The rule of the people, p.3
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       The Rule Of The People, p.3

           Christopher Read
 

  * * *

  Paul Jensen waited in the outer office impatient to get the meeting over and done with. He was feeling more bitter than he had expected, unhappy at it being the first time in his career he would suffer the ignominy of being fired, angry also that it would be the U.S. President doing the firing.

  Jensen had spent the morning at Arlington National Cemetery, one of several Cabinet members attending the Veteran’s Day ceremony. The Deputy Defence Secretary had been primed to lay the wreath on behalf of the President but Bob Deangelo would have none of it, Arlington becoming his first official duty. It wouldn’t have been that unusual for a president to miss the ceremony, but it was the only time the organisers had spent the early hours of the morning making sure everyone actually knew the name of their nation’s leader.

  Bob Deangelo’s speech afterwards has been suitably presidential, focusing on past sacrifices and future concerns, America committed to standing by those who had given so much to protect their country. The problem of the South China Sea was only briefly mentioned, the President hinting that the nation might again be touched by loss. It was a good speech, not overly sombre, with a suitable element of praise for the armed forces, yet illustrating Deangelo was well aware of the pain and hurt associated with even a single death in the service of one’s country.

  It had been a competent start to his first full day in Office and Deangelo was no doubt keen to cement his authority, ridding the Administration of anyone who might not be totally loyal. Jensen was definitely in that category and still struggling to work out whether Deangelo had been involved in his predecessor’s demise by accident or design.

  Jensen’s musings were interrupted by the buzz of the office phone, the secretary’s polite smile giving nothing away as she directed Jensen to go straight in. A deep breath to steady his nerves and Jensen strode across the threshold into the Oval Office, running through in his mind exactly how to react and what to say when told he no longer had a job; polite restraint and a few curt words of acceptance had been his favoured option, such stoicism now seeming totally inadequate.

  “Paul, I appreciate you coming over so promptly; forgive the chaos, it’s going to a while before I get everything as I’d like it.” The President’s warm smile and proffered hand were not at all what Jensen had expected and he almost froze in surprise, struggling to mutter a suitable response. Deangelo’s handshake was firm but thankfully brief, the President waving him to a seat close to the fireplace.

  “It’s a difficult time for us all,” continued Deangelo, seating himself opposite Jensen, “and I’m afraid that the worst is far from over. China seems determined to grab what it can in the South China Sea and their bargaining power increases with every acquisition. Russia has its own agenda and we would be foolish to regard them as allies.” He gave a resigned shake of his head, “Diplomacy must be allowed to run its course but the signs are hardly encouraging; if we reach the New Year without going to war, it will be a miracle.”

  Jensen nodded politely, not knowing what to say, unsure whether China was to be excuse with the President about to fill his Cabinet with a hard-line clique committed to war. He and Deangelo had worked together for almost two years, more often allies in Cabinet meetings than adversaries, but he barely knew the man behind the professional mask. A respected and able colleague, certainly, yet not someone seemingly destined for the Oval Office.

  Deangelo gave a rueful smile, sensing perhaps that he had revealed too much of his personal concerns. “Under the circumstances, I believe it is time for a more bipartisan and unified approach; however, wholesale changes to the Cabinet would be a mistake as well as being totally unnecessary. Your sensitive handling of the internal crisis has been commendable, Paul, and I am keen for you to continue as Secretary of Homeland Security. The political turmoil of the past few weeks cannot be ignored and if Pat McDowell is indeed part of a widespread conspiracy against this Office or Congress, then we need to identify those involved, whoever they are.” His gaze held Jensen’s, “Whoever’s involved, Paul; however high up this goes, we need answers and quickly. And I truly believe you’re the one person I can trust to do that.”

  Jensen was still on the back foot, shocked at being praised rather than fired, unsure how exactly to respond. He had come in prepared to be defiant and assertive; now he found himself staring open-mouthed with nothing coherent to say. He was also being offered an opportunity to prove the President’s guilt or innocence, one way or the other – what more could anyone want?

  The President looked at Jensen quizzically, still awaiting an answer. “Sleep on it, Paul, if you wish. The new Administration’s only immediate and obvious policy change will be to do with foreign policy, specifically our stance towards the twin problems of Russia and China; that too is an area where I am keen for you to contribute, Paul.”

  Jensen finally found his voice, “I’m delighted to accept your offer, Mr President,” he said, forcing a smile. “I always hate to leave a job half-done and we have only skimmed the surface of McDowell’s actions.”

  Deangelo acknowledged Jensen’s acceptance with a brief nod, “It’s obvious that pressure from Dick Thorn helped bring down President Cavanagh but that’s a long way from proving he and Pat McDowell were working together, and I won’t condemn him for sticking to his principles.” The President paused, a hint of a smile touching his lips, “Would I be correct in assuming your Kremlin theory is still just that?”

  Jensen forced himself to hold the President’s gaze, not wanting to imply anything by looking away. If Deangelo really was part of some conspiracy, should Jensen be careful what he said? Or should he simply ignore his reservations? In his previous role as Secretary of Defence, Deangelo had been briefed as to Jensen’s suspicions, the evidence – albeit mostly circumstantial – duly noted, his conclusions always regarded as speculative.

