The Boys from Biloxi: A Legal Thriller (12 page)

BOOK: The Boys from Biloxi: A Legal Thriller
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All three shook their heads and watched as Hugh weaved through the crowd and made his way to the gambling counter. He must have felt lucky because he returned with four bottles of Falstaff beer.

For the main event, the pit grew even louder. Men lined up to place bets as Phil Arkwright harangued them to hurry up, the roosters were getting antsy. They finally made their entrance, with their handlers squeezing their wings firmly to keep them under control. When the birds saw one another they almost jumped out of their feathers. Both breeds were famous for their “no retreat, no surrender” style of life-or-death fighting.

Hugh, now with money on the line, started yelling like the others, as if a rooster a hundred feet away could understand him. The one named Elvis looked nothing like the singer but for some thick black plumage that rose up the back of his neck and topped off his head. His razor-like spurs glistened as if they had been polished.

The beaks touched and the handlers quickly withdrew. The crowd bellowed as grown men yelled at two birds fighting in the
sand. The cocks crowed and attacked, with blood on the line. Elvis stood a bit taller and used his height to peck away furiously. The Hatch knocked him down, rolled him over, and seemed ready to pounce when Elvis suddenly took flight, swooped over the Hatch, and landed on his back, both gaffs hacking away. Blood was suddenly everywhere on the Hatch and he could not get away for a break. Elvis smelled a quick knockout and hit even faster. The Hatch finally managed to scramble away from the onslaught but had trouble walking. It was obvious that he was grievously wounded. The crowd, or at least those who put money on the Hatch, were stunned at how quickly Elvis had cut up their favorite. He lunged at the Hatch, spun him around, and like an expert in martial arts, hacked his throat with a gaff. The blow almost decapitated the Hatch, who was suddenly defenseless.

It was a blood sport and death was part of it. Arkwright was not one to show sympathy or cheat his crowd out of a thrill, so he allowed Elvis to mutilate his opponent for a few more seconds. The mauling lasted less than a minute.

Hugh was speechless, so his buddies came to his rescue. “Great bet there, Hugh,” Keith said with a laugh.

“Hang out here often?” asked Denny.

“That wasn’t even a decent fight,” added Joey.

Hugh, always a good sport, raised both hands in surrender and said, “All right, all right, let me have it. You guys wanna show me how it’s done? Let’s do a side bet on the next fight. A dollar each.”

But they were too broke to gamble. They finished their beers as they enjoyed a few more fights, then headed back to the car. Their long weekend was over. They would tell no one of their visit to Arkwright’s, though Lance Malco would find out soon enough. He really didn’t care. Hugh was only sixteen but was mature for his age and could certainly take care of himself. He was showing no interest in college and that was fine with Lance as well.

The boy was needed in the family business.

Chapter 13

Two days after Thanksgiving in 1966, the body of Marcus Dean Poppy was found in an alley behind a brothel on Decatur Street in the French Quarter. He had been beaten with a blunt instrument and finished off with two bullets to the head. His pockets were empty; there was no wallet, no means of identification. Not surprisingly, no one inside the brothel would admit to having seen him before. No one heard a peep from the alley. It took the New Orleans police two weeks to determine who he was, and by then any hope of finding his killer was gone. It was a rough town with a lot of crime, and the police were accustomed to finding bodies in alleys. A detective poked around Biloxi and put together a brief sketch of the victim, who’d once owned Carousel Lounge but who hadn’t been seen in town for over three years. A brother in Texas was located, informed of the death, but had no interest in retrieving the body.

The story finally made its way to the
Gulf Coast Register,
but was easily missed on page three, bottom left-hand corner. The reporter did manage to link the murder to the one of Earl Fortier back in 1963. That one led to a trial in which Nevin Noll was acquitted.

Absolutely no one would comment. The people who knew both Poppy and Fortier back in the day were either long gone or hiding in the shadows. Those who read the story and knew the players in Biloxi’s underworld figured Lance Malco had finally settled another old debt. It was common knowledge that Poppy had outslicked him when he sold Carousel Lounge to Ginger Redfield
and her gang, and it was only a matter of time before Lance got his man. Carousel had become an even more popular nightclub and casino, one that rivaled Foxy’s and Red Velvet, and one that Malco still coveted. Ginger was a tough businesswoman and ran it well. Along with O’Malley’s, she had added another club on the Strip and a couple of bars on the north side of town. She was ambitious, and as her empire expanded it was inevitably encroaching on turf that Lance Malco believed was rightfully his.

