If his in-laws hadn't reached the cemetery first, Zack Lorenzo may never have learned the truth. Not about evil. Not about magic. Not about himself.
But when he rounded a corner in the old Santa Teresa Cemetery and saw the cluster of Romanos by his wife's three-day-old grave, he ducked behind a mausoleum beneath an angel statue, closing his eyes against the close call.
He was a big man, a cop. Until last week, he'd thought he could face anything. But he couldn't face this, or them.
He'd made it through the viewing, the rosary, and the finality of the funeral on pure shock. His beautiful Gabriella... dead? They'd had their problems, yeah, but what couple didn't? They would've worked them out, same as his parents, her parents, their neighbors and grandparents always had, right?
Now it was too late. Done. God didn't grant do-overs.
They'd argued that night about her weird new ideas. He'd taken a double shift, to stay away from her. And now....
Zack couldn't face her parents yet. Sooner or later someone would ask why he hadn't protected his precious wife, and he wouldn't have jack to tell them. He didn't know, himself.
"Best leave the family to their grief, eh?" asked an accented voice, and Zack opened his eyes to see who else was avoiding the Romanos. The scrawny young man had two-toned hair and carried a backpack with the logo of a local college. "Pardon my intrusion. Are you here to see... somebody?"
Zack didn't carry flowers. In his pocket he had a blue beanbag bunny that had once been Gabriella's favorite; he'd won it for her on a date. She stopped carrying it everywhere sometime during their first year of marriage, he guessed, but he'd thought maybe wherever she was, she might want it....
To distract himself from the idea of putting a stupid toy bunny on his wife's new grave, Zack challenged, "Are you?"
"Oh no, I'm doing schoolwork, actually. This cemetery's my semester project. Did you know, Santa Teresa has served the Little Italy area of Chicago since...."
Zack let his grief mute the kid. How was it people still attended college, took vacations, planned futures when his young wife was dead? Dead because he hadn't loved her better.
The student--British, Zack guessed--blathered on about tombstone rubbings and epitaphs and how different cultures ensured peaceful rests for their loved ones. Egypt's mummies. Mexico's Day of the Dead. Burial versus cremation. Then he said, "Like that new one over there, where that poor family is."
That new one?
"What about it?" Zack challenged, dangerous.
"That grave, Gabriella..." The student drew some battered note cards from his pocket. "Gabriella Francesca Bianca Lorenzo, buried just last Saturday. Isn't it interesting, how people can take comfort in burying even an empty casket?"
For a long moment, Zack could only stare, strangely dizzy--like part of him knew something the rest hadn't figured out yet. The wind off Lake Michigan shook the trees and made a Mylar balloon on a nearby grave bob and struggle at its tether. Finally, he went with the obvious. "Her casket's not empty."
"Oh, I think it may be. My equipment...." But the young man's face paled with comprehension. "Ah. You knew her. My apologies for intrud--"
Too easily, Zack had the student face-first against the Gallo mausoleum, skinny arms behind his back. Now he just had to decide how bad to hurt the little ghoul. "Who are you?"
"My apologies." Marble muffled the kid's voice. "Cecil Taylor. How do you do? I'm studying Urban Archeology, and--"
"What the hell are you doing, desecrating holy ground?"
"Pardon?" Even with his face smooshed, Taylor sounded insulted. "I've desecrated nothing--if anybody respects the dead, it is I! Now if you would be so good as to--"
"You said equipment."
"Ah. Yes. That." Taylor remained surprisingly composed. "I apologize. I was taking readings on a different grave, you see--Ugo Casale, 1914-1978. I used nothing invasive; a metal detector and a, well, a portable sonar of sorts. It's rather like a fish-finder. I did not even stand on the grave. But as I turned away, I noticed readings from Ms. Lorenzo's...plot...which indicated the absence of a corpse, so I made note of it. That's all."
"Well you're wrong." Belatedly, Zack released his hold on the guy's skinny arms. "And don't call my wife Ms. anything. Gabriella wasn't one of those feminist types."
She hadn't even worked outside the home. Until a few months ago, she hadn't even had friends who weren't his friends too. That's how things worked in their neighborhood. Then she'd up and decided to attend community college. She'd begun to explore new-age crap that had made Zack's Nona mutter under her breath.
