This novel is the third in the Hungry Ghost trilogy that began with Esperanza and was followed by Ghost Key. It will be published November 12, by TOR/Forge books. Like the first book, it’s set in Esperanza, Ecuador, a mystical place high in the Andes where nothing is what it seems. This excerpt is from the first chapter.
Tess and Ricardo
DECEMBER 14, 2012
As Tess drove into the setting sun, Esperanza Spalding sang from the CD player. The orange light burned across the face of the distant Taquina volcano and transformed the thin band of clouds that hugged the top of it into a necklace of fire. The light glinted off the old railroad track that paralleled the autopista, causing it to glisten and gleam as though it were brand new.
The track had been laid in the late 1920s and for nearly two decades Esperanza 14 had hauled locals from downtown Esperanza into the smaller communities scattered through the hills. In 1939, an 8.0 quake had ruptured many of the tracks, hurled fourteen cars over the side of a cliff, and killed more than three hundred adults and children in the village below. Supposedly, every year around the anniversary of the disaster, the ghost train appeared somewhere on those tracks, chugging along, spewing smoke, its windows flung open to the cool mountain air. Some years, so the story went, you could see passengers inside the doomed train, children waving from the windows, the conductor a dark reflection in the glass. Tess had never seen it, but didn’t doubt the stories. In Esperanza, anything was possible.
As the sun slipped a little lower, Tess flipped down the visor so she could see where she was going. Traffic along the autopista that ran east to west across the city moved at a swift clip, cars whizzed past her in the other three lanes. Her Mini Cooper chugged along. The car would never win a race, but it was her dependable buddy whom she could call upon any time of the day or night to get her from point A to point Z. She had bought it the day that Charles Schulz had died, so in his honor she had named the black-and-white car Snoopy. It still smelled new, the leather seats and floor mats were pristine.
Up until she’d bought Snoopy, she and Ian had been sharing an aging VW Bug. He finally traded it in and bought a Jetta with a souped-up engine. In the end, it didn’t matter what you drove in this city as long as it was small and fast enough. Snoopy was fast enough to keep pace with the flow of traffic on the autopista and small enough to slip into parking spaces on the narrow neighborhood streets that were best suited for bicycles, scooters, and smart cars.
Ten minutes into her current love fest with Snoopy, traffic slowed, then stalled altogether. Dozens of cars snaked up and down the highway. Shadows now clung like cookie crumbs to the inside of her car. She suddenly felt that something or someone had hitched a ride with her.
The skin across the back of her neck prickled, her throat felt as if she’d swallowed shards of glass.
“Dad?” she whispered, glancing in the rearview mirror.
Her dad, dead twelve years, stayed wherever he was. He hadn’t appeared to her in months. And no disembodied spirits or hungry ghosts appeared. Paranoia, she thought.
Tess nervously flexed her fingers against the steering wheel and pressed back against the seat, willing the traffic to move. Darkness now spread across the city like India ink seeping through pale fabric. It spilled down the surrounding mountains as if it hoped to swallow them in a single, heaving gulp. Up and down the long line of stalled cars, headlights winked on, the widely spaced street lamps flared. And still the traffic didn’t move and the sensation persisted that she wasn’t alone.
Brujos hadn’t been sighted in Esperanza since the battle in June 2008 that had annihilated Dominica’s tribe of sixty thousand. Tess had no reason to suspect the hungry ghosts had returned, but she couldn’t deny her body’s sensations.
Sips from a bottle of water helped to ease the dryness in her throat. When she had lived in Florida, she’d carried bottled water with her because of the heat. In Esperanza, she carried it because the altitude, about thirteen thousand feet, sucked away her body’s moisture.
So, okay, now she had an alternate explanation for the dry throat—not spooks, not brujos, just the altitude. What about the tightness across the back of her neck, the goose bumps on her arms? Those sensations weren’t due to altitude.
Recently, the city grapevine had hummed with rumors about brujo attacks in other countries. Speculation ran rampant on the Internet that Esperanza’s mythology and folklore were factual, that the city actually was a bridge between the living and the dead. As far as Tess knew, though, brujos had stayed out of Ecuador since the destruction of Dominica’s tribe. And Esperanza had flourished. But the paranoia and terror that had prevailed during the dark years when the hungry ghosts had preyed on the living, seizing their bodies, possessing them, using them to experience physical pleasures, still rippled beneath the surface of daily life. Yet, the sirens that had once alerted the populace to seek shelter from brujos hadn’t shrieked since that battle in 2008, and every day, she felt the undercurrent of fear losing its hold on the people of Esperanza.
