Serpents in the Cold


By Thomas O’Malley

By Douglas Graham Purdy

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A serial killer stalks the streets of 1950s Boston — and two friends take it upon themselves to bring him down.

Post-war Boston is down on its luck and looking for change. A year after the Great Brink’s Robbery — the largest robbery in the history of the United States — Boston is known more for its seedy underbelly than for its rich, historical past. The winter of 1951 is the worst in recent memory, and the Bruins are suffering another losing season.

Like Boston itself, lifelong residents Cal O’Brien and Dante Cooper are struggling to find their identities after World War II. Cal has built a mildly promising life for himself as an employee of a company providing private security, whether to an honorable businessman who needs a night watchman or to an Irish mafioso who needs to have someone’s legs broken. Dante is everything Cal is not. A heroin addict trying and failing to stay clean, Dante feels the call to do good after he discovers that his sister-in-law was the latest victim of a serial killer targeting disadvantaged women.

Woefully unqualified, but determined to help, Cal and Dante take it upon themselves to track the killer — but their daunting quest takes on dangerous consequences when the trail leads them to the highest ranks of city government. There are a few well-placed men who don’t want Cal and Dante to solve this case.

An absorbing mixture of history and suspense, told with a meticulous eye for detail and character, Serpents in the Cold is a moving exploration about two men battling for second chances.



Sicut Patribus, sit Deus Nobis.

May God be with us, as he was with our fathers.

—Motto on seal of Boston


In Boston serpents whistle at the cold.

—Robert Lowell


SNOW HAD FALLEN during the night, and in the gray-blue before dawn it shrouded the street with a glittering mica that caught the glow of street lamps and reflected the light like shards of glass. Holding tight to the dog’s leash, the children—two girls and their young brother between them—closed the screen door to the house softly behind them so as not to awaken their father, who worked the second shift at the Edison plant across the bay in South Boston. They whispered to the straining dog, telling him to be quiet, to stop making such a racket, that there would be hell to pay and the back of Daddy’s belt if he didn’t quiet down.

The children shuffled down the steps from the porch, fine flakes of snow swirling from their boots, and made their way down the street toward Neponset and Tenean Beach, where the dog liked to run, chasing gulls across the frost-packed sand. As they came down Pope’s Hill, they could see a few cars and tractor-trailers moving like dark shadows on the highway, motors rumbling, headlights pushing against the darkness. The dog, familiar with their route, lifted his snout and, nostrils piqued by the scent of brine and bird, scrabbled at the snowfall beneath his paws.

“Dammit! Be still!” the elder girl shouted and yanked on the leash. With her other hand she held tight to her young brother, who trudged so slowly that both sisters had to drag him along the pathway to the beach. Saw grass and spindly gorse shuddered at the path’s edges as they passed the dark façades of sleeping triple-deckers from which, here and there, a single kitchen or bedroom light blazed against the dark, and then the silent, abandoned marina, the crumbling wooden pylons and spars of the deserted marine salvage and boatyard.

The children paused for a moment, their breath smoking the air. A great sheet of ice stretched a hundred yards out into the bay, and there lay a second shore, a ragged border against which the sea hissed and boiled in dark waves, pressing the ice back in large, sharp-looking spears. Points of light pulsated in the sky, and then a plane emerged from the dark bound for Logan. As the plane passed overhead, the children craned their necks to look at its markings, the eldest calling them out and the others nodding and then watching the blinking wing lights receding over the Calf Pasture and into darkness.

A mist swirled in off the ice pack and drifted here and there, a pale silver sheen fogging the beach. Distantly, buoys clanged; boats sounded their horns in the passage and narrows beyond the beach. The dog lunged forward, breaking the girl’s hold upon his leash, and raced toward the pylons before the salvage yards where the saw grass bunched and curled in frozen spikes and the ice lay smashed against the spars and throbbed with the current. There was something there and the dog was at it.

