CHAPTER 1: AND IT’S MURDER
Summer, northern Arizona Hopi Reservation, Hotevilla
“Rachel never came to the Kachina Dances,” Mac was saying, “She was far too much a lady.”
Jessica felt the usual companion of jealousy stand just behind her, a cold hand on her shoulder, horrible and mean. It always visited her when anyone mentioned Rachel, her husband’s dead first wife. She stayed brave and glanced up at him now, seeing the usual reaction there on his handsome face; pale and tight-lipped silence.
Rachel had died over a year ago, but in the six months Jessica had known Alex, she’d come to discover that he still loved his achingly beautiful first wife who died long before she’d met him. His reaction was always the same; he hated anyone bringing up the past. It was her job to help him forget, or their marriage of three months would not survive.
The three of them stood in silence as an expectant hush came over the village, and in the distance a gentle tinkling sound floated on the summer breeze to mix with the lone buzz of a fly. High in the sky a hazy sun gave the pueblos an almost buttery hue. Both of the observers standing with Jessica on the roof looked in anticipation to the east, and she shifted her gaze in the same direction.
“They’ll come to the plaza through the alley to your right,” Alex whispered into her ear. His eclectic accent came from the many languages he spoke, and it gave an artistic twist to his words. He stood behind her, tall and shading her from the summer heat. He always allowed his hair to grow to long and it now tangled in the breeze while he looked down at her with a smile, his teeth white against his tanned skin. Rachel’s memory, and the jealousy, faded for the moment.
After a bit, she began to wonder if she should have brought a hat to protect her from the Arizona desert sun. Almost everyone around her was Hopi, and she was sure none of them felt the heat like she did with her light hair and pale skin.
Mac, a friend and colleague of her husband’s, touched her shoulder just where the jealousy and fear had a moment earlier. She felt a shiver go down her spine. “I saw someone I need to talk to,” he said quietly. “I’ll come back up and join the two of you at the end of this dance. Do you mind?” He was an anthropologist, like her husband, and had tagged along with them for the day. Now they bargained to meet him at their truck on a break, and Jessica caught a glimpse of his blonde head as he climbed off the roof and down the ancient ladder. He soon disappeared into the crowd.
They were on the Hopi Reservation in northern Arizona, attending the home Dance in the village of Hotevilla on Second Mesa. It was an annual religious dance where the Native American people of the village said good-bye to the Kachinas; the Hopi’s spiritual beings that they believed took physical appearance during the growing season. This dance was giving them a send off after the long winter and spring months. The Hopi believed that the Kachinas were on a trip back to their home on the thirteen-thousand foot San Francisco Peaks that rose out of the Arizona desert over a hundred miles away.
Jessica’s eye caught a blaze of color coming through the crowd in the street below. Holding her breath, she watched from her perch on the roof as a line of at least fifteen Kachinas came into the village plaza just below them. The gentle tinkling she’d heard earlier came from bells that were attached to their knee-high leggings. This was her first glimpse of the famous Kachinas and she wasn’t disappointed. Each dancer wore a large wooden mask that completely covered the head. The masks were artistically painted white, accented with brilliant turquoise, black and red. From the top sprouted feathers and pine twigs, and a bushy, pine-bough collar graced each of the dancer’s shoulders.
After entering the small plaza, which was nothing more than a dirt-floored space between four different mud buildings, all of the dancers formed a circle and stood in silent expectation. An elder white haired man, dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt, sprinkled each Kachina and spoke so quietly that Jessica found herself leaning dangerously over the edge of the roof, trying to catch his words.
“He’s blessing them with corn,” Alex told her softly in explanation. Both of them were Buddhists, but still very interested in other religions in the world.
Looking back into the square, she saw that the Kachinas stood motionless for a few moments as the elder’s voice spoke on, dusting each dancer.
Alex spoke to her quietly, his attention on the dancers, “I’m thirsty. I’m going to the truck to get some water. You don’t mind, do you?”
