Absolute power, p.27
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       Absolute Power, p.27

           David Baldacci
 

  As he climbed into his car, he took a moment to light a cigarette. Burton had spent the last few days reviewing the preceding twenty years of his life. The price being paid to preserve those years was heading into the stratosphere. Was it worth it? Was he prepared to pay it? He could go to the cops. Tell them everything. His career would be over, of course. The police could get him on obstruction of justice, conspiracy to commit murder, maybe some bullshit manslaughter charge for popping Christine Sullivan and other assorted nickel-and-dime stuff. It would all add up, though. Even cutting a deal he was going to do some serious time. But he could do the time. He could also endure the scandal. All the shit the papers would write. He’d go down in history as a criminal. He’d be inextricably linked to the notoriously corrupt Richmond administration. And yet he could take that, if it came to it. What the hard-as-rock Bill Burton could not take was the look in his children’s eyes. He would never again see pride and love. And the absolute and complete trust that their daddy, this big hulk of a man, was, indisputably, one of the good guys. That was something that was too tough even for him.

  Those were the thoughts that had been racing through Burton’s head ever since his talk with Collin. A part of him wished he hadn’t asked. That he had never found out about the blackmail attempt. Because that had given him an opportunity. And opportunities were always accompanied by choices. Burton had finally made his. He wasn’t proud of it. If things worked out according to plan, he would do his best to forget it had ever happened. If things didn’t work out? Well, that was just too bad. But if he went down, so would everyone else.

  That thought triggered another idea. Burton reached across and popped open the car’s glove compartment. He pulled out a minicassette recorder and a handful of tapes. He looked back up at the house as he puffed on his cigarette.

  He put the car in gear. As he passed Gloria Russell’s house, he figured the lights there would remain on for a long time.

  CHAPTER SIXTEEN

  LAURA SIMON HAD JUST ABOUT GIVEN UP HOPE OF FINDING IT.

  The exterior and interior of the van had been minutely dusted and then fumed for prints. A special laser from the state police headquarters in Richmond had even been brought up, but every time they found a match, it was someone else’s prints. Someone they could account for. She knew Pettis’s prints by heart now. He was unfortunate enough to have all arches, one of the rarest of fingerprint compositions, as well as a tiny scar on his thumb that had in fact led to his arrest years earlier for grand-theft auto. Perps with scars across their fingertips were an ident tech’s best friend.

  Budizinski’s prints had shown up once because he’d stuck his finger in a solvent and then pressed it against a piece of plywood kept in the back of the van, a print as perfect as if she had fingerprinted him herself.

  All told, she had found fifty-three prints, but none were of any use to her. She sat in the middle of the van and glumly looked around its interior. She had gone over every spot where a print could reasonably be expected to exist. She had hit every nook and cranny of the vehicle with the handheld laser and was running out of ideas where else to look.

  For the twentieth time she went through the motions of men loading the truck, driving it—the rearview mirror was an ideal spot for prints—moving the equipment, lifting the bottles of cleaners, dragging the hoses, opening and closing the doors. The difficulty of her task was increased by the fact that prints tended to disappear over time, depending on the surface containing them and the surrounding climate. Wet and warm were the best preservatives, dry and cool, the worst.

  She opened the glove compartment and went through the contents again. Every item had already been inventoried and dusted. She idly flipped through the van’s maintenance log. Purplish stains on the paper reminded her that the lab’s stock of ninhydrin was low. The pages were well-worn although the van had had very few breakdowns the three years it had been in commission. Apparently the company believed in a rigorous maintenance program. Each entry was carefully noted, initialed and dated. The company had its own inhouse maintenance crew.

  As she scanned the pages, one entry caught her eye. All the other entries had been initialed by either a G. Henry or an H. Thomas, both mechanics employed by Metro. This entry had J.P. initialed beside it. Jerome Pettis. The entry indicated that the van had run low on oil and a couple of quarts had been added. All that was terribly unexciting except that the date was the day the Sullivan place had been cleaned.

