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The Vampire

By: Dale C. Uhlmann

Chapter 1

The star-lit Mexican night sky over the city of Tlaxcala was suddenly alit with an eerie phosphorescent glow. It surrounded the unearthly creature that was circling the Alvarez family’s three-story house in a manner that marked it as a Tlaheulpuchi-a shape-shifting vampire. The creature had taken its favorite form, that of a vulture, to stake out its quarry, which lay slumbering peacefully inside-the Alvarez family’s three-month-old baby son Luis. Children, especially infants, were the monster’s favorite prey; their unholy palates found children’s blood sweeter and purer than that of adults, which was too often contaminated by disease and impurities, such as tobacco and alcohol. And in Luis, the creature had found a truly delectable morsel.

No mere scavenger, but instead a sly, calculating hunter, this shape-shifted vulture methodically flew a cross-shaped path over the main, white stucco house of a modest-sized, but still impressive family estate, replete with a ranch, two guest houses, and one especially large building to accommodate such events as wedding receptions and other family celebrations. The creature navigated first north south over the house, and then east west. Only after completing this ritual could the monster enter its victim’s home. Once the ritual was done, the bird slowed its flight and silently glided through the third-story window, drawn by the nursery’s fresh odor of milk and baby powder. How lucky had the creature been that the child’s progressive parents, he, a college professor, and she, an obstetrician, had publicly scoffed at the legend of the Tlahuelpuci. Not only had they left the window open on this unseasonably warm spring night (in this mountainous region, it was normally in the mid-60s’ tonight, it was 72°), but had not barred it with the garlic, metal, or onions that would have prevented the vampire from entering. The monster knew that the townspeople’s modern reliance on science, ironically, was its greatest ally, for it blinded them to the realities that their ancestors had taught them for generations.

The small but tidy nursery was brightly decorated with wall papered images of horses, bulls, and smiling cowboys. Above the chubby, brown-haired baby’s bed was a carousel with circus clown faces. Little Luis, in his polka dot cotton pajamas, and covered with a tan polyester blanket, slept on, unaware that the creature was hovering over his throat.

At that moment, the bird’s avian features-coal black feathers and all-began to melt and dissolve into the face and bare shoulders of a woman who would have been well known to the baby’s sleeping parents in the next room-and to the whole town. Opening its hellish mouth and drooling saliva, this grotesque half-human descended, and buried its long, razor-sharp incisor fangs firmly but gently, so as not to awaken her victim, into the child’s tender throat. The she-beast, who had not fed in nearly a month, wanted to drain as much as she could, yet still not kill this rare delicacy. After all, gullible parents like Luis’s were not easy to find in Tlaxcala, let alone their totally unguarded infants, and she would surely want to feed again on him. The child’s blood was sweet and untainted, and it was all she could do to restrain herself from pressing on too forcefully or draining too much blood at once; she prided herself on her self-control, not like some male Tlahuelpuchis, who would have devoured the infant whole. Sensing she was approaching a danger point to her victim, she forced herself to stop, leaving two tiny, red-centered marks on his throat that his parents would probably not even notice, much less think to look for. If she had used more force, as on an older child, there would have also been tell-tale bruises around the victim’s upper body, but this operation had called for a delicate touch.

Her tongue carefully lapped the smeared blood around the corners of her full lips, and she smiled with satisfaction. Then, the human features began to melt, and she resumed her full vulture form. She flew from the room, heading for her own house, where she would undergo the transformation to full human. All the while, she savored the memory of the night’s feeding, and looked forward to her next visit to her innocent little victim.

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Chapter 2

At that very moment, Dr. Rachel Graffanino-Russo, thousands of miles away, in the college town of Carlton, OH was suddenly jolted out of a sound slumber. It had not been by a nightmare, but by a strange, but familiar refrain that had come back to her in her sleep. Its words had thundered in her ears like the low, melancholy whistle of the nightly freight train that had rumbled past the orphanage in which she had stayed as a child. Then a frightened Delaware Indian/Italian American girl, she had come a long way since those days. Determined to make something of herself through hard work and education, she had gone to college, and had eventually earned a PhD in Native-American literature. “Rach, you have more degrees than a thermometer,” friends often told her. Now a full Professor at Carlton University, she was also happily married to her husband, Nick, who had recently become a full partner with the Dimitri Poulis law firm. The two had become the happy parents of a little girl, who, now four years old, they had named Fawn, after a valiant Indian friend of theirs named Running Deer. The gallant old man had sacrificed his life to save Rachel’s then-unborn child from an evil sorcerer’s spell. The child was born perfectly healthy, and now, about four years old, had been a radiant jewel in her parents’ lives.

Despite such blessings, however, Rachel could never quite forget those long-ago days at the orphanage. The sound of a train whistle still made her sad, and if she had to wait for Nick to pick her up from the University on those rare occasions when her Hunyadi needed maintenance, she would panic, for old fears of abandonment would again haunt her. She would suffer anxiety attacks until Nick had arrived. Now, she was on the verge of another one, due to the words that had just returned to her in her sleep:

When the deer leave, the ‘Great Chastisement’ begins.

When the deer leave, the ‘Great Chastisement’ begins.

This was the warning, told to her years ago, by her maternal grandfather. A report on Action 12 News earlier that afternoon had told of a mass departure, over a two-week period, of white tail deer from Carlton’s forests. Already on edge, she suddenly felt an irresistible impulse to check on Fawn.

Promptly, she turned down the light blue cotton sheets and matching blanket on her side of the bed, and carefully climbed out. She tried not to awaken Nick, but he had always been a light sleeper. Uttering a low guttural moan, he turned from his left to his right side, pulling up the sheets and blankets slightly above his shirtless, bare shoulders. Still, he remained asleep.

Quickly, Rachel glanced to her left at the red numbers of their oak bedstead alarm clock. 3:13AM. Its glowing red numbers illuminated the darkness as brightly as a deer’s eyes in a car’s headlights. Silently, she slid her bare feet into a pair of soft doeskin slippers, and walked over to the open bedroom closet. She groped in the dark for her off-white, velour bathrobe, which she quickly found on a cardboard hanger. As she did so, Faye Dunaway’s words from that tacky movie about Joan Crawford, Mommie Dearest, instantly sprang to mind: “No more wire hangers!” Placing the garment over her black lace nightgown, she left the bedroom, turned instinctively to her right, and strode the short distance down the darkened hallway to Fawn’s room. There, she could see, through the clear moonlight that illuminated the room, the child sleeping peacefully on her right side. She was nestled in a wool blanket, her head resting peacefully against a down pillow. Snug in her polka dot ski pajamas, she tightly hugged her miniature Donkey doll, a memento of her favorite movie, Shrek.

Rachel smiled, much relieved. As she gazed at the sleeping child, she remembered how they had nearly lost her when the evil sorcerer, Malcom Reynolds, had cast a curse on Rachel’s womb, until Running Deer had helped her break the spell. She studied Fawn closely, recognizing many of her own features in her daughter’s face: her pronounced dimples, and green, oval eyes. Like her mother, Fawn’s hair was long and black, so much so that the old couple who ran the local Italian delicatessen affectionately called her “wild woman.” The child’s hair had recently been braided, in keeping with her mother’s Delaware Indian heritage. But a silver rosary hanging from the top of her bedstead reflected the ecumenical upbringing that Nick’s mother had asked she be raised in. At that moment, Rachel silently thanked the Great Spirit that her fears about Fawn’s safety had been for naught. Still, she knew, in the back of her mind, that the deer’s departure, which had so unnerved her, was an omen not to be taken lightly.

Suddenly, as if in answer, the clear, night sky became a brilliant pink, and a deafening explosion shook the entire neighborhood. Instantly, Nick bolted from bed, shouting, “Jesus Christ! What was that?” Jolted out of a sound sleep herself, Fawn, groggy and frightened, was surprised to see her mother, visibly shaken and trembling, standing over her bed. The lights of every house in both this, and the nearby neighborhoods, came on, one by one; shrill sirens drowned out the normal, peaceful sounds of the chirping crickets. All the while, a bright, fiery glow, surrounded by masses of grey smoke from the disaster site, began to fill the wee-hour morning skies. As all of Carlton would soon learn, the City Hall Building had just been destroyed by a beach ball-sized meteorite, and civil defense workers would, for the next week, be working around the clock to contain the resulting massive fire that threatened to spread to adjacent areas of the city. Only Rachel and the Native American people of Carlton suspected the true meaning of this catastrophe.

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Chapter 3

Rachel’s grandfather had long seen hidden meanings in astrological and natural disturbances. Meteorites and comets, he had often reminded Rachel, were signs of the Great Spirit’s displeasure with the human race’s disrespect for each other, and for Mother Earth. Rachel wondered if this was not an omen of the “Great Chastisement,” a time of imminent and disastrous earth and climate changes that would precede a new world, one of a higher consciousness and order. Although most Native American prophecies and calendars placed that date around the winter solstice of 2012, had the early stages finally begun?

What about the mass exodus of deer? Although those citizens whose vehicles had been totaled by big buck whitetails during rutting season were no doubt happy to have fewer deer running around, Rachel realized that this departure was not natural. It was as if the animals sensed imminent catastrophe. Was this possibly another early sign of the coming “Great Chastisement?”

Even three days later, on a bright, sunny Saturday afternoon, Rachel still couldn’t dismiss these questions from her mind. Needing some escapism, she decided to get her mind off these worries for a while by enjoying an old movie. She sat in her powder blue sweats on the living room sofa, watching a classic Charlie Chan mystery, Charlie Chan in London, on the Fox Movie Channel. True, Warner Oland, the actor who played the inscrutable Chinese detective, was not Asian (he was really Swedish). This was an anomaly not lost on Rachel, who also remembered all the old movies she had seen in which Native American characters were played by performers of Italian, Spanish, Greek, and Russian ancestry-but seldom ever by true Native Americans. Also, the movie DID practice its own brand of racism by depicting Chan as merely an “all wise, all knowing” Chinese mystery-solver. He was also forever polite and well mannered-almost toadyish, Rachel thought-around white characters, and spoke in pigeon English. However, Rachel also realized that this was still a more positive portrayal of Asian Americans than the old Dr. Fu Manchu stereotype, since Chan WAS a well-respected detective of high rank, and, despite his humble exterior, deceptively sly and intelligent. She also recognized that these movies had been made in a less politically correct and sensitive age, and how unfair it was, in some ways, to measure them against the standards of today’s movies. The movie, she felt, was what it was, and she was determined to not accept the stereotyping, but to enjoy the story’s’ slick hokum and escapism. This WAS a damn good mystery! Meanwhile, Fawn and Nick were busy in the kitchen, finger painting.

“Mommy!” called Fawn excitedly, as she sprinted into the living room, carrying her “masterpiece,” a Rorschach blob of flaming red, bright pink, pea green, and deep purple swirls that made sense only to her vivid imagination. “I’ve made a funny face!” she proudly announced, placing her work into her mother’s outstretched hands. “It’s Uncle Dimitri!” she said.

At the mention of his boss’s name, Nick, who had followed her into the room, chuckled loudly. “Yeah, Dimitri’s got a real funny face, doesn’t he, Rach?”

“Nothing like yours,” deadpanned Rachel, remarking on the pancake-sized blots of finger paint that dotted her husband’s face and forehead. “Oh, yeah,” grinned Nick, rubbing some of the excess paint onto his battleship gray sweatshirt while Rachel laid their daughter’s “painting” on the coffee table. Then, a new “project” idea came to Nick’s mind. “Hey, Fawn” he said. “Wanna see how high you can jump today?”

“Yeah!” she happily replied. Nick responded by extending a Black and Decker tape measure, which he had just pulled from his left jeans pocket, from one end of the sofa to the next. Unfortunately for Rachel, the tape was strung right across the TV screen.

“Nick!” she objected, “I’m watching this!”

“Ah, it’ll only take a minute, Rach. Okay, Fawn. You’re on!”

With that, Fawn jumped a few inches over the yellow tape, barely, but still clearing, the bar.

“Good!” Nick responded. “Now, let’s try it again!”

Fawn eagerly obliged, managing to jump even a few inches higher this time. But her white sneakers landed with such a pronounced thud that the TV’s wide screen began to roll.

“Nick!” warned Rachel.

