Absolute power, p.25
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       Absolute Power, p.25

           David Baldacci
 

  “You’d better mingle, superstar.” She pushed him away and went in search of her parents.

  Jack looked around. Every person in this room was a millionaire. He was easily the poorest of them all, but his prospects probably surpassed all of theirs. His base income had just quadrupled. His profit sharing for the year would easily be double that. It occurred to him that he too was now, technically, a millionaire. Who would’ve thought it, when four years ago a million dollars seemed to be more money than existed on the planet?

  He had not entered law to become rich. He had spent years working as hard as he ever had for what amounted to pennies. But he was entitled now, wasn’t he? This was the typical American Dream, wasn’t it? But what was it about that dream that made you feel guilty when you finally attained it?

  He felt a big arm around his shoulder. He turned to look at Sandy Lord, red eyes and all staring at him.

  “Surprised the hell out of you, didn’t we?”

  Jack had to agree with that. Sandy’s breath was a mixture of hard liquor and roast beef. It reminded Jack of their very first encounter at Fillmore’s, not a pleasant memory. He subtlely distanced himself from his intoxicated partner.

  “Look around this room, Jack. There’s not a person here, with the possible exception of yours truly, who wouldn’t love to be in your shoes.”

  “It seems a little overwhelming. It happened so fast.” Jack was more talking to himself than to Lord.

  “Hell, these things always do. For the fortunate few, wham, zero to the top in seconds. Improbable success is just that: improbable. But that’s what makes it so damn satisfy ing. By the way, let me shake your hand for taking such good care of Walter.”

  “Pleasure, Sandy. I like the man.”

  “By the way, I’m having a little get-together at my place on Saturday. Some people are going to be there you should meet. See if you can persuade your extremely attractive Significant Other to attend. She might find some marketing opportunities. Girl’s a natural hustler just like her daddy.”

  * * *

  JACK SHOOK THE HAND OF EVERY PARTNER IN THE PLACE, SOME more than once. By nine o’clock he and Jennifer were headed home in her company limo. By one o’clock they had already made love twice. By one-thirty Jennifer was sound asleep.

  Jack wasn’t.

  He stood by the window looking out at the few stray snowflakes that had started to fall. An early winter storm system had settled in over the area although accumulations were not supposed to be significant. Jack’s thoughts were not on the weather, however. He looked over at Jennifer. She was dressed in a silk nightgown, nestled between satin sheets, in a bed the size of his apartment’s bedroom. He looked up at his old friends the murals. Their new place was supposed to be ready by Christmas, although the very proper Baldwin family would never allow patent cohabitation until the vows were exchanged. The interiors were being redone under the sharp eye of his fiancée to suit their individual tastes and to boldly cast their own personal statement— whatever the hell that meant. As he studied the medieval faces on the ceiling it occurred to Jack that they were probably laughing at him.

  He had just made partner in the most prestigious firm in town, was the toast of some of the most influential people you could imagine, every one of them eager to advance his already meteoric career even further. He had it all. From the beautiful princess, to the rich, old father-in-law, to the hal lowed if utterly ruthless mentor, to serious bucks in the bank. With an army of the powerful right behind him and a truly limitless future, Jack never felt more alone than he did that night. And despite all his willpower, his thoughts continually turned to an old, frightened and angry man, and his emotionally spent daughter. With those twin beauties swirling in his head he silently watched the gentle fall of snowflakes until the softened edges of daybreak greeted him.

  * * *

  THE OLD WOMAN WATCHED THROUGH THE DUSTY VENETIAN blinds that covered the living room window as the dark sedan pulled into her driveway. The arthritis in both grossly swollen knees made getting up difficult, much less trying to move herself around. Her back was permanently bent and the lungs were dense and unforgiving after fifty years of tar and nicotine bombardment. She was counting down to the end; her body had carried her about as far as it could. Longer than her daughter’s had.

  She fingered the letter that she kept in the pocket of her old, pink dressing gown that failed to completely cover the red, blistered ankles. She figured they would show up sooner or later. After Wanda had come back from the police station, she knew it was a matter of time before something like this happened. The tears welled up in her eyes as she thought back to the last few weeks.

  “It was my fault, Momma.” Her daughter had sat in the tiny kitchen where, as a little girl, she had helped her mother bake cookies and can tomatoes and stringbeans harvested from the strip of garden out back. She had repeated those words over and over as she slumped forward on the table, her body convulsing with every word. Edwina had tried to reason with her daughter but she was not eloquent enough to dent the shroud of guilt that surrounded the slender woman who had started life as a roly-poly baby with thick dark hair and horseshoe legs. She had shown Wanda the letter but it had done no good. It was beyond the old woman to make her child understand.

  Now she was gone and the police had come. And now Edwina had to do the right thing. And at eighty-one and Godfearing, Edwina was going to lie to the police, which was to her the only thing she could do.

