Jack and Ryan Rutter are riding wild in their red truck one May night. Ryan is crazy with booze and crack. Jack is trying to calm Ryan when Ryan hits and kills a young mother of two on Pittsburgh’s North Side. The brothers flee north to Sugar Lake. It’s still early in the season so nobody is in the summer homes except Addie Ward, a lively older woman who is anticipating the arrival of the man who lives next door. Detective Colleen Greer is the first on the scene of the young woman’s death. She and Commander Richard Christie, along with Christie’s favorite detectives, Artie Dolan and John Potocki, must trace the Rutter boys from the slimmest of leads.
Commander Christie slapped down a file folder and got up to look out his office door. It was late on a Saturday in early May and there was nothing going on in Homicide. Some of his detectives were relieved about the slack; others were restless. The few who were in were slogging through paperwork.
It was long past time to go home; he’d put in his shift, set a good example and all that. He left his door open and went back to his desk, as if chaining himself to it might keep up the spirit of his troops.
He wanted to talk to his kids so he dialed his ex’s house. Catherine was just answering, saying, “Oh, it’s you,” when he noticed a flutter of activity outside his door. “Kids aren’t here,” Catherine added.
He tried to see what was happening on the floor. “How come they’re both out?” he asked. It was six thirty. Where would they both go?
“It’s a crime?”
“Because I have a date. Shock you?”
“No. No, I’m glad.” While he watched his two detectives— phone, physical movement— he tried to picture Catherine on a date, still battling so much anger. “The kids are where?”
“At my friend’s house.”
“Have a good time.”
She didn’t answer.
He said, “Take care,” and hung up.
Paul Mertz and Irina Alexandratos were fetching their jackets, but Alexandratos was on the phone again as Christie hurried over to them.
“What is it? You got something?”
“We just got a 911. Kid on a sidewalk,” Mertz said hopefully, buttoning his sport coat. “Caller said he looks dead. Probably crack, so we can get there in case—” His raised eyebrows finished the thought. You got crack, you got a potential killer, Mertz always said. It was more or less true. The crack addicts were the worst.
Alexandratos had a hand up to silence him.
“She’s on with the ambulance,” Mertz told Christie.
Alexandratos’s face fell as she hung up. “Nah, he’s still alive,” she said glumly. “Ah, well.” She wagged her head and looked at her deskful of memos and other junk waiting for her attention. “Commander? We’d like to go to the hospital, you know, in case there was any intention or in case he doesn’t make it.”
Christie nodded. It might be something. He hoped the tide was turning and there’d be cases to get their teeth into. Dolan and Greer were due at midnight. Murders didn’t happen on an even schedule. You either had four of them or none. “I’m going home,” Christie told them. “Watch crime on TV.”
Jack Rutter, driving the red truck, had looked for his brother in the usual places. The base house where Ryan bought his rocks looked different today, curtains opened. Jack drove around the corner to East Ohio, where he immediately saw the flashing lights of a police ambulance. He thought, Oh, no, please no. People were standing around. Shit, shit, shit, he breathed. Then he saw through the gaggle of onlookers that his brother’s friend Chester was down on the pavement. Ryan was alive at least, squatting next to Chester in front of an empty barbershop with the windows papered over. Jack put the truck in a no parking space with the motor still running and leapt out and went over to his brother. Two baby-faced medics were trying to talk to Chester, turning him slightly. Chester was big, 250 pounds or more.
“What’d he take?” one of them asked Ryan.
“I don’t know.”
“Come on, talk. You want to be responsible for killing him?”
“Crack, I think.”
Jack moved over to Ryan and squatted down beside him.
“We’re getting a heartbeat,” one medic said to the other, who was clapping an oxygen mask on Chester. “His name?” the guy asked Ryan.
“I don’t know.”
Jack was trying to get Ryan to stand up when the one EMT man took a call.
They could hear a woman asking, “He’s still alive?”
“Yeah. Barely.” The medic hung up. “Some detective on the prowl,” he said.
Ryan couldn’t stand up at first. He was usually jacked up high after he’d smoked, but he was stunned, scared. Jack lifted him and he slid up the wall. “Come on, man. You got to get out of here.”
One of the medics looked hard at Ryan. “What’s your name?”
Brown wasn’t their last name.
“He smoked it?”
The EMT men swept Chester onto a stretcher and into the ambulance as Jack dragged his brother away from the wall and toward the truck. The people who were hanging around moved aside to let them through.
Ryan moaned. “He might die.”
“I know,” Jack said. “But we gotta go.” The EMT, hardly older than Jack and Ryan, slammed the door of the ambulance and the driver took off as Jack guided his brother toward the corner. “I left the motor running. Hurry. You can’t hang out here.”
Two dressed-up people holding hands stopped walking to watch Jack helping Ryan into the passenger seat of the truck. Jack said, “What are you looking at? Keep to your own business.” Ryan took a mock swing in their direction through the window of the truck.
Jack drove away from the scene toward a place on Western where he wanted to buy food so they’d have it later when Ryan was able to eat. He kept looking behind him in the rearview mirror. No police were following them.
“Chester is my friend . . .”
“I know. You feel okay?”
“I feel sick.”
Ryan was the older of the two brothers. There was a point in their childhoods when Ryan took care of Jack. Now it was the other way around most days. “What were you doing on East Ohio?” Jack asked, meaning in front of the barbershop with the For Sale sign.
“The other place, the basement place, is being watched.”
The open curtains. That was it. “So you went like, what, ten feet away?”
“Morgan figured how to get in the back way to the barbershop.
He’s meeting people there until he can find somewhere else. You think Chester’s going to make it? He did the chicken.”
The chicken was bad. That was the flapping around before everything stopped. “He’s going to make it.”
“I opened the front door and dragged him out and made some guy with a phone call the ambulance.”
“How’d you drag big old Chester?”
“Some other guy helped.”
