Authors: Jeanne C. Stein
Tags: #Vampires, #Strong; Anna (Fictitious Character), #Contemporary, #General, #Urban Life, #Fantasy, #Fiction, #Occult & Supernatural
And even before all that happened, I wasn’t happy. I felt sorry for myself because I was alone on Christmas Eve. My family’s visit was nice, but over too soon.
Max is right. I am a bitch.
* * *
I DON’T KNOW WHEN THE THOUGHT TO GO SEE CULEBRA wiggles its way into my consciousness. One moment I’m being self-righteous and indignant and the next I’m in the car headed south.
Why? Couldn’t put it into words. Maybe Max has a point. Eighteen months of friendship deserves more than a brush-off.
I left a message for Stephen after ringing his cell phone and having it go straight to voice mail. He may have turned it off while visiting with his sister. No matter. I’ll be back at the cottage before him, I’m sure.
Lines at the border are long. Security is heightened during the holidays. And the increasing drug violence along the Texas and Arizona borders is spilling over to tighter security along ours.
Hear that, Culebra?
When it’s my turn, I flash my passport and get waved through.
I’m about fifteen minutes outside Beso de la Muerte when I see a man. A lone figure a quarter of a mile from the road, weaving around cactus, stumbling over rocks and brush. I pull over, wondering if he’s an illegal. Or a victim of one of the unscrupulous coyotes working the area. In either case, he’s lost his bearings. He’s not heading toward the border, he’s moving parallel to it. And this is the middle of the day. Even if he makes the border, he’ll run right smack into a patrol.
I climb out of the car at the same instant he takes a header into a ravine. When I don’t see him get right back up, I’m racing over the desert toward him.
I reach him just as he attempts to sit up. He’s holding his head in both hands, a jagged gash at his hairline spilling blood into his eyes. The scent of his blood gives me pause. It’s full of fear. The raw smell of panic increases when he spies me. He jumps to his feet, backing away, spewing Spanish too fast for me to understand.
I hold up my hands, try to remember how to say something reassuring in a language in which I haven’t had much practice.
“Estás lastimado. Puedo ayudarle.”
He doesn’t look reassured. Maybe I got it wrong. I try English this time. I point to his wound. “You are hurt. I can help.”
He looks at the blood on his hands as if seeing it for the first time. “You are not
His English is halting but good.
“No. Where were you going?”
He sinks down on the edge of the berm. “I’m looking for a friend.”
As far as I know, there’s nothing out here, or even close, except Culebra’s. And this guy is a human, a stranger to me, so it’s doubtful he’d be heading there. Unless . . .
“Are you looking for Culebra?”
“Culebra?” He looks around, startled. “A snake? Why would I be looking for a snake?”
Okay. That answers that question. He doesn’t know Culebra. However, it would be much quicker to get that head wound taken care of in Beso de la Muerte instead of trekking all the way back to the border—a border where we’d both be detained.
I take a step toward him, hold out a hand. “
I can get you help. For your wound.” When he shies away, I add,
“Para su herida.”
I shake my head.
He looks as if he wants to refuse, but when he tries to stand up and his legs buckle, I’m there to steady him. He gives in with a shrug and lets me help him back to the car. I give him a rag from the trunk to hold against the bleeding wound and a bottle of water. He drinks it down in one long pull and rests his head wearily against the back of the seat.
He falls asleep as soon as we get on the road. It gives me a chance to check him out. He’s dark skinned, has dark hair, probably a nice-looking face under all that blood. He’s not young, not old—late forties maybe. His clothes are dirty but not ragged. Good quality jeans, a long-sleeved cotton shirt buttoned all the way to the neck. He has sports shoes with a sole hardly worn so he hadn’t been trekking far. Maybe he drove part of the way and his car broke down so he had to abandon it.
But drove from where?
I didn’t pass a car. If he came from the opposite direction, from Tijuana for instance, how did he end up out here?
Questions I won’t be able to answer until we get to Culebra’s.
There’s a lot more going on in Beso de la Muerte today. At least a dozen cars line the road in front of the bar. Should I take the guy inside? He’s still asleep, but it would be no problem to carry him.
