Absolute Power



  “Walter, you’re not making any sense. Who was killed?”

  “You know I wasn’t all that surprised when Christy didn’t want to go to Barbados. Honestly, I figured she wanted to stay behind and do some alley-catting with a few of the young men she had targeted over the summer. It was funny when she said she wasn’t feeling well. I remember sitting in the limo and thinking what her excuse would be. She wasn’t all that creative, poor girl. Her cough was particularly phony. I suppose in school she used the dog-ate-my-homework with alarming regularity.”

  “Walt—”

  “The odd thing was that when the police questioned me regarding why she hadn’t come with me, I suddenly realized I couldn’t tell them that Christy had claimed illness. You may recall that there were rumors of affairs floating in the papers about that time. I knew if I reported her not feeling well, coupled with her not joining me in the islands, that the tabloids would soon have her pregnant with another man’s child even if the autopsy confirmed otherwise. People love to assume the worst and the juiciest, Alan, you understand that. When you’re impeached they’ll assume the worst of you of course. And deservedly so.”

  “Walter, will you please tell me where you are? You are obviously not feeling well.”

  “Would you like me to play the tape for you, Alan? The one from the press conference where you gave me that particularly moving line about things that happen that have no meaning. It was quite a nice thing to say. A private comment between old friends that was picked up by several TV and radio stations in the area but that never made the light of day. It’s a tribute to your popularity, I suppose, that no one picked up on it. You were being so charming, so supportive, who cared if you said Christy was sick. And you did say that, Alan. You told me that if Christy hadn’t gotten sick she wouldn’t have been murdered. She would’ve gone with me to the island and she would be alive today.

  “I was the only one Christy told about being sick, Alan. And as I said, I never even told the police. So how did you know?”

  “You must have told me.”

  “I neither met nor spoke with you prior to the press conference. That much is easily confirmed. My schedule is monitored by the minute. As President your whereabouts and communications are pretty much known at all times. I say pretty much, because on the night Christy was killed you were certainly not among your usual haunts. You happened to be in my house, and more to the point, in my bedroom. At the press conference we were surrounded by dozens of people at all times. Everything we said to each other is on tape somewhere. You didn’t learn it from me.”

  “Walter, please tell me where you are. I want to help you through this.”

  “Christy was never really good at keeping things straight. She must have been so proud of her subterfuge with me. She probably bragged to you, didn’t she? How she had snookered the old man? Because in fact my late wife was the only person in the world who could’ve told you that she had feigned illness. And you carelessly uttered those words to me. I don’t know why it took me so long to arrive at the truth. I suppose I was so obsessed with finding Christy’s killer that I accepted the burglary theory without question. Perhaps it was also subconscious self-denial. Because I was never wholly ignorant of Christy’s desires for you. But I guess I just didn’t want to believe you could do that to me. I should have assumed the worst in human nature and I would not have found myself disappointed. But as they say, better late than never.”

  “Walter, why did you call me?”

  Sullivan’s voice grew more quiet but lost none of its force, none of its intensity. “Because, you bastard, I wanted to be the one to tell you of your new future. It will involve lawyers and courts and more public exposure than even as President you ever dreamed was possible. Because I didn’t want you to be wholly surprised when the police presented themselves on your doorstep. And most of all, I wanted you to know exactly who to thank for all of it.”

  The President’s voice became tense. “Walter, if you want me to help you, I will. But I am the President of the United States. And although you are one of my oldest friends, I will not tolerate this type of accusation from you or anyone else.”

  “That’s good, Alan. Very good. You discerned that I would be taping the conversation. Not that it matters.” Sullivan paused for a moment, then continued. “My protégé, Alan. Taught you everything I knew, and you learned well. Well enough to hold the highest office in the land. Fortunately, your fall will also be the steepest.”

  “Walter, you’ve been under a lot of stress. For the last time, please get some help.”

  “Funny, Alan, that’s precisely my advice to you.”

