Well-drawn characters and a multi-faceted plot were also pluses. This was the fifth entry in the Tess The Sugar House.
Laura Lippman. She lives in Baltimore with her partner, the writer David Simon. Horvath explained. Pink-cheeked, with sky-blue eyes and thick, honey-colored hair, she was not so much pretty as in vivid good health, which was jarring in this setting. Tess was familiar with this racket: City, state and federal agencies charged ten times the going rate for photocopies, if only to keep the nuisance factor down.
Horvath said. Death has its own timetable. Her eyes lingered briefly on Tess as if she could see through her, as if she could gauge every slice of pepperoni pizza devoured, every drink consumed, every joint smoked. Tess felt like the transparency in the old World Book Encyclopedia , the one she had studied to master the rudiments of male anatomy. The autopsy report was slow going for someone whose last science class had been the required chemistry lab for Western High School sophomores.
Where the science was clear, the English was murky. Tess read carefully, taking notes as she went, backtracking over and over again. At the end of the hour, she had only a page of notes. Jane Doe, estimated age Cause of death: head injury, consistent with a fall. Length of rubber tubing tied at neck post-mortem. Brown hair, blue eyes. Black tattoo, on left ankle a straight line, two inches long, appears to be quite recent, still some blood and scabbing around it.
Enamel on teeth badly decayed. Fingerprints taken, no matches found. Has never given birth. No scars. A photograph was stapled inside the file. The tip of her tongue protruded from the corner of her mouth, her farewell to the world that had treated her so badly. The rubber tubing around her neck, fashioned into a bow, was particularly obscene somehow, an ugly posthumous joke. Henry must have lingered over the body, Tess thought, needing to defile it for some reason. Still, the vestiges of a pretty face remained.
Jane Doe had a sensual mouth; a straight, neat nose; and the loveliest brows, thick and natural looking. Working-class Baltimore women tended to overpluck and tweeze, laboring over their eyebrows the way some worked their tiny rowhouse gardens. Ruthie Dembrow, for one, had that overarched, perpetually surprised look. Not Jane Doe. Tess handed the report back to the front desk clerk.
Well, not a page, really-but this photo. Could you do that? Funny, the Polaroid photo reproduced almost too well. Tess folded the paper into fourths and hid it between the pages of her datebook. No fifty cents a copy here, not as long as Homicide Detective Martin Tull was on the force. Tull did favors in exchange for full disclosure. Tess made a face. Tess had worked down the block at the old Star , now an Inner Harbor parking lot. A world without newspapers seemed increasingly possible to her-and perhaps not that tragic.
She had survived the transition. Others would as well. Garlic, however, was clearly part of the mix. Tull opted for a small salad, dry. They found a table next to one of the large windows overlooking Guilford. Unattached, she had never allowed herself to flirt with Tull.
Now that she was back with Crow, it seemed perfectly safe to flutter her lashes a little.
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Tull was fine-boned, an inch or two shorter than she was, with even, perfect features thrown into sharp relief by his acne scars. It was those little scars that made him so attractive, not that Tull ever seemed to notice. Once you had it, you had it. I was the secondary. The primary on the case, David Canty, took it very much to heart. He did everything possible, even planted a few stories in the Blight , hoping to stir up some leads.
Newspaper reporters liked to think they used people. They hated to acknowledge how they were used and manipulated. No one did. Although if she had a tattoo, she was at least eighteen, or had a fake ID. From here, she could see the corner of Baltimore Street, the Block-the Tick-Tock club, the sad little sex shops and peep shows. Once, all runaway girls had ended up here. Now there was so much competition. Tull gave her a fond smile, the kind Tess hated. Sister Tess Monaghan, in her black orthopedic shoes, running her own mission of mercy.
The image made Tess laugh. She knew those women; she had tossed coins in their cups on Friday afternoon, glad someone wanted to save a few souls. Tull surprised her by leaning forward and wiping a piece of feta from her cheek. Mothers knew how hard to rub a stained cheek. Tess took over, cleaning her own cheek. At least, she hoped it was facetious. Does my life really look so cushy from where you sit? You look happy, ever since you got back from Texas. And back with Crow. She rapped her knuckles on her forehead, figuring it was hard enough to count.
