Absolute Power

  “Important?” He pointed at the paper.

  Jack picked it up, briefly reread the contents. “Ransome Baldwin. Remember him?”

  Frank nodded. “What, has he decided to sue you for dumping his baby?”

  Jack shook his head and smiled. He finished his beer and fished in the bag and pulled out another cold one. He tossed a second one to Frank.

  “You never know, I guess. The guy basically said I was too good for Jennifer. At least for right now. That she had a lot of growing up to do. He’s sending her out on some missionary duties for the Baldwin Charitable Foundation for a year or so. He said if I ever needed anything to let him know. Hell, he even said that he admired and respected me.”

  Frank sipped his beer. “Damn. Doesn’t get much better than that.”

  “Yes, it does. Baldwin made Barry Alvis his chief inhouse counsel. Alvis was the guy Jenn got fired at Patton, Shaw. Alvis promptly walked into Dan Kirksen’s office and pulled the entire account. I think Dan was last seen on the ledge of a very tall building.”

  “I read where the firm closed its doors.”

  “All the good lawyers got snapped up right away. The bad ones ought to try something else for a living. Space is already rented out. The whole firm gone, without a trace.”

  “Well, same thing happened to the dinosaurs. It’s just taking a little longer with you attorney types.” He punched Jack in the arm.

  Jack laughed. “Thanks for coming and cheering me up.”

  “Hell, I wouldn’t miss it.”

  Jack looked at him, his face clouded. “So what happened?”

  “Don’t tell me you still haven’t been reading the papers?”

  “Not for months. After the gauntlet of reporters, talk show hosts, teams of independent prosecutors, Hollywood producers and your run-of-the-mill curious person I’ve had to deal with I never want to know anything about anything. I changed my phone number a dozen times and the bastards kept finding it. That’s why the last two months have been so sweet. No one knew me from Adam.”

  Frank took a moment to collect his thoughts. “Well, let’s see, Collin pled to conspiracy, two counts of second-degree murder, obstruction and a half-dozen assorted lesser included offenses. That was the D.C. stuff. I think the judge felt sorry for him. Collin was a Kansas farm boy, Marine, Secret Service agent. He was just following orders. Been doing that most of his life. I mean the President tells you to do something, you do it. He got twenty to life, which if you ask me was a sweetheart deal, but he gave a full account to the prosecution team. Maybe it was worth it. He’ll probably be out in time for his fiftieth birthday. The commonwealth decided not to prosecute in return for his cooperation against Richmond.”

  “What about Russell?”

  Frank almost choked on his beer. “Jesus, did that woman spill her guts. They must have spent a fortune on court-reporting fees. She just wouldn’t stop talking. She got the best deal of all. No prison time. Thousand hours of community time. Ten years’ probation. For fucking conspiracy to commit murder. Can you believe that? Between you and me, I think she’s right on the borderline sanity-wise anyway. They brought in a court-appointed shrink. I think she might spend a few years in an institution before she’s ready to come out and play. But I gotta tell you, Richmond brutalized her. Emotionally and physically. If half of what she said was true. Jesus. Mind games from hell.”

  “So what about Richmond?”

  “You really have been on Mars haven’t you? Trial of the millennium and you slept right through it.”

  “Somebody had to.”

  “He fought right to the end, I have to admit that. Must’ve spent every dime he had. The guy didn’t do himself any good testifying I can tell you that. He was so damn arrogant, obviously lying out his ass. And they traced the money wire straight back to the White House. Russell had pulled it from a bunch of accounts but made the mistake of assembling the five mil into one account before she wired it. Probably afraid if all of the money didn’t show up at the same time Luther would go to the cops. His plan worked, even if he wasn’t around to see it. Richmond didn’t have an answer for that or a lot of other things. They tore him up on cross. He brought in a Who’s Who of American Greatness and it didn’t help him one little bit, the sonofabitch. One dangerous and sick dude if you ask me.”

  “And he had the nuclear codes. Real nice. So what’d he get?”

  Frank stared at the ripples in the water for a few moments before answering. “He got the death penalty, Jack.”

  Jack stared at him. “Bullshit. How’d they manage that?”

  “A little tricky from a legal-technical point of view. They prosecuted him under the murder-for-hire statute. That’s the only one where the trigger man rule doesn’t apply.”

  “How the hell did they get murder for hire to stick?”

  “They argued that Burton and Collin were paid subordinates whose only job was to do what the President told them to do. He ordered them to kill. Like a Mafia hitman on the payroll. It’s a stretch, but the jury returned the verdict and the sentence and the judge let it stand.”

  “Jesus Christ!”

  “Hey, just because the guy was President doesn’t mean he should be treated differently than anybody else. Hell, I don’t know why we should be surprised at what happened. You know what kind of person it takes to run for President? Not normal. They could start out okay, but by the time they reach that level they’ve sold their soul to the devil so many times and stomped the guts out of enough people that they are definitely not like you and me, not even close.”

