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The rule of the people, p.41
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       The Rule Of The People, p.41

           Christopher Read

  * * *

  Jensen came to as he was being laid gently down onto the sidewalk, the blood cautiously wiped from his eyes and face, strong hands moving over his body to try and work out the extent of his injuries. Still disorientated, it felt as if he had been unconscious for hours but it could just have easily been a few seconds, his mind struggling to remember what exactly had happened.

  Jensen’s eyes flickered open and he watched almost mesmerised as the snowflakes cascaded down from the night sky; he was just so cold, his breath casting a fine mist over his face. It took the loud squawk from a fire truck’s horn to break into his reverie and he tried to speak, it coming out as a meaningless croak.

  “Mr Secretary,” said a male voice close beside him. “An ambulance is on the way; you’re going to be okay, Sir.”

  Jensen struggled to sit up, his rescuer having to help; the latter was Secret Service, Jensen recognising him by sight even though he couldn’t quite place the man’s name. Jensen’s body felt bruised all over but there were no sharp pains or numbness, and most of the shiny splashes of blood staining his clothes were likely from Admiral Adams.

  Jensen turned to look at the Buick, it sitting upside down with two Secret Service agents struggling to wrench open the passenger door, several firemen running to help, no sign of Adams. Another agent stood a few yards further on, tasked with keeping a small crowd of bystanders well away from the scene of the crash. At least three other vehicles had been involved, one struck side-on and totalled, a wisp of smoke trailing up from somewhere inside. Only now did Jensen realise it was the black sedan that had been chasing the Buick and he stared in confusion at the two bodies lying sprawled a few feet from it, their faces covered, the dark suits marking them out as anything from businessmen to security agents, even FBI.

  “We got them both,” said the agent, seeming to expect Jensen would understand. “But I’m afraid Admiral Adams is badly hurt.”

  Jensen used his helper’s arm to get to his feet. He was unsteady but could stand unaided, his still-hazy brain finally remembering the urgency of his task. “Your name,” he said hoarsely, “what’s your name?”

  “Howard, Sir.”

  “Very well, agent Howard; it’s imperative I get to speak directly to the President.” He gestured vaguely in the direction of the White House. “Now, agent Howard.”

  Howard didn’t argue, the events of the past few minutes speaking for themselves. He spoke briefly into his wrist mic before helping Jensen towards a black Chevrolet SUV, a second agent moving across to join them.

  Abruptly there was a bright flash in the sky to the south-east and Jensen instinctively stopped mid-step before Howard urged him forward, neither agent making any comment as they heard the muffled sound of an explosion. Jensen sat in the Chevy and tried to make sense of what was happening, worried now that Thorn was going for broke, the explosion signalling the start of some attack on the Capitol Building or even the White House.

  With lights and siren it was barely a minute’s drive to the White House; three more for Jensen to be helped inside and reach the final barrier of the President’s personal secretary. The West Wing was in turmoil, close to lockdown, Deangelo in a meeting with the National Security Adviser, Morgan Woodward. The Capitol at least seemed secure, the Secret Service already informing Jensen that the explosion had been a bomb targeted at Thorn, no indication yet as to casualties.

  Jensen could feel the secretary’s eyes on his bloodied clothes, the brighter lights of the office merely emphasising what he had gone through, her call to the President reinforcing that fact.

  “Please go straight in, Mr Secretary.”

  Jensen straightened his back and strode through into the Oval Office, Deangelo and Woodward standing to greet him, the President’s shock at how he looked apparently genuine.

  Deangelo stepped forward to grip Jensen’s right arm, unsure whether to also shake him by the hand, “You’re hurt, Paul; we need to get the doctor to see you.”

  “It’s Admiral Adams’ blood,” replied Jensen gruffly. “You need to speak immediately to Admiral Lucas, Sir. Secretary Thorn has issued new orders committing our forces in the South China Sea to a missile attack against China’s carrier – they need to be countermanded before it’s too late.”

  “Thorn’s dead, Paul,” said Woodward softly. “A bomb attack in the Capitol Mall.”

  “Then so much the better!” said Jensen, the anger finally taking control. “Dead or not, the President still needs to countermand the order!”

