Absolute Power

  “Where are my clothes?” he demanded.

  “Right here, sir.” Burton, snapping back to attention, stooped to pick up the clothes. They were heavily spotted— everything in the room seemed to be—with her.

  “Well, get me up, and get me ready, goddammit. I’ve got a speech to give for somebody, somewhere, don’t I?” He laughed shrilly. Burton looked at Collin and Collin looked at Burton. They both watched as the President passed out on the bed.

  * * *

  AT THE SOUND OF THE EXPLOSIONS, CHIEF OF STAFF GLORIA Russell had been in the bathroom on the first floor, as far away from that room as she could get.

  She had accompanied the President on many of these assignations, but rather than growing used to them, they disgusted her more each time. To imagine her boss, the most powerful man on the face of the earth, bedding all these celebrity whores, these political groupies. It was beyond comprehension, and yet she had almost learned to ignore it. Almost.

  She had pulled her pantyhose back up, grabbed her purse, flung open the door, run down the hallway and even in heels took the steps two at a time. When she reached the bedroom door Agent Burton stopped her.

  “Ma’am, you don’t want to see this, it’s not pretty.”

  She pushed past him and then stopped. Her first thought was to run back out, down the stairs, into the limo, out of there, out of the state, out of the miserable country. She wasn’t sorry for Christy Sullivan, who’d wanted to get screwed by the President. That had been her goal for the last two years. Well, sometimes you don’t get what you want; sometimes you get a lot more.

  Russell steadied herself and faced off with Agent Collin.

  “What the hell happened?”

  Tim Collin was young, tough and devoted to the man he was assigned to protect. He was trained to die defending the President, and there was no question in his mind that if the time came he would. Several years had passed since he had tackled an assailant in the parking lot of a shopping center where then presidential candidate Alan Richmond had been making an appearance. Collin had had the potential assassin down on the asphalt and completely immobile before the guy had even gotten his gun fully out of his pocket, before anyone else had even reacted. To Collin, his only mission in life was to protect Alan Richmond.

  It took Agent Collin one minute to report the facts to Russell in succinct, cohesive sentences. Burton solemnly confirmed the account.

  “It was either him or her, Ms. Russell. There was no other way to cut it.” Burton instinctively glanced at the President, who still lay on the bed oblivious to anything. They had covered the more strategic portion of his body with a sheet.

  “Do you mean to tell me you heard nothing? No sounds of violence before, before this?” She waved at the mess of the room.

  The agents looked at each other. They had heard many sounds emanating from bedrooms where their boss happened to be. Some might be construed as violent, some not. But everybody had always come out okay before.

  “Nothing unusual,” Burton replied. “Then we heard the President scream and we went in. That knife was maybe three inches from going into his chest. Only thing fast enough was a bullet.”

  He stood as erect as he could and looked her right in the eye. He and Collin had done their job, and this woman wasn’t going to tell them otherwise. No blame would be put on his shoulders.

  “There was a goddamned knife in the room?” She looked at Burton incredulously.

  “If it was up to me, the President wouldn’t go out on these, these little excursions. Half the time he won’t let us check anything out beforehand. We didn’t get a chance to scope the room.” He looked at her. “He’s the President, ma’am,” he added, for good measure, as if that justified everything. And for Russell it usually did, a fact Burton was well aware of.

  Russell looked around the room, taking in everything. She had been a tenured professor of political science at Stanford with a national reputation before answering the call in Alan Richmond’s quest for the presidency. He was such a powerful force, everybody wanted to jump on his bandwagon.

  Currently Chief of Staff, with serious talk of becoming Secretary of State if Richmond won reelection, which everyone expected him to do with ease. Who knew? Maybe a Richmond-Russell ticket might be in the making. They made a brilliant combination. She was the strategist, he was the consummate campaigner. Their future grew brighter every day. But now? Now she had a corpse and a drunken President inside a home that was supposed to be vacant.

  She felt the express train coming to a halt. Then her mind snapped back. Not over this little piece of human garbage. Not ever!

  Burton stirred. “You want me to call the police now, ma’am?”

