White Thunder

An Ella Clah Novel

Ella Clah (Volume 10 of 17)

Aimee Thurlo and David Thurlo

Forge Books

ONE



Day one


Special Investigator Ella Clah could feel the promise of rain in the cool breeze coming in her open driver’s side window. The wind had a fresh and clean scent, as if it had just passed through a cloud.
It was September and New Mexico’s rainy season was tapering off. A three-year drought had plagued the land and most of the storms had amounted to nothing more than howling wind, blowing dust, and darkened skies. Mother Earth was parched, and animals had gone hungry as they’d searched for something other than cheat grass and snakeweed to graze on. Some kinds of snakeweed could poison livestock, and cheat grass would cut their mouths. But in a drought year, pickings were slim and their choices few.
Yet, today, there was a good change in the air. Dark gray clouds had formed over the mountains and the slanted streaks in the sky above Ute Mountain were more than just virga, or what her mother called false rain, that evaporated before it reached the ground. With luck, they’d have a downpour that would fill the smaller arroyos.
At thirty-four, Ella had seen droughts come and go many times, but she couldn’t remember it ever being this bad. She could feel the hopelessness of the older Navajos who sometimes stood by their barren fields, wondering when the rains would return.
At one time, the People had used ceremonies to ease a drought, but most of the hataaliis these days didn’t know the right Sings. Not that it mattered now. Truth was, when crops failed and food was scarce, no one had the money to pay for ceremonies anyway. Still, many prayed on their own for relief.
These were hard times even for the long-suffering Dineh, the People, but Ella was glad to be here on the reservation with her family. She’d faced death in an abandoned uranium mine shaft after a cave-in several months ago and, as a result of that experience, was grateful for each day, for the chance to see her daughter, Dawn, grow up, and for work that allowed her to help restore the balance between good and evil.
For Ella, it was a daily struggle to walk in beauty—to be in harmony with everything that surrounded her. Police work could be demanding and, at times, overwhelming. For years it had dominated everything she’d done. She’d been the servant, and her career the master. But things would be different now. Although she still loved her chosen profession, serving as a special investigator for the Navajo tribal police, she wouldn’t let it rule her life anymore.
At least that was her new goal. One thing that deadly experience at the mine had taught her was that it didn’t pay to plan things too carefully. Life always had the final say, and it seemed to take almost perverse pleasure in muddling everything up.
Ella thought of her daughter, Dawn. After the accident, aware of how quickly time passed, Ella had been determined to become an even greater part of her daughter’s life. She’d wanted to start spending more quality time with her daughter, who was now nearly six and a half and in the second grade, but Dawn, an independent kid with a mind of her own, hadn’t been interested in that prospect.
Undaunted at first, and knowing how much Dawn loved riding her pony, Ella had bought a horse so they could ride together. She’d envisioned long, heartwarming talks during trail rides that would become nothing less than bonding sessions. But the reality had turned out differently. Her daughter invariably spent the time they were out together chattering nonstop about her plans to compete in barrel racing someday.
Ella had made it clear that it wasn’t a matter of age or size exclusively. She’d never give her permission to race on a horse until Dawn could demonstrate the required coordination and control needed, because it was dangerous. Yet Dawn still took every available opportunity to lobby for it, and Ella had to remind her to remain patient and continue building her skills.
Ella was just five minutes from the police station when a call came over the radio. She focused on the message, grateful for the interruption. Police work was infinitely easier to deal with than raising a child—she’d been trained in the former, after all. Parenting seemed more like trial-and-error learning these days.
“We have a probable burglary in progress,” Dispatch told her, giving her an address on the south side of Shiprock across the bridge in the opposite direction. “May John, the neighbor, made the call. She says the home owner, Herbert Tapaha, is inside the residence. Tapaha’s bedridden.”
Ella recognized the name. The man had to be at least ninety by now. “I know the neighborhood. I’m ten minutes away—make that five.”
“Backup should arrive in eight. Ten-four?”
“Ten-four.”
Ella switched on the emergency lights, checked for traffic, then pulled over to her left, making a one-eighty across the median into the west-bound lanes.
They’d had problems with gangs again lately. Maybe it was just another kid searching for something to steal. But the elderly man would be easy prey and young gang-bangers, by and large, didn’t care much about mercy or compassion.
Knowing sirens would warn the perps and set up a possible hostage situation, she opted for a silent approach. As she headed across the narrow steel trestle bridge fording the San Juan River, experience told her that this was the type of call that could end up going sour in an instant, particularly if the thief encountered the owner.
