Absolute power, p.18
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       Absolute Power, p.18

           David Baldacci
 

  admit, it was beautiful. What was wrong with beautiful things anyway? Four hundred thou as a partner. If he started bringing in other clients, who knew? Lord made five times that, two million dollars a year, and that was his base.

  Compensation figures of partners were strictly confidential and were never discussed even under the most informal circumstances at the firm. However, Jack had guessed cor rectly on the computer password to the partner comp file. The code word was “greed.” Some secretary must have laughed her ass off over that one.

  Jack looked over a front lawn the size of a carrier flight deck. A vision galloped across. He looked at his fiancée.

  “It has plenty of space to play touch football with the kids.” He smiled.

  “Yes, it does.” She smiled back at him, kissed his cheek gently. She took his arm and encircled her waist with it.

  Jack looked back at the mansion, soon to be his three-point-eight-million-dollar home. Jennifer continued to look at him, her smile broadening as she gripped his fingers. Her eyes seemed to glisten, even in the darkness.

  As Jack continued to stare at the structure, he felt a rush of relief. This time he only saw windows.

  * * *

  AT THIRTY-SIX THOUSAND FEET, WALTER SULLIVAN LEANED back in the deep softness of his cabin chair and glanced out the window of the 747 into the darkness. As they moved east to west, Sullivan was adding a number of hours to his day, but time zones had never bothered him. The older he became the less sleep he needed, and he had never needed very much to begin with.

  The man sitting across from him took the opportunity to examine the older man closely. Sullivan was known throughout the world as a legitimate, although sometimes bullying, global businessman. Legitimate. That was the key word running itself through Michael McCarty’s head. Legitimate businessmen typically had no need of, nor desire to speak with, gentlemen in McCarty’s profession. But when one is alerted through the most discreet channels that one of the wealthiest men on earth desired a meeting with you, then you attended. McCarty had not become one of the world’s foremost assassins because he particularly enjoyed the work. He particularly enjoyed the money and with it the luxuries that money inspired.

  McCarty’s added advantage was the fact that he appeared to be a businessman himself. Ivy League good looks, which wasn’t too far afield, since he held a degree in international politics from Dartmouth. With his thick, wavy blond hair, broad shoulders and wrinkle-free face he could be the hard-charging entrepreneur on the way up or a film star at his peak. The fact that he killed people for a living, at a per-hit fee of in excess of one million dollars, did nothing to dampen his youthful enthusiasm or his love of life.

  Sullivan finally looked at him. McCarty, despite an enormous confidence in his abilities and a supreme coolness under pressure, began to grow nervous under the billionaire’s scrutiny. From one elite to another.

  “I want you to kill someone for me,” Sullivan said simply. “Unfortunately, at the present time, I do not know who that person is. But with any luck, one day I will. Until that time comes, I will place you on a retainer so that your services will always be available to me until such time as I need them.”

  McCarty smiled and shook his head. “You may be aware of my reputation, Mr. Sullivan. My services are already in great demand. My work carries me all over the world, as I’m sure you know. Were I to devote my full time to you until this opportunity arose, then I would be forgoing other work. I’m afraid my bank account, along with my reputation, would suffer.”

  Sullivan’s reply was immediate. “One hundred thousand dollars a day until that opportunity arises, Mr. McCarty. When you successfully complete the task, double your usual fee. I can do nothing to preserve your reputation; however, I trust that the per diem arrangement will forestall any damage to your financial status.”

  McCarty’s eyes widened just a bit and then he quickly regained his composure.

  “I think that will be adequate, Mr. Sullivan.”

  “Of course you realize I am placing considerable confidence not only in your skills at eliminating subjects, but also in your discretion.”

  McCarty hid his smile. He had been picked up in Sullivan’s plane in Istanbul at midnight local time. The flight crew had no idea who he was. No one had ever identified him, thus someone recognizing him was not a concern. Sullivan meeting him in person eliminated one thing. An intermediary who would then have Sullivan in his control. McCarty, on the other hand, had no earthly reason to betray Sullivan and every motivation not to.

