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The Four-Night Run by William Lashner

The Four-Night Run



They say Caleb Breest killed his father when Breest was just fourteen, buried him in the basement, and dug him up each Father's Day to piss on his bones. They say Caleb Breest cracked the skull of a motorcycle freak who looked at him wrong, and then pried the skull open like a coconut. They say Caleb Breest once fought Satan in a barroom brawl, wrestled the demon to the floor, bit off his nose, and spit the stub into his ugly maw.

Caleb Breest ruled like a dark feudal lord over the forgotten western sector of an old shore town on the eastern coast, a sordid landscape of tenements and saloons and old hotels with shattered balustrades lining their dank, rotting porches, a forgotten place its denizens called Crapstown.

You know the city we're talking about. It had once been a famous family resort, but having grown decrepit over long decades of neglect, it turned to gambling to reverse its flagging fortunes. Now the length of its seaside was stacked with giant cash registers attached to high-rise garages, and for three blocks in from the once-renowned boardwalk there were busy streets and neon-lit buildings and the splash of life. This narrow strip was dubbed Casinoland, and it was favored by the politicians and protected by the police and ruled by the corporate owners of the high-toned towers that fronted the sea. But the revitalization promised by the politicians never progressed beyond Casinoland. The baccarat games and roulette wheels, the slot machines and dice pits and blackjack tables did more than drain money from hundreds of miles up and down the coast and west to the mountains. They drained the very light from that part of the old resort town outside the neon's embrace, casting it into perpetual shadow.

The city had now become a world of contrasts. The brittle brightness of Casinoland, promising so much even as it picked your pocket clean, and the darkness of Crapstown - the failed factories, the listing houses, the heaving sea of cracked cement and rusting steel - promising nothing and meting out worse. And for the unlucky residents of Crapstown, their view of the ocean blocked by the casino towers, there was nothing left but to kick away the rats and pick their uncertain way through the rubble between the Charybdis of Casinoland and the Scylla that was Caleb Breest.

They say Caleb Breest, cut from his high school football team because of his grossly enlarged heart, was so bitter at the slight he beat the first-string fullback until the boy's face fell apart. They say Caleb Breest once lost a poker pot to a man with an aces-over-boat and proceeded to flatten the man's Mercedes with a steamroller while the man was still inside the car. They say Caleb Breest grabbed by the neck a labor leader named Malloy, beat him to within an inch of his life, and then went the extra mile. Malloy was reportedly trying to expunge Breest's influence from the local hotel-worker's' union before he was found naked and dead in an alley, his face smashed so brutally that his wife could identify him only from a scar on the left side of his chest.

After a three-month investigation, a grand jury indicted Caleb Breest for the murder of Peter Malloy, and Breest was brought before the bar of justice at the county courthouse that sat in the uneasy penumbra between the light of Casinoland and the darkness of Crapstown. Standing for the state were two special agents of the State Bureau of Investigation, three police detectives, and a team of four prosecutors, led by the first assistant county prosecutor himself, Thomas Surwin. Representing Caleb Breest, with only an intern from the local university by his side, was a thirty-year-old attorney with a smashing wardrobe and a beguiling smirk he practiced daily in front of the mirror.

It is fair to say the prosecution found itself shorthanded.

If you had asked J.D. Scrbacek why he had agreed to represent a monster like Caleb Breest, he would have given you a long lecture on the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, but suffice it to say that he was a criminal defense attorney and Breest was a criminal, and so they were made one for the other.

Representing a man like Caleb Breest severely limited Scrbacek's options for his defense. He couldn't, for example, stand behind the hulking figure of the defendant, put his hands on his client's massive shoulders, and say, "Is this the face of a murderer?" because the inevitable answer would be, "Absolutely." And he couldn't bring in a parade of character witnesses, because the character of Caleb Breest was appallingly evident. Even Breest's mother showed the terror of a whipped dog whenever the defendant's eyes, hidden behind the prescription-free spectacles Scrbacek had provided, were trained upon her. And Scrbacek couldn't demonstrate for the jury all the good Breest had done for the community, because he had done no good for the community, had for the whole of his life only taken what he wanted and given nothing but his fists and his spit and the blood of countless victims he had spilled upon the dirt.

