Absolute Power



  She sat up again, unable to breathe. She held her throat with her fingers, tightly, trying to prevent another attack. When it subsided, she turned over on her side and stared at the photo of her mother.

  He was all she had left. She almost laughed. Luther Whitney was all the family she had left. God help her.

  She lay on her back and waited. Waited for the knock at the door. From mother to daughter. It was her turn now.

  * * *

  AT THAT MOMENT, BARELY TEN MINUTES AWAY, LUTHER stared again at the old newspaper article. A cup of coffee sat near his elbow, forgotten. The small refrigerator hummed in the background. In the corner CNN droned on. Otherwise the room was absolutely quiet.

  Wanda Broome had been a friend. A good friend. Ever since their accidental meeting in a Philadelphia halfway house after Luther’s last prison term and Wanda’s first and only. And now she was dead too. Had taken her own life, the newspaper article said, slumped over in the front seat of her car with a bunch of pills stuffed down her throat.

  Luther had never operated in the mainstream, and yet, even to him, this was all a little much to take. It could have been some continuing nightmare except that every time he awoke and stared in the mirror, cold water dripping from features that grew more and more grizzled, more and more sunken with each passing day, he knew he was not going to wake up from this one.

  What was ironic, in the shadow of Wanda’s tragic death, was that the Sullivan job had been her idea. A miserable, terrible idea looking back, but one that had leapt from her surprisingly fertile mind. And an idea to which she had held doggedly, despite warnings from both Luther and her mother.

  And they had planned it and he had done it. It was really that simple. And in the cold face of retrospection he had wanted to do it. It was a challenge, and a challenge combined with a huge payoff was too tough to resist.

  How Wanda must have felt when Christine Sullivan hadn’t gotten on that plane. And no way for her to let Luther know that the coast was not nearly so clear as they thought it would be.

  She had been Christine Sullivan’s friend. That part had been absolutely sincere. A last reminder of real people in the midst of the sybaritic life Walter Sullivan lived. Where everyone was not only beautiful, like Christine Sullivan was, but educated, well-connected and sophisticated, all things Christine Sullivan was not and never would be. And because of that burgeoning friendship Christine Sullivan had begun to tell Wanda things she shouldn’t have, including finally, the location and contents of the vault constructed behind a mirrored door.

  Wanda was convinced that the Sullivans had so much, they couldn’t possibly miss so little. The world did not work that way, Luther knew, and Wanda probably did too, but that didn’t matter now.

  After a lifetime of hardship, where money was always too scarce, Wanda had gone for her lottery win. Just like Christine Sullivan had, neither of them realizing just how high the price for such things really was.

  Luther had flown to Barbados, would have gotten a mes sage to Wanda there if she hadn’t already left. He had sent the letter to her mother. Edwina would have shown it to her. But had she believed him? Even if she had, Christine Sullivan’s life had still been sacrificed. Sacrificed, as Wanda would have seen it, to Wanda’s greed and desire to have things she had no right to. Luther could almost see those thoughts running through his friend’s mind as she drove out, alone, to that deserted spot; as she unscrewed the cap to get at those pills, as she drifted into permanent unconsciousness.

  And he had not even been able to attend the funeral. He could not tell Edwina Broome how sorry he was, without risking getting her pulled into this nightmare. He had been as close to Edwina as he had to Wanda, in some ways even closer. He and Edwina had spent many nights trying to dissuade Wanda from her plan, to no avail. And only when it dawned on them that she would do it with or without Luther did Edwina ask Luther to take care of her daughter. Not let her go to prison again.

  His eyes finally turned to the personals in the newspaper and it took him only a few seconds to find the one he was looking for. He did not smile when he read it. Like Bill Burton, Luther did not believe Gloria Russell had any redeeming qualities.

  He hoped they believed this was only about money. He pulled out a piece of paper and began to write.

  * * *

  “TRACE THE ACCOUNT.” BURTON SAT ACROSS FROM THE CHIEF of Staff in her office. He sipped on a Diet Coke but wished for something stronger.

  “I’m already doing that, Burton.” Russell put her earring back on as she replaced the phone in its cradle.

  Collin sat quietly in a corner. The Chief of Staff had not yet acknowledged his presence although he had walked in with Burton twenty minutes ago.

  “When does he want the money again?” Burton looked at her.

  “If a wire transfer does not reach the designated account by close of business, there will be no tomorrow for any of us.” She swept her eyes across to Collin and then returned them to Burton.

  “Shit.” Burton stood up.

  Russell glowered at him. “I thought you were taking care of this, Burton.”

  He ignored the stare. “How does he say he’s going to work the drop?”

  “As soon as the money is received he’ll provide the location where the item will be.”

  “So we gotta trust him?”

  “So it would seem.”

  “How does he know you’ve even gotten the letter yet?” Burton started to pace.

