His brain died at 11:47 p.m. At nine o’clock on Sunday night, Supreme Court justice Howard Wynn shifted testily in his favorite leather chair, the high-backed Chesterfield purportedly commissioned by Chief Justice William Howard Taft. The wide seat resembled a settee more than a chair, but the latter Howard appreciated the capacious width. Unlike the robust former president, Justice Wynn was built along trimmer lines, a sleek sloop to the fearsome cargo ship of a man who preceded him on the bench. But he enjoyed the chair for its unexpected utility. Extra space at his hip for the books he habitually tucked to his side, on the off chance the chosen tome for his nightly read bored him.
Howard Wynn did not suffer boredom or mediocrity well.
He felt equally dismissive of willful ignorance—his description of the modern press—and smug stupidity, his bon mot for politicians. To his mind, they were a gang of vapid and arrogant thugs all, who greedily snatched their information from one another like disappearing crumbs as society spiraled merrily toward hell. With the current crop of pundits, bureaucrats, and hired guns in charge, America was destined to repeat the cycles of intellectual torpor that toppled Rome and Greece and Mali and the Incas and every empire that stumbled into short-lived, debauched existence. Show man ignoble work and easy sex, and there went civilization.
“A righteous flood, that’s what we need,” he muttered into the dimly lit study. “Drown the bastards out.”
Behind him, a chessboard stood in midplay, the antique wooden pieces beginning to attract particles of dust from disuse. Once, he’d played the game with a ferocity that rivaled that of grand masters, a prodigy in his youth. Careful maneuvers and contemplations of endgames had been sufficient until he learned that he could do the same in real life, when his mind became destined for the law. The game in progress was with a man he’d never met who lived half a world away. But even his new friend had deserted him to this last room of refuge.
The door to the study had been shut tight for hours, leaving him alone in his sanctuary. Beyond the study, an early summer storm rattled the windows. White flashed in the distance, and then came the inevitable bark of thunder. Wynn nodded in weary recognition of the tumult. To drown the thunder, he turned on the small television he kept in the room. As a rule, he despised the idiot box, but now he reluctantly acknowledged its utility. Tonight, it would tell him if he’d destroyed his life’s mission or saved it.
A commercial offered discount car insurance, followed by the opening graphics for a popular evening talk show of comedic and political invective. Wynn watched with hawkish eyes as the host wasted no time before launching his shtick. “And earlier today…the epic meltdown at American University by Justice Howard Wynn…or, perhaps he should be called Justice ‘Where the Hell Am I?’ ”
The studio audience roared with laughter as the screen flickered to a shot of Wynn speaking that afternoon at the university’s commencement ceremony. He’d done this countless times, offering pithy lies about the promise of the next generation. The clip caught him as he leaned over the podium, clad in his academic regalia—simply another meaningless black robe. A tight shot of his face flashed onscreen, mouth sneering. “Science is the greatest trick the Devil ever played on man!” he pronounced to the undergraduates squirming uncomfortably in their metal chairs. The man he watched onscreen lifted his fist in anger. “He let us believe we could control our destiny, but we’ve only built our demise. Breaking the laws of nature to construct a shrine to Satan’s handiwork. We must be stopped!”
The television screen filled to frame a shot of a stone-faced Brandon Stokes, the president of the United States, staring stoically ahead as Justice Wynn raged on. The graduation of the president’s youngest daughter had brought him to the festivities, and he’d graciously agreed to share the podium with the jurist who reveled in swatting down his initiatives and eviscerating the laws signed by his administration. The animus between the men had been the source of great debate at the college—one brought to a head by Zoe Stokes’s unexpected early graduation, fulfilled by a recalculation of her study-abroad hours. With the invitation to the Supreme Court justice already accepted, the college had no graceful way to rescind his speaking engagement.
Wynn stared at the crowd, his face frozen in irascibility. In the next image, clearly realizing her grave error, the college’s president warily approached from the side of the podium, extending her hand in the universal gesture of nice doggy. Her voice was faint but clearly heard by the cameraman. “Justice Wynn? Are you okay?”
