Anna Strong—kick-ass bounty hunter and vampire—has made some enemies in her time. But it’s not just her old foes she should be worried about…
Anna’s shape-shifting friend Culebra finally opens up to her about his life before he owned Beso de la Muerte, a bar catering to supernatural clientele. As if summoned by the conversation, Culebra’s past stumbles into his bar in the form of an old buddy cashing in a favor.
Soon Anna, Culebra and her ex, DEA agent Max, find themselves deep in Mexico, dealing with drug cartel infighting, old vendettas and missing girls. Mexico just may prove to be Anna’s best match yet…
I’m staring out the bedroom sliding glass door feeling sorry for myself. Stupid, really, since being alone tonight is entirely my own fault. I could be in France with my family. Or at my business partner David’s for his annual Christmas Eve bash. Why aren’t I? Because both would require that I spend most of the time pretending to eat and drink, pretending to be human. A lot of work. So here I am, all by my lonesome the night before Christmas, feeling churlish, staring at a grey sheet of pounding rain.
Rain. It’s all we’ve had this winter. This is San Diego, for Christ’s sake. The land of predictable, even boring, weather. The land of a constant 72 degrees. The land of sun and blue sky.
Not this year.
I can count on one hand the number of nice days we’ve had. It’s beginning to get irritating. What’s the use of being a vampire who can go out in sunlight if there is no sunlight to go out in?
Even my reporter boyfriend Stephen is not around. He’s with the president visiting the troops overseas. He called me on Skype last night and we were able to exchange greetings. Greetings. What I want to exchange is bodily fluids. But that’s not going to happen for another ten days. Since there were about a hundred soldiers gathered around awaiting their turn on the computer, we couldn’t even talk dirty.
Shit. Shit. Shit.
I need to do something. I need to share the misery. Where would a sulking vampire go to find other discontents as sorry ass as she is?
Luckily, I know just the place.
Beso de la Muerte looks even more desolate and run-down than usual, which says a lot since it’s basically a ghost town you won’t find on any map of northern Mexico. There’s only one building in the middle of what could be called Main Street, if the streets had names, that shows any sign of life. A string of blinking red-and-green Christmas lights slumps over the door to Culebra’s bar in an attempt, I suppose, to invoke some holiday cheer. Half the bulbs are burned out. The other half sputter unconvincingly.
What was Culebra thinking? Is this is his idea of a joke—a fuck-you to the season and its forced joviality? Suddenly, I find myself enjoying those pathetic little lights. They make me smile.
Culebra and I share a warped sense of humor.
There’s a single car in front of the bar. A car that looks familiar. It gives me a moment’s pause until I recognize whose car it is. Then it takes me another minute to decide if I want to drag an unsuspecting mortal into the black hole of my self-pity.
The car belongs to Max, an ex. Who better to drag into a black hole than an ex? I shrug off any misgivings and walk inside.
Max and Culebra are seated at a table in the middle of the bar. Alone. They have an open bottle of Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel whiskey between them. Half empty. They’re puffing away on cigars and blowing smoke rings at each other. If Max didn’t look like a well-dressed thug clad all in black, and Culebra like an extra in a spaghetti western, poncho and all, I’d say they belonged in a gentlemen’s club.
Max spies me first. “Well, well. Look what the bat flew in.”
“Hilarious, Max. I see in the newspapers that you DEA dudes have really done your part to win the drug war. We’re practically narco free.”
He shakes his head and clucks his tongue. “Ouch.”
Go easy on Max, Culebra says, straight from his brain into mine, something he can do because he’s a shape-shifter and we share a psychic bond. He’s feeling sorry for himself. Alone at Christmas. You understand.
The last is said in a kind of “there’s a lot of that going around, isn’t there?” tone.
I just grunt.
Culebra pushes his chair back and stands up to scoot another chair over from a nearby table. “Sit.” He grabs another shot glass from the bar and pours a shot. “Drink.”
Loquacious as ever. But I do take the glass and sip. Smooth. Tickles the back of the throat and warms a path all the way down.
Culebra refills his own glass, then Max’s. “What brings you here? I figured you’d be at David’s shindig.”
I take another sip before answering. “Too many people I don’t know. Too much work pretending I might want to know them. He travels in a different circle.”
Max tilts his glass toward me. “You mean a human circle, don’t you?”
