Chapter 17-Biloxi, Apr 1923
Triple Nickel Rub
Desportes Packing, Back Bay-5 Apr 1923
Desporte was looking over the shoulder of his acquisition manager when he heard the main door open. He looked up to see Chief George Bills stroll into the room acting as if he owned the place. He looked down on the people and desks to each side of the door then scanned to see the conference room where Ernest Desporte was standing. Without taking his eyes off the door he walked through the maze of people and desks towards Desporte.
He tapped the acquisition manager on the shoulder, “Go on out, Pat, I’ll handle this.” The room started to clear while Desporte and Bills stared at one another.
When the room was empty Bills started, “Well, you’ve done pretty good for yourself here Ernest. Business is booming, but there’s a couple problems you got. First off, I think I sold out my share of you Dad’s business too cheaply. I want more or else I expose it all.”
Taking a seat Desporte said, “That is not a problem for me to solve. You were the one that sold out, not me.”
“Yeah, well I thought about that a little bit, too. Only I was figuring that you and I’d still have a similar agreement. It wasn’t going to be an end to the arrangement, just a re-negotiation.” Bills sat in the nearest chair. It sat an inch lower than the chair Desporte had chosen. “You’re still running the rum but I’m just not part of it now.”
“No, sir,” said Desporte shaking his hand, “We got out of the rum business, and the gin business, and wine, all intoxicating liquors. We’re above board. We don’t need to pay for police silence because we’re law-abiding citizens.”
Bills paused and sat back in his chair. Or at least he tried to, the seat of the chair was angled slightly forward causing him to lean into the conversation. “Can’t be, you still owe me some alcohol. That was the other thing.” He folded his hands and waited.
Because he could Desporte leaned back in the chair. “That’s news to me. We don’t sell illegal contraband. We don’t ship illegal contraband. We ship lumber, and seafood. We build hotels and attractions, we are not my father’s company,” he said with confidence.
“Well I don’t know how you’re smuggling it but I’ll find out. Meanwhile, you promised me 500 cases of alcohol and only delivered one hundred.”
“Chief, that offer was made because we didn’t have the hundred and were desperate. You yourself said it was no good because the boat landed in Alabama. You rejected the offer and then we got you the hundred promised. There’s no way we owe you anything else.”
“There was an offer on the table. You were breaking the law and trying to bribe an officer of the law. . .”
“Who is now trying to blackmail me!” interrupted Desporte.
“All the same, I am neither without means nor above planting evidence when necessary,” Bills stood up. “I’ll have my 500 cases from you. You have just three days.”
The door shut behind Bills but not for long as the group that had been in the conference room before began filing back in. Desporte excused himself. It had to be a Thursday, he never could get the hang of Thursdays.
Desportes Packing, Back Bay-6 Apr 1923
The men had gathered in the conference room next to Ernest Desporte’s office. Webster and Ladner had been out fishing with Captain Woods but came in directly. Luis Diaz was the last to arrive. He walked in as Desporte finished explaining the situation.
“I’m not ready to throw in the towel, but we have set out to accomplish what we wanted,” said Desporte. “We overthrew my father’s heavy hand. Taylor’s move to ship lumber was genius and increasing tourism has changed the mood. It’s made the town a more fair place to live and work Only thing we left was Bills.”
“What’s he want?” asked Ladner. He had come a long way in the last year growing and gaining confidence because of the men he was surrounded by.
“It’s blackmail, plain and simple,” said Desporte. “He wants what I tried to appease him with when Henry sold us out. The cases that were in the William Tell. If you had waited one more day or stopped before the state line we wouldn’t be in this mess, Luis.”
Diaz smiled at the frowning Desporte, “Maybe so, but I think I know how to salvage it.” He stood and walked to the window. “You remember how loaded we were?”
They all nodded while Diaz continued, “I stopped and dropped off enough to make a whole load. My men were nervous, they did not want to sail overloaded. Horn Island. It’s still out there.”
Four faces stared at Diaz.
“I just got off the radio with Taconi. I didn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up but after Ernest told me what was happening I wanted to check. Taconi is out there now, he radioed me before I came in.”
“We’ll need help. It’d take more than seven of us if Webster and I were even able to help,” said Woods. “Can we hire more people like we had last time?”
“Sure, but we can’t just pull a Cannette on ‘em.” Desporte said.
Everyone in the room mulled over that thought except Ladner, “Look, I don’t know what that means. I know he got caught and got arrested, but what are you talking about?”
Desporte looked from Diaz to Webster to Eugene. “William Cannette, Willie to his friends, and did he ever have some friends. Good ones you can count on to be there every time he had money. Maybe not when he needed help, but certainly when he had money.”
He stretched and set back in the seat more relaxed than before, “He used to work at the livery next to Hotel Breslow. But then Willie thought he'd be smart, and started hanging out with some of Desportes’s goons at the speakeasy downstairs of the hotel. Pretty soon he quit his job and joined their ranks. Lesson number one: don't ever get mixed up with Theodore Desporte.” The other men in the room chuckled at that. Eugene ignored it and leaned forward.
Desporte continued, “Willie started running around town in tailor-made suits, flashing lots of money and smoking expensive Cuban cigars. His old boss tried to warn him to get out. Everyone knew he had hit it big, but Willie wouldn't listen. Lesson two: always listen to advice, the talker might not be right, and you still might not do what they want, but you gotta see what others see if you want to do things you don’t want others to see.