“I don’t know who he was. He helped and then he booked.”
“Where was Morgan during this?”
“He got out the back way.”
Jack parked the truck and took a deep breath. All day today he had thought about getting away from this scene, even if it meant getting away from Ryan. “You are real bad messed up. This has to end.”
“Where’d you get the money to pay Morgan?”
“Up the hill. Turned out some lady was home.” Chester and Ryan had been laughing about roughing up some old lady. They said they’d leave Jack out of it because he was a pussy and you had to be very persuasive with the old ladies.
“You hurt her?”
“No,” Ryan said vaguely as if not quite sure.
Jack finally went into the shop. He watched out the window to be sure his brother stayed put while he ordered a couple of pieces of pizza and a large cup of coffee. As soon as he put the order in, he returned to the truck with the coffee and leaned in the passenger window. Ryan was drumming on his thighs. The coffee was boiling hot.
“You okay?” Jack said.
They both laughed a little, thinking of the same thing—one of Chester’s stories. Chester once broke into someone’s house, ate their food, drank their wine, popped their prescriptions, then curled up on the sofa and went to sleep. Owner came home, ran out, called the police, the police came. None of it woke Chester. The police had to shake him awake. According to Chester, the police said something like, “Hey, buddy, what’re you doing here?” And Chester gave them a nice big smile and said, “Oh. Just chillin’.” Afterward, the police kept imitating him, joking and laughing. “He was just chillin’.” Even the owner of the house found it funny and didn’t press charges. Chester was big, sly, always playing, and Ryan admired him.
“Let’s go up to Tanya’s,” Ryan said now.
Chester’s girlfriend had an apartment she’d let them stay in a couple of times when Chester wheedled her into it and they gave up a couple of dollars for the pleasure of sleeping on her floor.
When he figured the pizza slices were ready, Jack went back inside and paid. It felt fantastic to have money in his pocket. He vowed not to tell Ryan how he got it.
“Not hungry,” Ryan said as Jack got in the truck and handed over the box. Ryan put the cardboard box on the floor.
Jack drove up the hill to the clump of bushes where they parked the truck at night and he finished up his coffee. He wondered if Ryan could be a different person if he got away from here, away from Chester and Morgan and the lot of them.
Ryan felt in his pockets for a pack of cigarettes, as if he’d finally remembered what he wanted. Finding a crumpled pack, he scooped out a bent one and lit up. Suddenly his eyes came alive. “Hey. How’d you pay for the pizza? Hey, where the fuck were you all day?”
“Just driving. Mostly. Got a little money.”
“No shit.” Ryan blew out a large bellows of smoke and punched him on the arm, too hard. “Good, good. You finally did something.”
Jack looked out the window into a cluster of wild bushes. Night hadn’t completely fallen yet. He’d actually taken Chester’s advice about finding a summer place to break into where they could hole up for a while. And he’d found one. Or more accurately remembered one at Sugar Lake and found it again. He hadn’t broken in, but he’d thought about going there on his own, just to live for a while. It was two hours away. He couldn’t figure out how to get there without the truck, and if he took the truck, Ryan would be angry.
That was only one of the things he did today.
But Ryan was all attention now. “How’d you get the money?”
That was another story.
“Yeah.” A lie.
“A house. Way out. Rural.”
“No shit. Anybody home?”
He hesitated. “Yeah.”
“And what? Who?”
“Some old lady.”
“Chester says the old ones are the best.”
A patter of sound began on the truck’s roof and the windshield. Ryan sighed. “Fucking rain.” He started to shiver. He looked back at the bed of the truck, where they usually slept.
The dashboard clock said it was after nine. Just dark.
They waited for a while. The rain kept coming down, not hard, but hard enough to keep them out of the bed of the truck.
Jack started up the engine. “Maybe Mum’ll put us up.”
Ryan had called their mother every name in the book and then asked her for money. Even though he hated her, he’d probably be able to get around her. They hadn’t seen her for over a year. “I hate the bitch.”
It was ten thirty when they drove up to Perrysville and then to Defoe Street to their mother’s place. They tried the doors of her place, back and front. Both doors were locked. They banged on the ack door, hard. A window went up in the second floor of the house next door. A man’s voice said, “Go away. You’re disturbing the peace. Your mother’s gone.”
“How would you know?”
“I’ve seen you two banging on the door before. You’re talking about the red-haired woman? She’s gone. She moved.”
“How the hell would I know? She moved.”
“Let’s get out of here,” Jack said. He hauled Ryan to the truck. They went too fast down the hill, Ryan shouting that he wanted cigarettes and he wanted to go to Bippy’s and get some booze. “And I want to go see about Chester.”
Addie Ward lugs primer and sandpaper and a couple of scrapers from her mudroom to her living room windows so she’ll have to face them tomorrow morning when she must attack the rotting windowsills, must.
She thinks back to earlier today, the odd boy who came by wanting work. She’d been trying to make herself do things, but not succeeding very well. Something was wrong, a flutter in her heart. She’d had a terrible dream last night—of her own death. She felt it. She was in the dream-film and out of it at the same time, so that she saw herself dying, but she also felt the sensation of lying down, feeling panic, feeling everything stopping. In a couple of weeks she has a birthday, eighty-three, and if she learned anything at all during the forty years she worked in a doctor’s office, it was what a dangerous age eighty-three is. That’s when it falls apart—that’s when a person faces illness or death. Car mechanics can say, “In ten thousand miles, you’ll need new brakes.” Doctors are afraid to use that language, but if they were honest, they’d say, “Make it past eighty- three and you’re probably good for a while.” Also, if doctors were honest, they’d say, “Tiptoe for about a month before your birthday, any birthday.” Because people tended to die (at whatever age they died) about a month before the year turned. There were mysteries still to be solved; the body had its own secret calendars.
