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Last Of The Aztec Riders – Mark Mellon

beverage-mug-000000Enhance your coffee today

“Buy me a beer and I’ll tell you a good story.”

Jack Pilgrim regarded the one-eyed, one-armed, huge man on the barstool beside his. The half of his face minus an eye was scarred almost beyond recognition as human, his deformed lip pulled down in a perpetual half scowl. After twelve hours on his hog high on meth, Pilgrim only wanted to focus on the shot and the beer before him, drunk to delay and lessen the inevitable bummer.

“Look at the patch on my cut.”

He turned his back to Pilgrim. On the faded black leather vest, a skull with a feathered headdress screamed. The top rocker read “Aztec Riders;” the bottom said “Tiny.”

“I’m the only one allowed to wear this patch, man. Nobody left but me. And I can tell you all about it, the whole freaked out story. But you gotta buy me that beer first, man. So what do you say?”

Intrigued and sympathetic to a biker so fucked up he’d never ride again, Pilgrim nodded to the bartender who poured a draught Bud in a pint glass and set it before Tiny. He knocked it back, set the glass on the bar, and wiped the foam from his scraggly beard with his hand.

“Like I said, I’m the only Aztec Rider left. You should’ve seen us back in the day, bombing a hundred strong in a tight vee formation at eighty per, total road Nazis, blowing through every traffic light. And no one, not no citizen, not no pig, dared fuck with us. We had Bullhead City under our thumb and most of Nevada and Arizona too, at least as far as pussy and meth went. And it was all because of our Prez, Pothunter. See, we called him Pothunter coz he was always poking around in caves on Federal parks and reserves, looking for Indian stuff, old shit, know what I mean? Even if it is a Federal beef. Like we cared about stuff like that. And then he showed up at the clubhouse with this idol, like a real idol, you know-“

***

The clubhouse was a long, one story cinderblock building with a corrugated iron roof in the middle of the desert, surrounded by an ten foot fence topped by concertina barb wire with signs posted that read KEEP OUT! and TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT! in huge, screaming red letters. Inside the dimly lit clubhouse, the Riders sheltered from the roasting heat to the dull roar of a sorely overtaxed wall unit air conditioner, ripped off from a hotel. In the background, John Kay rumbled Close your eyes, girl, Step inside, girl on the tape deck while Tiny snorted yet another line of meth. The room became infinitely extended in his tunnel vision. Blood pounded in his ears like hammers against anvils. He wondered if he was going to pass out.

The door burst open. The blast of light and heat sent the Riders scurrying to

darkness like rats to their holes. Pothunter walked in, a burlap bag held in both hands. A prospect hurried to shut the door.

“Hey, Prez. What you got? Beer or scotch, I hope,” Tiny said.

Pothunter set the dusty bag on the already filthy carpet.

“Lots better, Tiny. I went to Teuwanta State Park and dug some by the cliffs. You won’t believe what I found.”

He undid the rope and pulled down the bag to reveal a terra cotta figure about two feet high, ancient and worn, the paint faded, the features still distinct. The idol was a hideously grimacing, round-headed skeleton, dressed in a mask and garments made from flayed human skin. Internal organs, liver, heart, and kidneys, dangled from an open chest cavity.

“Whoa. What the fuck is that thing, Prez?” almost everyone said simultaneously.

“Our new mascot.”

Pothunter’s broad, red face beamed with pleasure. Tiny had never seen him happier, not even when he beat a Red Devil to death with a chain. He picked up the idol and set it with great ceremony on the card table that held the club’s shrine, composed of pictures of members who were either dead or in prison and some fake Indian relics Pothunter bought in Nogales one time.

“Listen up, everybody. This is the first real find I ever made. It’s some kind of god, some kind of bad, evil thing that just lives to make trouble. You know, like us.  This is bringing us wicked good luck. So I declare a three day party in honor of our new mascot, the god of the Aztec Riders. Bad Bob, tell the mommas to haul ass over here. They got some trains to pull.”

“Bitching,” Tiny bellowed.

