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Authors: Margaret Coel

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9

VICKY SPOTTED T.J.
waiting outside the glass doors of her apartment building as she drove around the corner. He had the look of a man who had stepped outside a bank after being turned down for a loan—slim and medium height, black hair combed back, hunching over the cigarette held close to his lips, taking quick puffs and staring into the vacant street. He had on blue jeans and the plaid jacket unzipped over a blue shirt. As she pulled up to the curb, he flicked the cigarette onto the sidewalk, got in beside her, and slammed the door hard into the silence.

He didn't say anything. The Jeep filled with the odors of aftershave and tobacco smoke.

Vicky made a U-turn and headed toward Main Street. “I hope you got some rest,” she said.

“Listen, Vicky . . .” T.J. paused and made a sucking noise, as if he were taking another draw on the cigarette. “Forget what happened at your place, okay? I don't know what came over me. It's like the world
is breaking off into little pieces. Denise shooting herself! Jesus . . .”

Vicky glanced over. He was shaking his head, running his eyes over the windshield in search of an explanation.

“I mean, Jesus, she was my wife, and she went and blew a hole in her head. I shouldn't have made a pass at you.”

“It's forgotten, T.J.” Vicky heard the sound of her own voice, tight and controlled. She'd been trying to forget all afternoon, but the image of T.J. pulling her into his chest rubbed in her mind like glass in an open wound. She'd trusted T.J. since they were kids. There had been times when she'd felt he was the only person on her side, the only one who faced the truth about Ben, about her crumbling marriage. T.J. who had said, “Leave him, Vicky. I'll help you.”

She maneuvered the Jeep into a parking space in front of a row of flat-faced brick buildings with shops displaying an array of books, clothing, and gifts behind plate-glass windows. T.J. kept up a running explanation directed at the windshield: The truth was . . . Did she want the truth? The truth was he'd always found her very attractive. That was a fact. No way would he have gotten out of line if it hadn't been for the shock . . .

“I said, forget it.” Vicky felt a prick of surprise at the sharpness in her voice. She turned off the engine and got out, grateful for the cold air washing over her, providing an invisible barrier between her and the man crawling out of the passenger seat.

“How long's this gonna take?” he asked as they started across the sidewalk, dodging a red leash that connected a black spaniel to a large, thick-waisted woman with a knit hat pulled down over her ears.

“Not long.” Vicky opened the door wedged between two plate-glass windows and started up the narrow steps covered in black vinyl. There was a sense of the past in the building—the dim lights hanging from the high ceiling, the sheen on the brass hand rail, and the slight grooves worn into the center of the steps by decades of boots. T.J.'s boots scraped behind her.

“Gianelli's probably trying to figure out why Denise would want
to end her life so he can tie this up.” Vicky tossed the words over her shoulder as she reached the second floor. Several pebble-glass doors circled the wide hallway.

“She shot herself,” T.J. spit out the words. “She had no cause.”

“Take it easy.” Vicky placed a hand on the man's arm. She could feel the tightness in the muscles beneath his jacket sleeve. He was still in shock. What took place earlier in her apartment was caused by shock. T.J. was an old friend, and she was beginning to regret bringing him for an interview this afternoon. She should have asked Gianelli to put the interview off until T.J. had the chance to recover his equilibrium. And yet, the family wanted to hold the funeral within three days.

Vicky guided the man to the door on the right and pressed the intercom on the wall. “Vicky Holden,” she said, leaning into the speaker. “With T.J. Painted Horse.”

Several seconds passed. T.J. was taking in gulps of air, like a runner getting ready for a sprint. Finally the door swung inward and Ted Gianelli—two hundred and fifty pounds, dressed in dark trousers and a light blue shirt opened at the collar—stood in the opening. He surveyed the hall a moment before nodding them inside.

“This way,” he said, leading them down a hallway toward a pair of windows that overlooked the street. In front of the windows was a large wooden desk covered with folders arranged in orderly stacks. A computer stood on a table next to the desk, a scene of blue-and-white mountains fixed like a photograph on the monitor.

The fed walked over and picked up a file folder. “Have a seat,” he said, pointing the folder toward two chairs on the other side of the desk.