She smiled up at him and admired his dark hair tangling in the light breeze. “That’s ok I can wait. You should hurry though.”
Without another comment, he gave her a quick kiss, then left her and followed Mac’s route off the roof with a brief wave and a quick “I’ll be right back.”
She watched his head with dark, shinny hair, bob along through the crowd below her. He stood heads taller than all the natives lining the way, so she was able to watch his progress until he disappeared around a corner.
After Alex’s departure, she stood for several minutes watching the activity in the plaza, shifting from foot to foot. She was totally clueless as to what the dancers were doing, and without Alex to explain the intricate ceremony, she felt lost.
With a sudden decision made, she turned and made her way to the ladder deciding to follow Alex to the truck. She wanted a hat to shade her head from the sun anyway, and she knew she’d rather see the dance with him there.
On the ground, she began her walk to the truck, suddenly a little uncertain of her route. She remembered the blue screen door and a pile of juniper wood stacked against a brown adobe wall with a plastic truck in the dirt next to it. Hadn’t Alex made a joke about the truck on their way down this same alley earlier that morning?
As she turned the corner of a pueblo that had been sheared up with chicken wire and mud, she noticed a rangy man leaning against the wall of an adjacent alley. He was looking directly at her from beneath the rim of a bright red ball cap. As soon as she’d looked his way, he’d stood away from the wall, taking his hands from his pockets. He looked Native American, but his features were more elongated than a Hopi, and because of that she thought that he didn’t look as if he belonged.
Walking in the deserted dirt alley, keeping in the buildings’ shadow, she moved toward the south side of the village. Glancing instinctively behind her, Jessica saw that the stranger had begun following her. His hands were jammed back in his pockets, and his long stringy hair flopped in a breeze that made its way between the buildings.
Uncertain if the stranger’s path just happen to match her own, Jessica casually turned down another back alley, the thought of meeting Alex forgotten. The man followed her route, and she then knew that he had singled her out as a target. He had picked up his pace, and was gaining ground, directly meeting her eye as she looked nervously over her shoulder. She felt a little snap of fear, but thought she must be wrong. Why would anyone follow her?
Deciding that her immediate need was to get back to the crowd, she picked up her pace. She tried to judge where the plaza was from the sound of the chanting and drums that came to her from a distance. She could hear the dancers chants rise up and fall, the sound bouncing off the pueblo walls and confusing her sense of direction. The song would build to a peak, hesitate, almost dwindle and then suddenly begin to gain momentum, the volume creating echoes all around her.
She was beginning to realize that she was very alone in a village where she knew no one and the vulnerability it gave her was not welcomed. She wasn’t sure why the man was following her, but he had left an impression of acne scars and greasy hair. She began to sweat from her rapid walk, and her breathing became labored. Now she was pissed-off and gave a brief thought to turning on the man and challenging him outright.
She gave a darted look behind her once more before turning another corner toward what she hoped was the plaza, and saw that her stalker was almost upon her. Not only that, but she had seen something glint in his right hand, now low at his side. She had this terrifying thought that it might be a knife, and the image of the cold steel in her ribs caused her to almost stumble in her hurry.
She told herself that she was being ridiculous, but she still broke into a trot, skidding a little in the dirt as she took a left turn down another small alley. Just as she rounded the corner, the sound of the chanting came full force and she realized she’d made it to the plaza with the dancers and a crowd of onlookers.
Pushing her way into the throng, she didn’t hesitate to begin a path to the other side of the plaza. She quickly turned to see that her follower had slowed, but the crowd had not stopped his progress. The chanting and the beat of the drums had risen to a feverish pitch, much louder now that she was right in the mix.