  Sullivan continued, “You will receive particulars as they become available. You will assimilate yourself into the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, although your task may take you anywhere in the world. I will need you to move on a moment’s notice. You will make your location known to me at all times and will check in with me daily on secured communication lines that I will establish. You will pay your own expenses out of the per diem. A wire transfer will be set up to funnel the fee to an account of your choosing. My planes will be available to you if the need arises. Understood?”

  McCarty nodded, a little put off by his client’s series of commands. But then you didn’t get to be a billionaire without being somewhat commanding, did you? On top of that McCarty had read about Christine Sullivan. Who the hell could blame the old man?

  Sullivan pushed a button on the armrest of his chair.

  “Thomas? How long until we’re stateside?”

  The voice was brisk and informed. “Five hours and fifteen minutes, Mr. Sullivan, if we maintain present air speed and altitude.”

  “Make sure that we do.”

  “Yes sir.”

  Sullivan pressed another button and the cabin attendant appeared and efficiently served them the sort of dinner that McCarty had never had on a plane before. Sullivan said nothing to McCarty until the dinner was cleared and the younger man rose and was being directed to his sleeping quarters by the attendant. Registering on a sweep of Sulli van’s hand, the attendant disappeared within the recesses of the aircraft.

  “One more thing, Mr. McCarty. Have you ever failed on a mission?”

  McCarty’s eyes turned to slits as he stared back at his new employer. For the first time it was evident that the Ivy Leaguer was extremely dangerous.

  “Once, Mr. Sullivan. The Israelis. Sometimes they seem more than human.”

  “Please don’t make it twice. Thank you.”

  * * *

  SETH FRANK WAS ROAMING THE HALLS OF THE SULLIVAN home. The yellow police lines were still up outside, fluttering softly in the increasing breeze and thickening bank of dark clouds that promised more heavy rain. Sullivan was staying at his Watergate penthouse downtown. His domestic staff were at their employer’s residence on Fisher Island, Florida, catering to members of Sullivan’s family. He had already interviewed each of them in person. They were being flown home shortly for more detailed questioning.

  He took a moment to admire the surroundings. It was as though he were touring a museum. All that money. The place reeked of it, from the superlative antiques to the broadbrush paintings that casually hung everywhere, with real signatures at the bottom. Hell, everything in the house was an original.

  He wandered into the kitchen and then into the dining room. The table resembled a bridge spanning the pale blue rug spread over the refinished parquet flooring. His feet seemed to be sucked into the thick, heavy fibers. He sat down at the head of the table, his eyes constantly roaming. As far as he could tell nothing had happened in here. Time was slipping by and progress was not coming easily.

  Outside the sun momentarily pushed through the heavy clouds and Frank got his first break on the case. He wouldn’t have noticed it if he hadn’t been admiring the moldings around the ceiling. His father had been a carpenter. Joints smooth as a baby’s cheek.

  That’s when he observed the rainbow dancing across the ceiling. As he admired the parallels of color, he began to wonder about its source, like the folklore of tracking the pot
of gold at the end of the striped apparition. His eye scanned the room. It took him a few seconds, but then he had it. He quickly knelt down beside the table and peered under one of the legs. The table was a Sheraton, Eighteenth Century, which meant it was as heavy as a semi. It took him two tries, and perspiration broke across his forehead, a trickle entering his right eye and making him tear for a moment, but he finally managed to budge the table and pull it out.

  He sat back down and looked at his new possession, maybe his little pot of gold. The little piece of silver-colored material acted as a barrier between the furniture to prevent the wet carpet from causing damage to wood or upholstery and also stopped leaching into the damp fibers. With the aid of sunlight, its reflective surface also made for a nice rainbow. He had had similar ones in his own house when his wife had gotten particularly nervous about a visit from her in-laws and decided some serious household cleaning had to be done.

  He took out his notebook. The servants arrived at Dulles at ten tomorrow morning. Frank doubted in this house if the small piece of foil he was holding would have been allowed to remain in its resting place for very long. It could be nothing. It could be everything. A perfect way to gauge the lay of the land. It would probably fall somewhere in between, if he were very, very lucky.

