side, chaos ensued, shouts and screams, people fleeing, others crouching down, police and agents with guns drawn trying to pinpoint the danger.

Cavanagh was almost thrown into the car; even as the door was slammed shut, the Presidential limousine accelerated away, the motorcade a disjointed image of its usual well-choreographed formation.

The rush back to Marine One gradually became more organised, but it was only once Cavanagh was seated in the comfort and safety of the helicopter that he finally received a detailed update as to what exactly had taken place. Cavanagh listened in silence, the anger and frustration showing on his face, the memory of those moments still clear in his mind.

The President hadn’t set out to turn the trip to Mississippi into a public relations exercise, but nor had he expected it to become a disaster. Every embarrassing second was now on the internet, the most powerful man in the world cowering down in fear of Halloween firecrackers.

The fact the Secret Service and a score of bystanders had also reacted as though it were gunshots apparently meant very little. In fact Cavanagh was simply the latest of a select group of presidents whose security detail had assumed a firecracker was the real thing – including Gerald Ford in ’76 and Iran’s Ahmadinejad in 2010.

By the time he returned to Washington, the investigation into the day’s events had turned into something more complex. The key YouTube clip had the President centre-frame, the steadiness of the camera phone unexpected when all around people were panicking; it was almost as though the firecrackers were expected. The cameraman had long since disappeared, the YouTube account bogus, but at least the person responsible for Cavanagh’s humiliation was now in police custody. The fact it was a sixty year-old man, and not a couple of youngsters, made it more suspicious, the number of incidents involving government figures beginning to form an ominous pattern.

Paul Jensen had noted as much in his latest White House briefing, and it was becoming increasingly likely that McDowell – or someone working on his behalf – was responsible for the murder of the two Congressmen. Quite how that related to McDowell’s enterprise in the South China Sea remained unknown, but between them Louisa Marcelo and China had managed to stir up a hornets’ nest of resentment and over-reaction. Additional protests were now planned for Hanoi and Manila on the Monday, the dramatic images from Mischief Reef shocking the world – two killed; almost twenty injured.

To make matters worse, Taiwan had sent a small naval force south to the Spratly Islands. Taiwan’s occupation in 1956 of Taiping Island, the largest in the Spratly group, was often considered by its close neighbours merely as an extension of mainland China’s control. South Korea had wisely chosen to re-assert its neutrality, strong economic links with China and an uncomfortable relationship with Japan, ensuring Seoul trod a very careful line.

Overall, Cavanagh felt it was turning into a nightmare scenario, with allies at each other’s throats while courting conflict with China. The Vice-President had been co-opted to help shore up the Secretary of State’s diplomacy, and would soon be heading off to Hanoi; however, each day seemed to reveal some new provocation.

For now, Cavanagh neither supported nor condemned, persevering with the impossible and trying to mediate. It was a policy which satisfied no-one, neither at home nor abroad. Then there was North Korea and Japan, Cavanagh fearful lest he reignite the war of words between them. The situation further south had resulted in a slight modification to the naval exercise which had so provoked North Korea’s ire: it would still go ahead, but with fewer U.S ships, a detachment of four vessels led by the USS Milius diverted to show the flag in the South China Sea. Cavanagh’s many critics had immediately condemned the redeployment as another example of the President’s willingness to cave in under pressure, ignoring the fact that Cavanagh was actually strengthening America’s presence elsewhere.

Jensen had even suggested that the present chaos in the South China Sea might have always been McDowell’s intention, a strategy to force the United States and China towards war. McDowell himself was proving to be an able tactician and he would be foolish to quit now, China’s unwillingness to compromise likely to reveal the inadequacy of America’s response.

Cavanagh could well understand why others considered his reaction to China as ‘lacklustre’, but he wanted to give diplomacy every chance to succeed, unwilling to risk American lives with some foolish or ill-conceived act. Yet the pressure on the Administration was mounting, with many of Cavanagh’s once-loyal supporters starting to lose patience, frustrated by his apparent inability to influence events.

Today’s debacle in Brandon could only make matters worse – the President needed some good news, and quickly.

[]Chapter 10 – Sunday, October 30th

Woody Island – 00:40 Local Time; Saturday 16:40 UTC

The scattering of lights from the airport buildings guided them forward, four of them paddling with a well-practiced rhythm towards their landing point on the eastern edge. Despite the name, it was barely an island and its resource of wood – palm and coconut – was decreasing rapidly. The name came from the Vietnamese, the Chinese picking an even more optimistic title – Island of Eternal Prosperity.

The largest of the Paracel group, Woody Island was barely bigger than two square kilometres, the landscape ravaged to make way for an ever expanding list of man-made structures, the most obvious a three kilometre long runway reaching out to the north-east. In sixty-five years the population had gone from zero to two thousand, almost all of them military personnel, the island a lonely outpost some 300 kilometres from the Chinese mainland.

A naval victory over South Vietnam in ’74 had allowed China to gobble up the remaining Paracel Islands, the dispute moving inexorably south to the Spratly group. As frustrations grew, countries had slowly started to take sides, Malaysia and China forming a working relationship, the Philippines and Vietnam recently agreeing a joint strategy. Other nations were now ready to interfere, seeking to gain some advantage – Cambodia, India, Japan… A dozen countries, each vying to outfox the other, their naval patrols driving away the unwanted, with even small fishing boats regarded as a threat – it was an unstable mix of suspicion and desire, everyone awaiting China’s next move.

Valdez wasn’t prepared to wait. China had the power to bully its way into controlling everything it desired, and its insidious advance from one half-submerged rock to another could not go unchallenged. Attacking the Chinese where they felt secure was risky, but the message would also be far more dramatic. Marcelo had bravely shifted people’s attention back to the South China Sea; now it was up to Valdez to ensure they were rewarded with a suitable spectacle, even if it was via a fifteen-minute video on the internet.

Of the other five men seated in the Zodiac inflatable, three – like Valdez – were from the Philippines; the other two were Vietnamese, all of them equally committed to the difficulties ahead. Six months of training and they finally had a chance to prove their worth, Valdez determined not to back down or fail.

The captain of the Anaconda had taken them as close as he had dared, the main shipping lane from Hong Kong to Malaysia passing some 60 kilometres to the north-west of the island. Then it was two mind-numbing hours in the Zodiac, its twin engines driving them forward at a steady twenty knots, before muscle power took over for the final stretch, Valdez trusting in the darkness to protect them from prying eyes, if not land-based radar. Naval patrols should have been a concern, except both boats were reportedly laid up with minor mechanical problems – quite how McDowell knew that, he hadn’t said.

An eight-hundred metre concrete causeway linked Woody Island to its even smaller neighbour, the latter saddled with the equally uninspiring title of Rocky Island. Here lay Valdez’s biggest threat, specifically a long-range surface-search radar and signals intelligence system. The Rocky Island complex was linked via satellite to the main communications network on the Chinese mainland, a fact which – according to McDowell – was also its main weakness.

Blind faith was not something Valdez approved of but on this one occasion he had little choice, and McDowell had assured him that the Zodiac would remain hidden from Chinese radar – not undetected, merely ‘hidden’. The timing and direction of the Zodiac’s approach just needed to be within certain limits, and McDowell had confirmed everything prior to them leaving the Anaconda. Valdez had long since given up trying to find out how McDowell could achieve the impossible, assuming it was due to a healthy combination of money and influence. McDowell certainly appeared to have plenty of both, Valdez and his men never wanting for anything.

There was barely any moon, the sea state relatively smooth – ideal conditions for this first phase. The group had timed their landing to be just after midnight, with their departure planned for 04:00 at the latest, well before dawn. A tropical storm was predicted to arrive at about the same time, making their escape more difficult and significantly restricting the Zodiac’s top speed of well over forty knots.

The nearest friendly base was in Vietnam, 440 kilometres due west. With the extra fuel the Zodiac carried, the Vietnamese coastline was theoretically in range, although re-joining the Anaconda was their first option. The cargo ship would have already turned west, cruising sedately towards the Vietnamese port of Da Nang. If all went to plan, they should arrive back on board sometime around midday.

So far, it was going as well as anyone could have hoped. The eastern coastline of Woody Island was mostly clear of buildings, with the airstrip the first artificial structure past the outer fringe of palm trees. Their most distant target was no more than a flat 700 metres away, the four hour window offering a relatively relaxed schedule.

The Zodiac grounded on soft sand and the six men stumbled out into the surf, dragging the inflatable onto the shore. Valdez spoke quickly, confident that their well-practiced drill would overcome the obvious nerves. It took just a few minutes to unload the equipment, several more to check that all was well. Whilst two men remained with the Zodiac, the other four moved towards the treeline, splitting into two separate groups, one Vietnamese one Filipino.

Dressed all in black, each with heavy back-pack and assault rifle, they could have been from any country’s Special Forces. The two Vietnamese had served in their military as conscripts, and Valdez was the only full-time professional soldier, having spent ten of his eighteen years in the Philippine Army as an officer in the elite First Scout Ranger Regiment. He was more used to fighting guerrillas and terrorists than being one, but for once maybe that gave him something of an advantage.

The young man beside him was in fact a relative, some third or fourth cousin, neither of them could work out which. Joseph he liked to be called, not Joe, at twenty-one a young man full of ideals and prepared to play his part. He might not have the experience of Valdez but he had worked hard to make his cousin feel proud, putting in the extra hours without complaint or obvious resentment.

Valdez’s main target was the helicopter hanger, while the Vietnamese pairing had been entrusted with the desalination plant – an essential resource for an island with no supply of fresh water. Army patrols were part of Woody Island’s normal routine, a state of permanent alert felt appropriate so far from home. Yet the island had never been attacked, its guns and missile batteries never used in anger. The Chinese had recognised that it was important to combat complacency and the army units based on the island were rotated regularly, but after a few weeks it became a boring and pointless drill. McDowell had even provided Valdez with satellite images showing where the army patrols lingered for a smoke and a piss.

Valdez’s tactics were hardly complex: there was plenty of cover; night-vision goggles gave an early warning on any potential problems, the explosives primed by simply tapping in a code. The airport site was protected by a security fence to the west together with regular armed patrols, typically a four-man team. The only building showing any light was the control tower at the south-western corner; further north stood the three aircraft hangers, dark and imposing.

Valdez needed to wait less than ten minutes before he located a patrol, watching the soldiers closely as they strolled past some seventy metres distant. He left it another minute, before moving quickly to the rear of the helicopter hanger. No security lights, no cameras – after all, the whole island was essentially one big military base.

The padlock on the double door was snapped with ease, Valdez slipping inside while Joseph kept watch.

The building’s interior was eerily silent, no sign of human activity. Five minutes later, Valdez was back with Joseph, the pair moving warily towards the next target. Joseph’s secondary role was that of cameraman, every event recorded to be later uploaded onto the internet. A team of six couldn’t really hope to put much of Woody Island out of commission; this was far more about proving that China wasn’t the invulnerable superpower its neighbours feared, unable even to defend a major outpost from six amateurs.

If just one neighbouring government took note and acted appropriately, others would surely follow. China would doubtless respond with unsophisticated aggression, perhaps picking on some innocent target to vent its anger; any over-reaction by the Chinese could only help push allies closer together and possibly even force President’s Cavanagh’s hand.

Valdez paused beside the security fence, beckoning Joseph down beside him. A hundred metres ahead was a second four-man patrol, the soldiers talking loudly together while walking along the narrow road. Apart from their assault rifles, Valdez and Joseph also carried silenced Heckler & Koch pistols; four targets were two more than Valdez was comfortable with, and he squeezed himself down into the dirt, unwilling to risk the mission by some rash and unnecessary act.

It was a tense ten minutes before they could relax, the soldiers passing by just twenty metres away without even a glance in their direction. Valdez gave Joseph a congratulatory pat on the back, then cautiously led the way south-west towards the control tower. 01:46 – well on schedule, and no sign that the second team had met with any problems. Valdez’s sole concern was that the weather was starting to deteriorate, far earlier than predicted, rain lashing down, the wind strengthening.

The control tower had two guards, neither man aware of Valdez as he shot them both. They had now stepped over an invisible line of conduct – no longer merely a protest, now a brutal act of terrorism. Even though night flights were rare, there was still three staff on duty in the control tower itself. Again Valdez killed them all, Joseph waiting at the bottom of the stairs for his return.

Valdez moved more quickly now, unsure as to how long it would take before the lack of response from the Control Tower was noticed. The explosives were standard C-4, the triple-function detonator a more subtle addition. Ideally, Valdez would set the charges off in a planned sequence via a single phone-message; however, anyone approaching closer than two metres to a charge would instantly set them all off. And if no phone signal arrived, the explosives would automatically detonate at 05:10.

Job done, they crossed the runway further north, keeping well clear of any patrols and moving rapidly back towards the Zodiac. They were the first to arrive, the Zodiac’s two guardians managing to look relaxed and unconcerned. 03:16 – no reason to worry just yet.

The minutes ticked by, Valdez resisting to urge to break radio silence. The wind was now ripping through the trees, the rain battering away at their bodies and pooling in the sand around their feet. The storm was likely to blow itself out in another hour, but it was a double-edged sword, hiding them from the Chinese but making their escape more precarious.

Eventually, two familiar rain-soaked figures appeared through the darkness. 03:38 – Valdez gave a relieved smile of welcome, strangely concerned that everything was going far too smoothly.

They pushed and paddled the bucking Zodiac out into the surf, the twin outboards starting first time and thrusting them forward. The Zodiac was less than a year old, well able to cope with a range of sea conditions, the 753 model the military standard for the world’s Special Forces. Only the best was McDowell’s motto, and so far he had always delivered.

After fifteen minutes, they turned west, increasing speed. Valdez peered through the darkness towards the island, still able to pick out the glimmer of lights. He turned on his satellite phone, checked the signal, before selecting the first number from the contact list. An eight digit code, then he pressed ‘Send’.

The first explosion was barely a glow in the night sky, the second far more spectacular, a golden cascade that was joined soon after by two more. In total there were eight separate explosions, a satisfying one-hundred percent success rate.

The Chinese long-range radar should remain ineffective for another hour, Woody Island’s small helicopter fleet hopefully for far longer. Helicopters, Control Tower, Desalination Plant, Radio Mast – it was a start. Now it was Marcelo’s turn once more.

 

Marshwick, England – 09:28 Local Time; 09:28 UTC

News of the attack on Woody Island was slow to permeate through to the Western media, the large time difference probably not helping, but that all changed once the terrorists’ video had gone viral. Despite the extra hour in bed thanks to the end of British Summer Time, Anderson was still late up, and he ate breakfast while trawling through the news channels, keen to keep up-to-date, sensing that the terrorist attack was another integral part of McDowell’s strategy.

The identities of those involved were kept secret, the video showing selected exerts from the night-time trek and a grainy long-distance view of the resultant explosions. China had at first denied any such attack but within an hour, reality finally prevailed, a senior official revealing that six Chinese civilians had been murdered, the island’s desalination plant and two helicopters suffering minor damage. The number of terrorists was said to be between ten and twelve, not six as the video claimed. Although not given as a fact or even an accusation, the official hinted that the assailants were most likely Vietnamese or Philippine Special Forces.

In turn, Manila had denied all knowledge of the attack, blaming the Chinese for their illegal occupation of Woody Island and so provoking a response. Whist they sympathised for any loss of life, they argued that all those on the island were military and not non-combatants. There was no attempt to speculate where the attackers might be from.

Vietnam followed the Philippine line, Anderson mentally reducing the long-winded statement from Hanoi down to a single sentence: ‘the Chinese were lying and it was all their fault anyway’. Russia too was unexpectedly critical of China, perversely then offering to mediate.

Ecstatic crowds in Hanoi and Manila were already voicing their approval of the attack, whilst in Taiwan’s capital Taipei a group several hundred strong stood in silent support outside the Manila Economic and Cultural Office.

Despite several more of China’s neighbours verbally allying themselves against their larger adversary, others such as Malaysia waited to see how the spat would play out. The United States persevered with its more balanced stance, condemning the attack while trusting that China wouldn’t over-react.

To Anderson, it seemed a forlorn hope. Even without McDowell’s continued interference, the momentum was firmly with the hawks, the United States needing to show some leadership – only time would tell whether President Cavanagh really was the man to deal with the crisis.

[]Chapter 11 – Monday, October 31st

The Koschei – 11:13 Local Time; 02:13 UTC

Valeri Karenin walked slowly from one compartment to another, checking the boat from bow to stern. He made sure he spoke to every crewman, a task made easier by the fact that modern efficiencies had reduced the submarine’s Soviet-era complement from 58 down to just 44. Karenin was proud of each of them, the ageing boat a temperamental blend of old and new, and liable to produce some unexpected problem almost every day. Yet they were still managing to stay ahead of schedule, four thousand kilometres covered at an average speed of almost ten knots, each hour a nervous trip into the unknown as Karenin used every trick he knew to avoid detection.

The Koschei was the submarine’s new name, something more fitting than its previous irrelevant and uninspiring number. Karenin had chosen the name himself, well aware of the similarities between the mythical Koschei and the submarine. Koschei was invariably portrayed as old and ugly, a predator who terrorised young women with his magic. Known as Koschei the Deathless, he could not be killed by normal means, his soul hidden elsewhere from his body.

The Koschei was most definitely old and ugly. Built in the early 60’s, the diesel-electric attack submarine had served in the Soviet Union’s Northern Fleet before being decommissioned in 1992. Transferred to the Pacific Fleet, for thirty years it had continued as a training resource, steadily rusting away. Its brothers had been scrapped or sold, but someone in Moscow had decided Russia needed to keep a pair of the Project-633 submarines – if only as a curiosity. Now the Koschei was being given a second chance to complete the job it had originally been built for.

Karenin felt a certain empathy with the Koschei: he too had been cast aside then offered an opportunity for redemption. Eleven men had died under his command in the Baltic, Karenin a convenient scapegoat for his superiors’ indecision. Removed from command, threatened with a court-martial, then left to kick his heels for a year – it had been a shock when Sukhov had offered him a new command. The ageing 633 had not been quite what Karenin had expected but he had worked hard to repay Sukhov’s trust. It had taken six months to get the submarine fit for the task ahead, where possible modern systems replacing the old. Then it was a week of sonar assessments, various subtle adjustments required to ensure the Koschei’s acoustic signature was within certain crucial limits.

The brief six-day shake-down cruise in September had gone better than Karenin could have hoped, the hand-picked volunteer crew adapting well to the ancient Soviet systems. Fourteen million U.S. dollars was said to be the total outlay for the refit, little enough when compared to 360 million for the new Kilo-class. Not that Russia had apparently paid a cent, the cost borne by another, Russia merely supplying a defunct submarine, the facilities for its overhaul, and the necessary manpower.

The most difficult part of the restoration had been the overpowering need for secrecy, the refit at the Zvezda shipyard east of Vladivostok hidden from the West by a mix of trickery and misdirection. Problems had also arisen as a result of the Koschei requiring various unique components for the two diesel-electric engines: long since obsolete, the parts had eventually been acquired from a variety of sources, primarily Bangladesh and Egypt.

Such information had been for Karenin’s ears only, the Koschei being readied to play a crucial part in the confrontation ahead. The dangers were significant, the rewards – according to Sukhov – incalculable. The question as to whether fourteen million dollars was a bargain price or not would soon be answered, the Koschei ten days out of Vladivostok, the South China Sea a particularly dangerous environment for such an impossible clone.

 

Manila, The Philippines – 14:40 Local Time; 06:40 UTC

Louisa Marcelo stepped down off the stage, her security team creating a narrow corridor for her to pass through the crowd. Only a few thousand diehards remained, yet the atmosphere was still buzzing, the MC working hard to maintain the raucous round of chanting.

The last few hours had undoubtedly been the high point of her career, Louisa in her element, the massive crowd generous in their appreciation of her campaign. The Government had tried to discourage her, a phone call from the Philippine President early that morning almost pleading for Louisa to tone down her demands: apparently, America was asking for more time to allow diplomacy to work its magic, the White House concerned by the frailty of the stock market and increasing internal woes. Not that Louisa had listened, and her speech two hours earlier was unlikely to have done anything to calm U.S. nerves.

The world’s media was already giving her latest plan appropriate prominence, some claiming that at its height more than half a million had attended the mass rally in Rizal Park. Enthusiasm for her proposed replay of the Mischief Reef protest was widespread, a score of prominent speakers pledging their support, both personal and financial. It was a scene repeated in cities across the Philippines and Vietnam, upwards of sixty thousand gathering in Hanoi. An online appeal on behalf of Louisa’s campaign had been set up early that morning and in just six hours it had already managed to raise close to a million U.S. dollars.

Now Louisa’s flotilla of twenty vessels would be replaced by more like two hundred, up to sixty expected to head east from Vietnam, maybe a handful more from Brunei and Malaysia. Louisa had even set a ridiculous target of a thousand ships, leading to the inevitable unkind comparisons with Helen of Troy. Louisa had happily joined in, stating that it certainly wouldn’t be her face that helped launch a thousand ships, more likely her big mouth.

Louisa had no problem with being just one part of McDowell’s wider scheme. She had only once asked why he was willing to help and what he wanted in return – McDowell had simply shrugged, twisting her question around to ask her whether she was prepared to see China control every island and every sea route to the north and west of Manila.

McDowell and his associates offered planning, finance, resources, logistics, training and intelligence – basically everything she needed. He would have had her speeches written for her if she’d asked.

Louisa wanted so much to believe he could truly help, and while she had doubts it had seemed too good an opportunity to ignore, a final chance to halt China’s expansion. Her major concern was the prevarication of America, its commitment to the Filipino people always assumed. It was true that the U.S. had helped the Philippines against Islamist terror groups, but the Mutual Defence treaty signed in 1951 had never really been tested.

The protest outside Mischief Reef had always been unpredictable, and Louisa was still shocked by China’s over-reaction, expecting a soaking and a few sore heads. Whatever China’s response, retaliation against the Chinese occupiers had always been part of McDowell’s plan, the specific details kept secret.

Louisa had never heard of Allan Valdez until earlier that morning, and if she’d known beforehand that there was to be a terrorist attack, with people murdered, then she probably would have vetoed the idea. But now everything had changed. Valdez had shown what was possible and it was time to see the real value of America’s commitment. With like-minded activists in Vietnam and the south ignoring their prejudices and rallying to Louisa’s cause, a thousand ships was not so outrageous a target.

In reality, she would happily settle for a tenth that number. She wanted it to be a peaceful protest but knew that was practically impossible; China had shown how far it was prepared to go and both sides now had too much to lose to back down.

Well, she planned a surprise or two for the Chinese, unwilling to let them drive her away for a second time. No-one wanted a blood-bath but victory rarely came without a certain sacrifice.

 

Yaroslavl Oblast, Russia – 13:50 Local Time; 10:50 UTC

Markova would have quite liked the old-fashioned method of wall map and pins, it seeming more dramatic than small red markers on a computer screen.

Just five of the eight cell phones used, twenty-two markers duly placed, each of the five groups telling its own unique story, the individual separation of the markers varying from just fifty metres to some sixty kilometres. The various phone calls had all involved long strings of data, the encryption so far proving impossible to break.

For two of the phones, the identity of the user was again easy enough to confirm from its various – and now more exact – locations: Evgeny Sukhov in the Kremlin, Louisa Marcelo in and around Manila. The third phone moved from Maryland to Virginia: Markova still assumed that was most likely Pat McDowell, although she had no way of being certain.

The remaining two groupings were impossible to link to a specific person. One consisted of calls to and from Russia’s Pacific Fleet Headquarters at Vladivostok, opening up a range of possibilities, from a lowly Lieutenant to the Fleet Admiral. The second cluster moved here and there, loosely centred on the city of Khabarovsk, with no obvious clue as the person’s identity. The Sukhov-Khabarovsk phone link was the most popular, having been used five times in forty hours, the amount of data flowing back and forth far more significant than with any of the other groupings.

The call schedule still seemed random even though it obviously wasn’t, and presumably some part of the data string detailed the next time slot. A six character code was always sent first to check the other phone was able to receive, thereby ensuring the main set of data was not left sitting on a server somewhere.

Each success was greeted with a nod of appreciation from the GRU’s young lieutenant, and the rest of the team now seemed happy to accept Markova as one of their own. Belinsky in particular had been delighted with progress and the previous evening he had pointedly unlocked Markova’s ankle bracelet, compliments of General Morozov. The Lieutenant had even plundered a bottle of champagne from the dacha’s wine cellar to celebrate. While she might not have given Morozov exactly what he was after, they were definitely getting closer.

With Markova’s new status had come certain benefits, the use of a computer being the main one, albeit with data upload disabled. Now at least she had access to a detailed map, sunset times and weather forecasts, able to reshape her escape plan just in case.

Not that escape was now the priority it had once been, and the afternoon session was certainly a fairly relaxed affair. There was little the team could do other than be patient while waiting for the next call to be made, the GRU’s satellite network doing all of the hard work. Personally, Markova was keen to pursue a possible connection between the symposium at Wilhelmshaven and Russia’s Pacific Fleet, pushing for the GRU to focus more directly on all calls to and from the Fleet’s two submarine bases.

Then, without warning, everything changed. The satellite link with GRU Headquarters at Khodynka was abruptly blocked, the back-up options of landline and cell phone merely resulting in a line busy signal.

Belinsky hovered close to a console, ready to delete all data but unsure whether it was a specific attack against them or something more widespread. Minutes later, the dacha was formally put on lock-down, the GRU guards protecting the perimeter, Belinsky put in charge of the house’s defence. Including the permanent staff, that gave the Lieutenant ten defenders in total, their weapons mostly handguns. It was then sit and wait, everyone hoping not to hear the rattle of gunfire or the squawk of the alarm.

Markova was similarly concerned, and if the house was about to be attacked, then she wasn’t prepared to wait around and get caught by someone else. She had held fire on her escape plan, wanting to see where the phone intercepts would lead, but again it seemed as if she had dallied for far too long.

 

Khodynka, Russia – 15:47 Local Time; 12:47 UTC

Nikolai reversed into a space on Grizodubovoy Street, the car facing south and allowing him a good view of the GRU’s Moscow Headquarters. He had driven past a minute earlier on his way for a joint delivery and collection, then some sixth-sense had warned him to keep driving – if not a sixth-sense then maybe it had been the two black vans parked further along the road, matching those stationed around the corner.

Nikolai had immediately reported his concerns to the Lubyanka, but despite being ordered to head straight back, he had remained where he was, idle curiosity proving as difficult to ignore as his various senses. If nothing else, it promised to provide a certain amount of perverse entertainment and give Nikolai something to talk about over a beer or two. He guessed that someone high-up in Military Intelligence was about to be arrested, the President no doubt reacting to the recent street protests; maybe the Khodynka HQ was even deserving of a similar purge to that inflicted upon the Lubyanka.

The Lubyanka itself had become a nervous amalgam of conflicting loyalties, some rather more open in their support of General Morozov. For the majority of staff, it was all an irrelevancy and they merely followed the orders of their section chief, not knowing – or perhaps even caring – which faction he or she supported. The split in the GRU was far easier to work with: Khodynka loyal to Morozov, the rest of the GRU loyal to Golubeva.

Although sunset was still an hour away, the Khodynka building was a blaze of light, the northern façade all glass and concrete. Built in 2006, the HQ included the essential extras of shooting range, fitness centre and swimming pool, the total cost close to ten billion roubles. The FSB was definitely the poor relative, the Lubyanka cramped and ageing, a few billion roubles needed just to stop certain parts of it falling down.

Nikolai’s earpiece abruptly crackled with static, an odd word heard, the rest distorted, and he was about to ask for the message to be repeated when the lights across the road flickered into darkness. Nikolai stared at the building in confusion: if the main power was cut, the HQ had its own back-up supply which should have kicked-in within seconds. Other buildings had lights showing, and the traffic-lights further along the road were still working.

Nikolai was back on his radio but all he got was more static. Something made him glance right – the rear doors of the two vans were now open, black-suited figures armed with assault rifles bursting out to race across the street and up over the outer fence. High above them, what looked to be muzzle flashes lit up the windows on the building’s upper floors. Within seconds, there was the steady drone of several helicopters and four swept in low from the north to hover above the HQ, a score or more spetsnaz abseiling down onto the flat roof.

The gunfire intensified, an explosion on the fifth floor blasting out through the double set of windows. The ground units were now moving on past the inner protective fence, rapidly working their way round to the side entrance. This wasn’t just an external attack and the first shots had come from inside the HQ, some faction or general choosing to throw in their lot with Golubeva before it was too late. General Morozov was losing allies by the minute, and his own position looked to be rather more tenuous than even an hour ago.

The strident wail of a siren split the air and Nikolai took it as his cue to depart, concerned that he was seriously in danger of outstaying his welcome. Not that he quite knew where to go, the Lubyanka certainly not exactly the safe haven it used to be.

 

Yaroslavl Oblast, Russia – 16:25 Local Time; 13:25 UTC

The data centre was now empty apart from Markova and Belinsky, the Russia 24 news channel revealing a more likely reason for the communications’ blackout. Armed troops were once more on Moscow’s streets, apparently heading towards the Kremlin and other government buildings. Live feeds from outside the State Duma and the Russian White House, showed a city rapidly emptying of traffic and bystanders, everyone fearful that the troops’ weapons weren’t just for show.

It had all the signs of a play for power, possibly a response to the recent protests. Whether it was led by Morozov or against him was unclear and Belinsky’s concern was obvious, the Lieutenant nervously going from one console to another, hoping the systems would miraculously come back online.

The General’s main power base was at Voronezh, 500 kilometres south of Moscow, home to the 20th Guards Army Group; but if it were his forces in Moscow, then they were more likely to be from the GRU’s spetsnaz brigades. In any event, there was nothing Belinsky could do until the situation was resolved, one way or another.

Minutes later, the television centre at Ostankino suddenly shut down, all transmissions ceasing. Belinsky instantly switched channels to CNN but their Moscow reporter knew very little, the station merely repeating a video clip of black-uniformed troops taking up positions around the Kremlin. Special Forces definitely but whether Army, Airborne, GRU or National Guard, was proving impossible to determine.

“What do you intend to do, Major?”

Markova dragged her attention away from the TV, momentarily surprised by Belinsky’s use of her rank.

“Do? About what?”

“This is not General Morozov’s handiwork; we may be a good distance from Moscow but Golubeva would be foolish to leave us alone.”

Markova shrugged, “Escape, or fight if I have to. It’s not exactly a free choice.”

Belinsky gave a rueful smile, “None of us have ever fired a weapon in anger; once the attackers get through the perimeter, nervous hands armed with pistols won’t be much of a match against spetsnaz with assault rifles.”

He placed a cell phone and Glock pistol onto the desk beside him and slid them towards Markova. “You might need these, Major. Unless the spetsnaz risk fording the river, they’ll come in from the north and east. If you can make it to the tree line, you might just stand a chance.”

“If you fight, they’ll kill you all,” Markova said quietly. “Is it really worth it?”

“They’ll probably kill us even if we surrender; we all know too much. Personally, I’d rather try and take some of them with me.”

“I could order you to surrender, or to try and escape.”

“Then, regretfully, Major, I would have to disobey your orders. As least here we have a small chance – outside we wouldn’t last more than a couple of minutes.”

Markova nodded her understanding, although she sensed Belinsky was underestimating his own abilities – or perhaps he was just being a good leader. She did agree that if the blackout was at Golubeva’s instigation then it made sense not to leave the data centre untouched, but there was no guarantee it would be today. Unless, of course, the President had learnt of the challenge General Morozov had set them.

As if on cue, the high-pitched alarm sounded out its warning. Belinsky reacted even faster than Markova, sliding his chair across to a console to begin the data deletion protocol, needing little more than a minute to eradicate everything without any possibility of retrieval.

Markova’s sole concern was her personal survival and no-one tried to stop her as she raced upstairs to her room. From outside came the sporadic rattle of gunfire, Markova still not certain whether the attackers were actually friend or foe.

The house was aligned parallel to the Volga, facing north-east away from the river. The view from her window was of a long drive sweeping down through a grassy bank; no sign of masked attackers, just sporadic muzzle flashes away to her left. The GRU guards certainly hadn’t been overwhelmed, so maybe two dozen attackers at most. If it was an FSB rescue mission, then they should have definitely tried something more subtle.

Markova’s escape plan had assumed she would be able to pick a suitable time and then gain at least an hour’s head start. Now she had maybe a couple of minutes before the spetsnaz smashed down the front door – an easy getaway somehow didn’t seem very likely and previously rejected escape options suddenly leapt to the fore.

Decision made, she ransacked her hoard, grabbing just a few basic items. After throwing on a thick coat, she thundered back down the stairs, almost crashing into Belinsky.

“You have five minutes, Major, no more. I wish you luck.” He strode away, gun held ready, looking more determined than apprehensive.

Markova had no time for indecision or regrets, the sound of gunfire now louder and more insistent. From the back window the manicured lawn and garden area looked peaceful enough, a light frost covering the grass. It was sixty or so metres to the line of trees, then maybe another hundred through a close-knit band of conifers to the river’s edge. The sky was already gaining a red tinge, sunset little more than a half-hour away. And with the overnight forecast a chilly -2°C, her coat was essential if she didn’t want to risk hypothermia – it just wasn’t ideal for a dangerous sprint.

An elderly man in the uniform of a corporal stood by the back door, Markova doing a double-take to realise the soldier’s usual role was that of gardener. He seemed unsurprised to see her, presumably having been pre-warned by Belinsky.

The corporal eased open the back door; a brief nod, then he unexpectedly stepped out into the open, facing right, gun held ready.

Markova took a deep breath then she charged towards the tree line, the corporal losing off two rounds as a distraction.

Markova had time to worry that the corporal was acting more as an early-warning beacon when she sensed a bullet zip past, a shiver of air lightly touching her face. Moments later there was the gentlest of tugs at the right arm of her coat; then she was in the trees, plunging forward, desperate to get ever deeper.

She glanced back, but there was no sign of the corporal and she immediately angled north, still heading towards the river. The bullet that had tugged at her coat had made a big tear, but there was no pain and no sign of blood on her sleeve.

Markova was well aware that she stood little chance of escape, and her body heat would be easy enough to track for well-equipped followers. But maybe they wouldn’t be that bothered about one lone escapee, their priority presumably the house and the computer data.

It was that vain hope that spurred Markova on. Reaching the river’s edge, she crouched down beside a tree. The sound of gunfire was now intermittent, the attackers work almost done.

It was getting darker, but that would make things far more difficult for her, Markova now risking a twisted ankle or a tumble down the bank. With Special Forces arrayed against her, she had but one chance – the River Volga. She had once dismissed it as an impossible challenge; hopefully, the attackers would do the same.

Yet the thought of attempting it terrified her, and she tried to reason out a better, safer, alternative. Maybe the attackers hadn’t been sent by Golubeva, and she should just sit tight until they rescued her. Even if they were the enemy, why not just hide or head north-west…

From far off, Markova heard a shouted command. Dusk was creeping closer, and if she left it too late, the Volga was definitely a suicide mission. Not that anything was certain: the current didn’t look too bad, but the water temperature could only be a few degrees above freezing, and could she really swim that far?

She forced her unwilling body down the bank, thinking back to one specific training exercise and what they had all been told: immerse your face slowly to minimise the shock, clothes will trap air and aid buoyancy, thirty minutes maximum before exhaustion leads to unconsciousness….

Clothes might trap air but she needed them to stay dry. Already shivering, she stripped off: uniform, underwear and shoes placed into a thick plastic sack, along with chocolate, lighter, phone and ID. The resultant bundle was in turn placed into a second sack, air added for buoyancy. With hands turning blue, she tied a length of garden twine around her waist, leaving a good metre before attaching the other end to the plastic sack.

The coat was too big and she tried to bundle it in such a way that it too would trap air. She was already frozen to the bone and everything was taking far longer than she’d hoped; the gun suddenly became another unexpected problem – too heavy to take but essential for her future survival.

She let it slide into the river, more concerned by the next few minutes than what might happen in an hour or more. Carefully she edged down into the water, keeping her breathing controlled, not thinking about how far she would need to swim. The ground was still solid beneath her feet, but the cold was like a vice, climbing ever higher, Markova letting out a gasp as the water reached between her legs. Angrily she leant forward, letting her face feel the Volga’s icy embrace.

She was a capable swimmer: six hundred yards – a metre a second didn’t seem an unreasonable target. Ten minutes it should take, fifteen at most – well inside the thirty minute limit.

Markova gave herself a count of ten to acclimatise, feeling her ribcage contract, her pulse rate rise. Then she pushed off towards the far bank, it still visible despite the encroaching darkness.

It wasn’t as bad as she had feared, and she used a gentle breast stroke to minimise noise, arms and legs feeling constricted because of the cold. Having both plastic sack and coat proved a problem and she finally abandoned the useless coat to the depths.

Silently, Markova started counting each stroke, promising herself a short break after every hundred, slightly increasing her pace, breathing deeply. The current finally began to drag at her body, pulling her to the right; she didn’t fight it, not bothered where she would reach the other bank, just as long she actually did.

The loudest noise was her breathing, it becoming more like a set of rapid gasps. Her skin felt like it was burning, the vice now extending to grasp her neck and head, weighing her down, her arms already aching with the strain.

“Three hundred,” she muttered, not sure whether it was correct or not, worried that she had lost count somewhere. What did it matter? Keep going.

She started the count again, ignoring muscles that seemed unable to work properly. All she could see was water, and she forced her head up, catching sight of a dark shape that loomed far off – it had to be the western bank.

She changed rhythm, swapping to a sidestroke, plastic bag still bobbing up beside her. Now with a slight twist of her head, she could see the eastern bank, the current even stronger now, Markova moving far faster sideways than ahead.

Time was so difficult to judge – five minutes, ten maybe. Was she yet even halfway? She had to be halfway…

Sensing the panic starting to well up, Markova used her reserves and upped both power and pace, aiming across the current and setting another hundred strokes as a target.

A hundred came and went; now the target was just a paltry fifty. The current seemed to be less strong, giving her hope, but there was scarcely any light, Markova swimming though a cold black ink of despair, desperate to reach safety. And she was so cold; it was almost all she could think about, her arms and legs moving more slowly, barely responding to her need to keep going.

The target of fifty seemed unreachable, but at forty she told her body to do forty more: it wasn’t too much to ask – surely Markova could manage a meagre forty.

Now it was just keep going; no stupid target, kick out with the legs, pull with the arms; kick, kick, kick…

Her arms were barely moving, and then her left hand hit something hard. Markova tried standing, her knees making solid contact. A last desperate surge of adrenalin and she struggled the last few metres up out of the river and onto the bank, dragging the plastic sack behind her.

Her body wanted to rest, but if she just lay there she would die. She needed somehow to get dry and warm. Her clothes might still be dry but if she put them on, they’d be frozen solid by morning. Markova didn’t care what alternative covering she used: undergrowth, branches, leaves – anything to provide some insulation against the bitter cold.

A fire was still too much of risk and it would certainly undo all of her efforts, giving a clear signal to any watchers that she really had managed to achieve the impossible.

  • * *

From the opposite bank a black-uniformed officer scanned across the river and up towards the trees, slowly traversing from south to north. The thermal imaging binoculars were supposedly able to detect someone two kilometres away, just not when there was a swathe of trees in the way.

The man gave a long sigh of frustration, irritated that someone might have escaped. The attack on Morozov’s country retreat had taken a little longer than anticipated, the GRU guards putting up a stubborn defence, and the attackers had been lucky that only two of those from the house had succeeded in breaking through the encircling spetsnaz. One had quickly been hunted down and killed. The second was more of an enigma, it taking time to discover exactly who she was.

Major Markova, Grebeshkov’s favourite – that had been a surprise, recent reports suggesting she had hightailed it to Germany. The officer knew it would be unwise to underestimate Markova’s abilities, but could she really swim the Volga and survive?

The officer’s priority had been to neutralise the computer and communications facility, data and files to be deleted, all personnel to be held for interrogation or if necessary killed. ‘All’ personnel – it was galling to feel he couldn’t guarantee that was actually the case. They had found a coat washed up on the bank, a single bullet hole in the sleeve, but that might easily be a diversion.

North to nowhere or south to Tutaev? There was no evidence Markova had chosen either direction. The spetsnaz were needed elsewhere and they were already well behind schedule. The local police were of unclear loyalty, and it would be demeaning to expect them to correct the Special Forces’ mistakes – especially if there was no need.

The officer nodded slowly to himself: six hundred metres of ice-cold water, at night, possibly with a bullet in the arm – no-one could do that without months of training, and certainly no woman. To his mind, the cold waters of the River Volga had swallowed yet another victim.

 

Leesburg, U.S.A. – 18:40 Local Time; 22:40 UTC

Charlotte was delighted with Leesburg’s Jackson Inn, initially worried in case it would be something for Anderson to whinge about: not whinge exactly – he was more the silent-look type. Set in attractive grounds, the Inn was an ideal base for the Shenandoah Valley and the nearby historic sites, yet Washington was a mere thirty miles to the south-east; equally important, downtown Leesburg was no more than a few minutes’ walk away.

Anderson had been impressed enough to comment favourably on their room, each one named after a Southern General, Virginia’s links to the Civil War leaping out with every brief glimpse at the map. Overall, it was an encouraging start to their trip and even the flight from Heathrow had gone smoothly, with Anderson’s assortment of electronic paraphernalia exciting no more than polite interest from the U.S. customs. Tomorrow it was Washington for them both – Anderson to seek his fortune with The Washington Post; Charlotte to do the more usual touristy things, starting with the Smithsonian.