  Russell looked at him like he had lost his mind. “Burton, let me remind you that our job is to protect the President’s interests at all times and nothing—absolutely nothing—takes precedence over that. Is that clear?”

  “Ma’am, the lady’s dead. I think we—”

  “That’s right. You and Collin shot the woman, and she’s dead.” After exploding from Russell’s mouth, the words hung in the air. Collin rubbed his fingers together; a hand went instinctively to his holstered weapon. He stared at the late Mrs. Sullivan as if he could will her back to life.

  Burton flexed his burly shoulders, moved an inch closer to Russell so that the significant height difference was at its maximum.

  “If we hadn’t fired, the President would be dead. That’s our job. To keep the President safe and sound.”

  “Right again, Burton. And now that you have prevented his death, how do you intend to explain to the police and the President’s wife and your superiors, and the lawyers and the media and the Congress and the financial markets and the country and the rest of the goddamned world, why the President was here? What he was doing while he was here? And the circumstances that led up to you and Agent Collin having to shoot the wife of one of the wealthiest and most influential men in the United States? Because if you call the police, if you call anybody, that is exactly what you will have to do. Now if you are prepared to accept full responsibility for that undertaking, then pick up that phone over there and make that call.”

  Burton’s face changed color. He backed up a step, his superior size useless to him now. Collin was frozen, watching the two square off. He had never seen anyone talk that way to Bill Burton. The big man could have snapped Russell’s neck with a lazy thrust of his arm.

  Burton looked down at the corpse one more time. How could you explain that so that everybody came out all right? The answer was simple: you couldn’t.

  Russell watched his face carefully. Burton looked back at her. His eyes twitched perceptibly; they would not meet hers now. She had won. She smiled benignly and nodded. The show was hers to run.

  “Go make some coffee, a whole pot,” she ordered Burton, momentarily relishing this switching of roles. “And then stay by the front door just in case we get any late-night visitors.

  “Collin, go to the van, and talk to Johnson and Varney. Don’t tell them anything about this. For now just tell them there was an accident, but that the President’s okay. That’s all. And that they’re to stay put. Understood? I’ll call when I want you. I need to think this out.”

  Burton and Collin nodded and headed out. Neither had been trained to ignore orders so authoritatively given. And Burton didn’t want to be calling the shots on this one. They couldn’t pay him enough to do that.

  * * *

  LUTHER HADN’T MOVED SINCE THE SHOTS HAD BLOWN APART the woman’s head. He was afraid to. His feelings of shock had finally passed, but he found his eyes continually wandering to the floor and to what had once been a living, breathing human being. In all his years as a criminal he had only seen one other person killed. A thrice-convicted pedophile whose spinal cord had collided with a four-inch shiv wielded by an unsympathetic fellow inmate. The emotions sweeping over him now were totally different, as though he were the sole passenger on a ship that had sailed into a foreig
n harbor. Nothing looked or seemed familiar at all. Any sound now would do him no good, but he slowly sat back down before his trembling legs gave way.

  He watched as Russell moved around the room, stooped next to the dead woman, but did not touch her. Next she picked up the letter opener, holding it by the end of the blade with a handkerchief she pulled from her pocket. She stared long and hard at the object that had almost ended her boss’s life and had played a major role in ending someone else’s. She carefully put the letter opener in her leather purse, which she had placed on the nightstand, and put the handkerchief back in her pocket. She glanced briefly at the contorted flesh that had recently been Christine Sullivan.

  She had to admire the way Richmond accomplished his extracurricular activities. All his “companions” were women of wealth and social position, and all were married. This ensured that no exposé of his adulterous behavior would appear in any of the tabloids. The women he bedded had as much to lose if not more as he, and they understood that fact very well.

