Somewhere in the State of Chiapas
Jackson Coleman swung his head around in bewilderment. Although he knew the major cities in Chiapas, right now he was lost. He stole a look at Alvarez Cruz and wondered if the detective knew where he was. From the way the man kept glancing at the road map in his lap, Coleman suspected not. Nor was he so sure about that deal he made with the detective. It’s one thing to promise something when you’ve got something to use as a club. But, Coleman reflected ruefully, it was quite another matter to make that promise come true when you’re unsure of where you actually stand with a wanted drug lord who killed his way to the top of the leader pile.
Ciruz shifted his eyes toward his too quiet passenger.
“Anything you like to say before we meet with Chilam Balam? Now would be a good time to talk.”
Shaking his head, Coleman giggled nervously and chewed on his lower lip. It bled and the lieutenant watched as his front man crumbled in the front seat of the police Bronco.
“You don’t have to go through with this. I’ll send you back to the States on a drug charge. You don’t want to go to jail down here. You might not survive.”
“No, I offered you a fair deal in exchange for keeping me and my wife out of prison. I intend to honor my deal with you Lieutenant. What you don’t seem to understand is that Francesca could’ve been a drug runner as well and you wouldn’t have known the difference or cared. One more pot head in the slammer is what you guys are really after, so don’t offer me any condolences of what I’m about to do. I’m not interested.”
Shrugging, Alvarez kept his eyes on the winding road. As he negotiated a sharp curve, he upon the glaring headlights of an oncoming vehicle. He braked hard.
“Lieutenant, watch out!” Jackson screamed, reaching for this missing armrest but grabbing the door handle instead. The two vehicles struck at low speed but nearly head on, and the Bronco twisted sideways in a dizzying motion. Dazed and confused, Alvarez clung to the steering wheel. As the dust began to settle, he heard familiar voices and realized that Coleman’s wife and daughter must have been in the other car. What about Francesca’s mysterious boyfriend? He wondered. Why do I feel his presence?
Coleman had been thrown clear of the Bronco, landing semiconscious on soft ground to the right of the road. Alvarez listened as an older woman’s voice cried out.
“Jackson, are you okay? Jackson?” Miriam’s shrill voice penetrated the darkness.
A male voice spoke up using archaic words.
“This won’t do.”
“Is that Acan? Alvarez asked himself.
“Do tell,” said a female voice, lighter than Miriam’s. The voice continued speaking in a sarcastic manner. “Nice work guys. Next time we’ll take the bus. Let’s check the gas tank and see if it’s leaking gasoline. That’s all we need to tell the world, here we are!”
While the lieutenant tried making sense of what the younger woman said, he heard footsteps approach. Stiffening, he reached behind his seat, removed his rifle and held it before him in the darkness.
“It should be here somewhere,” the female voice said, less sure of herself than before.
Out of the darkness a hand rested upon the edge of the driver’s window, which was open. Immediately Alvarez pressed down on the rifle stock, pinning the hand to the window sill.
“Watcha do that for? I’m not gonna hurt you.”
“Francesca, is that you?” Alvarez barked out.
“Of all the damn nuisances. First Miriam, and now you. Acan, come and tell this cop that I’m not the enemy. Miriam’s wailing her head off over there with my father, and you’ve got my hand pinned down with that gun of yours. We’ll never get to Palenque this way.”
“Palenque?” Miriam screeched. “You didn’t say anything about visiting a Mayan ruin at this time of the night. I thought you were taking me back to your father. Of all the stupid stunts you’ve pulled Francesca, this one tops them all.”
“I did take you to Father. Here he is, lying dead on the ground for all we know. And, what he was doing with the lieutenant at this time of night, we might asked.”
“You can ask,” Alvarez quipped, “But you and your friend and your mother have some explaining to do.”
“I told you not to bring my mom along. She jinxes everything!”
As if out of nowhere, Acan appeared at the side of the Bronco. He pulled Francesca away from the vehicle. The detective opened the door and stepped out.
“Just hold it there, both of you.”
Turning toward Miriam, he strode to where she knelt by her husband’s body.
“How is he?”
She looked up puzzled.
“Do I know you?”
“He’s the law, Miriam. What he says goes. So don’t bat your eyes at him. He doesn’t see much except for what he wants to see. Isn’t that right Lieutenant?”
Ignoring Francesca, Alvarez continued speaking to Miriam.
“How bad is it?”
Cocking her head, she shot back at him.
