The Monster of Donna Lake

From The Seed: Stories from the River’s Edge (Absey & Co., 2011)

News of the latest deaths spread like wildfire throughout the student body of W.A. Todd Ninth-Grade Campus. Text messages were forwarded frantically; beneath desks, hundreds of fingers flailed away at diminutive keys, while misty eyes risked casual glances down at the news flashing across the screens.

Most teachers, as per usual, had no clue what was happening.

One of the first students to receive all of the particulars of the most recent tragedy was Vicky de los Ángeles. Easily one of the most popular girls at school, Vicky was a profoundly good person, funny and caring, an advocate for her peers. Teachers appreciated her presence. All of the cliques at Todd understood her worth—jocks, freaks, Goths, fresas, nerds, cheerleaders, preps, cholos, even hardcore thugs and gang mules—everyone recognized and respected her scrappy, no-nonsense approach to conflicts, and everyone loved the smile that at a moment’s notice would light up her otherwise somewhat plain face.

Vicky rapidly synthesized the multiple texts and tweets into a mental timeline: at 3:16 a.m. the Donna police had found the bodies of Genaro “el Topo” López, Segundo “Nazi” Sánchez and Nelson Valenzuela: all three of them known members of a major Texas prison gang. They had been discovered by Officer Dale during his patrol of the southwestern quadrant of the town; their bodies were lying mutilated in some weeds at where Hutto Road debouches into Stites Road, just a few blocks from the Donna Reservoirs, more commonly referred to as Donna Lake. With this discovery, the death toll in Donna rose to seven. Seven people dead within a month, Vicky reflected sadly. It’s a massacre.

Asking permission from her first-period teacher to go to the restroom, Vicky slipped into the hallway and dialed the number of the school district’s central office.

“Can you connect me to Juan de los Ángeles?” she asked the receptionist.

Within seconds, her grandfather’s voice rumbled across the line. “Safety and Risk Management.”

“Grandpa, it’s me, Vicky.”

“Vicky? Are you okay?”

“Yeah, sure, but everyone’s starting to freak out.”

“I’m heading out there with a team. Student Support Services is sending some extra crisis counselors, too. We’re going to help keep things calm, don’t worry.”

Juan de los Ángeles had been a central office director for going on fifteen years now, following ten as a principal, six as a counselor and seven as a football coach. He was poised to retire soon, having passed up opportunities to become assistant superintendent or even to occupy the top slot itself. He simply wasn’t interested in power— he genuinely liked helping others. Like Vicky, he was well loved by a large cross section of people, a real plus in a town as political as Donna. But above all, the director was a problem-solver, and his granddaughter trusted that if anyone could nip possible hysteria in the bud, he was the man.

The dean of instruction turned the corner, and Vicky breathed a quick goodbye.

“Was that your grandfather?” the dean asked, not at all perturbed by her use of a cell phone in the middle of the hallway. When she nodded, he continued. “Is he on his way?”

“Yes. With the student support people.”

He sent her back to class, where she struggled to focus on the geography of distant lands though her mind could not stop tracing the layout of her own town. Surreptitiously she pulled up a map of Donna on her phone and plotted the location of the murders. All of them were within a twenty-block radius of Donna Lake.

Eventually the bell rang and Vicky headed to her English class. Her lifelong friend George Villanueva met her on the way, his razored bangs jutting like a Gothic veil across one hazel eye. They hugged and exchanged their concerns about the news. Their teacher had them read another chapter of Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, and during their Think-Pair-Share activity, Vicky explained to George what she saw as a connection between the novel and the present tragedy.

“The dead can’t speak, you know what I mean? Like Melinda, these seven guys had something taken away from them, but they can’t call out their attacker’s name. Their voices got ripped away.”

George nodded. “Yeah. And you know how Melinda feels like she’s got to tell Rachel, to warn her about Andy? I wonder if, I don’t know, these dudes’ spirits are still hanging around, like wanting to warn their friends and stuff. But they can’t, or we can’t hear them, at least.”

