Death by Parking
Death by ParkingBook 2: The Rendezvous
Chapter 7 - The She-Wolf and I Meet Again...
It was obvious Paulo's meeting with William Francis Smith had stepped on some pretty big toes. And they belonged to people not only in City Hall, but also in Sacramento. What the heck was going on here? This was just a friggin' parking lot. There couldn't be the amount of money involved to interest folks at that altitude. Or could there?
I figured it was time to get some more information from Betty. She had been in the parking business for 30 years. If anyone knew about parking, it was Betty. When my wife and assistant Shirley returned from making the phone call, she had a funny look on her face.
"Betty wasn't too forthcoming. She sounded frightened. She told me she was very busy and couldn't afford the time to talk to us. I think someone got to her. She did say, however, that perhaps we might want to talk to Marilyn North. She is an auditor and a former parking operator who works out of Seattle. Betty did give me her number. When I called, I found that she was actually here in L.A. working on a job. She'll be here in an hour."
"Wow," I said. "That's a lot in just two phone calls. We have to be careful. We don't want it to look like we are 'investigating' anything. This has to be just a social call. It might be better if we met her at Paulo's. The office may be under some kind of surveillance."
"Right, I'll call her back."
I thought it best if only Paulo and I met with North. That way, only our licenses were in jeopardy. Our major operative, Jim Walsh, was planning to continue to follow up with his contacts in the LAPD. I told him to go home and await developments. No need for all of us to be at risk of permanent unemployment. Shirley stayed to cover the phones, and discretion being the, well, you know, I decided I would drive. After the run down the hill to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center a couple of days ago with Paulo, I didn't want to take any chances.
Paul Junior lived in a small house on a canal in Venice. Yes, there really are canals in Venice, California. In 1904, a developer named Abbot Kinney actually built a representation of Venice, Italy, on the Southern California coast just south of Santa Monica -- complete with canals, bridges and all the trimmings. Some of the canals were filled in about 1929, but a several remain, and small "California bungalows" line the waterways.
Some bungalows are original 1920s; others have been gentrified to multimillion-dollar mansions, with designs ranging from a Hansel and Gretel "witch's house" to chrome, glass and steel. One might wonder how Paulo could afford such a place. It was left to him by my aunt when she passed away a few years ago. It was of the original design, and he kept all the wonderful feel of the '20s.
Marilyn North arrived just behind us. She was 50ish, stocky, and in control. She stuck out her had and introduced herself. "Marilyn North. You must be Paul Manning; who's the kid?" I introduced my son.
"So," she asked, "what do you want to know?"
We sat on Paulo's front porch overlooking the canal. I told her the story and where we were, which was basically nowhere.
"Well, most people don't understand that parking generates a huge amount of money," North said. "We are talking billions, maybe as many as 20 billion, nationwide. A single location could take in between half a million and a million dollars or more each year. There is room for temptation to step in, plus a lot of room for error. Most parking operators try to do a good job, but the owners drive down the fees they get so much that it's difficult to perform. You know that the manager of a McDonald's makes six figures, while a parking manager of a location grossing the same amount might make 50K on a good day.
"The other problem is taxes. With so much money floating around, folks want to keep as much as they can," North said. "So they don't report all the income, and thus don't pay the 10% tax. This has two advantages: the obvious one of taking home more, but the other is more subtle. If legitimate operators pay their taxes and an illegitimate one like your buddy William Francis Smith doesn't, he has a 10% advantage when he bids a job. He can bid it at 10% less and still make the same amount of profit. And we are talking about a lot of money here. On one of those million-dollar locations, that's a hundred grand right on the bottom line."
"But," I asked, "how can they put so much pressure on the government that my license has been pulled?"
"Well, when you have that much cash, you can spread it around downtown and at the state capital. Smith has his tentacles into a lot of pies, not just parking. It's to his advantage to support the right council members and state legislators. My guess is that with two phone calls, he cut you off at the knees."
"Any idea where we should go from here?"
"I'm auditing one of Smith's locations right now. I'm working for the owner who got suspicious. It's a real mess. The skimming is in six figures, maybe more. Perhaps I can put some pressure on Smith and he might make a mistake."
"What do you think the guys were doing on the roof of that garage when they were spotted by Grace Lundquist?"
"They were the bagmen for LaFlonza, Smith and his cronies at City Hall. Those sacks being exchanged were filled with cash. My guess is that the garage was a convenient location and they thought they were safe - they just never looked up. They probably have moved the drop to somewhere else by now."
As we sat there considering what had been said, a blond woman in her late 50s walked up. She was shadowed by two gorillas. She looked very familiar. When she spoke, her accent -- like that of a she-wolf from the slopes of Mt. Etna, but soft, like the moonlight on the Spanish steps -- was unmistakable.
"We meet again, Mr. Manning. Your son is a handsome young man, but too young for me now. But I digress. No, remain seated, this will take only a minute. You have a choice. Stop what you are doing immediately or you will certainly lose your business, and maybe your lives. I know where you and your beautiful wife live, I know where your son lives, and you know I can deliver on what I say." Maria LaFlonza walked away.
North looked at me and cracked a cold smile. "You sure know how to stir up trouble, don't you, Manning."