Special Investigator Ella Clah glanced at the dark clouds that loomed over Beautiful Mountain as she drove down the highway. The sacred peak rose toward that brooding sky as if imploring rain from Water Sprinkler, the rain bringer of the gods. The old ones of her tribe said that the mountains were living beings and, in a way, she agreed with them. The four sacred mountains that bordered their land inspired a sense of history and permanency that was hard to explain, and impossible to deny. They were a part of her and The Dineh.
The smell of dry air and dust filled her nostrils. It was a parched, skin-drying sensation that spoke volumes to anyone who'd been raised on the reservation. Unless the summer rains came early this year, sheep would be hard pressed to find forage, and crops would wither out in the fields.
Thunder echoed in the distance, resonating off the metal skin of her Jeep like the roll of a kettle drum. Despite the light show on the horizon, if today turned out like yesterday and the day before, there wouldn't be any rain. The clouds would dissipate over the mountains, and the sun would break through just before dusk to warm the evening.
Ella shifted in her seat, tugging at the seat belt and wondering why she couldn't shake that vague sense of uneasiness that was nagging at her. It was more than the possible 10-27, the homicide, she was on her way to investigate. Trouble was brewing on the reservation, as evidenced by an increasing level of bad news and violence creeping across the area. It wasn't just due to the sudden burst of warm weather after a long, dry winter either. It was much more than that. She could feel it as clearly as the blast of dry air blowing across her face through the gap in the window.
Some said that she had supernatural powers, a legacy handed down through her family. But that was only because they didn't understand how a cop developed special instincts, or how well-honed her training had made her subconscious observations. At times, such things could spell the difference between life and death but, at the moment, they tugged at her mental shirttail like a child trying to get a mother's attention.
Hearing the wind howling through the window, she gripped the wheel with one hand and cranked the glass down an inch more, easing the shriek to a dull roar. It was too cool right now for the air conditioner, but, inside the Jeep with the windows closed, it got stuffy and uncomfortable in a hurry, despite the open vents.
Miserable day, miserable mood, and now, on top of everything else, her skin was crawling. That was a feeling she'd learned not to ignore.
In deference to her FBI training, which had taught her to block out distractions and focus on the task at hand, Ella forced her thoughts back to the crime scene she was enroute to. From the initial report, she'd learned a Navajo man had been found beaten to death. The patrol officer sent to the area would secure the site until she and the crime scene team arrived. On the Rez that task wouldn't be much of a problem. Usually little effort was needed here to keep civilians from satisfying their morbid curiosity. Fear of the chindi, the evil in a man that stayed earthbound after death and caused problems for the living, was still strong here.
Distracted again by a sense of unease, Ella swept the area ahead with eagle-sharp eyes. All of her senses warned of danger drawing closer with each mile. She stared at the ragged cliffs that jutted up from the desert floor like enormous stone gods with their backs to a wall. The view looked the same as always, but something about Four Corners felt different today. Ella's hand went to the badger fetish that hung from a leather thong around her neck. Her brother had given it to her for protection and it comforted her now.
Ella's radio broke her musings with its crackle. Picking up the mike, she identified herself.
"SI unit One, proceed along highway sixty-four west of Hogback to investigate a reported 10-47 creating a traffic hazard," the dispatcher ordered. "We have no other units in the area free to respond."
"Negative, PD. I'm enroute to a '27 south of Morgan Lake." She didn't have time to investigate a drunken driver complaint now. If by some miracle it did rain today, all the physical evidence would have to be gathered before moisture destroyed the integrity of the scene.
"Channel 6," came another voice, only a few seconds after she'd racked the mike.
Ella recognized the voice of Big Ed Atcitty, the police chief. She switched to the new frequency and picked up the mike again, guessing what he would say. "I'm enroute to the 10-27, Big Ed."
"Take the 10-47, Shorty," the chief ordered, using the special nickname he'd given her, though Ella stood a head taller than he.
"The victim will still be dead if you arrive ten minutes later. Get that driver off my highway first."
She replaced the mike, grumbling. They needed more cops on the Rez, but that wouldn't happen as long as the current budget crisis prevailed, especially with federal funds drying up and the tribe relying on its own resources. Passing the Morgan Lake turnoff, she continued west, away from the murder scene.
