Devil in the Borderlands

This is a short story by Sami Valentine. It’s set before Down & Out Witch, a prequel of The Red Witch Chronicles, an urban fantasy series containing magic, paranormal adventure, and vampire mayhem along with swearing, violence, and adult situations. 

The Red Witch Chronicles Series Reading Order

Devil in the Borderlands

June 20th, somewhere in Arizona

Red raced across the desert, checking over her shoulder for the man in black. He couldn’t reach the Professor first.

In bloody sneakers, she hiked a prickly butte crowned with cacti. The sun set on the lonely horizon, clocking out on its longest shift of the year. A glare reflected off a dark helmet in the distance.

The son of a bitch took his time. Why?

She reached the isolated hill as twilight deepened the sky to a bruised purple, freckled with stars. Heat radiated from the ground, yet she shivered. Power—old, mystical, and above her paygrade—wafted like fog down the slope. The temperature dropped. Soft orange light filtered through the arms of the tall saguaros and guided her to a clearing at the top.

A detached archway jutted from the sand. How did the stacked rocks stay perfectly upright? Its radiance dappled on the grey-haired Professor. Bound, he perched on a rock, staring into its depths. “Magnificent.” He looked at her, eyes wet. “It’s the Doorway to the Gods…”

Running to him, she peeked at the doorway and stumbled. It outlined a dazzling sunrise on the same remote landscape, as if revealing another day. Were all the legends true?

The man in black emerged from the shadows, pulling off his helmet. He wasn’t a man at all. The vampire smiled; lips chalky pale against his fangs. “I still need him.”

Earlier that Day

Barking dogs announced the van’s arrival at Professor Edwin van Sant’s spacious hacienda. The white walls shimmered in the blistering morning heat. Vic Constantine parked by the adobe fence, patting the steering wheel as if calming it after the bumpy dirt road. “Thank God, we put new tires on the Millennium Falcon.”

“Why do your friends always live outside cell service?” Red asked, absently brushing the donut crumbs off her dark tank top and jeans. She lifted her purse, jostling the salt canister and jar of holy water within.

“After you retire from the Brotherhood, you want the quiet life, I guess,” he replied. A lean Asian guy in a sleeveless Led Zeppelin shirt, he didn’t look like a scholar of the supernatural trained to hunt demons in secrecy. He looked like the guy most likely to request a DJ to play “Freebird.” He smoothed back his shaggy black mullet. “Okay, intern, I do the talking. The Professor’s housekeeper is the meanest Canadian you’ll ever meet. I swear he’s too scared to fire her. She’s a normie too. Doesn’t know what he really retired from.”

Red followed him into the desiccating wind to the home. Old cottonwoods shaded the wooden porch where hummingbirds buzzed around dangling plastic feeders. “A day is a long time to be missing out here.”

“If he wasn’t so paranoid, they might have sent a search party last night.” Vic knocked on the front door. As it opened, he said, “Hello—”

A middle-aged woman waved them into an atrium decorated with old Southwest cowboy elegance. She wore a dour frown and a bright pink sundress. “You’re letting the air conditioning out.”

Vic snorted. “Pleasure to see you too, Diane.”

Red held out her hand. “Hi, I’m—”

“Hurry, you’ll need the Professor’s map.” Diane swept down the hall, gesturing them on with a begrudging air. “It’s all in his playroom.”

Vic chuckled. “He won’t appreciate you handing that over.”

Diane scowled over her shoulder. “I didn’t appreciate worrying all night because he likes to tilt at windmills.”

Red walked behind Vic into a study, peering at the leather-bound books on the shelves. Primarily local histories, but a few old Louis L’amour westerns held a place of honor. Maps of the local area, peppered in sticky notes, were on the walls. Papers nearly hid the desk. A taxidermy squirrel in a Superman cape stared at her from a wide windowsill. Snug as a hobbit hole, it was easy to imagine the aged professor reading or taking a siesta on the old plaid couch.

Diane tossed her head, glowering at the clutter. “I bet he’s stuck, out of gas, on his ATV with Geraldo. If it weren’t for his damn last text message, I would have sent the sheriff. He thinks he found the Doorway to the Gods.”

Red heard it all from Vic on their ride from Tucson. The legend was obscure even to locals—an interdimensional vortex in the borderlands warping time and space. Paranormal spookiness was par for the course for her internship. She asked, “Who else knows that?”

Vic shot her an annoyed look.

Red shrugged. She wasn’t as scared of Diane as he was.

Rolling his eyes, he cleared his throat and addressed the older woman. “My intern has a point. Did he mention any interest in his research?”

“He saw shadows everywhere. The door doesn’t exist. The truth is Edwin retired and couldn’t find a normal hobby.” Crouching under the window, Diane revealed a cache under a loose floorboard. She muttered about her back as she retrieved a rolled map. “He thinks he’s so clever,” she said, handing it over to Vic. “He’s too loud during poker night with the boys. You get off the road into town around the seven-mile marker, then turn south at the Triple G Ranch. Drive until you must go on foot.”

Vic unfurled the paper. “X marks the spot then?”

“What more do you need? He’s roasting out there!” Diane’s lip trembled, concern cracking her brisk demeanor. She stomped to the door. “I’ll pack you a cooler. Take what you need.”