Wynn spun around and swatted at the proffered hand, his voice dismissive. “Of course I’m not. I’m trying to warn you of the coming apocalypse, and you want me to tell these children that the world awaits them. What waits is death. It will come for the others first, but the Devil will have his due.”
At that point, uncomfortable murmurs spread through the crowd, peppered with chuckles of derision, and Wynn turned back once more. “Laugh if you will, you carrion of society. But mark my words—hell has come to earth, and your parents have elected its offspring.”
With that, he shoved his hand into his pocket and glared at President Stokes, then marched toward him. Yanking his hand free from his pocket, Justice Wynn stopped in front of Stokes and extended his right hand. The president came awkwardly to his feet and accepted the gesture, and the justice muttered something near his ear.
“A righteous flood, that’s what we need,” he muttered. “Drown the bastards out.”
The video played the strained handshake before the justice stalked offstage, trailed by the clearly distraught college president.
“Not sure what Justice Wynn whispered there, but I think it’s safe to say he won’t be endorsing the president for reelection,” deadpanned the late-night host, to raucous applause. “They call Justice Wynn the ‘Voice of the People,’ but now everyone is wondering if he’s the one hearing voices. He’s known for riding the subway in D.C., but this makes me wonder if he’ll be living in the tunnels soon. Scary that he’s the swing vote on some big decisions the court will make this month. And even scarier is that he’s probably not the worst one. I wonder if they’ll give him his own reality show, Crazy Justice.” Laughter followed, and Wynn flicked off the television.
“Funny man,” he muttered to himself, staring again at the storm raging beyond the windows. “Thoreau had it right about nature versus man. Nature always wins.” As he spoke in the empty room, his voice held no venom, only resignation. Nature, he knew, was a crafty adversary. While a man slept peacefully in his bed, Nature rummaged through tissue and cell down to chromosomes so slight as to be invisible. With a capricious flick, it switched on the time bomb that would explode a man’s life. A man’s brain.
“Leaving me a mewling, puking shadow of myself for others to feed upon like viscera,” he acknowledged morosely. No one replied. Too often, these days, his conversations spun out to meet no response.
They’d all left him. One wife dead, another deserted. His only son despised him.
The court was no better. A collection of sycophants and despisers, plotting against him. Pretending to care about him. But he’d discovered the way to do what must be done, and the few to whom he could entrust the tasks ahead.
Wynn struggled from the chair and crossed to a bookshelf. He shifted the books to the carpet. The task was harder than it should have been. With a glance over his shoulder, he checked that the door was still closed.
“Don’t want that sneaky viper to creep up on me and steal more of my secrets,” he muttered. Wynn entered the combination to the safe. The lock popped quietly and flashed its green entry signal. He tugged at the handle.
Inside, the contents were exactly as he’d left them. Soon, though, he’d forget what lay inside. Worse, he’d forget that he even had a safe and the other hiding places he’d set across the whorish town. Places that might betray him by refusing to be found. Such was his fated end. From brilliant jurist to a hollowed-out shell of a man chased by shadows, betrayed by memory.
Time had winnowed itself down to nothingness. At some point, his enemies would attempt to rush him toward death, but he knew a secret. Between the end and now lay uncharted territory that he alone had begun to map. His enemies would try to follow him, but they would fail. All except the ones who could follow the breadcrumbs.
Each term, the U.S. Supreme Court held its hearings and issued its edicts like gods from Olympus. By law, they commenced their deliberations on the first Monday in October, parceling out times for lawyers and the wretched they represented to beg the indulgence of him and his fellow jurists. But the clock struck midnight at the end of June, shutting the door on deliverance or condemnation. By tradition, they parceled out their weightiest decisions in those final weeks, occasionally eking into July, but never during his tenure. No, June 30 was his D-Day, his Waterloo, his checkmate.
He slammed the safe door shut and leaned heavily against the cold metal, his forehead pressed against his lifted arm. What if she couldn’t finish it? If they too got lost, like he had. Perhaps if he told the chief what he’d done, what he’d learned, she’d be able to help him. But if she knew, she’d be honor-bound to stop him. Deny him this last act of penance.
