The freshly paved road left Santa Fe and arrowed west through piñon trees. An amber-colored sun was sinking into a scrim of dirty clouds behind the snowcapped Jemez Mountains, drawing a counterpane of shade across the landscape. Nora Kelly guided the rattletrap Ford pickup along the road, down chamisa-covered hills and across the beds of dry washes. It was the third time she had been out here in as many months.
As she came up from Buckman's Wash into Jackrabbit Flats-what had once been Jackrabbit Flats-she saw a shining arc of light beyond the piñons. A moment later, her truck was speeding past manicured greens. A nearby sprinkler head winked and nodded in the sun, jetting water in a regular, palsied cadence. Beyond, on a rise, stood the new Fox Run clubhouse, a massive structure of fake adobe. Nora looked away.
The truck rattled over a cattle guard at the far end of Fox Run and suddenly, the road was washboard dirt. She bounced past a cluster of ancient mailboxes and the crude, weatherbeaten sign that read RANCHO DE LAS CABRILLAS. For a moment, the memory of a summer day twenty years before passed through her mind: once again she was standing in the heat, holding a bucket, helping her father paint the sign. Cabrillas, he'd said, was the Spanish word for waterbugs. But it was also their name for the constellation Pleiades, which he said looked like water skaters on the shining surface of a pond. "To hell with the cattle," she remembered him saying, swabbing thick letters with the paintbrush. "I bought this place for its stars."
The road turned to ascend a rise, and she slowed. The sun had now disappeared, and the light was draining fast out of the high desert sky. There in a grassy valley stood the old ranch house, windows boarded up. And beside it, the frowsy outlines of the barn and corrals that were once the Kelly family ranch. No one had lived here in five years. It was no great loss, Nora told herself: the house was a mid-fifties prefab, already falling apart when she was growing up. Her father had spent all his money on the land.
Pulling off the road just below the brow of the hill, she glanced toward the nearby arroyo. Somebody had surreptitiously dumped a load of broken cinderblocks. Maybe her brother was right and she should sell the place. Taxes were going up, and the house had long ago passed the point of no return. Why was she holding on to it? She couldn't afford to build her own place there-not on an assistant professor's salary, anyway.
She could see the lights coming on in the Gonzales ranch house, a quarter mile away. It was a real working ranch, not like her father's hobby ranchito. Teresa Gonzales, a girl she'd grown up with, now ran the place by herself. A big, smart, fearless woman. In recent years, she'd taken it upon herself to look after the Kelly ranch, too. Every time kids came out to party, or drunken hunters decided to take potshots at the place, Teresa rousted them and left a message on the answering machine at Nora's townhouse. This time, for the past three or four nights, Teresa had seen dim lights in and around the house just after sunset, and-she thought-large animals slinking about.
Nora waited a few minutes, looking for signs of life, but the ranch was quiet and empty. Perhaps Teresa had imagined the lights. In any case, whoever or whatever it was seemed to have left.
She eased the truck through the inner gate and down the last two hundred yards of road, parked around back, and killed the engine. Pulling a flashlight out of the glove compartment, she stepped lightly onto the dirt. The door of the house hung open, held precariously by a single hinge screw, its lock cut off long ago with bolt cutters. A gust swept through the yard, picking up skeins of dust and moving the door with a restless whisper.
She flicked on the flashlight and stepped onto the portal. The door moved aside at her push, then swung back stubbornly. She gave it an annoyed kick and it fell to the porch with a clatter, loud in the listening silence. She stepped inside.
The boarded windows made the interior difficult to make out, yet even so it was clearly a sad echo of her memory of the house she grew up in. Beer bottles and broken glass lay strewn across the floor, and some gang member had spraypainted a tagline on the wall. Some of the boards covering the windows had been pried away. The carpet had been ripped up, and sofa cushions sliced in half and tossed about the room. Holes had been kicked in the drywall, along with liberal pepperings from a .22.
Perhaps it wasn't that much worse than the last time. The rips on the cushions were new, along with the ragged holes in the wall, but the rest she remembered from her previous visit. Her lawyer had warned her that in its present condition the place was a liability. If a city inspector ever managed to get out here, he would immediately condemn it. The only problem was, tearing the thing down would cost more than she had-unless, of course, she sold it.
She turned from the living room into the kitchen. Her flashlight beam swept over the old Frigidaire, still lying where it had been overturned. Drawers had recently been removed and strewn about the room. The linoleum was coming up in big curls, and someone had hastened the process, peeling off strips and even ripping up floorboards to expose the crawlspace underneath. Vandalism is hard work, she thought. As her eyes roved over the room again, something began to nag at the back of her mind. Something was different this time.
