A young woman hired to keep the books at a down-at-the-heels nightclub is taken under the wing of the infamous Gloria Denton, a mob luminary who reigned during the Golden Era of Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano. Notoriously cunning and ruthless, Gloria shows her eager young protégée the ropes, ushering her into a glittering demimonde of late-night casinos, racetracks, betting parlors, inside heists, and big, big money. Suddenly, the world is at her feet -- as long as she doesn't take any chances, like falling for the wrong guy. As the roulette wheel turns, both mentor and protégée scramble to stay one step ahead of their bosses and each other.
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Megan Abbott has taught literature, writing, and film at New York University and the State University of New York at Oswego. She received her Ph.D. in English and American literature from New York University in 2000, and in 2002 Palgrave Macmillan published her nonfiction study, The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir. She lives in New York City.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I want the legs.
That was the first thing that came into my head. The legs were the legs of a twenty-year-old Vegas showgirl, a hundred feet long and with just enough curve and give and promise. Sure, there was no hiding the slightly worn hands or the beginning tugs of skin framing the bones in her face. But the legs, they lasted, I tell you. They endured. Two decades her junior, my skinny matchsticks were no competition.
In the casinos, she could pass for thirty. The low lighting, her glossy auburn hair, legs swinging, tapping the bottom rim of the tall bettor stools. At the track, though, she looked her age. Even swathed in oversized sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat, bright gloves, she couldn't outflank the merciless sunshine, the glare off the grandstand. Not that it mattered. She was legend.
I was never sure what she saw in me. You looked like you knew a thing or two, she told me later. But were ready to learn a lot more.
It was a soft sell, a long sell. I never knew what she had in mind until I already had such a taste I thought my tongue would never stop buzzing. Meaning, she got me in, she got me jobs, she got me fat stacks of cash too thick to wedge down my cleavage. She got me in with the hard boys, the fast money, and I couldn't get enough. I wanted more. Give me more.
When I met her, I was doing the books at Club Tee Hee, a rinky-dink joint on the east side, one of a twinkling row of red- and blue-lit joints the cops never touched. Starlite Strip, it was called, optimistically.
I'd been working there a few months. Accounts paid and receivable. Payroll. My old man knew the owners, red-eyed, slump-shouldered Jerome and his terrier-faced brother-in-law, Arthur. Had filled their vending machines -- cigarettes for the front hallway, perfume and face powders for the ladies' room, men's stuff for the men's room -- for fifteen years. And they liked the old man, had a funny kind of respect for his churchgoing, working-stiff life -- widower, paid his bills, three daughters, all of whom reached age twenty without a stint at Agnes Millan's Home for Wayward Girls. My old man, he didn't like the idea of sending me to work at a nightclub, but he did like the idea of me having a job sitting at a desk over rows of numbers rather than my last gig, which was modeling dresses for leering businessmen at Hickey's Department Store, where the pay is cut-rate unless you went off the books and to hotel suites for private parties. I never went to one of those parties, but let's be honest, it was only a matter of time.
"With that figure and that puss," Jerome said, "you can't blame him for wanting to keep you buried in a back office, behind a green visor, sugar cake." Jerome and Arthur came off as decent men, given their trade, profiting from the sinning ways of hopeless souls. Pop knew firsthand they always paid their vending bills and went home each night to thick-ankled wives and a couple of kids, had lived in the same modest houses in the Sycamore district as long as anyone could remember. So he figured them for honest joes. And he was wrong. My old man never was too bright, never saw the angles. That's how you end up never making two dimes in vending, one of the crookedest rackets there is. I loved the guy, but I knew a week in that the Tee Hee was bought and paid for five times over by the city big boys and Jerome and Arthur were in over their heads.
The job was easy. Mornings, I took advanced accounting at the Dolores Grey Business School. Afternoons, I took the city bus to the Tee Hee. I tallied time sheets, paid the liquor bills, supply invoices, rent, and insurance. And I looked the part, decked out in my Orlon sweater, tweed skirt, one-inch heels, round toes, my unpolished nails pressing the adding machine keys, counting the whiskey-stained dollar bills. But I never believed in it.
Hell, I'll admit it, I had a taste for the other from the start. Where would a twenty-two-year-old kid rather be? Setting the table for a corned beef and cabbage dinner with her old man, forks scraping, moths fluttering against the window, the briny smell from the kitchen sinking into my skin with each tock of the imitation grandfather clock? Or gliding my way through the fuzzy dark of the Tee Hee, vibrating with low, slow jazz, clusters of juniper-breathed men and women touching, hands on lapels, fingers on silk nylons, cigarettes releasing willowy clouds into every acid green banquette? Sure, it was no El Morocco, but in this town, it might as well have been. The place felt alive, I could hear it beating in my chest, between my hips, everywhere. Clock-out time and I never wanted to leave. I'd grin my way into a Tom Collins from Shep, the lantern-jawed bartender, and watch from the corner stool, watch everything, eating green cherries, the candied drink soaking into my lips, my tongue.
