Authors: Jeanne C. Stein
Tags: #Vampires, #Strong; Anna (Fictitious Character), #Contemporary, #General, #Urban Life, #Fantasy, #Fiction, #Occult & Supernatural
He speaks, slowly, as if translating from his native language into English as he goes. “I had a son. Antonio. Only fifteen.”
I think he’s also speaking slowly because he’s choosing his words carefully, so I will understand. With an effort, I push away my suspicions, clear my mind to listen.
“He was a quiet boy. A good student. He attended the same school as many of the sons of government officials. One of these boys, Rójan, was a . . .” He pauses, looks to Culebra.
“Bully,” Culebra says.
“One day he and several others found my son alone in the schoolyard. They told him he was to be their ‘bitch’ and knocked him to the ground. They opened their pants, urinated on him.” Ramon rubs a hand over his face. Refocuses to continue. “He tried to fight back, punching and kicking. But there were five of them. They said he needed to learn respect for his betters.”
Another quick intake of breath. “The other boys held my son, pulled his pants down while Rójan, the
, raped him.”
Ramon’s voice catches, then turns cold. “My son was humiliated, his self-esteem destroyed. He didn’t come to me. He knew Rójan was protected by his powerful family and would not suffer for his actions. So he withdrew. The shame built up inside him until he could no longer endure the pain. Within a month, he took his own life.”
Ramon draws a deep breath, wipes his eyes with the back of his hand. “He left a note. Apologizing to us, his family, for what had been done to him. As if it had been his fault. As if he had shamed us. He
.” He spits the word, his face hardening with rage. “I knew I had to avenge my son. At first, I wanted to kill Rójan’s father. But then
—” He looks to Culebra again.
“Fate,” Culebra replies.
Fate intervened. A few weeks after we buried Antonio, I was walking in the woods near our home. I heard a young woman crying. I found a couple lying in the shade. The boy was on top, but they were not making love. The girl was fighting and sobbing and begging him to stop. Her blouse was torn, her skirt pushed up around her waist. She was being raped. When I realized who the boy was, I was consumed by a fury that turned my blood to fire. It was Rójan.”
Again he stops, composing himself, crossing his arms tightly across his chest, drawing deep breaths.
In spite of my suspicions, I am spellbound by his anguish. I understand it. I’ve lived it twice. Once, when I was made vampire through an act of rape. Again, when I found out my niece Trish was being abused by men who paid her mother to make videos of their sick acts, robbing a young girl of her innocence. All I could think about was exacting vengeance. I see the same hatred in Ramon’s eyes now.
Culebra reads the emotions running through my mind. His eyes catch and hold mine. This is what he wanted me to hear—to understand.
I glance away to Max. His face betrays no emotion. He has heard Ramon’s story or one like it many times before. I know in spite of the indifference he projects, his gut is churning the same as mine, the same as Culebra’s. I also know he will do everything he can to exact justice for Ramon and his son. I know it because in spite of how I feel about him personally, Max is a good man.
Culebra touches Ramon’s arm, nods at him to go on.
Ramon unfolds his arms, his shoulders relax a little, his back straightens. “I grabbed Rójan off the girl, held him while the girl got away. All the while, Rójan cursed me, threatening what his father could do to me, to my family. Threats I knew he could make good.
“It didn’t matter. I punched him until he had no fight left. I took his belt, and used mine to bind his hands and feet to a tree. Then I slapped his face to arouse him. I showed him my knife. I told him what he had done to my son cost Antonio his life. I told him he would never rape anyone again. He merely laughed.”
Ramon’s voice turns cold. “Until I stabbed him. I stabbed him and watched as the life slowly ebbed from his body. Then I left him to die.”
His eyes grow hard. “But it wasn’t enough. I wanted him humiliated in death the way he humiliated my son in life. I thought when they found him like this, tied to a tree and stuck like the pig he was, he would be denied the noble death that befitted the son of an important government minister.”
I find myself asking softly, “Someone found out that it was you that killed him? Is that why your family is in danger?”
He wipes at his eyes again. “A few days later, I saw an article in the local paper. The police found the body of a young girl in a garbage dump. I recognized the photo. It was the girl who had been with Rójan. She was killed to silence her. With no witness to challenge the facts of Rójan’s death, he was given a hero’s funeral. It was said he died in a plane crash.” Ramon spits at the ground. “He was called a hero.