He has the knives out. “Who shoved a stake up your ass? I helped you not long ago if I remember correctly. You didn’t seem to mind what I was then.”
Culebra places the bottle down between Max and me and raises his glass. “Come on now. Truce. It’s Christmas Eve. Time for peace on Earth. Good will to . . . creatures, great and small. For some reason, fate has drawn us here together this evening. Let’s make the most of it. To friends.”
He shoves his glass toward us. And looks around expectantly. I wait to see if Max will move first. He remains stubbornly still, arms crossed over his chest, waiting for me.
Shit. I want another drink. I raise my glass and clink it against Culebra’s. Max follows, reluctantly. He avoids my eyes, but does let his glass touch mine.
And drink some more. Not much conversation. Culebra isn’t even intruding into my head. Each of us seems content to be alone together to wallow in whatever pits of dejection brought us here.
Alcohol, like blood, is absorbed directly into my system. After a half-dozen shots, the booze loosens my tongue. There’s a question I’ve wanted to ask these two since I first saw Max and Culebra together a year and a half ago. I had just become vampire and was sent to Beso de la Muerte to hunt down the vamp who made me. Max was working undercover in the DEA and he was here, too, on an assignment. He never gave me a direct answer to what he was doing here then, and it seems the perfect opportunity to get that answer now.
I pour each of them another shot and dive in. “How’d you two come to know each other?”
At first I think Max is going to counter with some bullshit about classified DEA information or fall back on the old “if I tell you, I have to kill you” dodge. But he does neither. He looks over at Culebra and Culebra shrugs.
“She knows everything else.”
Max downs his shot. It’s the fifth since I’ve been here and I have no idea how many he had before I arrived. But the alcohol does seem to have smoothed the edge off his animosity. He shrugs back at Culebra. “Do you want to start or should I?”
Culebra looks hard at me, as if gauging how much truth I can take. In fact, that’s the very thought that sifts through the haze of alcohol in his head.
“Give it your best shot,” I quip cavalierly. What can he possibly say that will shock me? I’ve seen plenty in the last eighteen months.
He draws a breath. “You ever heard of Felix Gallardo?”
“Can’t say that I have. Is he a relative?”
That provokes a snort from Max and a shake of the head from Culebra.
“What? Who is he?”
“The godfather of the Mexican drug cartels,” Max says.
Culebra nods. “Gallardo was the first to organize the Mexican drug business. Started in the late eighties when he realized he was getting too well known and the narco business was getting too big for him to control by himself. He called together a select group of henchman in Acapulco and designated territories to be run by bosses not yet so well known to the Federales. Men who he could trust to report to him.”
“It was a smart move,” Max says with a tone of grudging admiration.
Must be the booze.
“What does that have to do with you?” I ask Culebra.
“I worked for one of his lieutenants. Boss of the Cartel de Sinaloa.”
That name I recognize, both for the ruthlessness of its methods and the success it’s achieved in getting huge quantities of drugs across the U.S. border. “The Sinaloa Cartel, huh? Were you an undercover agent for the Mexican government? Is that how you met Max? You were working together?”
“Not exactly.” Culebra’s eyes grow hard. “I was an asesino—an assassin.”
Culebra an assassin for a narco? I grin. “You’re kidding right?”
The steady, serious way he gazes back at me raises the hair on the back of my neck.
The glass I had just raised to my lips bangs down on the table with a thud. I was wrong. I can be shocked. Astonishment knocks the alcohol fog out of my brain. Suddenly I’m sober and shaken. How? Why? Questions tumble over themselves in my head.
Culebra reads them all. He smiles sadly. “The money,” he says. “Huge money. I was uneducated, an outcast in my own village because of what I was.” He averts his eyes, sarcasm tinges his words with the acid of bitter truth. “Shape-shifters are not considered valuable members of society where I came from. I was an anomaly—a freak. And treated as such.”
A pause, as if he’s waiting for me to comment. I have no comment. Even my thoughts are conflicted. He finally realizes it and continues.
“I moved to Baja when I was sixteen. Met the boss soon after. Became a runner. Eventually, I got married, had a family. Worked my way up the ladder.”
That evokes a comment. “Worked your way up to assassin?”
“I was caught up in the life.” He meets my eyes squarely. “I’m not proud of it. I hated it, but I had a family to support. There came a point when there was no turning back.”