  “It was in my mailbox this morning. My mail is delivered in the afternoon.”

  Burton collapsed in a chair. “Your fucking mailbox! You mean he was right outside your house?”

  “I doubt if he would have allowed someone else to deliver this particular message.”

  “How’d you know to check the mailbox?”

  “The flag was up.” Russell almost smiled.

  “This guy has got balls, I’ll give him that, Chief.”

  “Apparently bigger ones than either of you.” She concluded the statement by staring at Collin for a full minute. He cringed under the gaze, finally looking down at the floor.

  Burton smiled to himself at the exchange. That was okay, the kid would thank him in a few weeks. For pulling him out of this black widow’s web.

  “Nothing really surprises me, Chief. Not anymore. How about you?” He looked at her and then at Collin.

  Russell ignored the remark. “If the money is not transferred out, then we can expect him to go public somehow soon thereafter. What exactly are we going to do about it?”

  The Chief of Staff’s calm demeanor was no sham. She had decided that she was through crying, through vomiting every time she turned around, and that she had been hurt and embarrassed enough to last the rest of her life. Come what may, she felt almost numb to anything else. It felt surprisingly good.

  “How much does he want?” Burton asked.

  “Five million,” she replied simply.

  Burton went wide-eyed. “And you got that kind of money? Where?”

  “That doesn’t concern you.”

  “Does the President know?” Burton asked the question knowing full well the answer.

  “Again, that doesn’t concern you.”

  Burton didn’t push it. What did he care anyway?

  “Fair enough. Well, in answer to your question, we are doing something about it. If I were you I’d find a way to pull that money back somehow. Five million dollars isn’t going to do much to someone not among the living.”

  “You can’t kill what you can’t find,” Russell shot back.

  “That’s true, that’s so true, Chief.” Burton sat back and recounted his conversation with Seth Frank.

  * * *

  KATE WAS FULLY DRESSED WHEN SHE ANSWERED THE DOOR, thinking, somehow, that if she were in her bathrobe the interview would endure longer, that she would appear more and more vulnerable as each question came her way. The last thing she wanted to appear was vulnerable, which was exactly how she felt.


  “I’m not sure what you want from me.”

  “Some information, that’s all, Ms. Whitney. I realize you’re an officer of the court, and believe me, I hate to put you through this, but right now your father is my number-one suspect in a very high-profile case.” Frank looked at her with a pair of earnest eyes.

  They were sitting in the tiny living room. Frank had his notebook out. Kate sat erect on the edge of the couch trying to remain calm, although her fingers kept fluttering to her small chain necklace, twisting and turning it into small knots, tiny centers of bedlam.

  “From what you’ve told me, Lieutenant, you don’t have much. If I were the ACA on that case I don’t think I’d even have enough to get an arrest warrant issued, much less a bill of indictment returned.”

  “Maybe, maybe not.” Frank eyed the way she played with the chain. He wasn’t really there to gather information. He probably knew more about her father than she did. But he had to ease her into the trap. Because, as he thought about it, that’s what it was, a trap. For someone else. Besides, what did she care? It made his conscience feel better anyway, to think that she didn’t really care at all.

  Frank continued. “But I’ll tell you some interesting coincidences. We have your father’s print on a cleaning van that we know was at the Sullivan place a short time before the murder. The fact that we know he was in the house, and in the very bedroom where the crime was committed, a short time before. We have two eyewitnesses to that. And the fact that he used an alias and a false address and Social Security number when applying for the job. And the fact that he seems to have disappeared.”

  She looked at him. “He had priors. He probably didn’t use his real info because he didn’t think he’d get the job otherwise. You say he’s disappeared. Did you ever think he just may have taken a trip? Even ex-cons go on vacation.” Her instincts as a trial lawyer found her defending her father, an unbelievable thought. A sharp pain shot through her head. She rubbed at it distractedly.

  “Another interesting discovery is that your father was good friends with Wanda Broome, Christine Sullivan’s personal maid and confidante. I checked. Your father and Wanda Broome had the same parole officer back in Philly. According to certain sources, they’ve apparently kept in touch all these years. My bet is Wanda knew about the safe in the bedroom.”

  “So?”

  “So I talked with Wanda Broome. It was obvious she knew more about the matter than she was letting on.”

  “So why aren’t you talking to her instead of sitting here with me? Maybe she committed the crime herself.”

  “She was out of the country at the time, a hundred witnesses to that effect.” Frank took a moment to clear his throat. “And I can’t talk to her anymore because she committed suicide. Left behind a note that said she was sorry.”

  Kate stood up and looked blankly out the window. Bands of cold seemed to close around her.

  Frank waited for some minutes, staring at her, wondering how she must feel, listening to the growing evidence against the man who had helped create her and then apparently abandoned her. Was there love left there? The detective hoped not. At least his professional side did. As a father of three, he wondered if that feeling could ever really be killed, despite the worst.

