Authors: John Grisham
“That’s prying a bit, don’t you think?”
“Call it what you want. Chick was behind on his dues.”
“Look, Ginger, I’m not stupid enough to believe that Chick sold you this place without covering the basics. And the most basic is that the door stays open as long as the business license is current.”
She smiled again, took a long drag, and said, “He may have said something about a license. I take it you can’t get one from the chamber of commerce.”
“Ha ha. We control them and they cost a thousand dollars a month. Chick was two months behind. You want to stay open, you need to get current.”
“That’s pretty steep, Kilgore. A hefty price for protection.”
“We don’t deal with protection and we don’t get involved in street battles or turf wars. Your license simply allows you to stay in business and behave yourself, more or less.”
“Behave? Everything we sell is illegal.”
“And you’ll sell a lot of it if you keep your prices in line, protect your girls, and keep the fighting and cheating to a minimum. That’s what we call good behavior.”
She shrugged and seemed to agree. “Okay, so we owe two grand, right?”
“Three. Two past and one current. All cash. I’ll send a guy named Gabe around this time tomorrow. You’ll recognize him because he has only one arm.”
“A one-armed bandit.”
“Ha ha. Speaking of slots, that’s where the money is, in case you’re doing any long-range planning.”
“Already got ’em ordered. No limit on the number?”
“We don’t have limits. How you run this place is strictly up to you. Just behave, Ginger.” Kilgore stubbed out his Salem in an ashtray on her desk and turned for the door. He stopped, gave her a smile, and said, “Look, just to give you a little welcome. Your reputation precedes you and may get an icy reception from some of the other licensees.”
“Possibly. Some of the boys know about the State Line Mob and are a bit worried.”
She laughed and said, “Oh that. Well, tell ’em to relax. We come in peace.”
“They don’t understand that concept. They don’t like competition, especially from other organizations.”
“We’re hardly an organization, Mr. Kilgore. That mob is far from here.”
“Be careful.” He opened the door and left.
After three years of hustling as the law firm’s only associate, Jesse Rudy was ready for a change of scenery. The two older gentlemen who hired him after he passed the bar exam had practiced law at a leisurely pace for two decades and were content to shuffle paper and handle matters that did not require contested litigation. Jesse, though, enjoyed the excitement and challenge of the courtroom and saw his future there. He was almost forty years old, had four kids to support, and knew that drafting wills and deeds would not provide the income he needed. He and Agnes decided to take the plunge, get a loan from a bank, and open their own shop. She worked part-time as a secretary when she wasn’t juggling her duties as a mother. Jesse put in even longer hours and used his contacts from the Point to find better cases. He volunteered to represent indigent defendants and honed his skills in the courtroom. Most lawyers in Biloxi, as in most small towns, preferred the stability of a quiet office practice. Jesse was more ambitious and saw money in jury verdicts.
But his new office on Howard Avenue remained open to all, and he turned away no one in need of a lawyer. He was soon busier than ever and enjoyed keeping the fees for himself. As a sole practitioner, he was not expected to share his income with anyone but Agnes. She kept the books and was better at culling the riffraff than her husband.
Early one morning Jesse was alone in his office. The bell on the front door rattled and he couldn’t ignore it. No appointments were scheduled at that hour, so the disturbance meant another drop-in.
He walked to the front and said hello to Guy and Millie Moseley from Lima, Ohio. Mid-fifties, nicely dressed, late-model Buick parked at the curb. He showed them to the conference room and fetched three cups of coffee.
They began by apologizing for barging in but something terrible had happened and they were broke and far from home. They were near the end of a two-week trip to Tampa and back, had been headed to New Orleans for a night on the town when tragedy struck the day before.
It was obvious they were not injured. Their nice car parked at the curb seemed undamaged. As a busy lawyer hustling the streets of Biloxi, he immediately suspected trouble from the shadier side of town.
Guy began the narrative and Millie wiped her red and swollen eyes with a tissue. He kept glancing at her as if desperate for approval, and absolutely none was forthcoming. It was obvious he had screwed up, he was the villain, she had tried to talk him out of whatever nonsense he’d fallen into, and so it was up to him to confess and seek absolution.
After five minutes, Jesse knew exactly what had happened.
The first clue was the location. The Blue Spot Diner on Highway 90, with a view of the beach. It was an old greasy spoon that advertised homemade biscuits and cheap steaks. A few years back a hustler named Shine Tanner bought the place, kept the café as it was, and added a room in the back where he put on Bingo & Beer nights that drew crowds. He also had card games and a few slots but no girls for rent. He preferred to prey on an older crowd and keep the soldiers and college boys away.
Guy was saying, “And so we had a nice breakfast, late in the morning, the place was empty.” That was the second clue. Shine liked to swindle out-of-towners when the traffic was light.
