Revenge of the Shape-Shifter by Rekha Amberdar

Pine trees mimicking sentinels on a silent watch sliced the ground like slanting natural railings as Tess Scolari wound her SUV up the dirt incline of Dead Sage Mesa. Snaking up the forlorn hill, she tried not to look out the window to the right. One slip and the SUV would somersault downward several hundred feet below.

On either side in the distance, burned juniper and yucca trees stood hunched over like skeletal dwarves from the raging forest fire two summers ago. Tess avoided looking at them as she persisted onward up the dry, dusty trail leading to Tierro, the shaman, who had for sure caused the death of one of the cub reporters on Bits and Bytes, the online newspaper Elise worked for. The official story was that the reporter had gone off the treacherous incline, but Elise knew that wasn’t the truth. She had nothing to go by – just a gut feeling, which was why she was here. She had to find out more about the man who caused the residents of San Mariposa to clam up when she asked if they knew anything about the shaman who lived on top of the hill up the mesa. Nobody knew when he came or where he was from; they just felt his evil power around them and in their small hill town.

The vehicle’s clock showed 3 p.m. The heat today was a bit more intense for a late December afternoon, but it was dry heat so typical of Arizona. Tess pressed the window button and the window opened a crack. She felt the hot blast surge in. Big mistake. She jabbed at the button again.

Her journey was at an end. The dirt trail finally curled into a cul-de-sac on which sat a brown adobe hut. A man lolled on a bench outside it, smoking a pipe. Whatever she’d expected, it wasn’t this. The man was probably in his forties, wore faded blue jeans, a jeans jacket with leather tassels, cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. She’d almost expected him to be clad in sackcloth, or animal fur.

Wolf skulls on stakes fronted the adobe forming a macabre fencing around the tiny property. What a sight, she thought, and wished she hadn’t come. Too late now.

She parked while the man watched her closely. She took a deep breath and got out of the vehicle.

“Mr. Tierro?” she said, walking up to him. “I’m Tess Scolari from Bits and Bytes, and I’d like to interview you.”

“So. You’ve come.” He had a deep droning voice, almost as if it had emanated from the belly of a mausoleum. “You have come, Cara.”

“Pardon?” The guy was weird. She should really turn around and leave, no questions, no interview.

“You did not come to me. I called you, summoned you here,” he said. “Ah, you’re puzzled. Never mind. You’ll soon learn.” He got up and ambled toward her, extending his hand.

Tess’s stomach gave an uncomfortable lurch. She willed it away and persevered. “I hoped you might have time to answer a few questions. Our readers would be interested to know about the power and place of shamanism in our society,” Lay on the soft-soap, it’s your only route.

As she took the proffered hand, revulsion zipped through her. There was a hidden power to the man, good or evil, she couldn’t say. In a moment’s fraction she retracted her hand. “Where do you want to sit?” she said, affecting a brisk tone.

He threw her a long appraising look that had the effect of a spider crawling on her skin – slow and deliberate. “Here, on the bench. Where do you want me to start?” he said with a half-grin lifting the corner of his upper lip. That and his small black beady eyes made him appear sinister.

The voice in her head screeching “Leave!” now rose to a crescendo, but she slapped it away. She had a job to do.

“Tell me about your background and how you came to be here.” That was probably too direct, but she had to extract what information she could and get out of there – fast.

“I am from long ago and far away from the land and the time of the ancient Inca, and I have known you, my dear, from that time.”

“Excuse me. I think you have me confused with somebody else.” Tess took out a small digital voice recorder from her tote bag. “Mind if I turn this on?” she said.

“Gadgets!” The man gave the recorder placed on the bench between them a feral glance. “We must cut off from the chains that tie us to the material world,” he said. His piercing black eyes held her like a snake would survey a rat about to be devoured. His soporific voice intoned as if he was in a trance. He took a few puffs of his pipe. What was he smoking? Pot?