Ella was surprised when, instead of dissipating, her uneasiness increased though she was moving away from the crime scene. She tried to ignore the sensation, but the certainty that she was about to start down a dangerous path made her heart race.
Less than ten minutes later, as she drove toward Shiprock, she spotted a slow moving vehicle ahead. The cherry red sedan, in mint condition, would have been enough to get her attention even if it hadn't been veering all over the road. Pickups and inexpensive sedans were common on the Rez, but not too many local folks drove flashy cars. Money was just too tight, and the roads were lousy.
Ella took note of the prestige plate that read 'Angi' then flashed the portable lights she'd affixed to the dashboard of her unmarked Jeep. The drunk driver in the car didn't slow down, or show any sign that she was even aware of the signal. Ella tried the siren, but the driver seemed oblivious to that as well.
Moving over as if to pass, Ella pulled up in the left lane beside the red car to ID the driver and signal her to pull over. As she did, Ella saw that the woman shaking, as if in the throes of a convulsion.
Ella quickly checked to see if the road was still clear ahead, then looking back at the driver, sighed with relief when she saw that the seizure, or whatever it was, had passed.
She kept her eyes on the young woman a moment longer, trying to assess the situation. Then abruptly `Angi' turned her head, and looked directly at Ella. The girl's eyes were blank, glazed over as if she were stoned. There was no recognition, no sense of awareness.
Ella felt her skin grow cold. She took her foot off the accelerator, and fell back behind the red car, weighing her options. Should she pull ahead to warn oncoming traffic, or try to force the dangerous vehicle off the road? The narrow roadbed and sandy arroyos would make the latter option risky, not to mention the regularly spaced dump truck loads of gravel left by the highway department crews upgrading the road.
Ella noted the long, wide curve of the asphalt ahead. After they made it around the corner, if the road was clear, she could pick a spot to force the driver off the side. Until then, she had to make sure the driver wouldn't have a head-on with another vehicle.
She accelerated past the red sedan, sirens and flashers on again in case anyone was coming. As she completed the move, she checked the driver in her rear view mirror. The red sedan had failed to negotiate the turn. All Ella could see was a cloud of dust where the vehicle had left the road.
Ella worked the brakes and turned the wheel hard, putting the Jeep into a controlled one eighty with a screech. As she sped back, she called the accident in. Seconds later, she pulled to a stop by the side of the road, grabbed her hand held radio, and looked down the slope. The red car had left the highway, nosed over into the shallow wash, then slid sideways and rolled down a steep embankment. It had come to a stop upside down with the driver's compartment half buried in a mountain of gravel. The driver's compartment was half buried in the gravel. It was impossible to tell anything about the condition of the woman inside.
As she slid down the incline on the seat of her pants, the notion that someone was watching her became a certainty in her mind. She tried to brush aside her uneasiness by telling herself that if someone was there, she hoped they would show themselves and help. She could use an extra pair of hands to dig out the driver.
Her forced optimism did little to ease the pitch and roll of her stomach. Her muscles were taut, and her hearing almost painfully sharp as she listened for sounds that didn't belong.
Focusing on the task that required her immediate attention, she began to scoop away the gravel by hand, trying to uncover the driver's door. She could hear the car radio playing an impassioned ad for a local auto dealership, and used that to guide her to the driver. As the smell of gasoline filled her nostrils, she slowed down. She had to avoid creating a spark. Gasoline was leaking through the gravel into the ground, staining the dry earth a reddish brown, like dried blood.
"Hang on. I'm going to get you out!" Ella yelled, hoping the driver was still conscious and able to understand her. The more she thought about it, though, the less likely that seemed. The woman hadn't appeared coherent before the accident. Whatever she had been on had definitely erased reality from her mind.
Ella carefully swept aside the gravel, blocking out her fear that the gas tank would explode taking the driver and her with it. Precious seconds turned into minutes as she worked, but at least the smell of gasoline didn't grow any stronger.
She stopped abruptly, her fingers scratched and raw, as she heard a woman's voice from inside the car. "Hello! Hang on!" Ella shouted, then listened intently. A moment later, she realized the voice she'd heard had just been the radio.
Finally she caught her first glimpse of the driver through the broken side window. The body, held upside down in the seat-belt harness, was slumped in a peculiar rag-doll fashion against the deflated air bag. Blood matted the victim's long, dark hair.
