When Detective Mike Fargo is sent to investigate a fatal shooting at Broadway’s Crittendon Theater on a lazy, late July afternoon in 1925, he had no way of knowing he was about to embark on one of the strangest cases of his life. The victim was Buddy Barrett, the hottest director of musicals in New York City, a kid who captured the fancy of the public with the nickname The Boy Wonder of Broadway. Sure enough, Fargo finds Barrett dead on stage, shot in the head from a catwalk, and with a theater full of suspects looking on.
But that’s only the beginning. Almost immediately, Fargo learns that while on the road to directing two hit shows and working on a third, Buddy Barrett has been making enemies as fast as illegal booze is flowing throughout the city. In fact, the Boy Wonder has a second nickname – Buddy the Bastard. And once he begins digging, Fargo soon finds that Barrett is something of a mystery man, a kid with no family and no known past. It’s almost as if he popped up out of the mist to take New York by storm.
Fargo is at a dead end in a case where both everyone and no one is a suspect. While Buddy’s hit shows ran long and his backers made a ton of money, the list of people who hated the diminutive director has been growing steadily. But did someone hate him enough to kill him? Suspects range from fired and overworked actors, to a vicious crime boss and the money men who produced the shows. Soon Fargo learns that Barrett never attended Princeton, as he claimed, doesn’t have a single close friend and refuses all interviews with the media. Who, then, is the real Buddy Barrett?
The search eventually takes Fargo to Atlantic City where Buddy Barrett’s true identity is finally revealed, but not before Fargo finds his own life in danger. Back in New York Fargo begins narrowing suspects down until a final twist makes him doubt his own ability as a homicide detective. This fast-paced, action-packed novella will keep the reader riveted until the final chapter and is yet another crisp addition to The Mike Fargo Mysteries series.
CHAPTER ONE — Dead Men Can’t Take Curtain Calls
“Fargo, get your tail in here. We got ourselves a hot one.”
Mike Fargo was sitting at his desk in the 17th Precinct, reading the Daily News and smoking a Lucky Strike, when Captain Lou Porter put the first crimp in his day. The veteran detective tossed the paper and headed into his boss’s office.
“Gimme a break, Cap,” he said, as he entered. “Was just reading about this guy Scopes, the one who was on trial for teaching evolution in Tennessee. Jury said he was guilty and they fined him all of a hundred bucks. Sounds like either a bad judge or a bad rap.”
“Not our business,” the captain said. Porter was old school, tough but fair, and rarely minced words. As usual, he got right to the point. “But a dead body on Broadway is.”
“Who’s Buddy Barrett?”
“Where do ya live, Fargo, in a hole somewhere? Wake up. This is 1925 and Buddy Barrett is the hottest director to hit Broadway in years. They call him the boy wonder.”
Fargo smirked. “Broadway’s a little outta my league, Cap. I’m a vaudeville guy. I’ll hit Broadway when Mae West gets there.”
“No, you’ll hit it today. The Crittendon Theater at 47th and Seventh. Find out what the hell happened.”
“Whaddaya know already?”
“It sounds as if Barrett was shot, on stage, right in the middle of rehearsal.”
“That’s one helluva’n exit. Wonder if he got any applause or a curtain call?”
“Funny man. Go find out exactly how it happened. The tabloids are gonna have a field day with this one. I don’t want any loose ends. And Fargo.”
“Dead men can’t take curtain calls.”
Fargo wasn’t happy as he went outside. He decided to walk from the precinct on East 51st Street crosstown to 47th. The only problem was the heat. On this July 22nd afternoon the temperature must have been somewhere in the eighties, a hot, sticky day. His double-breasted suit made it feel like it was close to one hundred and he stopped several times to step into the shade and wipe his brow. By the time he reached the theater he could feel the perspiration creeping slowly through his clothes. That didn’t put him in a good mood.
There was a crowd gathering outside when he got there, gawking and buzzing, with a uniformed cop making sure no one entered. Cat must be out of the bag already, Fargo thought. He flashed his badge at the uniform, then asked,
“Whaddaya know about this?”
“Not much, except a guy’s dead in there. We’ve been waitin’ on you.”
“Naturally,” was all Fargo said, as he began walking inside.
