Absolute Power

  chair. The guy was right, flat-out right.

  “Fair enough. Would you like to hear how they set you up?”

  “I’m listening.”

  “You had a glass on your desk. Apparently you were drinking something. You remember that?”

  “Yeah, Coke, so what?”

  “So whoever was after you ran into Lord and the woman like you said and they had to be popped. You got away. They knew the garage video would have you leaving right about the time of the deaths. They lifted your prints off the glass and transferred them to the gun.”

  “You can do that?”

  “You bet your ass, if you know what you’re doing and you’ve got the right equipment, which they probably found in the supply room at your firm. If we had the glass we could show it was a forgery. Just as one person’s prints are unique from another person’s, your print on the gun couldn’t match in every detail the print on the glass. Amount of pressure applied and so on.”

  “Do the D.C. cops buy that explanation?”

  Frank almost laughed. “I wouldn’t be counting on that, Jack. I really wouldn’t. All they want to do is bring you in. They’ll let other people worry about everything else.”

  “Great. So now what?”

  “First things first. Why were they after you in the first place?”

  Jack almost slapped himself. He looked down at the box.

  “I got a special delivery from someone. Edwina Broome. It’s something I think you’ll get a real kick out of seeing.”

  Seth stood up, almost wishing he could reach through the phone and snatch it. “What is it?”

  Jack told him.

  Blood and prints. Simon would have a field day. “I can meet you anywhere, anytime.”

  Jack thought rapidly. Ironically, public places seemed to be more dangerous than private ones. “How about the Farragut West Metro station, 18th Street exit, around eleven tonight?”

  Frank jotted the information down. “I’ll be there.”

  Jack hung up the phone. He would be at the Metro station before the appointed time. Just in case. If he saw anything remotely suspicious he was going underground as far as he could. He checked his money. The dollars were dwindling. And his credit cards were out for now. He would risk hitting several ATM machines. That would net him a few hundred. That should be enough, for a while.

  He exited the phone booth, checked the crowd. It was the typical hurried pace of Union Station. No one appeared the least bit interested in him. Jack jerked slightly. Coming his way were a pair of D.C. police officers. Jack stepped back into the phone booth until they passed.

  He bought some burgers and fries at the food court and then grabbed a cab. Munching down while the cab took him through the city, Jack had a moment to reflect on his options. Once he got the letter opener to Frank would his troubles really end? Presumably the prints and blood would match up with the person in the Sullivan house that night. But then Jack’s defense counsel mentality took over. And that mind-set told him there were clear, almost insurmountable obstacles in the path of such a pristine resolution.

  First, the physical evidence may well be inconclusive. There may be no match because the person’s DNA and prints may not be on file anywhere. Jack again remembered the look on Luther’s face that night on the Mall. It was somebody important, somebody people knew. And that was another obstacle. If you made accusations against a person like that, you better make damn sure you could back it up or else your case would never see the light of day.

  Second, they were looking at a mammoth chain-of-custody problem. Could they even prove the letter opener came from Sullivan’s home? Sullivan was dead; the staff might not know for certain. Christine Sullivan had presumably handled it. Perhaps her killer had possessed it for a short period of time. Luther had kept it for a couple of months. Now Jack had it and would, hopefully, soon be passing it on to Seth Frank. It finally struck Jack.

  The letter opener’s evidentiary value was zilch. Even if they could find a match, a competent defense counsel would shred its admissibility. Hell, they probably wouldn’t even get an indictment based on it. Tainted evidence was no evidence at all.

  He stopped eating and lay back in the grimy vinyl seat.

  But come on! They had tried to get it back! They had killed to get it back. They were prepared to kill Jack to take possession of what he had. It must be important to them, deadly important. So regardless of its legal efficacy, it had value. And something valuable could be exploited. Maybe he had a chance.

