Home > The Day of the Dead (Cassandra Palmer #3.1)

The Day of the Dead (Cassandra Palmer #3.1)
Author: Karen Chance

“I’m looking for my brother,” the girl repeated, for the third time. Her accent was terrible, New Jersey meets Mexico City, making her difficult to understand, but Tomas doubted that that was the problem. The largely male crowd in the small cantina weren’t interested in the gaba with the sob story, even one who was tall and slim, with slanting hazel eyes and long black hair.

Japanese ancestry, Tomas decided, or maybe Korean. There might be some Italian too, based on the slight wave in her hair and the Roman nose, which was a little too prominent for her slender face. She was arresting, rather than pretty, the kind of woman you’d remember, although her outfit would probably have ensured that anyway. He approved of the light cargo pants and the short leather jacket. But the shotgun she wore on a strap slung over her shoulder and the handgun at her waist took away from the effect.

“He’s nineteen,” she continued stubbornly. “Black hair, brown eyes, six foot two –”

The bartender suddenly snapped to attention, but he wasn’t looking at her. His hand slid under the counter to rest on the shotgun he kept there.

Tomas hadn’t seen it, but he’d smelled the old gun oil and faint powder traces as soon as he’d walked in. But the man who slammed in through the door was merely human.

“Hijole, Alcazar!” the bartender shouted, as the room exploded in yells of abuse. “What do you mean, bursting in here like that? Do you want to get shot?”

The man shook his head, looking faintly green under the cantina’s bare bulbs. “I thought I heard something behind me,” he said shakily, joining a few friends at an already overcrowded table. “On the way back from the cemetery.”

“You shouldn’t have been there so late,” one of his friends reproached, sliding him a drink. “Not tonight.”

“I lost track of time. I was visiting Elia’s grave and–”

“Aguas! You will do your daughter no good by joining her!”

There was frightened muttering for a moment, and several patrons stopped fingering their weapons to actually draw them. Tomas had the distinct impression that the next time the door opened, whoever stood there was likely to get shot. Tension was running far too high for good sense.

Then the bartender suddenly let out a laugh, and slid another round onto the men’s table. “I wouldn’t worry,” he said heartily. “From what I hear, even your Consuela doesn’t want you. Why would the monsters?”

The room erupted into relieved laughter as the man, his fright forgotten, stood up to angrily defend his manhood. “She ran off with some wealthy bastard,” he said, shooting Tomas an evil look.

Tomas calmly sipped mescal out of a reused Coca-Cola bottle and didn’t respond. But he wished for about the hundredth time that he’d given a little more thought to blending in. His reflection in the chipped mirror behind the bar, while not Anglo, stood out as much as the girl’s. The high cheekbones and straight black hair of his Incan mother had mixed with the golden skin and European features of his Spanish father, resulting in a combination that many people seemed to find attractive. He’d always found it an inconvenient reminder of the domination of one half of his ancestry by the other: the conquest of a continent written on his face.

He couldn’t honestly blame the locals for mistaking him for a wealthy city dweller, despite the fact that he’d been born into a village even poorer than this one and was currently completely broke. He’d picked up his outfit, a dark blue suit and pale grey tie, at an airport shop at JFK. He’d needed a disguise, and the suit, along with a leather briefcase and a quick session with a pocket knife in front of a men’s room mirror, had changed him from a laid-back college student with a ponytail to a 30-something businessman in a hurry.

He’d eluded his pursuers, but with no money he’d been forced to use a highly illegal suggestion on the clerk. Since then, he’d lost track of how many times he’d done something similar, using his abilities to fog the minds of airline employees, customs agents and the taxi driver who had conveyed him 100 miles to this tiny village clinging to the side of a mountain. Every incident had been a serious infraction of the law, but what did that matter? If any of his kind caught up with him, he was dead anyway. He just wished he’d thought to find something else to wear after landing in Guadalajara.

There weren’t a lot of locals in 1,200-dollar suits.

Tomas couldn’t see the outfit that made him stand out like a sore thumb, because an altar to the souls of the dead had been placed in front of the mirror. Hand carved wooden skeletons in a variety of poses sat haphazardly on the multi-tiered edifice, each representing one of the bartender’s family members who was gone but not forgotten. One hairless skull seemed to grin at him; its tiny hand wrapped around an even tinier bottle of Dos Equis – presumably the man’s favourite drink. A regular-sized bottle stood nearby, a special treat for the spirit that would come to visit this night. It was El Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

A particularly fitting time, Tomas thought, for a vampire to return home.