Ella switched off her emergency lights as she approached the residential area, which was just to the right of old Highway 666, now renamed Highway 491 thanks to pressure from those who feared its old nickname, the Devil’s Highway. Most of the houses in the low-income neighborhood were small wood-framed stucco and had been constructed forty or more years ago. Vehicles in various states of repair, mostly pickups or inexpensive sedans, were scattered along the street.
Her vehicle was unmarked but well-known in the community, so, watching the numbers on the street side mailboxes, Ella parked three houses down from Tapaha’s home. The lack of curbs in the poorly developed area allowed residents to park almost anywhere and Ella spotted an old white compact sedan twenty feet from the front door of the pale green house. Farther back, along the side of the house, a weathered blue van with gray primer showing through was adjacent to an open window. No doubt this was the perp’s vehicle.
Ella called the information in, then slipped out of her unit. She’d barely taken a step when a Navajo woman came rushing up to her. The neighbor was dressed in jeans and a maroon and gray football jersey, the local team’s current colors. Her dark hair was peppered liberally with silver and her eyes were round and wide with excitement. Her arms were in constant motion as her words came tumbling out in a rush.
“I’m May John. You’re Officer Clah, right? Herbert, the owner, is in that house, I’m sure of it because his car’s there. I watched from my house while that kid parked his van by the side window and crawled inside. Well, the window was already open so maybe he didn’t really break in. But he wasn’t invited into the house, that’s for sure.”
“Did you recognize the kid?” Ella asked. She knew which gang members were likely to present major trouble, and an ID would let her know roughly what to expect.
“No, I don’t know who it was, but I did catch a glimpse of him,” May said, her eyes narrowing as she tried to remember the details. “He’s Navajo, or at least Indian, and tall and thin, wearing a dark T-shirt and tan, baggy pants.”
That was the general “uniform” of several reservation gangs these days. Once she saw the kid up close, identified the exact colors, plus any tattoos, she’d know for sure. “Was he carrying a weapon?”
“I don’t know … .” Her eyes widened even more. “Do you think he had one?”
Ella raised her eyebrows. “I have no idea. You’re the one who saw him.”
“Yeah, right. This whole thing just got me so upset! In my day, we never had this kind of problem on the reservation.”
Ella grabbed her handheld radio and updated Dispatch. “I’m going to check out the residence.”
Ella unsnapped the safety strap that kept her pistol in place and started toward the house. She angled toward the side so she could see between the van and the building in case the perp came back out through the window
She’d expected May to hang back, but hearing footsteps, she turned her head and saw that the woman was following along behind her. Ella glared at her. “Please go back inside your house and shut the door.”
“Oh, okay Yeah.” May turned and ran back across the street.
By the time Ella reached the front corner of Tapaha’s house, the woman had already disappeared. Ella stepped along the wall, watching the front door, van, and side window by glancing back and forth. Stopping beside the van’s driver’s side door, she peered into the unoccupied vehicle. The keys were still in the ignition, so she reached inside through the rolled-down window and pulled them out.
Ella placed them into her jacket pocket and continued around the house with her back against the house wall, listening as she moved. The faint opening of drawers and light footsteps indicated someone was inside but had already gone past the room adjacent to the window as he worked the interior of the home.
Moving with the practiced grace of a hunter, she crept lightly to the back door and tried the handle. It wasn’t locked. Times had changed, but people hadn’t. The older ones seldom locked their doors. If the kid had tried this entry, he would have probably gotten in undetected, providing he’d parked around the back.
Ella slipped inside the small kitchen, grateful that the hinges didn’t creak. The house smelled of bacon grease and cigarettes, but was otherwise clean and cozy. Two old-style dinette chairs were pushed against a matching shiny chrome table with a white top. Several cigarette bums suggested the old man was careless with his smokes and lucky so far not to have burned down his house. Through the next doorway Ella could see what looked like the living room, then a short hall that led farther back into the interior.
Someone inside one of the bedrooms cursed, then something heavy crashed to the floor. Ella heard the sound of hurried footsteps and, gripping her pistol tightly, crouched and pressed against the side of the refrigerator, watching as she made herself as small a target as possible. Suddenly a Navajo boy nearly her height came racing down the hall. His hair was cut short and styled in multicolored spikes, and his ears and nose were pierced with small gold rings. He seemed to be in a panic and going so fast that he failed to make the turn into the living room. He skidded, and bounced off the trim of the doorway.
As he recaptured his balance, he saw her standing there. “Stay away from me!” he yelled, raising a small, shiny pistol. His finger jerked the trigger and there was a loud pop and a thud in the living room wall. He’d missed her by at least ten feet.
