Chapter 2-Biloxi, May-June 1921
Biloxi Yacht Club
The noon crowd had dispersed, and it was too early in the day for any pesky schoolchildren to be racing for the catboats and an afternoon of sailing. This was Theodore Desporte's favorite time of the day to be at the Biloxi Yacht Club. The club was built over the water at the foot of Bank Street. The water, like most of the Sound, was brown, thanks to the barrier islands. Despite the color of the water, the view from the middle of the pier was the best on the coast. Only members were allowed inside, but Theodore, like everyone else he dealt with, was a member.
Desporte strolled to the clubhouse admiring the view. To the north was the growing city of Biloxi. The east quickly turned from open water to Deer Island. Off to the west, on the horizon, was the still struggling town of Gulfport.
As he reached the two-story clubhouse, he started up the stairs to the restaurant bar over the main clubroom. He let himself in and found his way to his favorite table. Even if the room was crowded, he would have no trouble getting his table, most people came for the view of the water, not the city. Desporte's seat had a view of the city and almost none of the water.
A waitress appeared to take his order. After she had left, Biloxi Police Chief George Bills walked in. After a quick glance around the empty room, Bills hurried over to Desporte's table and sat.
"Afternoon Chief Bills. How're you this fine Mayday?"
Bills shot an annoyed look at Desporte, "Not all that great. Let's get right to business. I need some action, now."
"If you want my men to keep looking the other way and ignoring your business, you'd better give me exactly what I want." Bills fidgeted in his chair. Few men had the balls to talk to Desporte in this manner.
Desporte sipped his water before answering, "George, when I entered this agreement with you, I knew there would be times when you would require me to make a sacrifice. Losses are to be expected. We can discuss this like civilized men and reach an understanding that will benefit both ourselves and our respective lines of work."
"A big shipment. Not on the water, unloading."
Desporte despised being ordered around. He dealt on his terms, not someone else's. "If you catch them unloading, word will get out about how you knew." The sternness in his voice as he said "will" indicated exactly how sure he was that word would get out. "Besides, catching them on water can get you in good with the Coast Guard. Then they'll owe you a favor. You can get the product from them, then have my sources distribute it and we split the money. Because it was on the water, the Captain gets cut out of the profits."
Bills looked out the window. A bigger share of what would have been no share at all, a chance to look good in the citizen's eyes, or a chance to be revealed as a dirty cop. What a choice. "Alright, but I need it now."
"I can't arrange something like this overnight. Late June, maybe mid-June, if your lucky."
"What am I supposed to do until then?"
Now Desporte was annoyed, "In about five hours, there will be an ambulance coming from New Orleans. It'll probably have a nurse and a patient inside. Your men have even given it an escort before. Watch it and where it goes. It's full of booze. Bring it to me and I'll get rid of it, I'll only take a tenth, you take the rest." The only thing Desporte liked better than getting rid of competition was making money off getting rid of competition.
Bills got up to leave, "I'll call you in three days about the water deal. You'll have the booze by tomorrow night."
"Call in four days. Good day, Chief."
As Bills walked off, he mumbled, "Good day to you, too."
Desporte watched briefly, to some it might seem that the police chief had scampered away rather than walked. As if he was in a rush to ensure that no one had seen him in the same place as Desporte. Most men thrilled at the opportunity to be seen with the man who, behind the scenes of course, ran the thriving little town. Some would not even show their faces unless they could be seen. The old man had the town right where he wanted it. He had the power and the knowledge to manipulate every man in the town, except the one he wanted.
Cliche though it may be, knowledge is power. It was in times past, it would be in times future, and right now, in the midst of the Golden Era in the history of the country, it was still ruling. Desporte got his power from wherever he could. Theodore was twelve when the Great War broke out, not the War to end all Wars; it takes a real Southern gentleman to know what the real Great War was fought over. Before and after the war, Theodore went to boarding school in Ohio. Those years were the only years he had ever lived anywhere besides his beloved hometown.
His father, Lawrence Desporte, had wisely chosen a future in seafood. His packing plant was one of the first in the sprawling little town. It came way before the boom on seafood. Lawrence was rich before his time. Before the war, Mississippi was an exciting place to live. It had more millionaires than any other State in the country. Even then, money meant power. That money paid for Theodore to go to the boarding school. The school brought knowledge, and that brought power. Long before the Great War, Lawrence had set up a political machine to run Biloxi.
During the war, Theodore had fought alongside his father learning his conniving ways. He learned how to deceive and extort. He learned how to have his way.
The waitress arrived with his order. Though the poboy smelled delicious, Theodore's thoughts were still as entrenched as his sights were on the city that occupied the window.
After the war, Lawrence became a scalawag. Whatever it took to retain control, Lawrence had done. However, one thing he forgot. In all his greed, he forgot that what goes around, comes around, and in 1874, Theodore snatched the family power from under the old man.
