Authors: John Grisham
Nevin lit a cigarette and glanced at his watch. Hugh looked at his hands and fingers and saw no signs of the beating.
Hugh asked, “Did you box at Keesler?”
“Some, yeah, but it was more fun fighting the Yankees who were always putting us down. I stayed in trouble and they finally kicked me out. Plus, I hated wearing a uniform.”
A cute girl on skates rolled to their car and delivered the milkshakes. When they were back on Highway 90 and headed for Biloxi, Nevin felt the need to offer more worldly advice to his young protégé. After a long pull on his straw he said, “This girl
you’re seeing, Cindy. Don’t get too attached, okay? I know, I know, right now you’re all aglow with puppy love, but she’s nothing but trouble.”
“You fixed me up.”
“Sure I did, but you’ve had your fun, so move on. As you’ll learn, there are plenty of women out there.”
Hugh worked his straw and absorbed this unsolicited advice.
Nevin said, “She’ll be gone before you know it. They come and go. She’s too pretty to hang around. She’ll go back home and marry some old boy from church.”
“She’s only sixteen.”
“How do you know?”
“I just know.”
“I’m not surprised. They all lie.”
Hugh grew quiet as he considered life without Cindy Murdock. Nevin had said plenty and decided it was time to shut up. He was only twenty-three years old and, though he’d seen a lot, he had never fallen hard for a woman.
A siren startled both of them. Hugh turned around and saw a deputy in a blue-and-white patrol car. “Shit!” Nevin said as he pulled onto the shoulder of the busy highway. Then he looked at Hugh with a smile and said, “I’ll take care of this.”
Nevin got out and met the deputy between the cars. Luckily he was from Harrison County. They had crossed from Jackson County less than a mile back.
Harrison County was the domain of Sheriff Albert “Fats” Bowman, rumored to be the highest-paid public official in the state, with precious little of his income ever hitting the books.
The deputy began as a hard-ass. “Your license, please.”
Nevin handed it over and tried not to be cocky. He knew what was about to happen. The deputy did not.
He said, “Gotta call outta Pascagoula, said a guy driving a car just like this one needed to answer some questions. Something about an assault at the Chrysler place.”
“So, what’s your question?”
“You been to the Chrysler place in Pascagoula?”
“Just left. Had to see a man named Roger Brewer. He’s probably at the hospital right now, getting sewed up. Brewer was at Red Velvet Monday night and slapped around one of our girls. He won’t do it again.”
The deputy handed back the driver’s license and glanced around, not quite sure what to do next. “So, I take it you work at Red Velvet.”
“I do. Lance Malco is my boss. He sent me to see Brewer. Everything’s fine on our end.”
“Okay. I guess we got no problem with that. I’ll radio Pascagoula and tell ’em we ain’t see nothin’ over here.”
“That’ll work. May I ask your name? Mr. Malco will want to know.”
“Sure. Wiley Garrison.”
“Thank you, Deputy Garrison. If you need a drink sometime, let me know.”
“Thanks just the same.”
Baricev’s was a well-known seafood restaurant on the Biloxi beach, near downtown. It was a popular place, with too few tables for the demand that was fueled by locals who favored it and tourists who’d heard of its reputation. Reservations were frowned upon because record-keeping was not a priority, so there was usually a long wait at the front door. Some locals, though, got their preferred tables with no waiting whatsoever.
Sheriff Albert “Fats” Bowman was a regular and insisted on the same corner table. He ate there at least once a week, with the check always grabbed by a nightclub owner or hotel operator. He loved the crab claws and stuffed flounder and often stayed for hours.
He never dined in his official uniform, but chose a nice, loose, rumpled suit for these occasions. He didn’t want folks to stare, though everyone knew Fats. Not everyone admired him because of his well-earned reputation for corruption, but he was an old-school politician who shook every hand and kissed every baby. It paid off with landslide reelections.
Fats and Rudd Kilgore, his chief deputy and chauffeur, arrived early and sipped on whiskey sours as they waited for Mr. Malco. He arrived promptly at eight and had with him his number two—a lieutenant known only as Tip. As usual, Nevin Noll was the driver and would wait with the car. Though Lance trusted him implicitly, he was still too young to take part in business meetings.
The four shook hands, exchanged greetings like old friends, and settled around the table. More drinks were ordered as they dug in for a long dinner.
