Who killed Marjorie Reems? That is the dilemma facing detective Mike Fargo after the body of the beautiful, young heiress is found in the doorway of a posh Park Avenue building just a block from her home in October of 1922. What Fargo doesn’t understand is why the daughter of one of New York City’s wealthiest men is dressed like a common flapper.
He soon learns that Marjorie Reems left home some time earlier, refusing to attend college and went out looking to have fun, adopting the flapper dress and lifestyle, drinking and dancing the night away. But why? At first, the family isn’t helpful. True to those hiding something, nobody knows nothin’. But through a friend of Marjorie’s, Lily Douglas, Fargo learns that the once emerging society girl has had a succession of short term boyfriends, each one a little more sleazy than the last.
What caused Marjorie to descend into a reckless and dangerous world inhabited by gangsters and killers? That’s what Fargo has to find out. With a surprise waiting around each corner, the resolute detective has to move quickly since the pressure to solve a high society murder comes right from the top of the city’s food chain. What he ultimately learns will shock 1920’s society as much as it will today’s reader.
Death of a Flapper is a novella and A Mike Fargo Mystery that is now available as an ebook on Amazon for just 99 cents.
CHAPTER ONE — Dead In A Doorway
When Detective Mike Fargo first laid eyes on Marjorie Reems, two things quickly came to mind. She looked very beautiful and also looked very dead. The young beauty was sprawled in an awkward position inside the doorway of a posh building on Park Avenue, her right arm pinned behind her head and against the door, her left ankle turned inward at a ninety-degree angle. The bullet that killed her went clean through her heart, leaving her youthful face unmarked and almost appearing to be in a restful sleep. Only it would be a very long, restful sleep.
A uniformed cop told Fargo who she was, having filched a wallet from her small purse, which also contained several pieces of makeup, a wad of cash and a half-smoked pack of Sweet Caporals. One of the tenants of the building ran for a cop when he tried to leave early that morning and found the door blocked by her body. Tenants were then told to come and go through the rear door until the police were finished and the body could be loaded into the meatwagon for a free ride to the morgue.
“Name sounds familiar,” Fargo said to the uniformed cop, as the coroner pulled up along with a photographer from the precinct.
“Think she’s one of them society dames,” the uniform said. “You know the Reems family. Hunter Reems, the guy’s richer than sin.”
“Not the same kind of sin as this,” Fargo said, looking back at the dead girl. “She can’t be more than twenty or twenty-one. And if she’s a Reems, how come she’s dressed like a common flapper?”
The uniform shrugged, but Fargo didn’t really expect an answer. The 35-year-old detective considered himself an old-fashioned guy and, in the New York City of 1922, he’d rather buy an apple off a horse-drawn pushcart than from one of the new, motorized vehicles with that foul engine smell. Bottom line, Mike Fargo didn’t like a lot of the goings on in the modern world. That, however, didn’t necessarily include the new, liberated woman – the flapper. Fargo had always liked women who were somewhat on the other side of proper. He was also a big burlesque and vaudeville fan, and never forgot the image of Mae West dancing the shimmy in the 1918 review, Sometime. Fargo had seen it twice and had been a Mae West fan ever since.
The flapper was a phenomenon that emerged after the Great War, women who dressed seductively with short skirts, wore their hair short, drank and smoked, and loved to dance the night away. Their attitude toward sex was definitely a lot looser than their predecessor, the Gibson Girl, long the accepted and proper model for young women. The New York City of the 1920’s, with its many clubs, dancehalls and speakeasies, was the perfect flapper town.
Fargo had been a cop since 1909, when he was twenty-two. He was promoted to detective in 1919, so he had worked both the pre- and post-war city. A rugged five-foot-eleven with a barrel chest and slightly roundish face, his most distinguishing characteristic was a red scar running along his left cheek, the result of being slashed by a straight razor while making an arrest years earlier. That was his closest call and since then, he had learned to always act first, before his adversary. He was quick to assert himself and his fist was always at the ready. So was his .38, if needed. As a New York City detective, Mike Fargo took no prisoners.
