The rule of the people, p.7
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       The Rule Of The People, p.7

           Christopher Read
 

  Chapter 3 – Sunday, November 13th

  Washington, D.C. – 00:36 Local Time; 05:36 UTC

  A townhouse of three storeys, the building stood on a popular residential street close to Columbia Heights and its bars and restaurants; not that either of the house’s occupants had recently made much use of such diversions, Neil Ritter and his wife both too busy with the demands of work – Ritter as a Political Strategist, Karen as an attorney in the Department of Justice.

  The house was in almost complete darkness, the only light that filtering in from the street outside. Ritter sat alone in the living room, toying with a cold beer, finding it hard not to worry, the complex events of the past months weighing heavily on his mind. Ritter had gone straight from Cornell University into the U.S. Foreign Service, a dozen years spent mostly in South-East Asia; then it was back to New York with his new bride to help the Democrats plan their election campaign. D.C. was next, Ritter’s experience and contacts ensuring he was always in demand. In his line of work reputation was everything and so far he had managed to match perception with a hefty dose of luck, quickly building up an impressive client list.

  Almost by default Ritter had become the one person both Deangelo and Thorn were prepared to trust, their passion and rhetoric convincing Ritter as to the legitimacy of their cause. Since early December he had acted as liaison between the American side of the conspiracy and its billionaire backers, trips to London and Moscow finalising the precise means and the relatively inflexible timetable. To begin with Ritter had been somewhat blasé as to the risks, his occasional meetings with Pat McDowell adding a certain excitement to his day, the two men getting on better than Ritter had anticipated. Only in the last few weeks had he fully appreciated the dangers, the confidential nature of his assignment obvious, the murders blamed on McDowell and his associates not part of any agreement Ritter was aware of.

  Somehow he had managed to convince himself that such sacrifices were justified, a necessary evil to ensure Deangelo’s place in history; then had come the deaths in the National Mall, followed soon after by a news update from London, the British police only now starting to release the names of six people murdered at a house in the village of Bray. The first name was the only one Ritter had recognised, his brain struggling to accept it, the fear that it had everything to do with McDowell difficult to ignore.

  Yang Kyung-Jae: without Yang the conspiracy would have faltered at the first hurdle, his imagination and drive invariably persuasive, his influence and financial muscle helping ensure money was never a problem. Now someone had chosen to break that link, Ritter desperately wanting to understand who and why. And if a key figure like Yang was judged to be expendable, then could any of them ever be considered truly safe?

  Certainly not Ritter. It was just five hours since he had met with Mayor Henry and Ritter had returned home close to despair, Henry all-too obviously motivated by self-interest, his true regard for Ritter now verging on contempt.

  The degree of secrecy involving the cabal had led to various levels of understanding and Henry was firmly in the second tier: he might sense a far wider conspiracy but it was never admitted and Ritter had always regarded him as something of a loose cannon. Yet the Mayor’s very public support for Thorn and the implicit co-operation of D.C.’s Chief of Police, Sean Kovak, had been an essential ingredient in the conspiracy’s success, Henry’s reward the promise of a future Cabinet position. In six years he might even hope for something better, the ease with which Deangelo had crept into power proving that anything was possible. Or maybe he would continue to ride on Dick Thorn’s coat-tails, the latter’s high public profile and popularity likely to make him the Presidential front runner once Deangelo’s tenure in the White House had ended, whatever the elder Democrats might want.

  Thorn himself had always privately expressed a wry acceptance that he would never be president, his objectives rather more complex, and Ritter truly believed that Thorn’s reasons for helping Bob Deangelo were motivated as much by patriotism as anything else. Somehow, that made his ready endorsement of McDowell’s actions even more unpalatable.

  For everyone’s security face-to-face meetings were reserved for key updates and Henry’s request for an urgent meeting had immediately put Ritter on edge, the Mayor’s office not the most secret or convenient of venues. The bottle of champagne sitting on Henry’s desk and the congratulatory handshake had only further annoyed Ritter and he had merely gone through the motions of celebrating their success, the Mayor seemingly unconcerned as to the innocent lives lost, keen to promote the future advantages of the second phase. Ritter had always considered it the most dangerous part of their strategy and he was now worried that bloodshed would again spill out onto the streets of D.C. with yet more American lives sacrificed for some unclear gain.

