The Difficult Sister
The Difficult Sister is not the cozy you might expect given that it involves two fifty-something women on a trip to the Oregon Coast. This second mystery by Judy Nedry is darker and edgier than its description suggests.
The author is clearly talented. The first-person narrative is intriguing all the way through because her character is interesting.
Stuff, as they say, happens. Bullets fly. People die. Evil happens. There will be mud, "one slow sucking step after another". We are a long way from almond croissants and that gives The Difficult Sister an intriguing, palpable edge.
February is the cruelest month in western Oregon. Four months ago on a late February morning I slogged through gusty wind and pelting rain to my neighborhood bakery to meet up with an old and dear friend. Melody Wyatt had called me from her home the night before nearly hysterical. She hadn’t heard from her sister in three weeks and was afraid something had happened to her
As often happens in late February, my mood was foul—a fact I attributed to light deprivation, overall depression about the state of the world and my finances, and exhaustion from spending too many late nights making a book deadline. The deadline was behind me now, and I could give full attention to my friend. From the sound of things she needed it. Her sister, a certifiable whack-job named Aurora, had dropped out of sight again, and this time it sounded serious.
I parked my umbrella at the door and entered the bakery. Even with glasses fogged from the inside warmth, I spotted Melody sitting at the end of the communal table digging around in a designer handbag that doubtless was worth more than my current vehicle. She was surrounded by stay-at-home moms, drippy-nosed toddlers, and two nursing infants—the usual scene on a busy weekday morning in my favorite Portland, Oregon bakery. With expression grim, she pulled something from the bag.
I purchased coffee and an almond croissant and joined her at the table where she had saved me the one remaining seat in the room. She jumped to her feet when she saw me and greeted me with a big hug. “Emma, thank you so much for coming. I don’t know what I would have done if I couldn’t have talked to you face-to-face.” She blinked rapidly as her dark brown eyes filled with tears.
I patted her shoulder and sat down. We exchanged minor pleasantries and then I cut to the chase. “When did you last hear from Aurora?”
The tears spilled onto Melody’s cheeks. “It’s been more than three weeks. I shouldn’t have waited so long.”
“So you actually talked to her when? First of the month?”
She nodded and sniffed, then rummaged a tissue from the flashy handbag and commenced sobbing. Melody—bless her heart, I love her like a sister—can be a real drama queen. Several toddlers stopped what they were doing and stared at us.
My name is Emma Golden. I’ve been a friend of Melody’s for more than two decades. We reared our children together in rural Yamhill County, helped the Oregon wine industry grow from nothing to world-class player, and drank together in the days when I still drank alcohol. I wrote about wine until it became hazardous to my health. Seven years ago everything changed. I sobered up, divorced, and moved back to Portland. Now Aurora had gone missing.
Some years back, undoubtedly when we were both full of wine, one of us had dubbed Aurora “the Bolter”. The name stuck because it fit. Melody’s younger sister was obsessed with men, and had been since early puberty. She had run off with many different men over the years, and had even married five of them—that we know of. When she wasn’t in a state of matrimony, she was living with, engaged to, or at least sleeping with a man. But the unions never lasted long. Aurora hadn’t figured out that her picker was broken.
Melody, whose thirty-two-year marriage not only was enduring but also romantic, would take one look at Aurora’s current choice and immediately be stricken with the vapors. She’d telephone me as soon as possible with her unvarnished report. From a strictly entertainment standpoint, these reports often were hilarious. Melody didn’t mince words, and under the stress of someone else’s problem she quickly lapsed into the expressions more befitting of her late mother, who had hailed from West Texas.
Once some years back Melody informed Aurora that her new boyfriend was “meaner than a sore-tailed bear.” Aurora promptly married him. It was one of her worst mistakes, but she stayed with him for three years—probably a record for her—just to prove her point. She finally wised up after he knocked out five of her teeth and she ended up in the emergency room at Portland’s Emanuel Hospital with a concussion and a couple of broken ribs. At that point she divorced the guy. He fled the state, and to this day has not been found, at least as far as we know. Wherever he is, we hope he stays there. Since then Melody has kept her opinions about Aurora’s men to herself—at least until she can share them with her husband Dan, or with me. She claims she doesn’t want Aurora trying to prove her wrong again.
“I just want to go down to Bandon and see what’s going on, but Dan won’t let me go by myself,” Melody continued through intermittent sniffles and much dabbing of tissues.
“Won’t let you?” I took a bite of my croissant. I knew what was coming next but sometimes it’s fun to just play along. “Since when has that ever stopped you? Tell him to come with you.”
“He won’t. He’s too busy with business. He says Aurora’s fifty years old and can take care of herself. And she doesn’t have a clue.” She started crying again, for emphasis I suppose, and more people looked furtively in our direction. It made me uncomfortable.
