Poison Girls

Poison Girls

by Cheryl L. Reed


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“A gritty story of a Chicago reporter’s infiltration of the city’s toughest neighborhoods during a heroin epidemic, written by a great new voice in crime fiction. Noir fans and readers of Laura Lippman will love Poison Girls.” —Jamie Freveletti, internationally bestselling author of Dead Asleep

It’s the summer of 2008. Chicago’s Hyde Park Senator is running for the White House, the city is vying to host the 2016 Summer Olympics, and “Poison,” a lethal form of heroin, has killed more than 250 people, including dozens of suburban girls from prominent families.

Natalie Delaney, a crime reporter from the Chicago Times, discovers that daughters of Democratic powerhouses are the real targets. Obsessed with finding who is behind the killings, Natalie becomes entangled in an underworld where drugs, cops, gangs, politics, and privilege collide. Risking everything, this reporter becomes the story…

“Touching, salty, brutal, organized, lost, powerful and tragic.”—Janet Burroway, author of Writing Fiction

“An ambitious book, noirish, Dickensian in a modern way, and rooted in the realistic tradition. It tells a complex story.” —Stuart Dybek, MacArthur “Genius” Award Winner and author of The Coast of Chicago

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781682308264
Publisher: Diversion Books
Publication date: 09/12/2017
Pages: 374
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Cheryl L. Reed is a veteran journalist. She is the author of UNVEILED: THE HIDDEN LIVES OF NUNS, which chronicles her four years living off and on with nuns across the country. A former editor and reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times and other newspapers, Cheryl has won many awards for her investigative reporting, including Harvard’s Goldsmith Prize. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing-Fiction from Northwestern University and recently was a U.S. Fulbright Scholar teaching investigative reporting in Ukraine where freedom of the press is still in its infancy. She is currently an assistant professor at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communication. Cheryl’s reportage of deadly drug use among girls is the inspiration for this novel. POISON GIRLS is her fiction debut.

Read an Excerpt


June 13, 2008



Chicago Times

Before we knew their names, we dubbed them the Dead Angels. They were high school juniors from the Queen of Angels Academy, and when the cops found them, they had rosaries in their purses and Sweet Jesus in their veins. That's what the street folks called the deadly heroin that sent more than two hundred and fifty people to the morgue that summer. Several were white teenage girls — just like the Dead Angels. The poisoned heroin probably caused many more deaths, but no one noticed until the body of Rosie Green, a distant cousin to the Mayor, turned up in a Bridgeport neighborhood alleyway two blocks from the family's home.

Once the mayoral connection surfaced, my editors at the Chicago Times became obsessed with discovering how young white girls were being lured to their deaths. Heroin overdoses typically involved hardcore junkies — prostitutes, homeless veterans, hustlers, and a few suburban boys pumped with enough testosterone to think they could conquer anything. But the white girls who were ending up in the morgue were private school students taking Advanced Placement Calculus and studying for their SATs: they didn't fit the profile, which made their deaths novel — and news.

The coroner couldn't find collapsed veins or track marks on the white girls, so they likely weren't addicts. There was no shortage of theories, though. Some believed white kids were targeted to make a statement about race in the most racially divided city in the country. A few suggested the teenagers were collateral damage in a war between gangs and cops. The conspiracy theorists thought it was an attempt to sway white voters from backing Chicago's black presidential candidate. My sources offered the most chilling theory: The girls were thrill-seekers, daring one another in escalating contests to become "vampirettes" — girls who survived the most potent form of heroin, conquered death, and returned with a mysterious power.

Theirs was a story I was aching to tell. I was the only female crime reporter at the paper. Usually I was sent to hold the hands of victims' families. Choice assignments like the Dead Angels were normally fielded by senior reporters, mostly middle-aged guys who smelled like nervous sweat and whose desks displayed a smattering of photos: smiling kids and devoted stay-at-home wives — reminders that they were the breadwinners, that their jobs mattered. My editors would never say so because it would be outright chauvinism, but they thought covering crime was too dangerous for a girl. They saw themselves as gentlemanly and paternal by assigning me safer crime stories: interviewing mothers of young kids shot by stray gunfire, rape victims, parents of molested children.

