Absolute Power

  value it had not taken long for the vultures to circle.

  Centrus Corp.’s tender offer was, upon Lord’s advice, rejected by the board of directors. However, all indications pointed to overwhelming acceptance of the offer by the shareholders, who had nervously watched as a large chunk of their investment had evaporated overnight. It was likely that the proxy battle would be complete and the takeover finalized in two months. Centrus’s counsel, Rhoads, Director & Minor, was one of the largest law firms in the country, well-stocked in all areas of legal expertise.

  The bottom line was clear. PS&L would not be needed. Its largest client, over twenty million dollars’ worth, almost one-third of its legal business, would disappear. Already résumés were flying out of the firm. Practice groups were trying to cut deals with Rhoads, pleading their familiarity with Sullivan’s business as a hedge against the dreaded and costly learning curve. Twenty percent of the heretofore loyal PS&L attorney ranks had submitted their resignation and there were no indications the tidal wave would subside anytime soon.

  Lord’s hand slowly meandered along his desk until the whiskey was tilted back and finished. He swiveled around, checked out the gloom of the winter’s morning and had to smile to himself.

  There was no deal awaiting him at Rhoads, Director & Minor and, thus, it had finally happened: Lord was vulnerable. He had seen clients bite the dust with alarming swiftness, especially in the last decade where you were a paper billionaire one minute and an impoverished felon the next. He had, though, never imagined that his own fall, if it ever came, would be as terrifyingly fast, as painfully complete.

  That was the problem with an eight-figure gorilla of a client. It took all of your time and attention. Old clients dried up and died away. New clients were not cultivated. His complacency had come back to bite him right in the ass.

  He calculated swiftly. Over the last twenty years he had netted roughly thirty million dollars. Unfortunately, he had managed somehow not only to spend the thirty mil but a good deal more than that. Over the years he had owned a string of luxurious homes, a vacation place in Hilton Head Island, a hideaway fuck nest in the Big Apple where he had taken his wedded prey. The luxury cars, the various collections that a man of taste and resources was supposed to accumulate, the small but select wine cellar, even his own helicopter—he had had all those things, but three divorces, none of them amicable, had deteriorated his asset base.

  The residence he now had left was straight from the pages of Architectural Digest but its mortgage matched its stunning opulence stride for stride. And the thing he truly didn’t have much of was cash. Liquidity escaped him and at PS&L you ate what you killed and PS&L partners didn’t tend to hunt in packs. That was why Lord’s monthly draw was so much larger than everyone else’s. That revised draw check would now barely cover his plastic bills; his monthly Am Ex alone routinely crept into the five-figure range.

  He turned his now-racing gray cells for a moment to his non-Sullivan clients. A rough ballpark estimate gave him maybe a half-million in potential legal business at best, if he pumped them hard, made the circuit, which he didn’t want to do, lacked any desire to do. That was beneath him now. Or it had been up until good old Walter had decided life just wasn’t worth living despite his several billions. Jesus Christ. All for a little dumbshit whore.

  Five hundred thou! That was even less than the little prick Kirksen. Lord winced at that realization.

  He wheeled around and studied the artwork on the far wall. Within the brush strokes of a minor nineteenth-century artist he found reason to smile once more. He had an option left to him. Though his biggest client had royally screwed up Lord’s life, the rotund deal-maker had an asset left to mine. He punched his phone.

  * * *

  FRED MARTIN PUSHED THE CART QUICKLY DOWN THE hallway. Only his third day on the job, and his first delivering the mail to the firm’s attorneys, Martin was anxious to complete his task quickly and accurately. One of ten gofers employed by the firm, Martin was already feeling pressure from his supervisor to pick up his pace. After banging the streets for four months with no weapons other than his B.A. in history from Georgetown, Martin had figured his only recourse was to attend law school. And what better place to plumb the possibilities of such a career than at one of D.C.’s most prestigious? His endless trek of job interviews had convinced him that it was never too early to commence networking.

