Absolute Power



  and closer to his face. He could smell the metal. He could envision the smoke, the projectile racing out faster than any eye could follow.

  Then the door to the room was hit with an enormous blow. Collin whirled around. The second blow crashed the portal inward and a half-dozen D.C. cops bulled in, guns drawn.

  “Freeze. Everybody freeze. Guns on the floor. Now.”

  Collin and Burton quickly put their guns down on the floor. Jack lay back on the bed, his eyes closed. He touched his chest where his heart threatened to explode.

  Burton looked at the men in blue. “We’re United States Secret Service. IDs in our right inner pockets. We’ve tracked this man down. He was making threats against the President. We were just about to take him into custody.”

  The cops warily pulled out the IDs and scrutinized them. Two other cops pulled Jack roughly up. One began to read him his rights. Handcuffs were placed on his wrists.

  The IDs were given back.

  “Well, Agent Burton, you’re just gonna have to wait until we get done with Mr. Graham here. Murder takes a priority even over threatening the President. Might be a long wait unless this guy’s got nine lives.”

  The cop looked at Jack and then down at the bag on the bed. “Shoulda taken off when you had the chance, Graham. Sooner or later we were gonna get you.” He motioned for his men to take Jack out.

  He looked back at the bewildered agents and smiled broadly. “We got a tip he was here. Most tips are worth shit. This one. This one might get me that promotion I’m sorely in need of. Have a good day, gentlemen. Say hello to the President for me.”

  They left with their prisoner. Burton looked at Collin, and then pulled out the photos. Now Graham had nothing. He could repeat everything they had just told him to the police and they’d just get him ready for the rubber room. Poor sonofabitch. A bullet would’ve been a lot better than where he was headed. The two agents picked up their hardware and left.

  The room was silent. Ten minutes later the door to the adjoining room was eased open and a figure slipped into Jack’s room. The corner TV was swiveled around and the back was eased off. The TV was remarkably real-looking and an absolute sham. Hands reached inside and the surveillance camera was swiftly and silently removed and the cabling was pushed through the wall until it disappeared from sight.

  The figure opened the adjoining door and went back through. A recording machine sat on a table next to the wall. The cable was coiled up and deposited in a bag. The figure hit a button on the recording machine and the tape slid out.

  Ten minutes later the man, carrying a large backpack, walked out of the front door of the Executive Inn, turned left and walked to the end of the parking lot where a car was parked, its engine idling. Tarr Crimson passed the car, and casually tossed the tape through the open window and onto the front seat. Then he proceeded over to his Harley-Davidson 1200cc touring bike, the joy of his life, got on, fired it up and thundered off. Setting up the video system had been child’s play. Voice-activated camera. Recording machine kicked on when the camera did. Your standard VHS tape. He didn’t know what was on the tape, but it must be something pretty damn valuable. Jack had promised him a year’s free legal services for doing it. As he hurtled along the highway, Tarr smiled, remembering their last meeting where the lawyer had balked at the new age of surveillance technology.

  Back in the parking lot, the car glided forward, one hand on the steering wheel, the other protectively around the tape. Seth Frank turned onto the main road. Not much of a movie-goer, this was one tape he was dying to watch.

  * * *

  BILL BURTON SAT IN THE SMALL BUT COZY BEDROOM HE HAD shared with his wife through the evolution of four beloved children. Twenty-four years together. They had made love countless times. In the corner by the window, Bill Burton had sat in a much worn rocker and fed his four offspring before reporting for early-morning shifts, allowing his exhausted wife a few minutes of much needed rest.

  They had been good years. He had never made a lot of money, but that had never seemed to matter. His wife had gone back and finished her nursing degree after their youngest had entered high school. The added income had been nice, but it was good to see someone who had long sacrificed her personal goals to the needs of others to finally do something just for herself. All in all it had been a great life. A nice house in a quiet, picturesque neighborhood safe, so far, from the ever-expanding war zones around them. There would always be bad people. And there would always be people like Bill Burton to combat them. Or people like Burton had been.

  He looked out the dormer window. Today was his day off. Dressed in jeans, bright red flannel shirt and Timberland boots, he could have easily passed as a burly lumberjack. His wife was unloading the car. Today was grocery shopping day. The same day for the last twenty years. He watched her figure admiringly as it bent low to pull out the bags. Chris, his fifteen-year-old, and Sidney, nineteen, long-legged and a real beauty, and in her sophomore year at Johns Hopkins, with her sights set on medical school, were helping their mother. His other two were out on their own and doing well. They occasionally called their old man for advice on buying a car or a house. Long-term career goals. And he loved every minute of it. He and his wife had hit four out of the park and it was a good feeling.

  He sat down at the little desk in the corner, unlocked a drawer and pulled out the box. He lifted the top and stacked the five audiocassette tapes on top of the desk next to the letter he had written that morning. The name on the envelope was written in large, clear letters. “Seth Frank.” Hell, he owed the guy.

  Laughter floated up to him and he again went to the window. Sidney and Chris were now engaged in a pitched snowball battle with Sherry, his wife, caught in the middle. The smiles were big and the confrontation culminated in all of them landing in a heap next to the driveway.

