Laura Lippman

The Sugar House

Book 5 in the Tess Monaghan mystery series, 2000

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


HENRY 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.”


“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.


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.


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

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