  * * *

  IT WAS TEN O’CLOCK WHEN JACK HIT THE ESCALATOR HEADING down into the Farragut West Metro station. Part of the orange and blue lines on the Washington Metrorail system, Farragut West was a very busy station during the day due to its close proximity to the downtown business area with its myriad law and accounting firms, trade associations and corporate offices. At ten o’clock in the evening, however, it was pretty much deserted.

  Jack stepped off the escalator and surveyed the area. The underground Metro stations of the system were really huge tunnels with vaulted honeycombed ceilings and floors consisting of six-sided brick. A broad corridor lined with cigarette advertisements on one side and automated ticket machines on the other culminated in a kiosk that sat in the center of the aisle with the turnstiles flanking it on either side. A huge Metro map with its multicolored rail lines, and travel time and pricing information, stood against one wall next to the dual phone booths.

  One bored Metro employee leaned back in his chair in the glass-enclosed kiosk. Jack looked around and eyed the clock atop the kiosk. Then he looked back toward the escalator and froze. Coming down the escalator was a police officer. Jack willed himself to turn as casually as possible and he passed along the wall until he reached the phone booth. He flattened himself against the back of the booth, hidden behind its barrier. He caught his breath and risked peering out. The officer approached the ticket machines, nodded to the Metro guy in the kiosk and looked around the perimeter of the station entrance. Jack drew back. He would wait. The guy would move on shortly; he had to.

  Time passed. A loud voice interrupted Jack’s thoughts. He looked out. Coming down the escalator was a man, obviously homeless. His clothing was in tatters, a thick bundled blanket slung over one shoulder. His beard and hair were matted and unkempt. His face weather-beaten and strained. It was cold outside. The warmth of the Metro stations was always a welcome haven for the homeless until they got run out. The iron gates at the top of the escalators were to keep just such people out.

  Jack looked around. The police officer had disappeared. Perhaps to check out the train platforms, shoot the breeze with the kiosk guy. Jack looked in that direction. That man too had vanished.

  Jack looked back at the homeless man, who was now crumpled in one corner, inventorying his meager belongings, rubbing ungloved hands back and forth, trying to work circulation into limbs stretched to their breaking point.

  A pang of guilt hit Jack. The gauntlet of such people downtown was staggering. A generous person could empty their entire pockets in the span of one city block. Jack had done that, more than once.

  He checked the area one more time. No one. Another train would not arrive for about fifteen minutes. He stepped out of the booth and looked directly across at the man. He didn’t seem to see Jack; his attention was focused on his own little world far away from normal reality. But then Jack thought, his own reality was no longer normal, if it ever had been. Both he and the pathetic mass across from him were involved in their own peculiar struggles. And death could claim either of them, at any time. Except that Jack’s demise would probably be somewhat more violent, somewhat more sudden. But maybe that was preferable to the lingering death awaiting the other.

  He shook his head clear. Thoughts like that were doing him no good. If he were going to survive this he had to remain focused, he had to believe he would outlast the forces marshaled against him.

  Jack started forward and then stopped. His blood pressure almos
t doubled; the sudden metabolic change he was experiencing left him light-headed.

  The homeless man was wearing new shoes. Soft-soled, brown leathers, which probably cost over a hundred and fifty bucks. They were revealed from out of the mass of filthy clothing like a shiny blue diamond on a bed of white sand.

  And now the man was looking up at him. The eyes locked on Jack’s face. They were familiar. Beneath the depths of wrinkles, filthy hair and wind-burnt cheeks, he had seen those eyes before; he was sure of it. The man was now rising off the floor. He seemed to have much more energy than when he first staggered in.

  Jack frantically looked around. The place was as empty as a tomb. His tomb. He looked back. The man had already started toward him. Jack backed up, clutching the box to his chest. He thought back to his narrow escape in the elevator. The gun. He would see that gun appearing soon. It would be pointed right at him.

