The breeze smelled of rain. Chee hurried around the corner into the total darkness behind the trading post. In the car, he switched on the radio and tried to raise Nez. Nothing. He started the engine, and spun the rear wheels in an impatient start that was totally out of character for him. So was this sudden sense of anxiety. He switched on his siren and the emergency flashers.
Chee was only minutes away from the trading post when he saw the headlights approaching on Route 33. He slowed, feeling relief. But before they reached him, he saw the car's right turn indicator blinking. The vehicle turned northward, up ahead of him, not Nez's Navajo Tribal Police patrol car but a battered white Jeepster. Chee recognized it. It was the car of the Vietnamese (or Cambodian, or whatever he was) who taught at the high school in Ship Rock. Chee's headlights briefly lit the driver's face.
The rain started then, a flurry of big, widely spaced drops splashing the windshield, then a downpour. Route 33 was wide and smooth, with a freshly painted centerline to follow. But the rain was more than Chee's wipers could handle. He slowed, listening to the water pound against the roof. Normally rain provoked jubilation in Chee -- a feeling natural and primal, bred into dry-country people. Now this joy was blocked by worry and a little guilt. Something had delayed Nez. He should have gone looking for him when the radio blacked out. But it was probably nothing much. Car trouble. An ankle sprained chasing his painter in the dark. Nothing serious.
Lightning illuminated the highway ahead of him, showing it glistening with water and trading post when he saw the headlights approaching on Route 33. He slowed, feeling relief. But before they reached him, he saw the car's right turn indicator blinking. The vehicle turned northward, up ahead of him, not Nez's Navajo Tribal Police patrol car but a battered white Jeepster. Chee recognized it. It was the car of the Vietnamese (or Cambodian, or whatever he was) who taught at the high school in Ship Rock. Chee's headlights briefly lit the driver's face.
At the intersection, he slowed and stared down the dirt road. Headlights should be yellow. This light was red. It flickered. Fire.
"Oh, God!" Chee said aloud. A prayer. He geared the patrol car down into second and went slipping and sliding down the muddy track.
Unit 44 was parked in the center of the track, its nose pointed toward Route 33, red flames gushing from the back of it, its tires burning furiously. Chee braked his car to a stop, skidding it out of the muddy ruts and onto the bunch grass and stunted sage. He had his door open and the fire extinguisher in his hand while the car was still sliding.
It was raining hard again, the cold drops splashing against his face. Then he was engulfed in the sickening black smoke of burning rubber, burning oil, burning upholstery. The driver's-side window had been shattered. Chee fired the extinguisher through it, seeing the white foam stream through the smoke, and seeing through the smoke the dark shape of Nez slumped over the steering wheel.
Chee snatched at the door handle, barely conscious of the searing pain. He jerked the door open and found himself engulfed in a gust of flames. He jumped back, whacking at the fire burning his uniform shirt. "Del," he shouted again. He sprayed the extinguisher foam into the car again, dropped the extinguisher, reached through the open door, clutched the arm of Officer Delbert Nez and pulled.
Nez was wearing his seat belt.
Chee fumbled for the catch, released it, pulled with all his strength, aware as he did that his palm was hurting in a way he had never experienced before. He tumbled backward into the driving rain, he and Delbert Nez. He lay for a moment, gasping, lungs full of smoke, conscious that something was wrong with the hand, and of the weight of Delbert Nez partly across him. Then he was aware of heat. His shirtsleeve burning. He put it out, struggled out from under the weight of Nez.
Nez lay on his back, arms and legs sprawled. Chee looked at him and looked away. He picked up the extinguisher, sprayed the burning places on the officer's trousers. He used what was left in the tank to put out the fire. "Running on fumes," Nez had said. That was lucky. Chee had seen enough car fires to know what a full tank would do. Lucky? Fumes had provided enough fire to kill Delbert Nez.
He was on the radio, calling this in to Ship Rock, asking for help, before he was fully aware of the pain of his own burns.
"There was blood, too," Chee was saying. "He might have been shot. I think blood on the back of his shirt, and blood on the front, too."
Captain Largo happened to be in, doing his perpetual paperwork. While Chee was saying that, Largo took over the radio in the Ship Rock dispatcher's office.
'We'll send all we have from here," Largo was saying. "And from Window Rock, and we'll see if anybody from Crownpoint is patrolling out your direction. Blood still fresh?"
Chee looked at his hand and grimaced. "It's still sticky," he said. "Somewhere between slick and sticky." A chunk of skin had flapped off the palm of his hand. The door handle, he thought. That had done it. It felt like it had burned all the way to the bone.
"You saw no other car lights?"
