Four neighborhood children--fresh faces all--become embroiled in the deadend activities of the local shady lady, in a disquieting story paced for city streets. The Germantown (Phila.) ""gang"" includes Joey, who smokes, curses when provoked, and tends an alcoholic mother; Panda, who rebels against her mother's granola-and-liberation commune by wolfing chocolate bars and being agreeable; and James Taylor Brown, who has bad dreams, a house full of relatives, and the Mark (a special sense, according to his minister-father). Elizabeth, long-awaited daughter of old-ish parents, is the leader of this interracial crew, intrigued by vibrant, seductive Tess who always looks dressed for a coronation and presumably sings at a downtown club. Elizabeth's proper parents, stiffly resistant to modern times, forbid contact with the older woman but the prohibition is disregarded, especially once Mandy, another young girl, appears at Tess' house. Upset by the noisy nightly goings-on there and Tess' frequent business calls, Mandy accepts the gang's overtures, and they trade theories about the ""meetings"" until the sorry conclusion--a drabber Tess in jail for dealing drugs. Shreve, whose adult novels reflect divertingly on modern predicaments, skillfully captures the flavor of young conversations and suggests the contours of adults with a few deft touches--no one in the commune wants to sit next to Dale, Elizabeth's grandmother is shushed for referring to ""the colored"" next door. Imaginatively conceived and artfully sustained.