Absolute Power

  ’em, Jack. I goddamn love ’em.”

  * * *

  TWO HOURS LATER, SANDY STOOD IN THE CORNER OF HIS massive office suite staring out onto the busy street below, while a conference call plodded forward on the speaker phone.

  Dan Kirksen walked in the door, his stiff bow tie and crisp shirt concealing a slender jogger’s body. Kirksen was the firm’s managing partner. He had unwavering control over everyone in the place except Sandy Lord. And now perhaps Jack Graham.

  Lord glanced at him with uninterested eyes. Kirksen sat down and waited patiently until the conference call participants said their good-byes. Lord clicked the phone off and sat down in his chair. Leaning back, he eyed the ceiling and lit up. Kirksen, a health fanatic, inched back from the desk.

  “You want something?” Lord’s eyes had finally come to rest on Kirksen’s lean, hairless face. The man consistently controlled a shade under six hundred thousand in business, which guaranteed him a long, secure home at PS&L, but those numbers were chickenshit to Lord and he did nothing to hide his dislike of the firm’s managing partner.

  “We were wondering how the lunch went.”

  “You can handle the softballs. I don’t have time to play fucking softball.”

  “We had heard unsettling rumors, and then with Alvis having to be terminated when Ms. Baldwin called.”

  Lord waved a hand through the air. “That’s taken care of. He loves us, he’s staying. And I wasted two hours.”

  “The amount of money at stake, Sandy, we, we all felt it would be better, it would convey the strongest possible impression if you—”

  “Yeah. I understand the numbers, Kirksen, better than you, I understand the numbers. Okay? Now, Jacky boy is staying put. With luck he might double his fishing line in ten years, and we can all retire early.” Lord looked over at Kirksen, who seemed to grow smaller and smaller under the big man’s gaze. “He’s got balls, you know. More balls than any of my other partners.”

  Kirksen winced.

  “In fact, I kind of like the kid.” Lord stood up and moved over to the window, where he watched a procession of preschoolers attached together with rope cross the street ten stories below.

  “Then I can report a positive to the committee?”

  “You can report any goddamn thing you like. Just remember one thing: don’t you boys ever bother me with one of these things again, unless it’s really, really important, you understand me?”

  Lord glanced once more at Kirksen and then his eyes returned to the window. Sullivan still had not called. That was not good. He could see his country slipping away, like the little bodies disappearing around the corner. Gone.

  “Thank you, Sandy.”



  WALTER SULLIVAN STARED AT THE FACE, OR WHAT WAS left of it. The exposed foot showed the official morgue toe tag. While his entourage waited outside, he quietly sat alone with her. The identification had already been formally made. The police had gone off to update their records, the reporters to file their stories. But Walter Sullivan, one of the most powerful men of his era, who had made money from nearly everything he had touched since he was fourteen, now suddenly found himself bereft of energy, of any will whatsoever.

  The press had had a field day with him and Christy after his marriage of forty-seven years had ended in the death of his first wife. But at almost eighty years old, he had just wanted something young and alive. After so much death, he had wanted something that would most certainly outlive him. With close friends and loved ones dying around him, he had passed his tolerance level as a mourner. Growing old was not easy, even for the very rich.

  But Christy Sullivan had not survived him. And he was going to do something about that. It was fortunate that he was largely ignorant of what lay ahead for the remains of his late wife. It was a necessary process that was not in the least designed to comfort the victim’s family.

  As soon as Walter Sullivan left the room, a technician would enter and wheel the late Mrs. Sullivan into the autopsy room. There she would be weighed and have her height confirmed. She would be photographed, first fully clothed, and then in the nude. Then X-rayed and fingerprinted. A complete external exam would be conducted, with the intent of noting and obtaining as much usable evidence and as many clues as possible from the body. Fluids would be taken and sent to toxicology for drug and alcohol screens and other testing. A Y incision would split her body shoulder to shoulder, chest to genitals. A horrific chasm for even the veteran observer. Every organ would be analyzed and weighed, her genitalia checked for signs of sexual intercourse or damage. Every trace of semen, blood or foreign hair would be sent for DNA typing.