First, however, it was dinner and an early night. Whether Halloween was the best time to experience Leesburg’s restaurants and bars was debatable, especially as the Jackson Inn apparently had its own resident ghost, but Charlotte was well-prepared for dealing with youngsters demanding treats – after all she lived part-time with Anderson.

As they walked hand-in-hand towards the town centre, past the ghouls, skeletons and witches, Charlotte was left wondering whether it might not be better to stay in ignorance of the world’s many problems. After all, if the president of the most powerful country in the world seemed powerless to make a difference, what could she actually do to change anything?

[]Chapter 12 – Tuesday, November 1st

MV Anaconda – 06:30 Local Time; Monday 23:30 UTC

To the south-east of Da Nang, 120 kilometres from the Vietnamese coast, the weather was deteriorating rapidly. The three helicopters flew in line, heading south, buffeted by the wind, the rain threatening to cascade down at any moment. The dawn light was barely discernible and the radar signal from the cargo ship was the helicopters’ main guide as to their target.

The MV Anaconda seemed oblivious to her pursuers, not that she could have done much about it anyway, the vessel easy prey for the Chinese Special Forces. With the helicopters hovering overhead, a dozen men swarmed down onto the Anaconda’s deck. There was no resistance, merely a half-hearted protest from the ship’s captain. He had already sent a Mayday call, his one hope of rescue resting with the Vietnamese Coastguard.

The ship turned north, heading at full speed towards the protection of Chinese territory. Within an hour, the Anaconda had been searched, documents seized, computer logs accessed. Valdez and his men had disembarked at Da Nang, so there were no terrorists to find, no weapons; nothing that would physically link the Anaconda to the attack on Woody Island.

Frustrated with the lack of evidence, the Chinese randomly selected two members of the crew for special attention, trusting that fists and boots would help improve the crew’s memory. The Anaconda’s captain had tried to intervene, wanting to explain that the whole crew had been rotated at Da Nang, but a rifle butt to his side had quickly ended any further argument.

The captain sat on the bridge, wrists handcuffed, back resting uncomfortably against a bulkhead. His initial resentment had long since turned to anger, and he sensed the Chinese were foolish if they thought it was going to be that easy. The Vietnamese Coastguard had worked with Holland and the United States to create a modern and effective fleet, and any of the newer patrol boats would have a good 15 knots advantage over the fifty year-old Anaconda. An aircraft would be simpler but less effective, and depending on their precise course, the Paracel Islands were still some 250 kilometres away, Hainan Island at least 400. Three, four more hours at most, and the Chinese might just have a fight on their hands.

  • * *

In fact a Vietnamese patrol boat was far closer than the captain had dared to hope, reaching the Anaconda just two hours after the Mayday call. Gunboat HQ-274 was well-armed, versatile and just eight years old, but there was no obvious way of freeing the Anaconda without a firefight and obvious loss of life. The Vietnamese commander’s main concern was the hostages, and China’s boarding of the Anaconda was considered by Hanoi as nothing more than an act of piracy.

The Anaconda ploughed her way forward at a steady ten knots, the gunboat’s attempts to slow or divert the vessel failing miserably. Radio and loudspeaker threats were ignored, the gunboat’s weapons finally brought into play – warning shots only. The non-lethal alternatives of laser or sound cannon were considered, and then ignored, both devices inappropriate for an adversary entrenched inside a metal box.

Hanoi was left with a difficult choice: use deadly force or abandon the chase. A Chinese aircraft was already on the gunboat’s radar, the coastguard undoubtedly close behind. There were no Vietnamese nationals aboard the Anaconda, the vessel itself registered in Sierra Leone.

The gunboat gave it another hour, waiting until a Chinese warship was within twenty kilometres before turning tail and heading west. For the time being, China held the upper hand, but Hanoi’s patience was wearing thin, prepared now to consider all options, however extreme.

 

Yaroslavl Oblast, Russia – 07:37 Local Time; 04:37 UTC

At first light, Markova crept out of her refuge of broken branches and ferns. She hadn’t slept, it being after midnight before she was dry enough to put on her clothes. Two bars of chocolate had helped ease the hunger but not the cold; it just made every action so much more difficult and it had been hours before she had eventually stopped shivering. She had kept thinking about the phone, wondering whether to make a call but knowing there was no help close at hand. Why then take the risk unless there was some definite advantage? The urge to seek help had been almost over-powering but her stubborn streak had finally won through, Markova deciding to put more distance between herself and the Volga before contacting anyone.

There had been another frost overnight and Markova could do little to prevent the scuff marks as she headed north-west. The countryside was a mix of farmland and forest, the going fairly easy although she was constantly on her guard for the sound of pursuit. Police or military, she wasn’t sure, but she assumed there would be helicopter, maybe even a road-block or two.

Despite the physical activity, she was still bitterly cold, the wind chill more extreme than in previous days. If she didn’t get warm within the hour, hypothermia would most likely take control, and already her arms and legs felt numb, almost as though they belonged to someone else.

Her target was the highway that ran parallel to the Volga, roughly two kilometres from the river. It was thirty minutes before she caught sight of the road: two lanes carrying a smattering of early-morning traffic, just two or three vehicles every minute. Getting a car or lorry to stop was probably easy enough, but she was concerned about the cars that passed by without stopping – a lone female, in dilapidated military uniform and no coat or hat would undoubtedly attract attention. Was it really worth taking the risk?

Markova knew she would collapse if she didn’t do something soon. She kept moving, staying inside the tree line and so virtually hidden from the road, waiting for the right set of circumstances. The stretch of road was relatively straight, just a slight incline, allowing her to see well into the distance.

Five minutes later Markova stood alongside the highway, watching a black sedan as it headed north towards her, the south-bound lane looking to be empty of traffic.

Markova had never hitched a ride in her life and she had no intention of starting now. She could have picked one of several semi-trailers, but she really needed something a bit faster. A car was a risk, especially as it might well have one or more passengers, but she couldn’t afford to wait any longer.

She moved out onto the highway and waved her arms, hoping she looked as anxious as she felt, unsure whether her uniform would be a help or a hindrance.

The car – an Audi – slowed, the driver obviously working out his options; then he pulled over and braked to a halt, the car now halfway onto the grass verge.

Markova moved round to the driver’s side: the man was in his early-forties, dressed in suit and tie, probably a businessman. Markova would have preferred he was at least fifty, the older generation less likely to question her authority.

The driver’s window slid down, just a few centimetres. “Are you okay?” the man asked, looking more suspicious than concerned as to Markova’s health.

“My name is Major Markova,” she said, showing her official ID with her left hand and trying her best to sound authoritative. “There’s been a terrorist attack; I need the use of a phone.”

The man looked confused, unsure what to believe, probably worried he was going to be robbed or carjacked. “Terrorist attack?”

“I haven’t the time to explain; I need your phone.” Markova’s ID seemed to be gaining a life of its own, her hand shivering uncontrollably.

The driver looked again at the shaky FSB photo, before finally accepting Markova’s story. As another vehicle sped by traveling south, the man reached into his jacket to take out his phone.

The driver’s window slid all the way down. Markova leant forward, reaching through right-handed, her elbow remaining bent, as though to take the proffered phone. The man’s head was turned slightly up and Markova’s right hand shot out, using her whole body to hit him open-handed, her palm striking the driver just under the chin.

The man’s head snapped sharply back, pinching the nerves at the top of his spine and he instantly slid into unconsciousness.

Markova looked to left and right: just one car traveling north, too far away to understand what had happened. She leant on the car window, body blocking anyone else’s view. One-handed she grabbed the driver’s jacket and pulled the man upright, hoping it wouldn’t look too unusual as the other vehicle passed.

The car overtook without slowing down. Markova checked again and then pulled open the car door, dragging the man’s body out and into the deep undergrowth. He was still breathing but would be out cold for at least another twenty minutes – better for him to remain here than a potentially dangerous ride stuck in the Audi’s trunk.

Markova searched the driver’s jacket, taking the money from his wallet but throwing his phone into the undergrowth. The Audi itself was virtually brand new: nothing useful in the glove compartment, a pair of cases in the trunk. The satnav had already been set with a destination in Rybinsk: Markova scrolled the display to north and south, looking for any traffic hold-ups which might in turn indicate a police checkpoint, but there was nothing.

Unconvinced, Markova pulled the car round to head at speed towards the south. At least one driver had seen her, probably already reporting a suspicious-looking woman in military uniform talking to the driver of a black Audi.

Markova reached into her memory, trying to recall every minor road, a quick glance at the Audi’s satnav proving unhelpful. The road started to curve gently to the right, and with the road ahead clear of traffic, Markova swung the Audi across the opposite lane, then down a slight dip to follow a narrow farm track.

The pot-holed lane ran almost parallel to the highway but was hidden from it by a dense thicket of conifers. Then it was a series of left and right turns, the Audi jolting its way along a dozen dirt-roads, all the while heading roughly north-west.

After a half-hour and having pushed her luck as far as she dared, Markova abandoned the car. For the first time in almost twenty hours, she was actually warm, her hands having lost their previous bluish-tinge. She was hungry and tired, but at least the problem of hypothermia looked to have passed.

It took her just over an hour to reach the outskirts of Rybinsk, Markova finally deciding it was time to make use of Belinsky’s phone: there were a handful of people she would trust with her life, but just one who might have escaped the notice of her enemies.

As expected the call went to answerphone, her message brief and typically cryptic. Not that she was concerned, Markova already working out how best to reach St. Petersburg by early the next morning.

 

Hanoi, Vietnam – 14:50 Local Time; 07:50 UTC

Vice-President Irwin realised he was still getting nowhere but he stuck with it, determined to prove he was worthy of such a task. The second meeting with Vietnam’s President had started as had the first, Irwin impatient to discuss the key problem of the South China Sea, the Vietnamese preferring a more leisurely approach.

Now that they had finally moved on to more important matters, the President was being obdurate, arguing that there could be no justification for the seizure of the Anaconda and unwilling to debate the wider issues. The cargo vessel and her crew were reportedly being held on China’s Hainan Island, with no indication as to when either might be released.

Conversely, Hanoi was unwilling to criticise the terrorist attack on Woody Island, it seen as a direct consequence of China’s own actions against Louisa Marcelo and her peaceful protest near Mischief Reef. Irwin was also being pressed to support Vietnam’s and the Philippines’ case in the U.N., a motion condemning China due to go before the Security Council on the Wednesday. China would of course veto it, but the message it sent was considered important.

Even though Vietnam and the Philippines were allies of the U.S., Irwin hadn’t been expecting them to be working so effectively together, their governments obviously deciding that a share of the Spratly Islands was far better than no share at all. The U.S. Seventh Fleet was seen by Vietnam as key to pressurising China into compliance, Irwin urged to dramatically increase America’s military profile in the South China Sea, its present commitment of daily surveillance flights and four warships, considered to be totally inadequate.

While Irwin had some sympathy for Vietnam’s demands, he was very conscious of Cavanagh’s insistence that persuasive diplomacy be the preferred option. The President had stated more than once that he had no intention of letting the U.S. be drawn into a pointless battle of wills with American lives unnecessarily put at risk. Now Irwin was finding it hard to defend that policy, knowing that he should really be the one going on the attack and making demands of the Vietnamese.

Irwin took a sip at his water, readying himself to take the initiative and get the meeting back on track. Abruptly, from outside the conference room came the sound of raised voices, then the door burst open.

Greg Duarte, one of Irwin’s protection detail entered, followed by a confused looking Vietnamese aide. Ignoring everyone else, Duarte walked past a stunned President and straight to Irwin, leaning down to whisper in his ear.

“You need to leave now, Sir. No delay; make your excuses and follow me.”

The tone and its message was not at all what Irwin had expected. For a moment he froze, then as Duarte stepped back to stand behind him, he regained his composure.

“My sincere apologies, Mr President, ladies and gentlemen; I must take this call. I will be back shortly.”

He stood up; his three associates looked at each other, unsure quite what to do, eventually deciding to follow Irwin’s lead. The President graciously nodded in understanding, although his frown suggested otherwise. Duarte stayed close to Irwin as they walked out into the corridor, immediately grabbing Irwin by the arm and guiding him towards the stairs.

Irwin shook his arm free. “What the fuck’s going on?” he demanded, rather more loudly than the elegant surroundings dictated.

“I honestly have no idea, Sir; all I know is that you’re needed back in Washington ASAP.”

“Washington?” Irwin simply stared at Duarte. “I can’t just leave without giving some sort of explanation.”

“The State Department will smooth it over. I’m sorry, Sir; but I have my orders.”

Irwin glared angrily at Duarte but chose not to push the matter; he spoke briefly to one of his aides, wanting to at least offer a more formal apology to his hosts.

The Vice-President’s irritation gradually stilled as he was driven to the airport. He sat alone, trying to work out what event could have been dramatic enough to drag him away from Hanoi. If something had happened to Cavanagh, Duarte would have probably known, and another incident in the South China Sea would surely have made it more likely that Irwin needed to remain where he was. Of some concern was Duarte’s attitude – it seemed rather less polite and respectful than normal, almost verging on the insolent.

The Vice-President’s convoy proceeded at pace towards the military airfield and the waiting Air Force Two, pre-flight checks already in hand. Just fifteen minutes after Irwin boarded, the plane was airborne, hurrying back to a chilly Washington.

 

Eastern United States – 08:50 Local Time; 12:50 UTC

President Cavanagh stood in the Oval office and looked out at the Rose Garden, the early-morning frost still evident, the sun merely a golden glow sitting low in the sky. It was such a peaceful scene, the web-encrusted trees a reminder that Thanksgiving and Christmas weren’t that far away. Not that the economic news was encouraging, with the Dow not yet bottoming out and the latest Personal Income report showing a disappointing rise of just 0.1%.

Cavanagh turned back towards Jensen, knowing full well the difficult decisions wouldn’t wait any longer; it was just a question of which one to deal with first. Jensen would at least give him the facts without embellishment, the private meeting between the two men squeezed in before an emergency session of the full Cabinet.

“The Vice-President,” he said, sounding resigned, “is now on his way back from Hanoi. How long do we have?”

The New York Times,” replied Jensen, “will publish it as an exclusive tomorrow.”

Cavanagh finally sat down. “And it’s all been verified.”

“I’m afraid so, Sir. The agents knew of course but they’re not allowed to say anything, even to the President of the United States; it’s considered purely a personal matter.”

“Did you know about Irwin’s affair, Paul?” There was just a hint of anger in the President’s tone, annoyed that no-one had even hinted there was some sort of a problem.

Jensen managed to look embarrassed, “Yes, Sir; soon after it started.” He could have used the agents’ argument that the Vice-President’s sex life wasn’t strictly his concern, but then National Security definitely came within his remit – and perhaps he should have done something before it came to this.

“Pictures, recordings – what do they have exactly?”

“No sound recordings, just plenty of photos; most will need to be censored before publication. I can give specific details if you wish, Mr President.”

Cavanagh just shook his head. The Vice-President’s dalliance was indefensible and it couldn’t have happened at a worse time – and not just because of China.

It was barely forty-eight hours since WikiLeaks had first published two reports detailing disbursements for members of the U.S. Congress; initially, interest had been lukewarm, especially since the official ones were due out sometime in the next two weeks. WikiLeaks claim that the files proved widespread corruption within America’s elected representatives had similarly been met with scepticism, only the committed and the curious willing to plough their way through six thousand pages of data.

The House of Representatives published quarterly reports of all receipts and expenditures of its 435 members; the Secretary of the Senate did the same, twice-yearly for the 100 Senators. WikiLeaks claimed the files were based on the latest data but with certain expense claims highlighted, supposedly revealing inaccuracies and deliberate false accounting.

The first independent analysis of the WikiLeaks files had appeared online late the previous day. The news media had leapt upon it with glee, ignoring the various caveats to form their own biased opinion as to the ‘facts’.

In total, 108 Representatives and 28 Senators were implicated, the supposed frauds covering everything from inflating office rentals to inventing aides, the gross amount defrauded per year conservatively estimated at eight million dollars. The subsequent furore had led to a backlash of condemnation and contempt, the instant denials ignored, the damage already done. Early voting trends had indicated that the turnout for the Midterms was likely to be very low; now, thanks to WikiLeaks and with the Irwin’s sexual antics about to become public knowledge, it could well be a disaster.

“WikiLeaks first, and now Irwin,” Cavanagh said, sounding frustrated. “Is it just coincidence or something more?”

“It’s too early to say, Sir. There’s a lot happening here and with China, and it’s possible they’re all connected. I should be able to give you a better answer once we’ve fully checked Irwin’s hideaway.”

Cavanagh gave a brief nod of understanding. Despite North Korea’s threats and China’s belligerence, the naval exercise involving the Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group and Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Force had gone ahead as planned. Such joint operations were hardly unusual, normally taking place every year. Operation Dragon Shield was purely a one-off, the alternating Keen Sword/Keen Edge military exercises badly disrupted by a combination of appalling weather and bad decisions. In retrospect Dragon Shield was an unfortunate title and likely to be misinterpreted by the Chinese – Cavanagh was cynical enough to assume that had probably been the Joint Chiefs’ intention all along.

Then there was Russia. Moscow was already back to normal, the troops and Special Forces having returned to their barracks. President Golubeva had spoken live on TV to explain that their temporary deployment had been in response to a potential coup by elements within the army. The fact that Golubeva had risen to power through a similar takeover was obviously not relevant, the President’s authority confirmed by her election victory in July. The leaders of the putsch were not named, but many observers had noted that Golubeva made no mention of General Morozov, the latter still theoretically her joint Minister of Defence and Chief of the General Staff.

Jensen interrupted his thoughts, “Is there anything else you need with respect to the Vice-President, Sir.”

“I’m not sure, Paul; I’ll let you know.” Cavanagh could see no way out but for Irwin to resign. That would then bring into play the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, Cavanagh needing to nominate a candidate for approval by both Houses of Congress. With the Midterms taking place, that wouldn’t happen until at least the end of November. In the meantime, the Speaker of the House of Representatives would become next in line should anything happen to Cavanagh, the Republicans managing to gain a foothold in the White House simply by default.

The last Vice-President to resign had been Spiro Agnew in 1973 and there had been an eight-week gap before Gerald Ford eventually took office. That was still quick compared to Nelson Rockefeller, it taking Congress four months to confirm his nomination. To Cavanagh, it all seemed an unnecessarily drawn-out process, and he was keen not to give Congress an excuse to repeat their tardiness. Yet he had no-one particular in mind to replace Irwin: the House Minority Leader would have been an obvious choice, but he was not a man Cavanagh particularly liked; also – rightly or wrongly – he was now tarnished by the WikiLeaks revelations.

One problem at a time: first, he needed to deal with Carl Irwin – everything else could wait in line.

  • * *

So far, Tuesday had been excellent, Charlotte spending virtually the whole day at the Smithsonian while Anderson had come away from The Washington Post with a broad smile and a healthier bank balance. Whatever happened next, the trip was already proving to be one of Charlotte’s better ideas.

The planning for tomorrow was well in hand, Charlotte invariably creating a list. And Virginia had so much to see: the Pentagon and Department of Defence, the CIA, the National Cybersecurity Centre, plus the biggest naval base in the world. Birthplace of eight Presidents, over sixty percent of America’s internet traffic passed through Virginia’s modern data centres, the network concentrated in Loudoun County; Leesburg happened to be the county’s administrative centre and it was sheer chance that Charlotte had picked the town as their holiday base – or at least that’s what she had implied to Anderson.

Whether such facts had attracted Pat McDowell to Virginia was purely guesswork, but top spot on Charlotte’s list went to Highland County, specifically the community of McDowell. Anderson’s preference for the more usual attractions, such as Arlington National Cemetery and Williamsburg, were also on the agenda, just placed a little lower down.

Charlotte knew she was being stubborn, but since they’d got a holiday together out of it, what the hell. Her own theory as to what McDowell was up to had transformed into a full-blown coup, the target initially assumed to be Manila, before wavering as to its next destination. Washington D.C. didn’t seem such an impossible leap: every new political indiscretion and scandal was eating away at voter numbers, and the President’s approval rating had tumbled to just 31%, rapidly heading into Nixon territory.

External problems were also deepening: starting in Japan, the world’s stock markets had continued to plummet, the Dow for some unknown reason suffering the most, down by almost five percent since opening on Monday. The increasing tensions between China, the Philippines, and Vietnam were seen as the major cause, and the sudden departure of America’s Vice-President from Hanoi had only served to reinforce market fears.

Diplomatic moves had accelerated to compensate. Countries within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations were being pressurised into either allying themselves with the Philippines or publicly declaring their neutrality; so far none of the ten nations had sided with China. The Secretary of State had finally arrived back in Washington, having clearly failed to put together some new compromise that would have actually satisfied no-one. Other nations not directly involved were also starting to get twitchy, notably Australia and India. In total, close to twenty nations were busy looking over their shoulders, while wondering how China would react and who else might seek to gain some advantage.

So far Anderson had not indicated a desire to expand his interest in McDowell in the direction of Manila, but Charlotte knew it would happen sometime, quite possibly as soon as their U.S. trip was over. But then, like it or not, that was the nature of Anderson’s job, the horrible statistic that around 65 journalists were killed every year something she struggled hard to ignore.

[]Chapter 13 – Wednesday, November 2nd

Port Barton, The Philippines – 10:10 Local Time; 02:10 UTC

In terms of actual numbers Louisa certainly considered it a setback, with just under a hundred boats of various sizes gathering together in the bay. Mischief Reef was four hundred kilometres to the west and in reality many types of vessel were simply unsuitable, either because of the distance to be travelled or the available depth of water.

It was still an impressive sight: beautiful motor yachts fighting for space with a chunky trawler or a cargo vessel. The pride of the fleet had to be a forty metre super-yacht, its celebrity owner a famous Filipino actor. Apart from the media, not all of those taking part were native to the Philippines, with ten or more from America, a handful Australian.

Louisa showed none her disappointment, outwardly thankful for each and every gesture of support. The latest reports confirmed that another eighteen vessels had already left Vietnam and two more were coming from Brunei. In Malaysia, the government had bowed to external pressure and three vessels had been prevented from leaving port; that in itself had been helpful to Louisa, the adverse publicity hardening attitudes elsewhere.

In total, including those from outside the Philippines, Louisa could end up with well over a hundred craft under her command – maybe just about an armada but only if spelt with a small ‘a’.

On the positive side, the media were ensuring the protest stayed in the public eye, with a good quarter of the boats acting as TV units, reporters from across the world learning at first hand the beauty of Port Barton and the surrounding islands. Yet there were no paved roads here and electricity was effectively rationed, the influx of visitors potentially more of a problem than any real benefit. Facilities in the small village were also at a premium, with trucks bringing in additional supplies from Palawan’s capital, Puerto Princesa. All such necessary expenditure had been paid for through Louisa’s online appeal, the total contributed now well in excess of $3 million.

There had been one unfortunate incident, two men accused of being Chinese spies harangued then beaten up. Louisa had physically stepped in to stop the assault, dismayed at any adverse publicity. Personally, she suspected the two had indeed been sent by Beijing, China needing to know exactly what it was up against.

Louisa now stood on the beach, the white sand glinting in the early morning sun. The first boats were getting ready to set off, the timings staggered so that all vessels could travel at their optimum speed. Consequently, it was more a series of small convoys, each one voyaging out into the unknown, unsure quite how China intended to react.

In slightly more than twenty-four hours they would all meet up close to Mischief Reef – then the world would see the true strength of Filipino resolve.

 

Saint Petersburg, Russia – 12:38 Local Time; 09:38 UTC

Markova sat on a wooden bench beside the River Neva feeling more relaxed than at any time since Grebeshkov’s murder: she had clothes that fitted, money, a phone that was her own, and even a new ID as a freelance journalist. Nikolai had once again proved to be an excellent emissary, arranging everything without unnecessary questions or fuss.

Although the FSB in Saint Petersburg had yet to suffer under Golubeva’s purge, Markova had avoided direct contact, restricting herself to a handful of discreet phone calls to Nikolai and two close friends of General Grebeshkov. There were certain aspects of the past week that still worried her, Markova needing to seek advice and work out exactly where everyone’s loyalty lay.

Saint Petersburg itself seemed immune to the upheaval affecting Moscow, people apparently more concerned as to Russia’s long-term stability. Strange then that the city’s past was rather more political, Saint Petersburg the birthplace of both Vladimir Putin and Irina Golubeva, as well as the terrorist group Narodnaya Volya, the latter’s main claim to fame the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881.

Narodnaya Volya: the Will of the People. The people of Moscow had certainly been influential in bringing about last year’s coup d’état, although it had needed Morozov’s 20th Guards Army to ensure victory. Golubeva had now had over a year to form new allegiances, and Markova assumed that the President had only acted against General Morozov once she had brokered enough military clout. The TV news seemed to have little detail on what had actually transpired, Morozov not even mentioned.

Nikolai had a more substantive tale, his sources vastly more knowledgeable. In a well-choreographed operation spread across some ten separate locations, several of Morozov’s fellow officers had been arrested, hundreds of troops disarmed, with the General himself barely escaping after a vicious fire-fight west of Moscow. The GRU’s Headquarters at Khodynka had also been forcibly taken over, with some twenty dead and a good part of the top floor gutted by fire. The dacha outside Tutaev had similarly been set alight, no survivors reported.

Morozov was still at large, a focus for the disaffected and the fearful, gathering support where he could, presently rebuilding his forces from a base outside Volgograd, a thousand kilometres south of Moscow. Purely out of personal necessity, many in the Lubyanka continued to ally themselves with Morozov, and the FSB’s Headquarters had by default become a powerful fifth column. Markova had assumed that her own involvement with Morozov had ended once she had reached Saint Petersburg, but the General apparently had other ideas. Impressed by her earlier successes, he was keen for her to pursue the investigation into Khabarovsk and Vladivostok – and much to Nikolai’s disgust, she hadn’t actually said no.

Markova’s musings were interrupted by Nikolai struggling into the seat opposite, two mugs of tea and a large helping of baked Pirozhki dumped onto the table between them.

Markova warmed her hands on the nearest mug and then looked quizzically at Nikolai. “What did you do with the evidence against Sukhov?”

Nikolai froze in mid-bite, pastry crumbs tumbling to the table. “Sukhov?” he replied, momentarily confused. “I did what you said: papers put somewhere safe, your letter and the rest of the photos to Anderson – took me hours to find a copy of that fucking book.”

“And where exactly did you decide was safe?”

Nikolai shrugged, “It was a toss-up between my cousin and under the floorboards; for some reason he seemed the safer bet.”

“And he’s still got them?”

Nikolai realised that Markova was implying something; he just wasn’t sure quite what. “Last time I checked, yes; he’s pretty reliable despite being a cop.”

Markova nodded thoughtfully, as though there was still something bothering her. “Anderson miraculously turning up in Washington: I assume that was your doing?”

Nikolai took his time replying. “You trusted Anderson enough to tell him about Hanson and Wilhelmshaven; I simply wanted to give him a helping hand. Maybe it was a bad choice but I cashed in a favour from the GRU. For some reason that led him to Washington; I’ve no idea why.”

“And your GRU friends didn’t mention anything about McDowell?”

“No, did yours?” Nikolai was starting to get annoyed, unsure what Markova expected him to say. “The GRU were keeping tabs on Anderson but I guess that’s all finished now. All they told me was that he’d booked a flight to Dulles with his girlfriend, so maybe he’s there on holiday.”

Markova remained unconvinced, “There’s more to it than that. Someone wants Anderson in Washington to try and draw McDowell out.”

“Well it’s not down to me; maybe it was Morozov. We all thought McDowell’s target was London, so I helped Anderson where I could; that was all.”

There was an uncomfortable silence, Nikolai realising he should have explained about Anderson and Berlin earlier. Over the past weeks the line between friends and enemies had not just become blurred, it had overlapped, and the fact Markova would question his judgement was more an indication of the stress she had been under than a genuine rebuke. She seemed to blame herself for General Grebeshkov’s death and was desperate to make amends.

“Why bother with Khabarovsk?” he asked, deciding it was best to change the subject. “Sukhov’s contact could be anyone; you’ve got at least half-a-million suspects and where would you start? We’d be better off joining up with Morozov.” To Nikolai, Markova’s eagerness to leave Saint Petersburg appeared to be unnecessary and an almost foolish rush back into danger.

“Something is obviously happening along the border,” responded Markova with emphasis. “We need to understand what Golubeva is trying to hide and whether China is to be an ally or an enemy.”

“This contact in Khabarovsk, Major Yashkin; are you sure we can trust him?”

“He’s ex-Lubyanka,” Markova replied, “and once worked under Grebeshkov; that’s as much as I know.”

Nikolai frowned, still far from happy, “Give it a few more days at least.”

Markova shook her head, unwilling just to sit back and let events pass her by. “I don’t need a babysitter, Nikolai; go join your family. I’ll get in touch if I need anything.”

Nikolai’s eyes widened in mock shock, as though Markova had suggested the unthinkable, “I think I’ll tag along, just in case. Ten hours, stuck in one of Aeroflot’s finest with my knees thrust up under my chin – I’m looking forward to it already.”

 

Eastern United States – 09:42 Local Time; 13:42 UTC

Anderson was feeling pleased with himself, his early-morning breakfast negotiations having been successful in adjusting the day’s agenda: if the two of them were going to visit the site of the Battle of McDowell, they should at least learn up on its context first, especially since their route took them right past the Civil War Orientation Centre at Harrisonburg.

Anderson thought he knew the basics, but Sheridan’s scorched earth policy against the Shenandoah Valley, known as ‘The Burning’, was unexpected. The Battle of McDowell was two years earlier, Stonewall Jackson defeating the Union Forces by managing to stay where he was and so forcing the enemy to retreat. Not a big battle, less than 800 killed in total, but a strategic victory nevertheless.

From Harrisonburg it was south-west on Route 42, the road passing through pleasant rolling countryside with a sparse covering of trees, eventually reducing down to a single carriageway and two lanes. Apart from the fact they were traveling on the wrong side of the road, they could easily have been somewhere in England. Charlotte drove, Anderson happy to sit and generally be annoying, eventually turning on the radio to listen to the latest on the Vice-President.

The political chaos could certainly have been borrowed from the UK, the number of embarrassing gaffes and scandals no more than that for a typical month in Westminster. The Vice-President’s extra-marital affair remained the main news story and he had apparently resigned immediately after returning from Hanoi; whether he had been pushed or had gone voluntarily was unclear. His letter of resignation to the President had been brief and apologetic, and damage limitation was proving difficult, the broadsheets virtually unanimous in their condemnation of Irwin. Not that the President seemed to fair much better, various political analysts citing the fiasco as merely the latest example of Cavanagh’s bad judgement.

Eventually, Anderson had heard enough, realising that such details were simply feeding Charlotte’s conspiracy theories, and he ignored the radio to focus on the Virginia countryside. After some twenty-five miles, they turned right onto Route 250 towards Monterey. Now it was a steady climb, past hedgerows and a thicker covering of trees, gradually becoming more like Scotland than England, with just the nature of the houses suggesting it might not actually be the UK. The Hankey Mountain Highway led them deeper into the National Forest and its beautiful covering of Autumnal shades.

Anderson took the occasional photo, trying not to let his cynicism spoil what was becoming a very enjoyable drive. The trees were far taller now, the sunlight almost an annoyance as it flickered and danced through the tree tops. The road twisted and turned, the view opening out to reveal yet more rolling tree-covered hills in the distance, before the car was heading out of the forest and along the Highland Turnpike.

To Anderson, it wasn’t quite the Scottish Highlands, but he could see why it had been named Highland County. The trees slowly thinned out, the landscape becoming more rugged as they moved downhill. The ‘Welcome to Historic McDowell’ sign was a reminder of why they were there, the fifty mile trip from Harrisonburg taking – with a couple of brief photo stops – an hour and a half.

The speed limit lowered to 35; a right-hand bend and they were in McDowell proper: church to the left and another further on to the right, then several smart-looking houses well separated from each other – it all looked very pleasant.

They drove a mile past the gas station at the western edge then turned around, heading back. According to earlier research, McDowell was too small for a diner or restaurant, and the Highland County Museum looked the best bet to make relevant enquiries.

Except it was shut for the winter. Option two was the Country Store, option three the battlefield itself. Charlotte seemed determined to speak to anyone that ventured within close proximity, willing to go knocking on doors with photographs of McDowell in hand – not just the grainy ones from Germany, but one taken the previous year showing the more familiar ponytail.

In the end, they stayed almost two hours, Charlotte’s manner and their English accents helping ease the introductions; they were even given a coffee and a bite to eat, plus an individual guided tour of the museum.

Anderson generally preferred a subtle approach to asking questions, whereas Charlotte’s philosophy was a little more direct. Did anyone recognise this man? Anyone?

In any event, they didn’t, and it definitely seemed a genuine negative. Not that Charlotte’s enthusiasm for her task seemed diminished. To Anderson’s obvious confusion, next on her list was the county town of Monterey, ten miles further west.

“Okay,” Anderson finally asked as they left McDowell, “Why Monterey?”

Charlotte gave a superior smile, “Virginia State Law requires contractors who install radon reduction systems to be listed with either the National Radon Proficiency Program or the National Radon Safety Board. The closest authorised companies are based in Monterey and Churchville.”

Anderson decided it was best not to say anything too contentious. Charlotte seemed to have everything well in hand, although – bearing mind she’d made a good few assumptions – he wasn’t that optimistic about their chance of success.

The Monterey firm turned out to be a husband and wife team, but for once Charlotte’s charm had met its match. Whether or not it was the fact she obviously wasn’t a potential customer, her supposedly subtle mention of Pat McDowell met with undisguised hostility, the wife refusing point blank to answer any questions, the husband never actually appearing but still used as some sort of threat.

The drive to the second of Charlotte’s options was back the way they had come, Churchville just a few hundred yards from where they’d joined Route 250. There wasn’t much in terms of conversation, Charlotte still fuming and Anderson trying not to gloat. This time, it was down to Anderson to prove he could do better, his journalist credentials finally brought into play, it assumed they might help tease out any relevant information.

The company looked to be far larger than Monterey’s handful of employees, Anderson eventually working his way through to what seemed to be the boss: male, fiftyish, referred to only as Riley. Once again, just the mention of McDowell’s name was sufficient to get a hostile response.

“Pat McDowell,” Riley repeated, giving Anderson a hard stare. “What about him?”

“I just wondered if you had done some work for him once?”

“And what if we had?”

This wasn’t quite going as well as Anderson had hoped. Riley seemed to know of McDowell and at least he hadn’t actually told him to bugger off.

“Sorry,” said Anderson apologetically. “I certainly didn’t mean to imply anything. I was just trying to find out if he used to live round here.”

“And why do the Brits care where he might have lived?”

“I’m working on something for The Washington Post,” Anderson lied. “I can’t really go into details and at the moment I’m just trying to get a bit of background on McDowell.”

Riley’s suspicious frown eased slightly, “The FBI have been asking questions as well; not to me, but people hereabouts. What did McDowell do to get everybody so all fired up?”

“As I said, I can’t go into details; but Mississippi’s next on my travels.”

Riley’s eyes widened, “You don’t say… We did do some work for McDowell ‘bout four years back. He bought a lodge near Stuarts Draft, twenty miles south-east of here: pool, shooting range, plenty of land, perfect for hunting. Moved in with his girlfriend but I guess they got bored with it; moved out after maybe a year. And before you ask, I’ve no idea where.”

“The girlfriend – do you remember her name?”

“No, sorry; I think they broke up anyway. The FBI seemed more interested in McDowell than her.”

“When exactly were they snooping around?”

“The FBI?” Riley thought for a moment, “Maybe the day after the two Congressmen were killed. I could check if you want?”

Anderson shook his head – he was just curious, and it was nice to know that Charlotte and the FBI were obviously thinking along the same lines. His comment to Riley about Mississippi had simply been a guess, but under the circumstances it had seemed a fairly safe bet.

Charlotte’s mood brightened significantly once Anderson reported back, delighted to have been proved correct on so many levels. Quite where her search for McDowell would go from here wasn’t obvious, but Anderson didn’t doubt she would have some convoluted idea to pursue – he would eat humble pie and enquire further over dinner.

With the morning long gone and the afternoon also threatening to be wasted, the next venue was a toss-up between the equidistant attractions of Lexington or Charlottesville – not that it was ever really in doubt which of the two they would actually visit…

  • * *

The conference table in the White House Situation Room was less than half-occupied, the members of the President’s inner circle meeting to plan out the Administration’s response to the ongoing problems – and there were so many of them.

The political fallout from the Vice-President’s affair and hurried resignation was as yet unclear, Cavanagh able to cope with the contempt of the media, knowing that they would soon find someone else to chastise. Of more concern were public perceptions and the misgivings of his own Party, the likelihood of the Democrats being decimated in the Midterms seemingly increasing by the hour.

The President started the discussion with the South China Sea, hoping that Thorn could somehow negate the embarrassment of Irwin’s trip to Hanoi. Louisa Marcelo was fast becoming a worldwide celebrity, her face on every news broadcast, her campaign against the Chinese militarisation of little-known reefs a hundred miles from nowhere catching the American public’s imagination. The United Nations Security Council had duly discussed and prevaricated with nothing agreed – certainly not the condemnation of China that the Philippines and Vietnam had demanded. Where the South China Sea was concerned, China was always likely to veto any significant or meaningful resolution, its own selfish interests paramount – but then the same could be said for any of the five permanent members.

“No-one’s interested in compromise,” Thorn announced bluntly. “China believes right is on their side, and the rest want to see how events unfold over the next few days. It all comes down to Louisa Marcelo, and who will back down first. Personally, I can’t see it being China; they’ve possibly got far more to lose.”

“Just to be clear,” Cavanagh queried, “are we sure there’s no possibility of a military confrontation?” He looked to Thorn, but it was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS), Admiral Wade Adams who answered.

“We can’t completely rule it out, Sir; but it seems highly unlikely. At worst, we’d be looking at a couple of patrol boats facing off against each other. Taiwan and Vietnam are the most military-minded, but I doubt either will risk a shooting match with China. More of a problem is China itself: one day soon they may become arrogant enough to disrupt the shipping lanes around the Paracel or Spratly Islands. Then their willingness to go to war will need to be tested.”

That would the job of the Seventh Fleet, thought Cavanagh to himself. Tensions between China and the United Sates over the region had been high for well over a decade and it had been accepted for some time that a battle for supremacy was inevitable. Just not on my watch, prayed Cavanagh silently.

“Under the circumstances,” Thorn interjected, “the decision to transfer the USS Milius was sensible – personally, I’m more concerned with what China is up to than North Korea.”

Adams nodded his agreement, as did Amy Pittman, Cavanagh pleased that at least one of his decisions had proved judicious.

“And what of North Korea?” the President muttered with a sigh. “We’re two days into Dragon Shield – can I relax or are they still going to obliterate Japan?” It was said with a hint of a smile, but there was also a certain edge to his tone. Problems were mounting rapidly and he could well do without North Korea’s regular belligerence.

“They’ve been relatively quiet, Mr President,” confirmed the Secretary of Defence seated to Cavanagh’s left. “They’ve threatened; we’ve ignored it – everyone’s played by the rules and we can sit back and wait for the next pointless exchange.” Bob Deangelo was a long-time associate of Cavanagh’s and more of a friend than just a colleague, yet closer to the Secretary of State in terms of being a hawk.

So far, the update was going as well as Cavanagh could have hoped and the only other external concern was Russia. President Golubeva now seemed fully in control of Moscow, with no reports of further military deployments, one unanswered question being the precise status of General Morozov. Domestic issues remained complex, Cavanagh somehow needing to restore public faith in his Administration: if he could do that before Election Day on the 8th, then it would clearly be a miracle.

“Paul, I know you have a lot to discuss,” said Cavanagh, turning to Jensen. “Just a rough summary will be fine for now.”

Jensen checked the notes in front of him: summary or not, it was difficult to know quite where to start. Facts first…

“The WikiLeaks report into Congress is basically a very clever reinterpretation of the actual data, with each allegation needing to be checked against the original invoice or expense claim. That is taking time as several of the original computer files seem to have become corrupted – we’re still investigating as to exactly how and who had access. I understand that it will be another forty-eight hours before a definitive list of disbursements is available, but it’s looking as if most of the accusations are either exaggerated or simply false. Unfortunately, as with the other political embarrassments that have suddenly surfaced over the past few weeks, the damage has already been done.”

The deliberate revelations – true and untrue – as to political misdeeds were a trend it was now impossible to ignore; yet if Jensen was to convince the others as to the why, he needed to prepare the groundwork carefully first.

Jensen continued, “Carl Irwin’s house at Lake Seneca was definitely a set-up, the camera specifically designed to bypass security checks. Somehow Irwin was persuaded that the house was ideal for his needs, presumably by one of the women. They both passed the routine security assessments and the FBI is planning to interview them tomorrow. Under the circumstances, it’s likely such action will be misinterpreted as unnecessary, even malicious – to most people’s eyes, the women’s only crime is to be seduced by an older married man.”

The former Vice-President had already suffered the added ignominy of being interviewed by the FBI, his uncooperative attitude making the agency’s task all the more difficult. In a few short hours, Irwin had now lost his wife, his job, his career, as well as his two lovers, and he had needed to take it out on someone – the FBI just happened to be first in the firing line.

Jensen resumed his commentary, moving on to the Office on Naval Intelligence. “Paige Hanson appears to have been a dedicated professional, someone who was immensely proud to be American; politically knowledgeable, her views were right-wing but by no means extreme. It seems likely that she was working under orders, not from Russia or even Pat McDowell, but someone much closer to the ONI. I cannot believe it was her head of section, Captain Nolan, and we need to look higher up the chain of command.”

