Silent Echoes, Chapter One
San Julio, Texas.
Vic Vargas stood on a grassy knoll in the corner of his several hundred acre ranch, where it intersected with three adjoining properties. A group of men—his neighbors—along with Deputy Derek Braido, stood there with him, looking grim.
Vic deliberately kept his eyes off the goat carcass at his feet and instead gazed up at what he could see of the sky. The late afternoon clouds hung dark and gloomy, but the storm still refused to break.
Ominous. That was the only word that came to mind.
“A dead goat,” Braido said. Vic flashed him a glance. Vic and Derek had been friends since they were boys. They’d grown up chasing girls together and throwing back beer at the lake. Vic had stopped cold when he’d met Delaney West his junior year, fifteen years ago, but that hadn’t stopped his friend from picking up the slack. Braido had never wanted for female companionship. He still didn’t. He knew women the way he knew every facet of the law—the way he knew the back roads of San Julio.
But one thing the guy didn’t know about was ranching.
“A dead goat with no blood,” Vic said.
“This is Texas. Gotta be a coyote.”
“Nuh uh.” Jasper Locke spoke up. “McDuff lost a goat the same way. I lost some piglets myself—”
“And I lost a sheep,” Vic finished.
Red West, who stood next to his ranch hand Alan Maldano, added, “This is no coyote kill, Braido. Look at the holes on the neck. Then look at the gums.” He pointed to the wide eyes of the dead animal, and to the bared teeth. “White. I’d lay money there’s hardly an ounce of blood left in the poor thing.”
Braido stared. “Say that again?”
“Sucked dry. No blood. It’s been drained out of the body.”
Vic surveyed his surroundings. From the top of the hill, he could see the West family’s barn and house, mere specks on the horizon. Jasper’s barn was in the opposite direction, where Jasper lived with his brother Chris and their pastor uncle, Landon Locke. Acres and acres of land spread out around the rise, the verdant fields below transected by woods. Perfect for predators.
Finally, Vic looked again at the dead animal. Two ugly puncture wounds to the neck seemed to be the cause of death. He’d never seen any wild animal kill in this fashion, and he hadn’t thought to check his dead sheep for anything unusual or out of the ordinary. He’d assumed it had been a coyote, but now…
Red West was right. Something—or more likely, someone—was deliberately mutilating livestock. Vic couldn’t afford to lose a single head. The killings had to stop.
He turned his back on the unsettling scene in front of him, paced a few steps, and then turned to face it again. Standing a good distance back, he processed what he saw, crossing an arm over his chest and stroking his chin. The goat was bled dry, but no blood pooled around it.
So where was the blood?
Unsatisfied, he returned to the group of ranchers, none of whom seemed to have an answer, either.
“Mira,” a thin voice said from behind him.
Vic and the others turned, all startled to see a familiar old woman, a worn knitted blanket around her shoulders and a cane clutched in her hand, hobbling up the knoll toward them.
“Is that who I think it is?” Jasper muttered to Vic.
“Esperanza,” Vic confirmed. The woman lived down by the river. Some said she was a healer—a curandera. Most people said she was a witch. “How the heck did she get here?” he said, but inside he thought a better question would be, Why had she come?
The woman extended her crooked arm and pointed toward the dead goat. “It hath begun.”
He knew her words were English, but with her heavy accent, he wasn’t sure he’d heard her correctly.
“What did she say?” Braido asked.
She looked at Vic instead, her eyes widening as if she was noticing him for the first time. “It. Hath. Begun.”
Okay… “What’s begun?”
The woman shook her head as she came to stand next to him. “Chupacabra ith here.”
Her voice seeped through him like ink spilling through his veins. What was she talking about? The old woman had obviously been out in the sun too long. Chupacabras weren’t real.
“I can’t even begin to guess what that means,” Jasper said.
Braido cleared his throat. “I’ve heard of it. It’s local legend. Some sort of blood sucking vampire goat thing, right?”
Vic stared at Esperanza, again wondering if he’d heard her right. She thought a mythical beast was killing local livestock? “I don’t think so,” he said politely.
“Eth verdad,” Esperanza said.
Vic looked at Esperanza’s vacant, white eyes. He knew she could barely see, but her gaze still felt like it sank into the very depths of his soul. “A chupacabra killed this animal?” he asked skeptically. “Is that what you’re telling me?”
Esperanza didn’t speak much English, but she clearly understood what he’d said. She nodded and stamped her cane against the earth. “Thi. More will die,” she added.
She oriented her face to Vic, her white eyes like bursts of light that made him want to look away. “Delaney Wetht,” she said quietly, her voice haunted. “Ella está en San Julio.”
Vic surged forward, his heart pounding. Why the hell was she bringing up her? That was the last name on earth he’d expect to hear come out of the old woman’s mouth. Hell, out of anyone’s mouth. “What did you say?”
“Lo thiento, Delaney. Lo thiento.” Esperanza’s wrinkled face went blank and her knees went out from under her. She crumpled to the ground, silent.
Braido took over, helping the curandera up. “I’ll send Animal Services out,” he said as he started to lead her away. “Not sure there’s much else I can do.”
Vic glanced at Red. Apparently he hadn’t heard his daughter’s name mentioned. Or maybe he was just pointedly ignoring Vic as usual. Red and the others were already talking in taut voices, devising watch plans to protect their livestock. But the curandera’s words echoed in Vic’s head. What did Delaney West have to do with any of this?
And what was that she’d said about Delaney being back in San Julio? Since when?
Christ. That’s all he needed.
Three months ago the only thing Vic had to worry about was balancing time between the ranch and the bar. Now he had to contend with protecting the livestock that was his livelihood from some kind of blood sucking goat eater—and deal with the possible return of the woman who’d ripped his heart out with her bare hands. He plowed a hand through his hair. And that wasn’t even counting the eleven-year-old son who’d landed on his doorstep three months ago…and still would barely talk to him.
He’d better start figuring all this out or he’d be in one shitload of trouble.