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Laura Lippman

BOOK: Laura Lippman
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LAURA LIPPMAN
THE
SUGAR HOUSE

A TESS MONAGHAN MYSTERY

This book is for three women who changed my life:

Michele Slung, by asking a single question Joan Jacobson, by asking for another page and Melody Simmons, by daring me to dream a dream.

A Baltimorean is not merely John Doe, an isolated individual of
Homo sapiens
, exactly like every other John Doe. He is John Doe of a certain place—of Baltimore, of a definite home in Baltimore. It was not by accident that all the peoples of the Western world, very early in their history, began distinguishing their best men by adding of this or that place to their names.

—H. L. Mencken,
Evening Sun
, February 16, 1925

Never get caught with a dead girl or a live boy.

—A political maxim of unknown origin

Contents

Prologue

Henry looked at the tape recorder on the table in…

Chapter 1

Sour Beef day dawned clear and mild in Baltimore.

Chapter 2

“Thank God for bars.” Ruthie Dembrow leaned back in a…

Chapter 3

“Holidays in Baltimore don’t end,” Crow observed. “They merely succumb.”

Chapter 4

It was a busy Monday morning at the morgue on…

Chapter 5

Tess supposed there were worse things than finding one’s erstwhile…

Chapter 6

Some people panic at December’s darkness, despairing to see the…

Chapter 7

Her father’s idea of checking the bar files was as…

Chapter 8

Tess wanted to go in search of Lawrence Purdy, Domenick’s…

Chapter 9

Cannibalism was considered a private affair in the state capitol,…

Chapter 10

Highways were too conducive to thinking, and Tess didn’t want…

Chapter 11

Three hours later, Tess was still in a funk, a…

Chapter 12

Twenty-four hours later, Tess and Whitney sat at the end…

Chapter 13

The sun was barely up when Tess and Whitney left…

Chapter 14

Only Whitney professed to be surprised when Tess began developing…

Chapter 15

Within a day, dental records obtained from a Silver Spring…

Chapter 16

Tess did a pretty good job keeping her stomach south…

Chapter 17

“I need you.”

Chapter 18

The public defender who had been assigned to Henry Dembrow’s…

Chapter 19

Your father knows all about favors.

Chapter 20

“Where you been?” asked one, hailing her as if they…

Chapter 21

Her face was still red and blotchy when Tess banged…

Chapter 22

She found Sukey in Latrobe Park, reading the latest issue…

Chapter 23

Hilde was dead. The Philadelphia cops, over Tess’s objections, made…

Chapter 24

It was past midnight when Tess made it home. She…

Chapter 25

In her office the next morning, Tess clicked her way…

Chapter 26

Tess waited in her car outside Dahlgren’s district office, a…

Chapter 27

Tess had a laptop that had so much RAM coursing…

Chapter 28

It took a mere two days for Whitney to secure…

Chapter 29

Tess had just crested the hill at the top of…

Chapter 30

Meyer Hammersmith lived in the only detatched house in his…

Chapter 31

It was Spike who convinced Nicola DeSanti to meet at…

Chapter 32

On the Friday before Christmas, Tess sat at her desk…

Epilogue

The most surprising thing Tess received for Christmas was an…

prologue

H
ENRY LOOKED AT THE TAPE RECORDER ON THE TABLE
in front of him. Voice-activated, the cop said. You talk, the wheels turn. He coughed, clearing his throat, and sure enough, the wheels lurched, then stopped.

My name is Henry Dembrow
, he began. But they knew his name, it wasn’t the one they wanted. They kept asking him about the girl, and he didn’t have a name for her, not a fragment, not even a fake one. Why wouldn’t they believe him?
My name is Henry Dembrow
. He knew he was talking because he could see the tape recorder’s red light, but he couldn’t hear his voice, couldn’t tell if it was inside his head or out. He could hear other things—the wheezey breath of the one cop, like an old dog sleeping, the other cop’s shiny loafer going tap, tap, tap. Tap, tap, tap. He had small feet, that cop. But Henry couldn’t hear his own voice. It was as if he had a bad cold, his voice seemed to be coming from so far away.
You talk, the wheels turn. You talk, the wheels turn
.

