When conservative law professor Alex Johnson is found dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound at his house in Chicago, everyone thinks it is suicide. Everyone except his brother, Royce, an FBI agent.
Without jurisdiction or leads, Agent Johnson leaves his cases and family to find out who killed his brother. There are many suspects: the ex-wife, an ambitious doctor with expensive tastes and reasons to hate her ex; academic rivals on a faculty divided along political lines; an African-American student who failed the professor’s course.
As Agent Johnson peels back layers of mystery in his rogue investigation, the brother he never really knew emerges. Clues lead from the ivy-covered elite university and the halls of power in Washington to the gritty streets of Chicago and Lahore, Pakistan. Ultimately, Agent Johnson must face the question of how far he is willing to go to catch his brother’s killer.
Mental State is about two brothers learning about each other in death, and about the things people will do when convinced they are in the right.
Praise for MENTAL STATE:
“Perhaps the best-timed novel ever, Mental State deals with Supreme Court confirmations, FBI investigations, and the sleazy doings of political operatives, in a fast-paced, page-turning way. Highly recommended.” —Glenn Harlan Reynolds, Instapundit and Brogan Distinguished Professor of Law
“Exciting and compulsively readable, Mental State marks the entrance of a striking new talent on the thriller scene. Todd Henderson’s confident debut draws the reader into the unfamiliar worlds of academia, the law, and backroom politics, while providing a fresh take on more familiar thriller ground like the world of law enforcement. The Professor’s murder mystery delivers the rough and tumble goods, and it will leave readers wanting more.” —Kurt Schlichter, lawyer and bestselling author
“Mental State is fascinating, detailed, and a pure page-turner. It's a must-read if you love the country, the Supreme Court, or just a book that will keep you up at night.” —Ben Shapiro, public intellectual, talk-show host, and bestselling author
“Try as I might, I could not put Mental State down. It’s terrific. At times hilarious, always interesting, and in parts truly disturbing. I loved it.” —Michael Seidman, Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center
“John Grisham and James Patterson have had a love-child and his name is Todd Henderson. Even if you gave up biting your nails in 7th grade, Mental State will bring you back to your nubs. Henderson’s debut novel had me white-knuckling it from chapter to chapter in this heady, emotional, suspenseful and expertly-crafted page-turner. Royce Johnson is a man on a mission, filled with rage and a hunger for the truth—Ethan Hunt ain’t got nothing on him!” —Mark Feuerstein, film and television actor
“When his brother dies of an apparent suicide, FBI agent Royce Johnson is the only investigator who knows it’s murder. Thus begins a taught, spellbinding journey through the dark, dank corridors of his family’s past and a shocking criminal enterprise. A well-written, fast-paced, rollercoaster of a ride you won’t put down until the last paragraph.” —Jack Getze, author of the award-winning Austin Carr Mystery Series
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|Publisher:||Down & Out Books II, LLC|
|Edition description:||New Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.64(d)|
Read an Excerpt
The phone on his government-issue desk shimmied and shrieked, red light flashing. Royce kept his feet up on the desk, ignoring it, and turned back to an x-ray he was holding up against the light. The bullet sat there in the lung's right lobe, taunting him. After two decades of doing this, the last few years on a narcotics squad, he didn't need a ballistics report to tell him it was clearly a .38. But who put it there?
Blink, blink, blink. The phone insisted, throwing flares over his dingy steel desk.
When it went solid red, he knew the secretary had answered.
He peered through the blinds that gave some privacy from the agents scurrying along the corridors of the FBI's Pittsburgh Field Office. Ms. Rachelle had the phone lodged between her head and shoulder, holding newly polished nails out at an angle — Steelers' colors, of course — while she waited for him to pick up.
The red light died when he stabbed it with a finger.
"Special Agent Johnson."
"This is Officer Dziewulski of the Rockefeller University Police Department. I'm afraid there's been an incident involving your brother."
Royce jerked his feet off the desk. No good conversation started with the word "incident."
"What did Alex do now?"
There was a pause, and through the muffled phone line a door opened and closed. "We're working on it. Chicago PD is sending detectives."
On a far wall of the office, a picture caught his eye. Officer Dziewulski's voice droned into white noise for a moment. He and Alex were on the Salmon River in Idaho together, running a two-man kayak down class-five rapids. Royce could taste the beer on his lips and hear the icy water racing past them in an endless rush to the sea.
