Absolute Power

  wrongs. For all the hurt. For never being there for you.” He squeezed her hand until he heard her gasp. “Did you ever once stop to think that maybe you were never there for him?”

  He let go of her hand as she stood there, staring at him, a look on her face he had never seen before.

  “Do you understand that Luther loves you so much that he’s never tried to contact you, never tried to be a part of your life, because he knows that’s how you want it? His only child living a few miles away from him and he’s completely cut out of her life. Did you ever think about how he feels? Did your hate ever let you do that?”

  She didn’t answer.

  “Don’t you ever wonder why your mother loved him? Is your picture of Luther Whitney so goddamned distorted that you can’t see why she loved him?”

  He grabbed her shoulders, shook her. “Does your goddamned hatred ever let you be compassionate? Does it ever let you love anything, Kate!”

  He pushed her away. She stumbled backward, her eyes locked on his face.

  He hesitated for a moment. “The fact is, lady, you don’t deserve him.” He paused and then decided to finish. “You don’t deserve to be loved.”

  In one furious instant her teeth gnashed, her face contorted into rage. She screamed and flew at him, hammering her fists into his chest, slapping his face. He felt none of her blows as the tears slid down her cheeks.

  Her assault stopped as quickly as it started. Her arms like lead, they clutched at his coat, holding on. That’s when the heaves started and she sank to the floor, the tears bursting from her, the sobs echoing through the tiny space.

  He lifted her up and placed her gently on the couch.

  He knelt beside her, letting her cry, and she did so for a long time, her body repeatedly tensing and then going limp until he felt himself growing weak, his hands clammy. He finally wrapped his arms around her, laid his chest against her side. Her thin fingers clutched tightly to his coat as both their bodies shook together for a long time.

  When it was over she sat up slowly, her face red, splotchy.

  Jack stepped back.

  She refused to look at him. “Get out, Jack.”


  “Get out!” Despite her scream the voice was fragile, battered. She covered her face in her hands.

  He turned and walked out the door. As he headed down the street he turned to look at her building. Her silhouette was framed in the window, looking out, but she wasn’t looking at him. She was looking for something, he wasn’t sure what. Probably she didn’t even know. As he continued to watch, she turned from the window. A few moments later the light in her apartment went out.

  Jack wiped at his eyes, turned and walked slowly down the street, heading home after one of the longest days he could ever remember.

  * * *

  “GODDAMMIT! HOW LONG?” SETH FRANK STOOD NEXT TO THE car. It was not quite eight in the morning.

  The young Fairfax County patrolman didn’t know the significance of the event and was startled by the detective’s outburst.

  “We found her about an hour ago; an early-morning jogger saw the car, called it in.”

  Frank walked around the car and peered in from the passenger side. The face was peaceful, much different from the last corpse he had viewed. The long hair was undone, streamed down the sides of the car seat and flowed across the floorboard. Wanda Broome looked like she was asleep.

  Three hours later the crime scene investigation was completed. Four pills had been found on the car seat. The autopsy would confirm that Wanda Broome had died from a massive overdose of digitalis, from a prescription she had filled for her mother but obviously had never delivered. She had been dead for about two hours when her body was discovered on the secluded dirt path that ran around a five-acre pond about eight miles from the Sullivan place just over the county line. The only other piece of tangible evidence was in a plastic bag that Frank was carrying back to headquarters after getting the okay from his sister jurisdiction. The note was on a piece of paper torn from a spiral ring notepad. The handwriting was a woman’s, flowing and embellished. Wanda’s last words had been a desperate plea for redemption. A shriek of guilt in four words.

  I am so sorry.

  Frank drove on past the rapidly fading foliage and misty swamp that paralleled the winding back road. He had fucked that one up royally. He never would have figured the woman for a suicide candidate. Wanda Broome’s history pegged her as a survivor. Frank couldn’t help but feel sorry for the woman, but also raged at her stupidity. He could’ve gotten her a deal, a sweetheart deal! Then he reflected on the fact that his instincts had been right on one count. Wanda Broome had been a very loyal person. She had been loyal to Christine Sullivan and could not live with the guilt that she had contributed, however unintentionally, to her death. An understandable, if regrettable, reaction. But with her gone, Frank’s best, and perhaps only, opportunity to land the big fish had just died too.

  The memory of Wanda Broome faded into the background as he focused on how to bring to justice a man who had now caused the death of two women.

  * * *

  “DAMN, TARR, WAS IT TODAY?” JACK LOOKED AT HIS CLIENT in the reception area of Patton, Shaw. The man looked as out of place as a junkyard mutt at a dog show.

  “Ten-thirty. It’s eleven-fifteen now, does that mean I get forty-five minutes free? By the way, you look like hell.”

  Jack looked down at his rumpled suit and put a hand through his unkempt hair. His internal clock was still on Ukraine time, and a sleepless night had not helped his appearance.

