Burning Water

Diana Tregarde Investigation (Volume 1 of 3)

Mercedes Lackey

Tor Books

Chapter One

Lupe sobbed harshly, her voice muffled, as if smothered by the darkness all about her. She clawed at the rubble that hemmed her in; her finger-ends were surely raw and bloody, but she couldn’t see them, and she was too hysterical to feel much pain. All she felt was panic, the panic of a trapped animal---for she was trapped helplessly beneath tons of rubble, rubble that, less than an hour ago, had been the twenty-story hotel in downtown Mexico City where Lupe worked as a maid.

Today was September 19, 1985. Mexico City had just experienced one of the worst earthquakes in its history.

Ironically enough, it was also Lupe’s birthday.

Less than an hour ago she’d been happy. It had not much mattered that she’d had to work on her birthday; she had known that she was lucky to have this job at all. Less than an hour ago, she had descended the stairs to the cellar storeroom singing. It would only have been a few more hours, and then she’d have been off, free for the evening. There was going to be a party, cake---and handsome Joachim, who worked as a bellman, had promised to come. She had a new dress, red and soft, like rose petals, and Joachim liked red. One of the tourists had already given her a tip for bringing extra towels. And there had been a full, unopened bottle of wine left behind after the party in room 1242. She’d hidden it in her locker, for her party. It was going to be a good day, with a better evening to come.

The ashtrays she’d come seeking were kept in boxes next to the stairs; cheap little metal things that the tourists were always taking. Somebody had overfilled the particular box she reached for and several of them had fallen out and rolled under the staircase. She’d had to wedge herself under the staircase to reach them. She hadn’t minded; the cellar was well lit, and she was small enough to fit beneath the staircase easily.

That was what had saved her.

For with no warning, the floor began to buck and tremble like a wild horse; the lights sparked and went out. She screamed, or thought she did---she couldn’t hear her own voice in the shrieking of tortured metal and concrete. She’d been flung backward and against the wall, and hit her head, seen multicolored flashes of light, then nothing.

When next she could think, she was hemmed in on all sides by concrete and debris; trapped in the dark---a darkness so absolute that there was nothing she could compare it to.

The reinforced staircase had protected her; kept her from dying beneath the crumbling hotel.

She knew at once what had happened; Mexico City had suffered earthquakes before. But she had never been caught inside a building by one; never known anyone who had been buried alive like this.

Lupe had survived the quake. Now as she stared into the darkness, she realized slowly that she faced death in another, more painful form: suffocation, starvation, thirst---

Madre de Dios, she prayed wildly, I’m only seventeen! I have always been good---I can’t die---

The air in her tiny, sheltered pocket was already growing stale. She panted in fear, and the air seemed to grow thicker and fouler with each breath. The sound of her breathing was a rasping in her own ears, for the silence was as absolute as the darkness. She rested her forehead on the wall in front of her, feeling her chest constrict and ache. How long before the air became unbreathable?

That fear was enough to make her tremble in every limb. But worse than the rock that hemmed her in, worse than the thickening air, worse than any of it was the terrible, menacing darkness all around her.

Lupe was afraid of the dark; she had been afraid of the dark for as long as she could remember. It was a vague fear she couldn’t even define, just a feeling that there was something---waiting for her. Watching. A something that lived in the dark---no, it was the dark.

And it wanted Lupe.

But it was rarely “dark” in Mexico City, even in the early hours of the morning. Certainly it was never dark in the two-room apartment she shared with her sisters; the neon signs of the nightclubs across the street saw to that. Her night-fears had been easy to laugh at until this moment.

Now she was caught in the very heart of darkness; thick, hot darkness that seemed to flow sluggishly around her, seemed to be oozing into her very pores and trying to force itself down her throat until she choked on it.

She could feel it now---

She gasped, coughed, and frantically scrabbled again at the wreckage hemming her in; whimpering and hardly realizing she was doing so. She had barely enough room to crouch; impenetrable rubble formed a tiny pocket around her---like the pocket holding the larvae of a tourist’s “jumping bean.” But the larvae would grow wings and escape---

She never would. She would die here, and the dark would eat her bones.

