Authors: Jeanne C. Stein
Tags: #Vampires, #Strong; Anna (Fictitious Character), #Contemporary, #General, #Urban Life, #Fantasy, #Fiction, #Occult & Supernatural
I roll out of bed, mind numb from sleep. Too long. I slept too long. I should have had Culebra wake me after an hour or so.
A scalding hot shower with a brisk icy follow-up clears my head, snaps me back. Gabriella’s clothes fit. I feel refreshed, rested for the first time in two days.
When I walk into the living area, Culebra, Ramon and Max are gathered at the bar; Ramon and Culebra are behind it, Max on the other side. He indicates I should join him. Reluctantly, I do. It would be too obvious if I ignored him. Even as hard as I’m trying to keep a lid on my aggravation, Culebra feels it. He raises curious eyebrows but doesn’t push with a question.
Ramon runs his eyes over my clothes. “Are you more comfortable now?”
I nod. “Thank Gabriella for me.” There is a map laid out on the bar. I point to it. “Is that a map of Santiago’s village?”
Max turns toward me. “This is a topographical map of the area. We’re looking for a way to get to the village where Santiago is said to be living. A way that will not expose us to the villagers or to Santiago’s air patrols.”
I don’t so much as glance his way but stay focused on the map. “Where is the village?”
Ramon places a finger on a point that, judging from the legend, seems to be about ten miles east of us. But the area does not look to be mountainous, just flat desert.
“Not going to be easy,” I say. “To approach unnoticed.”
“We can’t take the Jeep,” Culebra says, nodding. “Too noisy. But Ramon says there is vegetation so we’ll have cover. We go on foot.”
Ramon looks at me, then away. I read the skepticism on his face before he says, “It will be too difficult for a woman. Anna should stay here.”
He’s talking to the men, naturally.
“Don’t worry about Anna.” Max says before I can speak up. “She’s tougher than she looks.”
I stay quiet. I’m not about to defend myself again to Ramon. If my little display of bravado with the pilot didn’t convince him, nothing will. Besides, it might be better if he doesn’t want me to come with them. I can move far faster and with more stealth on my own. Tracking this trio should be a piece of cake. I look at Culebra and open my thoughts.
You may be right.
He lets a frown pull at the corners of his mouth and says out loud, “Perhaps Anna should stay here. We’ll move faster without a woman holding us back.”
I almost smile.
Then Max sends an astonished “what the fuck” expression Culebra’s way that is sure to be followed with some kind of spoiler about how strong and fast and what a good tracker I am. Was he listening at all when I told him Ramon shouldn’t know about me? Or has he been hitting the mescal again? I take matters into my own hands.
By smacking him across the face. Hard.
He yelps, hand on his cheek, and turns fire-flashing eyes toward me. “What the hell.”
“I know what you’re doing. Don’t think you can make up with me. I don’t want to go anywhere with you. You boys think you can do better on your own? Be my guest.”
Ramon lowers his head and says to Culebra,
“Pensé que ella era homosexual. ¿Son amantes?”
“Evidentemente no más,”
Culebra replies dryly.
Max finally catches on, though the anger blazing from his eyes at my smacking him is real enough.
“La perra se queda aquí,”
The bitch stays here.
Cute, Max. Nice way to get into character.
The three proceed to plot their course as if I’ve left the room. I plop myself into a chair to pout. And listen. When all the plans are made and they are ready to leave, that’s my cue to jump out of the chair and glare. “I’m going to my room,” I snap and flounce off.
No one, not even Culebra, bothers to say good-bye.
LEAVE THE BEDROOM DOOR OPEN JUST A CRACK SO I can listen to what’s happening in the living room. There is a rustling of activity as supplies are gathered, backpacks filled, weapons made ready. At one point, Ramon enters his wife’s room. I assume to let her know that they are leaving. She follows him back to the living room, voice tense as she says her good-byes.
Neither Max nor Culebra venture into my room. Max is still offended by the slap; Culebra knows we will be in touch as soon as they leave and I follow.
Finally, I hear the pneumatic whoosh of the door being opened. Maria calls a last “
vayan con dios
,” reverently, as if the three were embarking on a religious crusade. All I have to do now is wait for her to go back to bed and I can be on my way, too.
