Begin at the beginning
I topped a rise in the road and discovered a windmill a few hundred yards away in the basin below me. The big steel blades creaked as they spun in the hot breeze. A pipe running from the rocky soil gushed water into the top of a cylindrical limestone tank. A ladder of rusty iron rungs ran up the side.
When I got to the windmill, I shrugged out of my pack and leaned it against the tank. I'd been drinking more water than I'd planned that day, so I wanted to get a refill while I had the chance. I climbed to the top and stood on the foot-wide concrete rim. The tank was nearly full. I made my way to the pipe and stared at the water as I filled my canteen. Green wavelets sparkled in the sun and lapped against the side of the tank.
I screwed the cap on my canteen and surveyed the area. Nobody was around for miles, it seemed. What the hell. I stripped down to my sports bra and panties and eased into the cool water. I put my straw hat back on so I wouldn't roast my face and floated upright against the concrete. In a few minutes, I was drowsing, my eyes half-closed.
"Buenos dias, señorita."
"Jesus!" I nearly jumped out of the water.
A girl, maybe twelve or thirteen, was standing on the ladder, grinning down at me. Unruly reddish-brown hair fell past her shoulders. Her skin and hair were almost the same color.
"Who are you?" I asked.
"I'm Roja. I saw you up here, thought I'd come up and say hello."
Roja climbed up and walked around the rim to the other side of the tank. She was wearing only a pair of faded, cut-off denim shorts, a ragged yellow tee shirt and a pair of grubby canvas sneakers. She was a small kid, I guessed not much over four and a half feet tall, but she had a wiry, muscular physique. Her tee shirt was tight over her small breasts.
Roja sat down on the rim and dangled her feet in the water, still grinning. She had a half-eaten pear in her hand, her fingers sticky with the juice.
"Are you from this ranch, or what?" I asked.
"Nope. I'm just around. Here and there, everywhere."
Despite her hair, most of Roja's features were intensely Apache. But her close-set eyes were a light hazel, almost yellow in the sunlight. I realized that she didn't look like anybody I'd ever seen before.
And then I noticed a few stands of silver gleaming in her hair, and faint lines around her eyes. It wasn't much, but too much for her to be the twelve-year-old I'd taken her for. She was at least in her late teens, maybe even older.
"Are you Indian?" I asked.
She shrugged evasively. "Nobody I'm related to ever came from India. But my people were on this continent before your people."
"That's what I meant," I replied, a little irritably.
"But that's not what you asked." She smiled and took a bite out of the fruit.
"Where'd you get that pear?"
"I found it in your backpack." Another bite.
A sudden panic arced through me as I thought of my revolver and pocketbook in the bottom of the pack.
Panic was quickly replaced by exasperation. Dammit, had someone scribbled Rob Me on my forehead and I didn't know it? "What do you think you're doing, taking my stuff?"
Roja shrugged again. "It was there, I was hungry, you weren't watching it, so I took it." She stared at me, a smirk twisting her features. "You want it back?"
"No. You can keep it," I replied coldly. "So did you take anything else?"
"Nope. This was all I wanted. I don't take stuff I don't want."
"How thoughtful." My blood was singing in my ears.
Roja finished off the pear and tossed the core over her shoulder. "Don't be so mad. It's not like you'll starve. You're a rich gringa. You got lots of stuff. I'm just a kid, and I got nothing." She wiped the juice off her chin.
"I'm not rich, and that's not the point. You keep stealing from folks, they'll throw your skinny little butt in jail."
Roja laughed delightedly. "I don't care about gringo laws. I don't get caught, none of my people do. Nobody tells us what to do. We live out here and do what we want. The only reason you know I took your fruit is 'cause I felt like telling you."
"I bet the rancher wouldn't be too happy if he knew you were out here squatting on his land."
Roja's expression darkened suddenly. She looked away from me, scowling.
"Asesino sucio!" she spat.
Filthy murderer. I felt a bone-deep chill. "What?"
