Absolute power, p.8
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       Absolute Power, p.8

           David Baldacci
 

  “I warned you, Alan, that one day your little extracurricular activities would get us into trouble.”

  Richmond looked at her, disappointment on his features. “Listen, you think I’m the first guy to hold this office to catch a little action on the side? Don’t be so goddamned naive, Gloria. At least I’m a helluva lot more discreet than some of my predecessors. I take the responsibilities of the job . . . and I take the perks. Understand?”

  Russell nervously rubbed at her neck. “Completely, Mr. President.”

  “So it’s just this one guy, who can’t do anything.”

  “It only takes one to bring the house of cards tumbling down.”

  “Yeah? Well there are a lot of people living in that house. Just remember that.”

  “I do, Chief, every day.”

  There was a knock at the door. Russell’s deputy assistant leaned in. “Five minutes, sir.” The President nodded and waved him off.

  “Great timing on this presentation.”

  “Ransome Baldwin contributed heavily to your campaign, as did all of his friends.”

  “You don’t have to explain political paybacks to me, sweetheart.”

  Russell stood up and moved over to him. She took his good arm, looked intently at him. On his left cheek was a small scar. A souvenir from some shrapnel during a brief stint in the Army toward the end of the Vietnam War. As his political career had taken off, the female consensus was that the tiny imperfection greatly enhanced his attractiveness. Russell found herself staring at that scar.

  “Alan, I will do whatever it takes to protect your interest. You will get through this, but we need to work together. We’re a team, Alan, we’re a helluva team. They can’t take us down, not if we act together.”

  The President studied her face for a brief moment, and then rewarded her with the smile that routinely accompanied front-page headlines. He pecked her on the cheek, squeezed her against him; she clung to him.

  “I love you, Gloria. You’re a trouper.” He picked up his speech. “It’s showtime.” He turned and walked out. Russell stared after his broad back, carefully rubbed at her cheek and then followed him out.

  * * *

  JACK LOOKED AROUND THE OVERSTATED ELEGANCE OF THE immense East Room. The place was full of some of the most powerful men and women in the country. Skillful networking was taking place all around him, and all he could do was stand and gawk. He looked across the room and spied his fiancée cornering a congressman from some state out west, no doubt plying Baldwin Enterprises’s needy case for the good legislator’s assistance on riparian rights.

  His fiancée spent much of her time gaining access to holders of power at all levels. From county commissioners to Senate Committee chairmen, Jennifer stroked the right egos, fed the right hands, and made certain that all the important players were in place when Baldwin Enterprises wanted another mammoth deal orchestrated. The doubling of the assets of her father’s company during the last five years was due in no small part to her excelling at that task. In truth, what man was really safe from her?

  Ransome Baldwin, all six feet five inches, thick white hair and baritone voice, made his rounds, solidly shaking hands with politicians he already owned and rubbing elbows with the few he didn’t as yet.

  The award ceremony had been mercifully brief. Jack glanced at his watch. He would need to be getting back to the office soon. On the way over Jennifer had mentioned a private party at the Willard Hotel at eleven. He rubbed his face. Of all the friggin’ luck.

  He was about to pull Jennifer aside to explain his early exit, when the President walked up to her, was joined by her father, and a moment later all three headed his way.

  Jack put his drink down and cleared his throat so he wouldn’t sound like a complete fool when the words stumbled out of his mouth. Jennifer and her father were talking to the President like old friends. Laughing, chatting, touching elbows like he was cousin Ned in from Oklahoma. But this wasn’t cousin Ned, this was the President of the United States for godsakes!

  “So you’re the lucky fellow?” The President’s smile was immediate and pleasant. They shook hands. He was as tall as Jack, and Jack admired that he had kept trim and fit with a job like his.

  “Jack Graham, Mr. President. It’s an honor to meet you, sir.”

  “I feel like I already know you, Jack, Jennifer’s told me so much about you. Most of it good.” He grinned.

  “Jack’s a partner at Patton, Shaw & Lord.” Jennifer still held on to the President’s arm. She looked at Jack and smiled a cutesy smile.

  “Well, not a partner yet, Jenn.”

  “Matter of time is all.” Ransome Baldwin’s voice boomed out. “With Baldwin Enterprises as a client, you could name your price at any firm in this country. Don’t you forget that. Don’t let Sandy Lord pull the wool over your eyes.”

  “Listen to him, Jack. The voice of experience.” The President raised his glass and then involuntarily jerked it back. Jennifer stumbled, letting go of his arm.

  “I’m sorry, Jennifer. Too much tennis. Damn arm’s giving me problems again. Well, Ransome, you look like you’ve got yourself a fine protégé here.”

  “Hell, he’ll have to fight my daughter for the empire. Maybe Jack can be queen and Jenn can be the king. How’s that for equal rights?” Ransome laughed a big laugh that swept everybody up with it.

