Mike Fargo never expected to be meeting Texas Guinan on a hot August day in 1926. But when the real-life, irrepressible hostess at the 300 Club, one of New York City’s swankiest speakeasies, asks for a detective to check on a missing girl, Fargo gets the call. The missing girl, Brandi Collier, is one of several young hostesses working at the club. Despite Texas’s obvious concern, Fargo can’t be sure if the girl has been kidnapped, killed, or perhaps just walked off into the sunset with one of the high rollers that frequent the club.
Fargo starts with the usual suspects – the jilted boyfriend, a kitchen worker with hand trouble, and an ex-husband. But he can’t get a handle on the case. With no ransom demand and no real clues, he is at a dead end. Then he receives a phone call that changes the entire direction of the investigation. A mystery caller – with an apparent ax to grind with the resolute detective – informs Fargo that he has seven days to find him and his captive, Brandi Collier. If he fails, Brandi will die. He sends Fargo a photograph of a tied up Brandi, confirmed by Texas as the missing girl.
Thus begins the most tension filled week of Mike Fargo’s life. Not only does he have to revisit some vengeful, murderous mugs who have threatened him in the past, but he also gets a minefield of clues from his caller, several of which also put his life in danger. With the days dwindling down and Texas Guinan pressing him to find Brandi, Fargo has to walk a fine line until a fortuitous clue and a stunning development brings the case to a dramatic end.
Seven Days to Murder is a novella and the fourth book in the Mike Fargo Mystery series. You can find and order on Amazon at:
CHAPTER ONE — Traveling to Texas
It was a hot Friday morning in August of 1926 and Mike Fargo felt lazy. He came into the precinct late, bummed a copy of the Daily News and grabbed himself a cup of joe. Then he flopped down on his chair, draped his feet over the corner of his desk, fired up a Lucky Strike and began reading the paper. August the twentieth, he said to himself after checking the date. This damned summer is really dragging. His goal was to loaf long enough until it was time for lunch. Unfortunately his captain, Gus O’Neill, didn’t cooperate. As usual, old Gus put the kibosh on his plans.
“Fargo,” he barked, standing in the doorway to his office and beckoning with his hand.
“Yeah, I’m comin’,” the reluctant detective said, as he swung his legs off the desk and let them clunk onto the floor. He picked himself off the chair with a low groan and tossed the paper in the trash can. O’Neill caught onto his act immediately.
“One of those days, eh Mike? Well wake up and look alive. Got something ya might like.”
By the time Fargo walked into the captain’s office, O’Neill was already behind his desk, slightly red-faced and puffing away on a Camel.
“What’s up, Cap?” he asked, deciding to skip the small talk.
“Just got a call from Texas Guinan over at the 300 Club,” O’Neill said, nodding his head as a wry smile crossed his lips.
“Texas Guinan!” Fargo repeated.
“The one and only. Figured that would wake you up.”
“What’s her problem? One of the suckers leave a chintzy tip?”
“Funny guy,” O’Neill said. “No, she’s concerned about one of her hostesses, girl named Brandi Collier. Seems she hasn’t shown up for work in four days and her roommate hasn’t seen her, either.”
“Maybe she’s shacking up with one of them high rollers that’s always hanging out in that joint.”
“Who knows, but Texas must be worried. She wanted to talk to one of my best men. Since none of them were here, I thought of you.”
“Now who’s the funny guy,” Fargo quipped.
The name Texas Guinan was known all over the Manhattan, especially in certain circles. She was the high-powered, vivacious hostess presiding at several swanky “clubs” over the last few years, all of which were known for thumbing their noses at Prohibition, the law that banned the sale of alcoholic beverages. In other words, the liquor continued to flow and most everyone turned a blind eye. From time to time, the Feds would raid one of the joints, close it down for awhile and maybe levy a couple of fines. But the irrepressible Texas would always skate, through well-placed bribes along with the nature of her charismatic personality.
The fortyish Texas was blond-haired, with a good figure and had worked in both vaudeville and films before finding her real niche. Though born in the Lone Star state as Mary Louise Cecilia Guinan, she and her nickname were tailor-made for the bright lights of New York City. She pulled no punches, always greeting her guests with a raucous, “Hello suckers!” She expected them to spend big and that they did. Texas had several partners, some on the south side of the law, but she had been on top for a number of years and made some big bucks thanks to the cadre of “suckers” she served.
