Red Mesa

Ella Clah (Volume 6 of 17)

Aimée Thurlo and David Thurlo

Forge Books

ONE
 
 
It was already dark before Special Investigator Ella Clah, head of the major crimes unit for the Navajo Tribal Police, was able to call it a day. As she stepped out the main entrance of the Shiprock station, the cool September air made her realize how stuffy her office had been.
A relatively uneventful afternoon working on reports had made the passage of time excruciatingly slow, and Ella was looking forward to seeing her daughter and playing with her tonight. The time she spent with Dawn was always the best part of any day.
Ella shook her long black hair loose from the confining silver barrette and looked across the cobalt blue sky to Ute Mountain northwest of Shiprock. The image was said to be that of a sleeping warrior, and tonight, in the light of a bright full moon, it appeared peaceful. Yet, as the wind blew a gust of cold air against her, Ella couldn’t quite rid herself of the feeling that the Rez was due for a change.
Adjusting her dark brown leather jacket, Ella walked down the steps toward her vehicle. Her young assistant and cousin, Officer Justine Goodluck, had just pulled out of the station’s parking lot. Justine had only recently started dating again after a failed relationship, and from her rush, and the scent of her perfume still lingering in the station lobby, was apparently going out again tonight. They’d not even crossed paths today because Ella had been wading through paperwork, and Justine had been in her small crime lab, conducting tests and writing reports.
It was probably a good thing that they hadn’t spent any time together today, because Justine had been a bit testy lately. The fact that they were shorthanded was a major cause of the stress, undoubtedly. Justine had been forced to do a lot more of the work formerly done by Harry Ute, who had resigned the department to become a federal marshal. Cutbacks had prevented the department from finding a replacement.
Ella settled into her dark blue Jeep and backed out of the parking space. She always had a slot close to the entrance because she was one of the first cops at the station every morning. Of course, with all the funding problems, and the closure of their only branch station, there were fewer cops these days. Even the last officer to arrive had a close space available in Shiprock.
As she drove through the small reservation community, the lights of the supermarket’s parking lot shone on her hands. It suddenly occurred to her how much they looked like her mother’s, not old, but familiar and strong.
Families. They were at the core of everything she valued these days, though as a single, working mother she couldn’t say that much else about her lifestyle was traditional. Yet, despite that, she still felt strongly connected to everything on the Rez. All things were interrelated, particularly here. Justine, for example, was her second cousin as well as her assistant at work. That family connection was why Ella couldn’t help but feel a little protective about her at times.
Admittedly she also saw a bit of herself in Justine. That drive to succeed, to become better at her job and make a difference to her people, also defined Ella’s years in law enforcement.
Ella thought about Justine and the endless possibilities still before her. A woman needed more in her life than her job. In that respect, she was glad that Justine was dating again.
Ella remembered the last time she’d been on a date. It was when she’d told Kevin that she didn’t want to go out with him anymore, that their relationship had been a mistake. She hadn’t known she was carrying his child at the time. Of course, when she’d told him she was pregnant, Kevin had asked her to marry him, but she’d refused, knowing that they were too different in the ways that mattered to make a marriage work. Kevin had accepted her decision, but had been faithful about coming to see his daughter, a right Ella would never deny him.
Although Kevin was a good weekend father to Dawn, Ella was glad his interest in Dawn was limited. She wanted to follow the Navajo tradition that said children were the mother’s property, in a very loose sense of the term, and belonged with her. She had a gut feeling that Kevin’s ambitions and his desire for success would someday create no end of trouble for him and everyone who was a part of his life.
Ella brushed those thoughts aside and instead focused on seeing her eighteen-month-old daughter’s smiling face when she got home. Dawn was growing like a weed, and Rose, her grandmother, was the most loving sitter Ella could have found. Rose still disapproved of Ella’s job and would have rather seen her married and settled, but for the most part, the three of them had become a tightly knit family.
Ella passed the new housing area where the old helium plant employee houses had once stood, and now Ship Rock was visible to her right, standing several miles from the highway.
Hearing her radio crackle and her call sign coming through, Ella focused on the transmission.
“This is dispatch, requesting assistance for Officer Good-luck at the Cortez Highway Food N’ Fuel. A 2-11 is in progress. Go Code One. Be advised that the officer reports one perp armed with a handgun. Perp is wearing a stocking mask, jeans, and a dark leather jacket.”
“Dispatch. This is SI One. I’ll respond to the 2-11. ETA five minutes.” An armed robbery was in progress and the PD wanted a silent approach. Ella clicked on her high beams and glanced ahead and then into the rearview mirror, verifying that no vehicles were close. Braking with a practiced amount of pressure, she turned the steering wheel with the skills honed on FBI training courses and spun the Jeep around in a one-eighty. With another officer and civilians at the store in danger, she couldn’t afford a wasted motion or a second’s delay. Keeping her siren off but switching on the flashers, Ella raced back north again.