Vic knelt at the Professor’s secret stash in the floor and pulled out a battered notebook. Leaning on his heels, he flipped through it. “It’s his field journal. He didn’t write much this month.” His tongue peeked out of his mouth as he read. “Hmmm.”

Couldn’t he read aloud? Red tapped her foot. Watching someone react to a book made her antsy with questions. “So, you think he found it?”

“He’s been looking for this doorway for years. My Dad called him one of the smartest men he knew. Ranked as a Bard in the Brotherhood too.” Pausing, Vic scanned the last page. “He finished this diary last week. The last entry was about a murder in Nogales. Neck slit in a mugging. Interrupted in mid-sentence. I’m thinking it’s because it was a poker night.”

“Can you think of why he’d text about you?” She asked. The message was brief. Help. Send only Victor Constantine. The rest was gibberish from a clumsy thumb, except for the last words. Go to the Butte.

“Probably because I told him we came down south to see a cheap dentist in Mexico. Closest hunters he could think of.” Vic stood, resting the notebook under his arm along with the map. Eyes darting around, he commented, “I forgot how nice his house is.”

She chuckled. “That’s the difference in pay between a hunter and a Bard.”

Rubbing the back of his neck, he frowned, looking at his feet. “We’ll earn a good bounty after this charity case, I swear.”

“I’m not worried about that.” She frowned at the arid land outside the window. “We only have so much morning left and a lot of ground to cover.”

Brown cattle mooed at the Millennium Falcon as it bounced along an unpaved road. The dusty lane zigged through dips and rises in an open pasture toward the sunbaked San Luis Mountains in the south.

As Vic drove, Red studied the trail to the Doorway. A circle marked Kino’s Butte, a desolate hill near the Arivaca Creek valley, with a trail line leading to it. The Professor wanted Vic to meet him there. They were too far out for American radio, but she hit the sporadic cellphone signal from Mexican towers. How far could the Professor wander and still make a last text message? Pretty far if they had the same cell provider.

Red stored the map in the open wooden chest between the front seats. Handmade by Vic’s late adopted father, she always envied it. It was a symbol of the roots he had, like this rescue mission of an old friend or his couple of semesters at UCLA. Vic had a past. She was still searching for hers. The clues were less sentimental than an heirloom. She touched the old vamp scars on her neck, avoiding the scabs from the latest.

She said, “I’ve been thinking about the Professor’s last journal entry. What’s so special about that murder case on the border?”

With a lazy hand on the wheel, Vic shrugged. “Must not have been that interesting since he didn’t finish writing about it.”

“He probably took his new journal with him. Muggings rarely end with a slit throat. Maybe he thought it was a vamp—”

“Buddy, you’re barking up the wrong cactus. These old Brotherhood dudes get itchy in retirement, investigate local cases. Just like us, they find the Scooby Doo answer most of the time. Humans gank each other more than demons do. Besides if anyone wanted his research, it would be a warlock or something. Diane was probably right. He’s lost out here.”

She crossed her arms. He didn’t need to dismiss her theory entirely. “That murder looks iffy, is all I’m saying.”

“Sure, could be vampire, but we’re not chasing that lead now. They have a real bastard of a supreme master around here. Neither of us needs to be on his nasty side prematurally.”

“This is because of Colorado.”

Vic sighed. “You don’t need to run at another set of fangs to prove yourself, intern.”

“And you don’t need to babysit me on hunts.” She scoffed at his surprise. “Don’t give me that look. We were both there in Santa Fe. You practically sidelined me going after La Mala Hora.”

“Oh, come on, you got to use a CB radio and give yourself a trucker handle. That’s fun.”

She dropped her gaze to her fidgeting hands. “I froze in Denver when that vamp got ahold of me. Every day, I see the marks. It won’t happen again.”

“You’re dwelling on it more than I have,” Vic said gruffly. “Keep your eyes peeled for his truck by the road.”

Red nodded. It was hard not to dwell on her weeks in Colorado. He knew how much she struggled. They teamed with another crew of hunters for a few jobs there. Her neck scars immediately marked her as suspicious. Rumor spread she was a former bleeder. A vamp groupie. If that was the truth, she didn’t remember it. Or anything before last year. She held her own with the guys, but it wasn’t pretty. Then to get bitten on a walk… It was more than a blow to the ego.

The van yanked to the right as a front tire popped.

“The hell?” Vic cursed as he braked. He slapped the steering wheel. “I traded a good exorcism in Phoenix for these tires.”

She leaned out of the window, slipping her sunglass over her hair for a better look. “Some asshole hid a board with nails in the sand! What if a cow stepped on that?”

Vic groused, killing the engine. “Oh, yeah, think of the hypothetical cows. Not the literal us.”

“You haggled him up to get a new donut.” Red gestured into the back where a bean bag chair covered the spare tire well.

“If the Professor got punked by the same douchebag, then he’d be close by. I’ll change the flat, you see if something else will shred my tires ahead.” Vic popped out, cussing quietly to himself.

Red scouted the road with a walking stick for any more booby traps. Mirages twinkled on the sand, promising sparkling water. Sweat dried to salt on her skin. It was nearly 10am and already a hundred degrees. She found another nail board and tossed it aside. Was this an outsider or the Professor hiding his discovery?

“We’re moving!” Vic called out, “I can see you burning from here. Slap on some sunblock.”