“Jurisprudence is one of the last pure métiers of Western creation, like the blues or bid whist.”
Part of him recognized the argument swirling in his head. A vicious tug-of-war he scarcely recalled from day to day. The neurologist had warned him that the symptoms would worsen. That the shadows in his once-clear mind would grow fangs and horns. That he would see enemies.
No, he reminded himself. There were enemies. Enemies he had to fight. Because if he told the truth, they might not believe him. Worse, they would destroy the truth. Too many doctors whispering about his deteriorating health, about paranoia and anxiety and conspiracy brought on by neurological disease.
It was better this way, to wait and see if his opponents accepted his king’s gambit. An opening sacrifice to strengthen his game. The White House thought itself so clever. Use his body’s own betrayal against him. Send in a spy to watch his moves and figure out what he’d learned. Executive privilege versus the great jurist Howard Wynn? Pah!
Filled with adrenaline, Wynn replaced the books, opened the study door, and returned to his chair. His mind was made up. Again. He would play the labyrinthine game the law demanded, and he would win. They wouldn’t stop him.
Abruptly, the anxiety sharpened, its razor claws slicing through reason in his suddenly clouded thoughts. Wynn jerked upright and hissed into the empty room, “You want to kill me, don’t you? Silence me?” He punched the air with an angry, shaking fist. “I know what you’ve done. How you’ve lied to us! Soon enough, I’ll prove it, and even your guard dogs won’t be able to save you!”
“Justice Wynn? Who are you talking to?” At the doorway to the study, his nurse appeared and frowned at the outburst. “Are you on the phone?”
The clouds receded, and he snarled, “I am conversing with Nature, woman. Smartest companion I am likely to encounter in this house.”
Unconvinced, his nurse, Jamie Lewis, crossed the threshold. She plastered on a smile. “It’s time for your medication and for bed, Justice. You need your rest. You had a long day today, and I don’t want you too tuckered to go to work tomorrow. Busy week.”
Wynn slapped the arm of the Chesterfield chair with a satisfying crack. “I’m not a goddamned child, Nurse Lewis. I don’t need to be coaxed into bed like a whelp in diapers. I sit on the bench of the United States Supreme Court.”
“Yes, you do.” Jamie edged closer, her crepe-soled shoes silent on the hardwood. Only her pale yellow skirt made a whisper of sound as she closed the distance between them. With the dulcet smile that she knew would irritate, she cooed, “You’re a fine lawyer, Justice Wynn. God knows, I’ve met enough of them, thanks to Thomas.” She gave a false laugh. “Perhaps I should have married a doctor, not a salesman.”
“A doctor? Scoundrels!” This time, the smack of his hand echoed for an instant. “Damned charlatans…refusing to do an honest day’s labor. Off golfing and finding diseases that were never lost.”
“Doctors are important, Justice. As important as lawyers, I’d wager. They’re keeping you here, aren’t they?”
“There’s no comparison,” he barked. “Jurisprudence is one of the last pure métiers of Western creation, like the blues or bid whist. I find modern physicians only slightly more capable than leeches and witches’ cauldrons. Eight years of training, and still they only barely practice at their craft!”
“Don’t lawyers practice the law?”
“When we stumble, no one dies.” His hand trembled as he flipped defiantly through the musty pages of Faust and knew he had lied. “Doctors are nothing but cranks and convicts roaming the earth, telling lies to the healthy. Gathering corpses for their experiments.”
Bushy eyebrows, twin shocks of alabaster against bronzed skin, lifted and lowered in rage. “But then, that’s not much better than this new crop of lawyers roaming the court. A generation laid to waste by the putrescence of their own thoughts. Not an incisive mind among them. Computer-addled miscreants who’d rather be told the answer than investigate. Can barely find one smart enough to fetch my coffee.”
“I thought you liked Mr. Brewer and Ms. Keene,” Jamie reminded him, standing at his elbow. His rant slid into a cough, and soon would warble off into mutterings. To urge the sequence along, she poked: “Just yesterday, you told me Ms. Keene was a bright young scholar worth watching.”
