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The rule of the people, p.10
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       The Rule Of The People, p.10

           Christopher Read

  * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  “Did you check out Neil Ritter?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  “Then what can you give us?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

  “Speak to Flores,” repeated Carter firmly.

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