There must have been at least thirty-five or forty people in the theater, all milling around, some of the women crying and everyone looking like they were in a sweat box. The heat from outside had definitely made its entrance. Fargo had read that a newfangled invention called air conditioning had been installed several months earlier at the recently opened Rivoli Theater, a huge movie house at Times Square. But it hadn’t come to the Crittenden yet. Too bad.
A couple of uniforms were on the stage making sure no one touched the body. When Fargo climbed up, the wiseguy in him wanted to take a bow, but he thought better of it. Instead, he walked straight toward the uniforms and the body of Buddy Barrett. It wasn’t a pretty sight. The boy wonder was lying face down at the rear of the stage, a pool of dark blood forming a circle around his head. Whoever popped him had made a direct hit. It didn’t take a genius to see that he had died instantly.
After examining the body for several minutes, Fargo told one of the uniforms to make sure the coroner was on his way and to get a few more cops to the theater to help take statements. Then he spoke his first words ever from a stage; only he wasn’t acting.
“Anyone see it happen?”
“I kinda saw it,” a voice said, coming from group of people standing in front of the stage.
Fargo looked but couldn’t pinpoint the voice. Annoyed, he threw his hands out to his side, palms up.
“Hey, you can talk, but can you walk? Where the hell are you?”
A fifty-something man stepped forward. He was small, nondescript, wearing old clothes and with a cap on his head. Fargo pegged him as the janitor.
“I’m Benny Lawson, the stage manager,” he said, quietly.
“Okay, Benny. See, we’re making progress. Suppose you tell me what you saw.”
“Well, Mr. Barrett had just ended rehearsal. He always walks the stage so he can see everything from all angles. He was over there, stage right, when he told everyone to break. Just then I heard someone call his name and he began walking across the back of the stage. That’s when it happened.”
“What, exactly, did you see happen?”
“I dunno for sure.”
“Not what you just told me. Think about it, Benny. What did you see?”
“I just heard someone yell, ‘Hey Buddy,’ then heard a loud bang – echoed through the whole damned theater – and when I looked up Mr. Barrett was falling forward. I could see the blood gushing out. It was just terrible.”
“When did you know it was a gunshot?”
“Didn’t realize it until I saw Buddy go down. That’s when one and one started to make two.”
“It usually does, Benny. Where do you think the shot came from?”
“If I had to guess, I’d say up there.” Lawson pointed to a narrow catwalk that ran across the rear of the stage. There were lights hanging on supports in front of it. It was also high enough that it couldn’t be seen from the audience, and it was dark – a good place for someone to hide.
“How do we get up there?” Fargo asked.
“You wanna go up there? It can be a little dangerous.”
“Ask Barrett if it’s more dangerous up there or down here,” Fargo said, as Lawson threw a quick glance in the direction of the motionless body.
“How do we get up there?” Fargo repeated, already tired of having to ask the same questions twice.
“You go up that ladder, then walk across that narrow catwalk.” Lawson pointed as he talked.
“Let’s go,” Fargo said. “Lead the way.”
“Let me turn on the lights back there so you can see better,” Lawson said, as he ran offstage to hit the switch. He was back in a whisker.
Benny Lawson scampered up the ladder like a monkey, using both his hands and feet. Fargo followed carefully, making sure of each step before taking the next one on the narrow, creaky wooden ladder that shook continually. The catwalk was only about eighteen inches wide with a rope railing on each side. It shook, as well. While Lawson looked at home, Fargo felt like he was on the moon. Once on the catwalk, he managed to squeeze past the stage manager and slowly made his way out to the center.
“What are you looking for?” Lawson asked.
“Evidence, Benny. That’s what detectives do. They detect things.”
Lawson didn’t smile at the wisecrack, but Fargo couldn’t have cared less. He was already looking closely at the surface of the catwalk, while still going slowly and holding on to the rope railing. That’s when he saw something and picked it up carefully. It was an old glove, left hand.
“Here you go, Benny,” he said, holding the glove up.
“Think whoever was up here dropped it?”
“It sure didn’t fly up on its own. Tell me something. How fast could someone leave the theater from here?”
“Very fast. All he’d have to do was scramble down that ladder on the other side and there’s a door that leads to the alley. Then down five steps and out.”