“I said no such thing!” He levered himself into a fighting stance and spat, “Don’t tell me I’ve said things I didn’t say. Especially about persons whom you are ill-equipped to hold small talk with, let alone discuss their relative cerebral merit, Nurse Lewis.” He sneered her title and clutched her arm, desperately afraid that he had indeed paid the glowing compliment about one of his clerks.
Too often, these days, he could not remember his own words from moment to moment. Or from afternoon to night.
Wynn glanced up to find the nurse watching him, checking him for signs of dementia or the coming of death. Had he finished his sentence? How long had he been silent? “Stop staring at me!” he snapped and tightened his hold on her muscular arm.
Jamie obliged and looked away before he could see her worry. His lapses were coming more frequently now. One day, the lapse would freeze in time. She’d seen it once before. Boursin’s syndrome was the name of the disease, and she could read its trek in Justice Wynn’s panicked eyes. Gently, she probed, “What were we discussing, Justice?”
“Why? So you can report me to the president or whatever goon sent you to spy on me?” He snorted derisively. “Did I go too far at the graduation? Have they told you to kill me?”
The nurse blanched. “Sir?”
“Of course you’re spying on me,” he told her gruffly. “I may be paranoid and dying, but I am not stupid.”
“You believe I would kill you?”
“Nothing so bold and direct. You simply write down your observations and pass them along, in violation of medical privilege, building their case against me.”
“I assume they make you report on my impending demise on a regular basis. Probably have you reading my papers at night, snapping photos so they know what I’m doing. Would love to have you tape me, but their surveillance can’t get inside. That interloper in the White House is afraid I’m going to crush his dreams, and they sent you to keep tabs on me. My speech today must have him cursing my name.”
Her eyes widened. “I don’t know what—”
“Don’t lie to me!” he barked. “For God’s sake, be the last exemplar of honesty left in this house.” A cough rattled through him, and he bowed his head as his lungs struggled for air. “How did they turn you? A bribe or a threat? Did they use your husband?”
The flush turned pale and the nurse’s head hung slightly. “Thomas is in trouble again. They’re considering arresting him for some scam. He swears he didn’t do it,” she whispered. “I didn’t have a choice.”
“You had a choice, Nurse Lewis,” he corrected tersely. “You simply chose the living over the dead.”
“They want to know if you can do your job, sir. If you still have the capacity to function. That tantrum at the commencement didn’t help.”
“That was no tantrum, you silly cow! It was strategy. It’s all strategy. Opening move of the king’s gambit! Every breath is a movement toward the endgame.” His eyes widened, and he shook his fist. “Did you tell them about my research? That I know what happened?”
Jamie frowned in genuine confusion. “Research? For the court?”
“Of course for the court! Why else would they have you here? I am a threat to national security, but one they can’t prove without admitting what they’ve done. So the White House trespasser sends in his carrier pigeons to watch me like a hawk. I know their secret!”
“Justice, you’re not making sense. Please, sit down.”
“I won’t sit, and I won’t be silenced!” The bellow carried an edge of hysteria. He thought again about his estranged son. “They can’t kill my boy with their lies!”
“No one is trying to kill Jared,” Jamie soothed, her hand stroking his stiffened back. “Please, Justice, calm down.”
“It’s a prisoner’s dilemma,” he whispered as his voice shook. “My son’s life for their defeat. But I’ve outsmarted them. Lasker-Bauer, which they will never suspect.”
“Lask Bauer? Who is he?”
“Not he, you simpleton. In the middle game, both bishops will die to save him. To save the endgame.”
“Who are the bishops?” Jamie frowned in confusion and gripped his shoulder. “Justice Wynn, who am I?”
“Leave me be!”
Jamie leaned closer and demanded, “Who am I?”
His eyes snapped to hers, his mind clearing. He snarled, “Someone I cannot trust. I can’t trust anyone anymore.”
“I’m here to help you.”
“Liar. You’re telling them I’m crazy. That I’m infirm. I am still strong, madam. Stronger than he is.” Still, agitation knotted his belly. If the call came on the right day, a day when he’d forgotten his plan, he might accept their demands and ruin everything he’d so carefully plotted.
