As the small single-engine aircraft lifted off the Albuquerque runway—next stop Shiprock—Special Investigator Ella Clah of the Navajo Tribal Police couldn’t resist a smile. Even sharing a flight with a genuine Navajo war hero and the tribe’s most respected attorney couldn’t compare with the rush that came from knowing she was finally on the last leg of her journey home.
She’d sorely missed her daughter during her short stay in D.C. Back in her twenties, the job she’d just been offered in the nation’s capital would have been a slam dunk. But Ella was twice that age now. With maturity and parenthood had come other responsibilities that surpassed even her dedication to restoring balance among the Diné—the Navajo People—so all could walk in beauty.
Pulling out her BlackBerry, she checked for a signal. She’d sent her daughter a tweet and wondered if Dawn had replied. Her daughter was allowed to use the strictly text message utility as long as she followed the rules that Ella had set down for her. Like her mom, Dawn had her own followers and screen name. Dawn signed in as Firstlight1, and Ella was Ladylaw.
As she thought of her eleven-year-old, Ella sighed, wondering where the time had gone. That chilly April morning when she’d first held her baby girl in her arms seemed like only yesterday. Yet today it was warm, less than a week since Labor Day, and Dawn had already started the sixth grade.
“So what do you think of D.C.?” Kevin asked, looking back to talk. He was seated up front beside the pi lot. “It’s an exciting place, isn’t it? Could you see yourself and our daughter living there—at the center of power and intrigue for all the United States?”
Kevin Tolino was Dawn’s father. Even though he and Ella had never lived together or married, they’d remained close by sharing the responsibilities of parenthood. Like most parents, however, they’d had many conflicts over the years, particularly when it came to raising their child.
“What you’re really asking is whether I’ve decided to accept the job with John Blakely’s security firm,” she said with a ghost of a smile. “The answer’s still no. I haven’t made up my mind yet.”
Ella had first met Blakely years ago when they’d both served in the FBI. He was a senior agent and she’d just come off her rookie year in the Bureau when they’d been assigned a particularly tough case in the Denver area. The results of her undercover work had made a lasting impression on Blakely.
Now, retired from the Bureau, John had opened Personnel Profile Security, PPS, an up-and-coming firm in D.C. Recently, and seemingly out of nowhere, he’d called to offer her a job. Ella strongly suspected that Kevin had encouraged the contact—a not-so-subtle attempt to bring both her and her daughter to D.C. where he spent most of his time. Kevin worked in the tribe’s Washington office almost exclusively these days.
Although she had many things to take into account before making her decision, there was no denying that the PPS offer would mean a substantial salary increase for her, in addition to far less dangerous and stressful work. It was an opportunity she couldn’t easily dismiss.
“The shot at a career jump like this only comes once in a blue moon, particularly in today’s economy,” Kevin said.
She shook her head imperceptibly, warning him to drop the subject for now. Although she didn’t mind having this kind of conversation with Kevin, Adam Lonewolf, sitting just to her left, was practically a stranger. Media coverage had made Adam’s face familiar to everyone, and his deeds in the military gathered attention and respect wherever he went. Yet the fact remained that Kevin had only just introduced them this morning at Reagan National Airport in Washington.
The tall, lean, ex-GI was a war hero and a big celebrity in the Four Corners, especially in the Navajo Nation. Sergeant Lonewolf had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross after almost singlehandedly fighting off an attack on his unit’s Afghan mountain outpost. During six hours of nighttime combat, Sergeant Lonewolf had been wounded several times. Yet despite his own injuries, he’d rescued three trapped soldiers and led them to safety.
After leaving the military and returning home, Adam had sought a new direction for his life. The search had eventually led him to Kevin, who’d helped him get a job as a lobbyist. Kevin had even gone the extra mile, introducing Adam to the Washington businessmen and government officials he’d need to network with on behalf of the tribe.
