John D MacDonald – Barrier Island

“I don’t think I’m going to like this story.”

“Con Jester had some friends in county government and city government and they told him he wouldn’t have a bit of trouble getting the zoning changed so that he could put up a shopping plaza with plenty of parking. He got hold of an outfit in New Jersey that specialized in planning and leasing shopping centers. Understand, that was almost twenty years ago, so it was early in the game. Their specialists came down and looked the situation over and said they liked the look of it and they would make an arrangement on it favorable to Con. So he took a deep breath and went ahead. He sold everything he owned and came up finally with one hundred and thirty-six thousand dollars. Then he went to the West Bay Citizens Bank and borrowed two hundred thousand at seven percent, with the sixty acres as collateral. Then, of course, all he needed was the zoning change, and he applied for it.”

“And they wouldn’t give it to him?”

“That’s the punch line. He haunted that planning and zoning commission, but he couldn’t get anything moving. He began to suspect somebody had set up a roadblock. He called in all his tickets all over town, and he couldn’t find out who was blocking him. The interest on his loan came to about twelve hundred a month, which isn’t too much these days, but it was enough to eat Con Jester up, because he had sold his income-producing properties to raise the hundred and thirty-six. He’d put down the biggest bet of his life, and they’d closed the table. When he saw what was happening and what probably would happen, he tried to get out of it as best he could. Con was a realist. He made up a little package. At first he tried to get his whole hundred and thirty-six back on a sale to somebody who’d assume the loan. The trouble was there was no alternate use for the land under the zoning they had on it, that would get his bait back. And he couldn’t handle that much debt.”

“What could he do?”

“If he tried to wait it out, the bank would grab the sixty acres and he’d have nothing left. So he kept dropping the price, spreading the word. And finally when it got down to fifty thousand, a young lawyer I can’t remember his name showed up and said he represented Pantheon Associates, and he paid the fifty thousand and Pantheon took over the loan and the title.

“A year and a half later, the zoning change was granted and the bulldozers showed up and the sign said that this was the future site of the Bayway Shopping Plaza, a project of Pantheon Associates. The newspaper smoked out the names behind Pantheon a few weeks later. Ellenson, Derks, Loudner, Daggs and the names of a couple of men now long dead. The power structure. The group Tuck Loomis is now a member of. And I guess you could say the group that Con Jester wanted to join.”

“How do you know so much about it?”

“As I said, Con Jester and my father were friends. Con died of cancer a few months after the plaza opened. Of course, it’s now the Bayway Mall, after the reconstruction a few years back, when they built the professional office building. My father had the theory that the mind and the body are so closely intertwined that if you have some terrible grief or disappointment or public shame, you are more susceptible to cancer and strokes and heart attacks. One Sunday when I went fishing with him, he told me the whole story about Con Jester. It upset him. I guess that’s why I remember it so clearly. After he lost that title, Con Jester tried to come back, but his heart wasn’t in it. He died almost broke.”

Beth straightened up and turned to face him, her eyes shocked and wide. “That’s a terrible story, Wade.”

“Well, let’s see. I can change it some. Maybe Conrad Jester, he took that fifty thousand and he did some real smart hustling with it and pumped it up to ten times its size, then met up with that same group again on some kind of deal and really put it to them and came out ahead.”

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