Authors: Margaret Coel
Inside, knots of people were moving about the gallery, peering at the photographs. In the mixture of daylight filtering through the windows and the fluorescent lights washing down from above, the figures in the photographs took on a sharper castâthe three warriors on the far wall looked darker, more menacing; the people in the village more unsuspecting and vulnerable.
The door to the office was half-ajar, forming a narrow frame around the figure of Catherine seated behind the desk, thumbing through the magazine spread in front of her.
“Any word from Christine?” Father John pushed the door open.
“Nothing.” The woman slapped the magazine closed, gripped the armrests, and pushed herself to her feet. “She oughtta take the time to call, if she isn't gonna show up. People been coming and going, asking a lot of questions about Curtis and the photographs that I don't know how to answer. Think she's gonna show up tomorrow?”
“Do you have Christine's number?” Father John picked up the phone at the edge of the desk and waited while the woman fumbled under the magazine, then handed him a notepad with a phone number
on top and a series of black doodles impressed in the margins. He could imagine her dialing the number, listening to the ringing and jabbing the pen at the paper, the little circles and squares becoming darker and more jagged as the morning gave way to afternoon.
Now he punched in the number. “Come on,” he said under his breath, but the ringing went on. He replaced the phone and scoured the papers on the side of the desk with his eyes, looking for a calendar or day timer that might explain the curator's absence. A conference she'd forgotten to mention, a family get-together she couldn't miss.
Then he remembered. Last night, Christine had taken her briefcase. Any day timer that she kept was probably with her.
“You can close the museum as soon as the visitors leave,” he told the woman who had dropped back onto the chair. Gratitude and relief flashed in the brown eyes, as if he'd released her from a long, hard imprisonment.
He retraced his steps through the entry and held the door for three women who were talking about the photographsâthe realism, the amazing beauty. “You feel like the warriors are about to ride into the gallery,” one of the women said. The others laughed.
Father John followed them down the steps and made a straight line for the pickup.
CHRISTINE NELSON LIVED
on the north side of Riverton in a neighborhood of squat, flat-roofed duplexes with a
sign in one window and oily blue patches on the asphalt at the curb. Father John slowed past the occasional parked vehicle, looking for the address that he'd gotten from the curator's file in his officeâengine running outside, pickup bucking like a corralled stallion. The units all looked the same, with green-painted siding and small windows flanking the front doors recessed from small, concrete stoops.
He spotted the numbers next to the door at the end unit, where dried stalks lifted out of a red planter at the corner of the stoop. There was no sign of the woman's Range Rover.
Father John pulled into the curb and started up a narrow sidewalk that divided a square of brown-spotted lawn. He stopped. The front door stood open a couple of inches.
He stepped onto the stoop and rapped on the hinged edge of the door. “Christine?” he called.
Silence, apart from the breeze knocking at the gutter.
He pushed at the door and stepped inside. Papers crackled under his boots. Papers everywhereâstrewn across the green carpet, spilling over the sofa and chair. Foam poked out of long slashes in the cushions tossed about. A table lamp lay shattered in the center of the room, and, over in a corner, the carpet had been yanked away and dropped back on itself in a mute triangle. The atmosphere was suffused with a sense of spent desperation.
Father John stood still a moment, listening for the sound of life. There was nothing but the sounds of his own breathingârapid, shallow intakes of air. He headed into the kitchen, picking his way through papers and shards of glass. Whoever had done this hadn't stopped in the living room. Cabinet doors were flung open, broken dishes and glasses littered the countertops and vinyl floor. Boxes cut open, cereal tossed about. The refrigerator door hung into the room, drawers pulled out, shelves swept clean. A rectangle of white light shone over the carton of milk that had spilled across the floor, running into a broken jar that oozed red jam.
He swung around, his heart thudding in his ears, and crossed the living room to a short hallway. A pair of closed doors faced each other. He opened the door on the right into the same chaos: mattress pulled to the floor, dresser drawers upended with a few silky pieces of women's underwear spilling out, closet doors ajar, a couple of blouses and pairs of slacks pulled off the hangers and trailing into the room.
Christine Nelson was nowhere.
He crossed the hall and reached for the knob on the other door, his hand numb with reluctance. He opened the door into the bathroom. Towel bars ripped from the walls, broken bottles scattered over the heap of towels on the black and white vinyl floor. Tiny pieces of glass winked in the pool of reddish liquid inside the door. Stooping down, he dipped a finger in the liquid and brought it to his nose. Lotion that smelled of roses.
