Read Haunted Online

Authors: Jeanne C. Stein

Tags: #Vampires, #Strong; Anna (Fictitious Character), #Contemporary, #General, #Urban Life, #Fantasy, #Fiction, #Occult & Supernatural

Haunted (22 page)

My whole body burns with the need to do something. Waiting has never been easy—not when I was human, especially not now as a vampire. David used to hate doing surveillance with me. I’d get so antsy, he’d say I was like a maggot in shit. Crude but accurate. I couldn’t sit still.

What happens when Max gets here? As long as Ramon hasn’t returned, the answer is easy. I “question” Luis about the whereabouts of his brother while Max frees Culebra. Then we get the hell out of here. Get the girls to safety, come back to mop up.

If what Culebra says is true about Ramon, he’s as dead as the Santiago brothers.

I’m sure Culebra will insist. As will I.

Peppi is whispering something to her sister. Esmeralda looks over at me. “She has to go to the bathroom.”

The little girl has a look of embarrassment on her face.

“It’s okay, Peppi,” I whisper. “Go behind the vestibule door.”

Esmeralda helps her sister to her feet and points to the door. Peppi scoots around her, glancing back at us as if ashamed her body has betrayed her.

“What about the others?” I ask Esmeralda.

She asks, but the other girls shake their heads. I think they are afraid to move away from her protective arms.

“Are you all from the same place?” I ask Esmeralda when Peppi has returned and settled down once again near her sister.

“Yes. A village not far from here.”

I think of Adelita’s story. “Were you brought here with the promise of jobs?”

Esmeralda’s face grows dark with anger. “Jobs? No. We were kidnapped from a schoolyard. In the middle of the day. In front of our teachers. They stood by and watched, too frightened of the narcos to fight to save us.”

“Did you know the men who took you?”

“Yes. The men in our village grow
amapolas
 . . . um, poppies. When the men came, we thought it was for the
opio
. The drugs. But they took us instead. For
El Jefe
.”

She is quiet for a moment. “I begged them not to take the little ones. They laughed and said I could come along, too, if I wanted to take care of them. They didn’t know Peppi was my sister. But the way they said I could come along, the way they laughed, I knew what they were going to do. I had to stay with the
niños
. To try to protect them. But I failed.”

“No. You were very brave. And we will get them out of here. Someone is coming soon to help us. We need only be patient for a little while longer.”

As soon as I speak the words, the thought “from my lips to god’s ear” leaps to mind. Must be the influence of our setting. The look of hope on Esmeralda’s face burns like a torch. I hope my promise to her doesn’t prove to be as empty as this forsaken church.

* * *

THE HOURS PASS WITH SLOW-MOTION AGONY. I CAN’T think of anything else to ask Esmeralda and she, too, stays silent. She doesn’t ask me who I am or why I’m here. I glance down at my bloodstained shirt. Perhaps she’s afraid of the answers. Her eyes follow me each time I walk to the back window and I feel her watching when I return my seat. She’s put her trust in me, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to relax her vigilance. All that’s important to her is that she and the girls are alive and unmolested. In her eyes, I read her resolve to fight for them. Against anyone.

The village is quiet, too. I keep expecting the search party to return or Ramon and his men to come back. I wonder what Luis is doing in his shack—probably devising ways to torture the men if they come back empty-handed. Or jerking off to mental images of four little girls.

Finally, finally, I hear footsteps approach. One set of footsteps. I jump up so fast, vampire fast, everyone gasps. I curse myself for the blunder, put a finger to my lips. Only I can hear the stealthy approach from outside. I want to be sure it’s Max before the footsteps come any closer.

I move to the back door, open it a crack to test the wind.

Max’s scent.

Relief washes over me like a tidal wave.

I look back at the girls. They know someone is outside. Fear is stark on their faces. “It’s okay,” I whisper. “It’s my friend.”

I wait for Max to get to the door, then push it open. He slips inside. He’s dressed in camos, a large backpack over his shoulders, a rifle strapped across his chest.

He and I look at each other a moment. Then his eyes go to the girls. He takes off the backpack and opens it. This time there’s a water bottle and protein bar for each girl.

The food and water are accepted eagerly. Even Esmeralda drinks this time and unwraps her bar gratefully.