This morning she’d wakened and she couldn’t shake off the dream. She had a whole list of things she wanted to do—everything from shingle the roof to drive into town for groceries—but she threw up her hands. Time to pause. She couldn’t quite go to an emergency room to report she’d had a bad dream last night.
Then the boy came by.
If I konk out, she told herself, at least someone is here. He can call 911. Maybe he knows CPR.
She had a Gary Cooper movie on TV. The Fountainhead. She could remember seeing it with Archer, oh such a long time ago.
And when the boy came to the door, her first thought was, he seemed odd. Guilty and mumbly. She had her hearing aid in, but she also had the television up loud. She had to concentrate to hear him.
“Need your grass cut?” He had a bit of an accent. The “cut” ended in a glottal stop. So he was English or something.
“I’m not expensive.” Yes, there it was again, the t in the back of the throat.
“I can do it myself, tomorrow maybe.”
“You? It’s . . . a lot.”
“I was about to fix the roof,” she added almost defiantly. “I can still do things.”
“I can fix your roof.”
She looked at him skeptically. He’d pulled his truck around back as if he planned to stay. He cast his eyes about her house and yard.
“Whatever you usually pay,” he said.
“Go ahead, then, on the yard.” She had grave doubts that he could do CPR or layer shingles.
He moved off to her garage, a barnlike shed that she’d left open, and took out her power mower. He looked at it as if he didn’t know what to do with it. She’d been up here since mid-April to get the lettuces and flowers and vegetables in and thriving. She hoped he wouldn’t ruin them.
But she decided not to be afraid. She let him work all day. She taught him how to do the roof and then . . . she’d seen how skinny he was, how he inhaled the iced tea and water and anything she gave him, so, in the long run, she fed him dinner, too. It was a dinner made out of nothing, made out of magic. A frozen fish Tom Jensen had given her last summer. Some grits. A rind of cheese. Vegetables she had frozen for soup that she mucked up with a lot of oil and onion. She found a loaf of bread in the freezer and baked it. The boy said it might be the best meal he ever had. Well, she’d done that for him.
The windowsills are raw. She’ll have splinters for sure. Tomorrow. Tomorrow.
The guard at Emergency is a middle- aged man with a shaved head. He looks like he could put both of them down with one arm. He studies their faces, makes them go twice through the scanner, and examines with apparent suspicion all they have taken out of their pockets. Jack tries to make eye contact. Ryan doesn’t even try to be civil. Finally the guard nods them through.
The harried intake clerk inside looks up and begins typing. “Name?”
“We’re just here to see about our friend.”
He examines them briefly. “Friend’s name.”
“Just came in?”
The clerk clicks at a few keys. “No,” he says. “No.”
“Can’t see him. I’m sorry.”
“What the fuck . . . ?”
“Orders. It’s in the computer.”
“Is he dead?”
The man smirks. “Alive, but he’s being sent somewhere.”
“Confidential. I can’t give that out.”
“Come on, man. We got the whole way up here—”
“Family only. There are rules. And you have to quit harassing me.”
“Just tell us where he’s going to be.”
“I’m not allowed to give out that information.”
“He’s our friend.”
“I’m sorry. There are privacy laws.”
Ryan says, “This is a fucking fascist prison.”
“Hey. Let’s go.” Jack nudges Ryan along to the exit.
They shuffle out and take their time walking down the steep hill to where the truck is parked. It could rain again. “I want to sleep at Tanya’s. Maybe he’s there and that’s all bullshit. Hey, how much money you have?”
“Let me see.” Ryan takes the bills, saying, “I’ll hold it.”
It’s getting on to midnight when Tanya opens the door. Her eyes widen in anger. “I don’t want you guys coming around here anymore. You know? Just go away.” She’s tall, thin and lanky, but she wears heeled shoes with her cargo pants and T-shirt. Her hair is processed straight and bowl-like so that she looks like an upside-down exclamation point. Her face shows stress, upset.
“We came to tell you where Chester is,” Ryan says. “Unless he’s here.”
“I know where he is. He’s going to get serious rehab. You stay away from him, you hear. He almost didn’t make it. You’re a terrible influence on him.”
“It kind of goes the other way around,” Jack says irritably.
But Ryan is laughing, now lighting up another cigarette. “What are you, some angel all of a sudden? He’s my best friend. He’s—”
She hesitates for a moment, softens it looks like, and then slams the door.
They stand there for a while. Ryan kicks the door once. Then he slumps off toward the truck, gets in the driver’s side, barks, “Gimme the keys,” and practically starts driving before Jack can get the passenger door the whole way open.
“Where you going now?” Jack asks.
“Morgan. And Bippy’s. I need a smoke and you could use some booze.”
They drive too fast up the hill and over a couple of streets. Jack doesn’t care anymore to try to stop Ryan. He’s tired of working so hard; he just wants a couple of quarts of booze; he just wants to be.
Alexandratos and Mertz have had to cool their heels for a long time. They even went down to the Park House after a while to watch TV and have a few. Then, finally, they were allowed to see this Chester Saunders.
He was a really chubby kid, according to the chart, twenty-one years old and 270 pounds. He smiled at them.
“Any chance anybody did this to you on purpose? Do you have any enemies in the trade?” Alexandratos asked him.
“I don’t tend to have enemies,” Chester said. He appeared to find the question amusing. “I like people, they like me.”
“Very Christian,” Mertz said. “What about the kid with you? Helping you. Who was he?”
“Just some kid. Hangs around me.”
“You deal to him? He deal to you?”
“Nah. He likes my stories. Like a little kid. He likes stories.”
“How bad is he hooked?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know him that well.”
“You going to get yourself clean?” Alexandratos tried.
“You’re looking pretty healthy. We almost lost you.” She tried to sound concerned.
She and Mertz left the hospital, looking at their watches. Pretty much time for them to sign off after an evening of waiting. It was work of a sort.
