In Michael Murphy’s action packed Prohibition-era novel of suspense, a mystery writer returns to the bright lights and dark alleys of New York City-uncovering a criminal conspiracy of terrifying proportions.
The Yankee Club
The Lone Ranger
While Bridgette sang another jazzy number, Danny returned to our table and straightened his suit. “I gave Jimmy the bum’s rush, right on his can.” He studied my face until his lip curled in a sneer. “Now I remember you. You’re Jake, from school. You stole my bike.”
Gino chuckled. “That was a long time ago.”
“We gave it back.” I nodded toward Gino. “Besides, it was his idea.”
Danny’s face puffed up like an overripe tomato. His eyes turned into BBs as he glared at Gino. “That right?”
“I’ll buy you a new one.” Gino grabbed the scotch. He filled a glass and held it out to Danny. “I’ll throw in a bell.”
Danny tossed an empty chair against the wall and stomped off.
“Thanks a lot.” Gino downed the scotch and crushed out his cigarette. “Muscle I can trust don’t grow on trees, you know.”
I finished my drink and got up to leave. “Sorry I disturbed your guests.”
“No trouble. It happens.” Gino gave me a hug and walked Frankie and me toward the front door. “Don’t go back to Florida without stopping by. I’ll have the chef fix you a good Italian dinner.”
“You have a chef?”
“Hey, this ain’t no clip joint. If they repeal Prohibition like the scuttlebutt says, I’ll reopen The Yankee Club as an Italian restaurant with the best cook anywhere. Probably have to change the name to something Italian.”
“How about Gino’s?”
He pulled me aside and lowered his voice. “I didn’t want to say nothin’ before, but Jimmy’s been in before talking about how he’ll take care of you if you ever show your face. Be careful while you’re in town.”
I nodded toward Frankie who smiled. “I got Frankie. Besides, I don’t plan to get into any trouble.”
“Any more trouble.” Gino shrugged. “Watch your back is all I’m saying.”
Outside The Yankee Club a soft evening fog had settled over the streets. Frankie surveyed the block and lit a cigarette. The glow from his match illuminated his worried brow. “It wouldn’t hurt to be careful the next few days.”
Frankie had consumed a couple more scotches than a driver should, so I suggested a walk. I checked my watch. We were two blocks from Mickey’s office, and knowing him, he’d probably be asleep on the couch.
I straightened my hat, and we headed down the sidewalk. Frankie took a deep breath and let out a retching cough. “Nothing like the air in Queens.”
“Nice move carrying a gun inside The Yankee Club. I could have sworn I saw you stuff the piece under the front seat.”
“You did.” He stuck a toothpick in his mouth. “I always carry two.”
“Where’d you learn that trick?” I stepped around the feet of a man sleeping beneath a sidewalk bench.
“I spent a couple months as a . . . security guard.”
Sure you did. I had to find out more about Frankie before I could trust him. “What’s with the toothpicks?”
“Edith’s been nagging me to quit smoking. Helps me cut down, you know?”
The fog thickened as we made our way down the sidewalk. Our footsteps echoed along the nearly deserted path. A dog barked in the distance, a siren wailed from a couple blocks over, and a man yelled at his wife through the open window of a nearby house. My neighborhood hadn’t changed at all. Had I?
Less than a block from Mickey’s office, Frankie and I stood on the corner and waited for the streetlight to change. A flashy young woman stepped from an apartment building wearing the fog like an overcoat draped around her shoulders. She wore a tight-fitting, low-cut satin dress in a shade of red that matched her full lips. Smoke curled from a cigarette that dangled from one hand. “Frankie? Frankie Malzone?”
Her Jean Harlow–like platinum hair shimmered beneath the streetlight. She smacked his chest with one hand. “It is you, Snuggle Pup. Whatcha doin’ this side of town?”
Snuggle pup? Frankie?
“Belle.” Frankie ran a finger around the collar of his shirt. “Long time.”
“Too long.” She kissed his cheek then gave me the once-over. “Who’s your tall, good-looking friend?”
“Jake Donovan.” He nudged me with his elbow. “You’ve probably heard of him. He’s a famous novelist.”
Belle took a drag on her cigarette and blew a puff of smoke into the fog. “Sorry. I ain’t never heard the name. I’m behind in my book reading.” She ran a hand along the lapel of my suit. “Hey, Daddy, you’re kind of cute.”
“Hands off the merchandise, Belle. Jake here’s a regular Joe.”