“Sam!” she called after him, “leave that alone!” and pulled on her brother’s arm as she ran ahead. And then they paused. A few yards before them, half-submerged in the muck yet frozen erect, was the naked body of a woman. They stared at her blue-hued, rigid limbs, her silvering skin, the jut of her hips, and the prominence of her rib cage, her bare, mottled breasts.

They stared at her open mouth, parted as if in surprise, and at her wide-eyed gaze, clouded pupils looking beyond them at some invisible and inevitable horror. And then there was the other mouth: the gaping, torn folds of her neck from which blood hung in thin frozen ropes down to her chest. The children stood there, holding one another’s hands, as the morning mist swirled about them. Strakes of snow whirled, snakelike, across the frozen shoreline, and the dog continued to bound about them, sniffing the body and then barking again, the sharp sound of it roiling out across the empty bay to the giant Boston Gas tanks, toward Savin Hill, and the lights of the city blinking in the distance beyond.




IN WINTER, IN daylight, Scollay Square was a cold and desolate place. The neon lights that brightened the avenues and alleyways at night remained unlit and encased in ice. Here and there along its concrete walkways, in the doorways of betting shops and poolrooms, stood men draped in oversized coats, hats hiding their eyes, hands buried deep in their pockets. On street corners, small groups of them huddled and lit one another’s cigarettes, spoke of things having little consequence. They were killing time, waiting for the night.

Kelly’s Rose was a basement dive with one long window and a steel slab for a door. Those walking by wouldn’t even register it as a bar. The neon sign hawking Pickwick ale hung crookedly in the lone window and was never turned on, and farther inside, the lights above the bar and booths were kept so low not even a moth would be drawn to them.

In the two-stall, two-urinal bathroom in the back of Kelly’s Rose, Dante Cooper had many thoughts going at once, but he didn’t have any place to put them. They spun and caught onto memories, dragging them and the rest of the junk into something vast and confusing. And there were voices, too, all conversing in his head, colliding into one cracked and unharmonious symphony. He sat in the stall closest to the wall, a tie tightly wound around his left bicep, his pants down at his ankles, a syringe resting flat on the hard muscle of his thigh. The radiator beside him tapped and echoed. He grasped a spoon in one hand and his lighter in the other, its flame bending bowl-shaped beneath the metal. The noise in his head softened by degrees, and from this quiet he could hear her call out to him, at first muted and distant, and then with clarity: a siren’s voice pulled through a fog.

And then she was there with him, his dead wife, like a starlet leaning over their bed and pulling the cigarette out of his mouth and putting it in between her lips. She was in good spirits from their score the night before, and she was singing her favorite song, “These Foolish Things.” She lay back on the bed for him, her reddish-brown hair spilled over the white sheets, her pale, naked body so thin and boyish, writhing as she sang, and then her laughter roughened by too many whiskey sours and Pall Malls.

In the stall, he tried to sing back to her, but his mouth felt leaden and his tongue numb.

Oh, how the ghost of you clings—

The tablet started to sizzle and turn the right shade of horse. He bit into his bottom lip and tried to steady his damaged left hand, unable to straighten his thumb and index finger fully. It had happened before, an upturned spoon, or a syringe in pieces on the floor.

He rolled up a tiny piece of cotton and dropped it into the spoon. He picked up the needle off his lap and carefully dipped it into the liquid, sucking it up and filling the glass syringe with dirty gold. He held his breath, steadied his arm, and made a fist so tight his raw knuckles paled. He maneuvered the tip of the needle over a vein, found the right spot, and leaned forward as he pushed down on the plunger. A slight eruption of blood escaped into the syringe and then, after a charged pause, all disappeared under his skin and inside. Dante yanked the tie from around his bicep and reclined backward. It never took long.

The lone light in the bathroom turned pink and soft, flickered, and then went black.

These foolish things remind me of you—

The great emptiness swallowed up the chorus playing in his head, leaving nothing but a cathedral-like hum, until there were voices at the stall door, and the world about him shuddered.

