Absolute Power



  like this ever happening either.

  He looked around the room, his mind calculating which areas would need to be gone over, what other rooms they had used. They could do nothing about the marks on the woman’s throat and other microscopic physical evidence that was no doubt imbedded in her skin. The medical examiner would pick those up regardless of what they tried to do. However, none of those things could be realistically traced to the President unless the police identified the President as a suspect, which was pretty much beyond the realm of possibility.

  The incongruity of attempted strangulation of a small woman with death caused by gunshot was something they would have to leave to the police’s imagination.

  Burton turned his attention back to the deceased and started to carefully slide her underwear up her legs. He felt a tap on his shoulder.

  “Check her.”

  Burton looked up. He started to say something.

  “Check her!” Russell’s eyebrows were arched. Burton had seen her do that a million times with the White House staff. They were all terrified of her. He wasn’t afraid of her, but he was smart enough to cover his ass whenever she was around. He slowly did as he was told. Then he positioned the body exactly as it had fallen. He reported back with a single shake of his head.

  “Are you sure?” Russell looked unconvinced, although she knew from her interlude with the President that chances were he had not entered the woman, or that if he had he hadn’t finished. But there might be traces. It was scary as hell, the things they could determine these days from the tiniest specimens.

  “I’m not a goddamned ob-gyn. I didn’t see anything and I think I would have, but I don’t carry a microscope around with me.”

  Russell would have to let that one go. There was still a lot to do and not much time.

  “Did Johnson and Varney say anything?”

  Collin looked over from where the President was ingesting his fourth cup of coffee. “They’re wondering what the hell’s going on, if that’s what you mean.”

  “You didn’t te—”

  “I told them what you said to tell them and that’s all, ma’am.” He looked at her. “They’re good men, Ms. Russell. They’ve been with the President since the campaign. They’re not going to do anything to mess things up, okay?”

  Russell rewarded Collin with a smile. A good-looking kid and, more important, a loyal member of the President’s personal guard; he would he very useful to her. Burton might be a problem. But she had a strong trump card: he and Collin had pulled the trigger, maybe in the line of duty, but who really knew? Bottom line: they too were in this all the way.

  * * *

  LUTHER WATCHED THE ACTIVITY WITH AN APPRECIATION THAT he felt guilty about under the circumstances. These men were good: methodical, careful, thought things through, and didn’t miss anything. Dedicated lawmen and professional criminals were not so different. The skills, the techniques were much the same, just the focus was different, but then the focus made all the difference, didn’t it?

  The woman was now completely dressed, lying exactly where she had fallen. Collin was finishing with her fingernails. A solution had been injected under each, and a small suction device had cleaned away traces of skin and other incriminating remnants.

  The bed had been stripped and remade; the evidence-laden sheets were already packed in a duffel bag for their ultimate destination in a furnace. Collin had already scoped the downstairs area.

  Everything any of them had touched, except for one item, had been wiped clean. Burton was now vacuuming parts of the carpet and he would be the last one to leave, backing out, as he painstakingly extinguished their trail.

  Earlier Luther had watched the agents ransack the room. Their obvious goal made him smile in spite of himself. Burglary. The necklace had been deposited in a bag along with her plethora of rings. They would make it appear as if the woman had surprised a burglar in her house and he had killed her, not knowing that six feet away a real-life burglar was watching and listening to everything they were doing.

  An eyewitness!

  Luther had never been an eyewitness to a burglary other than those he had committed. Criminals hated eyewitnesses. These people would kill Luther if they knew he was there; there was no question about that. An elderly criminal, a three-time loser, was not much to sacrifice for the Man of the People.

  The President, still groggy but with Burton’s aid, slowly made his way out of the room. Russell watched them go. She did not notice Collin frantically searching the room. Finally, his sharp eyes fixed on Russell’s purse on the nightstand. Poking out from the bag was about an inch of the letter opener’s handle. Using a plastic bag, Collin quickly pulled out the letter opener and prepared to wipe it off. Luther involuntarily jerked as he watched Russell race over and grab Collin’s hand.

  “Don’t do that, Collin.”

  Collin wasn’t as sharp as Burton, and certainly wasn’t in Russell’s league. He looked puzzled.

  “This has his prints all over it, ma’am. Hers too, plus some other stuff if you know what I mean—it’s leather, it’s soaked right in.”

  “Agent Collin, I was retained by the President as his strategic and tactical planner. What appears to you an obvious choice appears to me to require much more thought and deliberation. Until that analysis has been completed you will not wipe that object down. You will put it in a proper container, and then you will give it to me.”

  Collin started to protest but Russell’s menacing stare cut him off. He dutifully bagged the letter opener and handed it to her.

  “Please be careful with that, Ms. Russell.”

  “Tim, I am always careful.”

