Authors: Kathleen George
The Homicide Department is upside down—Richard Christie is in the hospital, Artie Dolan is headed away on vacation, John Potocki’s life is falling apart, and Colleen Greer is so worried about her boss’s health, she can hardly think.
A young boy in Pittsburgh’s North Side neighborhood dies of a suspicious overdose. The Narcotics police are working on tips and they draft Colleen and Potocki to help them. In this same neighborhood, four young kids have been abandoned and are living on their own. The Philips kids, brainy in school, are reluctant to compromise themselves. But they need cash.
Connecting these people and their stories is Nick Banks, just out of prison and working off a debt to an old acquaintance involved in the drug trade. Nick is a charmer, a gentle fellow who’s had a lot of trouble in his life. One day he gives free food to the Philips kids, little guessing how connected their lives are about to become.
Kathleen George’s latest work pushes the edge—a spectacularly original crime novel.
I have many people to thank. Since this book was long in the making, some of these people may not remember me, but I remember them. There was, as always, enormous help from retired Commander Ronald B. Freeman of the Pittsburgh Police Major Crimes Division. Another policeman, an undercover Narcotics detective who must remain nameless because of the nature of his job, patiently answered a million questions about heroin distribution in the Pittsburgh area. To him, many thanks. Janice Gore of Family Service of Western Pennsylvania and Amy Ross of Children, Youth, and Families were enormously encouraging; they see many children who aren’t cared for properly and they engaged with passion about helping me tell the story of the fictional Philips children. Dr. Gary Gruen, an orthopedic trauma surgeon, answered my calls and, with grace and enthusiasm, helped me through the trauma part of this plot. John Bishop and other staff pharmacists at the University of Pittsburgh gave me crucial information about pharmaceuticals, and Vivian Preston gathered for me information about chemotherapy.
Anna Rosenstein, Diana Calderazzo, and Sharon Yam proofed the manuscript at various stages. The University of Pittsburgh supported my efforts and granted me help through the Richard D. and Mary Jane Edwards Endowed Publication Fund. Parts of this book were written at the MacDowell Colony, heaven on earth.
Writers Nancy Martin, Rebecca Drake, Lila Shaara, Heather Terrell, and Kathryn Miller Haines provided, and continue to provide, wonderful friendship and camaraderie.
My husband, Hilary Masters, read this manuscript many times and responded with patience and wisdom. For his support, I am eternally grateful.
MEG HAD BEEN SLEEPING when something woke her, something slight as the scratch of a mouse. She came into the kitchen to find her stepmother standing at the stove, writing a note. It was the middle of the night, and there was only the stove light on. Meg wondered how Alison could write in the dark or why she wanted to. Slowly she took things in: Alison’s shoulder bag was hanging on her shoulder; she was fully dressed; in her left hand under the purse, she dangled car keys. Meg thought, I shouldn’t have said there wasn’t enough money for the pizza. Why did I tell her?
Alison said, “I just wrote you a note. Should have guessed you’d get the vibrations and wake up.”
Meg felt embarrassed because she wore only a thin T-shirt. She reached for the note and crossed her arms over her chest while she read. The pose made her feel even shyer. She didn’t want to cry.
I have made up my mind and I am going for good. Here is what you need to do:
Meg stopped reading. “But you just got back. Susannah said you were going to start work again.”
“I came for some things.”
“Oh.” Meg saw there was luggage piled by the front door. She turned back to the note.
For old times sake give me a couple of days start and then you go to the school authorities and tell them you need foster care
Meg’s heart sank. “Where will you be going?”
“I can’t tell you that. Someone might get it out of you.”
“For how long? Is this about a job?” Meg asked, but she saw by Alison’s face, it wasn’t about a job.
Alison said, “I have to get going. I didn’t want to get into it.”
“But—” She wondered if there was something terrible she didn’t know. “Why go in the middle of the night? Why not start after breakfast?”
“This is best.”
Her stepmother moved toward the suitcases—two big tweedy things plus an ample weekender and a smaller satchel, all of which looked like the kind of luggage rich people carried. And a cardboard box. In the satchel, the round hairbrush was sticking up. Funny. Meg had heard the note-writing, not the packing.
“You might change your mind,” Meg said gently. It had happened before.
“We could wait a bit before doing anything.”
Alison hesitated. “I don’t know. I made up my mind. I’m no good at this. I’m not cut out for it. I never counted on it when I met your father. It was bad enough there were four of you to worry about. I don’t know why I stayed so long.”
Maybe Alison had loved them a little, in spite of herself, Meg thought, even though the initial staying had more to do with their father’s insurance and the house they’d owned—until Alison sold it—than it did with them.
“I wouldn’t wait much past three days, you hear. Get yourselves some foster care. Okay? Just wait a little for my sake.”
“You’ll call?” Meg asked. “Just to—” She didn’t say the rest about being sure before they did anything.
“Best we forget we ever knew each other,” Alison said softly.
