Change was coming to Allegheny West, if that was indeed its name. Chelsea leaned back on the muted brown lawn chair her father kept on his porch and shrugged into her jacket. The loiterers were thinning out; the 22nd’s crackdown clearly doing its thing. That old caved-in Victorian on the corner was gone now. Nothing was left of it but a plot of grass. The blacktop was ripped up in preparation for a fresh repaving and it looked like the sidewalk had its turn a month or two ago. The entire stretch of it was bleached new and smooth with nothing but the odd tag blemishing its surface. Which was fine, she told herself, good even. Clean sidewalks, a few less potholes stunting out the suspension of her car. All welcome upgrades.
It was strange, she thought, seeing the sidewalk repaved after all these years. She had always seen sidewalks as a kind of fingerprint to a neighborhood. Even now, it was still one of the first things she took note of during an investigation. Each line was like layer of soil on a mountain. An age of time, cracked through by a punk kid’s fingertip or car accident or an overgrown weed pushing its way above ground. She knew the bumps and short inclines of 27th and Cambria by heart.
There for example. Three squares to the right of the house and dead center. That was where her cousin Trisha twisted her ankle in a spectacular collapse that left her friends rolling. Trisha always was too quick to jump at any passing distraction. In this case it was the free lunch trucks that used to arrive every day at 11:15 hawking turkey sandwiches, syrupy peach cups and, if they were lucky, a Flintstones push-pop ready to stain their mouths neon orange. Trisha flailed herself down the street, hard and hooting loud like it was her duty, her densely barretted hair, a pink jangling cloud around her head. Five steps in and she was airborne, her yelling suddenly silenced as she landed just ahead of their small crowd of grade school friends. Chelsea remembered the scolding she gave Trisha for “wilding” like that. Like the world was a playground she owned. Chelsea had often been on the receiving end of that kind of scolding:
“Why you touching things?”
“Where you think you going? Get over here.”
“Girl, you better act like you know.”
It was something that she had always resented, coming from the aunties and elder stoop sitters of 27th street. And yet there she was, with that same tone and logic instinctual to her somehow, as if the elder’s spirits were waving through her as her cousin collapsed into a ball on the concrete, her pink jelly flip-flop dangling off her foot like a dead fish.
Just in front of the porch, feet from where Chelsea sat, was where the family tree had once stood. They didn’t own it, but the wish for a tree had been in her parents’ prayers since they first searched for a home. It was thick and scaly, a Quercus bicolor, Arturo once told her, with beefy leaves that spread wide over the street. The tree and its neighbors had been planted long before Chelsea was born. Their small family came to call it Tappahanna Two, after her long dead great grandmother’s home town. Like most of 27th street, the place where Tappahanna once stood had degraded into an antique white slab.
Around the corner, just in front of Mr. Grant’s terra-cotta lined apartment was where she first saw blood. She didn’t know the person, though she imagined afterwards that she may have heard the shot, a bit distantly, the previous night. It was a familiar sound, even though seeing the result of it so close seemed unreal. The blood stained deeply and stayed there for weeks. The family didn’t really talk about that day. It took a long time for that fact to strike her as strange.
It was surprisingly warm for October. Chelsea squinted into the harsh sun. The block was quiet, save for a few stragglers. A shuffling lady, old Ms. Martha she realized after a second, pushed a holdup cart full of dog kibble back home. A gang of bright colored teen girls strutted down the block in a pack past that, what was that car? An Audi? Don’t see many of those around. She glanced at her phone and then at the door. And, what was taking her father so long?
“Pop?” she yelled from her seat. “Are you coming or what?”
“I got ya!”
The thin metal storm door in front of the house fluttered on its hinges with an ugly scrape. An older man in a fresh purple track suit and basketball sneakers stepped through, stooping his head a bit to accommodate the small doorway and his modest grey ‘fro. He straddled a lounge chair beside Chelsea in a lanky swoop and gripped the front of it with both hands, grinning through gritted teeth. Chelsea side-eyed him quizzically.
“Good lord dad. We are going for a walk, not qualifying for the ironman here,” she said.
He arched his back and let his head hang fixed on the peeling white paint above. “Ha. Maybe you’re not. Me, I’m three good sit-ups away from being a contenda!”
His gut jiggled with each syllable.
“Yah Yah, pop. Just try not to die this time around ok? I know it’s been a while since we last went out.”
“Shoot, been a while for you! I went up by Valley Green just last week. See your problem baby girl,” he said, bending towards her, “is you too quick to think everyone else lives inside of your head.”
Their faces were an inch from touching and she could smell a bit of the onion and liverwurst sandwich he had clearly scarfed down a little while ago. She wrinkled her nose at him.
“No time for mouthwash?” she said, grabbing at his shoulder and pushing him back playfully.
“Also, you know you know better than to be eating that high sodium trash. Clearly I need to talk to that nurse of yours.”
