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   Chapter 2 No.2

My Sister's Keeper By Bill Benners Characters: 9144

Updated: 2018-05-28 10:03

IN THE SOLITUDE OF MARTHA'S HOSPITAL ROOM, my mind drifted back to that summer day when a sixteen-year-old neighborhood bully named Jimmy Lassiter pulled a switchblade and tried to rob us. I was fourteen at the time and Martha was ten. Without hesitation, she snatched up a broken chunk of brick and hurled it, permanently blinding him in his right eye, and scarring me internally for the rest of my life. Coward!

Why couldn't I be more like my sister?

As I watched over her and prayed for her life, I promised God that night that if he'd let Martha live, no matter how badly she was injured, I'd take care of her for the rest of her life if needed. I hadn't kept many promises I'd made to God, but that was one promise I did intend to keep.

When Martha finally did emerge from her coma and I realized how much rehabilitation she was going to need, I went back to New York City, packed up my Tribeca photography studio, and hauled it down to Wilmington so I could help with her recovery.

After four months in the hospital, she moved back home with Mom and Dad and things got easier. In addition to helping with Martha, I set up a studio downtown and got involved in the local theatre. That was three years ago.

The events of that night at the warehouse cost Martha a kidney and left her paralyzed from the waist down. She's gotten used to the pain, the limitations, and the prognosis of a future alone, but I don't think she'll ever get over not being able to have children.

Although the police had a solid set of fingerprints and even some DNA evidence, the case still had yet to be solved three years later. Two more girls had turned up floating in the river and another two disappeared without a trace. The police feared they had a serial killer on their hands and—although confined to a wheelchair—finding the owners of those fingerprints had become the focus of Martha's life.

And mine, too.

I wanted her to go with me. I told her we'd go anywhere she wanted, but until this thing was resolved, she wouldn't leave—and neither could I. I was her legs.

When the police exhausted their leads, Martha talked Sam Jones into giving her detailed copies of the three sets of fingerprints they'd found in the warehouse. She ordered a fingerprint kit along with computer hardware and software on the Internet, and read every book she could find on how to collect, store, and interpret them. She became an expert.

I pushed her around town and took her places she couldn't go on her own so she could secretly lift drinking glasses, forks, and knives from seedy bars and restaurants from which to get fingerprints to scan at home.

Her scrapbook grew to contain more than seven hundred prints catalogued with notes identifying where they came from, when, and to whom they belonged—or most likely belonged. She even took to getting possible suspects to help her with her wheelchair just so she could get their prints off the handles.

That's all she had to go on. That and the name "Jack." But that's all she needed. She'd never give up, and had started to make some people very nervous.

Then she found something.

I had stopped by to pick her up for another outing and leaned in her bedroom door. "How'd we do, Babe?" I asked.

She was comparing two images of fingerprints on her computer screen. Her shoulder-length hair was pulled back in a short ponytail exposing her freckled forehead and thick Brooke Shields eyebrows. Through frameless eyeglasses resting on the end of her nose, she squinted at the screen. "I think we can finally rule out Jackie…Wilkes, " she said. The lisp in her speech was now gone and the hesitations were waning. I stepped in and kissed the top of her head.

"Good. Maybe we can move on to someplace else. Mickey's is starting to give me the creeps."

"But…take a look at this, " she said rolling her wheelchair to the side.

Leaning forward, I examined the images on the screen. "What?"

"See that faded print to the right of the dark one?"

"Got it."

"Now compare that to this one." She touched a few keys on the keyboard and the image on the screen changed. "This is number three from the warehouse, the one they found on the window sill." I looked back and forth between the prints. There was a scar in the shape of a slanted cross in them that seemed to match.

"Jesus! What was this on?" I asked.

"A cigarette butt. Do you know what…this means?"

"Print this out. We need to show it to Sam."

"It means the man was there."

"You're getting close, Babe."

"We have to go back."