Admittedly, crime reporting was a gruesome business, but what drove me was unraveling the Why. What compels a man to shoot a stranger for his iPhone? Why does a man crush a woman's skull with a baseball bat for a few dollars? What motivates a man to spike drugs with poison that kills his buyers? You only get that when you talk to The Man. And The Criminal was almost always A Man.

If it were up to my editors, I'd be handing out tissues to crying parents until they laid me off, like dozens of other reporters who'd been let go from my newspaper and our tabloid competitor, the Chicago Sentinel. Newspapers were dying. No one wanted to pay for news when they could get it off the Internet for free. Besides, I didn't have any of those smiling kid photos on my desk. I was The Single Girl With A Cat. And everyone knows, those are the ones who end up getting canned.

The poisoned heroin story, though, had the power to change all that. No one could find The Man — or Men — selling the spiked heroin. And his victims were as much a mystery, mostly because they seemed complicit in their own deaths.

So I went looking for girls who survived — if there were any. I thought they just might talk to a female reporter. They just might tell her who sold them the drugs and why they inhaled, injected, or smoked an unknown drug from an unknown dealer in an unknown part of town.

* * *

They found the Angels' bodies on Friday the thirteenth, a detail the competing tabloid screamed in its headlines. That morning, someone had called Streets & Sans complaining about rats near an abandoned Chinatown building. After the street crew discovered the girls' remains, a sanitation worker got on the city scanner and started babbling about dead bodies and ghosts. I arrived before the TV trucks but after the squad cars. An ambulance, its lights blaring, raced away immediately. We were told everyone inside the house was dead. An hour later, though, we were still standing outside, the sun glaring down at us unforgivingly as we leaned over the sticky yellow police tape. Normally detectives would have offered us ghoulish jokes — "she wants a refund" or "guess she won't be doing early acceptance at Harvard" — but that day they wouldn't even look in our direction, knowing that with three white victims anything they said could make headlines.

I needed a detail, an interview no one else had, anything that would propel the story forward and keep my name off the layoff list. But the Chinatown crime scene seemed all too familiar: a treeless side street with rows of squat, two-story houses squished behind miniature front yards and uneven sidewalks.

It was there, as I stood on the fault lines of the sidewalk, sweat dripping into my eyes, the stench of sewer filling my nose, that I first noticed her amid the gawkers. She was taller than the stooped Chinese ladies and the old leather-faced men who had nothing better to do than congregate in the middle of a workday. In the haze of the heat, she seemed like an apparition, her body shimmering as if the sunlight radiated through her, making her speckled copper skin glow and her rust-colored hair flicker as if it were on fire. Not until she turned her luminous green eyes on me did I realize why she seemed so familiar: she had my face from when I was a teenager.

My freckles had paled with age, my red hair wasn't as vibrant, but even at thirty-three, I could have passed as the girl's older sister. She giggled as she posed for a photo with an officer who couldn't help but grin as she nestled into the crook of his shoulder. She seemed so self-assured, yet ethereal, the sunlight enveloping her in a golden halo. Was I witnessing a wrinkle in time, a window in the universe opening to reveal a younger version of myself? I wonder now if my life would have turned out differently if I'd let the feeling pass, that dÃ(c)jà vu sense of connection with someone I'd never met.

With a loud thwack! the crime scene sergeant stepped out of the two-flat's front door. As if in a dream, I moved slowly through the pack of reporters who were firing off questions, hearing them but not caring about what they were saying. I felt my feet against the pavement before I realized what I was doing. I had never left a crime scene review — even a cluster fuck like this one — but my instincts told me to catch up with the girl.

"Hey!" I yelled after her, my voice dull and hollow, my stride picking up.

She was with another girl. The two kept walking. I continued shouting as I ran after them. When I was within arm's reach, they turned around. They wore matching pink flip-flops, halter tops, and tight jean cutoffs with fringes, all wrapped up with an attitude, as if they expected every guy to stare as they passed.

