In all her years serving first with the FBI, and then the Navajo Tribal Police, Special Investigator Ella Clah had never had an office with a window---until now. Of course, back in her Bureau days, she’d never even had an office---just a desk. Progress.
Budgets had grown, not due to tribal prosperity but because of an increase in violent crimes across the Navajo Nation. That had forced an expansion of their existing station and Ella, as head of their Major Crimes Unit, had landed space in their new wing. The odor of fresh paint was a constant reminder of the changes taking place in the department as was the color scheme, a palette of soft aquas, designed to relieve stress and maximize efficiency.
Ella swiveled in her chair, took a sip of freshly brewed coffee, and gazed at Ship Rock, the rock formation that was their town’s namesake. In actuality, the jagged rock outcropping was the eroded neck of a volcano that had formed three million years ago.
Ella recalled the old story about the huge flying monsters that had once lived there. The tale was part of every Navajo child’s education from before the first grade---that is, if they attended reservation schools. The story was vibrant with the richness and rhythms of the Dineh, The People’s, legends. She could almost hear her mother, Rose, telling her the tale, keeping the legends alive---a gift from one generation to the next.
The Dineh had lived in fear of the giant birds who’d made their home on the upper levels of Ship Rock, Rose had taught her. The birds would swoop down and smash their prey against the rocks, then feed on the remains. Monster Slayer, one of the Hero Twins, was chosen to do battle with them, but when he approached their hunting ground, one of the giant birds picked him up in his talons, flew high into the skies, and dropped him, leaving him to fall on the rocks below. Expecting nothing less, Monster Slayer had prepared well and landed gently because he’d possessed a life feather given to him by Spider Woman.
Then Monster Slayer discovered that the giant birds had young and, after he killed the male and the female, the young began to cry and plead for their lives. Monster Slayer took pity on them and, instead of killing them, he turned the older one into an eagle so he could furnish feathers for men, and the younger one into an owl so men would listen to the owl’s voice and be able to discern the future.
Rabbit, who was below, took some feathers from the giant bird Monster Slayer had killed and stuck them in his fur. And that’s why jackrabbits have large ears that look like giant feathers.
All the Dinetah, the land of the Navajos, was filled with stories about the ones who’d come before. Every sandstone formation, pass or valley, mountain peak, and rock formation within the Four Corners and beyond echoed with the tradition of the Dineh.
Ella sipped her coffee. It was still early, and she refused to rush as she made up for all those years of staring at painted cinder blocks and file cabinets instead of the blue sky and drifting white clouds. The wind was calm now, as it usually was during the early morning hours, and she intended to savor this moment of peace. By noon, or maybe even before, the gusts could start again, blowing sand and dust everywhere.
Gathering her thoughts, she watched the crows hop around the parking lot outside, looking for crumbs and candy wrappers that still held a hint of flavor. Just beyond them she could see two support posts of a control gate built into the bank of the irrigation ditch. Last night some would-be comedian had slipped an old pair of khaki uniform pants onto the posts, then placed shoes on the ends. At first glance it looked like an officer was headfirst in the ditch. Everyone who’d driven past it on the way into the station had chuckled and commented about it, so it had remained in place for the moment. Later, the conservancy people would probably come by and return it to normal.
Finished with her coffee, she turned, hearing Justine step through the doorway. “Morning, partner,” Ella greeted.
Justine nodded, a somber expression on her face. “Nothing’s good about it now. Another possible carjacking went down late last night or earlier this morning. This time all hell has broken loose.”
“What’ve we got?” Ella said, automatically reaching for her keys as she dropped the empty foam cup into the wastebasket.
“We’ve got a homicide too---a soldier who just returned home from Iraq. The officer at the scene ID’d him.”
“How’d he die?” Ella grabbed her jacket, and was out the door before Justine had answered.
“Multiple gunshot wounds, according to the officer.”
