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After aiding in the rescue of a gravely injured man, Helma Zukas and her friend Ruth search for the victim's missing companion and are stranded in a snowstorm with a group of strangers, one of whom is a killer. Original.
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On Saturday morning, when Ruth Winthrop accused Miss Helma Zukas of not keeping her word and skipping out on probably the best friend she'd ever have in her entire life, the sun was shining. The September air was crisp and warm, the sky autumn blue, and the waters of Washington Bay lightly riffled and glinted like gems.
The preceding month had been exceptionally warm and sunny, uncharacteristically dry for the Pacific Northwest. The inhabitants of Bellehaven, Washington, unaccustomed to such largess, had determinedly spent every sunny day outside and now sported suntans, outdoor muscles, and a mild irritability brought on by the responsibility of relentless good weather. Sales of sunglasses- were way up.
Even Helma Zukas's skin, despite her best efforts, was slightly bronzed, forcing to the surface forgotten freckles she covered with a pale concealer that came in a tube like lipstick.
"Think of it as my birthday present," Ruth, who was the tannest Helma had ever seen her, said, rising from the arm of the chair where she'd been sitting. Ruth's clothing style had recently taken another sharp detour. A month earlier, she'd phoned Helma at eleven o'clock at night to announce her body was sliding down her skeleton and from that instant on, she was retiring from pants, shorts, and leggings, forever and evermore. Which left an array of colorful dresses and skirts brushing ankle or exposing thigh, elongating Ruth's six foot, one inch body to eye-catching proportions, which Helma suspected had been Ruth's intention all along.
Today Ruth wore an orange t-shirt that hung to the hem of a blue skirt, shod in black sneakers without socks, her black hair bushed.
"But Ruth," Helma reminded her as she carefully removed a watercolor of a Skagit Valley tulip field from her apartment wall and dusted its back. "Your birthday isn't until December."
"That's why we have to go now," Ruth said, pulling a roll of peppermint Lifesavers from the pocket of her skirt and thumbing three into her mouth. "You can't hike in the mountains in December. You can barely even drive up to the ski area and that's not even halfway up the mountain. It snows big time in the winter up there, remember?"
Helma winced as Ruth stood in front of the sliding glass doors and gazed out over Helma's balcony at the waters of Washington Bay, chewing her Lifesavers, with teeth-grinding crunches. "Everybody and his brother has a sailboat," Ruth muttered between chomps. "Look at all of them out there, puffing and luffing. I can't even afford a rowboat."
Helma refrained from mentioning the word "savings." Ruth's economic philosophy was simple: when her paintings sold well, she spent her money until it was gone and then unconcernedly lived on boiled eggs, cornflakes, and the kindness of friends until her fortunes turned.
"I'm aware it snows in the mountains," Helma assured Ruth as she rehung the watercolor over the circle of mishammered holes in her wall. "But I don't understand the urgency to hike now."
"Because I want to," Ruth said. She turned and squinted at Helma, her eyes narrowing. "You're afraid to hike in the mountains, aren't you? Up where it's all wild and unorganized, dirty even?"
"I certainly am not." Helma flicked a piece of lint off her pants even though she was dressed in her cleaning clothes: a faded pair of jeans she'd first donned for a high school canoe trip over twenty years ago and a blue t-shirt that read across the front, "Love your Library," with a stylized heart replacing the word "love."
"Are too. When's the last time you went hiking, I mean really hiking?"
"I hike," Helma protested. She stepped back and critically eyed the watercolor: yellow and red rows of tulips marching toward the mountains like distant railroad tracks. She closed one eye and peered over her hand, which she held first perfectly parallel, then perfectly perpendicular to her ceiling. Straight. "Every day."
"You walk," Ruth corrected with a touch of disdain. "Over flat land on little paved trails through our little civilized town. That's a weaker breed of animal than charging up a remote mountainside in the shadow of old growth forests, the basic necessities of life on your back, surviving by vestigial instincts, surrounded by the calls of the wild." Ruth closed her eyes, contemplating the wonder of it all.
A few weeks earlier, Ruth, who drove from one end of the mall to the other rather than walk its length, had participated in a brief affair with a younger man from Seattle who wrote trail guides illustrated by cartoon figures and filled with rock music lyrics and quotes from Hemy David Thoreau. She'd accompanied him on a single mountain hike, "carrying his pencil," she'd told Helma, and now considered herself a woman with experience in the higher elevations.
"My walks have every characteristic of hiking," Helma said. "The elevation of Bellehaven varies between sea level and 641 feet. That hardly qualifies as 'flat' terrain."
"Helma," Ruth said, twisting the drapery cord around her finger. "Do you know what birthday this is?"
"Your fortieth," Helma told her.
"I didn't ask you to say it." Ruth wrapped the cord around her neck and pretended to hang herself. "And don't tell me it's better than the alternative."
"It is," Helma said. "But what does your fortieth birthday have to do with a hike in the mountains? You're treating it like an emergency."
Ruth grabbed hold of her right thigh with both hands and jiggled her flesh. "This is an emergency. And this," poking her upper arm. "Time. Time is passing at an ever more alarming rate. Forget the endangered species; I need to save what I have left. Once it's gone, it's gone."
"It might be more appropriate to join a gym," Helma suggested as she removed an oil painting of a sailboat moving sedately through calm seas.
Ruth guffawed. "All that regimental sweat? No thanks. Besides, climbing up a mountain is more beneficial than one of those stair-climbing machines. What do you say?"
"About gyms?" Helma asked.
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