Absolute Power

  But would he really? It was a big place. The background noise produced by that mode of transportation was so everyday, would he have even noticed it? And he had been on the phone, all his attention had been so concentrated. The truth was he couldn’t be sure. Besides it might just be one of the firm’s attorneys, dropping in to work or pick up something. All his instincts told him that conclusion was the wrong one. But this was a secure building. But then again how secure could any public building be? He softly closed his office door.

  There it was again. His ears strained to pick up its location without success. Whoever it was, they were moving slowly, stealthily. No one who worked here would do that. He inched over to the wall and turned off the light, waited for an instant and then carefully opened the door.

  He peered out. The hallway was clear. But for how long? His tactical problem was obvious. The firm’s office space was configured such that if he started down one way he was more or less committed to that path. And he would be totally exposed, the hallways were absolutely devoid of furnishings. If he met whoever it was going that way, he wouldn’t have a chance.

  A practical consideration struck him and he looked around the darkness of his office. His gaze finally fell upon a heavy, granite paperweight, one of the many knickknacks he had received upon making partner. It could do some real damage if wielded properly. And Jack was confident he could do so. If he was going down he wouldn’t make it easy for them. That fatalist approach helped to stiffen his resolve and he waited another few seconds before venturing out into the hallway, closing the door behind him. Whoever it was probably would have to make a door-to-door search to find his office.

  He crouched low as he came to a corner. Now he desperately wished the office was in total darkness. He took a deep breath and peered around. The way was clear, at least for now. He thought quickly. If there was more than one intruder, they would probably split up, cut their search time in half. Would they even know if he was in the building? Maybe he had been followed here. That thought was especially troubling. They might even at this moment be circling him, coming from both ways.

  The sounds were closer now. Footsteps—he could make out at least one pair. His hearing was now raised to its highest level of acuteness. He could almost make out the person’s breathing, or at least he imagined he could. He had to make a choice. And his eyes finally fell upon something on the wall, something that gleamed back at him: the fire alarm.

  As he was about to make a run for it, a leg came around the corner at the other end of the hallway. Jack jerked back, not waiting for the rest of the body to catch up with the limb. He walked as swiftly as he could in the opposite direction. He turned the corner, made his way down the hall, and came to a stairwell door. He jerked it open and a loud creak hit him full in the face.

  He heard the sounds of running feet.

  “Shit!” Jack slammed the door closed behind him and clattered down the stairs.

  A man hurtled around the corner. A black ski mask covered his face. A pistol was in his right hand.

  An office door opened and Sandy Lord, dressed in his undershirt, with his pants halfway off, stumbled out and accidentally plowed into the man. They went down hard. Lord’s flailing hands instinctively gripped the mask, pulling it off.

  Lord rolled to his knees, sucking in blood from his battered nose.

  “What the goddamn hell is going on? Who the hell are you?” Lord angrily looked eye-to-eye with the man. Then Lord saw the gun and froze.

  Tim Collin looked back at him, shaking his head half in disbelief, half in disgust. There was no way around it now. He raised his gun.

  “Jesus Christ! Please no!” Lord wailed and fell back.

  The gun fired and blood spurted from the very center of the undershirt. Lord gasped once, his eyes glazed and his body landed back against the door. It fell the rest of the way open to reveal the nearly naked figure of the young legislative liaison, who stared in shock at the dead lawyer. Collin swore under his breath. He looked at her. She knew what was coming, he could see it in the terror-filled eyes.

  Wrong place, wrong time. Sorry lady.

  His gun exploded a second time and the impact knocked her slender body back into the room. Her legs splayed, her fingers clenched, she stared blankly at the ceiling; her night of pleasure turned abruptly into her last night on earth.

  Bill Burton ran up to his kneeling partner and surveyed the carnage with incredulity, which was quickly replaced with anger.

  “Are you fucking crazy!” he exploded.

  “They saw my face, what the hell was I supposed to do? Make them promise not to tell? Fuck it!”