“Oh and I guess I’m a regular stinker.”
“I’m just saying . . . ”
I always felt compassion toward women when desperation drove them to work the streets. Everyone had a right to make a living. In her twenties and attractive, this doll had a well-built chassis her customers no doubt appreciated.
Belle dropped her lipstick-smeared cigarette butt in front of Frankie. “You still tied down to Edith?”
Like a dance step in a movie, Frankie crushed her cigarette. “Last time I checked.”
“Then quit checking.” She patted his cheek. “Call me when you wise up, baby. You always were my favorite.”
“Sure I was.” Frankie shot me a look and flicked his cigarette into the gutter.
Her cheek dimpled as she flashed me a playful smile. “We ain’t been properly introduced. I’m Belle. Belle Starr.”
I chuckled. “Like the Wild West outlaw who hung out with Jesse James and the Younger brothers?”
“Yeah.” Belle grinned proudly. “My kind of gal.”
Frankie let out a bark of laughter. “Your parents named you after an outlaw?”
“Naah. Before we met I heard the name in a movie. I liked it better than the one my old lady hung on me.”
Frankie scratched the side of his head. “So what’s your real name?”
She rolled her eyes. “It’s Belle Starr, now clam up about it.”
I made a slight bow. “A pleasure to meet you, Miss Starr.”
Down the block a sedan parked along the curb, its engine running. Belle squinted into the haze. “Since you two look like you’re going somewheres, I think I’ve spotted a customer. Give me a jingle sometime, Frankie.” She winked at me. “Nice meeting you.” Her shapely hips swayed as she crossed the street and disappeared into the fog.
Frankie followed me toward Mickey’s office building. “Me and Belle go way back, before Edith.”
“No need to explain.” I couldn’t help but smile. “You’re her favorite, Snuggle Pup.”
We reached the familiar four-story brownstone office building. Across the street a tin can clattered down the foggy alley next to the Reed Hotel.
Frankie drew his pistol from the back of his trousers, spun, and aimed the barrel toward the sound.
“Nice quick draw.” Would make the real Belle Starr proud.
“Like I said before, this neighborhood gives me the heebie-jeebies.” Frankie stuffed the gun behind his back. “One can’t be too careful around these parts, Mr. Donovan.”
We climbed the stairs to the second floor. In the darkened corridor I inhaled the familiar odor of cigarette smoke, old carpet, and desperate lives.
We stopped in front of the familiar office with O’Brien Detective Agency etched into the frosted glass door. Muffled voices came from inside.
I tried the door. Locked. I slid my hand along the top of the dusty door frame and grabbed the key.
I unlocked the door and entered the dark outer office. From a radio on the secretary’s desk came the announcer’s fervent voice: “A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust, and a hearty—” I clicked off the radio.
“Hi-yo, Silver. The Lone Ranger. I love that show.” Frankie’s gaze swept the room lit only by the dim corridor light. “No one’s home, kemo sabe.”
Mickey wouldn’t go off and leave the radio on. I flipped on a desk lamp, and the phone rang. It rang a second time. I answered, “O’Brien Detective Agency.”
No one spoke. Only shallow breathing.
“O’Brien Detective Agency.”
“Who’s this?” An unfamiliar man’s voice, but I noticed a faint Boston accent.
“Jake Donovan.” Did I detect a note of surprise in the man’s voice that Mickey hadn’t answered, or was I being overly suspicious?
The line went dead.
I hung up the receiver and opened the door to Mickey’s office. The room was dark except for when the red neon Reed Hotel sign across the street blinked through the partially open blinds.
Mickey sat slumped over on the wooden desk. Except for his face flat against the green desk blotter, the desktop was organized as usual, a notepad beside the phone, a bottle of Canadian whiskey, an empty glass, and a brass ashtray overflowing with Lucky Strike butts.
Even in a wrinkled gray suit and in need of a shave, with his slicked-back black hair, he resembled the actor Lyle Talbot. Although not quite the ladies’ man he professed to be, my former partner was tough, resourceful, and fearless. Only Mickey knew he was the inspiration for Blackie Doyle, a fact that would no doubt surprise the fan I met on the train, Dorothy Greenwoody.
Mickey had changed the office: one desk instead of two. He wasn’t as tidy as I’d been. File folders and tattered telephone books from a dozen cities lay scattered on a corner table. A four-bladed fan on a metal filing cabinet stirred the office air, lifting the corner of The New York Times scattered at Mickey’s feet.
