Absolute Power


  JACK WAS EARLY. HIS WATCH SHOWED ONE-THIRTY-FIVE. HE had taken the day off, spending much of it deciding what to wear; something he had never concerned himself with before, but which now seemed vitally important.

  He pulled at his gray tweed jacket, fingered a button on his white cotton shirt and adjusted the knot in his tie for the tenth time.

  He walked down to the dock and watched the deck hands clean the Cherry Blossom, a tour ship built to resemble an old Mississippi riverboat. He and Kate had gone on it their first year in D.C. during a rare afternoon off from work. They had tried to hit all the touristy attractions. It had been a warm day like today, but clearer. Gray clouds were now rolling in from the west; afternoon thunderstorms were almost a given this time of year.

  He sat on the weathered bench near the dockmaster’s small hut and followed the lazy drift of the sea gulls across the choppy water. The Capitol was visible from his vantage point. Lady Liberty, minus the collective filth of over a hundred and thirty years of residing outdoors thanks to a recent cleaning, stood imperiously on top of the famous dome. People in this town were encased in grime over time, Jack thought to himself, it just came with the territory.

  Jack’s musings turned to Sandy Lord, the firm’s most prolific rainmaker, and the biggest ego Patton, Shaw had ever seen. Sandy was close to being an institution in the legal and political circles of D.C. The other partners dropped his name as though he had just that moment stepped down from Mount Sinai with his own version of the Ten Commandments, which would have commenced with “Thou Shalt Make Patton, Shaw and LORD Partners As Much Money As Possible.”

  Ironically, Sandy Lord was part of the attraction when Ransome Baldwin had mentioned the firm. Lord was one of the best, if not the best example of a power lawyer the city had to offer, and it had dozens in that league. The possibilities were limitless for Jack. Whether those possibilities included his personal happiness, he was far from certain.

  He was also not certain what he expected from this lunch. What he was sure about was that he wanted to see Kate Whitney. He wanted that very much. It seemed as though the closer his marriage came, the more he was emotionally retreating. And where more likely a spot to retreat than to the woman he had asked to marry him over four years ago? He shuddered as that memory engulfed him. He was terrified of marrying Jennifer Baldwin. Terrified that his life would soon become unrecognizable to him.

  Something made him turn, he wasn’t sure what exactly. But she was standing there, at the edge of the pier, watching him. The wind whipped her long skirt around her legs, the sun battled the darkening clouds, but still provided enough light to sparkle across her face as she moved the long strands of hair from her eyes. The calves and ankles were summer brown. The loose blouse bared her shoulders, showing off the freckles, and the tiny half-moon birthmark Jack had the habit of tracing after they had finished making love, she asleep and he watching her.

  He smiled as she walked toward him. She must have gone home to change. This was clearly not her courtroom armor; these clothes represented a far more feminine side to Kate Whitney than any of her legal opponents would ever witness.

  They walked down the street to the small deli, ordered and spent the first few minutes alternately staring out the window watching the approaching rain as it whipped the trees around, and exchanging awkward glances, as if on a first date and afraid to make steady eye contract.

  “I appreciate your making the time, Kate.”

  She shrugged. “I like it here. Haven’t been for a while. It’s nice to get out for a change. I usually eat at my desk.”

  “Crackers and coffee?” He smiled and stared at her teeth. The funny one that curved inwardly slightly, like it was giving a quick hug to its neighbor. He liked that tooth the best. It was the only flaw he had ever noticed about her.

  “Crackers and coffee.” She smiled back. “Down to two cigarettes a day.”

  “Congratulations.” The rain came at the same time their orders did.

  She looked up from her plate, her eyes swept over to the window and then abruptly to Jack’s face. She caught him staring at her. Jack smiled awkwardly and took a quick gulp of his drink.

  She put her napkin on the table.

  “The Mall’s a big place to accidentally run into someone.”

  He didn’t look at her. “I’ve been having a run of good luck lately.” Now he met her eye. She waited. His shoulders finally collapsed.

