A Monster in Miami
By Daniel Delgado- 57 minutes read - 11859 words
I really shouldn’t be here, I thought as soon as I saw the body.
The dead man had been spread on the marshy ground at the shore of the mangrove swamp, next to the fishermen’s canoe. The boat was beached at one of the few breaks in a dense mass of mangrove roots that sprawled explosively into the air before plunging down and vanishing into the green-gray water.
His head had been removed, leaving behind most of the neck, and a wicked slash gaping at the base of his throat. His hands had been chopped off just above the wrists.
The body was shirtless and barefoot. It had a slightly shrunken, dried-out look that I assumed came from its time in the saltwater.
But what do I know? I’m a bruja, not a forensic scientist.
“What the hell did you call me for?” I snapped in Spanish, feeling the beginnings of panic. “Why didn’t you call the damn cops?”
Just a half-hour ago, I’d been driving home from a sleepless night battling a particularly vicious duende that had taken up in a sweet old lady’s fig tree. I’d been halfway back to my parents’ house when the call came, summoning me urgently to this deserted park at the outskirts of Coral Gables.
Now here I was: blinking sweat and sleep from my eyes; gnats swarming at my face; my flats splishing alarmingly in the spongy ground. My tight jeans and form-hugging, long-sleeve shirt clung damply, chafingly.
The men exchanged a glance, and I immediately felt foolish. Maybe they were just out here fishing without a license, but more than likely at least one of them was undocumented.
“Right,” I said. “No police. But why me?”
The fishermen were stocky and short, with classically Indigenous Andean features—bold noses, prominent cheekbones, and skin the color of wet sand. I placed them in their mid to late 40s. They both wore jeans and casual long-sleeve, button-down shirts. In other words, they were typical clients for Ana María Quispe Ruiz, la Bruja de Miami.
Honestly, they could have been my uncles. I’ve got the same Native features, the same compact, though curvier, build.
One of the men—Severino, he’d said his name was—gestured helplessly at the body. “He was killed by a pishtako,” he said.
I felt the bottom drop out of my stomach. “How do you know?”
The other man, Arturo, knelt beside the body, visibly braced himself, and rolled it onto its belly. Two large holes had been cut in the lower back, on either side of the spine.
Nauseated, fascinated, I crouched down to stare at the wounds.
“Did they…take out his kidneys? But that’s…not right at all. Pishtakos take the fat, not the organs.”
Severino set me straight with a curt shake of his head. “Now, in the sierra, they come sometimes for the kidneys or the corneas. They sell them on the international organ market.”
I was fascinated despite myself. The pishtako was an old monster, at least as old as the Conquista. The earliest stories my grandparents knew were of Spanish priests who accosted solitary Indians and drained their bodies of fat, which they used to oil their church bells. The newest were of light-skinned Limeños or foreigners, who used the fat for anything from military hardware to global cosmetics.
The college-educated North American in me thought, How natural for the tale to evolve like this. The original story melds perfectly with modern urban legends.
But the traditionally educated, Peruvian bruja heard herself murmuring, “The kidneys are covered in a layer of fat.”
Europeans and their descendants say that blood is the source of life. But in the highlands of the Andes, we know: blood has power, but the life…that’s in the fat.
My hands moved to the body’s bare feet, pushing up the cuffs of the pants. The skin around the ankles was scraped away.
It all fit. It fit both stories.
In the stories my grandparents had told me, pishtakos cut off their victims’ hands and heads, then hoisted them by the ankles over a fire, to melt the fat and drain it from the body. And it looked like the victim had been killed by a single slash at the throat, the pishtako’s classic MO. Hell, for all I knew the absent head was even missing its eyes, to further match the newer version.
If fit. But…
I fixed the men with my most piercing stare. They were twice my age, but they flinched.
“What else?” I said. “This could be any random sicko. It could be a mob killing. So why did you call me?”
Severino licked his lips. “People have been disappearing. For a while now, one every few months. All of them are recent immigrants, cholos.”
He used the word in the Andean sense, not the Mexican one. He meant Indians or at least people who ‘looked like’ Indians.
People like us.
“But you know, people disappear sometimes. It could have been anything,” Severino said. “Then we saw this…” He gestured helplessly.
I shook my head. “But a pishtako is just a human being,” I said. “A monster, yes, but not a magical one. What do you expect me to do about this?”
They just stared at me. And I thought, if I were them, what would I do?
I would go to someone I could trust, of course.
So what if I didn’t want to be that person? So what if I was twenty-three and barely out of my apprenticeship? So what if I’d never faced anything worse than a duende or a restless spirit?
They had come to me.
I indulged myself in one last sigh, then I nodded and got to work.
— # —
The first thing I did was tie my long, dark hair up and out of my face. Then I swept the area for anything important that the fisherman might have missed. Nothing new turned up, other than the blood-stained jute sack the men had found the body in. I gingerly set the sack alongside the corpse.
Out came my bolsa, or my ‘working bag’, as I like to call it. It’s a small, waterproof backpack-purse with about a dozen pockets that I keep stocked with the charms, herbal medicines, and sacred plants I’m most likely to need on the fly. I hesitated for a moment, then pulled out a small ziplock bag filled with coca leaves. I hated to use them, as they’re damn hard to come by in this country. But they’re the most powerful divinatory herb I know, and this didn’t seem like the time to hold back.
I said a brief prayer to Mama Coca, in Spanish as my grandmother had taught me, wishing as always that I knew the words in Quechua. “Guide me,” I prayed, “and help me to protect your people.” A soothing presence settled around my shoulders, and I felt some of my tension bleed away.
With careful concentration, I passed the leaves from the top of the body to the base of the feet, then turned and cast them onto an open patch of ground.
I’d never worked with a dead body before, so I was pretty much making this up as I went along. The ritual I was performing, in fact, was actually a diagnostic for a sick, but living, person. I doubted that anything would come of it.
The coca leaves hit the ground, broken and scattered, each piece at least an inch from its nearest neighbor. I whistled softly. All the leaves had been whole when I started—I’d made sure of it.
The body was dead, yes, but the leaves suggested something worse than a severed head.
If the pishtako is a monster from a horror story, then it’s a story laced with irony. Because what does the monster do with the sacred, life-giving fat that it’s willing to commit murder to possess?
Nothing, not really. Certainly nothing that makes use of the potent spiritual power that fat holds. At the end of the day, the pishtako is a vulgar foreigner, blind to spiritual truth and in thrall to hollow gods. He steals sacred life force only to profane it with crass materialism.
But Mama Coca was telling me that this body’s spiritual self had been savaged.
I pulled out a bag of mapacho, a more powerful cousin to the tobacco you can buy at the store. After a prayer to Mama Mapacho, I poured some of the dried leaves into a ceramic bowl and used a lighter to get them smoking.
