Last Saturday, I decided to run Part 1 of Bad Spirits, the first novella in the Kate Jones Thriller Series. If you missed that installment, you can find it here. If you’re the type of person who can’t wait to read the rest of the story, it can be found (for free) on Amazon, BN and Smashwords (it’s also available at iTunes).
And now, without further yada-yadas, here’s part II:
Just Passing Through
Paranoia kept me off the highway. The blisters on my feet burned with each step. There weren’t many other transit options in this part of Sonora, apart from the occasional steer. Although I’d left John Sterling broken and bloody by the side of the road, he wasn’t the only one searching for the cash, and I needed to be careful, or I’d end up dead.
I wore my jacket even though the temperature had soared. The ball cap I used to hide my blonde hair didn’t prevent the sun from searing my neck, and I needed the coverage.
My spine ached from the weight of the money. I limped toward what looked like a small carne asada place that had appeared like a mirage on the horizon. Normally family owned, these Mexican versions of an open-air barbecue joint dotted the countryside along well-traveled routes. Since the highway I skirted happened to be the only one that led to San Bruno, I didn’t have the luxury of following a less popular road.
The buff colored hound sleeping in the shade of an ancient station wagon pawed at the air, chasing dream rabbits. The whitewashed structure’s silence told me I’d arrived after the lunch hour, with the inhabitants more than likely taking a siesta.
I shrugged off the pack and let it fall to the ground.
“Hello? Anyone here?” I called out in Spanish.
“One moment,” answered a man’s voice.
A burly, middle-aged man in a white tee-shirt and black trousers walked through the door at the back of the restaurant, wiping his hands on a towel.
I glanced at the menu board propped up on the counter. “May I have two tacos and a Seven-Up?”
He nodded, reached into an old cooler for my soda, and set it on the counter.
As he prepared my lunch, I scanned the road in each direction, aware of my vulnerability. Relieved that traffic was light, I took a sip of the Seven-Up and turned back to watch him.
Finished, he placed the plate of tacos in front of me. He glanced out at the dirt lot, a quizzical expression on his face.
“Where is your car?”
I took a bite of my taco. “I haven’t got one.”
“You’re a long way from anywhere. A woman alone needs to be careful.”
“When does the bus come by here?”
“Not until tomorrow.”
The hound shuffled past me, sniffed at the backpack and, disinterested, wandered off.
“Would you happen to know anyone around here who’s trying to sell their car?” It was a long shot, but the least I could do was try. Although the news of a gringa with cash would travel fast, my feet and back screamed for relief.
“I might be willing to sell that car over there.” He nodded his head at the dusty old pile of metal.
“As long as it runs. How much?”
“Two thousand dollars. US.”
I smiled. He knew an opportunity when he saw it. “No, my friend. The car is not worth nearly that much. Five hundred.”
He smiled back, revealing a gold incisor. “But then I will have no car. One thousand.”
“Is there enough gas to get to the next town?”
“The tank is half full.”
I sighed and made a show of thinking about his reply. I’d give him five thousand if it meant getting my ass to San Bruno faster.
“Seven-fifty. That’s my last offer, friend.”
He held out his hand and grinned. “Deal.”
Aside from the cloying cigarette smell and ripped upholstery, the car was perfect. No one would look twice at the ugly brown station wagon, and the cracked windshield obscured the occasional curious glance inside. The car’s shelf life would only last until I reached the next town, but I’d be that much closer to San Bruno. I didn’t dare keep driving. A bus was my only other option.
I pulled into Los Otros in the late afternoon. A small town within a short drive of the Sea of Cortez, the population consisted of mainly Mexican farmers, with a few ex-pats from the US sprinkled in. Its main street boasted a cantina, a bank, a drug store and a Laundromat. I took a left and parked along the curb on a side street, next to a dental office.
The bank had already closed for the day. My plan to transfer a portion of the money to my sister in Minnesota would have to wait until morning. I’d need to keep the amount small. Anything over ten thousand would attract unwanted attention in the US. The longer I dragged the money around, the more I realized I needed to find a way to unload it. Aside from digging a hole in the middle of the desert and burying it, the only thing that made any sense was to wire it to someone I could trust.
My younger sister Lisa was the only person in my family who had any idea how I’d been living the past three years. I didn’t trust the rest of my siblings to appreciate the finer points of making a stupid, life-changing mistake, like hooking up with a ruthless, power-hungry drug lord, and then stealing his money to escape.
