CULEBRA DOESN'T RESPOND BUT HURRIES STRAIGHT back into the mouth of the cave.
Tomas? Who's Tomas?
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. "Tranquilo, Ramon."
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 Tomas?"
"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. Hermano. And another. Peligro.
"Hermano? 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 asking 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 'hermano' 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."
IT'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.
"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 stuff 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.
MAX 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 about 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.