Maria Meztli’s POV
Sinaloa State, Mexico
“Maria, can you do something with Maritza? She won’t stop crying, and it’s keeping the others from sleeping.”
“Sure, Aunt Celia.” I walked over and took the six-month-old baby from her. I rocked the crying baby in my left arm while pulling the sling over my neck with my right arm. I could smell her diaper didn’t need changing. “Is she hungry?”
“She just had a bottle ten minutes ago.”
“I’ll take her for a walk.” I put the crying girl to my left shoulder and started to rock her side to side.
“Stay away from the courtyard. The men are doing business and don’t need to hear a crying baby either.”
“We’ll walk the fence,” I replied as I walked out the door. The Sons of Tezcatlipoca meeting site was at President Tupoc’s home in the hills outside El Pozo. The estate was surrounded by high walls, beyond which were fences, steep hills, and jungle. It had taken them an hour to travel along the rough trails to get here. I reached the outside door, where a human member stood guard with an AK-47. “I’m trying to calm her down,” I told him.
“Stay where I can see you,” he said.
I nodded, moving on as I felt his eyes looking me over. He had no chance with me, though he didn’t know it. My family would never pair me off with a human. I was seventeen years old, soon to be of mating age, and my father was dead. Denver Chapter President Pedro Meztli left home two weeks ago, heading to a meeting with the other Chapter Presidents of the Sons of Tezcatlipoca Motorcycle Club. A few days later, my father’s severed head was hanging from the border fence with the United States, and the FBI and DEA were arresting every member they could find.
My mother didn’t stick around. She cleaned out his bank accounts and his secret safe and grabbed the fake passports and documents he’d prepared for us in case we had to run. I packed almost everything I owned into two suitcases, leaving behind my phone, computer, and anything that could identify us. The registration on the Ford Explorer we drove was in her new name, and the fire she set burned everything we left behind. Four hours after we knew Dad was dead, we were miles away from our life in Denver. In cities across the country, other Jaguar mates and families did the same thing. We would seek shelter with our kin in Mexico.
We had listened to news radio the entire way down. The raids on the Sons of Tezcatlipoca clubhouses across the country had wall-to-wall coverage, and the body counts were high. I was a Club Princess, I’d visited many of these Clubs with my father, and the Presidents and senior leadership were all related. We were Jaguar Shifters, tracing our lineage to the time of the Aztecs.
The Goddess Tezcatlipoca gave our ancestors our dual natures, the cat that coexisted in our bodies with our human side. Jaguar shifters can shift from birth, walking on four legs within weeks. I can shift instantly between forms when I want. My cat has been my constant mental companion, and we look out for each other.
Werejaguars are superior to humans in every way. My nature gives me superior strength, balance, and grace in human form. My eyesight is sharp, and I can see in the darkness that would leave a human helpless. If I got hurt, I could heal much faster than humans; broken bones mended in two days, not six weeks. I learned to hold back most of my strength to keep from hurting my human sparring partners. It was no wonder that Werejaguars controlled the motorcycle gang; no human could stand up to us in a fight.
Compared to the werewolf pack in the Denver area, our group was smaller and more dangerous. Jaguars are stronger, quicker, have razor-sharp claws, and better reflexes. We are at home in trees and water. The werewolves had the advantages in numbers, speed, and endurance. One on one, we would win, but the wolves rarely fought alone. We stayed out of each other’s way.
I thought about our family’s future as I walked along, singing to Maritza until she fell asleep. When I was sure she was down, I moved her to the sling and started walking back. “Maria, come to the courtyard now,” my mother sent.
“I’ll drop Maritza off at the nursery first. She just fell asleep.”
“No, come straight here.” Whatever it was must be important, so I walked past the cars parked under the trees directly to the gate leading to the courtyard. Inside, the remaining leaders of the Sons of Tezcatlipoca sat around a long table filled with food. There were only nineteen Jaguar leaders left to gather together.
