Authors: Jeanne C. Stein
Tags: #Vampires, #Strong; Anna (Fictitious Character), #Contemporary, #General, #Urban Life, #Fantasy, #Fiction, #Occult & Supernatural
Culebra and Ramon are walking to a battered Jeep parked a hundred yards away from the airstrip. Max and I follow. Ramon motions us inside and cranks the engine over.
I look toward the hangar. “The pilot isn’t coming?”
“He’ll wait for us here,” Ramon answers.
It’s a quiet ride. No conversation from the front seats or back. I glance at my watch. Ten. Max catches the gesture, mimics it.
“It’s two hours later here,” he says, slipping off his watch to adjust the time.
I do the same. Midnight. The witching hour.
We travel for thirty minutes down dirt roads with no discernable signs of life. We must be a good distance from Reynosa. No glimmer of city lights. I do catch the scent of water and hear the rush of currents. The Rio Grande is somewhere behind the thick curtain of vegetation we’re skirting.
At last we come to a clearing. Squatting in the center is a small clapboard cabin with boarded-up windows. Ramon swerves the Jeep into the dense brush alongside the cabin. Then he points to it. “We will stay here tonight.”
I glance at Culebra. “Why would Ramon want to wait? I thought he was worried about his family’s safety.”
Ramon hears my question. He answers. “My wife will be frightened by the arrival of a vehicle this late at night. She has been through enough.”
Like Ramon and Culebra, Max and I have to fight our way through the tangle of brush ensnaring the Jeep. Camouflage by nature, I guess. Max has his duffel bag in hand and once in the open, he charges after Ramon.
Culebra hangs back.
Anna, a word.
I stop, turn to him.
I have not told Ramon that you are vampire.
Does he know you are a shape-shifter?
Culebra shakes his head.
No one from that part of my life knows. After the way I was treated by my own family, I wasn’t going to take the chance.
I nod. Keeping the secret of your true nature from humans, even those who love you, is something I understand only too well.
Shall I tell Max not to let anything slip?
When you have a chance to do it without Ramon overhearing.
There’s a sense of unease shimmering through his thoughts that startles me.
You don’t trust Ramon? If that’s true, what are we doing here?
Culebra releases a breath.
It’s not that I don’t trust him. It’s just that a lot of time has passed since I last saw him. Things change. People change.
I don’t understand, Culebra. If you have any doubts, why are you risking your life to help him?
Culebra looks away, toward the cabin.
I owe him a great debt. It is my obligation to pay it.
When he turns back to me, his thoughts no longer radiate concern.
Let’s get inside. We have much to discuss if we are to help Ramon and his family.
I follow him toward the open cabin door. His attempt to banish anxiety from his head was masterful but not entirely convincing. It leaves me troubled.
Ramon and Max have pried open the door to the cabin. When Culebra and I join them, they have an oil lantern burning on the table and are examining the contents of shelves lining the kitchen area of a very primitive one-room dwelling. A wood-burning stove, a small pile of wood beside it, a plank table, a freestanding sink with a pump handle are the only objects in the room. No chairs. No beds. No creature comforts of any kind. The structure is made of rough-hewn wood, floor, walls, ceiling. It’s so small, the five of us make the place seem crowded.
Ramon pulls a coffeepot from one of the shelves and points at Max to grab a small burlap bag from another. When Max opens it, the rich smell of coffee fills the room. Max opens the belly of the stove and slips a log inside. He pulls a book of matches from an inside jacket pocket and strikes one. The wood catches fire immediately, the crackle and pop of dry tinder making me wonder how long it’s been here.
I join Culebra to stand around the table while Ramon works the pump handle at the sink. At first, just a squeal of protesting pipes greets his efforts. Then a gush of brown water with the stink of sulfur.
My nose crinkles in disgust.
Ramon keeps pumping and gradually the water clears though the smell remains strong. He fills the percolator, dumps in some grounds, sets the pot on the stove. In a few minutes, the water boils, the coffee brews, the smell improves—a little.
Still, I think I’ll pass on that coffee.
Max seems to agree. He unzips the duffel and pulls a couple of bottles of water from inside, holding one out to me.
I take it and drink. My digestive system won’t be affected by bad water, but I draw the limits on bad coffee. “What else do you have in there?” I ask him, pointing to the duffel.
