Absolute power, p.42
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       Absolute Power, p.42

           David Baldacci
 

  winter boots, the man looked both uncomfortable and greatly excited at being in the police station. In his hand was a rectangular object covered in brown paper.

  “I’m not sure I understand, Mr. Flanders.”

  “You see I was out there. At the courthouse that day. You know, when the man got killed. Just went to see what all the fuss was about. Lived here all my life, nothing ever came close to that spectacle, I can tell you that.”

  “I can understand that,” Frank said dryly.

  “So anyway I had my new Camcorder, real nifty thing, got an image screen and all. Just hold, look at it and shoot. Great quality. So the wife said I should come down.”

  “That’s terrific, Mr. Flanders. And the purpose of all this?” Frank looked at him inquiringly.

  Realization spread over Flanders’s features. “Oh. I’m sorry, Lieutenant. I’m standing here rambling, have a tendency to do that, just ask the missus. Retired for a year. Never talked much at work. Assembly line at a processing plant. Like to talk now. Listen too. Spend a lot of time down at that little café over behind the bank. Good coffee and the muffins are the real thing, no low-fat stuff.”

  Frank looked exasperated.

  Flanders hurried on. “Well, I came down here to show you this. Give it to you, really. Kept a copy for myself of course.” He handed across the package.

  Frank opened it and looked at the videocassette.

  Flanders took off his cap, revealing a bald head with cottony tufts of hair clustered around his ears. He went on excitedly. “Got some really good shots, like I said. Like of the President and right when that fella was shot. Got all that. Jesus did I. I was following the President, you see. Ran me right into all the fireworks.”

  Frank stared at the man.

  “It’s all there, Lieutenant. For what it’s worth.” He looked at his watch. “Huh. I gotta go. Late for my lunch. Wife doesn’t like that.” He turned to leave. Seth Frank stared down at the cassette.

  “Oh, Lieutenant. One more thing.”

  “Yes.”

  “If anything were to come from my tape, do you think they might use my name when they write about it?”

  Frank shook his head. “Write about it?”

  The old man looked excited. “Yeah. You know, the historians. They’d call it the Flanders Tape, wouldn’t they, or something like that. The Flanders Video maybe. You know like before.”

  Frank wearily rubbed his temples. “Like before?”

  “Yeah, Lieutenant. You know, like Zapruder with Kennedy.”

  Frank’s face finally sagged in recognition. “I’ll be sure to let them know, Mr. Flanders. Just in case. For posterity.”

  “There you go.” Flanders pointed a happy finger at him. “Posterity, I like that. Have a good one, Lieutenant.”

  * * *

  “ALAN?”

  Richmond absently motioned for Russell to come in and then looked down once again at the notebook in front of him. Finished, he closed it and looked at his Chief of Staff; his stare was impassive.

  Russell hesitated, studying the carpet, her hands clasped nervously in front of her. Then she hurried across the room and fell rather than sat in one of the chairs.

  “I’m not sure what to say to you, Alan. I realize my behavior was inexcusable, absolutely inappropriate, if I could plead temporary insanity I would.”

  “So you’re not going to attempt to explain it away as being somehow in my best interests?” Richmond sat back in his chair, his eyes remained on Russell.

  “No, I’m not. I’m here to offer my resignation.”

  The President smiled. “Perhaps I did underestimate you, Gloria.”

  He stood up, went around the desk and leaned against it, facing her. “On the contrary, your behavior was absolutely appropriate. If I had been in your position I would’ve done the same thing.”

  She looked up at him. Her face betrayed her astonishment.

  “Don’t misunderstand me, I expect loyalty, Gloria, like any leader. I do not, however, expect human beings to be anything more than that, meaning human, with all their associated weaknesses and survival instincts. We are, after all, animals. I have attained my position in life by never losing sight of the fact that the most important person in the world is myself. Whatever the situation, whatever the obstacle, I have never, never lost sight of that one simple truism. What you did that night displays that you also share that belief.”

  “You know what I intended?”

  “Of course I do. Gloria, I don’t condemn you for taking a situation and attempting to maximize its beneficial effect on you. My God, that’s the basis upon which this country and this city in particular are built.”

  “But when Burton told you—”

  Richmond held up one hand. “I admit I felt certain emotions that night. Betrayal perhaps foremost among them. But in the time since, I have concluded that what you did evidenced strength, not weakness, of character.”

  Russell struggled to see where this was going. “Then may I correctly assume that you do not want my resignation?”