  He turned away from the window and did something he could never remember doing before. Through eight years as a cop, where tiny babies had expired in his arms, beaten to death by the ones who were supposed to love and protect them, through day after day of looking for the worst in humankind. The tears were salty. He didn’t rub them away. They kept pouring. His family would be coming in soon. They were supposed to go out to dinner tonight. Ironically, today was Bill Burton’s forty-fifth birthday.

  He leaned across the desk, and with a quick motion, pulled the revolver from his holster. A snowball hit the window. They wanted their daddy to come join them.

  I’m sorry. I love you. I wish I could be there. I’m sorry for all I’ve done. Please forgive your dad. Before he could lose his nerve he pushed the .357 as far down his throat as he could. It was cold and heavy. One of his gums started to bleed from a nick.

  Bill Burton had done everything he could to ensure that no one would ever know the truth. He had committed crimes; he had killed an innocent person and had been involved in five other homicides. And now, seemingly in the clear, the horror behind him, after months of mounting disgust with what he had become, and after a sleepless night next to a woman he had loved with all his heart for over two decades, Bill Burton had realized that he could not accept what he had done, nor could he live with that knowledge.

  The fact was that without self-respect, without his pride, his life was not worth living. And the unfailing love of his family did not help matters, it only made them worse. Because the object of that love, of that respect, knew that he deserved none of it.

  He looked over at the stack of cassette tapes. His insurance policy. Now they would constitute his legacy, his own bizarre epitaph. And some good would come out of it. Thank God for that.

  His lips curled into a barely perceptible smile. The Secret Service. Well, the secrets were going to fly now. He briefly thought of Alan Richmond and his eyes glistened. Here’s hoping for life without parole and you live to be a hundred, asshole.

  His finger tightened on the trigger.

  Another snowball hit the window. Their voices drifted up to him. The tears started again
as he thought of what he was leaving behind. “Goddammit.” The word floated from his mouth, carrying with it more guilt, more anguish than he could ever hope to bear.

  I’m sorry. Don’t hate me. Please God don’t hate me.

  At the sound of the explosion, the playing stopped as three pairs of eyes turned as one toward the house. In another minute they were inside. It only took one more minute for the screams to be heard. The quiet neighborhood was no more.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

  THE KNOCK ON THE DOOR WAS UNEXPECTED. PRESIDENT ALAN Richmond was in a tense conference with his Cabinet. The press had lately been lambasting the administration’s domestic policies and he wanted to know why. Not that the actual policies themselves were of much interest to him. He was more concerned about the perception they conveyed. In the grand scheme of things perceptions were all that mattered. That was Politics 101.

  “Who the hell are they?” The President looked angrily at the secretary. “Whoever they are, they’re not on the list for today.” He looked around the table. Hell, his Chief of Staff had not even bothered to show up for work today. Maybe she had done the smart thing and taken a bottle of pills. That would hurt him short-term, but he would work out an impressive spin on her suicide. Besides she had been right about one thing: he was so far ahead in the polls who cared?

  The secretary timidly crept into the room. Her growing astonishment was evident. “It’s a large group of men, Mr. President. Mr. Bayliss from the FBI, several policemen, and a gentleman from Virginia, he wouldn’t give his name.”

  “The police? Tell them to leave and submit a request to see me. And tell Bayliss to call me tonight. He’d be cooling his heels in some Bureau outpost in the middle of nowhere if I hadn’t pushed through his nomination as Director. I will not tolerate this disrespect.”

  “They’re most insistent, sir.”

  The President flushed red and stood up. “Tell them to get the hell out. I’m busy, you idiot.”

  The woman quickly retreated. Before she could reach the door, however, it had opened. Four Secret Service agents entered, Johnson and Varney among them, followed by a contingent of D.C. police, including Police Chief Nathan Brimmer, and FBI Director Donald Bayliss, a short, thickly built man in a double-breasted suit with a face whiter than the building he was now in.

  Bringing up the rear, Seth Frank quietly closed the door. In his other hand he carried a plain brown briefcase. Richmond stared at each of them, his eyes finally coming to rest on the homicide detective.

  “Detective . . . Frank, right? In case you weren’t aware you are interrupting a confidential Cabinet meeting. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” He looked across at the four agents, raised his eyebrows and cocked his head toward the door. The men stared back; they didn’t budge.

  Frank stepped forward. He quietly slipped a paper out of his coat, unfolded it and handed it to the President. Richmond looked down at it while his Cabinet watched in utter bewilderment. Richmond finally looked back at the detective.

  “Is this some kind of joke?”

  “That is a copy of an arrest warrant naming you on capital murder charges for crimes committed in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Chief Brimmer here has a similar arrest warrant for murder one accessory charges that will be brought against you in the District. That is, after the commonwealth finishes with you.”

  The President looked over at Brimmer, who met his gaze and sternly nodded. There was a cold look in the lawman’s eyes that told exactly how he felt about the Chief Executive.

  “I’m the President of the United States. You can’t serve me with anything unless it’s coffee. Now get out.” The President turned to go back to his chair.

