Absolute Power

  the other slug’s. So the second slug wasn’t a hollow or softnose. It had blown right through her head, leaving a tunnel half the width of a pinkie in its wake. Projectile deformity had probably been minimal, which was meaningless since he didn’t have the damn slug.

  He looked over his initial scene notes. He was in the collection-of-information stage. He hoped he would not be stuck there forever. At least he didn’t have to worry about the statute of limitations expiring on this one.

  He looked at the report one more time, and his frown returned.

  He picked up his phone and dialed. Ten minutes later he was sitting across from the Medical Examiner in the latter’s office.

  The big man pried at his cuticles with an old scalpel and finally glanced up at Frank.

  “Strangulation marks. Or at least attempted strangulation. Understand, the trachea wasn’t crushed, although there was some swelling and hemorrhaging in the tissue, and I found evidence of a slight fracture of the hyoid bone. Got traces of petechia in the conjunctiva of the eyelids too. Nonligature. It’s all in the protocol.”

  Frank turned that over in his mind. Petechia, or tiny hemorrhages in the conjunctiva, or mucous membrane, of the eyes and eyelids, could be caused by strangulation and the resulting pressure on the brain.

  Frank leaned forward in his chair, looked at the degrees lining the wall proclaiming the man opposite from him to be a long-dedicated student of forensic pathology.

  “Man or woman?”

  The Medical Examiner shrugged at the inquiry.

  “Hard to tell. Human skin isn’t a stellar surface for prints, as you know. In fact it’s pretty impossible except in a few discrete areas, and after about half a day, if there was anything there, it won’t be anymore. Hard to imagine, though, a woman trying to strangle another woman with her bare hands, but it’s happened. Doesn’t take much pressure to crush a trachea, but bare-handed strangling’s usually a macho method of inflicting death. In a hundred strangling cases, I’ve never seen one where it was proved that a woman committed it. This was from the front too,” he added. “Mano a mano. You’d have to be pretty damn confident of your strength advantage. My educated guess? It was a man, for what a guess is worth.”

  “The report also says there were contusions and bruises on the left side of her jaw, loosened teeth and cuts on the inside of her mouth?”

  “Looks like somebody belted her a good one. One of the molars almost penetrated her cheek.”

  Frank glanced at his case file. “The second bullet?”

  “The damage inflicted leads me to believe it’s a large caliber, just like the first.”

  “Any guesses on the first?”

  “That’s all it would be. Maybe .357, .41. Could’ve been a 9mm too. Jesus, you saw the slug. Damn thing was flat as a pancake with half of it dispersed through her brain tissue and fluid. No lands, grooves, twists. Even if you find a probable firearm you’re not going to get a match there.”

  “If we can find the other one, we might be in business.”

  “Maybe not. Whoever dug it out of that wall probably messed up the markings. Ballistics won’t be happy with that.”

  “Yeah, but it might just have some of the deceased’s hair, blood and skin imbedded in the nose. That’s some trace I’d love to get my hands on.”

  The ME rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “That’s true. But you’ve got to find it first.”

  “Which we probably won’t.” Frank smiled.

  “You never know.”

  The two men looked at each other, knowing full well that there was no way in hell they were going to find the other slug. Even if they did, they couldn’t place it at the murder scene unless it had trace evidence of the deceased on it, or they could find the gun that had fired it and placed the weapon at the murder scene. A potential double whammy.

  “Find any brass?”

  Frank shook his head.

  “Then you got no pinprick either, Seth.” The Medical Examiner was referring to the unique imprint left by the firing pin of a gun on the base of the shell casing.

  “Never said it would be easy. By the way, state guys giving you room to breathe on this one?”

  The Medical Examiner smiled. “Remarkably silent. Now if it had been Walter Sullivan getting whacked, who knows? I already filed my report in Richmond.”

  Then Frank said the question he had really come to ask.

  “Why two shots?”

  The Medical Examiner stopped picking his cuticle, put down his scalpel and looked at Frank.

  “Why not?” His eyes crinkled. He was in the unenviable position of being more than competent for the opportunities presented him in the quiet county. One of approximately five hundred Deputy Medical Examiners in the commonwealth, he enjoyed a thriving general practice but had a personal fascination with both police investigations and forensic pathology. Before settling into a quiet life in Virginia he had served as a deputy coroner for Los Angeles County for almost twenty years. It didn’t get much worse than L.A. for homicides. But this was one he could get his teeth into.

