Recumbent in the van’s open side panel, a cushion between her back and the door post, Ruby is content to wait for the next scene in the unfolding mystery story her life has become. To go out seeking pieces to the puzzle, chasing her unbridled imagination for clues, has never rewarded her with satisfying results. This place, right here, is where she is. There is nowhere else for her to be and no reason to be elsewhere. The sun and hot, dry air feel pleasing on her skin and ease the discomfort in her joints.
Those magnificent dogs are off somewhere, running together as if they hadn’t done so in days. The raven-fleshed woman stands nearby like a statue clad in sunlight, her garb a glare against the drab background of desert soil and desiccated foliage. Her face is turned upward to the sun, eyes closed.
Martin stands dividing his confounded attention between the two women who seem to have lost all interest in him.
Ruby grounds her staff with a clack and hoists herself upright. Her shuffling step brings her closer. She’s looking past him and he follows her gaze.
An official-looking vehicle is tooling down the otherwise deserted street, a sleek and rugged roller with wide desert tires and substantial ground clearance. Two uniformed men eyeball the van and the odd assortment of individuals curbside in front of the church. The cruiser angles in front of Ruby’s rig and whispers to a stop. Gull-wing doors flap up in unison and both men step out into the heat. A momentary swirl of dust kicks up in front of them, fleeing to the east and away toward the mountain.
The driver, ball cap pulled low over mirrored shades, has the look and bearing of one recently separated from the military: A.J. Squared Away, tightly wound, hyper-vigilant. He remains where his tactical boots hit the ground, on station, hand resting on his sidearm, head on a swivel.
A stocky fellow in crisp uniform exits from the passenger side closest to them and approaches, pinching his mask over his nose. He marks the squat Yoda-looking woman with a nod and acknowledges Martin with a cheerful wave.
“Eh, Martin. Hossit goin’?”
The presence in white observing him in silence brings his feet to a stumbling halt. Her flesh is so black it doesn’t even seem to reflect the sunlight. Her eyes…
“Look at me, Manny.” Martin’s voice is firm.
The officer’s attention flickers toward him.
“She’s come from the kiva,” Martin says.
Sergeant Manuel Sanchez attempts with moderate success to match Martin’s assembly of words to other words he knows. Sure, the language is familiar, but that specific arrangement of syllables, as simple as they might seem, is one he’s never in all his thirty-seven years imagined would be cobbled together in the same sentence. They leave him with an incredulous expression that will make him cringe sometime later when the cruiser’s on-board recorder is played back for official review. It’s not the only thing that will cause him distress.
He knows the legend, of course, the story of the brujo and the kachinas who came to the pueblo an old shaman’s dream ago. It is an integral element of the clandestine oral chronicles of his people. Yet all his adult life he has considered the mysterious kachinas to inhabit the exclusive realm of fantasy, affording them the same credence he’s saved for dragons, mermaids, and graviton particles.
Martin Montoya, however, is the Pueblo’s appointed Lieutenant War Chief, a member of the Tribal Council, and the current Watcher in an unbroken chain of those tasked with the guardianship of the kiva and its apocryphal occupants. Manny has known Martin all his life. There’s no one more solidly credible. If he says this is an entity of inhuman capability and purpose then, by God—he begins to cross himself, thinks better of it—the world is no longer quite like he believed it to be a minute ago.
Almost against his better judgment, Manny turns his face once more to the being that should not, in a sane world, exist. His heart is rattling in his chest and an unprofessional thrill of fear washes through him, weakening his knees, as the kachina-woman rivets him with her gaze. He wants more than anything to turn away, but her eyes glitter, shifting hues in the sunlight. There is a configuration of scar tissue around her right eye, black on black flesh, eight… no, nine narrow lines precisely raised and arranged in a starburst pattern. For an unnerving instant it seems to Manny they form a sort of lens through which she surveys the conflict stirring within and around him. Her expression is one of quiet amusement. The contradiction is disarming.
Manny might have been able to find safe passage through his internal turmoil then, had proof of his apparent derangement not been given egress into the sunlight through the open door at the rear of the church.
By himself, the long-haired cowboy striding across the threshold, heavy-laden saddlebags slung over one shoulder, settling his broad-brimmed hat against the sun, strikes a discordant note. Alone he might have even seemed kind of funny in a misplaced, lanky extra from an old two-D Western movie sort of way.