Fortunately most of the traffic was heading her way, so she was able to pass through town quickly. Turning off her flashers, Ella drove another mile across the top of the mesa. The convenience store was only a bit farther up the road. Ella purposely held off on using her radio, not wanting to compromise Justine’s position if her partner was still undetected by the suspect.
Suddenly a frantic radio call broke her concentration. “Ten thirty-seven at the Food N’ Fuel! Officer needs help. Ella, what’s keeping you?” Justine’s voice came in loud and strong.
Shots had been fired. Ella could now see the convenience store ahead on her right, and she turned on her flashers and siren, letting both Justine and the perp know that more cops were approaching. The element of surprise had already been lost.
“I’m almost there, Justine. What is your 10-10?”
“I’m heading around the building in pursuit of the suspect. Leather jacket, jeans. Tall, with long hair and a stocking mask, according to the clerk. I haven’t gotten close enough to see his face yet. He headed around the back. Ten-four?”
“Hold your position, Justine. Which side of the building are you on, north or south?” Ella didn’t want the perp to get away, but she also didn’t want any confusion in the dark. Any officer would be on edge and quick to fire after being fired upon. Ella waited for a response, but all she got was static on the radio.
“Justine? Confirm your location.” Ella looked ahead anxiously as she pulled into the dimly lit parking lot. The sides of the building were cloaked in shadows as black as velvet. Ella tried to raise Justine again, but the static was even louder than before.
Ella looked around and saw that Justine’s car was parked in a space to the left of the entrance, a strategy most of their officers used when approaching a convenience store during peak robbery hours, usually from dusk to dawn. When exiting the vehicle, officers would have their own car for protection in case they encountered an emerging, armed robber.
Ella pulled up directly behind the only other vehicle there, a beat-up pickup. If this was the perp’s transportation, her position would deny the driver a getaway.
Slipping out the driver’s side, keeping her car’s engine block between her and the gunman in the building for protection, Ella gave the scene a quick survey—from left to right there was an ice machine, double-door entrance, and newspaper rack. Inside the store, no heads or bodies were visible. If the clerk was alive, he or she was staying on the floor. She listened for the sound of footsteps, but the night was silent.
Ella tried her radio again, but heavy static still prevented her from reaching dispatch or contacting Justine. Pistol in hand, she ran to the store entrance and crouched down low, peeking around the doorframe and listening.
On the floor beside the dairy case was a clerk in the store’s standard red shirt. “Police officer. Are you alone?” she whispered, watching for movement elsewhere in the store.
“The guy’s gone. The other officer ran after him. He took a shot at her, but I think he missed.”
“Which direction did they go?” Ella half turned and looked out toward the ice machine.
“To your left out into the dark. That’s all I saw.” The man started to sit up.
“Stay down till we catch this guy, but get behind the counter. More help is on its way.” Ella heard footsteps on the cement outside. She looked out and saw someone in a stocking mask peering around the right side of the store. Seeing the barrel of the person’s gun from where she stood, she dove flat and brought her own pistol up and around, but by then her target had disappeared. Rolling quickly to her right, Ella sprinted out, using Justine’s car for cover, and looked in the direction the perp had gone.
Not knowing if her partner was lying wounded somewhere out in the darkness, Ella hurried quickly to the corner of the building and looked down the side wall. The perp disappeared around the corner just as she came into view.
Fearing an ambush, Ella moved away from the building and circled wide, slowing to move as silently as possible through the darkness and across the rocky ground. The perp would probably assume she’d hug the wall, and her approach from farther out might throw him. She kept her pistol trained on the corner as she inched forward, the faint radioactive glow of her special tritium sights giving her an edge in the darkness.
As she approached the rear of the store, Ella caught sight of the perp flattened against the side of a Dumpster by the back door, underneath a single dim, flickering light. She took aim and walked slowly forward, hoping he wouldn’t notice her until she was close enough to guarantee a hit in the uncertain light if she needed to fire.
Suddenly Ella heard a familiar voice. “Police Officer! Drop the gun!” Justine’s voice was hard and sharp.
Startled, Ella turned her head to verify Justine’s position and saw a figure approaching from the darkness on the far side of the Dumpster. Instinctively she turned, her aim shifting slightly toward the approaching shape as she did.
“Drop it!” Justine ordered.
Realizing that Justine was mistaking her for the perp, she instantly shifted her aim back squarely on the perp in front of her and called out loudly, l;Justine, it’s me!”