  And the press. Russell smiled. In this day and age the President lived under a never-ending barrage of scrutiny. He couldn’t pee, smoke a cigar or belch without the public knowing all of the most intimate details. Or so the public thought. And that was based largely on the overestimation of the press and their abilities to nudge out every morsel of a story from its hiding place. What they failed to understand was that while the office of the President might have lost some of its enormous power over the years as the problems of a troubled globe soared beyond the ability of any one person to confront them on an equal basis, the President was surrounded by absolutely loyal and supremely capable people. People whose skill level at covert activities were in another league from the polished, cookie-cutter journalists whose idea of trailing down a tough story was asking puffball questions of a congressman who was more than willing to talk for the benefit of the evening news coverage. It was a fact that, if he so desired, President Alan Richmond could move about without fear that anyone would be successful in tracking his whereabouts. He could even disappear from public view for as long as he wished, although that was the antithesis of what a successful politician hoped to accomplish in a day’s work. And that privilege boiled down to one common denominator.

  The Secret Service. They were the best of the best. This elite group had proved it time and again over the years, as they had in planning this most recent activity.

  A little after noon, Christy Sullivan had walked out of her beauty salon in Upper Northwest. After walking one block she had stepped into the foyer of an apartment building and thirty seconds later she had walked out encased in a full length hooded cloak pulled from her bag. Sunglasses covered her eyes. She had walked for several blocks, randomly window-shopping, then taken a red-line Metro train to Metro Center. Exiting the Metro she had walked two more blocks and entered an alley between two buildings scheduled for demolition. Two minutes later, a car with tinted windows had emerged from the alley. Collin had been driving. Christy Sullivan was in the back seat. She had been sequestered in a safe place with Bill Burton until the President had been able to join her later that night.

  The Sullivan estate had been chosen as the perfect spot for the planned interlude because, ironically, her home in the country was the last place anyone would expect Christy Sullivan to be. And Russell knew it would also be perfectly empty, guarded by a security system that was no barrier to their plans.

  Russell sat down in a chair and closed her eyes. Yes, she had two of the most capable members of the Secret Service in this house with her. And, for the first time, that fact troubled the Chief of Staff. The four agents with her and the President tonight had been handpicked, out of the approximately one hundred agents assigned to the presidential detail, by the President himself for these little activities. They were all loyal and highly skilled. They took care of the President and held their tongues, regardless of what was asked of them. Up until tonight President Richmond’s fascination with married women had spawned no overwhelming dilemmas. But tonight’s events clearly threatened all of that. Russell shook her head as she forced herself to think of a plan of action.

  * * *

  LUTHER STUDIED THE FACE. IT WAS INTELLIGENT, ATTRACTIVE but also a very hard face. You could almost see the mental maneuvering as the forehead alternately wrinkled and then went lax. Time slipped by and she didn’t budge. Then Gloria Russell’s eyes opened and moved across the room, not missing any detail.

  Luther involuntarily shrank back as her gaze swept by him like a searchlight across a prison yard. Then her eyes came to the bed and stopped. For a long minute she stared at the sleeping man, and then she got a look on her face that Luther could not figure out. It was halfway between a smile and a grimace.

  She got up, moved to the bed and looked down at the man. A Man of the People, or so the people thought. A Man for the Ages. He did not look so great right now. His body was half on the bed, legs spread, feet nearly touching the floor; an awkward position to say the least when one was wearing no clothes.

  She ran her eyes up and down the President’s body, lingering on some points, an activity that was amazing to Luther considering what was lying on the floor. Before Gloria Russell had entered the room and faced off with Burton, Luther had expected to hear sirens and to be sitting there watching policemen and detectives, medical examiners and even spin doctors swarming everywhere; with news trucks piling up in vast columns outside. Obviously, this woman had a different plan.

  Luther had seen Gloria Russell on CNN and the major networks, and countless times in the papers. Her features were distinctive. A long, aquiline nose set between high cheek-bones, the gift from a Cherokee ancestor. The hair was raven black and hung straight, stopping at her shoulders. The eyes were big and so dark a blue that they resembled the deepest of ocean water, twin pools of danger for the careless and unwary.

  Luther carefully maneuvered in the chair. Watching the woman in front of a stately fireplace inside the White House pontificating on the latest political concerns was one thing. Watching her move through a room containing a corpse and examining a drunk, naked man who was the leader of the Free World was an entirely different matter. It was a spectacle Luther did not want to watch anymore but he could not pull his eyes away.

