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Authors: Margaret Coel

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“Another cause?” Vera let go of her brother and turned to Father John. “What's he saying, Father? Murder? He's saying Denise could've been murdered?”

“It could have been an accident,” Gianelli said.

Vera grabbed hold of T.J.'s shoulders again. “You're coming home with me,” she said. “I'm going to look after you.” Then, facing Gianelli, “I'm taking my brother home. Anything else you want to talk to him about, you can call his lawyer. Who you want for a lawyer, T.J.?” She leaned sideways, bringing her face close to her brother's.

“Lawyer?” T.J. shifted around and stared at the woman. “Why would I need a lawyer?”

“You're entitled to a lawyer,” Gianelli said. “I'll want to talk to you again tomorrow.”

T.J. was quiet a moment. “I guess I can call Vicky Holden,” he said finally.

“That's settled then.” Vera sucked in a breath, as if she'd been prepared to do battle and had found the battlefield deserted. “Come on.” She took T.J.'s arm, urging him to his feet.

The man started to sway as he got up, and Father John jumped up and took hold of his other arm to steady him. “I'll help you out,” he said.

They walked through the living room—two guards propping up the condemned man, Father John thought. An officer draped a coat over T.J.'s shoulders at the door, and they worked their way out onto the stoop and across the yard to the light-colored pickup next to the coroner's van.

Father John handed the man into the passenger seat while Vera ran around the front and crawled in behind the wheel. “I'll come by tomorrow,” he told T.J. over the noise of the engine catching and growling. Then he shut the door and waited until the pickup had crossed the barrow ditch and turned left onto the road, headlights blinking in the moonlight.

He was heading around the other vehicles toward the pickup when he saw Gianelli walking toward him. “What do you think, John? Any trouble that you know of between T.J. and Denise?”

“What are you saying? You think that T.J. . . ?” Father John glanced out at the road. The taillights on Vera's pickup glowed like tiny red coals in the distance. It wasn't possible, he told himself, but something else was ringing in his head:
Anything was possible.

“We haven't found a note,” the fed was saying. “She wasn't depressed or taking medications, according to T.J. People don't up and shoot themselves without some reason.”

Father John locked eyes again with the man. “I've never heard of trouble between them. You think Denise was murdered?”

The agent didn't say anything, and in the silence settling between them, Father John had the answer. “Look, Ted,” he pressed on.
“T.J.'s done everything he can to prevent drilling for methane gas on the reservation. He's made enemies. Maybe somebody came looking for him.”

“Maybe.” Gianelli didn't sound convinced. “There won't be any funeral until I get the coroner's report and the investigation is closed.” He turned abruptly and headed back to the house.

Father John stared after the man. The wind had come up, giving the air a sharper bite. After a moment, he walked over and got into his pickup. He backed away from the other vehicles, then shot forward across the yard and onto the road. Ahead, the red taillights were swallowed by the night.

5

VICKY HOLDEN EASED
the Jeep next to the curb in front of the brick bungalow that was now her office a few blocks off Main Street in Lander. A sheen of frost covered the blocklike sign in the front yard, so that all that was visible was her name and the meaningless words: ney at aw. She pulled the briefcase and black bag from the passenger seat, crossed the ice-tipped grass, and brushed at the sign until the words were clear: Attorney at Law. Cold specks of moisture prickled her wrists and sifted down into her gloves as she hurried up the steps to the porch and let herself inside.

Annie Bosey, the secretary she'd hired a month ago, sat at the desk across from the brick fireplace in what had once been a narrow living room. The phone was pressed between the woman's ear and shoulder; her fingers shuffled a stack of papers.

Vicky gave the woman a nod and opened the French doors to her private office in the converted dining room with white paneling halfway up the walls and a wide window that framed the frost-lined
juniper in the backyard. She dropped the briefcase and bag onto the desk and shrugged out of her coat, catching a glimpse of herself in the glass door as she did so: shoulder-length black hair, still tinged with moisture, falling to her shoulders; oval-shaped face with the high cheekbones; the little crook near the top of her nose; and the eyes of her people—so dark they were almost black. She'd turn forty-five this year, and the admiring looks she still got from men never ceased to take her by surprise.

Vicky combed her fingers through her hair, then tossed it back and walked over to the desk, aware of Annie's voice hurrying to end the call. Twenty-five years old, divorced with two kids, a GED, and a résumé of low-paying jobs, Annie had shown up at her front door hours after the last secretary had given notice. Vicky hadn't even put an ad in the Gazette. “Heard you need a secretary,” Annie had said. Of course, she'd heard. The moccasin telegraph flashed news across the rez faster than the Internet.

The outer office had gone quiet, and Vicky realized that Annie was standing between the French doors, bracing herself on the knobs, her mouth a round O, as if she were trying to catch her breath.

