The Rule Of The People, p.13Christopher Read
Chapter 6 – Wednesday, November 16th
Bolshoy Kamen, Russia – 02:11 Local Time; Tuesday 16:11 UTC
Daniil Chavkin jerked awake, confused as to why he was sitting and not lying in bed, his head throbbing as though from a hangover. He opened his eyes but saw only darkness, his bewilderment growing as he realised there was something covering his eyes. He made to speak but his mouth was taped shut; panicking, he realised his arms and legs were held tight, wrists also bound to the chair, fingers free to flex and clench but nothing more. A surge of adrenalin raced through his bloodstream and his whole body shook, Chavkin trying again to speak, wanting – needing – to know what was happening to him. He could remember his sleep being disturbed by a noise, then nothing, no sense of being moved or tied up, no clue as to whether his wife and son were close by.
“No need to panic,” said a soft female voice. “Relax and you’ll be fine; a few questions and then your life can return to normal.”
Chavkin took deep breaths through his nose, working hard to control the panic, becoming more conscious of his situation and his surroundings. It was chilly but not freezing, Chavkin sensing that he was still wearing his t-shirt and shorts. The chair had a familiar feel to it, high-backed and robust, Chavkin’s bare feet pressing against the smooth surface of a wooden floor. There were no sounds, other than his breathing, and the only smell was a faint hint of polish, Chavkin realising now that he was in his own study.
“That’s better,” said the woman. “Co-operate fully and no harm will come to you or your family.” He felt her head close to his, the woman now almost whispering. “Sometimes people choose to lie and stonewall; that’s when it becomes difficult. Someone always gets hurt as a result and there’s no reason to see a person you love suffer; a single scream of pain, a plea for mercy, and it will haunt you for the rest of your life. You might not care for your own life but the lives of your wife and son also depend on what happens here.”
The woman lapsed into silence, letting what she had said sink in. Chavkin was utterly defenceless, his family threatened, yet he had no idea why. He could be a selfish and stubborn man but few could doubt he doted on his family, his wife his first and only love; sixteen year-old Mark might be difficult, even on occasion defiant, but Chavkin was proud to be his father, proud of what one day he would become. Chavkin would do all that he could to protect them both and he fought to clear the confusion from his brain, not wanting to make a stupid mistake.
Abruptly the tape over his mouth was wrenched free. Chavkin let out a gasp but made no other sound, not prepared to give the woman the satisfaction of hearing him give vent to the expected outrage and indignation.
“I’m impressed,” said his captor. “No words of anger, no demand to be released – your family should be proud of you. You have a lovely house, Daniil Aleksandrovich, and a generous plot of land, so please shout and scream if it helps, we both know no-one will hear you.”
“I want to see my wife and son,” said Chavkin, the words coming out almost as a croak. “I need to know they’re okay.”
“Not yet; as I said, answer my questions truthfully and no harm will come to you or your family. It’s nothing that difficult and we already know most of what happened at Zvezda, so there is no point in lying; do so and it will go hard for your son and your wife – my associate tends to be over-zealous in such matters.”
Chavkin was coming to terms with what the woman might want while struggling to work out whether she was FSB or some foreign agency. She spoke with a self-assurance that was difficult to ignore and although tainted by a good few years in Moscow, her accent was from somewhere not too far away. Chavkin still didn’t want to believe his life and those of his family were truly on the line but nor was he willing to take some foolish risk; whatever he ended up saying, there was no guarantee any of them would be left alive to tell the tale. He seemed to be alone in the study with the woman, no proof given that his family were also being held captive or even whether they were still in the house.
“Let me see my wife and son,” he repeated, more forcefully this time. “Otherwise you get nothing.”
There was a long pause, Chavkin hearing the study door open, the woman talking quietly to someone else. “Very well,” she said finally, moving to stand behind Chavkin. “See, but that’s all I can offer; don’t try to speak.”
Chavkin felt a hand on his forehead and suddenly his eyes were uncovered. The study was in semi-darkness, Chavkin facing the open doorway and able to see into the lounge area beyond, the room lights dimmed and casting a dull glow over the two figures taped to a pair of chairs. Both were blindfolded, black tape covering their mouths and they sat with heads bowed, breathing heavily. Chavkin could see no-one else in the room but sensed someone just out of view.
Strong hands forced Chavkin’s head rigid. “Eyes straight ahead, Daniil Aleksandrovich.”