As tough as it was to accept some of the changes in the city, Fargo knew he had to adapt to the times. After all, it made for good business. You had to know your enemy if you wanted to pinch him and that often meant playing their game. Now he was staring at the body of a young, extremely wealthy girl who could have slipped seamlessly into the high society lifestyle, but chose to do the shimmy and the Charleston instead. He reached down and pulled her skirt up a little higher. There it was, a small silver flask slipped under her garter belt. The outfit was complete. He removed it and took a whiff. Cheap rye, probably bootleg hooch. Surely, she could afford better.
“Let’s get an address for the family,” he said to the uniform. “By the way, did you find a shell?”
“Not yet, just the casing.”
“Keep looking. Has to be here somewhere.”
Finally, when all the preliminaries were complete, the body of Marjorie Reems was loaded into the wagon for the trip to the morgue. As soon as they had lifted her there was the shell from a .45. It must have gone through her, ricocheted off the wall and was concealed by her body.
“She must have been shot at close range,” Fargo said. “Maybe even knew the killer.”
“It was one clean shot through the heart,” the coroner confirmed, wiping his glasses with a dirty handkerchief. “Couldn’t miss from that close if he was blind.”
“Yeah,” was all Fargo said. With the increase in crime spawned since Prohibition had become the law of the land in 1920, murder was the one he hated the most, especially when the victim was young and not part of the growing criminal element in the city. He knew this one would attract citywide attention and the pressure would be on him to wrap it up quickly.
Within five minutes the uniform was back and informed him that the Reems family lived right on Park Avenue, just a block away on 77th Street. That told him the girl was probably either coming or going when she was killed. He took a breath, popped a Lucky Strike into his mouth and began walking toward the apartment with news no parent ever wants to hear.
When he reached the entrance to the ornate building, a tall, stocky doorman blocked his path.
“Can’t just walk in here, pal,” he said. “No you can’t.”
“Maybe I can’t but this can,” Fargo said, pasting his badge right in the doorman’s mug. “And I ain’t your pal.”
The doorman cleared his throat. “Sorry, I didn’t know.”
“Now you do,” was Fargo’s answer. “Where does Hunter Reems live?”
“Uh, top floor . . . he’s got the whole floor. But you have to be announced.”
“Not today,” Fargo said. “So dummy up if you know what’s good for you.”
When Fargo reached the door of the suite he took a final drag on his Lucky, deposited the butt in a nearby receptacle, then knocked. This was never easy, even for a cop who had seen it all since joining the force some thirteen years earlier. The door was opened by a small, thin man wearing a black suit.
“Mr. Reems?” Fargo said.
“No, sir. Whom shall I tell him is calling?”
A butler. Fargo should have known. He took out his badge and held it up, a bit more delicately than usual. “Detective Fargo, 17th Precinct,” he said.
“Can you tell me what this is in reference to?”
“No, I can’t. I’ve got to see Mr. Reems.”
“One moment, sir.”
This was the kind of brush off Fargo hated. If the circumstances were any different he would have pushed past the little man and sought out Reems himself. Finally, after several minutes, the little man was back.
“Follow me, sir.”
Fargo was led through several rooms, all of them adorned with finery, much of it from an earlier time. Had it not been for electric lights and running water, the place could have passed for something out of the 19th century. Finally Fargo was led into a bright room with a large glass window. Hunter Reems was seated behind an all-too-perfect mahogany desk. He was a stout man, his protruding belly somewhat hidden by a large smoking jacket. His cherubic face was showing telltale signs of aging with deep lines around his eyes and mouth, and his hair was graying. A small mustache completed the picture. Reems didn’t appear to be very friendly and didn’t stand up when Fargo entered.
“How can I help you, detective?” he said, in a flat voice. “I’m quite busy this morning and my time is short.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not here selling tickets to the policeman’s ball,” Fargo cracked.
Once he didn’t like someone, Mike Fargo had a hard time holding back. Upon first impression, he surely didn’t like this man sitting before him, a mug whose sense of entitlement oozed through and made him appear as if he felt he was one of the privileged few. A real swell. The time for playing nice was over.
“Is your wife here?” Fargo asked. “She should hear this, too.”
“I’d rather not disturb my wife until I know what this is about. Now, please, detective. Out with it.”
“Fine. Your daughter Marjorie is dead. Murdered.”