Until he wakes up and wonders how I’m able to do such a thing. Or sees the unusual mix of worldly and otherworldly customers that frequent Culebra’s bar.
No. Instead, I send a telepathic message to Culebra.
I’m outside. I have someone with me. A stranger. He’s hurt. Not sure I should bring him inside.
In less than a heartbeat, Culebra is standing by the car. He leans in and when he sees the man, a flash of recognition flares in his eyes before he looks quickly away. He slams the door on his thoughts, too, closing his mind with an almost audible click.
He opens the rear door and climbs in. Not surprisingly, he says, “Take him to the cave.”
I put the Jag in gear and pull around back. I know this area as well as I know the bar. This is where Culebra’s “guests” stay, where he lives, where an unlicensed doctor has his “practice.”
Culebra jumps out before I can and reaches inside for the man. He lifts him as gently as he would a child.
The man stirs then, and his eyes open, focus on Culebra.
“Tomás,” he says. “I found you.”
ULEBRA DOESN’T RESPOND BUT HURRIES STRAIGHT back into the mouth of the cave.
Tomás? Who’s Tomás?
I follow close behind. He brings the guy to an area set up like a MASH unit and lays him on the gurney. All the while, the guy is muttering to him in Spanish. His voice is barely above a whisper and Culebra is letting nothing of what he hears infiltrate his thoughts so I have no clue what’s being said.
It’s deliberate on Culebra’s part, a mental barrier as impenetrable as the rock walls surrounding us. There’s only one thing coming through loud and clear.
His concern for the injured man.
Culebra calls out for help.
A familiar figure appears at the door. Thin, slump-shouldered, mid-forties, human. His pale face and sallow complexion make him look like he spends very little time out of the confines of the cave. He’s dressed in clean jeans and a polo shirt. He nods his head in my direction, an acknowledgment and greeting.
I’ve met him twice before. He took care of David once and then kept Frey and Culebra alive while I battled the witch holding them in a spell. He is a doctor who lost his license in the states most likely because of the drug habit his slightly trembling hands signify he has not yet shaken. But clean or not, he knows his stuff and he wastes no time getting to work.
He has Culebra pour hot water into a basin. He grabs sterile cloths and bottles of some sharp-smelling liquid. He soaks the cloths in the water and gently washes away the blood and dirt, exposing the wound. He disinfects it, uses his fingers to examine the cut, poking and pulling at the skin until he seems satisfied. Then he covers the wound with a butterfly bandage.
During all this, his patient moans softly but doesn’t try to pull away. Culebra lays a reassuring hand on his arm. “
I look hard at Culebra. Ramon, huh?
The doctor spends a moment longer probing the guy’s scalp, feeling, I suppose, for any swelling that might indicate a contusion. Next he shines a bright, pinpoint of LED light from what looks like a small flashlight into his patient’s eyes, first one, then the other.
Finally, he pats the guy on the shoulder and looks at Culebra. “He should be fine. The cut looked worse than it is because of the blood. He doesn’t need stitches. He has a knot on his head but there are no obvious signs of concussion. His eyes react correctly to light and are focusing. How long was he wandering around?”
He looks to Culebra, who looks to me for the answer to that question, but I can only shrug. “I don’t know. I found him about half an hour ago.”
Culebra addresses the question to the wounded man. He replies in Spanish, which Culebra translates for us. “Maybe four hours. He’s not sure. His car broke down and his cell phone went dead. He thought he was headed toward Tijuana. When he fell, he hit his head and had trouble getting up. That’s when Anna found him.”
“Lucky thing she did. And lucky this is winter and not summer. Dehydration isn’t indicated, but it won’t hurt to get some water into him. Keep him awake. Can’t rule out concussion yet. If he starts vomiting or acting strange, let me know right away.”
Culebra thanks him and the doctor disappears back into the cave. I realize I have yet to learn his name. He’s like a genie, here when you summon him, retreating back into his bottle, or most likely needle or pipe, when you don’t.
Culebra is helping the man, Ramon, off the gurney. He seems suddenly to remember that I’m in the room, too. “Thank you for bringing my friend here.” He says it like he’s dismissing me. His eyes are distant.