The university cop's voice intruded again. "Forensics just arrived ..."
Forensics? Royce felt his stomach go into free fall.
"I'm really sorry, sir. I can send you information to claim the body. There'll be a post mortem. When a firearm is involved, you know ..."
"Wait a minute." Royce's tone was steady but his hands had developed a tremor. "Which Alex Johnson? There must be more than one. This one teaches —"
"It's him, sir. It's your brother. The body is on route to the morgue."
An image of Alex, with his pale skin against the cold metal of the embalmer's table, overwhelmed his ability to speak. He'd been in that room. It was always someone's brother, someone's father, someone's son. Now it was his.
"Can you hear me okay, Agent Johnson?"
"I can hear you. Tell me what happened."
"I'm really not supposed to go into —"
"Please." The word gasped out.
Dziewulski mulled it over for a moment.
"A neighbor called us a little before eleven a.m. this morning. Heard a strange noise at your brother's residence. The door was unlocked, we went inside, there he was. Single gunshot ... to the temple."
"Suicide?" He felt his voice break on the last syllable.
"Seems like it."
"He got divorced last year. Maybe six months ago." Conversations with Alex were like Facebook posts of family, sports, and kids — little happy glimpses and moments, but incomplete. His brother had tenure. Wasn't that a pretty stress-free life, damn it?
He choked out another question to Dziewulski. "Weapon?"
"Glock. Nine mil. By the body."
"Was it his?"
"Don't know yet. Serial number wasn't clear, maybe filed off; it'll take a little longer."
The conversation stalled. Royce couldn't muster a word.
"We talked to the dean over at the Law School." Dziewulski leafed through a notepad. "She said ... uh ... Professor Johnson didn't seem himself recently. She forwarded an email exchange from a mutual friend in the psychiatry department."
Royce snapped back from brother to agent.
"How did you get all this? I thought Homicide wasn't even there. The crime scene hasn't even —"
"She reached out to us. The dean, that is. I guess she heard from, well, I'm not sure how word spread across campus so quickly."
He wrote "Dean?" on his desk blotter, and circled it, followed by a big question mark. "Any note?"
"None yet. We're still looking. He has a lot of papers in his home office. A lot. We usually find notes close to the body. So maybe there isn't one. I probably shouldn't be, er, guessing either ..."
Dziewulski droned into white noise again as the investigator's rush came on — skin tingling, mind racing, mouth dry. Royce sat up in the chair and breathed deeply. Picked up his badge and rubbed it like a genie's lamp.
No way his brother owned that handgun. Claire would never have allowed a gun in the house with a bunch of little kids running around. For all Alex's conservative politics, he wasn't a gun guy — especially with a black-market Glock. Plus, if he'd planned his own death, he would have written goodbye. The farewell note would have taken up forty pages in the Harvard Law Review.
It wasn't suicide.
"I should probably go now," Officer Dziewulski's insectile voice chirped through the receiver. But Royce's end of the connection was already dead.CHAPTER 2
The Pittsburgh Field Office of the FBI occupied three floors of the six-story Carnegie Building. Royce sprinted out the front door toward a cab idling at the curb. It had taken less than an hour to get bereavement leave from his squad SSA and unload his active cases on the squad deputy.
He sprang into the back of the cab flashing his badge. "Airport."
Two whiskies and twenty thousand feet later, he was hurdling toward the crime scene on a United 737. He couldn't stop seeing Alex lying lifeless in his living room. Who would want to kill a law professor?
On reflex, he threw his hand up and downed the rest of his second whiskey. Reaching for the call light, he signaled for another.
In a murder case, the ex-wife is always a suspect, but Claire struck him as incapable of hurting anyone. He'd actually seen her scoop up spiders and set them free on the front porch of the home she shared with Alex before their divorce. The home where they were currently bagging his brother.
Was a pediatrician even capable of murder? She was as big-hearted a person as he knew. But breaking up can make people crazy, and Royce had seen her fly off the handle a few times. Not far enough off the handle to hire someone to kill her ex-husband. But on the other hand, under the right circumstances, people are capable of anything. Alex could be a bit of a dick, especially when he felt wronged.
He wrote Claire's name down, first with Johnson, then crossed it out. He started to form a letter, but realized he had no idea what her maiden name was. He didn't really know his brother anymore. He knew the kid version, the teen version, the college version, and a bit of the law school version, but that was it. Once his kid brother became a man, he was a blank screen. He didn't even know him well enough to guess who would want him dead.