  He consulted his map with the attorneys’ names listed in each square representing that person’s office. Martin had grabbed the map from on top of the desk in his cubicle, not noticing the updated version buried under a multinational transaction closing binder that rose five thousand pages high, the indexing and binding of which awaited him that afternoon.

  As he rounded the corner he stopped and looked at the closed door. Everyone’s door was closed today. He took the Federal Express package and checked the name on the map, and compared that to the scrawled handwriting on the packing label. It matched. He looked at the empty nameplate holder and his eyebrows converged in confusion.

  He knocked, waited a moment, knocked again and then opened the door.

  He looked around. The place was a mess. Boxes littered the floor, the furniture was in disarray. Some papers lay scattered on the desk. His first instinct was to check with his supervisor. Maybe there was a mistake. He looked at his watch. Already ten minutes late. He grabbed the phone, dialed his supervisor. No answer. Then he saw the photo of the woman on the desk. Tall, auburn-haired, very expensively dressed. Must be the man’s office. Probably moving in. Who’d leave a looker like that behind? With that rationale established, Fred carefully laid the package on the desk chair, where it would be sure to be found. He closed the door on his way out.

  * * *

  “I’M SORRY ABOUT WALTER, SANDY. I REALLY AM.” JACK checked the view across the cityscape. A penthouse apartment in Upper Northwest. The place must have been enormously expensive, and the dollars had continued to flow for the interior design. Everywhere Jack looked were original paintings, soft leather and sculptured stone. He reasoned that the world didn’t have many Sandy Lords and they had to live somewhere.

  Lord sat by the fire that popped pleasantly in the grate, a loose paisley robe covering his bulky frame, bare feet comforted in leather slippers. A cold rain fell against the broad expanse of windows. Jack drew closer to the fire, his mind appeared to crackle and jump like the flames; a loose ember hit the marble surround, flamed and then quickly disappeared. Jack cradled his drink and looked at his partner.

  The phone call hadn’t been totally unexpected. “We need to talk, Jack, the sooner the better for me. Not at the office.”

  When he arrived, Lord’s aged valet had taken his coat and gloves and then inconspicuously receded into the farther reaches of the home.

  The two men were in Lord’s mahogany-paneled study, a luxuriously masculine retreat that Jack felt guiltily envious of. A glimmer of the large stone house briefly came into focus. It had a library, much like this. With an effort he focused on Lord’s back.

  “I’m kinda fucked, Jack.” The first words out of Lord’s mouth had the effect of making Jack want to smile. You had to appreciate the man’s candor. But he caught himself. The tone in Lord’s voice demanded a certain respect.

  “The firm’ll be okay, Sandy. We’re not going to lose many more. So we sublease some space, it’s no big deal.”

  Lord finally stood up and went straight to the well-fed bar in the corner. The shot glass was filled to the rim and downed in a well-practiced motion.

  “Excuse me, Jack, maybe I’m not making myself real clear here. The firm took a blow, but not one that’ll send it down for the count. You’re right, Patton, Shaw will weather this broadside. But what I’m talking about is whether Patton, Shaw and Lord will live to fight another day.”

  Lord lurched across the room and wearily plunged himself on the burgundy leather couch. Jack traced the column of brass nails as they marched across the outline of the heavy pie
ce. He sipped his drink and studied the wide face. The eyes were narrow, no more than penny-wide slits really.

  “You’re the firm’s leader, Sandy, I don’t see that changing, even if your client base took a hit.”

  Lord groaned from his horizontal perch.

  “A hit? A hit? I took a goddamned A-bomb, Jack, right up my ass. The heavyweight champion of the world couldn’t have hit me any harder. I’m going down for the count. The buzzards they are a circling, and Lord he is the main course; the stuffed hog with the apple in the mouth and a bull’s-eye on the butt.”


