“A Prisoner of Time” by Lucian E. Dervan is the winning story of Hofstra Law School’s Mystery Short Story Contest, which invited participants to write a short work of fiction featuring a lawyer as a main character. You can read more about the contest from Alafair Burke. Thank you to all the writers who did the legal thriller genre proud with their entries. And congratulations to Lucian Dervan!
The years passed faithfully, each one much like the last, and yet each distinctive and filled with its own memories. George Duncan, known simply as Duncan since his first year of school, sat in his large recliner. Though the chair was old and tattered, the fabric was woven with far too many memories to discard. Duncan, currently in the eighth decade of his life, had never felt the cold beneath his skin as he did now. But, somehow, sitting in his chair, gazing through the window, and thinking about the past seemed to warm him as the sun set outside.
Duncan’s mind often wandered over his decades as a feared criminal defense attorney. On some days he would laugh out loud as images of a floundering witness succumbing to his blazing cross-examination replayed in his mind. Other days were filled with deep reflection on those few times during his career when mistakes had led to perpetual recollection and regret. Despite the innumerable and varying memories from which to select, one image drifted uninvited into his mind more than any other during the many days he spent in that timeworn chair, the face of his client Billy Brandon. As that face flickered in his consciousness once again, Duncan’s hands clenched in anger and anxiety.
“Duncan. Duncan, dear,” his wife, Martha, called from the kitchen. “It’s time for dinner.”
“Just a moment,” Duncan responded as he unbound his hands and strained to push himself up from his seat.
Once standing, he paused and gazed out the window for a final second. Then, turning to face a large bookcase at his side, Duncan reached out and withdrew a massive leather bound edition of a Dostoyevsky classic. After using both hands to lower the literary masterpiece onto a small library table, Duncan lifted the front cover to reveal the book was actually a safe. Reaching into the hollow middle, he pushed aside a piece of paper and withdrew a heavy black revolver. Holding the gun in his hand and spinning the chamber, he took note of the four bullets and two empty shells still lying in the cylinder.
“After these many years,” Duncan said aloud, yet in a whisper, “my representation will finally come to an end. Until tomorrow, Mr. Billy Brandon.”
Replacing the weapon and returning the book safely to its original location, Duncan began to move into the kitchen for dinner. “It smells wonderful, dear,” he said to his wife. “I think I’ll turn in right after we’re done eating. I’ve got a few errands to run tomorrow, and I’ll need all of my strength.”
The next morning, Duncan sat at the kitchen table sipping coffee and reading the newspaper’s front-page story on the impending execution of convicted murderer Clive Caldwell. Martha peered over his shoulder as she fixed herself a bowl of oatmeal.
“Are they finally putting him to death this afternoon,” she inquired. “That horrible murder of the two children from Augusta must have occurred almost fifteen years ago.”
“I think you’re right,” responded Duncan. “But the wheels of justice must be slow to be fair. Heaven forbid we put an innocent man to death because of a rush to judgment.”
“Still the avid defense attorney I see,” chuckled Martha as she sat down to enjoy the start of her day. No sooner had she taken her seat, than Duncan rose, placed his dishes in the sink and kissed her goodbye. “Off already,” she asked.
“Yes, as I said, I’ve got a busy day.”
“Doing what? You haven’t been out of the house in weeks.”
“I’ll tell you this evening.” And with that, Duncan slipped on a jacket to brace himself from the cool autumn air and walked out of the house.
An hour later, Duncan arrived at the Augusta State Medical Prison. Having visited the facility countless times over the years to call on various former clients, he was well known and highly regarded by the guards.
“Welcome back, counselor,” said one of the correctional officers at the front entrance to the hospital.
“Hello, Deloris,” responded Duncan. “I see the metal detector is still broken.”
The officer looked over at the dusty metal contraption that had failed to work for the better part of a year. “With our budget,” the officer said with a laugh, “we lucky to even have someone here watching the door.” As Deloris gave Duncan the usual cursory pat down reserved for only the most trusted of visitors, she inquired, “Who you gonna see today?”
“Ah, the infamous Billy Brandon,” answered Duncan.
“Infamous? Compared to your other clients, I’d say he’s practically a saint. Just another three-time loser serving life-without-parole. Damn shame. Remind me what he did to get that last strike?”
