Absolute Power



  Then he remembered his passenger and looked anxiously in the back seat.

  “Jack, Jack, you okay?”

  Jack’s face was pressed up against the door glass. He was conscious; in fact, his eyes were staring at something with great intensity.

  “Jack?” Frank undid his seat belt and gripped Jack by the shoulder. “You okay? Jack!”

  Jack looked at Frank and then back out the window. Frank wondered if the impact had relieved his friend of his senses. He automatically searched Jack’s head for bruises until Jack’s hand stopped him and pointed out the window. Frank looked out.

  Even his hardened nerves took a jolt. The rear view of the White House filled his entire line of vision.

  Jack’s mind raced; images hurtled across like a video montage. The vision of the President pulling back from Jennifer Baldwin, complaining of tennis elbow. Only it had been inflicted with a certain letter opener that had started this whole crazy thing. The unusual interest taken by the President and the Secret Service in Christine Sullivan’s murder. Alan Richmond’s timely appearance at Luther’s arraignment. Led me right to him. That’s what the detective had said their videotaping citizen had reported. Led me right to him. It also explained killers who killed in the middle of an army of law enforcement officers and walked away. Who would stop a Secret Service agent protecting the President? No one. No wonder Luther felt no one would believe him. The President of the United States.

  And there had been a significant event right before Luther had returned to the country. Alan Richmond had held a press conference where he had told the public how terrible he felt about the tragic murder of Christine Sullivan. He was probably fucking the man’s wife and somehow she had gotten killed and this slimeball was gaining political dollars showing what a sensitive and good friend he was; a man who would get tough on crime. It had been a tour de force performance. And that was truly what it had been. Nothing about it had been true. It had been broadcast to the world. What would Luther have thought, seeing that? Jack believed he knew. That was why Luther had come back. To settle the score.

  All the pieces had been dangling inside Jack’s head just waiting for the right catalyst to come along.

  Jack looked back once more at the catalyst.

  Directly under the lamplight, Tim Collin again glanced down the street at the minor traffic mishap, but could make out no details in the oncoming swarm of car headlights. Next to him Bill Burton was also peering out. Collin shrugged, and then rolled the window back up on the black sedan. Burton threw his bubble light on top of the car, hit his siren, quickly drove the car through the rear White House gate and tore off in the direction of D.C. Superior Court in pursuit of Jack.

  Jack looked at Seth Frank and smiled grimly as he reflected on the detective’s outburst. The same phrase had erupted from Luther’s mouth, right before his life had ended. Jack finally remembered where he had heard it before. The hurled newspaper at the jail. The smiling President on the front page.

  Outside the courthouse, staring right at the man. Those same words had exploded out, with all the fury and venom the old man could muster.

  “Fucking bastard,” Jack said.

  * * *

  ALAN RICHMOND STOOD BY THE WINDOW AND WONDERED IF HE was destined to be surrounded by incompetents. Gloria Russell sat dronelike in a chair across from him. He had bedded the woman a half-dozen times and now had completely lost interest. He would catapult her away when the time was right. His next administration would be comprised of a far more capable team. Underlings who would allow him to focus on his particular vision for the country. He had not sought the presidency to sweat the details.

  “I see we haven’t gained an inch in the polls.” He didn’t look at her; he anticipated her response.

  “Does it really matter so much whether you win by sixty percent or seventy percent?”

  He whirled around. “Yes,” he hissed. “Yes, it goddamn does matter.”

  She bit her lip and retreated. “I’ll step up the effort, Alan. Maybe we can pull a shutout in the Electoral College.”

  “At a minimum, we should be able to do that, Gloria.”

  She looked down. After the election, she would travel. Around the world. Where she knew no one and no one knew her. A fresh start. That was what she needed. Then everything would be okay.

  “Well at least our little problem is cleared up.” He was looking at her, hands clasped behind his back. Tall, lean, impeccably dressed and groomed. He looked like the commander of an invincible armada. But then again history had proven that invincible armadas were far more vulnerable than people imagined.

  “It’s been disposed of?”

  “No, Gloria, I have it in my desk, would you like to see it? Perhaps you might wish to abscond with it again.” His air was so thick with condescension she felt the urgent need to bring their consultation to a close. She rose.

  “Will there be anything else?”

  He shook his head and returned to the window. She had just put her hand on the doorknob when it turned and opened.

  “We’ve got a problem.” Bill Burton looked at each of them.

  * * *

  “SO WHAT DOES HE WANT?” THE PRESIDENT LOOKED DOWN AT the photograph Burton had handed him.

