Absolute Power



  contact, leaving his room only to wander to isolated areas of the white beach or the mountainous Atlantic Ocean side of the island. The rest of the time was spent in his room, lights set low, TV on, room service trays littering the carpet and wicker furnishings.

  On the first day there Luther had grabbed a cab from in front of the hotel and taken a ride north, almost to the edge of the ocean, where atop one of the island’s numerous hills stood the Sullivan estate. Luther’s selection of Barbados had not been arbitrary.

  “You know Mr. Sullivan? He’s not here. Went back to America.” The cabbie’s lyrical tones had brought Luther out of his trance. The massive iron gates at the bottom of the grassy hill hid a long, winding drive up to the mansion, which, with its salmon-colored stucco walls and eighteen-foot-high white marble columns, looked strangely appropriate in the lush greenery, like an enormous pink rose jutting out from the bushes.

  “I’ve been to his place,” Luther answered. “In the States.”

  The cabbie looked at him with new respect.

  “Is anyone home? Any of the staff maybe?”

  The man shook his head. “All gone. Dis morning.”

  Luther sat back in his seat. The reason was obvious. They had found the mistress of the house.

  Luther spent the next several days on the broad white beaches watching cruise ships unload their population into the duty-free shops that littered the downtown area. Dread-locked residents of the island made their rounds with their battered briefcases housing watches, perfumes and other counterfeit paraphernalia.

  For five American dollars, you could watch an islander cut up an aloe leaf and pour its rich liquid into a small glass bottle for use when the sun started to nip at tender white skin that had lain dormant and unblemished behind suits and blouses. Your own handwoven corn rows cost you forty dollars and took about an hour, and there were many women with flabby arms and thick, crumpled feet who patiently lay in the sand while this operation was performed upon them.

  The island’s beauty should have served to free Luther, to some degree, from his melancholy. And, finally, the warming sun, gentle breezes and low-key approach to life of the island populace had eroded his nervous agitation to where he occasionally smiled at a passerby, spoke monosyllables to the bartender and sipped his mixed drinks far into the night while lying on the beach, the surf pounding into the darkness and gently lifting him away from his nightmare. He planned to move on in a few days. Where to, he wasn’t quite sure.

  And then the channel hopping stopped at the CNN broadcast and Luther, like a battered fish on an unbreakable line, was sent reeling toward what he had spent several thousand dollars and traveled several thousand miles trying to escape.

  * * *

  RUSSELL STUMBLED OUT OF BED AND WALKED OVER TO THE bureau, fumbled for a pack of cigarettes.

  “They’ll cut ten years off your life.” Collin rolled over and watched her naked machinations with amusement.

  “This job’s already done that.” She lit up, inhaled deeply for several seconds, put the smoke out and climbed back in bed, snuggling butt-first to Collin, smiling contentedly as she was wrapped up in his long, muscular arms.

  “The press conference went well, don’t you think?” She could feel him thinking it through. He was fairly transparent. Without the sunglasses they all were, she felt.

  “As long as they don’t find out what really happened.”

  She turned to face him, traced her finger along his neck, making a V against his smooth chest. Richmond’s chest had been hairy, some of the tufts turning gray, curling at the edges. Collin’s was like a baby’s bottom, but she could feel the hard muscle beneath the skin. He could break her neck with no more than a passing motion. She wondered, briefly, how that would feel.

  “You know we have a problem.”

  Collin almost laughed out loud. “Yeah, we’ve got some guy out there with the President’s and a dead woman’s prints and blood on a knife. That qualifies as a big problem I’d say.”

  “Why do you think he hasn’t come forward?”

  Collin shrugged. If he were the guy he would’ve disappeared. Taken the stash and gone. Millions of dollars. As loyal as Collin was, what he could do with that kind of money. He would disappear too. For a while. He looked at her. With that kind of money would she condescend to go with him? Then he turned his thoughts back to the discussion at hand. Maybe the guy was a member of the President’s political party, maybe he had voted for him. In any event why bring yourself that kind of trouble.

  “Probably scared to,” he finally replied.

  “There are ways of doing it anonymously.”

  “Maybe the guy’s not that sophisticated. Or maybe there’s no profit in that. Or maybe he doesn’t give a shit. Take your pick. If he was going to come forward, he probably would have. If he does, we’ll sure know soon enough.”

  She sat up in bed.

  “Tim, I’m really worried about this.” The edge in her voice made him sit up too. “I made the decision to keep that letter opener as is. If the President were to find out . . .” She looked at him. He read the message in her eyes and stroked her hair and then cupped her cheek with his hand.

  “He’s not going to find out from me.”

  She smiled. “I know that, Tim, I really believe that. But if he, this person, were to somehow try to communicate with the President directly.”

  Collin looked puzzled. “Why would he do that?”

