The last trip of the day had been made. The last wagon off the ferry ambled down the dirt path cut between the trees toward the front beach and from there it could go either way. Both of the nearest cities were still miles away. Even Popp himself cared not one bit about if one would some day become large enough to encompass the small tracts of land on both sides of the bay that was now known as Popp’s Ferry. Tonight there were to be bigger worries. Prohibition had come to Mississippi long before it was fashionable in the rest of the country and the Gulf Coast became a location to practice ways around it.
Whoever had come during the wee hours of this morning would be back. Popp and his son had heard their boat. They watched the shadows made by the ethereal light of the cloud-covered moon. They were the only witnesses to where the strange men had gone, and what they had done.
At dawn, Popp and his boy had gone to the spot the men had visited. Whoever it was knew what went on at the causeway. Though it was easy to spot from five feet away, the loot was hidden a good hundred yards from the route the ferry usually took. In other words, it had to be looked for. The men had not bothered hiding it better, because to them there had been no need.
Other than Popp, no other boat would come this far into the bay. To the west of the jetty that marked the ferry's northern landing was Big Lake, a seemingly childish name, but appropriate. Little of the seafood wanted in Biloxi lived in fresh water. They preferred the salty Gulf, or even the brackish waters to the east of the jetty in Back Bay. Gulfport did not reach to the Lake, and many thought the town never would. The only people sailing into the lake would be going to the river, and with the recent lack of rain, the river was not much of a destination either. In other words, only Popp would be sailing these waters, and under normal circumstances, even Popp would not be sailing here, except that he had seen the men, and wondered.
The marsh grass the men had covered their prize with was still alive. It would not take long under the southern Mississippi sun to remedy that, and when that happened the hiding spot would be very visible. For that reason, Popp knew the men would return tonight. Under the grass was what appeared to be a small rowboat. It had been anchored as well as beached on the soft, mushy ground that comprised the pseudo‑islands of the bay. Even without the beaching and the anchor, the boat would not have gone far, except to sink. It was so loaded down that there was a good deal of water in the boat. Perhaps the men had tried to sink it first.
The burlap sacks that made up the load were a mystery to Popp. He had never seen bootleg alcohol before. In his curiosity, he opened one. It contained six unopened bottles of gin. Popp liked what he saw, enough so that he decided then and there to keep what he had found. He re-covered the boat with marsh grass and headed back for the landing, deeply engrossed in his thoughts, his eyes occasionally wandering to where he had stashed the six bottles on his own boat.
Now, with his last customer safely out of sight, Popp could begin. He returned to the spot, and without even bothering to remove the now dead marsh grass, tied the rowboat to his. Once again on dry land, Popp proceeded to unload the boat. He hid the liquor in the marsh outside his house. Not wanting to waste something as precious as a boat, Popp towed the boat out and swamped it, after he tied on an old buoy from a crab pot. He returned to his home, and started his all night vigil.
The years had been nice to Popp, but try as he might they had come upon him anyway. He was no longer a young man, and should really have not been surprised when he was rudely awakened in the night. His all night vigil had been shortened by the Sandman.
Despite his age, Popp’s senses were keen. Despite having only just been woken from a sound sleep, he could sum up the situation quickly and accurately. His gun was in someone else's hands, pointed at him. The man who held Popp’s weapon also held the lantern. Three other men held their own weapons at Popp, and a fifth held a pistol to Popp’s son Curtis' head.
One of the men stepped forward and lowered his gun, "All we want is our liquor. Give it to us now."
Never much of a bluffer, Popp decided if ever there was a time to try, now would be it, "Huh? What the hell're you talkin' 'bout? Ah don't know nuthin 'bout no liker. Ah jus' run tha ferry."
The man knelt down to Popp’s level. He held his face inches from Popp’s. "I don't care about no damn ferry. I know you know what the hell I'm talkin about. That alcohol was taken at gunpoint," he cocked his pistol and pointed it at the old man's head, "we ain't against usin' guns to git it back."
After a moment of reflection Popp said, "I ain't no interlectuall person, but Ah think Ah unnerstan whatcha mean. If'n ya could jes help me to ma feet." Popp fumbled as he tried to get to his feet. The man with the pistol lowered it and held out his hand. Popp grabbed it and pulled with all his might. He shoved the man toward the gunman holding his son, and leaped at the lantern at the same time.
The lantern hit the ground before the man could, but not before the butt of a rifle could find its way to the back of Popp head. Quicker than it had started, it was over.
"Wait!" Curtis yelled. "Don't hurt 'em! I'll help ya. I know where it is! Don't hurt 'em, please."
The man with the pistol at Curtis' head whispered, "Well, git on with it, then." He added a shove to prod Curtis into submission.
Popp rubbed his head as he and Curtis watched the small catboat containing the bottles and the men glided away from the landing. As the motor started, and they headed east, Popp glanced across the water. The boat almost hit the crab pot buoy, but none of the men had ever mentioned the boat. He may have a knot on his head, but the day had not been a total loss.
The old man turned to his son and commented, "Ah never has unerstood what wus so dadburned importan 'bout alkerhol anyway. Make a note, Curtis, the further ya keep from it, the less prolems you'll have, in da long run."
West End, Biloxi-1919
The rain pattered against the canvas roof. No one in the vehicle talked. A mother and her two daughters waited inside for James to return.
James and another rain soaked man stood beside the car. James knocked on the windshield. Clara opened the top pane of the Model T's windshield.
"Honey, I need four of Genine's, please."
Clara turned to look at her younger daughter. Genine reached underneath her skirt to remove the last four bottles she had hidden there and gave them to her mother.
"That's all I have, Mom."
"Here, James. She's all out. Now can we go home?"
"Just a minute." James turned and handed the bottles to the other man. Nonchalantly the man handed James an envelope. "Until next week then Charley?"
The man grunted something unintelligible as he shuffled off. James sprinted around to the driver's side of the car and got in. Another lucrative night’s work was done.
James smiled as he put the car in gear. "Clara, just a few more drives like this and we can do something bigger. I've put a lot of thought into this and I'm thinking a funeral parlor. Putting the bottles in the coffins, having a speakeasy in the back, kind of a permanent Irish wake. Maybe even hire someone who can actually run a parlor, and have some legal money to go with the rest."
"This is it, James. No more. The girls and I are leaving. If you insist on continuing this line of work, you'll be by yourself."
A stunned James stopped the car. "But Clara, Just a little while longer and I promise we can get out of this sleepy little town. We can go back to our dreams. I'll never do anything like this again, if we can just get out of this hole."
Clara looked straight out the window. "We'll go stay with my mother. When you are through with your foolishness, you can join us."
The rest of the trip was made in silence. Just James and his thoughts. How much trouble was bootlegging worth to him? Enough to risk his family? Definitely something to think about while he finished his funeral parlor plans.
Chapter 1-Biloxi, 1920
The old man standing behind the oak desk looked his age. Theodore Desporte gazed out the window as his son Ernest walked in. Theodore was beginning to get gray hairs, and Ernest had a moustache. The only other difference between the two men was age. Both had brown hair and eyes, stood just less than six feet, and had the same stocky but not too large build.
Theodore turned around and sat down behind the large desk. Ernest stood in front of the desk and patiently waited for what his father had to say. Leaning back in his chair, the elder Desporte finally began, "I need you to do something for me. I know you don't like me that much, but I need your help."
Ernest decided it was time to sit. It was true he did not like the man very much, but he was still his father.
"I suppose if you can be sociable, so can I, Father." The difference in tone as he said "Father" summed up the contempt he felt for being asked. "But why didn't you ask Steven?"
"Your brother is taking care of some other matters right now."
"What you mean is that this concerns your supposedly legal British shipping firm and he doesn't know about it. What's the job?"
"Actually, Steven does know about the company, his task at the moment concerns another aspect of its operations, but for this I need you. I wouldn't trust anyone but you." Theodore reached into his desk for a file. "As you know, TransGulf Shipping is under a British registration. Charles Taylor, who I put in charge of running the local end of business down in Nassau, was convinced by a Nassau lawyer that the company would appear more British if it had a British head. Lawyer's name was Fulton, Jeffrey Fulton. Taylor thought the idea sounded good, and without getting my approval, hired Roger Smythe. Sounds English enough." Theodore handed Ernest the folder. "Anyway, Smythe has claimed the company as his own, and is trying to fire Taylor. I need you to go down there, figure out what's going on, and see what can be done to remedy the situation."
Ernest looked at the folder his father handed him. It contained a single sheet each on Taylor, TransGulf, and a strip map from the dock to the shipping office. "First of all, I'll need a little more to go on then this. But more important, what do I get out of it?"
Theodore rose and walked to the file cabinet to his left. Like the desk, it was solid oak. He pulled out the top drawer and flipped through the folders in the back. "Well, son, I can't put you back in the will since I never took you out. I can't get you a job with the city, since you already have one. I seem to be short on things I think you may like." He located the file he wanted and returned to sit behind the desk. "How about this, I show you this file, you name your own price?"
"Hasn't it always worked that way with you?" asked the younger Desporte contemptuously.
"I am at a loss here. I don't know what to do to win your love. I have tried to do what I thought best for you, and all I have received in return is your hate. What can I do?"
"How about this, you show me the folder, I tell you half the price. I do the job, then come back for the rest of the price."
Theodore pushed the folder toward his son, his face showing no emotions. Without looking at his father, Ernest opened the file. His heart was pounding. These files contained information on all the people in control of the Bahamas, and Theodore had not had a chance to pull out the ones he did not want his son to see. Mayor of Nassau, Chief of Police, even the Worshipful master of the Masonic Lodge, they were all there.
"I'll take this folder and lessen my price, deal?"
"Let's hear the offer with and without the folder." Theodore may be bending but he was not about to break.
“Without, TransGulf Shipping, with, three schooners including crews."
"How do I know you won't return and ask for TransGulf as the second half of your price?"
"Even business associates have to trust one another; it's not just a family thing."
"Sometimes I wonder where you got our bargaining skills, at other times I just remember. Take the folder. I assume you have the ships in mind, which are they?"
"I'll name them when I return. I assume you have arranged some transportation for me."
"Everett is waiting outside. He’ll take you to the seaplane. Good luck, son."
Ernest rose to depart, "Good luck to you to, Father." Ernest spun on his heels and walked out.
The solid oak door shut behind Ernest with a muffled thud. He ran his hands along the top edge of the desk as the footsteps outside faded away. The old man thought highly of the wood his office appeared to have been carved out of. He liked the toughness and the solidity of the wood, and the fact that those big trees grew from such tiny acorns. It was times like this that Theodore had to remind himself how annoying those little acorns could sometimes be.
Ernest stepped out of the seaplane and onto the dock. The flights had been long enough for him to have studied the files, and take a nap. Of course spending the night in Miami had helped as well. He quickly scanned the docks, spotted Taylor, and headed for him.
The docks were crowded with people and cases filled with “hams,” the unique way of carrying quart-sized bottles of alcohol that would double the cargo capacity of rum‑running ships. Burlap sacks held six bottles stacked in a pyramid, three then two then one, padded with straw, and sewn shut with double sail twine. This method of packing not only increased the number of cases a ship could hold, but provided protection for the bottles from the rough voyage they had ahead.
Taylor spotted Desporte over the heads of the people and started toward him. They met, and Taylor introduced himself, "I'm Charles Taylor you have to be Ernest Desporte, has anyone ever told you . . ."
Ernest cut him off, "I don't get along well with my father, if you'd like to remain on my good side, don't remind me I look like him." He extended his hand.
Taylor accepted the outstretched hand, startled by the abruptness. "Let's get to the office and away from this crowd." He turned and led the way off the docks.
The street was less hectic than the docks. Ernest started talking, "When was all this moved? Last time I was here all the ships were in Nassau Harbor."
“It happened about a month ago. The Nassau authorities decided they had seen enough. The harbor was too crowded with rum‑runners. I guess they weren't getting enough from their revenue tax to justify having to see all the mess the boats were creating in their main harbor. They raised the tax to the equivalent of six bucks a case and moved all the dealings to Salt Cay. We had just moved to our new location right on the harbor, so we now have a longer walk. I reserved a room for you at the Lucerne Hotel." Taylor pointed as they walked past the hotel.
They walked further down the street in silence, until they reached a small two-story building. "Ours is the top floor." Taylor held the door for Ernest. The stairs were to the left. As they started up, Taylor continued, "I cleared out an office for you to work in, and you will be glad to know that Smythe conducts what he calls business elsewhere."
The outer office was sparsely furnished. A single secretary worked the front desk. Two plants adorned the near corners. Three doors opened to either side of the room.
"Your office is the middle door on the left, mine is to the right of that.” Explained Taylor. “All the files are locked up in the last door on the other side. The middle door there leads to the waiting room, the last one to the toilet. Lucille will give you a key for the files, your office, the front door, and your hotel room. Are you ready to get started?"
"Whenever you are." Ernest said curtly.
"Let's go into your office first." Taylor waved a hand and made to follow Ernest.
Ernest headed toward his office door. In the brief time since the docks it was clear that either Taylor knew his job was on the line, or he was a natural born ass‑kisser who played up to all his boss' sons. An unspoken request Desporte would have to figure out for dad.
As Ernest opened the door, his first thought was that his father must have designed the office. There were three chairs in front of a large desk, one large chair behind it, a hat rack and a file cabinet, all were made of oak. The drapes were open and Nassau Harbor and a stretch of beach showed through it.
"I suppose I should mention I was happy the boats were moved to Salt Cay. They ruined my view, too."
Slightly surprised, Ernest asked, "This was your office?"
"I figured by moving next door I would get a head start on vacating for my replacement." Said Taylor looking nervously around the room.
"The job may still be yours, but first we need to figure out how to reclaim the company for you to have something to run." Ernest went around to the back of the desk and sat. All seven drawers on the desk were locked, the keys sat atop the desk.
“I set up an appointment with Fulton for tomorrow,” explained Taylor, “You'll have to go to his office, but Smythe is supposed to be there. It seems neither really wants to have anything to do with us anymore. Last time I spoke with Fulton, he tried to convince me that it would really be to my advantage not to fight in the Bahamian courts because of legal aspects. I don't believe him anymore. I may have been gullible once, but not twice. I think that may be the best way to reclaim TransGulf.”
He handed Ernest a short report, “Lucille is typing up the information I dug up on Fulton in the last week. Briefly, he came in here a month ago and inquired about doing some legal work for the firm. I hired him to handle the mess made by using manifests from Jamaica to say each ship is carrying legal cargo from Nassau to the US. Our last legal man ran off the day before, so we were forced to hire him before we finished his background search completely. This report,” nodding in the direction of the papers, “shows the overall incorporation and holding company status of Transgulf in the Bahamas.
"Two weeks ago Fulton came to me with the tip that the US Consulate had begun an investigation into American shipping firms that were registered under British names. At least that fact was true. Fulton suggested we change the name of the president to something even more believably British than Taylor. He found Smythe. A week after that Smythe claimed the company for his own. Yesterday we received his background search from your Father."
Ernest interrupted, "Whose decision was it to hire Fulton?"
"That was a joint decision by your Father and me."
Ernest flipped open the report, “When is the appointment with Fulton?"
"Ten o'clock tomorrow." He shuffled his feet.
"All right is there anything else we need for now?” Ernest asked.
"That about covers it. The report Lucille has goes into more details. If you don't need anything else, I do need to get on the pickup schedules for next week."
"That's good, go right on ahead. If you don't mind, I'll call you Charles, and you can call me Ernest, no need to be formal all the time."
"Yes sir, Ernest. If you need me I am next door." Taylor turned and left. Some of the apprehension he felt had left him. Perhaps he would still have a job next week.
As the door closed, Ernest spun his chair around. The view was certainly peaceful. It appeared to the younger Desporte that his father had made a good choice for whom to run the Bahamian operations. To Ernest's eyes, Taylor was not an ass‑kisser, though he did do a good job. Since Ernest's eyes had been trained by Theodore himself, Taylor would still have a job long after this mess had blown over.
Fulton's office seemed shabby. It was tiny and all Ernest had seen so far was the waiting area.
"Mister Fulton will see you now," said the secretary.
It was a quarter after ten; already this meeting had become a battle of wits. Now Ernest would find out if Fulton was as unarmed for the battle as his background report showed him to be.
Fulton's office was just as shabby as the outer room. It contained a desk, three chairs and a bookshelf with a few worn out looking law books.
"Ah, Mister Desporte, so nice to meet you. Please be seated." Fulton gestured toward a chair.
"Where is Mister Smythe?" asked Ernest.
"My client could not be here with us today, he has been unavoidably detained. Would you care for a drink?"
"Thank you, no, I came here to discuss TransGulf Shipping, and Mister Smythe. How long has he been your client?"
Fulton hesitated. "If you don't mind, I will help myself to a drink." Fulton removed a bottle and a glass from his desk drawer. As he poured, he continued, "Mister Smythe has been a faithful client of mine for some time. As for TransGulf, I was hired to procure false manifests and give legal aid. Tasks that I did to the best of my ability. Unfortunately, my suggestion of Smythe as a prospective sham British owner was taken to be less than satisfactory."
"How long have you known Smythe? Were the two of you conning people in London before you were thrown out?"
Fulton shifted uneasily in his chair “I will no longer tolerate any more insinuations from your company. You are no longer welcome here.' Fulton stood, 'Please be on your way."
Ernest stood and leaned over the desk. He put his nose an inch away from Fulton's. "You will be lucky if you aren't run out of Nassau like you were run out of England. You haven't seen the last of me. Good day, Fulton." Ernest stormed out of the office, leaving a fuming Fulton staring after him.
Back at the TransGulf Shipping office, Ernest knocked on Charles' door. Taylor opened the door looking surprised, "Uh. . . come in, Ernest. Or would you rather I come to your office?”
“Yours is fine, Charles.” Ernest walked in. There was barely enough room for the desk much less visitors. It contained only a desk, one chair and a table with three half empty bottles, and two glasses on it. No window, no hat rack, and the desk was not even oak. “Why didn’t I get this office?”
“I uh... figured you'd rather have the main office. What did I need with the extra space?”
“What did you need with it? What did I need with it? I haven't even unlocked the desk drawers. I've only opened the top file drawer, and I haven't even hung a hat." Ernest smiled, "Besides, I'm sick of oak.
"Get a couple of pistols and meet me at the Lucerne tonight at eight sharp. Have Lucille arrange my trip back to Biloxi tomorrow. Move your stuff back into the main office and don't give it up to anyone short of the old man himself."
"Not even Steven?"
"Especially not Steven. Your job is safe. Actually, you deserve a raise. I'll see you tonight."
Ernest left a much happier Taylor and headed for the Lucerne bar.
Retaking the Firm
An all night party was raging on the hill behind the Lucerne. Gangsters and prostitutes all hung out around a huge bonfire with fifty-gallon drums of rum, whiskey and gin. Tonight someone had thought enough to bring a six-piece band. The hills were alive with the frolicking gaiety associated with rum‑running. All the chases, the seizures, the jail terms were forgotten. Carpe diem. More than likely, at least once these revelers had been kicked out of the Lucerne Bar.
As if to illustrate the point, the scene in the bar was only a bit more subdued. Smoke filled the air. Half‑naked women sat on the laps of men who themselves were half stripped out of their unbearably hot zoot suits. A small band in the corner played the songs it thought the Americans wanted to hear.
The slightly more serene crowd sat to the right side of the bar, away from the music, hookers, and liveliest crowd. This part of the room was not interested in robbing everyone blind. The goal of this group was not to put everyone around them out of business. These were the people who just thought Prohibition was a bad law, and since most folk were against it, they were out to make a little money.
Desporte and Taylor sat in the far back corner. They had a good view, albeit a smoke filled view, of the whole bar. Across the room Fulton stood. He took a hooker by the arm, and headed for the door. Taylor stood to follow him; Desporte pulled a few bills out to pay the tab.
The door never closed behind Fulton. Taylor reached it first. The hooker was hanging all over Fulton. She was looking for an extra tip, or at least the location of Fulton's wallet. Fulton was too drunk to notice. He staggered up the street headed for his shack on the outskirts of town. Taylor had a handbag in his right hand. He threw it at the staggering Fulton and hit him square in the back.
The hooker let Fulton go. He staggered, almost caught himself, then fell to the ground. He tried to reach his feet. Taylor walked up to him with his pistol out. Desporte went to the hooker.