  Her head would be examined, wound patterns traced. Then a saw would make an intermastoid incision over the top of the skull, cutting through the scalp and down to the bone. Next, the front quadrant of the skull would be cut away and the brain removed through the frontal craniotomy and examined. The one slug would be extracted, marked for chain-of-custody purposes and held for ballistics.

  Once that process was completed, Walter Sullivan would be given back his wife.

  Toxicology would verify the contents of her stomach and traces of foreign substances in her blood and urine.

  The autopsy protocol would be prepared, listing the cause and mechanism of death and all relevant findings, and the official opinion of the Medical Examiner.

  The autopsy protocol, together with all photographs, X-rays, fingerprints, toxicology reports and any other information constituting the entire case file would be deposited with the detective in charge.

  Walter Sullivan finally rose, covered the remains of his deceased wife and left.

  From behind yet another one-way mirror, the detective’s eyes followed the bereaved husband as he left the room. Then Seth Frank put on his hat and quietly exited.

  * * *

  CONFERENCE ROOM NUMBER ONE, THE LARGEST IN THE FIRM, held a prominent center position right behind the reception area. Now, behind the thick sliding doors, a meeting of the entire partnership had just convened.

  Between Sandy Lord and another senior partner sat Jack Graham; his partnership not yet official, but protocol was not important today and Lord had insisted.

  Coffee was poured by the housekeeping staff, danishes and muffins were distributed around, and then the help retreated, closing the doors behind them.

  All heads turned to Dan Kirksen. He sipped his juice, tapped his mouth affectedly with his napkin and rose.

  “As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, a terrible tragedy has befallen one of our most”—Kirksen glanced quickly at Lord—“or I should say, our most significant client.” Jack looked around the sixty-foot marble-top table. Most heads remained trained on Kirksen, a few others were filled in on the events by whispers from their neighbor. Jack had seen the headlines. He had never worked on any of Sullivan’s matters but he knew they were extensive enough to occupy forty attorneys at the firm on almost a full-time basis. He was, by far, Patton, Shaw’s biggest client.

  Kirksen continued. “The police are investigating the matter thoroughly. As yet there have been no developments in the case.” Kirksen paused, glanced again at Lord, and then continued. “As one can imagine, this is a very distressing time for Walter. To make matters as easy as possible for him during this time, we are asking all attorneys to pay particular attention to any Sullivan-related matters, and, hopefully, to nip any potential problem in the bud before it escalates. Further, while we do not believe that this is anything other than a routine burglary with a very unfortunate result, and is in no way connected to any of Walter’s business affairs, we are asking each of you to be alert for any unusual signs in any of the dealings in which you are engaged on Walter’s behalf. Any suspicious activity is to be reported immediately to either myself or Sandy.”

  A number of heads turned toward Lord, who was looking at the ceiling in his customary fashion. Three cigarette butts lay in the ashtray in front of him, the remains of a
Bloody Mary beside it.

  Ron Day, from the international law section, spoke up. His neatly trimmed hair framed an owlish face partially obscured by slender oval spectacles. “This isn’t a terrorist thing is it? I’ve been putting together a string of Middle Eastern joint ventures for Sullivan’s Kuwaiti subsidiary, and those people operate under their own rules, I can tell you that. Should I be worried for my personal safety? I’m on a flight this evening for Riyadh.”

  Lord swiveled his head around until his eyes fell on Day. Sometimes it surprised him how myopic if not downright idiotic many of his partners were. Day was a service partner whose main, and in Lord’s mind only, strength was his ability to speak seven languages and politely kiss the ass of the Saudis.

  “I wouldn’t worry about that, Ron. If this is an international conspiracy, you’re not important enough to dick around with, and if they do target you, you’ll be dead before you ever see it coming.”

  Day fiddled with his necktie as an uneasy mirth quietly circled the table.

  “Thank you for the clarification, Sandy.”

