A Fernando Lopez Santa Fe Mystery
Based on the novel by James C. Wilson
Copyright 2020 by James C. Wilson
Contact: James Clois Smith Jr., Sunstone Press / (505) 988-4418
LOGLINE: A Santa Fe gallery owner is murdered during a peyote ceremony staged by looters trafficking in stolen Native American tribal artifacts, which leads Detective Fernando Lopez into the Black Market underworld of historic Santa Fe.
Michael Soto, the owner of Sabado Indian Arts on the Santa Fe Plaza, attends a peyote ceremony outside Santa Fe. He and the others ingest the hallucinogenic drug and listen to the ceremonial music. During the Midnight Water Call a wolfman bursts through the opening of the teepee and points at Soto, who throws sand in the wolfman’s face and runs out of the teepee. He makes his way indirectly to his car, parked by the landowner’s house. He starts his car and looks into the rear view mirror where he sees white fangs and a red tongue hanging obscenely from a snarling, ghastly mask.
Detective Fernando Lopez of the Santa Fe Police Department sits at his desk listening to two Zuñi tell him that a sacred tribal object has been stolen from their pueblo. They show Lopez a note saying that Michael Soto has been trying to sell the object, a carved wooden war god, for $50,000 on the black market. The Zuñi want the carving returned immediately and the conversation becomes tense, fraught with 500 years of social and ethnic conflict in New Mexico.
After the Zuñi leave, Lopez is told by the police dispatcher that a homicide has just been reported at Jacoñita near the San Ildefonso Pueblo. The victim? Michael Soto.
Lopez and a deputy sheriff by the name of Tomas Trujillo investigate the murder scene in Jacoñita. They search Soto’s car and are told by the landowner, José Padilla, that Soto and others used the peyote ceremonies to obtain tribal objects. When Lopez and Trujillo search the teepee site, someone fires warning shots at them from over by the Rio Grande River.
Lopez tracks down and interviews those who attended the peyote meeting at Jacoñita, beginning with José Padilla, the landowner. Padilla tells Lopez that a total of eight people attended the ceremony, including Dora Alvarez and Sammy Tso from San Ildefonso Pueblo and four friends of Soto from Whitewater near Zuñi, three men and one woman. His version of what happened is that a man wearing a wolf mask burst into the teepee at midnight and pursued Soto to his car and murdered him.
Next Lopez visits Dora Alvarez at her home in San Ildefonso. Her version of events differs from Padilla’s. She tells him that Soto was murdered not by a man wearing a mask, but by an actual wolfman or skinwalker. She blames the same skinwalker for the recent death of her husband.
When he attempts to interview Sammy Tso, Lopez is attacked and beaten by two men impersonating Tribal Police and told to stay away from the Pueblo and to stop asking questions. Later, after he returns to Santa Fe, Tso calls him and says he wants to talk. They meet at a restaurant in Tesuque and quarrel when Lopez accuses Tso of selling his tribal heritage at the peyote meetings. Tso tells Lopez the peyote meetings were organized by John Reno, the owner of Whitewater Trading Post. Reno leads the meetings as Road Chief and his wife serves as Peyote Woman, whose role is to bring in water at Midnight Water Call.
José Padilla is arrested in Taos for trying to sell the stolen Zuñi carving. When questioned, Padilla refuses to say where he obtained the carving and is jailed. Lopez attempts to return the stolen object to the two Zuñi but is told the carving is a fake.
Lopez takes heat from the Police Chief for not producing results fast enough to appease the Mayor and City Council upset by the murder of a prominent Santa Fean. At the same time the investigation gets more complicated when Soto’s will is released by his lawyer, Raoul Garcia. The will leaves Soto’s gallery and estate to his store manager, Wanda LeClair. The witness? None other than Padilla. LeClair becomes a suspect, along with Padilla.
Garcia arranges a lunch meeting with Lopez and says he now represents both LeClair and Padilla. He demands that Padilla be released immediately. They quarrel over the racial politics of Santa Fe. Leaving the restaurant they cross paths with Paul Garcia, Raoul’s little brother, who works at Santeros Artesana in Chimayo. The younger Garcia has just won a prize at this year’s Spanish Market for one of his carved santos.