Within a split second, Hunter Reems turned human, his face fading to a sick shade of white. His mouth dropped open and he fumbled for a half-smoked cigar that was sitting in an ashtray. Fargo flicked a match for him and then fired up a Lucky.
“When? Where? Are you certain it’s Marjorie? No, it has to be a mistake. Not Marjorie. Please, not Marjorie.”
“You sure you don’t want to bring your wife in, Mr. Reems?”
“No, no. Not now. Just tell me what happened?”
Reems was slowly getting it together and starting to give orders. Again, Fargo didn’t like him.
“Found her about an hour ago, in the next block, in the doorway to one of the buildings. She’d been shot.”
Reems took a long pull on the cigar, then shook his head. “We haven’t seen Marjorie in a few weeks,” he said. “She comes and goes. I don’t even know the things she does or the friends she has.”
“Then it appears she was on her way here,” Fargo said. “You have any idea why she might have been coming to see you?”
“Money, probably. When she gets low on cash, we get a visit. We haven’t really been close to our daughter since she refused to go on to college a couple of years ago.” Then he repeated. “Are you sure it’s her?”
Fargo pulled the small wallet from his pocket and passed it across the desk. Reems took it gently, as if he was handling a rare, breakable antique. He opened it, obviously recognized something, then closed his eyes tightly. He said nothing, so Fargo spoke again.
“I don’t think it was money. She had quite a roll in the wallet. She was flush, and that pretty much rules out robbery.”
Reems looked up with a quizzical expression on his face. “You sure?”
“Saw the dough myself. It’s on the way to evidence. Brought this here so you could . . .”
“Then I don’t know,” Reems interrupted. “The last couple of times she’s been here it was to take an advance from her trust fund.”
“Any reason you can think of that she might have needed, say, a great deal of money?”
“Like I said, detective, I know very little about what she might have been be doing. We wanted her to go to the university and she wanted to have fun. When we insisted, she left.”
“You have any other children?”
“Why would that matter?”
“Part of my job, Mr. Reems. This is a murder investigation and I have to know what I’m dealing with.”
“A brother, Harper. He graduated from Yale in June and is working in the family business.”
“Was he close to his sister?”
“Not recently. Now if you don’t mind, I’d like to speak with my wife. This is going to be very difficult for her. When can we have our daughter’s . . . body?”
“You’ll have come down to the morgue tomorrow to make a positive identification. Then, when the coroner if finished, someone will let you know.”
“Certainly,” Reems said, as he stood up and put the still-smoldering cigar back in the ashtray. Fargo knew it was his signal to leave.
“I’ll be in touch,” he said.
“Please, detective. If you find out anything . . . anything . . . you will let me know?”
“Yes, sir, I will,” Fargo said, showing some respect for a man who had just lost his daughter. Cynical as he could be sometimes, he knew what this could do to a parent. He let himself out.
Back at the precinct Fargo got ready to work. His captain, Lou Porter, said there was no way to keep the murder quiet so he was going to announce it to the press at two o’clock. The Daily News would have a field day with it, Fargo figured, and then all the speculation would begin. When murder involved a family like the Reems, people wanted to know everything. After all, things like this didn’t happen to them. He sat down across from the captain and lit a smoke.
“Okay, Mike,” he said. “You’ve got this one. Where are you on it?”
Fargo snorted. “Where can I be, Cap, it just happened a few hours ago.”
Porter popped a cigar into the corner of his mouth. “Yeah, I know. But when one of these high-society types gets bumped, the pressure is on. Mayor Hylan called already. He himself, not one of his flunkies. Reminded me of the charity work Hunter Reems has done for the city and said he wants this one closed up. Fast.”
“That’s a real surprise,” Fargo deadpanned. “Every time it’s a big shot or a big shot’s kid, we get the hurry-up call. The good ol’ high hats.”
“Always,” Porter said. The fifty-something captain was old-school, a good cop and one who knew how to play the angles. He pushed his men, but knew their limits. And he also knew Mike Fargo was good, one of the best, a guy who wouldn’t stop until the case was solved. But the captain in him couldn’t resist a little extra shove. “Just do what you can. Stay on only this until you know what the hell happened.”
“You got it, Cap.”