I raised the bowl before the body, breathed deeply, then puffed out sharply. Then I waved the bowl back and forth over the body to create a thick cloud. I could feel my vision sharpening, showing me a glimmer of the spiritual world.
I stepped back, horrified. A spiritual miasma, a pulsing darkness, hung over the corpse. Tendrils of sickness oozed from the main mass, swaying as if seeking a victim to grab. I looked down. I could see the sickness clinging to my clothing. It was worse around Severino and Arturo; it hung heavy around their heads and shoulders, and had already started to seep into their eyes, noses, and mouths.
I took fast, deep breaths, fighting back panic. I gestured the men over and blew the smoke over their faces, then fanned it back over my own body. My healer’s sight was fading, but I could already see the sickness starting to retreat.
I waved away their worried questions and frowned at the body, thinking. I couldn’t back out of this, not now. And that meant I needed some way to track the monster.
Normally, I would clip a few hairs from the victim and use that to anchor a spell. Obviously, that wasn’t an option. And with spiritual contagion hanging so dense over the body, I certainly wasn’t going anywhere near the blood.
A moment’s queasy consideration, and a pair of nail clippers came out of my bolsa. I said a prayer for the unknown cholo’s soul.
Or whatever was left of it.
Then I bent to clip the nails from his bare feet.
— # —
I promised Severino and Arturo—somewhat disingenuously—that I had the matter under control. I told them to head directly home and wait for me to call them to set up appointments for a proper healing ritual, a despacho. I warned them not to do anything that would expose them to spiritual contamination. They seemed properly intimidated.
I’m ashamed to admit it, but we put the body back in the bag and tossed it in the swamp for the crocodiles. I did say a prayer first and promised to offer coca leaves and corn with the toenails when I was done with them. I tried to tell myself that a water burial was something that our Amazon-dwelling ancestors might have done. But the truth is that there was simply no way for us to get out of that park carrying a decapitated body in a bloody sack. And where would we have even buried it?
I tried not to think about how I’d just said the fishermen should avoid spiritual contamination. I also tried not to think about who would do a despacho for me if the mapacho hadn’t done the trick.
When I got back to my car, the first thing I did was drive back home and sleep for about a day. Then I cleaned up, checked my bank account, and decided I could afford to take a few days off work for this. Which in my case, simply meant leaving my status as ‘unavailable’ for my various freelance gigs.
I made appointments with Severino and Arturo for their despachos. I wandered into the kitchen to toast a bagel and make a cup of strong coffee, exchange pleasantries with my folks, let them know I was doing bruja work, and disappear back into my room—ignoring the now-familiar pinched disapproval on my mother’s face and long-suffering bemusement on my father’s. I retreated back to my room and dropped into the chair at my desk.
My room is probably not what you would imagine. There’s a twin bed in one corner, and a mid-sized desk in another. Other than that, it’s just a couple of large bookshelves and a fairly open space in the middle of the floor. The shelves are a disordered riot running the gamut from texts on herbs and nature to radical politics to Indigenous and Latin American history, to stack upon stack of fantasy and mystery novels.
True, my taste in decorations does tend to run toward traditional Peruvian handicrafts. But nothing in the room really cries out ‘magic’! There are no pentagrams or crystal balls, no animal pelts or feathered headdresses, no carefully displayed herbs in bundles or in jars. Most of those things would have nothing to do with my work, and those that do are too precious to wave about like tourist souvenirs. My work supplies are kept carefully stored and labeled in plastic tubs on a built-in shelf in my closet.
It’s not that I’m a neat freak—just look at my bookshelves. But it’s important to me that my workspace stay neat. That includes my desk. The desk is for computer work, and snacks. And thinking.
I was in over my head on this, that was certain. I had no idea what manner of being I was dealing with, but I would bet my car that it had me outclassed in experience, resources, and raw supernatural power.
Look at me. I was basically three-quarters traditional healer and a quarter hedge magician, with a minor in banishing troublesome entities. I was no Dr. Strange, nor Van Helsing, nor even Lew Archer.
But, in for a penny, in for a pound. I’d decided to go after the monster, so Ana María would just have to do.
If the victim had still been alive, I would have started by interviewing him and his entire family, to try and get a sense of how he might have attracted malevolent spiritual attention. It wasn’t that different, honestly, from what a detective might do in compiling a list of suspects. But none of that would do me any good here, and not just because I didn’t even know who the victim had been. The pishtako hadn’t known either, and it hadn’t cared. It was an opportunistic hunter. The only thing it cared about was that its victim was an Indian, and alone.
Which meant there was only one way for me to track the monster down: magic.
So I got to work building a mesa.
The base was a simple card table, which I covered with a traditional Andean carrying cloth, all colors and patterns and stripes. It was hand-woven from llama wool, and I’d had a devil of a time tracking it down.
I placed a scallop shell at the head of the table, with the toenails inside it. Then I spread more shells across the table, each one a place setting filled with sacred foods to attract the right kind of helper spirits and with medicines to protect and guide me in my search.
I pinched off a golf ball-sized lump of ceramic modeling clay, mixed in a little of the mangrove earth the body had been lying on, and molded the mass into a small, manlike shape. I worked carefully for a couple of hours to add the details of hands and feet, with the right number of fingers and toes, and small lumps to represent the genitals. The face I left blank. I said a brief prayer and affixed a toenail clipping to one of the figurine’s feet.
Then I took a sharp knife and pruned off its head and hands. The head and hands went into a tiny, burlap wedding-favor baggie that I tied shut. I used the knife to slash shallowly at the neck and the ankles. Then I put the figurine and sack into an empty scallop shell, which I placed alongside the shell containing the remaining clippings.
The anthropologists call this sympathetic magic, but I feel frustrated by that concept. It seems somehow condescending: look at how simple minds find connections between totally separate things! But hey, what more can you expect from such backward folk? Of course they think that spilling water on the ground will bring rain.
As if our spiritual beliefs were simply an exercise in synecdoche and metaphor. Rather than the more obvious truth: synecdoche and metaphor resonate deeply with human beings because that’s how the universe actually functions.
Yes, I was using the victim’s toenail clippings to form a connection with his soul. But certainly not because both soul and clippings had once been connected to a certain body, now dead.
No. The dead body was like a seed, filled with potential. The soul had not fled; it was still there.
It was in the land of the ancestors, too. It’s only Western dualism that makes it seem like it should be one or the other.
And the toenails? Well, you could say that the part always yearns to reconnect with the whole. But the truth is that there are no separate parts; there is only the whole, seen from many vantages. The nail clippings were like the moon viewed at the end of her cycle. Only the barest sliver of the victim was visible, but all of him was still there.
With the proper prayers and offerings performed, I used Mama Mapacho to call up my healer’s sight again. The scallop shell holding the clippings was filled with the same miasma I’d seen earlier—smaller, but no less potent, and just beginning to ooze over the brim. Just a razor-thin crescent next to the fullness of the pishtako’s power.
