Absolute Power



  or interest no matter the time of day or night, there were a few places where Jack could get some decent food on a weeknight despite the lateness of the hour. As he struggled into his overcoat, the phone rang. The machine was on. Jack started to go out, then hesitated. He listened to the perfunctory message followed by the beep.

  “Jack?”

  A voice swarmed up on him, from out of the past, like a ball held underwater until it’s free and explodes to the surface. He snatched up the phone.

  “Luther?”

  * * *

  THE RESTAURANT WAS HARDLY MORE THAN A HOLE IN THE wall, which made it one of Jack’s favorites. Any reasonable concoction of food could be gotten there at any time, day or night. It was a place that Jennifer Baldwin would never set foot inside and one that he and Kate had frequented. A short time ago, the results of that comparison would have disturbed him, but he had made up his mind, and he didn’t intend on revisiting the question. Life was not perfect, and you could spend your entire life waiting for that perfection. He was not going to do that.

  Jack wolfed down scrambled eggs, bacon and four pieces of toast. The fresh coffee burned his throat going down. After five days of instant java and bottled water, it tasted wonderful.

  Jack looked across at Luther, who sipped on his coffee and alternated between looking out the dirty plate-glass window onto the dark street and passing his eye around the small, grimy interior.

  Jack put his coffee down. “You look tired.”

  “So do you, Jack.”

  “I’ve been out of the country.”

  “Me too.”

  That explained the condition of the yard and the mail. A needless worry. Jack pushed the plate away and waved for a refill on his coffee.

  “I went by your place the other day.”

  “Why was that?”

  Jack had expected the question. Luther Whitney had never taken anything other than the direct approach. But anticipation was one thing, having a ready answer another. Jack shrugged.

  “I don’t know. Just wanted to see you, I guess. It’s been a while.”

  Luther nodded agreement.

  “You seeing Kate again?”

  Jack swallowed a mouthful of coffee before answering. His temples started to throb.

  “No. Why?”

  “I thought I saw you two together a while back.”

  “We sort of ran into each other. That’s all.”

  Jack couldn’t tell exactly, but Luther looked upset with that answer. He noticed Jack watching him closely, then smiled.

  “Used to be, you were the only way I could find out if my little girl was doing okay. You were my pipeline of information, Jack.”

  “You ever consider just talking to her directly, Luther? You know that might be worth a shot. The years are going by.”

  Luther waved the suggestion off and stared out the window again.

  Jack looked him over. The face was leaner than usual, the eyes puffy. There were more wrinkles on the forehead and around the eyes than Jack remembered. But it had been four years. Luther was at the age now where the onslaught of age hit you quickly, deterioration was more and more evident every day.

  He caught himself staring into Luther’s eyes. Those eyes had always fascinated Jack. Deep green, and large, like a woman’s, they were supremely confident eyes. Like you see on pilots, an infinite calmness about life in general. Nothing rattled them. Jack had seen happiness in those eyes, when he and Kate announced their engagement, but more often he had seen sadness. And yet right beneath the surface Jack saw two things he had never seen in Luther Whitney’s eyes before. He saw fear. And he saw hatred. And he wasn’t sure which one bothered him the most.

  “Luther, are you in trouble?”

  Luther took out his wallet and, despite Jack’s protests, paid for the food.

  “Let’s take a walk.”

  A taxi cab ride took them to the Mall and they walked in silence to a bench across from the Smithsonian castle. The chilly night air settled in on them and Jack pulled up the collar of his coat. Jack sat while Luther stood and lit a cigarette.

  “That’s new.” Jack looked at the smoke curving up slowly in the clear night air.

  “At my age who gives a shit?” Luther flung the match down and buried it in the dirt with his foot. He sat down.

  “Jack, I want you to do me a favor.”

  “Okay.”

  “You haven’t heard the favor yet.” Luther suddenly stood up. “You mind walking? My joints are getting stiff.”

  They had passed the Washington Monument and were headed toward the Capitol when Luther broke the silence.

  “I’m in kind of a jam, Jack. It’s not so bad now, but I got a feeling it’s going to get worse and that might happen sooner rather than later.” Luther didn’t look at him, he seemed to be staring ahead at the massive dome of the Capitol.

  “I’m not sure how things are going to play out right now, but if it goes the way I think it’s gonna go, then I’m going to need a lawyer, and I want you, Jack. I don’t want no bullshitter and I don’t want no baby lawyer. You’re the best defense lawyer I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen a lot of them, up close and personal.”

