Absolute Power


  Frank’s head inclined. “How long?”

  “We’re confirming it.”

  “Do that.”

  “How many calling cards they leave, Laura?” Frank looked over at his ident technician, Laura Simon.

  She glanced up. “I’m not finding much, Seth.”

  Frank walked over to her. “Come on, Laura, she’s gotta be all over the place. How about her husband? The maid? There’s gotta be usables everywhere.”

  “Not that I’m finding.”

  “You’re shitting me.”

  Simon, who took her work very seriously and was the best print lifter Frank had ever worked with, including at NYPD, looked almost apologetic. Carbon dusting powder was everywhere, and there was nothing? Contrary to popular belief, a lot of criminals left their prints at the scene of the crime. You just had to know where to look. Laura Simon knew where to look and she was getting zip. Hopefully they would get something after analysis back at the lab. Many latents just weren’t visible no matter how many angles you hit them with the light. That’s why they called them latents. You just powdered and taped everything you thought the perps might have touched. And you might get lucky.

  “I’ve got a few things packaged to take back to the lab. After I use the ninhydrin and hit the rest with the Super Glue I might have something for you.” Simon dutifully returned to her work.

  Frank shook his head. Super Glue, a cyanoacrylate, was probably the best method of fuming and could pull prints off things you couldn’t believe. The problem was the damn process took time to work its magic. Time they didn’t have.

  “Come on, Laura, from the looks of the body the bad guys have had enough of a head start.”

  She looked at him. “I’ve got another cyanoacrylate ester I’ve been wanting to use. That’s faster. Or I can always speed-burn the Super Glue.” She smiled.

  The detective grimaced. “Right. The last time you tried that we had to evacuate the building.”

  “I didn’t say it was a perfect world, Seth.”

  Magruder cleared his throat. “Looks like we’re dealing with some real professionals.”

  Seth looked at the OIC sternly. “They’re not professionals, Sam, they’re criminals, they’re killers. It’s not like they went to goddamned college to learn how to do this.”

  “No, sir.”

  “We sure it’s the lady of the house?” Frank inquired.

  Magruder pointed to the photo on the nightstand. “Christine Sullivan. Of course, we’ll get a positive ID.”

  “Any witnesses?”

  “No obvious ones. Haven’t canvassed the neighbors yet. Gonna do that this morning.”

  Frank proceeded to make copious notes of the room and its occupant’s condition and then made a detailed sketch of the room and its contents. A good defense attorney could make any unprepared prosecution witness look like a candidate for the Silly Putty factory. Being unprepared meant guilty people went free.

  Frank had learned the only lesson he would ever need on the subject as a rookie cop and the first on the scene of a breaking and entering. He had never been more embarrassed or depressed in his life as he had when he had gotten off the witness stand, his testimony torn to shreds and actually used as the basis to get the defendant off. If he had been able to wear his .38 in court, the world would have had one fewer lawyer that day.

  Frank crossed the room to where the Deputy Medical Examiner, a beefy, white-haired man who was perspiring heavily despite the morning chill outside, was lowering the skirt on the corpse. Frank knelt down and examined one of the small Baggie-clad hands, then glanced at the woman’s face. It looked like it had been beaten black and blue. The clothing was soaked through with her body fluids. With death comes an almost immediate relaxing of the sphincters. The resulting smell combination was not pleasant. Luckily the insect infestation was minimal, despite the open window. Even though a forensic entomologist could usually ascertain time of death more accurately than could a pathologist, no detective, despite the increased accuracy, ever relished the thought of examining a human body that had become an insect buffet.

  “Got an approximate yet?” Frank asked the Medical Examiner.

  “My rectal thermometer isn’t going to be much use to me, not when body temperature drops one and a half degrees an hour. Seventy-two to eighty-four hours. I’ll have a better number for you after I open her up.” The ME straightened up. “Gunshot wounds to the head,” he added, although there was no doubt about the woman’s cause of death to anyone in the room.

  “I noticed the marks on her neck.”

  The Medical Examiner looked at Frank keenly for a moment and then shrugged. “They’re there. I don’t know what they mean yet.”

  “I’d appreciate a quick turnaround on this one.”

  “You’ll get it. Not many murders out this way. They usually get a priority, y’know.”

  The detective winced slightly at the remark.

  The Medical Examiner looked at him. “Hope you enjoy dealing with the press. They’ll be on this like a swarm of honeybees.”

  “More like yellowjackets.”

  The Medical Examiner shrugged. “Better you than me. I’m way too old for that crap. She’s ready to go whenever.”

  The Medical Examiner finished packing up and left.

  Frank held the small hand up to his face, looked at the professionally manicured nails. He noted several tears in two of the cuticles, which seemed likely enough if there was a struggle before she’d gotten popped. The body was grossly distended; bacteria raged everywhere as the putrefaction process raced on. Rigor had passed long ago, which meant she had been dead well over forty-eight hours. The limbs were supple as the body’s soft tissue dissolved. Frank sighed. She had indeed been here awhile. That was good for the killer, bad for the cops.

