Authors: Barbara Wilson
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths
Sisters of the Road
OOD-BYE,” I WHISPERED.
Outside the airport’s plate glass windows the lights of the jet floated eerily upwards and disappeared into the night and thick cloudcover; snowflakes fell like confetti at a ghostly leave-taking. Seattle to Mexico City, Mexico City to Managua. My twin sister Penny and her boyfriend Ray were off to help with Nicaragua’s coffee bean harvest for six weeks.
Bon voyage, buen viaje. Love and resentment, the two emotions I most often associated with my sister, flared up suddenly, destroying the jovial, all-for-the-revolution mood I’d so carefully cultivated and acted out at Gate Six, Mexicana Airlines. Except for a misguided effort on our parents’ part one summer to send us to different relatives, Penny and I had never been parted by such a great distance before.
Our friends began to move away, hurrying to get home before the weather got worse.
“It’s going to be a long six weeks for you and the print shop without them, isn’t it?” Penny’s friend Miranda said sympathetically.
June and I looked at each other. Our collective had argued for six months over whether we could manage without Penny and Ray, and still there was no way we could predict what it would be like. And no way we could stop them from going. If the U.S. ever did invade Nicaragua we’d be sorry we hadn’t done our bit.
“January’s a slow month,” said June, hugging herself tighter into her heavy wool jacket. Underneath her red beret her small cocoa-brown features showed a sad resignation. She and Penny had gotten very close over the fall, pursuing their favorite sport—skydiving. They’d even formed a women’s skydiving club and pooled their money with friends to hire airplanes to drop them out of the air every other weekend. Someone like me, who couldn’t even manage to get up on the low diving board without feeling my stomach sink to my toes, would not be a good substitute.
I linked my arm in June’s and spoke cheerfully. “We’ve got Carole doing the camera work now. And there’s a guy who’ll help with layout and stripping if we need him. He won’t be part of the collective though, I mean, he won’t have any decision-making power.”
“Mmmm, great,” said Miranda vaguely, anchoring her frizzy red hair more firmly inside the elastic band at the back of her head. She was a staff nurse at Harborview and the complexities of both printing and printing collectives were lost on her. Nothing could be more hierarchical than a hospital. She looked at her watch. “I’d better hurry if I’m going to get to work by eleven. I hate the thought of driving in this stuff though.” She gestured out the window at the falling snow. “It’s really dismal. Not like Central America, huh?”
June and I looked at each other again and laughed gloomily. Not a bit like Central America, we agreed.
I got into my Volvo in the airport garage and let it warm up. For six years it had been a trusted friend—now, like seemingly everything else in my life, it was kicking up. Burning oil and burping wounded little noises whenever I went over forty. The Volvo hadn’t wanted to come to the airport tonight at all, and now it was rebelling against going home. It wanted gas too; I’d better stop at a station outside the airport. I wished June had driven with me, and not only because she was so good in automotive emergencies. I could have used the company.
All the gas stations were off the freeway on Pacific Highway South, also known as the Sea-Tac Strip—a long necklace with a jeweled cluster of Hyatts and Hiltons at the center and tawdry pearls and rhinestones of cheap motels, taverns, go-go dancer bars and Burger Kings strung out a mile in either direction. The street that was so often mentioned as the “last place seen.” The last place a girl or young woman had been seen before she turned up as a heap of bones and teeth to be identified in some wooded, desolate spot nearby.
They called them the Green River murders because the first remains had been discovered by the Green River. In the months and years since then, boy scouts, hikers and picnickers had found almost three dozen corpses or skulls and bones all over the area south of Seattle, and more women were missing. Some estimates ranged in the seventies. The investigation had bogged down over and over, but whenever a new set of remains was found the newspapers regurgitated the whole story and sometimes printed a list of the murdered. Wendy Lee Coffield, Debra Lynn Bonner, Opal Charmaine Mills. They all had three names, with a number from fifteen to twenty-five after them. Their ages. They were runaways and prostitutes, the papers said, and went on with touching articles about their foster parents or their single mothers, who all said they didn’t know where the girl had gone wrong. None of the dead were women that I or any of my friends knew. We didn’t know any prostitutes.
At the station I filled the tank, put in oil and looked into the engine—not that I could have figured out what was wrong. I decided that if the Volvo lasted until spring I’d sell it. Maybe I should even sell it now, while it was still running.
Back inside the car I drove up what looked like a main street and went a couple of blocks before I realized I was going in the wrong direction to get back to the freeway. There was nothing up here but cheap motels advertising adult channels and waterbeds; most of them were too shoddy even to be lurid and they all had vacancies. The snow was falling faster now and it was difficult to see. I pulled into an apartment complex to turn around. It was a badly illuminated, sinister set of buildings with a peeling sign that said Bella Vista: Deluxe Suites Available.