But it was too little, too late. Warned by instinct, Ella spun away and dove to the ground just as a muzzle flashed. A bullet passed inches from her right shoulder.
“No!” Justine cried out, realizing her mistake and running toward Ella.
Ella rolled and came up to a shooting stance to bring her aim back on the perp’s position, but he’d already taken advantage of Justine’s misidentification and raced back into the store through the rear entrance.
“I’m okay, Justine. Circle around front and cut him off if he tries to get out that way.” When Justine didn’t respond, Ella turned and saw the frightened look in her partner’s eyes. “Really, I’m okay. You missed me by a mile. Get moving. I’ll follow him through the back door. We don’t want a hostage situation.”
As Justine ran off, Ella hurried to the back door, flinging it open while hugging the doorjamb. The clerk was on the floor beside the counter, his hands clasped over his head as if he were expecting an artillery attack, or immediate arrest.
“He ran right out the front! Get that SOB!” the man yelled, his voice an octave higher than before.
Hearing another two shots out front, Ella raced down the aisle toward the front entrance. Before she could get there, headlights blinded her and she heard the loud squeal of tires. Knowing this was one battle she couldn’t win, Ella dodged to the left. Sliding on the waxed floor, she crashed into a display rack, causing dozens of paperbacks to rain down upon her.
A hearbeat later, glass flew everywhere as the old pickup she’d parked behind came up on the sidewalk and crashed through the convenience store’s glass front wall. The building shook and the smell of car exhaust filled the store. In a frenzy of screaming tires, the vehicle veered into a hard turn and raced away.
Ella raised her head and looked up at the chaos. The perp, unable to back out of the parking lot because Ella had blocked his vehicle, had gone forward instead, jumped the concrete barrier, and plowed through the glass front of the store to gain the space he needed to turn and flee.
Ella heard Justine yelling and cursing outside. Picking her way out of the store across broken glass and scattered merchandise, Ella managed to reach the sidewalk. “Which way did he go?”
The static that had disrupted communications earlier was gone and Justine was on her handheld radio now, calling dispatch to request additional units to handle the pursuit. After a few seconds, she put the radio into the pocket of her blue athletic jacket. “Look what that sack of manure did to our units.” Justine pointed out a flat tire on her own vehicle, and on Ella’s Jeep.
Her voice was as unsteady as her hands, and Ella considered, as she often did, how young her cousin looked. Maybe it was her petite size and delicate features, but if it hadn’t been for the oversized-looking handgun in the holster high on her hip, Justine could easily be mistaken for a high school student. “Jeez, how many things can go wrong in one night?”
Ella knew that Justine was still shaken by the realization of how costly her earlier mistake could have been. It was a miracle that Ella had escaped serious injury, despite wearing a bullet-resistant vest beneath her blouse. But all that had to wait. “Since we can’t follow the perp, we need to question the store owner while everything’s still fresh in his mind.”
Ella turned and looked back at the damage done to the store. The clerk was standing up now, on the phone to someone, perhaps his boss. He was staring at the debris, rubbing the back of his neck and shaking his head as he spoke.
After they went inside. Ella looked around and realized that the small, family-run store had no videotape security. She asked the clerk about it anyway, hoping she’d missed something.
“Nope, never got around to it. Except for the alarm, my dad can’t afford any of that fancy stuff. And to be honest, it hasn’t been needed, not in the thirty years he’s run this place.” The clerk, a man in his early twenties, looked around and cursed. “Look at the mess they made.”
“Do you have insurance?” Justine asked.
The young man shrugged. “My dad will know. We’ve never spoken about that.”
“What’s your name, and what happened here tonight?”
“I’m Juan Benally. The guy came in and the second I saw
the mask and gun, I reached down and hit the silent alarm. Then he came right up to me, aimed the gun at my head, and told me to empty the cash register into a paper bag he handed me.”
“The suspect was working alone? There wasn’t anyone waiting in the truck?” Ella prodded.
“I don’t think so, but I can’t be sure. I only saw the one who held me up.”
“Describe him.”
Juan gave her a long look. “He was about your height, had long hair, too. Shoulder length.” He scowled. “Heck, he was even dressed like you. A dark brown leather jacket and jeans. Of course, he had a mask, but from the voice, I knew it was a guy.”
Justine pressed the clerk for more answers, but after a few minutes, it became obvious that there was nothing further he could tell them, except how much money had been stolen.
After warning him that he’d have to stop by the station and sign a statement, they walked back out to the parking lot. Ella went to her Jeep, opened up the back, and started to bring out the jack and spare tire.
