Absolute Power

  compensation levels that put them in the top five percent nationwide among all professionals.

  He alone among them was safe from the partnership gauntlet. Control of clients was the great equalizer in law. He had been with Patton, Shaw about a year, was a novice corporate attorney, and was accorded the respect of the most senior and experienced members of the firm.

  All of that should have made him feel guilty, undeserving—and it would have if he hadn’t been so miserable about the rest of his life.

  He popped the final miniature doughnut into his mouth, leaned forward in his chair and opened a file. Corporate work was often monotonous and his skill level was such that his tasks were not the most exciting in the world. Reviewing ground leases, preparing UCC filings, forming limited liability companies, drafting memorandums of understanding and private placement documents, it was all in a day’s work, and the days were growing longer and longer, but he was learning fast; he had to in order to survive, his courtroom skills were virtually useless to him here.

  The firm traditionally did no litigation work, preferring instead to handle the more lucrative and steady corporate and tax matters. When litigation did arise it was farmed out to select, elite litigation-only firms, who in turn would refer any nontrial work that came their way to Patton, Shaw. It was an arrangement that had worked well over the years.

  By lunchtime he had moved two stacks of drift from his in to his out basket, dictated three closing checklists and a couple of letters, and received four calls from Jennifer reminding him about the White House dinner they would be attending that night.

  Her father was being honored as Businessman of the Year by some organization or other. It spoke volumes about the President’s close nexus to big business that such an event would be worthy of a White House function. But at least Jack would get to see the man up close. Getting to meet him was probably out of the question, but then you never knew.

  “Got a minute?” Barry Alvis popped his balding head in the door. He was a senior staff associate, meaning he had been passed over for partner more than three times and in fact would never successfully complete that next step. Hardworking and bright, he was an attorney any firm would be fortunate to have. His schmooz skills and hence his client-generating prospects, however, were nil. He made a hundred sixty thousand a year, and worked hard enough to earn another twenty in bonuses each year. His wife didn’t work, his kids went to private schools, he drove a late-model Beemer, was not expected to generate business and had little to complain about.

  A very experienced attorney with ten years of intense and high-level transactional work behind him, he should have resented the hell out of Jack Graham, and he did.

  Jack waved him in. He knew Alvis didn’t like him, understood why, and didn’t push it. He could take his lumps with the best of them, but then he would only allow himself to be pushed so far.

  “Jack, we’ve got to get cranking on the Bishop merger.”

  Jack looked blank. That deal, a real pain in the ass, had died, or at least he thought it had. He took out a legal pad, his hands twitching.

  “I thought Raymond Bishop didn’t want to get into bed with TCC.”

  Alvis sat down, placed the fourteen-inch file he was carrying on Jack’s desk and leaned back.

  “Deals die, then they come back to haunt you. We need your comments on the secondary financing documents by tomorrow afternoon.”

  Jack almost dropped his pen. “That’s fourteen agreements and over five hundred pages, Barry. When did you find out about this?”

  Alvis stood up and Jack caught the beginnings of a smile tugging at the other man’s face.

  “Fifteen agreements, and the official page count is six hundred and thirteen pages, single-spaced, not counting exhibits. Thanks, Jack. Patton, Shaw really appreciates it.” He turned back. “Oh, have a great time with the President tonight, and say hello to Ms. Baldwin.”

  Alvis walked out.

  Jack looked at the bundle in front of him and rubbed his temples. He wondered when the little sonofabitch had really learned the Bishop deal had been resurrected. Something told him it wasn’t this morning.

  He checked the time. He buzzed his secretary, managed to clear his schedule for the rest of the day, picked up the eight-pound file and headed for conference room number nine, the firm’s smallest and most secluded, where he could hide and work. He could do six intense hours, go to the party, come back, work all night, hit the steam room, shower and shave here, finish up the comments and have them on Alvis’s desk by three, four at the latest. The little shit.

  Six agreements later, Jack ate the last of his chips, finished off his Coke, pulled on his jacket and ran the ten flights down to the lobby.

  The cab dropped him at his apartment. He stopped cold.

  The Jag was parked in front of his building. The vanity plate SUCCESS told him his soon-to-be date for life was up there waiting. She must be upset with him. She never condescended to come to his place unless she was upset with him about something and wanted to let him know it.

  He checked his watch. He was running a little late, but he was still okay. He unlocked his front door, rubbing his jaw; maybe he could get by without shaving. She was sitting on the couch, having first draped a sheet across it. He had to admit, she looked stunning; a real blue blood, whatever that meant these days. Unsmiling, she stood up and looked at him.

  “You’re late.”

  “I’m not my own boss you know.”

  “That’s no excuse. I work too.”

  “Yeah, but the difference is your boss has the same last name, and is wrapped around his daughter’s pretty little finger.”

