Absolute power, p.21
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       Absolute Power, p.21

           David Baldacci
 

  other was an item she had stared at for some minutes. Written on the paper, again in block letters, were the words:

  Question: What constitutes high crimes and misde meanors? Answer: I don’t think you want to find out. Valuable item available, more to follow, chief, signed not a secret admirer

  Even though she had expected it, in fact had desperately wanted to receive it, she still could feel her heartbeat increase to where it pounded against the wall of her chest; her saliva dwindled down to where she reached for and gulped down a glass of water and repeated the procedure until she could hold the letter without shaking. Then she looked at the second item. A photograph. The sight of the letter opener had brought the nightmare events rushing back to her. She gripped the sides of her chair. Finally the attack subsided.

  “At least he wants to deal.” Collin put down the note and photo and returned to his chair. He noted the extreme pallor of the woman and wondered if she was tough enough to make it through this one.

  “Maybe. It could also be a setup.”

  Collin shook his head. “Don’t think so.”

  Russell sat back in her chair, rubbed at her temples, downed another Tylenol. “Why not?”

  “Why set us up this way? In fact, why set us up at all? He’s got the stuff to bury us. He wants money.”

  “He probably got millions from the Sullivan heist.”

  “Maybe. But we don’t know how much of it was liquid. Maybe he stashed it and can’t get back to it. Maybe he’s just an extremely greedy person. World is full of those.”

  “I need a drink. Can you come over tonight?”

  “The President is having dinner at the Canadian embassy.”

  “Shit. Can’t you get someone to replace you?”

  “Maybe, if you pulled some strings.”

  “Consider them pulled. How soon do you think we’ll hear from him again?”

  “He doesn’t seem too anxious, although he might just be acting cautious. I would in his situation.”

  “Great. So I can smoke two packs of menthols a day until we hear from him. By then I’ll be dead of lung cancer.”

  “If he wants money, what are you going to do?” he asked.

  “Depending on how much he wants, it can be accomplished without too much difficulty.” She seemed calmer now.

  Collin rose to go. “You’re the boss.”

  “Tim?” Russell went over to him. “Hold me for a minute.”

  He felt her rub against his pistol as he gripped her.

  “Tim, if it comes down to more than money. If we can’t get it back.”

  Collin looked down at her.

  “Then I’ll take care of it, Gloria.” He touched his fingers to her lips, turned and left.

  * * *

  COLLIN FOUND BURTON WAITING IN THE HALLWAY.

  Burton looked the younger man up and down. “So how’s she holding up?”

  “All right.” Collin continued to walk down the hallway, until Burton grabbed his arm, spun him around.

  “What the fuck’s going on, Tim?” Collin loosened his partner’s grip.

  “This isn’t the time or the place, Bill.”

  “Well, tell me the time and the place, and I’ll be there because we need to talk.”

  “What about?”

  “You gonna fucking play stupid with me?” He roughly pulled Collin to a corner.

  “I want you to think real clearly about that woman in there. She doesn’t give a shit about you or me or anybody else. The only thing she cares about is saving her own little ass. I don’t know what kind of story she’s spinning on you, and I don’t know what you two are cooking up, but I’m telling you to be careful. I don’t want to see you throw everything away over her.”

  “I appreciate the concern but I know what I’m doing, Bill.”

  “Do you, Tim? Does fucking the Chief of Staff come within the purview of a Secret Service agent’s responsibilities? Why don’t you show me where that is in the manual? I’d like to read it for myself. And while we’re talking about it, why don’t you enlighten me about what the hell we went back into that house for. Because we ain’t got it, and I guess I know who does. My ass is on the line here too, Tim. If I’m going down I’d like to know why.”

  An aide passed by in the hallway and stared strangely at the two men. Burton smiled and nodded and then returned his attention to Collin.

  “Come on, Tim, what the hell would you do if you were me?”

  The young man looked at his friend and his face slowly relaxed from the hard line he normally wore while on duty. If he were in Burton’s position what would he do? The answer was easy. He’d kick some ass until people started talking. Burton was his friend, had proven it time and again. What the man was saying about Russell was probably true. Collin’s reasoning hadn’t totally evaporated in the presence of silk lingerie.

  “You got time for a cup of coffee, Bill?”

