The other day I had the pleasure of Skyping with author, marine biologist, animal lover and nice person Lynne Hinkey. Today, July 1, Casperian Books publishes her new novel, The Un-familiar: A Tale of Cats and Gods. It's funny, well written, and likely to raise a hackle or two with climate-change deniers and religious fundamentalists.
Here's the gist: "There's a beast of a storm brewing over Puerto Rico, and only a god can stop it." But in this universe, a god's existence depends upon belief. Natural disasters befall the island, and people whisper that perhaps a supernatural beast--a chupacabra--is to blame. Maybe that's just a rumor, but rumors lead to beliefs, and beliefs create more gods. In this irreverent tale, Señora Milagros and the dog-god of Mercy are two of the colorful characters you'll meet.
This is the second part of her trilogy (Ye Gods! A Tale of Dogs and Demons is first), but there's no reason you can't jump right in with The Un-familiar. Here is a small taste:
A Tale of Cats and Gods
A Chupacabra Novel
Lynne M. Hinkey
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are either fictitious or are used fictitiously.
THE UN-FAMILIAR. Copyright © 2016 by Lynne M. Hinkey. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
Paperback edition published by Casperian Books (www.casperianbooks.com) and available in print from most online book retailers.
Print edition ISBN-13: 978-1-934081-52-5
Also by Lynne M. Hinkey
This free e-chapter is intended to pique your interest and hopefully lead you to purchase the complete book to see what happens next. If you enjoy it, please feel free to share it. Despite the many marketing venues available to authors today, the most effective one is still word-of-mouth. I hope you'll help me to spread the word.
You might also want to read book 1 of the Chupacabra Trilogy, available at Amazon and other online booksellers.
THE RISING COST OF CLIMATE CHANGE: $4.5 BILLION IN LOSSES
Costliest Wildfire Season in US History
U-T San Diego, San Diego, CA
CATEGORY 4 HURRICANE GRACE TO PUMMEL ISLAND OVERNIGHT
Residents Urged to Hunker Down and Pray
El Nueva Día, San Juan PR
REV. AURELIO PEÑA TO VISIT ISLAND
Famed spiritual leader says God, not man, behind extreme weather
En Otras Noticias, Mayagüez, PR
~ ~ ~
1--IN A BEGINNING
A blue flash rent the time-before-time sky, and threw the verdant landscape into brilliant relief. When the gods' eyes adjusted to the returning dimness, their number had increased by one.
"Sentience," spat the amorphous gray and black cloud of Extreme Weather.
"Evolution," grumbled the dancing flames of Fire.
"Lovely," whispered the one they'd nicknamed DD.
The others focused their various forms, solid and ethereal, on her, the oldest among them. Disease and Death.
She shrugged, or what passed for such in her murky miasma of pestilence. "Without evolution, there'd be no sentience. Without sentience, there'd be no recognition of self and other. Without that, there is no one to blame or be afraid of but oneself. Now they have us for that. I think it's lovely the way they've created us from a mixture of their fears and hopes." She turned to the newcomer. "I am the cause and the end of pain. What do you do?"
"More. I do more."
"More what?" asked the Dark of Night. "What is the belief that brought you here?"
"More. More is better, safer. More food provides more energy, a bigger lair offers more protection from predators, more mates ensure more offspring. More."
The others nodded, as much as their physical forms allowed.
"This will continue," said the golden orb of Daylight, blurred into silhouette by her own blistering brightness. She pointed at the newcomer. "He's the proof. They already believe in quantity over quality. No offense," she said, eyeing the greedy new god.
Greed glittered when he replied. "It's what I am."
Daylight continued. "We'll have more and more gods popping up for every little thing. Especially now that mammals have developed abstract thought. Worse, this latest group of uprights has learned to rationalize. They'll never take responsibility for their actions now. It'll be 'this big, bad god made me do it' and 'I'm being an ass in the name of that god.' Before you know it, there will be almost as many manifestations of belief as there are believers. You know what that means, don't you?"
"Competition." The air swirled around them, kicked up in dirt devils when the roiling cloud of Extreme Weather spoke. "Belief makes us stronger, so we'll all want more believers."
"What's wrong with wanting more?" asked Greed.