  Simon’s breathing accelerated slightly as she crossed her fingers and got out of the van. She popped the hood and began looking at the engine. She shone her light around and within a minute she found it. An oily thumbprint that preened back at her from the side of the windshield washer fluid reservoir. Where someone would naturally rest their hand when they were applying leverage to open or close the oil cap. And a glance told her it wasn’t Pettis’s. Nor was it either of the two mechanics. She grabbed a file card with Budizinski’s prints on it. She was ninety-nine percent sure they weren’t his and she turned out to be right. She carefully dusted and lifted the print, filled out a card and nearly ran the entire way to Frank’s office. She found him with his hat and overcoat on, which he quickly removed.

  “You’re shitting me, Laura.”

  “You want to check with Pettis to see if he remembers Rogers adding the oil that day?”

  Frank called the cleaning company, but Pettis had already gone for the night. Calls to his home went unanswered.

  Simon looked at the lift card like it was the most precious jewel in the world. “Forget it. I’ll run it through our files. Stay all night if I have to. We can get Fairfax to access the state police AFIS, our damn terminal’s still down.” Simon was referring to the Automated Fingerprint Identification System housed in Richmond, where latent prints found at crime scenes could be compared against the ones on the state’s computerized database.

  Frank thought for a moment. “I think I can do one better.”

  “How’s that?”

  Frank pulled a card out of his pocket, picked up the phone and dialed. He spoke into the phone. “Agent Bill Burton please.”

  * * *

  BURTON PICKED UP FRANK AND THEY DROVE DOWN TOGETHER to the FBI’s Hoover Building, located on Pennsylvania Avenue. Most tourists know the building as bulky and rather ugly and as a place not to miss on a visit to D.C. Housed here was the National Crime Information Center, a computerized information system operated by the FBI, consisting of fourteen centralized-distributed types of databases and two subsystems that constituted the world’s largest collection of data on known criminals. The Automated Identification System (AIS) component of NCIC was a cop’s best friend. With tens of millions of criminal print cards on file, Frank’s chances of a hit were measurably increased.

  After depositing the print with FBI technicians—who had clear instructions that this assignment was to be moved to as near the top of the pile as possible—Burton and Frank stood outside in the hallway nervously sipping coffee.

  “This is gonna take a little while, Seth. The computer’s gonna kick out a bunch of probables. The techs will still have to make the ident manually. I’ll hang out and let you know as soon as a match comes back.”

  Frank checked his watch. His youngest was in a school play that started in forty minutes. Her role was only that of a vegetable, but was right now the most important thing on earth to his little girl.

  “You sure?”

  “Just leave me a number where I can reach you.”

  Frank did so and hurried out. The print could turn out to be nothing, a gas station attendant, but something told Frank that was not the case. Christine Sullivan had been dead a while now. Trails that cold usually stayed as cold as the victim resting six feet under, the longest six feet any of them would ever have to face. But a cold trail had suddenly turned blazing hot; whether it would flicker out remained to be seen. For now, Frank was going to enjoy the warmth. He smiled, and not just at the thought of his six-year-old runnin
g around dressed as a cucumber.

  Burton stared after him, smiling for a very different reason. The FBI used a sensitivity and reliability factor in excess of ninety percent when processing latents through the AFIS. That meant that no more than two probables, and most likely only one, would be kicked out of the system. In addition, Burton had obtained a higher priority for the search than he had told Frank. All of which gained Burton time, precious time.

  Later that night, Burton stared down at a name that was totally unfamiliar to him.

  LUTHER ALBERT WHITNEY.

  DOB 8/5/29. His Social Security number was also listed; the first three digits were 179, indicating it had been issued in Pennsylvania. Whitney’s physical description was given as five foot eight, a buck sixty, with a two-inch scar on his left forearm. That comported with Pettis’s description of Rogers.

  Using NCIC’s Triple I (Interstate Identification Index) database, Burton had also gotten a good snapshot of the man’s past. The report listed three prior felony convictions for burglary. Whitney had records in three different states. He had done lengthy time, last coming out of prison in the mid-1970s. Nothing since then. At least nothing the authorities knew about. Burton had known men like that before. They were career guys who just kept getting better and better at their chosen profession. He was betting Whitney was one of those types.

