Saturday, July 7, 2012

Chapter 1 : I Hate Mondays

While moving the handset from my right ear to the left, a pain shot from my shoulder to my hip, a carpal tunnel-related syndrome that was exacerbated by high levels of anxiety. “I’m right here, Lorna. What’s wrong??”

Lorna was almost stammering, terribly unusual for her, as she rarely lost her composure, regardless of the circumstances. “Two men claiming to be from the FBI are standing at the front door and refusing to leave the property until they speak to you. What the hell is going on?”

I was shell-shocked. The wheels in my head started spinning into high gear as my brain was trying to process why two feds were knocking on my door before sunrise and panicking my family. My life was flashing before me, like a PowerPoint presentation set on high speed.

During the first milliseconds, I thought it was a sick prank being pulled off by someone that I had crossed paths with in the interim eight years, a period that seemed like a long-running soap opera, during which I had four different "day jobs", and several 'moonlighting' projects, all in effort to keep my wife and family in the style in which I had grown them accustomed to, including the 5 bedroom house we rented in Westport, and all of the other accouterments that a nice Jewish girl from Long Island would expect from a seemingly nice Jewish boy from the North Shore.

One of those interim episodes included my crossing paths with a national ring of financial fraudsters that had ripped off a client of mine while I was doing a brief stint as an institutional salesman for a second tier brokerage firm. That experience was my first and only other encounter with the brain trust at the FBI. Aside from my being enraged by what had happened to my client, who was also a personal friend, I was extremely frustrated by the Feds’ ineptitude. The FBI agents were like Keystone Cops, so I took it upon myself to put together the hard evidence against the bad guys. A year later, and despite a none-to-discreet threat against my family, it was my testimony in court that sent two of the crooks to a federal prison. But as far as I knew, those clowns were still guests of the Government, so I took them off my split-second suspect list.

There were a few other less ominous characters that probably had an axe to grind with me; there’s no doubt I might have inadvertently stepped on some toes while climbing the ladder. While the left side of my brain was engaged in a fierce battle with the right side to try and process the potential who’s and why’s, and before Lorna could confirm my worst fear, my gut sent another instant message directly up my spine that jolted all ten billion neurons in the cerebral cortex lining of my skull, and it was two words: Jake Bronstein.

Jake was one of the most colorful people I had met in the last twenty years; a true-to-life caricature of a Las Vegas “entrepreneur”. He looks like the actor Andy Garcia, and when a photo from Variety had the two of them standing next to each other at a Hollywood dinner, you’d think they were twins. A shrink would say that he’s my alter ego. Our birthdays fall on the same day, we have the same initials engraved on our cufflinks, we both grew up in affluent, Jewish suburbs. We have older brothers that are the same age (and both were screw-ups), and our wives even have the same middle name. We could fit into each other’s clothes, and go into tie-breakers in every set on the tennis court at the Las Vegas Country Club, but that’s where the similarities pretty much end.

Jake’s primary residence is a 9000 sq. ft. penthouse in Vegas’s Turnberry Place; the 4000 sq. ft. wrap around deck adds to the roominess, but the deck isn’t calculated as part of the total square footage. When he had given me a tour of his place a year after moving in, Jake had told me how modified the original floor plan, and converted two of the three “junior suites” into “His” and “Hers” dressing areas, each with private bath and wardrobe closet. The Hers closet, for his wife Elly, measures 700 sq. ft., and is a condensed version of Neiman Marcus, elegantly sub sectioned for each type of apparel. His is lined with size-40, double-breasted Brioni suits, French-cuff silk shirts, Versace ties, and Ferragamo loafers; his business uniform. For casual occasions, like when visiting his gun club on weekends, he’s just as dapper in his tailored black jeans, ostrich cowboy boots, and black Polo t-shirts. Always black.

He especially liked showing me the special hidden closet within the His dressing room, one that opened via a button imbedded beneath the carpet. It housed a small collection of high caliber weapons, including a Walther PPK that he had been given after coordinating a location shoot in Las Vegas for a James Bond film, a pearl-handled Gloch, and a snub-nosed .38. There was also a black velvet bag that had more than a fistful of diamonds, and a 12 inch stack of $100’s. There was also a manila envelope. He didn’t share the contents, but for an instant, I envisioned that it contained a passport and drivers license that displayed Jake’s photo, but a name that was different than what appeared on his tax return or his utility bills.

Forty-two stories directly below his mansion in the sky is a subterranean parking facility, and his name is on five of the parking slots that are occupied by his ever-updated collection of Porsches, BMW’s, a Bentley Coupe, and his Mercedes limo. They’re black too, with blacked out windows. He had told me that he had the Bentley bullet-proofed, and during a drive by tour of his title loan stores on the Vegas strip, he had shown me the hide-a-away holster in his BMW 635, a button in the steering column that dispensed another Gloch from under the front seat, a defensive measure he had installed after one of his title loan stores had be held up at gun point.

Jake’s real estate portfolio also includes a two bedroom bungalow overlooking Malibu Beach, decorated to the nines by his trophy wife, a former lingerie model with an insatiable taste for carats, and the best of the breed in Jake’s stable of women, who are spread out across the country. His favorite concubine is comfortably ensconced in Jake’s Beverly Hills high rise condo on Wilshire Blvd, two blocks from his film production office.

And, to make sure he’s always exactly one minute early to every meeting or appointment, Jake wears a special-edition Patek Phillippe wrist watch. His only other jewelry is a 2-carat diamond pinky ring with a platinum band, the one he inherited from his Dad, who for ten years had been the consigliore to Jimmy Hoffa.

Yes, Jimmy Hoffa. In addition to being the eyes and ears to one of the most famous union bosses of all time, Jake’s Dad was in charge of the Teamsters’ pension fund investments, including their extensive holdings throughout Las Vegas. When Jake’s father unexpectedly died in middle of a serving a tax-related “sabbatical” at Lompoc Federal Prison, Jake was left with $1 million in a safe deposit box, and his Dad’s rolodex; a passport that he would use to build up a small empire of business interests that included everything from casino industry consulting, to movie producing, to hard money lending, to selling imported olive oil and noodles to the hotels on the Vegas strip. And those were the businesses he would talk about on the phone. There were more businesses that Jake would only talk about in person.

Since the time we had been introduced in a conference call more than a dozen years ago, Jake and I had somehow become closer than brothers. We chased rainbows together, and we’ve done favors for each other, most of which involving straight-forward business deals, and some that we rarely made it a point to talk about afterwards. Like the saying goes, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. But, between the sharp pain in my neck and the queasy feeling in my gut, I was pretty sure that something had left Vegas, and it was about to hit me square between the eyes.

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