Read And Then You Die Online

Authors: Iris Johansen

Tags: #Fiction

And Then You Die

Prologue

September 19
Danzar, Croatia

The dogs were howling.

Sweet Jesus, Bess wished they'd stop.

Focus.

Shoot.

Move on.

Dark here. Adjust the light.

The babies . . .

Oh, God, why?

Don't think about it. Just take the picture.

Focus.

Shoot.

She needed more film.

Bess's hands were shaking as she opened the camera, took out the used roll, and inserted a new one.

“We have to leave, Ms. Grady.” Sergeant Brock stood in the doorway behind her. His words were polite but his expression was full of revulsion as he stared at her. “They're right outside the village. You shouldn't be here.”

Focus.

Shoot.

Blood. So much blood.

“We have to go.”

Another room.

The camera was knocked out of her hand. Sergeant Brock now stood in front of her, his face white. “What are you? Some sort of ghoul? How can you do this?”

She couldn't do it. Not anymore. She was exploding inside.

She had to do it. She bent down and picked up the camera. “Wait in the jeep for me. I won't be long.”

She scarcely heard his curse as he turned on his heel and left her alone.

No, not alone.

The babies . . .

Focus.

Shoot.

She could get through this.

No, she couldn't.

She leaned against the wall and closed her eyes.

Closed out the babies.

The dogs continued their howling.

She couldn't shut them out.

Monsters. The world was full of monsters.

So do your job. Let everyone see the monsters.

She opened her eyes and lurched toward the last room.

Don't think. Don't listen to the dogs.

Just focus.

Shoot.

Move on.

One

January 21,
4:50
P.M.
Mexico

She just might murder her.

“You see? I told you so,” Emily said, beaming. “This is working out just fine.”

Bess braced herself as the jeep drove into yet another pothole. “I hate people who say I told you so. And will you stop being so damn cheerful?”

“No, I'm happy. You will be too, when you admit that I was entirely right to persuade you to bring me with you.” Emily turned to the driver in the seat next to her. “How far, Rico?”

“Six, maybe seven hours.” The boy's cheerful smile lit his dark face. “But we should stop and set up camp for the night. I'll need to see the road. From here it gets a little rough.” Another bone-jarring bump punctuated the sentence.

“This isn't rough?” Bess asked dryly.

Rico shook his head. “The government takes good care of this road. No one repairs the one into Tenajo. Not enough people to matter.”

“How many is that?”

“Maybe a hundred. When I left a few years ago, there were more. But most of the young people are gone now, like me. Who wants to live in a village that doesn't even have a movie theater?” He glanced over his shoulder at Bess, who was sitting in the back. “I don't think you will find anything interesting about Tenajo to photograph. There's nothing there. No ruins. No important people. Why bother?”

“It's for a series of articles I'm doing for
Traveler
on undiscovered destinations in Mexico,” Bess explained. “And there better be something in Tenajo, or the Condé Nast people won't be happy.”

“We'll find something for you,” Emily said. “Practically every Mexican town has a plaza and a church. We'll go from there.”

“Oh, will we? Are you directing my shoots now?”

Emily smiled. “Just this one. I approve of this assignment. I like the idea of you shooting nice, pretty scenery instead of having crazy idiots shoot at you.”

“I enjoy my work.”

“For God's sake, you ended up in a hospital after Danzar. What you're doing isn't good for you. You should have finished medical school and gone into pediatric surgery with me.”

“I'm not tough enough. I knew it the night that kid died in the emergency room. I don't know how you do it.”

“I suppose Somalia was easy and Sarajevo was a piece of cake. And what about Danzar? When are you going to tell me what happened at Danzar?”

Bess stiffened. “Stay out of my job, Emily. I mean it. I don't need supervision. I'm almost thirty.”

“You're also exhausted and drained, and still you have an obsession with that damn camera. You haven't taken it off your neck since we started this trip.”

Bess's hand instinctively went up to cup the camera. She
needed
her camera. It was part of her. After all these years, being without it would be like being blind. But it was no use trying to explain to Emily.

Emily had always seen things in black and white; she had absolute confidence that she knew right from wrong. And she had always tried to guide Bess into doing what she thought was right. Most of the time Bess could handle it. But Danzar had shattered her, and that had alerted all of Emily's protective instincts. Bess should have stayed away, but she hadn't seen Emily in a long time.

And besides, she loved the bossy bitch.

Now Emily's older-sister mode was in full bloom. Time to change the subject before she became any more dictatorial.

“Emily, why don't you try to get Tom on the cellular? Rico said we'll be out of range of any tower pretty soon.”

