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It is almost midnight, and I am running through the dark arboreal streets that are south of Montana Avenue, which starts at the ocean in Santa Monica and continues on into Brentwood, two of Los Angeles's most expensive neighborhoods. In three months I am going to run my first marathon, so I have to pile up the miles wherever and whenever I can. My targets are to complete the race and break four hours. I have no doubt that I can pull them off. When I set a goal in my mind, I almost always achieve it. It takes full focus, full determination. I have an abundance of both. Some people say I'm obsessive-compulsive. But always behind my back, never to my face.
I run in the streets because they are paved with asphalt, which is easier on the legs and back than the concrete of the sidewalks. Now, as I lift my eyes, scanning the block ahead of me for potholes or other obstacles, I see a man on the sidewalk. He is in shadow, and is as still as the tree he's leaning up against.
I've been running on the same side of the street as the shadowed man. Now I veer my path so that I cross to the other side. The street is four lanes wide: two traffic lanes and two parking lanes. When I run past this solitary sentry, there will be almost thirty feet between him and me. I have no reason to fear this man, but I'm a woman running alone, late at night. I'm not stupid.
As I draw abreast of the stranger, I can't help but glance over at him, and it's as if he's telepathic, because at that precise moment he turns and looks at me. His face is visible in the moonlight, which means mine must be, too.
He smiles at me and takes a step forward. I smile back as I slow down, turning in his direction and stopping in front of him, sucking in large gasps of air as I brace myself, leaning forward with my palms on my thighs for balance.
"Hey," I gasp out a greeting.
"I thought that was you, Counselor," the man says to me in surprise. "What are you doing at this time of night out here by yourself?"
"Running. What does it look like?"
His smile is faint to the point of near invisibility. "That I can see." The smile disappears, replaced by a skeptical frown. "Do you live around here?" he asks, trying not to come across as nosy, but failing.
"No." Not that where I live is any of his business. I wave my hand in a general southerly direction. "I live down by Rose Avenue, near Ocean Park. There's no way I could afford to live around here."
"You could have a trust fund," he says, with no inflection of sarcasm.
I almost laugh in his face, but it might piss him off. "Yeah, right."
He looks up and down the block for a moment, then back at me with concern. "You're pretty far from home. How come you're out so late?"
" 'Cause I was busy earlier." I don't have to explain, but I do. "I'm running a marathon in a couple months. Gotta get in my fifty miles a week, rain or shine, whenever I can fit it into my schedule."
His eyes shine in surprised appreciation for my resolve. "No shit. How many have you run?"
"None, so far."
He smiles again. It's apparent this time. "Well, I'm impressed. Another gold star on your already notable résumé."
That's a flattering remark, but it's also a bit unnerving. "What do you know about me?" I ask him.
My directness seems to take him aback. "Nothing," he answers. "Just Temple Street." The city within a city where we both work.
I relax, and straighten my posture. I'm tall, but he's on the sidewalk while I'm in the street, so I have to look up at him. I lob the ball back into his court. "What are you doing out here at this time of night? Do you live around here?"
He shakes his head. "North Hollywood. Laurel Canyon, near Chandler."
"You're even farther from home," I state the obvious.
He looks skyward. "Don't you get it?"
I follow his stare, which brings my eyes to the moon. It's at the beginning of its fullness, a fat, pale-yellow obelisk hanging from a sparsely clouded sky. Since we're not far from the ocean, the fog and haze blanket any starlight.
"Oh," I blurt out. "Because ...?" There's a sudden clutching in my stomach.
He gives me a tight nod of understanding.
"So you guys are out, in case? Is there a special task force?" I haven't heard of one, but it makes sense.
He frowns. "I wish. But, no. I'm here on my own."
That brings me up short. "Why? You can't actually believe one man on his own is going to catch him."
I pause. Does he know something? My heart rate, which had dropped from the aerobic stress of running, starts to spike again. I can feel it. I can also feel the cold breeze on my sweaty back and legs.
"Do you?" I press him. "Have a reason to expect to?"
His look of sorrowful resignation cuts through me. Such personal anguish is almost never shown by his tribe. It's way too dangerous, emotionally.
"No," he answers. "But I didn't want to just sit home and do nothing. So ..." He spreads his hands as if in supplication. "I figured, better here than anywhere else in the city tonight."
God, talk about Don Quixote. There's a tinge of sadness here, a loneliness. "The boy with his finger in the dike?" I gently chide him. I've known this man, only through work, for more than five years. This is by far the longest conversation we've ever had. For the first time, I realize with a guilty pang, I'm seeing him as a human being, rather than as an abstraction, one with whom I'm usually in conflict.
