POWER. Bold, sweeping power. Awesome, radiant power. Power as dazzling as only one city in the entire history of the known universe, Washington, could express. He wanted that kind of power. No, he needed it, burned for it. And he would get it the only way he knew how: by writing a Washington thriller.

It wouldn't be easy, he knew. Dominating millions of people seldom was. First he'd need a bold, shocking plot gimmick. Like the president being kidnapped and secretly replaced by Roone Arledge. Or a beautiful Russian ballerina defecting to the West with a deadly nuclear virus in her toe shoes. Yes, he'd need an angle as improbable as Washington itself.

Then he'd need characters. Bold, potent, one-dimensional characters. The senator who would stop at nothing. The CIA director who would stop at nothing. The limo driver who would stop only at traffic lights. And women. He'd need brilliant, beautiful, insatiable women. Women whose love of power was exceeded only by their power to love. Yes, he'd need women like that. Not too many, mind you. One per book ought to do it. And guns. He'd need long, loving descriptions of guns. Generally more sensual than the descriptions of women. And murders, brutal ones. He'd need killing every 20 pages or so, killings all over the capital, that was the way Washington worked, even Ralph Nader bumped off his foes with long, beautiful guns, everyone knew that. And sex scenes. Of course he'd need them. They were obligatory. Grasping, smirking, adolescent sex scenes between people with other things on their minds. That much, at least, would be accurate.

It was all within his reach. He lacked only the plot twist. Wait! How about the president actually being a Russian agent? For a moment he savored it. Then he slammed his dynamic, masculine fist down on the priceless teak credenza. It was too late. Nicholas Guild, veteran writer of thrillers, had just beaten him to it with The President's Man.

Powerful book, he thought. Awesome, sweeping book. The President's Man was a book where people had names like Simon Faircliff, Pete Freestone, and Frank Austen. A book with lines like, "Simon Faircliff was a man of considerable physical presence--six three and built on a large scale; he reminded you of a wall. . . . The guy radiated power. . . . It was like having a light directed into your eyes." And, "Hell, Freestone had been followed before; it was the sort of thing that happened to political reporters." Staggering, stunning lines, yet Guild wrote them down without flinching, the way a man does.

Too bad, he thought, The President's Man had logical holes the Sixth Fleet could sail through. During its course Simon Faircliff's entire family, boyhood companions, congressional opponent, presidential nomination opponent, presidential election opponent, wife and official biographer all get knocked off under highly suspicious circumstances, yet no one raises an eyebrow. (No one . . . except Frank Austen.) And though Faircliff has been president a complete term, not a single reporter has even visited his home town. Where, it seems, the damning evidence of Faircliff's true identity is practically on display at city hall.

Still, he knew, The President's Man was a book Washington-thriller fans would love, even if its characters did remind you of walls. It had a sort of goofy charm. It had . . . power! He slumped in despair, staring out at the sprawling vista of Washington power, seeking inspiration in the lights of the Capitol Dome itself, which he could see from his window even though he lived in Rosecroft. What other idea was left? Wait! How about a fabulously rich, twisted Washington powerbroker bent on reenacting the Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy assassinations? Again he savored the notion. Then he smashed his glass of 30-year-old scotch against the restored hardwood floor in dismay. Warren Adler, veteran writer of thrillers, had just beaten him to it with American Quartet.

Awesome book, he thought. Sweeping, powerful book. After all, it seemed that every possible way to exploit the Kennedy assassination had been thought up. But then along came American Quartet. That was part of power, he realized, always being willing to stoop a little lower than the next guy, and Adler, Adler who wrote The War of the Roses and helped found the society magazine called Washington Dossier, Adler understood Washington power.

Money. Lust. Slaughter. Genetic inbreeding. It was all in American Quartet. The heroine--brilliant, beautiful, insatiable Fiona FitzGerald--by night dined at Tiberio's with her congressman lover (who would stop at nothing until he became senator) and by day was a hard-hitting D.C. homicide cop. The villain--diabolical Thaddeus Remington III--by day pulled strings and by night stalked innocent citizens as he practiced for the assassination that, Remington dreamed, would write his name in history. Their paths were sure to cross.

Powerful, he thought, searing. Though where Guild's book was fun to read, Adler's was painful. Numerous acts of random violence against strangers were recounted, celebrated, in fashionable slow-motion. Was this, he wondered, really a Washington novel, or an attempt at emulating the worst of the violence-adoring New York school of literary pretension? Then there was Remington, the madman Remington. Endless descriptions of his perverted affair with his own mother. How he sought out and abused women who had had affairs with John Kennedy. And how he abused himself with a marksman's rifle while fantasizing about Kennedy's killing. Cheap stuff, he thought, really borderline, even for this genre. Even if you didn't like Kennedy, it would be embarrassing to read.

Yet . . . yet these books had something in common, some message history itself was sending him. Suddenly he realized what it was! To write novels about how Washington works, you have to ignore how Washington works!

There was the central element of The President's Man, for instance. Awesome notion. A 50-year-long, globe-spanning conspiracy involving thousands of people which was executed like clockwork, no one ever suspecting a thing. (No one . . . except Frank Austen.) In the real Washington, any program still running as planned by the end of its first week is the stuff of legends. In the real Washington power is diffuse and confused, not concentrated in the hands of a few wall-like men. Even presidents, in recent decades, have found that maddeningly true.

But none of that mattered to him anymore. At last he understood the dazzling, powerful secret of Washington thrillers. He hammered down another scotch, straight, head swimming with conventions. He instructed his housekeeper--the brilliant, beautiful, insatiable Mrs. Swampscott--that he was not to be disturbed. He grabbed for paper. Lovingly he caressed the smoking platen of his Smith-Corona 2200, the most devastating portable ever built. He was ready to write. Nothing could stop him now.