The rhythm played in Jessica’s chest, along with her racing heart, still accelerated from her run. She clenched her teeth, feeling the grittiness left by the dust that rose from the dancers as they stamped in a circle around the plaza. They were so close that she could hear the grunts and overworked breathing as they labored around her under the tremendous weight of the masks. She had an intense impression of large, sweating bodies covered in a rusty red grease paint, decorated with white markings. The sound of the rattles and the vibration of each foot tromping with the sharp tinkle of the bells sounded loud in her ears. The dancers’ aura filled the square, their strength and presence was striking. Jessica felt small and jarringly out of place, and she knew the man following her was close and in pursuit behind her.
The pueblo walls facing the plaza each had a line of onlookers – one and two deep. As she moved between them and the Kachinas, her shoulders stiff with discomfort, she shot sharp glances around her. Each man, woman and child watched her progress, silent and staring as she moved among them, her fair skin and hair color setting her apart from the others.
The dancers’ circle had spread to meet the line of onlookers, effectively blocking her route of escape. She noticed a space along a wall left open by someone and quickly claimed it, and then turned to look back the way she’d come. She saw that the man had stopped following her. She wondered if she’d imagined it and sighed in frustration. When the Hopi woman next to her gave her a smile she felt safer for the moment and trying to set aside what happened, she took a deep breath and leaned against the warm adobe wall to collect herself.
Slowly, through a dreamlike haze, the faint thump of the drum and the hum of the dancers’ voices hung in the quiet air of the village and rose up around Jessica. Each Kachina wore a kilt that came to mid-thigh and a woven belt tied around the waist. She caught a glimpse of a small figure dressed like a woman wearing a black wig and painted facemask standing in the middle of the huge Kachina gods. Carrying a huge drum face-up and suspended from around her neck, she was beating out a steady rhythm, like a mother leading her children.
As if on cue, what appeared to be the leader of the dancers began to build the chanting by shaking his brightly painted rattle more rapidly, while the woman with the drum picked up the rhythm. The leader’s bare, powerful legs lifted and pounded as the other dancers joined him. Low, strong voices broke back into song, compelling, with infinite variations that Jessica had failed to recognize earlier from the roof.
The line of Kachinas started picking up momentum, moving slowly around the plaza in a circle, following the leader in a counter-clockwise direction. Dust again rose up around them as they stamped and shuffled their feet, and Jessica was mesmerized by the sound of their chant, the rattles and the drum.
She closed her eyes for a moment and just listened to the ancient sounds of the Hopi Kachinas singing to their village. She felt a little dizzy and, for that space in time, she lived in another reality—her thirst, her pursuer, and her husband—all forgotten. Opening her eyes, she skimmed the old pueblo buildings that stood around the plaza holding onlookers on the roofs as they had for centuries. All the homes in the village maze were constructed from mud, adobe bricks and blended in with the surrounding desert landscape.
By choice there were no telephone poles, no streetlights, and no hum of air conditioners. She could smell the ancient scent of the village and the wood smoke that came from the many cooking fires. She felt connected with the ancient mesa on which the little village was resting, the waving heat of summer rising off the desert around them. As the song of the dancers rose and fell, she found herself a part of this world where magic floated around her. Licking the salty sweat from above her upper lip, she tasted the dirt as if it might be an elixir that could keep her captured in the past. She swayed on her feet, feeling a little high, and a little elated and one with all the colors, smells and sounds.
A blur of red caught her peripheral vision, and Jessica was brought back to the present with a jolt. She wiped under her sweaty eyes and glanced to the spot where the man following her had chosen to stand and saw that he was still watching her, leaning indolently against the wall once more.
The dancers chanting stopped and they turned as a group and each picked up heavy burlap sacks and baskets that had been left earlier in the center of the plaza. Now, they began pulling items out to throw into the crowd, and Jessica remembered Alex telling her there would be gifts made from corn, a holy food to the Hopi. Candied popcorn balls, and pikki bread, an onionskin thin corn bread, both yellow and blue, delicately rolled and placed into small zip-lock bags. Jessica watched as they also threw apples and oranges, causing a flurry of laughter from onlookers who dodged the fruit, trying to catch it as it whizzed by.
