With a sigh, I reluctantly opened the door and climbed out onto the gravel parking lot. The searing heat hit me squarely in the chest and I inhaled fire into my lungs. How anyone could endure this climate on a daily basis was beyond me. By the time I passed the second-hand cruisers—which looked like early nineties model Caprice Classics handed down by another department whose logo still showed through from beneath the tribal seal—and entered the station, I was ready to trade my soul for a tall glass of something even remotely cold. What I found was all of the humidity that had somehow been sucked right out of the arid region.
A ceiling fan turned overhead and a window-mount swamp cooler chugged from behind the unmanned front counter, blowing little more than the rapidly evaporating hot water. I felt like I’d walked into a gym locker room. Beads of sweat rolled down my back between my shoulder blades. Maybe I should have just called from my car. After all, this was just a simple notification to let them know I would be actively conducting an investigation within their jurisdiction, one that required neither their assistance nor consent. I was just about to turn around when I heard the clomp of footsteps on the hollow wooden floor and a large man appeared from the office door at the back of the room.
He wore a tan uniform with the Great Seal of the Tohono O’odham Nation on the shoulder and a badge on his chest. I say wearing, but what I really mean was bursting out of. The collar threatened to cut off circulation to his head, which sat on a triple ring of chins, and his belly hung over his belt to such a degree that his shirt couldn’t possibly remain tucked in. He had jet-black hair and dark, hooded eyes, which glittered with an intelligence belied by his sloppy appearance. It looked like he’d lost an argument with his razor. There were small nicks and cuts all over his jaw line and neck.
He stopped mid-stride and turned to face me. He looked me up and down for a long moment, then slapped the files he’d been carrying onto a desk at the back of the small squad room. The phone on the desk rang, but he paid it no mind.
I watched his face, zeroed in on his eyes, but for the life of me, I couldn’t read him, which was a unique and somewhat disorienting experience for me. He must have read the expression on mine, because he placed his fists on his hips and cracked a crooked smile.
He said something in a language I didn’t understand. The words were blunt and halting and delivered with an almost singsong rhythm.
I shook my head.
“It’s about time,” he said in English. “We’ve been expecting you.”
“You’ve been expecting me?”
“We were expecting you about a month ago. That’s why I said it was about time.”
“A month ago?”
“Suddenly there’s an echo in here?”
“I’m at a loss.”
“You’re a fed, right?”
“Special Agent Lukas Walker. FBI.”
“And you’re here because of the report I faxed to the Phoenix office last month…”
He pantomimed a rolling gesture with his hands like he was trying to coax the rest of the story out of me.
“No. I haven’t been briefed on your report. I’m here on an entirely different matter.” I smiled. “Why don’t we start over?”
“I think that would be for the best.”
I flashed my shield, leaned across the front counter, and extended my arm over the logbook.
“Special Agent Lukas Walker. FBI.”
“Chief Ray Antone. Tribal Police.”
He shook my proffered hand and discreetly wiped his palm on his trousers. Like I could help it. It had to be a hundred and twenty degrees in here.
“So if you aren’t here at my request,” Chief Antone said, “then why are you here?”
I walked slowly from one side of the entryway to the other, checking out the small adobe structure. The walls were thin and cracked. There were points where the grid pattern of the chicken wire framework showed through discolored patches. The laminate desks were chipped and mottled with cigarette burns. The overhead fluorescent tubes hummed and flickered. The computers on the desks were bulky old Gateway PCs. Against the rear wall, behind the desks, were rows of dented file cabinets incapable of closing with all of the paper poking out, framed pictures of the new Tribal Council Building I passed on the way here, and a faded painting of the tribal seal on the wall above a fancy stainless steel coffeemaker. The sunshine outside was attenuated by the accumulation of dust on the windows.
It was exactly what you would expect from an underfunded tribal police station in the middle of nowhere and it looked as though great care went into the perpetuation of that image. After all, I had seen the craftsmanship of the council building and figure whoever did that job undoubtedly had an exclusive contract and could have done a better job patching the walls in here with his feet. I could also see the bulge of a smart phone in the chief’s front breast pocket. This was a man willing to let people think him primitive and incompetent in order to gain the initial advantage, but not at the expense of his taste for a good cup of coffee.
I liked him already.
That didn’t mean I was ready to concede that advantage, however. And I still hadn’t figured out how to read him. A man accustomed to the daily maintenance of such an elaborate lie undoubtedly knew what he was doing.
“Why do you think I’m here?”
“Why do you think someone’s dead?”
“I’ve got a reservation crawling with drug runners, a twelve-year-old granddaughter who thinks she’s twenty-two, and my sciatica’s acting up something fierce. But you’re right…I’ve got nothing better to do than verbally spar with you, so I’ll play along. If you were investigating trafficking, you’d be part of a task force and wouldn’t be able to go anywhere without your ATF gorilla escort. If the problem was the gangs moving out onto our land, they would have sent someone of Hispanic descent. The only reason that I can think of for a handsome young buck with native blood like yourself to be out here is if there’s the potential for media involvement and the boys back in Washington don’t want to end up with a racial issue on their hands. You’re obviously educated and the fact that you don’t have a partner attached to your hip suggests a certain amount of autonomy, at least in the field. And I know the federal government doesn’t trust anyone. So that means you’re working closely with important people who can’t be bothered to waste their precious time on actual physical investigative work. They trust you well enough to serve as their eyes and ears, but you also have the law enforcement skills to potentially bring permanent resolution to the situation. So I ask you again, who died?”
“I was hoping you could tell me.”
“You’re just trying to piss me off now, aren’t you?”
I smiled. I still couldn’t read him, but I had gained the upper hand in the situation. It wasn’t much of an advantage, though. Not yet anyway.
I removed a manila envelope from under my jacket and set it on the counter between us. Antone looked up at me and I nodded. He opened the envelope and slid out three pieces of paper. Each was a photocopy of a digital picture forwarded to my office three days ago from the Border Patrol station in Ajo via the Phoenix office. The first was of the cliff side itself for locational triangulation, the second of the ground where the victim had bled out, and the third was of the smiley face painted on the wall.