Absolute Power



  “Yeah, why?”

  “You mind getting it?”

  Puzzled, Simon did so. She returned to the foyer and plugged it in.

  “Shine it right on the number keys.”

  What was revealed under the fluorescent light made Frank smile again.

  “Goddamn that’s good.”

  “What does it mean?” Simon looked at him, her brow furrowed.

  “It means two things. First, we definitely got us somebody on the inside and, second, our perps are real creative.”

  * * *

  FRANK SAT IN THE SMALL INTERROGATION ROOM AND DECIDED against another cigarette and opted instead for a cherry Tums. He looked at the cinder block walls, cheap metal table and beat-up chairs and decided this was a very depressing place to be interrogated in. Which was good. Depressed people were vulnerable people, and vulnerable people, given the appropriate prodding, tended to want to talk. And Frank wanted to listen. He would listen all day.

  The case was still extremely muddled, but certain elements were becoming clearer.

  Buddy Budizinski still lived in Arlington and now worked at a car wash in Falls Church. He had admitted being in the Sullivan house, had read about the murder, but beyond that knew nothing. Frank tended to believe him. The man was not particularly bright, had no previous police record and had spent his adult life performing menial tasks for a living, no doubt compelled by his having finished only the fifth grade. His apartment was modest to the point of near poverty. Budizinski was a dead end.

  Rogers, on the other hand, had produced a treasure trove. The Social Security number he had given on his employment application was real enough, only it belonged to a female State Department employee who had been assigned to Thailand for the last two years. He must have known the carpet cleaning company wouldn’t have checked. What did they care? The address on the application was a motel in Beltsville, Maryland. No one by that name had registered at the motel in the last year and no one fitting Rogers’s description had been seen there. The state of Kansas had no record of him. On top of that he had never cashed any of the payroll checks given to him by Metro. That in itself spoke volumes.

  An artist’s sketch based on Pettis’s recollection was being made up down the hallway and would be distributed throughout the area.

  Rogers was the guy, Frank could feel it. He had been in the house, and he had disappeared leaving behind a trail of false information. Simon was right this minute painstakingly examining Pettis’s van in the hopes that Rogers’s prints were still lurking somewhere within. They had no prints to match at the crime scene, but if they could ident Rogers, then dollars to donuts he had priors, and Frank’s case would finally be forming. It would take a great leap forward if the person he was waiting for would decide to cooperate.

  And Walter Sullivan had confirmed that an antique letter opener from his bedroom was indeed missing. Frank feverishly hoped to be able to lay his hands on that potential evidentiary gold mine. Frank had imparted his theory to Sullivan about his wife stabbing her attacker with that instrument. The old man hadn’t seemed to register the information. Frank had briefly wondered if Sullivan was losing it.

  The detective checked his list of employees at Sullivan’s residence once more, although by now he knew them all by heart. There was only one he was really interested in.

  The security company rep’s statement kept coming back to him. The variations generated by fifteen digits to get a five-digit code in the correct sequence was impossible for a portable computer to crunch in the very brief time allowed, particularly if you factored in a less than blazing fast response from the security system’s computer. In order to do it, you had to eliminate some of the possibles. How did you do that?

  An examination of the keypad showed that a chemical— Frank couldn’t remember the exact name although Simon had recognized it—which was revealed only under fluorescent light, had been applied to each of the number keys.

  Frank leaned back and envisioned Walter Sullivan—or the butler, or whoever’s job it was to set the alarm—going down and entering the code. The finger would hit the proper keys, five of them, and the alarm would be set. The person would walk away, completely unaware that he or she now had a small tracing of chemical, invisible to the naked eye, and odorless, on their finger. And, more important, they would be totally ignorant of the fact that they had just revealed the numbers comprising the security code. Under fluorescent light, the perps would be able to tell which numbers had been entered because the chemical would be smeared on those keys. With that information, it was up to the computer to deliver the correct sequence, which the security rep was certain it could do in the allotted time, once given the elimination of 99.9 percent of the possible combos.

  Now the question remained: who had applied the chemical? Frank at first had considered that Rogers, or whatever his real name was, might have done it while at the house, but the facts against that conclusion were overwhelming. First, the house was always filled with people and to even the most unobservant a stranger lurking around an alarm panel would arouse suspicion. Second, the entry foyer was large and open and the most unsecluded spot in the house, lastly, the application would take some time and care. And Rogers didn’t have that luxury. Even the slightest suspicion, the most fleeting glance and his whole plan could be mined. The person who had thought this one up was not the type to take that sort of risk. Rogers hadn’t done it. Frank was pretty sure he knew who did.

  * * *

  UPON FIRST GLANCE, THE WOMAN APPEARED SO THIN AS TO convey the impression of emaciation perhaps due to cancer. On second glance, the good color in the cheeks, the light bone structure and the graceful way she moved led to the conclusion that she was very lean but otherwise healthy.

  “Please sit down, Ms. Broome. I appreciate your coming down.”