I figured I’d transfer a little in each town I traveled through, holding out enough to buy a forged passport and pay my way back to the states.
I walked into the cantina and sat at a table in the corner. A kid of about twelve came over and asked me what I wanted. I ordered a Bohemia and asked him what time the bank next door opened.
“Nine o’clock.” He put a plastic basket of tortilla chips on the table.
“Where can I find a place to stay the night?”
He turned toward the kitchen. “Mama! This lady wants to know where she can rent a room.”
Mama walked through the doorway that led to the back. Tall and fit, energy radiated off her, belying the dark hair shot through with gray. She eyed me curiously.
“I have a friend, an American woman, who rents out her extra room. Twenty-five dollars a night. It’s not far, maybe two kilometers.”
She wrote down the address and made a crude map on the back of a napkin. I thanked her, paid for my beer and left, following the map to her friend’s place. I looked wistfully at the station wagon as I passed by. I couldn’t take the chance of staying with any vehicle for too long, so I left it at the curb, the keys dangling from the ignition.
The adobe house sat on a large rectangular dirt lot. Cheerful yellow curtains dotted the windows. Two lime trees grew next to a small shed. A profusion of lush plants in colorful pots greeted me as I followed the curving walk to the front door. I rang the doorbell and turned to survey the neighborhood. It appeared relatively quiet, with the exception of a stray dog and a kid on a bicycle.
“Yes?” The door opened and a woman with dirty blonde hair and a lived in face peered out, smiling.
“Your friend at the cantina sent me. She said you might have a room available for the night?”
“Yes, yes. Come in. You’re American?” I nodded. “Lovely. How long will you need the room?”
“Only for the night. I’m just passing through.”
She sighed. “Everyone ‘just passes through’ here.” She glanced at my backpack, then at the walk behind me. “Do you have any other luggage?”
“I travel light.”
She showed me to my room and I slid the pack under the bed. She asked me if I wanted to wash up before dinner. I said I would.
Her name was Lana, and she’d just turned forty the day before. We dined al fresco in her backyard under strings of lights, giving it a festive air. She served fish tacos with rice and had finished her third margarita by the time I’d barely drunk one.
“I came here ten years ago. Followed a man.” She shook her head, smiling. “You probably know how that goes.” She stared off into the darkness and took another drink. “Girl meets guy, girl falls for guy and follows him to another country. Guy leaves girl in one horse town with no money.” She shrugged. “Things a girl will do for love, eh?” She had no idea.
Lana noticed my drink was empty and picked up the pitcher. I placed my hand over my glass.
“I’d better not.” I leaned back, trying to relax and enjoy the mild, star-filled night, but that was a thing of the past, now. Alcohol only dulled my senses.
“So what’s your story, Miss I’m-just-passing-through?”
“I’m on my way to Mazatlan,” I lied. No sense leaving a trail for Salazar. “I have some friends there I haven’t seen in a long time.”
We talked long into the night, or, I should say, she did. I answered her questions with the truth if I could, lies if she got too personal. Around one she passed out in her chair, her snores cutting through the still night. I wrapped her arm around my shoulders, hoisted her to her feet and walked her to bed. After taking off her shoes, I tucked her in and walked out, closing the door.
I searched through the kitchen, found a box of plastic baggies in a drawer and took them to my room. There I pulled out several stacks of hundred-dollar bills from the backpack and stuffed them into the baggies.
Next, I carried the bags outside and set them on the ground alongside the two lime trees. Earlier, I’d noticed a pick and a shovel leaning against the house and went back to get them.
It took all the strength I had to hack my way into the caliche-filled ground between the lime trees and shed. At first I used the shovel, but finally resorted to the pick ax. Once I had a deep enough hole, I dropped the bags of money in and covered them with the remaining dirt. I poured water from the kitchen on the freshly dug earth, knowing it would be dry by morning and the evidence obliterated.
I returned to my room. My backpack was much lighter. I calculated roughly a third of the money now lay in the hole in the yard. Satisfied I’d found a necessary temporary home for the cash, I fell into a fitful sleep.
Sunlight streamed through the curtains, and my eyelids snapped open. At first unsure where I was, I remembered and sat up, glancing at the clock on the dresser. Eight thirty. Just enough time to have breakfast and walk to the bank. I hated doing the transfer in daylight, but didn’t have a choice.