He whispered, "Ma’am don't be alarmed, but we need you for a business transaction. Would you mind joining us in the alleyway?"
She glanced at the gun in Desporte's hand, a quick jolt of fear shot through her before instincts took over. This was not the first time she had seen a gun brandished during a transaction, but this time the business end pointed toward someone else. Wordlessly she walked into the dark alley with the three men.
Fulton was still unaware of what was going on. "What the hell is this? Are these guys your pimps?"
Taylor started, "Jeffrey, Jeffrey, you still have no idea as to the fact that your game is over, do you?" He waved the gun in Fulton's direction, allowing the moonlight to play off the barrel.
"What do you want?" Fulton began trembling, few things sober men faster than threats of bodily harm, especially harm done by the gleam of the moonlight on blue steel.
Taylor had picked up the bag he had thrown at Fulton and now opened it. He extracted a contract and a pen. Handing them over, he said, "If you would be so kind as to relinquish Smythe's control on my company and then leave town."
"Sign where?" Fulton grabbed for the papers. He looked for a place to sign them. No one turned to offer him their back, so he kneeled over and found an dry spot on the muddy ground to sign.
"Get out tonight. If you’re still here in the morning you’re a dead man."
Fulton handed Desporte the papers, his eyes were wide open in terror. Desporte turned to the hooker, "If you would please, sign saying that you witness this blubbering jellyfish, we'll allow you to go."
She took the papers Desporte handed to her and put them on Fulton's back to sign. She handed the papers back and started walking off.
"Wait!" Taylor shouted. Turning to Fulton he said, "Give me your wallet."
Fulton did as he was told. Facing the hooker, Taylor handed her the wallet, "It may not be much, but this is for your help tonight." The wallet was bulging with pound notes.
She took the wallet and paused. Then she walked to Fulton and pushed him off his wobbling knees into the mud face first.
Dawn was as beautiful as every other dawn in the islands. They are always an incredible sight to see. The pilot of Desporte's seaplane was too busy running over his checklist to notice. Ernest and Taylor stood watching and talking on the dock as the plane was made ready to depart. "When you talk to your father, maybe you can convince him of something for me. Before this damn prohibition amendment was passed, he sent down shipload after shipload of alcohol. They were sent here, but they ran out long ago. He set up TransGulf here because this was where his stock was. Now I have to buy booze from locals, and dealers here. With this surcharge, and the locals selling charters to gangsters to run liquor, we're really losing a lot of money."
"You want to move?"
“Not exactly. Besides, your father wouldn't let us. I was thinking Jamaica but I’ve uncovered a better idea. Have you heard what the Bronfmans are doing in Canada?”
Since the amendment had gone into effect, the Bronfmans had begun to consolidate the liquor trade in Saskatchewan. They bought and watered down alcohol until they slipped it back across the border. “I’m familiar,” Ernest said.
Taylor took a deep breath, “A friend told me they’ve been talking to Distiller’s Company Limited about a joint venture. DCL is thinking of sending or making alcohol somewhere other than Scotland. One of their men was down here checking out operations when I ran into him.
“My suggestion is to turn Transgulf into a holding company for DCL. We can get some of their product but just having their name on our stuff will increase the value of our brand, too. It’d accomplish what this Smythe foray was supposed to do. A second bite at the apple, but this time better researched.” Taylor handed him an envelope. “Some details inside.”
"I'll see what I can do. No promises." The two men shook hands. "Remember what I told you about your office?"
"No one but the old man?" Taylor repeated.
"I changed my mind, not even him. If he gives you any shit, tell him I said so."
Taylor smiled, "You got it."
Desporte turned and entered the plane. The crewman had already untied the plane so he pushed off and entered right behind Desporte. The plane pulled away from the dock and headed for the entrance to the harbor.
As he settled in for the flight back Desporte replayed in his mind recent events. This episode had gone much easier than he had expected. Collecting from his father might prove to be tougher but he always kept his bargains. There was no promise the next step would be as simple.
He turned to look out the window and watch the tranquil island grow smaller as his thoughts became more complex. The plan was already in motion, now it was time to act.
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.
Chapter 3-Biloxi, 4 May 1922
Naval Reserve Park, West of Biloxi-4 May 1922
Walking up the rutted path, the boy could see what had to be a house, and the shoreline. As he watched from between the trees, the door opened and out walked three policemen.
With an air of disregard and a stare of suspicion, the policemen passed by the boy. He continued down the path to the shack the police had just left. Standing out in front of the weathered old shack was now an equally weathered old man. Momentarily ignoring the boy, he watched the police until they were out of sight.
Finally, the old man turned to the boy and asked, "What can I do for you"?
"Are you Mister Webster?" the young boy asked. It sounded to the boy much feebler than he had wanted.
The old man moved closer to the boy, "And just what if I am? Who're you, Cap?"
"Cap'n Woods sent me.” The boy’s voice sounded much stronger than he felt. Had he come to the right place? Was this the guy he was sent to meet, or had he made a wrong turn? Regardless of the answers, he plunged on, "He told me you might could use a hired hand."
"Woods sent you, eh? How's he know you?"
"He met my father in the Navy. He was also good friends with my uncle. I used to live with my uncle and he brought me see to Cap'n Woods a whole lot."
"You say you used to live. What happened?"
"Moved out yesterday, sir. Too crowded, not enough space."
"So you're needing a place to stay too?"
"Well... uh Cap'n Woods said you cold take care of that, too, sir."
"Cut out the 'sir'. Get in the skiff out back. If you can sail you got a job. I'll give you a place to lay your head, food for your belly, and wages determined by what we pull in. We'll discuss it in more detail in the boat."
Webster headed back inside while the boy headed for the skiff. Things were looking up now.
Webster pushed off from the small dock. The wind ruffled the sails, and then filled them as the boy adjusted them.
"My name's Clarence,” said the old man, ”What's your's?”
"Sail much before?"
"I used to sneak out with Cap'n Woods whenever I could. My uncle never cared for the water."
"Did Woods tell you what I do?"
"He only said you might need help. I guess your work has to do with the water, maybe even seafood, but other than that I haven't a clue."
"Well, a bit of fishing never hurt anyone and neither did anything else I do for a living. Woods sent you just in time, after we go check out a few crab traps, I gotta go get my new schooner from Diaz's. Head for the Sound."
Ladner pushed the handle of the tiller to port and the boat tacked to starboard. Woods smiled and nodded his head as he turned to look east toward the mouth of Back Bay. Things were looking good from his perspective, too.
Back Bay of Biloxi-4 May 1922
"Last pot here, Eugene. This one should be pretty heavy. You ready?"
The boy grabbed the buoy floating by and said, "Can't be any heavier than the last one we pulled up." Webster laughed.
For some reason this buoy had seemed to float lower in the water than the others they had been to so far. It was almost as if it were meant to be hidden. Both men started pulling on the rope attached to the buoy. Indeed, it was heavier.
When the pot broke the surface, Eugene saw that it was empty, and let it go. "What are you doing?" Webster snorted. "Oh, you saw that from here." He pointed at another ship on the horizon. It was flying a Coast Guard flag.
"You have good eyes. Woods picked a good one. What you are about to see is highly illegal. If you're not up for it, Woods wouldn't've sent you. I know him all to well."
Webster continued to watch the boat. After a few minutes, it disappeared below the horizon.
"Now pull it out again."
Eugene looked at Webster as if he was crazy, but pulled up the empty trap anyway. Once it was at the surface, Webster pulled it into the boat. Attached to the bottom was another rope. Webster started pulling on it.
At the other end of the rope was a burlap bag. Eugene pulled it in and put it on the floor. Webster grabbed a knife and cut open the bag. Inside were fifteen quart-sized bottles of a brown liquid.
“Throw these in the live well, but mind you don't bust any of 'em. Not all mine and Woods can't afford 'em all either. This is what he sent you to help me with.
"Woods sent you 'cause he knows ya and trusts ya. I didn't just hire you 'cause you needed a job; I needed a young trustworthy body."
While he talked, Webster prepared another burlap sack to replace the now empty one. He slipped a sealed bottle with a slip of paper in it into the bag, tied it up and attached it to the trap. "Do you know where Diaz's Packing House is?"
"We passed it on the way out right?"
"That's the one. Let's get there now and pick up my new boat.
"You see, Woods and I are about to do something big. It might be necessary for me to lay low for a time. If that happens, I'm gonna need you to take over my work. Somebody has to deliver the goods to the people. There's money to be made. A young boy like yourself can make a killing if he's careful. Not like that fool at Dukate's. You up for it?"
Eugene looked around the open waters of the Mississippi Sound, this was nice, and this was what it should all be about. Nothing else matters, not Biloxi, not Uncle Pat, not even the United States or the sometimes-binding Constitution, just man and nature. Over the course of ninety seconds, the young boy became a man, "Alright. But only if you teach me everything. I'm not up for learning what to not do after I've been caught."
Webster looked across the bouncing skiff. "You'll do just fine." He threw the trap and bag overboard, and said, "Before you start your first lesson, head for Diaz's. And for your first lesson, learn from the Cannette kid at Dukate's"
Though he was not quite sure, Eugene thought the old man meant the old Dunbar‑Dukate factory on the front beach. Soon enough he found out that he had almost speculated correctly.
"The Cannette boy, William I think was his name. Just because you win a few, doesn't mean you'll always win. And just because you made a fortune, doesn't mean you won't go to jail a pauper if you foul up."
Eugene was not sure he got the whole point but there was no more conversation on board the skiff until the packing plant was in sight.
"There it is." Webster pointed at his new boat. "See it? At dock three? Pull up at the pier and let me out, then go around to the second dock. Someone'll throw down a sail bag, put in three bottles, and the spare sail. Then tie off and join me on the schooner."
Eugene skillfully maneuvered the boat alongside the pier. Webster climbed up the wooden ladder and headed towards the schooner. From across the big yard someone yelled, "Webster!" Henry Diaz could be seen huffing and puffing trying to intercept Webster before he could reach the boat. His lack of breath was not due to being overweight. On the contrary, Diaz was a well‑proportioned hundred and eighty pounds, his breathing resulted from asthma. Usually it only flared up when he was mad.
Webster stopped at the boat and waited for Diaz to arrive. This complex had been built up from a minor seafood packing plant to a major processing plant. Diaz was also known to take big business risks. Henry probably only pulled them off because of his brother Luis. His latest effort was boat sales. Luis was working hard on making it pay off for the company.
Diaz arrived, and between pants asked, "What do you think, Clarence?"
Webster looked from bow to stern before looking Diaz in the eye and replying, "I think she better be ready. I'm here to take her."
The two walked across the gangplank, and Diaz continued, "I see you hired some help, finally."
"Woods sent him. He works pretty hard. You going to give me the papers or what?"
Diaz handed Webster a folder he had been carrying, "Last page, just sign on the bottom line next to the X."
Webster took the papers from Diaz's hand and pulled a pen from Diaz's shirt. He spun the plant owner around, shuffled through to the last page, and signed the papers on Diaz's back.
Diaz again faced Webster. "That takes care of that. She's all your's now. Get her off my dock!" Diaz playfully chided.
"You can't want her moved as bad as I want to move her. You'll bring the skiff back, right?"
Diaz turned to see Ladner walking up, "Yes, sure, Luis will bring it tonight. I'll be there for our discussion around six."
"I'll see you tonight then. Eugene, let's get this ship off to sailing." Ladner walked over the gangplank, waited for Diaz to return to the pier, and pulled it onboard.
While Webster unfurled the sails, Ladner untied the boat and pushed off. The sloop had begun its life under new ownership.
Naval Reserve Park, West of Biloxi-4 May 1922
By six o’clock that evening a crowd had arrived at Webster’s place. While the men inside argued the finer points, the boy outside watched the end of a fine day. The trees to the west shrouded the sunset, but the sky and the water still glowed with the fire of the setting sun. The temperature had finally regained a comfortable temperature.
Luis had not yet shown up, but all the rest of the evening's duties had been completed. The new boat gently rubbed the bumper guards the boy had put down. On the opposite side of the pier was Frank “Ben” Baker's twenty-foot launch. It was utilitarian in design. It had a retractable keel and did not draw much water so Baker could take it in very shallow water. Of all the new people Ladner had met that day, he liked Ben the most.
Ladner trudged toward the shed. He was really just walking around to have something to do so he decided to make a game of guessing which car belonged to whom.
There were four cars in the yard and he knew Webster's 1917 Model T as well as Woods’s 1921 Chevrolet Model 490 Touring car. He had ridden in that one several times. It had a self‑starter and dismountable rims for the tires, what would they think of next?
Since Taconi had walked in at the same time as Desporte, Ladner assumed they had come together. Only two cars left. A Lincoln that looked almost brand new, and a Kissel that looked a bit worn. The Lincoln had to be Desporte's. Either Desporte or Diaz would have had enough money to buy it, but to Ladner, Diaz was more likely to be a cheapskate and drive his car until it quit on him. The emblem on the Kissel denoted it as a DeLuxe Phaeton. That had an un-American ring to it. Kissel sounded too close to German for his taste. The War to End All Wars was still too fresh on even someone as young as Eugene. He involuntarily began to get a bad impression of Diaz.
A noise on the water came to Ladner's ear. It was Luis and the skiff. He ran to the pier and waited for the boat to sail in. It seemed a bit different to the boy. Maybe he just was not used to it yet.
Luis Diaz lowered the sails and the skiff coasted into the pier. Ladner caught the boat and began tying it to the pier.
Luis began speaking, "Tell Mister Webster I'm sorry about the boat. Right before I left some crazy vet came barreling through the docks. When he saw the boat moving, he decided to ram it instead of just the docks. It only damaged the looks of Mister Webster's boat, but it finished the dingy the vet was in."
"Why would he do a thing like that?" Eugene asked as he walked over to the boat.
"My brother was never very popular with the vets. I think he insulted them when he was running for mayor or something like that. One comes around every so often to wreck the place a little. They usually only hurt themselves though." Luis pulled the boat closer to the pier and held it for Eugene to step on. Together they walked over to survey the cosmetic damage in the twilight of the evening.
Inside the house, Webster was talking, “Alright, now that the small talk’s out of the way, who's thirsty?" He walked over to the sink and turned it on, he filled a glass, but it did not look like potable water. "Whiskey's on the left, rum's on the right help yourself." After they all got a glass, he said, "Now on to business."
"The good Captain will be meetin' Paul tomorrow on Dog Island. By then he should have his own suggestions on how to handle the final details of acquisition." Desporte said.
"What are we going to go in? Has anyone taken care of that?" asked Taconi.
Diaz started, "I have ten sailors who'll work under the table to keep a boat hidden. They'll be a part of the crew when she sails, but they won't know what the cargo is. After the cargo's been brought back to shore, they’ll sink the boat."
"I'll be keeping the Creole just out of sight.” Said Taconi, “After the crew's subdued, you can signal me to come over, that way the liquor I'll be taking out to sea won't ever have to touch land.”
Diaz was particularly mistrustful of any black men, "I'll sail with you then, just until your boat's been loaded. Then I'll switch to my own boat, that way it will bring less suspicion then if I jump on while it's docked."
Desporte gave a perturbed look at the packer. It went unnoticed by the man, "Has anyone given thought to just how the hell we are going to get the stuff unloaded?"
Taconi put down his glass and started, "Ben and I have worked out some deals down toward Texas. We'll be using the same terrapin shell case technique that the fellow from Chicago hired Ben to use. The Creole will be gone about two months getting rid of all the booze we get. All that leaves is the local end of things."
"I've got that covered," began Woods. "What will be distributed will be distributed in low risk, high gain ventures best left known to only those few involved. Most will be stored in a safe area."
The ever-distrustful Diaz nearly leapt to the edge of his seat and spit out a reply, "How can you be sure? We'd best all go over those details, don't you think? Who said your plans were perfect?"
Woods slowly turned to face Diaz, and in as condescending a tone as any ex‑Navy Captain could use said; "I guess you'll just have to content yourself by not knowing. The less you know, the less you can blab if any of us get caught."
Webster cleared his throat to break the tension, "That seems to take care of local matters, now back to the act. Any suggestions on the number of men we take?"
"Up in the New England States, thousand ton cargo boats are being pirated by as few as thirty men. That sounds like about what we'll need."
"But the less the better, isn't it?" asked Baker.
"Aha! But also, the more men involved, the more likely it is that someone will talk, or that we'll all get caught. The decision is, how many is enough?" Desporte added.
Each of the men in the room was good at what they did. Each brought different skill sets to the table with different motivations. But none could say definitively what the delicate balance between too few and too many looked like. Discussion on that point one way or the other went on until the meeting broke up.
The door on the shack opened and Baker came out. "I'd better get going, Henry won't be too pleased to find out what happened to the boat," Luis walked off.
Baker walked onto the pier, "Eugene?"
Ladner turned from tying the boat and faced the man, "Yes sir, what can I do for you?"
"I knew your father. He was a good man. We both served under Cap'n Woods together. I owe your father big, if there's ever anything you need, just let me know. If I can't get it, no one can."
"Well sir, right now everything seems to be under control. Clarence seems to be taking care of things just fine." It still seemed weird to the boy to be calling the man by his first name.
Baker chuckled, "Just don't let him take advantage of you. If you haven't made enough to buy your own boat in two months, come see me. I'll straighten him right up."
"I'll be sure to do that, sir."
Baker shook the boy's hand, then got onto the Cedar and prepared to sail off. Ladner began to get the seafood and sailbags out of the skiff. By the time they were all put away the Cedar was gone, the sun was completely gone, and all but Woods and Webster had begun to head for their cars. Eugene had guessed right.
Only Woods and Webster were left in the shack as Ladner jumped from the pier to the schooner. Although the boat had three sleeping quarters, there was only one with bed dressings. He went to that one and stretched out. He fell asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow, but not before thinking, that everything was going his way.
Chapter 4-Biloxi, 5 May 1922
Deer Island-5 May 1922
“Ben! Where are you?" Captain Taconi yelled at the silent pier. A small house set back about a hundred yards from the pier. The launch Cedar that Baker had visited Webster's in last night was tied up next to another small sailboat at the pier. In the yard were two overturned rowboats. Off to the side of the house that faced north to the city, were the terrapin holding cages that were Baker's latest money‑maker.
The door opened and Ben emerged. "Hold on! I gotta get the boys going." Ben headed around the back of the cabin. A minute later Ben and his two sons appeared, Ben headed towards the pier, and the boys headed for the turtle pens.
Taconi patiently held onto the rope secured to the pier waiting for Baker to come aboard. "Hurry up Handyman; we don't have all day you know."
"Look here, Bigfoot, we ain't late yet. I just had a little too much of Webster's good cheer last night. Why are you so rushed?"
Taconi helped Baker aboard. "I just thought we might get a little recreation in before we meet Cuevas. I brought a couple of rods and some bait, and the little boat. I have my nephew James with me; I hope you don't mind being the extra set of hands we'll need to get there."
"Is that supposed to be another crack at me?" Baker looked warily at Taconi as he bent down to push off.
"No. Not really." Taconi smiled friendly.
"Good cause if it was I might have to step on your feet." Baker playfully punched Taconi's arm. "Let's get going."
Deer Island-5 May 1922
The two men were built alike. Both stood six feet tall and weighed about the same. Both were sea and sun hardened. Taconi had black hair and big feet; Baker had blond hair and large hands. Both loved the sea and would spend their whole life on it if they could. Taconi divorced his land‑lubbing wife; Baker moved his family off the mainland and onto Deer Island.
The sloop started moving. The sails filled and the wind began to pick up. The sky was clear and the sun shined brightly. It was a beautiful day for sailing.
"It's a shame we don't have to go any further. Few things match sailing on a day like this." said Baker.
"My only regret is that we have to get off to meet Cuevas. If you want to come over here, I'll fill you in on the new developments Desporte Senior threw up."
Baker made his way forward after making sure James could handle the tiller. The eleven year old looked as if he had never sailed before, but assured Ben with wide eyes that he could hold their course.
Taconi sat on the bow of the boat with his bare feet hanging over the edge. Baker sat down beside him. "The old man suspects something. He's sending out warnings to all his captains. He doesn't want to take any chances, not the chance of getting caught, but of losing a single cent."
"When did he do this?" asked Baker.
