After getting in at New Orleans’ Moisant Field around two, I rented a cobalt-blue Chevelle SS, signing on for a week but guessing I’d need it longer. The brunette Southern belle at the Avis counter wore a jaunty company cap and sported an accent thicker than a bowl of grits. She understood Yankee fluently, however, and helped me out with several maps.

The drive to Biloxi on U.S. Highway 90 should take maybe an hour and a half, I figured. I could go by way of the new Interstate 10, but the Broker had recommended "the parallel scenic view," which provided the benefit of taking me directly to the Biloxi Strip.

In a burgundy t-shirt and lightweight jeans, I’d braced myself for heat and humidity only to be greeted by a balmy seventy-five. I had a hunch this might be the last nice surprise of my trip. Barely out of the city, I stopped at a funky Cajun joint and chowed down on a plate of crawfish etouffee with a side of red beans and rice—I don’t eat on airplanes. Not that damn reckless.

Heading east, I left the windows down, and not just because I was farting—a Gulf breeze was whipping up a heady concoction of magnolias, wild grass and brine. You just knew you were somewhere else. The Chevelle performed fine, or anyway it did after I found a rock station—every radio pre-set was country western. You’d at least think there’d be some fucking Zydeco.

The countryside was lush and green and kudzu-heavy, when I wasn’t cruising through little towns where the major industry seemed to be poverty; new leaves reflected sunlight even as they provided a near tunnel of shade. Gulfport, of course, was no hamlet, offering up sandy-white beaches, fishing fleets, and white-columned antebellum mansions; and Biloxi itself had its share of the latter, too, with grounds arrayed with Spanish-moss-bearded oaks. But then I came upon a startling slice of surrealism: a dusty-looking Air Force jet on a pylon perched on the highway median like the discarded toy of a giant’s spoiled child.

Military boosterism, and a dewy-eyed respect for the Old South—that seemed to be Biloxi all over.

That and a tourist attraction of a narrow strip of white sand separating the four-lane blacktop from the blue-steel vastness of the Gulf of Mexico. No tourists right now, though. Like back home at Paradise Lake, Biloxi’s shore had that lovely lack of people—the smell of coconut butter had not yet impinged upon the salty air, the lawnmower churn of motorboats and jet skis nicely absent. And who needed girls in bikinis with what awaited along the highway?

On either side stood the shabby churches waiting to fleece their flock of sun worshipers—the Biloxi Strip. And so many denominations—bars, striptease clubs, Bonnie & Clyde motels, bars, fast-food franchise joints, striptease clubs, local crab shacks, bars, souvenir stands, and putt-putt golf. Also striptease clubs and bars. Or did I mention that?

On the north side of 90, Mr. Woody’s sat on its own parking lot, looking more like a warehouse than a nightclub, which wasn’t surprising because it had probably started out that way. A black sign on a rooftop pole said MR. WOODY’S in white letters with red polka dots in the OO’s. I’ll let you work out the symbolism of that. A white plastic marquee with black plastic letters above blacked-out double doors said:

TOPLESS

BOTTOMLESS

DRINKS

which struck me as ambiguous, and

PRIVATE DANCES

NO COVER


and that was ambiguous, too, don’t you think?

I went inside and a big guy on the door looked me over, decided not to card me, and as my eyes adjusted to the smoky dusk of the place, I said, "Appointment with Mr. Colton. Never been here before. Point the way?"

He was maybe six three and pushing three hundred pounds in a black t-shirt and black jeans, which weren’t all that slimming. Trimly brown-bearded with bored dark eyes that had seen everything twice, he had a couple of gold chains around the fat folds of his neck and his features had the blunt look of too much football.

"Stay put," he said, higher-pitched than you’d think. Behind him on the wall was a house phone and he used it, saying, "Guy here, Mr. Woody. Appointment, he says." He glanced at me. "Name?"

"Quarry," I said.

