Chapter 12-Biloxi, 31 July 1922
Mississippi Sound-31 July 1922
The William Tell had made the rendezvous with Webster just north of Cat Island to drop off Cuevas. Taconi and Baker had already taken most of the cargo and the crew as well. Staying put was not an option because of all the shrimpers plying the waters so there was nothing left but keep sailing. He took care not to sail too close to Horn Island in case the Sea Glen was either still grounded or worse roving the waters looking for the ship that had stolen their load.
Diaz watched what was left of the crew mill around on deck. They were noticeably more relaxed after all they had unloaded but now came the toughest part, sailing with a minimal crew to hide the ship. Again. This time the comforting waters around Biloxi would not do. Diaz sailed east and worried.
Biloxi-31 July 1922
Theodore Desporte paced inside his oaken office. It was not in the pristine condition it normally was. Papers were piled on his desk, the phone was out of its drawer and a second phone had been pulled in. To the right of the files open on the desk in front of the chair an untouched glass of water coated in condensation waited. A floor lamp had been brought in and stood beside the desk to cast additional light on the surface but nothing could make the situation look any better.
Shutting down all shipments to the Coast had increased the price faster than expected even though it had been less than two weeks. The other shipments that had been on the way were diverted to locations where Desporte had no influence. Those loads had either sold for less than expected or had not reported in. At least they had not reported in as of the last time he had heard from Charles Taylor.
All of Havana had gone quiet. No one answered the phones at TransGulf and the runners Desporte had sent never called back either. He had lost precious hours trying that way before sending his younger son Stephen down. Even that was a last ditch effort after the waste of time in finding Ernest. By now, the old man knew that Ernest was behind this all. But how deep had his eldest son gone? There were still a few cards left up the old man’s sleeve and now was the time to play them all.
A mile to the north things looked better on Back Bay. “What do you mean? We talked about this already. The whole company’s gonna move.” Ernest Desporte held the phone receiver in one hand and the base in the other. He reclined in his chair and turned to look out of the window. “You’re the most important part of the whole operation, Charles. You have to come with us.”
On the other end of the line Charles Taylor answered, “I just don’t know about living in the US. I’m still a British subject. It was bad enough moving to Cuba, I like my British territories.”
Desporte was not sure this was a serious conversation but even if it was a joke everything had gone according to plan so he could have a moment of levity. “Alright, then, consider this. Biloxi was in British West Florida, the fourteenth American Colony. When the original 13 broke away. They sent a delegate down here to convince the colony to join them. We’d already been here over 100 years and we told them to go packing. We were Tories and we were gong to stay British subjects no matter what. Nevermind the fact that the Brits left us undefended and the Spanish rode in to take over. Now come on up. I don’t even want to think about the company without you.”
Taylor paused, “The other phone is ringing again. It’s probably him again. Look, all the files are loaded, the staff’s been paid handsomely and we’re out in less than an hour. I’ll be there in the morning to go over things we can talk it over then.”
Desporte sat up, no longer relaxed and said, “Look, we couldn’t have done any of this without you. You are the critical piece. Moving forward we need you.”
“Right, I know there’s no way to hear a smile over the phone, but I’m smiling. See you tomorrow.” Taylor hung up and looked at the other phone, still ringing.
Havana, same day
Taylor looked at the phone. It had been ringing off and on for the last two hours. It had to be the old man. He sighed and reached for the receiver, “TransGulf Shipping.”
The response was not immediate but he could hear a deep breath being taken and exhaled before Desporte’s voice started, “Where the hell have you been?”
“Out, the shipments we diverted east haven’t sold, the ones west were sold too low. This is a major loss of revenue. I don’t know how much Cuevas’s load will go for but it’s going to have to be big to make up for this.” Taylor took a breath, “I’ve been working out a way to keep from getting fired.”
Another deep breath in and out on the other end of the phone, “Cuevas, well, Cuevas,” Desporte stopped himself, “What were you working on?”
The calmness in the old man’s voice sounded ominous. This had better be good, “I had to leave to go to refile manifests and points of call for two ships and send them to Nassau and Bermuda.”
Taylor inhaled and spoke in a rush, “Insurance. Those two, our largest two loads after Cuevas, went missing in the Bermuda Triangle. It’s cheesy, but I think we can get the insurance to pay. Meanwhile, I had the registration redone. The captains have stopped to rebrand themselves at sea. The product is still headed to Nassau, it’ll be wholesale and not retail but we can dump it there and at least break even.”
His utterance was met with silence, followed by a cautious tone, “And what about Cuevas’s load?”
“He should be there tomorrow or the next day, latest. He was so loaded down there’s no way he could go faster than 12 to 15 knots.” Taylor held his breath.
Desporte laughed, “No. No, that’s not happening. He showed up yesterday. And had his load pirated. Cuevas is gone, his cargo too.”