Vicky wrote a lot of that up in her literary letter, the reflection their teacher made them do sometimes. After English, she and George headed to the cafeteria, picked up carb-heavy plates of enchiladas, rice and beans, and made their way to Vicky’s unofficial table. About four or five people rotated in and out of the lunch group, but there was always the core clique, a little family of friends that had been together since Pre-K— Vicky, the unspoken leader; George, whose waif form and almond eyes would have gotten his butt kicked if it weren’t for his belonging to this group; Sandra Alaniz, whose soulful voice had already gotten her gigs singing the National Anthem at sporting events throughout the Río Grande Valley; and Albert Guzmán, a darkly handsome boy who spent his summers in Michigan in the fields with his family.

They greeted each other with hugs or slapped palms, and along with several “satellite friends,” as George called them, immediately broached the subject of the murders.

“What if it’s like rogue cops or something, taking the law into their own hands?” George asked.

Chale.” Albert said with a slight shake of his shaven head. Vicky regarded him narrowly. Albert and George were always verbally sparring, exchanging barbs or flat-out insulting each other. They were about as different as night and day, and an outsider might think they despised each other. Vicky knew differently.

George opened his eyes with feigned shock. “Dude, did you just say chale?”

Simón.” Albert leaned back, eyeing the other boy archly.

“Wow. Okay. So, what’s next? You’re gonna call me bato or something?”

Albert’s normally unreadable face twitched. “I’m about to call you something, alright, pen…

Guys.” Vicky rapped her knuckles against the tabletop. “Enough. This is too serious for you two to be going at it like you always do. Seven people are dead. Look around… everybody’s nerves are frayed.”

Sandra made a scoffing sound. “I don’t get why is there all this crying and stuff. I mean, yeah, it’s bad that people are dead. But it’s not like they were good people, right? Most of them are into drugs and have been to jail. They picked that sort of life, la vida loca or whatever, and it pretty much leads to death.”

Vicky’s chest ached a little as Sandra said these words, and everyone at the table was silent for a few moments.

“Holy crap, Sandra,” muttered George. “For a chick, you’re pretty insensitive, huh?”

Sandra looked at Vicky, and her face reddened. “Oh, my God, Vicky… I wasn’t thinking! I’m so, so sorry…”

Vicky smiled weakly. Her father had been in prison since she was five years old. The former police officer had been convicted of accepting bribes to turn a blind eye to drug trafficking in Donna. Vicky hadn’t learned the truth until she turned nine— her family had convinced her and her little brother Danny that their father was in the army. Ironically it had been Sandra Alaniz who had told her the truth in third grade. She hadn’t spoken to her dad on the phone for months afterward, and she’d been very cold to her mother and grandparents until her aunt Barbie had sat her down and straightened her out.

“It’s okay, Sandra. I hear you. People make their choices, and there are consequences. I get that. But no matter what a person’s done, some crazy killer doesn’t have the right to come along and take their life. Because there are people that care about them, you know? Look at Stephanie Ríos— el Topo was her cousin, son of her mom’s big sister. Stephanie’s not in the life, but she loves her family, and now they’re all hurting.”

“Yeah,” Albert put in. “Just imagine Tony. No wonder he’s out today. He for reals looked up to his brother. And el Topo tried to keep him out, you know. Sure, Tony’s a tagger and a homie, but he ain’t no gangbanger. But now? Hell, I bet he’s out for blood.”

The idea that Tony López might try to hunt down his brother’s killer made Vicky’s pulse race. He’ll get pulled in. It’s like a cycle of violence that nobody can stop. They kill one of yours, you kill one of theirs, and it never ends. “That would be a mistake,” she said aloud. “But I wonder who the killer is.”

“That’s easy,” Albert said darkly. “Everyone is saying it’s the Monster.”

George shook his head with dramatic disappointment.