“Makes my job a bit easier,” Tess said lightly and pressed the on button. “Go ahead.”

“I’m not from this world, neither are you, my dear Chayna.” He leaned back.

“Really? Why do you say that?” Humor the guy a bit and you’ll get him to incriminate himself about the reporter’s death.

“You and I are from long ago, a time that nobody these days would comprehend. We need to go back to that time to find our true calling,” he said and threw her another curiosity-ridden look. His getting interested in what she was all about wasn’t what she wanted or needed. “You need something to relax you, my dear Chayna.”

“Chayna?”

“An Inca name meaning “songbird.” You came to me like a songbird in the wake of a new dawn. Do you not remember what you and I were in a previous lifetime?” His eyes lost their spaced-out look from before as he focused on Tess. Now they had an intense glow, something a religious fanatic would exhibit.

Tess shifted uncomfortably and cast about for a distraction. She needn’t have bothered for it looked as if he had a sudden inspiration.

He stood up. “You’re too tense. You need some of my special tea. You’ll like its brew and aroma. It’s refreshing and soothing at the same time. I’ll be back soon. Don’t go away,” he said and gave a high-pitched laugh that sent shivers down her back.

“Tea would be nice,” Tess said. Anything to get rid of him for a bit while she composed herself and thought through her mode of operation. She turned off the recorder.

Her gaze shifted to the land around her. She’d come a long way winding up the hill on the red-brown dirt road, large red boulders dotting the stark scenery in profusion. Not a soul stirred in these parts, and she was fearfully aware of that. And no one knew she was coming here.

The smell of incense burning from inside the adobe wafted out. It had a heady aroma. Too strong to be pleasant, it stung the nostrils like the potent stench of a dead skunk. She waved away the smoke, which had drifted out and then checked her watch. Three-thirty. Hopefully she could get out of here by four.

Tierro came out holding two steaming stoneware mugs of tea and handed one to her. “You need to disconnect from the busyness of your life, my dear Chayna. You were meant to bring joy to others with your songs. But how can you, in your present situation?” He sat down on the bench again. What was he talking about?

Tess pressed the ‘Start” button on the recorder. “How did you become a shaman? Do you have psychic powers? Can you foretell the future?”

“We all have psychic abilities, if you think about it. Even Jesus’s Resurrection was a paranormal experience. He overcame the laws of physics. He was a shaman of sorts,” he droned on.

“You mean we all the power to resurrect ourselves?” This was so bizarre.

“Yes. If we need to. We all have the ability to call power to ourselves. It’s a matter of developing it like us shamans do.” He sipped his tea. “Someday I can show you how to develop those powers and there’s no limit to what you can do.”

Not if I can help it. Tess took a sip of the tea. It didn’t taste half bad. In fact it was curiously refreshing and she was thirsty. She took another sip, and then another.

Tierro’s voice was a monotonous drone now. Her eyes felt droopy and her head lolled back on the wall of the adobe. The tea – what was in it….?

Tess awoke to the man’s voice. “Wake up, Chayna. You fell asleep.”

She tried to sit up straight, her head heavy and groggy. “What happened?”

“Did I not tell you that the ways of today’s world deflect us from our true calling? You were exhausted and fell asleep. The tea calmed you down,”he said with a beatific smile. He probably saw himself as God’s answer to the world of therapy, she thought.

“Fell asleep? That’s impossible.” Tess got up. Whatever she had on the recorder would have to do. “I have to get going. Thanks for the interview.”

She dropped the recorder into the tote bag and slung it on her shoulder.

“You’ll return to me,” he said and gave her a droopy-lidded look. Was he stoned from what he was smoking or the tea?

Not likely to return, she thought as she got into her SUV and drove down the slope.

Tess stepped on the gas pedal as if a pack of cheetahs were after even though she was heading down toward Arapaho Canyon, her exit route out of the mesa.

