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According to the 1902 newspapers, it was the most bizarre and sensational crime in Pittsburgh history. Katherine Soffel, the wife of the warden of Allegheny County Jail, fell hopelessly in love with one of two brothers awaiting execution in her husband’s prison and helped them escape by smuggling in saws and guns. Then, deserting her marriage and four young children, she fled north with the fugitives in a stolen sleigh. The next day, the three were apprehended by a posse and the boys were shot to pieces. Mrs. Soffel recovered from her wounds, but was sent to prison, divorced by her husband, and forced to live out her life in humiliation.
Now, nearly a century later, Dee Armstrong as a high school senior writes an award-winning term paper on the Soffel case, drawing the attention of Harriet "Harry" Bromfield, a flamboyant and controversial local T.V. journalist. There is evidence, Harry tells Dee, that Mrs. Soffel kept a secret prison diary in which a shockingly different account of the escape is detailed. Would Dee like to help find it? Despite warnings from her feisty roommate Megan and her artist boyfriend Cory that she may be being used, Dee jumps at the chance, convinced that it is an opportunity for fame and fortune, only to find herself torn by conflicting loyalties and caught in the middle of a conspiracy she could never have imagined.
Basing his novel on a real crime and the many unanswered questions surrounding it, William Coles brilliantly blends fact and fiction to create this compelling mystery.
William E. Coles, Jr., native to the hills, valleys, and history of western Pennsylvania by spiritual adoption, has for a number of years taught English with his wife Janet at the University of Pittsburgh. Author of many books and articles on the teaching of writing and literature, he has published three young adults novels with Simon and Schuster/Atheneum: Funnybone in 1992 (with Stephen Schwandt. Voted Publishers’ Pick of the Lists), Another Kind of Monday in 1996 (an ALA best book for young adults and voted Best Books for the Teen Age by the New York Public Library), and Compass in the Blood in 2001.
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William E. Coles is the author of many books and articles on the teaching or writing and literature, and he has published three young adults novels. He teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Dee's roommate and best friend, Megan, had left the note on the table just inside the front door of their apartment. It was a typical Megan message, information with an attitude:
wants to see you,
(No Kidding Now)
call her sec. (Judy)
For an appt.
call today if you
get back before six
Dee glanced quickly at her watch on the way across the room to the telephone -- 5:15 -- and then, without even taking off her backpack and parka, began dialing. She noticed her hands were shaking.
She heard a buzz and a click, then "WHGH Radio and TV."
Dee blurted out the extension number, and someone answered almost immediately.
"Harry Bromfield's office. Judy Barronger speaking."
"Yes...Hi. I was supposed to call about a meeting? I mean, someone...I think you, called about my arranging a meeting with...with Ms. Bromfield?"
"And to whom am I speaking, please?"
"Oh, right," Dee said with a nervous little laugh. She put her hand on her chest. "Diane Armstrong? I'm a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh, and my roommate left a message -- "
"Yes, of course, Ms. Armstrong," the secretary interrupted smoothly. "Now, today is Wednesday..." Dee heard some pages being turned. "Would it be convenient for you to meet with Ms. Bromfield here, in her office, for a conversation, say,...could you possibly do it tomorrow, at about two in the afternoon? That would be Thursday, February nineteenth."
"Sure," Dee said quickly. "I mean, tomorrow's fine." Ordinarily on Thursday afternoons and two other afternoons of the week, she waitressed at Bagelnosh, but she could easily get someone to fill in for her.
"And you know where we are? On Fifth Avenue just down from Pitt?"
"Oh, yeah, I know where the station is."
"Good. We'll call it firm, then. We're on the second floor, room two four seven. Just ask at the information desk how to get to Ms. Bromfield's office and tell them you're expected."
Dee thanked her and hung up. The whole exchange hadn't taken two minutes.
"Yes!" she said out loud, bringing both fists down in front of her as if pounding on a table. Then, shrugging off her backpack, she sat on the edge of the couch to catch up with herself.
Harriet Bromfield, or Harry, as she liked to be known, Pittsburgh's most flamboyant and controversial TV journalist, had been a hero for Dee ever since high school. She'd started to make a name for herself with her documentary films on women: Susan B. Anthony; Harriet Tubman; "Mother" Ann Lee, the founder of the Shakers in the United States. But it was her film last fall on Katherine Soffel, Pittsburgh's most notorious female criminal and center of the most sensational love affair ever to have rocked the city, that had made Dee decide to try to get in touch with Harry. The self-confidence with which the production took charge of the Soffel story by going straight to the core of it, Harry's control of her subject, as though she were a playwright creating characters -- these things had dazzled Dee, the more so because she herself, just a few months earlier, had written a prize-winning senior term paper on the local newspapers' outrageously prejudiced coverage of the case at the time.
