At the moment Max Allan Collins’ newest release, Supreme Justice, is on virtual tour with TLC Book Tours. As part of the tour today I have an excerpt for you all to enjoy. Catch a glimpse of Collins’ newest story!
You can see more with the tour by clicking through to TLC Book tours.
Excerpted from SUPREME JUSTICE by Max Allan Collins. Copyright 2014. Published By Thomas & Mercer. Used by permission of the publisher. Not for reprint without permission.
In less than an hour, Nicholas Blount would be staring into the infinite blackness of a Glock barrel.
But right now, at the end of another typically long and tedious day as a Supreme Court law clerk, Nicky seemed almost to bounce across the well-appointed outer office of Associate Justice Henry Venter.
If you didn’t have endless energy, best not to clerk at the top court in the country—especially if you were working for this notoriously conservative, famously hardworking African American justice.
Nicky glanced into the AJ’s office. There sat the man himself, leaned over in his tufted-back chair, tiny reading glasses perched on his nose, a green-shaded banker’s lamp on the corner of the massive mahogany desk providing just enough light to view the brief before him. Bull-necked with graying hair, Venter had played football at the University of Missouri, though keeping in shape had never been a priority. Still, soft around the middle though he might be, Venter was fairly fit for seventy.
“Mr. Blount,” came the resonant rumble from within the office, “you’re hovering again.” The man hadn’t as much as glanced up.
How did he do that?
And the deep voice continued: “Is there something I can do for you, Mr. Blount?”
“Uh, no, sir,” Nicky said, flushing. Why did he always feel that Venter considered him an idiot? “It was just the opposite.”
Now Venter looked up, a crease between his brows. “Oh?”
“I mean, I was just wondering if you needed anything.”
Venter took off his glasses and rotated his neck. “I’m fine,” the Justice said. “I think it’s about time we called it a day.”
About time is right, Nicky thought.
The AJ might have been past the average man’s retirement age, but his work ethic showed no sign of flagging. The judge was still the first one in and, generally, the last one out. At just after seven, stopping now would make a twelve-hour day, but Nicky knew all too well that Venter routinely worked an hour or two—or more—beyond that.
“Should I call Hudson?” Nicky asked, referring to the Justice’s driver, a retired bailiff.
Venter rested his glasses on the desk, then wiped two meaty paws over his face before answering. The man sighed. Actually sighed. “Do you have time for a drink, Mr. Blount?”
Was that a trick question?
The AJ had never shared a coffee with Nicky much less a meal during the six months that Nicky had been here—six months during which Nicky had never felt more than a glorified gopher.
“Of course, sir,” Nicky managed.
“Call Hudson. Tell him we’ll be down in ten minutes.”
Within half an hour, Nicky was sitting across from Venter at a table in the bar of the Verdict Chophouse, a restaurant frequented by the judiciary and its top staffers. Nicky was used to being in the same room with the most powerful men in the country—after all, his father was a senator and his brother a governor—but the patrons of this restaurant were enough to give a cable news anchor whiplash. One former Cabinet member, a former Supreme Court Justice, the current Director of the CIA, and two CEOs of major financial institutions . . . and that was just one table.
The bar was all dark wood and linen tablecloths (meals could be ordered here), with a formal service staff as alert as first responders. Tradition oozed from the walls of the Verdict, which had served its first customer during the administration of Teddy Roosevelt and had been a DC staple ever since. Oil paintings of past justices were spotted around with tiny gold identifying plaques. Venter and his aide were seated at a table for four off to the side, near a fire exit.
Justice Venter had ordered a Scotch on the rocks, and Nicky was allowing himself a martini, but only one.
“You have been chafing, Mr. Blount,” his boss said, the man’s voice hushed, his tone friendly, but resonant enough that Nicky did not feel relaxed—all the martinis in DC couldn’t have done that.
“I’m not sure I follow, sir.”
“You feel underutilized in your position.”
It was not a question, yet Nicky wondered if he should answer as if it were. The statement rang true, of course. Of the four clerks working for Justice Venter, Nicky came from the most politically powerful family, had the best scholastic record, and had outshone the others at every opportunity. Yet Venter had always seemed to favor them over him.
Against his better judgment, Nicky said, “I guess I do, sir. Feel underutilized.”
“I don’t think there’s any guesswork involved.” Venter gave him a rare hint of a smile. “You’re under the misapprehension that I dislike you.”
Emboldened by this honest exchange, Nicky said, “That’s a little strong, sir. I would say . . . I suspect you don’t particularly care for me.”
