Part I -- The Girl
Paul Russell brought the Mercedes to a shrieking, desperate stop on the rain slick highway. It was after midnight and the storm was at the height of its fury. Kamikaze raindrops splattered themselves against the windshield almost faster than the wipers could clear them away. Blasts of lightning, so bright they hurt his retinas, kept opening up the sky like flashbulbs at a movie premier. He forced himself to look in the rearview mirror, saw nothing but empty highway stretching away into blackness.
Where was the girl?
She was the reason Paul had almost crashed. A young woman, standing in the middle of the road, apparently so desperate for a ride that she was willing to risk getting killed in the process. Paul hadn’t seen her until it was almost too late. He had jammed on the brakes and spun the wheel, both of which would have been stupid maneuvers had he not been a good enough driver to pull them off. Now he eased the car onto the shoulder, turning off the stereo so that the sound of the rain was suddenly magnified. Then he turned in his seat and looked back at the highway.
There she was.
Pauls’ breath caught in his throat. Still more than twenty yards away, he could tell by her undeniable curves that she was female. The girl was moving through the curtain of rain with a zombie-like slowness that he found unnerving. Paul knew he should do the noble thing—check and make sure she was all right—but was so unnerved by her freakish appearance. No way was he getting out of his car. In fact, he was considering the virtues of a hasty exit when the engine died. Maintaining a death grip on the steering wheel with one hand, he fumbled crazily at the ignition with the other.
Paul fumbled some more, then gave up. He realized he couldn’t see the girl anymore. That was a plus. Could he have imagined her? An hallucination like that on a night like this would be understandable, given the ordeal he had just been through. He had been travelling north on the stretch of Highway 111 that led out of Palm Springs and eventually hooked up with the 10 Freeway to Los Angeles. At this late hour, the desolate road through the desert became what it had always been—a no man’s land. The only activity came from the city’s outlying windmills, hundreds of giant turbine generators that spun and danced their idiot dance in the wild night air of the storm.
Although the climate was perfectly regulated inside the Mercedes, Paul’s fingers had grown cold. The car remained unwilling to start. When his panicked gaze dropped to the gearshift, he saw the problem—the car was in neutral. His well-tailored shoulders slumped with relief as he shifted back into park. He was going to get out of here unscathed after all. Paul turned the key and the car purred to life. Then a sudden, sharp knock came on the driver’s side window.
There she was, looking in at him. Her skin was pale, almost ghostly white. Dark streaks of mascara had pooled beneath her eyes, making it seem as though her features were dissolving. Her long hair clung wetly around her head and shoulders. The girl seemed like a mermaid, able to exist on land only because of the storm.
Paul was startled nearly out of his seat. “Can I help you?” he shouted.
He wanted to assess any possible threat to his safety before letting her in the car. But the rain was pounding so hard he could scarcely hear himself think. Against his better judgment, Paul gestured towards the empty passenger seat and indicated that she could come inside. The girl hurried to comply. As she crossed in front of his headlights, Paul was almost able to see through the thin dress she wore. His firm lips curled into a smile.
Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.
He thumbed a button that unlocked the doors and the girl scrambled inside the car. Her teeth were chattering with cold and she was completely soaked. He realized immediately that she was going to ruin the leather upholstery. “My raincoat is in the back,” he said by way of introduction. “Put it on before you ruin the seat.”
Now that the girl was inside, Paul took the opportunity to check her out. Beneath the smeared makeup was a perky nose and almond-shaped eyes. Full lips gave her an adult sensuality that was all the better because she was obviously so young. She had on a short, flowered dress and cowboy boots that made her seem earthy yet exotic. When she turned to reach for the coat, her dress rode up until he could see the lace panties she had on underneath. Paul treated himself to a long look at her glistening thighs, appreciating every inch of her. The girl appeared not to notice. She wriggled into his coat, apparently grateful for the warmth, but left it open so that his view of her was unobstructed. Paul guessed she was maybe nineteen or twenty, about half his age.
He grimaced as she used one of the Burberry’s sleeves to remove the last of her makeup, but forgave her when he saw how pretty she was. Not some frightening creature born of the storm, but a lovely, helpless young woman. Now he gave her a smile. “What’s your name?”
Paul thought he detected an underlying embarrassment as she said it. “You mean like the mouse?”
“I’ve never been to Disneyland,” she said, somewhat defensively. “I was named after my great-aunt.”
“Well, that’s nice.”
Paul let the car idle while he thought about what he wanted to do. The girl was still shaking with cold. He adjusted the climate control and a small blast of heated air rushed out to meet them, smelling like warm plastic. Minnie sighed and rubbed her hands together in front of the vent. Every finger, including both thumbs, was adorned with a profusion of silver rings. She had what he guessed were fake nails, dangerously curved and painted an unlikely shade of green. Two of the nails on the right hand were broken off in what looked like a painful accident. A moment later their eyes met and he realized that she was checking him out, too.
“Are you married?” she asked suddenly.
Paul thought he knew why she had asked, although he wore no ring. A married man would be safer for a girl traveling alone, a young girl sitting helplessly in the middle of a rainstorm on a deserted road at night. “Almost ten years now,” he said easily. “She’s waiting for me at home.”
They digested this in silence for a moment.
Then he said, “I assume you want a ride.”
She nodded, small and vulnerable within the folds of his coat. “I would really appreciate it. You’re going to L.A., right?”
“San Dimas,” he said, naming an affluent Inland Valley city that was best known as the home of Raging Waters amusement park.
“Oh! I’m from Covina. That’s not too far away.”
“Good,” he said noncommittally, wondering if she now expected him to deliver her right to her front door and whether she would in fact be worth it.
Suddenly Minnie smiled, as if suspecting that a little charm might be required. “What’s your name?”
“Paul,” he said, giving her a smile in return. “Let’s get going.”
“Can we stop by my truck first?” Her husky voice took on a note of pleading.
“You have a truck?” He was surprised, then realized that nobody would have abandoned the girl on this stretch of deserted road, not even if she had been stupid enough to be hitchhiking. “Where is it?”
“About twenty yards from where you almost hit me,” she said matter-of-factly. “I got a flat tire and there’s no spare. Never thought I’d need one, you know?”
Paul had a spare, but was not about to volunteer it. They drove slowly through the pounding rain. Now that he was watching for it he saw the truck, a pickup with an extra long cab that was parked by the side of the highway.
“This'll only take a second," Minnie said. She shrugged off his coat and dashed into the rain.
Paul thought he should get out too—maybe to help her, or to check out the truck—but he didn’t want to get wet. He squinted through the windshield, trying to follow her movements. She dragged something out of the cab, a large duffel bag that must have been heavy because she had to struggle to lift it. Under its weight, Minnie staggered to the car, her shoulders hunched as if that would somehow prevent her from getting wet. Paul swiveled to watch as she pulled open the rear door and tried to heave the bag into the back seat. He could hear the rain striking the sodden road outside, like wet sloppy kisses against the earth.
A moment later Minnie had scrambled around the front of the car and climbed in beside him.
“Hey!” he said, “You didn’t shut the back door.” Minnie didn’t say anything and he glared at her, feeling his temper rise. “Close the door, dammit! The rain is getting in.”
“That ain’t all that’s getting in, Paul,” said a deep voice behind him.
Illustration by Natasha Kline