Authors: Jeanne C. Stein
Tags: #Vampires, #Strong; Anna (Fictitious Character), #Contemporary, #General, #Urban Life, #Fantasy, #Fiction, #Occult & Supernatural
No sound yet from the village but I have no doubt the men are heading here at a run. Quick. Think.
What did Culebra say? Processed cocaine is highly flammable. I jump inside, start ripping a dozen packages apart and shake the powder loose.
I need a rag. Nothing I can see. I rip the sleeves off my blouse. I tie the ends together to form a long rope. Stick one end in the gas tank, bury the other under the cocaine.
One grenade left. This has to work.
Stepping back, I squeeze the handle, pull the pin, toss the grenade into the back.
This time, the resulting explosion is all I’d hoped for. The cocaine goes up with a loud whoosh. Flames zoom along the rope into the gas tank. The blast lifts the back of the truck off the ground and then erupts in a giant fireball.
Very satisfying. Except for one thing. I’m standing too close. The skin on my face and arms grows hot and tight. I jump back, fingers flying to explore the damage. Blisters are already forming. Followed seconds later by the pain.
Fuck. Not the first time I’ve been burned. Not the worst burn, either. But it hurts like a son of a bitch.
No time to worry about me. I hear the sound of a vehicle approach from the village. I hadn’t seen another vehicle in all the time I was hiding there. Must have been hidden in the dense brush behind the village or in one of the shacks. Hardly matters
it came from; it’s almost here.
I grab the duffel from under the tree. Consider climbing back up to ambush the men coming from the village. But I need to get back to Adelita. Hopefully Luis sent most of his men to check out the explosions. Leaves fewer men between Adelita and me.
But I don’t wait to see. I start back at a run, not parallel to the road, but in an arc away from it so I’ll come out behind the church. I make it back to the village in minutes, far quicker than the time it will take the vehicle to get from the village to the site of the explosion. When I’m right behind the church, still hidden by brush, I stop and listen.
There’s a lot of noise coming from the direction of the well. I recognize Luis’ voice and Ramon’s. Shouting with an edge of hysteria and mounting anger. Recriminations fly back and forth. They don’t even know what happened and they’re snapping at each other like a couple of mongrels.
When I make my way to the back door of the church and peek up to look through the window, the place is empty. I knew it would be too much to ask to find Adelita alone inside.
I scoot back into the brush. If she’s not in the church, she must be in Luis’ shack.
Before I plan my attack, it’s time to see how Culebra is doing.
He picks up on the first mental ring.
Where are you?
It might be my imagination, but his voice sounds more sibilant than usual.
Near the church,
I’m going to get Adelita now. I think she’s in Luis’ shack. Ramon and Luis are by the well. Can you keep them busy for a few minutes?
I think I can manage it.
Will you tell me when to go?
He laughs. Coldly.
I won’t have to. You’ll know.
The ice in his tone makes my blood quicken.
He’s right. In moments, there’s a cry from outside. Ramon. I glance out the window. Ramon is hopping on one foot, clutching his right ankle. Luis looks on, horrified, as the biggest rattlesnake I’ve ever seen slithers toward him. The snake is horror-movie size, its tongue dancing on the air, a death rattle trailing behind.
Luis doesn’t have a weapon and Ramon’s revolver lies in the dirt a dozen yards away where he dropped it when he was bitten. All Luis can do is stare. And back away.
If it weren’t so important to get to Adelita, I’d watch to see where Culebra bites him. I hope it’s in the balls. I drag myself away from the window and steal out the back door. The fact that no one came running at Ramon’s cry tells me they’ve either been sent by Luis to investigate the explosion or are cowering in their shacks, afraid of what Luis is doing to Ramon.
I move silently to the rear of Luis’ shack and peek in. The small window opens to that back room where I found Esmeralda and the little ones bound and drugged. There’s no sign of Adelita.
No sign of a guard, either. I debate whether to take a weapon but one-on-one, vampire can move faster and quieter and do more damage than any weapon. I leave the duffel on the ground and slip inside.
Luis is still yelling for help so I assume Culebra hasn’t attacked him yet. Ramon, on the other hand, is screaming in pain and fear. When I sidle up to the open doorway that separates the two rooms, I finally see Adelita.