I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Or the dead calm tone of Culebra’s voice as he speaks. “You killed people.”
He looks hard at me. “And you don’t?”
Max makes a snickering noise.
I glare at him before snapping at Culebra, “I kill because I have to, because I’m protecting someone. It’s hardly the same thing.”
Culebra shrugs. “Semantics. I was protecting someone, too. Myself. My family. I followed orders.”
“Your family? Where are they now?”
Culebra waves a hand in a vague sweeping motion. “Dead.”
Still, no emotion. Nothing in his head I can penetrate but a dull pulse beat. It’s strange. As if his answers come from a separate part of his brain, turning on and off like a recorder at the push of the right button. Programmed answers.
I soften my own tone. “What happened?”
He looks hard at me. “You want the long version or the short one?”
I wave a hand. “I’ve got nowhere else to be. Do you?”
He pours another shot. Downs it. “Get comfortable. We’re going to be here awhile.”
Culebra takes a deep breath. “I was born to a family of shape-shifters. But I was a throwback. The first of my generation to manifest the ability. My family was horrified. They thought the curse had finally been lifted.” He drops his eyes. “The curse.”
He straightens his shoulders. “My father could never find steady work so our family always lived in poverty. What’s more, he had no trade or skills that he could pass on to me, not that he would have. He hated me. I was not allowed to go to school for fear someone would find out what I was. My own parents set me adrift. Condemned me to a life of poverty, struggle and isolation. I was sixteen.”
He reaches for the bottle, I pass it over, let him refill his glass and my own. “You’re articulate for an uneducated man.”
“We had a Bible,” he answers. “The only book we owned. My mother taught me to read with that Bible. Before she decided I was possessed by the devil.”
He drinks, continues. “I moved to Chihuahua, an unemployed drifter. Found a few odd jobs that paid poorly and required long hours of hard labor. I shared the fields and factories with petty criminals who always tried to take advantage of weaker men. I knew I had to defend myself to survive and I quickly learned to use my fists and my wits. I also became skilled at using a knife. It wasn’t long before I won respect among the migrants. Word got around and I attracted the attention of local gang members.
“Gangs were always on the lookout for young ‘badasses’ to recruit. There was a constant need for new blood since gang wars continually decimated the ranks. Young, tough, uneducated vatos like me who were dissatisfied with their lot made a perfect pool in which to fish.”
I am so engrossed in Culebra’s tale that when Max pokes me in the arm I jump. “What?”
“Pass the bottle, will you?”
Grudgingly, I do. “Are you done interrupting now?”
Max flutters a hand in a go-ahead gesture and I turn back to Culebra and mimic the action.
“One day as I was walking home from work, a gangbanger pushed me against a wall and demanded my money while other bangers stood around smiling. I was enraged that anyone would steal from a poor campesino struggling to earn a living. I pushed my aggressor back and told him to ‘go fuck himself.’ The banger pulled a knife and came at me. But, I quickly grabbed his arm, twisted it behind his back and took the knife away. I spun the banger around and kneed him in the groin for good measure. As I walked away I waved the knife and thanked him for the ‘souvenir.’
“The next day members of the local gang again confronted me. But this time, I was invited to have a drink with the boss. He told me that he needed men ‘with balls’ in his operation and that I handled my self well the other day. I realized that the confrontation had been a test. He offered me a job delivering drugs and collecting payment and offered me a salary about ten times what I was earning as a common laborer. The money was irresistible to a young man with no real future ahead of him. And working for a criminal gang wasn’t much different from being an outcast as far as I was concerned. So I accepted the offer as my only opportunity for a better life.
“Like all new hires, I was assigned a mentor to teach me the business. His nickname was Julio the Pick because his preferred method of execution was to shove an ice pick into the back of a man’s head. No loud noise, little blood—he liked it that way. Julio was unusual because he was in his forties in a business where most didn’t live beyond their late twenties. His longevity was testament to the fact that he was good at his chosen profession and was an asset to the boss.