  “You’re welcome, Ron.”

  Kirksen cleared his throat. “Rest assured that everything that can be done to solve this heinous crime is being done. There’s even talk that the President himself will authorize a special investigative task force to look into the matter. As you know, Walter Sullivan has served in various capacities in several administrations, and is one of the President’s closest friends. I think we can assume that the criminals will be in custody shortly.” Kirksen sat down.

  Lord looked around the table, elevated his eyebrows and crushed out his last cigarette. The table cleared.

  * * *

  SETH FRANK SWIVELED AROUND IN HIS CHAIR. HIS OFFICE WAS a six-by-six pen, the sheriff warranting the only spacious area in the small headquarters building. The medical examiner’s report was on his desk. It was only seven-thirty in the morning but Frank had already read every word of the report three times.

  He had attended the autopsy. It was just something detectives had to do, for a lot of reasons. Although he had been present at literally hundreds of them, he had never grown comfortable with seeing the dead tinkered with like the animal remains every college biology student had sunk their digits into. And although he no longer became ill at the sight, it usually took him two or three hours of driving around aimlessly before he could attempt to settle back down to work.

  The report was thick and neatly typed. Christy Sullivan had been dead at least seventy-two hours, probably longer. The swelling and blistering of the body, and the bacteria and gaseous onset in her organs, substantiated that time range with pretty good accuracy. However, the room had been very warm, which had accelerated the postmortem putrefaction of the body. That fact, in turn, made ascertaining the actual time of death increasingly difficult. But not less than three days, the medical examiner had been firm on that. Frank also had ancillary information that led him to believe that Christine Sullivan had met her death on Mon day night, which would put them smack in the three-to-four-day range.

  Frank felt himself frowning. A minimum of three days meant he was facing a very cold trail. Someone who knew what they were doing could disappear from the face of the earth in three or four days. Added to that was the fact that Christine Sullivan had been dead a while now and his investigation was really no further along than when he started. He could not remember a case where the trail was so nonexistent.

  As far as they could ascertain there were no witnesses to the incidents at the Sullivan estate, other than the decedent and whoever had murdered her. Notices had been placed in the papers, at banks and shopping centers. No one had come forward.

  They had talked to every homeowner within a three-mile radius. They had all expressed shock, outrage and fear. Frank had seen the latter in the twitch of an eyebrow, hunched shoulders and the nervous rubbing of hands. Security would be even tighter than ever in the little county. All those emotions, however, yielded no usable information. The staffs of each of the neighbors had also been thoroughly questioned. There was nothing there. Telephone interviews had been conducted of Sullivan’s household staff, who had accompanied him to Barbados, with nothing earth-shattering to report back. Besides, they all had ironclad alibis. Not that that was insurmountable. Frank filed that away in the back of his mind.

  They also did not have a good snapshot of Christine Sullivan’s last day of life. She was murdered in her house, presumably late at night. But if she had indeed been murdered on Monday night, what had she been doing during the day? Frank believed that information had to lend them something to go on.

  At nine-thirty in the morning on that Monday, Christine Sullivan had been seen in downtown Washington at an upscale salon where it would cost Frank two weeks’ pay to send his wife for a pampering. Whether the woman was gearing up for some late-night fun or this was something the rich did on a regular basis was something Frank would have to find out. Their inquiries had turned up nothing on Sullivan’s whereabouts after she had left the salon around noon. She had not returned to her apartment in the city, nor had she taken a taxicab anywhere that they could determine.

  If the little woman had stayed behind when everyone else went to the sunny south, she had to have a reason, he figured. If she had been with someone that night, that was someone Frank wanted to talk to, and maybe handcuff.

  Ironically, murder in the commission of a burglary did not constitute capital murder in Virginia, although, interestingly enough, murder during the course of an armed robbery did. If you robbed and killed, you could be sentenced to death. If you burgled and killed, the most you’d be looking at was life, which wasn’t that great of a choice given the barbaric conditions of most state prisons. But Christine Sullivan had worn much jewelry. Every report the detective had received indicated she was a great lover of diamonds, emeralds, sapphires; you named it, she wore it. There was no jewelry on the body, although it was easy enough to see the marks on the skin the rings had made. Sullivan had also confirmed that his wife’s diamond necklace was missing. The beauty salon owner also remembered seeing that particular piece on Monday.

