Absolute power, p.36
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       Absolute Power, p.36

           David Baldacci
 

  could see that the accused wasn’t such a bad guy, just misunderstood. But Jack was going to insist on the suit throughout. It wasn’t merely game playing; it was Jack’s firm conviction that Luther didn’t deserve to be paraded around in neon orange. He might be a criminal, but he wasn’t the kind of criminal where if you got too close you might get a shiv in your ribs or find a set of criminally insane teeth on your throat. Those guys deserved to wear the orange if only to make sure you always knew where they were in proximity to everyone else.

  Jack didn’t bother to open his briefcase this time. The routine was familiar. The charges against Luther would be read to him. The judge would ask Luther if he understood the charges and then Jack would enter the plea. Then the judge would take them through the dog-and-pony show to determine if Luther understood what a plea of not guilty entailed, and whether Luther was satisfied with his legal representation. The only problem was Jack had a nagging feeling that Luther might tell him to go to hell right in front of the judge and plead himself guilty. That was not unprecedented. And who knew? The damn judge might just accept it. But the judge would most likely follow the book closely, since, in a capital murder case, any screw-up along the way could be grounds for appeal. And death penalty appeals tended to last forever anyway. Jack would just have to take his chances.

  With any luck the entire proceeding would take all of five minutes. Then a trial date would be set and the real fun would begin.

  Since the commonwealth had gotten an indictment against him, Luther wasn’t entitled to a preliminary hearing. Not that having one would have done Jack any good, but he would’ve gotten a quick look at the commonwealth’s case and a crack at some of their witnesses on cross although the circuit court judges were usually diligent in not letting defense counsel use the prelim as a fishing expedition.

  He also could have waived the arraignment, but Jack’s thinking was to let them work for everything. And he wanted Luther in open court, for all to see, and he wanted that not guilty plea heard loud and clear. And then he was going to hit Gorelick with a change of venue motion and get this case the hell out of Middleton County. With any luck Gorelick would get bumped for a new ACA and Mr. Future Attorney General could stew on that disappointment for a few decades. Then Jack was going to make Luther talk. Kate would be protected. Luther would spill his story and then the deal of the century would be cut.

  Jack looked at Luther. “You look good.”

  Luther’s mouth curled up more in a smirk than a smile.

  “Kate would like to see you before the arraignment.”

  The response shot out of Luther’s mouth. “No!”

  “Why not? My God, Luther, you’ve wanted a relationship with her forever and now that she’s finally willing to come around, you clam up. Damn, I don’t understand you sometimes.”

  “I don’t want her anywhere near me.”

  “Look, she’s sorry about what she did. It tore her up. I’m telling you.”

  Luther swiveled his head around. “She thinks I’m mad at her?”

  Jack sat down. For the first time he finally had Luther’s attention. He should have tried this before.

  “Of course she does. Why else won’t you see her?”

  Luther looked down at the plain, wooden table and shook his head in disgust.

  “Tell her I’m not mad at her. She did the right thing. You tell her that.”

  “Why don’t you tell her?”

  Luther abruptly stood up and walked around the room. He stopped in front of Jack.

  “This place has a lot of eyes, you hear me? You understand me? Somebody sees her in here with me, then somebody might think she knows something she doesn’t. And believe me that is not good.”

  “Who are you talking about?”

  Luther sat back down. “Just tell her what I said. Tell her I love her and I always have and always will. You tell her that, Jack. No matter what.”

  “So you’re saying this somebody might think you told me something even if you haven’t?”

  “I told you not to take this case, Jack, but you wouldn’t listen.”

  Jack shrugged, flipped open his briefcase and took out a copy of the Post. “Check out the lead story.”

  Luther glanced down at the front page. Then he angrily threw the paper against the wall. “Fucking bastard! Fucking bastard!” The words exploded out of the old man’s mouth.

  The door to the room flew open and a beefy guard poked his head in, one hand on his standard issue. Jack motioned that it was all right and the guy slowly backed out, his eyes glued on Luther.

  Jack went over and picked up the paper. The cover story had a photo of Luther taken outside the police station. The headline was in bold three-inch letters normally reserved for when the ’Skins won the Super Bowl: SULLIVAN MURDER SUSPECT ARRAIGNMENT TODAY. Jack scanned the rest of the front page. More killings in the former Soviet Union as ethnic cleansing continued. The Defense Department was preparing for another budget hit. Jack’s eyes glanced over but did not really register on President Alan Richmond announcing his intent to take another stab at welfare reform and a picture of him at a children’s center in impoverished Southeast D.C. that made for a nice photo op.

  The smiling face had hit Luther right between the temples. Holding poor black babies for all the world to see. Fucking, lying asshole. The fist hit Christine Sullivan again and again and again. Blood flew into the air. The hands wrapped around her neck like a wily serpent, crushing life without a thought. Stealing life, that’s what he had done. Kissing babies and killing women.

