The rule of the people, p.37
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       The Rule Of The People, p.37

           Christopher Read

  * * *

  It was well after six o’clock when Jensen left his office, official transport and security detail abandoned for the anonymity of his Buick crossover. Fort Meyer was a twenty-five minute drive away and the base’s Grant Avenue was always a drive through U.S. military history, Generals Eisenhower and McCarthy once residents there. Quarters Six was the official home of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Admiral Adams greeted him at the door, curious as to why such a late meeting and why the request to keep it confidential.

  They moved into the privacy of the sun room, it offering a magnificent sweeping view across the Potomac of the National Mall, the lights of the Capitol lost in the distance, and Jensen even managed to feel nervous, worried he was going to make a fool of himself and that his fears would prove totally groundless. Adams gestured Jensen to a chair, his offer of a drink politely declined, the pleasantries kept to a minimum.

  “Your call was intriguing,” said Adams with a half-smile. “I assume your wish to talk in private has something to do with China or are we back to your conspiracy theory?”

  “Possibly both,” replied Jensen, feeling his way. “It’s also to do with Secretary Thorn.” Whether he was wise to put his trust in Adams would soon become clear: the Admiral might be a hardliner like Thorn but that didn’t make him a willing ally in some nefarious deed.

  Adams didn’t seem particularly surprised at Jensen’s continued pursuit of Thorn, resurgent paranoia an expected characteristic of Jensen’s security role. “I sense you’re still reading too much into things,” he observed drily. “Bob Deangelo became President because of Cavanagh’s mistakes and a free vote from Congress; he then picked by far the best Secretary of Defence we could get, someone committed to the military. Dick Thorn might be overly keen to put forward his point of view but that doesn’t make him complicit in some imaginary coup. You couldn’t find any evidence of it before and I’m guessing you haven’t got any now. And if you’re suggesting Bob Deangelo was also part of a plot to overthrow Will Cavanagh, then I would strongly advise you leave while you can.”

  This wasn’t going as well as Jensen had wanted – less than five minutes in and he’d already got the Admiral’s back up.

  “I’m not blind to the possibility of some political manoeuvring to get rid of Cavanagh,” continued Adams with a shrug. “And I’m happy to admit I support what Thorn is trying to do. Does that make me one of your conspirators?”

  Jensen sidestepped answering, trying to move the conversation forward. “We all have an agenda here; me as much as anyone. And you’re right to question my concerns. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest Bob Deangelo has acted in any way other than honestly. With Dick Thorn, there is a certain amount of circumstantial evidence but that’s as far as it goes.”

  “Then why exactly are you here, Paul?”

  Jensen picked his words carefully, needing Adams’ help but unable to offer anything convincing to guarantee he would get it. “I appreciate we have very different views as to how to deal with China and that is not the issue here. I can’t be specific but there are indications the talks in Kazakhstan may be sabotaged even before they begin; not because of some attack in Astana but something related to the South China Sea.” Jensen was making most of it up as he went along, the ‘indications’ little more than his own personal interpretation of events and the key names of Thorn’s recent contacts. He had come this far and if he ended up exiting via the window then at least it would be a good story to tell the grandchildren.

  Adams looked at Jensen in surprise, not quite open-mouthed but certainly taken aback at what he was suggesting. Jensen knew he could always throw in the FBI or even the National Security Agency as the source, national security invariably a good excuse not to go into details, especially when they didn’t actually exist.

  Jensen pressed on regardless, needing to get to specifics. “I have the greatest respect for your office, Admiral, and that of the navy. I’m just concerned the Secretary of Defence might be circumventing the President with regard to the South China Sea; specifically within the last twenty-four hours in terms of the future deployment of our forces or new orders involving some sort of attack.”

  “An attack? Against what – another reef?”

  “That I can’t say, Admiral. But I can assure you it would derail any possibility of peace with China… I trust you can understand my concern.”

  “As you know,” Adams hedged, his frown deepening, “my role is purely advisory but I have oversight of planning and resources; if the Secretary has made any unilateral changes, I’m not convinced he would be able to keep them secret.”

  Adams was still trying to make sense of what Jensen was suggesting. Although the office of CJCS was a prestigious appointment, the Admiral had no executive authority over combatant forces. The chain of command went from the President to the Secretary of Defence and then directly to the unit commanders, Adams merely a convenient conduit for passing on suitable orders.

  Jensen wouldn’t let it lie, “All I’m asking is that you check.”

  “And when are you anticipating this attack will take place?”

  “It’s not yet dawn in Astana and the talks are due to resume in about four hours… I have no definite time scale but I guess in four to eight hours.” Jensen was struggling to know how broad to make Adams’ search, every Chinese military facility or ship a potential target.