Red trotted back like the sensible ginger she was. The presence of a watcher prickled on her awareness. Hopping into the van, she scanned the empty desert from the window. Early cicadas shrieked for attention from the skinny mesquites. Nothing bigger than a coyote could have hid amid the brittle shrubs. Slathering her face and arms in sunscreen, she kept her eye on the side mirror. What was out there?

At the end of the road, a big truck and attached empty flatbed trailer waited like a loyal dog.

Red peered into the driver’s side window. Two travel coffee mugs rested in the center console. A rifle hung on a gun rack in the back. Wouldn’t the Professor have taken it if he felt in danger? She observed, “Looks like he just went for a ride with a friend.”

Vic circled the truck. “No signs of a struggle. The ATV tracks lead southeast to the butte. Should be easy to follow them.”

“Update Diane if you have signal. It’ll give the ambulance a head start when we find them with sunstroke,” she said. The words reminded her to drink from her water bottle. Reflected light hit her. A man-sized shadow moved by a far-off creosote. She blinked, rubbing her dry eyes. The figure vanished. Was it another mirage?

“We can’t go off roading on the donut,” Vic said, stepping beside her to stare into the wilderness. He didn’t react to any shadows.

Red relaxed, chalking her worry up to mere chronic anxiety. It was a side effect of knowing that the boogieman was real and operated out of Cleveland. “This is as good a place as any to set up the drone. You sure you know how to fly that thing?” She asked. Diane handed it over from the Professor’s collection of cutting-edge toys.

“I’m the techie in this dynamic duo.” He opened the side door of the Millennium Falcon and climbed inside to gather a laptop and the drone case. “Don’t wander off.”

“It’s daytime, Vic, I’ll be fine.” Biting off a sarcastic remark, Red left the computer science drop out to his work and marched to the ATV tracks.

The trail forked off the road into a rugged sketch of large wheel-cracking rocks, snaking between the aspiring boulders. Kino’s Butte loomed a few miles away. Only a light breeze disturbed the sleepy hush of high noon. She bent to retrieve a cracked geode glittering by a tumbleweed. A single touch made her recoil.

It hummed.

Like a vibration hitting her aura, she felt it rather than heard. She was sensitive to the paranormal, with latent magical gifts according to Vic, but rocks didn’t sing at her like she was a Disney princess. What the hell was going on here?

“Watch me fly this thing,” Vic called out as the drone hovered above him.

She trotted back, admiring the device darting to the southeast. Inside the van, the laptop balanced on a milk crate with cables strapping it to boxy electronics. A livestream lit up the screen. The aerial footage captured the desolate landscape, nearly shadowless as the sun gloried at its full height. A late monsoon season left the desert looking like the surface of Mars.

Vic whined, “You’re not watching.”

“I am and you’re doing a great job,” she replied with the attention of a bored mother, focused on monitoring the screen. A white ATV came into view, somewhere between them and the butte. “Hey, you found something.”

“I’m zooming in.”

A dark figure appeared in the corner of the live footage. Human-shaped.. As the drone lowered, details of the figure came into focus—a shiny helmet and dark jumpsuit like a stranded motorcyclist. Or pilot. The headgear looked strangely spherical. Static crackled on the video as she leaned closer.

“Holy shit, I found a dude.” Red nudged Vic’s arm. “How was the Professor dressed?”

“White golfing shirt,” he said, peering over her shoulder.

The laptop’s huffing internal fan drowned out the cicadas. It died with an overheated shudder. The screen darkened as the drone accelerated to earth.

“Mayday.” She asked, “Why is it falling?”

“I don’t know!” He swore, rattling the handheld controls. “That’s a thousand-dollar crash landing.” 

“Did you see the guy? He looked like an evil spaceman from a 1950s movie.”

“I only saw a smudge, but it’s close to the ATV, so we’ll check it out.” Vic kicked the dirt. “It’s a mile away so I hope it still has gas to drive back on.”

“Gear up for a hike. The day’s only getting hotter.”

The two hunters trooped forth with wide brim hats and backpacks full of water bottles and a first aid kit. They followed the ATV tracks. It was the only hint of civilization in the pristine wilderness. The butte grew in the distance as the path flattened. Jumping cactus clustered to their left, given a wide berth by the trail maker.

“Aw!” Red whispered, pointing to a lean jackrabbit hopping alongside their path. A dozen more burst from the shelter of the cacti. The determined fuzzballs bounded to the north in the opposite direction of the humans without a look back. She pouted. “Did we scare them?”

He frowned, muscles tensing, and rested his hand on his belt knife. That wasn’t a good sign. This was a guy who hunted werewolves, he shouldn’t be spooked by a bunny. “We’re too far away. They’re safer in their dens, anyway.”

“I got one of my trademark weird feelings about this place.”

“Then I taught you something. Dad used to take me camping around here with the Professor all the time. Strange lights in the sky, mysterious creatures in the woods, and some other things that I don’t want to name. The locals think its UFOs.” He paused, eyes widening. His voice quavered in mock terror. “Your spaceman.”

Red glowered. “Don’t make fun.”

“Oh, you know I love conspiracies too much to poo-poo this one.” Vic grinned. Amusement melted his unease, making her doubt she’d seen it in the first place. “I could use a UFO ride now.”