  * * *

  FRANK WALKED DOWN THE TWO FLIGHTS OF STAIRS, TURNED right and opened the door to the crime lab. Small and in need of paint, the room was surprisingly well-organized due in large measure to the fact that Laura Simon was a very compulsive person. Frank imagined her home to be every bit as neat and well-kept despite the presence of two preschoolers that kept her sufficiently haggard. Around the room were stacked unused evidence kits with their unbroken orange seals creating a bit of color against the drab, chipping gray walls. Cardboard boxes, carefully labeled, were piled in another corner. In yet another corner was a small floor safe that held the few physical items requiring additional security measures. Next to it was a refrigerator that housed evidence requiring a temperature-controlled environment.

  He watched her small back as it curved over a microscope at the far end of the room.

  “You rang?” Frank leaned over. On the glass slide were small fragments of some substance. He couldn’t imagine spending his days looking at microscopic pieces of who knew what, but he was also fully aware that what Laura Simon did was an enormously important contribution to the conviction process.

  “Look at this.” Simon motioned him over to the lens. Frank removed his eyeglasses, which he had forgotten were still on. He glanced down and then raised his head back up.

  “Laura, you know I never know what I’m looking at. What is it?”

  “It’s a sample of carpet taken from the Sullivans’ bedroom. We didn’t get it on the initial search, picked it up later.”

  “So, what’s significant about it?” Frank had learned to listen very attentively to this tech.

  “The carpet in the bedroom is one of those very high-priced models that cost about two hundred dollars a square foot. The carpet just for the bedroom must have run them almost a quarter mil.”

  “Jesus Christ!” Frank popped another piece of gum in his mouth. Trying to quit smoking was rotting his teeth and adding to his waistline. “Two-fifty for something you walk on?”

  “It’s incredibly durable; you could roll a tank across it and it would just spring back. It’s only been there about two years. They did a bunch of renovation back then.”

  “Renovation? The house is only a few years old.”

  “That’s when the deceased married Walter Sullivan.”

  “Oh.”

  “Women like to make their own statement about those things, Seth. Actually, she had good taste in carpets.”

  “Okay, so where does her good taste get us?”

  “Look at the fibers again.”

  Frank sighed but obeyed the request.

  “You see at the very tips? Look at the cross section. They’ve been cut. Presumably with not very sharp scissors. The cut is pretty ragged, although like I said these fibers are like iron.”

  He looked at her. “Cut? Why would anyone do that? Where’d you find them?”

  “These particular samples were found on the bed skirt. Whoever cut them probably wouldn’t have noticed a few fibers clinging to his hand. Then he brushed against the skirt and there you are.”


  “You find a corresponding part on the carpet?”

  “Yep. Right under the left side of the bed if you’re looking toward it about ten centimeters away at a perpendicular angle. The cut was slight but verifiable.”

  Frank straightened back up and sat down on one of the stools next to Simon.

  “That’s not all, Seth. On one of the fragments I also found traces of a solvent. Like a stain remover.”

  “That might be from the recent carpet cleaning. Or maybe the maids spilled something.”

  Simon shook her head. “Uh-uh. The cleaning company uses a steam system. For spot cleaning they use a special organic-based solvent. I checked. This one is a petroleum-based, off-the-shelf cleaner. And the maids use the same cleanser as recommended by the manufacturer. It’s an organic base too. They have a whole supply of it at the house. And the carpet is chemically treated to prevent stains from soaking in. Using a petroleum-based solvent probably made it worse. That’s probably why they ended up snipping out pieces.”

  “So presumably the perp takes the fibers because they show something. Do they?”

  “Not on the sample I got, but he might have cut around the area just to make sure he didn’t miss anything and we got one of the clean specimens.”

  “What would be on the carpet that someone would go to the trouble of cutting one-centimeter fibers out? It must’ve been a pain in the ass.”

  Both Simon and Frank had the same thought and indeed had it for several moments.

  “Blood,” Simon said simply.

  “And not the deceased’s either. If I remember correctly, hers wasn’t anywhere near that spot.” Frank added, “I think you got one more test to run, Laura.”

  She hooked a kit off the wall. “I was just getting ready to go do it, thought I’d better buzz you first.”

  “Smart girl.”

  * * *

  THE DRIVE OUT TOOK THIRTY MINUTES. FRANK ROLLED DOWN his window and let the wind course over his face. It also helped dispel the cigarette smoke. Simon was constantly giving him a hard time about that.

  The bedroom had remained sealed under Frank’s orders.

  Frank watched from the corner of Walter Sullivan’s bedroom as Simon carefully mixed the bottles of chemicals and then poured the result into a plastic sprayer. Frank then helped her stuff towels under the door and tape brown packing paper to the windows. They closed the heavy drapes, cutting out virtually all traces of natural light.

