Black Thunder

An Ella Clah Novel

Ella Clah (Volume 16 of 17)

Aimee Thurlo and David Thurlo

Forge Books

ONE
 

Tribal Police Investigator Ella Clah stood next to her department’s cruiser, a dusty, white SUV that had more miles on it than a Two Grey Hills sheepdog. As she stood beneath the shade of the Quick Mart station’s island, watching the dollar amount shoot past fifty as the pump fed regular into the tank, her second cousin and partner, Justine Goodluck, was busy cleaning the windshield.
“It’s been so quiet lately,” Justine said. “I hate slow days. I’d rather be up to my ears in an investigation than catching up with paperwork. It’s nine in the morning and it already feels like we’ve been on duty all day.”
“I hear you,” Ella answered. “At least we’re not behind a desk.”
Justine stopped working on the windshield and looked directly at Ella. Although among Traditionalists that would have been considered extremely rude, tribal cops had learned to walk the line between the old and the new, adapting to a reservation in transition.
“What’s eating you, partner?” Justine asked. Seeing Ella shrug, Justine added, “Don’t try to tell me it’s nothing. We’ve known each other too long.”
There were many advantages to working with a close partner but the ability to second-guess each other was often a two-edged sword. With some partnerships, familiarity bred contempt, as the old saying warned. Yet Justine and she had found a middle ground. Though they weren’t what Ella’s daughter would have termed BFFs, they’d become attuned to each other in a way that gave them a distinct advantage out in the field.
Ella was still thinking of how to answer that when a call came over their radio. “S.I. Unit One, see the clerk at the First United Bank on Highway 64, east of the bridge. He reports a man posing as Chester Kelewood is trying to cash a two-hundred-dollar check. The clerk will try to stall the subject until you arrive.”
Ella hung the gas nozzle back onto the pump and reached inside the open window to pick up the mike. “Unit One responding,” Ella said as Justine paid the bill.
“We’re less than a mile from there,” Justine said, slipping behind the wheel. “How do you want to handle this?”
Ella began accessing information on the MDT, Mobile Dispatch Terminal. As her partner eased out into downtown Shiprock traffic, she answered, “Chester Kelewood has been on our missing person’s list since last June second, and in these situations the bank always flags their accounts. Let’s go in silent and try to get next to this scam artist before he catches on.”
A few minutes later, Justine dropped Ella off near the bank’s front door, then headed for the closest parking slot. As Ella approached the entrance, an anxious-looking man stepped outside—not Kelewood, judging from the image she’d just viewed on the terminal. She hesitated, wondering if this was the suspect or just another patron.
His gaze shifted to the badge clipped to her belt and a second later, he spun around and bolted down the sidewalk.
“That’s him!” a man in the foyer yelled.
Ella raced after the man, who darted around the corner of the building.
Although he’d only had a slight lead, the man moved like the wind, fear of arrest undoubtedly motivating him. He reached the back corner of the bank, then disappeared down the alley to his left.
Just as Ella appeared in the alley, he reached a six-foot cinder-block wall. Seeing her closing in, he scrambled clumsily over the top.
Ella followed, jumping up, then over. This was a lot easier than the ten-foot barrier at the county police academy’s obstacle course. Dropping to her knees to absorb the shock of landing, she searched the perimeter and quickly spotted the suspect. The Navajo man was hightailing it down a dirt road.
She hit Justine’s speed-dial number on her cell phone, slowing just enough to make the call. “Justine, I’m in pursuit. Drive down the ditch road and try to cut him off. He’s heading north through the brush.”
“Roger that,” Justine replied, then hung up.
Ella continued pursuit into the bosque, the wooded area that lined the riverbanks. She knew she couldn’t match his sprint speed in a 440 or less, but she was sure she could wear him down cross-country, providing she could keep him within sight or track him. Even as she processed this thought, the man raced fifty yards down the road, then cut right and disappeared into a clump of twelve-foot-high willows, red and gray-green from their early summer growth.
Less than ten seconds behind, she ducked in after him. Ella could hear his labored breathing and the thump of his boots on the sand as he ran parallel to the San Juan River, here only about a hundred yards wide. Although there were steep bluffs on the opposite shore, on this side there were many possible exits back along the north bank. She’d have to be careful he didn’t slip back into town. Hopefully, Justine would see him if he crossed the ditch road.
The path the suspect had chosen kept him close to the river. The chase required constant swerving and twisting to avoid getting whipped by the long willow branches or tripping on a tuft of salt grass. Ella found herself constantly ducking and throwing up her right or left arm to avoid being, literally, bush whacked.