Addie uses a hundred-watt bulb in her bedside lamp for reading. She wishes she could sleep. But there’s something pleasant, wonderful, about this middle-of-the-night wakefulness. Outside her open window—stars visible, animal and insect life getting on with it, the cool breeze coming in.
She plunges into the book again, not sure if she’s read this section before.
She can’t concentrate. She’s pretty much got her heartbeat under control, but she can’t help thinking about the damned birthday. And other things. Tom Jensen. He’s coming in a week or so. His house is just up the road. If her heart gets wonky on her, she can call on him anytime, day or night. On the other hand, there are complications.
Tom Jensen fell in love with Addie many years ago. There were the whispered how-are-yous in the kitchen and the inevitable eye contact. It was both unsettling and exciting. Then they’d had one night of folly fifty years ago when she came up to Sugar Lake early to do the planting and he followed. A chill in the air, a lot of wine, a slough in the marriage, and she’d let him hold her. And that led to more. They’d made love. The next day she woke up horrified at herself and sorry for what she’d done. Tom was not sorry. He wanted her to leave Archer. He said he was ready to leave Marian. She took long and painful stock. She loved Archer. The Jensens were their friends. Their children were friends. They all met at Sugar Lake every summer. We can’t throw our lives away, she told him. And she prevailed. The whispered how-are-yous stopped. They settled back into friendship.
But Marian died last year and Tom . . . is floating. He thinks he’s in love with her again. He won’t say it, but she can hear it in his voice.
After marking her place in the novel with a clean tissue, she goes down to the kitchen, where she puts a little water in the electric teakettle. The boy, Jack, who worked yesterday, passing through the house, touched it, pulled out the wire to be sure it actually was electric.
“I’ll bet you’ve seen one of them before,” she said. “Haven’t you?”
“Um. Yeah. When I was little.”
In England, she guessed. He sounded English. “They’re a great invention. Don’t you think?”
Not a talker.
She pours herself a cup of tea and listens to the sounds of the night.
Three in the morning. Ryan is driving and it’s bad, bad. He’s wired up high and playing at the accent game. Sometimes they play at being Irish or Australian: Mates become mites and all that.
Jack keeps shouting, “Slow down. Let’s stop. Let’s stop for the night.”
Ryan jabbers, “That was amazing shit, mite. Amazing amazing shit.”
The road is spinning; Jack feels sick from the booze and the way Ryan is driving; he looks at the three paltry dollar bills in his hand, all that’s left from his day of work. Ryan makes a funny warbling sound and starts screeching the truck to a stop, swerving in ways that make Jack’s head spin, too. They’re going to end up in jail if he can’t stop him. “Pull over.”
“Pull over where, fooking bloody wimp?”
“Up the hill. The usual.” Jack tries to lean over to see the gas gauge, but the movement makes him sick.
“Get your head out of my lap, you asshole cocksucker.”
They swat at each other hard. “More like you you’re talking about.”
The whiskey bottle in the back is empty, rolling around, making noise. Jack reaches around to the floor behind him to reposition the bottle. “Slow down. I really feel shitty. I feel sick.”
“Yeah.” Ryan swerves again, just for the heck of it. “Looka that.”
Jack twists up to see out the front window in the empty streets a bit of movement two blocks down—a girl walking through the park. She steps rapidly, trying not to look about, braving the night.
“Scare the bitch.” Ryan accelerates, yelling, “Monster coming, baby. Just like you thought!” The traffic light turns red, but he keeps going.
“Don’t,” Jack yells.
“Give her a good one.”
She looks at the light, red, thinking she has time, moves forward, changes her mind.
Jack says, “Stop, turn the wheel.” He grabs at the wheel, but Ryan swerves, pulling away from him.
It’s just a sound at first. But then the girl is flying, up, up, and to their left.
“Oh, my God,” Jack says.
Ryan keeps going as if there are no brakes on the truck. Somewhere to Jack’s right, in his peripheral vision, is a man running toward the accident.
“It’ll be okay.”
“Don’t,” says Ryan. “Don’t say anything.”
They move through glaring streetlights until Ryan stops at a traffic light near the post office, where a few other cars appear.
When the light turns green, Ryan says, “Don’t ever talk about it.”
Jack can’t think what to do. He claps a hand over his own mouth to keep himself from yelling. The running man will call an ambulance and maybe get the girl fixed up.
No, they killed her; it’s all over for her and it’s all over for them; they’re on the run.
Nobody in the other cars seems to look their way. Ryan obeys the lights now but moves on and on, then loops around and starts back toward North Avenue. Just when Jack thinks Ryan is going to take the truck to where they park it at night, Ryan says helplessly, “I don’t know where to go.”
Jack is startled by the tone. “Pull over. I’ll drive.”
Ryan obeys—which in itself is different.
Once he’s behind the wheel, Jack concentrates on being stone cold sober. He concentrates on the road. Everything looks a little unreal.
For a long time, neither one says anything or puts on the radio or the CD player. Jack keeps remembering the sound the woman’s body made and he keeps seeing her flying through the air.
“You know where you’re going?”
“Yeah.” He gets on the highway going north. Ryan doesn’t question him. The silence continues.
When they pass the Wexford exit, Ryan mutters dreamily, “Posh, i’nit? Wexford.” And when they pass the Cranberry exit, Ryan says it again: “Posh.” A yellow Hummer comes alongside them, passes them as if to make the point. “Tell you one thing. I plan to be rich someday.”
He’s out of his head. Just . . . out of his head.
Their headlights carve out manicured rolling hillsides fringed with trees in bud.
Jack drives for a long time, willing himself the whole time to be steady. They pass one exit after another. Finally, they’re in a section of old farms with the buildings, mostly barns and sheds, close to the road. Then a sign for the Harmony Historic District—Amish types. Zelienople . . . clumps of trees like bouquets . . . Portersville exit.
There is still not light in the sky, but there are clean roads and bright road lights illuminating every sign, as if to give them high importance—Slippery Rock University. Grove City College. Westminster College.
