Hearts of the Missing: New Excerpt
By Carol Potenza
Hearts of the Missing is the debut novel from 2017 Tony Hillerman Prize recipient Carol Potenza and marks the first mystery in the Nicky Matthews series.
When a young woman linked to a list of missing Fire-Sky tribal members commits suicide, Pueblo Police Sergeant Nicky Matthews is assigned to the case. As the evidence leads her to a shocking discovery, she uncovers not only murder but a motive with an ominous, vengeful twist that strikes at the very core of what it means to be a member of the Fire-Sky People. With an intimate knowledge of Fire-Sky customs and traditions, the killer ensures the spirits of those targeted will wander lost forever. As Nicky closes in on the murderer, those closest to her are put in jeopardy. She realizes she must be willing to sacrifice everything–her career, her life, and even her soul–to save the people she is sworn to protect.
Tsiba’ashi D’yini Indian Reservation
New Mexico, USA
The harsh scrape, out of place in the quiet of predawn, penetrated the low buzz of the refrigeration motors. Like fingernails on a chalkboard, the sound made the hair on her neck and arms stand on end.
She wasn’t alone anymore.
Her eyes narrowed as she peered through the open door of the office and into the cavernous space on the other side. Other than a few emergency lights pooling eerily on the floor, the room was dark, its bulky shelves and racks rising out of the linoleum like misshapen boulders.
Sergeant Nicky Matthews was careful to make no sound as she placed her fingerprint brush on the metal shelf in front of her. She stripped off her latex gloves with quiet efficiency as she rose, dropping them on the floor by her feet. Head cocked to the side, she strained to hear any other sound that would indicate who—or how many—might be just outside the broken plate-glass window of the mini-mart.
She hadn’t heard a car pass by since she’d been here, and she’d sent the manager home after he’d let her inside.
Her police unit was parked in plain sight by the gas pumps, illuminated by the fluorescent lights in the metal canopy above it. Those lights formed a harsh bubble of white in the nighttime blackness that surrounded the building. The village store sat alone on a two-lane road, the only place to purchase food and gas for twenty miles in every direction. Porch lights from widely scattered trailers and small houses dotted the landscape, but she’d seen no one when she’d arrived. She’d been inside, processing the scene, for over an hour. If the perps had come back, they must know she was here.
Another stealthy rasp, outside and to the left of the window.
She stiffened, focus shifting, tightening. Her hand slipped to her holster, palm scraping the butt of her Glock 23. Whoever was out there was on the other side of the wall where she stood. She’d trained her phone’s camera on that area earlier. The perps had used a bat or crowbar to bash in the large windows, and glass was strewn over the front sidewalk. At least one of them had cut themselves when they climbed inside. There were drops and smears of blood throughout the interior. She’d already gathered some samples for DNA testing, but the bloody smears turned into distinct prints in the office. One of the burglars spent quite a bit of time here, and that was where she’d been concentrating her efforts. But no longer.
Whoever was skulking outside had her full attention.
Nicky stepped forward, avoiding the half-dozen sunglasses knocked to the floor during the break-in. She turned her back to the wall, body coiled, and scanned the interior of the store for a change in the vague fluorescent light filtering into the room. Someone peering through the window would throw a shadow.
Her scalp prickled and a flash of heat swept over her skin. She swore she could feel a presence out there.
Waiting for her.
She drew in a slow breath, pulled her weapon, and pointed it down along her leg. Her finger rested across the trigger guard. She sidled closer to the window. Shards of glass littered the floor. The rubber soles of her boots muffled the crunch, but the sound was loud enough to make her wince. She paused, listening.
Seconds ticked by.
Nothing. No sound except the ever-present hum of the glass-doored coolers lining the back wall of the store.
She stayed in the shadows, her sharp gaze sweeping the gravel expanse of the parking lot. Tall, scraggly grass stood unmoving at the edge of the light. There was no wind, no scuttling leaves to explain away the noise.
Another minute passed. The feeling of a presence was fading. Nicky exhaled slowly. Her shoulders relaxed the tiniest bit, even as her expression twisted in faint confusion.
Had she been mistaken?
A movement caught her eye between the gas pumps, and she snapped her head to the right. Her body tensed. At a flash of color, Nicky stepped out of the shadows, not worried about the sound of scattering glass as she tracked the motion of …
A skinny brown rez dog wandered around the side of her unit, nose to the ground. Lifting its head, it sniffed the air. It trotted toward an overflowing trash can and rose up on its hind feet, one front paw positioned delicately against the side. Nicky’s lips pressed tight. You could count the ribs on that poor animal. Most likely it was a stray, but you never knew. It might belong to anyone in the village.