I picked up the shell with the miniature and touched it to the edge of the shell holding the clippings. “This is you,” I said. “You are this.”
I felt a flow of camac, of life force. The miasma exploded from the shell in my hand, sending angry tendrils surging toward my face. An inch away, they shattered against the protection of Mama Mapacho and my other medicines. I frantically chanted protective prayers until slowly, reluctantly, the darkness receded into the shell, where it began to pulse like a beating heart.
My body was drenched in sweat. My mouth was dry. And I was grinning.
The miniature is not a representation of the body: it is the body, in a different form. The shell now held the full strength of the victim’s dormant life force. More importantly, it held the full strength of the pishtako’s spiritual miasma.
I held my quarry’s soul in my hands.
— # —
It had never occurred to me that I might have to deal with the spiritual version of a radioactive isotope, so I didn’t exactly have any containment methods ready to go. So I tipped the clippings into the same shell as the miniature, stacked the shells inside each other, and set them carefully in the center of the mesa, surrounded by medicines and place settings for protective spirits. Then I set to jury-rigging a lead-lined suitcase.
My ‘suitcase’ was a clear, plastic pencil case that I purified with mapacho smoke and sprinkled with red-and-black wayruru seeds. Then I closed the shells into a gallon-sized ziplock bag, put the bag in the pencil case, and snapped the lid shut. Finally, I slipped a bracelet made from wayruru seeds onto my wrist, just in case.
I took the pencil case out to my car, set it on the passenger seat, and stared at it for a while. I was attuned to the miasma now, and I could see the tendrils of contagion squirming within the plastic bag. From this vantage: the fragment, stretching toward the whole.
Within a minute or two, a clear pattern emerged. Viewed over time, there were many more and larger tendrils pulling toward the southeast.
Well, that was where the body had been found, so that made sense. I’d just have to hope that the miniature would lead me to the pishtako, and not just back to the victim’s body.
At this point, you may be asking: Why, if I had hold of the pishtako’s soul, didn’t I just stay in my room and attack it directly? Because my abuela didn’t teach me black magic. And even setting aside the dire costs of starting down that path, I certainly had no desire to begin by setting my untrained skill against an enemy whose spirit was this powerful. So tracking it would have to be.
I got on 36th Street and drove east. Right around the airport, I pulled over and checked the tracker again. What I thought of as the compass needle had split into two. A smaller one pulled south, toward Coral Gables. That would make the larger one, still pulling southeast, my line to the pishtako.
By the time I got to I-95, the needle still pointed southeast, toward the Atlantic. I cursed softly and pulled over, then called up a map on my phone. Sure enough: either the pishtako was in the Wynwood neighborhood, or it was out on the Keys somewhere—or worse, on a boat. But I’d cross that bridge—hah!—if I came to it. I drove south on I-95 until I’d passed Wynwood, then checked the tracker again.
Grumbling, I got off the road and pulled up the map again. Now I knew my quarry was either on the islands or out at sea. From my current location, I could rule out Miami Beach or its neighboring islands. If it was possible to drive to the pishtako, there was only one way to get there.
I got back on I-95 and drove south, then out onto the Rickenbacker Causeway, with the waters of Biscayne Bay shining turquoise and blue below me. The tracker held a steady course past Virginia Key, and within 15 minutes I was pulling into the village of Key Biscayne.
I drove slowly, feeling self-conscious. Key Biscayne is the wealthiest town in Florida. In Florida. It’s not that my fifteen-year-old, slightly battered Honda Civic made me stand out, precisely, it was just…out of place.
The village looked like the kind of place that should only exist on TV. You know—patently wealthy, but not in an ostentatious way. Where every vantage looks on a scene from a postcard. Picture-perfect tropical suburbia.
I did a quick triangulation and followed my tracker toward the bayside coast.
Of course I did.
I finally found it on a street full of seaside mansions, each roughly half the size of a city block. The house was two stories tall, or maybe three, looming over the eight-foot, ivy-covered wall separating it from the plebeian street. A guardhouse sat next to the massive, electric gate that provided the only apparent access.
I drove slowly down the street, eyeing my tracker. The pishtako was definitely somewhere inside that…compound.
My first impulse was to pull over—I hate trying to think while I’m driving. And then it hit me. Here I was, a chola, alone, favored prey of a monster, getting ready to park my—yes, conspicuously low-class car—in front of its den.
I snapped some photos with my phone, hopefully looking like a mainlander tourist, then drove to a public park and sat under the shade of a palm tree, my hands shaking uncontrollably.
What, in the name of God’s green earth, was I supposed to do with this?
— # —
I’ve always liked puzzles. Jigsaw puzzles, yes, but word puzzles most of all. Riddles and math problems and crosswords and mysteries. It’s a big part of what drew me to abuela’s work. Figuring out the source of a malady, which madres to consult, which herbs and ceremonies to combine for a cure—it was like a giant riddle begging to be solved.
That’s how I’ve always felt about the natural world. I’ve always just wanted to know. What does this animal eat, where does it sleep, and how do all these beings fit together? It’s what set me to roaming beaches and swamps while my brother and sister were working hard to carve out a social space in this new country they’d been dropped into.
And of course, the mysteries of the universe are the greatest puzzle of all. Once abuela started to teach them to me, I knew that I was hooked. Here was a puzzle that could occupy me for the rest of my life.
So, when I got home from my jaunt to Key Biscayne, I was terrified and daunted, but I also felt angry and stubborn and a little bit of a thrill.
How was I going to crack this one?
I locked myself in my room and sat at my tiny desk, thinking.
I was never getting into that house; that much was obvious. And for all I knew, the pishtako could be anyone in there—a house cleaner, a chauffeur, a cook.
Could be, but probably wasn’t. In the stories, pishtakos were men (and occasionally women) of power. Sometimes all that meant was to be a white foreigner with a camera or a syringe. But power nonetheless.
In South Florida? It was whoever owned or lived in that house, or one of their guests.
A reverse address search on the house yielded nothing.
Which brought me to my next question: did it matter who the pishtako was? Someone of that caliber was basically untouchable by someone like me. What was I going to do, trail them in my beat-up Civic? Call in an anonymous tip to the cops and promptly get dismissed as Just Another Florida Crazy?
If I was going to stop the pishtako, I would have to catch it in the act. On the prowl for cholos to murder, the pishtako would have to leave most of its social armor behind. It would be as vulnerable as I was likely to find it.
And catching the monster in the act would probably take magic, not mundane sleuthing.
Which suggested that there was no point in digging any further into the killer’s identity. I wanted to know; of course I did. But there was no point, and there were definite risks in continuing to dig, particularly if it meant going back to that house.
Knowing more isn’t always better. I know, I know: the scientists and their followers have elevated knowledge to the status of a benevolent deity. But I was trained in a different path, and I firmly believe that knowledge is only for those with the training and wisdom to use it properly. Sometimes, it really is better not to know.
