Trial & Terror

(An Excerpt)
by Adam L. Penenberg

Chapter 1

Summer Neuwirth sat at the defense table, flipping through her State Law Handbook, letting her eyes glaze over the legal jargon and strings of penal code numbers. She tried to block out the stares of her client, Shadow Marsalis, who was perched forty-five degrees in his chair, his eyes glued to her profile.

Nearby, she heard whispering. “I’ve seen more trials than you’ve seen ball games,” Ed Sprague, a bailiff for twenty years, said to Gus Patterson, a new recruit. “This one’s going to do some serious time.”

Patterson put his moustache comb back in its case. Growing a moustache was a rite of passage for Haze County bailiffs. “No way. He’s getting off.”

Sprague guffawed. “He already got off. That’s why he’s here.”

Summer eyed the bailiffs. Patterson looked away. Sprague ogled her legs, until he noticed her noticing him. Too weary to be disgusted, Summer turned her attention back to the legal handbook, to the page on crimes of moral turpitude.

But she wasn’t reading; she was thinking. Summer’s nerves had been frayed even before she’d been assigned this case. Harold Gundy, the prosecutor, had used it not only to advance his political career but also to torment her. After opening arguments, he’d trapped her in an elevator and asked, “How do you know you’re not defending your rapist? How do you know he isn’t the one who burned your back and tortured you?”

Then there was the day Leah Davenport, the victim, had to be restrained when the video of her rape was played for the jury. Afterward, she caught up with Summer in the hall, wouldn’t let her escape. Sobbing, she said, “Underneath your law degree you’re a woman. Just like me. And as a woman, how can you defend this maniac? How can you live with yourself?”

The words echoed in Summer’s head.

“They don’t like you,” Marsalis said, interrupting her thoughts.

Summer kept her eyes on the printed page. “They don’t like what I do, which is to provide you with the best legal counsel possible.”

Marsalis gripped her hand. “I like you.”

Summer slid her hand out from under his and closed the handbook. “Cut it out.”

“You’re a beautiful woman.”

Summer kept her eyes forward. She considered showing Marsalis the laminated photo of herself standing by a toothy man and two children she kept stashed in her wallet. All unmarried female public defenders carried the same snapshot. They had chipped in to hire a model and kids so they could tell their more twisted clients—the sickos, pervs, and sex maniacs that made up the majority of their caseloads—they were married, not that it usually mattered.

Marsalis didn’t pursue it. “What if Gundy doesn’t show?” he asked.

“If a district attorney can’t be at the reading of a verdict, a substitute D.A. can take his place,” Summer said. “Happens all the time. All of us—the judges, D.A.s, public defenders—have huge case loads and often start another trial right after closing arguments.”

He doesn’t appear busy.” Marsalis pointed a crooked finger at the Honorable Judge Morton Hightower, lazing in his chambers, the door ajar. The judge wore snakeskin cowboy boots, which he propped up on his polished oak desk as he poked at an iPad. A game, judging by his demeanor.

Summer shrugged. She decided not to tell Marsalis that Hightower held the record for the most death row sentences—thirteen, immortalized in a collage of mug shots pinned to his desk by a sheet of glass.

She couldn’t wait to get the verdict over with, so she could put Marsalis behind her. He was a man who shunned sunlight, an information broker who earned his keep cracking computer systems, tracking down precious data and selling to the highest bidder.

Marsalis had been arrested after Davenport brought the police a DVD showing him raping her. She claimed Marsalis had become infatuated with her after infiltrating her email. He’d stalked her at school, turning up in odd places and at odd times. At first, she’d thought he was harmless, but one night he broke into her room and attacked. Later, he mailed her the video.

Looking at Marsalis now, Summer couldn’t imagine this small, insignificant geek as the man who had brutalized Davenport.

An open-and-shut case for the D.A. But although Davenport told the police she had been tied up during her ordeal, the rope didn’t show up on the video. Summer subpoenaed Davenport’s phone records and discovered that the “alleged victim,” which is how Summer referred to her throughout the trial, had called him three, four times daily before and after the rape. When Davenport took the stand and denied ever having called Marsalis, Summer, on cross-examination, destroyed her credibility.

To escape Marsalis’s prying eyes, Summer walked over to Sprague. “Did you try him at home?”

Sprague’s expression was like, Don’t tell me my job.

Before he could say anything, the judge called out, “Eddie, give Harold another try at home.”

“Yes, sir.” Sprague punched the numbers—by heart this time—and mumbled, “I’ve called five times already.”

He held the phone to Summer’s ear: ringing, followed by a curt voice message greeting.

“I’ve never known Harold not to call if he was going to miss a verdict,” Sprague said. “Maybe there was a mix up.”

Summer nodded. “The district attorney’s office is sending over a proxy?”

“Sidney Raines. Should be here any minute.”

Gundy’s top assistant and heir-apparent. The last time Summer had tangled with him she’d been representing a third-strike crack-head arrested for stealing two slices of pizza. Raines had refused to plea to a misdemeanor, so her client got the max: twenty-five-to-life. After sentencing, for the benefit of a Haze County Register reporter, Raines made quite a show of praying for her client’s soul.

Raines huffed through the court’s padded doors, prompting the judge to place his iPad on his desk and enter the court. Sprague didn’t wait for the judge’s order to bring the jury in. Davenport, a dance student at the University, and her supporters—parents and a group of blue jean and chino-clad classmates—filed in from the hall.

Summer’s nerves jangled. She always tensed before the reading of a verdict. The jurors settled into their chairs, avoiding Marsalis’s probing eyes. When everyone was in place, the judge asked the jury foreman, “Has the jury reached a verdict?”