  One hitch, the last known address was in New York and was almost twenty years old.

  Taking the point of least resistance, Burton walked down the hallway to a phone cubicle and grabbed up all the phone books for the area. He tried D.C. first; surprisingly it was a blank. Northern Virginia was next. There were three Luther Whitneys listed. His next phone call went to the Virginia State Police, where he had a longtime contact. Division of Motor Vehicles records were accessed by computer. Two of the Luther Whitneys were twenty-three and eighty-five years old respectively. However, Luther Whitney of 1645 East Washington Avenue, Arlington, had been born on August 5, 1929, and his Social Security number, used in Virignia as the driver’s license number, confirmed that he was the man. But was he Rogers? There was one way to find out.

  Burton pulled out his notebook. Frank had been very courteous in letting Burton go through the investigation file. The phone rang three times and then Jerome Pettis answered. Vaguely identifying himself as being with Frank’s office, Burton asked the question. Five long seconds followed while Burton tried to keep his nerves intact as he listened to the shallow breathing of the man on the other end of the line. The response was worth the short wait.

  “Damn, that’s right. Engine almost locked up. Somebody had left the oil cap loose. Got Rogers to do it cuz he was sitting on the case of oil we carry in the back.”

  Burton thanked him and hung up. He checked his watch. He still had time before he would have to leave Frank the message. Despite the mounting evidence, Burton still couldn’t be absolutely certain Whitney had been the guy in the vault, but Burton’s gut told him Whitney was the man. And although there was no way in hell Luther Whitney would have gone anywhere near his house after the murder, Burton wanted to get a better feel for the guy and maybe get some indication of where he’d gone. And the best way to do that was to check out where he lived. Before the cops did. He walked as quickly as he could to his car.

  * * *

  THE WEATHER HAD TURNED WET AND COLD AGAIN AS MOTHER Nature toyed with the most powerful city on earth. The wipers flapped relentlessly across the windshield. Kate didn’t exactly know why she was there. She had visited the place exactly once in all these years. And on that occasion she had sat out in the car while Jack had gone in to see him. To tell him that he and Luther’s only child were getting married. Jack had insisted, despite her maintaining that the man wouldn’t care. Apparently he had. He had come out on the front porch and looked at her, smiling, an awkward thrust to his body that proclaimed his hesitation in approaching her. Wanting to congratulate but not knowing exactly how, given their peculiar circumstances. He had shaken Jack’s hand, pounded him on the back, then looked over at her as if for approval.

  She had resolutely looked away, arms folded, until Jack had climbed back in and they had driven off. She had caught the reflection of the small figure in the side mirror as they pulled away. He looked much smaller than she remembered, almost tiny. In her mind her father would forever represent an enormous monolith of all that she resented and feared in the world, that filled all space around it and dragged one’s breath away with its sheer, overpowering bulk. That creature obviously never existed, but she refused to admit that fact. But while she had not wanted to deal with that image ever again, she could not look away. For more than a minute as the car gathered speed her eyes dipped into the reflection of the man who had given her life and then taken it and her mother’s away with brutal finality.

  As the car pulled away he had continued to look at her, a mixture of sadness and resignation on his features that had surprised her. But she had rationalized it away, as another of his tricks to make her feel guilty. She could not attribute benign qualities to any of his actions. He was a thief. He had no regard for the law. A barbarian in a civilized society. There was no possible room in his shell for sincerity. Then they had turned the corner and his image had disappeared, like it had been on a string and was suddenly pulled away.

  Kate pulled into the driveway. The house was pitch dark. As she sat there her headlights reflected off the rear of the car parked in front of her and the glare hurt her eyes. She switched off the lights, took a deep breath to steady her nerves and climbed out into the cold and wetness.