The most likely explanation for her unease was that her dead father actually was in the car and simply chose not to show himself. Charlie Livingston, trickster. “Dad?” she said again.
She thought she caught a whiff of his trademark cigar smoke and heard the incessant snapping of his Zippo lighter. Then her iPhone belted out Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart,” Ian’s ring tone. Tess smiled and took the call. “Hey, Clooney, where are you?”
“Got held up. I’m just leaving now, Slim. Your mom called to report the numbers of births in OB and I wanted to get it into tomorrow’s edition. You at the restaurant yet?”
“Stuck in traffic on the autopista. How many births?”
“Twelve. The most for a single day since Dominica’s tribe was decimated.”
She heard a trace of excitement in his voice that had nothing to do with the birth rate in Esperanza. “You’ve got a guess-what.”
He laughed. “You read me too well, Slim. The Expat News got picked up for distribution in Guayaquil and the Galápagos. The newspaper will be carried on all the ships that trek through the islands. It means we can now publish daily, hire some new employees, expand our website … our newspaper is finally going to turn a profit we can live on.”
“Fantastic. How’d this happen?”
“The distributor for the islands saw our online edition and liked it.”
They had started the newspaper on July 4, 2008, but it had always been Ian’s baby, and had become hers by default. Until she’d met Ian, she’d never thought she would be anything but a burned-out FBI agent. “Now what? When do we start advertising for new reporters?”
Ian’s laughter swelled with joy. She could see him in her mind, his head thrown back, the crinkles at the corners of his dark, George Clooney eyes. He looked so much like Clooney that when they’d first met, she’d actually thought he was the actor traveling incognito.
“I figured we can discuss it over dinner and a bottle of Chilean wine,” he said.
“It’ll be waiting for you when you arrive.”
“Are Maddie and Sanchez meeting us there?” he asked.
“I texted her, but haven’t heard anything. They may have left for Quito.”
“Okay. Love you, Slim.”
“Ditto, bigger than Google. We have plenty to celebrate.”
Two years ago, as the expatriate community in Esperanza had expanded, they had started publishing the Expat News as a biweekly newspaper in both English and Spanish, tripled their staff, and kept it in the family. Tess’s niece, Maddie, built and maintained their website. Her fiancé, Nick Sanchez, and his father did the Spanish translations and sold advertising. Tess’s mother, Lauren, worked at the paper on her days off from the Esperanza Hospital OB ward, doing whatever was needed. Occasionally, Leo, Lauren’s lover and an obstetrician, wrote a health column for expectant mothers.
Ian’s news meant they would be hiring outside their immediate circle. She could think of a dozen people who would be terrific additions to the staff.
Tess followed a line of cars onto the shoulder of the road and slipped around the fender bender that had caused the traffic jam. As Snoopy picked up speed, the sensation that she wasn’t alone swept over her again.
“Okay, Dad. I know you’re here.”
Something took shape in the passenger seat—but it wasn’t the ghost of her father. The ghost who materialized, becoming more solid and real by the second, was a short, thin man, a Quechua with large dark eyes and a thick black braid that fell across his right shoulder. He wore faded jeans and a pale blue shirt with a colorful wool blanket draped around his shoulders.
“Not dad.” Slight accent. Amusement in his voice. “Name’s Ricardo.”
She could barely swallow around the sudden pounding in her throat. The mark on the inside of her right wrist itched terribly. Four years of inactivity and now her hungry ghost detector kicked in too late. Despite the chill in the air, sweat seeped from the pores of her skin and she knew he could smell it, smell her fear. Even when he was in a virtual form, a brujo’s sense of smell was acute.
Ricardo lifted his chin and made a point of sniffing loudly at the air, mocking her. “Relax, if I intended to seize you, it would be over already.”
Tess eased into the right lane, then onto the shoulder and sped forward until she could turn off somewhere, anywhere. She tore across a swale of grass and pebbles, swung into a parking lot, slammed on the brake. Snoopy shuddered, gasped, and died. “You haven’t seized me because you can’t.” Tess held out her arm and the flickering light from the lot fell across the inside of her forearm, so that the mark was easy to see. “Do you know what this is?”
He glanced at her wrist, reached out to touch it, and she jerked her arm back. “You aren’t touching that unless I invite you to touch it.”
