When detective Mike Fargo is sent to Yankee Stadium on a hot, May afternoon in 1927 to check out the murder of a stadium groundskeeper, he soon finds himself immersed in a dangerous and complex investigation. His first suspect turns out to be the Yankees star slugger and toast of New York, George Herman “Babe” Ruth. And when the Babe is also a suspect in a second murder, that of a local sportswriter, Fargo sets out to find the real killers.
The case takes on even more significance when a special prosecutor, Brent Forrester, comes to town to slow the spread of organized crime, spawned by Prohibition and the wild times of the Roaring Twenties. Fargo’s initial investigation leads him to a low-level hoodlum, Augie “The Mole” Bendetti, while Forrester begins his pursuit of an Arnold Rothstein wannabe named Manny Goldman. Soon, the two cases merge and Fargo begins working more closely with the special prosecutor while trying to protect the Babe from a deranged killer, his Broadway-bound girlfriend from racketeers trying to control him, and all the while wondering if there’s a dirty cop in his own precinct.
The story follows the tough and uncompromising Fargo as he navigates New York City in a year when Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic, Broadway flourished, the movies got ready to talk, and the New York Yankees, with a lineup known as Murderer’s Row, were being called the greatest baseball team of all-time with the Babe slugging his way toward a new home run record. Fargo’s investigation takes him to venues such as Yankee Stadium, the Cotton Club, Wall Street and the famed Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, painting a vivid picture of New York City during a never-to-be forgotten decade, before the story reaches a gripping and surprising conclusion.
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It was a warm May afternoon as Detective Mike Fargo walked slowly down 33rd Street near 7th Avenue. He pulled a white handkerchief from the breast pocket of his jacket, took off his straw skimmer and wiped his brow.
“Too damn hot for this time of year,” he mumbled under his breath. “Ought to have my head examined for wearing this wool vest.”
Seconds later, he would regret it even more. That’s when he heard the high-pitched scream.
“Help us. We’ve been robbed. They’re getting away!”
Fargo looked across the street to see a middle aged woman standing in the doorway of a small stationery store, a frantic look on her face and waving her arms over her head. Two dirty-looking men were running up the sidewalk like they were trying to catch a trolley. Without hesitating, Fargo darted across the street, just missed being hit by an old Maxwell with its horn blaring as he figured the best angle to take. He burst between a pair of parked cars and managed to clothesline the second man as the first raced by.
The man tumbled to the sidewalk, but jumped to his feet quickly. Fargo, as always, was ready for anything, including the knife the man yanked from his belt. An almost sinister smile came over Fargo’s face and before the man could move he was on him, grabbing his knife arm by the wrist and pushing it back over his head. At the same time he slammed his knee into the man’s groin, then freed his right hand and walloped the already-groaning man across the mouth. He went down, the knife falling from his hand. Fargo kicked it away, then quickly slapped the cuffs on the dirtbag.
“You sonofabitch,” he growled. “You had to pull this kind of shit on the hottest day of the year.”
He yanked the man to feet and dragged him back to the small store where the frantic woman was still standing outside. He showed her his badge.
“Got this one, couldn’t get the other,” he said. “Looks like he’s the one with the cabbage, though.” Fargo pulled a wad of bills from the man’s pocket.
“Bless you,” the woman said.
“Anyone else inside?” Fargo asked.
“My husband. He has a cut on his head but I think he’ll be all right. We work so hard here. Nothing like this has happened before.”
“You never know these days,” Fargo said, wiping the sweat from his brow and face with the handkerchief. As soon as he did the sweat started forming again. “I’ll get someone down here to look at your husband and take a statement.”
Just then, the uniformed cop on the beat came up. A passerby had told him about the commotion. Fargo filled him in quickly and handed the still dazed man over.
“I’ll call it in from the phone booth on the corner,” Fargo said. “Hold onto this bum until the paddywagon arrives.”
“Yes, sir,” the uniform said.