“The monster? What monster?” Vicky felt a strange thrill along her nerves.

“Don’t listen to him,” George moaned. “He’s a moron.”

Sandra cleared her throat. “Nah. It’s not just Albert. I’m surprised you haven’t heard this yet, Vicky. Raza have been saying for months now that there’s something weird in Donna Lake. Something that mutated in all that PCB and crap. That principal went missing back in May? They say he was waiting to meet up with a teacher, there by the lake. They found his car, just parked on that contaminated mud. There were drag marks leading right to the water’s edge. Monster got him.”

“And now,” Albert intoned in a deadpan that could have meant nearly anything, “it’s coming after anybody who they’re in a clica.”

“Then the Llorona goes after their siblings, and la mano pachona steals their babies. Yeah. Hadn’t you heard?” George shook his head in disgust.

“Well,” said Vicky, interrupting Albert’s probably vulgar response, “it’s obvious that whoever’s killing these guys is either luring them to the lake or waiting for people to approach it.” She explained about the geography of the murders.

“I’m telling you: it’s the Monster,” Albert repeated.

“Whatever it is,” Vicky said, “the police’d better be out there tonight, by the lake. Either this is going to happen again soon, or some grieving family member is going to get in over their head. Somebody needs to protect this town.”

Her friends nodded, but their faces were slack with doubt. Like many teens in Donna, they didn’t particularly trust the police or think them competent to protect anyone at all, much less a bunch of feuding gangsters.

When she’d finished eating, Vicky found her grandfather in the library, talking to the principal. She let them know her concerns about Tony, and they assured her that someone from the district would be visiting the López family and talking to the young man about how to best channel his grief. Vicky wasn’t sure that would be enough, but short of locking Tony up, she couldn’t think of a fool-proof way of keeping him out of trouble.

After school, Vicky waited for her aunt Barbie to pick her up. Bárbara de los Ángeles was a fifty-something English teacher at one of Donna’s middle schools who, along with her grandmother and other tías, had basically raised Vicky since her father had been convicted. Short, wiry and outspoken, Barbie —an untiring advocate for special needs children who had apparently foregone marriage to fight for downtrodden kids— had only three years ago won her fight against breast cancer.

Barbie’s Landrover pulled up and Vicky clambered inside. None of her cousins —the children of her aunt Mary— were aboard, and Vicky frowned in confusion.

“So, where are the huercos?”

“Oh, your grandfather’s picking them up.” Barbie turned left instead of right on Salinas Boulevard. Right would have taken them to the expressway, at which point they could have gone east, toward gymnastics practice in Weslaco (not an activity Vicky had any heart for today), or west, to the house where Vicky, Danny and their mom lived with their grandparents. But left?

“Uh, where are we going, tía?”

“I thought we’d go to Daisy’s, have some dinner.”

“Well, I’m not all that hungry. It’s only 4:15. Besides, weren’t we going to bake a cake with abuelita?” The kitchen at the de los Ángeles residence was a warm, magical place, and Vicky’s happiest memories were of moments spent with her grandmother, aunts and mom, cooking and laughing at things men would probably never understand.

“Yes, well, your grandmother is going to be… otherwise occupied. Also, this may be your only chance to eat, and let’s just say you’re going to need your energy.”

Vicky sighed. Her aunt could be so odd. “Okay, would you mind being a little more cryptic? Look, this has been a weird enough day as is. Pretty traumatic, in fact. I love you and all, but your regular freakiness is not something I want to deal with, tía.”

The older woman’s hands tightened on the steering wheel in a sort of wince of remorse. “I’m sorry, but when we get to the restaurant, I’ll try to be as clear as I can, okay? I’ve got some serious stuff to lay on you, kiddo.” Through her glasses, Barbie’s eyes twinkled with what might have been incipient tears.

*

At Daisy’s, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that faced the city square, Vicky sipped on lime water and crunched tortilla chips as she waited for her aunt to come clean.