She wailed, and pounded at the wall before her with aching hands. Trapped---trapped---

Lupe’s mother had had no patience with her child’s phobias. The census said they were Mestizo---but Paloma had told all her children that they were truly Azteca, and descended from priests. “Look for yourself, if you don’t believe---” she had told them all, and more than once. “Go to the museum and see for yourself.” And so, dutifully, they had gone---to see their own high-cheekboned, beaky profiles (so unlike most of their schoolfriends’ round faces and snubbed noses) echoed at them from pots from paintings, from bas-relief. “You are of noble blood, the blood of warriors,” she had scolded Lupe when the girl confessed her nightmares. “How can you be so afraid?”

Mamacita, she cried out in her mind, what good is noble blood when the earth shakes? What good is descent from priests when the dark comes to steal my breath?

She sobbed, the thick air tasting of her own fear. The smell of her own sweat was rank, thickening the dark further. Her eyes were burning with tears as she continued to beat at the unyielding wall before her. She knew it was useless---but what else was there to do? It was either that, or curl into a ball of misery and die or go mad.

Maybe the Virgin would grant a miracle, and someone would hear.

She forced herself to pound on the wall, while her arms grew weary, and fists numb. Pound---pound---pound---

Then the wall moved.

She started back, hugging her bruised fists to her chest with an involuntary intake of breath, afraid now that she might have triggered a fate worse than the one she sought to escape---a second falling of rubble that would crush her.

When nothing else happened, she reached out with one hand, heart in her throat, and pushed tentatively at the spot that had yielded.

Again it moved---moved outward just the slightest bit. She tried to think, when the movement brought no corresponding descent of stone on her head---what direction had she been kneeling? What lay before her?

Carefully now, she felt along the wall; it was flat, or nearly. Cracked, cracks she could stick a finger in up to the first knuckle, but mostly flat. It must be the basement wall, then, rather than a tumble of concrete. She must be facing the back of the staircase.

Maybe the quake had opened up a hole next to the foundation! Maybe---maybe it was even a way out---

Lupe didn’t hesitate any further; the thought of a way out gave her arms a new and frenzied strength. She shoved at the yielding place with all her might, bracing herself against the wreckage that held her trapped; shoved until she thought she was going to tear herself in two. And when the wall suddenly gave way, she was unprepared, and went somersaulting headfirst down a pile of dirt and rocks, hitting her head on a stone and nearly knocking herself out a second time.

She sat up, after a long moment of dazed blinking at the false lights thrown before her eyes by the blow on the head. Then she moaned and groveled in the dirt, for she realized she had merely exchanged one prison for another.

It was just as dark here as it had been there; the only difference between “here” and “there” was that now she could no longer touch the walls that held her prisoner.

That, in its way, made “here” even worse. The darkness was growing colder with every passing moment; she was somehow certain of that. Colder; and flavored with the taint of evil, like a nest of snakes. She could almost hear something breathing out there beyond the reach of her groping hands. The thing that had always waited in the dark for her was here, she knew it!

She scrambled backwards, inching a little higher on the mound of dirt, trying to reach the pocket in the rubble of the hotel basement that now seemed a haven of safety and sanity. But the dirt was loose, and slipped and slid under her, and she could get nowhere near her invisible goal.

She became aware of a strange smell; sweet at first, then repellent. Rather like the smell of the old catacombs where her mother had taken them all on the Day of the Dead.

But with the smell came something so welcome she ignored the faint charnel odor.

Light!

There was light out there---

Or was it only that she thought there was light?

She scrambled to her feet, peering hopefully into the no-longer-threatening darkness, clawing sweat-sticky hair out of her blinking, burning eyes. Yes, there was light, a dim, reddish glow---and it was coming from somewhere ahead of her.

So was the odor---but she ignored the smell in the rush of elation she felt at the promise of light.

With her hands out before her, she stumbled blindly forward, tripping on rocks she had no chance of seeing, until at last there were no more rocks and the dirt under her feet was level and smooth. Then it was no longer dirt beneath her feet, but stone, smooth stone, that the heels of her shoes clattered against like castanets.