  Frank looked at him intently and said, “Either shot would have obviously been fatal. No question. So why fire a second? You wouldn’t for a lot of reasons. Number one being the noise. Number two, if you want to get the hell out of there, why take the time to pump another round into her? On top of that, why leave behind another slug that could ID you later on? Did Sullivan startle them? If so, why did the shot come from the doorway into the room, and not the other way around? Why was the firing line descending? Was she on her knees? She probably was or else the shooter was off the scale height-wise. If she was on her knees, why? Execution-style? But there were no contact wounds. And then you have the marks on the neck. Why try to strangle her first, then stop, pick up a gun and blow her head off? And then blow it off again. One slug’s taken. Why? A second gun? Why try to hide that? What’s significant about that?”

  Frank stood up and moved around the room, his hands stuck deep into his pockets, a habit of his when thinking intently. “And the crime scene was so fucking clean I couldn’t believe it. There was nothing left. And I mean nothing. I’m surprised they didn’t operate on her and pull out the other slug.

  “I mean, come on, this guy was a burglar or maybe that’s what he wants us to believe. But the vault was cleaned out. About four and a half million taken. And what was Mrs. Sullivan doing there? She was supposed to be sunning in the Caribbean. Did she know the guy? Was she screwing around on the side? If she was, are the two incidents related in any way? And why the hell would you waltz in the front door, knock out the security system, and then use a rope to climb out the window? Every time I ask myself one question another one pops up.” Frank sat back down, looking slightly bewildered at his outpouring.

  The Medical Examiner leaned back in his chair, twirled the case file around and took a minute to read over it. He took off his glasses and wiped them on his sleeve, tugged at a corner of his lip with his thumb and index finger.

  Frank’s nostrils quivered as he watched the ME. “What?”

  “You mentioned nothing being left at the crime scene. I’ve been thinking about that. You’re right. It was too clean.” The Medical Examiner took his time in lighting up a Pall Mall—unfiltered, Frank noted. Every pathologist he had ever worked with had smoked. The Medical Examiner blew rings in the air, obviously enjoying this mental exercise.

  “Her fingernails were too clean.”

  Frank looked puzzled.

  The Medical Examiner continued. “I mean there was no dirt, nail polish—although she was wearing it, bright red stuff—none of the ordinary residues you’d expect to find. Nothing. It was like they had been scoped out, you know what I mean?” He paused and then continued. “I also found minute traces of a solution.” He paused again. “Like a cleansing solution.”

  “She’d been to some fancy beauty salon that morning. For a nail job and all that.”

  The ME shook his head. “Then you’d expect to find mo
re residue, not less, with all the chemicals they use.”

  “So what are you saying? That her nails were deliberately cleaned out?”

  The Medical Examiner nodded. “Someone was real careful not to leave any ident material behind.”

  “Which means they were paranoid about being identified, somehow, by the physical evidence.”

  “Most perps are, Seth.”

  “To a degree. But squirting out fingernails and leaving a place so clean our E-vac came up basically empty is a little much.”

  Frank scanned the report. “You also found traces of oil on her palms?”

  The ME nodded, looked closely at the detective. “A preservative/protective compound. You know, like you’d use on fabrics, leathers, stuff like that.”

  “So she may have been holding something and the residue was left there?”

  “Yep. Although we can’t be sure exactly when the oil came to be on her hands.” The Medical Examiner put his glasses back on. “You think she knew the person, Seth?”

  “None of the evidence points that way, unless she invited him over to burglarize the place.”

  The Medical Examiner had a sudden inspiration. “Maybe she set up the burglary. You know? Tired of the old man, brings in the new bedroom buddy to conveniently steal their nest egg and it’s off to Fairy Tale Land?”

  Frank considered the theory. “Except they have a falling out or there’s a double cross all along, and she gets the business end of some serious lead?”

  “It fits the facts, Seth.”

  Frank shook his head. “From all accounts the deceased loved being Mrs. Walter Sullivan. More than the money, if you know what I mean. She got to rub shoulders, and probably other parts of her anatomy, with famous people all over the world. Pretty heady for somebody who used to flip burgers at a Burger King.”

  The ME stared at him. “You’re kidding?”

  The detective smiled. “Eighty-year-old billionaires sometimes get strange ideas. It’s like where does the eight-hundred-pound gorilla sit? Anywhere he damn well pleases.”

  The Medical Examiner grinned and shook his head. Billionaire? What would he do with a billion dollars? He looked down at the ink blotter on his desk. Then he put out his cigarette and looked back at the report, then at Frank. He cleared his throat.

  “I think the second slug was a semi- or full-metal jacket.”

  Frank loosened his tie, put his elbows on the desk. “Okay.”

  The Medical Examiner went on. “It blew through the right temporal bone of the cranium and burst through the left pareital bone, leaving an exit wound over twice the size of the entry.”

  “So you’re saying definitely two guns.”

  “Not unless the guy was chambering different types of ammo in the same gun.” He looked keenly at the detective. “That doesn’t seem to surprise you, Seth.”

  “It would have an hour ago. It doesn’t now.”

  “So we probably have two perps.”

