The Blood Jaguar

an excerpt



Prologue

The package in her hands was death, sex, money, and blood from under an ancient sun. Miranda clutched it against her chest as she hurried through the predawn dark to the trailer park's only public mailbox. The air, thick with the suffocating heat and humidity of late July in Central Florida, caused her to sweat uncontrollably. Nothing new. She often swore that she hadn't stopped sweating since she'd first arrived in Florida, how many years ago now? Seventeen. Of course, seventeen, since Esther had been only a year old.

"No fucking snow, at least, huh, Mom?" That was what Esther always said, child of the sunlight, never having known winter.

Miranda let her blonde hair grow long because Cipriano liked it that way, but even in a ponytail the lank, damp weight of it sometimes made her want to scream. Where it rested against her back, she sweated. Where strands escaped and trailed across her forehead and cheeks, she sweated.

But enough, enough of that. Cipriano loved the heat. He breathed it in and it rode through his bloodstream like a fever, filling him with energy, life, and strength. The Jaguar.

Blessed Mother, a glorious jaguar. And I belong to him.

Thinking about Cipriano made her resolve start to melt away. Her grip twisted tight around the package. She looked at it, wrapped in brown paper and covered with every stamp she'd been able to find in the mobile home, half of them not sticking properly after sitting in her desk drawer for months in ninety percent humidity. But there was no way she could bring it to the Post Office and get it weighed, get it properly stamped, get delivery confirmation. No way. Cipriano wouldn't kill her if he found out, but his wife might. Not might. Would.

The path from her trailer up to the front of the mobile home park, paved with crushed shells, seemed to jab like a living thing up through the soles of her sandals. Even the ground attempted to hurt her, to keep her from going forward.

When she'd gotten to the trailer there had been no lights or sounds from inside. Stillness, except for mosquitoes buzzing sluggishly around standing water in the empty flowerpots. All around the trailer hung an overall smell of tin and mildew. She'd expected that, but in a little corner of her heart she'd nursed a faint hope that Esther might really be there. Though she'd used coming to look for her daughter as an excuse to get away for a few hours, hope died hard, and she'd been schooled in miracles since she'd been a kid herself.

Miranda came out from under the drooping canopy of palms and live oaks to where the mobile home park's office sat by the gate. No lights in there either, of course. Way too early. In this hour before the sunrise, the office would be empty. But the sight of the blue U.S. Mail box made her fingers twitch against the package again.

She looked at the handwritten address. Her fingers had been shaky, but she hadn't screwed it up. The numbers and letters could all be read. Sometimes the silencio santo, the holy blood silence that Cipriano and his wife had branded into her, worked that way-she would think she had written something clearly, and when she looked at it later the letters would be pure gibberish. Early on after the first of the blood-and-sex rituals had sealed her with the spell of silence, there had been times when she'd gotten crazy out of control and had tried to call the cops from pay phones, but she'd been shocked to find that every word came out garbled, as if she were speaking in tongues. The first time that had happened she'd dropped the phone and run right into the arms of Cipriano, who'd chastised her with gentle firmness. "Even if you lose faith, Mira, the holy silence can't be broken."

Well, he and his high and mighty goddess-consort might be just a bit surprised to find out how I got around that.

Turning the package over in her hands, Miranda pressed down the cheap tape sealing it and tried to make the peeling stamps stick better. At the mailbox she gathered her nerve and pulled open the slot. She set the package on it. All she had to do now would be unclench her fingers from the mailbox handle. Let go, let it drop in.

But why would she want to do that? What was wrong with her? Why would she want to give up one little bit of what she had now, what Cipriano gave to her, stirred in her, released in her?

With those thoughts came a flood of relief. The fit had passed. Nothing done yet that couldn't be undone. She'd give the package to him and sink to her knees to apologize. He'd forgive. He always forgave.

With her free hand she reached to touch the small silver cross on its chain around her throat. Cipriano had given it to her, knowing that she would treasure it. He would touch it sometimes, saying it moved him with the innocence it symbolized in her heart. A vampire with a soft spot for crosses. Jesus Christ Almighty.

Miranda would swear she never sent the command from her brain to her hand to let go of the mailbox handle instead of reaching in to take the package back. But she watched with a kind of fascinated horror as her fingers relaxed from around the handle and allowed the package to drop into the mailbox with a thud that sounded terribly final. Did she just do that? She opened and closed the slot several times to be sure, to make certain the package really had dropped in.

Yes, gone. She couldn't get it back now. Holy Mother, she needed to get away from the mailbox before he arrived and found her there.

She backed away, unsteady on her feet, then felt a surge of adrenaline or panic and ran all the way back to the trailer.