  “I don’t do that anymore, Luther. I push paper, do deals.” It struck Jack at that moment that he was more a businessman than a lawyer. That thought was not an especially pleasing one.

  Luther did not seem to hear him. “It won’t be a freebie. I’ll pay you. But I want someone I can trust, and you’re the only one I trust, Jack.” Luther stopped walking and turned to the younger man, waiting for an answer.

  “Luther, you want to tell me what’s going on?”

  Luther shook his head vigorously. “Not unless I have to. That wouldn’t do you or anybody else any good.” He stared at Jack intently until it made him uncomfortable.

  “I gotta tell you, Jack, if you’re my lawyer on this, it’s gonna get kinda hairy.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “I mean people could get hurt on this one, Jack. Really hurt, like not-coming-back hurt.”

  Jack stopped walking. “If you’ve got some guys like that on your butt it might be better to cut a deal now, get immu nity and disappear in a Witness Protection Program. Lots of people do. It’s not an original idea.”

  Luther laughed out loud. Laughed until he choked and ended up doubled over, coughing up the little that was in his stomach. Jack helped him back up. He could feel the older man’s limbs trembling. He did not realize they were trembling with rage. This outburst was so out of character for the man that Jack felt his flesh crawl. He realized he was perspiring despite watching his breath produce small clouds in the late-night chill.

  Luther composed himself. He took a deep breath and looked almost embarrassed.

  “Thanks for the advice, send me a bill. I gotta go.”

  “Go? Where the hell are you going? I want to know what’s going on, Luther.”

  “If something should happen to me—”

  “Godammit, Luther, I’m growing real tired of this cloak-and-dagger shit.”

  Luther’s eyes became slits. The confidence suddenly returned with a touch of ferocity. “Everything I do is for a reason, Jack. If I’m not telling you the whole scoop now you better believe it’s for a goddamned good reason. You may not understand it now, but the way I’m doing it is to keep you as safe as I can. I wouldn’t be involving you at all except I needed to know if you’d go to bat for me when and if I needed you. Because if you won’t, forget this conversation ever happened, and forget you ever knew me.”

  “You can’t be serious.”

  “Serious as shit, Jack.”

  The men stood looking at each other. The trees behind Luther’s head had shed most of their leaves. Their bare branches reached to the skies, like bursts of dark lightning frozen in place.

  “I’ll be there, Luther.” Luther’s hand swiftly settled into Jack’s and the next minute Luther Whitney disappeared into the shadows.

  * * *
br />   THE CAB DROPPED JACK OFF IN FRONT OF THE APARTMENT building. The pay phone was right across the street. He paused for a moment, gathering energy and the nerve he would need for what he was about to do.

  “Hello?” The voice was full of sleep.

  “Kate?”

  Jack counted the seconds until her mind cleared and identified the voice.

  “Jesus Christ, Jack, do you know what time it is?”

  “Can I come over?”

  “No, you cannot come over. I thought we had settled all of this.”

  He paused, steeled himself. “It’s not about that.” He paused again. “It’s about your father.”

  The extended silence was difficult to interpret.

  “What about him?” The tone was not as cold as he would have thought.

  “He’s in trouble.”

  Now the familiar tone returned. “So? Why the hell does that still surprise you?”

  “I mean he’s in serious trouble. He just proceeded to scare the living shit out of me without really telling me anything.”

  “Jack, it’s late and whatever my father is involved in—”

  “Kate, he was scared, I mean really scared. So scared he threw up.”

  Again there was a long pause. Jack tracked her mental processes as she thought about the man they both knew so well. Luther Whitney scared? That didn’t make sense. His line of work necessarily demanded someone with steel nerves. Not a violent person, his entire adult life had been spent right on the edge of danger.

  She was terse. “Where are you?”

  “Right across the street.”

  Jack looked up as he saw a slender figure move to a window of the building and look out. He waved.

  The door opened to Jack’s knock and he saw her retreating into the kitchen where he heard a pot clattering, water being poured and the gas on the stove being lit. He looked around the room, and then stood just inside the front door feeling a little foolish.

  A minute later she walked back in. She had on a thick bathrobe that ended at her ankles. She was barefoot. Jack found himself staring at her feet. She followed his gaze and then looked at him. He jolted back.

  “How’s the ankle? Looks fine.” He smiled.

  She frowned and said tersely, “It’s late, Jack. What about him?”

