Talking to StrangersDecember 18, 2018
The late afternoon heat failed to develop and Tribal Police Officer Leena Koteen seized the opportunity to drive with her window rolled down, an unusual occurrence for New Mexico in July. She piloted the white, Ford Explorer, striped with official markings, off the dirt road and onto gravel, grateful to leave behind the flying reddish dust tossed up by her tires. The fragrant Yucca blossoms tickled her sinuses as she drove through the San Juan Basin Apache Nation. Steering her car out of the Game Preserve and toward State Route 735, Leena glanced down at the clock on the vehicle’s dash. Forty-five minutes to go until the end of her shift.
She had a commitment after work. Two, twelve-year-old girls disappeared from a church program camping trip at Bluewater Lake State Park and Leena and other Tribal officers offered to drive down to Gallup to help out the Sheriff’s Office. Missing for nine hours already, their chances of survival dropped with each passing hour. Of course, Leena would miss family dinner night at her brother’s house. His wife was an amazing cook but Leena never looked forward to their father asking when she was getting married or their mother telling him it was too late for that, Leena just needs to start popping out some babies, husband or no.
Miles from the State Route, Leena noticed some unnatural color out of the corner of her eye. She slowed and looked back. Off the road, about 300 yards out, she saw a small sedan and a tent set up beside it. The sedan was backed up to the hillside and facing the road. She stopped her car. Camping in this part of the Nation was illegal, but it was a minor crime, and for several seconds, Leena contemplated just leaving it be. They would likely pack up and be gone tomorrow. And if she stopped them, she took a chance that she would miss her ride out to Gallup. Her lean face twisted as she stared hard at the campsite, contemplating. With a sigh, she turned the wheel and pulled off the road, driving over rough terrain to reach the sedan. It would only take a few minutes, she told herself, to give them a warning and send them on their way.
After a few quick words on the car radio about the illegal camper and their location, she drove forward slowly, trying to get a good look at the campsite as she approached. The maroon, Honda Accord squatted beside a bright blue, two-person tent, flaps kicking in the breeze. The missing front license plate, multiple large dents, chipped paint, and spots of oxidation, suggested to her an itinerant or transient coming through the desert. No people in sight. She stopped her vehicle and climbed out, stretching quickly before she closed the door. Tall and angular, Leena’s thin, athletic body advanced cautiously through the scrub. Her long, black braid dragged across her back as she turned her head, her almond-shaped eyes scanning the area. She adjusted the bullet-proof vest beneath her uniform shirt and then rested her right hand instinctively on the grip of her service pistol.
“Tribal Police!” she called out. “Anyone here?”
An Hispanic man popped up on the far side the car, near the trunk. In his early thirties, he seemed shorter than Leena, maybe about five foot six, but stocky and solid, with muscles bulging beneath a sweat-stained t-shirt. He squinted, appearing angry as he looked into the sun behind her.
“Que?” he asked, wiping dirt from his hands.
“Hola. Policia. Habla Ingles?” Leena asked as she continued to walk closer, but relaxing slightly as the young man smiled brightly at her.
“Si, a leetle,” he said with an accent, thicker than Leena expected, almost cartoonish in its inflections.
The man walked around the Honda and stepped over near the passenger door, stopping beside the open window. His hands hung at his sides, and he smiled with all of his teeth as she approached.
“Sir, why don’t you step over here,” she told him, indicating a spot on the ground, closer to Leena and away from the Honda. “Do you have any identification?”
“Si,” he said, nodding emphatically. He took his wallet out of his back pocket, removed a card, and handed it to Leena.
She took the driver license and looked at it. “Julio Yslava” with an address in Gallup. She glanced over at her patrol vehicle. She knew that her portable radio reception would be spotty out here and she would have to use the car radio. She tucked the license into her back pocket. In a minute, she thought.
“Ees there a problem, officer?” he asked, crossing his arms.
Leena saw the muscles flex and twitch as he did so. Something odd about his accent, she thought. “Mr. Yslava, camping isn’t allowed out here. It’s a violation of tribal regulations.”
“Perdoname. I leeve.” He turned and started walking toward the Honda’s passenger door.
“Mr. Yslava, could you wait a moment please,” Leena asked, walking toward him.
Yslava stopped and turned to face her, still smiling. “Perdoname.”
Leena walked to the back of the car, taking a notebook and pen from her breast pocket and looked down at the license plate. She jotted down the number but paused. That’s odd, she thought, it’s a Las Cruces specialty plate. Gallup was more than 300 miles from Las Cruces. She glanced up and saw that Yslava stood beside the passenger door again, composing himself and glancing into the open window.
“Mr. Yslava,” she said, firmly. The hair on the back of her neck stood up, and her heart beat faster, adrenaline surging through her system. “Step away from the car, please.”
She pointed to a spot away from the car, and Yslava stepped to it, still smiling, but now holding his hands behind his back. Leena stepped back further behind the car, to put more distance between the two of them. Years later, she would recall the incident in minute detail, as if it had happened in slow motion. A banging noise came from inside the trunk. Leena and Yslava both heard the sound and looked at each other. His smile disappeared. She slowly put the pen and notebook away, then reached for the extended radio microphone hooked to the front of her shirt. As she pressed the microphone and turned her head to speak, Yslava launched himself at her.
“STOP!” Leena screamed, as she ducked behind the car and drew her firearm. Yslava sprinted toward her, producing a yellow canister from behind his back. As her pistol cleared the holster, a thick stream of liquid sprayed from the canister. The stream rose across the trunk lid, hitting her uniform shirt, crossing from her left side to her right, upward, and across her neck, just missing her face. Her nerve endings erupted in fire wherever it touched. Her eyes watered and stung and she pulled the trigger.