"One car. Just as I was leaving Red Rock a white Jeepster was turning off 33 onto the road toward Biklabito. One man in it. I think it was that Vietnamese math teacher at Ship Rock High School. I think that's his car, anyway." Chee's throat hurt. So did his lungs. So did his eyes. And his face. He felt with numb fingers. No eyebrows.
"We'll handle that part then," Largo said. "Save any looking for tracks for daylight. Do not mess anything up around the car. You got that?" Largo paused. "Do not," he repeated.
"Okay," Chee said. He wanted to end this. He wanted to go find whoever had killed Delbert Nez. He should have been with Nez. He should have gone to help him.
"You came down 33 from the west? From Red Rock? Get back on 33 and head east. All the way to 666. See if you can pick up anything that way. If the guy had a vehicle that's the only way he could have gone." Largo paused. "Unless he was your Vietnamese schoolteacher."
Chee didn't get all the way to U.S. Highway 666. Three miles east of the intersection, the high beams of his headlights reflected from the back of a man walking down the asphalt. Chee braked and stared. The man was walking erratically down the center of the westbound lane. He was bare headed, his gray hair tied in a bun, his rain-soaked shirt plastered to his back. He seemed totally oblivious of Chee's head lights, now just a few yards behind him Without a backward glance, with no effort to move to the side of the road, he walked steadily onward, swinging something in his right hand, zigzagging a little, but with the steady, unhurried pace of a man who has walked great distances, who will walk great distances more.
Chee pulled up beside him, rolled down his window. The object the man was swinging was a squat bottle, held by the neck. "Yaat eh t'eeh!" Chee shouted, the standard Navajo greeting. The man ignored him, plodding steadily down the asphalt. As he moved past the police car and back into the glare of the headlights Chee saw he had something bulky stuck under his belt in the back of his trousers. It looked like the butt of a pistol.
Chee unsnapped his own pistol, took it out of its holster, and laid it on the seat beside him. He touched the siren button, producing a sudden howling. The gray-haired man seemed not to hear it.
Chee picked up the mike, raised Ship Rock, gave his location. "I have a male about five feet eight inches tall, elderly, gray-haired, walking down the westbound lane away from the Nez site. He has what appears to be a pistol stuck under his belt and what appears to be a whiskey bottle in his right hand and is acting in a peculiar manner."
"Peculiar manner," the dispatcher said.
"I think he's drunk," Chee said. "He acts like he doesn't hear me or see me."
"Subject is drunk," the dispatcher said.
"Maybe," Chee said. "I will apprehend him now."
Which might be easier said than done, he thought. He pulled the patrol car past the walker and spun it around so its lights shone directly into the man's face. He got out with his pistol in his hand. He felt dizzy. Everything was vague.
"Hold it right there," Chee said.
The walker stopped. He looked intently at Chee, as if trying to bring him into focus. Then he sighed and sat on the pavement. He screwed the cap off the bottle, and took a long, gurgling drink. He looked at Chee again and said:
"Baa yanisin, shiyaazh."
"You are ashamed?" Chee repeated. His voice choked. "Ashamed!" With his good hand he reached over the walker's shoulder, jerked the pistol out of the man's belt. He sniffed the muzzle of the barrel and smelled burned powder. He checked the cylinder. All six contained cartridges, but three of the cartridges were empty. They had been fired He jammed the pistol under his belt, snatched the bottle out of the walker's hand, and hurled it into the sagebrush beside the road.
"Dirty coyote," Chee said in Navajo. "Get up." His voice was fierce.
The man stared up at him, expression puzzled. The glare of the headlights reflected off the streaks of rainwater running down his face, dripping from his hair, from his eyebrows.
"Get up!" Chee screamed.
He jerked the man to his feet, hurried him to the patrol car, searched him quickly for another weapon, took a pocketknife and some coins from a front pocket and a worn wallet from his hip pocket. He handcuffed him, conscious of the man's thin, bony wrists, conscious of the numbness in his own right hand, and the pain in his left palm. He helped the man into the backseat' closed the door behind him, and stood for a moment looking through the glass at him.
"Shiyaach, "the man said again. "Baa yanisin. " My son, I am ashamed.
Chee stood with his head bowed, the rain beating against his shoulders. He wiped the back of his hand across his wet face and licked his lips. The taste was salty.
Then he walked into the sagebrush, looking for the bottle. It would be needed as evidence.
EXT BIG CHIEF TRADING POST - EVENING
Chee heads for his patrol car. A rumble of thunder makes him look up at the ominous sky -- the storm is imminent. He gets into the car and tries his two-way radio.
Delbert? It's Chee. Come on, man, Jen says you're cute.
He waits for a response but all he gets is static. Something has him worried -- the talk about Picasso, Skinwalkers, what? He starts the car and heads out into the night.
