Chapter 15-Biloxi, 4 August 1922
Mississippi Sound-3 August 1922
A week of running was taking its toll on Luis Diaz. They had gone from one end of the barrier islands to the other. After dropping off the last of the cargo and crew with Taconi and Baker he still had a hold full of liquor. The bait to serve as decoy when they ditched theWilliam Tell. And even a minimal crew needed a rest.
Four days ago they had stopped in the Chandeleur Isles off Louisiana for a whole day. Luis had stayed awake the entire time keeping an eye open for any other ships. A few came close but none stopped. Taconi had given them provisions at the last transfer but even those had run out now.
Each of the conspirators had known only the parts of the plan that mattered to them. If any of them had been caught by the authorities they would only know their little piece of the pie. Or they did not know enough to double-cross the others. Luis had even hidden where he was going from Henry. He loved his older brother, but that included no trust. He was more apprehensive about returning than he he was about successfully ditching the bait boat. But it was time. Past time.
The red sunset of several hours ago was bothering him. Mattie Clark Bayou was on the state line. It was out of the way and nothing would be around. In addition to the time he had bought by sailing a few extra days, it could take weeks for someone to wander that far out and find where they had stashed the boat. But damned if the Coast Guard had decided that was the perfect place for training.
It was no delight for him to be sailing away as fast as he could from where he wanted to go. They had shot off a flare as he rounded the point and entered Grand Bay. They still had luck on their side because any further and they would have been spotted. Not to mention that he was about to strike the sails and fire up the engine for the trip up the bayou. He sent a man up the mast that had counted three Coast Guard ships. A fast tack and he was running due east for Terrapin Island. If he could hide there until they left he could salvage the plan.
But Terrapin Island was where his luck ran out. He had stayed on sail power because the engine noise might have traveled over the six miles he put between them but one lone Coast Guard ship that had departed for home saw the sail.
Diaz ignored the radio calls, but that only made them look guilty. Despite the cool night breeze he was sweating. He rounded the south end of the island and headed straight north. The island provided a little cover as the trees concealed the sail. If they thought he was headed for Bayou La Batre they might head for the north end of the island instead of following him around the south end.
“Coast Guard! Hey! Are you a sight for sore ears,” he answered on the radio finally. “We have problems here. The crew got sick on some bad oysters. It ain’t a month with an ‘R’ in it, you know. Had a tube blow out but just found a new one. You been calling long?”
“Unknown vessel near Terrapin Island, what is your name and where do you sail from?” asked the crewman on the Coast Guard ship.
“We’re outta Bayou La Batre, almost back home now and man do we need it. We got more sick sailors than a navy boat in a hurricane,” Diaz bluffed as he headed east again. He pulled out the radio from its case and grabbed a vacuum tube.
“Unknown vessel, what is your designation?” came the repeated call.
“Oh, uh, we’re the,” Diaz pulled out the tube mid-sentence and pushed it back in, “Do you copy?”
“Negative unknown vessel. We do not copy. Head north and prepare to be boarded,” came the call again. “Two vessels headed your way for assistance.”
He pulled the tube in and out again, “Roger, we’re gonna drop anchor on the north point and wait. Radio’s malfunctioning. See y’all soon.” He yanked the tube out again as he finished talking. It no longer mattered what they said back.
“Fire up the engines, strike the sails!” he yelled at the pilot. “Head straight for the river! We’re gonna have company in twenty minutes and we’d best be out of sight!”
It had become a race, and the odds were not in his favor.
Biloxi Police Station-4 August 1922
“You did what?” Chief Bills yelled at his Deputy Chief Alonzo Gabrich. He could feel his blood pressure going up and the temperature of the room seemed to be higher, too.
The younger man had been caught off guard by the reaction he was getting. The swagger and smile he had brought in were gone, “I, I, I raided the Magnolia Lodge. I got a tip the Masons were serving alcohol at their business meetings. I didn’t go into the meeting, I waited. We netted almost a hundred unopened cases containing gin, whiskey, and rum. Thirteen men are sitting down in the cells waiting on the paperwork to finalize their arrests.”