The kitchen was large, or so it had seemed before Tyner came along. Tess leaned into the refrigerator, checking out her options. Some of them even cook. The one before you made Belgian waffles. Kitty drank her coffee black, so the cream she kept for guests and her tenant-niece sometimes went bad. Fifteen years older than Tess, she looked much better in the mornings, with her fair skin and tousled red hair. But it was her sweet, open disposition that bound men to her.
He was a good rowing coach and a decent lawyer, who threw her work and represented all her clients for a small fee, so she could claim privilege if the police ever hassled her. But Tyner in love was unbearable. He beamed. He smiled. He gazed adoringly. You just used to take my side, remember? Tyner picked it up and kissed her palm.
Tell Crow to meet me there. It was almost ten before she set out for Locust Point. Funny-she saw the neighborhood every day, from across the water, rowed her Alden along its ragged shore, yet all she really knew of Locust Point was Fort McHenry and the Domino Sugars sign, which she could see from the makeshift terrace outside her bedroom. She tried to remember to look at it every night, just before bed. As a child, she thought God might be lurking behind the sign, because if she were God, that was where she would make her heaven. Atop a neon sign overlooking Baltimore, guarding a mountain of sugar.
On a map, Locust Point looked cramped and narrow. Yet once Tess crossed Key Highway, there was a feeling of expansiveness, as if the sky were deeper here, the city miles away. She had heard rumors of yuppies, drawn by inexpensive rowhouses with water views, but there was little evidence of such an invasion. Even with the big employers disappearing-Procter amp; Gamble, the shipping jobs-the neighborhood was strikingly unchanged.
One could imagine Locust Point inside a plastic globe, synthetic snow sifting down, no one ever getting in. And no one ever getting out. It seemed an unlikely place for anyone to die as a stranger, yet Jane Doe had done just that. Tess parked her car on Hull Street, a few doors down from the Dembrow rowhouse. She was even starting out at the same time, so the light would be more or less the same. Of course, December was not November, but it was close enough.
Even the weather was the way it had been thirteen months ago, sunny and unseasonably mild. Henry had gone out the back door, so she walked to the alley and touched the gate, almost as if beginning a game, and started on her way. She was not Tess Monaghan, she kept telling herself. She was Henry Dembrow, a twenty-one-year-old huffer aching for a high, seeing the world through itching, watering eyes that evaluated everything for its potential utility toward this goal.
Such eyes would look for the glint of coins on the sidewalks, or untended purses in cars. Would he notice copper downspouts, too, or iron balustrades? He wanted things easy. He had remembered stopping at the corner gas station, so Tess stopped there, stepping into the warmth of the inevitable mini-market. Tess grabbed a handful of mini Goldenberg Peanut Chews from a box next to the cash register. To each his own high. Tess wondered if his parents ever second-guessed their sacrifices, coming halfway around the world so their son might have the opportunity of speaking a pitch-perfect Bawlmarese.
She raced through what she thought of as the hard part-her identity, what she was doing, how she knew to ask for him. In her experience, it was those first sixty seconds, from the moment she flashed her P. Older people were the easiest, if only because they were so often bored out of their minds that they welcomed any distraction.
Men were curt, but they usually found the time, as long as she did the little-me, big-eye, big-chest thing. Women were more skeptical, because women spent their lives listening to bullshit. Foreigners, those who had known less free societies, were the most leery. Throw in the words police business and they closed down completely. I ran him off from the pumps at least once a month.
Or any day, for that matter. Girls liked him, he was shy, kinda good-looking. He was interested in only one thing, getting high. Did you ever see her? The voice, very high and sweet, came from the rear of the store, where there was a magazine stand. Tess glanced toward the sound and found herself staring at the cover of a fashion magazine, one promising failproof tips for thicker hair, thinner thighs and better orgasms.
The magazine lowered, and the gaunt, painted, pouting model fell like a mask to reveal a pretty, moon-faced teenager. She looked young not to be in school. Not with Henry, but in Latrobe Park, earlier that week. She had a fuzzy coat, with a fur collar. She was waiting for someone. Someone was supposed to meet her, but the person never came. The detail about the coat was dead-on. Sukey rolled her eyes. You asked if anyone saw her, and I did. I even talked to her a couple of times. She was plump, even by South Baltimore standards, so her age was hard to ascertain.