A vision of himself at fourteen years old sprang to mind. Alex was ten, dancing around the bedroom in a broad half circle, white tube socks pulled up over his hands to above his elbows. Alex lunged forward, head down, with his hands covering his face, and then flailing upward.
Royce, also wearing white socks over his hands, with at least six inches and fifty pounds on Alex, bobbed backward and let loose a flurry of blows to the side of his brother's head. No doubt, he was the better slap-boxer, but Alex kept on challenging him. Why had the kid endured the beatings? Now, somewhere over Ohio, it came to him: Alex wanted to be with him, no matter what. If it had to be slap-boxing, then so be it. Alex used to trail after him, shouting facts from his Guinness Book of World Records to get attention. "Did you know that the fattest man in the world weighed over a thousand pounds? Robert Earl Hughes was his name. He's dead now."
Royce came back from the past, chuckling softly. Then the image of Alex now, gray and stiff and lifeless in a drawer at the morgue, rushed back. Reaching for the call light, he signaled again to the flight attendant, make it a double. He'd have to wait. The hospitality cart was positioned abreast of the hallway. Behind it, a pilot emerged to use the restroom. The flimsy cart was supposed to protect the cockpit from a bum-rushing terrorist. Royce shook his head. He knew better.
His thoughts drifted back to the day his job changed forever. On that clear September day in New York, fifteen years ago, he was across the street from the World Trade Center interviewing a CI when the first plane hit. The rest of the day was a blur of helping direct traffic, screams and smells of burning flesh and jet fuel, aiding the wounded and terrified, running from the falling debris.
The trauma of seeing jumpers explode just a few feet away came at night. Every night. It didn't help that fighting terrorism also became part of his waking life. "Every investigation is now a national security investigation," the assistant special agent in charge told his squad on September twelve. Royce liked his job less from that moment forward. He'd signed up to get Doug Dillinger, not Osama Bin Laden.
Now his job had changed again. Now it was personal.
Jack Daniels in hand, he turned back to Alex. Did he have enemies, rivals, spurned lovers, people he betrayed or disappointed? Certainly all of the above. But ones that would be moved to violence? He honestly didn't know.
So, he wrote down some general categories: "Student," "Work colleague," "Lover," "Creditor." Next to "Student," he put, "Tough grader? Recent run-ins with students?" He remembered half-sleeping through a recent Dateline episode that chronicled a student who had been caught cheating. The young man hired an assassin to kill the only person who knew the truth — the law school secretary. Royce made a mental note to pay a visit to the law school where Alex worked. Used to work. "Damn," he said it loud enough to catch the attention of the woman reading People magazine in the seat next to him.
As for other possibilities, he knew what Alex could have done — the FBI exposed him to the worst in everyone. Squeaky-clean do-gooders with drug problems, vengeful mistresses, guys who'd done business with the underworld. Maybe Alex borrowed money from a local thug and got behind on the juice. But that didn't make sense. Dead guys can't pay debts. Why would the Outfit cloud the message to make it look like suicide?
The stewardess — he never got used to calling them flight attendants — came by again. The Jack Daniels burned in his throat along with the knowledge that however it happened, everyone involved would want Alex's death to be suicide. Especially the university. This could turn into the kind of viral story that would significantly impact a law school's U.S. News ranking. Imagine what the popular website Above the Law would run if Professor Alex Johnson were killed in his home a few miles from work because his Socratic style humiliated someone in class? No wonder the dean was involved.
Out the window, ten thousand feet below, Chicago looked like a circuit board. Thousands of orangish streetlights lapped up on the western edge of Lake Michigan. Mayor Daley, the elder, designed the bright lights with a peculiar orange glow to signal the arrival to the Great City, gateway to the West. Royce cringed.
The Chicago PD would want to wrap this case up and put a bow on it as soon as possible. Officer Dziewulski bungled his only job, and probably couldn't be relied on to do more than put up yellow tape. The city cops would be slightly more competent but less pure of motive. Average cops almost always took the path of least resistance. In this case, that path was clear: suicide.
Royce leaned his head back and thought of Alex slap-boxing in the bedroom. Rafting on the river. Cold on an embalmer's table. He squeezed his eyes shut tight against tears. When they opened, the 737 had dipped below five thousand feet and the buildings of Rosemont were looming.
