Changing Woman

An Ella Clah Novel

Ella Clah (Volume 7 of 17)

Aimée Thurlo and David Thurlo

Forge Books

ONE
 
 
Yesterday’s “garbage bomb” and Charlie’s near-death had made the evening news, even on Albuquerque TV, and more video had aired of the burning Dumpster and shattered cinder-block wall than of Ella’s and Mary Lou’s success with Charlie. For some reason any event with fire footage usually made the lead story on the TV news. The photo that had run in the newspaper, unfortunately, was one showing her lying flat on her face with the burning trash in the background.
Since the incident, she’d received thanks from Charlie and his family, but she’d also received four calls from the news people about the bomb. It would take a while before things died down.
Now, alone in her bedroom, Ella sat at the small table that held her desktop computer and waited. She’d have to return to the police station soon, but the only way her contact, “Coyote,” ever surfaced was through her Internet provider.
The bitterly cold January winds swept down the hillside behind her mother’s home, rattling dust and sand against the window. It was said that Wind carried news, but Wind had met its equal in this age of computers.
Coyote’s information so far had been as good as gold, though all she really knew about him was that he was probably an undercover cop—federal, most likely. His knowledge of her background in the FBI and his use of certain terms all supported that theory.
Hearing a soft bell tone, she glanced down at the screen and saw the instant message box. Coyote was on line. As she read the message, she reached over and hit the print command. The message would vanish from the screen the second she logged off, and there would be no record of it anywhere. It was now or never.
Ella thought of the many times she’d tried to track down Coyote, despite his warnings not to try. She’d been discreet, but persistent. Yet, despite all the methods available to her, she’d turned up nothing.
Shimá, come eat,” Dawn said, using the Navajo word for “mother” her grandmother Rose had taught her. When Ella didn’t stand up right away, Dawn crawled up onto Ella’s lap.
“Hi, sweetie.” Ella brushed a kiss on her daughter’s chubby little cheek as she typed a question for Coyote. If the past was any indication, unless she was fast, he’d log off before she even finished the sentence. “Go back to the kitchen and tell your shimasání, your grandmother, that I’ll be there in one minute.” Ella smiled as her daughter scampered off. Rose wouldn’t allow Dawn to call her grandma. The Navajo equivalent was all she would accept.
Ella leaned back in her garage sale captain’s chair and read Coyote’s message again as she waited for his reply. His warnings were always unsettling, and this time was no exception.
* * *
The petty crimes all over the Rez are being engineered to make the cops and tribal government look bad. They want politicians voted out and new people brought in who are more in favor of tribal gaming.
* * *
Ella stared at the clear-cut message. Coyote’s case was more involved than the happenings on the Navajo Nation. He was trying to find evidence against a group of Intertribal Native American activists he claimed were trying to gain control of gambling operations on tribal lands across the nation. Coyote believed the Dinetah was their main target now.
But without more evidence she couldn’t do a thing. The question she’d typed was the same as always. What proof could he give her so she could act? But he hadn’t answered her and, now, he was off-line.
Ella took the printout and placed it in an unlabeled file folder along with the rest. Sensing that someone had come into her room, Ella turned and smiled as she saw her mother standing inside the doorway.
“Since your daughter’s father canceled his visit again, I think we should eat now. You’ll have to leave for the station before long.”
Ella nodded. Rose Destea, her mother, was in her sixties and her once raven hair was now a dozen shades of gray and white. She’d slowed down some in the past few years, but she was still a force to be reckoned with and had a stubborn streak a mile long.
Rose came up behind her and read the message on the computer screen. “‘Coyote,’ huh? That’s not a Navajo writing you. Must be an Anglo trying to sound like an Indian.”
Ella shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t really know. But, Mom, this is confidential police business, so you can’t tell anyone. Only Big Ed knows about Coyote, and that’s because he’s my boss and the chief of police.”
“I won’t say anything, daughter. But I’m still very worried. You could have been killed by that bomb yesterday.”
“I know. The police force is doing its best, but the situation is a lot more complicated than it appears at first glance.”