  “Kirksen, Packard, Mullins, fucking Townsend. Keep counting, Jack, the list goes on until you get to the end of the partnership roll. I have, I must admit, a most unusual, hate-hate relationship with my partners.”

  “But not Graham, Sandy. Not with Graham.”

  Lord slowly edged himself up, perching on one flabby arm as he looked at Jack.

  Jack wondered why he liked the man as much as he did. The answer probably lay somewhere in the lunch at Fillmore’s way back when. No bullshit. A real-world baptism where the sting of words made your gut clench and your brain hammer out responses you’d never have the nerve to actually deliver. Now the man was in trouble. Jack had the means to protect him. Or maybe he did; his relationship with the Baldwins right now was far from solid.

  “Sandy, if they want to get to you, they’ll have to go through me first.” There, he had said it. And he meant it. It was also true that Lord had given him his chance to shine with the big boys, thrown him right into the fire. But what other way would you know if you could actually pull it off or not? That experience was also worth something.

  “The waters might get a little rocky for both of us, Jack.”

  “I’m a good swimmer, Sandy. Besides, don’t look at this as purely altruistic. You’re an investment of the firm in which I’m a partner. You’re a top-grade rainmaker. You’re down now, but you won’t stay down. Five hundred bucks says within twelve months you’re back in the number-one slot. I don’t intend on letting an asset like that walk away.”

  “I won’t forget this, Jack.”

  “I won’t let you.”

  After Jack had left, Lord started to pour another drink but stopped. He looked down at his quivering hands and slowly put down the bottle and glass. He made it to the couch before his knees gave out. The federal-style mirror over the fire-place caught his image. It had been twenty years since a single tear had escaped the heavy face. That had been at his mother’s passing. But now the outpourings were steadily coming on. He had cried for his friend, Walter Sullivan. For years Lord had duped himself into believing that the man meant nothing more to him than a solid-gold draw check each month. The price for that self-deception had come due at the funeral, where Lord had wept so hard that he had gone back to his car until it was time to go bury his friend.

  Now he rubbed at the puffy cheeks once again, pushing away the salty liquid. Fucking young punk. Lord had planned everything down to the last detail. His pitch would be perfect. He had envisioned every possible response except the one he had gotten. He had mistaken the younger man. Lord assumed that Jack would have done what Lord himself would have done: pressed for every advantage in exchange for the enormous favor being asked.

  It wasn’t only guilt that pulled at him. It was shame. He realized that as sickness enveloped him and he bent low over the thick, spongy carpet. Shame. He hadn’t felt that one for a long time either. When the nausea subsided and he once again looked at the wreck in the mirror, Lord promised himself that he would not disappoint Jack. That he would rise back to the top. And he would not forget.


  FRANK HAD NEVER IN HIS WILDEST FANTASIES EXPECTED TO be sitting here. He looked around and quickly determined that it was indeed oval in shape. The furnishings tended to be solid, conservative, but with a splash of color here, a stripe there, a pair of expensive sneakers placed neatly on a lower shelf, that stated that the room’s occupant was not nearly ready for retirement. Frank swallowed hard and willed himself to breathe normally. He was a veteran policeman and this was just another routine inquiry in a series of endless ones. He was just following up a lead, nothing more. A few minutes and he’d be out of here.

  But then his brain reminded him that the person he was about to make inquiries of was the current President of the United States. As a new shock wave of nervousness rushed over him the door opened and he quickly stood, turned and stared for a long moment at the extended hand until his mind finally registered and he slowly moved his out to meet it.

  “Thank you for coming down into my neck of the woods, Lieutenant.”

  “No trouble at all, sir. I mean you’ve got better things to do than sit in traffic. Although I guess you never really sit in traffic, do you, Mr. President?”

  Richmond sat behind his desk and motioned for Frank to resume his seat. An impassive Bill Burton, invisible to Frank until that moment, closed the door and inclined his head toward the detective.