  “Luther? Luther?” Jack gently laid a hand on Luther’s shoulder. The old man’s frame was quaking like an engine in dire need of a tune-up, threatening to fly apart, no longer able to confine itself within a quickly eroding shell. For a terrible moment Jack wondered if Luther had killed the woman, if his old friend had perhaps gone over the edge. His fears were dispelled when Luther turned and looked at him. The calm had returned, the eyes were clear and focused once more.

  “Just tell Kate what I said, Jack. And let’s go get this over with.”

  * * *

  THE MIDDLETON COURTHOUSE HAD LONG BEEN THE CENTER-piece of the county. A hundred and ninety-five years old, it had survived the British in the War of 1812 and the Yankees and the Confederates in the War of Northern Aggression or the Civil War depending on what side of the Mason-Dixon the person you asked hailed from. A costly renovation in 1947 had given it new life and the good townspeople expected it to be around for their great-grandchildren to enjoy and occasionally go inside, hopefully for nothing more than a traffic ticket or a marriage license.

  Where before it had stood alone at the end of the two-lane road that made up Middleton’s business district, it now shared space with antique shops, restaurants, a grocery market, a huge bed-and-breakfast and a service station that was all-brick in keeping with the architectural tradition of the area. Huddled within walking distance was a row of offices where the shingles of many a respected county lawyer hung with simple grace.

  Normally quiet except on Friday morning, which was motions day for the civil and criminal docket, the Middleton Courthouse now held a scene that would have caused the town’s forefathers to do somersaults in their final resting places. At first glance one could almost imagine that the Rebels and the Union Blue had returned to settle, once and for all, the score.

  Six television trucks with thick call letters emblazoned on their white sides held forth directly in front of the courthouse steps. Their broadcast masts were already rising skyward. Crowds ten-deep pushed and prodded against the wall of sheriffs reinforced by grim members of the Virginia State Police who stared silently at the mass of reporters pushing pads, microphones and pens into their faces.

  Fortunately, the courthouse had a side entrance, which was at this moment surrounded by a semicircle of police, riot guns and shields front and center, daring anyone to come near. The van carrying Luther would come here. Unfortunately, the courthouse did not have an
inside garage. But the police still felt they had matters under control. Luther would only be exposed for a few seconds at most.

  Across the street, rifle-toting police officers patrolled the sidewalks, eyes sweeping up and down, looking for the glint of metal, an open window that shouldn’t be.

  Jack looked out the small window of the courtroom that overlooked the street. The room was as large as an auditorium with a hand-carved bench that rose a full eight feet high and swept more than fifteen feet from end to end. The American and Virginia flags stood at attention on either side of the bench. A lone bailiff sat at a small table in front of the bench, a tug boat before the ocean liner.

  Jack checked his watch, eyed the security forces in place, then looked at the crush of media. Reporters were a defense attorney’s best friends or worst nightmare. A lot depended on what the reporters thought about a particular defendant and about a particular crime. A good reporter will cry loud and hard about his or her objectivity on a story at the same time they’re trashing your client in the latest edition, long before any verdict is in. Women journalists tended to go easier on defendants accused of rape, as they tried to avoid even the appearance of gender-bias. For similar reasons, the men seemed to bend over backward for battered women who had finally struck back. Luther would have no such luck. Ex-cons who murder rich, young women would receive the battering rams of all wordsmiths involved, regardless of sex.

  Jack had already received a dozen phone calls from Los Angeles–based production companies clamoring for Luther’s story. Before the guy had even entered a plea. They wanted his story and would pay for it. Pay well. Maybe Jack should tell them yes, come on in, but only on one condition. If he tells you anything you have to let me in on it, ’cause right now man, I’ve got nothing. Zip.

  He looked across the street. The armed guards gave him some comfort. Although there were police everywhere last time and the shot was still fired. At least this time the police were forewarned. They had things pretty much under control. But they had not counted on one thing, and that one thing was now coming down the street.

  Jack swung his head around as he watched the army of reporters and plain curious turn en masse and race to the motorcade. At first Jack thought it must be Walter Sullivan, until he saw the police motorcyclists followed by the Secret Service vans and finally the twin American flags on the limo.

  The army this man had brought with him dwarfed the one that was preparing to receive Luther Whitney.

  He watched as Richmond exited the vehicle. Behind him stepped the agent he had talked to earlier. Burton. That was the guy’s name. One tough, serious dude. His eyes swept the area like a radar beam. His hand within inches of the man, ready to pull him down in an instant. The Secret Service vans parked across the street. One pulled into an alleyway across from the courthouse and then Jack looked back at the President.

  An impromptu podium was set up and Richmond began his own little news conference as cameras clicked and half a hundred grown adults with journalism degrees tried to push and pull past their neighbor. A few ordinary and saner citizens were hovering in the back, two with video cameras recording what to them was certainly a special moment.

  Jack turned to find the bailiff, a granite wall of a black man, beside him.

  “Been here twenty-seven years and never had the man out here before. Now he’s been here twice in the same year. Go figure.”

  Jack smiled at him. “Well, if your friend had invested ten mil in your campaign you might be out here too.”

  “Lot of big boys against you.”

  “That’s okay, I brought a big bat with me . . .”

  “Samuel, Samuel Long.”

