Chapter 26 - Shady Palms

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It was a white stucco building that had faded over the years, with splotches of gray that made it look like a glass of milk full of cigarette ashes. Shady Palms was the crown jewel in Lester Cummings’s business empire.

After leaving the Indian casinos, Lester latched on to the idea of the retirement home as a new base for gambling. For years he had watched the busloads of senior citizens arrive at the tribal gaming sites to pass their days pumping money into slot machines and raising the stakes at blackjack tables and bingo calls. He realized a retirement home could be the perfect site for a captive gaming audience: he’d have customers who lived on the premises with nothing but time and money on their hands.

Lester also learned that the retirement home business shared a further advantage of lax government oversight. The state health department was supposed to conduct nursing home inspections, but this never actually happened because the government budget was shrinking and the number of retirement homes was exploding.

When Frank, Stella, and Johnny arrived in the lobby, they were greeted by Harry Gibraltar and two staff members in blue uniforms. The young woman introduced herself as Nina, the registered nurse on duty. Nina offered Stella a wheelchair, which she refused. The man was a pale orderly named Hubert who helped Frank carry in some of the luggage.

“You must be Mrs. Valentine, so happy to meet you.” Harry grinned, flashing his crooked yellow teeth. He extended a greasy hand to Stella. When she ignored his gesture, he quickly lifted his hand away and slid his fingers through his oily hair. “Your room is on the second floor. Nina, why don’t you show Mrs. Valentine to her room? I need to have a little chat with her son.”

As Johnny and Stella followed Nina to the elevator, the boy peeked inside the main office and saw a huge, scary-looking man planted behind the desk.

They reached Stella’s room at the end of a cavernous hallway on the second floor. The place had the feel of an empty shoe box stuffed away in the closet for no particular reason. The sun coming through a lone west-facing window baked a patch of wall and floor. There was a modest single bed in one corner across from a kitchenette and small sink. On the far wall by the door, a television was on top of a dresser. Hubert set down the suitcases one by one.

“So this is home now.” Stella scanned the faded walls and floor. To her, it looked more like a room where a trucker might make an overnight pit stop, not a place to spend the rest of one’s life. She sighed deeply. “This is going to take some getting used to.”

Johnny used his shirt collar to mop the droplets of sweat forming on his face. “It’s kind of hot in here, don’t you think?”

Nina and Hubert exchanged nervous glances.

“I guess so,” Stella said, and sat on the mattress. “I hadn’t really noticed it. I am feeling a little dizzy. Maybe it’s ’cause of the heat.”

“I am sure it’s been a very long trip for you, Mrs. Valentine,” Nina said. “Why don’t you take your pills and get some rest?”

“My pills?” Stella said. “How do you know about my pills?”

“Your son told me all about your health conditions, ma’am.” Nina slipped her hand in the pocket of her uniform and took out a dose of blue-and-white ADAPT pills. Stella swallowed them begrudgingly and reclined on the bed.

While his grandmother slept, Johnny wandered through the shadowy second-floor hallway. The filmy windows in a stairwell looked down on a second parking lot in the back. Hubert and a small man were hauling giant boxes out of a white van and carrying them into the building.

“Be careful, Ramon,” Johnny overheard Hubert tell the man. “Mr. Cummings spends a lot of money on this stuff. When we take it in, we leave it all in Mr. Gibraltar’s office. He won’t let anyone else in the supply room. He opens the boxes, checks everything, and puts it all back in the supply room himself. He’s very particular about that. Don’t ever open the boxes or Mr. Gibraltar will fire you without thinking twice.”

Johnny snuck down the stairs and followed the men. He heard Nina and Hubert in the first-floor corridor, arguing about something.

“That room has been empty since the air-conditioning broke last year. I don’t think we can keep her in there,” Nina said. “It’s facing the west side. It’s like an oven in the afternoon.”

“Of course I know that. I am not stupid,” Hubert replied.

“So we have to get the air-conditioning fixed.”

“That’s not going to happen. Mr. Gibraltar and Mr. Cummings won’t pay for it. All they care about is the bingo games. I can’t even get them to finish the wheelchair ramp since they fired that last batch of contractors a year ago.”

“But we have to get it fixed. She is going to complain.”

“That Valentine lady ain’t going to make a fuss. Her son owes money to Mr. Cummings.”

Johnny walked farther along until he reached Harry’s office. The boy held his ear to the door.

“You’re going to have to pay for her room. None of the residents get a free ride,” Lester said. “Just think of it as part of your repayment plan.”

“When can I pull her out of here, Lester?”

“I already told you. She can leave when the properties are sold and I’m paid in full. Until then, she stays in escrow.”

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