He didn’t fight and was just relieved to know his family were alright. His wife lifted her head, reacting to the woman’s words. She tried to speak, her obvious distress affecting Chavkin more than he expected, tears starting to well up.
Chavkin’s blindfold was replaced, the study door slamming shut an instant later. “They’re safe for now,” reiterated his captor. “All I ask in return is the truth, Daniil Aleksandrovich.”
“Get on with it then,” spat out Chavkin, his fear slowly being replaced by a mix of anger and bitterness: he had no wish to help his captor but he could see no way of it ending happily unless he did.
“Let’s start with something very simple,” said the woman pleasantly. “How long have you been Senior Project Director at Zvezda?”
“Four years,” Chavkin muttered.
“And that makes you responsible for overseeing all of the major repairs and refits that the shipyard takes on?”
Chavkin was now certain where all this was leading and despite the chilly atmosphere of the study, the sweat started to drip down his face. “Not every single one; it depends on the type of work involved.”
“You’re too modest and I know you worked on the recent refit of a submarine. I simply wish to confirm the identity of those who authorised it and precisely what was involved.” The tone was deliberately encouraging, with no hint as to the implicit dangers of such a question.
“You’re FSB,” Chavkin said, making it a statement of fact. “This is a mistake; check with Moscow, I have always done everything asked of me.”
It was several seconds before the woman responded, Chavkin sensing her face close to his. “Of course you have, Daniil Aleksandrovich,” she said softly. “We both know it wasn’t a Chinese boat that attacked the Americans but a 633 rebuilt at Zvezda; now Moscow needs someone to blame.”
Chavkin had his response ready, letting the woman’s words hang for a few brief seconds as though confused by them. “There was no such refit; that class were all decommissioned years ago.”
“You’re sure of that,” said the woman softly, a dangerous edge to her voice.
“The only submarine at Zvezda is a damaged Varshavyanka,” Chavkin replied, sounding breathless. “There was a refit to a Paltus-class over the summer but that was completed late October.”
There was a long pause before the woman spoke. “You disappoint me, Daniil Aleksandrovich. I thought we understood each other; now one of your family will have to suffer the consequences. Your son, I think; I imagine he’ll still be able to walk once they replace the knee. Would you care to watch?”
Chavkin felt a chill shiver of despair run down his spine, mind numbed by his captor’s words. “It’s the truth! The refit was to a Paltus-877 not a decrepit 633; I have no reason to lie!”
He felt the draught as the study door was opened once more, the woman again talking to someone, her words indistinct. The blindfold was pulled from his eyes and Chavkin blinked away the tears to see his son sitting upright, struggling against his bonds; beside him knelt a dark-suited figure, handgun hovering above his son’s right knee.
Chavkin wanted to protest and argue, to show at least some fight, but not at the expense of his family and he simply couldn’t take the risk that the woman would carry out her threat.
“Yes, alright, it was a 633!” The panic sounded clearly in his voice, Chavkin regretting his futile attempt at defiance. “Please don’t hurt my family,” he pleaded. “I’ll give you whatever you want.”
“Hull number?” insisted the woman.
“C-102.” Chavkin was transfixed by the gun, thankful to hear the woman telling her associate to wait. The blindfold was pulled back down over his eyes, Chavkin trying to shake it aside, desperate to see that his son was safe.
“No more lies, Daniil Aleksandrovich; next time, I won’t be so forgiving.”
No secret was worth the mutilation of his son and with the woman prompting him for specific facts, the truth came tumbling out. The decommissioned 633 had spent a full six months being turned into an acoustic replica of a Chinese Ming-class, one of the massive warehouses converted to ensure the American and Chinese satellites had learnt nothing of Zvezda’s covert role. A decoy submarine had been used to explain the additional work, with everyone subject to intense security checks and random searches, even the senior staff.
Chavkin was quickly growing exhausted, terrified that whatever he said it still wouldn’t be enough to save them. Once the barrier to his resolve had been removed, there seemed little point in holding back. Names, contacts, dates: Chavkin freely revealed all of what he knew but he had no way of sensing how his revelations were being received – no visual clues to help him judge whether his family would be safe.
“And your only direct contact with Moscow was through Evgeny Sukhov?” His captor seemed determined to drag out every useful fact, uncaring as to Chavkin’s state of mind.
“He wanted regular updates, that was all,” Chavkin confirmed, his voice hoarse.
“Tell me about the crew of the submarine. Were they all regular navy personnel?”