  “I’m sorry about your daughter, Mrs. Broome.” Frank’s words rang sincere to the old woman’s ears. A trickle of a tear slipped down the deep crevices of her aged face.

  The note Wanda had left behind was given to Edwina Broome and she looked at it through a thick magnifying glass that lay on the table within easy reach. She looked at the earnest face of the detective. “I can’t imagine what she was thinking when she wrote this.”

  “You understand that a robbery took place at the Sullivan home? That Christine Sullivan was murdered by whoever it was that broke in?”

  “I heard that on the television right after it happened. That was terrible. Terrible.”

  “Did your daughter ever talk to you about the incident?”

  “Well of course she did. She was so upset by it all. She and Mrs. Sullivan got along real well, real well. It broke her up.”

  “Why do you think she took her own life?”

  “If I could tell you, I would.”

  She let that ambiguous statement hang in front of Frank’s face until he folded the paper back up.

  “Did your daughter tell you anything about her work that might shed some light on the murder?”

  “No. She liked her job pretty much. They treated her real well from what she said. Living in that big house, that’s real nice.”

  “Mrs. Broome, I understand that Wanda was in trouble with the law a while back.”

  “A long while back, Detective. A long while back. And she lived a good life since then.” Edwina Broome’s eyes had narrowed, her lips set in a firm line, as she stared down Seth Frank.

  “I’m sure she did,” Frank added quickly. “Did Wanda bring anyone by to see you in the last few months. Someone you didn’t know perhaps?”

  Edwina shook her head. That much was the truth.

  Frank eyed her for a long moment. The cataract-filled eyes stared straight back at him.

  “I understand your daughter was out of the country when the incident happened?”

  “Went down to that island with the Sullivans. They go every year I’m told.”

  “But Mrs. Sullivan didn’t go.”

  “I suppose not, since she was murdered up here while they were down there, Detective.”

  Frank almost smiled. This old lady wasn’t nearly as dumb as she was making out to be. “You wouldn’t have any idea why Mrs. Sullivan didn’t go. Something Wanda might have told you?”

  Edwina shook her head, stroked a silver and white cat that jumped up on her lap.

 
Well, thank you for talking to me. Again I’m sorry about your daughter.”

  “Thank you, I am too. Very sorry.”

  As she wrenched herself up to see him to the door, the letter fell out of her pocket. Her weary heart skipped a beat as Frank bent down, picked it up without glancing at it and handed it to her.

  She watched him pull out of the driveway. She slowly eased herself back down in the chair by the fireplace and unfolded the letter.

  It was in a man’s hand she knew well: I didn’t do it. But you wouldn’t believe me if I told you who did.

  For Edwina Broome that was all she needed to know. Luther Whitney had been a friend for a long time, and had only broken into that house because of Wanda. If the police caught up to him, it would not be with her assistance.

  And what her friend had asked her to do she would. God help her, it was the only decent thing she could do.

  * * *

  SETH FRANK AND BILL BURTON SHOOK HANDS AND SAT DOWN. They were in Frank’s office and the sun was barely up.

  “I appreciate your seeing me, Seth.”

  “It is a little unusual.”

  “Damn unusual if you ask me.” Burton grinned. “Mind if I light one up?”

  “How about I join you?” Both men pulled out their packs.

  Burton bent his match forward as he settled back in his chair.

  “I’ve been with the Service a long time and this is a first for me. But I can understand it. Old man Sullivan is one of the President’s best friends. Helped get him started in politics. A real mentor. They both go way back. Just between you and me, I don’t think the President actually wants us to do much more than give an impression of involvement. We are in no way looking to step on your toes.”

  “Not that you have jurisdiction to do that anyway.”

  “Exactly, Seth. Exactly. Hell, I was a state trooper for eight years. I know how police investigations go. The last thing you need is somebody else looking over your goddamned shoulder.”

  The wariness started to fade from Frank’s eyes. An ex–state trooper turned Secret Service agent. This guy was really a career law enforcement person. In Frank’s book you didn’t get much better than that.

  “So what’s your proposal?”

  “I see my role as an information pipeline to the President. Something breaks you give me a call and I’ll fill in the President. Then when he sees Walter Sullivan he can speak intelligently about the case. Believe me, it’s not all smoke and mirrors. The President is genuinely concerned about the case.” Burton smiled inwardly.

  “And no interference from the feds. No second-guessing?”

  “Hell, I’m not the FBI. It’s not a federal case. Look at me as the civilian emissary of a VIP. Not much more than a professional courtesy really.”

