Absolute power, p.28
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       Absolute Power, p.28

           David Baldacci
 

  lurking there. His conclusions: estranged daughter and father. She had finally come looking for him. Things started to add up, and maybe in a very positive way for his purposes.

  “We’re not really, Ms. Whitney. But the police in Middleton County sure as hell are.”

  “Middleton?”

  “Yes, ma’am. I’m sure you’ve read about the Christine Sullivan homicide.” He let that statement hang out there to test her reaction. He got the expected one. Complete disbelief.

  “You think my father had something to do with that?” It was a legitimately asked question. And not one framed particularly defensively. Burton deemed that significant and another positive for his plan, which had been forming the minute he’d laid eyes on her.

  “The detective in charge of the case does. Apparently your father, as part of a carpet cleaning crew, and using a false name, was in the Sullivans’ house a short time before the murder.”

  Kate caught her breath. Her father cleaning carpets? Of course, he had been casing the place. Figuring its weaknesses, just like before. Nothing had changed. But murder?

  “I can’t believe he killed that woman.”

  “Right, but you can believe he was trying to burgle that house can’t you, Ms. Whitney? I mean this isn’t the first time, is it, or the second?”

  Kate looked down at her hands. Finally she shook her head.

  “People change, ma’am. I don’t know how close you’ve been to your father lately”—Burton noted the small but discernible jerk in her expression—“but the evidence is pretty strong that he was involved somehow. And the woman is dead. You’ve probably gotten a conviction on less evidence than that.”

  Kate looked at him suspiciously. “How do you know about me?”

  “I see a woman sneaking into the house of a man the police are looking for I do what any law enforcement officer would do, I ran your license plate. Your reputation precedes you, Ms. Whitney. The state police think the world of you.”

  She looked around the room. “He’s not here. It doesn’t look like he’s been here for a while.”

  “Yes, ma’am, I know. You wouldn’t happen to know where he is, would you? He hasn’t tried to contact you or anything?”

  Kate thought of Jack and his late-night visitor. “No.” The answer was quick, a little too quick for Burton’s taste.

  “It’ll be better if he turns himself in, Ms. Whitney. You get some trigger-happy beat cop out there . . .” Burton expressively raised his eyebrows.

  “I don’t know where he is, Mr. Burton. My father and I . . . we haven’t been close . . . for a long time.”

  “But you’re here now and you knew where he kept the spare key.”

  Her voice rose an octave. “This is the first time I’ve stepped foot in this house.”

  Burton scrutinized her expression and decided she was telling the truth. Her unfamiliarity with the house had already led him pretty much to that conclusion, and also that she and her father were estranged.

  “Is there any way you can get in touch with him?”

  “Why? I really don’t want to get involved in this, Mr. Burton.”

  “Well I’m afraid you already are, to a degree. It’d be better if you’d cooperate.”

  Kate slung her purse over her arm and stood up.

  “Listen, Agent Burton, you can’t bluff me, I’ve been in the business too long. If the police want to waste their time questioning me, I’m in the phone book. The government phone book under Commonwealth’s Attorney. See you around.”

  She headed for the door.

  “Ms. Whitney?”

  She whirled round, ready for some verbal sparring. Secret Service or not, she wasn’t going to take any crap from this guy.

  “If your father committed a crime, then he should be tried by a jury of his peers and convicted. If he’s innocent, he goes free. That’s how the system’s supposed to work. You know that better than I do.”

  Kate was about to respond when her eye caught the photos. Her first day in court. It seemed a century ago and was, in a lot more ways than she could ever admit to herself. That smile, the pie-in-the-sky dreams everybody starts with, nothing less than perfection the only goal. She had dropped back to earth a long time ago.

  Whatever barbed remark she was going to come back with had just escaped her, lost in the smile of a pretty young woman with a lot she wanted to do with her life.

  Bill Burton watched her turn and leave. He looked over at the photos and then back at the empty doorway.

  CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

  HOU SHOULDN’T HAVE FUCKING DONE THAT, BILL. YOU SAID you were not going to interfere in the investigation. Hell, I ought to throw your keester right in jail. That’d go over real well with your boss.” Seth Frank slammed his desk drawer and stood up, eyes blazing at the big man.

  Bill Burton stopped pacing and sat down. He had expected to take some lumps over this one.

  “You’re right, Seth. But Jesus I was a cop for a long time. You were unavailable, I go over there just to reconnoiter the place, I see some skirt slipping in. What would you have done?”

