THE LARGEST ANNUAL GATHERING of bail bondsmen in the country—the convention of the Professional Bail Agents of the United States, or PBUS—was slotted between Dunkin’ Donuts and Elk Camp 2013 at the Mirage Resort and Casino, a tall, shiny structure shaped like an open book and set against replicas of the Colosseum and Eiffel Tower on Las Vegas’ Strip. The sidewalk out front was littered with cards bearing phone numbers and pictures of naked women. In the courtyard, flames licked the late-winter air to the rhythm of a tribal drum every hour, on the hour. A sign at the entrance announced that the casino’s dolphin just had a baby and we would be able to see it soon. As I walked through the smoky slots area I saw a man with a PBUS lanyard doing an extremely forced I’m-having-fun dance with his assistant while a casino employee showed them how to play the one-armed bandit. It was a bit of a letdown from what I’d been anticipating—all-night blackjack sessions with bondsmen and bounty hunters telling tales from the street over stiff drinks. I’d even grown a mustache for the event, thinking it would help me blend in a little—bondsmen have mustaches, don’t they?
Not really, I discovered when I arrived at the welcome reception. “So how do you like the industry?” I asked a clean-shaven man in a shiny gray suit who looked to be about 30. “I like it,” he said buoyantly, taking a sip of his beer. “Sometimes you get real lucky.” He told me about the first bond he ever wrote in the cheerful, blow-by-blow manner of a poker player recounting a winning hand. A college student went out drinking and crashed his car into a fence, he explained. “So him and a girlfriend both get kinda messed up.” He beamed. I was confused—was I to realize that this was a boon? He quickly explained that normally, bail for a DUI was $5,000, but since it involved an injury, the amount automatically jumped to $100,000. When he told the driver’s mom she would have to pay him a $10,000 fee to get her son out of jail, she said, “No problem. Here’s my credit card number.” He smiled and took a sip from his beer, nodding happily. “I couldn’t believe it.”