He repeated it into the phone, hung up and pointed a thick finger into the darkness, where way across the cavernous red-carpeted room a black door could be made out with white letters saying PRIVATE—NO ENTRY. Another big guy in black was standing next to it, arms folded like a bored genie.

It was 4:35 in the afternoon but not really—I’d entered into the Vegas-like endless midnight of the strip-club world. Big as it was, Mr. Woody’s seemed bigger because of mirrored walls, which bounced around flashing blue and red lights from above, a pair of unblinking klieg lights at left and right crossing each other to hit the stage like a prison escape was in progress. The tables (black) were small but the chairs (red) were good-size with curving cushioned backs. A full bar at right sported several cute young female bartenders in tuxedo shirts and string ties and too much make-up, and weaving through the room were a couple of fetching waitresses in the same uniform, which included a black mini and black nylons.

Backed by a black curtain with the MR. WOODY’s logo, the main stage was just deep enough for a dancer to work the stripper pole, with a wide center runway into the audience, seating on either side, edged with flashing lights and a ledge for drinks. A smaller secondary stage, really just a platform with a stripper pole, was tucked away at left, not currently in use. The audience was entirely male, stopping off after work, both blue- and white-collar, and some young enlisted men from the Air Force base, still in uniform. The atmosphere could only have been smokier if the place was on fire. Gray and white tobacco-bred tendrils floated across the red and blue and white lighting like sleepy ghosts.

On stage was a small girl—and she was a girl, not a woman yet, possibly eighteen, though her hour-glass figure was timeless—with straight honey blonde hair center-parted and cut off at her shoulders. Not really dancing, she was strutting around in clear plastic heels and moving her hands to "Fortunate Son" as it blared from high-mounted speakers. Out of the heels, she was probably five one or two at most, and her expression included a glazed smile and big glazed light-blue eyes as she gazed past her admirers into God knew what.

She was naked as the day she was born, but she hadn’t been born with those perfect tip-tilted handfuls or that generous golden-brown tuft. She did not seem at all self-conscious, though it was still somehow surprising when she began to sit in front of each ringside-seater to smile and spread her legs like "make a wish" and use plenty of fingers to show off the pink place where life begins.

The little blonde had gathered some wadded-up green and moved on to the next lover of modern dance when I approached the big guy in black at the door marked PRIVATE, who was expecting me. He had a shaved head and Tony Orlando’s mustache on loan.

"End of the hall," he said.

He opened the door for me. I wouldn’t have expected less in such a classy place.

Several doors were on either side of the cream-color cement-block hallway. The one at the end said MR. WOODY. It also said: PLEASE KNOCK. Genteel way to put it.

So I knocked once, then said over the muffled sound of "Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man" out in the club, "Quarry, Mr. Colton!"

"Come on in!" came a jovial, husky mid-range voice.

I went in and found myself in a surprisingly small office, no bigger than a supermarket manager’s stuck on one side of his warehouse facilities. Maybe that’s what it had been once.

Right now the modest space was dominated by a big steel desk bookended by set-back steel file cabinets, with comfy-looking black-leather chairs for visitors and a matching couch squeezed in along the wall to my right and a small refrigerator and well-stocked liquor cart to my left. The walls were home to framed MR. WOODY’S posters featuring star strippers—Carol Doda, Candy Barr, Evelyn West, Chesty Morgan, Fanne Foxe—each warmly autographed to Mr. Woody ("You’re the best!" "Wotta man!" "I’m yours any ole time!").

Speaking of Mr. Woody, he was rising behind that desk to offer me a hand to shake, grinning at me like I was an old war buddy suddenly dropped by. The effect of him was all eyes and teeth, the former magnified by the lenses of his big goggle-style tortoise-shell frames, the latter big and white and perfect, meaning he kept them in a glass at night. The eyes were hooded and hazel, his longish salt-and-pepper hair sprayed in place. A combover, I thought. He had sideburns, but nothing wacky.

