Chapter 1-Biloxi, 1920
The old man standing behind the oak desk looked his age. Theodore Desporte gazed out the window as his son Ernest walked in. Theodore was beginning to get gray hairs, and Ernest had a moustache. The only other difference between the two men was age. Both had brown hair and eyes, stood just less than six feet, and had the same stocky but not too large build.
Theodore turned around and sat down behind the large desk. Ernest stood in front of the desk and patiently waited for what his father had to say. Leaning back in his chair, the elder Desporte finally began, "I need you to do something for me. I know you don't like me that much, but I need your help."
Ernest decided it was time to sit. It was true he did not like the man very much, but he was still his father.
"I suppose if you can be sociable, so can I, Father." The difference in tone as he said "Father" summed up the contempt he felt for being asked. "But why didn't you ask Steven?"
"Your brother is taking care of some other matters right now."
"What you mean is that this concerns your supposedly legal British shipping firm and he doesn't know about it. What's the job?"
"Actually, Steven does know about the company, his task at the moment concerns another aspect of its operations, but for this I need you. I wouldn't trust anyone but you." Theodore reached into his desk for a file. "As you know, TransGulf Shipping is under a British registration. Charles Taylor, who I put in charge of running the local end of business down in Nassau, was convinced by a Nassau lawyer that the company would appear more British if it had a British head. Lawyer's name was Fulton, Jeffrey Fulton. Taylor thought the idea sounded good, and without getting my approval, hired Roger Smythe. Sounds English enough." Theodore handed Ernest the folder. "Anyway, Smythe has claimed the company as his own, and is trying to fire Taylor. I need you to go down there, figure out what's going on, and see what can be done to remedy the situation."
Ernest looked at the folder his father handed him. It contained a single sheet each on Taylor, TransGulf, and a strip map from the dock to the shipping office. "First of all, I'll need a little more to go on then this. But more important, what do I get out of it?"
Theodore rose and walked to the file cabinet to his left. Like the desk, it was solid oak. He pulled out the top drawer and flipped through the folders in the back. "Well, son, I can't put you back in the will since I never took you out. I can't get you a job with the city, since you already have one. I seem to be short on things I think you may like." He located the file he wanted and returned to sit behind the desk. "How about this, I show you this file, you name your own price?"
"Hasn't it always worked that way with you?" asked the younger Desporte contemptuously.
"I am at a loss here. I don't know what to do to win your love. I have tried to do what I thought best for you, and all I have received in return is your hate. What can I do?"
"How about this, you show me the folder, I tell you half the price. I do the job, then come back for the rest of the price."
Theodore pushed the folder toward his son, his face showing no emotions. Without looking at his father, Ernest opened the file. His heart was pounding. These files contained information on all the people in control of the Bahamas, and Theodore had not had a chance to pull out the ones he did not want his son to see. Mayor of Nassau, Chief of Police, even the Worshipful master of the Masonic Lodge, they were all there.
"I'll take this folder and lessen my price, deal?"
"Let's hear the offer with and without the folder." Theodore may be bending but he was not about to break.
“Without, TransGulf Shipping, with, three schooners including crews."
"How do I know you won't return and ask for TransGulf as the second half of your price?"
"Even business associates have to trust one another; it's not just a family thing."
"Sometimes I wonder where you got our bargaining skills, at other times I just remember. Take the folder. I assume you have the ships in mind, which are they?"
"I'll name them when I return. I assume you have arranged some transportation for me." "Everett is waiting outside. He’ll take you to the seaplane. Good luck, son."
Ernest rose to depart, "Good luck to you to, Father." Ernest spun on his heels and walked out.
The solid oak door shut behind Ernest with a muffled thud. He ran his hands along the top edge of the desk as the footsteps outside faded away. The old man thought highly of the wood his office appeared to have been carved out of. He liked the toughness and the solidity of the wood, and the fact that those big trees grew from such tiny acorns. It was times like this that Theodore had to remind himself how annoying those little acorns could sometimes be.
Ernest stepped out of the seaplane and onto the dock. The flights had been long enough for him to have studied the files, and take a nap. Of course spending the night in Miami had helped as well. He quickly scanned the docks, spotted Taylor, and headed for him.
The docks were crowded with people and cases filled with “hams,” the unique way of carrying quart-sized bottles of alcohol that would double the cargo capacity of rum-running ships. Burlap sacks held six bottles stacked in a pyramid, three then two then one, padded with straw, and sewn shut with double sail twine. This method of packing not only increased the number of cases a ship could hold, but provided protection for the bottles from the rough voyage they had ahead.
