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Beneath a Navajo Moon
By Lisa Carter
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2014 Lisa Carter
All rights reserved.
Late September 1906
"With the first pink streaks of light piercing the sky, they came ..."
Olivia Thornton rose early, stuffing her Bible and journal into the pocket of her pinafore. Sneaking out her bedroom window, she hiked down the gently sloping hill at the back of the Cedar Canyon Mission School toward the creek. The hem of her lavender blue calico trailed in the early morning dew beading the buffalo grass. Over her shoulder, she shot a quick, nervous glance at the reddening sky.
Was it her guilty conscience or did the air vibrate with some unspoken tension? Her daddy, back home in Carolina, used to say, "Red sky at morning, sailor take warning." But aside from her fellow teachers at the mission school, not another human being dwelled for miles.
The desolate badlands stretched as far as the eye could see, only red rock canyons and sage. Yet to Olivia's appreciative eyes, the land also contained a harsh beauty. Out of habit, she cocked her head to listen for the comical squawks of the Stellar jay that often greeted her each morning. But today, only an eerie silence.
If the Director caught her out here, she'd be in big trouble. Not that she wasn't already in big trouble with him. She'd gone and plopped herself in one big cow patty. But she needed time alone under God's creation.
Time to think and pray about what she'd do now. Coming to Navajo-land had been a mistake. She didn't belong here. Question was, where did she belong?
Crouching underneath a stand of cottonwoods, she cupped her hands in the water, splashing herself awake. Removing her hands from her face, she first noticed leaves floating past her reflection in the water. She'd remember those dead, brown leaves.
Her scalp prickled. And he lunged. She screamed ...
Cupping her hands around the piping hot coffee mug, Erin Dawson stood at the kitchen sink, watching the tall prairie grass on the mesa quiver in the early morning breeze. A red sky morning, like Olivia's final morning. A tingle of excitement and a slight foreboding teased at Erin's mind. Funny, how after all these years dreaming of finding Olivia or at least the rest of her story—the research in dusty library carrels across the country, Internet searches, phone calls—and lots of prayer—she was here.
Here in the spot where it began. What luck—no, she didn't believe in luck. This was God, despite what her family chose to believe. God had enabled her to rent one of the few homes available on the reservation. The flat-roofed, one-story adobe located on the former remains of Olivia's plundered Cedar Canyon Mission School. The place where Olivia's adventure had truly begun and ... where Erin prayed her own future destiny might be revealed.
She'd dreamed last night of Olivia as she must have appeared that fateful morning in 1906. Having read her journal entries many times, she'd all but memorized each passage. In ways she didn't understand, Olivia's mysterious journey and her own yet undiscovered path were inexplicably linked. If she could solve the ultimate riddle of Olivia's quest, perhaps she'd also find a place to belong.
Rinsing her cup, Erin glanced at her watch. By the time she drove to the foot of the mesa and into town, the workday would be upon her. Her first day on a new job, an internship meant to further her research and, on the side, answer lingering questions regarding Olivia's fate.
Placing the journal into her handbag, she rushed out the door to her car. Turning the key in the ignition, she breathed a sigh of relief when the engine sputtered to life. Graduate students working on doctoral dissertations didn't exactly have spare cash floating around for car repairs. She was just thankful the old Camry, green like her eyes, had successfully made the cross-country trip.
Easing onto the blacktop, she rotated the wheel to avoid hitting a prairie dog. Peaceful up here, but isolated and lonely. She shivered at the mournful howl of the wind through the Ponderosa pines, the crying of the wind a constant companion on top of the mesa. The Navajo refused to live here, preferring their ranches and farms surrounding the small village of Cedar Canyon or the traditional clan sheep-camps in the high country. Chindis, they believed dwelled in the ruins of the old school, ghosts of the dead come back to haunt the living—the cries of the souls lost in the raid on that long ago day in 1906.
Goose bumps prickled on her arms. But she shook the cobwebs from her mind as she steered the curving road toward Cedar Canyon. Remember to Whom you belong, she reminded herself.
Someone far stronger than any chindi. Someone Who came to set all peoples free from fear. That day in 1906, this day—each a day of new beginnings. For Olivia and for her, too, God willing.
* * *
Adam's eyes narrowed at the sight of the bilágaana occupying the receptionist's chair at the Information Center, her eyes scouring a map she'd spread over the counter space. At the whooshing sound of the door closing behind him, her head snapped up.
He stepped away from the entrance, his hand extended. In the two seconds it took him to reach the desk, he inspected every inch of her, the cop in him taking mental notes. Shoulder length brown hair caught up in a side ponytail, large eyes. Medium height. Mid- to late-twenties, within a few years of his age.
The palest of the skin of her people. The lush, luminous glow of women he remembered from his days at Fort Bragg. Women who'd spent their lives in the moisture-rich South, not the bone dry places the women of his tribe inhabited on the Rez of the Navajo Nation.