Those are Desporte men, that is a Desporte place. This is a problem. Bills tried to breathe deeply to calm down. “That is a place on my list of known establishments. I have a team working covertly trying to catch some big people there. Do you know how much you have just blown with your little stunt?”
“I, I, uh, I’m sorry, sir. I thought you’d like me taking some initiative. I just wanted to show your trust in giving me this job was well placed,” stammered Gabrich but Bills cut him off with a wave of his hand.
“Look, we’ll be alright. I’ll come up with something. Go back to work and don’t be so headstrong.” He looked down at the papers on his desk as a dismissal of the Deputy Chief.
Taking the cue, Gabrich turned to walk out. At the door he stopped and turned, “Chief, how come I didn’t know about this undercover operation? I thought we went over them all thoroughly when I started?”
Panic set in again, “Uh, I started this one after we talked. It was new. We’ll talk later, I gotta get back to this other stuff. Just go.”
Gabrich hesitated for a second at the door. Bills feared that his deputy had seen right through his weak attempt at subterfuge. The moment passed and Gabrich left without giving further indication of catching the flaw in what Bills had said. There was no time to worry about that now.
Bills reached into his pocket for a handkerchief and dabbed his sweaty forehead. This was a more than a pickle. This could be the nail in the coffin that would make Desporte expose him and leave him out to dry. Or worse, he could end up in the jail cells he was so proud to be in charge of.
Weighed Measured and Wanting
Elmer Building-4 August 1922
The lunch whistles at the factory had all sounded and the city had returned to the drudgery of the long work day as Desporte walked up to the Elmer Building. All of the pieces were in place and ready to fall. It was only the trigger that needed to be pulled. No matter how it weighed out without the product Diaz had taken there would not be enough. He walked in to the building and headed for the stairs.
As he walked in a woman sitting across from Sara stood up. She wore a strictly tailored suit and carried herself with an air of dignity and importance. “Mr. Desporte?” He nodded and she continued, “I am Mabel Willebrandt, Assistant Attorney General appointed by President Harding himself. Can I have a few words with you?”
Desporte shook the hand she offered then removed his hat, “I’m not sure what a simple businessman like myself can do for you, but come on in and we can see.” He hung his hat on the hatstand before entering his office. Before lunch there had been an intense thunderstorm blow in so he had closed the windows and shut off the fans. The room would warm up considerably with the door closed which he did before offering Ms Willebrandt a seat.
Moving around behind the desk he said, “In earlier times I would have offered you a drink but now I have to restrict myself to tea or water. Would you care for some?” He sat and brought his hands together, fingertips touching in front of his chin.
“I did not come to drink your awful-tasting sweet liquid you call tea, but thank you for the offer. As for the other, do you know who I am?” she asked as she sat.
“Ms Willebrandt, while we may have never met your name and position have come to me. You are the highest-ranking female in the history of the Justice Department.” He emphasized the word history and eased back in his chair.
“How could I not know who you are? Over the course of the last ten or so months you have attempted to enforce the Volstead Act and have found its authority to be ‘puny’ if I recall your words.”
She smiled, “And toothless, I also used the word toothless. But I’ve been working to correct that. There has not yet been a major conviction in the war on alcohol and I aim to correct that.
“You, sir, are an influential man who resides at the boundary of one of the most susceptible locations for the importation of illegal contraband. That is what has brought you to my attention.”
Her cool demeanor mad Desporte begin to feel uncomfortable in the office. It was clearly not affecting his guest, “I’m not sure I follow you. What is it you want?”
Willebrandt, who took ice cold baths each morning did not appear to be fazed at all by the temperature in the room, “As a prominent businessman, your country needs you to encourage your legislature to fund forces to fight the illegal importation of alcohol into the US.”
