Absolute Power

  inside the tape deck; the door automatically closed and the tape began to play. Sullivan listened for a few moments. When he heard the words, no emotion was revealed on his intricate features. He had expected to hear what he had. He had outright lied to the detective. His memory was excellent. If only his sight were half as good. For he had indeed been a blind idiot to this reality. The emotion that finally penetrated the inscrutable line of his mouth and the deep gray of his introspective eyes was anger. Anger like he had not felt in a long time. Not even at Christy’s death. A fury that would only be relieved through action. And Sullivan firmly believed that your first salvo should be your last because that meant that either you got them, or they got you, and he was not in the habit of losing.

  * * *

  THE FUNERAL WAS CONDUCTED IN HUMBLE SURROUNDINGS and with only three people other than the priest in attendance. It had taken the utmost secrecy to avoid the obvious assaults by the armies of journalists. Luther’s casket was closed. The remains of violent trauma to the head was not the lasting impression loved ones typically wanted to carry away with them.

  Neither the background of the deceased nor the means of his demise mattered the slightest to the man of God, and the service was appropriately reverent. The drive to the nearby cemetery was short as was the procession. Jack and Kate drove over together; behind them was Seth Frank. He had sat in the back of the church, awkward and uncomfortable. Jack had shaken his hand; Kate had refused to acknowledge him.

  Jack leaned against his car and watched Kate as she sat in the fold-up metal chair next to the earthen pit that had just accepted her father. Jack looked around. This cemetery was not home to grandiose monuments of tribute. It was rare to see a grave marker sticking up, most were the in-the-dirt variety; a dark rectangle with its owner’s name, dates of entry and exit from the living. A few said “in loving memory,” most ventured no parting remarks.

  Jack looked back at Kate and he saw Seth Frank start toward her, then the detective apparently thought better of his decision and made his way quietly over to the Lexus.

  Frank took off his sunglasses. “Nice service.”

  Jack shrugged. “Nothing’s really nice about getting killed.” Though miles away from Kate’s position on the issue, he had not entirely forgiven Frank for allowing Luther Whitney to die like that.

  Frank fell silent, studied the finish on the sedan, drew out a cigarette, then changed his mind. He stuck his hands in his pockets and stared off.

  He had attended Luther Whitney’s autopsy. The transient cavitation had been immense. The shock waves had dissipated radially out from the bullet track to such an extent that fully half the man’s brain had literally disintegrated. And it was no small wonder. The slug they’d dug out of the seat of the police van was an eye-popper. A .460 Magnum round. The Medical Examiner had told Frank that type of ammo was often used for sports hunting, big game in particular. And it was no wonder, since the round had slammed into Whitney with stopping power equal to over eight thousand pounds of energy. It was like someone had dropped a plane on the poor guy. Big game hunting. Frank shook his head wearily. And it had happened on his watch, right in front of him in fact. He would never forget that.

  Frank looked over the green expanse of the final resting place for over twenty thousand dearly departed. Jack leaned back against the car and followed Frank’s gaze.

  “So any leads?”

  The detective dug a toe in the dirt. “A few. None of them really going anywhere.”

  They both straightened up as Kate rose, laid a small arrangement of flowers on the mound of dirt, and then stood, staring off. The wind had died down, and although cold, the sun was bright and warming.

  Jack buttoned his coat up. “So what now? Case closed? Nobody would blame you.”

  Frank smiled, decided he’d have that smoke after all. “Not by a fucking long shot, chief.”

  “So what are you gonna do?”

  Kate turned and started to walk toward the car. Seth Frank put his hat back on, pulled out his car keys.

  “Simple, find me a murderer.”

  * * *

  “KATE, I KNOW HOW YOU FEEL, BUT YOU HAVE TO BELIEVE ME. He didn’t blame you for anything. None of this was your fault. Like you said, you were pushed into the middle involuntarily. You didn’t ask for any of this. Luther understood that.”

  They were in Jack’s car driving back into the city. The sun was eye level and dropping perceptibly with each mile. They had sat in his car at the cemetery for almost two hours because she didn’t want to leave. As though if she waited long enough he would climb out of his grave and join them.

  She cracked the window and a narrow stream of air engulfed the interior, dispelling the new-car smell with the thick moistness that heralded another storm.

  “Detective Frank hasn’t given up on the case, Kate. He’s still looking for Luther’s killer.”

  She finally looked at him. “I really don’t care what he says he’s going to do.” She touched her nose, which was red and swollen and hurt like hell.

  “Come on, Kate. It’s not like the guy wanted Luther to get shot.”

  “Oh really? A case full of holes that gets blown apart at trial leaving everyone involved, including the detective in charge, looking like complete idiots. Instead you have a corpse, and a closed case. Now tell me again what the master detective wants?”

  Jack stopped for a red light and slumped back in his seat. He knew that Frank was shooting straight with him, but there was no way in hell he was going to convince Kate of that fact.

  The light changed and he moved through traffic. He checked his watch. He had to get back to the office, assuming he had an office to go back to.