“Do you have a ‘twenty’ on this?” she asked referring to the location of the crime as they hurried down the hall.
“Just off Highway 64 about three miles west of Rattlesnake,” Justine answered. “And we’ll have to take your unit. Mine’s getting new tires.”
Once in the parking lot, they hurried to Ella’s unmarked vehicle, Justine taking the keys. As they pulled up to the highway and Justine braked, checking for traffic, they both heard an ominous high-pitched squeal. “It’s the dust from yesterday’s wind. Smell it in the air? It’s starting early today too. The breeze will turn into gusts before noon today for sure and sand will fly everywhere including the brake linings again,” Ella said. “I read in the paper that the wind’s been getting up to sixty in the afternoons. I hate this kind of weather. Waves and waves of sand, pitting the windshield, settling into the brake lines, even drifting into the gun barrels.”
“Doesn’t do much for your mood, does it, partner?” Justine observed with a wry smile.
“No, it doesn’t. I can’t stand the constant whistling through the slightest gap in the windows and doors, the sand blasting against your skin . . . not to mention evidence flying everywhere.”
“Some say that Wind carries information. You just have to listen carefully,” Justine said.
“Now you sound like my brother. Clifford knows all the stories. It’s part of what makes him a good medicine man. He says that Wind has supporting power---that if I tune myself in to it, rather than become its adversary, I’d get farther. But I still hate the taste of sand in my mouth, and since Wind puts it there . . .”
Ella turned down the volume of the police radio. Today, it was mostly static and garbled transmissions. Another of Wind’s side effects on obsolete equipment. The budget increases had targeted additional staff and facilities, not equipment, unfortunately. “What else did you get on this latest crime?”
“Officer Mark Lujan called it in just a few minutes before I came into your office,” Justine answered. “He found the body down a side road near a cattle guard. It was visible from the highway. Most of the traffic this time of day goes toward town instead of away, so apparently nobody coming into work saw it across the road. Lujan was on his way west toward Beclabito.”
Ella nodded. “I’m familiar with that stretch. It’s pretty desolate out there past Rattlesnake. Just a few houses here and there down toward the river, and you really have to look for them. Most are earth-toned and they blend into the landscape, except for the generic red tar paper roofs.”
They made a sweeping turn toward the northwest, and Ella looked up at Ute Mountain over in Colorado. “What do you have on the victim?”
“The deceased lived on land that was allotted to his family. After his parents passed on, he and his brother leased sections of it. The victim’s name is Jimmy Blacksheep,” she added after a moment’s hesitation. Although police officers, by and large, were modernists, most of them shared a reluctance to speak of the recently deceased by name. It wasn’t so much fear of the chindi, the evil in a man that stayed earthbound after death. It had more to do with respect for the Navajo cultural practices they’d learned and followed most of their lives. Habits of a lifetime were hard to break.
“Officer Lujan have any help at the scene?” Ella asked, staring at the lonely stretch of highway before them.
“No, but he’s doing what he can to protect the crime scene until we arrive. Lujan’s a rookie, but he’s good. He’ll handle things. And it’s not like there’s going to be a crowd there. Most of our people will go out of their way to avoid a body,” Justine said then added. “Tache, Neskahi, and the M.E. should arrive at the scene shortly.”
Ella nodded. Sergeant Joseph Neskahi and Officer Ralph Tache worked for her Special Investigations team and served as the Crime Scene Unit. Carolyn Roanhorse was a forensic pathologist, an M.D. who specialized in causes of death that related to court proceedings. Carolyn understood bullet trajectories, poisonings, and could differentiate between stab wounds and blunt injury ones. There were less than one thousand forensic pathologists in the country, but Carolyn worked exclusively for the tribe---an exception to the otherwise statewide authority of the N.M. Office of the Medical Investigators, headquartered in Albuquerque.
Carolyn had a thankless job. Since she worked with the bodies of the dead, she was virtually a pariah but, through her work, she continued to acknowledge her debt to the tribe who’d paid for her schooling.
