Authors: Jeanne C. Stein
Tags: #Vampires, #Strong; Anna (Fictitious Character), #Contemporary, #General, #Urban Life, #Fantasy, #Fiction, #Occult & Supernatural
We plunge after him. Ramon moves with purpose. I catch up with him, eyes scanning, senses alert. I don’t see anything that looks remotely like a house. Just a lot of brush and boulders. Once again, I wonder if Ramon isn’t leading us into a trap.
Then I catch the scent. Human. Female. Somewhere off the trail.
Ramon calls out. “Maria! Gabriella!”
From around a bend in front of us, a woman’s voice answers.
“¿Ramon? ¿Es tu?”
And then Ramon and a woman are embracing. She appeared from the side of the trail like an apparition but there’s nothing ghostly in the way she clings to her husband or he to her. Culebra and Max catch up.
When the woman sees Culebra, her hand flies to her mouth.
And then she is hugging Culebra and crying and she, Ramon and Culebra are speaking all at once and so fast, the words are a blur in my head. She is darker than Ramon, sculpted cheekbones that are more Indian than Spanish. She is short, heavy hipped and stocky, dressed in a white shirt and jeans cinched at the waist with a wide leather belt. She has a big revolver in a holster clipped to her belt.
Max and I stand apart and watch. It’s apparent she was waiting for Ramon—was this why he didn’t want to start out last night? They had a prearranged time to meet? It would explain his crazy dash across the countryside.
Another movement from just out of sight to our right snaps me to attention. Max sees the reaction. “What is it?”
Before I can reply, another voice.
“¿Papa? Has vuelto para nosotros.”
The words come from a girl, fourteen or fifteen, who steps into the path. She has a rifle slung over her shoulder. Her face is hidden by the wide brim of a hat she sweeps off at the sight of her father.
Ramon opens his arms to embrace the girl.
“¿Tu prometí que, no, mi preciosa?”
Ramon hadn’t mentioned having a daughter but clearly this girl is his. She inherited his hair color and eyes, his slender build. She’s tall for her age and dressed like her mother in jeans, a white blouse.
Her mother watches, arms still around Culebra, her expression, her tears reflecting relief. Ramon turns his wife and daughter to face Max and me.
“This is my wife, Maria, and my daughter, Gabriella.” To them he says,
“Son amigos de Tomás. Ilegaron para ayudarnos. Anna y Max.”
Max and I nod to them as Maria gestures for us to follow. She glances upward and I hear the drone of an aircraft in the distance. Ramon hears it, too, and his expression hardens. “Come. Quickly. It may be one of Santiago’s.”
Maria and the girl lead the way off the trail and into dense brush. There are low-growing bushes and pinyon pines that make the going slow. But they also provide solid cover. The airplane passes overhead and Max watches it through a canopy of branches. “No markings. Ramon might be right.”
“Are they looking for him?” I ask.
“Could be. Or it could be a drug run.”
Maria keeps going. Ramon catches up to his wife and daughter and takes the lead. We trek on for another twenty minutes before he stops. There is a small clearing just ahead with the remains of another abandoned cabin. I look around. The last time I remember seeing a more isolated piece of land was on a Navajo reservation. At least there, the natural beauty of Monument Valley made the isolation tolerable. Here, the emptiness presses in like deadweight. I’m overwhelmed with a sense of loneliness. This is where Ramon’s wife and daughter are forced to hide?
But neither Ramon nor his wife or daughter seems to mind. They are smiling as Ramon bids us once more to follow him with a crook of a finger. We enter a door sagging precariously in a lopsided frame. He motions us to step around a pocked wooden table set in the middle of the floor. He reaches under the rim of the table and I hear the release of a lock. Then the hum of a motor. The table tilts down and away like a trapdoor to reveal a set of steps.
Maria and Gabriella lead the way down. Ramon and Culebra follow, then Max and me. I raise curious eyebrows to Max. “What the fuck?”
But we’re at the bottom of the steps and as soon as Ramon sees we’re down, he presses a button on a panel to his right beside yet another door. The motor hums again and the table flips upright and the platform once more snaps into place.
“Slick,” I whisper to Max. “What now?”
Ramon is working the lock on the door. It’s a keypad lock and his fingers move quickly over the numbers. But not quickly enough. I imagine he has no idea I’ve just memorized the combination. One can never be too careful.