Taylor spotted Desporte over the heads of the people and started toward him. They met, and Taylor introduced himself, "I'm Charles Taylor you have to be Ernest Desporte, has anyone ever told you . . ."
Ernest cut him off, "I don't get along well with my father, if you'd like to remain on my good side, don't remind me I look like him." He extended his hand.
Taylor accepted the outstretched hand, startled by the abruptness. "Let's get to the office and away from this crowd." He turned and led the way off the docks.
The street was less hectic than the docks. Ernest started talking, "When was all this moved? Last time I was here all the ships were in Nassau Harbor."
“It happened about a month ago. The Nassau authorities decided they had seen enough. The harbor was too crowded with rum-runners. I guess they weren't getting enough from their revenue tax to justify having to see all the mess the boats were creating in their main harbor. They raised the tax to the equivalent of six bucks a case and moved all the dealings to Salt Cay. We had just moved to our new location right on the harbor, so we now have a longer walk. I reserved a room for you at the Lucerne Hotel." Taylor pointed as they walked past the hotel.
They walked further down the street in silence, until they reached a small two-story building. "Ours is the top floor." Taylor held the door for Ernest. The stairs were to the left. As they started up, Taylor continued, "I cleared out an office for you to work in, and you will be glad to know that Smythe conducts what he calls business elsewhere."
The outer office was sparsely furnished. A single secretary worked the front desk. Two plants 4
adorned the near corners. Three doors opened to either side of the room.
"Your office is the middle door on the left, mine is to the right of that.” Explained Taylor. “All the files are locked up in the last door on the other side. The middle door there leads to the waiting room, the last one to the toilet. Lucille will give you a key for the files, your office, the front door, and your hotel room. Are you ready to get started?"
"Whenever you are." Ernest said curtly.
"Let's go into your office first." Taylor waved a hand and made to follow Ernest.
Ernest headed toward his office door. In the brief time since the docks it was clear that either Taylor knew his job was on the line, or he was a natural born ass-kisser who played up to all his boss' sons. An unspoken request Desporte would have to figure out for dad.
As Ernest opened the door, his first thought was that his father must have designed the office. There were three chairs in front of a large desk, one large chair behind it, a hat rack and a file cabinet, all were made of oak. The drapes were open and Nassau Harbor and a stretch of beach showed through it.
"I suppose I should mention I was happy the boats were moved to Salt Cay. They ruined my view, too."
Slightly surprised, Ernest asked, "This was your office?"
"I figured by moving next door I would get a head start on vacating for my replacement." Said Taylor looking nervously around the room.
"The job may still be yours, but first we need to figure out how to reclaim the company for you to have something to run." Ernest went around to the back of the desk and sat. All seven drawers on the desk were locked, the keys sat atop the desk.
“I set up an appointment with Fulton for tomorrow,” explained Taylor, “You'll have to go to his office, but Smythe is supposed to be there. It seems neither really wants to have anything to do with us anymore. Last time I spoke with Fulton, he tried to convince me that it would really be to my advantage not to fight in the Bahamian courts because of legal aspects. I don't believe him anymore. I may have been gullible once, but not twice. I think that may be the best way to reclaim TransGulf.”
He handed Ernest a short report, “Lucille is typing up the information I dug up on Fulton in the last week. Briefly, he came in here a month ago and inquired about doing some legal work for the firm. I hired him to handle the mess made by using manifests from Jamaica to say each ship is carrying legal cargo from Nassau to the US. Our last legal man ran off the day before, so we were forced to hire him before we finished his background search completely. This report,” nodding in the direction of the papers, “shows the overall incorporation and holding company status of Transgulf in the Bahamas.
"Two weeks ago Fulton came to me with the tip that the US Consulate had begun an investigation into American shipping firms that were registered under British names. At least that fact was true. Fulton suggested we change the name of the president to something even more believably British than Taylor. He found Smythe. A week after that Smythe claimed the company for his own. Yesterday we received his background search from your Father."
Ernest interrupted, "Whose decision was it to hire Fulton?"
"That was a joint decision by your Father and me."
Ernest flipped open the report, “When is the appointment with Fulton?"
"Ten o'clock tomorrow." He shuffled his feet.
"All right is there anything else we need for now?” Ernest asked.
"That about covers it. The report Lucille has goes into more details. If you don't need anything else, I do need to get on the pickup schedules for next week."
"That's good, go right on ahead. If you don't mind, I'll call you Charles, and you can call me Ernest, no need to be formal all the time."