She’s at the doorway that opens to the courtyard, watching what’s happening near the well. A guard is holding her by the arm with one hand; he has a gun in the other. He tracks the slithering path of the huge snake advancing relentlessly toward Luis, his eyes registering horror. Luis is yelling at him to shoot it, but the guard is too afraid to leave the shack. The revolver hangs uselessly at this side.
Lightning fast, I grab the gun away from the guard and bring the butt down hard on the back of his head. There’s a sickening crunch of gun metal on skull and he hits the ground. He didn’t see it coming, his expression reflects no surprise, no pain. His eyes simply go blank. I stuff the revolver in the waistband of my jeans, grab his ankles and yank him back out of Luis’ line of sight.
Not that Luis is looking. His gaze remains fastened on the snake.
But Adelita releases a sharp breath. Her hand flies to her mouth, smothering first the startled cry as the guard goes down and then the relieved cry when she recognizes who knocked him out.
She shouldn’t be too relieved. I plan to let her know at the first opportunity how stupid it was to sneak into Max’s car and to end up, once again, Luis’ prisoner.
But first things first. I place a finger over my lips and motion abruptly for her to follow me. We move slowly away from the door. At the doorway to the back room, I lean close and bark, “We’ll go out through the window.”
She nods, avoiding my eyes. She must hear the anger in my voice.
I drop down first, holding a hand up for Adelita to grab as she lowers herself to the ground. I keep hold of that hand and, snatching up the duffel, lead her into the brush and away from the shack. She comes along quietly. As relieved as I am that she’s unhurt, that’s how furious I am that she put herself in the position to be hurt in the first place.
When I think we’re safely far enough away, I draw her to a stop beside me. “I have to go back,” I tell her. “You stay here. Right here. Do you understand?”
“Go back? Why?”
“To help another friend.”
“Is it Max? If it is, I want to help.”
She flinches, the word hitting her like a slap.
“You cannot help. You shouldn’t even be here. Now this time, listen to me. Stay right here. I won’t be long.”
Her jaw sets. “Do you know what my name means?”
The question comes out of the blue. I stare at her, then throw up my hands. “Fuck, Adelita. What kind of question is that?”
“Do you?” she insists, digging in mental heels. She doesn’t drop her gaze or look away.
I give in. “No. What does it mean?”
“Warrior.” She says it with pride. “I am not a child. I want Ramon to pay for what he did to me and to the two girls who died in that truck. You can’t stop me from going back.”
Her tenacity is admirable. Completely and ridiculously absurd, but admirable.
“How do you propose to get Ramon?” I ask. “You have no weapon. You are one against his army.”
She points to the guard’s gun, tucked into my belt. “I’ll take that.”
I’d forgotten the revolver. It was a reflex action to take it when the guard fell. “Do you know how to shoot?”
But her eyes betray her.
I shake my head. “No. You don’t. I can’t stand here and argue with you, Adelita. If you want to help, please just be here when I get back. We may have to move fast. I promise, we will punish Ramon for what he did to you. He is being punished now.”
Her eyes widen. “You mean the snake? Do you think god sent the snake? Is it possible?”
That god sent the snake? Hardly. But if it will get her to concede to my wishes, I’ll play along. “Maybe. But I think it’s also a message that you need to protect yourself. You’ve escaped Luis twice now. You might not be so lucky the third time.”
I imagine the thoughts spinning behind those dark eyes. “You may be right. Perhaps god wants me to save other girls from men like Luis. Maybe if I tell my story . . .”
“That’s it.” My skin is crawling with the need to get back to Culebra. To get Luis and Ramon away from the village before the men return with tales of the lost drug shipment. “We’ll get you interviews in all the newspapers. But right now, I have to get back to the village. You’ll be safe if you stay right here. I won’t be long. I promise.”
Finally, a solemn smile touches her lips. “I promise, too. I will wait here for you to return.”
I’m so relieved, I want to kiss her.
But then she follows up with, “Maybe you should leave the gun? In case someone comes looking for me?”
My eyes narrow. “Don’t fuck with me, Adelita. Stay right here.” I let vampire surface, just enough to make my eyes turn—slit like a cat’s and yellow. Threatening.
She gulps. And backs down. “I will wait here.”
This time I believe her.