  She rewarded him with another smile. He smiled back. She had never called him by his first name before; he had been unsure if she even knew it. He also observed, and not for the first time, that the Chief of Staff was a very good-looking woman.

  “Yes, ma’am.” He began to pack up the equipment.

  “Tim?”

  He looked back at her. She moved toward him, looked down, and then her eyes caught his. She spoke in low tones; she almost seemed embarrassed, Collin felt.

  “Tim, this is a very unique situation we’re faced with. I need to feel my way a little bit. Do you understand?”

  Collin nodded. “I’d call this a unique situation. Scared the hell out of me when I saw that blade about to go into the President’s chest.”

  She touched his arm. Her fingernails were long and perfectly manicured. She held up the letter opener. “We need to keep this between us, Tim. Okay? Not the President. Not even Burton.”

  “I don’t know—”

  She gripped his hand. “Tim, I really need your support on this. The President has no idea what happened and I don’t think Burton is looking at this too rationally right now. I need someone I can depend on. I need you, Tim. This is too important. You know that, don’t you? I wouldn’t ask you if I didn’t think you could handle it.”

  He smiled at the compliment, then looked squarely at her.

  “Okay, Ms. Russell. Whatever you say.”

  As Collin finished packing up, Russell looked at the bloody seven-inch piece of metal that had come so close to ending her political aspirations. If the President had been killed, there could have been no cover-up. An ugly word—cover-up—but often necessary in the world of high politics. She shivered slightly at the thought of the headlines. “PRESIDENT FOUND DEAD IN BEDROOM OF CLOSE FRIEND’S HOME. WIFE ARRESTED IN SLAYING. CHIEF OF STAFF GLORIA RUSSELL HELD RESPONSIBLE BY PARTY LEADERS.” But that had not happened. Would not happen.

  This thing she held in her hand was worth more than a mountain of weapons-grade plutonium, more than the total oil production of Saudi Arabia.

  With this in her possession, who knew? Perhaps even a Russell-Richmond ticket? The possibilities were absolutely infinite.

  She smiled and put the plastic bag inside her purse.

  * * *

  THE SCREAM MADE LUTHER WHIP HIS HEAD AROUND.
THE PAIN shot through his neck and he almost cried out.

  The President ran into the bedroom. He was wide-eyed, but still half-drunk. The memory of the last few hours had come back like a Boeing 747 landing on his head.

  Burton ran up behind him. The President started toward the body; Russell dropped her purse on the nightstand, and she and Collin met him halfway.

  “Goddammit! She’s dead. I killed her. Oh sweet Jesus help me. I killed her!” He screamed and then cried and then screamed again. He tried to push through the wall in front of him but was still too weak. Burton pulled at the President from behind.

  Then with convulsive strength, Richmond tore loose and launched himself across the room and slammed into the wall, rolling into the nightstand. And finally the President of the United States crumpled to the floor and curled up like a fetus, whimpering, next to the woman he had intended to have sex with that night.

  Luther watched in disgust. He rubbed at his neck and slowly shook his head. The incredibility of the entire night’s events was becoming too much to endure.

  The President slowly sat up. Burton looked like Luther felt, but said nothing. Collin eyed Russell for instructions. Russell caught the look and smugly accepted this subtle changing of the guard.

  “Gloria?”

  “Yes, Alan?”

  Luther had seen the way Russell had looked at the letter opener. He also knew something now that no one else in the room knew.

  “Will it be okay? Make it okay, Gloria. Please. Oh God, Gloria!”

  She rested her hand on his shoulder in her most reassuring manner, as she had done across hundreds of thousands of miles of campaign dust. “Everything’s under control, Alan. I’ve got everything under control.”

  The President was far too intoxicated to catch the meaning, but she didn’t really care.

  Burton touched his radio earpiece, listening intently for a moment. He turned to Russell.

  “We better get the hell out of here. Varney just scoped a patrol car coming down the road.”

  “The alarm . . . ?” Russell looked puzzled.

  Burton shook his head. “It’s probably just a rent-a-cop on routine, but if he sees something . . .” He didn’t need to say anything else.

  Leaving in a limo in this land of wealth was the best cover they could have. Russell thanked God for the routine she had developed for using rented limos without the regular drivers for these little adventures. The names on all the forms were dummies, the rental fee and deposit paid in cash, the car picked up and dropped off after hours. There were no faces associated with the transaction. The car would be sterilized. That would be a dead end for the police if they ever snagged that line, which was highly doubtful.

  “Let’s go!” Russell was now slightly panicked.

  The President was helped up. Russell went out with him. Collin grabbed the bags. Then stopped cold.

  Luther swallowed hard.

  Collin turned back, grabbed Russell’s purse off the nightstand and headed out.

  Burton started up the small vacuum, completed the room and then left, closing the door and turning off the light.