"Yes sir, Ernest. If you need me I am next door." Taylor turned and left. Some of the apprehension he felt had left him. Perhaps he would still have a job next week.
As the door closed, Ernest spun his chair around. The view was certainly peaceful. It appeared to the younger Desporte that his father had made a good choice for whom to run the Bahamian operations. To Ernest's eyes, Taylor was not an ass-kisser, though he did do a good job. Since Ernest's eyes had been trained by Theodore himself, Taylor would still have a job long after this mess had blown over.
Fulton's office seemed shabby. It was tiny and all Ernest had seen so far was the waiting area.
"Mister Fulton will see you now," said the secretary.
It was a quarter after ten; already this meeting had become a battle of wits. Now Ernest would find out if Fulton was as unarmed for the battle as his background report showed him to be. Fulton's office was just as shabby as the outer room. It contained a desk, three chairs and a bookshelf with a few worn out looking law books.
"Ah, Mister Desporte, so nice to meet you. Please be seated." Fulton gestured toward a chair. "Where is Mister Smythe?" asked Ernest.
"My client could not be here with us today, he has been unavoidably detained. Would you care for a drink?"
"Thank you, no, I came here to discuss TransGulf Shipping, and Mister Smythe. How long has he been your client?"
Fulton hesitated. "If you don't mind, I will help myself to a drink." Fulton removed a bottle and a glass from his desk drawer. As he poured, he continued, "Mister Smythe has been a faithful client of mine for some time. As for TransGulf, I was hired to procure false manifests and give legal aid. Tasks that I did to the best of my ability. Unfortunately, my suggestion of Smythe as a prospective sham British owner was taken to be less than satisfactory."
"How long have you known Smythe? Were the two of you conning people in London before you were thrown out?"
Fulton shifted uneasily in his chair “I will no longer tolerate any more insinuations from your company. You are no longer welcome here.' Fulton stood, 'Please be on your way."
Ernest stood and leaned over the desk. He put his nose an inch away from Fulton's. "You will be lucky if you aren't run out of Nassau like you were run out of England. You haven't seen the last of me. Good day, Fulton." Ernest stormed out of the office, leaving a fuming Fulton staring after him.
Back at the TransGulf Shipping office, Ernest knocked on Charles' door. Taylor opened the door looking surprised, "Uh. . . come in, Ernest. Or would you rather I come to your office?”
“Yours is fine, Charles.” Ernest walked in. There was barely enough room for the desk much less visitors. It contained only a desk, one chair and a table with three half empty bottles, and two glasses on it. No window, no hat rack, and the desk was not even oak. “Why didn’t I get this office?”
“I uh... figured you'd rather have the main office. What did I need with the extra space?”
“What did you need with it? What did I need with it? I haven't even unlocked the desk drawers. I've only opened the top file drawer, and I haven't even hung a hat." Ernest smiled, "Besides, I'm sick of oak.
"Get a couple of pistols and meet me at the Lucerne tonight at eight sharp. Have Lucille arrange my trip back to Biloxi tomorrow. Move your stuff back into the main office and don't give it up to anyone short of the old man himself."
"Not even Steven?"
"Especially not Steven. Your job is safe. Actually, you deserve a raise. I'll see you tonight." Ernest left a much happier Taylor and headed for the Lucerne bar.
Retaking the Firm
An all night party was raging on the hill behind the Lucerne. Gangsters and prostitutes all hung out around a huge bonfire with fifty-gallon drums of rum, whiskey and gin. Tonight someone had thought enough to bring a six-piece band. The hills were alive with the frolicking gaiety associated with rum-running. All the chases, the seizures, the jail terms were forgotten. Carpe diem. More than likely, at least once these revelers had been kicked out of the Lucerne Bar.
As if to illustrate the point, the scene in the bar was only a bit more subdued. Smoke filled the air. Half-naked women sat on the laps of men who themselves were half stripped out of their unbearably hot zoot suits. A small band in the corner played the songs it thought the Americans wanted to hear.
The slightly more serene crowd sat to the right side of the bar, away from the music, hookers, and liveliest crowd. This part of the room was not interested in robbing everyone blind. The goal of this group was not to put everyone around them out of business. These were the people who just thought Prohibition was a bad law, and since most folk were against it, they were out to make a little money.
Desporte and Taylor sat in the far back corner. They had a good view, albeit a smoke filled view, of the whole bar. Across the room Fulton stood. He took a hooker by the arm, and headed for the door. Taylor stood to follow him; Desporte pulled a few bills out to pay the tab.
