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The rule of the people, p.8
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       The Rule Of The People, p.8

           Christopher Read

  * * *

  The four MM40 Block 3 Exocets flew just two metres above the sea surface, almost kissing the waves, covering three hundred metres every second. Their target coordinates had been pre-set across an angled spread of twenty kilometres, the missiles’ active radars finally switching on to search out a suitable target.

  The first Exocet immediately started to track the Chinese frigate Sanya, the vessel acting both as an outer escort and a missile decoy for the carrier Liaoning some thirty kilometres to the north. The Sanya’s success in its secondary role was compounded when two more of the Exocets picked the same target. The final missile bypassed the outer ring of escorts to lock onto the destroyer, Haikou, the warship stationed just four kilometres from the Liaoning.

  The Chinese AWACS had detected the missile launch, thereby giving the Task Force some seven minutes warning as to the imminent attack; however, the sea skimming approach of the Exocets ensured the Sanya only detected the first missile just five kilometres from impact, the Chinese frigate having less than twenty seconds to react. The ship’s CIWS proved more effective than its air defence missiles, two of the Exocets destroyed. The third stuck the Sanya just above the waterline, close to the hanger. The missile punched through the hull before exploding, the ship heeling to starboard as a fiery blast tore through a dozen compartments.

  The fourth Exocet continued on its way, managing to evade the Haikou’s CIWS and missiles, before detonating alongside the destroyer’s operations room and killing virtually everyone inside. Yet the Haikou was still seaworthy, the fire-suppression systems doing their job, the bridge crew taking charge. For the Sanya there was no hope, a jagged tear in the ship’s side reaching down to below the waterline, the frigate already listing. Eighteen minutes after the Exocet struck, the Captain of the Sanya gave the order to abandon ship.

  Tieu knew none of this, the corvette fighting her own battle against overwhelming odds. Well before the Sanya had slipped beneath the waves, four J-15 fighters had searched out the corvette, their crews determined to avenge the deaths of some thirty of their comrades.

  Within seconds of the first fighter providing visual confirmation, the airspace around the corvette was buzzing with missiles, one J-15 damaged by a lucky hit from a SAM, four anti-ship missiles launched at the corvette in a needless example of overkill.

  The corvette was a relatively small and quick moving target but a single missile hit would sink her, most likely with all hands. Like her Chinese counterparts, she was equipped with CIWS and missile defence, the French systems as good as any.

  One missile malfunctioned, two more were destroyed, the fourth running true.

  Tieu saw the bow of the corvette bathed in a fiery glow and then the bridge seemed to collapse inwards. Tieu heard himself scream and his body was swept upward, smashing against a bulkhead, a wave of intense heat incinerating everything in its path.

  Of the corvette’s ninety crew, just four were pulled alive from the water, one man not even surviving long enough to realise it was a Chinese helicopter that had rescued him – or maybe he was the lucky one of the four.

  Terrill, U.S.A. – 14:21 Local Time; 19:21 UTC

  Anderson’s frustration with Carter was starting to create problems, both men irritated by the other’s demands, the retrieval of relevant data progressing far more slowly than the previous day. Flores had noted as much and had in turn told Anderson to push Carter harder, the latter’s transfer to a prison cell looking likely to happen sooner rather than later.

  “You need to start focusing on why you’re here,” Anderson said, thrusting his chair back in annoyance. “This is just a waste of everyone’s time.”

  “I’m doing my best,” protested Carter. “You can’t expect me to remember every little detail. Pat must have asked me to hack into scores of different networks; most of them were related to members of Congress but I just can’t recall every name and dirty little secret.”

  “Forget the innocent and concentrate on the guilty,” Anderson prompted. “A couple of names would be useful; plus something definite to link them to McDowell or Thorn.”

  “I’ve told you a million times,” Carter said, eyes squinting as though in pain, “I know nothing about Dick Thorn. I just did what Pat told me to do, anything to put pressure on Congress and the President. There was no conspiracy; it was simply a way of making a killing on the stock market.”