  Russell shifted to the side of the bed, let her feet dangle several inches from the floor. For the first time Collin noticed the small reddish oval birthmark, half the size of a penny, at the base of her neck. Next he noticed that she was shivering, even though the room was warm.

  “Why would he do that, Gloria?” Collin edged closer.

  She spoke to the bedroom wall. “Has it occurred to you that that letter opener represents one of the most valuable objects in the world?” She turned to him, rubbed his hair, smiled at the vacant expression that was slowly coming to a conclusion.

  “Blackmail?”

  She nodded at him.

  “How do you blackmail the goddamned President?”

  She got up, threw a loose robe around her shoulders and poured another drink from the almost-empty decanter.

  “Being President doesn’t make you immune from blackmail attempts, Tim. Hell, it just gives you that much more to lose . . . or gain.”

  She slowly stirred her drink, sat down on a couch and tipped her glass back, the liquid warm and soothing going down. She had been drinking much more than usual lately. Not that her performance had been impaired, but she would have to watch it, especially at this level, at this critical point. But she decided she would watch it tomorrow. Tonight, with the weight of political disaster lurking above her shoulders, and a young, handsome man in her bed, she would drink. She felt fifteen years younger. Every passing moment with him made her feel more beautiful. She would not forget her primary goal, but who was to say she couldn’t enjoy herself?

  “What do you want me to do?” Collin looked at her.

  Russell had been waiting for that. Her young, handsome Secret Service agent. A modern white knight like the kind she read about as a wide-eyed girl. She looked at him as the drink dangled from her fingers. She used her other hand to slowly pull off her robe and let it drop to the floor. There was time enough, especially for a thirty-seven-year-old woman who had never had a serious relationship with a man. Time enough for everything. The drink soothed away her fear, her paranoia. And with it her cautiousness. All of which she needed in abundance. But not tonight.

  “There is something you can do for me. But I’ll tell you in the morning.” She smiled, lay back on the couch and put out her hand. Obediently he rose and went to her. A few moments later the only sounds were intermingled groans and the persistent squeaks of the overwrought couch.

  * * *

  A HALF-BLOCK DOWN THE STREET FROM RUSSELL’S HOME, Bill Burton sat in his wife’s nondescript Bonneville and
cradled a can of Diet Coke between his knees. Occasionally he would glance at the house that he had observed his partner entering at 12:14 a.m. and where he’d caught a glimpse of the Chief of Staff in attire that didn’t indicate the visit was a business one. With his long-range lens he had gotten two pictures of that particular scene that Russell would have killed to get her hands on. The lights in the house had moved progressively from room to room until they reached the east side of the place, when all lights were dramatically extinguished.

  Burton looked at the dormant taillights of his partner’s car. The kid had made a mistake. Being here. This was a career ender, maybe for both him and Russell. Burton thought back to that night. Collin racing back to the house. Russell white as a sheet. Why? In all the confusion Burton had forgotten to ask. And then they were smashing through cornfields after someone who shouldn’t have been there but sure as hell had been.

  But Collin had gone back in that house for a reason. And Burton decided it was time he found out what that reason was. He had a dim feeling of a conspiracy slowly evolving. Since he had been excluded from participating, he naturally concluded that he was probably not intended to benefit from that conspiracy. Not for one moment did he believe that Russell was interested solely in what was behind his partner’s zipper. She was not that type, not by a long shot. Everything she did had a purpose, an important purpose. A good fuck from a young buck was not nearly important enough.

  Another two hours passed. Burton looked at his watch and then stiffened as he saw Collin open the front door, move slowly down the walk and get in his car. As he drove by, Burton ducked down in his seat, feeling slightly guilty at this surveillance of a fellow agent. He watched the wink of a turn signal as the Ford made its way out of the high-priced area.

  Burton looked back up at the house. A light came on in what probably was the living room. It was late, but apparently the lady of the house was still going strong. Her stamina was legendary around the White House. Burton briefly wondered if she exhibited that same endurance between the sheets. Two minutes later the street was empty. The light in the house remained on.

  CHAPTER TWELVE

  THE PLANE LANDED AND THUNDERED TO A STOP ON THE SHORT strip of tarmac constituting National Airport’s main runway, hit an immediate left a few hundred yards from the tiny inlet that accessed the Potomac for the swarms of weekend boat enthusiasts, and taxied to gate number nine. An airport security officer was answering questions from a group of anxious, camera-toting tourists and did not observe the man walking rapidly past him. Not that identification was going to be made anyway.

  Luther’s return trip had followed the circuity of his exit. A stopover in Miami, and then Dallas/Fort Worth.

  He grabbed a cab and watched the south-moving rush-hour traffic on the George Washington Parkway as weary commuters threaded their way home. The skies promised more rain, and the wind whipped through the tree-lined parkway meandering lazily on its parallel course with the Potomac. Planes periodically rocketed into the air, banking left and rapidly disappearing into the clouds.