  Ritter well knew that the others regarded him as little more than an inconvenient intermediary and Henry’s smug attitude had continued to get on his nerves, the alcohol influencing his judgement, and without warning Ritter’s ill-defined doubts and concerns of the past few weeks had boiled over into an uncontrolled tirade against McDowell, with Deangelo and Thorn quickly included as the bitterness took hold. A shocked Henry had struggled to calm Ritter down and it was several minutes before he had regained his composure, dismayed at his own lack of control and desperately trying to back-track. But the damage had already been done, Henry’s outward show of concern entirely forced, past comments proving that he was not someone who would sympathise with – or even understand – Ritter’s deep feelings of guilt and remorse. A glance at any national newspaper over the past week would only confirm the level of public frustration with America’s many problems and as far as Henry was concerned Deangelo had done everything asked of him; if he needed to be criticised and condemned, then at least he should be given two months, not two days.

  Ritter had spent the rest of the evening struggling with his fears, an increasing sense of foreboding occupying his every thought. His wife had been quick to notice, Ritter merely shrugging it off as a headache. In truth, he was terrified of the consequences of simply doing nothing, becoming convinced that Henry wouldn’t just ignore his outburst.

  Although Ritter had had significant input into the planning of the first phase, his main role was as the standard link to McDowell, thus keeping Thorn and Deangelo isolated from their principal agent and his various associates. That didn’t mean he was indispensable but nor could he simply resign and then continue on as before; he knew far too much, able to bring down a President and a good part of the D.C. hierarchy. Henry definitely no longer trusted him and Ritter realised he needed a form of insurance, something that would help guarantee his personal safety. With luck, it might also be enough to convince the others to offer him a convenient way out.

  Contact with McDowell was via phones registered to a ghost company hidden within another shell corporation. To avoid the possibility of key words being tracked, voice messages were replaced by encrypted bursts of data – it was complex and frustrating but also very secure, Ritter confident that the chance of the FBI or NSA monitoring their messages was effectively zero. By themselves, the various phones, encryption app and computer files would only provide an unclear insight into the nature of the conspiracy, with no hint as to the identity of those involved. Sadly, there was no smoking gun he could threaten Henry with, only Ritter himself and the many secrets clouding his brain.

  Was it now time to entrust such knowledge to someone else? And what would be the point unless he told Henry and the others what he had done? Wouldn’t that only make Ritter more vulnerable, an admission that he no longer trusted his fellow conspirators?

  Ritter gave a loud sigh of frustration, annoyed by his lack of foresight, fearful of simply ignoring the dangers yet still resistant to sharing what he knew. On the table in front of him rested a 9mm Glock automatic, Karen wanting some form of protection for the many times her husband was away; with low recoil and a 15-round magazine, it was a capable enough weapon, if not
exactly the handgun Ritter would have chosen for himself. He had grown up with guns and although it was a while since he had fired one, he was confident of his ability – and its presence close at hand was a suitably comforting security blanket. It might be a totally pointless precaution but he could still recall the look on Gene Henry’s face, the sense of forewarning too strong to ignore.

  Beer finished, Ritter sat and mulled over whether to just have another beer or try to get some sleep. Abruptly he froze, a noise from the backyard a sign that his fears might not be that irrational after all.

  Ritter grabbed the gun from the table and edged towards the kitchen: with its lack of internal doors and double-wide openings, the main level offered few defensive possibilities, no chance to hold-off a determined group of attackers. Ritter needed to warn Karen but he was terrified of revealing his presence – in any case maybe he was just being paranoid and it was nothing more than the neighbour’s cat chasing a rival.

  Shadows danced behind the glass of the back door and a muted high-pitched whine sounded from outside. Ritter stepped back into cover, opting for the speed and relative quiet of technology to desperately key his phone, Karen perhaps only half-asleep.

  The whine was silenced, Ritter hearing the back door ease open. His brain didn’t seize up as expected, the certainty of what was about to happen somehow focusing his thoughts, Ritter even curious as to whether it was McDowell or some of Kovak’s men that had been sent to silence him.

  Run or hide? Ritter knew only one way to protect his wife and he chanced his luck, moving out into the open, instantly sighting the gun on the back door.