  Burton replied quickly. “Note doesn’t say. I can guess that the shape the guy’s in with cops on his ass he’s looking for some quick funds.”

  The President looked pointedly at Russell. “I’m very puzzled as to how Jack Graham knew to send the photo here.”

  Burton picked up on the look from the President, and while the last thing he wanted was to defend Russell they had no time to misanalyze the situation.

  “It’s possible Whitney told him,” Burton answered.

  “If that’s true, he waited a long time to dance with us,” the President fired back.

  “Whitney may not have told him directly. Graham could’ve figured it out for himself. Pieced things together.”

  The President tossed down the photo. Russell quickly averted her eyes. The mere sight of the letter opener had paralyzed her.

  “Burton, how could this possibly be damaging to us?” The President stared at him, seemingly probing through the inner areas of the agent’s mind.

  Burton sat down, rubbed his jaw with the palm of his hand. “I’ve been thinking about that. It could be Graham’s grasping at straws. He’s in a pretty tight fix himself. And his lady friend is cooling her heels in the lockup right now. I’d chalk it up to him being desperate. He gets a sudden inspiration, puts two and two together and takes a flyer on sending us this, hoping it’s worth it to us to pay his price, whatever it might be.”

  The President stood up and fingered his coffee cup. “Is there any way to find him? Quickly?”

  “There are always ways. How fast I don’t know.”

  “So if we ignore his communication?”

  “He may do nothing, just hightail it and take his chances.”

  “But again we’re confronted with the possibility of the police catching up to him—”

  “And him spilling his guts,” Burton finished the sentence. “Yeah, that’s a possibility. A real possibility.”

  The President picked up the photo. “With only this to back up his story.” He looked incredulous. “Why bother?”

  “It’s not the incriminating value of what’s in the photo per se that bothers me.”

  “What bothers you is that his accusations coupled with whatever ideas or leads the police can develop from the photo might make for some very uncomfortable questions.”

  “Something like that. Remember, it’s the allegations that can kill you. You’re up for reelection. He probably sees that as an ace for him. Bad press can be just as deadly to you right now.”

  The President pondered for a moment. Nothing, no one would interfere with his reelection. “Buying him off is no good, Burton. You know that. So long as Graham’s around, he’s dangerous.” Richmond looked over at Russell, who had sat the entire time, h
ands in her lap, eyes pointed down. His eyes bored into her. So weak.

  The President sat down at his desk and started to sift through some papers. He said dismissively, “Do it, Burton, and do it soon.”

  * * *

  FRANK LOOKED AT THE WALL CLOCK, WENT OVER AND SHUT his door and picked up the phone. His head still ached, but the doctors predicted a full recovery.

  The phone was answered. “D.C. Executive Inn.”

  “Room 233 please.”

  “Just a moment.”

  The seconds dragged by and Frank started to get anxious. Jack was supposed to be in his room.

  “Hello?”

  “It’s me.”

  “So how’s life?”

  “Better than yours, I bet.”

  “How’s Kate?”

  “She’s out on bail. Got ’em to let her go into my custody.”

  “I’m sure she’s thrilled.”

  “That wasn’t the word I was thinking of. Look, it’s getting close to shit-or-get-off-the-pot time. Take my advice and run like hell. You’re wasting valuable time right now.”

  “But Kate—”

  “Come on, Jack, they’ve got the testimony of one guy who was trying to hit her up for an exclusive. His word against hers. Nobody else even saw you. It’s a slam dunk she’ll beat that charge. A slam dunk. I’ve talked to the Assistant U.S. Attorney. He’s looking seriously at dropping the whole case.”

  “I don’t know.”

  “Goddammit, Jack. Kate is gonna come out of this a whole helluva lot better than you are if you don’t start thinking about your future. You’ve got to get out of here. That’s not just me talking. That’s her too.”

  “Kate?”

  “I saw her today. We don’t agree on much, but on that we do.”

  Jack relaxed, then let out a heavy sigh. “Okay, so where do I go and how do I get there?”

  “I get off duty at nine. At ten o’clock I’ll be at your room. Have your bags packed. I’ll take care of the rest. In the meantime, stay put.”

  Frank hung up the phone and took a deep breath. The chances he was taking. It was better not to think about them.

  * * *

  JACK CHECKED HIS WATCH AND LOOKED AT THE SINGLE BAG ON the bed. He wouldn’t be running with much. He looked at the TV set in the corner but there wouldn’t be anything on he cared to watch. Suddenly thirsty, he pulled some change from his pocket, opened the door to his room and peered out. The drink machine was just down the hallway. He plopped on his baseball cap, donned his Coke-bottle glasses and slipped out. He didn’t hear the door to the stairwell at the other end of the hallway open. He had also forgotten to lock his door.