The north side of the plaza was filled with a few rows of folding chairs where Alex told her the honored family members sit. The Kachinas walked among the children and young people and handed out items such as small, hand-carved Kachina Dolls, beautiful woven baskets and toy-hunting bows with colorful arrows. The children’s giggles and chatter bubbled up as they showed their gifts to their parents, probably just as the parents had when they were children.
Jessica used this activity and confusion to slip out the opposite side of the plaza, thinking to escape the watchful eye of her follower. Trying to get her sense of direction back, she wondered if she’d ever find her way to the roof where she and Alex were supposed to meet. She moved between the buildings, quickly glancing behind her to see if the red baseball cap was still in pursuit. She felt great relief when he was nowhere to be seen.
To her surprise, after only a few minutes, she came out of the crowd of small pueblos and saw Mac sitting on a large, flat rock in the shade of a cottonwood tree. He was tying his hiking boot, bent over and intent.
“Mac!” she called, waving over her head so he’d see her among the few other people walking around. His head came up at the sound of her voice and as soon as he recognized her, he stood and waved back, smiling.
“I was just getting ready to re-join you on the roof,” Mac told Jessica as she walked toward him. He sat back down and patted the rock, indicating that she should join him. He seemed in no hurry to return.
As she sat next to him, the shade of the tree was a welcome relief from the sun. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath and slowly let it out. She briefly thought of telling Mac about the man in the red cap, but she realized that she was a little embarrassed. She decided it was better to be silent, and now that she felt safe, it felt unimportant.
Mac took his old felt hat off his head and began to fan her. “Jeez, you look as if you could use some shade, luv,” he said with concern. “You’re face is flushed.” She wasn’t hot, just a little frustrated. She let it go as his imagination.
Like her husband, he also had an accent, but it was obviously Australian. It was in that country where he and Alex first met. Mac was now living in northern Arizona and studying the learning styles of native people all over the world, including those on the reservation in Arizona. He was a man of high intelligence, medium height, and gave the impression of stature simply because of his perfectly erect posture.
Jessica smiled her thanks at him and explained how she’d tried to follow Alex to the truck and gotten lost in the confusion of pueblos.
With a chuckle in response to her deliberately woeful expression, Mac swung a sloshing canteen from his side, removed the lid and offered it to her. At that moment she gave no thought to anything but the cool canteen that she grasped with both hands like an eager child and tilted her head back, allowing the water to dribble a little in her haste. It was only a little cool, but sweet and wet.
He gently took the canteen from her and dampened his handkerchief before placing the cap back on. Jessica was surprised by his solicitation. She knew he was being over protective and she wondered why.
“It’s such a shame that these dances might soon be closed to the public,” Mac commented looking off over her shoulder toward the village.
“Really?” Jessica asked with surprise, “Why would they do that?”
“Because most outsiders just don’t understand the importance of the dances. Too many people come, but don’t take the time to learn even a little about the culture.” He saw Jessica’s puzzled look and continued. “Well, take for example, a visitor I saw today from Japan. He went over to a Kiva and climbed up its ladder to photograph the street. The Kiva is a very sacred building to the Hopi, and no one is allowed to touch it or stand by it when the Kachinas are in residence. Not to mention that photos are not allowed.” Mac ran his fingers through his short, blonde hair. “Sometimes I’m embarrassed when I’m here.
Jessica noticed that his cropped hair barely moved in the breeze. He was a fit man of solid muscle, tanned and lean, and wore a mustache and beard. He favored the expected khaki shorts, a light tan tee shirt and sturdy brown hiking boots. Jessica had thought from the beginning that his face was mild and gentle. They sat there a few more moments and just when Jessica was about to suggest they rejoin Alex, Mac shocked her with a question.
“Jessica,” he said in a quiet tone, “How much do you know about Rachel’s death?”
Jessica blinked her surprise. “Not much, actually,” she admitted to Mac, “Alex is reluctant to speak of it and, I don’t know, I guess I respect his privacy.” She watched as he dropped his eyes and realized that his mood had grown very serious.
