Assistant Attorney General Harry Mize winced as the gavel crashed down. It was the first time he’d ever broken ranks with steadfast stoicism in a court of law. His hands were trembling, the pit of his throat desert dry. Under his starched white shirt, the perspiration percolated on the small of his back. At that precise moment, June 23 at 11:36 a.m., he knew things were going to change. He couldn’t remember a more devastating defeat in his thirty-three years of legal practice.
He wanted to scream, but instead, he placed the palms of his hands on his legs underneath the table so his suit pants would absorb the moisture. He took deep breaths before wiping the beads of sweat from his creased forehead.
He thought about home. He longed to nap on the banks of the Tennessee River. He wanted to bury his face in the palms of his hands, but he couldn’t appear weak. Harry Mize was one of the best lawyers in the country. Hardened. Seasoned. And after more than three decades of successful trial work, he wasn’t about to let one misguided decision break him. Or was he? As usual, Mize was his most persuasive adversary.
Mize considered the hordes of onlookers—the voyeurs of this molestation. They had arrived early, had filled the courtroom, and had no clue what had just happened. Not what really happened. They had no idea of the effect Judge Sandersen’s ruling would have on their country. Following the ruling, he had heard the hands slapping, had smelled the pungent scent of drugstore cologne, and had witnessed the supercilious sneering.
If they only knew, he thought.
He could feel the odious breath of reporters on the back of his neck and visualize their snarling, gnashing teeth. He did not doubt that staff writers for the more radical publications would dedicate the afternoon to crafting catchy headlines about the big win. They got what they wanted. What they thought they wanted anyway.
If he only could tell them.
He reminisced of his years as a small-town federal prosecutor in Tennessee. His cases rarely had caught the media’s attention. He had enjoyed being in front of an audience of twelve jurors who, despite their modest backgrounds, could articulate right and wrong better than most. That was his Roman Coliseum, his platform for excellence. Trial after trial, Harry Mize would lean his tall, distinguished frame over the podium, reading glasses notched just on the tip of his pointed nose, arguing—preaching—in his Southern drawl about the meaning of justice. He remembered closing arguments when jurors nodded in agreement—some even winked—as he told them what really had happened.
But his efforts today produced no positive reaction. There had been no objective jury members. Only the judge’s opinion mattered, and she wasn’t buying his merchandise.
He thought about the judge. Mize, fifteen years her senior, thought about the things he couldn’t tell her no matter the outcome. He had misjudged her to his detriment. He thought she would eschew public pressure. Maybe his miscalculated hope sprang from his knowing she was, for all practical purposes, the last line of defense. Perhaps it was some form of childish instinct clinging to the stubborn but often disproved theory that the good guys always win.
Did she realize that what was to come would be traced back to June 23, at 11:36 a.m.? Did she have any idea what she’d just done? Why couldn’t he just tell her?
He knew why.
His trademark eloquence had proven insufficient to penetrate the facade she was staging for the national audience. Judge Sandersen had played the role of her life, swallowing Slick Nick’s chicanery like a largemouth bass inhales a crankbait. Her performance was so magnificently orchestrated that Mize wondered when she’d found time to rehearse her irrational gobbledygook. He knew for certain it had been before his argument, before he arrived at the Prettyman Federal Courthouse, and before donning her fancy-schmancy lipstick and masking her facial canvas with paint-thick rouge.
He thought about Nick Duncan, his court-appointed adversary, despised by liberals and conservatives but exalted by misfits who were impervious to reality and devoid of ideological mooring. Slick Nick was reveling in his victory, along with his gallery of iconoclastic disciples. His pomp was only outdone by his basking in the career-motivated praise of his brainwashed underlings.
Mize began to fidget, stroking his light-blue Hermes necktie. The courtroom walls started to close in. He felt like the ceiling was going to crumble down—first, tile by tile; then, stone by stone and followed by a climactic avalanche of falling debris.
Long, deep breaths. He closed his eyes and tried not to fret. This wasn’t the end, was it? He could appeal the ruling. Yet, without knowledge of what really was transpiring, he couldn’t be sure that the appellate courts would reverse. Terrorist cases had become so laden with politics that nothing was certain anymore.