Relieved she had an answer to the sounds, Nicky holstered her pistol. Suddenly tired, she stretched, arching her back. Outside, the sky was beginning to gray. She checked the clock on the wall above the door. The sun would be up in a few minutes, and it would still take another hour to process the crime scene. Then she was going to canvass the nearest homes, to see if anyone had heard or seen anything. She probably wouldn’t be done until hours after her shift was officially over.
Her gaze focused closer, and she stared at the pale oval of her reflection in what was left of the glass window in front of her. Dark brown eyes stared back as she ran her hand over the top of her head and slid her fingers through the smooth, straight black hair of her ponytail. She was mistaken for Native all the time. Not by Indians—but by the non-Indians she encountered on the reservation and at the casino.
She sighed deeply, glanced at the dog one more time, and froze. A wave of unease washed over her, this time prickling up her back. The animal stared at the front of the store, fixated not on the place where she stood, but to the left of the window’s edge.
At the place where she’d first heard the noise.
Her hand dropped to her sidearm and Nicky jerked her head around. An old Native woman stared at her through the glass.
No. Not through the glass. In the glass.
The old woman’s face was in the glass.
Their eyes met, and every nerve in Nicky’s body stretched taut. The woman’s pupils glowed black, glittering and alive, sharp points embedded within a deeply wrinkled face. An ancient, disembodied face.
Nicky knew she was supposed to look away—had been told in no uncertain terms by her traditional friends on the rez—but she couldn’t move. She was transfixed.
The sun flashed over the horizon, blinding her.
But not before the woman smiled and turned away. Her long white hair whipped in the light—and she was gone.
Nicky yanked out her gun, hit the front door of the mini-mart hard, and ran outside into the brightness of dawn, skidding on the broken glass. The same scraping sound that had alerted her only a few minutes before grated along her skin.
A flash of white raced away and her arms swung up, the muzzle of her sidearm tracking a rabbit as it zigged and zagged out of the parking lot, across the road, and into the grass next to a trampled dirt path. She caught another movement out of the corner of her eye and her head swiveled to the dog. It cringed and shivered as it stared after the rabbit, before it backed up and loped away through the brush, tail tight between its legs.
Nicky’s flesh crawled with goose bumps. Heart thudding, she pointed her weapon to the ground, clutching its diamond-patterned grip so tightly it cut deep into the skin of her palm.
Dammit, dammit, dammit!
Scowling, she slammed her weapon back into its holster.
The old woman was back.
That meant life was about to get complicated—and a lot more dangerous.
Nicky pressed the switch on her unit’s radio. “Two-one-three, Dispatch, away from my vehicle. Available by portable.”
“Copy that, Sergeant, and out.”
She smoothed her hand across her breast pocket, feeling for her pen and small spiral notebook. The manager of the convenience store had come back half an hour ago to start cleanup. His statement was handwritten in the book and included an assurance that he’d get her the surveillance video.
Even though it was early, the sun was up and bright in a clear sky and the temperature was rising. It would be another warm day on the pueblo. She slipped her wraparound sunglasses over her eyes and closed the hatch of her Tahoe, the evidence she’d collected stowed in the back. The closest homes were a few hundred yards away, across the two-lane blacktop. A good place to start her canvass for witnesses.
And she would head down the dirt path where the rabbit had disappeared. She smirked. Down the rabbit hole, right where the old Indian woman was leading her.
A Fire-Sky Pueblo police unit sailed over a short rise up the road and the sound of classic rock swelled in the air. It swerved, tires crunching on the loose gravel of the mini-mart’s parking lot, and stopped next to her. Officer Manny Valentine grinned as the Rolling Stones blasted in all directions.
She stood silently, trying to keep the contempt for her fellow officer off her face.
“Hey, Matthews. Didn’t know you picked up this mess.” He leaned out the window and his grin morphed into a sneer. “Isn’t this below a sergeant’s pay grade?” He gave her a sleazy up-and-down that made Nicky want to put a bullet in his crotch. “You should make it a point to let your friends know what kind of work they have you doing.”
Her fingers twitched. Maybe between his eyes instead, but she doubted it would change his personality much.
“I’m off for a well-deserved rest. I’ll be seeing Captain before I head home. Anything you want me to tell him? After all, I’m his good buddy.”
The and you’re not hung in the air, unsaid.
“Watch yourself, now.” He peeled out, kicking up dirt and gravel that hit her in the legs and chest. A tiny piece of rock stung her cheek, but she didn’t flinch.
She stepped onto the blacktop, determined to focus on the case. Thinking about her job right now would be counterproductive, an unnecessary distraction. Besides, Captain was watching her like a hawk for any little screwup. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.
