Authors: Jeanne C. Stein
Tags: #Vampires, #Strong; Anna (Fictitious Character), #Contemporary, #General, #Urban Life, #Fantasy, #Fiction, #Occult & Supernatural
ULEBRA’S EXPRESSION GROWS DARK, AS IF HE’S now speaking of things that fill him with more than pain and guilt. Remorse is there, too.
My own emotions are conflicted. His story is not a new one. It’s the story of every gangster who thinks himself above the law. But this is Culebra. My friend. Reconciling the man I know now with the man he describes has my head spinning.
I feel his eyes on me.
“Do you want me to stop?”
“I want you to tell me what happened to your family,” I reply softly. “How you could have thought for a moment that your family would be spared and only you would have suffered the consequences of disobeying your boss? Your
was getting rid of those who did just that. How could you not have known better?”
“I was arrogant,” he snaps back, not defensively, but with anger obviously turned back on himself. “Stupid. I believed I was so goddamned important that the boss would see how valuable an asset I was. I’d hide out. Buy time to let him cool off. So I dropped out of sight and made no effort to contact my wife or go near the house. After a few days, I snuck into the house after midnight, making sure I hadn’t been followed. I planned to gather up my wife and kids and take them to a safe place until I could arrange to make things right with the boss. How I would explain all of this to my family never entered my mind. My first thought was to get us to safety. But when I passed through the front door, the smell of blood filled my nostrils. There was blood on the carpet in the children’s room and on the walls of my bedroom. There were no bodies. But I knew what had happened. The scene in that house has never left my mind.”
Culebra’s breath catches again. He composes himself quickly. “I was filled with an intense rage that I had never felt before. I didn’t care what happened to me. If that motherfucker could kill my family for disobeying one order after all the years I was faithful to him, I was going to exact vengeance on him, his worthless son, and anyone else who got in my way. I was going to descend on his house like the angel of death. My first order of business was to drive out to a hideaway in a remote part of the desert where I stored my cache of guns, explosives and equipment. I would be armed to the teeth when I paid the boss a visit.
“I drove out to my desert ordnance dump. But I was angry—and careless. I didn’t notice the black Escalade in my rearview mirror until it was too late. I recognized the boss’s men almost immediately. They may have been waiting for me somewhere near my house. Letting me go inside and see what they had done. To realize what my disobedience had cost. Now it was my turn to experience the boss’s revenge. I stepped on the gas to speed away, but just then the gunfire started. It ripped through my rear window and knocked out my front windshield. One of the bullets grazed my head.” His hand goes to his forehead and he rubs at his temples reflexively. “There was so much blood.
“I lost control of my car and it tumbled into a ravine. I was thrown from the vehicle and landed in a gully while the car continued to tumble on over a patch of rocks. The rocks punctured the fuel tank and created sparks and the vehicle exploded into a fireball. I heard the Escalade stop on the road above. The men got out to watch the fireworks. My body must have been hidden from view in the gully because they didn’t come searching for me. They assumed that I died in the explosion and after a few minutes, they returned to the Escalade, turned around and drove off.
“When I felt it was clear, I crawled out of the gully and onto the roadbed. I stood up and staggered, light-headed from the loss of blood. Besides the head wound, I had been shot in each arm, bruised and cut from being thrown around in the car. I was probably about twenty miles from Ciudad Juárez, in the middle of the desert, with no car and no water. The only thing I could do was start walking north toward the border. I took off my undershirt, tore it into strips to make bandages. I wrapped one strip around my head to try and stop or at least slow the bleeding and others to fashion tourniquets for my arms. I started walking. After some time, I don’t know how long, I passed out. The next thing I knew I was lying in a bed in an El Paso hospital surrounded by DEA agents.”
He looks up at Max.
Max had just raised his glass to his lips. Whatever he sees in Culebra’s eyes makes him lower the glass. He takes up the story.
“We were on a routine border patrol when we found Culebra. We thought he was an illegal who had been attacked by coyotes. He’d almost made it to the border. It was a miracle he made it at all. The gunshot wasn’t serious, but he was dehydrated and exhausted. He’d lost a lot of blood.”
Max watches Culebra as he tells the story. Culebra, for his part, keeps his head down, his eyes on the glass clasped between his hands.
