NOTE: This is part of the new novel I am writing. I am posting it here as a diversion for readers who may be living under shelter-in-place policies while the world waits for the coronavirus pandemic to pass. For an explanation of this project, please click here. To read the chapters I’ve posted in order, click here.

Holly’s House ~ Coldwater, N.M.

Sierra took in the scene in Holly’s bathroom. The humidity had dissipated by the time she and Colleen arrived, but everything else supported Colleen’s theory that she’d missed the principal by just minutes. 

“Don’t touch anything,” Sierra said. “I doubt this is anything the police can help us with, but just in case it is, we need to treat this like a crime scene.”

Colleen nodded. “I don’t think I handled anything other than doorknobs. Well, that and the switch on the coffeemaker. I didn’t think it was a good idea to leave that on and risk starting a fire.”

Sierra’s eyes swept over the counter. Holly didn’t wear a lot of makeup, but an open jar of what Sierra recognized as an expensive brand of mascara was lying on the counter next to a tube of lip gloss. Other odds and ends were scattered across the counter — a wide-toothed comb, a pump bottle of argan oil, an elastic — and a drawer below the counter was ajar. Sierra didn’t pull it out, but the contents she could see suggested that Holly had left in a hurry, a suspicion corroborated by the wet towel lying in a heap on the shag throw rug in front of the sink. 

“Does she usually leave stuff out like this?” Sierra asked.

“No. Holly hates clutter, especially in the bathroom. She’s kind of a control freak. The idea of an unexpected guest walking in and finding her personal things scattered all over the place really bothers her.”

“I feel her pain,” Sierra said. “She definitely wouldn’t have left the lid off that mascara. That’s like throwing 30 bucks in the trash.”

“Somebody grabbed her here, then?”

“I think so.” Sierra sniffed. “Does it smell weird in here to you?”

Colleen inhaled. “Yeah, now that you mention it. I didn’t notice it earlier, but there’s something sort of … stagnant, I guess. Like algae or seaweed or something.”

“Exactly like that. Grant and I stopped in San Simeon one year when we were driving the Pacific Coast Highway for vacation. A bunch of seaweed had washed up on the beach, and it smelled exactly like this.” Sierra thought for a moment. “That pretty well cements it, then: The time I saw the shapeshifter, it looked like the horse’s head version of the La Llorona story, but it had bits of something slimy stuck in its mane, and it smelled like pond water.”

“So what do we do now?”

Sierra wasn’t sure, but before she could formulate an answer that sounded more reassuring than “Hell if I know,” something banged against the window. She and Colleen both jumped. A black shape was flailing against the pane.

“Lenore!” Sierra hurried to open the window, and the bird flew in, squawking and beating her wings as she settled onto the counter. Sierra wished she could understand what the agitated corvid was trying to tell her.

“What is it, girl? I don’t understand you,” Sierra said. As the words came out of her mouth, she winced. She sounded like something out of a bad Lassie movie.

The bird continued to flap and croak for a few seconds before fluttering down from the counter and walking out of the bathroom. Just like Lassie, except the collie can fly, Sierra thought. She followed Lenore out of the room. The raven walked ahead of her with resolute steps, leading her toward the door.

“All right,” Sierra said. “I guess what we do next is follow my daughter’s bird.”

Lenore led them to Sierra’s truck. The two women got in. Lenore perched on the driver’s-side mirror, waiting for Sierra to start the engine. Flying just ahead of the truck, the raven led Sierra and Colleen to Morgan’s apiary at the base of the mesa. They got out and followed Lenore several hundred yards up the trail. As they rounded a bend, they heard a loud splashing sound, and the raven alighted on a tamarisk. The splashing was coming from behind the bush. Sierra climbed over what appeared to be a natural wall made of fallen rock, Colleen at her heels. 

Behind the wall was a pool of water about the size of Sierra’s lobby. Sierra couldn’t tell how deep it was, but it was churning violently. Oblivious to the turbulence, Holly lay on what appeared to be an inflatable pool lounger floating on the surface of the water.

“Oh, my God. Holly!” Colleen pushed past Sierra and raced toward the water’s edge. She reached out to pull the pool lounger in, but her hand went through it. “Holly!” 

Sierra recognized the substance between Holly’s body and the water. 

“That’s Morgan’s fog, but where is Morgan?” Sierra asked, stretching to grab Holly’s foot and pull her toward the water’s edge. She and Colleen maneuvered the principal around until they could lift her off of her ethereal flotation device. Sierra was only vaguely aware of the fog dissipating as they laid Holly on the ground. 

Colleen put her ear to Holly’s chest. “She’s still alive,” she said. “She’s just been knocked out.”

A huge tentacle rose from the water, flinging cold water over the three of them. Sierra gasped, recoiling against the temperature. More tentacles followed. Without taking her eyes off the water, Sierra helped Colleen move Holly away from the pond. “We’d better wrap her up,” Colleen said. 

Sierra nodded. “Take my coat,” she said, pulling it off and handing it to Colleen. 

 The tentacles vanished, but the splashing continued for several minutes until a cormorant broke the surface of the water, followed by the kelpie thing Sierra had seen next to the shed a few weeks earlier. Colleen gasped. “What the hell is that?”

“That,” Sierra said, “is the asshole that murdered my husband.” She reached under her hoodie and pulled out a pistol. 

“Where did that come from?”

“Miss Shirley. She kept it behind the counter. She left it for me in case I ever needed it. I thought we might need it today.” Sierra trained the pistol on the kelpie as the cormorant transformed into an enormous gray wolf and lunged for the kelpie’s throat. The kelpie changed its form as the wolf’s fangs sank into its neck, and Sierra cried out as she realized it was taking the shape of a great cougar. She couldn’t shoot. Not now. The two predators were moving so fast, she was liable to miss the monster and hit Morgan. 

The wolf’s jaws closed, and as it pulled back, the cougar let out an enraged shriek and slashed at the wolf with its massive claws. Blood sprayed from the cougar’s throat, and both predators collapsed on the ground, shifting back to their original forms as they passed out.

The only sound on the mesa was Sierra’s desperate scream as she ran to her daughter’s side.

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