“Mama?” She was standing near my uncle at the head of the table as the others watched.
“Ah, Maria,” Carlos said. “Your mother is joining my household; I will treat her as a second wife, and with Tezcatlipoca’s blessing, I will give her a male child to carry on your father’s line.” I looked at Mom, who was still grieving her mate’s death. Her face showed only her resignation to her fate.
“Am I joining your home as well?”
“No. You will go to Nogales with Hector. At first, you will be his nanny and help take care of Maritza for them. When you come of age, he will mate you, and you will become his second wife.”
As a second wife? My eyes got wide; I would have no legal rights, and his wife would rule me too. I was merely a breeder and side lover for the Nogales Chapter President. “I will not find a mate of my own?”
“We don’t have enough males left for the women, and our numbers are dwindling in this war. For our kind to survive, we must all make sacrifices. Each man at this table is taking in widows and children of those who have fallen. It will take generations to rebuild our numbers, but we must do it.”
“The Cartel does not hesitate to take out families, Maria,” Hector said. “We cannot leave you without protection.” I nodded; like many things in my life, I had no choice in this. He handed me a key. “Move your belongings to my car, and settle Maritza in the car seat. We leave shortly.”
“Yes, sir.” There was no fighting it, and I could see why they were doing this. The Sons were under pressure from all sides; with the US chapters decimated, the Cartels who killed my father were cleaning up on this side of the border. It was not safe to be without protection, and the only males who could do that were at the table.
I walked back out of the courtyard to the car we’d driven here to find safety. I first went to the passenger door, retrieving my small purse that held my new identification papers and emergency cash. I looped that over my left shoulder, then hit the button to open the hatchback. I took the two bags out and walked past the other cars until I found Hector’s Infinity Q45. Using the remote, I opened the back of his car and placed my bags next to theirs. Closing the rear door, I opened the side door to get the car seat ready.
I was moving the straps aside when there was a bright light, followed by an explosion. I turned away, bending down to protect the baby, when a second explosion came, this one even closer. The blast knocked me to the ground, and I curled up around Maritza as things started falling around us. Small rocks and other objects rained down on me as I covered my face with one arm and the baby with another. When it stopped, my ears were ringing, and I could barely see through the dust and smoke. “Mama,” I sent. The bond to her was gone, and I knew she was dead.
I felt movement as Maritza shifted into her young Jaguar form. Frightened out of her little mind, she ran away from me. I pushed myself to my hands and knees as I watched her disappear through the gate, heading for the safety of the jungle. I would retrieve her later; the little cat would not go far.
I stood up and turned to look at the home, finding only smoking ruins. The second floor had collapsed, and I could smell the blood in the courtyard.
I stumbled towards the ruins, listening to the screams of the survivors. When I got to the courtyard, I wished I hadn’t. There was a crater in the center from the explosion. There was nothing recognizable from what was left, not even the people who had surrounded it. Beyond that, there was a second explosion in the home.
Moving carefully around the rubble, I found my guard. The wall had collapsed, crushing his legs and hip. He begged for help, but there was nothing I could do for him except end his suffering. I shot him in the head, and the compound got eerily quiet. I had to see if any other Jaguars survived. I found nothing but crushed and dismembered bodies.
A few minutes later, my ears picked up the sounds of diesel engines approaching. I caught a glance through the trees of military vehicles coming our way.
I had to leave now.
I ran out of the compound, following Maritza’s scent leading into the jungle. When I was far enough into the trees to remain hidden from the approaching troops, I stopped and pulled my shoes and dress off, placing them in the sling with my purse. Calling forth my cat, I shifted into my jaguar form. I only took a minute to find Maritza hiding in a tree. I called her down, and she crawled into the sling as I lay there waiting.
I moved off silently through the jungle, the sling carrying the only other survivor of the attack with me. I headed west as I tried to figure out what to do.