But better or worse, knowledge is power. And right now, I could use all the power I could get.
So I drove back to Key Biscayne at around dusk on the day before trash pickup, and I stole some garbage and recycling out of the mansion’s curbside bins.
The only name on the mail was Lucio A. Mendoza. So who was this Mendoza, a man concerned enough about his privacy to have an unlisted name and number, worried enough about his safety to justify an eight-foot wall and armed guards, yet willing to toss mail with his name on it directly into the trash?
Maybe he had no understanding of basic security culture. Maybe it had never occurred to him that his junk mail was a weakness. That seemed…implausible.
Or maybe he simply wasn’t worried about concealing his identity from people who were already looking through his trash. That seemed much more likely. After all, he had plenty of physical security to deter anyone who wanted to bother him at home.
And why did he have that security, precisely? Key Biscayne wasn’t exactly a high-crime neighborhood.
It suggested that he wasn’t thinking about a tracker like me, who found his house but had no idea who he was. Instead, he was worried about people who already knew his name looking for where to find him.
The top result on a web search for his name and “Miami” was a post by an organization called ¡Abya Yala Resiste! I knew of them—a human rights monitoring and advocacy group that worked exclusively in the Americas.
‘Peruvian War Criminals Still At Large’, the headline read.
During the height of Peru’s armed internal conflict from 1980–2000, between 65,000 and 80,000 people were killed or disappeared. Hundreds of thousands more were displaced, tortured, or forcibly sterilized. The vast majority of those targeted were Indigenous people.
Nearly half the killings and disappearances were perpetrated by government and paramilitary forces. Yet very few of the leaders responsible for these atrocities have ever been prosecuted.
I felt a familiar tightness in my chest and gut. It was a history my family was more than familiar with. I skimmed ahead. The article was mostly a list of former military officials who had been implicated in atrocities but were still at large. And there he was.
Lucio Arturo Mendoza Torres. Believed to be ‘El Demonio Jaguar’, leader of the Grupo Jaguar military unit. Witness testimonies have linked Grupo Jaguar to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
I read over the allegations, a chronicle of massacres and mutilations, feeling both angry and nauseated at the same time. Neither of my parents’ home villages was on the list.
Mendoza retired from the military in the late 1990s and was briefly active in Peruvian politics before emigrating to the United States in 2002. He currently resides in Miami. He is a board member or major investor for numerous companies, including—
A list followed, mostly mining and energy companies. At the bottom of the page were a pair of links urging me to write to the Peruvian Attorney General and to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and ask them to launch investigations into Mendoza.
I stared at the screen for a long time. I sat very still, turning the options over in my head again and again.
A lot of my social circle were anarchists and radical activists of various stripes. I’d been introduced to them by an herbalist friend of mine and found that we had a lot in common.
Some months ago now, Andrew, the boy I’d kind of been seeing, had insisted on installing a variety of encryption programs on my computer and showing me how to use them. I never had.
Now I took a screenshot of the article on Mendoza, then moved it into a new folder that I named ‘Client Information’ and encrypted. I cleared my browser history. I emailed myself the encrypted file, then set my computer to do a secure wipe of the hard drive, thereby eliminating all non-encrypted traces of the article. Only then did I pick up my phone and call my dirtbag cousin, Manuel.
“Ana María? What’s wrong?” he asked in English.
Fair enough. No one in my family has anything to do with Manuel, except at holidays and reunions. And it was nowhere near Christmas or his mother’s birthday.
“The family is OK,” I said. “But I need to talk to you. Can you meet me at South Beach, at the corner of Ocean and 5th? Any time of day is fine.”
“Is this a joke?”
“More like an emergency. Listen, I just need to talk to someone who doesn’t see things the way the rest of the family does.”
He was quiet just long enough for my doubts about this path of action to surface all over again.
“All right,” he said. “I can meet you there at five-thirty. You just going to be standing in the street?”
“Haha. I’ll be at the corner in the park. And thanks.”
I got there early. What else did I have to do? And I was afraid that if I delayed, I’d chicken out.
My cousin is…not a nice guy. No, that’s unfair. Manuel is actually quite polite to most people, treats his mother very well, and seems to be at least a half-decent father.
But he’s not a good person.
Manuel was kind of a mess as a teenager and got himself locked up more than once. The last time, he was carrying just enough cocaine and was just close enough to a school, that he ended up serving a couple of years.
He came out of prison as a sort of enforcer for a gang called Los Cholos Negros. I don’t know exactly what he does, but I do know that it seems to pay him well, that he has no other job, and that my mother refers to him as ‘that damned murderer’.
I don’t know what he does. But I know how to use the Internet just fine, thanks, and I have a pretty good idea of what his organization does. They have their fingers in every type of lucrative organized crime you’d expect, from smuggling to money laundering to other digital and financial crime. And drugs, of course. Especially illicit prescription drugs; that’s where the money is.
The group’s name comes, in part, from their practice of dressing in black clothing and ski masks and hacking their enemies to death with machetes.
So yes, I was a little nervous sitting on a bench in Lummus Park and pretending to read the fantasy novel in my lap.
Let’s recap, I said to myself. I’ve now failed to report a murder, dumped a body in a swamp, stalked a millionaire and stolen his trash, and now I’m meeting with Manuel, of all people.
There had been a moment, staring at Mendoza’s name on my computer screen, when I had considered walking away from this. Seriously considered it, in a way that I really hadn’t this whole time. It was the logical thing to do. Frankly, there were too many reasons to even list them all.
But something in me wouldn’t let this go. Maybe it was the same something that made me apprentice to abuelita in the first place, that made me stick with her path instead of doing something more mainstream like becoming an herbalist, or an acupuncturist. That made me embrace the title of bruja, instead of the more understated, perfectly respectable curandera. The something that keeps me following her rule that people of our sort never charge for our services.
Stubbornness? Pride? A sense of responsibility to ancestors long dead?
It came down to this: A monster was killing people. My people. Who was going to help them, if I didn’t?
So here I was, watching Manuel saunter over, a thickset man of middling height dressed in gray linen slacks and a long-sleeve, white linen guayabera. His clothes were simple and well-fitting in that way that spoke of money. And I was no expert, but I suspected that those were designer sunglasses on his face.
At least he’d had the decency cover his heavily tattooed forearms. It was a concession he never made for family gatherings, and it made me feel a little better about this meeting. He didn’t know why I wanted to meet him, so he was making an effort to blend in.
I was making my own effort, in a low-cut, high-hemmed, spaghetti-strap floral sundress, mostly red and black to match my wayruru jewelry. I’d gone all-out on the seeds this time, sporting not only the bracelet but also a necklace and earrings to match. The look was more Beach Hippie than Miami Vice, but either one fit in fine here.