Mize knew that the outcome of today’s hearing was all about politics. Lady Justice wasn’t blind. She was wearing see-no-evil lenses and had been cursed with a more troubling disability—muteness. There existed no doubt in his mind that political machinations had suffocated legal precedent on this day.
After wiping his hands on his thighs, he turned around to face an empty courtroom. He then closed his briefcase, slid back his chair, and stood up. And with a final deep breath, turned to walk away.
As he approached the door, Mize noticed a man sitting in the back corner of the courtroom. Mize tried to break eye contact, but for some reason, the man captivated his attention, his eerie demeanor calling for recognition. The man rose from his seat but refused to interrupt the stare. Mize stopped by the door and waited for him to approach.
“Unfortunate outcome,” the man said as he sprang forward, squeezing his short, portly frame between the seats.
“I’ve never been a good loser,” Mize responded, losing interest and leaning his left shoulder into the large courtroom door.
The man was a step from Mize. His rugged face broke into a slanted smile, and he extended his meaty right hand. Mize noted that the man’s gnarly teeth were tarred with coffee and tobacco stains.
“I’m Elliot Nichols. It’s been a while.”
Wanting to escape, Mize shook the man’s hand, noticing the weak grip. “Have we met?” He felt obligated to ask the question, though disinterested in anything the man had to say.
“We met several years ago in Nashville. You prosecuted Dr. Barnett—“Doctor Love,” they call him now—for sexual misconduct with a patient. I worked for the hospital.”
Mize remembered the case well. He had put the scummy obstetrician in jail for fifteen years.
“I wasn’t a witness,” the strange man said, “just an observer.” His assertiveness and clever delivery made it difficult for Mize to leave. Mize, though, was aching to disengage, yearning to return to his office. “What’s your reaction to today’s ruling?”
“You win some, you lose some.” Impatient with the small talk, Mize leaned harder against the door until it creaked open. “Take care,” he said, not waiting for a response.
Mize walked on the right side of the hallway, his mind a shambles until he approached a pack of reporters. Its focus was on the victor, each scrivener trying to scream her questions louder than the others as Slick Nick—his morals as solid as melting ice—dictated tomorrow’s headlines. Mize bolted past the crowd, leaving little chance for a successful pursuit. He then turned the corner, scurried down the escalator, and rushed by the security guards, never once stopping until the revolving door deposited him into the piercing sun. Shielding his eyes, he noticed, for the first time, verdigris stains that, over the years, had dripped like green blood down the statue of heroes located on the courthouse grounds.
Mize took a detoured route back to the Main Justice building so he could collect his thoughts. He would first tell the attorney general and Blake Hudson. They would brief the White House counsel and the president’s chief of staff. The president was taking an extended weekend at Camp David, so hopefully, Mize thought, the briefing would be tomorrow—late tomorrow. He needed time to consider plausible options. He wasn’t looking forward to his report. There was no way to polish gritty news.
His mind kept wandering back to Elliot Nichols. Something was disturbing about the man, about the way he looked and what he’d said. What was it? Mize couldn’t stay focused long enough to put his finger on it. He struggled to remember their brief conversation.
Mize realized he couldn’t prolong the inevitable any longer. He looked at his watch and realized it was well past time to return and deliver the news. Approaching the Navy Memorial on Pennsylvania Avenue, he could see the Main Justice building across Ninth Street beyond the National Archives. A part of him wished it had disappeared. He stopped short of the middle of the memorial’s circular fountain to catch his breath. His heart hadn’t quit pulsating since Judge Sandersen’s ruling, and the walk had only increased his blood pressure.
He walked closer to the cool water and leaned against a mural of fallen sailors etched in copper. The mist emanating from the fountain covered his face before trickling down his neck. He knelt down, set his briefcase on the ground, and closed his eyes.
A minute later, he stood up, raised his head to the sky, and whispered a short prayer.
And then on June 23, at 12:25 p.m., Harry Mize collapsed.
Excerpt from Scavenger Hunt by Chad Boudreaux. Reprinted with permission from Morgan James Fiction.