“Blowing up another vein, Dante? I’m surprised you have any left. Advice to a lowlife addict, okay? Just make it easy so Ski here don’t need to break the fucking door.”

Dante opened one eye. The door to the stall was vibrating under somebody’s fist. He opened the other eye. Two reptilian shadows crept along the floor by his feet.

“C’mon, it’s not worth it, li’l man. You know why we’re here, so let’s just make it easy. I like easy.”

He struggled to return to the memory of Margo on their bed. He closed his eyes and tried, but she was gone.

“Don’t leave me yet, Margo,” he called into the darkness.

The stall door split. With one more blow from the shoulder the lock would soon tear free.

“I’m sorry, my love,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”

I’m sorry for that bad score, sorry for not telling the truth, sorry I left you alone that morning, so fucking sorry I can’t bring you back to me.

The stall door burst open and the two shadows rushed in at Dante Cooper.


HE HAD BEEN in the Hürtgen Forest again, for days now it seemed, advancing in the dark beneath the dense, snow-shrouded canopies of trees through which the violent light of bomb-burst and gunfire flickered. Tracer flares ignited the cordite smoke, and with artillery explosions detonating above the treetops, clouds of phosphorescent light drifted among the tree line, through which other soldiers moved as jerky, misshapen shadows. Cal moved blindly into the clearing, falling in the muddied and bloodstained snow and realizing as he pulled himself up that he was clambering over frozen dead bodies and the parts of dead bodies: arms and legs and faces. Before him a vast fence of barbed wire stretched across the forest and upon it the bodies of soldiers dangled. One soldier, perhaps a year or two younger than himself, still struggled and twitched. Through the bullet holes on his torso pink flesh showed; white bone protruded from his shattered kneecap.

Flares lit up the sky above them and spiraled down, illuminating the clearing, and the enemy fire began again. The young man’s face shone, his gaunt cheekbones pulled taut in pain. His eyes rolled back in his head and then rolled forward and stared at Cal. His breath steamed the air. Through the fog of smoke the shadows of the enemy approached, a horizon of figures shuddering in light and shadow, the silhouettes of their rifles spearing the darkness. They moved forward stabbing and then grinding their bayonets into the mounds of bodies upon the ground. Cal watched the raised, pleading arms of the victims, their pleas like the mewling of animals as they were gutted.

Hearing the sounds of the dying, the young soldier jerked his head to the left and right, twisted toward the advancing army, then back to Cal. His mouth opened and closed but no sound came. “Kill me,” he whispered. “Please kill me. Don’t let me die like that.”

Cal moved closer, unholstered his automatic, and aimed it at the soldier’s head. The screams were less frequent. The world was becoming empty of sound as fragments of bullets whipped around him, tearing divots in the earth and in the surrounding trees. The enemy was almost upon them.

“It’s okay,” Cal said, “it’s okay,” not sure if he was speaking to himself or to the young soldier. And then he believed he’d said, “I can’t, I’m sorry, I can’t kill you,” but he pulled the trigger anyway and shot the young soldier through the forehead. The soldier’s head rocked upon his neck and then his body slumped against the wire.

Cal woke and clutched instinctively at his upper thigh, where the muscle tapered to the pelvis. The sheets were in disarray and the mattress damp at his back. At his side Lynne lay on her stomach, breathing deeply in sleep. Gray light filtered through the stained window shades and with it came the sounds from the street outside, of the city waking, cars honking on the Avenue. He could feel the winter cold sifting through the window frame, listened for a moment as a gust of wind set the panes rattling. The subtle tremors of the subway station three streets over reverberated through the timbers of the three-decker. He sat up, pulled his legs over the side of the bed. He rubbed his temples, raked a hand through his black hair. He stretched his aching leg out before him and then back again until he could feel the blood flowing warmly through it—the pain spiking for a moment and then ebbing—and knew he could walk.

