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The Cul De Sac

By   /  March 30, 2024  /  11 Comments


Concerned Neighbor

Thomas Calabrese –  Colonel John Derenger was a Marine Corps Infantry Officer with six combat deployments to the Middle East and three West Pacific assignments to Okinawa, Taiwan and Singapore to his record. He was highly skilled in all aspects of warfare and was assigned to 1st Recon Battalion on at Camp Pendleton. After careful consideration and 22 years of service John decided to retire and return to his home of record in Conroe, Texas. There were some business opportunities in the Gulf of Mexico that looked interesting to him. It was just time for a change.

John received a call from his uncle. Walter Derenger a former Marine, Vietnam War veteran, successful businessman and real estate investor who lived in the Morro Hills area of North Oceanside. “I haven’t seen you since you got back from your last deployment.”

            “Yeah, I’m sorry about that,” Johnny said.

            “Don’t apologize, you didn’t do anything wrong,” Walter said.

            “You’re the only family I have here in California and I should have been more respectful. I’m usually pretty good about staying in touch.”

Walter explained, “Good friends and family are like insurance policies. You don’t need them all the time, but when you do, you like to know they are there. I’m just calling to let you know I’m still vertical and breathing. So what’s been going on in your life?” Walter asked.

            “I’m getting out of the Corps in a couple months and heading back to Texas.”

            “Then this phone call is fortuitous, any chance we can get together? I’d like to talk to you about something,” Walter asked.

            “Roger that…name the place and time and I’ll be there.”

Johnny met his uncle at 333 Pacific a restaurant in downtown Oceanside. After exchanging pleasantries and catching up on old times, Walter confessed, “I recently had open heart surgery and my doctor strongly suggested that I cut back on my workload if I want to prolong my life. I’m ready to leave this world when the good Lord calls me, but I’d like to leave what I’ve worked for all these years in the right hands.”

            “Life happens while we’re making other plans,” Johnny said, “I learned that early in military career.”

            “One of my favorite sayings,” Walter agreed then continued, “When I got out of the Corps in the mid 60’s, I saw the immense potential for development in the San Diego and Riverside areas. Since I didn’t have the money to build things and land was cheap and plentiful I focused on that. All I had to do was pay the taxes and wait it out. I got extremely lucky and before long a city would need property for municipal use or a builder wanted to construct some houses. I’d make deals with the city to give them what they wanted in exchange for free taxes on my other parcels. This greatly cut down on my overhead. Every time I had extra capital I invested it and lived like a pauper.  Eventually I came up with a long range plan; I’d only sell land if it was used for residential construction and I’d only do ground leases for commercial use. That way I would have a consistent income stream and also cut down on my federal and state income taxes.  I’d give a company a 50, 75 or even a 99 year lease with rental increases based on various economic factors including their success. If they went bankrupt, I’d get the structures they built on my property. Everything pertaining to my businesses was placed in real estate trusts. I also have a charitable trust and a family trust.”

            “Sounds too complicated to me,” Johnny said.

            “It can be, that is why I need somebody to help me,” Walter said matter of factly, “You’ve been at the top of my list for a long time, but you were in the Marines and had different priorities. Now that you are getting out, I want you to think about working with me…not for me.”

            “I thought you had good people working for you?” Johnny asked, “Can’t one of them take over?”

            “I don’t want to put that much responsibility on them,” Walter continued. “You possess honor, integrity and compassion. I need a person to eventually be the tip of the spear and who has the same core beliefs as me. I would never put pressure on you to do anything that you don’t want to do, because it wouldn’t be right and because I know it wouldn’t work with a man like you.”

            “I appreciate your faith in me, but you may be over-estimating my abilities,” Johnny said.

            “That’s possible, but not likely. How about this…when you get out of the Corps, give me just one month, 30 days. During that time I will show you what I do and you can make an informed decision based on two factors; do you want the job and do you think you can do it. Whatever you say, I’ll accept without question.”

            “Fair enough, I can do that,” Johnny smiled.

When John Derenger got out of the Marines, he did what he promised.  Walter showed Johnny around his property and explained, “I knew if I bought land next to Pendleton, nobody would be able to build and obstruct my view. I also would have the Military Police watching one end of my property…free of charge.”

Johnny commented, “There’s a lot of activity going on.”

