“Change is in the air, partner.” Ella Clah, Special Investigator for the Navajo Tribal Police, gazed at the steep, pastel layered walls of the sandstone mesa north of the valley. She and her partner were 10-7, out of service, having lunch, and she was staring out the window of the Totah Café, her favorite restaurant. Even the land itself changed. New arroyos appeared, and old ones faded away under clouds of dust and sand, leaving fans of washed-out gravel, and sometimes even petrified shark teeth from an ancient sea.
“Every time we get a new politician out to make his bones, it’s the same thing,” Justine said. “The department gets screwed. From what I’ve heard, Safety Director Bidtah plans to get rid of nonessential officers and what his speechwriters called the ‘deadwood.’ Rumor has it that includes Police Chief Atcitty.”
“Bidtah is all flash and dash. He’s racing up the ladder, walking over anyone who gets in the way. Nothing good ever comes from that kind of ambition,” Ella said. “I understand he plans to cut costs by closing down our special investigations unit, and reducing the number of detectives at our station.”
“Big Ed was responsible for creating our unit, so by phasing us out, he takes away one of Big Ed’s most successful operations.”
Ella took a bite of her red chile enchilada. The wonderful spicy taste improved her mood instantly.
“If Bidtah wants to disband something, I wish he’d cut those mandatory departmental training workshops,” Justine said. “They’re essentially useless. The last one I suffered through was on how to manage nonviolent confrontations. The only new thing it offered was a segment on the impact of cell phones.”
“Instant communications can mean even more people involved in altercations, like a family dispute. Fortunately, officers also have that technology. Now, if we just had the manpower,” Ella said.
“I’m scheduled for a session on Saturday. This one is on utilizing nonlethal weapons. Nelson Natani, Bidtah’s right-hand man, is teaching that one himself. Shall I take notes?”
Ella was about to answer when her cell phone rang. She spoke hurriedly, then looked at her partner. “We’ve got to roll. Finish up fast or get a doggie bag.”
Having already paid when they were served, a necessity when on call, they were out the door in minutes. As they crossed the parking lot, Ella filled Justine in. “We’ve got a possible 10-27 several miles southwest of Rattlesnake,” Ella said, using the code for a homicide.
“I wish I hadn’t just wolfed down that enchilada. After all these years, I still get queasy around dead people.” Justine kept her eyes glued on the road as she raced off the old steel-trestle San Juan bridge and took the curve at sixty, emergency lights flashing. “Any details on the body?”
“A girl out horseback riding found a gold pickup on a hill beside the road. She reported seeing a bloody man inside, slumped over the seat, not moving. That’s all we have except for the general location. If it checks out, we’ll bring in the crime scene team.”
“That poor kid,” Justine said. “Bet she remembers this for the rest of her life.”
“Images like that stay with you, no matter how many Sings you have done,” Ella said in a quiet voice. “When my kid closes her eyes, she dreams of horses. Me? I get corpses. Good thing I’m not a Traditionalist or I’d have to hire a full-time hataalii,” she said, referring to their tribe’s medicine men.
“Maybe your brother, Clifford, could give you a ‘friends and family’ discount,” Justine teased.
“If my brother knew how often I have nightmares, he’d conduct a month’s worth of Sings, but it still wouldn’t help. It’s just something that goes with the job,” Ella said.
Justine nodded as she turned right, continuing on Highway 64 west, passing Shiprock High, then the Phil, the performing arts center.
There were a few cars in the parking lot, probably belonging to kids and staff involved in the summer recreation program. At least today there was no school zone to slow Justine down.
The route was familiar, rising west into the dry desert hills past the river valley and bosque on the north. Down to their right, farms lined both sides of the river. Water gave life, but except for a heavy rain the other day, there had been almost no moisture so far this year, and it was already mid-June. With so little snowpack last winter, the irrigation ditches were barely flowing. When droughts came, life became even tougher on the Rez.
“Earth to Ella.”
Justine’s voice brought her back to the present. “Sorry. What did you say?”
“I was thinking of taking the old turnoff west of Rattlesnake,” Justine said. “The road’s rougher there, but I think we’ll reach the scene a few minutes faster. What do you think?”
