A policewoman races to find her missing sister, a homeless addict, amid a vicious killing spree in a Philadelphia neighborhood, in a story that alternates between the investigation and memories of their shared childhood. By the award-winning author of Heft.
Liz Moore is the author of the acclaimed novels Heft and The Unseen World. A winner of the 2014&;2015 Rome Prize in Literature, she lives in Philadelphia.
*Starred Review* Mickey Fitzpatrick is a beat cop in Philadelphia's rough Kensington neighborhood, not far from where she grew up in her grandmother's literally and figuratively cold house. In childhood, her saving grace was her younger sister, Kacey, who was friendly in contrast to Mickey's painful shyness and tough as opposed to Mickey's meek. But the distance that developed as they hit adolescence widened into a chasm as Kacey fell deeper into heroin addiction. Mickey is used to not seeing her sister, but as young women, all addicts and sex workers, start being found dead in Kensington, she realizes that her sister's absence may be something more sinister. One of the pleasures of this deeply moving, absolutely page-turning novel is the way Moore (The Unseen World, 2016), in both the present and in flashbacks to Mickey and Kacey's childhood and teen years, slowly peels back layer after layer, revealing the old-boy's network in the Philadelphia police force, the depths of Mickey's loneliness, and the way the city of Philadelphia, particularly Kensington, is woven into this story, for good or ill. Give this to readers who like character-driven crime novels with a strong sense of place. Copyright 2019 Booklist Reviews.
A young Philadelphia policewoman searches for her addicted sister on the streets. The title of Moore's (The Unseen World, 2016, etc.) fourth novel refers to "a long bright river of departed souls," the souls of people dead from opioid overdoses in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Kensington. The book opens with a long paragraph that's just a list of names, most of whom don't have a role in the plot, but the last two entries are key: "Our mother. Our father." As the novel opens, narrator Mickey Fitzpatrick—a bright but emotionally damaged single mom—is responding with her partner to a call. A dead girl has turned up in an abandoned train yard frequented by junkies. Mickey is terrified that it will be her estranged sister, Kacey, whom she hasn't seen in a while. The two were raised by their grandmother, a cold, bitter woman who never recovered from the overdose death of the girls' mother. Mickey herself is awkward and tense in all social situations; when she talks about her childhood she mentions watching the other kids from the window, trying to memorize their mannerisms so she could "steal them and use them [her]self." She is close with no one except her 4-year-old son, Thomas, whom she barely sees because she works so much, leaving him with an unenthusiastic babysitter. Opioid abuse per se is not the focus of the action—the book centers on the search for Kacey. Obsessed with the possibility that her sister will end up dead before she can find her, Mickey breaches protocol and makes a series of impulsive decisions that get her in trouble. The pace is frustratingly slow for most of the book, then picks up with a flurry of revelations and developments toward the end, bringing characters onstage we don't have enough time to get to know. The narrator of this atmospheric crime novel has every reason to be difficult and guarded, but the reader may find her no easier to bond with than the other characters do. With its flat, staccato tone and mournful mood, it's almost as if the book itself were suffering from depression. Copyright Kirkus 2019 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
There's a body on the Gurney Street tracks. Female, age unclear, probable overdose, says the dispatcher.
Kacey, I think. This is a twitch, a reflex, something sharp and subconscious that lives inside me and sends the same message racing to the same base part of my brain every time a female is reported. Then the more rational part of me comes plodding along, lethargic, uninspired, a dutiful dull soldier here to remind me about odds and statistics: nine hundred overdose victims in Kensington last year. Not one of them Kacey. Furthermore, this sentry reproves me, you seem to have forgotten the importance of being a professional. Straighten your shoulders. Smile a little. Keep your face relaxed, your eyebrows unfurrowed, your chin untucked. Do your job.
All day, I've been having Lafferty respond to calls for us for further practice. Now, I nod to him, and he clears his throat and wipes his mouth. Nervous.
-2613, he says.
Our vehicle number. Correct.
Dispatch continues. The RP is anonymous. The call came in from a payphone, one of several that still line Kensington Avenue and, as far as I know, the only one of those that still works.
Lafferty looks at me. I look at him. I gesture to him. More. Ask for more.
-Got it, says Lafferty into his radio. Over.
Incorrect. I raise mine to my mouth. I speak clearly.
-Any further information on location? I say.
After I end the call, I give Lafferty a few pointers, reminding him not to be afraid to speak plainly to Dispatch-many rookie officers have the habit of speaking in a kind of stilted, masculine manner they have most likely picked up from films or television-and reminding him, too, to extract from Dispatch as many details as he can.
But before I've finished speaking, Lafferty says, again, Got it.
I look at him. Excellent, I say. I'm glad.
I've only known him an hour, but I'm getting a sense for him. He likes to talk-already I know more about him than he'll ever know about me-and he's a pretender. An aspirant. In other words, a phony. Someone so terrified of being called poor, or weak, or stupid, that he won't even admit to what deficits he does have in those regards. I, on the other hand, am well aware that I'm poor. More so than ever now that Simon's checks have stopped coming. Am I weak? Probably in some ways: stubborn, maybe, obstinate, mulish, reluctant to accept help even when it would serve me to. Physically afraid, too: not the first officer to throw herself in front of a bullet for a friend, not the first officer to throw herself into traffic in the pursuit of some vanishing perpetrator. Poor: yes. Weak: yes. Stupid: no. I'm not stupid.