“And the bill came to two dollars. I was getting ready to pay when the waitress, her name was Lonnie, asked if we liked to play games of chance. We weren’t sure, so she said, ‘Look, everybody
plays games around here. It’s all harmless fun. Here’s a deck of cards. I pick one. You pick one. If your card is higher, then breakfast is free. A simple game or double or nothing.’ ”
Millie managed to say, “She had a deck of cards in her pocket. I’m sure they were marked.”
Guy smiled at his wife, who did not return one of her own. Guy said, “So she shuffled, I mean this gal could really shuffle, and after three rounds I was up four dollars. Then eight. Then I lost, back down to zero. Back up to eight. Another customer came in and she took his order. I couldn’t leave because she owed me eight bucks.”
“I wanted to leave,” Millie said.
Guy ignored her and became fixated on his coffee cup. When he continued his voice was lower. “This guy shows up, I think he owned the place, real friendly type, asked if we wanted to see his casino.”
Jesse asked, “Short, bald, not a hair anywhere, really brown and tanned?”
“That’s him. You know the guy?”
“He’s the owner.”
The next clue. Shine Tanner arrived on the scene to lay the trap.
“She paid us the eight dollars and we followed him through a door to the casino stuck to the side of the diner. It was dark and empty. He said the casino was closed, didn’t open until six o’clock, but he had a new game he wanted to show us.”
“Bolita?” Jesse asked.
“Yeah, you been there?”
“No, but I’ve heard about the Bolita table. It’s also called Razzle.”
“That’s what he said. There was this green, felt-like table, like a big checkerboard, with squares numbered one through fifty. He said the game was all about dice and arithmetic and easy to win. He asked if I wanted to put down a few bucks and he’d sort of walk me through the game. Lonnie popped in and asked me if I wanted
a drink. The owner said the bar was closed and they went back and forth, making a big deal over whether they could offer me a drink. I didn’t want one, but after all that chatter I felt obliged to ask for a beer.”
Millie shook her head and stared at a wall.
“So, he rattled eight dice and rolled out the ‘bones,’ as he called them, then scooped them up almost as fast. Said it totaled thirty-eight. He put down two of my dollars on number thirty-eight. If the next roll was higher, I’d win. If it was lower, I’d lose, but there were other rules he threw in as the game progressed. He said the only way to lose was to stop playing before I won ten games. I’m not sure I ever understood all of the rules.”
“You did not,” Millie added helpfully.
“Lonnie brought me a beer.”
“It was only ten thirty,” Millie interjected again.
“Yes, dear, it was only ten thirty, and I should’ve stopped. We’ve had this conversation, more than once. I should’ve walked out and gotten in the car, saved our money. Now, feel better?”
Jesse had heard enough. These stories were common along the Coast—upper-middle-class tourists in nice cars with out-of-state tags getting whipsawed and duped by card sharks and table cheats. He raised both hands and said, “Look folks, let’s get to the point. How much money did you leave behind at the Blue Spot?”
Millie couldn’t wait to blurt, “Six hundred dollars, everything we had. We can’t afford to buy gas to get home. How could you be so stupid?”
Poor Guy caved another inch or two at this latest onslaught. It was obvious that he’d heard much worse in the preceding hours.
“Can’t we do something?” Millie pleaded to Jesse. “He was nothing but a slick con man who tricked us and stole our money. There must be a law on the books of this backward state.”
“I’m afraid not, ma’am. All gambling is illegal in Mississippi, but I’m ashamed to say it’s ignored here on the Coast.”
“We just went in for breakfast.”
“I know. This happens all the time.”
They clammed up as Millie cried some more and Guy stared at the floor as if searching for a hole to climb in. Jesse glanced at his watch. He’d wasted almost twenty minutes with these poor folks.
“Tell him the rest,” she snapped at her husband.
“You know, this morning.”
“Oh, that. Well, we can’t afford to go on to New Orleans, so we got a cheap room down the road. First thing this morning we went back to the diner because I didn’t sleep a wink last night and I wanted to give that man a piece of my mind and get my money back. But when we pulled up we could see two cops inside having breakfast. I walked in and glared at Lonnie. She gave me a real smart-ass look and asked, ‘What do you want?’
“I said, ‘I want my money.’
“She said, ‘You ain’t starting no trouble. I’ll ask you to leave.’
“ ‘I want my money.’
“Before I knew it, the cops were coming at me. They shoved me a little, told me to hit the road and never come back.”
Millie had been quiet long enough. She said to Jesse, “He almost got arrested, on top of everything else. Wouldn’t that just be great? Tough Guy Moseley in the drunk tank with a bunch of winos.”
Jesse raised his hands again and said, “Okay, folks. I’m real sorry about what happened, but there’s nothing I can do.”
“You can’t sue him?” Guy demanded.
“No, there’s no legal cause of action.”