We watch the girls eat and drink.

“I’m glad you’re here,” I say.

Max is quiet for a moment. “I’m sorry about what happened before. If you love Stephen, I hope it works out for you. I don’t know why I did or said what I did.”

God, that conversation seems so long ago. And so utterly irrelevant now. Not that I intend to let Max off so easily. I allow a smile. “Maybe you really
are
a prick. Ever thought of that?”

“Every minute of every day.”

He has a wistful tone to his voice that makes me stare hard at him. “Who are you and what did you do with the real Max?”

His face reddens a little. A sound from outside cuts our conversation short. Once again, I’ve picked up what human ears cannot. I signal Max and the girls to be quiet.

After another second, though, it’s unnecessary because the cacophony of cries and gunshots is explosive enough for us all to hear. We freeze.

I gather from the excited calls to Luis to come outside that Ramon and his men have returned.

I peek out the front window.

Ramon says he did not return empty-handed.

The shouts bring Luis to the door of his shack. Ramon and his men are gathered in a circle near the well.

“Esta son para muchachas,”
Ramon says.
“Le trajimos una sorpresa. Un premio de la consolación.”

He is offering a consolation prize for Luis’ lost girls.

A consolation prize?

Luis steps forward.
“Enséñame,”
he says, hand on the gun at his waist.

Ramon steps aside and one of his men pushes a figure behind him to the front.

All the air rushes out of my body. My heart pounds so violently, I’m sure everyone can hear it. I whirl on Max with rage bubbling in white-hot fury to the surface.

“What the fuck have you done, Max?”

He shoulders me aside to look out.

He pales. “I don’t know how she got here. You have to believe me, Anna. I don’t know how she could have followed me.”

I shove him away, back against the table, with such force, he stumbles and falls. The table scrapes loudly against the wooden floor. I don’t care about the noise.

I whirl and look outside again.

One of Ramon’s men has pushed her to the ground and Luis is circling her like a lion with wounded prey.

Ramon grabs her hair and yanks her face upward.

“Oh god, no.” The words hiss out, my heart pounding. “Adelita.”

CHAPTER 41

I
WATCH LUIS. IF HIS HAND SO MUCH AS TWITCHES on that gun, I’m going out after Adelita. He’s questioning his men, asking how they found her and where. He points to her clothes, clean jeans and a sweatshirt, asks her how she got away. How she could have escaped the burned-out truck. Why she came back.

His eyes search the perimeter of the village, asking is she alone?

He fires off one question after another, not waiting for answers. Ramon tries to interrupt, offering assurances that she is alone, that they found no one else. Just a dead-end trail that stopped so quickly, it was as if an angel had reached down and spirited Max away.

Luis doesn’t look convinced. He approaches Ramon and draws his gun, putting the barrel against Ramon’s forehead.

Kill him. I wish it so hard, the nails on my balled fists draw blood.

But Ramon pleads for his life, begs Luis to ask his men. They will confirm his story. There was no sign of Max. They found Adelita right outside the village.

Luis lowers the gun a fraction, asks if Ramon found any trace of the six men who went in search of the other girls—the ones spirited away from his shack like Max was evidently spirited away—
”No por ángel,”
he spits.
“Por el diablo mismo.”

By the devil.

I let a smile touch my lips. I’ve been called worse.

Ramon looks around. He finds the body of the murdered guard, dragged away to the far side of the well, recoils at the sight and sound of the dogs ripping at it. He meets Luis’ eyes. Shakes his head.
“Lo juro. No vi a nadie.”

Luis drops his gun hand. He fires off a rapid-fire directive that has Ramon and his men looking at each other with puzzled expressions.

Ramon frowns. He has been told that all of his men will be required to work the shipment arriving today. Not just the villagers.
“¿Por qué?”
he asks.

Luis smiles.
“Usted sabrá pronto bastante.”

Max, too, has been listening. “Why would the villagers not be able to work?” he asks me. “What has Luis done to them?”

I watch as the men disperse, quietly, slinking away as if hoping Luis does not notice and call them back. Only Ramon, Luis and Adelita remain. I ignore Max, waiting to see what happens next. Luis reaches down and hauls Adelita to her feet. He pulls her close to him, clutches her chin in a pinch so hard, I think I see bruises start to form.