“It’s okay, hon,” Nick assured her. “Okay, sweetie” he told Fawn. “Now let’s try to jump clear to the ceiling!”

Unable to resist the challenge, Fawn jumped as high as her 3’ could carry her. Just as Chan was about to announce the identity of the true murderer’s identity in the old English drawing room in which the murders had taken place, Fawn’s feet landed hard on the living room’s beige carpet. In fact, the four-year-old junior Olympian landed so hard that the screen responded with an ear-shattering pop, and went completely black.

All was silent, as Fawn stood staring sheepishly at the broken set, her right forefinger in her mouth, waiting to hear what her mother would say now. She didn’t have long to wait.

“My God, Nick!” she said disgustedly. “What’s the matter with you? You’re an even bigger kid than Fawn is!”

“Daddy, we are SO busted!” whispered Fawn.

At that moment, though, the doorbell rang, granting both the pin-sized high-jumper and her coach a stay of execution.

As soon as Rachel opened the front door, her frown instantly righted itself. Immediately, fears generated by the past few evening, and consternation over this latest mishap, simultaneously vanished. Standing in the doorway, clad in her ubiquitous cherry red T-shirt emblazoned with the white block letters “SHAWNEE PRIDE” was her old college friend, Cheyenne Hayes. In addition to her T-shirt, she also showed her Native American Indian heritage by, like Rachel, braiding her long, dark brown hair.

Cheyenne had also been open-some thought too open-about another personal matter-she was gay. Despite some homophobic attitudes even among Cheyenne’s own tribe, Rachel had never thought of her friend as gay. She had always loved Cheyenne’s warmth, sense of humor, and outspokenness, especially on behalf of Native American causes (a common bond between the two). And while Cheyenne’s coming out of the closet had never made Rachel-or Nick-uncomfortable-it did rankle the University of Carlton’s Board of Trustees and Alumni. Rachel had recently lent her own name and public support to two of her friend’s most fervent projects-a national gay rights amendment, and the return of seventy acres of municipal land originally owned by her tribe, for the building of a casino. Both had resulted in, Rachel suspected, the Arts and Sciences College’s Dean’s recent demotion of her as Pan American Studies Chair, and letters threatening her with dismissal for engaging in activities “detrimental to the University’s image.” As a result, Nick agreed to bring up the matter with Dimitri Poulis. Convinced Rachel had a case, Poulis decided to file a lawsuit against the University. Despite the prospect of a long, drawn-out legal battle, Rachel had never regretted her decision to help Cheyenne. Rachel would do anything for her. They considered each other blood sisters, and the closest of friends.

“Gi-r-r-r-l!” announced Cheyenne boisterously, smiling broadly, as she stepped through the door, closing it behind her. The two hugged each other warmly.

“Cheyenne! Why, you old squaw! What brings you here?”

“Hey, you callin' a ‘squaw,’ you Delaware half-breed, you?”

“Now, now. Let’s be politically correct here: ‘Delaware Italian-American,’ okay?” The two laughed as Cheyenne said hello to Nick and Fawn.

Rachel then asked Fawn to go outside and play while she and her father talked to ‘Aunt’ Cheyenne.

“Okay,” Fawn happily agreed, and scampered outside, hoping to see her little friend from next door, Mary Studi.

The three adults then entered the living room. Nick sat on the reddish-brown Lazy Boy while Rachel sat on the sofa, next to Cheyenne.

“So,” asked Rachel, “how’s your boy doing?”

“Great,” answered Cheyenne. “Max’s really grown in the last couple of months, and his chest and stomach hair’s getting thicker by the day.”

“Oh, I didn’t know you had a son, Cheyenne,” Nick said. “Sounds like he’s going through puberty early. I’ll bet he’ll be shaving soon.”

Both women laughed at that remarked.

“What’s so funny?” asked Nick. “I got my first Norelco when I was twelve.”

“Maybe,” Cheyenne chuckled, “but I don’t think Max’ll be shaving any time too soon.” With that, she pulled from her gray leather handbag, which she had rested on her lap, a snapshot and handed it to Nick. There, sitting obediently and majestically, in front of a beaming Cheyenne in her back yard, was Max, her German shepherd.

“Oh!” laughed Nick, returning the snapshot to Cheyenne, which she promptly put back in her purse, “My bad!”

“That’s all right, dude,” chuckled Cheyenne.

“So,” began Rachel, changing the subject, “how are you and Dianne getting along?”

“Oh, that bitch!” answered Cheyenne, emphatically flinging her left hand down in disgust. “It’s splitsville between me and that dame. Girl, you were right: she was nothing but trailer park trash!-a real gravy trainer. First, she stuck me with the rent and the utilities. That was bad enough. But then she started kicking Max in the rear end with her fucking steel-toed boots when he wouldn’t budge from her end of the sofa. Well, that was it for me! I told her to pack her bags and get out ass of here. She did, but not before she made off with some of my stuff: a cell phone, a lap top, and some stereo equipment.”

“Did you file a police report?” asked Nick.

“Yeah, and I got a phone call from her, telling me that was her stuff, and warning me to lay off, and that if I didn’t, she’d come back and kill me and my dog.”

“If I were you, I’d get all the locks changed on your doors and windows,” advised Rachel.

“I’m goin’ to the locksmith later today,” Cheyenne replied.

“And definitely go to the Prosecutor and have a restraining order placed on her,” recommended Nick.

“But how do I get my stuff back?”

“File a writ of Plevin,” Nick answered. “I can help you draft it.”

“Wow! That’s what’s so nice about being married to a lawyer, huh, Rach?” Cheyenne laughed.

“You bet,” answered Rachel. “Now, tell me about the casino. How’s it going?”

“Slow,” Cheyenne replied. “There’s gonna be another hearing on Thursday, April 14.”

“You know, Rach,” she said, changing the subject, “I want you to know how much I appreciate you stickin’ your neck out for me. You’re kind of puttin’ your head in the noose, ‘cause I know those University suits don’t like either Indian or gay women causin’ trouble, but”-

“Hey, think nothing of it, Chey. I’d give my right arm to help you. You’re the blood sister I never had, remember?”

“You’re the greatest, girl,” smiled Cheyenne. “Oh, hey, I almost forgot to ask. I heard on CNN that you had some trouble from the sky the other night.”

“You got that right,” answered Nick, rising from the recliner. “A big-ass meteorite wiped out City Hall. They’ve just now gotten the fire under control. The Mayor and his staff are takin’ up temporary residence in the Civic Center until it’s rebuilt. It’ll take at least six months to a year. In the meantime, scientists from all across the country have swarmed over the town to search the wreckage for samples.”

“Have they found anything?” asked Cheyenne.

“So far, just some nickel and iron. The meteorite itself evaporated in the atmosphere.”

“Wow!” Cheyenne exclaimed. “Too bad you couldn’t have called out Bruce Willis and those dudes from Armageddon to blow up that rock before it hit!”

The two chuckled at Cheyenne’s remark. Cheyenn wasn’t taking this thing as seriously as she was, Rachel thought, so why should she? Maybe it was just as freak occurrence. Maybe it didn’t mean the “Great Chastisement” was just around the corner after all. But what about the other possible signs? The deer?

Rachel’s speculations were interrupted by Fawn’s unexpected early return. “I’m hungry, Mommy,” she announced, marching her way into the living room and stopping next to the sofa.

“Oh, that reminds me,” said Cheyenne, glancing at her watch. I’d better get back home. It’s close to Max’s supper time. But before I go, I’ve got one more thing to tell you, Rach.”

“What’s that?” Rachel asked.

I met a cool gal at work the other day whose ancestry is authentic Aztec. When she was part of a field trip last summer, and took a couple of classes from a Jose Alvarez, a Professor of Mexican Indian culture at the University of Mexico. She said he’s just fascinating. I decided to email him, and we’ve been chatting with each other online ever since. I mentioned your teaching and research, and said he’d love to meet you and discuss plans for a conference, here in Ohio, lecturing and sharing ideas about Aztec, Delaware, and Shawnee folklore and legends. I told him that would be right up your alley, and he suggested us coming down to Tlaxcala, where he lives, to spend a few days with him and his wife. I thought it’d be neat if we-me, you, Nick, and Fawn-take him up on it. You think you guys can get away for a few days?”


“After school lets out. We were thinking of mid-June.”

“Well, I guess we could. Tell you what, we’ll think about it, and I’ll get back to you.”

“Okay, cool. See ya later.”

“I’m hungry,” announced Fawn again, after Cheyenne had left.

“It’s getting too close too supper, honey” said Rachel.

I’m hungry,” she insisted.

“Okay, laughed Nick. Come into the kitchen, and Daddy will fix you a little something to tide you over-your favorite snack!”

“A ketchup sandwich! Yummy!” answered an excited Fawn. Nick’s grandfather introduced him to this between-meals snack when he was Fawn’s age. His grandfather simply took two slices of white wheat bread and squeezed out, in the middle of one slice, a generous amount of ketchup, and put the first slice on top, with nothing else but the ketchup in the middle. It was quick, light, nutritious, and so exotic-sounding. At the time, it made Nick feel as if he were really somebody to be able to have such a special snack, one which the other kids, he was convinced, knew anything about. This was a specialty of the Graffanino household, Nick’s grandfather had convinced him, and the old man always prepared it with all the flourish of Chef Emeril of the Food Channel. Now, he was handing down the tradition to Fawn.

“Go on, you two,” Rachel laughed as the two happily sprinted into the kitchen. In the meantime, she mulled over Cheyenne’s invitation, and wondered if it would not be a good idea after all. Being a member of the Delaware tribe, she realized she did not know as much as she should about the tribes west of the Mississippi. The trip would broaden her insights, and even deepen her teaching, if she could develop a course on Mexican-Indian poetry and literature, for example. Besides, it would make for a fun and educational family vacation at the same time.

As the time approached, however, it became clear that Nick would have to sit this one out. His firm had been retained to handle a law suit filed by several former Latino American prisoners and their families against Brett Michelson, a white, thirty-year-old, Carlton County Jail guard accused of physically abusing prisoners of color. The depositions had already begun, and were quite disturbing. One ex-prisoner testified that he was routinely strip-and cavity-searched by the guard following a visit, and sodomized with a baton. Another testified that he had been stripped naked for once verbally objecting to Michelson’s racist remarks, and placed in solitary confinement, where he was chained to a steel chair. According to the deposition, Michelson then ordered a team of Swat officers to beat him behind the closed door with their clubs and other military gear. A trustee assigned to laundry duty testified to having been ordered to remove and clean the blood-soaked mats. More depositions were scheduled through June, and Nick couldn’t get anyone at the firm to sub for him. Still, he felt the trip would do Rachel and Fawn good, and encouraged them to enjoy themselves.

After more contemplation, Rachel called Cheyenne to count her and Fawn in. All three would take a plane out of Carlton County Airport on June 15th. In the meantime, Cheyenne would complete arrangements with the Alvarez family. Rachel and Fawn looked forward to the trip; Fawn excitedly told her friends she was going to go “where the matadors were.” A week before the trip, though, an other-worldly experience would make Rachel wonder if she had really made the right decision, and if she were in reality putting their child in grave danger.

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Chapter 4

It was an unusually muggy early June night in Ohio. Rachel lay back in bed, the sheets slightly riding up against the crest of her bare breasts, and still unable to sleep. Even with central air conditioning, she felt uncomfortable, as if the bedclothes were sticking to her moist, bare skin. Though sleeping nude usually made her feel more comfortable in such weather, it wasn’t helping tonight. In fact, she might just as well have worn her silk nightgown to bed after all. Nick, on the other hand, similarly nude under the bed sheets, was perfectly comfortable, sleeping peacefully on his right side, mouth open and snoring audibly. Rachel shut her eyes tightly (she wanted to shut her ears, too, since Nick was putting on quite a symphony), but sleep would still not come.

Then, she thought she heard a different sound, mixed in with her husband’s snores. It sounded rhythmic-and familiar. They were footfalls, ones that she had heard many times in her house. These were the sounds of Fawn’s feet landing on the living room carpet, as they always did when, at Nick’s coaxing, she was “practicing” her jumping. Somehow, though, these sounds were different, because her soles seemed to be meeting not soft carpeting, but something harder, like a tile surface of some kind. At that point, Rachel opened her eyes and strained her ears, but she could not precisely locate where the sounds were coming from, much less hear anything else that would give away Fawn’s movements or whereabouts.