  Both men’s nerves were at their breaking point. Collin gripped his gun hard.

  “Where is he? Was it Graham?” Burton demanded.

  “I think so. He went down the fire stairs.”

  “So he’s gone.”

  Collin looked at him and then stood up. “Not yet. I didn’t waste two people just so he could get away.” He started to take off. Burton grabbed him.

  “Give me your gun, Tim.”

  “Goddammit, Bill, are you nuts?”

  Burton shook his head, pulled out his piece and handed it to him. He took Collin’s weapon.

  “Now go get him. I’ll try to do some damage control here.”

  Collin ran to the door and then disappeared down the stairs.

  Burton looked at the two dead bodies. He recognized Sandy Lord and sucked in his breath sharply. “Goddamn. Goddamn,” he said again. He turned and went quickly to Jack’s office. Trailing his sprinting partner, he had found it right at the moment the first shot rang out. He opened the door and turned on the light. He surveyed the interior quickly. The guy would have the package with him. That was clear. Richmond had been right about Edwina Broome’s involvement. Whitney had entrusted her with the package. Shit, they had been so close. Who knew Graham or anybody else would be here this late?

  He made another sweep of the room’s contents with his eyes. They went past and slowly came back to the desk. His plan came together in a few seconds. Finally, something might be going their way. He moved toward the desk.

  * * *

  JACK REACHED THE FIRST FLOOR AND YANKED ON THE doorknob. It didn’t budge. His heart sank. They had had trouble with this before. Routine fire drills and the doors had been locked. The building management said they had fixed the problem. Right! Only now their mistake could cost him his life. And not from any inferno.

  He looked back up the stairs. They were coming fast, silence was no longer an issue. Jack raced back up the stairs to the second floor, prayed silently before he grabbed the knob and a rush of relief swept over him as it turned in his sweating hand. He turned the corner, hit the elevator bank, pushed the button. He checked his backside, ran to the far corner and crouched down out of sight.

  Come on! He could hear the elevator heading up. But then an awful thought ran through his mind. Whoever was following him could be on that elevator. Could have figured what Jack would try to do and attempt to checkmate him.

  The car halted on his floor. At the instant the doors opened Jack heard the fire door smash against the wall. He jumped for the car, slid in between the doors and crashed against the back of the elevator. He leapt up and hit the button for the garage.

  Jack felt the presence immediately, the slightly elevated breathing. He saw a flash of black, then the gun. He hurled the paperweight, and threw himself into the corner.

  He heard a grunt of pain as the doors finally closed.

  He ran through the dark underground parking garage, found his car and a few moments later he was through the automatic door and hit the accelerator. The car raced up the street. Jack looked back. Nothing. He looked at himself in the mirror. His face was drenched with sweat. His entire body was one large knot. He rubbed his shoulder where he had slammed into the elevator wall. Jesus, that had been so close. So close.

  As he drove he wondered where he could go. They knew him, knew all about him it se
emed. He clearly couldn’t go home. Where then? The police? No. Not until he knew who was after him. Who had been able to kill Luther despite all the cops. Who seemed to always know what the cops knew. For tonight he would stay someplace in town. He had his credit cards. In the morning, first thing in the morning, he would hook up with Frank. Everything would be okay then. He eyed the box. But tonight he would see what had almost cost him his life.

  * * *

  RUSSELL LAY UNDERNEATH THE SHEETS. RICHMOND HAD JUST finished on top of her. And without a word he had climbed off and left the room, her sole purpose brutally fulfilled. She rubbed her wrists where he had clenched them. She could feel the abrasions. Her breasts hurt where he had mauled them. Burton’s warning came back to her. Christine Sullivan, too, had been mangled, and not just by the agents’ bullets.

