Absolute Power



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  LUTHER HEARD THE VEHICLES ENTER THE FRONT DRIVE. HE flitted to a window and followed the mini-caravan as it went around back, where it would be hidden from view from the front drive. He counted four people alighting from the limo, one from the van. His mind scrolled swiftly through possible identities. Too small a party for it to be the owners of the house. Too many for it to be someone simply checking on the place. He could not make out any faces. For one ironic instant Luther debated whether the home was destined to be burgled twice on the same night. But that was too enormous a coincidence. In this business, like a lot of others, you played the percentages. Besides, criminals did not march up to their targets wearing clothing more suitable for a night on the town.

  He thought quickly as noises filtered up to him, presumably from outside the rear of the house. It took him a second to realize that his retreat was cut off and to calculate what his plan of action would be.

  Grabbing his bag, he raced to the alarm panel next to the bedroom door and activated the home’s security system, silently thanking his memory for numbers. Then Luther slipped across to the vault and entered it, carefully closing the door behind him. He pushed himself as far back into the little room as he could. Now he had to wait.

  He cursed his misfortune; everything had been going so smoothly. Then he shook his head clear, forced himself to breathe regularly. It was like flying. The longer you did it, the greater your chance of something bad happening. He would just have to hope that the house’s most recent arrivals would have no need to make a deposit in the private bank he was now occupying.

  A burst of laughter and then the drum of voices filtered up to him, together with the loud beep from the alarm system, which sounded like a jet plane screeching directly over his head. Apparently there was slight confusion about the security code. A bead of sweat appeared on Luther’s forehead as he envisioned the alarm exploding and the police wanting to examine every inch of the house just in case, starting with his little roost.

  He wondered how he would react as he listened to the mirrored door being opened, a light blazing in, without the slightest possibility of missing him. The strange faces peering in, the drawn guns, the reading of his rights. He almost laughed. Trapped like a fucking rat, nowhere to go. He hadn’t had a cigarette in almost thirty years, but now he desperately craved a smoke. He put his bag down quietly and slowly let his legs out straight so they wouldn’t go to sleep.

  Heavy steps on the oak plank staircase. Whoever they were they didn’t care who knew they were there. Luther counted four, possibly five. They turned left and headed his way.

  The door to the bedroom opened with a slight squeak. Luther searched his mind. Everything had been picked up or put back in its place. He’d only touched the remote, and he had replaced it right in line with the slight dust pattern. Now Luther could only hear three voices, a man and two women. One of the females sounded drunk, the other was all business. Then Ms. Business disappeared, the door closed but wasn’t locked, and Ms. Drunk and the man were alone. Where were the others? Where had Ms. Business gone? The giggles continued. Footsteps came closer to the mirror. Luther scrunched down in the corner as far as he could, hoping that the chair would shield him from view but knowing that it couldn’t possibly.

  Then a burst of light hit him right in the eyes and he almost gasped at the suddenness of his little world going from inky black to broad daylight. He blinked rapidly to adjust to the new level of brightness, his pupils going from almost full dilation to pinpoints in seconds. But there were no screams, no faces, no guns.

  Finally, after a full minute had passed, Luther peered around the corner of the chair and received another shock. The vault door seemed to have disappeared; he was staring right into the goddamned room. He almost fell backward but caught himself. Luther suddenly understood what the chair was for.

  He recognized both of the people in the room. The woman he had seen tonight already, in the photos: the little wife with the hooker taste in clothes.

  The man he knew for an altogether different reason; he certainly wasn’t the master of this house. Luther slowly shook his head in amazement and let out his breath. His hands shook and a queasiness crept over him. He fought back the grip of nausea and stared into the bedroom.

  The vault door also served as a one-way mirror. With the light on outside and darkness in his little space, it was as though he were watching a giant TV screen.

  Then he saw it and a fist of breath kicked out of his lungs: the diamond necklace on the woman’s neck. Two hundred thou to his practiced eye, maybe more. And just the sort of bauble one would routinely put away in a home vault before retiring for the evening. Then his lungs relaxed as he watched her take the piece off and casually drop it on the floor.