News of the murder broke the next day, and broke big. A couple of the headlines read: WHO KILLED MARJORIE and HIGH SOCIETY MURDER ON PARK AVENUE. Murders among high society always raised the dander of everyone. It was as if things like this weren’t supposed to happen to the very rich, swells most saw as leading a privileged, fairytale life. When it did happen, the public wanted to know all the gory details, and especially the answer to the three-word question that only Fargo could ultimately provide. Who done it? Though he had read in the paper that Marjorie Reems funeral was going to be private, he didn’t care. That was the logical starting point and he would be there, private or not.
He received the coroner’s report the morning of the funeral. As expected, she was killed by a single shot through the heart at close range. What he didn’t expect was the report detailing considerable bruising on her upper arms and torso, which the coroner said appeared the be the result of a beating. No wonder she was trying to head home For Marjorie Reems, it seems, life wasn’t all fun and games after all.
The funeral service began at the Trinity Church at 79 Broadway in lower Manhattan. People arrived dressed in their finery, the men in formal attire and top hats, the women in long dresses with many also wearing hats. Mayor Hylan was there along with several other city dignitaries. Fargo watched as the family entered the old structure, considered a beautiful example of Gothic Revival architecture. Hunter Reems looked stoic, but his wife Emily was crying unashamedly as she held her husband’s arm. A young man, undoubtedly son Harper, had his mother’s other arm but his face was expressionless. Fargo didn’t know many others, but once everyone was inside he marched up the steps. A man at the door held up a hand, telling him it was a private service. Fargo, in turn, held up his badge and informed him he had invited himself. He was let in.
He watched the solemn service while standing in the rear and noticing nothing out of the ordinary. Just a great deal of grief, sobs, sniffles and coughing. The minister had only kind words for Marjorie Reems, as well as for her “devoted and loving family,” yet Fargo’s ears kept ringing with Hunter Reems words. When we insisted, she left.
After the service there was a slow drive to the Trinity Church Cemetery and Mausoleum at 770 Riverside Drive at 153rd St. in upper Manhattan, a place where many of the city’s rich and famous were buried. Fargo watched the motorcade of large, black touring cars – Cadillacs, Packards, Chalmers, Pierce-Arrows and a Rolls-Royce for the immediate family – form a procession behind the hearse. He jumped into his squad car, an old Model T Ford, fired up the engine and a Lucky, and followed behind.
At the grave site he began looking for anyone who didn’t seem to belong. The family was gathered in a tight circle around the casket as the minister again spoke. That’s when Fargo spotted a girl, standing alone at the side of a nearby mausoleum. She was wearing a light coat on this chilly early October afternoon, but otherwise had the look of the flapper, with her short hair and too much makeup. Fargo approached her and for a second he thought she might run.
“May I speak to you for a minute,” Fargo said, not wanting to startle the young woman.
“I know I don’t belong here,” she said, “but . . . ”
“No, no no. It’s nothing like that,” Fargo said, taking out his badge. “I’d like to talk to you about Marjorie. Name is Mike Fargo. Did you know her well?”
The young woman looked down at the ground, then began to cry softly. “She was a good friend and a good person. Why would anyone . . . ?”
“That’s what I’m trying to find out. Look, this is almost over. Why don’t we go somewhere and talk. It won’t take long.”
“I could use a drink,” the woman said.
“I know a place,” Fargo countered, quickly
Fargo didn’t hesitate because one of the things he hated most was Prohibition. He saw it as a ridiculous and unenforceable law that helped create an explosion of crime in the city. People were going to drink no matter what and the fact that he – a New York City detective – “knew a place,” was emblematic of it all. He didn’t say much on the ride downtown, allowing the woman her private thoughts. He did learn, however, that her name was Lily Douglas and she was from Staten Island. Since he was born there, Fargo got her to relax by comparing Staten Island notes and describing what the borough was like when he was growing up around the turn of the century.
Finally, they were seated at a small table in a quiet speakeasy on 49th Street, a place where people tended to mind their own business, drink the illegal booze and then go home. Lily took off her coat and sat down. Fargo was surprised when she said she’d like a beer and he quickly grabbed two from the bar.