He felt guilty for hating that even with her dead.
"I am sorry for your loss," said Taylor gently, as if Zack hadn't just made a love connection between him and marble. "And for intruding. But if you are indeed her husband, you should know that the casket buried in that plot is very likely empty."
Like hell it was!
Or was it?
Once the Romanos left, Zack made the Englishman use his equipment to show him those so-called readings, both on Gabriella's grave and others...and he half wished he hadn't. It convinced him enough to risk the wrath of his friends and family by having Gabriella officially exhumed. Her father protested--but Zack was her husband. In this, at least, he had final say.
Nobody would stand with him for that except his elderly grandmother, the priest, and Cecil Taylor, the latter as if seeing some unplanned duty to its proper conclusion. Zack set his jaw as the casket was opened, half afraid, half hopeful--for what, he still wasn't sure. Maybe just to see her one more time.
But somehow he'd failed her again. Even before Nona began muttering under her breath, either prayers or incantations, Zack knew that much.
The silk-lined casket was empty.
And when they reburied it, all it held was the last of Zack Lorenzo's peace of mind--and a blue beanbag bunny.
West Texas - Four Years Later
Jo didn't realize how dead she'd become until she saw the man in her jail's only cell--and breathed.
Not that she hadn't been breathing all along. But this was the first breath she'd actually noticed in years. One quick, sharp inhalation, instead of just existing.
It unnerved her.
She distracted herself by getting a cup of coffee. Then she half-leaned, half-sat on her desk, eyeing the stranger and noticing what it felt like to breathe...and wondering why anything should seem different.
The prisoner, who'd sat up on his cot at her entrance, stared expectantly back. For a brief moment, Jo felt like she knew him. Or should. Or would. His broad chest expanded and contracted under his button-up shirt. He was breathing too.
Then the moment passed, and she just felt silly. Everyone breathed; it was a handy habit. If the air suddenly felt sharper than usual in her lungs, it was probably just spring coming.
"Well, Mr...." She glanced down at the desk, hoping her deputy had left a note. He had. Fred loved filling out reports. Speeding...city boy...smarty pants. "Mr. Lorenzo."
She met his dark, intense eyes again, quirked her mouth into a non-committal smile. "What brings you to Spur?"
Then she took a deliberately casual sip of coffee, which was a mistake because she choked on his answer.
Lorenzo said, "Zombies."
Jo put her mug down so quickly that hot liquid sloshed over her fingers and onto Deputy Fred's report. You misunderstood, screamed the logical part of her brain as she bent over, coughing. He's using some Yankee slang. Or maybe he meant drinking; weren't zombies a mixed drink? That would explain the speed at which he'd been driving, even if he had passed Fred's breathalyzer test.
This was West Texas. The man couldn't mean walking-dead zombies, could he?
There was no such thing.
And he couldn't know.
"It's pretty early for the late show," she hedged, catching both her breath and her composure. "You came here why?"
She noted wary concern fade from his expression at her recovery--and appreciated it. Lorenzo's solid face fit his big, rangy form. His nose wasn't completely straight; his whisker-dusky jaw looked stubborn; and his dark eyes were unnervingly calm for a guy who'd spent the night in jail for a simple speeding violation.
Much less one who talked about horror stories.
This was the sort of man who either made a woman feel threatened, or wholly safe. No in-between. And Jo didn't feel threatened by him.
Breathing and horror-stories aside.
So why was she trembling?
"Forget it," he muttered, scrubbing a splayed hand through shaggy, black-brown hair that licked his collar, a bit longer than her own. "Look, you got any more coffee? That yokel who left me here has been gone for over an hour."
Jo ignored the slight to her deputy and concentrated on getting a second mug of coffee without her hands shaking. Nothing was different today than yesterday, last week, last month... last year? No, more. It had been years since she took refuge here, and nothing was out of the ordinary.
Certainly nothing that she'd only imagined. Nothing she'd been trying to forget ever since.
"We'll get you some breakfast within the hour," she promised, carrying the mug over to him.
She somehow breathed deeper, the closer she got, like a closed up room with newly opened windows. It wasn't her imagination. So what was it?
When Lorenzo came to the bars, he stood a good head taller than her. His shoulders matched the width of his chest. If she felt like a room, he felt like a whole house to her--a house painted in pure testosterone.