He'd wiped his finger on a corner of a towel and made a half-turn
into the hall when he heard the noise, like the noise of rustling leaves. Then, footsteps, tentative and carefully placed across the littered floor of the living room.
Father John moved along the plastered wall toward the noise, a single thought filling his mind, pushing out every other possibility. Whoever had ransacked the house had returned to take a harder look. What was next? Pull up the carpet, rip out the floors, take down the wallboard?
The footsteps had stopped moving, and Father John also stopped, his shoulder pressed against the rough plaster. He kept his breathing shallow and quiet, another thought crowding into his mind now. Whoever had ransacked the house could have gotten more information and knew where to find whatever he was looking for. Father John curled his hands into fistsâwhoever was in the living room could have gotten the information from Christine.
He started inching forward again, his breath tight in his chest. The footsteps had also started movingâreceding, as if the person had sensed the presence of someone else in the house. The intruder would return, Father John was certain. The violent searchâthe torn and crushed pieces of Christine Nelson's lifeâattested to the fact that he would return. It didn't matter. All that mattered was that the person about to vanish knew where Christine was.
“Hey!” Father John shouted as he burst around the corner into the living room.
A woman whirled about. Her mouth hung open a moment, gulping in air. Then she started to scream. She backed into the door, hands flailing behind her for the knob, the screaming moving toward hysteria.
Father John uncurled his fists and lifted his hands, palms outward. “I'm sorry.” He had to shout over the wail of her voice. “I didn't mean to frighten you.”
The woman threw both hands over her mouth, as if to stifle the noise erupting of its own will. Then she reached around and yanked
at the door, moving along the edge until she was in the opening, a step away from the outdoors and freedom.
“I'm Father O'Malley from St. Francis.” He tried to keep his voice calm. “I'm looking for Christine.”
The woman leaned against the door for support, and, for a instant, he thought she might slide to the floor. She had large eyes that shone with fear. He guessed that she was in her thirties. A slight build beneath the baggy red sweatshirt that dropped over the top of her blue jeans and reddish-blond hair pulled back into a knot with long ends that stuck out like feathers.
“Are you a friend?” he asked.
She stared at the littered floor, then lifted her eyes to his a moment. “Jana Harris,” she said, tossing her head toward the outdoors. “I live next door.”
“Christine didn't come to work today.”
“I figured as much,” she said.
He waited, and finally the woman explained: She and Christine left for work at the same time every morning. It was always a tossup as to who drove away first, but this morning, Christine wasn't there. Neither was her Range Rover. She figured Christine must've left early, but later she'd got to thinking about it. You could set your clock by when Christine walked out of the door every morning. Maybe something had happened. So she'd called the museum and someone else had answered, not Christine. The minute she'd gotten home, she'd come over to check.
Jana Harris threw another glance around the room. “Last night when I was watching TV,” she went on, “I heard a noise, like somebody sideswiping a car. I looked outside. There was an SUV parked across the street, but nobody was around. I didn't think any more about it.”
“What time was that?” Father John asked.
She shrugged. “The news just ended. Must've been about ten-thirty.”
Father John kept his eyes on the woman propped against the door, the upended cushions and piles of debris blurring around him. Christine had driven out of the mission grounds about eight-thirty on her way to a meeting. She could have gotten home by ten-thirty and walked in on a burglary, except that this was no burglary andÂ .Â .Â . What was it that gnawed at him? The sparseness of the place, the worn furniture and bare walls. Nothing but shredded newspapers, as if Christine had not intended to stay long. Whoever had ransacked the place had conducted a determined, angry search.
And when he'd left, he could have taken Christine with him.
“I'm going to call the police,” Father John said, starting for the door, his boots crunching the shards of glass. The woman backed outside, and he brushed past her and cut a diagonal across the yard to the pickup. He opened the passenger door and pulled the cell phone out of the glove compartment. Another couple of minutes, and he was talking to a female operator at the Riverton Police Department. He should remain at the house, the woman said. A patrol officer was on the way.
Father John tossed the phone onto the seat and walked back to the woman sitting on the front stoop, head pitched forward, arms clasped around her knees. He sat down beside her on the cold concrete.
