Absolute Power



  Samuel had emerged from the inner sanctum.

  “What the hell’s going on?”

  “Samuel, keep an eye on her, please.”

  Samuel nodded and Jack hit the door running.

  Outside there were more men with guns than Jack had ever seen outside of a Hollywood war flick. He ran to the side of the courthouse and was about to have his head cracked open by a two-hundred-and-fifty-pound baton-wielding trooper when Frank’s voice boomed out.

  Jack warily approached. Each of his steps in the tight-packed snow seemed to take a month. All eyes seemed to be on him. The crumpled figure under the coat. The blood soaking the once pristine snowfall. The anguished and at the same time disgusted look on Detective Seth Frank’s features. He would remember each of these things for many sleepless nights, perhaps for the rest of his life.

  When he finally crouched down beside his friend, he started to draw back the jacket but then stopped. He turned around and looked back from where he had just come. The sea of reporters had parted. Even the wall of cops had hinged back just enough to let her through.

  Kate stood there for a long minute, no coat on, shivering in the wind that swept down through the funnel-like space between the buildings. She looked straight ahead, her eyes so focused they seemed to register on nothing and everything simultaneously. Jack started to rise, to go to her, but his legs did not have the strength. Just a few minutes ago, juiced and prepared to do battle, mad as hell at his uncooperative client, now every scintilla of energy had been stripped from his being.

  With Frank’s help he rose on unsteady legs and went to her. For once in their lives, nosy reporters did not attempt to ask questions. Photographers seemingly forgot to take their requisite shots. As Kate knelt beside her father and gently laid her hand on his still shoulder, the only sounds were the wind and the distant whine of the approaching ambulance. For a couple of minutes the world had stopped right outside the Middleton County Courthouse.

  * * *

  AS THE LIMO WHISKED HIM BACK TO TOWN, ALAN RICHMOND smoothed down his tie and poured a club soda. His thoughts ventured to the headlines that would drown the upcoming papers. The major news shows would be salivating for him, and he would milk it. He would continue on his normal schedule for the day. The rock-solid President. Shots fired around him and he doesn’t flinch, goes on about the business of running the country, of leading the people. He could envision the polls. A good ten points at least. And it had all been too easy. When was he ever going to feel a real challenge?

  Bill Burton looked over at the man as the limo neared the D.C. line. Luther Whitney had just caught the business end of the most deadly piece of ammo Collin could find to chamber his rifle with, and this guy was calmly sipping soda water. Burton felt sick to his stomach. And it still wasn’t over. He could never in his wildest dreams put any of this behind him, but perhaps he could live the rest of his life as a free man. A man whose children respected him, even if he no longer respected himself.

  As he continued to look at the President it occurred to Burton that the sonofabitch was proud of himself. He had seen such calmness before amidst extreme and calculated violence. No remorse because a human being’s existence had just been sacrificed. Instead, a rush of euphoria. Of triumph. Burton thought back to the marks on Christine Sullivan’s neck. To the busted jaw. To the ominous sounds he had heard from behind other bedroom doors. The Man of the People.

  Burton thought back to the meeting with Richmond where he had filled in his boss on all the facts. Other than seeing Russell squirm it had not been a pleasant experience.

  Richmond had stared at each of them. Burton and Russell sat side by side. Collin hovered next to the door. They were clustered in the First Family’s private quarters. A component of the White House the eager public was never permitted to see. The rest of the First Family was on a brief holiday visiting relatives. It was best that way. The most important member of that family was not in a pleasant mood.

  The President was, finally, fully cognizant of the facts, the most remarkable of which had been a letter opener bearing some particularly incriminating evidence, and which had ended up in the hands of their intrepid and felonious eyewitness. The blood had almost frozen in the President’s veins when Burton had told him. As the words fell out of the agent’s mouth, the President had swiveled his head in Russell’s direction.

  When Collin recounted Russell’s instructions not to wipe the blade and handle clean, the President had stood up and hovered over his Chief of Staff, who had pushed herself so far back in her chair that she seemed to have become part of the fabric. His stare was crushing. She finally covered her eyes with her hand. The underarms of her blouse were soaked in perspiration. Her throat was devoid of saliva.

  Richmond had sat back down and slowly crunched the ice from his cocktail and finally turned his gaze out the window. He was still dressed in a monkey suit from yet another en gagement but the tie was undone. He was still looking out to nowhere when he spoke.

  “How long, Burton?”

  Burton stopped looking at the floor. “Who knows? Maybe forever.”

  “You know better than that. I want your professional assessment.”

  “Sooner than later. He’s got a lawyer now. Somehow, some way the guy’s gonna pop to somebody.”

  “Do we have any idea where ‘it’ is?”

  Burton rubbed his hands together uneasily. “No sir. The police searched his house, his car. If they had found the letter opener, I would’ve heard.”

  “But they know it’s missing from Sullivan’s house?”

  Burton nodded. “The police realize it has significance. If it turns up they’ll know what to do with it.”