Then, she heard another voice-a woman’s voice, speaking in a Spanish accent, chanting over and over again, “Good girl! Another one! Good! Another one! . . . Now, one more!” Each word of encouragement was followed by the rhythmic sounds of the shoes meeting the carpet. She thought she also heard her child’s laughter. The next sound, however, she could not mistake.

It was a screech of panic, of fear, of fright. This sound, she knew well, too, from Fawn’s reactions to spiders-she had a deadly fear of them-arachnophobia-and would cry out in that manner at the slightest sight of even an empty web. This time, though, the cry was shriller, longer, and more pronounced.

At that moment, a terrible vision now presented itself before Rachel’s wide open eyes. She saw, as if the whole terrible incident were being played out on a movie theater screen, Fawn, unconscious, and lying on a slate gray tile floor, surrounded by off-white adobe walls. Beside her pale body were, inexplicably, the cleanly detached bare legs of a human being-a woman’s legs, judging from their size, width, and lack of hair. Hovering above Fawn was a black vulture, its beak poised just above the child’s tender throat. She could see only the bird’s back, but could tell that this bird, startlingly and inexplicably, had human features: long, flowing dark hair and the azure bare neck, back and shoulders of a young Mexican woman. All else remained avian. As the half-bird, half-woman gargoyle turned its head slightly to the left side, in preparation for a fresh attack, Rachel could see an aquiline nose, flame-red eyes, and two sharp incisor fangs, dripping with copious saliva and her child’s own blood. As the creature’s wingspread covered the little girl’s body, Rachel screamed hysterically. As she did, the vision vanished, and Nick instantly awoke, springing up in their bed.

“Rach! What is it? What’s wrong?”

“Fawn! It’s Fawn!”

“Aw, she’s all right, honey.”

“No! No! You don’t understand! I saw her! She was attacked by a-by a woman. Only it wasn’t a woman-it was a monster!”

“Aw, come on, Rach, it was only a dream, a nightmare. Fawn’s all right.”

“I’ve got to see for myself!”

“Okay,” he replied wearily, humoring her. He rose from the bed and grabbed his royal blue bathrobe from atop the nearby oak dresser, quickly throwing it on. At the same time, Rachel rushed to the closet, hastily put on and buttoned what she could of a canary yellow Oxford dress shirt, and sprinted to Fawn’s bedroom.

Much to her relief, Fawn was sleeping peacefully. Nick, who was standing right behind Rachel, lovingly braced her shoulders and whispered, “See, I told you. Everything’s all right. Come on, let’s go back to bed.” Rachel agreed, but still couldn’t get out of her mind the possibility that this was no mere nightmare, but a warning sent to her by the Great Spirit. She, however, did her best to convince herself that maybe Nick was right after all.

In Carlton, OH, then, two parents spent the rest of the night together peacefully, reassured of their child’s safety. But hundreds of miles away, in Tlaxcala, two other parents were much less fortunate. The Tlahuelpuchi had struck again. At the very moment Rachel was having her nightmare, the creature had decided to once again feast on baby Luis’s blood. This time, try as she might, she couldn’t restrain herself, and drained every last drop of blood from the child’s body. The baby’s parents, Professor Jose Alvarez and Dr. Maria Vega-Alvarez, stood in silent grief over the pale, lifeless body of their infant son. Professor Alvarez was the man Cheyenne had corresponded with, and whom they would meet personally in a few days. Little did their visitors know that they would be arriving in the middle of a funeral.

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Chapter 5

Rachel, Fawn, and Cheyenne had booked a commercial Delta flight out of Cleveland-Hopkins Airport, to O’ Hare in Chicago, and then to Hermanos Serdan International Airport in Mexico on a sunny, sultry June afternoon. As soon as the 2008 olive green jeep they had rented began ascending the mountains, the weather began to noticeably change. The air became thinner, less humid, and cooler. In fact, the outdoor temperature gauge dropped from 78 to 62 degrees. The jeep’s springs had obviously seen better days, as the slightly rusted vehicle seemed to quiver with each bump in the unpaved, potholeewn asphalt roads. Surely, Rachel thought, no vehicle’s tires or frame could long withstand this kind of wear and tear.

Along the twenty-minute ride to Tlaxcala, which was also the name of the main city they were headed, the three were struck by a variety of contradictory sights. Wooden frame houses, despite their flimsiness, were all brightly painted in various shades of lime green, yellow, and chartreuse. Multicolored jardinières and a rich assortment of tropical plants and bushes created the effect of a floral paradise in the middle of a residential landscape. Rachel, in particular, was surprised by the openness of these neighborhoods. In the states, there would have been tall, sturdy wooden or metal fences, along with, for some houses, any number of elaborate and expensive home security devices. Here, there were little else but informal creations of rusty chicken coop wire, o semi-thick shrubs to serve as fences. The message seemed clear: we value our privacy, but visitors are always welcome. How she wished modern American suburbia could be just as friendly. In many of the front yards the jeep passed, children were happily playing baseball.

As taken as she was with the region’s cheeriness, Rachel could not ignore its more distressing features. Everywhere they drove were signs of abject poverty. Heavy dust stirred up by vehicles traveling up and down the rough, rocky roads had soiled the windows of even the most colorful homes, and every backyard seemed to have outhouses instead of indoor toilets. It had evidently rained heavily several days before, for puddles of stagnant water, every mosquito’s favorite incubator, were everywhere, attesting to the neighborhoods’ overall lack of proper drainage. To Rachel, this seemed, all in all, a place somehow stuck between the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries.

At least the heart of Tlacxcala, where their hotel was located, had better paved roadways, along with some eateries that sold tortillas and sweet pan dulce. The outhouses had also seemed to have disappeared. The four-level hotel was painted a deep heron blue, as in Stephen Crane’s famous Western short story, “The Blue Hotel,” standing out like a blue beacon in this mountain community. Even more unusual, the trio discovered, was their second-floor room. The three separate beds were placed diagonally, with each head touching the other. When Rachel asked the young porter who helped them with their luggage why, he replied, “It’s an old folk belief, senora. It is said to ward off evil spirits. Will there be anything else, Senorita?”

“No, thank you,” answered Rachel, placing a peso in his right hand.

“Gracias,” smiled the porter, as he left, closing the door behind him.

“Wow,” remarked Cheyenne, “I feel like we just walked right into the middle of a horror film!”

“Yeah,” answered Rachel, arms folded, and scanning the room. The porter’s explanation somehow troubled her.

Meanwhile, Fawn jumped happily on the one of the beds, reached for the nearby remote control on the stand in front of her, turned on the TV, and started channel surfing for cartoons. She laughed at the strange words coming from the animated aardvark and ants she had come across. “Mommy,” she giggled, “don’t they talk funny?”

Rachel smiled at Fawn’s first reaction to the Spanish language. Still, she couldn’t quite rid herself of the lingering feeling of dread she felt ever since her nightmare of several nights earlier. She had nearly forgotten it, until the porter’s remarks about the beds’ strange arrangement. Momentarily, she wondered if she and Cheyenne had done the right thing in bringing Fawn with them. She couldn’t bear to think of what would happen if she lost her.

Unbeknownst to Rachel, this was the type of deep, abiding loss that their hosts were experiencing at this moment. The next morning, when the group traveled to the city’s northern quarter to the Alvarez hacienda, they unexpectedly came upon a most somber funeral procession, with signs of mourning everywhere.

Sheets of black crepe paper were hung over the windows of the nearby houses. Women wore black veils, and, in public recognition of the family, the mayor had hired a procession of professional mourners from the local church, an old custom in this quarter, to accompany the casket to the burial grounds. Their shrill wails could be heard everywhere, frightening Fawn and causing her to huddle close to her mother. Rachel and Cheyenne decided the three would wait by the house until the service was over.

They waited outside of what appeared to be the main house for about forty-five minutes until an egg shell blue Grupo Elektra pulled up in the asphalt driveway. Climbing out of the front seat was a smartly dressed young Mexican woman in a navy blue pant suit, notch-collared, starched white camp blouse, and string sandals with medium heels. Her long, flowing black hair framed a striking, heart-shaped face; her deep azure complexion and flashing brown eyes added to her beauty. She walked up to the trio and asked a question in Spanish.

“I’m sorry,” Rachel answered, circling the fingers of both hands around her lips.

“No need for sign language,” she smiled. “I speak perfect English.” Rachel was struck by her voice’s lovely Spanish lilt. At the same time, a slight chill ran through her body. This young woman somehow seemed vaguely familiar to Rachel, but she couldn’t quite place her.

“We’re here to see Professor Alvarez. My name is Rachel Russo-Graffanino. This is my daughter Fawn, and-"

“I’m Cheyenne,” she interjected, introducing herself with a friendly grin and a wave of her right hand.

“Well, I’m Dr. Louisa Gonzalez, the Alvarez family’s pediatrician. I’m afraid you’ve arrived at a very bad time. You see, the family’s infant son, Luis, died the two nights ago. Most tragic . . . of a . . . blood disease.”

“Oh, how dreadful!” replied Rachel.

“My God!” remarked Cheyenne.

“I’ve just come from the funeral,” continued Dr. Gonzalez. “The family should be returning shortly. May I ask what your business is with the Alvarez’s?”

“Well,” explained Rachel, “I’m a Professor of Native American literature at Carlton University in the United States, in Ohio. Cheyenne had contacted Professor Alvarez over the Internet about all three of us sharing our ideas about Native American folklore and writing. Since he’s an expert on the Mexican Indian culture, particularly on ancient Aztec legends, I thought we could all learn from each other. You see, I’m half Delaware Indian, and Cheyenne here is full Shawnee.”

“Yes, I can see that from her T-shirt,” remarking on its “Shawnee Pride” letters. “She’s clearly very proud of her heritage-advertising it as if it were a soft drink. You Americans!” she remarked with a smile, but in a tone that, to both Rachel and Cheyenne, sounded condescending.

“Bitch!” thought Cheyenne. “Who do you think you’re looking down your nose at?”

“Obviously, your arrival has been ill-timed.”

“OBVIOUSLY!” answered Cheyenne, mimicking the Doctor’s voice. Cheyenne’s meaning was not lost on Dr. Gonzalez, who now stared at her contemptuously.

“Who the hell are you eyeballing?” Cheyenne remarked to herself. Un-intimidated, she stared right back.

“ALL RIGHT, CHEYENNE! LET IT GO!” Rachel thought.

At that moment, the stand-off was interrupted by a great tumult. A short, middle-aged woman in a midnight blue dress and matching crew-neck top was running in the direction of the house, pursued by a crowd of about a half-dozen people armed with stones and clubs. They were shouting in Spanish, over and over again, a word that sounded something like “Tlaheulpuchi.”

As the woman drew closer, Fawn shrieked and hid her face in the skirt of Rachel’s flannel gray, piniped suit skirt. Cheyenne shuddered and Rachel looked on, aweicken. Only Dr. Gonzalez remained impassive.

The strange woman’s long salt and pepper hair had been deliberately styled so that one part would fall like a curtain over her face’s left side. But her frantic running had disturbed the arrangement, now revealing the visage she had been trying to hide. She was noticeably disfigured. Crude reconstructive plastic surgery covered the top left portion of her face in a patchwork of lumpy tissue; she had practically no nose at all, merely two dark lumps that looked like two small pieces of coal in the middle of what had once been a normal nasal cavity. She was also missing her left eye. Panting from fear and exhaustion, she desperately sought shelter behind Dr. Gonzalez, and crouched behind the doctor’s back. The crowd stopped, now silent, their weapons poised and ready. A tense quiet gripped the air.

Suddenly, the silence was shattered by a blaring horn. A black limousine appeared in the distance, barreling toward the house. It came to a screeching halt, about a foot from the crowd. A dark skinned slender man of medium height, probably in his early thirties, but with prematurely graying hair, disembarked form the car’s plus leather back seat. He was dressed in a dark grey flannel dress suit, white shirt, and olive silk tie. Immediately following him was a slightly taller, lighter skinned woman, about the same age, in a black cotton dress and jacket; a mourning veil hung from the old-fashioned pillbox hat that hid her neatly styled sandy brown permanent. It was clear that these were the grieving parents. They immediately rushed to the disfigured woman’s side.

