Dead clients are definitely a cause for concern. My windshield wipers beat back a torrent of rain as I rushed up the Santa Ana Freeway toward the Los Angeles County Jail. I wasn't rushing because I was late meeting my client, Buck Simpson. He wasn't going anywhere, but it was ten-thirty, and I told Sol I'd meet him for lunch back in Downey at noon. I figured I could get to the jail, spend a few minutes with Buck listening to his side of the story, and, if I hurried, be at the restaurant only ten or fifteen minutes late.
The parking lot at the jail was full, so I drove around and found a spot not far away on Bauchet Street. Holding my briefcase over my head, I trudged through the rain to the attorney's entrance. After wiping the excess water from my briefcase onto the back of my wet pant leg, I walked to the counter, shoes squishing with each step.
I quickly filled out the visitor request form and handed it, my bar card, and driver's license to the guard behind the wire mesh screen.
"Take a seat," she said.
"Could you put a rush on it? I'm in a hurry."
The guard, a heavy woman bulging out of her Los Angeles County deputy sheriff's uniform, give me a look and mumbled, "Tough tittie. Aren't we all?" She handed back my ID. "Take a seat," she said again.
What a charmer, I thought. I turned and glanced around. A wooden bench, bolted to the concrete wall across from me, ran the length of the room. I sat down, opened my briefcase on my lap, and took out the Simpson file.
Henry "Buck" Simpson, career criminal, received his nickname from the Buck Knife he carried when rolling drunks late at night outside of trendy nightspots scattered around Hollywood. Buck’s current stint in prison was the result of rolling the same guy twice in a row. The victim had no problem picking him out of a line-up. Buck was the guy with the crooked nose and a lumberjack beard.
I wasn't his lawyer when he was convicted five years ago. Last month, he had been released from San Quentin on conditional parole and assigned to a halfway house for rehabilitation.
But around midnight a few nights ago, Buck had been caught with a knife in his pocket lurking in the shadows outside of the Whiskey A Go-Go during a sold-out Johnny Rivers performance. Lurking with a weapon is a no-no for parolees, and the Adult Correction Authority was about to revoke his get-out-of-jail-free card. I was assigned by the court to represent him at the parole hearing set for later in the month. It was routine. I'd do what I could, and Buck would be sent back to prison to serve out the remainder of his term.
"O'Brien. Where's O'Brien?"
I stood and saw a deputy coming toward me. He was studying a visitor request form, presumably the one I had turned in before. "That's me."
"Yeah, call me Jimmy."
He looked at me, shaking his head. "I'm Officer Davis. I need to inform you that your client, one Henry Simpson, a.k.a. Buck Simpson, was found dead this morning in his cell. He hung himself."
"I need to inform you — "
"No, I mean, why would he kill himself?" I said.
"He didn't say."
The deputy wouldn't tell me any other details. Maybe there wasn't anything else to tell, but I doubted it. I talked to Simpson when they brought him in. He didn't seem depressed or even too concerned about going back to prison. He figured it would all work out, just routine. In fact, he was eager to get back to San Q. Buck played on one of the prison's baseball teams, the Junk Yard Dogs. As the “big dog” on the team, he told me he didn’t want to miss the big game coming up against the Mother Fs. He didn't want to miss the action.
It was hard for me to swallow the suicide yarn. As an ex-cop, I know how violent it is in the jail system. Murders happen on a regular basis, but suicide? Rarely. This whole thing sounded like a crock.
From a payphone on the wall, I called my office, and Mabel answered on the first ring. After hellos were exchanged, I said, "My new client killed himself. Least that's what they told me, but anyway, he's dead."
"Did you get the cash?" Mabel said.
"No, not Kangaroo Kelley. The other client," I said. Kelley was a guy who liked to write checks that kept bouncing around. "I'm at the jail. Came to see Simpson. The State is picking up the tab for this guy. At least they were, but now he's dead."
"Oh, the parole violator. Yeah, well, we still have to bill the State for your time."
"Okay, then we'll bill them half your normal rate."
"Mabel, just give me the phone number for Delacorte. We'll talk about the money later." Steve Delacorte was the deputy D.A. who was prosecuting the Simpson case. I knew the so-called suicide wasn't any of my business, but I just couldn't let it go. "And, Mabel, call Sol."
"Already did. Told him you'd be late. He said, 'What's new about that?' Hang on I'll get the number."
Mabel ran the business affairs of my office so efficiently, it seemed like she could read my mind. If I needed a letter typed, it would be done before the words were out of my mouth, but she was always crabbing about collecting from my clients. What the hell. Somebody had to worry about the cash flow, and I didn't want it to be me.
"Here's the number." Mabel gave me Delacorte's direct line, then said, "Pretty hard to kill yourself in jail, I expect. Without a little help from the locals, I mean."
"Yeah, maybe so." I hung up and dropped another dime in the slot.
"Well, well, Jimmy O'Brien, friend of the downtrodden. What do you want now?" Delacorte said when he answered the phone.
"Steve, tell me about Simpson's supposed suicide."
He gave me his usual 'happens all the time' speech, so I pressed for more information. Delacorte said he'd look into the situation, and get back to me if he found anything that looked suspicious. The whole thing looked suspicious to me, but I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for his call. The Sheriff's Department would sometimes cover up a murder when a prominent or notorious prisoner got nailed while locked up in their jail. It was terrible PR after all. But then again, maybe I was off base. Why would the sheriff's department cover up the murder of a nobody like Buck Simpson?