Recently, when Kevin had unexpectedly become the target of threats, Adam had volunteered to provide him with travel protection. Knowing Adam’s reputation would be the best possible deterrent, Kevin had readily agreed.
Lonewolf wasn’t much of a talker, though. Ella doubted that he’d said more than three words since they’d left Albuquerque, and even less on the flight from the capital.
“Now that you’ve had a taste of D.C., how do you feel about representing the tribe and its business interests there?” Ella asked Adam, hoping to draw him out a bit.
“It’s a different kind of warfare,” he said after a beat. “But I’ll get the hang of it.”
His smile never reached his eyes. The hard, yet vacant gleam there was one she recognized. She’d seen it in the faces of many veterans and experienced law enforcement officers who’d seen too much death—up close and personal. Adam’s military service had been intense and extremely violent and that left major scars, not all of them visible. Ella knew it was likely he would carry some of those for as long as he lived.
“If you ever decide you want to leave a lobbyist’s pressure cooker life of not-so-gentle persuasion, come work full-time for me,” Kevin said.
Adam shook his head. “I’ll help you with security whenever I can, you know that, but I came back to serve the Diné. The best way for me to do that is by advancing the tribe’s interests in D.C.” He paused for a moment, then continued. “As a soldier, I know firsthand what happens when word comes down from Washington. I want to give the Diné more input at the source, particularly when it comes to matters that’ll affect The People, whether it be in business, regulation, or legislation.”
“Does that mean you’re going to relocate to D.C. full-time?” Ella asked.
“No, I don’t think that’ll be necessary. The tribe covers my transportation expenses. Staying connected to the Dinétah will help me keep my perspective, too.”
“All the traveling … With family, it isn’t easy,” Ella warned in a low, thoughtful voice.
“After two tours in Afghanistan, my wife, Marie, is used to not having me around for long periods of time. She wouldn’t know what to do with me if I decided to stay home,” he added, suddenly laughing.
The gesture transformed his face, and for that brief moment Adam Lonewolf was just another young Navajo man looking forward to being home again with his family.
“As a police detective, I imagine your family’s had its share of adapting to the demands of your work, too. It can’t be easy for them whenever they hear about an officer involved in a shooting,” he said, his expression shifting back to its somber mood.
“That’s true,” she admitted. “Even accepting the small things, like my not showing up for dinner or a school event, can be hard on them sometimes. But my daughter knows that if she needs me I’m just a phone call away. The same goes for her dad,” she added, glancing at Kevin.
“I haven’t always been that accessible to my family,” Adam said, “particularly when I was on patrol or at some remote mountain outpost halfway around the world. What helped me most back then was knowing I could count on my clan to look after things for me here.”
Ella nodded. The dependable support system clans provided were multilayered, more than family, and more complex than most people on the outside ever realized. “The Rez is a good place to live. It’s too bad that work’s always so hard to find.”
“That’s one of the things I hope to change, or at least influence for the better, as a lobbyist. I could make a real difference for other families, and my own, if I could bring more jobs to the Navajo Nation.”
“You can be very persuasive, and people genuinely like you, Adam. That’ll get you the contacts you need to advance the tribe’s agenda,” Kevin said. “I’ve seen you working those business conferences and agency gatherings in D.C. You can hold your own with practically anyone.”
Adam smiled and this time it did reach his eyes. “Learning to communicate effectively, even with total strangers, is something the military teaches you. It’s a survival skill as well as a tactical necessity sometimes.”
Ship Rock, the ancient volcanic cone rising from the desert floor, came into view again through the front cockpit glass as the aircraft banked to the west. The pi lot then circled to the right, lining up the aircraft as they lost more altitude, approaching from the south toward the small landing strip southwest of “downtown” Shiprock.
Adam grew quiet again, his hands on the briefcase on his lap as he stared out the window.
From what she could read of his body language, he was impatient, eager to land. She had a feeling that Adam had missed his wife a lot more than he’d readily admit. She smiled, sympathizing.
