Authors: Jeanne C. Stein
Tags: #Vampires, #Strong; Anna (Fictitious Character), #Contemporary, #General, #Urban Life, #Fantasy, #Fiction, #Occult & Supernatural
They hit Culebra’s shack, too. But since he’s alone inside with a guard, they leave him. He reaches out.
You got the girls out, I see.
A disturbing thought strikes me, knotting my stomach.
Luis is going nuts. He killed the man responsible for chloroforming the girls. He’s gathering the villagers by the well. You don’t think he’ll—
The sound of a gunshot brings an abrupt halt to our dialogue. My heart thuds against my ribs as I peek out once again.
Luis has one of the villagers by the arm. The man slumps into him, bleeding from a wound in his lower thigh. He lets him fall to the ground, goes to the next. Shoots him in the leg, too, and moves on. The screams of the wounded men pierce my heart.
Jesus, Culebra. He’s shooting all the men. Wounding them but not killing them.
A spark of dark humor comes through.
Of course not. Can’t deplete his workforce by killing them, can he?
What the fuck should I do?
Culebra’s tone is obstinate, resolute.
There’s nothing you can do. Protect the girls.
I won’t him let him shoot the children. If he starts shooting the children—
Then do what you must.
I watch in disbelief and wait for the shooting to stop. It does, ten rounds later. All the men lie on the ground, moaning, bleeding, their wives and children cowering around them. The smell of spilled blood reaches me inside the church, makes vampire urges flex and chafe to be set free.
Luis, satisfied at last that the villagers knew nothing of how the girls escaped, turns and starts back to his shack. His guards stand by wide-eyed with fear at what Luis will do next. He stops at the door and barks an order that sends them scurrying around the perimeter of the village to expand the search. They leave eagerly, anxious for any excuse to put distance between themselves and their rabid boss.
No one comes near the church again.
I should have stopped him,
I tell Culebra.
And then what? We’d be no better off. We don’t want Luis, we want his brother. When Ramon comes back and we have Max on our side, then we act.
I think you want Ramon more than you want Santiago,
I say quietly.
He doesn’t deny it. His thoughts are suddenly closed to me.
His mind doesn’t reopen to me for a full minute. Then,
I heard something Ramon said to one of the guards. When he was beating me. He took credit for killing my family. For leaving me to die in that burning car.
I thought you said it was the boss.
I wasn’t there when my family was killed. I always figured it was the boss. I didn’t see who was in the car when I was shot. But today, I learned the truth. I heard it from Ramon’s own lips.
I think of hearing Luis tell his men that Culebra was responsible for the minister’s death. How his brother would kill him. Ramon was setting him up again.
Culebra, there’s more—
A sound from the direction of the vestibule. A scraping, like a person struggling to stand up. A moan.
Culebra, I have to go. The girls are coming to.
The next instant he’s gone and I’m rushing to the vestibule. When I open the door, one of the girls is on her feet, wild-eyed and looking around frantically. I see it in her eyes—she’s looking for a weapon. When she sees me and realizes it isn’t Luis or one of his men, her expression shifts to confusion. But the instinct to fight remains strong. She backs into a corner, her fists balled at her side.
I hold up my hands. “I won’t hurt you,” I whisper in Spanish. I put a finger to my lips and glance toward the window. “You must be quiet.
is looking for you.”
The name ignites fear in her eyes but also understanding. She hasn’t been here long enough to have been reduced to the state Adelita was. Her clothes are still intact on her small frame, her hair still shiny and held back from her childlike face with a barrette. She can’t be more than fourteen.
The others begin to regain consciousness, too. One retches from the effects of the drug, her shoulders heaving. I hold her hair away from her face. The girl who first awoke steps beside me and takes my place, holding the sick girl’s head and crooning softly to her.
She calls her
—sister. This one can’t be more than twelve.
Revulsion comes in waves of red-hot fury. I want Luis to find us so I can tear him to pieces in front of this child’s eyes.
Not yet, Anna.