  Jack felt himself redden. “I’m just a lawyer, Ransome; I’m not necessarily looking for an empty throne to occupy. There are other things to do in life.”

  Jack picked up his drink. This wasn’t exactly going as well as he would have liked. He felt on the defensive. Jack crunched an ice cube. And what did Ransome Baldwin really think about his future son-in-law? Especially right now? The point was Jack didn’t really care.

  Ransome stopped laughing and eyed him steadily. Jennifer cocked her head the way she did when he said something she thought was inappropriate, which was most of the time. The President looked at all three of them, smiled quickly and excused himself. He went over to the corner where a woman was standing.

  Jack watched him go. He had seen the woman on TV, defending the President’s position on a myriad of issues. Gloria Russell did not look very happy right now, but with all the crises in the world, happiness was probably a rare commodity in her line of work.

  That was an afterthought. Jack had met the President, had shaken hands with him. He hoped his arm got better. He pulled Jennifer aside and made his regrets. She was not pleased.

  “This is totally unacceptable, Jack. Do you realize how special a night this is for Daddy?”

  “Hey, I’m just a working stiff. You know? Billable hours?”

  “That’s ridiculous! And you know it. No one at that firm can make those demands of you, let alone some nothing associate.”

  “Jenn, it’s not that big a deal. I had a great time. Your dad got his little award. Now it’s time to go back to work. Alvis is okay. He’s kicking my butt a little bit, but he works just as hard, if not harder than I do. Everybody has to take their lumps.”

  “This isn’t fair, Jack. This is not convenient for me.”

  “Jenn, it’s my job. I said don’t worry about it, so don’t worry about it. I’ll see you tomorrow. I’m gonna grab a cab back.”

  “Daddy will be very disappointed.”

  “Daddy won’t even miss me. Hey, hoist one for me. And remember what you said about later? I’ll take a rain check on that, maybe we can make it my place for a change?”

  She allowed herself to be kissed. But when Jack was gone she stormed over to her father.

  CHAPTER FIVE

  KATE WHITNEY PULLED INTO THE PARKING LOT OF HER building. The grocery bag clunked against one leg, her overflowing briefcase against the other as she jogged up the four flights of stairs. Buildings in her price range had elevators, just not ones that worked on a consistent basis.

  She changed quickly into her running outfit, checked her messages, and headed back out. She stretched the cramps and ki
nks out of her long limbs in front of the Ulysses S. Grant statue and started her run.

  She headed west, past the Air and Space Museum, and then by the Smithsonian castle that, with its towers and battlements and twelfth-century-style Italian architecture, looked more like a mad scientist’s home than anything else. Her easy, methodical strides took her across the Mall at its widest point and she circled the Washington Monument twice.

  Her breath was coming a little quicker now; the sweat began to seep through her T-shirt and blot the Georgetown Law sweatshirt she was wearing. As she made her way along the fringes of the Tidal Basin, the crowds of people grew thicker. The early fall brought plane-, bus- and carloads of people from across the country hoping to miss the summer crush of tourists and the infamous Washington heat.

  As she swerved to avoid one errant child she collided with another runner coming the other way. They went down in a tangle of arms and legs.

  “Shit.” The man rolled over quickly and then sprang back up. She started to get up, looked at him, an apology on her lips, and then abruptly sat back down. A long moment went by as camera-toting clans of Arkansans and Iowans danced around them.

  “Hello, Kate.” Jack gave her a hand up and helped her to a spot under one of the now bare cherry blossom trees that encircled the Tidal Basin. The Jefferson Memorial sat big and imposing across the calm water, the tall silhouette of the country’s third President clearly visible inside the rotunda.

  Kate’s ankle was starting to swell. She took off her shoe and sock and began to rub it out.

  “I didn’t think you’d have time to run anymore, Jack.”

  She looked over at him: no receding hairline, no paunch, no lines on the face. Time had stood still for Jack Graham. She had to admit it, he looked great. She, on the other hand, was an absolute and total disaster.

  She silently cursed herself for not getting that haircut and then cursed herself again for even thinking that. A drop of sweat plunged down her nose, and she brushed it away with an irritable swipe of her hand.

  “I was wondering the same thing about you. I didn’t think they let prosecutors go home before midnight. Slacking off?”

  “Right.” She rubbed her ankle, which really hurt. He saw the pain, leaned over and took her foot in his hands. She flinched back. He looked at her.

  “Remember I used to almost do this for a living and you were my best and only client. I have never seen a woman with such fragile ankles, and the rest of you looks so healthy.”

  She relaxed and let him work the ankle and then the foot, and she soon realized he had not lost his touch. Did he mean that about looking healthy? She frowned. After all, she had dumped him. And she had been absolutely right in doing so. Hadn’t she?

  “I heard about Patton, Shaw. Congratulations.”