Not yet. By God, not yet. Forcing his once-agile mind to focus, Justice Wynn summoned the thread of his conversation with Nurse Lewis. “Stop staring at me.”
“What were we talking about?”
“Before you admitted your perfidy, we were discussing the intellectual capacity of my law clerks, and I made a reference to a strategy beyond your grasp. And for the record, Ms. Keene is no better and no worse than the rest of her kind. Her sole differentiation is the glimmer of potential she tries to hide. Otherwise, she is as bright as one can expect given the utter absence of scholarship among her tutors.”
Jamie closed plump, steady fingers around Justice Wynn’s upper arm and steered him to the open door. “I thought she went to Yale? Isn’t that a good school?”
“A cesspool, just like Harvard, Stanford, or any other bastion of education in this end of days. A sea of sloppy thinking posing as legal education.” He stumbled and caught himself on the hallway wall. “No wonder lawyers want strict construction of the Constitution. Hell, that way, it’s already written down for their feeble minds.”
At the staircase, Jamie nudged him to the left. Wynn halted beneath a framed photo displaying a sweep of glacier, the blue vibrant and grand. Remembering their earlier exchange, he shook his head. “Knowing the law isn’t about the school. It’s about the mind. The heart. About understanding what the law intends as much as reading beneath what it says. Knowing how to find one’s way to the truth.” He breathed deep, resting more of his weight on Jamie’s sturdy frame, confident she’d hold.
He lifted his eyes to meet hers. Staring intently, he demanded, “Do you like Avery?”
She nodded hesitantly. “She’s impressive. Well-spoken.”
“That’s all you can say?”
With a shrug, Jamie countered, “Well, she has a bit of an attitude, if you ask me. Tough. Not like that charming Mr. Brewer. He’s going places. I can tell.”
“Brewer will build shallow empires,” Wynn snorted. “But Ms. Keene is a smart girl. Very smart. A bit preoccupied with proving herself, but she’s got a brain that she occasionally puts to use. Could be brilliant if she were a more precise thinker.”
“Precise, Nurse. A condition you have yet to stumble into.” Forcing his spine erect, he yanked his hand free. “I’m not an invalid. I can take myself to bed. Get me those pills of poison they’ve told you to foist upon me.”
“Yes, sir.” She propped open the bedroom door and waited as he lumbered through. “Why don’t you slip into your pajamas, and I’ll bring your medication in two shakes?”
“Don’t condescend to me, woman. I’m dying, not senile. I can hear your feeble attempts at patronization before they pass your lips.”
“I’ve laid the black pajamas on the bed. Do you need any help?”
“Only if it means I get a replacement for you.” Wynn glared at her retreating form. “Bring me a goddamned whiskey with my death pills.”
Eleven o’clock arrived before the private nurse crept into his room and discovered the open, vacant gaze, felt the reedy pulse that slouched through veins constricted by disease. She knelt beside him and winced as something bit into her flesh. Shifting her knee, she reached for the lamp with one hand and for the foreign object with the other. Her fingers closed over a pill bottle top that had fallen to the carpet. Raising it to the light, she saw the colored stripe she’d placed there herself and gasped. She reached under the bed, searching frantically for the bottle she knew she’d find.
The plastic bottle knocked against her hand and she drew it out, the label confirming her worst fears. He’d taken pills prescribed for the seizures that occasionally convulsed his limbs. Alone, the medication was dangerous, but when combined with his other meds and alcohol, the dose could be lethal. She groped under the bed, scooping up fallen pills, but she wouldn’t know how many were missing until she checked her charts.
But the evidence was clear. Justice Wynn had tried to kill himself.
Guilt clutched at her throat, forcing her eyes to the man she’d come to respect, even like, despite his fiery temperament. The promise of freedom and stability for her husband, Thomas, funded by the U.S. government, had seemed adequate justification for betrayal when she had accepted the post and her instructions. Become caretaker for a powerful but sick old man whose illness was slowly rendering him a security risk. Monitor his writings, report on his status weekly, and act when instructed. But that had been before she knew Howard Wynn.