  Frank studied the depths of the pool, then finally stirred. “But they’ll never execute him.”

  “Why not?”

  “His lawyers will appeal, the ACLU will file, along with all the other death penalty opposers; you’re gonna get amicus briefs from all over the planet. The guy took a tidal wave plunge on the popularity scale but he’s still got some powerful friends. They’ll find something wrong on the record. Besides, the country might agree on convicting the scumball. But I’m not sure the United States could actually execute some guy they elected to the presidency. Doesn’t look real good from a global perspective either. Makes me feel kind of queasy too, although the asshole deserves it.”

  Jack scooped up handfuls of water and let the warm liquid run down his arms. He stared off into the night.

  Frank looked keenly at Jack. “Not that some positives haven’t come out of all this. Hell, Fairfax wants to make yours truly a division head. I’ve gotten offers from about a dozen cities to be their chief of police. The lead prosecutor on the Richmond case, they say, is a shoo-in for the AG slot next election.”

  The detective took a sip of beer. “What about you, Jack? You were the one who brought the guy down. Setting up Burton and the President was your idea. Man, when I found my line was tapped, I thought my head was gonna explode. You were right though. So what do you get out of all this?”

  Jack looked at his friend and said simply, “I’m alive. I’m not practicing rich-man law at Patton, Shaw and I’m not marrying Jennifer Baldwin. That’s more than enough.”

  Frank studied the blue veins on his legs. “You heard from Kate?”

  Jack took another swallow of beer before answering. “She’s in Atlanta. At least she was last time she wrote.”

  “She gonna stick there?”

  Jack shrugged. “She’s not sure. Her letter wasn’t all that clear.” Jack paused. “Luther left her his house in his will.”

  “I’m surprised she’d take it. Ill-gotten gains and all that.”

  “Luther’s father left it to him, bought and paid for. Luther knew his daughter. I think he wanted her to have . . . something. A home’s not a bad place to start.”

  “Yeah? A home takes two if you ask me. And then some dirty diapers and infant formula to make it complete. Hell, Jack, you two were meant to be together. I’m telling you.”

  “I’m not sure that matters, Seth.” He wiped off the thick droplets of water fr
om his arms. “She’s been through a lot. Maybe too much. I’m kind of connected to all the bad stuff. I really can’t blame her for wanting to get away from it all. Wipe the slate clean.”

  “You weren’t the problem, Jack. From what I saw everything else was.”

  Jack looked across at a helicopter roaring its way across the sky. “I’m a little tired of always being the one to make the first step, Seth, you know what I’m saying?”

  “I guess.”

  Frank looked at his watch. Jack caught the movement. “Got somewhere to go?”

  “I was just thinking we need something a lot stronger than beer. I know this nice little place out by Dulles. Rack of ribs long as my arm, two-pound corn-on-the-cobs and tequila till the sun comes up. And some not-so-bad-looking waitresses if you’re so inclined, although being married I will only watch from a respectful distance while you make a complete fool of yourself. We take a cab home because we’ll both be shit-faced and you crash at my place. What do you say?”

  Jack grinned. “Can I get a rain check on that? It sounds good though.”

  “You sure?”

  “I’m sure, Seth, thanks.”

  “You got it.” Frank stood up, rolled down his pants and flopped across to put on his shoes and socks.

  “Hey, how about Saturday you come out to my place? We’re grilling, burgers, fries and dogs. Got tickets to Camden Yard too.”

  “You got a deal on that one.”

  Frank stood up and headed to the door. He looked back. “Hey, Jack, don’t think too much, okay? Sometimes that’s not real healthy.”

  Jack held up his can. “Thanks for the beer.”

  After Frank left, Jack lay back on the cement and stared at a sky that seemed filled with more stars than there were numbers. Sometimes he would awaken from a deep sleep and realize that he’d been dreaming about the most bizarre stuff. But what he’d been dreaming about had actually happened to him. It was not a pleasant feeling. And it only added to the confusion that, at his age, he hoped would have been long since eliminated from his life.

  An hour-and-a-half plane ride due south was probably the surest answer to what ailed him. Kate Whitney may or may not come back. The only thing he felt sure about was that he could not go after her. That this time it would be her responsibility to return to his life. And it was not bitterness that made Jack feel such was imperative. Kate had to make up her own mind. About her life and how she wanted to spend it. The emotional trauma she had experienced with her father had been surpassed by the overwhelming guilt and grief she had endured at his death. The woman had a lot to think through. And she had made it very clear that she needed to undertake that exercise alone. And she was probably right.

  He took off his shirt, slid into the water and did three quick laps. His arms cut powerfully through the water and then he pulled himself back up on the tiled apron. He grabbed his towel and wrapped it around his shoulders. The night air was cool and each droplet of water felt like a miniature air conditioner against his skin. He again looked at the sky. Not a mural in sight. But neither was Kate.

