January, 2011. It’s an off-day. Laurel Diamanté looked out the window of her four-hundred-dollar-a-week hotel room just off Pioneer Square. Normally at this time of year, the pelting rain would drive the homeless deeper into the dark recesses and under-explored burrows of Seattle, occasionally creating a comical juxtaposition of awkwardness during one of the city’s famed underground tours. But today was different. The sky was dense, an unrelenting gray blanket that covered the city to keep in the cold. It was a good day, Laurel decided as she gathered up her things and left her dingy rooms for the last time.
The elevator was out of service again. The hotness at the back of her neck made her curse as she headed for the emergency exit. Down, down she went, struggling to keep her purse strap from sliding off the smooth shoulder of her waterproof raincoat as she carried the neatly wrapped present in both hands. Fortunately, it was only two flights.
When she emerged, she found the usual malingerers infesting the lobby. Unbathed old men mostly, single and immune from the foul weather that seeped in whenever anyone entered the building. Could they be of some use? No. Too weak. Or drunk. There were plenty of other good candidates. Taking a last look at the forlorn, toothless denizens, she turned sharply and headed for the front desk to pay her bill.
“Sorry to see you go,” the man with the lopsided haircut said. “That’ll be four hundred even. Did you take anything out of the honor bar?”
“No.” She counted out four crisp one-hundred-dollar bills. “I don’t drink, and I don’t eat snacks.”
“Okay.” He handed her a receipt, along with a card with a website address on it. “If you wouldn’t mind, could you fill out a survey online? Even better, could you post a Yelp review?”
She checked her watch. She still needed to get gas before heading to the office. The man at the front desk said goodbye, but she ignored him and walked briskly toward the door that led to the parking structure. She spotted an ashtray stand next to the doorway and deposited the card on top of a pile of yellowed, soggy butts.
One of Laurel’s tires was low. As she unlocked her car door, she hoped it wasn’t punctured. She would check it at the gas station. The heat radiating in her neck had transformed into a familiar dull throbbing at her temples as she placed the present on the passenger seat next to her purse and climbed in. Her bags were already in the trunk, along with everything else she needed. Nothing left to do now but get on the road.
It wasn’t long before she’d gassed up her car and checked the tire pressure. Nothing was wrong with the car. A woman dressed in active wear had just gotten into her vehicle as Laurel started to pull out. She shot in front of Laurel, causing her to slam on her brakes. The other woman stopped, too. Infuriated, Laurel got out and marched up to the driver’s side window.
“I’m sorry,” the woman said.
She tried to smile. But when she saw the strange, threatening look on Laurel’s face, she averted her eyes and reached for the switch to raise her window.
“You could get killed driving like that,” Laurel said in a voice that was not her own. Though she wore a smile, her expression was merciless.
“I… I didn’t mean to…”
“Don’t worry. I’m not going to harm you. You should be more careful.”
“Yes,” the other woman said in a meek voice.
“Have a nice day.”
As Laurel stepped back, the flustered woman put her car in gear and shot out of the gas station, barely missing a homeless man with a gimpy leg.
“We should all have a nice day,” Laurel said.
The day had gone surprisingly quickly, and Laurel looked forward to getting things underway. Her friend of six months was leaving the Catholic social services agency, Mary’s Gift, and they were going out to celebrate. Laurel had given her the present at lunch, a porcelain figure of a cocker spaniel. Her friend loved dogs but was allergic. If nothing else, the figurine had made her smile.
The plan was for Laurel to follow her friend to her house in Beacon Hill and drive the two of them to dinner. When they left a little after five, the sky was already black, and it was raining hard. Though it seemed to rain constantly in Seattle, people had never learned how to drive safely. There was always some idiot who thought he could speed down Pike Street toward the fish market. The unexpected steepness of the grade would get the best of him, and there would be the inevitable accident. Laurel planned to be extra careful.
“I’m starving,” her friend said as they got onto the I-90 toward Bellevue.
“I really appreciate you driving, Laurel. But did we really have to go so far for dinner?”
“It’s not that far. And I think you’re going to love the restaurant. So, what are your plans once you get to Phoenix?”
“I think I might take a few months off before looking for work.”
“I really will miss you, you know. But I understand. It’s this stupid weather.”
As if to underscore the remark, the sky lit up with tentacles of white crackling lightning. The inevitable thunder followed.
“Maybe I should go to Arizona, too,” Laurel said.
Her friend smiled. “That would be lovely. I was just getting to know you.”
Surprisingly, it took only fifteen minutes to get across the floating bridge. Laurel had already checked the directions and made her way easily to downtown Bellevue. On Bellevue Way NE, she spotted the restaurant and, luckily, found parking on the street.