The door never closed behind Fulton. Taylor reached it first. The hooker was hanging all over Fulton. She was looking for an extra tip, or at least the location of Fulton's wallet. Fulton was too drunk to notice. He staggered up the street headed for his shack on the outskirts of town. Taylor had a handbag in his right hand. He threw it at the staggering Fulton and hit him square in the back.
The hooker let Fulton go. He staggered, almost caught himself, then fell to the ground. He tried to reach his feet. Taylor walked up to him with his pistol out. Desporte went to the hooker.
He whispered, "Ma’am don't be alarmed, but we need you for a business transaction. Would you mind joining us in the alleyway?"
She glanced at the gun in Desporte's hand, a quick jolt of fear shot through her before
instincts took over. This was not the first time she had seen a gun brandished during a transaction, but this time the business end pointed toward someone else. Wordlessly she walked into the dark alley with the three men.
Fulton was still unaware of what was going on. "What the hell is this? Are these guys your pimps?"
Taylor started, "Jeffrey, Jeffrey, you still have no idea as to the fact that your game is over, do you?" He waved the gun in Fulton's direction, allowing the moonlight to play off the barrel.
"What do you want?" Fulton began trembling, few things sober men faster than threats of bodily harm, especially harm done by the gleam of the moonlight on blue steel.
Taylor had picked up the bag he had thrown at Fulton and now opened it. He extracted a contract and a pen. Handing them over, he said, "If you would be so kind as to relinquish Smythe's control on my company and then leave town."
"Sign where?" Fulton grabbed for the papers. He looked for a place to sign them. No one turned to offer him their back, so he kneeled over and found an dry spot on the muddy ground to sign.
"Get out tonight. If you’re still here in the morning you’re a dead man."
Fulton handed Desporte the papers, his eyes were wide open in terror. Desporte turned to the hooker, "If you would please, sign saying that you witness this blubbering jellyfish, we'll allow you to go."
She took the papers Desporte handed to her and put them on Fulton's back to sign. She handed the papers back and started walking off.
"Wait!" Taylor shouted. Turning to Fulton he said, "Give me your wallet."
Fulton did as he was told. Facing the hooker, Taylor handed her the wallet, "It may not be much, but this is for your help tonight." The wallet was bulging with pound notes.
She took the wallet and paused. Then she walked to Fulton and pushed him off his wobbling knees into the mud face first.
Dawn was as beautiful as every other dawn in the islands. They are always an incredible sight to see. The pilot of Desporte's seaplane was too busy running over his checklist to notice. Ernest and Taylor stood watching and talking on the dock as the plane was made ready to depart. "When you talk to your father, maybe you can convince him of something for me. Before this damn prohibition amendment was passed, he sent down shipload after shipload of alcohol. They were sent here, but they ran out long ago. He set up TransGulf here because this was where his stock was. Now I have to buy booze from locals, and dealers here. With this surcharge, and the locals selling charters to gangsters to run liquor, we're really losing a lot of money."
"You want to move?"
“Not exactly. Besides, your father wouldn't let us. I was thinking Jamaica but I’ve uncovered a better idea. Have you heard what the Bronfmans are doing in Canada?”
Since the amendment had gone into effect, the Bronfmans had begun to consolidate the liquor trade in Saskatchewan. They bought and watered down alcohol until they slipped it back across the border. “I’m familiar,” Ernest said.
Taylor took a deep breath, “A friend told me they’ve been talking to Distiller’s Company Limited about a joint venture. DCL is thinking of sending or making alcohol somewhere other than Scotland. One of their men was down here checking out operations when I ran into him.
“My suggestion is to turn Transgulf into a holding company for DCL. We can get some of their product but just having their name on our stuff will increase the value of our brand, too. It’d accomplish what this Smythe foray was supposed to do. A second bite at the apple, but this time better researched.” Taylor handed him an envelope. “Some details inside.”
"I'll see what I can do. No promises." The two men shook hands. "Remember what I told you about your office?"
"No one but the old man?" Taylor repeated.
"I changed my mind, not even him. If he gives you any shit, tell him I said so." Taylor smiled, "You got it."
Desporte turned and entered the plane. The crewman had already untied the plane so he pushed off and entered right behind Desporte. The plane pulled away from the dock and headed for the entrance to the harbor.
As he settled in for the flight back Desporte replayed in his mind recent events. This episode had gone much easier than he had expected. Collecting from his father might prove to be tougher but he always kept his bargains. There was no promise the next step would be as simple.
He turned to look out the window and watch the tranquil island grow smaller as his thoughts became more complex. The plan was already in motion, now it was time to act.