  Frank didn’t answer.

  “Look, Seth, you can kick me in the ass, but I’m telling you, friend, this woman is our ace up the sleeve. With her we can nail this guy.”

  Frank’s tensed face relaxed, his anger subsiding.

  “What are you talking about?”

  “The girl is his daughter. His friggin’ daughter. In fact his only child. Luther Whitney is a three-time loser, a career crim who’s apparently gotten better with age. His wife finally divorced him, right? Couldn’t take it anymore. Then when she starts to get her life in order, she dies from breast cancer.”

  He paused.

  Seth Frank was all attention now. “Go on.”

  “Kate Whitney is devastated by her mother’s death. Her father’s betrayal as she sees it. So devastated that she totally breaks off from him. Not only that, she goes to law school and then goes to work as an Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney where she has the reputation of being one hard-assed prosecutor, especially for property-related crimes—burglary, theft, robbery. She goes for the max on all those guys. And usually gets it I might add.”

  “Where the hell did you get all that info?”

  “A few well-placed phone calls. People like to talk about other people’s misery, it makes them feel their own life is somehow better when it usually isn’t.”

  “So where does all this family turmoil get us?”

  “Seth, look at the possibilities here. This girl hates her old man. Hates with a capital H underscored.”

  “So you want to use her to get to him. If they’re estranged that badly, how do we do it?”

  “That’s the twist. By all accounts, all the hate and misery is on her side. Not his. He loves her. Loves her more than anything else. He’s got a goddamned shrine to her in his bedroom. I’m telling you the guy is ripe for this.”

  “If, and it’s still a big if in my mind, if she’s willing to co-operate, how does she get in touch with him? He sure as hell isn’t going to be hanging around his phone at home.”

  “No, but I bet he checks in for messages. You should see his house. This guy is very orderly, everything in its place, bills probably paid ahead of time. And he’s got no idea we’re on his ass. Not yet anyway. He probably checks his machine once or twice a day. Just in case.”

  “So she leaves him a message, arranges a meeting and we nail him?”

  Burton stood back up, flushed two cigarettes from his pack and flipped one over to Frank. They both took a moment to light up.

  “Personally, that’s how I see it going down, Seth. Unless you got a better idea.”

  “We still have to convince her to do it. From what you said, she didn’t seem too willing.”

  “I think you need to talk to her. Without me there. Maybe I came down a little too hard on her. I have a tendency to do that.”

  “I’ll hit it first thing in the morning.”

&
nbsp; Frank put on his hat and coat and then paused.

  “Look, I didn’t mean to jump all over your butt, Bill.”

  Burton grinned. “Sure you did. I would’ve done the same thing if I were you.”

  “I appreciate the assistance.”

  “Anytime.”

  Seth started to walk out.

  “Hey, Seth, little favor to an old-fart ex-cop.”

  “What’s that?”

  “Let me in on the kill. I wouldn’t mind seeing his face when the hammer comes down.”

  “You got it. I’ll call you after I talk to her. This cop’s going home to his family. You should do the same, Bill.”

  “After I finish this smoke I’m outta here.”

  Frank left. Burton sat down, slowly finished his cigarette, then drowned it out in a half cup of coffee.

  He could’ve withheld Whitney’s name from Seth Frank. Told him there had been no match by the FBI. But that was too dangerous a game to play. If Frank ever found out, and the detective could through a myriad of independent channels, Burton would be stone-cold dead. Nothing could explain that deception other than the truth, which wasn’t an option. Besides, Burton needed Frank to know Whitney’s identity. The Secret Service agent’s plan all along was to have the detective hunt the ex-con down. Find him, yes; arrest him, no.

  Burton stood up, put on his coat. Luther Whitney. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong people. Well, if it were any solace he wouldn’t see it coming. He’d never even hear the shot. He’d be dead before the synapses could fire the impulse to his brain. Those were the breaks. Sometimes they went for you and sometimes against you. Now if he could only think of a way to leave the President and his Chief of Staff high and dry, he would’ve done a good day’s work. But that one, he was afraid, was beyond even him.

  * * *

  COLLIN PARKED HIS CAR DOWN THE STREET. THE FEW remaining multicolored leaves gently cascaded down on him, nudged along by the breeze that lazily made its way past. He was dressed casually: jeans, cotton pullover and leather jacket. There was no bulge under his jacket. His hair was still damp from a hasty shower. His bare ankles protruded from his loafers. He looked like he should be heading to the college library for a late-night study session or hitting the party circuit after playing in the Saturday afternoon football game.