"The rancher ... he's killed people." Roja stopped suddenly, her eyes shifting as though she was trying to think of what to say next.
"He murders girls," Roja continued, fixing me in a cold stare. "He picks them up in the towns around here. He takes them back to his house, rapes them, and then he shoots them. He buries the bodies out where no one will ever find them. You should be very careful out here, gringa."
My stomach twisted. I started thinking about the burned pups. People who enjoy torturing animals will eventually work up to torturing people, if they think they can get away with it.
Roja abruptly stood up and looked around. "Well, gotta go. Adios, gringa."
In seconds, she was off the tank and running down the road, her feet kicking up clouds of tan dust.
I waited until Roja had disappeared into the brush up the road. Then I splashed out of the water, dressed, and climbed down to see what she'd done to my pack. Roja had left the center zipper open. I did a quick check of the contents. Nothing but the pear seemed to be missing. My cash was untouched, and my revolver was safe in its black nylon shoulder holster. I pulled it out and checked the cylinder. Roja hadn't stolen any bullets.
Was she telling the truth about the rancher? Maybe, maybe not, but I couldn't risk it, not when the nearest cop was fifty miles away. I buckled on the pistol. If Roja had been truthful, having the piece wouldn't do me much good if I couldn't get to it.
I got my pack on. I figured it would take me three or four hours to get back to my car. I could be back on the highway to Alpine before it got seriously dark.
Then I saw a cloud of dust rising above the road, and in the next second a battered white pickup was rolling over the hill. I froze, my heart pounding. The scrub near the windmill was too sparse to hide in, and with my pack on there was no way I could make it to better cover before the driver spotted me, if he hadn't seen me already. So I just stayed where I was, hoping I could play it cool.
The pickup slid to a stop ten yards away from me. Post holers and bales of barbed wire lay in the bed, and I saw two rifles in the rack behind the seat. Two men got out, a thin, bearded Anglo in a grimy John Deere cap, and a beefy, middle-aged Hispanic in a Resistol rancher hat. The men's jeans and long-sleeved shirts were splotched with sweat and dust.
The rancher tipped his hat warily. "Buenas tardes, señorita. Mind if I ask what you're doin' on my land?" His Texas accent was as thick as week-old chili.
"Oh, hi." I gave him what I hoped was a winning, innocent smile. I figured that if the rancher wasn't dangerous, he'd be less likely to hassle me about trespassing if he thought I was some cute little airhead. If he was dangerous ... well, nothing would help that but my revolver.
"I'm sorry, am I trespassing? I really didn't mean to, I just wanted to get to those mountains, and it seemed like going through here was the only way to get there ...."
The rancher pulled off his hat and wiped his brow on his sleeve. There was a vacant, distracted look in his eyes, the look of a deeply worried man.
His eyes fell on my holstered revolver. The Colt has a seven-inch barrel, and since I'm not a big woman, it always looks like a cannon strapped under my arm. "That's quite a gun you got there, señorita."
"Just as well she's got it, what with them coyotes," the other man commented, scratching his beard.
"Coyotes?" I asked.
"Yeah, we got a bad coyote problem, muy malo," the rancher drawled, his brow creasing deeply. "There's a whole pack of 'em runnin' around out here. Past couple of months, they've taken down four calves. One of 'em, they just ripped its belly open and left it to bleed to death." The rancher shook his head. "And then last month, they took down one of my heifers. A whole damn cow. I ain't never heard of coyotes doin' that before."
"Maybe they're not all coyote. Maybe they're crossed with wolves or something," I offered.
"That's one thing for sure, they ain't all coyote," the ranch hand replied, looking as though he was remembering a bad fright. "They're part devil. Only way to kill 'em proper is to burn 'em." The man was nodding to himself, apparently reaffirming some deep conviction about how evil should be dispatched.
"You mean you burned coyotes? While they were still alive?" I was fishing for a reaction. The rancher seemed to be normal; the ranch hand seemed a little paranoid, but I wasn't getting any vibes to indicate that he might be dangerous to anybody who wasn't a coyote. But then I guessed guys like Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy seem pretty harmless, until they decide to kill you. Clearly, I was no great judge of character, or else I'd have never shown my lab notes to Greitsch.