Packed into jeans, a tee-shirt, and a Starter jacket, she was full of jiggling curves. Early adolescence, Tess thought. Or a steady diet of Mounds bars. My class went to the Smithsonian. I told her she can have a real job here when she turns sixteen next year, and has a work permit. Like the newspaper, you know? It was wild. A girl in a fuzzy coat with a fur collar. What time was this? I showed her the book I was reading and she said it looked pretty good. Sukey looked at Tess expectantly, as if hoping for praise. Get married, have some babies. A modest goal, but at least she was trying to do it in the right order.
So many local girls omitted the getting married part. You know, Hansel and Gretel, the witch in the oven. Other people said it was a cake, but I never saw that. It was the Gingerbread House, and I never could get that witch in the oven. In the end, every place you go is the Sugar House. Brad rolled his eyes.
All Books in Order
Why do you make things up, Sukey? What book did you get that from? She took a deep breath, opened her eyes very wide, and the film of tears receded. I do sometimes, you know. She said she was a runaway. She had lived in a big mansion and gone to boarding schools. She said her father was the richest man in the world, and he was going to miss her like crazy. But she held up a hand before Brad started to berate Sukey again. Could I buy you that magazine you were reading, or one of the paperbacks in the rack?
My way of saying thank you. Sukey picked out a Teen People and a thriller, something that was all Swiss numbered accounts and globetrotting psychopaths, with a lovely but lethal lady in pursuit. Bring on the globetrotting psychopaths. But Tess had always found comfort in the shorter days. The winter months gave her permission to relax. It was pleasant, cozy even, to sit in her office and feel the shadows encroach around her and her computer screen. On this particular afternoon, the ebbing light was at least a sign of progress. The sun came up, the sun went down, and the only thing she knew was what she already knew: Jane Doe had a conversation with Sukey on the swings at Latrobe Park.
The robbery tale even had a germ of truth in it. The desk sergeant at the Southern Precinct confirmed a bakery truck had hit a light pole in the neighborhood, and some kids had carried away cakes and pies before police arrived. Sukey had changed the bakery truck to an armored car, the sweets to money, thinking, in her innocence, to make the story better. Yet the truth was so much more entertaining. Tess had even phoned in the item to her Beacon-Light friend, Feeney, made an early Christmas present of this slam-dunk brite. No, Sukey was a fantasist, trying to make something out of the dreary reality of the life around her.
Why was she cutting school and thinking her own future was limited to a job at the Sugar House? A knock sounded on the door, slightly tentative. From the outside, the office probably looked dark. If Tess were in therapy, a psychiatrist probably could have spent many, many hours on the immense pleasure she took in brandishing her.
But, really, the gesture said more about her relationship with her gun than it did about her relationship with her father. When she first opened the office, she had kept it in the wall safe. She had been literally gun shy, afraid of her own weapon.
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Besides, she had fallen a little in love with her Smith amp; Wesson. It felt good in her hand and it was much more reliable than other tools of her trade-the cell phone, the computer, her instincts. What brings you here? She knew-and he knew that she knew-the East Side had never been his territory. Maybe she should have brandished her bank book at her father, instead of her gun. I need to be near a bus line, or the Metro, limited as that is. Not everyone owns a car, you know. It gives them a thrill, as if they were coming into the city to score crack. They already feel degraded, hiring a private detective, so they might as well get the full slumming experience.
Esskay hooked her nose in his armpit, trying to lift his hand toward her head. Esskay believed all human hands existed to rub her, just as all sofas were invented for her to sleep on. What happened with her kid brother tore her up. Maybe she should be spending her money on a therapist, or going to some spa. I told her that, she said this is her cure, finding out what happened. She was a cocktail waitress in Locust Point years ago. Even worked for your Uncle Spike for a summer. Tess wanted to ask her father a few more questions about Ruthie.
Her father looked forlorn, and his drop-by suddenly seemed less sinister. They sat in silence, mulling their own answers to that question. Finding none, they ended up at the Austin Grill, part of the renovated American Can Company complex, one of the many unlikely success stories in the once-working-class neighborhood of Canton. Tess wanted to go Salvadoran-her taste buds had been somewhat transformed by her recent trip to Texas.