Without showing emotion he relaxed. HIs first fear was that she had arrived because she knew something. Now he knew she did not, “You want me to do what? Take out an ad in the Daily Herald reminding people not to drink? Maybe advocate for people to board up the doors of any known speakeasies?” He breathed heavily and furrowed his forehead at the brash lady in front of him.
Remaining unruffled she leaned forward in her chair, “Mr. Desporte, if you were any more gruff with me I might assume you were in the illegal contraband business. The things you suggest are might fine ideas but I merely hoped you would be able to point me in the direction of whomever locally might be on the wrong side of the Volstead Act.” She leaned back and folded her hands neatly on her lap.
He waited before talking. A bead of sweat had appeared on her forehead but two had just rolled down his own, “The State of Mississippi outlawed alcohol in 1909, it was the rest of the country that had to catch up. And when it did, Mississippi was the first state to ratify the 18th Amendment. It was 28 to 5 in the Senate and 93 to 3 in the House,” he paused for effect. Exactly fifteen minutes without a single word of debate. What makes you think our State is weak on alcohol?”
Her face appeared to warm up to the old man but it had nothing to do with the temperature in the room, “I see, sir, that you are very well aware of whom did what and when. I can only imagine that you are also aware of the overall lack of penalties. The majority of offenses and almost none of the enforcement is considered in legislation. It is not just the Volstead Act that is found to be wanting.”
The old man eased his glare and pushed back slightly from the desk. He propped one elbow on the armrest of the chair and adjusted himself in the seat, “And what do I get out of being an extraordinary citizen? The legislature is well known for messing things up on their own, they need no help from me.”
The volume of her voice dropped as a chill entered her tone, “In my search for companion souls to fight the good fight I have often found ways to connect others on the same side. My network of associates starts at my good friend President Harding and goes down slowly from there. Very slowly. I do not bother to befriend people without power. All my friends benefit from my connections.”
Opening the desk drawer he picked up the phone receiver. “Sara! Come here.” Closing the drawer he asked, “How do I go about reaching you?” As he finished Sara walked in.
“I have had an office at the Magnolia Hotel for the last few days, but I leave this afternoon. After that you can reach me here.” She pulled out a card and placed it on the desk.
“Sara, turn on the fans and bring Ms Willebrandt some ice water. Let’s make her visit more comfortable.” Desporte said as a smile crossed his lips.
As she moved to adjust the fans, Sara said, “Yes, sir. And when you’re done Chief Bills has requested an urgent meeting.”
Biloxi Police Station-Same Day
The room was hushed with just the sound of a typewriter on a lone desk in the corner disturbing the library-like quiet. Even the fans hummed at a low volume and there were a lot of those in the room. It was big and open with several desks covered in paperwork, coffee cups, and an occasional family portrait. The desks were arranged in three rows, one along each side of the room and a row of two placed side by side in the middle of the room. The rows in between led to the two offices at the rear with a half-frosted glass wall and doors. The painted names on the doors could not be seen from the main room as they were open but Ernest Desporte looked into the first and saw Alonzo Gabrich. The next office must be the Chief.
Gabrich looked up as Desporte passed. Their eyes met briefly and they nodded mutually at one another while Desporte continued on to Chief George Bills’s office. He walked in and close the door. As the door clicked Bills looked up.
“What are you here for?” he asked.
Desporte shifted a chair in front of the desk to a spot where he would be able to sit and still see Bills through the stacks of paperwork on the desk. “I’m here to finalize things.”
“Well I looked and I measured what your men put in my shed. It’s not enough. Not what we agreed to.” Bills said.
Half of his head was still obscured by the stacks of paperwork but shifting in the chair didn’t seem to help much. “I know, 100 cases. We had them, but they were stolen. I’m working on getting them back.”
“My arrangement with your Pop was mutually beneficial. He got what he needed, and I got both what I needed and a little something extra for my own use. But the money was good. If I’m gonna switch to you, there has to be a better payment. I’m shutting off a stream of good cash without a complete payment I might just have to shut both of you down.”