  “Ms. Whitney, are you all right?”

  Kate slowly turned away from the window. “Can we go out somewhere? I haven’t eaten for a while and there’s no food here.”

  They ended up at the same place Jack and Luther had met. Frank started to devour his food, but Kate touched nothing.

  He looked across at her plate. “You picked the place, I figured you must like the food. You know, nothing personal, but you could stand to put on some weight.”

  Kate finally looked at him, a half-smile breaking through. “So you’re a health consultant on the side?”

  “I’ve got three daughters. My oldest is sixteen going on forty and she swears she’s obese. I mean she probably goes one-ten and she’s almost as tall as me. If she didn’t have such rosy cheeks, I’d think she was anorexic. And my wife, Jesus, she’s always on some diet or another. I mean, I think she looks great, but there must be some perfect shape out there that every woman strives for.”

  “Every woman except me.”

  “Eat your food. That’s what I tell my daughters every day. Eat.”

  Kate picked up her fork and managed to consume half her meal. As she sipped her tea and Frank fingered a big trough of coffee, they both settled themselves in as the discussion wound its way back to Luther Whitney.

  “If you think you have enough to pick him up, why don’t you?”

  Frank shook his head, put down his coffee. “You were at his house. He’s been gone for a while. Probably blew out right after it happened.”

  “If he did it. Your party bag is all circumstantial. That doesn’t come close to being beyond a reasonable doubt, Lieutenant.”

  “Can I play straight with you, Kate? Can I call you Kate, by the way?”

  She nodded.

  Frank put his elbows on the table, stared across at her. “All bullshit outside, why do you find it so hard to believe that your old man popped this woman? He’s been convicted of three prior felonies. The guy’s apparently lived on the edge his whole life. He’s been questioned in about a dozen other burglaries, but they couldn’t pin anything on him. He’s a career crim. You know the animal. Human life doesn’t mean shit to them.”

  Kate finished sipping her tea before answering. A career criminal? Of course her father was that. She had no doubt he had continued to commit crimes all these years. It was in his damn blood apparently. Like a coke addict. Incurable.

  “He doesn’t kill people,” she said quietly. “He may steal from them, but he’s never hurt anyone. It’s not the way he does things.”

  What had Jack said specifically? Her father was scared. Terrified so badly he was sick to his stomach. The police had never scared her father. But if he had killed the woman? Perhaps just a reflex, the gun fired and the bullet ended Christine Sullivan’s life. All that would have transpired in a matter of seconds. No time to think. Just to act. To prevent him from going to prison for good. It was all possible. If her father had killed the woman, he would be scared, he would be terrified, he would be sick.

  Through all the pain, the most vivid memories she held of her father was his gentleness. His big hands encircling hers. He was quiet to the point of rudeness with most people. But with her he talked. To her, not above her, or below her as most adults managed to do. He would speak to her about things a little girl was interested in. Flowers and birds and the way the sky changed color all of a sudden. And about dresses and hair ribbons and wobbly teeth that she constantly fiddled with. They were brief but sincere moments, between a father and daughter, smashed between the sudden violence of convictions, of prison. But as she had grown up those talks somehow became gibberish, as the occupation of the man behind the funny faces and the big but gentle fingers came to dominate her life, her perspective of Luther Whitney.

  How could she say that this man could not kill?

  Frank watched the eyes as they blinked rapidly. There was a crack there. He could feel it.

  Frank fingered his spoon as he scooped more sugar into his coffee. “So you’re saying it’s inconceivable that your father killed this woman? I thought you said the two of you hadn’t really kept in touch?”

  Kate jolted back from her musings. “I’m not saying it’s inconceivable. I’m just saying . . .” She was really blowing this. She had interviewed hundreds of witnesses and she couldn’t remember one who had performed as badly as she was right now.

  She hurriedly rummaged through her purse for her pack of Benson & Hedges. The sight of the cigarette made Frank reach for his pack of Juicy Fruit.

  She blew the smoke away from him, eyed the gum. “Trying to quit too?” A flicker of amusement crossed her face.

  “Trying and failing. You were saying?”

  She slowly exhaled the smoke, willed her n
erves to cease their cartwheels. “Like I told you, I haven’t seen my father in years. We aren’t close. It’s possible that he could have killed the woman. Anything’s possible. But that doesn’t work in court. Evidence works in court. Period.”

  “And we’re attempting to build a case against him.”

  “You have no tangible physical evidence tying him to the actual crime scene? No prints? No witnesses? Nothing like that?”

  Frank hesitated, then decided to answer. “No.”

  “Have you been able to trace any of the stuff from the burglary to him?”

  “Nothing’s turned up.”

  “Ballistics?”

  “Negative. One unusable slug and no gun.”