  Jack backed down the tunnel toward the kiosk. The man’s hand was going underneath his coat, a torn and beaten behemoth that spilled its woolen guts with every step. Jack looked around. He heard approaching footsteps. He looked back at the man, deciding whether he should make a run for the train or not. Then he came into sight.

  Jack almost screamed in relief.

  The police officer rounded the corner. Jack ran to him, pointing back down the tunnel at the homeless man who now stood stock-still, in the middle of the corridor.

  “That man; he’s not a homeless person. He’s an imposter.” The chance of him being recognized by the cop had crossed Jack’s mind although the young cop’s features didn’t betray any such realization.

  “What?” The bewildered cop stared at Jack.

  “Look at his shoes.” Jack realized he was making little sense, but how could he when he couldn’t tell the cop the whole story?

  The cop looked down the tunnel, saw the homeless man standing there, his face turned into a grimace. In his confusion he retreated to the normal inquiry.

  “Has he been bothering you, sir?”

  Jack hesitated, then said, “Yes.”

  “Hey!” The cop shouted at the man.

  Jack watched as the cop ran forward. The homeless man turned and fled. He made it to the escalator, but the up escalator wasn’t working. He turned and raced down the tunnel, darted around a corner and disappeared, the cop right after him.

  Now Jack was alone. He looked back at the kiosk. The Metro guy hadn’t returned.

  Jack jerked his head. He had heard something. Like a shout, of someone in pain, from where the two men had disappeared. He moved forward. As he did, the cop, slightly out of breath, came back around the corner. He looked at Jack, motioned him to come over with slow movements of his arm. The guy looked sick, like he had seen or done something that disgusted him.

  Jack hustled up next to him.

  The cop gulped in air. “Goddammit! I don’t know what the hell’s going on, buddy.” The cop again struggled to catch his breath. He put one hand out against the wall to steady himself.

  “Did you catch him?”

  The cop nodded. “You were right.”

  “What happened?”

  “Go see for yourself. I’ve gotta call this in.” The cop straightened up and pointed a warning finger at Jack. “But you are not to leave. I’m not explaining this one by myself and it sounds like maybe you know a helluva lot more about this than you’re letting on. Understood?”

  Jack nodded quickly. The cop hurried off. Jack walked around the corner. Wait. The cop had told him to wait. Wait for them to arrest him. He should bolt now. But he couldn’t. He had to see who it was. He was certain he knew the guy. He had to see.

  Jack looked up ahead. This was a service way for Metro personnel and equipment. In the darkness, far down the tunnel, there was a large bundle of clothing. In the dim lighting Jack strained to see more clearly. As he moved closer he saw that it was indeed the homeless man. For a few moments Jack remained motionless. He wanted the cops to show up. It was so quiet, so dark. The bundle did not move. Jack couldn’t hear any breathing. Was the guy dead? Had the cop needed to kill him?

  Finally, Jack moved forward. He knelt beside the man. What an elaborate disguise. Jack moved his hand briefly across the matted hair. Even the pungent odor of the street person was authentic. And then Jack saw the stream of blood as it trickled down the side of the man’s head. He moved the hair away. A cut was there, a deep one. That was the sound he had heard. There had been a struggle and the cop had hit him. It was over. They had tried to trick Jack and gotten tripped up. He wanted to remove the wig and other elements of disguise, to see who the hell his pursuers had been. But that would have to wait. Maybe it was good the police were now involved. He would give them the letter opener. He’d take his chances with them.

  He stood up, turned and watched the cop striding quickly up the corridor. Jack shook his head. What a surprise this guy was about to get. Chalk it up to being your lucky day, pal.

  Jack moved toward the cop and then stopped as the 9mm swiftly came out of the holster.

  The cop glared at him. “Mr. Graham.”

  Jack shrugged and smiled. The guy had finally identified him. “In the flesh.” He held up the box. “I’ve got something for you.”

  “I know you do, Jack. And that’s exactly what I want.”

