Authors: Jeanne C. Stein
Tags: #Vampires, #Strong; Anna (Fictitious Character), #Contemporary, #General, #Urban Life, #Fantasy, #Fiction, #Occult & Supernatural
“Do you need a gun?” he asks me, clipping the Glock to his belt. He grabs a duffel bag from the corner as he talks.
I shake my head. The last time he provided me with a weapon it was a big 45 that I ended up getting shot with. No. Vampires come armed. Naturally.
“Let me drive,” he says, steering me toward the alley in back. “Ramon will know your car. He hasn’t seen mine.”
His vehicle is a big Ford Explorer, a couple of years and a lot of miles old. It’s covered with dirt on the outside, littered with fast-food containers and empty coffee cups on the inside. There’s a tarp pulled over the cargo section in back and even that’s littered with papers and old newspapers.
I scoop an armful of
out of the passenger seat and toss it into the back. I don’t have to say a word. My obvious disgust is evident in body language as I rub an old napkin over the seat and gingerly lower myself onto what I hope is not a sticky surface.
“Sorry,” Max mumbles, tossing the duffel into the back on top of the debris. “Been on surveillance most of the last two weeks. Wasn’t expecting company.”
He cranks the engine over and lead foots it into the street. He flips a switch and above the visor, red and blue LED lights start pulsing.
“Pretty slick. Didn’t even see them.”
He shoots me one of those disdainful looks that states the obvious.
You aren’t supposed to.
We blaze our way toward the freeway. Max concentrates on the driving. I concentrate on what I can do to this Ramon to make him talk. Vampire stirs in anticipation.
Once we’re clear of city streets and on our way to the border, I ask Max about Ramon. Had Max come in contact with him in an official capacity?
Max keeps both hands on the wheel and his eyes on the road when he answers. “No. My focus has been primarily on the area here, near Tijuana. Ramon and Culebra operated out of the golden triangle—Chihuahua, Durango and Sinaloa.”
“But you recognized the name.”
“Culebra mentioned a Ramon as someone he grew up with, someone who came up with him through the ranks.” He shakes his head. “It’s a common enough name but from the way you describe Culebra’s reaction when he saw him, I’ll bet it’s his old cartel buddy.”
“How did he find Culebra? What’s he doing here after all these years?” The questions are more to give voice to thoughts twirling around my head than directed at Max.
Still, he answers. “There’s a lot of infighting going on between the cartels. Who knows what old vendettas are being stirred up? Culebra left a lot of enemies behind. Maybe not everyone believed he died in the car wreck. Culebra goes into Tijuana occasionally. Maybe someday recognized him. The guys he crossed don’t give up easily. They may have been trying to track him down for years.”
His tone suggests he knows more about Culebra’s past than what I learned on Christmas Eve. “There’s more? Tell me.”
“I don’t know all of it.” His eyes slide toward me. “I think it’s best if you ask Culebra.”
He shuts down. The set of his jaw tells me I’m not going to get anything more. I turn back in my seat and face the road. We’re approaching the border. I fish my passport out of the pocket of my jeans in preparation but Max pulls around the tourist lanes and into the law enforcement turnout lane. He exchanges a few words with an officer on duty, flashes his badge, and we’re once more on our way.
I slide my passport into the glove compartment with my wallet. No sense taking a chance of losing them.
This time when we head into Beso de la Muerte, the street is deserted. I get the gut-churning feeling that we may be too late, that something bad has already happened. Max slips his gun into his hand and we approach the bar’s swinging doors, noiselessly, both of us on alert.
I touch Max’s arm and he stops. I lift my face, sniffing for a scent of human, listening for a heartbeat, probing to pick up the stray thought of a vamp or shape-shifter inside.
Nothing. A shake of my head and Max and I push open the doors.
The bar is empty. The quiet presses in, an unnatural quiet. The tables are still littered with bottles and glasses, some half full.
Culebra sent everyone away.
The gut churning gets more intense. I’d found the bar abandoned like this once before. It was not a good omen then. Odds are, it’s not a good omen now.
AX PICKS UP A BEER BOTTLE FROM ONE OF THE tables, swirls the contents. “Still cold.”
“Let’s try the cave.”