"One of us..." DD looked at each of them in turn until her eyes settled on the newcomer. "...might get greedy. Try to take over."
The deities gasped. "You mean a single god?"
DD nodded. "But possible."
Extreme Weather's voice thundered: "We must prevent it."
So it came to pass that, in a rare moment of self-awareness, the ancient gods--charter members of the club, as it were--recognized their own arrogance as a potential threat. They devised a strategy to keep any one god from gaining enough belief to eliminate the rest.
"What form will these helpers take?"
"Should we give them a choice?"
"I vote for something with thumbs. Handy feature, that," the god of Fire offered.
"As intermediaries between us and our followers, I think they should choose whatever form will be familiar to our respective believers, no?" suggested Daylight.
"Familiar. I like it."
They agreed these beings, who would both help them to achieve their full power and hinder them from overreaching, who could regulate their power if needed, would be called familiars.
"What do we do with these familiars when belief wanes?" asked Greed.
The god of Darkness grew darker. "Wanes? What do you mean?"
"Oh, come on. I know it's already begun for you." Greed nudged the Dark and pointed to Fire. "The uprights figured out how to keep you at bay and it's weakened you some. Am I right, or am I right? It happens. But so does evolution. There'll always be something that's afraid of the dark, so you'll always be needed. Still, if we're, let's call it 'on hiatus' due to a lack of belief, do the familiars die or what?"
"How about hibernation?" suggested DD. "If we go through all the trouble to select the right ones, train them up, bond with them, we don't just want to start over every time some fickle followers chase after a shiny, new god." She paused and addressed Greed. "No offense."
"None taken." More glittering.
DD went on. "We'll allow them to wait for our return, but in stasis."
"Even then, their bodies will eventually wear out--that's just how physics and chemistry work," Daylight said. "We can't change that."
Fire flickered. "I like the idea of them going dormant to wait for us. Save on wear and tear, extend the life of their bodies. But, the bright one has a point. They will wear out. We'd better come up with a plan for succession, for when their bodies...retire. Maybe even some sort of compensation package, as a reward if they served us well."
The others agreed.
Thus, the gods created familiars. These assistants would hold part of a god's powers, doling out additional portions as their deity demonstrated the maturity not to abuse it. They would help their respective gods find their true nature, but would also humble them and snap them out of any delusions of omnipotence that might come from having many believers.
This required familiars to have their own abilities. The gods weren't fools, and, like anyone with power, they were a bit paranoid. To avoid the risk of being overthrown by their aides, the gods made the familiars' powers dependent on the physical presence, proximity, and strength of the god they served.
"This will work." Fire nodded.
"Evolution changes things," said Darkness. "The uprights will find a way to fuck it up. You just watch."
"We've thought of everything," Extreme Weather assured the Dark. "What could possibly go wrong?"
~ ~ ~
CARMEN DEL TORO
Darkness and something more enveloped her. Something scratchy and moist like a giant cat's tongue rasped against her back and legs. A knobby shoulder poked into her belly, jostling her back, forth, up, and down.
Where was she? Where was he taking her? Did she know it was a he? For that matter, who was she?
The woman made to call out, but her lips remained shut and her cry for help turned into a squeal. Duct tape will do that to a scream.
"It's okay, Carmen. Almost there," a deep voice rumbled over the wind and rain.
A man. She'd gotten that part right. Was Carmen his accomplice?
The rain stopped beating down on her. The storm's noise muffled and grew distant. Opening her eyes wide did nothing but confirm her predicament--bound and bagged--so she squeezed them shut again.
A disorienting flip tossed her from his shoulder and deposited her in a soft pile of blankets on the ground. The sodden burlap sack pulled from her head to reveal cave walls. Firelight shadows danced over dripping yellow, brown, and green moss. She twisted and craned her neck to see the man behind her.
The fire's flames cast his features into an eerie, writhing orange and black mask. He turned his gaze on her and she once more tried to scream.
"Shh. Easy, Carmen. I'll protect you."
Protect her from what, she wondered? Had he saved her from the raging storm? Why? What did he want in return?
"I have to go now. More work to be done. You'll be safe here. Hurricane's almost past us, only a few more hours." He reached for her and firelight glinted off a blade in his hand.