  Adams gave Jensen a hard stare, “I need something more than just a vague suspicion. Dick Thorn might disagree as to the extent of America’s response but to suggest he’s overriding the President’s authority is extreme.”

  “I’m sorry, Admiral; I can’t reveal the specifics, except to say the source has proved totally reliable in the past. If you are happy to confirm that Secretary Thorn has always acted under the full authority of the President then this conversation never happened.”

  Jensen had put the onus back on Adams. The Admiral had to assume Jensen had a source inside the Pentagon, perhaps even someone close to the Secretary of Defence.

  Adams said, “And if Secretary Thorn has used his initiative and issued orders which might conflict with the President’s present policy on China – what then?”

  Jensen shrugged, curious as to why Adams had phrased it so deliberately, “That is for the President to decide.”

  The Admiral rubbed at his chin, not looking at Jensen. Abruptly he stood up and gazed out towards the fuzzy lights of the National Mall, standing with his back to his somewhat irksome guest. Adams might not believe any of it but could be really ignore the vague possibility that Jensen was actually right?

  It was almost a full minute before he turned round. “Very well, Secretary Jensen,” said Adams formally. “I will do as you ask...”

  Jensen had expected to be left alone while Adams made the necessary calls but the Admiral had other plans, keen to show that he had nothing to hide. It then become a waiting game, Adams more relaxed now he had set everything in motion. Strong coffee also helped break the tension and Jensen was treated to a tale of daily life in the Pentagon, the building almost a city in itself with close to twenty-five thousand military and civilian employees. If Adams was trying to convince Jensen they were both on the same side then it was working and it was virtually the first time they had talked one-on-one about nothing in particular, Jensen seeing a side to the Admiral he never even glimpsed before.

  It was a good twenty minutes before the Admiral’s cell phone rang, Adams again not seeking privacy. He barely spoke until the end, a worried frown creasing his brow.

  “It’s possible,” said Adams to Jensen, “that you’re misgivings have some merit. There’s one matter that needs further clarification: a coded order was sent from Secretary Thorn to Admiral Lucas which seems to be at odds with the agreed rules of engagement.”

  “Lucas – Pacific Command?”

  Adams nodded, looking distracted, “If one of our carriers is attacked, Lucas has orders to target the Liaoning
and her escorts. This new instruction seems to give Lucas the leeway to attack the Chinese carrier immediately an alert has been confirmed rather than waiting for an actual attack.”

  “And these new rules of engagement are effective now?”

  “It would appear so.”

  Jensen was slow to grasp the practical aspects of what Adams was implying. China’s submarines had continued to probe the American carriers’ defences, minor incursions of the hundred-mile exclusion zone merely targeted with a warning ping from a helicopter’s dipping sonar. Was that now to be met with an immediate and senseless retaliatory strike? If so, Jensen’s four to eight hours was nothing more than a wild exaggeration, a U.S. missile attack liable to happen at any time.

  Adams had the same concerns, “If it’s confirmed, I’ll need to speak directly to the President; only he has the authority to countermand this order.” He stood and stared down at his cell phone, unsure whether to contact the White House immediately or go first to the Pentagon.

  “Forget the phone,” said Jensen, taking the initiative, “This is too serious for anything other than a face-to-face meeting with the President. We can take my car… I trust you understand the need to bypass your protection detail?”

  Adams glared in confusion at Jensen and made as if to argue before abruptly changing his mind. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adams’ protection detail was part of the Army Protective Services Battalion, the same unit that had responsibility for guarding the Secretary of Defence – Adams knew he was sinking to Jensen’s level of paranoia but why take unnecessary risks?

  It was barely fifteen minutes by car to the White House, the circumstances requiring significantly more than an impersonal – and potentially convoluted – phone call. A frustrated and resentful Dick Thorn had finally made his move, and they couldn’t take the chance that American missiles might soon be racing their way towards the Liaoning. Thorn was clearly determined to halt Deangelo’s search for a peaceful resolution, and the Liaoning wasn’t some small reef of dubious worth but a symbol of China’s new superpower status. However, if Thorn expected Beijing to crumble as a result then he had seriously misjudged the nature of the enemy, China more likely to seek instant retribution than abandon the Spratly Islands.

  The evening traffic was less than Jensen had expected but that advantage was more than countered by the weather, the driving snow making visibility relatively poor. Jensen tried to keep his focus on the road ahead but the problem of Thorn kept invading his thoughts, so many questions still needing to be answered. Admiral Adams held his cell phone tight as though it would somehow try to escape, there still no absolute confirmation that Admiral Lucas was somehow in league with Thorn to circumvent the President’s authority.