She left the kitchen and began to climb the stairs, kicking aside wads of mattress ticking, trying to bring the thought into focus. Sofa cushions sliced, holes punched in walls, carpeting and linoleum ripped up. Somehow, this fresh violence didn't seem quite as random as it had in the past. It was almost as if someone was looking for something. Halfway up the darkness of the stairwell, she stopped.
Was that the crunch of glass underfoot?
She waited, motionless in the dim light. There was no sound but the faint susurrus of wind. If a car had driven up, she'd have heard it. She continued up the stairs.
It was even darker up here, all the windowboards still in place. She turned right on the landing and shone the flashlight into her old bedroom. Again she felt the familiar pang as her eyes moved over the pink wallpaper, now hanging in strips and stained like an old map. The mattress was one giant packrat's nest, the music stand for her oboe broken and rusted, the floorboards sprung. A bat squeaked overhead, and Nora remembered the time she'd been caught trying to make a pet out of one of them. Her mother had never understood her childish fascination for the creatures.
She moved across the hall to her brother's room, also a wreck. Not so different from his current place. But over the smell of ruin, she thought she detected the faintest scent of crushed flowers in the night air. Strange-the windows are all shuttered up here. She moved down the hall toward her parents' bedroom.
This time, there was no mistaking it: the faint tinkle of broken glass from below. She stopped again. Was it a rat, scuttling across the living room floor?
She moved silently back to the top of the landing, then paused. There was another sound from below: a faint thud. As she waited in the darkness, she heard another crunch, sharper this time, as something heavy stepped on broken glass.
Nora exhaled slowly, a tight knot of muscle squeezing her chest. What had begun as an irritating errand now felt like something else entirely.
"Who is it?" she called out.
Only the wind answered.
She swung the flashlight beam into the empty stairwell. Usually, kids would run at the first sight of her truck. Not this time.
"This is private property!" she yelled in her steadiest voice. "And you're trespassing. The police are on their way."
In the ensuing silence, there came another footpad, closer to the stairwell.
"Teresa?" Nora called again, in a desperate hope.
And then she heard something else: a throaty, menacing sound that was almost a growl.
Dogs, she thought with a sudden flood of relief. There were feral dogs out there, and they'd been using the house as a shelter. She chose not to think about why this was somehow a comforting thought.
"Yah!" she cried, waving the light. "Get on out of here! Go home!"
Again, silence was the only reply.
Nora knew how to handle stray dogs. She stomped down the stairs, speaking loudly and firmly. Reaching the bottom, she swept the beam across the living room.
It was empty. The dogs must have run at the sound of her approach.
Nora took a deep breath. Even though she hadn't inspected her parent's bedroom, she decided it was time to go.
As she headed for the door, she heard another careful footstep, then another, excruciatingly slow and deliberate.
She flashed her light toward the sounds as something else registered: a faint, breathy wheeze, a low, monotonous purring mutter. That same scent of flowers wafted through the heavy air, this time stronger.
She stood motionless, paralyzed by the unfamiliar feeling of menace, wondering if she should switch off the flashlight and hide herself or simply make a run for it.
And then out of the corner of her eye she saw a huge, pelted form racing along the wall. She turned to confront it as a stunning blow landed across her back.
She fell sprawling, feeling coarse fur at the nape of her neck. There was a maniacal wet growling, like the slavered fighting of rabid hounds. She lashed into the figure with a vicious kick. The figure snarled but relaxed its grip slightly, giving Nora a moment to wrench free. Just as she jumped up, a second figure slammed into her and threw her to the ground, landing atop her. Nora twisted, feeling broken glass digging into her skin as the dark form pinned her to the ground. She glimpsed a naked belly, covered with glowing spots; jaguar stripes; claws of horn and hair; a midriff, dank and matted-wearing a belt of silver conchos. Narrow eyes, terrifyingly red and bright, stared at her from grimy slits in a buckskin mask.
"Where is it?" a voice rasped in her face, washing her in the cloyingly sweet stench of rotten meat.
She could not find the voice to reply.
"Where is it?" the voice repeated, crude, imperfect, like a beast aping human speech. Vicelike claws grasped her roughly around the neck and right arm.
"What-" she croaked.
"The letter," it said, claws tightening. "Or we rip your head off."
She jerked in sudden fevered struggle, but the grip on her neck grew stronger. She began to choke in pain and terror.