"What do you want?" the redhead asked, her hand perched on her slim hip.

Up close, I could see she'd already experienced a harsher side of life than I had at her age. Her front tooth was chipped, a gap exposed when she removed a cigarette from her mouth. (At her age, I was still wearing braces with freakish headgear, an experience that inspired a lifelong habit of noticing other people's teeth.) Her eyelids were coated in a neon shade of jade, accented by clumps of mascara. Though it was past two o'clock in the afternoon, she looked as if she'd just gotten out of bed, her hair slightly matted on one side, her eyes red and squinty.

"You got a minute?" I tapped the plastic press credentials hanging around my neck.

"You a reporter?" the other girl asked. It sounded like an accusation. She was about five inches shorter than the redhead. Her pale skin and jet black hair suggested Goth, but around her neck hung a tiny confirmation cross.

I dug out a business card with my cell phone number scrawled on the back.

The dark-haired girl read my name aloud to see if the redhead recognized it.

"Nat-a-lie De-la-ney?"

The redhead shrugged.

"So what?" said the dark-haired girl, chomping on her gum.

I held up my reporter's notebook. "What're your names?"

"You going to put us in the paper?" the redhead asked.

"Depends on what you know."

"Not sure I want to tell you anything," the shorter one said. Her thin lips mashed against her teeny nose, as if she smelled something foul. Her diminutive features made her seem fragile.

I waited for them to fill the silence.

"I'm Anna," the redhead finally said. She had a pretty voice, like someone who practiced her diction, who tried to sound sweet and mannered. "This is my cousin, Libby."

"You have any last names or are you just one-word girls, like Madonna and Pink?"

Anna rolled her eyes and sighed loudly. "Reid," she said, then pointed at her cousin. "Reilly."

"Reid and Reilly? You're shitting me, right? Alliterated last names? That's original."

Anna grinned maliciously. Her freckles looked like flecks of rust splattered across her nose. Her lips were smudged with pink gloss, slipping onto her skin as if she couldn't color within the lines of her face.

"You live in this neighborhood?" I asked.

They exchanged glances. "Not far," Anna said.

"What are you doing over here?"

Anna stuck her tongue through the gap in her teeth. "A girl's gotta do what a girl's got to do. Too much fun last night and well, here I am with a hole in my head." It sounded like lyrics to a crude rap song.

"She chipped her tooth," Libby translated. Her river-colored eyes were a duller version of her cousin's. She nervously twisted her cross, twirling it over and over until the chain was so tight it nearly choked her. "We're going to the dentist. Daddy says they're cheaper in Chinatown."

"We live in Bridgeport," Anna added a little too eagerly.

Bridgeport, the neighborhood just south of Chinatown, was where the Mayor, until recently, had lived in the house inherited from his famous father, who also was once mayor. Irish, Polish, and Mexican immigrants had lived in the neighborhood for decades. Its cheap rents and boarding houses drew the city's newcomers.

While it's true that you can learn much about a person from their address, it is especially true in Chicago. The city is a collection of seventy-seven distinct communities, almost city-states, each retaining unique characteristics. Any native Chicagoan could tell you young strivers lived in Lakeview on the North Side because of its access to the beach and the bars, while established wealth preferred nearby Lincoln Park. No one would confuse Englewood, the city's poorest neighborhood on the South Side, where singer Jennifer Hudson grew up, with neighboring Back of the Yards, once home of the stockyards. A true Chicagoan would be able to tell you that Kenwood, with its historic mansions, was where famous murderers Leopold and Loeb had lived. And, despite being called the Hyde Park Senator, Chicago's presidential candidate actually lived in Kenwood. Hyde Park had its own distinction: there were more Nobel laureates there per square mile than anywhere else in the world.

If the girls lived in Bridgeport, my guess was Libby's father was working- class poor and not a native Chicagoan. Based on her twangy accent, she was probably from Indiana. As soon as her father could afford it, they would move to a neighborhood that offered better housing and schools.