Fargo nodded. It would have been easy for the the shooter to get himself out of the theater and onto the street before anyone knew what happened. He also figured the left-handed glove could have fallen out of a pocket. The shooter may have worn one on his right hand to keep the gunshot residue off his skin. But all that had nothing to do with the next question. Who would want to shoot the Boy Wonder of Broadway? And why?
Fargo climbed back down with an even bigger crimp in his day. He now had a high-profile murder on his hands and a theater full of possible suspects. Plus there was something else to consider. What if the shooter didn’t leave the building? He could have ditched the gun, then circled back and blended in with the crowd. This kind of case was last thing he needed on a hot afternoon. He took a deep breath, lit up a Lucky, then spoke his second set of lines from the stage.
“Nobody leaves here until we get your names and addresses. Shouldn’t take too long.”
A collective groan went up from those standing around so Fargo figured he wouldn’t be hired for the run of the play. He laughed to himself. But with a murder that was sure to become tabloid fodder until it was solved, he knew the pressure would be on the department and that meant on him.
Just then, Fargo heard one of the uniforms holler, “HEY, YOU. GET BACK HERE!”
He looked up to see a man bolting from the theater, right through the front doors. Leaping from the stage, Fargo ran up the aisle and left the Crittendon just behind the uniformed cop, who was pursuing the fleeing man uptown on 47th Street. He quickly overtook his already panting cohort and gained ground on his adversary, who was also wilting quickly in the heat. Fargo caught up to him in the next block and brought him down by grabbing his shoulder and yanking hard. He then pulled the man to his feet and pushed him up against the closest building.
“Where the hell did you think you were going?” he demanded. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you innocent men don’t run.”
“I didn’t do nothing,” the man gasped. “Hey, my ear’s bleeding.”
“You’ll live,” Fargo answered. “That’s more than Buddy Barrett can say about now. What you did is make me run after you in his damned heat. That doesn’t make me happy. What’s your name?”
The man said nothing as he was still trying to catch his breath, so Fargo cuffed him and practically dragged him back to the theater. Once inside, he yelled for Benny Lawson, who quickly joined them.
“Benny, who the hell is this guy?”
“His name is Nick Murdock,” Benny said. “He’s an actor.”
“Is he in the show?”
“Was. Buddy canned him a few weeks ago, right after we started rehearsals. He had no reason to be here.”
“Maybe he had a real good reason,” Fargo quipped. “We’re gonna find that out fast.”
“See, that’s why I ran,” Murdock said. “I knew I’d get blamed because that little sonofabitch fired me.”
“Tell you what, Nick. You can think about what you’re gonna say to me while you’re waiting in a holding cell.”
Just then, the coroner arrived, as did several more cops, a precinct photographer and a couple of guys from the crime lab. Fargo gave them the glove he had found and instructed the other uniforms to get names and addresses of everyone there. He told two of the uniforms to hustle Nick Murdock down to the station. Meanwhile, the boy wonder was bagged and put into the meatwagon for one of his last rides, this one with absolutely no fanfare. While that was happening, Fargo asked Benny Lawson if anyone in the crowd was especially close to the slain director.
“I’m not sure Buddy had any close friends,” the stage manager said. “I once heard him say he couldn’t be friends with people he had to direct.”
Fargo nodded. “Okay, who’s the biggest names here?”
“You mean the stars of the show?”
Fargo nodded again. “You’re learnin’ fast, Benny.”
“That would be Eddie Cramer and Margie Donner,” Lawson said. “That’s them over there.”
“Benny, there’s at least ten people over there. Why don’t you just go get them for me. And bring three chairs up here, if you don’t mind.”
Like the competent stage manager he was, Lawson had everything set up in a flash. Both stars were seated. Cramer, a tall, thin man with a narrow, angular face, large nose and pencil mustache, was shuffling nervously. A Valentino he wasn’t. Margie Donner had the typical flapper look of the day, short hair, noticeable makeup and short skirt. She was Kewpie doll pretty, but her eyes were reddened and still tear-filled from what had transpired shortly before. She kept dabbing at them with a tissue.
Fargo then sat down, showed the two his badge as a courtesy, fired up a Lucky, and got right down to business.
“Either of you see anything?” he asked.
They looked at each other for a second, then shook their heads.
