The New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology.
Physicist Jane Heckman watched a National Guardsman steer a battle-scarred tank into a cave at the base of Socorro Peak. Heckman's gaze drifted to the mountain's summit where a giant letter "M" was whitewashed on the rocks. The "M" stood for "Mines", as in New Mexico School of Mines. The school had changed its name in the 1950s to New Mexico Tech. Dr. Heckman worked for a division of the school called the Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center which tested ballistics and explosives.
The sun descended behind the mountain. Jane sighed, unhappy that she missed her afternoon target practice session with her crossbow.
The National Guardsman clambered out of the tank and made for a nearby bunker. Jane retrieved a small marble-like plastic nodule from a box in her jacket pocket and carried it over to the tank. She placed it into a depression in the tank's armor, then ran for the bunker as an alarm klaxon sounded.
Two graduate students, Sheila Renault and Lonnie Becket, huddled by a computer in the bunker. On the screen, a window showed the tank in the cave while another window showed a countdown. The countdown reached zero and nothing seemed to happen. Jane, Sheila, and Lonnie leaned in close to the computer monitor. Five seconds later, a flash of light washed over the tank and an explosion rocked the bunker. Sheila and Lonnie fell against the backs of their chairs, whooped and did high fives.
"The nanites worked," whispered Jane in triumph.
* * *
The explosion rocked the cave. Deep in the mountain, in a passageway almost too small for a human to crawl through, a vampire stirred. The vampire blinked dust-covered eyes then coughed as he inhaled swirling grit and dirt. Crawling from his resting place, the vampire spared a moment to wonder how long he had been waiting for humans, for prey, to return to El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora del Socorro. The vampire did not know what had stirred him awake. He only knew he needed blood and he sensed life near the cave's entrance.
* * *
The all-clear signal sounded at the bunker. Jane sent her students out to photograph and examine the tank's remains and surrounding cave while she studied remote sensor data in the bunker. "Be careful," she called on her walkie-talkie. "The entrance didn't cave in, but there may be loose rock around there. If it looks too dangerous, come back and get me. Also, don't get too close to the tank. The nanites should be deactivated, but I don't want anything we missed to crawl on you."
"Will do, chief. We know the protocol," said Sheila's cheerful voice.
Jane sighed and clucked her tongue. She wanted to be with the students. "You're their teacher, not their mother. They won't learn anything if they don't explore on their own," she said to herself.
"Chief." Sheila's call interrupted Jane's thoughts.
Jane fingered the walkie-talkie a little too quickly. "Go ahead."
"We're at the cave entrance. Looks like the tank's pretty well totaled. The cave looks solid."
"Good. Nice contained explosion just like we wanted." Jane continued to stare at a data display, not realizing she still held the transmit button. Sudden movement in the video screen drew her attention. She didn't see anything. Maybe one of the students scrambled over a rock. At last, she realized she still held the transmit button and released it. After watching the video monitor for a couple of minutes, neither Sheila nor Lonnie appeared again. She wondered if they had entered the cave and the rock obstructed the radio signal.
Jane thumbed the transmit button. "Sheila, come in."
She waited a moment. "Lonnie, are you there?"
When she didn't get a response, Jane left the bunker and trudged through reddish sand to the cave entrance.
There was a gaping hole in the front of the tank and the cannon had dissolved. Jane nodded, satisfied, then turned on the flashlight. Something bright red glinted in the flashlight's beam. Jane took two steps forward and stopped cold. Sheila Renault's body lay on the ground at an impossible angle, her blouse torn, and blood oozing from two puncture wounds on her neck. Aiming the light further down the cave, she spotted Lonnie Becket lying on the tank tread, a gaping hole in his throat.
Jane Heckman backed out of the cave. Once she cleared the entrance, she fell to her knees and vomited.
Hands trembling, she reached for the walkie-talkie and called security. Within minutes, a jeep pulled up and two burly men in tan uniforms jumped out. They turned on their flashlights and the physicist led them to the bodies. One of the guards gasped. "Vampiro?" he asked.
"No. It's an animal attack." The second, older guard shook his head. "Let's get the doc back to the bunker and call 911."
The younger guard tried to protest, but the older one shushed him. They led Jane back to the bunker and the older guard made a phone call. Jane's skin tingled and her heartbeat raced. She barely heard what the guard said on the phone call. She forced herself to steady her breathing, then looked at the younger guard's name tag. "Torres."
"Mr. Torres, what did you mean 'vampiro?' Did you mean the bats? We don't have vampire bats in North America…"
Torres shook his head. "There are stories about a creature buried under the mountain called Pedro de Diablo." The guard crossed himself. "Back when the Tech first opened, they say it attacked some mining students out here under M-Mountain, but it hasn't ever been seen again."
The older guard, whose name tag read "Apodaca" hung up. "EMS and the cops will be here shortly."