The screen door hinge gave its usual shriek when she pulled it open and went inside, but she still felt comforted to be back in the familiar surroundings. Florida Power hadn't shut off the trailer's electricity yet, though she'd seen the notices from them stuffed into the mailbox when she'd arrived earlier. Taking all the envelopes inside, she'd tossed them along with the other overdue bills onto the table of the kitchenette. She had to remember to pay those. If Esther did come back, Miranda didn't want the place to be shut down and lifeless.

In the back of the trailer were the two tiny, cramped bedrooms that mother and daughter had used for years now, while Miranda had eked out a living doing domestic work for beach hotels and waitressing at Gulf-side tiki bars and dives. She went back and looked into Esther's room, with its bed made up and untouched for long weeks. A twinge of nostalgia jabbed her as she remembered the teen rock star posters and pictures of wild horses clipped out of magazines that had once adorned her daughter's walls. Those had all come down over the year before Esther had disappeared-her baby done suddenly with girlish things. Strange to think how every day for years Miranda had prayed for change in their lives, wanting to end what had seemed like a terrible drought-no real man in her life, just occasional lovers, never enough money even for this one-step-up-from-trash lifestyle, Esther skating by at school on her natural intelligence, but constantly falling in with the wrong crowd-and now that the whole world had turned upside-down she felt nostalgic for the past. Stupid. Could there be anything more stupid than that?

Esther hadn't even replaced the posters and pictures with anything to show new and changing interests. The walls had been left empty.

"The word is nihilist, Mom." Miranda could hear her voice now, her darling intellectual daughter who thought her mother was dumb as a brick. "It means nothing has any meaning."

But that wasn't true either, was it? Love and sex had meaning, as much or more to a teenage girl than they did to her tired, but always-hopeful, mother. Yes, love and sex had taken their world and rocked it to the core.

Miranda left her daughter's room and went into her own. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she looked around and fought a wave of hopelessness, wishing with absurd fervor that this ridiculous place could somehow feel like home again. The little embroidered flowers on the edge of her bedspread, the photograph of her own mom and dad on the wall with an old crucifix and a votive candleholder that she'd taken from the Boston house after they'd died, bright holiday cards-some of them years old-tacked on a cheap corkboard. All of those things had been lonely companions, but they had still anchored her in a way. The trappings of home. Now they seemed like relics belonging to someone else.

Mine is the room that looks like a teenage girl's.

Lying back on the bed, she clutched one of the fluffy pillows and folded her arms across it, hugging herself.

Love and sex. They were always what got her in trouble. Esther too. Like mother, like daughter. That was true now on a scale like never before. Vampires-holy Christ, vampires who loved the sun and the warmth and blood for reasons that bore no resemblance to any Hollywood Dracula-now she needed someone to help her, to rescue her, to get her away from the bizarre, surreal thing her life had become. One of the holiday cards on her corkboard, from last Christmas, stood out from the rest with the hope that its sender might give her that help. Her old, dear friend Siobhan, who hadn't forgotten about her across all the years since Miranda and Esther had left Boston for this broiling subtropical purgatory. Siobhan would still care, would do something to help her. Siobhan was so smart, had done so much with her life since their days as girls together in Catholic school. A book expert, with rich and famous people coming to her for consultations. Not a Catholic anymore, which had strained things between them sometimes, but now that would be a good thing. Siobhan wouldn't condemn her out of hand, or call her damned.

But once again her vacillating emotions swung to the other extreme. Why should she regret what she had now? Love and sex, love and sex. Miranda had them like never before, even if they had taken a form she'd never imagined in her wildest fantasies. This bed wasn't sterile and quiet anymore. Any sensation was possible here. She should be rejoicing, celebrating the day Esther had found her dark-eyed, good-hearted Roberto…and that in turn had led to Roberto's father, Cipriano, coming to end Miranda's loneliness. Oh, God, what had she done, stealing from them, sending that package to Siobhan in Boston? She had to get up right now, go out and find a way to get it out of the mailbox, give it back to Cipriano before his wife, the unholy, bloody she-jaguar herself, found out.

Putting aside the pillow, Miranda sat up, but even as she did so the screen door gave its unmistakable creak.

Too late. Her heart pounding, she grabbed the pillow again and held it in her lap. Pitiful shield to her purity. She almost laughed, setting it aside. That purity was gone far beyond any protection or recovery. And she was glad. Why should she be afraid so often? The vampires didn't know everything. Even with their spells of silence they couldn't read minds. They had no clue about what she'd done. Though she shouldn't use that word for them. They hated to be called vampires. She should forget it, forget all about it, because that way there would only be this moment, with no thought or concern for tomorrow. Her lover was here and, despite it all, the pounding of her heart transformed into anticipation, even happiness.