  He hit the floor again and sniffed the carpet, ran his fingers through the fibers. The stuff they used nowadays, you could never tell. No odor, dried in a couple of hours. He would know soon enough how long it had been; if it could tell him anything. He could call Sullivan, but for some reason, he wanted to hear it from someone other than the master of the house. The old man was not high on the list of suspects, but Frank was smart enough to realize that Sullivan re mained on that list. Whether his place descended or ascended depended on what Frank could find out today, tomorrow, next week. When you boiled it down, it was that simple. That was good, because up to now nothing about the death of Christine Sullivan had been simple. He wandered out of the room, thinking about the whimsical nature of rainbows and police investigations in general.

  * * *

  BURTON SCANNED THE CROWD, COLLIN BESIDE HIM. ALAN Richmond made his way to the informal podium set up on the steps of the Middleton Courthouse, a broad block of mortar-smeared brick, stark white dentil moldings, weather-beaten cement steps and the ubiquitous American flag alongside its Virginia counterpart swooping and swirling in the morning breeze. Precisely at nine-thirty-five the President began to speak. Behind him stood the craggy and expressionless Walter Sullivan with the ponderous Herbert Sanderson Lord beside him.

  Collin moved a little closer to the crowd of reporters at the bottom of the courthouse steps as they strained and positioned like opposing teams of basketball players waiting for the foul shot to swish or bang off the rim. He had left the Chief of Staff’s home at three in the morning. What a night it had been. What a week it had been. As ruthless and unfeeling as Gloria Russell seemed in public life, Collin had seen another side of the woman, a side that he was strongly attracted to. It still seemed like a careless daydream. He had slept with the President’s Chief of Staff. That simply did not happen. But it had happened to Agent Tim Collin. They had planned to see each other tonight as well. They had to be careful, but they were both cautious by nature. Where it would lead, Collin did not know.

  Born and raised in Lawrence, Kansas, Collin had a good set of Midwestern values to fall back upon. You dated, fell in love, married and had four or five kids, strictly in that order. He didn’t see that happening here. All he knew was he wanted to be with her again. He glanced across and eyed her where she stood behind and to the left of the President. Sunglasses on, wind lifting her hair slightly, she seemed in complete control of everything around her.

  Burton had his eyes on the crowd, then glanced at his partner in time to see the latter’s gaze riveted for an instant on the Chief of Staff. Burton frowned. Collin was a good agent who did his job well, maybe to the point of overzealousness. Not the first agent to suffer from that, and not necessarily a bad trait in their line of work. But you kept your eyes on the crowd, everything out there. What the hell was going on? Burton made a sideways glance at Russell, but she stared straight ahead, seemingly oblivious to the men assigned to protect her. Burton looked at Collin once more. The kid now scanned the crowd, changing his pace every now and then, left to right, right to left, sometimes up, occasionally he would stare straight ahead, no trace of a pattern a potential assailant could count on. But Burton could not forget the look he had given the Chief of Staff. Behind the sunglasses Burton had seen something he did not like.

  Alan Richmond finished his speech by staring stonily out at the cloudless sky as the wind whipped through his perfectly styled hair. He seemed to be looking to God for help, but in actuality he was trying to remember if he was meeting the Japanese ambassador at two or three that afternoon. But his faraway, almost visionary look would carry well on the evening news.

  On cue he snapped back to attention and turned to Walter Sullivan and gave the bereaved husband a hug befitting someone of his stature.

  “God, I am so sorry, Walter. My deepest, deepest condolences. If there is anything, anything that I can do. You know that.”

  Sullivan held on to the hand that was offered to him, and his legs began to shake until two of his entourage invisibly supported him with a quick thrust of sinewy arms.

  “Thank you, Mr. President.”

  “Alan, please, Walter. Friend to friend now.”

  “Thank you, Alan, you have no idea how much I appreciate your taking the time to do this. Christy would have been so moved by your words today.”

  Only Gloria Russell, who was watching the pair closely, noticed the slight twinge of a smirk at the corner of her boss’s cheek. Then, in an instant it was gone.

