Absolute power, p.30
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       Absolute Power, p.30

           David Baldacci
 

  Kate sat back in her chair, more comfortable as the conversation centered on a legal analysis of the case.

  “That’s all you’ve got?” Her eyes squinted at him.

  He hesitated again, then shrugged. “That’s it.”

  “Then you got nothing, Detective. Nothing!”

  “I’ve got my instincts and my instincts tell me Luther Whitney was in the house that night and he was in that bedroom. Where he is now is what I want to know.”

  “I can’t help you there. That’s the same thing I told your buddy the other night.”

  “But you did go to his house that night. Why?”

  Kate shrugged. She was determined not to mention her conversation with Jack. Was she withholding evidence? Maybe.

  “I don’t know.” That, in part, was true.

  “You strike me, Kate, as someone who always knows why she does something.”

  Jack’s face flashed across her mind. She angrily pushed it out. “You’d be surprised, Lieutenant.”

  Frank ceremoniously closed his notebook and hunched forward.

  “I really need your help.”

  “For what?”

  “This is off the record, unofficial, whatever you want to call it. I’m more interested in results than in legal niceties.”

  “Funny thing to tell a state prosecutor.”

  “I’m not saying I don’t play by the rules.” Frank finally caved in and pulled out his cigarettes. “All I’m saying is I go for the point of least resistance when I can get it. Okay?”

  “Okay.”

  “My information is that while you may not be wild about your father, he is still out there pining for you.”

  “Who told you that?”

  “Jesus I’m a detective. True or not?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “Godammit, Kate, don’t play fucking games with me. True or not?”

  She angrily stabbed out her cigarette. “True! Satisfied?”

  “Not yet, but I’m getting there. I’ve got a plan to flush him out, and I’m looking for you to help me.”

  “I don’t see that I’m in any position to help you.” Kate knew what was coming next. She could see it in Frank’s eyes.

  It took him ten minutes to lay out his plan. She refused three times. A half hour later they were still sitting at the table.

  Frank leaned back in his chair and then abruptly lurched forward. “Look, Kate, if you don’t do it, then we don’t have a chance in hell of laying our hands on him. If it’s like you say and we don’t have a case, he goes free. But if he did do it, and we can prove it, then you’ve got to be the last goddamned person in the world that should tell me he should get away with it. Now, if you think I’m wrong about that, I’ll drive you back to your place and forget I ever saw you, and your old man can go right on stealing . . . and maybe killing.” He stared directly at her.

  Her mouth opened but no words came out. Her eyes drifted over his shoulder where a misty image from the past beckoned to her, but then suddenly faded away.

  At almost thirty years of age Kate Whitney was far removed from the toddler who giggled as her father twirled her through the air, or the little girl who divulged important se crets to her father she would tell no other. She was all grown up, a mature adult, out on her own for a long time now. On top of that she was an officer of the court, a state prosecutor sworn to uphold the law and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia. It was her job to ensure that persons who broke those laws were appropriately punished regardless of who they were and regardless of to whom they were related.

  And then another image invaded her mind. Her mother watching the door, waiting for him to come home. Wondering if he were okay. Visiting him in prison, making up lists of things to talk to him about, making Kate dress up for those encounters, getting all excited as his release date came closer. As if he were some goddamned hero out saving the world instead of a thief. Jack’s words came back to her, biting hard. He had called her entire life a lie. He expected her to have sympathy for a man who had abandoned her. As if Luther Whitney had been wronged instead of Kate. Well, Jack could go straight to hell. She thanked God she had decided against marrying him. A man who could say those awful things to her did not deserve her. But Luther Whitney deserved everything coming to him. Maybe he hadn’t killed that woman. But maybe he had. It wasn’t her job to make that decision. It was her job to make sure that decision had an opportunity to be made by men and women in a jury box. Her father belonged in prison anyway. At least there he could hurt no one else. There he could ruin no more lives.

  And it was with that last thought that she agreed to help deliver her father into the hands of the police.

  Frank felt a twinge of guilt as they got up to leave. He had not been entirely truthful with Kate Whitney. In fact, he had downright lied to her about the most critical piece of the case other than the million-dollar question of where Luther Whitney happened to be. He wasn’t pleased with himself right now. Law enforcement people had to occasionally lie, just like everybody else. It didn’t make it any easier to swallow, especially considering the recipient was someone the detective had instantly respected and now heavily pitied.

  CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

  KATE HAD PLACED THE CALL THAT NIGHT; FRANK HAD wanted to waste no time. The voice on the machine stunned her; it was the first time in years she had heard those tones. Calm, efficient, measured like the practiced stride of an infantryman. She actually began to tremble as the tone sounded and it took all her will to summon the simple words that were designed to trap him. She kept reminding herself how cunning he could be. She wanted to see him, wanted to talk to him. As soon as possible. She wondered if the wily old mind would smell a trap, and then she recalled their last face-to-face meeting, and she realized that he would never see it coming. He would never attribute deceit to the little girl who confided in him her most precious information. Even she had to give him that.

  It was barely an hour later when the phone rang. As she reached out for it, she wished to God she had never agreed to Frank’s request. Sitting in a restaurant hatching a plan to catch a suspected murderer was quite different from actually participating in a charade designed solely to deliver your father to the authorities.

  “Katie.” She sensed the slight break in the voice. A tinge of disbelief blended in.

  “Hello, Dad.” She was grateful that the words had come out on their own. At that moment she seemed incapable of articulating the simplest thought.

  Her apartment was not good. He could understand that. Too close, too personal. His place, she knew, would be unworkable for obvious reasons. They could meet on neutral grounds, he suggested. Of course they could. She wanted to talk, he certainly wanted to listen. Desperately wanted to listen.

  A time was reached, tomorrow, four o’clock, at a small café near her office. At that time of day it would be empty, quiet; they could take their time. He would be there. She was sure nothing short of death would keep him away.

  She hung up and called Frank. She gave him the time and the place. Listening to herself it finally dawned on her what she had just done. She could feel everything suddenly giving way and she could not stop it. She flung down the phone and burst into tears; so hard did her body convulse that she slumped to the floor, every muscle twitching, her moans filling the tiny apartment like helium into a balloon; it all threatened to violently explode.

  Frank had stayed on the phone a second longer and wished he hadn’t. He yelled into the phone but she could not hear him; not that it would have made a difference if she had. She was doing the right thing. She had nothing to be ashamed about, nothing to feel guilty about. When he finally gave up and cradled the receiver, his moment of euphoria at growing ever close to his quarry was over like a flamed-out match.

  So his question had been answered. She loved him still. That thought for Lieutenant Seth Frank was troubling but controllable. For Seth Frank, father of three, it made his eyes water and he suddenly didn’t like
his job very much anymore.

  * * *

  BURTON HUNG UP THE PHONE. DETECTIVE FRANK HAD BEEN true to his promise to let the agent in on the kill.

  Minutes later Burton was in Russell’s office.

  “I don’t want to know how you’re going to do it.” Russell looked worried.

  Burton smiled to himself. Getting squeamish, just like he predicted. Wanted the job done, just didn’t want to get her pretty nails dirty.

  “All you have to make sure you do is tell the President where it’s going down. And then you make damn sure he tells Sullivan before the fact. He has got to do that.”

  Russell looked puzzled. “Why?”

  “Let me worry about that. Just remember, do what I tell you.” He was gone before Russell had a chance to explode at him.

  * * *

  “ARE THE POLICE SURE HE’S THE ONE?” THERE WAS A HINT of anxiousness in the President’s voice as he looked up from his desk.

  Russell, pacing the room, stopped to look at him. “Well, Alan, I’m assuming that if he weren’t they wouldn’t be going to all the trouble to arrest him.”

  “They’ve made mistakes before, Gloria.”

  “No argument there. Just like us all.”

  The President closed the binder he had been examining and stood up, surveyed the White House grounds from the window.

  “So the man will shortly be in custody?” He turned to look at Russell.

  “So it would seem.”

  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

  “Only that the best-laid plans sometimes go awry.”

  “Does Burton know?”

  “Burton seems to have orchestrated the entire thing.”

  The President walked over to Russell; put his hand on her arm.

  “What are you talking about?”

  Russell relayed the events of the last few days to her boss.

  The President rubbed his jaw. “What is Burton up to?” The question was said more to himself than to Russell.

  “Why don’t you buzz him and ask him yourself? The only point he was absolutely insistent on was your relaying the message to Sullivan.”

  “Sullivan? Why the hell would . . .” The President did not finish his thought. He rang for Burton but was told he had suddenly become ill and gone to the hospital.

  The President’s eyes bored into his Chief of Staff. “Is Burton going to do what I think he’s going to do?”

  “Depends on what you’re thinking.”

  “Cut the games, Gloria. You know exactly what I mean.”

  “If you mean does Burton intend on making sure that this individual is never taken into custody, yes, that thought had crossed my mind.”

  The President fingered a heavy letter opener on his desk, sat down in his chair and faced out the window. Russell shuddered when she looked at it. She had thrown the one on her desk away.