  “Of the various credible scenarios,” said Jensen carefully, “the Kremlin connection seems the most convincing and it fits the facts as we know them. Until we can conclusively identify the submarine that sank the USS Milius, there will always be an element of doubt; most likely, this strategy of misdirection was planned months ago, Russia keen to ensure that we join them in a limited war against China. As you yourself said, Mr President, the Kremlin has grown increasingly concerned by Beijing’s claims on Siberia and Russia’s Far East; we can also throw in the threat to Mongolia and Kazakhstan’s oil reserves.”

  To Jensen, it was no longer simply speculation, the Kremlin clearly skewing the evidence to push the U.S. and China into a war neither country wanted. President Cavanagh had been publicly committed to a foreign policy based on diplomacy and conciliation, and it had needed McDowell to erode the President’s authority and so allow the hawks like Dick Thorn to be heard. The momentum for war was gathering pace, with virtually every news programme and media outlet supporting commensurate military action in response to the deaths aboard the USS Milius. Deangelo had publicly promised that America ‘would not ignore the pleas of our loyal allies’: that had been taken to mean the Philippines, possibly also Vietnam, and with every speech and press release the new Administration was rapidly backing itself into a corner.

  Deangelo easily picked-up on Jensen’s change of emphasis from theory to fact. “Sadly, it’s a trap Beijing has willingly accepted,” he said sourly, “and I doubt either of us will now be able escape unscathed. The Kremlin has played us every step of the way, President Golubeva generously handing us a war that many in our military considered inevitable; for the moment at least, it seems Russia and the United States have become uncomfortable, if not entirely inconvenient, allies.” Deangelo’s options remained exactly the same as those that had so frustrated his predecessor: even if China was truly the innocent party, was it realistic – or even advisable – not to side with Russia.

  Abruptly Deangelo redirected the conversation closer to home, “Dick Thorn – is there anything specific to suggest he’s actually involved with McDowell? Something defin
ite, Paul; I can’t make key decisions based on innuendo or conjecture.”

  Jensen shook his head, sensing that Deangelo was asking not just about Thorn. “There’s no evidence that Thorn or any of his close associates are working with McDowell or even some Kremlin contact.”

  Deangelo still wanted something more, “And your gut feeling, Paul?”

  Jensen felt himself squirming under the President’s gaze, pressured into giving a bad answer. “I just don’t know, Mr President; we need at least another couple of months to be sure.”

  “As do we all,” said Deangelo wryly. “Unfortunately, some in Congress are keen to question this Administration’s legitimacy and any hint we are taking the rumours of a political conspiracy seriously could well be disastrous. Forgive me for stating the obvious, Paul, but it’s crucial the investigation is suitably discreet, with intelligence shared purely on a need-to-know basis. I know the Attorney General is keen to be supportive and I would ask that you keep her appraised as to progress, especially in terms of the search for McDowell.”

  Jensen well understood the President’s concerns and the joint agency task force had struggled to determine the full extent of the conspiracy. Although led by the DHS (Department of Homeland Security), the FBI was the major agency involved, and if they were to make progress then the identification of McDowell’s source within the Bureau remained key, Jensen with no official authority over the FBI, that falling to the Attorney General.

  “For reasons that will soon become clear,” continued Deangelo, “I must insist that you wrap up the inquiry into Dick Thorn by the end of the month. I can’t have it dragging on indefinitely and we must accept that it may well be necessary to give certain people the benefit of any doubt.”

  Deangelo paused and gave a wry shake of his head, “I’m not trying to tell you your job, Paul, but I do need to emphasise the delicacy of what I am asking you to do. Such constraints are unfortunate and I trust you’ll be able to work within them?”

  “Of course, Mr President,” affirmed Jensen with a nod. Being discreet was the norm but not the three-week timetable; limited resources, at least one traitor in their midst, and an impossibly tight schedule – it was a challenge Jensen could easily live to regret.

  Their conversation moved on to the latest intelligence from South-East Asia. Despite Jensen’s title simply referencing Homeland Security, the President seemed to assume that he would continue to act as the lead member of the U.S. Intelligence Community, responsible for both domestic and foreign intelligence issues. At home, the Administration’s main concern was the need to restore public confidence in their leaders, the recent anti-Government protests and extreme voter apathy worrying signs as to future stability. Members of Congress might have grown used to negative publicity but the trend was close to becoming irreversible, the demands for change impossible to ignore. Washington itself was relatively quiet, with just a few thousand demonstrators camped out in the National Mall, the police and FBI leaving them well alone for the time being. Past experience had shown that their numbers could increase tenfold within just a few hours, the campaigners and their mainly right-wing agitators making full and effective use of social media.

  The President’s wide-ranging questions continued, Deangelo for some unknown reason seeming as keen to waste time as pick Jensen’s brain, their conversation finally interrupted by the buzz of the phone. The President gestured at Jensen to remain where he was before answering the call, a few words all that were needed.