Jensen paused, anticipating some comment from Thorn or Pittman. When there was none, he quickly pressed on.

“We assume that Evgeny Sukhov’s involvement with McDowell is somehow also connected to recent events in Moscow. Sukhov was pictured beside Golubeva yesterday and is obviously still in favour, unlike General Morozov. The General’s whereabouts remain unclear: his family home in Moscow is off limits and several of his close associates have gone missing – possibly arrested, possibly in hiding. If Morozov is still alive there remains the potential for a renewed power struggle; there is certainly evidence to suggest that several units of the 20th Guards Army have been forcibly confined to barracks. Sukhov could well be working with McDowell in order to divert China’s attention away from Russia’s internal problems. Since coming to power, Golubeva has had a lukewarm relationship with Beijing; there is also concern that China might try to use Moscow’s instability to renew various territorial claims in the Far East.”

Jensen paused momentarily, his understanding of how such external events tied in with the increasing domestic crisis, still far from perfect. “At present there is still nothing to link McDowell with the murders in Mississippi, or indeed any of the other political indiscretions. However, it seems likely that he is the one pulling the strings. The search for him is ongoing, our focus the Eastern Seaboard; but apart from one probable sighting near Arlington, there’s been nothing. In truth, he could be anywhere. Personally, I would bet he’s not that far from Washington.”

Jensen lapsed into silence, and it was left to the President to ask the obvious. “Your conclusions, Paul; although I think we all have some idea what they might be.”

Jensen glanced around the table, sensing that the President had already discussed various possibilities with Admiral Adams and Bob Deangelo.

“On the face of it,” said Jensen carefully picking his words, “we have two distinct problems: potential conflict in the South China Sea and a series of embarrassing revelations at home. If Pat McDowell is involved in both, then events here might be nothing more than a diversion, something to keep our main focus away from what is happening elsewhere. Maybe Russia hopes that we will consequently stumble into a war with China. With Sukhov acting as a go-between, Russia could easily provide McDowell with the necessary finance and essential intelligence.”

Cavanagh seemed to be nodding in agreement but Jensen hadn’t yet finished, having something rather more controversial to propose.

“Unfortunately,” continued Jensen, now talking directly to the President. “I am convinced that there is far more at stake here than the reputation of Carl Irwin and various Members of Congress. Bearing in mind Sukhov’s involvement and McDowell’s history with August 14, then another possibility exists; namely that McDowell is attempting to create the ideal conditions for a coup d’état.”

Jensen’s statement was greeted with a stunned silence, and he felt the need to offer more in the way of justification. “The drip-feeding of political scandals to an already sceptical public, combined with widespread frustration over America’s foreign policy and thus her standing in the world, reveals a concerted effort to undermine people’s faith in the President and this Administration. The Republican Party has suffered similarly, and this is not just aimed at one political group but at the very fabric of U.S. democracy.”

Jensen knew he sounded pompous but the message was far more important than its delivery. The evidence to back up his theory could be read in any paper and seen on any news channel; it was just surprising the media hadn’t already recognised the signs – or maybe they couldn’t believe it either.

Thorn was the first to respond. “A coup,” he said, carefully choosing his words, “doesn’t just happen because a certain set of conditions have been satisfied. It needs people with power – military or political – to have the ambition to risk everything. Golubeva and her clique got lucky a year ago but the United States is not Russia; we have a strong democratic tradition and an inbred hatred for dictators.”

“The risks are obviously significant,” Jensen responded, “but then so are the rewards. America thrives on ambition and it would be unwise for us to sit back and do nothing.”

Cavanagh held up his hand to stop Thorn from some angry retort, He didn’t want to get bogged down in philosophical arguments, far more concerned by the reality of what Jensen was suggesting. “Military or political, Paul? And is this just conjecture, or do you have something more substantial to back it up? A few names would at least give us an idea of what we’re up against and how seriously to take it.”

Jensen shook his head, “There’s no definitive evidence to support my premise, other than this perfect storm of events. And I’m afraid I can’t even give you a single name, far less a choice.” He was beginning to feel uncomfortable: he couldn’t guarantee that a potential coup leader wasn’t sitting across the table from him, and he was also questioning the loyalty of the hundreds of thousands of men and women in America’s military, almost a slap in the face to Admiral Adams.

President Cavanagh recognised Jensen’s concerns, even though he wasn’t convinced by them. Their discussions continued, Jensen working hard to persuade the inner cabinet that his fears had merit and shouldn’t simply be ignored. The obvious next step would be for Jensen to widen his investigation to include senior Members of Congress and America’s military – a move Cavanagh refused point-blank to sanction. The President had no wish to be judged by his peers as a paranoid tyrant who trusted no-one but himself, and he still believed that McDowell was merely a diversion, Russia’s real plans yet to be revealed.

Cavanagh was minded to do nothing and wait to see if Jensen could bring him something more persuasive. Once the Midterm elections were over he could always act more robustly, but until then he had no wish to polygraph every potential opponent, whether real or imaginary.

  • * *

Kristen Ulrich read through her report for the third time, changing the odd word, still concerned that it wasn’t perfect. At just under two thousand words, she felt it was detailed enough without being too unwieldy, and she had been careful to reference everything where possible. To get it right was important to Kristen, as with everything she did – only this time, there was far more than professional pride at stake.

America’s voting system had long been in crisis, the methods used differing from one state – even one community – to another. States had toyed with various alternatives, security and cost invariably restricting their choices, with some abandoned after just a year. Touchscreen, Optical Scanning or the standby of Hand Counted – there was no common consensus as to which was best, with numerous reports criticising the security of all three techniques. Every election there were problems with miscounted votes, the machines no better than the human option, some even swapping votes from Democrat to Republican and vice-versa, the all-encompassing ‘calibration error’ being the usual excuse. With signs advising voters to check the security seals in case they’d been tampered with, it was hardly surprising that people regularly disputed the accuracy of votes cast; even faith in America’s two-party system was close to an all-time low, it seen as a restrictive and unfair form of true democracy.

Many of the electronic voting machines were now twenty years old, spare parts difficult to get, money too short to make the change to newer technology. When President Cavanagh had turned up to vote in Boston, two of the machines at his polling station had already been taken out of service, and without the option of early voting, the system would have collapsed a decade ago.

Los Angeles County was a good case in point: their decrepit ink-based system for its five million voters used technology from the 1960’s and had been due to be replaced by a touchscreen alternative years ago, but with tens of millions spent, the new system was still only available in two-thirds of LA’s 5000 precincts, its reliability already in dispute. Despite the many security concerns, the county had also moved towards more online voting – a decision that was now under review following a recent study which indicated that at least 15% of such votes were fraudulent.

The first part of Kristen’s report was basic background information, the second section likely to be far more controversial. Containing a detailed analysis of reports from hundreds of election officials, it revealed the catastrophic nature of the voting crisis. Antiquated machines, inaccurate counts, bogus and illegal registrations, genuine voters barred. Overall, the report revealed fraud on a massive scale, with the Democratic Party missing out on thousands of votes in certain counties. Kristen was even able to show that almost a fifth of Congress’ Republicans would have most likely lost to their Democratic opponent.

Some of it was actually true; most of it was a clever fiction, although having a significant basis in fact. Every reference cited was genuine, every example easily verified. However, it would take time for the lies and exaggerations to emerge, the data and reports skilfully manipulated to illustrate McDowell’s very specific version of the truth.

Finally satisfied, Kristen cast a casual glance down the list of recipients: media, politicians, civil rights groups – even the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, its monitoring of America’s elections invariably provoking controversy and resentment in at least one U.S. state.

Similar reports had generally been ignored or belittled in the past. This time Kristen was confident that such an inadequate response simply wouldn’t happen – not when the report’s author was K. Ulrich, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, and your office in the United States Department of Justice was just a few hundred yards from the White House.

[]Chapter 14 – Thursday, November 3rd

South China Sea –11:17 Local Time; 03:17 UTC

Louisa Marcelo’s strategy was based in part on the early success of Saturday and the armada was stretched out over some two hundred metres, the long line of vessels trying to keep station as they cruised slowly towards the target of Mischief Reef. The flagship was still the power catamaran, its owner more concerned by public contempt if he pulled out of the protest than fear of further damage.

Unlike Saturday, one line had become several, with the larger craft to the front. The total number of vessels had also crept up over the one-twenty mark, a handful having voyaged directly to the reef. An emergency medical unit had even been set up on a ship chartered through the online fund, two doctors and seven nurses freely giving of their expertise and time. The weather was still good, although a breeze gusted from the north, the forecast promising rain showers before evening.

Arrayed against them were just eight Chinese ships: three Coastguard patrol boats backed up by four RHIBs, and in addition something rather more potent. The Chinese frigate dwarfed its companions, the pennant number 563 emblazoned boldly across its bow. Rumour had it that the officer responsible for Mischief Reef’s earlier defence had been replaced, with Beijing apparently ‘disappointed’ as to how the whole matter had been handled. Somehow, the addition of a modern warship to the mix didn’t seem to suggest the new man in charge would be any less confrontational.

Allan Valdez stood at the bow of a thirty metre dive vessel, watching carefully for an indication of China’s tactics. His cousin Joseph waited in the wheelhouse, their two Vietnamese associates aboard a small multi-purpose ship. Both vessels were in the front of the allied line but on opposite sides of Marcelo, each roughly ten boats away. The two boats had been chartered the previous day and the crews knew nothing of their passengers’ history, the promise of a healthy bonus sufficient to stop them from asking impertinent questions.

Hovering above the armada were at least four drones, Valdez unsure whether they were for TV or military use, allied or Chinese. Definitely Chinese were the two helicopters flying to the north-west, the Coastguard readying itself for Marcelo’s renewed assault.

As the two opposing lines moved closer, one of the helicopters headed towards the armada, flying low along the joint Philippine and Vietnamese lines as if assessing their strengths and weaknesses. Reaching the final ship, it traversed back along the front line, the expected verbal warnings sounding out from a loudspeaker.

Both sides knew it was a pointless gesture, the Chinese merely ensuring that they had followed the appropriate convention. The armada kept moving at a steady six knots, heading directly towards the reef some three kilometres distant.

The frigate was keeping station a little behind the other Chinese ships, the RHIBs to the front. Valdez couldn’t see how they could stop the armada without deadly force – water cannon and using the ships as battering rams might halt a few but dozens more would still break through.

The four RHIBs started to buzz around more authoritatively, angling towards the centre of the armada. The patrol boats also edged forward, the helicopters heading towards the outer edges.

Valdez waited impatiently for Marcelo to react; she left it a few more seconds and then with a wave of her arms signalled the armada’s response. Dozens of laser pens were instantly directed at each helicopter, more at the RHIBs. The effect on the helicopters was minimal, the RHIBs more dramatic. All four were distracted, two turning sharply away.

The helicopters moved down the front line trailing what looked like white smoke. Valdez instinctively realised what it was, desperately grabbing his bottle of water and splashing it onto his shirt, before clutching the wet cotton to his eyes and mouth, trying to protect himself.

The taste and smell of the tear-gas hit him first, then the burning sensation attacked his eyes. Valdez’s precautions saved him from the worst effects; what he couldn’t understand was why his ears were suddenly bombarded by a high-pitched screech, his head threatening to explode. He found himself kneeling on the deck, shirt clasped over his face, unable to move, wanting to scream yet barely able to breathe.

The front line of the allied armada was being attacked by tear gas and sound cannon. Several vessels were effectively no longer under command, crewmen unable to see, others reacting like Valdez and incapable of thinking let alone piloting a boat. Some ships turned to go back, others accelerated, their crews trying to escape the clinging gas cloud and the shrieking inside their heads.

With the ships so close together and the rest of the armada closing up, collisions were inevitable. A dozen or more clashed together, each in turn adding to the chaos, the discrete and well-organised lines now one single churning mass of confusion.

It was a close call, but the sheer size of the armada together with the increasing breeze made the difference between disaster and salvation. The two helicopters were proving more effective as delivery vehicles than the RHIBs and patrol boats, but they had very limited supplies of tear gas. The choking clouds would work on a small area for a couple of minutes but then rapidly disperse, drifting south and giving the armada time to recover and reorganise. The sound guns were similarly only effective for a limited time, crews quickly coming up with ways to protect themselves; in response, the operators quickly flipped from one craft to another, picking on exposed individuals in the hope that some of the ships would choose to turn back.

Valdez forced himself upright, wiping away the tears, his ears still ringing. The dive vessel had continued towards the reef, the captain’s natural instinct to reduce speed rather than to try and turn. The RHIBs appeared to have retreated, leaving it to the patrol boats and their sound cannons to pick off any boat that refused to withdraw.

But there were just too many for the Chinese to target. The armada had spread out, some boats retreating, others disabled; yet the overwhelming majority had made it through, closing up on the three Coastguard ships and the frigate.

Valdez almost hoped the water cannon would be next, wanting to wash the clinging tear gas from his body. He judged that less than twenty boats had turned tail or been put out of action, the rest attempting to keep station abreast and behind Marcelo’s catamaran.

Fifty metres from the three patrol boats the water cannon were finally brought into play, picking on any vessel within range and managing to force some aside. The middle boat focused its full attention on the catamaran, the smaller vessel shrouded in spray, water sloshing down from the bridge. To Valdez, it looked as though it was close to capsizing, a cluster of other boats around it, attempting to somehow protect Marcelo and her crew.

A helicopter swept in once more, revealing yet another non-lethal weapon in the Chinese armoury, a more powerful version of the armada’s laser pens. The dazzle gun’s role was to temporarily blind its victim, the operator picking out key individuals in order to create the most mayhem. A helicopter wasn’t the best platform but the green laser was still an effective weapon, just not ideal for a large number of potential targets.

The catamaran somehow made it past the three Coastguard ships as did the dive vessel, Valdez ordering the captain to move closer to Marcelo. The drones had the best view, images sent via satellite to the world’s news media, the armada’s vessels seen swarming past the patrol boats like cavalry flowing around an infantry square.

Now there was just the frigate. The Coastguard ships were trying to turn back but for once they appeared wary of smashing through the surrounding allied craft.

There was a puff of smoke from a launcher on the frigate’s deck, Valdez hearing the loud whoosh a brief moment later. He waited, unsure quite what to expect, then there was deafening explosion over his head, Valdez buffeted by the aftershock.

More blasts, far more powerful than a firework. Valdez didn’t know if it was chaff or something specifically designed as an anti-piracy weapon but it was fairly dramatic. To anyone who had been under fire it was a feeble reminder of the real thing, but to the civilian crews of the armada it would be a lesson in what might well be next.

Valdez could actually see Louisa Marcelo standing on the catamaran’s bridge, the boat looking a badly battered version of its former self; no more than two dozen vessels bravely followed Marcelo’s lead, one at least with a TV crew aboard, a single drone hovering high overhead. Mischief Reef was a little over a kilometre away, a dredger and several buildings easily visible.

The helicopters were now keeping well away, the Chinese RHIBs returning to try and drive off the persistent and the foolish. Two of them headed towards Marcelo, six marines in each boat. The tear gas option seemed to have been abandoned for the time being, Valdez assuming they were going to try and batter the catamaran aside.

Valdez glanced towards the dive boat’s wheelhouse, gesturing at his cousin. They had been silent observers for far too long – it was time to show that the allied armada did actually have some teeth. The boat’s captain knew what to do and the dive vessel manoeuvred closer to the catamaran, the Vietnamese matching them on the other side.

Joseph moved to stand beside Valdez, carefully placing a heavy sports-bag down on to the deck. Valdez reached inside to select two small objects, the bag containing anything that might just be useful, from smoke grenades to handguns; it was never his intention to turn it into a suicide mission but nor was he willing to let the Chinese win every battle.

As one of the RHIBs reached the catamaran’s port side, a marine made a grab for the guard rail, managing to pull himself aboard. A second marine joined him and the two men started to work their way round to the stern, neither looking to be armed with anything other than a handgun.

The dive vessel thudded into the RHIB. Valdez nodded to Joseph and his cousin pulled the pin from the grenade, before deftly lobbing it into the boat. The captain immediately threw the vessel into reverse, pre-warned that he would have but a few seconds.

Valdez and Joseph cowered down, fearing that their actions would be misinterpreted – after all, throwing a grenade into a boat half-full of marines wasn’t likely to win you many friends. Except it wasn’t a fragmentation grenade designed to kill and mutilate: this was a stingball, a non-lethal explosive device which ejected scores of small rubber balls. Sometimes referred to as a hornet’s nest, it was used for riot control in prisons and by U.S. SWAT units; Valdez’s hope was that the rubber balls would be traveling fast enough to puncture some of the RHIB’s six inflatable tubes.

The grenade went off with a loud crack, followed an instant later by cries of pain. Valdez raised his head, smoke momentarily obscuring his view. The stingball had done all he had asked of it: two of the four marines in the boat had been knocked overboard, the others still standing but obviously in shock; a good few of the hard rubber balls had ripped through the RHIB’s inflatable collar and it was already settling lower in the water.

Valdez gestured towards the dive boat’s wheelhouse wanting the captain to move back in. The disorientation and pain caused by the stingball was supposedly only temporary and the two marines on the catamaran had now reached the bridge. On the opposite side, the two Vietnamese attacked the second RHIB, but having seen – or heard – some of what had happened to their colleagues, the marines’ response was more forceful. Above the cacophony of multiple engines and outraged cries, came the sound of gunfire – three shots.

Valdez couldn’t see what has happening but he could guess: a shouted command to Joseph and the handguns were ripped from the sports bag, Valdez determined to help Marcelo.

Others too reacted to the marines’ use of deadly force, and the catamaran became the main focus for the remaining allied boats. As they began to crowd round, a helicopter and patrol boat moved closer, the catamaran like some giant magnet dragging in everything towards it.

Valdez clambered on board, sensing Joseph was firing at someone or something. He swung himself up onto the bridge deck to see Marcelo struggling with a marine, a second man at the wheel trying to steer the catamaran away from the encircling craft, both marines facing away from Valdez. The catamaran’s captain lay motionless on the deck, blood oozing from a wound near his left eye.

Valdez stepped forward and smashed the handgun backhanded across the second marine’s head, the man dropping instantly. Marcelo’s assailant turned at the sound, releasing Marcelo and instinctively reaching for his gun.

Valdez shook his head in admonition and the marine froze, gaze moving slowly up from Valdez’s gun, body tensing for a bullet.

It was the marine’s lucky day, Valdez ignoring his training in order to show the world the nature of Filipino restraint. Gun held to the marine’s spine, he pushed the man in front of him, the two of them standing looking out at a scene of utter chaos. The catamaran was surrounded by boats on all sides and amidst the babble of noise and confusion people were fighting hand-to-hand, their different clothing the only way to tell friend from foe.

Abruptly, there was the boom of a far-off foghorn, and in an instant the sound was taken up by other vessels, the air reverberating with discordant cries. Valdez’s ears were blasted with noise as the dive vessel joined in, some people cheering, broad smiles replacing the scowls as the boats began to disengage.

The Chinese seemed to understand that it was all over, if not knowing quite why. Valdez lowered his gun and gestured at the marine to help his injured compatriot. He looked around, moving from the sight of the two dead Vietnamese to try and find his cousin.

Joseph lay on the dive vessel’s deck, face down. As Valdez stumbled towards him, terrified that he too had been shot, Joseph struggled to his knees, eyes streaming, the helicopter’s dazzle gun having been used to good effect.

To the north-west, a wooden fishing boat and a battered utility vessel headed back from the reef, a large Philippine flag draped across the fishing boat’s bow. Minutes earlier, the flag had been held high by a young woman as she stood ankle deep on Mischief Reef, posing for photographs. She had even managed to smile, inwardly terrified that the Chinese troops slipping and splashing their way towards her would arrive before she was safely back on board.

The armada had successfully landed one person and one flag – for Marcelo, and maybe even Valdez, it was enough for now.

 

Eastern United States – 10:25 Local Time; 14:25 UTC

Charlottesville’s offering of Thomas Jefferson’s home had been a relaxed finale to their Wednesday outing and Thursday’s agenda was consequently down to Anderson, the search for McDowell temporarily on hold.

This time Anderson drove, and for a good part of the forty mile trip to Arlington, his attention was focused rather more than normal on exactly what vehicles were behind them. The previous day both of them had had the same nagging concern that they were being followed, a shared sixth-sense that needed to be fully tested. Anderson assumed it was most likely his usual paranoia, modern technology rather negating the need for something as old-fashioned as a tail, and there was certainly nothing obvious to confirm their fears.

Arlington National Cemetery proved to be everything he’d expected of it, and so much more, the hours of walking still not revealing all of its secrets. The stunning views somehow added to the poignancy of the whole experience, the changing of the guard such a simple but moving ceremony.

The journey back to Leesburg was relatively sombre, the mood lightening once they reached the Inn. As Charlotte got ready for dinner, Anderson followed his usual pointless ritual of checking what Charlotte irreverently referred to as ‘the Berlin phone’.

For the first time since his trip to Germany, there was actually a text: as before, the instructions were minimal, the sender obviously having watched too many B-movies.

Anderson stared at the message in confusion, wondering what on earth he ought to do next, and how he could explain it all to Charlotte. Virginia was supposed to be a relaxing holiday and in retrospect it had been stupid to bring the phone. Not that it would have made any difference – the Russians obviously knew exactly where Anderson was and would have doubtless found some other way to contact him.

For some very odd reason, the thought of meeting a Russian spy in the heart of America was a lot more worrying that meeting one in Berlin. Basically, it was the usual Anderson dilemma – behave like a proper investigative journalist and investigate, or ignore it and let someone else take the risks and get all the credit.

Whoever the call was from, they seemed quite happy to feed him one clue at a time, and they obviously knew Anderson particularly well, fully aware he could never refuse a challenge.

  • * *

Anderson stood on the street corner and awaited the next instruction. It was just after eight and Charlotte had set him the Cinderella time limit of midnight before threatening to panic or call the police, most likely both. It was the sort of compromise offer that helped placate Charlotte’s many objections, while actually not offering any guarantees – Anderson’s new set of cement shoes could easily be in place well before then.

Sensible precautions were a totally different matter, with various problem scenarios discussed and a suitable response decided. It was an approach most people would consider extreme, but past experience had shown the wisdom of such safeguards. If it turned out to be fifteen minutes wasted, then Anderson wasn’t bothered; if not – then at least they had something to fall back on.

The phone chimed again. Message duly read, Anderson headed south, shoulders hunched over, feeling a little vulnerable. The Berlin meeting had been relatively simple and fairly productive, but this time it just didn’t have quite the same feel.

Anderson sensed a vehicle behind him and a dirty white box van pulled in just ahead: no markings, rear-windows blacked-out. A man – tall, mid-forties – got out of the passenger door and non-too gently thrust Anderson against the rear of the van. A handheld body scanner and pat down were next, with Anderson’s and the Berlin phone removed from his jacket pockets.

Satisfied, the man pulled open the rear door, gesturing at Anderson to get inside. Some saying about ‘lamb to the slaughter’ jumped into Anderson’s thoughts but having come this far it seemed pointless not to see it through. There were two pairs of seats fitted behind the cab, facing each other, and Anderson automatically picked one, his escort seating himself directly opposite.

The seats didn’t have the high-tech of a seat belt, but nor was Anderson provided with a blindfold, which seemed a fair exchange. The driver headed towards Washington, Anderson sticking with his B-movie theme and trying to make sure he could remember their route.

“Eyes in the van,” said his escort gruffly, reinforcing his instruction with a kick to Anderson’s shin.

Anderson did as he was told, thinking of saying something clever then deciding it wasn’t wise. Instead he used what light there was to try and memorise his escort’s description: Hispanic; younger than he’d first thought, maybe late-thirties; longish hair and various tattoos – not someone he would want to argue with. The man spent a few seconds checking Anderson’s phone, before throwing it back at him, apparently satisfied that it wasn’t a security risk. The Berlin phone was similarly scrutinised, before finally ending up in the man’s jacket pocket.

The journey dragged on, already a half-hour, Anderson guessing they were in Washington’s southern suburbs, although the traffic seemed lighter than he would have expected. There was nothing of interest to see in the van, the rear totally empty and relatively clean.

After another five minutes they turned right and off the highway; then it was another mile of twists and turns before the van parked outside a secluded house: detached, three-storeys, massive porch – all very impressive.

Both men escorted Anderson inside, a short hallway leading into a beautiful open-plan lounge. The van driver gestured at Anderson to take a seat, before moving to stand at the front window. The second man stood by the door, and it was only now that Anderson noticed the gun held casually in his right hand.

This definitely wasn’t the relaxed atmosphere of Berlin, Anderson’s pulse and blood pressure fighting to see which could outdo the other. It all seemed to be leading up to some grand entrance.

“Mike,” said a familiar American voice, “you really need to choose a new career: journalism just isn’t that healthy an option for you.”

As soon as he’d seen the gun, Anderson had just known it was going to be McDowell who eventually appeared. The Berlin phone had initially proved to be a benefit but was now obviously a curse, Anderson not understanding how his luck – and his common-sense – could desert him so quickly.

McDowell pulled up a wooden dining chair, choosing to sit it astride, the action somehow emphasising who exactly was in charge. “Kind of you to accept my invitation, but I’m afraid your Russian friends work for me now. You should have thrown the phone away after Berlin.”

“You just can’t trust anyone,” Anderson said bitterly. “You might just need to remember that one day.”

McDowell gave a broad smile, “You’re probably right; sadly, trust in my line of work is often equated with financial reward… It was nice of you to bring the lovely Charlotte to Virginia; if I’d known your intentions earlier I would have offered a personal tour of Highland County.”

McDowell’s smug attitude was enough to pull Anderson out of his lethargy – his future well-being might be looking fairly tenuous, but he’d be damned if he’d give McDowell the satisfaction of seeing him squirm.

“Next time I’ll be sure to call you first,” Anderson said, trying not to let his voice betray his fears. “It’s just a shame you didn’t stay dead.”

“I thought about it, but the quiet life just isn’t my style. The logic of why you’re in Virginia escapes me – are we talking business or pleasure?”

The Washington Post wanted to have a chat; the rest is just a holiday.”

“A chat about what?”

For a brief instant, Anderson thought of telling McDowell to mind his own business, then common-sense prevailed. “Articles to do with Russia and Poland; nothing that need cause you concern.”

McDowell studied him carefully, as though trying to judge whether Anderson was being economical with the truth. “Somehow, that seems too convenient. And Highland County – it’s not usually the first choice for UK tourists?”

“It was just a stupid hunch that someone might know you; not that we got anywhere.” Anderson could have lied, but there seemed little point.

“Not even with Riley? Nice guy, but no good at small talk.”

“Nor at answering questions; I got the impression he doesn’t much like journalists.” Anderson was doing his best to protect his sources, even though Riley had barely told him anything worthwhile.

McDowell nodded as though in agreement, Anderson apparently confirming what he already knew. “Finally, we have Leesburg. You could have picked anywhere to stay – so why that particular town?”

Anderson sensed McDowell thought the question important, although it wasn’t obvious as to why. “Nothing specific; it was just a convenient base.”

“And there was no other reason?”

Anderson shook his head, still confused. “The Jackson Inn had a good review; Leesburg’s less than an hour from Washington and it’s not so big that you can get lost. Good roads, good range of restaurants, White’s Ferry close by – what more can I say?”

McDowell chose not to pursue it. “I almost believe you, Mike. Even if true, past experience shows you have an annoying habit of interfering in my business. Secrets tend not to remain so once you get your teeth into something.”

“That’s my job,” Anderson retorted. “What am I supposed to do?”

McDowell didn’t look particularly sympathetic. “We all make mistakes,” he said philosophically. “Coming to Virginia was definitely one of yours. Unfortunately, I cannot simply let you run free.”

Anderson was struggling to find something he could bargain with, not that he felt McDowell was in the mood to listen. “So now what – some car accident or two bullets in the head like in Mississippi?”

“I’m happy to admit they’re both attractive options, but maybe such extremes won’t be necessary. I propose a more equitable solution.”

“Somehow I doubt that.”

McDowell feigned a hurt look, “You misjudge me, Mike. Forget your holiday and fly off back home to England. You and Charlotte can still get out of this in one piece; all I ask is that you stop interfering in matters which are not your concern.”

“This has nothing to do with Charlotte,” Anderson said sharply. “She just came along for the ride.”

“Maybe that’s true, maybe not. Just to be clear, it’s her life as well as yours that’s on the line here. Get on a plane tomorrow and that’s an end to it.”

“And I have your word on that” said Anderson with a trace of anger. “Why should I believe you?”

“Because,” McDowell encouraged, “it’s the ideal solution for everyone. Two more suspicious deaths will only give the FBI something extra to work with. What happens here is not your affair, Mike. Give it a couple of months and come back for a proper holiday; I’ll be long gone by then.”

Anderson stayed silent, trying to get his brain in gear to work out exactly what McDowell had in mind: while he didn’t doubt McDowell’s willingness to carry out his threat, compromise just didn’t seem the McDowell way – he much preferred to stay fully in control. He obviously knew all about Berlin and perhaps also Markova’s note, but presumably not Gabriel. Yet Anderson’s subsequent visit to Highland County had hardly been productive; so why was McDowell so concerned?

Leesburg itself seemed more of a clue. As far as Anderson was aware, Charlotte had merely looked at the map and found somewhere that was a convenient distance from her list of places to visit. Their present location had to be thirty miles from Leesburg – was that sufficiently close for McDowell to jump to the wrong conclusion? If it had been Anderson, then his natural state of paranoia would ensure the answer was a resounding ‘yes’, but McDowell was far more laid-back.

McDowell seemed to misinterpret Anderson’s silence, “It’s not as if you have a choice. Twenty-four hours, and if you’re not on that plane, you’d both better watch your backs.”

He stood up, sliding the chair away from him. “If you think the FBI can protect you, then that would be foolish – you know how we work.”

A nod of dismissal and Anderson’s visit was deemed to be over, the van driver yanking Anderson to his feet and guiding him towards the front door.

Anderson worried as to what he should do. If there was a safe option, he didn’t know what it was: he certainly couldn’t trust McDowell to keep his word, not unless there was some serious advantage to it. It just seemed far easier for McDowell if he simply shot Anderson and dumped his body somewhere.

And there of course was his answer – McDowell was just curious as to why Anderson was in Virginia and what he and Charlotte actually knew. Now, with such questions duly answered, Anderson was expendable, the van taking him on one last ride.

It all fitted together so easily, and such a straightforward if extreme solution was typical of McDowell’s way of working. Hanson became expendable, now she was dead; Anderson was more of an inconvenience, but in McDowell’s eyes he was too great a risk to leave alive.

By the time he reached the van, Anderson had already convinced himself that it was fight or die. His only advantage over his escort was the element of surprise. The man sat opposite with his gun held across his body, if anything the barrel pointing at the driver rather than his captive. Anderson wondered whether he should wait and hope that the man relaxed even more, but by then he might well have lost his nerve, stupidly putting his faith in McDowell’s false promises.

The van accelerated away, turning right, then after another hundred yards, sharp left. Although there were no street lights, there was enough scattered light for Anderson to see by and he instantly launched himself at his escort, a good old-fashioned shoulder charge aimed at the top of his chest. The man tried to react, but Anderson was far too close and with a heavy clunk his escort’s head thudded into the side of the van, the two of them tumbling to the floor.

Anderson finished up half-across the other man, the breath knocked out of him, and he desperately scrabbled for the gun, dragging it from nerveless fingers. Somehow it went off, the sound deafening in the enclosed space, Anderson sensing rather than hearing a shouted curse from the driver.

The van slewed sideways, and Anderson slid face down along the floor of the van, almost losing his grip on the gun. His escort was already twisting around, clambering to his knees.

These could easily be the men that had murdered the two Congressmen and Anderson had too much to lose to worry about the consequences of his actions. He shot the man in the thigh, instantly lifting the gun higher just in case his colleague was thinking of interfering.

He had no need to worry: the driver was still struggling to control the van, it slithering off the road and into the treeline before coming to a shuddering halt; high-up on the windscreen the first gunshot had punched a hole through the laminated glass. Anderson pushed himself to his feet and thrust open one of the rear doors, gaze wavering between the two men to work out whether either was a threat.

The driver hadn’t yet moved from his seat: swearing with every breath, he was busy fumbling left-handed with his seat belt, other hand held to his ear, blood dripping down the side of his face, no sign of a gun. His colleague looked to be in shock, both hands clamped around his thigh, blood oozing darkly between his fingers. Anderson gave a final wary glance and then he leapt down onto the road, racing along the edge of the tree line, the adrenalin continuing to kick in.

The residential road was empty of traffic; the houses all looked to be in the multi-million bracket, separated from each other and the main road by a clump of trees. Anderson kept running, heading towards the traffic noise. He was desperate to get away but also desperate to warn Charlotte, terrified that McDowell would exact his revenge as soon as he could.

It took no more than a few seconds to reach the main road, Anderson arbitrarily turning right, then after fifty yards racing across the two lanes and into the trees beyond – no sign of pursuit. Another hundred yards and he started to slow, grabbing his phone to call Charlotte, urging her to answer.

She did so at only the second ring, Anderson breathlessly shouting out a single word, a pre-arranged signal to do with a lot of shit hitting a very big fan.

  • * *

Despite the late hour, Jensen was still in his smart new office at the Anacostia complex, four miles south-east of the White House, grappling with the headache of McDowell and what exactly he was up to. Part of him wanted his coup theory to be proved wrong, another part argued that he should be pushing the possibility far more strongly.

Many in the Cabinet might think Jensen’s suggestion ridiculous, but the pressure on the Administration seemed unrelenting. The Ulrich bombshell was yet another nail in the coffin of U.S. democracy, the repercussions of her report potentially far more significant than any of the other political embarrassments, even the Vice-President’s resignation. The media had leapt on her report to demand an immediate investigation, with pressure put on Ulrich to retract at least some of it. She had been steadfast in its defence, refusing point-blank to offer an apology or resign, merely adding to the controversy by stating that there was a lot more she had left out simply because the evidence was less conclusive.

For every expert who argued she was wildly exaggerating and that the actual number of incorrect votes was insignificant, there was another who agreed with her general conclusions, confirming that the voting system was in a chaotic state with the results potentially flawed. The knock-on effects of her report were already being felt, with polling centres confirming that the turnout for early-voting was at an all-time low. Predictions as to the final result even suggested that it could be far worse than the humiliation of 2014. At just over 36%, that had been the lowest Midterm turnout since 1942; now the 25% of 1794 might just be within reach. Politicians were doing what they could to stir up interest but their attempts were often counter-productive with several jeered and barracked into silence. Incidents where something more than just abuse was thrown were now common-place, with the authorities unable to cope with the invective stirred-up via social media.

In an attempt to fight back, the morning’s newspapers would carry a joint statement from the Democratic and Republican Parties, united now on a proactive campaign to counter the recent innuendo and lies. The facts would be in print for everyone to see and argue over, the politicians recognising that the ongoing issues had become a serious threat to voter confidence. There was no attempt to suggest the distorted revelations were part of some deeper conspiracy, it implied that they were more a campaign designed to embarrass Congress.

Whether such efforts would be effective in reversing the damage done by Irwin, Ulrich and others was doubtful, the strategy of mistrust proving far too effective. The FBI report on the Mississippi murders only helped to confirm the logic of targeting Dan Quinn, the Congressman widely regarded as the backbone of the Republican Party, a man able to unite dissenters and bring an element of common-sense to the Party’s more controversial ideas. Americans might previously have been unable to put a name to the face, but Quinn’s relatively low public profile belied his significant political influence. Each such incident ate away at the very fabric of America’s political system, both from within and through increased public apathy.

The President was now clearly regarded as weak and indecisive, the mass of politicians as complacent and uncaring, with no-one willing to force through the changes essential to keep democracy relevant and effective. To the public and the media, the escalating crisis in the South China Sea was a prime example of the President’s shortcomings. The second battle of Mischief Reef had taken another seven lives, the internet full of eyewitness reports. Virtually every news station seemed to have access to scores of video clips, some broadcasters going so far as to show the shooting of two Vietnamese by Chinese marines and the resultant chaos around Louisa Marcelo’s catamaran.

The response from Vietnam took just a few hours, a patrol boat firing on several Chinese fishing boats which it was claimed had been fishing illegally – four dead; one boat sunk. Overnight, angry mobs had swept through Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City attacking anything or anyone believed to be Chinese. Scores had been injured, the number killed as yet unclear. The Philippines had witnessed similar protests but fewer targeted attacks, a mass rally planned for when Marcelo arrived back in Manila.

The latest intelligence reports confirmed that it would take very little for China, the Philippines and Vietnam to engage in a shooting war – not bullets against unarmed civilians but missiles and torpedoes aimed at military targets. Vietnam certainly had the means through its modern fleet of Russian-built submarines and frigates, plus a capable air force. Their government had tended to adopt a passive stance over China’s expansionist policies, unwilling to risk such expensive resources in a war it couldn’t possibly win – but that now seemed to be changing.

China and Vietnam had last gone to war in 1979, with between thirty and fifty thousand killed in a vicious conflict that hadn’t even lasted a month. Despite China’s overwhelming superiority, Vietnam would again prove to be a tenacious enemy, the consequences for both countries likely to be significant.

One danger was that other nations would invariably be dragged in – not just the Philippines but possibly also Taiwan. North Korea would doubtless look on, working out how best to take advantage, perhaps even assuming America would be too distracted to react to an attack. The U.S. Seventh Fleet was doing its best to show the flag, and once the joint naval exercise with Japan ended then additional vessels would be sent south to join the USS Milius.

With pressure mounting from all sides on Cavanagh, the possibility of a political coup or some form of military takeover remained a concern; unlikely it might be, and ultimately destined to failure, but Jensen couldn’t simply ignore it. He blithely chose to disregard the President’s views, opting instead for what he considered were sensible precautions, and the FBI were now looking more closely at prominent political and military figures, it given the status more of a philosophical enquiry rather than a full-blown investigation.

Election Day was less than a week away, and it seemed as if events were inexorably heading towards an uncertain climax, one from which President Cavanagh might not yet escape without some new crisis; perhaps even a direct challenge to his authority.

  • * *

Raymond Flores ducked under the police tape and strode towards the house, impressed by its elegance and jealous that Garcia’s home was well outside of his price range. He had used his car but he could have just as easily walked there, the exclusive estate between Centreville and Chantilly less than a mile from his own home. Noticing Flores, another agent moved to head him off, ready with the initial report.

“Garcia was found in the master bedroom,” said the agent, checking his notes. “Shot twice in the chest; been dead about an hour. Police responded to a ‘shots fired’ call at 21:24: witnesses reported seeing a stationary white van and an armed man running up Pleasant Valley Road towards Chantilly – too dark to get a good description. That’s about four hundred yards from here but the van had disappeared by the time the police turned up. There was also an anonymous call to the hotline at 21:50: male, British accent; he described the Garcia house and claimed Pat McDowell could be found here.”

“Described it? The caller didn’t give an actual address?”

“No address; just a detailed description. It wasn’t hard to work out which house. We’re looking at two separate incidents here, but it’s difficult not to believe they’re somehow connected.”

Flores checked his watch: 22:47. The area around Centreville was being saturated with police and agents, but it was probably already too late, the perpetrators doubtless long gone.

“Where’s Garcia’s wife?” Flores asked.

“The neighbours think she’s in Los Angeles visiting her sister.”

“No sign of McDowell?”

The agent shook his head, “Front door was unlocked, lights on; we’re knocking on doors but so far no-one saw or heard anything unusual. Forensic are checking the house – no sign of a struggle. The perimeter has four cameras covering the grounds, but for some reason only one picked up anything relevant: no van or any other vehicles, just a white male walking up to the front door; timestamp puts his arrival at just after nine. They’re working to enhance the image now.”

“Garcia didn’t have a protection detail?”

“He wasn’t interested,” replied the agent. “Said he was too old and set in his ways to cope with a bodyguard.”

Flores nodded in understanding. At the age of 78 he too might have refused the offer of 24/7 protection, and Garcia would have well known the risks, relying more on his perceived anonymity. He certainly wouldn’t have been the only one of his colleagues to regret such a decision, although the first to have suffered more than just a routine robbery.

The FBI hotline had received a steady trickle of reports as to Pat McDowell’s whereabouts but none quite as specific as this evening. Despite the setback with Paige Hanson, no blame had been attached to Flores, and his specialist unit had been co-opted as part of a joint agency task force. The hunt for McDowell still covered a massive area, including all of Maryland and Virginia, the focus now instantly switching to west of D.C.

“Check the other houses for CCTV,” Flores instructed. “Maybe they picked up something.”

It was a vain hope, but Flores wasn’t prepared to let a chance to catch McDowell – or whoever was responsible – slip by. His first thoughts focused on the anonymous call made by a man with an English accent: Flores was aware Anderson was staying in Leesburg and gut instinct made him order a unit to check it out.

McDowell, Anderson and Garcia: the first two knew each other, but it seemed unlikely that either man moved in Garcia’s exclusive circle. For the last twenty-five years Enrique Garcia had served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, one of the nine men and women who together made up the Supreme Court. In terms of seniority, Garcia was the longest-serving Associate Justice; although, at his age, he would have been unlikely to make the step up to Chief Justice of the United States.