  She slowly moved her head back and forth, fought to hold back the tears. She had wanted this so badly. Had wanted Alan Richmond to make love to her; she had imagined it would be so romantic, so idyllic. Two intelligent, powerful and dynamic people. The perfect couple. How wonderful it should have been. And then the vision of the man startled her back to reality; pounding away at her, with no more emotion on his features than if he had been masturbating alone in the toilet with the latest Penthouse. He had never even kissed her; had never even spoken. He had just pulled off her clothes as soon as she came in the bedroom, sunk his hardened flesh into her and now he was gone. It had all taken barely ten minutes. And now she was alone. Chief of Staff! Chief Whore more like it.

  She wanted to scream out I fucked you! You bastard! I fucked you in that room that night and there wasn’t a damn thing you could do about it you sonofabitch.

  Her tears wet the pillow and she cursed herself for breaking down and crying yet again. She had been so sure of her abilities, so confident that she could control him. God, she had been so wrong. The man had people killed. Walter Sullivan. Walter Sullivan had been killed, murdered, with the knowledge, indeed the blessing, of the President of the United States. When Richmond had told her she couldn’t believe it. He said he wanted to keep her fully informed. Fully terrified was more like it. She had no idea what he was up to now. She was no longer a central part of this campaign and she thanked God that she wasn’t.

  She sat up in bed, pulled the ripped nightgown over her quivering body. Shame rocked her again, momentarily. Of course she was now his personal whore. And his consideration for that was his unspoken promise not to crush her. But was that all? Was that really all?

  She huddled the blanket around her and looked into the darkness of the room. She was an accomplice. But she was also something more. She was a witness. Luther Whitney had also been a witness. And now he was dead. And Richmond had calmly ordered the execution of one of his oldest and dearest friends. If he could do that, what was her life worth? The answer to that question was shockingly clear.

  She bit into her hand until it hurt. She looked at the doorway through which he had disappeared. Was he in there? in the dark, listening? thinking about what to do with her? A cold shudder of fear grabbed her and did not leave. She was caught. For once in her life she had no options. She wasn’t sure if she would even survive.

  * * *

  JACK DROPPED THE BOX ON THE BED, TOOK OFF HIS COAT, looked out the window of his hotel room and then sat down. He was pretty sure he hadn’t been followed. He had gotten out of the building so fast. He had remembered, at the last minute, to ditch his car. He didn’t really know who was pursuing him, but he assumed they were sophisticated enough to trace his car’s whereabouts.

  He checked his watch. The cab had dropped him off at the hotel barely fifteen minutes ago. It was a nondescript place, a hotel where tourists on the cheap would stay and then wander around the city to get their fill of the country’s history before heading back home. It was out of the way but then he wanted out of the way.

  Jack looked at the box and then decided he had waited long enough. A few seconds later he had it open and was staring at the object inside the plastic bag.

  A knife? He looked at it more closely. No, it was a letter opener, one of the old-fashioned kind. He held the bag by its ends and examined the object minutely. He wasn’t a trained forensic specialist, and thus he didn’t register that the black crustings on the handle and blade were actually very old, dried blood. Nor was he aware of the fingerprints that existed within the leather.

  He lay the bag carefully down and leaned back in the chair. This had something to do with the woman’s murder. Of that he was certain. But what? He looked at it again. This was obviously an important piece of physical evidence. It hadn’t been the murder weapon; Christine Sullivan had been shot. But Luther had thought it critically important.

  Jack jerked straight up. Because it identified who had killed Christine Sullivan! He grabbed the bag and held it up to the light, his eyes searching every inch of space. Now he could dimly make them out, like a swirl of black threads. Prints. This had the person’s fingerprints on it. Jack looked at the blade closely. Blood. On the handle too. It had to be. What had Frank said? He struggled to recall. Sullivan had possibly stabbed her attacker. In the arm or the leg with a letter opener, the one in the bedroom photo. At least that was one of the detective’s theories he had shared with Jack. What Jack held in his hand seemed to bear that analysis out.

  He carefully placed the bag back into the box and slid it under the bed.

