Tracking Bear

An Ella Clah Novel

Ella Clah (Volume 8 of 17)

Aimée and David Thurlo

Forge Books

TRACKING BEAR (Chapter 1)

Special Investigator Ella Clah leaned back in her office chair and rubbed her weary eyes. It was only 6 P.M., but she was tired of sitting in her office at the tribal police station in Shiprock. For the past few months things had been quiet on the Navajo Nation, at least here in the Four Corners area, but the paperwork never seemed to slow down. To make matters worse, these days almost every form she filled out was a request for additional funding.

Manpower, along with morale, was lower than she'd ever seen it at the department. According to the October staffing reports, there were fewer than 360 cops responsible for the entire Rez now--an area roughly the size of West Virginia.

To make matters even worse, their police equipment--everything from radios to the patrol units themselves--was worn or obsolete and not being properly maintained because funding cuts were already to the bone. The situation was critical, but it didn't appear to be something that would be resolved anytime soon.

It was November, and winter was still officially a month away, but already the cold evenings on the Colorado Plateau were giving the patrol officers fits when it came to starting up their vehicles in the mornings. Many of the officers, including Ella, had found it necessary to tune up their own vehicles just to keep the units in service.

Ella loosened and removed the silver barrette from her long, ebony hair and shook it loose over her neck and back, then glanced at her watch for the third time in the last half hour.

It was probably dark outside, or nearly so already, with Daylight Savings Time now in effect. It was finally time for her to call it a day. The requisition forms, the one thing they seemed to have in abundant supply, would wait until morning. Tonight, she wanted to spend some time with her three-year-old daughter, Dawn. All too often her family was forced to take a backseat to her duties as the lead investigator of the Special Investigations Unit, but there was no way Dawn was going to take second place to paperwork.

Ella turned out the light in her small office, then walked down the hall past the squad room. The place was virtually deserted, with all available officers already out on patrol. Nodding to the duty officer behind the lobby counter, she pushed open the station door and walked outside.

It was cool, and she stopped to zip up her lined leather jacket. Not being in uniform was a distinctive plus during the severe winters experienced here in northern New Mexico.

As she walked over to her unmarked blue Jeep, Ella noticed that Officer Justine Goodluck, her partner and second cousin, was heading to her own unit, a white department sedan with the gold department markings. "What are you still doing here?" Ella asked.

"I needed to finish an overdue laboratory inventory I should have completed yesterday." Justine stopped and pulled down a black stocking cap over her ears. Justine was short and slender, and looked too young to be a cop until one noticed the pistol on her belt and had a look at the hardness already appearing in her eyes.

"At least you had the chance to move around the room a little. I think I'm going to be eligible for early retirement, the way that computer keyboard is cramping up my wrists. What are the symptoms for carpal tunnel syndrome?" Ella held out her hands, then curled her fingers up. "See, just like two dead spiders."

"You think you've got it bad, cousin?" Justine smiled. "My fingers are being worn to a nub." She held up her right hand, showing her index finger, which had lost two joints courtesy of a madman over a year ago.

Ella laughed, glad that Justine had gotten over the incident well enough to kid about it now. "You win, partner."

With a wave, Ella unlocked her vehicle and climbed in, quickly starting the engine and pulling out of the parking lot onto the highway. Once she was south of the community of Shiprock, Ella pressed down on the accelerator, picking up speed until she was over the posted limit. There was no emergency, but she was feeling restless, and traffic was light. What she needed most right now was to be actively involved in a challenging case.

Ella kept an alert eye on her surroundings as she sped down the highway. This was the Dinetah, Navajo country. The full moon that bathed the desert revealed the scarcity of vegetation any taller than stunted grasses this time of the year. In the distance, thanks to the clean air that made everything even sharper to the eye, she could see the towering twin peaks of Ship Rock to the west, hugging the dark blue velvet sky.

Yet, despite all the beauty, the desert held its own dangers. Here, culture and beliefs all too often shaped the way a crime was dealt with and the motives behind them.

As she glanced up through the windshield at the clear sky she remembered the old police axiom that the crazies always came out during the full moon. She took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. But it was already very cold out tonight, and that would tend to keep most criminals inside--a good thing, considering the equipment problems the department was experiencing.

