STRICKEN AT TRANQUILITY
Tranquility Gardens was a retirement community just south of Los Angeles. Inhabited by retired upper middle class seniors, who once owned their own businesses. They had looked forward to a placid, uneventful life in their ranch houses, country clubs, golfing greens, tennis courts, and handicrafts workshops. Because of its limited accessibility, real estate values remained constant, escaping the sharp economic swings of their big neighbor, LaLa land. Visitors from outside were few, and that was just fine with them.
Their peace of mind was shattered, however, one morning in the fall of 1978, by a raid on Tranquility Trust, the community’s small bank, carried out by different law enforcement agencies with the usual extravagant flair and dramatic showmanship. The raid resembled a D-Day invasion with heavily armed SWAT teams, ATF, and FBI agents with .9 mm.pistols, their identification emblazoned on stylish black flack jackets scampering around like imperiled soldiers. Soon, eight suited individuals, their jackets pulled up to hide their faces, appeared at the bank entrance, flanked by lawmen, and led to paddy wagons.They were not bank robbers, astonished residents, witnessing the apprehensions, were informed, but the bank directors, manager and assistant manager, the latter, female. The news spread through the community like wildfire, and clamorous mobs would descend on the small financial institution to withdraw their deposits. The run cleaned out the bank, and by mid-afternoon had to close its doors, leaving swearing latecomers outside, enraged at having to interrupt their leisurely golden years to file applications for reimbursement with the FDIC. No one knew precisely what happened, and the lawmen were noncommittal to inquiries. A second raid in the heart of town offered a likely explanation. While the only sources of information were rumors, the raid, which dragged a dozen comely young women to the public eye enlightened the more knowledgeable elderly males. But their speculations would have to await verification or refutation in the evening news. Similar raids were conducted in different locations within Los Angeles, closing down chiropractic “clinics,” massage parlors, escort services, and encounter studios. By late afternoon, special editions would hit the streets with
full-page coverage, lurid headlines, and unflattering pictures of lead characters. The chortling news stories composed by journalism interns, taking advantage of their first big breaks, were polished literary compositions, but mostly inaccurate, which would later have to be corrected by more seasoned, senior editorial writers.
A Grand Jury was empaneled that afternoon after a brief turf war was settled, ceding jurisdiction to the county giving them first crack at the wrong-doers. The Grand Jury would have to determine the charges. Just how the federal government got involved was one of the subjects they would have to discuss. It was The FBI that brought the attention of the local authorities to the latent vice trade that had festered in the sedate community. Wire-tapping a restaurant in frequented by The Fragrante Family in New York City they overheard a conversation between mobsters discussing muscling in on Tranquility Trust’s newest “enterprise.” Upscale brothels! The District Attorney, Arthur Wallenburger presented his introduction with a sober mien, although the jurors were hard put to hide their malicious smiles. Twenty witnesses would be called to unravel the convoluted history of the scandal. They included a few of the call girls, who had been granted immunity.
The saga owed its origins to the arrival of Madame Alex Harrington, a robust handsome mulatto, a former brothel keeper, who ostensibly retired to Tranquility Gardens, after being evicted from New York, Miami, and New Orleans. She had purchased a fairly large home for a million and a half dollars ten years prior to the raids. She endeavored to reconstitute her business using different concealment strategies, to avoid harassment from civic authorities. Rather than overt, as the flashy Maison d’ Plaisurs she had in the past, she’d conduct it with an oblique cover as elaborate as any espionage agency. Throwing lavish parties, being seen at the finest, most exclusive venues, she made useful contacts not only with the cream of society, but service groups pampering to them. Out of work thespians, snooty hotel concierges, functionaries of country clubs, florists, and taxicab drivers. She built a network of conduits that would make any public relations or advertising firm proud. A virtual spiderweb that preceded cyberspace.