She’d already eased into her long-distance running rhythm: two strides, inhale, two strides, exhale. She knew from her regular conditioning runs that she’d be able to keep up this pace for miles. Even with the heavy ballistic vest she always wore under her shirt, she’d catch up sooner or later. Unfortunately, the moment he realized that, he might turn on her, so she’d have to be ready.
Still on his tail, she remained alert, forcing herself to keep her breathing smooth and regular. Even if she hadn’t been able to hear him crashing through the brush like an enraged bull, his tracks were easy to follow. Soon she noticed that he was angling steadily toward the river. The bluffs a quarter mile farther down were lower and receded from the banks, leaving easier access to the shore and possible escape. Maybe he’d decided to swim for it next—though it was probably more of a deep wade or wallow unless he dropped into a pool or undercut in the bank.
Suddenly Ella stopped hearing his footsteps. She slowed to a brisk walk and listened carefully. Almost instinctively, she reached up to touch the turquoise badger fetish hanging from a leather strap around her neck.
Her brother, Clifford, a medicine man, or hataalii as they were known to the Diné, the Navajo People, had given her the Zuni-made fetish years ago as a gift. Since that time, she’d noticed that the small carving invariably became hot whenever danger was near. Right now it felt uncomfortably warm. Though she’d never been able to explain it, she suspected that the heat it emitted might have something to do with her own rising body temperature in times of crisis. Either way, she’d learned to trust the warning.
Ella stopped and slowly turned around in a circle, detecting the acrid scent of sweat—not her own. Before she could pinpoint it more accurately, a man burst out from behind a salt cedar, yelling as he swung a big chunk of driftwood like a baseball bat.
Ella ducked and the wood whooshed over her head, missing her skull by inches. Before he could take another swing, Ella drew her weapon and aimed it at her assailant.
“Drop the stick, buddy, now!” she ordered.
The man dropped the branch, but dove to his right, rolling into some tall grass. Then, leaping back to his feet, he sprinted away.
“Crap!” Ella holstered her gun and took off after him again. No way this jackrabbit was going to get away from her.
Running out of steam, the panting suspect tried to leap a fallen cottonwood branch, but caught his toe, or misjudged the jump. He fell to the sand, face-first.
Ella caught up to him a second later, but he swung around, still on his knees, and dove for her feet. He grabbed her boot and twisted her leg, trying to knock her down. Ella broke free and recaptured her balance just as the guy leaped up and lunged.
Ella kicked him in the chest with her heavy boot.
The impact stopped him in his tracks, and he gasped. He was wobbling back and forth, but somehow he stayed on his feet. He took a step back, then held up his fists, waving them to and fro like a fighter working out in a gym as he took a bob-and-weave defense.
Ella kept her fighting stance. “Stop. I’m a cop. Don’t fight me. You’ll go down.”
“You wish,” the Navajo man yelled, his face beet red from exertion.
“Have it your way,” Ella said, and reached for the canister of Mace on her duty belt. She had it halfway up before his fists suddenly opened up. Showing his palms and outspread fingers, he took a step back.
“No, stop! I’m allergic to that stuff. Really. I give up.”
Ella immediately spun him around and cuffed him. “If you run for it again, I’ll Taser your ass.”
Taking him by the arm, she informed him of his rights as she guided him east toward the dirt road that paralleled the bosque along the irrigation ditch. As he stumbled along she asked him for his name, but all she got was a request for an attorney.
By the time they reached the road, a patrol cruiser was waiting, having come from the north. Justine was inching up from the south in her unit, less than fifty yards away. Ella looked at the uniformed officer climbing out of the cruiser. She recognized Mark Lujan, a young cop with about four years on the tribal force. “Thanks, Lujan, but I’ve got him now. My partner and I will take him in,” she said, seeing Justine climbing out of the SUV.
“Let the officer take him, boss,” Justine said, leaning her head out of the SUV. “We’ve got another call.”
“What’s happening, partner?” Ella asked, climbing into the vehicle.
Justine turned the SUV around, then spoke as they drove toward the highway. “A Navajo crew was replacing fence posts on the Navajo Nation side of the border, just the other side of Hogback, when they found a body.”
“On tribal land—they’re sure of that?” Ella reached for a tissue from the glove box, then wiped away the perspiration from her brow with one hand and redirected the air-conditioning vent toward her face and neck.
“Yeah, from what I was told. They called 911 and dispatch called us immediately.”
There was no direct route to the site. When they passed through the wide, river-cut gap in the Hogback, the long, steep-sided outcrop towering above the desert for miles, Justine had to continue east off the Rez. Their intended route required them to circle back to the northwest along the old highway, which came much closer to the spinelike ridge.
