The dream always starts the same way.
The prison doors slammed closed behind me. For a moment I was locked in a narrow passageway between two buildings— the door to the visitors' entrance behind me, the imposing inner doors of the prison ahead. Above me, I could see fluffy clouds drifting by in the narrow strip of blue sky visible beyond the barbed wire.
The door to the prison buzzed and I showed myself inside.
I passed through five corridors and three sets of doors, waiting each time for the doors behind me to lock then the doors ahead to buzz and open. It was like passing through an airlock.
Finally, I got there. A frowning guard showed me into a featureless, windowless room.
It was a long wait. I shuffled my papers in front of me. Capped and uncapped my pen. Buttoned and unbuttoned the cuffs of my suit jacket. I didn't like to admit to myself that I was nervous.
The door opened and I almost jumped, managing to keep it to just a twitch of my muscles. Still, I probably looked like an idiot. I stood up to cover it.
My client walked into the room and the guard closed the door behind us.
I know his name, of course, but I don't think of it in the dream. Just "my client." He was a young black man with short hair and a round, almost chubby face.
We both sat down at the table and just looked at each other for a minute. It was the first time I'd seen him since he was condemned to death.
"Well," I said. "How are you doing?"
"I've been better."
I smiled politely.
"Listen. I want to talk to you about my options," he said.
He was taking it better than I expected. But how did I know what to expect? It was the first capital murder case I had ever tried. Not that my client knew it.
"You'll appeal the case, of course," I said. "The sentencing, I mean— maybe the trial too. You'll be appointed an appellate lawyer. I can try to ask around, make sure someone good takes the case."
"You won't represent me?"
"I don't do appeals. Anyway, you want someone new. It's standard. You might want to raise the issue of ineffective assistance of counsel— meaning maybe your appeal will be about how I could have done better— and I can't represent you on that, for obvious reasons."
"You did your best," said my client. Always so polite.
"Yeah, well, whatever. You want a new lawyer. And the appeal will take a long time. Years. Other things will come up in the mean time. Most people aren't — most sentences aren't carried out for a long time after the sentence is first issued."
He was twenty-three.
"What if I don't appeal?" he said.
"What? Of course you will. I mean, what other options do you have?"
For a supposedly hardened criminal, he had one of the most open faces I've ever seen; every thought he had instantly expressed itself.
"You do have another option?" I said.
"I'm not supposed to tell you about it."
Time for another refresher on attorney-client privilege. "It doesn't count if you tell me," I said. "I can't tell anyone. Ever. Unless you're planning to hurt someone."
"I'm not planning to hurt someone," he said. Maybe it was more like "I'm not planning."
I waited him out. It only took a couple minutes. "Some government guys came to see me," he said.
"Guys from the government came to see you without me?"
"I don't know, maybe they weren't government. They were wearing suits. And they didn't come during visiting hours, they just showed up. The guards wouldn't tell me who they were. It was in this same room."
I shivered briskly for no reason at all.
"They said they can get me out of here," said my client.
I realized he was telling me about a fantasy. He'd created in his mind a way to cope with his hopeless situation — which was fine as long as it didn't mess up the only real hope he had. He needed to file his appeal.
"How can they do that?" I asked, playing along.
He shrugged. "They seemed pretty sure. They said I just have to work for them for a month. Then they'll set me up with a new identity. They said I won't be missed."
"Work for them doing what?"
"Testing things." He shrugged.
"What kind of things?"
"They didn't say. Just things."
I didn't like that answer. I would have felt better if he'd had some outlandish description at the ready.
"They're coming back in three days," he said. "That's my deadline. They wanted a yes or no right then, but I said I needed a little time. They weren't happy about it. They said they almost never do that."
"They can wait," I snapped. Then I reminded myself that there was no "them."
"So, I might do that instead of appealing," he said. He was trying to sound casual, but as usual he had no control over his expression. He was pretty upset. "I mean, what's the point? Everybody thinks I did it. Even you think I did it. What's the chance some judge is going to believe I'm innocent? Not even one guy on the jury believed me."
Not one guy on the jury believed me, I thought. I couldn't convince them. I said the wrong things. I asked the wrong questions. I made the wrong objections. I had no idea what I was doing. It's my fault you're going to die.
Of course I knew better than to tell him those thoughts. I tried to not even listen to them myself.
We talked a little more. I told him all the many ways appeals could help him, or at least drag out his case until he had the chance to turn thirty before he died. I told him that the number of people executed in the United States is under fifty per year and dropping rapidly. I told him the death penalty is on its way out.
He listened patiently. But it was pretty clear he had made up his mind.
There's no dramatic end to the dream. I drift off into other thoughts, other dreams. But I almost always wake up soon after.
This time, I lie awake a long time in the darkness, thinking.
Of course, you don't forget your first capital murder case. I can still see my client's face in my mind, as fresh as the day I last saw him, though it was many years ago.
But we never had the conversation that I dream about. His prison transport was in an accident on the way back from the courthouse. The driver and the guards survived, but my client was killed instantly. His body was mangled beyond recognition. Poetic justice, the papers said.
That's what I remember. That's what everybody remembers.
In my line of work, you meet a lot of people on the margins of society. A lot of people with mental illness. With paranoia, hallucinations, withdrawals, delusions. I've heard a lot of passionate lectures about a lot of shadowy figures. The Men in Black. The Illuminati. The Masons. The SCP Foundation.
I know none of it is true. But late at night, I wonder why I keep having that dream. I wonder what my client is trying to tell me.
The thing is, I remember him, but I don't remember all my clients. There are cases that I've forgotten about. There are clients whose faces I can't picture.
My clients aren't the kind of people who would raise much alarm if they went missing. If someone, some organization, really was out there, helping itself to them — I wouldn't be able to tell. I certainly wouldn't be able to protect them.
I've spent my career telling myself that one client helped, one sentence reduced, is enough to make a difference. But what happens to them after I help them? Where are they now?
By the standards of my field, I'm successful enough. But at night, unable to sleep because I'll see his face, I feel nothing else but utterly ineffective.