Vicky took one of the chairs. T.J. didn't move, and for a moment she was afraid that he might whirl about and head back down the hall. The fed must have had the same thought because he waited until T.J. dropped into the other chair before he sat down behind the desk.

Gianelli opened the file folder and thumbed through the thin stack of papers inside, giving them his full attention. He seemed older all of a sudden, Vicky thought—brow more furrowed, squint lines cut
more deeply, black hair streaked with gray. He was about her age, forty-five. He'd been assigned to the area for five years now, and in that time, there had been more homicides, burglaries, and rapes than she wanted to think about. They'd been on opposing sides most of the time: She, trying to protect a client's rights, and Gianelli, not letting go until he had the answers.

He swiveled toward her and pulled a yellow notepad from a drawer in the middle of the desk. “I'm going to be interviewing you about the death of your wife, T.J.,” he said.

Vicky glanced between the agent and T.J. She could sense the charge of electricity in the air. This was not a routine follow-up interview after a suicide.

“What are you looking for, Ted?”

Gianelli ignored the question, fastening his gaze on T.J. “What we have is a possible homicide. Let's go over again what you did last evening.”

“Homicide!” Vicky heard the shock in her voice. She hurried on. “My client was at the office yesterday evening.” Stalling, trying to get a grip on what was happening. God, suppose the coroner had determined somehow that Denise couldn't have shot herself—maybe by the entrance and trajectory of the bullet. Or the coroner didn't find her fingerprints on the gun, or any gunpowder residue on her hands. If Denise didn't kill herself, the first person Gianelli would suspect was T.J. This was the start of a murder investigation. “T.J. told you everything last night,” she said. “There's no reason to go over it again.”

T.J. sank against the back of his chair and spread his hands over his thighs. His fingers were twitching. “I knew it was gonna happen sooner or later.”

“You knew your wife was going to be murdered?” Gianelli leaned over the desk.

“Hold on.” Vicky shot a glance at T.J. “You don't have to say anything.” Turning back to the agent, she said, “I want to see the coroner's report.”

Gianelli shook his head. “Sorry, Vicky. I respect your request, but we're going to have to play by my rules. This is a criminal investigation.”

T.J. threw out both hands, as he were fending off a blow.

“You think I don't want the fed . . . ” he nodded toward the man on the other side of the desk, “to find the bastards who killed my wife? I got a whole hell of a lot I want to say.” He scooted forward until he was perched on the edge of the seat. “They were coming after me. I wasn't home, so they shot Denise as a warning. I'm gonna be next.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Phone calls in the middle of the night. Some hang ups; some just saying I'd better get off the rez. Letters with no names, saying they're gonna sic the dogs on me and burn down my house if I don't stop holding up the drilling out at the coal beds. One of those bastards finally came looking for me last night and found Denise.”

T.J. dropped his face into his hands. A low noise, like a growl, erupted from his throat. His shoulders were shaking. “I'm the one supposed to be dead.” The words were muffled against his fingers. “Denise was supposed to be in Casper for a couple of days. She wasn't supposed to be home. She must've changed the mind and decided not to go.” He let a moment pass before he ran his jacket sleeve over his eyes, shifted back in the seat, and leaned his head against the wall.

“Let's go over this again,” Gianelli said. “You said last night that you stayed at the office until about eight-thirty, then drove home. Is that right?”

Vicky got to her feet. “Nothing's changed, Ted. I think we're done here. T.J. needs to get some rest.”

“You think I shot my wife, don't you?” T.J. was still reclining in the chair, and his voice came from some place deep in his chest.

“Nobody's ruled out yet,” Gianelli said.

“Let's go, T.J.” Vicky tried to wave the man out of the chair. She hadn't had the chance to talk to him, not as a lawyer to a client. They walked in here thinking Denise had taken her own life. Now they
were dealing with homicide and T.J. was a suspect. And he was innocent. She couldn't imagine T.J. Painted Horse shooting anyone. She had to caution him, warn him against saying anything that might incriminate him or cause Gianelli to limit the investigation to him.

