FROM MY VANTAGE POINT AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRWAY, I can't tell if the control is still broken and if the door was forced back or if it's been removed. I can see into the great room but can't hear the mechanical whir of the generator. I don't sense any human presence, either. There are no heartbeats, no familiar smells associated with females, no deodorant, perfume, pheromones.
The place feels deserted.
Before I call Max and tell him to bring Culebra and Adelita here, I'd better make sure.
Once I make it to the bottom of the stairs, it's obvious how the door was opened. It's been removed, bolt by bolt, and lies on its side just inside the entryway.
Could Maria have done it? I heft one corner. I doubt it. The thing must weigh two hundred pounds.
I make my way quietly across the great room and check out the hallway and bedrooms. Empty. All Gabriella's things are gone as are Maria's. Only Ramon's clothes occupy a half-empty closet.
So much for standing vigil.
With the generator turned off, the air in the cave is still, stuffy. The faint smell of pine that gave the place its open-meadow freshness is gone.
When I check out the kitchen and dining area, the pieces of towel I used to bind Maria lay in a heap next to the chair she was tied to. The broken cell phone is where I tossed it on the counter. Other than that, the only thing out of place is the slightly rancid smell of food from a refrigerator whose power has been turned off.
And the missing artwork that adorned the walls.
Maria took the valuables.
How long has she been gone? More importantly, who helped her with that door?
I run back up the stairs and call to Max. No need for caution now. He disappears for a few minutes and returns with Culebra, Adelita and Luis.
Luis is as dumbstruck by Ramon's elegant hideaway as Max, Culebra and I were when we first saw it. Adelita just stares. I'm sure she's never been inside a home like this, let alone a narco's secret safe house.
Max sniffs. "We need to get that generator turned back on."
"Any idea where the controls would be?" I ask.
Max heads for the kitchen and begins opening cupboards and cabinets. Culebra shoves Luis onto a chair and hands Adelita his rifle.
"If he moves, shoot him," he tells her.
Only she and I know she has no idea how to fire that rifle. Culebra doesn't. Luis certainly doesn't. The way she scowls at him, the rifle pointed at his chest, Luis hunches his shoulders and sits still. After what she's done to him, with what he knows she wants to do to him, he's not taking any chances.
Neither am I. I stand beside her and keep watch.
Culebra joins Max in his search. Finally, in a corner of a pantry, Max spies a metal panel. He pulls the latch and points to what looks like a computerized circuit board.
"Jesus, Max. Do you know how to work that thing?"
He grins. "How hard could it be?"
Culebra puts out a hand and grabs Max's before he comes in contact with the circuits. "Wait. Ramon may have booby-trapped the place."
Max jerks his hand back. "Like a self-destruct function?"
Culebra nods. "He was a clever bastard."
Max takes a step back. "Well, we're not going to be here that long, anyway. We're getting air from the open stairway. That will have to do."
Luis has not said a word since entering the cave. Now he straightens in the chair and says, "What happens now? Do you call your DEA buddies to come get us? Do you think I will tell the American police any more than I tell the Federales? I will tell them nothing. Pablo's lawyers will have me out in an hour if we cross the border. You have no authority. You are kidnapping a Mexican citizen. My government does not look favorably on such a thing."
Max smiles. "You are right, Luis. Which is why I have no plans to take you with us when we leave. It's your brother we want. It's your brother who has the bounty on his head in my country. You are going to tell us where he is."
Luis' battered lips curl in a sneer. "I will never tell you. Even if you threaten to kill me."
Max shrugs. "Okay. Adelita? Shoot him."
ADELITA GRINS AS SHE RAISES THE RIFLE. I GET ready to jump in, but she sights along the barrel like a pro. Did Culebra give her shooting lessons on the walk here?
Luis cowers back in the chair. "No. Wait. What do you want? I can give you anything. Money. More money than you can spend in a lifetime."
"Don't need money," Max says. "What we need is your brother." He takes the rifle from Adelita and pushes the barrel against Ramon's forehead. He definitely knows how to fire the rifle. He moves the selector lever off safety and releases the firing handle. "One of the advantages of the AK-47 is that it can be fired at close range; did you know that, Luis? Of course you do. It's the weapon of choice for every fucking narco." He turns the rifle this way and that in his hands as though studying it. "It produces a relatively minor wound when the bullet exits the body, like it will your head, and doesn't have a chance to tumble and fragment. But it'll do the job. You'll be dead."
Luis bites on his lower lip, eyes locked on Max. But I can tell by the hatred in his eyes, he's not ready to talk.
I take the revolver I've been carrying around at my waist and step up to Max. "Wait a minute, Max. Let me show you a trick I learned from Luis himself. Remember this?"
I push the gun into the meaty part of his thigh, make sure I miss that pesky femoral artery by listening closely to the racing of his blood and fire.
Luis comes off the chair like... well, like he's been shot. He screams and falls over, blood seeping through his jeans in a crimson halo.
Vampire growls and licks her lips.
Luis is wide-eyed with pain and fear. "You are all crazy," he pants. "I'm going to bleed to death."