INT/EXT CHEE'S CAR - ROUTE 33 - EVENING
Chee's car heads down the road, past a sign that reads ROUTE 33. Suddenly, he sees a pair of headlights approaching. He registers relief, thinking it must be Nez on this lonely stretch of road, coming to meet him. But the approaching car slows and signals a right turn and as Chee drives past he sees it's not another patrol car but a battered white Jeep.
Chee watches the Jeep turn off onto another road. On the back window, there is a decal for "Ship Rock High School." As the car's taillights recede into the darkness, Chee sees lightning flash against the sky, outlining the jagged outcropping of rock rising above the desert. Chee doesn't slow down; if anything, he pushes the speedometer.
EXT OUTCROP - EVENING
As he speeds toward the outcropping, Chee sees a glowing light off to his right. Chee smiles and slows his car just as he comes to a dirt road that turns off from the highway. He grabs his two-way radio again.
Delbert, you dog. You got a girl with you? At least turn your headlights off.
But as he turns off onto the dirt road, he sees the light is flickering red. Not like a headlight. Like fire.
He throws the car into second and it half-skids, half-races down the poor excuse for a road until it comes to the source of the light -- a police patrol car engulfed in flames. Chee slams his car to a stop, skidding it out of the ruts onto the bunch grass and sage. The car is still sliding when he leaps out with a fire extinguisher in his hands. Thick black smoke billows up from the car. Chee fights through it and reaches the driver's side window -- which has been shattered. He fires a blast of foam from the extinguisher into the shattered opening in the window. There, through the smoke, he sees Nez slumped over the steering wheel.
Without even thinking, Chee grabs the door handle. It's white hot from the fire but he barely feels the searing pain as he wrenches the door open and finds himself overwhelmed by the flames. He jumps back, slapping at the fire burning his uniform shirt.
He fires another blast of foam; then drops the extinguisher and reaches in for Nez's arm. But to Chee's horror, Nez is wearing his seat belt. Fighting the flames and smoke, Chee manages to find the release. With all his strength, he pulls Nez out of the car and they tumble to the ground together.
Chee lies there with Nez's body on top of him. As he gasps for air, he begins to feel the awful pain in his hand. He manages to roll out from under Nez and can finally take a look at him. We don't have to see the wound. Chee's face says it all. He turns away from the gruesome sight, trying to collect himself. At that moment, the rain begins to fall.
Chee gets to his feet and covers Nez's body with his jacket. With the fire extinguisher he manages to put out the last of the fire. Then he goes to his patrol car and tries the two-way radio again. It hurts to talk; his throat and lungs still feel the effects of the smoke.
This is Chee.
No response, only static.
There's...officer down... Route 33...
There's still just static. Chee utters a wild, angry cry -- something from deep inside him, the pain, the guilt, everything pouring out in one burst of primal sound. Then he looks back at Nez's body lying in the rain. There is sorrow and purpose in Chee's eyes.
He guns the engine and churning up mud, he spins back onto the rut-filled road, heading back toward the highway.
INT/EXT CHEE'S CAR - HIGHWAY - EVENING
Chee can only hold the steering wheel with one hand; the other is throbbing with unbearable pain. He can barely hold the car in the road, but the rain is slackening and suddenly his headlights shine on something in the road.
It's a man. He's walking down the highway -- right down the centerline, weaving erratically like someone trying to pass a Breathalyzer test and failing.
Chee slows his car but the man is oblivious to the glare of the headlights. His gray hair is tied in a bun; his rain-soaked shirt is plastered to his skin. He keeps walking, swinging something in his hand -- a bottle held by the neck. Chee comes along side the man and shouts a Navajo greeting.
Yaa' eh t'eeh!
The old man -- for Chee can now see that his face is lined and weathered -- ignores him completely and keeps walking. Then Chee sees something sticking out of the old man's belt -- the butt of a pistol.
Chee takes out his own pistol and lays it on the seat beside him. He hits the siren but the old man is unfazed. Chee drives past him and spins the car to a stop so the headlights shine directly into the old man's face. Chee gets out of the car, his knees feeling weak as water, his one good hand holding his pistol as he calls to the old man.
The old man finally stops, then sits down on the pavement. He looks up at Chee as if noticing him for the first time.
Baa yanisin, shiyaazh.
Chee stares at him incredulously.
You're ashamed? Ashamed?
He reaches down and grabs the pistol tucked in the old man's belt. He sniffs the muzzle and smells the burned powder. Then he checks the cylinders -- three are empty.
The old man just stares at him.
The old man lets the bottle slip from his hands and watches as the whiskey pours out, blending with the puddles of rain on the asphalt. He raises his hands in front of him, like a man who's faced the police before, but also like a man uttering a hopeless prayer. He looks up again at Chee, and this time there are tears in his sad, gray eyes.
Shiyaazh. Baa yanisin.