“I'm not afraid.” T.J. was looking past her toward the agent. “You want me to take a lie detector test? Name the time. Ask me anything you want. Go ahead and ask me.”

“Did you murder your wife?” Gianelli asked.

T.J. didn't move for a moment, then he bolted to his feet. His breath came in quick, loud jabs.

“Don't say anything,” Vicky said.

“I loved Denise,” T.J. said.

Vicky stepped in front of the man. “As your lawyer, I'm telling you this meeting is over. We're leaving now.” Vicky took hold of the man's arm and steered him into the hallway.

“Your client wants to cooperate,” Gianelli said from behind them. “Why won't you let him?”

“If you have evidence that my client had anything to do with his wife's death, then get a warrant,” Vicky said, throwing a glance back at the large, dark figure standing behind the desk, backlit by the light shining through the window.

10

FATHER JOHN CROSSED
the mission grounds and took the concrete steps in front of the church two at a time, his breath hanging like tiny gray clouds in the frigid morning air. A pink light was working into the eastern sky, and vehicles were still turning onto Circle Drive, headlights flashing through the cottonwoods. He and Father Damien took turns saying the six o'clock Mass each morning. This morning was Father John's turn. He felt the familiar sense of peace as he walked down the aisle. The warmth of the church washed over him. It was like coming home. Elders and grandmothers in the front rows, rosaries slipping through curled fingers, Leonard Bizzel behind the altar, large, brown hands smoothing the cloth, the faint odor of burning wax from the candles that glowed at either side of the sanctuary, and the stilled atmosphere of prayer.

He'd tossed and turned all night, trying to push back the images that ran through his mind like the continuous loop of a motion picture. Christine Nelson walking out of the museum and disappearing
into the night. Denise Painted Horse's inert body on the bedroom floor. Homicide. The moccasin telegraph had been busy into the late evening, probably a dozen calls to the mission, the voices on the other end numb with shock. “Fed says somebody shot her, Father. You don't think it could've been T.J., do you, Father? T.J. don't seem like a murderer. Maybe he got mad at her or something . . .”

“T.J. was working late at the office,” he'd said over and over. Let that go out over the telegraph.

He genuflected in front of the tabernacle—the miniature tipi that the grandmothers had made from tanned deerskin—and went into the sacristy. So much to pray for, he thought, taking the chasuble from the hanger in the closet. He would offer the Mass for Denise's soul, and for T.J. and all of the relatives, and for Christine. He would pray that she was safe.
You can't pray too much, Father,
he remembered the elders telling him when he'd first come to St. Francis.

He pulled the chasuble over his plaid shirt and blue jeans, and it came to him again that this was not a job. Not something he did, being a priest. It was who he was, a man called out from other men for reasons he had given up trying to understand. Or was it that he'd been pushed out when he hadn't wanted to go? “Not me, Lord. Call somebody else.” He'd had plans. He was heading toward a doctorate in American history, a teaching position in a small New England college, a wife and a couple of kids. He'd barely heard of the Arapahos. Out West someplace. One of the Plains Indian tribes? And yet, there were times now when it seemed as if all of his plans had been leading him here, that this was the place where he'd always been heading.

“People are sure upset about Denise getting shot.” The sound of Leonard's voice surprised him, breaking into his thoughts. The Indian walked over to the cabinet and began taking out the Mass books. “Everybody liked Denise. She was a good woman. No call for somebody to kill her. We've been worrying about Christine, too, the wife and me. Maybe somebody's gone and shot her.”

“I hope not,” Father John said. Another image now: Christine's house, the upended furniture and broken glass, the violence. It hung like a shadow at the edges of his mind.

“Wife'd like to get on with her own work, Father. What with making sure a lot of Arapahos show up for Senator Evans's visit, she's got a lot to do. Father Damien wants a big crowd cheering real loud, 'cause the senator wants to bring jobs to the rez, unlike some people on the business council.” Leonard backed toward the door, holding the Mass books out like an offering.

Father John took the chalice from the cabinet and followed Leonard out to the altar.
I will go into the altar of God. To God, the joy of my youth.
He glanced out at the brown faces turned up at him, worry locked in the dark eyes. Another homicide on the rez, a white woman missing, and the FBI and police fanning out, asking questions, reminding everyone that a murderer was somewhere among them. The sense of unease was as palpable as the electric charge preceding a storm.

