Authors: J. A. Jance
DAY OF THE DEAD
This book is dedicated to the memory of
bestselling American storyteller Harold Bell Wright,
who, in the early 1900s, realized that if they weren’t
written down, the ancient stories of the Tohono
O’odham people would be forever lost. It is thanks to
him that many of these stories remain.
NOVEMBER 2, 1970
It was Monday, so Benny Gutierrez was fighting a hangover—a serious hangover. He had gone to the dance at Crow Hang on Friday and then spent all of Saturday and Sunday timed-out with some of his buddies over at the Three Points Trading Post just east of the Papago Reservation boundary. Now, as he halfheartedly dragged the plastic trash bag along Highway 86 west of Sells, what he wanted in the worst way was a hit of fortified wine—the drink everyone on the reservation called Big Red. But he’d settle for a beer.
First, though, Benny had to make it through the day. He had to work. That was the deal he’d made with Robert and Doreen, his brother and sister-in-law, after Esther had kicked him out. If he’d work, Robert and Doreen would give him a place to stay—a bed, anyway—and that beat sleeping on the ground. In the summer the ground wasn’t bad. Even when he and Esther had still been together, he’d slept outside a time or two—in his truck sometimes, or else on the ground. But the credit union had repossessed his pickup, and Esther had sent him down the road. Now, in early November, it was way too cold to sleep outside at night, even in a truck.
Benny didn’t rush. There was no reason to hurry. The Tribal Work Experience Program didn’t pay enough to make working hard worthwhile. When one bag was full, he dragged that one over to the pile he was gradually accumulating. Across the highway, Alvin Narcho’s pile was growing at about the same sedate pace. If the two men were racing, it was a very slow race. And since Alvin had been out behind Three Points Trading Post all Sunday afternoon right along with Benny, he probably wasn’t in any better shape than Benny was.
The sun was high in the sky when Benny spotted the cooler. A big blue-and-white Coleman ice chest—a relatively new one, from the looks of it—lay hidden just inside the yawning opening to a culvert that ran under the highway. As soon as he saw it, Benny was sure he knew what had happened. It had probably blown out of the back of a pickup driven by some Anglo returning from a trip to Rocky Point in Old Mexico. There was always a chance that the cooler would be full of once frozen but now rotting fish, but if Benny was lucky—really lucky—maybe there’d be beer in the cooler as well. Warm beer was better than no beer.
Dropping his bag, Benny scrambled down the edge of the wash. Despite his big belly, he moved with surprising speed and agility. He needed to beat Alvin to the prize. If there were two beers, Benny might be willing to share. But if there was only one? Too bad for Alvin.
Panting, Benny grabbed the handle. The cooler was surprisingly heavy. Grunting with effort, Benny pulled it out of the culvert and off to one side so it would be out of Alvin’s line of vision once he reached the far end of the culvert. Only when the ice chest was safely concealed from Alvin’s view did Benny reach down to unfasten the lid. As soon as he did so, a cloud of unbearable stench exploded into the air. Covering his mouth and nose, Benny staggered away from the cooler. In his rush, he stumbled and fell. His hand banged hard against the top of the cooler, knocking the lid wide open. The jarring blow caused the contents of the cooler to shift and something wet and foul slopped onto Benny’s long-sleeved shirt.
The smell alone was enough to stun him. Benny tried to control his gag reflex long enough to push himself away. It was then, as he attempted to regain his feet, that he saw her. A face stared out at him. Strands of long black hair floated on top of a vile-smelling stew.
Groaning in horror, Benny lurched away. He managed only a few steps before he fell once again. He dropped heavily to the ground and vomited uncontrollably into the sand. When the spasms finally left him, Benny lay there, exhausted and unable to move, wondering if he would ever breathe again without the heavy odor of rotting flesh permeating his lungs.
Less than two years after that November afternoon, Benny Gutierrez was dead at age thirty-eight—a victim of cirrhosis of the liver and of acute alcohol poisoning. That was what his medical chart said, and it was true.
But had anyone bothered to consult a medicine man—a
they might have learned something else was wrong. A medicine man could have told them that Benny’s spirit had been infected by a ghost, a
—by the spirit of someone who was dead. And that was true as well. Even as Benny lay dying in a spotlessly clean hospital bed, the awful smell from the murdered girl in the cooler lingered in his wavering senses. Doreen and Robert were there with him, and so was Esther, but the last thing Benny saw, swimming hazily before his eyes as he drifted into unconsciousness for the last time, was that terrible face staring blindly up at him from deep inside a blue-and-white Coleman cooler.
It was only when Benny Gutierrez was dead, too, that he managed to escape the girl in the box. Only then did she finally set him free.
hey say it happened long ago that I’itoi,
Elder Brother, came to a village to see if his Desert People had enough water after the long summer heat.
As he walked along he heard a crowd of Indian children playing. He stopped for a while and watched them, listening to the music of their voices and laughter. About that time Elder Brother saw an old woman carrying a heavy load of wood for her cooking fire. Old Woman was not as happy and carefree as the children. She had no energy to sing or play.
About that time an old coyote came and stood by
He, too, watched the children. Old Coyote’s ribs showed under his thin, ragged coat. Like Old Woman, Old Coyote could no longer play and dance. His paws were too stiff and sore from just walking around in the desert.
Seeing Old Woman and Old Coyote made
sad. Because Elder Brother’s heart was heavy, he couldn’t walk very fast. He went to the shade of some cottonwood trees to rest. It was autumn, so the leaves on the tree had turned yellow, but they still made shade.
