Ignite, page 4
Ten years ago, after a particularly nasty strain of bacteria was released in one hundred grocery stores, it had seemed necessary to let the OCSD oversee food distribution. People had clamored for more safeguards on the nation’s food supply; they’d been enthusiastic about not having to spend time shopping at supermarkets. In accordance with Lowell Stratford’s recommendation, retail grocery stores passed into the control of the newly formed Essential Services Department. Convenience stores and gas stations were no longer allowed to sell food. He’d had no idea the Essential Services Department’s food delivery system was vulnerable to collapse until it was too late.
Lifting the Restriction was sure to create disorder in the short run. Many people couldn’t afford to buy supplemental food, and there was no system in place to refund the automatically debited payments for food that people had not received.
He should have lifted the Restriction as soon as the Essential Services deliveries were delayed. Now the only thing he could do was attend the upcoming memorial service for those who lost their lives during the riot at OP-441. It felt like too little, too late.
President Wright was one of the most powerful people in the free world, but he was never meant to be the sole decision-maker in any crisis. That sort of presidential power only existed in schoolchildren’s politics. When he was newly elected, it had been a relief to let Stratford, the experienced OCSD director, take the lead on the nation’s never-ending security issues. It had been a jolt to realize that, over time, Stratford had usurped most of his power and attained so much influence over the other branches of government that no one dared challenge his authority.
Madalyn Davies lacked her predecessor’s ability to micromanage any situation, but her lust for power eclipsed Stratford’s, and that made her a dangerous adversary. She didn’t hesitate to make threats when she was challenged or criticized. He couldn’t afford to have her challenge his decision to lift the Civilian Restrictions. She’d recently threatened to fabricate a terrorist attack so she could lay the blame for lax security standards on him.
He’d feared the bombing in OP-439 was exactly that—Madalyn’s retribution for his lifting the Restriction. But what else could he do? People had been in danger of starving. Madalyn was insisting the Restriction be put back in place, because the private food distributors were hampering the government agency’s efforts to get back on track.
Would it be possible to oust her? She’d come into that position only because Stratford had named her his assistant director, a post that had been vacant since she became director of the OCSD by default. Stratford had been too powerful. He could’ve had Wright impeached—or assassinated—with a wave of his hand.
It would be prudent to appoint a new assistant who was qualified to take over should Madalyn be forced to step down. Right away, Brandon Renald came to mind. Renald was a six-term senator from the Southwest who chaired the Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism and did two tours in Afghanistan during the Fourth Gulf War. He would be a true asset to the OCSD, bring some actual experience to the job. A new, energetic presence at the OCSD was just what was needed to shake things up a little.
Tommy came downstairs from his parents’ room and lurked in the back of the sitting room. He hoped he could catch an update on PeopleCam before anyone else noticed he was there.
Pete Sheridan led off at the top of the hour. “Authorities continue to piece together what really happened last night in OP-439. The nation’s interest centers on the young woman discovered in the rubble after the blast, who is believed to be the bomber. She is reportedly still unconscious, in critical condition. There is no telling when she will be well enough to answer questions.”
Sheila Roth added, “Until then, we’ll just keep rehashing all the pieces of the puzzle until they start to make sense.”
Pete nodded. “Though there is a suspect in custody, members of the grassroots organization known as CXD support the theory that it was actually quadrant marshal Wesley Carraway, acting on orders from the OCSD, who set off the explosion to frighten people away from the barter-friendly market that had just opened across the street. Though this has been stringently denied by a spokesperson for the OCSD, we must ponder the possibilities presented by that theory. Was Carraway the perpetrator of the bombing and an accidental victim of his own actions?”
“Most perplexing, Pete.”
“We’ll have more on the story as the investigation continues.”
Tommy glanced across the room; Mitch was leaning against the doorway to the back hall, staring daggers at him.
The last thing Tommy wanted was a confrontation. He retreated upstairs.
Madalyn Davies led the way down a hospital corridor and stopped outside the door flanked by two armed guards. She barely glanced at her companion. She was in a hurry to see for herself the girl who lay inside. She pushed open the door and stepped into the dimly lit room. It was her. Undeniably. She recognized her regardless of the cuts and bruises and the bandage that covered part of her head. Madalyn felt a rush of triumph as she crossed the room to stare down at Careen Catecher, darling of the Resistance, fettered in soft restraints and hooked up to an IV line and a softly beeping monitor. She was no longer a threat to Madalyn’s power. More like a mouse to be toyed with before the kill.
“Welcome, Careen. It’s a pleasure to meet you under these circumstances.”
Careen kept her gaze down and her breath came in short gasps, which made it easy to visualize her as an animal caught in a trap.
“You dirty little terrorist,” Madalyn whispered, leaning over the bed. “Thought you had everyone fooled, didn’t you? But you made a big mistake when you set off that bomb and killed a quadrant marshal.”
“Was it really only one?” Tears spilled down her cheeks.