The ranch hand didn't say anything.
"Yeah, well, I kinda wish Jamey here hadn't done that; it didn't seem real humane," the rancher admitted uneasily. "But I know how he felt about it. I'm pretty much ready to torch the bunch of 'em myself. Can't hardly sleep at night with all their damn howling. And I got some good ridin' horses, and them coyotes could cripple 'em or worse." He made a vague gesture toward the pickup's gun rack. "I've picked off a few so far, but it ain't done much good. We're going out this evenin' to hunt the rest of 'em down. You seen any tracks out here?"
"No, sure haven't," I paused. The rancher really didn't seem dangerous -- Roja was probably just rattling my cage. "Is it okay if I keep going across your ranch?"
The rancher rubbed the back of his neck, absently staring at my .44. "Oh, I reckon it'll be okay. Just be careful if you make a camp fire; the grass is real dry in spots."
I ran across Roja again about an hour before dusk. She was crouched down beside a clump of prickly pear cactus, burning the spines off a couple of the purple fruits with a disposable lighter. She pulled one blistered fruit off the cactus and bit into it. A stream of red juice ran from the corner of her mouth. Roja straightened up and smiled at me.
"So, you meet the rancher-man, gringa? He invite you back to the house for some fun? You're lucky you're still alive." She licked her lips, her tongue stained red.
"Cut the b.s." I strode past her. "He never killed anybody, and you know it, so just give it up."
"I told you the truth about him. He's a murderer," Roja insisted, not smiling.
I stopped and faced her. "Oh yeah? Prove it."
"Okay. He buried one of the girls he killed over there, under a big cedar." Roja pointed into the brush. "Go dig her up if you think I'm lying."
Was she bluffing? Did she think I'd be too squeamish to check out her story? "Okay, I think I will dig her up."
I went into the brush. After twenty yards or so, I spotted a squat, broad cedar. When I got closer to the tree, I saw that a two-foot by five-foot section of the ground under the canopy seemed churned up and cloddy, a sharp contrast to the hard-packed, rocky caliche surrounding it.
I shrugged out of my pack and unzipped one of the side pockets to get out my garden trowel. My folding shovel was too bulky for my pack, so it stayed in the trunk of my car. The trowel was enough for most digging purposes, such as getting weeds out of a campfire circle or prying fossilized clams out of a road cut. I wasn't sure how good it would be for exhuming a corpse. If one was there.
I set my pack down against the trunk of the cedar and stuck the trowel into the cloddy earth. The blade sank in to the handle. No hard rain had fallen to pack down the soil since the hole had been dug, but it seldom rained in the summer out there.
I troweled dirt out of the hole, and after five scoops the blade hit something hard. Maybe it was just a rock. I dug a little more and uncovered a section of ribs. I shivered, then reminded myself that ribs tend to look pretty much alike in animals of the same size. And I couldn't see much of the skeleton. It could just be a coyote. I moved up to where the head of the animal ought to be, and started digging.
In seconds, I uncovered the skull. It was human. My brain numb with shock, I pulled the skull out of the ground and brushed away some of the dirt. Strands of long red-brown hair were still stuck to the crown. The skull was delicate and small. The girl couldn't have been more than thirteen.
As I stared at the skull, the horrible implications of my discovery began to sink in. My heart began to beat fast, surging adrenaline into my system. I was looking at the skull of a murdered girl. For all I knew, I could be next.
And how had Roja known where the body was buried?
"See, I told you I wasn't lying."
I jumped. Roja was standing behind me. I hadn't heard her come up.
I swung the trowel at her. Roja took a quick hop backwards, neatly avoiding the blade.
Shaking, I fumbled out my .44 with my free hand. "Get away from me!"
"What's the matter with you? I just showed you I'm not lying," Roja complained, eyeing the gun warily.
