Absolute power, p.6
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       Absolute Power, p.6

           David Baldacci
 

  They burst in the bedroom door.

  Six more feet.

  Stunned, the two Secret Service men spotted the rope; Burton dove for it.

  Two more feet, and Luther let go, hitting the ground running.

  Burton flew to the window. Collin threw the nightstand aside: nothing. He joined Burton at the window. Luther had already disappeared around the corner. Burton started to head out the window. Collin stopped him. The way they had come would be faster.

  They bolted out the door.

  * * *

  LUTHER CRASHED THROUGH THE CORNFIELD, NO LONGER concerned with leaving a trail, now only worried about surviving. The bag slowed him down slightly, but he had worked too hard over the last several months to walk away empty-handed.

  He exploded out from the friendly cover of the crops and hit the most dangerous phase of his flight: a hundred yards of open field. The moon had disappeared behind thickening clouds and there were no streetlights in the country; in his black clothing he would be almost impossible to spot. But the human eye was best at spotting movement in the darkness, and he was moving as fast as he could.

  * * *

  THE TWO SECRET SERVICE AGENTS STOPPED MOMENTARILY AT the van. They emerged with Agent Varney and raced across the field.

  Russell rolled down the window and watched them, shock on her face. Even the President was somewhat awake, but she quickly calmed him and he returned to his half-slumber.

  Collin and Burton slipped on their night-vision goggles and their view instantly resembled a crude computer game. Thermal images registered in red, everything else was dark green.

  Agent Travis Varney, tall and rangy, and only vaguely aware of what was going on, was ahead of them. He ran with the easy motion of the collegiate miler he used to be.

  In the Service three years, Varney was single, committed entirely to his profession, and looked to Burton as a father figure to replace the one killed in Vietnam. They were looking for someone who had done something in that house. Something that involved the President and that therefore involved him. Varney pitied whoever he was chasing if he caught up to him.

  * * *

  LUTHER COULD HEAR THE SOUNDS OF THE MEN BEHIND HIM. They had recovered faster than he had thought. His head start had dwindled but it still should be enough. They had made a big mistake by not jumping in the van and running him down. They had to have known he would have transportation. It wasn’t like he would have coptered in. But he was grateful that they weren’t quite as smart as they probably should have been. If they had he would not be alive to see the sun come up.

  He took a shortcut through a path in the woods, spotted on his last walk-through. It gained him about a minute. His breath came in quick bursts, like machine-gun fire. His clothes felt heavy on him; as in a child’s dream, his legs seemed to move in slow motion.

  Finally he broke free from the trees, and he could see his car and was again grateful for having taken the precaution to back in.

  * * *

  A HUNDRED YARDS BEHIND, A THERMAL FIGURE OTHER THAN Varney’s finally came alive on Burton’s and Collin’s screens. A man running, and running hard. Their hands flew to their shoulder holsters. Neither weapon was effective long-range but they couldn’t worry about that now.

  Then an engine roared to life and Burton and Collin ran like a tornado was raging at their heels.

  Varney was still ahead of them and to the left. He would have a better line of fire, but would he shoot? Something told them he would not; that was not part of his training, to fire at a fleeing person who was no longer a danger to the man he was sworn to protect. However, Varney did not know that at stake here was more than a mere beating heart. There was an entire institution that would never be the same, in addition to two Secret Service agents who were certain they had done nothing wrong, but were intelligent enough to realize that the blame would fall heavily on their shoulders.

  Burton was never much of a runner, but he picked up his pace as these thoughts flew through his head, and the younger Collin was hard-pressed to keep up with him. But Burton knew it was too late. His legs started to slow down as the car exploded out and turned away from them. In moments it was already two hundred yards down the road.

  Burton stopped running, dropped to his knee, aimed his gun, but all he could see was the dust kicked up by the fleeing vehicle. Then the taillights went out and in a moment he lost the target entirely.

  He turned to see Collin next to him, looking down at him, the reality of the whole event starting to set in. Burton slowly got up and put his gun away. He took off his goggles; Collin did likewise.

  They looked at each other.

  Burton sucked air in, his limbs shook. His body was finally reacting to the recent exertions now that the adrenaline had stopped flowing. It was over, wasn’t it?

  Then Varney came running up. Burton was not too distraught to note with an envious twinge and a small measure of pride that the younger man wasn’t even out of breath. He would see to it that Varney and Johnson didn’t suffer with them. They didn’t deserve that.

  He and Collin would go down, but that was all. He felt bad about Collin; however, there was nothing he could do about that. But when Varney spoke, Burton’s thoughts of the future went from complete and absolute doom to a small glimmer of hope.

  “I got the license plate number.”

  * * *

  “WHERE THE HELL WAS HE?” RUSSELL LOOKED incredulously around the bedroom. “What? Was he under the goddamned bed?”