At that point, a shrill siren was heard in the background, as a black and white police car drove up to the house and parked near the limousine. Disembarking was Tlaxcala Chief of Police Ramon Diaz, a short, stout, middle-aged man with a bullet-shaped head and a black mustache. Despite his size, he still cut an imposing figure in his light brown sheriff’s uniform, black military boots, and holster. Confidently, he strode up to the crowd and shouted a few warnings in Spanish to the crowd. They immediately dispersed. After a few words to the Alvarez’s, he returned to his car and drove off.

Dr. Gonzalez then walked over to the couple, and explained, in Spanish, that they had visitors. Then, the three, accompanied by the disfigured woman, strode over to greet Rachel, Fawn, and Cheyenne.

Speaking in English, Professor Alvarez introduced himself and his wife, Dr. Maria Vega-Alvarez, and the strange woman, their housekeep and little Luis’s nanny, Conchita Ortiz, to their visitors. The couple tried to be as hospitable as possible under the circumstances. When Cheyenne, who had been the contact liaison, expressed their condolences, apologized for the intrusion, the Professor assured her no harm had been done, and invited all three of them, as well as Dr. Gonzalez, to dinner the next day.

The next afternoon proved to be very pleasant, sunny, and in the mid-sixties. The group dined outside, on the Alvarez couple’s patio, where they were shielded from the sun by a forest green parasol attached to the middle of the ceramic table, where they sat on comfortable wicker-back chairs. All were dressed casually, in shirt sleeves, polo tops, and dungarees, all except Conchita, who wore her notch-collared white maid’s uniform and cherry red apron. Conchita had prepared a sumptuous meal of chicken enchiladas, baked tortilla, rice, and refried beans. The adults were served margaritas and Fawn iced tea. Fawn had gotten over her initial fear of Conchita’s appearance, and now felt sorry for her, in the way she sympathized with the ugly green ogre, Shrek. For her part, Conchita sensed that the child was warming up to her, and she smiled benignly at Fawn, who returned the smile. During lunch, Rachel and Cheyenne offered their plans for the proposed inter-tribal conference, and shared information with their hosts about their respective tribes’ customs, folklore, and legends. The Professor, in turn, shared with them some common Aztec beliefs and legends. That turned the conversation into a most uncomfortable direction.

“Tell me, Professor,” Rachel said, “that crowd that caused such a disturbance yesterday. They were shouting a strange word I’d never heard before. It sounded so odd-‘Tlahuelpuchi?’”

At the sound of this word, Dr. Vega-Alvarez blanched, and Conchita, who had returned to refill Fawn’s iced tea, dropped the glass pitcher on to the cement patio floor, causing it to shatter upon impact.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, Professor,” Conchita, in Spanish, apologized.

“Quite all right, Conchita,” answered Professor Alvarez, likewise in Spanish. “You can clean it up later. If you don’t mind, I’d like to talk to our visitors alone for a little awhile.”

“Yes, Professor,” she replied, and returned to the house.

It was now that the Professor decided to disclose the circumstances surrounding Conchita’s disfigurement and Luis’s tragic death.

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Chapter 6

Conchita, Professor Alvarez explained, had been employed as the family housekeeper, and later, nanny, for about two years before becoming the victim of a most tragic chain of events. On her days off, she would often visit the Mexico City Zoo. Ever since childhood, she had loved animals, and always found their company congenial and relaxing. She especially liked the primate exhibits, since the monkeys, chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas seemed so fascinating-so human.

One day, the exhibit added an adult male chimp named Samson. This chimp seemed like a natural entertainer, always swinging from branches, balancing himself on logs, and making faces at the visitors who lined up, one by one, to stare at him through the cell’s glass enclosure. To Conchita, he appeared to be putting on his own private show for her and her alone. When she would stride up to the cage and press her face close to the glass, she would smile openly and broadly; everybody said she always had beautiful dental work-so white and so bright-all in all, a lovely smile. Samson would always, in turn, press his face against the glass and smile back-or so it seemed to Conchita, and as openly and as broad-toothed as she. “What a wonderful mimic!” she would always say to herself about her “friend.” This routine continued for about three months, roughly twice a week, until one tragic day in March.

It was a Saturday afternoon, and Conchita decided to pay another visit to the zoo, and to Samson. That day, the chimp was squatting on the ground, and seemed preoccupied with a large rock that he was busily pounding of top of another rock. He stopped when Conchita tapped on the glass window. Once again, she smiled broadly, and Samson, turning his face toward her, seemed to be grinning back. He then returned his attention to what he had been doing. She waved goodbye, turned her back, and walked away from the cage, heading toward the exit, which was about a five-minute walk from the primate exhibit.

About two minutes into her walk, she heard a great commotion going on around her. Adults were shouting, running to and fro, and children screaming. She abruptly halted and turned around, but could only see a crowd of people rushing toward the exhibit in panic. She turned her back again, and started scurrying herself in the exit’s direction, when she felt it: a sharp blow to her skull and a massive weight on her back, forcing her to the sandy ground. Instantly, she felt sharp teeth biting into her scalp; she was in agony. Somehow, she managed to summon enough adrenaline and strength to knock whatever was on her back away. Instinctively, painfully, she tried to rise from the ground, and managed to turn around. As she did, despite the blood flowing from her scalp and into her eyes, she finally saw her attacker.

It was Samson, teeth barred and screeching in rage. Conchita learned later that the chimp had taken the rock he had been preoccupied with and had used it to smash the recently installed, and cheaper, glass that had been used to replace, the older, sturdier, and more expensive case. Now the chimp was loose and, to Conchita’s horror, thirsting for her blood.

Later, she would learn the reason why: Samson’s attack was in response to the most innocent of misunderstandings. She had always smiled at the chimp on every visit, openly displaying her teeth. To primates, a show of barred teeth is a sign of hostility. The chimp, unbeknownst to her, had been seething all this time, and had finally had enough.

This attack from behind had been merely the first retort. Samson was not finished with her yet. The approximately two-hundred-pound ape, in what resembled a professional wrestling flying body press, hurled himself at the petite, one hundred-thirty pound Conchita, knocking her to the ground, flat on her back. She could now feel the animal’s stagnant, hot breath and musty odor of his fur on her face. Then, he sunk his long, sharp incisors into the left side of her face, mauling her into shock and unconsciousness.

When she awakened later, in the Mexico City Hospital ER, she was told that the chimp had been shot and killed by zoo security, and that she had been in a coma for about four hours. The on-call medical staff had been able to stop the profuse bleeding, and had treated her with drugs to prevent infection from Samson’s saliva, but she had lost her left eye and much of her nose, and would require extensive reconstructive plastic surgery.

That procedure, explained Professor Alvarez, caused her months of untold suffering, involving periodic applications, in layers, of skin taken from her left thigh. In addition, each time, painful injections of antibiotics into the newly grafted flesh had to be administered, to battle other types of infections. Sadly, the results of all of Conchita’s patient suffering had still been patchwork.

“Well, if this had happened now,” Rachel commented, “Conchita might have been a candidate for a full-face transplant. It was tried out at the Cleveland Clinic, right in Ohio, where we’re all from. It involves transplanting a cadaver’s face onto the victim’s damaged face in one sheath-no patching-all in one seam. It’s really miraculous!”

“Oh, yeah!” added Cheyenne. “I’ve heard of that. I read a neat horror story on the Internet not too long ago, on a website called Wordshack. It’s called “Dead Man’s Face,” by this cool new author named Dale Uhlmann. I just love his stuff! And this one was as spooky as hel1-gave me nightmares for weeks! It’s about a guy whose face’s been disfigured. He’s Jewish, you see, and he’s married to an Arab girl whose uncle is a mobster. He was really pissed off, and that’s why he cut up the guy’s face, you know? Anyway, the guy gets a face transplant, but it turns out that the face has a life of its own, and . . .”

“Cheyenne, PLEASE!” remonstrated Rachel.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” apologized Cheyenne. “I guess I just got carried away!”

“Well, anyway,” continued Rachel, “how did she ever hold up?”

“Faith,” answered Dr. Vega-Alvarez firmly. “She feels fortunate that she’s alive, and asks God every day for the strength to bare her cross, as Christ bore his own, for us.”

“But I still don’t understand why the crowd attacked her and why they were using that strange word, ‘Tlahuelpuchi.'”

“The Tlahuelpuchi,” explained Professor Alvarez, “is from an ancient Aztec folk belief. It’s a human being who, by night, feeds on the blood of the living.”

“You mean, like a vampire?” asked Cheyenne.

“Yes, the Professor answered, “like a vampire. It usually takes the form of a bird of some type, like a vulture. Unlike a normal bird, though, the Tlahelpuchi has a bright, glowing aura. But before it shape-shifts, it sheds its human legs, leaving them in a place that has offered it shelter.”

“Oh, you mean, just the reverse of the ‘Little Mermaid?’” asked Cheyenne.

“What?” asked the Professor, confused by the allusion to the Disney character who willingly gave up her voice in exchange for a pair of legs, in order to become a human being.

“Please, never mind,” explained Rachel, “it’s not important,” casting a disapproving glance at Cheyenne, who shrugged her shoulders in response, as if to ask, “What did I say?!”

“But what does all this have to do with Conchita?” Rachel asked.

“You see,” interjected Dr. Vega-Alvarez, taking it upon herself to answer Rachel’s question, “the Tlahuelpuchi feeds mostly on the blood of children-especially infants, or small children,” and there have been several explained incidents, during the last five months, of children in this quarter who have died from severe blood loss.”

At the mention of “small children,” Rachel instinctively responded with a worried glance in Fawn’s direction; all this time, the child had been listening, eyes wide open and mouth agape, at this incredible tale.

Dr. Alavarez continued, “The creature is said to have telepathic powers, and can choose to enter into people’s minds whenever it chooses.”

“But Conchita?” Rachel persisted.

“Well, Conchita was Luis’s nanny, with close proximity to the infant, she answered. “This, plus her disfigurement-the old belief that the ugly in appearance must also be the ugly in soul-has convinced the superstitious of this quarter that she must be the Tlahuelpuchi that killed our baby-and the other children, too.”

“That, of course, is ridiculous,” Professor Alvarez added. “Our child-and the others-died of-what was your diagnosis, Dr. Gonzalez?”

“A blood disorder,” answered the Doctor, “quite rare, but very similar to anemia.”

“Is it contagious?” Rachel asked.

“I don’t believe so,” answered Dr. Gonzalez. “At least there’s no evidence that is. But then, there has been so little written on it in the medical journals.”

“Still, it is to modern medicine and science we must turn,” Professor Alvarez interjected, his voice rising in anger. “But if it were up to the superstitious and the ignorant here, they would have insisted that we should have put up more garlic, onion, and steel around the hacienda-or else kill Conchita-as if either one could have saved our child!” With that, he rose from the table in bitterness and frustration, flinging his white cloth napkin to the ground.

Professor Alvarez stood rigidly on the veranda, hands on his hips, staring into the distance, trying to collect his thoughts. The veins in his neck pulsated intensely. Finally, he was able to calm himself, turned to face his guests, and said, contritely, “I’m sorry, but my wife and I have both been under such a terrible strain. I’m sure you understand.”

“Of course,” replied Rachel, speaking for all of them. “There’s no need for an apology or an explanation, Professor.”

“Well,” he smiled, “may I offer all of you the hospitality of our humble hacienda for this evening?”

“Oh, we wouldn’t think of imposing on you and your wife,” Rachel answered.

“Yeah, our digs at the hotel are way good enough,” added Cheyenne. “You two have so too much for us as it is.”

“Oh, not at all,” replied the Professor, courteously dismissing his concerns with a wave of his right hand. “In fact, it would be our pleasure to have you, wouldn’t it, Maria?”

“Of course,” she answered.

“Well, if it isn’t any trouble,” Cheyenne answered. What do you think, Rach?”

“That’s very nice of you, Professor. What do you say, kiddo? Wanna stay the night here with Mommy and ‘Aunty’ Cheyenne?”

“Sure!” answered Fawn, enthusiastically.