Maybe fifty-five, he was around five-nine, darkly tan, stoop-shouldered with a paunch, in a pale pink short-sleeve shirt, a red-and-pink paisley tie, and red suspenders; his trousers were gray—had they been some other shade of red or pink, I might have bailed—and he looked like a used car salesman or maybe a local politician.

"Mr. Quarry," he said. "You are kind to come, sir. At such short notice and all."

"Make it ‘Quarry.’ Or John if you like." I sat, shrugged. "Maybe Johnny, since we’re past the Mason-Dixon line."

He winked and shot a forefinger at me. "Let’s make it Quarry, then. John sounds like a crapper, and I already got a damn Jack in my life." He waved a hand heavy with gold-and-diamond rings toward the generous liquor cart. "May I offer you a libation?"

"No thanks." I jerked a thumb behind me. "I don’t see much security here, Mr. Colton."

"Make it ‘Mr. Woody.’ Everybody and his mother calls me that. Might attract undue attention, otherwise. As for the scant security, I have never had no need. It’s been my experience that if you deal with people in a straight-up manner, rarely does anyone kill your ass." He shook his head, his manner regretful. "The same, I’m afraid, can’t be said to apply to Jack Killian."

I leaned back in the chair, crossed my arms and my legs. "I don’t have any kind of cover story, Mr. Woody. Just a driver’s license. Michigan."

His head was a little too small for the specs, so when he nodded, it was like the eyeglasses were doing it. "That should work handily. I have bidness contacts in Detroit, as our mutual friend the Broker well knows. That was probably his thinkin’.""You didn’t discuss this with him?"His shrug was elaborate. "We’ve had minimal contact, Broker and me, since the attempt. After all, one never knows with phones. The FBI aren’t the only ones use bugs these days. But if I tell Jack Killian you’re from Detroit, we won’t need any ’laborate cover story. He won’t question the recommendation. All he’ll likely say is, ‘Fine. Long as he’s not black.’ "

This was the second time he’d referred to his first-in-command in that oddly formal both-names manner.

"Tell me about Killian," I said.

"Positive I can’t get you a little somethin’?" he asked. He was on his feet, drifting to the liquor cabinet. A pink sportcoat was around the back of his swivel chair. He began pouring himself some Scotch in a tumbler.

"Any pop in that fridge?"

"Yessir. Root beer okay?"

"Sure."

He got a cold sweaty bottle of Barq’s out. "Biloxi is strictly a root beer town. This is our home-brewed drink, y’know." He delivered the bottle, then he and his Scotch got behind the desk, which was free of work—just a phone and a notepad with pen.

His expression grew suddenly somber. "You must understand, Quarry, that I take no pleasure in bringin’ you in for this necessary but most unfortunate task."

My head bobbed back, like I was ducking a punch. "Meaning no disrespect, sir, my contract is with the Broker. He sent me here. Although if you have an arrangement with him...if you’re helping fund this...I’d just as soon not know. I view you as my contact, and a sort of...facilitator. Are you cool with that?"

He was nodding slowly, smiling, not big, but smiling. "I can see why the Broker sent you. You are obviously an intelligent young man. Vietnam, I assume."

"Yes, sir."

He gestured vaguely. "Some of the people on our staff—Jack Killian’s staff included—are likewise veterans, and you should know that I respect and admire your service. I was too young for World War Two, more’s the pity, and too old for Vietnam."

That left Korea, but I let that go.

He sneered. "Some of these boys from the piney woods who think they’re so goddamn tough got out of servin’ one way or t’other. Political pull or medical reasons or ’cause of unstable mental health, which I guess is also medical, bein’ crazy, when you come right down to it."

"Yes, sir."

"Now where was I?"

"Jack Killian. Necessary but most unfortunate task."

He nodded gravely. Sipped his Scotch. This might be a root beer town, but he wasn’t having any. "Jackie is like a brother to me. That’s why this pains me so."

From "Jack Killian" to "Jackie"—interesting.