Obviously, he hadn’t meant to hit her. No one was that bad a shot. Knowing that, she gambled and chose not to return fire.
“Police officer! Put down the gun and drop to the floor, kid. You’re trapped.”
“Keep the gun, but I’m getting out of here now!” he shouted back, tossing the pistol toward a worn-looking green sofa. In a flash, he dove to the left and out of her line of sight, scrambling, she supposed, either toward a window or the front door.
Ella moved out from behind cover cautiously and saw him crawling out the window into his van. Knowing he was in for a big surprise, she chuckled softly. She had his keys. Turning, she ran through the kitchen and out the back door. As she went around the corner, she heard him cursing and knew he’d just realized that he wasn’t going anywhere in his vehicle.
Ella ran up to the van and, as he poked his head out the driver’s window, raised her hand and showed him the keys. “Give it up,” she ordered.
In a flash, he jumped across the front seat and leaped out the passenger’s door. The burglar sprinted out of the yard and onto the street as if his shoes were on fire. As the boy ran away, Ella followed, jamming her pistol back into the pancake holster at her belt, then picking up the pace as the teen raced up the street. She wasn’t a sprinter, but she could go for miles across country, so unless he was a long-distance runner, or managed to hide somehow, she’d catch up to him sooner or later.
The kid took a right at the intersection, heading west down a dirt road that paralleled Highway 64. Hopefully he wasn’t really trying to make it to Arizona, but he was moving as though he had a pit bull at his heels. And, in a way, he did. Ella knew she’d never quit until the punk ran out of gas.
There were a few houses to the right, but cutting across yards and dodging cars and clotheslines would make the going slow, and the kid apparently realized that. Ella stayed with him, not losing any more ground, and, before long, about a half mile past the old farm training turnoff, he left the road and began to angle across an alfalfa field toward the distant river. It was then that she pressed herself for more speed and quickly closed in.
Finally, a hundred yards before reaching an arroyo, she caught up to him and dove, tackling him to the ground. She rolled him over, ready to punch his lights out, but he held out his arms and lay flat on his back, gasping for air.
“Okay, okay, you caught me. I give up!”
Ella rolled him onto his belly easily, and he offered no resistance as she handcuffed his wrists behind his back.
“I really wasn’t running away from you,” he said.
“You could have fooled me.” As Ella helped him to his feet, she glanced back down the highway and saw a tribal police unit heading her direction, lights flashing.
“I just wanted to get as far away from that place as I could,” he said with a grimace.
“What’s your name?”
“Elroy Begay.”
Ella read him his rights and saw from the expression on his face that he was very familiar with the routine. “Where’s Mr. Tapaha?” she demanded.
“Who?”
“The man who lives in the house you broke into,” she answered, nudging him into motion toward the highway.
“Don’t say his name,” he said quickly, cringing.
Ella heard the fear in his tone and pressed him instantly for more of an answer. “Why not? What did you do to him?”
“Nothing, not a thing. Nada. I never touched that old man. Okay, I admit to unlawful entry, even attempted burglary. But that’s it.”
He was obviously acquainted with the legal system. “Then what’s got you so spooked? Is the old man okay?”
“Hey, I’m not saying another word. Not without my lawyer.”
Ella hurried back with Elroy in tow to the road where Officer Justine Goodluck, her second cousin and partner, was waiting. Justine was smaller than Ella, and her hair, when it wasn’t tied in a bun, was well past her waist. Justine could pass for a teenager, but was as tough as the best cop, and could handle herself in a confrontation with both skill and courage.
“What’ve you got?” Justine asked, sizing up the prisoner at a glance. “Nice hair,” she chuckled, noting leaves on some of the spikes, but the boy barely glanced at her.
“Take him,” Ella said, gesturing to Elroy, then opening the back door to Justine’s unit. “I need to return to the house he was burglarizing and look for the owner.”
“I wouldn’t go back in there if I were you,” Elroy said as Ella maneuvered him into the vehicle. His tone was deceptively flat and in sharp contrast with the vivid spark of fear in his eyes.
“Let’s roll, partner,” Ella said, now really worried about the old man. She scrambled into the passenger side as Justine ran around the vehicle.
Two minutes later they were in front of Tapaha’s house. Ella had tried to get Elroy to talk again, but he’d only shake his head in response to her questions and refused to make eye contact. Instinct and experience told her to expect major trouble in the man’s home.
Ella hurried inside via the unlocked front door. “Mr. Tapaha? It’s okay to come out now. I’m a police officer.”