“Ha ha,” she said, trotting ahead of him. A daytime supernatural sighting might have been rare, but someone else could be out there. She convinced herself it was only her imagination by the time they returned to the ATV.

The abandoned four-wheeler was parked diagonally in the middle of the path like it came to a skidding stop. Vic found trampled dead grass and a bandana lay a few yards to the south. A ripped bag dangled on the back rack. Inside, she discovered a wallet belonging to Geraldo, the Professor’s friend. Two oranges lay smashed below the bag. One preserved a partial boot print.

Avoiding the searing metal of the ATV, she crouched to stretch her heels and examine the fruit. What was wrong with this picture?

“Are you that hungry?” Vic laughed, retrieving the Professor’s map from his backpack.

“Ants!” Red straightened. That’s what was missing. This was the most moisture for the last mile. Why hadn’t anything nibbled on this treat?

She spun at the scrap of thorns on plastic. A dark figure darted from behind two twisted mesquites. He moved so quickly she thought he was a mirage.

Vic swung his backpack, using the momentum against his attacker.

Red picked up a rock and slammed it against the round helmet. Tinted so black; she didn’t know how someone could see out of it.

The spaceman shoved her with gloved hands.

Falling, she flung the rock to ping uselessly off his chest. The musculature of the suit—plastic, rubber, she couldn’t tell—was gender neutral, yet she could tell this was a real son of a bitch. He didn’t expose an inch of skin from the elements. Matte black snaps connected the neck to the helmet and gloves to his arms. He moved with a stilted grace, like a ballerina in lead shoes. Jarringly artificial, he looked wrong against the natural backdrop.

Vic side-stepped between them, hunting knife aimed at the intruder. “Back the hell up, E.T.”

Helmet tilted as if considering the offer, he bolted to the dropped map by the ATV. He slowed to scoop it up.

Vic hurled the knife at him, slicing the neck of the suit.

The thief wobbled but didn’t slow, darting behind the trees.

They chased him until he disappeared into a patch of jumping cactus.

“Where’d he go?” Vic huffed, hands on his hips.

Red stomped around the cacti, searching for trail. There was nowhere to hide. The wrinkles had smoothed in the landscape, leaving the view unblocked until Kino’s Butte. “You missed.”

“No, I didn’t.” He smiled, motioning to his throat. “I got his suit between the hard plastic. What’s it protecting him from, anyway?”

“I rescind my scolding then. This means the Professor was right.” Red passed her water bottle to him. “Someone was after his research.”

White perspiration rings appeared around their armpits as they marched back to the ATV. Red was too hot to be embarrassed about her major boob sweat. After a few hours in the Sonoran Desert, she wondered if they’d even find the Professor and his friend alive.

“Look.” He blocked her.

A cloud of dust appeared halfway to the horizon. The breeze carried the sound of horses. Helmets shined in the sun, but these were of steel, conical shaped. Flags to a dead King fluttered over the soldiers. The distant procession didn’t fade like a mirage. For three minutes, the hunters boggled until the horsemen disappeared. Only the settling dust marked their passage.

Vic gulped. “Conquistadors.”

“They were going to Kino’s Butte,” Red whispered as if the anachronistic vision could hear her. “We have seen no animals, not even bugs, since the rabbits. No birds either. Something is happening here, and they’re smart enough to run.”

His teeth audibly ground together. “I know. I’m thinking.”

Goosebumps faded from her arms as they gathered up their forgotten bags by the ATV. Under a stunted tree, she huddled over her phone, trying to block the sun’s glare to make out a snapshot of the map. “We’re an hour from the butte.”

Vic paced in the patchy shade. “The professor could be anywhere if that freak show in the helmet has him.”

She followed his logic until she hit a roadblock. “Why would he steal our map if he had someone who could lead him to it? What if he doesn’t want us to find it? Who is he anyway?”

He groaned. “I’m half ready to say you’re right and that it’s aliens.”

“I never said aliens. Just that he looked like an old sci-fi B movie,” she griped. “We don’t know if the Professor was taken for sure. Maybe he saw something freaky like we did and walked off course. Or towards it?”

“The woo-woo really comes out on solstices,” Vic considered. “He’s one of my Dad’s friends, so he’s a stubborn cuss. If he wanted to study this door when it’s all revved up, then he’d walk there.”

Turning off her phone to conserve battery, she put it in her backpack. “You text Diane that we’re still alive?”

“I wrote it and pushed send, we’ll see if I hit a signal to launch it.”

“Then it’s marching time.” Red forced herself away from the wispy shade of the mesquite. “It’s hotter than Satan’s butthole out. I won’t tell you the temperature, it’ll only make it worse.”

“If we can’t find him soon…” He faltered. She knew it was hard for him to retreat. He had that in common with the Professor.

“I know. We can reach town on the donut, get help if we gotta. This isn’t the best day for hiking, but all part of the internship. I’m getting experience here,” She joked, walking past him to the fallen bandana in the grass.

Vic picked up his knife from the sand, putting it in his belt sheath, and followed her. “That guy is still out there, and he knows where we’re going.”

“He has what he wants,” Red tried to sound confident, but she kept checking the perimeter as they journeyed closer to the lonesome butte.

“See, that is where you’re wrong, newbie.” Vic flailed his arms, flushed in the face. “The reason why the original trilogy worked was that Lucas knew they were a western. Once he brought in the prequel trade delegation, it was game over.”