As they approached the scene, Ella immediately spotted Officer Lujan standing ramrod straight in his tan uniform by the side of the road. He’d taken his post just outside the yellow crime-scene tape he’d used to cordon off the area around the body.
Officer Lujan was thin and lanky, unlike most Navajo males, and had large soulful eyes. Something about his posture, lack of expression, and the almost dogged determination not to look at the body behind him telegraphed far more than the officer realized.
“I bet you anything this is his first actual crime-scene body,” Ella noted softly. “It’s a toss-up what he wants to do more right now---puke or get into his cruiser and put some serious distance between him and this place. And, if my own experience is any guide, he’s probably also wondering what other career choices he’s overlooked.”
They got out of the unit, and stepped over the yellow tape, which was flapping in the breeze. Office Lujan greeted them with a nod, but didn’t say a word. Ella figured that he probably didn’t trust his voice. She’d been there many times---when the need to erupt was kept just below the surface by sheer will. Even now, some crime scenes still had the power to get to her.
“Justine,” Ella called out, “put out some cones. We’re going to expand the yellow tape perimeter out to the center stripe of the highway. Officer Lujan can redirect traffic through the far lane. I’ll call for another officer to assist.”
One look at the faceup, bullet-riddled corpse in the gravel along the shoulder of the road suggested that the shooter might have fired from a vehicle. That meant at least one lane, maybe both, could contain vital evidence. If necessary, they’d close the road completely and stop traffic for as long as necessary.
She made the call with her cell phone, standing about fifteen feet from two obvious and separate pools of blood. The largest was beneath and around the victim, a fit-looking Navajo male with a buzz cut. He appeared to be in his early to mid-twenties and had a dozen or more bullet holes in his torso and legs. The entire area, a good one hundred feet in every direction from the body, could contain evidence. They’d also have to check for footprints leading away from the victim, in case there was another body farther from the road, still undiscovered.
“I know . . . knew . . . the deceased,” the officer said, his voice taut, as if someone had grabbed him by the throat. He was staring at the ground before his feet, his eyes narrowed, a sign Ella recognized. Part of him was fighting to shut out the images he’d carry with him for the rest of his life.
“Do you have any idea who might have done this to him?” Ella asked. “A local enemy?” Soon Officer Lujan would learn to push back the screaming in his head. They all learned to do the job by getting past the insanity that shadowed their world.
Lujan shook his head. “I don’t know anyone here who may have wanted him dead. All I know is that he’s been serving overseas with a New Mexico National Guard transportation and supply unit. They had a welcome home ceremony about two weeks ago at Fort Bliss, then most of them spent several days waiting for their heavy equipment to arrive so they could drive it back to the armory in Farmington. They couldn’t step down until then. He was due back yesterday,” he said, then added, “His brother is a Farmington police officer. Should I call him?”
“Got a phone?” Ella asked, and Lujan nodded, reaching for a cell phone clipped to his Sam Browne belt. “Get the FPD duty officer, and have him or her relay the news.”
While Lujan called the Farmington PD, Justine placed some bright orange cones some distance up and down the road from the scene. Once finished, she came back to the site and crouched down by a set of tire tracks, notebook in hand. “We don’t have usable footprints, at least not in the vicinity of the body because of the gravel, and probably nowhere else as well. The wind’s already starting to gust. I’ll check farther from the road, of course. We don’t have shell casings either, assuming the victim was shot and bled out here. But there’s always the chance the shooter had a revolver, not an automatic.”
“The rest of our crime scene team and the M.E. should be here by now. We need to expand our search,” Ella muttered, checking her watch. “Where is everyone?”