No, in the face of the prosecution's considerable evidence against Caleb Breest, Scrbacek had no choice but to attack the prosecution itself, which meant attacking Thomas Surwin, whose name Scrbacek dutifully mispronounced as "Sour-Wine" during the whole of the trial, to the first assistant county prosecutor's obvious distress.

In his examination of the cop who first found Malloy's body:

Q: And how long did it take for Mr. Sour-Wine to show up at the crime scene?

A: No more than half an hour.

Q: And he examined everything very carefully, didn't he?

A: Yes, sir.

Q: Kneeled here, kneeled there, bent over the naked body to get a close look at every cut and slash, every inch of mortified flesh.

A: He was quite interested in everything, sir.

Q: And was it usual for the first assistant county prosecutor, with so many important things to do in the office, to show up at a crime scene and fuss so much over a naked corpse?

A: I'd never seen it before, sir.

In his examination of the crime scene search officer:

Q. And as you found the drop of blood you labeled Stain 37, Mr. Sour-Wine was there the whole time, looking over your shoulder?

A. Yes, he was.

Q. Asking questions was he? Making comments? Offering suggestions?

A. The choice is 'D,' sir. All of the above.

In his examination of the lab technician who worked with the blood:

Q. And who was there, with you, as you performed your tests on Stain 37 and prepared it for DNA analysis?

A. Mr. Surwin.

Q. Surprise, surprise. Mr. Sour-Wine just happened to drop by the lab, and have access to all your equipment, at the very moment you were performing your tests?

A. Yes, sir.

In his examination of the coroner:

Q. And the autopsy on Mr. Malloy was done in a closed procedure, isn't that right, Doctor?

A. Only authorized personnel were allowed.

Q. And call it just a lucky guess, Doctor, but did authorized personnel include the ubiquitous Mr. Sour-Wine? Was Mr. Sour-Wine there as you cut up the corpse of Mr. Malloy and made your crucial determinations as to the circumstances surrounding his tragic and violent death?

A. That is correct.

And in his examination of the deal-making scum-sucking sell-his-momma-for-a-buck prison stoolie:

Q. And when you thought you had information relevant to Mr. Malloy's murder, with whom did you first speak?

A. I think it was with that Mr. Surwin over there.

Q. Mr. Sour-Wine? Are you sure?

A. Yep.

Q. And as you had this first meeting with Mr. Sour-Wine and worked out what you should say in this testimony, was there anyone else there?

A. Not that I remember.

Q. Just you and Mr. Sour-Wine, hatching up the stories you would tell to this jury.

A. I don't know if we was hatching nothing. We was just talking.

Q. Just talking. Just you and Mr. Sour-Wine, chatting, chatting, chatting, like a couple of old society ladies out to lunch.

A. I guess so.

It was not a subtle strategy, but this was not a subtle crime, Caleb Breest was not a subtle man, and the DNA analysis that matched Stain 37 with Caleb Breest's own blood was not itself a subtle piece of evidence. The motive proposed by the prosecution was weak and unconvincing, Scrbacek knew, but if that DNA evidence stood, his client fell, and so he went tooth and claw after Thomas Sour-Wine. The jury could deduce Surwin's penchant for dirty tricks from the way his face reddened and fists clenched every time Scrbacek mispronounced his name. And it wasn't as if Surwin didn't fit the part. With a long, pinched face, flattop crew cut, boxy blue suit, and narrow tie, he looked like something that had wandered zombielike straight out of the Nixon White House.

So went the trial of Caleb Breest. It was featured on the front pages of the papers each day, it was updated on the news broadcasts each evening, it was argued over in the seedy bars of Crapstown and discussed in the gambling pits of Casinoland. For its two-month length, it held the entire city in its thrall.