The foreman was someone Summer would have excluded if she hadn’t run out of peremptory challenges: Walter Davies, a gun shop owner. Things didn’t look bright for Marsalis.

Davies cleared his throat. “Yes, Your Honor.”

Marsalis stopped probing the jury with his eyes and turned his attention back to Summer. He leaned in close to her, hand cupped to his mouth in classic client-attorney style. “Do you love me?”

Summer’s spine stiffened. Usually the reading of verdict was enough to suck the ardor out of anyone. “Mr. Marsalis, the charges against you are serious.”

“Do you, do you love me? Answer me!” Marsalis raged the last two words. The whole courtroom turned toward the disturbance.

Summer tried to ignore the eyes focused on her. “Stop it,” she mouthed.

“Tell me!”

She hissed, “No.

The foreman handed a square of paper to Sprague, who carried it to the judge. Hightower unfolded the origami and read it to himself—Summer searched his expression for a hint, but Hightower didn’t provide any.

Marsalis bit his bottom lip until it bleached white; then, his face displaying rank ecstasy, unfurled a skein of numbers in her ear.

Summer tried to concentrate on the proceedings.

Marsalis rambled on. “Four-two-two-five-oh-one-one-four…”

It took Summer a moment to realize he was reciting her Visa card number.

“Ms. Neuwirth, is anything the matter?” the judge asked.

“Oh-eight-three-six…” Marsalis also had her social security number.

Nothing Summer could do now. “No, no, Your Honor.”

The judge didn’t press. Abnormal behavior was the norm in the criminal justice system. “Well, then, will the defendant rise?”

Summer and Marsalis stood. She noticed her hands were shaking; her heart was beating against her ribs; sweat chilled her back.

Marsalis squeezed her pinky. Summer stayed shocked-still. “Twelve-seven-fifty-three,” he whispered. “Really, Summer, using your mother’s birth date as your pin number? It took me no time to crack.”

Summer wanted to run. She didn’t need more nightmares; since her own rape, she had already suffered more than her fair share.

“Oh, ooh, ooh,” Marsalis whispered in an orgasmic coo. “And $26,142 in law school debt? Tsk tsk tsk, Summer. Perhaps it would have been more prudent to accept that job with Brockton, Myers & Bellamy. They offered a much more attractive financial package than the Haze County Public Defenders Office.”

The judge was speaking: “…case number 62-8702, the state versus Eugene Robert Marsalis, on the charge of rape and assault in the first degree—”

Marsalis released Summer’s pinky. He stood ramrod-straight.

“We find the defendant—”

Summer gripped the table and shut her eyes.

“—not guilty.”

Summer sank into her chair. The rest of Judge Hightower’s words were covered by a carpet of courtroom hisses and calls for justice. Summer glanced at Davenport, who was sobbing.

It was the verdict Summer had sought, but all she could feel now was crushing regret.

Raines splatted his briefcase on the table, refusing to look at the jury. On his way out he brushed past Summer. “You’ll be sorry you got this pond scum off.”

Summer was already sorry.

Davenport, her eyes red and haunted, approached. Marsalis had already skulked out of the courtroom and was, Summer hoped, out of her life.

“I never called him. That was a bunch of lies.” Davenport sought answers in Summer’s eyes but broke down before she could get any.

Summer left her and rushed into the hallway. Eyes fixed on floor squares the whole way, she slipped into the women’s bathroom.

She filled a sink, pressed the soap dispenser, and tried to cleanse herself. The walls were dingy and yellowed. The stench of cleanser barely masked other odors. She stared at her reflection in the mirror; backlit by the uneven fluorescent glare, she looked ravaged and haggard.

Through the mirror Summer saw Marsalis step inside. Startled, she gripped the sink and spoke to his reflection. “Get out.”

Marsalis squeezed a flat-line smile and stepped forward.

Refusing to give in to her fear, Summer turned to face him. “What do you want from me? I got you acquitted.”

“You did not get me acquitted, I got me acquitted,” Marsalis said, his tone a model of controlled menace. “If I hadn’t been able to enter the telephone company’s database and alter her phone records, I would not be a free man. All of my hard work would have been for naught.”

Summer searched for a way out.

Marsalis poised himself between her and the door. “You have no idea who you are dealing with.”

He inched closer. Summer backed away until she was pressed against the wall.

Marsalis clamped a hand around her arm, found a pressure point, and squeezed. Summer’s knees buckled. When she flailed, he gripped her tighter, and with his other hand, pushed his thumb into her clavicle until she was on her knees.

“Let me tell you about mosquitoes,” he said. “When one attaches itself to my arm, I don’t crush it, I torment it. I flex my arm and it’s trapped by its stinger. But it keeps sucking blood, gorging on it. It can’t stop. Until pop!” His breath was hot on her face.

Summer gasped. “You’re hurting me.”

“This is true.” He smiled again.

“I’ll… I’ll go to the police.”

“And tell them the man you successfully defended for rape is out to get you? I think not. It’s too early in your career to ruin your reputation.”

The door swung open. When the woman spotted Marsalis, she uttered a choked sound and fled.

“Security will be here in a few seconds,” Summer said.

Marsalis released his grip, leaving her sprawled on the tile. “I will leave you with one more piece of information,” Marsalis said. “Harold Gundy, born on June 29th, 1948, at 6:43 a.m. at Haze County General Hospital, died a little before 10:21 last night.”

Marsalis bent over and kissed her cheek, tenderly. “I’ll be in touch, Summer.”