Lance had arranged the meeting for a reason. Some of the dinners were nothing but a nice way to say thanks to a corrupt sheriff who took their payoffs and stayed out of their business. Occasionally, though, there was a matter of concern. A large platter of raw oysters landed in the center of the table and they began eating.
Bowman needed to get a trifling issue out of the way. He asked, “Ever hear of a boy named Winslow? Goes by Butch.”
Lance looked at Tip, who instinctively shook his head. In response to any direct question, especially one from a cop, Tip always began with a curt “No.”
Lance added, “Don’t think so. Who is he?”
“Figured. They found him in a ditch last weekend beside Nelly Road, half a mile off Highway 49. He was alive, but barely. Beat to hell and back. Still in the hospital. Last known place of employment was over at the Yacht Club. We checked around, got the word that Butch was dealing blackjack and had sticky fingers. Somebody said he once dealt for you guys at the Truck Stop.”
Tip smiled and said, “Yeah, now I remember. We caught him stealing and ran him off. ’Bout a year ago.”
“It wasn’t us, Sheriff,” Tip said.
“Didn’t think so. Look, you boys know I don’t get involved in disciplinary matters, unless there’s a dead body. Somebody came within an inch of killing this boy.”
“What’s your point, Sheriff?” Lance asked.
“I don’t need one.”
Tip ordered two pitchers of beer and they worked on the oysters. When it was time to get down to business, Bowman asked, “So what’s on your mind?”
Lance leaned in a bit lower and said, “Well, it’s no surprise, but this place is getting crowded. Too crowded. And now we’re getting word that a new gang is taking a look.”
Bowman said, “You’re doing okay, Lance. You got your clubs
and joints, more than anybody else. We figure you’re running at least a third of the business on the Coast.” He lobbed this across the table as if he were speculating as to the numbers. Fats kept his own meticulous records. When he said something like “we figure,” the message was that he knew precisely the share of vice Malco was controlling.
“Maybe so, but the challenge is keeping it. I’m sure you’ve heard of the State Line Mob.”
“Heard of them, but I haven’t seen them.”
“Well, they’re here. We caught a rumor about a month ago that they’re moving in. Seems as though things are getting too hot up on the border and they’re heading south. Biloxi seems attractive, given the business-friendly environment.”
The sheriff waved over the waitress and ordered gumbo, crab claws, and stuffed flounder. When she left, he said, “A nasty bunch, by reputation.”
“Yes, by reputation. We got a guy who worked up there and knows ’em well. They ran him off for some reason, said he was lucky to get away.”
“They got a joint?”
“Rumor is they’re trying to buy O’Malley’s.”
Bowman frowned and looked hard at Kilgore. They didn’t like the news, primarily because they had not been contacted by the new guys in town. The rules of engagement were simple: To operate any illegal establishment in Harrison County, approval had to be obtained from Fats Bowman. Dues were required, and he then spread the money around to the police and politicians. Fats wasn’t bothered by competition. More clubs and beer joints meant more money for him. The gangs could fight among themselves as long as his bottom line was protected.
He said, “You’re pretty good at protecting your turf, Lance. You’ve done a nice job of consolidating. What am I supposed to do?”
Lance laughed and said, “Oh, I don’t know, Sheriff. Run ’em off?”
Fats laughed too and lit a cigarette. He blew a cloud of smoke and put it on the ashtray. “That’s your game, Lance. I don’t regulate the commerce. I just make sure you boys stay in business.”
“And we appreciate it, Sheriff, don’t get me wrong. But staying in business is my goal too. Right now things have never been better, for me and for you, and I’d like to keep it that way. Everybody’s playing by the rules, nobody’s getting too greedy, at least for the moment. But if we allow this gang to move in, there’s gonna be trouble.”
“Be careful, Lance. If somebody gets killed, then there’s the payback. Tit for tat and so it goes. Nothing fires up the do-gooders around here like a gang war. You want your business on the front page?”
“No, and I think this is the perfect moment for you to prevent a war. Put the clamps on these new guys and get rid of them. If they buy O’Malley’s, then close it down. They won’t shoot at you, Sheriff. They’re not that crazy.”
The gumbo arrived in large bowls and the oyster shells were removed. Tip refilled the four beer mugs and the men enjoyed their food. After a few bites, Bowman said, “Let’s wait and give it some time. I’ll have a chat with O’Malley, see what he’ll tell me.”