            “Animal rescue groups, dogs, cats, horses and wildlife. I furnish the property and they supply the labor. In the beginning I offered their organizations matching funds,” Walter said.

            “Matching funds…what is exactly is that?” Johnny said.

            “I have found out from experience that when people invest some of their own money and time, they are less inclined to walk away when things get difficult,” Walter said, “The three rescue organizations that are out here came up with a plan to build kennels, corrals, barns and space for veterinary care, etc. The contractor gave a bid to do the construction and I made it emphatically clear to all concerned that if they came up with half the money I’d furnish the land and match their funds.” That was the deal… they could take it or leave it.”

            “And they obviously took it,” Johnny commented.

            “We’ve been in full operation about seven years and we’ve saved a lot of animals in that time. There are also several therapeutic riding programs for children with emotional issues and disabilities. One of the rescue groups is also working with veterans who have PTSD,” Walter said. “I have not been disappointed with their effort and results.”

            “I’m impressed,” Johnny pointed to an area where there were four greenhouses and rows of flowers, plants, vegetables and rows of fruit trees, “What about over there?”

            “A young Mexican man about twenty two-years of age came to the property one day and said he needed to make money in a hurry to help his family because his mother was sick and his dad lost his job. He made a good first impression by looking me in the eye as he spoke. I offered him a $50 dollar bill and he was offended, “I’m looking for a job, not a handout.” 

            “Interesting,” Johnny said, “please continue.”

Walter smiled, “I went into the house, opened the safe and took out ten 100 dollar bills and gave it to him, “Go help your family and come back when you’re ready to earn what I just gave you. He broke down in tears, got into his pick-up and drove off. “I wasn’t completely sure he’d show up again, but I felt it worth a chance,” Walter said.

            “I’m betting he came back,” Johnny said.

            “That’s an understatement. Three cars and three trucks showed the next day. He brought his entire family, father, two brothers and four cousins. They trimmed every tree, weeded the entire property and washed every window in the house and detailed my cars. They more than worked off the one thousand dollars.”

            “So you made him another offer?” Johnny surmised.

            “Exactly, three acres for him to cultivate. I’d pay for all the materials and he’d furnish the labor. Once the business was fully operational, he’d pay me back my initial investment and all the profits would be his afterwards.”

            “And everything else would be his responsibility…right?” Johnny asked.

            “I was just giving him an opportunity, nothing more,” Walter said.

            “Looks like he’s doing alright,” Johnny said.

            “He makes a very good living because he earns it. He’s been here about ten years and has fifteen small markets in the area that he delivers fruits and vegetables to and a couple dozen landscapers that buy their flowers and plants from him. We strive to be as self-sufficient and respectful of the land as possible by conserving and recycling at every opportunity. While the property may be titled in my name, I want everybody to feel that this is their land too. What we have left over we give to charities and food banks. There was one more thing I selfishly asked for.”

Johnny looked around the immaculately maintained property and said, “Let me guess, you told him that he was responsible for taking care of the landscaping?” Johnny said.

            “I love the look and fragrance of flowers, they bring an aura of peace and serenity to the grounds.  I also have the rare opportunity to eat fruits and vegetables on the same day that they are picked…not many people can say that.”

            “Are you going to tell me who this hardworking man is?” Johnny asked.

Walter looked at his watch, “The crew eat at 1130 hours and we’re going to join them. Tomas Aristeo is looking forward to meeting you. I hope you brought your appetite because this may the best Mexican food you’re ever going to taste. Everything is cooked on site with fresh ingredients.”

            “You don’t have ask me twice!” Johnny said.

Erika Blaine was a highly qualified and very successful trust litigation and real estate lawyer and her primary client was Walter Derenger. She lived on a cul de sac in an upper middle class neighborhood called the Missions in the Rancho Del Oro area of Oceanside and worked out of her home. Erika was thirty-eight years- old, divorced and living with twelve year-old daughter, Jessica. Her ex-husband Kirby had more reckless ambition than he did skill and character and was always looking to make the big score. He often got into business deals that straddled the line between unethical and clearly illegal, but those distinctions didn’t bother Kirby. He would often leverage money from one real estate deal to pay off investors from another one.

