Absolute Power



  “Unless maybe the cabbie whacked her, and isn’t talking.”

  “You’re saying she invited a cabbie into her house?”

  “I’m saying she was drunk and probably didn’t know what the hell she was doing.”

  “That doesn’t jibe with the fact that the alarm system was tampered with, or that there was a rope dangling outside her window. Or that we’re probably talking about two perps. I’ve never seen a cab driven by two cabbies.”

  A thought struck Frank and he scribbled in his notebook. He was certain Christine Sullivan had been driven home by someone she knew. Since that person or persons had not come forward, Frank thought he had a pretty good idea why they hadn’t. And exiting out the window via a rope instead of the way they’d entered—through the front door—meant that something had caused the killers to rush. The most obvious reason was the private security patrol, but the security guard on duty that night had not reported anything out of the ordinary. The perps didn’t know that, however. The mere sight of the patrol car might have prompted such a hasty exit.

  The Medical Examiner leaned back in his chair, unsure of what to say. He spread out his hands. “Any suspects?”

  Frank finished writing. “Maybe.”

  The Medical Examiner looked sharply at him. “What’s her husband’s story? One of the richest guys in the country.”

  “The world.” Frank put his notebook away, picked up the report, drained the last of his coffee. “She decided to opt out on the way to the airport. Her husband believes she went to stay at their Watergate apartment in town. That fact has been confirmed. Their jet was scheduled to pick her up in three days and take her down to the Sullivan estate outside of Bridgetown, Barbados. When she didn’t show at the airport, Sullivan got worried and started calling. That’s his story.”

  “She give him any reason for the change in plan?”

  “Not that he’s telling me.”

  “Rich guys can afford the best. Make it look like a burglary while they’re four thousand miles away swinging in a hammock sipping island bug juice. Think he’s one of them?”

  Frank stared at the wall for a long moment. His thoughts went back to the memory of Walter Sullivan sitting quietly next to his wife at the morgue. How he looked when he had no reason to believe anyone was watching.

  Frank looked at the Medical Examiner, then got up to leave.

  “No. I don’t.”

  CHAPTER TEN

  BILL BURTON WAS SITTING IN THE WHITE HOUSE SECRET Service command post. He slowly put down the newspaper, his third of the morning. Each carried a follow-up account of the murder of Christine Sullivan. The facts were virtually the same as the initial stories. Apparently there were no new developments.

  He had talked to Varney and Johnson. At a cookout over the weekend at his place. Just him, Collin and their two fellow agents. The guy had been in the vault, seen the President and the Mrs. The man had come out, knocked out the President, killed the lady and gotten away despite the best efforts of Burton and Collin. That story didn’t exactly match the actual sequence of events that night but both men had unfailingly accepted Burton’s version of the occurrence. Both men had also expressed anger, indignation that anyone had laid a hand on the man they were dedicated to protect. The perp deserved what was coming to him. No one would hear of the President’s involvement from them.

  After they had left, Burton had sat in his backyard sipping a beer. If they only knew. The trouble was, he did. An honest man his entire life, Bill Burton did not savor his new role as prevaricator.

  Burton swallowed his second cup of coffee and checked his watch. He poured himself another cup and looked around the White House Secret Service quarters.

  He had always wanted to be a member of an elite security force, protecting the most important individual on the planet: the quiet resourcefulness, strength and intelligence of the Secret Service agent, the close camaraderie. The knowledge that at any moment you would be expected to and in fact would sacrifice your life for that of another man, for the benefit of the common good, made for a supremely noble act in a world more and more devoid of anything remotely virtuous. All that had allowed Agent William James Burton to get up with a smile each morning and sleep soundly at night. Now that feeling was gone. He had simply done his job, and the feeling was gone. He shook his head, sneaked a quick smoke.

  Sitting on a keg of dynamite. That’s what they all were doing. The more Gloria Russell explained it to him, the more impossible he thought it was.