His strong fingers awkwardly trapped hers when he took the mug's handle, big but careful, so careful of her. She made sure he had a good grip on it before she pried her own fingers loose.
"Real security-conscious around here, aren't you, deputy?" he asked. He took a sip, just like the perfectly normal prisoner he was. "I could've thrown hot coffee in your eyes, or had you against the bars and my arm around your throat, and be out of here before you could think."
He sounded like a city boy. Swarthy, not like the local Latin or Native American population so much as Greek or Italian. Lorenzo. Duh. The collar of his blue shirt was buttoned down enough to reveal a triangle of dark-hairy chest. His trousers had once been pressed, but not recently enough.
"Most speeders aren't moved to such acts of desperation," Jo noted, feigning boredom. "And I'm the sheriff. Sheriff James."
"Ted Bundy only got caught when cops picked him up for traffic violations," Lorenzo reminded her, clearly an annoying, last-word kind of fellow, before sipping the coffee again.
Then he went still, mug to his lips. At least he didn't choke. "James?"
"Yup," said Jo, heading back to her desk.
"Joe James?" Jo could hear the "e" in his incredulity.
She paused, not liking that he knew her name. The ridiculous word he'd used earlier--zombie--pounded in her head, but she pushed it away. "That's me, Mr. Lorenzo." Again she consulted Fred's now-stained report. "Zaccheri Lorenzo?"
"Zack. Lady, you're the reason I came to this hellhole! But I was expecting a guy. No offense."
Deep breath--again with the breathing. Jo turned to face him, folding her arms across her chest. "Am I the reason you came to this hellhole at 93 miles per hour?"
"Some cars gotta go fast," he dismissed. "I'm a private investigator, Miss James. My partner found a statement you once made to the press, and I wanna ask you some questions about it."
Spur didn't have a supermarket, much less a press. It wasn't a statement Jo had made anytime recently. And that other time....
She stiffened, her stomach protesting the coffee, but knew she could hide it. She'd learned to hide it. Living in the middle of nowhere helped. "What statement?"
Better a hypocrite than a basket case.
"The reporter told us his source was a Joe James. Seven years ago you were in a mining accident in New Mexico, right?"
Oh. That statement. "And if I was?"
"You made some unusual claims about the cause of the cave-in." Damn, but he had an intense way of looking at her.
Maybe she didn't feel so safe around him, after all.
"I'd been trapped underground for almost two days with no food or water, diminishing air, and dead co-workers." One who had been far more than a colleague. "I think it's safe to suppose I might have been disoriented after my rescue."
Zack Lorenzo leaned on the cross-bar of his cell, as casually as on a fence. He was almost too large to be graceful, but he did have a distracting ease about him. "It's safe to suppose that," he agreed dryly, but his eyes were more insistent than his voice. "Were you?"
"What business is it of yours?" Jo sat in her chair and leaned back, deliberately propping her cowboy boots on the desk. Let the man rot... at least until his fine was wired to him.
"Look, I know this is out-of-the-blue. But I've got my reasons for asking," he insisted. Now the look of incredulity she cast toward him was legitimate. "That's right," he defended with macho peevishness. "And I'm here to get your...."
She waited, intrigued. She had something he wanted?
He had to look away and swallow to choke the word out. "Your help. By getting your story."
Jo didn't want to think back to the cave-in. She had too much trouble with nightmares already, to encourage memories as well. It had been a hallucination. She'd been disoriented.
But this man struck a chord she'd forgotten, and she drew yet more charged air into her lungs. "Help?"
He grinned. It might be a good-looking grin if it weren't so damned superior. "Yeah. Against the forces of evil."
Fred had been pretty accurate. A smarty pants.
Jo no longer felt guilty for thinking the man was riding a stirrup short. She let her boots and the front legs of her chair thunk to the floor, and she picked up Fred's report again. The blotchy photocopy of Lorenzo's P.I. license looked legit... for what she knew about official documentation for the state of Illinois, which wasn't much.
She took a swallow of coffee and wished it were tequila. "Says you're on a case, next town up the road." Almanuevo was only a few years into its boom as a center for new-age revelations and so-called vortexes. But Jo saw a pretty clear difference between exploring one's past lives and hunting down evil.