  It still amazed him how death changed a person. A bloated wreck barely recognizable as a human, when just days before . . . Had his sense of smell not already gone dead, he would have been unable to do what he was doing. But that came with being a homicide detective. All your clients were dead.

  He carefully held the deceased’s head up, turning each side to the light. Two small entry wounds on the right side, one large, ragged exit hole on the left. They were looking at heavy-caliber stuff. Stu had already gotten pictures of the wounds from several different angles, including from directly overhead. The circular abrasion collars and the absence of burns or tattooing on the skin’s surface led Frank to conclude that the shots had been fired from over two feet away.

  Small-caliber contact wounds, those fired muzzle to flesh, and near-contact wounds fired from a distance of less than two inches from the target, could duplicate the types of entry wounds present on the victim. But there would be powder residue deep in the tissues along the bullet track if they were looking at a contact wound. The autopsy would definitively answer that question.

  Next Frank looked at the contusion on the left side of her jaw. It was partially hidden by the natural blistering of the body as it decomposed but Frank had seen enough corpses to tell the difference. The surface of the skin there was a curious amalgamation of green, brown and black. A big blow had done that. A man? That was confusing. He called Stu over to take pictures of the area with a color scale. Then he laid the head back down with the reverence the deceased deserved even under the largely clinical circumstances.

  The medico-legal autopsy to follow would not be so deferential.

  Frank slowly lifted the skin. Underwear intact. The autopsy protocol would answer the obvious question.

  Frank moved around the room as the CU members continued their work. One thing about living in a rich, although largely rural county, the tax base was more than enough to support a first-rate if relatively small crime scene unit complete with all the latest technology and devices that theoretically made catching bad people easier.

  The victim had fallen on her left side, away from the door. Knees tucked partially under her, left arm
stretched out, the other against her right hip. Her face was pointed east, perpendicular with the right side of the bed; she was almost in a fetal position. Frank rubbed his nose. From beginning to end, back to the beginning. Nobody ever knew how they were going to eventually exit this old world, did they?

  With Simon’s help he did the triangulation of the body’s location; the tape measure made a screeching sound as it unwound. It sounded somehow unholy in this room of death. He looked at the doorway and the position of the body. He and Simon performed a preliminary trajectory path of the shots. That indicated the shots most probably came from the doorway, which with a burglary you’d expect the other way around if the perp was caught in the act. However, there was another piece of evidence that would pretty much confirm which way the slugs had traveled.

  Frank again kneeled next to the body. There were no drag marks across the carpet and the bloodstains and spray patterns indicated the deceased was shot at the spot she had fallen. Frank carefully turned to the body, again lifting up the skirt. Postmortem, blood settles to the lowest portions of the body, a condition called livor mortis. After four to six hours, the livor mortis remains fixed in position. Consequently, movement of the body does not lead to a change in distribution of blood. Frank laid the body back down. All indications were strong that Christine Sullivan had died right here.

  The spray patterns also reinforced the conclusion that the deceased was probably facing toward the bed when she met her end. If so, what the hell had she been looking at? Normally a person about to be shot would look in the direction of the assailant, pleading for their life. Christine Sullivan would have begged, Frank was certain of that. The detective looked at the opulent surroundings. She had a lot to live for.

  He eyed the carpet carefully, his face barely inches from its surface. The spray patterns were irregularly distributed as though something had been lying in front of or to the side of the deceased. That could prove to be important later on. Much had been written about spray patterns. Frank respected their usefulness, but tried not to read too much into them. But if something had partially shielded the carpet from the blood, he would want to know what that something was. Also the absence of spotting on her dress puzzled him. He would catalogue that one away; it might mean something too.

  Simon opened her rape kit and with Frank’s assistance swabbed the deceased’s vagina. Next they combed through both the hair on her head and her pubic hair with nothing readily apparent in the way of foreign substances. Next they bagged the victim’s clothing.

  Frank looked over the body minutely. He glanced at Simon. She read his mind.

  “There’s not going to be any, Seth.”

  “Indulge me, Laurie.”

  Simon dutifully lugged her print kit over and applied powder to the corpse’s wrists, breasts, neck and inside upper arms. After a few seconds she looked at Frank and slowly shook her head. She bagged what they did find.

  He watched as the body was wrapped in a white sheet, deposited in a body pouch and taken outside where a silent ambulance would transport Christine Sullivan to a place everyone prayed they would never have to go.

  He next viewed the vault, noted the chair and remote. Dust patterns on the floor of the vault had been disturbed. Simon had already covered the area. There was a smudge of dust on the chair seat. The vault had been forced though; the door and wall were heavily marked where the lock had been broken. They would cut out the levered piece of evidence, see if they could get a tool print. Frank looked back through the vault door and shook his head. One-way mirror. That was real nice. In the bedroom too. He couldn’t wait to meet the man of the house.