"I guess." He shrugs. "Although he didn't stop the flood, as I recall. The dam still burst."
The breeze, this late at night, is building to a chilly wind. My muscles are tightening up. I need to move on. "Maybe he isn't on the prowl tonight," I offer in thin solace.
"Maybe," my accidental companion agrees, reluctantly. "There are two more days of full moon."
There's nothing more either of us can say at this moment in time. I give each calf a quick stretch. "Got to go," I say in parting, offering what I hope is a friendly smile.
"Right." His return smile doesn't work, either.
As I start running again, I call back over my shoulder. "See you on the reservation, Lieutenant."
His answering voice is faint as he recedes behind me. "Be careful. There's danger lurking out there."CHAPTER 2
"Abandon hope all ye who enter here."
That pitiless phrase isn't actually carved into the façade of this massive, intimidating building, but it ought to be. The Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, a few blocks from my office, is the largest jail in the free world. Every time I see a client in here, usually several times a week, I feel the need to shower vigorously afterward, send my jackets, slacks, blouses and skirts to the cleaners, and boil my underwear. If I could afford it, I'd burn the garments. If I could afford to do that, of course, I wouldn't be meeting my clients here. I would be a private defense attorney with a tricked-out suite of offices in Century City or Beverly Hills. But I am a Los Angeles County Public Defender, and I share my cubbyhole office (eight feet by sixteen, the same size as a regulation California prison cell, which I think is a rather Kafkaesque coincidence) with Sam Marx, who is retiring next year after thirty-seven years of stalwart duty, bless his old leftie soul. Sam has not handled an active case for over a year, and never will again. He's a fast-moving target who always knows how to duck when assignments are passed out. Our tiny office does have a window, thanks to Sam's seniority, with a lovely view of the parking lot that is located between our building and City Hall, made famous by Dragnet.
It's nine o'clock in the morning. I'm waiting to see one of my clients, a young black man named Reginald Morton, who is going to trial in a couple of days (he tried to sell some Mexican heroin to an undercover cop, a truly boneheaded move) unless I can persuade him to take the D.A.'s plea bargain, which is more than fair—two years, time already served to be counted—and if he keeps his nose clean on the inside, they'll drop one of his strikes. This will be his second, so this is a big concession from them. So far, the moron has refused the deal. It's not that he's innocent, or can claim to be. He did it; they've got him boxed, all four corners. But he has convinced himself that because of my fantastic lawyering skills (his phrase, not mine), he can beat the system. How he knows how good or bad a lawyer I am escapes me, since we had never met before I was randomly assigned to him, but he believes that I'm the cream of the crop, as good as a six-hundred-dollar-an-hour private lawyer. I am, in fact, very good at what I do, but the reality is that Clarence Darrow and Johnnie Cochran rolled into one couldn't win this case for Reggie. But he doesn't want to hear that. He doesn't want to do any prison time at all; he did it before and it fucked him up, badly. He got the shit stomped out of him by some Latino gangbangers, and although he's been promised he'll be segregated, he doesn't want to take the chance that the state will keep its word. On that issue, I can't blame him.
My problem is that Reggie has beaten the system, through a fluke so unbelievable that people who know about the case are still in hysterics about it. Last year he was caught robbing a liquor store in Koreatown, your standard brain-dead stick-'em-up. Somehow, the store's security video tape, one of the D.A.'s choice pieces of evidence, got mixed up with a different tape while in police storage, but no one knew that until the day it was shown at Reggie's trial. Instead of the tape showing our man coming into the store and pulling a gun on the female owner, a Korean woman who barely spoke English, forcing her to the floor while he cleaned out the cash register, then compounding the idiocy by copping a feel before he vamoosed (for her, testifying on the witness stand, that was the ultimate insult), those in attendance in the courtroom, including the judge, jury, members of the woman's family and the Korean activist community, and a few reporters, were entertained by a segment of Cathouse, the HBO late-night adult show featuring hookers from Nevada. In this episode, the whores were playing dominatrix cops, dressed in glittery thongs, lace-up high-heeled boots, Sam Browne belts with fake guns, patrolmen's hats, and absolutely nothing else. They were leading some pathetic-looking naked men on leashes that were attached to studded leather dog collars, the kind the brothers in the 'hood favor to adorn the necks of their pit bulls and Rottweilers. One of the ladies, apparently confused about the difference between a police motif and that of a circus, also had a bullwhip, which she cracked in the air like a lion tamer.
Upon seeing this travesty, half the jurors were mortified beyond belief, while the other half were laughing like hyenas. The judge, the Honorable Wilson Slocombe, a man who holds a very short leash himself, didn't get the joke, not one bit. He was so pissed off he threw the whole shebang out then and there, even before Ronnie Shwarz, my colleague in our office who was handling the case, could move for dismissal because he was laughing his own head off.