"The only thing you've proved is that a girl's been murdered. I got no proof that it wasn't you who did it." My heart was knocking so hard I couldn't keep the gun steady.
"The rancher killed her!" Roja's face was purple. "He killed them all!"
I couldn't tell if she was lying or not. I got a better grip on the revolver, took a deep breath, tried to calm down. I glanced up at the sky. The sun would set in a few hours. I couldn't afford to be out in the open after dark.
I looked back at Roja, who was as tense as a bird about to jump to flight.
"Get the hell out of here," I hissed.
Roja dashed away through the mesquites.
I holstered my revolver and grabbed my pack, determined to get the hell off the ranch as fast as I could.
I had backtracked about a half a mile when I started to hear some coyote howls, some off in the distance, some nearby. I realized that meant that the men were out hunting for them, and maybe for me, too. I began to run.
Suddenly, I heard a rifle crack nearby. A girl screamed in pain.
Then I heard the rancher shout in Spanish.
"No, don't hurt my sister!" I heard another girl scream.
Oh my God, he's got two of them! I thought.
The rifle fired again.
Before I knew what I was doing I had pulled out my .44 and was running toward the voices. I came out of the brush into a dry, rock-strewn river bed. The first thing I saw was two naked Hispanic girls cowering beside a small boulder. One was bleeding profusely from a gunshot wound in her thigh, and the other was hugging her protectively.
And then I saw the men. They were standing thirty feet away from the girls, bringing their hunting rifles to bear on their prey.
"NO!" I screamed.
Both men jumped in surprise. The rancher's gun went off, the bullet whizzing harmlessly into the trees. He turned toward me, shouting in Spanish. He pointed his rifle at me.
My hand went up reflexively and I fired twice. The recoil went hard into my arm and shoulder, and I stumbled backward.
But I'd hit him. The rancher's knees crumpled, and he fell over onto his side. A dark stain began to spread across the front of his shirt.
I looked at the ranch hand. Our eyes locked for a moment. His face was corpse-white in the dim light. He shook his head, his mouth opening in a black, horrified gape. I thought I saw him lift his rifle.
I fired again. His left eye exploded in a black spray and his body went spinning to the ground.
One of the girls cried out. They were both crouching on their hands and knees, the wounded girl grimacing as she moved her injured leg.
I stepped toward them, then stopped. Something was wrong. The girls didn't look right. Their features were strangely blurred. As I watched, their flesh and bones distorted and stretched as though their bodies had turned to liquid.
In the space between two heartbeats, faces elongated into animal snouts, fingers contracted into paws. Coarse, reddish-tan fur sprouted on the soft brown skin.
Dear God, no, this was not possible. I stumbled backward, dizzy. I was hallucinating, surely. I'd gone thirty-six hours without sleep, was probably dehydrated, and my poor stressed-out brain just couldn't tell real sensory input from random firings from my subconscious. Or I'd fallen asleep in the tank in the sun, and this was all a sunstroke nightmare.
The two coyotes stared at me with their hazel-yellow eyes and laughed at me with mocking little girls' voices.
The coppery odor of blood was heavy in the air, and I realized that I never smell anything in dreams. Surely I was in serious need of a double-dose of Pamelor and a night or two in a padded room.
I turned. Roja was standing behind me, smirking. She was naked, and I saw clearly that she was no child.
"After I saw you had that gun, I thought I might get you to kill the rancher-man and his gringo, if I scared you right," she said. "I knew it would be a good trick, more fun than stealing your gun and killing them ourselves. And Maria ain't hurt bad. She'll be healed in a couple more changes." Roja's grin widened maliciously, and she laughed at me.
Alarmed horror washed through me as I finally realized I wasn't hallucinating. I'd just shot two innocent men. Sweet Jesus, what have I done?
I looked back at the coyote-girls. The two trotted over to the rancher, who was moaning softly. The coyote with the limp licked at the blood on his chest, and the other bit his hand. The rancher cried out, feebly trying to get away.
"Leave him alone!" I raised my .44, but Roja punched my hand and knocked the gun into a thick patch of grass. The revolver went off, discharging into the ground. The two coyotes ran off down the river bed.