  “Alan? What do you want me to do?” She stared at the back of his head. He was the President and you had to sit and wait patiently, even if you wanted to reach across and throttle him.

  Finally he swiveled around. The eyes were dark, cold and commanding. “Nothing. I want you to do nothing. I better get in touch with Sullivan. Give me the location and time again.”

  Russell thought the same thing she had earlier as she recounted the information. Some friend.

  The President picked up his phone. Russell reached across and put her hand on top of his. “Alan, the reports said Christine Sullivan had bruises on her jaw and had been partially strangled.”

  The President didn’t look up. “Oh really?”

  “What exactly happened in that bedroom, Alan?”

  “Well, from the small pieces I can remember she wanted to play a bit rougher than I did. The marks on her neck?” He paused and put down the phone. “Let’s just put it this way: Christy was into a lot of kinky things, Gloria. Including sexual asphyxiation. You know, people get off when they’re gasping for air and climaxing at the same time.”

  “I’ve heard of it, Alan, I just didn’t think you’d be into something like that.” Her tone was harsh.

  The President snapped back: “Remember your place, Russell. I do not answer to you or anyone else for my actions.”

  She stepped back, and quickly said, “Of course, I’m sorry, Mr. President.”

  Richmond’s face relaxed; he stood up and spread his arms resignedly. “I did it for Christy, Gloria, what can I say. Women sometimes have strange effects on men. I’m certainly not immune to it.”

  “So why did she try to kill you?”

  “Like I said, she wanted to play rougher than I did. She was drunk and she just went out of control. Unfortunate, but those things happen.”

  Gloria looked past him out the window. The encounter with Christine Sullivan did not just “happen.” The time and planning that had gone into that rendezvous had eventually taken on the elements of a full-blown election campaign. She shook her head as the images from that night poured back to her.

  The President came up behind her, gripped her shoulders, turned her to him.

  “It was an awful experience for everyone, Gloria. I certainly didn’t want Christy to die. It was the last thing in the world I wanted. I went there to have a quiet, romantic evening with a very beautiful woman. My God, I’m no monster.” A disarming smile emerged across his face.

  “I know that, Alan. It’s just, all those women, all those times. Something bad was bound to happen.”

  The President shrugged. “Well, as I told you before, I’m not the first man to hold this office to engage in those types of extracurricular activities. Nor will I be the last.” He cupped her chin in his hand. “You know the demands of the office I hold, Gloria, better than most. There’s no other job like it in the world.”

  “I know the pressures are enormous. I realize that, Alan.”

  “That’s right. It’s a job that really requires more than is humanly possible to deliver. Sometimes you have to deal with that reality by relieving some of that pressure, from pulling yourself out from between the vise occasionally. How I deal with that pressure is important, because it dictates how well I can serve the people who have elected me, who have placed their trust in me.”

  He turned back to his desk. “And besides, enjoying the company of beautiful women is a relatively innocuous way of combating that stress.”

  Gloria stared angrily at his back. As if he expected her, of all people, to be swayed by the rhetoric, by a bullshit patriotic speech.

  “It certainly wasn’t innocuous for Christine Sullivan,” she blurted out.

  Richmond turned back to her; he was no longer smiling. “I really don’t want to talk about this anymore, Gloria. What’s past is past—start thinking about the future. Understand?”

  She bowed her head in formal assent and stalked from the room.

  The President again picked up the phone. He would deliver all the necessary details about the police sting to his good friend Walter Sullivan. The President smiled to himself as the call was being placed. It sounded like it wouldn’t be long now. They were almost there. He could count on Burton. Count on him to do the right thing. For all of them.

  * * *

  LUTHER CHECKED HIS WATCH. ONE O’CLOCK. HE SHOWERED, brushed his teeth and then trimmed his newly grown beard. He lingered over his hair until it met with his satisfaction. His face looked better today. The phone call from Kate had worked wonders. He had cradled the phone in his ear playing the message over and over again, just to hear the voice, the words he had never expected to hear again. He had risked going to a men’s store downtown where he bought a new pair of slacks, sports coat and patent leathers. He had considered and then discarded the notion of a tie.

  He tried on his new coat. It felt good. The pants were a little loose on him; he had lost weight. He would have to eat more. He might even start with buying his daughter an early dinner. If she’d let him. He’d have to think about that one; he didn’t want to push it.

  Jack! It mus
t’ve been Jack. He had told her of their meeting. That her father had been in trouble. That was the connection. Of course! He had been stupid not to see it right away. But what did that mean? That she cared? He felt a tremble start in his neck and

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