Absolute Power



  turned quickly away and left the room.

  The tiny rooms upstairs were mostly bare. He listened intently for a moment. Nothing.

  He sat down in the small wire and plastic kitchen chair, looked around. He didn’t turn on a light, but sat in the darkness. He leaned across and popped open the refrigerator. He grinned. Two six-packs of Bud looked back at him. You could always count on Luther for a cold brew. He took one and opened the back door to step outside.

  The small garden looked beaten down. The hostas and ferns drooped even in the shade of a thick oak and the nelly moser clematis clinging to the board-on-board fence was painfully withered. Jack looked at Luther’s prized annuals flowerbed and noted more victims than survivors of the Washington late-summer heat furnace.

  He sat down, put the beer to his lips. Luther had clearly not been here for a while. So? He was an adult. He could go where he wanted, when he wanted. But something just felt wrong. But it had been several years. Habits change. He reflected a moment more. But Luther’s habits would not have changed. The man was not like that. He was rock-solid, as dependable a person as Jack had ever met in his life. Stacked-up mail, dead flowers, car not in the garage, that was not how he would have voluntarily left things. Volun tarily.

  Jack went back inside. The answering machine tape was blank. He went back into the small bedroom, the musty air hitting him again as he opened the door. He scanned the room once more, then started to feel a little silly. He wasn’t a goddamned detective. Then he laughed to himself. Luther was probably living it up on some island for a couple of weeks, and here he was playing the nervous parent. Luther was one of the most capable men Jack had ever met. Besides, it was no business of his anymore. The Whitney family were not his concern, father or daughter. In fact why was he even here? Trying to relive old times? Trying to get to Kate through her old man? That was the most unlikely scenario one could imagine.

  Jack locked the door on the way out, replaced the key under the planter. He glanced back at the house and then walked to his car.

  * * *

  GLORIA RUSSELL’S HOME OCCUPIED A CUL-DE-SAC IN A QUIET upper-brackets Bethesda suburb off River Road. Her consulting work on behalf of many of the country’s largest corporations coupled with her sizable professorship, and now Chief of Staff salary and many years of careful investing, had left her with a deep purse, and she liked to be surrounded by beautiful things. The entrance was framed by an aged arbor interlaced with strong, thick ivy. The entire front yard was enclosed by a waist-high brick and mortar serpentine wall and set up as a private garden complete with tables and umbrellas. A small fountain bubbled and hissed in a darkness broken only by the shallow light thrown from the big bay window in the front of the house.

  Gloria Russell was sitting at one of the garden tables when Agent Collin pulled up in his convertible, back ramrod straight, suit still crisp, tie knotted rigidly. The Chief of Staff had not changed either. She smiled at him and they walked up the front walk together and into the house.

  “Drink? You look like a bourbon-and-water person.” Russell looked at the young man and slowly drained her third glass of white wine. It had been a long time since she had a young man over. Maybe too long, she was thinking, although the alcohol guaranteed that she wasn’t thinking that clearly.

  “Beer, if you have it.”

  “Coming up.” She stopped to kick off her heels and padded into the kitchen. Collin looked around the expanse of the living room with its billowy professionally done curtains, textured wallpaper and tasteful antiques and wondered what he was doing here. He hoped she hurried with the beer. A star athlete, he had been seduced by women before, from high school on up. But this was not high school and Gloria Russell was no cheerleader. He decided he would not be able to endure the night without a heavy buzz. He had wanted to tell Burton about it, but something had made him keep quiet. Burton had been acting aloof and moody. What they had done was not wrong. He knew the circumstances were awkward, and an action that would ordinarily have brought them praise from the entire country had to be kept secret. He had regretted killing the woman, but there were no other options. Death happened, tragedies occurred all the time. It was her time. Christine Sullivan’s number had just come up.

  A few moments later he was sipping his beer and checking out the Chief of Staff’s derriere as she fluffed up a pillow on the broad couch before sitting down. She smiled at him, delicately sipped her wine.

  “How long have you been in the Service, Tim?”

  “Almost six years.”

  “You’ve risen quickly. The President thinks quite a lot of you. He’s never forgotten that you saved his life.”

  “I appreciate that. I really do.”

  She took another sip of wine and ran her eyes over him. He sat erect; his obvious nervousness amused her. She finished her examination and came away very impressed. Her attention had not been lost on the young agent, who was now hiding his discomfort by examining the numerous paintings that adorned the walls.

  “Nice stuff.” He pointed at the artwork.

  She smiled at him, watched him hurriedly gulp his beer. Nice stuff. She had been thinking the same thing.

  “Let’s go sit where it’s more comfortable, Tim.” Russell stood up and looked down at him. He was led from the living room through a long, narrow hallway and then through double doors into a large sitting room. The lights came on by themselves, and Collin noted that through another set of double doors the Chief of Staff’s bed was clearly visible.

  “Would you mind if I take a minute to change? I’ve been in this suit long enough.”