"Yesterday. Ernest gave me a copy to give to Cuevas. He said Cuevas'd know what to do about it."
"Isn't that kind of risky?"
"Ernest doesn't think so. It's almost as if he picked Cuevas because he knows Cuevas'll know what to do." said Taconi.
"He might have. He learned a lot from his dad. Too bad for Theodore he's using it to ruin the old man." said Baker.
"Yeah, well if my old man had cared enough to stick his nose into anything I was doing, and had ruined my dreams like old Teddy did, I'd prob'ly do the same as Ernest."
Baker looked back. Deer Island blended into the mainland. The mainland was nothing more than a thin line of green on the horizon. James seemed to be concentrating on the compass. Turning back to Taconi, Baker asked, "Is that it fir business?"
"Until we get to Dog Key. The poles are beneath the sail bags, I'll get the bait."
Horn Island-5 May 1922
The Sea Glen was a bustle of activity, as usual. The six foot six Cuevas stood still while sailors scurried around him. "Martin! You're going with me, get three men for a lookout guard and get in the skiff."
The First Officer, John Martin yelled at a group of deckhands and headed for the skiff. Cuevas was already there. Cuevas’s black hair coupled with both his large size and full complement of facial hair had most of his crew calling him Blackbeard behind his back. To a man, they jumped when he spoke. Even Martin jumped at his commands, even though he knew that most of Cuevas' gruffness was just for show.
Taconi's sloop was already anchored off shore, and the two men were resting beneath the shade of a group of pine trees. "Martin, keep two men in sight of the boat, you take the other into those trees, but don't lose sight of the cutoff men. You should have a good view of the Sound. Between your men and the deck lookouts, we should be safe enough to not have to worry about getting caught on shore. On my signal, move one cutoff man to your position and join me. Unless someone sees the law, I give you the verbal order to leave the island."
"Aye, sir." The three men jumped in the skiff as it began to be lowered by other crewmen. They readied the oars and the boat began moving as it hit the water.
Baker and Taconi walked to the beach, as the skiff coasted the last few feet. As soon as it was emptied and beached, the four men left the three captains alone on the shore.
"Raymond, this is Ben Baker, Baker this is Raymond Cuevas," Taconi introduced the men. "It's been a while, Blackbeard, how's the sailing been?"
"You know I throw men off my ship under sail for calling me that, Bigfoot?" Cuevas asked with a grin.
"Ask Ben why he's all wet, I do the same." Taconi said with a chuckle.
"So what gives?" Cuevas asked.
"First off, this," Taconi handed Cuevas the letter from Desporte.
To: TransGulf Captains
It has come to my attention that some cargoes have returned to their embarkation points. Arrangements for cargo distribution are occasionally canceled or re‑scheduled. If a Captain is unable to meet the new time, or if no new time is arranged, the stock then becomes part of the regular extra cargo, and it is the responsibility of each Captain to distribute it. Only payments are to be brought back to Jamaica, not cargo. Fines and penalties will result if this policy is not complied with.
A bigger problem reported by some ships in the Bahamas as well as in Jamaica, luckily though none of TransGulf's, is that of piracy. The Captain of each vessel is given the responsibility of providing his own security. The safety of our products is in their hands. Although each Captain is responsible for his own both providing his own security and enforcing it, certain general measures should be taken to ensure safety from pirates:
1 Only allow a few men from each purchasing ship aboard at a time, or even not allow any purchasers on board.
2 Keeping the crew spread out during cargo transfers keeps them from being easily rounded up.
3 Arming the crew is also helpful. Rifles or shotguns can be hidden in furled sails so as not to warn potential pirates.
Neither loss of cargo nor non‑distribution of cargo is to be tolerated. Each Captain will be held personally responsible for every piece of cargo. Not only will losses result in fines paid for by each Captain, but also henceforth dividends shall be paid based on compliance with these policies.
As he finished reading, Cuevas noticed that no one had signed the letter. He then looked at Taconi and asked, "So what seems to be the problem?"
"Sometimes your nonchalance just gets in the way, Raymond. The problem is, we will be depending on you not to do these things." Taconi said.
Cuevas looked around. He could see the cutoff men. No signals from them, no problem. "How about this? I'm getting off beforehand anyway, send a boat out earlier. I'll have the crew repulse them. I'll congratulate them and give them the night off to enjoy themselves and get drunk, and then I tell my First Officer I'm going in to tell the old man his plans worked. After the crew goes three sheets to the wind, you send in the real team or even the same one if you'd like.
"As far as loading goes, hostages always fear for their lives and do as they are ordered to at gunpoint. Why not have my men load your boats. They'll be drunker than Cooter Brown, and scared for their lives. They'll do anything. When I come ashore.” Cuevas said as he motioned for Martin.
"I'll pass that on to Ernest.” said Taconi. “He still needs to get the final details from you. Can he meet you in Havana?”
"Tell him there will be a message for him." Cuevas watched as Martin came closer. "If everything works according to my plans, you'd better get ready for one hell of a big haul. And you'd better not leave a drop behind."
Martin came running up, "Yes Captain?"
"Martin, this is Captain Taconi and Captain Baker. Baker, Taconi, my First Officer, John Martin. These men just brought out another one of those damn policy letters. I'll let you read it back on deck, in the meantime, signal the men."
"We'll be in touch, Captain." Taconi said as he turned to go towards his boat. Cuevas mumbled a reply and headed for his skiff, engulfed in thought.
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."
Chapter 6-Biloxi, 5 May 1922
Biloxi-5 May 1922
"Luis! Get in here!" Henry Diaz yelled from the door of his office into the empty hallway. Down the hall, a door opened and the younger Diaz rushed out. He slammed his door and briskly ran toward Henry's door.
Henry turned to re‑enter his office as he saw his brother head for him. The room was cramped and crowded. His desktop could hardly be seen underneath a pile of folders and loose papers. Except for a small place in the center of the desk, every flat surface was covered. The file cabinet, the window seat, even the refreshment table had papers under the bottles. Henry grabbed the papers in the extra chair. He played a delicate balancing game as he put them on top of the liquor decanters on the refreshment table. Luckily, thanks to the papers under the left side bottles they were all at the same height. Then he went around the desk to his seat.
When Luis reached the doorway Henry barked, "Get in here, Luis, and close that door!" Luis complied.
The younger Diaz took a seat, and asked, "What is it, Henry?"
"What happened last night with Webster's boat? And don't give me any crap about those goofy Vets, they don't come around here until Thursday, and you know it."
"Well, actually his boat was parked next to the William Tell. In our over enthusiastic preparations for today, someone heaved a bit too hard, and a cargo boom landed on Webster's boat. I didn't want to lie to Webster, but it seemed all right to lie to the kid."
"Listen, that kid is in for the money, too. Webster just called me about it. You didn't even tell me last night. How am I supposed to deal with people about things I don't even know about? I'm tired of you messing things up, if it weren't for the fact that you're my brother, I'd fire you. Who told you to put cargo booms on the damn ship anyway?"
Luis stammered, ”I, I took it upon myself; I, I mean you do want me to be the captain when we lose it don't you?"
"That is beside the point,” Henry fumed, “I am in charge, you'll do what I say, when I say it, and not before. Did you get them all stored aboard at least?"
"We even got a barrel for the light." Luis added.
"A barrel, what barrel? I never said anything about a barrel."
Luis signed, “The barrel goes under the light atop the mast, that way other ships will see our position and not hit us, and the deck will still be hidden in the shadows. Desporte talked about it the last time he was here."
Henry's face showed his anger. "I've thought about losing you with the boat, you know. Have you found a spot to hide the ship until we need it, or is that decision mine?"
"The final choice is yours of course, but I thought we might want to use the old boat house on Dock one. We never use it anymore."
"To close for comfort.” Henry looked around the room for inspiration. “Try to find a spot in the bayou across the Bay. No one hardly ever goes over there."
"If you mean Fort Bayou,” Luis pulled a map from under a stack on the desk, “There's talk about a resort being built over there, Gulf Hills I think they want to call it. Besides, there are more houses going up over there daily. I've been thinking of buying one there myself." He pointed on the map to the location on the far side of the bay.
"I want the boat hidden in that bayou. Go buy a house there and hide the boat on your property for all I care." Henry's face was turning red and his breathing was turning into wheezing. "After you've reported the boat lost, you are going to remain with it until the night of the raid."
Luis put on his best poker face, he had been waiting for an opening like this. "If I can get a little yearly bonus right now, I could not only buy the house, but would have a good excuse for missing time off of work. Moving in is such a difficult task. Everything must be perfect."
Henry's face showed no pleasure as he dug through a stack of papers on his left. As he pulled out his checkbook he said, "Get with Taconi, and make sure the William Tell has everything needed before it disappears.”
“Goes dredging for oysters.” Luis interrupted.
Henry stopped and an annoyed look crossed his face, “Bring him those personnel files, too." He waved at the papers atop the liquor bottles. "Those are our people for the run; make sure they meet with his approval."
Luis reached for the files, "You know you could really use a bigger office."
Henry got up to pour himself a drink. "If this venture pays off as well as it should, I will get a bigger office. I'm thinking of running for Governor next fall."
Thoughts flashed through Luis' mind, with Henry up in Jackson, who will run the plant, who would be in charge of Diaz Packing? No other Diaz's around, and Henry knew less about the plant than Luis. That would made him the prime candidate. All he had to do was make sure Henry did not expect any help in Jackson. "You can count on my vote."
"It's not your vote I'm worried about, Luis, but thanks. Good luck with the ship. If this works out, you'll be the next Diaz of Diaz Packing. I'll see you again when the boat's gone." Henry turned to return to his seat with his glass generously filled.
"Right, see you soon, Henry." Luis got up and left in a hurry.
As the door shut, Henry turned his chair to look out the window. Diaz packing had grown tremendously since the name had been changed from Mitchell and Sons Seafood. It had become bigger in size, had diversified, and prospered since Diaz had stolen it from the Mitchell family.
In his will, Luke Mitchell had left the company to his two sons, Gary and Jeffery. The two had never gotten along, and were not about to start after the old man died. Their constant bickering was not good for profits, and as income began to shrink, the bills piled up. Employees began pilfering the company to make up for their lost wages and incomes. The bank threatened to foreclose on their mortgage if they missed one more payment. The business was on the verge of ruin.
Then Diaz stepped in. Although neither Mitchell brother knew it, at the time, Diaz was the lawyer for the People's Bank, the mortgage holder. Diaz convinced Gary to take Jeffery to court to sue for control of the company. Henry would represent Gary, and legal fees would be decided on after the trial. Diaz deliberately dragged out the proceedings.
An employee was found who testified about criminal activities of Jeffery. Diaz's paid informer accidentally slipped up on the stand and cast suspicion on Gary, too. Judge John Graves announced that neither brother would own the company, and that it would be auctioned off. Diaz met with Graves in his chambers and showed his arrangement with Gary to the Judge. Graves awarded Diaz the company after a staged closed bid auction.
Diaz's payment to the court for the auction was lost in the paper shuffle, as was the record of the amount he paid. Graves became a large stockholder in the People's Bank, with a seat on the board. Diaz got the packing plant, and The Mitchell's left everything they owned that would not fit in their car and skipped town. It was the first time they had gotten along since they had been in the womb.
The hustle and bustle of the docks below Henry's window seemed trivial now. His mind continued to wander. Governor Diaz sounded much better to him than Mayor Diaz ever had. Not to mention the fact that this time there would be no Webster to beat him, or stop him from his dreams of power. Clarence's son John would not be able to blackmail him out of running this time. The Governor's Mansion. Gubernatorial power. Even just Governor‑Elect sounds more regal than seafood‑packer. A man of the people, a seafood packer, elected to the highest office in the State. A regular rags to riches story, except that he was already a rich man. Dreams of grandeur? Never, just a vision of what can be. Napoleonic Complex? Never. "I just like to have control," muttered Diaz. "It can't be that bad working with Desporte again, besides, how much can one ship hold?"
Diaz spun around, his wheezing breath had finally returned to normal, his dreams of being Governor enough to calm his nerves. He reached for the phone. He removed the papers covering it and picked it up. "Delores, get me Theodore Desporte, quickly and quietly."
Theodore Desporte opened his oaken desk drawer to answer its incessant ringing phone. The voice on the other end informed him it was Henry Diaz. "Put him through." Desporte began to clear his desk as the lines were connected.
"Henry, how are you?"
"Can't complain. Listen Theodore, I've been thinking about what you said. What do you want me to do?"
"I don't care how you do it, but make sure your friends are caught. Chief Bills is under my wing. You won't even be investigated. I'll even get back my liquor. The Party is in my pocket, and you need not worry about a Republican Candidate, the day Mississippi elects another Republican is the day I retire. After the smoke clears, you get the backing you need for a successful campaign for Governor. Sound fair?"
"I think I can handle it.” Diaz stared out the window dreaming. “What about your son?"
"He's the reason I'm doing this. He'll run to me to stay out of trouble with the law, and if he doesn't, he'll come to me because I kept him from having trouble with the law. Either way, he'll stop resenting me. Bills will have plenty of scapegoats without you and my son. Webster in particular should make him happy. Are you in?"
Desporte relaxed in his seat, "Good, keep in touch," he paused then added, "Governor."
Chapter 7-Ballard, WA, 1913
Seaman Third Class Tate hated the Navy. How could anyone like it? Out to sea for so long each cruise. He had only joined because he thought he could get shore leave to see the exotic women of the world. So far, he had only been to Alaska and back to Bremerton, Washington. Gone for six months at a time, and only landed twice. What a sorry excuse for a career.
He set down his empty beer mug on the bar and turned around. The crowd in the bar was quiet, as usual. The wood paneling made the place dark even though it was only three in the afternoon. A good number of sailors hung out in the bars of Ballard, just north of Seattle. Tate was only here to meet someone. He much preferred Pioneer Square in Downtown Seattle.
This area was quite beautiful. More than once Tate thought of getting out of the Navy and living in this neck of the country, but then he would remind himself that he was more likely to go absent without leave in order to get out, and if he did, few places in this country would be safe for him to live.
Tate glanced at the door. The man he was supposed to meet had arrived. Tate had never met or seen the guy. He knew who he was, because he wore no overcoat. Everyone in the cities on the Puget Sound wore an overcoat, even most of the Squids, like Tate. Tate told the strange man on the phone that that would be the way Tate would know it was him, as much because it was a good signal as the fact that Tate just wanted to make the man unbearably uncomfortable by being rained on.
The man walked up to the bar and asked the bartender for a shot of whiskey. Undoubtedly to warm him after the cold drizzle of the Northwest he had just walked through. Tate waited until the man had found a table and sat before approaching him.
The man watched the room mechanically. His eyes seemed to take it all in. Although he never looked right at Tate, Tate had the feeling the man knew what size his Navy issued boxers was, before he had reached the table.
Tate pulled out a chair and sat, "I'm Tate. What is it you want?"
The man turned to Tate, "Diaz is the name, Luis Diaz. Do you have a first name, Tate?"
“It’s Chris, you'd best get talking fast. I don't have all day here."
"Well, Chris. I have a feeling that you don't like your job. I can get you out. Legally. You won't owe the Navy another minute of your time."
This sounded good already. "How?"
"Shouldn't you be more worried about what I want first?"
He hesitated, what could he want. His price might be to stiff. It would be worse for Tate to be stuck in the Navy after being offered a chance to get out. "That doesn't matter that much. I'll do anything I can for you. What do you want me to do? Rob a bank?"
Diaz had chosen well. Tate would do anything to get out of the Navy. "Nothing quite that drastic. Do you get put on guard duty much?"
last part needs work
"Baker! Get in here!" barked Chief Petty Officer Ladner.
Baker was standing in the hallway right outside the wardroom. He took a deep breath and then went in. He stopped in front of the operations table where Ladner was sitting.
"Something big is happening. Because of the way you have been acting and carrying out your job, the big brass has sent this down to take care of you."
Baker was already nervous. This did not sound like the best thing for his naval career: the big brass noticing him. Honestly, he had only taken one ink pen and had put most of the toilet paper back.
"Baker, you are getting what every sailor dreams of. A chance to go home." Ladner paused. He loved this. Baker's face was turning white. "Effective immediately you are promoted to Petty Officer, and re‑stationed as a Naval Liaison to the Coast Guard at Coast Guard Base Fifteen in the Biloxi Naval Reserve Park.” Ladner smiled.
Baker looked as surprised as Ladner had hoped he would. “Me? Biloxi? What about my duties here?”
“Ben, this ship isn't going anywhere for the next two months. We don’t need any more Petty Officers around here. You’ve got a chance to go home and still be in the Navy. But don’t go thinking you’ll have it easy, not yet anyway.”
“What do you mean?” a puzzled Baker asked.
“I’m following behind you. I’ve known about it for a week now, and have been busting at the seams waiting to tell you, but the old man wouldn't let me."
"When do I leave?"
"End of the week, but, you have no duties as of 1700 hours today. Get ready to go. Take one last look at the Northwest and get. I'll take care of the ship for now."
"Thanks, thanks a lot. I don't know what to say."
"Just enjoy yourself. I'll catch up with you tomorrow." Ladner bent down and resumed his work.
Baker passed Lieutenant Junior Grade Ernest Desporte on his way out of the wardroom.
The next time Baker saw either men, they were both in the Naval Hospital. As soon as he heard Ladner had been in the accident, Baker had rushed over. The two men had been involved in a horrible explosion on board the USS Bellit, the ship all three had been stationed on. Another sailor had also been involved, but he had died on his way to the hospital.
Baker waited patiently for visiting hours to arrive. The nurses would not let anyone go in Ladner's room. Only nurses and doctors were going in, and there seemed to be a steady stream of those.
After waiting an hour, the last nurse left Ladner's room. Visiting hours had not yet arrived, but Baker had to find out what was going on. He walked toward the room nonchalantly. He carefully watched for the nurses, for the most part they had started to ignore him. None were paying him any attention, so he slipped in the room.
Ladner lay in a bed with numerous wires and tubes stuck to him. Neither Baker nor Ladner had any idea what they were for. Ladner saw Baker as he entered. A weak smile crossed his lips, followed by a fit of coughing. Baker held a finger to his lips.
Sitting aside the bed, he began to whisper to Ladner, "I'm not really supposed to be in here. How are you feeling?"
Weakly he answered, "How am I feeling? I feel like I'm a medical experiment."
"That's funny; you look like a pin cushion." Both men chuckled, but stopped when Ladner began coughing again.
Once his coughing fit ceased, he asked, "How is Desporte?"
"He's here somewhere. The other sailor died en route."
"Tate? He seemed to block the rest of us from the explosion. Someone had better know what happened. Tate was over at the tanks. He was messing around with something and got caught up on one of the tanks. He called me over, and I saw a package under the tank. He was standing in front of it in a way that made me think he might have put it there instead of him seeing it and trying to get to it when he got stuck. Why he might’ve put it there I'm not sure. I called over Lieutenant Desporte, and tried to unstick Tate, when all of a sudden, the box I had seen under the tank exploded, the tanks exploded, and if Tate hadn't been in front of me, I might not have woken up in the hospital.
"Tate made the explosion? Why in the world would he do that? 'Is that all you know?" Baker shook his head trying to make sense of it.
"Be honest with me, am I going to make it, Ben?"
Baker looked up and down the bed, "I really couldn't tell you. They won't tell me a thing."
"Look, tell the old man, Captain Woods, what I told you. And if I don't make it, when you get to Biloxi, tell my wife I love her." Ladner started coughing again. "Tell Eugene,. . ." more coughing. Ladner's breath came in shallow gasps now.
Baker called for the nurses, he could hear them scurrying down the hall from their desk. He would worry about his unauthorized presence later. "Hang in there, Pete. You'll make it. Plenty of time to talk later."
The nurses arrived. One promptly ushered him out. He never saw Peter Ladner alive again.
Back in Biloxi, the phone in Theodore Desporte’s oak desk drawer rang. He opened the drawer and picked up the receiver. The voice on the other end told him it was Henry Diaz. "Put him through." Desporte muttered.
"Yes, Henry. I'm here."
"Good. It's done. Now it'll just be a matter of time before your son comes home."
"Thank you. I thought you'd never finish the job. I was about to use my hole card." Theodore said.
"No need for that.” Diaz squirmed in his seat while talking, “I hope that we can continue working together in the future, Mister Desporte."