"Finally it happened. One night there was a big shipment of booze coming in. The rumrunner dropped it off on the sandbar just south of the Dunbar-Dukate factory, of course back then it was still the Lopez-Dukate factory. Old Willie decided he was the best thing since buttered bread, so he started by hiring guys at twenty bucks a head to form a human chain to go from sandbar to waiting car. He mighta made it too, but he got arrogant. He sent a couple runners out all over town offering to hire more guys for twenty-five then thirty bucks. The cops got wind of it and sent in one of their own. Fifty-seven cases were loaded in a Biloxi police wagon before the Federal Agents came down and busted the whole show. It was one of the biggest hauls made on the Coast, even though only thirty-two cases ever turned up as evidence. There was a lot more than those that went ashore but that was all they found.
“Willie got his wee-wee slammed in the door. The Revenuers got a bust, the police got an assist, and the booze ended up being sold with just a little collateral loss.” Desporte folded his arms as he finished. What else could be done?
Running his hands through his hair, Eugene asked, “So we need a bunch of guys to load it up, maybe unload it, but we can’t be real obvious. The whole thing will take a night, or maybe a night and a morning?”
“Yeah. I know what I left,” Diaz answered, “Running out to far side of Horn, loading, delivering, unloading, and getting away’ll take the better part of a day. No matter if it starts early or late. If it’s just us prob’ly three days. But there isn’t a time we could all be gone at the same time. Somebody’d catch wind and figure that out quick.”
Diaz returned to silent contemplation but Eugene stood up and grinned, “Twenty bucks a head? Whadda we need, fifty people? A hundred?”
Webster looked at the boy, “What are you talking about? What’re you thinking? You got an idea, spit it out.”
Ladner just smiled and asked, “You wanna go see a dead whale?”
The Whale According to Woods
Naval Reserve Park, West of Biloxi-9 Apr 1923
“Cap’n Woods, you know what happened, right?” asked Ladner.
The old man guffawed, “Of course I do. I wrote it down right there. Send it to my ‘friend’ at the Daily Herald. And now everyone knows.” Woods smiled as he picked up his tea glass off the end table. “Mind you, I was not there so some of the details of my report may be just a hair off.” He smiled at Webster on the other end of the couch.
“Well humor me, Eugene. Tell me what happened and Woods can fill in what he ‘saw’ and reported,” said Webster.
Woods smiled a devious smile as Ladner started, “Well there were fifty of us on the Iona Louise as we pulled off of Desporte’s Wharf Sunday morning.”
“A hundred and fifty and you were on Subchaser 264. Dreadful name for a ship and she had so many issues the Iona Louise had to pull you off sandbar. I heard the engines conked out, too. Only half of them even worked,” Woods interrupted. “Robert Eskald was one of the passengers and he said the boat limped all the way to Horn Island. Didn’t get there until dark.”
“You want to talk about the miserable night at sea rowing in the dead swell of Ship Island Pass, too?” joked Ladner as he looked at Woods with a sideways glance.
Woods was sipping his tea, not expecting Ladner to ask questions of him, much less to quote part of his article, “No, no. No need to make you relive the seasickness, hunger, or burning anxiety for those back home worrying about y’all.”
Ladner turned back to Webster, “The crates were all hidden on the far side of Horn Island but we got them all loaded up and headed back easily enough. In order to,” he cleared his throat, “Better fit the narrative, we swung wide around to the east of Ship Island where the Laurel met up with us. We ran back to Gulfport where the ground crew met up with us and unloaded the cargo by the dark of night. By morning all but about fifteen guys had taken off for home.”
“I believe you mean the ‘limp-legged passengers’ took autos and trolleys back to Biloxi except for the ‘hardy few individuals’ that rode the boat back,” Woods smiled and raised his glass to Ladner in a mock toast.
He raised his back towards Woods and took a deep draft, “So you see our stories sound practically the same.”
Webster smiled, “And what became of the cargo?”
Biloxi-9 Apr 1923
Mabel Willebrandt walked calmly up the steps to the Police Station. Chief Bills and four uniformed policemen waited for her and her entourage. One officer held the door while the others stood behind the Chief.
“Ms Willebrandt, so nice to see you back in our fair city again. Congratulations on your ongoing battles to fight the demon liquor,” Bills beamed as he held out a hand to greet the Assistant Attorney General.
“It’s good to see you again, Chief,” her voice was as icy as her morning bathwater. “I’d like to get started reviewing the locations you told my office you have identified.”
“Yes, yes, yes, but first a tour of the station, right this way,” Bills led her into the building while the other officers waited for her team to enter. “After we finish here I’ll show you our new Lincolns. I’ve been told they can get up to 80 miles an hour, there shouldn’t be anything else out there that can get away from my officers.”
Willebrandt tolerated the tour but was impatient and ready to get to the task at hand. Bills introduced her to Gabrich who was standing just inside his office door before turning to his own office.
“And last thing before we depart is my office,” Bills announced as he opened the door and held out a hand inviting her to enter. The smile disappeared from his face as he saw the shocked look on Willebrandt’s face. One of Willebrandt’s agents pushed Bills to the side and rushed into the office. A second agent grabbed him firmly by the arm and waited.
Quickly turning he peered around the doorframe into his office to see what the fuss was about. The agent opened a crate on his desk and a demijohn of wine was pulled out. The agent showed it to the now smiling Willebrandt. “Perhaps we won’t need to ride in your new car to your hiding spots, Chief.”
While he could not count them all he knew. There were 500 crates marked ‘Pedigree Crushed Oyster Shells’ in his office. But Bills knew, there were no oyster shells inside.