Ella reached inside, avoiding the broken glass, and switched off the ignition. Then, taking a deep breath, she tugged at the door, struggling against the weight of the gravel and damaged hinges, until it opened halfway.
"Take it easy," Ella said quietly, though she strongly suspected the woman was beyond the reach of such assurances now.
Fearing the worst, she reached for the pulse point at the victim's neck, and found none.
Ella sat back on her knees and looked the body over closely. Despite the numerous shallow cuts, there didn't seem to be any clear cause of death. The air bag had deployed, protecting the girl from impact with the steering wheel and windshield. Fortunately, determining the cause of death was not her job. That task would fall to Carolyn Roanhorse, the tribal M.E.
Ella stood up and moved away, aware of the smell of death that was already permeating the interior of the car. It was an odor distinct and separate from the acrid smell of gasoline and hot oil she'd detected outside the car. It wasn't decomposition either, it was death, pure and simple. Carolyn would have argued that it was Ella's imagination, but it was an argument that Ella would have never conceded. Death itself had a smell.
Ella crouched down and reached for the young woman's purse, which lay beside the dome light of the inverted vehicle. She extracted the driver's license and, as she read the dead woman's name, her stomach tightened into a knot. `Angi' was Angelina Yellowhair. Now the fancy car and prestige plate suddenly made sense. State Senator James Yellowhair served on several powerful government committees. From what Ella had heard, the politician doted on his daughter. This news would hit him hard.
Ella knew she couldn't remove the body from the vehicle alone, so she climbed back up the embankment to get her evidence kit and camera. She'd photograph the scene while she waited for the emergency personnel she'd called to arrive. Everything here would have to be carefully documented. The victim's erratic driving and behavior was bound to raise questions nobody, especially a powerful politician running for re-election, would want to answer.
As she went to her Jeep, she heard the wail of a siren, and a tribal police vehicle flew around the curve. Ella waited as the patrolman pulled up and climbed out.
Joseph Neskahi, recently promoted to sergeant, strode up to her. He was as he'd always been, Ella observed, a packet of compressed energy shaped like a safe--square and hard. "Sorry it took me so long," he said. "I was checking out a vandalized irrigation pump down by Waterflow and almost got stuck getting out of there. What have you got?" He looked down the embankment at the overturned car and shook his head in disgust.
She gave him a quick rundown while he wrote notes rapidly on a small notepad. As soon as she passed him the victim's driver's license, Neskahi looked up. "That's going to make things interesting around here."
"I didn't have a chance to photograph the scene yet, so make sure you cover the entire site. We'll need every detail. Also, tell the EMTs about the convulsions. I'm not sure if she was on something, or just ill, but they should take that into account when they handle that body. After you're finished here, try to locate the person who phoned in the report about the drunken driver. I have a feeling the senator's going to have a lot of questions, and I'd like someone else to corroborate what I saw prior to the accident."
"You're not sticking around?"
"I can't. I was enroute to a probable 10-47 south of Morgan. I'd like to get there as soon as possible."
Joseph Neskahi nodded. "I heard the patrolman's call earlier today." He looked around, gazing at the mesas thoughtfully. "You picking up any vibes about what happened over there at that crime scene?"
His tone and his worried expression made it unnecessary for him to elaborate. The problem the tribe had experienced with skinwalkers in the recent past was never far from anyone's mind. And almost everyone, including Neskahi, had heard about Ella's `intuition'. Her hunches had a tendency to be disturbingly accurate.
She looked around again. The only vibes she had now were centered here. But she had nothing to base them on. Still, she was honor bound to do whatever she could to protect a fellow officer. "I'm not so worried about what I'll find at that other site as I am about what is here. This case is going to raise lots of questions. Be careful out here. Watch out for the scene... and for yourself. If you need me, you know where I'll be."
As she drove away, Ella felt her hands grow clammy. Trouble was brewing. She could feel it as clearly as the air blowing through her open window.
It took Ella twenty minutes to get to the scene of the murder; a small, steep arroyo running parallel to the Four Corners power plant access road and the largest open pit coal mine in the west. By the time she arrived, the crime scene unit and the tribe's ME, Doctor Carolyn Roanhorse, were already there. Unfortunately, so was Dwayne Blalock, the FBI agent assigned to this jurisdiction. Things had changed in the last few years, more of this kind of investigation was placed in the hands of the tribal police, but the FBI's presence remained. Murder on the Rez was still a federal crime.