Hearing traffic, Ella looked down the highway. “Never mind.” A half minute later the tribe’s medical examiner’s vehicle pulled up, followed close behind by the even larger van used by the tribe’s Crime Scene Unit. Ella nodded to Tache and Neskahi as they climbed out, then went to greet Carolyn Roanhorse, her longtime friend. As Carolyn walked, her baggy slacks and white medical jacket got whipped about by the wind, which had increased in intensity since Ella had first arrived on the scene.
Carolyn had always been a large woman, but she’d actually put on weight this past winter after her divorce. As she reached Officer Lujan, who was standing beside the yellow tape, she glared at him. “Large and in charge, and coming through. Get out of my way, son,” she barked.
Carolyn stepped over the tape and went directly to the body, watching the ground for any obvious evidence in her path. “Some firefight,” she said, crouching by the victim and looking closely at what appeared to be two blood trails. One led to the second pool Ella had noticed atop the asphalt. “Looks like he wasn’t the only one who sprung a leak,” she said.
“We’ll photograph everything and take samples, but we still haven’t got any shell casings or rounds, except what’s probably in the victim’s body,” Ella said. “I’ll need those slugs as soon as you can part with them. Also, I need an estimated time of death.”
“Understood,” Carolyn said, her eyes never leaving the corpse. “From the condition of the body, I’d say he died not more than a few hours ago---around seven in the morning, give or take. There are no obvious powder burns, so whatever happened here wasn’t up close and personal.” As she continued to study the body and the entry wounds in particular, she added, “Wait. Two shots were up close---execution style---so forget what I said before. Both went through his heart.” Carolyn waited for Tache to take photos, then began the process of bagging the victim’s hands.
Ella stepped away, letting Carolyn concentrate, and took in the scene. Justine was taking samples from the blood trail, and both larger pools of blood, labeling each according to location. There was a large amount of broken safety glass scattered in cubed little clumps along the edge of the road, presumably where the driver had been shot, but that was where the similarities between this and the other carjackings they’d had lately ended.
“This makes no sense. Why have the carjackers added murder to their M.O. all of a sudden?” Justine asked. “Until now, they’ve managed to pull off the heists by threatening their victims and manhandling them.”
“The carjackers probably didn’t know that their latest victim was a soldier who’d just come back from a combat zone---one from a unit that had been trained to be particularly wary of roadside attacks. Fighting would have come more naturally to him than surrendering, and it’s easy to understand why he might have been wound a little too tight. But this wasn’t a simple execution. Those heel marks on the shoulder of the road in the gravel suggest that the victim was dragged out of the vehicle to where he is now, and someone else was dragged several feet into the road, then disappeared.”
“So there were at least two carjackers involved in the shooting, and the victim may have wounded one of them severely enough to prevent him from making it back to their vehicle without help,” Justine said.
“If that perp couldn’t walk, chances are he couldn’t have driven the second car away either, which means we’re talking three perps, at least,” Ella said, “which is consistent with other reports of another vehicle nearby. We need to check with area hospitals and see if they’ve treated a gunshot victim. Also we need to look for that second car. Their M.O. so far has been to lure a person in by having a good-looking woman pretend to have car trouble, then having a big guy jump the good samaritan and strong-arm him or her. But this time they didn’t leave the stolen junker behind, at least not in the immediate area.”
Justine nodded. “I’ll handle that right now. Should I also get a list of other returning soldiers from the victim’s National Guard unit, particularly those who live around here?”
“Yeah. They were probably the last to see him before he drove north.” Ella continued searching for ejected shell casings. Considering the victim’s bullet-riddled body, it made no sense not to be able to find at least one. Most handguns produced and sold nowadays were semiautos and they ejected each spent casing.
The perps had taken the victim’s vehicle---that had apparently been the point of the crime. But having the foresight to pick up a dozen or more shell casings as well as the victim’s own weapon either meant that the shooters had been super cool and careful, or the murder itself had been premeditated and the victim’s vehicle a bonus. Of course that presupposed the soldier had been the real target and the rest of the operation just window dressing. If that were true, he would have had to have been followed or maybe the perps had been waiting, knowing he’d be coming down this road at the right time. But all she had was speculation at this point and a dead soldier.