“Yes, I know. I read enough of that message to know that there’s more to what’s happening than has been made public,” Rose answered.
“The bottom line is that we really aren’t sure what we’re dealing with yet.”
“Just remember that you have to be more careful these days. You can’t afford to take as many chances as you did before. You now have a daughter who needs you.”
Ella could hear Dawn playing with Two, the family dog, out in the living room. The pair had become fast friends. “She’s changed everything for me, Mom, but I’m still a cop. I have a duty to the tribe. But it’s because of her that I wear a vest practically all the time, even in summer when it’s sweltering.”
“I wish you would find another line of work.”
“Mom, we should all be grateful I have a job that’s secure. A lot of our people are scrambling for work right now. If I wasn’t a cop, I’d probably be out looking frantically for a job off the Rez, hoping to find something that paid me enough to be able to provide for our family.”
Rose sat on the edge of the bed, running her weathered hand over the hand-stitched quilt absently. “Times are especially hard for the Dineh right now. Last year’s dry winter, followed by a late frost and an even drier summer, wiped out a lot of the crops. When the weather does that to us, people and their livestock go hungry. And, now, when money’s tightest and the tribe is least able to handle it, we get hit by another bad winter, the coldest we’ve had in years. Many of our people are having to choose between food and heat.”
Silence stretched out, but Ella waited to make sure that her mother had finished speaking before she said anything. Navajos seldom had rapid, overlapping conversations like some other cultures did. Here, it was a sign of poor manners to speak before another was finished, and long, thoughtful pauses were not unusual.
“It’s been miserably cold,” Ella said at last, “but we still haven’t got much snow to show for it except for a little in the mountains. If we don’t get some moisture soon, we’ll have another dry growing season ahead.”
“I have a feeling it’s going to go from bad to worse before it’s over,” Rose said, shaking her head. “Many of the businesses on the Dinetah, the tribal land, have already had to close their doors, and more will soon follow. There’s not much money for people to buy things these days. Did I tell you that I saw Dezbah Nez the other day? Her son and his family have gone to Phoenix looking for jobs. They heard that some of our people are finding work there in the fast-food places or cleaning offices at night. It’s all minimum-wage jobs, but it’ll help them stay afloat with everyone working. It’s the ones who can’t or won’t leave the Rez that worry me the most. The only thing that’s abundant here now is hunger and cold. The tribal government has to wake up and try to do more to help our people.”
“How? There isn’t much money in the tribal accounts either. The tribe applied for federal help, but things like that take forever. State and national politicians are slow to get involved since we don’t have enough votes to change any election results, or money to support their candidates.”
“We have to do something. Many of the older ones in the outlying areas won’t make it to spring without help. Did you hear that Jim Joe is sick again? Their old wood-stove has got a crack in the firebox, and he couldn’t fix it. It can’t be welded, either. With the temperature the way it has been…” She shook her head again. “And like many traditionalists, he won’t go to the hospital, even though he’s running a fever. He said that people die there and their chindi stay, ready to get anyone who’s still alive.”
Ella sighed. The fear that the chindi, the evil in a man that remained earthbound after death, would contaminate and harm the living kept many of the old ones away from the hospitals. It was a decision that cost lives every year.
“His son should have taken him anyway,” Ella said flatly.
“And end up frightening his father to death?” Rose shook her head. “You forget how things are here.”
“No, Mom. I didn’t forget. I’m ’alní.” The word meant a person who walked the line between two cultures—a person who was constantly split in half.
“You are what you’ve chosen to be,” Rose said, then stood, smoothing out the quilt. “Come on, daughter. Let’s have dinner before you go back to work. I’ve fixed your favorite, mutton stew and fry bread.”
“I thought that was what I smelled coming from the kitchen. Stew will really hit the spot tonight. I need something warm besides coffee inside me before I go out on patrol.”
The simple, traditional meal was especially tasty, or Ella was particularly hungry tonight. She really wasn’t sure which it was. As Ella hurried through dinner, her mother fed Dawn as she always did on the days Ella had to go back to work.