Now Desporte was slightly perturbed, "Listen here, you didn't trust me enough to come through with my part of the bargain. I had to wait on you. No matter what kind of power you think you hold over me, just remember that if it was not for me, you never would have beaten that sorry sack of shit Webster. You should be thanking me. Without me, you would still be just another bloody seafood packer and not the mayor of the eighth largest city in the State. If anybody suggests a further working relation between us, it will be me, and the way things stand right now, I'd rather bet on Christmas coming before Thanksgiving."
Desporte slammed the receiver down so hard the bell rang. He picked it up again and called his secretary. "Don't bother me with Diaz's phone calls again. Have him leave a message."
Diaz hung up the phone. He was sitting in the Mayor's office at City Hall. He was here thanks to Desporte. Only today had he been sworn in. In his inaugural address, he had ardently supported his position that had almost been his downfall in the election: that the United States had no need of a military.
Henry Diaz remembered his inaugural address as Mayor, “Today we stand on poised on the edge of a chasm. To step into the chasm is to welcome certain doom. The void between the United States and the Old World is one of violence and death. We have no place in their wars and affairs, just as they have no place in ours. We are by far the superior of Europe. In land area alone, we have more than four times the room they do. We divided our huge country up into smaller states, they try to take their smaller states and create one larger, small state. Even if they accomplish the feat, we will vastly oversize them. Why should we be concerned with what they do with their meager parcel of land, instead we should expand into our own. If Switzerland can stay neutral in the middle of their quagmire, then we sure as hell can stay out of their mess on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.
"Only this year we added what will surely be our last star to the flag. With the statehood of New Mexico, we completed the long ago inspired dream of a country that stretched from sea to shining sea. There is no more need of a military force that can conquer new lands. Our last battle should be remembered as our finest battle. Our veterans and current fighting men should be allowed to put down their arms and get on with the business at hand. Almost fifteen years has passed since the last real need for an American military. And as Americans, it is our duty to ourselves and our founding fathers that we put aside our useless armies. Bring home the unneeded warships, and save the lives of our soldiers and sailors to do what we were chosen by God to do. . . make this the best damn country ever built."
At least that was the way it was supposed to go. He was unable to be heard for the last three sentences. The veterans, their families, and the families of those Biloxians serving in the military had come prepared for just such words. Throughout the campaign, veterans had heckled him for his position. Undaunted, he continued to not only believe in the statements he made, he continued to dwell on them until it seemed to Diaz that it was not only the logical thing to do, it was the only thing for the United States to do. The vets had with them rotten fruit and eggs. Between the upheaval and the uproar of protest, no one, even on the platform could hear Diaz's speech. It was going to be a long term for Mayor Diaz.
Chapter 8-Havana, 18 July 1922
Havana, Cuba-18 July 1922
Raymond Cuevas and John Martin stood in the waiting area of TransGulf's Havana office. Though unlabeled the door on the left of the front desk led to the hallway with the Legal, Distribution and Sales Offices, and the now enormous file room. To the right were the stairs that led to the all-important Purchasing, Transportation, Political Corruption, and Charles Taylor's Offices. The new offices made the old Bahamian office look like TransGulf had been broke at the time they had run things from there.
The receptionist signaled that Cuevas and Martin could see Taylor now. Cuevas led the way. Even the staircase in this office showed the success of TransGulf. At the top of the stairs was another receptionist; who walked the men to Taylor's door.
The secretary announced the men, and left as they stood in what was by far the largest office, and the most extravagant.
"What can I help you with today, Captain Cuevas?"
Cuevas cleared his throat. He seemed out of his element and not as confidently in charge as he normally was. "Well, Charles, time has come for me to find a safer line of work. I'd like to make one last run, and then turn the ship over to the next man."
"Is Martin the man you feel would make the best next Captain for the Sea Glen?"
"Yes sir. That's why I brought him, to get your approval."
Taylor had files for both men on his desk. He scanned Martin's file for a minute. "Everything seems to be in order. Martin, are you ready to command a ship as big as the Sea Glen?"
Martin eagerly stepped forward, "Yes, Mister Taylor, I am. Captain Cuevas has had me oversee every technical and tactical aspect of the last two runs. I am prepared."
Taylor began writing on a notepad, "Bring this to Transportation next door." He handed the note to Martin. "When they finish with you, wait outside for Captain Cuevas. Congratulations, Captain Martin." Taylor rose and extended his hand to Martin.
Martin shook his hand, and then left the room.
"Now Raymond, what is it that you really want?" Taylor sat again.
"Well," started Cuevas as he sat, "I want to take the biggest load ever for my last run."
Leaning back in his chair Taylor said, "You always decide on your load size, why are you asking me this time?"
Cuevas pulled a chair up to front of the desk and sat on the front of it while leaning on the desk. ”I’m talking about the load to end all loads. Profits to exceed all profits ever thought of for a single run. To be even more assured of huge profits, I want to cease temporarily all shipments to the Biloxi area. Send the prices skyrocketing. If it works like it should, it might just give old man Desporte the new shipping tactic he's been trying to employ."
Pausing, Taylor put his hands together, fingers separated, in front of his mouth to think. ”It's not just us shipping to Biloxi, Raymond; other companies send ships out, too."
“But Desporte has control of the Mississippi Sound.” Cuevas said with a smile, “No one ships there unless he is in on it, or else he makes sure the Coast Guard finds the boat. We can do this one, Charles."
After another moment of reflection Taylor said, "I'll have to get the old man's approval. That may take awhile. When are you going to start loading?"
"As soon as I can finish the paperwork here. Maybe two hours,” said Cuevas
"I tell you what;” Taylor sat forward, “I’ll meet you at the docks." Closing the files on his desk he reached for the telephone.
"I'll show myself out." said Cuevas as he stood and turned to leave.
The Sea Glen had been filled with her regular load by the time Taylor arrived the next morning. However, there was still a steady stream of workers carrying aboard hams. Cuevas was on deck barking orders at the dockworkers as well as his crew.
"Throw those hams to the crew, quit coming on deck! And I'd better not find another sailor off this ship until we've finished loading!" Cuevas noticed Taylor, and walked over to the port side of the boat, furthest from the cargo loaders. "Sorry I can't ask you on board, but . . . "
"What in the world are you trying to do, Cuevas? Sink the ship?" Taylor glanced down the dock at the stacks of crates waiting to be loaded.
"I'm going to carry every drop of alcohol I can. My last run will be one no one forgets,” said Cuevas with a a smile. “The waterline is going to be just under the gunwales."
Taylor looked back at the Captain, ”What happens if you run into rough seas?"
Cuevas smiled, ”Between here and Biloxi? Nothing short of a hurricane is going to deter me. You gave me approval to do this."
“This risk in on you, you know. That’s the only way the Old Man would approve it. As long as the consequences of a failure are on your head, he’s in. He'll clear out all traffic in the Sound. When I tell him how much you'll be carrying, he'll wish he'd done it sooner to up the price that much more. Hell, he'll probably cease traffic on the whole Gulf Coast, not just Mississippi."
Looking back at the loading Cuevas said, “Everything will be fine. My crew is ready for a shipment this large. I've been training them well."
Taylor surveyed the rest of the ship. It was already getting lower in the water. Dockhands were throwing hams, deckhands were catching them, and Martin was supervising where other deckhands put them. "When are you planning on leaving?""Tomorrow night at sunset. That way the men will have a little bit of time for shore leave. Martin will give them a week when we return. In the meantime, if any decide to jump ship, then we'll just add his body weight in hams and sail on." Cuevas remarked without looking back at Taylor preferring to monitor progress of the crew.
"Sounds like you have had this planned for some time. Look, the Old Man said that if you need another job once you get tired of land, let him know." Taylor looked at Cuevas.
Returning the look Cuevas said, ”I’m ready to explore other places now. My wife has been nagging me for quite some time now to see the rest of the world with me."
"Good luck to you."
Cuevas looked Taylor dead in the eye. "Just one more thing," he said with a gleam in his eyes. "I wonder if I might be paid not just the usual transportation fees, but also the commission fees up front."
"Commission fees?” Taylor leaned back slightly. “We almost never pay those up front; besides, there is really no way of knowing how much a trip like this will make. Especially since Desporte shut so much down. If he shuts down the whole Coast it could be higher still.”
“A parital payment, base it on the last trip's prices.” He glanced quickly at the crew then returned his gaze to Taylor, “The extra I can get later. Jenny needs some money now to buy her dream house, as we speak someone else is trying to buy it from under her."
Taylor put his hands in his pockets, “Dream house, huh? Well, it's highly irregular, but if you think it'll be enough, and promise not to tell anyone I did it . . . "
"No one will ever know, not even Martin."
The pause before Taylor spoke said a lot. “Very well, I'll arrange for the transfer to your Biloxi account. But if something happens, I'll have to retrieve the commissions."
"Nothing will happen. I assure you." Cuevas smiled.
"It's against my better judgment, but I'll do it. I'll be by tomorrow evening before you sail to tell you the figures."
"Very well, I'll see you then then." Cuevas winked as Taylor turned away.
The next day passed uneventfully until Taylor returned too the dock. “Captain Cuevas!" he yelled as he neared the ship. Behind it the sun was setting and made the horizon appear to be on fire. The old saying flashed through Taylor's mind, "Red at morning, sailors take warning, red at night sailors’ delight.” The thought seemed to quell some of his fears about the upcoming last voyage of Captain Cuevas and the Sea Glen.
Cuevas turned and headed for the bow near where Taylor stood. This morning's sunrise had nothing on tonight's sunset. The sunset was a much more symbolic and appropriate note to leave on anyway. "Mister Taylor. I trust you have what I've been waiting for."
"That I do." Taylor held up an envelope, "Itemized even. I think you'll be pleased with what's written inside. Desporte shut down almost the entire Coast from Galveston to Tampa. The price has already jumped around Biloxi to nearly seventeen dollars a quart, and they're still getting alcohol. Just wait until the shutdown has had some time."
Both men glanced toward the sunset. Taylor continued, "I know I speak for the Old Man when I say this, you're going to be missed. No one can run like you."
"Ah, well, don't you worry too much; Martin knows all the tricks I do. I taught him well." Leaning over the rail and down to the dock, Cuevas reached for the envelope. He transferred it to his left hand and extended his right to Taylor. "Goodbye old friend."
"Goodbye, and be careful." Taylor shook Cuevas' hand.
"This is a business for risks, not caution. I'll get the shipment there if I have to swim it one ham at a time." Cuevas turned and headed astern.
"I sure as hell hope you do, Captain,” mumbled Taylor as he headed back to the office.
❖Cuevas headed below decks and into his personal quarters. The only room on the ship with a view, although it was a view of where the ship had been, and even this space was packed. A table full of maps and papers stood in the middle of the room. To either side were bunks hanging from the walls of the room. With the exception of a path around the table to the bunks, the room was packed with hams.
He sat on his bunk and pushed away the maps on the end of the table. He opened the envelope and began to read the contents.
As per your request, the commission fees, based on the value in Biloxi at the time you left, were deposited into your account. This statement reflects the amount of all fees paid to you.
Last Trip: No. of cases‑16,900 Price per case‑$53.83
Total Value of Run‑$909,727
Cost of Liquor‑$98,527
This Trip: No. of cases‑27,040 Price per case‑$98.40
Total Value of Run‑$2,660,736
Cost of Liquor‑$176,030
❖Transportation Fee: $15,500
Grand Total: $696,181
I threw the bonus in at the last minute. Des would want it. You have been a remarkable Captain, and all of our Cuban staff will miss you. I hate to have to mention it here, but the Old Man required me to remind you that if you are unsuccessful in your final run, he will need to withdraw the Commission funds for this trip.
Good luck, Captain.
"Six hundred thousand,” Cuevas mumbled. “Not bad for a run that will never be finished. This will definitely be the run to remember for all times. There’ll never be another like it."
His mumbling turned to musings, what if he had turned in Desporte's son instead of cooperating with him. Could he have made more? What would the old man think about Junior playing by Senior's set of rules? Six figures. A payment no one else will ever make or get. That is not even including what I get paid by the soon to be new owners of TransGulf. Now all I have to do is hope for the weather to hold.
Was it right to be so greedy? Cuevas looked around his crowded cabin. At last, his eyes fell on the letter and the grand total. Of course it was.
Chapter 9-Dog Key Pass, 29 July 1922
Back Bay of Biloxi-29 July 1922
The William Tell slipped silently along heading out of Old Fort Bayou towards Fort Point where it opened into Back Bay. Luis Diaz watched as a sailor came down from the foremast and glanced at the top of the mainmast. The light there was now off in favor of the recently turned on foremast light. The sails would block the view at times, especially for a ship to the stern but masking the size of the ship was as important as her silent running.
Sounds carried far on the open water and once Fort Point had passed silently to port Luis heard the cutter. The Coast Guard Station was in the Old Naval Reserve Park. It had not been an ideal location since the Caillavet Bridge had been built twenty years ago but the government was cheap. They would probably hold on to the park property and use it no matter how little sense it made.
The cutter was passing between Big Island and Biloxi but that was too close for Luis. If he continued on his planned path he would either beat them or meet them at the L&N Railroad Bridge which was a problem. The light only worked for subterfuge from a distance, the closer they got to one another the more obvious the deception would appear. He could kill the lights all together but that was more dangerous in the tight waters here, plus moving without lights would attract more attention anyway.
He whistled and motioned across his neck to the sailor who nodded and headed back up to cut the lights. He touched the arm of the sailor to his left and said, “Strike the sails,” then turned to the pilot and said, “Drift to starboard until the current catches us, then drop anchor and wait.” Without waiting to see his orders carried out he headed toward the cabin.
The cutter cleared Big Island and increased the throttle. Luis reached the radio shack just as the Coast Guard called to keep the drawbridge open. He held two fingers for the radio operator to see.
The operator keyed the mike twice and spun the dial to change the frequency. Luis picked up the microphone and waited ten seconds, “The iceman cuts it fast.” There was no time for a better signal.
Three squelch breaks came on the air. Message received. Twenty seconds later a second set of three squelch breaks followed. The operator keyed once then turned back to the first channel.
Luis looked out the window towards the cutter. Warning sent and received, but what would this do to the timeline.
On board the cutter the First Officer poked the Captain, “Sir, I think there was a ship across the way.”
The annoyed Captain looked to port across the dark waters of the bay. “Might be, Sean, but we have our orders. Get where we’re going. Unless it’s an emergency we’re not to stop.” He looked forward and focused on the railroad bridge.
Sean shifted uneasily, “But, sir. There were lights, a mast and side markers. They blinked out just as we rounded the island.”
The Captain exhaled hard, “Suspicious is not emergency. Carry on with the orders. We have a tight timeframe we’re have to meet.”
The cutter’s pilot glanced at Sean who nodded back. He returned his glaze to the bridge and judged the distance to the channel markers.
Dog Keys Pass-29 July 1922
Cuevas looked out over the Mississippi Sound, the dark water lapped against the hull. The partly cloudy sky made alternating shadows over the deck. The barrel covered light illuminated the deck without providing much of a warning to other ships, but the only ships that should be anywhere near the Sea Glen would be those coming in for the big event.
“Martin!” he yelled for his First Officer.
The deck was lightly manned and the few men were near the spots the guns were hidden. Martin turned and headed in the direction of Cuevas. Climbing the ladder to the quarter deck where the wheel and the Captain were he called, “Yes sir!”
Cuevas glanced across the water before speaking, “I’m headed into town. You stay here with the ship. We’re here ahead of schedule so no one’s headed here yet to buy from us.” The wind died down but the waves kept lapping, but something didn’t seem right. “I’ll take the tender in with one man. . .”
His voice trailed off as he heard it. Whipping his head in the direction of the sound he squinted his eyes shut. A sweeping white light circled the mast of a boat that was still too far away to identify. The men on deck were oblivious until Cuevas gave a loud whistle. One note. Half the men scurried below, the other half crouched or knelt scanning the horizon for the tell tale sign of a ship. Without a word one man began to climb the mainmast.
The ship kept on coming. As the hull broke the horizon two faint lights appeared. Both a red and a green light. It was not headed straight for the Sea Glen, but it would not miss it by much.
Atop the mast, the sailor doused the light and peered through binoculars. It took only a few seconds before he knocked on the mast and whistled back, two long, low whistles. Coast Guard.
“Cap’n! Ship ahoy, ten degrees off port,” the Coast Guard Sailor reported.
The First Officer pulled up his looking glasses. “I see it. Wait. They doused their lights.” Sean scanned slowly to no avail. The water and the sky were just too dark. “Lost ‘em. Good news is we were headed right toward them. One of two things is going on, either they’re broken down or they’re up to no good. Either way, we’re on to ‘em.”
Staring straight ahead the Captain ordered, “Leave them. Maintain your course.”
“Sir?” questioned Sean. “Just before the light blinked out I saw what was the unmistakeable masking rumrunners use. This is what we’re out here to find.”
The Captain cut him off. “I said maintain course. No detours, no side missions.”
Sean put down the binoculars, “But sir?” uncertainty caused his voice to waver.
As he turned to face his First Officer the anger in the Captain’s face was evident, “Sean, I just had my ass handed to me by my superior officer because I stayed in port an extra day. I even reported that we needed to get the new prop installed and that just made the Admiral yell louder. Our orders are to get this ship to Evansville, Indiana. I don’t have the foggiest idea what the hell an ocean going cutter has to do in land locked Indiana but I know how to take and give an order. If you don’t you can be relieved. Any questions?”
A chastised Sean hung his head. “No, sir. Continue on course,” he directed the navigator.
Biloxi-29 July 1922
In an oak desk drawer a phone rang. Theodore opened it and picked it up.
“Late, but they’re out. Strict orders not to stop anywhere, look anywhere, or investigate anything until they get to the Ohio,” a voice on the phone says.
A smile crossed the elder Desporte’s lips, “Thank you, Admiral. I’m sure you’ll find plenty for the cutter to do in Indiana.”
A click passed through the line as the Admiral hung up his end of the line. Technically there was nothing wrong with what he did. There were no crimes he knew of that the ship was avoiding, and there was a need for more Coasties in Evansville. But the arrangement felt one-sided. Like making a deal with the devil.
Dog Keys Pass-29 July 1922
The wind blew warm and slow across the deck of the Sea Glen as the Coast Guard Cutter passed less than two hundred feet to port. The hushed sounds of a crew at night passed over the gulf between the two ships but nothing else. Without realizing it Cuevas had been holding his breath.
Martin turned to watch the cutter pass into the blackness of the night. A close call. Too close, but they were still safe.
“As I was saying,” Cuevas said in a hushed voice, “You know what to do if someone comes up. All hands primed for action. You take my place on the quarter deck overseeing operations. Shouldn’t be a problem, but I have to get in to. . . “
His voice trailed off as another ship appeared out of the darkness. Like the Sea Glen, this one had no lights on. It was too late to bail out now. The time had come.
Mississippi Sound-29 July 1922
The wind blew hot across Luis Diaz’s neck as the William Tell made her way through the dark Sound. Once the cutter ignored them in Back Bay he had realized the Coast Guard had a different mission in mind. Just in case, he still ran with the lights off. After the cutter had rounded Deer Island they went full speed on engines. Diaz was content to stay on sail power until there was a five mile gap between them.
It was less risky to the south of Deer Island because the shallow sandy waters deepened. He was no longer confined to the narrow channels and paths through the muddy Back Bay of Biloxi. Two men were on the bow and one up on the mast looking for other ships since they dared not turn on the lights, even the false lights they had intended to use. Turning on the Tell’s engines was far risky enough.
Diaz held his watch close to his face trying to make out the time in the dim starlight, he was early but Cuevas should have left by now. There had been no sign of another ship though and once he was away from the Sea Glen there was no need for hiding. His ship should have been in the open.
The pilot grabbed Diaz’s upper arm then pointed. A shape loomed in the night just off to starboard. It was between them and the Coast Guard ship still plowing through the water with reckless abandon and nearly over the horizon. Showtime.
The crossing from Havana had been its own adventure. The seas had been calm and the breeze steady but travlling with as heavy a load as she had was stressful on all the crew. Once they rounded Dog Island and weighed anchor they had all breathed a sign of relief. When Cuevas opened bottles and offered the crew a break they all took him up on the offer and let their hair down.
All except Martin.