Ella approached Detective Ute, the officer in charge of the scene, and stepped aside as Sergeant Tache, working with Blalock at his shoulder, photographed each piece of physical evidence in place. "What have you got?"
Ute held out the clipboard where he was writing a narrative description and showed her the name, 'Stanley Bitah'. "Have you heard of the victim?"
She nodded, respecting the tribal custom not to mention the deceased by name, particularly here where he'd met his death. "He's an activist in this area. I've seen him mentioned in a few newspaper stories. Who found the body?"
Detective Ute shrugged. "The helicopter pilot who inspects the power lines spotted the body as he flew over at noon." Ute gestured toward the steel towers standing in a row all the way to the horizon, like armless giants.
"What else can you tell me?" Ella continued.
"The deceased worked as a mechanic, helping maintain the heavy equipment at the mine. He was most likely beaten to death with some kind of club. I'll know more in a while."
Officer Justine Goodluck, Ella's petite young assistant, came out from behind a small stand of junipers. "We've really just started focusing on identifying and protecting the physical evidence. Even FB-Eyes over there is helping out." Justine nodded toward Blalock, who was placing small wire and plastic `flags' beside footprints for Tache. The agent had received the nickname from Navajo officers because one of his eyes was blue, and the other brown.
"I can tell you a little more of what we've learned so far," Justine continued. "Okay, Harry?"
Ute nodded, and looked back down at his narrative. Ella followed the youthful cop/lab tech toward an area filled with scuff marks, footprints, and droplets of blood. "Clearly, a struggle took place here."
Ella studied the ground. "From the spray patterns of blood on the ground, and the other signs, I'd say the murder also occurred here."
Justine nodded. "That's what Detective Ute and the others concluded too." She crouched by Ella, and pointed. "Four people were present, and one--not the victim--ran away down the arroyo, escaping, maybe."
"Do you know where the others went?"
She shook her head. "I was just about to follow up on that when you arrived."
They followed three sets of tracks, which ended abruptly at the highway. Black tire marks indicated a vehicle had taken off in a hurry. "This is a bit of luck," Ella said. "These tracks are really clear. Ask Tache to take several shots and see if you can identify the type of vehicle they belong to. Blalock might be able to hazard a guess on the spot, so make sure you ask him. He told me recently that he was becoming an expert on tire patterns common to the area."
"I'll take care of it."
"I'm going to talk to Dr. Roanhorse," Ella said, glancing up and seeing that the medical examiner was working alone, as usual, talking into her tape recorder as she examined the body.
As Ella went up to her friend, she couldn't help but sympathize. Nobody ever hung around Carolyn for long. Fear of the chindi, of contamination by the dead, was always present among those of their tribe. Even the kids, who seemed to go out of their way to discount other traditional Navajo beliefs, stayed clear of the M.E.
As she approached, Carolyn switched off her tape recorder. "I was wondering when you'd get here."
"I had another emergency call on the way. I'll tell you about it in a little bit, since it's going to end up on your desk, too. But first, do you have an opinion on how this all went down?" Ella looked at the victim, and had to force herself not to cringe. The murder had been particularly brutal.
"In layman's terms, this man died as a result of several--four or five--heavy blows to the left side of the skull. The last three or four were probably unnecessary. The location and angle of the attack suggests the killer was right handed, or had a wicked backhand for a lefty. The murder weapon was a blunt object, like a pipe, wooden club, or something of that nature. He's been dead less than eight hours, which would put the approximate time of death around dawn, plus or minus an hour or two. It's pretty straightforward from what I can see." Carolyn stood up slowly, and signaled for Ute to join her.
Ute, who always wore a glum expression, looked even more miserable now, as he put down his clipboard and walked toward them.
"You like to pick on poor Harry, don't you?" Ella whispered.
Carolyn smiled. "Don't begrudge me my little pleasures," she said, reaching for the body bag.
While Carolyn and Detective Ute loaded the victim's body into the ME's van, Ella walked up to where Tache and Justine were working.
Blalock was nearby, placing blood-encrusted sand from individual droplets into separate plastic vials, labeling them as he worked.
"Hello Ella," Blalock nodded congenially, looking up from his work for a moment. "How's your family?"