  Collin watched as she went into her bedroom. She did not close the doors all the way. A sliver of the room was visible from where he was sitting. He turned his head away, tried to focus all his attention on the scrolls and designs of an antique fireplace screen that would be seeing activity soon. He finished his beer and instantly wanted another one. He lay back in the thick cushions. He tried not to but he could hear every sound she made. Finally, he couldn’t resist it. He turned his head and looked straight through the open doorway. With a pinch of regret he saw nothing. At first. Then she moved across the opening.

  It was only a moment, as she lingered by the end of the bed, to pick up some article of clothing. Chief of Staff Gloria Russell parading naked in front of him sent a jolt through Collin, although he had been expecting it, or something close to it.

  The night’s agenda confirmed, Collin turned his head away, more slowly than he probably should have. He licked the top of the beer can, absorbing the last few drops of the amber liquid. He felt the butt of his new weapon dig against his chest. Normally the mass of metal felt comforting against his skin. Now it just hurt.

  He wondered about fraternization rules. Members of the First Family had been known to become quite attached to their Secret Service agents. Over the years there had always been talk of fooling around, but the official policy was clear on that point. Were Collin discovered in this room with a naked Chief of Staff in her bedroom, his career would be short-lived.

  He thought rapidly. He could leave right now, report in to Burton. But how would that look? Russell would deny it all. Collin would look like a fool, and his career would probably be over anyway. She had brought him here for a reason. She said the President needed his help. He wondered now who he would really be helping. And for the first time Agent Collin felt trapped. Trapped. Where his athleticism, his quick wits and his 9mm were useless to him. Intellectually he was no match for the woman. In the official power structure he was so far below her, it was like he stared up from an abyss with a telescope and still couldn’t glimpse the bottom of her high heels. It promised to be a long night.

  * * *

  WALTER SULLIVAN PACED WHILE SANDY LORD WATCHED. A bottle of scotch occupied a prominent position on the corner of Lord’s desk. Outside, the darkness was marred by the dull glow of street lamps. The heat had returned for a short spell and Lord had ordered the air conditioning to remain on at
Patton, Shaw for his very special visitor tonight. That visitor stopped his pacing and stared down the street where a half-dozen blocks away sat the familiar white building, home to Alan Richmond, and one of the keys to Sullivan and Lord’s grand scheme. Sullivan, however, was not thinking about business tonight. Lord was. But he was far too cunning to show it. Tonight he was here for his friend. To listen to the grief, the outpouring, to let Sullivan mourn his little hooker. The quicker that was done, the sooner they could get down to what really mattered: the next deal.

  “It was a beautiful service, people will remember it for a long time.” Lord chose his words carefully. Walter Sullivan was an old friend, but it was a friendship built on an attorney-client relationship and thus its underpinning could expe rience some unexpected shifting. Sullivan was also the only person in Lord’s acquaintance who made him nervous, where Lord knew he was never in complete control, that the man he was dealing with was at least his equal and probably more.

  “Yes it was.” Sullivan continued to look down the street. He believed that he had finally convinced the police that the one-way mirror was not connected to the crime. Whether they were completely convinced was another matter. In any event it had been quite an embarrassing moment for a man not accustomed to such. The detective, Sullivan couldn’t remember his name, had not given Sullivan the respect he deserved and that had angered the older man. If anything, he had earned the respect of everyone. It did not help matters that Sullivan did not feel the least bit confident in the local police’s abilities to find the persons responsible.

  He shook his head as his thoughts returned to the mirror. At least it had not been disclosed to the press. That was attention Sullivan could not tolerate. The mirror had been Christine’s idea. But he had to admit he had gone along with it. Now as he looked back, it seemed ludicrous. At first it had fascinated him, watching his wife with other men. He was beyond the age where he could satisfy her himself, but he could not reasonably deny her the physical pleasures that were beyond him. But it had all been absurd, including the marriage. He saw that now. Trying to recapture his youth. He should have known that nature bowed to no one, regardless of their monetary worth. He was embarrassed and he was angry. He finally turned to Lord.

  “I’m not certain that I have confidence in the detective in charge. How can we get the federals involved?”

  Lord put his glass down, lifted a cigar from a box hidden within the recesses of his desk and slowly unwrapped it.

  “Homicide of a private citizen isn’t grounds for a federal investigation.”

  “Richmond is getting involved.”

  “Fluff, if you ask me.”

  Sullivan shook his massive head. “No. He seemed genuinely concerned.”

  “Maybe. Don’t count on that concern lingering for too long. He has a thousand cans of worms to handle.”

  “I want the people responsible for this caught, Sandy.”

  “I understand that, Walter. Of all people, I understand that. They will be. You have to be patient. These guys weren’t nickel-and-dimers. They knew what they were doing. But everybody makes mistakes. They’ll go to trial, mark my words.”

  “And then what? Life imprisonment, correct?” Sullivan said contemptibly.

  “It’s probably not going to be a capital murder case, so life is what they’ll end up getting. But no chance of parole, Walter, believe me. They’ll never breathe another drop of free air. And getting a little prick in the arm might seem real desirable after a few years of getting bent over every night.”