John Martin had not become the heir apparent to the captain of the most successful ship in the TransGulf fleet by taking risks. Raymond Cuevas was a smart man and one worthy of emulating, but ever since Havana Martin had become suspicious of him and his last run. It had started with the ship loading. Three crew had deserted when they hit Cuba and another two while they completed the load out, but Cuevas had not even so much as shrugged. He just waved more hams on board and even put some in the men’s now empty bunks.
There was not any specific instance on the journey that Martin could put his finger on but rather just the whole trip made him feel uneasy. Their speed had been a little faster than he would have liked, their tacks a little shorter, especially with the excess cargo, and they had not slacked up even at night. Yet something did not sit right in the nautical gut of the soon to be captain.
Dousing the lights as the Coast Guard neared had been a textbook safe play. The crew left on deck was smaller than it should be, even for a night of revelry there should have been more deckhands. With Cuevas preparing to leave, Martin planned on reversing that decision. Even while conducting illegal rumrunning operations it was better to be safe. He could never overrule the Captain while Cuevas was still on board. Question yes, not overrule.
Martin turned and watched the red light on the port side of the Coast Guard Cutter dip below the horizon. The mast light was still visible but fading fast. He turned back to the captain and that was when he noticed it.
The other ship was closing fast, but Cuevas had not said a thing. No warning, not even so much as a touch on the shoulder. Before Cuevas had a chance to notice Martin shifted his head back to the port side gunwales while keeping his peripheral vision on the Captain. Stepping forward he headed to the rail around the quarter deck to go down. Where were the armed hands? The main deck was nearly empty.
“John,” Cuevas said.
Turning Marin saw Cuevas pointing towards the ship. Now the Captain comes to action, thought Martin. “We’re low on men. I’ll get the crew back up.” He headed directly to the ladder, heart pumping.
“No, I’ll get them,” Cuevas had moved to cut him off. “You stay, I shoulda been gone by now and you’d be the one doing the deal. Might as well go on now.” Leaning over the rail Cuevas leaned out and whistled.
Below the sole deckhand looked up and noticed the Captain waving. He nodded and went into the door under the quarter deck and shouted. Cuevas stood back up and turned around. Smiling he walked back to Martin’s side. “All good, they’re on the way out.”
A sinking feeling entered Martin’s stomach. Most of the men had been given the night off after the stressful passage. Even the skeleton crew that was left had been given their own bottle of celebratory alcohol. They were two days ahead of schedule and no one was supposed to be around. Desporte’s plan to increase prices was supposed to have emptied the Sound of all traffic. That was why no panic set in when the Coast Guard showed up.
He glanced at the incoming ship. Dark, silent, and less than a hundred yards away. Cuevas was looking at the foredeck but none of the sailors had come up from below yet. Martin reached in to the cubby next to the pilot’s station for the binoculars.
Still no sense of urgency or crew appearing from below. Martin took one more look at Cuevas before putting the binoculars to his face. No markings on the sails or the bow of the boat. That was not odd or out of place, the life of a rumrunner made things that were otherwise odd seemingly ordinary. He heard the Captain move and pulled down the binoculars. Cuevas was paused at the ladder, clearly about to head down.
“I’ll see what’s the holdup.” Cuevas said as he started down the portside ladder.
Looking back at the ship it took a second to focus again but Martin could see men standing on the deck. They did not look friendly. Dressed in dark colors it was hard to tell how many there were, one blending into the other. Each man had a gun, club, or a pistol in their hands. This was not going to be a friendly visit. “Trouble!” Martin called after the Captain.
Halfway down the ladder Cuevas had stopped and began kicking the top of the door next to the ladder. Across the deck three unarmed sailors rushed out of the hatch and headed for the barrels that hid the weapons. A thud below startled Martin. He walked to the edge of the quarter deck and looked down. A board had fallen down and wedged itself between the ladders to either side of the door to belowdecks, blocking it from being open. Cuevas was now moving much faster down the ladder.
Martin handed the pilot the binoculars and hastily rushed to the second ladder and started down. The board had slipped behind the ladder on this side but stopped at the support. Cuevas had reached the bottom of the board and was lifting it up off the lower ladder support on his side. Martin tried to push but now the door was as open as it could get and had wedged the board tight against the ladder.
He glanced over his shoulder to the approaching ship, they only had a few seconds. Cuevas yelled at the sailors to back up. As they did the door closed and Martin could feel the board move.
Together they threw the board to port as the door popped open and ten men ran out. They headed for positions on the starboard rail some with whatever makeshift weapons they could find below, a few others made a dash for the weapons barrels.
Martin scrambled back up to the quarter deck and touched his concealed sidearm. He must give the appearance of no fear but his heart was pounding hard and he could feel himself begin to panic.
Turning around he saw the ship was here. Pulled alongside starboard side to starboard side facing in opposite directions. Their gunwale was lined with men, at least twenty compared to the dozen on the Sea Glen. If this was going to be a fight it would be a one-sided affair.
Neither side threw a line out. Distrust on both ships. At least that was going right. Then from behind the men on the other ship a line did appear. Thrown over their heads with a treble hook attached. It sailed easily over the short distance between the two ships and landed on the deck of the Sea Glen. While a man ran to it the men who had thrown it pulled raking the hook across the deck until it caught on the side of the ship. Another hook came over further down the deck. Now the two were locked together.
Some of the men on the other ship pulled while the rest stood on the rail ready to pounce when the gap between the ships had closed. There was nothing to be done about it except get ready. Cuevas reappeared at the top of the ladder. “This doesn’t look good, John.”
The understatement of the night. Martin watched as another six crewmen appeared on the far side of the deck but that was the moment the ships were close enough for the other crew to hop on.
Martin gripped the top of the rail of the quarter deck and leaned down to see the men fighting hand to hand. As he stood back up and turned he saw a fist headed to his head. No time to duck, Cuevas connected with Martin’s jaw and the lights went out.
Chapter 10-Mississippi Sound, Morning of 30 July 1922
Middle Ground-30 July 1922
The heat came before the light, but the light just intensified the heat. The pain in his jaw was gone, but the anger in his gut continued to grow. Martin wiggled his hands, they had been bound behind him to the post that held the wheel. He could not stand straight up, but by jumping up and turning he could shift his view.
From where he had passed out from exhaustion leaning against the console he could only see the quarter deck. Craning his neck to the right he could look down the rail opening and see the main deck. The remaining crew had long since stopped banging on the barricaded doors but a new sound reached his ears.
The sharp retort of iron hitting wood. It became a rhythmic, repetitious sound then suddenly a sharper zing and the rhythm stopped.
The sound resumed, but was slightly more hollow followed by a distinct splintering wood sound. Barreling on deck was a husky sailor from below. Martin recognized Mack Alexander, the Cargo Master. He stumbled out into the bright South Mississippi sunshine while his eyes adjusted from the dark of belowdeck.
“Up here!” Martin called.
Alexander stopped and looked in the direction of Martin. A split second after he focused on the quarter deck he took off in a sprint to the ladder. The big man squatted and began working on the ropes while Martin started asking questions.
“How many men left below?”
Pausing his work Alexander replied, “Seven, barely enough to get her going and we won’t be heading out again. They took all the stuff.”
As his hands were untied Martin stood. Rubbing his wrists he looked around the ship. Horn Island was to the south but they were not drifting. He walked over to the side rail and looked down. Middle Ground. They had run aground on the shallow waters of Middle Ground just north of Horn Island. Looking straight north all he could see was water to the horizon but he knew the marshes of the Pascagoula River were there, but that was not where he would head.
The other men had followed Alexander from below and were adjusting to the sun. Several had opened their shirts to take in the breeze. It was hot in the July sun but no doubt the wind felt better than the stale air that was below.
“You ever been pirated before?” Martin asked.
“Yeah, Bad thing. It was offa Freeport, we was still operating from Nassau and running new stuff the Scots had dropped off.” Alexander was checking out the equipment on the wheelhouse. “Much worse than what we have here. Those bastards cut the sails, the wheel lines, and did a real number on the engine. Took us two days of work to get her back underway. Found out later it was the Chicago group. No respect for the boat, they just wanted the booze.”
Martin glanced at the masts. The sails had been furled but not struck. From here they looked in tact but they would really only know when they hoisted them.
“Wheel’s good,” Alexander offered. “I’ll check out the engine.” He walked toward the ladder.
Martin followed him to the edge. “Looks like everyone’s out, let’s talk a second first.”
Alexander just nodded as he crawled down the ladder. The worst part was over, now to get back to it.
Deer Island-30 July 1922
The sun was dangerously high for Taconi as they finished unloading the Creole. With as much product as the Sea Glen had been loaded with there was no safe way to transport it on only one ship. After the crew was subdued or recruited he had come alongside and loaded a hefty amount before heading back to Deer Island. The William Tell was still at sea with most of it but Taconi and Baker had unloaded their share in the terrapin yard. The Baker boys were still shifting turtle shells over the well covered hams. Tonight they would be busy hiding the bottles in the shells to sell to the Chicago crowd that was due in later in the day.
A customer from up north would be by with their own ships to load both the terrapin shells and a load of terrapin meat in two days. Just enough time for the boys to insert and hide the bottles. It was not the most efficient way to transport alcohol but according to the buyers, none of the shipments had been lost despite most of them being inspected.
Taconi could smell the seafood plants of the mainland. The Blessing of the Fleet that was the traditional start to shrimp season had been a week before and already the smell of dead shrimp was pervasive. It lay as a subtle undertone to the humid air that was to be found in Biloxi in the summer. The piles of shells and removed shrimp heads were slowly beginning to grow but he wanted to leave before more ships arrived to add to the mix.
As dangerous as it was moving product in the daylight it was twice as dangerous for the William Tell sitting still waiting for Taconi to return to unload more. The Sea Glen, unless Martin had moved it, was still near Dog Island to the south-southwest but Diaz would take most of the product east towards Alabama waters so he had gone just far enough to not be seen from Dog Island and waited to the south-southeast of Taconi. Daylight was wasting and danger was waiting. With one final glance north and west he waved to the crew to push off. He headed to the rendezvous.
Mississippi Sound- 30 July 1922
A ship captain feels less like a captain when they stand on someone else’s ship and that fish out of water today was Cuevas. He had gone with Diaz before sunrise but shifted to the Creole when Taconi arrived. Now they both plowed toward Henderson’s Point well to the west.
Taconi quietly stood beside the pilot, content to let someone else man the wheel for now. Cuevas was on the other side, both men looking for other ships. A few shrimpers went by, but for the most part it was a quiet day on the water. Perfect weather for sailing yet neither could relax yet. To the north a fast moving ship appeared above the horizon to warrant their fears.
“Steady,” Taconi directed to the pilot. The Coast Guard colors could be seen now but there was nowhere to run, no place to hide. Acting as if nothing were out of the ordinary was the best defense.
The Coast Guard made an abrupt change of course. Intercept course. There were no flashing lights or sirens, but Taconi knew what was about to happen. The radio squawked, “Vessel ahead, this is the Coast Guard. Strike your sails, cut your engine, and prepare to be boarded.”
The pilot glanced at Taconi who nodded. The well oiled machine that was the crew reacted to the non-spoken order. The pilot turned into the wind which keyed the sail master to strike the sails. While the sails were being taken down other crewmen scurried across the deck further executing the full stop on the water.
Before the two ships pulled together an Ensign jumped from one to the other. His uniform was too clean, too white, and too creased without being wrinkled. The rest of his boarding crew waited until the ships were secured together before boarding. By then the Ensign had gotten halfway to the quarterdeck and turned to see where they were. He stopped and put his hands on his hips before waving at them to follow.
Cuevas held out a hand to Taconi, “Hang tight when this squid gets here. We may not be sunk yet.”
The Ensign seemed to forget he was headed for the captain and instead began directing the reluctant search team. They took off once they hit the deck but the arrogant young officer put his hands back on his hips and waited. A full minute later he realized he was still by himself and looked to the helm where the two captains stood. As he waved them down the first Coastie returned with a ham in each hand.
“Whose boat is this?” the Ensign yelled as Taconi and Cuevas approached. Neither sped up their walk even when the Ensign snatched a ham from the searcher’s hand. “Whose boat?” he repeated.
A calm Taconi replied, “First off, it’s a ship not a boat and second of all, it’s mine. I own her outright.”
The Ensign reached down and cut open the ham with his pocketknife which sent the bottles sprawling over the deck. “What’s the meaning of this? The whole boat is full of alcohol!” He shook with excitement.
“Petty Officer!” the Ensign yelled at the nearby sailor. The Petty Officer walked over. The smiling Ensign spoke normally, “This is my first bust bu these two will fry!” He turned and pointed directing more sailors to come aboard.
“Ship, and Desporte,” Taconi said calmly.
The exuberant Ensign stopped and faced the two captains again, “What did you say?”
“I said Desporte,” Taconi repeated.
The Petty Officer leaned in to whisper in the Ensign’s ear.
The Ensign shifted his feet, “A-are you saying you’re working for Desporte?” He tugged at his collar as he looked between the two men. “Are you Cuevas?”
Cuevas answered, “I am. It’s his ship, but he doesn’t always sail on it.”
The Ensign had started to sweat. “Stop!” he yelled at the sailors. “Leave it be! Back on our boat, now!”
The confused Coast Guard sailors looked at the Ensign then each other before setting the hams down and slowly walking back to where they’d crossed from ship to ship.
“You should’ve said it earlier. We’re not out here to get you, it’s the others we’re here for. Haven’t you heard the whole Coast has been shut down. The Old Man is waiting for you,” the Ensign reported.
Taconi glanced at Cuevas as they all three headed back for where the inspection had started.
“Look, I don’t want any trouble. If Desporte talks to you, I wasn’t here. I don’t need a black mark to be the first mark in my folder.” The Ensign spoke faster and faster the closer he got to the gunwale. The others had already jumped back he climbed up and stood on the rails of both ships. “I just didn’t know,” he said.
The two ships started drifting apart while Taconi glared and Cuevas just stood stone-faced. The Ensign almost slipped instead of jumped back on his boat. “Full=steam ahead! Get out of here!” he shouted at his own pilot.
The two captains stood there and watched as the ships separated. Without turning Cuevas said, “You turning me in now? Protection from the Coasties ain’t cheap.”
Taconi looked at Cuevas, “I never said which Desporte.”
On the Rocks
Mississippi Sound, 30 July 1922
The WilliamTell had not gone far before Diaz could tell they were riding too low in the water. With this much cargo on board there was no way to reach the drop-off point. As he climbed the ladder to the pilothouse he said a quick prayer of thanks for the calm, cloudless night and crossed himself.
Diaz had not dared to turn on the engines yet because the sound would carry further than could be seen and that would be a tip-off to anyone else out on the water. No other ships could be seen but that did not mean much when he had been running without lights most of the night. Both the Sea Glen they just left and Taconi’s ship the Creole were out here running with lights off and on intermittently. He glanced down at the sails. The light breeze filled them nicely but he could only sail before the wind because the boat was too loaded down. When he had tried a broad reach the slight waves washed over the gunwales. It had not been enough to cause a problem but prolonged sailing at that point would change that fast enough.
Squinting he peered into the night craning for any sign of the Creole. The plan had been to sail to the south of Ship and Horn Islands but the wave action there was increased so he kept to leeward. The Coast Guard cutter had been too close before the heist so it had to still be in the area and that made radio communication risky. Down on the deck he could see some of the extra crew they had been hired for the transfer. Each of them kept alternating between watching the cargo stored on deck and the water. The way they shuffled around and shifted from one foot to the other he could tell the crew was nervous, too.
As Diaz went back to scanning the horizon he heard a splash. He whipped his head down to the deck near where the noise had come from. Another splash, this time he saw a crewman throw a crate full of demijohns overboard. The demijohn crates were heavier than the hams and held much more. The crewmen was dragging another crate to the side. Diaz looked to the nearest deck opening, three more crew were emerging from below and headed to the panicked crewman. Joe Giminez was in front and sprinted when he heard the splash.
As a third crate hit the water, Joe reached the crates. Joe shouted something in Spanish and swung at the first man who ducked and ran behind a row of crates. There had not been time or the room to properly stow the crates which made for a mess on deck.
Joe waved the other two crew to fan out. They circled around the crates while he cautiously moved forward. The frightened crewman yelled something else in Spanish. Joe responded likewise, calming words as he peered into the shadows between crates where the man had disappeared.
Suddenly, the scared man ran full speed at Joe. Caught off balance, Joe stumbled backwards hitting the rail but the momentum was too much. Both men plunged over into the dark water.
“Man overboard!” Diaz yelled. One of the two men helping Joe ran for a life preserver affixed to the mast while the second rushed to the side and peered down. His job was to keep the men in sight until the ship could turn. Only this ship was too heavy to turn quick enough to help the men in the water. “Get the tender!” Diaz pointed aft where two sailors had perked up at the sounds and stood by just watching. They scrambled to get the tender free of the lines holding it on deck while Diaz sped down the ladder to the deck.
The life preserver was now free of its berth but the man who held it, Juan Perez, stood helplessly next to the spotter at the rail. “They haven’t come up,” he said as Diaz approached. They both stared into the water searching for the men.
“What did he say, Juan?” asked Diaz.
Without looking up Juan answered, “The ship is too heavy. That’s why he started throwing things overboard. He feared we would sink and he can’t swim.”
The tender had been lowered but not released. “Hop in the tender, both of you. We can’t stop. If you find them you can catch up to us or I’ll send word for another ship to get you. It’s too dark to see Ship Island over there,” he waved to port opposite the side the men had fallen, “But it’s there.”
Juan darted off to where the tender waited with the spotter. Diaz walked slowly back to the ladder and up to the pilothouse. Once inside he went straight to the table with charts. There had to be a closer place to unload some of this cargo.
Cat Island, 30 July 1922
It had been given a name long before Diaz sailed into it, but the William Tell was at anchor in Smuggler’s Cove on the south side of Cat Island. He had been heading west and after the crew mishap had turned south to enter the Gulf of Mexico briefly before cutting back to Cat Island. They had underestimated the amount Cuevas had been able to haul but there was no way Diaz would risk an open water crossing with so much.
The highest point on the island was not more than 3 feet above sea level but it had a nice beach and plenty of tall pines. No one from the mainland could see it, and even if they could they were on the Gulf side of the island providing more cover. Diaz had chosen to hid the cargo on a peninsula which had enough vegetation and variation of terrain in those three feet to make plenty of hiding places and Diaz knew them all.
Six men had come with him to stash the liquor on the island but they had left plenty on board the William Tell. The sun was racing them to the beach but as both arrived the men could see she was riding in the water where she should have been all along. The others made ready the launches to return while Diaz turned around for one last look. He was off script, none of the others knew where he was or what he had done.
He stepped onto the launch and signaled the men to return. There was not much time to get back to the plan and daylight was burning.
Biloxi, 30 July 1922
Theodore Desporte walked down the street spryly. The cool of the morning would burn off quickly in the South Mississippi summer and the humidity would only get thicker. Nothing was bothering the 73 year old as he made his way through the city he loved to his office.
Listening to the birds chirp and sing high in the live oak trees just off the road Theodore paused and breathed in, a deep draft of salted, moist air. The faint hint of dead seafood came through but that was the smell of money in this town.
On the other side of the street were two young boys headed towards Back Bay. The front beach was closer but judging from their age it was elementary school they were skipping and there were unwritten rules to follow. Only high school aged kids got to swim in the Sound, until then Back Bay was the place for truant youngsters to go.
From around the corner the sound of a delivery truck heading this way overpowered the birds. He started walking again and as the truck rounded the corner, squeaking and creaking, he could see the logo. Barq’s Root Beer, on Yeager Street. What was the world coming to?
He crossed behind the truck and skipped a step before rounding the corner himself. Now the front beach stretched out in front of him. Row upon row of wharves, piers, boats of all sizes, and a narrow paved trail that ambled parallel to the beach. Further down he could see the top of the Biloxi Yacht Club in the middle of the pier but before that was the Elmer Building where his office was located. On the top floor of course, four stories up, all by stairs, but the joy Theodore felt as he opened the door made his way light and easy.