Ella looked at Dawn and sighed. These days her cute, black-haired daughter with those big, sparkling eyes that could melt butter wore as much food as she actually ate. At the moment, her little hands-were submerged in the bowl even as Rose fed her bite-sized pieces of stew.
“Don’t play with your food,” Ella told Dawn.
Rose glowered at her. She didn’t like Ella to correct Dawn while she was eating.
“Mom, she’s making a mess,” Ella said, answering the unspoken criticism.
“You were worse at her age.”
It was her mother’s standard answer.
Shizhé’é come?” Dawn looked up, her chin dripping with broth.
“Not today. Your father was busy,” Ella said. “But he told me he’d come by as soon as he can.”
Rose shot Ella a look that spoke volumes.
Ella shook her head, and glanced away. She didn’t want Rose to ever say anything disparaging about Kevin in front of her daughter. Kevin was, after all, Dawn’s father.
Ella finished her meal while Dawn chattered away, ignoring the rest of her stew.
“I want to play, Shimasání,” Dawn said, sliding off her grandmother’s lap and standing impatiently as Rose wiped her face and hands with a napkin.
“Then go. You’ve eaten enough.”
Ella shook her head as Dawn scampered into the living room. “Mom, you really shouldn’t excuse her until we’re all finished.”
“Those bilagáana rules will still be around when she’s older. Right now with all her energy, she’s doing well just to sit and eat as long as she does.”
Knowing the futility of an argument, Ella stood, placed her dirty dishes in the sink, then washed and dried her hands. “My daughter’s father said he might come by later. If he does, try to be nice to him,” she said, avoiding mentioning Kevin by name out of respect for Rose’s beliefs. Her mother was a traditionalist who believed names were endowed with power a person could draw upon in times of danger. But using them often weakened that power and depleted their owner. In this house, only the names of their enemies were used freely.
“He won’t come. There will just be another excuse. It makes him nervous to be around her, you know. He doesn’t understand her when she speaks, and has no idea what to say or do with a child.”
“I’m sure he understands her, Mom. She speaks clearly enough,” Ella said. “And two languages. What more can you ask of a two-year-old?”
“I think he wants her to discuss law and tribal politics.”
Ella laughed. “Mom, you really shouldn’t be so hard on him. He does try.” Ella knew she wasn’t going to change her mother’s mind about this or anything else, but she had to say something. “Remember not to discuss Coyote or anything else you saw on that computer screen with anyone.”
“I never discuss your work, daughter. It’s about the only thing I can do to protect you these days.”
Ella gave her mother a light kiss on the cheek. “I’ll see you later, then. Don’t bother waiting up for me.” She took her pistol and holster from the top shelf in the kitchen and clipped them onto her wide leather belt. After a quick good-bye to her daughter, she put on her heavy jacket and walked out to her vehicle across the hard, frozen ground.
Big Ed Atcitty would be around the station for another hour or so, which was good because she needed to talk to him.
Fifteen minutes later she walked through the side doors of the Shiprock station. Before she’d gotten more than a few feet down the hall, Sergeant Joseph Neskahi stepped out of the squad room and intercepted her.
“The chief wants to see you before you and Justine go out tonight.” The young-looking, barrel-chested officer still wore his hair in a buzz cut despite the winter, weather.
“Okay, thanks,” Ella answered. Neskahi was a fine officer, and they’d worked well together, sometimes in the most dangerous circumstances imaginable.
As she turned the corner and headed down the hall, she spotted Big Ed Atcitty standing in the doorway to his office. “I thought I heard you out here, Shorty.” He’d given her the nickname as a joke since Ella was a full head taller than he was. “Come in. We need to talk.”
Ella followed her boss into his office, then sat down as he waved in the direction of a chair. If Neskahi was barrel-chested, then Big Ed Atcitty was a redwood stump, impervious to age and impossible to knock over.
Seeing him close the door behind them signaled to Ella that the discussion was going to be more than just a quick briefing on operations.
Big Ed’s expression was somber. “I’m very concerned over what happened yesterday with that bomb. That’s not just another prank, it represents a real escalation in the vandalism we’ve been fighting. Just a few seconds one way or the other, and neither you or Charlie would have been around to tell the story. I want you to track down the explosives and nail whoever was behind this. Taking a baseball bat to a mailbox is one thing, but setting off explosives is a big step up.”