“Okay, then,” Rachel smiled. “I guess you have yourself three house guests, Professor.”

“Wonderful!” beamed Professor Alvarez. “Oh, and you, too, Dr. Gonzalez. I hope you’ll also accept our hospitality.”

“Gracias, Professor,” she replied. “I’d be delighted.”

“Good!” the Professor smiled. “Well, Doctor, I’ll have Conchita prepare your room in the north building. You know where it is; you stayed there before. As for our American guests, it would be my pleasure to take you on a grand tour of our estate and show you where you’ll be staying. Come, please,” he said, gallantly waving his right hand in the direction of the rest of the estate.

Their host first showed them the stables, where he owned several rare Arabian horses, which he was breeding for racing. Next was the ranch itself, with its herd of Brahman cattle. Tending them that day was the family’s head ranch hand, a grizzled old Nahua Indian in checkered cotton shirt, denim jacket and jeans, leather boots and broad-brimmed stone gray cowboy hat, named Juan. Professor Alvarez explained that he was also a shaman or medicine man to several other Nahua ranch hands he employed, as well as their families, and had been with him for years.

He then took them to the building reserved for receptions and other celebrations. Inside was a sumptuously decorated dining hall with a huge table festooned with an elegant white table cloth, along with a full bar, orchestra stand, and dance floor. In this same building was a recreation center, replete with TVs, pool tables, table tennis, and the latest video games, which Fawn was especially fascinated with.

Finally, the Professor showed them their quarters in the west building. Rachel and Fawn would have a separate bedroom of their own, and Cheyenne separate quarters; each area had its own TV, phone, and bathroom. Afterwards, with a couple of hours yet before her bedtime, Fawn played all the video games she could in the rec. hall. Meanwhile, Rachel and Fawn continued to finalize their plans for the upcoming conference, which they tentatively scheduled some time in the fall. Soon, it was getting late, and it was time to retire for the evening. The three would get up early, return to their hotel, and pack for their trip back to the airport the next day, for their return flight home.

All would enjoy a peaceful night that evening, except for the Alvarez’s, whose recent renewed but frustrated attempts at intimacy were again taking a further toll on their marriage. As they lay together in bed, Jose tried all he could to stimulate Maria as she lay on her left side. He gently fingered and kissed the soft, pliable skin of her back, but without response. She merely drew the white satin sheets covering her body closer around her bare breasts. Frustrated, Jose sighed, turned over on his right side, and reached for a cigarette from a pack of imported Camels on the nearby night stand. He lit it, turned over on his back, took a few puffs, and stared off into the darkness of their bedroom.

“You know, Maria, I’m doing everything I can. I’ve been very patient with you. Why won’t you respond to me? What’s wrong?”

“Jose, it’s so soon after Luis’s death. You’ve GOT to give me more time-please!”

Jose took a few more puffs and then put out the cigarette in an ashtray on the stand.

“More time?” he asked in frustration. “Do you realize that’s the same answer you’ve given me, even since Luis’s BIRTH? Do you realize we haven’t made love to each other for WELL over a year?”

“Maybe WE haven’t but YOU have!”

“What’s THAT supposed to mean?”


“No, damn it!” he said, bolting out of bed and slipping into an aqua blue terry cloth bathrobe while lighting another cigarette. “I want you to tell me-now!”

“You know!” she insisted, jumping out of bed herself and wrapping the sheets around her body, tying them up into a makeshift knot at breast level.

“If I did, I wouldn’t be asking you now, would I, Maria?”

“What? You can’t even remember your own secretary’s name? I know you’ve been banging her for at LEAST the past year, and more! And how about those high-priced whores-or escorts-you’ve been seen with around town? Or don’t you ever exchange names?”

“If I HAVE strayed, Maria, it’s YOUR fault-you’re to blame!” he claimed, hurriedly dressing. “No man could put up with YOUR frigidity! Hell, he’d have to be a fucking saint! Christ, it’s a friggin’ miracle you even allowed yourself to get pregnant, even though you’re an obstetrician. How fucking strange is that? I think if you’d had your way, you would have had a baby through Immaculate Conception, or virgin birth!”

“That is blasphemous!” shouted Maria.

“If it is, remember me when you say your next rosary, SAINT Maria!” With that, he stormed out the door and headed to the local cantina, Rosa’s, which was within easy walking distance of the estate.

In no time at all, he could hear its blaring Tex-Mex music from the local band, smell its beer, and envision the same worn-out Playboy pin-ups hung up over the same pool tables. Nothing changed at Rosa’s, and that’s the way he liked it. As he was about to open the door, covered with crude knife-markings, his attention was diverted by a weird, phosphorescent glow in the night sky. “It’s just a shooting star,” he told himself, as he dismissed the strange sight from his mind and entered. He hoped that maybe Rosa herself, the cantina’s big breasted owner and chief bar maid, would be there tonight, and that she would, after everyone else had gone home, offer him, behind the bar, her buxom charms, as she had done many times before.

If he had paid more attention to that strange light in the sky, however, he would have noticed it behaving most peculiarly. It seemed to be circling a farmhouse and approaching it from a north-south direction. Then, it circled in lower and lower, zeroing in on its true target, a canvas pup tent.

It then came into view: a huge vulture. As it swooped lower and lower, a strange metamorphosis began to take place. Its upper avian features began to change into those of a woman known to all in that quarter of Tlaxcala. The half-human monster bared its talons, and delicately, silently, created an opening in the canvas large enough to accommodate her body. Then she saw them: two small boys, brothers, huddled in leather sleeping bags, one of which would become a death trap for the younger of the two. Deftly, the she-beast bore her fangs and sunk them delicately, but firmly, into the throat of her victim, and began to drink. This child was six years old, a little older than she would have preferred, but his blood still tasted untainted and pure. She was determined not to drain all of his blood at once, but to have a little left over for another midnight snack. Still, she must have enjoying herself a bit too loudly, for her slurping awakened his older sibling, who saw something his young eyes should never have seen. “Pedro! Pedro!” he shouted.

Suddenly, the creature knew she had been discovered, and turned, mouth agape, fangs dripping with saliva and blood. The child’s older brother, Eduardo, tried to scream, but could not. His eyes bulged in horror at the woman’s features. He knew this woman; he had seen her many times before. This recognition made the grotesque contradiction of the rest of her body-the black wings and feathers, and talons-even more shocking and sickening. He didn’t know what to do; before he knew it, his brain mercifully commanded his body to go into shock, to spare him any more traumas. When the creature decided that Eduardo posed no threat to her, she continued feeding on his younger brother. She had to end prematurely, though, because the lights in the darkened farmhouse now went on, and the parents, who would be investigating Juan’s previous screams, would be on the scene any moment. Regretfully, she took her last drop for the evening and flew out of the tent before the boys’ parents could discover her.

In the dark skies high above the human habitations, and away from any peering eyes, the reverse metamorphosis took place, and, except for its glow, the creature now resembled any normal vulture. She was headed to a secret location in a nearby mountain trail. There, a bronze sports wagon waited patiently. The vulture swooped down beside the vehicle, out of which climbed a woman in a broad-brimmed leather hat, a mud-brown overcoat, and a burlap mask, so she would not be recognized. She opened the cavernous trunk, into which the vulture flew. She then closed the trunk, climbed back into the front seat, and drove off. In the back seat was a huge burlap sack, out of which dangled a truly hideous sight: a pair of detached legs from a woman’s torso. It was these that the creature, with the help of her accomplice, would need to reclaim, in order to fully regain her human form and resume the identity so essential to her protection.

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Chapter 7

While the earlier atrocity was taking place, Jose Alvarez was returning home, smelling of stale cigarette smoke, beer, and Rosa’s nauseatingly sweet lilac-scented perfume. He stumbled through the door and upstairs to the bedroom.

“Maria? Maria? I’m baaaaaaack!” he loudly joked. “Where are you? Why don’t you answer me? Aw, fuck it!” he shouted, throwing himself, still fully clothed, face-first, on his pillow on the empty bed. He cynically told himself, “She’s probably in Conchita’s room right now, pouring her guts out to her, and complaining about what a rotten husband I am. Goddamned cunts! They’re bitches, every last one of ‘em! They’ll cut your nuts off in an instant!” He then nodded off to sleep.

Later, during the night, he thought he heard his wife’s familiar footsteps on the stairs. He then vaguely remembered her climbing into bed beside him.

“I’m sorry, Maria,” he thought he said to her. “I really am.”

“It’s all right,” he half-remembered her replying between sobs. “It’s been a bad night all around. Let’s get some sleep and forget about it.” But the morning, both of them would find, would only bring new concerns.

The cooler than usual dawn that morning would be rudely greeted by the loud, wailing sirens of both the Tlaxcala Chief of Police’s car and a slightly lower wail from the Tlaxcala Health Department van. Both vehicles drove up to the main house and stopped. Soon, the sirens ceased, and their respective parties climbed out of their vehicles. One of them was, of course, Chief Diaz. The other was a tall, lithe, bearded black gentleman in a tan business suit and white speckled, tobacco-brown tie.

Together, the two men walked up to the front door. When they reached the front step, the Chief wasted no time ringing the doorbell. Within four rings, Conchita, wearing a white terry cloth bathrobe, answered. She knew the Chief well, but the other gentleman, who introduced himself as Dr. Fernando Martinez, the Tlaxcala Health Department Head. They requested an immediate audience with all parties now on the estate, including the Alvarez’s, Conchita, Juan and the other ranch hands, who had just arrived for that day’s work, Dr. Gonzalez, and the three American guests.

As soon as he was dressed, Conchita was asked to inform the respective parties of the meeting. She first went to the west guesthouse to notify Rachel and Fawn, and then Cheyenne. Her next stop was the north guesthouse, to inform Dr. Gonzalez. Afterwards, as much as she dreaded it, she left for the ranch quarters, to inform Juan. She knew she was in for a chilly reception.

When she arrived, the old man was kneeling on one knee before a fallen bull. The animal appeared to be sick. Its eyes were tightly closed, and it was breathing hard. Juan appeared to be closely examining the animal’s neck for bruises or wounds.

“Juan,” she announced, “Dr. Alvarez sent me to tell you that Chief Diaz wants to see everybody out on the veranda immediately. Dr. Martinez from the Health Board is here, too. This looks like serious business.”

“Witchcraft always is,” he muttered, continued to be preoccupied with the animal’s condition. “This bull’s lost a great deal of blood-must have happened during the night. But, of course, you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”

“You talk like a fool!” answered Conchita, defiantly.

“Say what you like,” the old man answered, rising to his feet, wiping some loose straw and dirt from the ground onto his rugged denim jeans and facing Conchita, “but WE know how to deal with a Tlahuelphuchi!”

“Humph! Superstitious nonsense!” declared Conchita, folding her arms across her bosom. You’re crazy! What we have here is some kind of a disease, not a monster! And even if there were, I’m not it!”

“We haven’t forgotten the old beliefs, or the old ways,” replied Juan insistently, making sure that Conchita did not miss his meaning. “The ape hated you-he could sense you even then. Make no mistake about it-old Juan is on to you! You’ll slip up one of these days, and when you do, I’ll be right there, to put an end to you in the only way we know a Tlahuelphuchi can be killed-with a foot of steel through your body, WITCH!”

This threat frightened Conchita, but she refused to give him the satisfaction of letting him know that. Instead, she stuck strictly to business. “You’d better go,” she insisted, Chief Diaz doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”

The old man, by way of a reply, snorted contemptuously, vowing secretly to bide his time for the moment, and headed for the veranda.

When he arrived, Rachel, Fawn, Cheyenne, and Dr. Gonzalez were all present, standing together on the bottom step, while on the top step stood, side by side, the Alvarez’s and Dr. Hernandez, and, waiting patiently in front of them, Chief Diaz. When Conchita joined the group, the police chief began addressing the small gathering.

“Good morning,” he began in English, for the benefit of the Americans. “I called you here today because there was another ‘incident’ in the village last night. Pedro Hernandez, a seven-year-old boy in the quarter, and his older brother, Armando, were sleeping in a tent when it happened. The younger boy has suffered severe blood loss and is in a coma, and his older brother is in some kind of shock-evidently there was an attack last night, by some animal-possibly a bird, since it looks like something had cut into the tent with claws, or talons. That gives us our first real clue since these attacks have started-the disease may be spread by rabid animals. But we don’t know yet if it’s spread by any other means. Doctor, will you please explain further?”