Reversing, the car stalled and died. The wet snow began to pile up on the windshield, on the passenger side where the wiper didn’t work as well.
Don’t panic, I told myself sternly. Just two blocks away, the benevolent yellow neon of a Denny’s restaurant gleamed at me. Where there’s a Denny’s, there’s twenty-four hour safety. I’d give the Volvo a couple of tries and then call June if it wouldn’t start. She’d be home in ten minutes.
But, grumbling, the car came to life again and I began to back up. Out of a gap to my right, behind me, between two of the dimly lit apartment buildings, stepped two figures, one supporting the other and both of them weaving drunkenly. They seemed to be making towards me, and I kept reversing as far to the left as I could. As I went past, the taller one, the one who was supporting the other, gestured to me to stop. I had an impression—but no, they were both wearing hats—it was too dark and thick with snow to see clearly—but even if they were women—to pick up two drunks—in this part of town… I kept staring at them as the car reached the sidewalk. The one had slumped over and the other was trying to drag her. Yes, they were women, they looked quite young, they looked like teenagers.
I put on the brakes and skidded slightly, then began to accelerate cautiously forward again. When I got alongside of them I could see that one was Black and one was white and they were only about sixteen or seventeen, wearing hats and thin leather jackets and tight jeans and, of all incredible things on this night, high-heeled shoes with thin straps.
I leaned over and rolled down the passenger window, shouting, “Hurry up before you freeze to death. There’s a blanket in the back. Get in and tell me where you want to go.”
The Black girl fell into the back seat and immediately passed out. The taller white girl, her face pinched and ghastly under heavy makeup, said breathlessly, “We want to go to downtown Seattle, to a place we’re staying on Second Ave.”
I nodded, still not sure if I should have picked them up—what if they mugged me?—and said, “What’s the fastest way to the freeway entrance? Can you point it out?”
“Go back to the airport and get on that way. Could you hurry, please?” she asked in a strained and urgent voice. “We really want to get back. Rosalie isn’t feeling too well.”
Great. She was going to puke in my car; that should certainly add to its saleability. My voice sounded sharp and prim as I answered, “I’ll drive as fast as it’s safe to.”
She didn’t say anything. She wrapped the blanket closely around her sagging companion and stroked her shoulder.
“My name’s Pam. What’s yours?”
“Trish,” she said reluctantly. In the rearview mirror she looked younger than I’d first imagined. The black felt hat was pulled down over a triangular face with widely-set, black-ringed eyes and two patches of blusher like red gauze pasted on her cheeks. Strands of wet hair streamed below the hat, and earrings made of many thin chains hung down past her pointed chin.
I found the freeway at last and entered slowly. The traffic was moving erratically, divided equally between drivers who were determined to pretend that nothing out of the ordinary was happening, that this really wasn’t a snow storm and that they could still drive as fast as they wanted, and those like me, weather cowards, who were practically holding their cars by the hand and walking them.
I turned up the heater, which was fortunately working tonight, and fiddled with the radio, which wasn’t. Static and irritating gusts of country-western music. No news or weather reports. I probably didn’t want to hear about the hazardous driving conditions anyway.
“Please,” came a small, insistent voice from the back seat. “Can’t you go any faster?”
“No,” I said shortly. “I don’t know what your hurry is. Your friend can sleep it off just as well here in the car as anywhere else.”
“She’s not sleeping,” Trish said, and now I caught her panic. “I can’t wake her up. She was, somebody, I mean, she’s hurt…”
I turned around with a jerk just as Trish raised Rosalie’s head for me to see. Blood was running from somewhere under her hat, running down her neck and inside her jacket. There was a thin trickle coming from her mouth too, and her eyes rolled under half-closed lids.
“Shit!” I said, then gripped the wheel firmly and stepped on the gas.
MBULANCES WERE PULLING UP
to Harborview’s emergency room like chauffeured cars at the opera, one every few minutes—the only difference being that their occupants came out on stretchers, wrapped in blankets instead of furs, with portable I.V.’s decorating their arms instead of diamond bracelets.
I left the car in the driveway and ran inside. It was Sunday night; the waiting room was packed and the reception desk six deep in supplicants. Short of screaming there was no way to get any of the staff’s attention. But when an orderly walked by, I lunged for his arm. “Please get a stretcher, there’s a girl who’s badly hurt—hit on the head.”
He was grabbing a stretcher and pushing it towards the door even as I tried to explain that I didn’t know anything about her or how it had happened.
“Where?” he snapped, cutting me off.
I ran to my car and opened the back door. Rosalie’s head was in Trish’s lap; she looked as if she weren’t breathing.
The orderly took her pulse. “Barely,” he said. “Help me lift.”
Trish shrank back into a corner of the seat. There was blood on her hands and jeans, and her face was as white as her leather jacket.
Rosalie was on the stretcher. “Follow me,” said the orderly, “And tell them about it at the desk. They’ll call the police.”