  The car had been a disaster. Very discreet inquiries had traced it directly to the goddamned D.C. police impoundment lot. That was too dangerous to push. Russell had been pissed. But let her be. She said she had this under control. Bullshit.

  He folded up the paper, placed it neatly away for the next agent.

  Fuck Russell. The more Burton thought about it the madder he became. But it was too late to go back now. He touched the left side of his jacket. His .357, filled with cement, along with Collin’s 9mm, was at the bottom of the Severn River at the most remote point they could find. To most perhaps an unnecessary precaution, but to Burton, no precaution was unnecessary. The police had one useless slug and would never find the other. Even if they could, the barrel on his new pistol would be squeaky clean. Burton wasn’t worried about the ballistics department of the local Virginia police bringing him down.

  Burton hung his head as the events of that night raced through his mind. The President of the United States was an adulterer who had roughed up his lay for the night so badly she had tried to kill him and Agents Burton and Collin had to blow her away.

  And then they had covered it all up. That’s what made Burton wince every time he looked in the mirror. The coverup. They had lied. By their silence they had lied. But hadn’t he lied all this time? All these late-night trysts? When he greeted the First Lady each morning? When he played with their two kids on the rear lawn? Not telling them that her husband and their father was not nearly so nice and kind and good as they probably believed he was. As the whole country believed he was.

  The Secret Service. Burton grimaced. It was an apt title for an unlikely reason. The crap he had seen going on over the years. And Burton had looked the other way. Every agent had, at one time or another. They all joked or complained about it in private, but that was all. That particular, if unwelcome, function came with the job. Power made people crazy; it made them feel invincible. And when something bad happened it was the working stiffs of the Secret Service who were expected to clean up the mess.

  Several times Burton had picked up the phone to call the Director of the Secret Service. Tell him the whole story, try to cut his losses. But each time he had put the phone back down, unable to say the words that would end his career and, in essence, his life. And with each passing day, Burton’s hopes grew a little brighter that it might all blow over, even though his common sense told him that could not possibly happen. Now it was too late to tell the truth, he felt. Calling in a day or two later with the story might be explained away, but not now.

  His thoughts turned back to the investigation of Christine Sullivan’s death. Burton had read with great interest the findings of the autopsy, courtesy of the local police at the request of the President, who was so, so distraught over the tragedy. Fuck him too.

  A shattered jaw and strangulation marks. His and Collin’s shots had not inflicted those injuries. She had good reason to want to kill him. But Burton couldn’t let that happen, under no circumstances could he let that happen. There were few absolutes anymore, but that was sure as hell one of them.

  He had done the right thing. Burton told himself that a thousand times. The very action he had trained virtually his entire adult life for. The ordinary person couldn’t understand, could never possibly comprehend how an agent would think or feel if something bad went down on their watch.

  He had talked to one of Kennedy’s agents a long time ago. The man had never gotten over Dallas. Walking right beside the President’s li
mo, nothing he could do. And the President had died. Right in front of his eyes, the President’s head had been blown apart. Nothing he could do, but there was always something. Always another precaution you could have taken. Turned to the left instead of the right, watched one building more closely than you had. Scan the crowd with a little more intensity. Kennedy’s guy had never been the same. Quit the Service, divorced, finished his human existence in obscurity in some rat’s hole in Mississippi, but still living in Dallas for the last twenty years of his life.

  That would never happen to Bill Burton. That was why he had hurled his body in front of Alan Richmond’s predecessor six years ago and caught twin .38 caliber steel jackets for his trouble despite his body armor; one through the shoulder, the other through the forearm. Miraculously, neither had struck any vital organs or arteries, leaving Burton only with a number of scars and the heartfelt gratitude of an entire country. And, more important, the adulation of his fellow agents.

  And that was why he had fired upon Christine Sullivan. And he would do the same thing today. He would kill her, kill her as often as it took. Pull the trigger, watch the one-hundred-sixty-grain bullet slam into the side of the head at over twelve hundred feet per second, the young life over. Her choice, not his. Dead.

