TO 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 CUCHUMA. 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.
Vampire bares her teeth in a smile.
The truck is at the junction to Del Carmen. It turns as Max predicted. Vampire relinquishes control to the human Anna. Pace slows, thought processes center now on what to do when Culebra gets to the airstrip. Should I try to stop them if they have a plane waiting to take off? How far behind is Max?
The airstrip is ahead. I follow out of sight until the truck comes to a stop beside a ramshackle building. There are lights on inside and the two men go in.
A quick look toward the runway and one decision is made for me.
There's no plane.
I backtrack and wait at the abandoned building for Max. I scramble up the wall to the roof so I have a clear view of the area. If a plane approaches, I will see it. In a matter of minutes, both Max and a plane arrive simultaneously. I launch myself off the building, landing by Max's Explorer. The move is quick and from the look on Max's face, I may have taken ten years off his life.
"Jesus, Anna. Do you fucking fly now?"
"Go." I jump into the passenger seat. "A twin-engine plane just landed."
Max pushes the accelerator to the floor but his eyes are still wide, his breath coming in startled gasps.
We slow when we get within sight of the building where Culebra and Ramon are waiting. The approach of the Explorer is silenced by the noise from the plane. Max kills the engine and coasts to a stop behind a cluster of bushes. I expect Culebra and Ramon to come out to meet the plane. But instead, the pilot shuts down the engine and disappears into the building, too.
Max and I look at each other. He unclips his gun and motions to the car door. We let ourselves out quietly, approach in stealth mode. The door to the building is open, the light spilling out offering a clear view of three men inside.
Culebra's back is to us.
He turns, eyes narrowing.
I clamp down on my thoughts, hoping I haven't inadvertently given myself away.
He steps out before Max and I can take cover.
"Come out, Anna. You, too, Max. I could sense you were following. We've been waiting for you."
MAX AND I LOOK AT EACH OTHER.
My sudden awareness that Culebra knew I was tracking him makes my first reaction, confusion, veer quickly to anger. "If you knew I was following you, why didn't you stop?"
"I'm sorry, Anna."
"You're sorry? If you wanted us to come with you, why didn't you simply ask Max and me? Why chase me away in Beso and then make me track you like a damned bloodhound?"
He doesn't react to my anger with anger of his own. Instead, his body and face reflect a willingness to endure whatever taunts I choose to fling his way. He stands quietly and waits.
Which, predictably, takes the wind out of my vitriolic sails and leaves me staring back at him feeling like a kid who just threw a tantrum in a toy shop.
After a moment, he says, "I know how angry you were at Christmas. Because I hid certain things from you. The anger is justified. I also know if I told you the reason Ramon came to see me, you'd feel obligated to help regardless of your personal feelings. I wanted to give you and Max a chance to decide on your own if you want to get involved."
He looks at me, dark eyes piercing and intent. "This is cartel business. It won't be pretty and it won't be easy. Once you hear the story, you can come with Ramon and me or go back home. Either way, I appreciate the trouble you've taken. You came after me. You've shown your loyalty and concern."
"But now that we're here, you intend to ask more of us than a show of loyalty and concern."
He lets a cold smile touch the corners of his eyes and lips. "I do. Yes."
At least now you're being honest. The same bitterness that sparked my outburst moments before is back.
Again, Culebra doesn't reply in kind. It's frustrating. I realize I'm spoiling for a fight, looking for an excuse to pull out and leave Culebra to his "cartel business." But Culebra knows me too well. He's not giving me the chance.
Ramon has come outside and stands beside him. In the doorway, the silhouette of the pilot is outlined against the bright interior. He has what is clearly recognizable as a rifle in his hands. It's cradled in his arms and not pointed at us. I suppose that's another good sign.
Culebra motions to the door. "Let's go inside. Please. We have much to discuss."
I look at Max. He shrugs and holsters his gun. We follow Culebra and Ramon into the building. Once we're inside, Culebra pulls the door closed and snaps the deadbolt.
