Bess Grady has heard the unmistakable sound before. She knows what it means. But not even the eerie lament of the howling dogs can prepare her for what has taken place in the small village. The seasoned photojournalist had been sent there on an easy assignment, and now she has stumbled upon something she was never meant to see. Amid chaos and fear, she joins forces with an intimidating stranger, a man whose alliances are unclear but whose methods have a way of leaving bodies in his wake. For what she has witnessed is only the first stage in a plan of terror that may kill us all. And she has no choice but to stop it—or die trying....
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The dogs were howling.
Sweet Jesus, Bess wished they'd stop.
Dark here. Adjust the light.
Oh, God, why?
Don't think about it. Just take the picture.
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."
Blood. So much blood.
"We have to go."
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.
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.
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 CondÚ 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?"
"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."
"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?"
"Then I'll take care of it."
"Aren't you curious what he did to offend me?"
"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...
January 22, 3:35 A.M. Tenajo.
Holy Virgin, help them. Their immortal souls are writhing in Satan's fire.
Father Juan knelt at the altar, his gaze fixed desperately on the golden crucifix above him.
He had been in Tenajo for forty-four years and his flock had always listened before. Why would they not listen to him now in this supreme test?
He could hear them in the square outside the church, shouting, singing, laughing. He had gone out and told them they should be in their homes at this time of night, but it had done no good. They had only offered to share the evil with him.
He would not take it. He would stay inside the church.
And he would pray that Tenajo would survive.
* * *
"You slept well," Emily told Bess. "You look more rested."
"I'll be even more rested by the time we leave here." She met Emily's gaze. "I'm fine. So back off."
Emily smiled. "Eat your breakfast. Rico is already packing up the jeep."
"I'll go help him."
"It's going to be all right, isn't it? We're going to have a good time here."
"If you can keep yourself from--" Oh, what the hell. She wouldn't let this time be spoiled. "You bet. We're going to have a great time."
"And you're glad I came," Emily prompted.
"I'm glad you came."
Emily winked. "Gotcha."
Bess was still smiling as she reached the jeep.
"Ah, you're happy. You slept well?" Rico asked.
She nodded as she stowed her canvas camera case in the jeep. Her gaze went to the hills. "How long has it been since you've been in Tenajo?"
"Almost two years."
"That's a long time. Is your family still there?"
"Just my mother."
"Don't you miss her?"
"I talk to her on the phone every week." He frowned. "My brother and I are doing very well. We could give her a fine apartment in the city, but she would not come. She says it would not be home to her."
She had clearly struck a sore spot. "Evidently someone thinks Tenajo is a wonderful place or CondÚ Nast wouldn't have sent me."
"Maybe for those who don't have to live there. What does my mother have? Nothing. Not even a washing machine. The people live as they did fifty years ago." He violently slung the last bag into the jeep. "It is the priest's fault. Father Juan has convinced her the city is full of wickedness and greed and she should stay in Tenajo. Stupid old man. There's nothing wrong with having a few comforts."
He was hurting, Bess realized, and she didn't know what to say.
"Maybe I can persuade my mother to come back with me," Rico added.
"I hope so." The words sounded lame even to her. Great, Bess. She searched for some other way to help. "Would you like me to take her photograph? Maybe the two of you together?"
His face lit up. "That would be good. I've only a snapshot my brother took four years ago." He paused. "Maybe you could tell her how well I'm doing in Mexico City. How all the clients ask just for me?" He hurried on: "It would not be a lie. I'm very much in demand."
Her lips twitched. "I'm sure you are." She got into the jeep. "Particularly among the ladies."
He smiled boyishly. "Yes, the ladies are very kind to me. But it would be wiser not to mention that to my mother. She would not understand."
"I'll try to remember," she said solemnly.
"Ready?" Emily had walked to the jeep, and was now handing Rico the box containing the cooking implements. "Let's go. With any luck we'll be in Tenajo by two and I'll be swinging in a hammock by four. I can't wait. I'm sure it's paradise on earth."
* * *
Tenajo was not paradise.
It was just a town baking in the afternoon sun. From the hilltop overlooking the town Bess could see a picturesque fountain in the center of the wide cobblestone plaza bordered on three sides by adobe buildings. At the far end of the plaza was a small church.
"Pretty, isn't it?" Emily stood up in the jeep. "Where's the local inn, Rico?"
He pointed at a street off the main thoroughfare. "It's very small but clean."
Emily sighed blissfully. "My hammock is almost in view, Bess."
"I doubt if you could nap with all that caterwauling," Bess said dryly. "You didn't mention the coyotes, Rico. I don't think that--" She stiffened. Oh, God, no. Not coyotes.
She had heard that sound before.
Those were dogs howling. Dozens of dogs. And their mournful wail was coming from the streets below her.
Bess started to shake.
"What is it?" Emily asked. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing." It couldn't be. It was her imagination. How many times had she awakened in the middle of the night to the howling of those phantom dogs?
"Don't tell me nothing. Are you sick?" Emily demanded.
It wasn't her imagination.
"Danzar." She moistened her lips. "It's crazy but-- We have to hurry. Hurry, Rico."
Rico stomped on the accelerator, and the jeep careened down the road toward the village.
They didn't see the first body until they were inside the town.