  He went over to the window and again looked out. The wind had picked up. The cheap window rattled and shook.

  If only Luther would have told him, confided in him. But he was scared for Kate. How had they made Luther believe Kate was in danger?

  He thought back. Luther had received nothing while in prison, Jack was certain of that. So what then? Had whoever it was just walked up to Luther and told him flat out: talk and your daughter dies? How would they even know he had a daughter? The two hadn’t been in the same room with each other for years.

  Jack lay down on the bed, closed his eyes. No, he was wrong about that. There was one time when that would have been possible. The day they had arrested Luther. That would be the only time that father and daughter would have been together. It was possible that, without saying anything, someone could have made it crystal-clear to Luther, with just a look, nothing more. Jack had handled cases that had been dismissed because witnesses were afraid to testify. No one had ever said anything to them. It was solely intimidation by the unspoken word. A silent terror, there was nothing new about that.

  So who would’ve been there to do that? To deliver the message that had made Luther shut up like his mouth was stapled closed? But the only people who were there, as far as Jack knew, were the cops. Unless it was the person who had taken a shot at Luther. But why would he hang around? How could that person just waltz into the place, walk up to Luther, make eye contact, without anyone becoming suspicious?

  Jack’s eyes shot open.

  Unless that person were a cop. His immediate thought hit him hard in the chest.

  Seth Frank.

  He dismissed it quickly. There was no motive there, not a scintilla of motive. For the life of him he couldn’t imagine the detective and Christine Sullivan in any type of tryst and that’s what this boiled down to, didn’t it? Sullivan’s lover had killed her and Luther had seen the whole thing. It couldn’t be Seth Frank. He hoped to God it wasn’t Seth Frank because he was counting on the man to get him out of this mess. But what if tomorrow morning Jack would be delivering the very thing Frank had been desperately searching for? He could have dropped it, left the room, Luther comes out of his hiding place, picks it up and flees. It was possible. And the place sanitized so clean a pro had to be behind it. A pro. An experienced homicide detective who knew exactly how to cleanse a crime scene.

  Jack shook his head. No! Dammit no! He had to believe in something, someone. It had to be something else. Someone else. It had to be. He was just tired. His attempts at deduction were becoming ludicrous. Seth Frank was no murderer.

  He closed his eyes again. For now he believed he was safe. A few minutes later he fell into an uneasy sleep.

  * * *

  THE MORNING WAS REFRESHINGLY COLD, THE CLOSE, TRAPPED air expunged by the storm of the night before.

  Jack was already up; he had slept in his clothes and they looked it. He washed his face in the small bathroom, smoothed down his hair, cut the light off and went back into the bedroom. He sat on the bed and looked at his watch. Frank would not be in yet, but it wouldn’t be long now. He pulled the box from under the bed, laid it beside him. It felt like a time bomb next to him.

  He flicked on the small color TV that sat in the corner of the room. The early-morning local news was on. The perky blonde, no doubt aided by substantial amounts of caffeine as she waited for her break into prime time, was recounting the top stories.

  Jack expected to see the litany of various world trouble spots. The Middle East was good for at least a minute each morning. Maybe Southern California had had another quake. The President fighting the Congress.

  But there was only one top story this morning. Jack leaned forward as a place he knew very well flashed across the screen.

  Patton, Shaw & Lord. The lobby of PS&L. What was the woman saying? People dead? Sandy Lord murdered? Gunned down in his office? Jack leaped across the room and turned up the volume. He watched with increasing astonishment as twin gurneys were wheeled out of the building. A picture of Lord flashed into the upper-right-hand corner of the TV screen. His distinguished career was briefly recounted. But he was dead, unmistakably dead. In his office, someone had shot him.

  Jack fell back on the bed. Sandy had been there last night? But who was the other person? The other one under that sheet? He didn’t know. Couldn’t know that. But he believed he knew what had happened. The man after him, the man with the gun. Lord must have run into him, somehow. They were after Jack and Lord had walked right into it.