Entering his outer office he hung his hat and cane from the oaken hatrack and went into his inner office. Neat, clean, not a thing out of place. All oak and all powerful. As he rounded the desk he could hear the muffled ring of the phone in its drawer. He smiled, Cuevas would be arriving with his shipload soon. The drought was over and the law of supply and demand would make this a very profitable day for Theodore. He reached down to open the drawer while looking out the window and feeling for the chair. It was probably some well paid informant letting him know the Sea Glen was already here. Really, he was going to have to tell someone to be more discreet about this kind of information.
“Desporte,” he said brusquely into the phone. No need to let the caller think he was happy. Happier than he had been for quite some time.
“Sir, overnight reports coming in,” Ed Argulles worked on the Point as a night watchman for Dukate Packing but he kept his finger on the pulse of everything coming and going. The stipend he got from Desporte helped feed his own vices. “Coast Guard Cutter went out. They was in a hurry, so much they didn’t even notice they was followed. Couldn’t see it clear, it was running without lights but I got a glimpse of part the name, something Tell. Checking my other watchmen nobody knew where it came from.”
Desporte knew. “Is that it? Ed, that could not have taken more than ten minutes. Why do I pay you for the whole evening?” He sounded gruff but he was really satisfied. Diaz told him about the William Tell, officially off dredging oysters. He was probably moving it to a better hiding spot.
“Yes sir, Mista Despaht. Da other stuff was just shrimpers going out, and that wasn’t til this morning just ‘fore sunup. It was a real quiet night.”
Sitting down in his chair he leaned back and smiled, “OK, Ed, I believe you. Come on by after you get off. I’ll make sure the doorman has an envelope for you.”
“Thank you sir, you’re too kind. I’ll be talking to you again real soon.”
Before he hung up Desporte chirped, “Ed! By the way, keep a close look tonight. I’m expecting a big shipment to come in and it should be here tonight.”
“Yes, sir. Sure thing, sir. We’ll see you soon,” Ed said.
Desporte replaced the receiver in the cradle but left the drawer open. He squinted his eyes and looked out the window. The morning breeze was making the trees on Deer Island wave back and forth. He stood and walked to the window to open it before the day made the room too warm. Deep in thought as it opened, the salt air rushed in and a realization hit him.
Rushing back to the desk he hit his shin on the open drawer but did not feel it. Yanking the receiver up he waited for the operator. “Diaz Packing.” A series of clicks were followed by ringing. More ringing. He glanced at his watch while it rang again. He waited a full minute then slammed the receiver down. A sinking feeling began to enter his stomach.
Information moved slow, correct information moved slower, but Desporte had not gotten to where he was without information and he had not gotten here slowly either. He turned to walk out of his office again without closing the window. Sara would get it when she showed up in an hour anyway. He grabbed his hat and walked out.
The docks were back to calm after the bustle of early morning departures. The shrimp boats that had returned the day before to drop off their catches were the last to leave, after the day fishers. The ice delivery trucks would come in to refill the tanks but the real news would only come in as the first boats drifted in later in the morning to drop off their loads or to refill their ice. Desporte left the docks and headed for the marina restaurant.
A few people sat around enjoying a leisurely breakfast but the conversation was subdued in the restaurant. Most of the patrons wore a suit, like Desporte. The workers had cleared out, time to change the clientele. Desporte, feeling a bit off, sat by a window to the south. The morning breeze was still cool and not hot.
The restaurant was a single story but it was built on pilings to sit a few feet off the ground. Deer Island sat just to the east but the cloudless day was almost clear enough to see the other Barrier Islands. Almost, but Horn, Ship, and Cat lay just out of sight. He ordered breakfast with a Barq’s and sat back listening to the hushed conversations around him and watching the water.
A now restless Desporte walked back into his office. He had read the morning paper, heard what passed for interesting news in person, and had scanned the waterfront. The knot in his gut had only grown bigger.
Sara had come in and everything was in its place. The plants were watered, the fans were on aimed where they maximized air flow but not on the desk tops. As he rounded his desk he saw the Clarion Ledger delivery boy walk in. The newspaper from the capital might take his mind off the situation. Especially since he had yet to be able to put a finger on what was wrong. He went back into the outer office.
Tossing the boy a nickel from his pocket, Desporte picked up the paper from Sara’s desk just as her phone rang. He glanced at her as she answered and walked back to his door.
“Sir?” Sara held the receiver on her shoulder while she looked in his direction. Catching his eye she continued, “It’s Mr. Herbert Necaise.”
“Patch him through,” Desporte said picking up his pace as he headed to his desk. By the time he sat and opened the drawer with the phone the Necaise, the Gulfport Harbormaster, had been transferred. “Herbert. What do you know good?”
Necaise cleared his throat, “I just got word myself, but I called right away because I knew you’d want to know. Captain Cuevas is here.”
Pausing before he answered he asked, “In Gulfport?” That was odd, early was one thing but showing up on land was another. To be in the despised town to the west was a bad omen in itself.
“Well, uh. . . Not now. He, he left uh, an hour or so ago, but, but I just found out. Just now” Necaise stammered.
“When did he get there?” Desporte leaned forward, his eyes narrowing.
“Around 8, maybe 8:30 this morning. He got dropped off, no ship, he’s alone.”
Desporte’s stomach felt like it had dropped onto the floor, he could feel his blood pressure rising, “Alone!” he roared.
Silence was his answer. “I don’t know, I just know what I was told. He showed up, very abnormal. Don’t know who dropped him off but he walked down the dock, talked to a couple other captains before getting into a car and heading east.” Necaise was talking fast, as if reporting bad news would sound better in a rush. “That’s all I know. I knew you’d want to know it because we haven’t heard from him in at least a month. He still works for you, right?”
He glanced at the clock on the wall over the door, “Yeah. He still works for me. As of 10 o’clock.” It was 10:15 by the wall clock. “Check back with me at noon.” Without waiting for a reply Desporte hung up.
“Sara! Get me Bills!” Desporte yelled through the door as he spun the chair to look out the window. Light traffic flowed up and down Spanish Trail. He had been working with his contacts in the legislature to get it designated a US Highway so the feds would help pay for the upgrades.
For now it was a two lanes stretching from Pass Christian to Biloxi. It was paved with asphalt on an oyster shell base from Beauvoir to the Point. The Davis family had left Beauvoir to the Daughters of the Confederacy who had turned the regal last home of Jefferson Davis into an old soldiers home for Confederate veterans. The road went past the Methodist Retirement Camp then finally reached the cemetery and the city limits. It went north of the lighthouse before passing the harbor and Elmer Building going on down past the Church of the Redeemer, St. Michaels, then ended at Point Cadet. Desporte owned the land on the Point where it terminated for now. Eventually his plan was a bridge from there to Ocean Springs but until he sold the land for a profit to build that, he would rake in the money from seafood packers.
Sara connected the phones so it rang to interrupt his musings. Time to piece it all together.
The joyous mood of the morning wore off faster than the day had heated up. Cuevas never showed up. Diaz never answered or called back. The day sailors and daily fish boats were returning to the harbor as Desporte walked down to the marina again.
A crowd was gathering at the Port Authority Building so he headed there. Over the top of the heads he could see the Harbormaster talking to another man. As the man turned Desporte saw his face. John Martin locked eyes and nodded.
Pushing his way through the crowd Desporte made his way to the steps of the building as Martin held the door. Together they walked into the Harbormaster’s Office but now Martin was only talking to Desporte telling him what had happened. One thing was certain. Without a doubt this was one hell of a bad seventy-third birthday.
Chapter 11-Biloxi, Evening of 30 July 1922
Biloxi-30 July 1922
The still of the evening was broken as a light breeze blew through the open windows and into the bedroom. It was not enough to stir the newspaper on the foot of the bed, but it was enough to brush a cool, bristling tickle across the bare skin left uncovered by the thin cotton dress. Laying in the middle of the bed Molly Lee stretched out to maximize the cooling effect of the breeze. Her third bath since coming home had been more for removing the smell of the factory than relief from the heat but the slight dampness of her skin magnified the effect as she closed her eyes and savored the respite from the hot July day.
The bedroom was small, with not much more room than was needed for the bed, a dresser, and a chair situated at the foot of the bed that maximized the views, and the breezes, from the windows on the corner of the house. There were two windows on both walls that allowed a crosswind as well as an excellent view of both the street to the west and the backyard of the neighbor to the south.
Most days there was not even a point to the bath since the next day would only bring another brutal day in the crowded factory room with endless seafood constantly being paraded past the table at which she stood. But today had been different.
She had gone to work same as always, dressed in the same dingy, smelly smock and stained shoes that matched everyone else in the factory. But then she turned on the foreman. Gave him a piece of her mind, she talked of the tables, too high for some, too short for others; the cramped working conditions; the stale air, the fans that failed to work; and the miserable pay. The shocked foreman had stared incredulously while all around them Molly’s coworkers listened intently while trying not to be noticed. When she finished she threw the stained apron directly at his chest and stormed out confident that it was her last time walking out as an underpaid, under appreciated, lowly seafood worker. She may never darken the doorstep of that or any other seafood factory again but if she did it would not be as an employee.
The smell stayed. It always did. Through three hot baths and a thorough scrubbing, even washing her hair she could not escape the smell. She knew at the end of the season it remained at the docks, but during the shrimp season that stench swelled from the factories and docks to the houses and shops, invading and sticking to everything. It was worse if you worked in it as she had. It had always taken two weeks before it dissipated from her nose and disappeared from her body. She wanted to burn the clothes, as if that might help.
It was still too early to celebrate though. This afternoon she had wandered the streets of Biloxi always glancing to the south as if to see what was taking place on the waters of the Gulf. Slowly making her way past the People’s Bank she walked down Howard Avenue admiring the shop windows. Tomorrow.
Tomorrow would be different. Tomorrow she would be able to do more than window shop. A new dress, new shoes, perfume, maybe even a new purse, the list of things she planned to buy only continued to grow. Even as she lay here on the bed waiting for the details.
Ernest Desporte walked into the bedroom with a smile on his face and a sack in his hands. She turned to see him enter and scowled as she saw the oyster sack he carefully placed atop the dresser. “Today was a good day,” he said with a smile.
He left the door open as he moved to the foot of the bed near the chair to enjoy the breeze himself. Unbuttoning his shirt he started, “It went according to plan. We got the cargo, Diaz got most of it and took off to hide. Taconi and Baker put out a couple of caches, one to sell, two to be ‘found’ by the authorities. Webster got his part done, too. It’s all coming together, or falling apart if you’re the old man.”
Molly rolled onto her side and propped her head up on her hand, “So what’s next?”
Desporte took off his shirt and pulled his undershirt over his head before answering. “Well here’s the thing about double-crosses: you have to be careful because someone that double-crosses for you can also double-cross you. We’re going to break it open but if we’re not careful it’ll just slam back down tighter than it ever was.”
He sat down and took a quick look outside. The streets were empty, even the backyards were empty. Everyone had finished up their day and gone inside to rest for the next one. The crickets were loud and occasionally you could hear the rustle of tree leaves but the night had become quiet and still. “I don’t know if we can trust Diaz. He may be in contact with Dad. He could blow the whole lid off of it. Clarence still doesn’t like him but we need him. His brother got the main stash and is taking the biggest risk. He’s out there right now waiting, the timing is still critical.”
Molly brushed the hair off her neck toward the head of the bed, “But it’s paying off already, right?” She smiled seductively.
“Oh yeah,” he paused taking off his shoes to admire her, “It’s paying off. I got the first chunk of money today. We still have to pay off a couple people, but our payroll won’t match Dad’s. Overhead will go way down.” He gestured his head in the direction of the sack on the dresser. “A lot of that has to be paid out, but there’s some for us, too.
“I’m looking forward to being out from under his shadow. Knowing he could swoop in at any time and demand I do something, or just his occasional touch that said, ‘I’m here and you don’t need to worry’ just rubs me wrong.” Desporte tossed his socks onto the shoes he had removed while talking. “Later tonight I have to go back. To keep the costs down we have to do more manual labor but the payoff is sweet.”
Sitting up abruptly she asked, “Why did you even come back if you have to work more?”
He smiled and stood as he undid his belt, “What’s the point of life if you can’t enjoy it a little every now and then?” As his pants fell down he walked around the bed and took her head in his hands. “Some things are more important than money,” he said before kissing her.
Laying back down on the bed his words matched her thoughts, life is good if life is worth living.
Desporte was gone by the time she woke up. The sun had not even gotten higher than the trees but it was light enough to see in the bedroom. She pulled the sheets tight around her and glanced up on the dresser. True to his word the sack was gone but she could see several bills beneath a small box. Sitting up she reached for them, not caring if her bare body could be seen by someone walking down the street. Sleeping naked always ran that risk but she was in the middle of so many bigger risks that one paled in comparison.
Just the same, she gathered the sheets around her and looked out the window toward the street. It was empty. She set the box down and counted the bills. Two hundred and fifty dollars, how long would it take her to earn that at her old job? A month and a half? Maybe if she picked until her fingers bled. She looked at her hands. They were roughened and callused. The nails were short and the cuticles were cracking. Her hands were used to being covered in wet muck and goo all day long. Now they were drying out, hardening, becoming unused compared to the ideal shrimp picker’s hands.
She opened the box. A gold ring with a sapphire set on top. Not a big stone, but a small piece that just said, “I love you” left by the man she loved. A small non-ostentatious ring. She slipped it onto her finger. Perfect fit. Now to go be ostentatious.
Bay St. Louis-30 July 1922
The rocking chair creaked against the porch floor planks but it could hardly be heard above the crickets and frogs. The house faced a narrow shell road that ran north and south but another hundred feet beyond that lay the Bay of St. Louis. The marshy grass there was the source of all the frogs, croaking their pleasure at the setting of the sun. Jenny Cuevas, rocking on the porch, kept her attention glued to the pier jutting out from the road into the bay and the waters south of it.
Behind her the door opened and Captain Woods appeared holding a tray with five glasses and a pitcher of sweet tea, the nectar of the South. He set it on a small table and poured two glasses handing one to Jenny.
She took a sip and put it on a small end table to her right. “How much longer do you think?” she asked.
Woods took his own glass and sat in the chair beside the table and took a long sip before answering, “The plan was sunset. If I know Clarence Webster, he is sailing the whole way, he hates using the motor. Sailing is a joyous, wonderful way to get around, but it’s best to not have anywhere to be at a particular time or it gets stressful.” He glanced south toward where the mouth of the bay met the Gulf. “It could be a minute, could be an hour. He’ll be here.”
Jenny ignored the tea and kept gazing intently at the bay. The sound of a train whistle came across the water and she turned her eyes north to the railroad bridge. The L&N train was just coming through Pass Christian and the bridge operator has just finished closing the swing bridge so it could pass over the bay and on towards New Orleans. “Where’d you put the money?” she asked.
“It’s safe, safer now then when you brought it. I still can’t believe you just put it in your bag. I locked it in a steamer trunk with all of Raymond’s things. You have the key,” Woods said in a soothing tone.
The train came into view on the bridge now, chugging along making more noise than before. It was still a soft whisper behind the crickets. “I carried it in my bag because I don’t trust the porters. When Ray gets here he’ll do the same.” She glanced back down the pier before watching the train again, “This isn’t a game or a temporary stop. It’s everything, our life savings and then some. It’s everything we’ll get from that wretched man and I was glad to be taking it out of his bank, too. Twenty years toiling and laboring for him. Ray’s earned every nickel.” The anger she had at the senior Desporte was clear.
Trying to change the conversation to a more cheery subject Woods asked, “Will you try to stay here? Picayune is a nice growing little town.”
“Hmmph,” she answered. “It’s certainly better than Poplarville, but I don’t like those Crosbys either. They may be worse than Desporte. It’s a nice place, but no that’s not for us either.”
“New Orleans then?”
Jenny took a sip of tea before answering, “No, we’ll stay there a few days while we outfit a little better. The household things we’re keeping have been sent there, could be on that train even,” she waved in the direction of the tracks. “But we have our heart set on getting far away here and Nawlins is still too close.” She paused before continuing, “I’m not sure Ray even wants anyone to know but Seattle, we’re heading west and north to live on the Puget Sound. I may be able to get Ray off the water but I can’t keep it far from it. We’ll probably leave the Buick at the train station.”
The train whistled again, it was slowing down to stop at the station after it finished crossing the bridge. “Back in my navy days I lived up there a while. Beautiful place, rains a lot, but beautiful. A good part of my first book was written there.”
Jenny looked at the condensation rolling down the side of the tea glass as it pooled on the table top. “I can take rain, but the humidity is getting to me,” she said.
A gentle laugh came from Woods, “Let me know how that works out for you.” Looking back south he noticed a sail. He stood and stared into the dying light of the day.
As he stood Jenny turned sharply to see what caught his attention. The sail grew bigger as the ship appeared. It was making good time on its way up the bay. She stood and started walking towards the shell road. Woods followed her out to the pier. “It may not be them, Jenny,” he called after her.
“But it may be,” she called back. “And if it is I want Ray to know how anxious I am.”
She had already crossed the shell road and started down the pier by the time Woods could see that it was the Ella. Webster was sailing her hard and fast but was going to have to swing wide to pull in along the pier. Woods had turned his catboat around and moored it on the right side to leave the deeper spot open for Webster’s sloop.
The Ella made its tack to starboard to start the swing and Woods could see it was not Webster at the helm, it was the lad, growing up and learning the ropes. Cuevas was at the bow waving as Jenny reached the end of the pier. She stood stoically watching as Eugene maneuvered the sloop around and came up to the pier.
Cuevas had already pulled in the foresail as Webster worked the mainsail. Eugene worked the wheel as the ship coasted the final few feet to the berth. As soon as it came even with the pier Cuevas jumped off and hugged Jenny. She was not the only one anxious to be together.
Woods tossed a line to Webster as they secured the boat. Eugene was darting around securing the sails and getting the ship ready for a muggy night. The baton was being passed from old to young and the future looked bright.
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 13th Amendment 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 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.
Chapter 13-Back Bay, 2 August 1922
Back Bay-2 August 1922
A sharp knock on the door roused Henry Diaz. He did not realize he had dozed off looking at the books. He rubbed his eyes and looked up. The door had opened and Theodore Desporte stood framed in the opening. From the expression on his face Diaz could tell he was not happy.
“Come on in, I was going to call you soon.” Diaz tried to compose himself and not look like he had been sleeping. “What ah, what can I do for you?” he asked while shuffling papers to the side of his desk, clearing an opening where he rested his arms.
Desporte walked in slowly, he made a point to hit the floor hard each time he moved his cane. Harder than really necessary. “Whose side are you on, Henry?” The old man stopped directly in front of the desk. There was a chair but he did not take a seat.
Sputtering, Diaz answered, “Well, uh, you know that. I’m working with you, for you. But I can’t look like I’m looking for you. If I had told you exactly when it’d be going down you’d’ve been ready and sprung the trap back. It wouldn’t’ve worked. I have to look trustworthy, too.” He tugged at his collar and undid the button. His tie was already loose around his neck. “It uh, it’s gotta look like I’m still with them.”
The lowered volume Desporte used made Diaz lean forward, “I will not be made a fool of. You’re my duplicitous agent, not theirs.” He reached in his jacket pocket and took out an envelope. He tapped it on the desk but held on to it for now. “Fill me in.”
He mopped his brow before picking up the papers on his right, “Most of it’s been sold already, but hasn’t been transferred yet. It’s the delicate part of the operation.”
“Right where I can step in and do the most damage,” Desporte interrupted. “That’s part of it, but I need to know who else is in on it. This little stunt hit me when I knew it was coming but caught me off guard. I don’t get caught off guard. Who’s the mastermind?”
“I, uh, I don’t know who you’d call the brains, I mean, Ernest seems to be running things…” he started.
“I know him, and Webster, too,” Desporte interrupted again, “Who else?”
Diaz fidgeted in his seat. “Ta-Taconi, Paul Taconi, and a Woods. Everybody calls him Captain, never heard a first name. And a kid, Eugene Ladner. He’s Webster’s crony. Woods seems to know Webster real good too.” Sweat was beading on his forehead again so he wiped it off.
Now he sat, “Taconi? Not surprising. Don’t know about this kid but he ain’t the brains. Maybe it won’t matter.” Desporte folded his arms, “This town is 120 years old, and a Desporte’s been running it 70 of those years. Who do you think made this town what it is?”