She shrunk away.
He grabbed her tethered wrists. Shadow and light bathed the man in a demonic glow. The knife slashed through the air. "There." He dangled the cut rope in front of her eyes.
Returning circulation prickled through her fingers and up her arms. She scooted back until she bumped against the damp wall.
"What do you want?"
"You have to help me, and I can help you. We'll talk when I get back."
Her eyes flicked to the cave's mouth.
"Don't try to leave. That'd be dangerous, out in the storm. In the meantime, I need you to remember."
Sure. Easy for him to say, but she couldn't even recall her own name. "Remember what?"
"A beginning." He laid a hand on her head.
The tingling in her arms raced upward, then exploded, sending her crashing back into the warm, soft pile of blankets. And she remembered.
A blue flash rent the time-before-time sky...
~ ~ ~
2--RAINING CATS AND DOGS
Gale force winds lashed the water and plucked the tops off breaking waves, smashing them in furious bursts against the sea grapes and coconut palms along the shore. The storm begged the universe to answer the age-old riddle: If a tree falls on the beach and no one hears it over the shriek of hurricane winds, does it make a sound?
Does anyone care?
A dog cowered at the base of a tree for the protection it failed to offer. She whimpered her last. Her broken body grew cold and wet. Three newborn pups wiggled beneath her. The largest, a pudgy male with black and white spots, succumbed first. With no knowledge of the world they'd been born into and no mother to teach them, the remaining two, driven by instinct as old as life, cried into the void for help, for mercy.
I am here, came the answer.
The lone female, the runt, small of stature but boldest of the litter, responded: Who are you?
I am Dog. The disembodied voice chuckled at its own joke, but the humor was lost on the pup.
Help him, please, she begged. Her brother's last sigh blew warm across her neck. The runt felt his body grow limp.
It is done. Now move over, commanded the voice in her head.
I have chosen you.
Too tired to debate and afraid of being alone, she scrunched her consciousness into a small corner of her mind. Will it hurt?
Not at first.
~ ~ ~
Fifi the cat yawned, mouth open so wide her eyes scrunched closed. She extended one long, slender forelimb and spread her toes to unsheathe razor-sharp talons. Ahhhh, her new feline form felt so lithe. Far better than that aging human body with its aches and pains, crackles and creaks. She brought a paw to her lips and licked at bare skin with her smooth wet tongue.
Her eyes flew open and she examined her retractable...fingers?
She ran the tip of one over her tongue. Soft and moist. That's not right. She wasn't Fifi the cat at all, but Señora Milagros Isabela Hernán de Santiago. Still.
What happened? Where were the dainty cat's feet, twitching tail, and raspy tongue? She should have gone through the change. Retired. Become Fifi, the black and white tuxedo cat. What went wrong?
Remnants of a dream tickled her memory, one of those dreams that made her heart race. Roused by an overwhelming fear, the feeling disappeared into a cloud of nothing the more alert she grew, and left her with an urgent need to act, but no memory of why or how.
She concentrated, trying to grasp some shred of the cause for her angst. A voice echoed through her, spoke directly to her soul: You have revealed too much.
She pressed her lips together and nodded. "I'll fix everything."
The voice, sounding very much like her own, whispered: Better get a move on, then. You don't have much time.
What did that mean? As she pondered the strange warning, the background noise, a din like a thousand semi-trucks barreling down the highway, seeped into her consciousness. She cranked the handle of the jalousie to roll the window open but something blocked the slats' movement. She flicked the light switch. Nothing. Sniffed the stale air.
Boarded windows. No electricity. Roaring wind. The pieces fell into place.
"Carmen?" she hollered and stumbled from her room. "Carmen? Are you all right?" She threw open the door to the spare bedroom and seeing the mound of blankets, breathed a sigh of relief. Together, they could try to figure out what had stopped the change.
Señora Milagros laid a hand on the lump in the middle of the bed and gave a gentle shake. The body beneath rolled over with a groan, then bolted upright, eyes wide, and screamed.
Milagros mirrored the reaction. Except her scream was significantly louder than the one coming from the duct-tape-covered mouth of the woman she'd awoken. “Laurie? Why are you here? Where’s Carmen?” She yanked at the duct tape.