Big Ed leaned back in his chair, rocking gently for a moment. “We need to send out a message to the community that we don’t take an incident like this lightly. I just wish we had a clue who’s behind it, and why. The whole thing is frustrating, trying to watch thousands of square miles with a handful of officers while carrying out our normal patrols and investigations.”
“We’re in a bind, that’s for sure. I’ll put the SI team on it,” Ella said. “Is there anything else you wanted to talk to me about?”
He exhaled softly, and nodded. “Let me cut to the chase. I’ve heard that Officer Goodluck is having a problem qualifying with her weapon.” He leaned forward, opening a folder on his desk and looking through the papers briefly. “She barely made it, as a matter of fact.”
“Chief, those lowlifes cut off half of Justine’s trigger finger. Her hand’s healed, but she has to find a new grip.” Ella paused for a second. “I know my partner, Chief. She just needs a little more time and practice to get it together, but she will make it work.”
“How is she adjusting overall? Speak frankly, Shorty. I need to know exactly what the situation is with her. Some of the higher-ups are worried she might be a danger to herself and her partner after all she went through.”
“That’s baloney. I’m her partner most of the time, and I’m not worried. Justine is just frustrated that she’s having trouble making the kinds of scores she’s used to having out on the firing range.”
“All right. But keep me posted.”
“You’ve got it.” Ella paused, then continued. “I needed to talk to you this morning about something else, Chief.”
“Go ahead.”
“It’s about my contact, Coyote. He’s been in touch again,” Ella said, and filled in her supervisor on the contents of his latest message.
Big Ed considered what he learned, trying to put everything together in his mind. “From what you’ve told me before, he’s convinced that the attempt to frame you for Justine’s apparent death last year was just the first move by this group. But all we really know for sure, based on the vague testimony we had from one of the perps, is that it was an organized effort. To extend that conspiracy to gambling requires a lot more corroborating evidence. But the vandalism is having an effect on the people.”
Ella nodded. “It’s too bad we weren’t able to get any more from that bunch. We might know who to talk to about the bomb, the broken windows, and all the rest.”
“But we did catch the perps who framed you. If there are others, and they are behind this property damage and the rest, we’ll find out about them sooner or later. The one thing I do know for certain is that we can’t afford to disregard what your contact tells you.”
“Chief, do you know something I don’t?”
“I’ve made a few discreet phone calls. There are a few feds I trust and, from the scanty feedback I got, I think your contact is FBI.”
“If what he says is true, then this self-styled Indian mafia has picked a ripe target this time. With all the troubles facing the Dineh right now, the potential revenue that gaming could pull in appeals to a lot of people.”
“It would create a lot of jobs and generate income for the tribe. No argument there.”
“But it would also attract some negative influences the tribe doesn’t need,” Ella answered.
“The tribe will make its own choice,” Big Ed said flatly. “That’s not up to the department. Our job is to put a stop to all the vandalism, no matter who is behind it, and make sure the decision to approve gaming, or not, is one our people make freely.” He paused, and then continued in a heavy tone. “Now tell me, have you made arrangements for extra patrols tonight?”
“Yeah, we’ll have more cops out on the streets,” she answered, “but you know how understaffed we are. Any chance the Tribal Council will find some money this spring to hire more officers?”
“Actually, Shorty, I expect our operating budget to be cut even more. No one in the council is really listening to us at the moment. Rather than admit that our department is stretched to the limit, it’s easier to just label us incompetent. They don’t have to come up with any more resources that way.”
“We’ll catch the vandals, eventually, Chief. Sooner or later, their luck will run out,” Ella said, standing up. “But I’ve got to tell you, I still have a problem believing that a little action by a few punks is linked to a huge conspiracy.”
“Little connections lead to big ones, Shorty. As Navajos, we’re taught to believe that everything is interrelated. Just look for the overall pattern until it all makes sense.”
Ella left the chief’s office feeling uneasy. Like most good cops, she could feel trouble in her gut before it even happened. Right now, instinct and experience warned her that conditions on the Rez were becoming unstable and, unless they were careful, a lot of cops would go down in the crossfire.
 
Copyright © 2002 by Aimée & David Thurlo