Neskahi was working a few feet away from her, scouring the ground adjacent to the road. “Based on the blood distribution and separate drag marks I get the idea that the victim shot at least one of the perps. There’s also a small amount of shattered glass that could have come from a window on the perp’s vehicle. But if the vic’s gun isn’t around, that means the perps must have taken it with them. Bad idea, if it’s legal and registered,” he said.
“I was just wondering about his weapon, too,” Ella said.
“Maybe this started as one of the usual carjackings, but then the vic recognized one of the perps,” Neskahi suggested, continuing his search pattern, his eyes still directed to the ground.
“That’s another good theory,” Ella said, then left him to his work.
Ella went to talk to Officer Lujan next, who was watching for traffic. He was trying to look rock-steady, but Ella could see the jumble of emotions in his eyes. His face remained trained into neutrality---an attitude that he undoubtedly hoped would pass for the coldness of a seasoned professional.
“You okay?” Ella asked softly.
“Of course,” he said, but his voice trailed off at the end.
“Your first homicide, right?”
“And a friend as well. That’s tough. I’ve called for help to direct traffic. When it arrives, you can return to the station and write up your report. Unwind a little, maybe.”
“Not necessary. I can handle it.” The answer came too quickly to be genuine.
“You mentioned that the deceased had a brother?” Ella said, directing the focus back to the investigation.
Lujan nodded. “He lives in Farmington, but he’s been keeping an eye on his brother’s place. It’s near here.”
“Samuel Blacksheep,” he said, then after a pause, added, “Samuel’s going to be out for blood when he hears about this.”
“They were close?”
He hesitated. “When they were kids Samuel was always watching over his kid brother. That habit may end up creating problems for the department now. Samuel won’t want to stand back and let our PD do all the legwork. You get me?”
Ella nodded, understanding precisely what he meant. An officer dedicated his life to protecting and serving the public. But when crime struck this close and involved a member of the family, the perspective twisted. Skills an officer used to protect himself and others and to make sure justice was served could easily become a tool to exact revenge.
“His house is over across,” Lujan said, pointing with his lips, Navajo style. “Family name’s on the mailbox.”
“Over across” could mean on the other side of a field, or in Albuquerque, hours away, but since he’d pointed to an area beyond the cattle guard that apparently contained only a few houses, she’d be able to narrow it down. “Thanks.”
Ella checked with Carolyn, who was still by the body. “I’m going to check out the victim’s home,” she said, interrupting the M.E. “We don’t know yet if the perps paid a visit there as well.”
Carolyn nodded absently, then gestured toward the stretcher and body bag visible in the back of her open van. “I’ll need help. Get Neskahi for me before you leave.”
Ella gave her a bemused smile. “Still paying him back for that crack he made about you? That was ages ago.” Contact with the dead was extremely difficult for any Navajo. Even the M.E. and the Crime Scene Unit used two sets of gloves as a precaution so that they wouldn’t touch anything that had touched the dead. But the job no one wanted was helping the M.E. move the body. Knowing that, Carolyn always asked for Neskahi when the time came, no matter who else was around.
“Okay,” Ella said, knowing the futility of arguing with Carolyn about anything like this. Several years back, Neskahi had made a half-hearted joke about Carolyn’s weight and since that fateful day Carolyn had made it her mission in life to make Joseph as uncomfortable as possible at every crime scene.
Ella whistled, caught Neskahi’s attention, then gestured to Carolyn. Neskahi’s downcast expression as he approached spoke volumes.
As he walked past her, Neskahi muttered, “I even tried flowers. How long is she going to remember?”
“For the rest of your life, Joe,” Ella said softly. “And don’t ever send her candy.”
“Come on, Sergeant,” Carolyn said with a grim smile. “Quit dragging your feet!”
Copyright © 2006 by Aimée Thurlo