"Doing real well. I'll tell them you asked." Ella knew that her mom and brother didn't care too much for Blalock, but at least they had acquired some grudging respect for the man. He was dealing with the Dineh with a lot more tact nowadays, especially since working with her the past two years. As ex-FBI herself, she had managed to instill in Blalock the need to pay more attention to their cultural differences if he wanted to get anywhere on a case.
Ella glanced at Tache, who had finished loading the camera. "Have you photographed the murder weapon?" she asked him.
"We haven't found it, at least not yet."
"Why would the killer or killers take it with them?" Ella mused. "They didn't try to hide the body, or obscure other evidence."
Justine joined them. "One of the three had enough presence of mind to balk at the thought of leaving a club full of fingerprints behind?"
"Maybe the blood tests will reveal that more than one person was cut up enough to bleed," Ella said. "That will help us later on in the investigation when we have a list of suspects. I have a feeling this crime is going to be far more complicated than it looks." Ella looked at Justine, then Tache. Wariness shone in their eyes. They knew about her hunches.
"It's time to get to that 24/24 rule," Ella continued. "The two most important things in an investigation are the last twenty-four hours of a victim's life and whatever we find within twenty-four hours after the body is discovered. Get me everything you can find on the deceased," she said, looking at Justine. "I want to know about his activities at the coal mine and his personal life. I want to know who he trusted, who he worked with, who he hung around with, and who his enemies were."
"I'll get right on that," Justine said, writing everything down in her notebook.
Ella looked at Tache. "I'd like the photos you've taken here developed as soon as you get back. Have them all on my desk before you go home tonight and make copies for Blalock, too."
Carolyn came up as Tache went back to help FB-Eyes, who was still collecting blood-stained sand. "You're really pushing on this one. How come?"
Ella looked at Carolyn, then Justine.
"I have things to do." Justine said, turning to leave.
Ella shook her head. "No, you might as well hear this now instead of at the station. I was detoured on my way over here answering a 10-47--a drunken driver--endangering traffic. But that's not what I found." She recounted what she'd seen, the convulsions, the unresponsive stare. "I have a feeling we're going to be getting a lot of heat on that one, and just at a time when we're going to need all our energy for this case."
"Why should that accident be different from any other drug or alcohol related death that happens on the Rez? Who was in the car?" Justine prodded.
"Senator Yellowhair's daughter." Ella saw Justine take one step back as if she'd been hit. She reached out to steady her assistant.
"Are you okay, cousin?"
"I went to school with her..." Justine muttered, her voice shaky. "Are you sure--"
Ella nodded. "I'm sorry."
"You said she was under the influence, or having some kind of attack?" Carolyn asked.
"I saw what appeared to be convulsions, but I can't even guess at a cause." Ella answered. "That's your department."
Carolyn expression was guarded. "You want toxicology?"
"I want you to establish the cause of death, like you always do. Unless I miss my guess, the accident didn't kill her."
"You'll most likely want a full autopsy then." Carolyn took a deep breath, then let it out again.
"Is there something wrong?" Ella looked at her friend curiously. She'd never seen Carolyn hesitate on anything pertaining to her job. Senator Yellowhair was bound to cause problems, it was certainly one of his major talents, but Carolyn had never been known to run from trouble.
"Let's just say I know how our senator operates," Carolyn answered with obvious distaste. "My findings are always substantiated by tests, so I can cover myself and my department. But he'll object to my doing tests or an autopsy on his daughter because he's going to want her buried quickly and without scandal. You can expect major league trouble from him when I don't release the body right away. Cover yourself as best you can. He'll be after somebody's ass on this. Count on it."
Ella nodded. "Don't worry. I can handle whatever comes. I know what I saw."
"Which case do you want given priority?" Carolyn asked.
"This one, the homicide. Do the work up on it first. The faster we move, the better chance we have of not having it end up a real luncher."
"We won't have to eat this case," Justine answered flatly. "We'll solve it.
"Idealism of youth," Carolyn said, walking away.
Ella saw the spark of anger in Justine's eyes and laughed. "Relax, Justine. She just said that to annoy you. We'll do our jobs. And, speaking of our jobs, let's get back to work. There's a lot left for us to do here before we can release the scene."
Copyright (c) 1996 by Aimée and David Thurlo