“Let us pray together,” he said.

 

THE RESIDENCE WAS
quiet, apart from the clank of a metal pan and the rush of water out of a faucet. Father John tossed his jacket onto the bench in the hall and walked back to the kitchen. Shafts of daylight worked their way past the white curtains at the window above the sink. The air was thick with the aromas of fresh coffee, hot oatmeal, and half-burnt toast. Walks-On pushed himself off the blanket in the corner and set a wet muzzle in the palm of his hand. Father John scratched the dog's ears, then stepped over to the counter and poured some coffee into a mug. Elena was at the stove ladling oatmeal into a bowl. Seventy-some years old, part Arapaho, part Cheyenne, the woman had been the housekeeper at St. Francis longer than she professed to remember. She ran the house like a drill sergeant, he sometimes thought, with the pastor and the assistant priest expected to march along in time. It wasn't a bad thing. It sometimes kept him on time.

He sat down across from his assistant, who was scraping the traces of oatmeal out of a bowl, the
Gazette
opened on the other side of his mug.

“My God! The paper says that the police think Christine was abducted.” Father Damien thumped his fist against the paper, his eyes running down an article on the first page. The man's mind was like a shotgun—one barrel for the latest news, the other for conversation. “Paper says you were the last one to see her before she disappeared.”

“Last one before whoever took her.” Elena set a bowl of oatmeal in front of Father John. The steam curled over the rim and smelled of melted brown sugar.

“You don't think her disappearance is related to her job here at the mission, do you?” A note of incredulity worked into the other priest's voice.

“Of course it has to do with the mission.” Elena patted at the white apron tied over her blue dress. “A lot of people come to see the Curtis photographs, and that white woman was like a chicken. Couldn't stop pecking. ‘Who was your ancestors? When did they come to the rez?' ”

“So somebody abducted her?” The incredulity in Damien's voice had slid into scorn.

“Look, we don't know what happened to Christine. Let's not jump to conclusions.” Father John poured some milk into the bowl and took a spoonful of the oatmeal. “Thank you, Elena.” He glanced up at the woman hovering at the edge of the table, her round face frozen with expectancy. “This is gourmet oatmeal, without a doubt.”

“Now how would you know that?”

“Trust me, I'm a connoisseur of oatmeal.”

“I don't see how Christine disappearing could have anything to do with the mission,” Father Damien said, answering his own question and folding the
Gazette.
He got to his feet, as if the matter were settled. “I'll call Senator Evans's campaign manager right away and assure him that the senator will be perfectly safe at St. Francis. No doubt the poor woman had some personal problems . . .”

“We don't know that,” Father John said.

“Process of elimination, John. If her disappearance isn't connected to the mission, where, need I remind you, she has been employed for one month, it must be connected to some problem she brought with her. I think I can make a strong case that will reassure the senator's people. By the way”—he tapped his knuckles against the table—“I've asked Leonard to repaint the front of the museum, so that when the TV cameras pan across, it will look spruced up. He'll have to cut back some cottonwoods so they don't throw shadows over the place.”

“Excuse me, Father,” Elena said. “There's no way Leonard's gonna paint the museum, cut down branches, and take care of everything else around here before the almighty senator shows his face. I got a leaking washing machine that Leonard's gotta fix.” She swung to the counter, lifted the coffee pot and topped off Father John's mug.

He took a long swallow. “Ah, gourmet coffee,” he said. It was hot and nutty-flavored, like the coffee she brewed every morning. He wondered if it really was delicious, or only familiar.

“Leonard has enough to do,” he said, glancing up at the other priest. “Don't worry, the mission will look just fine on TV.”

“When's the last time you took a good look around, John? How long you been here now?”

Father John saluted the man with his mug. “Took a look around this morning,” he said. “Nine years next spring.”

“Nine years? The provincial's left you here nine years?”

“He forgot about me.” He hoped that was true, but every day, when he reached for the ringing phone, there was always the thought flitting at the back of his mind, like a pesky fly. This could be the call, this could be the order for another assignment.