Jane closed her eyes and tried to compose herself. At last, she looked up at Apodaca. His craggy face and graying hair gave her the impression of a man who had seen almost everything. "What do you think attacked the kids … Sheila and Lonnie?"
The older guard pursed his lips and shook his head. "I'm guessing there must be a mountain lion around."
Jane narrowed her gaze. "But those puncture marks on Sheila's neck…"
Torres opened his mouth to say something, but Apodaca held up his hand to silence him, then tucked his thumbs in his belt. "Some people see chupacabra, La Llorona, or other phantoms whenever they see something strange. I'm guessing the cat, or whatever it was, got startled by the two kids. It disabled one, made a more thorough job of the other, then fled."
"Wouldn't a big cat stay … to feed…" Jane's hands began to tremble despite her attempts at control.
"Not if it were startled." Apodaca shook his head. "It may come back later, to look and see if they're still there. Of course, EMS will take them away."
Jane fell silent. She began to replay her actions. She regretted sending Sheila and Lonnie out on their own. Then again, they were trained and Sheila had assisted on dozens of previous tests. They both knew what to do. If Jane had gone with them, she likely would have ended up just as dead as them. She remembered holding the button on the walkie-talkie mike. Had she missed a call for help? Her chest tightened.
Soon, the police and emergency medical services arrived. The police examined the scene and spoke with Jane. The interview took much less time than she had expected. To them, the events seemed clear. She watched as the EMS crew loaded Sheila and Lonnie's bodies into the back of an ambulance. "I'm sorry you didn't live to see your doctorates," she whispered, then turned away.
When she returned to the bunker to retrieve her things, she found the younger guard, Torres. She knew Apodaca must be right. Lonnie and Sheila had been killed by a mountain lion or something like it, but something about Torres's first impression nagged at her. "Mr. Torres … these vampire legends. Who could tell me more?"
"Talk to father Juan at San Miguel. He's the parish historian. He knows all the old stories." Torres licked his lips and looked around, then leaned in. "He knows the truth behind all the old stories."
* * *
The next day, Jane Heckman unlocked her office door in the physics building at New Mexico Tech. She checked her e-mail, then rifled through some papers without actually looking at them. A light tapping at the door startled her. Her boss, a stout man who seemed to live in the same brown sweater day-in and day-out, named Richard Condon, stood framed in the doorway holding two Styrofoam cups of coffee.
"How ya' doin'?" asked Condon.
Jane shook her head. "Not well. You heard about Lonnie and Sheila?"
Condon nodded as he handed Jane one of the cups.
She avoided her boss's gaze and concentrated on sipping the coffee. After a moment, she set the coffee on the table, but continued holding the cup to keep her hand from trembling. "Have you heard any news this morning? Are the police any closer to finding the animal that killed the kids?"
"The police have shut down the labs and animal control is scouring the area, but they don't expect to find anything." Condon sipped his coffee. "I imagine they'll let us reopen the site later today or tomorrow. We're doing our best to keep them away from the tank. I know when you're feeling better, you'll still want to study the effects of the nanites. Homeland Security will want to know whether or not those little bugs can be an effective deterrent against terrorists."
Jane released a shuddering breath and a tear fell. "I don't know when I can go back up there…"
Condon cleared his throat and looked as though he wanted to be somewhere else. Jane guessed her grief made him uncomfortable. "Listen, why don't you take a few days off and clear your head. The site will be there when you're ready to go back."
She nodded and closed her eyes.
"If there's nothing else…" Condon looked into his coffee cup, and started to stand.
"There is one thing," said Jane. She took a deep breath. "One of the security guards said something about an old legend. He told me there was some old vampire who lived in the mountain called Pedro de Diablo and it once attacked some mining students."
Condon snorted a derisive laugh. "If you look back at the college's history, it was open for a year or so, then closed suddenly. It didn't reopen again for another couple of years. It was all frontier politics, but you know how stories get started."
"So there really is a story?" Jane blew her nose and wiped away the tears, now more interested.
Condon shrugged. "Sure, there are stories, but what do you believe more? A vampire attack closed down the school or the school had serious budget problems?"
She laughed with Condon. "All right. Let me finish up some emails and then I'll take you up on your offer and take some days off."
"Sounds like a plan." Condon stood. "Don't go far, though. It's always possible the police may have more questions."
Jane nodded and watched him retreat. She glanced through her email and considered what Condon said. A mining school closed down for budget problems in a territory where mining was a major industry. Something about that didn't sit right. She began to think there must be more to the story.
After she finished in the office, Jane Heckman drove to the old San Miguel Mission at the heart of Socorro. Founded in 1615, it was one of the oldest churches in the United States. Franciscan missionaries had come to bring Christianity to the people of Pilabó Pueblo. Jane Heckman's rational brain knew an animal had attacked her students, but the old legend of a vampire captivated her. It distracted her from the guilt and feelings of helplessness she couldn't shake.