There were about three hours of actual work for every seven hours on the clock. That's how I figured there would be different duties on the horizon, if I passed the test, whatever the test would be. And it started soon enough.
It was all so easy. With or without Dolores Grey Business School, I could make those digits fall in line and when Jerome asked me to cook the books, I did it.
"Muffin, there's this new way of doing things I'd like to try," he said, leaning over me at my desk, stubby finger on my ledger.
"Sure, Mr. Bendix. I can do that," I said, looking him in the eye. I wanted him to see that I was no fool. That I got the game -- and believe me, anyone would have gotten the game -- and was still up for it. Looking back, I don't know why I wasn't more scared of getting pinched or worse. But it never really ran that way for me. I saw a chance, I took it. I didn't want to miss my ticket.
The method Jerome had in mind was so creaky you'd have thought it went out with detachable collars and petticoats. It was like asking to be caught. But he didn't seem to be breaking a sweat about it. So I figured he'd gotten orders on this and felt protected. The Tee Hee was under an umbrella and the boys felt safe and dry. For a time, at least.
I'd been working the new system four of five days when I first saw her. The place was hissing with stories told behind hands as she walked into the place. About the big gees and button men she'd tossed with back in the day, everyone from Dutch Schultz to Joey Adonis and Lucky himself.
Turns out, she came every few weeks, sipping a club soda with a twist and counting Jerome's vig before she drove off in her alpine white El Dorado to kick it Upstairs. Her name was Gloria Denton.
Jerome, Arthur, the regulars, they loved to talk about her, share stories, tales, legends. About how, in the glory days, she used to carry a long-handled pair of scissors in her purse when she collected in the rough parts of town, about the time an angry wife tried to run her over with her Cadillac outside her husband's betting parlor, about a stripper named Candy Annie who crossed her on some deal back in '48 but, when Annie walked into the ladies' room at the Breakwater Hotel in Miami three months later, Gloria got her revenge with a straight-edge razor, gutting the stripper like a fish.
"Who is she anyhow?" I asked, that first time. "Whose wife?"
"She's no one's wife," Jerome said, shaking his head. "And she's no moll, never was, not even when she was fresh and tight as Kim Novak."
"What's she, some kind of kingpin?"
Jerome shook his head. "Not like that. She's on the inside. She's one of them. They trust her. She's been around forever. In her heyday, she ran with the real pros, back when they owned the whole show, their own national wire service, not just little numbers rigs in sunken-in burgs like this one. She and Virginia Hill, they were the two gals that mattered past what they could pull in the sack."
Soon enough I saw her eyeing me. Arthur said she'd been asking about me, where I came from. "Who's the lollypop," she asked. "What's her story?" Later, I figured she must've heard about the way I could work things, work things and keep my mouth shut about it. She knew everybody and everybody knew her and she plucked me out of that two-bit hootchy-kootch and put me on the big stage, footlights up my dress.
I wanted more.
So when Jerome stepped it up, asked me to make him a fake numbers book for his single-action game, I did that too. I was a fast learner for a kid who never heard of running numbers, except in the pictures. I guessed it was a pretty chancy thing. What made guys like Jerome and Arthur, who couldn't stop the bartenders from padding tabs and pocketing the difference, think they could pull something over on the big-time boys who owned them wholesale, from their wispy forelocks to their cheap shoes?
It was ledge-crawling for the slickest of operators, writing a numbers book. But for schmoes like Jerome and Arthur it read like suicide. If I'd been around the rackets longer, I'd have told them to find another patsy. I was about to put myself on the chopping block but was too raw to know it. Too stupid to be scared.
The idea was to skip over the actual gathering-of-bets-from-customers part and instead dummy up a set of books with numbers Jerome and Arthur would play themselves. Then, when they hit, they'd get to keep all the honey.
"You got the cash for it?" I asked. "Even if the bets are phony, you still gotta pass the bag to Gloria Denton, like if you really were collecting them."
"Tell her, Jer," Arthur sniffed anxiously, pinching his nose like he did when he saw Shep serving to jailbait. "Tell her what you conjured."
Jerome smiled broadly. "Week by week, little girl. As long as luck holds, we'd score winnings first part of the week to pass over to Gloria at week's end. And this joint leaks enough scratch to hold us over when the lady Fortune ain't in our corner."
"You don't think they're wise to this kind of game? They've been in it a long time."
"Since before you were a gleam in your poppa's eye," Jerome said, straightening his cuffs. "But they got bigger fish to fry. They're not gonna notice one set of phony ribbons in that leaning...
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