The door swings open with a whoosh of pneumatics. Refrigerated air gusts out at us—fresh and smelling like spring. Lights flicker on, turning the inside bright as day. Ramon steps aside to allow his wife and daughter to pass, and then extends a hand to Culebra, Max and me.
“Welcome to my home.”
A whistle escapes my lips at the same time a gasp of astonishment escapes Max’s.
“Holy James Bond,” I say. “Dr. No didn’t have it this good.”
AX, CULEBRA AND I ARE STANDING IN THE ENTRANCE to a cave. Well, more precisely, a cave-like structure. The walls are stone, but hewn stone, smoothed and beveled into diamond patterns that repeat floor, ceiling and walls. The chamber we’re looking into is at least as big as the ground floor of my cottage, decorated with leather couches and big overstuffed recliners. There are plush rugs underfoot, original artwork on the walls, a bar of polished mahogany in the corner upon which rests crystal decanters filled with liquids that catch and reflect the lights directly overhead. On the opposite side, through an archway, I can see a kitchen and dining area. It’s a big kitchen, with stainless-steel appliances and copper-bottomed pots hung from a rack suspended over a granite island. I look for a chef in a white hat and smock, but it appears that’s the only detail missing in this
’s version of Wilma Flintstone’s kitchen.
It’s very quiet inside. So quiet, I wonder if I’m the only one who hears the distant, steady hum of a generator, so subtle it takes concentrating vampire hearing to detect it. That generator must be what supplies air and power to the place. Like a heart pumping blood and oxygen through a body.
Even Culebra is dumbstruck. His thoughts are as jumbled as mine.
Ramon moves to the bar. Picks up one of the decanters. “Mescal?”
It takes a minute to pull my brain back from the shock of what my eyes are seeing and to engage it again sufficiently to make my mouth work. “Yeah. A drink would be good.” Then my legs get with the program and I’m at the bar.
Culebra and Max follow, both looking as dazed as I feel. Ramon pours from a crystal decanter with the label Scorpion Anejo Seven Star—I realize he’s pouring the Dom Pérignon of mescals when I see the scorpion floating in the bottle and the flicker of eagerness in Culebra’s eyes.
When we all have glasses in our hands, Ramon tips his toward us and says,
“Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien también.”
Yeah, I’ve heard that toast before—from Culebra at his bar: for everything bad, mescal, and for everything good, too. Course we weren’t drinking Scorpion Seven Star at the time.
We all clink glasses and the men drink. I’m more interested in taking another look at my surroundings than indulging in the rapturous moans of pleasure that follow the tasting. It’s hard to take it all in.
“How did you do this?” I ask.
Ramon says, “With a lot of money and an army of engineers.” He raises his glass to Max and me. “American engineers.”
“How did you keep it a secret?” Max asks.
“With a lot of money,” Ramon says again, “and a little coercion.”
“You threatened the engineers if they told anyone?” I ask.
He shrugs. “Didn’t take much. Everyone has something to protect. And they were well paid for their discretion.”
“But this must have taken an army to construct,” I say. “No one noticed?”
He smiles. Not warmly. “Silence has a price. Fortunately I could afford to pay it.”
For a narco, business as usual. I get a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. I acted on impulse coming here. Ramon, standing in his elegant hideout, looks less like a father frightened for his family and more like the scumbag drug lord he is. Even his English has improved. Was his original bumbling an affect to gain my sympathy?
I lay the glass on the bar without taking a sip. “What now?”
Maria gestures toward the back wall of the cave. “Let me show you where to freshen up. Then we eat.”
So she can speak English, too. And well.
We follow Maria through an archway and into a hall. There are four doors, two on each side. She opens the last one on the left for me. “There are fresh towels. Shower if you like. I think Gabriella has something that will fit you. I’ll leave it on the bed.”
Then she’s ushering Max and Culebra to the opposite door. I watch as they disappear inside and Maria moves off down the hall. I close my own door and look around, checking first to see if there’s an inside lock. There isn’t.
This is a bedroom with the same diamond-patterned rock walls, ceiling and floor as the great room. This room, too, sports a plush rug, a woven mat of cotton this time, but no artwork. The bed is simple, covered with a colorful Mexican blanket, the headboard banked with throw pillows in red and yellow. There is a dresser on one side, a chest at the foot of the bed.
