A client named Ruthie -- who seems to know Tess's father a little too well -- asks the newspaperwoman-turned-p.i. to investigate a year-old "Jane Doe" murder and its grim aftermath. Ruthie's low-life brother, Henry, confessed to killing a teenager runaway over a bottle of glue -- and, a month into his prison term, he met the same fate as his victim. Following a precious few tantalizing clues, Tess sets off on a path that is leading her from Baltimore's exclusive Inner Harbor to the city's seediest neighborhoods.
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July 31, 2000
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Excerpt from The Sugar House by Laura Lippman
Sour beef day dawned clear and mild in Baltimore.
Other cities have their spaghetti dinners and potluck at the local parish, bull roasts and barbecues, bake sales and fish fries. Baltimore had all those things, too, and more. But in the waning, decadent days of autumn, there came a time when sour beef was the only thing to eat, and Locust Point was the only place to eat it.
"I'm going to ask for an extra dumpling," Tess told her boyfriend, Crow, as his Volvo edged forward through the neighborhood's narrow streets. The unseasonably warm day had sharpened her appetite, but then a cold one would have done the same thing. Just about everything goosed Tess Monaghan's appetite. Good weather, bad weather. Good news, bad news. Love affairs, breakups. Peace, war. Day and night. She had eaten when she was depressed; happy now, she ate more. Then she worked out, so she could eat again.
But the primary reason she ate was because she was hungry, a feeling she never took for granted.
"You deserve an extra dumpling," Crow said. "You deserve whatever your heart desires. What do you want for Christmas, anyway?"
"Nothing, I keep telling you, absolutely nothing. I have everything I want." She squeezed his knee. "Although if I could have anything, it would be one of those neon signs you see at beauty supply stores, the ones that say 'Human Hair.'"
Crow started to slide the car into a mirage of a space, only to realize the gap was really an alleyway. He sighed philosophically. "Locust Point feels like it's at the end of the world."
"Just the end of Baltimore."
"Isn't that the same thing?" He was teasing her, in a way that only he could. There was no bitter under Crow's sweet, no meaness lurking in his narrow face. When they had first known each other, that almost-pretty face had been lost under a head full of purple dreads. Shorn now, and back to his natural black, Crow was a guileless little beacon, beaming his feelings out into the world. She liked that in a man.
Unless the man was her father, standing on the church steps, frowning at his watch. Her Uncle Spike was next to him, chewing placidly on a cigar. Uncle Spike didn't take time so seriously.
"Great, we're late, and we'll never find a parking space this close. Look, even the fire truck is illegally parked."
"Just for carry-out," said Crow, who couldn't shake his bad habit of thinking the best of everyone. "See, there the firefighters are now, with a stack of plastic containers. What does sour beef taste like, anyway?"
"Like sauerbraten, I guess. Not that I've ever had sauerbraten."
"I thought sour beef was sauerbraten."
"Yes, but -- well, Baltimore, Crow." Funny how much could be explained with just those four words. Yes, but, well, Baltimore. "If we don't get in soon, there'll be a line. The dinner's late this year, because of a fire in the kitchen. Usually it's before Thanksgiving."
"Why don't I let you out here, and then come in when I find a place to park? Just save me a seat -- and make sure it's next to you."