“I guess so; the crew were kept isolated and, apart from during the shake-down cruise in September, personal contact with anyone from Zvezda was rare. I saw a few of the crew from a distance but that was it.”
The woman stayed silent, seemingly mulling over everything Chavkin had said. He had lost all track of time, guessing that it was around three in the morning and he was desperate for a piss. His captor had told him to go where he was but Chavkin was determined to hang on for as long as he could, his present predicament already bad enough without him wetting himself.
“You’ve done well, Daniil Aleksandrovich. It’s unfortunate you lied at the beginning; I fear my associate will expect some form of recompense.”
“I’ve answered your every question,” said Chavkin desperately. “With nothing held back – what more do you want?”
“Something… anything… just one final secret to put against the safety of your family; surely that’s not too much to expect?”
Chavkin let out a sob of despair, “I’ve told you everything I know! All you offer in return is more threats; I can’t even go for a piss.” He knew he was close to collapse, unable even to think straight.
“Give me what I ask and I promise you and your family will not be harmed. I can’t release you but it won’t take you more than an hour to break free. Think hard, Daniil Aleksandrovich and this can all be over.”
Chavkin stayed silent, not sure what to believe, daring to hope yet knowing he still had to give the woman something. The strained silence stretched out, office gossip his only recourse.
“None of us knew the purpose of the refit,” he said softly. “The Navy made sure all the relevant paper records and files were destroyed; a couple of men were caught with a phone and we never saw them again but no-one said anything – the double pay and bonuses were a good enough reason to stay silent.”
Chavkin was skirting around what he wanted to say but for once the woman seemed to understand the need for patience. He still couldn’t be certain that it would be enough to save his family or even if it would merely seal their fate.
“Once the refit was complete,” Chavkin continued, “the rumours started. The boat even a new name, Koschei; its captain reputed to be Valeri Karenin.”
It might be just hearsay but Karenin’s reputation somehow fitted in with the nature of the refit. He had gained a certain notoriety for his actions in the Baltic the previous year and had been publicly censured, the resultant inquiry held behind closed doors. Whether simply inept or a convenient scapegoat, Karenin had been fortunate not to have been court-martialled, demotion and a desk job his eventual punishment.
Chavkin sensed the woman wasn’t sure whether to believe him, perhaps thinking Valeri Karenin was nothing more than a well-known name to make it sound vaguely credible. But it was all he had left to offer, a possible truth better than merely staying silent.
“You have done well, Daniil Aleksandrovich.” For once the woman sounded pleased, Chavkin daring to hope that he had done enough.
“Some may not understand that you had no choice,” she continued. “And a few bruises and a sore head could well be the least of your worries. For the sake of your family, you might be better to forget what has happened here...”
USS Benfold – 14:40 Local Time; 06:40 UTC
The Galene was hunting down yet another sonar anomaly, Tanner temporarily abandoning the standard search pattern simply because the trace looked more promising than anything he’d seen so far. For the moment he focused on one specific camera image, the light from the ROV probing along the dark recesses of the sea bed, the depth counter hovering at around 3200 metres. It was inevitably a slow and painstaking task but not especially boring, the search always hinting at the promise of success before bringing Tanner back to reality when it turned out to be something typically mundane.
Tanner sensed that the Galene was already on borrowed time, the crew of the USS Benfold called to General Quarters just after dawn before settling back to a heightened alert. Commander Vaughn was still left with the problem of two mutually incompatible choices, that of protecting his ship and completing his mission. Once the Galene was deployed, she severely restricted the destroyer’s defensive capabilities, Vaughn given the leeway to abandon the ROV should it be necessary. The fact that China’s research ship, Ocean Two, was keeping station not far from the Benfold was regarded by Washington as a dubious incentive to continue the Galene’s search, the U.S. still working out its options, the identity of the submarine now almost becoming an irrelevance.
The image on the screen in front of Tanner flickered and a rounded shape slowly emerged out of the gloom. Tanner instantly increased the magnification, something about the image just looking artificial. As the ROV crept closer, the other sensors confirmed his suspicion – definitely metallic, the anomaly gradually becoming more defined.
Within seconds, Tanner was able to pick out the specifics of the forward torpedo tubes and a straight-edged bow, the Ming-class lacking the teardrop design of modern submarines. Necessity had ensured that Tanner now had a clearer idea as to the complex nature of his task and the possibility that the submarine might be a Russian-built clone had added a significant element of spice to the task in hand.