Serious-minded etched across a perfect oval face. Three-quarter length mauve shirt. Nothing to write home about.
His gaze returning to her face, he stiffened as those green eyes of hers examined him just as intently. And found him wanting?
Did she know the Diné—the Navajo—considered eye-to-eye contact confrontational? He pursed his lips. She flushed at his scrutiny, but she didn't blink or waver. Good for her. Perhaps his carefully wrought reputation preceded him.
He leaned over the counter. "I'm Adam." He flashed his most winsome smile—for which he was renowned—a tool in his arsenal of weapons. "You're new, aren't you?"
She lifted her chin a fraction and didn't take his hand. "You must be Debra's boyfriend. She'll be right—"
"Adam, you tease, you're five minutes early." Debra, the blonde assistant director of the Center, emerged from a back room, her hips swaying provocatively. Her ruffled cream silk blouse revealed her thin, swanlike neck and lots of carefully calculated cleavage.
He dropped his hand still hanging in the air and fastened his smile on Debra. "Couldn't stay away from you any longer, babe."
Debra smiled, running her tongue over her carmine-tipped bottom lip.
He shifted his attention to the other woman and frowned. She'd turned her back on him, her head bent this time over a computer screen. He wasn't used to being so summarily dismissed.
Debra linked her arm through his. "Come on, Adam. I only have an hour for lunch. We'll be at Taqueros," she called over her shoulder. "Can we bring you something? The blue corn enchiladas are to die for."
"No, thanks," came the muffled voice, her face hidden in the folds of the map again. "I brought my lunch today. Have fun." She waved an absentminded hand. "Take your time. I'll man the fort. Inventory to check ..."
Debra teetered to an abrupt stop on the threshold. A tight crevasse formed between her plucked brows, a distracted look in her ice blue eyes. And ... fleeting displeasure. So fleeting, if it hadn't been his job to monitor every move Debra made, he might have missed the emotion or discounted it.
Something was going down between these two. Something perhaps the brunette wasn't even cognizant of yet. Something he needed to check out later.
Debra tugged his sleeve, pulling him out the door. With her face smooth once more, she planted a quick kiss on a spot above the collar of his khaki-beige uniform.
He forced himself to relax, to breathe. Per habit, he assessed the street as they strolled down the sidewalk. "Who's your new friend?"
A predatory gleam in her glacial eyes, Debra snuggled into the curve of his arm. "Part of your job with the tribal police to check out newcomers? Or your roving eye wandering again?" She squeezed his arm as if in warning. "Anyway, she's definitely not your type. She's a graduate student from one of those Carolina states—I get them mixed up ..."
He took care to make sure she didn't catch him in the act of rolling his eyes.
"... got a grant to study tribal customs for her doctoral dissertation."
He extricated himself from her clutch. "Not my type?"
Debra stroked his arm, her hand abrasive and cold, not unlike the sensation he'd once felt when a horny toad skittered over his bare skin. "I know you think anything in a skirt is your type, but believe me, this girl really isn't. She's the kind, according to your own words"—she jabbed a finger into the buttons on his shirt—"that scares you silly."
He stopped and faced her on the sidewalk.
Reaching, she smoothed away a frown forming between his brows. "Your words," she reminded him, "and I quote 'one of those do-gooder Christians come to ease their conscience and make life better for the poor savages on the reservation.' End quote."
She wrapped her arms around his middle. "Not like me, mind you, who appreciates everything you have to offer." She gave a low-voiced purr. "Maybe I could interest you in something besides lunch today, Officer."
He fought the urge to grimace. He needed more info if he was going to run a check on the brunette. "Her name?" He grazed his lips against hers.
She sighed and lowered her eyelashes. "Erin. Erin Dawson. Now can we forget about the boring anthropologist and get back to more exciting things like ..."
Fixing a smile in place, he swung her toward the diner. "Like sopapillas for dessert?"
Debra gave a throaty chuckle. "Like me." Grabbing fistfuls of his lapels, she hauled him toward her mouth.
They'd owe him combat pay for this.
His cell phone chirped. Saved—he glanced at the caller ID—by Tulley Singer, his best friend and second-in-command to the Chief of Police. "What's up?" He tilted his head to listen.
Debra, with a deliberate look at her Rolex, crossed her arms over her chest and tapped one Gucci stiletto-clad foot on the pavement.
"Nia's working dispatch today and alerted me Chief Navarro's gone missing." Tulley's resonant bass filled Adam's ear. "She wasn't able to reach him at home, either. Bridger spotted the Chief's car, abandoned, while on patrol a few minutes ago."
Adam glanced sideways at Debra. "Where?"
She straightened, a concerned look on her face. Did he read surprise there?
Tulley's voice boomed. "Two miles outside of town. Nia's sending you the coordinates."