  “Kate, I don’t think you should be alone right now. How about I crash at your place for a few nights? You brew the coffee in the morning and I’ll take care of the dinners. Deal?”

  He had expected an immediate and negative response and had already prepared his rejoinder.

  “Are you sure?”

  Jack looked over at her, found wide, puffy eyes on him. Every nerve in her body seemed ready to scream. As he walked himself through the paces of what was, to both of them, a tragedy, he suddenly realized that he was still totally oblivious to the enormity of the pain and guilt she was experiencing. It stunned him, even more than the sound of the shot as he sat holding her hand. Knowing before their fingers ever parted that Luther was dead.

  “I’m sure.”

  That night he had just settled himself on the couch. The blanket was drawn up to his neck, his bulwark against the draft that hit him chest high from an invisible crevice in the window across from him. Then he heard a door squeak and she walked out of her bedroom. She wore the same robe as before, her hair drawn up tightly in a bun. Her face looked fresh and clean; only a slight red sheen hovering around her cheeks hinted at the internal trauma.

  “Do you need anything?”

  “I’m fine. This couch is a lot more comfortable than I thought it would be. I’ve still got the same one from our apartment in Charlottesville. I don’t even think it has any springs left. I think they all retired.”

  She didn’t smile, but she did sit down next to him.

  When they had lived together she had taken a bath every night. Coming to bed she had smelled so good it had nearly driven him mad. Like the breath of a newborn, there was absolutely nothing imperfect about it. And she had played dumb for a while until he lay exhausted on top of her and she would smile a decidedly wicked little smile and stroke him and he would ruminate for several minutes on how it was so crystal-clear to him that women ruled the world.

  He found his baser instincts creeping firmly ahead as she leaned her head against his shoulder. But her exhausted manner, her total apathy, swiftly quelled his secular inclinations and left him feeling more than a little guilty.

  “I’m not sure I’m going to be very good company.”

  Had she sensed what he was feeling? How could she? Her mind, everything about
her, must be a million miles away from this spot.

  “Being entertained was not part of the deal. I can look after myself, Kate.”

  “I really appreciate your doing this.”

  “I can’t think of anything more important.”

  She squeezed his hand. As she rose to go the flap on her robe came undone exposing more than just her long, slender legs and he was glad she would be in another room that night. His ruminations until the early-morning hours ran the gamut from visions of white knights with large dark spots disfiguring their pristine armor to idealistic lawyers who slept miserably alone.

  On the third night he had settled in again on the couch. And, as before, she came out of her bedroom; the slight squeak made him lay down the magazine he was reading. But this time she did not go to the couch. He finally craned his neck around and found her watching him. She did not look apathetic tonight. And tonight she was not wearing the robe. She turned and went back inside her bedroom. The door stayed open.

  For a moment he did nothing. Then he rose, went to the door and peered in. Through the darkness he could make out her form on the bed. The sheet was at the foot of the bed. The contours of her body, once as familiar to him as his own, confronted him. She looked at him. He could just make out the ovals of her eyes as they focused on him. She did not put out her hand for him; he recalled that she had never done that.

  “Are you sure about this?” He felt compelled to ask it. He wanted no hurt feelings in the morning, no crushed, confused emotions.

  For an answer she rose and pulled him to the bed. The mattress was firm, and warm where she had been. In another moment he was as naked as she. He instinctively traced the half-moon, moved his hand around the crooked mouth, which now touched his. Her eyes were open and this time, and it had been a long time, there were no tears, no swelling, just the look he had grown so used to, expected to have around forever. He slowly put his arms around her.

  * * *

  THE HOME OF WALTER SULLIVAN HAD SEEN VISITING dignitaries of incredibly high rank. But tonight was special even compared to past events.

  Alan Richmond raised his glass of wine and gave a brief but eloquent toast to his host as the four other carefully selected couples clinked their glasses. The First Lady, radiant in a simple, black dress, ash blonde hair framing a sculpted face that had worn remarkably well over the years and made for delightful photo ops, smiled at the billionaire. Accustomed as she was to being surrounded by wealth and brains and refinement, she, like most people, was still in awe of Walter Sullivan and men like him, if only for their rarity on the planet.

  Technically still in mourning, Sullivan was in a particularly gregarious mood. Over imported coffee in the spacious library the conversation ventured from global business opportunities, the latest maneuvering of the Federal Reserve Board, the ’Skins’ chances against the Forty-niners that Sunday, to the election the following year. There were none in attendance who thought Alan Richmond would have a different occupation after the votes were counted.

  Except for one person.

  In saying his good-byes the President leaned into Walter Sullivan to embrace the older man and say a few private words. Sullivan smiled at the President’s remarks. Then the old man stumbled slightly but righted himself by grasping the arms of the President.