He stood up and turned away from her, looking out across the desert plain. “I know this must be hard for you,” he said shifting his gaze to his feet, not speaking for several moments. Then he turned and lifted his intense blue eyes to look straight at her. While she’d thought him mild looking, she now realized that his blue eyes gave away a quick and clever mind. His Australian accent became more pronounced as he said. “Jessica, I have a real concern for your safety. I believe you’re in danger.”
She just sat there staring into his face, feeling different emotions rise inside of her in response to his comment. He seemed sincere and her next thought was of the man in the red ball cap and his pursuit.
“I have two things to tell you,” Mac went on, stepping so close to her she had to lean back. “One, Rachel’s death was not accidental, and two, she was not alone that night on Blue Moon Bench where her deserted auto was found.” Jessica stared at him, too surprised to say anything.
“When she was found dead at the bottom of the Grand Canyon,” he continued fiddling with the canteen now strung back over his shoulder, “The FBI was called in and the blokes claimed there was nothing that would lead them to believe there was any ‘foul play’,” Mac told her. “I, on the other hand, think differently.”
Jessica sat very still, afraid to look away from his intense eyes. She wanted to know. A breeze rustled the leaves of the tree high above her and the dappled shadows danced nervously across his face. The drums and chanting in the distance sounded surrealistic.
“I won’t say any more now,” Mac told her. “Just ask yourself this. If Rachel was one of the most loved women alive, how could she end up dead at the bottom of a desolate canyon? She was beautiful, accomplished, and happy. Ask yourself why she’d drive out alone so late to the Navajo Reservation, leaving her guests on the night of a big party in her own home?” He stood in front of her looking down into her upturned face. “I really like you, Jessica. I would hate to see you hurt. Take care of yourself. I’m here if you need a friend.”
Jessica searched his face once again and saw that his eyes were filled with concern and he seemed sincere. She took a breath as if being awakened, his words echoing in her ears. How do you process a comment like that?
She thought a moment and then asked, “What are you saying?” She leaned forward to rise, her motion forcing him to step back, giving her room to stand.
Looking around as if he were worried someone might hear them, he moved closer toward her and placed his hand on her back, whispering into her ear. “Alex had an alibi for the night she died. I’d check it out if I were you, mate. I think it’s a lie.” His Australian accent had grown so thick she wasn’t sure she’d heard right. His breath was hot on her neck. Jessica jerked away and met his eyes, his hand now resting on her shoulder.
“Jessica! Mac! Where did you both go?” Alex’s voice came to them from a short distance and they both jumped, as if guilty, and turned toward him.
Jessica worked at keeping calm, while she had a tangle of reaction inside. She threw Mac one swift glance and then put it aside for the moment. What else could she do? She moved toward her husband. “I decided to follow you to the truck and lost my way,” she told him in explanation. “I came upon Mac, and he acted as rescuer, giving me some of his water.”
Alex put his arm protectively around her and his attention-helped calm her emotions; she gave him a small smile, searching his face and saw no duplicity. Mac was making busy with his canteen, obviously shifting his own mood to accommodate Alex’s arrival. Mac must be confused was all Jessica could think, he has to be confused.
“I insisted she sit here in the shade and cool off.” Mac volunteered. Jessica was impressed with how ordinary he looked now. His smile small and tight, his complexion a little paler, but his hat was back on his head at a cocky angle.
Alex fussed over her a bit, and after she insisted she was fine, he said, “The first set is over and the dancers have gone back to rest. I brought the water and my pack with some goodies from the truck, thinking we could grab a little lunch while we waited for the next dance to start.”
“That was a great idea, darling,” Jessica said, taking his pack and laying it on the large flat rock where Mac sat. She wasn’t sure she could eat, but anything that could distract her from the memory of Mac’s comment was welcomed.