In the living room, he poured himself a whiskey, watching his hand as he did so. Then he turned on the radio, and after a moment sound crackled through the speakers. He tuned it to the Darcy and McGuire Show and turned it down so that it wouldn’t wake Lynne, who’d worked the late shift at the Carney. He sighed, pressed the heel of his hand to a spot just above his eyelid, under the ridge of his brow, where the pain—always after a nightmare—was the most intense. The phone rang, startling him, and after a moment of consideration, he reached to pick it up, grunted into the receiver.

It was his cousin Owen, the cop, asking him if he knew where Dante was. His head spun for a moment. He’d never been able to keep track of family even though they gathered for wakes and reunions in bars around the city at least a few times every year. Owen Mackey was his first cousin—his father’s sister’s kid—three years younger than himself and a homicide detective for Boston PD, working out of the Dorchester precinct.

“Owen,” he said. “What is it?” and then, realizing Owen couldn’t hear him, he cleared his throat and spoke louder. “What is it?”

“It’s Margo’s sister, Cal. We found her body this morning, on the beach. It’s a mess. I’m trying to find Dante.”

Cal placed the tumbler on the table.

“Cal? You still there? Cal?”

“Yeah,” he grunted, turned his head away from the mouthpiece so that he could hack and clear his throat again. “I’m here.” He glanced toward the kitchen and the clock above the sink, squinted so that its numbers emerged from blurriness into distinction: six forty. From Owen’s end he could hear the early-morning bustle of the station house. He’d known that once, too: the crossover from the graveyard shift to the day, the boisterous, almost jubilant voices of the morning beat cops, cradling their coffees, some still drunk from the night before, shitbirds talking about their wives, the piece of ass they’d been with, the hopped-up kids they’d given the beat-down. He heard the clatter of typewriter keys, the distant ringing of phones, the desk sergeant hollering out duties.

“Just come down with Dante.”

“Give me an hour or so to find him,” he said. Owen said something that Cal couldn’t make out, and then Cal was listening to the hum of the open line. He looked toward the bedroom.

The last three nights he’d lain awake, unable to sleep or experiencing nightmares when he did. Awake, he’d watched Lynne as she slept, and in the early a.m. as she rose and crossed the kitchen to the bathroom in the dark. Six years since the war, three since he’d been kicked off the force, and the only thing that kept him rising in the morning was Lynne and the shitty security business he’d created from war bonds and their meager savings. And lately, all of it going to shit.

He ground his teeth, swallowed the phlegm that had come to his mouth, searched the trash-strewn coffee table for a smoke, but there was none. The operator was squawking at him from the receiver, and he resisted the urge to tell her to go fuck herself. He placed the phone back in its cradle, watching his hand all the while and surprised to find it wasn’t shaking.


DANTE KNEW HOW to play the rag doll. It was as though he’d turned boneless and shut off his nerves so every punch from Grabowski merely echoed in his flesh. He could feel what the damage would be, and the hurt would come later: the rupture of skin on his jaw, a swollen eye, the bruising of a rib, two teeth loosening from his blood-soaked gums. A debt a month old wasn’t a ticket to the morgue, even with Sully and his Irish and Polish goons, the Catholic Pride of Dorchester Avenue, but lingering in the back of his head, there was the chance that they’d get carried away, make a mistake, and kill him.

“Dante, you’re such a fuckin’ waste. You know, back in the old days we all thought you’d make something of yourself. But now look at you with your pants down and your face all pretty. Jesus, a no-good waste, a true piece of shit.”

Grabowski held Dante’s limp body up with his two scarred hands. He released his right hand, cocking his arm to the side, and sent another blow across Dante’s chin. He pulled back again and lowered with a hard rip into the stomach. The thug had been a boxer once, but never much good. Without any discipline or strategy, he’d always been more at home fighting bare-knuckled in the back alleys and outside the social halls up and down the Avenue.

