The Nanny Murders

ONE

SMALL FOOTPRINTS LED DOWN THE STEPS TO THE SIDEWALK where Molly played in the snow.

I sat on the front porch, absorbing a stray beam of late afternoon sun while my almost six-year-old daughter delighted in two inches of what would soon become puddles of sodden gray slush. I was tired from a daylong monthly staff meeting and craved some peace. A few houses down, a workman started up his chain saw.

our neighborhood, Queen Village, was caught in an endless process of renovation and gentrification. We were sandwiched between South Philadelphia with its traditional ethnic households and Society Hill with its fancy colonial landmarks. Dowdy old row houses sagged beside gleaming restorations. The neighborhood was home to both rich and poor, the upwardly mobile and the newly disenfranchised. The area was struggling for respectability, but despite the disruption of continuous construction, it was unclear whether it would get there.

Watching Molly play beside parked cars and grimy gutters, I imagined living in some shiny suburb on the Main Line— Gladwyne, maybe, or Rosemont or Bryn Mawr. Someplace where trees, not trash, lined the streets; where kids played on grass, not asphalt.

I often thought of moving. But I still hadn’t left. Despite my complaints, I thrived on the city’s energy, its sounds and faces, its moving parts. I wasn’t sure how long I’d hold out, but I’d worked hard to make us a home here, and so far I’d refused to give it up.

“Mom,” Molly called, “what if my tooth comes out and falls in the snow?”

“It’s not ready to come out yet.”

“Are you sure?”

“Positive.”

“Because we’d never find it. Everything’s white.”

“It won’t come out today.”

She was quiet again, working the snow.

“Mom,” she called moments later, “it’s not enough. I need more.”

She knelt near the curb, gathering handfuls of snow in her mittens, packing them into a lump.

I came down the steps and stooped beside her. “What’s the problem?”

“I need more snow.” She stared hopelessly at the tiny mound.

I reached into my pockets and found an old phone bill. “Try this.” I scraped snow with the envelope, making it a paper snowplow.

“okay.” She grabbed the envelope and plowed away. I wandered back up to the wrought-iron chair on the porch, leaned my head back against the wall, and closed my eyes.

“Mom, guess what I’m making?”

“What?”

“Guess.”

She wasn’t going to let me rest. “A snowman?”

“Nope.”

“I give up.”

“No, guess again.”

She won’t always be five years old, I told myself. You can rest when she’s in college. “Hmm. A sneaker.”

“Uh-uh.”

“The letter Q?”

“No.”

“W?”

“Nope. Don’t be silly. It’s not any letter.”

“Then it must be a washing machine.”

“Stop being silly, Mom.”

I opened my eyes. Dozing wasn’t going to happen. Molly kept plowing, patting, building. “Well?”

“Give me time. I’m thinking.” I stretched the pause, savoring it. Across the street, the blinds went up in Victor’s second-floor window. I watched, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. Victor was phobic. To my knowledge, he hadn’t left his house in years. I didn’t know why, although local lore was rife with explanations. one rumor held that Victor’s mother had died in the house and he hadn’t left since; another that a fortune-teller had warned him he’d meet a violent end next time he stepped onto the street. Despite the stories, I suspected that Victor’s real problems were locked inside the house with him, in his own head. Apparently, he had money to live on; groceries, laundry, pizza, and parcels arrived at his door regularly. once in a while, Molly and I left him baskets of muffins or cookies; the food disappeared, but we rarely saw Victor. Now, pale hands taped a cardboard snowman to the