Authors: John Grisham
They disappeared into the mob. Sherry Ann moved closer to Jesse, who smiled and said, “Look, I’m not in the game. I’m happily married with four kids at home. Sorry.”
She sighed, smiled, understood, and said, “Thanks for the drink.” Within seconds she was working the other end of the bar. After a few minutes of bump-and-grind, Felix and Debbie breezed by and grabbed their drinks. He whispered, loudly, “Say, we’re going upstairs. Give me thirty minutes, okay?”
Suddenly lonely at the bar and wishing to avoid another pickup attempt, Jesse went to the casino and walked through it. He had heard rumors about the Truck Stop’s growing popularity, but he was startled at the number of tables. Slot machines lined the walls. Roulette and craps tables were on one side, poker and blackjack on the other. Dozens of gamblers, almost all men and many in uniform, were gambling as they smoked, drank, and yelled. Cocktail waitresses scurried about, trying to keep up with demand. And it was only a Tuesday night.
Jesse knew to avoid roulette and craps because the games were rigged. It was well known that the only consistently honest game in town was blackjack. He found an empty stool at a crowded 25-cent table and pulled out two dollars, his limit. An hour later he was up $2.50 and Felix was nowhere in sight.
At eleven, he called his brother and harangued him for a ride home.
The following year, 1955, Jesse enrolled in night classes at the Loyola Law School in New Orleans. Since the dinner with Felix, he had become infatuated with the idea of becoming a lawyer, and talked, at least to Agnes, of little else. She finally grew weary of the same conversations and set aside her reluctance. With four small children a nursing job, even part-time, was out of the question,
but she would support him and together they could make it work. Both despised the idea of debt, but when his father offered a $2,000 loan, they had no choice but to take it.
On Tuesdays, after class, Jesse hurried to New Orleans, a two-hour drive, and usually arrived about fifteen minutes late for the 6:00
class. The professors understood their students and the demands on their time as full-time employees elsewhere. They were in law school, at night, going about their studies the hard way, and most rules were flexible. Over four hours, covering two courses, Jesse took copious notes, engaged in discussions, and, when possible, read upcoming materials. He absorbed the law and was thrilled by its challenges. Late in the night, as the second course came to a close, he was often the only student still wide awake and eager to engage with the professor. At 9:50 sharp, he hustled from the classroom and to his car for the drive home. At midnight, Agnes was always waiting with a warmed-over dinner and questions about his classes.
He seldom slept more than five hours a night and woke before dawn to prepare his own history lectures, or to grade papers.
On Thursday nights, he was off again to Loyola for two more classes. He never missed one, nor did he miss a day of work or Mass or a family dinner. As his children grew, he always had time to play in the backyard or take them to the beach. Agnes often found him at midnight on the sofa, dead from exhaustion, with a thick casebook opened and resting on his chest. When he survived the first year with stellar grades, they opened a bottle of cheap champagne late one night and celebrated. Then they passed out. One benefit of the fatigue was the lack of energy for sex. Four kids were enough.
As his studies progressed, and as it became more apparent to his family and friends that he was not chasing a crazy dream, a degree of pride crept into his world. He would be the first lawyer from the Point, the first of all those children and grandchildren of immigrants who had worked and sacrificed in the new country. There were rumors that he would leave and rumors that he would stay.
Would he go to work in a nice firm in Biloxi, or would he open his own shop on the Point and help his people? Was it true he wanted to work for a big firm in New Orleans?
The curious, though, kept their questions to themselves. Jesse never heard the rumblings. He was too busy to worry about the neighbors. He had no plans to leave the Coast and tried to meet every lawyer in town. He hung around the courtrooms and became friendly with the judges and their court reporters.
After four years of slogging through night school and losing countless hours of sleep, Jesse Rudy graduated from Loyola with honors, passed the Mississippi bar exam, and took an associate’s position with a three-man firm on Howard Avenue in downtown Biloxi. His starting salary was on the same level with that of a high school history teacher, but there was the allure of the bonus. At the end of each year, the firm tallied up its income and rewarded each lawyer with a bonus based on hours worked and new business generated. Lean and hungry, Jesse immediately began his career by clocking in each morning at 5:00.
