Chapter 5-Biloxi, 5 May 1922
Biloxi-5 May 1922
"Eugene!" Webster hollered into the cabin of the schooner. "Wake up and pee! The world's on fire!"
An obviously still sleepy boy emerged from the forward sleeping compartment. "Sorry about that, Clarence. I guess I was just a little too tired last night."
Webster came down the ladder to join Eugene below decks. "No problem, I slept a little late myself. Here're the tasks for the day. First off, I gotta run into town to make a few deliveries. While I'm doing that, you're gonna paint the name on this here boat. From now on, she's going to be known as the ‘Miss Ella’, after my dear departed wife.
"When I get back, we're going to take her out on her shakedown cruise. After the shakedown, we'll pull in a coupla nets and see what we're having for dinner. The tough work won't start 'til tomorrow. Any questions?"
Eugene rubbed his eyes, "Where’d you say the paint was?"
Webster laughed, "That's the spirit. It's in the shed. The fishing gear in there will go on board, but we gotta outfit her with the good stuff first. That's tomorrow's task." Webster started back up the ladder.
"Clarence, what about . . .”
"There's some eggs and bacon in the icebox," Webster interrupted, "If you can cook, you can eat. I'll be back as soon as I can."
Eugene yawned and stretched. He started up the ladder, and as his head cleared the hatch, he heard Webster trying to start his car. By the time he reached the house, the old Model T was heading down the worn out trail Webster called a driveway toward the rutted clearing the county called a road.
The trip to Biloxi was not as easy as one might think. The roads really were only rutted clearings through the forest. Before Webster could go more than a half mile, he reached a hard packed stretch of road. It was a little less rutted than the other roads around the area.
This particular stretch only lasted about three quarters of a mile. It went across the Biloxi Naval Reserve Park. It was a federally protected park well outside the current Biloxi City Limits that grew live oak trees for use in wooden navy ships. Not used as often anymore, Webster wondered how long it would be before the government would get rid of it. Until then, it served as a good place to have a picnic, and to the north of the road, right on the bay was a pier that stretched out into Back Bay. It was Coast Guard Base Number 15. Webster waved at the small buildings that made up the base. It really was not much of an installation.
After the park the road again became rutted, then took a sharp right to head south toward the front beach. Not only would two cars on this road constitute a traffic jam, if they were headed in opposite directions it could become a downright safety hazard. He slowed down even more, and practically crawled around the corner. When it straightened back out, it was a pretty stretch of rutted road. The oak trees to either side of the street caused it to seem almost like a cloistered hallway.
The front beach at this end of the town was downright ugly. The road was better, somewhat paved with crushed oyster shells. To the side of the road was marsh, and after ten or so feet of marsh, the Sound started. Only the occasional pier broke the scenery. Far to the east, Webster could see the familiar lighthouse. Still a good two miles to the east, the lighthouse itself was in an area known as West End.
The putter of the engine interrupted the silence of the still pristine area. Despite the advancements, the Mississippi Gulf Coast was a very sleepy area. Visitors fell in love with it, and residents would not move for all the money in the world. Webster's own wife's family had been from Nebraska. Every winter when the snow blew in, they left the town they had built with their own hardships and dreams and came to Biloxi for a vacation. One year they just decided not to go back. They built a house and stayed for good.
Eventually Webster made it into Biloxi. It was so much faster just to sail into town. As he passed the lighthouse, many roads branched off, all covered in oyster shells. Webster stayed along the beach, passing homes, piers, and packing plants until he came to Bank Street. He turned without so much as a glance toward the yacht club, of which he was a member, and headed towards the business district.
Webster's car pulled up to the side entrance to a small funeral parlor. The door opened and someone walked out. Webster hailed the man, "Morning James. How's business?"
"Mornin' Clarence. Not to bad, I haven't had to start killing my own customers yet." Both men chuckled.
"Where you want it, James?"
James looked up and down the alley they were in. "Let's unload it around back. I'll go get the door." James headed back into the building, while Webster drove the car down the alley.
The rear service door was open by the time Webster arrived at it. Together the two men began unloading several cases from the floorboard marked Evinrude Outboard Motors.
When the car was emptied, and the empty boxes returned, Webster asked, "How many would you like for next week?"
James took a moment before he answered, "Actually Clarence, this is it for me. I'm quitting this line of work. I've gotten more then enough from it over the past two years to get back on my feet. Tomorrow night I'm skipping town. I just picked up a brand new Hudson and took all my money out of the People's Bank. It's time to head for Chicago and get back to my wife and kids."
"Good luck to you. I'm sure if you're anywhere near as good at building things as you are at retail liquor sales, you'll make a fine legal living. Are you sure you tied up all the loose ends around here?" Webster asked pointing at the funeral parlor.
"All the coffins are gone, only one more Irish wake scheduled," James winked, "the lease runs out tomorrow. The only thing left is my old Model T, and if no one wants to buy it today, I'll park it inside this building and forget it."
Webster thought for a moment, "Come to think of it, I might know someone who could use it. How 'bout I knock off a hundred bucks off your last delivery, and take it off your hands?"
"A hundred? I was thinking more along the lines of fifty myself."