I brushed my teeth with my finger and some toothpaste I found in the medicine cabinet and washed my face. Then I went out to the kitchen to see if I could get some coffee before I left.
Lana stood at the stove, frying eggs and bacon, talking to a dark-haired man sitting at the table. Instinctively, I stiffened. The less people I encountered, the better. Lana turned at the abrupt pause in conversation, and broke into a wide smile.
“You’re just in time for breakfast. Jorge dropped by this morning and offered to give you a lift into town.” She pointed her fork at me. “Kate, Jorge. Jorge, this is Kate.”
“Mucho gusto.” Jorge bowed his head, a charming smile on his face. My shoulders released a fraction. He seemed like a nice guy. Salazar’s men couldn’t have found me so soon. No one knew where I was headed.
We ate breakfast and drank coffee, making small talk. Soon, it was time to go. Jorge held out his hand to take the backpack.
“Thanks, Jorge, but it’s not that heavy.” He looked slightly offended, but shrugged as we walked out to his pickup.
We drove to town in silence, which was fine by me. I hadn’t slept much the night before, having jolted awake with every sound, and didn’t want to make the effort at more small talk.
Jorge pulled up to the curb near the bank and I thanked him and got out. I could feel him watch me walk through the bank’s doors. The teller at the window smiled and motioned for me to come to her window. I’d already separated $7,500 from the rest of the money in the pack, and reached into the front pocket where I’d stashed the bundle.
“I’d like to make a wire transfer to my sister in Minnesota, please.”
As I filled out the paperwork, I resisted the urge to look behind me. I handed the forms back to the teller and smiled. Tiny rivers of sweat ran down my back and under my arms, and beads of perspiration formed on my upper lip. Maybe wiring money to my sister wasn’t such a good idea. It left me exposed in public for too long. The game had changed–my penchant for acting on the first idea that popped into my head could now get me killed. I thought about grabbing the money off the counter and leaving, but stopped short as I realized the transaction was almost complete.
Something hard pressed into my back. I started to turn around to see what it was, and stopped cold at the familiar voice.
“Eyes forward, bitch.”
A cold wave of dread washed through me. Frank Lanzarotti. Apparently Salazar wasn’t the only one looking for the money.
I stared straight ahead and forced a smile when the teller handed me my receipt and told me to have a nice day.
“Turn around, real slow, and we’re gonna walk out that door together with a smile on our faces, got it?”
I nodded and we moved toward the door, Frank’s arm firmly around my waist.
As we neared the entrance, the guard smiled at us. I stopped and turned toward Frank.
“Oh, honey, I forgot to pee,” I whispered, loud enough that the guard blushed and turned his head. Frank stiffened and his hand clamped down on my waist, hard.
“What the fuck are you doing?” he hissed into my ear.
With no small effort, I pulled away from him, and playfully patted his arm. “Oh, don’t be such a silly, sweetheart. We have plenty of time.” I turned to the guard who was looking at everything except the two of us. “Sir, could you tell me where the ladies bathroom is, please?”
He cleared his throat and answered, “Of course, Señora. It’s down that hallway and through those doors.” He pointed toward the back of the bank.
“Thank you. Now, honey, it won’t take that long, I promise.” Frank’s expression was a mixture of cold, white fury punctuated with splotches of red on his cheeks. I turned around, fast, and headed down the hallway before my shaking knees and frayed nerves failed me.
I burst through the bathroom door and scanned the room for an exit. A bank of high windows ran along the wall in back of the two stalls. I kicked open the door to the first one and climbed onto the toilet. The window opened easily, and I hoisted myself up and over the sill, head first.
I fell to the ground and immediately got up and hauled ass. I made it several yards before I heard Frank scream at his guy to bring the car around. A bullet whizzed past me and pinged off the concrete wall of another building. I detoured through an alley and kept running.
Panic welled up inside of me. I didn’t know the town, didn’t know where to go. I just blindly ran, hoping for inspiration.
I rounded a corner and saw Jorge parked down the road in his pickup. Without thinking, I ran toward him, waving my arms, hoping somehow he could help me.
As I neared the truck, Jorge opened the driver’s side door and got out. I called out to him, but the words died in my throat when I realized he had a gun.
A cry escaped me as I skidded to a stop and fell backward. I scrambled to change direction, mid-step. The weight of the backpack threw me off-balance and I slammed into the ground. Jorge’s bullet barely missed.