Whilst on official business, the Supreme Court’s own police provided suitable protection for the nine justices; otherwise the U.S. Marshals Service and local police took over. Garcia’s home was in a low crime area, and he had obviously put his faith in the deterrence of the alarm and CCTV, a police patrol car carrying out a visual check every now and again.

Flores now had a high-profile case on his hands, one likely to gain the full attention of the White House. He badly needed a success to make up for Paige Hanson and he was determined not to fail a second time. If he had to spend a couple of sleepless nights chasing after every elusive lead, then that was a small price to pay.

  • * *

Charlotte drove as fast as she dared, still bewildered as to whether she was doing the right thing. Anderson had basically told her to pack up and leave straightaway, but she had insisted on coming to his aid, not prepared to just abandon him. It didn’t help that Anderson had no clear idea of where he was, and his best guess of ‘somewhere south of Washington’ had forced Charlotte to pick a random route while awaiting more detailed instructions.

The next hour was sixty minutes of high stress, her mood alternating between despair and anger; the fact that she had been right all along and McDowell was indeed close at hand, was of no consolation whatsoever. Anderson hadn’t gone into much detail except to warn her that she was in danger, but that all-too obviously went for him as well.

By the time she reached Centreville, she had finally managed to calm down; she didn’t think she had been followed and a second call from Anderson had finally given her a more specific destination to aim for. Of concern was the number of police that were out and about, Charlotte eventually waved to a halt because of a police road-block.

One officer moved from car to car, another watching everything, hand never far from his gun. Charlotte wound down her window and smiled sweetly at the officer – at least that was how she hoped it came across and not as a scowl.

“Sorry for the delay, Miss,” said the officer. “If you could please pop the trunk.”

Charlotte did as she was bid, wanting to ask who they were searching for but not daring just in case it wasn’t actually McDowell. The officer took a casual glance inside the car and boot, before giving Charlotte a smile and waving her through.

Five minutes later she turned into the Chantilly Golf Club entrance, parking well away from the clubhouse. She then just waited, engine turned off, searching the shadows for some sign of Anderson.

The passenger door was pulled open and Anderson slid onto the seat. Charlotte almost threw herself at him, relieved but for some reason wanting to shout at him as well.

Welcome over, Anderson quickly recounted more on his meeting with McDowell, Charlotte listening in shocked silence as he glossed over his escape.

“The police are everywhere,” she said, when he had finished. “Are they looking for you or Pat McDowell?”

“Both of us, I guess,” Anderson replied, sounding exhausted. “People might not have heard the shots, but at least one saw me running away with a gun in my hand. McDowell implied he had the FBI in his pocket, and it’s just too risky to give myself up.”

Charlotte could well understand Anderson’s concerns – what she didn’t appreciate was him trying so hard to convince her to return immediately to the UK, when he was all-too obviously staying. And it just seemed foolish not to at least talk to the FBI: Anderson had only fired the gun in self-defence and the longer he left it the guiltier he would look.

It was a lonely trip back to Leesburg, Charlotte once again worried by the decisions they had both made. Anderson was now slightly better equipped than earlier, with Charlotte having supplied various basic essentials such as cash and clothes, as well as passing across her phone. Trading phones had been her idea – pointless probably, but it seemed safer than Anderson using his own or having to risk a payphone. Transport was proving trickier, the hire car too dangerous a proposition. Anderson’s one ace was Adam Devereau, Anderson confident that his former boss and his many contacts would be able to work some magic.

Charlotte was still undecided as to what she should do – if McDowell’s threat was to be believed then returning to the Jackson Inn could be a serious mistake. She had her passport, and money, but not a lot else, and despite Anderson’s warning, she was reluctant to leave everything behind. She had had to pander to McDowell once before and that was once too many – with the police hot on his tail, surely he would have far better things to worry about than her.

Charlotte focused on that thought, offering up a prayer to whoever might be listening that she was actually right – so far, luck had been on their side, and maybe to expect anything more might be pushing it.

[]Chapter 15 – Friday, November 4th

Eastern United States – 00:40 Local Time; 04:40 UTC

Charlotte parked in an empty bay and walked slowly towards the Jackson Inn entrance. It was well after midnight and she was beginning to question the wisdom of ignoring Anderson’s concerns, the parking area not as well lit as she would have liked.

The night porter was at his desk busy on the phone, barely glancing at Charlotte as she passed. She took the stairs up to the second floor, stopping just short of her room once she realised the door was ajar.

“Miss Saunders?” The man was dressed in dark suit and tie, the proffered ID confirming he was FBI. Charlotte studied it carefully, not having a clue whether it was genuine or not, but needing time to gather her thoughts.

“Yes, I’m Charlotte Saunders. Why were you in my room?” Charlotte didn’t need to act surprised – she had been mentally prepared for the possibility of being accosted, just not by the FBI.

“If we could talk inside.”

It seemed more of an instruction than a question, Charlotte wondering whether she was going to survive the embarrassment of seeing her more intimate items strewn around the bedroom.

In fact, apart from a second agent standing by the window, the room was as she’d left it. Charlotte sat on the bed, struggling to come up with a cover story that wouldn’t just simply be a pack of lies.

“Mr Anderson’s not with you?”

“No, sorry.” Charlotte was trying hard not to sound nervous, still working out how exactly to play it – frightened, tearful, concerned, outraged, or maybe all four. “He went out at about eight, and I thought he might be back by now.”

“Went out where?”

Charlotte shrugged and attempted to add a tone of annoyance to her answer. “He had a phone call and had to go out; said he’d be back about twelve. I’m afraid I don’t know who the call was from or where he was going: journalists like Mike tend to keep their sources to themselves.”

“And where exactly have you been?” The agent’s tone was firm but not impolite.

Charlotte upped the annoyance level, “I’m not sure why you’re asking such questions, or what right you have to break into my room.”

This time it was the second agent who responded, moving from the window to stand closer to Charlotte. “A man was murdered earlier this evening; it’s possible Mr Anderson might have relevant information.”

The blood drained from Charlotte’s face: Anderson had said he’d grabbed a gun and wounded one of his captors, but he hadn’t mentioned killing anyone.

The agent noticed her reaction, waiting a few seconds before speaking. “Let me ask again, Miss Saunders – where were you this evening?”

“I got bored being on my own,” replied Charlotte softly. “So I went for a drive; nowhere special – just Washington and back. I didn’t even stop anywhere.”

The questions continued, Charlotte sticking to the truth where she could. Pat McDowell? Yes, she knew him, but wasn’t he dead? Anderson had certainly never told her otherwise. And, no, this was a holiday and not some quest for an exclusive on terrorism in the U.S…

Charlotte didn’t want to lie but she shared Anderson’s concerns as to whether they could really trust the FBI to keep them safe. If McDowell had friends in Russia’s Intelligence Agencies and America’s ONI, what made the FBI so different?

It was close to an hour before the two agents left her alone, Charlotte’s passport disappearing with them. She gave it a minute and then flung herself on the bed, almost shrieking aloud, close to tears. Anderson was alone and under threat and she had willingly turned away the one organisation that might be able to help him. The FBI seemed determined to pin some murder on him, but she was certain Anderson would have only acted in self-defence.

The TV news was able to add a little more detail: man murdered at his home outside Centreville; next-of-kin not yet informed; police hunting a male suspect; early-forties, six foot-one, a hundred and seventy-five pounds. It was Anderson to a tee.

Charlotte forced herself to calm down, needing a clear head to work out what she needed to do. Anderson had more or less pleaded that she return home, wanting her safe, but that had just seemed such a negative option. When Anderson didn’t return, there’d be yet more questions to answer, but if she left the Jackson Inn where could she sensibly go? Without a passport, her options were severely limited.

Charlotte simply couldn’t decide what was best, eventually drifting off to sleep, hand clutched around Anderson’s phone, waiting for him to give some sign that all was well.

 

Khabarovsk, Russia – 16:40 Local Time; 06:40 UTC

Khabarovsk was like many other Russia cities, modern vibrant buildings slowly replacing the drab legacy of the Communist era. Well used to tourists, there was plenty to keep visitors entertained, although for Markova the lure was more to the east of the city than its centre.

Some 700 kilometres north of Vladivostok, and just 30 kilometres from the Chinese border, the region had been ceded by China in 1858. Subsequent border disputes had taken a hundred and fifty years to resolve, small tracts of land along the Manchurian border returned to China.

Moscow might believe Beijing’s grievances had been assuaged but many in China wanted far more. Khabarovsk, Vladivostok, the island of Sakhalin north of Japan: it was a vast area with substantial economic resources, old maps naming it Outer Manchuria, its Chinese heritage difficult to ignore. Successive governments in Moscow had failed to halt the region’s population imbalance, with ethnic Russians – subject to high rates of mortality and socio-economic emigration – effectively being replaced by illegal immigrants from China. Out of the population of six million, official figures gave the number of ethnic Chinese as 30,000; independent estimates put it at more like 600,000.

It wasn’t just Outer Manchuria where Russian and Chinese interests overlapped or conflicted: Mongolia, North Korea, Japan, India and even Vietnam – South-East Asia had become a key area for both countries, with almost forty percent of Russia’s yearly arms sales going to China’s potential enemies.

The significant Chinese minority in Outer Manchuria was only now starting to exert nationalist pressure; nothing violent as yet, more a warning as to what might lie ahead – Markova had already noticed a dozen Russian signs altered to their original Chinese names. Russia’s annexation of Crimea had given other countries pause for thought, Beijing actively encouraging the influx of its citizens into Khabarovsk and Vladivostok. Another decade or two, and China might well be able to walk across the Russian border while justly claiming it was protecting the Chinese majority.

Khabarovsk was the headquarters of Russia’s Eastern Military District, but the military presence certainly wasn’t obvious. For the moment, she had followed Nikolai’s advice and had not yet approached their FSB contact, wanting to get a better feel for what might be happening in and around the city itself.

Markova had driven north and south, seeing nothing out of the ordinary, and if anything was a surprise it was the amount of new buildings that had sprung up since her last visit. She hadn’t been entirely honest with Nikolai, having an ulterior motive for traveling to Khabarovsk which had nothing to do with Sukhov, it being far more personal. Markova had grown up on her grandparents’ farm a few kilometres to the east, three girls and one boy brought up under what had seemed at the time a rigid set of rules, one of which was the unchallenging respect for authority.

Markova’s mother had spent much of her married life torn between love for her four children and loyalty to her husband, joining him for weeks at a time on his various diplomatic postings. Despite such obstacles, they were both loving parents, and her mother’s early death had hit her father hard, turning him ever-more into a recluse. Markova had left Khabarovsk for good when she was just sixteen, but the farm would always be the one place she considered home. She hadn’t been back to the city for some eight years, not since her grandmother had passed away, the farm now run by Markova’s brother-in-law. Early that afternoon she had driven past, slowly, and the good memories instantly came flooding back, Markova disconcerted by an unexpected surge of regret.

Returning to the city of her childhood had perhaps been a mistake, Markova still unsettled by thoughts of what might have been. A life as a wife and mother had never been for her, but there had been times over the past weeks where a less traumatic lifestyle would have been welcome. She had come close to death in the frozen embrace of the River Volga and those fighting against Golubeva seemed to be losing more ground every day. General Morozov had been forced to abandon Volgograd, his supporters melting into the countryside. Morozov’s exact status was now unclear, his latest refuge rumoured to be anywhere from the Caucasus Mountains to Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea. Unless Markova discovered the secret of Khabarovsk soon, such knowledge might well just be an irrelevancy.

Markova strode along the pedestrian boulevard running alongside the River Amur, searching out Nikolai, assuming he would either be eating or drinking. The walkway was still crowded despite the encroaching darkness and the cold, a fresh cover of snow forecast for the morning.

Nikolai stood leaning against the embankment, idly watching the ferry, a mug of tea cradled between his hands. Markova moved across to stand beside him, gently removing the steaming mug to take a warming gulp.

“Anything new?” asked Nikolai, watching his tea rapidly disappear with a concerned frown.

“Same story,” Markova reported, handing back the mug. “Nothing unusual in the city, but the highways to the west and south have been closed several times without warning – just for a few hours. Lots of rumours about military convoys heading south; never anything that can actually be verified.”

Khabarovsk might seem normal but that obviously wasn’t quite the case. The local newspapers made no mention of road closures and the city seemed to be suffering from some form of communication malaise: cell-phone signals were intermittent, satellite phone reception regularly distorted by static, landlines simply not working. Markova’s new role as a journalist had so far proved useful, although she was careful who she spoke to and took her time before judging whether to ask the more pertinent questions.

“Now what?” Nikolai prompted.

“We’ll check in with Major Yashkin and see what he has for us. Then a drive down to Vladivostok.”

Nikolai visibly winced: his body was still recovering from the ten-hour flight to Khabarovsk and another ten hours stuck in a hire car was not something to look forward to. “There’s always the train,” he suggested hopefully.

Markova was about to respond when there was the rising wail of a siren, the universal sound for some imminent disaster.

“A routine test?” questioned Nikolai, turning around. The city centre lay a kilometre to the east, their view blocked by a grassy bank rising up beyond the edge of the boulevard.

A second siren sounded and the scene around them seemed to become frozen in time, people stopping what they were doing, anxious faces lifted upward as though they might somehow be able to see what was happening.

The street lights flickered twice and as if in response there was a dull boom away to the east, a pall of dirty smoke rising up against the evening sky.

There were cries of shock, people watching transfixed, others deciding it was time to leave and no-one quite sure what was happening. Markova gestured at Nikolai and they followed the flow of people heading south towards the access road, Nikolai already struggling to keep up, his left leg numb and unresponsive.

A second explosion; a raucous crack which sounded as though it were almost on top of them, followed an instant later by the deep-throated rumble of falling masonry. Blind panic instantly swept through the crowded boulevard, everyone surging towards the road, desperate to escape, the frightened screams and cries only adding to the hysteria.

Markova grabbed Nikolai’s arm and half-walked, half-dragged him along the boulevard, almost having to fight to keep upright, people barging past them in a chaotic melee. Up ahead lay the pink ticket office for the ferry, their hire car parked further on. Nikolai was starting to labour, breath coming in gasps, left leg threatening to buckle at every painful step.

Markova forced herself to stop for a moment, elbowing some space. There was a sudden deafening roar as the ticket office disintegrated, the blast sweeping outwards, cutting a bloody swathe through the crowd. Nikolai was almost torn from Markova’s grasp and they staggered backwards, holding on to each other, ears deafened, eyes smarting.

Markova could barely see, a grey cloud of choking dust cloaking the area and reducing visibility to no more than a few metres. She pulled Nikolai in close, guiding him forward, the two of them stumbling over bodies and chunks of concrete, ears recovering to be bombarded by the panic-stricken cries of those around her. Markova felt people barging into her from all sides, hands clawing at her legs. She was struggling to stop herself from simply lashing out with a foot or a fist, a sense of claustrophobia threatening to overwhelm her, telling her to abandon Nikolai.

She shook such thoughts aside, the two of them shuffling along together as best they could. Their car was a wreck, the road blocked by debris anyway. Markova kept up the pace, determined to get to safety and she turned right, heading away from the city centre. The dust cloud was beginning to thin and breathing was now far easier, the crush of people no longer a problem.

Markova slowed to a halt. Nikolai disengaged himself to lean up against a lamp post, head bowed as he took in deep shuddering breaths.

Abruptly the street lights dimmed and then went out altogether, a ghostly darkness enveloping the surroundings. The explosions finally seemed to have stopped, the sirens of the emergency services cutting through the screams of the wounded and the dying.

Markova walked on a few metres, mind struggling to cope, knowing it was Chinese artillery but not understanding why. She turned back towards Nikolai; abruptly there was a crashing welter of noise and she was blown off her feet, her body smashing face-down onto the frozen earth.

She lay on the ground, tasting blood, eyes open but unable to focus. She tried moving her limbs but there was nothing, just a dull annoying ache. Her head felt as though it was being repeatedly squeezed in a massive vice and random thoughts started jumping around in her brain – fighting with her brother, her first day in Moscow, the pink ticket office melting before her eyes.

The blood in her mouth brought forth a cough and she winced sharply as needle-like fingers of pain lanced through her chest, the spasm gripping her whole body. The throbbing in her head suddenly seemed to intensify, a curtain of darkness sweeping down over her.

  • * *

Markova drifted in and out of consciousness, sensing people around her and the wail of the ambulance’s siren; she thought she saw Nikolai but couldn’t be sure. She tried to speak but knew she was making no sense and then the drugs kicked in, the warm embrace of sleep a welcome release.

When she next awoke, Markova lay on a wheeled stretcher in a hospital corridor, one of a line of patients waiting to be seen. The trauma department at the end of the corridor looked to be overflowing with the injured, and Markova searched desperately for her triage tag, relieved to see it was coded yellow, disappointed it wasn’t green. Worse than a minor injury, but no need to be seen immediately – she was far luckier than many.

The corridor quickly filled along one side, staff having to squeeze past. Markova’s head was still pounding and the left side of her body was a band of pain from breast to thigh. She tried to lever herself upright but gave up as soon as the nausea hit, lying back down and accepting she wasn’t going anywhere for now. Instead, she worked on remembering her cover story, struggling to recall her new name and date of birth, trusting that her confusion wasn’t some form of retrograde amnesia.

It was another hour before she was wheeled into the emergency suite, her body duly prodded and probed, pupils and blood pressure checked, referred for X-rays and brain scan. There were the expected questions, Markova’s own concerning Nikolai merely met with a shrug or a shake of the head.

Eventually, having been dosed up with painkillers, she was transferred onto a temporary ward, there to await the promised tests. Broken ribs, concussion, pulmonary contusion, traumatic brain injury – Markova felt the doctor’s concerns were unduly pessimistic, but just getting up and seeing if she could physically walk without collapsing still seemed unwise.

She’d rethink her options tomorrow, once they’d worked out whether her brain was still fully functional or not.

 

The Koschei – 17:09 Local Time; 09:09 UTC

In Russia it was a public holiday, Unity Day supposed to encourage tolerance between Russia’s many diverse nationalities. Karenin had duly noted the fact at the mid-morning briefing, commenting in passing that the holiday’s origin had far more to do with Moscow’s liberation from Polish invaders in 1612. It was just one of the many useless facts Karenin could call upon. Another was that the Project-633 submarine was known in the West as the Romeo-class, the Soviet Union’s export version to China renamed the Type 6633 Romeo, before the same hull metamorphosed into the Chinese-built Ming-class, several of which had then found their way to North Korea. The design was now effectively an antique; however China had maintained several such boats, its tactical doctrine based on using the outdated Ming-class as bait for the expected U.S. enemy, with the more modern attack submarines waiting nearby to pounce.

The Koschei’s acoustic signature had theoretically been tailored to be an excellent match to one of China’s remaining Ming-class submarines, specifically the Taizong, pennant number 310. Personally, Karenin has his doubts, not helped by last-minute concerns involving an upgrade to one of North Korea’s own Ming-class subs. The Americans had to believe they were tracking a Chinese submarine and not be confused into thinking it was North Korean.

It had been far too late to re-think or make changes, and in any case Karenin remained unconvinced as to the accuracy of the science. Not that it was for him to question the experts, he was simply there to ensure the Koschei got noticed.

Many of the crew were from Karenin’s previous command, the men adapting well to the peculiar mix of old and new: the Koschei was relatively slow and tricky to manoeuvre, but its passive sonar and torpedo countermeasures were based on the updated Kilo-class. The normal complement of fourteen torpedoes had been reduced to eleven due to the difficulty of acquiring suitable weapons – although China’s Yu-4B torpedo was a development of a Russian model, continuous upgrades had made it essential to obtain the Chinese versions. Despite its relative age, the torpedo was still a capable weapon, its greatest disadvantage a range of just 15 kilometres.

The sonar centre in the old Romeo had been separate from the control room – now it was part of a modern targeting console, Karenin able to keep a close eye on the submarine’s various systems without needing to walk more than a few metres. For five minutes now, Karenin had stood behind one of the two sonar technicians, watching a small red icon pulsing slowly on the monitor.

The South China Sea was a complex and relatively dangerous hunting ground for the Koschei: a deep basin lay to the east, dotted with steep-sided reefs, before the sea floor rose sharply to form the continental shelf. Home to a multitude of atolls, sandbars and shipwrecks, India’s winter monsoon dragged in colder air to add its unique influence to the ever-changing currents. The Sea was also a major artery for trade, its shipping lanes carrying almost half the world’s annual tonnage. Most of it passed close to the Spratly Islands, the northern route dominated by tankers transporting crude oil and liquefied natural gas to Japan and South Korea from the Persian Gulf.

Despite such tempting prey, merchant ships were not Karenin’s objective, the Koschei meandering west of the Spratly Islands and close to the Vietnamese coast. The submarine’s sonar suite automatically analysed and filtered the hundreds of sonar contacts in order to search out potential threats and key targets, Karenin being given a very specific set of criteria to work with.

The red icon revealed the position of Vietnamese frigate HQ-17, the vessel some 30 kilometres distant and well outside of Vietnam’s territorial waters. Built in Russia in 1972, the Petya-class corvette had been transferred to Vietnam in ’84; re-designated as a light frigate, it was soon due to be replaced as part of Vietnam’s ambitious naval program. The new Gepard-class frigates would have provided a far sterner challenge, but maybe that was for the best, the Koschei and its crew needing something relatively easy as a first test.

The submarine crept forward, simply waiting for the frigate to cruise past. The Vietnamese vessel was ambling along at a steady 14 knots, no sense of danger, no active sonar searching for a potential enemy, the frigate not even varying its northerly course.

“Confirm firing solution for Alpha-One,” Karenin ordered, “Forward tubes one through three; passive setting, three degree spread.” Visual confirmation was an unnecessary and risky luxury, the modern targeting and sonar systems able to tell Karenin far more than any video camera or a brief glance through a periscope.

“Solution confirmed, Sir; Alpha-One: bearing two-three-two, relative zero-one-zero; speed 14 knots; range 7800 metres.”

“Fire tubes one through three.” The orders were spoken without emotion, Karenin almost embarrassed as to how easy it all was. The atmosphere in the control room was expectant, certainly no sense of fear, the experienced crew confident but in no sense complacent.

There was a triple thump as the torpedoes were ejected. Karenin hated having to rely on the Chinese torpedoes but their systems had been checked thoroughly: although not wire-guided, they had both active and passive homing, and at 40 knots could easily outpace the Vietnamese frigate.

“Helm, left five degrees rudder; come to course one-six-zero.” Karenin rubbed his unshaven chin, careful to give the impression that he had everything under control, every potential problem duly weighed and a suitable response prepared.

“Five minutes to first impact.” The weapons officer hadn’t needed to give an update, the information clearly visible, but he well knew Karenin’s preference for regular reports.

The frigate still seemed unaware it was under attack, Karenin watching the target and torpedo icons, the data alongside showing something of the subsequent chase; abruptly, the frigate started to accelerate, turning rapidly towards the threat, the increasing clamour from its engines only helping the chasing torpedoes to acquire their target.

Karenin idly wondered whether the Vietnamese captain would choose to blast the sea with his ship’s active sonar and so attempt to detect the attacking submarine; if so, then it would merely seal the frigate’s fate, the sonar pulses a guiding beacon for the three torpedoes.

Under different circumstances, Karenin would have ideally launched the attack from much closer, maybe just four kilometres: he didn’t fully trust the ageing torpedoes’ guidance systems and he’d generously given the frigate almost seven minutes to plan its escape. More importantly, it also provided the Vietnamese a chance to analyse and report the attack, the Koschei’s alter-ego – or at the very least another Chinese submarine – hopefully taking the blame.

“ASW rockets fired, Sir; they seem to be targeting the torpedoes rather than the Koschei.”

The frigate’s rocket system was designed to target submarines and hardly ideal for torpedoes. Still, it was better than simply doing nothing and Karenin well understood the desperation of such measures.

“Explosion in the water,” the sonar chief reported. He glanced across at Karenin, a look of understanding passing between them: so much for the rocket system being ineffective – one Yu-4 torpedo destroyed.

“High-speed screws; two torpedoes fired. Bearing two-six-five; range estimate 8000 metres; designate as Alpha-Two and Alpha-Three.”

The frigate was trying to fight back, the torpedoes most likely sent along a reciprocal course in the vain hope of searching out the Koschei.

“Thirty seconds to first impact, both Yu-4s running true.”

Karenin raised the attack periscope, giving a rapid all-round sweep before lining up on the frigate and increasing magnification. The ship was surrounded in a smoky haze, its outline suddenly revealed as another salvo of rockets was fired. A heartbeat later a brilliant crimson glow enveloped the frigate’s stern, the ship rearing up as though punched from below; a count of six and a second explosion snapped the frigate’s back.

“Confirm two hits on Alpha-One; target breaking up.”

“Down scope,” Karenin ordered. “Ten degrees down-angle; make your depth two hundred metres. All-ahead one-third.”

The orders were repeated, and Karenin moved to study the tracks of the Vietnamese torpedoes. Russian designed and manufactured, he well knew their capabilities; however, these were thirty years out-of-date and fired blind, Karenin confident the Koschei was in no danger.

The control room was silent, no-one yet having the courage to celebrate the submarine’s first ever ‘kill’. Strangely, Karenin felt drained, his mind struggling with a complex mix of emotions: pride at how well they had performed, and fear at what they might have unleashed.

Thirty minutes later, the Koschei turned east. The submarine had finally been bloodied after almost sixty years – time now to build on that success.

Eastern United States – 10:11 Local Time; 14:11 UTC

The twin reports of separate artillery and torpedo attacks kept the news agencies working overtime to try and make sense of who had hit whom and why. The TV images from Khabarovsk at least offered an explicit illustration of what had happened, everyone able to see the carnage and destruction caused by China’s artillery: at least twenty killed, over two hundred injured. The sinking of the Vietnamese warship was somehow less ‘real’, and it was more difficult to point blame with any degree of certainty, even though everyone knew China was responsible.

Russia’s outrage and angry condemnation of China was matched by Vietnam, the latter immediately blaming China for the sinking of the frigate. Just ten survivors had so far been rescued, the rest of the frigate’s ninety crew members assumed to be dead. Vietnam’s neighbours, even Malaysia, universally condemned the attack, the United Nations Security Council meeting in emergency session to argue and then do nothing. For once, it was Russia which proposed a more forceful approach towards China’s alleged belligerence, support garnered from a significant majority of the Security Council’s fifteen members. China vehemently denied responsibility for either attack, suggesting that it was some plot cooked up by Russia and Vietnam.

Even as the emergency meeting was breaking up, news reports detailed rumours of a Chinese missile strike against a Philippine patrol boat. Official sources within the Philippine Coastguard first confirmed, and then denied the attack, the confusion spreading as a second news story broke. Now it was a Chinese landing on one of the Spratly Islands held by the Philippines, the exact details unclear.

It was the final straw. With the rest of the world looking on, Vietnam and the Philippines used the United Nations as the venue for a joint statement, just one step from a declaration of war. With immediate effect, they announced the creation of a maritime exclusion zone, south of the 14th Parallel between the coasts of Vietnam and the Philippines, with all Chinese military forces presently inside or entering the exclusion zone liable to attack without warning. In addition, China’s embassies and consulates were to be closed, staff expelled, both countries declaring a moratorium on Chinese goods and services. The final paragraph was a plea to other nations, specifically the United States, to actively support the fight against China, and help defend the sovereignty of both Vietnam and the Philippines.

The Spratly Islands were some 200 kilometres south of the 14th Parallel, the line roughly traversing east-west from Manila to the Vietnamese city of Quy Nhơn. Many independent observers assumed the creation of an exclusion zone was simply an idle threat, the two countries needing to be seen to be standing up to China without actually going to war. Others considered it a foolish and ill-timed knee-jerk reaction which neither nation could enforce, while potentially giving China an excuse to assert its authority over the rest of the Spratly group.

Even the moratorium was considered a toothless gesture: China was Vietnam’s second largest trading partner after the United States, with bilateral trade worth over $80 billion a year; the Philippines would be similarly exposed, a quarter of its exports going to China. In reality, there was little either country could do to bully or threaten its powerful neighbour, with only a combined threat by the ten-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations likely to sway Asia’s sole superpower.

China immediately rejected the joint statement, denouncing the ‘blackmail and lies’ that had brought about the crisis. Having reinforced its earlier denial of involvement in any attack against either Vietnam or the Philippines, the Beijing Government pointedly asserted the lawful right of Chinese warships and aircraft to cross the 14th parallel, their response leaving little doubt that any attempt to block China’s access to the south would be met with deadly force.

The artillery attack on Russia somehow seemed to lose prominence, it automatically assumed that Russia was more than capable of standing up for itself. The apparent restraint showed by Moscow was unexpected, Russia merely restricting itself to verbal attacks against Beijing, while offering implicit support for the actions of the Philippines and Vietnam.

There was one key player no-one had yet heard from, President Cavanagh due to hold a press briefing at 13.00 Eastern Time; 01.00 Saturday in Manila.

  • * *

McDowell sat alone in the computer centre, his gaze drifting across the main screen while waiting for CNN to swap to a live feed from the White House. It was already a quarter past one, the President no doubt delaying his speech due to ongoing developments in the South China Sea. The White House phones were probably red hot from over-use, a dozen capital cities called, leaders argued with and cajoled, bribes offered and threats hinted at.

McDowell was confident it would do no good, and the furore created by the Koschei’s actions had been further inflamed through Marcelo’s passion and the disinformation of others, McDowell making good use of an influential source hidden deep inside the Philippine Navy. Maybe not today, but very soon, Cavanagh would be forced into making an obvious error of judgement – then the final act could play out. The resources were already safely in place, with each minor incident and scandal easing others into positions of power.

There had been a few complications along the way but none that were too serious or couldn’t be effectively dealt with. Anderson was more a personal concern for McDowell rather than realistic problem, and even if he talked to the FBI, there was nothing new he could tell them.

Still, it would have been far better if Anderson had not escaped, and McDowell appreciated he had made it too obvious his offer wasn’t genuine. Despite his warning to his two colleagues that they needed to watch Anderson, they had taken the Englishman’s compliance at face value – now he was two men down with nothing to show for it. McDowell himself had tidied up their mess, leaving Carter and Preston to finish off at Garcia’s house.

That had proved to be his second mistake, the unexpected time constraints and a miscommunication resulting in Garcia being found in the bedroom rather than downstairs near where Anderson had sat; Carter had also been forced to rush through changes to the CCTV images. Neither problem should have been that crucial but taken together they seriously tarnished the evidence against Anderson. It had probably been a foolish idea to try and frame him but McDowell was keen to to divert the authorities’ attention elsewhere. His FBI source supplied McDowell with infrequent but essential updates, and even though their search area still covered half-a-dozen states, with every day that passed the authorities edged a little closer.

On the main monitor, the CNN image finally moved to the White House Press Room, the President striding up onto the podium. To begin with Cavanagh was on fairly safe ground: regret as to the loss of life, frank exchange of views with other world leaders, the U.S. deeply concerned, important that the U.N. Security Council… There was nothing unexpected or controversial, Cavanagh preferring to speak without notes, his tone hitting just the right sense of gravitas.

It was almost a minute before he moved on to the trickier aspects, starting with the latest assessment of those responsible for the sinking of Frigate HQ-17.

“Detailed analysis of satellite data and communication reports,” continued Cavanagh, “give a sense of the suddenness of the attack and the desperate actions of HQ-17. There is absolutely nothing to indicate that the three torpedoes were launched in response to some form of provocation by the frigate, the attack taking place in international waters and over a hundred miles from areas of dispute. HQ-17 had no prior warning and her captain had no real opportunity to take appropriate defensive measures.

“At the present time we are unable to confirm Hanoi’s assertion that the torpedoes were fired from a Chinese submarine. Much of the evidence, primarily that obtained by an analysis of the torpedoes’ acoustic signatures and their mode of operation, is inconclusive; however, in terms of probabilities, it would seem very likely that the torpedoes were either Russian SAET 60s or upgraded Chinese Yu-4s.”

The final statement caused a noisy reaction from amongst the normally respectful press corps, Cavanagh having to wait for the hubbub to die down before resuming. “It is important to emphasise that this does not mean they were launched from either a Russian or a Chinese submarine; export versions of both types of torpedo were sold to various countries up until the early nineties.”

To the assembled press, and no doubt many of those watching, the President was just quibbling over semantics – forget Russia; these were Chinese torpedoes, so obviously a Chinese submarine. McDowell assumed Cavanagh and his advisers were concerned as to the implications of apportioning blame without definite evidence; maybe they were being influenced by the Hanson link, even sensing something close to the actual truth. But such prevarication only made the President seem weak, unwilling to accept what was all-too obvious to everyone else.

The President pressed on regardless, “Reports of a Chinese attack on the Spratly Islands are simply not true. There has been a minor explosion aboard a Philippine patrol boat which was operating close to the islands, but that is believed to have been caused by an electrical fault – one person was slightly injured. The situation throughout the region is extremely tense, and every incident is liable to be blown out of all proportion. It is thus of crucial importance that everyone – including this office and the news media – only report the facts, and not promote some outrageous rumour first seen on a social media website.”

It was a timely warning as how close the South China Sea was to a violent conflagration, the United States suffering more than most from the problems caused by exaggeration and innuendo.

Cavanagh paused momentarily, almost as though to emphasise what came next. “The exclusion zone announced by the Philippines and Vietnam will only increase the likelihood that other such tragic incidents will occur, with yet more lives needlessly thrown away. I have urged the two governments to reconsider and they have agreed to postpone its implementation, thus allowing more time to fully investigate the sinking of HQ-17. Beijing has offered its full co-operation in identifying the perpetrators, and we are presently evaluating additional data that they have now made available to us.

“In the light of today’s events, the joint naval exercise with Japan, operation Dragon Shield, has been concluded, and the USS Gerald Ford is already heading south to join the USS Milius. In addition, in order not to exacerbate the situation further, China, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have agreed to limit all military forces in the disputed areas to their present levels.

“Through these measures and the active co-operation of all counties involved, the situation in the South China Sea can be brought to a peaceful resolution without further loss of life. Over the course of the next few days, I will also be working with all parties in order to start the process of bringing about a more permanent solution.

“In addition, the United States is in discussion with Russia and China to ensure that the terrible events in the city of Khabarovsk are investigated fully, with those responsible brought to justice. Once again, I urge restraint from all parties; such attacks are in no-one’s interests, the danger of escalating mutual retaliation a threat to the stability of the whole region…”

Cavanagh quickly opened the briefing up to allow a limited number of questions, the White House press corps’ first concern the time scale as to the eventual implementation of the Philippines-Vietnam exclusion zone.

“I have been promised at least 72 hours,” responded Cavanagh. “By then, we might have a clearer idea as to the origin of the attack.”

“And what if it does prove to be China?” persisted the reporter.

“Let’s not jump to conclusions: we need to look at all the facts first.”

The President quickly moved on to someone else; even though he had obviously anticipated such a question, his response seemed tame, McDowell sensing something of the Administration’s lack of consensus as to what the U.S. should actually do.

The briefing was brought to a close. McDowell stayed with CNN, wanting to get a feel for how the President’s words had been received. Although the news channel’s senior defence correspondent was generally pleased with Cavanagh’s initial statement, he expressed disappointment as to the President’s subsequent answers, a view repeated when CNN’s presenter sought the views of political observers in Hanoi and Manila.

McDowell swapped channels, pleased to note that the comments were fairly consistent with those from CNN. One online survey suggested that public support for military action against China was split along national lines, with two thirds willing to act in support of the Philippines, less than half in Vietnam’s defence.

McDowell studied the news feeds and reports for another hour and then reached for his phone – time now for the closing sequence to play out and finally put an end Cavanagh’s ailing administration.

  • * *

Raymond Flores watched Charlotte Saunders being interviewed from the comfort of the observation room, mildly curious as to why she felt the need to lie.

Once Anderson had showed no sign of returning to Leesburg, Saunders had been ‘invited’ to discuss the FBI’s various concerns. The murder of Enrique Garcia was overshadowed by events in the South China Sea, but the joint FBI-police hunt for his murderer was gathering pace. Having obtained Anderson’s fingerprints and DNA from the Jackson Inn, it hadn’t taken long to confirm his presence at Garcia’s house. The security system timed his arrival at the house just before Garcia’s estimated time of death, but forensic evidence contrarily only placed him downstairs. CCTV from adjacent properties had revealed nothing helpful, and certainly no indication as to how Anderson had arrived or whether anyone else might be involved.

Then there was the white van. It still wasn’t certain whether the vehicle was relevant or not; more witnesses had come forward, one giving a detailed description of a man seen climbing into the driver’s seat – he could have been Pat McDowell, but again it wasn’t definite, with the resultant artist’s impression nearer Flores than McDowell.

A hospital check had revealed two men shot in what was reportedly a robbery; one having lost most of his right ear, the other wounded in the thigh. They had been picked up four miles from Garcia’s house, and Flores’ interest had increased markedly once he discovered both men were ex-military, although neither was a close match to any of the Mississippi suspects.

Flores was minded to wonder whether Anderson was being set-up, but the Englishman’s subsequent actions were hardly helping his cause. Charlotte Saunders was doing her best to protect her boyfriend: she’d never heard of Enrique Garcia, didn’t know where Anderson was, hadn’t seen or spoken to McDowell for over a year…

Flores wanted to believe her; yet despite Charlotte Saunders’ denials, they had security camera footage of her meeting Anderson in Chantilly – not that she knew that. Each lie just made the truth more difficult to believe, and although she was a potential security risk Flores was prepared to keep her on a relatively loose leash in the hope she might lead them to Anderson. Her passport was still being held by the FBI and Flores was confident that she wouldn’t simply run off or try anything too extreme.

With resources tight, Flores put a team of just twelve onto Charlotte: he would give it two more days; after that, he’d work out whether to send her back home or threaten to charge her with something – accessory to murder could be pushing it, but it might just get her to open up.

  • * *

Anderson was still on edge, not yet treating the everyday sounds from his close neighbours as inconsequential. The complex fifteen miles west of Baltimore consisted of around fifty mobile homes and the rental was perfect for his needs, relatively smart with all of the usual facilities, including a large-screen TV. The car was rather more run-down, a battered Toyota which seemed willing to try and get him wherever he wanted to go.

Quite what Devereau had needed to barter in order to get Anderson a suitable base and a car was impossible to guess. And he’d done it all in less than a day. Anderson knew Devereau had powerful friends, but he’d never before realised quite how powerful, and it was obvious he would be paying Devereau back for some time to come. Everything had been set up by phone, Anderson picking up the car from outside Dulles Airport. Details of his new residence, plus smartphone and two thousand dollars, were in the glove-box; food and other emergency supplies in the trunk, Devereau not one to skimp when needs must.

Devereau had also become Anderson’s sole point of contact, passing on the worrying news that Charlotte was still in Leesburg and that the FBI were linking Anderson to the murder of an Enrique Garcia. There was nothing new on Pat McDowell, no sign that the FBI had even acted on Anderson’s information, and it slowly dawned on him that it had always been McDowell’s intention to frame him for murder.

It was late afternoon by the time Anderson had settled himself in to his temporary home, able finally to scour the media for more on Garcia. The Associate Justice’s large house was instantly recognisable, CNN not the only ones to wonder whether there might be some connection between Garcia’s murder and events in Mississippi. The FBI certainly seemed to be playing it close to their chest – various leads being actively pursued, no suggestion yet that they had worked out a definite motive for the murder. While the word ‘suspect’ was missing from the various reports, the FBI seemed keen to discover the whereabouts of a certain Michael Anderson…

With his photo splashed across every news report, Anderson’s hopes of avoiding the FBI seemed overly optimistic. He was still unsure what to do for the best, unwilling to put his future in the FBI’s hands – especially after McDowell’s warning. And unless Charlotte could extract herself from Leesburg then she too was still in danger.

Anderson was far too involved to give up just yet, and McDowell seemed to have assumed that Anderson knew far more than the reality, his concern as to Anderson’s presence at Leesburg perhaps offering a hint as to McDowell’s own whereabouts. Anderson had seen at first hand the way August 14 worked, McDowell intimately involved in the planning and construction of the terrorists’ command-and-control centre. Put everything together and for the first time since receiving Markova’s package, Anderson could actually see a way ahead, a specific target that might just be achievable.

His leap of faith was the belief that McDowell was based not too far from Leesburg. If so, then he would surely want facilities that were at least the equal of those he’d had in the UK. It was a starting point if nothing else, and with no other ideas to fall back on, Anderson worked his way through Virginia’s online public records, specifically Clarke and Loudon counties; then, just to be sure, he added in Frederick and Montgomery counties in Maryland. That seemed to cover everywhere within 25 miles of Leesburg, and if his theory was right, there should be something with McDowell’s imprint stamped all over it.

Basic company records and details of building permits were readily accessible, Anderson looking for new companies and/or commercial premises where substantial building improvements had taken place sometime in the last ten months. The numbers involved were larger than he’d anticipated, but made easier by the way in which the data was displayed. Anderson searched purely by date and eventually abandoned his company filter as being too restrictive. Some counties proved to be particularly helpful, generally providing a wealth of online detail: date of application, address and type of work to be done, sometimes even the estimated cost. Frederick County was more of a struggle, Anderson having to be somewhat creative with his research.

In total, there looked to be several thousand permits, Anderson able to speed through the vast majority simply by picking out the relatively rare options that came close to his UK criteria, twenty discarded at a time in just a few seconds. Some permits were obviously for something relatively minor, or at the other extreme part of major building works; Anderson was more interested in the mid-range, either a new build or a substantial refurbishment, preferably involving a significant electrical component.