"Is that to keep someone else out or to keep us in?" I ask.
It's said with a half smile and hopeful spark of humor.
I don't smile back.
Culebra drops his eyes and the smile and takes his place at the head of a long table. The surface is scattered with maps and charts. He beckons for us to join him.
Max does. I take a moment to look around. The inside of this place is bare wood... walls and floors. No furniture except for the table and a couple of folding chairs that look like they've spent a good deal of time in the elements. The paint is scoured and peeling. No windows. The light comes from a single, high-wattage bulb suspended from a ceiling joist, wires dangling down the side of one wall and plugged into the only outlet I can see.
That's it. Not much in the way of a hideout.
I take the step to the table. The pilot doesn't join us. He leans his thin frame against the wall opposite the door, his eyes shifting continuously from Max to me. I can't tell how old he is, his complexion is as scoured as the furniture, but his face is gaunt and severe, his lips pressed in a hard line that emphasizes the frown lines etched around his mouth. He has the animal magnetism of a Benicio Del Toro. The same hooded dark eyes, the same heavy eyelids. He's dressed in khaki pants and a black hoodie. I think he thinks he's generating an air of watchful vigilance when in fact, his posture screams "bomb with a short fuse." He hasn't leaned the rifle against the wall, either. It's still at the ready in his arms.
I keep him in my line of sight as I turn my attention to Culebra.
He and Ramon are talking with Max. When I look at Ramon, I remember how Max said he and Culebra met. Max found Culebra wandering in the desert. I found Ramon wandering in the desert. Somehow I doubt Ramon and I are headed for the same kind of relationship. He hasn't said a word to me. He hasn't even looked at me. Is it because I'm female or is it because he knows I'm vampire?
Culebra draws my attention with a wave of his hand. He points to something on the map. When I take my place beside Max, Culebra says, "We're headed here... outside Reynosa. About twelve hundred miles as the crow flies, almost to the Gulf."
"There's some fierce infighting going on in the area," Max says. "Between the old drug lords and members of Los Martillos."
I know the name. Everyone who lives on or near the border knows the name. Los Martillos are a band of ex-military thugs used as enforcers. Probably learned their trade at the same "school" as Culebra. "I hope that isn't what this is about," I say.
"Indirectly, it is."
Once again, a spark in my gut flares out as indignation. "You aren't seriously telling us that you're getting involved in drug shit again."
His eyes snap to mine. "It's not that simple."
Max holds up a hand in a conciliatory gesture. "Hear him out, Anna. We've been after some of these guys for a long time. Particularly Pablo Santiago. He has bounties on his head in Mexico and the United States. If there's a chance we could nail him or one of his cronies, it's worth a shot."
"What's worth a shot? We haven't heard what Culebra wants us to do."
Ramon may not completely understand the words passing between Max, Culebra and me, but there's certainly no misunderstanding my tone or expression. He barks something to Culebra. Culebra replies quietly and Ramon turns on his heels and stalks off to join the pilot.
I feel a flush of color creep up my neck. "Tell Ramon I know what puta means," I snap.
"I did," Culebra replies. "He's sorry."
Right. Neither Ramon's expression nor tone was apologetic.
"You might also remind him that I saved his life."
"I did that, too," Culebra says. "Listen, Anna, just hear me out. I was serious when I said I wouldn't force you to do anything you don't want to do. This isn't just about a battle between cartels. This is a family situation. Ramon's family. His wife and kids. They're in danger. He saved my life once. I owe it to him to try to save his."
"So what happened? His count turn up short? He steal a bag of coke?"
Culebra skewers me with eyes like steel knives. "Worse. He killed his boss's son."
Max whistles under his breath. "Santiago's son?"
"No. If he had done that, he'd already be dead," Culebra replies, his tone sharp. "No, this is the son of one of Santiago's lieutenants. A banking official in the government and an important link in the narco money chain. His son's death is causing problems for Santiago."