While she and Alex began unwrapping the lunch, Mac began making jokes in a light, almost normal tone. They all sat on the flat rocks in the shade, eating a lunch well packed by their housekeeper, waiting for the dancers’ rest to end. Jessica found she could act casual and ordinary in a day that had turned a little odd.
They exchanged comments about the dancers, but after a bit it became evident that Mac had grown decidedly quiet. Alex, noticing his mood, asked if he was OK. He gave a ghost of a smile and without prompting began telling them a strange story that started almost as if he were revealing a secret folktale.
“Long ago, deep in winter,” he began, “The Bean Dance, another celebration open to outsiders, had begun with its usual colorful parade of Kachinas through the village streets. While waiting for the dancers to pass by, two women tourists unwittingly leaned against the Kiva they stood next to. Almost immediately, a Whipper Kachina came out of the crowd and approached them.”
“What’s a Whipper Kachina?” Jessica asked when Mac paused.
“A kind of police, or peacekeeper, if you will,” Mac told her. His eyes darted to Alex as he continued his story. Jessica followed his gaze and saw that Alex stood watching Mac, his expression unreadable.
“The Whipper saw the two women touching the Kiva and gestured for them to move away. But they smiled; they didn’t understand. So, the Kachina lunged toward them, and struck them with his whip. The whip is a symbol of his office, a staff the Whipper must carry.” Jessica shifted on her hard rock and watched Mac, becoming fascinated. As he spoke, his voice had gotten quieter with each word until she had to lean forward to catch the last sentence. “The Whipper gestured one more time for them to move, but the women started laughing.”
Suddenly, his voice became loud and forceful. “Like a snake striking, the Whipper began beating these women with the whips. They ducked and cringed, but he was relentless, hitting their shoulders and their heads. Everyone grew silent in the crowd.” He dropped his arms before letting out a breath, and turning his gaze toward Alex. “In the crowd was a man, an outsider. He leaped forward and tore the whips out of the Kachina’s hand, bringing them to a halt—a discipline that has been around for centuries! He interfered in the ritual of religious belief that should never be tampered with!” His voice hinted at disgust.
“And what he hasn’t told you yet,” Alex suddenly interjected in a quiet voice, “but I’m certain he will eventually, is that the man was me.”
Jessica turned toward Alex in surprise as he continued. “And he also failed to tell you that the whips don’t really hurt. They are designed to create more noise and theatrics then harm. With my help, the women finally realized what they needed to do, and moved away from the Kiva.” Alex gave a careless shrug. “Really Mac, you’ve become dramatic in your old age.”
All three of them sat in the silence. Jessica caught Mac casting a dark look toward Alex, and saw that Alex wore a mildly tolerant expression. She wondered over the encounter, especially after the brief conversation she’d had with Mac before. Maybe he was just a man who loved attention and liked center stage. She’d look at that later when she was alone.
A sudden quickening of the crowd told them the dancers were done resting and were headed back to the plaza. Alex gathered the leftovers and zipped them back into his pack. He removed an ugly fishing hat from another compartment and, smiling, put it on Jessica’s head.
“There, that will protect that fair skin of yours,” he said, giving her a quick kiss before swinging his pack over his shoulder. The three of them headed for the ladder that would lead them back onto the roof.
The rest of the day was a blur, dampened by her conversation with Mac, and the ugliness of the fishing hat. Jessica wanted to dismiss what Mac had said to her and thought that a true friend would have never handled it that way. And was he serious when he said that Alex’s alibi might be a lie? The thought carried a lot of karma she thought. Was she brave enough to delve deeper?
When the last dance was finished and the Kachinas began to disperse, Mac decided to head back to town. Before walking away, he gave Jessica a meaningful look and a quick hug, while she stood a little rigid and unresponsive. He then threw Alex a quick wave and turned to walk to his car. Alex looked after him, puzzled. “I wonder what’s bothering Mac. He seemed rather moody,” Alex said. “Oh well,” he shrugged, “Guess the old boy has got things on his mind.”
“I guess he does,” Jessica thought, “Murder!”