  The Buick started to lose grip as they crossed the Roosevelt Bridge and Jensen slowed, the snow already covering the road surface; this was looking to be a far trickier journey than he’d anticipated and winter driving in D.C. was more often a lottery than not, there far too many rear-wheel-drive vehicles driven by the inexperienced and the downright incompetent.

  Jensen took the exit towards the East Street Expressway, the glare from the passing lights a distraction, wipers not proving as effective as he would have liked. A quick glance in the mirror showed a black SUV tailgating him and Jensen swore under his breath at such stupidity; it was only then that past concerns resurfaced, a check of the slow lane revealing a silver sedan easing up alongside.

  “We may have some company,” he said to Adams. “Better hold on.” The road climbed and twisted, and as soon as it straightened out Jensen put his foot down, still uncertain as to whether his fears were justified or not.

  The other two vehicles dropped back but only for an instant, racing to catch up. Jensen had his answer and he struggled to work out how best to react; beside him, Adams was already talking on his phone, angrily demanding Secret Service backup, then the Buick abruptly shuddered as the sedan nudged it from the side.

  Adams was flung to the left, his arm smacking into Jensen as his seatbelt locked. Jensen desperately tried to keep control but he was unable to prevent the Buick’s front wheel from tapping the central kerb; an instant later, the tailing SUV smashed into the rear of the Buick, the latter bounding up over the kerb.

  The Buick caught a glancing blow against the low metal barrier and bounced right, sideswiping the front of the SUV. There was the screech of tortured metal, the Buick spinning around full circle, its rear also hitting something solid.

  The car slid to halt, Jensen shocked but still conscious, Adams with blood on his face. The SUV was also stationary, engine smoking; just ten feet away to Jensen’s right sat the black sedan, passenger door opening to show a heavyset figure with gun in hand.

  The Buick’s engine was still running, the airbags not even deployed, and Jensen jammed his foot back down, tyres squealing as the Buick accelerated away. He wrenched the wheel around to head east once more, struggling to see his way through the swirling snow, one headlight not working.

  The tunnel under Virginia Avenue seemed to appear almost without warning; Adams had his seat-belt off and was scrabbling around in the passenger foot-well searching for his cell phone, Jensen only now aware of an unhealthy growl from the car engine.

  As they sped out of the tunnel, the Buick hit the lying snow and skidded left, bucking up onto the median strip; this time there was no metal barrier and the car careered onto the opposite carriageway. Jensen heard the squeal of brakes and a large dark shape powered past, horn blaring. Despite being half-blinded by the lights from the oncoming traffic, Jensen stamped on the accelerator, pushing his luck; he kept well to the right, cursing out loud at every other driver, innocent or not. Two more cars swerved past, those ahead squeezing their way into the slow lane.

  Jensen glanced to his right: Admiral Adams lay slumped in the passenger seat, head lolling against the side window. The sedan hadn’t given up; it paralleled the Buick, a belt of trees now separating the two carriageways. Up ahead was the intersection with 20th Street, Jensen unable to think clearly as to which way to turn.

  Decision made, he twisted the wheel sharply left, heading north, almost colliding with another car. Jensen still couldn’t see properly, dazzled by lights, the snow flying almost horizontal as it hit the front windshield.

  Every few seconds, there seemed a new problem and the Buick was now pulling steadily to the right, steering heavy, the rest of the vehicle juddering in sympathy. Jensen could hear an emergency siren but that was no guarantee of anything, certainly not his future well-being, and he careered into F Street, now barely half-a-mile from safety.

  The headlights from the sedan were once again visible in the rear-view mirror. The Buick was struggling to go over forty and the sound from the engine was becoming a throaty rattle. The front-right tyre was definitely blown, sparks starting to fly up from the road surface. Uncaring, Jensen sped across 19th Street, the traffic lights a welcoming green.

  There was a loud crack as a bullet punched its way through the rear windshield. It thumped into Adams’ seat, the Admiral’s listless body flinching in sympathy, a half-heard groan reluctantly dragged from his lips. Jensen tried to swerve from side to side, but it was impossible to keep control, the intersection with 18th Street just ahead.

  Jensen didn’t care what the traffic lights were at and he just kept his foot down. The instant he reached the intersection, he knew he’d pushed his luck too far, a half-seen shape smashing into the front of the Buick.

  Jensen felt himself rolling over and over, the airbags finally inflating. As the Buick tumbled to a stop, Jensen fought to release his seatbelt but he couldn’t seem to work out how to do it, his fingers fumbling uncertainly; he could barely move his head, something warm and sticky stopping his eyes from opening, the sound of the siren much closer now. And another, more annoying noise, Jensen slow to realise it was the ringtone from Adams’ cell.

  Strapped in his seat and unable to do anything, it was almost a relief when the
heavy weight of unconsciousness swept down over him, the despair of having come so close and failed too much to bear.
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