The cop sitting across from him read the date into the recorder, November 17. He could hear him okay. “Henry, I want you to confirm for the tape that this is your statement, that you haven’t been coerced in any way.”

What? A song played in his head.
I’m just sittin’ here watching the wheels go round and round
. Only those weren’t the real words, exactly. No, they hadn’t made him say anything, because he’d been saying what they wanted to hear from the moment the patrol car had found him on Fort Avenue last night. Before then, even.

“I also want you to state for the tape that you were read your rights, and you understand them.”

Uh-huh
.

“Could you please say yes or no, Henry?”

Yes or no, Henry
. The cop didn’t smile. Okay, yeah, he knew what he was doing.

The wheels had stopped turning. Watch the wheels, Henry. Watch the wheels. You talk, they turn. Talk, turn. Talk-turn, talkturn, talkturn.

“Henry?”

They were nice, these guys. The patrol cops had been sons of bitches, yelling in his face, all jacked up. Macho, macho men. These homicide detectives talked in soft voices, couldn’t be sweeter. Good cop, good cop.

“Henry?”

His mouth was dry. He had asked for a Coke, not a Pepsi. Was that the kind of thing you complained about here? He guessed not, but he couldn’t drink Pepsi, he just couldn’t, wouldn’t even use a Pepsi can to get high. Ruthie had always made fun of him, said he was a sap to think things were different. She swore she’d put a blindfold on him someday, like a taste test at the mall. But he could tell, and it did matter. Not only the difference between Coke and Pepsi, but Wise potato chips and Utz,
Little Debbie’s and Hostess. Duron and the Hechinger store brand of spray paint. He could tell.

The cop who had been hanging on the edges of the room, pretending like he didn’t care what was going on at the table, piped up. He was a little guy, pretty as a girl, except for the acne scars.

“What happened yesterday, Henry?”

Yesterday. Not even twenty-four hours ago—it was morning now, he was pretty sure, although there were no windows to the outside here, no light. But he could feel the morning. In Locust Point, Ruthie would be getting up about now, putting on the coffee.

Yesterday—another song was starting in his head. He had gotten up at seven. Ruthie didn’t let him sleep in. She said he had to keep regular hours, like he was working. Read the want ads, write down what he was going to accomplish that day, one-two-three. Which made Ruthie sound like a hard-ass, but she was pretty nice. Just yesterday, she had made him cinnamon toast for breakfast, using one of those old McCormick shakers, the yellow ones with the cinnamon and sugar mixed in, in the shape of a little bear, like they had when he was a kid. Back when McCormick was still downtown, and the whole harbor smelled of cinnamon when the wind cut right.

Ruthie was going to the parish, a meeting about the Sour Beef dinner. The crafts table, that was it. One woman had made forty crocheted Kleenex box covers. Forty! And every one crooked. He and Ruthie had laughed about that. He hoped she would remember how they laughed, bank it for a while. One day, they would laugh again, but for now, he had to break her heart.

He turned on the television after she left. Spent some quality time with the people who came in pairs—Don and Marty, Katie and Matt, Kathie Lee and Regis. Once, they
had a local show like that.
People Are Talking
. Oprah Winfrey, with an afro as big as a satellite dish. The white guy had an afro, too, come to think of it. Hey, can a white guy have an afro?

The fat cop wasn’t biting. “Yesterday morning, Henry.”

But this is part of the story. Because he had started thinking about how Oprah had belonged to Baltimore once, how Baltimore used to have everything it needed, right here. Not just Baltimore, but Locust Point. The neighborhood was a world complete. His dad had walked to work. Went out the door to Domino’s, was there in five minutes. Said living in Locust Point was like living on an island.
Warter all around, warter all around
, he had said in his thick Bawlmer accent. Henry was fourteen before he ever went north of Pratt Street. On his own, that is, not riding in the family car, or on a bus for a school trip. Walters Art Museum, those big vases, the shot tower. And they said he was killing his brain cells, but look at everything he could remember. The National Aquarium, eighth grade, he had grabbed Helen Jukowski’s hat and thrown it in the harbor because she had the prettiest hair he had ever seen. Not much of a face—no chin—but white-gold hair, streaming down her back, long and straight when all the other girls were getting those tight perms.