  The President bent forward, took one of her hands. “I can’t recall you ever mentioning the word, Gloria. I can’t imagine breaking up our relationship after we’ve come to know each other so well. Shall we leave it at that?”

  Russell rose to go. The President went back to his desk.

  “Oh, Gloria. I do have a number of things I want to go over with you tonight. The family’s out of town. So perhaps we can work in my private quarters.”

  Russell looked back at him.

  “It might be a late night, Gloria. Better bring a change of clothes.” The President didn’t smile. His stare cut right through her, then he went back to his work.

  Russell’s hand trembled as she closed the door.

  * * *

  JACK POUNDED ON THE DOOR SO HARD HE COULD FEEL THE thick, polished wood cut into his knuckles.

  The housekeeper opened the door but Jack shot through before she could say a word.

  Jennifer Baldwin swept down the curved staircase and into the marbled entrance foyer. Dressed in yet another expensive evening gown, her hair tumbled down her shoulders framing significant cleavage. She was not smiling.

  “Jack, what are you doing here?”

  “I want to talk to you.”

  “Jack, I have plans. This will have to wait.”

  “No!” He grabbed her hand, looked around, pushed open a pair of carved doors and pulled her into the library, shutting the doors behind them.

  She jerked her hand free. “Are you insane, Jack?”

  He looked around the room with its huge bookcases and well-fed shelves of gilt-edged first editions. All for show, none of them had probably ever been opened. All for show.

  “I’ve got one simple question for you to answer and then I’ll leave.”

  “Jack—”

  “One question. And then I’ll leave.”

  She eyed him suspiciously, crossed her arms. “What is it?”

  “Did you or did you not call my firm and tell them to fire Barry Alvis because he made me work the night we were at the White House?”

  “Who told you that?”

  “Just answer the question, Jenn.”

  “Jack, why is this so important to you?”

  “So you did have him fired?”

  “Jack, I want you to stop thinking about that and start realizing the kind of future we’re going to have together. If we—”

  “Answer the goddamned question!”

  She exploded. “Yes! Yes I had the little shit fired. So what? He deserved it. He treated you as an inferior. And he was dead wrong. He was nothing. He played with fire and he got burned and I don’t feel the least bit sorry for him.” She looked at him without a trace of remorse.

  Having heard the answer he expected to hear, Jack sat down in a chair and stared at the massive desk at the other end of the room. The high-backed, leather desk chair faced away from them. He looked at the original oils adorning the wall
s, the huge windows with perfectly pooled flowing drapes that probably cost more than he could even guess, the ornate woodwork, the omnipresent sculptures of metal and marble. The ceiling with yet another legion of medieval characters marching across it. The world of the Baldwins. Well they were welcome to it. He slowly closed his eyes.

  Jennifer swept back her hair, looked at him, more than a hint of anxiousness in her eyes. She vacillated for a moment and then went to him, knelt beside him, touched his shoulder. The scent of her perfumed body cascaded over him. She spoke low, close to his face. Her breath tickled his ear.

  “Jack, I told you before, you don’t have to put up with that sort of behavior. And now that this ridiculous murder case is out of the way we can go on with our lives. Our house is almost ready, it’s gorgeous, it really is. And we have wedding plans to finalize. Sweetheart, now everything can go back to normal.” She touched his face, turned it toward hers. She looked at him with her best pair of bedroom eyes and then she kissed him, long and deeply, letting her lips pull back slowly from his. Her eyes quickly searched his. She didn’t find what she was looking for.

  “You’re right, Jenn. The ridiculous murder case is over. A man I respected and cared for got his brains blown apart. Case closed, time to move on. Got a fortune to build.”

  “You know what I mean. You never should have involved yourself in that thing in the first place. It wasn’t your problem. If you would just open your eyes you’d realize that all of that was beneath you, Jack.”

  “And hardly convenient for you, right?”

  Jack abruptly stood up. He was more exhausted than anything else.

  “Have a great life, Jenn. I’d say I’d see you around but I really can’t imagine that happening.” He started to leave.

  She grabbed his sleeve. “Jack, will you please tell me what I did that was so awful?”

  He hesitated and then confronted her.

  “The fact that you even have to ask. Jesus Christ!” He shook his head wearily. “You took a man’s life, Jenn, a man you didn’t even know, and you destroyed it. And why did you do that? Because something he did to me ‘inconvenienced’ you. So you took ten years worth of a career and wiped it out. With one phone call. Never thinking about what it would do to him, his family. He could’ve blown his brains out, his wife could have divorced him for all you know. You didn’t care about that. You probably never even thought about that. And the bottom line is I could never love, I could never spend my life with someone who could do something like that. If you can’t understand that, if you really think what you did wasn’t wrong, then that’s all the more reason why we need to say good-bye right now. We might as well flesh out the irreconcilable differences before the wedding. Saves everybody a lot of time and trouble.”