Frankie peered over my shoulder into the room. “Maybe he’s dead.”
Dead drunk. I flipped on the light, walked to the desk, and shook Mickey’s shoulder.
The newspaper lay open to the society page. A photo of Laura caught my eye. I snatched the paper off the floor and read the caption.
Engagement? The word leaped from the page and socked me in the gut like a Jack Dempsey punch. I slumped down in a chair in front of Mickey’s desk too stunned to get angry.
Laura stood arm in arm with some fancy Dan with a pencil-thin mustache and narrow birdlike eyes. The caption made me question everything I knew about her. How could this be? I loosened the tie around my neck and sucked in a gulp of air.
“You okay?” Frankie turned the fan toward me.
I reached across the desk and shook Mickey again.
“What . . . what’s going on?” Mickey sat up and nearly toppled from the chair. He braced himself and gave Frankie the once-over. “Who are you?”
“A friend of a friend.” Frankie pointed to me.
Mickey ran a hand over his face and focused bloodshot eyes. “Jake?”
I slapped the Times in front of him. “When did this happen?”
“Nice to see you again, too.”
Mickey reached for the bottle. “Guess I thought you knew. It’s not a secret if it’s in the papers.”
“The news didn’t reach Florida.” I crumpled the newspaper and tossed it in the corner. “You should’ve called me.”
Mickey poured a shot and gulped it down. “So you could do what?”
“I don’t know.” So I could blame myself for walking out on her.
For a moment, the only sound in the room was a slight wobble of the fan. Finally, Mickey nodded toward Frankie. “Who’s your pal?”
Frankie held out his hand to Mickey. “Frankie Malzone. If you don’t mind me saying so, you don’t look so good.”
Mickey shook Frankie’s hand. “I feel worse.”
Trying to keep my guts from boiling over, I walked to the window and peered through the blinds. Cars drove slowly through the fog. Headlights illuminated two people standing beside a black sedan parked in front of the hotel. A man leaned against the car. His hat hid his face from view as he negotiated with Belle Starr.
I clamped my eyes shut, picturing Laura marrying some guy I’d never met. Life had a way of kicking my teeth in when I least expected it, like my father getting sick before I made it big.
My need to finish the novel seemed unimportant now. Writing made-up stories about a fictional detective never felt so insignificant. I faced Mickey. “You want to tell me about Laura?”
“What’s to tell?” Mickey poured himself another drink.
The office walls closed in. “I’m thinking we could both use some fresh air.”
“Let me wash my hands.” Mickey swallowed the whiskey, pushed the chair back, and went into the bathroom off the office.
Frankie retrieved the crumpled newspaper and smoothed it out. He studied the photo that caught my eye. “This Laura you two talked about is the dame on the billboard?”
I shouted, “She’s no dame.”
Frankie dropped the newspaper. “No offense, Jake.”
I grabbed the bottle and poured myself a drink. I threw down the whiskey in one gulp. Laura had a temper, focused on her acting more than her real life at times, but she was never a dame.
Frankie studied the framed photographs on the wall across from Mickey’s desk. The first—Mickey and I in our uniforms at a sidewalk café in France during the Great War. I’d snapped the next picture, Mickey proudly grinning in his NYPD uniform when he became a patrol officer. Laura took the third photo eight years ago, Mickey and I smiling in front of the office building the day we opened Donovan and O’Brien Detective Agency.
Where was the fourth picture, the one of Laura? The perfectly lit publicity photo had always been Mickey’s favorite, because it displayed her soft skin, dark eyes, and flawless features. The quiet, gap-toothed tomboy I knew in school had blossomed into one of New York’s most beautiful women.
Why didn’t Mickey have his favorite photo on the wall?
“All set.” Mickey grabbed his hat from the coatrack. He unlocked a small cabinet in the closet. He retrieved a revolver and slipped it into a holster inside his suit coat. “Can’t be too careful.”
Outside, the fog had thinned enough to see across the street. Mickey almost looked like his old self, but I hadn’t recovered from finding out about Laura’s engagement. I’d spent more than half my life wanting what was best for Laura. I could take the gut punch of her marrying this guy if it made her happy, but it still hurt.
“Where’s Laura’s photo?” I asked Mickey.
Frankie nodded toward a bench across the street. “Maybe I should go have a smoke while you two catch up.” He crossed the street into the misty fog.