Ella was already slowing down as she approached the side road which would lead to her home--actually her mother's--when her radio suddenly crackled with static. Accustomed to the sound, her mind automatically filtered out everything but the dispatcher's voice, one of three women that worked eight-hour shifts. "SI-One, this is Dispatch. We have a ten-eighty-three. What's your ten-twenty?"

Ella's heart began pumping fast and furiously. Her body's reaction to a ten-eighty-three, an officer needs help call, was always the same. She responded to Dispatch's request for her location, checking automatically for traffic as she slowed down in case she needed to reverse directions.

"Officer Franklin's exact location was garbled in transmission, and we lost contact with him after he stopped to investigate a possible twenty-seven-three," Dispatch said. "The burglary was at a gas station--actually I think he said garage--off the main highway. He was requesting backup when his radio cut out. His last reported location was west of Hogback on Highway 64. But that was ten minutes ago."

Ella felt her hands grow clammy as she brought the SUV to a stop on the shoulder of the highway. There were two stations between there and Shiprock that answered that description. "I'll try Jack Nez's station first, then if everything's okay there, I'll go on to Kieyoni Haley's place."

"Ten-four."

Ella placed the mike back on the rack, then switched on her emergency lights and siren. The sound would carry across the desert for miles like a low-flying jet.

Her hands tightened around the wheel, adrenaline surging through her as she whipped the SUV around and accelerated back north again along the blacktop. This appeared to be just the type of crisis she and nearly every other officer in the department had been warning the brass in Window Rock about for the past six months. Faulty equipment would jeopardize the lives of all the officers out in the field, and they deserved better than that.

It was bad enough that radio transmissions in some parts of the Rez were sketchy at best. But being forced to use equipment prone to malfunctions only added an unnecessary risk to their already dangerous jobs.

Once through Shiprock, Ella was able to increase her speed again as she continued east. The first gas station she needed to check was closed for the day. No vehicles were parked outside except for a derelict that had been there for years, and nothing seemed amiss. She reported in to Dispatch as she pulled back out onto the highway.

As she raced toward the Haley's self-serve, just a few miles west of the Hogback, she realized there was another old gas station in the area--one that had been closed as long as she could remember.

Ella slowed down as she approached the former business. Although the place had been closed for years, the concrete island beside the sturdy cinder-block building and the garage bay area next to it seemed in good shape. No windows were broken, and there was no graffiti on the walls.

Ella slowed further, her thoughts racing. Dispatch hadn't said that it had to be an in-service station...

As she aimed her spotlight toward the building and pulled off the road onto the concrete pad, she spotted Officer Franklin's tribal police unit parked near a side door. Ella swept the area with her searchlight and made a quick radio report. "I'm going to need backup here. Officer Goodluck should still be in the area somewhere, if no one else is available."

"Ten-four."

Ella crouched low as she left her unit, her nine-millimeter pistol in hand and a flashlight in her jacket pocket. Stopping by Officer Franklin's vehicle, she took a look inside. The vehicle was empty and unlocked, and Jason's uniform cap was resting on the front passenger's seat. His shotgun was still in the rack as well. Whatever had caused Franklin to stop and look around had not given him reason to believe that he'd need extra firepower.

Her eyes sweeping the area, Ella tried to reach Officer Franklin using her handheld radio. There was no response, though at this distance, she was sure there were no obstacles that would prevent him from hearing her clearly.

Something was very wrong. Proceeding with caution reinforced with years of field experience, Ella used the moonlight to find her way around the front of the building, after checking the side door and finding it locked. The metal door to the small office was closed and padlocked, and from what she could see through the dirty glass, that small area was empty except for a built-in countertop and an ancient calendar still on the wall. The connecting door that led from the office into the garage bay was closed.

The bay doors were padlocked at the bottom, and when she looked through the small windows in the massive doors, there were no lights visible inside. Ella moved past the doors toward the far end of the building.

Ella continued carefully around the exterior. A window high up on the wall on the end was boarded up with plywood, and there was no sign that it had been tampered with. A rear window or back entrance had to have been the point of entry for any intruder. There was no sign of a ladder on either side when she'd pulled up, so the roof was out as a possibility, at least so far.

Listening first before she advanced, Ella crept around the corner and saw that the metal door about a third of the way down the back wall was ajar a few inches. Moving closer, she discovered a hasp on the door, and below it, on the ground, a big padlock. It had been cut off.