“Possession of a felony amount of marijuana.” Duncan paused before adding, “As you said, in many ways, he does appears to be just another one of the many lost souls in places like this.”
“Mm hmm.” Then the officer shook her head. “You know, he’s not doing too well these days. Something about his liver giving out. Got him up in the intensive care unit.”
“Well,” said Duncan, “I’d better get up there then before he leaves us all for a better place.”
“You know the way,” said Deloris as she stepped aside.
Duncan proceeded through a set of doors leading to an elevator bank and pushed the button to call his ride. As he did, two beads of sweat ran down his forehead and into his eyes. Wiping his brow, he realized that even his many decades of trial experience had not prepared him for the battle he was about to wage or the consequences if he failed.
As he entered the private room containing his client, Duncan peered around at the many tubes and machines assisting the prisoner to live another day. He pushed the door gently closed, and the lockset made a soft click as it hit the strike plate.
Upon hearing the noise, the prisoner slowly opened his eyes and peered over at his attorney. “Mr. Duncan.” Billy Brandon struggled to sit up slightly in his bed. “I’m so glad you came. I thought I might be receiving a visit from you today.”
“Then you know why I am here?”
“I do. It appears you believe we have come to the end of the road, Mr. Duncan. That the time for our special arrangement has arrived. But, I’m afraid I can’t agree. I was clear about my terms, and they have not yet come to pass, as you can very well see.”
Duncan reached in his left jacket pocket and clenched the item he had earlier that day removed from his leather book safe. “At this point, the timing is merely a technicality for you. You’ll be dead before long.”
“True, but I plan to live out the few days I have left in comfort, not locked in some dark cell at the maximum security prison.”
Duncan looked fiercely at his client. “You’re a monster.”
“Mr. Duncan,” said Billy. “Of course I am. You’ve known that for more than a decade. Tell me something. Do I keep you up at night? Do I haunt your dreams? I so hope I do.” A menacing grin appeared on his face.
Duncan withdrew his hand from his pocket and thrust the item he had been concealing at the bedridden, yet very capable prisoner. “Do you think I won’t use this?”
“I’m sure you will use it eventually, Mr. Duncan, but today is not that day. You are bound by your oath, and you are bound by your profession to keep that piece of paper confidential until I die.”
Duncan lowered his hand and let the affidavit signed by Billy all those years ago linger at his side. “The execution is today, and it should be you in that chair being injected with poison, not Mr. Caldwell. You killed those two children in Augusta all those years ago, and yet you are going to let an innocent man die of lethal injection despite having the power to stop it.”
Duncan cut himself short upon hearing the doorknob being turned. He glanced over his shoulder and saw a nurse wheeling a food cart into the room.
“Oh, Mr. Duncan,” said Billy. “You’re here in time for lunch. Would you care to join me?” Duncan shook his head in rejection of the offer. “Oh now, I’m sure Nurse Tania could rustle you up something. Without her, you know, I don’t think this place would function at all. She’s our angel here in the ward.” Billy gazed appreciatively at the nurse and smiled.
“Oh, Billy,” said the nurse, blushing slightly. As she finished placing a tray of chicken and rice in front of her patient, she said, “You let me know if you or your friend need anything else.”
Duncan did not speak. While the nurse walked into the hallway and pulled the door closed behind her, the slightly distraught counselor sat down in a chair beside Billy’s bed. Though the initial adrenaline of the encounter had spurred the old barrister to renewed strength, he now needed to rest.
Billy took a large scoop of food and thrust it in his mouth. Without waiting to swallow, he began to speak again, flecks of rice and chicken escaping from the sides of his mouth as he continued to taunt his advocate turned adversary. “You know, I am almost glad Mr. Caldwell will die before the truth is revealed. I think it will make us even more famous. Don’t you? I wonder who will play me in the movie version of our life together, Mr. Duncan. Perhaps Sean Penn. I think he would capture my true soul very well.”
“You know,” said Duncan, his head facing down towards the floor, “I could release this signed confession without your permission. I could save that man’s life today without you. The details you gave in here are so specific, no one would doubt you were the true perpetrator.”