  “My routes are pretty well laid out in advance I’m afraid. It’s true I don’t end up in many traffic jams but it does stifle the hell out of spontaneity.” The President grinned and Frank could feel his own mouth automatically turning up into a smile.

  The President leaned forward and stared directly at him. He clasped his hands together, his brow wrinkled and he went from jovial to intensely serious in an instant.

  “I want to thank you, Seth.” He glanced at Burton. “Bill has told me how cooperative you were with the investigation of Christine Sullivan’s death. I really appreciate that, Seth. Some officials would have been less than forthcoming or tried to turn it into a media circus for their own personal gain. I hoped for better from you and my expectations were exceeded. Again, thank you.”

  Frank glowed as though he had been awarded the fourth-grade spelling bee crown.

  “It’s terrible, you know. Tell me, have you learned of any connection between Walter’s suicide and this criminal being gunned down?”

  Frank shook the stars from his eyes and his pair of steady eyes came to rest on the chiseled features of the President.

  “Come on, Lieutenant. I can tell you that all of official and unofficial Washington is right this very minute savagely attacking the issue of Walter Sullivan having hired an assassin to avenge his wife’s death and then taking his own life in the aftermath. You can’t stop people from gossiping. I would just like to know if your investigation has led to any fact to substantiate Walter having ordered the killing of his wife’s murderer.”

  “I’m afraid that I really can’t say one way or another, sir. I hope you understand, but this is an ongoing police investigation.”

  “Don’t worry, Lieutenant, I’m not treading on your toes. But I can tell you that this has been a particularly distressing time for me. To think Walter Sullivan would end his own life. One of the most brilliant and resourceful men of his era, of any era.”

  “So I’ve heard an awful lot of people say.”

  “But just between you and me, knowing Walter as I did, it would not be out of the realm of possibility that he would have taken precise and concrete steps to have his wife’s killer . . . dealt with.”

  “Alleged killer, Mr. President. Innocent until proven guilty.”

  The President looked at Burton. “But I was led to understand that your case was pretty much ironclad.”

  Seth Frank scratched his ear. “Some defense attorneys love ironclad cases, sir. See, you dump enough water on iron, it starts to rust and before you know it, you got holes everywhere.”

  “And this defense attorney was such a person?”

  “And then some. I’m not a betting man, but I would’ve given us no more than a forty percent shot at getting a clean conviction. We were in for a real battle.”

  The President sat back as he absorbed this information and then looked back at Frank.

  Frank finally noted the expression of expectancy on his face a
nd flipped open his notebook. His heartbeat calmed down as he perused the familiar scribbles.

  “Are you aware it was right before his death that Walter Sullivan called you here?”

  “I know that I spoke with him. I was not aware that it immediately preceded his death, no.”

  “I guess I’m a little surprised that you didn’t come forward with this information earlier.”

  The President’s face fell. “I know. I guess I’m a little surprised myself. I supposed I believed I was shielding Walter, or at least his memory, from further trauma. Although I knew the police would eventually discover the call was placed. I’m sorry, Lieutenant.”

  “I need to know the details of that phone conversation.”

  “Would you like something to drink, Seth?”

  “A cup of coffee would be fine, thank you.”

  As if on cue, Burton picked up a phone in the corner and a minute later a silver-plated coffee tray was delivered in.

  The steaming hot coffee was sipped; the President looked at his watch, then saw Frank staring at him.

  “I’m sorry, Seth, I am treating your visit with the importance it deserves. However, I’ve got a congressional delegation coming to lunch in a few minutes and quite frankly I’m not looking forward to it. As funny as it sounds, I’m not particularly enamored of politicians.”

  “I understand. This will only take a few minutes. What was the purpose of the call?”

  The President leaned back in his chair as if organizing his thoughts. “I would characterize the call as one of desperation. He was definitely not his usual self. He seemed unbalanced, out of control. For long periods of time he would say nothing. Very unlike the Walter Sullivan I knew.”

  “What did he talk about?”