I left the Sears Crescent building for the thick night air. The day’s heat had outlasted the rain. A breeze carried the taste of salt off the harbor and fluke and cod from the wharves beyond the Custom Tower. A faint rain-churned odor of sewage drifted in from Deer Island. I tossed a nickel on the newsstand at the entrance to Washington Street and folded the evening Post in my pocket.
Newspaper Row was a warren of mismatched buildings along the narrow twist of Washington Street between State and Milk. I found the Boston Post city room on the third floor of the old Herald building, above a loan shark and down the hall from the men’s room.
from chapter 4
The rain let up before I reached the narrow curve of Cornhill Street and passed beneath the steaming kettle’s exhalations. It was late, the coffee shop had closed and the sidewalk booksellers pulled in their stalls. The Sears Crescent building emerged from the gray mist like the portside of a destroyer built at the Yard during the war. I entered its desolate lobby and rode an automatic elevator to the third floor.
The offices in the Crescent were dark. The scissor grinders, coin dealers, passport photographers and correspondence school salesmen had buttoned up shop as business of the day turned over to the night pleasures of Scollay Square.
Eliot Stark’s door remained open. An odor of licorice and hay drifted gently to the hall. His pleasures were here.
from chapter 3
I locked a needle into the slip and drew out a full 5cc, filling the syringe past the last measure. I’d used Metrazol once to question a schizophrenic, to slow down his words and make sense of them. It turned out there wasn’t much sense to them after all. He was in Danvers State Insane Asylum now.
But there were other uses.
from chapter 6
The snow began falling on Christmas eve in 1947. Two feet by the end of the day. Most of Boston had shut down, but Scollay Square lit up like a Christmas tree with a few bulbs missing. The Amusement Arcade and the Crescent Grill stayed dark, while the Waldorf Cafeteria served up a blue-plate turkey special for fifteen cents, and the Liberty Tattoo swabbed the arms of drunken sailors just like any old night.
I was flopped in a cold-water flat on Joy Street back then, a five-minute walk to The Old Howard Theater in good weather. It took half an hour that night, but I was determined to see Zorita the Snake Girl. I wasn’t the only one, the line went all the way down Stoddard Street to Joe and Nemo’s. The longer I waited, the colder I got. By the time I reached the granite steps of the old burlesque theater, Dolores signaled No More Seats. A drunk tried to sneak by, and she walloped him square on the nose with a rolled program.
Dolores had been the bouncer at The Old Howard since she lost her job on the police force. I’d seen her outside Division 3 on Joy Street during the war. She was a big woman then. Problem was, she kept getting bigger. When she reached three hundred pounds, they let her go. But she still knew every inspector and city censor this side of Back Bay.
“Dolores,” I said. “You’ve got more than any ten chorus girls on stage.”
“Doesn’t stop you coming around to see that skinny Zorita though.”
“Only for the snake. You’re the one for me.”
Her cheeks flushed and it wasn’t just the cold wind off the harbor. I thought of my unpaid gas bill and tried to guess how much extra heat Dolores retained in her generous folds of flesh. I figured it was worth a night of sweet talk and bitter love to find out.
My frozen, ungloved fingers burned when I touched her ear. I leaned in and made the offer. I was desperate for warmth, and after all, Christmas still had a few hours to go.
At Brimstone Corner the street opened out and a wind off the Common flared the girls’ dresses above their knees. They hurried past the granite mausoleums of Park Street Station. Across the empty park, the gold dome of the State House loomed dull and gray from the war; the elaborate scaffolding to regild it jutted against the waning moon like quills from a porcupine.
We reached the empty mouth of Boylston Station at the southern lip of the Common. A light burned in the library of the Grand Masonic Lodge, an arched window above the shuttered stores on Tremont Street. A lone truth seeker, I thought. I was searching for knowledge too and without sacrificing a goat.
from chapter 5
Janey leaned close enough for me to feel her heat.
“Sally Keith,” she whispered and Bunny and Mabel turned. Janey winked her thumb toward the blonde woman seated across the dance floor. The woman’s hair was poured from a bigger bottle than Janey, and her clothes were top floor instead of Gilchrist’s basement, but they might have been big sister, little sister.
“She’s putting together a revue at the Bradford and I’d kill to be in it.”
“Hold off on the homicide,” I said. “I’ve got an idea.” My idea was to scratch Janey’s back. Her fingernails would feel good on mine.
Sally Keith watched me approach. She seemed comfortable being approached. She tapped a cigarette from her case and I had my match ready. “Miss Keith,” my eyes glanced across the cascade of pale flesh fighting the white silk of her dress. “You have two of the most beautiful chairs I’ve ever seen. Mind if I borrow them?”
She snorted into her drink and tapped her chest with her palm. “You’re kidding, right?” She hooked an arm over one of the extra chairs, a low-rent slouching Jean Harlow, and studied me. “You’re original, I give you that.”
from chapter 5
“We’re going to play a game,” I told the girls. “Chevreul’s Pendulum. I’ll ask a question and you tell the truth.”
Bunny leered, “How are you gonna know?”
“I won’t. But Janey will.”
No one complained as I dug the lipstick from Janey’s purse. I drew a triangle of Tangee Red on a napkin and lifted Janey’s arm above it. As I squeezed the flesh at her shoulder, I suggested she go limp; at her elbow, rigid; her wrist, weightless. Janey’s arm levitated over the table. Catalepsy was the simplest of hypnotic states.
One of Bunny’s necklaces served as pendulum. Hooked through Janey’s fingers, the small cross dangled above the center of the napkin. I scribbled at the points of the triangle: Yes, No, Unsure.
“The necklace will respond to the subtle transmissions of Janey’s mind. Unconscious thoughts trigger psychic impulses—electrical charges amplified along the length of the arm. Janey will tell me if you’re lying.”
“A parlor game,” Bunny said.
“Yes, and here are the rules. You’ll remove an item of clothing for every wrong answer.” I looked at Bunny, “Now, tell me your name.”
Bunny leaned forward eagerly. Her dark eyes glittered in the candlelight, a gold as false as her answer. She watched the necklace. An invisible fluctuation of muscle and nerve urged the pendulum into motion, swaying it toward the No.
“Ha,” Bunny said. She reached under the table and dropped a heel; she shook off the second one. “I’m not cheap,” she said. “Ask another.”
from chapter 5