Red laughed at his zeal. She didn’t know how he had the fanboy energy after the long afternoon walk. “Fine, I still like hot Jesus Obi Wan.”

“That’s valid if sacrilegious.”

A faint holler made her turn. She lifted her hand. “Did you hear that?” She jogged towards the sound.  

Unseen, the weak masculine voice called out again, “Help, please!”

Vic sprinted after her. “I’m coming, buddy!”

Eyes ahead, she pumped her arms and legs, pack slapping against her damp back. Where was the voice yelling from? Her springing foot landed on nothing.

She tumbled, rolling on a decline of packed sand to a sudden heap. A cat-sized rock jabbed her hip. Ankle throbbing, her head spun as she blinked up at a hunched figure. The mine shaft came into focus before he did.

A Hispanic man in overalls helped her to her feet in the mouth of the caved-in mine. Panic stretched over his face. Dehydration deepened the wrinkles around his mouth, but he looked better than she predicted. “Get me out of here!”

“Are you Geraldo? We found your wallet.” She winced as she tried her tender left foot. Must have twisted it on the way down. It didn’t feel like a break.

Vic half-skidded, half-trotted down to them. “Where is the Professor?”

“A robot took Ed! If he really has an FBI connection, call them. This is Area 51 stuff.”

“You’re in rough shape,” Red said, pressing a water bottle into Geraldo’s cracked hands.

“I know what I saw!”

Vic nodded. “We saw him too. Still have the truck keys? You need a hospital, and our van won’t last to Nogales.”

“I have the ones to the ATV.” Geraldo handed them over to Vic. “We got scared off it by the robot man. Should have enough to get us to the Triple G Ranch. Anywhere. Just not here.” He shuddered. “You don’t know what I’ve seen, man.”

Vic patted his shoulder, worry puckering his sweaty brow. “Down more of that bottle and we’ll head back.”

Red started to climb the sand pile spilling into the mouth of the mine. Her ankle throbbed. “Shhh—” she held back the swear.

Vic squinted at her. “What’s up with you?”

“Just tweaked my ankle. I can hike.” She ignored the swelling in her sneaker and picked up her fallen hat. Pain jolted through her leg.

“I’ll believe you when you can get out of this hole.” Squinting at their shit situation, Vic wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. “We need to come back for the Professor. Find wherever that dude took him.”

“Send the FBI!”

Vic shot down Geraldo’s suggestion. “Whatever is going on, we don’t want the cops around yet.”

Red gingerly leaned against the dirt wall. “How about I sit here in the shade, elevate my foot on that big rock, and you guys go on. Come back for me and we’ll go after the Rocket Man. My ankle should be fine then.”

Vic shot her a hard look. “You don’t need to act like a badass.”

“I mean it. We’re wasting time. I got plenty of water. It’ll take double the time with me to reach the ATV then one of us will need to walk. Two will get to the van quicker. If he faints or something, I won’t be able to lift him.”

“Shit. Fine then. I’ll send him along to town then rush back.” Vic unclipped the sheathed hunting knife from his belt and handed it to her. “Stab what you want.”

In the quiet of the shady den, Red listened to the departing men until their footsteps faded. She popped an aspirin, washing it down with a small sip. Water rations began now. Resting her head on her backpack, she strove for a meditative breath to take the edge off her nerves. What would they find on the butte? It would end there for sure. The insight was persistent as the perspiration above her lip even as the dry heat lulled her into a siesta.

A chilling wind howled in her nightmare. She startled awake, losing the foggy dream of grim nights. Grit stung her eyes. Hot earth billowed into the mine shaft, spinning like a dust devil. She shielded her face. When the tempest settled, she brushed off her braided red hair.

The gust hadn’t trapped sand in the hole. Curiously, it scoured it instead, revealing crystal veins in the walls. She stretched out from a fetal position, touching a large rock with her foot. It hummed. Sitting, she studied the iridescent flakes in the stone. She had fallen asleep with her foot on it. Standing, she frowned and tested her ankle. The swelling was gone. What the hell were they mining here?

Red climbed to the surface. A chubby orange sun perched on the horizon. It was still a scorcher, but the heat was subsiding. She must have been asleep for hours. Where was Vic?

The ground vibrated under her feet with a frequency she couldn’t hear. She thought it was a mirage. Then it materialized into the Professor. Only yards away, he was close enough to see the red earth staining his white shirt.

A shadow bloomed beside him, solidifying into the man in black. He jabbed a gloved finger in the old man’s chest. The end of his sentence came out a mechanized growl. “—the door?”

“You can’t control it,” the Professor said. “And I won’t help you try!”

“Where is your academic curiosity, Van Sant?” The taunt from the helmet ended with a huff. Whoever was in the suit sounded more human than extraterrestrial. “It’s nearly the solstice. Don’t you want to see what happens at sundown?” He dragged the Professor by the collar towards Kino’s Butte.

Neither man looked back at the gaping hunter. They both faded after eight steps.

Shaking, she inspected where they disappeared, only finding a barrel cactus. The scene ran like a projection, but it looked real like the conquistadors. She ran into enough specters to know that unique eerie sensation. This wasn’t ghosts. It was almost like she saw a figment of the past. Whatever the man in black wanted, the Professor wasn’t having it. This was too much for an intern.