"Then call it a bonus for having been such an excellent customer then."
James extended his hand to Webster, "It's a deal. How do you want to get it?"
"Hmm. . . How about send it over with the boy who'll deliver the payment. I'm sailing out from the Bay around noon, so I could drop him off on the beach on my way out."
"Alright. I'll send him right away, matter of fact, he may beat you home."
"So long, James. It's been real nice knowing and working with you."
"I can certainly say the same thing about you too, Clarence. You take care not to get caught." "That I will do, James."
Webster started the car. James watched him drive away from the now defunct funeral home, and then went inside. He instructed one of his three employees to take his Model T and an envelope to Webster, and then turned to the task of storing his last shipment of stock.
Biloxi-5 May 1922
Most of the alcohol was already sold and would be picked up later. This was hidden in secret wall compartments in the chapel. Although other walls might be busted up to look for alcohol, in the South even the police would think twice before desecrating a chapel. "Freeze, Riley. Put your hands up where we can see them. Cuff him off, Gabrich."
Bills covered James with a pistol while Officer Gabrich came forward with the handcuffs. Six other officers rushed in from behind Bills, one of whom bumped Bills and made him momentarily loose his balance.
James laughed. Bills regained his footing. Red faced with anger and embarrassment, Bills could not decide whether he wanted to keep James covered or reprimand the clumsy policeman.
The six policemen began a systematic search of the empty building. Gabrich frisked the laughing Riley, and Bills tried to recover his composure. "We had an anonymous tip that you deal in illegal alcohol here, Mister Riley. What do you have to say for yourself?" Bills walked around James as he spoke.
"I plead the fifth amendment, Bills." James taunted the Chief, "Even a man with two first names could guess I would do that."
Gabrich found the two bottles and handed them to Bills. "What do you have to say about this, Riley?" Bills asked waves the bottles in James' face.
"Care for a shot, officer?" James replied with a smile.
An angry Bills glared at James, and then stormed out of the room as much to check on the search as to be in a place he had control of the situation. Gabrich was having a tough time keeping a straight face, and allowed a chuckle to pass his lips as Bills left.
"Riley! You have a visitor." The officer in charge of the jail cell yelled as he found the right keys for the cell James was in. As he unlocked the door and it swung inward, he pointed down the hall to the visiting room and said, "Down there."
James walked into the visiting room. It was empty except for two chairs, a table and Webster. An officer watched through a large window on one wall. James sat across the table from Webster.
Webster started, “James. I had begun to think I had seen the last of you. Come to find out I just missed the big hullabaloo."
"Wasn't much to it. Just Bills tripping on and generally making a nuisance of himself."
"The two things Bills is best at," Webster said while looking directly at the officer at the window. "What do you know?"
James leaned on the table, and lowered his voice, "All they found, as far as I know, was two bottles on me. So far as I know, my hiding spots are secure. Apparently, someone tipped off Bills. I've been racking my brain trying to decide who it might have been."
"No secret there, Desporte. Your good old landlord. He wouldn't be making any more money off your business, so he turned you in to look good to Bills' faulty eyesight."
James leaned back in his seat, "You didn't just come here to relay gossip, what is it you came for?"
"If you don't mind my helping you out, maybe we can make another business deal." Said Webster.
"I'm not looking to get back in. Just get rid of my last load and get out." James spun his head toward the window to see if they were still being watched. The officer was still there but he was paying more attention to the crossword puzzle in the newspaper than to the scene in the room.
Webster leaned forward and lowered his voice, ”We'll talk business later; first off, you didn't even know there was alcohol in your building, did you? Someone must have planted it there, then tipped off the cops. As for that on your person, even the Chief of Police has been known to sip a little. Matter of fact, what happened to the third bottle you had on you?"
James soaked in all his unofficial counsel had to offer in the way of legal advice. Throw the suspicion on the landlord, leaving only a personal possession charge, and then have someone whisper in the Judge's ear making him doubt Bill's credibility. At most, a small fine, a minor business loss, and James would still be on his way to Chicago.
"Will you plead my case for me?" asked James.
"Certainly, but I'm not much for sitting in a courtroom." Said Webster.
"I have a lawyer already, but I don't think that's where the important arguments will be anyway." James looked at the window again, “It’s the other talks I need help with.”
“Got it, no problems, now on to business," Webster leaned back but kept his voice low. "It involves getting Desporte back. All it'll take from you is a little work and a little more time in Biloxi."
James looked at Webster. He was offering a chance to get back at the man who put him in this predicament to start with, a chance for another easy paycheck. However, it would cost more time away from family. "Clarence, you just get me out of here. I have no interest in getting that lowlife back. Somewhere out there I have a loving wife and two darling girls waiting for their husband and father to get back to them with the news that the hard times are over for them. I'd trade this whole State for them right now, and as far as I care, the old man can have it after I'm gone."
Webster paused before standing, ”I understand, James. “But just one thing." He paused, "If you ever, even only in your mind, turn this State over to him, I'll have you tarred and feathered."
Both men smiled, and Webster departed. James watched him disappear for the second time today. Under his breath he said, “If enough people had your spirit, all the Desportes in the world would be powerless. Good luck, old friend."