Emily was immediately distracted as Bess knew she would be. Her husband, Tom, and their ten-year-old daughter, Julie, were the center of Emily's existence. “Good idea,” she said, pulling out her portable and dialing the number. “It may be my last chance. They're taking off at dawn for Canada to do that wilderness thing. No telephone, no TV, no radio. Just Tom passing on his survival expertise to his heir.” Holding the receiver to her ear, she listened intently, then scowled. “Too late. Nothing but static. Why couldn't you choose a civilized little village to bring me to?”

“I didn't choose, I was sent here on assignment. And
you
weren't invited.”

Ignoring the jab, Emily turned to Rico, who had been politely ignoring the discussion between the sisters. “We can stop now. It's getting dark.”

“As soon as I find a stretch of flat ground to set up camp,” Rico said.

Emily nodded, then looked at Bess. “Don't think I've said all I want to say. Our conversation isn't over yet.”

Bess closed her eyes. “Oh, my God.”

 

“They've stopped for the night. They're setting up camp.” Kaldak lowered the binoculars. “But there's no doubt they're on their way to Tenajo. What do you want to do?”

Colonel Rafael Esteban frowned. “This is most unfortunate. It could cause complications. When do you expect the report from Mexico City?”

“An hour or two more. I sent the order as soon as we caught sight of them this morning. We already know the license plates are registered to Laropez Travel. Finding out who the hell they are and what they're doing here is what's taking time.”

“Unfortunate,” Esteban murmured. “I detest complications. And everything was going so well.”

“Then remove the complication. Isn't that why you brought me here?”

“Yes.” Esteban smiled. “You came highly recommended in that area. What is your suggestion?”

“Put them down. Disposal should be no problem out here. It'll take me no more than an hour and your problem is solved.”

“But what if they're not innocent tourists? What if they have awkward ties?”

Kaldak shrugged.

“That's the problem with people of your ilk,” Esteban said. “Too bloodthirsty. It's no wonder Habin was willing to let you go.”

“I'm not bloodthirsty. You wanted a solution. I gave it to you. And Habin has no objection to blood. He sent me to you because he felt uncomfortable around me.”

“Why?”

“His fortune-teller told him I'd be the death of him.”

Esteban burst out laughing. “Stupid ox.” His laughter faded as he stared at Kaldak. That face . . . If the Dark Beast could be personified, it would have a face like Kaldak's. He could see why a superstitious fool like Habin would be uneasy. “I don't use fortune-tellers, Kaldak, and I've put down better men than you.”

“If you say so.” He lifted the binoculars to his eyes again. “They're spreading out their sleeping bags. Now would be the time.”

“I said we'll wait.” He hadn't said any such thing, but he wouldn't have Kaldak pushing him. “Go back to camp and bring me the report when it comes in.”

Kaldak started toward the jeep parked a few yards away. His instant obedience should have reassured Esteban but it didn't. Indifference, not fear, spurred that obedience, and Esteban was not accustomed to indifference. He instinctively moved to assert his superiority. “If you must kill someone, Galvez has offended me. It wouldn't displease me to see him dead when I return to camp.”

“He's your lieutenant. He may still have his uses.” Kaldak started the jeep. “You're sure?”

“I'm sure.”

“Then I'll take care of it.”

“Aren't you curious what he did to offend me?”

“No.”

“I'll tell you anyway.” He said softly, “He's a very stupid man. He asked me what was going to happen at Tenajo. He's been entirely too curious. Don't make the same mistake.”

“Why should I?” Kaldak met his gaze. “When I don't give a damn.”

Esteban felt a ripple of frustration as he watched the jeep bounce down the hill. Son of a bitch. Having Kaldak obey his command to kill should have brought the familiar flush of triumph. But it didn't.

Kaldak would have to go the way of Galvez when it was convenient. At the moment, he needed the entire team to complete this phase of the job.

But after Tenajo . . .

 

“Are you awake?” Emily whispered.

Bess was tempted not to answer, but she knew that wouldn't do any good. She turned over in her sleeping bag to face her sister. “I'm awake.”

Emily was silent a moment, and then she said, “Have I ever done anything that wasn't for your good?”

Bess sighed. “No. But it's still my life. I want to make my own mistakes. You've never understood that.”

“And I never will.”

“Because we're not the same. It took me a long time to find out what I wanted to do. You've always known you wanted to be a doctor, and you've never wavered.”

“No job is worth going through what you did. Why the hell do you do it?”

Bess was silent.

“Can't you see I'm worried about you?” Emily continued. “I've never seen you like this. Why won't you talk to me?”

Emily wasn't going to leave it alone and Bess was too exhausted to fight her. She said haltingly, “It's . . . the monsters.”

“What?”