  After his guests had gone, Sullivan smoked a cigar in his study. As he moved to the window, the lights from the presidential motorcade quickly faded from view. In spite of himself, Sullivan had to smile. The image of the slight wince in the President’s eye as Sullivan had gripped his forearm had made for a particularly victorious moment. A long shot, but sometimes long shots paid off. Detective Frank had been very open with the billionaire about the detective’s theories regarding the case. One theory that had particularly interested Walter Sullivan was his wife having wounded her assailant with the letter opener, possibly in the leg or arm. It must have cut deeper than the police had thought. Possible nerve damage. A surface wound certainly would have had time to heal by now.

  Sullivan slowly walked out of the study, turning off the light as he exited. President Alan Richmond had assuredly felt only a small pain when Sullivan’s fingers had sunk into his flesh. But as with a heart attack, a small pain was so often followed by a much larger one. Sullivan smiled broadly as he considered the possibilities.

  * * *

  FROM ATOP THE KNOLL WALTER SULLIVAN STARED AT THE little wooden house with the green tin roof. He pulled his muffler around his ears, steadied his weakened legs with a thick walking stick. The cold was bitter in the hills of southwest Virginia this time of year and the forecast pointed unerringly to snow, and a lot of it.

  He made his way down across the, for now, iron-hard ground. The house was in an excellent state of repair thanks to his limitless pocketbook and a deep sense of nostalgia that seemed to more and more consume him as he grew closer to becoming a thread of the past himself. Woodrow Wilson was in the White House and the earth was heavily into the First World War when Walter Patrick Sullivan had first seen the glimmer of light with the aid of a midwife and the grim determination of his mother, Millie, who had lost all three previous children, two in childbirth.

  His father, a coal miner—it seems everyone’s father was a coal miner in that part of Virginia back then—had lived until his son’s twelfth birthday and then had abruptly expired from a series of maladies brought on by too much coal dust and too little rest. For years the future billionaire had watched his daddy stagger into the house, every muscle exhausted, the face as black as their big Labrador’s coat, and collapse on the little bed in the back room. Too tired to eat, or play with the little boy who each day hoped for some attention but ended up getting none from a father whose perpetual weariness was so painful to witness.

  His mother had lived long enough to see her offspring become one of the richest men in the world, and her dutiful son had taken great pains to ensure that she had every comfort his immense resources could provide. For a tribute to his late father, he had purchased the mine that had killed him. Five million cash. He had paid a fifty-thousand-dollar bonus to every miner in the place and then he had, with great ceremony, shut it down.

  He opened the door and went inside. The gas fireplace threw warmth into the room without the necessity of firewood. The pantry was stocked with enough food for the next six months. Here he was entirely self-sufficient. He never allowed anyone to stay here with him. This had been his homestead. All with the right to be here, with the exception of himself, were dead. He was alone and he wanted it that way.

  The simple meal he prepared was lingered over while he stared moodily out the window where in the failing light he could just make out the circle of naked elms near the house; the branches waved to him with slow, melodic movements.

  The interior of the house had not been returned to its original condition or configuration. This was his birthplace but it had not been a happy childhood amid poverty that threatened never to go away. The sense of urgency spawned from that time had served Sullivan well in his career, for it fueled him with a stamina, a resolve before which many an obstacle had wilted.

  He cleaned the plates, and went into the small room that had once been his parents’ bedroom. Now it contained a comfortable chair, a table and several bookcases that housed an extremely select collection of reading material. In the corner was a small cot, for the room also served as his sleeping chamber.

  Sullivan picked up the sophisticated cellular phone that lay on the table. He dialed a number known only to a handful of people. A voice on the other line came on. Then Sullivan was put on hold for a moment before another voice came on.

  “Goodness, Walter, I know you tend to keep odd hours, but you really should try to slow down a bit. Where are you?”

  “You can’t slow down at my age, Alan. If you do, you might not start back up again. I’d much rather explode in a fireball of activity than recede faintly into the mists. I hope I’m not disturbing something important.”

“Nothing that can’t wait. I’m getting better about prioritizing world crises. Was there something you needed?”

  Sullivan took a moment to place a small recording device next to the receiver. One never knew.

  “I only had one question, Alan.” Sullivan paused. It occurred to him that he was enjoying this. Then he thought of Christy’s face in the morgue and his face became grim.

  “What’s that?”

  “Why did you wait so long to kill the man?”

  In the silence that followed, Sullivan could hear the pattern of breathing on the other end of the phone. To his credit Alan Richmond did not start to hyperventilate; in fact, his breathing remained normal. Sullivan came away impressed and a little disappointed.

  “Come again?”

  “If your men had missed, you might be meeting with your attorney right now, planning your defense against impeachment. You must admit you cut it rather close.”

  “Walter, are you all right? Has something happened to you? Where are you?”

  Sullivan held the receiver away from his ear for a moment. The phone had a scrambling device that made any possible tracing of his location impossible. If they were trying to lock in his position right now, as he was reasonably certain they were, they would be confronted with a dozen locations from which the call was supposedly originating, and not one of them anywhere near where he actually was. The device had cost him ten thousand dollars. But, then, it was only money. He smiled again. He could talk as long as he wanted.

  “Actually I haven’t felt this good in a long while.”