In 1781 Walter Knowles couldn’t walk down the streets of Savannah without everyone knowing who he was. The population of coastal Georgia was virtually all loyal to the Crown but their food supply had been cut off by George Washington’s followers up-river. The Tory families were hungry and Knowles traveled regularly down the coast from his island plantation on the Broad River near Beaufort, SC bringing … rice and beans.
By 1812 Kevin Knowles, along with his aged father and the rest of the clan, had been forced out of the Carolinas and were ensconced on Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay. They had been welcomed by the Cornish Loyalist that Cornwallis had left behind along with a remnant of the Royal Navy. Their only problem, what with another war going on, was obtaining a source of fresh food. Kevin became the most respected Guinea-man on tidewater’s Eastern Shore because of his nightly ventures. Every morning would find him back on the dock with … crabs and oysters.
In 1864 Zander Knowles claimed Eleuthera as his Bahamian home island and his family had been there since 1815 when they had been forced out of Virginia and awarded a land grant by the English Crown. He was a familiar figure on the streets of Nassau but even more recognized by the scattered population along Florida’s Indian River.
The lighthouse at the Jupiter Inlet had been darkened by Confederate sympathizers and Union blockaders patrolled the coastline but this didn’t slow down Zander. Further north, the Confederacy needed cannon and Enfield rifles and blockade runners brought them in at Wilmington, NC. The plantation owners and their elegant ladies along the balmy Indian River, however, had other desires and Mr. Knowles could always be counted on to fulfill their needs from the fully stocked warehouses and shops in Nassau … Brazilian coffee and fine silks.
By 1925 the land boom in Florida was in full swing and the Volstead Act and Prohibition had rung in a new era. Binder-Boys were trading real estate on street corners like ballpark franks and the juke-joints on Banyan St. in West Palm Beach had been taken over by antique shops. There wasn’t anyone on the Gold Coast that didn’t know Glover Knowles. As a young man, he had settled in Ravera (that’s Riviera Beach for you new-comers) with his parents and siblings around the turn of the century. The reason for the move was the newly dredged Palm Beach Inlet and the lucrative market for seafood being shipped to Northern climes. The Knowles family still maintained their family ties and connections in the Islands and were soon adding to their net hauls by trading with Bahamian fishermen in West End Settlement and down off the coast of Andros.
Seafood craving local restaurant goers, as well as the seasonal influx of well-heeled epicurean snow-birds at the Breakers and the Biltmore had nothing to fear. Every few days, or more probably nights, you could count on Glover to tie up near the Inlet with a few fish and the most sought-after of all Palm Beach culinary necessities … Scotch and Rye.
I had caught up with Avon at one of his stores. On the phone, we agreed to meet in the Mall parking lot because he was “in a hurry to get to the Lantana airport”. We met up at one of the side entrances and headed for a food court.
Walking through the Palm Beach Mall with Avon Knowles was like emerging from a limo at an Oscar Awards Ceremony with the favored nominee on your arm. Everybody knew Avon. Every man or woman our age ran up to greet him and bell-bottomed guys and gals that looked like they had just crawled out of a van in Haight-Ashbury or had a toke at Woodstock were winking thumbs-up and going for high-fives. The Knowles family magnetism had definitely transcended the ages and been passed on down.
It was easy to see why. Avon was single, rock-hard, devilishly handsome, and his “I’m laughing at the world” smile never left his face. He owned a chain of trendy retail seafood emporiums in Palm Beach, Boca Raton and virtually all of the other South Florida enclaves of both “Old money” and the “Nouveau riche” alike. He was a local TV celebrity by virtue of his advertising segments featuring himself, along with other rubber apron clad white booted fishermen, off-loading freshly caught pompano destined for his icy display cases. He always emphasized that they came only from secret locations in the “Bluest of the Deep”. We all knew that pompano were usually found in less than eight feet of water and often in the sandy breaking surf, but … it sounded good.
Rumor had it that Avon held his Bahamian connections extremely confidential and that most of his closest business associates were blood relatives, some of which had never set foot in the United States. It was around these “off-shore” Knowles boys that other rumors circulated. Apparently, they didn’t spend much time fishing for pompano or diving for crawfish. They specialized in a much larger specie … grouper … square ones!
