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Storm Surge: Chapters One and Two

The Rum Runners' Chronicles


Florida weather: seven months of summer and five months of hell. August is one of the hell months. The thermometer hasn’t dipped below eighty degrees for weeks and the humidity is suffocating. Huge anvil clouds gather offshore, and Edith’s keeping a close eye on them as she drives her 1931 Ford truck she’s recently bought back from Miami.

Everybody thinks Florida is the Sunshine State, but nobody ever talks about the daily rainstorms in the summer. They’re not gentle, but torrents of water pouring from the heavens and then, poof, they’re over, leaving everything pounded and drenched. It should feel cooler after the rain, but it doesn’t. The temperature drops but the humidity rises. August in Florida: hell month.

Edith wipes the back of her neck with a small, lace-trimmed hankie. It comes away black. Dust from the open truck windows billows in; if she rolls them up the heat is worse. A puddle of sweat; mix in the dust and she feels like she’s baked in mud.

She fiddles with the dial on the radio. New-fangled thing. The first two stations crackle, and she tries to find another that will come in better.

“The economy continues to deteriorate with President Hoover in his re-election speech claiming his anti-Depression measures are preventing the total collapse of the economy. President Hoover warns that Roosevelt’s New Deal would support an activist federal government whose centralized and coercive powers will endanger traditional notions of individual liberty.

“In other news, there are no new leads in the tragic Lindbergh kidnapping.

“Now to sports. Babe Didrikson has won another medal at the Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Joe Williams, sportswriter for the New York Telegram, said in his column today that ‘It would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up, and waited for the phone to ring’.”

Edith scowls and turns off the radio. Better silence than listen to that. What a day. Busy but productive. If God put me on this earth to accomplish a certain number of things, I’m so far behind I don’t need to worry about dying anytime soon.

She pulls into the parking area at the top of the hill and looks at the building below. Major construction has just finished on the exterior. Sawhorses and scrap lumber still litter the ground. Only six months ago, the site was a burned-out scar of hopes and dreams. Hard work and grit had cleared the burned carcass of Gator Joe’s and raised a magnificent new vision, Mickey’s Goodtimes Saloon. Hard work, grit, and Edith’s healthy bank balance. Thank goodness the house in Philly sold.

Earlier this morning, at a salon in Miami, she’s had her chestnut hair styled in a fashionable Marcel wave. Businesswoman extraordinaire, she’s every bit the looker; her curves have gotten more than one fella in trouble with his dame. When she sees what she’s been able to pull off, she gets tingly. I did this. Me. You take one look at it and think success. Although, today, that euphoric feeling is tempered by damp sweat.

I hope Darwin got the bathroom finished. I could really use a long, hot soak in that big tub.
Edith walks from the carpark, passes the large canvas tent used as a temporary kitchen, and crosses Goodtimes’ broad veranda. She’s still not used to the brass hurricane lanterns, installed yesterday, that flank the ornate wood-paneled front door. There are so many changes from Gator Joe’s rustic charm. Goodtimes is all about class, from the top of its Spanish-tiled roof to the sweep of the wraparound veranda and second story balcony. More than she ever did at Gator’s, Edith feels like she’s coming home when she sees Goodtimes. And if it’s this perfect now, imagine what it will be like when all the work is done.

She steps into the barroom, the first area completed. It’s a cavernous space. New tables and chairs, some still wrapped in burlap, are pushed against the wall. No second-hand furnishings here; this furniture is the best that money can buy. She heads to the bar where a bottle of champagne cools in a bucket of icy water.

Leroy, a small, barefoot boy of eleven, barrels across the room, wrapping himself around her. She looks over his head to a pair of somber men who are sitting at one of the tables covered with plates and food.

Edith peels off his arms so she can pour herself a glass of bubbles. “How did you know?” she asks them, waving the bottle.

“Know what?” Leroy asks.

“About the new refrigerator. It’s up in the truck. Isn’t that what we’re celebrating?”