  His fear receded enough to where he rose and inched over to the chair and slowly eased himself into it. So the old man sat here and watched his little woman get her brains screwed out by a procession of men. From the looks of her, Luther figured that some members of that procession included young guys making minimum wage or hanging on to freedom by the width of a green card. But her gentleman caller tonight was in an altogether different class.

  He looked around, his ears focused for any sound of the other inhabitants of the house. But what could he really do? In over thirty years of active larceny, he had never encountered anything like this, so he decided to do the only thing he could. With only an inch of glass separating him from absolute destruction, he settled down quietly into the deep leather and waited.

  CHAPTER TWO

  THREE BLOCKS FROM THE BROAD WHITE BULK OF THE UNITED States Capitol, Jack Graham opened the front door of his apartment, threw his overcoat on the floor and went straight to the fridge. Beer in hand he flopped down on the threadbare couch in his living room. His eyes quickly perused the tiny room as he took a drink. Quite a difference from where he’d just been. He let the beer stand in his mouth and then swallowed. The muscles of his square jaw tensed and then relaxed. The nagging prickles of doubt slowly drained away, but they would reappear; they always did.

  Another important dinner party with Jennifer, his soon-to-be wife, and her family and circle of social and business acquaintances. People at that level of sophistication apparently didn’t have mere friends they hung with. Everyone served a particular function, the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. Or at least that was the intent, although Jack had his own opinion on the matter.

  Industry and finance had been well represented, brandishing names Jack read about in the Wall Street Journal before he chucked it for the sports pages to see how the ’Skins or Bullets were doing. The politicos had been out in full force, scrounging future votes and current dollars. The group was rounded out by the ubiquitous lawyers of which Jack was one, the occasional doctor to show ties to the old ways and a couple of public-interest types to demonstrate that the powers that be had sympathy for the plight of the ordinary.

  He finished the beer and flipped on the TV. His shoes came off, and the forty-dollar patterned socks his fiancée had bought for him were carelessly flung over the back of the lamp shade. Given time she’d have him in two-hundred-dollar braces with matching hand-painted ties. Shit! Rubbing his toes, he seriously considered a second beer. The TV tried but failed to hold his interest. He pushed his thick, dark hair out of his eyes and focused for the thousandth time on where his life was hurtling, seemingly with the speed of the space shuttle.

  Jennifer’s company limo had driven the two of them to her Northwest Washington townhouse where Jack would probably move after the wedding; she detested his place. The wedding was barely six months off, apparently no time at all by a bride’s standards, and he was sitting here having severe second thoughts.

  Jennifer Ryce Baldwin possessed instant head-turning beauty to such a degree that the women stared as often as the men. She was also smart and accomplished, came from serious money and was intent on marrying Jack. Her father ran one of the largest devolopment companies in
the country. Shopping centers, office buildings, radio stations, entire sub-divisions, you name it, he was in it, and doing better than just about anyone else. Her paternal great-grandfather was one of the original Midwest manufacturing tycoons, and her mother’s family had once owned a large chunk of downtown Boston. The gods had smiled early and often on Jennifer Baldwin. There wasn’t one guy Jack knew who wasn’t jealous as hell of him.

  He squirmed in his chair and tried to rub a kink out of his shoulder. He hadn’t worked out in a week. His six-foot-one body, even at thirty-two, had the same hard edge it had enjoyed all through high school where he was a man among boys in virtually every sport offered, and in college where the competition was a lot rougher but where he still managed to make first-string varsity as a heavyweight wrestler and first-team All-Academic. That combination had gotten him into the University of Virginia School of Law, where he made Law Review , graduated near the top of his class and promptly settled down as a public defender in the District of Columbia’s criminal justice system.

  His classmates had all grabbed the big-firm option out of law school. They had routinely called with phone numbers of psychiatrists who could help coax him out of his insanity. He smiled and then went and grabbed that second beer. The fridge was now empty.

  Jack’s first year as a PD had been rough as he learned the ropes, losing more than he won. As time went on, he graduated to the more serious crimes. And as he poured every ounce of youthful energy, raw talent and common sense he had into each of those cases, the tide began to turn.

