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Absolute Power

David Baldacci


  HE GRIPPED THE STEERING WHEEL LOOSELY AS THE CAR, ITS lights out, drifted slowly to a stop. A few last scraps of gravel kicked out of the tire treads and then silence enveloped him. He took a moment to adjust to the surroundings and then pulled out a pair of worn but still effective night-vision binoculars. The house slowly came into focus. He shifted easily, confidently in his seat. A duffel bag lay on the front seat beside him. The car’s interior was faded but clean.

  The car was also stolen. And from a very unlikely source.

  A pair of miniature palm trees hung from the rearview mirror. He smiled grimly as he looked at them. Soon he might be going to the land of palms. Quiet, blue, see-through water, powdery salmon-colored sunsets and late mornings. He had to get out. It was time. For all the occasions he had said that to himself, this time he felt sure.

  Sixty-six years old, Luther Whitney was eligible to collect Social Security, and was a card-carrying member of AARP. At that age most men had settled down into second careers as grandfathers, part-time raisers of their children’s children, when weary joints were eased down into familiar recliners and arteries finished closing up with the clutter of a lifetime.

  Luther had had only one career his entire life. It involved breaking and entering into other people’s homes and places of business, usually in the nighttime, as now, and taking away as much of their property as he could feasibly carry.

  Though clearly on the wrong side of the law, Luther had never fired a gun or hurled a knife in anger or fear, except for his part in a largely confusing war fought where South and North Korea were joined at the hip. And the only punches he had ever thrown were in bars, and those only in self-defense as the suds made men braver than they should have been.

  Luther only had one criterion in choosing his targets: he took only from those who could well afford to lose it. He considered himself no different from the armies of people who routinely coddled the wealthy, constantly persuading them to buy things they did not need.

  A good many of his sixty-odd years had been spent in assorted medium- and then maximum-security correctional facilities along the East Coast. Like blocks of granite around his neck, three prior felony convictions stood to his credit in three different states. Years had been carved out of his life. Important years. But he could do nothing to change that now.

  He had refined his skills to where he had high hopes that a fourth conviction would never materialize. There was absolutely nothing mysterious about the ramifications of another bust: he would be looking at the full twenty years. And at his age, twenty years was a death penalty. They might as well fry him, which was the way the Commonwealth of Virginia used to handle its particularly bad people. The citizens of this vastly historic state were by and large a God-fearing people, and religion premised upon the notion of equal retribution consistently demanded the ultimate payback. The commonwealth succeeded in disposing of more death row criminals than all but two states, and the leaders, Texas and Florida, shared the moral sentiments of their Southern sister. But not for simple burglary; even the good Virginians had their limits.

  Yet with all that at risk he couldn’t take his eyes off the home—mansion, of course, one would be compelled to call it. It had engrossed him for several months now. Tonight that fascination would end.

  Middleton, Virginia. A forty-five-minute drive west on a slingshot path from Washington, D.C. Home to vast estates, obligatory Jaguars, and horses whose price tags could feed the residents of an entire inner-city apartment building for a year. Homes in this area sprawled across enough earth with enough splendor to qualify for their own appellation. The irony of his target’s name, the Coppers, was not lost upon him.

  The adrenaline rush that accompanied each job was absolutely unique. He imagined it was somewhat like how the batter felt as he nonchalantly trotted the bases, taking all the time in the world, after newly bruised leather had landed somewhere in the street. The crowd on its feet, fifty thousand pairs of eyes on one human being, all the air in the world seemingly sucked into one space, and then suddenly displaced by the arc of one man’s glorious swing of the wood.

  Luther took a long sweep of the area with his still sharp eyes. An occasional firefly winked back at him. Otherwise he was alone. He listened for a moment to the rise and fall of the cicadas and then that chorus faded into the background, so omnipresent was it to every person who had lived long in the area.