I snatch the duffel, run back through the brush, blood hot with anticipation, eager to take my turn with Ramon and Luis.
UIS IS STILL CRYING LIKE A LITTLE GIRL AND RAMON is still squealing like the pig he is. Culebra has wound his heavy, sinewy coils around Luis’ legs and is spitting into his face with a tongue darting from a head as big as a Rottweiler.
I take a moment to enjoy Luis’ terror before I reach out to Culebra.
I’m back. Looks like your snake act is making Luis apoplectic. He may stroke out before you have the chance to kill him.
There’s no response. It dawns on me that I’m not sure if our mental connection works when Culebra is in his other form. Maybe I need to speak out loud—
You could have stayed away a little longer.
He hisses the words.
Things are just getting interesting.
—or maybe Culebra is enjoying himself, too.
I step out of the shadows and go first to grab up Ramon’s gun before he remembers he dropped it. He looks startled to see me and I realize he hasn’t been in contact with Maria after all. For an instant, he forgets about his swollen ankle and stares, mouth open.
Then concern darkens his face and turns his mouth hard. “You. How did you get away?” Concern veers to anger. “Maria. Did you hurt her?”
“Not as much as she wanted to hurt me,” I snap back. “But I guess that was your idea, wasn’t it? To have her threaten to shoot me if I tried to leave.”
“What about Gabriella? If you did anything to hurt her—”
“Ramon!” Luis yells.
“Cállate la boca!”
We both turn to Luis, the snake’s head now perilously close to his. He says,
“¿Quién es esta mujer?”
Culebra swivels his head and I swear he winks at me. Then Ramon is explaining who I am and that Max and I are friends of Tomás.
At the mention of Tomás, Luis unleashes a torrent of Spanish, telling Ramon to go get the guard in Tomás’ shack and to bring the guard back here to shoot this fucking snake. And for Ramon to shoot Tomás while he’s there, the hell with what his brother wants.
Ramon hobbles off with a backward glance. I have his revolver dangling at my side but he doesn’t try to take it from me. He doesn’t seem to want to get any closer than he has to. Maybe he thinks I’ve forgotten I have it and if I remember, I’ll shoot him.
They think they’re still in charge,
Culebra says with glee in his tone.
I think I’ll go show Ramon how wrong they are.
Culebra begins to loosen his coils, drawing himself down from Luis’ body. I watch the process with interest. If I didn’t know the true nature of that huge reptile, I’d be scurrying up the nearest tree. As for Luis, he goes weak-kneed with relief when the snake untangles itself and frees him. He sinks to the ground, face pale with fear; his dark eyes stand out like black Chinese checker marbles on a granite slab.
Pathetic wretch. I have to stifle a laugh.
Culebra slithers off into the brush after Ramon. I get behind Luis before the asshole recovers his nerve, and prod him with the gun.
He’s looking around to see if the snake has really gone. Assuring himself that it has, he turns his head to squint at me.
“You are American?”
He’s speaking English. Doesn’t have much of an accent, either. Good. There will be no miscommunication between us.
I prod him again, this time in the kidneys, hard enough to make him wince. “Get up. Quick. Before Ramon comes back.”
As the fear ebbs, his confidence returns. “You think you can make me, girl?” he says. “A skinny stick like you?”
Just what I hoped he’d say. I grab his right wrist, bend it back until he’s gasping with pain. To ease the pressure, he stumbles upright.
I don’t let go. I maneuver him like I’m pushing a cart until he’s near the well. The rope he used to tie Adelita still dangles from the crossbeam. I shove him against the well, grab his free hand and before he can resist, I’ve got both hands secured behind his back. I pull the knot tight.
Only then do I spin him around to face me.
He’s sputtering with rage. “Do you know who I am?”
“You’ve been watching too many movies,” I tell him, feeling the corners of my mouth curl in a smirk. “That line sounds ridiculous in real life.”
“You won’t think it so ridiculous when Ramon comes back. He’ll kill you where you stand.”
“Yeah. We’ll see.” I’m sure Ramon will be back, all right, but with Culebra on his ass.
Luis starts yelling in Spanish. To Ramon. To the people hiding behind closed doors in the shacks around us. He’s ordering them to come out and free him. To shoot me. Offering money as a bribe.