  “Two perps with two guns. And a lady how big?”

  The Medical Examiner didn’t need to refer to his notes. “Sixty-two inches tall, one hundred and five pounds.”

  “So a little woman and two probable male perps with heavy-caliber hardware who try to strangle her, beat her up and then both open fire on her, killing her.”

  The Medical Examiner rubbed at his chin. The facts were more than a little puzzling.

  Frank glanced at the report. “You’re sure the strangulation marks and beating came before death?”

  The Medical Examiner looked offended. “Positive. Pretty mess, isn’t it?”

  Frank flipped through the report, making notes as he went. “You could say that. No attempted rape. Nothing like that?”

  The Medical Examiner didn’t answer.

  Finally Frank looked up at him, took off his glasses, put them down on the desk and leaned back, sipping the black coffee he had been offered earlier.

  “The report doesn’t say anything about a sexual assault,” he reminded his friend.

  The Medical Examiner finally stirred. “The report’s correct. There was no sexual assault. No trace of seminal fluid, no evidence of penetration, no overt bruising. All that leads me to conclude, officially, that no sexual assault occurred.”

  “So? You’re not satisfied with that conclusion?” Frank looked at him expectantly.

  The Medical Examiner took a sip of coffee, stretched out his long arms until he felt a comforting pop deep within the confines of his aging body and then leaned forward.

  “Your wife ever go in for a gynecological exam?”

  “Sure, doesn’t every woman?”

  “You’d be surprised,” the Medical Examiner replied dryly, then continued. “Thing is, you go in for an exam, no matter how good the ob-gyn is, there’s usually some slight swelling and small abrasions in the genitalia. It’s the nature of the beast. To be thorough, you have to get in there and dig around.”

  Frank put down his coffee, shifted in his chair. “So what are you saying, she had her gynecologist visit her in the middle of the night right before she got popped?”

  “The indications were slight, very slight, but they were there.” The Medical Examiner paused, choosing his words carefully. “I’ve been thinking about it ever since I handed in the protocol. Understand, it could be nothing. She could have done it herself, you understand what I’m saying? To each their own. But from the looks of it, I don’t think it was self-inflicted. I think somebody examined her shortly after her death. Maybe two hours after, maybe earlier.”

  “Checked her for what? To see if something had happened?” Frank did not try to hide his incredulity.

  The Medical Examiner eyed him steadily. “Not much else to check a woman for down there in that particular situation, is there?”

  Frank stared at the man for a long moment. This information merely added to his already increasing temple throbber. He shook his head. The balloon theory again. Push one side in and it bulges out somewhere else. He scribbled down some notes, his eyebrows bunched together, the coffee sipped unconsciously.

  The Medical Examiner looked him over. This was not an easy one, but so far, the detective had punched all the right buttons, asked good questions. He was puzzled, but then that was a big part of the process. The good ones never solved them all. But then they also didn’t remain puzzled forever. Eventually, if you were lucky and diligent, maybe more of some on one case than on another, you would break it open, and the pieces would come tumbling into place. The Medical Examiner hoped this was one of those cases. Right now, it didn’t look all that good.

  “She was pretty drunk when she bought it.” Frank was examining the toxicology report.

  “Point two-one. I haven’t personally seen that number since my college frat days.”

  Frank smiled. “Well I’m wondering where she got that point two-one.”

  “Plenty of booze in a place like that.”

  “Yeah, except there were no dirty glasses, no open bottles, and no discards in the trash.”

  “So, maybe she got drunk somewhere else.”

  “So how’d she get home?”

  The Medical Examiner thought for a moment, rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “Drove. I’ve seen people with higher percentages behind the wheel.”

  “You mean in the autopsy room, don’t you?” Frank continued: “The problem with that theory is that none of the cars in the garage had been driven from the time the household left for the Caribbean.”

  “How do you know that? An engine isn’t going to be warm after three days.”

  Frank perused the pages of his notebook, found what he wanted and slid it around to his friend.

  “Sullivan has a full-time chauffeur. Old guy named Bernie Kopeti. Knows his cars, anal as a tax lawyer, and he keeps meticulous records on Sullivan’s fleet of automobiles. Has the mileage for every one of them in a log book, updated daily, if you can believe it. At my request he checked the odometer on each of the cars in the garage, which presumably w
ere the only ones the wife would have access to, and in fact were the only cars in the garage at the time of the discovery of the body. On top of that Kopeti confirmed that no vehicles were missing. There was no additional mileage on any of them. They hadn’t been driven since everyone cleared out for the Caribbean. Christine Sullivan didn’t drive home in one of those cars. So how did she get home?”


  Frank shook his head. “We’ve talked to every cab company that operates out here. No fare was dropped off at the Sullivan address on that night. It’d be pretty hard to forget the place, wouldn’t you think?”