Now her hands clenched around the disposable cell phone.
The number she was supposed to call, once she had confirmation that he was near death, had been drilled into her. A call, once made, that would guarantee he never awoke. She hesitated, unwilling to be the one to betray him as he suspected, but she told herself it was done now. Too late to undo the bargain she’d made. First, though, she’d check and be sure.
Pressing her stethoscope to his lungs, she heard labored breath sounds. The plastic cuff around his leaden arm registered a low blood pressure. She flicked the pen light with practiced care. Minimal response to light. In short order, she ran each test that would confirm his imminent death.
The whispered words caught her by surprise. “She has to finish it. For him.”
Instruments tumbled to the carpet, and she knelt again, this time in shock. “Justice Wynn?”
A feeble hand jerked up and seized her sleeve. “I’m not dead. Though you can try.”
“I didn’t want to—” Her fingers closed over the cold, trembling ones on her arm. “You took pills—”
“No time for excuses.” A hacking cough shook through him. “Avery has to save us. Swear it!”
“Let me call the ambulance,” she whispered, fumbling. “I’m so sorry!”
“It’s too late for apologies,” he wheezed as his eyes flickered. “Promise me. You’ll deliver a message. Just in case. Swear it.”
Too shocked to object, she responded, “I swear.”
“Tell her…tell her to look to the east for answers. Look to the river. In between. Look in the square. Lask. Bauer. Forgive me.”
“Justice? I don’t understand.” Frantically, Jamie leaned closer. “Who is Mr. Bauer?”
“Tell Avery. East. River.” He gasped then, choking on a bitter gulp of air. “Between. Square. Forgive me.”
Jamie shook his shoulders, trying to rouse him once more, to make sense of what she’d heard. But the irises stared out blankly into the tepid light, unresponsive. She moved his hand back to the bed.
“No. No,” she muttered aloud. “They won’t make me kill you.” She lifted the bedside phone and punched the speed dial assigned for such a moment.
“U.S. Marshals. What’s your emergency?”
“Justice Howard Wynn is unconscious. He needs immediate medical attention.”
“Nurse Jamie Lewis,” she answered tersely. “Now send an ambulance. He’s dying.”
“Please stay on the line.”
Once she was sure the ambulance was en route, she reached for the other phone and dialed the man she’d never met. She waited mere seconds for a connection.
“Is it done?”
“I think he took an overdose.”
“Maybe.” She hesitated. “Pulse is weak, and he’s in and out of consciousness. He’s near death.”
“Do nothing. I will arrive in 20 minutes.”
Her eyes squeezed shut. “I can’t.”
“You can’t do what?”
“I can’t do nothing. It’s not right.”
A long silence, then: “Leave the house, Nurse Lewis. At once.”
“I said I can’t. An ambulance is on the way,” Jamie confessed. “I had no choice.”
“This is a national security matter. You were told not to contact anyone except for me. Not to take heroic measures to prolong his life. Did you misunderstand?”
“No. But I had to help him. He needs a doctor.”
The admission of the former Army nurse told the man on the line that her usefulness was at an end. “Understood.”
Nonplussed by the response, she asked, “What happens now?”
“Take him to the hospital, and then you are relieved of duty. You’ll receive your payment tomorrow.” The line disconnected.
Jamie stared at the phone. She was free? Relief snaked through her, and her knees gave way. She sank onto the bed, her hip against the limp hand that had grabbed her only minutes ago.
A dying man had made a request of her. A last request. Her eyes fell on Justice Wynn, a man who’d served his country well. All he’d asked in his last moments of lucidity was for her to deliver a message. Save us.
Smoothing down the wrinkles in her uniform, Jamie dialed the cell phone again. In for a penny…
This time, it was the number she’d learned after months in his office. The rings gave way to a short greeting and then a tone. Jamie repeated the message the dying man had offered. She spoke quickly, her eyes on his. Then she finished: “Avery, his last words were Forgive me.”
Adapted from While Justice Sleeps, published by Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Stacey Y. Abrams.
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