"I'm on my way."
He gave a brief, apologetic wave to Debra, heading for his patrol vehicle parked at the curb. Official business, he mouthed, the phone pressed to his ear. The disgruntled look on his come-lately girlfriend could have stopped a bullet.
"Oh, and Adam?" Tulley added.
Adam hit the button on his keychain, springing the locks on his car. "Yes?"
"We're treating this as a crime scene. We found bloodstains on the headrest."
* * *
Ten minutes later, Adam turned off the paved surface after sighting the bevy of parked patrol cars dwarfed by the scale of the surrounding canyon walls. The tail end of Navarro's burgundy Chrysler poked out from behind a red sandstone monolith at the entrance to what the People called Echo Canyon. Rolling to a stop, he donned latex gloves before ducking under the yellow Mylar crime scene tape fellow officer Ortiz strung along the perimeter. Manny Ortiz, of mixed blood—Hispanic and Navajo—jerked his head toward the boulder at Adam's questioning look. Everett Atcitty, in the driver's seat of his cruiser, advised Nia, via the radio, regarding their investigation.
Sidestepping clusters of prickly cactus, Adam assessed the scene, noting first the sandblasted windshield of the Chief's car. No telling how long the car had been exposed to the elements. With the wind this time of year, vehicles tended to look as if they'd been in a sandstorm five minutes after being washed. The crime scene kit spread out, Tulley had his head halfway inside the abandoned car, Roland Bridger taking the notes he shouted out.
Tulley straightened, all 6'4" of him, at the sound of Adam's work boots crunching on the gravelly red sand. One hand clamped his Smokey the Bear hat in place as he extracted himself out of the open window. "See for yourself." He gestured.
Removing his regulation hat, Adam stuck his head inside. As his eyes adjusted to the muted glare, his attention fastened on the blood spatter pattern on the worn, upholstered headrest. Averting his gaze, he surveyed the abundance of fast food wrappers littering the floorboards, the half-filled container of sluggish coffee in the cup holder, and the upended official black attaché case of the Navajo Nation Police hitherto practically grafted to the Chief's wrist.
Backing out, his nose caught the subtle, cloying scent of a woman's perfume mixed with the metallic, rusty iron smell of blood. "You noticed the perfume?"
Tulley frowned, a quizzical look on his lean, chiseled face. "Reminds me of somebody." He shook his head. "Can't put my finger on it right now, but it'll come to me." He leaned to inspect Bridger's notes. "Coffee's from Mamacita's Diner. Check to see when he was there last, Roland."
Bridger nodded, making a notation.
"Anything missing from his vehicle?" Adam employed a studied, impersonal tone.
Bridger snorted. "Just his body."
Tulley fixed Bridger with a not-so-friendly look, his feet planted in a wide stance. "He meant from the briefcase."
"Signs of his body?" Adam couldn't bring himself to say his former mentor's name.
His grandfather said names had power. No need to wear them out. Especially if the Chief was ... He cleared his throat, uncomfortable with his grandfather's traditional beliefs.
Bridger glanced up from his notes, pushing his black sunglasses farther up his wide nose. "Not so far. Nor tracks of any kind—human or another vehicle."
"The food wrappers?" Adam twisted his mouth in a wry grimace. "Didn't remember the Chief being such a food connoisseur."
"Betty, his wife," Bridger sighed. "She was sick a long time with the breast cancer. After she died last month ..."
"Yeah." Tulley gazed off into the barren expanse. "Easier for a single, lonely man to eat out."
Adam pointed his lips at the steep canyon walls. "Desolate place to—"
Tulley growled. "He's not dead until we find his body." He shuffled his size thirteen feet in the red sand, scuffling pebbles. "Until then," he jabbed a finger at the other two men. "We're treating this as a Missing Persons case, you hear?"
He eyeballed Tulley. "Lot of blood to be a missing person."
Tulley moved away toward his own car. "Crime scene techs will be here soon to dust for fingerprints. I'm headed over to his residence to check for any clues to his whereabouts."
Adam resisted the urge to salute. "Whatever you say. Guess you're the acting Chief of Police for now."
Tulley halted in his tracks. Bridger coughed and retreated a safe distance. Tulley's black eyes narrowed as he pivoted to face Adam. "Only until we find the Chief. Or the tribal council picks his replacement. That's their call." He fixed Adam with a searching gaze, his brows constricting together. "Why are you acting like—?"
His jaw set, Adam's hand clenched onto his gun belt.
An imperceptible emotion flickered across Tulley's face and an uneasy silence. "You ..." He swallowed. Tulley's arm swept toward the arroyo and the immensity of the landscape. "We have work to do until we find the Chief. Dead or alive."
Excerpted from Beneath a Navajo Moon by Lisa Carter. Copyright © 2014 Lisa Carter. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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