Mickey lit a cigarette and tossed the match into the gutter. “I guess I moved on like you. Laura has a new life. Maybe it’s best we both let her go.”
“I had to let her go. You didn’t. Christ, she was the sister you never had.”
“Life changes.” Mickey took a long puff. “What brings you back?”
I explained about Mildred talking me into returning to finalize the novel. The news about Laura had resolved one of my problems, my novel’s ending. Blackie didn’t need to live happily ever after.
Across the street Frankie lit a cigarette and sat on the bench staring at his shoes.
“What do you know about this guy?” Mickey nodded toward Frankie.
“We met when I stepped off the train. Mildred hired him.”
“You’re too trusting. Always were.”
“I trust Mildred. Besides, he helped when I tussled with Jimmy Vales at The Yankee Club earlier.”
“Jimmy’s out? That ain’t good.”
For a moment, neither of us spoke while Mickey smoked, his expression a million miles away.
“Laura’s found some big cheese?”
“Name’s Spencer Dalrymple. The third. You know, the Long Island Dalrymples. Old money. He produced Laura’s last two plays.”
The Laura I knew used to make fun of stuffed shirts like Dalrymple. The family went back more than a hundred years—powerful bankers and influential politicians. Nothing happened in New York without them opposing or backing a project.
I felt better thinking maybe Laura might be marrying this schmuck for money, but that didn’t sound like her either. “That all you know about him?”
“There’s more, but what’s the point?” He stared at his cigarette. “You should talk to Laura. I can’t say anything else.”
Mickey’s face hid something about her engagement. “Can’t, or won’t? This is Jake Donovan you’re talking to.”
“I thought maybe that’s why you came into town, to talk her out of marrying the guy.”
“She never listened when I talked marriage before, why would she now?”
“She listened.” Mickey ran a hand over the stubble on his chin. “But when you moved out of the apartment and ran off to Florida—’’
“I didn’t run off.”
“Sure you didn’t. Anyways, what was Laura supposed to do, become a nun?”
I managed to smile. “That was my hope.”
Mickey laughed and clapped a hand on my shoulder. “My advice? Return to Tampa and let this thing with Dalrymple play out.”
Play out? “What are you saying?”
Mickey blew a soft plume of smoke into the night air. “Nothing, Jake. Nothing.”
I couldn’t talk about Laura anymore. I had to make sure Mickey wasn’t in some kind of trouble. “Gino says you haven’t been in for a while. You haven’t written me in months.”
Mickey raised an eyebrow. “What are you getting at?”
“Heard you’re working on a big case.”
He dropped his cigarette and crushed the butt beneath his shoe. “It’s . . . confidential.”
“Even to me?”
He kept important things to himself, first about Laura, now a case. That wasn’t like the man I’d gone to war with, my partner for eight years.
Mickey scuffed the sole of his shoe against the sidewalk. “You ain’t a dick anymore.”
“I’m still your friend. If you need anything—”
“I don’t need your help. Go back to Florida.”
Why did Mickey want to get rid of me?
Through the haze, a car skidded around the corner. I glanced over Mickey’s shoulder. A gun barrel stuck out the passenger window of the black sedan bearing down on us. “Get down.” I shoved him to the sidewalk.
The rat-a-tat of a tommy gun sprayed bullets. I hit the ground. Searing pain shot through my thigh. A burning sting hit my forehead.
As if in slow motion, Mickey rolled to his side. He drew his revolver. Before he squeezed off a shot, another hail of bullets. His body jerked as bullets slammed into his chest.
“No!” I tried to crawl to help, dragging my throbbing leg. I made it to his side.
Blood dribbled from his mouth. His eyes glazed over. I’d seen men shot before, and Mickey was hurt bad.
Across the street, Frankie crouched behind the bench. Images returned to normal speed as he fired at the fleeing car. Three shots hit the trunk of the sedan. The rear windshield shattered. Tires squealed as the car turned the corner and sped away into the fog.
Mickey moaned and clutched his chest. His hand touched my face and his lips moved, but I couldn’t hear the words.
I edged closer, wincing from the pain in my leg.
He spoke in a whisper. “Ashtray . . . the key.”
“What?” I leaned close to Mickey.
“The key. The key . . . it’s . . . in the ashtray.”
“The key to what, Mickey?”
Frankie dashed from across the street and skidded to a stop.
Mickey didn’t answer. His eyes stared vacantly, and his head fell to the side.
“Jesus, he’s dead.” Frankie knelt beside me and covered his mouth. “I’m gonna be sick.”