Two long minutes passed while she waited, looking inside through the gap, but absolute silence surrounded her. "Officer Franklin, this is Investigator Clah." There was no response. "Jason, where are you?" she whispered.

Ella waited, crouched low, then flicked on her flashlight, holding it away from her body and directing the beam around the room.

The interior was filled with stacks of cardboard boxes and large pieces of furniture that included a bed frame, a wood cabinet, and an inexpensive metal dinette set like those that had been popular in the sixties. A few of the boxes had been torn open, probably by whoever had broken in. As the flashlight beam swept the room, something caught her eye, and she moved the light back to check again. A man's leg was visible extending out from behind some cardboard boxes. The tan trousers, complete with stripe, were part of a tribal police officer's uniform.

Bile rose to the back of her throat, but she swallowed her fear, forcing herself to remain calm. Her training told her to move cautiously in case the officer had been ambushed. The shooter could still be inside, waiting for another victim. Ella walked toward the body, hoping that her instincts would turn out to be wrong and that the officer was still alive.

As she peered around the stack of boxes, she saw Officer Franklin lying facedown in a pool of blood. A bullet had entered the back of his head, leaving a black hole soaked with blood.

Ella swallowed hard, trying to push back the horror of the scene. The officer's weapon was still in his holster, though the snap on the hold-down strap was unsnapped.

Looking cautiously around the next corner, she confirmed that the room was empty except for the cardboard boxes. Taking the first deep breath in what seemed like an hour, she tried to organize her thoughts.

A fellow officer had been killed in the line of duty, and no one in the department would rest until his killer was caught and brought to justice.

Reaching for her radio, she contacted Dispatch and made a full report.

 

Justine arrived first. There were only three other officers in her Special Investigations team these days. Justine, Ralph Tache, and when the need dictated it, she was allowed to pull in Sergeant Joseph Neskahi. Currently, Joseph was back on patrol duty, so it would be only the three of them here tonight.

Justine slipped on two sets of latex gloves, then along with Ella and Tache, began the task of gathering evidence from the site. None of them were traditionalists, or particularly superstitious, but some cultural taboos were too deeply ingrained. To avoid contamination by the chindi, the evil in every individual that remained earthbound after death, Navajos were taught from earliest childhood not to have any direct contact with the dead, and to avoid places where others had died, if possible. That second set of gloves would ensure that nothing that had come in contact with the corpse would touch them.

"The cause of death won't be difficult for Dr. Roanhorse-Lavery to figure out," Justine muttered under her breath, seeing the body clearly thanks to the floodlights hooked up to the portable generator.

"But why was the officer killed? And why didn't he draw his service weapon when going into an unknown situation?" Ella asked, thinking out loud. "Near as I can figure, the officer saw that the padlock had been cut and went inside for a look. He unsnapped the strap so he could draw his weapon faster, but apparently never did."

"Why would anyone bother to break into this place?" Justine asked.

"What's inside those boxes?" Ella added. "Have you had a chance to check?"

"I took a quick look inside several that had already been torn open. They contained old books, papers, clothes...nothing that looked particularly valuable to me," Justine said.

"Maybe the thief came in searching for something in particular, the officer surprised him, and there was a struggle," Ella suggested, but then, studying the area, added, "No, nix that. There are no signs of a fight at all." She paused, then continued. "Let's try it from another angle. The perp got behind the officer, shot him, then apparently took off before completing his search of the boxes. Or maybe he found what he wanted in one of those two boxes...What still doesn't fit is why an ordinary burglar would kill a cop."

"The shooting was at very close range--an execution-style murder. That's pretty drastic for a breaking and entering suspect."

Officer Tache, who was photographing the scene, joined them. "If I were a betting man, I'd say the officer didn't see a real threat, so he placed his weapon back into the holster. That's when the burglar shot him from behind. Our man may have never seen his killer."

Ella mulled it over. They were missing something. She had brought a powerful flashlight to supplement the floodlights, and squatted low, studying every detail of the floor near the victim. The room was dusty, and indistinct footprints were everywhere, but she doubted they'd be able to discern a sole pattern or narrow down the killer's shoe size.

