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First Mate Tate

First Mate slipped the money into her secret pocket.

CHAPTER ONE (excerpt)

Daddy dangled Elizabeth out the window. She laughed so hard. She thought it a big joke.

"Everything looks so little on the ground!"

Mom didn't think it was funny.

"Stop it! Stop it"

She stood behind Daddy wringing her hands. Mom was very good at hand wringing.

"Only when you tell me where you hid my money," he said.

Mom didn't have a clue where it was because First Mate had hidden it.

First Mate was the eldest kid in the Tate family, twelve going on forty. She was in Grams's old room fixing the awful coat she wore when she made her Tate Bank collections. That's what she called her loan business. . .Tate Bank. Daddy didn't know about it, or he wouldn't have bothered hanging Elizabeth out the window.

He had the itch again. That's what Grams had always called his gambling crazies.

The other Tate kids, Barry, Ferdy, Christopher, and PJ jumped up and down on Elizabeth's bed, sing-songing at the top of their lungs:

"Drop her, Daddy, drop.
Drop her, Daddy, drop.
Drop her, Daddy.
Drop her, Daddy.
Drop her, Daddy, drop!"

(Except Christopher didn't sing. He stuttered too much.)

PJ sprang high enough to touch the ceiling. He was ten.

"Get First Mate!" Mom hollered at him.

She hollered three more times before PJ bounced off the bed and ran to Grams's old room. Grams was dead, so it was a catch-all.

PJ didn't bother to try the door because First Mate always locked it. Instead, he pounded with both fists.

"First Mate, Mommy wants you."

First Mate glared at the door. When she got mad, her eyes went on fire, and she was so mad that she could have burnt a hole clear through to PJ. She had Daddy's eyes, grey at the moment to match her sweat suit. Everybody said they were beautiful, but she didn't have time to care.

  • She was putting the day's envelopes in order. She had to sort them according to her route, which she changed every week for safety's sake. She carried a lot of money in that old coat.

  • "Why don't you break the door down?" she called to PJ.

  • "Mommy wants you."

  • "You told me already--so get lost!"

  • Mom always wanted First Mate for one thing or another.

  • She put the Ocean Road envelopes at the bottom of the pile. They'd be last. First, she'd work her way toward the cemetery. She hadn't been there since the funeral. Well, that was Grams's fault for dying. She'd promised she wouldn't, at least until the kids got brought up. First Mate put half the envelopes in one pocket and the other half in the other.

  • "Better come out. Mommy wants you. She's having a fit!" PJ roared.

  • "So what else is new?" First Mate called, as she checked her flashlight.

  • She wouldn't be back before dark. That was for sure.

  • PJ stopped pounding.

  • Relieved, First Mate hung the coat in the closet. She loved that coat. It had been Grams's. . .a shaggy memory of her trip to the Arctic. Grams had said she'd get buried in it, but she didn't. Mom didn't care that Grams was probably the first woman to travel the Arctic in a ship that cut through ice.

  • PJ started on the door again.

  • "First Mate, Elizabeth's crying. Daddy won't pull her in."

  • First Mate's heart did a flip.

  • "Why didn't you tell me?"

  • She ran to the door.

  • "You didn't ask," PJ said, as she opened it.

  • First Mate pushed PJ out of the way and raced to Elizabeth's room. The nearer she got the louder the hullabaloo.

  • "Drop her, Daddy, drop.
    Drop her, Daddy, drop.
    Drop her, Daddy.
    Drop her, Daddy.
    Drop her, Daddy, drop."

    First Mate barged in.

    "Get off that bed, you three--and make it. You think Mom has nothing else to do but make Elizabeth's bed?"

    The fact was that the beds got made only on Saturday when First Mate and Mom changed the sheets--but Barry, Christopher, and Ferdy knew better than to argue with their big sister. They tumbled off and grabbed Elizabeth's quilt.

    "She peed the bed again," Barry shouted, but nobody paid attention.

    Daddy leaned out the window. Mom pulled on his arm but not too hard, or he might drop Elizabeth, whom no one could see at the moment. Everyone heard her, though, squealing like a piglet.

    "I don't want to play anymore. I'm cold."

    Elizabeth stared at the high bushes two stories below. In front of them were some naked bushes, and in front them was the grass. She had goose bumps all over.

    "Let me in now, Daddy," she wailed.

    It's a wonder the whole town of Shadow Lawn, New Jersey didn't hear her. However, it was winter, and everybody's windows were shut tightly. It was also morning. Nobody was on the street, yet.

    "Damn! How long has she been out there?" First Mate asked her mother.

    "Where's the grocery money? Where did you hide it?" Mom whispered.

    "I'm cold," Elizabeth cried.

    First Mate pushed past her mother to her father. She looked at the soles of Elizabeth's patent leather shoes and down at her red corduroy slaks. She was dressed up for Valentine's Day.

    "Elizabeth, honey, I'm here," First Mate called.

    "I'm cold," Elizabeth cried.

    "Daddy, the kid's going to get pneumonia."

    "Fly like a butterfly, sing like a bird," Pete Tate called, as he swung Elizabeth back and forth.

    "You want to come in?" First Mate asked her sister.

    "My head hurts," Elizabeth wailed. "It's like a balloon ready to pop. Tell Daddy I don't want toplay anymore."

    "Daddy, her head hurts!"

    "It does not. She's having fun," he grinned.

    A shiver ran through First Mate. Her father's eyes glittered that crazy way. . . like the lights were on, but nobody was home.

    "Please, Pete," Mom whimpered from behind him and First Mate.

    First Mate turned around. Her mother was crying. Gad! Disgusting!

    The boys sat on the newly made bed, four kids with front row seats at the fights. First Mate scowled at them.

    "G'wan downstairs and get your coats on. It's time for the bus. And don't forget your Valentines."

    It was Thursday, February 14, Valentine's Day.

    "What about Elizabeth?" Barry asked.

    "What about her?" First Mate blasted.

    One threatening step toward him and the four boys scurried like squirrels. As soon as they were gone, First Mate told her father: "You drop my sister and you die."

    "Who's going to kill me. . . you?" he replied sarcastically.

    First Mate's stomach was as tight as her fists.

    "No, the state of New Jersey. they'll put a needle in your arm, and I'll watch until every breath seeps from your body. You'll be a corpse, and I'll laugh. . . ."

    Elizabeth's screams reach the desperate pitch.

    "Don't you know? One little mistake and she's gone! Nobody will say you were playing a game. People will call you a murderer!

    "What makes you think I'll drop her?" he asked.

    "What makes you think you won't? . . ."