“He was near death for three weeks. We found papers on him—Mexican and American passports in different names. One we recognized. The name connecting him to the Sinaloa Cartel. As soon as he was well enough, we moved him to a safe house for questioning.” A cold smile. “He was a tough nut to crack. Wouldn’t tell us what happened. Wouldn’t name his shooter.”
“So how did you convince him to talk?”
“We found the bodies of his family. Buried in a shallow grave not far from where we found him. It was a fluke. We’d gotten a tip about the location of a cartel body dump. His family happened to be among the dead we were able to identify. Ballistics matched the bullet that we took from him to the ones that killed his family. Seeing their bodies, knowing they were killed by his own people reminded him of what he wanted most. Revenge.
“Culebra has been of great help to us. We captured Gallardo with information he supplied. We’ve taken a lot of drugs off the street and closed some major supply routes. He’s more than made up for what he was.”
“But the drugs keep flowing and the gangs get stronger.” I don’t realize how angry and disappointed I’d become until that anger turns my blood to fire. I round on Culebra. “Do you really think you can ever make up for what you were? A killer. An assassin for a drug dealer. Do you know how many deaths you are responsible for? Thousands. On both sides of the border. Your family—” The words spill out, forced from a roiling gut. “I don’t understand how you could have allowed yourself to be involved in such a thing. You risked your life not long ago to save a young girl—a stranger—from Belinda Burke. That’s the Culebra I know. The one you are describing now is someone I don’t recognize.”
Culebra makes no attempt to explain or excuse. Anger overcomes disappointment. Bile burns the back of my throat. His silence lights the fuse and trips an explosion of invective.
“Of all the people I’ve come to depend on in my life, I thought you were the purest of heart. You came here and offered refuge to worldly and otherworldly creatures seeking safe haven. You are a protector. Never would I have suspected you capable of being a cold-blooded killer.”
Max breaks in. “This place was Culebra’s idea. You know the good he does. He still helps us when he can, but basically he is left alone to help whoever—or
The last is said with an inflection as sharp as a pointed stake. He’s not looking at me. Learning I was vampire was what broke us up. I thought we had gotten past that. Especially since he came to me not long ago for help with a rogue vampire. A rogue I took care of. Maybe the booze is stirring up feelings of betrayal in him the way Culebra’s story is stirring up feelings of betrayal in me. Irrational maybe, but real just the same.
In a muddle of alcohol-fueled emotion, I’d not shielded my thoughts. Culebra’s intrusion into my head is as soft as a whisper.
I can’t undo what I was, what I did.
The weight of his sadness and regret is heavy. I know the toll past mistakes can exact. I’ve also seen firsthand the misery narcos inflict. Max and I have both been victims.
I push the chair away. It’s better I go before I say or think something that might irreparably harm my relationship with Culebra. Neither man says anything when I stand up.
As I leave, I see the shadow of shame in Culebra’s eyes.
It’s not enough.
HE SUN COMING THROUGH THE GLASS DOOR AND right into my eyes is a painful wake-up call. I have to force myself to sit up, blocking the sun with a hand. It’s Christmas Day. My pounding head reminds me of last night. Bits of Culebra’s story insinuate themselves into my consciousness, stinging like wasp bites. Then there’s the aftertaste of all that whiskey. My throat burns. My tongue feels like I’ve been licking the insides of those oak barrels the stuff was aged in. I roll my head in my hands and groan.
From a galaxy far, far away, I hear the ring of a doorbell.
I sit up straighter.
I’ll ignore it. Even Santa wouldn’t have the bad judgment to ring
doorbell this early.
The doorbell rings again. This time, one long sustained clash of bells, like someone is leaning an elbow on the fucking thing.
Slowly, I haul my ass out of bed, pull on a pair of sweats, shrug into a tee and start downstairs, dragging fingers through my hair as I go. Hand on the doorknob, I grind my teeth in anticipation of kicking the ass of whoever is standing behind the door. The scowl on my face should give even Santa pause. I yank open the door.
Is it! Three pairs of laughing, wonderfully familiar, totally unexpected eyes gleam at me for a second before I’m completely wrapped in three pairs of arms all hugging me and clapping me on the back and kissing my cheeks in one fell swoop of exuberance.
