Absolute Power



  “Got some pretty fresh stuff in the pot, you can bring me a cup. Dishes are over the sink.”

  When Frank returned with the steaming cups, Jack had rewound the tape to a demonstrative Alan Richmond saying his piece on the impromptu stage outside the courthouse.

  “That guy’s a dynamo.”

  Frank looked at the screen. “I met him the other day.”

  “Yeah? Me too. That was in my I’m-marrying-into-the-rich-and-famous-set days.”

  “What’d you think of the guy?”

  Jack gulped his coffee, reached for a bag of peanut butter crackers that lay on the couch, offered one to Frank, who took it and then put his feet up on the rickety coffee table. The detective was slipping easily back into the less-structured domain of bachelorhood.

  Jack shrugged. “I don’t know. I mean he’s the President. I always thought he was presidential. What do you think of him?”

  “Smart. Really smart. The kind of smart you want to be real careful not to get into a battle of wits with unless you’re real sure about your own abilities.”

  “I guess it’s a good thing he’s on America’s side.”

  “Yeah.” Frank looked back at the screen. “So anything grab your eye?”

  Jack punched a button on the remote. “One thing. Check this out.” The video leapt forward. The figures jerked around like actors in a silent movie.

  “Watch this.”

  The screen showed Luther stepping out of the van. His eyes were turned toward the ground; the manacles were obviously making it difficult for him to walk. Suddenly, a column of people moved into the video, led by the President. Luther was partially obscured. Jack froze the flame.

  “Look.”

  Frank scrutinized the screen, absently munching peanut butter crackers and draining his coffee. He shook his head.

  Jack looked at him. “Look at Luther’s face. You can see it right between the suits. Look at his face.”

  Frank bent forward, almost touching the screen with his face. He recoiled, his eyes wide.

  “Damn, looks like he’s saying something.”

  “No, it looks like he’s saying something to somebody.”

  Frank looked across at Jack. “You’re saying he’s recognized somebody, like maybe the guy who popped him?”

  “Under the circumstances, I don’t think he’d just be making casual conversation with some stranger.”

  Frank looked back at the screen, studying it intently. Finally he shook his head. “We’re going to need some special talents on this.” He rose. “Come on.”

  Jack grabbed his coat. “Where to?”

  Frank smiled as he rewound the tape and then put on his hat.

  “Well first I’m gonna buy us some dinner. I’m married, and I’m also older and fatter than you. Consequently, crackers for dinner don’t cut it. Then we’re going down to the station. I’ve got somebody I want you to meet.”

  * * *

  TWO HOURS LATER SETH FRANK AND JACK WALKED INTO THE Middleton Police Station, their bellies lined with surf and turf and a couple slices of pecan pie. Laura Simon was in the lab; the equipment was already set up.

  After introductions, Laura popped the tape in. The images sprung to life on a forty-six-inch screen in the corner of the lab. Frank fast-forwarded to the appropriate spot.

  “There,” Jack pointed, “right there.”

  Frank froze the tape.

  Laura sat at a keyboard and typed in a series of commands. On the screen, the part of the frame containing Luther’s image was blocked out and then magnified in increasingly large degrees, like a balloon being blown up. This process continued until Luther’s face seemed to span the entire forty-six inches.

  “That’s as far as I can take it.” Laura spun her chair around and nodded to Frank. He pushed a button on the remote and the screen again came to life.

  The audio was choppy; screams, shouts, traffic noise and the blended sounds of hundreds of people served to make what Luther was saying incomprehensible. They watched as his lips moved open and closed.

  “He’s pissed. Whatever he’s saying he is not happy.” Frank pulled out a cigarette, got a dirty look from Simon and put it back in his pocket.

  “Anybody read lips?” Laura looked at each of them.

  Jack stared at the screen. What the hell was Luther saying? The look on his face. Jack had seen that once before, if he could only remember when. It had been recently, he was sure of it.

  “You see something we don’t?” Frank asked. Jack looked over to see Frank staring at him.

  Jack shook his head, rubbed his face. “I don’t know. There’s something there, I just can’t place it.”

  Frank nodded to Simon to cut off the equipment. He stood up and stretched. “Well, sleep on it. Anything comes to you, let me know. Thanks for coming in, Laura.”

  The two men walked out together. Frank glanced over at Jack, then reached across and felt behind his neck. “Jesus, you are a stress grenade ready to explode.”

  “Christ, I don’t know why I should be. The woman I was supposed to marry I’m not, the woman I wanted to marry just told me to get out of her life, and I’m reasonably sure I’m not going to have a job in the morning. Oh, not to mention, someone murdered a person I cared a lot about and we’re probably never going to find out who it is. Hell, my life couldn’t get any more perfect, could it?”

  “Well, maybe you’re due for some good luck.”

  Jack unlocked his Lexus. “Yeah, hey if you know anyone who wants an almost-brand-new car, let me know.”