“We’ve been double crossed, someone took the last lot, but there’s 500 cases on board the decoy boat. After it resurfaces you can have all of those.”
He leaned back in the chair and tucked his hands behind his head, “I need my cut now. Today. But let’s say I was interested. How can you promise me those?” Bills smiled as he finished.
“If that boat shows up anywhere in Mississippi you can get it through your connections. You and I both know that.” A combination of desperation and exasperation was beginning to bleed into Desporte’s voice.
Bills reached down and tossed a newspaper across the desk. Looking down Desporte picked it up and turned it around. At the bottom on the right hand corner was a short article about finding the William Tell. Scanning it he saw the words “Fowl River” and his heart sank. Luis had parked the boat in Alabama.
He lowered the paper as Bills stopped smiling. “I want my hundred cases. Today. No excuses, I don’t care if you have to distill them yourself.”
Across Town-Same Day
Weighed, measured, and wanting, the younger Desporte paused before entering the office. “Sara. Is he in?”
“He’s been expecting you,” Sara replied.
He exhaled before opening the door. His father sat behind the desk. It was cleared as usual, only his arms rested on its surface. As he entered the room the elder Desporte opened the drawer and pulled out the phone. Setting it on the desktop he asked, “What can I do for you, son?”
Ernest walked in but did not sit down. “Bills is coming for us both.” As he mentioned the Chief, he noticed a narrowing of his father’s eyes and the right one twitched.
“Bills? Yeah right. He doesn’t have the balls. . .”
“He does now,” Ernest interrupted. “I cut a deal above your deal, but I fell short. A hundred cases. Now he’s gunning for both of us.”
“That’s is? A measly hundred cases is easy, I have that much in my cellar. Unopened. Put them there just this morning. Did you misplace a few?” For the first time in hours the old man smiled.
Ernest shut his eyes briefly and hissed under his breath, “Diaz.”
“That’s right. But there’s more.” Theodore reached into the top drawer of his desk and pulled out a folded piece of paper. “I see how much you stole from me.”
The pages were hand-written copies of the notes Ernest had gotten from Taconi. The ones he had reconciled with Webster. He frantically searched his mind for how his father could have gotten a copy. Diaz had never seen those pages. “Where did you get this?” he asked.
“Sara!” Theodore called out. Sara appeared at the door, “Send her in.”
Both Desportes waited as Sara disappeared then reappeared with Molly right behind her. Ernest’s eyes narrowed as she walked in.
She walked around to Theodore’s side as Sara quietly backed out closing the door, “Baby, I talked with your Dad. You cancelled all his deals because you didn’t think you had it in you to pull it off. You’re too kind, too honest, too full of integrity. The idea of back-door deals and shady exchanges beneath the table just isn’t in you. But I’m here. Together we’re unstoppable.”
Theodore held up a hand to cut her off, “You have one more opportunity. That’s it. Work with me. I have it all set up for you, the best office, the best connections, the best seats on every board. I want it. You want it. Your woman wants it for you. She came here and begged for one more chance for you. She loves you and wants the best for you. Just like I do.” Theodore leaned forward in his chair. “So, what’s it going to be?”
Through clenched teeth Ernest breathed out and then in again. He eyes were still narrowed as he looked from his father to his girlfriend. Tunnel vision of anger. Betrayed with the best of intentions. He formed his hands into fists and then released them. “No,” was his one word answer.
“Baby,” said Molly, “I got him to listen. He’s giving you another shot. It’s our dreams, come on.” She pleaded with him.
The glare he shot at her would have cut a diamond, “Never.” Betrayed by the woman he loved. The pain of his heartbreak exceeded his fear of being brought down by Bills. “Get out. Just get out.”
“But Ernest,” she begged.
“Now!” he yelled. “You’ve never misjudged anything as bad as you’ve misjudged this.” He slammed his fists down on the oak desk so hard it shook. Inside the drawer he could hear the phone rattle. His piercing stare was directly into the cold eyes of his father. There was nothing left to say to the woman of his dreams.