Abruptly her hands encountered stone at eye level.

She squinted, and made out the dim bulk of a regular outline against the dim glowing. She had found the top of a low doorframe. Perhaps---perhaps another part of the cellar; perhaps the cellar of another building. There was no way of knowing what kind of a jumble the quake had made of the buildings. She ducked, and passed the threshold---

And the glow flared up, angry and hot before her eyes. It was like molten iron, red and glaring, so that she cried out involuntarily and hid her face in the crook of her arm.

At nearly the same moment, she felt something slam down behind her, closing off the doorway practically at her heels.

She whirled, going to her knees, and beat on the slab of stone that had fallen down to seal off her exit, seeing only now in the raw red light that her hands were bloody, the nails split to the quick, the skin gashed and the flesh torn and lacerated.

Something laughed soundlessly behind her.

Again she pivoted, plastering her back against the cold stone slab that blocked the door, mouth dry with fear.

She saw she was in a low-ceilinged, stone-walled chamber. Although there was no apparent source of light, the chamber was bright enough that she could easily see the colorful paintings on three of its four walls. She couldn’t look at them for very long, though; the garish colors and the light that pulsated with every beat of her heart made it seem that they moved. They made her dizzy. The floor was black and crusted---and it was plain that this was the origin of the sickly sweet stench. And on the fourth wall---

On the fourth wall, the wall opposite the door, was a block of stone like an altar, and behind it, a statue. The statue, the paintings---they were like the ones she’d seen in the museum, only untouched, undamaged by years of profaning hands.

Things of the Ancient Ones, the Azteca. She seemed to remember, vaguely, that all of Mexico City had been built on ancient ruins, the ruins of the Aztec capitol, Tenochtitlan. And hadn’t some of the museum artifacts been unearthed when they had dug the foundations of this very hotel?

The statue was of a dead-black stone that reflected none of the light in the chamber, and pulled at her eyes until she could no more look away from it than escape from this place. She knew, in a way beyond knowing, that the statue was of the rarest unflawed black jade. Priceless, and peerless.

With that knowledge, a voice insinuated itself into her head; it hummed behind her eyes, seductive, hypnotic.

She listened; she couldn’t have escaped it even if she’d wanted to. And she didn’t want to. It promised, that voice, even if she couldn’t yet understand what it promised. It soothed; it began to drive out her fear. It was so good to listen to that voice, full of more promises than Joachim’s, even. Almost, she could almost understand it. It was telling her---that she was brave, and good, and beautiful. That she was awaited here, long awaited. So good not to think, just to listen---thought ebbed away, and pain, and finally, the last chill of fear.

In the moment her fear left her, she saw that the statue was the source of the chamber’s illumination; in that moment, the stench of the room vanished, replaced by a subtle perfume. The hurting of her hands and arms ebbed away as well, and she looked down dumbly at her hands to see them not only healed, but flawlessly groomed and soft, as only the hands of the lady tourists were. She looked up again at the glowing statue---and now it seemed to represent the very pinnacle of desire. Fearful no longer, she approached it; the sweet, hypnotic voice still humming behind her eyes, cajoling, promising.

“Sherry---”

Sherry Bryce Fernandez knew that exasperated tone of voice only too well. She braced herself for another inevitable sample of her husband’s sarcastic wit, and winced in anticipation.

“Are you quite finished?”

“Not quite---” she ventured, and Robert sighed dramatically.

“So what,” he asked, with carefully measured venom, “makes this tourist trap any different from all the other tourist traps we’ve gone past today?”

Sherry shook back her straight blond hair, held out the brightly brocaded huiple in nerveless hands, and attempted to explain. “This is Tenejapa work, Bob---I had no idea there’d be any this far north---it’s the Chiapas women that do this kind of weaving---”

“Never mind,” he interrupted, boredom and irritation showing only too plainly on his handsome face, somehow getting past the concealing sunglasses he affected. “Don’t get started. I suppose now you’re going to spend the next two hours dickering for that rag?”

