Queenpin

By: Megan Abbott


Acknowledgments


Deeply felt thanks to the incomparable Denise Roy, without whom. My continuing gratitude to the daunntess Paul Cirone and the Friedrich Agency. Also, for their role in the origin of this lurid tale: Allan Guthrie, Duane Swierczynski, David Thompson, and McKenna Jordan.

With love beyond measure to Kiki and her darling Brody. Special thanks and love to Philip & Patricia Abbott, Joshua Abbott, Julie Nichols, Alison Levy, Darcy Lockman, Ralph & Janet Nase, Jeff, Ruth & Stephen Nase, Dee Maloney and the entire, big-hearted Gaylord family, from coast to coast.





∞◊∞


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 rinkydink 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 church-going, 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 Orion 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.

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