“Oh, please,” he murmured, and grabbed her wrist and stroked the mark with his thumb, a cool, creepy touch.
Tess wrenched her arm away and Ricardo just laughed. “You really are quite lovely, Tess Livingston. I love your blond hair, those gorgeous blue eyes, and your elegant height. I would like nothing more than to taste you, seize you, use you. You’re the crème de la crème, the prize every brujo hungers for. What wonders we could learn from you.”
His soft voice moved through her, around her, strangely seductive and utterly terrifying. She kept her eyes on the now moving lights on the autopista, on the rising moon, on the neon signs that flashed and flickered up and down the highway. Beyond it all rose the majestic Taquina volcano, moonlight flowing like lava down its sides. The power of brujos was like that volcano, an unpredictable force of nature.
“Of course I know what that mark is,” he said. “Every brujo knows the story. It’s part of our collective knowledge, our lore. The big difference between the living and the dead, Tess, is that we know our lore is factual.”
“This sounds like typical brujo bullshit, Ricardo.”
“Four years ago, you were an FBI agent who suffered a fatal gunshot wound, flat lined, and your soul made its way to Esperanza. You met Ian, who’d had a massive heart attack and was also a transitional soul. The two of you fell in love.” He grinned and played an imaginary violin. “You were the first transitionals to be admitted to the city in five hundred years, since the chasers brought Esperanza into the physical world. While you were in your transitional state, waiting at a depot for bus thirteen to Esperanza, a Quechua man who had been seized by a brujo grabbed your arm, marking it forever. It became your brujo detector and a sign to us that you were a special transitional and couldn’t be seized.”
The old bruise now burned and throbbed like a heart. Tess rubbed at it. “So why’re you here?”
“So why’re you afraid of me?” he shot back.
She laughed. “Who says I’m afraid of you?”
“I smell your fear.”
“What you smell is my fear of what your presence here means. The only thing brujos have ever meant for Esperanza is death and destruction.”
Ricardo slapped his thighs and exploded with laughter. “You’ve lived here four and a half years and think that qualifies you to speak about the role that brujos have played in the long history of Esperanza? Please. You Americans are so insufferably arrogant.”
“Why have you appeared now?”
“Ah. Now you’re asking the right questions. Did it ever occur to you that we’ve been here all along, but have simply chosen not to reveal our presence? No, probably not. That arrogance again.”
Tess caught the odd, knowing smile that turned his mouth into some horrifying parody of a mouth. It was like some sort of Pac Man icon that chewed its way across the bottom of a computer screen.
“And you read signs,” he continued, and reached out and drew his fingers through her thick, long hair.
Tess pulled her head away. “I recognize patterns. And this one is ugly. Stop touching me.”
Ricardo grabbed a handful of her hair, jerked her head back, and leaned in so close to her she could smell death in his breath, the stink of rotting eggs and decaying flesh. His dark eyes impaled hers. “Let me enlighten you, Tess. You don’t have a clue what’s going on. I read that in your hair, your eyes, your very being. I smell it on you.”
His tongue, the color of ash, darted from his mouth. It was strangely long, like the tongue of a frog or a lizard, and touched her neck. Licked. Traveled up toward her ear and down again, but slowly. The tongue tasted her and enabled his essence to sample her memories, needs, desires, terrors. Tess fought him, struggled, slammed her fists against his temples and back, punched him in the ribs. He pulled harder on her hair and tightened his hands around her throat.
She screamed, but the sound never reached the air. Ricardo pressed his mouth to hers and sucked the scream into himself, drawing the texture and truth of her terror into his essence, where he would study it, pick it apart, and somehow weaponize it to use against her later. Then he drew back slightly, one hand still gripping her hair, the other holding tightly to her shoulder. He smiled, licked his lips, smacked them like a kid with an ice cream cone. “I can taste your ignorance. You don’t know what’s happening inside your own body, don’t understand shit. You aren’t worth my time.”
He shoved her away from him and Tess fell against the driver’s door, her heart pounding, her breath quick and shallow. Then something huge and monstrous – a crazed, panicked grizzly bear – reared up inside her and she slammed her arm, hand fisted, across his face.
He gasped, his hand flew to his nose, a liquid streamed through his fingers. It didn’t look like blood. Thick, viscous, white like pus, it ran down his arms and onto his jeans. As it hit the seat, it burst briefly into flame, emitted puffs of smoke and vanished.