“You know we don’t have much to spend,” she retorted, flushing. “And this could be very useful to me.”

“All right, all right---don’t go throwing that argument in my face. I’ll see if I can find something worth shooting---” Robert backed out of the tiny cranny of the shop as Sherry turned her attention to the keeper.

It wasn’t as if he hadn’t been getting plenty of pictures, she thought resentfully, as she concentrated on bargaining the price of the huiple down to something she could afford. That was just about all they’d been doing on this trip---shooting roll after roll of film, spending hours in the broiling sun until the light was “just right”---it might be April, but April in Mexico was as hot as June in Dallas. This was the first time Sherry had been able to track down anything in her area of interest---

She felt an immediate surge of guilt, and tucked a wayward strand of ash-blond hair behind one ear with nervous habit. That wasn’t fair---this was supposed to be a working vacation. And it was Robert’s assignment that was paying for it, not hers. She was just lucky that the magazine had been willing to pay for two plane tickets, otherwise she wouldn’t be here at all. And Robert would be the only one enjoying the sights of Mexico City---

And the temptations.

Now it was her turn to fight down exasperation. Robert couldn’t help himself; he just wasn’t made for monogamy. If he just wasn’t so damned good-looking---one of his models had likened him to a “young Fernando Lamas.”

And that little slut was right---too damned right. He attracted women the way a rock star attracted groupies.

He had all the smooth moves, too; women practically threw themselves into his arms. Especially his models, once they figured out (and it didn’t take long) that he wasn’t gay.

She stole a glance into the street, and saw that he was totally engrossed in setting up a shot of another vendor’s wares; pacing restlessly up and down, trying out camera angles, totally immune to the curious glances of passersby. Her heart lurched as it always did when she caught a glimpse of that craggy profile, especially now that his sarcastic expression had been erased by the concentration he was maintaining. And God, that body---even after six years and a child, the sight of his muscles rippling as he moved was still a turn-on!

She dragged her own attention hastily back to her bargaining, grateful for her fluency in Spanish. To have a blond Americano begin a sharp bargaining session in their own tongue usually threw shopkeepers off balance enough to give her a real advantage.

To this day, she still didn’t quite know why Robert had married her. God knows he’d gotten everything he wanted out of her without that.

Maybe he had been telling the truth when he proposed; maybe it was love. Half the time she was sure it was---half the time she wasn’t sure of anything.

This trip had seemed like a godsend, a chance to prove to Robert that she was still just as attractive as she had ever been. Bobby stayed with his grandparents; she’d made a conscientious effort to leave behind every T-shirt and pair of blue jeans she owned; to slough, if only for two weeks, her holdover hippie image. It was supposed to be the honeymoon they’d never been able to afford.

And this was Robert’s big chance, too---the chance to get his work seen by everyone who meant anything in the Dallas fashion scene. Granted, he was just out here on spec for TravelWorld---cheap airfares and cheaper off-season hotel rates had made their benefactors seem more generous than they really were. But TravelWorld’s execs had an experiment they wanted to make---their hopefully innovative notion was to take destinations thought to be “overexploited”---like Mexico City---and make them look interesting again. Mexico City was chosen as the test case because it was near TravelWorld Magazine’s Dallas headquarters, it was inexpensive, and it was probably the last destination any experienced traveler would choose. If this test issue generated interest---and income for the advertisers---the project would go into full production.

And Robert---if his work passed muster---had a chance of becoming a staff photographer---a chance for a secure position. That was the carrot, the big prize he was really hoping for.

Security---Sherry had never thought there’d come a day when that was something she longed for.

God, it all depended on Robert, and whether he could work enough magic with his camera to make tired old sights seem new and entrancing.

Or so he thought. Sherry had experienced enough disappointment in her marriage to Robert to convince her that this trip was the time to further an idea of her own.

Once upon a time Sherry really had been a holdover hippie; her handcrafted clothing outlet had a small, but devoted clientele, though Sherry had been more interested in the craftwork itself than the money it brought in. But that phase had ended three years ago....