Both are empty.
I take a quick look around for cameras or microphones but don’t find either. There is neither wainscoting nor floorboards to conceal electronics.
I step into the bathroom. Small. Functional. A shower, a vanity, a toilet. This door locks from the inside. I close and lock it before undressing.
After two days, a shower feels good. Maria has stocked the shower with good soap and shampoo. It smells of trees after a rain, like a growing forest with hints of pine. The bathroom is soon fragrant with it. I linger under the hot water before realizing I’ve been in here almost twenty minutes and the hot water is still hot. Ramon must have a hell of a water heater.
The best drug money can buy. Which most likely explains how they keep the place supplied with liquor and good toiletries. I imagine engineers aren’t the only ones who can keep a secret for a price or a threat.
When I finally coax myself out, I towel dry and peek into the vanity. There are various types of remedies, for headaches, for colds. A comb and brush that looks unused. Several toothbrushes still in packages. A tube of toothpaste—Colgate. American. I take advantage of the chance to brush my teeth and use the comb and brush to detangle my hair. Then I steal a look into the bedroom.
Maria has left a long shift of pale green cotton on the bed. I slip it over my head. It falls to my ankles. It moves when I walk; the material is whisper soft and thin. I wonder if I look naked in the light. The thought makes me uncomfortable enough to take it off.
My jeans and T-shirt will have to do—even if they aren’t the cleanest.
I hear the door open across the hall. In two steps, I’m at my door, too.
Max and Culebra are there, smelling of the same fragrant soap, freshly shaven, wet hair combed. They’ve changed into clean jeans (must be Ramon’s—they are all about the same size, though Max’s thighs clearly strain the seams of his pair) and lightweight Mexican guayabera shirts with colorful embroidery and pleating. Culebra’s is light gray, Max’s a blue that makes his eyes intense as the ocean.
Culebra looks past me into the bedroom. “Maria didn’t bring you clean clothes?”
I follow his eyes to the shift on the bed. “I think it’s a nightgown,” I reply.
Max grins, looking around me, too. “Too girly for you?”
I close the door behind me with a decisive click.
Max sniffs the air. “Something smells good.”
He lifts his nose and moves toward the great room, following the odor of meat and beans and grilled vegetables like a bloodhound on the scent of a rabbit. He heads straight for the kitchen, Culebra right on his heels.
Only I lag behind.
The table seats eight and is set with plates and utensils and a steaming stack of tortillas. There are three chairs in the same heavy dark wood as the table on one side, a long bench on the other, and two captain’s chairs on each end. Ramon is already seated in one of the chairs, watching Maria as she moves around the kitchen. He has showered and changed, too, as has Maria. Still, the shower hasn’t completely masked the smell coming off both Ramon and his wife. They’ve been busy in the last hour—and not just in the kitchen. The musk of their sex tickles my nose.
Maria looks up and sees us approaching. She frowns in a concerned way at me. “You didn’t like the dress?”
I grope for a way to answer when Max pipes up, “Anna’s not big on skirts. She’s more the pants type.”
Shit. He says it with a wink and I see clearly on both Ramon’s and Maria’s faces what they’re thinking. I’m gay.
Maria recovers before Ramon. “I see. No problem. After we eat, I’ll get you a pair of Gabriella’s jeans. She may be a little shorter, but I think they’ll fit. Now, sit. The food is almost ready.”
Three words grab my attention: after we eat.
She’s back arranging food in serving dishes and I look at Culebra.
What do I do?
He purses his lips ever so slightly.
Maybe it’s time to come clean.
Tell them you’re on a strict liquid diet. For health reasons.
Oh, like that makes sense. Did you see the way they looked at me when Max said I wasn’t big on skirts? Now I’m going to insult Maria by refusing to eat her food?
Got a better idea?
Maria is ready to serve and Ramon motions around the table. “Please. Sit. Eat.”
I take the bench, Culebra and Max chairs, and Maria takes her place at the opposite end of the table.
“Where’s Gabriella?” I ask.
“She’s on watch. Outside.” Maria answers. “One of us always takes watch.”
An idea blossoms. “Has she eaten?”