The chair creaked as Diaz stood and walked to his side table. “Well there’s a lotta folk who have pushed the town along. You may have been steering the boat, but Dunbar, Lopez, Dukate, I’m pretty sure they had a hand in it.” He was sweating profusely now, his hands shook as he tried to pour a glass from the pitcher of water on the table. “They had to have a little to do with it. Maybe the Howards?” His voice took on a questioning tone as he waved at the table to offer a drink.
The old man shook his head, “The Howards threw money and ran back to New Orleans. Lopez and Dukate will probably be remembered, maybe get a school named after them or something, probably all three of them but they only did what I let them do. You know who I didn’t let work in this town? Burklin. I crushed him. No one remembers him or what he tried to do to this town.
“Lopez and his cronies worked with me. That’s why they’re still here. They’re on the board at the bank, they have thriving businesses. They are the group that made this town the Seafood Capital of the World. Because I let them.” Desporte paused to let his words sink in. “Burklin tried. I wiped him out. No schools, no streets, no buildings named after him.” The last words were spit through his clenched teeth as the room fell silent.
“Uh, the product is waiting to be transferred. . .” Diaz started but stopped as Desporte took something out of the envelope he was holding and threw the rest on the desk. He sat as he put the glass of water down and picked it up. Glancing at the old man he looked back down and opened it up. It was a deed to property on Beach Boulevard at the foot of Oak Street. Prime real estate at the start of the row of seafood factories that made this town what it is.
“You want it? It’s yours. You can shift this little two bit factory off the bay or just run them both. Catch, clean, can, and sell, do the whole shooting match start to finish. Be the Seafood King in the Seafood Capital, just get me what I need. You want to be Governor, you can get it yourself, this will give you the clout. Here’s the contract.” Desporte tossed a second paper across the desk.
Opening it, Diaz could see it was an agreement. The property for the product. Turn on his co-conspirators completely. None of the delicate dance he had been doing, an outright betrayal. There would be no going back. This would make him enemies with men who were the most capable of dethroning the powers that be. Power that is. But these men were only capable because they had come to Henry Diaz. No trying to kid himself into believing he was the power, but he was the one that made a difference. It was him that tipped the scales. He brought the last piece needed to topple Theodore Desporte.
Diaz reached for a pen. He had not really known these guys that long anyway.
Naval Reserve Park, West of Biloxi-2 August 1922
The sound of crickets drowned out the noise of the Chevrolet until it reached the end of the driveway. Ladner was resting in a hammock strung up between the mast and forestay on the Ella rocking with the gentle breeze and perked up as he saw the car round the last corner. He got out of the hammock and headed for the pier as Woods stopped the car and got out. By the time Ladner arrived at the driver’s side Webster had opened the door to the house.
“You aren’t who I was expecting, but come on in, old friend,” Webster welcomed.
Woods reached into the back seat picked up a bag. From the top he pulled out a book and turned to Ladner, offering the book. “I brought you something special,” he said.
Webster scoffed from the door, “What does he need with a book, can he even read? If you’re trying to turn him into a book worm like you, you shoulda never sent him this way.”
Ladner took the book reverently. “I can read. In fact, I left behind my small library when I came here and I’ve been missing it. Commentaries on the Gallic War,” he read the title aloud.
Clapping him on the shoulder Woods said, “A book full of history, but lessons to boot. Most of what we know about Caesar we learned from his own writing, but he wrote in the third person so we forget it’s him doing the talking. History is much more kind to you if you’re willing to write it yourself.” He handed Ladner the bag.
Looking inside, the boy’s face broke out into a huge smile, “Thank you, Cap’n Woods. I thought it’d be a long time before I got to see these again.”
“Well a man without a library is,” Woods looked at Webster, “Well, he’s Webster.” He laughed while Webster just shook his head.
“I got books, I just don’t put ’em out for company. Now you wanna come inside or stand out here and jaw about some dusty ol’ books?” Webster held the door open.
Ladner started to walk back towards the Ella with his bag of books but Woods stopped him, “Eugene, come on in with us. You’re a part of this now, too.” He waved his hand in the direction of the door and held it out directing him inside.
Hesitating for a second, Ladner looked from Woods to Webster then walked into the house. The two older men shared a quick smile then followed him in.
The house was dimly lit with a single fan blowing air around the room. The windows were open and a slight breeze came in from the bay. It had been a typical hot and humid day but the evening was more tolerable even inside the house. Webster flipped a switch by the door and a bulb that dangled overhead came on lighting up the whole room.
“I didn’t expect to see you so soon, what’s going on and do you want a drink?” offered Webster.
Sitting on the sofa below the window on the front of the house, Woods said, “Maybe in a minute, there’s work to discuss first.”
The screen door banged against the frame twice before closing as Webster let it go and walked to his chair. Woods did not relax on the couch before asking, “What did Diaz tell you when you last saw him?”
This time Webster shared a glance with Ladner before answering, “We talked about the loads we’d shifted and what he had left. He said he was headed east to Alabama.”
“Did he mention any crew missing?” Woods asked.
“Uh, he said a couple fell overboard but he sent some guys after them. I had to get to Bay St. Louis.”
“Mr. Taconi said he’d get ’em,” interrupted Ladner. “He said they were in a dinghy near Ship Island when they went over so the crew he had to leave would head there.”
The clock over the empty fireplace chimed seven o’clock. Woods waited for it to finish before saying, “It’s too late tonight, I’ll have to get with him in the morning.” He began to fidget while he talked..
“Serendipity takes you everywhere doesn’t it? He’s supposed to be here. I was expecting him when I heard your car,” said Webster.
As if on cue, a car could be heard coming down the path. All three looked toward the door as Woods sighed. “Well, let’s have that drink now.”
They all stood. Ladner was closer to the door so he held it open and looked out. Webster stood and headed for the kitchen. As Taconi cleared the tree line the engine got noticeably quieter, then he turned off the engine and coasted to a stop next to the Chevrolet in his 1920 Hudson Super Six.
“Sounded kinda loud, didn’t it?” asked Taconi.
“Yes sir,” answered Ladner.
“G-Pied Muffler Cutout. Adds power. This thing goes from 0 to 50 in 16 seconds straight off the lot. They tell me it’ll do 80 but I haven’t found a stretch of street long enough to get that fast. I can tell you this, it’ll damn sure take off in a hurry.” Taconi extended a hand to Ladner for a handshake as he walked past him into the living room. “One for me!” he called to Webster’s back in the kitchen. He turned to Woods and offered his hand, “What brings you around?”
Taking the offered hand for a brief shake Woods answered, “Trouble.” He sat back on the couch, “A couple bodies washed up in Gulfport. One was known to have been on the William Tell. Diaz mention anything to you?”
Webster walked back in and handed a glass to Taconi. “Yeah, he said one guy started dumping cargo ‘cause they were riding low. Another fellow tried to stop him and they got into a fight. That boat wasn’t gonna turn for anything in the world loaded like that so he dropped off a dingy and told ‘em to head for Ship Island when they found the two overboard.”
Everyone took a seat as he continued, “I looked for them after my last load but didn’t find them on the island. They were still out looking. Never did find the two dudes.”
“If they were Diaz’s men it easily could’ve taken two days to get from Ship Island to here,” said Woods.
Ladner headed for the icebox. He got out a Barq’s for himself and added some chipped ice to a glass for Woods.
He leaned back into the couch and got comfortable. “I can work with this. It’s early, but might as well leak some details to spin it our way.” Woods stroked his chin. “Eugene, better bring me a pen and paper with that drink. We need to write an article for the newspaper to throw off the investigation. Time to make history kind to us.”
“Well, Clarence, I came by to go over the numbers with you. I know we left some booze on the William Tell but some seems to be missing,” said Taconi. He pulled some sheets of paper out of his shirt pocket. “Where are your numbers?”
“My notes are on the Ella,” Webster said as he got up.
Taconi held up a hand to stop him a moment, “Look, I know it wasn’t me, and none of the three of y’all touched it. I may be out of line saying this, but both of you,” he pointed at Webster and Woods simultaneously, “Have made me feel like an equal. More equal that anyone or anywhere in this town. You know separate ain’t equal and if it gets me in trouble to think I’m your equals then so be it.”
“Paul, I don’t give a shit if I’m an old, white, Southern man,” started Woods. “And I damn sure don’t care about the color of your skin. I’ve known Clarence a long time and he’s the same. In his house, in my eyes, and certainly anywhere in my presence, you are every bit as equal as we are and if anyone is going to judge something by its color it’ll be the color of liquid in our glass and nothing else. So what are you getting at?”
He looked from Woods to Webster. Webster nodded, “I think someone is on the take.” Taconi said.
“Imagine that, a crooked crook? Paul, we knew all along that Diaz was probably going to sell us out. But we have a plan for that,” Webster headed for the door while he spoke. “The conversation with Cuevas was detailed so we’ll figure it out.” Taconi stood and followed him out.
Ladner returned with the drinks, paper, and pen for Captain Woods and soon the sound of a pen scratching paper mingled with the crickets.
Chapter 14-Biloxi, 3 August 1922
A Little More History
BIloxi-31 December 1861
Waves crashed into the marshy shoreline near the makeshift wall of oak and pine tree trunks. There was no true higher ground on the peninsula but the small bluff east of the lighthouse had to suffice. The defenders had built a semi-circular fortification that was wide enough for the three artillery pieces and the associated appurtenances. A matching redoubt had been constructed further down towards Point Cadet but was less substantial, made of coffee and corn sacks filled with sand and another two solid artillery pieces mounted and pointed towards the south from where the invaders would arrive. If they dared.
Two companies of the 3rd Mississippi Regiment were formed from Biloxi. Henley’s Invincibles captained by John Henley started as a floating fighting force as to a man they were fishermen. John Elmer gallantly captained the Biloxi Rifles made of the rest of the available men of the town. This left 50 old men and young boys for the Home Defense to man the fortifications and keep the Yankee aggressors at bay.
In early December Major General Benjamin Butler was appointed to control the forces on Ship Island. Several of the oldest men recalled his father from the Battle of New Orleans 46 years before who later became a privateer. As a show of force, Butler had a gunboat sail within a mile of shore daily. The old men and boys of the Home Defense put on a big show of loading the cannons and rotating them to track the ship but no shots were fired.
Laurence Desporte had been running the town for ten years but the War Between the States put a severe crimp in his plans. The labor force had enlisted to fight for States rights and left him with no one to man his factories, no one to fish, shrimp, or tong for oysters. The plan to build Biloxi into a seafood force to be reckoned with had been put on hold. Ironically, it was seafood that kept the town alive during the blockade.
With the blockading force in the Mississippi Sound that only left the fertile estuary of Back Bay but no way to export. Nothing was getting in or out of town, especially food. So the population turned to cast nets for mullet. Young and old alike took to the shallow waters and caught the tasty Biloxi Bacon to feed themselves. The damn Yankees may control the water but they did not control the town.
To be fair, they were not damn Yankees yet. The difference between a Yankee and a damn Yankee was that the Yankees went back home. And if Lawrence played his cards right, they would move along directly.
Two days before Lawrence had sailed out near the islands in his catboat. The fort was teeming with soldiers inside and out. More than would be needed for any assault on Biloxi, clearly they had another destination in mind. Before they could dispatch a ship to intercept him he turned back to the north and the welcome shores of home.
While the War of 1812 had been before his time, from the time he was a boy he had been told of how Juan Cuevas living on Ship Island had refused to help the British find New Orleans making them late for the battle hence it was fought after the end of the war. Between that story and the lifeline that the Mississippi River was splitting the Confederacy the Union attach he had just seen being mounted had to be headed for New Orleans. But would there be a test run first? He feared the worst.
Looking through his pocket scope there was more than the lone ship they had come to expect. Three ships were on the way. One was the U.S.S. Massachusetts that had run the light rebel force out of the fort on Ship Island back during the summer and now lent its name to the previously unnamed outpost. But the Massachusetts drafted too much to come in close. Two smaller draft boats came south. While he watched they broke formation, one headed straight for the barricade and one to the east. The attack was on.
“The Yankees are coming!” Lawrence yelled from his perch atop the wall. Looking into the structure he surveyed the defenders. Three sixty year old men a gaggle of boys under 12 including his own son Theodore were on duty. “Abandon posts! Orderly file out then disperse, quickly before they get here.”
There were three doors to the makeshift fort, one to the east, one west, and one north. Two of the sixty year olds had barred the side doors and made their way to the center. The third had opened the middle door and was waving boys out. Lawrence walked out with Theodore hot on his heels with only one small seven year old bringing up the rear. He stood confidently turning only his head to make sure Theodore was behind him.
The younger Desporte stopped at the door, “Hey, what’s your name? You have the most important job.”
The boy stopped and looked up at him, “I’m Woods’s son. He runs your Dad’s wharf at the foot of Oak Street.”
“Alright listen here, Woods. You’re small. They won’t hurt you. When we walk out, you put the bar on the door and then I’ll reach over the wall and pull you out. We don’t want the Yankees to know which way we went.”
Young Woods looked up at the wall. To a seven year old anything was high but he trusted the Desportes. Apparently with his life. “Um, OK. But don’t forget me.”
Theodore rubbed Woods head, “You’re about to buy us all time to get away. I can never forget you.” He pulled the door shut leaving only the small boy in the fort.
The bar was behind the door. As it closed Woods saw it and struggled to get it into place. It took a minute but he got the door blocked good and tight. “OK, lift me out,” he called.
There was no response.
“Hey! I’m done, get me now!” he yelled.
Grabbing what he could on the wall he climbed up and stood on the bar. He could not reach the top of the tree-log wall but he tried valiantly for a seven year old, “Theodore! Help!” Only his voice echoing in the empty fort could be heard.
He turned to look south. The first ship had landed and soldiers dressed in blue jumped into the shallow water and mud that was the shore. They were hunched over fearing shots from either the cannons or the non-existent defenders. Woods was trapped.
Within minutes and without a single shot from a Confederate weapon the fight for Biloxi was over. Woods had an armed soldier to either side of him while the rest surveyed the contents of the fort. One cannon had a cracked and bent barrel. That was the one they had had ammunition for. The second canon was fully functional but was smaller bore so the ammo would not work. The rest were pine trees that had been de-barked and painted black.
Other troops had broken down the door to the lighthouse and walked to the top of the circular stairs. The lens had been removed and buried months before. Half of the structure had been coated in tar. The plan was to coat the rest of the iron lighthouse but the blockade had cut the available supply of tar.
None of the town’s defenders had been found. MG Butler himself never even bothered to disembark from his ship. His successful raid would result in letters of commendation for bravery under fire for three soldiers. Butler had hoped to find some slaves he could take as contraband of war to work on the fort as he had done at Fort Monroe the previous June. Instead all he got was one scared, seven year old prisoner of war who became his personal bus boy.
Naval Reserve Park west of Biloxi-3 Aug 1922
The pre-dawn air was still but not yet warm. Even the birds were still asleep when Captain Woods and Eugene Ladner started the Chevrolet and headed for the newspaper office.
“Butler had me fetch his dinner, get the wrinkles out of his clothes, and deliver his letters. He was a miserable old coot. They kept putting more and more troops on Ship Island until most of them left four months later for Nawlins. Spoons kept me close.” Woods said while they drove through the live oak forest to the front beach.
“After he took Nawlins,” Woods continued, “He went on to become infamous. Most people called him Beast Butler but I always called him Spoons. Well, behind his back. The man pillaged New Orleans. Took what he wanted for his own to include the silverware. He got rich and the townspeople got shafted.”
Ladner took his eyes off the road to look at Woods in profile. Years at sea had toughed his skin and wrinkled his face. His white hair was thick and full. “How long did you work for Spoons?” he asked.
A smile appeared on Woods’s face, “Working for Spoons personally meant I got to be the fly on the wall on a lot of meetings. So I got to meet Farragut, he was a good naval officer. In Louisiana he was able to confiscate some slaves. Part of the reason he had been sent down from Maryland to begin with was the Yankees were mad he wasn’t complying with the Fugitive Slave Act but since he was friends with Lincoln nothing could make him give ‘em up. Abe sent him down South where the locals wouldn’t complain if he had slaves. Miserable shit of a man he was. Earned his nicknames.
“Anyway, because Spoons had others to do his menial labor I was able to ask if I could go with Farragut. I tagged along on the failed assault on Vicksburg and Port Gibson. He was a little crazy but I think the best leaders are. The best memory was helping to lash him to the mast before the Second Battle of Mobile Bay. He fired a couple rounds into a hotel off Point Clear before his infamous ‘Damn the torpedo’ line.”
They had reached the front beach and turned off of the shell road onto the narrow paved lane that paralleled the water. It was too dark to see but they both breathed in deeply of the salt air. “By the end of the war I was still too young to join, but came back to work the docks. When I hit 17 I reached out to Farragut and got him to help me into the Academy.”
“How’s that work,” asked Ladner.
Woods looked at the young man, “What are you 15? No, 16?”
“Yes sir,” he answered.
“Like the water, huh? Can’t blame you there. Yeah, I can make a few calls. When we get done with this you’ll have some money in your pocket and in the bank. The world will wide open to you.” Woods stared out at the water as they made their way east.
The winds blowing in off the Gulf were picking up. There were no mirrors in the Chevrolet but behind them the sun cracked the horizon and the sky took on a red hue. Deep red.
A Way Forward
Biloxi-3 Aug 1922
Molly stirred beneath the cool sheets and stretched. Feeling no one next to her, she opened her eyes. She sat upright quickly. At the foot of the bed Ernest Desporte sat in the chair pulling on his boots. Hearing her move he turned his head to look at her.
“Good morning, beautiful. Did you sleep well?”
The red light of the early dawn poured through the windows with the cross breeze of cool, salt laden air. Relaxing some she breathed out, “I slept OK, but woke up kind of abruptly. Come back to bed.” She patted the covers to her side.
Desporte stood and walked to give her a kiss, “If only I could, Love. This morning is the morning. We have to do the transfers. Taylor will be here and we’re setting up the new company.”
She laid back down in the bed and turned her body to face him lifting up the sheets to reveal her naked body. “Are you sure you can’t stay a little longer.”
He smiled and bent over for another kiss. This one more passionately, “Molly, I would love nothing more than to crawl back inside your arms and spend the rest of my life, but I have people depending on me to show up and make us all rich beyond our wildest dreams. That’ll be followed by creating new dreams. Soon, baby, very soon.”
As he turned and walked out of the room she dropped the sheets and her arm and watched him turn in the hall and head to the living room. The door opened and closed as she rolled over to look out the window. She was pretty sure he would head north which meant she would not be able to see him go by the windows.
The engine of the Lincoln started and she heard it shift into gear. The quiet of the morning had been disturbed by the car. As the sound of the car decreased with distance from the house the birds began waking and singing of bird things. When she could no longer hear the car she sat bolt upright in bed and spun to get out. Bending over she picked up her clothes and started dressing. There was no time to waste.
Back Bay-3 Aug 1922
“Where is he?” Henry Diaz looked out across the wharves and the water that was his little kingdom on Back Bay. He wanted to move to the front beach. It was the big leagues. Scanning left and right he considered the size of his current operation. He was in the big leagues, he wanted into the bigger league that was the front beach..
He turned back to the work at hand. Without his brother to help him everything was on his shoulders. Both the thinking and the doing. Luis had not reappeared since the date of the incident but the plan had been for the William Tell to resurface any day now. Meanwhile, the contraband was still on their property.
Diaz had been working throughout the night to transfer the boxes from transfer sheds on the wharf to a Chevrolet one ton truck they had built on their reliable 490 chasis. It was the pride of Diaz’s land fleet and he only trusted three people to drive it. Until last night when he backed it up to the loading dock even he had never been behind the wheel.
After loading the last box containing hams into the truck he walked around and got in the cab. The quiet of the morning was disturbed by the sound of the starter cranking. The engine gurgled and caught, then quit. Gurgled and caught, ran for ten seconds and quit. The third time was the charm. As it purred a bubbly sort of rhythm began shaking the truck and ending the silence of the docks before the day began. He engaged the worm-drive axle and rolled through the gate of the property.
Not bothering to close it, he headed down Bayview Avenue breathing a sigh of relief. The others were supposed to be by to collect the alcohol he now had loaded up. He expected them to arrive by water so he had dodged that one. Timing was critical but the gig would be up soon. They did not know where it had been stored so when they did show up it would gain more time before they figured it out. In fact, it would probably be his absence that would tip them off. With luck he might be able to show back up and delay them.