A showdown was looming. Tension was in the air as both gangs watched each other. Fats Bowman knew the streets and had cautioned both crime lords against outright warfare. Selfishly, he wanted more clubs, more gambling, more of everything, but he was smart enough to understand the need for a peaceful flow of commerce. If and when the shooting started, there would be no way to control it. Hell, they were all making money, and lots of it, so why get even greedier? An old-fashioned gangland shootout would only rile the public, bring in unwanted attention, and possibly provoke outside interference from the state police and the Feds.

Jesse Rudy read the story about Poppy’s murder and knew what had happened. It was another grim reminder of the lawlessness that was growing in his town. He had finally made the decision to do something about it.

Keith was home for the Christmas break, and after dinner one night Jesse and Agnes gathered their four children in the den for a family chat. Beverly was sixteen, Laura fifteen, and both were students at Biloxi High. Tim was thirteen and in junior high.

Jesse said that he and their mother had had many long conversations about their future, and had made the decision that he would seek the office of district attorney in next year’s 1967 election. Rex Dubisson, the current DA, was completing his second term and would be a formidable opponent. He was entrenched with the old
guard and would be well financed. Most of the local lawyers would support him, as would most of the other elected officials. More importantly, he would be backed by the nightclub owners, mobsters, and other crooks who had controlled local politics for years. His children knew their children.

Hopefully, Jesse would have the support of those on the right side of the law, which should be the majority of voters. But there were many who paid lip service to reform while secretly enjoying the easy life on the Coast. They liked the upscale clubs, the fine restaurants, with cocktails and wine lists, and the neighborhood watering holes away from the Strip. There had been many politicians who campaigned with promises of reform, only to succumb to the corruption once elected. And there were those who had managed to keep their integrity while turning a blind eye. He had no plans to do so.

The campaign would be strenuous and perhaps dangerous. Once the mobsters realized he was serious about reform, there could be threats and intimidation. He would never risk the well-being of his family, but he seriously doubted anyone would be bold enough to threaten real harm. And, yes, they would all hit the streets, knocking on doors and putting up yard signs.

Keith, the oldest and unquestioned leader of the pack, spoke first and said he wasn’t afraid of a damned thing. He was proud of his parents for the decision and he couldn’t wait to start campaigning. At college, he had grown accustomed to comments about Biloxi. Most students had a romanticized vision of the vice and all the fun it offered. Many had been in the clubs and bars. Few understood the dark side of the Strip. And there were those who viewed anyone from Biloxi with suspicion.

If the idea was good enough for Keith, then Beverly, Laura, and Tim were on board. They could handle any snide comments from kids at school. They were proud of their father and supported his decision.

He cautioned them to keep the plans quiet. He would announce
his candidacy in a month or so; until then, not a word. The election would be settled in the Democratic primary in August, so they had a busy summer in front of them.

When the conversation was over, the family held hands and Jesse led them in prayer.

Two nights later, Keith met the old gang at a new downtown bar. The state had finally changed its antiquated liquor laws and allowed each county to vote yes or no to the sale of alcohol. Not surprisingly, the Coast counties—Harrison, Hancock, and Jackson—had quickly voted yes. Liquor stores and bars were soon doing a brisk business. For those eighteen and older, it was legal to drink. This put a dent in vice trade, but the gangsters filled the gap with marijuana and cocaine. Gambling and skin were still in demand. Business on the Strip was still thriving.

Hugh was working for his father and running a construction crew building new apartments, or so he said. The others suspected he was hanging around the clubs. Joey Grasich was home on leave from the navy. Denny Smith was a full-time student at the junior college and had never left home.

The four retired to a table, ordered pitchers of beer, and lit cigarettes. Joey told stories of basic training in California, a place he was quite taken with. With some luck, he would be assigned to a submarine and stay far away from Vietnam.

The boys found it hard to believe they were out of high school and approaching adulthood. They were curious about Keith’s baseball career at Southern Miss, and he reported that he’d had a good fall tryout. He had not made the team but he had not been cut either. The coach wanted him to practice every day, starting in February, and see how his arm developed. The team had plenty of pitchers, but then, in baseball, there’s never enough pitching.