Dr. Martinez stepped forward and said, “The Health Board has ordered an immediate quarantine of this sector. Nobody is the leave until an all-clear has lifted. This will be enforced, if necessary, by police action.”

“But you don’t understand,” said Rachel. “We three are going home tomorrow.”

“Yeah, in fact we have a flight out of Hermanos Serdan at 8AM for the U.S.,” added Cheyenne.

“And my T-ball tournament starts this weekend,” said Fawn softly, in all innocence and seriousness.

“I’m sorry, my friends,” explained Dr. Martinez, “but we must safeguard the health of our community. I repeat, until the all-clear can be given, no one may leave-no exceptions.”

“But surely special arrangements can be made for us, in view of the hardships and inconvenience this presents,” countered Rachel. Besides, if the disease really is spread by animals-by birds-how could our leaving possibly endanger others?”

“Yeah!” agreed Cheyenne.

“Oh, are you a doctor?” interrupted Dr. Gonzalez. “What medical school did YOU graduate from?”

“Hey, BITCH, I wasn’t talking to you!” shot back Cheyenne.

“Please, please!” interjected Dr. Martinez, holding out his hands, palms extended, in a calming gesture. “There is much we don’t yet; until we rule out completely the possibility of human contact as a factor, you must abide by the quarantine. For the good of all, I must insist that you change your travel plans for the time being. Thank you.”

Chief Diaz then stepped forward. “Juan,” he said, “tell your boys they’re going to be staying on the estate for awhile. Professor Alvarez will find accommodations for everybody. Unfortunately, that means you, too, Dr. Gonzalez. Would you take your care and ride out to the Hernandez house? I would go out myself, but I have to get back to the station, and Dr. Martinez needs to get back to the Health Department. He would like your professional opinion on the boys’ condition, also. Besides, one of the paramedics had an accident at home, and there should be a trained medical professional in the back to look after the boys. Conchita?” he asked the maid. “Will you go with the Doctor, too? The driver may need some extra help moving the boys into the ambulance. Now,” he said, addressing them all again, “the rest of you may return to your quarters. Thank you.”

Everybody else then dispersed. As she accompanied Rachel and Fawn back to the north guest house, Cheyenne, grumbled sarcastically beneath her breath, “‘Oh, are you a doctor? What medical school did YOU graduate from?’ I tell ya, Rach, before we go, me and that bitch are gonna have it out-and it won’t be pretty! Oh, sorry, kid,” she smiled, apologizing for her language in front of Fawn.

“Forget it, Cheyenne,” Rachel replied. And I mean, ‘forget it!’ The last thing we need right now is a blood-war between you and the Mexican medical community, okay? I’m gonna call Nick and tell him it’s gonna be a few days yet, at least, before we can get home.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Gonzalez’s Grupo Elektra arrived at the Hernandez house. The fire red EMS ambulance was already there, its back doors open, and the two boys strapped to separate gurneys. Their parents looked on, tears in their eyes. Dr. Gonzalez disembarked first, went over to them, and offered their condolences. When Conchita climbed out and joined the group, their eyes went stone-cold and stared at her in hatred. She instinctively covered the disfigured part of her face with her left hand and averted her eyes.

Dr. Gonzalez motioned for Conchita to follow her, as the men would need her help in lifting the gurneys into the ambulance when she finished with her examination. She examined the younger boy with the same meticulousness with which old Juan had examined the bull, turning his face two and fro, side by side, and checking for any signs of injury. There was, she would note later, in her report, a slight bruise near the jugular vein, virtually undetectable, except by the trained eye. She also drew from her black medical bag her stethoscope and blood pressure detector, to take his vital signs again. During this examination, the boy’s eyes were closed, as he was still deep in his coma. The other boy’s eyes were open, though he stared ahead blankly. The Doctor was about to examine him as well. As she did, she motioned Conchita over to help the driver move Pedro into the ambulance’s back. For a brief instance, then, both women were, for the first time, in his older brother Armando’s line of vision.

At that moment, Armando’s eyes suddenly came to life for the first time since last night. He started convulsing and screaming in a state of panic. “I’ll do it, Conchita!” shouted Dr. Gonzalez, shoving her out of the way, and helping the driver with first one gurney, then the other. Even when the driver closed the doors, Armando was still screaming. He screamed all the way to the hospital, until shock once again set in and he returned to his former state.

All this was not lost on Armando’s parents, who looked on with suspicion at a poor, disfigured woman whom they were convinced was responsible for this great tragedy that had befallen their sons. Armando’s disturbing reaction to Conchita’s presence confirmed their belief that she was a monster-a witch-a blood-sucking Tlaheulpuchi-sent from hell to destroy their family. They and others with young children made up their minds that day to do something about it.

In the meantime, as they drove back together to the Alvarez hacienda, Dr. Gonzalez told Conchita to pay no attention to them, to instead pray for the two boys’ recovery-and for the guidance that she herself would need in finding an answer to this strange illness that was sweeping the quarter.

However, the news would be no better the next day, when Chief Diaz and Dr. Martinez paid another visit to the Alvarez hacienda, to inform everyone that the younger boy, Armando, had died of blood loss during the night. Now, the quarantine would be extended, and a curfew placed at 10PM. Everybody was ordered to keep all doors and windows closed as well. If the disease was indeed being spread by birds, no possible entry could be left open for them. Again, Rachel was left with no other recourse but to phone Nick with the disappointing news that their return home would now be delayed more than just a few days. Nick was disappointed, telling Rachel that the Brett Michelson trial would begin early next week, and that he’d been hoping that she and Fawn would be home by then. Still, he realized there was nothing either one of them could do about the situation in Tlaxcala about the moment but wait. She promised to call him again when she had more news.

Later that night, after everybody else had retired for the evening, there was activity in the cattle corral. Another bull had been felled, completely drained of blood. The now pale, lifeless animal lay at the feet of the monstrous, glowing vulture, now re-transformed, but blood still dripping from its maw. The same bronze sports wagon from several nights ago pulled up, outside of the corral, and the same masked woman climbed out of the front seat, opened the trunk, into which flew the vulture. She closed the lid, but only half-way, before she heard a sound behind her back. Turning around, she stared, through the burlap’s eyeholes at Juan, brandishing a sharp, six-foot steel rod in his right hand.

“So, I’ve caught you at last, witch! No wonder you’re wearing that mask-you didn’t want anyone to recognize that mangled face of yours. Well, don’t you have anything to say, Conchita? You’re not so brazen and defiant are you, now that I’ve got some steel-the one thing that can kill you-in my hand. You got another one of my bulls, I see. You prefer our children, but when they’re too hard to get, cattle will do, huh? Well, I hope you got your fill, because this is the last time you feed yourself around here!” Boldly, he stepped forward, and with his left hand, in one fell swoop, tore the mask from her face.

Suddenly, he stepped back in amazement and fear. “No! No! It can’t be! It’s you! It’s you!”

Then, he felt a sharp pain in his left shoulder. He turned around, and, in terror, stared straight into the eyes of a demon. The vulture was upon him, having easily pushed the half-open trunk lid up with its body, and was grinding its beak and talons into his face. Feverishly, the creature tore at his eyes. Soon, blood was running down his cheeks, and he dropped his weapon to the ground.

He then instantly experienced an agonizingly piercing pain in his abdomen. As he turned around, he discovered, to his horror, that the woman he had unmasked, the demon’s accomplice, had picked up the steel rod and buried it through his midsection. He fell to the ground, gasping in agony. As he lapsed into the shock, the vulture leaped upon him and finished the job. Joining the creature in the station wagon’s trunk that night would be Juan’s pale, bloodless body.

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Chapter 8

Juan’s disappearance was the talk of the ranch for the next few days. The ranch hands, many of whom were members of his own family-cousins, nephews, and grandchildren-suspected foul play, and shared his beliefs about Conchita. One morning, shortly after his disappearance, They requested an audience with Professor Alvarez and demanded he hand her over to them. He refused, but to placate them, promised to immediately talk to her, and to Chief Diaz.

On his way to Conchita’s room, he wondered what to say to her. One thing was for certain: he would speak to Chief Diaz later, but about assigning an official police guard for Conchita’s protection. He refused to give in to superstition and ignorance.

As he approached Conchita’s room, an overpowering odor began assaulting his senses. It was a smell he had never experienced before-and hoped he would never again. When he rapped on the door, calling Conchita’s name, he pressed a white handkerchief he had pulled from his trousers pocket placed over his nose. When she didn’t’ answer, he pulled his key ring out of this other pocket, inserted the right one into the keyhole, and, half-gagging opened the door.

As he entered, he followed the odor directly to the closet, where it appeared to be the strongest. When he opened the door, he discovered, to his shock, Juan’s lifeless body trussed up against the top clothes bar, like a discarded old wardrobe. His eyes were open and his face frozen in an image of terror, his teeth clamped tight in a grimace of agony. His complexion was a chalky white. All in all, the sight sickened him. He called the police immediately, and in no time at all a report was filed, which he knew would only cast further suspicion on Conchita, and more trouble for them all.

Trouble was soon in coming. Later that day, after the police and the ambulance transporting Juan’s body to the morgue had left, the ranch hands, accompanied by about a dozen people from the town, stormed onto the veranda with guns and torches, demanding Conchita, the “witch,” to be given to them. The group’s leader gave Professor Alvarez exactly one hour to comply. The Professor did his best to stall them while his wife phoned Chief Diaz.

Meanwhile, Rachel, Fawn, and Cheyenne, who had joined them in their room, witnessed the proceedings from outside their window. “Wow!” Cheyenne remarked, “This is turning into a Frankenstein movie. The ‘angry villagers’ are out after the Monster!”

To the more literary-minded Rachel, the whole episode reminded her of an incident in the original Mary Shelley novel, in which Justine Moritz, the Frankenstein family’ maid, is unjustly accused of a crime committed by the Monster, and is hanged for the offense. She fervently prayed that cooler heads would prevail, and that Conchita would not meet with the same fate.

An answer to her prayers seemed to come when Chief Diaz, accompanied by a squadron of police cars, arrived within fifteen minutes. Diaz boldly stepped from his car and ordered the crowd to disperse, or force would be used. “I will not tolerate you taking the law into your own hands!” he told them in Spanish. “We’ll find Juan’s murderer-never fear! This is a matter for the police! Do you understand?”

“We understand,” the leader answered, likewise in Spanish, “that there’s a Tlahuelpuchi in that house, and that someone is offering her protection! We want safety for our friends, our families-and our children!”

“The law and the health authorities in Tlaxcala are doing everything it can to safeguard you and your families! As for this monster, it doesn’t exist! It’s the product of your own superstition and fear! Forget it-and leave this poor, innocent woman alone. She’s suffered enough!”

“Not enough as far as WE’RE concerned!”

“At this point, Chief Diaz pulled out a gun from his holster, and aimed it squarely at the leader. “Come here!” he ordered. “COME HERE!”

The leader, Ricardo, was a young man in his twenties. He was tall, broad, and rugged looking; his cleft chin was littered with five o’clock shadow, which he felt made him more attractive to the ladies, and was full of bravado. He smiled cockily and strode up to the police chief, confident he could call whatever bluff he thought Diaz had in mind. At any rate, he had to-Juan had been his mentor, and he had just recently emerged as his second in command at the ranch. Now with the old man’s passing, he was first in command, and he could not lose face in front of the others, not after he had clawed his way up the ladder to achieve such hierarchy. His very machismo was being challenged.

As soon as he got within arm’s length, Diaz pulled him by the scruff of his shirt collar, put a military choke hold around his neck, and placed the barrel of the gun flush against the young man’s left temple.

“Now, you cocky some of a bitch, let’s hear you spout off to me NOW, heh?”

Fear had frozen Ricardo’s tongue in his mouth, and he could say nothing.

“Don’t know what to say, amigo?” asked Diaz. “Well, let me tell you what I want to hear: ‘Back to your quarters!’ You hear me? ‘Everybody back to your quarters!’ SAY IT NOW!-OR I’LL BLOW YOUR FUCKIN’ BRAINS OUT!”