  He went back to work. While he still could.

  * * *

  CHIEF OF STAFF RUSSELL WALKED BRISKLY DOWN THE corridor. She had just finished briefing the President’s press secretary on the appropriate spin for the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The bare politics of the matter dictated backing Russia, but bare politics rarely controlled the decision-making process in the Richmond administration. The Russian Bear had all the intercontinental nuclear forces now, but Ukraine was in a much better position to become a major trade player with the Western countries. What had tipped the scales in Ukraine’s favor was the fact that Walter Sullivan, the good and now grieving friend of the President, was homing in on a major deal with that country. Sullivan and friends, through various networks, had contributed approximately twelve million dollars to Richmond’s campaign, and garnered him virtually every major endorsement he needed in his quest for the Oval Office. There was no way he could not make a significant payback on that kind of effect. Hence, the United States would back Ukraine.

  Russell looked at her watch, counting her blessings that there were independent reasons for siding with Kiev over Moscow, although she felt sure Richmond would have come out the same way regardless. He did not forget loyalty. Favors must be returned. A President just happened to be in a position to return them on a massive, global scale. One major problem out of the way, she settled down at the desk and turned her attention to a growing list of crises.

  Fifteen minutes into her political juggling, Russell rose and slowly walked over to the window. Life went on in Washington, much like it had for two hundred years. Factions were scattered everywhere, pouring money, massive intellects and established heavyweights into the business of politics, which essentially meant screwing others before they got around to screwing you. Russell understood that game, better than most. She also loved and excelled at it. This was clearly her element, and she was as happy as she’d been in years. Being unmarried and childless had started to worry her. The piles of professional accolades had grown monotonous, and hollow. And then Alan Richmond had come into her life. Made her see the possibility of moving up to the next level. Perhaps to a level where no woman had ever gone. That thought weighed so powerfully inside her head that she sometimes shook with anticipation.

  And then a goddamned hunk of metal exploded in her face. Where was he? Why hadn’t he come forward? He must, had to know what he had in his possession. If it was money he wanted, she would pay it. The slush funds at her disposal were more than adequate for even the most unreasonable demands, and Russell expected the worst. That was one of the wonderful things about the White House. No one really knew how much money it actually took to run the place. That was because so many agencies contributed parts of their budget and personnel to help the White House function. With so much financial confusion, administrations rarely had to worry about finding money for even the most outrageous purchases. No, Russell thought to herself, money would be the least of her worries. She had many others to concern herself with, however.

  Did the man know that the President was totally oblivious to the situation? That was what was tearing Russell’s stomach apart. What if he tried to communicate with the President directly, and not with her? She started to shake, and plopped down in a chair by the window. Richmond would immediately recognize Russell’s intentions, there was no question of that. He was arrogant but no fool. And then he would destroy her. Just like that. And she would be defenseless. There would be no good exposing him. She couldn’t prove a thing. Her word against his. And she would be relegated to the political toxic waste dump, condemned and then, worst of all, forgotten.

  She had to find him. Somehow get a message to him, that he must work through her. There was only one person who could help her do that. She sat back down at her desk, collected herself and resumed working. This was no time to panic. Right now she needed to be stronger than she had ever been in her life. She could still make it, still control the outcome if she just kept her nerves in check, used the first-rate mind God had bestowed upon her. She could get out of this mess. She knew where she had to start.

  The mechanism that she had chosen to use would strike anyone who knew Gloria Russell as particularly odd. But there was a side to the Chief of Staff that would surprise those few who claimed to know her well. Her professional career had always come foremost to the detriment of every other facet of her life, including the personal, and the sexual relationships that were spawned from that area of one’s life. But Gloria Russell considered herself a very desirable woman; indeed, she possessed a feminine side that was in the sharpest contrast to her official shroud. That the years were going by, and rapidly, only increased the apprehension she had been starting to feel regarding this imbalance in her life. Not that she was necessarily planning anything, especially in light of the potential catastrophe she was confronted with, but she believed she knew the best way to accomplish this mission. And confirm her desirability in the process. She could not escape her feelings, no more than she could her shadow. So why try? Anyway, she also felt that subtlety would be lost on her intended target.