What does she mean by that? “Wasn’t one enough to make your point?” When Careen didn’t answer, Madalyn dug in with wicked glee. “Your capture is the biggest news since Lowell Stratford’s murder. When it came to light that you were nothing more than a common terrorist, the public quickly changed its opinion of you, and I’m pleased to inform you that you’ve fallen from popularity. Even your criminal cohorts in the so-called Resistance don’t want anything to do with you.” Madalyn reached out to touch the strands of hair that peeked out from the bandage. “Pink highlights are so out of fashion.”
The girl’s trembling silence fed Madalyn’s desire to flaunt her power. “Your fate rests with me, Careen. I could see to it that you stand trial for the murder of Wesley Carraway and the university bombing, and also for conspiring to assassinate Lowell Stratford. I could have you locked away for the rest of your life. You could be put to death for your crimes. I could even say you were killed while trying to escape from prison. But you’d be much more valuable to me in another capacity.”
“I don’t understand.”
Either way, I win. “You could come work for the OCSD.” She paused for effect. “As the spokesperson for the OCSD’s new safety initiative.”
Careen’s face contorted and Madalyn sneered. “Oh, don’t look so devastated. The Resistance is finished. The new security program encourages people to take responsibility for their actions. You’ll be doing exactly what you were doing before. You’ll just be doing it for me. So let’s write the next chapter in your story, Careen. What’s it going to be? Convicted terrorist … or celebrity?”
She was silent much longer than Madalyn expected. When she raised her head, one last tear slid down her cheek. “All right. I’ll do it.”
Madalyn nodded. “Fine. Let’s begin right now.”
Careen gulped and held up her gauze-swathed hands as best she could in the soft restraints. “Could you please take these off?”
Madalyn shook her head. “You’ve been combative. It says on your chart that you pose a danger to yourself and others. I’ll need to see some cooperat
Madalyn pressed her lips together in a hard line before she spoke. “We both know better than that, don’t we? If you’re going back on our bargain already, I’ll have you transported to prison. Now give me the name of every member of the Resistance.”
Careen kept her eyes averted. “I can’t.”
“You were in hiding with them for weeks, weren’t you?”
“It’s just … well, I wasn’t allowed in any of the meetings. I worked in the kitchen at their headquarters in exchange for a safe place to stay. They used code names when they referred to each other in front of me. They used me in the videos because I was already … umm, sort of well known. All I did was read those scripts they gave me.”
“So the Resistance exploited your notoriety to gain sympathy for their cause? Of course they did. But how did you find them?”
“They found me. After the press conference at the OCSD, I escaped from the security guards and got out of the building. I was running across the parking lot when a black car pulled up, and a man jumped out and grabbed me. They took me to Resistance headquarters.”
“I don’t know. We drove at night and arrived when it was still dark. Once I was there, I wasn’t allowed to go outside.”
“Did they force you to bomb the student center at the university, or did you volunteer to do it?”
“I don’t know.” Careen glanced up, and Madalyn glared at her until she shrank back against the pillows and began to babble. “I’m sorry! That part’s all mixed up. I heard someone say I was in an explosion? Is that why I’m in the hospital?”
Madalyn pounced again. “How do you explain the photo of you with three girls that posted on PeopleCam? Were they members of the Resistance, too?”
“Oh, that … no. They were just … we stopped for gas and—”
“I find it difficult to believe that the Resistance’s security detail let you be photographed with a bunch of teenagers. During the day. When you just told me you traveled at night.”
The girl quailed even more. “I only remember that it didn’t seem like a big deal at the time.”
“Think hard, Careen. You must know the names of some of the people in the Resistance—like Tom Bailey, for instance?”
Her eyes flicked away. “No.”
“I see.” Madalyn turned on her heel and stalked out of the room. Art Severson was waiting where she’d left him in the hall, and as soon as the door closed behind her, she spat out, “She’s lying. How dare she lie to me! Tom Bailey is on the loose and he’s a huge liability. You came crawling back here with information about Careen, but I haven’t forgotten that you were the one who let the Baileys get away. You were supposed to report back after you completed the job, and I never heard from you!”
“How many times do I have to explain that I was locked up in that Podunk jail for over a week? You could’ve sent someone to look for me.”
“I had enough to worry about, don’t you think? What if Tom goes back to his verbal attacks on the OCSD? What if he blabs about being detained? Do I tell Garrick to send marshals out to arrest people who are supposed to be dead? I need to get him back in custody ASAP. And the girl obviously knows where he is.”
“Why don’t you just dose her? Surely there’s still a bottle of CSD around here somewhere. That’ll speed things up.”
“No. I want her to remember every single humiliating moment of her interrogation. I don’t want her to have any excuses for betraying her friends and bringing about the demise of the Resistance. CSD won’t be necessary by the time we’re through with her.” She called a nurse over. “When we’re finished with this patient, sedate her and prepare her to be moved.”
Art opened the door and followed Madalyn back inside. Careen’s eyes grew wide at the sight of him.
“Hello, Careen. Surely you remember me?”
The heart rate monitor in the corner began to beep rapidly.