I turned on Roja and grabbed her by the hair to hold her still so I could knock the crap out of her.
She yelped and her body melted into a coyote shape under my fingers. The Roja-coyote ran off into the brush. I was left holding a handful of brown, greasy hair.
I threw the hair down and ran over to the rancher. He was gasping, the wound in his chest making an awful wet sucking noise. I knelt beside him and started rooting in my backpack for a clean cloth to use as a compress against his wound.
"Lo siento, lo siento, I didn't know," I whispered desperately. "Please don't die."
He stared up at me, straining to breathe against the blood filling his lungs. He clutched my arm, convulsing. Then he went limp. Pink froth spilled from his lips as he let out his last breath.
I gently laid his hand across his chest and looked over at Jamey. There was a softball-sized exit wound in the back of his head. He'd probably died before he hit the ground.
I realized I was crying, and pressed the heels of my palms against my eyeballs. Dear God, what had I done?
No. Roja had done this. She'd tricked me and the two men, stolen their lives and my peace of mind. Maybe she'd even cost me my freedom, if I was discovered here. The coyote sisters were gone, and no one would ever believe my story without proof.
Proof. I stared across the ground at the handful of hair I'd pulled from Roja's scalp. The hair of a shape-shifter. And the genes of that creature were in those matted strands.
My heart jumped, an electric buzz rising in my chest. I didn't know what those genes might be, but they had to be something pretty damned amazing. They were the key to the future, and I knew it.
I looked down into the rancher's dead eyes.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I'm going to have to leave you here. My getting arrested won't bring you two back. I don't know when, and I don't know how, but I'll set things right."
I got up and gathered up Roja's hair and wrapped it in a bandanna. Then I started to hunt the site for samples from the other coyote girls. As I searched, I wondered about their biology. How had they evolved? Where had they come from? Clearly, they could change at will. That was why the rancher had been shouting -- the coyotes the men had managed to corner had suddenly started turning into girls.
I found more hair and bits of flesh where the girls had been crouched, and once I collected them and my pistol I ran back to where I'd found the girl's bones and collected a few ribs. I wrapped the specimens in my spare T-shirt, stowed everything in my pack, and took off for the highway.
Because before I could take care of the thieving coyotes, I had to take down a much bigger thief.
Five days later, I walked into Greitsch's office.
"Knock knock," I announced as I shut the door behind me. "So, here's the deal. You write the journal, you tell them what you did, you give me credit for what you stole. Oh, and you give me the $150 they paid you for the paper. That ought to cover the cost of my textbooks. Sound good?"
Greitch stared at me over the rims of his spectacles. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Oh, sure you do. You stole my electrophoresis method and published it under your name," I said matter-of-factly. "Bob knew I was working on the technique in the lab way before the article was published. And one of the zoology students saw you leave the grad student lounge with a bookbag that looked an awful lot like mine. And I just had a nice little chat with your undergrad assistant, Sanjeeta. She clearly remembers setting up an experiment to photograph, based on notes that definitely weren't in your handwriting."
I smiled sweetly at him. I was bluffing through my teeth. There was no zoology student, and although I'd gotten Sanjeeta to admit to me she knew the notes weren't Greitsch's, she was too scared of him to say anything about it in public.
"Circumstantial evidence," he snorted, but I detected a note of uncertainty in his voice.
Time to do a little bear baiting. If I'd learned anything in the past week, it was that people do really stupid things when they're angry.
"It's only a matter of time before I find other students you've stolen ideas from," I continued. "I mean, you probably do this a lot, right? You have to. You're completely bankrupt for original scientific ideas. You've struck out on the Nobel three times now. The old mental well's run dry, hasn't it? Well, that's to be expected in a guy as old as you."
Greitsch had turned beet red. A vein was throbbing in his forehead. "I ... am not ... 'mentally bankrupt'," he spluttered. "I might not be able to concentrate as well as I used to since the divorce, but I assure you, girl, that I'm still twice the scientist you'll ever be!"