As Ella looked below one of the boxes that had been torn open, something caught her eye. Almost simultaneously, Justine crouched and, using tweezers, pulled a medium-length black hair that had entwined itself around a torn portion of the cardboard box.

Ella looked over at the victim, then back to Justine. "Too long to belong to the officer."

Justine nodded, then placed the hair in an evidence pouch and labeled it as Ella continued to work, scouring the floor, searching for anything else that might give them a lead.

Soon she went outside to search the perimeter. The first thing she noticed as she went outside was a partial shoe print on the pavement. She crouched low to examine the pattern up close with her flashlight.

"It looks like the killer stepped in the officer's blood and tracked it out," Justine said, coming out and looking over Ella's shoulder.

"And the perp was wearing soft-soled shoes, judging from these tracks. That might explain why the officer didn't hear anyone creeping up behind him."

Ella noticed that they were all avoiding using the officer's name out loud. They'd all been taught that to use a man's name so soon after his death was sure to call his chindi. But, to them, it was simply a sign of respect to the tribe and one more way to honor a fellow Navajo who'd died serving the tribe.

"It's the viciousness of the crime that throws me," Ella muttered. "Burglars run--they don't stand and fight, or wait in ambush for police officers."

"Maybe this burglar also has a grudge against cops," Justine said.

"Or maybe the officer knew his killer and didn't expect any trouble, so he let his guard down, put his weapon away, and later turned his back," Ella said.

Headlights told Ella that the ME had just driven up in her van. Ella went to meet her longtime friend, Dr. Carolyn Roanhorse-Lavery. Carolyn was the only medical examiner allowed to practice outside the network of the State Medical Examiner's Office in Albuquerque, owing to the unique cultural needs of the Dineh.

"I was wondering when you'd show up." Ella smiled. "Married life has been a bad influence on you."

"Life? I wasn't aware that any of us were entitled to have one." She glanced around at Ella's team. "Where's Neskahi? I'll probably need help with the body."

Ella smiled ruefully. A comment the sergeant had made once about Carolyn's weight had made him number one on her hit list.

"He's back on patrol duty. He's not part of our team for now."

"Demoted?"

"No, nothing like that. Right now the department believes that the tribe needs patrol cops more than I need another member of the crime-scene team." Ella led Carolyn inside.

The second Carolyn saw the body, she shook her head. "He's one of your own. That's very bad."

Leaving Carolyn to work, Ella joined Justine and Tache and continued examining the surrounding area.

"We'll keep working tonight for as long as possible," Justine said, "but before we leave, we'll need a uniform here to protect the scene until we return in the morning. Tache and I will go over everything once more in the light of day to make sure we didn't miss anything."

Ella nodded. "Fine. Also, as soon as possible, find out who owns this garage. Someone's still using it, obviously. Meanwhile, I'll talk to Big Ed and see about notifying the officer's next of kin."

Ella checked the interior of the officer's vehicle, searching for trace evidence. Finding nothing, she joined Carolyn and found her packing up her gear. Without waiting to be asked, Ella helped the ME place the body in a bag and transport it back to the van.

Carolyn acknowledged her help with a grateful nod. "You already know what the cause of death was, but if I find anything else on the body or in the officer's chemistry that might give you a lead, I'll let you know immediately. I'll start the autopsy tonight."

"Thanks. The chief will want fast answers, but this case is going to be a complicated one. I can feel it in my bones."

Carolyn nodded, knowing Ella's intuitions were generally right. "I'll have preliminary findings on your desk by noon tomorrow, if not sooner. Toxicology will take longer, but I don't expect any surprises there."

Lost in thought, Ella watched Carolyn drive away. Despite her hectic schedule, there was a serenity about Carolyn these days that hadn't been there before she'd married Dr. Michael Lavery, a retired medical examiner, and an Anglo. Her friend, who'd been so ostracized because she was a Navajo woman who worked with the dead, now had a companion, and the loneliness that had punctuated her life had finally eased.

"Officer Philip Cloud is coming over to secure the scene," Justine said, interrupting her thoughts. "He's the only one available right now, and he needs the overtime. Of course once word gets around that a tribal cop has been murdered, we'll have no shortage of volunteers."

Ella nodded somberly. "The killer just made the entire department his mortal enemy."

TRACKING BEAR Copyright © 2011 by Aimée and David Thurlo.