“Sorry I don’t have more time old man. You say you’ve been in the Keys?”
Pausing for, still, another admirer to shake his hand, I responded … “Yeah, left my boat down in Marathon but I hope to get back right away. Have you been down there lately?” He just shook his head …
A diet Coke and a big Orange–Avon got the tab and brought them over to a little table … “So what’s on your mind? You say you ran into Matheson?”
There was no reason to hide anything from Avon. If I was going to get any information from him, he needed to know the whole story. The only part I left out was my meeting with Terry Booth. For some reason–I didn’t think that would help the cause.
Avon, like myself, had lost track of Frank, so my accounting of our reunion at the Caribbean Club and his romantic overtures and reminisces brought back memories and induced one laugh after another. No sooner would I relay one of Matheson’s pranks of yore, than Avon would jump in with still another that I had never heard. We laughingly agreed that there wasn’t a woman alive that … well we agreed.
Once my story got around to relaying Frank’s current life, Avon’s mood began to change. For a long while, he just listened but showed no emotion and made no comment. It was only after hearing the two names that Frank had mentioned, that Avon started frowning and shaking his head. I picked up on it right away. They were the same two names that had kept me awake the past few nights … “Carlos” and “Norman”.
“Hey man, let’s drop this conversation right now.” Avon continued to speak but his face and eyes had taken on a stern and impersonal expression and gaze. “Don’t get tied up in this. Let it go. Get the fuck out of Dodge … Based on what your telling me, I can’t help Frank at all, but I can help you. These guys don’t screw around–they kill people who get in their way. If you’re smart, you’ll run, not walk, to that Exit door over there and not look back. Jim, this Carlos dude, Lehder’s his last name, is a Columbian thug that has every “wig” in Parliament in Nassau paid-off. He’s running cocaine through the Bahamas like an open spigot, and doesn’t give a damn who knows it. Are you sure that Frank is on Norman’s Cay?”
Thankfully, Avon had chosen to continue the dialog and I wasted no time in responding–“If he’s still alive, that’s the only place he can be. If he was on that racing boat that ran over that boy and his father, he’s in big trouble unless he spills the beans. If this Carlos hombre thinks Frank might do that … he’s a dead man walking.”
Bringing his thumb and curled index finger up to his chin and going into a “Thinker” pose, Avon slowly and quietly replied … “This will be the last time ever, that you and I talk about Frank Matheson. I’m assuming that all you want from me is to find out if Frank is, as we speak, on Norman’s Cay? If that’s the case, I’ve got an idea. None of my people can even approach Norman’s. The Colombians know all of their boats and there’s no reason for any of them to go there anyway. There may be a better way.”
“There is a Club Med at Governor’s Harbour on Eleuthera. The place is a resort run by a bunch of Frenchmen that bring in their workers from all over the world. They all eventually learn to speak French and they have some fancy name for them, “Gentils Organisateurs”, but they just call them GO’s and the bottom line is–they’re not Bahamians and they only stay for six months. All of them … six months and they scatter to the wind. Club Med has something like a hundred of, what they call Villages, scattered all around the world and they continually rotate in new staff members on an individual basis … not as a group. Pick any three or four of the GO’s on Eleuthera right now and, six months from now, they’ll be in Bali, Sierra Leone, St. Tropez, or maybe even a new one they just opened up in Haiti. It’s just the way they do business–all new faces in every Village … twice a year.”
“From the very start, management at the Club had big problems getting “work permits” issued by the boys in Nassau. They went through the drill with their opening staff but soon were looking for a way to by-pass the system. That’s where Fuzzy came into play. I don’t know his real name but he doesn’t shave very often so … He’s an old-timer that used to be a Royal Mail boat Captain. He knows the Out Islands like the back of his hand and that’s what led up to his ‘French connection’. Rather than go through all the red tape and pay the fee that the Government demands for each new ‘off-shore’ employee, the Club Med headquarters in Miami, they call it ‘Trident Services’, gave Fuzzy a full-time job. They hired him, as an outside contractor, to take guests on two or three-day dive trips out of the Village on Eleuthera. The only catch is–the divers that go and come on these excursions are not always guests on holiday.”