  Sullivan clicked off the phone and turned off the recorder. His heart was beating abnormally fast. He put one hand against his chest, forced himself to relax. A coronary was not going to be allowed. He was going to be around to see this one.

  He looked out the window and then at the inside of the room. His little homestead. His father had died in this very room. Somehow, that thought was comforting to him.

  He lay back in the chair and closed his eyes. In the morning he would call the police. He would tell them everything and he would give them the tape. Then he would sit back and watch. Even if they didn’t convict Richmond, his career was over. Which was to say the man was as good as dead, professionally, spiritually, mentally. Who cared if his physical carcass lingered? So much the better. Sullivan smiled. He had sworn that he would avenge his wife’s killer. And he had.

  It was the sudden sensation of his hand rising from his side that brought his eyes open. And then his hand was being closed around a cold, hard object. It wasn’t until the barrel touched the side of his head that he really reacted. And by then it was too late.

  * * *

  AS THE PRESIDENT LOOKED AT THE PHONE RECEIVER, HE checked his watch. It would be over right about now. Sullivan had taught him well. Too well, as it had turned out, for the teacher. He had been almost certain Sullivan would contact him directly prior to announcing the President’s culpability to the world. That had made it relatively simple. Richmond rose and headed upstairs to his private quarters. The thought of the late Walter Sullivan had already passed from his mind. It was not efficient or productive to linger over a vanquished foe. It only set you back for your next challenge. Sullivan had also taught him that.

  * * *

  IN THE TWILIGHT THE YOUNGER MAN STARED AT THE HOUSE. He had heard the shot, but his eyes never stopped staring at the dim light in the window.

  Bill Burton rejoined Collin in a few seconds. He could not even look at his partner. Two trained and dedicated Secret Service agents, killers of young women and old men.

  On the drive back, Burton sank back in his seat. It was finally over. Three people dead, counting Christine Sullivan. And why not count her? That’s what had started this whole nightmare.

  Burton looked down at his hand, still barely able to comprehend that it had just curled around the grip of a gun, forced a trigger back and ended a man’s life. With his other hand Burton had taken the cassette recorder and the tape. They were in his pocket headed for the incinerator.

  When he had checked the telephone tap and listened to Sullivan’s phone conversation with Seth Frank, Burton had no idea what the old man was getting at with Christine Sullivan’s “illness.” But when he reported the information to the President, Richmond had looked out the window for some minutes, a shade paler than he had been when Burton had entered the room. Then he had phoned the White House Media Department. A few minutes later they had both listened to the tape from the first press conference on the Middleton Courthouse steps. To the President commiserating with his old friend, about the whimsical nature of life; how Christine Sullivan would still be alive if she hadn’t taken ill. Having forgotten that Christine Sullivan had told him that on the day of her death. A fact that could be proven. A fact that could possibly topple all of them.

  Burton had slumped back in his chair, stared at his boss, who silently looked at the tape a
s if he were trying to erase its words with his thoughts. Burton shook his head incredulously. Caught up in his own mushy rhetoric, just like a politician.

  “What do we do now, Chief? Make a run for it on Air Force One?” Burton was only half-joking as he studied the carpet. He was too numb to even think anymore.

  He looked up to find the President’s eyes full upon him. “Walter Sullivan is the only living person, other than ourselves, who knows the significance of this information.”

  Burton rose from his chair and returned the stare. “My job doesn’t include popping people just because you tell me to.”

  The President would not take his eyes from Burton’s face. “Walter Sullivan is now a direct threat to us. He is also fucking with us and I don’t like people fucking with me. Do you?”

  “He’s got a damned good reason to, don’t you think?”

  Richmond picked up a pen from his desk and twirled it between his fingers. “If Sullivan talks we lose everything. Everything.” The President snapped his fingers. “Gone. Just like that. And I will do everything possible to avoid it happening.”

  Burton dropped into his chair, his belly suddenly on fire. “How do you know he hasn’t already?”