“Julio had trained many a young ‘badass,’ but I struck him as someone special. He sensed that I had an innate intelligence and was driven to make my mark in life. All the young ‘badasses’ liked fancy clothes and pockets full of money to attract the ladies. I was no exception. But Julio and I both knew that I wouldn’t be satisfied to just strut around like a peacock. No, I was someone who could rise up through the ranks and become useful to the organization. So Julio took me under his wing and taught me the ‘tricks of the trade’—how to disable an opponent in a fight and how to shoot. Shooting straight was especially important since it raised the odds that you would survive the inevitable gun battles that you would face. Julio taught me how to carry my weapon so I could draw it quickly from the holster and where to aim to quickly disable or kill an opponent. But he couldn’t teach me or anyone else how to think fast on his feet to outwit a rival. That was something you had to be born with. Julio must have felt that I had that quality.
“I was a quick study and practiced long hours to learn my lessons. Julio was proud of me and it wasn’t long before I began calling him Tio Julio. I knew that delivering drugs and collecting payment was a dangerous job (after all, why would I be paid so generously if it were not?) and that Julio wouldn’t be there when I got my first real assignment. Julio was too valuable to the boss to be sacrificed on a drug run. Besides, this was a way to see who had the right stuff. Those who survived could move up in the organization. Those who didn’t were the cost of doing business.
“Finally, the day came when another recruit and I were ordered to deliver a shipment of drugs to a rival gang and return with payment. We met the rival boss’s son and two henchmen at a remote desert location. I knew that doing business with rival gangs would never be easy. So it was no surprise when the son started threatening us. ‘Tell your boss that his last batch of drugs were shit. And if he sells me shit, he ain’t gonna be paid shit. I know you motherfuckers are schoolboys, so give me the shipment and tell your boss that he’ll be paid after we test it. Not before.’ I saw the henchmen slide their hands inside their jackets. I sensed that the son was going to take advantage of us newbies and try to impress his father by returning with both the drugs and the money. There would never be any payment. The stomach of my partner was growling so loudly that he was obviously shaking with fear and on the verge of shitting his pants.
“What do I do now? I knew that if we returned without the drugs and the money both my life and my career would be over. I also remembered a lesson taught to me by Tio Julio. ‘To make it in this business you have to command respect. And to command respect, others have to know that you are willing to kill when necessary.’
“My partner and I looked at each other and I shrugged. The son, with a smirk on his face, directed his men to fetch the drugs from our vehicle. As they started to walk toward us I noticed one drop an empty hand from his jacket. At that instant, I quickly pulled my gun and shot them both through the forehead—first the one still holding his gun and then the second one as he reached for his gun. As their bodies fell, I trained my pistol on the son, whose smirk had been replaced by a look of shock and fear. ‘We came here to do business and that is what we’ll do,’ I told him. I then ordered my partner to put the drugs in the son’s car and take the cash. While he shuffled back to our car with the money bag, I frisked and disarmed the boss’s son. ‘Tell Papa that it’s always a pleasure to do business with him.’ With that, we drove off leaving the son standing alone with two corpses.”
I find myself staring. “Honor among thieves?”
Culebra raises his shoulders. “Have you heard enough?”
“No. I want to hear it all.” I just need another drink. I take the bottle back from Max, who had just refilled his own glass, and top mine off. “Go on.”
“News of the drug transaction quickly spread through the organization. The boss realized that he had a talented recruit and complemented Julio, telling him he trained his new student well. He doubled my salary and made me a captain. ‘Captain Badass’ I called myself.”
Max chuckles. I shake my head. Culebra continues.
“Over time, I proved my worth. I came to command the respect that Julio told me was so important in the business. I earned good money. I was able to afford a nice house and car and had found success beyond my father’s dreams. I could now afford to support a family and decided it was time to marry. I found a young woman with pleasant looks, but not a great beauty. I prized loyalty and childbearing ability above a pretty face. In time we had two children, a boy and girl and, to my surprise. I became a devoted father. My wife never knew about my shape-shifting ability and I hoped that I didn’t pass this trait to my offspring. I wanted them to live normal lives, attend good schools and be socially accepted, not be outcasts as I had been.
“But I wanted more. I wanted to move up the ladder. To become a man of importance, one to be reckoned with, one who would be accepted in social circles I never could have entered before. I read avidly to gain more knowledge about the world. This made me somewhat of a black sheep among my compatriots, but I knew they were losers. I had bigger plans than the next score. I also knew book learning wasn’t enough. It took money—big money—and with no formal education or skills beyond drug running, what could I do to earn more and become more?
