On the Fourth of July, a sixty-two-year-old delivery boy distributes six letters to a group of hand-picked “tenants-to-be” at Sunset Towers, an empty, five-story, “glittery” apartment house on the shore of Lake Michigan. The letters are signed by Barney Northrup; in reality, there is no such person by that name.
The Wexlers are the first to respond to their invitation. Grace Wexler is enchanted by the floor-to-ceiling glass in the living room and the lush carpeting throughout. She looks forward to showing off the new apartment to her “so-called friends...with their classy houses.” Her unimpressed husband, Jake, says the third bedroom is the size of a closet, but Grace thinks it will do “just fine” for their younger daughter, Turtle.
The slick, buck-toothed salesman who masquerades as Barney Northrup manages to rent all the apartments in just one day. In addition to the Wexlers, the tenants include the Theodorakis and Hoo families, Flora Baumbach, Sydelle Pulaski, and Judge J. J. Ford. Dr. Wexler will have his office on the first floor, alongside a coffee shop run by the Theodorakises. Mr. James Shin Hoo will open a restaurant on the fifth floor.
In early September, the residents of Sunset Towers move in. A few weeks later, on Halloween, Otis Amber, the sixty-two-year-old delivery boy, meets a group that includes two high school seniors, Theo Theodorakis, Doug Hoo, and the apartment doorman, Sandy McSouthers. He points out that smoke is coming from the chimney of the nearby, supposedly unoccupied Westing mansion. Sam Westing, who owns the mansion, the apartment building, and the town’s paper mill, has not been seen for years, and rumor has it that his dead body is rotting away in the old house. Sandy feels bitter about having been fired from his job at the mill and says this “serves [Westing] right.” As the group standing on the driveway discusses the situation, junior-high student Turtle Wexler comes riding up on her bike. Turtle is known for her thick braid and her propensity for kicking in the shins anyone who touches it.
Otis and Sandy state that exactly one year ago, two teenagers tried to stay in the Westing mansion on Halloween on a bet, but they quickly came “tearing out like they were being chased by a ghost...or worse.” One of them could only repeat the words “purple waves” and ended up in an asylum. Turtle is always up for a challenge, so she volunteers to match the hapless teens’ endeavor if the others will pay her two dollars for each minute she stays in the mansion that night.
As the conversation goes on, Chris Theodorakis, a young birdwatcher with a disease that causes his body to writhe in violent spasms, watches the group from his window. Earlier, Chris had seen someone with a limp entering the Westing house just before the smoke had begun to rise from the chimney.
Angela Wexler gazes out the window and notices the smoke rising from the chimney of the Westing mansion while dressmaker Flora Baumbach works on the hem of her wedding dress. Unlike her sister, Turtle, Angela is “golden-haired [and] angel-faced,” and their mother, Grace, dotes on her. When Turtle comes in and asks Mrs. Baumbach to fix the witch’s costume she will be wearing for Halloween, Grace berates her for the interruption. Angela offers to fix the costume later.
Mrs. Crow, the cleaning woman at Sunset Towers, is having a corn removed from her foot by podiatrist Jake Wexler when she, too, sees the smoke. Crow is dour and dressed in black. She mutters with eyes averted when she speaks...
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and has a bruise on her shin where Turtle kicked her. Up on the fifth floor, James Shin Hoo reprimands his son, Doug, for running too much and not studying enough. His wife stares longingly out of the restaurant window in the direction of her homeland in China. Mr. Hoo looks murderously at the smoke coming from the Westing estate; clearly, he has feelings of rage toward Sam Westing. On the driveway, Sandy McSouthers comments on the smoke as he opens the door of J. J. Ford’s Mercedes. Judge Ford is the first Black woman elected to a judgeship in the state. She remembers that she owes Sam Westing some money and wonders if he will let her pay him back.
Chris Theodorakis tries to tell his brother, Theo, about the limper he observed entering the Westing mansion, but he cannot get the words out intelligibly. Out on the driveway, Sydelle Pulaski, bedizened with cheap, gaudy jewelry, struggles out of a cab with a shopping bag. She limps and has a bruise on her leg from another of Turtle’s infamous kicks. Sydelle has brought home four wooden crutches and some painting supplies. She feels desperate to be noticed and hopes to capture the attention of the others at Sunset Towers.