"I am. Missing persons." This time his grin was positively grating. "That's kinda where you come in."
"You want me to help fight evil or find a missing person?"
He snorted. "Neither. I just want you to tell me about the missing persons you ran into during that cave-in." His tone took on a patronizing edge. "I wouldn't want to put you into any scary situations, lady."
The fact that she didn't challenge his disrespect showed how upset she was. Jo stood. "Whatever I said to that reporter, I was mistaken. I'm afraid you wasted a trip, Mr. Lorenzo."
He swore beneath his breath. "Helluva trip to waste! You know how far Almanuevo is from here?"
"Over an hour away." Jo paused on her way to the filing cabinet, then qualified herself. "Going the speed limit."
"Real scenic, too," the prisoner groused, while she opened the top drawer and looked for something, anything, to keep her busy and official. And normal. And sane. "Sand. Cactus. More sand. More cactus. A few rocks. And hey--"
"Don't you go sassin' the sheriff," drawled Deputy Fred as he walked in, two McDonalds bags in his hand. But Jo had gotten the gist.
"More sand," finished Lorenzo with a snarl, flopping back onto the cot. "It's a garden spot, all right."
"It's West Texas," clarified Jo, taking one of Fred's bags. She fished out an Egg McMuffin and tossed it neatly between the cell bars. "Have some breakfast."
He easily caught it one-handed. "This is cold."
"The McDonalds is in Almanuevo, near the Western Union. The lady who runs our diner is on vacation at Tahoe for three more days." Jo aimed her own superior smile toward the prisoner. "West Texas."
Then she turned to Deputy Fred, who was looking mighty uncomfortable. "Did his folks wire him the money?"
He nodded, and Lorenzo whooped. "I get out of this hellhole, right?"
Fred started to say something and stopped. Jo had to lean close before he'd divulge it. "They done sent him one thousand dollars. In cash! I put it in my shoe, just in case I got jumped."
Jo tried not to smile. Fred was, to put it kindly, a stocky man. In his tan uniform, star on his pocket and gun on his hip, he shouldn't have to worry--especially not around here. Sand, cactus, etc. What was going to jump him, a jackelope?
Still, it was a pretty piece of money, and at least he cared. He was one of the good guys.
"Good job," she whispered back.
"Do I get out now, or what?" demanded the prisoner, sounding even more like a pushy city boy. Jo scooped the keys off of her desk and opened the cage door.
When he walked by her, his sleeve brushed her shoulder, clean and warm. She took a deep breath, like inhaling a scent she'd gone without too long.
But that made no more sense than zombies. Jo didn't look to others for her safety. Never again. That's why she wore a badge, carried a gun. That's why she lived alone.
She said, "You're welcome."
Lorenzo groaned when he realized why Fred was taking off his shoe. He turned back to her as a distraction, which was just as well since she had to return his wallet, his car keys, his mobile phone, his automatic pistol.
"Look," he said, sliding a card out of his wallet. It read Lorenzo and Company, Private Investigation, with a PO box in Chicago, phone numbers, and Internet addresses. "Clearly you don't want to think about it, much less talk, and hell--that's your call. But unlike a lot of blind schmucks, you know. You've seen what could be out there. Whether you're admitting it or not, it's still there. Maybe you can help. Think about it."
When he pressed the card into her hand, his own hand felt solid and warm around hers. It made her wonder when the last time was that someone had touched her, even that briefly, that casually. Christmas with her brothers, she guessed.
Lorenzo paid his fine, pocketed the nearly $900 he had left over, and left the jail like he was shrugging off an unnecessary chore. He'd lost a lot of money and a couple hours' drive... though maybe less, in his case. On a chore?
Now that he was gone--mere moments after the door shut--Jo didn't feel safe at all. She felt like a doctored tooth as the novocaine wore off. Tingly. Worried.
Braced against certain pain--the downside of feeling alive.
"Don't want to think about what?" asked Fred, halfway through his Styrofoam platter of soggy pancakes.
"Whatever I don't want to talk about." Jo heard an engine purr to life. She waited a moment and then, against her better judgment, stepped into the narrow street to watch a shiny black sports car skim off into the scrub-dotted hills toward Almanuevo, the Sedona of West Texas.