Ahead, to their left and far below, Ella saw a white van coming down the access road from the west. It wasn’t her mother, Rose, and her husband, Herman. Her stepfather still drove his old hot rod pickup. Maybe it was cargo for the single engine aircraft’s return flight to Albuquerque—or a service vehicle.
Their small craft dropped quickly, then flared out and slowed, touching down with a gentle bump of the rear landing gear. The nose dropped slightly, and the front gear touched down. The pi lot cut the engine speed again, applied the brakes, and they slowed quickly. Without the roar of big jet engines and the whir from the activation of flaps and such, their landing was relatively quiet. They slowed to a few miles per hour, then turned to the right and taxied toward a small hangar.
Home. Ella’s heart began to beat faster, and she looked in vain at the small parking lot, hoping to see Herman’s pickup. She couldn’t wait to see Dawn. Although she’d only been away for three days, it felt like an eternity had passed. Phone calls were never enough, and bulletin-style e-mails and tweets lacked a personal touch.
They came to a stop about fifty feet from the edge of the asphalt. The pi lot took off his headset, unbuckled his seat belt, then half turned in his seat. “No ground crew here, folks. Sorry. You can unbuckle and gather your gear while I climb out and deploy the steps.” He opened his door and dropped down to the pavement.
“Will your family be coming to pick you up?” Ella asked Adam as she reached under her seat for her purse.
“No, my wife has been helping my parents at our sheep camp up in the mountains. I expect Marie’s still on the road, driving back. I was planning to ride in with Kevin, then pick up a car at the tribal motor pool on the mesa.”
Ella again noted the brown leather briefcase he’d held protectively on his lap the entire flight.
Following her gaze, he gave her a quick half smile. “When I left the Army, I told myself I’d find a job where I’d never have to carry anything heavy around again. But my wife bought this for me, so I’m stuck with taking paperwork home to show her how much I appreciate the gift,” he added, then laughed. “Win some, lose some.”
She smiled and looked past Adam at the open cockpit door. The pi lot was outside adjusting the small aluminum steps. “Every time I take a trip, I go with a half empty suitcase so I can bring back gifts for my family,” Ella said.
“I may have to up-size next trip. This time, beside a special edition board game for my nephew, I’ve actually got some important papers crowded in here. I could have used a tote bag for the game, I guess, but I like to keep one hand free whenever I can—and I’m never going to carry anything over my shoulder again.”
Kevin laughed. “When my daughter was younger, I always brought back something for her and lodged it between tribal documents.” He took a deep breath, rising from his seat and crouching low, waiting for them to exit. “My job has sure changed a lot these past few years.”
“For the better or worse?” Adam asked.
“Worse, particularly lately,” Kevin said, following Adam out of the aircraft. “Ever since I started building my case against Alan Grady, the manager who handles our new tribal casino in Fruitland, things have been a little edgy.” Kevin looked up to see if Ella needed a hand down the simple ladder.
“Something about his firm overbilling the tribe, right?” Ella asked, taking Kevin’s hand for balance as she climbed down.
“Yeah, that’s it in a nutshell. Right now I’m preparing a lawsuit to recover some overpayments. It’s a contractual issue, but several hundred thousand are at stake. Enough, apparently, to make me a target, at least for harassment. I wouldn’t be surprised if my enemies try to get me fired once they discover I can’t be intimidated.”
“Nice to be at an airport where there’s no need for security,” Adam noted, his gaze taking in the airstrip facilities.
“Just a couple of mechanics and a delivery truck,” Kevin said, laughing. “Consider yourself off the clock, Adam.”
Ella gazed at the Chuska Mountains to the west and took a deep breath, looking up at clear blue skies. New Mexico air smelled sweeter than the exhaust-laden oxygen substitute she’d been forced to breathe in D.C.
Life, even in the twenty-first century, was less complicated here on the Dinétah. Their airport, for example, was nothing more than a few narrow asphalt strips with a wide spot at one end and a hangar just large enough to provide a little shade for the mechanic. To her right, about fifty yards from the hangar, were the fuel pumps, and beyond, a small cinder block structure with a rooftop observation area. She smiled, glad to be back on her turf.