The whole world and what was important had changed for her the first time Bobby (poor asthmatic little baby) had gotten seriously ill. The hospital had wanted money in advance, and Robert hadn’t worked in weeks. They’d ended up borrowing from Robert’s parents (who weren’t all that well off themselves), after a frantic midnight phone call.

It was then that Sherry realized that it had been her money, not Robert’s, that had been paying most of the bills. It was then that she decided to take her work seriously, and began researching craft techniques and expanding her circle of customers. She had gotten the feeling lately that she was on the verge of a breakthrough---what she needed now was something new and different in the folkloric look to make her own name. Research had convinced her she just might find what she needed right here.

The ancient Aztec garb of brocaded huiple and wrapskirt was timeless, practical---and might be just different enough to provide the answer she hoped for, once updated for the eighties. The Aztec wrap-skirt with the double ties and pleats was looser, easier to move in than contemporary skirts---and far less apt to “get away” from the wearer. And the huiple, a loose, sleeveless blouse held close to the body in front, but loose in back to catch the breezes, was---so far as Sherry was concerned---the ultimate in summer comfort.

She finished her bargaining in a rush, and hurried out into the street with her purchase clutched under her arm. Robert was glancing around with a crease between his thick brows; she knew that look. There was something not quite right about the shot he wanted to take. He spotted her coming toward him as she slipped between two plump, gossiping women, and smiled.

Her knees went weak again. God, that smile---it was like Apollo parting the clouds and bestowing his blessing. No matter how feckless, how unfaithful, how neglectful he was, all he had to do was smile and she knew she’d never have the guts to leave him.

“Sunshine! You’re exactly what I need! Go stand over there and look touristy---” he pointed toward a display of Aztec-replica pottery. This lot was rather better than the usual; it looked real. She draped the huiple gracefully over one arm and posed artlessly, seeming totally unconscious of the camera. She was an old hand at this---she’d started out as Robert’s very first model, after all.

And as usual, Robert was right. Her pink sundress (her own design---that might do her some good, too) and long blond hair contrasted nicely with the dark pottery and white adobe, making the scene seem more exotic than it really was. Robert snapped off a dozen shots from as many angles in a few minutes, passed the grinning potter a couple of pesos, and took her elbow with an expression of satisfaction.

“Now where?” she asked. She was perfectly content to be dragged anywhere he wanted, now that he was in a good mood again, and now that she had a prime example of exactly what she was looking for in her possession.

“The ruins, I think.” He eased the strap of his camera case a little further up on his shoulder.

“Haven’t they been done to death already?”

“Maybe---that’s what I want to check out. Maybe some different angles, dramatic lighting---I don’t know, maybe I can stage something....”

He went introspective and brooding on her, with one of his typically instant mood-changes, and she knew better than to interrupt his train of thought.

The earthquake had been eight months ago, and parts of the city still looked like a war zone. The plunging prices of oil had brought as much economic disaster to Mexico’s economy as to Texas---more so, in some ways. The earthquake had just been the mud-frosting on a rock-cake. Recovery was going to be painfully slow---

“Robert---” she tugged at his arm, bringing him out of his reverie. “Over there---quick---”

“Over there,” in a courtyard complete with the week’s washing hanging out to dry in the hot sun, was a group of eight or ten kids dancing. For the moment, if you couldn’t hear the rock beat coming from the ghetto blaster (fortuitously just on the edge of the group), you’d swear they were performing some quaint native dance. For a wonder the girls were in skirts instead of jeans. Granted, they were cheap Cyndi Lauper imitations, but they were also colorful, borderline folky, and rather cute. Robert got half a dozen shots before one of the boys started moonwalking.

“Good eye, Sunshine,” he applauded as he waved down a cab. “I’ll have to crop the radio out, but that was nice composition.”

She couldn’t help herself, no matter that he’d probably be snarling at her before another hour was over. For now, she had his approval, and she glowed.