Kirby would also work with unscrupulous types who were looking for ways to launder their drug profits or money from other their criminal activities. He got into the bad habit of gambling in Las Vegas or one of the local Native American casinos to pay off his debts, only to incur more debts.  Enforcers and collectors routinely showed up at Blaine home to make collections. Erika knew that she had to disentangle herself from the financial quagmire her husband had created, otherwise he would destroy their family and endanger her law license. When Erika said she wanted a divorce, Kirby adamantly refused, started drinking heavily and became verbally abusive. It got so bad that Erika had to get a restraining order. To incentivize her husband into moving out, Erika agreed to pay him $3,000 per month in spousal support. It was an emotionally draining experience that deeply affected her.

 It was mid-afternoon and Walter and Johnny were driving down Mission Avenue in Oceanside. .Walter turned to his nephew, “I need to make a quick stop….do you mind?”

            “I’m along for the ride,” Johnny said.

Walter parked in front of the house and got out, “Are you coming?”

            “I’ll wait here,” Johnny responded, “Take your time.”

            “Come with me, I don’t know how long I’ll be.”

Johnny complied and followed his uncle.

Erika had gotten back from Planet Fitness an hour earlier after completing a strenuous workout. She was still in her exercise clothes and her uncombed hair was hanging loosely around her shoulders. Erika was sipping on a protein drink and reading some legal papers at the kitchen table when the doorbell rang. Thinking it was a delivery, she went to the front door and was surprised to see Walter standing there. She momentarily choked on her drink before asking, “Walter! Did we have a meeting that I forgot about?”

            “I was in the neighborhood so I thought I’d stop by.”

Johnny was standing off to the side and could not be seen by Erika, but he knew that his uncle was not being exactly truthful.

Walter pulled Johnny into view and said, “I’d like you to meet my nephew, Johnny.”

 Erika extended her hand, “A pleasure to meet you.”

            “Same here,” and shook her hand, “You’ve got a strong handshake.”

            “I didn’t hurt you, did I?” Erika smiled.

            “A little…but I’ll survive.”

            “Excuse my appearance, I was in the fitness center,” Erika said.

            “You look alright to me,” Walter nudged Johnny, “She look alright to you, Johnny?”

Johnny looked at the naturally beautiful woman and added, “More than alright.”

            “I’d invite you in, but my daughter has a volleyball game and I’ve got just enough time to take a quick shower. If it’s important I can text Jessica and tell her I can’t make it.”

            “Absolutely not! Family always comes first.” Walter responded.

            “I hope to see you again,” Erika said.

            `”I’ll be around for a while. Good luck to your daughter in her game,” Johnny smiled.

As they walked back to the car, Johnny gently pushed his uncle and Walter said, “What?”

            “You know what?”

            “What?” Walter feigned ignorance.

Johnny explained, “You’re a sly fox.”

            “I don’t know what you mean?”

            “I’ll give ten to one odds, make that a hundred to one that you knew Erika’s workout schedule and probably even her daughter’s volleyball game time. You wanted to catch her off-guard, that’s why you didn’t call her on your cellphone to tell her we were coming,” Johnny said.

            “Why would I do something like that?” Walter shrugged.

Johnny answered, “Because you’re a big fan of first impressions and you wanted to see mine and Erika’s reaction when we first saw each other…that’s why,” Johnny said.

Walter got into the car, “Interesting assessment.”

            “Should I take your lack of denial as confirmation?”

            “What was the question again?” Walter laughed.

Johnny looked to the right and saw Erika watching from the second floor window. He waved and she waved back. There was a sold sign placed across the For Sale sign in the yard next to Erika’s home.

Thirty days passed and Walter said, “Time is up, I did my part, told you everything and showed you everything. Now it’s up to you.”

“Find a job you enjoy doing and you will never have to work a day in your life,” Johnny said.

             “Mark Twain said that,” Walter added, “That doesn’t answer my question.”

            “Actually it does, I gratefully accept your generous offer, but I can’t guarantee that I’ll never work a day for you,” Johnny quipped.

            “You’ve been staying with me, but I think you need a place of your own. I bought a place as an investment. I’m going to hold on to it for a while …hope that the residential market goes up and I can make a profit. You’d be doing me a big favor if you moved in. It’s easier to sell a place when it’s occupied.”

            “Absolutely, let me a take a wild guess, it’s the home next to Erika?” Johnny said.

            “Yeah, it is,” Walter smiled, “How would you know that?”