It was close to midnight when he finally gave up for the night, the initial filtering complete, with the number of possibilities now reduced to just sixty-one. With a bit more research into each specific permit and the relevant address, Anderson was confident he could cut it down to a more manageable number, maybe a half-dozen at most.

Quite what he did then was as yet undecided, McDowell unlikely to appreciate Anderson barging in through the front door.

[]Chapter 16 – Saturday, November 5th

Khabarovsk – 07:50 Local Time; Friday 21:50 UTC

The morning wasn’t quite going as Markova had anticipated: woken before dawn with a rough shake of her shoulder, she had been bemused to find herself wheeled to a waiting ambulance. The presence of two armed men – no uniforms – ensured she did little more than offer a verbal protest, her questions ignored, her angry look merely provoking mild amusement.

The drive lasted some twenty minutes, Markova taken to what looked to be another hospital, a little smaller but far smarter than the one in Khabarovsk. The main entrance was certainly impressive and arranged like a hotel foyer, with even a porter available to help people with their luggage.

Markova was anticipating a painful walk, but to her surprise a wheelchair and young nurse suddenly appeared, Markova pushed towards a line of elevators. Then it was up to the third floor and a single room, all white and clean. The nurse fussed around, checking everything, doing her best to protect Markova’s modesty from the idle gaze of the two guards.

Satisfied that everything was as it should be, the nurse left, a questioning gesture at the two guards implying that they should do the same. To Markova’s surprise, they did as the nurse wanted, one making it obvious he was seating himself outside.

Overall, despite the unknowns, Markova felt the transfer to be an improvement, with the noisy night-time routine of the hospital ward replaced by a slightly disconcerting silence. She was now dressed in the standard hospital gown, the left side of her body badly bruised. No drips or tubes, merely a sensor on her fingertip; physically, she didn’t feel that bad, just a raging headache and a twinge every time she breathed.

Markova forced herself to a sitting position, wanting to get her brain into gear before someone started asking difficult questions. Twenty minutes after the nurse left, a light breakfast turned up; then a doctor arrived to give her a more thorough check.

X-rays and a brain scan were back on the morning’s agenda, the doctor fairly confident that all she had was a minor concussion and some fractured ribs. Markova tried to get some more information on the attacks but the doctor simply shook her head, nodding towards the closed door and the guard beyond.

It was another hour before someone more talkative chose to visit, the man’s FSB uniform a match to the one Markova had discarded in Saint Petersburg, even down to the two thin stripes and single large star of a major.

“Good morning Major Markova; my name is Yashkin, Investigation Directorate. I’m sorry that we finally get to meet under such circumstances.” The tone was polite, almost cautious; Yashkin as wary of Markova as she was of him.

“It’s hardly your fault, Major,” replied Markova, forcing a smile. “What exactly happened yesterday?”

“Chinese artillery; twenty-three killed at the last count. Perhaps you should have stayed in Moscow; it might have been safer.”

“Saint Petersburg,” Markova corrected. “I outstayed my welcome in Moscow a while ago.”

“And now you’re wanted as an accessory to General Grebeshkov’s murder: we are all taking risks here.”

Markova didn’t quite know what to say; Major Yashkin was supposed to be an ally, a Lubyanka graduate and no friend to Golubeva.

“I understand,” continued Yashkin, “that you are concerned as to the health of Sergeant Nechayev. Fortunately, you Alpha Group are not that easy to kill and he suffered nothing more than a few bruises. If you had contacted me when you had arrived in Khabarovsk rather than when you needed my help, we might all have saved ourselves a sleepless night.”

“For that I apologise,” Markova said, trying to be gracious. She all-too obviously needed Yashkin’s goodwill and at the moment they weren’t getting on that well. “Where are we exactly?”

“It’s a small clinic to the north-east of Khabarovsk. Under the circumstances it seemed wise to move you to a more secure location.”

“It’s definitely secure,” said Markova, nodding towards the guard outside to make the point.

“For your protection, as well as mine; it would be foolish not to take certain precautions… What exactly do you expect to find in Khabarovsk, Major?”

“I was hoping you could tell me. Roads closed without warning, phones not working. Now the Chinese shell the city. I assume none of that’s normal?”

Yashkin actually managed a smile. “Perhaps things have changed since you lived in Khabarovsk but this is an army city. The FSB can’t operate without the army’s support and so we stay out of their business. Self-preservation becomes a powerful incentive: they close a road and we follow the diversions like everyone else, no questions asked. It’s the same in Vladivostok, more so over the last month.”

“But why shell Khabarovsk? The Chinese must know we’ll respond in kind.”

“I guess it’s a warning,” Yashkin said with a shrug. “Our generals have been playing at war games for weeks and Beijing’s obviously got nervous as to what we might do next.”

“A warning which is totally counter-productive; all it does is give Golubeva the excuse she needs to join America in a war against China.”

Yashkin frowned, unconvinced, “You really believe that’s what she wants? We’d be better off letting the two of them slug it out first.”

“Russia and America would both have to fight China eventually; Golubeva’s just making sure it’s together and on her terms. Throw in Vietnam, the Philippines, and maybe Taiwan as well, and China will soon have to back down. Either that or it escalates into nuclear annihilation.”

“Cavanagh will never ally the United States with Russia,” argued Yashkin. “It’s barely a year since we were at each other’s throats in the Baltic.”

“Circumstances change. And the way things are in Washington, Golubeva could soon be dealing with someone other than Cavanagh. If so, then war with China is inevitable.”

Yashkin rubbed his chin thoughtfully: simply by discussing such matters with Markova, he was already close to the crime of sedition.

“You may well be right, Major,” he said finally. “In which case, we need to work out how to help stop this madness.”

 

Eastern United States – 09:50 Local Time; 13:50 UTC

Virginia’s War Memorial stood proudly high up on the hill behind the assembled media, the hauntingly beautiful statue Memory looking out over the James River and the Richmond skyline, the early-morning sun hidden by dirty-grey clouds. Dick Thorn waited patiently for the retired General to finish his introduction, gaze wandering idly amongst the assembled guests and on to the essential TV cameras. The media hoped the Secretary of State’s speech to the American Legion would give some additional insight into the Administration’s response to China, the Richmond venue a reminder of the potential risks.

In front of Thorn were veterans from almost a dozen conflicts, and no matter what medals they wore, to him they were all heroes. Thorn had served as a Captain in the First Gulf War and sensed something of their sacrifice, downplaying his own contribution to the Coalition victory as minimal. A burst of applause, genuine rather than just polite, and Thorn moved to stand at the podium, warmly shaking the General’s hand in appreciation of the generous introduction.

Thorn followed protocol by thanking those that needed to be thanked, singling out the veterans for special praise. It was then the turn of the American Legion and the thousands from Virginia who had given their lives in defence of their country. A gesture upwards and Thorn gave a heartfelt accolade to all those helping maintain such a wonderful memorial.

Thanks completed, it was now time for the real message, typically a history lesson on the external problems facing America and how the President was working hard to deal with them. Thorn was happy to stick with the expected format, although his history lesson might not be quite what his audience anticipated, and even his credentials were rather more questionable than the official program implied.

A deep breath and Thorn pressed on with his speech, it far too late for second-thoughts. “I must apologise to everyone here as you expected an address from the United States Secretary of State, a position it was my honour to hold until I formally resigned some two hours ago. I speak to you now simply as a native of Virginia, someone who is truly proud to be American, yet deeply concerned as to our place on the world stage and the ability of the present Administration to live up to its duty to the American people.”

There was utter silence in the audience, Thorn’s resignation from the Cabinet a shock, with even the media’s experts taken by surprise. Dick Thorn was known for his strong views and no-nonsense attitude, but there had been no hint of internal divisions or disagreements over foreign policy.

Thorn continued, “The global war on terror will soon be taken up by a second generation of Americans, the high hopes of those first years frustrated by the unjust hatred of our enemies and the naiveté of their followers. The United States is not perfect, we all know that; however, we respect the rights of the individual and are prepared to fight for the civil liberties that we all hold so dear.

“We might not always like our Presidents; we might even be ashamed of their moral hypocrisy; but we trust that in the few key moments of real crisis that they will make the right decisions. Some of these decisions will be difficult, requiring courage and fortitude, and the responsibility of being leader of the most powerful nation in the world can be a heavy burden. However, when a president makes even a single decision based on fear or a reluctance to take risks, then we can no longer be considered a superpower; we are merely a second-rate nation hiding in the background, letting others control events and – ultimately – how we live our lives.”

Thorn paused, gaze sweeping across the front rows of his select audience. “If a president lies or abuses his power, the House of Representatives has the authority – no, it has a duty – to start the impeachment process. Where a president is incompetent, indecisive or gutless, then there is only the ballot box to call him to account.”

The handful of watching reporters were busy tapping away on their mobile devices, knowing this was heady stuff and not at all what anyone had anticipated. The feedback on Thorn’s comments appeared online within seconds, everyone wondering what exactly he was leading up to.

“The powerful speaker and the one who promises what we want to hear – then they’ll be the ones to get our vote. Or maybe we just stick with the same party we always vote for, simply because we’re too afraid of change. We all assume of course that the ballot box is a fair and just way of picking the people to lead this great nation; now we learn that isn’t the case, a Spanish company counting the votes and deciding who best should serve in Congress. Thousands of votes incorrectly counted and people disenfranchised without even knowing it; yesterday, in a dozen cities across America, people trying to vote have been turned away, the voting machines having broken down or randomly recording votes for the wrong candidate. It’s even worse for the thousands of Americans doing their duty and serving their country abroad, the online and email voting systems well-known to be insecure, with little attempt at verification. And when we all wake up on Wednesday after Election Day, what will we have? A Congress made up of men and women, some of whom are there in error, their first job that of confirming a Vice-President who without a legitimate public vote is but one heartbeat from becoming President of the United States.”

Thorn’s tone was gradually becoming more determined, perhaps even with a hint of anger, his gaze again traversing the audience as though daring anyone to disagree.

“In my late role as Secretary of State, I argued and persuaded, pleaded and threatened, doing everything I could to bring peace and stability to our fragile planet. Some of the world leaders I have shaken hands with are nothing more than murderers, savage narcissists who care little for their own countrymen and women, let alone the people of the United States. If we offer compromise, they will simply take what they can and then demand more in a month or a year. What purpose then does the Secretary of State serve when the United States is set upon an inflexible course of peaceful diplomacy, bullied by anyone who calls the President’s bluff?

“The South China Sea is a prime example where decisive action is essential if peace is to be maintained. For weeks now, I have argued the case that China cannot be allowed to use its military power to take whatever it wants. My objections and the objections of others within the Administration have fallen upon deaf ears. The Philippines have been steadfast friends to the United States, yet President Cavanagh is not prepared to support such an ally against the unacceptable provocation of others. Appeasement is not a concept I have ever been comfortable with and I urge all of my fellow Americans not to trust those who tell you that China will listen to reason.

“The authority of the President and the elected members of the Congress depends upon the firm belief that our system of democracy is fair and just; once that trust has been destroyed, so surely is their authority to govern. Change is not just needed, it is essential, and as a country, we must not allow a weak president to shrug off such basic concerns. Can anyone truly dispute that an inadequate president should be impeached just as an amoral one is?

“Some here will convince themselves that I exaggerate, but such is the fear pervading the White House that even the loyalty of the men and women in our armed forces is under investigation, President Cavanagh judging that those willing to give their lives in defence of the United States cannot be trusted. What does that tell us of our Commander-in-Chief?”

Thorn briefly closed his eyes, almost as though offering up a prayer. “Thank you and God bless you all. God bless this free and great nation of America.”

There was a few seconds of stunned silence, and then several members of the audience stood up, the applause rippling from front to back, a roar of approval finally sounding out loud and clear.

Thorn stepped back, determined not to smile or acknowledge the applause, thankful that others had willingly followed his supporters’ lead, the warmth and enthusiasm of the response more than he had dared hope for.

With the Vice-President’s resignation, Thorn had actually been third in line to the Presidency. Now with one speech he had destroyed his career – either that or he had reignited it with a very different agenda in mind.

  • * *

Jensen was ushered straight into the Oval office, an agitated Amy Pittman already seated opposite the President.

“You’re heard what Thorn said?” demanded Pittman. “The bastard’s trying to kill this Administration.”

Jensen nodded in confirmation and sat down next to Pittman. The President looked surprisingly calm, some handwritten checklist resting on the seat beside him.

“And,” continued Pittman angrily, “where’s this ‘formal resignation’ of Thorn’s? He wasn’t brave enough to resign in person; no early-morning phone call and if there’s a letter, no-one’s seen it.”

“There’ll be one hiding somewhere,” Cavanagh said philosophically. “Although, after what he said, I’m surprised Dick didn’t fling it in my face. First the Vice-President and now the Secretary of State – I’m intrigued to know who will be next.” He looked across at Jensen, a rueful smile touching his lips. “I think we’re well past coincidences, Paul; this is definitely a play for power – maybe not by Thorn directly, but he’s certainly part of it.”

“Just look at what he said,” Pittman interjected, glancing down at her tablet and picking out a few choice words. “’Incompetent, indecisive, gutless, appeasement, bluff’; he’s pulled no punches and has merely given more ammunition to our enemies.”

“Exactly as he intended,” confirmed Jensen. “Thorn’s sent out three very specific messages: the President can’t deal with the crisis, the voting system is flawed, and those elected have no true authority.”

“A very public message,” Cavanagh agreed. “And what’s next – I just can’t believe we’ll see tanks heading along Pennsylvania Avenue?”

“I assume not, Sir. This is more subtle than with Russia and is not a crisis brought about by terror attacks but a collapse from within, the people’s faith in the Administration slowly being eaten away.”

“Not that slow – it’s barely two weeks since we learnt about Hanson.”

“McDowell’s been feeding stories to the media for far longer. Certain key figures obviously needed to be taken out of the picture, although I’m not certain as to exactly why: the Vice-President, Dan Quinn, even Enrique Garcia. There must be more to come, something particularly damaging to give those involved a suitable excuse to act.”

Cavanagh nodded in understanding, “Thorn, or whoever else it is, needs to ensure that the pressure keeps mounting. The South China Sea must be my immediate concern. This Chinese sub – give me some good news, Paul, I could certainly do with it.”

“I’m sorry, Sir, all I have is a mix of uncertainties. The initial data analysis points to the submarine being one of China’s ageing Ming-class, most likely pennant number 310. However, there is an outside chance it’s North Korean, specifically the submarine discussed at the Wilhelmshaven symposium, designated 746.” Jensen pursed his lips, definitely now on unclear ground. “Whilst it might be theoretically possible for Russia to dredge up one of its decrepit Romeo subs and fool us into thinking it’s Chinese or North Korean, there is no evidence to support such a premise. But why then did Hanson travel to Wilhelmshaven? And then we also have Sukhov. To borrow from Sherlock Holmes, the improbable might just be the truth. The information China has so far provided neither confirms nor contradicts the assertion that submarine 310 was involved, and we’re not likely to get anything out of North Korea.”

It wasn’t the most helpful of responses, but the Intelligence Community was struggling to find anything which would definitely prove China’s innocence or indeed their guilt. There had been an upsurge in communications traffic between China’s military bases but that was probably to be expected.

Pittman asked, “And if it were North Korean, this submarine would have the range to reach Vietnam?”

“It’s about 3000 miles and their range is apparently 9000; so, yes, it’s possible.”

“It just seems so unlikely,” said Cavanagh. “If they’d attacked a Japanese or South Korean vessel, then that would make far more sense. I just can’t see what advantage they gain from attacking Vietnam. Which brings us back to the unfortunate options of China or Russia.” He gave a deep sigh of frustration, “At least we seem to be making progress on independent arbitration over the disputed territories. Vietnam needs careful handling and the Deputy Secretary of State is already on her way to Hanoi…”

The discussion continued, Thorn’s accusations glossed over, the Joint Chiefs supposedly agreeing with Cavanagh’s policy of gentle persuasion. Not so the media or the public, the White House switchboard inundated with calls, everyone demanding to know how the President was going to respond to Thorn’s stinging remarks. A basic press release was considered the best first step, giving the White House at least a few hours to come up with something rather more definitive. Theoretically, Thorn was still Cavanagh’s Secretary of State, his letter of resignation presumably stuck somewhere between the State Department and the White House; the President had for the moment held fire on signing a formal letter of dismissal, preferring not to make matters more complicated than was necessary.

To Jensen, Thorn’s speech was full of distortions and downright lies. Cavanagh’s decision to send the Gerald Ford south was the stick to the diplomacy carrot, and there had never been any suggestion that the United States would fail to come to the Philippines’ aid. Beijing had apparently been furious with Cavanagh over the redeployment of the Carrier Strike Group to the South China Sea, arguing that it broke the concept of military forces being held at their present levels, but the President had rightly countered that U.S. naval forces had never once been part of that discussion.

Thorn knew all of that, but chose to ignore it because it didn’t fit in with the message he was determined to get across. It was the same with Thorn’s claims concerning the Midterms: the software used to process online votes was produced by the Tampa-based SOE, bought by a Spanish company in 2012 – not exactly votes counted in Spain. The problems highlighted by Kristen Ulrich, and reinforced by Thorn, were valid but not quite as extreme as suggested, with States well aware of the potential problems, checks in place to ensure accuracy. Personal security and the potential for fraud via online and email voting was a concern but again verification was carried out at various stages, with no evidence to suggest either was a serious problem.

Thorn had also turned Jensen’s unofficial investigation into the U.S. military against them, the President not willing to blame Jensen for taking sensible precautions. If there was to be a coup, some military support would be essential, with Washington an obvious and key target. The Washington Post had become the first broadsheet to print an article speculating about the possibility of a coup, its author a Nicholas Redmane; it took almost an hour before anyone in Homeland Security had realised the name was in fact an anagram of Michael Anderson.

Jensen wasn’t surprised, and Anderson was more of a nuisance than a real concern, the FBI investigation into Garcia’s murder suggesting that the Englishman was most likely being framed by McDowell, and a more thorough forensic analysis of Garcia’s house had finally identified the presence of Jon Carter’s DNA. The search for McDowell himself was now concentrated to the west and south of D.C., all police leave cancelled in anticipation of the next phase: protests, strikes, terror or cyber-attacks – Jensen was prepared for just about anything.

 

The Koschei – 22:30 Local Time; 15:30 UTC

Karenin sat in his small cabin and reread the decoded signal from Vladivostok, still puzzled as to why the Koschei’s orders had changed. When he had first read it some six hours earlier, for a brief moment he had been tempted to ignore the signal and continue with his original instructions, but it just wasn’t in his nature to disobey a direct order.

In Vladivostok the plan had been for the second target to be a Philippine patrol boat or if that proved impossible, then something of similar value to HQ-17; it hadn’t even been a requirement that the second target be sunk, just as long as the torpedoes had a minimum run of five minutes. With the sonar trace plus additional data from America’s military satellites, there should be little doubt it was the work of a Chinese submarine.

Now, Karenin had been given a list of potential targets in order of priority, with orders to sink at least one. Not a Philippine patrol boat or a fifty year-old Vietnamese frigate, but a modern warship from the United States. This wouldn’t a quick and clinical strike against a lone and inattentive enemy; this would be an attack against a skilled and experienced crew, the warship equipped with state-of-the-art sonar and anti-submarine systems, traveling as part of a defensive unit, the dipping-sonars from a swarm of protective helicopters lashing the surrounding waters to seek out the enemy.

The Koschei was hardly up to such a challenge, it lacking the speed, agility and noise reduction expected of a modern hunter-killer sub. Some of the technology it could call upon might be relatively modern but the submarine was armed with elderly torpedoes without the sophistication to even know a real target from a decoy.

If it wasn’t to become a suicide mission, then Karenin would need to ensure captain, crew, technology and submarine worked seamlessly together, the Koschei likely to have but one chance to strike. He had been supplied with the latest satellite and intelligence reports concerning the U.S deployment, the Gerald Ford Carrier Strike Group of ten vessels – plus probably at least one Los Angeles-class attack submarine – moving south to join up with the four-ship detachment led by the USS Milius.

If the two squadrons behaved as predicted, the Koschei was now in the ideal target position, and also protected to some extent by relatively deep water. Karenin didn’t understand the logic of what he was being asked to do but assumed his superiors had good reason for the change of target – it was just a shame that they didn’t seem to understand they were demanding the impossible.

With a deep sigh of resignation, he stood up and moved back to the control room, his concerns hidden behind a veneer of confidence. For well over an hour now the Koschei had been creeping along, operating the strictest of silent routines, tracking an elusive set of contacts as they moved ever closer. Temperature variations and the sea’s complex currents were distorting the sonar signals, the exact type and number of vessels as yet uncertain.

Karenin moved to stand behind the sonar chief, watching the operators at work, impatient for answers.

“Confirm four contacts,” announced the sonar chief. “Leading vessel identified as Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Milius. Bearing one-two-five; range 22 kilometres; speed 18 knots on heading three-one-two. Targets designated as Gold-One through Four.”

“Active sonars?”

“Nothing detected, Sir.”

Karenin felt a wave of relief spread through him: the Milius might be low down on his target list but at least it offered an easier option than he’d feared. The Americans’ over-confidence was their one weakness, and better a destroyer than the Koschei sunk in a futile attempt to attack an American Aircraft Carrier.

The Koschei drifted silently, those in the control room awaiting their captain’s orders with a mix of eagerness and fear. Karenin offered a quiet word where necessary, checking everything, holding his own concerns in check; he wanted the U.S. squadron to get close enough for the Chinese torpedoes to at least have a reasonable chance of success, setting a fairly arbitrary target of six thousand metres.

“Active sonar detected: bearing zero-one-zero; range thirty-plus; high probability AQS-22 dipping-sonar.”

“Any other contacts close to that bearing?” It was consistent with where the Carrier Strike Group should be, just a little earlier than Karenin had expected.

“Passive contacts only, Captain; at least six, range sixty-plus; signals too distorted to classify.”

Sixty kilometres was close enough, Karenin’s main concern the accompanying Los Angeles submarine. The Koschei’s eight torpedo tubes – six forward and two aft – were already fully loaded, the submarine a relatively noisy and inferior relic from a past era, yet still hoping to fight one last duel.

“Set solution for tubes one through six as Gold-One; two degree spread. Tubes one to three passive setting; tubes four to six active setting.”

The tension in the control room was palpable, the fact they were about to attack an American destroyer somehow more momentous than before – after all that is what the submarine had originally been built for.

“Solution confirmed, Sir; Gold-One: bearing one-zero-eight, relative zero-one-five; speed 18 knots; range 6500 metres.”

Karenin moved to stand close to the XO, eyes drawn to the fire-control console. “We will fire in two salvos, starting with tubes one through three.”

The XO confirmed the orders, before flicking up the red safety covers on the console in front of him.

“Open outer doors,” said Karenin quietly. “Prepare to fire on my mark.”

The XO’s right hand hovered close to the firing buttons, a slight tremor revealing his own nervous anticipation.

Karenin waited; every extra second would give the torpedoes a better chance of success while conversely increasing the risk to the Koschei. “Fire one through three.”

The three dull thumps followed in quick succession, the deck juddering slightly. Karenin silently counted to twenty, forcing himself not to speed up.

“Fire four through six… Helm, left five degrees rudder; come to course zero-three-zero; all-ahead one-third.”

Karenin chose to try and squeeze the Koschei between the two opposing U.S. units, hoping they would assume he would immediately head south or west. The sub had just two torpedoes left, the aft tubes now the Koschei’s prime defence.

“Gold-One increasing speed and turning, Captain; four minutes to first impact. All torpedoes running true.”

“Ten degrees down-angle; make your depth three hundred metres.” The Koschei creaked and groaned as they moved deeper – despite the submarine’s age it had proved robust, although Karenin had no intention of testing the submarine anywhere near its maximum depth of 500 metres. On the surface, Karenin imagined the panic as the Americans tracked the torpedoes, their standard doctrine the ‘crack the whip’ tactic of high-speed evasive manoeuvres whilst also deploying the Nixie torpedo decoy.

“Multiple active sonars to the south-east; active sonar also bearing zero-zero-two, range twenty-four kilometres.”

The Americans were closing the gap, the Koschei still not detected. “Ready countermeasures,” barked Karenin. “Program decoy for six knots; course zero-four-zero.”

“Two minutes to first impact; five torpedoes still running true.”

Karenin would settle for a single hit, the use of six torpedoes an outrageous waste of his remaining weapons, but the only way he knew to maximise the possibility of success. With wire-guided torpedoes, he could have at least countered some of the electronic systems and perhaps even bypassed the decoys, but the Yu-4B was an artless bully of a weapon, likely to be easily seduced, fooled or confused.

“Active sonar! Bearing three-five-three; range estimate ten kilometres… confirm dipping sonar.”

The helicopter’s dipping sonar was Karenin’s greatest fear: a submarine’s favourite hiding place was below the thermocline layer where it was protected from a surface ship’s hull-mounted sonar; the depth of the thermocline varied but even the present conditions of around 210 metres was well inside the dipping sonar’s maximum depth. Often working in pairs, a helicopter would do several sweeps then move on, sonar buoys dropped as an added deterrent.

“Launch decoy… Helm, right five degrees rudder; come to course zero-five-five. Ahead slow.” Karenin had no idea which way the helicopter would jump or whether it had a partner; he was working purely on instinct and trusting he made the right decision. The first torpedo should have struck the USS Milius by now, the attack threatening to turn into an abject failure.

“Second dipping sonar! Bearing two-two-four; range estimate five kilometres.”

The helicopters were closing in, it still unclear whether they had detected the Koschei. They would keep leapfrogging, the decoy hopefully giving the submarine time enough to escape.

“Explosion in the water… possible hit! Second explosion, bearing one-eight-four.”

Karenin gave a relieved smile – whatever else happened, the Koschei had successfully attacked number five on Vladivostok’s target list. Maybe now he had finally made up for past mistakes….

“High-speed screws!” The sonar chief’s voice was tense, fearful. “Bearing three-two-zero; range 900 metres; down angle five degrees… Confirm Mark-54 torpedo; designate – Alpha-One.”

“Launch noisemakers; all-ahead full!” Karenin was shouting out orders despite knowing he was too late, the American torpedo far too close.

Strangely, some part of his brain stuck with its training, remaining calm enough to try and work out the probable origin of the attack. The Mark-54 was a lightweight torpedo, and although the sub was well within range of the warships’ anti-submarine rockets, it was most likely dropped by one of the chasing helicopters. The Koschei was being hounded on all sides, vastly outnumbered with nowhere to go. Vladivostok had demanded that there be ‘no smoking gun’: the submarine’s actual origin had to remain secret, with no opportunity for the Americans to display a Russian captain and crew to the eyes of the world – not that surrender had ever been part of Karenin’s philosophy.

“Alpha-One: estimate one minute to impact, Sir.”

It was a timely reminder for Karenin to stop thinking and start acting. He ordered his own variation of the American’s crack the whip, the submarine’s rapid manoeuvres designed to create a barrier of acoustic interference.

Suddenly a high-pitched pulse reverberated softly around the control room, the sonar chief merely confirming what everyone instinctively knew. “Second torpedo! Bearing one-nine-five; twenty seconds to impact.”

“Right full rudder; maximum bubble, now!”

The pinging from both of the pursuing torpedoes was now clearly audible, an accelerating double-pulse that could only seal the Koschei’s fate. The rapid diving turn was Karenin’s last desperate hope to avoid destruction and it immediately had a success, creating enough of a maelstrom of bubbles collapsing in on themselves to bewilder the closest torpedo; the Mark-54 followed a noisemaker then slowed, switching back to search mode.

The Koschei twisted sharply once more but the second torpedo was rather more tenacious than its twin, exploding close to the aft torpedo room. The submarine’s double-hull was shaken and distorted, fracturing in several places.

In the control room, Karenin was knocked off his feet, crashing into the XO, both tumbling to the deck. The Koschei continued its descent, the downward flight now uncontrolled as sea-water at close to 30 atmospheres erupted into the engine and aft torpedo rooms.

Karenin’s one thought was survival, no longer concerned as to what some admiral in Vladivostok might want. High-pressure air blasted out into the ballast tanks but it did no good, the Koschei remaining unresponsive. Many of the systems were offline, six decades of being crushed and stretched, battered and abused, finally taking their toll. Welds began to spring apart, the double-hull structure collapsing in on itself, a massive fissure seeming to leap across the outer hull. The stresses were just too much and the Koschei cracked in two, a burst of light from inside creating a golden halo. Karenin was one of the few still alive, able somehow to sense the submarine’s death throes as the Koschei defied its name and plummeted to the sea floor.

 

Eastern United States – 15:00 Local Time; 19:00 UTC

Anderson’s brilliant idea of searching out business permits was turning out to be not quite so brilliant after all. On closer inspection, none of his sixty-one possibilities was that good a match to his ideal and he was forced to re-think, now looking for ones that might at least be feasible.

By early-afternoon, he had finally reduced the number to a more manageable total of eight. Next it was down to a visible inspection, the fact it was a Saturday possibly an advantage, Anderson perhaps less liable to get in trouble while inspecting the genuine sites. McDowell’s allies were at long last starting to make themselves known, with Dick Thorn presumably just the first of several high-profile figures publicly to declare their anti-Cavanagh sentiments.

November 5th – Thorn’s attempt to derail Cavanagh’s Administration was more subtle than Guy Fawkes’ bid to blow up James I and potentially far more effective; many in the media were already fanning the flames of animosity, invariably focusing their criticism on the President’s perceived lack of nerve.

All of which gave a certain sense of urgency to Anderson’s present task. Fortunately, the Toyota’s satnav helped make the convoluted tour of Maryland and Virginia far easier to follow, Anderson trusting that a quick look at each venue or even just a drive-by would help him decide whether something more substantial was required. None of the eight sites were that far from each other, each one inside his 25-mile limit from Leesburg, and if truth be told Anderson wasn’t that certain what he was actually looking for, assuming the combination of his instincts and high security would help reduce the list down to maybe two at most.

It became a nightmare trip, Anderson wary of every other vehicle, then spending a nervous ten to fifteen minutes surreptitiously peering through a security fence or down past a line of trees. Some binoculars would have been helpful, but they hadn’t been part of the emergency supplies and Anderson hadn’t wanted to risk buying a pair.

By the time he’d crossed site number six off his list, Anderson was starting to lose confidence in his theory, the reality proving to be rather different to what a building permit and a look on Google Maps had suggested; although, having come this far it seemed stupid not to see it through, especially as number seven was by far the most promising of the eight.

Ten miles south of Leesburg, Anderson turned right onto Route 50 towards Aldie and then sharp left, following a single-lane road south as it climbed ever higher, a thick covering of trees to the right, open ground with the occasional copse to his left.

The target address was announced by a small badly-painted sign, a narrow dirt track winding down to the south-east through a clump of trees. Anderson could see what looked to be at least two buildings, maybe a hundred yards from the main road. There were also two cars and a pair of smart-looking 4×4s parked alongside, but no obvious signs of activity. High security it most definitely wasn’t, the only obvious deterrent a waist-high wooden fence around its perimeter.

Anderson kept going, choosing not to stop. Accommodation for six or more, plenty of space for an advanced computer facility, and privacy – although not a great match to what he’d originally had in mind, the Aldie site was a definite possibility, and by far the best of a bad bunch. The nearest neighbours were at least a half-mile away and there was room enough to hide a small army behind the buildings. The company name on the building permit had proved unhelpful, an online search merely confirming the company details and that it had been formed less than a year earlier, but it gave no clue as to the precise nature of the business.

There was definitely enough there of interest for a somewhat closer inspection to become a priority, just not during daylight hours.

Anderson drove on to number eight on his list, wanting to be absolutely sure he had made the right choice, even though his mind was already made up. Thirty minutes later, he was on his way back to Baltimore, working out how best to peruse the Aldie site, preferably without getting himself killed. He had a gun and thirteen rounds of ammunition, courtesy of McDowell’s associate – not that he had any intention of using them, but it was always best to be prepared.

[]Chapter 17 – Sunday, November 6th

Eastern United States – 00:41 Local Time; 04:41 UTC

It was only three days from a full moon, Anderson able to work his way without difficulty to the tree line just short of the site’s southern edge. Wooden fence, then three buildings not two, consisting of what looked to be a farmhouse and two ageing wood-built barns. Three of the four vehicles were still there but none of the buildings showed any lights – it certainly looked to be safe enough for a quick check. There were no guards, no insomniac Doberman; he couldn’t even see any cameras, just security lights above the farmhouse and barn doors, presumably activated by movement.

Anderson’s relief at it being so easy was almost overtaken by a sense of disappointment, and he was now starting to doubt the site had anything at all to do with McDowell. He had assumed the facility might well be on stand-by overnight but this was just too quiet, the total lack of security a concern.

Yet he persevered, not too sure whether deep down he wanted to be proved right or wrong. Anderson’s main interest lay in the smaller of the two barns, it seeming a better fit to the dimensions of 1440 square feet given in the building permit, with $80,000 estimated for the intriguingly vague ‘internal remodelling’. He could work out a safe route to the barn but it was just unsettling for the site to be so tranquil,

Anderson clambered over the fence. Gun in hand, he crept towards the rear of the smaller barn: standing some fifty yards from the farmhouse, each of its fixed windows consisted of four small panes, the view inside shielded by vertical blinds; no glimmer of light, no sounds. There seemed only one way to find out what lay beyond and he smashed one of the top panes, the crash of glass far louder than he’d hoped.

If there was an alarm, then it was silent. Using his gun hand, Anderson pushed the blind to one side, torchlight probing the darkness beyond.

The expected computer consoles and massive monitor were nowhere to be seen. Instead there was a modern open-plan artist’s studio: display area plus easels, several paintings half-complete, sculptures; even a large tapestry hanging down from a metal trellis and paint-spattered in some modernist style.

Anderson switched off the torch and leant back against the barn wall, annoyed that he had been so smug as to his own judgement. He had pinned his hopes on the Aldie site and he was now pretty much out of ideas; even the thought of returning empty-handed to the mobile home was fairly depressing in itself.

Abruptly, a blaze of light shone out from the farmhouse as the front door opened, a tall figure silhouetted in the doorway.

“I’m armed and I’ll use it if I have to!” shouted an elderly male voice. “We want no trouble.”

Anderson edged slowly away from the barn, not quite sure where to aim his gun. “Me neither; sorry about the window. I’ll just leave you in peace.” It was a rather pathetic attempt at an apology but Anderson was struggling to know how exactly to react.

“He’s got a gun, Joe!” screamed a woman from inside the farmhouse. “Shoot him!”

Anderson made a run for it, managing to vault the fence without getting shot or shooting himself, but losing his torch in the process. Two minutes later, he was in the Toyota, heading south, his early morning jaunt not quite the success he had hoped for.

  • * *

Flores stood in the barn staring at an abstract painting, trying to stifle a yawn, unhappy that he was the one having to miss out on an extra hour of sleep. Thanks to the end of Daylight Saving Time, he had magically arrived at the Aldie site just before he’d set off from his home, or so his watch had glibly implied, and it was still not yet three in the morning.

The homeowners were a painter and his sculptor wife, able finally to make the long-vaunted move to the country to have their own studio. Now an armed prowler had tarnished that dream, their comment that the man sounded British automatically forwarding a priority alert to the FBI.

Flores’ day might be starting earlier than he’d anticipated but he wasn’t the only agent to be losing a good night’s sleep. The FBI was on high alert for terrorist attacks and anti-government protests, the torpedo attack on the USS Milius provoking an angry public and media backlash; to many, the President’s muted response to the sinking of HQ-17 was merely the catalyst for further aggression. The White House had expressed the usual outrage and condemnation, but the standard ‘we will respond proportionately and at a time of our choosing’ hadn’t sounded particularly convincing. The USS Milius was still afloat, at least thirty of her crew killed in the torpedo attack, well over fifty injured. The submarine deemed responsible had reportedly been sunk with all hands, no-one as yet officially blaming the Chinese.

Flores’ own sleep-deprived problems seemed trivial in comparison, and he watched as an agent tried to get something more out of the husband. It made no sense for the prowler to be Anderson, although the fingerprints on the torch definitely said otherwise. He was obviously looking for something or someone, but quite why an old barn near Aldie had attracted his attention remained a mystery.

Flores was irritated that the FBI always seemed to be following in Anderson’s footsteps and he decided to formally recommend a change of strategy; Anderson was clearly innocent of Garcia’s murder and he wasn’t the enemy here – that was unquestionably Pat McDowell.

  • * *

Anderson struggled to reach the phone, momentarily confused by the different call tone. Fortunately, it was a number he instantly recognised, Anderson hoping that Devereau had heard something more from Charlotte.

“Hi Adam; sorry for the delay, I was half-asleep.”

“I do apologise,” responded Devereau, heavy on the sarcasm. “Every time someone calls me from that damn country they pick the middle of the bloody night, and you have the gall to whinge when it’s well after breakfast time. And you had another hour to lie in, the Americans as usual doing everything well after everyone else.”

“It’s not easy being a fugitive,” Anderson said defensively. “Your body clock tends to go haywire.”

“In which case you’ll be pleased to learn the FBI have taken you off their most wanted list. Charlotte’s been in contact; she’s on her way to Heathrow and the FBI want to talk.”

“Talk or put me in a cell and throw away the key?”

“They know you had nothing to do with Garcia. Charlotte’s given me the direct number for a Ray Flores; Charlotte seems to think he’s genuine. Apparently he’s authorised to offer you immunity from prosecution. It’s the only way out of this mess, Mike…”

Anderson was minded to agree, the stress of looking over his shoulder every few minutes starting to wear him down. He was well aware of his own physical limitations and it was obvious he would have to hand himself in sometime soon and trust that McDowell was exaggerating. Maybe the FBI might even want his help…

An hour later Anderson was back at the Aldie site, trying to keep well clear of husband and wife while explaining to Flores why it had attracted his interest. Anderson was rather proud of his newly-acquired ID tag and blue windbreaker with FBI in yellow all over it. It probably wasn’t legal for him to wear them, but Flores seemed to be more interested in searching out McDowell than correct FBI protocol. Flores had even been sympathetic to Anderson’s concerns as to a potential FBI mole, and Anderson had quickly realised that fears as to his personal safety were unfounded – at least that was his hope.

In the light of day, the inside of the barn looked far more impressive than Anderson had first thought and even an area a third the size, properly equipped, would be more than sufficient for McDowell and his team. Anderson now appreciated that he had been far too restrictive with his filtering of the building permits and he must had missed a score or more of sites that would actually be suitable.

“Any new ideas?” Flores seemed prepared to allow his new associate free reign, the FBI determined to make the most of Anderson’s supposed expertise.

“Not yet. I take it there are no reports of anything unusual happening around Washington? Presumably Dick Thorn must know the odd general or two?”

Flores shook his head, focusing on the first of Anderson’s questions, “There’s nothing out of the ordinary. Together with Homeland Security we have units watching all of the military bases around D.C., but everything seems quiet.”

“What if someone attacks the White House and the Secret Service can’t cope: what then happens?”

“They’d mobilise the Old Guard,” Flores replied positively. “More formally known as the 3rd United States Infantry Regiment; they’re based at Fort Myer just three miles from the White House.”

“And that wouldn’t create some sort of constitutional crisis?”

“The President can execute an order for them to help keep the peace and suppress a conspiracy, but their actions are limited by Posse Comitatus and the Insurrection Act. I’m not certain, but D.C.’s Mayor might also be able to federalise the National Guard.”

Anderson filed such facts away for future reference. The torpedo attacks had reignited his curiosity as to the possible relevance of Wilhelmshaven, but Flores had simply brushed off Anderson’s questions, more worried as to what was happening closer to home. Both of them remained confused as to McDowell’s next step – no idea as to the what or even the when.

  • * *

The White House Situation Room was now at full stretch, reports from across the world filtered in order of priority. With no sign of domestic disturbances, the situation in the South China Sea remained Cavanagh’s prime concern, the news of a second artillery attack on Khabarovsk now an additional complication.

Thirty-two dead aboard the USS Milius, another five critical. One torpedo had destroyed the destroyer’s decoy, a second exploding under the Milius ’ stern, but not breaking her back. The submarine had definitely been destroyed, the resultant floating debris minimal and totally unhelpful as to its nation of origin. The acoustic evidence had re-affirmed the submarine’s identity as China’s Ming-class 310 but with only a 72% certainty; consequently, there remained a worryingly large element of doubt. If not China, then there was still North Korea or Russia, Cavanagh left with the impossible choice of randomly picking which country to blame.

The proof as to which nation was actually responsible lay some 4000 feet below the surface of the South China Sea, and it would be at least another day before a suitable ROV (Remotely Operated Underwater Vehicle) would be on station to try and give them some answers – longer still if the worsening weather didn’t improve. Cavanagh didn’t have several days in which to make up his mind, enemies and allies alike anticipating something more immediate.

Without the complication of Wilhelmshaven, no-one in the Situation Room would have had any doubt that China was responsible for the attack; now, they had to consider that it might well be Russia – it was even possible China was pulling some sort of double bluff. The U.N. brokered military freeze agreed with China had effectively been abandoned, the exclusion zone announced by the Philippines and Vietnam still due to be enforced in just over forty-eight hours.

Cavanagh planned to speak to the nation at 8.30 p.m., with all the major networks choosing to carry his prime-time address. The actual speech was as yet unwritten, the exact thrust still unclear. Apart from the attack on the Milius should he also respond more forcefully to Thorn’s accusations? Was that even appropriate for a prime-time address? And what about the threat of a coup? The mere mention of the latter would undoubtedly feed the rumours as to his supposed paranoia.

