Absolute Power



  “There’s none to be had in this town, I’ve tried.”

  He did a U-turn, grinned at the honkers, and roared off.

  “Apparently, counselor, you didn’t try hard enough.”

  * * *

  THIRTY MINUTES LATER HE PULLED INTO HER PARKING LOT. HE ran around to help her out. The ankle had stiffened a little more. The butterscotch cone was almost gone.

  “I’ll help you up.”

  “You don’t have to.”

  “I busted your ankle. Help me relieve some of my guilt.”

  “I’ve got it, Jack.” That tone was very familiar to him, even after four years. He smiled wearily and stepped back. She was halfway up the stairs, moving slowly. He was getting back in his car when she turned around.

  “Jack?” He looked up. “Thanks for the ice cream.” She went into the building.

  Driving off, Jack did not see the man standing near the little cluster of trees at the entrance to the parking lot.

  Luther emerged from the shadows of the trees and looked up at the apartment building.

  His appearance from two days ago had drastically changed. It was lucky his beard grew fast. His hair had been cut very short, and a hat covered what was left. Sunglasses obscured his intense eyes and a bulky overcoat concealed the lean body.

  He had hoped to see her one more time before he left. He had been shocked to see Jack, but that was all right. He liked Jack.

  He huddled in his coat. The wind was picking up, and the chill was more than Washington usually carried at this time of year. He stared up at his daughter’s apartment window.

  Apartment number fourteen. He knew it well; had even been inside it on a number of occasions, unbeknownst to his daughter, of course. The standard front-door lock was child’s play for him. It would’ve taken longer for someone with a key to open it. He would sit in the chair in her living room and look around at a hundred different things, all of them carrying years of memories, some good times, but mostly disappointments.

  Sometimes he would just close his eyes and examine all the different scents in the air. He knew what perfume she wore—very little and very nondescript. Her furniture was big, solid and well-worn. Her refrigerator was routinely empty. He cringed when he viewed the meager and unhealthy contents of her cabinets. She kept things neat, but not perfect; the place looked lived in as it should have.

  And she got a lot of calls. He would listen to some of them leaving messages. They made him wish she had picked a different line of work. Being a criminal himself, he was well aware of the number of real crazy bastards out there. But it was too late for him to recommend a career change to his only child.

  He knew that it was a strange relationship to have with one’s offspring, but Luther figured that was about all he deserved. A vision of his wife entered his mind; a woman who had loved him and stood by him all those years and for what? For pain and misery. And then an early death after she had arrived at her senses and divorced him. He wondered again, for the hundredth time, why he had continued his criminal activities. It certainly wasn’t the money. He had always lived simply; much of the proceeds of his burglaries had been simply given away. His choice in life had driven his wife mad with worry and forced his daughter from his life. And for the hundredth time he came away with no compelling answer to the question of why he continued to steal from the well-protected wealthy. Perhaps it was only to show that he could.

  He looked up once again at his daughter’s apartment. He hadn’t been there for her, why should she be there for him? But he could not sever the bond entirely, even if she had. He would be there for her if she so desired, but he knew that she never would.

  Luther moved quickly down the street, finally running to catch a Metro bus heading toward the subway at Union Station. He had always been the most independent of people never relying to any significant degree on anyone else. He was a loner and had liked that. Now, Luther felt very alone, and the feeling this time was not so comforting.

  The rain started and he stared out the back window of the bus as it meandered its way to the great rail terminus, which had been saved from extinction by an ambitious railway–shopping mall renovation. The water bubbled up on the smooth surface of the window and clouded his view of where he had just been. He wished he could, but he couldn’t go back there now.

  He turned back in his seat, pulled his hat down tighter, blew into his handkerchief. He picked up a discarded newspaper, glancing down its old headlines. He wondered when they would find her. When they did, he would know about it immediately; everyone in this town would know that Christine Sullivan was dead. When rich people got themselves killed, it was front-page news. Poor people and Joe Average were stuck in the Metro section. Christy Sullivan would most certainly be on page one, front and center.

  He dropped the paper on the floor, hunched down in his seat. He needed to see a lawyer, and then he would be gone. The bus droned on, and his eyes finally closed, but he wasn’t sleeping. He was, for the moment, sitting in his daughter’s living room, and this time, she was there with him.

  CHAPTER SIX

  LUTHER SAT AT THE SMALL CONFERENCE ROOM TABLE IN THE very plainly furnished room. The chairs and table were old and carried a thousand scrapes. The rug was just as ancient and not very clean. A card holder was the only thing on the table other than his file. He picked up one of the cards and thumbed it. “Legal Services, Inc.” These people weren’t the best in the business; they were far from the halls of power downtown. Graduates of third-rate law schools with no shot at the traditional firm practice, they eked out their professional existence hoping for some luck down the road. But their dreams of big offices, big clients and, most important, big money faded a little more with the passage of each year. But Luther did not require the best. He only required somebody with a law degree and the right forms.