“Ana María,” he said, dropping onto the bench next to me. “So you going to tell me what we’re doing here?”
“First we’re going to your car, so you can leave your cell phone in it,” I said. “Then we’ll walk.”
He stared at me, expressionless behind his dark glasses. He had the same bold nose and cheekbones as everyone I’d been spending time with recently.
“Shit, cousin, what kind of trouble are you in?” But he stood up, and we started walking.
Did you know that it’s a simple hack for law enforcement to turn any cell phone into a remote listening device? Look it up; it’s true. I didn’t believe it either when my anarchist friends first told me.
After locking Manuel’s phone in his car, we turned around and headed back to the park. “If you’re wearing a wire,” he muttered, but I could tell it was mostly for show.
I snorted. “Yeah, wait till you hear my story. It’s totally the kind of thing the feds would cook up.”
I meant what I said, but I’d still been careful. There was a reason I’d chosen such a sparse dress. I had no pockets, and no purse; my paperback was still clutched in my hand. I figured trust had to go both ways.
“So why are we in South Beach, again?” he asked. The sun was setting, and the streets were filling with the young, the rich, and the on-vacation en route to the restaurants, clubs, and bars. I could just make out the beach on the other side of the park. It looked packed.
“Because this place is filled with tourists and strangers. No one is going to look twice at us, and we’re not likely to run into anyone we know.”
He shrugged, accepting it. “All right, shoot. I’m dying of curiosity,” he said, with such perfect irony that I knew the words must actually be true.
I shoved away my fears and said, “I’m hunting a pishtako. It’s been killing immigrants, all cholos. I saw one of the bodies.”
“You’re shitting me,” he growled. “What is this?”
I stopped dead and gave him my bruja stare, face stern but otherwise completely blank.
He held my gaze for a moment, then looked away.
“Do you think I would make this up, you ass?” I said coldly. “Do you think I would call you to play some kind of prank?”
“Shit,” he breathed, and I could tell that he believed me. “Shit!”
It was often like this, with people like us—younger, born and raised in the States. Hell, it was like this with older folks, too. People wanted so badly to believe in an empty, rationalist universe.
And there I was, a living wrench in the gears of their Clockwork God.
Gangs of laughing twenty-somethings and couples strolling arm-in-arm surrounded us as we started walking again.
“All right,” he said. “So why don’t you just…magic it away?”
“Idiot,” I snapped. “A pishtako is a human being, not a spirit or a faerie creature. A human being backed by incredible worldly power. You think I have any way to touch someone like that?”
My rudeness seemed to reassure him, putting us back on familiar ground. “Like the Church or the military,” he said, nodding. “I remember the stories. So you’ve found him?”
“I’ve found him.” I sighed. “And there’s nothing I can do to him. But you…” I glanced around, saw no one cared at all about us, and dropped my voice anyway. “You have access to guns, and people willing to use them. And I have magic that, I think, can tell me where the pishtako is going to strike next. So if you can bring your people to lie in wait, we can hopefully kill him before he gets his next victim.”
To his credit, he thought it over seriously before shaking his head.
“Sorry, prima, but no one is going to believe this old-world bullshit. Even the guys that are at church every Sunday or pray to Santa Muerte. If you told them they had a spiritual sickness brought on by mal aire and you had to shove a guinea pig up their ass, they’d probably believe you. But you’re asking me to order a hit on what sounds like someone rich and respectable. I don’t have that authority, and the people who do would never order it based on a campfire story.”
I was too used to his affected irreverence to take much offense. “I think they’ll authorize it. Do you know the name Lucio Mendoza?”
His easy stride faltered for just a single step.
“Yeah,” he said softly. “I know the name. Are you saying it’s him?”
I hadn’t called Manuel just for his professional resources and moral flexibility. I’d called him because of who he worked for.
Los Cholos Negros started out as a neighborhood gang, protecting Black and Brown Latine immigrants from exploitation by cops and other gangs. For all its criminal ventures, the gang still views itself as a protective force.
To what extent LCN actually protects anyone is certainly up for debate—but they see themselves that way. In a couple of notorious cases, they’ve even assassinated police or prison guards who’ve escaped punishment for egregious brutality. Or so the story goes.
I didn’t think they’d pass up a chance to take a shot at Mendoza.
“I think it’s him. And if my hechizo works, it can take us to someplace away from his defenses. I’ll point the pishtako out to you, and you kill him.”
This time, he was the one to stop walking. He took off his glasses and looked me in the eye.
“Ana María, do you really want to do this? I know you’ve seen some crazy things, but…well, it’s like you said. He’s an evil, fucked-up killer, but he’s also a human being. I’m guessing you’ve never done anything like this before. And if I understand what you said, you actually have to be there when it happens? That’s…that’s fucked. Let it go. Or tell us where you think he’ll be and let us go there, and make our own call.”
“God damn it, you think I haven’t thought about this?”
“I know you haven’t,” he interrupted. “You’ve never killed someone, so you don’t know what you’re talking about. You just think you do.”
“Then tell me another way to stop him. Do you have one?”
He gave me that sardonic smile. “And if I did, would you still want me to kill him? I’ve always said your dad and I are more alike than anyone wants to admit. Maybe you and I are, too?”
I just stared at him. Not my bruja stare. Just my I didn’t come here for bullshit stare.
He shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. I’ll do it. I’d love to erase that bastard from the earth.” He put the glasses back on. “I’ll call you from a burner phone at four tomorrow. Get your own—that’s a prepaid phone, use cash and don’t give them any info about yourself—and call, don’t text me, from it when you know when and where. You set this up well, so don’t get stupid now. Call from somewhere you won’t be heard or watched. Not your house or your car. You know what happens if we get caught.”
And then he walked away.
— # —
Roughly six weeks later, I found myself crammed into the back of an unremarkable-looking, windowless white van, surrounded by heavily armed, black-clad masked men. And I do mean crammed; there were at least a dozen gunmen back there, enough that each of my shoulders pressed tightly against those of my neighbors. The men joked easily in Spanglish, bragging about what they’d do to the war criminal when they caught him. It made my stomach do queasy flips. The van was musty with the scent of too many bodies in a too-small, poorly ventilated space.
Much to my appreciation, Manuel had picked me up first—at our agreed-upon location, far from where either of us lived or worked—and let me have the whole van to myself so I could change into the black clothing and ski mask he’d provided, without any strange men gawking at me or seeing my face. Only then had we gone to gather the rest of the men.
I was the only one not holding a weapon; instead, I clasped my hands—clammy within their gloves—tightly together. The pishtako tracker, still in its clear plastic case, bulged in one of the large pockets of my cargo pants. The wayruru bracelet nestled hidden beneath my long sleeves; it hadn’t come off since I’d slipped it on my wrist all those weeks ago. Those charms, and the tiny amount of mapacho that remained to me, would have to be weapons enough.