            “Like I said, just a wild guess.”

            “People are likely to break into a vacant house so I…” Walter started to say.

Johnny interrupted, “You know what I’d do, I’d furnished it and put all the little knickknacks that go with an occupied house…just in case somebody looked through the window.”

            “That’s exactly what I did…we think a lot alike,”

Three months later, John Derenger had settled into his new house and had become a close friend to Erika and her daughter. He adopted a Belgian Malinois from the Camp Pendleton animal shelter and happily agreed with Erika to put a gate through their adjoining fence so that his dog and Erika’s Pitador, half Pitbull and half Labrador could play together. The gate was always left open and the dogs would go from one yard to another and in the houses as if it was their own.

It was a great situation for Johnny and loved working with his uncle and living next door to Erika. In fact, he was the happiest he had ever been in his life. It was March 29th, Good Friday and Easter was on Sunday. Erika saw Johnny exercising in his backyard and called to him from her patio, “Good morning!”

            “How are you doing?” Johnny replied.

            “Great, looks like it is going to be a nice sunny weekend. My parents were going to arrive from Arizona tomorrow, but decided to visit my Aunt Janice in Lake Havasu then leave early Sunday morning and stay the following week,” Erika said.

            “I look forward to seeing them again,” Johnny answered.

            “They feel the same way about you.”

Johnny offered, “You need any help with anything?”

            “Jessie and I got it covered…I might need a little refrigerator space if you got it,” Erika stated.

            “No problem,” Johnny said.

Jessica came out of the house with the two dogs and called out, “Hey Big John!”

            “Good to see you Little J,” Johnny returned the greeting.

Erika said, “We’re going to the store to pick up a few things. Are you going to be home for while?”

            “Yeah, I’m not supposed to meet Walter until later.”

            “When you talk to him, remind him we’re going to eat at 1500 hours on Sunday. That’s military time for 3:00,” Erika joked.

Jessica quipped, “Don’t get into any trouble while we’re gone.”

A car was parked down the street. The windows of the sedan were darkly tinted and it was hard to see the four men inside it. One of the men was visibly angry, “Kirby Blaine has got four million dollars of the company’s money. We either get it back or somebody’s head is going to roll and it’s not going to be me!”

Another man questioned, “Maybe his ex-wife doesn’t knows where he is?”

The first man’s anger was irrational and homicidal, “If you got a better idea then feel free to share it. We’re going to work our way down the list of everybody that is remotely connected to Kirby Blaine until we get our money or until everybody is dead,” The first man put the barrel of his pistol to the second man’s forehead, “I’m waiting for your answer. Are you with me?”

The second man meekly answered, “I’m with you.”

Johnny was playing with the dogs in the backyard when he heard the sound of Erika’s Toyota hybrid Highlander coming down the street. He walked over to the gate and saw the sedan follow her into the driveway. Four men get out with guns drawn and ordered Erika and Jessica into the house.

Johnny rushed into his house, opened his gun safe and pulled out a Sig Sauer Legion P226 pistol and three magazines. He went through the adjoining gate to the back of Erika’s house and could hear a man yelling, “Where’s Kirby!”

            “I haven’t heard from him in weeks!” Erika responded.

            “You better give me something or I’m going to kill you and your daughter!”

Johnny peered through the window to see where the men were standing then quietly opened the sliding door and entered the kitchen. Everyone was in the living room and their backs were turned to him. He took a deep breath and laser focused his attention at the task at hand. He came into view firing and took out two men with accurate headshots and emptied his first magazine into the other two men. He reloaded and kept firing until there was no movement. Erika and Jessica stood in stunned silence. Johnny led them away from the carnage, “Wait for me in my house…go.”

The mother and daughter left and Johnny went through the men’s pockets looking for identification. A few minutes later, he returned to his house, “Are you alright?”

            “Yeah, thanks to you,” Erika hugged Johnny in gratitude.

            “That was mighty fine shooting,” Jessica exclaimed, “You must have learned that in the Marines.”

            “I couldn’t afford to miss, too much was at stake,” Johnny shrugged modestly.

Johnny picked up his cellphone, “We got a problem…can you come over to the house?”

Walter arrived 20 minutes later and Johnny led him into Erika’s house.