The others howled as well, more delighted by the prospect of days of sex, booze, and meth than the idea of an official mascot. Head bent, arms pumping, Pothunter shuffled back and forth before the idol in his own version of a ritual dance. Puzzled and somewhat disturbed by the grotesque figure, like the loyal members they were, others showed club spirit and followed the Prez’s lead. They danced behind him in strict order of precedence, Vice Prez Bad Bob, Secretary Tiny, Treasurer Vulture Ed, and  Sergeant of Arms Bruiser Vito, followed by patch members in order of seniority. Prospects brought up the rear. The Indian Dance became a ritual, a ceremony that set the Riders apart and drew them together.

***

“Swear to God, if our luck didn’t change the day Pothunter found that idol. Like bam, like the biggest, best hit of meth you’d ever want in your life. In no time we had a steady stable of a dozen whores, each one turning over eighty percent of everything she made in tricks. She’d a fucking well better if she didn’t want her ass beat. Plus we had five meth labs going, no bucket shop shit either, man, each one with a real cook who knew his stuff cold. And no cop ever so much laid a finger on us, not one bust in the whole club for eight months, I shit you not.”

Tiny paused to give Pilgrim a significant look with his pale blue orb.

“Storytelling’s thirsty work, you know.”

Pilgrim nodded again. The bartender set another Bud before Tiny. He knocked it down like the first.

“Yeah, so like I said, we was rolling in serious bread after years of nickel and dime bullshit. We knew we was lucky and Pothunter was right. The idol brought us luck. Every weekend we threw a party with enough booze, drugs, and sluts to do up Vegas, and live bands too. And the big climax was always the Indian Dance in front of the idol. Man, you should have seen how we used to get into it. It was downright tribal, know what I mean?”

Tiny frowned with the good side of his face and shut his eye.

“And everything was cool, man, just completely cool, until this bitch came along one night and really started some shit, you know-“

***

The sun was a bloody red eye above the horizon. Clean, fine desert air was marred by the stink of tobacco and marijuana smoke, silence shattered by pounding drums and twanging guitars.

“And this bird you cannot change,” a three hundred pound man in a tiny black cowboy hat wailed from the stage as his band thrashed through primitive chords behind him.

Tiny took a drag off a giant reefer to take the edge off the speed tweaking through his veins and stared at bare breasts flaunted by drunken mommas as they gyrated to the music. He caught Bad Bob’s eye and stuck out his tongue. Bad Bob made a fist and pumped it up and down, the universal symbol for a gang bang.

The night wore on. A select few outsiders were allowed inside the clubhouse to party with the Riders, primarily hangers on and attractive women. Flush with cash, the Riders had refurbished the clubhouse, equipped with a new pool table, fully stocked wet bar, and an impressive new shrine, handcrafted from mahogany by a full patch member who also held down a righteous day job as a cabinet maker. The idol was in its own special niche, topped by a banner that depicted the Riders’ crowned, screaming skull.

Lines of meth were laid out on a table, straws alongside for anyone who cared to snort.  The open bar was staffed by two succulent, young honeys, enormous fake breasts straining against ridiculously tiny t-shirts to the point of rupture. As always, Steppenwolf blared, only now from a state of the art MP4 player.

Last night I found Aladdin’s lamp

The scene was lively, the vibe as mellow as could be among a gang of violent felons high on hard drugs. Tiny tried to take it all in, perception fractured by alcohol and drugs until moments became difficult to link together. He took another drag off the joint, exhaled, and went into a coughing fit.

A loud, brassy, female voice cut through the party chatter and music like a semi-trailer’s klaxon in the desert night.

“So what the fuck is that supposed to be? Santa Muerte or something?”

A fortyish Latina woman drunkenly swayed in the middle of the room, attractive even though overweight, jet black hair flecked with a few silver threads, a loose grin on her face, eyes wide and full of devilry. Miller tall boy in one hand, she pointed at the idol. Wild, chaotic laughter burst from her.

“Where did you gringos find that? In Tijuana? I bet you paid way too much.”

“Listen, bitch, that’s our club mascot, so don’t disrespect it, you hear me,” Pothunter bellowed, his ordinarily red face a brighter shade of beet.  “That’s a genuine pre-Columbian artifact I dug up myself out at Teuwanta State Park.”

“Are you kidding me? Where I come from in Guerrero, factories make stuff like that by the shit ton. Dios mio, que gringo tontería.”

“No, bitch, you’re wrong. This is the genuine, real thing that I dug up with my own hands. And I’m gonna prove what I mean right now. Members. It’s time for the Indian Dance.”