Robert stared at the ruined pyramid as if it had personally offended him, and Sherry sighed. There was no shade out here; the sun was bearing down on both of them mercilessly, but Robert showed no signs of wanting to move on. She squinted into the glare; sunglasses weren’t helping much. She wanted a margarita and a cool place to sit, badly.

She knew what his reaction would be to her suggestion that they come back later---a sullen snarl. He had taken these old ruins as a personal challenge. He was obviously bound and determined to make something interesting out of them, or die in the attempt.

She shifted uncomfortably on the crumbling stone step, and scanned the few other people she could see, hoping for something interesting. Unfortunately they seemed equally divided between earnest and impoverished college students and pudgy middle-aged American tourists, all of them squinting against the sunlight reflecting off the white stone pavement.

The Ugly American lives, she thought wryly, wondering for the thousandth time why it was that the skinny students wore the jeans, and the pasty, middle-aged monuments to cellulite exposed their thighs for all the universe to gawk at.

She fanned herself with her hat, wishing she could somehow capture the incredible blue of the sky in a dye-lot that didn’t look garish. White stone, green vegetation, blue sky---sun so bright it had no color at all, and not a cloud to be seen. It was gorgeous, and looked as if it would make a perfect photo. But that brilliant sun was the problem; any pictures taken now would look washed-out by the bright light.

Besides, they’d look like a thousand other pictures of these ruins. What Robert needed was a setup that would convey the age and awe-inspiring quality these ruins had, without looking contrived or like every other picture of an Aztec ruin. Or worse, come off a poor second to the latest round of adventure-movie stills.

Too bad I can’t convince some Aztec ghosts to show up and pose for him, she thought idly, brushing damp hair off of her forehead. It would be just what he---

She started as a girl came around the corner of the pyramid she sat on.

My God---

For a moment, she thought the girl was a ghost. The features, the profile---she could have posed for any of a hundred paintings and carvings back in the museum. Hair so black that it held turquoise-blue highlights, smoldering eyes that took up most of the upper half of her face, a complexion like gourmet coffee lightened with the smoothest and finest of cream. And her costume---

My God, it looks like she copied it from that painting of Smoking Mirror and his priestesses---

The colorful, elaborately brocaded huiple and wrapskirt were perfect replicas of those in the painting, so far as Sherry could remember. And the workmanship of both made the blouse she carried in her bag seem like the fumblings of an amateur weaver.

The girl moved as gracefully as a hunting cat, carrying herself with a dignity that was totally unconscious. Sherry knew a handful of dancers who moved that way, but not many. She was about to say something to get Robert’s attention, when he turned and spotted the girl himself.

He froze; just stopped moving completely. Sherry had been steeling herself for his inevitable reaction to an attractive girl---but this was an entirely new response, or at least one she’d never seen from him before.

He might not even have been breathing; he didn’t even twitch when an enormous fly landed on his arm. It was like the old cliché of being turned to stone.

His reaction was so abnormal she found herself thrown entirely off-balance by it, so that she froze in place.

While they stared like a pair of idiots, the girl approached both of them, head held high, the image of some ancient goddess deigning to take notice of a pair of mortals.

“Señor?”

The liquid sound of her voice snapped the strange trance that held both of them. The girl held out an arm draped with silver necklaces that gleamed in the sunlight---not with the highly reflective glitter of most of the jewelry that had been offered to them, but with a soft, subtly textured shimmer, like antique satin.

Or---like scales.

Sherry was suddenly struck by two strong and mutually antagonistic reactions. Half of her wanted to reach out and touch those bright garlands of metal---and the other half shuddered with revulsion at the thought.

That jewelry---it’s like dozens of skinny little snakes wrapped around her arm---

“Silver, señor?” The girl struck a pose within touching distance of Robert, and smiled up into his eyes. “Very fine, very cheap.”

“My God...” he mumbled; the girl did not seem to notice that he had said anything at all. She simply continued to pose, patiently.

He continued to stare; the girl, strangely, did not seem in the least disturbed by his scrutiny. “My God...” he said at last, “you could have come down off one of these walls---”

“Pardon?”