"You girls know anything about that house?" I pointed toward the dull, yellow two-flat. It seemed unlikely the girls had just happened to pass by a crime scene where girls their own age had died. They knew something or someone involved. Maybe girls from their school had tried H, maybe they were hoping to try it, too.

They stared at me, their eyes questioning what was in it for them. I dug out a pack of cigarettes and held it out. Libby shook her head. Anna gawked at the red carton lined with gold foil.

"What are these?" She pulled a brown cigarette from the pack and rolled it between her fingers.

"Clove," I said, as I flicked my lighter. "They taste sweet."

She sucked in a long drag and blew out a string of smoke, then licked her lips as if she were trying to identify the spices on her tongue. I watched, recognizing her mannerisms — the way she cocked her head and jutted out her chin; how her eyes seemed to televise her inner emotions, amber when she seemed annoyed and deep green when she appeared content. She was taller and thinner than I was at her age, but we shared the same features, the same inquisitive gaze, the same enthusiasm to try new things. Studying this doppelgänger, this younger version of myself, I wondered if this was how mothers felt when they watched their daughters behave with the same inherited quirks.

There was one big difference between Anna and my teenage self, and I couldn't stop staring at it.

"It's a snake," she said, following my gaze to the tattoo on her calf. Her red fingernails traced the animal's body, etched in light green, its tail faded at her anklebone. The only finished part was the snake's head, its large skull and pin-like eyes animated in red ink. "It's rare and only comes out at night." She winked.

I'd heard people call heroin users "snake eyes," and wondered if that applied to Anna, who struck me as an odd sort of girl to be roaming the streets, hanging out near heroin houses, and seeking out black-market dentists. I again pointed at the house surrounded by cops and reporters.

"Did you see anyone go in there?"

Libby looked down at the chipped polish on her toenails. She always seemed to be waiting for Anna to speak first.

"Don't know," Anna said. "Lots of people went there. You know, it was a place ... where you could smoke with other people."

"Did you guys ever go smoke in there?"

"Why do you want to know so much?" Anna asked.

"I'm working on a story about why girls are winding up dead. You know, girls like you. White girls."

Anna tossed back her flaming hair. "It's because they buy their stuff from people they don't know."

Libby shot Anna a warning look.

Anna ignored her. "You gotta know who's giving you a ride, you know?"

"Do you guys ever go for a ride?"

Libby shifted from foot to foot. Though her black outfit screamed city girl, the choppy cadence of her voice, her awkwardness, and her shy gaze convinced me she was from rural Indiana.

Anna let out a nervous giggle: "A girl's gotta try everything. You only live once."

I was surprised at her casual indifference to the girls whose bodies still lay in the yellow house. Something about her party girl image didn't strike me as genuine. It was as if she had dressed for the part: her distressed jeans were bleached in all the right places, her exposed bra straps were black, not white like her cousin's, and her eyes had a stylish flick of black at the corners that was all the rage in the fashion magazines but had yet to hit Chicago. And then there was that amateurish tattoo that looked like it had come from a stick-on kit. The result was an odd mix of grit and glamour — not exactly street urchin, not strictly suburban teen. She'd adopted sophisticated affectations: a raised eyebrow, a dismissive shrug, a glare down her bony nose, a curt tone. I wondered which adults in her life she was mimicking.

"So what do your parents say about all this?"

"My dad works nights," Libby erupted. "My mom lives in the 'burbs. They don't say shit."

"My dad's in prison. And my mom doesn't care about anyone but my stepdad," Anna said. "I'm living with Libby and Uncle Danny."

"You guys know anyone who died of this stuff? Friends from school?"

"Shit, we got better things to do than school," Anna said and groaned.

"Like what?"

"You know — adventures." Anna raised her eyebrows and cocked her head coyly.

"You mean riding around with neighborhood boys and stealing beer?"

Anna spat, barely missing my shoes. "Jesus, we're fifteen, not twelve, lady."

"Oh, I see." I clicked my tongue, not bothering to hide my doubt. "So what adventures do fifteen-year-old girls have?"

"You got a car?" Anna asked, looking around.


Excerpted from "Poison Girls"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Cheryl L. Reed.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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