  The outer door immediately opened and a tall figure entered, Dick Thorn seemingly not put out by the presence of Jensen seated beside the fireplace.

  “Dick, delighted you could join us.” The President stepped forward and shook Thorn warmly by the hand. Jensen stood up and made to leave, but he was waved back to his seat by Deangelo.

  The three of them sat down, Thorn and Jensen side by side, the latter attempting to look more at ease than he felt as he angled his chair slightly. It was barely three days since Jensen and Deangelo – as part of the previous Administration – had mulled over the wisdom of arresting Thorn; now he was welcomed into the Oval Office and treated more like an ally than a one-time adversary.

  Apart from the jacket of his suit looking a little tight around the left arm, there was little to suggest Thorn had been one of the many victims of two days earlier, a bullet grazing his skin just above the elbow. The young woman he had been talking to moments earlier had been killed, the sight of a bloodied and shocked Thorn kneeling beside her body one of many enduring images from that day.

  The pleasantries were duly observed, Jensen following the President’s lead with an update on the shootings in the National Mall. The day’s events were still mired in controversy and the initial Department of Justice report had highlighted the problem of conflicting witness statements, the FBI not yet exonerated of any wrongdoing.

  “China is continuing to move reinforcements to the border,” said the President, moving the conversation forward and apparently keen to seek Thorn’s opinion, “but no sign yet of a Russian attack. Do you think Irina Golubeva is seriously considering an all-out war?”

  “Not unless we help out, Mr President,” replied Thorn, his tone flat but not unfriendly. “Russia needs us to keep China occupied in the south, otherwise they’ll soon get bogged down, and China can soak up far more losses than Russia.” Thorn’s voice abruptly hardened, “I trust that you will be true, Mr President, to the promise made on the steps of the Capitol.”

  “The reminder is duly noted,” Deangelo said, seemingly not irritated by the implied rebuke. “And that is why I asked you here, Dick; in the hope that together we can put aside the mistakes of the past and provide the right level of support to our allies in South-East Asia.”

  “I am happy to help in any way I can, Mr President.”

  “You might come to regret that promise,” said the President wryly. “Paul has been convincing me that I have an impossible decision to make, one where the just and honourable choice might well be impossible to defend. Should I be a pragmatic president or a righteous one?”

  Thorn couldn’t hold back his smile, “That’s not for me to say, Mr President. Personally, I would always choose to do what I believed was right for this country of ours; someone cleverer than me can later work out why it was also the just and honourable option. Truth doesn’t always age that well and it often needs a little polishing around the edges; I’m sure Paul will tell you that.”

  Jensen made no comment, unwilling to let Thorn provoke him into saying something he might later regret. The conversation had an unreal feel to it, Jensen sensing that the other two were each trying to outguess the other.

  Deangelo smoothly changed tack, “I have asked Ryan Burgess to take over at the State Department. He is not one to be intimidated by Beijing and I’m looking for a fresh start to diplomacy, without past prejudices influencing any negotiations.”

  Now it was Thorn who was being put in his place, Jensen noting that his reaction was more amusement than anything else.

  “He’s a good choice, Mr President,” said Thorn. “Burgess won’t let you down and he’s tenacious enough to get the job done.”

  “I still need a Secretary of Defence, Dick. The Cabinet would be the poorer without your wisdom and common-sense; together we can bring back some sanity to this fragile world of ours. Your nomination would send a clear message of intent to China; it might by itself even be enough to give Burgess a winning hand.”

  Jensen found it difficult to judge whether Thorn was surprised at Deangelo’s offer or not, and it could well become a contentious appointment if Thorn accepted, his recent speeches not that complimentary as to quality of America’s elected officials. Most analysts had expected Deangelo to play safe with his Cabinet choices and Thorn was a brave if risky option.

  Thorn opened his hands wide in a gesture of regret, “I somehow doubt any Cabinet appointment would make the Politburo think twice, Mr President. And we both know the Senate wou
ld block my nomination; I have been far too critical of Congress to ever hope for a majority vote.”

  “Let me worry about Congress,” Deangelo said firmly. “And I think you underestimate how much support you still have in the Senate. My offer stands but I must press you for an answer.”

  Thorn seemed to be fighting the urge to speak his mind, Jensen’s presence the only restraining factor. Thorn’s increased public profile might be another reason for him to decline, his aspirations perhaps a little higher up the chain of command.

  “I would be honoured,” said Thorn after a long pause, “to accept your generous offer, Mr President.”

  Jensen tried to keep his own thoughts to himself, the sparring between the other two men not quite confirmation as to his earlier fears but worrying nevertheless. Thorn’s body language and a subtle emphasis on various words definitely suggested there was some hidden message here, one only Deangelo would understand. And what precise purpose did Jensen serve by being there – was he simply an independent witness to what was said or was his presence supposed to be some sort of a warning?

  Just a few hours in office and the President was already attempting to stamp his authority on his predecessor’s most influential critic. Two Cabinet members duly recruited: one a potential maverick, the other a potential spy – not the wisest appointments ever made by a U.S. president. Or maybe Bob Deangelo simply preferred to keep his enemies close at hand.
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