  The woman nodded and slid into one of the seats. She wore a flowery skirt that ended midcalf. A single strand of large fake pearls encircled her neck. Her hair was tied in a neat bun; some of the strands at the top of her forehead were beginning to turn a silvery gray, like ink leaching onto paper. Going on the smooth skin and absence of wrinkles, Frank would have put her age at about thirty-nine. Actually she was some years older.

  “I thought you were already done with me, Mr. Frank.”

  “Please call me Seth. You smoke?”

  She shook her head.

  “I’ve just got a few follow-up questions, routine. You’re not the only one. I understand you’re leaving Mr. Sullivan’s employment?”

  She noticeably swallowed, looked down and then back up. “I was close, so to speak, to Mrs. Sullivan. It’s hard now, you know . . .” Her voice trailed off.

  “I know it is, I know it is. It was terrible, awful.” Frank paused for a moment. “You’ve been with the Sullivans how long now?”

  “A little over a year.”

  “You do the cleaning and . . . ?”

  “I help do the cleaning. There’s four of us, Sally, Rebecca and me. Karen Taylor, she does the cooking. I also looked after Mrs. Sullivan’s things for her too. Her clothes and what-not. I was sort of her assistant, I guess you could say. Mr. Sullivan had his own person, Richard.”

  “Would you like some coffee?”

  Frank didn’t wait for her to answer. He got up and opened the door to the interrogation room.

  “Hey Molly, can you being me a couple of javas?” He turned to Ms. Broome. “Black? Cream?”

  “Black.”

  “Make it two pures, Molly, thanks.”

  He shut the door and sat back down.

  “Damn chill in the air, I can’t seem to stay warm.” He tapped the rough wall. “This cinder block doesn’t help much. So you were saying about Mrs. Sullivan?”

  “She was really nice to me. I mean she would talk to me about things. She wasn’t—she wasn’t, you know, from that class of people, the upper class I guess you could say. She went to high school where I did right here in Middleton.”

  “And not too f
ar apart in years I’m thinking.”

  His remark brought a smile to Wanda Broome’s lips and a hand unconsciously moved to cajole back into place an invisible strand of hair.

  “Further than I’d like to admit.”

  The door opened and their coffee was delivered. It was gratefully hot and fresh. Frank had not been lying about the chill.

  “I won’t say she fit in real well with all those types of people, but she seemed to hold her own. She didn’t take anything from anybody if you know what I mean.”

  Frank had reason to believe that was true. From all accounts the late Mrs. Sullivan had been a hellion in many respects.

  “Would you say the relationship between the Sullivans was . . . good, bad, in between?”

  She didn’t hesitate. “Very good. Oh I know what people say about the age difference and all, but she was good for him, and he was good for her. I truly believe that. He loved her, I can tell you that. Maybe more like a father loves his daughter, but it was still love.”

  “And she him?”

  Now there was perceptible hesitation. “You’ve got to understand that Christy Sullivan was a very young woman, maybe younger in a lot of ways than other women her age. Mr. Sullivan opened up a whole new world for her and—” She broke off, clearly unsure of how to continue.

  Frank changed gears. “What about the vault in the bedroom? Who knew about it?”

  “I don’t know. I certainly didn’t. I assume that Mr. and Mrs. Sullivan knew. Mr. Sullivan’s valet, Richard, he may have known. But I’m not sure about that.”

  “So Christine Sullivan or her husband never indicated to you that there was a safe behind the mirror?”

  “My goodness no. I was her friend of sorts, but I was still just an employee. And only with them a year. Mr. Sullivan never really spoke to me. I mean that’s not the sort of thing you would tell someone like me, is it?”

  “No, I guess not.” Frank was certain she was lying, but he had been unable to unearth any evidence to the contrary. Christine Sullivan was the very type to show off her wealth to someone she could identify with, if only to show how far she had suddenly risen in the world.

  “So you didn’t know the mirror was a one-way looking into the bedroom?”

  This time the woman showed visible surprise. Frank noticed a blush under the light application of makeup.

  “Wanda, can I call you Wanda? Wanda, you understand, don’t you, that the alarm system in the house was deactivated by the person who broke in? It was deactivated by the appropriate code being put in. Now, who set the alarm at night?”

  “Richard did,” she replied promptly. “Or sometimes Mr. Sullivan did it himself.”

  “So everyone in the house knew the code?”

  “Oh no, of course not. Richard did. He’s been with Mr. Sullivan for almost forty years. He was the only one other than the Sullivans who knew the code that I know of.”

  “Did you ever see him set the alarm?”

  “I was usually already in bed when the system was set.”

  Frank stared at her. I’ll bet you were, Wanda, I’ll bet you were.

  Wanda Broome’s eyes widened. “You’re, you’re not suspecting that Richard had anything to do with it?”

  “Well, Wanda, somehow, somebody who wasn’t supposed to be able to, disarmed that alarm system. And naturally suspicion falls on anyone who had access to that code.”

  Wanda Broome looked like she might start to cry, then composed herself. “Richard is almost seventy years old.”