From a distance, almost at the bottom of the Canyon, she saw a large raven perched on what appeared to be a dead cactus. As she drove past it, she turned to look at it, and regretted her decision the next minute. It stared at her relentlessly with small, beady eyes. At that moment, a bolt of white light hit her eyes and she instinctively shut them for a second. Panicked, she steadied the vehicle, slowed down for the next hundred yards or so, and parked on the side of the road. She placed her hands on the steering wheel for a split second, her heart pounding like a thunderclap.

She turned around to look at the cactus and the raven. No raven there – but a man walking uphill. Something in the way he walked and what he wore struck her as being oddly familiar. It was Tierro, the shaman, clad in jeans, jacket, and cowboy hat. Her heart thudded wildly again. How did he get down the hill so fast? And where was the raven?

* * *

Tess turned on the laptop sitting on her living room coffee table and opened up a browser. She then typed in the keywords “San Mariposa psychics” and waited.

At the top of the list was Rafe Loren, psychic and animal trainer. Bonus, she thought. Maybe he could answer the many questions she had. She searched for his contact information and found it. Email or phone call? she pondered. She finally opted for a phone call and punched in the numbers on her cell phone. Her cell phone was her lifeline these days; landlines through the phone company were so expensive anymore.

“Rafe Loren,” the pleasant voice at the other end said.

“I’m Tess Scolari, feature editor for Bits and Bytes and I’m researching a local shaman. I’d like to get your take on psychic powers. I’m a total newbie in that area.” That sounded general enough.

“Sure. Glad to help.”

“Maybe we could meet somewhere convenient – a coffee shop?” Tess named Café Corner, a small eaterie downtown, which was close enough for both of them. Rafe agreed to meet her the next morning around ten o’ clock.

Rafe was as pleasant as he’d sounded over the phone and Tess told him the purpose of her visit, including her misgivings about Tierros’s powers.

“I’m not surprised that you felt the guy had a creep factor to him. Shamans are known to have abused their powers and he could be one,” Rafe said.

They sat sipping their coffee after the waitress brought rolls to go with it.

“That’s a relief to know. I was beginning to think maybe I was imagining things,” Tess said with a chuckle.

“From what you describe, it looks like this guy has shape-shifting powers. In ancient South American legend, the raven symbolizes black magic,” Rafe explained. “I’ll have to research the Inca name he called you – Chayna.” He shook his head. “Obviously the guy is really into this thing and he’s freaked you out.”

“I don’t care to visit him again. Now it’s not the piece I’m doing anymore, but the fear that he might actually be harmful,” Tess said with a shudder.

“Take care, and don’t go up there again,” Rafe said. “If you have to, I’ll come with you.”

It was reassuring to hear that, and Tess felt herself relax a little. “Thanks.”

A few days later, Rafe called her.

“Turns out that among the ancient Inca, there had been a shaman who abused his power and would turn humans into werewolves. He himself was a shape-shifter and could alter his appearance at will His lover, Chayna, hated his evil ways, and ran away from him. He tracked her down and murdered her. For some reason, Tierro thinks you’re Chayna,” Rafe said. “What an honor, huh?”

“I’m pretty certain he caused the death of the reporter who went up to interview him, although we have nothing to go by,” Tess said.

“Just set that aside for now and concentrate on how to stop him from coming after you. For that you’ll have to think like a psychic.”

“So what do I do now?”

“Win his confidence.”

“But I thought you said not to see him again,” Tess said.

“By yourself. But now I’m going to be there as well,” Rafe replied with a reassuring grin.

“No. I can’t let you get into this.” Still Tess felt relieved that he was willing to help.

“You’ve no choice. I know this stuff. You might as well let me help you.”

“Well, you have a point there,” Tess finally relented. “But if he’s a psychic he’ll know I’m not up there alone.”

“Don’t worry. I have psychic powers of my own.” Rafe took the last sip of coffee and pushed away the mug.

“Thanks for your help.”

They got up to leave.

“I’ll call you with a plan. How’s that?” Rafe said as he saw her to her SUV.