“Afortunado para ti, estoy corto seis trabajadores,”
he says.
“Ramon, átala aquí hasta que llegue el carro.”

He is telling her she is lucky that he is down six workers. I allow a little relief to loosen some of the knots in my shoulders as Ramon ties her to a post near the well. Then he and Luis disappear into Luis’ shack.

I draw a breath. It may be a temporary reprieve, but at least I can keep an eye on her. If Luis had dragged her inside his shack, it would have given us no time to formulate an escape plan. I shut my eyes in frustration and concern. Now we have five girls to protect.

I’m ready to face Max.

Once again, my nails bite into the palms of my hand. It’s the only way I can keep my anger under control. Even my voice shakes with the effort when I ask, “How did she get here?”

Max can sense how close to rage I am. He closes his eyes for a minute, just as I did before, and passes a hand over his face. “There can be only one way. I didn’t think to check.”

“Check what?”

“I didn’t take the Jeep back to the States. I took the Explorer. I picked it up at the airstrip. There is a tarp over the cargo space in back. Adelita begged me to bring her with me when I came back to get you. I said no. She may have hidden in the back.”

“May have?”

“I thought I’d convinced her that we could take care of it. I promised her we would.”

I feel the pressure building again, the need to rip something apart or scream. Instead, I center myself, focus on drawing strength from deep inside. “Care of what? What exactly did you promise, Max?”

“When we were in the border station, I showed her some pictures of cartel members, to see if she could identify who attacked her. She identified Luis. She also identified the man who came to her village. The one who kidnapped her.”

I know before he says it.

“Ramon.”

He nods. “She went crazy when she saw his picture. Said she had to stop him from kidnapping any more girls. I promised her that we would stop him—you and I. She agreed to stay at the border station until we got back.”

“But she didn’t. How could you have not known she was in the back of the car?”

Max releases a breath. “On the way here, I thought I heard something—a noise—from the back.” He lowers his eyes. “I just figured something had shifted. You’ve seen the back of my truck. I keep tools in the back. And other stuff. When I didn’t hear anything again, I forgot about it.” He holds out his hands. “Anna, how could I have known she stowed away? She told me she’d wait for us.”

My eyes drift out through the window to Adelita, tied like an animal to the well. I’m not ready to concede that Max was not to blame for her being here. Part of me admires her courage and determination. Part of me wants to shake her until her teeth rattle.

She has not uttered a sound since arriving at the village. Her face is turned toward the direction of the dogs, the sound of them worrying at the corpse and snapping at each other hangs heavy and grotesquely on the still morning air. She must be so scared.

“Anna?”

Max’s voice pulls me back. I shift my gaze to him.

“Luis said they’re expecting a shipment today. We have to get the girls out of here.”

He’s right.

Luis didn’t say when the truck was due, but what if Ramon gathers the troops and directs them to the church to wait? Our luck is running out.

Esmeralda appears suddenly at our side. She, too, heard all that transpired outside and understood the conversation between Max and me. Her grasp of the situation is evident in the shadow of fear that darkens her eyes. “What are we going to do?” she asks.

I look up at Max. “You take the girls. Get as far away as you can.” A tiny pause. “And you will make sure they stay put this time, right?”

A spark flares in Max’s eyes. “I’ve already had one new asshole ripped today. Don’t need another one.” He jabs a finger in my direction. “And you?”

“I’m going to wait for the shipment to arrive. When the men are busy unloading the truck, I’ll free Culebra. Then we take care of Ramon.”

Max hefts the backpack. “What about Luis?”

“Get the girls to safety. Meet us back where you camped out that first night. We’ll bring Luis there.”

“Just you and Culebra? There must be twenty men in the village now that Ramon is back.”

I allow a growl to erupt from the pit of my rage. I lean close so that only Max can hear. “Good thing I’m hungry.”

CHAPTER 42

E
SMERALDA HAS THE GIRLS UP AND GATHERED around her. She whispers how important it is that they be very quiet. Max climbs out the back window first and I lift the girls one at a time to his waiting arms. I focus all my attention on listening, making sure no one is approaching the church until they are all safely hunkered down outside. Then I signal Max to move out.

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