Hugh had retired as a boxer. In his two-year career, he fought
eighteen bouts, won nine, lost seven, and had two draws. Buster, his coach, had become frustrated with his training habits because Hugh admittedly had no desire to lay off the beer, cigarettes, and girls. He always won the first round, lost steam in the second, and held on for his life in the third when his feet got heavy and he had trouble breathing.

As the beer flowed, Hugh said, “Hey, remember Fuzz Foster, my second fight in Golden Gloves?”

They laughed and said of course they remembered.

“Well, I fought him two more times, in the ring. The ref stopped that first fight because we were both cut. A year later I beat him on points in a tournament in Jackson. Two months after that, he beat me on points. I came to really despise the guy, you know? Then, about three months ago we had our fourth fight, and this one was not in the ring. No gloves. He was in Foxy’s one night with a bunch of his boys, all drunk as skunks, raising hell. I was working security and trying to stay away from them. Sure enough, a fight broke out and I had to step over. When Fuzz saw me he had a big smile and we acknowledged each other. We got the fight under control, kicked out a couple of boneheads, then Fuzz started this crap about how he’d kicked my ass all three times and got screwed by the refs and judges. He was still boxing and started bragging about winning the state welterweight in a couple of months and going on to the Olympics. Total bullshit. I told him to pipe down because he was too loud. The place was full, other customers were getting tired of his mouth. He got mean, got in my face, and asked me if I wanted another go at it. We had plenty of security and another guy stepped between us. This really pissed off Fuzz and he threw a wild right that bounced off the top of my head, one of those drunk hooks that good boxers duck. But you know Fuzz, always going for the big knockout. I popped him in the jaw and the brawl was on. We slugged it out as his buddies piled on. What a mess. It was wonderful. Fuzz wasn’t on his game because he was drunk and unsteady. I got him on the floor and
was pounding his face when they pulled me off. We finally got ’em outside and called the cops. Last time I saw Fuzz he was getting hauled away in handcuffs.”

“Did y’all press charges?”

“Naw, we rarely do. I went to court the next day, talked to the cops, and got him out. He had a broken nose and two puffy eyes. I drove him home and told him never to come back. I really kicked his ass.”

“So you work security?” Joey asked. “Thought you were building apartments.”

“That’s my day job. Sometimes I work the clubs. A guy’s gotta do something at night.” His cockiness had only grown worse with age. His father was the king of the underworld, with plenty of money and power, and now he was grooming his oldest son to learn the business. He paid him well and Hugh always had plenty of cash. And fast cars, nicer clothes, more expensive tastes.

They bantered back and forth, then enjoyed more of Hugh’s exploits in the clubs. He had the floor and relished telling stories about the shady characters he encountered on the Strip.

Keith listened, laughed, drank his beer, and acted as though all was well, but he knew these moments were fleeting. The friendships were about to change, or vanish altogether. In a few short months, his father, and his family, would be in the middle of a rough campaign that pitted new versus old, good versus evil.

For him and Hugh, it was probably their last beer together. The moment Jesse Rudy announced his campaign, the conflict would be clearly defined, and there would be no going back. At first, the underworld would be amused at yet another politician promising to clean up Biloxi, but that would soon change. Jesse Rudy had an iron will and a strong moral compass and he played to win. He would battle the crooks to the bitter end, all the way to the ballot box.

And his family would be at his side.

Keith wasn’t sure where the other friends would land. Denny
was already bored with college but would not jeopardize his deferment. He and Hugh were talking about renovating some retail spaces together. Denny didn’t have a dime, so any financing would no doubt come from Mr. Malco. It was well known that he had his tentacles in many legitimate businesses and used them to launder his dirty money.

Joey’s father had once been close to Lance, but was a commercial fisherman and stayed away from the mobsters. Keith had no idea how Joey would deal with a split in the gang.

The thought of the friends dividing over politics was unsettling, but the fault lines were just under the surface.

They left the bar and piled into Hugh’s latest sports car, a 1966 Mustang convertible. He drove them to Mary Mahoney’s Old French House and paid cash for a big dinner of steaks and seafood.

Keith was prescient in his feeling that it would be their last night on the town together.

BOOK: The Boys from Biloxi: A Legal Thriller
9.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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