He couldn’t be gone. Not Mickey. He was the toughest guy I’d ever met. I shook his shoulder, but his blank stare didn’t change. I put my ear to his mouth. He wasn’t breathing.
“He’s gone.” I wiped my blood out of my eyes.
Frankie dry-retched into the gutter. He took a deep breath and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket. He wiped blood from my face. “You’re hurt. Jesus, your leg.” His hands shook as he removed his belt and cinched it around my thigh. He eased me onto my back.
I felt light-headed as a siren wailed in the distance. “Did you recognize anyone in the car?”
“Didn’t get a good look, just the shattered back windshield as they drove away.” Frankie mumbled something as a wave of dizziness swept over me.
I clamped my eyes shut to keep from passing out. “What did you say?”
“I said, I wonder who they was gunning for, you or Mickey.”
I had to focus before I blacked out. Me or Mickey. Was the shooter Jimmy Vales or someone wanting to silence Mickey?
I opened my eyes. Movement across the street caught my attention. My vision blurred then refocused on the platinum hair of Belle Starr as she emerged from the foggy alley, ran in the opposite direction, and disappeared. “She must’ve seen something.”
I tried to point, but my arm felt like it weighed a hundred pounds. Before I could speculate whether Belle could finger the gunmen in the sedan, I blacked out.
I forced my heavy eyelids open. A young doctor in white stood at the foot of the bed, writing on a chart.
He glanced up and smiled. “Mr. Donovan, how are you doing?”
“How am I doing, Doc?” I touched a bandage on my left leg, so thick beneath the sheet it looked as if someone had wrapped an inner tube around my thigh.
“A bullet passed through your left leg.”
“How bad is it?”
“Fortunately it missed your femur, but you lost a lot of blood. There’s considerable muscle damage that will take a few weeks to heal.” He touched a bandage above my eyebrow. “The wound to the forehead came from a bullet chipping the sidewalk. A half-dozen stitches might leave a slight scar, but an inch lower and you would have lost your eye. You’re a lucky man.”
Lucky? The night’s events crept into view. I was lucky. Mickey was dead.
Crutches leaned against the wall in the corner. “I won’t be able to walk without help?”
“We don’t want you to put weight on that leg for a day or two, but you’ll be able to get around on crutches then a cane for a few days. Definitely no driving.”
I had a driver.
He hung the chart at the end of the bed. “Now get some rest. The police said they want to take a statement in the morning about what happened.”
What could I tell the cops? I had no idea whether the shooter was gunning for Mickey or me. If Jimmy Vales shot Mickey, intending to plug me, I’d never forgive myself.
The doctor opened the door to leave and turned off the light. As he left, I spotted a cop seated on a chair outside my room reading a newspaper.
I wanted to spill my guts about my guilt over Mickey’s death, but who could I tell? My father died of TB six years earlier. My mother in the plague of ’08 when I was just a kid. I’d lost touch with my sisters after they married twins who talked them into moving to Canada. And I’d yet to recover from the most painful loss when Laura dropped out of my life. Okay, maybe I gave her a nudge. Now Mickey was gone.
Mickey had survived trench warfare in France and the tough New York streets as a beat cop then a gumshoe, but he hadn’t survived my brief return to the city.
I gritted my teeth. I could feel sorry for myself, or I could find out what happened, why Mickey died and who was responsible. I reflected on my last image of Belle Starr. From the desperate way she fled the scene of the shooting, she’d seen something. I had to find out what, and a bullet in the leg wouldn’t stop me.
I struggled to concentrate against the drugs they’d given me. Mickey had been evasive about Laura and his current case. We’d never kept secrets from each other. I tried to remember his last words to me. Something about a key in an ashtray. Key to what?
The door eased open. A sliver of light slid across the tile floor. A woman stood in the doorway, her face hidden in the shadows. The door opened wider. This was no nurse.
In the doorway, her white chiffon dress was backlit by the bright lights above the nurse’s station. I recognized her long shapely legs even before her face came into focus and she muttered, “Oh, Jake . . . ”
Fighting the drugs and the pain in my thigh, I struggled to sit up. She entered the room and turned on the light, and my throat went dry. I couldn’t speak. Even if I could, I wouldn’t know what to say. She took two hesitant steps into the room.
I held out my arms, and she rushed to me. I touched the soft skin of her cheek and wiped away a tear. Hoping this wasn’t a dream, I managed to whisper, “Laura.”
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