I wish you wouldn’t go with him tonight. If you get caught…” Judith’s voice bounced off the yellowed porcelain tiles as she leaned closer to her sister at the counter in the ladies’ room. Judith stared at her own thin, chapped lips as Leda bared her teeth at her reflection in the chipped mirror and painted her lips a bright scarlet.
“We need that money for California, we sure won’t be able to dance our way there.” Leda pursed her lips at her reflection before turning back to her sister. “Maybe he’ll be the last one.”
No one would think them sisters. Judith was tall as any man, taller than Leda by a foot at least, with broad shoulders and muscular arms that stretched the short sleeves of her thin cotton dress. Judith’s eyes and hair were the dull brown of Oklahoma dirt, the same as their parents, but her strange changeling sister had hair black as a cornfield crow, and eyes the cold color of a Blue Norther.
They should have gone west as soon as they left the farm behind, blown along to a new land like the rest of the Oklahoma topsoil. They buried their father in dirt so fine it flowed like powder into the grave. The last of the equipment sold, the last of the animals slaughtered, they set out. But they’d stopped in Dallas for the Texas Centennial celebration, because Leda heard there was money they could earn there. She was too young to be working at a dance hall, but pretty lies sprang from her mouth like cool water from a spring, and she flirted her way into a job not just for herself, but for Judith.
“You got lipstick on your teeth,” Judith said. Leda touched the blood red dot, and with a quick swipe she smeared the crimson color across her teeth.
“The better to eat you with!” She growled at Judith then laughed.
“Not funny, Leda,” Judith answered, as the restroom door swung open and another woman swirled in with a cloud of perfume and cigarette smoke. The strains of western swing music grew louder and then faint again as the door creaked shut. The new arrival stopped beside Judith and looked in the mirror, then patted at the curls in her blond hair as she spoke.
“I swear, that last fella stepped on my feet more than he did his! I’m gonna call it an early night, you can have all the dimes from here on out. You read the paper yesterday? They found another body, throat cut ear to ear, just like the last one.”
“We’ll be okay, Patti,” Judith answered as she frowned at the mirror and shook her head at Leda.
Patti shrugged. “Well, you better be careful who you walk out with, there’s more trouble there than might be worth the extra money.”
“I’m always careful, and Judith watches out for me,” Leda replied as the woman stepped away to the stalls. Judith thought yes, she looked after her sister, like the tree looks after the mistletoe that clings to its branches.
“Give me your hanky,” Leda said, holding out her hand to her sister.
As Judith fumbled with the heavy leather purse hanging from her arm her fingers brushed across a folded piece of paper. The faded travel brochure she carried was filled with pictures of laughing, happy people, ocean beaches, and fertile fields overflowing with fruits and vegetables. The promised land of California could deliver them from nights filled with sweaty, lustful men and memories of the plague of dust they had left behind in Oklahoma. She handed Leda her handkerchief and waited while her sister cleaned the red stain from her teeth.
“We got to get back out there, it’s almost last call.”
“You got nothing to worry about, you think those men are gonna talk about it?” Leda laughed and pushed open the ladies’ room door.
Judith followed Leda back out into the ballroom. The money they made at the dance hall was supposed to go toward a new start in California. Instead Leda spent those hard-earned coins on leather shoes in bright colors with soles that slipped across the dance floor, and silky undergarments.
As Judith dodged the wooden tables and chairs crowded into the nightclub, she spotted the man sitting alone waiting for them. Slumped with his elbows resting on the polished table top, she could tell he was taller than her, a little over six feet Judith guessed. His grey wool suit coat draped across his shoulders without a crease. His black eyes reminded Judith of crude oil. The coal dark hair that framed his face was slicked back with pomade that smelled like dying roses and held the reflection of the dim lights that shined down from the high ceiling.
“Hello ladies, glad to see you return.” The man stayed in his chair as the sisters approached. He picked up the whiskey bottle in front of him and poured a round of drinks into the glasses waiting on the table. “I’d hate to go looking for you.”
Leda settled in the wooden chair next to him and lifted her glass to her lips, laughing as she reached out to place her hand on his sleeve. “Oh, don’t mind if I do!” She smiled and turned the glass up to swallow the dark amber liquid. The man moved his arm from under Leda’s grasp and frowned as he smoothed out the soft wool fabric of his jacket. Judith paused at the table, ignoring the drink at her place, then turned to Leda.
“I’m going to cash in, the crowd’s thinned out enough they won’t miss me.” Leda nodded and waved a hand toward Judith.
“Go ahead then, party pooper, I’m sure John and I will find something to do for the rest of the evening.”
As Judith turned to leave, Leda spoke up, “Your slip is showing, best fix it.”
Judith reached down to where a small line of yellowed lace drooped below the hem of her dress. She gathered the thin material in her hand and tried to finish tearing it off, but it only ripped farther along the edge.
“Damn!” Judith said, shaking the lace from her hands.
Before she could straighten up, John knelt before her on the floor. He reached up toward her, and a flash of pearl reflected from the object in his hand. A quiet click sounded and a long, sharp knife blade sprang from the handle. As he reached for the strip of lace, he stroked the crease at the back of Judith’s knee, then sliced through the torn piece. His hand touched hers as he handed her the cloth, and Judith drew in a short breath.
“Don’t wait up, Judith.” Leda’s voice cut in and Judith nodded, not trusting herself to speak out loud.
She cashed in and left the dance hall and waited for Leda in the alley behind a hotel where rooms rented for less than a night. The pavement was slick with water, it must have rained earlier. The soft yellow glow from the streetlight reflected off the walls of the brick building behind her. She stepped deeper into a doorway in the shadows. A woman’s laughter, like ice cubes clinking in a glass, echoed down the alleyway. Judith leaned out to watch them as they approached.
“Hold on a second, you can have the whole night if you got the money, honey.” Leda spoke to the man at her side.
“No, I don’t need the whole night,” he replied.
He grabbed hold of Leda’s arm to pull her toward him, and Judith strode out from the darkness. One hand reached into the purse at her side and pulled out the ball peen hammer that weighted down her arm. John looked up and Judith swung and struck him on the temple. He dropped with a grunt, like the pigs on the farm back home. Leda leaped on the man, rolling him over onto his stomach, and snatched at his hair to arch his neck to slice through with her sharp killing blade.
As the blood spilled out and mixed with the rainwater puddle beneath him, Leda’s hands moved over his body, finding and pulling out first his wallet, and a roll of bills from another pocket. Judith saw Leda’s long, thin knife lying beside her on the wet alleyway. Leda laughed as she thumbed through the money. She bent forward and touched the red blood that still pulsed from the deep wound and then brought her finger, dipped in red that looked like black paint, to her parted lips and touched it to her teeth. Leda smiled up at Judith as she said, “See, I told you everything would be fine.”
Judith stepped back from the blood that spread out from the body. A dark lake of blood, an ocean of liquid that would never be enough to wash off the choking dust from their memories. Leda would always thirst for more to quench that dryness, and they would get caught, Judith realized.
Her little sister grinned up at her from where she knelt clutching the roll of bills that would buy a ticket to California. The black tar smudge of blood on Leda’s mouth glistened, and Judith smiled back at her as she brought the hammer down one last time.
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