“Now, don’t blame Ingram, Chel. She’s taking care just fine. At least give an old man a little treat, with noise and traffic from all the construction going on these days around there. What’s going up there again?”
“Apartments, A Target, Planet Fitness, GameStop, and some independent cafe.”
He waved her off and walked towards the porch railing and leaned out over the empty street. “You can have your four dollar coffees, thank you much. And your room full of who-knows who doing who-knows what. I’m good with my tea in my home. Be nice to not have to go all the way up on Delaware Ave to get a bulk roll of paper towels though.”
“Target is a little classier than that, Dad.” Chelsea said, saddled up close beside him. “Don’t give up your Sam’s Club membership yet.”
The old man shook his head. “That’s the trouble with these new places. Nothing practical. Makes you wonder who they building them for?”
They stood for a minute, taking in the block and letting the question dissipate into the humid afternoon. A sleek blue mid-aughts Honda rolled by slow and deliberately, convulsing with bass while the driver sat stone still and eyes forward. Across the street, a teenage girl with a swoop of purple ‘fro and kenti-patterned tights poked at her phone frantically, her face playing out the beats of some self-consciously tense conversation. And that Audi, still there. Older but meticulously kept. A figure, head tilted down, writing furiously. Was that a white guy in there? Maybe an Uber driver, Chelsea thought.
“Yeah dad. Makes you wonder. You about ready?”
“Yup. Are we taking the trunk?”
“No. I’ll drive.”
* * *
It had been two months since Chelsea had stopped by to see her Dad. She tried to stay in better touch, but the cheesesteak murders kept her busy. Between news reporters and that damn blogger always sniffing around, she hardly had a moment’s peace. It was amazing how the story had swept across the city so quickly. She had been with the PPD for six years now, scraping through murders, rapes, too many domestic disputes to count. Horrific stuff occasionally—like the deacon’s kid they found dumped just behind the Shop-Rite off of Cecil B. Moore. How old was that girl? Eighteen? Chelsea had spent weeks combing every store-front church, factory squat, and drug corner she could find hoping to find a bit of detail into who left her there. In the end, no leads and certainly no coverage. It took cheesesteaks and a dead lacrosse player to make the news.
“Something on your mind, officer?”
They had stopped at a red light just off the corner of Henry Ave and 30th. Her Mustang rumbled under them like an expensive massage chair.
“Any leads on the big hoagie mystery? Crack some more heads.”
Chelsea sighed. “That’s not an everyday thing, Dad. This kid…you have to understand.”
“Listen, I don’t know why you feel you need to explain anything to me. You think I don’t know these kids are involved in murdering and stealing. You don’t have to be a cop to know that.”
“Maybe, but he was not just some kid, Dad. He was a suspect is what I’m saying. Simple as that. Had a tie to the steak cart owner. Prior convictions.”
“Surprised he was even smart enough to be involved in a poisoning.”
She took a careful curve onto Henry Ave and then another quick look in her rear view. Still there.
“There was a lead last week. Toxicology traced the poison with a stash recently gone missing at…” She paused as the road dipped and took a sharp right, taking it a little faster than usual. A sharp inhale came from her father but he said nothing. The Audi peeked from behind the crest of the hill a second afterwards, clear now, as the urban ruin gave way to woods.
“…USciences. It’s specific too. Reacts with soy. Just the thing for vegetarians.”
There was nowhere to turn off, besides the long private driveways and pastures. Roxborough was miles ahead and the gravel trails of the park where she planned on stopping may scare off the tail. The last thing Chelsea wanted was to let this asshole get away.
“Sounds promising! So who stole it?”
Chelsea slowed a bit, still eyeing behind her, as the trees turned into the long pastures of Saul Agricultural College. Their parking lot was not too far ahead.
“Not yet.” A truck drove past her and then a big SUV, honking as it swerved into the oncoming lane.
“We’ve questioned a few of the students.” She continued, slowing to a dead stop in front of the school’s parking lot. Her hand reached under her dashboard while her head remained fixed.
“Most have alibis.”
Car after car passed until only the Audi remained—the confused face of the rider now visible. He numbly honked but did not move. He curled toward the opposite lane.
The Audi pushed wildly into reverse, then thought better and scrambled to shift back in gear. This was not a professional job, Chelsea thought, as she swerved into place, bumper to bumper. Chelsea pulled out her badge with a smile, tapping it against the window at the driver ahead. The driver was a slight man, a bit pale, a loose fitting trench around his shoulders and wire rim glasses on his face. For a moment, the driver and Chelsea locked eyes. There was no anger in his face, just a dull bemusement. She mouthed, Get out. Now.
“Chel, what exactly is going on here?” Her father exclaimed, gripping the door and arm rest. The Audi dropped into reverse with a loud crunch and took off back towards the city.
“Not exactly sure Dad, but I’m thinking you should hold on.”