Pothunter dropped low and began the familiar windmilling shuffle. The other Riders fell in behind him with the precision of a well rehearsed dance team. Back and forth they danced before the idol in zigzag lines, each man caught up in the intricate dance steps, faces serious and grave.

“Oh, shit, I can’t believe this shit. This has got to be the funniest fucking thing I’ve ever seen. Ay, que broma.”

Her beer gut rhythmically shook with laughter, the whites of her eyes and teeth flashing in the black strobe light.

“Bitch, I’ve had fucking enough of you,” Pothunter screamed.

He ran over to the woman and with one vicious uppercut knocked her sprawling, out cold before she even hit the linoleum. Tiny put two fingers to his mouth and blew out a long, loud appreciative whistle.

“Down with one sock. That’s why Pothunter’s Prez. Yes, sir, Aztec Riders forever.”

The Indian Dance continued. The woman lay where she fell, ignored by everyone. The night wore on. Before Tiny knew it, sense of time destroyed by drugs, it was three in the morning and no one in the clubhouse but the few most hardened partiers and the unconscious woman.

“Tiny, chop up some more flake,”

“Sure thing, Prez.”

Tiny dumped a hefty pile of meth flake onto a mirror and chopped it fine with his buck knife. The woman on the floor moaned loudly. Pothunter looked over at her and grinned.

“Looks like she’s coming round. Good thing too. Now we can kick her ass out.”

She sat up and cradled her aching jaw in her hands.

“Oh, you motherfuckers. You cracked my tooth.”

She looked up and focused on Pothunter.

“You’re a real brave man, you are, punching a woman. Que hombre.”

“Yeah, well, you see what you get, bitch, when you disrespect the Aztec Riders.” Pothunter said.

She got to her feet, still good and drunk and plenty angry too.

“Disrespect a bunch of pussy, pinche cocksuckers like you, you fucking gringo. I got chulo buddies that eat little shits like you alive. Fuck you and fuck your stupid idol most of all. Pendejo joto cabron.”

She spat at Pothunter.

“Bitch, I’ve had just about enough of your fucking shit,” Pothunter said.

He ran over to the woman, knocked her flat again, and kicked her repeatedly with his steel toed Chippewa boots. Other Riders joined in, punched and kicked her as she writhed and screamed on the floor.

“Hold her down. Hold the fucking cunt down,” Pothunter ordered.

Riders pinned down her arms and legs. Bad Bob crooked a massive arm around her head and pinned her jaws shut. Pothunter took out his Bowie knife with the sixteen-inch blade. He slit the woman’s shirt open, bared her soft, unmuscled gut. Tiny’s eyes went wide with joy. He loved nothing better than a gangbang.

Pothunter raised the knife high over his head. The woman’s eyes went wide with fear. She tried to break free, but half a dozen bikers held her down hard.

“Now you’re going to pay for your fucking disrespect, cunt.”

“No, Prez, no,” Tiny bellowed. “Not in front of witnesses.”

Pothunter’s knife stabbed down, deep into the woman’s stomach, just below the sternum.

AAAAAAAARRRRRGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHH

The scream that poured through her clenched teeth deafened everyone in the clubhouse, a horrible, mortal wail of pain. Pothunter nonetheless dug the cruel blade in deeper, rent her stomach open into a gaping wound.

“We’re gonna worship the idol the real way, the Aztec way.”

Deep into shock, her eyes rolled back into her head. Her body thrashed uncontrollably. Beer gutted bikers could barely hold her down. Pothunter jammed his right hand into the open wound. He fished around for a moment, grunted with satisfaction when he found what he wanted, and with one, awful, tearing wrench yanked her heart loose from its mainstrings.

The screams ended. The woman lay still, quite dead. Covered with gore, Pothunter stood tall and proud. In his bloodstained hand, to the Riders’ awe and terror, a still beating heart. Black blood oozed from ventricles.

“This is just like the Aztec priests did it, brothers. Good enough for them, good enough for us. This is going to change our luck forever.”

He took the heart and held it high before the idol.

“Accept our sacrifice.”

Pothunter smeared the idol with the heart. Blood stained the idol’s face. Pothunter smiled widely, drunkenly, well pleased with his handiwork.

There was an awful thunderclap, a crash of doom like the last trump. The lights went out.

“What the fuck happened?”