  A bulky figure stood in the open doorway, night-vision goggles covering his eyes, gun held one-handed but pointed at the floor. This was no time for half-measures and Ritter went for a head shot, the double crack of the gun echoing loudly through the house as Ritter proved he was no helpless victim.

  He retreated into the hallway, shouting out to his wife, somehow needing to get her safe. Even though he could feel the adrenalin kicking in, the panic was finally starting to cloud his thoughts, the lure of the top floor nothing more than a false hope.

  He crouched down beside the front door, worried that concussion grenades would be next and unsure whether the street outside was their best option. Perhaps it was just one or two men who would be put off by such spirited resistance, the police hopefully already on their way – or would that just bring reinforcements?

  A wary glance towards the shadows of the kitchen showed a lone figure lying face-down on the stone tiles; there was a flicker of movement behind and Ritter fired again, cringing back into cover as the wall beside him exploded with plaster and brick. A half-dozen shots, maybe more, and from at least two assailants – Ritter wouldn’t be able to hold them off for very long.

  Silence closed in again, then from the floor above he heard Karen softly call his name. He could barely see her through the gloom, confident that she had the acumen to cope at least as well as him, convinced that she wouldn’t be allowed to go free.

  He gestured at the front door and Karen instantly started to edge her way down the stairs. Suddenly, there was a second flurry of shots, Ritter giving a stifled grunt as a red-hot needle of pain lanced into his right thigh; desperately, he fired twice into the semi-darkness of the kitchen before wrenching the front door open, thrusting Karen ahead of him, silently urging her to run. She stumbled down the steps, Ritter following on close behind, leg dragging. He was halfway along the front path when there was a double flash from directly ahead, the gunshots echoing along the street.

  Karen took a half-step forward before silently crumpling to the ground; Ritter slowed, mind numb, then something thumped him hard in the back and he collapsed to his knees, the Glock dropping from his hand. There was no real pain, just an overpowering sense of weariness.

  Karen lay motionless on the sidewalk and Ritter watched transfixed as blood started to pool around her head. Unable even to move, tears started to stream down his face, the shock of it all and the realisation that he was to blame simply impossible to bear, the far-off sound of a police siren coming far too late to save either of them.

  South China Sea – 15:35 Local Time; 07:35 UTC

  The Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning cruised south of the Paracel Islands, a U.S. carrier strike group meandering its way four hundred kilometres to the north-east, both sides now well aware of the dangers associated with testing the other’s defences. For the moment, the main threat to the Liaoning lay elsewhere, the Chinese Task Force impatient to challenge the maritime exclusion zone jointly declared by the Philippines and Vietnam. Whether it was an effective barrier or merely a pretence, the exclusion zone was a test the Liaoning could not simply ignore, Beijing fearful of the loss of face should China’s navy take a totally passive stance.

  Yet there were obvious dangers, the threat from Vietnam’s fleet of modern submarines a serious concern: ultra-quiet with the latest Russian technology and torpedoes, the Kilo-class was a powerful adversary. The Liaoning was in turn protected by a screen of escorts and their ASW helicopters; further out patrolled three submarines, while overhead a land-based AWACS extended the carrier group’s radar coverage out to some 300 kilometres.

  The military planners in Hanoi and Manila well knew they were outgunned and technologically inferior to China but they were determined not to just hide in fear, and Vietnam’s military modernisation program had specifically been designed with China in mind, Russia keen to provide everything from tanks and missiles to submarines and frigates. The Philippines was in a military sense the poor relation, able to offer little except moral and logistic support.

  Captain Tieu stretched his aching back and watched the radar plot with tired eyes, the lack of sleep starting to wear him down. It was four days since the Vietnamese corvette had set off from its base in South Vietnam, first heading south to Brunei, before turning north-east towards the Philippines. In total, they had travelled close to three thousand kilometres, Tieu pacing nervously every other furtive metre, fearful they would be attacked or warned away, not knowing how perceptive the Chinese satellites and spies might be. Repainted and with a few fibre-glass additions, the corvette now flew the Indonesian flag, her new pennant number merely confirming the lie.