With respect to Thorn, the White House had so far restricted itself to a single press release, acknowledging Thorn’s past contribution and defending his right to voice his opinion. The specific criticisms within Thorn’s speech were referred to in turn, each one branded as an exaggeration or a distortion; where possible, suitable authoritative data was included to illustrate his colouring of the facts. The press statement had avoided the danger of being too personal in its condemnation of Thorn, merely noting the President’s disappointment as to the tone of the former Secretary of State’s speech.

The desperate situation in the South China Sea meant desperate measures were needed. Fourteen hours after his TV appearance, Cavanagh would address an Emergency Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly; a high-profile speech to detail the United States’ response to the crisis in the South China Sea. That gave the inner cabinet just twenty-four hours to come up with a suitable strategy; preferably one which would drag the United States back from the brink of conflict without totally destroying Cavanagh’s already tarnished reputation.

Public faith in his Administration was at an all-time low, his approval rating slumping to just 21%. The United States required stability to deal effectively with the external crisis, and the lack of a Vice-President created its own insecurities. Cavanagh was close to being ready with a name, needing to get his nomination confirmed as soon as possible after the Midterms. Whatever the election results, the present makeup of the Senate and House of Representatives would remain until the new Congress began on January 3rd, Cavanagh wanting to formalise his nomination by November 14th at the latest.

No Vice-President, an acting Secretary of State, Ulrich being pressured to resign, and the Chief Justice rushed to hospital with food poisoning – chaos to some, but of relatively minor concern to the actual governing of the United States, the problems far more one of public perception than reality.

The Republicans were similarly in difficulties, struggling to agree on a new Leader of the House, Daniel Quinn’s murder leaving a gaping hole with no obvious successor. The Speaker had also become embroiled in the financial scandals sweeping through Congress: a book deal and ‘cash for influence’ supposedly netting him a million-dollar bonus. In addition, two Republican Congressmen had been named as being involved in an illegal – and racially motivated – purge of voters from the voting roll, or ‘voter caging’ as it was called.

Social media still managed to save most of its spite for Cavanagh, and an online petition demanding his resignation claimed to have received close to 300,000 votes in just 24 hours. A second internet campaign urged voters to boycott the polls in protest against the two-party stranglehold and political corruption. Despite it being a Sunday, early voting was continuing in certain states, the turnout almost certain to be a historic low. Unconfirmed reports from Ohio and Texas told of designated polling places remaining shut or protestors physically blocking entry, the police having to intervene.

Cavanagh felt pummelled from all sides, dealing with one issue to be instantly faced by another. He had spoken to some of the families of those killed on board the USS Milius, trying to offer something in the way of comfort, genuinely upset by their tears and anger. Several had refused to speak to him, some no doubt cynically assuming he was merely doing what was expected of a president and commander-in-chief at such times.

Then had come reports of a second artillery attack against Russia, followed within minutes by live TV pictures from Khabarovsk.

On the main monitor opposite the President was a map of south-east Russia, the border with China shown as a jagged black line: starting west of Vladivostok, the border traced its way north to Khabarovsk before turning west to follow the Amur River. Admiral Wade Adams, the CJCS, moved to stand beside the monitor, highlighting the border region some fifty miles south of Khabarovsk.

“We can make certain assumptions just from the TV evidence,” Adams said, directing his comments to the President, “then match and compare that to our own satellite data. Official reports put today’s toll at fifty killed, several hundred injured; a total of around thirty shells, that’s twice as many as Friday. China’s Type-05 self-propelled gun fires satellite-guided munitions with a range of sixty miles, accurate to maybe a hundred and twenty feet. The relatively brief timescale suggests that each attack involved just a single unit; the first based south of Khabarovsk, the second to the west. Satellite surveillance has confirmed heat signatures consistent with the firing of artillery and this time we were able to establish a rather more accurate fix.”

The highlighted area shifted north-west and the CJCS paused, as though working out how best to reveal the next set of data. “To within a few hundred yards, the location is forty-two miles west of Khabarovsk, very close to the border, on the north bank of the Amur River.”

He waited patiently, but it was several seconds before someone realised exactly what he was suggesting.

“The north bank?” repeated Cavanagh slowly, not quite believing what he was hearing. “You’re telling us the Russians launched the attack against their own people?”

“It would appear so, Sir.”

“We can prove this?”

“We can publish the satellite images, as can China; I imagine Russia will publish its own images proving that we’re both either wrong or simply lying. Unfortunately, the Russians set up some sort of laser-based shield which distorted the relevant images; in addition, because of the meandering border, a good part of the shells’ flight path would be inside Chinese territory. The evidence we have so far is thus fairly subjective. I’m advised that many independent experts would be more than ready to agree with Russia’s analysis.”

“And I assume we also can’t prove it’s a Russian self-propelled gun rather than Chinese?”

“I’m afraid not, Sir. What makes it more difficult is that the maximum range of Russia’s laser-guided and rocket-assisted munitions is relatively poor; thirty miles at best.”

Cavanagh persisted, needing to be absolutely clear as to what Adams was suggesting. “So is it Russia attacking Khabarovsk or China? No guesses, Admiral; just a fact-based judgement using whatever evidence we presently have – forget what anyone else might claim or argue.”

“Russia,” replied Adams with barely a moment’s thought, “without a doubt.”

Cavanagh finally seemed convinced. “‘An unprovoked attack’ were Golubeva’s exact words,” he said with feeling. “If Russia is willing to shell its own cities, then we obviously need to re-examine the possibility that submarine 310 might in fact be Russian. Moscow is doing its best to lead us into a war with China and all we can do is claim that the data isn’t convincing enough. If we sit and do nothing, I will be condemned on all sides as indecisive and weak. I need solutions people, and fast.”

Jensen was the first to speak, either brave or foolish. “The crisis in the South China Sea was inflamed by Louisa Marcelo and others, most likely under direction from McDowell. He in turn ultimately receives his orders – through Sukhov – from President Golubeva. Maybe China over-reacted with Mischief Reef but I genuinely don’t believe they’re responsible for the subsequent torpedo attacks. The evidence of China’s guilt or innocence is temporarily out of our reach on the sea bed and somehow we need to play for time; we can still increase our military presence in the area – that can hardly be seen as sitting doing nothing.”

“And in a week we attack Russia rather than China; it’s a bastard choice whatever we do.” The Secretary of Defence, Bob Deangelo, was merely repeating what they all felt, although he was prepared to go one stage further. “It could be argued that we should make the most of what we have here – President Golubeva is virtually offering us an alliance against China. They secure Siberia and their Far East; we secure our allies’ demands in the South China Sea. The only problem is the thousands of lives that will be squandered as a result.”

The U.S. had long-since prepared a doctrine to counter China’s increasing dominance in the South China Sea, planning for the time when war was inevitable. Based on the assumption that the U.S. would maintain its technological superiority, the strategy proposed an aggressive and blistering attack against China’s military infrastructure. Derided by many as potentially leading to a limited nuclear war, the Pentagon had grown tired of emphasising that it was merely a concept and not a definite plan. The inner cabinet had spent just minutes reviewing its proposals, Cavanagh wanting nothing to do with such an extreme response.

“So,” said Cavanagh dispiritedly, “the only option on offer is to ally ourselves with Golubeva, the one person who might well have provoked all of this. Khabarovsk gives her the perfect pretext to attack China; I assume she won’t wait for too long.”

“If that’s Golubeva’s plan, then she’d be foolish to delay,” Jensen confirmed. “She presently has the full backing of the Russian people; in a month Beijing might come up with something to convince the world this wasn’t their doing.”

“What if we simply tell the media everything,” Pittman said slowly. “Lay it all out warts and all. Golubeva, McDowell, this doppelgänger sub and Khabarovsk – let them understand exactly why an attack on China is unjustified.”

There was silence around the table, with Cavanagh eventually finding his voice. “It’s certainly an option, Amy; I’m just not sure we’re ready for that just yet. And the Philippines and Vietnam might well argue that we already have plenty of justification to support them against China.”

He turned to Jensen, “Paul, what incontrovertible evidence do we actually have to work with – something conclusive to throw at Moscow or Beijing and see how they react?”

Jensen considered a moment, “Not much, Sir; I’m afraid. In their shoes, we would all be suspicious of an ulterior motive, worrying that every piece of data had been falsified or exaggerated. I guess we could tell Beijing about Hanson and Wilhelmshaven, and hope they might be less coy about the whereabouts of their submarines.”

“They could sail submarine 310 into Pearl Harbour and we still couldn’t be certain it was the genuine boat,” said Cavanagh, frustrated. “We desperately need some physical evidence from the bottom of the South China Sea: Chinese, Russian or North Korean – we have to be certain which it is.”

“We could still threaten to tell Beijing what we know,” suggested Jensen. “That might just be enough to give Golubeva pause for thought.”

“And if Golubeva calls our bluff, then what?” Deangelo said sharply. “We’ve merely made China into the innocent party, and that has yet to be proved. It’s certainly not to our advantage to assume anything so contentious.”

Admiral Adams had heard enough, “It’s all bluster anyway. None of us can really go to war; the threat of nuclear escalation is just too much of a risk. Russia just hopes to create instability in China, probably in the U.S. as well, and then it’s a land grab in the Ukraine or somewhere else. China and the U.S. have the financial might to bring Russia to its knees – that is what we should be telling Beijing.”

It was an argument going nowhere, the solution as far away as ever, the problems too complex to work out in an hour or even a week. Cavanagh’s speech still needing writing, the people of the United States looking for real leadership out of the crisis, and hoping that Cavanagh for once would actually show a bit of backbone.

  • * *

Anderson sat in the FBI’s command centre, coffee in hand, working hard to convince Flores that – despite him mishandling Aldie – the principle behind his search for McDowell and Carter was still valid. He might have over-exaggerated the case somewhat, but he remained convinced that their base was hidden somewhere not too far way. Public dissatisfaction with Cavanagh was building steadily and even though the anticipated large-scale protests hadn’t yet happened, they could only be days away.

There had been several more incidents of voters being prevented from casting their votes: Chicago, Minneapolis and San Francisco – no pattern, and nothing that significant, a few hundred votes delayed at worst. It would still be a nervous two days before the polling stations could finally shut their doors, the Republicans now expected to retake control of both the Senate and House of Representatives. It just seemed odd to Anderson to have to wait another eight weeks before such changes took effect, especially with a new Vice-President and a Secretary of State to be confirmed.

But then America seemed to do a lot of things in an odd way. The FBI wasn’t immune, chasing after Anderson one minute then using him as an ‘expert’ adviser the next. Anderson’s understanding of how McDowell and his colleagues operated came less from his own personal experience and more from detailed research into Golubeva’s rise to power. McDowell had been learning his trade then but he had obviously been an avid student, adapting the strategy to suit America’s unique circumstances.

“I presume you’ve done your own business and building checks?” pressed Anderson, not willing to give up just yet.

Flores almost looked embarrassed, “Not using your specific criteria. You’ve no proof he’s in Virginia; he could be anywhere within a thousand miles.” Flores knew he was being defensive but it wasn’t quite as simple as Anderson supposed. He had tended to downplay Anderson’s fears of an inside source, but the FBI’s lack of success in finding McDowell might well indicate that he was correct. If Hanson was a typical example, then there were likely to be other loyal Americans who truly believed they were doing the right thing, somehow deluded into helping what was now regarded as a conspiracy against the President and his Administration.

“McDowell seems to have far more limited manpower than was the case with Russia,” said Anderson, trying to sound like he knew what he was talking about. “I just don’t believe he would want to split what resources he has a thousand miles apart. Washington will eventually become the main focus; McDowell has to be based no further north than Baltimore, maybe as far as Fredericksburg to the south. His job is only half-done; surely it’s worth a shot?”

“If I assume you’re right,” Flores murmured thoughtfully, well able to follow Anderson’s logic. “Then what next? Repeat your search but with a different set of criteria?”

“We use the same criteria,” said Anderson, “but extend the search area to the whole of Virginia and Maryland.”

Flores remained unconvinced but there seemed little harm in doing as Anderson suggested – after all, the FBI was actively pursuing other similarly implausible leads.

“We’ll add in Delaware,” Flores said, mind made up. “New Jersey if we have to.” He started to rap out orders, keen to make a start; only this time, just to be sure, he’d bypass the main FBI network.

Anderson had started with several thousand possible sites; now they were likely to be heading into the tens of thousands.

  • * *

Recent tradition dictated that the setting for a prime-time address be decided by the nature of the speech – Oval Office for sombre, East Room for everything else. Cavanagh sat at the Resolute desk, framed on either side by the U.S. and President’s flags, choosing not the have the distraction of family photographs on the table behind him.

“Good evening. Yesterday, as you will know, an attack against the USS Milius claimed the lives of thirty-two of our sailors. Many others have been injured. All our prayers are with the families who have lost their loved ones or are still awaiting news. These brave men and women were simply doing their duty, the USS Milius part of a naval detachment sent to the South China Sea. The situation there has seen tensions increase dramatically over the past nine days with China, the Philippines and Vietnam all suffering loss, armed conflict threatening to propel the region into a catastrophic war no-one can win.

“Our naval forces were present in the South China Sea purely in a defensive role and were attacked without warning, provocation or just cause. The torpedo attack was carried out by a submarine which was subsequently sunk with all hands; the loss of life a direct consequence of the attack on the USS Milius. In total, six torpedoes were launched against our vessels, with five destroyed in a well-executed defensive operation; unfortunately, one managed to evade our counter-measures. This was thus not some accident or mistake but a deliberate attempt to murder innocent sailors and sink an American ship. It is almost certain that this was the same submarine that attacked the Vietnamese frigate HQ-17 on Friday.”

Cavanagh paused; the facts were relatively easy to detail, who should be blamed and the nature of the U.S. response, far harder to explain.

“This was a despicable and cowardly act. If the intention was to provoke us into a hurried and misguided retaliation against one particular nation, that will fail utterly. Physical evidence, combined with that gathered by the U.S. Intelligence Community has so far failed to provide conclusive proof as to the perpetrator. That will change once we have examined the remains of the submarine; unfortunately, that is not a quick or simple task. However, I can assure you that once those responsible have been identified, the United States will enact a just and proportionate retribution for the many lives lost.

“The U.S forces presently in the South China Sea will remain on station, with any attempt to deny or delay their rightful passage met with deadly force, and I urge all nations in the South China Sea to step back from further confrontation. America is proud to stand together with her allies in the defence of freedom and all that is good in our world, the sacrifice of our men and women forever remembered in our thoughts and prayers.

“Thank you. Good night and God bless America.”

  • * *

While most TV stations immediately returned to their prime-time schedule, the news channels gathered first impressions as to how the President had done, it seen by some as being crucial to the survival of his Administration. Initial feedback was generally positive, but once the speech had been pulled apart with every word and imagined pause duly analysed, opinion became far more divided.

Cavanagh had not tried to defend himself against Thorn’s accusations, in fact there was no mention at all of America’s internal problems. With respect to the South China Sea, the President had implied that the U.S. was going to sit on its hands and again do absolutely nothing – no retaliation, no attempt to avenge the thirty-two lives lost. There was even a plea to other countries to play nicely. Some argued that it would have been irresponsible of Cavanagh to order some form of retribution against China without definite proof; for others it merely confirmed the truth of what Thorn had said.

And there had been nothing either concerning China’s unprovoked attacks against Russia. President Golubeva had matched Cavanagh’s live TV address, speaking for some twenty minutes and condemning China for the murder of seventy-nine of its citizens. The act was seen as a deliberate attempt to provoke Russia into an escalating border conflict, Golubeva reinforcing the notion that China intended to reclaim much of its imperialist past; not just Tibet and a few islands in the South China Sea, but Mongolia, Taiwan, and a good chunk of Siberia. Russia’s Eastern Military District had been put on high alert and Golubeva confirmed earlier news reports that Russian artillery had retaliated by hitting military targets inside China.

Once again Beijing was having to refute accusations involving significant loss of life, the regularity of its denials creating its own problems; few countries now seemed willing to give it the benefit of any doubt, its well-documented belligerence counting against it. Satellite images produced by China claiming to prove that Russia had attacked its own citizens were immediately disputed by Moscow, the United States refusing to confirm or deny the allegations, stating that it was still in the process of evaluating the evidence.

With China being squeezed between Russia in the north and the United States Navy in the South, other countries now sought to profit from China’s difficulties, some wanting to repay a previous slight: India, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam – there were plenty ready and willing to join any U.S.-led coalition, sensing it might be their one chance to thwart China’s threatened expansion. Louisa Marcelo was helping maintain public pressure on the Philippine Government, it having to adopt an aggressive stance merely to survive, and throughout South-East Asia, the desire for compromise seemed to have all but evaporated.

Beijing realised it couldn’t just wait for a powerful group of its enemies to gang up against it – somehow, if China wanted to keep its future plans on track, it needed to wrest back the initiative.

 

Chapter 18 – Monday, November 7th

Eastern United States – 09:52 Local Time; 14:52 UTC

The President always found the trip to New York frustrating, the roundabout route of Andrews to JFK in Air Force One, then Marine One across to the heliport in downtown Manhattan, seeming unnecessarily complicated. Security concerns were the excuse, Cavanagh too unsure of his facts to argue the point. Just minutes after landing, the President’s motorcade was heading along FDR Drive towards the United Nations Headquarters. Twenty-eight vehicles, plus a dozen motorcycle outriders, traveling at speed along an empty road while around them the Monday-morning Manhattan traffic struggled to cope with road closures and heavy rain – Cavanagh invariably felt uncomfortable at such examples of privilege, where possible cutting back on the frivolous, trying to set a good example.

Now such trivial concerns seemed totally irrelevant. Cavanagh was having to fight for his political career, unsure who he could count on, fearful of not doing the ‘right’ thing. The Post’s latest editorial had been stinging in its condemnation of Cavanagh’s TV address and his handling of China; there was even an unsubtle hint that he should abandon thoughts of a second term. Under different circumstances, Cavanagh knew The Washington Post would be suggesting he step down, but with no Vice-President that particular idea was a non-starter.

A week ago, Cavanagh would have judged the Cabinet totally loyal; now the cracks were starting to show, Thorn perhaps not the first to abandon ship. The Secretary of State’s letter of resignation had finally been found, Amy Pittman handing it to him as they had walked towards Air Force One.

Once aboard, Cavanagh had ripped it open, reading the formal words with rising contempt. The sense of betrayal still rankled, Thorn’s twisting of the facts to suit his own specific message an unjust end to his two years as Secretary of State. The public mood was still extremely negative, the online petition against Cavanagh now passing two million. As its numbers rose, so the stock market continued its downward trend, opening that morning twelve percent lower than the previous Monday. The voting chaos had continued, with Alaska the latest state to report polling places shut and voters turned away.

The motorcade turned left off the 42nd Street exit, Cavanagh readying himself for the speech of his life. Whether it was the stress of the moment or something else, he suddenly realised a bead of perspiration was running down his face.

“Mr President, are you alright?”

Cavanagh glanced across at the National Security Adviser seated to his left, forcing a smile. “Yes Amy, I’m fine. Didn’t sleep that well, that’s all.” Now his nose was running as well. “Probably the start of a cold…”

Any further comments were cut short as the limousine slowed to a halt, a Secret Service agent immediately pulling open the car door.

Cavanagh spent the next thirty minutes in a daze, going through the motions, shaking hands and saying the rights things but not really feeling he was actually there. Although he could be nervous before a big speech, Cavanagh had learned to cope with generally no-one ever the wiser. Now he felt light-headed, dabbing at his face and nose, silently swearing at the cold that threatened to spoil his big speech – one sneeze and the drama of the moment could easily be lost.

As the adrenalin kicked in, he seemed to regain his focus, nose and sweat glands finally behaving themselves. He strode confidently up onto the stage, the General Assembly Hall spread out before him, his message going out live to every media outlet across the world.

“Mr President, Mr Secretary General, fellow delegates, ladies and gentlemen; we come together at this crucial moment in time, the threat of an international war hanging over us. I’m sure we all share the hope that the world will never again see the madness of a world war, but the danger of further escalation cannot be ignored. Several proud nations have already suffered loss; innocent lives unnecessarily sacrificed.

“Let me make this very clear to everyone in this great hall and those watching around the world: for many of the nations represented here, the delicate balance of peace and economic growth that has endured for three-quarters of a century is under serious threat, the three most powerful countries in the world watching each other for the first sign of weakness, with a single misjudgement or misunderstanding liable to push us all into the abyss.

“Two clear choices stand before us – continue as we are with the vicious circle of provocation and reprisal, ever widening; or a unified and concerted effort to reduce tension and solve for all time the problems that have led to the present confrontation. A single nation, even three or four, brave enough to step back from the brink of war will not be enough, we must all…”

Cavanagh swayed slightly, almost losing his train of thought, trying to cover up his lapse by taking a sip of water from the glass in front of him. “We must all work together to bring about a lasting peace. Sadly, the record of the past seventy years shows that nations and their leaders cannot be relied upon to hold to promises, even when made in good faith, internal and external pressures weakening their resolve. We don’t need exclusion zones and every small reef militarised, nor should we allow bigger countries to bully and blackmail their smaller neighbours. The United Nations is an organisation that should be justifiably proud of what it has achieved, but on key issues its recent record is disappointing. We argue and debate, a vote for reason defeated by a single veto.”

This wasn’t what his audience had expected, Cavanagh revealing something of his own frustrations. The President took a second sip of water, the massive screens to left and right revealing a slight tremble in his right hand.

“The selfish aspirations of the few must not be allowed to generate turmoil across half the globe. The United Nations has the authority to act, and through its members, the military muscle, but does it have the will? The President and Secretary-General can only do so much; the real power lies with those who wish to create a world where stability and peace would inevitably lead to prosperity for all.

“The United States has supported the United Nations since its inception, Franklin D Roosevelt one of those who believed it could be trusted to solve problems similar to those we face today. Personally, I fear he would be bitterly disappointed with the reality. The world needs the U.N. to be forceful and proactive, a body which is truly willing to take on and find solutions. We can still all work within certain guarantees, but the United Nations must prove…”

Cavanagh stopped suddenly, his body swaying more noticeably this time, eyes seeming to lose focus. “The U.N must prove that it has the will to achieve a permanent…” His voice trailed away and he almost fell, having to clasp the top for support. Reacting instinctively, a Secret Service agent raced forward, left arm curling around the President protectively, Cavanagh almost seeming to collapse against him.

The polite silence was broken by an increasing clamour as the delegates reacted to the scene unfolding in front of them, the President helped off the stage, white-faced and barely able to stand.

  • * *

McDowell watched the scene from New York with a wry smile: Cavanagh’s reaction to the drug had been more rapid and far more dramatic than planned, but they could hardly have timed the effect better, the President illustrating to the world his apparent frailty. Most observers would assume that the stress of recent weeks had finally ground him down; either that or he was seriously ill. Yet Cavanagh’s near-collapse also created problems for McDowell, it now certain that the drug used would be revealed significantly earlier than anticipated, the White House perhaps even regarding it as a failed assassination attempt.

McDowell was one of five men and women seated in the computer centre, every console occupied, the large screen now split into thirty-two separate views. The vast majority were live images, the remainder data streams revealing the latest economic and voting statistics. So far, everything was progressing as well as McDowell could have hoped and his main concern was the tenacious nature of those arrayed against him. It surely couldn’t be too long before the FBI located the farmhouse complex. To abandon it was always an option, McDowell just not wanting to do so without good cause; all of those involved were well aware of the risks, the potential rewards for success far outweighing the penalty for failure.

Anderson hooking-up with the FBI was to be expected; the torpedo attack on the USS Milius was not, the artillery bombardment of Khabarovsk also looking to be part of the same strategy. President Golubeva was definitely working to an accelerated agenda, the reason for her willingness to commit substantial resources to this second phase now easier to understand.

It was a problem McDowell had struggled with: he could threaten to delay or even pull out completely, but their schedule was now virtually self-sustaining. In any case, his team was already fully committed and Sukhov would know it was no more than an empty threat. Events in the South China Sea were certainly well out of McDowell’s control, everyone now waiting to see how China would react. In the end he had demanded Russia refrain from further action, reinforcing to Sukhov the need for at least forty-eight hours of stability.

Sukhov had at first been non-committal, returning McDowell’s call within the hour to agree everything he had asked. McDowell assumed Golubeva had recognised that the situation in Washington was still fluid, and was wary of ruining everything they had all worked so hard for.

McDowell glanced up at the main monitor: the CNN news ticker was reporting that Cavanagh was being taken to Mount Sinai Hospital east of Central Park. There was no update as to his condition, the anchorman stating that the President had looked exhausted, ‘the demands of the last few days obviously taking its toll’.

McDowell could well imagine the turmoil at Mount Sinai, the Twenty-Fifth Amendment once again raising its convoluted head. Section four of the Amendment specifically dealt with the problem of a President becoming unable – or incapable – of discharging his duties effectively. In the latter case, it could only be enacted with the agreement of the Vice-President and a majority of the Cabinet: with no Vice-President, that criterion was thus impossible to meet. Attorney General, doctors, lawyers and advisers would presently be arguing as to what to do, and whether the President could actually be considered ‘unable’. When Reagan had been shot in ’81, Bush as Vice-President had simply refused to invoke the Amendment, leading to demands for future clarification; yet even after forty years nothing had been resolved and whatever the state of Cavanagh’s health, he could not legally be replaced.

Directly below the CNN segment on the wall monitor was a more static scene, a long-range shot showing the gated entrance to the home of Republican Congressman James Bennett, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. He might presently be under a cloud over the recent claims of financial impropriety, but with the Vice-President’s resignation, Bennett had become first in the presidential line of succession.

So far, there had been nothing unusual to see, the expectation being that Bennett’s level of security would prove to be a reliable indicator of the President’s health. As next-in-line, the number of Secret Service agents had already been increased the once, but McDowell now hoped that there would be no further additions.

After all, he wanted a lame duck President, not a dead one.

  • * *

Anderson crouched close to the edge of the treeline, gaze looking east across the farmland to the high chain-link fence and the buildings beyond. Flores waited beside him, finger pressed to his earpiece, waiting impatiently for everyone to get into position.

The repeat of Anderson’s buildings’ search had proved complex and frustrating, the fear of an informer encouraging Flores – with Jensen’s backing – to bypass normal procedure and stretch his authority to the limit. In just two hours he had pulled together a team of fourteen, each agent well-known to Flores and trusted absolutely.

Despite having to work within significant constraints, Anderson’s challenge had seemed eminently achievable; that was until the various possibilities slowly reduced to a big fat zero. They had adjusted the criteria, the agricultural research centre escaping their initial trawl mainly due to its size, sixty acres. Its formal links with the small community of Terrill had also made it seem an unlikely option, although that should strictly have moved it up the rankings, McDowell having similarly worked hard to integrate August 14’s UK base into local life. An inconclusive business search, followed by discreet enquiries into the type and extent of the facility’s electrical work, had moved the research centre ever higher; its final placement at the top was eventually confirmed once fingerprints obtained via the local agricultural committee had identified Lee Preston, his description a good match to one of the men involved in the Mississippi killings. Off the radar for almost a year, Preston’s presence at Terrill under an assumed name might not prove he was working with McDowell but it seemed a reasonable bet.

Terrill itself was sixteen miles west of Fredericksburg, on the border of Spotsylvania and Orange Counties, the population of just over four hundred spread out along Route 621. The research centre was on the northern edge, a wedge-shaped strip of land containing six buildings in total, the three largest of farmhouse and a pair of converted barns set back a quarter of a mile from the main road.

There was the expected website, its references to alley cropping systems and production hedges meaning little to Anderson. In practice that seemed to involve long lines of stumpy bushes, all in neat rows north to south, some ten yards between each line. In the alleys between them were a complex mix of crops, several acres in total of each, and at different stages of growth, some just left as grass and clover.

McDowell was obviously determined to keep up the pretence of an agricultural research centre, its green credentials reinforced by a wind turbine and an array of solar panels, back-up power provided by a battery bank and diesel generator. There were also four satellite dishes, McDowell similarly sticking with his philosophy of technological overkill.

The larger buildings formed three sides of a square, the open end facing the main road. The FBI’s main target was the middle structure of the farmhouse: brick-built and two storeys, most of the electrical work had been concentrated on the top floor, making it the most likely location for the computer centre.

Anderson had waited expectantly for Flores to pass across a detailed map with the positons of McDowell’s men duly highlighted, but the relevant satellite data was considered off-limits, Flores’ team having to make do with a twenty-minute briefing and a quick sketch. Anderson had however been issued with the essential of Kevlar helmet, goggles and bullet-proof vest; no weapon, as he was simply expected to observe until the area was fully secure. The police would only be informed once the attack was underway, Flores determined to keep the operation as secret as possible.

No back-up, no real intelligence as to what they were likely to face, and the weather now brightening after the heavy rain – to Anderson it was a recipe for disaster, not that the FBI seemed worried. Flores estimated at least eight targets, maybe as many as twelve, his guess based purely on the fact there were six vehicles parked between the main buildings. Anderson’s maths was a little different: four SUVs and two medium-sized cars could easily add up to a more worrying total of twenty.

Fourteen – plus Anderson – versus anywhere between an over-optimistic eight and a disastrous twenty: such differing numbers didn’t help Anderson’s confidence level. However, some of those eight to twenty would be academics and computer experts like Jon Carter, so hopefully less keen on risking life and limb.

Flores spoke briefly into his radio; then nodded at Anderson. Moments later the first two agents moved forward in a crouching run, MP5 sub-machine guns held ready for instant use. Flores had split the FBI team into three groups: five men attacking from the south-east; Flores and four other agents plus Anderson coming in from the south-west; the final four agents would form a holding line to the north, McDowell’s most likely route of escape.

It was a hundred and fifty yards from treeline to the wire fence surrounding the main buildings, security cameras perched high-up, no sign yet of any guards or even a lone dog. The bushes between the alleys were waist-high but not that thick, providing a minimal amount of cover. Anderson would have personally opted for an elbow-wrenching crawl from one from line of bushes to the next; the FBI preferred a more direct and somewhat speedier approach, working on the principle that the cameras would catch them whatever route they took.

Once the two agents reached halfway to the fence, Flores led the rest forward, Anderson nervous and keyed-up, ready to react at the first sound of a gunshot.

Ahead the fence was now being cut, Anderson puzzled as to why there was still no response, with at least one of the cameras easily revealing their advance. Their initial target was the western barn: two-storeys and timber-framed, the side facing Anderson was some thirty feet long with two narrow windows and a chunky-looking wooden door.

As the first two agents squirmed through the gap in the fence, gunfire belatedly erupted from the barn; one agent instantly collapsed to the ground, hands clawing at his neck. Anderson saw no more as he flung himself forwards, hugging the rain-soaked earth, sensing Flores returning fire.

Anderson glanced up, ears bombarded by the gun battle around him. There were just three rows of bushes between him and the fence, offering a deceptive sense of cover and he could easily see through the screen of branches. Beyond the second barn, muzzle flashes revealed that the twin attack was similarly pinned down. To Anderson it seemed pointless to stay where he was, a bullet just as likely as not to hit him, and he squirmed forward, following Flores as he headed towards the gap in the fence.

The gunfire slackened and Anderson squeezed through the fence. One agent was slightly injured, another dead, shot through the throat. Anderson grabbed the latter’s MP5, daring Flores to argue, determined not just to sit by and do nothing. The western barn was no more than thirty yards away, windows shattered, the wooden planks pockmarked and splintered. Its bulk in turn protected them from the farmhouse, the barn’s defenders either dead or keeping their heads well down. With two agents providing covering fire, Flores was the first to reach the barn, sliding to a halt beside the outer wall.

Gunfire was now sporadic, both sides carefully picking their targets; still nothing from inside the barn. McDowell didn’t look to be pulling out just yet, perhaps realising the attackers couldn’t count on additional support.

A whispered instruction from Flores, then a burst from his SMG shattered the door lock; moments later, two stun grenades were lobbed through the smashed windows into the room beyond.

Even before the double explosion died away, Flores shoulder-charged the door, stumbling inside, a second agent and Anderson close on his heels, a single shot ringing out.

  • * *

Despite the surging anger of those first moments, McDowell worked hard to maintain an aura of studied calm. His normally reliable sources had given him no warning as to an attack and he had no idea as to the FBI’s numbers. Maybe a dozen men and lightly armed, but they had already managed to fight their way into the two barns. The computer room was at the rear of the farmhouse, on the top floor, out of direct view of the attackers; safe for maybe another five minutes at most.

Terrill was fast outliving its usefulness and McDowell knew he couldn’t afford to delay any longer. A week was all he had wanted, even five days might have been enough. He moved across to where Jon Carter sat, the Englishman more focused on checking the local police reports than the drama outside. They had practiced such a scenario just the once, the four non-combatants primed as to what to do and say, no-one expecting them to make a fight of it. And if everything went to plan, they’d most likely be back on the streets within seventy-two hours. The key figures were already working as one to remove the President from power, it assumed success would drag along with it the ambitious and the naïve, the silent majority confused enough by recent events to follow their natural inclination and do nothing.

A hand on Carter’s shoulder and a nod of affirmation was all it took to seal Terrill’s fate. A brief word to the others, then McDowell grabbed his M4 assault rifle, thundering down the stairs before ordering Preston to check out the back; including McDowell, Terrill’s security complement had already been reduced from eight to just four – time to leave, if they could.

With a raucous clatter the FBI renewed their attack, McDowell instinctively ducking as the wall beside him exploded with plaster and brick; Carter and Preston waited at the rear of the farmhouse, impatient to leave.

“Cameras picked out several more agents,” Carter advised. “About two hundred yards to the north; nothing east or west.”

“West,” McDowell ordered without hesitation. “We’ll aim for 604 and try to hijack a vehicle.” He glanced at Carter, “Stay here, Jon; your job’s done.”

“No thanks,” responded Carter, shaking his head. “Even twenty-four hours stuck in a cell is too long, let alone seventy-two.”

McDowell merely nodded in understanding. A final check and then he led the way out the back. The double gates at the rear threatened to be a choke point, McDowell wasting precious seconds struggling to get them open; it was then a staggered withdrawal, McDowell and Lavergne sprinting ahead for forty yards before covering the other three as they chased past. Even as McDowell slithered to a halt beside a stumpy bush, there was a renewed rattle of gunfire from the north.

Carter weaved first one way and then the other in the hope of escaping a bullet, suddenly stumbling. He fell just short of McDowell, coughing blood. McDowell started to move toward him but was waved away, it obvious even to Carter that the FBI was for once the healthier option.

Preston raced past, stopped, fired, and then shouted McDowell forward. Now they were also taking gunfire from the farmhouse, McDowell urging everyone on, hoping that it was all worth the effort. If they could get hold of a car then they stood a chance, a police helicopter his greatest worry.

Three of them made it to the treeline. Not that there was any sign of active pursuit, the FBI seemingly content with the prize of the research centre and its secrets.

  • * *

Jensen sat in his office staring thoughtfully into space, his phone still hot from the many calls he had made that morning. To have been the first in the Cabinet to test the waters as to the President’s competence definitely seemed disloyal, but Jensen was simply doing his job, trying to work out whether there were others who shared Thorn’s views. And in any case, everyone in the Cabinet must have struggled with their conscience at some time over the past few days.

Without a Vice-President, the Cabinet was powerless to act even if a majority considered Cavanagh incapable of discharging his duties. Of its present fourteen members, four were willing to voice their concerns and Jensen sensed the vote would have been tight but not necessarily conclusive either way. The next full Cabinet meeting was set for the Wednesday, when the tensions between them all were likely to be exposed; more so with the Midterm results promising to be an absolute disaster. The Republicans might well get to crow at their victory but in reality no-one would have actually won.

All of the signs were that Cavanagh’s Administration was close to collapse, the Cabinet divided on what it wanted to do. For some, self-preservation was becoming more relevant than loyalty, with two of the fourteen indicating that they were close to resigning; it wasn’t as if any of the Cabinet truly believed the President was weak, more that recent circumstances had evolved to show him in that light – Cavanagh’s actions in the South China Sea might well be sensible and judicious, but the public mood was rapidly turning against him, friends and allies in turn risking their own political careers.

Dick Thorn was the one person who could have held the Cabinet together, but now he acted more as Cavanagh’s nemesis, determined to bring the President down. Cavanagh might still have two years left in office but many political observers believed he would struggle to complete them, let alone run for a second term. Thorn had borrowed from Louisa Marcelo and had urged people out onto the streets of D.C. in a mass protest against Cavanagh, his message reinforced by a host of influential figures; several had even gone so far as to advocate a boycott of the Midterms, with Election Day instead becoming an opportunity to show America’s politicians what the public really thought of them all.

It was too early to know whether the capture of Terrill would be a turning point and the conspiracy against Cavanagh had clearly been hurt, but not perhaps mortally so. Although McDowell’s base and several of his associates had been captured, McDowell and two others were still on the run, their hijacked car found abandoned west of Fredericksburg. The trail back from Hanson had similarly stalled, circumstantial evidence indicating it reached all the way up to the Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence; the DDNI’s friends were powerful enough to make life difficult should Jensen act too soon and for the moment the man was merely under surveillance, Jensen waiting to see whether other high-ranking military personnel might also be involved, wanting something more conclusive.

In public, the momentum for change continued to grow, each hour seeing a new voice adding their support to Thorn’s day of protest. Businessmen, journalists, academics, even senior – albeit retired – military figures: Thorn’s message was being shouted out loud and clear, social media the ideal mechanism to help boost support. It was even being used to organise transport to Washington, together with suitable accommodation.

Despite the President’s enforced absence, the Government was functioning as normal, the Secretary of Defence working with Admiral Adams to work out their response in the South China Sea. A deep-water ROV would be in place by daybreak, the search for the submarine and the investigation into its origin expected to take days if not weeks. Well before then the Philippines and Vietnam would have to decide whether to back down or go ahead with their exclusion zone.

The confrontation between China and Russia also showed no signs of abating, both countries moving reinforcements to the border. North Korea’s military remained at a heightened alert, South Korea finally forced to respond in kind, all leave cancelled. Taiwan had pointedly offered its support to South Korea, high-level talks on economic and military co-operation brought forward.

President Cavanagh’s truncated speech at the United Nations had met with a mixed reception, his collapse effectively negating his prime message. America’s allies had tried to react positively, many keen to see the U.N. become more effective and reforms introduced, although Britain and France would be unlikely to voluntarily give up their veto. That said, no-one believed Cavanagh had actually come up with a genuine solution to the present impasse.

The President himself was still at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, suffering blurred vision, dizziness and bouts of confusion; tests were ongoing, the concern that he had been poisoned seemingly confirmed when Amy Pittman had also fainted. The means and identity of the poison had yet to be determined but both the President and his National Security Advisor were expected to make a full recovery; a minimum of two days.

To Jensen it was just one more element in the conspiracy against Cavanagh, events heading quickly to their climax. Jensen and the Secretary of Defence had put certain safeguards in place, but there were far too many unknowns to know if they would be enough. Jensen had mulled over whether to recommend going public with their fears, and even publicising that Cavanagh had been poisoned. A week ago, such an approach might just have succeeded; now it could easily be taken as a form of desperation, Thorn and his allies doubtless ready with a suitable counter.

If Russia’s coup d’état was to be the model, then the conspirators would include politicians and the military, most well-respected, with one taking on the mantle of people’s favourite. Thorn could certainly fit into that latter category, although Jensen had no firm view as to the identities of his accomplices; Thorn might even be out to grab total power for himself, unlikely though that seemed.

Jensen was convinced that the decisive act would be played out tomorrow, and the White House Situation Room was already fully manned, the Old Guard on alert. For now, all he could do was wait.

  • * *

Flores stood beside the mobile command centre smoking a cigarette. Not that he smoked, but he had desperately needed something to calm his nerves: one agent killed, six more injured. At the time the risks had seemed worthwhile, his concerns as to an FBI mole fully justified; now his decisions would be analysed and slowly pulled apart, Flores no doubt condemned for acting without proper authorisation and a more realistic evaluation of the dangers.

The final coroner’s van had only just left, two of McDowell’s men also killed. Seven others had been arrested, four on their way to hospital. Although the prime target of McDowell had managed to elude them, the capture of Carter and the farmhouse complex was a certain justification for Flores’ actions, but perhaps still a poor reward for the death of one of his men. What made it worse was the attitude of those captured: there was a certain amount of apprehension but no real fear, one even able to crack a joke at the FBI’s expense – something instantly regretted when the butt of an agent’s gun had ‘accidently’ connected with his stomach.

Whether the computer facility would prove more helpful than its human operators was as yet uncertain, Flores happy to leave it to the experts to tease out what they could. Cigarette finished, he ambled across to one of the terrorists’ SUVs, putting on gloves to take a look inside.

Anderson moved to watch him, hot coffee in hand. “There won’t be anything,” he said helpfully.

“There’s always something,” responded Flores testily. “You’re the expert on McDowell – what will he do now?”

“I can’t see him disappearing off just yet; there’s still too much left unfinished. He’ll be waiting to take advantage of this protest tomorrow and to do that he needs to stay close to Washington.”

“And you still think he’s setting everything up for a coup?”

“I’m not sure anymore; I can’t see how one could ever succeed without the army. The trouble with McDowell is you’re never quite certain what he’s after or who he’s working for. Dick Thorn is the obvious candidate, but maybe it’s someone else – even Cavanagh.”

“The President?” Flores stopped his search of the SUV and stared at Anderson, “Why would Cavanagh need someone like McDowell?”