Suddenly, a flash of light and a deafening blast cut through the darkness. She felt the grip slacken, and in a frenzy she twisted free of the claws. She rolled over as a second blast ripped a hole in the ceiling overhead, showering her with bits of lathe and plaster. She scrambled desperately to her feet, shards of glass skittering across the floor. Her flashlight had rolled away, and she spun around, disoriented.
"Nora?" she heard. "That you, Nora?" Framed in the dim light of the front door, a plump figure was standing, shotgun hanging forward.
"Teresa!" Nora sobbed. She stumbled toward the light.
"You okay?" Teresa asked, grabbing Nora's arm, steadying her.
"I don't know."
"Let's get the hell out of here."
Outside, Nora sank to the ground, gulping the cool twilight air and fighting down her pounding heart. "What happened?" she heard Teresa ask. "I heard noises, some kind of scuffle, saw your light."
Nora simply shook her head, gasping.
"Those were some hellacious-looking wild dogs. Big as wolves, almost."
Nora shook her head again. "No. Not dogs. One of them spoke to me."
Teresa peered at her more closely. "Hey, your arm looks bitten. Maybe you'd better let me drive you to the hospital."
But Teresa was scanning the dim outlines of the house, eyebrows knitted. "They sure did leave in a hurry. First kids, now wild dogs. But what kind of dogs could vanish so-"
"Teresa, one of them spoke to me."
Teresa looked at her, more searchingly this time, a skeptical look creeping into her eyes. "Must've been pretty terrifying," she said at last. "You should've told me you were coming out. I'd have met you down here with Señor Winchester." She patted the gun fondly.
Nora looked at her solid figure, her rattled but capable face. She knew the woman didn't believe her, but she didn't have the energy to argue. "Next time I will," she said.
"I hope there won't be a next time," said Teresa gently. "You need to either tear this place down, or sell it and let someone else tear it down for you. It's becoming a problem, and not just for you."
"I know it's an eyesore. But I just hate to think of letting it go. I'm sorry it's caused trouble for you."
"I would've thought this might change your mind. Want to come in for a bite of something?"
"No thanks, Teresa," Nora said as firmly as she could. "I'm all right."
"Maybe," came the reply. "But you better get a rabies shot anyway."
Nora watched as her neighbor turned onto the narrow trail that headed back up the hill. Then she eased into the driver's seat of her truck and locked all the doors with a shaking hand. She sat quietly, feeling the air move in and out of her lungs, watching Teresa's dim form merge slowly with the dark bulk of the hillside. When at last she felt in full control of her limbs, she reached for the ignition, wincing at a sudden stab of pain in her neck.
She turned over the engine, unsuccessfully, and cursed. She needed a new vehicle, along with a new everything else in her life.
She tried it again, and after a sputtering protest the engine coughed into life. She punched off the headlights to conserve the battery and, slouching back against the seat, gently pumped the accelerator, waiting for the engine to clear.
To one side, a flash of silver winked briefly. She turned to see a huge shape, black and furred, bounding toward her against the last twilight in the western sky.
Nora slammed the old truck into gear, punched on the headlights, and gunned the engine. It roared in response and she went fishtailing out of the yard. As she careened through the inside gate, she saw with consummate horror that the thing was racing alongside her.
She jammed the accelerator to the floor as the truck slewed across the ranch road, spraying mad patterns of dirt, whacking a cholla. And then, the thing was gone. But she continued to accelerate down the road to the outer gate, wheels pounding the washboard. After an unbearably long moment, her headlights finally picked up the outer cattle guard looming from the darkness ahead, the row of old mailboxes nailed to a long horizontal board beside it. Too late, Nora jammed on the brakes; the truck struck the cattle guard and was airborne. She landed heavily and skidded in the sand, striking the old board. There was the crunch of splintering wood and the boxes were flung to the ground.
She sat in the truck, breathing hard, dust smoking up around her lights. She dropped into reverse and gunned the engine, feeling panic as the wheels dug into the deep sand. She rocked twice before the truck stalled.
In the glow of the headlights, she could see the damage. The row of ranch mailboxes had been a rickety affair to begin with, and they had recently been supplanted by a shiny new set of post office boxes that stood nearby. But she could not back up: there was no choice but to go forward.
She jumped out and, glancing around for any sign of the figure, moved around to the front of the truck, picked up the rotten, abandoned mailboxes, and dragged them aside into the brush. An envelope lay in the dirt, and she grabbed it. As she turned to step back into the truck, the headlights caught the front of the envelope. Nora froze for a moment, gasping in surprise.
Then she shoved it in her shirt pocket, jumped into the truck, and peeled back onto the road, careening toward the distant, welcoming lights of town.
(c) 1999 by Dougas Preston and Lincoln Child"