  Both Indonesia and Vietnam had purchased modular Sigma-class vessels from the Netherlands, Hanoi’s initial order of four corvettes first cancelled before eventually being renegotiated down to just two, three years wasted in the process. The newer Vietnamese version was seven metres shorter if visually very similar to the Indonesian design, the temporary modifications ensuring her radar profile and electromagnetic signature were not quite that of a Vietnamese corvette – but nor were they an exact match to their Indonesian equivalent.

  It was a simple deception and Tieu doubted that it would work for long but it might just be enough; in any event, the mission could already be a complete waste of time, the latest intelligence report only able to give a rough estimate as the Liaoning’s position, her present speed and direction questionable. Even if Hanoi’s calculations were reasonably accurate, the corvette wouldn’t be allowed to get too close despite her Indonesian credentials, and Tieu’s one hope was that the Task Force’s AWACS was more focused on the threat from the Vietnamese coast to the west or the Americans to the north-east. The Indonesian Navy was an infrequent but not totally unusual sight in the South China Sea: the Natuna Islands south-west of the Spratly Group were part of Indonesia and – unlike Vietnam – their dispute with China was over maritime rights rather than a specific territorial disagreement.

  Tieu moved to stare out towards the horizon, worrying as to how long it would be before some of the Liaoning’s aircraft came for a closer look. The corvette was well-armed for her size and with a good turn of speed, Vietnam willing to place one of its newest naval assets in harm’s way in order to prove a point.

  “Aircraft! Two contacts; heading three-three-five; two minutes to contact. High probability Chinese J-15 fi
ghters.”

  Tieu ignored the radar plot and merely nodded in confirmation, his lack of a verbal response mainly due to his fear of revealing some hint of nervousness in his voice, there little real doubt as to the identity of the aircraft. The agreed plan called for the corvette to simply watch and wait, trusting that the Chinese would accept that they were Indonesian and simply warn them away; at worst, the enemy would be confused enough to delay blowing them out of the water.

  The corvette slowly turned west as though steering away from the approaching aircraft, all the while maintaining a steady eighteen knots and doing everything it could not to appear a threat, targeting systems offline. The J-15 multi-role fighters raced ever closer, the radio silent, Tieu anticipating that there would be at least one verbal warning to leave the area before something more aggressive was attempted.

  A lookout verified the sighting of the aircraft and Tieu watched as the lead fighter swept in low, flying directly over them. The radio finally crackled into life, a male voice speaking in English and ordering them to turn south-east. Tieu responded, again in English, meekly confirming his compliance, no attempt made to prevaricate or argue.

  The corvette slowly started her turn, Tieu watching as the two aircraft circled low overhead, their persistence a worrying sign. Tieu knew he had but moments to either act or flee; time now to reveal their true character.

  Four times that day they had practiced the same manoeuvre, eleven seconds their best; now fear added an extra element of urgency, their record well-beaten as two surface-to-air missiles leapt out towards the Chinese fighters. The range for the SAMs was ideal but just to be sure two more missiles joined in the chase, the J-15s twisting through the sky while frantically deploying flares.

  The missiles skilfully ignored such counter-measures, each one eagerly locking on to its target, both aircraft destroyed by the first set of SAMs. The corvette was already increasing speed to her maximum of thirty knots, Tieu desperate to get away yet hoping that the Chinese carrier wouldn’t be too far distant. In fifteen minutes there would be more aircraft or missiles testing the corvette’s close-in weapon system (CIWS) and he had but one chance to strike back, one chance to make the mission a success.

  For once Vietnam had chosen not to arm their two Sigma-class vessels with Russian weapons, opting instead for French systems. The first Exocet missile burst out from its launcher, joined soon after by three others. Tieu had an estimated position and now also a bearing from the two aircraft – it might just be enough, the Exocet’s radar-homing capability enabling it to make suitable corrections should a target come within range and satisfy a specific set of criteria. All Tieu could do was pray that at least one ran true.

  The corvette raced south-east; theoretically she carried enough fuel to make it back to the Vietnamese coast but Tieu’s first priority was that of reaching the relative safety of the Philippines. Conscious that his fifteen minute limit was fast running down, Tieu risked one brief radio message, a coded confirmation as to the attack. Just one last thing left to do, the Vietnamese flag raised aloft with a triumphant blast from the ship’s horn.
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