Ever since, Theodore had been in control. He ran the machine every bit as effective as had his father. The city continued to grow, and his power grew with it. What Theodore wanted, happened. Oh sure there were exceptions, like when John Webster beat Henry Diaz for mayor in '16, but after all, Ernest had his hands in that, and Diaz would not have been Theodore's choice that year anyway.
Now nearly fifty years later, Theodore was thinking further ahead than his father had. Rather than lose the political machine as Lawrence had, he would pass it on. The old man's mind swirled with thoughts of how he could pass things on to Ernest. He was the only real choice for the job.
Theodore picked up his sandwich and started eating, his mind never skipping a beat. Ernest would someday run the town, but how would the torch be passed?
Back at his office, Desporte sat at his desk. Time to get the ball rolling on his next big move. He spun his chair around and opened his phone drawer. He picked it up and buzzed his secretary. "Get Taylor on the line."
A minute later, the phone rang. Desporte waited for the third ring to answer, "Desporte." "Taylor here. You needed something?"
"Do you have June's early shipments planned yet?"
Taylor shifted through some papers. "Not specific, just general amounts headed to which areas. I can go ahead and plan the specifics now based on last month's sales if you need a particular area." Taylor knew what was coming.
"Just plan one. To Biloxi. I was thinking of the Thistle. Tell me about it, and the captain." "Taconi is the captain. He's been with us since the start of operations. Excellent returns on his
shipments. Never a blemish on his record.
“I just happen to have the Thistle's file on my desk now. It is being re-fitted with our new hidden keel design. Right now we're painting a fake waterline on her, that way she'll look empty even when the keel's full.
"All together she'll hold about sixteen thousand cases, and can make the sail from here to there in about nine days at max speed with max load."
"Has it ever been boarded?"
"Good, and does Taconi stick to prescribed routes or go on his own?" "On his own, but, he will follow a requested route."
Desporte spun around in his chair, "As you have guessed by now, Bills is getting a bit antsy. I told him late June; think the Thistle will be ready for a full scale test of the new compartments by then?"
"I'll make sure. I can let you know for sure in three weeks. I'll look up for an alternate ship, just in case."
"Good. Plan on the Dog Keys route."
"Sure thing, Boss."
Desporte hung up. This was not the first time he arranged for one of his boats to be captured, but this would be the best. The liquor in the keel would be kept secret from even Bills. If the Coast Guard could find that, he deserved to loose it. This bust would give TransGulf complete control of the Sound for at least three months. Word would get out that locals tipped off the Coast Guard. No one but a local would want to ship near here, and Desporte was the only local shipper in the water.
Business was booming, and looking better. Desporte's plan for the city was slowly edging closer to completion. All that was needed now was for Ernest to come help finish implementing it.
Dog Keys Pass- June 1921
Sunrise on the Gulf of Mexico was slow in coming. A low fog hovered over the island and surrounding waters decreasing visibility but increasing the beauty of the morning. The sky glowed red and finally orange before the sun silently crawled above the horizon. Captain Paul Taconi watched it, and dreaded the ominous meaning. Today was going to be tough enough without old sailor's superstitions.
An odd rendezvous at the tip of Horn Island, what in the world could be so important that Desporte would interrupt his precious schedules? Taconi scanned the waters. Horn was to his right, and there were no signs of life on it. As his eyes wandered, he saw a ship come from around the island. It had a single mast, but no sails up. It was moving fast, motor driven. "Get this boat moving, head southeast!" Taconi ordered his crew. He headed aft and spotted his First Officer.
"Are the crab traps ready?" Taconi asked.
"We don't drop them here," replied his First Officer.
"We do now. We'll get word to the old man later. Get them overboard now. Overfill them if you have to. Get rid of this cargo now!" Taconi barked.
"Paul, I don't see why all of a sudden..."
"Do you see that cutter to port?" Taconi pointed at the ship that was rapidly closing on them. "Get those hams overboard, before I throw you overboard!"
He wheeled away from the First Officer and grabbed a sailor rushing past, "Williams, throw over as many salted hams as you can as we pass the sandbar, then jump in and swim to shore. If we don't come back in three hours, swim over to Dog Key. Baker will be by later in the day and can pick you up." Williams ran to the starboard side to wait for the sandbar.
"Head west! Keep her between the sandbar and that cutter!" Taconi yelled over the splashing sounds of the rapid jettison of the Thistle's cargo. Another ship appeared this one to the west.
The cutter was close enough now for a visual verification of Taconi's worst fear. The unmistakable white color gave it away even before the Coast Guard flag flying in the breeze atop the mast could be seen. Though Taconi could not tell, Bills was standing on the bow, pointing as if the cutter's Captain could not tell which way to go.
Williams jumped into the water with the crab pots and salted hams. These hams were packed in the same pyramid style of 6 bottles but were weighted with salt. After two days in the water all the salt dissolved and the ham would float to the surface. The burlap and straw would be waterlogged but the precious alcohol intact.
The Thistle turned to head due south. Another cutter appeared, this one to the east. "Fire up the engines! We need everything we've got!" Taconi yelled at the helm. The wind picked up. The chase was on in earnest.