“We were both facing the front of the stage when it happened,” Eddie Cramer said, producing a cigarette of his own.
Margie Donner nodded. “All I heard was a big bang, like a fourth of July firecracker,” she said, in a little girl voice. “We had just finished a number and Buddy told us to break for the day. Just a few seconds later I heard the sound and turned to see Buddy falling. I think I screamed, but I know I ducked.”
“Okay, suppose you tell me something about Buddy Barrett . . . the man, not the director.”
Eddie Cramer snorted. “What’s to tell. He was great at what he did and he was a bastard. Case closed.”
“That’s a helluva point of view. By great at what he did I assume you meant this, his work here?” Fargo swept his hand around, indicating the theater.
“That’s also what made him a bastard,” Cramer continued, puffing away on his smoke. “I think that boy wonder label went to his head. He had two huge hits and this show was gonna be his trifecta. He was like a slave driver and not very nice about it.”
“He’d work you till you dropped, call you names, insult you, threaten to have you replaced . . . one thing after another. You hated him until you saw the rave reviews.”
“You get any rave reviews?”
“No, this was my chance. I’m really a hoofer, but I have to sing in this show and he said, flat out, that my singing stunk and he was looking to replace me.”
“What did you think of that?”
“Wanted to punch him in the kisser more than once. But in the end, I realized he made me work harder. He brought out the best in you; I’ll give him that.”
“And you, Miss Donner?”
Margie Donner still looked as if she was in shock, her face an unmovable mask until Fargo’s voice snapped her out of it.
“He . . . he could be tough on you,” she finally said, “but it was for the right reasons. He wanted your best. Nothing less was good enough.”
“Doesn’t mean he wasn’t a bastard,” Cramer said, suddenly. “Look what he put you through. You fell for the guy hook, line and sinker, and he played you for a sap.”
That caught Fargo’s attention. He looked straight at the girl, who now seemed embarrassed.
“We did go out together for a short time,” she said, in her little girl voice.
“A month or so, I’d say.”
“I’ll tell you,” Cramer said, loudly. “As soon as Margie was cast in the lead here he dumped her like a sack of potatoes. He knew he was gonna treat her like shit, which was his style, and didn’t want any kind of attachment to her.”
“Is that true, Miss Donner?”
She put her head down and said, softly, “Yes.”
“What did you think of him then?”
“That he could be very mean. Before that he was nice, but as soon as he’d start directing a show he was a different person.”
“Can either of you think of anyone who hated him enough to want him . . . dead?”
Both shook their heads no.
Fargo could understand what they were saying to a degree. He had been told by some of the guys at the precinct that he became a different person when stuck with a tough case. It was sometimes the nature of the job. Maybe Buddy Barrett was akin to him in his pursuit. In Fargo’s case it was to catch a culprit; with Barrett it was to direct a hit show. Was that a reason to kill him? He didn’t think so.
Once he made sure that the uniforms had everyone’s name and statement he let them go. He’d check the list later to see if there was anyone he felt he had to question. Before he left he told the crime lab guys to check backstage for a possible stashed gun, as well as looking for any other evidence they might find. Fargo didn’t think they’d turn up anything useful. He also had to know more about Barrett and, not wanting to waste any time, left the theater and headed over to the New York Tribune so he could talk to Mike Decker, a reporter he liked and respected. He’d let Nick Murdock cool his heels for a bit. Being in a holding cell sometimes worked wonders, especially for a sad sack like Murdock who most likely hadn’t been there before. Since Decker was out on a story, Fargo took the time to hit a nearby deli and grab a couple of corned beef sandwiches for a late lunch. Then he downed two cups of coffee while smoking several Luckies before heading back to the Trib and finding that Decker had returned.
“Hey, my favorite detective,” the ebullient Decker said, with a smirk. “You got time to kill or just visiting a lowly snoop.”
“You got it wrong, Mike,” Fargo said. “I’ve never considered you a snoop, just a wiseass.”
“Guess if you gotta be something, wiseass is definitely better than a snoop.”
“I’ll buy that. Whaddaya know about Buddy Barrett?” Fargo asked quickly, getting right to the point.
“Barrett. The boy wonder. Nothing much.”
“You’re a big help. You knew he was called the boy wonder.”
“Who doesn’t in this town? Great nickname, huh.”