“The girl must have told someone that Rójan had raped her. She may have even recognized me since I was often in town. I knew it was only a matter of time before the minister would seek his own revenge. I moved my family. But there is a price on their heads. I have to do something to save them. Get them out of the country.” He stares intently at Max. “I am willing to help your government if they will protect my family.”
Max exhales sharply, as if he’d been holding his breath during Ramon’s story. The first physical reaction he’s exhibited to Ramon’s story. “We’ll do what we can.”
Culebra looks at me. But there’s no question in his gaze. He knows my answer.
Shit. “I’m in.”
How could I not be? My attacker is dead. The men who attacked Trish are either dead or in jail. What happened to Ramon’s son had nothing to do with drugs and everything to do with human degradation. “Ramon, I am sorry for the loss of your son.”
For the first time, Ramon’s eyes are not full of uncertainty and disdain when they meet mine, but a glimmer of hope. He turns to the door.
“Consigue el plano listo para ir.”
He walks outside to ready the plane for takeoff. I turn to Culebra. I picked up something in his thoughts while Ramon was relating his story that makes me peer into his eyes.
“You lost someone in the same way?”
He smiles, a sad, slow tilting of the lips. “Every village has its bullies like Rójan. When I was twelve, my sister was attacked. She didn’t survive.”
There’s more, I can tell by the way he’s protecting his thoughts, not letting me read them. He doesn’t give me a chance to ask about it, either, but with a pat on my arm leaves to join Ramon and the pilot.
Max is as quiet as I, lost in his thoughts the way I’m lost in mine. Culebra’s insistence that we help Ramon makes sense now. We—Culebra, Ramon and I—share a terrible, common experience. We’ve all seen loved ones hurt by another’s hand.
Max draws my attention with a wave of his hand, as if hit with a sudden thought.
“You’d better call Stephen before we take off,” he says, pointing to his watch. “It’s already late. Let him know—” He falters.
I sigh. “Yeah. Let him know what?” But I know Max is right. I dig my cell out of my pocket and ring Stephen. He picks up right away.
“Anna? Where are you? I’ve been worried.”
“Sorry, Stephen. The job is going to take longer than I expected. I’m going out of town. I wish I could tell you how long, but I’m not sure.”
“So, David and Tracey are going with you?”
Uh-oh. Something in his tone gives me pause. “Why do you ask?”
“You’re not with them, are you?”
Ice is forming through the phone lines. To make matters worse, I feel Max’s eyes on me. Fuck it. “No.”
“Well, at least this time you’re being honest. I talked to David an hour ago. Why would you lie to me? Why would you let me think you were with them?”
“I didn’t lie to you. And if you’ll recall, you hung up before I could tell you who I was with.”
As soon as I say it, I know I’ve sunk myself deeper into the pit. Sure enough, Stephen counters with, “Well, here’s your chance to set the record straight. Who are you with and what are you doing?”
From outside, the sound of the plane engine roars into life. I grab at it like a lifeline, an excuse to cut the conversation short. “I’m sorry, Stephen, I have to go. I’ll call you when I can.”
This time, before Stephen can respond, I disconnect. I look over at Max. He’s giving me one of those “I told you so” looks. I give him one of those “fuck you” looks and narrow my eyes. “Don’t say it. Not a fucking word.”
HAVE NO IDEA WHAT KIND OF RESCUE PLAN CULEBRA and Ramon have in mind, or how Max and I will be involved. At this moment, it doesn’t matter. Ramon’s story compels me to help him.
Even the turbulence we hit as the small plane is buffeted by wind blowing off the hills doesn’t bother me.
The acid churning my gut is not from the prospect of danger or the choppy ride. It’s caused by the thought that I don’t know if Stephen will be waiting for me when we get back. Why in the world didn’t I tell him what I’m doing? It’s like I have a chronic aversion to telling the truth even when there’s no need to lie. Is it because he’s human? Is it because Max is an unhappy reminder of what happens when I’m honest with a mortal partner?