Thorough as Dee believed her own research had been, the film made use of things she didn't know and also suggested interpretations of the case she hadn't even imagined. She'd written to Harry excitedly, praising her work and asking several questions about sources; impulsively, she'd also enclosed a copy of the prize-winning paper. But there had been no reply. Until now, that is.
What could Harry possibly want to see her about five months later? Why hadn't Dee at least thought to ask Judy what's-her-name a couple of questions?
Still absorbed in thought, she got up, went into her bedroom, and dropped her parka onto the unmade bed. She kicked her work boots into a corner, slid out of her jeans and sweater, and into a sweat suit -- one of three she owned, all of them oversized and as soft and comforting as the stuffed animals of her childhood.
Then it struck her that she'd been seeing tomorrow's meeting as an interview when all the journalist really wanted, most likely, was to be nice to the high school kid who'd sent her her term paper.
Dee went into the kitchen, then back to her bedroom, and finally into the bathroom, where she stared at herself in the mirror.
If Harry were only doing her PR duty, though, she could have done it with just a phone call or a note months ago. This meeting had to be an interview of some sort. Maybe Harry had liked Dee's research on Mrs. Soffel and was considering using her on some other project. But in that case, maybe the fact that she hadn't asked the secretary any questions, that she'd just agreed meekly to trot down to the station the very next day, would be seen as unprofessional and count against her.
She walked back into the tiny living room and looked at the clock on the bookcase. It was only 5:40. Her boyfriend, Cory, usually slept for an hour or so after he finished work at 5:00, and getting him on the phone where he lived was impossible. Megan wouldn't be back from her job waitressing until after 8:00, and she wasn't exactly a fan of Harry's anyway. Once, she and Dee had watched the journalist, as a member of a local talk show panel, take on an unfriendly critic by leading him into pronouncements that at first she pretended to be intimidated by but then coolly destroyed. "Jeez," Megan had said, "that lady's a real killer. She waits and then jumps just like a spider." And from that had come the nickname Spider Woman, or sometimes Spider Lady.
Feeling she'd explode if she didn't talk to someone, Dee decided to call Carol Muskowitz about filling in for her at Bagelnosh.
"Hey," Carol said. "You got it. I can use the money."
"I wouldn't ask you on such short notice," Dee couldn't resist saying, "but I just got a call to come talk to Harry Bromfield."
"Get out!" Carol exclaimed. "The TV lady?"
"Yeah," Dee said nonchalantly. "We may be doing some work together."
After talking with Carol, Dee just sat for a moment. Then she went back into her bedroom, opened her closet, and began laying clothes on her bed. Something mature was what she wanted, as close as she could get to what women executives wore in the ads on CNN. She had only two long skirts, one tan, one blue. The blue it would be; she had blue shoes and panty hose. All she needed was a dressy top like one of Megan's tailored silk blouses, which Dee knew she could borrow.
Okay. Now, what else?
The Soffel case.
She'd better have all the details of it -- and more importantly, all the details of Harry's documentary -- freshly in mind. She got both the paper she'd written almost a year ago and her video of Harry's film out of her bottom desk drawer, made a cup of Celestial Seasonings Mint Magic tea, and then stretched out on the living room couch to reread what she'd written.
Her paper had originally been written simply to fulfill a graduation requirement, not because she was either a history or a crime buff, and certainly not with the intention of competing for a prize. In fact, she wasn't completely sure why the Soffel case had fascinated her so much. She was aware, of course, that her interest in it coincided with her parents' sudden divorce that same winter and with Cory's coming into her life a little bit later, but the connections were vague to her and not something she liked thinking about anyway. All she knew for certain was that it mattered to her who Kate Soffel really was and why she'd done what she'd done. Dee had read everything she could find on the case in the Carnegie Library, and for the first time in her life she found herself rewriting something she'd written for a school project, and then rewriting that. The paper was still a source of pride to her.
As soon as she'd finished rereading her work, Dee slid the video of Harry's film into her VCR and settled back on the couch to watch. It was going to be no less than the fifth or sixth time she'd seen it.
Text copyright © 2001 by William E. Coles Jr.
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