The weight of losing what would amount to over $2 million in product slammed home. “We did everything we could. Vetted crew, only passed people we knew we could trust. It’s worked so good for over two years. How could this have happened?” Taylor’s voice was flat and devoid of emotion.
“It just did. Look, finish cleaning up what you’re working on.” Desporte was beginning to relax. “Fly up tomorrow, bring the books. We’ll go over them and find a way to recover. Maybe it’s time to move the company again.”
“Not to Biloxi, though, right? Back to an English port?” Taylor’s voice was less confident than he was.
“I’m not losing you, Charles. Whatever it takes.”
A sigh escaped Taylor’s mouth, “OK, see you tomorrow.” He hung up and started reaching for books to bring. Maybe this would turn out the way he wanted it to after all.
A pile of boxes wrapped and tied with string stood stacked in the dark living room. New dresses, shoes, hats, and scarves of all varieties lay nestled and folded inside them. But when she closed her eyes she could still smell shrimp factory following her around like a lonely puppy nipping at her heels. It was as if her very skin retained it. How many baths would it take to eliminate the memory of that overpowering stench?
There had been one outfit she had carried from the time she purchased it at the first store. The rest she had gotten sent to her home, right here. Now she carried that outfit just a little bit further, this time down the short hall and into the bedroom. Setting it gingerly on the bed she turned to face the closet.
She slid open the closet door. One side was filled with his clothes and her side was mostly empty. A few threadbare dresses, two pairs of shoes and two hats, one still in the box. Carefully she took down the box and peered inside. It had been her mother’s hat and was her pride possession. Nothing she owned had ever looked prettier, until today. Reverently she put the box next the dress on the bed and turned back to the closet. She grabbed the first dress and yanked it off the hangar. The sleeve tore but that only made her feel better. Tossing it on the floor near the door she grabbed the rest and pulled. The coat hangers made a tingling noise on the wooden rod. She threw down the dresses with the rest and turned to the dresser.
The bottom drawer held tattered clothes that made the dresses in the closet appear to be just what they were, Sunday best. “Now not good for cleaning in,” she said aloud to no one as she reached in and pulled the neatly folded clothes out to throw them on the pile. She continued until the dresser was purges of everything except his clothes. Turning to walk down the hall she would have to go over the pile or move them again. She kicked them down the hall past the door to the living room. They sat atop the floor furnace grate but she ignored them and began the process of bringing in the new clothes, the new Molly Lee. No longer one more of the ragamuffin workers the City was built with. Now she was one of the rich, ruling elite. Not that they knew yet.
Looking down she saw the dress she had on. A cotton sundress colored in a light cheery blue with small white flowers. It was neither her best old dress nor her worst, but this was the one she would save. This was one to wear around the house and remind herself where she had come from but never again would she walk the streets of this town in anything less than what befitted someone of her class. She carried the boxes into the bedroom and began to put them away.
After another shower she dressed in her new, perfect dress and put on her Mother’s hat. Even after a day of shopping it was the prettiest thing she owned. She would change that tomorrow. The sun had set but the sky was still lit as she sat behind the wheel of Desporte’s Lincoln. Few women ever drove in this town but she was going to change that. Once the real money showed up she planned on getting her own car and not just drive his.
The horse drawn carts delivering ice were starting their evening rounds as she pulled out and headed north to the Bay. Down Bayview to Lameuse and then she would take Lameuse all the way down to the Montrose Hotel.
The Montrose Hotel was the focal point of social life and fashion. At its pier all the members of high society outside Biloxi showed up to mix with those in Biloxi and enjoy the joie de vivre that was life in the Seafood Capital of the World. Hospitality, food, drink, and all the finer things of life were to be had inside the doors of the Montrose Hotel and tonight was the first night she would enjoy them. The first of many. And next Sunday she would join the Church of the Redeemer, to seal the deal. Everyone who was anyone in this town went there. Besides, she had always felt like an Episcopalian anyway.
The parking lot was less than halfway full. The middle of the week was not the busiest time to be here. She parked the car and walked past the others in the lot. It was not the nicest car but it was far from the worst one in the lot. That honor would go to the 1917 Model T parked crooked at the front of the building. It looked like it had never been washed except by rain and with most of the roads around here being oyster shell that made for a dirty exterior.
As she approached the door it opened. The doorman had a smile with white teeth that contrasted his face. “Good evening, Ma’am, and welcome to the Montrose,” he said in a low bass voice that was coated with sweetness. He followed her with his head and silently closed the door behind her. The entry hall was everything she imagined. A glass case full of sailing trophies, plates, and banners lined one wall while a huge seascape painting graced the opposite wall of dark pine paneling. The parquet floor shined and the bar at the far end was plushy and inviting. Leaning against it was Ernest Desporte.