  “Okay, so it was less of an accident and more premeditated. You can’t argue with the results.”

  “What are the results? Lunch?”

  “I’m not looking ahead. I’m just taking it one step at a time. New life resolution. Change is good.”

  She said with more than a little contempt, “Well, at least you’re not defending rapists and murderers anymore.”

  “And burglars?” he shot back, and then instantly regretted it.

  Kate’s face turned gray.

  “I’m sorry, Kate. I didn’t mean that.”

  She pulled out a cigarette and matches, lit up and blew smoke in his face.

  He waved the cloud away. “Your first or second of the day?”

  “Third. For some reason you always make me feel daring.” She stared at the window, crossed her legs. Her foot touched his knee and she quickly jerked it back. She stabbed out her cigarette and stood up, grabbing her purse.

  “I have to get back to work. How much do I owe you?”

  He stared at her. “I invited you to lunch. Which you haven’t even eaten.”

  She pulled out a ten and tossed it down on the table and headed for the door.

  Jack threw another ten down and raced after her.


  He caught up to her just outside the deli. The rain had stiffened and despite holding his jacket over their heads they were quickly soaked. She didn’t seem to notice. She climbed in her car. He jumped in the passenger side. She looked at him.

  “I really have to get back.”

  Jack took a deep breath, wiped the moisture off his face. The heavy rain drummed on the car’s exterior. He felt it all slipping away. He was far from sure how to handle this situation. But he had to say something.

  “Come on, Kate, we’re dripping wet, it’s almost three o’clock. Let’s go get cleaned up and hit a movie. No, we can drive out to the country. Remember the Windsor Inn?”

  She looked at him, absolute astonishment on her features. “Jack, by any chance, have you discussed this with the woman you’re engaged to marry?”

  Jack looked down. What was he supposed to say? That he was not in love with Jennifer Baldwin despite having asked her to marry him? Right at that moment, he could not even recall asking her.

  “I’d just like to spend some time with you, Kate. That’s all. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

  “There is everything wrong with that, Jack. Everything!” She started to put the key in the ignition but he held her hand back.

  “I’m not looking to make this a battle.”

  “Jack, you’ve made your decision. It’s a little late for this now.”

  His face curled into disbelief. “Excuse me? My decision? I made a decision to marry you over four years ago. That was my decision. It was your decision to end it.”

  She pushed wet hair out of her eyes. “Okay, it was my decision. Now what?”

  He turned to face her, gripped both her shoulders.

  “Look, it suddenly occurred to me last night. Oh what the hell! It’s been every night since you left. I knew it was a mistake, goddammit! I’m not at PD anymore. You’re right, I don’t defend criminals anymore. I make a good, respectable living. I, we . . .” As he looked at her astonished face, his entire mind went blank. His hands were shaking. He let go of her, slumped back in the seat.

  He stripped off his drenched tie, stuffed it in his pocket, and stared at the little clock on the dashboard. She checked out the motionless speedometer, then glanced at him. There was kindne
ss in her tone, although the pain was evident in her eyes.

  “Jack, lunch was very nice. It was good to see you. But that’s as far as we can go. I’m sorry.” She bit her lip, a movement he didn’t see because he was getting out of the car.

  He poked his head back in. “Have a good life, Kate. You ever need anything, call me.”

  She watched his thick shoulders as he walked through the steady rain, got in his car and drove off. She sat for several minutes. A tear traced its way down her cheek. She angrily flicked it away, put the car in gear and drove off in the opposite direction.

  * * *

  THE NEXT MORNING, JACK PICKED UP THE PHONE AND THEN slowly put it back down. What was the point really? He had been in the office since six, wiped out his backlog of high-priority work and moved on to projects that had been on the back burner for weeks. He looked out the window. The sun ricocheted off the concrete and brick edifices. He rubbed the glare out of his eyes and pulled the blinds down.