"Cover up those cases! Prepare for boarding! If three boats are all they sent after us we can fight 'em off by hand." The Thistle began picking up speed. She pulled away from the first cutter.
Bills stopped pointing. The Captain of the cutter tapped his radioman's shoulder. The net was closing.
Two more ships appeared to the south out of the the dissipating fog. No way out there, now another to the west, the trap was tight. "Head for the first cutter! Full speed! No one takes us without losses!"
The Thistle turned west toward the first ship. Taconi began to realize that he might have been set up. Nothing left to do now but cause some damage.
The distance between the two ships closed rapidly. Taconi reviewed the situation on the water. If he could somehow make it through this one, which one would come up next? Two more to the north, one more from the south, as if surrounded were not enough. They must have every ship they own out here.
As the two ships came in close, the cutter turned to starboard; the helmsman wisely went to port. The schooner crushed the cutter. Men jumped for their lives. Bills belly flopped off the bow.
As quick as the chase started, the net closed and the Thistle was surrounded. One cutter sunk. One listing to port, the wind had stopped. A dripping Bills climbed up the ladder to the deck of the schooner. The crew had been rounded up and the cargo holds were being searched.
Bills walked across the deck as if he owned it. He stopped in front of Taconi. "Beautiful morning isn't it, Captain? You'd better enjoy it while you can, you may not see another sunrise for a long time." Bills turned around smirking and tripped over Taconi's feet.
Biloxi- June 1921
"Is Taconi here yet?" an irritated Desporte asked his secretary over the phone.
"Send him in now!" Desporte slammed the receiver into its cradle.
Taconi stood and headed for the door, even without a phone, Desporte could have been heard. He walked in and sat down in front of the oak desk.
Desporte started, "It seems you were set up. Bills got a tip from someone on shore, must have been someone you sold to here."
"I never had a chance to sell here since arriving. Bills and the Coast Guard were there to meet as soon as I got here."
Desporte leaned back in his seat. With the cases Bills had given him and those hidden in the keel compartments, there were still missing cases. No alcohol, no money, where was it? "I got you out of jail; I can even clear your record. All I ask from you is that you continue to work for me. Of course you can't go back to TransGulf, but you'll have a boat here."
"As big as the Thistle?"
"No, no, no. All my American triple-masted schooners already have captains. I'll take the
money for your last shipment, and for your bail out of your first paychecks.” "Same salary?" asked Taconi.
"You can't really still expect a raise now." Desperate leaned back in his seat. "And if I don't agree?" Taconi's face showed no emotion as he spoke.
"For starters, Bills will probably find a reason to re-arrest you."
Taconi leaned forward and dropped his voice. "And if I tell anyone you set me up, or how you're blackmailing me into working for you?"
Desporte leaned forward, "Who do you think will be believed? An outstanding member of the community, or you, a common, ordinary negro? Even I wouldn't have given you the time of day if you didn't have the skills you have as a captain." He shuffled through a folder on his desk. Without looking up he said, "I have a small ketch, maybe with a little hard work you can move up later. In or out, Taconi?"
"A choice between you and Bills? I'll take the worst of the two. I'm in."
"Good. My secretary has all the papers." Desporte spun around in his seat to dismiss Taconi.
With one last scowl at the back of the old man's chair, Taconi left.
As Taconi crossed the shell parking lot, he noticed Desporte's car. How could anyone not notice a 1921 Rolls-Royce Phaeton? Made in America. Desporte didn't drive and his chauffeur was not around. Taconi walked up to it.
No visible transmission locks, no ignition locks, not even a steering wheel tilt lock. This was a car screaming to be taken for a joy ride. Taconi opened the door and sat inside. No one would think anything if they saw him. No one would expect a white chauffeur anyway.
Taconi pushed the starter switch, no manual starter on a fourteen thousand dollar car. He glanced to his left and saw Ernest Desporte standing next to Taconi's Hudson. Ernest caught Taconi's eye and headed towards the Rolls. Taconi cut off the engine and got out of the car.
He headed for the hood, and started to open it. Ernest's hand stopped him from raising it, "No one opens a Rolls-Royce hood in public, someone might think it was broken."
"I'm sorry, suh. Jus' tryin' ta lookit the engin, suh. It sounded sa purty when I seen it go by my shack this mornin'."
"You expect me to believe that?"
"Of course, suh. It's the God honest truf, suh. I really oughta be goin, suh, the wife and chilren are waitin with suppa."
"Cut the act Taconi, you're divorced and educated. Get in." Desporte headed towards the passenger door.
A startled Taconi did as he was told. "Where to, sir?"
"Cut the ‘sir’ and go where ever you were headed, if you find a private place, I may be persuaded to let you look at the engine.
"Tell me something, Taconi, I made a deal with my father a while back, and he owes me another captain, would you be interested in a job?"
"All your father give me is a ketch, I'm afraid that won't help you much in any business."
"You take my offer, and I'll find you something bigger. How does a triple-master schooner sound?" Ernest asked with a smile.