"So, what did the kid have to do with anything? Why'd Ramon kill him?" I ask.
Culebra casts a glance over at Ramon who responds with a nod.
"First you have to understand, growing up here is not the same as in the States. A good education is not available to all, prospects are few. One does what he must to provide for his family. Ramon's parents were poor farmers. When Ramon saw a chance to improve his situation, he took it."
I cut in with an impatient wave of my hand. "I don't know where this is going, but if you're about to tell me Ramon became a hired killer to put food on the table, I will tell you right now I don't care. I came because I thought you were in trouble. If it's not your life in danger, I'm out of here. I couldn't care less what happens to your cartel buddy."
A spark, dangerous, threatening, flashes in Culebra's eyes. He says so softly, I almost miss it, "So you pick and choose the monsters you fight now, huh? Your vow to protect the weak applies only to those you deem worthy."
An angry reply leaps to my lips, but I stifle it, aware that there are others here who don't know who or what I am. I turn my bitterness inward, projecting it to Culebra through my thoughts.
Don't do it, Culebra. Don't play the guilt card. You of all people know what I've done since accepting responsibility as the Chosen One. I sent my family half a world away. I hold my few human friends at arm's distance. I've given up a lot. I won't be coerced into helping a stranger who's in trouble because of his own stupid choices.
Max is unaware of what I've said to Culebra, but he interjects himself into the tense silence. "Maybe you should at least hear him out, Anna. If not for Ramon, then because this may be an opportunity to take a major player out of the game. Santiago is a big fish. Landing him would be a coup." He looks at Culebra. "For both our governments."
Resistance to getting involved still churns my stomach. "But he didn't kill Santiago's son," I remind Max. "How do you think going after this bank official will get you close to Santiago?"
"Because it's Santiago who is gunning for Ramon now," Culebra says. "Just as the boss came after me thirty years ago. Ramon inconvenienced Santiago. He doesn't care about the kid Ramon killed. The kid doesn't matter. He'll wipe out Ramon's entire family to send a message. Unless we can stop it."
Everyone in the room is looking at me. The pilot and Ramon with overt hostility, Culebra and Max with patience. As if they already know I'll give in.
I kick one of the chairs away from the table and sit, arms crossed over my chest.
"Okay, I'll listen. But this better be one motherfucker of a compelling story."
CULEBRA CALLS RAMON TO JOIN US. "DILE."
Ramon looks at me, frowning. "&iquest;Por que? Ella no nos ayudara."
"Confie en mi. Tell her what you told me," Culebra insists. "Tell her your story."
Ramon shakes his head. His expression is stony, unconvinced by Culebra's urging.
"Anna can help us," Culebra says, more forcefully this time. "I want her to help us. You need to make her understand."
Ramon locks eyes with Culebra. He says something in Spanish that I translate as asking how I, a woman, could help. It is said with the condescending air of a man who is not used to asking help from a woman. Who is downright adverse to the idea.
I look from Max to Culebra. Both are looking at me as if they expect me to try to convince him. By doing what? I'm not about to share my true nature, but I was a bounty hunter long before I was made vampire. Maybe if I show Ramon I can handle myself as well as any man, that I'm more than a pretty face, it would appease his macho sensibilities.
I stalk over to the pilot, hold out my hand for the rifle. Predictably, he straightens and pulls back, swinging the butt of the rifle toward me. Before he completes the arc, I've got both hands on the gun and with a twist of my hands, I've wrested it from his. He lunges toward me. I sidestep and he lands on the floor. With one foot on the small of his back, I toss the rifle onto the table.
For a moment, I think Ramon is still going to refuse. He's glaring at the pilot, at Culebra, at me.
"Fine," I snap, getting tired of the game. "If Ramon wants me to leave, I will."
Culebra holds up a hand to stop me. "Ramon?"