I had no coca leaves; the divination I’d performed had liquidated my precious stash, also burning through nearly all my mapacho and great quantities of other herbs both common and rare. It wasn’t just the herbs that had been used up; the ritual had taxed me to my limit—days of round-the-clock work on minimal sleep, fueled by microwave burritos and what seemed like gallons of coffee.
I had borrowed my friend Mari’s garage to do it in. My parents would never have stood for me locking myself in my room for days, or for the noxious odors that would have wafted into the rest of the house. Easier to just disappear for a while. The garage at Mari’s house served mostly as an untouched storage space. She’d agreed to park her car in the driveway until I was done, giving me a precisely car-sized rectangle to set up my workspace in.
The ritual was like nothing I had ever done, like nothing my abuela had ever taught me. It was sheer extrapolation on my part, cobbled together from disparate bits and pieces, from theory and reading and guesswork. But my abuela had taught me that the future was like a great river, rushing up from behind us. Sometimes, it was possible to listen through the roar of the current and make out voices.
Power filled the cluttered garage. My technique was sloppy; I could feel the camac that I called up spilling off the edge of the mesa and filling the room. Then came the slew of guiding spirits I had invoked, one for every herb involved and then some. I couldn’t see them, couldn’t sense them individually, but I could feel the spiritual pressure of them on my forehead. As the ritual wore on, the garage felt more crowded and the pressure grew worse.
The pressure exploded within my skull, and I wasn’t in the garage any longer. I had no body; all I could see was the mangled spirit of the pishtako’s last victim. The image was translucent, as if barely present, but the wounds gaping across its body were vivid, and they welled with black contagion. The victim looked even more wasted and shrunken than I remembered of his corpse. The head and hands floated beside the body, just shy of touching where they’d been severed.
Tomás Castro Gutierrez, he hissed without a voice. Remember me!
I could not say if the shade spoke English, or Spanish, or another tongue.
Then he was gone, and images were assaulting my mind. An empty parking lot, late at night. A woman returning to her car. A black shadow leaping from the car beside her. A blur of motion. A deserted, run-down apartment complex. The shadowy form stringing her by her ankles, hoisting her…
The memory brought on a shiver, quickly suppressed; I didn’t want the men next to me to mistake it for fear. Well, I was afraid, damn it, but that wasn’t why I wanted to shiver, and no need for them to think of me as a coward, anyway.
I looked around the van again, trying to distract myself from the details of the vision, that still seared into my mind.
I’d awoken sprawled across the mesa, my accouterments scattered across the floor. The headache was worse than ever, along with a thirst that felt like a clawed hand shoved down my throat. But tucked neatly into a corner of my mind was the knowledge, like a pair of addresses in space-time. Where and when the monster would attack next, where and when it would kill.
So here we were, en route to a condemned and supposedly abandoned apartment complex not far from downtown. It was about one-thirty in the morning, and the poor girl from my vision was likely still shopping inside the Walmart Supercenter, or maybe hadn’t even started. She wouldn’t be back at her car for about half an hour. Then the pishtako would grab her, force her into his car, and drive her here.
And this was where she would die if anything went wrong with our plan.
“We’ll be there in five,” the driver said, and everyone went quiet.
“You ready, chola?” Manuel said.
I wasn’t really in a position to challenge his choice of codename, so I just accepted it.
“Ready.” I didn’t trust myself to use any more words, not without my voice cracking.
“Stick with me,” he said, for at least the hundredth time. “The rest of you know what to do.”
“Now,” the driver said.
The van slowed. One of the Cholos pulled the door open long enough for two others to drop out, then pulled it shut again. The van sped away. I felt us round a corner.
Excruciating minutes passed. Manuel’s phone dinged and he glanced down at it.
“All clear,” he said.
The van swung us back around and came to a stop. “Everybody out,” the driver said.
The night was moonless, black. A slum like this had probably never had a lighted parking lot to begin with, and there wasn’t a working streetlight in sight.
The abandoned complex loomed above us, empty doors and windows gaping like the sockets of a skull. It was the building from my vision, that was certain.
“Fuck,” I heard one of the men whisper. “I hope our source was legit.”
If only he knew, right?
“No talking till we’re inside,” Miguel hissed. He made for the stairs, and I stuck close behind him. Three of the men peeled away and headed for a unit downstairs.
The complex was what I thought of as motel-style, with each unit having its own door directly to the outside. That meant the staircase was also on the outside, which filled me with no end of relief. I didn’t think I could have trusted myself to a staircase on the inside of a place like this. As it was, the handrail was rusted and pitted, but at least the stairs themselves were solid cement.
We went to the apartment next to where the killing would take place. The door was open; I didn’t know if the lock had been broken by vandals, or by our scouts. I supposed it didn’t matter.
Inside, Manuel parked me in a back corner of what had probably once been a living room, and the men got to work. I watched them for a moment, as they checked their weapons and rigged explosives to one of the walls, but that made my nerves a thousand times worse. So instead, I pulled out my tracker and stared at it. The room was so dark I could barely make out the shadowy figures of my companions. I couldn’t even really see the outside of the tracker all that well. But I could see the pishtako’s miasma, tugging northeast—just as it should.
The miasma no longer pulled toward Coral Gables. As the body had—I assumed—been consumed by the creatures of the swamp and disintegrated into the ocean, its connection with its killer had degraded.
I decided not to care what the other men thought about me staring at a plastic pencil case in the dark—if any of them were even able to see what I was doing. Surely they had their own thoughts, their own problems. Me, I watched the tracker. Manuel came over and crouched next to me, but he said nothing.
Abruptly, the tracker swung west, then south. “They’re coming,” I whispered.
“Get ready,” Manuel said to the room. There was a rustle of movement. “Put your earplugs in,” Manuel said to me, by way of clarification.
Right. I fumbled in my pocket until I found them, then stuffed them in through the ear slits of my mask. All traces of sound vanished.
The tracker swung toward the door, and then I heard the purring of a car engine—muted, but still easy to recognize. Should I be relieved that I could still hear, or worried for my ears?
The engine cut off. One of the Cholos crouched by the window, gazing out into the dark. He raised a fist, then three fingers. Then he replaced it with one.
I had no idea what the signal meant, but I supposed the other men did.
Muffled sounds of activity came from outside, the sound of a door opening and closing.
A pinhole of light spilled into the room, through the peephole one of Manuel’s team had drilled through the wall—with a sudden shock, I realized that they might have broken into this room and drilled that hole weeks ago. Then one of the Cholos pressed his face to the hole and the light vanished.
My heart was pounding, with impatience rather than fear. So close. The monster was just on the other side of that wall, and here we sat.
The man at the peephole stood and scurried backward. He raised his hand. Manuel put his hand on my head and gently pushed. Right. I turned away.
There was a clap like God’s own thunder and a flash of light that seared through my closed eyelids; for a moment, I was sure I’d been struck by lightning.