“Oh, this and that,” he replies.
He turns away before I can ask again. I’m liking the ambiguity. Makes me feel all warm and safe. Knowing Max, that duffel probably holds a small arsenal right along with the water.
A Boy Scout. Hell, better. When heading for a gunfight, who better to have with me than my own personal Wyatt Earp.
NCE THE CHUG AND GURGLE OF THE OLD PERCOLATOR stops, Ramon pulls tin cups down from the back of one of the cabinets. When he looks over at Max and me, offering us mugs, we both hold up our hands in gestures of refusal. He pours two steaming mugs and he and Culebra gulp them down.
No reservation there about drinking the coffee.
The smell dissuaded me and I have the constitution of a—well, a vampire.
Culebra and Ramon have a brief conversation while they drink, after which Max, who understood, says to me, “Better get some rest. We’re starting out at first light.”
There are no beds, cots or even rugs in the barely furnished cabin. Luckily, I’m not high maintenance. Mimicking the others, I sink to the floor, lean my back against the wall and close my eyes. I let the human Anna relax, but leave vampire on alert.
Culebra’s hint that Ramon may not be entirely trustworthy lingers in my head. Along with Max’s earlier comment about Ramon showing up to either warn Culebra about some danger or to kill him. I should have asked Culebra how Ramon found him. Had he kept in touch with his “old friend”? Ramon told his story with an emotional intensity that rang true, but I’ve told a few lies in my time. The best lies always ring true.
I pass the night in that kind of half sleep that floats on the surface of consciousness; the mind drifting but not letting go, the senses alert for the slightest stirring of physical movement from inside or outside the cabin.
Not very restful. When dawn finally shows itself in pink ribbons through chinks in the walls, it’s a relief. I look over at Max, and from the bleary-eyed way he meets my gaze, I’d guess he’s been awake all night, too.
Ramon climbs to his feet first and makes for the door. Culebra and Max follow. From the sounds I pick up, they each make for a different corner around the outside of the cabin to relieve themselves.
Sometimes having super hearing is not such a blessing.
But because I have to pretend to be human, once they’re back, I head out. My system absorbs any kind of liquid directly into my bloodstream. There’s nothing to excrete but I wait a few minutes, shifting restlessly from one foot to the other, then rejoin them. Culebra gives me a sly smile and I roll my eyes.
Ramon makes another pot of coffee. I’m antsy to get going. I would think he would be, too. But no one questions it and after he and Culebra consume another pot, and Max and I have finished off two more bottles of water, we’re at last trudging toward the Jeep.
Ramon once more takes the driver’s seat, Culebra beside him. Max and I climb into the back.
In the daylight, I see the river in dappled silver glimpses through the brushes and trees to our right. We are following its pathway west, away from Reynosa. While there is more vegetation along the riverbank, the smell of desert heat and abandonment is strong. We pass several cabins in various stages of decay, as if one by one, their owners left for—what?
There’s not much in this part of Mexico. Perhaps they moved closer to Reynosa. Or braved the currents of the Rio Grande to forge a new life across the border.
We continue to follow the river for two hours, a hot winter sun rising high in the sky. The humidity from the river and the desert heat combine to make the air so thick, you could drink it with a straw. Swarms of insects buzz around our heads. Ramon and Max are covered with a patina of sweat, attracting more insects. They alternate between swatting at them and wiping sweat out of their eyes.
Only Culebra and I are impervious to the swarm. Even mosquitoes refrain from biting a vampire—professional courtesy, I guess. I didn’t realize shape-shifters had the same immunity.
I’m about to ask how much farther when Ramon brakes sharply, the Jeep skidding to a halt. He jumps out, grabs a heavy looking tree branch that has fallen near the trail and gives a tug. It pulls away, revealing an opening in the brush. He motions to Culebra to drive the Jeep through, pushing the branch into place when we’re on the other side. Then he climbs back into the driver’s seat and we’re off-roading it through terrain even rougher than before.
I grab the roll bar to keep from bouncing out. Low-hanging branches pull and scrape at us, ruts as big across as tree trunks launch the Jeep airborne, then send it crashing back down to earth. I’ve jammed my jaws so tightly closed, my teeth ache. It’s either that or take a chance they’ll break with the jarring. I need my teeth. Don’t know if there are vampire dentists. Every muscle in my body is drawn tight as a vise. When I look over at Max, he’s got both hands around the roll bar. He looks a little green, like he may be getting carsick.