We get into the car and drive around to the mouth of the cave. I know before we get out, though, what we’ll find. When I call out for the doctor, I get an empty echo in reply. We make a cursory sweep, but just like the bar, the cave has been abandoned.
A light is on in one of the living areas, a cup of coffee, still hot, sits on a table in another.
“Can you pick up a trail?” Max asks me. “You know Culebra’s scent. Is there anything you can follow?”
Only the obvious. I lead Max out to a space near the back door of the bar. Where the scent ends. I point to tire tracks. “They took his truck.”
“That’s a start,” Max says. “You can track a truck, can’t you?”
“I can’t. Vampire can. You’ll never be able to keep up.”
He frowns in irritation. “So, what are you telling me? You’re going off on your own?”
“I have to. Listen, stay here. I’ll call you when I figure out what direction they’re going. You can follow and we’ll connect up as soon as we can. They don’t have much of a head start. It shouldn’t take long.”
Max has enough knowledge of vampires to know it’s the only logical course of action. Doesn’t mean he likes it. His frown intensifies. “You will call me.”
“Yes. I will—”
As if channeling the telephone, mine rings. When I see who is calling, and realize that I’ve been gone much longer than the couple of hours I intended to be, I grit my teeth and open the call.
“Stephen. God, I am so sorry.”
“Where are you?”
He doesn’t sound angry, just puzzled. And he doesn’t wait for me to respond. “I got back early. I’ve been waiting at the cottage since two. It’s almost five. Are you on your way home? Susan wants us to come for dinner tonight.”
Inwardly, I groan. “I can’t. Something came up. You go. Give Susan my love.”
“Are you sure? Are you on a job?”
“Yes.” Sort of. “I don’t know when I’ll be home. Why don’t I meet you at your place when I’m done?”
“Will it be late?”
Most likely. “It may be.”
He makes a clucking noise in the receiver. “I’m only home one night and you run out on me. Good thing I’m an understanding kind of guy. Say hello to David and Tracey for me. And Anna?”
He ends the call.
At least I didn’t have to explain that I’m not with David and Tracey. He doesn’t know Max or
Max. Wonder if he’d be so understanding if he knew I was with an old boyfriend? Or that I was on my way to track another old friend into Mexican drug territory?
God. There was no aggravation in his voice, no sarcasm. He trusts me completely. I get the sinking feeling that maybe he shouldn’t.
Max is watching me, having no doubt read between the lines of the conversation. “You’ve been with this guy, what? Five minutes? And you’re lying to him already?”
I feel the hair stir on the back of my neck. “I didn’t lie to him.”
He snorts. “Only by omission. You know fucking well there’s a good chance you’re not going to be meeting him tonight. Maybe not tomorrow night, either. Does he know about this place? About Culebra?”
I turn away, snapping my phone shut and slipping it into my jacket. The truth is, Stephen doesn’t know about Beso de la Muerte or Culebra. Not yet. When he’s in town, he lets me feed from him. When he’s gone and I need to feed, I come here. We haven’t been together that long. There’s been no reason to tell him.
When I don’t respond, Max throws up his hands. “Another stupid mortal under the thrall of a vampire. Yeah, I heard you tell Culebra he knows that you’re a vampire. At least that’s something.”
There’s that flash of bitterness again. He thinks I cast a spell to get Stephen? Does he think I cast a spell over him when we were involved?
I swallow back the anger. I’m not about to get into a pissing contest neither of us can win. This isn’t the time. I ignore Max and start to examine the tire tracks. They lead off to the south, away from the border and into the desert.
“I’ll call you” is all I say before trotting off, summoning the vampire to the surface. Both of us are happy to leave the confines of a mortal existence and the dark antagonism of the man I feel staring after me.
Freedom is in the rush of wind on my face as I pick up speed. Darkness is close, which makes tracking easier. Just as animals distinguish the tracks of predator and prey, I distinguish the marks of Culebra’s vehicle in the dirt. The right front tire has a nick in the outer rim. I pick up the smell of oil and exhaust.
I welcome full darkness when it falls. There is no moon, which makes senses more acute, vision sharper. The truck I follow goes deeper into the desert, shuns the lights of Tijuana and the scattered shantytowns on its outskirts. There are many smells here—animal and human. Cooking meat. Frying lard. Offal. Nothing tempts the vampire. I am well fed.