There was no answer. An unnatural total silence permeated the house. Afraid that she’d wasted too much time already, Ella looked inside the first bedroom, then the bathroom, but found nothing except open drawers and a closet. As she headed down the hall, a familiar, repulsive scent, reminiscent of a meat locker, led Ella to the last bedroom. As she stepped around the smashed TV Elroy had probably dropped, she found Mr. Tapaha, his pajamaclad body sprawled on the bed, one arm dangling over the edge. An open, empty, pill bottle lay just beyond his fingers. Tapaha’s eyes were open, blank, and glazed over with a cloudy film. They seemed to stare at nothing and everything at the same time.
The smell of decaying flesh was strong here and she didn’t need to touch the body to know that he’d been dead for some time. Ella studied the label on the prescription bottle. It had been refilled recently but it was empty now. She recognized the brand of painkillers as a common but powerful drug. She’d been given some after a dental visit and cautioned against overdosing. The counterindications had disturbed her so much she’d decided not to take any at all. Sometimes pain was preferable to the alternative.
“What have we got?” Justine asked, having followed her in. She stopped by the doorway, lifted a hand to cover her nose, and stepped back. “Never mind. Suicide?”
“Looks like it, though that’s kind of rare for old Navajos,” Ella said, backing out of the room. “At least this is a modernist area so maybe his death won’t impact too badly on the neighborhood.”
Fear of the chindi—the evil side of a person that remained earthbound after death—was still strong on the reservation, but not with the modernists. Relatives or neighbors still wouldn’t line up to move into this house once it became available, but even in the Anglo world few people wanted a house where a tragedy had occurred.
“Now I know why the boy ran off like he did,” Ella commented.
Justine nodded. “He’s sitting in my unit now, and he won’t even look at the house.”
Another cruiser pulled up outside and Ella saw Joseph Neskahi, a sergeant in the department, climb out of his unit. Joseph was a sturdy Navajo, with a barrel chest and powerful arms. His dark eyes were flat—the look of a cop who’d long lost any hope that human nature could surprise him.
Neskahi came in, caught the smell in the air, then stopped without moving any farther into the room. “I heard the call and wanted to check it out. I know … knew Mr. H,” he said, avoiding mentioning the deceased’s first name out loud out of respect for tradition. The Navajo Way taught that using the name of a dead person would call their chindi. “He was a friend of my dad’s and I knew he’d been sick for a long, long time—the big C—and things were getting worse. A week or so ago my dad mentioned that Mr. H had left the hospital, telling everyone that he didn’t want to die there. There was no hogan for him to go to anymore, and even if there had been, he couldn’t have made it far into the desert. So, since he had no family to speak of, he decided that he’d go on his own terms in the comfort of his home. He told my father that his modernist neighbors wouldn’t give a rip if he died here.”
“It’s a sad way to go … with no way out and no friends around to comfort you,” Ella said, remembering being alone in the mine, facing hopelessness and the certainty of death.
“He’d already said good-bye to the few friends he had,” Neskahi said. “The only thing his future held out to him was the certainty of more pain. He didn’t have many options.”
“I’ve always wondered if I’d make that same choice if I were faced with a long, painful illness I knew I couldn’t beat,” Justine said. “What about you?” she asked Ella.
“I don’t dwell on things like that,” Ella replied honestly. “I figure I’ll cross each bridge as I get to it.”
“At least he controlled the way he went,” Neskahi said. “That’s a win in my book.”
Joseph’s answer didn’t surprise Ella. Almost everyone she knew in law enforcement prized control. It was a survival skill so ingrained that it became a part of who they were. But her own perspective about Tapaha’s death was different.
From personal experience she was convinced that the end of this life wasn’t the End. Would Tapaha get to the other side and regret speeding up the clock? Would he miss all the little things that he’d taken for granted, or just be happy the ride was over? She hoped for his sake that he’d find peace in the hereafter.
“Call the funeral home that the tribe uses to take care of unclaimed bodies,” Ella instructed Neskahi. “You’ve got the name and number?” When he nodded, Ella continued. “It’s not a suspicious death, so our role is over except for documenting the burglary attempt—just the TV, probably. The tribe’s ME gets a pass on this one.”
“I’ll handle it,” Neskahi said, then glanced around the room. “I don’t see a phone, so I’ll just relay the message through Dispatch.”
“Use my cell.” Ella tossed him the phone. She and Justine had cell phones, courtesy of a community program, but routine patrol officers, as Neskahi was at the moment, had to rely on regular equipment unless they were called in for emergency duty, or carried one at their own expense.
Ella looked at Justine. “Take the kid back to the station and book him. Neskahi will process the break-in, and I’ll be in shortly. I want to talk to the dead man’s neighbors and make sure that there’s no family that should be notified. After that, I’ll head to the station.”