“There are so many monsters in the world. When I was a kid, I thought monsters existed only in the movies, but they're all around us. Sometimes they're hiding, but give them an opportunity and they'll crawl out from under their rocks and rip you apa––”

Blood. So much blood.

The babies . . .

“Bess?”

She was starting to shake again. Don't think about it.
“We stop the monsters when we can,” she said unsteadily. “But most of us get bored and lazy and too busy. So when the monsters do crawl out, it has to be someone's job to show everyone that they're here.”

“My God,” Emily whispered. “Who the hell appointed you Joan of Arc?”

Bess could feel the flush burn her cheeks. “That's not fair. I know I sound like an ass. And some Joan of Arc I make. I'm scared all the time.” She tried to make her sister understand. “It's not as if I go around looking for monsters, but in my job it happens. And when it does, I can do something about it. You save lives every day. I could never do that, but I can do this.”

“And I can try to save you from yourself. Let's talk this out and see what––”

“Don't do this to me, Emily. Please. Not now. I'm too tired.”

Emily reached out and gently touched her cheek. “Because of your job. You're too impulsive, and you're always rushing in and getting hurt. That trip to Danzar was almost as disastrous as your marriage to that good-for-nothing Kramer.”

“Good night, Emily.”

Emily made a face. “Oh, well, I have two weeks to do the job.” She turned her back and drew her sleeping bag around her. “I'm sure you'll be much more mellow after Tenajo.”

Bess closed her eyes and tried to relax. She was tired and sore from that jarring ride and should have no trouble sleeping.

She was wide awake.

She was raw and hurting and she didn't need additional pressure from Emily. So she had made a few mistakes. A bad marriage, a few false career starts. Her personal life might still be a disaster, but now she was in a profession she loved, she made a good living, and was respected by her peers. If there were thorns that ripped at her from time to time, that was something she just had to accept. Danzar was the exception, not the rule. She might never know another horror like the one she had faced there.

All she needed were two peaceful weeks taking boring photos of town squares and cantinas, and she'd be ready to go back into the fray.

 

The trucks and equipment had arrived when Kaldak returned to camp. Galvez was directing the distribution of the equipment among the men.

Kaldak silently watched until Galvez finished and turned toward him.

Galvez smiled maliciously. “You'd better grab some of this crap yourself unless you think you can do without it. Can you walk on water, Kaldak?”

“I'll get mine later.”

“You know what it is?”

“I've seen it before.”

“But you didn't know you'd need it here. Esteban tried to keep it such a big secret, but I knew it was coming.”

Esteban was right, Kaldak thought. Galvez was stupid to run off at the mouth. “Esteban sent me to check on the report from Mexico City.”

Galvez shook his head. “Nothing. I checked the fax machine fifteen minutes ago. Only two from Habin and one from Morrisey.”

“Morrisey?”

“He's always getting phone calls and faxes from Morrisey.” Galvez raised his eyebrows. “You don't know about Morrisey? Maybe they don't think so much of you after all.”

“Maybe not. Esteban really wants the report. Will you check again?”

Galvez shrugged and went into the tent. Kaldak followed him to the fax machine.

“Nothing,” Galvez said.

“Are you sure? Maybe it's out of paper. Check the memory.”

Galvez bent over the machine. “I told you, there's nothing here. Now, leave me––”

Kaldak's arm went around Galvez's throat. It took only a quick twist to break his neck.

January 22,
12:30
A.M.

“You've got it?” Esteban strode toward the jeep. “It took you long enough.”

Kaldak passed him the fax. “No connections with any government agency. Dr. Emily Corelli, thirty-six, thriving practice in pediatric surgery in Detroit. Her husband, Tom, is a building contractor. One child, Julie, age ten.”

“And the other one?”

“Her sister, Elizabeth Grady, twenty-nine, divorced. Photo- journalist.”

“Journalist?” Esteban frowned. “I don't like that.”

“She's freelance.”

“I still don't like it. Why Tenajo?”

“She's on assignment for a travel magazine.”

“But why now?”

Kaldak shrugged.

Esteban focused the flashlight on the passport photos transmitted with the fax. The two women looked nothing alike. Corelli's dark brown hair was drawn back, her features were fine and regular. Elizabeth Grady's mouth was large, her hazel eyes deep set, her jaw square, and her short, curly hair sun-streaked to a much lighter shade than her sister's.

“How long are they due to be gone?”

“Two to three weeks.” Kaldak paused. “No one will search for them for at least a week. They have a cellular phone, but they're already out of range of any tower. Phone service is usually spotty from Tenajo, so the phone company won't be aware right away that the lines to the village have been cut. It may be another week before a crew comes out to fix them.”

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