Michael Fiske is the current senior law clerk for Associate Justice Murphy of the U.S. Supreme Court. One day, in the mailroom, poring over new appeal submissions for his boss, he picks up a package that weighs far too little for an appeal and has no return address.
Opening it, he finds only two sheets of paper, a badly scrawled letter from a military prisoner by the name of Rufus Harms and a second sheet that is neatly typed, but unsigned. Glancing at the pages, he notices several names that are prominent in his professional arena and they are now being accused of being accessories to murder.
Regardless of its incompleteness, Michael knows the pages will be entered into the Court’s database, complete with those names. Once entered, everyone in the building – and Washington, D.C. – will know about the accusations. So Michael takes the pages from the mailroom without logging them in and starts his own investigation into the charges.
Rufus Harms has claimed in his filing that, 25 years ago, four military personnel entered his stockade cell with batons and guns. All four had brutally beaten him on multiple occasions previously, and on this occasion, one had put a gun to his head and ordered him to kneel.
Rufus claims that he saw a glint of metal to his other side, felt a prick in his arm and remembered nothing else until he regained consciousness with his hands around the throat of a nine-year-old girl. Never able to remember how he got out of the stockade, let alone remember why he attacked the child, Rufus is convicted of murder and sent to a series of maximum-security military prisons over the years.
An unexpected event in Rufus’ current confines triggers his memory of the needle prick and the entire event comes flooding back from where the chemical has stashed it in his subconscious. Now Rufus wants his case to be reconsidered.
Michael is a brilliant analyst, but he has spent his entire legal career in the rarefied, intellectual air of the Supreme Court, He has absolutely no practical experience with prisoners or prisons. So, when he visits Rufus in the military prison, he brings the appeal with him, not knowing that his briefcase will be searched or the visit monitored. After the meeting, which does not go well at all, Michael is allowed to leave the prison but barely makes it one mile past the gates before he takes a bullet point blank to his right temple.
Enter John Fiske, Michael’s older brother. John does have practical experience with both prisoners and prisons. He was a cop until he took two bullets to the gut, sustaining internal injuries so severe that his expected lifespan has been reduced drastically. John is now a lawyer, a criminal defense attorney rather than a prosecutor, and is struggling to survive.
Since his brother’s birth, John has had to live in the shadow of his brother’s brilliance and his parents’ constant bragging about Michael. Steady, reliable and dependable, John has always been the rock for his parents, physically and financially, while Michael has prowled Harvard and the Supreme Court.
However, John has always loved Michael. It was his parents and the neighbors and the teachers who always made him feel second-rate, not Michael. But when their mother developed Alzheimer’s and Michael left John to bear the burden without him, John pushed Michael out of his life. They have neither seen each other nor spoken to each other since.
Now, for the first time in two years, John and Michael are back together in the same room. Unfortunately, that room is the morgue. John has just identified his brother’s body and their estrangement is now permanent. John may not have liked his brother lately, but he never stopped loving him. And he is determined to use his cop skills and his lawyer skills to assist the police in finding Michael’s killer.
Unfortunately, as far as John is concerned, the FBI agent assigned to the case has another agenda entirely. From Agent Warren McKenna’s viewpoint, John has no alibi for the time of his brother’s death; he was estranged from his brother for several years; and he is the sole beneficiary of his brother’s sizeable life insurance policy. To add to it all, the bullet that killed Michael was a 9mm, and John’s 9mm has disappeared. For McKenna, John is now the prime suspect in the murder and McKenna is after his head.
Shortly after Michael Fiske’s death, we are introduced, sans name, to the mastermind of his murder and the entire 25-year cover-up. This mastermind is clearly high up and well protected, based on the fact that he is the only member of the cabal not listed in Harm’s document. And, if you have read several Baldacci novels previously, you know that the major cast has been set at this point and that this person has probably been introduced to you in some other form already.
With that in mind, the reader can run back through the cast of characters so far in play and identify the names of only two people who are high enough in stature and politics to be that mastermind. But lest we get complacent and lazily read to see if our conjectures are accurate, Baldacci twists and turns the events until we are rapidly turning the pages, losing sleep and reassessing our ideas as to just how many bad guys there really are.
Throughout, Baldacci uses plenty of space and words to discuss the priorities, practices and politics of the Supreme Court system. Whether these words are an expression of Baldacci’s own personal beliefs woven into a fictional novel or whether these words are written specifically to help weave the puzzle pieces together, I do not know. But, in either case, they are definitely bold and thought provoking.
For over 500 pages of small type and closely spaced sentences in the paperback version, we are taken on a stomach-clenching roller coaster ride. That the killers will be eventually identified is a sure thing in a Baldacci novel. Whether they will be punished is an entirely different concept altogether. And it is never a sure thing in a Baldacci novel that all the good guys will survive to the last page. But what Baldacci does make certain, using the characters of both John and Rufus, is that this is a story about brotherly love and that brotherly love will survive to the last page.
Cover Art From Goodreads