  Tim Collin watched the smile fade from Jack’s lips. His hand tightened on the trigger as he moved forward.

  * * *

  SETH FRANK COULD FEEL HIS PULSE QUICKEN AS HE DREW nearer to the station. Finally, he would have it. He could envision Laura Simon devouring the evidence like it was a slab of aged beef. And Frank was almost one hundred percent certain they would score a hit on some database, somewhere. And then the case would crack open like an egg hurled from the Empire State Building. And finally his questions, the nagging, nagging questions would be answered.

  * * *

  JACK LOOKED AT THE FACE, ABSORBING EVERY DETAIL. NOT that it would do him any good. He glanced over at the crumpled clothing on the floor, at the new shoes covering lifeless feet. Poor guy had probably wangled his first new pair of shoes in ages and now would never enjoy them.

  Jack looked back at Collin and said angrily, “The guy’s dead. You killed him.”

  “Let me have the box, Jack.”

  “Who the hell are you?”

  “That really doesn’t matter, does it?” Collin flipped open a compartment on his belt and pulled out a suppressor that he quickly twirled onto the barrel of his gun.

  Jack eyed the hardware pointed at his chest. He thought of the gurneys wheeling out Lord and the woman. His turn would come in tomorrow’s paper. Jack Graham and a homeless man. Twin gurneys. Of course they’d work it so Jack would be blamed for having done in the poor, wretched street person. Jack Graham, from partner at Patton, Shaw to deceased mass murderer.

  “It matters to me.”

  “So?” Collin moved forward, placed both hands on the butt of his weapon.

  “Fuck you, take it!” Jack flung the box at Collin’s head right as the muffled explosion occurred. A bullet tore through the edge of the box and imbedded itself in the concrete wall. In the same instant, Jack hurled himself forward and made impact. Collin was solid bone and muscle but so was Jack. And they were about the same size. Jack felt the man’s breath driven completely from his body as Jack’s shoulder connected right at the diaphragm. Instinctively, long-ago wrestling moves came flowing back to his limbs and Jack picked up and then body-slammed the agent into the unwelcoming arms of the brick floor. By the time Collin managed to stagger to his feet, Jack had already turned the corner.

  Collin grabbed his gun and then the box. He stopped for an instant as sickness enveloped him. His head hurt from having struck the hard floor. He knelt down, fighting to regain his equilibrium. Jack was long gone, but at least he had it. Finally had it. Collins’s fingers closed around the box.

  Jack flew past the kiosk, hurdled the turnstiles, raced down the escalator and across the train platform. He was va
guely aware of people staring. His hood had fallen off his head. His face was clearly exposed. There was a shout behind him. The kiosk guy. But Jack kept running and exited the station on the 17th Street side. He didn’t think the man had been alone. And the last thing he needed was someone tailing him. But he doubted if they had both exits covered. They probably figured he wouldn’t be leaving the station under his own power. His shoulder ached from his collision and his breath came in difficult gulps as the cold air burned his lungs. He was two blocks away before he stopped running. He wrapped his coat around himself tightly. And then he remembered. He looked down at his empty hands. The box! He had left the goddamned box behind. He slumped against the front glass of a darkened McDonald’s.

  A car’s lights came down the road. Jack looked away from them and quickly moved around the corner. In a few minutes he hopped a bus. To where he wasn’t sure.

  * * *

  THE CAR TURNED OFF L STREET AND ONTO 19TH. SETH FRANK made his way up to Eye Street and then turned toward 18th. He parked on the corner across from the Metro station, got out of his car and went down the escalator.

  Across the street, hidden behind a collection of trash cans, debris and metal fencing, the products of a massive demolition project, Bill Burton watched. Swearing under his breath, Burton put out his cigarette, checked the street, and made his way quickly across to the escalator.

  As he got off the escalator, Frank looked around and checked the time. He wasn’t as early as he thought he would be. His eyes