“For about thirty years now,” Barbie said with no preamble, “I’ve been charged with a duty. You know how a couple of times each year, when you were younger, I’d kind of… disappear for a while? Go out of town and so forth?”

Vicky nodded. “Yeah. Me and the cousins, we all figured you had some sort of hot romance going on that you didn’t want anyone to know about. Hell, we even saw your neck all covered with hickies one time!”

Barbie rolled her eyes. “I wish. Yeah, they were probably bruises.” She cleared her throat, took a breath, and said in a near-whisper, “You see, until this cancer got its claws in me, I was the cihuat of the mid-Valley.”

“The see-what? What did you see?”

“No, the cihuat. C-I-H-U-A-T. It’s a very special job. I got it by being selected.”

“By who?”

Whom.

Vicky raised an eyebrow at her aunt’s grammatical curmudgeonry. “Uh, whatever. Who chose you? And what was this job that you’re going on about, that left you with suspiciously hicky-like bruises?”

Barbie pulled off her glasses, set them aside. Her dark brown eyes were limned by a circle of gold, Vicky noticed for the first time. “A sodality of tenanches. Okay, that doesn’t mean anything to you. A group of wise old women who are sort of the spiritual leaders of the mid-Valley. They chose me to be their voice, their arm, their weapon.”

Vicky scrutinized her aunt for a second. She seemed pretty tough, but a weapon? “Their weapon against what?”

“Against the forces of darkness.”

Vicky glanced around the restaurant. No one appeared to be listening. Plates clinked in the kitchen. A telenovela droned quietly on a mounted television set.

“Okay, you’re pulling my leg. Are you like recording this? This is one of Danny’s stupid pranks, right?”

“Listen to me, Vicky. This isn’t a joke, and I don’t have time to ease you into the truth. I was the cihuat. I kept this area safe from demons, charros, calacas, lloronas, tlahuelpuchi, monsters of all sorts. All the things that go bump in the night.”

“So what, you’re some sort of supernatural demon slayer? Is that what you’re telling me?”

“Pretty much, though my life hasn’t been some self-referential hit show from the CW or anything, you know, where attractive Anglos run around a southern California devoid of Latinos and fight made-up monsters. It’s the real deal, this job, hard and cruel and absolutely necessary to keep our people safe. I know it sounds insane, m’ija, but it’s true. Horrible, nightmarish things exist, and a handful of individuals work really hard to keep them from hurting anyone.

“But the worse demon of all has wreaked havoc on my body, baby, and I can’t do the job anymore. So that’s why the tenanches, the great women who keep a vigil over our souls, have chosen a replacement for me.”

Vicky —her heart suddenly racing, her once incredulous mind suddenly convinced that it was all true, that her aunt would never lie about something like this— understood in a flash. “It’s me. They picked me, didn’t they?”

“Yes, Vicky. They picked you, and there’s no time to train you, no time to explain much of anything. That’s how life is sometimes. Whether you’re ready or not, it hurtles at you unchecked, and a real woman’s mettle is measured by how she withstands the onslaught. The tenanches see something in you, and so do I. If anyone can do what has to be done, it’s you.”

“And what,” Vicky asked, out of breath, “has to be done?”

Barbie picked up her glasses and slid them back on. “The monster, kiddo. Someone’s got to kill the monster.”

*

An hour later Vicky found herself in an abandoned warehouse, standing before a group of fourteen wizened old women, many of whom she knew, including her own grandmother — Guadalupe Mariano de los Ángeles—, the mayor’s mother, her CCD teacher, the lady who owned the hierbería, and the assistant superintendent of the school district, among others.