  The President stood up and played his fingers across a particularly ugly gothic crystal collection of his wife’s that was displayed on one of the tables. Next to them were photos of his family. He never actually registered on their countenances. All he saw in their faces were the flames of his administration. His face seemed to redden before the invisible conflagration. History was in jeopardy of being rewritten and all because of a little K mart bimbo and an overly ambitious and incredibly stupid Chief of Staff.

  “Any idea who Sullivan employed?”

  Burton again answered. Russell was no longer an equal. Collin was there only to be told what to do. “Could be one of twenty or thirty high-priced hit men. Whoever it is he’s long gone by now.”

  “But you’ve laid the mental trail with our friend the detective?”

  “He knows that you ‘innocently’ told Walter Sullivan where and when. The guy’s plenty smart enough to follow up on that.”

  The President abruptly picked up one of the crystal pieces and hurled it against the wall where it shattered, sending fragments all across the room; his face contorted into a mass of hate and anger that made even Burton shudder. “Dammit, if he hadn’t missed, it would’ve been perfect.”

  Russell looked at the tiny shards of crystal on the carpet. That was her life. All those years of education, toiling, hundred-hour weeks. For this.

  “The police are going to follow up with Sullivan. I made sure the detective on the case understood Sullivan’s possible involvement.” Burton continued, “But even though he’s the most likely suspect, he’ll deny everything. They won’t be able to prove anything. I’m not sure where that gets us, sir.”

  Richmond strolled around the room. He could’ve been preparing for a speech or getting ready to shake hands with a troop of Boy Scouts from a Midwestern state. He was actually contemplating how to murder someone in a way that absolutely no blame, not even a hint of suspicion, would ever fall his way.

  “What if he tried again? And this time succeeded.”

  Burton looked puzzled. “How do we control what Sullivan does?”

  “By doing it ourselves.”

  No one said anything for a couple of minutes. Russell glanced incredulously at her boss. Her entire life had just gone straight to hell and now she was compelled to participate
in a conspiracy to commit murder. She had felt emotionally numb since all of this had started. She had been absolutely certain her situation could not get any worse. And she had been absolutely wrong about that.

  Finally Burton ventured an analysis. “I’m not sure the police would believe Sullivan would be that crazy. He’s gotta know they’re on to him, but can’t prove anything. If we pop Whitney, I’m not sure they’d look Sullivan’s way.”

  The President stopped strolling. He stood directly in front of Burton. “So let the police reach that conclusion themselves, if they ever do.”

  The reality was that Richmond no longer needed Walter Sullivan to regain the White House. Perhaps more important, this was a perfect way to rid himself of the obligation to back Sullivan’s Ukraine deal over Russia; a decision that was growing into more and more of a potential liability. If Sullivan were even remotely implicated in the death of his wife’s killer, he would be doing no more global deals. Richmond’s support would be discreetly withdrawn. Everyone who counted would understand that silent retreat.

  “Alan, you want to set Sullivan up for a murder?” These were the first words Russell had spoken. Her face betrayed her complete astonishment.

  He looked at her, with unconcealed contempt in his eyes.

  “Alan, think about what you’re saying. This is Walter Sullivan, this is not some two-bit crook no one gives a damn about.”

  Richmond smiled. Her stupidity amused him. She had seemed so bright, so incredibly capable when he first brought her on board. He had been wrong.

  The President did some rough calculations. At best Sullivan had perhaps a twenty percent chance of going down for the killing. Given similar circumstances, Richmond would take those odds. Sullivan was a big boy, he could take care of himself. And if he faltered? Well, that was why they had prisons. He looked at Burton.

  “Burton, do you understand?”

  Burton didn’t answer.

  The President said sharply, “You were certainly prepared to kill the man before, Burton. As far as I can determine, the stakes haven’t changed. In fact they’re probably higher. For all of us. Do you understand, Burton?” Richmond paused for a moment, then repeated his question.

  Burton finally looked up and said quietly, “I understand.”

  For the next two hours they laid their plans.

  As the two Secret Service agents and Russell rose to leave, the President looked at her. “So tell me, Gloria, what happened to the money?”

  Russell looked straight at him. “It was donated, anonymously, to the American Red Cross. I understand it was one of their biggest single contributions ever.”

  The door closed and the President had smiled. Nice part ing shot. Enjoy it, Luther Whitney. Enjoy it while you can, you insignificant little nothing.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

  WALTER SULLIVAN SETTLED INTO HIS CHAIR WITH A BOOK but never opened it. His mind wandered back. Back to events that seemed more ethereal, more wholly unconnected to his person than anything else that had ever happened in his life. He had hired a man to kill. To kill someone who stood accused of murdering his wife. The job had been botched. A fact for which Sullivan was quietly thankful. For his grief had subsided enough to where he knew what he had attempted to do was wrong. A civilized society must follow certain procedures unless it were to become uncivilized. And no matter how painful it would be to him, he was a civilized man. He would follow the rules.

  It was then that he looked down at the newspaper. Many days old now, its contents continued to beat incessantly into his head. The thick, dark headlines shone back at him on the white background of the page. As he turned his attention to it, distant suspicions in his mind were starting to crystallize. Walter Sullivan was not only a billionaire, he possessed a brilliant and perceptive mind. One that saw every detail along with every landscape.