  He pulled the car further down the blacktop road and backed onto a short dirt road that ended in a mass of thick trees. His iron-gray hair was covered with a black ski hat. His leathery face was smeared black with camouflage cream; calm, green eyes hovered above a cinder block jaw. The flesh carried on his spare frame was as tight as ever. He looked like the Army Ranger he had once been. Luther got out of the car.

  Crouching behind a tree, Luther surveyed his target. The Coppers, like many country estates that were not true working farms or stables, had a huge and ornate wrought iron gate set on twin brick columns but had no fencing. The grounds were accessible directly from the road or the nearby woods. Luther entered from the woods.

  It took Luther two minutes to reach the edge of the cornfield adjacent to the house. The owner obviously had no need for home-grown vegetables but had apparently taken the country squire role to heart. Luther wasn’t complaining, since it afforded him a hidden path almost to the front door.

  He waited a few moments and then disappeared into the embracing thickness of the corn stalks.

  The ground was mostly clear of debris and his tennis shoes made no sound, which was important, for any noise carried easily here. He kept his eyes straight ahead; his feet, after much practice, carefully picked their way through the slender rows, compensating for the slight unevenness of the ground. The night air was cool after the debilitating heat of another stagnant summer, but not nearly cool enough for breath to be transformed into the tiny clouds that could be seen from a distance by restless or insomniac eyes.

  Luther had timed this operation several times over the past month, always stopping at the edge of the field before stepping into the front grounds and past no-man’s-land. In his head, every detail had been worked and reworked hundreds of times until a precise script of movement, waiting, followed by more movement was firmly entrenched in his mind.

  He crouched down at the edge of the front grounds and took one more long look around; no need to rush. No dogs to worry about, which was good. A human, no matter how young and fleet, simply could not outrun a dog. But it was the noise they made that stopped men like Luther cold. There was also no perimeter security system, probably because of the innumerable false alarms that would be caused by the large populations of deer, squirrel and raccoon roaming over the area. However, Luther would shortly be faced with a highly sophisticated defense package that he would have thirty-three seconds to disarm—and that included the ten seconds it would take him to remove the control panel.

  The private security patrol had passed through the area thirty minutes earlier. The cop clones were supposed to vary their routines, making sweeps through their surveillance sectors every hour. But after a month of observations, Luther had easily discerned a pattern. He had at least three hours before another pass would be made. He wouldn’t need nearly that long.

  The grounds were pitch black, and thick shrubs, the lifeblood of the burglary class, clung to the brick entryway like a caterpillar nest to a tree branch. He checked each window of the house: all black, all silent. He had watched the caravan carrying the home’s occupants parade out two days ago to points south, and carefully took inventory of all owners and personnel. The nearest estate was a good two miles away.

  He took a deep breath. He had planned everything out, but in this business, the simple fa
ct was that you could never account for everything.

  He loosened the grips on his backpack and then glided out from the field in long, smooth strides across the lawn, and in ten seconds was facing the thick, solid-wood front door with reinforced steel framing together with a locking system that was rated at the top of the charts for holding force. None of which concerned Luther in the least.

  He slipped a facsimile front-door key out of his jacket pocket and inserted it into the keyhole without, however, turning it.

  He listened for another few seconds. Then he slipped off his backpack and changed his shoes so there would be no traces of mud. He readied his battery-operated screwdriver, which could reveal the circuitry he needed to fool ten times faster than he could by hand.

  The next piece of equipment he carefully pulled from his backpack weighed exactly six ounces, was slightly bigger than a pocket calculator and other than his daughter was the best investment he had ever made in his life. Nicknamed “Wit” by its owner, the tiny device had assisted Luther in his last three jobs without a hitch.

  The five digits comprising this home’s security code had already been supplied to Luther and programmed into his computer. Their proper sequence was still a mystery to him, but that obstacle would have to be eradicated by his tiny metal, wire and microchip companion if he wanted to avoid the ear-piercing shriek that would instantly emit from the four sound cannons planted at each corner of the ten-thousand-square-foot fortress he was invading. Then would follow the police call dialed by the nameless computer he would battle in a few moments. The home also had pressure-sensitive windows and floor plates, in addition to tamperproof door magnets. All of which would mean nothing if Wit could tear the correct code sequence from the alarm system’s grasp.