One woman in a habit stood from the V-shaped table where they sat. Vicky had never seen her before, but she radiated peace and grace. “I am Sister Helena Peña. It falls to me to speak for the sodality this evening. Victoria, we have watched you for many years. The love you have for your fellow human beings is visible in your every act, and you are both mentally and physically strong. You do not know this, but many women from your family have served as cihuat through the years. Your aunt, your great-grandmother María Luisa Garza: they were just two in a long line of valiant mothers of their people. It is a heavy cargo they accepted, and we now offer the yoke of service to you as well. Will you take up the mantle, daughter, and become our voice? Will you take up the shield and become our arm? Will you take up the glaive and become our weapon?”

And Vicky —not only to stop the murders that were curdling her people’s hearts, but also because she loved the women before her, trusted them, wanted to be their sister— cleared her throat and bravely replied: “I will.”

Two of the tenanches then took up censers and baptized her in swaths of jasmine smoke. Another woman swept her from head to toe with a grass broom, mumbling esoteric prayers. Her forehead was anointed with ash and olive oil. Strange herbs were twined in her hair. And finally, her aunt stood before her, a stone medallion dangling from a silver chain in her hand.

“Vicky, the first protection we offer you is the most sacred. The figure on this rectangle of jade is Tonantzín, the great mother, the Virgin who smiles upon us all. She has opposed the darkness for millennia in the name of her son, and it is to her that we pray for His continued protection.” With this, she clasped the chain about Vicky’s neck.

Sister Helena next addressed her, holding an ancient shield in her hands. “Daughter, this is the chimalli of a cihuat, a shield crafted from wood and layers of hide. It is edged with feathers molted from angels’ wings, and the jade disk at its center is engraved with puissant hieroglyphs… any weapon that strikes it will be stuck fast until you release it. Use this chimalli to ward off the attacks made by the enemies of your people, but remember that action often requires the abandonment of defenses.”

And then, to her surprise, Vicky’s grandmother came before her holding a frightening weapon, what appeared to be a wooden sword with rectangular blades of black stone embedded on either side along its length. “Sweet Vicky, this is the macauhuitl… and that is just so hard to say that we frankly just call it a macana. It feels strange, after all the kitchen implements I’ve taught you to use, that I’m the one who gets to give you this weapon, but take care… not one of my really sharp knives comes close to the keenness of these bits of obsidian. Get enough force behind it, and a blow with this thing will chop the head off a cow. Not that any of us have ever tried that, mind you.” The snickers from the table were so incongruous that Vicky was almost appalled, but then she understood. It was a solemn moment, but they were all women. They understood intimately that laughter and joy sustained life, even in the darkest moments. Vicky smiled.

Then all the women gathered round her, placing their hands on her head. Slowly, quietly, they began to chant, their voices like rose petals rustling in a woolen blanket.

Salve, por ti resplandece la dicha;
Salve, por ti se eclipsa la pena.
Salve, levantas al hombre caído;
Salve, rescatas el llanto de madres.
Salve, oh voz de almas calladas;
Salve, lucero en las tinieblas.
Salve, tú eres el arma del bien;
Salve, tú llevas la adarga que cubre.
Salve, mujer entre mujeres.
Salve, cihuat que cuida su pueblo.
Por ti los niños en paz dormirán;
Por ti las madres no han de temer.
Salve, ¡ángel y guardián!

Vicky’s bones seemed to buzz faintly, as though power were flowing into her from the tenanches. Soon her entire being was thrumming with their energy, their song. She felt she would overflow at any moment, so brimming was she with their collective strength and surety. Her eyes were streaming tears at the beauty of such a holy communion.

“Now,” said Barbie in her ear, “I release my charge into your hands, cihuat. And I’ll give you one last bit of advice before I drive you to the lake. When all else fails, remember: they’re your people. Your love for them will keep you going long after your body and mind have reached their limits.”

*

They drove slowly through the streets of Donna, and every landmark, business and home seemed to impinge more poignantly than ever on Vicky’s awareness. Suddenly she realized that the tenanches hadn’t really given her any specific guidance as to strategy or anything.

“Um, Aunt Barbie? What exactly is it that I’m supposed to fight? You called it a monster… but what do you know about it? What are its weaknesses?”