  Frank looked around his office as he slowly absorbed the situation. Burton followed that gaze and tried to size up Frank as precisely as possible. Burton had known many detectives. Most had average capabilities, which, coupled with an exponentially increasing caseload, resulted in a very low arrest and much lower conviction rate. But he had checked out Seth Frank. The guy was former NYPD with a string of citations a mile long. Since his coming to Middleton County, there had not been one unsolved homicide. Not one. It was a rural county to be sure, but a one hundred percent solve rate was still pretty impressive. All those facts made Burton very comfortable. For although the President had requested that Burton keep in contact with the police in order to fulfill his pledge to Sullivan, Burton had his own reason for wanting access to the investigation.

  “If something breaks really fast, I might not be able to apprise you right away.”

  “I’m not asking for miracles, Seth, just a little info when you get a chance. That’s all.” Burton stood up, crushing out his cigarette. “We got a deal?”

  “I’ll do my best, Bill.”

  “A man can’t ask for more than that. So, you got any leads?”

  Seth Frank shrugged. “Maybe. Might peter out, you never know. You know how that goes.”

  “Tell me about it.” Burton started to leave and then looked back. “Hey, as some quid pro quo if you need any red tape cut during your investigation, access to databases, stuff like that, you let me know and your request gets a top priority. Here’s my number.”

  Frank took the offered card. “I appreciate that, Bill.”

  * * *

  TWO HOURS LATER SETH FRANK LIFTED UP HIS PHONE AND nothing happened. No dial tone, no outside line. The phone company was called.

  An hour later, Seth Frank again picked up his phone and the dial tone was there. The system was fixed. The phone closet was kept locked at all times, but even if someone had been able to look inside, the mass of lines and other equipment would have been indecipherable to the layperson. Not that the police force ordinarily worried about someone tapping their lines.

  Bill Burton’s lines of communication were open now, a lot wider than Seth Frank had ever dreamed they would be.

  CHAPTER FIFTEEN

  I THINK IT’S A MISTAKE, ALAN. I THINK WE SHOULD BE distancing ourselves, not trying to take over the investigation.” Russell stood next to the President’s desk in the Oval Office.

  Richmond was seated at the desk going over some recent health care legislation; a quagmire to say the least and not one he planned to expend much political capital on before the election.

  “Gloria, get with the program, will you?” Richmond was preoccupied; well ahead in the polls, he thought the gap should be even greater. His anticipated opponent, Henry Jacobs, was short, and not particularly good-looking or a great speaker. His sole claim to fame was thirty years of toiling on behalf of the country’s indigent and less fortunate. Consequently, he was a walking media disaster. In the age of sound bites and photo ops, being able to look and talk a big game was an absolute necessity. Jacobs was not even the best among a very weak group that had seen its two leading candidates knocked out over assorted scandals, sexually based and otherwise. All of which made Richmond wonder why his thirty-two-point lead in the polls wasn’t fifty.

  He finally turned to look at his Chief of Staff.

  “Look, I promised Sullivan I’d keep on top of it. I said that to a goddamned national audience that got me a dozen points in the polls that apparently your well-oiled reelection team can’t improve upon. Do I need to go out and start a war to get the polls where they should be?”

  “Alan, the election’s in the bag; we both know that. But we have to play not to lose. We have to be careful. That person is still out there. What if he’s caught?”

  Exasperated, Richmond stood up. “Will you forget him! If you’d stop to think about it for a second, the fact that I have closely associated myself with the case takes away the only possible shred of credibility the guy might have had. If I hadn’t publicly proclaimed my interest some nosy reporter might have pricked up his ears at an allegation that the President was somehow involved in the death of Christine Sullivan. But now that I’ve told the nation that I’m mad and determined to bring the perpetrator to justice, if the allegation is made, people will think the guy saw me on TV and he’s a whacko.”

  Russell sat down in a chair. The problem was Richmond didn’t have all the facts. If he knew about the letter opener would he have taken these same steps? If he knew about the note and photo Russell had received? She was withholding information from her boss, information that could ruin both of them, absolutely and completely.

  * * *

  AS RUSSELL WALKED DOWN THE HALLWAY BACK TO HER office, she didn’t notice Bill Burton staring at her from a passageway. The look was not one of affection, not anywhere close.

  Stupid, stupid bitch. From where he was standing he could’ve popped three slugs into the back of her head. No sweat. His talk with Collin had cleared up the picture completely. If he had called the police that night, there would have been trouble, but not for him and Collin. The President and his skirted sidekick would’ve taken all the heat. The woman had snookered him
. And now he was barely hanging on the edge of all that he had worked for, sweated for, taken bullets for.

  He knew far better than Russell what they were all confronted with. And it was because of that knowledge that he had made his decision. It had not been an easy one, but it was the only one he could make. It was the reason he had visited Seth Frank. And it was also the reason he had had the detective’s phone line tapped. Burton knew his course of action was probably a long shot, but they were all well outside the range of guarantees of any kind now. You just had to go with the cards you had and hope Lady Luck would

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