Maybe it was time to call Claire. Maybe if she sobbed or had hysterics over the phone it would help with his own mental state. He'd have to hold it together for both of them. Being the rock would help him forget.
The stewardess signaled that he wasn't allowed to use his phone, so Royce pulled his badge and flashed it.
Three rings later, Claire answered.
"Royce? Have you heard?"
"I have, Claire. I'm so sor —"
"Are you going to be taking care of the arrangements?"
Her cool demeanor took him by surprise. He heard talking and machines beeping in the background.
"Are you at work?" he asked incredulously. In the Johnson family, this was called "stupid stubborn." But Claire would have called it dedication or, maybe, coping.
"Kids getting chemotherapy don't care that my ex-husband was a selfish asshole." He heard her muzzle the phone and bark instructions at an intern.
"I'm at O'Hare. I can be at the hospital in an hour, hour and a half."
"It is not appropriate for you to come to my work, Royce." She said it without contractions to make the message as pointed as possible.
The plane touched down with a jolt.CHAPTER 3
Royce rounded the corner on the fourth floor of the Children's Hospital in his narcoticss-quad uniform — a Penn State sweatshirt and a black Pirates cap. He was aware the look was more fugitive than cop, or mourning ex-brother-in-law. Couldn't be helped though.
Claire was standing at the nurses' station talking to another doctor and rubbing her eyes the way people do when things aren't going well. Making eye contact, he raised a hand up to his shoulders, fingers spread, as if to say a gentle "hello." Claire nodded toward a plastic seat in the waiting area where some kids were coloring on a low table. Finding Nemo played on a flat-panel television, hung on the wall like a picture. Royce sat awkwardly and saw that one of the children, a girl about seven years old, was bald. A pink ribbon clung to a few stands of her hair. She smiled at him, and he swallowed hard, managing a half smile and a nod. The children made his pain easier to handle. They gave him perspective.
On the other hand, he heard how Claire always played cancer as a trump card in her fights with Alex, and now he understood why his brother resented her so.
Half an hour later when Claire tapped him on the shoulder, he jumped.
"Follow me," she said coldly.
Picking up his bag, he trailed after Claire, who had already used her ID to open a set of security doors leading back to the ward. The door was closing behind her, but he hustled and got his hand on it before it shut. Down the hall, the back of her leg vanished into a procedure room. She had the calves of a woman with a three-times-a-week personal trainer and a budget for fancy things. He slid in as the door shut behind them.
"What do you want? I told you not to come here." She stared at her pager while she talked.
"Why are you being like this?" He was genuinely puzzled.
"I'm at work. What do you want?" Her curtness made his blood tingle.
She looked up from her pager and met his eyes. He stared for a long minute, and she stared back. He didn't know her well enough to interpret this behavior. Was she always this cold or just in shock? Was this a game? The staring contest could have gone on for a while — neither of them liked losing, at anything.
Finally, he'd had enough. "You were married nearly twenty years. Four kids. You loved him once."
"I moved out a long time ago. My kids will carry this the rest of their lives. They're the ones I care about. Fuck him!"
"If you need my help with the funeral or whatever, I'll obviously try to find some time." She could sense his shock at her impatience and vulgarity.
"Jesus, Claire. The investigation just got started. Nothing's for sure." Her pager beeped. "Are we done here?"
"No." His tone was straight from Quantico, a voice to seize control of a situation. "No, we are not. Sit down."
Claire didn't appreciate anyone telling her what to do. She stood firm.
He reached out and grabbed her arm, leading her to examination table. He pulled a swivel chair away from the desk in the room and took a seat.
"Alex was murdered."
"What?" Claire's arms fell to her sides, and for the first time in this conversation she wasn't looking at her pager or phone. "The police said suicide. A gun was next to his head. All the telltale signs, they told me." She used her fingers to make air quotes around "telltale."
"I know what they think."
"I even talked to his dean, and she said Alex was acting strangely in the past few weeks." She sounded panicked.
Royce was surprised. Alex's boss was on Claire's list of things to do when she first heard her ex-husband was dead? Or had the dean called her?
"I don't think it's suicide, Claire. I'm here to find out what really happened." "The FBI is involved?" Claire whispered, even though they were alone.
"No. This is between you and me. I'm not sure how I'm going to swing this work wise, but I owe it to my baby brother. There's a killer out there, I'm sure of it."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Mental State"
Copyright © 2018 M. Todd Henderson.
Excerpted by permission of Down & Out Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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