Absolute Power



  “But he’s never been convicted of murder,” Jack fired back.

  “Jack, there are more attorneys in this city than there are criminals. Why can’t another lawyer handle it?”

  Jack looked at his beer. “You want one?”

  “Answer my question.”

  Jack stood up and hurled the beer bottle against the wall.

  “Because he goddamn asked me!”

  Jenn looked up at him, the frightened look that had crossed her face passing as soon as the glass fragments and beer hit the floor. She picked up her coat and put it on.

  “You’re making a huge mistake and I hope you come to your senses before you do irreversible damage. My father almost had a coronary when he read that story.”

  Jack put his hand on her shoulder, turned her face to his and said quietly, “Jenn, this is something I have to do. I would’ve hoped you could support me on this.”

  “Jack, why don’t you stop drinking beer and start thinking about how you want to spend the rest of your life.”

  When the door closed behind her, Jack slumped against it, rubbing his head until he thought the skin would start to peel away under the pressure his fingers were exerting.

  He watched from the tiny, dirty window as the vanity plates disappeared into the blur of snow. He sat down, looked at the headlines again.

  Luther wanted to cut a deal but there was no deal to cut. The stage was set. Everyone wanted to see this trial. The TV news had given a detailed analysis of the case; Luther’s photo must have been seen by several hundred million people. They already had public opinion polls about Luther’s guilt or innocence, and he was running far behind in all of them. And Gorelick was licking his chops thinking that this was the vehicle to catapult him into the Attorney General’s office in a few years. And in Virginia, Attorneys General often ran for, and won, the Governor’s Mansion.

  Short, balding, big-voiced, Gorelick was as deadly as a rattler on speed. Dirty tactics, questionable ethics, just waiting to bury the knife in your back at the first opportunity. That was George Gorelick. Jack knew he was in for a long, tough fight.

  And Luther wasn’t talking. He was scared. And what did Kate have to do with that fear? Nothing was adding up. And Jack was going to walk into court tomorrow and plead Luther not guilty when he had absolutely no way to prove that Luther wasn’t. But proof was the state’s job. The problem was they probably had just enough to put them over the top. Jack would peck and chip, but he had a three-time loser as a client, even though the record said Luther had remained clean for the last two decades. They wouldn’t care about that. Why should they? His guy made for the perfect ending to a tragic story. A poster boy for the three-strikes rule. Three heavies and your life is over, starring Luther Whitney.

  He tossed the newspaper across the room and cleaned up the broken glass and spilled beer. He rubbed the back of his neck, felt the underused muscles in his arms and went to his bedroom and changed into sweats.

  * * *

  THE YMCA WAS TEN MINUTES AWAY. AMAZINGLY JACK found a parking space right in front and went inside. The black sedan behind him wasn’t as lucky. The driver had to circle the block several times and then pull down the street and park on the other side.

  The driver wiped his passenger-side window clear and checked out the front of the Y. Then he made up his mind, climbed out of his car and ran to the steps. He looked around, glanced at the gleaming Lexus and then slowly walked inside.

  Three pickup games later, the sweat was pouring down Jack’s body. He sat down on the bench as the teenagers continued to run up and down the court with the inexhaustible energy of youth. Jack groaned as one of the lanky black kids dressed in loose gym shorts, tank shirt and oversized sneakers tossed the ball at him. He tossed it back.

  “Hey man, you tired?”

  “No, just old.”

  Jack stood up, rubbed the kinks out of his aching thighs and headed out.

  As he was leaving the building he felt a hand on his shoulder.

  * * *

  JACK DROVE. HE GLANCED AT HIS NEW PASSENGER.

  Seth Frank looked over the interior of the Lexus. “I’ve heard great things about these cars. How much it run you, if you don’t mind my asking?”

  “Forty-nine-five, loaded.”

  “Like hell! I don’t even come close to making that in a year.”

  “Neither did I until recently.”

  “Public defenders don’t make the big bucks, I’ve heard.”

  “You heard right.”

  The men fell silent. Frank knew he was breaking more rules than they probably had written down and Jack knew that too.

  Finally Jack looked at him. “Look, Lieutenant, I’m assuming you didn’t just come out here to check my taste in automobiles. Is there something you want?”

  “Gorelick’s got a winning case against your guy.”