“What about stealing?” she asked. “It was a con game, just waiting for another sucker to come along. Boy did they hook one.”
“Knock it off,” Guy growled at his wife. “You saw those cops. Hell, they’re probably on the take too.”
Jesse suppressed a grin and thought:
You’re finally right about something.
She mumbled, “He even took our traveler’s checks.”
“Please be quiet,” Guy said.
But she ignored him and said, “He got in deeper and deeper. I kept saying, ‘Let’s get outta here.’ But, no, Mr. High Roller here wouldn’t quit. The crook would let him win every now and then, just enough to keep him hooked. I got mad and went to the car and waited and waited and I knew damn well he’d lose everything. He finally came out, ready to cry, looked like he’d seen a ghost, lucky to still have his shirt on.”
Jesse really wanted them out of his office before a catfight started. For a second he thought about recommending a good divorce lawyer, but they needed to get home for that. He looked at his watch and calmly said, “I have to be in court at nine, so we have to say goodbye.”
Now Guy appeared ready to cry. He wiped his face and said with a dry voice, “Can you loan us fifty dollars to get back to Ohio?”
“I’m sorry, but it’s unethical for a lawyer to loan money to a client.”
“We’ll pay it back, I swear,” Millie said. “As soon as we get home.”
Jesse stood and tried to be polite. “I’m sorry, folks.”
They left without saying thanks. He could hear them sniping at the curb when they got to their Buick and could only imagine how much worse the situation would become as they begged their way north.
He poured another cup of coffee and returned to the conference room where he sat with a view of the street. He was sympathetic to a point, but a good dose of caution would have saved them the time, money, and trouble. Many folks came to the Coast looking for trouble and knowing damned well where to find it. Others, like the Moseleys, drifted through and accidentally bumped into the world of vice. They were innocent lambs in the hands of
wolves and they didn’t stand a chance. There were plenty of Shine Tanners making money by their wits instead of honest work.
Corruption never stays in a box. It spreads because greedy men see easy money and there is an endless demand for gratification and the promise of a quick buck. Jesse didn’t resent the clubs and bars and the illicit trade they provided to willing customers. Nor did he resent men like Lance Malco and Shine Tanner and their ilk who profited from the vice. What Jesse loathed was the bribery of those entrusted to uphold the law. The corruption was enriching men like Fats Bowman and other elected officials. Most of the police and politicians had dirty hands. The treacherous part was not knowing who to trust.
The current district attorney, also elected, was a decent man who’d never shown an interest in tackling organized crime. In all fairness, if the police didn’t investigate and go after the criminals, there were no cases for the DA to prosecute. This frustrated the reformers—the honest officials, preachers, law-abiding citizens—who wanted to “clean up the Coast.”
A month earlier, Jesse met with a retired circuit court judge and a minister. It was a quiet meeting over breakfast in a café with no slot machines in sight. The two men claimed to represent a loose-knit group of civic-minded people who were concerned about the ever-growing criminal enterprises. There were rumors that drugs, especially marijuana, were being smuggled in and were readily available in certain nightclubs. The old-fashioned sins had been around for decades, and though still illegal, they had become accepted in certain circles. But drugs presented a more ominous threat and had to be stopped. The future of the children was now on the line.
The men were frustrated by the politicians. Fats Bowman was deeply entrenched, ran a well-organized machine, and was virtually untouchable. He had proven that he could buy any election. But the DA was another matter. He represented the State, was considered the people’s lawyer, and thus was charged with the duty
of fighting crime. They had met with the DA and voiced their concerns, but again he showed little interest.
They floated the bold idea that Jesse Rudy would make an excellent district attorney. He was a well-known product of Biloxi and had a following on the Point, one of the largest precincts in the three-county district. His reputation was stellar. He was considered above reproach. But would he have the courage to fight the mob?
Jesse was flattered by the idea and honored by the trust. It was early in 1963, an election year in which every office from governor to county coroner would be on the ballot. As usual, the DA’s race was uncontested, for the moment. Fats Bowman was expected to get another four years without serious opposition. Nothing would change unless a new DA took office with an entirely different agenda.
Jesse promised to consider the race but had serious reservations. He was trying to establish a practice, one that needed him hard at work every day. He had no money for a campaign. He had never for a moment thought of himself as a politician and wasn’t sure it was in his blood. The biggest drawback would be the promise that he would go after the criminals. He had known Lance Malco his entire life, and though they were still polite to each other when the situation called for it, they were living and working in different worlds. It was almost impossible to imagine threatening his empire.
Jesse had no interest in jeopardizing the safety of his family. His son Keith and Hugh Malco were still friends, though not nearly as close as they had been as twelve-year-old all-stars. Among the boys, it was well known that Hugh was showing signs of following in his father’s footsteps. He was hanging around the clubs, smoking and drinking, and boasting of knowing the girls. Hugh had given up team sports and called himself a boxer.