  And then he started kicking some serious ass in court.

  He discovered he was a natural at the role, as talented at cross-examination as he had been at throwing men much bigger than he across a two-inch-thick mat. He was respected, liked as an attorney if you could believe that.

  Then he had met Jennifer at a Bar function. She was vice president of development and marketing at Baldwin Enterprises. Dynamic in presence, she had the added skill of making whomever she was talking to feel important; their opinions were listened to if not necessarily followed. She was a beauty who had no need to rely solely on that asset.

  When you got past the eye-catching looks, there was a lot more there. Or seemed to be. Jack would have been less than human had he not been attracted to her. And she had made it clear, early on, that the attraction was mutual. While being ostensibly impressed at his dedication in defending the rights of those accused of crimes in the Capital City, little by little Jennifer had convinced Jack that he had done his bit for the poor, dumb and unfortunate, and that maybe he should start thinking about himself and his future, and that maybe she wanted to be a part of that future. When he finally left PD, the U.S. attorney’s office had given him quite a send-off party, and good riddance. That should have told him then and there that there were a lot more of the poor, dumb and unfortunate who needed his help. He didn’t expect to ever top the thrill he had felt being a PD; he figured times like that came around once in life and then they were gone. It was time to move on; even little boys like Jack Graham had to grow up someday. Maybe it was just his time.

  He turned off the TV, grabbed a bag of corn chips and went to his bedroom, stepping over the piles of dirty laundry strewn in front of the doorway. He couldn’t blame Jennifer for not liking his place; he was a slob. But what bothered him was the dead certainty that, even spotless, Jennifer would not consent to live here. For one thing it was in the wrong neighborhood; Capitol Hill to be sure, but not a gentrified part of Capitol Hill, actually not even close.

  Then there was the size. Her townhouse must have run five thousand square feet, not counting the live-in maid’s quarters and the two-car garage that housed her Jag and brand new Range Rover, as if anybody living in D.C., with its traffic-strangled roads, needed a vehicle capable of driving up the vertical side of a twenty-thousand-foot-high mountain.

  He had four rooms if you counted the bathroom. He reached his bedroom, stripped off his clothes and dropped into bed. Across the room, on a small plaque that had once hung in his office at work until he had grown embarrassed looking at it, was the announcement of his joining Patton, Shaw & Lord. PS&L was the Capital City’s number-one corporate firm. Legal caterer to hundreds of blue-chip companies, including his soon-to-be father-in-law’s, representing a multimillion-dollar account that he was credited with bringing to the firm and that, in turn, guaranteed him a partnership at the next review. Partnerships at Patton, Shaw were worth, on average, at least half a million dollars a year. That was tip money for the Baldwins, but then he wasn’t a Baldwin. At least not yet.

  He pulled the blanket over him. The building’s insulation left a lot to be desired. He popped a couple of aspirin and washed them down with the rest of a Coke that was sitting on his nightstand, then looked around the cramped, messy bedroom. It reminded him of his room growing up. It was a warm, friendly memory. Homes should look lived in; they should always give way to the screams of kids as they dashed from room to room in search of new adventures, of fresh objects to break.

  That was the other thing with Jennifer: she had made it clear that the sound of little feet was a distant project that was far from certain. Her career at her father’s company was first and foremost in her mind and heart—maybe more so, Jack felt, than he was.

  He rolled over and tried to close his eyes. The wind pushed against the window and he glanced in that direction. He looked away, but then with a resigned air, his eyes drifted back over to the box.

  It held part of his collection of old trophies and awards from high school and college. But those items were not the object of his focus. In the semidarkness he reached out a long arm for the framed photo, decided against it, and then changed his mind again.

  He pulled it out. This had almost become a ritual. He never had to worry about his fiancée stumbling onto this particular possession of his because she absolutely refused to enter his bedroom for longer than a minute. Whenever they slid between the sheets it was either at her place, where Jack would lie on the bed staring up at the twelve-foot ceiling where a mural of ancient horsemen and young maidens shared space while Jennifer amused herself until she collapsed and then rolled over for him to finish on top of her. Or at her parents’ place in the country where the ceilings were even higher and the murals had been taken from some thirteenth-century church in Rome, all of which made Jack feel that God was watching him being ridden by the beautiful and absolutely naked Jennifer Ryce Baldwin and that he would languish in eternal hell for those few moments of visceral pleasure.