Although Tanner was concentrating hard, he sensed a disturbance around him, the flurry of orders more demanding than usual. Abruptly, there was a hand on his shoulder, Commander Vaughn standing close, staring down at the screen.
“Well done, Mr Tanner,” Vaughn said quietly. “Sadly, I fear we’re a little late.”
“A couple of hours,” replied Tanner, “and I might have some answers. If the boat’s Russian, we could well find something conclusive fairly quickly.”
“It’s too risky, I’m afraid. Two more Chinese ships look to be heading our way and we’re too vulnerable with the Galene deployed. I
Tanner kept his disappointment to himself, knowing it was pointless arguing. “Ninety minutes; an hour at a push.”
“As quickly as you can, Mr Tanner.”
Tanner nodded and with a final glance at the submarine turned the Galene towards the USS Benfold. Coop arrived soon after, control of the ROV transferred to the main unit on the flight deck. The first stage was to pilot the Galene back into its garage: known more formally as the Tether Management System or TMS, the Galene used it as a temporary haven and a protective shell during the launch and recovery phases. The TMS was in turn connected to the winch by six hundred metres of cable and, depending upon the sea state, the retrieval operation tended to be a delicate and occasionally nerve-wracking experience, with damage to the TMS, the winch or even the Benfold always a possibility.
For now the sea was a flat calm, the air humid and oppressive, a storm forecast for early evening. Tanner could see Ocean Two no more than half-a-mile away, waiting patiently whilst her underwater vehicle carried out its own search. So far, they hadn’t actually trodden on each other’s toes but the Chinese ROV could operate for longer and cover more of the sea bed per hour than the Galene, and Tanner guessed it wouldn’t take more than a few days before the Chinese also found the wreck. If the submarine was Russian then the arrival of more Chinese warships was counter-productive, preventing the U.S. from obtaining the necessary evidence to prove the boat’s origins. Or maybe that was the plan, with China needing to cover-up its own lies.
The Galene was safely hoisted aboard just outside of Tanner’s sixty minute estimate, the new arrivals – one frigate, one destroyer – taking station between Ocean Two and the Benfold, the South China Sea seeming rather more claustrophobic than it had been an hour earlier.
Tanner headed back to the CIC, wanting to re-examine the latest set of data, hoping that there might still be something useful to be found, one of the Galene’s five cameras perhaps picking out something unexpected. In practice that meant almost an hour’s worth of recordings, Tanner scrolling through the sequence of images slowly and meticulously, zooming in on certain areas to compare the results with the U.S. Navy’s database on China’s Ming-class. Everything the Galene recorded – whether thought relevant or not – was automatically passed on to Washington and the Office of Naval Intelligence, the ONI’s experts carrying out their own more detailed analysis. So far the ONI had left Tanner to his own devices but with the discovery of the submarine that would undoubtedly change, specific sectors of the boat likely to be of particular interest.
Without warning Tanner’s ears were blasted with the pulsing beat of the alarm; even as the loudspeaker called the crew to Battle Stations, the throb of the engines magnified, the Benfold surging ahead in response to some threat.
Tanner glanced around, not sure whether his presence in the Combat Information Centre was a problem or not, unsure what to do. In the end it seemed best to sit tight and do nothing.
The Captain’s concern was focused on a pair of approaching J-15 fighters rather than the two Chinese warships, Commander Vaughn having to assume an attack was imminent. China and the U.S. had agreed to suspend air patrols near to areas of potential conflict, and Tanner was starting to worry as to why the Benfold’s lonely vigil was considered the exception, the destroyer now seriously outnumbered.
Tanner could more or less work out what was happening from the orders given, Vaughn and the Tactical Action Officer prepared for the worst but waiting for the Chinese to make the first aggressive move. Four Hornets from the carrier Gerald Ford would arrive to join the party within minutes, Tanner not the only one unsure what then might happen.
Even inside the well-insulated capsule of the CIC, Tanner heard the fly-by of the Chinese fighters, the two aircraft choosing to sweep in close overhead and trusting the Benfold not to blow them out of the sky.
They circled back round in a wide arc, lining up for a second mock attack. The radar plot revealed the Hornets racing in from the south-east, two angling towards the J-15 fighters, the second pair heading for the Chinese destroyer.
The six aircraft weaved through the sky, one of the Hornets practising a low-level attack against the destroyer before pulling sharply away. It was all becoming a dangerous game of chicken, the likelihood of a mistake increasing with every risky manoeuvre.