  He turned the handle on the door and smiled. “Everybody I know would probably tell me how crazy I am for doing this. That you’re the perfect woman, smart, rich, beautiful—and you are all of those things, Jenn. They’d say we’d have a perfect life together. That we’d have everything. How could we not be happy? But the thing is, I wouldn’t make you happy because I don’t care about the things you do. I don’t care about the millions in legal business, or houses the size of apartment buildings or cars that cost a year’s salary. I don’t like this house, I don’t like your lifestyle, I don’t like your friends. And I guess the bottom line is, I don’t like you. And right now I’m probably the only man on the planet who would say that. But I’m a pretty simple guy, Jenn, and the one thing I’d never do to you is lie. And let’s face it, in a couple of days, about a dozen guys a lot better suited to you than Jack Graham are going to be knocking on your door. You won’t be lonely.”

  He looked at her and felt a grimace of pain as he observed the absolute astonishment on her face.

  “For what it’s worth, anybody who asks, you dumped me. Not up to the Baldwin standard. Unworthy. Good-bye, Jenn.”

  She still stood there several minutes after he left. A series of emotions competed for space across her face, none, in the end, winning out. Finally she fled the room. The sounds of her high heels against the marble floor disappeared as she hurried up the carpeted stairs.

  For a few seconds more the library was quiet. Then the desk chair swung around and Ransome Baldwin eyed the doorway where his daughter had been standing.

  * * *

  JACK CHECKED THE PEEPHOLE, HALF-EXPECTING TO SEE jennifer Baldwin standing there with a gun. His eyebrows raised a notch when he saw who it was.

  Seth Frank walked in, shrugged off his coat, and looked around appreciatively at Jack’s cluttered little apartment.

  “Man, this brings back memories of another time in my life, I can tell you.”

  “Let me guess. Delta House ’75. You were vice president in charge of bar operations.”

  Frank grinned. “Closer to the truth than I’d care to admit. Enjoy it while you can, my friend. Without meaning to sound politically incorrect, a good woman will not allow you to continue such an existence.”

  “Then I might be in luck.”

  Jack disappeared into the kitchen and came back with a brace of Sam Adamses.

  They settled into the furniture with their drinks.

  “Trouble in wedded-bliss-to-be-land, counselor?”

  “On a scale of one to ten, a one or a ten depending on your perspective.”

  “Why am I thinking that it’s not the Baldwin gal that’s entirely gotten to you?”

  “Don’t you ever stop being a detective?”

  “Not if I can help it. You want to talk about it?”

  Jack shook his head. “I might bend your ear another night, but not tonight.”

  Frank shrugged. “Just let me know, I’ll bring the beer.”

  Jack noticed the package on Frank’s lap. “Present?”

  Frank took out the tape. “I’m assuming you’ve got a VCR under some of this junk?”

  * * *

  AS THE VIDEO CAME ON FRANK LOOKED AT JACK.

  “Jack, this is definitely not G-rated. And I’m telling you up front, it shows everything including what happened to Luther. You up to it?”

  Jack paused for a moment. “You think we might see something in here that’ll catch whoever did it?”

  “That’s what I’m hoping. You knew him a lot better than I did. Maybe you’ll see something I don’t.”

  “Then I’m up to it.”

  Even forewarned, Jack was not prepared. Frank watched him closely as the moment grew closer. When the shot rang out he saw Jack involuntarily jerk back, his eyes wide in horror.

  Frank cut off the video. “Hang in there, I warned you.”

  Jack was slumped over in his chair. His breathing was irregular, his forehead clammy. His entire body shuddered for an instant and then he slowly came around. He wiped his forehead.

  “Jesus Christ!”

  Flanders’s passing remark to the Kennedy example had not been inappropriate. “We can stop right now, Jack.”

  Jack’s lips set in a firm line. “The hell we can!”

  * * *

  JACK HIT THE REWIND ONE MORE TIME. THEY HAD GONE through the tape about a dozen times now. Watching his friend’s head virtually explode was not getting any easier to watch. The only mitigating factor was that Jack’s anger was increasing with each viewing.

  Frank shook his head. “You know it’s too bad the guy wasn’t filming the other way. We might’ve gotten a flash from the shooter. I guess that would’ve been too easy. Hey you got any coffee? I have a hard time thinking without caffeine.”

 

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