I crawled onto my hands and knees, clawing at the dirt to get to my feet when I heard the music. A rusty old Volkswagen Bug kicking up dust roosters headed straight toward me. Classical music blared through the open windows. I dove behind a trash can on the side of the street. The driver of the VW drew parallel with me and slammed on the brakes, stopping in a cloud of dust. A large automatic gun attached to a skinny brown arm appeared at the side window.
The driver pulled the trigger. The staccato burst of repeating gunfire split the air. Then, silence.
I peeked around the side of the garbage can to look. Jorge lay sprawled on the ground, next to his truck. He looked dead.
Behind me, a dark-colored SUV flew past the corner and skidded to a stop.
“Get in,” the VW driver yelled. With no time to think, I ran around the side of the car and threw myself into the passenger seat.
“Stay down,” he barked, as the VW shot past Jorge and his pickup.
I stayed on the floorboards, afraid to look up, waiting for Frank’s bullets to perforate the car.
I tried to anchor myself to keep from crashing into the door and the gear shift as the driver, howling like a madman, steered first one way, then the other. I gave up and curled into a fetal position. The car bounced and bucked to the crashing strains of Rachmaninoff. I hoped like hell he didn’t drive us off a cliff.
He spun the wheel to the left and crowed with delight as the VW fishtailed out of a spin.
“You bastards’ll never catch us,” he yelled to no one in particular.
We took a hard right, slowed to a crawl, and stopped. He killed the engine. I lifted my head to see where we were.
“Stay down,” he hissed. I did as I was told. After a few minutes, he started the engine, and began to drive. To say the road he chose had a few bumps would be an understatement. I covered my head to keep from banging it to a pulp on the dash. The VW hit one last hole, and then the ride leveled out.
He turned in his seat to look behind us. “We confounded ’em,” he chortled.
I carefully lifted my head and looked out the window. We were outside of town, driving past scrub and open space on a paved highway. I breathed a sigh of relief and sat up in the seat.
My rescuer appeared to be about seventy. His face looked like old leather, and his hair resembled Einstein’s on a bad day. He had on a set of green scrubs and wore a pair of ancient huaraches on his feet. He turned off the tape player and we drove in silence. I did some deep breathing to still my pounding heart.
“Thank you,” I said.
He waved his hand at me. “I always hated that prick.”
“Enough to kill him?”
He shrugged. “I euthanize sick animals. What’s the difference?” He turned to me and grinned, extending his hand. “The name’s Ogden. I’m the local volunteer vet.”
Ogden, or Oggie as he liked to be called, had been a veterinarian in the Midwest for over forty years. He’d grown tired of shoveling Nebraska snow and decided to retire in Mexico when his wife died. He’d lived here ever since.
When I asked him how he came to be the volunteer vet, he banged on the steering wheel.
“One day I woke up and decided I had a moral imperative to help the poor farmers in the area. So I started stockpiling medicine whenever I went to the states. Pretty soon word got around.” He grinned. “Keeps me young. And, I’m never bored.” He gave me a sidelong glance. “Why was a piece of shit like Jorge after you?”
I sighed and looked out the window.
“Look, if you don’t want to talk about it, I won’t ask again. I’d just like to know what kind of hornet’s nest I stepped in.”
I owed him that much. Frank Lanzarotti was Anaya’s man, not Salazar’s. My life had just become exponentially more complicated.
Still watching the scenery flow by, I said, “Apparently Jorge was working for someone I used to know, Frank Lanzarotti, who works for a drug dealer out of Central America named Vincent Anaya. I was actually running from somebody else and thought Jorge might help me.”
Oggie snorted and swerved to miss hitting an opossum lumbering across the road.
“That’s a good one. Jorge and the word help have never been uttered in the same sentence, at least, not in recent memory.”
“Look, you can drop me at the next town, the next bus stop, hell, the side of the road, even. I don’t want to cause you any trouble. I owe you my life. You don’t need to be part of this.”
Oggie whistled. “Must be some trouble you’re in, Miss Kate. Tell you what–” He reached under his seat and brought out a silver flask, unscrewed the top and took a drink. “I’ll drive you anywhere you want to go, provided you fill up ol’ Bessie’s tank.” He patted the car’s dash affectionately. “But I have to take care of something first.” He took another drink and then offered me the flask.
I shook my head. “It’s too dangerous. There are some really bad people who want to see me dead, and they wouldn’t have a problem killing you to get to me.”
Oggie’s laugh ricocheted around the car.