“The champagne’s for you on account of my birthday. Darwin went out to Rum Row and got it special as a surprise,” Leroy says, beaming up at Edith.

Edith’s heart sinks. Leroy’s birthday? Darn, I was sure that was next week. I could have brought him something back from Miami.

Darwin shrugs. “It’s sort of an unofficial christening of the barroom. Leroy’s birthday is our first official event in it.”

“That’s right. It’s your birthday,” she says brightly, hoping to disguise her gaffe.

Leroy tugs her toward the table where the others are waiting. “Hang on a sec, Leroy. I have something for you.” Edith goes back to the counter and pulls out her wallet. “I seem to have misplaced your card.” She hands him a dollar.

“Wow, this is great, Miz Edith. Thanks a bunch. I don’t need a card. I can buy a whole bunch of comicbooks with it.”

Edith’s smile is triumphant as she looks over at Darwin. “Or maybe a baseball glove. You can spend it on whatever you want.”

Leroy grabs hold of her hand again, dragging her to the table. “Lucky made me a cake and put my name on it in the icing. See?”

The remains of a cake sits in the center of the table.

“That’s swell, Leroy.” Edith puts the champagne bottle on the table in front of her and takes another gulp from her glass. I’ll get him something next time. “You’ll love the new refrigerator, Lucky. It’s the biggest one I could find,” she says to the small, middle-aged Asian man who’s sitting quietly.

Lucky nods, but doesn’t meet her eyes.

“We saved the best piece for you. It’s the one that has an ‘L’ on it. For Leroy,” the boy says, sliding a big slice of cake over to her.

Edith pushes the cake to one side. “And I got the best deal. The fella in the store was going to charge me full price, but I talked him down. With a bit of charm and fluttering eyelashes, I picked up a sweetheart deal. I’ve still got what it takes.” She winks at Darwin. He’s a well-muscled fellow whose battered Panama hat—with ‘gator teeth hatband—hands on the chair behind him.

Darwin frowns. “Where were you? You were supposed to be home hours ago.”
Edith can feel the disapproval radiating off him.

“Oh, sorry about that. I wanted to get my hair done.” She pats at her hair. “Whaddya think?”

Stony silence meets her excuse. Leroy stares at the floor. Edith shrugs and pours herself more champagne. “And then I met up with Mae Capone for lunch, and you know how that is. Girl talk over martinis. I lost track of time.” She toasts them with her glass. “Although, if I’d known we were having champagne, I would have hurried home.”

Leroy slumps into his chair, his head low.

Edith glances at him, the smallest twinge of guilt flickering behind her hazel eyes, and then turns to Darwin. “I also stopped by the lumberyard and ordered—”

“It is Leroy’s birthday, Edith” Darwin says, still frowning. The words echo in the silence of the room.

“I said I was sorry.”

Darwin shakes his head. “No you didn’t.”

“Well, maybe I didn’t say it out loud, but that’s what I meant. Give me a break, here. I’m working hard for this family. I think you all should appreciate that more.”

“It’s Leroy’s birthday,” Darwin says. “He’s eleven.”

“That’s okay, Darwin. I don’t mind. Not much, anyway.” Leroy straightens from his slump. “The cake is real good, Lucky.”

Edith shares a look with Darwin and turns to Leroy. “I’m sorry, sweetie. I really am. You deserve a wonderful gift, a huge celebration, and the truth. I’ve been so caught up in work that I truly thought your birthday was next week. How about I make it up to you, and we go into Coconut Grove and buy a radio to replace the one lost in the fire?”

Leroy bounces, his eyes shining. “That would be great. The Shadow is on tomorrow night.”
“Hold your horses. I can’t do it that quick. I’ve got too much paperwork on my desk. Tomorrow won’t work, but we could try the day after that.”

“But The Shadow is on tomorrow,” Leroy says, pouting.

“Don’t be difficult, Leroy. You’ve missed so many episodes, one more won’t hurt. When we get the kitchen finished, we can put the radio in there.”