There are roads here, too, but the truck travels on none of them. It continues on dirt and hardscrabble going east. It will make the going harder and slower for the vehicle, faster and easier for the vampire.
It only takes thirty minutes to spot it. In the distance, a plume of dust. I run to catch up, careful to stay out of sight and when I see the silhouettes of two men inside, catch Culebra’s scent from the open window, only then do I stop to let the human Anna return.
I pull out my phone, call up Max’s number and hit send. He picks up on the first ring.
“Where are you?”
I look around. “I’m not really sure. About forty-five minutes east of Tijuana. The truck is a mile or so ahead of me.”
“Any road markers?”
“No road. Staying to the desert.”
There’s a pause. “That doesn’t make sense. The terrain is going to get too rough for Culebra’s old truck. They must be afraid someone’s watching the main roads.” Another pause while I assume he’s checking the map. “What are your GPS coordinates?”
I touch the “maps” app on the face of my phone, find the GPS coordinates and read what pops up on the screen. Max sends me his location and I scroll to it on the map.
“Look,” Max says finally, “this may be a long shot. But I think they might be headed for Tecate. There are a couple of private airstrips there.”
“What kind of private airstrips?”
“The ‘no questions asked’ kind of private airstrips. The kind you’d use if you want to reach the interior quickly and quietly. Do you know Tecate?”
“Not really. David and I tracked a skip to the border crossing at Tecate once, but we caught up with him before he made it across.”
“It’s not that big. Keep following them. If I’m right, they’ll be stopping soon. Call as soon as they do so I know where to meet you. If I’m wrong and they head in another direction, let me know that, too. I’m starting out now. Sticking to the main roads will make the trip much shorter. I can be there in forty minutes tops.”
The last thing I hear before he disconnects is the rumble of the Ford’s engine as he cranks it over.
Culebra’s truck is still moving. But I begin to realize Max may be right when the lights of a city I can only guess is Tecate blink in the distance. He’d better make it fast. I can track anything across the ground, but if Culebra and Ramon take off in a plane, for us, the trail comes to a screeching halt.
O A VAMPIRE’S ACUTE SENSES, TECATE IS A TOWN caught between ocean and desert. Close enough to catch the sea breeze, smelling of sand and brine, far enough away to have a desert landscape of cactus and sand. The perfume of the ocean is often swept away by the smell of hot dust and decay. A dichotomy that tickles my nose.
The way is rough, but rougher still for the truck. It bounces and lurches, slow going.
Not for me. It gives me a chance to catch up, to get so close I see Ramon smoking in the passenger seat and smell the smoke drifting out through the open window.
So close I could speed up and ride the rest of the way, hunkering down on the rear bumper of the pickup.
But I don’t.
There’s too much about this scenario I don’t understand. I don’t trust.
Finally, with the city in sight, Culebra steers onto a dirt road that appears abruptly out of the hardscrabble and curves away from Tecate. He picks up speed and we begin to pass an area of industrial buildings—warehouses, if I had to guess. The parking lots are nearly empty, only one or two cars scattered in front of the few buildings with lights still burning.
I look around out of a human’s eye now, trying to pinpoint something to let Max know where we are.
I get my chance when the truck veers again, this time onto a paved road. A sign says
. He keeps going. I stop and call Max.
“We’re on a road called Cuchuma,” I say when he picks up. “Here are the coordinates.”
Max waits to reply until he sees what I’ve sent. “Good. I know where you’re headed. I should be there in fifteen minutes. Cuchuma connects with a road called Del Carmen. They’ll take Del Carmen south and turn onto an unmarked road. Keep following. You’re almost to the airstrip. There’s an abandoned outbuilding about a half mile from the airstrip. Meet me there.”
I snap the phone shut and let the vampire surface again. Now that I know where we’re going, I can enjoy the freedom of the run. I let my animal senses pick up the smells of rock and desert, vermin and predator. Fox is here and snake and rabbit and coyote. Coyote spies me and lowers its head, growling. Its rumble attracts its brothers, hiding in the brush. It’s the way coyote hunts—one to lure an unsuspecting victim, then the others to attack as a pack. They smell human but something else, too. Animal.
My growl convinces them to go on to easier prey. They back off, deep-throated rumbling changing from challenge to irritated submission.