“Unpopular president, no chance of a second term; throw in a conspiracy and an attempt on his life, and his popularity shoots up.”

“An attempt on his life?” questioned Flores sharply. “You think it’s more than just exhaustion?”

“Just repeating what’s on the Internet. I’m not really suggesting Cavanagh’s behind it, but with McDowell you can’t take anything at face value. If it’s not Thorn, they’ll be somebody else lurking in the shadows that gains out of this – that’s McDowell’s employer. Ask me again in a week and I might have a better idea who it could be.”

“Sadly, a week’s too long,” said Flores. “If Thorn gets more than a few hundred thousand marching through D.C. tomorrow, I guess we have a couple of days at most.”

[]Chapter 19 – Tuesday, November 8th

Washington, D.C. – 08:50 Local Time; 13:10 UTC

Jensen sat in the White House Situation Room next to the Secretary of Defence, their animated discussion on the magic of New York merely a brief diversion from the tension of the moment. The others seated around the table together formed the Homeland Security Council and until the President returned from New York, Jensen acted as its Chairman; however, unlike Cavanagh, Jensen had no authority to veto or push through the difficult decisions, that falling to a straight vote from the five attending Cabinet members.

Dick Thorn was due to speak in front of the Lincoln Memorial in just over an hour, tens of thousands already gathering in the National Mall. His day of protest had transformed into a march along the Mall, past the Washington Monument to finish outside the United States Capitol. It was being referred to as a ‘March for Reform’ and the organisers had wisely chosen to do everything by the book, the necessary permit rushed through by Eugene Henry, Washington’s Mayor – or more properly the Mayor of the District of Columbia.

Jensen and Deangelo had spent a good part of the last twenty-four hours co-ordinating their efforts to cope with the expected half-a-million demonstrators, the pledges of support on social media sites passing 100,000 well before midnight. The combined police presence from the D.C. police department and various federal agencies would total close to six thousand, the option of bringing in a few thousand National Guard rejected as being inflammatory.

In retrospect, that might have been a mistake, no-one anticipating the organisers’ ability to charter some 3000 buses and a dozen airliners; they had even arranged pickup points for car-sharing. Virtually every route into Washington had been clogged with traffic for several hours, frustrated passengers getting out and walking, cars parked wherever they could. For some reason the Stars and Stripes had become a recognised symbol for the protestors to display, mostly as a lapel pin, Jensen dismayed to hear that uniformed police officers had been observed wearing the emblem on the inside of their jacket collars in a silent show of support.

Apart from Thorn, various others speakers – as yet unnamed – were expected to endorse his message, people anticipating another verbal attack on America’s discredited voting system; possibly even a second diatribe against Cavanagh. The President’s approval rating was stuck in the low twenties, his TV address and speech at the United Nations at least stopping the rot. To pick Election Day for Thorn’s protest march was in itself a slap in the face for Democracy, another few hundred thousand voters potentially disenfranchised by their decision to travel to Washington.

And it wasn’t just D.C. In New York, Boston, and Chicago simultaneous marches were also planned, support offered by a confusing amalgam of civil rights groups and unions, plus several veterans’ organisations. The major TV networks were re-adjusting their schedules in order to bring live coverage, the march gaining a pre-eminence its origins barely deserved.

Although still in New York, the President and Amy Pittman were both expected to join them sometime during the afternoon, their recovery more rapid than anticipated. The poison used had been identified as Diallopine, a less potent form of Atropine, the exact source still unknown. Tests on Thorn’s resignation letter had proved negative, but Jensen remained unconvinced, wondering whether the letter that the President had read was the same as the one the Secret Service had retrieved. A dozen people could have swapped it, and even its arrival in Amy Pittman’s hands was shrouded in mystery. The sealed letter had been passed to her by a member of the State Department – she couldn’t remember who exactly – and she had naturally presumed it had gone through the security checks.

One of the screens on the wall in front of Jensen showed the scene around the Lincoln Memorial, the crowd patiently awaiting Thorn’s arrival, entertainment provided by opportunist buskers. More people were streaming in from every direction and the organisers were busy handing out leaflets – nothing controversial, just a map of the National Mall with added details such as emergency centres and toilet facilities. The police were there but keeping well back, Jensen able to listen in on the various messages passed back and forth to the Unified Command Centre. The fear of a coup was still just that – no indication as to how or when it might happen, or even who might be involved. Jensen and Deangelo were prepared for the worst, hopeful that it would all be totally unnecessary.

By the time Thorn arrived the crowd had grown significantly, the organisers still deliberately vague as to the precise timetable and the list of speakers. At just after ten o’clock, the master of ceremonies made an appearance: a well-known talk-show host, he was someone well able to work his audience, cracking a joke one minute and then subtlety changing the tone into something more sombre and restrained. A young girl, aged no more than fourteen, moved up to the microphone and without music sang the ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. Jensen listened transfixed, amazed at her maturity – and her bravery, the song’s lyrics and range difficult even for a professional. The resultant applause and cheers rang out across the Mall, the stage perfectly set for Thorn and his supporters. The number of protestors was estimated at around 350,000, with more still arriving – it was less than Thorn might have hoped for but enough to prove he had popular support.

The first speaker was a political correspondent late of CBS, his three minutes of rhetoric underlining Thorn’s earlier speech to the American Legion and its criticism of the voting system, the speaker adding in yet more supposed evidence. Next, it was Mayor Henry’s turn to rip into the incestuous and sterile nature of the two-party system – and this from a serving Democrat.

Jensen was distracted by an animated conversation between the Secretary of Defence and Admiral Adams, his brain selecting out the keywords of Spratly and China. Moments later, Deangelo leaned across to relay the bad news.

“Reports are coming in that China has landed marines on one of the Spratly Group; West York Island, presently held by the Philippines. No details yet as to casualties.”

It was not what Jensen had wanted to hear, China either trying to take advantage of Cavanagh’s illness or deciding that – having already been judged guilty – they might as well seize something to bargain with.

There were three more speakers before it was Thorn’s turn, one a former Republican Senator. No-one talked for very long, their own fairly specific frustrations with U.S. democracy not overstated, merely refined. In the White House, Jensen listened intently to every word, making an occasional note, looking for some hint as to what might be planned. The stance of Washington’s Mayor was a shock, Henry arguing against his own party, and for him to willingly risk his political future, then the reward would have to be significant.

Thorn’s arrival at the microphone was greeted with rapturous applause, and when eventually he was allowed to speak, his first words were a heartfelt thanks to the young singer. There was more applause and more words of thanks; it taking a full minute for Thorn to move on to the main point of his speech.

“Many of you will have read,” he said, his voice booming out across the Mall, “that I have some personal grudge or a vendetta against President Cavanagh. That is certainly not the case and I need to state for the record that Will Cavanagh is a man of high principles, genuine and honest as the day is long; someone we would all be proud to call a friend.”

Thorn paused, letting the sentence hang in the air. “But just because he is all of those things doesn’t make him the right man to lead America out of this crisis with our heads held high. Will Cavanagh’s sensitivity to the problems we presently face is obvious; we can all see it in his face and hear it in his voice. When he returns here from hospital, how long before the President is again overwhelmed by the stress of his world role? I saw a news report this morning which suggested Cavanagh was deliberately poisoned: if that is the case, then give the people the facts. Who, why and how? Surely we have the right to know if there was some attempt on the President’s life.”

Again Thorn paused as if for effect, “The Washington Post has implied that I am part of some clandestine attempt to force Cavanagh from office. Once again The Post is inaccurate, as my opposition to the President’s policies is hardly a secret, my frustration with the Administration obvious to all. Do I want the President replaced? Yes, that is certainly my personal view; one I believe is also shared by millions across America. The people of the United States need a steady and robust hand in the White House and we cannot wait another two years. Some of you may not have heard that just under an hour ago, Chinese marines forcibly took over two of the Spratly Islands and I understand that several Philippine marines have been killed. And why should anyone be surprised, when America does nothing to avenge the attack on the USS Milius and the murder of thirty-two of her crew.”

Beside Jensen, Deangelo let out a string of expletives and demanded to know why no-one had told him about this second attack; Adams was similarly outraged, staff frantically trying to work out what was going on. Jensen was more irritated by Thorn once again twisting the facts to suit his needs, planting the idea that the story of the President being poisoned was no more than media exaggeration. Cavanagh had ignored advice and refused to go public with the truth; at least until they had better answered some of Thorn’s who, why and how.

Thorn continued, “We have seen over the past months the quality of many of our elected officials, many more concerned with earning a fast buck than serving the people that voted for them; others revealing their arrogance or a lack of morals. Maybe some of what we’ve read is an exaggeration, but not everything and the sheer number of revelations is a humiliating indictment of American democracy.

“The day-to-day governing of the United States is not controlled by those sitting in the White House or Congress, but managed by the hundreds of thousands of men and women who work in small offices and nondescript buildings across America. Each of them has achieved their success through hard work and natural ability, and none were thrust into a position of power by the whim of voters. President Cavanagh’s Cabinet follows that very principle, its members chosen by their perceived ability to do the job. If they fail, they are dismissed; the President certainly wouldn’t wait years before replacing someone who wasn’t up to the task. The same should be true whatever high office a person holds.”

An aide abruptly directed Jensen’s attention to one of the TV screens, it now tuned into a live news update from the Philippines, Jensen automatically swapping focus to listen: an official government source was reporting a second helicopter-borne assault, this time against the Philippine-held island of Thitu. The number of fatalities was said to be high, although there was no indication as to whether the attackers had successfully occupied the island. The smaller West York Island was now firmly in Chinese hands, the garrison of Philippine marines standing little chance against overwhelming odds.

A burst of applause dragged Jensen’s attention back to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Thorn’s brief speech finally winding down.

“…show the people of America our strength of feeling, trusting that together we can ensure that our nation can truly claim to be the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

The applause was sustained, although Jensen remained unconvinced that Thorn had made the impact he had wanted. The MC returned to formally start the march along the National Mall, Thorn being guided through the crowd to lead them from the front, their first destination the Washington Monument. A brief wait for photos; then Thorn, his wife, and the various speakers joined arms to walk slowly east. Thousands streamed behind them, placards waving, the mood good-natured, with variations on ‘Cavanagh Out’ chanted as if to remind everyone why they were there.

Jensen’s fears that the march would turn into something more sinister were starting to recede and the news from the Spratly Islands was now of far greater concern, with the Philippines and Vietnam finally going ahead with their exclusion zone. The atmosphere in the Situation Room became more animated as additional reports flooded in, with a third attack now confirmed against Spratly Island itself – Truong Sa Island to its Vietnamese occupiers.

“Again it’s a flea bite in size at less than forty acres,” stated Adams, sounding exasperated. “Vietnam has increased its military presence there over the past month; if China played it safe and started with a naval bombardment, we could easily be looking at several hundred killed. Both Spratly and Thitu have a small civilian population with homes and a school just yards away from the concrete bunkers.”

Deangelo asked, “How far away is the Carrier Group?”

“Sixteen hours; maybe thirteen at flank speed. That won’t give us long to work out what to do once they get there.”

“I assume,” said Jensen, “that we need to get the President’s okay first?” Jensen didn’t assume anything of the sort; he well knew that if the Carrier Strike Group was likely to be sailing into harm’s way, then their Commander-in-Chief would need to give the order.

“Of course,” Deangelo replied, with a hint of irritation. “But let’s at least try to give the President a few options first.”

Deangelo and Adams huddled together with a team of advisers, both men seemingly of one mind as to what to recommend, but wanting to make certain they were prepared for every possibility. The fad for exclusion zones extended to Admiral Adams, and he insisted that the U.S. formally declare a one-hundred nautical mile total exclusion zone around the USS Gerald Ford; two hundred miles would have been the ideal, the Admiral only willing to compromise because of the busy shipping lanes. Now any vessel or aircraft approaching too close to the Carrier Group would be warned away – if that failed to have the desired effect, then it would be sunk or shot down, no further risks taken.

China too was repositioning its forces, the Aircraft Carrier Liaoning edging south and closer to the Spratly Group. Although not in the same class as the Gerald Ford and needing support from shore-based aircraft, she would be an intimidating presence to China’s neighbours and perhaps the first true test of Vietnam’s resolve.

Naval strategy was not part of Jensen’s concern, and his attention moved back to the National Mall. Thorn’s slow walk to the Capitol had only just reached the National Gallery of Art, an FBI drone tracking his every step, the image wide enough to show something of the press of people following on behind. A second, wider view, showed the whole eastern side of the Mall from the National Gallery to well beyond the Washington Monument filled with demonstrators. Several thousand were starting to move north along 15th Street, determined to wave and chant outside the White House.

The marchers’ mood was still peaceful, the latest estimate as to total numbers increased to around half-a-million. The security reports detailed just two arrests and the police were continuing to keep a low profile, with the additional units waiting close to key government buildings being kept on standby at least until early evening.

The advance line of photographers was now approaching 3rd Street and the last few hundred yards up onto Capitol Hill; ten yards behind them walked Thorn and his wife, hand-in-hand, the Mayor and other celebrity supporters sauntering along beside them. Outside the Capitol there would be more speeches, its status as the seat of the United States Congress deserving of special criticism. How many of its 535 members would actually be within its walls was debatable, neither the Senate nor the House of Representatives due to meet until Thursday.

Thorn and his wife separated to allow a young couple to be photographed with him, the protest march becoming more like a morning stroll. Jensen simply wasn’t convinced that the trauma of the past weeks would peter out so easily – Thorn was paying lip service to the accepted norms of free speech. Very soon, and it would be time for something rather more persuasive.

New York – 12:37 Local Time; 17:37 UTC

Cavanagh dressed quickly, eager to return to the White House and trusting that medical advice to give it another two hours wasn’t actually enforceable. He was still suffering minor side-effects from the Diallopine and its antidote, but a good night’s sleep had made him more than ready to face the world, and more importantly the public gaze. First, however, he had to contend with the Attorney General, Cavanagh unsure whether her arrival at Mount Sinai was in her official capacity or as a representative of the Cabinet. There was also the possibility that she had been persuaded to act as a spokeswoman for the Democratic Party’s elder statesmen, their sense of panic obvious from the incessant phone messages.

A private room on the fourth floor had been set aside for their meeting, Secret Service agents stationed outside, just in case. Ellen Ravich was one of Cavanagh’s braver appointments: the war on terror, political scandals, electronic voting, civil rights abuses – the Attorney General’s short time in office had seen its fair share of controversy.

“Mr President, I’m delighted to see you looking so well.” Ravich stood politely as Cavanagh entered, looking nervous, even apprehensive.

“Cut the crap, Ellen,” said Cavanagh, his warm smile of welcome countering the harsh edge to his words. “If you want my resignation, think again. The bastards drugged me up to the eyeballs and I will not give them the satisfaction of just giving up.”

They sat down opposite each other at a small table, Cavanagh feeling he was being assessed and determined not to show any sign of weakness. Legally, he felt on safe ground, Congress unable to impeach him without just cause, specifically charges of ‘treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanours’.

Ravich took the President at his word and got straight to the point. “Mr President, you need to nominate a Vice-President and call an emergency joint session of Congress; for tomorrow if possible. The members are already heading back to Washington in preparation and will do what they can to speed up the confirmation process. The country needs a Vice-President, Sir; the attack on you proves that.”

Cavanagh had expected such a request, the various names still rotating their order in his mind. The danger was that whoever he picked, then the 25th Amendment could immediately be enacted, the Vice-President and Cabinet working together to oust him – a month, three months at most, and the daggers would be out. And if he chose someone who wasn’t up to the job, either Congress would block him or the United States would end up with someone even more of a turkey than himself.

“Is this a request or a demand?”

The Attorney General’s face softened, “It’s pretty much a demand, Will. Refuse and they’ll go for impeachment and damn the legal arguments. They know they can’t win but the members are getting desperate; they feel they need to prove to voters that the United States Congress does actually have some balls.”

“And yet this is legal, rushing through the confirmation process with a joint session?”

“With the Chief Justice in hospital and Enrique Garcia dead, the Speaker was left with Judge Sanderson. He’s looked into it and agrees that it’s all legal and above-board.”

Cavanagh thought of making an acerbic comment but knew it would be pointless: the Attorney General certainly wasn’t his enemy, nor even the Senate and House of Representatives. “Very well, Congress can have its joint session tomorrow. I’ll give you my nomination once I’m back in D.C.; I just need to make a few phone calls first.”

The Attorney General nodded her thanks. “There’s more, Sir, I’m afraid. Congress needs a personal commitment from you to support the Philippines.”

Cavanagh finally showed his true feelings, “But not Vietnam?” he said angrily. “The President doesn’t take his orders from Congress. I can give no such commitment, but I am determined to honour all of America’s obligations, both moral and legal…”

Their conversation was interrupted by a double rap on the door, a Secret Service agent barely waiting before thrusting it open.

“My apologies, Mr President; we need to move to a more secure area.”

Cavanagh knew better than to question or argue, thrusting back his chair and following the agent out into the corridor, Ellen Ravich close behind. Six Secret Service agents were fanned out along the corridor, none with guns drawn, their demeanour determined but not outwardly concerned. Amy Pittman and a dozen others stood around looking confused, the gaggle of suited figures moving quickly along the corridor past surprised hospital staff and patients, no-one speaking, just staring in shocked silence.

The lead agent paused, hand clamped to his earpiece. A quick word of confirmation, then they followed the signs to a bank of stairs, ignoring the elevators, to head higher; still no word of explanation.

Amy Pittman’s phone sounded and she waved the others on. The rest were escorted up the stairs, the President allowed to set the pace; only now did it dawn on everyone that there was no medic in close attendance should the President feel faint, the Secret Service doing their best by keeping a wary eye on Cavanagh’s every step.

After four flights the lead agent signalled a pause, moving across to speak quietly to the President.

“There’s been an incident in Washington, Sir; at the protest march. Shots fired; one fatality. Some demonstrators from the New York march have started to gather outside the hospital and the situation is in danger of turning ugly. It seemed advisable to move you, Sir; just in case.”

“Move me to where exactly?”

“Just away from the lower floors, Sir. Unfortunately, there’s no helicopter pad at Mount Sinai and we need to wait until the situation outside is secure.”

Cavanagh understood the concerns but he wasn’t happy at having his return to Washington delayed further. The mantle of power seemed to slipping slowly away and he desperately needed to get a grip on the situation. He’d give the doctors their two hours, and then he’d get winched off the roof if he had to.

 

Washington, D.C. – 13:51 Local Time; 18:51 UTC

The key reports and images revealed the drama of what had happened no more than three hundred yards from the White House, Jensen knowing that these could well be the first planned steps on the road towards chaos.

It had all started so modestly, when a few on the fringe of the crowd had berated the FBI and Secret Service agents lined up outside the South Lawn of the White House. It wasn’t exactly abuse, more derision as to whether the agents felt embarrassed at having to protect such an unpopular and weak president. The situation had gradually become more troublesome, four young men trying to climb the railings into the White House grounds. A struggle ensued, more people and agents joining in, shots fired.

One of the young men had been shot in the back, dying at the scene. With close to half a million demonstrators in the Mall, most not understanding what had happened, the FBI had an impossible task to try and secure the area. Thorn’s band of volunteer marshals had bravely stepped in, managing to coerce many of the marchers to join those headed for the Capitol or move back beyond Ellipse Road, but it was a good twenty minutes before the area around the attack site had been cordoned off.

Two protestors had been arrested but neither was armed. The agents involved had been re-assigned elsewhere once their guns had been checked, but none had been fired, the gunman presumably one of the protestors. The FBI had begun an investigation but the situation around the Ellipse was particularly tense, the agents subject to catcalls and chants, with the police keeping well away.

As news of the shooting had spread, the mood of the protestors had quickly bypassed shock to become outrage, their anger directed at anything associated with the government, whether it be human or inanimate. Many of the police now openly displayed the Stars and Stripes emblem on their jackets, leaving the FBI as the prime target for the crowd’s wrath. Agents had been spat at and abused, several coming close being attacked. Fearing that more arrests would only inflame the situation, the majority of uniformed agents had been pulled back from the Mall, it almost becoming a no-go area for those identified as being FBI.

The main group of demonstrators, headed by Thorn, were now gathered close to the Capitol Building’s west entrance. Surrounded by police, Thorn and Mayor Henry were holding a question and answer session, hosted by the MC, the two of them managing to turn it into a series of reasons why the present government was corrupt, the President incapable. Several of the more-coherent amongst the protestors were invited up to the microphone to give their views, the MC skilfully cutting off the more extreme while encouraging those that reinforced the key message.

Under different circumstances, Thorn and Henry could have been ignored as two citizens making the most of their right for free speech; even though they were certainly verging on the limits of slander, the police seemed unlikely to intervene, acting more as an honour guard, with the D.C.’s Chief of Police joining them at one stage before slipping away. Hundreds more police were clustered in groups around the outside of the Capitol, no-one in the White House able to discover why they were there; in fact, all attempts to contact the upper echelons of the D.C. hierarchy failed to get past an electronic wilderness of static or an annoying silence.

The whole eastern side of the National Mall was still thronged with demonstrators; there even seemed to be thousands more drifting in from the surrounding streets as though drawn there by some invisible force. In fact it turned out to be the mundane pull of social media and chain texts, Jensen being guided through a jumble of messages to the crucial edict.

“Listen up!” Jensen shouted, needing to be heard above the general hubbub around him. “We have Thorn on social media calling for people to blockade the Capitol and the White House in order to force the President to step down. He claims to have broad support for his actions from the unions, business leaders and the military – no names as yet. It’s not a coup d’état but we’re getting close.”

But what to do? Jensen and Deangelo started the discussion, with virtually everyone from the White House Chief of Staff to the Director of National Intelligence wanting to have their say. No-one was even sure what specific federal law Dick Thorn had actually broken. Treason seemed a little extreme, Malicious Mischief not relevant, Conspiracy unclear. The most promising was an all-embracing Chapter 84 crime: ‘whoever knowingly conspires to impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of Government business…’

The Cabinet vote to arrest Thorn was an equal split: Deangelo and Jensen in favour, two against, one abstention. As a vague compromise, Jensen proposed that they try a simple test, a gauge as to the extent Thorn and Henry were prepared to go. And along the way, they might even gain some insight into the D.C. police: given a choice, would the average officer obey his Chief, his conscience, or his Oath of Office?

  • * *

Special Agent Tony Fracassi pushed his way through the crowd, wondering whether it had been wise to break his father’s golden rule and actually volunteer for something. With just five other agents he was expected to ‘request’ that Thorn accompany him to the cars waiting close to the Botanic Garden: no arrest, no force, and definitely no guns. Two hundred and fifty yards, past thousands of angry protestors and armed police of unclear loyalty – there were even half-a-dozen bodyguards, also probably armed.

Fracassi’s path was abruptly baulked by a tough-looking bodyguard, the man simply standing in front of the FBI agent, the two of them standing eye-to-eye, neither man speaking. A mix of protestors and bodyguards moved to prevent the other agents from reaching Thorn, a barrier of people which Fracassi and his men would have to fight their way through.

“Move aside,” demanded Fracassi, more loudly than he’d wanted.

The bodyguard merely smiled; no intention of going anywhere. Around Fracassi the crowd started to close in, some of the agents being jostled, the atmosphere unpleasant, even threatening.

Fracassi chose to give it one last go, his superiors needing to know if the agents would be forcibly prevented from even getting close to Thorn. He went to go left round the bodyguard and as the man moved to block him, Fracassi quickly sidestepped to the right – simple but usually effective.

Someone barged into him and he almost fell; he was pushed again, left ankle kicked. Fracassi tried to force his way past, but he was shoved from either side, a fist thumping into his back. Fracassi stumbled, instinct telling him to reach for his gun.

From nowhere a uniformed police officer stepped forward and two-handed grabbed Fracassi’s right arm, pulling him upright, their faces almost touching.

“Give it up,” the officer whispered. “You’ll only get yourself killed.”

Fracassi shook his arm free. He glanced around: the other agents were trying to form a protective circle, sour-faced protestors closing in, the faces of his men determined but fearful.

Fracassi waved the agents back: the White House had its answer, no need for anyone to risk a beating or a bullet.

  • * *

To those watching events unfold from the safety of their homes and offices, the news media provided a clear analysis of what was happening and where. Across America, there were similar protests in various cities, the largest – other than Washington – in New York, with a crowd of around a hundred thousand gathering in Central Park and spilling out to surround Mount Sinai Hospital. The President remained marooned inside, the police attempting to clear a safe route out of Manhattan; relatively peaceful at first, the crowd was becoming more volatile with the number of arrests surging past a hundred.

Yet it was clear it would be D.C. which would decide Cavanagh’s fate. Although a small crowd sat it out in the Ellipse south of the White House, the main target for dissent became the Capitol, and the complex was now surrounded by a sea of protestors. The Capitol’s own police officers ensured the building remained secure, and officials and staff and were able to leave and enter without difficulty. Not so the FBI, agents turned back by the D.C. police.

Thorn’s associates and marshals moved from one group to another handing out more leaflets, trying to keep the mood positive. By some devious means, hot-dog carts started to make an appearance, the Park Police relaxing the rules to follow the lead shown by their D.C. colleagues. As the afternoon wore on, the number of demonstrators gradually decreased, with just a hard-core several thousand strong preparing to stay overnight, tents being set up for the long haul.

A burst of jeering announced the arrival of Marine One, the President having finally escaped the claustrophobia of New York. Then it was back to the status quo: the police, FBI, protestors, and even Thorn – everyone seemed to be merely biding their time, waiting for the President and Congress to decide their next move.

  • * *

Anderson was back on McDowell mode, unwilling just to let him ride off into the sunset. McDowell might still have a job to do, and with Thorn and his associates not yet installed in the White House, there were protests to be co-ordinated and the final moves executed.

The good news seemed to be that neither side was prepared to raise the stakes by bringing in the army, the coup becoming more of a personal struggle between Thorn and Cavanagh. Quite what Thorn had in mind if – or once – Cavanagh resigned was keeping the media fully occupied, their political correspondents and analysts enjoying the limelight. Even the stock market couldn’t seem to make up its mind what it wanted, shares fluctuating wildly, some suggesting it might need to close temporarily.

Despite the chaos around him, Anderson felt more relaxed than he had for days, able to actually have a conversation with Charlotte without worrying as to whether someone might be listening in or having the police suddenly barge through the door. It was proving to be the most dramatic Election Day he could remember, Americans always having to do everything to an extreme.

Anderson tried to see it from McDowell’s perspective: communications and intelligence would be the most basic requirements, plus somewhere secure. Without a proper base he would have to settle for second-best, the situation now potentially far more dynamic and complex than in the past. Live images and data could presumably be pulled from the police or other friendly agencies, communications perhaps even using the same piggy-back route.

Of course, McDowell might already be sunning himself in Hawaii, a blonde on one arm, a brunette on the other. Special Agent Flores was still tasked with the search for McDowell, the success of Terrill apparently outweighing the means by which it was achieved. With nothing else to go on, Flores had agreed with Anderson’s premise that McDowell would likely be here in Washington, much closer to the action than he had been in Terrill, wanting to complete his task.

A brief word to Flores, and Anderson jumped down from the FBI mobile command centre, walking up Fourth Street towards the National Mall. The FBI jacket made him feel a little self-conscious but he wanted to get a better sense of what was happening around the Capitol, needing to suck in the atmosphere and maybe gain inspiration.

He moved along Independence Avenue past First Street, the Capitol maybe two hundred yards away to the north-east. The protestors were busy organising their evening routine, preparing for a cold and uncomfortable night, the hundreds of tents a multi-coloured sign as to people’s anger and frustration. The FBI estimated that around twenty thousand were aiming to stay the night, a second day of protest planned for the morning, few doubting the organisers’ claim that more than a million demonstrators would throng the Mall by midday. Thorn was apparently spending the night at a local hotel, with the D.C. police supplementing his own security arrangements.

Anderson turned and looked up at the buildings behind him, wondering if McDowell was somewhere nearby. It was only by being close to the Capitol that you could have any real sense as to the demonstrators’ mood, McDowell surely needing to judge how they would react to a specific stimulus.

Or maybe Anderson was just over-analysing it all, his respect for McDowell’s skills making him look for things that weren’t actually there. Even so, it was worth checking out, just to be on the safe side.

[]Chapter 20 – Wednesday, November 9th

Sidearm Leader – 08: 50 Local Time; 00:50 UTC

The Combat Air Patrols were shared equally between the Liaoning’s 24 fighters, with at least two aircraft ready to respond instantly to any threat. Two more aircraft waited ready on deck, and others could begin launching within twenty minutes. Sidearm Flight flew through a cloudless sky, the two J-15 fighters relying upon a land-based Kongjing AWACS to be their long-range eyes and ears.

Liu Jie was finding it hard to stop smiling, pleased to be finally able to test his skills against the Americans. His Head-Up Display – the HUD – was in Cruise Mode, relevant data such as speed, height and heading, easily visible to Liu without him needing to look down or change focus. Away to the south-east, a pair of U.S. Navy F/A-18 Super Hornets angled their way towards the Chinese Task Force, and the two J-15s readied themselves to intercept. On the HUD, a warning light flashed briefly as the J-15’s sensors detected a radar signal – the Hornets were also being shy, only using their radar as a back-up for more passive systems.

The Air-Controller aboard the AWACS gave new instructions. “Sidearm, Diamond One; target intercept now one-one-zero, range twenty-eight kilometres, level five-six.”

As one, the F-15s banked to the left and accelerated through Mach 1. Liu switched the HUD to Air Combat Mode, thumbing the missile select to arm one of the fighter’s four air-to-air missiles. Idly he wondered whether the Americans realised that the Chinese aircraft were coming up fast and trying to get behind them: this cat and mouse game was familiar to everyone, each side learning from the other’s mistakes.

At thirteen kilometres from intercept, Liu Jie visually picked out the two Hornets ahead and slightly above him. He climbed steadily, closing up on the tail of the first Hornet, knowing that his wingman would be matching his every move.

A double click on his radio to warn his wingman and Liu activated his narrow-beam radar; instantly, a high-pitched tone sounded in his ear and the cross-hairs on the HUD flashed red as he achieved missile lock. Liu automatically pushed up the protective toggle on the control stick and pressed the launch-enable switch; ever so gently his thumb began to caress the missile trigger, the temptation almost too great to resist.

Abruptly the two Hornets split apart as they belatedly tried to shake off the Chinese fighters, one driving high, the other low. Without warning a second tone sounded in Liu’s ear and a red light glowed on the control panel: the threat was behind him!

“Sidearm, two F-35s,” warned the AWACS. “Range ten kilometres, level one-eight and climbing, intercept course two-nine-six.”

The F-35 stealth fighters had crept in past the AWACS’s guard, catching the J15s at their most vulnerable. Liu banked sharply to the right, losing height rapidly. Data on each of the four targets was thrown up on to the HUD, the various threats analysed and arranged in order of priority.

Less than kilometre from Liu, now cruising slightly below him, was his original target. The J-15 swept down, Liu momentarily kicking in the after-burner so that he could catch up with the Hornet. He was now only some forty metres from the U.S. plane and paralleling its course. The Hornet’s pilot turned to look at Liu, then the American touched his oxygen mask and threw his hand away – almost as though in a parting kiss – before banking the Hornet sharply to the left.

Three hours later and two hundred kilometres to the south-east, the macabre dance was repeated as two Chinese fighters flounced around the perimeter of the U.S. exclusion zone. The AWACS watched closely to see how the Hornets would react as the J-15s deliberately tried to test the American pilots’ patience and discipline, almost – but not quite – provoking them to attack.

After all it was only a game; one where consequences of breaking the ‘rules’ occupied the players’ thoughts both awake, and asleep.

 

Russia – 14:52 Local Time; 04:52 UTC

The journey south from Khabarovsk was turning into a nightmare, the narrow highway ice-covered and packed with vehicles, it taking seven hours to cover just two hundred kilometres. Yashkin had been as good as his word, Markova and Nikolai re-supplied with an off-road vehicle and essential supplies. Their new names had also been added to the FSB’s list of accredited journalists and the relevant paper documents in their jacket pockets were supposedly genuine; now at least they had a tentative excuse to be traveling to Vladivostok, although snooping around the naval base and asking impertinent questions, might just be taking their journalistic credentials a little too far.

Markova herself was still dosed up with pain-killers, the intensity of the headaches slowly decreasing, her ribs still sore and badly bruised. Three cracked ribs was the sum total of her brush with death, and her anger was more directed at those who had ordered the attack than those who had almost killed her. Sitting in the grounds of the clinic, she had clearly heard the sounds of the second assault on Khabarovsk, certain in her mind that it was just another part of Golubeva’s grand strategy. China’s claims that Russia had shelled its own city had been met with public contempt, even Yashkin expressing scorn; now Khabarovsk was busy girding itself in case of more attacks, the highway to the north-west out of the city similarly clogged with traffic.

Nikolai drove, hoping that it would take his mind off his back pain. Not that they could get to Vladivostok any other way, not unless he opted for an equally frustrating bus ride: since early Tuesday morning, all flights to Vladivostok had been diverted, train and ferry services cancelled.

Nikolai was definitely not happy, growing increasingly irritated as for the third time that morning military police waved them off the road and onto the verge to allow various military vehicles to pass, all of them heading south. There were also regular checkpoints, some manned by the military, the rest by the police. Despite a few nervous moments, their IDs had stood up to the test, frowned at, thumbed and duly scanned without incident. Their vehicle had been thoroughly searched twice, with Markova’s satellite phone being viewed with deep suspicion – although, in her role as a journalist it would have seemed odd not to have had one. Markova had tried asking relevant questions, but was met with the standby of ‘military exercise’ or more usually just a blank look; if this was part of Russia’s response to the shelling then it was far more than just a simple redeployment.

Eventually, some three hundred kilometres from Khabarovsk, roughly midway to Vladivostok, they pulled over for the night. The line of civilian vehicles parked beside the highway seemed to stretch for several kilometres and with nothing better to do, the vodka started to flow, people sitting on their vehicles and freely discussing what was happening, most assuming it was a ploy to bring China to heel.

Markova stood and watched as another military convoy was waved past; she only started counting vehicles after the first minute, giving up when she reached a hundred. The line of trucks continued past for several more minutes, Nikolai moving to stand beside her with vodka in one hand, pickled cucumbers in the other.

“35th Army,” he said with authority.

Markova nodded her agreement. If this were some impromptu military exercise, then the unit was a long way from home, their base of Belogorsk almost seven hundred kilometres to the north-west. China would in turn be watching their deployment with a certain nervousness, no doubt wondering like Markova exactly where they were bound.

Washington, D.C. – 06:49 Local Time; 11:49 UTC

Although it was not yet 7 a.m., Cavanagh sat in the Oval Office staring into space, wondering whether he would still be President come Christmas. The election results were as bad as everyone had feared, with the turnout of 26% a serious embarrassment for both political parties. The Republicans could at least take some comfort from the fact that – as from January – they would have a sizeable majority in both the Senate and House of Representatives. History, though, merely showed that this was little more than a recipe for chaos and division, the wishes of a Republican Congress invariably at odds with the needs of a Democratic President.

Such concerns were most likely for others to worry about, Cavanagh having to deal with a different and more pressing set of problems. In the South China Sea, the U.S. Carrier Strike Group had arrived north of the Spratly Islands, the warships waiting impotently while America fought its own internal battles. Vietnam was the first to claim some minor revenge, the downing of a Chinese reconnaissance aircraft vehemently denied by Beijing. To the north-east, Russia and North Korea maintained the invective against their respective neighbours, and although there had been no reports of further artillery attacks, Golubeva’s decision to hold a military exercise was at best unhelpful. Such snap drills, supposedly to test combat readiness, had been a favourite ploy of Vladimir Putin’s, but now China had announced that it too would hold a series of war games close to the Russian border.

Cavanagh had spent a good part of the previous evening working with the Secretary of Defence and the CJCS to concoct a suitable U.S. military response to the attack on the USS Milius. Not that anything was said at the time, but all of them clearly understood that whatever orders Cavanagh gave might well be countermanded within days by his successor.

It was a fear which clouded Cavanagh’s every waking thought. Could he in all conscience merely create a problem for someone else to solve? China was certainly aware of the Administration’s fragility, and any warning or ultimatum given by Cavanagh would be seen as nothing more than diplomatic bluster. The normal riposte of economic and financial sanctions would take months to be effective, the ramifications to America’s own economy likely to be significant.

The stress of the past weeks was affecting not just Cavanagh but also the First Lady. Their marriage was strong enough to survive many things but this was a test neither of them had expected. Needing an honest opinion as to his actions, Cavanagh had sought out his wife’s views, only to argue with her, unfairly sensing that she too thought he had been ineffective.

Cavanagh now put his remaining tenure of the presidency at no more than a month; time enough to bed the new Vice-President in. Cavanagh knew he’d then be encouraged to resign; either that or face the humiliation of having lawyers argue over whether the 25th Amendment could be applied. And did he really have the heart to make a fight of it? The Cabinet was already divided, with perhaps just Deangelo and Jensen still loyal.

Cavanagh’s choice for Vice-President was still not yet a formal nomination, the papers resting on his desk, just awaiting a date and signature: he had followed protocol by requesting recommendations from the Cabinet and Congress, and had discussed various options with Amy, before finally sticking with his gut instincts.

Cavanagh and prospective Vice-President had sat and talked long into the night, discussing policy, worrying as to how Congress would react, yet keen to bring back a sense of stability. Cavanagh was becoming a Kingmaker in his own right, and he desperately wanted to make the right choice for his country; a bad decision and he would merely be hammering down the nails on the coffin of American democracy.

The Senate’s Joint Session was due to convene at 10 a.m., the House and Senate leaders again promising to push through the confirmation process as fast as they could, days rather than months. Whoever Cavanagh picked, many in Congress would still feel the need to question and probe, working hard to tease out a secret or some shortcoming.

Would Thorn really be prepared to wait a month or even a week? Cavanagh could afford to dally no longer. He just had to hope that for once in his presidential career, he had actually made the right decision.

  • * *

By mid-morning the centre of Washington had almost ground to a halt, people streaming in from all directions, the National Mall a sea of people, protestors packed most tightly around the Capitol, everyone sensing that history was in the making. The authorities had reacted by finally calling into service several thousand National Guard, the troops waiting a mile to the north-east and ready to protect major government buildings should the need arise, the Capitol the main concern.

The majority of Senators and Congressmen had arrived well before nine; police escorting them into the Capitol through a well-behaved if vociferous crowd. Dick Thorn was back on station close to the west entrance, a new line-up of influential supporters brought forth to entertain the crowd: musicians, comedians, businessmen, and retired military – it was all building up nicely for the start of the Joint Session of Congress, everyone aware that the only item on the emergency agenda was the confirmation of the Vice-President.

Perversely, Cavanagh was not expected to attend, rumours circulating that he was too frightened of being ridiculed, or that there had been a threat on his life; others assumed it was considered unwise to put all of the nation’s leaders together in one isolated building, especially with a hostile crowd outside.

Four massive screens had been erected along the National Mall to show the live television broadcast from the House Chamber, the Speaker the presiding official, his reputation for being an impatient chairman likely to be put to the test.

The accepted process for confirmation was days of hearings in front of the Senate Rules Committee and then separately before the House Judiciary Committee. Each one would then make its recommendation, to be followed by further debate and a vote; first by the Senate and finally by the House of Representatives.

The urgent needs of the moment ensured that such a long-winded process was abandoned for a simple debate and dual vote. Or perhaps not that simple – no-one doubted it would last hours, maybe even a few days, but presumably not weeks. If it became clear that the President’s nominee would never be confirmed, then Congress would move on to debate Cavanagh’s second-choice; not that he had actually named a back-up option. Although there was no legal reason to prevent Congress pursuing their slimmed-down procedure, the media’s legal experts were in a frenzy over the changes, with many questioning whether such a truncated process could ever be just.

The nomination itself came in the form of a letter from the President, the Speaker reading out aloud the formal and to-the-point text. “Pursuant to the provisions of Section 2 of the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, I hereby nominate Robert Deangelo of Annapolis to be Vice-President of the United States.”

For the watching crowd, it was almost a non-event. Although virtually everyone recognised the name, few knew much about the Secretary of Defence. Was it even legal to nominate someone from the Cabinet?

Apparently it was, the Speaker moving quickly on to read an opening statement from Deangelo. The initial response from the members of Congress was subdued, details of Cavanagh’s nomination only revealed to many of them once they had arrived that morning. Some had had more time than others to digest the details, and senior Democrats had met for some two hours to discuss what to do. Deangelo’s record was more impressive than many had feared: age 48, married, one son; Major in the 69th Armour Regiment, served in Iraq and awarded the Silver Star; Lieutenant-Governor of Maryland; various White House positions under Obama; CEO of a Maryland consulting firm, then picked by Cavanagh to be his campaign manager.

Deangelo’s own presentation to Congress was restrained but confident and over the course of the next two hours, he was quizzed and questioned, the main focus the economy and U.S. external relations. Asked what the President should do to solve the problems of the South China Sea, Deangelo simply replied ‘whatever it takes, even if that means war with China’. When pressed, he refused to be more specific, implying that it was unwise to tell your enemy exactly what you had planned.

The Speaker called a break; it was also an opportunity to get a straw poll as to the members’ views, no-one wanting to put Deangelo’s nomination to a formal vote until the outcome was absolutely clear, whichever way it went. Deangelo had obviously made an impression, but so far he was not the Vice-President Congress wanted.