There was a dirt track that ran along the north-south fence line through an old field and former marsh, and the ride was extra rough. Trees and brush dotted the area, thickly in some places, and it took a while to spot the tribal truck, which was in a low spot. The tailgate of the oversized pickup was down and the bed filled with coils of wire and fence posts.
“Where’s the crew?” Ella asked, looking around.
“Way over there,” Justine said, gesturing with her chin, Navajo-style, toward a shady spot beneath an old cottonwood at least a hundred feet northwest of the pickup.
Ella wasn’t surprised. As a detective on the Navajo Rez, she usually didn’t have to worry that a murder scene would be contaminated by the Navajo public. Whether they were Traditionalists, New Traditionalists, or Modernists, fear of the chindi was a fact of life here.
The chindi, the evil in a man, was said to remain earthbound waiting for a chance to create problems for the living. Contact with the dead, or their possessions, was a sure way to summon it to you, so avoidance was the usual strategy.
The foreman, a short, muscular Navajo in jeans and a pale blue tribal-issue shirt, came to meet them as they parked and stepped out of the SUV. His yellow straw cowboy hat was stained with dust and sweat. It was getting hot already here in northwest New Mexico. “We called you as soon as we realized what we were digging up. You can see what’s left of a human hand down there. It’s over by that spot where we were taking out some fill dirt.”
“Thanks. We’ll handle it from here,” Ella said.
Justine joined Ella and they approached the location he’d pointed out. A shovel had been left beside the area where sand had been scooped out, probably to fill around a newly planted fence post about ten feet away. The original ground had been eroded by heavy rain and the old post still lay nearby, the wood badly rotted.
Ella and Justine moved carefully, stepping only in the fresh shoe and boot prints left by the work crew and making sure no other potential evidence was disturbed.
“Our crime scene team is on the way,” Justine said, looking down at the dark, leathery-looking, dried out remnants of what was clearly a human’s right hand. “Benny’s driving the van. Ralph Tache wants in on this, too. He said he can’t dig—doctor’s orders—but he can collect evidence and document the scene.”
“I don’t know about that,” Ella said, giving Justine a look of concern. “I’m not sure Ralph’s ready. This could be labor intensive, and we’ll have to do it all by hand. We can’t bring in a backhoe, and all that bending over…”
“Ralph’s had a lot to deal with after all those surgeries. That pipe bomb incident at the college did more than just put him in the hospital. But he’s spent months in rehab, and needs to get back to work, Ella. His doctor’s given permission for him to resume field duty, and the chief agreed. Let him have this assignment. He’s not cut out for a desk job, and we need our best personnel on this.”
Ella nodded. Although Ralph had already made it clear he wasn’t ready to take up his bomb squad work again, he wanted to get out of the station and take part in fieldwork.
“After all those months of recovery and therapy, I thought for a while he’d just take an early retirement and go on to consulting work,” Ella said. “He was a veteran cop when I joined the department.”
“I think police work’s in his blood, Ella, and he needs to reconnect.” Justine glanced down at the missing joint on her index finger, recalling the brutality of her kidnappers years ago. “We all pay a price for what we do, but police work’s a calling. That’s why we’re drawn to it so much.”
Ella said nothing. Justine was a devout Christian and her religious beliefs shaped her views. Yet no matter how Justine defined it, she lived and breathed the job, too. It was that dedication to the tribe and the department that made all of them overlook the downside—like the crappy pay and long hours.
“I’ll start with photos,” Justine said. “I want shots of the tire tracks on the dirt trail leading in. I saw two distinct, fresh sets as we were coming in, and there’s only one tribal vehicle here.”
“Good eye. I’ll get statements from the crew,” Ella said.
As she walked over to the men clustered in the shade of the cottonwood, Ella understood the wariness in their eyes. She spoke to the foreman first and he pointed out the two men who’d found the body. One of them, a stocky Navajo in his early twenties wearing a turquoise and black Shiprock High School Chieftains tee-shirt and worn jeans, stood fingering the leather pouch at his waist.
Recognizing the medicine bag for what it was, an essential personal item for Traditionalists, Ella decided to speak to him first.
She introduced herself without using names. Traditionalists believed that a name had power. To use it needlessly deprived its owner of a personal asset that was his or hers to use in times of trouble. Asking to see his driver’s license, she took the necessary information off that.
“I got too close to that body,” he said, explaining that he was the first to uncover the still-attached hand, and that the shovel left at the location was his. “I’m going to have a Sing done. Your brother’s the hataalii who lives on the other side of Shiprock, off the Gallup highway, isn’t he?”