“Get out, you served your purpose now go,” Theodore said quietly as he shooed her away. Looking away from his son’s glare he called out, “Sara, come get her!”
Molly was crying now. How could she have been so wrong. All she had ever wanted was being taken from her and she had only given in to Theodore to keep this same thing from happening. Her knees began to buckle as Sara reached her. Sara grabbed her and led her from the room.
“Now it’s just us men. Your chance is still there. Not for her, for me. For family, for Biloxi. Take your place by my side. Take the mantle and continue the reign of Desportes.” Theodore stood and leaned on the desk on his fists. “Join me.”
Ernest stared. No emotion showed on his face but inside a torrent mingled and swirled. Despite that his resolve never wavered, there was no way he could ever work like this, for his father or with him. Going down at the hands of Chief Bills was a better option to Ernest.
“Sir,” Sara interrupted from the doorway.
“What?” snapped Theodore. “I’m busy, what is it?”
“Sir, it’s an emergency. The warehouse just called. It’s empty.” Sara rushed over and handed a note to the old man.
“It’s what? How did that happen?” Theodore ripped the note from Sara’s hand and read it. “Taylor! That bastard!”
A smile crept over Ernest’s face. Taylor had come through.
Finishing the note Theodore said, “He double-crossed me. He just walked right into the warehouse like he ran the place and walked out. Probably had my guys load it up, too.” Looking back at his son he noticed the smile, “You think that’s it?”
It was the old man’s turn to clench and unclench his fists in an attempt to control his anger, “You have betrayed me. Your meddling has cost me now. This isn’t some game Bills raided my personal stash because of you, blames his deputy. Now you’ve stolen what would have kept him off both our backs? That’s it. I’m through. You’re the one who’s sunk now.” He picked up the phone and clicked the receiver, “Get me the Magnolia Hotel.”
The younger Desporte straightened and stood. Betrayed and rescued in the span of less than a minute. But he had won.
“Get me Willebrandt’s room, now!” barked Theodore. After a pause he asked, “How long ago?” Another pause, “Yes I want you to go after her! Get her on the phone, fast!”
Mabel Willebrandt turned around and walked back into the lobby of the Magnolia Hotel ahead of the front deskman who now held the door. She sauntered to the desk, whoever was on the phone might be in a hurry but she was not. “This is Mabel Willebrandt.”
On the other end of the phone she heard a voice she did not recognize, “You wanted information. I have information for you. . . “ the voice started but abruptly stopped.
She looked at the receiver then put it back to her ear. “Hello,” she said but heard no answer. After a few seconds she handed the phone to the desk clerk. “He must have hung up. Next time take a message.” She turned and walked out without looking back.
“Willebrandt! Do you hear me?” Theodore banged the phone on his desk. “What is wrong? Sara! Get her back!”
Sara rushed to her desk but the phone was just as dead. Ernest turned and walked out of his father’s office. “Sara! My phone!” Theodore yelled.
Angry shouts came from behind him as Ernest walked out of the office and headed for the stairs. It would be the next day before he read in the Daily Herald about how AT&T had turned off the entire American telephone system for two minutes in honor of the passing of Alexander Graham Bell. But right now, he had a delivery to make.
Biloxi-4 August 1922
The usually reliable Kissel had been running rough since this morning after Diaz had returned from his errand. Almost as if the car knew what he had done and did not approve. Listening to the engine sputtering but still going Henry Diaz checked the dashboard. There were no gauges to tell him the conditions of the vehicle but the speedometer was working. The heater was off, he almost never used that feature even in the winter. Truth be told it made the inside of the vehicle smell bad. To look at the dashboard was a reflex, a useless reflex but one he still did.
Outside the windows he could see the businesses that lined Bayview Drive. Shipbuilders, ice houses, seafood packers, and seafood distributors. In between them there were small craft harbors normally filled with shrimp boats, oyster boats, and working craft of all types. As he drove by most were all but empty as it was the high season for seafood catching. Every property had a wharf or pier that stuck out into the water. Rounding the point he came to the L&N Railroad tracks.