Abruptly, the J-15s turned north, their presence more of a provocation than a threat. A pair of Hornets started to follow before abandoning the chase, their message duly noted and understood.
The tension in the CIC noticeably eased and even though the Benfold had received a reprieve, Tanner wasn’t certain the Galene would be allowed to complete her task. Vaughn was generous enough to seek Tanner’s opinion before consulting with his superiors, the fact they had found the submarine surely counting for something.
Twenty minutes later, Tanner had his answer – the Galene still fully employed, Commander Vaughn’s persuasive abilities eventually winning through. China had tried to intimidate and bully, determined not to share the submarine’s secrets; now it was simply a race to the finish.
Beijing – 18:49 Local time; 10:49 UTC
The small restaurant was on a narrow lane close to the shopping magnet that was Qianmen Street, the tourists still spending their money after first stopping off at one of the many other attractions no more than a few minutes’ walk away. The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the Temple of Heaven – there were a dozen or more essential highlights within a kilometre for Beijing’s millions of visitors to enjoy, the scores of bars and restaurants seemingly always busy, whatever the hour.
General Liang ignored the main restaurant area and took the steep stairs up to the third floor. He knew he was being watched every step of the way but there was no concern written on his face – after all, some of the watchers were his people, each of them well aware of the implicit dangers of the next few hours. In a world so close to war, it was necessary to take the occasional risk, this merely the first of four such meetings planned for the days ahead.
Liang followed a narrow corridor to a room at the rear. Two guards stood outside; neither were Liang’s men, one more Caucasian than Chinese, their guns still as yet hidden. It was a clear sign that lack of trust remained a key issue, the mistakes of the past impossible to ignore; nevertheless, Liang’s very presence here proved a commitment of sorts had been made.
As to whether that would be enough was unclear. No promises had been given or asked for, Liang having no idea as to the identity or even the number of those tasked to join him there. Not that it mattered and the Politburo was fully prepared to negotiate with anyone, even the Americans, if it were to China’s advantage. While many in the Politburo remained unconvinced as to the wisdom of such talks, they were willing to delay judgement, Liang an obvious scapegoat should it all turn out badly.
One of the guards held the door open as Liang approached, a respectful nod a far more encouraging sign that the anticipated body search. He entered a small room, discreet lighting revealing beige walls broken-up by carved wooden panels. In its centre stood a circular table with just two chairs, a long cabinet the only other item of furniture.
Liang moved to stand behind one of the chairs, impatient to begin and trusting that he wouldn’t be kept waiting for long. It was barely a minute before he heard the tap of a cane along the corridor outside and a portly man crossed the threshold, breathing heavily as he struggled into the nearest chair. He barely even glanced at Liang, more concerned with getting himself comfortable, the cane delicately balanced against the edge of the table.
The normal business etiquette involving introductions also seemed to have been abandoned and Liang simply sat down, waiting whilst the other man recovered from his exertions. Mid-sixties, his fea
“My apologies, General Liang; my body and stairs are not compatible at the best of times.” He sucked in a wheezing breath before continuing, “My name is Dagvyn Sharav, sometime entrepreneur and arms dealer. I’m told your colleagues in the Ministry of State Security have a rather thick file on me; sadly, most of it is true, although these days I live a rather more sedate existence.” He finished with a spate of coughing, silk handkerchief pressed to his lips.
Liang felt a strange sense of rapport with his new adversary, immediately liking the man and knowing that he would be foolish to underestimate Sharav. Yet he hadn’t the time to waste on pleasantries, needing to know how much influence Sharav might actually wield.
“I’m grateful for the introduction,” said Liang with a polite smile. “But I’m more concerned as to whether you are the man with the power to strike a permanent deal.”
Sharav pulled a second brightly coloured handkerchief from his pocket, cleaning the thick lenses of his spectacles before choosing to answer, his every action slow and deliberate. “I have no such power, General. I listen and make suitable recommendations; that is all. We are the same in that respect, no?”
“Perhaps,” replied Liang. “I at least have come with some specific proposals to put on the table.” He struggled to keep his frustration in check, unhappy that yet another layer of diplomacy would delay any chance of real progress. “You are not quite what I expected,” he said, instantly regretting his choice of words.