  “Then he’s probably in need of a nice little nest egg. You understand what I’m telling you is to be held in the strictest confidence of course?”

  She nodded and at the same time wiped her nose. The coffee, untouched, was now sipped in quick little bursts.

  Frank continued. “And until someone can explain to me how that security system was accessed, then I’m going to have to explore the avenues that make the most sense to me.”

  He continued to look at her. He had spent the past day finding out everything he could about Wanda Broome. It was a fairly average story except for one twist. She was forty-four years old, twice divorced with two grown children. She lived in the servants’ wing with the rest of the in-house staff. About four miles away her mother, aged eighty-one, lived in a modest, somewhat run-down home, existing comfortably on Social Security and her husband’s railroad pension. Broome had been employed by the Sullivans, as she said, for about a year, which was what initially had drawn Frank’s attention: she was by far the newest member of the house’s staff. That in itself didn’t mean much, but by all accounts Sullivan treated his help very well, and there was something to be said for the loyalty of long-standing, well-paid employees. Wanda Broome looked like she could be very loyal too. The question was to whom?

  The twist was that Wanda Broome had spent some time in prison, more than twenty years ago, for embezzlement when she had worked as a bookkeeper for a doctor in Pittsburgh. The other servants were squeaky-clean. So she was capable of breaking the law, and she had spent time on the inside. Her name back then had been Wanda Jackson. She had divorced Jackson when she got out, or rather he had dropped her. There was no record of arrest since then. With the name change and the conviction far in the past, if the Sullivans had done a background check, they might not have turned up anything, or maybe they didn’t care. From all sources Wanda Broome had been an honest, hardworking citizen these last twenty years. Frank wondered what had changed that.

  “Is there anything you can remember or think of that might help me, Wanda?” Frank tried to look as innocent as possible, opening his notebook and pretending to jot down some notes. If she were the inside person, the one thing he didn’t want was Wanda running back to Rogers, which would result in his going even further underground. On the other hand, if he could get her to crumble, then she just might jump sides.

  He envisioned her dusting the entrance hall. It would have been so easy, so easy to apply that chemical to the cloth, then casually brush it against the security panel. It would all look so natural, no one, even staring directly at her while she did it, would have given it a thought. Just a conscientious servant doing her job. Then sneaking down when everyone was asleep, a quick sweep of the light and her part was done.

  Technically, she would probably be an accomplice to murder, since homicide was a reasonably likely result when you burglarized someone’s home. But Frank was far less interested in sending Wanda Broome away for a large portion of the rest of her life than he was in bagging the trigger man. The woman sitting across from him had not concocted this plan, he believed. She had played a role, a small, albeit important role. Frank wanted the master of ceremonies. He would get the Commonwealth’s Attorney to cut a deal with Wanda to accomplish that goal.

  “Wanda?” Frank leaned across the table and earnestly took one of her hands. “Can you think of anything else? Anything that will help me catch the person who murdered your friend?”

  Frank finally received a small shake of the head in return and he leaned back. He hadn’t expected much on this go-round, but he had made his point. The wall was beginning to crumble. She wouldn’t warn the guy, Frank was certain of that. He was getting to Wanda Broome, little by little.

  As he would discover, he had already gone too far.

  CHAPTER FOURTEEN

  JACK THREW HIS CARRY-ON INTO THE CORNER, TOSSED HIS overcoat on the sofa and fought the impulse to pass out right there on the carpet. Ukraine and back in five days had been a killer. The seven-hour time difference had been bad enough, but for someone closing in on octogenarian status, Walter Sullivan had been indefatigable.

  They had been whisked through the security checkpoints with the alacrity and respect Sullivan’s wealth and reputation commanded. From that point forward a series of endless meetings had commenced. They toured manufacturing facilities, mining operations, office buildings, hospitals and then had been taken to dinner and gotten drunk with the Mayor of Kiev. The President of Ukraine had re
ceived them on the second day, and Sullivan had him eating out of his hand within the hour. Capitalism and entrepreneurship were respected above all else in the liberated republic and Sullivan was a capitalist with a capital C. Everyone wanted to talk to him, shake his hand, as if some of his moneymaking magic would rub off on them, producing untold wealth in a very short time.

  The result had been more than they could have hoped for as the Ukrainians fell in line on the business deal with glowing praise for its vision. The pitch for dollars for nukes would come later at the appropriate time. Such an asset. An unnecessary asset that could be turned into liquidity.

  Sullivan’s retrofitted 747 had flown nonstop from Kiev to BWI and his limo had just dropped Jack off. He made his way into the kitchen. The only thing in the fridge was soured milk. The Ukrainian food had been good but was heavy, and after the first couple of days he only picked at his meals. And there had been way too much booze. Apparently business could not be conducted without it.

  He rubbed his head, tussling with sleep deprivation of massive proportion. In fact he was too tired to sleep. But he was hungry. He checked his watch. His internal clock said it was almost eight A.M. His watch proclaimed that it was well after midnight. While D.C. was not the Big Apple in its ability to cater to any appetite