He grabbed a fistful of Dante’s unkempt hair and pulled him back toward the stall. Dante made a choking sound and tried to raise an arm. Grabowski hauled his head back and then slammed it into the stall’s oak door. Dante bounced, his head snapping back before he crumpled to the floor. Shaw stepped forward, leaned down over Dante, and flicked his half-smoked cigarette. The embers smoldered in the folds of Dante’s shirt, singed through to his skin.

“Okay, Ski, hold up a bit. Go check his jacket there by the toilet and see if he has any cash.”

Shaw had grown up in Fields Corner with both Cal and Dante. He came from the Shaughnessy family, a ripe brood where the seven sons all wanted to be just like their father, a low-rent criminal who made a substantial mark in gin and whiskey running during Prohibition. Shaw was the youngest, and he was the runt of the litter. As a kid, he was all mouth. He’d always had someone do his dirty work for him. And he hadn’t changed one bit since then, always talking like a tough guy, but with the trim, well-manicured hands of an accountant.

He had a habit of sucking his crooked teeth before he spoke. “Sully always liked you and Cal. Good boys, he says, could have really made it good with us if they just knew where their fuckin’ bread was buttered. He feels for you, he really does. But it’s been over, like, six months since your wife passed on. Sympathy has its limits, it wears thin after a while; even if it’s small change, he goes on principle. A man has to work off of principle, right? Otherwise the whole world goes to shit.”

Dante looked up at the freckled, flabby, pale face, the curly orange hair escaping like a clown’s wig from the sides of the tight hat, and the gray, heavy-lidded eyes. He tried to say something, but blood overflowed his mouth and spilled down his chin. The sharp metallic taste of it filled his nostrils, knotted with the growing pain in his gut as his adrenaline and his high dissolved into sickness.

He tried again. “I’ll get it to you soon… just don’t have it.”

Guttural laughter suddenly came from inside the stall. “The fucker got no money. But he’s got these.”

Ski came and shoved a handful of morphine syrettes at Shaw, four of them capped except the one that Dante had used earlier.

Shaw wrapped them up in one of his leather gloves and then pocketed them inside his long wool coat. He shook his head, sucked his teeth again. “I guess those niggers at those jazz joints really give you a good deal, no? Five caps and they’ll throw in some tubes of morphine just to take the edge off come morning.”

Ski caught his breath, rolled his shoulders, stood above Dante, and shook his head in an exasperated manner. He turned and looked over at Shaw, eyes crossed.

“Jesus Christ, how can somebody get this bad off? I feel kinda bad hurtin’ somebody who can’t even fight back.”

Shaw smirked. “If he wasn’t such a fuckup, I’d feel kinda bad for him too. Sick bastard finds his wife dead of a junk overdose and then crawls into bed next to her. Three days later, the police get a complaint of something smelling foul, so they come and break down the doors and find him still in bed with her.”

“You kiddin’ me?”


“No, sleeping with your dead wife, that ain’t right.”

“Nothing right about it at all.”

Ski looked down at Dante on the floor. A look of sympathy briefly flickered in his gray face, hard with thickly knit scars, but then a scowl of disgust pulled at his mouth and he grunted loudly, drew back his leg, and brought another heavy boot to Dante’s chest.


CAL PULLED HIS battered Chevy Fleetline into a plowed space opposite Epstein’s Drug and sat for a moment watching the bundled shapes of pedestrians passing along the sidewalk. The radio was tuned to the news and the news reporter was asking Richard Nixon, congressman and investigator for the House Un-American Activities Committee, about his thoughts on the upcoming trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for conspiracy to commit espionage and on charges that they passed information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union.

Cal turned off the engine and glanced at himself in the rearview. His face, still youthful and quick to flush, was lined around startling blue eyes. Black hair shining as if oiled, close back and sides, high and flat on top. He looked better than he felt, and smiled without humor. A wind was howling down the avenue and it whistled in the wheel wells, shook the car, so that Cal had to put his shoulder into the door to open it as he climbed out. His joints ached and the tendons in his legs seemed to be talking to one another, sending sharp pains through him with each step, and he wished he’d taken another slug of whiskey.