As Great Spirit sat under the trees, he thought about the children at play and about how different they would be when they grew old. He thought about some young calves he had seen that morning in a field and about how they would change as they grew older. He thought about a young colt he had seen kicking up its heels with joy, and he thought about how, one day, Young Colt would become Old Horse. He thought about flowers and about how their leaves withered and their colors faded when they grew old.
Thinking about these things,
decided he would like to have something around him that would not change as it became old. He wanted something that would not grow heavy like the cows and horses or wrinkled and bent like old men and women or dry and colorless like dead flowers. Great Spirit wanted something that would always stay happy and beautiful like the children.
was thinking these things under the cottonwood trees, he looked up. He saw the yellow leaves. He saw the blue sky through the leaves. He saw the shadows under the yellow leaves. He looked down and saw streaks and spots of sunlight dancing around on the ground just as the Indian Children had danced. Then Great Spirit laughed, for you see,
had found just what he wanted.
MARCH 16, 2000
Brandon Walker stood in front of the bathroom mirror locked in mortal combat with the stubborn strings of his bow tie. As sweat dampened his brow and soaked through the underarms of his starched white shirt, he longed for the good old days when, as Pima County sheriff, he could have shown up at one of these cattle calls in his dress uniform instead of having to put on a stupid tuxedo.
There was a tap on the door. “Are you ready?” Diana asked. “It’s getting late.”
“Then you’d better come help me with this damned tie,” Brandon grunted.
Diana opened the door, and her reflection joined his in the mirror. She was so beautiful that seeing her took Brandon’s breath away. She was dressed in a deep blue full-length taffeta gown that complemented every inch of her still slim figure. In the cleft at the base of her throat a diamond solitaire pendant hung from a slender gold chain. That single piece of jewelry had cost more than Brandon’s first house. Her auburn hair, highlighted now with natural streaks of gray, was pulled back in an elegant French twist.
“Hi, gorgeous,” he said.
She smiled back at him. “You’re not so bad yourself. What’s the trouble?”
“The bow,” he said. “I’m all fumble fingers.”
It took only a few seconds for her to untangle and straighten the tie. “There,” she said, patting his shoulder. “Now let’s get going.”
Brandon picked up his jacket from the bed and shrugged his way into it as he followed his wife down the hall. “Which car?” he asked. “Mine or yours?”
“Yours,” she said.
They drove east from Gates Pass and into downtown Tucson to the community center where the Tucson Man and Woman of the Year benefit gala was being held. The honorees, Gayle and Dr. Lawrence Stryker, were friends of Diana Ladd’s dating back to her days as a teacher on the Tohono O’odham Reservation. Now a local luminary, Diana had been asked to give a short introductory and no doubt laudatory speech. Brandon’s plan was to go, be seen, and do his best to be agreeable. But when it came to Larry and Gayle Stryker, he intended to keep his mouth firmly shut. That would be best for all concerned.
Larry Stryker sat
on the dais overlooking the decorated ballroom filled with candlelit banquet tables and listened as Diana Ladd stood at the microphone and spoke about old times.
“As some of you know, in the early seventies I went through a rough patch. I was teaching on the reservation, had lost my husband, and had a brand-new baby. Not many people stuck with me during that time, but Larry and Gayle Stryker did, and I’ll always be grateful for that. Over the years it’s been gratifying for me to see what they’ve done with their lives and to watch as they’ve turned a single idea into a powerful tool for good.”
Larry searched the sea of upturned faces until he caught sight of Brandon Walker sitting at one of the foremost tables. The former sheriff, looking uncomfortable and out of his element in what was probably a rented tux, sat with his arms folded across his chest. Their eyes met briefly. Brandon nodded in acknowledgment, but there was nothing friendly in the gesture—on either side.
sheriff. That was the operant word here. While Diana Ladd spoke of the good old times, Larry was free to let his thoughts drift back to those times as well. Fortunately, no one in the room—most especially Brandon Walker—was able to read his mind.
Larry Stryker had no idea how long Gayle had been gone. Truth be known, he’d been half drunk when she left the house. He’d had to be before he could find the courage to tell her what had happened—what he’d done. He had no idea how she would react—hadn’t given himself time to think about that. Instead, he blurted out the bad news and waited for all hell to break loose.
For a moment there was absolute silence between them, then she had looked up at him with her green eyes flashing sparks of fury. “Give me the keys,” she said, holding out her hand.
“The keys?” Larry stammered. “What keys?”
“The car keys, stupid. What keys did you think I meant?”
So that was it. Gayle was leaving him, and why wouldn’t she? Given the sordid circumstances, what else could he expect? Without a word, Larry reached into his pocket and retrieved the keys to his beloved Camaro. Feeling defeated and lost, he dropped the ring of keys into her upturned hand.
“Where will you go?” he asked.
“Go?” she flung back. “I’m going to clean up your mess. I’m going to take care of it.”
With that, she had stalked out of the house and driven away. That had been hours earlier—sometime after school but still in the afternoon. Larry had sat there in the living room in front of a blaring television set all evening long, but he heard nothing. Saw nothing. Instead, he sat there envisioning how everything he had ever wanted—everything he had ever dreamed of and worked for—was going up in flames. The years he had spent struggling to make ends meet in college and in medical school meant nothing. Evidently his marriage was over as well. And it was all because he’d been stupid—and now he was going to be caught.
Sometime after midnight, when the Tucson TV station Larry wasn’t watching finally went off the air, he got up and turned off the set. Then he sat there in the dark, brooding and waiting for whatever would happen next.