“Mind if I smoke,” he said, showing a surprising sense of chivalry. Fargo didn’t usually ask. Smoking was second nature to him, almost like a snack, but he felt this girl might have information he needed and wanted to be sure she didn’t view him as a threat.
“I wish you would,” was her unexpected reply, and she quickly reached in her purse and produced a Camel. Fargo pulled out a Lucky, flicked a match with his thumbnail and lit them both. Then he looked closely at Lily Douglas for the first time. Though she had said she was twenty-seven, something about her looked older. Maybe it was her face which, while pretty, had a hard edge about it, the kind you get when you’ve already seen too much of life. She was dressed like the usual flapper, with a short skirt, her dark hair bobbed, and she was wearing overabundance of makeup. He was getting used to the outfit and kind of liked it.
They each took several swigs of beer with drags of their smokes in between until Fargo finally said.
“So you knew Marjorie well?”
“We’ve been friends pretty much since she walked out on her family. Met her that first night at a joint on 34th Street. She looked totally out of place, but she wasn’t shy and started talking to me right away. Told me that night her parents wanted her to go to college, but it wasn’t for her. She just wanted to have some fun. I got the feeling that she saw her family as a bunch of stuffed shirts.
“After that we started hanging out, going to speaks, some shows, dances, meeting guys, the whole shebang. I remember when we first met she couldn’t even do the shimmy. But she really became good in a hurry. Who in the world would want to kill her?”
“That’s always the ten dollar question, but I will find out,” Fargo replied. “How about boyfriends? She have one, or maybe more?”
“I’m not sure she was all that good with men. She told me about a rich swell she was seeing before she left home. Think his name was Boyland, yeah, Jonathan Boyland. It sounded like one of those arranged deals. Guess the Reems family and the Boyland family are tight. Someone had the bright idea of putting them together – you know, money on money – and Margie gave it a try. He came around a couple of times when we were together, trying to get her back or maybe trying to get her to go home. To be honest, I found him to be something of an obnoxious bastard. Margie told him to get lost several times. I think he finally got the message.”
“Anyone else?” Fargo asked. He liked the way Lily Douglas was so free with the language, finding it refreshing.
“Yeah, a bum named Clayton Arnett.”
“Well, maybe not quite. The guy is probably thirty years old and doesn’t have a job, but he sure has a line. He’s pretty good looking and knows how to turn on the charm. And it was obvious to me he knew all about the Reems family.”
“Looking to make a score?”
“That’s what I thought.”
“What about Marjorie?”
“I don’t know. Margie was out for a good time. Clayton could be fun. Liked to drink, good dancer, always had a line or two of bullshit. I don’t think she minded having him on her arm . . . at first.”
“And after at first?”
“The last month or so she was looking to ditch him. She felt it was time to move on. Like I said, she wanted a good time and seemed to always want to try on new shoes. He just didn’t fit anymore. But he was like a leech. It wasn’t easy.”
“Anyone else you know who might have been looking at the money and not at her, if you know what I mean?”
“Eh, hard to say. She never flaunted it, but always had plenty of cash. And when she ran low, daddy usually helped her.”
“Where was she living?”
“She had a small place on the West Side, on 50th and Eighth Avenue. Two rooms, hardly any furniture. Just a place to go. I thought about asking her to get a place with me, but I sensed she wanted to be on her own. It was almost like she didn’t want me to know all of her.”
“Interesting,” Fargo said. “I’ll have to pay her apartment a visit.”
He grabbed a couple of more beers and the two chatted some more. Finally, he sensed it was time to go. Not wanting to mention the bruising on Marjorie’s body, he told Lily if she thought of anything else to call him at the station, writing the number on a napkin. Then he asked one more question, one that was more for him than for the case.
“What is it about this lifestyle, this flapper thing, Lily? What do you like about it and why did it attract a girl like Marjorie, someone who had all of life’s luxuries at her beck and call?”
Lily laughed, throwing her head back, then took a deep breath.
“It’s a new world, detective. Women have been in the kitchen for too long. I gotta work for a living so there’s nothing wrong with having some fun as long as you’re careful. As for Marjorie, guess she didn’t want the life of a spoiled rich girl.”
Fargo lit another smoke, then drained his glass. “Yeah, well, apparently Marjorie didn’t follow one of your rules.”
“She wasn’t careful enough”