  Kate was not going to suddenly plunge back into his life and he had to adjust to that. He had spent the night turning every possible scenario over in his head, most wildly unrealistic. He shrugged. Things like this happened to men and women every day in every country in the world. Things sometimes did not work out. Even if you wanted them to more than anything else. You couldn’t will someone to love you back. You had to move on. He had plenty to move on to. Maybe it was time for him to enjoy the future he knew he did have.

  He sat down at his desk and methodically moved through two more projects, a joint venture for which he was doing low-level, no-brain grunt work, and a project for the only client he had other than Baldwin, Tarr Crimson.

  Crimson owned a small audiovisual company, was a genius with computer-generated graphics and images, and made a very good living running AV conferences for companies at area hotels. He also rode a motorcycle, dressed in cut-off jeans, smoked everything including an occasional cigarette, and looked like the biggest burnt-out druggie in the world.

  Jack and he had met when a friend of Jack’s had prosecuted Tarr for drunk and disorderly, and lost. Tarr had come in dressed in a three-piece suit, briefcase and neatly trimmed hair and beard, and argued persuasively that the officer’s testimony was biased because the bust was outside a Grateful Dead concert, that the field test was inadmissible because the cop had not given the proper verbal warnings and lastly because an improperly functioning piece of equipment had been used to administer the test.

  The judge, burdened with over a hundred D&Ds from the concert, had dismissed the case after admonishing the officer to adhere strictly to the rules in the future. Jack had watched the entire affair in amazement. Impressed, Jack walked out of the courtroom with Tarr, had a beer with him that night, and they quickly became friends.

  Except for occasional, relatively innocuous brushes with the law, Crimson was a good, if unwelcome, client to the halls of Patton, Shaw. It had been part of Jack’s deal that Tarr, who had fired his last attorney, would be allowed to follow Jack to Patton, Shaw as if the firm would have actually said no to their new four-million-dollar man.

  He put down his pen and moved once again to the window as his thoughts drifted back to Kate Whitney. An idea lumbered across the forefront of his mind. When Kate had left him originally, Jack had gone to see Luther. The old man had had no words of wisdom, no instant solution to Jack’s dilemma. Indeed, Luther Whitney was the unlikeliest person in the world to have the answer that would reach to his daughter’s heart. And yet Jack had always been able to talk to Luther. About anything. The man listened. He really listened. He didn’t merely wait for you to pause with your own story so he could plunge in with his own troubles. Jack wasn’t sure what he was going to say to the man. But whatever it was he was certain Luther would listen. And that was probably going to have to be good enough.

  One hour later Jack’s computerized calendar buzzed a warning. Jack checked the time and threw on his jacket.

  Jack moved quickly down the hallway. Lunch with Sandy Lord in twenty minutes. Jack was uncomfortable about being with the man, alone. Legions had been spoken about Sandy Lord, mostly true, Jack assumed. He wanted lunch with Jack Graham, Jack’s secretary had told him this morning. And what Sandy Lord wanted he got. Jack’s secretary also reminded him of that in a hushed whisper that made Jack slightly repulsed.

  Twenty minutes, but first Jack had to check with Alvis on the Bishop documents. Jack smiled as he remembered Barry’s face when the drafts had been placed carefully on his desk, thirty minutes before the deadline. Alvis had scanned them, the astonishment clear on his features.

  “This looks pretty good. I realize I gave you a tough deadline. I don’t usually like to do that.” His eyes were averted. “I really appreciate the hustle, Jack. I’m sorry if I screwed up your plans.”

  “No sweat, Barry, that’s what they pay me for.” Jack had turned to leave. Barry had risen from his desk.

  “Jack, uh, we really haven’t had a chance to talk since you’ve been here. Place is so damn big. Let’s have lunch one day, soon.”

  “Sounds great, Barry, have your secretary give mine some dates.”

  At that moment Jack realized that Barry Alvis wasn’t such a bad guy. He had dinged Jack, but so what? Compared to how the senior partners ran their underlings, Jack had gotten off easy. Besides, Barry was a first-rate corporate attorney and Jack could learn a lot from him.