So, I wait.
Maria is walking around the living area. It sounds as if she’s straightening up, glasses clinking, papers rustling.
Come on, Maria. You can do all that tomorrow morning. Go to bed.
But she doesn’t.
In another minute, the smell of coffee drifts back.
Shit. She’s making coffee. What’s she planning to do? Hold a vigil until her man gets back?
Finally she goes into her bedroom and closes the door. Now’s my chance. I exit my room and tiptoe past her door, heading for the living room. Then I’m through the living area and ready to work the code to open the door to the staircase. Hopefully they haven’t changed it after my unexpected and stupid appearance yesterday.
Suddenly, I hear her bedroom door open once again and footsteps approach.
My fingers fly over the keypad. I’ve just hit Enter when I hear another sound. The door slides open, but I hardly notice. At my back, the unmistakable ratchet of a pump-action shotgun being primed to fire freezes me to the spot.
“Turn around. Slowly.”
I do. I don’t intend to see what a shotgun would do to me or to find out how long it takes me to recover from such a wound.
Maria has the gun leveled at my torso.
“What are you doing, Maria?”
“Ramon said you might try to follow. He was right. He wants you to stay here.”
“But I came to help. How can I help if I’m here?”
Maria sniffs. “You are a woman. How could you help? You would only be a distraction. What is to be done is men’s work.”
“And you know what is to be done?”
“I know enough. Ramon is wise in these ways. He and Tomás will do what is necessary.”
Another disdainful sniff. “Ramon knows what Max is.
Un policía contra narcótraficant.
He is alive only because he is Tomás’s friend. He will stay alive only as long as he is useful. If you and he are indeed lovers, I think you will soon be wearing
ropa de luto
I don’t recognize the expression. “What does that mean?”
“Mourning clothes,” she says.
An icy finger touches the back of my neck. I have to get out of here. Maria is still gripping the trigger of the shotgun. I need to get it away from her without waking Gabriella. If she’s like her mother, she’s likely to come out guns blazing at the sound of a shotgun blast.
“Can I sit down?” I ask. “That shotgun scares me.”
She jabs in the direction of the couch. I back toward it, keeping Maria in my line of sight. I’m hoping she wants to secure the door and sure enough, she half turns to the keyboard, trying to keep the shotgun level on me at the same time she works the code.
I don’t give her a chance to do, either. I’m on her in less than a heartbeat, wrenching the gun from her and pushing her down onto the floor. I put a finger to her lips. “No noise. Wouldn’t want to wake your daughter.”
She glares at me.
That again. “How do you communicate with Ramon?”
She looks like she’s not going to answer so I tickle her chin with the barrel of the shotgun. “I said I didn’t want to wake your daughter. I didn’t say I wouldn’t.”
Harsh, maybe. But it works. “Cell phone.”
“Where is it?”
She clamps her jaws tight but her eyes betray her. They flicker toward the table. I grab her arm, yank her to her feet and pull her with me. The cell phone is on the counter separating the kitchen from the dining area. I drop it to the floor, crush it with my heel and toss it onto the counter.
“Does Gabriella have a phone?”
She shakes her head. “No. Cell phones are a danger to us—too easy to trace. We have only the one. She is not allowed.”
Knowing Gabriella, knowing teenagers, I suspect she might have a phone her folks don’t know about. Like the iPod. But there’s nothing I can do about that. I push Maria down into one of the chairs and look around for something to tie her up with. I don’t see anything promising. In the kitchen area there are some towels hanging from a wooden spool. I grab up two, tear them into strips and bind her hands and feet.
“Who are you working for?” she asks, twisting her head to watch as I secure the knots. “Are you with Santiago? Has he hired you to kill us?”
For the first time, her voice shakes a bit, her eyes grow big. She is afraid.
I jam the last piece of towel into her mouth. “No. Tomás spoke the truth when he told Ramon we were here to help. All of us. It’s too bad your husband didn’t believe it.”