Gunfire erupted, seemingly everywhere. Another explosion went off outside, quieter but still loud enough to rattle my teeth. And another, and more shooting. Then the shooting stopped.
I forced myself to open my eyes, and realized I was on my hands and knees, the tracker still clutched in my right hand. I was alone in the room.
There was light coming from the room next door, through a minivan-sized hole in the wall. I lurched to my feet and staggered forward. A hand grabbed my shoulder, keeping me from crossing the threshold. “Stay with me, chola,” Manuel shouted. My ears were still ringing; I could barely hear him.
Two Cholos were unbinding a convulsing, hooded woman from what looked for all the world like a folding massage table, modified with leather straps for the ankles and wrists. The floor around the table was covered in thick towels, presumably to soak up her blood.
The towels were soaking up plenty of blood, all right, though it didn’t look like any of it was hers.
The girl was dressed like someone I might be friends with, in tight jeans and a bright, blousy top—just a young woman going to buy something she hadn’t realized she was out of until all the other stores were closed. I wondered why I couldn’t hear her making any sound; in her position, I’d be screaming my head off.
My eyes wandered across the rest of the room. The hail of LCN bullets had shredded the opposite wall, leaving a jagged maw about one-third of the way between ceiling and floor. I briefly marveled at the precision of the shooters, keeping their aim high enough to pass over the bound victim while still killing the men who had abducted her.
Those men—three of them—were sprawled on the floor in a mass of blood and gore. Skin ripped away, bones shattered. Their expensive suits had been turned to rags, but their blood-splattered shoes still gleamed a polished black under the light of the Cholos’ flashlights.
I tried to feel upset at what I was seeing—it seemed I should feel upset, what with my sheltered, middle-class upbringing and all—but I looked at the bodies and felt nothing but satisfaction.
Maybe it was because of all the time I’d spent focused on the tracker, maybe it was the divination I’d done, or maybe my senses were just heightening—but this close, I could feel the evil of the pishtako, like a foul psychic stench wafting from the bodies, tightening bands around my chest and sending a prickling dread along my skin. I shook Manuel’s hand off and took a step closer, wanting to see Mendoza’s face, to see if it had really been him.
The shattered face of one of the bodies seemed to be…rippling. It took me a few heartbeats longer to realize that what looked like rippling was bone rearranging itself under the skin, skin knitting back together. A white, gelatinous goo coalesced inside an empty socket, then turned into a dark eye. And then it was Mendoza’s benignly plump face, with its carefully groomed mustache and dusky criollo tan, and the mouth opened and I saw blood on his teeth and shattered teeth were reassembling and new teeth were pushing their way out of his gums and he looked directly at me and he smiled.
Only now did the Cholos realize what was happening, as Mendoza staggered to his feet and put his hand inside his tattered suit jacket. Even my bruised eardrums heard the shouts as the pishtako pulled out what I can only describe as an Uzi. The gun’s barrel swung toward me.
Someone hit me from behind with a football tackle, and I collapsed in a painful sprawl, with a crushing weight on my spine. Gunfire exploded again, and screams, and more gunfire.
Then the weight eased and a hand grabbed my shoulder and Manuel was shouting in my ear, “Move! Crawl! Let’s go!”
We crawled. The room plunged into darkness again as flashlights fell to the floor. I could feel darkness billowing from the pishtako like smoke from a fire, pressing all the air from my lungs.
We scurried behind the ruins of the wall that had once separated the two rooms. Then we hurled ourselves out the front door of the apartment, and we ran.
— # —
I followed Manuel’s lead, running when he said run, stopping when he said stop. We ditched the masks and gloves in a dumpster that he indicated. Then we ran some more. Finally, we stopped, and he called for a pickup. The same van came to get us.
I spent the night holed up in my room, shivering, replaying the horrid scene over and over.
I had been wrong. Horribly, devastatingly wrong. Just a man, I’d said. So confident! So certain in my knowledge of folk tales that I’d led who knows how many people to their deaths.
What in God’s name had that creature been? My mind grappled for explanations, for stories to make sense of it. It found nothing.
The next night, I came down with a searing fever and collapsed in my room. I drifted in and out of consciousness for hours, and I knew that I was dying.
I didn’t need a ritual to diagnose what was wrong. After weeks of studying it, manipulating it, trying to contain it, I recognized the twisted heartbeat of the pishtako’s corruption at once. I didn’t know when or where my defenses had gone wrong; I only knew that I was well and truly caught. I could feel the miasma twining around my soul like an anaconda. I knew how it had to end.
Still, I struggled. I tried calling for help, I tried to make it to the door, but I was too weak to do anything but gasp, wretch, and pass out again. Not that it mattered; I think the only person who could have helped me was abuelita, and she was two years dead.
Around dawn, clarity came. I knew it wouldn’t last.
I was lying face down on the floor, my own vomit around me. A voice was whispering at me, soft and insistent, from within my bolsa.
I tried to stand, and my vision swam. I dry heaved for a moment and then slowly, painfully, crawled over to the bolsa. I fumbled in the bottom of the bag, more than half panicked. Who knew how long my lucidity would last?
My fingers settled on a half dozen jagged fragments of dried leaf, and the whispers turned to approving murmurs.
I lifted the fragments carefully to my face, and I almost cried out. Coca leaves, slipped somehow free from their ziplock bag, waiting for who knows how long. Not used up in the divination.
I followed their murmured instructions to the letter, setting up the mesa and arranging the needed components with a precision borne from utter terror. I was too weak to waste time wrestling the card table, so I spread the tablecloth directly on the ground. My hands shook so badly that it took me three tries to get my supply box open. I performed the despacho for myself, still half-delirious, and when it was done I sprawled on my bed and slept.
When I woke again at noon, the sickness was gone without a trace.
I sat up with that peculiar blend of weakness and strength that you only get after you’ve been seriously ill. I took a deep breath and swung my legs around to the floor.
I frowned. The soft voice was coming from my box of medicines, still open, next to the remains of the mesa. But the coca leaves had truly been used up this time. And I wasn’t sick anymore.
I crouched next to the box.
My jaw didn’t quite drop, but my mouth absolutely hung open for a moment. The whispers had come together, overlapping. A spondylus shell, a piece of lapis lazuli, and a sling woven from llama wool had just called my name.
I braced myself and picked up the sling, draping it over my palms. It sang softly to me in a voice deeper than language, in image as much as sound. Rituals and secrets teased at my consciousness, flashes of paths I could walk, things I could learn to do.
Shaken, I set the sling down and picked up the spondylus. The smell of ocean air; flashes of sea breezes and cold depths. The shell murmured promises of knowledge to be gained.
That was too much. I fled from the room and immersed in a scalding shower, scrubbing at the sweat and vomit as if I could scour away the last two months.
