Oliver had been fighting a sense of looming chaos, and winning, until they pulled the half-frozen girl from the cargo hold.
He’d left the hospital with enough time to load all fifty-one passengers from the retirement village, plus luggage, onto the tour bus in Edmonton. He’d refereed a dispute over the merits of the two Elvises by declaring the King the winner, naturally. When mechanical troubles stranded them on the side of the road for hours, and far from the prebooked luncheon restaurant, he’d sprung for pizzas from the nearest town. He led the retirees in a rousing version of 99 Bottles of Bran on the Wall, reasoning that camp songs were as likely to work for the gray-haired as the young. He hadn’t even broken a sweat when one of the elderly ladies informed him, quite seriously, that he might be young and handsome, but his humor was perverted and condescending.
Then came the moment at the hotel in Harmony, when he was coaxing Mrs. Williams down the first of the bus’s steps.
Ninety-five-year-old Mrs. Horton, one of the more mobile passengers, and therefore among the first to disembark, tapped him on the shoulder with her cane.
“I’ll be with you in a minute,” Oliver said, and dug deep for patience.
Mrs. Horton had come at him from his blind side, which always rattled him. And her cane, with its icepick end, came close to scraping his glasses. Besides, why was she here, troubling Oliver, instead of taking full advantage of the rest stop? They had a long drive ahead to reach the hotel in Golden.
“Better hustle your fanny,” Mrs. Horton said. “Bus driver’s got a half-froze gal back there.”
“It’s February,” Mrs. Williams said, and if anything, slowed her descent. “I’m cold. You’re cold. Everybody’s cold.”
Mrs. Horton had begun to hobble away, but at this pronouncement, she paused and rested both hands on the handle of her cane. She fixed Oliver with a baleful eye. The pink, knit flower at the front of her cap quivered with what had to be indignation, since Parkinson’s wouldn’t have the gall to inflict itself upon her.
“Now I’ve done my job on account of I’ve delivered the message. If you want her all the way dead, guess that’s up to you.” She turned away.
It took a moment for the words to compute. When they did, Oliver fastened Mrs. Williams’s hand to the railing, abandoning her on the lowest step of the bus. “Wait here. I’ll be back in a minute.”
“Unacceptable.” Mrs. Williams sputtered. “I’m in urgent need of the biffy.”
“Young man,” called one of the Hofstadter twins from behind Mrs. Williams.
Was that Mavis or Avis? Oliver hadn’t sorted them out yet.
“Young man, where are you going? We’ve been stuck in this contraption for hours. Now we’re just supposed to stand here?”
A small crowd had gathered near the back end of the bus, where they had stored items requiring rapid access. Oliver pushed through, being careful not to bowl anyone over. All they needed was for someone to break a bone.
He climbed over a sea of discarded walkers and canes to get to the bus driver. Buck lay on his belly, his head and torso inside the cargo hold, giving Oliver an eyeful of uniformed legs and backside.
Oliver dropped to his knees and performed a lousy version of the Marine crawl, so as not to bang his head on the bus’s innards.
In the diesel-scented gloom, a large child—no, woman?—lay curled on her side in a nest of clothing. She wore a child’s unicorn hat. Buck’s meaty hand shook her shoulder in an attempt to rouse her, but only had the effect of stirring her hair as it lay in a curtain across her face.
“Miss? Wake up, miss.” Buck turned towards Oliver. “I don’t know what she’s doing here, Mr. P. I can’t think how she would have gotten in.”
“That’s a conversation for later.” Oliver shucked his gloves. The first priority was to determine whether he should call for the ambulance or coroner.
He pushed her hair back off her face. In the gloom he could see her eyes were closed and she was so pale she almost glowed. In contrast, her lips were a dark blue.
Something tickled at the back of his memory. Could carbon monoxide be responsible? He slid two shaking fingers under the collar of her puffy jacket to skin that was scarily cold. She had a pulse, thank goodness. Weak and slow, but a pulse nonetheless.
“She’s alive,” Oliver said. “Let’s keep her that way.”
It took a few minutes, and before it was over, Oliver banged his head hard enough to feel nauseous, but between the two of them they worked her out of the hold.
As he stood, bracing her in his arms, first her unicorn hat fell off and then a stocking cap, revealing dark hair striped with cobalt blue.
In the fading sunshine, she looked older than he’d thought. Mid-twenties, maybe. Old enough to know better than to sneak aboard an unheated space during a Canadian winter. In his arms, she felt as light as her down-filled jacket.
“Oh, my,” one of the tour group said, pressing in closer. “A stowaway. How exciting.”
“Someone likes stripes.”
“That’s my unicorn hat,” came from another. “That was in my suitcase for my granddaughter.”
Which explained the nest of clothing. At some point, the stowaway must have rifled through the accessible luggage, looking for ways to stay warm. Why in hell hadn’t she called for help? Oliver closed his eyes. Perhaps she had, at that. Had she lain there, freezing to death in pizza-scented air, while they sang cheeky drinking songs?
The orange-haired Hofstadter twin had found her way off the bus and now muscled her way toward him.
“Let me through, people. I’m a nurse.” Her voice had a volume and pitch calculated to convey authority, and the seniors obediently parted. Upon arrival, she repeated Oliver’s actions searching for a pulse, looking a thousand times more competent than he probably had. She nodded briskly.
They were joined by the blond twin. “Why, it’s the girl from the pharmacy in Edmonton,” she exclaimed. “She helped carry my bags to the bus. I thought she left. She even said goodbye.”
Making it a good five hours she’d spent in the hold. Oliver wanted to groan. He nodded toward the girl’s mouth. “Please tell me that’s lipstick,” he said to the nurse.
She swiped a gloved finger over the stowaway’s face and flashed a grin of triumph. “Yup. Our girl has a Goth sense of fashion.”
As if the nurse’s pronouncement had flipped a switch, the figure in his arms stirred. Her lashes opened, revealing a pair of unfocused eyes the color of wet spring leaves. She began to shudder, as if she’d swallowed an unbalanced washing machine.
Oliver had to shift her to avoid dropping her.
“That’s a good sign, lovey,” the nurse cooed to the stowaway. “You just keep that up. Shivering raises the body temperature.” She trained a laser-like gaze upon the waiting hotel, its sandstone exterior a glowing rose color in the setting sun. “Right. Time to get her warm.” Her voice whipped forth once again. “Make way, people. We have to get her inside.”