I give the strip of towel a tug to make sure it is tight across her mouth. I don’t want her calling out to her daughter as soon as I’m gone. I bend down so we are eye level. “I will tell you this. If any harm comes to any of my friends because of Ramon, you may be the one wearing
ropa de luto
She believes me. The panic in her eyes confirms it.
She struggles to speak through the gag but nothing comes through but garbled sounds.
This time, I make it out the door. I wish I could think of a way of disabling the keypad. Keep Maria and Gabriella locked inside. A quick examination of the lock doesn’t yield any simple or obvious ways to do it. So I resort to another simple and obvious way—I punch a fist through the mechanism. I suppose there might be a failsafe somewhere inside, but Maria won’t be able to get to it until she’s untied. And if Gabriella is a typical teen, it may be hours before she gets up and finds her mother.
So now I’m off. Up the stairway, out through the cabin. It’s quiet and dark in the clearing. No breeze, a sprinkling of stars overhead, a crescent moon. I let vampire surface, listen for sounds of the men moving through the brush. I sniff the air. Thanks to Maria’s puttering, they have a sixty-minute lead, but I know the direction they’ll be traveling.
The ground I run over is rock strewn and covered with low brush. I startle small creatures—rats, snakes, rabbits—in my path. Insects scurry or fly away. From just out of sight, a bigger predator hunts, taking off after the vermin I send scampering in his direction.
Say thank you, vampire growls.
In ten minutes, I pick up the scent. Max, first, the most familiar, then Culebra and Ramon. They move with purpose, not as quietly as I, and it’s not hard to catch up.
I slow down, the human Anna pushes a reluctant vampire back into vigilance mode. It’s my turn to take up the pursuit.
The men move steadily eastward. I recall bits of their conversation from earlier. Santiago is living on the outskirts of a village far from Reynosa. He has bought and paid for the village, supplying the residents with money and food in exchange for their silence and cooperation. Anyone suspected of not cooperating has already been disposed of.
He is planning to run his business from this remote location until the heat dies down. The latest round of violence has spilled across the border. The murder of an American tourist caught in the cross fire between narco factions raised the ire of both the
and U.S. cops. Ground and air patrols have increased, suspected drug houses closed down, the usual avenues open to money laundering unavailable because of closer government scrutiny.
Ramon said this is why Santiago wants him dead. The boy he killed was the son of a government official who facilitated the exchange of dirty money for clean. He oversaw the chains of
casas de cambios
, money exchange houses, moving billions of narco dollars through the system. The man now refuses to reopen the channels until he gets his revenge. Until Rójan’s killer is dead.
If Max, Culebra and Ramon continue at this rate, it will take them well past daybreak to reach the village. They’ll have to camp somewhere on the route to wait for the cover of darkness to get close. I can reach the village much faster.
I send a message to Culebra.
I thought I’d hear from you sooner.
Ran into a little trouble with Maria. She tried to keep me at the cave.
Why would she do that?
Culebra’s tone indicates surprise.
I answer simply.
You should tell Max that Ramon doesn’t trust him. He should be on his guard.
Culebra’s surprise turns into concern.
Why would he distrust the one man who can get his family to safety?
Don’t know. Didn’t stick around to ask. Listen, I’m going on ahead to take a look around the village. See if I can pick out where Santiago is hiding.
We won’t make it before sunrise,
Culebra says, echoing my thoughts, impatient that he has to stay behind.
We’ll have to take cover on the trail.
I’ll come back as soon as I can.
Culebra closes our mental communication conduit. What lingers after is the definite trace of bitterness that he can’t shape-shift and come with me. There’s just a touch of jealousy there, too.
Makes me smile.
HE VILLAGE IS MORE PRIMITIVE THAN I IMAGINED. It’s like something from the nineteenth century. A well stands in the middle of a courtyard from which four dirt roads radiate outward like the points of a compass. There are no more than a dozen houses—shacks really—scattered off the roads. Simple wooden structures each with a patchwork garden in front and chickens pecking in pens on the sides. The only vehicles I see are two ancient trucks with wooden beds parked side by side near the one brick structure in town. A church—a tiny church with a steepled roof and bell tower.
Good cover for a drug kingpin used to living in luxury. It’s unlikely the cops on either side of the border would think to search for him in a place like this.