“Just when everything was coming together for her.” Jana Harris turned sideways, studying him a moment. “Christine was excited about the Curtis exhibit. Said people were coming from all over to see the photographs. She'd already started working on another projectÂ .Â .Â .”
This was new. Christine hadn't mentioned bringing in another exhibit. Usually the museum showed Arapaho artifactsâbeaded clothing and moccasins, necklaces and belts, eagle-feathered headdresses, bows and arrows and quivers, a tipi once owned by Chief Sharp Nose. The collections kept growing. The Curtis exhibit was the first exhibit from outside.
“What kind of project?” he asked.
“You don't know? You're her boss.”
“The boss only thinks he knows everything.”
“I thought you were some kind of ogre, making her work every evening.”
“She was working on the project in the evenings?” That explained Christine's Range Rover parked outside the museum after closing time.
“What else?” Jana was clasping and unclasping her hands between her knees. “Christine never told me what it was, but she was obsessed, I can tell you that. I said to her, Christine, you gotta get out more. I know a fun bar. We can go have a couple drinks, meet some cowboys. Nothing like a few laughs to take your mind off work, but she didn't want any part of it. Work, work, work. That's all she wanted.”
Father John watched the white police cruiser slide alongside the curb. Blue lettering on the doors read
. The driver's door swung open. Father John got to his feet as an officer in a dark-blue uniform, trousers, and jacket, crawled out, slammed the door shut, and started up the sidewalk. The brim of his hat shaded a round, boyish face.
“Father O'Malley?” he asked.
Father John nodded, and the officer turned his attention to Jana Harris. “And you are?”
Out of the corner of his eye, Father John saw the woman start to get up, swaying to one side. He reached down, took her arm, and guided her upward as she gave the officer her name and, nodding toward the next stoop, said that she lived next door. Father John realized that she was shivering beside him.
“What's going on?” The officer locked eyes with Father John.
“We came to check on Christine Nelson, the woman who lives here,” he said, gesturing with his head toward the door. Then he explained that Christine had been the curator at the museum at St. Francis for the past month, that she'd left the mission last night to attend a meeting and hadn't come to work today. The house had been ransacked.
“Wait here,” the officer said, sliding past the half-opened door. Several moments passed. From inside the house came the muffled
noise of boots on carpet, the rattle of paper and the crackle of glass. Cold permeated the air, and fingers of blue shadows had started to spread over the yard. From down the block came the sound of a motor coughing into life, and somewhere nearby, a cat was meowing.
A quiet, normal neighborhood, he thought, trying to push away the images crowding into his mind. He didn't want to think of Christine coming home last night in the dark, blundering in on someone ripping her house a part.
“Looks like somebody got mad as hell,” the officer said, shouldering his way past the door and onto the stoop. “Any idea who the lady was going to meet?”
Father John said that he had no idea.
The officer faced Jana. “Were you home last night?”
When she nodded, he pushed on. “Hear any noise? Any screams?”
“What?” The woman's head bounced back. She blinked up at the boyish face. “Screams? No, no screaming.”
It was odd, Father John thought, the sense of relief that flowed over him. No screams, and he hadn't seen any sign of blood in the house. That gave him hope. Christine could have gotten away.
Dear Lord, let that be true.
“Nothing but a car revving up on the street,” Jana said.
“What kind of car?” The officer had extracted a notepad and pen from inside his jacket. He cupped the pad in his hand and began scribbling.
“I don't know. Big car, SUV of some kind.” Jana hunched her shoulders and dipped her chin into the folds of her sweatshirt. “It wasn't Christine's.”
“What kind of vehicle does the woman drive?”
“Range Rover,” Father John said. “Light-tan color.”
“Car belong to her?”
“I assume so,” Father John said. It hadn't occurred to him that Christine might be driving someone else's car.
Father John glanced away, trying to picture the license plate. He'd walked past the vehicle dozens of times. “The license was from Teton County. Number twenty-two on the plate,” he said.
“Recall any other numbers?
Jana Harris was shaking her head.
Father John closed his eyes.
God, what were the numbers.
“Seven,” he said, the first number coming into view. “Three. Four.” The rest was a blur.
“Range Rover,” the officer said, still scribbling. “Teton County, seven, three, four. It's a start.” He looked up from the notepad. “Christine Nelson ever failed to show up for work before?”