I was late to roll call this morning. Again. I am ashamed to admit it was the third time in a month, and I despise being late. A good police officer is punctual if she is nothing else. When I walked into the common area-a drab, bright space, devoid of furniture, adorned only by peeling policy posters on the wall-Sergeant Ahearn was waiting for me, arms crossed.
-Fitzpatrick, he said. Welcome to the party. You're with Lafferty today in 2613.
-Who's Lafferty, I said, before I thought better of it. I really didn't intend to be funny. Szebowski, in the corner, laughed aloud once.
Ahearn said, That's Lafferty. Pointing.
There he was, Eddie Lafferty, second day in the district. He was busying himself across the room, looking at his blank activity log. He glanced at me quickly and apprehensively. Then he bent down, as if noticing something on his shoes, which were freshly polished, somehow glistening. He pursed his lips. Whistled lowly. At the time, I almost felt sorry for him.
Then he got into the passenger's seat.
Facts I have learned about Eddie Lafferty in the first hour of our acquaintance: He is forty-three, which makes him eleven years my senior. A late entrant into the PPD. He worked construction until last year, when he took the test. (My back, says Eddie Lafferty. It still bothers me sometimes. DonÕt tell anyone.) HeÕs just rolled off his field training. He has three ex-wives and three almost-grown children. He has a home in the Poconos. He lifts. (IÕm a gym rat, says Eddie Lafferty.) He has GERD. Occasionally, he suffers from constipation. He grew up in South Philadelphia and now lives in Mayfair. He splits Eagles season tickets with six friends. His most recent ex-wife was in her twenties. (Maybe that was the problem, says Lafferty, her being immature.) He golfs. He has two rescued pit mixes named Jimbo and Jennie. He played baseball in high school. One of his teammates then was, in fact, our platoonÕs sergeant, Kevin Ahearn, and it was Sergeant Ahearn who suggested he consider police work. (Something about this makes sense to me.)
Facts Eddie Lafferty has learned about me in the first hour of our acquaintance: I like pistachio ice cream.
All morning, during Eddie LaffertyÕs very infrequent pauses, I have tried my best to interject only the basics of what he needs to know about the neighborhood.
Kensington is one of the newer neighborhoods in what is, by American standards, the very old city of Philadelphia. It was established in the 1730s by the Englishman Anthony Palmer, who acquired a small tract of nondescript land and named it after a regal neighborhood-one that was, at the time, the preferred residence of the British monarchy. (Perhaps Palmer, too, was a phony. Or, more kindly, an optimist.) The eastern edge of present-day Kensington is a mile from the Delaware River, but in its earliest days it bordered the river directly. Accordingly, its earliest industries were shipbuilding and fishing, but by the middle of the nineteenth century its long tenure as a manufacturing hub was beginning. At its peak it boasted producers of iron, steel, textiles, and- perhaps fittingly-pharmaceuticals. But when, a century later, the factories in this country died in great numbers, Kensington, too, began a slow and then a rapid economic decline. Many residents moved farther into or out of the city, seeking other work; others stayed, persuaded by allegiance or delusion that a change would come. Today, Kensington comprises in nearly equal parts the Irish-Americans who moved here in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and a newer population of families of Puerto Rican and other Latino descent-along with groups who represent successively smaller slivers of Kensington's demographic pie: African-American, East Asian, Caribbean.
Present-day Kensington is shot through by two main arteries: Front Street, which runs north up the eastern edge of the city, and Kensington Ave-usually just called the Ave, an alternately friendly or disdainful appellation, depending on who's saying it-which begins at Front and veers northeast. The Market-Frankford elevated train-or, more commonly, the El, since a city called Philly can't let any of its infrastructure go unabbreviated-runs directly over both Front and Kensington, which means both roads spend the majority of the day in the shadows. Large steel beams support the train line, blue legs spaced thirty feet apart, which gives the whole apparatus the look of a giant and menacing caterpillar hovering over the neighborhood. Most of the transactions (narcotic, sexual) that happen in Kensington begin on one of these two roads and end on one of the many smaller streets that cross them, or more often in one of the abandoned houses or empty lots that populate the neighborhood's side streets and alleys. The businesses that can be found along the main streets are nail salons, takeout places, mobile phone stores, convenience stores, dollar stores, appliance stores, pawnshops, soup kitchens, other charitable organizations, and bars. About a third of the storefronts are shuttered.
And yet-like the condos that are sprouting, to our left now, from an empty lot that has lain fallow since a wrecking ball took out the factory it used to house-the neighborhood is rising. New bars and businesses are cropping up on the periphery, toward Fishtown, where I grew up. New young faces are populating those businesses: earnest, rich, naive, ripe for the picking. So the mayor is getting concerned with appearances. More troops, the mayor says. More troops, more troops, more troops.