 

Sidearm Leader – 23:50 Local Time; 15:50 UTC

The two aircraft flew almost due south through the night, the fighters skimming along barely 40 metres above the waves: no radar and no guiding messages from the Chinese AWACS. Liu wasn’t quite flying blind, the many hours spent adapting to the helmet’s integrated night vision goggles finally put to good use. It was a dangerous game even for experienced pilots, but for Sidearm Flight it was a necessary gamble if they were to have any chance of besting their compatriots.

Twenty kilometres to the east flew Nightowl Flight, a hefty prize available for the first pilot to breech the U.S. exclusion zone. Liu visualised it purely as a psychological barrier around the American carrier, a protective bubble that needed to be burst in order to prove that China could now compete on equal terms with a world superpower.

Liu’s computer display indicated that the edge of the American exclusion zone was no more than fifteen kilometres distant and he scoured the night sky for some sign of American fighters, the image through the goggles always slightly disorientating whenever he changed focus.

Four kilometres to the exclusion zone… Abruptly the radio burst into life, Nightowl Leader screaming out a warning.

Wei, break left! Two missiles!”

There was a garbled response from Nightowl’s wingman, then silence. Liu was still taking in what had happened when there was a warning tone in his ear. Instinctively, he started to climb, pulling left, wanting space to dart and weave. He flicked on the radar to Raid Assessment Mode, arming two of his missiles, now more concerned with saving his life than winning a prize. His wingman was still on station, the radar revealing a pair of Hornets above and ahead of them, some twelve kilometres distant.

Liu briefly acquired missile lock and then the two Hornets suddenly split apart, the lead Hornet pulling sharply right. Liu reacted instantly, throwing the J-15 after the Hornet in a gut-crunching turn. The Hornet levelled before sweeping almost vertically upwards, the g-force on Liu increasing dramatically as the J-15 gave chase. Moments later the Hornet plummeted back down towards the sea, both aircraft jinking for position in a modern-day dogfight, each trying to outmanoeuvre the other as they weaved random patterns across the sky.

Liu caught sight of his wingman and the flare of a missile, then the Hornet broke to the left, before twisting around to the right and back again to the left. The rapid series of turn-reversals caught Liu out, forcing him to overshoot his target. Even as he wrenched the fighter around, a high-pitched warble sounded, a flashing red light confirming that the Hornet had achieved missile lock.

Liu sensed the two bright stars that came leaping towards him, and he banked sharply, forcing the Sidewinder missiles to try and match his turn. Desperately he pressed the decoy release switch – infra-red and radar decoys would automatically be released until the pursuing missiles lost lock or no more decoys remained.

The two Sidewinders were far too clever to be distracted, but at a speed close to Mach 3 the first missile failed to correct for Liu’s sudden turn and it whipped past the fighter’s tail. The second missile twisted slightly, detonating an instant later in front of the Chinese plane.

The J-15 simply disintegrated.

 

Washington, D.C. – 11:56 Local Time; 16:56 UTC

Flores and Anderson stood together on the southern edge of Capitol Hill, Anderson still fixated with the idea that McDowell’s task was as yet incomplete. The two men who had escaped from Terrill with McDowell had been identified as Lee Preston and a Martin Lavergne, the latter’s involvement with France’s Special Forces helping ensure Anderson’s earlier concerns had gained a certain merit. It wasn’t so much the buildings surrounding the National Mall that were the problem, more their height, Lavergne now also confirmed as Paige Hanson’s murderer. Just to be sure, the FBI had decided to check the integrity of all the buildings with direct line of sight of the Capitol: most were government facilities, the rest similarly high-security, and if McDowell was maintaining his interest in Thorn, then it certainly wasn’t from on high.

Anderson’s gaze swept west to east along the Mall, finally settling on the steps of the Capitol’s lower terrace where Thorn and Henry held court, his view partially blocked by trees. He couldn’t seem to shake the feeling that McDowell was also watching from somewhere close by, waiting for the right moment.

But to do what exactly? The Capitol and the White House were the obvious targets, but surely too well protected for him to have any hope of success. And what would be his objective? Cavanagh was on his way out, which seemed to suggest either the Speaker of the House or maybe Bob Deangelo – not that Anderson was convinced either way.

The demonstrators in front of Thorn were packed a hundred or more deep and McDowell would ideally be positioned somewhere a little less claustrophobic, perhaps even worried that his six-foot-four frame would make him slightly easier to pick out amongst the crowd. The rest of the National Mall was similarly jam-packed, and the only relatively clear area was to the east of the Capitol Building.

“You said earlier,” Flores remarked, breaking into Anderson’s thoughts, “that we should work out who gained most out of all this.” Flores seemed happy to indulge Anderson’s paranoia, the Englishman’s instincts so far proving to be effective if a little last-minute.

“At the moment that doesn’t seem to be Thorn,” replied Anderson. “Not unless he intends to obliterate Congress and American democracy along with it.”

Flores persevered, “Bob Deangelo, then?”

“Not sure; the way they’re arguing it doesn’t look like he’s going to get enough votes.”

“Maybe that’s a good reason for McDowell to be close at hand; just in case he needs to give Congress a bit of encouragement.”

“You mean by attacking the Capitol?” Anderson shook his head dismissively, “The building looks pretty secure to me and the National Guard can always be here in a couple of minutes. At worst, all he’d do would be delay proceedings; maybe force them to postpone for the day – and what’s the point of that?”

“It would keep up the pressure,” asserted Flores. “And maybe swing a few more votes to Deangelo.”

Anderson still wasn’t convinced. “Physically attacking Congress isn’t McDowell’s style and Deangelo would have to be desperate to support it. In any case, McDowell would need a trigger, some excuse to justify such extreme action.”

Flores was still sticking with his idea, just adjusting it slightly. “Okay; what if Thorn or Henry became a target? Shooting one of them would be a pretty good trigger.”

Anderson turned to face Flores, brow furrowed. “I still don’t see how that helps Deangelo get the nomination?”

“As I said, it keeps up the pressure on Congress to take a vote. More so if the shooter’s wearing an FBI jacket or is one the Capitol’s own police – they stormed the Bastille for less.”

Anderson doubted Flores’ history but he understood the logic, and the shooting incident outside the White House had already put the crowd on edge. Abruptly Flores turned away, left hand pressed to his ear.

“There’s been an air battle near the Spratly Islands,” Flores announced. “China’s shot down one of our planes and we’ve downed three of theirs… If McDowell wanted to pick his moment, he couldn’t do better than now.”

He broke off to speak urgently into his radio, ordering in more men, the drone cameras circling over the Mall now having something specific to look for. It might be a foolish notion but to Flores it seemed a perfectly reasonable next step – if not Thorn or Henry, then any innocent victim might do just as well.

Anderson moved closer to the edge of the demonstrators, wondering where on earth McDowell might strike. The adjacent buildings had already been ruled out and the trees to either side would block-off line of sight for a sniper; but if Flores was right, the buildings were irrelevant, the demonstrators needing to at least identify the shooter’s uniform. Maybe it wouldn’t even be a man with a gun. Yet whatever happened, the National Mall was so thronged with people Anderson couldn’t see how someone could hope to escape scot-free, especially if a uniform singled them out.

“We’ve got agents doing a sweep across the Mall for McDowell, Preston and Lavergne,” Flores confirmed, moving to stand beside Anderson. “The Capitol Police will do the same.”

Flores passed across his phone, Anderson trying to imprint the images of Preston and Lavergne onto his brain.

“All the agents in the Mall,” continued Flores, “are only carrying handguns. Maybe we’ll get lucky and see one with an M4 rifle or sub-machine gun – problem solved.”

Anderson wasn’t so confident: FBI agents were hardly welcome in the Mall and the closer they got to Thorn the more awkward their reception. But then that might also make it more difficult for McDowell. The FBI were now having to risk life and limb trying to stop someone who was possibly shooting to miss; not that the bystanders would know that, and Flores seemed equally motivated by the fear that people would be killed in the resultant panic.

Flores and Anderson began to elbow their way through the outer edges of the crowd, heading closer to Thorn. Anderson almost wished he wasn’t wearing his new FBI jacket, but he had no intention of revealing his fears in front of Flores. Unlike the genuine agents, he had no gun and no headset; it could easily be argued that as a foreigner it wasn’t even his fight – or maybe it was everyone’s, McDowell a terrorist by any common-sense definition.

It took almost five minutes to reach the curved terrace which led up to the Capitol’s west entrance. Thorn stood some fifty yards away, talking to his wife; Mayor Henry was a few yards further on, deep in conversation with a small group of elderly supporters.

A small space had opened up around Anderson and Flores, as though the two of them were somehow contaminated. Anderson started looking for similar gaps in the close-packed sea of faces in front of Thorn, Flores using binoculars to pan across the crowd and back towards the Mall, trying to pick out anyone in uniform or a white male taller than those around him.

More agents were starting to push their way through towards Thorn, it merely adding to the problem, with protestors starting to notice and reacting with catcalls and shouts. Even Thorn seemed aware that something was happening, and he called across a young female marshal, the two of them standing together to search out the cause of the disturbance.

Anderson pushed his way closer. Suddenly, there was the double crack of gunshots; Thorn’s left arm was tugged aside and the young woman’s head jerked back, a spray of bright-red clouding the scene. A terrified scream cut through the background noise, the people close by starting to react, some looking confused, a few trying to fight their way clear. Thorn stood frozen, blood dripping down his arm; then slowly he knelt down beside the young woman, her body lying motionless on the terrace.

Two more shots rang out and one of Thorn’s bodyguards collapsed to the ground. The second attack opened the floodgates of panic and within seconds the March for Reform turned into a chaotic scramble to escape.

Anderson had caught a vague glimpse of a raised arm and a gun, and he shouted at Flores before barging his way forwards. He sensed Flores following-on behind, and then he was fighting his way through a pack of terrified people. The noise was a like a torrent washing over him, yet he could clearly hear a strident voice repeatedly shouting out the words “FBI murderers!”

Up ahead, he glimpsed two men struggling with a third, the latter wearing an FBI jacket, his view abruptly blocked as someone stood directly in front of him. Anderson saw a man’s scowling face before a fist was aimed at him, the man barely touching Anderson as he in turn was shoved by someone else.

Anderson ducked to one side and kept moving. Scuffles seemed to be going on all around him, their FBI jackets a magnet for anyone who had a score to settle. Further back along the Mall, the crowd had heard the gunshots and screams, and were starting to respond. Strangely, many seemed unconcerned that they might be the next to be shot, the assumption made that Thorn had been the target. People were pressing closer towards the Capitol, some stopping to help those that had been knocked to the ground and trampled on; several young children were grabbed by strangers to protect them, their terrified parents struggling to stay in touch.

More shots, this time from nearer the treeline to the north. Anderson finally fought his way to the main disturbance: a man in an FBI uniform lay unmoving on the ground, a second agent held in a bear hug by a demonstrator; in front stood a taller figure, right fist pulling back.

Anderson was momentarily confused, brain focusing on the trapped agent’s face and trying to work out whether it was Preston or Lavergne. Abruptly, he realised his mistake, the taller man the only one to strike a chord.

The pent-up anger of some eighteen months added impetus to Anderson’s charge and he launched himself at the man. Despite some attempt to disguise himself, Anderson knew with certainty it was McDowell. The latter seemed to sense the attack, his fist changing direction to try and fend off Anderson. Bigger, stronger, far more experienced – it should have been no contest, Anderson’s only real advantage his utter determination to win.

The wider fight to left and right dragged in others, Flores amongst them; Anderson’s only concern was McDowell, the two of them rolling around in the dirt, fists and hands used to try and gain some advantage. Anderson was taking punches, but he was scoring as well, managing to land several hefty blows to McDowell’s head and face. Anderson somehow managed to find himself on top; McDowell lying half-stunned. A vicious jab from Anderson bloodied the American’s mouth and nose and Anderson raised his fist once more.

Without warning, his arms were grasped from behind and he was pulled upright, a punch to the stomach doubling him over. He was hit again and Anderson sank to his knees, incensed that McDowell might be allowed to get away.

Around him there were screams and shouts, people brawling; complete chaos. Suddenly, he was grabbed by the arms and lifted up, two men in FBI uniforms half-dragging him away.

He tried to speak and point towards McDowell but all he could manage was a retching gasp, frustrated eyes watching as McDowell disappeared into the welcoming embrace of the crowd.

  • * *

Jensen tried to make sense of what had happened, the wealth of video and camera images somehow only making it more complex. For a good thirty minutes after the first shots were fired, there was complete turmoil from the western steps of the Capitol for a hundred yards into the National Mall, the D.C. police the only ones able to bring some semblance of order out of the chaos. A dozen uniformed FBI agents had been attacked by angry protestors, their only motivation the shouted claims that the FBI had shot Thorn. Police and undercover agents had created protected areas, but some agents had been forced to use their weapons as a last resort.

The tumult of those first minutes had left scores injured, demonstrators trying to help where they could, the waiting ambulances struggling to cope. Social media acted as the most effective news source, although not always the most reliable. Witnesses told of an FBI agent – male, mid-thirties, wearing FBI jacket and cap – using a handgun to fire four shots at Thorn; others said that two or even three agents were involved. The shooter had then immediately been tackled by several demonstrators, who in turn were set upon by more FBI agents.

The photographs revealed the chaos of those later moments, several showing the suspected shooter, together with Anderson and Flores rushing in to protect him. Other images were more upsetting, some just as dramatic: a young mother kneeling broken-hearted beside her injured child, a man trying to comfort his friend, face covered in blood – a thousand similar photos appeared within minutes.

Six dead so far, including one FBI agent and the young woman marshal; scores injured. Dick Thorn had refused to go to hospital, a bullet merely nicking his arm. Together with Mayor Henry, he had tried to keep the demonstration non-violent, but the animosity towards the authorities had found a convenient and close target, namely the Capitol Building. A drone camera showed a near riot outside the east entrance, the Capitol’s own police barricaded inside. The D.C. police were struggling to regain control, unwilling to use tear gas until all other options had been exhausted.

To the west, everything was relatively calm: one group of protestors milled around in the National Mall adjacent to the lower terrace, a second group remained south of the White House. The numbers had dropped significantly from the maximum of around a million, down now to perhaps a quarter of that number.

More difficult to assess was who had actually started the shooting and precisely what had then happened to them. None of the official cameras had caught those first four shots, and so far there was no visual evidence on social media. Several witnesses claimed that the dead agent was the shooter, although his gun had conveniently gone missing.

Then there was Anderson’s version, a mix of what he claimed to have seen plus a fair bit of guesswork: Lavergne was the shooter, with Preston and McDowell muddying the water by attacking two nearby agents. In the ensuing chaos, Lavergne had somehow slipped away, leaving the FBI to take the blame.

It made a certain sort of sense, Jensen not needing photographic confirmation to know that Anderson was probably right. To reduce the danger of revenge attacks, the FBI had again been forced to pull back their uniformed agents from the National Mall, and any chance of catching McDowell and his two associates seemed to have passed. McDowell’s role looked to be finally complete, and it was left to several hundred thousand protestors to chant and jeer outside Congress. A vote was seen as being close, Deangelo having to trust that a few more Republicans would put the needs of their country ahead of any selfish party politics.

The air battle in the South China Sea had ratcheted up tensions still further, both sides taking a step back, with China and the U.S. voluntarily suspending air patrols near to areas of potential conflict. There was no disagreement that a Super Hornet from the Gerald Ford had fired first; what was in dispute was whether a pair of Chinese J-15s had ignored warnings and actually penetrated the U.S. exclusion zone.

To some in Washington, it was almost a relief that America had finally shown some backbone, the three-to-one score a suitably equitable outcome, especially with the Hornet’s crew successfully rescued. Each such incident merely added to the heat on Congress, the need for a decisive vote increasing by the hour.

  • * *

Cavanagh watched the live TV feed of Congress’ final debate from the comfort of the Oval Office, his wife seated on the couch beside him, both knowing that it signalled the end of his two-year Administration. Despite the attack on Thorn and the wolves waiting outside to barrack any member of Congress who dared show their face, the prospect of a vote had initially stalled, Deangelo still unable to win a majority in the House of Representatives.

As the afternoon had dragged on, and with the crowd becoming increasingly restless, Cavanagh had finally been the one to break the deadlock, effectively falling on his sword and offering a private guarantee to Congress as to his resignation: once Deangelo formally stated that he was ready, then Cavanagh would simply step aside – no argument, no fuss.

Congress took a formal vote at 16:20, the Senate confirming Deangelo as Vice-President by 67 votes to 20 – not an overwhelming mandate but it was enough. Thirty minutes later the Speaker of the House confirmed their vote: yea 236, nay 188.

Cavanagh let out a sigh, his wife gripping his hand in sympathy. He could visualise the scene in Congress, with Deangelo getting ready to take the oath of office as Vice President of the United States. Tradition dictated that it was the Chief Justice who administered the oath of office to the President-elect, but for a Vice-President it was a much more relaxed affair, and nowadays they tended to pick close friends and associates. The location, however, was rather more traditional, with the Vice-President reciting the oath on the west front terrace of the Capitol – that would now prove difficult with Thorn and his supporters standing just yards away on the lower terrace.

The picture from CNN flipped to the view of the terrace as seen from the west, the presenter talking through the momentous events of the day as the camera panned back across the National Mall, before roaming at will to show people settling down for a second night. The unrest of earlier had passed, the police securing the area east of the Capitol without the need for tear gas.

Cavanagh sensed his wife crying silently beside him and he held her close, a strange sense of desolation seeming to settle over them. The White House was never really their home, more of a temporary refuge. Cavanagh had modestly expected four years and hoped for eight; now he would have to settle for just two.

The image from CNN re-focused on the steps leading down from the Capitol’s west front, zooming in to show Mayor Henry apparently leading three others down to the lower terrace, the D.C. police acting both as escort and a protective barrier.

Cavanagh couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing, CNN confirming the identities of those accompanying the Mayor: Bob Deangelo, his wife, and Judge Gerald Sanderson.

The protestors closest to the terrace quickly recognised Deangelo and they started to jeer, only to be silenced with a wave by Thorn who somewhat hesitantly strode across to the microphone.

“Everyone,” Thorn pleaded, the speakers carrying his voice across the Mall, “let’s give Bob Deangelo a chance. He has asked to speak to you all and I believe it’s important that we listen to what he has to say.”

Deangelo nodded his thanks, and moved to the microphone, his wife and Judge Sanderson standing to either side.

“Thank you for giving me the opportunity to say a few words on what has been a very difficult and emotional day for us all. We have seen blood spilt just yards from where Congress has sat in an emergency session; Dick Thorn stands beside me now with his arm bandaged, and the bravery and resolve shown by everyone in the Mall has been truly remarkable.”

There was a smattering of applause but Deangelo quickly held up his hand to indicate he had far more to say. “Indeed the presence of so many of you here today is proof of the genuine strength of feeling that is shared by millions across America, and I understand your sense of frustration with the state of democracy in our great nation. We have all been concerned by the decisions taken by the present Administration, and the lack of support offered to our friends and allies in the South China Sea. Dick Thorn has been a faithful servant to the United States, and as Secretary of State has flown twenty times around the world to ensure we stayed safe in our beds. No-one could have asked for more.”

He turned aside and held out his hand in thanks to Thorn, the two of them shaking hands to a renewed and more expansive surge of applause.

Deangelo moved back to the microphone. “I stand before you all to make a public commitment; a simple affirmation that the United States does have the vision and strength of will to live up to its birthright as a great superpower. I will not make promises and then ignore them; I will not ignore the pleas of our loyal allies; I will not let others believe they can threaten or try to blackmail the United States without fear of retribution. We must not be afraid to show the world that we are a good friend and a fierce enemy, a nation with the courage to carry us through the difficult times, safe in the knowledge that our cause is just. There should be no reason to feel ashamed to say you are an American, every reason to be proud of what this great country stands for… God bless these United States of America.”

Deangelo stepped back a pace and Judge Sanderson moved quickly to the microphone, the crowd staying silent, most people confused as to what was happening.

Deangelo’s wife stepped forward, holding out a bible; a smile of thanks and Deangelo placed his left hand down onto it, Thorn’s presence just feet away a clear sign to everyone that the ceremony had his full backing.

“Please raise your right hand,” announced Judge Sanderson, “and repeat after me.” Sanderson then read out the whole oath in one go, not bothering to separate it into small chunks.

A brief nod and Deangelo stepped up to the microphone, speaking slowly and with emphasis, his deep voice booming out over the National Mall. “I, Robert Michael Deangelo, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

There was sustained applause, led by Thorn, the two men again shaking hands. Together they turned to face the Mall, Deangelo taking hold of Thorn’s left hand, and with arms raised they stood together in a clear, almost blatant, gesture of mutual respect and support.

Cavanagh watched in silence, wanting to scream loudly, but fearing to show any emotion lest he completely lose control. By the strict definition of a coup, then this wasn’t an illegal seizure of power, but it was difficult not to regard it as such. He had thought Deangelo a friend, but Cavanagh realised that he had just been a gullible fool. The apparent alliance between Deangelo and Thorn wasn’t a spontaneous gesture to appease the protestors; this had to be part of some previous agreement. Deangelo, Thorn, Henry, and McDowell – they had each played their part to perfection, the separate elements that made up the conspiracy now all too obvious.

Cavanagh definitely didn’t have until Christmas; probably not even a week left as President – Deangelo had already set his heart on the main prize and he wouldn’t be patient for long.

[]Chapter 21 – Thursday, November 10th

South China Sea – 16:05 Local Time; 08:05 UTC

Twenty years he had lived in Thitu; now Ram and his family were being thrown out of their home, becoming the first refugees from the conflict with China. Every Filipino on Thitu Island – civilian and military – had been ordered to gather by the small harbour, Chinese troops searching every building to make sure no-one would be left behind. No animals; just take what you can actually carry. Some two hundred people had already been ferried to the waiting ship, Ram and Roberto part of the last group to leave.

Apart from a vague reference to ‘the Philippines’, Ram had no idea where they were being taken: he guessed Manila, and at least he had some funds waiting for him there, unlike his neighbours. He had tried not to feel guilty, but his planting of the flag all those days ago seemed somehow to have led to his own downfall. What purpose would it serve now to admit anything? And it was obvious that China would have used some other trivial excuse – if not this year, then certainly next. The United States was supposed to be the Philippines’ ally, but so far all the Americans seemed to have done was watch impotently from the side-lines.

They did so now, Ram able to see a U.S. frigate on the horizon, part of the Carrier Group which steamed somewhere to the north. Chinese warships were also visible, the two countries eyeing each other warily with neither yet prepared to strike. The transport of the refugees from Thitu had apparently been negotiated late the previous evening, with a Panamanian-flagged ship arriving earlier that afternoon to carry them to safety.

Ram was leaving behind virtually everything he possessed: home, boat, and chickens. The five thousand dollars wouldn’t last forever and he had wanted it for his children – now they would all spend the rest of their lives in a Manila slum, struggling like hundreds of thousands of others just to stay alive.

Russia – 22:10 Local Time; 12:10 UTC

Markova lay on the frozen earth, camera aimed at the convoy as it headed north towards Lesozavodsk. The vehicles used both lanes of the highway, the occasional car or truck traveling to Vladivostok forced to move aside; the tarmac road was already becoming pitted, the heavyweight migration of military traffic finally taking its toll. Engineers had passed through an hour earlier with their complex bridging units, the Songacha River a half-frozen and hundred-metre wide barrier into China.

Lesozavodsk was just ten kilometres from the border, and China could hardly sit back and ignore the overwhelming evidence that Russia intended to launch an attack. The Chinese didn’t need satellites and specialist observers, one man with a good pair of binoculars could tell them all they needed to know. As best Markova could judge, this second influx of units was from the 5th Army based at Ussuriysk to the south, and it was now obvious that this was no exercise; nor would it be a minor or brief incursion into Chinese territory. There were thousands of troops and hundreds of vehicles closing in on the border; if not yet an invasion, then it couldn’t be more than a day or two away, with Golubeva presumably trusting that the United States and Vietnam would help squeeze China from the south.

The tail of the convoy finally trundled past, a long line of civilian vehicles following-on behind. Markova and Nikolai moved on, waiting twenty minutes before forwarding the encrypted images on to a select group of recipients.

The time for secrecy was at an end. The Russian people and anyone with influence needed to know what was happening midway between Khabarovsk and Vladivostok; the public’s perception of reality was being deliberately manipulated and distorted by those in the Kremlin, a devastating war with China seemingly just hours away.

Markova had done what she could; now it was down to the Lubyanka and General Morozov to do the impossible and stop Golubeva, or at least to get her to rethink. If between them all, they could sow even a single seed of public doubt, then it would be something. The will of the people had brought Irina Golubeva to power; maybe with the right motivation their frustration and anger would destroy her.

It was all-too obviously a vain hope, and in reality Markova was simply going through the motions, fearful as to her country’s very survival. Even after eighteen months, Russia was still recovering from the turmoil of a secessionist war and a violent coup d’état, its fragility a weakness Russia’s enemies could easily turn to their advantage.

 

Washington, D.C. – 14:31 Local Time; 19:31 UTC

Cavanagh slowly replaced the phone, then swung his chair around to stare out through the French windows, not really seeing anything, somehow wanting to delay the final moment for as long as possible. He had asked for five minutes but had wanted five weeks, or at least enough time to bow out whilst maintaining a certain amount of self-respect. He had already spoken to the White House staff, a few tears shed, no-one quite understanding what he had done that was so very wrong.

The President felt pretty much the same, still bemused as to how he had been fooled into encouraging Deangelo’s rise from obscurity and into the Oval Office. And now Cavanagh had to go through the pretence of congratulating the Vice-President while still trying to pull the dagger out of his back.

How should he play it? Calm and dignified, or angry and indignant, and would it really matter? Cavanagh had made a pledge to Congress but was he still bound by it, knowing now that Deangelo had betrayed him? Was it even right that Deangelo should become President on the back of a guarantee made during desperate times? Cavanagh could even argue that he hadn’t fully recovered from the effects of the Diallopine. If the Vice-President really was part of some conspiracy, then surely Cavanagh was duty bound to ignore his own promise.

Yet Cavanagh couldn’t absolutely guarantee that was the case, and Deangelo had unquestionably followed the correct legal protocols. There was also nothing to suggest that the Vice-President had anything to do with the Diallopine incident, the precise means of its delivery still uncertain.

Thorn might have stirred up animosity towards the Administration but if anyone was to blame for the President’s demise, then it was entirely Cavanagh himself: he had allowed the crisis to develop and he had been the one to nominate Deangelo, a decision made without anyone else exerting undue influence or pressure. Or had Cavanagh simply been too easy to manipulate? Gullible and compliant – it was certainly not the ideal combination for a President.

Cavanagh was also well aware that if he refused to step down from office then the United Sates would collapse back into a constitutional paralysis, the internal and external problems still unresolved. Sadly, it was too late now to cry foul and somehow hope for a reprieve.

With a sigh of frustration at his own weakness, Cavanagh stood up and walked across to the pair of armchairs beside the fireplace, choosing to sit facing the Rose Garden. He had no wish to sully the Resolute Desk by having Deangelo stand across from it, his feet on the bespoke dark-blue rug with its central presidential seal. Cavanagh and the First Lady had picked the rug’s design together, something sombre to remind the President of the duties of his office. In retrospect, perhaps he should have gone for something far brighter; maybe even in red, a daily warning that the President also needed to act with vigour and verve.

There was a rap on the outer door and Bob Deangelo entered, looking to be more relaxed than Cavanagh had hoped: at forty-eight, he was young for a President, and shorter by two inches than the average height of five-feet eleven. Yet somehow he managed look the part, the streak of grey in his hair adding a suitably distinguished touch.

“Mr President,” Deangelo said with a warm smile, holding out his hand.

Cavanagh genuinely hadn’t known until that moment how he would react – refuse to shake Deangelo’s hand and seem petty, or shake it and be pathetic, certainly in his own eyes.

Cavanagh opted for the petty alternative. “My resignation is on the desk. I will at least fulfil my promises; I sincerely hope that you are able to do the same without bringing this country to ruin and killing thousands.”

Deangelo’s smile barely wavered and he sat down uninvited opposite the President. “I am really no different to you, Sir,” he said pleasantly, “just a little more impatient and rather more willing to exploit others’ weaknesses. I’m genuinely sorry it came to this, but Congress would have it no other way.”

“And Thorn: I assume you will try to force through his confirmation as Vice-President?”

The smile disappeared, Deangelo even managing to look surprised. “We’re jumping well ahead here, Sir. I appreciate that the lack of a Vice-President has caused certain difficulties but I will need to pick someone who can help unite the country. As to whether that might be Dick Thorn, I have yet to decide. To be honest the last twenty-four hours have all been a bit of a blur.”

“Thorn and his supporters will settle for nothing less,” stressed Cavanagh. “Your handshake outside the Capitol will be seen as some sort of formal commitment.”

“With respect, Mr President, I don’t agree. If it can be proved that Dick Thorn really is part of some plot involving Pat McDowell, then his reward should be a prison cell not an office in the West Wing. The country needs a period of calm, time to heal the divisions of the past few weeks; in the meantime, if I have to be polite to Thorn while working out whether he’s an ally or a traitor, then that is a small price to pay. It was a handshake, nothing more; no promises or bribes asked for, or indeed given.”

Cavanagh held his own surprise in check, unconvinced by Deangelo’s words, certain in his own mind that Deangelo and Thorn were working together. The scene on the terrace of the Capitol could have just been a ploy of the Vice-President’s, a quick fix to appease public anger, but to Cavanagh it was a way to publicly acknowledge that each needed the other. Even if Thorn wasn’t the next Vice-President, then a key Cabinet position was a virtual certainty.

“Your confirmation has set an unfortunate precedent,” said Cavanagh, with a hard edge to his voice, “which can only reduce the authority of this office. Few will thank you for that, certainly not those of ambition inside Congress. One mistake is all it will take for someone else with power and influence to question your right to be President.”

“I fully understand that,” acknowledged Deangelo. “I guess I’ll just need to make sure I don’t make that one mistake.”

Cavanagh was irritated by Deangelo’s cavalier attitude, seeing a side to the man that had been kept hidden from him, his show of self-confidence more alien to Cavanagh than he would have liked to admit.

“I’m sorry to press you, Mr President,” Deangelo continued, “but the crisis with China needs prompt and decisive action; I must – with the greatest of respect – ask that you formally resign before the end of the day.”

Cavanagh didn’t quite know what to say, angered that Deangelo had felt it necessary to be so pushy, yet understanding the logic of a speedy transfer of power. Time now to end this farce; just a single minute with his one-time friend was more than enough to turn his stomach.

“I will be gone within the hour,” Cavanagh said with emphasis. He stood up, and nodded in dismissal at Deangelo. “I trust and hope that history will view your Administration in a more positive light than they seem likely to do with my short tenure.”

The President held out his hand, choosing finally to ignore his personal resentment and be magnanimous. “I wish you luck. The people of America are not noted for their patience, especially when the lives of their loved ones are on the line.”

 

Bray, England – 20:49 Local Time; 20:49 UTC

The view from the balcony was one Yang never grew tired of, down past the long manicured lawn and on to the pair of weeping willows which framed the Thames. A gentle glow spilled out from garden lights as they stepped down to the river and it had just started to snow, no more than a fine sprinkling, the icy sparkle only adding to the magic of the evening.

It was cold enough to see his breath but Yang had a hot drink and a warm coat, and he was quite happy sitting, just looking. Everything about Bray fitted neatly into Yang’s perception of what British life should be like: tranquillity, stability, and refined living. He even had a butler to complete the full package.

Yang felt wonderfully at peace, still amazed at how well the second phase had progressed, his confidence as to their future success growing with each day. The danger now was impatience, and it would be foolish to rush into the final phase without ensuring the same level of planning that had led to Bob Deangelo’s rise to power. And it had all been achieved at the first time of asking, Cavanagh instinctively reacting to external pressures and subtle steers by nominating Deangelo. Yang had fully expected it to take longer, with Deangelo the second or third choice to come before Congress, McDowell anticipating having to maintain the stranglehold on the Capitol Building for several days at least. With the loss of Terrill that could easily have proved impossible, there being a limit to how much Thorn and Henry could actually influence events.

The cabal’s sway over the new Vice-President was based purely on shared goals, all of them frustrated by America’s lack of foresight as to the threat posed by China. For over twenty years, one President after another had talked of curbing China’s ambition but had done nothing, hoping that by leaving China alone they would in turn constrain North Korea. Give it another twenty years and China’s power in the South China Sea would be unassailable with a dozen military bases spread across the islands and reefs, its air and naval forces able to strangle trade whenever they wanted.

Deangelo and Thorn had been recruited – as with Irina Golubeva – through a drawn-out process of conjecture and supposition, Yang and his four confederates the prime movers. Slowly, almost painfully so, the trust that was essential for their success had been established, a year spent planning Cavanagh’s downfall. As to which of Thorn or Deangelo would effectively sacrifice himself for the other had surprisingly never been in doubt, Thorn’s more blatant hawkish tendencies unlikely to win him Cavanagh’s support. Thorn also had far more authority and influence with members of Congress, able when necessary to beg a favour or persuade a waverer, helping ease Deangelo’s passage though the confirmation process. Thorn’s reward might not immediately be obvious, but the debt was not one Deangelo could ignore for long. If Congress needed another subtle shove in the right direction, then the cabal’s billions would once more be put to good use.

If Yang now had one major concern, it was still Golubeva. The cabal’s leverage over her was – as with Deangelo – more subtle than real, and with respect to Beijing, Russia’s President seemed keen to push through her own distinctive strategy. Within reason, such differences could be accommodated, but Yang was determined to press for a unified approach, fearing that piecemeal attacks would be ineffective. Beijing’s capture of three more of the Spratly Islands had always been a possible outcome, a temporary sacrifice that was a worthwhile price for Deangelo’s victory.

The accelerating crisis wouldn’t allow Deangelo the honeymoon period extended to Golubeva, but his route to power had been far easier than the insurrection that had touched many of Russia’s cities, and the U.S. military had been unaffected, its loyalty still to the President. Together, the U.S. and Russia had the military might to stand up to China. Beijing had already blackmailed the nations of the world once, refusing to have diplomatic relations with any country that formally recognised the Republic of China in Taiwan. Now there was now a clear opportunity – with undeniable justification – for the U.S. and Russia to force Beijing into abandoning its expansionist policies, ending once and for all its outrageous territorial claims.

Each of the five members of the cabal had their own unique reasons to want such an outcome. For Yang, it was complicated: his homeland of Taiwan had lived in fear of upsetting Beijing for some seventy years, many wanting true independence, others hoping for reunification. The majority preferred the status quo, unwilling to risk the unknowns involved in either of the other options. Beijing had even implied that a majority vote for independence would be grounds for a military attack.

Yang hoped one day to see his homeland become genuinely independent, accepted without reservation by the Chinese mainland as a sovereign nation. While fear of Beijing remained, there would never be a truly representative vote; if that subsequently brought about reunification, then so be it.

Yang didn’t hear the van pull up outside the house’s side door. Even if he had, he would have ignored it – whoever it was had already passed the front security gates and he would have assumed it was a delivery of some sort.

The new maid let the two gunmen in, the three of them maintaining the sham of an emergency repair, the water leak too persistent to ignore until the morning. It took two minutes to get Yang’s bodyguard into the kitchen, the first gunman’s silenced automatic living up to its name. The three other staff were dispatched without ceremony, the second gunman rewarding the maid as instructed with a bullet to the back of the head.

Yang heard none of this, still sitting on the balcony, enjoying a whisky while working out how much of a bonus McDowell deserved. He did react when the door onto the balcony slid open, expecting either his butler or bodyguard, momentarily surprised to see a man in a navy workman’s jacket and trousers.

Then he saw the gun. Yang’s eyes widened in shock, bewildered as to the why, a dozen names flickering into his consciousness as he struggled to work out exactly who. His last thoughts were a strange mix of despair and self-reproach, knowing that he had been nothing more than a fool, someone naïve enough to believe that with enough money you could try to rule the world.

 

Washington, D.C. – 18:20 Local Time; 23:20 UTC

Anderson stood on the south edge of the Mall and watched the hard-core of demonstrators gathered south of the White House. Their numbers had continued to decrease throughout the day, the Vice-President’s promise and Thorn’s apparent endorsement considered a victory of sorts. The list of casualties from the previous day continued to mount and in total nine had died, including two FBI agents. Anderson himself was looking a little battered, face and stomach bruised, knuckles badly scraped; he even had several deep scratches on his arms and legs with no idea as to when or how they had happened.

The initial shooting incident was still the subject of argument and online debate; the FBI’s own internal investigation had found that the agent blamed for the shooting had no gunshot residue on his skin. The only residue on his clothes was on the back of his right arm and shoulder, suggesting a gun had been fired from close behind him. Such evidence was not yet in the public domain, but it seemed doubtful whether it would be accepted as genuine, recent events ensuring everyone was a cynic.

As far as Anderson could judge, McDowell was home free, a suitable reward doubtless already in his offshore account. There’d be no point in him hanging around and his associates presently in custody seemed confident that all charges would eventually be dropped, either through lack of evidence or by orders from on high. According to Flores, the base at Terrill had proved unhelpful, the crimes committed by most of those arrested there unclear, with hacking into government networks likely to be about it. Two of the men and one woman were also being linked to the secret recordings of the former Vice-President but that was also likely to be swept under the carpet, someone high-up wanting to save Irwin from further embarrassment. The prime suspects for the various murders had certainly escaped, leaving the FBI with some fairly circumstantial evidence against just Carter – not that he was saying much just yet, only recently released from intensive care.

The American media were split as to Deangelo’s confirmation: most were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but there was significant concern as to his public display with Thorn, it provoking a range of adverse comments from members of Congress, even those who had voted for him.

Cavanagh was obviously a lame duck President, rumours circulating that he would officially resign before the end of the day. Bets were even being made as to whom Deangelo would nominate as Vice-President, with Dick Thorn evens favourite. Neither Anderson nor Flores were quite so sure, both in agreement that Thorn’s confirmation by Congress would be significantly more difficult than the previous day’s rushed affair; if Deangelo wanted a quick resolution, then he would have to pick someone far less divisive than Thorn.

Deangelo’s greatest concern had to be China: the tone of Russian threats to retaliate for Khabarovsk was becoming more assertive, and both the Philippines and Vietnam were being urged by a vociferous mix of public demonstrations and media propaganda to actively enforce their exclusion zone.

It had only been ten days since Anderson had arrived in the U.S., his status changing from tourist to FBI special agent, Anderson just hoping he’d be allowed to keep FBI cap and jacket as a memento. His FBI duties certainly seemed to be coming to an end, the task of finding McDowell now likely to be passed on to someone more senior than Flores, unless it was abandoned altogether.

Anderson would give the U.S. another day or two, just to be sure that McDowell’s role was complete, and then it would be back to Marshwick and Charlotte. He was looking forward to it, but was already working out how best to break the news that the Philippines and Vietnam were next on his itinerary, an interview with Louisa Marcelo an intriguing possibility.

He sensed someone beside him and glanced around to see Flores, the agent looking even more serious than usual.

“Bad news?” asked Anderson, eyes narrowing.

“I guess so. CNN is reporting that thousands of Russian troops are massing near the border with China, north of Vladivostok.” He turned to stare across the Mall at the White House. “Whatever Deangelo’s got planned, I have a bad feeling about this; give it a month and we could have Dick Thorn as Vice-President, Congress frozen out, and the Marines landing in Hong Kong…”

 

The Rule of the People

The story concludes in the final part of the Conspiracy Trilogy, The Rule of the People, also available as an e-book.

 

The battle for control of the reefs and shoals of the South China Sea intensifies as the U.S. and Russia squeeze China, the repercussions of the past moving rapidly between Beijing, Moscow and Washington, the truth invariably nothing more than a political inconvenience.

Determined to make sense of the complex schemes played out by those now in power, Michael Anderson’s search for answers inevitably leads him back to Washington’s National Mall, the perpetual struggle between the White House and Congress threatening to spiral into something far more violent than the usual war of words.

In the South China Sea, the fight-back against Beijing’s increasing dominance escalates into a bloody war of attrition, the fear that others will ally themselves with America forcing China into a series of desperate gambles. Russia becomes one such gamble, Natasha Markova drawn into a fight for survival as the conflict reopens the divisions within the Kremlin.


The Trust Of The People (Conspiracy Trilogy Book 2)

Determined to halt China’s increasing dominance to the east and south, forces within Russia and the United States push the three countries to the edge of war... Warned of a terrorist attack, the target unknown, Michael Anderson is once more drawn into a conspiracy of deceit, struggling to understand the complex games played out across three continents. His focus moves from London to Washington, the U.S. Midterm elections turning into a chaotic scramble for power as the American President’s grip on events at home and abroad rapidly spirals out of control. In the South China Sea, Philippine protests over China’s creeping militarisation of the Spratly Islands escalate into a series of clashes, the United States’ apparent unwillingness to protect her old ally provoking an angry reaction on the streets of Washington. With Beijing and Moscow both seeking to take advantage of the internal battles within the White House, the fight for supremacy over the disputed islands threatens the President’s own survival. Set seventeen months after the events of The Will of the People, the story brings together many of the characters from the first novel and forms the second part of the Conspiracy Trilogy.

  • ISBN: 9781370066469
  • Author: Christopher Read
  • Published: 2016-11-21 12:20:18
  • Words: 104919
The Trust Of The People (Conspiracy Trilogy Book 2) The Trust Of The People (Conspiracy Trilogy Book 2)