  A good prosecutor could make out a case of robbery on those facts, Frank was sure of it. The perps were lying in wait, premeditation the whole way. Why should the good people of Virginia have to pay thousands of dollars a year to feed, clothe and house a cold-blooded killer? Burglary? Robbery? Who the fuck really cared? The woman was dead. Blown away by some sick goon. Legal distinctions like that did not sit well with Frank. Like many law enforcement people, he felt the criminal justice system was weighted far too heavily in favor of the defendant. It often seemed to him that lost in the entire convoluted process with its intricate deals, technical traps and ultrasmooth defense attorneys was the fact that someone had actually broken the law. That someone had been hurt, raped or killed. That was just flat-out wrong. Frank had no way to change the system, but he could peck around its edges.

  He pulled the report closer, fumbling with his reading glasses. He took another sip of the thick, black coffee. Cause of death: lateral gunshot wounds to the cephalic region caused by high-velocity, large-caliber firearm(s) firing one expanding, softnose bullet causing a perforating wound, and a second slug of unknown composition from an unidentified weapon source causing a penetrating wound. Which, in ordinary English, meant her brain had been blown apart by some heavy-duty hardware. The report also stated that the manner of death was homicide, which was the only clear element Frank could see in the entire case. He noted that he had been correct in his conclusion of the distance from which the shots had come. There were no traces of powder in the wound track. The shots had come from over two feet away; Frank surmised that the distance was probably closer to six feet, but that was only his gut talking. Not that suicide had ever been a consideration. But murders for hire were usually of the barrel-to-flesh variety. That particular method cut down considerably on the margin of error.

  Frank leaned closer to his desk. Why more than one
shot? The woman most certainly was killed with the first round. Was the assailant a sadist, pumping round after round into a dead body? And yet they could account for only two entries into the body, hardly the lead barrage of some madman. Then there was the issue of the slugs. A dumdum and a mystery bullet.

  He held up a bag with his mark on it. Only one round had been recovered from the body. It had entered below the right temple, flattened and expanded on impact, penetrated the skull and brain, causing a shock wave of the soft brain tissue, like rolling up a carpet.

  He carefully nudged the caged creature or what was left of it. A gruesome projectile that was designed to flatten upon impact and then proceed to rip apart everything in its path, it had worked as designed on Christine Sullivan. Problem was dumdums were everywhere now. And the projectile deformity had been immense. Ballistics had been next to useless.

  The second round had entered a half-inch above the other, traversed the entire brain, and exited the other side, leaving a gaping hole much larger than the entrance wound. The bone and tissue damage had been considerable.

  This bullet’s resting place had given them all a surprise. A half-inch hole in the wall against the bed. Ordinarily after having cut out the piece of plaster, the lab personnel, using special tools, would have extracted the slug, being careful to preserve the grooving of the bullet, which would enable them to narrow down the make of gun from which it was fired and hopefully to eventually match it to a particular piece of ordnance. Fingerprints and ballistics identification were as close to certain as you got in this business.

  Except in this case, while the hole was there, there was no slug in the hole, and no other slug in the room. When the lab had called him to report that finding, Seth Frank had gone down to see for himself. That was as angry as he had gotten in a long time.

  Why go to the trouble of digging out a slug when you still had one in the corpse? What would the second slug show that the first wouldn’t? There were possibilities.

  Frank made some notes. The missing bullet could be a different caliber or type, which probably would show there were at least two assailants. Strong as his imagination was, Frank could not realistically envision one person wielding a gun in each hand and popping off at the woman. So now he had a probable two suspects. That would also explain the different entry, exit and internal wound patterns. The tumbling dumdum’s entry hole was larger than