To keep the tracks from flooding they had been built up, nearly eight feet higher than the surrounding ground. The ridge line made for the tracks ranged from 50 to 75 feet wide meaning it was a steep incline and steep decline to cross them. It also made a natural barrier across the peninsula. To Diaz’s left the tracks extended on a timber frame bridge leading across the bay.
As he crested the hill his engine sputtered once again and died. Quickly and without thinking he pushed in the clutch and slipped the car into second. His momentum slowed but carried him over the hill. When he reached the bottom he held the gearshift in place and pulled his foot off the pedal. The car lurched but after a brief silence the engine chugged back to life. Diaz breathed a sigh of relief and continued around the Point.
Bayview Drive ended at Myrtle Street so he turned right heading south. Now he was driving through row after row of shotgun houses. Few were owned outright, most were either heavily mortgaged or just provided by one of the big seafood companies that ran the economy of Biloxi. It was nearly ten o’clock at night. Those that were not out on the boats, mostly women and children, were inside. Most likely sleeping to prepare for another day of long hours in the seafood factories. Their porches were littered with rocking chairs, benches, and upturned buckets for sitting on.
Myrtle did not go straight through to the beach. Three blocks north, Diaz had to turn down 3rdStreet then a quick right to get back onto Myrtle. The engine sounded rougher. Within sight of the beach the engine quit. He coasted to a stop. He tried to start the car again but he could tell by the sound it was not going to crank again.
Slamming the door as he exited the vehicle he heard a laugh. On the porch of the house two away from the beach sat a man mending a cast net in the light of a single lightbulb. When Diaz looked at him the man stopped laughing and spit a mouth full of tobacco juice off the porch before standing and walking back into the house. The screen door slammed and the only noise that could still be heard was that of the crickets. Diaz kicked the car and walked away headed west.
The scene on the front beach was similar to the bay. Wharves and piers sticking out into the Sound like fingers. Canning factories lined the point. The whole town was one giant seafood town. The moniker was not just a fancy title they had given themselves. Biloxi was the Seafood Capital of the World and the front beach cannery row was the pride and joy of that effort. And now Diaz would be a part of that.
The real estate was prime, the DeJean Packing Company was an active business, it was merely the ownership that changed hands. This afternoon he had made sure of that. After he took the liquor to Desporte’s warehouse he took the contract and the deed and had them both recorded at the courthouse. For a fleeting moment Diaz wondered what happened to the former owners. They had probably done something to get on the old man’s bad side and Diaz was just the lucky guy in the right place at the right time.
He walked up to the door of the plant, his plant. Patting his pocket where the documents were safely tucked away he reached down and grabbed the door knob.
Before he could turn it, the door was pulled away from his hand. Startled he looked and there, silhouetted in the dim light inside the closed factory stood Theodore Desporte.
“What do you want?” the old man asked.
“I, uh, I’m here to look at my new factory,” replied Diaz. The old man crossed his arms, “It’s not yours.”
Confused Diaz pulled out the deed, “No, no, it is. You made a deal. It’s right here in black and white.” His fingers fumbled as he unfolded the deeds. “I had it recorded today. It’s official.”
“It’s no good. It’s not yours, Henry.” Desporte stood his ground, not moving even enough to allow light to fall on the papers Diaz held.
“No, the contract says it is. Right here.” Desperation caused his voice to waver.
“No, Henry. It’s not yours. I know what it says, read it yourself. It’s not yours,” the old man leaned forward and further blocked the door.
Diaz reached into his other coat pocket, “No, look, here’s my receipt. I had Pete Broussard sign it when I delivered. I did my part of the deal, it’s mine.”
“Read the contract, Henry.”