Leaving Justine, Ella went across the street. May opened the door before Ella had the chance to knock. “Is he all right? Herbert, I mean. I haven’t seen him for several days, so I was wondering … .”
“I’m afraid he passed away” Ella said, deciding that May didn’t need to know it had been a suicide.
May crossed herself, which marked her as a Catholic as well as a modernist.
“Do you know if he had family on the Rez?” Ella asked.
“No, I don’t think there’s anyone left now. I’d go over just to talk to him sometimes—to give him a little company, you know—and he told me once that he’d outlived all of them.” She sighed softly. “I tried to help him out whenever I could, but he wasn’t easy to get along with. He never came right out and said so, but I got the distinct impression that he didn’t want me to come over too often. He said that he’d made peace with himself a long time ago and he preferred being alone. He even ran off his caregiver last time he came back from the hospital.”
Thanking her, Ella returned to Tapaha’s house and retrieved her cell phone from Sergeant Neskahi, who was already busy taking photos of the interior of the house. Leaving him to his work, Ella headed down the street toward her unit. The run had left her sweaty and she absently lifted her long black hair off the back of her neck for a moment with her fingertips, enjoying the cool air that touched her skin.
Ella thought about Mr. Tapaha trapped inside a body that had turned traitor, with no way to escape the disease that had been consuming him. Life without hope soon became unbearable. Without hope, you stopped moving forward and reaching toward the next goal, and you died inside long before you took your last breath.
Ella took one more look around the neighborhood as she opened the door to her unit. Here in this area of essentially modern housing filled with amenities, hope had a chance of being more than a fading dream shadow. But there were other places deep on the Rez that hope had deserted, where the land lay wounded with little chance of full recovery. Those places, ravaged by greed, stood empty and seemed as soulless as the gaze in Tapaha’s eyes. And that hopelessness, in turn, touched everyone because the land and the Navajo were one. Mother Earth provided the food they ate and nourished their spirits, and, eventually, all living things went back to her, completing the endless circle.
Ella drove back to the station in a dark mood, unable to get the image of the old man out of her mind. With any luck this morning wouldn’t be an indication of how the rest of the week would go.
Ella had just pulled into a parking spot at the station when her call number came over the radio. She answered Dispatch quickly. “I just pulled up at the station.”
“That explains the strong signal. Big Ed wants to see you right now, Investigator Clah.”
Before leaving her unit, Ella cracked the window open just a bit so the heat wouldn’t build up inside. Venting was the only way to avoid returning to a vehicle that would feel like a cross between a pressure cooker and an oven in a very short time. It was nearly eleven-thirty now, and the cool air was quickly being replaced by high desert temperatures that only the long-awaited afternoon downpour would abate.
She’d just stepped into the station lobby when Big Ed spotted her from down the hall. Their chief of police was a large man. If Neskahi was a barrel of a man, Big Ed Atcitty was a refrigerator with arms and legs. His hair was turning gray these days but to assume that he’d passed his prime was a huge mistake. As it always was on the reservation, appearances were deceiving. Big Ed could not only keep up with his officers, he qualified with them every year.
“Chief,” she said with a nod.
“You’re back. Good. In my office,” he said, cocking his head down the hall.
The lack of inflection in his tone caught her attention and made her skin prickle with discomfort. He was trying too hard to act casual, and whenever that happened major-league trouble was at hand.
Ella took a seat in the chair across from his cluttered desk and waited as he closed the door and walked toward her.
“We have a situation,” he said, as he slowly lowered himself into his old vinyl-covered swivel chair.
His words let her know without a doubt that something was brewing. Another bad sign was that the light on his phone was blinking, indicating he had someone on the line, holding. As silence stretched out between them, she waited, noting that her boss was rocking back and forth in his chair, an unspoken signal that he was thinking and didn’t want to be interrupted. The chair squeaked slightly, but he apparently hadn’t noticed, and she wasn’t about to point it out or dare crack a smile.
Although on the outside she would have already fired off some questions, on the Rez things moved at their own pace. Respecting that, she remained still, wondering if the person on the other end of the line would be as patient as she was being forced to be right now.
“Our new FBI resident agent, Andrew Thomas, apparently interrupted a Sing last night. Now he’s missing. Thomas never returned to his office, called in, or e-mailed his supervisor. He’s been completely out of touch since around seven last night—over sixteen hours.”
The bad feeling she’d had suddenly got worse. Andy Thomas was in a world of trouble. If he didn’t turn up quickly, alive and well, dark times lay ahead for the missing agent—and the reservation.
Copyright © 2005 by Aimée and David Thurlo