Mickey's Pub and Rib House was a fancy name for a trashy hole-in-the-wall that probably hadn't served a rack of ribs since sometime back in the '80s. Patrons consisted mostly of bums off the docks, drifters, and drug addicts. The only regulars seemed to be the girls that hung out there shifting from lap to lap looking for enough money for a fix.

"I've got a busy day tomorrow. I won't be free until at least four and I don't think it's a good idea to be there after dark."

Mom leaned in the door. Pearl—as she was known to her friends at church—was Bette Davis in a size 16 dress with a southern drawl and a hint of white fuzz along the sides of her chin. It was her heavy, sad eyes that did it.

"You had dinner, Richie? How about some black beans and rice?"

It was tempting, but I was not in the mood for another round with my father so I lied. "Thanks, but yes I have and I swear I can't eat another bite."

"You ought not to let the things your daddy says bother you, Richie. You know he doesn't mean anything by it. He just doesn't know how to say things right."

I didn't reply. It was an argument nobody wins. "I'll see you tomorrow, Babe." I squeezed Martha's shoulder and kissed Mom on the way out.

The next day we stopped first by Sam Jones's office and showed him the printout. I was relieved, myself, when he told us to stay away from Mickey's—that they'd had a complaint that we were driving away his business. Sam said he'd stop in and see what he could find out.

But Martha didn't want to turn it loose. She wanted to at least watch the place for awhile and get photographs of those coming and going. I wanted to do like Sam said, to stay away, but I was ready for this thing to be over, too. With Dad constantly snapping at my heels reminding me of why I left Wilmington in the first place, I'd decided that just as soon as this case was wrapped up—as well as the play I was directing—I was out of there. Martha or no Martha, I was leaving. New York. Atlanta. Cleveland. Anywhere, but Wilmington. A place with a good theatre community. Everyone needs a hobby. Mine is directing theatre. It would be my career if I could figure out how to earn a living doing it.

With the Azalea Festival only days away, the streets downtown were ablaze with blooming azaleas and dogwoods. As we headed for my studio to get camera equipment, Martha was quiet, lost in deep thought, then broke her silence.

"Sister Hazel's going to be at the…festival Sunday, " she said gazing out at the street decorations.

"What does she do?"

"It's a rock band I…saw once." Her voice was heavy, thoughtful.

"Oh? I figured you to be more of the Carrie Underwood type."

"They were at Lincoln Theatre in Raleigh."

"Oh yeah?"

She wiped a tear from her cheek and drew a deep breath. "It was at that concert that Todd asked me…to marry him."

"Oh, Babe. I'm sorry."

She turned her face away and wiped her nose with a tissue. Marrying Todd had been her dream since high school. After the accident, he stopped by only once. We rode the rest of the way to my studio in silence where I picked up a digital Nikon, a high-powered telephoto lens, and a pair of binoculars.

"Can we go to the beach this weekend?" she asked as I turned off Market Street and headed into the older part of the city near the docks.

"It'll have to be early on Sunday."

"That's okay. It's been three years since I've seen the ocean."

"It hasn't changed."

She didn't laugh.

The neighborhood we drove through hadn't changed since we were kids either. Even the posters plastered on all the vacant buildings announcing the Cole Brothers Circus was coming to town looked the same. As we drove along, the trees thinned, the streets got dirtier, and the color faded to gray.

We pulled around to the back of a row of abandoned stores across from Mickey's and parked behind a hollowed-out brick shell of a building with the doors and windows missing.

I eased her wheelchair through the rubble to a spot inside from where we could watch the comings and goings at Mickey's. I clamped a bracket on an exposed water pipe to steady the camera and zoomed in on the entrance to the bar.

A short time later, a pair of city detectives walked into Mickey's and during the next five minutes, I photographed close to twenty patrons as the place emptied out. Martha watched through the binoculars while I captured images as fast as the camera would go.

Neither of us heard the two come up behind us until one spoke.

"What the hell do we have going on here?"

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