  “Believe me, I look much better than I feel.”

  The two men shook hands. Tarr had dressed up for the meeting, which meant his jeans didn’t have holes in them, and he wore socks with his tennis shoes. The corduroy jacket was a relic from the early 1970s, and the hair was its usual tangle of curls and mats.

  “Hey, we can do it another day, Jack. Me, I understand hangovers.”

  “Not when you got all dressed up. Come on back. All I need is some grub. I’ll take you to lunch and won’t even bill you for the tab.”

  As the men walked down the hallway, Lucinda, prim and proper in keeping with the firm’s image, breathed a sigh of relief. More than one Patton, Shaw partner had walked through her turf with absolute horror on their face at the sight of Tarr Crimson. Memos would fly this week.

  “I’m sorry, Tarr, I’m running on about twelve cylinders lately.” Jack tossed his overcoat over a chair and settled down miserably behind a stack of pink message slips about six inches high on his desk.

  “Out of the country, so I heard. Hope it was someplace fun.”

  “It wasn’t. How’s business?”

  “Booming. Pretty soon, you might be able to call me a legitimate client. Make your partners’ stomachs feel a lot better when they see me sitting in the lobby.”

  “Screw ’em, Tarr, you pay your bills.”

  “Better to be a big client and pay some of your bills than a teeny client who pays all of his.”

  Jack smiled. “You got us all figured out, don’t you?”

  “Hey, man, you seen one algorithm, you’ve seen ’em all.”

  Jack opened Tarr’s file and perused it quickly.

  “We’ll have your new S corp set up by tomorrow. Delaware incorporation with a qualification in the District. Right?”

  Tarr nodded.

  “How’re you planning on capitalizing it?”

  Tarr pulled out a legal pad. “I’ve got the list of potentials. Same as the last deal. Do I get a reduced rate?” Tarr smiled. He liked Jack, but business was business.

  “Yeah, this time you won’t pay for the learning curve of an overpriced and underinformed associate.”

  Both men smiled.

  “I’ll cut the bill to the bone, Tarr, just like always. What’s the new company for, by the way?”

  “Got the inside track on some new technology for surveillance work.”

  Jack looked up from hi
s notes. “Surveillance? That’s a little off the mark for you, isn’t it?”

  “Hey, you gotta go with the flow. Corporate business is down. But when one market dries up, being the good entrepreneur that I am, I look around for other opportunities. Surveillance for the private sector has always been hot. Now the new twist is big brother in the law enforcement arena.”

  “That’s ironic for somebody who got thrown in jail in every major city in the country during the 1960s.”

  “Hey, those causes were good ones. But we all grow up.”

  “How does it work?”

  “Two ways. First, low-level orbit satellites are downlinked to metropolitan police tracking stations. The birds have preprogrammed sweep sectors. They spot trouble and they send an almost instantaneous signal to the tracking station, giving precise incident information. It’s real time for the cops. The second method involves placing military-style surveillance equipment, sensors and tracking devices on top of telephone poles, or underground with surface sensors on the outside of buildings. Their exact locations will be classified, of course, but they’ll be deployed in the worst crime areas. If something starts to go down, they’ll call in the cavalry.”

  Jack shook his head. “I can think of a few civil rights that might be trampled.”

  “Tell me about it. But it’s effective.”

  “Until the bad guys move.”

  “Kinda hard to outrun a satellite, Jack.”

  Jack shook his head and turned back to his file.

  “Hey, how’re the wedding plans coming?”

  Jack looked up. “I don’t know, I try to keep out of the way.”

  Tarr laughed. “Shit, Julie and I had a total of twenty bucks to get married on, including the honeymoon. We got a justice of the peace for ten dollars, bought a case of Michelob with the rest, and rode the Harley down to Miami and slept on the beach. Had a helluva good time.”

  Jack smiled, shook his head. “I think the Baldwins have something a little more formal in mind. Although your way sounds like a lot more fun to me.”

  Tarr looked at him quizzically, remembering something. “Hey, whatever happened to that gal you were dating when you were defending the criminal elements of this fair city? Kate, right?”

  Jack looked down at his desk. “We decided to go our separate ways,” he said quietly.

  “Huh, I always thought you two made a nice-looking couple.”

  Jack looked across at him, licked his lips and then closed his eyes for a moment before answering. “Well, sometimes looks can be deceiving.”

  Tarr studied his face. “You sure?”

  “I’m sure.”