Vampire retreats. The human Anna feigns surprise. "You call us crazy? Really? Isn't this what you did to those villagers when they didn't give you the information you wanted? The difference is that they were ignorant about what happened to the girls and couldn't tell you. You do know. And I'll just keep shooting until you give it up."
Luis turns his head toward the floor and I hear what sounds suspiciously like a sob. "Pablo will kill me," he whispers.
No. We'll do that, I say. But to myself.
Max grabs Luis and hauls him back into the chair. With his bruised and bloody face now smeared with snot and tears I could almost feel sorry for him. Almost. Adelita's presence and two corpses in a burned-out truck chase sympathy away. He's more monstrous than any fanged, clawed or bloodsucking villain I've come up against.
Max has the rifle barrel against Luis' chest... more a prop to keep him upright than a threat. "Where is he?"
Luis raises his eyes. "Reynosa."
"That wasn't so hard, was it?" Max pulls his cell out of the pocket of his jeans and puts the phone to his ear. "Time to call in reinforcements."
Max speaks for a few minutes into his cell, then powers it off. "The task force will meet us at the hangar in four hours. We'll go after Pablo together." He looks at me. "A helicopter will pick us up at a military airstrip outside Reynosa in eight hours. Plenty of time to round up Pablo and get extradition papers just in case your government is not ready to cooperate."
Luis looks up. "My government will not allow you to take him. He has powerful friends."
"He has killed Americans, Luis." He crooks his finger toward Adelita, and she joins him. He puts an arm around her shoulder. "And when Adelita explains how she was kidnapped, raped repeatedly and almost murdered by you and your brother..."
I step up beside them, too. "How she witnessed the murder of two other girls, their throats slit because they resisted. How she was taken from her village by Ramon, a lieutenant in your cartel. How girls as young as twelve are gathered up and sold as whores and worse. All compelling facts, Luis. Facts your government can't ignore."
Max nods. "If your government wants to claim any kind of legitimacy, it will have to denounce Pablo. Then he will be ours."
Luis shakes his head. "Do you think that will stop what we do? There are a hundred ready to take Pablo's place. You fool yourself if you think you are making a difference."
"What I think"- Max leans his face close to Luis' -"is that I'm about to take two scumbags off the streets. Maybe more if we get Pablo to make a deal."
"Never." Luis spits the word. "Pablo will die before he talks."
Max looks over at Culebra and me, eyebrows raised. "Isn't that what Luis said?" he asks us, smiling. "That he'd die before he talked?" He turns back to Luis and presses the rifle butt against the wound on Luis' leg. "How'd that work out for you?"
MAX GATHERS THE TROOPS- ADELITA, CULEBRA and me -and leads us to the bar. Luis he leaves on the chair squirming in pain.
He pours us all a glass of tequila... full shot glasses for the three adults, a tiny taste for Adelita.
I take the bottle from him and top hers off. "For god's sake, Max, after all she's been through?" I cock a head toward the bottle. It's one of Ramon's most expensive. Then I wink at Adelita. "Fit for a warrior."
She smiles back at me.
Max says, "We deserve this." He raises his glass. "To a job well done."
We clink and drink, all emptying our glasses. Except for Adelita. One sip and she grimaces and carefully sets her glass back on the bar. "There isn't any soda, is there?"
Max grins and rummages beneath the bar, producing a bottle that he hands to her.
"When do you go after Pablo?" Culebra asks.
Max nods toward Luis. "As soon as we get the details of where he is and how he's guarded. Pablo won't be as easy to take as Luis. He'll be hiding in a fortress with soldiers, not among peasants."
"Was Luis really sent out as a decoy?" I ask. "Doesn't make sense."
Culebra shrugs. "Not a decoy exactly. Since the border trouble, the narco kingpins have had to go underground. Luis' operation wasn't big, but it was enough to keep the cartel's buyers supplied. Kept them from looking for other sources until normal operations could resume." He pours himself another drink and holds up the glass. "The Santiago brothers have a reputation for living large. No one would think to look for one of them in a place like that village. It was generally thought they were hiding in Central or South America. That he left Luis here does say something about their relationship."
"That he's expendable," Max says.
I roll my glass around in the palms of my hands, processing Culebra's words. "Then why would Ramon risk bringing you here? Why would Luis let him?"
"Ramon's deal. Pablo was suspicious. He knew Ramon's son committed suicide and he knew there had been bad blood between Antonio and Rojan. When Rojan turned up dead, and the minister demanded blood, Ramon was the logical suspect. Ramon and Luis must have worked it out that if he brought me back, dead of course, he'd be able to divert suspicion for Rojan's death and the minister's wrath to me. He'd already laid the groundwork. The gun deal. In return, Ramon would swear loyalty to Luis, who would speak on his behalf to Pablo. He and his family would be safe."
I pose the next question, mindful of Culebra's past association with Ramon, wondering if he has any regrets over killing him. "How did he know you were alive? Where to find you?"