I’m not one who is easily dismissed, especially when it comes to a stranger who called Culebra a name I’d never heard before. “Why did he call you Tomás?”
“Anna, please. You should go.”
Probably should. But I’m not. Whoever this Ramon is, he doesn’t know the name Culebra. Why? And I found him wandering in the desert a few miles from Beso de la Muerte. Not Tijuana.
“You recognized him. I saw it. Who is he?”
Ramon is on his feet, looking better now that most of the blood has been wiped from his face. He squares off, standing on his own, stepping away from Culebra’s supporting arm. Looking my way, then back to Culebra, he says something so quietly, I only catch a word or two.
But it’s enough. I recognize one of the words.
Culebra, he’s your brother? Is he in danger?”
Each time I use the name Culebra, the injured man seems puzzled. It’s obvious to whom I’m speaking, but it’s just as obvious that this man has no idea why I keep referring to him as a snake—the translation.
I ask the question again. “Is this your brother?”
Culebra takes my arm and steers me none too gently toward the door that leads to the path outside. Tension radiates from his body, vibrates through his grip.
Yes. I will explain later. Right now I need time with him.
Is he in trouble? Can I help?
For a moment, a spark of the old Culebra, of my friend, softens the lines of strain on his face. He releases my arm. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why Ramon is here. But he won’t talk in front of a stranger. Please, you need to go. I’ll call you when I can.”
There is a tone in his voice, a shadow in his eyes that I’ve never seen before. I don’t recognize what it is, but I do recognize that he is
me to leave.
Reluctantly, I agree. But as I leave him and start back to the car, I’m digging my cell phone from my purse. My gut is screaming and I’ve learned never to ignore the sign.
I scroll to a name and hit Send.
“Anna?” He sounds as surprised to hear my voice, as I am to have called him.
“I need to talk to you. I think Culebra may be in trouble.”
* * *
MAX HAS AN APARTMENT IN SOUTH BAY, AN AREA OF Chula Vista. I’d spent time here a lifetime ago. A lot of time.
Nothing has changed. When he ushers me in, I recognize the same furniture, functional, plain, arranged in the same way. Couch on one wall, two chairs on another, a TV stand with components against the third. Nothing personal adorns the walls or the end table or coffee table. There are empty pizza boxes stacked in a corner near the door and a green recycle bin filled with empty beer bottles poised next to it. I find myself shaking my head.
No signs of a real human life. This is just a stopping place between undercover assignments. I imagine nothing has changed in the bedroom, either. Something I have no desire or interest to find out.
Max wastes no time peppering me with questions as soon as I’m inside.
The only problem is, I can’t answer any of them. I don’t know anything except a few sketchy details. So I tell him what happened. How I found the guy. That Culebra called him Ramon.
Max reacts to the name. “Ramon? Are you sure?”
I nod. “Did you know Culebra had a brother?”
“He must. Ramon used the word ‘
’ and Culebra called Ramon his brother. I couldn’t follow their entire conversation, but one of them is in danger. I understood that much.”
Max is shaking his head. “Ramon is not his brother. At least not in the way you’re thinking. But you’re right about one of them being in danger. Ramon was a member of the cartel Culebra worked for. If he’s here, it may mean someone has tracked Culebra down. Either Ramon came to warn him or he came to kill him.”
T’S AMAZING HOW PERSPECTIVE CHANGES WITH circumstance. A week ago, when I heard Culebra’s story for the first time, a threat from his past might have evoked a reaction of ambivalence. After all, you lay down with cartel dogs, you get up with cartel fleas.
Now, all I see is the look in Culebra’s eyes when he asked me to leave. I recognize what it was now. He wanted me out of harm’s way. He knew if he became combative or ordered me to leave, I’d dig in my heels and refuse to go. He chose the one way that guaranteed my cooperation.
He asked nicely.
Shit. I’m on my feet. “We need to get back to Culebra. Now.”
Max doesn’t argue. “Let me get my gun.”
He disappears into the bedroom and returns a moment later with a jacket and his weapon. The Glock is in a compact Blackhawk! slide holster with a pouch for an extra mag. A lot of firepower. Makes me realize he takes the situation seriously.