“I asked Julio what prospects I had. Julio gave me a stern look: ‘If you want to make more money, you will have to do what few are capable of and what few can live with—you will have to become an assassin. You will be paid handsomely to kill targets on command from the boss, but you will have to learn to live with the knowledge that you kill others for a living. These targets are not scumbags who threaten your life during a drug deal. You sometimes have to kill scumbags because they threaten to kill you. You justify it as an act of self-defense. But an assassin kills victims that the boss wants eliminated because they interfere with business. You don’t know them and they don’t know you. This is not killing in self-defense. This is deliberate stalking and murder for money—big money. Don’t overestimate your ability to sleep well. You will struggle with your conscience. This is not a profession that you can walk away from if you decide you’ve had enough. You know too much. Assassins who try to retire don’t live too long. As far as a boss is concerned, dead is dead and dead men don’t talk.’
“Julio went on, ‘I have seen you work. You have the skills and temperament to be a professional killer. But you now have a family and you are a devoted father. Do you really think you could do this? Take my advice. Be satisfied with your present position. You are a captain. You make a good living. Be content with what you have. Don’t be like Icarus and reach for the sun.’
“I respected Julio and I considered his advice, but the success I’d achieved made me arrogant. I thought I could handle anything. Money would buy me respect and the social position I craved. So what if I killed a few people? They probably deserved it anyway. If they interfered with the business of a gang boss, they were likely guilty of crimes themselves but were too well connected to be charged with anything. Hell, I was doing society a favor by eliminating them.”
Culebra releases a breath. “You wanted to know.”
I nod. “So you started your life as an assassin. How does one do that, exactly?”
“The boss sent me to a school in the Dominican Republic.”
I choke on a mouthful of whiskey. “There’s a school for assassins?”
Culebra smiles grimly. “A training camp established during the Trujillo regime ostensibly for ‘advanced military training.’ Bullshit. It was a school for assassins. Dictators and gang bosses need such services. They don’t negotiate with the opposition, they eliminate the opposition. Service rendered, problem solved, hands clean.” He brushes his hands together as if brushing away dirt.
“I learned to use explosives and poison and kill silently at close range. I learned how to stalk my victims and how to judge the best time to strike. Then it was time to go home and put my education to use.
“At first, my targets were corrupt, politically connected types who tried to extort more money from the boss. One worked for the treasury and ran a money laundry on the side. His fee for service was always rising. If the boss suggested taking his business elsewhere, the finance guy would hint that he had friends in high places and that they would be interested to know what the boss was up to. The fool never realized that his threats made him a target. I remember him because I used Julio’s favorite technique to do the job. He lived on a crowded street, so the kill had to be silent. I entered his home when I knew he was alone and snuck up behind him when he was standing at the refrigerator. I grabbed him by the forehead and shoved an ice pick into the back of his skull. He fell to his knees while I rocked it back and forth to mince the brain tissue.” Culebra claps his hands and holds them palms up. “Tio Julio was right—no muss, no fuss.”
Culebra is watching my face. Gauging my reaction. When I don’t react, he continues.
“Jobs were not so frequent as they are now so I had more time to spend at home. I found that I enjoyed watching my children grow. I got to know my wife more intimately and even helped her plant a garden. The money was great. I bought a bigger house for my family and a nicer car for myself. We lived in a fancier neighborhood among a better class of people. My children attended a private school and my wife wore finer clothes. Life was good. Little did I realize what a charade this was. Devoted family man by day and killer by night. It couldn’t last. And it didn’t.
“The end came when the boss’s son fell for a pretty, young woman from a notable family. She refused his advances and bruised his ego. The son became depressed when he learned that she had accepted a marriage proposal from another young man, a judge’s son. The boss was angry that his son ‘wasn’t good enough for this bitch.’ So he decided to show what happens when people disrespect him or his family. He gave me the job to ensure that the young woman would never reach the altar on her wedding day. She had to die on her way to the church.
“When I got the order I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. There was no way I could kill an innocent young woman on her wedding day. I would spend the rest of my life seeing her face in my daughter’s eyes. The boss wanted me to plant a bomb under the car her family would use to drive to the ceremony and detonate it by remote control when they approached the church. But I couldn’t go through with it and didn’t. The marriage ceremony went off without a hitch. I knew the boss would come after me for failing to carry out an order, but I would deal with that. Strangely, I never thought that my family would be involved. After all, this was a business matter and they were civilians. How wrong I was.”
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