Culebra has honed in on my emotions.
You will get your chance, I promise you.
Luis is mine.
He is yours.
The young girl has stopped heaving. The older sister hugs her to her chest, whispering that they must be quiet. All four now huddle together, eyes on me.
I want nothing more than to give them the assurance they seek. That I can wake them from this nightmare and get them to safety.
I need a plan. And I need a diversion.
I need Max.
T’S FULL DAYLIGHT NOW AND I LOOK AT MY WATCH. Ten minutes before I can turn on my cell and try to reach Max. A glance around at the girls looking to me for salvation makes my heart feel heavy in my chest. How long can we hide here before someone thinks to look more closely in the church?
At eight, I switch on the cell. The power indicator reads two bars. Less than half power. I pull up Max’s number and press Send.
He picks up right away. “Are you all right?”
“Did you get Adelita to safety?”
There’s just the slightest hesitation, but it’s enough to jump start my heart. “Max? Where’s Adelita?”
He snaps back. “Relax, Anna. She’s okay. She’s in a safe house on the U.S. side of the river.”
I let out a breath. “Good. Here’s the situation. I got four girls away from Santiago’s brother, Luis, and we’re hiding in a church building in the village. I don’t know how much time we have before they look for us in the one place they haven’t searched. It might not be long.”
I tell him quickly and succinctly what’s happening to Culebra. What I don’t tell him is that Ramon was one of the bastards that attacked him all those years ago. Some news is better left delivered in person. I finish up with, “How long before you get to us?”
“I’m already on the way. Do you have the duffel?”
“You mean the one with the arsenal inside? Yes. Nice thinking, by the way.”
“I should reach you in four hours. I’ll contact you when I get close.”
“No Maria sightings?”
“No. You must have done a good job on that door. Shut your phone down now. Conserve power.”
He says good-bye and disconnects. I do the same, noticing I’m down to just one bar now as I power the phone off.
The girls have been watching me whisper into the phone. They don’t say a word when I shove it into my pocket, waiting, I guess, for me to give them some kind of signal that we can leave now.
Instead, I tell them something that makes their faces grow even tauter with concern. I have to leave them. I need to get the duffel. The weapons inside may be their best hope yet to making it out alive.
The older girl has assumed the role of protector. She listens to what I tell them I must do. My Spanish must be getting better, because she nods and pulls the others into a close circle. “We will be waiting for your return,” she says. In English. “I will keep them quiet. Please hurry. We have been without food and water since yesterday morning. I don’t know how much longer the little ones can last.”
At fourteen or so, she is the oldest of the four by two or three years. She is the most physically developed, her sister and the others are barely into puberty. The tear-streaked faces of “the little ones” burn into my brain. Luis’ appetite has not only grown, it’s gotten more perverse. I look around the church, trying to understand how men can perpetuate such horror on children.
No answer comes.
This used to be a place of worship. My head spins at the paradox. God created men like Luis in his own image? Then maybe god created this vampire to be his retribution.
T’S GROWN VERY QUIET IN THE VILLAGE. THE WOMEN have taken their men back into their shacks. There is just the occasional muffled cry as a wound is being tended. I can only imagine the primitive tools they’re using to extract those bullets.
Should I feel sympathy? I can’t. Bastards let little girls be tortured under their noses. I hope it hurts like hell.
I look out the window. The body of Luis’ dead henchman lies unattended in the dirt. Flies drone around like the corpse in a cloud. A pack of mangy dogs materialize from the brush around the village. They sniff the body, take tentative nips as if testing to see if there is any life left, any movement that could signal a threat. After a while, two of them work in concert, grabbing the ankles, yanking the body to the side of the well out of my view.
Away from the lone man standing outside the nearest shack.
Luis’ guard, the only one not searching the perimeter for the girls, stands at attention beside the door to the shack. Trying to ignore the dogs. But he can’t ignore the sound. He can hear as well as I the noise the dogs make as they tear into the flesh of Luis’ victim. His eyes swivel back and forth. Sweat trickles down his face, stains the collar of his shirt. He doesn’t try to wipe it away. He doesn’t move at all, afraid maybe to incur Luis’ wrath like the man being torn apart on the other side of the well—especially if the wrath takes the form of a bullet to the brain.
