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
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
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
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 fact was that you could never account for
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
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
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
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 multimillion-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
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.
Excerpted from "Absolute Power" by David Baldacci. Copyright © 1996 by David Baldacci. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.