  He eyed the key in the door and with a practiced motion hooked Wit to his harness belt so that it hung easily against his side. The key turned effortlessly in the lock and Luther prepared to block out the next sound that he would hear, the low beep of the security system that warned of impending doom for the intruder if the correct answer was not fed into it in the allotted time and not a millisecond later.

  He replaced his black leather gloves with a pair of more nimble plastic ones that had a second layer of padding on the fingertips and palms. It was not his practice to leave any evidence behind. Luther took one deep breath, then opened the portal. The shrill beep of the security system met him instantly. He quickly moved into the enormous foyer and confronted the alarm panel.

  The automatic screwdriver whirled noiselessly; the six metal pieces dropped into Luther’s hands and then were deposited in a carrier on his belt. Slender wires attached to Wit flashed against the sliver of moonlight seeping through the window beside the door, and then Luther, probing momentarily like a surgeon through a patient’s chest cavity, found the correct spot, clipped the strands into place and then flipped on the power source to his companion.

  From across the foyer, a slash of crimson stared down at him. The infrared detector had already locked on Luther’s thermal offset. As the seconds ticked down, it patiently waited for the security system’s “brain” to pronounce the intruder friend or foe.

  Faster than the eye could follow, the numbers flashed across Wit’s digital screen in neon amber; the allotted time blinked down in a small box at the top-right-hand corner of the same screen.

  Five seconds elapsed and then the numbers 5, 13, 9, 3 and 11 appeared on Wit’s tiny glass face and locked.

  The beep stopped on cue as the security system was disarmed, the red light flashed off and was replaced with the friendly green, and Luther was in business. He removed the wires, screwed the plate back on and repacked his equipment, then carefully locked the front door.

  The master bedroom was on the third floor, which could be reached by an elevator down the main first-floor hallway to the right, but Luther chose the stairs instead. The less dependent he was on anything he did not have complete control over the better. Getting stuck in an elevator for several weeks was not part of his battle plan.

  He looked at the detector in the corner of the ceiling as its rectangular mouth smiled at him, its surveillance arc asleep for now. Then he headed up the staircase.

  The master bedroom door was not locked. In a few seconds he had his low-power, nonglare work lamp set up and took a moment to look around. The green glow from a second control panel mounted next to the bedroom door broke the darkness.

  The house itself had been built within the last five years; Luther had checked the records at the courthouse and had even managed to gain access to a set of blueprints of the place from the planning commissioner’s office, it being large enough to require special blessing from the local government as though they would ever actually deny the rich their wishes.

  There were no surprises in the building plans. It was a big, solid house more than worth the multimiilion-dollar price tag that had been paid in cash by its owner.

  Indeed, Luther had visited this home once before, in broad daylight, with people everywhere. He had been in this very room and he had seen what he needed to see. And that was why he was here tonight.

  Six-inch crown molding peered down at him as he knelt next to the gigantic, canopied bed. Next to the bed was a nightstand. On it were a small silver clock, the newest romance novel of the day and an antique silver-plated letter opener with a thick leather handle.

  Everything about the place was big and expensive. There were three walk-in closets in the room, each about the size of Luther’s living room. Two were occupied by women’s clothes and shoes and purses and every other female accoutrement one could rationally or irrationally spend money on. Luther glanced at the framed prints on the nightstand and wryly observed the twenty-something “little woman” next to the seventy-something husband.

  There were many types of lotteries in the world and not all of them state-run.

  Several of the photos showed off the lady of the house’s proportions to almost maximum degree, and his quick examination of the closet revealed that her dressing pleasures leaned to the downright sleazy.

  He looked up at the full-length mirror, studying the ornate carvings around its edges. He next surveyed the sides. It was a heavy, nifty bit of work, built right into the wall, or so it seemed, but Luther knew that hinges were carefully hidden into the slight recess six inches from the top and bottom.