Ricardo still could not control his nerves enough to speak. Never had he felt the cold steel of a gun against his flesh before.

“I don’t hear you givin’ no orders yet. Maybe I need to aim a little lower first!”

With that, he shoved the gun’s barrel near the crotch of Ricardo’s blue jeans. When he heard the click of the trigger, the young man wet his pants. “I’d better be hearing something by the count of three, amigo,” Diaz warned him, “or, after today, you’ll be absolutely useless to any senorita in this quarter! One . . . two . . .”

Ricardo heard the trigger’s click again.


Before Diaz could get out the final syllable, Ricardo miraculously managed to instantly regain his power of speech: “BACK TO YOUR QUARTERS! EVERYBODY BACK TO YOUR QUARTERS!”

“Now, you’re talkin’ my language!” responded Diaz. “Go on! Get the fuck outta here!” With that, he released the young man, and he quickly ran to the comfort of his friends, who had started already taken off in the opposite direction. As they scurried away, Chief Diaz had some parting words for them.

“If I were Professor Alvarez, I’d fire the whole lot of you and start all over, but that’s up to him! For my part, I’d better not have to come out here again, or things will get REALLY ugly-and I ain’t talkin’ ‘Coyote Ugly!’”

“Geez!” commented Cheyenne, who, along with Rachel and Fawn, had witnessed the whole scene from their guest house, “This is like something out of Richard Rodriguez-Desperado, dudes!-BIG TIME!”

Following this situation, all this time, and with special anxiety, was Conchita, who thanked the Holy Virgin that she had once again escaped the hands of death. She secretly wondered how many more near lynchings like this she would have to face, and whether Chief Diaz’s machismo would always be enough to keep her safe. In the meantime, she had one other mission to complete, later, when everybody else had gone to bed.

Meanwhile, day turned into night, and it was soon Fawn’s bedtime. About 9PM, Rachel heard a rap at her door. It was Dr. Gonzalez, her medical bag in hand.

“Good evening,” she smiled. “I hope I’m not disturbing you.”

“No, not at all,” answered Rachel. “I was just about to go to Fawn’s room and read to her for the night.”

“Well,” she answered, “May I ask a favor of you?”

“Sure,” replied Rachel.

“I would like to take a blood sample from your daughter. If we can compare the blood of children around the same age as the victims thus far, that may give us a clue as to what types may especially be at risk, and what other high-risk features may be present in such blood. That may help us develop some type of vaccine. I wouldn’t have asked you otherwise, but it is very important, and it won’t take but a few minutes.”

“Well, I guess it would be all right,” answered Rachel. “Her room is that way,” she pointed.

“Thank you,” answered Dr. Gonzalez.

After about twelve minutes, the Doctor was finished, and returned from Fawn’s room.

“All done,” she announced. “Your daughter was very cooperative and brave-not a bit afraid of needles.”

“No, she isn’t,” Rachel smiled. “I trust you got all you needed?”

“Oh, yes,” Dr. Gonzalez, affably replied. “She gave me all the blood I wanted. Thank you, Dr. Russo-Graffanino. Good night.”

“Good night,” answered Rachel. She then picked up the Grimm’s Fairy Tales books she had brought with her, from the nearby end table and headed for Fawn’s room.

To her surprise, Fawn was already half-asleep.

“Wow!” Rachel remarked. “You must be REALLY tuckered out. This is the first time you’ve every nodded off to sleep without a story. And it’s a good one, too, the story of ‘Iron John.’ It’s all about golden apples, kings, princesses, knights, and a wild man! You’ll love it!”

“Can I hear it tomorrow night, Mommy?” Fawn answered groggily. “I’m awfully tired.”

“Okay, ‘princess.’ We’ll save it for tomorrow. Good night, sweetheart.” She kissed Fawn on the forehead. As she did so, the child’s skin, she thought, felt somewhat cold, even clammy, but it must be her imagination, she told herself. Surely if there were anything wrong, Dr. Gonzales would have mentioned something to her. Dismissing her momentary fears, she turned off the light, closed the door, and returned to her own room.

About a half-hour later, a series of knocks again drew Rachel to the door.

“Who is it?” she asked, placing a pink cotton bathrobe over her pale blue nightgown.

“It’s Conchita,” answered the voice from outside. “Please, senora, I must speak with you.”

“Just a moment,” replied Rachel, who then unlocked and opened the door for her.

Conchita stood in the doorway, wearing a tan housecoat that she had hastily thrown over her white nightgown. She was noticeably upset, and trembling.

“What’s wrong, Conchita?” she asked. She shut the door and motioned for the woman to enter, and to sit down beside her on the large bed.

“Oh, senora, you don’t know what it took for me to come here tonight, to make sure I wasn’t spotted. I’ve been living in fear ever since these attacks started, about six months ago. And now, I fear, you’re in danger, too!”

“What do you mean?” asked Rachel.

“The Tlahuelpuchi-it DOES exist! The people are right. But It is not I, senora! It is not I!-you must believe me!”

“Conchita!” urged Rachel, “You’ve got to get a hold of yourself and tell me what you mean!”

“Senora, you of all people know that the supernatural exists. I’ve read of your battles with the chindi. We have here, in Tlaxcala, a fiend ten times worse! It feeds on innocent babes’ blood! It lives within our midst! Somebody is giving it shelter!”

“Assuming you’re right,” Rachel tried to reason with her, “You must know who the Tlahuelpuchi is. Who is it, Conchita? Who?”

“I can’t tell you yet, “Conchita explained. “If I do, others’ lives will be in danger. But I know its own kin is protecting it-giving it a safe place to hide, while it conceals itself during the day behind another identity. Its accomplice is trapped, and MUST do this!”


“Because if the creature’s kin is responsible for its destruction, that poor soul will become a Tlahuelpuchi, too. That is one way in which the curse is passed down.”

“My God!” uttered Rachel. “But why am I in danger?”

“Because you have what every Tlahuelpuchi wants-a young child whose blood is most sweet! It’s irresistible! She will set her sights on your child-no matter what the risks-and try to take her for her own! I know-I know, because . . . I’ve had . . . a vision.”

“A vision?”

“All my family’s womenfolk have had what we call a ‘second sight.’ When others are in danger, we are given, by the Holy Virgin, a glimpse into the future-an epiphany-to warn the innocent and unprotected. I had one tonight.”

“What did you see?” Rachel asked.

“Your child-Fawn-in a casket, mourned by your friend, Cheyenne, and your husband. Her body pale-and bloodless-like little Luis!” At the mention of the dead child’s name, she broke down and started crying. She then composed herself and continued.

“Senora, you must never let your child out of your sight for an instant. And never leave her alone with anyone here-even someone you trust-not even for a moment-for the one that smiles and says she wants to help you-she may be . . . the Tlahuelpuchi.”

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Chapter 9

Rachel rose early the next day, Conchita’s warnings still wringing in her ears. Fawn was usually an early riser herself, usually up by 7:30AM, but not this morning. Then, 8:30AM came and went: no Fawn. It was now 9AM, and still no stirring from Fawn’s room. Suspicious, Rachel rapped on Fawn’s door. No answer. She then opened the door and saw that her child was in a stupor, her breathing hard and labored, and skin now a ghastly pale. Instantly, she phoned Cheyenne to come over, and Professor Alvarez to notify Dr. Gonzalez. After a brief examination, Dr. Gonzalez asked Rachel and Cheyenne to help move Fawn to a special room in her north quarters, where an immediate blood transfusion could be given.

As they entered the room, a cold chill ran down Rachel’s spine. It was identical to the one she had seen in her dream the night before leaving for Tlaxcala. There were the same off-white adobe walls and slate gray tile floor. She stood there momentarily in stunned silence while Dr. Gonzalez and Cheyenne hurried past her and place Fawn on the bed. Then, her mind snapped back to the present moment, in response to a question now posed by Dr. Gonzalez.

“Are you AB negative, senora? That’s your child’s blood type.”

Rachel shook her head.

“I am,” said Cheyenne.

“Well, let me first check with the Alvarez’s and the ranch hands. If none of them matches this type, I may have to use you after all.”

“Hey, what is this shit?” demanded Cheyenne. “This little girl’s dying. I’m her mom’s best friend and surrogate aunt. I’m the right blood type, too. What’s there not to like? What’s your problem?”

“Have you had an HIV test recently?”

“Yeah, and it was negative. What’s your point?”

“My point is that, no offense intended, your outspokenness and rather insolent attitude make it highly likely that you have ‘alternative’ sexual preferences, and may have engaged in activities that may make you susceptible to HIV-that’s all.”

“That’s all? Let me tell you something, sister, my personal life is my own damn business! Just because I speak my own mind and aren’t afraid of bruising a few egos and feelings along the way, that makes me a dyke? And if I am gay, you don’t think I know anything about safe sex? You think my personal lifestyle makes me a bad person? Well, fuck you and the horse you rode in on!”

“I think,” said Dr. Gonzalez calmly, “we should let the child’s mother decide.”

“Oh, by all means, let Cheyenne help! Let’s not waste time arguing.”

“You’re willing to take the risk I’ve mentioned? And to sign a paper to that effect, relieving me of any legal responsibility if your friend’s blood proves to infect your child with HIV?”

At those words, Cheyenne glared at Dr. Gonzalez with indignation.

“Yes, of course!” answered Rachel affirmatively.

“Very well,” Dr. Gonzalez said. “Ask your friend to lie down beside your child, and bare her right arm.”

“Go ahead, Cheyenne,” said Rachel.

The transfusion went well, and Dr. Gonzalez advised Rachel to let the child sleep, and that she would look after her. She then advised Cheyenne to take some orange juice and lie down awhile, and then, when she felt stronger, to her baggage into an adjacent room, so she could help her and Rachel take turns watching after Fawn. Finally, she told Rachel to get some rest, too, assuring her that the crisis had passed.

Rachel decided to take this opportunity to walk over to the main house and bring the Alvarez’s up to date on this latest development. She then took this opportunity to pay an unannounced visit to Conchita’s quarters.

When she rapped sharply on the door several times and received no answer, she suspected the worse. Instantly, she confided her suspicions to Professor Alvarez, and asked him to unlock the door for her. As he did, he, Rachel, and Dr. Vega-Alvarez, who had joined them, were stunned by the drops of what appeared to be fresh blood discoloring the snow white carpet. They followed the drops to the bed, and found, lying on the floor, and clutching the bedspread with her right hand in a death grip, Conchita. Her neck had been horribly torn open, as though by some enraged animal; blood was flowing from her neck and down her maid’s uniform. Her skin was ghastly to behold, a chalky pale. Professor Alvarez was about to phone Chief Diaz, suspecting one of the ranch hands, perhaps Ricardo, when Rachel firmly placed a restraining left hand on his right shoulder


“No,” she answered. “You’ll be letting an innocent party take the blame. Professor, Conchita visited me last night and told me there IS a monster living here, and that it’s somebody we all know and trust.”

“Oh, nonsense!” he protested.

“It isn’t nonsense,” answered Dr. Vega-Alvarez. “Listen to her! For God’s sake, listen to her! There’s been enough killing here, and it’s got to end-now!” With that, she ran from the house, on some unknown destination.

“Maria! Maria! Wait! Wait!” shouted the Professor hurrying after her.

Rachel stood, frozen in the room, staring at Conchita’s body.

“Oh, Conchita, Chonchita, you poor soul! What were you trying to tell me? What? Wait! What was that you said?”

Suddenly, Conchita’s voice echoed in Rachel’s ears: ‘“Senorita, you must never let your child out of your sight for an instant. And never leave her alone with anyone here-even someone you trust-not even for a moment-for the one that smiles and says she wants to help you-she may be . . . the Tlahuelpuchi.’”

“Oh, my God!” she exclaimed, “What have I done, leaving her alone with her? Fawn! Fawn!” Instantly, she hurried back to Dr. Gonzalez’s north guest house, praying she was not too late.

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Chapter 10

Meanwhile, a bizarre tableau was being played out a few miles away, on the Mexico City Hospital’s children’s floor. There, Dr. Martinez was supervising an insulin shock treatment session, hoping that it would snap the surviving Hernandez brother, Aramando, out of his catatonic state.