“Well, it’s kind of embarrassing, but we actually don’t know too much at all. It’s been nearly three years since we’ve had any kind of supernatural threat in this area, and… hrm… we were pretty much caught off guard. Oh, we’d already decided to bring you in, but not until next summer. Then the killings started, and everything got fast-tracked.

“Basically our shaman tells us that it’s some sort of animal that’s been mutated into a vicious predator with near-human intelligence. But she can’t determine if magic was used or if it’s just all the crap in the water that made the changes. Anyhow, it seems to just have brute strength… that’s why you should be okay without any talismans or training in spells.”

“So, yeah, I just need to get close to it and kill it. That’s what you’re saying.”

“Pretty much, yes. But you’ve been infused with our teotl, our spiritual energy, and that, along with these weapons and your gymnastic agility, should do the trick.”

Then 106.3 FM started playing “Uprising” by Muse, and Vicky turned up the volume. She and Aunt Barbie always sang along to their favorite songs, and now, despite the looming confrontation, they got as silly as ever, yelling out “We will be victorious” at the top of their lungs. Adrenaline mixed with the teotl that thrummed along her nerves; she felt suddenly invincible.

And sooner than she expected, it was time. Barbie pulled over on south Val Verde Road, and the two of them got out. Her aunt kissed her forehead, hugged her tightly, got back in her Land Rover, and drove away, leaving Vicky standing in the poisoned mud that edged the lake. The new cihuat stared at the mid-October sunset, strange golds and orange-tinged blues coruscating among the slow-moving clouds. The sound of an approaching car made her turn. She recognized the Impala that pulled awkwardly off the road and into the grass and mud— it had belonged to el Topo. Soon the car stopped and Tony emerged.

“What the hell are you doing here, Vicky?” Rage had scoured the boy’s face like a desert wind. He held an automatic pistol in his right hand.

“Get back in the car, Tony. You’re just going to get yourself killed.”

He looked her up and down. “No way you’re the killer, shorty. And wasn’t nobody killed with no baseball bat or Indian shield.”

“Of course I’m not the killer, Tony. Look, it’s tough to explain, but just trust me. You’ve got to get out of here. You really want your mom to lose another son?”

“You threatening me, esa?” Tony gripped his weapon more tightly, and his voice was tinged with hysteria.

“No, Tony. I’m trying to protect you. The thing that killed your brother is going to be coming out of that lake in a few minutes, and you need to be as far away from here as your Impala will take you.”

“And, what, leave you here to fight them by yourself? Girl, estás pero bien pen…”

The twilight seemed to abruptly become night, and a thrashing sound from the lake caused them both to turn. Leaping from the still, cloudy water came a thing of wet verdigris and ochre blotches. When it landed some ten yards away from them, Vicky saw that it was about the height of a man, roughly humanoid, though its legs were oddly splayed, the knees bending backward. Four-fingered hands ended in brutal claws, and atop boney shoulders squatted an amphibian head with bulging eyes and nostrils like long slits that snorted and gaped as it regarded them. It opened its mouth, and double rows of needle-like teeth shone in the light of the rising moon.

Tony’s face twisted into a despairing snarl, and he lifted the gun, cursing nearly incoherently at the monster as he emptied his clip into it. The creature took several steps back and appeared to be in great pain, but as Tony reached into his baggy jeans for another clip, it opened its mouth even wider and sent its tongue lashing through the air to knock the pistol from his grip.

“Oh, yeah?” screamed Tony. “That all you got, you freak? You killed my brother! I’m a use my bare hands to rip you to pieces!”

Like a bereft predator, Tony launched himself at the monster, thudding wildly across the mud. Vicky began sprinting, trying to cut him off, but suddenly he jerked to a stop and stood staring with empty eyes at the lake. She reached his side a few seconds later and pushed at him with her shield.