Diaz’s lips moved as he read softly to himself, “Here, here, for the consideration of 100 cases of alcohol,” he pointed at the document. “I, Theodore Desporte, do hereby transfer ownership to Henry Diaz. I told you, it’s right here. Here’s the word, here’s the receipt, paid in full. Recorded at the courthouse, it’s mine!” Diaz got steadily louder and louder until he yelled, “MINE!”
Calmly, Desporte folded the paper back into Diaz’s hands, “It says right there, you paid with alcohol. Mississippi law says that debts related to the acquisition of intoxicating beverages are uncollectible. The building is still mine. The plant is still mine. You have nothing but a wad of useless paper.” The old man smiled for the first time that long day, “Well, a wad of useless paper that also happens to incriminate you. I have no alcohol, you have no factory on the front beach. I have a copy, too.” His smile increased, “Good night, Henry Diaz. It has been nice doing business with you.”
Desporte closed the door as the wind picked up. A stunned Henry Diaz stood staring at the door. A raindrop fell on his head, followed by a few more. An intense thunderstorm blew in as fast as his dreams had disappeared and a wet Diaz turned to head in the direction of home. But what was there for him now?
Biloxi-late night 4 August 1922
The wind had snatched the door from Desporte’s hand. Not that it mattered, he had intended to slam it anyway. Though he could have done without the splinter he now had in the palm of his left hand.
Absentmindedly he dug at the splinter while he turned and headed back into the plant proper. It was the end of a very long day and Desporte wanted only to go home but he would go out the side entrance so as to not minimize the crushing blow he had just dealt his untrustworthy associate.
The low light made it hard to see. Unable to get the splinter out, he dropped his hand and looked forward. As his hand fell to his side a shooting pain went up to his elbow. He stopped and looked at the splinter again. It did not seem to be big enough to cause that much pain. He again decided it would not be able to extricate the wood and moved on as another pain shot up, this time to his shoulder. He ignored it and walked on.
Down a short hallway and through another door, now he was in the main factory room. The smell was overpowering. Dead fish, stale shrimp hulls, and fetid hay covered in juices all rolled into one disgusting stench. Instinctively Desporte pinched his nose to avoid it. On most days he could enjoy the smell because it is the smell of money. And in this case, far removed from the activity of this room it translated into his money. His power. His prestige. His family name and his actions had made seafood king in this town and he could take a little nasal discomfort for that. But that was from outside the halls. Where the smell was lessened by distance. Where it was mingled with the salt air of the Gulf. Where occasionally the breeze brought a reprieve shifting in another direction especially like just before his face-off it carried the smell of impending rain.
He reached the far end of the room and the exterior doors. They were chained shut. It was a safety hazard and a fire department violation but the fine cost less than the repair. He glanced down the wall at the set of doors in the other corner. No chain was visible from here but Desporte was tired. Dog tired. Every step was like moving through loose sand. He reached the door and pushed it even though he knew it would do no good. This was a building he had designed and built. He was intimately familiar with every nook and cranny. There was another exit that would not be chained just north of where he was standing. Turning to walk that way he noticed blood on his hand.
The splinter had not been bleeding before, but as he turned his hand over he realized the blood was on his right hand. It had come from his nose. It felt to Desporte as if the room were closing in on him. No, it was the world. The world was coming in, crushing him, especially his chest. A hand reached out to touch the wall and felt a scraggly electric cord that stretched to the low ceiling. The cord was not enough to keep him from falling to the floor but he grabbed it anyway.
The rancid smelling hay did little to cushion the blow as Desporte’s head thumped on the wooden floor. His chest felt like it was being squeezed in a vice. Shooting pains went up and down his arm and someone was hammering on his head in a rhythmic pattern that was slowing as it got harder. A spark from the cord still caught in his fingers ignited the hay. Flames appeared before Desporte’s eyes as they closed for good. Not the last flames this soul would see today.
Biloxi-midnight 4 August 1922
A broken Molly trudged down the street. She had lost the thing she treasured the most all because she had tried to get the one thing she desired above everything beside that one. How could she have misjudged it so badly?