“You’re driving, go for it,” Ella said, sitting up straight and clearing her mind. As she tried to focus on the job ahead, her cell phone rang. The caller ID told her it was her fourteen-year-old daughter. “Hey, sweetie, what’s going on?”
“Bitsy just called, Mom. She was out riding her mare a while ago and found a dead man in a pickup less than ten minutes from her front door! She said his body was really messed up. Did you know?”
Dawn’s voice was an octave too high and it reminded Ella of the little girl her daughter had once been. She missed those days more than she’d ever admit.
“Yes, daughter, I heard the news. I didn’t realize until now it was your BFF who found the body. My partner and I are on the way to the site right now. It’s our case.”
“I thought so. I told her you’d probably have to stop by and talk to her.”
“How much did she tell you about what she saw?” Ella asked, hoping the teen hadn’t been busy calling or texting her friends with the news. Details often changed with the telling, and the notion of a body being “messed up” could be interpreted a hundred ways.
“Just what I told you. She would have told me more, but her mom made her get off the phone,” Dawn said. “So what’s going to happen to her now? Will she have to go to the police station and everything?”
“Probably not, but don’t talk about this to anyone else. It’s a police matter now,” she said. “Just get on with your day. You have your riding lesson with Tonya this afternoon, right?”
“Yeah. I really hope someday I can barrel race like her, Mom. You should see all her trophies.”
“You’re learning from the best. Just be careful.” Ella put her cell phone back in her pocket and looked around, trying to figure out exactly where they were.
As Justine turned off the highway, Ella had to grab on to the door handle. The road here was a jumble of ruts and potholes more suitable for an obstacle course than for their vehicle. It ran south, paralleling the foothills of the Carrizo Mountains beyond.
“Maybe it’ll just be a drunk sleeping it off after taking a beating,” Justine said.
“Yeah. When a fight gets out of hand, blood makes it look a lot worse. I hope you’re right.”
Ella looked around cautiously as they topped the third in a series of low hills in the undulating terrain. “Nothing up ahead,” she said.
Justine gripped the wheel tightly. “It’s muddy in this stretch. It looks like they got a lot more rain here yesterday than we did over at my place.”
They topped the next hill, and clearly visible in the road cut of the next ridge over was a dark gold pickup with the hood raised. Another, an older green pickup, was parked alongside it, and there were two men working on something in the gold pickup’s engine compartment.
“We’ve got company,” Justine said.
“Speed up,” Ella said. “Those aren’t our people and they have no business going near that truck.”
Justine raced down the slope, siren and emergency lights on. The two men, both in jeans and straw Western hats, turned at the sound. The tallest one had what looked to be the pickup’s battery in his arms. He stared at them for a second, dropped his load, and raced around to the driver’s side. The other man jumped into the truck, barely making it inside before the vehicle spun around in a tight turn.
“They’re making a run for it,” Ella said.
The green truck sped away, bouncing on the uneven ground as Justine remained in close pursuit, racing uphill.
“There’s nowhere to go, so just keep them in sight,” Ella said, holding on to her seat and trying to keep her balance. “I’ll call for backup.”
She reached down for the radio mike twice, and each time got bounced away as Justine had to swerve to miss a pothole or encountered a stretch of washboard road that rattled their teeth.
Ella finally made a successful grab, and called it in. After several seconds of hurried conversation, she racked the mike. “Get that?”
Justine nodded, her eyes still on the green pickup, which was fishtailing back and forth across a dry, sandy wash, raising clouds of dust. “Highway east and west will be covered. Meanwhile, we want to drive them south and cut them off. There’s no outlet south, right?”
“Right,” Ella said.
“Hang on!” Justine shouted as they hit another series of ripples in the hard dirt and gravel. The perps ahead had made it through, though their pickup was veering to the right, and slowing rapidly.
“He’s got tire trouble,” Ella said. “Get ready for a foot chase.”
“You think they killed the driver?”
“Until we know otherwise … yes.”
The green pickup swung to the left, trying to spin around, do a 180, then slip past them as they entered a deep arroyo. The laws of physics, however, refused to cooperate with their tactics. Instead, their right front tire, flat as could be now, hugged the ground and the vehicle skidded, lifting the driver’s side off the ground.