“Smart fookers live up this way,” Ryan observes.
Another college. Thiel. One of their mother’s husbands taught there. Neil. That joker. Neil from Thiel. They remember him all right. Neil was how they ended up in Sugar Lake the first time, ten years ago.
“I think I know where you’re taking me,” says Ryan.
“Maybe you do.”
The first dead deer they pass lies on its back. When they pass a second dead deer, lying on its side, Ryan says, out of the blue, “The guy who helped me, you know, turned Chester on his side. He said that was better. It’s called recovery position.” After a moment, he says, “I’m going to say we hit a deer. If anybody ever asks.”
That old man running toward the accident . . . it happened so fast . . . he couldn’t have seen the license plate, Jack is sure.
Crawford County line.
Then with admiration: “You came up yesterday, right?”
“Jensen’s place is empty.”
“Man, that’s brilliant.”
“It’s lucky. We’re going to stay there.”
“But the money you got—it wasn’t old lady Jensen?”
“That was . . . down on the road somewhere. I don’t exactly remember.”
“How can you not remember?”
“I just don’t.”
After he’d circled the place yesterday, squeamish about breaking in, Jack drove down the road and tried another place, hoping for easy entry. He knocked first and a gray-haired woman came to the door. It turned out the woman, Addie, let him have a couple of jobs around the place. When he didn’t know how to do things, she was patient. All the while he thought he’d finally figure out what to steal, but the afternoon kept progressing and she kept being friendly, showed him where the gas went and where the oil went in the mower, talked about this and that—even when she cut flowers she explained how she cut filler to make a bouquet look good. She taught him how to do roofing. He did roofing.
She was different. Living up here alone with all that work to do. She had an old station wagon in the garage—it had to be thirty years old. Gearshift up in front of your face. He said, “Funny you keep that old thing in a garage.”
She said, “Don’t talk ill of that old thing. It’s done me well.”
He thought, Maybe she doesn’t have much.
And he ended up working. And not disliking it. Tell that to Ryan or Chester and he’ll never live it down.
They pass dead trees, houses close to the road, barns and sheds in decay. Then suddenly fields of dairy cows, the black-and-white kind. With barns for silage—like in children’s picture books— the scene is beautiful and peaceful.
They pass churches and cemeteries, and then they’re in the little town, Cochranton. The town holds a small movie theater that might or might not be still operating; coin laundry; car repair; insurance; convenience store; gas station; market. That’s about it. The basics. Also the French Creek Café and a pizza shop.
Jack gets on the road to Sugar Lake when there is just the hint of light coming into the sky.
Detective Colleen Greer, on night duty, got there when the ambulance did. The young woman was dead. She was a tiny figure, slight. The men kneeling over her looked up and said there was no hope whatsoever.
Colleen had trouble looking. She was not quite a rookie anymore but still one of the newer detectives on the force. Her colleagues didn’t give her much guff these days; she’d proved herself on the last couple of cases.
There was blood in the long streaming black hair; the woman’s face was so badly damaged it was clear the injuries would have made her life difficult had she lived. From the way she was hit by the car and the impact of her fall against a tree, there must have been significant internal bleeding, too.
She turned to the patrol cop on the scene. Peters. “Who is she?”
He produced a purse. “Everything’s in here. Name is Joanna Navarro. She has an ID for working at Allegheny General.”
Nurse? Wrong outfit. Doctor? Quality of the nail polish and soft flats seemed wrong.
“Could have been on her way from work or to work. Or maybe she was just out for the night having a good time.”
Colleen could tell from the clothes, the shoes, and the handbag that it wasn’t about having a good time. To work, she guessed. Maybe the early staff that prepares the breakfasts. “Let me see.” She nodded toward the wallet, and when he handed it over, she went through it quickly at first. There was still money in it. No driver’s license. Where the hell was Dolan? He was partnering her, but he was always off on his own these days. “Call the hospital for me. When you get them, ask what her shift was. Then . . . then put me on. Where did the handbag fall?”
“About there.” He pointed to a spot on the road ten feet from the body. “The old man who called in the hit-and-run picked it up from the road, so we can’t be totally sure.”
She continued to study the wallet. Hospital ID. Children’s pictures. Yeah, little kids. “Let me see the handbag.”
The cop handed it over.
Everything neat. Makeup in a little case. Larger hospital ID on a badge. Checkbook with neat writing. She looked at the pictures of the little kids again, two of them, a boy and a girl, toothy, eager, not beautiful. “Shit.”
“Yeah. It’s bad.”
“Where’s the witness?”
“He’s somewhere close. He’s a vagrant. He’s okay, though. Sensible.”
“I don’t see him. Where is he?”
“I . . . don’t see him either. He was crying. I told him to go take care of himself. I’d already got the particulars.”
“Find him. I want to see him myself.”
Colleen left a second message for Artie Dolan. He was Christie’s former partner and probably Christie’s favorite detective, a neat muscular man, small and always immaculately dressed. Up from the black ghetto and interesting, often whimsical, always entertaining. Dolan was one of the detectives who hated to be idle. He’d been acting on info he got that a guy who might know something about an old shooting hung out in a block on the upper North Side in the nights.
But she wanted him with her now. She’d never done a case like this, a vehicular homicide. There was measuring to be done here—skid marks and what looked like broken headlight glass, the placement of the body—to determine the speed of the vehicle. She’d called the accident investigations unit to do the measuring and the math, though it wasn’t going to require a lot of science to figure out that the maniac who killed Joanna Navarro had been going much too fast—sixty or seventy on a city street.
Still, Dolan should be here.
“I can’t find the witness. The guy. Oliver Moore.” The cop who’d come back to her swallowed hard. He was red-faced. “I asked him a lot of questions.”
“Tell me what you have.”