  As he made his way up to the house, he started getting nervous. It had surprised him, her phone call. She had sounded normal, there was no strain, no anger in her voice. Burton said she had taken it pretty well, considering. But he knew how abrasive Burton could be and that was why he was worried. Letting him keep Collin’s appointment with the lady probably was not the smartest thing Collin had ever done. But the stakes were high. Burton had made him see that.

  The door opened to his knock and he walked in. As he turned, the door closed and she was standing there. Smiling. Dressed in a sheer white negligee that was too short and too tight everywhere that counted, she stood tiptoe in her bare feet to kiss him gently on the lips. Then she took his hand and led him into the bedroom.

  She motioned for him to lie down on the bed. Standing in front of him she undid the straps holding up the flimsy garment and let it drop to the floor. Next her underwear slid down her legs. He started to rise up, but she gently pushed him back down.

  She slowly climbed on top of him, running her fingers through his hair. She slid a hand down to his erection and nicked at it through his jeans with the tip of her fingernail. He almost screamed as the confines of his pants became too painful. Again he tried to touch her but she held him down. She slid his belt off and then undid his pants. They dropped to the floor. Next she freed his explosion of flesh. It sprung up at her and she cradled it between her legs, squeezing it tightly between her thighs.

  She dipped her mouth down to his and then nestled her lips against his ear.

  “Tim, you want me, don’t you? You want to fuck me so bad, don’t you?”

  He groaned and clutched at her buttocks, but she quickly moved his hands away.

  “Don’t you?”

  “Yes.”

  “I wanted you so bad too, the other night. And then he showed up.”

  “I know, I’m sorry about that. We talked and—”

  “I know, he told me. That you didn’t say anything about us. That you were a gentleman.”

  “That part was none of his business.”

  “That’s right, Tim. It was none of his business. And now you want to fuck me, don’t you?”

  “Jesus Christ yes, Gloria. Of course I do.”

  “So bad it hurts.”

  “It’s killing me. It’s goddamn killing me.”

  “You feel so good, Tim, God, you feel so good.”

  “Just wait, baby, just wait. You don’t know what good is.”

  “I know, Tim. All I seem to think about is making love to you. You know that, don’t you?”

  “Yes.” Collin was in so much pain now his eyes watered.

  She licked at the drops, amused.

  “And you’re sure you want me? You’re absolutely sure?”

  “Yes!”

  Collin felt it before his mind actually registered the fact. Like a blast of cold air.

  “Get out.” The words were spoken slowly, deliberately, as though practiced a number of times, to get just the right tone, the correct inflection; the speaker savoring each syllable. She climbed off him, taking care to apply enough force to his erection that he gasped for breath.

  “Gloria—”

  His jeans hit him in the face as he lay there. When he pulled them away and sat up, her body was covered in a thick, full-length robe.

  “Get out of my house, Collin. Now.”

  He dressed quickly, embarrassed, as she stood there watching him. She followed him to the front door and as it opened and he stepped across the portal, she abruptly pushed him through and then slammed it behind him.

  He looked back for a moment, wondering if she were laughing or crying behind the door or maybe displaying any emotion at all. He hadn’t meant to hurt her. He had clearly embarrassed her. He shouldn’t have done it that way. She had certainly paid him back for that embarrassment, bringing him to the threshold like that, manipulating him like some laboratory experiment and then bringing the curtain crashing down on top of him.

  But as he walked to his car the memory of that look on her face made him relieved their brief relationship had ended.

  * * *

  FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE JOINING THE COMMONWEALTH’S Attorney’s office, Kate called in sick. Bedcovers pulled up to her chin, she sat propped up on pillows staring out at a bleak morning. Every time she had tried to get out of bed, the image of Bill Burton loomed up in front of her like a mass of sharp-edged granite, threatening to crush or impale her.

  She slid down lower in the bed, sinking into the soft mat tress like immersing herself in warm water, just below the surface where she could neither hear nor see anything that transpired around her.

  They would be coming soon. Just like with her mother. All those years ago. People pushing their way in and firing off questions Kate’s mother couldn’t possibly answer. Looking for Luther.

  She thought of Jack’s outburst from the other night and tightly closed her eyes, trying to hurl those words away.

  Goddamn him.

  She was tired, more tired than any trial had ever made her. And he had done it to her, just like he had to her mother. Drawn her into the web even though she wanted no part of it, detested it, would destroy it if she could.

 
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