“They’re going to roll if they keep this up!” Justine yelled.
The pickup flew up another foot, then dropped back down hard, sliding to a stop, the rear end coming to rest against the steep side of the wash.
“Gotcha now.” Justine hit the brakes, trapping the truck between the canyon wall and the department SUV.
Ella jumped out the passenger-side door, drew her Glock, and leaned across the hood, barrel pointed at the driver. “Police officers! Stay in the vehicle and show me your hands—both of you.”
Justine’s door was blocked by the front of the green pickup, so she ducked low and slid out Ella’s side. Running to the back of the Suburban, she aimed her weapon at the men.
“Stay in the vehicle,” Justine called out to them, exposing only her head, left arm, and handgun.
“We’re not armed, officers!” the passenger yelled back. “Don’t shoot.”
“Driver, keep your hands up and come out slowly,” Ella ordered, moving around the engine compartment, her sights on the young Navajo man’s head.
The driver slid out of the vehicle, but suddenly ducked below the door and ran down the arroyo, losing his hat in the process.
“Hold your man. I’ve got this idiot,” Ella said, holstering her pistol as she raced toward the driver, who was trying to claw his way up a twenty-foot-high, forty-five-degree embankment.
Ella stood her ground and waited, watching as the man cursed, grabbed at the dirt and rocks, dug in his toes, and basically got nowhere trying to climb the embankment.
“Crap,” the man groaned, then gave up and slid down the five feet he’d managed to climb. Raising his hands high, he turned and faced Ella, a sheepish expression on his face. “Okay, you got me. Now what?”
She brought out her yellow Taser and pointed it at the young Navajo’s torso. “You been drinking, hosteen?” she said, using the Navajo term for “mister.”
“No, ma’am. We just stopped to check out the pickup back there. The driver’s dead, blown away. He got shot in the head but we didn’t do it—honest!” He coughed, and tried to take shorter breaths.
The subject’s clothing reeked with the odor of decaying flesh. “You got real close to the body, didn’t you?” Ella said, fighting not to gag.
“Too close. I’ll have to throw away this shirt. It really stinks but it’s nothing compared to what it’s like near the cab of that truck. It almost made me hurl. The guy’s all covered with flies, even on his hands.”
“Turn around slowly, then go back to the center of the road, kneel down on the ground, and lock your hands behind your head.”
“Okay, okay.” The barrel-chested man followed her instructions to the letter.
Ella nodded to Justine, who’d already handcuffed the skinny passenger. He appeared to be somewhere around eighteen.
“We’ll secure them inside the SUV, take a look in their vehicle for any weapons or possible evidence, then drive back to the scene and check things out,” Ella said.
“What about my truck?” the driver protested.
“I’ve got the keys, bro,” Justine said, “and you’ve got a flat tire. It’s not going anywhere.”
* * *
Once they’d placed both men in the rear of the cruiser, Justine drove back, much more slowly this time. Ella used the men’s driver’s licenses to run a check through the MDT, the mobile data terminal.
“Petty crimes, but no outstanding warrants,” Ella said.
“See? I told you we were clean,” Ernest Cohoe, the younger man, said.
“So why’d you run?” Ella asked.
“Hello? We were stealing the battery,” Ernest said. “Well, technically, Andrew was.”
“Thanks, idiot,” the driver whispered.
Five minutes later, they pulled in about twenty feet behind the gold pickup. As Ella stepped out of the vehicle, the unbearable stench of spoiled meat engulfed her, a reminder of what was waiting for them inside the truck.
Justine climbed out, looking around at the scene, one hand over her mouth. “This is going to be … really bad.”
“Yeah, but there’s no avoiding it,” Ella said, rubbing Mentholatum around her nose to mask the scent, then handing the jar to Justine. “Let’s go check out the body.”
“Take short breaths, it’ll help. And watch out for the chindi,” Ernest said.
“Wise up, bro, they’re cops. They don’t believe in that BS,” Andrew said.
“It’s not BS. When we die, the evil side of us stays close to the body and will try to hurt the living. That’s why I stayed clear of the truck. The chindi can make you nuts—or worse,” Ernest said.