“Hell, Kate. I’m so old, dirt’s asking me for advice. You think I give a rat’s ass about being safe?” He looked at me. “When you get to be my age, you’ll understand it’s not about how much time you got. It’s about how much life you get. Sitting on my ass in a rocking chair isn’t a life, far as I’m concerned. Besides,” he flicked on the cassette player and Rachmaninoff blasted through the speakers. “You need me.”
We pulled into Oggie’s place an hour later. The small, cinder block house with a metal roof sat in the middle of the square dirt plot surrounded by a split rail fence. A lemon tree and two mesquites stood sentry at the back of the lot near the house, providing the only shade.
I glanced back down the driveway. My nerves screamed at me to get moving, now.
“What’s going to stop Frank from finding your place?” Oggie didn’t appear to be a person who flew under the radar. His home would probably be the first place Frank would check.
“Only two people know where I live. I pick up my messages in town, and if there’s an emergency, the gal at the post office comes and gets me,” he replied. “I like it that way. Less bother.”
Something told me I wasn’t the only person who didn’t want to be found. “Who’s the other one?”
He shrugged a bony shoulder. “A lady friend. We haven’t spoken in a while, though.” He unscrewed his flask to take another swig, raising his eyebrows as he offered it to me again. I shook my head.
“No thanks. I need my wits about me.”
“Wits are highly overrated,” he muttered.
The one room house had a small bathroom off to one side. The kitchen lined one wall and a bed and dresser stood in a far corner. A wooden table, piled high with old newspapers and stacks of books, took up half the living area. I didn’t notice a television or a phone.
“This’ll just take a minute,” Oggie said over his shoulder. He opened the small refrigerator and took out a clear plastic bottle and a syringe. Then he walked around the side of the table. “Wild Bill needs his shot, don’t you boy?”
I looked down and realized what I’d thought was a sweater on one of the dining room chairs was actually a large cat. Oggie gathered Wild Bill up in his arms and sat on the chair. He kissed the hairy feline on the head and murmured into his ear.
“We don’t have time for this.” I kept a nervous eye on the driveway.
“If I don’t give the little feller his insulin, he’ll lapse into a coma and probably die. Now, if you’ll just quit your chit-chat, I can give him the shot and we’ll be on our way.”
He injected the cat and set him on the floor. Wild Bill meowed at me, annoyance plain on his face. Then he shook his head and slowly trundled out the door.
Oggie and I heard it at the same time. A dark-colored SUV barreled down the dirt drive toward us.
“Oh, God. It’s Frank.” My voice matched the panic that constricted my chest.
He squinted at the car. “Quick–” He shoved me toward the back door. “There’s a root cellar behind the mesquites.”
I grabbed my pack and ran.
The cellar turned out to be a hole in the ground with a weathered wood door covering it. I heaved the door open and dropped the pack inside, then scrambled down the handmade ladder, slamming the door behind me.
Not the best hideout. The thought of disrupting a nest of snakes or scorpions crossed my mind. Scorpions I could live with. Snakes, not so much. Light streamed in through gaps in the door that allowed me to see, once my eyes adjusted. I pulled the gun out of the front pocket of the pack and crawled as far back as I could go, behind jars filled with some kind of preserves and boxes of dried vegetables.
I stuffed the pack in the rear of the space, underneath a couple of boxes, then turned back toward the door and held my breath, listening. A sickening feeling twisted my stomach, and visions of Frank beating Oggie to death for information played like a bad movie in my brain. Frank wouldn’t care who he killed to get the money.
I had a gun. I could use it to help him. But, then again, so did Oggie. He knew how to take care of himself.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I needed to be calm. If I tried to make a decision in panic mode, things could go to hell, fast.
The gun felt faintly reassuring. I opened my eyes and stared at the door, willing Oggie to appear and tell me everything was fine. The longer I sat there, the less certain I became.
I raised my gun at the sound of someone approaching, and aimed it at the door. The footsteps stopped and a shadow fell across the gaps in the wood.
The door opened and fell to the side with a bang. I blinked against the bright light, at first unable to make out the person who peered inside the cellar. Then, I recognized him.
And pulled the trigger.
For more Kate Jones, stop by next week for the rest of the story:
Bad Spirits, Part III – Rock and a Hard Place / Saturday, March 16
Bad Spirits, Part IV – Last Chance / Saturday, March 23
Bad Spirits, Part V – Bad Choices / Saturday, March 30