While the law degree at first meant little in the way of real money, it meant something more to the mortgage banker. He knew the law firm well and thought highly of its partners. He approved Jesse’s application for a loan, and the family moved into a three-bedroom home in the western part of Biloxi.
As the first local lawyer of Croatian descent, Jesse was immediately flooded with the everyday legal problems of his people. He couldn’t say no, and so he spent hours preparing inexpensive wills, deeds, and simple contracts. He was never bored by this, and he welcomed his clients into his handsome office as if they were millionaires. Jesse Rudy’s success became the source of many proud stories on the Point.
For his first big case, a partner asked him to research several issues involved in a business deal that had gone sour. The owner of the Truck Stop had verbally agreed to sell his business to a syndicate fronted by a local operator named Snead. There was also a
written contract for the land, and another contract for a lease or two. The parties had been negotiating for a year, without the benefit of legal counsel, and, not surprisingly, there was confusion and tension. Everyone was angry and ready to sue. The owner of the Truck Stop had even been threatened with a good beating.
The owners of the syndicate preferred to hide behind Snead and remain anonymous, but as the layers were peeled away, it became known, at least among the lawyers, that the principal investor was none other than Lance Malco.
The price war began in a brothel. A small-time gangster named Cleveland bought an old club on the Strip called Foxy’s. He tacked on a cheap wing for gambling and a slightly nicer one for his whores. While there was no set price for half an hour of pleasure with a girl, the generally accepted rate, and one tacitly agreed upon by the owners, was twenty dollars. At Foxy’s the rate was cut in half and the news spread like wildfire through Keesler. And since the soldiers were thirsty before and after, the price of a cheap draft beer was also discounted. The place was slammed and there was not enough parking.
To survive, some of the other low-end clubs cut their rates too. Then the owners began poaching girls. The economics of Biloxi vice, always a fragile equilibrium, were upended. In an attempt to restore order, some tough guys stopped by Foxy’s late one night, slapped around a bartender, beat up two bouncers, and passed along the warning that selling sex and booze for less than the “standard rate” was unacceptable. The beatings proved contagious and a wave of violence swept through the Strip. An ambush behind one joint led to retaliation at another. The owners complained to the police, who listened but were not too worried. There had yet to be a killing and, well, boys will be boys. What’s the real danger in a few fights? Let the crooks take care of their own markets.
In the midst of the turmoil, which raged on for over a year, a star rookie entered the picture. His name was Nevin Noll, a twenty-year-old recruit who’d joined the air force to escape
trouble back home in eastern Kentucky. He came from a colorful family of moonshiners and outlaws and had been raised to hold a dim view of the law. Not a single male relative had tried honest work in decades. Young Nevin, though, dreamed of leaving and pursuing a more glorious life as a famous gangster. He left sooner than expected and in a hurry.
In his wake were at least two pregnant girls, with angry fathers, and an assault warrant that stemmed from a vicious beating he’d given an off-duty deputy. Fighting was second nature; he’d rather throw punches than drink cold beer. He stood six feet two inches, was thick through the chest and as strong as an ox, and his fists were freakishly quick and efficient. In six weeks of basic training at Keesler, he had already broken two jaws, knocked out numerous teeth, and put one boy in the hospital with a concussion.
One more fight, and Nevin would be dishonorably discharged.
It happened soon enough. He was shooting craps at Red Velvet with a couple of buddies on a Saturday night when an argument erupted over a set of suspicious dice. An angry gambler called them “loaded dice,” and reached for his chips. The stickman was quicker. A side dealer shoved the gambler, who had been drinking, and who, evidently, did not take shoving well. Nevin had just rolled the dice, lost, and was also suspicious of the table. Because so many customers were soldiers and prone to drink, Red Velvet had plenty of bouncers, and they were always watching the boys in uniform. Nothing excited Nevin more than flying fists, and he jumped into the middle of the argument. When a dealer pushed him back, he shot a left hook to the man’s chin and knocked him out cold. Two guards were on Nevin in an instant and both got their noses flattened before they could throw a punch. Bodies were flying in all directions and he wanted more. His two pals from the base backed away and watched with admiration. They had seen it all before. Fully grown men, regardless of their size, were nothing but punching bags when they got too close to Mr. Noll.