Meg sat down on the kitchen chair, hitting harder than she intended. The hard jolt the chair gave her spine seemed the mark of some sort of defeat.
Alison took the note from her, crumpled it, and began to throw it in the trash. Then she paused and put it in her purse. “They’ll ask you questions. Just keep saying you don’t know. You could get me in a whole bunch of trouble, so just say the last you knew I met somebody, I left, went you don’t know where. That’s the simplest. I did well by you guys; I tried, anyway.” Alison fumbled to get her checkbook from her purse. She searched for a pen, finally found one, and wrote a check.
Meg looked at the tan mules her stepmother favored, toeless and with a narrow heel. Alison wore a short brown clingy dress with a little black sweater. She always tried to look like a kid. Their father had wanted to get them a mother, but he ended up getting them a person who was trying to be a teenager.
Alison put the check on the hall table and came back to the kitchen. Suddenly there was something that passed for a hug and kiss. Meg threw her arms around her stepmother and held on tight. There’d been plenty of tension between them. Even she couldn’t explain the hug. It was just that anybody she ever knew, she
loved. “Will you be okay?” Meg asked.
Her question started Alison crying. “Don’t … don’t. I’m counting on you to do the right thing. You understand? Let me be and then get yourselves some parents.”
Meg would have liked to be angry with Alison, but the truth was, she understood her. Alison hadn’t bargained on any of this, four kids and, the last two years, no man in her life. She’d craved romance and got hard-knocks reality. Alison was going to meet a man—that was clear from the high excitement and triumph underneath her apologies.
Alison broke the embrace and picked up the luggage—enough luggage to hold just about everything she owned.
Meg went to reach for one of the tweed bags, but Alison said, “No. My God. No. You can’t do that, too.” Meg stood helpless as her stepmother went to the car once, then twice. Finally Alison put the last piece of luggage and the cardboard box in the trunk. She kissed her fingers in farewell, got behind the wheel, and started up the car, but she didn’t start out right away. The moment stretched to three minutes.
Meg watched, thinking, I’ve done it, I’ve turned her around.
Alison put the old Civic into gear. Still she didn’t move.
The stars were visible, and a half moon washed the closely parked cars in an eerie light. The car motor made its familiar coughing sound. Suddenly, the car and its driver were gone.
The night was chilly. Meg didn’t put on a robe or a sweater. She didn’t go back to bed. She sat still at the kitchen table for a long time, hearing the memory of the car driving away and understanding why Alison went in the night. License plate. Alison wanted to get far enough away that nobody could find her if Meg rebelled and called the police.
Meg thought about how to tell the others in the morning that their stepmother had come back for a few days only to take off again and this time it was for good.
The check sat on the “hall table”—it was really just redwood outdoor furniture, although it was nicely made—nearest the front door used for schoolbooks and mail. Meg was the one who found the table outside Keystone Plumbing, on sale for ten bucks, and she thought it could substitute for one about the same size her stepmother had sold when they downsized from a house in Greenfield to this little saltbox. “Only ten bucks, and sturdy,” she’d come home saying, and Alison told her she sounded like an old woman.
The comment stung. Meg did not want to be an old woman, but she supposed she was. She’d always been the caretaker of the other kids, but in many ways, too, of her mother when she was alive, her stepmother, and even her father. She wanted to be like … not like her classmates, exactly, but like
kids her age. Pretty, laughing, music-playing kids.
. Her schoolbooks were stacked neatly. Her class was giving book reports. She was doing
A Tale of Two Cities
tomorrow, one of her father’s favorite books. She was finished preparing, had been for a week. Math done. Geography done.
Meg got up and looked at the check. Forty bucks. She could make it on that for a long time. Alison had no sense of money—she had told Susannah to call for a pizza today, and all she had to pay for it was five dollars and something. The man had been nice, letting them have it.
She put on the television so low, there were no discernible words, only a murmur. Some kind of community-access talk program. She tried to guess what they were talking about so earnestly. Then a movie in which people raised their eyebrows every time they spoke, but she couldn’t hear the words of that either and couldn’t read the lips and didn’t turn up the sound. After a while she let the light of the television flicker over her like firelight. She had the idea that if she concentrated on the thought hard enough, her stepmother would turn around and come back. She was gone three days the first time she left, almost a week the second time. Meg’s vision was clear, a dream with a sound track. She’d hear the unmistakable sound of the cranky used has-been car, and she would go to the window and welcome Alison back.
At about half past four in the morning, she took her school copy of the Dickens novel from the table and read certain sections all over again, just because she liked them.
She read all night, letting the book take her again.
THE NEXT MORNING, MEG SAT in her English class, floating, looking out the school window, thinking: She was a
caretaker; if only some agency would give her money, she could keep the family going just fine. She had to get after Joel sometimes, but when she tried to imagine being without him, any of them, she couldn’t stand it. She knew exactly how Susannah’s hair curled when it dried, she knew Joel’s moods, she knew when Laurie’s eyes would close in front of the TV. And they wouldn’t be okay without her, they just wouldn’t.