Absolute Power



  “Mr. Patterson said you had some questions?”

  Frank parked himself on the van’s front bumper. “A few. You did a job at Walter Sullivan’s home in Middleton on August 30 of this year.”

  Pettis’s brow furrowed. “August? Hell, I do about four homes a day. I don’t remember them cuz they aren’t that memorable.”

  “This one took you all day. Big house out in Middleton. Rogers and Budizinski were with you.”

  Pettis smiled. “That’s right. Biggest goddamned house I’d ever seen and I’ve seen some bad places, man.”

  Frank smiled back. “That’s the same thing I thought when I saw it.”

  Pettis straightened up, relit his cigarette. “Problem was all that furniture. Had to move every damn piece, and some of that shit was heavy, heavy like they don’t make no more.”

  “So you were there all day?” Frank hadn’t meant the question to come out that way.

  Pettis stiffened, sucked on his Camel and leaned against the door of the van. “So how come the cops are interested in how the carpets were cleaned?”

  “Woman was murdered in the house. Apparently she mixed it up with some burglars. Don’t you read the papers?”

  “Just the sports. And you’re wondering if I’m one of them dudes?”

  “Not right now. I’m just collecting information. Everybody who was near that house recently interests me. I’ll probably talk to the mailman next.”

  “You’re funny for a cop. You think I killed her?”

  “I think if you did, you’re smart enough not to stick around here waiting for me to ring your doorbell. These two men who were with you, what can you tell me about them?”

  Pettis finished his smoke and looked at Frank without answering. Frank started to close his notebook.

  “You want a lawyer, Jerome?”

  “Do I need one?”

  “Not as far as I’m concerned, but it’s not my call. I don’t plan on pulling out my Miranda card if that’s what you’re worried about.”

  Pettis finally looked at the concrete floor, crushed out his cigarette, looked back at Frank. “Look, man, I’ve been with Mr. Patterson a long time. Come to work every day, do my job, take my paycheck and go home.”

  “Then it sounds like you have nothing to worry about.”

  “Right. Look, I did some stuff a while back. Did some time. You can pull it off your computers in five seconds. So I’m not gonna sit here and bullshit you, okay?”

  “Okay.”

  “I’ve got four kids and no wife. I didn’t break into that house and I didn’t do anything to that woman.”

  “I believe you, Jerome. I’m a lot more interested in Rogers and Budizinski.”

  Pettis eyed the detective for several seconds. “Let’s take a walk.”

  The two men left the garage and walked over to an ancient Buick as big as a boat that had more rust than metal. Pettis got inside. Frank followed.

  “Big ears in the garage, you know?”

  Frank nodded.

  “Brian Rogers. Called him Slick cuz he was a good worker, picked up things fast.”

  “What’d he look like?”

  “White guy about fifty, maybe older. Not too tall, five eight, maybe a buck fifty. Talkative. Worked hard.”

  “And Budizinski?”

  “Buddy. Everybody here has a nickname. I’m Ton. For skeleton, you know.” Frank smiled at that one. “He was a white guy too, a little bigger. Maybe a little older than Slick. He kept to himself. Did what he was told and nothing more.”

  “Which one did the master bedroom?”

  “We all did. We had to lift the bed and the bureau. They weighed a couple tons each. Back still hurts.” Jerome reached in the rear seat and pulled out a cooler. “No time for breakfast this morning,” he explained as he pulled out a banana and an egg biscuit.

  Frank shifted uncomfortably in the worn seat. A piece of metal jabbed into his back. The car reeked of cigarette smoke.

  “Were either of them ever alone in the master bedroom or the house?”

  “Always somebody in the house. Man had a lot of people working there. They coulda gone upstairs by themselves. I never kept a watch on them. Wasn’t my job, you know?”

  “How’d Rogers and Budizinski come to be working with you that day?”

  Jerome thought for a moment. “I’m not sure, come to think of it. I know it was an early job. It might’ve just been they were the first ones here. Sometimes that’s all it takes.”

  “So if they knew ahead of time you were going to do a place like that early, and they got here before everyone else, they could hook on with you?”

  “Yeah, I guess they could. Man, we just look for bodies, you know what I’m saying? Don’t take no brain surgeon to do this shit.”

  “When was the last time you saw them?”

  The other man scrunched up his face, bit into his banana.

  “Couple of months ago, maybe longer. Buddy left first, never said why. Guys come and go all the time. I’ve been here longer than anybody except Mr. Patterson. Slick moved away, I think.”

  “Know where?”

  “I remember him saying something about Kansas. Some construction work. He used to be a carpenter. Got laid off up here when commercial went belly up. Good with his hands.”