But he’s not alone.
Behind him, barely able to fit through the narrow doorway, is a formidable bull of a man clad head to toe in what looks like spotless white tactical armor draped in a crudely repurposed Navajo rug. Above and around a featureless white faceplate, a mane of black hair ripples as he comes straight on across the church yard with the wild-west anachronism at his side. The most fearsome of the kachinas from the old stories appears exactly as described in them.
He is no giant, as Manny had imagined proper kachinas of legend to be, but his size and the power in his movements force a shockwave of apprehension ahead of him. Manny has difficulty believing his eyes and maybe it’s just the coffee he drank ten minutes ago, but his bowels are threatening to betray him.
“Sarge?” The tension in the rookie’s voice is impossible to misinterpret. “What is this?!”
“Take it easy, Jakey.” Manny realizes the younger man’s complete unfamiliarity with the tribe’s secret history would render any attempt to answer nonsensical. “Stand down, son. I’ve got this.”
Somehow it doesn’t seem like quite enough.
Officer-recruit Diego Aguerre—whose nickname, for some reason known only to his Corps squad-mates, is “Jakey”—is still holding his place beside the vehicle. What little he’s heard or understood of the brief exchange between his partner and Montoya notwithstanding, the increasing headcount is adding to his agitation. People who clearly do not belong here are coming out of the woodwork. The cowboy doesn’t look like a problem yet, but the big guy must be near seven feet tall in what looks like a scaled-down, Q-powered Schwartzcopf battlesuit. This one’s head is up, faceshield opaque and featureless. There is no way this can be good. And yet his pudding cup of a partner acts like this is all somehow acceptable.
“I’m calling it in,” the rookie says and opens a circuit. “Dispatch…” Adrenaline modulates his voice to a crackle.
“That seems a bad idea, Manny.” Martin’s voice sounds calm. “Lights and sirens and a possible armed response is not what’s needed here. These are guests. Sacred guests.”
Manny nods dumbly as the kachina-woman, having observed the two newcomers emerging from the church, turns instead in the direction of the young officer.
“There’s nothing but static on the comm, Sarge.” Jakey hauls out the dash-mounted shotgun.
“Ten-three, Jakey! Ten-three! Goddammit, son, look at me! This is not in the book! Stand down! Do it now and I’ll explain everything!” Manny realizes he’s shouting in the kachina-woman’s immediate presence and prays she will not misunderstand and incinerate him or anything. “And put that thing away!” He puts iron in his voice. “Do it, recruit!”
The mismatched pair has crossed half the distance between the church and the assortment of individuals loosely clustered near the roadside vehicles. A whorl of hot air whips up, lifting the cowboy’s hat and flagging his hair. Jakey recognizes the butt of a carbine protruding from its scabbard at his back. The improvised cloak over the other’s armor flails too, enough to reveal the artillery snubbed at his side and a rigid protocol is awakened.
The distinction between warfare and public safety has blurred, activating a far more visceral training. He chambers a round as he’s dodging around the car’s stubby nose and advances on the implausible duo, short-barreled pump carried at high ready.
“Police officer! Stop where you are!”
Both men slow their pace to a leisurely halt.
Manny, sensing the folly of this hostile course of action against incomprehensible beings, shouts. “GOD DAMM IT, JAKEY, STAND DOWN! THAT’S AN ORDER!”
There were other words, but the escalation of circumstances, by way of his ability to assess them accurately—as opposed to his senior partner, who evidently has not managed to do so—has forced Jakey to take decisive action. This place is not his home. These are not his people; he just works here, but he knows his job. His sergeant’s order is irrational. These men have weapons. The law is unambiguous.
“Hands on top of your heads,” he commands them. “Both of you! Right now!”
“Simmer down there with that scattergun, Wild Bill,” the cowboy perp says. “Nobody’s wavin’ iron here but you.”
Jakey cannot understand why his partner hasn’t moved to back him up. This is the most dangerous time of any armed suspect encounter and that jolly, flabby doofus is telling him not to do what he was hired and trained to do. How Jakey misses the Corps where everyone knows their role and follows procedure, simple progressions with reliable, repeatable results. Regardless, he has the drop on these two and the initiative is his.