I rest my head against the seat, close my eyes. My scorecard with boyfriends is pretty bleak. Human or supernatural, it doesn’t seem to make a difference. I either piss them off, scare them away or kill them. Stephen deserved better. Of all of them, he was the best. I really liked him.
him. I’m already thinking of him in past tense.
I open one eye. Max has taken the seat next to me. I pull myself upright. “What?”
“We’ll be landing in about thirty minutes. Are you all right?”
“Peachy. I’ve probably lost the nicest boyfriend I’ve ever had.” I give him the fish eye. “Present company included.”
He shrugs. “Maybe you have, maybe you haven’t. Won’t do you any good to obsess about it. We’re going into a dangerous situation. Best get your head straight.”
I bite back the sarcastic “no shit” comeback that almost springs from my lips and ask instead, “What’s the plan?”
“My guess? When we land, we’ll go straight to the safe house where Ramon has his family. We’ll figure the rest from there.”
“Does Ramon know about me?”
“That you’re vampire? I’m not sure. He and Culebra have spent the flight talking but I get the impression it’s more catching up than anything else. Those two were close once upon a time. There’s a lot of history.”
Max gets quiet for a moment. “You were thinking about Trish when Ramon spoke of what happened to his son, weren’t you?”
Max was around during the time Trish came into my life. He knows what happened to her. He doesn’t know what happened to me—not all of it—not about the rape that resulted in my becoming vampire. We were dating then and I couldn’t bring myself to speak to him about it. I still can’t.
I simply nod.
“I was, too,” he says. “Is she doing well now?”
So well it makes me smile. “Yes. She and my folks were just here for a visit. They’re selling the La Mesa house. France agrees with them.”
He’s quiet for a moment. “I know you’ll miss them, but I’m glad it’s worked out.”
Silence settles around us. Well, silence in the sense that Max and I no longer talk. The drone and throb of the plane’s twin engines fills the cabin with noise and vibration. This is a bare-bones transport plane. Six seats jammed together in an empty cargo space. Empty now. Since the pharmaceutical smell of cut cocaine and the earthy smell of marijuana lingers, there’s no doubt that this plane’s primary purpose is running drugs.
I look out the window, but even with vampire vision, I can’t see much. There’s no moon to cast even a shadow on the terrain below. It’s a dark blur of black on black. Occasionally we pass over a cluster of lights from a village, but nothing that resembles a city. I think the pilot is purposely avoiding well-trafficked air space.
I remember from the map that the route was a straight shot across Mexico and that Reynosa was on the Rio Grande. I also remember from newspaper articles that it was a hotspot of cartel killings. Reynosa is like an 1880s Tombstone. I have the feeling we’re heading right into our own gunfight at the OK Corral.
“Do you really think you have a chance of getting close to Santiago?” I ask Max after a minute.
He lifts his shoulders. “Depends on how badly he wants Ramon. He may send some men to do the actual killing but if he’s really pissed, he may want to be there to make sure it gets done right.”
“Are you going to alert your DEA buddies when we land?”
“Not right away. Not until I know we have a chance to get Santiago.” He grins. “Besides, I have the best backup I could hope for. Culebra and a vampire with a hatred for people who abuse kids.”
I snort. “I think that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”
“Well, don’t let it go to your head. It’s probably the
nice thing I’ll ever say to you.”
Yeah. Before this trip is over, I’m sure I’ll piss him off again. He’s so easy to piss off and I’m so good at it.
* * *
IT’S NOT UNTIL WE COME IN FOR A LANDING THAT I realize how close to the ground we’d been flying. First a bright orange flicker appears suddenly out of the darkness in front of us. Then, we’re descending, and the next moment, the wheels are scraping dirt. A cloud of dust rises like a ghostly fog, obscuring my view out the window. I assume the low altitude was to escape radar detection but frankly, I’m glad I didn’t know how low we were flying. And doubly glad we had a pilot who knew the terrain.
We deplane while the engine is running at a dirt airstrip surrounded by dense brush. Dust hangs in the air and at the far end of the field, a second orange flicker dances in the darkness before it’s quickly extinguished. A boy has thrown a tarp over what I can see now is a burning barrel of—I sniff. Oil. The boy is running back toward us now and the pilot waves a hand.
There’s a building with open hangar doors and after we jump out, the pilot waits for the boy to climb aboard and then turns the plane toward the hangar.