  “Everything is in order, Mr. Whitney.” The kid looked about twenty-five, still full of hope and energy. This place was not his final destination. He still clearly believed that. The tired, pinched, flabby face of the older man behind him held out no such hope. “This is Jerry Burns, the managing attorney, he’ll be the other witness to your will. We have a self-proving affidavit, so we won’t have to appear in court as to whether or not we witnessed your will.” A stern-looking, forty-something woman appeared with her pen and notary seal. “Phyllis here is our notary, Mr. Whitney.” They all sat down. “Would you like me to read the terms of your will out to you?”

  Jerry Burns had been sitting at the table looking bored to death, staring into space, dreaming of all the other places he would rather be. Jerry Burns, managing attorney. He looked like he would rather be shoveling cow manure on some farm in the Midwest. Now he glanced at his young colleague with disdain.

  “I’ve read it,” Luther replied.

  “Fine,” said Jerry Burns. “Why don’t we get started?”

  Fifteen minutes later Luther emerged from Legal Services, Inc., with two original copies of his last will and testament tucked in his coat pocket.

  Fucking lawyers, couldn’t piss, shit or die without them. That was because lawyers made all the laws. They had the rest of them by the balls. Then he thought of Jack and smiled. Jack was not like that. Jack was different. Then he thought of his daughter and his smile faded. Kate was not like that either. But then Kate hated him.

  He stopped at a camera shop and purchased a Polaroid OneStep camera and a pack of film. He didn’t plan to let anyone else develop the pictures he was going to be taking. He arrived back at the hotel. An hour later he had taken a total of ten photos. These were wrapped in paper and placed in a manila folder that was then secreted far down into his backpack.

  He sat down and looked out the window. It was almost an hour before he finally moved, sliding over and then collapsing onto the bed. Some tough guy he was. Not so indifferent that he could not flinch at death, not be horrified by an event that had ripped the life out of someone who should’ve lived a lot longer. And on top of it all was the
fact that the President of the United States was involved in all of it. A man Luther had respected, had voted for. A man who held the country’s highest office had almost murdered a woman with his own drunken hands. If he had seen his closest relative bludgeon someone in cold blood, Luther would not have been any more sickened or shocked. It was as though Luther himself had been invaded, as though those murderous hands had been around his throat.

  But something else gripped at him; something he could not confront. He turned his face to the pillow, closed his eyes in a futile effort to sleep.

  * * *

  “IT’S GREAT, JENN.” JACK LOOKED AT THE BRICK AND STONE mansion that stretched more than two hundred feet from end to end and had more rooms than a college dorm, and wondered why they were even there. The winding driveway ended in a four-car garage behind the massive structure. The lawns were groomed so perfectly that Jack felt he was staring at an enormous jade pool. The rear grounds were triple-terraced, with each terrace sporting its own pool. It had the standard accoutrements of the very wealthy: tennis courts and stables, and twenty acres—a veritable land empire by northern Virginia standards—on which to roam.

  The Realtor waited by the front door, her late-model Mercedes parked by the large stone fountain covered with fistsize roses carved out of granite. Commission dollars were being swiftly calculated and recalculated. Weren’t they a terrific young couple? She had said that enough to where Jack’s temples throbbed.

  Jennifer Baldwin took his arm and two hours later their tour was finished. Jack walked over to the edge of the broad lawn and admired the thick woods, where an eclectic grouping of elm, spruce, maple, pine and oak jostled for dominance. The leaves were beginning to turn and Jack observed the beginnings of reds, yellows and oranges dance across the face of the property they were considering.

  “So how much?” He felt he was entitled to ask that question. But this had to be out of their ballpark. His ballpark anyway. He had to admit it was convenient. Only forty-five rush-hour minutes from his office. But they couldn’t touch this place. He looked expectantly at his fiancée.

  She looked nervous, played with her hair. “Three million eight.”

  Jack’s face went gray. “Three million eight hundred thousand? Dollars?”

  “Jack, it’s worth three times that.”

  “Then why the hell are they selling it for three million eight? We can’t afford it, Jenn. Forget it.”

  She answered him by rolling her eyes. She waved reassuringly to the Realtor, who sat in her car writing up the contract.

  “Jenn, I make a hundred twenty thou a year. You make about the same, maybe a little more.”

  “When you make partner—”

  “Right. My salary goes up, but not enough for this. We can’t make the mortgage payments. I thought we were moving into your place, anyway.”

  “It’s not right for a married couple.”

  “Not right? It’s a friggin’ palace.” He walked over to a forest-green-painted garden bench and sat down.

  She planted herself in front of him, arms crossed, a determined look on her face. Her summer tan was starting to fade. She wore a creamy brown fedora from under which her long hair tumbled across her shoulders. Her pants were perfectly tailored to her elegantly slender form. Polished leather boots encased her feet and disappeared under the pant legs.

  “We won’t be carrying a mortgage, Jack.”

  He looked up at her. “Really? What, are they giving us the place because we’re such a terrific young couple?”

  She hesitated, then said, “Daddy is paying cash for it, and we’re going to pay him back.”

  Jack had been waiting for that one.

  “Pay him back? How the hell are we going to pay him back, Jenn?”