  Sullivan sat down and stared at his friend. Walter Sullivan wanted no part of any trial. Where all the details of the crime would be revealed. He winced at the thought of all of it being rehashed. Strangers knowing intimate details of his life and that of his deceased wife. He could not bear that. He just wanted the men caught. He would arrange the rest. Lord had said the Commonwealth of Virginia would imprison for life the persons responsible. Walter Sullivan decided right then and there that he would save the commonwealth the cost of that lengthy incarceration.

  * * *

  RUSSELL CURLED UP ON THE END OF THE COUCH, BARE FEET tucked under a loose-fitting cotton pullover that stopped slightly above her calves. Her ample cleavage peeked at him where the fabric suddenly dipped. Collin had fetched himself two more beers and poured her another glass of wine from the bottle he had brought with him. His head was now slightly warm, as though a small fire were burning inside. The necktie was now loosened, the jacket and gun lay on the opposite couch. She had fingered it as he had taken it off.

  “It’s so heavy.”

  “You get used to it.” She did not ask the question he was usually confronted with. She knew he had killed someone.

  “Would you really take a bullet for the President?” She looked at him through drooping eyelids. She had to remain focused, she kept telling herself. That had not stopped her from leading the young man to the very threshold of her bed. She felt a large measure of her control slipping away. With a masterful effort she started to regain it. What the hell was she doing? At a crisis point in her life and she was acting like a prostitute. She needn’t approach the issue in this way. She knew that. The tugging she was feeling from another sector of her being was disrupting her decision-making processes. She could not allow that, not now.

  She should go change again, retreat back to the living room, or perhaps to her study where the dark oak paneling and walls of books would quash the unsettling rumblings.

  He eyed her steadily. “Yes.”

  She was about to get up but never made it.

  “I’d take one for you too, Gloria.”

  “For me?” Her voice quavered. She looked at him again, her strategic plans forgotten, her eyes wide.

  “Without thinking. Lot of Secret Service agents. Only one Chief of Staff. That’s the way it works.” He looked down and said quietly, “It’s not a game, Gloria.”

  When he went again for more beer he noticed that she had moved close enough that her knee touched his thigh when he sat down. She stretched her legs out, rubbing against his, and then she rested them on the table across from them. The pullover had somehow worked itself up, revealing thighs that were full and creamy white; they were the legs of an older woman, and a damned attractive one. Collin’s eyes moved slowly across the display of skin.

  “You know I’ve always admired you. I mean all of the agents.” She almost seemed embarrassed. “I know sometimes you get taken for granted. I want you to know that I appreciate you.”

  “It’s a great job. Wouldn’t trade it for anything.” He chugged another beer, and felt better. His breathing relaxed.

  She smiled at him. “I’m glad you came tonight.”

  “Anything to help, Gloria.” His confidence level was going up as his alcohol intake increased. He finished the beer and she pointed with an unsteady finger to a stand of liquor over by the door. He mixed drinks for them, sat back down.

  “I feel I can trust you, Tim.”

  “You can.”

  “I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t feel that way with Burton.”

  “Bill’s a top agent. The best.”

  She touched his arm, left it there.

  “I didn’t mean it that way. I know he’s good. I just don’t know about him sometimes. It’s hard to explain. It’s just an instinct on my part.”

  “You should trust your instincts. I do.” He looked at her. She looked younger, much younger, like she should be graduating college, ready to take on the world.

  “My instincts tell me that you’re someone I can depend on, Tim.”

  “I am.” He drained his drink.

  “Always?”

  He stared at her, touched his empty glass to hers. “Always.”

  His eyes were heavy now. He thought back to high school. After scoring the winning touchdown in the state championship. Cindy Purket had looked at him just like that. An all-giving look on her face.

  He laid his hand on her thigh, ru
bbed it up and down. The flesh was just loose enough to be intensely womanly. She didn’t resist but instead inched closer. Then his hand disappeared under the pullover, tracing over her still firm belly, just nicking the undersides of her breasts, and then returning into view. The other arm encircled her waist, drawing her closer to him; his hand dropped down to her bottom and gripped hard. She sucked in air and then let it out slowly, as she leaned into his shoulder. He felt her chest push into his arm, up and down. The floating mass was soft, and warm. She dropped her hand to his hardening crotch and squeezed, then lingered her mouth over his, slowly pulling back and looking at him, her eyelids moving up and down in slow rhythms.

  She put her drink down, and slowly, almost teasingly, slid out of the pullover. He exploded against her, hands digging under the bra strap until he felt it give way and she poured out to him, his head buried in the loose mounds. Next, the last remaining piece of clothing, a pair of black lace panties, was ripped from her body; she smiled as it was sent sailing against the wall. Then she caught her breath as he lifted her effortlessly and carried her into the bedroom.

  CHAPTER ELEVEN

  THE JAGUAR DROVE SLOWLY UP THE LONG DRIVE, STOPPED, and two people got out.

  Jack turned up the collar on his coat. The evening was brisk as rain-heavy clouds marched into the area.

  Jennifer walked around the car and settled in next to him as they leaned against the luxury car.

  Jack looked up at the place. Thick sheets of ivy swept across the top of the entrance. The house had a heavy substance to it, real and committed. Its occupants probably would absorb a good measure of that. He could use that in his life right now. He had to