Culebra pours himself another shot, downs it, before looking at me. "I thought I could trust him. When I settled in Beso de la Muerte I got word to him. I wanted him to know he had a place to come if things got bad. Wasn't very smart. But until now, he hadn't betrayed me." He casts his eyes downward. "Or so I thought."
Max lays his glass on the bar. "Let's see what we get from Luis." He refills the glass and takes it to Luis. He holds it under Luis' nose, waving it back and forth.
"Thirsty, Luis? Do you want a drink?"
Luis' head snaps back. He eyes the glass, his tongue darting from his mouth.
At that moment he reminds me of a snaked-out Culebra and I have to smile.
Max tilts the glass toward Luis' open mouth. When the alcohol touches his broken lips, Luis jerks his head back again.
Max keeps dribbling the alcohol, over his mouth, over his cheeks, saturating every inch of bruised and scraped skin until Luis is weeping from the pain. Blood-tinged tequila drips down his neck and onto his shirt.
When the glass is empty, Max lets it drop to the floor. It hits the tile and shatters.
Max leans close. "Where do we find Pablo?"
Luis nearly chokes in his effort to get the words out. "I'll tell you. I'll give you the address. Will you protect me?"
"Depends on what you give us. Has to be more than Pablo's address."
"I'll give you everything. Supply routes, operations, dealers in the States. Help me and I'll help you."
Culebra speaks from the bar, his voice hard. "The guns," he says. "They have not all been accounted for. I want to know where they are."
Luis doesn't ask, what guns? He nods. "Most are gone," he says. "But there are still several hundred in a hiding place. I can show you."
Culebra and Max lock eyes. Max pulls Luis to his feet. "Then we'll be on our way."
Adelita looks at me. "Luis will be protected? He will live?"
Max is the one who should answer her. But I think I better understand her... her rage, her wish for retribution. At the same time, I know Max is right. He is looking at the greater good. Information Luis will provide can mean one huge drug pipeline closed down.
Of course others will spring up, but...
Adelita has grabbed my arm. "He should die. He deserves to die. You promised me."
"I did. And I'm sorry. Max must take Luis and Pablo to stand trial. It doesn't seem fair to you, I know. But you can play a part in bringing them to justice by telling your story. Make people aware of what is going on in places like your village. Of what people like Luis and Pablo make you do."
Adelita frowns. Her fists are balled at her side and when I see her eyes go to the revolver at my waist, I deliberately slide it around until it is tucked into the small of my back.
"Don't be foolish, Adelita," I tell her, keeping my voice low. "You have good friends in Max and me. A chance for a better life. You are young. You don't want the memory of killing a man- even one like Luis -to follow you around for the rest of your life."
Max is moving Luis to the stairs. He's bound the leg wound with the same scraps of towel I used on Maria. He looks at Adelita and me and jerks his head toward the door.
I turn to Adelita. "Are you coming with us?"
She's fighting a battle, I can see it in her eyes. Culebra has already headed up the stairs after Max and Luis. That leaves just the two of us in the great room. I will only give her another minute to decide. Then I'll be off with my friends.
A long sigh escapes Adelita's lips. She looks around at the finely upholstered furniture, the mahogany bar, the plush rug under our feet. Her eyes stop at mine. "Es un tonto el que dice que el crimen no paga."
She says only a fool thinks crime doesn't pay.
I hook my arm in hers and we follow the men up the stairs.
Max details the plan as we go. It will take less than an hour to reach the place where he left his car, another two to three hours to reach the airstrip. It's almost dawn. Max's DEA friends will meet us at the airstrip at ten and when we get the information we need from Luis, we'll leave him in their custody. Adelita, too. I see her bristle when he says that but she remains quiet.
I also see the wheels turning in her head.
I'll make sure we check every vehicle for stowaways before we start out after Pablo.
The car is under the same camouflage net Ramon used for the Jeep. Max and Culebra strip it off, leaving it in a pile on the ground instead of hiding it the way Ramon had. We climb into the car, Max and me in front, Culebra and Adelita in the backseat. Luis is forced to sit with his back against the seat in the cargo area. Culebra bound his feet to a toolbox, just in case he gets the idea to open the hatch and jump out.
I can't believe how good it feels to sit on something other than the ground. And to be driven instead of walking or running. I know we won't go home until Pablo and Luis are behind bars, but at least now, we know who the enemy is. It wasn't always so clear.
I lean my head back. I wonder what Culebra is thinking, but when I reach out, nothing comes through but a feeling. Soft, cozy, like being held in cloud hands.
I sneak a peek into the backseat.
Culebra is asleep, his head propped against the window. Beside him, Adelita is asleep, too. She's slumped down in the seat and her head rests on Culebra's shoulders.
She looks like a little girl.
I catch Luis watching her over the backseat. His face no longer reflects pain, but his expression is licentious, shameless, as if he's remembering how it had been to take her. When he catches my eye, he smiles and turns away.
At that moment, I hope he tries something- anything -so that I can unleash vampire. I know what I told Adelita. I know what Max wants.
But if he looks at her like that again, I'll kill him.