“What is it?” Vicky took the chair at her desk.

“It's so terrible about Denise Painted Horse.”

Vicky felt a familiar hollow space opening inside her. She was the last to hear the gossip, it seemed. When she was married to Ben Holden and living on the rez, the gossip always raced to her house. That was a lifetime ago. She'd divorced Ben, left the kids—Lucas and Susan—with her mother and gone to Denver. When she came home ten years later, she was a lawyer—
ho:x'iwu:ne'n
—a woman who thought she could make herself a chief, the grandmothers said.

“You heard, didn't you?”

“Why don't you tell me.”

“Denise shot herself last night. She's dead, Vicky.”

Vicky lifted herself to her feet. She'd known Denise and T.J. all her life. She and T.J. had been in the same class at St. Francis
School. Denise was a few years behind, but after she and T.J. were married, they'd been like family. They knew why she'd had to leave Ben. They'd understood, even though she'd never put it into words. One summer, at a powwow, T.J. had pulled her aside and, the tip of his finger tracing the bruise on her cheek, said, “How long you going to put up with it, Vicky?” It had helped her find the strength to leave.

And it was T.J., she was certain, who had tried to get the business council to hire her to file a request with the BIA for a new environmental impact study on the proposed methane drilling. Afterward, when the Gazette had reported that a firm in Cheyenne would be advising the tribe, T.J. had called. “Damn it, Vicky.” He spat the words down the line. “You were best for the job. The council has gotta start trusting our own people. So what if you're a woman?”

“Where's T.J.?” Vicky was at the coat tree, pulling on her coat, barely aware of having walked across the office.

“Over at Vera's. He's been calling all morning.”

“Better reschedule today's appointments,” Vicky said, scooping her bag off the desk and starting back across the office.

“Want me to call T.J. and tell him you're on the way?”

“He knows I'll come.” Vicky pulled the front door shut behind her.

 

FROST TRACED THE
reservation, like white moss clinging to the brown prairie and outlining the stalks of wild grass and clumps of brush that flamed gold and vermillion in the October sun as far as Vicky could see. The wind had picked up, knocking at the sides of the Jeep and sending little clouds of dust swirling across Highway 287. She squinted against the glare of the sun on the windshield and tried to wrap her mind around the impossible.

Impossible that Denise Painted Horse was dead! When was it that she'd run into Denise at the grocery store? Last week? Vicky had been
hurrying down the aisle, pulling items into her cart, when she'd heard a familiar voice calling her name. She glanced around and saw Denise coming at a run behind a half-filled cart.

“I've been meaning to call you, Vicky.” Denise had thrown a nervous glance behind her. There was no one else in the aisle. “I have to talk to you.”

“What is it?” Vicky had asked.

“Not here.” Another glance along the aisle. “I'll call you.”

She'd never called.

Vicky felt herself squinting now against the moisture welling behind her eyes. She should have called Denise. Why hadn't she called? Chances were that Denise had some legal question. Something about her job at Fort Washakie School, or about one of the field days she was always planning for her students—her kids, she called them. They'd wanted a family, she and T.J., but it hadn't worked out, Denise had once confided. T.J. had thrown his energies into politics, and she'd thrown her energies into her students and her passion for teaching them about the Old Time, so that they'd know their own history, she said, and be proud.

Once—ah, Vicky could picture her at the powwow, watching the dancers coming into the arena—she said that she wished she'd lived in the Old Time, when Sharp Nose was chief, and the people lived free on the plains.

“Why?” Vicky remembered asking. “You'd like butchering buffalo? Traipsing across the plains looking for wild vegetables and berries? Cooking all the meals and looking after the children and putting up the tipis and taking them down when the village moved? The women did all the work and catered to the men.”

“So what's different?” Denise had thrown her head back and laughed.

Vicky heard herself laugh out loud at the memory. The sound hung in the air like a cry above the thump of the tires over a patch of icy asphalt.

She took a right past Fort Washakie School where Denise had taught, and drove toward Ethete. Another fifteen minutes on a graveled road, and the Jeep was churning across the bare dirt yard that wrapped around a small, brown house, the sun glinting on the sloped roof and flashing off the metal bumpers of the pickups and sedans parked in front. T.J. was the only one in the yard, coatless, sunken into himself in the cold, his light-colored shirt flattened against his chest in the wind as he paced up and down, puffing on the cigarette cupped in one hand. He looked in her direction and flicked the cigarette onto the ground.

Vicky parked behind a sedan and threaded her way around the other vehicles toward the man. He stood about six feet tall, a wirey build beneath his shirt and dark trousers, black hair pushed back behind his ears, dark eyes rimmed with exhaustion. Still, he was handsome, she thought. Still the handsome man she'd known all her life.