The 300 Club was located at 151 West 54th Street, a pretty quick hike from the precinct. Fargo took his time, though, walking slowly and stopping to buy another pack of Luckies. In a way he was glad it wasn’t nighttime. It was always tougher to question someone in a joint that was jumping. Being early in the day, the front door of the club was still locked when he got there and he pounded on it hard with his huge fist. A big mug with a half scowl came to the door and, without opening it, just said “Yeah.”
Already losing patience, Fargo took out his badge and banged it into the glass door. The mug opened it quickly and before he could act tough Fargo said, in a demanding tone, “Where’s Texas?”
“Inside,” the mug answered, adding, “Table in the back. But I think she’s having lunch.”
“Good,” Fargo answered, without missing a beat. “I’m hungry.”
He pushed past the big guy and found the always-genial hostess munching on a corned beef sandwich and swigging a beer. His type of woman. As he approached the table he held the badge up in front of him.
“You called about a missing girl,” he said, sitting down opposite her.
“Have a seat, why don’t you,” she deadpanned.
“Don’t mind if I do,” he answered, and Texas smiled.
“I see you have a set of balls, detective . . . .”
“Fargo, Mike Fargo. Yeah, balls are something you tend to need in my business.”
“Well, Mike Fargo. I like a guy with balls, always have. You hungry?”
“Thought you’d never ask. I’ll have what you’re having.”
Texas waved her hand at a guy near the bar, pointed to the table and he immediately went into the kitchen to get the sandwich ready. One of the girls near the bar grabbed two bottles of beer and a glass. Fargo got his and Texas had another.
“Now you’re drinking on the job, detective,” she said, flashing a quick grin. “What if I report you?”
“You won’t,” Fargo said, taking a swig of the cold beer. “One, you need me to find your friend and two, you like me. You already said that.”
Texas let out a big belly laugh and a bit of her sandwich dribbled out of the side of her mouth. She swiped it with a napkin and shook her head.
“You’re a New Yorker, all right, brash and sassy. My kind of guy.”
By this time Fargo had his sandwich and took a huge bite. It was good. “Now that we have a mutual admiration society going on here, suppose you tell me what this is all about.”
“You don’t mince words, do you, Mike. Can I call you Mike?
“You just did. Twice.” He laughed. “For you, it’s okay. Hell, I’ve been called a lot worse.”
“I’ll bet,” Texas said, with a smirk before continuing. “Brandi’s worked for me about two years,” she explained, a serious look coming over her face. “I can only remember her missing one day in all that time. She’s been gone four days now. Not a word. The thing that worries me is that her roommate hasn’t seen her, either. She hasn’t been coming home.”
“Who’s her roommate?”
“Another one of my girls, Martine Rousseau.”
Texas shrugged. “It’s a name. But Martine’s a good kid. She’s due in at eight.”
“I’ll need to talk to her,” Fargo said. “What else can you tell me about Brandi? She the type who might take off with one of the high rollers that hangs out here?”
“Could happen, I guess. But she kinda laughs at most of the butter and egg men, especially the old geezers that make a pass at her. Even if she suddenly decided to ride the gravy train for awhile, she’d let us know. Put it this way, Mike. She ain’t the disappearing type.”
“How about boyfriends or guys that might have given her a hard time? I got a feeling you don’t miss much around here, Texas.”
She laughed. “Part of my job, not missing anything. Brandi, well, yeah, she’s been with some guys, a couple in the last year or so. Never seems to last with her. She wants the fun but not to be tied down. Can’t really blame here. Lotta fish in the sea here.”
“Lotta suckers, too?”
Texas smiled and wig-wagged her index finger at Fargo. “What would the world be if not for the suckers? But I don’t think Brandi was looking to move up to Park Avenue. No, the guys she saw were more on, ah, shall we say the rougher side. Guys who work and play hard.”
“She piss any of them off recently?”
“Maybe. Spent some time with a fella named Max Berkoff a few months ago. He wasn’t happy when she told him it was over. Came around here a few times until we had to show him the door permanently.”
“He get roughed up?”
Texas cocked her head to the side as if you say, You know how it is. “The bouncers sometimes feel they have to make a point.”
By this time Fargo was smoking a Lucky and having a second beer. Texas accompanied him with a Sweet Caporal, which he lit for her. He liked her cut and felt he could trust her. She wouldn’t give him a line of pap.
“What’s this Berkoff do?” he asked.
“Not really sure. Think he works somewhere in the garment district.”
“Who knows today. What’s legit anyway? That beer you’re drinking legit? But it’s sure jake with just about everyone.”
Fargo looked at the half-empty glass and nodded. “Gotcha. Then let’s put it this way. Anything about this Berkoff that might make you think he’d grab or harm her?”