The few times he had come to the trailer it always seemed too small to hold him. Not because of any extraordinary physical stature. He stood at medium height and had a slender build. It was because even as he stood there in a black t-shirt and blue jeans, he carried himself with a mixture of aristocratic grace and animal power. His dark skin had a reddish bronze tone, set off by straight, short, jet-black hair. The sharp, prominent Aztec nose. Black eyes too. Miranda, however much she gazed into their depths, had never been able to detect shades like the many areas of color in most eyes. Despite his claim of being almost twenty years her senior, he looked like a man in his thirties. That was because of the blood, of course.

He came into the tiny bedroom and looked at her with a mild smile, showing just the hint of his teeth. All of them had that smile down pat. Never so broad as to display those perfect, carefully filed incisors. Even when he gave her a broader grin in private, which he sometimes did after sex, the teeth weren't dramatic. Jesus, the movies were so full of it.

"Don Cipriano," she said.

"Mira." He nodded. "So she isn't here, I gather."

Miranda lowered her eyes.

"No," she said. "I always hope. Silly, I guess, when I get these intuitions that she might be home."

"Not silly at all." He shook his head. "I worry every day about Roberto and Esther. He was angry when he left us, I know. His mother pushes him too hard. I suppose children will never like the way their parents do things. So we are always destined to worry, eh? But I'm not making light of it. You know I am looking, too, Mira, with all the resources I have."

"I know you are."

Cipriano moved around the side of the bed, touching the same personal things in the room that she had just been looking at. Miranda had one of her paranoid flashes as his fingertips moved near her board with the old holiday cards, but she sighed with relief when he settled on the old photo of her parents. He looked at them pensively-her mom and dad not long after they'd been married, hugging one another and smiling.

Lingering by the crucifix and candleholder, he touched them with what seemed to her a gentle reverence. Cipriano showing his soft spot for holy things.

"When we find the kids," Miranda said, "I'm going to give Esther the cursing out of her life."

He laughed.

"I don't think I've ever heard you use a profanity," he said. "Nothing harsher than an occasional ‘Jesus'. When Roberto's mother swears in Spanish, I'm always amazed the air doesn't burst into flame."

"She's got some choice ones for me, I bet. Starting with puta, right? That means whore, doesn't it?"

He looked at her with what she would swear was genuine regret.

"I'm sorry she says and does cruel things. She has no right to. She knows the rights and responsibilities, as do you and I."

Miranda reached out her hand to him.

"I don't care," she said. "She'll do what she does, and I can't change that."

Pulling his hand toward her, she placed his palm against her breast.

"I'm afraid of her, I can't help that," she went on. "I'm afraid of you. I'm sorry if that hurts you. But you are my lord, Don Cipriano Rodriguez, Tepeyollotl, God of the Heart of the Mountain."

Miranda let go of his hand and stretched out her arms to him, like a child asking for a hug. With a little sadness still in his dark eyes, Cipriano crouched by the bed and embraced her. The surge of passion that always blotted out her roller coaster of thoughts overwhelmed her. Miranda gratefully surrendered to it. She kissed his forehead, his cheeks and eyelids, finally seeking for his lips.

Cipriano also gave himself over to desire. For the first moments, as Miranda showered him with delirious caresses, he remained passive. The God of the Heart of the Mountain indeed, his mind still working to order the shadowy troubles of their lives. But the heat of Miranda's hunger for him drove the shadows into hiding, at least for a little while. His muscles unclenched. She felt him becoming hard and fluid all at once. That splendid transformation into his other, animal-god aspect, the jaguar.

Pulling off his black t-shirt, she transferred her feverish kisses to his body. The smooth dark skin, so seemingly unmarked by time, with a warm sheen of sweat like that sheathing her own body. Feeling that she couldn't tolerate being in her clothing for another second, she pulled away her damp tank top, kicked off her sandals and wriggled out of her cut-off shorts and panties. So much easier here in the South than it had been up north when she'd first started to give in to her aching desires, fumbling through layers of clothes with scared and awkward boys at Catholic school. She'd loved one after another until she'd become pregnant with Esther, and those pious priests and nuns who lectured constantly about understanding and forbearance had expelled her. Here in the South only the thinnest layers of clothing and propriety masked their animal selves. Miranda pulled the rubber band from her ponytail, no longer irritated with her waist-length hair-her mane, which spread rippling over her shoulders and back.

She touched the small scars on her left breast, feeling them throbbing already with anticipation of the moment soon to come when Cipriano would place his mouth there to take her, to take her blood, to renew his primal strength and to simultaneously pour that strength into her.

"Lord Tepeyollotl, stalker of the sun." She breathed out the ritual words he'd taught her, eclipsing for now her usual pleas to Mary and Jesus and the Father. "Warrior of the secret fire, take me. Oh, God, take me."