“Any sign of Rose and Herman?” Kevin asked as the three of them stepped away from the aircraft, waiting for their luggage. The pi lot, Pete Sanchez, ducked under the wing and moved to the belly, where there was a storage compartment.
“No, I didn’t see the pickup or Mom’s old car when we were coming down.” Sticking to a precise schedule was more of an Anglo preoccupation. Things on the Rez usually ran on Indian time.
“Dawn’s coming with them, right?” Kevin asked.
“Yeah. Nothing could keep her away,” Ella said, grinning widely. “She’s probably got a million things to tell us now that she’s finally in middle school. Her life seems to run at a faster pace than ours.”
Hearing the faint squeal of tires, Ella noted the arrival of the white van she’d observed during the approach. It looked like a FedEx ground service van, though she couldn’t see the sign from this angle. Glancing back toward the aircraft, she saw Pete retrieving their luggage, three soft side bags and two carry-ons.
“Someone was supposed to meet me here with a car,” Kevin grumbled, bringing out his cell phone. “I should have called ahead to remind them when we reached Albuquerque.”
“You got spoiled in the big city where there’s a taxicab going by every thirty seconds,” Ella said, laughing. “Maybe the tribal car’s in the shop and that van’s your ride.”
Ella glanced at Adam. His gaze was focused on the van, which had whipped around, then come to a stop, rear doors facing them. An uneasy feeling crept up her spine and almost simultaneously, the badger fetish at her neck, a gift from her brother, became scalding hot—a sure sign of danger. Ella placed her hand on the butt of her pistol.
Adam took a step closer to Kevin, his gaze still fixed on the van.
Suddenly both rear doors flew open and two bulky men in black overalls armed with assault rifles jumped down to the pavement.
“Guns!” Ella dove for the asphalt as the men began firing from the hip.
Glancing back, Ella saw Adam yank Kevin to the ground beside the starboard side landing gear, then drop to one knee, grabbing at his thigh, instinctively reaching for the service Beretta he’d worn for years. A second later he flinched, then toppled to the pavement, blood spewing from his head.
Groaning from an apparent hit, Kevin curled up behind the meager protection of the landing gear wheel.
Ella, her nine-millimeter service pistol in hand, snapped off three quick shots, then rolled to her left, trying to use the shadow cast from the aircraft’s tail for concealment. The two shooters stopped moving forward but kept their weapons up by their shoulders, squeezing off round after round. The pi lot, in line when the men first opened fire, had already taken a stray bullet to the shoulder, but the assailants were no longer paying any attention to him. Their targets appeared to be the men wearing suits. As she fired at the pair, the pi lot dove back into the aircraft through the open door.
Ella aimed directly at the closest gunman’s chest, and fired twice. The man flinched, and staggered back. A hit.
Ella shifted, trying to get a sight picture on the second man, who was at least ten feet from his partner. Before she could squeeze off a shot, he located her in the shadows and fired a half dozen rounds of suppressing fire.
Ella rolled, the bullets digging up asphalt where she’d been an instant before, and returned fire. The man’s partner, the one she’d thought she’d hit twice already, hadn’t even slowed down. He took another step forward, firing four or five more rounds at Adam and Kevin, who were bunched together now.
She squeezed off more rounds. She was scoring hits, the bullets rocked the attackers, but neither would go down. They were probably wearing body armor. Out of ammo, Ella dove for the only concealment around—the luggage beneath the storage compartment. One of the shooters was reloading, replacing the spent magazine with another, but his partner kept snapping off one round at a time, and she had to roll again to stay out of sight.
Excerpted from Never Ending Snake by Aimée and David Thurlo.
Copyright © 2010 by Aimée and David Thurlo.
Published in September 2010 by A Tom Doherty Associates Book.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.