The morning air off the Mojave in late winter is as clean and crisp as
you'll ever breathe in Los Angeles County. It carries the taste of promise on
it. When it starts blowing in like that I like to keep a window open in my
office. There are a few people who know this routine of mine, people like
Fernando Valenzuela. The bondsman, not the baseball pitcher. He called me as I
was coming into Lancaster for a nine o'clock calendar call. He must have heard
the wind whistling in my cell phone.
"Mick," he said, "you up north this morning?"
"At the moment," I said as I put the window up to hear him better. "You
"Yeah, I got something. I think I got a franchise player here. But his
first appearance is at eleven. Can you make it back down in time?"
Valenzuela has a storefront office on Van Nuys Boulevard a block from the
civic center, which includes two courthouses and the Van Nuys jail. He calls his
business Liberty Bail Bonds. His phone number, in red neon on the roof of his
establishment, can be seen from the high-power wing on the third floor of the
jail. His number is scratched into the paint on the wall next to every pay phone
on every other ward in the jail.
You could say his name is also permanently scratched onto my Christmas list.
At the end of the year I give a can of salted nuts to everybody on it. Planters
holiday mix. Each can has a ribbon and bow on it. But no nuts inside. Just cash.
I have a lot of bail bondsmen on my Christmas list. I eat holiday mix out of
Tupperware well into spring. Since my last divorce, it is sometimes all I get
Before answering Valenzuela's question I thought about the calendar call I
was headed to. My client was named Harold Casey. If the docket was handled
alphabetically I could make an eleven o'clock hearing down in Van Nuys, no
problem. But Judge Orton Powell was in his last term on the bench. He was
retiring. That meant he no longer faced reelection pressures, like those from
the private bar. To demonstrate his freedomand possibly as a form of payback
to those he had been politically beholden to for twelve yearshe liked to mix
things up in his courtroom. Sometimes the calendar went alphabetical, sometimes
reverse alphabetical, sometimes by filing date. You never knew how the call
would go until you got there. Often lawyers cooled their heels for better than
an hour in Powell's courtroom. The judge liked that.
"I think I can make eleven," I said, without knowing for sure.
"What's the case?"
"Guy's gotta be big money. Beverly Hills address, family lawyer waltzing
in here first thing. This is the real thing, Mick. They booked him on a half mil
and his mother's lawyer came in here today ready to sign over property in
Malibu to secure it. Didn't even ask about getting it lowered first. I guess
they aren't too worried about him running."
"Booked for what?" I asked.
I kept my voice even. The scent of money in the water often leads to a
feeding frenzy but I had taken care of Valenzuela on enough Christmases to know
I had him on the hook exclusively. I could play it cool.
"The cops booked him for ag-assault, GBI and attempted rape for
starters," the bondsman answered. "The DA hasn't filed yet as far as I
The police usually overbooked the charges. What mattered was what the
prosecutors finally filed and took to court. I always say cases go in like a
lion and come out like a lamb. A case going in as attempted rape and aggravated
assault with great bodily injury could easily come out as simple battery. It
wouldn't surprise me and it wouldn't make for much of a franchise case.
Still, if I could get to the client and make a fee agreement based on the
announced charges, I could look good when the DA later knocked them down.
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