  “Maybe. Maybe not. I’m not throwing in the towel if that’s what you’re thinking.”

  “You pleading him not guilty?”

  “No, I’m gonna drive him down to the Greensville Correctional Center and inject the shit into him myself. Next question.”

  Frank smiled. “Okay, I deserved that. I think you and I need to talk. Some things about this case don’t add up. Maybe it helps or hurts your guy, I don’t know. You willing to listen?”

  “Okay, but don’t think this flow of information is going to be a two-way street.”

  “I know a place where you can actually cut the meatloaf with a butter knife and the coffee’s passable.”

  “Is it an out-of-the-way place? I don’t think you’d look good in a deputy’s uniform.”

  Frank looked over at him, grinning. “Next question.”

  Jack managed a smile and then drove home to change.

  * * *

  JACK ORDERED ANOTHER CUP OF COFFEE WHILE FRANK PLAYED with his first. The meatloaf had been terrific and the place was so isolated, Jack wasn’t even sure where they were. Rural, southern Maryland he thought. He looked around at the few occupants of the rustic dining room. No one was paying them any undue attention. He turned back to his companion.

  Frank looked at him in an amused fashion. “I understand you and Kate Whitney had a thing going a while back.”

  “Did she tell you that?”

  “Hell no. She came down to the station a few minutes after you left today. Her father wouldn’t see her. I talked with her for a while. Told her I was sorry about how things had gone down.”

  Frank’s eyes glistened for a moment and then he continued. “I shouldn’t have done what I did, Jack. Using her to get to her old man. Nobody deserves that.”

  “It worked. Some people would say don’t argue with success.”

  “Right. Well anyway the subject got around to you. I’m not so old yet that I can’t see a gleam in a woman’s eyes.”

  The waitress brought Jack’s coffee. He sipped it. Both men looked out the window where the snow had finally stopped and the whole earth seemed to be covered with a soft, white blanket.

  “Look, Jack, I know the case against Luther is just about all circumstantial. But that’s sent plenty of people to jail.”

  “I’m not arguing with that.”

  “The truth is, Jack, there’s an awful lot of shit that doesn’t make any sense.”

  Jack put down his coffee and leaned forward.

  “I’m listening.”

  Frank looked around the room and then back at Jack. “I know I’m taking a chance doing this, but I didn’t become a cop to send people to jail for crimes they didn’t commit. Plenty enough guilty people out there.”

  “So what doesn’t add up?”

  “You’ll see some of it for yourself in the reports you’ll get in your discovery, but the fact is I’m convinced Luther Whitney burgled that house and I’m also convinced that he didn’t kill Christine Sullivan. But—”

  “But you think he saw who did.”

  Frank sat back in his chair and stared wide-eyed at Jack. “How
long have you thought that?”

  “Not long. Any ideas on the matter?”

  “I’m thinking your guy almost got caught with his hand in the cookie jar and then had to actually hide in that cookie jar.”

  Jack looked puzzled. Frank took a few minutes to explain about the vault, the incongruity of the physical evidence and his own questions.

  “So Luther’s in the vault all this time watching whoever gets it on with Mrs. Sullivan. Then something happens and she gets popped. Then Luther watches whoever wipe away all traces.”

  “That’s how I got it figured, Jack.”

  “So he doesn’t go to the cops because he can’t without incriminating himself.”

  “That explains a lot.”

  “Except who did it.”

  “The only obvious suspect is the husband, and I don’t believe it was him.”

  Jack thought back to Walter Sullivan. “Agreed. So who’s not so obvious?”

  “Whoever she was meeting that night.”

  “From what you’ve told me about the deceased’s sex life, that narrows it down to a couple million.”

  “I didn’t say it would be easy.”

  “Well, my hunch is it’s not some ordinary Joe.”

  “Why’s that?”

  Jack took a swallow of coffee and looked at his slice of apple pie. “Look, Lieutenant—”

  “Make it Seth.”

  “Okay, Seth, I’m walking a fine line here. I hear where you’re coming from and I appreciate the info. But . . .”

  “But you’re not absolutely sure you can trust me, and in any event, you don’t want to say anything that might prejudice your client?”

  “Something like that.”

  “Fair enough.”

  They paid the bill and left. Driving back the snow started again with such velocity that the wipers were having a hard time keeping up.