It was Easter Sunday and the holiday festivities had been moved to Walter’s home in Morro Hills. Erika explained to her parents, “There was an infestation of pests at the house and exterminators are working on the problem. Walter was kind enough to let Jessica and me stay here until the job is completed”

            “It is my pleasure,” Walter smiled.

After dinner, Walter and Johnny went outside, “I have some friends looking into who those men are.”

            “I’ve made a few calls myself,” Johnny said, “If it turns out that these men are part of a bigger problem then I’m going to need some time off. I need to make sure that Erika and Jessica are safe.”

            “Whatever you need, you got it,” Walter agreed.

Jessica saw Johnny and Walter in the balcony and called to them, “Mom won’t cut the cake until you come back in.”

“We’re on our way,” Johnny said.

            Johnny received a text and looked at it, “Got Intel for you.”

Walter asked, “Anything important?”

            “Probably…it can wait until after dessert.”

The two men entered the dining room and Erika cut the cake and gave the first piece to Johnny, “Happy Easter,” and kissed him on the cheek.”


It took almost two months and Johnny Derenger’s plan was to inflict as much death and destruction on the criminal organization as possible. He wanted to put them on the defensive and divert their attention away from going after Kirby Blaine, his ex-wife and daughter. There was still one more thing to do. Johnny found Kirby partying in a bar in Bangkok, Thailand and sat next to him, “Hey Kirby.”

            “That’s not my name,” Kirby stammered.

            “If I found you, they can too. I bought you a little time, but take my advice, keep a low profile and don’t waste your money on bar girls. One more thing, stay out of Erika and Jessica’s lives because if I have to come back, it will be to kill you.”

Kirby just sat there, fearful and speechless. Johnny placed some American currency on the table, “Next rounds are on me,” then took out a knife, stabbed the 20 dollar bill and disappeared into the crowd.

Three days later John Derenger arrived back in Oceanside and Erika and Jessica happily welcomed him back to the quiet cul de sac where he resume his role as a concerned neighbor…you can probably guess what happened after this. Here’s a hint, things worked out just like Walter planned.

The End


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  1. marty says:

    Happy Easter Tom!
    Great writing as usual.

  2. Lloyd M Thorne says:

    Another great story. Tom is a patriot and great romantic. He writes very interesting stories and always leaves a positive thought.

    Semper Fi

  3. John Michels says:

    Another enjoyable read Tom. Happy Easter and Happy Birthday tomorrow

  4. Tom says:

    Not one of your usual tales…but certainly just as enjoyable. I’m a sucker for USMC involvement, pretty girls, dogs and animal rescue. Toss in some delicious Mexican food and “Ay Caramba!” Cul de sac and bottom of the barrel…sounds like Kirby Blaine!

  5. Robert says:

    Happy Easter and thank you for the story. As usual it was entertaining

  6. bob wolf says:

    I guess Deringer never made it to Texas.

    In the 70, s while Stationed at Campen I also bought some Condos

    and now live on cull de sac in oceanside.

  7. Lisha says:

    Thanks for the great story Tom! Your character descriptions are so vivid and precise, it makes it easy for the reader to visualize the story as it unfolds. As an author, you take your readers on wonderful journeys. Happy Easter to you and Happy Birthday tomorrow and many more!

  8. Tony says:

    What can one say, but another great Sunday story by Mr. Thomas Calabrese in the Sunday Vista Press for our reading enjoyment.
    One never knows what life will bring your way and when, good or bad. It is good to maintain a positive outlook and a state of preparedness.
    Kindness, when warranted goes a long way and will pay big dividends when least expected. I realize we are not all in a position to assist everyone but it not always required to be a large donation, perhaps a small gesture or act will make a difference and will go a long way. Being prepared is always a good thing and being kind to humans as well as animals will again pay dividends. Happy Easter and Peace to all.

  9. Skip says:

    Happy Easter, Tom! We should all have neighbors like Johnny Derenger!

  10. Bart says:

    Thanks for the interesting story. I liked it.

  11. Jon Gregory Nielsen says:

    Sir Thomas,

    Thank you for another positive story to start this new week. It can be a real test if you have a “Kirby” in your life. But, thank GOD, there are “Johnny’s” around who can bless your life with their courage and love for the living.

    Have a wonderful Resurrection weekend and be careful with all the rain Southern Cal is getting right now.

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