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The rule of the people, p.19
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       The Rule Of The People, p.19

           Christopher Read

  * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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