Dr. Martinez had convinced his parents, who watched, with tears in their eyes, from behind a glass window overlooking the treatment room, that this treatment had at least a fifty-fifty chance of returning their son to normal consciousness. IV’s were applied to both arms, along with the electrodes to his bare chest. His parents cringed as four separate jolts, monitored by the Doctor and two nurses, caused their son to spasmodically twist and turn on the gurney to which he had been strapped, at the same time forcing his eyes to shut in response to the severe shocks that were necessary to the treatment’s success.

Then, a most miraculous event occurred. After the fourth jolt, Armando’s eyes opened, and his mouth twisted. Then, he jerked himself up in the bed, panicicken, shouting. “Keep her away from me! Keep her away from me! Keep her away from me!”

“Who?” Dr. Martinez asked, remembering that the boy’s most recent conscious memory had been to the two women, Dr. Gonzalez and Conchita, assisting him into the EMS ambulance. “Who do you mean - Conchita, the maid?”

“No!” He shouted. “The other one! The other one!”

“The other one!” Dr. Martinez remarked to himself, his eyes widening as the epiphany began to reveal itself to him. “The other one!”

At that very moment, Rachel was rushing to the north guest house. As she pushed open the door, she heard Dr. Gonzalez’s voice coming from the transfusion room.

“Good girl! You’re feeling much stronger now, aren’t you? Why don’t you do that little trick your Daddy taught you, you know, the one you were telling me about?--your jumping? You need the exercise, you know. Go ahead. I’ll keep count! One . . . two… good!”

“Then she heard the words she remembered all too vividly from her nightmare, interspersed with the sounds of Fawn’s giggles, and footfalls on the tile floor.

“Good girl! Another one! Good! Another one! . . . Now, one more!”

Then, she heard her child’s frightened screamed. As Rachel shoved open the door, she saw what she had seen weeks ago, in a subconscious warning to her from the Great Spirit. Fawn lay on the floor, unconscious. Beside her were two human legs-a woman’s, laying there as if they had been shed like a snake’s skin. Above Fawn’s pale, pajama-clad body was the Tlahuelpuchi: a huge, phosphorescent black vulture, with a Mexican woman’s long black hair and bare neck and shoulders. As the creature’s head turned sharply to the side, preparing to again skink its fangs into Fawn’s throat, and cover the rest of her little’s victim’s body with its wingspread, Rachel recognized the aquiline nose, the face, and the eyes.

“You! It’s you!” Rachel shouted, startling the creature, which now turned around to face her enemy. “Gonzalez! You, you’re the monster!”

With that, the creature uttered an inhuman, ear-piercing shriek, and made a beeline straight for Rachel.

“Cheyenne! Cheyenne!” she screamed, attempting to fight the monster off with her bare hands, while trying her best to protect her face at the same time.

“I’m coming, Rach!” she responded, bolting into the room with a T-ball bat in her hands that she had brought with her on the trip for Fawn. “Jesus Christ!” she shouted in amazement at the grotesque half-human beast that bore Dr. Gonzalez’s visage, twisted into a mask of animalistic fury. Cheyenne took some swings at the creature that alternatively soared and swooped over her opponents, guarding furiously her latest prey. On a final swoop, the creature’s powerful talons knocked the bat out of Cheyenne’s hands.

“Okay!” shouted Cheyenne. “If you want to play it that way, we will!”

The monster flew straight at Cheyenne, whose right hand deftly pulled from the brown leather handbag strung over her left shoulder a can of pepper spray. When the beast was within range, Cheyenne squirted the acidic spray into its eyes and beak. The she-creature shrieked in agony, and began swirling spasmodically in disorientation and panic.

“Payback! Ain’t it a bitch?” Cheyenne gleefully commented.

While the creature was dazed and confused, Dr. Vega-Alvarez bolted into the room, brandishing a six-foot, sharp steel rod in her hands. With one deft motion, she buried the point into the Tlahuelpuchi’s midsection, its end point impaling the creature against the wall. The monster wailed in agony, as the stunned onlookers now beheld a most eerie sight, one that they would all remember for the rest of their lives.

Instantly, the half-human beast’s features began to bubble and dissolve, leaving nothing but the rod protruding from a blood-covered wall. A few feet away, on the tile floor, lay the fully clothed, complete body, legs and all, of Dr. Gonzalez.

The spectators looked on silence. Then, suddenly Rachel shouted, “Fawn! We’ve forgotten about Fawn.” She instantly ran to and cradled her child, lifting her in her arms.

At that point, Dr. Martinez arrived, to deliver the news that he had discovered the Tlahuelpuchi’s identity. They assured him that the matter had already been handled, and that a more pressing matter now needed to be taken care of: a blood transfusion for Fawn. It was too soon for Cheyenne to give blood again, so Dr. Vega-Alvarez, whose blood type was also AB negative, volunteered. As before, the transfusion went well, and Fawn soon recovered. Afterwards, the donor, Dr. Vega-Alvarez, had a most startling secret and explanation to share with all.

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Chapter 11

That night, Rachel, Fawn, Cheyenne, and Dr. Martinez all sat in the hacienda’s living room and listened to Dr. Vega-Alvarez reveal the truth about the Tlahuelpuchi.

“The curse had run in our family for generations,” she began. “Dr. Gonzalez-Louisa--first knew about her ‘condition’ some time around the age of twelve. At that age, she began to experience a craving for all things with blood in them. At first, they were small things-flies, spiders, but eventually young kittens and puppies that I supplied her. She tried to control her cravings, but it proved harder and harder, until, finally, animals were not enough, and she craved human blood-the sweet, pure blood of children. She plunged herself into her medical studies, her career, trying to submerge her true nature by immersing herself in modern science and technology. She traveled all over Europe, hoping for a cure for her problem, but to no avail. Finally, she returned home to Tlaxcala, determined to continue to find a cure, and to, in the meantime, satisfy herself with the blood of the animals that I once again supplied her. She was successful for many months until she could no longer resist the temptation of feeding on children, about five months ago. Then, she could not resist the temptation of feeding on my own child, no matter how many times she had vowed she would not! At first, she controlled herself, and neither I nor anyone else noticed the attack’s first symptoms. By the second attack, she had given in to her craven desires completely, and drained every last drop of blood from my baby!” She glanced downward, trying hard to control the tears that were welling up in her eyes.

“You knew, and you STILL protected her?” asked Rachel.

“I had to!” she insisted. “After all, she was my half-sister! Besides, I was fearful of the curse, and that it would be passed down to me if I were to be responsible for her undoing.”

“Well, you are now, aren’t you?” asked Cheyenne.

“Yes,” Dr. Vega-Alvarez answered. “But I’ve asked my husband, Jose, to take mercy on me and . . . do away with me . . . if I should meet the same accursed fate as Louisa.”

“I pray you will not, my love,” said Professor Alvarez, tenderly, rising from his chair and embracing his wife, “but I will do whatever needs to be done. In the meantime, my friends, for the sake of my wife and me, I ask you never to divulge this secret to others. Chief Diaz has already agreed to file a report that Dr. Gonzalez sacrificed her life killing the animal responsible for the attacks. For his part, Dr. Martinez will lift the quarantine, and our American guests can all go home. Please, though, remember my request to you-and pray for us.”

Afterwards, Rachel phoned Nick and told him that the quarantine had been lifted, and that she, Fawn, and Cheyenne would be flying home tomorrow. In return, Nick had some important news for Rachel: that Brett Michelson had been found guilty of assault, and sentenced to twenty-five years in the state penitentiary in Lucasville. He also had one other bit of good news: the deer had returned to Carlton in their absence, so perhaps their departure had simply been a freak occurrence or a false alarm-or a true wake-up call of the Great Spirit’s. Whatever the case, perhaps the Great Chastisement was not imminent after all-at least not yet. In any event, they would have much to talk about when he picked them up at Cleveland-Hopkins airport at around 4:30PM the next day.

On their way home from the airport, they talked about what they could concerning their experiences in Mexico, while Nick clued them in on the details of the Michelson trial. Then, Nick dropped off Cheyenne at her apartment, and drove back home with Rachel and Fawn. As their hunter green Explorer SUV pulled into their driveway, Rachel suddenly had a profound sense of foreboding.

As they disembarked from the SUV, Rachel saw, to her horror, a burly man of medium height with a military crew cut, and in an orange prison suit, spring out from behind a hedge and subdue her husband from behind in a military choke hold. He then pressed a pistol into Nick’s left temple. It was Brett Michelson, who had escaped from custody, and hungry for revenge against Nick.

“All right, you little piece of shit. I’ve got you just where I want you!”

“Don’t!” gasped Nick. “You’re making a big mistake!”

I’m making a big mistake? I don’t think so! Even if they catch me, at least I’ll have the satisfaction of putting you six feet under! One less lawyer in this world-sounds like a fair deal to me! Okay, asshole, let’s start walkin”-NOW!-or I’ll blow your brains out a little earlier than I planned-right in front of your wife and kid!”

“Okay! Okay!” gasped Nick. “Rachel, Fawn, back away. Don’t worry. This man is NOT going to kill me! Everything’s gonna be okay!”

“Ah, now you shouldn’t lie to your family, but I guess lyin’ comes natural to fuckin’ mouthpieces like you! Move!”

At that moment, a strong flutter of wings disrupted the quiet. Soon, a phosphorescent glow brilliantly lit the sky, and a huge, black, airborne shape descended upon the scene. Instantly, Rachel and Fawn recognized it as the Tlahuelpuchi.

The creature, pure vulture, landed squarely on Michelson’s face knocking him to the ground, causing the gun to fall from his hand and Nick to spring free, and to run to Rachel and Fawn’s side. The great bird shoved its beak into Michelson’s eyeballs, plucking them out as neatly as one does apples from a tree. Michelson screamed in agony, blood running down his face, as the creature then devoured whole his nose and much of his mouth.

In a state of panic, and a sudden burst of strength, Michelson managed to temporarily shove the creature out of what was left of his face, rose to his feet, and still screaming, madly ran into the street-right into the path of a Wal-Mart semi-truck. The massive vehicle hit him head-on, flinging him into the air into the opposite lane, where, on his downward path, he was struck broadside by a cherry red Explorer jeep. His mangled body promptly ended up in a ravine by the roadside that was full of standing rain water and stale duck feces from the night before.

“Ain’t THAT a bitch!” commented Nick.

Meanwhile, the Tlahuelpuchi, still bright and glowing, flew off into the horizon, on some secret destination. Only Rachel and Fawn-and Cheyenne, when Rachel told her about the amazing incident later-knew where it was heading-back home to Tlaxcala. They knew that it was Maria, who had fallen under the curse after all, and that, sensing somehow that she needed her, she had used her new powers to enter into Rachel’s mind, and come to her rescue. For that, she would always be grateful.

Two weeks later, Cheyenne paid a visit to Rachel and Nick, who was enjoying a quiet evening alone in the living room, watching a DVD. She was glad that Fawn was staying with paternal grandparents, Nick’s folks, for her a downloaded three-page Yahoo News article to them.

“University of Mexico Professor Kills Wife and Then Himself” read the gruesome headline:

“In a bizarre and totally unexpected tragic turn of events, renowned Professor of Aztec Culture, Professor Jose Alvarez, killed his wife, obstetrician Dr. Maria Vega-Alvarez, in their hacienda, late last night. According to police reports, he had impaled her mid-section with a six-foot, pointed steel rod, and then shot himself in the mouth with a high-caliber pistol. It was reported that the couple had recently had marital troubles, and that both were depressed over the recent death of their infant son, Luis. The official police investigation, meanwhile, is continuing.”

“My God, what a horrible story!” remarked Nick.

“Yes,” said Rachel softly. She turned to Cheyenne, and as they stared in silence at each other, no words needed to be spoken. Both knew that they were thinking the same thing: Professor Alvarez had, as a final act of love and mercy, kept his promise to his wife. Should they now tell Nick the full truth? Should they ever?

While both were pondering this question, a strange series of events were unfolding in Tlaxcala. A young boy, wearing a royal blue Los Angeles Dodgers baseball cap and jersey, was furiously peddling his bike home. It was now dark, and he didn’t want to anger his parents for being late again to supper. Unbeknownst to him, hovering over his head, and tracking his every move, was a bright, glowing shape with a massive wingspread . . .

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