This is the first chapter of my new novel, Abducted Innocence, the second book in a series involving Abe Freeman and Navajo Police Officer, Emily Etcitty. I originally titled this book, Kinaalda, but later realized that few would understand the meaning or significance. Kinaalda is a four-day coming of age ceremony celebrated by Navajo families when girls reach puberty. During this time, the girls are required to perform certain tasks, such as grinding corn and running a race. The origin of Kinaalda is in the ancient Navajo creation myth of Changing Woman.
April 6, 1990
Navajo Nation Tribal Police
Navajo Police Officer Emily Etcitty picked up the incident report dropped on her desk by Officer Joe Hosteen. She raised her eyebrows and flashed him an annoyed look, which he responded to with a sardonic smile and shrug. She had finished her shift and was filing the final reports, looking forward to spending time with Abe Freeman at his place near Bloomfield.
“Sounds like female stuff to me,” Hosteen said, giving it little significance and, therefore, delegating it to Emily. “Captain Todechine said a woman might handle it better.”
Emily skimmed over the dispatcher’s report. “A missing girl out at Teec Nos Pos,” she said reading quickly.
“Yeah, missing for only four hours when the family called it in. Probably nothing but another pissed off teenager acting out.”
“This was called in four hours ago, Joe. Why didn’t you give it to me right away?” Officer Hosteen’s eyes were black and sharp as pinpoints, his nose and bone structure chiseled angles, his mouth a thin line. He reminded Emily of a Picasso painting. There was nothing soft or sympathetic about Joe Hosteen. The two had clashed on several occasions in the past over police procedures and didn’t particularly like one another. Now that both were in contention for promotion to sergeant, the friction had increased. Only one would be selected.
“I was tied up on another case. This missing girl report didn’t strike me as being particularly urgent—probably a runaway who took off to grandma’s house when she didn’t get what she wanted.”
Emily studied the report slowly and methodically the second time, then paused. It was not uncommon for a thirteen-year-old girl to go missing for a few hours; it was, however, unheard of for one to disappear during her Kinaaldá. “You didn’t even read this, did you?” She pursed her lips and stared at him. “I’ll head on over there and talk to the family,” she said, thinking to herself, you sexist pig.
The trip to the village of Teec Nos Pos on the Arizona side of the reservation took over an hour and a half. On her way, she drove past the looming monolithic rock formation the Anglos called Shiprock. Someone had given it that name because he thought it resembled a clipper ship sailing the gray-green desert. Emily knew it by its correct name—Tsé Bitʹ aʹi, Winged Rock, after the great bird who brought the Navajo from the north to their present land.
After she had left the familiar landmark and the town of Shiprock behind, the land opened up once again to scattered mesas, washes, canyons and the occasional trailer or hogan. Traffic thinned out on Highway 64 to sporadic pickup trucks, giving Emily plenty of time to let her mind drift back to her own Kinaaldá, the Navajo puberty ceremony practiced by traditional families who celebrated a girl’s transition into womanhood. She remembered how proud and excited she had been to wake up and discover signs of her first menstrual cycle. There would be a four-day celebration ending with a feast. A young girl brought up in the Diné tradition would not run away at a time like this.
The sun dropped behind a sandstone cliff, casting fiery orange flames across the western skies when Emily reached the nearly deserted village. She made a quick stop at the Teec Nos Pos Trading Post to ask directions to Jim Benally’s residence.
“Two miles out of town, then turn right on the dirt road. About three more miles you’ll be there. Half the town is looking for Darcy. I’d be there myself if I didn’t have to keep the store open.”
Damn, Emily thought. That means dozens of other footprints have probably obliterated the girl’s tracks, and it’s going to be dark soon. She hurried back to her Chevy Blazer, sped toward the Benally home, arriving fifteen minutes later. Before leaving the SUV, she called in her location to headquarters.
The scene that greeted her looked chaotic and disconsolate. The traditional round corn cake, smelling slightly burnt, sat uncut and abandoned. The other food, roast lamb, mutton stew, green chili, and beans lay congealed on a long table. A medicine man chanted prayers, but no one appeared to be listening. Several women huddled together trying to console one another; while one of their group—probably the mother—cried inconsolably. The children clustered together in front of a hogan, their faces somber, their eyes round. She saw no men or teenage boys. Emily assumed they were out looking for the girl. She approached one of the women, introduced herself, and speaking in Navajo, asked for the mother of the missing child.
“I am Nina Benally, Darcy’s mother,” a plump woman dressed in fancy clothes snuffled through tears. “Why have they sent only one person? Why have you taken so long?” she cried.
Emily exchanged the traditional greeting with the woman, giving her time to calm herself. “I came as soon as I received word your daughter was missing,” Emily said. “Tell me what happened today.”
Nina Benally sat up straight and drew in a long breath before speaking. Her words were uttered slowly, deliberately, as if trying to preserve dignity in front of this officer of the law. “It is the final day of my daughter’s Kinaaldá. I dressed her this morning in her woven rug dress, turquoise and shell jewelry, washed her hair with yucca suds and combed it with the grass comb.” There was pride in her voice, but unsummoned tears streamed down her face as she continued. “I tied her hair with buckskin in the traditional way.” The mother’s lips quivered as she fought to regain control over her emotions.
