Antone studied each in turn, then stacked them, straightened them on the countertop, and slid them back into the envelope. Without a word, he handed the pictures back to me, turned, and walked away from me into the office from which he had emerged when I arrived. A moment later, he appeared with a file folder in his hands. He held out the file and stared expectantly at me. I failed to read the expression on his face as I took it from him. I opened it and slid out a stack of reports, beneath which was a series of digital photographs.
“This is what I sent to the Phoenix Bureau a month ago,” he said.
There was a picture of another mountain from a distance, then one of a trail running between two steep red rock walls. A classic bottleneck. I didn’t see the blood spatters on the path until I turned the page and viewed the detail shot. The final three pictures were all of the twenty-foot design painted on the rocks in the victim’s blood.
“That’s Fresnal Canyon, about twenty miles south-southeast of here.”
When I glanced up from the pages, I couldn’t hide the surprise on my face. We were on a level playing field again, at least for the moment. And then he took the advantage back.
With a vengeance.
“Damned if you aren’t the spitting image of your old man, but I’ll bet you must hear that all the time.”
The Tohono O’odham Nation is the third largest Native American reservation in the country. The forty-five hundred square miles of desert land is divided into eleven geographical districts, which are governed by a council and an elected chairperson. The better part of its traditional land was acquired in the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 and then bisected by the now hotly contested Arizona border. Once known as Indian Oasis, the city of Sells changed its name in 1913 to honor Cato Sells, whose name in the O’odham language means “tortoise got wedged.” It serves as the capital and government seat and houses roughly three thousand of the twenty thousand total O’odham, which kind of explained why I didn’t have to look especially hard to find the police station.
The whole town was smaller than the subdivision in which I lived with my grandparents. I tried to imagine how I would have felt had my neighborhood been overrun by thousands of immigrants every day, some armed and toting drugs on their backs, others starving and dropping dead in the hills. I tried to imagine armed federal agents cruising the streets and Blackhawks beating the air overhead, day and night. Then I tried to imagine being impoverished and roasting alive on top of it all, a citizen of a country largely oblivious to my daily suffering and yet entirely separate from it, isolated from blood relations on the other side of an invisible line and unable to visit for fear I would never be able to return again.
And, ultimately, failed.
Not that I lack the imagination, but because the entire situation is far outside of my realm of comprehension. All I know is that even putting myself in that fictional position in my mind made me uncomfortable. I felt helpless. I felt hopeless. And I felt angry.
But angry enough to kill?
That was a line in the sand that took a certain kind of individual to cross, one already predisposed to sociopathic tendencies. And at this point I couldn’t even be sure our suspect pool consisted of the twenty thousand O’odham. Any person from any state could have driven down here for a hunting expedition, and any bandit willing to smuggle drugs and potentially shoot federal agents couldn’t be placed above killing for pleasure.
I was no better off now than I had been when I stepped off the plane this morning. Worse, actually. At least had we taken my car we could have enjoyed the modern convenience of air conditioning. The chief’s squad car was like a sauna. He smirked every time I toggled the AC switch. I was starting to think of it as a stick I used to poke the midget who lived under the hood, prompting him to blow his rank breath through a straw and into the vents.
This kind of heat does strange things to your brain, as I was coming to learn. I saw lakes on the horizon, but we never seemed to reach them as they poured off the edge of the earth. I was saving the last two sips of my bottled water for when I needed them most, even though I knew they were evaporating by the second. My mouth was filled with the salty taste of my own sweat and the greedy passenger seat was soaking up every drop I wasted. I had a Beretta Px4 Storm .40 caliber under my left arm, there was a sawed-off twelve-gauge Remington bolted to the console between us, and Antone had a Smith & Wesson M&P .357 magnum semiautomatic in a holster under his right. I considered myself an even-tempered and level-headed individual, but a part of me really wanted to draw any one of those three and paint that smug grin of his all over the interior.
I hadn’t risen to the bait he had dangled in front of me back at the station, but I knew it was only a matter of time. Eventually, I would stop deluding myself, and, in doing so, would sacrifice every advantage I currently held, which really only boiled down to the fact that my badge was bigger than his.
“Fresnal Canyon’s just up there.” Antone nodded toward the towering red rocks up the rise and to our left. “That mountain over there. Kind of looks a little like a top hat? That’s Baboquivari. Waw Kiwulik in our native tongue. It is the most sacred of all places to our people.”
That he had said “our” and not “my” didn’t escape my notice. Sure, a part of me was curious. Who wouldn’t be? I knew next to nothing about this half of my heritage, but I wasn’t in any kind of mood to be drawn into this world right now. At least not while I had a job to do.
Antone went on anyway, despite the fact that I tried to appear as though I hadn’t heard him. I stared out the window to my right, watching the creosotes and palo verdes fly past through the cloud of red dust that accumulated on the glass, and somehow inside of the car, as well.
“There’s a cave below the peak. That’s where I’itoi lives. He’s our mischievous creator god. When the world was first born, he led the Hohokam, from whom we descended, up from the underworld and to the surface. His home is within that cave, deep in the heart of a maze. Visitors to the cave must bring him an offering to guarantee their safe return.”
“I guess our victim must have forgotten to bring along an offering for this mischievous god of yours.”
“Don’t be too quick to lay this at the feet of I’itoi. There are many gods of mischief out here in the desert.”
“Probably ought to look into getting that problem taken care of.”
“You mock me, but you don’t know the desert. Coyote is the most mischievous trickster of all, and it’s thanks to the ineptitude of your policies that we have so many coyotes running amok out here.”
“If it weren’t for NAFTA and the sudden influx of cheap American corn, these people wouldn’t need to risk their lives braving this heat in search of minimum wage—”
“If your reservation didn’t offer them unmolested passage, they wouldn’t be risking their lives braving this heat.”
“I do not condone the smuggling of illegal substances on my reservation, humans included. I don’t want drugs in the hands of my children any more than you do. But you try telling a rancher who gets a two thousand dollar annual treatise stipend from a government that claims ownership of his land that he can’t feed both his starving animals and his family. You try telling a single mother she’s going to have to leave her home in search of a job or subsist on the paltry sum the casino pays out once a year. These men come in here with cash money, and a lot of it at that. They throw it around like they have more than they could ever want. Heck, what’s the harm in letting a man store some things in your barn when he’s willing to pay you five grand a month? Or how about that single mother who suddenly meets a nice man who’s willing to take good care of her and her children and all she has to do is look the other way from time to time? This is our daily reality. The law—my law, your law—doesn’t exist out here. When it comes right down to it, these smugglers are a whole lot less intrusive than the damn green and white Explorers tearing up our land and the war choppers thundering over our homes and sweeping their spotlights across our windows all night long. But you wouldn’t know about things like that, would you? How could you possibly understand?”