“Truck came down the hill, ran a light, going very fast. Victim was crossing the street. Truck ran right at her, swerved away, then back. Then it kept going. Gray truck. She got hit hard. She was thrown against that tree. The witness, Moore, tried to see if she was breathing. He ran to the street for help. Finally got somebody to call 911 on a cell.”
This was pretty much what Colleen had heard from the 911 call. “That’s it?”
“And we have the APB out on the gray truck?”
“Nobody else around?”
“I still want this witness. Find him.”
Her phone rang. It was Dolan, saying, “I’m on my way. You got a good one, girl.”
“Traffic unit is nowhere in sight yet,” she said. “Sunday morning, nobody moves. There’s headlight glass. That’ll help.”
“Be right there.”
Ten feet away, Joanna Navarro lay beyond help. The battered woman’s limbs were folded in and she had landed a bit on her side, so she looked almost fetal. Colleen hoped the death itself was sudden and without consciousness or pain. If you didn’t know better, if you caught the position from a distance, you might think the victim had wanted to take a long nap and was so tired, she didn’t care where she did it.
The sun edged into the sky just as the topography flattened out and the sky became large, almost western.
“Your old lady where you got the money—tell me about her.”
“I got all she had.”
“Where’s her place?” Ryan’s eyes narrowed.
“Some small lane on the way. I don’t know if I could find it again.”
The rough dirt road made them slow down a little. When they passed the driveway to Addie’s place, Jack was careful not to cast his eyes toward it. “Remember,” he said quietly, “we used to take our swimming and fishing stuff and go down to the lake.” He and Ryan floated around the lake on tires— they’d never had a vacation before or after. It was the best time they ever had, but they had to leave after four days because the owner, Jensen, kicked them out.
“I hated that old guy. Jensen.”
Jack turned off the dirt road to a narrow car path, completely unfinished. Before them was the white wooden house Jensen owned. “We didn’t hate his house. Remember?”
Jack forced the truck around the side of the place where weeds had come up high and where there were a couple of planks of wood they had to drive over.
Once they were parked in back where nobody could see the truck, Ryan began to shake. “It’s really cold,” he said.
It wasn’t. But Jack said, “Yeah. Yeah, it is.”
They slid out of the truck, walked around to the front of it, and looked at the driver’s side. One smashed headlight, a dented front fender, and a smear of human being. Neither one of them said anything. They moved away in tandem from the truck. Jack leaned against a tree and caught his breath. He could hear Ryan gagging. He walked thirty yards or so into the woods, sucking in clean air, and somehow didn’t throw up. He turned back to see Ryan getting rough with the back door, pushing and shaking it. “Going to have to break a window,” Ryan said. But he went at the door again hard, this time with his shoulder, and the door gave.
A slice of sunlight played on the floor just inside the door, lighting their way in.
They stood inside the kitchen. The house had a smoky smell from fires burned when the place was last used. It looked familiar, much the same as it had years ago. There was the big long kitchen table that looked like something from a movie with medieval knights in armor eating and tossing meat over their shoulders to the dogs.
“Remember eating here?” Jack asked.
Two walls were lined with wooden cupboards of old dark wood. Ryan started opening cupboard doors.
“Bowls. Glasses. Couple of cans of soup,” Ryan reported.
Jack moved to a low cabinet. He found a large metal container with a lid on and pictures of farm people tilling fields painted on the side. He pried it open. It was practically empty, but there were three tiny packages. “In here is crackers, spaghetti, and, let’s see, beans.” Little bits of each. Unfortunately very little bits.
“Beans . . .” Ryan scowled. “Beans.”
“Well, there’s the soup like you said. You’re going to want to eat sometime later today.”
They moved into the living room. They appeared in a mirror near the door—two look-alikes, fake leather jackets, T-shirts, jeans, tousled hair. Their mother said they got decent chins but that their noses put them on the wrong side of the tracks. She used to tell them the fancy people got those big nosey noses, all bone, like Prince Charles.
They weren’t much in the mood to look at themselves. They studied the room instead. Some saggy sofas, a chess set on its own table, the usual end tables.
It was pretty ancient looking, gray and large, awkward. Ryan lifted the receiver and tried pushing buttons. “It’s dead.”
“Right. No dial tone, nothing. Let’s look at the upstairs.” They moved cautiously up the stairs to the bedrooms.
Three bedrooms. Beds with bedspreads and blankets. Clean sheets put away in the drawers.
And there was a bathroom with a shower and some leftover soap and shampoo from when somebody was here last.
Jack tried the bathroom faucet, but nothing came out. Water. They’d have to have water. Suddenly everything in him collapsed. He’d gotten Ryan this far and he could do no more. He stumbled to the bedroom with the twin beds, climbed onto one on top of the spread and pulled a wool blanket from the foot of the bed over him.
Ryan stood beside him. “You can sleep?”
He was almost asleep already. He didn’t answer. He could hear Ryan go to another room and come back. Soon he heard the sounds of a creaking mattress. Bowl of soup, he thought. Crackers. Shower if we can get the water going. And beyond that, he couldn’t think.
Down the road, half a mile away, Addie was walking her grounds with a cup of coffee in hand. There were a few clumps of grass where the boy hadn’t gone over things a second time. She’d have to catch up with them. She’d warned him about watching out for her lettuces in a border in front and for the vegetable garden out back. Lord knew what the roof looked like. She’d brought him a glass of water, then a jug of mixed iced tea, and she’d sat him down on the steps to show him what to do next. He didn’t believe she knew how to do roofing. She liked surprising people. She did drawings for him, illustrations, where the big nails went, how to put the glue on. Then she held the ladder for him. At least he wasn’t wearing flip-flops. She’d go up to the roof sometime, see what he did. The downspout she let him paint didn’t look too bad, though there were drips on the grass at the bottom.
She went back indoors and had a second cup of coffee. Cereal would have to be it. She kept not getting to the store. The meal she made last night used about the last of what she had in dinner makings. She still had oatmeal and a few other odds and ends.