Unmuffled, Laurie's shriek pierced the air. Señora Milagros winced and covered her ears. “¡Cállate! Tell me what happened.”
Laurie Buso, Señora Milagros’ personal assistant and housekeeper, held her bound hands in front of her while Milagros hunted for the scissors and cut her free. Laurie gathered her composure and, with a few sporadic hiccups, began. “Un ladrón. I never saw the thief. I was bringing in the chairs from the porch when he grabbed me from behind. He covered my mouth so I couldn’t scream. I don't remember anything else." She scowled. "Wait. There was a flash, like lightning, then nothing." She broke into soft sobs. “What did he take?" She looked around the room. "Where's Carmen?"
Milagros shook her head and absently patted Laurie's back. Oh, dear. Losing one's apprentice couldn't be good. If the succession of power didn't go smoothly, the results could be catastrophic.
Her own continued presence in human form indicated it hadn't gone smoothly. It appeared to not have gone at all. Only Carmen had gone.
Señora Milagros picked up a newspaper from where Laurie had stacked them on the kitchen table and checked the date. Two years. Why, that was hardly a cat nap for a familiar.
"What day is today?" she asked.
"Tuesday, I think. That's yesterday's paper. The last one before the storm hit. We have to call the police."
Milagros held up the silent receiver. "Phones are out. And this isn't the work of an ordinary thief. The only thing missing is Carmen." She didn't add that only someone--or some thing--with extraordinary power could take her apprentice. She'd need extraordinary help to find her.
Scanning the headlines for news of murders, mayhem, or dead livestock, she found nothing out of the ordinary, aside from warnings of a category four hurricane. She picked up another paper. Even the gossip-filled En Otras Noticias made no mention of the chupacabra.
He had to be back. The god's return was the only thing that could have awakened her.
Flipping to the best-seller list in the Sunday paper, she searched for Jack Halliman's name. Where was it? While she hadn't exactly revealed the mysteries of the universe to the author, she had inspired his creativity. The result of that inspiration, Murder in Mayagüez, should be on the bestsellers' list. It had to be. That had been her plan: Jack's story would get people talking, talk would create belief, and belief would bring back the god, sometimes known as the chupacabra.
If Jack's latest novel hadn't created belief, how had he returned?
She flicked on the NOAA weather radio and the robotic voice of the announcer filled the room. "Hurricane Grace has been downgraded to a category three storm and continues to move west-northwest away from Puerto Rico at seven miles per hour. Hurricane-force winds extend thirty-two miles from the well-formed eye, with sustained winds of 114 miles per hour and gusts up to 140."
Even with that warning of what awaited outside, the devastation took her breath away. Power lines and poles down, trees stripped bare of leaves, roofs torn from houses, sofa cushions, mattresses, and clothing strewn through the streets. A boat sat in the road in front of her house, deposited there by the storm surge.
Tears welled in Milagros' eyes. So many animals out in the deluge. How they must have cried for help, for mercy. Now she understood how he had returned. He had felt his followers' belief, heard their prayers, and answered.
Laurie stepped onto the porch next to her and they huddled together against the gusting wind and rain, taking in the destruction around them. A sheet of corrugated roofing flipped through the yard. "Come in," Laurie said. "There's nothing we can do until this passes."
Milagros fought down the frustration and helplessness that threatened to make her do something stupid. They went into the kitchen where Laurie busied herself setting out plates and a thermos of tepid coffee.
"You seem no worse for the wear. Are you sure you're not hurt?" she asked her assistant.
Laurie rolled her head from side to side. "You know, I actually feel really good. When we catch this man, I'll have to thank him for the good night's sleep. Before we throw him in jail...or worse." Milagros glared, but Laurie ignored her and sliced the guava brazo gitano, Milagros' favorite. "Eat," she commanded, and filled their cups.
Milagros lowered her nose over the cake and dabbed at the powdered sugar with her tongue. She sniffed at the coffee and hissed. "Do we have any milk?"
Laurie poured her a glass. Tilting it until the liquid ran toward her mouth, Milagros darted her tongue in and out, lapping at it. When she noticed Laurie watching her, she set the glass down. "I'm fine."
Laurie stared. "I thought you'd be...more different."