The dealer with the stick leapt across the table and took a wild swing. It hit Nevin across the shoulder but did no damage. He hit the guy four times in the face, each blow drawing blood.
All gambling stopped as a crowd gathered around the craps table. Nevin stood in the middle of the pile of beaten and bloodied men, looked around, wild-eyed, and kept saying, “Come on, come on. Who’s next?” No one moved in his direction.
It ended without further bloodshed when two bouncers with shotguns appeared. Nevin smiled and raised his hands. He won the fight but lost the battle. Once he was handcuffed, the guards kicked his legs out from under him and dragged him away. Just another night in jail.
Early Sunday morning, Lance Malco and his chief of security rounded up the two dealers and two security guards, none of whom were in any mood to talk, and replayed the fight. The side dealer’s jaw was horribly swollen. The stickman’s face was a mess of cuts—one in each eyebrow, one on the bridge of his nose, plus a busted lower lip. Each security guard held an ice pack to his nose and tried to see through blurred and puffy eyes.
“What a fine team,” Lance said with derision. “One man did all this damage?”
He made each one describe what happened. All four reluctantly marveled at the speed with which they got nailed.
“Guy must be a boxer or something,” one of the guards said.
“Sumbitch can punch, I’ll tell you that,” said the other.
“You don’t have to tell me,” Lance said with a laugh. “I can see it in your face.”
He didn’t fire them. Instead he went to court and watched Nevin Noll appear before the judge and plead not guilty to four counts of assault. His court-appointed lawyer explained to the court that his client had, only the day before, been discharged from Keesler and was headed back to Kentucky. That should be punishment enough, shouldn’t it?
Noll was released on a cheap bond and ordered to return in
two days. Lance cornered Nevin’s lawyer and asked if he could have a word with his client, said he might be willing to drop the charges if they could strike a deal. Lance had a nose for talent, be it slick card dealers, pretty young girls, or violent men. He recruited the best and paid them well.
For Nevin Noll, it was a miracle. He could forget the military, forget going home to Kentucky, and instead get a real job doing what he dreamed of—working for a crime boss, handling security, hanging out in bars and brothels, and occasionally cracking a skull or two. In an instant, Nevin Noll became the most loyal employee Lance Malco would ever hire.
The Boss, as he was known by then, demoted the security guards with broken noses and put them in a truck fetching liquor off a boat. Noll was moved into the office upstairs, a “corporate suite,” at Red Velvet, and began learning the business.
Cleveland, the owner of Foxy’s, had withstood numerous threats and was still selling sex on the cheap. Something had to be done and Lance saw the opportunity to show real leadership. He and his boys devised a simple plan of attack, one that would elevate Nevin Noll to new heights, or get him killed.
At five o’clock one Friday afternoon in early March 1961, the Boss received word from a lookout that Cleveland had just parked his new Cadillac in its usual place behind Foxy’s. Ten minutes later, Nevin Noll entered, went to the bar, and ordered a drink. The lounge was practically empty, but a band was setting up in a corner and preparations were underway for another busy night. Security was light but that would change in an hour or so.
Noll asked the bartender if Mr. Cleveland was in, said he wanted a word with him.
The bartender frowned, kept drying a beer mug, and said, “Not sure. Who wants to know?”
“Well, I do. Mr. Malco sent me over. You know Mr. Lance Malco, right?”
“Never heard of him.”
“Of course not. I wouldn’t expect you to know much at all.” Noll was off the stool and headed to the end of the bar.
“Hey asshole!” the bartender said. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Going to see Mr. Cleveland. I know where he’s hiding back there.”