  Several hours later she clicked off her desk lamp and called for her car. Then she checked the Secret Service staffing for the day and picked up her phone. Three minutes later Agent Collin stood before her, his hands clasped in front of him in a pose standard to all the agents. She mo tioned for him to wait a moment. She checked her makeup, performing a perfect oval with her lips as she reapplied her lipstick. Out of the corner of her eye she studied the tall, lean man standing next to her desk. The magazine-cover looks would’ve been difficult for any woman to consciously ignore. That his profession also dictated that he lived on the brink of danger and could, indeed, be dangerous himself, only added favorably to the total package. Like the bad boys in high school girls always seemed to be drawn to, if only to escape, momentarily, the dullness of their own existence. Tim Collin, she surmised with reasonable confidence, must have broken many a female heart in his relatively short life.

  Her calendar was clear tonight, a rarity. She pushed her chair back and slipped into her heels. She didn’t see Agent Collin as his eyes shifted to her legs and then quickly back to stare straight ahead. Had she seen, she would have been pleased, not least of all for the obvious reason.

  “The President will be giving a press conference next week at the Middleton Courthouse, Tim.”

  “Yes, ma’am, nine-thirty-five A.M. We’re working on the preliminaries right now.” His eyes stared straight ahead.

  “Do you find that a little unusual?”

  Collin looked at her. “How so, ma’am?”

  “It’s after working hours, you can call me Gloria.”

  Collin shifted uncomfortably from one foot to a
nother. She smiled at him, at his obvious awkwardness.

  “You understand what the press conference is for, don’t you?”

  “The President will be addressing the”—Collin swallowed perceptibly—“the killing of Mrs. Sullivan.”

  “That’s right. A President conducting a press conference regarding the homicide of a private citizen. Don’t you find that curious? I believe it’s a first in presidential history, Tim.”

  “I wouldn’t know about that, ma—Gloria.”

  “You’ve spent a lot of time with him lately. Have you noticed anything unusual about the President?”

  “Like what?”

  “Like has he appeared overly stressed or worried? More than the usual?”

  Collin slowly shook his head, not knowing where this conversation was intended to go.

  “I think we might have a slight problem, Tim. I think the President might need our help. You’re ready to help him, aren’t you?”

  “He’s the President, ma’am. That’s my job, to take care of him.”

  Rummaging in her bag, she said, “Are you busy tonight, Tim? You’re off at the regular time tonight, aren’t you? I know the President’s staying in.”

  He nodded.

  “You know where I live. Come over as soon as you’re off duty. I’d like to talk to you privately, continue this discussion. Would you mind helping me, and the President?”

  Collin’s answer was immediate. “I’ll be there, Gloria.”

  * * *

  JACK KNOCKED ON THE DOOR AGAIN. NO ANSWER. THE BLINDS were drawn and no light emitted from the house. He was either asleep or not home. He checked the time. Nine o’clock. He remembered Luther Whitney to rarely be in bed before two or three A.M. The old Ford was in the driveway. The tiny garage door was shut. Jack looked in the mailbox beside the door. It was overflowing. That didn’t look good. Luther was what now, mid-sixties? Would he find his old friend on the floor, cold hands clutching at his chest? Jack looked around and then lifted up a corner on a terra-cotta planter next to the front door. The spare key was still there. He looked around once more, then put the key in the door and went in.

  The living room was neat and spare. Everything was stacked where it should be.

  “Luther?” He moved through the hallway, his memory steering him through the simple configurations of the house. Bedroom on the left, toilet on the right, kitchen at the rear of the house, small screened porch off that, garden in the back. Luther was in none of these rooms. Jack entered the small bedroom, which, like the rest of the house, was neat and orderly.

  On the nightstand a number of picture frames containing various photos of Kate looked at him as he sat on the side of the bed. He