  Frank wrote this information down while Jerome finished his breakfast. They walked back to the garage together. Frank looked inside the van, at all the hoses, power handles, bottles and heavy cleaning equipment.

  “This the van you used to do the Sullivan place?”

  “This been my van for three years. Best one in the place.”

  “You keep the same equipment in the van?”

  “Damn straight.”

  “Then you better get a new van for a while.”

  “What?” Jerome slowly climbed out of the driver’s seat.

  “I’ll talk to Patterson. I’m impounding this one.”

  “You’re shitting me.”

  “No, Jerome, I’m afraid I’m not.”

  * * *

  “WALTER, THIS IS JACK GRAHAM. JACK, WALTER SULLIVAN.” Sandy Lord sat down heavily in his chair. Jack shook hands with Sullivan and then the men sat around the small table in conference room number five. It was eight o’clock in the morning and Jack had been in the office since six after pulling two all-nighters. He had already consumed three cups of coffee and proceeded to pour himself out a fourth from the silver coffee pot.

  “Walter, I’ve told Jack about the Ukraine deal. We’ve gone over the structure. The Hill word looks real good. Richmond pushed all the right buttons. The Bear’s dead. Kiev got the glass slipper. Your boy came through.”

  “He’s one of my best friends. I expect that from my friends. But I thought we had enough lawyers on this deal. Padding the bill, Sandy?” Sullivan heaved himself up and looked out the window at the pristine early-morning sky that promised a beautiful fall day. Jack glanced sideways at the man as he made notes from the crash course on Sullivan’s latest deal. Sullivan didn’t look all that interested in completing the multibillion international monolith. Jack didn’t know that the old man’s thoughts hung back at a morgue in Virginia, remembering a face.

  Jack had caught his breath when Lord had ceremoniously appointed him to play second chair to Lord on the biggest transaction currently going on in the firm, leapfrogging over several top partners and a host of associates senior to Jack. Hard feelings had already started to roll through the plush hallways. At this point Jack didn’t care. They didn’t have Ransome Baldwin as a client. Regardless of how he had gotten it, he had rain, substantial rain. He was tired of feeling guilty for his position. This was Lord’s test case on Jack’s abilities. He had as good as said it. Well, if he wanted the deal rammed through, Jack would deliver. Philosophical, politically correct ivory tower babble didn’t cut it here. Only results.

  “Jack is one of our best attorneys. He’s also Baldwin’s legal eagle.”

  Sullivan looked over at them. “Rans
ome Baldwin?”

  “Yep.”

  Sullivan appraised Jack in a different light and then turned once more to the window.

  “Our window of opportunity, however, is growing more narrow by the day,” Lord continued. “We need to firm up the players and make sure Kiev knows what the hell they’re supposed to do.”

  “Can’t you handle it?”

  Lord looked at Jack and then back at Sullivan. “Of course I can handle it, Walter, but don’t assume you can abdicate right now. You still have a major role to play. You sold this deal. Your continued involvement is absolutely necessary from the point of view of all sides.” Sullivan still did not stir. “Walter, this is the crowning glory of your career.”

  “That’s what you said about the last one.”

  “Can I help it if you keep topping yourself?” Lord shot back.

  Finally, almost imperceptibly, Sullivan smiled, for the first time since the telephone call from the States had come to shatter his life.

  Lord relaxed a bit, looked over at Jack. They had rehearsed this next step several times.

  “I’m recommending that you fly over there with Jack. Shake the right hands, pat the right shoulders, let them see you’re still in control of this tiger. They need that. Capitalism is still a new game for them.”

  “And Jack’s role?”

  Lord motioned to Jack.

  Jack stood up, went over to the window. “Mr. Sullivan, I’ve spent the last forty-eight hours learning every aspect of this deal. All the other lawyers here have just been working on a piece of it. Except for Sandy, I don’t think there’s anyone at the firm who knows what you want to accomplish better than I do.”

  Sullivan slowly turned to Jack. “That’s a pretty big statement.”

  “Well it’s a pretty big deal, sir.”

  “So you know what I want to accomplish?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Well why don’t you enlighten me as to what you think that is.” Sullivan sat down, crossed his arms and stared expectantly up at Jack.

  Jack didn’t bother to swallow or catch his breath. “Ukraine has massive natural resources, all the things that heavy industry around the world use and want. The issue becomes how to get the resources out of Ukraine at minimal cost and minimal risk, considering the political situation over there.”

  Sullivan uncrossed his arms, sat up and sipped at his coffee.

