Absolute Power



  years; they were not what they were. At his age battles became someone else’s to fight, and win or lose. His time had finally come. He wasn’t up to it. Even he had to understand that, to accept that reality.

  Luther looked at himself in the tiny mirror again. A sob swelled in his throat before it reached the surface and filled the small room.

  But no excuse would justify what he had not done. He had not opened that mirrored door. He had not flung that man off Christine Sullivan. He could have prevented the woman’s death, that was the simple truth. She would still be alive if he had acted. He had traded his freedom, perhaps his life, for another’s. For someone who could have used his help, who was fighting for her very life while Luther just watched. A human being who had barely lived a third of Luther’s years. It had been a cowardly act, and that fact gripped him like some savage anaconda, threatening to explode every organ in his body.

  He bent low over the sink as his legs began to fail him. He was grateful for the collapse. He could not look at his reflection anymore. As choppy air buffeted the plane he was sick to his stomach.

  A few minutes elapsed and he wet a paper towel with cold water and wiped it across his face and the back of his neck. He finally managed to stumble back to his seat. As the plane thundered on his guilt grew with each passing mile.

  * * *

  THE PHONE WAS RINGING. KATE LOOKED AT THE CLOCK. Eleven o’clock. Normally she would screen her calls. But something made her hand dart out and pick it up before the machine engaged.

  “Hello.”

  “Why aren’t you still at work?”

  “Jack?”

  “How’s your ankle?”

  “Do you realize what time it is?”

  “Just checking on my patient. Doctors never sleep.”

  “Your patient is fine. Thanks for the worry.” She smiled in spite of herself.

  “Butterscotch cone, that prescription has never failed me.”

  “Oh, so there were other patients?”

  “I’ve been advised by my attorney not to answer that question.”

  “Smart counsel.”

  Jack could visualize her sitting there, one finger playing with the ends of her hair, the same way she had done when they studied together; he laboring through securities regulations, she through French.

  “Your hair curls enough at the ends without you helping it.”

  She pulled her finger back, smiled, then frowned. That statement had brought a lot of memories back, not all good ones.

  “It’s late, Jack. I’ve got court tomorrow.”

  He stood up and paced with the cordless, thinking rapidly. Anything to hold her on the phone for a few more seconds. He felt guilty, as though he were sneaking around. He involuntarily looked over his shoulder. There was no one there, at least no one he could see.

  “I’m sorry I called late.”

  “Okay.”

  “And I’m sorry I hurt your ankle.”

  “You already apologized for that.”

  “Yeah. So, how are you? I mean except for your ankle?”

  “Jack, I really need to get some sleep.”

  He was hoping she would say that.

  “Well tell me over lunch.”

  “I told you I’ve got court.”

  “After court.”

  “Jack, I’m not sure that’s a good idea. In fact I’m pretty sure it’s a lousy idea.”

  He wondered what she meant by that. Reading too much into her statements had always been a bad habit of his.

  “Jesus, Kate. It’s just lunch. I’m not asking you to marry me.” He laughed, but knew he’d already blown it.

  Kate was no longer fiddling with her hair. She too stood up. Her reflections caught in the hallway mirror. She pulled at the neck of her nightgown. The frown lines were prominent on her forehead.

  “I’m sorry,” he said quickly. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that. Look, it’ll be my treat. I have to spend all that money on something.” He was met with silence. In fact, he wasn’t sure if she were still on the line.

  He had rehearsed this conversation for the last two hours. Every possible question, exchange, deviation. He’d be so smooth, she so understanding. They would hit it off so well. So far, absolutely nothing had gone according to plan. He fell back on his alternate plan. He decided to beg.

  “Please, Kate. I’d really like to talk to you. Please.”

  She sat back down, curled her legs under her, rubbed at her long toes. She took a deep breath. The years hadn’t changed her as much as she had thought. Was that good or bad? Right now she had no way to deal with that question.

  “When and where?”

  “Morton’s?”

  “For lunch?”

  He could see her incredulous face at the thought of the ultra-expensive restaurant. Wondering what type of world he now lived in. “Okay, how about the deli in Old Town near Founder’s Park around two? We’ll miss the lunchtime crowd.”

  “Better. But I can’t promise. I’ll call if I can’t make it.”

  He slowly let out his breath. “Thanks, Kate.”

  He hung up the phone and collapsed on the couch. Now that his plan had worked, he wondered what the hell he was doing. What would he say? What would she say? He didn’t want to fight. He hadn’t been lying, he did just want to talk to her, and to see her. That was all. He kept telling himself that.

  He went to the bathroom, plunged his head into a sink of cold water, grabbed a beer and went up to the rooftop pool and sat there in the darkness, watching the planes as they made their approach up the Potomac into National. The twin bright, red lights of the Washington Monument blinked consolingly at him. Eight stories down the streets were quiet except for the occasional police or ambulance siren.