  The others arrested at Terrill had generally stuck with a similar story and it was true that the political crisis had sent the Dow stuttering through various highs and lows, some blue chip stocks varying by as much as twenty percent in a week, a fortune to be made by anyone with inside knowledge. The initial finance had supposedly been non-existent, a virtual resource manipulated and utilised on the stock exchange until it materialised into something more tangible – but that still didn’t explain where the money had come from for resources such as Terrill.

  “Forget the cover story,” said Anderson. “Just give me something very simple; like who supplied the money for all of this?”

  “This?” asked Carter, frowning.

  “The purchase of this site, the computer facility, all the vehicles, your food and McDowell’s scotch – all of that was bought and paid for months before the Dow started jumping all over the place.”

  “It’s the same as I said yesterday and the day before,” intoned Carter. “Pat dealt with all the finances – I’ve no idea where the initial funds came from.”

  Anderson still didn’t believe him but it was proving tricky to find that one piece of information that Carter was willing to share. Gentle persuasion was effectively now abandoned for dire warnings as to the consequences of remaining obdurate, but even that didn’t seem particularly effective, Carter proving far more slippery than Anderson or even Flores had anticipated.

  Yet there were signs he wasn’t totally indifferent to the threat, two apparently unrelated news items dragging his attention away from the task in hand. The first was on the continuing search for Pat McDowell: with three murders now specifically linked to his name, he might have long since left D.C. and Carter would be foolish not to worry that he would be the one left taking the fall. The second news report detailed a double murder, the events surrounding the deaths of Neil and Karen Ritter still somewhat confused. Their neighbours had been woken up soon after midnight by the sound of gunshots, a dramatic firefight spilling out onto the street, one D.C. police officer also killed. The identity of the three assailants remained unknown, there nothing obvious that would somehow link it to Pat McDowell.

  A bored Anderson had tried tapping into the relevant FBI report but there wasn’t one, the shooting apparently not considered a federal matter. That however had soon changed, the Ritters’ careers as political strategist and attorney finally grabbing the FBI’s interest, concern expressed as to why it took until late morning for the D.C. Police to inform their federal colleagues as to the names of the two victims and the precise nature of the attack.

  Whether Neil Ritter – or perhaps even his wife – was involved with McDowell was open to conjecture but there was enough to at least look a little deeper. The police were unwilling to settle on a specific motive and the officer killed had been shot within seconds of reaching the scene, the attackers eventually pursued down and across Georgia Avenue before being lost in the complex of buildings which made up Howard University.

  The Ritters’ neighbours had mostly kept their heads down, the occasional fleeting glance seeming to confirm the police’s version. Of more interest was a grainy video clip which had surfaced on the internet: obviously taken from one of houses opposite, it revealed a lone gunman standing in the street firing at several figures framed against the front of a house. It wasn’t much, the sequence lasting less than twenty seconds with the camera stationed a good forty yards away; the gunman was seen from the back, bare-headed, dark clothes, pistol held two-handed. If there was more footage then it had been redacted and the FBI was keen to urge anyone with informat
ion to come forward. Everything about the Ritters’ personal life and work was now subject to media speculation, their links to Washington’s political and legal community scrutinised for some clue as to why they had been murdered.

  Flores remained non-committal as to Neil Ritter’s possible role in the conspiracy and it fell to his colleagues in the Hoover Building to pursue any potential connection with McDowell. It was still enough of a coincidence for Anderson to try and get something more from Carter, wondering out loud whether McDowell might be responsible for the double murder, with the Ritters merely a loose end that needed tidying away.

  Carter stayed silent but the point was made. Eventually, one slow step at a time, intimidation and perseverance would drag something relevant out of him; Carter was definitely not that keen on spending more than a week stuck in a U.S. jail, the lure of warmer weather and a secluded beach a potential incentive Anderson was keen to promote at every opportunity.

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