Lester Cummings ran his affairs from an office behind a neon-lit bar. The bar was one of several properties he owned in a grimy strip mall on the outskirts of Santa Ramona. The mall was in an unincorporated zone, a slice of land between municipal borders that didn’t fall into any specific city.
When he bought the property, Lester was attracted to the idea that no local city police were directly responsible for the area. Like other unincorporated zones, jurisdiction would be left to the overstretched county sheriff’s department. In Lester’s mind, this meant minimal supervision and maximum freedom to conduct his affairs without interference.
Lester and his two sidekicks, Rudy and Harry, returned in the Mercedes after meeting with their real estate partner, Frank Valentine, exiting the 91 Freeway in an industrial area and weaving through a patchwork of warehouses, junkyards, and storage facilities until they reached their home base. On their way, they passed a retirement home called Shady Palms, another business Lester controlled through a shadow company.
Lester was a predator by nature. He started young as a common gangster, committing petty theft and armed robberies. Then he spent the majority of his adult life trying to slowly edge his illicit dealings toward legitimacy. He wasn’t motivated to do this out of guilt, remorse, or any aspiration to lead a virtuous life. He figured that going straight offered bigger payoffs with less risk. It was that simple. And in his mind, that was the only thing that separated the straight business world from criminal enterprise. Still, Lester was never afraid to get his hands dirty if that’s what it took. He had come up the hard way, and was prepared to do anything he had to in order to keep moving in the direction of wealth, power, and comfort.
As a teen, he formed a gang with Rudy and Harry, committing holdups throughout the county. After serving time, Lester got out and looked for opportunities in the margins and gray areas, anywhere that he could leverage his skills as a thug and a thief, as long as he could stay out of trouble.
Lester’s first fortune was through the rise of Indian gaming, when casinos were sprouting up on reservations across the county. Lester provided security for the tribes and then branched out into loan sharking, book keeping, and embezzling cash collected at the card tables on the casino floors. The tribes grew suspicious and Lester knew it was time to move on. He used his windfall from Indian gambling to buy the strip mall in the unincorporated zone. Most of his cash flow now came from a ring of bingo games he ran out of Shady Palms and other retirement homes in Santa Ramona.
In the office, Harry Gibraltar lit a cigarette, huddling over an ashtray on Lester’s desk.
“This thing with Valentine sure didn’t work out like we expected,” Harry mumbled, shaking his head. “I know we need to move the cash from the bingo games and park it somewhere. But this whole real estate thing is so full of scammers and shakedown artists. Maybe we should stick to gambling and fraud, the stuff we’re good at.”
Lester flicked his fingers impatiently. “You don’t see the big picture, Harry. You don’t think long term. If you were in charge we’d probably still be doing stickups on the street like when we were kids. We’re getting older, and if we keep doing the same thing we’ve been doing, then it’s only a matter of time before the cops and the Feds catch up with us.”
Rudy Spinoza remained silent, watching his companions. He kept his coat on and his hands tucked in the bulky pockets. Rudy seemed preoccupied with something separate from the conversation between Harry and Lester.
“I hear what you’re saying, boss,” Harry replied. “But the money is so good with these bingo games. And it seems like every month they open up a new retirement home full of seniors who got time to kill and savings to burn.”
“That’s fine for now. But we got to move our money and property,” Lester continued. “Real estate is going to be my retirement plan. If this thing with Valentine doesn’t work out, then it’s just a bump in the road. We’re going to give the guy a little more time to come through with our cash. If he doesn’t, you and Rudy will have to take care of him. You boys know what to do.”
Rudy smiled for the first time. He removed his hands from his pockets and pulled a sleek Luger pistol from his jacket, setting it on Lester’s desk.
“I am ready to take care of Valentine anytime,” Rudy said, while polishing his gun with a handkerchief. “You think this Valentine guy understands what’s going to happen if he doesn’t come through?”
Lester nodded. “He understands.”
Rudy’s smile widened.
Copyright 2013 Dmitri Ragano
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The Fugitive GrandmaMystery / Thriller
Johnny Valentine is a lonely boy who dreams of becoming a hero, just like the masked avengers in his comic books. His feisty grandmother Stella is a retired supermarket clerk and cancer survivor. Running out of time, money and options, the old lady...