She was halfway through the oatmeal when her phone rang—a sweet ring, not too loud, so she knew before answering that it was her daughter, Linda. Phones did ring differently depending on who was calling.
“Just checking on you,” her daughter said.
“Oh . . . I’m fine.”
“I don’t know how you do it. I want people around me all the time.”
People got more dependent with each generation. Addie and Linda had traded stories about kids on their cells—What are you doing? Oh, nothing, just talking to you. Did you hear from Jeff? Yeah, me too. Baboons grooming each other. Sound strokes.
“Is anybody else up at Sugar yet?”
“No. Nobody has come by.”
Just then a truck drove into the yard to give her the lie. “Never mind. I think Frank McCauley just drove up. Let me look.” A forty-something fit lumberjack of a man got down from the cab of his truck. “Yes, it’s Frank.”
“Anybody ready for company? Anybody got some coffee brewing?” he called.
Addie stood at the front door where Frank was approaching. “Yes!” Her laugh rippled up. “Oh, yes! Only I didn’t really get dressed yet, I didn’t do my hair.”
Frank peered through the screen. “Sexy! That just out of bed look.”
“Oh!” She made a face, playful shock. She was well covered in a robe that was like a wraparound dress. Old loafers because she’d been out in the dew. She straightened her hair with her fingers. Then she remembered the phone. “I have to go,” she told Linda.
“Such a flirt,” Linda said affectionately.
Addie was pleased that Frank had come up to Sugar Lake early, too. “How about a bowl of oatmeal?” she asked him.
“I don’t have a lot of milk, but I have brown sugar and raisins.”
“That’s perfect. You need me to make a food run for you?”
“Oh, no. I’m going later today. I need my baking things. I’d make you cornbread if I had the ingredients.”
“Next time you come by. For sure.”
“I’m going to miss you.” His face got sad. He paused long enough for her to get the hint that he had bad news. “We’re . . . I came by to tell you we’re selling.”
“Oh, no. Oh, I’m . . . oh, dear.”
“I’m sorry to say it. The fact is, we don’t get here enough and we have a kid going to school. We could maybe get two years’ tuition out of the place. You know how high it is? Parents get college-poor.”
“Oh, I do know. It’s terrible. But have you thought about—we love our old places, but—what if you rented?”
He hugged her around the shoulders, squeezed, kissed her cheek. “We calculated all that. It wasn’t quite enough. Well, maybe if we put in a swimming pool or a hot tub and gussied it up, but it isn’t that kind of a place now.”
“I like it the way it is.”
“We do, too. We do, too. So, I cleaned it up as well as I could yesterday and . . . I let the Realtor put out the signs. She’ll be bringing people by to see it. I can’t say it isn’t a jolt, seeing those signs. But I wanted to be the one to tell you.”
“Where will you be while it’s selling?”
“Back home. I came by to see if there was anything I could do for you. Looks like you cut your grass.”
“I . . . hired somebody.”
“Oh, hell, I wish I’d come by earlier. Who did it?”
“A boy who’s going around doing work. Could you—if you could look at the roof, see what sort of a job he did on it?”
They got out the ladder. She held it for him as she had held it yesterday. It was more worrisome to watch someone else climb than to do it herself.
Frank McCauley stayed up there awhile. She could hear some noises as he moved around. Then he came back down. “Good job. Not great, but definitely not terrible. It ought to hold you. Who’s the worker?”
“A drifter. A kid.”
“You be careful.”
“Oh, I’m fine. My daughter worries about me. She wants to build an apartment onto her house for me. She thinks I should sell the Pittsburgh house and this one and come live with her. I don’t know how many ways to tell her no.”
“At least she cares.”
“Oh. Oh, I’d better get your cereal started. Here I am, talking. Let me—” She started for the house, and he went to the garage to put the ladder away. Oh, she felt such a sadness that Frank McCauley was leaving.
Dolan and Greer and the traffic unit had measured the marks at the accident site, taken samples, and had the body carried away. They had driven to the Foster Square apartments and rung a bell and roused a woman of about fifty, Celia Navarro, who said she was the mother of Joanna and that she lived with her daughter and her grandkids. Colleen made a note that the woman had the same last name as her daughter.
“Is there a husband? Is she married?”
“She was,” the woman said bitterly.
Colleen said, “May we sit down?” Dolan stood at the door. “I’m afraid I have bad news for you.”
“She isn’t sick?”
“Please sit. This is going to be difficult to understand.” Finally the woman sat, and then Colleen did.
“She’s in trouble with the Immigration?”
If only. Surely preferable.
“Is . . . about her job?”
“No, nothing like that.”
Colleen waited the requisite ten-count to allow Joanna Navarro’s mother to understand. Then she said, “There’s been an accident. A hit-and-run.”
“Oh, my God. Is she hurt?”
This time Colleen only made it through a five-count. “I’m afraid there was nothing anybody could do.”
“Are you—? What—?”
“There was nothing anybody could do,” she repeated. “It happened very quickly.”
The mother shouted in Spanish and wept and asked many times if it was so. Colleen sat helplessly, trying to comfort the woman. Dolan moved in to Celia after a while; he stooped and took her hands. He had a steadying effect on her. As he held on to her, he began to ask a few questions. The woman gave answers as if by getting them right, by appealing to this other person who held her hands, this man with big sympathetic brown eyes, she could change what Colleen had said to her.
“Do you work, too?” he asked.
“We both have work at hospital cafeteria.”
“Allegheny? Both of you?”
“Yes. But different times. They give us different times so—because to be with the children.”
“How did your daughter feel about work?”
“Very good work. She like. Everything good there.”
“She had friends?”
“Oh, no. Just happy to meet families who come for a sick person, and she like the doctors.”
“Who was she dating?”
Navarro shook her head. “Nobody for long time.”
“Nobody?” Dolan appeared to be incredulous.