Sharav had managed to control his heaving chest, able now to smile at Liang’s discomfiture. “An overweight, half-blind and rheumatic Mongolian – in your shoes, I’d be disappointed too.” The words came in short rushed phrases, Sharav still struggling to breathe. “No doubt you anticipated a professional diplomat or a high-level politician, someone who would listen politely while you promised the impossible; I’m not even the right nationality.” Sharav’s crooked smile grew ever wider, “That’s what makes me the ideal negotiator. I have no preconceptions, no prejudice as to what is right or fair; if it is a good deal, then I will simply say so. And the fact Beijing is desperate to find some form of agreement would seem to put my clients at a distinct advantage.”
“We both have to sell any agreement to a sceptical audience,” said Liang. “If either side is seen to have lost face then we are wasting each other’s time. Compromise can be a way forward to something far greater, where both parties are seen to have won something worthwhile.”
“Well said, General,” Sharav acknowledged with a smile, “but please spare me the rousing speeches. Let’s just focus on what the Politburo is prepared to offer.”
Liang eased himself back in his chair, getting himself comfortable for the long haul of bluster and debate. China desperately needed to reduce the number of threats arrayed against it but not at any cost. Some in Beijing expected little more than a second-rate agreement that could be passed off as a historic victory, however improbable, and the media were well used to twisting a story to best advantage. Yet Liang knew that still wouldn’t be enough to persuade the many doubters in the Politburo and he needed far more from Sharav and his clients than China had any right to expect.
It was the best part of three hours before the debate moved away from the abstract and on towards an uncertain future. Sharav’s influence over those who would make the key decisions was debatable but Liang was regaining his optimism of earlier, impressed by Sharav’s grasp of the geopolitical nuances of even a minor concession.
If it ever came to anything worthwhile, then it would be a compromise where both sides would be willing to take the risk despite knowing that they had given far too much in exchange. If their respective masters followed the line of argument and prevarication, then the greater the chance it would all come to nothing, and whatever agreement Sharav and Liang might hammer out between them could easily be overtaken by events elsewhere.
For Liang this was just the first stage of the Politburo’s complex strategy to blunt the various threats, other equally difficult promises needing to be made. Ultimate success would depend on Beijing’s ability to meddle outside of China’s borders, and at the very least they had to delay the threatened squeeze from both north and south.
Liang had his own more personal doubts, wondering whether it was self-interest or cowardice to want to avoid a fight. He was not someone who had ever experienced war, but he was sensitive enough to abhor such needless sacrifice. If he could save a hundred lives that would be something; if he could save a thousand then that would be a miracle.
Eastern United States – 08:00 Local Time; 13:00 UTC
The two car convoy set off exactly at eight: two black SUVs, no markings. Anderson led with Carter in the passenger seat handcuffed to the door, a week’s supply of pain killers and other drugs stuffed into his jacket pockets – Anderson would have let Carter take his chances but Flores had been more amenable, even resisting the temptation to add in a tracking device.
An anxious Flores followed in the second car, another agent driving. Five more unmarked vehicles were in position in and around Washington, everyone impatient to discover exactly where the exchange would take place; even if McDowell dragged out revealing the final location then each text sent could be traced back to specific cell towers, perhaps giving Flores’ team a few minutes advantage, time enough to get some more agents into place.
They had to assume that McDowell was in turn tracking them, Flores not willing to risk his wife’s life with some misjudgement or a stupid mistake. He had dealt with several hostage situations and not all had ended happily, patience an essential ingredient for success. Not an easy ask under the circumstances, Flores having no choice but to rely upon Anderson to play his part, McDowell seeming to have more faith in him than anyone from the FBI – or perhaps he would just be less of a problem should the shit actually hit the fan.
The traffic on Interstate 95 was typically heavy for the time of day, Anderson not too sure whether McDowell had made allowances for such problems or even if it mattered. For the first stretch Carter tried making conversation but he quickly gave up once it became clear Anderson wasn’t interested and the rest of the journey towards the Potomac was made in relative silence. Contact with Flores was via an earpiece and lapel microphone, Anderson also wearing the essential of a bullet-proof vest. He perhaps should have waited until the actual exchange before putting it on but Anderson was wary of McDowell doing the unexpected, worried that the SUV might suddenly find itself rammed or blocked in.
For once, McDowell had decided to stick to the script, the journey north a routine rush-hour crawl with it taking almost two hours before the Pentagon appeared to the left, the bridge over the Potomac straight ahead.
“Follow 395 onto 695,” announced Flores’ voice in Anderson’s ear.