  “Mother and Dad went on ahead. The limo will be here in twenty minutes.”

  “Plenty of time.” Jack undressed and jumped in the shower. He pulled the curtain aside. “Jenn, can you get out my blue double-breasted?”

  She walked into the bathroom, looked around in ill-concealed disgust. “The invitation said black tie.”

  “Black tie optional,” he corrected her, rubbing the soap out of his eyes.

  “Jack, don’t do this. It’s the White House for godsakes, it’s the President.”

  “They give you an option, black tie or not, I’m exercising my right to forgo the black tie. Besides, I don’t have a tux.” He grinned at her and pulled the curtain closed.

  “You were supposed to get one.”

  “I forgot. C’mon, Jenn, for chrissakes. Nobody’s going to be watching me, nobody cares what I’ll be wearing.”

  “Thank you, thank you very much, Jack Graham. I ask you to do one little thing.”

  “Do you know how much those suckers cost?”

  The soap was stinging his eyes. He thought of Barry Alvis and having to work all night and having to explain that fact to Jennifer and then to her father, and his voice got angrier. “And how many times am I going to wear the goddamned thing? Once or twice a year?”

  “After we’re married we’ll be attending a lot of functions where black tie isn’t optional, it’s mandatory. It’s a good investment.”

  “I’d rather put my retirement funds into baseball cards.” He poked his head out again to show her he was kidding, but she wasn’t there.

  He rubbed a towel through his hair, wrapped it around his middle and walked into the tiny bedroom where he found a new tux hanging on the door. Jennifer appeared, smiling.

  “Compliments of Baldwin Enterprises. It’s an Armani. It’ll look wonderful on you.”

  “How’d you know my size?”

  “You’re a perfect forty-two long. You could be a model. Jennifer Baldwin’s personal male model.” She wrapped her perfumed arms around his shoulders and squeezed. He felt her considerable breasts push into his back and inwardly cursed that there wasn’t time to take advantage of the moment. Just once without the goddamn murals, without the cherubs and chariots, maybe it would be different.

  He looked longingly at the small, untidy bed. And he had to work all night.
Goddamned Barry Alvis and the wishy-washy Raymond Bishop.

  Why was it every time he saw Jennifer Baldwin he hoped that things could be different between them? Different meaning better. That she would change, or he would, or they both would meet somewhere in the middle? She was so beautiful, had everything in the world going for her. Jesus, what was wrong with him anyway?

  * * *

  THE LIMO MOVED EASILY THROUGH THE DREGS OF POST-RUSH-hour traffic. Past seven o’clock on a weeknight, downtown D.C. was pretty much deserted.

  Jack looked over at his fiancée. Her light but very expensive coat didn’t conceal the plunging neckline. The perfectly chiseled features were covered by flawless skin that occasionally flashed a perfect smile. Her thick auburn hair was piled high on top of her head; she usually wore it down. She looked like one of those one-name supermodels.

  He moved closer to her. She smiled at him, checked her makeup, which was immaculate, and patted his hand.

  He stroked her leg, slid her dress up; she pushed him away.

  “Later, maybe,” she whispered so the driver wouldn’t hear.

  Jack smiled and mouthed that later he might have a headache. She laughed and then he remembered there would be no “later” tonight.

  He slumped back in the thickly padded seat and stared out the window. He had never been to the White House; Jennifer had, twice before. She didn’t look nervous; he was. He tugged at his bow tie, and smoothed his hair as they turned onto Executive Drive.

  The White House guards checked them methodically; Jennifer as usual got second and third looks from all of the men and women present. When she bent down to adjust her high heel, she almost spilled out of her five-thousand-dollar dress and made several White House staffers far happier men for it. Jack got the usual envious looks from the guys. Then they moved into the building and presented their engraved invitations to the Marine sergeant who escorted them through the lower-level entry corridor and then up the stairs to the East Room.

  * * *

  “DAMMIT!” THE PRESIDENT HAD BENT DOWN TO PICK UP A copy of his speech for the night’s event and the pain had shot up to his shoulder. “I think it nicked a tendon, Gloria.”

  Gloria Russell sat in one of the wide, plush chairs with which the President’s wife had decorated the Oval Office.

  The First Lady had good taste if not a lot else. She was nice to look at, but a little light in the intellect department. No challenge to the President’s power, and an asset in the polls.

  Her family background was impeccable: old money, old ties. The President’s connection to the conservative wealth and influence segment of the country had not hurt his standing with the liberal contingent in the least, however, owing mainly to his charisma and skills at consensus-building. And his good looks, which counted for a lot more than anyone cared to admit.

  A successful President had to be able to talk a good game, and this President’s batting average was up there with Ted Williams’s.

  “I think I need to see a doctor.” The President was not in the best of moods, but then neither was Russell.