The pilot is climbing to his feet, red-faced and angry, when Ramon finally gives in with a rush of breath. He tosses the rifle back to the pilot and tells him to go outside.
The pilot does, with a parting glare to me that makes it clear I haven't made a new friend. Great. One more enemy to add to the list. I shoot Culebra a look that says this better be worth it.
When the door closes, Ramon parks his butt on the corner of the table and closes his eyes. For a moment. When he opens them again, they no longer focus on me but have that intent look of someone gazing inward to a place of shadow and pain.
He speaks, slowly, as if translating from his native language into English as he goes. "I had a son. Antonio. Only fifteen."
I think he's also speaking slowly because he's choosing his words carefully, so I will understand. With an effort, I push away my suspicions, clear my mind to listen.
"He was a quiet boy. A good student. He attended the same school as many of the sons of government officials. One of these boys, Rojan, was a..." He pauses, looks to Culebra. "Maton."
"Bully," Culebra says.
"One day he and several others found my son alone in the schoolyard. They told him he was to be their 'bitch' and knocked him to the ground. They opened their pants, urinated on him." Ramon rubs a hand over his face. Refocuses to continue. "He tried to fight back, punching and kicking. But there were five of them. They said he needed to learn respect for his betters."
Another quick intake of breath. "The other boys held my son, pulled his pants down while Rojan, the pequeno bastardo, raped him."
Ramon's voice catches, then turns cold. "My son was humiliated, his self-esteem destroyed. He didn't come to me. He knew Rojan was protected by his powerful family and would not suffer for his actions. So he withdrew. The shame built up inside him until he could no longer endure the pain. Within a month, he took his own life."
Ramon draws a deep breath, wipes his eyes with the back of his hand. "He left a note. Apologizing to us, his family, for what had been done to him. As if it had been his fault. As if he had shamed us. He apologized." He spits the word, his face hardening with rage. "I knew I had to avenge my son. At first, I wanted to kill Rojan's father. But then el destino..." He looks to Culebra again.
"Fate," Culebra replies.
"Si. Fate intervened. A few weeks after we buried Antonio, I was walking in the woods near our home. I heard a young woman crying. I found a couple lying in the shade. The boy was on top, but they were not making love. The girl was fighting and sobbing and begging him to stop. Her blouse was torn, her skirt pushed up around her waist. She was being raped. When I realized who the boy was, I was consumed by a fury that turned my blood to fire. It was Rojan."
Again he stops, composing himself, crossing his arms tightly across his chest, drawing deep breaths.
In spite of my suspicions, I am spellbound by his anguish. I understand it. I've lived it twice. Once, when I was made vampire through an act of rape. Again, when I found out my niece Trish was being abused by men who paid her mother to make videos of their sick acts, robbing a young girl of her innocence. All I could think about was exacting vengeance. I see the same hatred in Ramon's eyes now.
Culebra reads the emotions running through my mind. His eyes catch and hold mine. This is what he wanted me to hear... to understand. I glance away to Max. His face betrays no emotion. He has heard Ramon's story or one like it many times before. I know in spite of the indifference he projects, his gut is churning the same as mine, the same as Culebra's. I also know he will do everything he can to exact justice for Ramon and his son. I know it because in spite of how I feel about him personally, Max is a good man.
Culebra touches Ramon's arm, nods at him to go on.
Ramon unfolds his arms, his shoulders relax a little, his back straightens. "I grabbed Rojan off the girl, held him while the girl got away. All the while, Rojan cursed me, threatening what his father could do to me, to my family. Threats I knew he could make good.
"It didn't matter. I punched him until he had no fight left. I took his belt, and used mine to bind his hands and feet to a tree. Then I slapped his face to arouse him. I showed him my knife. I told him what he had done to my son cost Antonio his life. I told him he would never rape anyone again. He merely laughed."
Ramon's voice turns cold. "Until I stabbed him. I stabbed him and watched as the life slowly ebbed from his body. Then I left him to die."