“395 onto 695,” Anderson repeated. The route meant nothing to him, the satnav indicating that they would be turning east towards the Washington Navy Yard. He was having to concentrate hard, a quick glimpse in the mirror showing that Flores was still on his tail.
“Exit 2B for 295 north.”
Anderson could feel the stress beginning to build, uncomfortable with having to make belated changes into the correct lane. If Flores had worked out where they were going then he wasn’t letting on, the phone trace likely to confirm that someone was following close behind. The freeway couldn’t seem to make up its mind how many lanes it wanted to be, vehicles continually merging from the left, the signs seeming to suggest either Pennsylvania Avenue or Andrews Air Force Base.
The west exit came and went, the traffic now much lighter than before. Anderson kept his speed as near fifty as he could, the road taking them north-east, following the Anacostia River.
“It’s Kenilworth Park,” muttered Flores. “Take the Burroughs Avenue exit, then Deane Avenue through the park.”
Anderson did as he was told, using the sa
A final instruction from Flores and Anderson pulled over onto the grass, the second SUV halting directly behind. Flores immediately jumped out, striding across to help Anderson get Carter out into the open, keen to emphasise to those watching that he was sticking to his part of the bargain. The park area looked to be virtually empty, the sky overcast with a crisp breeze making it feel distinctly cold.
Anderson stood and nervously scanned the treeline to the north: there were some three hundred yards of open ground before the first scattering of trees and beyond them the Anacostia River. The exchange was supposed to follow the classic pattern and take place roughly in the centre of the play area – just Anderson, Carter, McDowell and Rachel Flores.
“Let’s get on with it,” encouraged Flores, gesturing at Anderson to help Carter. The latter was already looking a little pasty, right hand resting on the SUV for support, no apparent need for handcuffs.
A reluctant Anderson grabbed Carter’s left arm, guiding him forward, the two of them trudging towards the far-off trees. Flores and the second agent waited beside the two SUVs, both using binoculars to scan the park to the north, their FBI jackets a warning to any casual observer that something unusual was happening. To both left and right, even behind them, was a swathe of open ground before a belt of close packed trees – certainly plenty of cover for a sniper.
That was just one aspect of many that worried Anderson about the whole sorry experience. Lavergne had already proved he could hit a moving human target at four hundred yards and he found himself checking for the tell-tale laser dot on his chest; not that Lavergne would make it that obvious, especially if it seemed likely the FBI might be shooting back.
Carter was finding it hard going: the ground might be grass-covered and flat but today was the first time he’d walked more than ten yards since he’d been shot. Anderson slowed, their pace now barely a shuffle.
They were close to halfway to the treeline. Away to the right a woman was walking her dog, a couple of joggers further on. If any of them thought it odd to see two men – one in a bullet-proof vest, the other obviously ill – walking at a snail’s pace towards nowhere in particular, then they politely didn’t give them a second glance. Maybe all three were FBI, some of the other agents surely having had enough time to have reached the park; the addition of a dog was an unexpected if clever ploy, or maybe Anderson was just being overly hopeful.
“That’s far enough,” said Flores’ voice in his ear. Anderson stopped and studied the trees opposite, finally noticing two figures striding out from away to his left; one all too obviously was McDowell, his six-foot four frame dwarfing Flores’ wife.
Carter seemed to perk up immediately, his back straightening, a smile of relief touching his lips. Anderson merely watched in silence, trying not to say something he might later regret. One consolation was that McDowell’s bruises looked worse than Anderson’s and he was walking more stiffly than usual. Rachel Flores seemed to be holding up well, a little dishevelled but no sign she’d been hurt, hands not even tied.
McDowell halted some ten feet away, giving a brief nod of welcome to Carter. “You’re looking better than I thought possible, Jon; I’m pleased to see Mike’s been taking good care of you.”
Anderson interrupted before Carter could respond. “Let’s just make the exchange,” he said harshly. “That’s what we’re all here for.”
“Of course, Mike,” McDowell said, an amused edge to his voice, “I know the rules. I was just hoping we could discuss something of mutual benefit to both of us.”
“He’s up to something,” muttered Flores, sounding agitated. “Remember why you’re here.”
Anderson was finding it difficult coping with McDowell let alone having Flores whispering instructions in his ear and he pulled the earpiece out in frustration. “Rachel first; then if you want to explain why you’re murdering the odd politician, I’m all ears.”
McDowell gave Anderson a thoughtful look as though working out whether to comply. “No tricks, Mike; that vest won’t do you any good if Lavergne goes for a head shot.”