  Jack looked at the calm surface of the pool, put his foot in the now cool water and watched as it rippled across. He drank his beer, went downstairs and fell asleep in a chair in the living room, the TV droning in front of him. He did not hear the phone ring, no message was left. Almost one thousand miles away, Luther Whitney hung up the phone and smoked his first cigarette in over thirty years.

  * * *

  THE FEDERAL EXPRESS TRUCK PULLED SLOWLY DOWN THE isolated country road, the driver scanning the rusty and leaning mailboxes for the correct address. He had never made a delivery out here. His truck seemed to ride ditch to ditch on the narrow road.

  He pulled into the driveway of the last house and started to back out. He just happened to look over and saw the address on the small piece of wood beside the door. He shook his head and smiled. Sometimes it was just luck.

  The house was small, and not very well kept up. The weathered aluminum window awnings, popular about twenty years before the driver had been born, sagged down, as if they were tired and just wanted to rest.

  The elderly woman who answered the door was dressed in a pullover flowered dress, a thick sweater wrapped around her shoulders. Her thick red ankles told of poor circulation and probably a host of other ailments. She seemed surprised by the delivery, but readily signed for it.

  The driver glanced at the signature on his pad: Edwina Broome. Then he got in his truck and left. She watched him leave before shutting the door.

  * * *

  THE WALKIE-TALKIE CRACKLED.

  Fred Barnes had been doing this job for seven years now. Driving around the neighborhoods of the rich, seeing the big houses, manicured grounds, the occasional expensive car with its mannequinlike occupants coming down the perfect asphalt drive and through the massive gates. He had never been inside any of the homes he was paid to guard, and never expected to be.

  He looked up at the imposing structure. Four to five million dollars, he surmised. More money than he could make in five lifetimes. Sometimes it just didn’t seem right.

  He checked in on his walkie-talkie. He would take a look around the place. He didn’t exactly know what was going on. Only that the owner had called and requested a patrol car check.

  The cold air i
n his face made Barnes think about a hot cup of coffee and a danish, to be followed by eight hours of sleep until he had to venture out again in his Saturn for yet another night of protecting the possessions of the wealthy. The pay wasn’t all that bad, although the benefits sucked. His wife worked full-time too, and with three kids, their combined incomes were barely enough. But then everybody had it tough He looked at the five-car garage in back, the pool and the tennis courts. Well, maybe not everybody.

  As he rounded the corner, he saw the dangling rope and thoughts of coffee and a creamy danish disappeared. He crouched down, his hand flying to his sidearm. He grabbed his mike and reported in, his voice cracking embarrassingly. The real police would be here in minutes. He could wait for them or investigate himself. For eight singles an hour he decided to stay right where he was.

  Barnes’s supervisor arrived first in the stark white station wagon with the company’s logo on the door panel. Thirty seconds later the first of five patrol cars pulled down the asphalt drive until they were stacked like a waiting train in front of the house.

  The window was covered by two officers. It was probable that the perps had long since exited the premises, but assumptions were dangerous in the police business.

  Four officers went to the front, two more covered the back. Working in pairs, the four policemen proceeded to make their way in. They noted that the front door was unlocked, the alarm off. They satisfied themselves with the downstairs and cautiously moved up the broad staircase, their ears and eyes straining for any trace of sound or movement.

  By the time they reached the second-floor landing, the nostrils of the sergeant in charge told him that this would not be a routine burglary.

  Four minutes later they stood in a circle around what had recently been a young, beautiful woman. The healthy coloring of each of the men had faded to dull white.

  The sergeant, fiftyish and a father of three, looked at the open window. Thank God, he thought to himself; even with the outside air the atmosphere inside the room was stupefying. He looked once more at the corpse, then strode quickly to the window and sucked in deep gulps of the crisp air.

  He had a daughter about that age. For a moment he imag ined her on that floor, her face a memory, her life brutally over. The matter was out of his bailiwick now, but he wished for one thing: he wished to be there when whoever had done this atrocious thing was caught.

  CHAPTER SEVEN

  SETH FRANK WAS SIMULTANEOUSLY MUNCHING A PIECE OF toast and attempting to tie his six-year-old daughter’s hair ribbons for school when the phone call came. His wife’s look told him all he needed. She finished the ribbon. Seth cradled the phone while he finished knotting his tie, listening all the while to the calm, efficient tones of the dispatcher. Two minutes later he was in his car; the official bubble light needlessly stuck to the top of his department-issued Ford and aqua blue grille lights flashing ominously as he roared through the nearly deserted back roads of the county.