Madame Alex would no longer engage in merchandiding as crass as a “meat market.” Precautions would insulate her from law enforcement agencies. Her only contact with client and server would be by telephone, of which she had six. The only time, “merchandise” would set foot on her premises was for appraisal of their “assets,” and “education.” Her girls had to be able to converse intelligently. She could not have them using the vulgar language of the streets. In other words, she developed their intellectual pretensions. She had no illusions of being Professor Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s famous play, “Pygmalion,” but she was moderately successful. The girls that emerged from her “finishing school” were presentable enough to take to exclusive circles. Many graduates acquired enough poise and confidence to make a transition to legitimate jobs, when their age eroded their desirability. Men prefer their “pussy” tender rather than aged . Although she literally plucked most of them “off the streets,” they’d leave her stewardship better equipped for life, by way of a financial stake, if they were astute, and suitable marriages if they were spendthrift. They’d wed fat, flatulent, wheezing old men, divorcing them shortly after, following extraction of hefty settlements. Somehow, many clients learned to value their social as well as erotic skills. She had trained her girls how to handle money, even if she did not do that so well , herself. Her original clients were Arab oil Sheiks, whose pockets were lined with gold from the precious substance the entire world coveted: oil! This windfall was shortlived, when the price of oil settled down to realistic levels. But a legal earthquake would stimulate an upswing in her business. A court decision to award palimony to a live-in spouse of a leading actor. California judges tended to strip errant husbands to their shorts with their decisions on conjugal property, which then also applied to undocumented unions, making it, in the words of pragmatic philanderers, “cheaper to buy it.” So, Madame Alex breezed through her trade in sin with Gallic-like insouciance. Her honeymoon lasted nearly three decades.
She earned a “respected” position in the community, frequently sponsoring charity, events, carefully concealing her ulterior motives. These affairs were good sources of leads.
Many benefactors had their quirks and appetites. Among her many connections, were horny loan officers of banks, credit managers of fancy stores, and financial counselors. The last were superfluous. She never made any significant investments. She however made all her purchases on credit, granted under the misconception she was wealthy. All her creditors would eventually get burnt. She triumphantly lived out her carefree life until time caught up with her. When she died, there were repercussions throughout the business community.
It became increasingly clear , her ostentatious wealth was nonexistent. Since she left no heirs, there was no one her creditors could pursue to settle her debts. The young loan managers who guaranteed her credit lost their jobs. Designer garments, once worn, had negligible value, unless one could cash in on her notoriety. The expensive perfumes had dissipated into the air. The classic vintages deposited in urinals, her wine cellars depleted by her extravagant soiries . The jewelry she purchased could not be located. But fancy stores with overpriced merchandise could absorb losses. Credit card companies could spread their theirs among their other customers. But one financial institution faced ruin. Tranquility Trust held paper on six grotesquely overvalued real estate properties. Liquidation would only recover a small fraction of the original outlay. Easing out the responsible loan officer was small consolation. He had indulged his concupiscence with no reservations about the consequences. The young man was related to one of the directors of the bank. Had Madame Alex lived, her regular payments might have obscured the “indiscretion.” But alas, she paid for her intemperate life style with a host of medical problems. She similarly left behind astronomical medical and hospital bills. There was a deafening silence from the medical establishment, none too anxious to expose their association, which in many cases, strayed beyond professional boundaries.
A hasty midnight conference was convened by the officials of the bank. In an acrimonous debate, they weighed what little options they had. They could come clean, and throw themselves at the mercy of their depositors. It was an unattractive proposition since their conservative customers were likely to be offended not only by their incompetence, but their mismanagement would come to the attention of federal regulators, who were just as
likely to close the bank. They could appropriate Madame Alex’s business and operate it until they recovered the full value of the real estate. A second crucial question came up. Who would run the operation? It would be foolish to appoint someone who would be tempted to embezzle what income they derived. The chairman smiled mysteriously. Having been one of her patrons, he was familiar with her stable of girls. He would pick the shrewdest of the lot, hoping she would not be greedy. Recompensed properly, she probably would not be. Prostitutes yearn for the opportunity to “go straight.” Maintaining her “sales force.” they would utilize her intricate subterfuge. There would be one slight modification. The introduction of girls into the mansion. Telephone technology had matured, making it risky as a channel. The majority of the bank directors were timorous about engaging in criminal activity, but with social disgrace and financial ruin, the only alternatives, they went along with the scheme. For two years, business coasted smoothly and profitably. The bank was slowly inching its way to solvency. Then fate would intervene.
Two Capos from The Frangrante Family stumbled into Tranquility Trust’s “recovery program.” Visiting their parents at the retirement community, they got bored with golf games, and backyard barbecues. Riding to town in a cab, they asked the driver if he knew where they could find “some action.” He brought them to the late Madame Alex’s mansion.
While indulging their vices, they admired the layout, and the machinations involved to escape the vigilant eye of the law. The girls, too, were quality stuff. A real class setup. Upon their return to New York, they dutifully reported to their boss, Don Mateo Fragrante, whom The FBI was investigating, at the time. Unaware, the feds were eavesdropping on their conversations at Marconi, one of The Big Apple’s finest restaurants, they openly speculated on investment “possibilities,” indignant at the presumption of amateurs competing with them. The flesh market needed “professional” management. The interest of The FBI was piqued at the hint a bank was involved. Tranquility Trust was made aware of Fragrante’s interest in a “partnership” when two of his soldiers entered the establishment to open an account of huge proportions. There was nothing threatening about their appearance. Dressed in expensive suits, they looked personable, perhaps, even like bankers.