  “Jack Graham, Samuel.”

  “You gonna need it, Jack, hope you loaded it with lead.”

  “So what do you think, Samuel? My guy gonna get a fair shake in here?”

  “You ask me that question two, three years ago I’d say yeah, damn straight you will. Yes sir.” He looked out at the crush of people. “You ask me today, I say I don’t know. I don’t care what court you’re in. Supreme Court, traffic court. Things are changing, man. Not just the courts either. Everything. Everybody. Whole goddamn world’s changing and I just don’t know anymore.”

  They both looked out the window again.

  The door to the courtroom opened and Kate entered. Instinctively, Jack turned around and looked at her. No courtroom attire today, she had on a black pleated skirt that tapered at the waist where a thin black belt encircled her. The blouse was simple and buttoned to the neck. Her hair was brushed back off her forehead and hung to her shoulders. Her cheeks were rosy from the bitter cold, a coat was draped over her arm.

  They sat together at the counsel table. Samuel discreetly disappeared.

  “It’s almost time, Kate.”

  “I know.”

  “Listen, Kate, like I told you on the phone, it’s not that he doesn’t want to see you, he’s afraid. He’s afraid for you. The man loves you more than anything.”

  “Jack, if he doesn’t start talking, you know what’s going to happen.”

  “Maybe, but I’ve got some leads to go on. The state’s case isn’t as foolproof as everyone seems to think.”

  “How do you know that?”

  “Trust me on that one. Did you see the President outside?”

  “How could you miss him? It’s okay with me though. No one paid a bit of attention to me walking in.”

  “He definitely relegates everybody else to wallflowers.”

  “Is he here yet?”

  “Soon.”

  Kate opened her purse and fumbled for some gum. Jack smiled and pushed her quivering fingers out of the way and pulled the pack out for her.

  “Couldn’t I at least talk to him on the phone?”

  “I’ll see what I can do.”

  They both sat back and waited. Jack’s hand slipped over Kate’s and they both looked up at the massive bench where in a few short minutes it would start. But for now they just waited. Together.

  * * *

  THE WHITE VAN ROUNDED THE CORNER, PASSED THE SEMICIRCLE OF police officers and came to a stop within a few feet of the side door. Seth Frank pulled up directly behind the van and got out, radio in hand. Two officers alighted from the van, scanned the area. This was good. The entire crowd was in the front gawking at the President. The officer in charge turned and nodded to another man inside the van. A few seconds later Luther Whitney, ankles and hands manacled, and his suit covered by a dark trench coat, emerged. His feet touched the ground and, with an officer in front and back, he started to make his way to the courthouse.

  That’s when the crowd hit the corner. They were following the President, who was purposefully striding down the sidewalk to where his limo was parked. As he passed the side of the courthouse, he looked up. As if sensing his presence, Luther, whose eyes had been pressed to the ground, also looked up. Their eyes locked for one terrible instant. The words escaped Luther’s lips before he knew what was happening.

  “Fucking bastard.” It was said quietly, but each officer heard something, because they looked around as the Presi dent walked by a mere hundred feet away. They were surprised. And then their thoughts focused on one thing only.

  Luther’s knees buckled. At first both officers thought he was intentionally making their job harder until they saw the blood streaming down the side of his face. One of them shouted an expletive and grabbed Luther’s arm. The other pulled his gun and swung it in wide arcs at where he thought the shot had come from. The events that happened in the next few minutes seemed a blur to most people who were there. The sound of the shot was not entirely clear over the screams of the crowds. The Secret Service agents heard it, though. Burton had Richmond on the ground in a second. Twenty dark suits carrying automatic weapons made a human cocoon around them.

  Seth Frank watched as the Secret Service van tore out of the alley and blocked off the now hysterical crowd from the President. One agent emerged wielding a machine gun and
scanned the street, barking into a radio.

  Frank directed his men to cover every square inch of the area; every intersection was cordoned off and a building-by-building search would commence. Truckloads of officers would arrive shortly, but somehow Frank knew it was too late.

  In another second Frank was beside Luther. He looked on in disbelief as the blood drenched the snow, warming it into a sickening pool of crimson. An ambulance was called and would be there in minutes. But Frank also knew it was too late for ambulances. Luther’s face had already gone white, the eyes stared blank, the fingers were curled tight. Luther Whitney had two new holes in his head and the damn round had put a hole in the van after exiting the man. Someone was taking no chances.

  Frank closed the dead man’s eyes and then looked around. The President was up and being hustled into his limo. In a few seconds the limo and the vans were gone. Reporters started to flock to the murder scene, but Frank motioned to his men and the journalists were met by a brick wall of infu riated and embarrassed police officers who brandished their batons and hoped somebody tried something.

  Seth Frank looked down at the body. He took off his jacket despite the cold and laid it across Luther’s torso and face.

  Jack had made it to the window a few seconds after the screams started. His pulse was off the chart and his forehead was suddenly drenched in sweat.

  “Stay here, Kate.” He looked at her. She was frozen, her face having already registered a fact that Jack hoped beyond hope wasn’t true.

 

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