Milagros shrugged. "So did I." She wadded up a piece of paper and batted it back and forth across the table. Something had prevented her becoming more different. But what? And why?
~ ~ ~
CAPTAIN EDDIE CORREDOR
Captain Eddie Corredor tucked a squeaking, squirming towel into the front of his coat and stepped from his car into the rain and gusty wind. The day before, the yard in front of his condo had overflowed with the bold colors of tropical vegetation: emerald-leafed palms and banana trees, scarlet wild ginger, sunset-hued birds of paradise, and a rainbow of bougainvillea. Today, all the leaves and flowers lay drowned in puddles, stripped from their stems. Beheaded palms stretched to the angry sky, the barren landscape naked and gray, like images of Hiroshima after the bomb.
Spying the intact roof of his condo unit, the tension that had been with him all through the long night departed. The neighbor's building hadn't been so lucky. Eddie shoved a sheet of corrugated roofing aside and walked up the three steps to the small porch. Using the crowbar he'd pulled from the trunk of his unmarked police car, he pried a board from the doorway. "Rafael?" he called. "Rafi? You okay? I only have a few minutes. Open up."
His pareja emerged. "Cielo." He embraced Eddie, then pushed him to arm's length. "How are you holding up?"
Rafi's hair, usually pulled into a neat ponytail, haloed his face in tawny ringlets. His hazel eyes, red-rimmed from a sleepless night, were alert and concerned, but held no sign of panic or distress. "I'm okay. Just worried about you."
Eddie relaxed as a weight lifted from his shoulders. Like public safety officers everywhere, in the most dangerous of times, he had to leave his loved ones behind to serve and protect strangers. He shoved his guilt over abandoning Rafi back into its designated compartment in his head.
Inside, the NOAA weather radio crackled and hissed. The forecasters' drone had become so much white noise, Muzak to the storm's destruction. He vaguely wondered if the standard meteorologists' college curriculum included a class to master that particular speech pattern, devoid of intonation or interest.
"So? How is it out there?" Rafi asked, returning Eddie's thorough scrutiny.
"A lot of structural damage, flooding, no casualties yet." That would change. It always did, every hurricane. Whole families would be found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning when someone ran a car in the garage for the headlights or radio, or used a gas stove in a boarded-up house. "Had a report that some moron headed out to surf before dark last night and never made it home. Beach patrol's searching for the body now."
The fabric of his coat bulged and Eddie cradled his hand under it. Rafi pulled away.
Eddie's gaze wandered the room, studiously avoiding eye contact with Rafi. He draped an arm nonchalantly over the belly-level protrusion from his coat in a pose common to mothers-to-be everywhere, but seldom, if ever, struck by fathers. "The mountains got hit hard," he went on, ignoring Rafi's suspicious looks.
Rafi studied the squirming bulge beneath Eddie's coat.
"We sent work crews up to the poultry farms to help with the cleanup." Eddie continued the innocent act. "Don't want another mess like we had after Hurricane Georges with dead chickens contaminating water supplies." He hitched the bump under his coat to chest level.
"Eh-ddie?" Rafi drew the name out, pausing between syllables. "Why is your coat moving like that? It's not a chicken, is it?"
"Don't be silly." He forced a smile, more grimace than grin. Reaching inside the standard-issue black slicker---Policía in reflective chartreuse on the back--he pulled out a squirming pink ball with patches of downy brown and black hair.
"Is that a," Rafi paused, examining the animal, "a guinea pig?"
Eddie chuckled a deep "huh, huh, huh," and placed the bundle snugly in Rafi's palm. "Puppy. I went to check some reports of weird lights on the beach and found this. Mother must've given birth during the storm. She didn't make it. Neither did the other two pups. But this little one was squirming and squeaking away." As if it understood, the black and brown bundle proceeded to wiggle and whimper.
"What are we going to do with--is it macho or hembra?"
"Girl, I think. We'll keep her, of course. What should we call her?"
"Are you kidding?" Rafi pulled her closer, planted a kiss on her head, and cradled the tiny body in the crook of his neck. "There's only one proper name for a pup that survives outside in these winds."
"BJ." The pup emitted a growl that vibrated deep in Rafi's gut, the kind of rumble that made humans imagine monsters lurking in the dark. He held her at arm's length and peered at her closed-tight eyes. "Tranquila, puppy. Joking. No need to go all monster on me."
