Chapter 4


    Sophie Balzano sat at one end of the long couch, looking even smaller than usual.

    Jessica stepped into the outer office, talked to the secretary, then entered the main office, where she chatted with one of Sophie's Sunday- school teachers. Jessica soon returned, sat next to her daughter. Sophie did not take her stare off her own shoes.

    'Want to tell me what happened?' Jessica asked.

    Sophie shrugged, looked out the window. Her hair was long, pulled back into a cat's-eye barrette. At seven, she was a little smaller than her friends, but she was fast and smart. Jessica was five-eight in her stocking feet, and had grown to that height somewhere during the summer between sixth and seventh grade. She wondered if the same would happen for her daughter.

    'Honey? You have to tell Mommy what happened. We'll make it better, but I have to know what happened. Your teacher said you were in a fight. Is that true?'

    Sophie nodded.

    'Are you okay?'

    Sophie nodded again, although this time a little more slowly. 'I'm all right.'

    'We'll talk in the car?'


    As they walked out of the school, Jessica saw some of the other kids whispering to each other. Even in this day and age, it seemed, a playground fight still generated gossip.

    They left the school grounds, headed down Academy Road. When they made the turn onto Grant Avenue and the traffic halted for some construction works, Jessica asked, 'Can you tell me what the fight was about?'

    'It was about Brendan.'

    'Brendan Hurley?'


    Brendan Hurley was a boy in Sophie's class. Thin and quiet and bespectacled, Brendan was bully-bait if Jessica had ever seen it. Beyond that, Jessica didn't know a lot about him. Except that on the previous Valentine's Day Brendan had given Sophie a card. A big glittery card.

    'What about Brendan?' Jessica asked.

    'I don't know,' she said. 'I think he might be ...'

    Traffic began to move. They pulled off the boulevard, onto Torresdale Avenue.

    'What, sweetie? You think Brendan might be what?'

    Sophie looked out the window, then at her mother. 'I think he might be G-A-E.'

    Oh boy, Jessica thought. She had been prepared for a lot of things. The talk about sharing, the talk about race and class, the talk about money, even the talk about religion. Jessica was woefully unprepared for the talk about gender identity. The fact that Sophie spelled the word out instead of saying it - indicating that, to Sophie, and her classmates, the word belonged in that special classification of profanities not to be uttered - spoke volumes. 'I see,' was all that Jessica could come up with at that moment. She decided not to correct her daughter's spelling at this time. 'What makes you say that?'

    Sophie straightened her skirt. This was clearly difficult for her. 'He kind of runs like a girl,' she said. 'And throws like a girl.'


    'But so do I, right?'

    'Yes, you do.'

    'So it's not a bad thing.'

    'No, it's not a bad thing at all.'

    They pulled into their driveway, cut the engine. Jessica soon realized that she had no idea how much Sophie knew about sexual orientation. Even thinking about the words 'sexual orientation' in connection with her little girl freaked her completely out.

    'So, what happened?' Jessica asked.

    'Well, this girl was saying mean things about Brendan.'

    'Who is this girl?'

    'Monica,' Sophie said. 'Monica Quagliata.'

    'Is she in your grade?'

    'No,' Sophie said. 'She's in third. She's pretty big.' Consciously or subconsciously, Sophie balled her fists.

    'What did you say to her?'

    'I told her to stop saying those things. Then she pushed me and called me a skank.'

    That bitch, Jessica thought. She secretly hoped that Sophie had cleaned the little shit's clock. 'What did you do then?'

    'I pushed her back. She fell down. Everyone laughed.'

    'Did Brendan laugh?'

    'No,' Sophie said. 'Brendan is afraid of Monica Quagliata. Everyone's afraid of Monica Quagliata.'

    'But not you.'

    Sophie glanced out the window. It had begun to rain. She traced her finger on the misting glass, then looked back at her mother. 'No,' she said. 'Not me.'

    Yes, Jessica thought. My tough little girl. 'I want you to listen, okay, honey?'

    Sophie sat up straight. 'Is this going to be one of our talks?'

    Jessica almost laughed. She checked herself at the last second. 'Yes. I guess it is.'


    'I want you to remember that fighting is always the last resort, okay? If you have to defend yourself, it's all right. Every single time. But sometimes we need to take care of people who can't take care of themselves. Do you understand what I mean?'

    Sophie nodded, but looked confused. 'What about you, Mom? You used to fight all the time.'

    Ah, crap, Jessica thought. Logic from a seven-year-old.

    After Sophie was born, Jessica had discovered boxing as an exercise and weight-loss regimen. For some reason she took to it, even going so far as to take a few amateur bouts before letting her great uncle Vittorio talk her into turning pro. Although those days were probably behind her - unless there was a Senior Tour for female boxers closing in on thirty-five - she had begun to visit Joe Hand's Gym in anticipation of a series of exhibition bouts planned to raise money for the Police Athletic League.

    None of that training helped her at this moment, however, a moment when she was faced with explaining the difference between fighting and boxing.

    Then Jessica saw a shadow in her side mirror.

    Vincent was walking up the drive, carrying a pizza from Santucci's. With his caramel eyes, long lashes and muscular physique, he still made Jessica's heart flutter, at least on those days when she didn't want to kill him. Sometimes he dressed in suits and ties, cleanshaven, his dark hair swept back. Other days he was scruffy. Today was a scruffy day. Jessica was, and always had been, a pushover for scruff. She had to admit it. Detective Vincent Balzano looked pretty damned good for a married man.

    'Sweetie?' Jessica asked.

    'Yeah, mom?'

    'That thing we were talking about? About fighting versus boxing?'

    'What about it?'

    Jessica reached over, patted her daughter's hand. 'Ask your father.'


    They had lived in the Lexington Park section of Northeast Philadelphia for more than five years, just a few blocks from Roosevelt Boulevard. On a good day it would take Jessica forty-five minutes to get to the Roundhouse. On a bad day - most days - even longer. But all that was about to change.

    She and Vincent had just closed on a vacant trinity in South Philly, a three-story row house belonging to old friends, which was how many houses in the neighborhood changed hands. Rare was the property that made it to the classifieds.

    They would be living in the shadow of their new church, Sacred Heart of Jesus, where Sophie would be starting school. New friends, new teachers. Jessica wondered what the effect on her little girl was going to be.

    Jessica's father, Peter Giovanni, one of the most decorated cops in PPD history, still lived in the South Philadelphia house in which Jessica had grown up - at Sixth and Catharine. He was still vibrant and active, very much involved in the community, but he was getting on in years, and the trip for him to see his only granddaughter would eventually become a burden. For this, and for so many other reasons, they were moving back to South Philly.

    With her daughter fast asleep, and her husband ensconced in the basement with his brothers, Jessica stood at the top of the narrow stairs to the attic.

    It seemed as if her entire life was in these boxes, these cramped and angled rooms. Photographs, keepsakes, awards, birth and death certificates, diplomas.

    She picked up one of the boxes, a white Strawbridge's gift box with a piece of green yarn around it. It was the yarn with which her mother used to tie her hair in autumn, after the summer sun had made her brunette hair turn auburn.

    Jessica slid off the yarn, opened the box: a faux-pearl mirror compact, a small leather change purse, a stack of Polaroids. Jessica felt the familiar pangs of pain and grief and loss, even though it had been more than twenty-five years since her mother had died. She slipped the yarn back around the box, put it by the stairs, gave the room one last survey.

    She had been a cop for a long time, had seen just about everything. There wasn't too much that unnerved her.

    This did.

    They were moving back to the city.

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