Caleb Breest didn't testify, of course. The biggest problem in the defense of Caleb Breest was always Caleb Breest himself, so he sat silent and immobile the whole of the trial, staring at the witnesses through those fake glasses, his face as expressive as a granite cliff. And he kept the same still posture as J.D. Scrbacek stood before the jury and delivered, with clarity and passion, his closing argument.

"They say Caleb Breest once shot a man because he didn't like the color of his eyes. They say Caleb Breest burned down a bar just to hear the screams. They say Caleb Breest is a monster from the deep, wearing a suit to hide his scales, and glasses to disguise his demon eyes. They say all these things about Caleb Breest in the hope that you will put him in jail for something he did not do. For what does it matter if Caleb Breest didn't kill Peter Malloy, when he just as well might have?

"Thomas Sour-Wine surely knows what Caleb Breest is. He has heard all the stories and has grown certain as to Caleb Breest's malignancy. So what does it matter if Thomas Sour-Wine creates out of thin air a labor dispute to provide motive for Caleb Breest to murder Peter Malloy? What does it matter if Thomas Sour-Wine leans over the corpse of Peter Malloy and drops on Peter Malloy's chest the tiniest spatter of Caleb Breest's blood, conveniently stored in the police lab from his prior arrest? What does it matter if Thomas Sour-Wine instructs the crime scene search officer to take a sample of just that drop, or instructs the lab technician to find a match, or instructs the coroner to state that the killer had beastly strength, or hatches plots with criminal riffraff to spread malicious untruths about the defendant on this very witness stand? What does all that matter when we know what Caleb Breest is, when to find him guilty would be a public service?

"Well, I'll tell you what Caleb Breest is, first and foremost. He is an American, the same as you, born under the protections of our Constitution, endowed with the same rights given to all of us at birth. The presumption of innocence. The right to face his accusers. The right not to be framed by an overzealous prosecutor whose high-minded self-righteousness compels him to manufacture evidence and place before you lies, in an effort to purge from his city a man he believes has no right to walk freely along the same streets as he.

"And who is next, I wonder, to fall under Thomas Sour-Wine's evil eye? Me, for defending a man like Caleb Breest? The pharmacist who sells him the heart medicine that keeps him alive? The tavern owner who sells him his whiskey? The passerby who tips his hat in greeting? Who is safe if Caleb Breest is not? And let me ask you, ladies and gentlemen: Wwhat are they saying about you, and what is Thomas Sour-Wine going to do about it?"

J.D. Scrbacek would never have admitted it, but he felt fear as he sat beside Caleb Breest, awaiting the jury's decision.

Breest was a big man, with the shoulders of a steer, and Scrbacek wasn't sure how that bull would react to a guilty verdict. Loaded in the back of Scrbacek's Ford Explorer was a change of clothes for Breest: black pants, black turtleneck, long camel coat. The plan was for Scrbacek to drive Breest directly from the courthouse to Dirty Dirk's, Breest's regular hangout, for a gala celebration of the acquittal. There would be fireworks in Crapstown that night, Scrbacek had been assured, when the big man got off - so long as the big man got off. But what would happen if Breest was found guilty? Would Breest, in a paroxysm of rage, lash out at the closest person to him, the man upon whom he had rested all his hopes for freedom and who, in the crucible of the trial, had failed him? They say Caleb Breest once crushed the throat of a Frenchman with one blow, just because he was French. Scrbacek showered regularly, sure, but still he couldn't be certain Breest wouldn't do the same to him. So it was with genuine concern for his own neck that Scrbacek watched the jury file back into the courtroom. "All rise," said the bailiff.

Caleb Breest put his massive hands on the table and pushed himself to his feet. Scrbacek stood beside him like a thin willow shaking in the breeze.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury," said the judge, "have you reached a verdict?"

"We have," said the jury foreman, before handing the verdict form to the bailiff to take to the judge.

The judge reviewed the paper, her face impassive, and then said to the foreman, "In the matter of the People versus Caleb Breest, on the charge of murder in the first degree, how do you find?"

Not a breath stirred as the jury foreman prepared to speak.