He raised a palm and an eyebrow. "What you have to understand about Jack Killian is that he is highly unusual among the ranks of those that I, we, have done bidness with over the past thirty-some years. Most of those I done bidness with crawled out of a mire of poverty to scratch out a livin’, maybe not an honest one, but a livin’. They come from backgrounds of utter despair and abject need. We’re talkin’ lowlife rabble, quite frankly, creatures that crawl."

"Then why do business with them?" I resisted the urge to say "bidness."

He raised his chin. "Because such men—and women—flawed though they may be, have overcome adversity. They are the dark underbelly of the American dream, true capitalists one and all. They value a dollar and there is little they won’t do for one. My role in all of this is as a liaison between these hardscrabble entrepreneurs and the upright world."

If they were so upright, why were they doing business with creatures that crawled?

Mr. Woody was saying, "Biloxi is a venerable, respectable, churchgoin’ Southern community, Quarry. The Strip here is abided with only for two reasons: one of them is money. Can you guess the other?"

"You," I said.

The big teeth overtook the face again, very white against the dark tan. "You are sharp, son. Sharp indeed. But, uh, have I gotten off the road again?"

"Maybe you were headed back on. Jack Killian?"

He nodded and the smile faded. "Jackie is an unusual case. A unique case. He does not come from indigence. His background, in fact, is privileged. He’s an Oklahoma boy whose father made a fortune as a criminal attorney and whose mother was from oil money. Jackie’s pappy ran for governor and damn near made it—even today, he sits on the Oklahoma court of appeals."

"We’re talking a silver-spoon hood."

"Absolutely. And a bad boy from birth. Grade school, gettin’ in fights and beatin’ other boys half to death. Knockin’ up girls in junior high. Gettin’ a Corvette in high school for his sixteenth birthday and celebratin’ with a high-speed chase with the sheriff’s patrol. Only stayed out of reform school by goin’ to a military academy, not that any damn discipline got instilled there." He chuckled. "He was a wild one, ol’ Jackie."

I frowned. "Why, did you know him as a kid? I thought you said he was from Oklahoma."

Another vague gesture. "His parents vacationed here. You see, his daddy—who served in both the House and Senate of the Sooner State, before becomin’ a judge—had plenty of ties to folks right here on the Biloxi Strip. Like old Blackjack Boorman, who took me under his wing. Then, of course, Jackie at nineteen avoided a jail sentence by joinin’ the Air National Guard, and got a year of active duty here in Biloxi. And that’s when I took him under my wing, put him to work on his off-duty hours. Back then, I was just startin’ out—four strip clubs and a bingo parlor."

"What did he do for you?" I didn’t figure he sat at a mike calling out, "Bingo!"

"Jackie’s a good man with a deck of cards, a regular mechanic, blackjack, poker, three-card monte, you name ’er. Big, dark-haired, good-lookin’ charmer. Could make a friend out of a mark, usually promisin’ to fix a fool up with a girl. Hell, he could clean damn near anybody out. I paid him a nice percentage of the take, too. But, of course, he got greedy, and back around ’64? We come to a temporary partin’ of the ways."

"Why was that?"

Another sip of Scotch. "He was gettin’ the players drunk so’s he could roll ’em in the parkin’ lot. And he didn’t just take their money, he would kick the holy ever-livin’ shit out of them. To scare ’em, he said, from complainin’ to the management or the cops."

"But you did get complaints."

"Sure. Shit, he was runnin’ the badger game right out of this club for a while, settin’ Air Force guys up with my girls and then robbin’ them at one of my motels."

"This was not on your menu."

Fire flared in the magnified eyes. "Hell, no! We have always kept things on the straight and narrow, where the kids from Keesler is concerned."

He meant the Air Force base. Not the elves who make cookies.

He was saying, "It’s unpatriotic, fuckin’ them boys over, plus which it rubs the local powers-that-be very damn fuckin’ wrong. When it’s off-season in Biloxi, we depend on them boys for their paychecks. They need to feel they’re gettin’ somethin’ for their money."

"American way," I said. "So how did Killian come back into the fold?"

