my dearest friend, my loving wife, my partner in crime,
without you this dream would have remained a feeble glint in a weary eye
To my mother and father,
no parents could have done any more
To my brother and sister,
for putting up with a lot from their younger sibling and still always being there for me
“Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Jennifer Karas, for being a terrific friend and avid supporter and for getting the ball rolling way back when. Karen Spiegel, my biggest fan on the West Coast, may there be many huge movies and small statuettes in your future. Jim and Everne Spiegel, for all their support and encouragement.
Aaron Priest, the man who plucked me from obscurity, my friend and agent for life, and a helluva nice guy on top of it. And his assistant, Lisa Vance, who diligently answers every one of my questions, no matter how off-the-wall. And to the Priest Agency’s editor-in residence, Frances Jalet-Miller, whose insights and thoughful comments made me dig deeper into my characters and made the book far better in the process.
My editor, Maureen Egen, for making my freshman publication experience so painless and rewarding. And to Larry Kirshbaum, who saw something in the pages very late at night and changed my life forever.
Steven Wilmsen, a fellow writer, who well knows how hard it is, and who fed me good advice and tons of encouragement all along the way. Thank you, my friend.
Steve and Mary Jennings, for technical advice, legwork, and being the best friends anyone could hope for. Richard Marvin and Joe Barry, for technical advice on security systems.
And to Art, Lynette, Ronni, Scott, and Randy for all their love and support.
Here, the words really do fail me.
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. He gripped the steering wheel loosely as the car, its 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.