  He moved into the tiny living room and sat down. She sat across from him.

  “He called me up a couple hours ago. We grabbed some food at that little dive next to Eastern Market and then started walking. He told me he needed a favor. That he was in trouble. Serious trouble with some people who could do some permanent damage to him. Real permanent.”

  The tea kettle started whistling. She jumped up. He watched her go, the sight of her perfectly shaped derriere outlined against the bathrobe bringing back a flood of memories he wished would just leave him the hell alone. She came back with two cups of tea.

  “What was the favor?” She sipped her tea. Jack left his where it was.

  “He said he needed a lawyer. He might need a lawyer. Although things might turn out so he wouldn’t. He wanted me to be that lawyer.”

  She put her tea down. “Is that it?”

  “Isn’t that enough?”

  “Maybe for an honest, respectable person, but not for him.”

  “My God, Kate, the man was scared. I’ve never seen him scared before, have you?”

  “I’ve seen all I need to see of him. He chose his lifestyle and now apparently it’s catching up to him.”

  “He’s your father for chrissakes.”

  “Jack, I don’t want to have this conversation.” She started to get up.

  “What if something happens to him? Then what?”

  She looked at him coldly. “Then it happens. That’s not my problem.”

  Jack got up and started to leave. Then he turned back, his face red with anger. “I’ll tell you how the funeral service goes. On second thought, what the hell would you care? I’ll just make sure you get a copy of the death certificate for your scrapbook.”

  He didn’t know she could move that quickly, but he would feel the slap for about a week, like someone had poured acid across his cheek, a truer description than he realized at the moment.

  “How dare you?” Her eyes blazed at him as he slowly rubbed his face.

  Then the tears erupted from her with so much force that they spilled onto the front of the robe.

  He said quietly, as calmly as he could, “Don’t shoot the messenger, Kate. I told Luther and I’m telling you, life is way too short for this crap. I lost both my parents a long time ago. Okay, you have reasons for not liking the guy, fine. That’s up to you. But the old man loves you and cares about you and regardless of how you think he’s screwed up your life you have to respect that love. That’s my advice to you, take it or leave it.”

  He moved toward the door but she again got there before him.

  “You don’t know anything about it.”

  “Fine, I don’t know anything about it. Go back to bed, I’m sure you’ll fall right asleep, nothing important on your mind.”

  She grabbed his coat with such force that she jerked him around, even though he outweighed her by eighty pounds.

  “I was two years old when he went to prison for the last time. I was nine when he got out. Do you understand the in credible shame of a little girl whose dad is in prison? Whose dad steals other’s people’s property for a living? When you had show-and-tell at school and the one kid’s dad is a doctor and another’s is a truck driver and it comes to your turn and the teacher looks down and tells the class that Katie’s dad had to go away because he did something bad and then she’d skip to the next kid?

  “He was never there for us. Never! Mom worried sick about him all the time. But she always kept the faith, right up until the end. She made it easy for him.”

  “She finally divorced him, Kate,” Jack gently reminded her.

  “Only because that was the only choice she had left. And right when she was just getting her life turned around, she finds a lump in her breast and in six months she’s gone.”

  Kate leaned back against the wall. She looked so tired, it was painful to witness. “And you know what the really crazy thing is? She never once stopped loving him. After all the incredible shit he put her through.” Kate shook her head, having a hard time believing the words she had just spoken. She looked up at Jack, her chin trembling slightly.

  “But that’s okay, I have enough hate for both of us.” She stared at him, a mixture of pride and righteousness on her features.

  Jack didn’t know if it was the complete exhaustion he was feeling or the fact that for so many years what he was about to say had been pent up inside him. Years of watching this charade. And brushing it aside in favor of the beauty and vivaciousness of the woman across from him. His vision of perfection.

  “Is that your idea of justice, Kate? Enough hate balanced against enough love, and everything equals out?”

  She stepped back. “What are you talking about?”

  He moved forward as she continued to retreat into the small room. “I’ve listened to this goddamned martyrdom of yours until I’m sick of it. You think you’re some perfect defender of the hurt and victimized. Nothing comes above that. Not you, not me, not your father. The only reason you’re out there prosecuting every sonofabitch that comes into your sights is because your father hurt you. Every time you convict somebody that’s another nail in your old man’s heart.”

  Her hand flew to his face. He caught it, gripped it. “Your whole adult life has been spent getting back at him. For all the