Reading the department’s background report on Padilla, Lopez learns that Padilla once worked at Santeros Artesana. Sensing a breakthrough in the case, he rushes to Chimayo with a search warrant. As he suspected, he discovers the stolen tribal object hidden in a closet as well as another fake, half finished.
In the trash at Santeros Artesana Lopez finds a draft of a note similar to the one sent to the Zuñi Tribal Council. This note is addressed to John Reno at Whitewater Trading Post and says that Soto has the REAL carving and is trying to sell it for $50,000.
What this means, Lopez speculates, is that Reno was Soto’s source, and that Soto had given the real carving to the santeros to copy, intending to sell the fakes as originals and return a fake to Reno. Then the santeros had tried to get rid of Soto by sending notes to the Zuñi and Reno. Thieves double-crossing thieves.
The question remains: who killed Soto. To find the answer Lopez heads to Whitewater with one of his colleagues as backup, an ex-Marine by the name of Antonio known as their ‘enforcer.’
Wanda LeClair tosses and turns in the bed she’d shared with Michael Soto, her boss and lover. She longs for her lover’s touch. She hasn’t been able to sleep since his murder. She worries that whoever killed Soto will come after her next, even though she was never involved in his black market schemes. In fact, she’d only discovered the locked closet filled with stolen tribal objects after his death.
The question facing her now is what to do with the stolen objects. After considering her options, she decides to return them to John Reno. She knows most of them came from Reno, so it makes sense to bring them back to his trading post in Whitewater.
The next morning LeClair boxes the objects and places them in the trunk of her car. On her way to Whitewater she stops in Zuñi Pueblo to visit Peywa, a friend she met while teaching at the University of New Mexico. She breaks down telling him about Soto’s murder and her need to return the stolen tribal objects he’d acquired. He helps her bury several items that were looted from Zuñi’s old Pueblo.
At Whitewater LeClair confronts John Reno, a tall, intimidating man with a handlebar moustache. She tells him that she will report him to the police unless he takes the stolen objects and returns them to their tribes. He laughs in her face.
Suddenly she is grabbed from behind by Reno’s wife, a tall muscular woman draped in a blanket dress, and taken to an underground shed behind the trading post. She is bound, blindfolded and left on the floor until later when Reno comes back and begins to sexually assault her.
Lopez and his backup arrive at the Whitewater Trading Post and confront two of Reno’s employees. After a tense standoff, the two police officers begin searching the grounds. As they do, a tall Zuñi woman wearing a red blanket dress steps out of an underground shed and moves slowly toward Lopez, who commands her to stop.
Suddenly everything seems to happen at once. Wanda LeClair bursts out of the shed, partially clothed and trailing strands of tape from her hands and feet, and shouts the Zuñi word for a man who performs the social and work roles of a woman. Reno’s wife, Peyote Woman, is a man!
Then the Zuñi pulls a pistol out of the dress, Lopez tackles the Zuñi, and the two wrestle on the ground until the pistol fires. The Zuñi screams in pain with a shattered leg.
Meanwhile, Lopez hears the sound of a violent struggle inside the shed. Moments later, Antonio comes out of the shed dragging Reno by one foot. Lopez secures the Zuñi and then comforts LeClair.
Several days later Lopez and LeClair are having coffee at the Great Burrito Company. LeClair thanks Lopez for saving her life. Lopez apologizes for suspecting her involvement in Soto’s illegal business.
They talk about what happened the night Soto was murdered at the peyote meeting. Lopez explains that it was Peyote Woman—that is, the ‘two-spirit’ posing as Reno’s wife—who stepped outside the teepee to get water for the Midnight Water Call, put on a wolf mask, pursued Soto to his car, and then murdered him. Reno remained back at the teepee with the others.
When LeClair objects to Reno not being charged with murder, Lopez explains that Reno will face a battery of charges for staging and directing the murder and for stealing and selling illegally obtained tribal objects.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Opening credits, Visual: a lone teepee in darkness with a fire glowing inside the canvas and drums beating in the background with a wolfman moving ominously toward the teepee; with Title Card: a peyote meeting outside Santa Fe, New Mexico.