Texas held both hands out, palms up, and shrugged. “I’d say no, but then again I wouldn’t put money on it.”
“Good enough. Anyone else?”
“We had to fire one of the dishwashers about two weeks ago. Couldn’t keep his hands off her even though Brandi made it clear she wanted nothing to do with him.”
“Eamon Reilly. Not very bright. Got the job as a favor to his uncle, Gus Connolly. Gus drops a lot of cabbage here and said his nephew needed a job.”
“And when you canned him?”
“Gus said he understood. Called the kid a dimwit.”
“Wait a minute. This the same Gus Connolly who runs a string of newsstands in the Times Square area?”
“Yep, that’s Gus. Hear he’s made a pretty solid business out of it.”
“Sure, by strong arming the competition out of the way. You run a stand for Gus or you don’t run it at all. I’ve had a couple of run-ins with him but we haven’t been able to put him out of business.”
“Don’t matter to me as long as they drop their green in here.”
“In the true spirit of free enterprise, eh Texas?”
“Don’t tell me you disapprove, Mike,” she said, with a playful glint in her eye.”
“Who am I to disapprove? Business is business and the hooch law stinks.” With that he drained the final couple of inches of beer remaining in the glass.
“Another?” Texas asked.
“Not today. Wouldn’t want my captain see me stagger back to the precinct, though his liquid lunches usually make him a useless bastard come afternoon.”
Texas laughed. “Know what you mean. So what’s next?”
“I’ll look up Berkoff and the Reilly kid, and I want to talk with . . . what’s her name, Martine?”
“In the meantime, if you come up with any other possibilities, let me know. Here’s the number at the precinct.”
“Yeah, I’ll just ask for the cop with the big appetite and thirst.”
“You do that. Be seeing you soon, Texas.”
Fargo left the 300 Club feeling a fuzzy kind of calm from the two lunchtime brews and the sandwich. He thought about sneaking off somewhere for a quick nap. It was that kind of day. But instead he ran into a small deli about a block from the club and quaffed two cups of coffee with about three Luckies. That got him pumped up again. He then returned to the precinct where the beer and coffee combo necessitated a couple of trips to the head. In between, he filled in Captain O’Neill who told him just what he expected. Get to work and find Brandi Collier.
Though Fargo’s usual fare was homicide, this one could quickly become high profile since it involved the 300 Club and Texas Guinan. And who’s to say Brandi Collier wasn’t already at the bottom of the East River or laying dead in an old tenement house, another victim of the kind of mayhem that all-too-often infected the city. Prohibition had spawned the growth of organized crime and helped fill the city with tough guys, mugs who wouldn’t hesitate to kill in a whisker. Then there were the freelancers, bad guys who lurked everywhere, looking for a dishonest buck under every manhole cover and garbage can. When someone like Brandi Collier disappeared, it could be almost anything – planned, random, a jilted lover, a jealous would-be suitor, or maybe she just took off with someone. It was time to begin assembling the pieces.
For openers, that meant some old-fashioned legwork. Fargo began by heading to the garment district late that afternoon and asking about Max Berkoff. Getting an answer didn’t take long. This was an everybody-knows-everybody neighborhood where people had to watch their backs since organized crime had infiltrated the industry. Those left alone usually had to pay someone for protection as robberies and hijackings were common. Fargo was told he would probably find Berkoff somewhere around 37th Street and Eighth Avenue. He worked for a fabric distributor named Bernie Gabler, who may or may not have been on the up and up.
As Fargo walked into Gabler’s Fabrics it looked as if people were already quitting for the day. In fact, when he approached a middle-aged woman sitting at a cluttered desk in the outer office the first thing she said was:
“Whatever it is can wait til tomorrow, buddy. We’re getting ready to close.”
“You’ve really got yourself a way with the customers, don’t you,” Fargo said, smirking. He decided not to pull the badge yet. He felt like giving a little what-for to a woman he quickly perceived as rude and prickly, bordering on nasty.
“We do business nine to five. It’s five,” she said.
“What if I’m here to offer Gabler the deal of a lifetime. Your attitude could just blow it for him. He finds out and he may just toss your ass out the door.”
The woman wasn’t well kept or well-dressed. She was overweight and frumpy, and didn’t seem to give a hoot about how she looked. He laughed to himself trying to picture her transforming into a flapper and hitting the 300 Club or another posh speak. She looked Fargo up and down, then shook her head smugly.