  The woman in the photo had silky brown hair that curled slightly at the ends. Her smile looked up at Jack and he remembered the day he had taken the picture.

  A bike ride far into the countryside of Albemarle County. He was just starting law school; she was in her second year of college at Mr. Jefferson’s university. It was only their third date but it was like they had never lived without each other.

  Kate Whitney.

  He said the name slowly; his hand instinctively traced the curves of her smile, the lone dimple right above the left cheek that gave her face a slightly lopsided look. The almond-shaped cheekbones bordered a dainty nose that sloped toward a pair of sensual lips. The chin was sharp and screamed out “stubborn.” Jack moved back up the face and stopped at the large teardrop-shaped eyes that always seemed full of mischief.

  Jack rolled back over and lay the photo on his chest so that she stared directly at him. He could never think of Kate without seeing an image of her father, with his quick wit and crooked smile.

  Jack had often visited Luther Whitney at his little row house in an Arlington neighborhood that had seen better days. They spent hours drinking beer and telling stories, mostly Luther telling and Jack listening.

  Kate never visited her father, and he never attempted to contact her. Jack had found his identity almost by accident, and despite Kate’s objections, Jack had wanted to get to know the man. It was a rare thing for her face to hold anything but a smile, but that
was one thing she never smiled about.

  After he graduated they moved to D.C. and she enrolled in law school at Georgetown. Life seemed idyllic. She came to his first few trials as he worked the butterflies from his stomach and the squeak from his throat and tried to remember which counsel table to sit at. But as the seriousness of the crimes his clients were accused of committing grew, her enthusiasm diminished.

  They had split up his first year in practice.

  The reasons were simple: she couldn’t understand why he had chosen to represent people who broke the law, and she could not tolerate that he liked her father.

  At the very last breath of their lives together he remembered sitting with her in this very room and asking, pleading, for her not to leave. But she had and that was four years ago, and he hadn’t seen or heard from her since.

  He knew that she had taken a job with the Commonwealth Attorney’s office in Alexandria, Virginia, where she was no doubt busily putting former clients of his behind bars for stomping on the laws of her adopted state. Other than that Kate Whitney was a stranger to him.

  But lying there with her staring at him with a smile that told him a million things that he had never learned from the woman he was supposed to marry in six months, Jack wondered if Kate would remain a stranger to him; whether his life was destined to become far more complicated than he ever intended. He grabbed the phone and dialed.

  Four rings and he heard the voice. It had an edge that he didn’t remember, or maybe it was new. The beep came and he started to leave a message, something funny, right out of the blue, but then right on cue he got nervous and quickly hung up, his hands shaking, his breathing accelerated. He shook his head. Jesus Christ! He had done five murder one cases and he was shaking like a goddamned sixteen-year-old sucking up the courage to call his first date.

  Jack put the picture away and imagined what Kate was doing right that very minute. Probably still in her office pondering over how many years to take off somebody’s life.

  Then Jack wondered about Luther. Was he at this very minute on the wrong side of someone’s doorstep? or leaving with another bundle of financial joy slung over his back?

  What a family, Luther and Kate Whitney. So different and so much the same. As focused a pair as he had ever encountered, but their respective focuses occupied different galaxies. That last night, after Kate had walked out of his life, he had gone around to Luther’s to say good-bye and to drink a last beer. They had sat in the small well-tended garden, watching the clematis and ivy cling to the fence; the scent of lilacs and roses lay thick like a net over them.

  The old man had taken it all right, asked few questions, and wished Jack well. Some things did not work out; Luther understood that as well as anyone. But as Jack left that night he had noticed the glistening in the old man’s eyes—and then the door closed on that part of his life.

  Jack finally put out the light and closed his eyes with the knowledge that another tomorrow was close upon him. His pot of