He looked down the crooked alleyways stretching toward the cobblestone and crowded tenements of the West End, where tavern signs glowed in bright red and green neon, and farther, where vagrants shifted beneath makeshift shelters—cardboard boxes, wooden crates, and ragged, hole-worn army blankets they’d thawed over subway grates from which tendrils of steam twined. The sun was somewhere above the rooftops, but he’d be damned if he knew where.

He hadn’t been to the office in over a week. Their last customer looking for bonded security watchmen had been G. J. Fergusson on Washington Street. Cal had done the walk-through of the six-floor garment factory himself: sixty thousand square feet of overheated, poorly vented space that looked out on the elevated tracks where trolley cars rumbled, groaned, and squealed from dawn to night and where, at rows upon rows of ancient sewing machines, hundreds of Chinese women labored away.

The building was a footsore if ever he’d seen one, but an easy job for a night watchman. Three key stations on each floor; you could pass the night doing whatever the hell you liked as long as you kept an ear out for the property owners making an impromptu drop-by. All property owners did it now and again to check in on their investments, to make sure the guards were where they were supposed to be, that the number of guards they’d requested and paid for were actually on the premises. He liked to hire retired cops, ex-soldiers, and, now and again, cons who he knew had been sent down for misdemeanors, judge bias, or crooked police work and who he knew could, at times, provide him with valuable information the others could not. But the Fergusson Company was out of business now, and others like the Anvil Building had been gutted after the city designated it for the wrecking ball and urban renewal. Pilgrim Security had had contracts with Sears in the Fenway, Woolworth’s, Gillette, Necco, the Custom House Tower, the Copley Hotel, and the Eliot, but those days were gone, and now he could count their clients on the fingers of one hand: a tool and die factory on Old Colony Ave in Southie, three package stores in Mattapan, and a bank in Uphams Corner by the Strand Theatre, a couple of warehouses down on Atlantic Ave along the waterfront, some office space downtown and in Post Office Square. Every so often something would come up—a week or two worth of work with the potential for something long-term—and he’d call in the numbers of those who he knew needed the work the most.


  • "Brutally realistic . . . The authors give us one last, lingering look at the good-bad old days."—Marilyn Stasio, New York Times Book Review
  • "There is a classic noir sensibility at work in Serpents in the Cold, complete with its uncannily rendered sense of time and place, but the novel is also suffused with a thoroughly modern understanding of loss, pain, damage and the price of loyalty. It's not often you get to pair gritty with lyrical, but you certainly do here."—Alan Glynn, author of Limitless
  • "[O'Malley and Purdy] excel at the language of their characters. . . . Nothing is innocent, and nobody is what he or she seems."—Clea Simon, Boston Globe
  • "In the best noir tradition, these co-authors shine a smoky light on lives often lived in the shadows; in this case, the inhabitants who lived in Scollay Square and the West End of Boston, before it all disappeared under the developers' wrecking ball."—WBUR
  • "This is a bone-crunching, gut-wrenching novel that captures the atmosphere of a city in decay and its inhabitants. It delivers noir fiction like we always want it to be."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "Serpents in the Cold is a great addition to the canon of gritty Boston street fiction, a no-punches-pulled look at a bygone era. Noir is how we like our crime, and "no-'R'" is how we pronounce it."—Chuck Hogan, author of The Town

On Sale
May 24, 2016
Page Count
416 pages
Mulholland Books

Thomas O’Malley

About the Author

Thomas O’Malley is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and currently teaches on the faculty of creative writing at Dartmouth College. He lives in the Boston area.

Learn more about this author

Douglas Graham Purdy

About the Author

Douglas Graham Purdy is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts, Boston and currently works in Film & Media Studies at MIT. This is his second novel.

Learn more about this author