With my head buried under the faucet, I realized what else was different. My body still felt weak from the sickness, but my spirit felt…strong, and growing stronger. The best way I could describe it was as if some external power were flowing into me.
I got out of the shower and braved my room long enough to throw on some clean clothes. A chorus whispered at me from the open box, but I refused to listen. I hurried for the kitchen and made myself some food.
I ate at the kitchen table, staring blankly out the window. My parents were at work, and the house was empty. I could still feel the power growing within me.
I needed time to think. I needed a walk.
I walked briskly, on edge, worried that any car might abruptly disgorge a posse of undercover cops, or men in expensive suits ready with a black bag to throw over my head.
I told myself I was being irrational. If the cops wanted me, they would just come to my house. There was nothing to stop Mendoza from doing the same thing.
This did not make me feel any better.
A voice, languid and enfolding, called to me from the depths of the canal beside the road.
Feeling harassed, I made an about-face. Back home, I carefully packed away my supplies and cleaned up my room. I could still hear the whispers, seductive in their promises.
I binge-watched Netflix. I ate in my room. I didn’t answer my phone. I did some online interpreting and risked one brief trip to the grocery store.
Spirits of the dead were gathering around me. They lingered at the edges of my vision but were never there when I turned to look. But I could hear them. Unlike the other voices, these made requests, things that needed to be set right. But they offered things, too. Power and knowledge.
Whatever was happening to me, it showed no signs of slowing. The power grew within me. Ceremonies that, a few short weeks ago, would have been forever out of reach now lay just within my grasp—this I knew, deep in the fat of my middle—if only I could find someone to teach me. If I were willing to trust any of the spirits and tutelaries crowding around me, offering me knowledge.
I knew my isolation was making my mental state deteriorate. Beset by spiritual forces, cut off from human contact, brooding over who might be coming to kill me—my sleep, appetite, and nerves were shot to hell.
But it gave me one thing at least, and that was time to think. And with thinking came clarity over what was happening to me.
I had brushed the land of the dead and returned a changed woman. Something within me had come awake.
Maybe it had been my near death from the pishtako’s corruption. Or maybe it had happened earlier, when all those people were dying around me, their spirits hurled shrieking and unprepared into the next life. I could almost still feel the power of life and death that had crackled through the room that night, thrashing my soul like a palm tree in a storm.
Or maybe I had been meant to die from the pishtako’s bullets, and my cousin had cheated destiny by saving me.
So now I was different.
It was Manuel who finally pulled me out of my seclusion about a week later, convincing me to meet him at a park not far from my house. I was persuaded not so much by his promise of news as by the simple, overpowering need to be in the presence of someone else who had been there on that horrible night.
Being outside still made me jittery. I actually panicked when a plain, black sedan pulled out of a parking spot. I didn’t breathe again until it had driven away.
It was a perfect tropical spring morning, warm and breezy. Birds sang in the trees. A hummingbird hovered in front of me for a full two minutes, whispering an invitation. Then Manuel came walking up and it zipped away, wings whirring.
“Hey, bruja,” my cousin said, dropping onto the bench beside me. His outfit was nearly the same as the last time we’d met, except that the slacks were brown and the shirt short-sleeved. “Phone is in the car. You really should let me take you out for drinks, instead of talking in a park like this. We survived. That’s something to celebrate.”
“How many?” I asked.
He sighed, low and deep. “Three others made it out. One of them had a bullet in his side, but he’ll live.”
“The girl?” My voice cracked.
He shook his head.
I closed my eyes, feeling hot tears.
“Listen,” he said after a minute. His voice was quiet and serious. “What we lived through was…well, words don’t really cover it, do they? Maybe it’s the kind of thing you know more about than I do.
“But I do know how the fear can eat at you, after your first shooting. And you don’t need that, not on top of everything else. So do yourself a favor, and don’t worry. We had a cleanup crew there before sunrise. Even if someone heard something and called the cops, there’d be nothing there for them to find. And who’s going to call? Mendoza sure as hell won’t. There aren’t any neighbors, and anyway it’s not the kind of neighborhood where people try to get more involved when they hear shooting. Mendoza used that spot for a reason.”
I didn’t say anything, so he kept talking.
“The main thing I wanted to let you know is this: Mendoza’s gone. Packed up and moved to LA. His house went on the market this morning.”
That got my attention.
“He’s moved? You’re sure?”
Manuel nodded stoically. I dug my fingers hard into my forehead, feeling angry.
Now he was well and truly beyond my reach.
Did I have even the slightest idea of how to stop him, now that my only plan had failed? No. But there had to be some way. Every creature has its weakness.
Obviously, Mendoza agreed. He hadn’t gone into hiding; he wasn’t afraid that I would expose him. He was afraid I might be able to kill him.
Well, there was no chance of that now.
And damn it, it wasn’t as if having the pishtako a continent away made me feel any safer. A man with his money and resources could reach out and snuff me as easily from Los Angeles as from Key Biscayne.
Yes, I’d worn a mask that night. But the pishtako had looked into my eyes. He’d smiled at me, smiled in a way that made me feel like he knew me.
My conversation with Manuel sort of petered out after that. Eventually, he left me with more reassurances that no one was coming for us. Get on with my life, he said. Talk to a priest or therapist, if I had to. Most of all, don’t worry.
I stayed on the bench, thinking about the death of the person I had been.
I had always felt like a normal woman before—I just knew how to do some things that others couldn’t. Yes, brujería came somewhat naturally to me, but I still had to work hard at it.
I just had the knack. That’s what my abuela had always said. I was the only one of my siblings with the knack.
Now I wondered, the knack for what? Because in the depths of my bowels, I knew: I wasn’t a simple bruja anymore.
Whatever I was, I would have to figure it out. Because Manuel was right. Eventually, I would have to go on with my life. People were depending on me, people no one else was able—or willing—to help.
And sooner or later, someone would need me for more than just an herbal cure or a complementary treatment. They would need my help with a spiritual sickness. Or a monster.
But the new me couldn’t cure anyone, not in the state I was in. The walls I was putting up to keep the voices at bay would also keep out the madres I needed to do my work.
The walls were there because I was afraid. But when all was said and done, I was more angry than I was afraid.
So. So. Angry.
That monster had gotten away, and he would go on doing what he did until somebody stopped him. I had tried, and he had handed me my ass on a platter.
Maybe it was time to level up.
I looked into the nearest tree and found the hummingbird perched there, still watching me. I extended an arm.
“Ven acá, qinti,” I said.
She flew down at once and perched on my finger.
And we began to make a deal.
© 2022 Daniel Delgado
From: Issue 9
About the Author
Daniel Delgado (he/him) is a Quechua and Jewish writer, editor, and activist living on O’odham and Pascua Yaqui land in the so-called Arizona borderlands. When he’s not at a desk, you might find him growing Native crops in his family’s backyard farm, or out exploring the desert. You can also find him on Twitter, @DDelgadoVive.