The bullet flew wide, far to the right, but Leena sent three more shots behind it as she tried to track her target, vision blurred and hands shaking. Gunshots echoing, Yslava turned and dived into the open window of the Honda as Leena fell to the dirt and ground her teeth against the pain to her skin. She reached up and pressed the microphone.
“Shots fired. Shots fired. Officer needs assistance, last location. Officer needs assistance.” I’m all alone out here, she thought.
The radio erupted in static and broken voices. She twisted to push herself up when she noticed a shovel lying on the ground nearby and a freshly dug hole between the car and the hillside. A hole about two feet deep and about four feet across. She heard the door latch and saw the driver’s door swing open. Leena aimed her gun, but dust and pepper spray, pain and adrenaline worked against her. Yslava’s arm reached out, holding a large bore, short barreled, revolver.
She lunged behind the car for cover as Yslava fired at her from the driver’s seat. Magnum rounds tore metal and chrome from the car’s chassis as he shot at her.
“I’m gonna kill you, bitch,” Yslava shouted, without any discernible accent.
Leena felt a new rage rising in her throat. She crawled back and got her feet under her. “Mr. Yslava! No one needs to die out here today! Throw your gun out the window!”
“Fuck you, bitch!” he shouted back.
Even through the heavy ringing in her ears, Leena heard Yslava moving around in the passenger compartment. Every second that she waited gave Yslava more advantage; she had to do something. Taking a deep breath and slowly exhaling through her nose, she gripped her pistol with both hands, stood tall and began firing through the rear windshield into the passenger compartment of the Honda. Safety glass cascaded into the car and she alternated between firing into the driver’s seat, then the passenger seat, and back again, until her pistol was empty and the slide locked open. Then crouching, she dropped her magazine, reloading with a new one from her belt and releasing the slide. Her eyes still stung from the spray. Bear repellent, she thought.
No more threats or gunshots, no moving around inside the car. She stood and edged her way around the passenger side, pistol at the ready, gripped in both hands.
As she reached the door with the open window, she peered in and saw Yslava lying across the two front seats, blood drenching his shirt. He turned his head and looked up at her, but his eyes lacked awareness, as though sleepy or drunk.
“Mr. Yslava,” Leena said, her voice low and shaky. Yslava coughed up a thick gout of blood and then went still. His bright smile now a rictus of blood and hate.
Pointing the pistol into the car at Yslava, Leena saw the large revolver still in his hand. She walked around to the driver’s side door and pulled the handle, the door flying open under the weight of his body lodged against it. The revolver fell to the floorboards. Her heart still pounding in her chest, Leena grabbed the revolver and slipped it into her back pocket. She put her fingers to his throat, checking for a pulse, but found none. She holstered her own pistol and pulled the trunk release and heard it click.
Leena hesitated as she turned to the trunk, afraid of what she might find there. Steeling herself, she grabbed the trunk lid, raising it and daring herself to look inside. Two girls lay inside, bound with rope, mouths and eyes covered with duct tape. They wriggled and struggled to be free, kicking against the trunk floor. Leena paused for a second, unbelieving. Pulling a folding knife from her belt, she nearly leapt into the trunk to cut the girls free.
“I’m a police officer. You’re safe now,” she kept repeating to the girls, perhaps trying to convince herself. As she gently pulled the duct tape from their faces, she asked, “Are you Dottie and Vanessa?”
They both cried and babbled, trying to assure themselves of their safety and orient themselves to the world outside the Honda trunk. Leena calmed and quieted them to get them moving away from the car and Yslava. When Vanessa reached up for a hug, Leena stopped her.
“I’m covered in bear repellent. Come with me.” She motioned for them to follow her, which they did, zombie-like, to her patrol vehicle where she packed them both into the front passenger seat.
“Dispatch, 641,” Leena radioed.
“641, Units are on the way. Are you hurt?” the dispatcher asked.
“Dispatch, 641. I’m going to need a Rescue Squad to respond for me, Vanessa Reyes, and Dottie Logan; Diaz Mortuary and a Sheriff’s Investigator to respond for the suspect; and a supervisor and a US Attorney for an officer involved shooting.” She paused and looked over at the girls. “I think that’s it.”
“641. We copy.” There was a pause, but the radio channel stayed open. “Confirm you have the Reyes and Logan girls?”
“Affirm, alive and well. They were in the suspect’s trunk.” She said matter-of-factly, and surprised herself with her composure. “Oh, and notify the Sheriff’s Office in Gallup.”
A quick breeze came up and the wind against her skin reactivated some of the bear spray on her neck and face. Leena grimaced and clenched her teeth.
Vanessa leaned forward. “Are you okay?”
Leena’s adrenaline evaporated and she slumped in the driver’s seat of the Ford. She felt as though she weighed a thousand pounds. “I’m good. Are you two okay?”
The two girls nodded.
“Okay, then. We’re just going to sit here and wait until everyone else arrives. And I guarantee, a lot of people are coming. Okay?”
Dottie peered around Vanessa and said, “Okay.”
Vanessa asked, “Are we safe here?”
A hummingbird, orange and white and violet, darted up and hovered above the hood of the police car. It considered the three of them for a moment and then flitted away.
“Hummingbird is the Creator’s messenger,” she told the girls. “He reports on the world and says, ‘All is well.’”
“All is well,” Dottie repeated.
They sat quietly and stared at the landscape, their shock and fear waning into exhaustion. Dottie reached over and took hold of Leena’s right hand and Leena squeezed back. Vanessa added her hand and the three held onto each other.
Staring out the window at the Yucca and chaparral, Leena suddenly had a thought.
“I wonder if they’ll hold family dinner night until I get there?” she asked out loud.