Where was Vic?

Even on foot, he would have had plenty of time to find her. He had enough water, field knowledge of the area, and left stone piles to mark their path. If he were going to finish the job himself, he wouldn’t have left her stranded. Unless something stopped him. The Professor might have been an expert on the Doorway, but what if his kidnapper was desperate and went for the next closest supernatural scholar—Vic? Or was that the plan the whole time? Paranoia cast every clue in a different light. Had that message summoning them even been sent by the Professor?

Shifting her feet first to the north then back to Kino’s Butte, she turned on her phone, hoping for direction. All she got was the notice for no signal. It was nearly 7pm. This far south, the sun retired early. She had an hour — tops—until nightfall.

The isolated hill loomed like a tombstone. She stalked towards it anyway.

The punch came out of nowhere.

Sharp pain, worse for the surprise, exploded on the back of her head. Red stumbled. Already bending to tie her shoelaces, the movement saved her from a concussion. Her sunglasses fell, cracked under her own foot.

A black boot rocketed to her face.

She shielded herself in time to block it. Her forearms slammed into her nose. Blood spurted onto her sneakers. Evading the next kick, she scurried backward.

The spaceman circled like a vulture. Electrical tape marred the neck of his suit.

“Where’s the Professor?” She asked, touching the latch on her knife sheath.

“I don’t answer your questions.” He answered in a mechanical drawl then lunged to grab her by the shoulder. “Are more hunters coming? Who else knows about the door?”

Red stabbed at his throat, missing the center as he dodged. The blade sliced through the tape, busting open the repair. Strangely, roasting meat scented the breeze.

Roaring, he slapped her down and clutched his neck. Dark blood trickled through his fingers. He lumbered into the bush, zig zagging through the tumbleweeds.

Panting on the ground, she winched herself up.

The man was already gone. Despite the astro suit and mechanically distorted voice, she knew he was from this earth. She shivered as the question popped into her head. When was he from? Vic had told her a creepy theory about the Doorway that it opened into different timelines. She’d seen the past, was the spaceman from the future?

A solitary boot print in an old cowpie led to the southeast. Red wasn’t a wilderness tracker, but she could follow a trail of a crap. It was the theme of her day.

The spaceman tried to throw her off by crunching tumbleweeds in a feint west. She knew what he wanted, and it wasn’t that way. Sure, she didn’t know why he wanted to control the door but that was trivia considering her deadline. Kidnapping usually didn’t go together with innocent intentions. Maybe if she weren’t sweating her ass off, she’d care about this psychopath’s deal.

When he asked her about more hunters, did it mean that he already had one? Fear for Vic kept her moving. Wherever her mentor was, he knew the end game would go down on Kino’s Butte.

As the sun drooped in the sky, she knew she’d get there first.

Sunset was the best time to sightsee according to the man in black. Whatever he wanted, she wasn’t inclined to make it easy for him. He’d attacked her friend, nearly broke her nose, and was the reason that she missed her dentist appointment. Screw him. This death march hadn’t been on her agenda.

She sipped her water bottle, more to moisten her mouth than anything else. Out of the two liters that she brought, half of one was left. The stay in the cave healed her, but she didn’t feel all that rejuvenated. Her last brawl left her with a nice shiner on her right eye. After a text update to Vic, sent with the faint hope for catching a cell phone signal, she shoved aside her complaints. Didn’t she want him to stop babysitting her? This was her chance to show what she could do.

Time to be the strong independent female and save the day.

Quarter a mile from the hill, Red scrambled after her windblown hat. It tumbled like a taunting tumbleweed. The wide brim flittered out of her fingers. She groaned, “Come on!”

Her shoulders tensed like an ice cube fell down her shirt. She straightened. Unseen, the man in black watched her. She knew it in her gut. Was it a witchy sixth sense or a vestigial prey instinct? Turning in a circle, she felt his stare. It anchored her awareness in the creepy unnatural hush of the desert. Her heartbeat thundered in her ears.

Hand on her belt knife, she forged ahead. He kept pace with her. Was this a race or a mind game? She broke into a trot, checking behind her. Minutes expired as her anxiety grew. A dark blur emerged in the vegetation a football field to the northwest. Cold realization made her stop.

He was herding her.

Kino’s Butte acted like a sundial, casting a long shadow, announcing the day’s end on the summer solstice. A faint beacon glimmered at the top. Was the Professor signaling for help? Maybe it was Vic.

Red ran. She had to make it to him first.

The mystical power enveloped her before she reached the foot of the butte. Primal and wild, it surged like a sandstorm over her aura. She trekked through the sentinel saguaros as night fell. The gentle glow from the hilltop illuminated her way.

Orange light spewed from a stone archway. Even bound, the Professor sighed at the beauty. “Magnificent.” He teared up. “It’s the Doorway to the Gods…”

The archway held a blazing sunrise on the eastern horizon as if cut out of the night sky. It was like a glitch in the Matrix. Did she see another day or another world? Questions hounded her as she tugged off her backpack and knelt behind him. She carefully cut the knots restraining his arms behind his back with her knife. “Professor van Sant, I presume?”

He smiled wanly through cracked lips. A deep sunburn scorched his tall forehead. He needed a hospital hours ago. Only fascination with the vortex seemed to keep him upright. “I found it, dear girl, I found it.”