“You are both under arrest for trespassing on private property and possession of firearms within the pueblo. Put your hands on your head and get on your knees.”
Cowboy perp looks up at the other and says, “Seems prickly, don’t he?”
Everything would be so much easier if he could just shoot one of them to show he means business. It had worked spectacularly well in both desert and jungle theaters. His comm is still filled with electronic grass. Jakey’s shotgun is aimed between center masses. Whether anything he’s got is able to penetrate the big fellow’s armor is doubtful, but it looks like there may be vulnerable flesh just behind the faceplate where his hair spills out, a serious design flaw.
Inside his head, Jakey’s voice is infused with authority. “Do NOT fuck with me, assholes. Do what I told you. Do it now.”
Motion flickers at the edges of Jakey’s vision. Both sides at once. The movement to his right is Sergeant Sanchez double-timing his lard ass over to assist, at last. A glint of sunlight there is Manny’s service weapon being drawn to cover the perpetrators, which is convenient because whatever is on Jakey’s left was much farther away a moment ago.
Across the church yard, two enormous dogs are bearing down on him at a dead run. Where they’ve come from is a distant concern. They are both bigger than he is. Jakey trains a can’t-miss, hot, double-ought round on the larger one, a brindle less than thirty meters away and closing.
Something presses his weapon aside and occludes his target. The woman in white is centimeters from him. He can feel her breath on his face. It has a spicy fragrance he will recall later. The soles of his feet press flat against his kidneys as his head and rectum exchange places in some painless, inexplicable fashion. A second later he is on his hands and knees on a surface of smooth stones barking his breakfast burrito and coffee all over his shotgun.
He tosses his sodden mask aside and rolls onto his back with a groan. The darkness is not enhanced by deep-tinted glasses designed for high desert work. He fumbles them off his face. The floor is hard and his guts are churning, but all his parts seem to be in their proper order, which is reassuring. High up, maybe two meters above him, light seeps in through a square aperture centered in heavy timbers. It offers no clue to where he is, or why. As to the how, well… she’s standing over him. And then she’s not.
Sergeant Sanchez is astonished to realize that he’s holding his sidearm in the general direction of the fellow in cowboy togs and what may well be an inhuman being of unknown intent and potential. Also, his partner and the kachina-woman have just vanished in a blink before his eyes.
The dogs, skidding to a halt where Jakey and the woman had been standing, are poised less than a meter from him now, lips skinned back from bayonets.
Montoya is beside him.
“I told you it was a bad idea,” Martin says. His voice is gentle, as is the reassuring hand on Manny’s arm, lowering his weapon’s muzzle toward the dirt.
If these are truly the supernatural beings of his tribe’s history, then this misplaced character in the hat must be the brujo. He looks more like an unchipped denizen of one of those throwback enclaves that still dot the nation like a bad rash. On the other hand, he did just appear to come from the kiva with the hulk in white. Manny’s deliberation on this subject is compromised by that same hulk’s featureless mask turned full upon him and by the unknowable motivation of imaginary beings provoked to anger by discourteous treatment.
The air in front of Manny seems to distort and presses outward against him. The woman in white is so near he can feel the heat of her. His partner is not with her. Manny’s personal recorder registers another spike in his vital signs. Impossible, inhuman beings of antiquity and legend, beyond all common sense and reason, are REAL. They not only exist, their attention has turned upon him. Specifically. This is not some virtual experience he can step out of and comforting normalcy will be restored. She is right here. Right now. She is close enough to touch. She is close enough to touch him.
Sunlight on her flesh produces waves of warmth and the scent of her is in his nostrils. Her fingertips on his chest are light, a delicate grazing contact, devoid of menace or even the vaguest hint of peril. In fact, as she traces an obscure pattern upon his chest, his certainty in her goodness and authenticity is confirmed.
She awards him a gentle smile.
His sidearm has dropped into the dirt at his feet. Martin picks it up, slips it back into its holster, and secures the clasp. Manny pats it and, with a purposeful step, returns to the cruiser. The motor’s idling hum scales up to a business-like frequency as the doors fold him inside. He backs away from the curb and accelerates down the street. At the end of the block, he bears left and is gone.