“I’ll be waiting,” Tess said and got into her vehicle.

***

The days had cooled considerably. The residents of San Mariposa were readying themselves for New Year’s Eve celebrations. She should have shelved the project and left it for after the New Year, but there was no  time to lose. She had to crack the sinister mystery behind Tierro.

Two days later, Rafe called Tess. “It’s time to see the shaman again. You go on ahead, I’ll be coming along with one of my animal friends.”

“What kind of animal?” Tess asked.

“Wolf. In Native American and most other legends, the wolf is a protector. It’s only when its power is abused, things go wrong,” Rafe said.

“What are you going to do?” Tess asked.

“Cover you while you get this creep to do a shape-shifting stunt.”

Tess felt a rush of anxiety. What if their plan failed? It was either that or the shaman pursuing her with macabre stories of reincarnation.

For the second time, Tess drove up the red dirt road to the hill to Tierro’s adobe hut. Rafe followed her with his wolf buddy, but was out of sight. This time she resolved to appear less standoffish, more pleasing. Her blood curdled at the thought. But it was vital to do whatever was necessary before he caused any more harm.

 

When she reached the top of the hill, she caught sight of Tierro coming out of the hut. A wind had started up and it rattled the wolf skulls on stakes like windchimes rattling in the breeze. It was a creepy sight and Tess had the sudden urge to turn around and leave, but she couldn’t.

Her SUV spat gravel and she turned into the pocket handkerchief-sized front yard and parked.

She got out and affected a light tone. “A few more questions. I hope you don’t mind,” she said. She made sure she sounded nonchalant.

“You have come, my Chayna, as I said you would,” he said, looking as slimy as ever. Tess felt the hair on her head bristle. How could she go through with this charade?

“If you’re a true shaman, you should be able to shape-shift at will. Can you?” she asked playfully.

“Yes. I can.” He came close and stood a breath away. “Would you like a demonstration?”

“Would love one.”

“When I return to my original form, I’ll claim my payment – you.”

“Deal.” She regretted her recklessness, but time was running out. And Rafe would be here any minute.

“You wait here,” he said.

He went inside for a few seconds. The next minute, a raven flew out and circled the adobe, cawing wildly.

Behind her she heard sounds – Rafe and the wolf. Tess moved toward the wall of the hut. The raven seemed transfixed by her and circled her head. Rafe shouted a command to the wolf and he leaped at the raven and chased it into the hut. Rafe shut the door of the hut. Deadly growling and screeching sounds emerged from the hut.

Suddenly, nothing – total silence. Tess expected to see Tierro emerge with the bravado of a circus magician.

“What happened?” Tess asked with a shudder.

“Lycos did his job.  He made short work of the raven,” Rafe said, opening the door a crack.

“But Tierro. He could reappear, resurrect,” Tess said, remembering what he had said.

Rafe shook his head. “The raven held Tierro’s soul. It was the raven whose power controlled Tierro,” he said.

He opened the door wider. Lycos wandered out and sat on his haunches, calm and obedient. Inside the hut, raven feathers lay all over the floor, some of them charred as if by an unseen fire. “Spontaneous combustion,” Rafe said. “That was his mode of escape, but he didn’t make it.”

“I want to get out of here,” Tess said, shivering. She’d had enough.

Rafe helped her back to her vehicle. “I’ll follow you. You’re safe now.”

“I know,” she said with a wan smile as he walked her to her SUV. She got in, started the engine and, with a wave, drove off. No more reports on reincarnation, or the power of shamanism and superstition. Her next piece would be a comprehensive look into zoning laws.

THE  END

About Rekha Ambardar:

Rekha Ambardar is the author of two contemporary women’s novels and over one hundred genre (romance, mystery, horror) and mainstream stories in both print and electronic magazines and anthologies. She has also published articles on writing and current topics in magazines, including The Writer’s Journal, ByLine, Writing World .com, and The World and I.

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