"Well, once he struck out on his own, he made a name for hisself as a heist artist. Fearless and smart if a little on the loco side. He ran a stolen car ring for a while, top chop shop racket in the South, and he put together a big bankroll. Over those years, we grew close again, because he became one of my best clients."

"Not sure I follow—a client how?"

That got a big smile out of Mr. Woody, but this time one showing no teeth; this one created a wealth of creases in the tanned flesh. "You must understand my role in all of this, Quarry—on one hand, I’m the post-office. A communications source for all the freelancers out there in the world of, well, let’s call it left-handed endeavor. Who’s lookin’ for a jug artist? Who needs a wheelman? Kind of thing. On the other hand, I am their banker. I hold cash. I launder cash. I sometimes invest for them. And I sometimes invest in them."

Bankrolling heists, drug deals, what-have-you.

"And that’s all the Dixie Mafia is?" I asked. "A loose conglomeration of thieves and con men who depend on you here in Biloxi to help them deal with their proceeds?"

This assessment seemed to disappoint him, perhaps even hurt his feelings.

He said, "That’s a major part, Quarry, surely...but there’s more. Much more, really. Here on the Strip, these strip clubs are just the bait. But gamblin’—the rear of this buildin’ is a casino, which is open right now. I’ll give you a tour shortly. And there are a dozen more gamblin’ dens of mine, ours, along this highway, although I take particular pride in this facility. Most of the girls workin’ the stage are also trickin’, high-end, hundred up. We help distribute bootleg liquor, tax-free stuff, a hangover from decades of Mississippi bein’ dry. And most of the drugs in this and the adjacent states flow through our portals."

"Okay," I said.

This was definitely weird—I was hearing all the inside shit that the Broker usually protected me from. But to deal with Killian from the inside, I needed to know the inside of what.

I sat forward. "So what makes Jack Killian a problem?"

He tented his hands and rocked gently in the swivel chair. "I’ll be frank with you, Quarry. Until he sent people to remove the Broker, I hadn’t fully accepted that Jack Killian was a problem. I knew he was dangerous. A threat to the status quo. But just not how serious."

"Explain."

He nodded, the eyes behind the big lenses almost shut as he gathered his thoughts. Then: "Beyond our interests here on the Strip, the major functions of this organization remain those two I first mentioned: post office and bank. Part of what has allowed us to stay under the radar of both state and federal guv’ment is the fairly, uh...scattered nature of our clientele."

"I guess I follow that. You are not one central organization begging to be taken down."

He beamed. "That’s well put, son. But in the past six months to a year, Jack Killian has been expandin’. He has been buyin’ out clubs left and right—we now own every bar and club on this Strip, and that’s dozens of ’em. He has moved into rural areas where similar strips of sin, shall we say, have been run by this one and that one. The strip in McNairy County on the Tennessee-Mississippi border is a prime example—a dozen clubs run by maybe six, seven individuals. Jack Killian has bought out all but a handful."

"And this attracts the wrong kind of attention."

"It does." He frowned. "But it goes beyond that. When somebody doesn’t wanna sell, Jackie beats the shit out of ’em. He’s had more than a few killed. This reflects badly on me."

"Can’t have that."

"Which is why I am cooperatin’ with you and my old buddy, the Broker. I reluctantly agree that Jack Killian has got to go. And I am in a position to put you next to him."

I took a last swig of Barq’s. "What makes you so sure that it’s Killian who sent that pair of shooters after the Broker?"

"Two things, really," he said, sitting forward, elbows on his desk. He ticked off a finger. "First, Jack told me a month ago that he was plannin’ to cut off ties with outsiders."

"Like the Broker," I said.

A crisp nod.

"And second," he said, ticking off another finger, "one of Jackie’s bodyguards drives a two-tone green Fleetwood. Which wouldn’t be so tellin’ if I didn’t also know that Jackie’s short a man on his staff right now. Asked if I knew of a top-notch replacement. Turns out I do."


Copyright © 2015 by Max Allan Collins.

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