"What about Grace, after the storm?" Eddie suggested.
Rafi rolled his eyes. "There are a thousand other babies out there being named Grace right now. Can we at least try to be original?" He studied the small, squished face. "So tiny. How did you ever make it through the night, little one?" The pup opened her small pink mouth and gnawed on Rafi's finger.
"She has to be pretty fierce to have survived that. She needs a fierce name. Tiger? Killer? Storm?" Eddie offered.
Rafi wiggled his knuckle in front of the puppy. "Is you twying to eat me up, you widdle monster?" She bit down on his finger. "You are a chewy one, aren't you? How about Chewy?" He looked into her pink face again. "Is that all right with you, mija?"
Eddie chuckled. "I like it. Chewy it is. Glad that's settled, and now that I know you're all right, I have to get back to the station. Don't spoil her while I'm gone." He left.
"Wait!" Rafi called after him, then followed outside. "What am I supposed to do with her?"
Eddie stopped half way into the car and hollered over the wind. "It's just a dog. You'll figure it out."
~ ~ ~
CARMEN DEL TORO
What an odd dream. A land of mist and darkness. With strange beings, neither human nor animal, but made of feeling and emotion. Discussing...gods? Very strange indeed.
She didn't know where she was and, come to think of it, she wasn't quite certain who she was either. She drew her knees into her chest, tucked into a ball, and tried to recall something, anything, about herself.
Memories slipped in and out of focus: a red-haired lady in colorful silk scarves, jingling bangles running up her arms. The woman had been kind, given her food and a place to sleep. Had that been a dream, too?
Thoughts of food and drink grew into a telltale pressure in her groin. Kicking her legs out from the tangle of blankets, she searched the shadows until she found a spot away and downhill from her bed, but still within reach of the gray light filtering in from the cave's mouth. She hobbled toward it, stopped to shake the stiffness first from one leg, then the other, squatted and relieved herself.
"That's better." Except for her head's continued throbbing. She curled back into the blankets and struggled to remember.
Who am I?
Lips pressed together, eyes squeezed tight, she let images flow freely through her mind. Roosters, bloody and afraid, dogs, beaten, their bodies striped with scars, begging for mercy. Animals in pain. So much pain.
Did I do that? She gasped in horror. A pang of remorse stabbed her chest and brought tears to her eyes. I'm a monster. The agony of so much suffering convulsed her, but the images kept coming.
A horse, alone and sick, pleading for an end. Goats, half-starved. Cats, tortured, abandoned. A small dog, alone in the storm, crying for help. She heard all of their cries.
A single word filled her and she listened. Mercy.
Not cries. Prayers. Now the dream made sense! They pray to me and I answer.
She bolted upright and announced, "I am a god."
Approaching footsteps echoed in the chamber and she scurried into the shadows.
A man stood silhouetted in the entrance, hands on his hips. "Carmen?" he called. Then he muttered to himself, "Now where did she get to? And what is that smell?" He wandered through the chamber, shining a flashlight into dark recesses. "Great. She's not even housebroken."
She frowned. Housebroken?
He swung the light around and spotted her. "There you are." His voice rolled over her, smooth and calm. "Come on out, Carmen. It's okay. I'm not going to hurt you."
She inched away. A low growl emanated from deep in her throat. Oh yes, she remembered this sound. She growled again, louder.
He hushed and cooed, inching closer.
A snarl, starting deep in her chest, rumbled from between her lips and echoed off the cave walls.
"Oh hell, I don't have time for this." His arm shot out and a blue flash erupted from his fingertips.
Her world went dark.
Unsure if hours or mere seconds had passed, she swam up from the inky depths of unconsciousness into something less than awake. A dream, or maybe a memory. She didn't know or care which, but let herself be swept away in the warm scents and sounds of somewhere else. A man smelling of soap and toothpaste cradled her on his shoulder, whispering soothing words while he stirred at a meaty-smelling concoction simmering on the stove. "There, there, mi chiquitita," the man murmured. "You're safe here."