On the television, they were singing a song. An old song, it sounded like an old song, but it had a line about cocaine in there. Funny—you don’t think about cocaine being around in the olden days. Kathie Lee made a face, like she didn’t like having to sing that one word, but she couldn’t think of another one to put there, although lots of things rhymed. Spain, rain. Windowpane, Great Dane. Ridin’ that train.

Cocaine. Now that was a drug. It really fucked you up.
The stuff he did, it was legal, how bad could it be? Nothing legal ever killed you all at once, that was for sure. Sometimes the
Beacon-Light
had stories about how some bad heroin came to town, people keeling over right and left. You never heard of anyone dying from a single cigarette, or a beer. Or a huff. You had to do it a lot, and he didn’t do it that much.

Hardly any at all, honest.

“When did you leave the house?”

Must have been ten or so. It had been nice for November. Mild. He grabbed his denim jacket instead of his down coat. See, that’s why he had the rubber hose in his pocket. Not because he was planning anything. It was just there, from the last time he had worn the jacket, which shows how long it had been since he had siphoned anything, weeks and weeks. If it had been colder, if he had taken the other coat, if he had gotten that hit of gasoline he was going for…but he didn’t. Don’t tell me what might have been, Ruthie always said.

He walked up to Latrobe Park after the guy at the gas station chased him off. Were the wheels turning? He really couldn’t tell what was inside his head and what was outside anymore. Maybe he never could. His words felt like sand in his mouth, like he’d taken a tumble in a wave at Ocean City, swallowed half the beach. But he wasn’t going to drink that fucking Pepsi, no way.

“Henry?”

He went to Latrobe Park, and that’s where he saw her.

The fat cop sat up straighter in his chair, the pretty one unfolded his arms.

She had looked like a kid, at first. Maybe it was because she was on a swing. Or maybe because her legs had no shape, no shape at all. And her hair was stuffed into one of those knitted caps, like some goddamn Rastafar
ian, although the pieces that straggled out were straight and fine, dark brown. There was something about her face that made you want to look at it. Not sexy, not sexy at all, more like a flower in a vase. He hadn’t expected that.

She had been cool to him at first, scared beneath the cool, but he had expected that. He turned it on, not boy-girl style, but brotherly. She said she was hungry—said it like it surprised her, like he should care—and he had his opening. A little bottle of glue from the store, he told her, nothing more. A little bottle of glue, and she could use what was left over to buy what she wanted. They’d have themselves a party back at his house.

You have a house, she asked. Yeah, he had a house.

With a phone? Of course we got a phone.

Okay, she said.

She bought the weirdest stuff, he couldn’t help noticing. Cool Whip, a big package of M&M’s, a bag of Fig Newtons. He took her to the house, to the little scrap of backyard. He told her about his dad, and Domino’s, how it was called the Sugar House once. She said yeah, yeah, she knew all that.

The glue didn’t do much for him—he needed the real thing, industrial, maybe some spray paint, but he’d get that later. She turned her back on him, mixed the M&M’s into her Cool Whip with her finger, then dragged the cookies through it, like it was dip. Then she stopped, laughing a little.

What’s so funny, he had asked.

It’s not that good, she said. It’s just not that good.

No shit.

I want an apple, she said. Or some orange juice. Real food. You got any real food? And she had tried to go up the steps to the house, which he couldn’t let her do. No,
no, no, she couldn’t go in the house, not Ruthie’s house, he couldn’t let it happen in the house.

She had turned back at the noise, at the sound of something scraping. He tried not to think about what he had seen in her eyes at that moment. She started to scream, but he had already placed his hand over her mouth. She jerked away, she tried to run, and that’s when she fell. The backyard, it’s all concrete, and she hit it hard going down. She was dead, or going to be. An accident.

“Then why did you tie your hose around her neck?” That was the pretty boy. But Henry honestly can’t remember.

Funny, the one thing he remembers is how sour her breath was, beneath all the sweet she had eaten. It was as if she were dead all along, inside, as if she had never been alive at all.

BOOK: Laura Lippman
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