ItÕs raining hard today, and this forces me to drive more slowly than I normally would when responding to a call. I name the businesses we pass, name their proprietors. I describe recent crimes I think Lafferty should know about (each time, Lafferty whistles, shakes his head). I list allies. Outside our windows: the usual mix of people seeking a fix and people in the aftermath of one. Half of the people on the sidewalks are melting slowly toward the earth, their legs unable to support them. The Kensington lean, say people who make jokes about that kind of thing. I never do.
Because of the weather, some of the women we pass have umbrellas. They wear winter hats and puffy jackets, jeans, dirty sneakers. They range in age from teenagers to the elderly. The large majority are Caucasian, though addiction doesn't discriminate, and all races and creeds can be found here. The women wear no makeup, or maybe a hard black ring of liner around their eyes. The women working the Ave don't wear anything that shows they're working, but everyone knows: it's the look that does it, a long hard gaze at the driver of every passing car, every passing man. I know most of these women, and most of them know me.
-There's Jamie, I say to Lafferty as we pass her. There's Amanda. There's Rose.
I consider it part of his training to know these women.
Down the block, at Kensington and Cambria, I see Paula Mulroney. She's on crutches today, hovering miserably on one foot, getting rained on because she can't balance an umbrella too. Her denim jacket has turned a dark upsetting blue. I wish she'd go inside.
I glance around quickly, checking for Kacey. This is the corner on which she and Paula can usually be found. Occasionally they'll get into a fight or have a falling-out, and one or the other of them will go stand someplace else for a while, but a week later I'll see them there, reunited, their arms slung about one another cheerfully, Kacey with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, Paula with a water or a juice or a beer in a paper bag.
Today, I don't see Kacey anyplace. It occurs to me, in fact, that I have not seen her in quite some time.
Paula spots our car as we drive toward her and she squints in our direction, seeing who's inside. I lift two fingers off the steering wheel: a wave. Paula looks at me, and then at Lafferty, and then turns her face slightly upward, toward the sky.
-That's Paula, I say to Lafferty.
I think about saying more. I went to school with her, I could say. She's a friend of the family. She's my sister's friend.
But already, Lafferty has moved on to another subject: this time it is the heartburn that has plagued him for the better part of a year.
I can think of no response.
-Are you always this quiet? he says suddenly. It's the first question he's asked me since determining my ice cream preferences.
-Just tired, I say.
-Have you had a lot of partners before me? says Lafferty, and then he laughs, as if he's made a joke.
-That sounded wrong, he says. Sorry.
For just long enough, I say nothing.
Then I say, Only one.
-How long did you work together?
-What happened to him? says Lafferty.
-He hurt his knee last spring, I say. He's out on medical leave for a while.
-How'd he hurt it? asks Lafferty.
I don't know that it's any of his business. Nevertheless, I say, At work.
If Truman wants everyone to know the full story, Truman can tell it.
-Have any kids? Have a husband? he asks.
I wish he'd go back to talking about himself.
-One child, I say. No husband.
-Oh yeah? How old?
-Four years old. Almost five.
-Good age, says Lafferty. I miss when mine were that age.
When I pull up to the entry point to the tracks that Dispatch indicated-a man-made opening in a fence, something someone kicked out years ago thatÕs never been repaired-I see weÕve beaten the medical unit to the scene.
I look at Lafferty, assessing him. Unexpectedly, I feel a twinge of sympathy for him, for what we are about to see. His field training was in the 23rd District, which is next to ours, but much lower in crime. Besides, he would mostly have been doing foot patrol, crowd control, that sort of thing. I'm not sure if he's ever responded to this type of call before. There are only so many ways you can ask someone how many dead people they've seen in their life, so in the end I decide to keep things vague.
-Have you ever done this before? I ask him.
He shakes his head. He says, Nope.
-Well, here we go, I say, brightly.
I'm not certain what else I can say. There is no way to prepare a person sufficiently.
Thirteen years ago, when I first started, it happened a few times a year: we'd get a report that someone had fatally overdosed, had been deceased so long that medical intervention was unnecessary. More common were calls about overdoses in progress, and typically those individuals could be revived. These days, it happens frequently. This year alone the city is on track for 1,200, and the vast majority of those are in our district. Most are relatively recent ODs. Others are bodies that have already started to decay. Sometimes they're inexpertly hidden by friends or lovers who witnessed the death but don't want to jump through the hoops of reporting it, don't want to answer to anyone about how it happened. More often they're just out in the open, having nodded off forever in a secluded place. Sometimes their family finds them first. Sometimes their children. Sometimes, we do: out on patrol we simply see them there, sprawled out or slumped over, and when we check their vital signs they have no pulse. They're cold to the touch. Even in summer.
From the opening in the fence, Lafferty and I walk downhill into a little gulch. IÕve entered this way dozens or maybe hundreds of times in my years on the force. ItÕs part of our patrol, in theory, this overgrown area. We find someone or something every time we go in. When I was partnered with Truman, he was always the one to go in first. He was senior. Today, I go in first, ducking my head uselessly, as if this will somehow keep me drier. But the rain isnÕt letting up. The splattering sound it makes on my hat is so loud that I can barely hear myself speak. My shoes slip in the mud.