What's more, the fang marks in Sheila's neck haunted the physicist. She'd never seen the aftermath of a mountain lion attack, but somehow didn't expect something so neat. Where were the claw marks on Sheila's body? Shouldn't there have been more signs of a struggle?
Father Juan had an office at the San Miguel school, next to the mission. Jane knocked on the door.
"Please come in," beckoned a raspy voice.
She entered the small, simple office. An elderly man in black vestments stood and held out a hand, gesturing for Jane to take a seat. In spite of his age, Father Juan had a commanding presence.
"What may I do for you?" asked Father Juan.
"I've come to ask what you know about the early history of Socorro." She released a self-conscious laugh. "This may sound silly, but I was wondering if there were any vampire legends."
The old priest crossed himself. "Vampires in the early history." The grim-faced priest stood and retrieved a book with yellowed pages. He opened it to a drawing of a man in Spanish colonial armor, holding the characteristic helmet of a conquistador at his side. "The early fathers of San Miguel called him 'Pedro de Diablo.' The Devil's Peter."
Jane blinked back surprise. She expected the priest to share a few old folk tales and then send her on her way. She didn't expect an actual history lesson. "Why did they call him that?"
"Peter was the foundation of the church. The early fathers had come to bring the word of God to the Piro Indians who lived at Pilabó. Pedro de Diablo brought the word of Satan."
Jane reached out and took the book. "Did this Pedro de Diablo come with the missionaries?"
"No. The missionaries found him here. They thought he came with the Juan de Oñate Expedition in 1598."
"I thought La Llorona was the local bogeyman," mused Jane.
Father Juan arched an eyebrow. "La Llorona is a folk tale. By all accounts, Pedro de Diablo really existed."
Jane narrowed her gaze. "What happened to this Pedro de Diablo?"
Father Juan gently retrieved the book from Jane and shook his head. "No one knows. The missionaries left during the Pueblo Revolt in 1680. They didn't return to Socorro until 1815. There's been no word of Pedro de Diablo since the 17th century."
"I've heard about an attack the 1880s, soon after the New Mexico School of Mines opened…"
The priest nodded. "I've heard those stories as well, but Pedro was a well spoken, articulate man. I think he was a real man and no vampire. The stories from the 1880s speak of a mindless horror. I give them little credence."
Jane considered that. "Yet, if this Pedro came in 1598 and still lived in 1680, he would have been over a century old."
The old priest shook his head. "Perhaps his life span was exaggerated. He stood. Even hunched over, he looked intimidating. "Why do you have such an interest in this old story?"
"I'm a physicist up at the Explosives Center at Tech. Two of my students were killed last night by something. The police think it was an animal…"
"And part of you wonders whether it could have been a man or even Pedro." He shelved the book, then returned to his chair. "Do you feel responsible for the loss of your students?"
Jane's throat constricted and she fought to hold back tears. "I know I shouldn't, but I do."
"It's only natural." The priest's stern features softened. "If you would like to talk about it, I'm happy to listen."
Jane sighed. She'd grown up in a protestant household, but drifted away from church in her college years. Still it might be nice to have someone to talk to once she gave herself some space. "Right now, I just need a little time."
"I'm here if you need anything," said Father Juan. "May God keep you safe."
Jane returned home, made dinner, then retrieved her crossbow from its cabinet. Outside, she pulled back the bolt, leveled the weapon, and took aim at a target. The bolt flew through the air and struck the bull's eye. She armed the crossbow again, and squeezed the trigger. Tension began to ease from her shoulders and neck. Guilt seemed a million miles away. She longed for strong fingers to massage her neck, but crossbow practice was almost as good.
Ever since she was a child, Jane had loved archery and guns. Her father used to take her skeet shooting. While a teenager, this interest in weapons grew into an interest in the science of ballistics and explosives. She began to study physics so she could learn how guns, bows, and crossbows operated.
Sheila Renault's interest in physics had come from an interest in space. Sheila wanted to learn about explosives so she could understand exploding stars. Lonnie Becket had been a new student and Jane regretted not getting to know him better before he died. They weren't her biological children, but that didn't matter. They had been her responsibility.
Jane loaded another bolt into the crossbow. Her rational mind told her the students must have been killed by an animal, but she began to wonder if a vampire could exist. The priest's story and the guard's belief played on her subconscious. If such a thing did exist, perhaps she could not only destroy it, but record its existence. She doubted a real vampire would fall to ash like they did on some of those TV shows. She leveled the crossbow again and fired.
Note: This text is from the 2020 edition which differs from the opening of the 2008 edition.
Follow Jane into the world of the Scarlet Order Vampires!
David Lee Summers © 2013