Art smiled. “I understand you’re confused about a few details? Maybe I can help. You weren’t traveling with strangers the day we met. You were with the Bailey boy. In fact, unless I’m mistaken, you’d known him long enough to be living with him. Long enough to infiltrate the OCSD building with him to try and rescue his parents.”
Madalyn raised an eyebrow. “Tell the truth or our deal’s off.”
Her tears started again. “All right—yes! Tommy helped me once, and in return I went with him to the OCSD to help rescue his parents. When we didn’t find them there, we left and kept looking.” She addressed Art. “A security guard told Tommy that Tom and Lara were with you. When we got back to OP-439, he went to see someone who told him where you’d taken them.”
Madalyn sneered. “And somehow you found the time to murder Lowell Stratford while you were trespassing inside the OCSD building. Where is your accomplice? Where is Trina Jacobs?”
Careen’s arm tensed against the restraint. “I don’t know.”
Mitch had grown weary of the hushed voices and sympathetic looks from the group assembled at the boardinghouse, and he’d gone back to the diner where he could watch the news in peace. The programming was all coverage of the university bombing, with inferences designed to malign the Resistance and signal that the OCSD had things under control. Mitch didn’t worry too much about hits to the Resistance’s reputation. There was no such thing as bad press, after all. The bright spot in this debacle was that the OCSD’s hold on the people was starting to crumble. Those little cracks and fissures would eventually topple the OCSD once and for all. Away from the others, he was free to rejoice in the progress.
Lara arrived to prepare dinner, and he followed her into the kitchen. When she faced him, he saw in her eyes the spark of extraordinary intelligence that had been absent during her episode of amnesia.
He smiled down at her, something he could only do when they were alone. “I didn’t know if you’d ever remember.”
“I remember everything.”
“Then I wasn’t sure if you’d be able to play it cool. I was afraid you’d—”
“Mitch, I was an amnesiac. I was never an idiot.” She turned on the oven. “Although it’s probably lucky my memory came back when you weren’t around, or I might have slipped up.”
“Do you still have you-know-what stored someplace safe?”
She smiled wryly. “My own head wasn’t safe enough, was it? But to answer your question … yes. I do. I hope.” Her demeanor changed. “We can’t access it now, so let’s deal with the current crisis. I’m very concerned about Careen. It surprises me that you don’t seem to feel the same.”
“Hell yes, I’m worried about her. I’m worried she’ll spill her guts and ruin everything. I’m worried that when they announce they’ve got her in custody, people will either feel sorry for that poor, defenseless girl or convince themselves she was a terrorist all along. Either way, they’ll forget how ineptly the OCSD handled the food shortage.”
Chief Quadrant Marshal Hoyt Garrick waited impatiently in Madalyn’s outer office. She had demanded a five o’clock meeting to discuss the manhunt down in the BG quadrants. He’d arrived on time, but she was nowhere to be found.
Marshals had combed the rural, mountainous area for Resistance members after Careen Catecher’s phone pinged off a communication tower two days ago. But it was just a blip, active for about two minutes. There was no way to tell which way she was moving. There were nearly a thousand two-mile-square quadrants in the sparsely populated BG sector. That was a lot of rugged ground to cover in a house-to-house search, especially without a solid idea of where to begin.
Garrick had decided Madalyn’s obsession with finding and arresting Trina Jacobs was fueled by her need to perpetuate the lie that it was Trina, and not Madalyn, who’d poisoned Lowell Stratford.
He wandered into her office, opened up the fully stocked bar, and mixed himself a Manhattan.
He’d poured a second drink by the time Madalyn strode in, phone to her ear.
“As I’ve stated before, Transitional CSD was meant to foster a calm, cooperative atmosphere. The riots and uptick in crime in response to the food shortage were the exact opposite of the intended result. Yes. Now that people have stopped panicking, everything’s going to be just fine. Please direct further inquiries to Victor Martel at Essential Services.” She disconnected the call with an impatient sigh.
“Essential Services up and running again?”
“Should be in a few more days.”
“What’s the holdup this time?”
“Deliveries cannot resume until more food becomes available. Essential Services doesn’t have what they need to provide meals that meet the established nutritional standards. Many of the suppliers they rely on began working with former black market dealers.”
“The reports of problems and shortages have fallen off to next to nothing. You should be glad everyone’s got something to eat. Aren’t you glad they’ve stopped rioting and panicking?” He took a gulp from his glass. “You wanted to see me? Half an hour ago?”
She dismissed his questions with a flick of her wrist. “Something took longer than I expected. Finding Trina Jacobs is also taking longer than I expected.”
“They’re searching BG as fast as they can. What else would you suggest?”
“That’s your job! I’ve been questioning the suspect in the university bombing.”
“Got a name yet?”
“Of course I do. It’s Careen Catecher.”
He whistled. “How about that?”
“I’ve decided not to release her identity yet.”
“Forensics found traces of blood on the gun, and they rushed it through DNA matching at the lab. One sample was the security guard, but the other belonged to Thomas Bailey, Junior, age eighteen, from OP-439.”