  Jack passed Barry’s secretary’s desk but Sheila was not there.

  Then Jack noticed the boxes stacked against the wall. Barry’s door was closed. Jack knocked, but there was no answer. He looked around and then opened the door. His eyes closed and reopened as he looked at the empty bookcases, at the rectangular patches of unfaded wallpaper where a slew of diplomas and certificates had hung.

  What the hell? He closed the door, turned and bumped into Sheila.

  Normally professional and precise in her manner, without a hair out of place and glasses set firmly on the bridge of her nose, Sheila was a wreck. She had been Barry’s secretary for ten years. She stared at Jack, fire flashed through her pale blue eyes, and then was gone. She turned around, walked quickly back to her cubicle and started packing up boxes. Jack stared blankly at her.

  “Sheila, what’s going on? Where’s Barry?” She did not respond. Her hands moved faster until she was literally throwing things into the box. Jack moved over next to her, looked down at the petite frame.

  “Sheila? What the hell’s going on? Sheila!” He grabbed her hand. She slapped him, which shocked her so badly she abruptly sat down. Her head slowly went down to her desk and stayed there. She began to quietly sob.

  Jack looked around again. Was Barry dead? Had there been a terrible accident and no one had bothered to tell him? Was the firm that big, that callous? Would he read about it in a firm memo? He looked at his hands. They were trembling.

  He perched on the edge of the desk, gently touched Sheila’s shoulder, trying to bring her out of it, but without success. Jack looked around helplessly as the sobs continued, rising higher and higher in their intensity. Finally, two secretaries from around the corner appeared and quietly led Sheila away. Each of them gave Jack a not very friendly glance.

  What the hell had he done? He looked at his watch. He had to meet Lord in ten minutes. Suddenly he was very much looking forward to this lunch. Lord knew everything that happened at the firm, usually before it actually did happen. Then a thought tickled the back of his head, a truly horrible thought. His mind went back to the White House dinner and his irate fiancée. He had mentioned Barry Alvis by name to her. But she wouldn’t have . . . ? Jack practically sprinted down the hallway, the back of his jacket flapping behind him.

  * * *

  FILLMORE’S WAS A WASHINGTON LANDMARK OF FAIRLY RECENT vintage. The doors were solid mahogany and bedecked with thick, weighty brass; the carpets and drapes were handwoven and supremely costly. Each table area was a self-contained haven of intense mealtime productivity. Phone, fax and copier s
ervices were readily available and widely used. The ornately carved tables were surrounded by richly upholstered chairs in which sat the truly elite of Washington’s business and political circles. The prices ensured that the clientele would remain that way.

  While crowded, the pace of the restaurant was unhurried; its occupants unused to being dictated to, they moved at their own level of intensity. Sometimes their very presence at a particular table, a raised eyebrow, a stifled cough, a knowing look, was a full day’s work for them, and would reap huge rewards for them personally or for those whom they represented. Money and raw power floated through the room in distinct patterns, coupling and uncoupling.

  Waiters in stiff shirts and neat bow ties appeared and then disappeared at discreetly placed intervals. Patrons were coddled and served and listened to or left alone as the particular occasion called for. And the gratuities reflected the clientele’s appreciation.

  Fillmore’s was Sandy Lord’s favorite lunch spot. He peered over his menu, briefly, but methodically surveyed with his intense, gray eyes the broad expanse of the dining room for potential business or perhaps something else. He moved his heavy bulk gracefully in his chair and carefully coaxed a few gray hairs back into place. The trouble was, familiar faces kept disappearing as time moved forward, stolen away by death or retirement to points south. He removed a fleck of dust from one of his monogrammed shirt curls and sighed. Lord had picked this establishment, maybe this town, clean.

  He punched on his cellular phone and checked his mes sages. Walter Sullivan hadn’t called. If Sullivan’s deal came through, Lord could land a former Eastern Bloc country as a client.