  Luther Whitney was dead. The police had no suspects. Sullivan had checked the obvious solution. McCarty had been in Hong Kong on the day in question. Sullivan’s last directive to the man had indeed been heeded. Walter Sullivan had called off his hunt. But someone else had taken up the chase in his place.

  And Walter Sullivan was the only person who knew that for a fact other than his bungling assassin.

  Sullivan looked at his old timepiece. It was barely seven in the morning and he had been up for four hours already. The twenty-four hours in a day meant little to him anymore. The older he grew, the less important became the parameters of time. Four o’clock in the morning could find him wide awake on a plane over the Pacific while two in the afternoon might be the halfway point in his sleep for the day.

  There were many facts that he was sifting through, and his mind worked rapidly. A CAT scan done at his last physical evidenced a brain with the youth and vigor of a twenty-year-old. And that splendid mind was now working toward the few undeniable facts that were leading its owner to a conclusion that would amaze even him.

  He picked up the phone on his desk and looked around the highly polished cherry paneling of his study as he dialed the number.

  In a moment he had been put through to Seth Frank. Unimpressed with the man early on, Sullivan had grudgingly given him his due with the arrest of Luther Whitney. But now?

  “Yes sir, Mr. Sullivan, what can I do for you?”

  Sullivan cleared his throat. His voice had a humble note to it that was as far from his customary tone as was possible. Even Frank picked up on it.

  “I had a question regarding the information I had given you earlier about Christy, um, Christine’s sudden departure on the way to the airport for our trip to the estate in Barbados.”

  Frank sat up in his chair. “Did you remember something else?”

  “Actually I wanted to verify whether I had given you any reason for her not going on the trip.”

  “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

  “Well, I suppose my age is catching up with me. My bones aren’t the only thing deteriorating I’m afraid, though I don’t care to admit it to myself much less anyone else, Lieutenant. More to the point I thought I had told you she had taken ill and had to return home. I mean I thought that’s what I had told you in any event.”

  Seth took a moment to pull his file, although he was certain of the answer. “You said she didn’t give a reason, Mr. Sullivan. Just said she wasn’t going, and you didn’t push it.”

  “Ah. Well I guess that settles that. Thank you, Lieutenant.”

  Frank stood up. One hand lifted a cup of coffee and then put it back down. “Wait a minute, Mr. Sullivan. Why would you think you had told me that your wife was sick? Was she sick?”

  Sullivan paused before answering. “Actually no, Lieutenant Frank. She was remarkably healthy. To answer your question, I believe I thought I had told you differently because, to tell you the truth, aside from my occasional memory lapses, I think I’ve spent these last two months trying to convince myself that Christine staying behind was for some reason. Any reason, I guess.”

  “Sir?”

  “To, in my own mind, justify what happened to her. To not let it be just a damn coincidence. I don’t believe in fate, Lieutenant. For me, everything has a purpose. I suppose I wanted to convince myself that Christine’s staying behind did too.”

  “Oh.”

  “I apologize if an old man’s foolishness has caused you any unnecessary perplexity.”

  “Not at all, Mr. Sullivan.”

  * * *

  WHEN FRANK HUNG UP THE PHONE HE ENDED UP STARING AT the wall for a good five minutes. Now what the hell had all that been about?

  Following up on Bill Burton’s suggestion, Frank had made discreet inquiries into Sullivan having possibly hired a contract killer to make sure his wife’s presumed killer never stood trial. Those inquiries were going slow; one had to tread cautiously in these types of waters. Frank had a career to think about, a family to support, and men like Walter Sullivan had an army of very influential friends in government who could make the detective’s professional life mis
erable.

  The day after the slug had ended Luther Whitney’s life, Seth Frank had made immediate inquiries as to Sullivan’s whereabouts at the time although Frank was under no delusions that the old man had pulled the trigger on the cannon that had propelled Luther Whitney into the hereafter. But murder for hire was a particularly wicked deed, and although perhaps the detective could understand the billionaire’s motivation, the fact was he had probably gunned down the wrong guy. This latest conversation with Sullivan left him with even more questions and no new answers.

  Seth Frank sat down and wondered briefly if this nightmare of a case would ever leave his watch.

  * * *

  A HALF HOUR LATER SULLIVAN PLACED A CALL TO A LOCAL television station of which he happened to own a controlling interest. His request was simple and to the point. In an hour a package was delivered to his front door. After one of the staff handed him the square box he ushered her out, shut and locked the door to the room he was in, and pressed a small lever on a portion of the wall. The small panel slid down silently, revealing a very sophisticated audiocassette tape deck. Behind most of this wall rested a cutting-edge home theater system that Christine Sullivan had seen in a magazine one day and simply had to have, although her tastes in video entertainment ventured from pornography to soap opera, neither of which in any way taxed the electronic muscle of this monolithic system.

  Sullivan carefully unwrapped the audiocassette and placed it