Diaz began concocting a scheme of how he could act surprised when they all opened the hiding locations and found an empty storeroom. He could postpone them knowing his treachery a little while longer. Smiling he turned down Caillavet Street heading to the Elmer Building. What he never saw was the Lincoln parked silently in the shadows that had watched his departure.
Biloxi-3 Aug 1922
The sun was just rising above the oak trees when Charles Taylor walked out of the Magnolia Hotel. He stopped and looked south toward the front beach and the Elmer Building then north in the direction of Back Bay. He followed the breeze coming from the beach and headed away from the elder Desporte but not quite in the direction of the younger. The seafood factory whistles had already blown for the morning shift so there were not many people out and about on the street.
The bed had been lumpy and he had not slept well, though to be honest a good deal of that was the internal struggle he was going through. Biloxi had long been a destination for snowbirds and people from nearby New Orleans to visit but its status had slipped a little on the way to becoming Seafood Capital of the World. Improving the tourism attractions on the Coast was a way to greatly transform the city and take it to the next logical level, but that would not fix Taylor’s more immediate problem: If TransGulf got out of the illegal contraband business what would they get in to?
He walked aimlessly just taking in the sights of the town. He had never been this far up Caillavet Street but there was no fear of getting lost. At this point the peninsula was just under a mile wide and even if the sun were hidden behind clouds the perpetual breeze from the south would let him know which way to go to get where he was headed. Just north of a road, glancing up he could see it was called Strawberry Lane. The sign was faded, B something’s Home and Lumber store. As he approached, two men came out and got into an empty cart pulled by a pair of oxen. Still wandering, he walked in.
“Smitty, get that backroom swep up! You ain’t gettin’ paid fer sittin around.Oh, I’m sorry, suh. Ah didn’t see ya there. What can we do fer ya this fine day?” A tall lady who commanded the room brushed the dust off her apron and smiled at Taylor.
Looking around the room he said, “Well I was just walking down the street and thought I’d stop in to see what you have going on here.”
As she finished rubbing the dust off her hands and apron she walked around the counter and walked closer, “My name’s Chryle Warden and I kinda run the place when Bossy’s out. He just left headed back ‘cross the Bay to where he logs and mills. We have a wide variety a lumber and wood products and if’n ya don’t see sumpen ya like jus’ ask an’ we can prolly get it fer ya.”
Bossy must have been the name on the sign out front. She had a marked accent and pronounced variety in an uneducated manner that sounded more like va-righty, but the way she carried herself it was obvious she was not a slouch. “Shrill was it?” Taylor asked.
“Yessuh, dat’s it. Mos people take a time or two ta get it right.” She smiled as she spoke. “Itsa shame ya just missed Bossy, he could give ya a right proper entryduction to tha place.”
Smiling, Taylor said, “I suspect you won’t do a bad job yourself.”
An hour later a less worried Charles Taylor walked back out of the building and on to Caillavet Street. He looked up to admire the sunshine and lack of cloud cover in the sky and smiled before turning and heading for Desporte’s office. The decision was made and the die cast.
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 the William 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 3rd Street 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.
Chapter 16-Biloxi, 5 August 1922
Biloxi-6 August 1922
An empty cart with two oxen attached sat outside the store on Strawberry Lane as Taylor walked into the store. Shrill was there talking with someone he had not yet met. Both were speaking with a backwoods drawl. It was neither the typical Southern drawl nor was it quite the Cajun sound. Rather it was a lyrical sweet tang of linguistic parts that is prevalent in the area founded but never really controlled by the mishmash of European nations that had been here since the 17th century.
“Flames ‘uz shootin up higher’n the trees on the front beach. It wuz a helluva big ‘un,” Shrill was saying.
“Yeah ol DeJean says he can rebuild in two weeks. I say he’s crazy, take at least three,” the man said. He pronounced the name ‘Dee John’ and while Taylor had never met either of them, he was pretty sure that was not the right pronunciation.
She noticed Taylor and said, “Bossy, this here’s the Mistah Taylor we talked ‘bout. He’s looking to find some lumber to ship.”
The man turned and looked at Taylor. He was middle-aged and had a tough-skinned look to him. Clearly, this was a man who had spent his life outdoors working hard in the sun and wind. On the countertop in front of him was a 410 shotgun.
“Mr. Taylor,” Bossy extended his hand. “Shrill’s told me a lot about you. Said you want to ship some and use some to build hotels.”
He shook hands with the man. A strong grip, not overpowering but more firm than it needed to be. Rough palms proved he worked with his hands and was not scared to do what was needed. “It’s good to meet you, sir. I’ve been talking. . .”
Bossy interrupted, “I ‘preciate the respect, but if’n we’re gonna work together you can drop the sir.” He picked up the shotgun, “Not many men demanding ‘sirs’ go bird hunting before work and carry their guns in with ‘em.”
They both laughed, “It’s good to meet you, Bossy.” Taylor corrected himself, “Shrill here has said you are just the man to help me out. We’re looking to change this town from being known only for seafood.”
“Well, I’m sure there’s a highfalutin feller down on the beach that might have something to say ‘bout that. But I ain’t never shied away from fightin Desporte,” Bossy said as he laid the gun back down. “Pull up a stool and let’s chat.”
Taylor pulled up the offered stool and leaned on the counter, “It’s actually his son I’m working with, and for the shipping, we’re using his old company. We recently got out of the rumrunning business and have a whole slew of schooners waiting for cargo.”
Shrill slipped out from behind the counter and walked to the door while the men were talking. She disappeared as Bossy spoke, “Well Dantzler’s got most of my product. I’ll take you down there later and introduce you.” His drawl made it sound like he had said ‘entrydooce.’
“Well that is a good idea, maybe he’ll cut a deal if I come in with one of his suppliers. But I’d also like to get some wood to use for pilings, too. We’re working on a plan to build something big out on Dog Island.”
Bossy stroked his chin, he was clean shaven but had not shaved today. The stubble produced a scratching sound under his rough hands. “If’n ya build somethin out there, you gotta change the name of that. It might seem fun having a Cat and a Dog Island but it needs a better name, something like the Isle of Caprice.” He pronounced it ‘Isle of Cap-reece’ and laughed. “I might know just the stuff you need. I got my eye on some pine trees out on Graveline Bayou. Shrill’s working on buying the whole lot for me, not just the lumber rights.”
Shrill walked back in and stopped, ‘’Scuse me, but I gots some news for ya’ll.” Both men turned to look at her. “Well ‘parently the DeJean place wasn’t empty last night. They think it wuz uh ‘lectrical fire but somehow Old Man Desporte was inside it.”
Taylor’s heart stopped. He had never wished ill of the man. He had been a faithful employer and had always been fair to him. He would not say the same about others, Taylor himself had seen Desporte lie and cheat his way into and out of some big deals. After what they had done to him yesterday even Desporte would have needed a day or two to lick his wounds. What had he been doing in that factory after dark?
“Well he’ll be missed by somebody,” Bossy said. “But probly not too much by me.’ He stood and asked, “Shrill, you finish the deal on the bayou yet?”
She walked behind the counter again, “Almost, gotta file the papers is all. Gonna do that today, soon as you get them ox out the street,” she playfully said.
“Taylor, how ‘bout you an me go on out to look over the lumber in Graveline? It’s almost ours and I’d like to get it sold quick. I’ll tell you ‘bout the time my oxen got loose and wandered out to my in-law’s whiskey still.”
A fast friendship and a new business deal. Things were looking up for Taylor. Maybe moving to this country was not going to be so bad after all.
Biloxi-7 August 1922
A baseball game was in progress as Ernest Desporte walked up to the stands. It looked like the hastily thrown together ballpark it was but there were plans for a better field for next year on the old Naval Reserve Park. Once the field was moved there could be some thought about what might be built here at the corner of Lee and Division Street. The city would probably finish Division Street before worrying about that though.
The park was an expanse of property ripe for all kinds of development once the city shed the seafood only label his father and grandfather has fought so hard for. That change was one that would pick up steam quickly now thanks to their actions of the last few days.
The stands were wooden benches on wooden supports that wrapped around the bases from first to third getting taller in the middle. The crowd was larger than Desporte expected to see on a Monday. Then again, with DeJean’s closed for rebuilding maybe there was nothing for most of the crowd to be doing anyway.
With his back to the game, he scanned the crowd looking for Luis Diaz. It felt wrong to call this field a stadium even though there were three boxes near the top of the stands. The center box and the one headed toward first were half-filled. The box on the third base side was empty, except for Diaz.
As he entered the box Diaz stood and extended a handshake without taking his attention off the field. “Have a seat,” he offered.
“This guy pitching,” started Diaz, “Biloxi picked him up back on June 10th. Bob Sutherland, he pitched in Texas and a couple of other leagues. About two weeks after he got here, he helped Biloxi beat the Mobile Creamdales. That would’ve been a game to watch. The Creamdales were the fastest semi-pro team in Alabama.”
“And you missed it?” Desporte asked with a chuckle, “Why was that?”
Diaz gave a hard glance at Desporte, “My brother had me babysitting a boat.”
“We didn’t know about him just yet,” Desporte held up his hands. “Sorry you missed the game.”
“Yeah, well, I guess he showed his true colors now. He fooled me, I didn’t even know he had been working with your Pop.”
“I’d love to say we knew it and worked him the whole time but we didn’t. Near the end Woods thought he might flip on us, we just needed his help too much to cut him out.” Desporte waved at a peanut vendor walking up and down the aisles below the box. “It never occurred to us you’d be more critical to our plan than him anyway.”
The peanut vendor threw a bag which Diaz intercepted with one hand. The vendor nodded in respect for a nice catch as Desporte handed change out the window for another spectator to pass the for payment.
Handing over the bag he said, “They found Henry’s car not far from the DeJean place. Bills blamed him for the fire. Said he’d uncovered documents where Henry was claiming ownership of the place. But Bills called them void because it was an alcohol-related debt.”
A half-laugh came from Desporte’s peanut-filled mouth. Swallowing he said, “That was before they found Dad’s body. Bills was loyal to the end. More afraid of the old man then getting justice wrong.”
“I guess we all misjudged him. He’s gone now, no one knows where, and I never figured he’d ever leave Biloxi.” Diaz turned back to watch the game.
They watched in silence as the inning ended and Sutherland again took the mound.
“Looks like they could take both games of the doubleheader. They have never done that. And this New Orleans team is the best semi-pro team in all of Louisiana,” said Diaz.
“I didn’t know you were such a baseball fan, Luis.”
He shrugged, “Everybody’s got a hobby. What’s yours?”
Ernest watched as Sutherland threw a strike, “Well, some men like fishing. Some like fowling. Some men like to hear,” the pitcher threw another strike that was loud when it hit the catcher’s mitt. “Cannonballs roaring. Me? I like sleeping.”
Luis turned from the game to look at Ernest, “Sleeping?”
“Especially in my Molly’s chamber. Except now,” the pitcher struck out the batter. “I feel like I’m in prison. Here I am without the wife I thought I’d spend my life with.”
The next batter came up to the plate and took a practice swing as Diaz looked to his friend, “She tried to turn you over to your Dad, but it didn’t work. You won. Couldn’t you take her back?”
A foul tip headed into the stands near them. “And if your brother showed up, would you take him back?”
“Fair enough, but you gotta do something other than work, right?” Diaz asked.
He let the question hang in the air and they both went back to watching the ballgame.
“This is a great sport. The team leaves something to be desired. Ultimately though, I don’t really think it’ll grow here. These semi-pro teams mean the players are paid, just not as a part of the minor league farm system. The population base isn’t big enough to support much more,” said Diaz.
“Permanent population or temporary?” asked Desporte.
Diaz smiled as he answered, “I don’t know if your snowbirds will care about a sport played in spring and summer.”
“Some will be snowbirds, but some will be carpet baggers. Some snowbirds will come for the winter and stay for opportunities,” corrected Desporte. “It isn’t only the seasonal traveller we’re aiming for. We want them year round. Starting with the hotels and attractions but diversifying the jobs, too.”
On the field, the batter swung and connected with a line drive to right field that dropped down just enough to give him time to make it to first. “You aren’t asking me for my share to hire an extra shift, you talked about a different plan,” said Diaz.
Desporte paused before answering, “I’ve started shipping lumber. There’s a big demand for it in Europe. But that’s gonna pick up, and pay up, on its own. More men in the woods cutting trees is important but it pays off directly. The slow part, for now, is the hotels. Are you familiar with the Riviera?”
“It burned back in May, right?” asked Diaz.
“Yeah, but not all of it,” Desporte explained. “The fire department did a great job keeping it under control. There was still about $20,000 worth of damage done though. I talked with Apperson, the owner, he said it was insured but his plans for building back are huge. Next month we’ll tear down the east wing and build it back plus add a third story. We’re trying to get it all done for the winter season.”
“That’s what you need my money for?”
“Some of it. We’re also working on a new location. Closer to the lighthouse, it has a beautiful view out toward the gulf. And further out, Eugene had the idea of a resort on Dog Island. Trying to secure the property rights on that.”
Diaz watched the game in silent contemplation. The batter did a near perfect bunt as the runner advanced to second. Sutherland picked up the ball and got the second out of the inning. He intentionally walked the next two batters which brought the strongest hitter for New Orleans up to the plate. Sutherland never took his eyes off the guy. From the time the second batter headed to first he had shifted his gaze to stare down the slugger.
Something about the way Sutherland acted must have worked because he struck the guy out in five pitches to retire the side and end the game. The Biloxi dugout emptied as they swarmed the field to celebrate the doubleheader victory. “I think we can work something out,” started Diaz. “I’m in. A fantastic finish is good whether you set it up or it comes naturally.”
There was a lot of work left to go. Transforming a town was not for the faint of heart.
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.
Chapter 18-Biloxi, September 1923
Biloxi West End-7 September 1923
A stiff breeze blew in from the Gulf thick with salt and moisture. A flock of least terns flew overhead screeching. Below them, a group of people were gathered where the land met the water. Occasionally a lone bird would dive down in the hopes one of the group had any food for them. Despite the fact that none was offered the birds stayed witnessing the event.
The crowd of nearly fifty people gathered around a fresh pile of dirt with three shovels sticking out of it. To one side were a photographer and a reporter from the newspaper and on the other stood Webster, Diaz, Woods, Ladner, and Desporte. Three men walked up to the shovels and with a flourish and showmanship for the photographer proceeded to dig a shovel of dirt and throw it to one side to a round of applause from the crowd.
The perseverance of the birds was rewarded as the crowd headed to the catering tent nearby with two of the dignitaries while the third walked over to where Desporte and the others stood.
“Ernest, glad you could make it,” said the man.
“Wouldn’t have missed it for the world Colonel. Allow me to introduce you to my friends, this is Colonel John W. Apperson. Currently he owns the Riviera Hotel and has just broken ground on. . .” Desporte trailed off looking at Apperson.
“The Buena Vista. Beautiful View in Spanish,” offered Apperson.
“Ah, the Buena Vista, soon to be the newest resort hotel on the Biloxi beach. Colonel, my associates, Clarence Webster, Captain Woods, Luis Diaz, and Eugene Ladner,” continued Desporte.
“Any friend of Ernest’s is a friend of mine. And it’s J.W. to my friends,” Apperson said as he shook each man’s hands.
“So what’s it going to look like then, J.W.?” asked Webster.
Apperson moved to the side of the group to wave his hands and paint a visual picture for them, “A Spanish Colonial Revival building containing 105 rooms overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. Carl Matthes designed it to be a modern updating of the classic look. It will be a true marvel and a destination worthy of the title resort.”
Woods looked over his shoulder admiring the imagined building, “Aye, but who’s going to build it?”
Apperson laughed, “Underwood Construction out of New Orleans. They should be here in the morning to get it started. But this isn’t the only one we’re working on is it Ernest?”
Desporte looked at the group, “No, we’re still working out the details on that one. In negotiations on purchasing the rights to Dog Island now. That hotel resort will be just outside the 12 mile limit. Gambling and alcohol will be allowed. Maybe not offered, but allowed.”
“Well, the gambling is a shoe-in,” added Apperson. “It’s the booze that’s questionable. I think gambling will be a huge boon to the tourism industry here on the Coast.”
A second dignitary from the event was walking up to the group, “Colonel, they want you at the cake for another picture,” he said.
“Will you gentlemen excuse me?” Apperson asked as he bowed slightly and walked towards the tent.
“Mayor,” said Webster, “I think you know Erenest and the Captain here, but I’ll introduce you to Eugene Ladner. He’s been my right hand man for some time but he’s leaving soon for a new career. Eugene, Mayor John Kennedy.”
Ladner offered his hand, “Mayor, very nice to meet you.”
“It’s good to see all of you,” the Mayor said, “But I do apologize. I must get back as well. Very nice to meet you Eugene.” He tipped his hat and headed toward the tent as the third dignitary made his way over.
“Dad, I’m glad you could come. And the rest of you, too. It isn’t every day that the future jewel of the city starts construction.” Senator John Webster said.
Woods looked down the beach, “What else do you have in store, Senator?”
The Senator stepped to the side and looked in the same direction as Woods, “Funny you would mention it, but I have been pushing for a big civil works project for the Corps of Engineers to work on. Just got approved last month and will be under design soon. A seawall that stretches from Biloxi to Bay St. Louis.”
“Seawall? That has to be 25 miles if it’s a foot,” said Desporte. “How long will that take to build?”
“Let’s put it this way, Eugene’ll be out of school by then. Probably four years at least,” said the Senator.
Desporte slapped Ladner on the back as the boy smiled and hung his head embarrassed by the attention. “When do you leave?”
“The Senator and I will be traveling together after the ceremony. He’ll stay in Washington and I’ll continue on to Annapolis.,” said Ladner. The men congratulated Ladner again on his appointment to the Naval Academy as the birds swooped by.
“Look,” started the Senator, “I know y’all have a lot invested in turning things around here. But from my perspective it was the best thing that could happen.”
Desporte cleared his throat, “My family’s been working hard to keep their vision the only vision for Biloxi for a long time. But it’s too much a gem to only allow one facet to shine. It was time for a change. A non-violent change.”
“Yes, well violent changes are seldom enduring as it relates to history so let’s hope this one sticks,” said Woods.
The group wandered over to the tent with the rest of the crowd. The birds continued to swoop down for any food that his the ground, and the breeze continued to blow. The hustle and bustle of life in the city, and especially on the docks, continued but further west the sun was setting on the horizon and a warm red glow spread across the entire sky.
Vashon Island-October 1929
Newly promoted Lieutenant Junior Grade Ladner exited the car and walked towards the porch. The ferry ride from Ballard had been without incident but had earned him many stares from locals. The roads on Vashon Island were not used by many cars and none were yet paved. As if a car were not out of the ordinary enough, here was a uniformed member of the navy traveling well off the beaten path. But Ladner was used to stares now.
“I should have known,” said Lander looking at the lady sitting on the porch. “When I saw it on the map I just had to check it out and now it makes sense. How have you been Missus Cuevas?”
Jenny Cuevas stood up from her rocking chair, “The face looks familiar, but my memory’s going slowly. Do we know each other?” she asked.
“Eugene Ladner, I helped bring your husband back from rum-running back in 22,” he explained.
She held a hand to her heart, “Oh yes, Captain Woods’s friends, how could I forget? Come up and sit a spell. I’ll go fetch us some tea.”
Ladner walked up the porch steps, “Thank you, but I don’t have much time. I saw Biloxi on the map and had to check it out. Is Captain Cuevas around?”
“He’s around, but you won’t get much out of him. He passed away last year and I buried him in the yard out back. He couldn’t stand being away from his beloved. We moved here and named the house Biloxi. When they put in streets they transferred the name and before you know it there it was on the map,” explained Cuevas.
Ladner looked around, the crisp, cool air of the Northwest made the ever present drizzling rain feel worse. “You did pick a nice place here. My only complaint about it is that it’s too far north. I think the Puget Sound would be the perfect place to live if it were closer to the Gulf of Mexico.”
Cuevas laughed, “Ray said something similar just before he passed. Are you sure you won’t have a glass of tea?”
“Oh, no ma’am. It took longer to get here than I thought it would and I have to get back. We ship out tomorrow. I’m not sure what the future holds but I had to see the other Biloxi.” Ladner tipped his hat and got back into the car. The morning sunrise had been covered in clouds and been quite red but things still looked good in his mind.