But the Austin Grill was about as far as her father could go, culinarily. Oh, and two Shiner Bocks on draft, please. He looked around the restaurant, surveying it with a practiced eye. His gaze was drawn not to the sponge-painted red walls and industrial pipes running through the ceiling, but to the patrons in the high booths, the bartender behind the counter. Never did have an instinct for making money. Tess looked at the crowd, which was chic, by Baltimore standards.
Almost everyone was wearing black, although there were a few patches of bright, preppy colors bursting through, the usual pinks and greens. Too much effort. The drinks give them away. The boys go cheap and the girls go sweet. See that table over there. The guys all have Budweisers, the girls have-what is that, anyway? Strawberry margaritas. We have a new policy. If we want to see each other, we have to ask at least twelve hours in advance, make a real date.
Dear Mom. Her father was blushing an even deeper red. It must be awful, in some ways, for a man to have daughters. Fathers knew how men think. What does the private detective see? Tess looked around. One of them, maybe both of them, is stepping out on someone. In fact, it was her contention that most people who cheated, men and women, were concerned with anything but love. Of course, that was before her conversion to monogamy. From adultery to Ruthie. I spent the afternoon calling every Domino pizza takeout in the city, along with sundry plumbing supply companies, candy shops, taverns, and anything in the Yellow Pages that began DOM.
No one remembers a girl who dropped out of sight a year ago, but then, who would? Except on the applications. Or they might have one name on the sign, another on the application. The fajitas arrived. They always reminded Tess of a magic act, the way smoke poured from the hot skillet as the meat sizzled. Once the waiter was gone, Patrick looked helplessly at the little dishes arrayed in front of him, the basket of flour tortillas. She had a sudden image of sitting opposite her father in some nursing home, pouring his Sanka and cutting his meat. It was unbearably sad to think of him that way.
She was glad her father was still young, that those days were far away. She liked the relative irresponsibility of being a daughter. She decided not to ask for details. She hurried Esskay through their morning walk, then headed to a small, perfectly kept rowhouse not even feet from where she lived. Please take her with you. You can bring her back when she has a college degree. She followed Jackie into the kitchen, noting with great glee the disorder that Laylah brought to what otherwise would be a too orderly house.
She had wrought the same transformation on her just-so mother, softening the grim perfection that had been her trademark. If anything, Jackie was more beautiful these days, lipstick forgotten as often as not, her clothes decorated with juice stains and smashed banana bits. They were both still in their night clothes-a pale pink sleep suit for Laylah, a red cashmere robe over what appeared to be silk pajamas for Jackie. I have Laylah needs, pure and simple. Morning, sweetie. Tess thought she might be able to.
She looked like more of a person as she grew, but she still had her Puckish features, her endless delight at the world around her. Their skin was the same color, a velvety dark brown that was richer, lusher than the prosaic comparisons it inspired. What do you want for Christmas, by the way?
Tess and Jackie were relatively new friends, and the relationship had almost the same tang as two lovers might have at this six-month mark. They were still courting each other, with Tess being the one who had to pursue a little harder. She was not unlike Whitney that way. But it was unthinkable. And Tess knew whatever she got Jackie for Christmas, it could never match the gifts that Laylah gave her every day. Take Your Daughter to Work Day was still twenty years in the future the last time Tess had visited the sad little downtown midrise that housed the liquor board inspectors.
Perhaps it was simply too ugly to tamper with. A new face to Tess, but she acted as if they were old friends. How many bars did Baltimore have anyway? Given the size of the files before her, it appeared there was one tavern for every one hundred citizens. A man in a boxy leather jacket walked through the office, head down as if distracted by his own thoughts. Still, he managed to give Tess the quick once-over some men automatically throw toward any remotely female form.
Tess had even seen them do it at mannequins in department stores. Not a friend-her father always said he wanted to be respected, not liked. But he thought well of this guy, she remembered that much, if only because he was one of the few old-timers left, and this gave them a bond.
She groped for the name. I hit five-nine in the eighth grade. Fulton to her, or now an equal named Gene. He apparently suffered no such confusion, given the way his heavy-lidded eyes continued to track up and down, up and down. Big Tess was fair game in a way that Little Tess had never been. Tess knew he was fishing, trying to find out where she was on the dating-engaged-married-divorcing continuum. Some men live to poach.