Purple shadows loomed over the mesa. It would soon be too dark to see prints. Emily knew time was crucial if she was to find any trace of the girl today, but also that she must not hurry the mother. “Please go on, Mrs. Benally. What time was it when you last saw your daughter?”
“Today was to be her last race before we began the feast and celebration. She left after sunrise, about seven-thirty, excited, so proud, and wearing a big smile. The children followed her as is the custom, but my Darcy ran so fast she left them all behind. They came back without her and told us she had been teasing them and laughing when they last saw her.”
“Do you know the time?” Emily said. “When the children returned?”
“Nine o’clock, maybe. We waited for her until noon. Then, I knew something bad had happened, and my husband went into town to call the police. He is out on the trail now, looking for our girl.” Nina Benally could no longer keep up the façade of dignified composure. She made a keening sound while praying, beseeching the Gods to deliver her daughter home safely from whatever evil had taken her away.
Emily understood. “Thank you, Mrs. Benally. I will do everything in my power to find Darcy. If you have a recent picture of her, it would be a great help.”
The family had called headquarters at noon to report the girl missing, and Hosteen sat on the report until after three-thirty. Why had the asshole waited so long?
Emily left the woman and walked over to a group of children. “Yáʹátéé shaʹalchimi. Greetings children. I’ve come to help find Darcy. Will someone show me where she began her race this morning and which direction she went?”
All but one of the children cast their eyes down, looking too frightened to leave the protection of the pit fire and the adult women. “She started here, at the hogan, and ran to the east,” a round-faced boy of about ten said. “They are afraid of the skinwalkers,” he added, indicating the other youngsters. “But I will show you the way.”
Of course, she ran toward the east, Emily thought. How could I have forgotten so much? “With your mother’s permission only, and you have to promise not to run ahead. When I see her tracks you must go back,” Emily said.
After radioing in her status, Emily retrieved a flashlight and camera from the Blazer. A breeze had picked up, bringing a sudden chill. April in the northeast highlands of Arizona can be sunny and warm one day, and snowy the next. She donned her jacket and met the boy in front of the hogan.
“My mother said I can show you the path as long as I am not out of her sight,” the boy said. “She rubbed corn pollen on me for protection.”
“All right, let’s go, but only a little ways, then you have to turn around. It’s getting dark.”
“I’m not afraid of skinwalkers,” said the boy.
“I know, you are brave, but this is police work. I just need to know where to start.”
“Here,” said the boy, when they were about fifty yards from the hogan. He pointed to a narrow path scuffed with numerous tracks. “Do you want some corn pollen?” He did not sound so brave now and looked anxiously back to the safety of the hogan and fire.
“No. Thank you—I can manage now—run back to your family. I’ll wait until you are there.” As she watched the boy scamper away, she thought about all the stories she had listened to as a child about skinwalkers, those malevolent witches who according to legend, were capable of transforming themselves into a coyote, wolf, bear, or any animal they wished. Shape-shifters they were called. It was rumored they used mind control to make a person do anything they wanted, especially to harm themselves in some way. Emily shook off a chill, telling herself she didn’t believe any of it and beamed her flashlight on the trail, searching for moccasin tracks amidst the numerous tread marks of sneakers.
They were easy enough to find—small, flat, indentations usually off to the left. When she came upon an entire footprint, she took a picture, thinking it looked like a size six or six and a half, not deeply embedded, the weight on the forefoot deeper as Native Americans were accustomed to running. The girl was probably of medium weight. Emily made a mental note to ask the mother about her height and weight when she retrieved the photograph.
A coyote howled from a mesa top, startling Emily and sending a shudder down her spine. She reacted automatically by reaching for her gun, then stopped with her hand on the butt of the Glock 19 in her hip holster. Shake it off, she told herself and continued forward. She was looking for the spot where the other children turned back, leaving only the girl’s tracks. Relieved, she noted the men in the search party had ridden their horses along the side of the trail as not to disturb the tracks.
About a mile down the path, Emily came upon a dirt road. She crossed over, saw the trail remained unmarked by footprints on the other side, but noted the dusty lane showed signs of fresh tire treads. The vehicle had made a sudden stop judging by the skid marks. It then appeared to back up, make a U-turn and head in the direction from which it had come. The horses had also stopped here, and the rider’s dismounted, followed the moccasin tracks, and then returned to their steeds. The horse tracks continued along the road in the direction of the vehicle. Emily snapped a few close-up shots, being careful not to step on anything and returned to the spot where she had last seen Darcy’s prints. They appeared jumbled; the dirt disturbed as if there had been a scuffle, and there were other shoeprints—not children’s sneakers, but large cowboy boots, maybe two different pairs. As she bounced the light around, something else caught her eye. Partially hidden behind a rabbit bush was a single deerskin moccasin. She decided it was time to call for assistance. If a skinwalker had taken Darcy Benally, he wore size eleven or twelve boots and drove a four-wheeled vehicle. It looked like dinner with Abe would be a little later.