  One more battle beckoned Luther. The image of a righteously indignant President Richmond pounding the lectern in his impassioned speech against violence, his smug Chief of Staff by his side, was the one constant in Luther’s life now. The old, tired and fearful man who had fled the country was no longer tired, no longer fearful. The overriding guilt at allowing a young woman to die had been replaced with an overriding hate, an anger that surged through every nerve in his body. If he was to be, of sorts, Christine Sullivan’s avenging angel, he would perform that task with every ounce of energy and every shred of ingenuity he had left.

  Luther settled back into his seat, munched on some crackers saved from the plane trip, and wondered if Gloria Russell was any good at playing chicken.

  * * *

  SETH FRANK GLANCED OUT THE CAR WINDOW. HIS PERSONAL interviews of Walter Sullivan’s household staff had revealed two things of interest, the first of which was the business enterprise Frank was now parked in front of; the second could keep. Housed in a long, gray concrete building in a heavy commercial area of Springfield just outside the Beltway, Metro Steam Cleaner’s sign proclaimed that it had been in business since 1949. That was stability that meant nothing to Frank. A lot of long-standing legitimate businesses were now money-laundering fronts for organized crime, both Mafia, Chinese and America’s own homegrown versions. And a carpet cleaner that catered to affluent homeowners was in a perfect position to scope alarm systems, cash and jewelry nests and patterns of behavior of the intended victims and their households. Whether he was dealing with a loner or an entire organization Frank didn’t know. It was more likely that he was headed toward a dead end, but then you never knew. There were two patrol cars stationed three minutes away. Just in case. Frank got out of his car.

  “That would have been Rogers, Budizinski and Jerome Pettis. Yep, August 30, nine A.M. Three floors. Damn house was so big, it took all day even with three guys.” George Patterson consulted his record book while Frank’s eyes took in the grimy office.

  “Can I speak to them?”

  “You can to Pettis. The other two are gone.”

  “Permanently?” Patterson nodded. “How long had they been with you?”

  Patterson’s eyes scanned his employment log. “Jerome’s been with me five years. He’s one of my best people. Rogers was about two months. I think he moved out of the area. Budizinski had been with us about four weeks.”

  “Pretty short stays.”

  “Hell, that’s the nature of the business. Spend a thousand bucks training these guys and wham they’re gone. It’s not a career-type job, you know what I mean? It’s hot, dirty work. And the pay ain’t exactly going to put you on the Riviera, you hear what I’m saying?”

  “You got addresses for them?” Frank took out his notebook.

  “Well, like I said, Rogers moved. Pettis is in today, if you want to talk to him. He’s got a job to do out in McLean in about a half hour. He’s back loading his truck now.”

  “Who decides which crew goes to which house?”

  “I do.”

  “All the time?”

  Patterson hesitated. “Well, I got guys who specialize in different stuff.”

  “Who specializes in the high-dollar areas?”

  “Jerome. Like I said, he’s my best guy.”

  “How did the other two get assigned to him?”

  “I don’t know, we juggle stuff like that. Depends on who shows up for work sometimes.”

  “You remember any of those three being particularly interested in visiting the Sullivan place?”

  Patterson shook his head.

  “What about Budizinski? You got an address on him?”

  Patterson consulted a notebook crammed with paper and wrote on a slip of paper. “It’s over in Arlington. Don’t know if he’s still there.”

  “I’ll want their employment file. Social Security numbers, birthdates, job history, all that stuff.”

  “Sally can get that for you. She’s the gal up front.”

  “Thanks. You got photos of these guys?”

  Patterson looked at Frank like he was nuts. “Are you kidding. This ain’t the FBI, for crying out loud.”

  “Can you give me a description?” Frank asked patiently.

  “I’ve got sixty-five employees and a turnover rate of over sixty percent. I usually don’t even see the guy after he’s hired. Everybody starts to look the same after a while anyway. Pettis’ll remember.”

  “Anything else you think might help me?”

  Patterson shook his head. “You think one of them might have killed that woman?”

  Frank stood up and stretched. “I don’t know. What do you think?”

  “Hey, I get all kinds in here. Nothing surprises me anymore.”

  Frank turned to leave, then turned back. “Oh by the way, I’ll want records of all homes and establishments cleaned by your firm in Middleton in the last two years.”

 
Patterson exploded out of his chair. “What the fuck for?”

  “You have the records?”

  “Yeah, I got ’em.”

  “Good, let me know when they’re ready. Have a good one.”

  * * *

  JEROME PETTIS WAS A TALL, CADAVEROUS BLACK MAN IN HIS early forties with a perpetual cigarette hanging from his mouth. Frank watched admiringly as the man methodically loaded the heavy cleaning equipment with a practiced hand. His blue jumpsuit announced that he was a senior technician with Metro. He didn’t look at Frank, kept his eyes on his work. All around them in the huge garage white vans were being similarly loaded. A couple of men stared over at Frank but quickly returned to their work.