  * * *

  LUTHER’S WORLD RETURNED TO INKY DARKNESS.

  This was the first time he had been alone in the room with the dead woman. The rest of them had apparently grown used to the bloody figure lying on the floor, unconsciously stepping over or around the now inanimate object. But Luther had not grown accustomed to the death barely eight feet away.

  He could no longer see the pile of stained clothing and the lifeless body inside of them, but he knew it was there. “Sleazy rich bitch” would probably be her informal epitaph. And, yes, she had cheated on her husband, not that he seemed to care about that. But she hadn’t deserved to die like that. He would’ve killed her, there was no question about that. Except for her swift counterattack, the President would’ve committed murder.

  The Secret Service men he could not really fault. That was their job and they did it. She had picked the wrong man to attempt to kill in the heat of whatever she had been feeling. Maybe it was better. If her hand had been a little faster or the agents’ response a little slower, she might be spending the rest of her life in jail. Or she’d probably get death for killing a President.

  Luther sat down in the chair. His legs were almost numb. He forced himself to relax. Soon he would be getting the hell out of there. He needed to be ready to run.

  He had a lot to think through, considering that they were unwittingly setting up Luther Whitney to be the number-one suspect in what would no doubt be deemed a heinous and gruesome crime. The wealth of the victim would demand that enormous law enforcement resources be expended in finding the perpetrator. But there was no way they would be looking to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for the answer. They would search elsewhere, and despite Luther’s intense preparations, they might very well find him. He was good, very good, but then he had never faced the types of forces that would be unleashed to solve this crime.

  He quickly thought back through his entire plan leading up to tonight. He could think of no obvious holes, but it was the not-so-obvious ones that usually did you in. He swallowed, curled and uncurled his fingers, stretched his legs to calm himself. One thing at a time. He still wasn’t out of here. Many things could go wrong, and one or two undoubtedly would.

  He would wait two more minutes. He ticked off the seconds in his head, visualized them loading the car. They would probably wait for any further sight or sound of the patrol car before heading out.

  He carefully opened his bag. Inside were much of the contents of this room. He had almost forgotten that he had come here to steal and in fact had stolen. His car was a good quarter mile away. He thanked God he had quit smoking all those years ago. He would need every ounce of lung capacity he could muster. How many Secret Service Agents was he confronted with? At least four. Shit!

  The mirrored door slowly opened and Luther stepped out into the room. He hit the remote one more time and then tossed it back onto the chair as the door swung closed.

  He eyed the window. He had already planned an alternate escape through that aperture. A hundred-foot coil of extremely strong nylon rope, knotted every six inches, was in his bag.

  He made a wide berth around the body, careful not to step in any of the crimson, the position of which he had programmed into his memory. He glanced only once at the remains of Christine Sullivan. Her life could not be brought back. Luther was now faced with keeping his own intact.

  It took him a few seconds to reach the nightstand, and probe down behind it.

  Luther’s fingers clutched the plastic bag. The President’s collision with the furniture had toppled Gloria Russell’s purse on its side. The plastic bag and its immensely valuable occupant had fallen out and slid down behind the nightstand.

  Luther’s finger nudged the blade of the letter opener through the plastic before secreting it in his duffel bag. He went quickly over to the window and carefully peered out. The limo and van were still there. That wasn’t good.

  He went across to the other side of the room, took out his rope, secured it under the leg of the enormously heavy chest of drawers, and ran the line across to the other window, which would drop him at the opposite end of the house, hidden from the road. He carefully opened the window, praying for a well-oiled track, and was rewarded.

  He played out the rope and watched it snake down the brick sides of the house.

  * * *

  GLORIA RUSSELL LOOKED UP AT THE MASSIVE FACE OF THE mansion. There was real money there. Money and position that Christine Sullivan did not deserve. She had won it with her boobs and artfully displayed ass and her trashy mouth that had somehow inspired the elderly Walter Sullivan, awakening some emotion buried deep within his complex depths. In six months he would not miss her anymore. His world of rock-solid wealth and power would hurtle on.

  Then it struck her.

  Russell was halfway out of the limo before Collin caught her arm. He held up the leather bag sh
e had bought in Georgetown for a hundred bucks and was now worth incalculably more to her. She settled back down in her seat, her breath normalized. She smiled, almost blushed at Collin.

  The President, slumped in a semicatatonic state, didn’t notice the exchange.

  Then Russell peeked inside her bag, just to be sure. Her mouth dropped open, her hands frantically tore through the few contents of the bag. It took all her willpower not to shriek out loud as she stared horror-stricken at the young agent. The letter opener was not there. It must still be in the house.

  Collin tore back up the stairs, a thoroughly confused Burton racing after him.

  Luther was halfway down the wall when he heard them coming.

  Ten more feet.