Robert pulled himself together with an effort clearly visible---at least to Sherry. “Señorita,” he said, in Spanish far better than Sherry’s, “I will buy your necklaces, on one condition---that you pose for me here---”

The girl regarded him measuringly.

“Señor,” she asked, “are you wishing for a model?”

“Well---yes, I suppose so.” For the first time in Sherry’s experience a woman had succeeded in making him uneasy.

“You photograph for the American magazines?”

“Sometimes---”

“Then,” she said coolly, “I make you an offer. I will pose for you, and my sisters---all tomorrow if you wish. You need buy no silver. But you must see that important people see the pictures, and know who we are. You must see that we are given more jobs, so that we may have green cards. My sisters and I look much alike---it is our resemblance to the Ancient Ones you wish, no?”

Both Robert and Sherry stared at her, more than a little surprised at the strange turn the bargaining had taken. The girl smiled again, a serene, slightly superior smile.

“You see,” she said, “I am no ignorant Mestizo. I have some learning. I know what a camera like this---” she gestured gracefully at Robert’s hands, the necklaces chiming softly with the movement “---means. We wish to come to America, and as legals; we wish to be models, and rich. You will take such pictures that will make us famous---”

“There---there’s no guarantee of that---” Robert stammered.

The girl shook her head, dismissing all doubt. “You will make us famous. And yourself.”

Now she turned to Sherry, who had been totally ignored until this moment. Her eyes were just as enormous as Sherry’s first impression had painted them, and so dark that they looked black. Sherry could not look away from them---and found her suspicions ebbing away. Why---of course all this made sense! What a clever girl, to have thought of a practical way to make it into the States, instead of sneaking across the border!

The girl smiled a little more broadly, and Sherry smiled back. There was no reason to distrust such cooperation. There was no doubt that the girl would do everything in her power to help Robert.

“Señora,” the girl spoke softly, still staring deeply into Sherry’s eyes, “you are a lady who has admiration for the old ways, yes, I can see it. I see that you long to examine the work of my people’s hands---” She smoothed the front of her huiple with her free hand, a movement totally free of any hint of coquettishness. “I should be gladdened to bring with me more such pieces tomorrow, if it would please you---and I see that it would.”

Somehow the girl had taken total control of the situation; in a way that left Sherry bewildered and breathless. There was no doubting her, somehow. She had succeeded in hypnotizing both of them.

“So. I shall come to your hotel.”

“The Sheraton---” Robert breathed.

“The Sheraton.” She nodded, turned with a grace that would have called up raw envy in a prima ballerina, and began to return along the same way she had come.

“Wait---” Robert called, as Sherry sat, still bemused and unable to think. “Your name---”

She cast a glance over her shoulder, arch and full of amusement.

“Lupe, señor. Lupe.”

Robert spent the remainder of the afternoon among the ruins, a man obsessed, talking to himself and scribbling notes at every possible setting. Sherry knew better than to interrupt him. He’d been like this only a handful of times before---but those times had produced some of his best work. If the girl had inspired him to a new height, then she was not going to argue about the result. For the first time she began to really believe that he might pull off the hoped-for coup of attaining the pinnacle of a permanent position with TravelWorld.

They ate in the hotel restaurant, Robert still scribbling away in his plan-book. He could have been eating cardboard, or a plate of fried bugs, for all the notice he took of the food. And she just wasn’t there for him. Back in their room he checked over every piece of his equipment, then rechecked, then paced the balcony, muttering to himself.

Sherry hardly felt like herself; found herself able to think of little more than the promise of having her goal delivered on a platter. So while he paced, she charted patterns---then, unable to concentrate on anything else, dialed room service and turned on the television.

He was still wrapped in thought and never noticed the arrival of the waiter with the drinks she’d ordered. She offered him his share, but he didn’t even look at her.

She was too used to him in this mood to be piqued---and she’d done without for too long to let the pitcher of margaritas go to waste. So she ignored him, and curled up to enjoy the margaritas and a Mexican vampire movie. It was one of the worst flicks she’d ever seen, boasting a professional wrestler as its star. Maybe---probably---she was drinking too much. But to see Robert so enthused was such a relief that she wasn’t paying as much attention to her intake as she usually did. By the time one of the hero’s opponents in the ring turned into a werewolf, she’d drunk so much it seemed the height of hilarity.