The dirt track on the other side of the road was well traveled. It snaked between two posts of a barbed-wire fence, the wire cut and looped back. Still dangerous if you weren’t careful. A dusty footprint headed away from the store, its tread pattern the same as one stamped in blood at the mini-mart. Nicky dropped a black-and-white ruler next to it, and with her cell phone snapped a half dozen pictures at different angles. The same imprint continued for several steps before she lost the trail.
An old single-wide mobile home was parked a couple hundred feet away. It was the closest to the crime scene and also the closest to the path. She’d start there.
Her gaze swept the field around her as she crunched through the dried grass, searching for evidence or signs of … what? The rabbit?
Exasperated, she stepped over the line of rocks that edged the rutted driveway to the trailer. A dented metallic-green ranfla, its paint faded and peeling, was parked under a listing shelter, red tape in place of one of the taillights. Broken pots, half filled with dirt and plants dead since the last century, were scattered around the cinder-block steps leading to the front door. The ground was scratched up around an area where part of the trailer’s skirt was missing. It looked like something pretty big lived underneath.
Nicky knocked on the door. Faded blue curtains twitched behind dirty windows. Her hand slipped to her sidearm. Just in case.
The door creaked open, its sound accompanied by a hacking cough coming from a thin, hunched man standing at the threshold. The smell of stale beer wafted over her. His arm came up to shield his eyes from the sun, a frown on his face. Nicky put his age at about forty.
“Hey,” he said in a raspy voice. He dropped his arm to hack into his sleeve.
“Good morning, sir. I’m Sergeant Monique Matthews from the Tsiba’ashi D’yini Pueblo police,” she said, using the Keresan name of the pueblo. “There was a break-in early this morning—about three-thirty—at the Fire-Sky Mini-Mart across the road. Did you hear or see anything suspicious?”
The guy rubbed his hand over his jaw and yawned. His face was haggard and pale, his black hair standing on end. Bloodshot eyes squinted at her. They topped heavy dark circles in the skin beneath them.
“Uh. Wait. I can’t see. Let me get my glasses.”
He stepped behind the door. Nicky tensed in case he bolted, but relaxed again when he returned with thick black-rimmed glasses perched on his face. The lenses made his eyes even smaller but—surprisingly—his face younger. She readjusted his age closer to thirty.
“Nah. I didn’t see or hear anything. I was too drunk last night. Asleep until you knocked.”
“May I have your name, sir?” She took out her notepad and pen.
“Howard Kie. Hey. You know you have blood on your face?”
The gravel flung up by Valentine’s unit.
“Mr. Kie, were you here all night?”
“Nah. Came home about two-thirty this morning. So, does Billy Oliver still work at the police department? He was a classmate of mine.” His eyes slid away from her.
Nicky didn’t know anyone with that name. “No, sir. Where were you before you came home?”
“At a bar. Over in Whyler.” A tiny town outside the reservation’s border. The pueblo was dry, but there were plenty of enterprising merchants just across the line that could quench a thirst for alcohol.
“So, you been at the police department long?” His glance skittered back to her face and the sun’s glare flashed off his glasses. “Do you investigate, like, murders and missing persons and stuff?”
It was the third time he’d tried to change the subject. Perps changed the subject.
“Five years.” She tilted her head and smiled. “Mr. Kie, may I come inside so we can talk? I’d like to get some more information from you, and I see the sun’s in your eyes.”
If anything, he paled even more and took a step back. “Nah, nah. I’m fine.”
Damn. She was losing him.
Her gaze dropped to his feet. He was wearing dusty cloth sneakers.
“Could I see the bottom of your shoes?” If the tread was even close to what she’d seen at the mini-mart, she’d have probable cause for a search warrant.
He blinked rapidly. “Uh, sure. Sure.” He wiggled off a shoe and handed it to her. She flipped it over.
Not the same tread. She gave it back to him and extracted one of her cards from her vest.
“Here’s my phone number and email. If you remember anything, please don’t hesitate to call.”
He brought her card up close to his face, then peeked over it, brows puckered.
She turned to leave and stopped. She had to know.
“Mr. Kie? One more thing. Does anyone around the area raise rabbits? In particular, white rabbits?”
His jaw went slack. “What? You saw a white rabbit?” he asked, voice rising. “Where?”
Nicky cleared her throat. “This morning, at the store. It ran in this direction.”
“Dza. Nah. No white rabbits. Never,” he said, shaking his head so hard he had to put a hand up to catch his glasses.
“Well, thank you for your time. Please give me a call if you remember anything.”
She left, following the driveway out to a dirt road that led to the next house.
* * *
As she walked away, Howard swallowed both fear and excitement.
Maybe, just maybe, this cop would listen to him. Maybe he could make her understand that terrible things were happening on the pueblo. Maybe.
After all, she’d seen the white rabbit.
Copyright © 2018 Carol Potenza.