The narrator says that there are monsters in this world. Wait, what's he talking about?
And then we are introduced to Cathy Ames. There is immediately something different about her, like her prettiness seems to be concealing something… something bad.
Cathy is a natural-born liar, and though her mother thinks that she's like all the other good little boys and girls, her father isn't so sure.
Cathy is good at something else too: Even at a young age, she knows how to use peoples's sexual impulses against them.
One day Mrs. Ames thinks she sees Cathy wander into the barn. A little later she calls for her but gets no answer; then she hears a giggle, and knows that it can't be Cathy's.
Mrs. Ames flings the barn door open to find Cathy on the floor with her skirt pulled up, naked from the waist down, and two fourteen-year-old boys kneeling over her.
The boys run away and Mrs. Ames tells Cathy to get up, but then sees that Cathy's wrists are tied with a rope.
Cathy doesn't speak after the incident, and the doctor chalks it up to shock.
The two boys say that Cathy started it and had them pay her five cents. They say that they didn't tie her up, though she had been playing with a rope. The story is too outlandish for anyone to believe, and the boys are sent to a house of correction.
But something about the whole thing doesn't sit quite right with Mr. Ames, though he never mentions it.
When Cathy is fourteen she tells her parents that she wants to be a teacher and they enroll her in high school.
Then something strange happens to James Grew, the Latin teacher. Usually he's all chipper but he starts getting restless and flighty.
Late one night he shows up at the Ames's house. He's all shaky and tells Mr. Ames that he needs to talk to him. Mr. Ames tells him to go home.
The next morning James Grew is found dead in the church of a self-inflicted shotgun wound.
Mr. Ames thinks about telling the coroner about the night visit, but doesn't see the point since he doesn't know anything else.
At dinner when the subject of the suicide comes up, Mr. Ames lies and says that the knock at the door was some drunken man who had the wrong house. Cathy mildly remarks that the students had said that Grew was in some trouble in Boston. Soon everyone in town has heard the trouble in Boston story.
After Cathy's sixteenth birthday she refuses to get up for school and tells her mother that she doesn't want to go anymore. Mr. Ames gives her a stern lecture and makes her promise that she will go to school, and Cathy promises.
But the next morning she is gone. Mr. Ames goes to the train station and finds out that Cathy left for Boston. He drags her back and reluctantly beats her.
A change comes over Cathy after the beating. She's more open and social, and she even talks about taking her teaching exam early. Cathy's parents are very pleased with themselves.
Cathy also starts helping out around the house more. She's so thoughtful that she oils all the hinges and keeps the chimneys clean with kerosene that she keeps in the basement.
She starts to learn the accounting for her father's tannery business too, and he even shows her how to open the safe.
One day her mother asks her to pick up the tannery's payroll money for the bank. After her mother leaves, Cathy goes into the yard, kills a pullet, and collects some of its blood in a jar. Then she hides everything and walks gaily into town.
And then there is a fire at the Ames house at three in the morning; the house goes up so quickly that no one has time to stop it.
The Ames aren't among the crowd that gathers to watch, and before long their remains are found. But Cathy's body is missing.
Meanwhile, one of the volunteers has noticed that there are no keys in any of the locks… which means the Ames were locked in.
The tannery employees don't go to work out of respect for Mr. Ames, but when the foreman does show up in the afternoon he finds the place ransacked and the safe opened.
Now things get super creepy. In the carriage house, they find signs of a struggle and some blood on the floor, in addition to a blue hair ribbon with blood on it and a necklace that belonged to Cathy.
The town just goes crazy raiding every hobo and gypsy camp within five miles. Eventually they settle on accusing a half-wit who confesses to the baited questions that the constables ask him.
Fortunately the judge sees through the whole thing and doesn't charge the man, and in a few months the whole incident blows over.