I don’t say anything. If he’s going to lose it, I don’t want him looking in my direction.
Only Ramon seems oblivious to the Jeep’s wild careening. His jaw is set, his eyes stare straight ahead. He’s a man on a mission to save his family. I can’t fault him for that.
I only wish I knew where the hell we were going.
We’re not parallel to the river anymore. Gradually, the brush gets sparser, the ground more rocky. We start on an uphill climb. Low-growing bushes are crushed under the wheels of the Jeep, releasing the sweet smell of sage and musky scent of mesquite. The air becomes dryer, but not cooler. Max sheds his jacket, exposing the gun on his hip. Comfort wins over concealment.
We wind our way up and around a small hill.
“Where are we?” I ask Max.
“Somewhere I’ve never been before,” he says. “The edges of the Chihuahuan Desert? Shit, I don’t know. Even the banditos don’t venture this far from civilization.”
Culebra half turns in his seat. “We’re almost there. Ramon chose the location for his safe house well.”
Ramon ignores our conversation. White-knuckled hands gripping the wheel, his eyes focused straight ahead. I can only imagine what images are playing in his head. No matter how isolated a spot he chose, the fear that it wasn’t isolated enough must be torturing him.
The ground levels off and we seem to be at the top of a mesa. There are a few trees here, oak and pinyon. Native grasses and low-growing creosote with lacy light green leaves, Yucca and mesquite cover the desert floor. Quite a difference from the more barren desert surrounding Beso de la Muerte.
Ramon is driving straight toward what looks, from my vantage point in the backseat, like the edge of the mesa. What the fuck? I get struck by a disturbing thought. What if Culebra was wrong and rather than going to help Ramon’s family, Ramon is driving us all to oblivion. The
Thelma and Louise
way out. Maybe he made a deal to swap the safety of his family for his life and Culebra’s.
I grip the roll bar tighter. I can grab Max and haul us both out before the Jeep goes over, but I can’t grab Culebra, too.
I send out a frantic warning.
Culebra, I think he’s going over the edge. Get ready to jump out.
Culebra’s thoughts reflect alarm. I grab Max’s arm. He turns toward me, his eyebrows raised. At the moment I’ve tightened my grip, ready to fling us both out, the Jeep slams to a stop.
Max’s breath rushes out in a hiss. “What the fuck, Ramon?”
My sentiments exactly.
Ramon turns in the seat, surprise and confusion stamped on his face. He sees me grasping Max’s arm and interprets Culebra’s hand on the window as preparation for a bailout. He says something to Culebra in Spanish with a bewildered inflection in his voice that even I can interpret.
Max shakes out of my grip and starts to rub at his bicep. “Ouch. Next time you get the bright notion that we need to jump out of a moving vehicle, ask questions first, okay? Ramon just told Culebra that we’re here. His family’s safe house. Just over that bluff.”
KAY, SO I GOT IT WRONG. TO HIDE MY EMBARRASSMENT, and because anger is my normal way of dealing with being embarrassed, I lash out.
“Shit, Max, I thought he was driving us over the rim. You did, too.”
“Not until you grabbed me. What made you think he was going kamikaze on us?”
“Oh, maybe the fact that he was driving straight for the edge. And that it occurred to me he might have made a deal with Santiago. His family’s safety in exchange for his life and Culebra’s.”
Culebra half turns in his seat but before he can say anything, Ramon jumps out of the Jeep. He heads for a patch of brush that becomes camouflage netting when he pulls at it. He motions to Max and Culebra.
Max and Culebra join him. The three men grab the netting and pull it over the Jeep. It’s sand colored and dotted with bits of rock and brush. Ramon anchors it with more rocks and stands back to brush dirt from his hands. He glances at his watch.
And runs straight toward the edge of the mesa. In an instant, bickering forgotten, Culebra, Max and I take off after him.
Ramon disappears just as we catch up. Like an optical illusion, the trail that looks, from the way Ramon vanished, like a steep drop-off actually levels off, hugging the side of a hill. It takes standing at the very brink to see that we’re not looking at precipitous drop at all. Ramon is running ahead.