He stood and straightened up as she came in. Reaching up he attempted to straighten his tie. He had come straight from work but as a man his suit worked as good there as it did here.
Smiling she walked up and kissed him before reaching down to fix his tie. “I’ve been waiting for this a long time. Thank you for finally getting me here.”
Bowing his head momentarily he said, “It is my pleasure. The world is now your oyster.” He offered his elbow which she took and he escorted her into the main dining room.
The world may be her oyster, but she had no desire to eat one. Or seafood at all. Everything on the menu had seafood in it in some fashion, except the Chicken Cordon Bleu, which was what she ordered. She may one day dine on the delights that come from the Gulf but not today.
“So, my love, what did you accomplish today?” she asked leaning in to the table.
Desporte watched the waiter walk away with the order and glanced around the room before answering, “Made progress. Real progress.”
“My father,” he said with an exaggerated tone, “Thought he was so brilliant to shut down all deliveries to the Coast to run up the price. It certainly ran up the prices, but people are hungry and thirsty. They may thirst for illegal drink but they’re hungry for his money. Too many people are waiting to knock him off his perch.”
A smile appeared on Molly’s face as she leaned back and picked up her wine glass. It was filled with fruit juice but she was not into alcohol only what it could bring her.
Desporte continued, “This state was on its way to outlawing booze when we graduated high school, I was surprised they waiting until we finished high school. Then again, why is that surprising, did you know Mississippi has never gotten around to ratifying the 13thAmendment yet?”
She sat waiting, knowing she could keep him talking by not talking herself.
“The main people we needed are on board with us, they wanted a change from Dad anyway. We already fenced most of the stuff we brought ashore.” He paused as the waiter came back with bread waiting until he was out of earshot again. A good bit we sold up north, at the price we were asking that wasn’t a given. In fact they may not be back for a long time, they can get it cheaper from Canada. That’s best for us anyway, and the others don’t know it yet but. . .”
He leaned in and lowered his voice to a whisper, “We’re not going to bring in more.”
She caught herself before spitting out her sip of juice. Leaning in herself she asked, “What did you just say?” Taking over the family business was the first part, the power, the money, all that followed, but if he stopped then what?
“No more alcohol. There’s enough money in legal ventures we don’t need it. And without the illegal stuff we don’t have to pay off every cop, night watchman, or enterprising lad on the street. We’ll break the cycle and open the town right up.” He smiled and leaned back.
This was not at all going the way she expected. This was her coming out, she was not 6
supposed to peek into the room of the elite only to be ushered back out. “But, Ernest, isn’t that where the real money is? I mean anyone can sell a can of shrimp or a bucket of oysters. Someone has to control it all.”
“It wasn’t my father that gave the town the name Seafood Capital of the World. It was the Slavs, the Bohemians, the people from all over the world that came here and worked hard. The Dukates and Lopezs may have done their part overseeing the process and Burklin. Everybody forgets what Burklin did. Hard work put Biloxi on the map and hard work will keep it there.” Desporte lapsed back into silence as dinner arrived.
After a long pause she asked, “Who was Burklin?” Whatever he had done did not matter to Molly, she just needed to get this crazy idea out of Desporte’s head.
Others were beginning to file into the restaurant. It was a slow night but the Montrose was the place to be. “He started with a mill, doing flour. But then he got creative. He brought electricity first, then bought the whole streetcar line when New Orleans went from mules to electric. I think he even bought the mules. Installed them all over town, and that’s when Dad went after him.
“He’d tried the mill, and the power plant but those didn’t work. To be precise, it didn’t work for Dad. He couldn’t get his fingers in. But finally Burklin brought the phone. That’s when he slammed the door.
“Burklin was overextended. Not bad, but just enough. Dad came in like a friend shoring up the investments and securing a couple loans until he could shut the door and bought the phone lines for pennies on the dollar. Burklin was still around and still in business. He owed Dad a lot, but he never stepped out again. A minion is what he became.”
This was not where she wanted the conversation to be, “The streetcars were here before we met. This can’t be that long ago, why have I never heard of this fellow?”
Desporte took a long drink of his sweet tea and set the wet glass back into the pool of water it had come from. “Dad wiped his names from the books. No one remembers E. G. Burklin. And that’s why we have to stop it. Too many good people run over roughshod. For what? A couple more bucks? Better seating at the Yacht Club? A pew down front with the plush cushions?”
Leaning back in his chair Desporte looked across the room and out the windows. “There’s more to life than walking on people to get ahead.”
The smile on Molly’s face belied the churning emotions in her stomach. She had been in love with Ernest Desporte since second grade. Nothing would change that, but the first summer she labored in the shrimp plant made her want to find a way out and if that meant the man of her dreams lucky for her. Walking on people may not be right, but it sure beats getting walked on.