  Russell glanced at the door, walked quickly across the room, took out her handkerchief, and closed and locked it. She swiftly returned to again stare down at the President. Her hand went out and for a moment Luther cringed in anticipation, but she simply stroked the President’s face. Luther relaxed, but then stiffened again as her hand moved down to his chest, lingering momentarily on the thick hair, and then dropped still lower to his flat stomach, which rose and fell evenly in his deep sleep.

  Then her hand moved lower and she slowly pulled the sheet away and let it drop to the floor. Her hand reached down to his crotch and held there. Then she glanced at the door again and knelt down in front of the President. Now Luther had to close his eyes. He did not share the peculiar spectator interests of the house’s owner.

  Several long minutes passed, and then Luther opened his eyes. Gloria Russell was now shedding her pantyhose, laying them neatly on a chair. Then she carefully climbed on top of the slumbering President.

  Luther closed his eyes again. He wondered if they could hear the bed squeak downstairs. Probably not, as it was a very large house. And even if they did, what could they do?

  Ten minutes later Luther heard a small, involuntary gasp from the man, and a low moan from the woman. But Luther kept his eyes closed. He wasn’t sure why. It seemed to be from a combination of raw fear and disgust at the disrespect shown to the dead woman.

  When Luther finally opened his eyes, Russell was staring directly at him. His heart stopped for a moment until his brain told him it was okay. She quickly slipped on her pantyhose. Then, in confident, even strokes, she reapplied her lipstick in the looking glass.

  A smile clung to her face; the cheeks were flushed. She looked younger. Luther glanced
at the President. He had returned to a deep sleep, the last twenty minutes probably filed away by his mind as an especially realistic and pleasant dream. Luther looked back at Russell.

  It was unnerving to see this woman smile directly at him, in this room of death, without knowing he was there. There was power in that woman’s face. And a look Luther had already seen once in this room. This woman, too, was dangerous.

  * * *

  “I WANT THIS ENTIRE PLACE SANITIZED, EXCEPT FOR THAT.” Russell pointed to the late Mrs. Sullivan. “Wait a minute. He was probably all over her. Burton, I want you to check every inch of her body, and anything that looks remotely like it doesn’t belong there I want you to make disappear. Then put her clothes on.”

  Hands gloved, Burton moved forward to carry out this order.

  Collin sat next to the President, forcing another cup of coffee down the man’s throat. The caffeine would help clear away the grogginess, but only the passage of time would clean the slate completely. Russell sat down next to him. She took the President’s hand in hers. He was fully clothed now although his hair was in disarray. His arm hurt, but they had bandaged it as best they could. He was in excellent health; it would heal quickly.

  “Mr. President? Alan? Alan?” Russell gripped his face and pointed it toward her.

  Had he sensed what she had done to him? She doubted it. He had so desperately wanted to get laid tonight. Wanted to be inside a woman. She had given him her body, no questions asked. Technically she had committed rape. Realistically she was confident she had fulfilled many a male’s dream. It didn’t matter if he had no recollection of the event, of her sacrifice. But he would damn sure know what she was going to do for him now.

  The President’s eyes came in and out of focus. Collin rubbed his neck. He was coming around. Russell glanced at her watch. Two o’clock in the morning. They had to get back. She slapped his face, not hard, but enough to get his attention. She felt Collin stiffen. God these guys had tunnel vision.

  “Alan, did you have sex with her?”

  “Wha . . .”

  “Did you have sex with her?”

  “Wha . . . No. Don’t think so. Don’t remem . . .”

  “Give him some more coffee, pour it down his damned throat if you have to, but get him sober.” Collin nodded and went to work. Russell walked over to Burton, whose gloved hands were dexterously examining every inch of the late Mrs. Sullivan.

  Burton had been involved in numerous police investigations. He knew exactly what detectives looked for and where they looked for it. He never imagined himself using that specialized knowledge to inhibit an investigation, but then he had never imagined anything