It was one helluva way to start an afternoon, especially one in which eggs would fry on the sidewalk. The still sweating Fargo walked to the next block and then into a small stationery store near the corner, first to get out of the sun for a few minutes and then to grab a pack of Lucky Strikes. He also wanted to warn the owner of the robbery close by.
“Gimme the usual, Al,” he said to a short, balding man behind the counter whose eyes flashed recognition as soon as Fargo entered. The man reached back and tossed the pack to Fargo, who grabbed it with one hand.
“Nice catch, detective,” he said. “Maybe the Yanks can use you in the outfield.”
“Don’t think they need any help from me,” Fargo said, tapping a copy of the Journal American that was sitting on the counter as he dropped the change for the smokes. The paper had a headline that read,
RUTH, GEHRIG HOMER AS YANKEES WIN AGAIN.
“Bet they win 120 games this year,” the balding man said. “No one can touch ‘em.”
“Hold that thought, Al,” Fargo answered, “but don’t lose any money betting it happens.”
“Nah, not me. Hey, what happened to you? You look as if you just ran against Man o’ War.”
That’s when Fargo told him about the robbery and warned him to keep his eyes open, that a couple of mugs had knocked over a store like his in the next block.
“I nailed one of them so I don’t think his pal will come back for awhile.”
“Thanks for the tip, but I keep a baseball bat under the counter just in case,” Al said.
“See, the Yankees have even rubbed off on you,” Fargo said, with a smirk.
“Yeah, I’m the Babe Ruth of the candy store gang. Someone comes in here looking for trouble I hit a home run.”
Fargo nodded and pulled the skimmer down over his eyes as soon as he emerged into the bright sunshine once more. He wasn’t a huge baseball fan because he never had much time to get out to Yankee Stadium, or the Polo Grounds either, for that matter. Ebbets Field? Forget about it. To Mike Fargo, Brooklyn might as well be on the other side of the world.
This year, though, everyone was already talking about the Yankees and the hitting of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Best team ever, people would tell him all the time. And the Babe? Hell, there was no one better. Not Cobb, not Speaker, not Hornsby. No one. They even talked about it repeatedly at the stationhouse. Yet whenever he heard Yankee talk, Fargo would usually just nod and continue going about his business.
That business was being a cop, something he did very well. Lived and breathed it, often 24 hours a day, which didn’t leave time for much else and with good reason. It wasn’t always easy being an officer of the law – albeit an honest one – in New York City, especially in the spring of 1927. Not even a seasoned veteran like Mike Fargo could always tell the good guys from the bad anymore. The lines – that in an ideal world would be set in stone – were closing fast, to the point where it seemed that no matter what you did, you had to watch your back. Even in your own precinct.
Fargo reached in his pocket for the Luckies. He stopped in front of an old row house and banged the end of the pack several times on the cement stoop to compress the tobacco, then opened it, removed a smoke, flicked at a wooden match with his thumbnail and lit up. Since it wasn’t yet one o’clock, he walked about a block to Fran’s Luncheonette to grab a sandwich. The ham and cheese on rye tasted good, so good in fact, that he had a second, stuffing a couple of pickles in his mouth along the way. But what he really had a yen for on this hot day was a cold beer. Yes, already.
“Anything else?” Fran asked him. She was a tired-looking woman with a heavily-lined face that looked as if it has seen too much of life. Fargo often wondered where the lines came from since he had never seen her expression change, not a crack.
“Yeah, how about a cold one, Fran?” he asked her, with a wink.
“Now, detective, you know that’s against the law,” she deadpanned. “You should be ashamed of yourself even thinking like that, especially so early in the day. I’m surprised at you.”
“Geez, never thought of you as a wet blanket,” Fargo said,. “Don’t worry, Fran. Everything’s jake. It’s probably just 110 degrees out there. Why worry?”
Like many people in New York he knew where he could get a beer real fast. Despite Prohibition. He’d done it before, just like all the others who knew their way around the city. Cop or no cop, everyone just looked the other way when it benefited them. That was the tenet of the times. You could pinch a bootlegger one night, then celebrate by polishing off a few cocktails at your favorite speak.