  Frank’s eyes twinkled as he looked at Jack. “Sorry, nobody I know could afford it.”

  Jack smiled back. “Me either.”

  * * *

  DRIVING BACK, JACK LOOKED AT HIS CAR CLOCK. IT WAS almost midnight. He passed the offices of Patton, Shaw, looked up at the stretch of darkened offices and wheeled his car around, turning into the garage. He slid his security card in, waved to the security camera posted outside the garage door, and a few minutes later was in the elevator heading up.

  He didn’t know exactly why he was here. His days at Patton, Shaw were now clearly numbered. Without Baldwin as a client, Kirksen would ride him out on a rail. He felt a little sorry for Lord. He had promised the man protection. But he wasn’t going to marry Jennifer Baldwin simply to ensure Lord’s mammoth draw check. And the man had lied to him about Barry Alvis’s departure from the firm. But Lord would land on his feet. Jack hadn’t been kidding about his faith in the man’s resiliency. A number of firms would snap him up in a New York minute. Lord’s future was far more assured than Jack’s.

  The elevator doors opened and Jack stepped into the firm’s lobby. The wall lights were on low and the shadowy effect would have been a little unnerving if he hadn’t been so completely preoccupied with his thoughts. He walked down the hallway toward his office, stopped at the kitchen and grabbed a glass of soda. Ordinarily, even at midnight, there were a few people beating their brains out over some impossible deadline. Tonight there was only stone-cold silence.

  Jack turned on his light and closed his office door. He looked around at the domain of his personal partnership. His kingdom, if only for another day. It was impressive. The furniture was tastefully expensive, the carpet and wall coverings luxurious. He went down his line of diplomas. Some hard-earned, others freebies that you got for just being a lawyer. He noticed that the scattered papers had been picked up, the work of the meticulous and sometimes overzealous cleaning crew who were used to attorney sloppiness and the occasional full-blown tantrum.

  He sat down, leaned back in his chair. The soft leather was more comfortable than his bed. He could visualize Jennifer talking with her father. Ransome Baldwin’s face would flame red at what he would perceive as an unforgivable insult to his precious little girl. The man would lift the phone tomorrow morning and Jack’s corporate career would be over.

  And Jack couldn’t have cared less. His only regret was not instigating that result sooner. Hopefully PD wou
ld take him back. That was where he belonged anyway. No one could stop him from doing that. No, his real troubles had started when he had tried being something and someone he wasn’t. He would never make that mistake again.

  His attention shifted to Kate. Where would she go? Had she really been serious about quitting her job? Jack recalled the fatalistic look on her face and concluded that, yes, she had been quite serious. He had pleaded with her once more. Just like four years before. Pleaded with her not to go, not to leave his life again. But there was something there he could not break through. Maybe it was the enormous guilt she carried. Maybe she simply did not love him. Had he ever really addressed that possibility? The fact was he hadn’t. Consciously had not. The possible answer scared the hell out of him. But what did it matter now?

  Luther dead; Kate leaving. His life hadn’t really changed all that much, despite all the recent activity. The Whitneys were finally, irreversibly, gone from him.

  He looked at the pink pile of messages on his desk. All routine. Then he hit a button on his phone to check his voice mail, which he hadn’t done in a couple of days. Patton, Shaw let their clients have their choice of the antiquated written phone message or the technologically advanced voice mail. The more demanding clients loved the latter. At least then they didn’t have to wait to scream at you.

  There were two calls from Tarr Crimson. He would find Tarr another lawyer. Patton, Shaw was too expensive for him anyway. There were several Baldwin-related matters. Right. Those could wait for the next guy Jennifer Baldwin set her laser sights on. The last message jolted him. It was a woman’s voice. Small, hesitant, elderly, clearly uncomfortable with the concept of voice mail. Jack played it back again.

  “Mr. Graham, you don’t know me. My name is Edwina Broome. I was a friend of Luther Whitney.” Broome? The name was familiar. The message continued. “Luther told me that if anything happened to him I was to wait a little bit and then I was to send the package on to you. He told me not to open it and I didn’t. He said it was like a Pandora’s box. If you looked you might get hurt. God rest his soul, he was a good man, Luther was. I hadn’t heard from you, not that I expected to. But it just occurred to me that I should call and make sure that you got the thing. I’ve never had to send something like that before, overnight delivery they call it. And I think I did it right, but I don’t know. If you didn’t get it, please call me. Luther said it was very important. And Luther never said anything that wasn’t true.”

  Jack listened to the phone number and wrote it down. He checked the time of the call. Yesterday morning. He quickly searched his office. There was no package lurking there. He jogged down the hallway to his secretary’s workstation. There was no package there either. He went back to his office. My God, a package from Luther. Edwina Broome? He put his hand through his hair, assaulted his scalp, forced himself to think. Suddenly the name came to him. The mother of the woman who had killed herself. Frank had told him about her. Luther’s alleged partner.