Of course I was curious. What could Aurora have done this time? But I was not about to give in easily—even though at the time I was itching to go somewhere, anywhere, and if I had a suitable traveling companion Bandon would do as well as anyplace else. “I tend to agree with Dan,” I said. “What do you think you can do for her? It’s not like this is the first time she’s done something like this.”
“It’s different this time, Emma. It feels different. She’s never been out of touch with me this long. Ever. And there was something about that guy. I hated him the minute I set eyes on him. He gave me the creeps.”
“Oh, so you actually met him?” In recent years Aurora had become a little less inclined to bring her latest love interests around to suffer Melody’s scrutiny.
“I thought I told you. They stopped by just before Christmas on their way to a ‘brand new life’, as my nut-case sister described it.”
Maybe she did, maybe she didn’t. I couldn’t remember. I had experienced a great exodus of brain cells during menopause—or perhaps it had something to with thirty years of increasingly heavy drinking. Not only that, but a lot had been going on in my world since well before Christmas. I’d house-sat for Dan and Melody for six weeks the previous autumn while they took their dream vacation to the South Pacific. From then until mid-February I’d been sequestered writing. The book, a history of the Oregon wine industry—yes, I had trusted myself enough to venture into that world again. It had been a crazy few months, and although Melody and I had re-energized our friendship and become closer during the previous autumn, I’d necessarily been a bit out of touch since the holiday season.
Meanwhile, Aurora had been busy. Melody explained that she had moved to Radnor, a little town located between Bandon and Port Orford on the southern Oregon coast, to be with her most recent love. A few weeks after arriving there, she dropped off the familial radar screen. Three weeks didn’t seem like a very long time to me. On the other hand, based on Melody’s experience, Aurora’s periods out of touch normally lasted a week, two at the most.
“Do you have a recent photo?” I asked. I hadn’t seen Melody’s sister for at least seven years, and she was given to unexpected transformations. While I’d met her at the Wyatts’ at various gatherings during the past, I mainly followed her legendary bolting escapades through my association with Melody.
Melody nodded and blew her nose, then took another excursion into the handbag and retrieved a packet of photos.
Aurora was five years younger than Melody and very different in every way. Melody was short and stocky, her once brunette hair now decidedly salt with a heavy dose of pepper. She spent much of her considerable disposable income on clothes—or rather, costumes. She had a flair for style and wore it loudly and well. Tall, fair and lumpy, with slanted amber eyes, Aurora possessed none of Melody’s talent for making dashing fashion statements. In fact, I always had found her to be drab in that aging earth-muffin style so proudly sported by a faded group of aging Portlanders still reliving the “Summer of Love”. How she had managed to capture the attentions of all those men over the years never ceased to amaze, but then I never had a clue. Since I got sober and became single, the idea of dating terrifies me.
“Here it is.” Melody had chosen a color print from the packet of photos and handed it to me. The photo revealed a woman I never would have recognized. She was not the Aurora I’d known.
“Jeez, what happened to her?” I asked. “Is this recent?”
“It was taken at Christmas,” said Melody.
Only Aurora’s slanted eyes looked the same. She’d lost most of her rear and gained breasts, and her nose was a different shape than I remembered it. Her formerly mouse-brown hair was bright blonde, gelled and squeezed into a well-styled mass of rumpled curls that framed her face. Her shaped brows and line-free smile hinted at an age much younger than her fifty years. She wore make-up and wore it well. In short, she had turned into a very attractive and noticeable woman.
Melody handed me another photo. In this one Aurora stood at the Christmas tree in Melody’s living room looking over her shoulder, grinning wickedly at the camera. Across the rear of her skin-tight jeans the word “REBEL” was spelled out in rhinestones.
I dropped the photo as if it had singed my hand. “Holy shit!” I said.
“Yeah,” said Melody, picking it up from the table. “She had a rich boyfriend and a midlife crisis simultaneously. She had a few tucks here and there. Then a nose job, and then six months later her boobs.”
The latter made sense. Aurora had not been blessed with ample breasts. “What was wrong with her nose?”
“Her man du jour, didn’t like it.”
“She let a guy make a decision about her nose?”
“She’s pretty needy, as you know. I guess he wanted her to lose weight, so she spent some quality time with Weight Watchers, too. Then, after he got her all fixed up the way he liked, she dumped him. He was into weird sex or something. I can’t remember exactly.” Melody’s voice choked up and I feared she might start crying again.
When Aurora took off there was seldom any warning. She’d be unavailable or out of touch for a week or two, and then she’d call—from another apartment, house, farm, city, or state. She would leave whomever, wherever she’d been, and resurface somewhere else where things were better, or would be soon. She’d tell Melody she’d become bored or restless, or he just “wasn’t the right one”—which probably meant the guy was pounding on her. Within a couple months she would show up reinvented and ready to rock and roll. She’d inevitably find a new one, at which time she’d assure Melody this was the one who would make her happy for the rest of her life. Then six months, a year, two years later, the cycle would repeat.
“What’s this one like?”
