Sal and her father move to Euclid, Ohio, in part because a new friend of Sal’s father’s helped him find a job there. This friend is Margaret Cadaver. Although Mrs. Cadaver, who is a widow, is always pleasant and kind to Sal, the girl grows increasingly antagonistic to the woman. She is also somewhat afraid of Margaret’s eccentric elderly mother, Mrs. Partridge. Sal soon becomes friends with Phoebe, a girl her age, who tends to invent elaborate fantasies. In Phoebe’s mind, Mrs. Cadaver and her mother are a sinister pair, and she develops a macabre suspicion that they killed the late Mr. Cadaver. Sal begins to believe her friend’s theories. These ideas become more problematic when Phoebe’s mother goes missing and the girls fantasize that Margaret was involved.
Sal is uncomfortable because her father seems like a different person when he is around Margaret. At home, her father continues to miss her mother, Sugar. When he is with Margaret, he is cheerful and upbeat, so it seems to Sal that he has forgotten her mother. She also suspects that Mrs. Cadaver is trying to replace Sugar in her father’s affections. She feels jealous both on her mother’s behalf and because she resents the attention her father pays to anyone other than herself.