“Like you care? You couldn’t protect me from an overdose and now you want to know how Jackson is? How fortunate that I don’t press charges against you Lieutenant? You’re not the best person to handle this present crisis.”
“No Señora, I’m probably not. But since your husband willingly accepted the charge of smuggling drugs into Chiapas, Mexico, I’m sure you’ll understand why I’m more concerned about your husband than you or your daughter may be.”
No one spoke back after that. The lieutenant leaned down and shook Jackson’s arm.
“You okay partner? Think you can make it back to the truck?”
“What? You’re not calling for an ambulance?” Miriam yelled.
“Out here? At this time of night? No one comes here except the banditos, drug gangs, and maybe the military if they suspect you of interfering with their grandiose plans. I suggest that your friend and I carry Jackson back to the truck and then go back to the station. There I’ll call Dr. Carlos asked him to look at your husband. Or we can take him directly to the hospital. It’s your choice, but don’t delay. We’re lucky the banditos haven’t come out to play.”
“You’re so full of cheer, aren’t you Lieutenant?” Francesca interjected. “There’s no one out here except us. And, what about my father? You going to hoist him over your shoulders and lug him back to the Bronco?”
Miriam flung out a protective arm across her husband’s chest and glowered. At her touch, Jackson awoke and said in a strained, hoarse voice.
“Detective Cruz? I’m fine. Really. Just had the wind knocked out of me. Give me your hand and I’ll pull myself up and we’ll straighten out this mess.”
Alvarez slung his rifle over his shoulder, leaned down and with his arm under Jackson’s shoulders lifted him a few inches off the ground. Jackson seized Alvarez’ left hand and pulled himself up to a sitting position. The detective watched as the famed oil rig firefighter sucked in several deep breaths and then by sheer willpower staggered to his feet.
“That’s much better. The world looks a lot clearer now. Francesca? Miriam? What are you two doing out in the middle of the night? Shouldn’t you be asleep in the hotel? And you, dear wife, shouldn’t you be in bed resting? Has the whole world gone mad?”
No one said anything, and the silence deepened. Alvarez went back to the Bronco and opened the door. Putting away the rifle, he turned and surveyed the unhappy scene before him. The only person missing now was Francesca’s escort, the boy calling himself Acan, and Alvarez knew why. Keeping this thought to himself, he watched the three family members circle one another as if planning for a frontal attack. He didn’t have to wait long.
“We’re on our way back to Palenque. Acan told me that tomorrow night that Venus will hang low in the sky, and he didn’t want me to miss seeing it.”
“And Acan is – where?” Miriam asked sharply. “Did he fly away?”
Alvarez winced and shifted his stance by the Bronco. Checking his watch, he now knew that Jaguar Wizard wouldn’t meet him tonight. Night was best used for smuggling drugs across the border and strengthening your position with the new mayor who was a she, not a he, which would make the drug cartels think twice. Or maybe not, Alvarez reasoned.
“I hate to break up this family reunion, but Jackson Coleman has an appointment. So wrap up your hysterics and let’s get moving. It’s prime time for banditos to waylay wayfarers, and I’ve got enough on my plate without getting mugged,” the detective said, his lips twisting.
“Damn, damn, damn, damn,” Francesca yelled at the top of her lungs. “I don’t want to go to that hotel. I want to get to Palenque and see the ruins, and then find the rest of my classmates. I’m here with my Spanish teacher, Gabrielle Tairino and Miriam, and that’s all I want and need. I was doing just fine without you Father Dearest, so please go on your solitary way and leave me the hell alone.”
She fell to the ground and cried. Miriam circled around her stepdaughter and tentatively poked her head past Francesca’s folded arms. Her daughter wasn’t faking. Real tears fell and streaked her cheeks.
Straightening up, Miriam faced her husband and said.
“I got tired of being in bed all day, so when Francesca and her young man came visiting before the doors were sealed, I got up, dressed, and left with them. The sisters were busy doing other things. Dr. Carlos had said I could leave any time. So I did with my daughter. We are going to the ruins and see them before this trip ends. I’m told that Venus is the Mayan’s evening star and holds a prominent spot in their beliefs. I want to see their ‘star’ ceremony before we go back home. And you, Jackson, can either come with us or not. The choice is up to you.”
Jackson shifted unsteadily on his feet and shuffled toward the Broncoa. Still a bit light-headed, he wobbled over to the detective with hands outstretched. Miriam rushed to his side and grabbed hold of both hands.
“You’re in no condition to go anywhere,” she told him,” least of all into the jungle or wherever you’re on your way to.”