“Well, I found you and we need to go.” Red crouched by his bound ankles, shying from the geodes ringing the boulder he sat on. She leapt up at the crunch of dried grass behind her.

The man in black strode into the clearing, removing his helmet to reveal a bald head. Pale skin stretched over his gaunt cheeks like a mummifying corpse. His bloodshot eyes were a startling blue like radioactive turquoise. Fangs flashed in his victorious smile. Even for a vampire, he looked deader than most. “I still need him.”

The Professor’s voice came out like gravel, “My answer is the same, Fitzroy.”

Nearly blurring, the vampire slapped her blade into the dirt and grabbed her by the elbow. “Wait until you see my experiment.”

“Let me go!” She punched him, missing as he dodged. He yanked her into his arms, covered her mouth, and dragged her towards the glow of the Doorway. She gnawed at his glove, but it was like chewing on a dog toy. Even if she had a stake, how could she get it through his chest plate?

Van Sant demanded, “What are you’re doing, Fitzroy?”

“If you don’t tell me then I must find out myself, don’t I? We both know you want to see someone go through the door.” The vampire’s dry laugh ended in a cough. Third-degree burns swelled his neck where the hunters pierced his sun-sealed suit. Determination sharpened his gaze. “I promised to not hurt you. I never said anything about her.”

The old man begged, “Stop!”

“Tell me how it works!” Fitzroy insisted, “You know my story, my cause.”

Pity twinkled in the Professor’s eyes. “Because it wouldn’t give you what you want.”

Growling, the vampire strong armed Red to the door. “God damn you then.”

She dug in her heels, struggling against him. Her heart drummed on her ribs. How could she slay him? The ground vibrated, rattling her bones, sending a primordial fear up her spine. She wanted to flee like the jackrabbits.

The Professor shouted, “Fitzroy, look!”

Blue-eyed and pink cheeked, a blond boy stood by the arch. He wasn’t there a minute before. In suspenders and a straw hat, he could have been from a Mark Twain novel. He scrutinized the scene, skepticism in his pout.

“Can you hear me, s-son?” Fitzroy asked, releasing her to approach the apparition. Wonder battled fear on his paling face. “Did you come from the door?”

“No, he came from you,” the Professor’s said, sounding sad as if baring bad news.

Red backed away from the vampire. He didn’t look away from the child. Like the vision near the mine shaft, the kid looked real enough to touch.

Fitzroy asked, “You said that the past echoes here, stored in the earth like an archive, and you were right! Have I tapped into it? It’s the secret to directing the door, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know,” the Professor coughed then straightened his shoulders. “Step lightly. These are sacred mysteries. There isn’t a manual. Men have lost their sanity on this hill. Others vanished forever. I’m only certain that the doorway is not for us.”

“I awoke something. How do I use it? How do I go back to the past?”

“It’s not a real door or a window,” Red said flatly, nodding to the bright dawn within the arch. It should have been his first clue. “You’d be on fire with all this sunlight on you.” She continued as the vamp considered her words, disappointment edging into his expression. “This isn’t—. Oh, God, there’s another one.”

Fitzroy spun around. “How?”

A clone of the boy, this time bundled in a winter coat, appeared a foot from the first. This one stared adoringly at the vampire. The two were Identical down to the mole above their left eyes. A third in a dark Sunday suit appeared at her left elbow. Red jumped back, scalp prickling. The boy skipped to join the others.

“I remember that jacket. His mother made it…” The vampire shuffled to the apparitions as if compelled.

Forgotten by Fitzroy, she found her borrowed knife and side stepped to the elderly professor. She cut the restraints on his legs. Passing him a water bottle from her backpack, she whispered, “What are they?”

“His amplified memories. There are many anomalies in conjunction here, but my working theory involves the mineral composition amplifying…” The Professor’s parched voice gave out. He said between gulps, “No time to explain the research. Keep your thoughts firmly on the present. The body remembers.”

The warning sounded more like an invitation. She touched a geode at her feet. Last August, she woke up in a hospital from a vampire bite, her life erased from her mind. What about her body? The stone hummed, tingling her fingertips but no visions projected forth like the ghost of Christmas past.

“Why isn’t this working for me?” She asked, leaning back on her heels.

The Professor sighed. “Oh, dear lord, did you just try—”

Another figure materialized in the corner of her eye. Her heart shuddered when she turned. Specter or not, this one had nearly killed her. “Oh, fuck, that’s not what I wanted.”

In a plaid sweater vest, the Caucasian man looked like someone’s dad. She hadn’t noticed him in that Denver park until he asked her how much she charged per hour. When she flipped him off, the fangs came out. She froze long enough for him to take a drink. Vic rescued her that time. Now, she might as well be alone.

Red raised the knife. She was ready this time.

He blinked from existence.

“Good,” the Professor said. “Keep controlling those thoughts, that fear.”

Fitzroy pointed to new duplicate. He moaned, “Make this stop, Van Sant! Is this a cruel test?”

Blood trickled from his son’s neck. A woman held him against her wide skirts. His mother? Red couldn’t tell. The female apparition had no face. Only a blank whirl, sorrowful despite the lack of definition.

The vampire dropped his head in his hands. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“They aren’t really here.” Van Sant consoled him, “This hill is acting as a conduit to these powerful memories. Will them away.”