“There is a doctor works there that . . . maybe something will happen soon. I think Joanna likes . . .”
“You know his name?”
“No.” She seemed distressed that she couldn’t think of it.
“You don’t know his name?”
“I’m sorry. He does . . .” She pantomimed cutting. “Operation.”
“Okay. What about the man she was married to? How much contact?”
“We never see him again. He live in New Mexico with new wife.”
“She gets phone calls from him?”
“Sometime. Not too much.”
“How about money? Does he provide money?”
“No! No, nothing from him. He was—”
“Was he violent?”
“No, just never come home. The lawyer call him a . . . a derelict father.” She said the words carefully.
Dolan shook his head as if he’d never heard of such a terrible thing. “Could you get me his address and contact information?”
“She have it somewhere.”
“Thank you. When did you last see him in the city?”
“Long time. Once he come to see his kids.”
“When was that?”
“They were . . . little then.” She used her hand to indicate the height of two- and three-year- olds.
A tiny sound caught their attention. Dolan stopped asking questions. A girl of four or five stood in the frame of the doorway into the living room, clutching her pajamas away from her as if she’d wet them. Colleen couldn’t tell whether the child had or was simply trying to get her grandmother’s attention. The girl looked crossly at the strangers in the living room. “I need you to see something in my room,” she said. “And I’m hungry.”
“You can take care of the children. We’ll be back in two or three hours,” Colleen said. “We’ll know more then.”
“We have to miss mass?” Celia asked.
“Yes. Yes, you will. Do you have friends you could call? To come sit with you? Make some coffee for you, just to help out?”
“Good idea,” Dolan said to Celia Navarro. “Call your friends. We insist.”
The woman nodded.
All the way back to Headquarters, Colleen silently berated herself for not suggesting the woman go to mass. Our Lady Queen of Peace had several services. She could have driven her.
Eight o’clock was the time for their night shift to end, but neither she nor Dolan was likely to get home until late today.
Could have been intentional, she thought. Somebody drove straight into the woman. Husband or a boyfriend? The idea sickened her.
Their commander, Christie, was at his desk with a cup of coffee and part of the morning paper. They poked their heads into his office.
“Hit-and-run, I heard,” he said. “Anything on it?”
“It’s ugly,” Dolan said. “Nice, hardworking mother. Probably an illegal.”
“Do we need to mess with that?”
“Not so far as I’m concerned. She’s got enough trouble.”
“What do you need from me?”
“Nothing,” Dolan said. “We’re on it. Greer was there first. She’s got it in order.”
“Why so quiet?” Christie asked her.
“Patrolman lost our witness. I have him looking for the guy. Careless. He was, not me. It makes me irritable, I guess. And I need breakfast. I’m getting a hunger headache.”
Dolan laughed. “There’s my girl.”
Christie stood. “There’s more to be got from the witness?”
“Let’s pop over to Lindo’s. You two can catch me up while we eat.”
She loved Lindo’s greasy breakfasts; she adored her commander; but work called. “I want to get over to the hospital to talk to some of the people who knew her. I can eat a hospital breakfast over there.”
Christie said, “Sure. Good idea. We can all go over there.”
Ryan lay under a blanket, shivering. He wanted to be up, going through cabinets and drawers more thoroughly, but he couldn’t stop the shakes and he thought he was going to throw up again. He looked over at Jack, who was sleeping. His thoughts kept whirling. What would Chester say? Be cool. Don’t look back. He got up and found another blanket in one of the bureau drawers and he spread it on his bed. It was funny that neither of them had taken the bigger bed in the other room. He took it as a sign that they didn’t know how to grab the good things in life. Ryan intended to change that soon. His teeth chattered. His smokes last night were cut with something strong. Something in the up category. Every time a bird chirped outside, his heart raced.
This was the very bed he’d slept in ten years ago, and that was why he and Jack had gravitated to this room now.
He could hear again the argument that had happened downstairs in the living room. The old man told their mother they’d ruined his place. Said this and that looked broken or burnt—dishes and coffeepots. Told them he wanted them to leave before their two weeks were up. Their mother called him a stupid fucking uptight old geezer. She wanted Neil to yell insults at the old guy, but instead Neil Schlager started packing his bags. “It’s okay,” Neil said, “we’ll just leave.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” their mother said. “You want us to leave the place and let him have our money? I want the whole fee back. I’m not leaving here without the whole thing.” She stared at Jensen. “Thinks he’s something. Thinks we’re nothing. Can’t you tell?”
Shaking, Jensen handed over the rent check he’d never cashed. “Just go,” he said.
“He couldn’t be in more of a hurry,” their mother said. “Hurts him to look at us.”
Huddled under the covers, Ryan puts a hand on his chest—yes, his heartbeat is too fast. Brakes on, he tells himself, but he can’t slow it down. His heart is like a car with the brakes failing.
That stupid woman. There was something wrong with her the way she couldn’t decide what to do. Maybe she wanted it. To stop. Bam. You wouldn’t think a body would make that kind of sound, hollow, like thunking a drum.
He can’t get warm. He gets out of bed and searches in the clothes closet for a third blanket. He doesn’t find one but spies, way in back, a space heater. He drags it out and plugs it in. Good news. The electricity in the place is working. Heat cranks out, dusty smelling.
This heater was probably here for years before his family rented. He can still see the old guy’s worried face, the sickly-type wife sitting in the car the whole time, while the old guy looked at them as if he pitied them.
Same owners, he can tell.
The sun fully up, birds chattering, heater sending out waves of warmth, and him waiting for some sound from Jack, Ryan finally falls asleep.
Copyright © 2011 by Kathleen George
Kathleen George is the author of The Odds, which was nominated last year for the Edgar® for best novel. She is also the editor of the forthcoming collection Pittsburgh Noir. A professor of theatre at the University of Pittsburgh, she and her husband live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Read this book. Jack will break your heart.