  She tried to stare Burton down. The guy hadn’t been under the bed, nor in any of the closets. Burton had examined all those spaces when he was sanitizing the room. He told her so in no uncertain terms.

  Burton looked at the rope and then the open window. “Jesus, it was like the guy was watching us the whole time, knew right when we left the house.” Burton looked around for other possible bogeymen hovering nearby. His eyes rested on the mirror, then moved on, stopped and went back.

  He looked down at the carpet in front of the mirror.

  He had gone over that area repeatedly with the vacuum until it was smooth; the carpet nape, already plush and expensive, had been a good quarter inch thicker by the time he was finished. No one had walked there since they had come back into the room.

  And yet now as he stooped down, his eye discerned very rough traces of footprints. He hadn’t noticed them before because now the whole section was matted down, as if something had swept out. . . . He slapped on his gloves, rushed to the mirror, pulling and prying around its edges. He yelled to Collin to get some tools while Russell looked on stunned.

  Burton inserted the crowbar about midway down the side of the mirror and he and Collin threw all their weight against the tool. The lock was not that strong, depending on deception rather than brute strength to safeguard its secrets.

  There was a grinding sound and then a tear and a pop and the door swung open.

  Burton plunged inside with Collin right behind. A light switch was on the wall. The room turned bright and the men looked around.

  Russell peered in, saw the chair. As she looked around, her face froze on the inner side of the mirror door. She was staring right at the bed. The bed where a little while before . . . She rubbed her temples as a searing pain ripped through her skull.

  A one-way mirror.

  She turned to find Burton looking over her shoulder and through the mirror. His earlier remark about someone watching them had just proven itself prophetic.

  Burton looked helplessly at Russell. “He must have been right here the whole time. The whole goddamned time. I can’t fucking believe this.” Burton looked at the empty shelves inside the vault. “Looks like he took a bunch of stuff. Probably cash and untraceables.”

  “Who cares about that!” Russell exploded, pointing at the mirror. “This guy saw and heard everything, and you let him get away.”

  “We got his license plate.” Collin was hoping for another rewarding smile. He didn’t get it.

 
; “So what? You think he’s going to wait around for us to run his tag and go knock on his door?”

  Russell sat down on the bed. Her head was spinning. If the guy had been in there he had seen everything. She shook her head. A bad but controllable situation had suddenly become an incomprehensible disaster, and totally out of her control. Particularly considering the information Collin had relayed to her when she had entered the bedroom.

  The sonofabitch had the letter opener! Prints, blood, everything, straight to the White House.

  She looked at the mirror and then at the bed, where a short time before she had been on top of the President. She instinctively pulled her jacket tighter around herself. She was suddenly sick to her stomach. She braced herself against the bedpost.

  Collin emerged from the vault. “Don’t forget he committed a crime being here. He can get in big-time trouble if he goes to the cops.” That thought had struck the young agent while he peered around the vault.

  He should have thought a little more.

  Russell pushed back a strong urge to vomit. “He doesn’t have to exactly go and turn himself in to cash in on this. Have you ever heard of the goddamned phone? He’s probably calling the Post right now. Dammit! And then next the tabloids and by the end of the week we’ll be watching him on Oprah and Sally being shot on remote from whatever little island he’s retired to with his face blurred. And then comes the book and after that the movie. Shit!”

  Russell envisioned a certain package arriving at the Post or the J. Edgar Hoover Building or the U.S. Attorney’s office or the Senate Minority Leader’s office, all possible depositories promising maximum political damage—not to mention the legal repercussions.

  The note accompanying it would ask them to please match the prints on it and the blood with specimens of the President of the United States. It would sound like a joke, but they would do it. Of course they would do it. Richmond’s prints were already on file. His DNA would be a match. Her body would be found, her blood would be checked and they would be confronted with more questions than they could possibly have answers to.

  They were dead, they were all dead. And that bastard had just been sitting in there, waiting for his chance. Not knowing that tonight would bring him the biggest payoff of his life. Nothing as simple as dollars. He would bring down a President, in flames and tatters, crashing to earth without a chance of survival. How often did someone get to do that? Woodward and Bernstein had become supermen, they could do no wrong. This topped the hell out of Watergate. This was too fucking much to deal with.

  Russell barely made it to the bathroom. Burton looked over at the corpse and then back at Collin. They said nothing, their hearts pounding with increased frequency as the absolute enormity of the situation settled down on them like the stone lid of a crypt. Since they could think of nothing else to do, Burton and Collin dutifully retrieved the sanitizing equipment while Russell emptied the contents of her stomach. In an hour they were packed and gone.

  * * *

  THE DOOR CLOSED QUIETLY BEHIND HIM.

  Luther figured he had a couple of days at best, maybe less. He risked turning on a light and his eyes went quickly over the interior of the living room.

  His life had gone from normal, or close to it, straight to horror land.

  He took off the backpack, switched off the light, and stole over to the window.