“Not anymore. Today he became the dead boy wonder.”
Decker sat straight up in his chair, reaching over and grabbing a Camel from the pack on his desk.
“What the hell happened?”
“He caught a bullet in the head, right on the stage. Killed instantly.”
“Wow, some exit.”
“Just what I said,” Fargo cracked. “We must know our show biz stuff after all.”
Decker gave a low whistle, then said, “Oh boy, that’s one juicy story. It’ll turn the town on its ear.”
“You guys will all get it at once. I think they’re calling a press conference about five.”
“You gonna give me an exclusive?”
“Nothing to give, yet. I’m here to get. Who can tell me something about Barrett?”
“That’id be Arnie Kaplan. He knows his onions when it comes to Broadway. It’s his beat. I’ll take you to him.”
Fargo could always depend on Mike Decker. The two had known each other for several years and, unlike so many of the cutthroat reporters looking to top one another, Decker was a regular guy who liked a laugh and a drink, as well as a good story. The two walked over to a desk set up near the corner of the city room where a small, thin man sat. He was wearing a skimmer and pounding away at his typewriter.
“Arnie, this is detective Mike Fargo, a good friend of mine. Wants to ask you a couple of questions if you have time.”
“I didn’t do anything,” Kaplan said, then grinned.
“That’s what they all say,” Fargo answered, grinning back.
“What can I do for you, detective?”
“Tell me about Buddy Barrett.”
“Did he do something?”
“Got himself killed this afternoon,” Fargo said, quickly.
Kaplan’s eyes flew open like a broken window shade. “You don’t say. Jeez. What happened?”
“He was shot, but you’ll all get the details about five. I’m just jumping the gun, so to speak, and trying to learn something about the guy.”
Kaplan sat back in his chair, still trying to take it all in. “Buddy Barrett was on his way to becoming a legend in this town,” he said, finally. “I didn’t think there was anything that could stop that kid. He was absolutely driven to succeed.”
“Now he’s being driven to the morgue. Not quite the ending he had planned.”
“Jeez. I’ll be damned. Buddy Barrett,” was all Kaplan could manage.
Fargo wanted to tell Arnie Kaplan that he already knew his victim’s name, but figured he’d let the guy get past what he had just told him in his own way. Then Mike Decker spoke up.
“Arnie, just tell the man what you know about Barrett.”
“Yeah, sure. Just gimme a second. This is quite a shock.”
Fargo lit a Lucky, Decker a Camel, and they both offered Kaplan a smoke at the same time. He opted for the Lucky. Fargo flicked a match for him.
“Buddy Barrett,” he repeated once again. “Well, I’ll tell you, from what I saw this kid just pushed and pushed, himself and everyone around him. He seemed to be racing toward some invisible finish line. Wanted to do everything by yesterday and was a real perfectionist. That’s why he rubbed so many people the wrong way.”
“Enough for someone to want to rub him . . . out?” Fargo asked.
“That’s a stretch, I would think. The harder he pushed, the more dough he made for the people around him. The first two shows he directed were both smash hits, long runners. His actors benefited, too.”
“What else can you tell me about him?”
“He hit town a couple of years ago, kind of out of nowhere. No one had heard of him. Said he went to Princeton, studied theater and was a trained director. Somehow he convinced Robert Shilling to hire him and the rest . . . well, just look at the numbers, the dollar signs. Once he had that first hit no one cared about anything else.”
“No other family in New York?”
“Not that I know of. You’d see him around, in restaurants or in clubs, usually with a good looking dame on his arm. But he never stayed with one too long. Work always came first.”
“Any kind of . . . shall we say, questionable associations you wondered about?”
Kaplan took a drag on his smoke, then shook his head. “No, not really. There’s always that element hanging around Broadway, mugs looking for a score, but never heard anything about Barrett spending time with them.”
“Any place in particular where he was a regular?”
“He liked to eat at the Clatterhouse after rehearsal ended, or so I’m told.”
“Thanks, Arnie. Appreciate the info. If you think of anything else just tell Mike. He always knows where to reach me.”
Fargo left the Tribune with an all-too-familiar feeling in his gut. It was something that often came on him when he knew a case would be a tough one, and especially when he felt there was more to the story that met the eye.