  He went back into the room, looked down at the picture on the nightstand. He looked over at Simon.

  “I’ve already got it, Seth,” she said. He nodded and picked up the picture. Nice-looking woman, he thought to himself, real nice-looking in a come-fuck-me kind of way. The photo had been taken in this very room, the recently departed seated in the chair next to the bed. Then he noticed the mark on the wall. The place had real plaster walls instead of the usual drywall, but the mark was still deep. Frank noted the nightstand had been moved slightly; the thick carpet betrayed its original position. He turned to Magruder.

  “Looks like somebody slammed into this.”

  “Probably during the struggle.”


  “Find the slug yet?”

  “One’s still in her, Seth.”

  “I mean the other one, Sam.” Frank impatiently shook his head. Magruder pointed to the wall beside the bed where a small hole was barely visible.

  Frank nodded. “Cut the section and let the lab boys pull it out. Don’t screw with it yourself.” Twice in the last year ballistics had been rendered useless because an overzealous uniform had scraped a bullet out of a wall, ruining the striations.

  “Any brass?”

  Magruder shook his head. “If the murder weapon ejected any spent shells, they’ve been picked up.”

  He turned to Simon. “Any treasures from the E-vac?” The evidence vacuum was a highly powerful machine that, utilizing a series of filters, was used to comb the carpet and other materials for fibers, hairs and other small objects that more often than not turned out big dividends because if the perps couldn’t see ’em, they weren’t going to try to remove ’em.

  Magruder tried to joke. “My carpet should be that clean.”

  Frank looked at his CU team. “Did we find any trace, peo ple?” They all looked at one another not knowing if Frank was kidding or not. They were still wondering when he walked out of the room and went downstairs.

  A representative from the alarm company was talking with a uniformed officer at the front door. A CU member was packing the plate and wires in plastic evidence bags. Frank was shown where the paint had been slightly chipped and an almost microscopic metal shard indicated that the panel had been removed. On the wiring were small toothlike indentations. The security rep looked admiringly at the lawbreaker’s handiwork. Magruder joined them, his color slowly returning.

  The rep was nodding his head. “Yep, they probably used a counter. Looks that way anyway.”

  Seth looked at him. “What’s that?”

  “Computer-assisted method of ramming massive numbers of combinations into the system’s recognition bank until they hit the right combo. You know, like they do to bust the ATMs.”

  Frank looked at the gutted panel and then back at the man. “I’m surprised a place like this wouldn’t have a more sophisticated system.”

  “It is a sophisticated system.” The rep sounded defensive.

  “Lotta crooks using computers these days.”

  “Yeah, but the thing is, this baby has a fifteen-digit base, not a ten, and a forty-three-second delay. You don’t hit it, the gate comes crashing down.”

  Frank rubbed his nose. He would have to go home and shower. The stench of death warmed over several days in a hot room left its indelible mark on your clothes, hair and skin. And sinuses.

  “So?” Frank asked.

  “So, the portable models you’d most likely have to use on a job like this can’t crunch enough combos through in thirty seconds or so. Shit, based on a fifteen-digit configuration you’re looking at over a trillion-three in possibles. It’s not like the guy’s gonna be lugging around a PC.”

  The OIC piped in. “Why thirty seconds?”

  Frank answered. “They needed some time to get the plate off, Sam.” He turned back to the security man. “So what are you saying?”

  “I’m saying that if he knocked this system over with a numbers cruncher then he had already eliminated some of the possible digits from the process. Maybe half, maybe more. I mean maybe you got a system that’ll do it all right, or they might’ve rigged something up that could pop this cage. But you’re not talking cheap hardware and you’re not talking some bozos off the street that walked into a Radio Shack and came out with a calculator. I mean they’re making computers faster and smaller every day but
you gotta realize that the speed of your hardware doesn’t solve the problem. You gotta factor in how fast the security system’s computer will respond back to all the combos flowing in. It’s probably gonna be a lot slower than your equipment. And then you gotta big problem. Bottom line if I were these guys I’d want a nice comfort zone, you know what I’m saying? In their line of work, you don’t get second chances.”

  Frank looked at the man’s uniform and then back at the panel. If the guy was right he knew what that meant. His line of thinking had already moved in that direction by virtue of the fact that the front door had not been forced or even nominally tampered with.

  The security company rep continued, “I mean we could eliminate the possibility entirely. We have systems that refuse to react to massive combos being forced down their throat. Computers would be jackshit useless. Problem is those systems are so sensitive to interference they were also routinely slamming down on owners who couldn’t seem to remember their numbers on the first or second try. Hell, we were getting hit with so many false alarms the police departments were starting to fine us. Go fucking figure.”

  Frank thanked him and then moved through the rest of the house. Whoever had committed these crimes knew what they were doing. This was not going to be a quick one. Good pre crime planning usually meant equally good post-planning. But they probably hadn’t counted on blowing away the lady of the house.

  Frank suddenly leaned against a doorway and pondered the word used by his friend the Medical Examiner: wounds.