  He was deciding whether to head back to his apartment for some sleep when he heard the door squeak open again. Frank must have forgotten something. He looked over. For a few seconds he couldn’t move. He just sat there with the towel around his shoulders afraid to make a sound. That what was happening might not be real. Another dream that would flicker out with the sun’s first rays. Finally he slowly got up, water dripping off him, and moved toward the door.

  * * *

  DOWN ON THE STREET, SETH FRANK STOOD NEXT TO HIS CAR for a few moments admiring the simple beauty of the evening, sniffed the air that was more reminiscent of a wet spring than a humid summer. It wouldn’t be that late when he got home. Maybe Mrs. Frank would like to hit the neighborhood Dairy Queen. Just the two of them. He’d heard some good reports about the butterscotch-dipped cone. That would finish off the day just fine. He climbed in his car.

  As a father of three, Seth Frank knew what a wonderful and precious commodity life was. As a homicide detective he had learned how that precious commodity could be brutally ripped away. He looked up at the roof of the apartment building and smiled as he put the car in gear. But that was the great thing about being alive, he thought. Today might not be so good. But tomorrow, you got another chance to get it right.


  This novel is obviously a work of fiction and intends to be nothing more. It in no way implies that members of the United States Secret Service would do any of the acts attributed to the fictional agents in the novel. The agents in Absolute Power were good, loyal men put into an impossible situation. The decisions they made were decisions any one of us might have made if confronted with the total destruction of all we have worked for.

  I cannot imagine a more difficult task than the one every Secret Service agent undertakes on any given day. Weeks, months, or years of tedium may, at any moment, be shattered by the actions of those who wish to harm, to kill. Secret Service agents seem, to me, to be the counterparts of football’s unheralded offensive linemen. No one praises them when things go right, when the millions of logistical details making up their daily routines result in no assassination attempt, nothing newsworthy. But, of course, we do hear of them on the very rare occasion when something bad does happen. And Secret Service agents must live with that unfairness every day as they protect people whose political survival demands that they do things that make them, in essence, unprotectable. For this and many other reasons, the men and women of the United States Secret Service deserve the respect and admiration of every American. They certainly have mine.

  David Baldacci

  Washington, D.C.

  January 1996





  The apartment was small, unattractive and possessed of an unsettling musty odor that suggested of long neglect. However, the few furnishings and personal belongings were clean and well organized; several of the chairs and a small side table were clearly antiques of high quality. The largest occupant of the tiny living room was a meticulously crafted maple bookcase that might as well have rested on the moon, so out of place did it seem in the modest, unremarkable space. Most of the volumes neatly lining the shelves were financial in nature and dealt with such subjects as international monetary policy and complex investment theories.

  The only light in the room came from a floor lamp next to a rumpled couch. Its small arc of illumination outlined the tall, narrow-shouldered man sitting there, his eyes closed as though he were asleep. The slender watch on his wrist showed it to be four o’clock in the morning. Conservative gray cuffed suit pants hovered over gleaming black-tasseled shoes. Hunter green suspenders ran down the front of a rigid white dress shirt. The collar of the shirt was open; the ends of a bow tie dangled around the neck. The large bald head was like an afterthought, because what captured one’s attention was the thick, steel-gray beard that fronted the wide face. However, when the man abruptly opened his eyes, all other physical characteristics became secondary. The eyes were chestnut brown in color and piercing; they seemed to swell to a size that completely engulfed the eye sockets as they swept across the room.

  Then the pain wracked the man, and he ripped at his left side; actually the hurt was everywhere now. Its origins, however, had been at the spot he now attacked with a fierce, if futile, vengeance. The breaths came deeply, the face grossly contorted.

  His hand slipped down to the apparatus attached to his belt. About the shape and size of a Walkman, it was actually a CADD pump attached to a Groshong catheter that was fully hidden under the man’s shirt, where its other end was embedded in his chest. His finger found the correct button, and the computer resting inside the CADD pump immediately delivered an incredibly potent dose of painkilling medication over and above what it automatically dispensed
at regular intervals throughout the day. As the combination of drugs flowed directly into the man’s bloodstream, the pain finally beat a retreat. But it would return; it always did.

  The man lay back, exhausted, his face clammy, his freshly laundered shirt soaked with perspiration. Thank God for the pump’s on-demand feature. He had an incredible tolerance for pain, as his mental prowess could easily overpower any physical discomforts, but the beast now devouring his insides had introduced him to an altogether new level of physical anguish. He wondered briefly which would come first: his death or the drugs’ total and complete defeat at the hands of the enemy. He prayed for the former.

  He stumbled to the bathroom and looked into the mirror. It was at that moment that Arthur Lieberman started to laugh. The near-hysterical howls continued upward, threatening to explode through the thin walls of the apartment, until the outburst ended in sobs and then choked vomiting. A few minutes later, having replaced his soiled shirt with a clean one, Lieberman began calmly to coax his bow tie into shape in the reflection of the bathroom mirror. The violent mood swings were to be expected, he had been told. He shook his head and then in a fit of anger grabbed at his side as if to tear it from his body and hurl it out the window into the quiet darkness.