  “Technically that may be true. However, I don’t really care. Once the impeachment process is complete you won’t be President Alan Richmond, you’ll just be Alan Richmond. And when that happens I’ll be back. Count on it.”

  The President turned back around, his face bloodless. “Impeachment?”

  Frank moved forward until he was eye-to-eye with the man. On any other occasion this would have triggered prompt action on the part of the Secret Service. Now, they simply stood motionless. It was impossible to tell that each one of them was inwardly reeling over the loss of a respected colleague. Johnson and Varney seethed at having been duped as to the events of that night at the Sullivan estate. And the man they blamed for it all was now crumpling in front of them.

  Frank said, “Let’s cut through the bullshit. We already have Tim Collin and Gloria Russell in custody. They’ve both waived right to counsel and each has given detailed depositions regarding all of the events involving the homicides of Christine Sullivan, Luther Whitney, Walter Sullivan and the two killings at Patton, Shaw. I believe they’ve already cut deals with the prosecutors, who are really only interested in you anyway. This case is a real career-builder for a prosecutor, let me tell you.”

  The President staggered back a step, then righted himself.

  Frank opened the briefcase and pulled out a videotape and five audiocassette tapes. “I’m sure your counsel will be interested to see these. The video is of Agents Burton and Collin when they attempted to murder Jack Graham. The tapes are of several meetings at which you were present and at which the plannings for the various crimes took place. Over six hours of testimony, Mr. President. Copies have been delivered to the Hill, the FBI, CIA, the Post, the Attorney General, White House counsel and anybody else I could think of—and no gaps on the tapes. Also included is the tape Walter Sullivan made of your telephone conversation on the night of his murder. It doesn’t exactly coincide with the version you gave me. All compliments of Bill Burton. Said in his note he was cashing in his insurance policy.”

  “And where is Burton?” The President’s voice was filled with rage.

  “He was pronounced DOA at Fairfax Hospital at ten-thirty this morning. Self-inflicted gunshot wound.”

  Richmond barely made it to his chair. No one offered to assist him. He looked up at Frank.

  “Anything else?”

  “Yeah. Burton left behind one other paper. It’s his proxy. For the next election. Sorry, but it seems you didn’t get his vote.”

  One by one the Cabinet members got up and left. Fear of political suicide by association was alive and well in the Capital City. The lawmen and Secret Service agents followed. Only the President remained. His eyes stared blankly at the wall.

  Seth Frank popped his head back in the door.

  “Remember, be seeing you soon.” He quietly closed the door.

  EPILOGUE

  THE SEASONS OF WASHINGTON FOLLOWED A FAMILIAR pattern, and a bare week of spring with tolerable temperatures and humidity under fifty percent gave way abruptly to a meteoric thermometer and a humidity level that routinely delivered a full body shower whenever you walked outside. By July, the typical Washingtonian had adapted as much as they were ever going to, to air that was difficult to breathe and movements that were never slow enough to prevent a sudden burst of perspiration under one’s clothing. But in all of that misery, the occasional evening was not ruined by the sudden materialization of a whipping, drenching thunderstorm with multiple branches of lightning that threatened to touch the earth with every explosion. Where the breeze was cool, the air sweet-smelling and the sky clear. Tonight was just such a night.

  Jack sat on the edge of the pool set up on the building’s roof. His khaki shorts revealed muscled, tanned legs, hairs curled by the sun. He was even leaner than before, all remnants of office-induced flab banished by months of physical exertion. Cords of well-toned muscle sat just beneath the surface of his white T-shirt. His hair was short, his face as brown as his legs. The water swished between his bare toes. He looked at the sky and breathed deeply. The place had been packed a mere three hours ago as office dwellers dragged tan-free, fleshy bodies to the replenishing powers of the warm waters. Now Jack sat alone. No bed beckoned him. No ringing alarm would disturb his sleep the next morning.

  The doo
r to the pool opened with a slight squeak. Jack turned and saw the beige summer suit, wrinkled and uncomfortable-looking. The man carried a brown paper bag.

  “Building super told me you were back.” Seth Frank smiled. “Mind some company?”

  “Not if you’ve got what I think you’ve got in that bag.”

  Frank sat down in a web chair and tossed a beer to Jack. They dinked cans and each man took a long pull.

  Frank looked around. “So how was wherever you were?”

  “Not bad. It was good to get away. But it’s also good to be back.”

  “This looks like a nice place to meditate.”

  “It gets crowded around seven for a couple of hours. Most of the other time it’s pretty much like this.”

  Frank looked wistfully at the pool and then started to take off his shoes. “You mind?”

  “Help yourself.”

  Frank rolled up his pants, curled his socks into his shoes and sat down next to Jack, letting his milky-white legs sink into the water up to his knees.

  “Damn that feels good. County detectives with three daughters and a mortgage out the ying-yang rarely come into contact with swimming pools.”

  “So I’ve heard.”

  Frank rubbed his calves and looked at his friend. “Hey, being a bum agrees with you. You might want to think about sticking with it.”

  “I am thinking about it. The idea gets more appealing every day.”

  Frank eyed the envelope next to Jack.