  “Well, Alan, then exactly how would you explain a stab wound to the White House press?”

  “What the hell ever happened to doctor-patient confidentiality?”

  Russell rolled her eyes. He could be so stupid sometimes.

  “You’re like a Fortune 500 company, Alan, everything about you is public information.”

  “Well, not everything.”

  “That remains to be seen, doesn’t it? This is far from over, Alan.” Russell had smoked three packs of cigarettes, and drunk two pots of coffee since last night. At any moment their world, her career, could come crashing down. The police knocking on the door. It was all she could do to keep herself from running screaming from the room. As it was nausea continuously swept over her in vast waves. She clenched her teeth, gripped the chair. The image of total destruction would not budge from her mind.

  The President scanned the copy, memorizing some, the rest he would ad-lib; his memory was phenomenal, an asset that had served him well.

  “That’s why I have you, Gloria, isn’t it? To make it all better?”

  He looked at her.

  For a moment she wondered if he knew. If he knew what she had done with him. Her body stiffened and then relaxed. He couldn’t know, that was impossible. She remembered his drunken pleadings; oh how a bottle of Jack could change a person.

  “Of course it is, Alan, but some decisions have to be made. Some alternative strategies have to be developed depending on what we find ourselves faced with.”

  “I can’t exactly cancel my schedule. Besides, this guy can’t do anything.”

  Russell shook her head. “We can’t be sure of that.”

  “Think about it! He’ll have to admit to burglary to even place himself there. Can you see him trying to get on the evening news with that story? They’ll put him in a rubber room in a New York minute.” The President shook his head. “I’m safe. This guy cannot touch me, Gloria. Not in a million years.”

  They had worked out a threshold strategy on the limo ride back to town. Their position would be simple: categorical denial. They would let the absurdity of the allegation, if it ever came, do their work for them. And it was an absurd story despite the fact that it was absolutely true. Sympathy from the White House for the poor, unbalanced and admitted felon and his shamefaced family.

  There was, of course, another possibility, but Russell had chosen not to address that with the President just yet. In fact she concluded it was the more likely scenario. It was really the only thing allowing her to function.

  “Stronger things have happened.” She looked at him.

  “The place was cleaned, right? There’s nothing left to find, right, except her?” There was a hint of nervousness in his voice.

  “Right.” Russell licked her lips. The President didn’t know that the letter opener with his prints and blood on it was now in the possession of their felonious eyewitness.

  She stood up and paced. “Of course I can’t speak about certain traces of sexual contact. But that wouldn’t be linked to you in any event.”

  “Jesus, I can’t even remember if we did it or not. It seems like I did.”

  She couldn’t help smiling at his remark.

  The President turned and looked at her. “What about Burton and Collin?”

  “What about them?”

  “Have you talked to them?” His message was clear enough.

  “They have as much to lose as you, don’t they, Alan?”

  “As us, Gloria, as us.” He fixed his tie in the mirror. “Any clue to the Peeping Tom?”

  “Not yet; they’re running the plate.”

  “When do you think they’ll realize she’s missing?”

  “As warm as it’s been during the day, soon I hope.”

  “Real funny, Gloria.”

  “She’ll be missed, inquiries will be made. Her husband will be called, they’ll go to the house. The next day, maybe two, maybe three tops.”

  “And then the police will investigate.”

  “There’s nothing we can do about that.”

  “But you’ll keep on top of it?” A trace of concern crossed the President’s brow as he thought swiftly through various scenarios. Had he fucked Christy Sullivan? He hoped that he had. At least the night wouldn’t have been a total disaster.

  “As much as we can without arousing too much suspicion.”

  “That’s easy enough. You can use the angle that Walter Sullivan is a close friend and political ally of mine. It would be natural for me to have a personal interest in the case. Think things through, Gloria, that’s what I pay you for.”

  And you were sleeping with his wife, Russell thought. Some friend.

  “That rationale had already occurred to me, Alan.”

  She lit a cigarette, blew the smoke out slowly. That felt good. She had to keep ahead of him on this. Just one small step ahead and she would be fine. It wouldn’t be easy;
he was sharp, but he was also arrogant. Arrogant people habitually overestimated their own abilities and underestimated everyone else’s.

  “And nobody knew she was meeting you?”

  “I think we can assume she was discreet, Gloria. Christy didn’t have too much upstairs, her gifts were slightly lower, but she understood economics with the best of them.” The President winked at his Chief of Staff. “She had about eight hundred million to lose if her husband found out she was screwing around, even with the President.”

  Russell knew about Walter Sullivan’s odd viewing habits from the mirror and chair, but then again, for the assignations he didn’t know about, didn’t get to watch, who knew what his reaction would’ve been? Thank God it hadn’t been Sullivan sitting there in the dark.