Ushered into the manager’s office for the customary welcome for substantial customers, blood drained from the bank executive’s countenance as the messengers made their mission plain. He temporized. The bank directors would have to have to be consulted. A decision was beyond his authority. The two visitors agreed, genially. “Sure. Take your time. But Mr. Fragrante would have to know by this evening. Otherwise, he may reconsider his proposal. We’ll be at our hotel room for the rest of the day, waiting.” The two soldiers smiled, significantly. He held out a card., which was accepted by numb, fumbling fingers.
Although it was a cool day, the bank manager was drenched in perspiration. The recoupment had been going smoothly. The bank had arrived at a point, it could discontinue its brief fling into crime. He wasn’t sure of how this new complication would affect their lives, but he was aware that “ this was an offer they could not refuse.” They would sink deeper into quicksand. He didn’t have to call the bank directors for their permission. They had no choice. He glanced at the industrious employees outside his office, all of them blissfully unaware of the impending destabilization of their ordered routine. He picked up the phone to inform the bank directors, more out of courtesy, than necessity, then would notify Fragrante’s soldiers of their compliance with the “arrangement.”
None of the protagonists could sleep that night. Contemplating their future with “partners” who liquidated their “mistakes,” in the most violent fashion possible, one of them actually considered suicide. The transition meshed pretty smoothly. For the remainder of the year, it looked like business as usual. Prior to their “association”, the bank officials had introduced half a dozen inmates into the late Madame Alex’s mansion. Her sacrosanct residence had been converted into a active den of sin. With six whores attending to “visitors,” the activity could be kept under wraps, hidden from prying eyes of neighbors. But during their frequent “conferences,” (Mateo Fragrante liked to explore his inner senses, usually, with two girls at a time) Don Fragrante observed they weren’t taking advantage of their full potential.) He wanted to expand. A prospect that terrified the bankers. Fragrante discounted their nervous objections. Of course, “It was only a suggestion,” one that couldn’t be ignored.
The mansion was enlarged and renovated to accommodate the projected additional patrons. Fragrante liked to make economic forecasts. The garden paved for a parking lot. Their immediate neighbors glowered with curious, disapproving eyes, but since they couldn’t quite pinpoint what was going on, reserved their complaints. In the meantime, the principal participants in the drama were totally unaware that different law enforcement agencies were already monitoring their every movement. Fragrante’s many “enterprises” were about to be shut down. The Iranian seizure of American hostages at The US Embassy in Iran squeezed The Tranquility Trust Scandal from the front pages, and television screens. Even the triumph of The Anti-Crime Task Force was forced to secondary position even after successfully prosecuting The Fragrante Family. Most of them were given hefty sentences. The directors of Tranquility Trust were similarly convicted of conspiracy to commit bank fraud, bank fraud, malfeasance, obstruction of justice, pandering, and running establishments of prostitution. Prosecutors were too ambitious with their criminal charges. The conviction of the bankers was reversed by appellate courts that reduced the charges to misdemeanors, sentencing them to time served. They were forbidden, however, from positions in finance. Distressed for a brief period, two found jobs as baggers in supermarkets. One established a security guard company. Another became a successful artist . One became a bestselling author, writing about a fictional private detective, who busts, what else? Bank fraud! Cognizant of the possibility of persistent ridicule, federal authorities declined to prosecute.
Tranquility Gardens, however, was no more. Residents felt they could no longer hold their heads up high as pillars of their community. Houses were sold at distressed prices, as they deserted in droves to to ones that were unblemished in other states. The Town Council revised its zoning codes to allow more low cost housing to be built. Asian immigrants found a new haven. adjacent to Los Angeles, where their businesses could thrive. I might add, they included “enterprises” quite similar to the ones that caused the demise of Tranquility Gardens. On a smaller scale, of course. The name of the town was changed to Heaven on Earth, after a large massage parlor in Bangkok. Tranquility became a macrocosm of Asia with its quaint shops, oriental restaurants, handicrafts, martial arts dojos,
sub rosa gambling, geomancers, and esoteric mysticism of all kinds. Planned along the principles of Feng Shui, it is a region where everyone lived in peace and harmony, tolerant and self-indulgent. In other words, a place Madame Alex would enjoy.