A grotesque figure appeared before them. A skeletal corpse clad in another man’s flayed hide crouched before them, the idol brought to life. Internal organs dangled from his open chest cavity, lungs, liver, and beating heart. The god’s unsmiling mouth protruded slightly from the splayed lips of the expertly skinned face that covered his own. Vertical stripes ran down the mask. The flayed man’s hands hung loose by his wrists. Long tassels hung down his back from his elaborate, green-feathered headdress. Beneath the flayed garments, yellow skin was painted red.  Blood and pus seeped to the floor from the abscesses and open sores that covered his body. The smell of rotting flesh was unbearable. Blue flames burned in the flayed mask’s eyeholes, the only light in the otherwise black clubhouse.

Pothunter smiled broadly. He pointed to the bizarre apparition and gestured widely to his brothers.

“Do you see this shit? It fucking works. Everybody get down on your knees and bow.”

Addled with drugs and adrenaline, caught up in the moment, the Riders automatically did as their Prez bid. They got down on their knees and bowed low to their mascot made flesh. Pothunter even made so bold as to approach the idol and  present the heart to the idol, thick blood caked on his hand.

The apparition’s face split wide in a soundless roar. So did the flayed skin of the victim’s face. The skin ripped into pieces to reveal the wearer’s broad-nosed, cat-mouthed face, only to have that split wide. With a great gush of blood and splintered bone, the face destroyed itself to show a new one. The tiny, fine-haired head of a squalling infant screamed for his mother’s dug only to also split wide with a violent wrench of flesh and bone to show a handsome, young man, red face smooth and unlined. The handsome face seamed down the middle and ripped in twain. There in its place stood the withered, drooling countenance of an incredibly old man, only to have the hoary face crack in turn to show the grinning skull that lurks under every human face.

Bits of bloody flesh and fragments of shattered bone spattered Pothunter’s face. Slack-jawed with fear, eyes fixed on the exploding head despite the endless spray of gore, Pothunter managed to scream at last, a long and low, pitiful wail like a small animal about to die.

The idol stuck his long nails like daggers into Pothunter, ripped him to literal shreds before the other Riders like an angry child with a newspaper.

“Shit. Run for it.”

Riders ran for the door, but it was padlocked shut and the lock wouldn’t turn. A few men had enough nerve to pull their pieces and fire at the monster. Bullets riddled the walking corpse, but it just kept on coming, a trail of gore and lymph behind it. Grim face indifferent to their misery behind his flayed mask, he inflicted the same fate on each man, tore them into bloody gobbets of meat, rent them asunder limb from limb. Brave men who’d sworn never to crumble or bend the knee, each begged for mercy in his turn, called out for his mother, only to be tortured to death, maimed and savaged until he died with a last, despairing  cry.

Tiny found himself outside the compound with no idea how he got there. His right arm hung useless and shattered by his side. Blood streamed from the ruins of his left eye socket. In the distance, he could hear a siren’s wail, a police car or an ambulance. Tiny stumbled toward the approaching siren, his only hope for survival.

***

“And that’s the straight and narrow of it, swear to God on a stack of Bibles before my mother’s grave, every last word of it. Only thing I can’t figure out is why I was the only one to get out of it, even if it wasn’t it in one piece.”

“Because you told your Prez to stop before she killed the woman,” Pilgrim said.

Tiny considered this, then shrugged.

“Maybe so, but it’s still about the God damnedest thing I ever saw. Think you wanna stand me another beer, man? Just one bro helping another, you know?”
Pilgrim pulled out his trucker’s wallet and put three twenties down on the bar.

“Keep the change,” he told the bartender.

He headed toward the door only to have a painfully thin blonde woman intercept him. Once even more than passably pretty, her delicate features were ravaged and gaunted by hard living.

“You didn’t believe that line of bullshit he was handing out, did you?” she said with a conspiratorial grin, teeth blackened from meth abuse. “He just blew himself up cooking meth, that’s all. You ain’t headed to Kingman, are you? I’m not too proud to slut a ride, if you know what I mean. You got any meth on you?”

“Sorry. I ride alone.”

Pilgrim went through the batwing doors, outside into heat that smothered him like a funeral pall. He saddled his Indian, kick started the engine, and drove off into the night.

 

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Revenge of the Shape-Shifter by Rekha Amberdar

 

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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