“I’m sure that’s an accurate assessment of your own feelings, Mr. Blount.” He shrugged the big shoulders. “But I assure you it’s a misrepresentation of mine.”
“How so, sir?”
The hint of a smile blossomed into a grin—a goddamned grin. But was it friendly? Or sinister?
The Justice said, “Clerks at the Court come and go, Mr. Blount. Some will go on to great things—most will not.”
“You, Mr. Blount—you, I believe, can do great things.”
Nicky frowned, not sure he’d heard right. The AJ might have slapped him. “Thank you, sir . . . ?”
A cough of a laugh seemed prompted by the unsureness of Nicky’s response.
Reading Nicky’s confusion, Venter smiled again, and this time there was no way to read it as anything but sincere. “I’ve been saving you, Mr. Blount. To use a sports analogy . . . you are going to be my cleanup hitter.”
“Sir, I . . .”
“Just listen. There is a certiorari petition coming in on a case I want to make sure the Court hears. Your summary, Mr. Blount, will be the first volley. Now do you understand?”
“Yes, sir, thank you, sir,” Nicky said. He sat forward. “If I might ask, what is the case?”
“Illinois v. Meachem—you know it?”
Nodding, Nicky said, “Yes, sir.”
“Do you mind demonstrating that you know it?”
“Yes. That is, no. The State of Illinois arrested Laverne Meachem under the state’s eavesdropping statute because he used a cell phone to take footage of three officers who were beating up his brother.”
“Yes,” Venter said. “Thoughts?”
Two ski-masked men in black burst past the maître d’ and into the bar. The smaller of the two brandished a nine-millimeter pistol while the bigger one clutched an AK-47.
Both Nicky’s and Venter’s mouths hung open in interrupted conversation turned to shock.
The larger of the intruders shouted, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is a robbery! Hands where we can see them! Get frisky and die—understood?”
No one answered, but most hands went up or at least rested on tables as the nine-millimeter-wielding, smaller figure moved deeper into the room, withdrawing with his free hand a plastic garbage bag from somewhere and shaking it open.
In a harsh, high voice, he yelled, “Wallets, jewelry, and cell phones!” He began at the bar, with the patron nearest him.
Fear spread through Nicky’s body like sudden flu, and just as abruptly his bladder seemed at bursting. Until those men exploded into the bar, he hadn’t even known he had to go. Now the discomfort was unimaginable.
The man with the pistol moved around the horseshoe-shaped counter collecting wallets and other valuables from customers. His partner’s eyes roamed the room, searching for any hero who might try to break up the robbery or call 911 before a cell had been confiscated.
Nicky’s own cell felt like a brick clipped on his belt. He would not be the hero. He would not die in some stupid damn bar robbery and never be attorney general, never follow his brother into even higher office. He resolved right then, for the good of the nation, he would not do anything stupid.
Under his breath, Venter said, “Now is not the time to do anything rash, Mr. Blount.”
No shit, he thought, but did not share this response with this Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. He merely nodded, which was all he could manage, busy as he was doing battle with his bladder.
The holdup man with the garbage bag and the big pistol now moved closer to Nicky and Justice Venter, collecting more items as he hopped from table to table.
Nicky risked a look at the bigger man, whose eyes slow-scanned the room like a prison tower guard, ready to use the AK-47 he held at port arms.
When Nicky turned back, the shorter one stood before him, as if he’d materialized, and Nicky found himself staring down the barrel of the Glock into that endless black hole. Again, his bladder screamed.
“Stop stalling, haircut,” the holdup man said, the barrel of the Glock inching toward Nicky’s face.
“I . . . I . . .” was all Nicky got out.
Nicky reached slowly to his belt to remove his cell phone, fumbling a little. From the corner of an eye, he saw Venter start to rise.
What was Venter doing? Trying to stop this?
Nicky wanted to shout “No!” but the word caught in his throat. The Glock swung away from Nicky’s face, toward Venter, who was on his feet now. The gun barrel belched flame, and its explosion brought Nicky momentary deafness followed by intense ringing.
A pink mist lingered between him and the falling Associate Justice, and blood and brain matter splattered the nearby fire exit. Several patrons were screaming, a woman and a man or two, in terrible nonharmony that got cut off by an automatic burst from the AK—into the ceiling, not the patrons.
The weapon’s owner yelled to his partner, “Let’s book!”
The shorter holdup man glared at Nicky, who knew, if he survived this, he would never forget the ice-blue eyes behind the ski mask. Then the barrel of the Glock filled his field of vision again.