  Nothing—everything was quiet. Fleeing from that house had been the most nerve-racking experience of his life, worse than being overrun by screaming North Koreans. His hands still twitched. All the way back, every passing car seemed to bore its headlights into his face, searching out his guilty secret. Twice, police cars had passed him, and the sweat had poured off his forehead, his breathing constricted.

  The car had been returned to the impoundment lot where Luther had “borrowed” it earlier that night. The plate would get them nowhere, but something else could.

  He doubted they had gotten a look at him. Even if they had, they would only know generally his height and build. His age, race and facial features would still be a mystery, and without that they had nothing. And as fast as he had run, they probably figured him for a younger man. There was one open end, and he had thought about how to handle that on the ride back. For now, he packed up as much of the last thirty years as he could into two bags; he would not be coming back here.

  He would clear out his accounts tomorrow morning; that would give him the resources to run far away from here. He had faced more than his share of danger during his long life. But the choice between going up against the President of the United States or disappearing was a no-brainer.

  The night’s haul was safely hidden away. Three months of work for a prize that could end up getting him killed. He locked the door and disappeared into the night.

  CHAPTER FOUR

  AT SEVEN A.M. THE GOLD-COLORED ELEVATOR DOORS opened, and Jack stepped into the meticulously decorated expanse that was Patton, Shaw’s reception area.

  Lucinda wasn’t in yet, so the main reception desk, solid teakwood and weighing about a thousand pounds, and costing about twenty dollars for each of those pounds, was unmanned.

  He walked down the broad hallways under the soft lights of the neoclassical wall sconces, turned right, and then left and in one minute opened the solid-oak door to his office. In the background, a smattering of ringing phones could be heard as the city woke up for business.

  Six floors, well over one hundred thousand square feet in one of the best addresses downtown housing over two hundred highly compensated attorneys, with a two-story library, fully equipped gymnasium, sauna, women’s and men’s showers and lockers, ten conference rooms, a supporting staff of several hundred and, most important, a client list coveted by every other major firm in the country, that was the empire of Patton, Shaw & Lord.

  The firm had weathered the miserable end to the 1980s, and then picked up speed after the recession had finally subsided. Now it was going full-bore as many of its competitors had downsized. It was loaded with some of the best attorneys in virtually every field of law, or at least the fields that paid the best. Many had been scooped from other leading firms, enticed by signing bonuses and promises that no dollar would be spared when chasing a new piece of business.

  Three senior partners had been tapped by the current administration for top-level positions. The firm had awarded them severance pay in excess of two million dollars each, with the implicit understanding that after their government stint they would be back in harness, bringing with them tens of millions of dollars in legal business from their newly forged contacts.

  The firm’s unwritten, but strictly adhered to, rule was that no new client matter would be accepted unless the minimum billing would exceed one hundred thousand dollars. Anything less, the management committee had decided, would be a waste of the firm’s time. And they had no problem sticking to that rule, and flourishing. In the nation’s capital, people came for the best and they didn’t mind paying for the privilege.

  The firm had only made one exception to that rule, and ironically it had been for the only client Jack had other than Baldwin. He told himself he would test that rule with increasing frequency. If he was going to stick this out, he wanted it to be on his terms as much as that was possible. He knew his victories would be small at first, but that was okay.

  He sat down at his desk, opened his cup of coffee and glanced over the Post. Patton, Shaw & Lord had five kitchens and three full-time housekeepers with their own computers. The firm probably consumed five hundred pots of coffee a day, but Jack picked up his morning brew at the little place on the corner because he couldn’t stand the stuff they used here. It was a special imported blend and cost a fortune and tasted like dirt mixed in with seaweed.

  He tipped back in his chair and glanced around his office. It was a good size by big-firm associate standards, about fourteen by fourteen, with a nice view up Connecticut Avenue.

  At the Public Defenders Service, Jack had shared an office with ano
ther attorney and there had been no window, only a giant poster of a Hawaiian beach Jack had tacked up one repulsively cold morning. Jack had liked the coffee at PD better.

  When he made partner he would get a new office, twice this size—maybe not a corner just yet, but that was definitely in the cards. With the Baldwin account he was the fourth biggest rainmaker in the firm, and the top three were all in their fifties and sixties, looking more toward the golf courses than to the inside of an office. He glanced at his watch. Time to start the meter.

  He was usually one of the first ones in, but the place would soon be stirring. Patton, Shaw matched top New York firm wages, and for the big bucks, they expected big-time efforts. The clients were enormous and their legal demands were of equal size. Making a mistake in this league might mean a four-billion-dollar defense contract went down the tubes or a city declared bankruptcy.

  Every associate and junior partner he knew at the firm had stomach problems; a quarter of them were in therapy of one kind or another. Jack watched their pale faces and softening bodies as they marched daily through the pristine hallways of PS&L bearing yet another Herculean legal task. That was the trade-off for

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