  Jack picked up the phone. It seemed to ring for an eternity.

  “H-hello?” The voice was sleepy, distant.

  “Mrs. Broome? This is Jack Graham. I’m sorry for calling you so late.”

  “Mr. Graham?” The voice was no longer sleepy. It was alert, sharp. Jack could almost envision her sitting up in bed, clutching at her nightgown, looking anxiously at the phone receiver.

  “I’m sorry, I just got your message. I didn’t get the package, Mrs. Broome. When did you send it?”

  “Let me think for a minute.” Jack could hear the labored breathing. “Why it was five days ago, counting today.”

  Jack thought furiously. “Do you have the receipt with a number on it?”

  “The man gave me a piece of paper. I’ll have to go get it.”

  “I’ll wait.”

  He tapped his fingers against his desk, tried to stop his mind from flying apart. Just hold on, Jack. Just hold on.

  “I’ve got it right here, Mr. Graham.”

  “Please call me Jack. Did you send it by Federal Express?”

  “That’s right. Yes.”

  “All right, what’s the tracking number?”

  “The what?”

  “I’m sorry. The number on the upper-right-hand corner of the piece of paper. It should be a long series of numbers.”

  “Oh yes.” She gave it to him. He scribbled the numbers down, read them back to her to confirm it. He also had her confirm the address of the law firm.

  “Jack, is this very serious? I mean Luther dying the way he did and all.”

  “Has anyone called you, anyone you don’t know? Besides me?”

  “No.”

  “Well if they do I want you to call Seth Frank, Middleton Police Department.”

  “I know him.”

  “He’s a good guy, Mrs. Broome. You can trust him.”

  “All right, Jack.”

  He hung up and phoned Federal Express. He could hear the computer keys clicking on the other end of the line.

  The female voice was professional and concise. “Yes, Mr. Graham, it was delivered at the law offices of Patton, Shaw & Lord on Thursday at ten-oh-two A.M. and signed for by a Ms. Lucinda Alvarez.”

  “Thank you. I guess it’s around here somewhere.” Bewildered, he was about to hang up.

  “Has there been some special problem with this package delivery, Mr. Graham?”

  Jack looked puzzled. “Special problem? No, why?”

  “Well, when I pulled up the delivery history of this package it shows that we already had an inquiry about it earlier today.”

  Jack’s whole body tensed. “Earlier today? What time?”

  “Six-thirty P.M.”

  “Did they leave a name?”

  “Well, that’s the unusual part. According to my records, that person also identified himself as Jack Graham.” Her tone made it clear she was far from certain of Jack’s real identity.

  Jack felt a chill invade every part of his body.

  He slowly hung up the phone. Somebody else was very interested in this package, whatever it was. And someone knew it was coming to him. His hands were shaking as he picked up the phone again. He quickly dialed Seth Frank, but the detective had gone home. The person would not give out Frank’s home phone, and Jack had left that number back at his apartment. After some prodding by Jack the person tried the detective’s home, but there was no answer. He swore under his breath. A quick call to directory assistance was useless; the home number was nonpub.

  Jack leaned back in his chair, the breaths coming a little more rapidly. He felt his chest where his heart suddenly threatened to explode through his shirt. He had always considered himself a possessor of above-average courage. Now he wasn’t so sure.

  He forced himself to focus. The package had been delivered. Lucinda had signed for it. The routine at Patton, Shaw was precise; mail was vitally important to law firms. All overnight packages would be given to the firm’s in-house gofer team to be distributed with the day’s other mail. They brought it around in a cart. They all knew where Jack’s office was. Even if they didn’t, the firm printed out a map that was routinely updated. So long as you used the correct map . . .

  Jack raced to the door, flung it open and sprinted down the hallway. Completely unbeknownst to him, around the corner, in the opposite direction, a light had just come on in Sandy Lord’s office.

  Jack clicked on the light in his old office and the room quickly came into focus. He frantically searched the desktop, then pulled out the chair to sit down and his eyes came to rest on the package. Jack picked it up. He instinctively looked around, noted the open blinds and hurriedly shut them.

  He read the package label: Edwina Broome to Jack Graham. This was it. The package was boxy, but light. It was a box within a box, that’s what she had said. He started to open it, then stopped. They knew the package had been delivered here. They? That was the only label he could think to apply. If they knew the package was here, had in fact called about it this very day,
what would they do? If whatever was inside was that important and it had already been opened, presumably they would already know about it. Since that hadn’t happened, what would they do?

  Jack sprinted back down the hallway to his office, the package held tightly under his arm. He flung on his coat, grabbed his car keys off his desk, almost knocking over his half-empty glass of soda, and turned to go out. He stopped cold.

  A noise. He couldn’t tell from where; the sound seemed to echo softly down the hallway, like water lapping through a tunnel. It wasn’t the elevator. He was sure he would have heard the elevator.