  “Because I know Walter,” the President said simply. “He’ll do it in his own way. And it will be spectacular. But deliberate. He is not a man who rushes into anything. But when he does act, the results will be swift and crushing.”

  “Great.” Burton put his head in his hands, his mind whirling faster than he thought possible. Years of training had instilled in him an almost innate ability to process information instantly, think on his feet, act a fraction of a second before anyone else could. Now his brain was a muddle, like day-old coffee, thick and soupy; nothing was clear. He looked up.

  “But killing the guy?”

  “I can guarantee you that Walter Sullivan is right this minute plotting how best to destroy us. That type of action does not invoke sympathy from me.”

  The President leaned back in his chair. “Plainly and simply this man has decided to fight us. And one has to live with the consequences of one’s decisions. Walter Sullivan knows that better than anyone alive.” The President’s eyes again lasered in on Burton’s. “The question is, are we prepared to fight back?”

  * * *

  COLLIN AND BURTON HAD SPENT THE LAST THREE DAYS following Walter Sullivan. When the car had dropped him off in the middle of nowhere, Burton both couldn’t believe his luck and experienced deep sadness for his target, now, truly, a sitting duck.

  Husband and wife wiped out. As the car sped back to the Capital City, Burton unconsciously rubbed at his hand, trying to whittle away the filth he felt in every crevice. What turned his skin cold was the realization that he could never wipe away the feelings he was having, the reality of what he had done. The rock-bottom emotional barometer would be with him every minute of every day of the rest of his days. He had traded his life for another. Again. His backbone, for so long a steel beam, had wilted to pitiful rubber. Life had given him the supreme challenge and he had failed.

  He dug his fingers into the armrest and stared out the window into the darkness.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

  THE APPARENT SUICIDE OF WALTER SULLIVAN ROCKED NOT only the financial community. The funeral was attended by the high and mighty from all over the world. In an appropriately solemn and lavish ceremony at Washington’s St. Matthew’s Cathedral, the man was eulogized by a half-dozen dignitaries. The most famous had gone on for a full twenty minutes about the great human being Walter Sullivan had been, and also about the great stress he had been under and how those under such strain sometimes do things they would otherwise never contemplate. When Alan Richmond had finished speaking, there was not a dry cheek in the place, and the tears that dampened his own face were seemingly genuine. He had always been impressed with his superb oratorical skills.

  The long funeral procession streamed out, and, over three and one half hours later, ended at the tiny house where Walter Sullivan had begun, and ended, his life. As the limos scrambled for space on the narrow, snow-covered road, Walter Sullivan was carried down and interred next to his parents, on the little knoll where the view down the valley was by far the richest part of the place.

  As the dirt covered the coffin, and the friends of Walter Sullivan made their way back to the realm of the living, Seth Frank studied every face. He watched as the President made his way back to his limo. Bill Burton saw him, registered surprise for an instant, and then nodded. Frank nodded back.

  When all the mourners had gone, Frank turned his attention to the little house. The yellow police lines were still around the perimeter and two uniformed officers stood guard.

  Frank walked over, flashed his badge and entered.

  It seemed the height of irony that one of the wealthiest men in the world had chosen a place like this to die. Walter Sullivan had been a walking poster child for Horatio Alger tales. Frank admired a man who had risen in the world on his own merit, sheer guts and determination. Who wouldn’t?

  He looked again at the chair where the body had been found, the gun beside it. The weapon had been pressed against Sullivan’s left temple. The stellate wound, large and ragged, had preceded the massive bursting fracture that had ended the man’s life. The gun had fallen on the left side of the floor. The presence of the contact wound and powder burns on the deceased’s palm had prompted the locals to file the case away as a suicide, the facts of which were simple and straightforward. A grieving Walter Sullivan had exacted revenge on his wife’s killer and then taken his own life. His associates had confirmed that Sullivan had been out of touch for days, unusual for him. He rarely came to this retreat and whenever he did, someone knew his whereabouts. The newspaper found beside the body had proclaimed the death of his wife’s suspected murderer. All the signs pointed to a man who had intended on ending his life.