“You’re already nuts, so don’t worry about it,” Andrew answered.
“You’re the idiot, bro. You already had a good battery in your pickup. Now we’re both going to jail.”
“Just shut up, man,” Andrew replied.
“Both of you shut up!” Justine yelled back to them as she and Ella continued walking toward the pickup.
As Ella drew near, she swatted away the big blowflies that circled the open cab.
Ella stopped a few feet from the driver’s-side door and checked the ground. There was one set of footprints in the damp roadbed, probably a match for Andrew’s, the driver of the green truck who didn’t believe in the chindi.
“Partner, I’m sick,” Justine mumbled, then suddenly covered her mouth with one hand and ran back across the road.
Ella breathed through her mouth as much as possible. They were both seasoned homicide detectives, but the rain and the heat had done their usual job on the body. It was difficult even to take a breath without triggering a gag reflex.
With a burst of self-discipline, Ella forced herself to focus. The tall, slender Navajo man with the military-style haircut was slumped over, partially resting on the passenger’s side. The position wasn’t natural. It was more likely that someone had pushed the body aside.
There was a bloody hole about the size of a dime in the left side of his skull two inches above the top of his ear. The right side of his head was splattered all over the passenger’s inside door panel—which accounted for most of the flies.
Ella tore her gaze from the victim’s head and, swatting away the flies, glanced down again. The tips of the man’s fingers and thumbs on both hands had been chopped off at the top joints, probably with something like bolt cutters. He’d undoubtedly been dead at the time because there was no evidence of a struggle, but the mutilations had been immediate. Blood had oozed from each wound, creating a real mess on the seat and floorboard.
Ella swallowed hard. This was a skinwalker’s MO. She’d seen it before but usually at perverted ceremonial sites where Navajo witches had mutilated bodies stolen from their graves. This time, however, the skinwalker had also done the killing, which meant that trouble was only beginning.
These secretive people distorted Navajo beliefs to generate fear among their targets, usually to intimidate and control members of the community. They were also skilled tricksters and often created illusions or magic tricks to demonstrate their “power.”
Ella tried to focus on the physical evidence. Theories would wait till later. Despite the swelling and discoloration from maybe two days’ exposure to the elements, something about the man looked vaguely familiar to her.
Silently giving thanks that the last couple of days had been a little cooler due to the cloudy weather, she climbed up on the running board, canted her head, and looked into the dead man’s face. The little mole above his left eyebrow and the tiny scar along his jawline …
A sudden chill enveloped her, and her heart began to race. She staggered back a step or two, nearly fell, but somehow caught herself in time.
“I know who the victim is,” she said in a strangled voice as Justine returned. “We both knew him.”
Justine stood beside Ella, looking pale but ready to work. “Who is it?”
“Harry Ute,” Ella said, her voice a tight whisper.
“Our Harry, the officer who was part of our team for years?” Seeing Ella nod, Justine shook her head. “No way. Ralph and I took him out for coffee and apple pie just a few days ago. He came to the station to catch up with old friends.”
Though the temperature was in the high seventies, Ella felt ice cold. She crossed her arms in front of her chest, trying to warm up. Harry was more than a friend. They’d dated exclusively for almost a year, and before leaving to join the U.S. Marshals Service, he’d asked her to be his wife. Though it had broken her heart to say no, she just hadn’t been ready to make that kind of a commitment, so they’d parted ways. That was almost ten years ago, she realized, when Dawn was starting first grade.
The connection they’d shared once and faded memories of another time lingered in her mind along with an overwhelming sense of loss. A shudder ripped through her.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking? I saw his hands,” Justine said. “Stealing the whorls, the fingerprints, that’s the mark of … the evil ones.”
“I know, but I’m still hoping it’s just some sicko thinking we won’t be able to ID the body now,” Ella said.
“I suppose so, but that would mean he’s not particularly bright,” Justine said. “We could trace the pickup from the plate.”
“I better call this in,” Ella said. She moved around the area, holding up the phone in hopes of getting a signal. “No luck. I better use the radio,” she said at last, and went back to the SUV.
Copyright © 2013 by Aimée Thurlo and David Thurlo