The bartender was not a small man and he’d broken up his share of fights. “Wait a minute, buddy,” he said, and he grabbed Noll’s left arm, a mistake. With his right, Noll spun and landed a crunching blow to the bartender’s left jaw, dropping him like a brick and into oblivion. A thug in a black cowboy hat materialized from the shadows and charged at Noll, who snatched an empty beer mug off the bar and bounced it off his ear. With both on the floor, Noll looked around. Two men at a table gawked at him in disbelief. The band members froze in place and were not sure what to do, if anything. Noll nodded to them, then disappeared through swinging doors. The hallway was dark, the kitchen was further ahead. A former bartender had told Malco that Cleveland’s office was behind a blue door at the end of the narrow hallway. Noll kicked it in and announced his arrival with “Hello Cleveland, got a minute?”
A thick boy in a coat and tie was bolting from a chair. He never made it, as Noll pummeled him with three quick punches to his face. He fell to the floor, groaning. Cleveland was behind his desk and had been on the phone, which he was now holding in midair. For a second or two he was too surprised to react. He dropped the phone and reached down to open a drawer, but he was too late. Noll lunged across the desk, slapped him hard in the face, and knocked him out of his chair. The objective was to beat soundly but not to kill. The Boss wanted Cleveland alive, at least for now. Using nothing but his fists, Noll broke both jawbones, split lips, knocked out teeth, closed eyes, lacerated cheeks and forehead, and separated the nasal bone from the cranial cavity. When the thick
boy made more sounds, Noll took a heavy ashtray and drove it into the back of his skull.
A small side door opened and a platinum blonde of about thirty appeared and, seeing the carnage, almost screamed. She covered her mouth with both hands and looked in horror at Noll. He quickly removed a revolver from a rear pocket and nodded to a chair. “Sit down and shut up!” he growled. She backed into the chair, still unable to utter a sound. From a front pocket, Noll pulled out an eight-inch tube, a silencer, and screwed it over the revolver’s barrel. He fired one shot into the ceiling and the woman shrieked. He fired another shot into the wall three feet above her head and said, “Listen to me, dammit!”
She was too horrified to react. He fired another shot into the wall, the same muted thud.
He stood above her, pointed the pistol, and said, “Tell Cleveland he’s got seven days to shut this place down. Got it?”
She managed to nod.
“I’ll be back in seven days. If he’s here, he really gets hurt.” He unscrewed the silencer, tossed it into her lap as a souvenir, and stuck the revolver under his belt. He walked out of the office, ducked into the kitchen, and left through a rear door.
The price war was over.
Cleveland spent three weeks in a hospital, with lots of tubes and a ventilator. His brain swelled from time to time and his doctors induced one coma after another. Fearing another visit from Noll, his girlfriend, the platinum blonde, closed Foxy’s to await orders from Cleveland. When he was finally released from the hospital, he couldn’t walk and was rolled out in a wheelchair. Though brain-damaged, he had enough sense to realize his ambitious venture onto the Strip had come to an end.
Because Nevin Noll was new to the scene, no one recognized him and an identification was not possible. However, his one-man assault on Foxy’s became an instant legend, and left no doubt that Lance Malco was indeed the Boss.
A bank foreclosed on Foxy’s and plywood was nailed over its doors and windows. It remained boarded up for six months, then was sold to a corporation out of New Orleans, one controlled by Lance Malco.
With four clubs now under his thumb, Lance Malco controlled the largest share of vice along the Coast. The cash poured in and he shared it with his gang and the politicians who mattered. He believed in spending money to meet the demands of his customers, and he offered the best booze, girls, and gambling east of the Mississippi.
Competition was a constant problem. Success bred imitation, and there was an endless line of operators angling for a foothold. Some he managed to close down by leaning on the sheriff. Others were more resilient and fought back. There was always the threat of violence, and often the threats materialized.
The Malco family moved away from the Point and into a fine new home north of Biloxi. They lived with gates and guards, and the Boss seldom went anywhere without Nevin Noll by his side.