“Come on, damn it; don’t just stand there! Move!” But Tony didn’t budge; it was as if something had glued him in place. Worse. As far as Vicky could tell, looking into his eyes, Tony had left the building.

A plopping sound reminded her of the monster not three yards away. Whirling, Vicky barely got her shield up in time: its tongue had whipped toward her, but now it impacted against the jade disc and remained stuck.

“Kind of like licking a metal pole in freezing weather, huh?” she quipped. “Not that I’d know. Doesn’t freeze in Donna, not often, anyway. Well, I’d ask if you have any last words, but I’m guessing that you’re not real articulate at the moment.”

She lifted her macana to slice through its tongue, but a clammy dampness unexpectedly gripped her soul. She found she couldn’t move. An ineluctable torpidity seeped into every crevice of her being. Nothing mattered. There was no reason to move. Stillness, unknowing and absolute, settled over her mind.

Then the images came. Each of the seven victims flashed before her, performing various heinous acts, whether crimes or simple injustices. Beatings of children and women, robberies, rapes, drug trafficking, cheating, murder… the entire gamut of human wrongdoing. And then she saw Tony’s face, saw him shoplifting, stealing money from his mother, tagging the walls of small businesses, picking on little kids. The images faded, and she sensed a question, a wordless sensation of inquiry, as if the monster were demanding justification for her defense of such people.

Outrage thawed her frozen heart. Not indignation at what the dead had done, but at this slimy being that sat in judgment of their actions and, outside of all rule of law, summarily executed them. No review of their motives, of the evidence, of factors that had led them to act in a particular way. No love of the victims of their crimes, either. No real quest for justice. This was bloodthirstiness, through and through. And she wasn’t going to stand for it.

Her aunt’s voice whispered in the midst of her thaw: When all else fails, remember: they’re your people. Your love for them will keep you going long after your body and mind have reached their limits.

With a shrug, she was free. The monster’s tongue still clung magically to her shield, though it now stood just two feet from her. Her arm trembled from holding the macana in the air so long, but she didn’t bring it down just yet.

“It doesn’t matter what he’s done,” she gasped. “You don’t get it. You don’t have the right to judge him. Me neither. He’s a human; all of them are. They do good, they do bad. They’re flawed, trying to make the best of things even though they don’t have all the tools or really even understand stuff. But they’re not monsters. You are. You’re just looking for an excuse to hurt people because you need to. But these are my people, and I won’t let you, do you understand. I’m their protector. Their weaknesses and strengths are beautiful to me, dear to my heart. I love them. Have some of them done evil? Maybe. But if so, the law will judge them, not you or me. It’s not our job.

“My job is to kill you, and your job is to die.”

Vicky slashed downward with the macauhuitl, and its obsidian blades passed through the monster’s thick tongue as if through air. With a howling, burbling scream, the monster turned and began to run toward the lake. Tossing aside her shield, Vicky raced after it. Before it could reach the water, she hurled herself into a tucked aerial, whipping through the air and landing right behind the monster, which hesitated a moment. In a single, fluid arc, Vicky swung her weapon with every ounce of strength, separating the monster’s squat, ranine head from its hideous body.

For several long seconds, she stood over her toppled opponent, watching it mysterious melt into a muddy sludge at her feet.

Ay, güey.”

Vicky looked askance and saw Tony walk up, slamming home his extra clip. He glanced at her vaguely.

“You mind?” he said, indicating his pistol.

“No. Go ahead. Not much left, but knock yourself out.”

Tony fired over and over till his bullets were spent. There was serenity in his eyes as he slipped the gun into his waistband.

“Thanks.”

“No problem.”

The moon was higher in the sky now, twinned on the surface of the water as if sky and lake were one. Tony gestured at his brother’s Impala. “Qué onda, you need a ride?”

Vicky smiled. “Yeah, if you don’t mind.”

“Just be careful with that baseball bat thing you got. Upholstery’s brand new.”

They both laughed then, and that joyful sound echoed long and clear across the silvered darkness.

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