Hearts of the Missing is the mesmerizing debut from 2017 Tony Hillerman Prize recipient Carol Potenza. In a Starred Review, Library Journal says, “This action-packed mystery, which vividly evokes the beauty of the New Mexico landscape and its indigenous peoples, will attract fans of the Hillermans, leaving readers eagerly awaiting the next installment.”
When a young woman linked to a list of missing Fire-Sky tribal members commits suicide, Pueblo Police Sergeant Nicky Matthews is assigned to the case. As the investigation unfolds, she uncovers a threat that strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a Fire-Sky Native: victims chosen and murdered because of their genetic makeup. But these deaths are not just about a life taken. In a vengeful twist, the killer ensures the spirits of those targeted will wander forever, lost to their family, their People, and their ancestors. When those closest to Nicky are put in jeopardy, she must be willing to sacrifice everything—her career, her life, even her soul—to save the people she is sworn to protect.
About the Author
POTENZA is an Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at New Mexico State University. She and her husband, Jose, live in Las Cruces, New Mexico. HEARTS OF THE MISSING, her debut novel, is the winner of the 2017 Tony Hillerman Prize.
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Chapter One Excerpt
Tsiba’ashi D’yini Indian Reservation New Mexico, USA
The harsh scrape, out of place in the quiet of predawn, penetrated the low buzz of the refrigeration motors. Like fingernails on a chalkboard, the sound made the hair on her neck and arms stand on end.
She wasn’t alone anymore.
Her eyes narrowed as she peered through the open door of the office and into the cavernous space on the other side. Other than a few emergency lights pooling eerily on the floor, the room was dark, its bulky shelves and racks rising out of the linoleum like misshapen boulders.
Sergeant Nicky Matthews was careful to make no sound as she placed her fingerprint brush on the metal shelf in front of her. She stripped off her latex gloves with quiet efficiency as she rose, dropping them on the floor by her feet. Head cocked to the side, she strained to hear any other sound that would indicate who—or how many—might be just outside the broken plate-glass window of the mini-mart.
She hadn’t heard a car pass by since she’d been here, and she’d sent the manager home after he’d let her inside.
Her police unit was parked in plain sight by the gas pumps, illuminated by the fluorescent lights in the metal canopy above it. Those lights formed a harsh bubble of white in the nighttime blackness that surrounded the building. The village store sat alone on a two-lane road, the only place to purchase food and gas for twenty miles in every direction. Porch lights from widely scattered trailers and small houses dotted the landscape, but she’d seen no one when she’d arrived. She’d been inside, processing the scene, for over an hour. If the perps had come back, they must know she was here.
Another stealthy rasp, outside and to the left of the window.
She stiffened, focus shifting, tightening. Her hand slipped to her holster, palm scraping the butt of her Glock 23. Whoever was out there was on the other side of the wall where she stood. She’d trained her phone’s camera on that area earlier. The perps had used a bat or crowbar to bash in the large windows, and glass was strewn over the front sidewalk. At least one of them had cut themselves when they climbed inside. There were drops and smears of blood throughout the interior. She’d already gathered some samples for DNA testing, but the bloody smears turned into distinct prints in the office. One of the burglars spent quite a bit of time here, and that was where she’d been concentrating her efforts. But no longer.
Whoever was skulking outside had her full attention.
Nicky stepped forward, avoiding the half dozen sunglasses knocked to the floor during the break-in. She turned her back to the wall, body coiled, and scanned the interior of the store for a change in the vague fluorescent light filtering into the room. Someone peering through the window would throw a shadow.
Her scalp prickled and a flash of heat swept over her skin. She swore she could feel a presence out there.
Waiting for her.
She drew in a slow breath, pulled her weapon, and pointed it down along her leg. Her finger rested across the trigger guard. She sidled closer to the window. Shards of glass littered the floor. The rubber soles of her boots muffled the crunch, but the sound was loud enough to make her wince. She paused, listening.
Seconds ticked by.
Nothing. No sound except the ever-present hum of the glass-doored coolers lining the back wall of the store.
She stayed in the shadows, her sharp gaze sweeping the gravel expanse of the parking lot. Tall, scraggly grass stood unmoving at the edge of the light. There was no wind, no scuttling leaves to explain away the noise.
Another minute passed. The feeling of a presence was fading. Nicky exhaled slowly. Her shoulders relaxed the tiniest bit, even as her expression twisted in faint confusion.
Had she been mistaken?
A movement caught her eye between the gas pumps, and she snapped her head to the right. Her body tensed. At a flash of color, Nicky stepped out of the shadows, not worried about the sound of scattering glass as she tracked the motion of . . .
A skinny brown rez dog wandered around the side of her unit, nose to the ground. Lifting its head, it sniffed the air. It trotted toward an overflowing trash can and rose up on its hind feet, one front paw positioned delicately against the side. Nicky’s lips pressed tight. You could count the ribs on that poor animal. Most likely it was a stray, but you never knew. It might belong to anyone in the village.
Relieved she had an answer to the sounds, Nicky holstered her pistol. Suddenly tired, she stretched, arching her back. Outside, the sky was beginning to gray. She checked the clock on the wall above the door. The sun would be up in a few minutes, and it would still take another hour to process the crime scene. Then she was going to canvass the nearest homes, to see if anyone had heard or seen anything. She probably wouldn’t be done until hours after her shift was officially over.
Her gaze focused closer, and she stared at the pale oval of her reflection in what was left of the glass window in front of her. Dark brown eyes stared back as she ran her hand over the top of her head and slid her fingers through the smooth, straight black hair of her ponytail. She was mistaken for Native all the time. Not by Indians—but by the non- Indians she encountered on the reservation and at the casino.
She sighed deeply, glanced at the dog one more time, and froze. A wave of unease washed over her, this time prickling up her back. The animal stared at the front of the store, fixated not on the place where she stood, but to the left of the window’s edge.
At the place where she’d first heard the noise.
Her hand dropped to her sidearm and Nicky jerked her head around.
An old Native woman stared at her through the glass.
No. Not through the glass. In the glass. The old woman’s face was in the glass.
Their eyes met, and every nerve in Nicky’s body stretched taut. The woman’s pupils glowed black, glittering and alive, sharp points embed- ded within a deeply wrinkled face. An ancient, disembodied face.
Nicky knew she was supposed to look away—had been told in no uncertain terms by her traditional friends on the rez—but she couldn’t move. She was transfixed.
The sun flashed over the horizon, blinding her.
But not before the woman smiled and turned away. Her long white hair whipped in the light—and she was gone.
Nicky yanked out her gun, hit the front door of the mini-mart hard, and ran outside into the brightness of dawn, skidding on the broken glass. The same scraping sound that had alerted her only a few minutes before grated along her skin.
A flash of white raced away and her arms swung up, the muzzle of her sidearm tracking a rabbit as it zigged and zagged out of the parking lot, across the road, and into the grass next to a trampled dirt path. She caught another movement out of the corner of her eye and her head swiveled to the dog. It cringed and shivered as it stared after the rabbit, before it backed up and loped away through the brush, tail tight between its legs.
Nicky’s flesh crawled with goose bumps. Heart thudding, she pointed her weapon to the ground, clutching its diamond-patterned grip so tightly it cut deep into the skin of her palm.
Dammit, dammit, dammit!
Scowling, she slammed her weapon back into its holster. The old woman was back.
That meant life was about to get complicated—and a lot more dangerous.