~ ~ ~
RAFAEL BISHOP SOTO
"You're safe here," Rafi whispered. He rocked to and fro, cuddling the puppy close in one hand and stirring chicken broth with the other. "Like my abuelita always said, what doesn't kill us makes us stronger. God knows how strong I must be after all those tries. Strong like bull," he rumbled in a deep false-bass and thumped his chest. "Your Papis won't let anyone hurt you, not a big old storm, not anyone or anything."
The barest hint of a breeze ruffled the air between the open front door and the kitchen window. He'd have to remove the rest of the hurricane shutters soon or he and the dog would roast in the tropical heat as the sun rose.
But first, he had to feed Chewy. Rafi didn't know much about dogs, but he remembered his grandmother's words: Las penas con pan son menos. A full belly makes everything better.
He'd been feeding her every two hours all through the day and night since Eddie brought her home. The gas stove's blue flame flickered under a pan of warming milk. "A little leche, a little pollo and you'll grow up to be our big strong girl." As he spoke the words, an image of a mastiff standing at attention, legs stretched long and head held high, filled his thoughts. "Well, maybe not quite that big and strong." The imaginary dog shrunk to German shepherd size. "Now that, we can work with."
He buried his nose in the puppy's wiry hair and chuckled. In one short day, she'd worked her way into his heart, drawing out a strong paternal instinct he didn't know he possessed. If only the electricity would come back on so he could Google how to properly take care of her. For now, he'd have to go purely on instinct.
Rafi wiped a drip of sweat from his brow and jiggled the pup on his shoulder. He sang a lullaby his grandmother used to sing to him: Mi sol sol sol sol, No llores bien mío, No llores mas no... My sun sun sunshine, Don't cry my dear, Don't cry any more.
The condo filled with the low, mournful howl of a hound dog. Rafi held Chewy at arm's length. "Is that you?" The pup blinked and yawned. As her tiny tongue curled up over her nose, the awwwooooooo came again. This time, clearly from outside.
Rafi inched along the wall to the door and craned his neck to peer out. In the mud-churned yard, a dozen animals paced and circled. Species that should have been chasing one another instead walked, or more accurately, limped, side by side. Dogs, cats, roosters, hens, and a goat. Refugees from the storm. When he stepped into the doorway, they all turned to face him.
"Ay, Dios mío."
He took a tentative step onto the porch and moved a squeaking, wriggling Chewy to his other shoulder. As one, the animals came closer. "Well, that's just creepy." The puppy whimpered and squirmed in his arms. "Don't worry, Chew-Chew. I won't let them get you."
He slammed the door shut and returned to the stove. An agitated Chewy yipped soft puppy cries. "I know, baby, you've got the hungries." He offered her an eyedropper filled with milk, but she turned her face away.
His conscience? The scene in the front yard, all those injured animals, haunted him. "I don't know what to do for them," he said out loud. "The only pet I ever had was a goldfish and it died." But the voice in his head demanded more.
Help. Not a plea, a command.
"Damn it." He set Chewy in her basket of blankets, then gathered up fruits, vegetables, bread, and leftovers for the mixed herd of animals in the yard.
Nothing unusual about this, he told himself as a goat butted against him, its prehensile tongue curling around his hand to get at a bit more food. Hurricanes bring out strange behaviors in everyone--people and animals. Their owners would come looking for them soon. Until then, they needed his help.
~ ~ ~
Workmen swarmed over the house and yard, supervised by Laurie. Above, Señora Milagros paced the veranda, still frustrated in her efforts to sense Carmen's or the god's presence.
Laurie barked orders, commanding the men like a drill sergeant: "Don't leave that board here. Clean up that mess there. I'm not paying you to sit around in the shade and drink rum. Get to work or I'll call her out here, I swear I will." That got the men moving double time. She muttered under her breath about good-for-nothing bums, finishing with, "Que Dios los bendiga." God bless them.
When Milagros asked her assistant about the men, Laurie sniffed. "My no-good brother, brother-in-law, and cousin. I promised my abuelita, God rest her soul, I'd take care of the family when she was gone. Now I'm stuck with them."
"What did you mean when you told them you'd call 'her' out here?" Already knowing the answer, her lips twitched with suppressed mirth.
Laurie flushed. "They listen to the stories." Señora Milagros waited. "You know I'd never tell them anything about you. That's nobody else's business. I just let them think what they will."