Billy set down his plastic spoon. “Yes, you could do that Mr. Duncan. But we both know you never will. You take that oath to your clients too seriously to end your career as a traitor to the bar.” He picked up his spoon and took another enormous bite. “If I had ever thought you were the type of person who didn’t believe the attorney-client privilege was the eleventh commandment, I would never have told you what I did to those kids.”
“Why did you tell me,” barked Duncan. “Why have you forced me to live with this all these years and now stand by while an innocent man dies?”
Billy leaned forward and looked Duncan deeply in the eyes. “What other amusement do I have here in prison?”
Duncan clenched his fists and stood. Then, reaching into his right pocket, he pulled out the heavy black revolver. Billy froze for a moment, stunned by his counselor’s surprising offensive. “I brought the murder weapon to turn in as further proof of your guilt,” said Duncan, “but, perhaps, I should just use the remaining bullets to kill you for what you did and what you’ve put me through all of these years.”
Billy smiled. “Oh, Mr. Duncan, I hope you do. Wouldn’t that be the most fitting end to our story? To have you turn out to be a monster just like me.” Billy laughed and then took another enormous bite of his meal.
Duncan lowered the weapon and placed it safely back in his jacket pocket. “I’m not like you,” he said calmly, now fully aware of what he must do. “I’m better than you, and that’s why I’m going to save that man despite what it might mean for my license, my reputation, and my oath.” Duncan turned to walk away.
“You stop right there,” yelled Billy, food once again spraying from his mouth. “You get back here. You’re my attorney, damn you. You owe me your silence. You.”
Duncan did not hear another word. As silence fell behind him, he moved with speed he had not mustered for years. Practically galloping to his car, he slid inside and jammed the key into the ignition. As he ran a stop sign and maneuvered the car onto the main road outside the prison hospital, he looked at the watch on the dashboard. The execution was only two hours away, and he needed to present the affidavit and the gun to the Attorney General in hopes of securing a recommendation for an emergency stay of execution. He pressed the accelerator further towards the floor, and the car jumped forward with even greater speed.
Just over an hour later, Duncan pulled his car into a space next to a fire hydrant outside the Attorney General’s office and leapt out into the road.
“Hey,” yelled a parking attendant on the other side of the street. “You can’t park there. You’ll get towed.”
“Do what you must,” yelled Duncan, and he continued into the building.
Forty-five minutes later, just five minutes before the execution was to occur, the Attorney General emerged from his office. Duncan, who had paced back and force in the reception area after briefing his old friend, stopped in his tracks and looked up with hopeful eyes.
“We got the stay, Duncan,” said the Attorney General. “We’ll reopen the investigation, but, based on the specificity of this affidavit and the gun, I’d say Mr. Caldwell will be going home very soon.”
Duncan breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you, Roger. Thank you.”
“You did good,” said the Attorney General as he patted his mentor and former boss on the back. “Oh, and I made sure that everyone knew that you didn’t violate your oath to the bar.”
Duncan drew up a puzzled look. “What do you mean?”
“You know, I thought people should know that you didn’t break attorney-client privilege in brining this to us. I made sure they knew that just as your client had requested in the affidavit, you brought this to us only after he died. A close call though.” The Attorney General shook his head in disbelief. “To think, Mr. Caldwell was saved by a matter of minutes thanks to the true perpetrator choking to death on a plate of chicken and rice the very day of the scheduled execution. Well, as they say, timing is everything.”
As Duncan walked back into his house that evening, Martha greeted him from the sofa with a smile. “So how was your day, dear?”
Duncan sat down next to her and reached out to hold her hand. “I guess you could say that I won my last case today.”
Martha looked surprised. “What do you mean you won a case? Are you representing clients again?”
“Oh, no,” said Duncan with relief. “Quite the opposite, I’m happy to say.”
“Well, you’ll have to tell me more. Let’s go in the kitchen for dinner.”
“Wonderful,” he said, pushing himself up off the sofa. “I’ll tell you all about my day over a good meal. What are we having?”
“Your favorite, dear. Chicken and rice.”
Lucian E. Dervan is a law professor at Southern Illinois University School of Law, where his research and teaching center on domestic and international criminal law. He also enjoys writing legal fiction and is completing work on his first novel.