  “Aw shucks. Any lawyer with millions in legal business could’ve done the same thing.” He smiled.

  “Yeah, I read about the engagement in the paper too. Congratulations twice.” He didn’t smile at that one. She wondered why not.

  He quietly put her sock and shoe back on. He looked at her. “You’re not going to be able to run for a day or two, it’s pretty swollen. My car’s right over there. I’ll give you a lift.”

  “I’ll just take a cab.”

  “You trust a D.C. cabbie over me?” He feigned offense. “Besides, I don’t see any pockets. You going to negotiate a free ride? Good luck.”

  She looked down at her shorts. Her key was in her sock. He had already eyed the bulge. He smiled at her dilemma. Her lips pressed together, her tongue slid along the bottom one. He remembered that habit from long ago. Although he hadn’t seen it for years, it suddenly seemed like he had never been away.

  He stretched out his legs and stood up. “I’d float you a loan, but I’m busted too.”

  She got up, put an arm against his shoulder as she tested the ankle.

  “I thought private practice paid better than that.”

  “It does, I’ve just never been able to handle money. You know that.” That was true enough; she had always balanced the checkbook. Not that there was much to balance back then.

  He held on to one of her arms as she limped to his car, a ten-year-old Subaru wagon. She looked at it amazed.

  “You never got rid of this thing?”

  “Hey, there’s a lot of miles left on it. Besides, it’s full of history. See that stain right over there? Your Dairy Queen butterscotch-dipped ice cream cone, 1986, the night before my tax final. You couldn’t sleep, and I wouldn’t study anymore. You remember? You took that curve too fast.”

  “You have a bad case of selective memory. As I recall you poured your milkshake down my back because I was complaining about the heat.”

  “Oh, that too.” They laughed and got in the car.

  She examined the stain more closely, looked around the interior. So much coming back to her in big, lumpy waves. She glanced at the back seat. Her eyebrows went up. If that space could only talk. She turned back to see him looking at her, and found herself blushing.

  They pulled off into the light traffic and headed east. Kate felt nervous, but not uncomfortable, as if it were four years ago and they had merely jumped in the car to get some coffee or the paper or have breakfast at the Corner in Charlottesville or at one of the cafés sprinkled around Capitol Hill. But that was years ago she had to remind herself. That was not the present. The present was very different. She rolled the window down slightly.

  Jack kept one eye on traffic, and one eye on her. Their meeting hadn’t been accidental. She had run on the Mall, that very route in fact, since they had moved to D.C. and lived in that little walk-up in Southeast near Eastern Market.

  That morning Jack had woken up with a desperation he had not felt since Kate had left him four years ago when it dawned on him about a week after she had gone that she wasn’t coming back. Now with his wedding looming ahead, he had decided that he had to see Kate, somehow. He would not, could not, let that light die out, not yet. It was quite likely that he was the only one of the two who sensed any illumination left. And while he might not have the courage to leave a message on her answering machine, he had decided that if he was meant to find her out here on the Mall amidst all the tourists and locals, then he would. He had let it go at that.

  Until their collision, he had been running for an hour, scanning the crowds, looking for the face in that framed photo. He had spotted her about five minutes before their abrupt meeting. If his heart rate hadn’t already doubled because of the exercise, it would’ve hit that mark as soon as he saw her moving effortlessly along. He hadn’t meant to sprain her ankle, but then that was why she was sitting in his car; it was the reason he was driving her home.

  Kate pulled her hair back and tied it in a ponytail, using a braid that had been on her wrist. “So how’s work going?”

  “Okay.” He did not want to talk about work. “How’s your old man?”

  “You’d know better than me.” She did not want to talk about her father.

  “I haven’t seen him since . . .”

  “Lucky you.” She lapsed into silence.

  Jack shook his head at the stupidity of bringing up Luther. He had hoped for a reconciliation between father and daughter over the years. That obviously had not happened.

  “I hear great things about you over at the Commonwealth’s Attorney.”

  “Right.”

  “I’m serious.”

  “Since when.”

  “Everyone grows up, Kate.”

  “Not Jack Graham. Please, God, no.”

  He turned right onto Constitution, and made his way toward Union Station. Then he caught himself. He knew which direction to go, a fact he did not want to share with her. “I’m kind of rambling here, Kate. Which way?”

  “I’m sorry. Around the Capitol, over to Maryland and left on 3rd Street.”

  “You like that area?”

  “On my salary, I like it just fine. Let me guess. You’re probably in Georgetown, ri
ght, one of those big federal townhouses with maid’s quarters, right?”

  He shrugged. “I haven’t moved. I’m in the same place.”

  She stared at him. “Jack, what do you do with all of your money?”

  “I buy what I want; I just don’t want that much.” He stared back. “Hey, how about a Dairy Queen butterscotch-dipped ice cream cone?”

 

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