“His name is Cliff Baker, and he’s big,” said Melody. “Big and hairy. She told me he’s spent most of his life working as a hunting and fishing guide. He looks pretty wild.”
“Is he her age?”
“Older. Sixty, give or take a couple years. She says he’s retired. He’s muscular, not fat. Just big and thick and feral. He’s got a bad boy way about him, and Aurora has always found that attractive. He wears a baseball cap. Never takes it off.”
“Do you have a picture of him?”
“No, thank you very much. I didn’t want a picture of him. I knew something was wrong with that guy from the get-go. Something in his eyes. He was all nicey-nice, just yes-ma’amin’ and no-ma’amin’ until I could have kicked his butt, but those eyes were watching everything. They’re cold and dead. Frankly, I’m scared of him.”
I thought of Melody’s sometimes uppity ways. Maybe she made the guy nervous. But I’d seen cold and dead a time or two myself. Not the people I wanted in my home. “What did Dan think of him?”
Melody snorted. “Dan? He was watching a football game. He doesn’t give a rip.”
“Have you talked to this Baker character since Aurora lost touch?”
“Yes, and here’s what really bothers me. She was just happy as a pig in shit when they were on their way out of town. Once she landed at his place she sounded a little less than thrilled to be there—but I knew that would happen ‘cause she always thinks she’s goin’ to the Ritz. And there ain’t no Ritz in that part of Oregon, especially with someone like Cliff Baker. I’ve tried to tell her that.
Of course you have, I thought, as Melody kept talking. “Just a few days after she moved, their internet connection went dead. But, Aurora and I still talked daily on the phone. Then in late January she started sounding really down. I asked her what was going on. She said nothing much, but it was like she wasn’t really able talk to me. I figured things weren’t working and she’d be back here in a few days. Then a couple nights after that, she called me in the middle of the night, woke me from a sound sleep to tell me she had to get out of there now. Something had happened, she said, but she didn’t tell me what. She sounded scared. Then we disconnected. When I tried to phone her back, the call went straight to voice mail.
“I called her on her cell phone again that night. The next morning when I tried yet again, Baker answered her phone. He said she wasn’t there. I asked him to have her call me. He just hung up on me. Then I started wondering, why in the hell was he answering her cell phone? She never called me back. I kept calling, several times a day. A couple days later he answered her cell phone again and said she’d left him. I asked, where did she go? He said he drove her to Medford and left her at the airport. I asked why he was answering her cell phone and he told me that she’d forgotten it when she got out of his rig.”
“And you never heard from her again?”
“Nope. I’ve not talked with her since. I believed she left him, so I naturally expected she would show up here soon. She’d obviously made a huge mistake hooking up with him in the first place. But where on Earth did she go? And why hasn’t she called? She always calls me within a week or so, no matter what’s happened. I even checked with the airline. Nothing.” She paused, tearing up again. “I should have just gone down there.”
Up to this moment, Melody had done everything she could think of short of hiring a private detective. She’d called the state police and every hospital in southern Oregon. She’d called the Medford airport several times. Nobody named Aurora Johnson had flown out of it. She’d tried Aurora’s cell phone again and again, hoping her sister might eventually pick up despite what Baker had said. The last time she’d tried it the number was out of service.
By the time we left the bakery, we’d come up with the outline of a plan. I would accompany Melody to Bandon, a cute little enclave on the southern Oregon coast that is at most a twenty-minute drive from Radnor. We’d make it a little road trip out of it—this, according to my friend, who lived in the perpetual haze of happy endings—and have some special “girl time”. After we visited Baker (she had no idea where he lived relative to Radnor, but never mind, it would all work out) and sorted things out with him, we’d know exactly what had happened to Aurora, she’d be located, and that would be that.
Walking home through the downpour I admitted to myself that I wasn’t entirely convinced by Melody’s take on the outcome of our trip. But I also copped to my part in agreeing to go with her. Selfishly, I was happy to accompany her to Bandon because it would get me out of Portland. Period. I needed a change of scene, and going just about anywhere sounded like a great idea to me. As for Aurora, I doubted she’d be anywhere near Bandon if things were as bad as they had sounded to Melody when last they’d spoken. No, she’d be somewhere else per her usual style, only this time it would take a bit longer for her to fess up to her foolishness. She’d burned a lot of bridges. According to Melody, she’d quit a good job and sold her condo in the matter of a few weeks. She would feel she had some work to do to come up with a good justification to herself before she’d be ready to show her face in Portland again. But that wouldn’t stop us from having a little road trip together.
Just before I reached my front door another thought arose unbidden from my subconscious, and looking back, I wish I’d listened a bit harder to it. That little thought was what if…? Three weeks. Three entire weeks had passed without a word from Aurora. What if something truly awful had happened? If so, at this point the trail would be very cold indeed. I pushed that niggling fragment way down deep where it would have a very difficult time surfacing again. I figured we could cross that bridge if and when we came to it.