“In the kitchen? You said it was going to be my birthday present. That means it’s just for me.”

“I don’t need radio, Miz Edith. Let Leroy keep. He can listen to his stories in room,” Lucky says, nodding and smiling at Leroy.

“And baseball games.” Leroy looks at Edith, a hopeful smile on his face.
Outside, the thunder rumbles.

“Don’t be selfish, Leroy. Everyone should be able to enjoy it. Not just you. Now, let’s get that refrigerator unloaded before the rain comes. We can plug it into the generator and put it in the kitchen tent until the real kitchen is ready.”

They’re all getting too soft. Someone has to be the boss. Someone has to rule the roost. Leroy doesn’t need to be spoiled. Cassie would agree. And he’s got way more than he had when he was in the ‘Glades. Edith rises, tosses back her curls, and heads outside. Three pairs of eyes follow her: one set confused, another angry, and the final pair resigned. Her plate of cake with the ‘L’ on it is left untouched.


Everything in the sea seems to wash up on shore sooner or later. One of Leroy’s chores at Goodtimes is to keep the beach clean; a storm like the one last night delivers all kinds of wreckage. He drifts from bright, shiny objects to things squishy and disgusting. Among the treasures, he picks up broken palm leaves and other storm debris.

Included in the dregs and dross on the beach are a few bottles of liquor. It’s a common practice among rum runners on Biscayne Bay to dump contraband booze overboard when being pursued, a hasty ditching of the evidence. Swallowing the bottles, the rolling sea rewards beachcombers. Leroy carefully examines the bottles to make sure they hold liquor, not seawater, and then stacks them to the side.

“Leroy?” Edith is on the veranda, shouting down the path that leads to the beach.

Leroy waves. “Here, Miz Edith. Trying to clean up the mess the storm left behind.”

“Lunch in half an hour. Lucky’s got some of your opossum stew on the go.”

Even with the steady sounds of hammer and saw, and the bustle of activity around the construction site, the past six months have almost seemed like a holiday for Leroy. There are no tables to clear, no crates of beer and empties to haul back and forth from the shed. He gets to spend sunny days out on the water fishing with Darwin, and cloudy days exploring the thickets, creeks, and swamps around Goodtimes, slingshot in his back pocket. On stormy days he curls up with a good book. It’s a swell life for a boy like Leroy. Except for the chore of cleaning up the beach, his days are his own.

Leroy picks his way through the storm’s deliveries, then turns to the hum of a motor out on the water. It’s a small dory, the type of tender the bigger ships use to come into shore. Cleo Lythgoe has her hand on the tiller and the other is signaling. Leroy runs onto the dock to help tie up the little boat.

“Hiya, Miz Cleo, some storm last night. What was it like out on the water? Were you scared? It would scare me. Yesterday was my birthday. We had a cake with my name on it. But it’s all gone.”

“Hiya, yourself, lad. Yes, I was aboard the Arethusa and the weather was ‘a mite dirty’ as the sailors say. Is Miss Edith at home? I have her order and thought I’d bring it by.”

He begins to take the hams of liquor—six bottles padded then stacked in a pyramid and wrapped in burlap resemble the shape of a ham—from the tall, muscular, nut-brown woman. He sets them on the dock.

“She’s getting lunch ready. Well, Lucky is. I caught an opossum yesterday and we’re having stew today. Can you stay for lunch? Lucky makes great opossum stew.”

“I don’t think I’ve sampled opossum. It’s not something you find on the menu in London’s cafes.” Leroy piles the hams on the dock, then they gather them and trudge up the path from the dock to the building.

Turtles, sunning themselves on fallen logs, crane their long necks to look at the invaders to their private beach. Leroy points out a poisonous copperhead snake whose body is as big as a man’s thigh. Cleo gasps and steps back, not taking her eyes off it until the snake moves with lethargic ease deeper into the Everglades.

The screen door on the veranda bangs open and Edith steps out. “Cleo, welcome. Did you bring me my Gordon’s? I haven’t been able to make a martini in weeks.”