"Oh, come on," I said, rolling my eyes. "You're a pretty good money magnet, but you haven't done real science of your own in over a decade, I bet. That's okay, parasites have their purpose in the food chain. You're the big, fat aphid feeding the drone ants in administration."
Greitsch, who'd turned an extraordinary shade of purple, let out a gutteral roar from deep in his throat. I was afraid for a moment that he might be having a coronary. His death, though viscerally satisfying, wouldn't help my cause one bit.
"Your ... pathetic little lab project was hardly worth stealing."
"Then why'd you do it?"
"Because the sooner you learn your place, girl, the sooner the rest of us can get back to the business of science. You females expect us to waste hard-earned grant money catering to your so-called 'needs'. You get yourselves pregnant, and then expect the men in the labs to pick up your slack while you go off to play with your brats. You expect us to dumb down the math and chemistry just so your feeble little minds can comprehend it. And I'm sick to death of it."
He began to talk faster, warming to his subject. "I clearly overestimated your intelligence. I imagined that after I put you in your place with the journal piece, you'd figure out you should go back to whatever little backwater you came from and never darken my laboratory again. But no. You're just like Josephine. You just won't. Take. A. Hint."
"It's the blond hair, isn't it? Reminds you of your ex?"
He flinched. For a brief instant, I saw his wall of angry arrogance crack, and caught a glimpse of genuine pain beneath.
And it dawned on me that it was true. I did look an awful lot like his ex-wife Josephine, maybe even shared some of her mannerisms. I had probably been an upsetting reminder to him ever since I had been assigned to his lab. No wonder he'd been so hard on me from the start, then resorted the theft. It was all just so I'd go away.
"You're finished here!" he shouted, trembling. "As of today, you have no funding, and I'll see to it you're suspended for laboratory theft. Get out of here!"
I did my best to look cowed and left the office. People in the hallway had heard that last bit about the suspension and theft, and were staring at me. I ignored them, and headed to the ladies room, where I pulled the micro-cassette recorder out of my pocket, rewound the tape and played it back.
Yep, I had the whole thing. Every word was crystal-clear.
"Game, set, and match," I whispered.
It is fall, and I have full funding from the Greene lab. Liza Greene is working with chimeric DNA, and she lets me do my own thing in the lab at night once I've done my bit for her projects. Liza is a great boss, and she thinks what I did to Greitsch was damn cool, even if many of the older faculty members think I went too far and sullied the department's good name.
I sent letters of complaint and copies of the cassette to the biotechnology journal, the head of the biology department, the university ethics commission, and the student paper. The science desk editor latched onto the story like an antibody on a bacterium. After she published a transcript of Greitsch's comments, the Lesbian Avengers started protesting 24/7 outside his office window. It was beautiful. In the end, Greitsch was forced into early retirement, and I got credit for my first published paper.
Roja, however, is still on the loose. When the highway patrol responded to my 911 call and searched the ranch, they found no trace of the men, not even blood. I guess Roja's pack ate all the evidence. Yesterday, I saw a "UFO Abducts Texans" story in one of the tabloids. As usual, the truth is stranger than supermarket fiction.
I can't close my eyes at night without seeing the faces of the men I killed. The rancher left behind a wife and two little girls. She sold the ranch and moved to one of the nearby towns. I doubt she got much for the land; notoriety isn't worth anything out there. As soon as I can, I'm going to set up an anonymous trust fund for the children. I can't make up for the loss of their father, but I can make sure they get a decent education and get a chance to see the world.
I imagine Roja and her sisters will be up to their same bloody tricks with whoever bought the ranch. I can't forget the look of glee and superiority on the little bitch's face.
Sooner or later, I'll crack the secrets in her genes and sell them to the whole world. I'll get the Nobel Greitsch never had. Then I will be the rich gringa Roja supposed me to be, and she'll be just another petty thief among millions of shapeshifters.
I wonder what the little coyote will do in a world where the ranchers turn into wolves?