My family has come to visit.
The scowl gusts away like a candle blown by a breeze. I’m laughing and hugging back and overwhelmed by how happy their unexpected presence makes me.
I herd the trio into the living room and get them seated on the couch. I take the chair opposite so I can look at them. It hasn’t been that long since I’ve seen them, three months or so, but each time I do, I take mental inventory. When they’re gone, the memory is all I have to cling to.
Mom looks as healthy and happy as ever. She’s gained a few pounds in the year she’s been away, but she wears it well. Her hair is no grayer than it was, but the hairstyle is different. Cut in a stylish bob that makes her look much younger than her sixty-plus years. Dad hasn’t changed a bit. Still carries himself like the successful businessman he was—or is. He’s gone from retired investment banker to running a winery. The change agrees with him. Tan, broad-shouldered, he reminds me more than ever of a Roman nobleman with his close-cropped hair of gray curls.
But Trish. My niece looks different every time I see her. She’s grown from an awkward thirteen-year-old into a graceful, self-confident soon-to-be fifteen-year-old. Her hair is drawn back from her smooth, even-featured face with a barrette and cascades down her back to just below shoulder length. She’s wearing jeans and a designer T-shirt with a logo I don’t recognize—something French.
They’ve been chattering like excited squirrels. “You all look so
,” I find myself interjecting. “So wonderful!”
Mom beams at me. “Oh, Anna. We love France. Trish is doing well in school. Speaks French like a native.”
“Merci beaucoup, grand-mère,”
Trish says with a grin.
Mom laughs. “Your dad has become quite the vintner and business is growing. Just a year and our wines have begun taking prizes in local fests.”
“Of course most of the credit has to go the great staff we inherited with the winery,” Dad says with a modest smile. “But we’ve experimented with some new grape blends that are getting noticed.”
“And wonder of wonders,” Mom adds, “Your dad is beginning to appreciate French food.”
She reaches over to take his hand. They’re like a couple of kids again. Dad beams. “I like your
French cooking,” he says, eyes twinkling. “It’s a start.”
Trish has been looking around. “No Christmas tree, Aunt Anna?”
I shake my head. “Too busy. But David and I have one at the office.”
Yikes. A thought strikes me with the force of a sledgehammer. I should be offering them breakfast and I have no food in the house. Not a scrap. Comes with the territory, being a vamp and all.
How do I explain that to my family? “I wish you’d told me you were coming. I don’t have anything to offer you.”
“I know we’ve surprised you, Anna,” my mom is saying. “How about we take you to breakfast? If I remember correctly, you were never much of a cook.”
Thank you, Mom. “Where would you like to go? How about the Mission Café? It’s right down the street. I think it’s open for breakfast today.”
“Got something better in mind. Let’s go to the house.”
“Your house? In La Mesa?”
“It’s the reason we’re here,” Dad says. “We’ve made a decision.”
Before I can react, Trish says, “We got in late last night. So we went right there and opened it up. We went shopping and everything.”
“And we have a lot of things to do,” Mom says. “Things that affect you. Trish has a break from school so we thought this the perfect time.”
Wow. Mom is standing up and the others do, too. My cue to do the same. “Did you drive here?” It’s the only thing I can think to ask.
Mom touches my cheek. “We’ve probably overwhelmed you. Let’s get to the house and we can sort it all out.”
Dad rattles car keys. “The rental is right out front.”
Trish links her arm through mine, steers me toward the door. “What’s with the new boyfriend? We’ve been watching him on the news. He’s totally hot, Aunt Anna.”
“I’ll tell Stephen you said that,” I say, thinking this is the best Christmas present. Ever.
T’S BEEN ALMOST A YEAR SINCE I’VE BEEN IN MY PARents’ house. It was last Christmas, in fact. Just before they left for a new life in France. A life that didn’t, that couldn’t, include me.
In spite of open windows, there is still an air of mustiness, of emptiness. A house devoid of life. Until Trish’s laugh chases away the gloom. We’ve finished breakfast (another marvel of sleight of hand as I pretend to consume eggs and toast when in reality, the food becomes a lump in my napkin) and are sitting cross-legged on the living room floor, surrounded by boxes and memories. The announcement came during the meal.