After being escorted from the Elmer Building she had wandered. At one point she stopped outside her parents’s house on Lee Street. She squatted in the bushes in the empty field across the street staring through the leaves of the camellia and gardenia bushes. The fragrant flowers of the gardenia had almost all fallen in the humid coastal heat but still overpowered her nose. The life going on inside the house she watched smelled just as sweet.
The Lees were not one of the highest of families in Biloxi’s social circles, but they hovered nearby. Molly’s mother came outside and sat on the porch swing as the sun was setting. The maid brought a large pitcher of what Molly knew was sweet tea. She could hear the tingling of ice chunks in the crystal goblet as her mother drank.
Molly had fawned over Ernest Desporte all through high school. When he went to the University of Mississippi in 1906 she had tried to follow but her parents would not hear of it. She would sneak out and when she returned they would fight about where she had been. Their Baptist upbringing did not approve of her shacking up with Ernest. His being Episcopal had not helped either. Their more pragmatic approach to everything was part of the reason that everyone who was anyone went to the Church of the Redeemer on the beach. Which was also a reason the Lees were in the second tier of socialites in Biloxi.
Back then there had been no bad blood between Ernest and his father but after he graduated and returned from Oxford things had not improved with her folks. And Theodore had a similar opinion of her that her folks had of Ernest. A year of living with Ernest and the Lees told her never to return. She followed Ernest when he went into the Navy. That was the best part of her life until six days ago.
Six days. Was that all it had been? Six days of walking on air, but then she got greedy. She reached for the highest of golden rings and had fallen flat on her face.
On the porch, her mother stood to walk back inside the house. Pausing at the door she turned and looked across the street. Her eyes seemed to pierce through the shrubbery and straight into Molly’s own. Before Molly could look away her mother shook her head, turned and walked into the house.
Molly got up and dusted herself off then continued wandering downtown.
After Ernest’s accident they had returned to Biloxi. He had never been able to marry her because he lacked his father’s approval. She had no way to make ends meet so she took to working in the seafood factories. After three years Ernest learned it had been his father that set up the accident that ended his naval career. That was when things got really hard.
They were finally under no pressure to stay apart but both of them struggling to make ends meet still kept them from getting married. Long hours in the factories, on the boats, and wherever else Ernest could work meant there was little time for joy and pleasure. They lived together in the small hand-built house on Iroquois Avenue.
The house that Mary now stood in front of again.
A sound came to her ears. Sirens. They were too far away to tell what was happening but instinctively she looked in the direction the noise came from. The full moon was still a few days away but the gibbous moon did a good job of lighting the cloudless sky. To the south above the treetops Mary could see smoke. Squinting in the cool night air she could just make out an occasional flame leaping high into the air. Something big was on fire.
She returned her gaze to the house. All the lights were off. The windows were closed and the door locked. She reached up along the outside and felt the key hanging where it always did on the side of the door jamb. She let herself in.
The living room had always been sparse, but she immediately noticed the books missing from the shelf. They had been Ernest’s memento after his grandmother passed away. Her heart beat faster. Was he gone for good?
She went into the bedroom. The closet was open on his side. Empty coat hangers hung from the bar and littered the floor. She did not look in the bathroom but she knew, his toothbrush and razor were gone.
In a stupor she wandered down the hall to the small kitchen and dining room area. Several cupboards were open and a few things were noticeably missing. Dazed she sat at the table and held her head in her hands and cried.
After a few minutes she looked up and tried to wipe her eyes. A blob caught her attention on the middle of the table. She sniffed and wiped again. It was a box.
A jewelry box sat on the middle of the table.
Not large enough for a necklace or bracelet. It was a ring box. A blue, velvet covered ring box.
Her heart missed a beat as she shook her head to clear the cobwebs. She blinked. Still, the box was there.
She reached for it as her arms started to tremble. Could it be that it was all just a setup? She held her breath and opened the box.
It was empty. Just like her life. Molly had hit rock bottom.