  “He’s suggested a very liberal repayment plan, which takes into account future earnings expectations. For godsakes, Jack, I could pay for this place out of accumulated interest on one of my trusts, but I knew you’d object to that.” She sat down next to him. “I thought if we did it this way, you’d feel better about the whole thing. I know how you are about the Baldwin money. We will have to pay Daddy back. It’s not a gift. It’s a loan with interest. I’m going to sell my place. I’ll net about eight from that. You’re going to have to come up with some money too. This is not a free ride.” She playfully stuck a long finger into his chest, driving home her point. She looked back at the house. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it, Jack? We’ll be so happy here. We were meant to live here.”

  Jack looked over at the front of the house but without really seeing it. All he saw was Kate Whitney, in every window of the monolith.

  Jennifer squeezed his arm, leaned against him. Jack’s headache moved into the panic zone. His mind was refusing to function. His throat went dry and his limbs felt stiff. He gently disengaged his arm from his fiancée’s, got up and walked quietly back to the car.

  Jennifer sat there for several moments, disbelief chief among the emotions registering across her face, and then angrily followed him.

  The Realtor, who had intently watched the exchange between the two while seated in her Mercedes, stopped writing up the contract, her mouth pursed in displeasure.

  * * *

  IT WAS EARLY MORNING WHEN LUTHER EMERGED FROM THE small hotel hidden in the cluttered residential neighborhoods of Northwest Washington. He hailed a cab to the Metro Center subway, asking the driver to take a circuitous route on the presumption of seeing various D.C. landmarks. The request did not surprise the cabbie and he automatically went through the motions to be replicated a thousand times before the tourist season was officially over, if it was ever truly over for the town.

  The skies threatened rain but you never knew. The unpredictable weather systems swirled and whipped across the region either missing the city or falling hard on it before sliding into the Atlantic. Luther looked up at the darkness, which the newly risen sun could not penetrate.

  Would he even be alive six months from now? Maybe not. They could conceivably find him, despite his precautions. But he planned to enjoy the time he had left.

  The Metro took him to Washington National Airport, where he took a shuttle bus across to the Main Terminal. He had prechecked his luggage onto the American Airlines flight that would take him to Dallas/Fort Worth, where he would change airlines and then head to Miami. He would stay there overnight and then another plane would drop him in Puerto Rico and then a final flight would deposit him in Barbados. Everything was paid for in cash; his passport proclaimed him to be Arthur Lanis, age sixty-five, from Michigan. He had a half-dozen such identifying documents, all professionally crafted and official-looking and all absolutely phony. The passport was good for eight more years and showed him to be well-traveled.

  He settled into the waiting area and pretended to scan a newspaper. The place was crowded and noisy, a typical weekday for the busy airport. Occasionally Luther’s eyes would rise over the paper to see if anyone was paying more than casual attention to him, but nothing registered. And he had been doing this long enough that something would have clicked if he had anything to worry about. His flight was called, his boarding pass was handed over and he trudged down the ramp to the slender projectile that within three hours would deposit him in the heart of Texas.

  The Dallas/Fort Worth run was a busy one for American, but surprisingly he had an empty seat next to him. He took his coat off and laid it across the seat daring anyone to trespass. He settled himself in and looked out the window.

  As they began to taxi to the takeoff runway, he could make out the tip of the Washington Monument over the thick, swirling mist of the clammy morning. Barely a mile from that point his daughter would be getting up shortly to go to work while her father was ascending into the clouds to begin a new life somewhat ahead of schedule and not exactly easy in his mind.

  As the plane accelerated through the air, he looked at the terrain far below, noted the snaking of the Potomac until it was left behind. His thoughts went briefly to his long-dead wi
fe and then back to his very much alive daughter.

  He glanced up at the smiling, efficient face of the flight attendant and ordered coffee and a minute later accepted the simple breakfast handed to him. He drank down the steaming liquid and then reached over and touched the surface of the window with its queer streaks and scratches. Wiping his glasses clean, he noted that his eyes were watering freely. He looked around quickly; most passengers were finishing up their breakfast or reclining for a short nap before they landed.

  He pushed his tray up, undid his seat belt and made his way to the lavatory. He looked at himself in the mirror. The eyes were swollen, red-blotched. The bags hung heavy, he had perceptibly aged in the last thirty-six hours.

  He ran water over his face, let the droplets gather around his mouth and then splashed on some more. He wiped his eyes again. They were painful. He leaned against the tiny basin, tried to get his twitching muscles under control.

  Despite all his willpower, his mind wandered back to that room where he had seen a woman savagely beaten. The President of the United States was a drunk, an adulterer and a woman beater. He smiled to the press, kissed babies and flirted with enchanted old women, held important meetings, flew around the world as his country’s leader, and he was a fucking asshole who screwed married women, then beat them up and then got them killed.

  What a package.

  It was more knowledge than one person should be carrying around.

  Luther felt very alone. And very mad.

  And the sorry thing was the bastard was going to get away with it.

  Luther kept telling himself if he were thirty years younger he would take this battle on. But he wasn’t. His nerves were still stronger than most, but, like river rock, they had eroded over the