At least resentment of the city slicker gave the men something to talk about other than their fear. They didn’t relax, being too busy shooting suspicious glances his way, but most of them let go of their weapons. Which is why everyone jumped when a shot exploded against the cracked plaster ceiling.

It was the girl, standing in the middle of the cantina, gun in hand, ignoring the dozen barrels suddenly focused on her head. “My brother,” she repeated, pointing the gun at the bartender, who had lost his forced joviality. “Where is he?”

“Put your weapon down, señorita. You have no enemies here,” he said, eyeing her with understandable concern. “And I told you already. No one has seen him.”

“His car is parked in the cemetery. The rental papers have his name on them. And the front seat has his handprint – in blood.”

She threw the papers on the bar, but neither they nor her speech seemed to impress the bartender. “Perhaps, but as I told you, this is a small town. If he had been here, someone would know.”

The glasses on the shelf behind him suddenly exploded, one by one, like a line of firecrackers. The gun remained in the girl’s hand, but she hadn’t used it. Tomas slowly set his drink back down.

“Someone here does know. And that someone had better tell me. Now.”

Her eyes took in the bar, where most of the men’s weapons were still pointed at her. That fact didn’t seem to worry her nearly as much as it should have.

“I saw a stranger.” The voice piped up from a table near the door, and a short, stocky man, dressed in the local farmer’s uniform of faded jeans, cotton work shirt and straw hat, stood up. “He was taking photographs of the cemetery, out by the graves.”

“He’s a reporter,” the girl agreed. “He was doing a story on … something … but said he’d meet me here.”

“I told him to go away,” the man said. “This is a day for the dead and their families. We didn’t want him there.”

“But he didn’t leave. His car is still there!”

The man shrugged and sat back down. “He said he was going to photograph the church, and I saw him walking towards town. That’s all I know.”

“The church is the white building I saw driving in?”

“Yes.” The bartender spoke before the man could. “I can show you, if you like.” He motioned for the boy who’d been running in and out all night from the back, clearing off tables and wiping down the bar. “Paolo can take over for me here.”

“You’re going out?”

“But it’s almost dark!”

“Are you mad?”

The voices spoke up from all directions, but the bartender shrugged them off. He brought out the shotgun and patted fondly. “Ocho ochenta.

It’s only a short way. And no one should go anywhere alone tonight.”

The murmuring didn’t die down, but no one attempted to stop him.

Tomas watched them leave, the bartender solicitously opening the door for the girl. His broad smile never wavered, and something about it made Tomas’ instincts itch. He gave them a couple of minutes, then slid off his stool and followed.

There was little light, with the sky already dark overhead, the last orange- red rays of the sun boiling away to the west. But his eyes worked better in the dark and, in any case, he could have found his way blindfolded. The village looked much the same as it had for the last three millennia. Many of its people could trace their ancestry back to the days when the Mayan Empire sent tax collectors here, to reap the benefits of the same plots these farmers still worked. The 500-year-old village where he’d grown up in what was now Peru seemed a young upstart by comparison. It was gone now, bulldozed to make way for a housing development on the rapidly expanding outskirts of Cuzco. But although he hadn’t been back here in almost a century, nothing seemed to have changed.

A trail of bright yellow petals led the way to a small church with crumbling stone steps overlooking the jungle that floated like green clouds against the mountains of the Oaxaca. The church was still draped with the flor de muertos, garlands of marigolds, from the morning service. He went in to find the same old wooden crucifix on the alter, surrounded by flickering votive candles and facing rows of empty pews. He edged around it and paused by the back door, where the sweet, pungent smell of incense mingled with the damp, musty odour of the jungle. Beyond it, out in the twilight, he caught a whiff of the girl’s perfume.

The church faced the red earth of the town’s only street, but behind it the jungle washed up almost to the steps, except for the area where a small cemetery spilled down the hillside. It had never been moved despite each summer storm threatening to wash the bodies out of their shallow graves and into the valley below. Tomas picked his way down a marigold- strewn path to the cemetery gate, pausing beside a statue of La Calaca. The skeleton lady was holding a placard with her usual warning. ‘TODAY ME, TOMORROW YOU’. In many such villages, families stayed all night at the graves of their dead, waiting to welcome the spirits that returned to partake of their offerings. But not in this one. Only four people stood among the flower-decked crosses and scattered graves, and only two of them were alive.

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