The air felt strangely warm for this early in the morning. Especially for March. Especially for Spur. Overhead, a hawk swooped by.
Whether you're admitting it or not, it's still there, the private investigator had said.
"No, it's not," murmured Jo beneath her breath. "It's dead. I killed it."
But the stranger had said the magic word, help. That word had power Jo might never understand. So she braced herself--and went back into the jail to ask Fred if he'd heard anything at all about missing persons in Almanuevo.
* * *
Jo James lived with two mongrel dogs in a little ranch house, five miles outside the tiny town of Spur. She had big windows and on every side a view of open desert, and she liked it that way. Ever since the cave-in, she'd chosen wide-open spaces over small, enclosed areas. She liked being able to see sky forever, feeling that nobody could sneak up on her.
Or so she'd thought, until meeting Zack Lorenzo this morning. Zombies?
She'd told herself she only had to guard against human intrusion. Dangers that could be repelled with guns, fists, dogs --the kind that stayed away from little places like Spur. Now, as she watched the waning moon rise over her back yard, she noticed herself shivering--from more than the night air. That damned detective had stripped away her illusion of safety.
According to Fred, a couple of folks in Almanuevo had vanished. Enough that the town's mayor worried about bad press, and an increasing number of their new-agey tourists were talking about UFO abductions, which was almost as crazy as....
As the things she'd seen. Or thought she'd seen.
Jo whistled for the dogs. As they loped inside, she shut and locked the back door. It was the first time she'd locked her door since her visiting brother, who was a security specialist, had insisted on it last Christmas. She loaded the .22 rifle hung in her sparsely furnished living room, too. When she fixed some chocolate milk and headed back to her bedroom, she made sure to take her revolver and loop its holster on a bedpost of her twin-sized bed.
Dogs or not, the house seemed achingly empty all of a sudden. She felt her aloneness in her veins... in her lungs.
A Navajo medicine blanket covered the wall behind her bed and an octagonal god's-eye, strung from yarn and sticks, hung to face the window. The remaining wall space was dotted with framed pictures, mostly of relatives; only after days like this did Jo keenly feel how far away her family lived, how few friends she'd made since taking the job in Spur... how many years ago?
Maybe that had been her plan.
Her younger brother was a photojournalist, so she had pictures of her grandparents and her late parents, her aunts and uncles, her older brother. She had more recent pictures of herself, not quite thirty, looking decidedly average beside her vivacious cousins in East Texas. She had pictures of her dogs, even--of every person who'd ever held importance in her life...except one man.
Jo told herself not to think of Diego. People died. She'd gone on without him and was doing fine by herself.
She drank her milk and put the empty glass on the barrel that was her bed table, rather than carry it back out to the kitchen--but not because she was afraid. Then she turned off the light and tried to sleep. She had work in the morning. She almost always worked, despite the town council's worries over all the vacation time and sick time she'd been accumulating. And she prided herself in not frightening easily. She'd faced everything from rabid dogs to armed robbers, and she'd defeated them all. She'd even faced--
No. After all this time, she wouldn't let one big-mouthed detective make her believe in monsters.
But tonight the bed seemed awfully empty, too. Small.
Despite the moonlight glowing through her windows, Jo closed her eyes and tried to sleep.
She saw Diego and jerked awake with a sharp, real breath. Too real. She preferred the half-life she'd been living since she moved here; it hurt less. She preferred the novocaine.
But another attempt at sleep--another gasped return to consciousness--confirmed that the numbness had worn off at just about the same time Zack Lorenzo opened his big mouth.
"Damn it," Jo whispered brokenly, sitting up in bed so that her Navajo blankets slid to her waist, dragging her hands through her short hair. She wouldn't dream of him again. Not tonight. Not now. Not Diego.
It hadn't even been real. Except for him being dead.
But the next morning's rising sun found Jo sitting numbly at her kitchen table, dizzy from hours of fighting the dreams that haunted her each time she closed her eyes. Both Butch and Sundance lay at her feet, eyeing her with mutual doggy concern.
She glared blearily at Zack Lorenzo's business card, on the table in front of her. He'd somehow robbed her of her sense of safety. Business hours or not, Jo meant to take it back.
She picked up the phone.