  Jack continued. “The hook is you want Kiev to believe that the exports your company will be making will be matched by investments in Ukraine’s future. A long-term investment, I gather, you do not want to commit to.”

  “I spent the bulk of my adult life being scared to death of the reds. I have about as much belief in perestroika and glasnost as I do in the tooth fairy. I consider it my patriotic duty to strip the communists of as much as I can. Leave them without the means to dominate the world, which is their long-term plan, despite this latest hiccup of democracy.”

  Jack said, “Exactly, sir. ‘Strip’ being the key word. Strip the carcass before it self-destructs . . . or attacks.” Jack paused to check both men’s reactions. Lord stared at the ceiling, his features unreadable.

  Sullivan stirred. “Go on. You’re getting to the interesting part.”

  “The interesting part is how to leverage the deal so that Sullivan and Company has little or no downside exposure and the maximum upside potential. You’ll either broker the deal or you’ll buy direct from Ukraine and you’ll sell to the multinationals. You sprinkle a little of those proceeds around in Ukraine.”

  “That’s right. Eventually the country will be almost cleaned out, and I’ll walk away with at least two billion net.”

  Jack again looked at Lord, who now sat straight in his chair, listening intently. This was the hook. Jack had thought of it only yesterday.

  “But why not take from Ukraine what really makes them dangerous?” Jack paused. “And triple your net at the same time.”

  Sullivan stared intently at him. “How?”

  “IRBMs. Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missiles. Ukraine has a shitload of them. And now that the ’94 Nonproliferation Treaty fell apart, those nukes are a major headache for the West again.”

  “So what are you suggesting? That I buy the goddamn things? What the hell would I do with them?”

  Jack watched Lord finally lean forward, then continued. “You buy them for bottom dollar, maybe a half-billion, using a portion of the proceeds from the raw materials sales. You will buy them using dollars, which can then be used by Ukraine to purchase other necessities in the world markets.”

  “Why bottom-dollar? Every Middle Eastern country will be bidding on them.”

  “But Ukraine can’t sell to them. The G-7 countries would never allow it. If Ukraine did, they’d be cut out of the EU and other Western markets, and if that happens, they’re dead.”

  “So I buy them and sell them to whom?”

  Jack couldn’t help but grin. “To us. The United States. Six billion is a conservative estimate on their worth. Hell, the weapons-grade plutonium those babies contain is priceless. The rest of the G-7s would probably pitch in a few billion. It’s your relationship with Kiev that makes this whole thing work. They look to you as their savior.”

  Sullivan looked stunned. He started to rise and then thought better of it. Even to him the amounts of money potentially out there were staggering. But he had enough money, more than enough. But to remove part of the nuclear equation from the collective miseries of the world . . .

  “And this was whose idea?” Sullivan looked at Lord as he asked the question. Lord pointed at Jack.

  Sullivan leaned back in his chair and looked up at the young man. Then he rose with a swiftness that startled Jack. The billionaire took Jack’s hand in an iron grip. “You’re going places, young man. Mind if I tag along?”

  Lord beamed like a father. Jack couldn’t stop smiling. He had started to forget what it was like to hit one out of the park.

  After Sullivan departed, Jack and Sandy sat at the table.

  Finally Sandy said, “I recognize it was not an easy assignment. How do you feel?”

  Jack couldn’t help but grin. “Like I just slept with the prettiest girl in high school, kind of tingling all over.”

  Lord laughed and stood up. “You’d better go home and get some rest. Sullivan’s probably calling his pilot from the car. At least we got his mind off the bitch.”

  Jack didn’t hear the last part as he quickly left the room. For now, for once in a long time, he felt good. No worries, just possibilities. Endless possibilities.

  That night he sat up late telling a very enthusiastic Jennifer Baldwin all about it. Afterward, over a very chilled bottle of champagne and a platter of oysters specially delivered to her townhouse, the couple had the most gratifying sex of their courtship. For once, the high ceilings and murals did not bother Jack. In fact, he was growing to like them.

  CHAPTER THIRTEEN

  THE WHITE HOUSE RECEIVES MILLIONS OF PIECES OF nonofficial mail each year. Each item is carefully screened and appropriately processed, the whole task handled by an in-house staff with assistance and supervision by the Secret Service.

  The two envelopes were addressed to Gloria Russell, which was somewhat unusual since most of this type of correspondence was addressed to the President or members of the First Family, or frequently the First Pet, which currently happened to be a golden retriever named Barney.

  The handwriting on each was in block letters, the envelopes white and cheap and thus widely available. Russell got to them about twelve o’clock on a day that had been going pretty well up until then. Inside one was a single sheet of paper and inside the