Cipriano stood to slip out of his jeans, till he loomed at the end of the bed, once again making the pitiful trailer bedroom seem like a cramped tin box. His erection stood out hard and straight. Miranda moistened her lips, her whole body consumed with wanting him.

Still sitting at the end of the bed, she took him into her mouth, using her tongue on the underside of his cock while letting the shaft slide far toward the back of her throat. She put her hands around him, holding his ass, so he stayed fully in her mouth while she cupped her tongue and let it pulse against his skin. Her eyes open, Miranda angled her gaze upward to see his face-she wanted to see the marvelous instant when his transformation became complete, his mouth opening widely at last to show the feral beauty of his sharp teeth. When it came, when he stood above her complete in his incarnation as the jaguar-god, she gave a small cry in her throat. He reached and took her hair in his hands, slowly pulling her mouth from his cock. Her open lips lingered there, almost touching it, her warm breath still continuing the caress. With his fingers tangling themselves even more in her heavy crown of hair, she curled her tongue out, touching its tip to the head of his cock, then circling it in a sinuous catlike motion of her own.

She remembered the first time she had learned what Cipriano and his people did. How they freed everything primal in themselves in the act of sex. It was the same thing she had always done herself in her own crude way, the power of the body sweeping away all of her inhibitions and fears and doubts, letting her ride for a while in the unthinking glory of physicality. In those early days with boys at school she'd been far too timid to envision her own transformation into anything like a sensual animal. But here with Cipriano that identity came with natural ease. Yes, she was still a little afraid, anticipating when her blood would enter him and she would bask in his resulting heat, fiercer than any sun could be. Afraid, and desiring it more than anything.

His strong arms guided her backward until she was lying prone on the bed, her legs still dangling from its end. Cipriano caressed her breasts, touching and kneading the hard points of her nipples, then he bent to kiss her stomach and to glide his fingers smoothly along the inside of her thighs. Miranda moaned and gasped as one of those fingers moved upward to touch the lips of her vagina. She arched herself toward him, raising one leg to rest across his back as he crouched there. Such deftness in his hands, coaxing her to open more and more, until finally he slid one finger into the warm, damp opening. Miranda cried out, and her first climax shimmered through her.

Cipriano waited until the trembling of her muscles eased. Getting her breath back, she reached out her arms to him again. He arched himself over her-with one hand she twined her fingers into his hair, pulling his head down and offering her mouth to his. With the other she guided his cock into her.

His body felt so young. His skin smooth, his muscles so well-defined. Yet his son and her daughter were the same age, and he had become a father much later. Esther had been born when Miranda had been seventeen. Now, in her mid-thirties, she felt her own youth blossoming again through the touch of this lover, through the strange, ancient magic that he lived by. She wrapped her legs around him, willing him to plunge to the deepest places of her body.

As her second climax began to flower, Cipriano lowered his head from hers, kissing her breasts, running his tongue along her areolas and the peaks of her nipples. Miranda gasped, knowing that the time had come. Even after so many times, she still tensed as his teeth sought out the place of the small scars on her left breast, above her heart. But the sting as he used his sharpened incisors to reopen those wounds of passion actually felt exquisite, and vaulted her right into a flaming second orgasm. So much sensation poured through her that her mind couldn't process or separate it. Her blood flowed into his mouth. She could feel the effect it had on him, like liquid lightning coursing into his nerves and muscles. As she convulsed in the grip of her climax, he came, too, and they were crying out and gasping together.

It wasn't a taking-a sharing, rather. Miranda felt the incredible life-energy of her lover entering her right along with his cock and his teeth. A brilliant sun came to life in her body, replacing the agonizing sweetness of the orgasm with a glow that spread through her, filling her. She wanted him to stay rooted in her this way forever.

The time did pass with a lingering slowness. He gently smoothed the hair away from her face, and when he raised his head from her breast it was to look at her with the most heartfelt affection. He licked the inside of his mouth, taking the last of the blood from his teeth. Then he laid his head on her breast, where the new wounds had already ceased to bleed.

Miranda let herself drift into feelings of happiness and satiation. Why was she ever afraid? Why did she let herself get so wrought up in doubts about this being the greatest gift that had ever come into her life?

Her thoughts were all blurred. Hadn't she done something today, something desperate and foolish? She should tell him about it, beg his forgiveness, send him out to make it all right again. But she couldn't even quite remember what she'd done. She ran her fingers through his hair, looking at the dawn light on his face as it came in through the small window of the trailer bedroom. Light on a face filled with both power and peace.

Nothing she had done could have any effect on that strength. She closed her own eyes, feeling the heat of the day grow as the sunlight spread across her own body.