“You don’t look like the deal of a lifetime type, mac,” she said. “I don’t know what your game is, but I do know it’s gotta wait til tomorrow. Good bye.”
That did it. “So first I’m buddy and now I’m mac. Let me make it easy for you. It’s detective.”
With that he took out his badge and slammed it down on the desk, almost nailing her hand. She jumped as she pulled her hand away and a more somber look quickly overtook her face. Before she could open her mouth, Fargo spoke again.
“I’m looking for Max Berkoff. Was told her worked here. And don’t let me hear any more crap come out of that garbage mouth of yours.”
“Max. Uh, yeah. Uh, I think he may have left already.”
“No, he did. Left about five minutes before you got here.”
“Where’s he usually go after work? And none of the how-would-I-know routine.”
By now the woman had become unnerved. Her hand shook as she fumbled to light a smoke. “He sometimes goes for a drink at the Calico Club. You won’t cause any problems there, will you? Everybody does it, you know.”
“Really. I’m shocked,” Fargo said. “Don’t worry, sister. I won’t tell anyone you sang.”
“You know where the club is?” she asked, suddenly becoming helpful.
“Yep,” Fargo said. “And thanks for being such a sweetheart.”
The Calico Club was just a few blocks away, on 33rd Street. There was a small restaurant in the front room, but as with most speaks a quick knock at a door to the rear of the room led you to the bar. Of course, you first had to pass muster as a pair of eyes looked at you through a port in the door. Fargo passed by putting his badge in front of the opened mini-door.
There was already a buzz in the place as both men and a few women were collectively breaking the law, relaxing with a drink after work. When the door opened, Fargo said two words, “Max Berkoff,” and the little man who let him in pointed to a tall, thin man drinking at the bar. Berkoff was good-looking, in a sleazy kind of way. He had a straight, but longish nose with a pencil-thin mustache under it. His eyes were close set and narrow, giving him something of a predatory appearance. Fargo quickly surmised he was a guy who liked to chase women.
“Max Berkoff,” Fargo said, holding up his badge. “Like to talk to you for a minute.”
“Fuzz, eh,” said Berkoff, in a surprisingly deep voice. “Okay, shoot. Whaddaya want?”
“A little respect for starters,” Fargo answered. “I ain’t here to sell you a ticket to the policeman’s ball.”
“I’m just trying to have a quiet drink here, okay,” Berkoff said. “Maybe we can chat later.”
With that, Fargo reached over and swatted the beer bottle hard. It shattered as it hit an ice box behind the bar. “Now you’re not having a drink, so we can talk. Tell me about Brandi Collier.”
For a split second Fargo thought Berkoff might throw a punch. His mouth tightened and eyes narrowed. But a closer look at the solid and thick-set Fargo probably changed his mind. Instead, he reached for a Chesterfield and lit it quickly, giving himself a few seconds to get his act together after his beer took flight.
“Brandi? What about her?”
“You know where she is?”
“Right now? No.”
“When did you last see her?”
“I don’t count days.”
“Hey, I didn’t do a damned thing. If you ain’t arresting me. . .”
Before Berkoff could finish the sentence Fargo grabbed his upper arm and squeezed, letting him feel his the full strength of his large hand.
“Let’s not do this the hard way, okay Max. Just give me some straight answers and I’ll buy you another beer.”
Berkoff took a drag on the smoke while Fargo countered by lighting a Lucky. “Yeah, I was seeing Brandi for awhile. But she dumped me, okay. Made a sap outta me. Couple of muscle mugs at the 300 Club tossed me out one night on her say so. After that, good riddance.”
“What was she like?”
“She dumped me. To my mind that makes her stupid.”
“Simple question, Max. Can the wise-ass attitude.”
“She was okay, I guess. Liked to have fun, but I think her job with that Guinan broad at that damned club went to her head. Thought she was better than me, she did.”
In Fargo’s mind she probably was. But he also figured Berkoff didn’t know much more. He wouldn’t want to mess up his own good times by lowering the boom on Brandi. To a guy like Max she just wasn’t worth it.
“Okay, Max,” he said. “That wasn’t so hard, was it? If you didn’t get a red ass when you saw my badge it would have been even easier.”
Fargo signaled the bartender to bring another beer. He shoved it in front of Berkoff.
“This one’s on me,” he said. “Just remember, a cop can be your best friend.”
Sure,” Berkoff mumbled, taking a swig of the brew. “Hey, you never told me why you’re asking about Brandi.?
“No I didn’t,” Fargo said, as he began walking away. “Seems she’s disappeared.”