  Luther looked back at the mirror. He had the distinct advantage of having seen a target like this full-length model a couple of years ago although he hadn’t planned to crack it. But you didn’t ignore a second golden egg just because you had the first in hand, and that second golden egg had been worth about fifty thou’. The prize on the other side of this private looking glass he figured would be about ten times that.

  Using brute force and the aid of a crowbar he could overcome the locking system built into the mirror’s carvings but that would take precious time. And, more than that, it would leave behind obvious signs of the place having been violated. And although the house was supposed to be empty for the next several weeks, one never knew. When he left the Coppers there would be no obvious evidence he had ever been there. Even upon their return the owners might not check the vault for some time. In any event, he did not have to take the hard route.

  He walked quickly over to the large-screen TV located against one wall of the vast chamber. The area was set up as a sitting room with matching chintz-covered chairs and a large coffee table. Luther looked at the three remotes lying there. One to work the TV, one for the VCR and one that would cut his night’s work by ninety percent. Each had a brand name on it, each looked pretty much like the other, but a quick experiment showed that two worked their appropriate apparatus and one did not.

  He walked back across the room, pointed the control at the mirror and pushed the lone red button located at the bottom of the hardware. Ordinarily that action meant the VCR was recording. Tonight, in this room, it meant the bank was opening for business for its one fortunate customer.
/>   Luther watched the door swing open easily, silently on the now-revealed no-maintenance hinges. From long habit, he replaced the control exactly where it had been, pulled a collapsible duffel bag out of his backpack and entered the vault.

  As his light swept through the darkness he was surprised to see an upholstered chair sitting in the middle of the room, which looked to be about six feet by six feet. On the chair’s arm rested an identical remote, obviously a safeguard against being locked in by accident. Then his eyes took in the shelves down each side.

  The cash, bundled neatly, went in first, then the contents of the slender boxes that were definitely not costume jewelry. Luther counted about two hundred thousand dollars’ worth of negotiable bonds and other securities, and two small boxes of antique coins and another of stamps, including one of an inverted figure that made Luther swallow hard. He ignored the blank checks and the boxes full of legal documents, which were worthless to him. His quick assessment ended at almost two million dollars, probably more.

  He took one more look around, taking care not to miss any stray nook. The walls were thick—he figured they had to be fireproof, or as fireproof as man could make something. The place wasn’t hermetically sealed; the air was fresh, not stale. Somebody could stay in here for days.

  * * *

  THE LIMO MOVED QUICKLY DOWN THE ROAD FOLLOWED BY THE van, each driver expert enough to accomplish this feat without the benefit of headlights.

  Inside the spacious back seat of the limo were a man and two women, one of whom was close to being drunk and who was doing her best to undress the man and herself right there, despite the gentle defensive efforts of her victim.

  The other woman sat across from them tight-lipped, ostensibly trying to ignore the ridiculous spectacle, which included girlish giggling and much panting, but in reality she closely observed every detail of the pair’s efforts. Her focus was on a large book that sat open in her lap where appointments and notes battled each other for space and the attention of the male sitting across from her, who took the opportunity of his companion wrenching off her spike heels to pour himself another drink. His capacity for alcohol was enormous. He could drink twice the amount he had already consumed tonight and there would be no outward signs, no slurring of speech or impeded motor functions—which would have been deadly for a man in his position.

  She had to admire him, his obsessions, his truly raw edges, while at the same time his being able to project an image to the world that cried out purity and strength, normalcy but, at the same time, greatness. Every woman in America was in love with him, enamored with his classic good looks, immense self-assurance and also what he represented, for all of them. And he returned that universal admiration with a passion, however misplaced, that astonished her.

  Unfortunately, that passion had never pointed itself in her direction despite her subtle messages, the touches that lingered a shade too long; how she maneuvered to see him first thing in the morning when she looked her best, the sexual references used in their strategy sessions. But until that time came—and it would come, she kept telling herself—she would be patient.

  She looked out the window. This was taking too long; it threw everything else off. Her mouth curled up in displeasure.