“Thanks for coming, Vicky,” he said, pulling her into his arms. His shirt was damp with perspiration and cold. The odors of sweat, tobacco, and whiskey drifted over her.

“I'm so sorry,” she said, stepping back. His eyes were dark slits beneath the sharp ledge of his forehead, and a tuft of hair stood out, as if he'd been pulling at it. She took another step back from the sour, whiskey breath that made her stomach lurch with the memory of Ben. It was not a memory she wanted.

“You're going to catch cold out here,” she said. “Why don't we go inside?”

He shook his head. “It's my fault, Vicky. All my fault. I killed her.”

“What are you saying?”

The man looked out across the yard and the plains, silent and cold, flowing into the sky. “She did it 'cause of me,” he said.

Vicky set one hand on the man's arm. “You're not making sense, T.J. You've had a horrible shock. You should get some rest. Let's go inside.”

Vicky tried to steer the man toward the stoop, but T.J. yanked his arm free. “All the relatives showed up to help me grieve. Where the hell am I gonna rest? I need air, need to walk around, need to get . . .” His voice trailed off.

Sober, she thought.

“Fed's on the way over. Maybe he's got the coroner's report. Wants to interview me again. Christ, he asked me enough questions last night.”

Vicky felt a jab of discomfort. Last night's interview should have been sufficient for a suicide. If he had the coroner's report, Gianelli should be able to close the investigation, unless . . .

Unless there was something unusual in the report. Even the shadow of a doubt about whether Denise had committed suicide, and the fed would be taking a very close look at Denise's husband. Vicky studied the man in front of her a moment. He was in no condition for a formal interview, especially if Gianelli was investigating a suspicious death.

She dug her cell out of her bag. “I'm calling Gianelli,” she said, tapping the keys. “We'll postpone the interview. You can come to my apartment, shower, get something to eat and a few hours' sleep.”

There was an instant when she thought he wouldn't go along. Then he nodded.

Two rings, and Gianelli was on the line. “It's Vicky,” she said. She'd dealt with the FBI agent on numerous cases over the last five years. Homicides, kidnappings, fraud, embezzlement—all the crimes that the federal government considered “major” fell into the fed's jurisdiction.

“I'm with T.J.,” she hurried on, turning away from the dark, smudged eyes of the man beside her. “He needs some rest before he talks to you again. I'll bring him to your office this afternoon.”

“So, you'll be with him?” There was something unsettling in the question, as if T.J. was going to need an attorney.

“He's a friend, Ted.”

“See you at three,” Gianelli said.

Vicky pushed the
END
key and looked back at T.J. “Do you have any fresh clothes?”

The man nodded. “I keep some things here. Sometimes I stay with Vera.” He shrugged off any impulse he might have had to explain. “I want you for my lawyer, Vicky. I can pay . . .”

Vicky put up the palm of one hand. “Wait in the Jeep. I'll get your things,” she said, starting across the hard-packed dirt for the front stoop.

From inside came the dull, staccato rip of voices. She rapped on the door, then stepped into a square living room filled with people. The faint odors of coffee and hot grease floated like a cloud over the room. Grandmothers clustered together around the sofa and upholstered chairs, elders on the straight-backed kitchen chairs pushed against one wall. Everywhere she looked—T.J.'s and Denise's relatives. In the far corner was Max Oldman, Denise's great-uncle, which made him her great-grandfather, in the Arapaho Way. Through the doorway to the kitchen, she could see Vera talking to a group of women.

Vicky pushed back the impulse to cut through the crowd and go directly to Vera. It was the white way. She started across the room, greeting the grandmothers, holding roughened, blue-veined hands in her own. Nodding. Nodding. Yes, Denise had been a good woman, a traditional. In the compliments paid to the dead woman, she could sense the lingering disapproval of herself, a woman who had stepped ahead of the men.

The elders were next, gray-haired, with furrowed faces and black, distracted eyes that might have been staring into another time, watching other scenes unfold. Max took hold of her hand, squeezing it hard, and she heard herself saying the empty words: so sorry, so terrible.

“Denise kept the Old Time alive for the kids.” Max shook his head. He had black hair, threaded with gray and caught in two braids that dropped down the front of his denim shirt. He was probably in
his eighties, frail and bent with gnarled hands that extended past the wide silver bracelets at his thin wrists. Still there was a strength in the man that Vicky could feel with the certainty that she felt her own heartbeat. In the Old Time, Max Oldman would have been a chief.

“Denise was all the time coming around,” he said, “wanting to know about Sharp Nose and what he did for the people. Now who's gonna help the kids learn how the ancestors worked hard so the future generations could be happy? Denise thought a lot about the past. T.J., all he thinks about is the here and now. You gonna help T.J.?” The elder looked up at her, searching her eyes. For the briefest instant, Vicky thought she'd detected a note of disapproval in the elder's question. She pushed the idea away.

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