“Good thing, too,” Elena said, staring at the other priest. “You can't just come here and get a feel for our ways overnight.”

“Do you think it's possible, John, that you've been here so long, you no longer see what must be done? That what you see is the image of the mission when you first arrived?”

Well, that was possible, Father John thought. He had to allow for the possibility. There was an image of St. Francis Mission that he would always carry in his mind. He set down the mug and went back to the oatmeal, aware of the other priest moving behind him toward the door.

Elena turned around, poured another mug of coffee, then took the chair that Damien had vacated. She laced her fingers around the mug as Damien's footsteps receded down the hallway and the front door opened and shut, sending a gust of cold air across the kitchen.

“Maybe Father Damien's got part of it right.” Elena lifted her mug and stared at him over the rim. “Maybe that white woman showed up here with a load of personal problems. She used to work at fancy museums, right? Maybe she helped herself to some expensive art and somebody got real mad.”

Father John locked eyes with the woman. Good Lord. It would explain the ransacked house. It made sense, except . . .

“Christine's a highly trained professional,” he said.

“You know your problem, Father?”

“Which one?”

“You think everybody's honest as the day they come squawking into the world. Some folks are crooked as a dried, old tree, even highly trained professionals.”

“Is that a fact?” Father John got to his feet and smiled down at the woman rooted to her chair, hands wound around the mug. He'd probably heard more in the confessional than she could ever imagine. There had been times when he'd almost despaired that the light of God's grace could shine into the darkness.

“You hear what the fed's gonna do to T.J?” the woman said.

Father John sat back down. “Maybe you'd better tell me.”

“Moccasin telegraph says the fed's gonna pin Denise's murder on him.” She stared into the coffee mug, considering. “Poor Denise,” she said. “I knew she wouldn't ever shoot herself. She loved her life. Always real proud of being Arapaho. Always wanted to make the
kids proud.” Letting out a long sigh, she brought her eyes back to his. “Fed's gonna take the easy way out and blame T.J.”

“T.J. has an alibi,” Father John said.

“Trouble with T.J.,” the woman pushed on, as if she hadn't heard, “is that he's always wanting, wanting. He wants all the time, that man. Wasn't satisfied getting himself elected to the state legislature. He wants to come back to the rez and get on the business council so he can run things around here, show that he's a real big man. Folks are saying that now he wants to be a senator and go off to Washington.” Elena shrugged. “I guess if Senator Evans gets to be the next president, T.J. can get himself elected senator.” She didn't sound convinced. “T.J. might not be perfect, Father, but nobody on the rez thinks he could shoot anybody, especially not his wife.”

Father John got to his feet again. He felt as if he'd stepped off a riverbank and gotten caught in a current of rumors. “Gianelli's a good investigator.” A one-man crusade, was more like it. Determined to rid the world, or at least the rez, of bad guys. “He'll find Denise's murderer.”

 

IN THE OFFICE,
Father John flipped through the papers waiting for his attention—yesterday's mail, bills to pay, phone messages to return, Sunday's homily to write—and tried to make sense of what Elena had said. The muffled sound of Father Damien's voice floated down the hall from the back office—reasoning, pleading. “No, no, no. Whatever happened to the curator has nothing to do with the mission.” There was a pause, then Damien said, “Well, yes, it looks like T.J. Painted Horse's wife could have been murdered, but that wouldn't have any connection to Senator Evans's visit. She probably surprised an intruder.” Another pause. “Yes, T.J. is a popular councilman. No. No. He couldn't have had anything to do with his wife's murder.”

But the man could have had enemies, Father John was thinking.
Nobody could speak out against the proposed drilling for methane gas, calling the environmental analysis “misleading and inadequate” and insisting on another study that could take months to complete, without making enemies. People were waiting on the jobs and the royalties. But T.J. had made some good points, Father John thought, talking about the millions of gallons of salty wastewater that drilling would pour onto grazing lands and hay fields, and the roads that would be cut through pastures for the heavy trucks and drilling equipment. The man wasn't afraid to stand up for what he believed in, even with a powerful man like Senator Evans on the other side. Father John admired T.J. for that.

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