  What bothered Frank was one small fact that he had purposefully not shared with anyone. He had met Walter Sullivan the day he had come to the morgue. During that meeting, Sullivan had signed off on several forms related to the autopsy and an inventory of his wife’s few possessions.

  And Sullivan had signed those forms with his right hand.

  It was inconclusive in itself. Sullivan could have held the gun in his left hand for any number of reasons. His fingerprints were on the gun clear as day, maybe too clear, Frank thought to himself.

  The physical condition of the gun: it was untraceable; the serial numbers had been so expertly obliterated that even the scope couldn’t pull up anything. A completely sterilized weapon. The kind you’d expect to find at a crime scene. But why would Walter Sullivan be concerned about anyone tracing a gun he was going to use to kill himself? The answer was he wouldn’t. But again the fact was inconclusive since the person providing Sullivan the weapon could have obtained it illegally, although Virginia was one of the easier states in which to purchase a handgun, much to the dismay of police departments in the northeast corridor of the country.

  Frank finished with the interior and paced outside. The snow still lay thickly on the ground. Sullivan had been dead before the snow had started, the autopsy had confirmed that. It was fortunate that his people knew the location of the house. They had come looking for him and the body had been discovered within approximately twelve hours of death.

  No, the snow would not help Frank. The entire place was so isolated there was no one even to ask if anything suspicious had been observed on the night of Sullivan’s death.

  His counterpart from the county sheriff’s department climbed out of his car and hustled over to where Frank was standing. The man carried a file with some papers in it. He and Frank conversed for a few moments and then Frank thanked him, climbed in his car and drove off.

  The autopsy report indicated that Walter Sullivan had died sometime between eleven P.M. and one o’clock in the morning. But at twelve-ten Walter Sullivan had called someone.

  * * *

  THE H
ALLWAYS OF PS&L WERE UNSETTLINGLY QUIET. THE capillaries of a thriving law practice are ringing phones, pealing faxes, mouths moving and keyboards clicking. Lucinda, even with the firm’s individual direct-dialing lines, was normally the recipient of eight phone calls per minute. Today she leisurely read through Vogue. Most office doors were closed, shielding from view the intense and often emotional discussions going on among all but a handful of the firm’s lawyers.

  Sandy Lord’s office door was not only closed, it was locked. The few partners with the temerity to attempt a knock on the thick portal were quickly on the biting end of an obscene verbal barrage from the room’s lone and moody occupant.

  He sat in his chair, shoeless feet on the polished desk, tieless, collar undone, unshaven, a nearly empty bottle of his strongest whiskey within easy reach. Sandy Lord’s eyes were now mere blots of red. At the church he had used those eyes to stare long and hard at the shiny brass coffin containing Sullivan’s body; essentially it contained both their earthly remains.

  For many years Lord had anticipated Sullivan’s demise and had, with the help of a dozen PS&L specialists, established an elaborate series of safeguards that included cultivation of a loyal contingent on the board of directors of the parent holding company of Sullivan Enterprises, all of which would ensure continual representation of the huge network of Sullivan entities far into the future by PS&L generally and by Lord in particular. Life would go on. The PS&L train would thrive with its chief diesel engine intact and even replenished. But an unexpected development had occurred.

  That Sullivan’s passing was inevitable, the financial markets understood. What the business and investment community apparently could not accept was the man’s death, allegedly by his own hand, coupled with the increasing rumors that Sullivan had had his wife’s alleged killer gunned down, something that once accomplished, had prompted him to put a bullet into his own brain. The market was not prepared for such revelations. A surprised market, some economists would predict, often reacts wildly and precipitately. Those economists were not disappointed. Shares of stock in Sullivan Enterprises plummeted sixty-one percent in value on the New York Stock Exchange the morning after his body was discovered, on the heaviest trading volume for a single stock in the last ten years.

  With the stock selling a full six dollars a share below book