  Deangelo stared at Jensen, his insistent tone not something a president would normally appreciate; that in itself somehow emphasised the need for haste, the anguish in Jensen’s voice obvious, the blood on his clothes a mark of what he too had gone through.

  The President gave the briefest nod of understanding and he quickly stepped across to his desk to pick up the phone, keying a pre-set number.

  “I need to speak to Admiral Lucas, Pacific Command, immediately,” he instructed. “Also patch in Rear-Admiral Espada aboard the Ronald Reagan and Admiral King…” Deangelo might have taken his time to weigh up his options in the South China Sea but he now acted decisively, commands given without the need for detailed consultation, the President with a clear grasp of the chain of command in the Pacific, even knowing the names of all the senior staff.

  By the time they reached the Situation Room the calls had been made, Deangelo speaking directly to the commanders of the Gerald Ford and John Stennis Strike Groups. For some unclear reason, Pacific Command’s Admiral Lucas was unavailable, his deputy similarly so; Rear-Admiral Espada on the Ronald Reagan was also taking his time to confirm that Deangelo’s new orders had been implemented, the President’s impatience revealed by a curt comment to every new negative.

  Although reports coming in from the South China Sea remained the priority, there was also a need to understand exactly what was happening closer to home. Thorn dead, Adams critical, Jensen covered in blood – to an outsider it had all the indications of a co-ordinated attack on the U.S. Administration and security for the other Cabinet members had immediately been increased, the units guarding the Capitol also put on a heightened alert. The National Mall was being swamped with police and FBI, initial reports indicating that the bomb blast had injured at least twenty, nothing definite as to the number of those killed.

  Almost ten minutes had passed and there was still no confirmation from the Ronald Reagan, the atmosphere in the Situation Room becoming increasingly tense as the seconds dragged by: no-one could be certain how deep-seated Thorn’s influence might be and Deangelo was prepared to do whatever it took to stop any such senseless reprisals. The talks in Astana were a fragile first step towards peace, the negotiations likely to end once a single American missile struck home. Beijing certainly wasn’t making it any easier for Deangelo and at least two of their attack submarines were always sniffing around close to the Ronald Reagan’s exclusion zone, apparently happy to push their luck.

  China’s lone aircraft carrier patrolled to the north-west of the Reagan, the Liaoning a forty-minute flight for the strike group’s anti-ship missiles. Under normal circumstances that would be plenty of time to abort an attack but now it seemed unbelievably short, America’s Commander-in-Chief barely in charge of his Cabinet let alone a naval unit over eight thousand miles away. The status and standing orders for every other vessel and military unit were also being re-assessed, Deangelo needing to know whether Thorn’s subtle adjustment to the rules of engagement was merely a one-off.

  It was twelve minutes before Rear-Admiral Espada finally confirmed the change in orders, no excuse given for the delay. Admiral Lucas and his deputy were proving harder to pin down and Deangelo quickly lost patience, the next in line given temporary command. With the situation seemingly now under control, the Secretary of the Navy and the Deputy Secretary of Defence joined those taken to task, Deangelo demanding answers before he was forced into a Russian-style purge.

  Jensen sat drink
ing a lukewarm coffee, still spilling it despite having both hands on the cup, the shakes having started as soon as he’d sat down. Clean clothes had eventually arrived, a medic patching up the cuts and grazes to his face. Injured and in shock he might be but he was still Secretary of Homeland Security and determined to do his job, a briefing from the FBI’s Deputy Director bringing him up-to-date as to the identity of his attackers as well as Pat McDowell’s part in Thorn’s murder.

  Jensen mostly just listened, his opinions kept to himself, mentally filling in the various gaps to the FBI’s understanding. Under different circumstances the situation would have almost been laughable: Jensen and Adams attacked by Thorn’s allies in the Pentagon as he in turn was murdered by the President’s hitman. Once Deangelo had made it into the Oval Office, the conspiracy had quickly twisted itself into knots, the pledges made discarded as a more complex reality hit home.

  For the moment, Jensen certainly couldn’t prove Deangelo’s guilt. In any event he was still struggling with the dilemma of justice or expediency, the latter becoming ever more tempting as he considered the alternative. Dick Thorn had been willing to risk hundreds of American lives in his personal quest – a quick death was by far the best he had deserved.

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