  The previous snowfall had been light, and what little residue there was crunched under her feet as she made her way up to the front door. The temperature promised icy conditions developing overnight. She placed one hand against the side of his car to balance herself as she walked. Despite not expecting to find her father home, she had washed and styled her hair, was encased in one of her suits normally reserved for court and had actually applied more than a dab of makeup. She was successful, in her own way, and if chance brought them face-to-face, she wanted him to realize that despite his maltreatment she had not only survived, she had flourished.

  The key was still where Jack had told her it was so many years ago. It had always seemed ironic to her that a consummate burglar should leave his own property so accessible. As she unlocked the door and slowly went inside, she did not notice the car that had pulled to a stop on the other side of the street or the driver who watched her intently, and who was already writing down her license plate number.

  The house had the built-up musty odor of a long-abandoned place. She had occasionally imagined what the place would look like on the inside. She had figured it to be neat and orderly and she was not disappointed.

  In the darkness she sat down in a chair in the living room, not realizing it was her father’s favorite and totally unaware that Luther had unconsciously done the same thing when he had visited her apartment.

  The photo was on the mantel. It must’ve been almost thirty years old. Kate, held in her mother’s arms, was swaddled from head to toe, a few wisps of tar-colored hair visible from under the pink bonnet; she had been born with a remarkably thick head of hair. Her father, calm-faced and wearing a snapbrim, was standing next to mother and daughter, his muscular hand touching Kate’s tiny outstretched fingers.

  Kate’s mother had kept that same photo on her dressing table until her death. Kate had thrown it away the day of the funeral, cursing the intimacy between father and daughter that the image displayed. She had hurled it away right after her father had come by the house where she had exploded at him with a fury, an outburst that became more and more out of control since its target did not respond, did not fight back, but stood there and accepted the barrage. And the quieter he had become, the more angry she became until she had slapped him, with both hands, until others had pulled her away and held her down. And only then did her father put his hat back on, lay the flowers he had brought down on the ta
ble and, with an inflamed face from her pounding and water-filled eyes, he had walked out the door, closing it quietly behind him.

  And it occurred to Kate as she sat in her father’s chair that he too had been grieving that day. Grieving for a woman he had presumably loved for a good portion of his life and who certainly had loved him. She felt a catch in her throat and rushed to forestall it with pressure from her fingers.

  She got up and moved through the house, peering cautiously into each room and then backing away, growing more and more nervous as she penetrated further and further into her father’s domain. The bedroom door was ajar, and she finally decided to push it open all the way. As she moved into the room, she risked turning on a light, and as her eyes adjusted to the exit from darkness they fell upon the nightstand and she drew nearer, finally sitting down on the bed.

  The collection of photographs was, in essence, a small shrine to her. From the earliest age upward, her life was retold here. Each night as her father went to sleep, the last thing he saw was her. But what shocked her the most were the photos from later in life. Her graduation from college and law school. Her father had certainly not been invited to these events, but they were recorded here. None of the photos were posed. She was either walking or waving to someone or just standing there obviously unaware of the camera’s presence. She moved on to the last photo. She was walking down the steps of the Alexandria Courthouse. Her first day in court, nervous as hell. A petty-misdemeanor case, General District Court Mickey Mouse stuff, but the big smile on her face proclaimed nothing less than absolute victory.

  And she wondered how in the world she had never seen him. And then she wondered if she had but just would not admit it.

  Her immediate reaction was anger. Her father had been spying on her all these years. All those special moments of her life. He had violated them. Violated her with his uninvited presence.

  Her second reaction was more subtle. And as she felt it rising through her she abruptly jumped up from the bed and turned to flee the room.

  That’s when she thudded right into the big man standing there.

  * * *

  “AGAIN, I’M SORRY, MA’AM, I DIDN’T MEAN TO STARTLE YOU.”

  “Startle me? You scared the living hell out of me.” Kate sat on the side of the bed, trying to regain her nerves, to stop shaking, but the chill in the house didn’t help.

  “Excuse me, but why is the Secret Service interested in my father?”

  She looked at Bill Burton with something akin to fear in her eyes. At least he read it as fear. He had watched her in the bedroom, swiftly gauging her motives, her intent from her subtle body movements. A skill he had spent years developing, scanning endless crowds for the one or two true dangers that might be

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