“Hello, ducks. Yes, I’ve got the gin. Although, from the looks of this place, you’ll be placing orders for the barroom soon. You’ve been busy since I was here last.”

“We’re almost ready to open. Working around the mess. I’ll give you the grand tour.” Edith looks over her shoulder. “Darwin, Cleo’s here. Can you help with the hams?”

Darwin appears from inside Goodtimes and relieves Cleo of the bundles, leaving Leroy to manage his own. “Good to see you, Cleo.”

Goodtimes, an impressive two-story built in French Colonial style, has a wraparound veranda, and a balcony off the second floor. The main entrance is a Palladian doorway. The ornate screen door is flanked on either side by long, narrow windows, and the entire unit is capped by a graceful curved window. A dozen floor to ceiling arched glass doors with heavy storm shutters open onto the veranda. Lacy, wrought iron columns along the front support the balcony on the second floor. The balcony and the second-floor French doors have magnificent views of the water. A pastel shade of tangerine covers the walls and dark green shutters, pillars, and trim give Goodtimes a luxurious tropical air.

Cleo admires the new wicker tables and chairs along the veranda, the potted palms in large jardinières, a pair of brass lanterns on either side of the front door.

“It’s looking good, Edith. You’ve done an incredible job. It’s a miracle to see how quickly you’ve managed to rebuild.”

Edith rolls her eyes. “Miracle is only half the story. A bit of divine intervention with the weather helped some, but the rest was a liberal application of cold, hard cash to Miami’s contractors.”

Cleo chuckles. “How’d you do through last night’s storm?”

“Closed the shutters and pushed everything not nailed down against the wall. Goodtimes came through with flying colors.”

“I see you already got a name for it. Not calling it Gator Joe’s like the old place?”

“That was then, this is now. Its full name is Mickey’s Goodtimes Saloon, after my late husband. I think he would have gotten a kick out of that. I told you he was King of the Bootleggers back in Philadelphia, didn’t I?”

Cleo laughs. “The name Goodtimes? That might be a bit gregarious for such a gracious building, but you know your market. Gator’s was a blind-tiger. This looks like a mansion you’d find in the French Quarter in New Orleans, although the color reminds me more of the Bahamas.”

Edith beams. “I wanted something more top-shelf than before. You’ll remember there wasn’t much left standing after the fire. I didn’t want to build my dreams on cold ashes, so we knocked down what was left and started again.”

“I can’t believe you’ve been living in the barn all these months. It must seem like heaven to have moved into the big house.”

“Oh, it was. Having privacy again. Fortunately, we’d fixed up the barn for Leroy and the weekend bands, sort of like a bunkhouse, before the fire. But having Lucky, Leroy, and I all under one roof meant for close-quarters. Especially when it rained, which it does a lot in the summer.”

“So I’ve noticed. These storms are never fun at sea.”

“How did you make out last night? Was it rough out there?”

“The Arethusa has a great crew, so we were fine. Like babes being rocked in their mothers’ arms,” Cleo says. “Even if some of the rocking arms were a bit more muscular than a mother’s.” A small giggle escapes.

One of Edith’s eyebrow climbs. “Really? Do tell.”

Cleo, with a small smile, blushes. “Too soon to say, but a girl can hope. ‘Cupid is a knavish lad, thus to make females mad.’ ”

Edith adopts a mock scowl. “Oh, you Brits and your Shakespeare. Give me a good Hemingway any day.”

Laughing, Cleo takes another look at the front of Goodtimes. “What improvements did you make to the original design? The building itself looks so much bigger.”

“I wanted to build it not just for the business we have now—the blind-tiger and maybe some gambling, but for what will come after Prohibition. Florida will be a tourist mecca and I want to be part of that wave.”

Cleo chuckles. “Atta girl. Always thinking one step ahead.”

Edith links arms with Cleo. “Come and let me show you what the magic of money can do.”

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