"Yes. Witches. You know they think that you and Craz...er, Señorita Carmen are witches. So," she shrugged, "if it makes them work faster, I might as well use it, no?"
Milagros grinned. She'd hate to discourage her reputation in the town. A little bit of superstition and fear could go a long way toward protecting a woman living on her own.
Inside, she paced the living room, picking up the phone at each pass. Still no dial tone. She switched on the radio, scanning through the stations looking for any that had returned to the airwaves.
A scratchy voice grew clearer as she tuned in. "...flooding in the Midwest, wildfires in California, hurricanes, tornadoes. These disasters are not man-made. They're a message from a god. Repe--"
"Piddle." She flicked it off. "If that's all there is, the battery can go ahead and die."
Laurie cleared her throat to announce her presence. "They're about done. What else can I do?"
"Why don't you go home? I'm sure you have things to take care of there, and I have everything I need for now."
Laurie studied her like a specimen under a microscope. "You're sure you'll be all right by yourself?"
"Go. I'm fine."
Alone, Milagros dropped her head in her hands. The worry that had gnawed at her gut since waking to find Carmen gone, left her exhausted.
Where can the girl be? Who would, who could take her? An idea struck her, more a hope, really. Perhaps her own retired familiar hadn't moved on yet. "Matagata? Here kitty-kitty-kitty," she called. She dug through the kitchen drawer, found a bag of cat treats and shook it. "Mata?" She went from room to room.
The house was silent, no thumping of little cat feet down the hallway, no screaming demand for treats "nee-ooow." Not that Matagata could help. She'd been in her cat form long enough to have become completely feline, with no trace of magic or familiarity left. Still, her presence always soothed Milagros. Like a security blanket past its prime, the memory of its comfort surpassed the reality, but sometimes that was enough.
If Matagata were here, what would her former mentor say?
"Think, Milagros. You know."
She could still hear the gravelly voice clearly, even after almost a century.
Milagros tapped into her vast store of divine history, part of the knowledge obtained by familiars during their dormant period between apprenticeship and maturity--what Carmen should have received while she'd slept. She couldn't recall a single case of a failed transformation. If Carmen had survived the night, if she was out there, this was new, uncharted territory.
"Start at the beginning," the raspy voice of a memory told her. She went into the guest bedroom, Carmen's room. After more than twenty years, she still thought of Carmen as the little girl she'd first met, long before Milagros had revealed Carmen's destiny as the next familiar to the god of Mercy: a nine-year-old with a big imagination and a fierce loyalty to her dog. Her apprentice hadn't changed much. Her delicate body belied both her age and her strength.
Anyone who thought the girl's diminutive size made her vulnerable or weak would be sorry. Milagros had seen her bring a bully to his knees with a few well-placed blows. That the man had later been killed had nothing, and everything, to do with Carmen's strength and her loyalty to the dog.
And yet someone had been able to take her from this very house. Someone even stronger than Carmen. The thought sent a shiver through Milagros.
As she had done a half dozen times since waking, she found an item of Carmen's--a shirt neatly folded on the chair next to the bed, and rubbed her face in it, inhaling the musky smell, focusing her thoughts on the lingering essence of the girl. "Where are you, Carmen?" She closed her eyes and concentrated, letting the feeling of Carmen del Toro wash over her, dimmer now than the time before, fading with the girl's scent.
Or had her own powers waned? Milagros released a thought, a prayer, to her god. Let her be safe. Let her be with you.
It was a futile wish. If Carmen had found the dog, Milagros would be no more. Instead, she would be relaxing, retired in the feline form of Fifi. No, that hadn't happened. She was on her own until the dog got stronger and could help her search. Or, perhaps she could recruit some help. But how to do that without revealing too much?
She pondered for a moment, then nodded, satisfied. She knew where to turn for help.
A disturbing thought pushed its way up from her subconscious. She pushed back, but it refused to stay put.
Her change would continue, and she had no way to prevent it.
Contemplating her fate, she licked at one paw, er, hand, and ran it through her hair, over one ear, and down her cheek. She had better find them, and soon. Her retirement--and Carmen's and the god's survival--depended on it.
~ ~ ~