I have tried to make Reggie understand that he didn't win that case on the merits; he skated because of a once-in-a-lifetime screwup the police definitely will not let happen again. He inadvertently made them look like fools, which is why they set him up on the dope bust. They want him behind bars—payback for humiliation.
So far, Reggie hasn't budged. His trial is in two days. This will be our last session before we meet again in court.
The wait to see him is interminable. It's a little head game the jail sheriffs play. You grin and bear it because there's no alternative. Finally, Reggie is brought in and seated in the chair across from mine. We're meeting in a large room that is divided in half, wall to wall, by a thick Plexiglas window. The room is lit up like a football stadium with bright fluorescents to ensure that there are no shadows to hide behind. There is a strong odor of disinfectant to cover the BO from the hundreds of sweaty visitors who come here daily to visit the prisoners, who smell even worse. Reggie is wearing a standard-issue county-jail jumpsuit and is manacled head and foot. His hair is unkempt, and he looks as if he hasn't shaved or showered for a couple of days.
Prisoners and visitors, including lawyers like me, talk through phone receivers. In the old days, pre-9/11, you could meet with your clients in a private room (which was only bugged some of the time). Now heightened security mandates that you talk to them over the phone through the Plexiglas window, like the civilians do. You are separated from the regular visitors to maintain the fiction of attorney-client privilege, but it's a crummy way to communicate. If this were a really big crime, a life-without-parole or capital case, I could badger them into giving us our own space; but for a garden-variety charge like this, we're just part of the deep-flowing river.
"How are they treating you?" I start out. I like to know. Sometimes it's an issue.
"Okay," he answers, waltzing past my tepid concern. We're in the homestretch now, only a few more days (in his mind) before he walks out of the courtroom a free man. His mind is not a steel trap. "You got your shit wired, Miss Thompson?" he asks me, his voice chipper and upbeat. It's the same question he always asks me.
"As ready as I can be." My stock reply, but it's true. I just wish I had more ammunition. If something doesn't come up at the eleventh hour it's going to be David versus Goliath in the courtroom, and I don't have a slingshot.
"That cop that set me up. You gonna crush his lyin' ass?" he asks now. Reggie is convinced the only reason they nailed him was because he was entrapped, that the police violated his civil rights. And it's true—that's exactly what happened. But that will not matter one bit. This is a dog-and-pony trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court, not a Harvard Law School evidence class.
"I'll try my best." I have to warn him: "They're going to have their act together, Reggie. They're not going to get caught with their pants down again."
"They're punks," he says dismissively.
He needs an attitude adjustment, and part of my job is to give it to him. "You bring that vibe into the courtroom, you're going to get whacked," I tell him, fiercely. "These cops are on a mission, and the mission is to put you in the hole for a long time. A lot longer than the two years the D.A. is offering," I yet again remind him. Jesus, what do I have to do to get this doofus to take the best offer he's ever going to get in his life? He could pull five hard years if he's found guilty, which is about as certain as death and taxes. More, if he really comes across as an arrogant asshole, which is more than likely. "That deal is still on the table, but once the trial starts, they'll pull it."
He shrugs off my plea with a dismissive wave of the hand, like a king giving his subjects the bird. "You the woman," he says, as if he knows what he's talking about. He picks at a piece of gristle wedged in his crooked teeth. "They gonna be some brothers on the jury?" he asks me, squinting his eyes in deep thought.
"I'm going to try as hard as I can. It'll depend on the jury pool," I answer honestly. "I don't have a lot of control over that."
Ten or fifteen years ago, a substantial number of jurors in the downtown courts would have been black—witness the makeup of O.J.'s jury. But the demographics have changed. Los Angeles is more and more Latino. A little over a decade ago, Tom Bradley, a black ex-cop, was the mayor, and he ruled with an iron fist. Now our mayor is Mexican American, and the power has shifted from black to brown. There are more Latinos in the state prisons and jails than blacks, and the wars between the black and brown gangs, both in and out of jail, get worse every year.
"Gotta get some brothers on the jury," Reggie instructs me. He actually raises a finger to make his point, as if I don't know what he means. "Not sisters. They be church women, too likely. A jury of my peers. Is that too much to ask for?" he asks rhetorically.
"I'll do my best," I tell him again. Which will be to persuade him to take the plea before the trial starts. I don't have much time left to change his mind.
Excerpted from In My Dark Dreams by J. F. Freedman. Copyright © 2008 J. F. Freedman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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