“The names on the name tags of the staff members at Club Med never change but the guys and gals wearing them do. The GO’s have even coined the concept of ‘Village Crazy Names’ to explain why they might have a three hundred pound Nigerian dude named ‘Blondie’ and a tiny little gal from Sweden called ‘Stud’. Today, every incoming new GO starts out by arriving in the good old USA on a tourist visa. From the Miami airport, they’re all driven down to the Keys where they hold up for a few days before Fuzzy shows up to take them for a little scenic cruse. At the same time, he drops off the ones they’re replacing. The only two Customs Agents at Governor’s Harbour are on the take and Fuzzy covers his tracks by always returning to port with the same size dive crew he departed with and a load of freshly caught crawfish …”
“These bugs are what brings Norman’s Cay into the picture. Since Lehder and his Cuban and Columbian cohorts don’t like visitors, Fuzzy, the old mailman, is the only fisherman they let anywhere near the island. He has the nearby reefs and grassy flats all to himself and that’s not all … crawfish love to hide in old wrecks and under things. Bahamians routinely set traps that consist of nothing but a four by eight foot piece of galvanized sheet metal laid flat on, but held off, the bottom by a few bricks or two-by-four runners. Just show up every couple of weeks, flip the metal lids off the bug’s hide-outs and warm up the butter.”
“On the final day of those special ‘diving trips’, where he’s returning from Florida with a load of new GOs, Fuzzy pays a short visit to the waters around Norman’s Cay and dives on his prey. If he hasn’t made the trip to the Keys and only camped out on, and dove around, some of the little islands in the Exumas for a couple of days with a group of over-weight school teachers from Detroit, he never goes near Norman’s. When he does, the reefs, flats, and sheet metal traps he has working for him around Lehder’s private island would give him plenty of bugs with only a dive or two–but that’s not where he finds most of his haul. That distinction falls to the aluminum super traps that Carlos has furnished him with … large ones that lie just off the beach and have turned into crawfish condominiums.”
“The Columbians are running planes in and out around the clock. They’ve got old C class Lockheeds bringing the cocaine in from South America and Pipers, Beech, and Cessnas hauling it off to, how shall I say it, ‘a neighborhood near you’. The only catch is–there’s no instrument landing equipment on the island’s air-strip nor in any of the smaller aircraft. If bad weather comes in unexpectedly and they can’t find the runway, the pilots have little choice but to splash down and hope for the best. Even if they have additional fuel on board, they have few alternate destinations available. I can just hear it now … ‘Miami International, Miami International, this is Coke Hopper 624 requesting clearance to land on runway 105-E …’. There are probably five or six of these downed airplanes scattered in the water around the island but on the books in Carlos Lehder’s operation, the write-offs for a few lost planes is only a rounding error–he probably doesn’t give a shit about the pilots and, unless there’s a stash of coke or some cash on board, won’t even have his men dive on the crash site.”
“So Jim, here’s what I’ll do, and remember this is the last time you and I will ever mention the subject and, if confronted, I’ll deny any knowledge of everything we’ve talked about. I’m flying out of Lantana to Marsh Harbour, my pilot is waiting for me now. Once on the ground, I’ll put the wheels in motion to bring Fuzzy up to speed and make him an offer he won’t refuse. He doesn’t work with any of my cousins but he always tries to ‘get-along’. He should be able to go ashore on Norman’s or, at least, get some info on Matheson. I won’t, but I’ll have somebody contact you with information as to where, and when, you’ll be able to meet up with Fuzzy, let’s call him ‘the mailman’, on his next trip over. It might even be in Marathon.”
Abruptly, it was over. Avon had no expression on his face but his eyes were saying “don’t do it Jim.” He placed the palms of both hands flat on the table, paused for a moment, then stood up … “I got ‘a go. Remember … this is it, this is it!” he patted me on the shoulder, and walked away.