When she crawled into bed, more than a few sheets to the wind, Robert was still pacing.

In the morning it seemed like a dream, especially with a tequila-head to conquer. She was more than half afraid Lupe was a fraud; that she wouldn’t show up at all, and Robert would crash down from his creative height to spend the remainder of their stay in sullen apathy in the hotel.

But the strange, queenlike girl and her three sisters arrived with the dawn.

And they were incredible, all four of them, two shorter and one taller than Lupe herself, but otherwise nearly identical. As they stood in the lobby, they looked like a quartet of ancient Aztec princesses---and it was their surroundings that seemed disjointed from time, not them. They made the gleaming modernity of the hotel lobby seem tawdry and contrived---poorly conceived and cheaply executed.

The youngest and smallest carried a neatly wrapped bundle, which she pressed into Sherry’s arms wordlessly, with just a slow, coy wink of her eye. From the moment her hands touched the fabric, she found herself unable to think of anything else---and her hangover inexplicably vanished.

Sherry’s obsessions returned full force and then some, and when she saw the patterns woven into the fabric that held the promised clothing, she could not restrain her impatience to get back to the room. She answered Robert’s absent farewell with equal distraction, and did not even wait to see the odd procession leave.

The contents exceeded her wildest hopes; not just huiples and skirts of the finest and most intricate brocaded patterns, but an unsewn garment in the first stages of construction. Not only would she have patterns for the brocades and embroideries, but she would have a working pattern to adapt for a modern set of garments. It was more than she had dared dream for.

She had brought her own camera and film; she spent the entire day closeted in the hotel room, photographing every inch of the intricate brocades, the construction techniques, and how the garments were meant to drape. She didn’t even miss eating lunch; her notebooks were full of sketches and instructions and she’d used every last frame of her film by the time Robert staggered in the door, sweaty, dusty, and totally exhausted.

“My God, Robert---” his appearance alone served to shake her out of the trance she’d been in all day. She took his equipment from him and he stumbled over to the bed, throwing himself down with an utter indifference to anything that might have been in his way.

She glanced out of the hotel window to see with a feeling of shock that it was already growing dark.

“Where on earth were you?”

“God.” He groaned, and turned himself over. “I think I’ve been over every square inch of ruin from here to Cancun. I haven’t one frame of film left. God, Sunshine, those chicks were in-bloody-credible!”

“Good?”

“Good isn’t in it. That Lupe was right on. If what’s in those cans doesn’t set both TravelWorld and my agency on their collective asses, I’ll eat my equipment and go push Big Macs for a living.” He sat up, wiping a film of dust from his forehead. “You mark my words, Sunshine---half the agencies in the Southwest are going to be fighting for the right to offer those girls their green cards. And you and I are about to hit the fuckin’ bigtime, because Lupe told me they aren’t gonna work with anybody but me.”

“Robert---” The strangely intense, inward-looking expression he wore frightened her a little. “Robert---you’ve never talked like this before---”

“That’s because nobody ever handed me the way to the top on a platter before.” He looked absently down at his filthy hands, and seemed to see the dirt for the first time. “God, I look like a pit. Get room service to send up a sandwich while I shower, will you, lover? Oh---Lupe said to leave the stuff at the desk; she’ll get it in the morning.”

He kissed her with a kind of preoccupied gentleness, peeled off his shirt, and dropped it on the carpet, drifting into the bathroom in a half-trance.

She picked up his shirt, feeling her own bemusement return to make all the questions she wanted to ask him seem irrelevant. After all, she had her treasures now---

But later that night, Robert woke her from a sound and dreamless sleep, tossing restlessly in a dream from which no amount of shaking could wake him, and crying out---

Only one word was clear, and that only because he repeated it so often.

“Tezcatlipoca,” he cried out as if he were calling for someone, “Tezcatlipoca!”

Copyright © 2005 by Mercedes Lackey