  Frank’s tall, big-boned frame was beginning its inevitable journey to softness, and his curly black hair had seen more affluent days. At forty-one years old, the father of three daughters who grew more complex and bewildering by the day, he had come to realize that not all that much in life made sense. But overall he was a happy man. Life had dealt him no knockout punches. Yet. He had been in law enforcement long enough to know how abruptly that could change.

  Frank wadded up a piece of Juicy Fruit and slowly chewed it while compact rows of needle pines flew past his window. He had started his law enforcement career as a cop in some of the worst areas of New York City where the statement “the value of life” was an oxymoron and where he had seen virtually every way one person could kill another. He had eventually made detective, which had thrilled his wife. At least now he would arrive at crime scenes after the bad guys had departed. She slept better at night, knowing that the dreaded phone call would probably not come to destroy her life. That was as much as she could hope for being married to a cop.

  Frank had finally been assigned to homicide, which was pretty much the ultimate challenge in his line of work. After a few years, he decided he liked the job and the challenge, but not at the rate of seven corpses a day. So he had made the trek south to Virginia.

  He was senior homicide detective for the County of Middleton, which sounded better than it actually was, since he also happened to be the only homicide detective the county employed. But the relatively innocuous confines of the rustic Virginia county had not lent itself to much demanding work over that time. The per capita income levels in his jurisdiction were off the scale. People were murdered, but other than wives shooting husbands or vice versa or inheritance-minded kids popping off their parents, there hadn’t been much excitement. The perps in those cases were pretty self-evident, less mental work than legwork. The dispatcher’s phone call promised to change all that.

  The road snaked past wooded area and then opened out onto fenced, green fields where leggy thoroughbreds lazily faced the new morning. Behind impressive gates and long, winding driveways were the residences of the fortunate few, who were actually very plentiful in Middleton. Frank concluded that he wasn’t going to get any help from the neighbors on this one. Once inside their fortresses they probably saw or heard nothing on the outside. Which was undoubtedly the way they wanted it and paid dearly for that privilege.

  As Frank approached the Sullivan estate he straightened his tie in the rearview mirror and pushed back some stray wisps of hair. He had no particular affinity for the wealthy, nor did he dislike them. They were parts of the puzzle. A conundrum that was as far from a game as you could get. Which led to the most satisfying part of his job. For amidst all the twists, turns, red herrings and plain mistakes, there lurked an undeniable truism: if you killed another human being, you came within his domain and you would be ultimately punished. What that punishment was, Frank usually did not care. What he did care about was that someone stand trial and, if convicted, that someone receive the meted penalty. Rich, poor or in-between. His skills may be somewhat dulled, but the instincts were still there. In the long run, he’d always go with the latter.

  As he pulled in the drive he noticed a small combine chewing under the adjacent cornfield, its driver watching the police activity with a keen eye. That information would soon be passing through the area in rapid movements. The man had no way to know he was destroying evidence, evidence of a flight. Neither did Seth Frank as he climbed out of his car, threw on his jacket and hustled through the front door.

  * * *

  HANDS DEEP IN HIS POCKETS, HIS EYES MOVED SLOWLY AROUND the room, taking in each detail of the floor, walls, and venturing to the ceiling before coming back to the mirrored door and then to the spot where the deceased had lain for the last several days.

  Seth Frank said, “Take a lot of pics, Stu, looks like we’ll need it.”

  The crime unit photographer paced through the room in discrete grids outward from the corpse in his effort to reproduce on film every aspect of the room including its lone oc cupant. This would be followed by a videotaping of the entire crime scene complete with a narrative. Not necessarily admissible in court, but it was invaluable to the investigation. As football players watched game films, detectives were more and more scrutinizing the videos for additional clues that might only be seized upon on the eighth, tenth or hundredth examination.

  The rope was still tied to the bureau and still disappeared out the window. Only now it was covered with black fingerprint powder, but there wouldn’t be much there. One usually wore gloves to climb down a rope, even a knotted one.

  Sam Magruder, the officer in charge, approached, having just spent two minutes leaning out the window sucking in air. Fiftyish with a shock of red hair that topped a plump, hairless face, he was having a hard time keeping his breakfast down. A large portable fan had been brought in and the windows were fully open. All the CU personnel wore floater masks, but the stench was still oppressive. Nature’s parting laugh to the living. Beautiful
one minute, rotting the next.

  Frank checked Magruder’s notes, noted the greenish tint to the OIC’s face.

  “Sam, if you’d stay away from the window, your sense of smell would go dead in about four minutes. You’re just making it worse.”

  “I know that, Seth. My brain tells me that, but my nose won’t listen.”

  “When did the husband phone in?”

  “This morning, seven-forty-five local time.”

  Frank tried to make out the cop’s scribbles. “And he’s where?”