“To see an old friend, an acquaintance who doesn’t see me as often as I want,” Jackson retorted.
“What a nice family reunion,” Francesca said. “How good it feels to bond for once instead of squabbling. You two go right ahead. Don’t let me stop you. Lieutenant, can I hitch a ride with you up to the Mayan ruins? It isn’t far, is it?”
“About a four hour drive. Might get a bit chilly. Sure, hitch a ride. I drive best at night. It’s cooler. Jackson you coming too? And you, Miriam, should I call Dr. Carlos and have him pick you up or will you be riding with us to Palenque as well? We won’t be making any more stops for the night.”
Miriam eyed her husband, but kept her face blank. Jackson stiffly bowed, and then walked with exact determination to the passenger’s side of the Bronco, opened its dented door and sat down.
“Coming or staying or returning to the hospital, Miriam. It’s your choice.”
“I’m coming. Can’t let Francesca roam the road at night without a chaperone. What would the neighbors say?”
“I thought you would’ve said what would the neighbors have thought?” Coleman said, getting back out to let his wife and daughter climb into the back seat. “No matter. Miriam, I’m glad to have your company, even if you and Francesca don’t want me along. Let me say this, once we get to Palenque and observe Venus from the ruins, then we go home with the rest of the class. It’s high time that this funny business was finally settled, and you, Lieutenant Cruz, if you can’t do your job, I’ll find someone who can!”
Again the silence settled around everyone’s shoulders in the truck. Instead of a quiet ride to find the Great Jaguar Wizard and his gang of cutthroats, now he, Alvarez Cruz, lieutenant detective first class, had to chaperone a bunch of Americano tourists to Palenque.
Alvarez started the engine and checked the instruments. The low-speed crash evidently hadn’t impaired the vehicle’s operation. One headlight still worked, which was enough for this trip. He eased out the clutch and prepared to pull around Miriam’s vehicle, making a mental note to send a tow truck for it in the morning.
Jackson broke the silence.
“Where’s you’re young man?” he asked Francesca. “I don’t see him.”
“Past his curfew. His father is a pretty tough guy, head honcho. But you should relate. You’re the same way. Head honcho and all that,” she spluttered back.
Miriam smiled inwardly, as the bickering between her stepdaughter and her husband continued. As the Bronco gained speed, it jerked to one side.
Alvarez stopped, turned off the engine, set the brake and switched off the headlight to save the battery. He stepped out and inspected the front tire. It was flat, a casualty of the collision.
“Everybody out. Got a flat tire. Give me a few minutes and we’ll be on our way.”
As Alvarez was retrieving the spare tire and jack, he heard a faint whirring noise. Withdrawing the tire with the tire iron, he continued working on the flat tire. The whirring became a whistle, and a rush of air blew past the side of his head. With a squawk, three figures landed in front of the vehicle. Jackson, standing aside the Bronco, reached in and switched on the single headlight. Alvarez looked up and froze. Acan, he recognized from two days back, but the other two he couldn’t quite place.
Camazotz stalked toward the rear of the square box on rolling stones and squatted by the lieutenant detective.
“Heard you needed me. Is that true?”
Sucking in his breath, and then releasing it so it sounded more like a hiss, Alvarez chose his words carefully.
“A skull broke. I need to get another one wrapped in rubber before the square box can walk forward.”
Alvarez noticed how Camazotz looked back at his young subordinate, while the boy-man played with Francesca’s fingers. Hoping to avoid another domestic scene this time with an angry god and his underling, the detective voiced his own opinion in a steady voice.
“They’re kids. Puppy love. They’ll get over it once Francesca leaves Chiapas with her family. The exchange student incident has left a bad taste in the mayor’s mouth. The city fathers don’t want them down here any longer than necessary. The mayor tells me she has the city’s militia out looking for the lost boys.”
Camazotz shifted his eyelids and focused on the detective, who continued changing the tire with practiced skill. The skull ball of rubber was replaced with another one. Alvarez gave the wheel a pat and released the jack. He stepped back to the rear of the truck and placed the damaged tire and tools into place.
“That takes care of that.”
He spoke to empty air. Camazotz, Acan, Francesca, and the other two vampires were gone. They had flown the coop. Jackson scowled while Miriam stood as mute as a stone frieze on a Mayan ruin. Alvarez motioned to them to get back in the Bronco. He settled in, restarted the engine, and again eased out the clutch to set them going forward. The truck slid into its rhythm.
“All set?” Cruze asked his dazed passengers. “Next stop Palenque.”