Fulton was a lazy bastard, bless his heart. Which was the truth, because she was sure Jackie would, in fact, find the perfect pair of earrings. Tess was left with the files. The temptation was to plunge in, but she had learned to be systematic in such things. On a computer, she could have done this in seconds, but Tess preferred paper files.
She was no Luddite, but she knew the trade-offs in using computers. A search could be too targeted, too easy. On the Internet, plugged into a search engine, one traded serendipity for straight-up dippiness, for page after page of worthless hits, while the thing one wanted might be tantalizingly out of reach, a single keystroke off. Getting lost had always been part of the journey for her.
Although the last seemed the most promising, it had the skimpiest file of the three, with none of the usual neighborhood complaints about noise and after-hours operation. Marley had a smug, knowing look. A lot of bar owners are willing to pay for special favors. An inspector would have to be almost inhumane to be tempted. Honest as the day is long. He made a career here. Of course, it was only noon when she arrived there, not exactly the hour at which such clubs thrive, and she did not have much experience in these matters.
Like most well-brought-up women of her generation, Tess had practiced her masochism privately, within the confines of relationships. The manager was not happy to have a private investigator on the premises, but he eventually stopped running his long, twitchy fingers through his dyed blond hair and got down to cases. In fact, I think we keep our people a bit longer.
It happens all the time. Do you have a photo?
But the photo seemed pornographic to her, degrading. She showed him the police sketch instead, although she doubted it was a good likeness. Tess noticed his pupils were pinpricks set in amber, that his hands kept returning to his lank blond locks. A man with his own problems. She wondered how long Hurst had been helping himself to the house wares.
A kind of code name used by the people who come here, or work here? Hurst looked mystified. Not everyone is as clean as he should be, you know. Is there really a demand for this kind of place in Baltimore? His bony shoulders popped up and down in what might have been a shrug on a person moving at normal speeds. But we get a lot of fat, middle-aged guys from Linthicum. Go figure. Dingy and defeated, it reminded Tess of someone who jumps from one rooftop to the next, only to dangle by his fingernails from the downspout.
Hampden, up north, was the happening neighborhood now. At one point, the city had even put H. Officials backed off, claiming it was a misunderstanding, but Tess never doubted they would have sold the place if they could have. Politicians held press conferences there and the city routinely swept it clean, as if it were the only place in Baltimore to buy crack cocaine. The caravan of movie trailers-and, more important, the trail of money left in their wake-had ended up in East Baltimore. But even in the most depressed areas, people need a place to throw back a drink or two.
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The sign out front said only Bar, as if it were a generic place to drink. Inside, it proved to be just that. A place for regulars, this was clear to Tess when every pair of eyes in the quiet bar fixed on her. Besides, these were men and women whose days started earlier than most, if they started at all.
Hard to imagine telling your troubles to him. What do you have on tap? He tossed her a stained paper menu, which featured the usual bar delicacies and a few local specialties. Tess, who had been skimping on vegetables of late, soothed her conscience with an order of green pepper rings dipped in powdered sugar.
Then she sat back and studied her surroundings, trying not to be obvious, given that the other customers continued to steal looks at her. It was a plain, no-nonsense bar. One television set, tuned to ESPN and muted. The lower part of the walls was paneled, while the upper portion was covered with gold-flecked mirrors, which may have been intended to make the bar seem wider than it was, but the mirrors were now so smeary with age that they had a funhouse quality.
A minimum of neon signage, a cigarette machine, two video poker machines, with the usual disclaimers about being for recreation only. The booths along the wall were filled, mostly with men. Maybe some internal bleeding? Oh sure, there was a pretty boy in the mix who gets treated like shit, but by a man… Women can be guilty of the exact same crimes. The author also gives a terrifying look at institutions where young women are sent to heal. Let me tell you, that is one skerry looking demon, and I have never been so thankful that it is one I have somehow managed to avoid.
I am amazed any crimes are ever solved. This tome had the return of Whitney and Feeney, who have been absent much to my chagrin. Well except maybe Esskey. Aside from that one minor flaw, it was a solid story. Lippman had lined them all up in a row for me, which is rare and refreshing. I might have given it a 5, but there was one real disappointment for me.
Hopefully it will be in the next volume.