His eyes grow hard. "But it wasn't enough. I wanted him humiliated in death the way he humiliated my son in life. I thought when they found him like this, tied to a tree and stuck like the pig he was, he would be denied the noble death that befitted the son of an important government minister."
I find myself asking softly, "Someone found out that it was you that killed him? Is that why your family is in danger?"
"Si." He wipes at his eyes again. "A few days later, I saw an article in the local paper. The police found the body of a young girl in a garbage dump. I recognized the photo. It was the girl who had been with Rojan. She was killed to silence her. With no witness to challenge the facts of Rojan's death, he was given a hero's funeral. It was said he died in a plane crash." Ramon spits at the ground. "He was called a hero.
"The girl must have told someone that Rojan had raped her. She may have even recognized me since I was often in town. I knew it was only a matter of time before the minister would seek his own revenge. I moved my family. But there is a price on their heads. I have to do something to save them. Get them out of the country." He stares intently at Max. "I am willing to help your government if they will protect my family."
Max exhales sharply, as if he'd been holding his breath during Ramon's story. The first physical reaction he's exhibited to Ramon's story. "We'll do what we can."
Culebra looks at me. But there's no question in his gaze. He knows my answer.
Shit. "I'm in."
How could I not be? My attacker is dead. The men who attacked Trish are either dead or in jail. What happened to Ramon's son had nothing to do with drugs and everything to do with human degradation. "Ramon, I am sorry for the loss of your son."
For the first time, Ramon's eyes are not full of uncertainty and disdain when they meet mine, but a glimmer of hope. He turns to the door. "Vere si el avion esta listo para partir."
He walks outside to ready the plane for takeoff. I turn to Culebra. I picked up something in his thoughts while Ramon was relating his story that makes me peer into his eyes.
"You lost someone in the same way?"
He smiles, a sad, slow tilting of the lips. "Every village has its bullies like Rojan. When I was twelve, my sister was attacked. She didn't survive."
There's more, I can tell by the way he's protecting his thoughts, not letting me read them. He doesn't give me a chance to ask about it, either, but with a pat on my arm leaves to join Ramon and the pilot.
Max is as quiet as I, lost in his thoughts the way I'm lost in mine. Culebra's insistence that we help Ramon makes sense now. We- Culebra, Ramon and I -share a terrible, common experience. We've all seen loved ones hurt by another's hand.
Max draws my attention with a wave of his hand, as if hit with a sudden thought.
"You'd better call Stephen before we take off," he says, pointing to his watch. "It's already late. Let him know..." He falters.
I sigh. "Yeah. Let him know what?" But I know Max is right. I dig my cell out of my pocket and ring Stephen. He picks up right away.
"Anna? Where are you? I've been worried."
"Sorry, Stephen. The job is going to take longer than I expected. I'm going out of town. I wish I could tell you how long, but I'm not sure."
"So, David and Tracey are going with you?"
Uh-oh. Something in his tone gives me pause. "Why do you ask?"
"You're not with them, are you?"
Ice is forming through the phone lines. To make matters worse, I feel Max's eyes on me. Fuck it. "No."
"Well, at least this time you're being honest. I talked to David an hour ago. Why would you lie to me? Why would you let me think you were with them?"
"I didn't lie to you. And if you'll recall, you hung up before I could tell you who I was with."
As soon as I say it, I know I've sunk myself deeper into the pit. Sure enough, Stephen counters with, "Well, here's your chance to set the record straight. Who are you with and what are you doing?"
From outside, the sound of the plane engine roars into life. I grab at it like a lifeline, an excuse to cut the conversation short. "I'm sorry, Stephen, I have to go. I'll call you when I can."
This time, before Stephen can respond, I disconnect. I look over at Max. He's giving me one of those "I told you so" looks. I give him one of those "fuck you" looks and narrow my eyes. "Don't say it. Not a fucking word."