  “I know there are really no words I can say to do justice to what you’re feeling, Walter. It seems more and more that things in this world happen for no purpose. Except for her sudden illness, this never would’ve happened. I can’t explain why things like this occur, no one can. But I want you to know that I am here for you, when you need me. Anytime, anyplace. We’ve been through so much together. And you’ve certainly helped me through some pretty rough times.”

  “Your friendship has always been important to me, Alan. I won’t forget this.”

  Richmond slid an arm around the old man’s shoulders. In the background microphones dangled on long poles. Like giant rods and reels, they surrounded the pair despite the collective efforts of the men’s respective entourages.

  “Walter, I’m going to get involved in this. I know some people will say it’s not my job and in my position I can’t become personally involved with anything. But goddammit, Walter, you’re my friend and I’m not going to just let this slide away. The people responsible for this are going to pay.”

  The two men embraced once more as the photographers popped away. The twenty-foot antennas sprouting from the fleet of news trucks dutifully broadcast this tender moment to the world. Another example of President Alan Richmond being more than just a President. It made the White House PR staff giddy thinking about the initial preelection polls.

  * * *

  THE TELEVISION CHANNEL-HOPPED FROM MTV TO GRAND OLE Opry to cartoons, to QVC to CNN to Pro Wrestling and then back to CNN. The man sat up in bed and put out his cigarette, laid the remote down. The President was giving a press conference. He looked stern and appropriately appalled at the abominable murder of Christine Sullivan, wife of billionaire Walter Sullivan, one of the President’s closest friends, and its symbolism of the growing lawlessness in this country. Whether the President would have made the same pitch if the victim had been a poor black, Hispanic or Asian found with his throat cut in an alley in Southeast D.C. was never addressed. The President spoke in firm, crisp tones with the perfect trace of anger, of toughness. The violence must stop. The people must feel safe in their homes, or at their estates in this particular case. It was an impressive scene. A thoughtful and caring President.


  The reporters were eating it up, asking all the right questions.

  The television showed Chief of Staff Gloria Russell, dressed in black, nodding approvingly when the President hit key points in his views on crime and punishment. The police fraternity and AARP vote was locked up for the next election. Forty million votes, well worth the morning drive out.

  She would not have been so happy if she knew who was watching them right this minute. Whose eyes bored into every inch of flesh on both her and the President’s faces, as the memories of that night, never far from the surface, welled up like an oil fire spewing heat and potential destruction in all directions.

  The flight to Barbados had been uneventful. The Airbus was a vast ship whose massive engines had effortlessly ripped the plane from the ground in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and in a few minutes they had hit their cruising altitude of 36,000 feet. The plane was packed, San Juan acting as a feeder for tourists bound for the clusters of islands that made up the Caribbean vacation strip. Passengers from Oregon and New York and all points in between looked at the wall of black clouds as the plane banked left and moved away from the remnants of an early-season tropical storm that had never hit hurricane status.

  A metal stairway met them as they departed the aircraft. A car, tiny by American standards, shepherded five of them on the wrong side of the road as they left the airport and headed into Bridgetown, the capital of the former British colony, which had retained strong traces of its long colonialism in its speech, dress and mannerisms. In melodious tones the driver informed them of the many wonders of the tiny island, pointing out the pirate ship tour as the skull and crossbones ship pounded through still rough seas. On its deck, pale but reddening tourists were plied with rum punch in such levels that they would all be very drunk and/or very sick by the time they returned to the dock later that afternoon.

  In the back seat two couples from Des Moines made excited plans in chirrupy patters of conversation. The older man who sat in the front seat staring out the windshield had his thoughts mired two thousand miles north. Once or twice he checked where they were headed, instinctively craving the lay of the land. The major landmarks were relatively few; the island was barely twenty-one miles long and fourteen miles across at its widest point. The near constant eighty-five-degree heat was ameliorated by the continual breeze, its sound eventually disappearing into one’s subconscious but always nearby like a faded but still potent dream.

  The hotel was an American standard Hilton built on a man-made beach that jutted out on one end of the island. Its staff was well-trained, courteous and more than willing to leave you alone if that was desired. While most of the guests gave themselves wholeheartedly to the pampering efforts, one patron shunned
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