By the time he got back to the stationhouse on 51st Street, Fargo was dragging. Not only was he hot and sweaty, but his feet hurt. In fact, the old dogs had been barking a lot lately and he was beginning to understand why people often called a cop a flatfoot. The problem, he reasoned, was caused by too much pasta and sausage, potatoes and corned beef, sour dough bread and butter, and the rest of the wide variety of foods he loved. He thought himself a purely non-sectarian eater. Though he hadn’t climbed on a scale for a while, Fargo felt as if his weight was starting to edge above the 210-pound mark. Even though he was barrel-chested and very strong, the weight was too much for a guy an inch under six-feet, and he knew it.
The extra weight had also made his roundish face even fuller. A three-inch scar on his left cheek, the result of being slashed by a straight razor some years earlier, led one of his more erudite cronies to call him the law-abiding scarface, a contrasting reference to the infamous law-breaking scarface, Chicago mobster Al Capone. Fargo was philosophical about the slightly raised reddish mark that would never go away. “I wasn’t so gorgeous before, eh,” he would say, “so I’m just a little less gorgeous now. The gals will just have to live with it.”
Though he often wore his skimmer, his brownish hair was usually slicked down and parted in the middle. Keeps it outta the way, he would say. His mouth was full, though he often tightened his lips when he was tense, yet he had an infectious, wide smile that he rarely flashed, and a slightly hawkish nose. But the Staten Island-born Fargo didn’t dwell on his looks. He simply didn’t care, not anymore at least. The fact that his fortieth birthday was right around the corner didn’t exactly give him the berries. When he was younger he was fond of telling people, “Can you believe I was born just twenty-two years after the Civil War ended.”
Now that seemed an eternity ago. Worse yet, he hadn’t found a good case to sink his teeth into for a few months. Though he had received several commendations for his work, not having a challenging case made the job boring. Some years earlier he had solved the strange murder of socialite Martha Vanderhaven, who was killed by a jealous cousin, Irma Keefer, after everyone thought her smitten chauffeur had done it. She was killed with a large kitchen knife later found in the trunk of the family limousine. Fargo began suspecting Keefer when she revealed a sudden and irrational temper during a routine interrogation. Once he learned that the she had a lifelong jealousy of the wealthier and more glamorous victim, two and two quickly made four and he used her jealousy against her to get a confession.
That wasn’t all. Back in 1923 he had stopped a bank robbery single-handedly by jumping on the running board of the getaway car, slugging the driver, guiding the car into a pile of garbage, then nailing the second robber as he tried to flee. Fargo was tenacious and uncompromising, tough and fearless. The bottom line was that he simply didn’t like lawbreakers. They pissed him off and a pissed off Mike Fargo was a dangerous foe.
Lately, though, he was beginning to feel as if he was mired in quicksand, tired of pinching small-time grifters and penny-ante hoods, and even began wondering if he was losing his touch. Just a week or so earlier he read that a jury had convicted Ruth Snyder and her boyfriend, Judd Gray, of the murder for profit of her husband, Albert. When he first heard about the murder in March he saw it as a case he would have loved to tackle. But the killing had taken place on Long Island, out of his jurisdiction.
Now he seemed to be treading water. Or was it something else? Since Gus O’Neill had become captain of the 17th precinct the cases had become small, or at least the ones O’Neill was giving him. He thought of asking for a transfer but figured he’d ride it out a bit longer and just let the chips fall. Things had to change, or so he hoped. Stopping the candy store robbery was just another example of what he felt he was becoming – a small timer.
Feeling beat on what was quickly becoming a down day, Fargo flopped into the chair behind his desk, flipped the skimmer from his head, then popped another Lucky into his mouth. He watched the smoke curl lazily toward the ceiling, its slow drift mimicking the way he felt at the moment. His mood increasingly somber, he began thinking it might be a good night to see his favorite lady. Lola Raymond was a songbird looking to make it big on Broadway. Until that happened, she did her nightly warbling at the Amber Room on 41st Street, usually singing until well after midnight, depending on the size and mood of the crowd. He could wait for her, maybe even take in her act and have a few belts. That might put a crack in the routine. Besides, being around Lola always made him feel better. He took another deep drag on the quickly disappearing cigarette and swung his feet up on the corner of the desk. It sure ain’t easy coming up on forty, he thought to himself once again.