  When he slipped back in, it struck him that the light was off. He had left it on. As his hand hit the switch, the door was slammed shut behind him and he was thrown onto the bed. As he quickly rolled over and his eyes adjusted to the light, the two men came into focus. They were not wearing masks this time, which spoke volumes in itself.

  Jack started to lunge forward but twin cannons met him halfway. He sat back down, scrutinized each of their faces.

  “What a coincidence, I’ve already made each of your acquaintance, separately.” He pointed at Collin. “You tried to blow my head off.” He swiveled to Burton. “And you tried to blow smoke up my ass. And succeeded. Burton right? Bill Burton. Always remember names.” He looked at Collin. “Didn’t catch yours though.”

  Collin looked at Burton, then stared back at Jack. “Secret Service Agent Tim Collin. You pack a nice little wallop, Jack. Must’ve played some ball back in school.”

  “Yeah, my shoulder still remembers you.”

  Burton sat down on the bed next to Jack.

  Jack looked at him. “I thought I’d covered my tracks pretty good. I’m kind of surprised you found me.”

  Burton looked at the ceiling. “A little bird told us, Jack.”

  Jack looked over at Collin and then back at Burton. “Look, I’m heading out of town, and I’m not coming back. I don’t think you guys need to add me to the body count.”

  Burton eyed the bag on the bed and then got up and slipped his gun back in its holster. Then he grabbed Jack and flung him up against the wall. The veteran agent left nothing unprobed by the time he had finished. Burton spent the next ten minutes examining every inch of the room for listening devices and other items of interest, ending his search at Jack’s bag. He pulled out the photos and examined them.

  Satisfied, Burton secreted them in his inner coat pocket and smiled at Jack. “Excuse me, but in my line of work paranoia is part of the mentality.” He sat back down. “I would like to know, Jack, why you sent that photo to the President.”

  Jack shrugged. “Well, since my life here happens to be over, I thought your boss might want to contribute to my going-away fund. You could’ve just wired the funds, like you did with Luther.”

  Collin grunted, shook his head and grinned. “The world doesn’t work that way, Jack, sorry. You should’ve found another solution to your problem.”

  Jack shot back, “I guess I should’ve followed your example. Got a problem? Just kill it.”

  Collin’s smile evaporated. His eyes glittered darkly at the lawyer.

  Burton stood up and paced around the room. He pulled out a cigarette and then crunched it up and put it in his pocket. He turned to Jack and said quietly, “You should’ve just gotten the hell out of town, Jack. Maybe you would’ve made it.”

  “Not with you two on my butt.”

  Burton shrugged. “You never know.”

  “How do you know I haven’t given one of those photos to the cops?”

  Burton pulled out the photos and looked down at them. “Polaroid OneStep camera. The film comes in a standard pack of ten shots. Whitney sent two to Russell. You sent one to the President. There are seven left here. Sorry, Jack, nice try.”

  “I could’ve just told Seth Frank what I know.”

  Burton shook his head. “If you had I think my little bird would’ve told me. But if you want to insist on the point we can just wait for the lieutenant to show up and join the party.”

  Jack burst up from the bed and launched himself toward the door. Right as he reached it, an iron fist slammed into his kidney. Jack crumpled to the floor. An instant later he was hustled up and thrown back on the bed.

  Jack looked up into Collin’s face.

  “Now we’re even, Jack.”

  Jack groaned and lay back on the bed, fighting the nausea the blow had caused. He sat back up, caught his breath as the pain subsided.

  When Jack finally managed to look up, his eyes found Burton’s face. Jack shook his head, the disbelief clear on his features.

  Burton eyed Jack intently and said, “What?”

  “I thought you were the good guys,” Jack said quietly.

  Burton said nothing for several long moments.

  Collin’s eyes went to the floor and stayed there.

  Finally Burton answered, his voice faint, as if his larynx had suddenly collapsed. “So did I, Jack. So did I.” He paused, swallowed painfully and went on. “I didn’t ask for this problem. If Richmond could keep his dick in his pants none of this would’ve happened. But it did. And we had to fix it.”

  Burton stood up, looked at his watch. “I’m sorry about this, Jack. I really am. You probably think that’s laughable but it’s the way I really feel.”

  He looked at Collin and nodded. Collin motioned Jack to lie back on the bed.

  “I hope the President appreciates what you’re doing for him,” Jack said bitterly.

  Burton smiled ruefully. “Let’s just say he expects it, Jack. Maybe they all do, in one way or another.”

  Jack slid slowly back and watched as the barrel moved closer