I’m glad the girls are huddled in back. They can’t see or hear this.
When I think it’s safe, I climb out of the back window and drop silently to the ground. I have only to make it a few feet before reaching cover. Then I’m scurrying through the brush like a desert coyote, eyes, ears and nose alert for the return of Ramon and his men or the approach of Luis’ search party. Those cowards seem to have disappeared. Maybe the idea of facing repercussions for not being able to find the girls made running away a more favorable option.
The duffel remains where I left it. Culebra’s shack is within sight, but I don’t take time to reach out to him. I’ll let him know that Max is on the way when I’ve gotten back to the girls.
I lift the duffel carefully, hold it against my chest to keep the guns inside from shifting around. It’s so quiet around me, even the slightest sound might draw attention.
Then I’m racing back to the church. When I reach the back window, I lower the duffel silently to the floor and climb in after it.
The four girls are just where I left them, clinging to each other, breathless with fear. The older girl’s eyes flicker with relief when she sees me.
I zip open the duffel to see if there are any more of the protein bars inside. There are only two left. I hand them to her.
“Éste es todo. Tu tienes que compartirlos con las otras.”
When she’s taken them and is dividing them, I ask,
“¿Como se llama?”
She waits until the three have started to eat, before she answers, “Esmeralda.” She points to each girl in turn, “Francisca, Dorotea, my sister, Peppi.”
“Do any of the others speak English?”
Peppi alone looks up from her bar. She has been eating slowly, one tiny bite at a time. “
Yes. A little.”
I rummage in the bag to see how much water is left. One bottle. Shit. I think back to a few hours ago when I used a bottle to wash the blood from my face. A stupid waste of water. Water these girls need. With a sigh of self-recrimination, I pull the last bottle out and hand it to Esmeralda. “This is all the water.”
She understands and opens the bottle. She tells the girls in Spanish, “Take just a sip. We must make this last.”
There are no groans of protest, just grateful smiles. Each in turn tips the bottle to parched lips and swallows a mouthful. When they pass it back to Esmeralda, she recaps the bottle without taking a drink herself. She hasn’t eaten her bar, either, but has rewrapped it and slipped it into a pocket in her skirt.
She reads the question in my expression. “I don’t need it. They might.” Her eyes turn to the girls.
She is saving hers for the little ones. “You need to be strong for them. At least take some water.”
And there’s a very good reason for that but telling her what it is might make going back to Luis seem a better bargain than staying here with a vampire.
“I drank a bottle earlier,” I lie. “I’m fine. Please. At least take a sip.”
She seems ready to argue but then, since I don’t appear ready to give in, she opens the water bottle and brings it to her lips. As if I can’t tell she’s not really taking a drink. Then she carefully recaps the bottle, and stares at me until I give her a grudging nod.
She’s stubborn. She reminds me of me.
I like her.
Nothing to do but hunker down and wait for Max and hope he gets here before any of the villagers realize no one has yet made a thorough search of the church for the missing girls. The fact that Luis’ men couldn’t move fast enough to get away from him is working in our favor. Hiding in plain sight does sometimes work.
Esmeralda has the three girls gathered around her like a mother chicken with her peeps. They are all so quiet, so withdrawn. Since they arrived less than twenty-four hours ago, and Luis has had other things to occupy his mind, maybe I’ll be able to get them away before their nightmare becomes worse than being kidnapped and drugged.
And what Luis had planned for them is infinitely worse.
’VE NEVER SEEN CHILDREN SO CALM AND SILENT. I guess that’s what happens when you’re scared to death. I’m the one who has to remind myself not to keep checking my watch, not to get up and pace to the window. Luis’ shack faces the church directly and if the guard sees a flicker of a shadow or a face at that window, he’s sure to come investigate.