“Well, well, well,” a mocking voice behind him said, breaking his trance-like mood. “You’re acting like your usual jovial self. Come on Fargo, look alive. At least pretend you’re one of the city’s finest, why don’t you.”
Fargo laughed. Joe Gambill was always so upbeat that it sometimes made him want to puke. He almost starting bitching about how lousy his day had been so far, but figured what the hell. Still, he couldn’t help cracking a smile at Gambill’s happy face because he knew the real Joe, a guy who wouldn’t turn down a drink, a woman, a poker game or a day at Coney Island. No wonder he was so happy. Nothing bothered him, at least outwardly.
“I am jovial,” Fargo finally answered, in a flat voice. “Can’t you tell? Look closely. This is my jovial demeanor. Happy-as-a-lark demeanor. Problem is it’s the same as all my other demeanors. That creates a problem for you, doesn’t it, Joe. Namely, that you don’t know what the hell I’m thinking. Eh?”
“You sonofabitch,” Gambill said, with a grin, knocking Fargo’s feet off the desk and causing the cigarette to fall from his lips onto his lap.
“Shit,” he said, brushing it onto the floor. Both of them laughed.
“Hey, did you hear that Texas Guinan opened a new joint on West 48th,” Gambill said. “They call it the 48th Street Club. Real original.”
“Yeah, but Texas is an original,” Fargo said of the sometimes actress, singer and full time hostess, who held court at a number of clubs that featured raucous entertainment, lots of girls and, of course, drinks. She always greeted her audiences with a hale and hearty, “Hello, suckers!” making no secret of the fact that she wanted as much of their money as she could get. That she was fronting for the real owners, sometimes reputed to be gangsters, didn’t bother Fargo at all. With Texas Guinan, he figured what he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him.
“Gotta love her,” Fargo said. “She reminds me of the dames that used to play burlesque in its heyday. They ain’t what you’d call classy, but they were all swell. Like her almost as much as Mae West,” he added, alluding to the blond, curvaceous and sexy Broadway star who often found herself in trouble with the law because of her language and off-color jokes.
“Why not,” Gambill agreed. “They’re all great. Bring the damned city to life.”
Just then, the door at the end of the room swung open and Chief of Detectives August “Gus” O’Neill poked his head through.
“Fargo, get your tail in here.”
“Duty calls,” he said to Gambill, as he continued to brush the ashes from his pants while walking into his boss’s office. When he got there O’Neill was already back behind his desk. Businesslike and brusk as usual, he talked without looking up. He was a big man with a flat, Irish face, slightly reddened complexion, and a deep voice that shook the entire squad room when he was hot over something.
“Got a live one for you, Fargo. Hop on over to Yankee Stadium. Seems that someone decided to take batting practice on the head of one of the groundskeepers. Ask for a guy name Joe Sturgeon.”
“The Stadium? It’s not even in our precinct.”
“Hey, knucklehead, stop and think. The Yankees. The New York Yankees. Haven’t you been reading what they’re doing this year? Anything happening up there could be a real sensitive issue if it ain’t handled right. Do you want some bozo from the Bronx screwing it up? Nah, this came right down from the top. They want us, and I want you. Simple enough to understand? See what you can find out and don’t talk to anyone you shouldn’t be talking to. Then get back to me as soon as you can.”
“The guy hurt bad?”
“No, we’re sending you up there because he has a cut lip,” the captain said, his voice beginning to rise.” Think about it, Fargo. Why else would they want us up there? It’s because he ain’t doing no breathing. To my mind, that means he’s dead!”
“Then why did you call it a live one?”
O’Neill looked up and shook his head. “Can the wisecracks and get your ass up there.”