  * * *

  AFTER LUNCH AND FINISHING UP SOME OVERDUE WORK, JACK returned half of his phone messages and decided to leave the rest until the following day. Looking out the window, he turned his thoughts fully to Luther Whitney. What he could be involved in Jack could only guess. The most puzzling aspect was that Luther was a loner in private life and with his work. Back when he was with the PD, Jack had checked on some of Luther’s priors. He worked alone. Even on the cases where he hadn’t been arrested but had been questioned, there was never an issue of more than one person involved. Then who could these other people be? A fence Luther had somehow ripped off? But Luther had been in the business much too long to do something like that. It wasn’t worth it. His victim perhaps? Maybe they couldn’t prove Luther had committed the crime but nevertheless held a vendetta against him. But who held that sort of grudge for getting burglarized? Jack could understand if someone had been hurt or killed, but Luther was not capable of that.

  He sat down at his small conference table and thought back for a moment to the night before with Kate. It had been the most painful experience of his life, even more so than when Kate had left him. But he had said what needed to be said.

  He rubbed his eyes. At this moment in his life the Whitneys weren’t especially welcome. But he had promised Luther. Why had he done that? He loosened his tie. At some point he would have to draw the line, or cut the cord, if only for his own mental well-being. Now he was hoping that his promised favor would never come due.

  He went down and got a soda from the kitchen, sat back down at his desk and finished up the bills for last month. The firm was invoicing Baldwin Enterprises roughly three hundred thou a month and the work was accelerating. While Jack had been gone, Jennifer had sent over two new matters that would occupy a regiment of associates for about six months. Jack quickly calculated his profit sharing for the quarter and whistled under his breath when he got an approximate. It was almost too easy.

  Things were really improving between Jennifer and him. His brain told him not to screw that up. The organ in the center of his chest wasn’t so sure, but he was thinking that his brain should start taking command of his life. It wasn’t that their relationship had changed. It was only that his expectation of that relationship had. Was that a compromise on his part? Probably. But who said you could manage to get through life without compromise. Kate Whitney had tried and look what it had gotten her.

  He phoned Jennifer’s office, but she wasn’t there. Gone for the day. He checked his watch. Five-thirty. When she wasn’t traveling, Jennifer Baldwin rarely left the office before eight. Jack looked at his calendar. She was in town the whole week. When he had tried her from the airport last night there had been no answer either. He hoped nothing was wrong.

  As he was contemplating leaving and heading over to her house, Dan Kirksen popped his head in.

  “Could I trouble you for a minute, Jack?”

  Jack hesitated. The little man and his bow ties irritated Jack, and he knew exactly why. Deferential as hell, Kirksen would have treated Jack like a piece of manure had he not controlled millions in business. On top of that, Jack knew that Kirksen desperately wanted to treat him like a piece of shit anyway, and he hoped to accomplish that goal one day.

  “I was thinking about heading out. I’ve been hitting it pretty heavy lately.”

  “I know.” Kirksen smiled. “The whole firm’s been talking about it. Sandy better watch out—by all accounts Walter Sullivan is very enamored with you.”

  Jack smiled to himself. Lord was the only person whom Kirksen wanted to kick in the ass more than Jack. Lord without Sullivan would be vulnerable. Jack could read all those thoughts as they passed behind the spectacles of the firm’s managing partner.

  “I don’t think Sandy has anything to worry about.”

  “Of course not. It’ll just take a few minutes. Conference room number one.” Kirksen disappeared as quickly as he had appeared.

  What the hell was all this about? Jack wondered. He grabbed his coat and walked down the hallway. As he passed a couple of fellow associates in the hallway, they gave him sidelong glances that only increased his puzzlement.

  The sliding doors to the conference room were closed, which was unusual unless something was going on inside. Jack slid back one of the thick doors. The dark room confronting him exploded into bright light, and Jack looked on in amazement as the party came into focus. The banner on the far wall said it all: CONGRATULATIONS PARTNER!

  Lord presided over the lavish affair of drinks and an expensive, catered spread. Jennifer was there, along with her father and mother.

  “I am so proud of you, sweetie.” She had already consumed several drinks and her soft eyes and gentle caresses told Jack things would only get better later that night.

  “Well, we can thank your dad for this partnership.”

  “Uh-uh, lover. If you weren’t doing a good job, Daddy would cut you loose in a New York minute. Give yourself some credit. You think Sandy Lord and Walter Sullivan are easy to please? Honey, you pleased Walter Sullivan, stunned him even, and there’s only a handful of attorneys who have ever done that.”

  Jack swallowed the rest of his drink and contemplated that statement. It sounded plausible. He had scored big with Sullivan, and who was to say Ransome Baldwin wouldn’t have taken his business elsewhere if Jack hadn’t
been up to the task?

  “Maybe you’re right.”

  “Of course I’m right, Jack. If this firm were a football team, you’d be MVP or rookie of the year, maybe both.” Jennifer took another drink and slid her arm around Jack’s waist.

  “And on top of that, you can now afford to support me in the lifestyle I’ve grown accustomed to.” She pinched his arm.

  “Grown accustomed to. Right! Try, from birth.” They stole a quick kiss.