Lance grunted, smiled, and said, “Nothing, same as always.”
O’Malley’s Pub was in an old warehouse one block off the Strip. Two weeks after the meeting at Baricev’s, Deputy Kilgore stopped by one afternoon and went inside. The bar was dark and quiet, too early for happy hour. Two bikers were shooting pool in the rear and one regular was holding down the far end of the bar.
“What’ll it be?” the bartender asked with a smile.
“Looking for Chick O’Malley.”
The smile vanished. “This is a bar. You want something to drink?”
“I told you what I want.” Kilgore was wearing a coat and tie. From a pocket he pulled out a badge and waved it in front of the bartender, who took a long look.
“Chick’s not here anymore. Sold out.”
“You don’t say? Who’s the new owner?”
“She’s not in.”
“I didn’t ask if she was in. I asked who is the new owner.”
“I arrest women with only one name.”
“Now we’re making progress. Get on the phone and tell her I’m waiting.”
The bartender looked at his wristwatch and said, “She should be here any minute. Can I get you something to drink?”
“Black coffee. Fresh.”
“Coming right up.”
Kilgore sat at the bar and stared at the bottles below the mirror. The coffee wasn’t fresh but he drank it anyway. Evidently Ginger used the rear door because no one else came through the front. Fifteen minutes later, the bartender reappeared and said, “Ginger will see you now.”
Kilgore knew where the office was because he had been there several times to collect dues. He followed the bartender into the back and up a flight of narrow stairs that opened to a long, dark hallway with a row of small doors to the left. Prostitution was not a focus at O’Malley’s. Chick had made his money on booze and poker, but almost every joint had a few rooms upstairs just in case. The walls smelled of fresh paint and the shag carpet was new.
A woman’s touch. At the end of the hall, Ginger opened the door to her office as they approached and nodded for Kilgore to enter. The bartender disappeared. She was a heavyset woman of about fifty, with a dress that was too tight and cut too low in front. Her breasts were pushed up close to her chin and looked somewhat uncomfortable, though Kilgore tried not to notice. Her hair was
dyed black and matched her thick mascara. She shook hands like a man and was all smiles. “Nice to meet you. Ginger Redfield.” Her voice was low, raspy, as if ravaged by nicotine.
“A pleasure. Rudd Kilgore.”
“I was wondering when you guys would stop by.”
“Here I am. Mind if I ask when you took over?”
“Couple of weeks ago.”
“You from around here?”
“Here and there.”
Kilgore smiled, almost let it pass, but said, “Answers like that only lead to trouble, Miss Redfield.”
“Call me Ginger. I’m from Mobile originally, spent the last few years up on the state line.”
“Call me Kilgore. Chief Deputy, Harrison County Sheriff’s Department.”
Within twenty-four hours, Fats and Kilgore would learn that Ginger Redfield and her husband had operated a lounge on the Tennessee–Mississippi state line and had a long history of criminal activity. Her husband was serving a ten-year sentence in Tennessee for the second-degree murder of a bootlegger. Her older son was serving time in Florida on federal gun charges. Not to be outdone, her younger son was suspected in two murders but was currently in hiding. He was rumored to be a contract killer.
This background was provided by the sheriff of Alcorn County, Mississippi, a twenty-year veteran who knew the family well. According to his rather windy narrative, Ginger and her crew had been at war with other club owners along the state line. “Sumbitches always shootin’ at each other” was how the sheriff described it. “Wish they were better shots. Don’t need ’em around here.”
Anyway, someone raised a white flag, a truce was agreed upon,
and things settled down until Ginger’s husband killed a bootlegger in a fight over a truckload of liquor. She sold out, disappeared, and for the past year had not been seen in those parts.
The sheriff signed off with “Glad she’s all yours, buddy. Woman’s nothin’ but trouble.”
“Where’s Chick?” Kilgore asked.
Ginger smiled, and it was a fetching little grin that softened her hard face considerably. Twenty years and thirty pounds ago she was probably a real looker, but a life in lounges added plenty of wrinkles and hardened her features. She lit a filterless cigarette and Kilgore lit a menthol.
“I don’t know,” she said. “He didn’t say and I didn’t ask. Got the impression he was leaving town.”
“That so? Did you assume this joint’s liabilities?”