Anderson hardly needed the pointed reminder. “Just stop fucking around and let Rachel Flores go,” he said, eyes warily watching McDowell’s every move.
McDowell acknowledged Anderson’s words with a shrug, gently pushing Flores’ wife forward, trusting in Anderson to follow suit.
For a brief moment Anderson hesitated, then he released Carter’s arm. Rachel somehow stopped herself from running and Anderson gestured at her to keep walking towards the two SUVs. Carter instantly made a dramatic recovery, striding out to join McDowell, a glance back and a broad smile merely another annoyance to Anderson.
McDowell kept his greeting to a minimum, whispering quickly to Carter, the latter responding in kind, his expression slowly returning to one of concern. Finally he stood a pace back from McDowell looking uncomfortable, hands thrust into his jeans.
Anderson also needed to put his trust in someone else; not just McDowell but also Ray Flores, and the only thing stopping the FBI from trying to apprehend McDowell was the threat that Anderson’s future wellbeing would be at risk.
“I regret needing to involve Flores’ wife,” McDowell said quietly. “Make sure he understands that.”
Anderson glanced behind him to check that Rachel had reached safety before answering. “At least she’s better off than Karen Ritter,” he said, choosing to be petty. “Did you regret killing her?”
McDowell stayed silent, a brief hint of annoyance showing in his eyes. Anderson duly noted the fact, pleased that at least he’d got some sort of reaction. “I think we’re done here,” he said curtly, turning to leave.
“Two names,” said McDowell quickly. “Between them, they’ll give you everything you want. Just drop all charges against Jon; the rest of us will take our chances.”
Anderson turned back, not sure he had heard correctly and instantly suspicious of anything freely offered by someone as devious as McDowell. Carter’s smile had returned, McDowell not just a better negotiator than him but able to offer far more in exchange.
“That’s seems unusually noble of you, Pat. What exactly is in it for you?”
McDowell shrugged, picking his words carefully, “I owe Jon a favour; let’s just leave it at that.”
Anderson remained sceptical and he still needed to understand exactly what was on offer. “Thorn and Deangelo; they’re the only two names the FBI will settle for.”
“I know nothing about them,” said McDowell with emphasis. “Banker and FBI contact – that’s your two names.”
Anderson was conscious that their conversation was starting to draw an audience, with several bystanders watching them away to his right; it was also getting noisier, shouts and cheers from further back. By now there had to be more of Flores’ team in the park but for some reason McDowell didn’t seem in any hurry.
“Check with Flores,” advised McDowell helpfully.
Anderson grimaced and replaced the earpiece, not too sure how Flores would react to being ignored. “Did you get all that?”
“Banker plus agent,” Flores shot back. “Confirm that’s exactly what he’s offering.”
McDowell merely nodded when Anderson repeated the question, Flores able to pick up the response through his binoculars.
“Very well,” muttered Flores unhappily, “it’s the best we can do...”
The clamour to Anderson’s right was getting far louder, a game of soccer starting up. The eldest player was no more than thirty, it seeming to be men versus women, the play moving inexorably closer.
“Names?” Anderson encouraged.
McDowell seemed to want to delay, Anderson suddenly realising that the soccer game was a McDowell-inspired diversion to give him a chance to slip away, the threat to shoot Anderson maybe not considered enough of a deterrent.
McDowell spoke so
“Jon will give you the names once he’s got his guarantee,” said McDowell. “Just find someone with rather more authority than Special Agent Flores... Give it thirty seconds, Mike; otherwise Lavergne might just think you’re trying something.”
The soccer ball suddenly landed just a few yards away, a half-a-dozen players swarming around it. McDowell loped away, leaving Anderson and Carter standing like statues, unsure quite what to do, Anderson for one not wanting to risk a bullet.
He gave it until Flores started bellowing in his ear, then shoved Carter towards the access road, not bothering to offer a helping hand. Assuming McDowell had been true to his word then the outcome was certainly one Anderson would have settled for earlier that morning. Flores too had to be happy that it had ended with his wife freed and unhurt.
Whether Paul Jensen would feel quite the same about the handling of the exchange was open to question and Flores’ lack of consultation was unlikely to be ignored, the embarrassment of a hefty slap on the wrist perhaps the best he could hope for.
The Rule Of The People by Christopher Read / Thrillers & Crime have rating 3.3 out of 5 / Based on39 votes