  Jack looked over at Frank, who stared straight ahead, lost in thought or maybe just waiting for Jack to start talking.

  “Okay. I’ll take the chance, I don’t have a helluva lot to lose, do I?”

  Frank continued to stare straight ahead. “Not that I can see.”

  “Let’s assume for the moment that Luther was in the house and saw the woman murdered.”

  Frank looked over at Jack; there was relief in the detective’s features.

  “Okay.”

  “You’ve got to know Luther, know how he thinks, to understand how he would react to something like that. He’s about as unshakable a person as I’ve ever met. And I know his record doesn’t indicate it, but he’s about as trustworthy and dependable as you can get. If I had kids and needed to leave them with someone I’d leave them with Luther because I know absolutely nothing bad would happen to them on his watch. He’s incredibly capable. Luther sees everything. He’s a control freak.”

  “Everything except his daughter leading him into a trap.”

  “Right, except for that. He wouldn’t have seen that coming. Not in a million years.”

  “But I know the kind of guy you’re talking about, Jack. Some of the guys I’ve busted, except for the little habit of taking other people’s property, they’re some of the most honorable people I’ve ever met.”

  “And if Luther saw this woman killed, I’m telling you he would’ve found some way to deliver the guy to the cops. He wouldn’t have let it go. He just wouldn’t!” Jack stared grimly out the window.

  “Except?”

  Jack looked over at him. “Except for a helluva good reason. Like maybe he knew the person or knew of him.”

  “You mean the kind of person people would have a hard time believing could do something like that so Luther figures why even bother?”

  “There’s more to it than that, Seth.” Jack turned the corner and pulled up next to the YMCA. “I’ve never seen Luther scared before this all happened. And he’s scared now. Terrified in fact. He’s resigned himself to take the rap for the whole thing and I don’t know why. I mean he left the country for godsakes.”

  “And came back.”

  “Right, which I still cannot figure out. You have the date by the way?”

  Frank flipped open his notebook and told him the date.

  “So what the hell happened after Christine Sullivan was killed and before then to get him to come back?”

  Frank shook his head. “Could be anything.”

  “No, it was one thing and if we could find out what that was, we might be able to figure this whole thing out.”

  Frank put away his notebook, absently rubbed his hand across the dashboard.

  Jack put the car in park and leaned back in his seat.

  “And he’s not just scared for himself. Somehow he’s scared for Kate too.”

  Frank looked puzzled. “You think somebody threatened Kate?”

  Jack shook his head. “No. She would’ve told me. I think someone got the message to Luther that he either keeps quiet or else.”

  “You think the same people who tried to take him out?”

  “Maybe. I don’t know.”

  Frank made a fist with both hands and looked out the car window. He took a deep breath and looked back at Jack. “Look, you’ve got to get Luther to talk. If he can deliver us whoever did Christine Sullivan, I’ll recommend probation and community service in return for his cooperation; he won’t do any time. Hell, Sullivan would probably let him keep what he stole if we could nail the guy.”

  “Recommend?”

  “Let’s put it this way, I’ll cram it down Gorelick’s throat. Good enough?” Frank extended his hand.

  Jack slowly took it, eyeing the policeman steadily. “Good enough.”

  Frank got out of the car and then poked his head back in. “For what it’s worth, as far as I’m concerned, tonight never happened and everything you’ve said stays with me, no exceptions. Not even on the witness stand. I mean it.”

  “Thanks, Seth.”

  Seth Frank walked slowly back to his car as the Lexus pulled down the street, turned the corner and was gone.

  He understood exactly the kind of guy Luther Whitney was. So what the hell could scare that kind of a guy so badly?

  CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

  IT WAS SEVEN-THIRTY IN THE MORNING WHEN JACK PULLED into the parking lot of the Middleton police station. The morning had broken clear but bitterly cold. Amid a number of snow-covered police cars was a black sedan with a cold hood that told him Seth Frank was an early riser.

  Luther looked different today; the orange prison clothes had been replaced with a brown two-piece suit, and his striped tie was conservative and professional. He could be an insurance salesman or a senior partner in a law firm, with his thick gray hair neatly trimmed, and the remnants of his island tan. Some defense attorneys saved the nice citizen clothes for the actual trial where the jury