  Frank surveyed the room once again. He looked at the mirror, the bed, the window, the closets and then his eyes rested on the nightstand and at the gaping hole behind where the plaster had been removed. Then his eyes moved back to the picture. He picked it up. He was reminded again that Christine Sullivan had been a very beautiful woman, as far removed as one could get from the destroyed hulk he had viewed. In the photograph she was sitting in the chair beside the bed. The nightstand was clearly visible to her left. The corner of the bed made its way into the right side of the picture. Ironically so, considering all the use she had probably made of that particular vehicle. The springs were probably due for their sixty-thousand-mile checkup. After that, they probably wouldn’t have much to do. He remembered the look on Walter Sullivan’s face. Not much left there.

  He put the photo down and continued to observe Simon’s fluid movements. He glanced back at the photo, something bothering him, but whatever it was popped out of his head as quickly as it had sprung into it.

  “What’s that stuff called again, Laura?”

  “Luminol. It’s sold under a variety of names, but it’s the same reagent stuff. I’m ready.”

  She positioned the bottle over the section of carpet where the fibers had been cut from.

  “Good thing you don’t have to pay for this carpet.” The detective smiled at her.

  Simon turned to look at him. “Wouldn’t matter to me. I’d just declare bankruptcy. They could garnishee my wages from here until eternity. It’s the poor person’s great equalizer.”

  Frank hit the light, plunging the room into pitch-black darkness. Swishes of air were heard as Simon squeezed the trigger on the spray bottle. Almost immediately, like a mass of lightning bugs, a very small portion of the carpet started to glow a pale blue and then disappeared. Frank turned on the overhead light and looked at Simon.

  “So we got somebody else’s blood. Helluva pickup, Laura. Any way you can scrape up enough to analyze, get a blood type? DNA typing?”

  Simon looked dubious. “We’ll pull the carpet to see if any leaked through, but I doubt it. Not much soaks into a treated carpet. And any residue has been mixed with a lot of stuff. So don’t count on it.”

  Frank thought out loud. “Okay, one perp wounded. Not a lot of blood, but some.” He looked for confirmation from Simon on that point and received an affirmative nod of the head. “Wounded, but with what? She had nothing in her hand when we found her.”

  Simon read his mind. “And as sudden as her death was, we’re probably talking cadaveric spasm. To get it out of her hand they would’ve almost had to break her fingers.”

  Frank finished the thought. “And there was no sign of that on the autopsy.”

  “Unless the impact of the slugs caused her hand to fly open.”

  “How often does that happen?”

  “Once is enough for this case.”

  “Okay, let’s assume she had a weapon, and now that weapon is missing. What kind of weapon might it have been?”

  Simon considered this as she repacked her kit.

  “You probably could rule out a gun; she should’ve been able to get a round off, and there were no powder burns on her hands. They couldn’t have scraped those off without leaving a trail.”

  “Good. Plus there’s no evidence she ever had a gun registered to her. And we’ve already confirmed that there are no guns in the house.”

  “So no gun. Maybe a knife then. Can’t tell what kind of wound it made, but maybe a slash, probably superficial. The number of fibers that were snipped out was small, so we’re not talking life-threatening.”

  “So she stabbed one of the perps, maybe in the arm or leg. Then they backed up and shot her? Or she stabbed as she was dying?” Frank corrected himself. “No. She died instantly. She stabs one of them in another room, runs in here and then gets shot. Standing over her, the wounded perp drips some blood.”

  “Except the vault’s in here. The more likely scenario is that she surprised them in the act.”

  “Right, except remember the shots came from the doorway into the room. And fired down. Who surprised who? That’s what keeps bugging the ever-loving shit out of me.”

  “So why take the knife, if that’s what it was?”

  “Cause it IDs somebody, somehow.”

  “Prints?” Simon’s nostrils quivered as she thought of the physical evidence lurking out there.

  Frank nodded. “That’s how I read it.”

  “Was the last Mrs. Sullivan in the habit of keeping a knife with her?”

  Frank responded by slapping his hand to his forehead so hard it made Simon wince. She watched as he rushed over to the nightstand and picked up the photo. He shook his head and handed it to her.

  “There’s your goddamned knife.”

  Simon looked at the photo. In it, resting on the nightstand was a long, leather-handled letter opener.

  “The leather also explains the oily residue on the palms.”

  Frank paused at the front door on the way out. He looked at the security control panel, which had been restored to its operating condition. Then he broke into a smile as an elusive thought finally trickled to the surface.

  “Laura, you got the fluorescent lamp in the trunk?”

 

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