“That’s it.” Lifting his head, Fitzroy’s expression grew remote. He regarded the gentle morning revealed in the archway. A monsoon darkened the sky inside. He smiled.

Van Sant warned, “Whatever you’re thinking—don’t.”

“I’d like to test a theory.” The vampire tossed Red to the foot of the arch. Wincing from impact, she kicked his legs as he hoisted her up. He shoved her face towards the door. “Tell me what the weather’s like.”

The Professor chucked a geode at her attacker. “Leave her alone!”

Seizing the distraction, she clawed at the raw blisters on the fiend’s neck. She ducked under his arm, sprinting to her dropped knife. Her fingers touched the handle.

Fitzroy tugged her braid, jerking her back. He swung his hand up to slap her.

A gust whipped over the hill. Cacti groaned from the force. Sand stung their eyes. Shielding her face, she dropped to her knees to find the knife. She popped up, blade ready at Fitzroy’s throat. 

The dust cloud faded on her Mexican standoff with the vampire. Venom dripped from his fangs. His irises flashed demon yellow.

Red sweated, her feet anchored as an icy dread curdled her gut. She hated herself for trembling. His face morphed into another’s in her mind. Screaming, she didn’t hesitate this time. She launched herself at him, stabbing at his vulnerable throat.

Fitzroy fell back, elbowing her away. He crawled from her in the dirt. Blood dribbled onto sparkling geodes. Preternatural healing faded the shallow cuts on his face, but she’d taken a chunk from his neck.

Stumbling to her knees, she panted. Adrenaline kickstarted every nerve yet a dead calm filled her. She needed to take his head to keep him down.

Engines roared below the butte.

“It’s Victor,” The Professor called from the edge of the clearing, waving his arms over his head. Headlights beamed from the desert floor. Vehicles drove loudly up the base of the hill.

Red stood, relief turning her knees to jelly.

The vampire scooted weakly towards his helmet. He pressed his wound, eyes closed to slits. “I need to go to them. Don’t stop me.” He looked almost mortal now.

“I came for the Professor,” she said.

“Red!” Vic yelled, making her look as he parked.

Fitzroy snapped on his helmet and hobbled to the Doorway of the Gods. He crossed the threshold, vanishing completely. Sunshine flared in its depths like a supernova. When it faded, the archway was empty and dark leaving the Milky Way impossibly bright.

Sunrise tie-dyed the sky. Cross legged, Red sipped coffee on the hacienda porch. An old spotted dog dozed beside her, only looking up when she stopped patting him.

On the Professor’s insistence, she and Vic had spent two nights at his rural home. Yesterday they had slept more than anything else, drained from the sun. Today, it would be a long road north to the Constantine family cabin in Flagstaff.

The door creaked open, and the Professor poked his head out. “There you are. I wondered who made coffee.”

“I don’t know why I’m awake so early, but this seemed like a good spot.”

“It’s one of my favorites.” He settled stiffly into a wicker chair.

“How are you feeling?” Red asked, only glimpsing the older man briefly when he returned from the hospital last night. Diane had fussed until he was in bed.

“As if doctors have prodded me enough.” He chuckled. Lapsing in silence, he watched a hummingbird flit around a hanging porch feeder. A soft smile crinkled his eyes.

She tried to lose herself in serenity of the dawn, but a dark curiosity rumbled like a storm. “Where did he go?”

“Fitzroy? I hope he found peace.” He smiled at her surprise. “I’ve forgiven him. His past hurts him more than I could.”

“He killed his family, didn’t he?” She asked. It was common among young vampires who rarely knew what else to do besides return home.

Nodding, the Professor sighed. “He told me everything, trying to solicit my help. A witch cursed him with a guilt spell. Not quite a soul’s conscience but nevertheless that drive might sustain him to survive beyond the doorway.”

“So, you don’t think he went back in time like he wanted?”

“My research says no and yet….” He swept his gaze over the desert. “I will spend the rest of my life pondering that question.”

Vic drove the Millennium Falcon on a winding rural lane to the highway. He switched the radio on to a static filled classic rock station then turned it down. “You did good, Red.”

Roused from a cat nap, she smiled sleepily. “Because I kept Diane from cutting your hair?”

He caressed his black mullet as if reassuring it. “That too, but I mean the hunt. You went against a vampire with only a dehydrated old man and a knife. The Professor told me what you saw in the clearing. It sounds like you faced two.”

She straightened, biting her lip. “I didn’t want to say anything about that.”

“This is about the babysitting stuff, isn’t it?” He grimaced. “It’s not what you think. I didn’t bring you in on that La Mala Hora case because I couldn’t pay you. I promised you a cut of my bounties as my intern. You only get zero from zero and that ain’t enough to expect someone to risk their life.”

“I’m not in this for the money.”

Vic mumbled to the steering wheel, “I know but it helps, Red.”

“I’m here because the work matters.” She smiled, lightly punching his arm. “We always keep this ship in the sky. I trust my captain.”

“Good.” He chuckled and flipped up the volume on the now clear radio station. “Because we’re not going to Flagstaff. I just got a call about a new job.”

She slipped on her sunglasses, grinning at the open road. “Where to then?”

The RED WITCH CHRONICLES continues in Down & Out Witch.


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