“Yes, he is,” Ella answered, not surprised he’d made the connection. Despite the vastness of the Navajo Nation, theirs was a small community, and she’d been part of the tribal police department in this area for nearly fifteen years.
“I came ready for work, but this…” He shook his head, then kicked at a clump of dry grass with the toe of his worn lace-up work boot.
“Why did you happen to dig at that particular spot?” Ella said.
“I needed fill dirt so I picked a spot where there wasn’t much brush. It was pretty loose and easy to scoop out, so I dug deeper. Then the shovel snagged on something that looked like a leather glove.” He swallowed hard. “I reached down to pull it out when I saw that it was a hand—still attached to an arm. I backed off, fast.” He avoided eye contact with Ella out of respect for Navajo ways. “Do you think the whole body is down there?” he asked in a strangled voice.
“We’ll know in a bit.”
“Do we have to stay around while you … dig it up?”
“Not for that long. I’ll need to take statements from everyone and make sure I know where to find each of you in case we need to talk again. Once that’s done, you’ll all be free to leave.”
“Good. I don’t want to stick around.”
Ella couldn’t help but notice that the entire crew seemed anxious to leave, even those who appeared to be Modernists—their curiosity, their more relaxed expressions, and the absence of medicine pouches at their belt or in hand easily identified the Modernists.
Going about her business, she spoke to the other men, but nothing new came to light. Nobody seemed to know anything about the extra set of vehicle tracks. The foreman also made it clear that he didn’t think any other tribal employees had visited the site before them. Their job here today had been part of regular maintenance and scheduled months ago.
Shortly after the crew left, her team arrived. Ella watched Ralph Tache climb out of the van. Though he still moved slowly despite having lost at least thirty pounds in the last year, determination was etched in his deep-set eyes.
She knew that look. The need to restore order so all could walk in beauty was more than just a concept. It was the way of life on the Diné Bikéyah, Navajo country.
The crime scene team quickly cordoned off the area, using the boundary fence as the eastern perimeter. They each had specialized jobs, but no one would touch the ground around the hand until every square inch had been photographed from all possible angles.
While Ralph helped Justine take photos, Sergeant Joe Neskahi brought out two shovels and stood them against the van for future use.
Soon afterwards, Benny Pete and Joe surveyed the ground outside the yellow tape looking for tracks, trash, or anything out of the ordinary. If the scene needed to be expanded, they would be the first to make that determination.
Joe was a longtime member of the team, but Benny, their newest member, had fit in almost instantly. He’d come to them as a temporary transfer, then had opted to remain with their team. They’d all welcomed him after seeing his skills, particularly when it came to spotting even minute details.
“What’s the M.E.’s ETA?” Ella called out to Justine.
“Ten minutes,” Justine called back, not looking up from her work.
Looking over at Ralph, Ella saw him taking a photo of something off in the direction of the highway. “What’d you see, Ralph?” she asked, walking over.
He shrugged. “Someone was over there, standing by a white sedan, watching us through binoculars. I saw his reflection off the glass and it caught my eye. It was probably just a curious motorist, but you know what they say in Crime Scene 101.”
“Yeah, sometimes perps hang around to watch the police work the scene—might even volunteer to help,” Ella said.
“I’ll also be taking shots of every car that stops to check us out. You never know,” he said.
“Sure would be nice to get lucky,” Ella said, “investigation-wise,” she added quickly, seeing Ralph’s eyebrows rise.
Hearing someone clear their throat directly behind her, Ella spun around. “You don’t make a lot of noise when you walk, do you?” she said, glaring at Benny.
“Sorry about that, boss,” he said. “We looked around for footprints connected to that extra set of tire tracks, but there isn’t anything fresh. The driver must not have exited the vehicle. We did find something interesting—another set of fresh prints that clearly belong to a child. They’re along the fence line and elsewhere, but not close enough to the tire impressions for the child to have been the driver or a passenger.”
“So the only adult prints belong to the work crew?”
“That’s right,” Benny said.
“The next thing we’ll need to do is check on kids who live in this area. Anything else?” Ella asked him.
“So far we’ve found the usual windblown debris of candy and food wrappers, paper cups, and the kind of stuff we’d normally find alongside the highway. But something struck me as particularly odd.”
“What is it?” she pressed.
“I’d rather show you,” he said.
“Lead the way.” This was going to be one of those cases where nothing fit the norm. She could feel it in her gut.

 
Copyright © 2011 by Aimée and David Thurlo