“This place is beautiful,” her friend said as they entered.
“I knew you’d like it.”
Soon, they were seated. By the time her friend had returned from the restroom, their drinks were standing untouched on the table. Laurel raised her iced tea and toasted her friend, who had decided to treat herself to a martini since she wasn’t driving.
“I wish you all the happiness in the world,” Laurel said.
By the time the salads arrived, Laurel’s friend felt unwell. She thought she should go back to the restroom and splash cold water on her face. But when she tried standing, she became dizzy.
“Oh, dear,” Laurel said. “Was the martini too strong?”
“I feel so strange.”
A concerned restaurant manager came over. “Is there anything I can do?”
“My friend isn’t feeling well. Can you help me get her to our car?”
He and Laurel pulled the other woman to her feet.
“Oh, the bill,” Laurel said.
“Don’t worry about it.”
Outside, the rain was coming down in sheets. Laurel and the manager helped the other woman into the car as a busboy held an impossibly large striped umbrella over the three of them. Laurel thanked them and drove off, peering through the windshield to find her way to the I-90 south. Blindly, she grabbed a fresh water bottle and handed it to her friend.
“Here, drink this. You’re probably dehydrated.”
“You’re such a good friend,” the woman said.
Within hours, Laurel had maneuvered her car down a treacherous dark road and found the small parking lot inside Mt. Ranier National Park. The rain had abated; a good sign. She parked and looked over at her friend, who was unconscious. Turning around, she reached for her purse on the backseat and removed the martini glass she’d stolen from the restaurant. In all the confusion, no one had missed it.
She got out and stood facing the public restrooms. It was quiet except for the howl of a sharp wind through the trees, and bitterly cold. She would have to work quickly. She dropped the glass and crushed it with her foot, destroying all evidence of the Ambien she’d used to incapacitate the victim.
She opened the trunk. On top of her suitcases lay a folded plastic tarp and a coil of yellow nylon rope. Next to those were a neatly folded bundle of heavy clothing and a pair of waterproof hiking boots. She took out the tarp and the rope and laid them on the ground next to the car’s passenger side. Grabbing the clothes, she went into the restroom to change.
Taking her time, Laurel opened the passenger door, turned the unconscious woman until her back faced the door and hooked her arms under the other’s so she could drag her out. As she did so, the woman groaned. Laurel laid her on the tarp and tied it up at the feet. To make things easier for the short trip to the grave, she fashioned a noose and placed it around the victim’s neck.
Now came the hard part. She would have to haul the body down the trail about a mile. She’d estimated it would take her less than an hour. Taking a quick look around her, she locked up the vehicle, draped the nylon rope over her shoulder and, like a logger, dragged the woman by the neck.
As she made her way slowly, she found that the tarp left a noticeable trail, as if some giant snake were slithering through the forest. She stopped and looked up at the sky. Clouds were moving in again. Soon it would rain, washing away all the evidence.
“Why, Laurel?” she thought she heard the woman say.
As she struggled over rocks, and mud that in places was inches thick, she decided to answer the imagined question. Because it was all part of the plan. His plan. And she’d been promised a great reward. To know the unknowable. To lord it over the vermin that were doing nothing more than occupying space.
To be like a god.
Laurel was sweating, despite the cold. Ignoring the vice-like pain in her head, she continued on. Soon.
Eventually, she saw it up ahead—a tree trunk, its top bent completely over and back into the earth, forming the letter U. Opposite that, she knew, was a hollow.
Stopping to catch her breath, she looked around her as if someone might be spying. She dragged the woman’s body up to the partially obscured entrance. Pausing to look at the sky, she climbed through, turned around, and pulled the body in the rest of the way.
She’d already dug the grave the previous night. The shovel lay where she’d left it. The hole was partially filled with rainwater. No matter. Only one thing left to do before disposing of the evidence. She picked up the shovel. Standing over the woman’s body, she unrolled the tarp, exposing the head. Livid rope burns circumscribed the aged neck. The victim’s eyes were bulging from a lack of oxygen. By all rights, she should be dead.
But she wasn’t.
Her eyes searched Laurel’s face for a shred of mercy.
“This is for the best,” Laurel said.
Straightening, she raised the shovel and, grunting, brought it down hard on the woman’s head. Through a wet, crunching noise, she thought she heard the woman mewling like an injured animal. Reveling in the victim’s suffering, she repeated the action two more times. When she was sure her friend was dead, she went about burying the body.
As she emerged from the hollow, flushed with exertion and sweating under her heavy clothing, a wolf bayed somewhere far off. Everything was happening according to plan. Easy peasy.
Her work here was done.