Justine went with her. “Ella, about what happened…”
“It was just an accident. These things happen. It was dark, you were expecting someone with a gun, and there I was,” she said quietly. “But from now on, make sure to get a positive ID before using deadly force. That’s basic, Justine.”
“I know, but I had every reason to believe you were the suspect. I’d pursued him out into the scrub brush beside the store and lost sight of him for a moment. When I heard someone in back of the store, I headed that way. Then I came around the corner, saw a figure who looked like the person I’d been chasing. He turned and pointed a weapon in my direction. I fired just like I’d been trained to do.
“Ella, you know that it’s not just an excuse, it’s a conditioned response. I’d chased the perp to that spot, then the next thing I saw was a gun aimed at me. I hadn’t lost sight of him for more than a few seconds, and in the dark you looked just like him.”
“You knew I was around.”
“Yes, but I didn’t expect to run into you back there, or have you point a gun at me.”
“Justine, how long had it been since you’d lost sight of the perp?”
She considered the question carefully before answering, ignoring a strand of shiny black hair that drifted back and forth across her face in the breeze. “Less than ten seconds. When I saw you, I thought it was him,” Justine replied. “Or maybe it was you I saw all along.”
Ella shook her head slowly. “Something’s not right about this. He couldn’t have moved that fast. I’d been chasing him for more than ten seconds before he went to ground beside the Dumpster. He couldn’t have gotten away from you all the way around to the front of the store before I spotted him in that small amount of time, much less gone all the way to the back of the store where we met. Are you sure we’re talking about the same guy?”
“The only way to explain this otherwise is if we say that there were two perps involved, who looked and dressed the same and also happened to be wearing clothing similar to yours. Do you realize how ridiculous that sounds? And nobody saw more than one perp.” Justine shook her head. “But something is definitely fishy. Several minutes passed between the time I responded and you arrived on the scene. Why didn’t the guy make a run for it sooner?”
Ella nodded. “Good point. Yeah, something about this entire thing stinks. We’ll have to keep going over it until we can figure this out.” She looked directly at Justine. “But look, let’s not make a big deal about the near accident, okay? As long as we’re both careful that it doesn’t happen again, we’d be better off moving on to the real issue here, which is catching the perp.”
Ella knew an incident like this one could cost Justine plenty if it went in her permanent file, and she wanted to give her cousin a break. Justine had worked hard to get to where she was in the department, and a mistake like this would follow her for the duration of her career. Whatever had almost happened, when it came down to it, Ella still trusted Justine’s abilities as a cop.
“Tone down that part of what happened today in your report,” Ella continued. “Otherwise Big Ed’s going to have a bazillion questions and it’s going to divert everyone from the work we have to do. All things considered, I’d rather focus on the crime, and I think you would, too.”
“All right. And, Ella, it will never happen again.”
“I know.”
“How about if I start by asking around about the robbery and the damaged pickup? Someone out there knows this perp. There aren’t many secrets here on the Rez, and if the robber is a local, we should hear some talk right away.”
“Go for it. By the way, I noticed your radio is working now. What happened before? When I got here I couldn’t hear a thing through the static,” Ella asked.
“It just quit for a while. As far as I know, it’s okay now.”
“I can’t figure out where all the static came from. Reception is not usually a problem in this area, and we were pretty close to each other.”
“That’s true. And I could barely hear you.”
“Walk around the side of the building and let’s see if that’s what was causing the interference.” Ella got into her car and tried calling Justine. This time Justine’s voice came through crystal clear. Ella then did a radio check with dispatch, which also came through as normal. The inconsistency just added another level to the puzzle.
Ella put her radio away and shifted her attention to changing her damaged tire, weighing what was the most likely explanation for the radio problems, and not liking it one bit.
Justine came back around to the front of the store, then leaned over, resting her elbows on Ella’s driver’s-side window. “You realize what this means, don’t you?” She continued, not waiting for an answer. “Somehow, the perp must have jammed our radio signals. I sure don’t like any of
 the other questions that raises, like how he did it, and why he went to all that trouble. This whole thing comes across as more than just a 2-11 if you accept that as a possibility.”
Ella nodded slowly. “It’s getting late. Give me a hand with my tire, and I’ll help with yours, then let’s both go home. We can fill out the reports first thing tomorrow. Maybe things will be clearer then.”
“Don’t worry about my flat. Let’s get you on the road. Maybe you can still see Dawn before she’s put to bed.”
“It’s too late already,” Ella said, checking her watch and trying to hide her disappointment. “She’ll be asleep by the time I get there. It’s always that way when we get a call around the end of the shift.”
Justine started to say something, then changed her mind.
“What’s on your mind?”
“I just wondered…I’ve been avoiding serious relationships because I’ve been afraid they’d add too many complications to my life. But is it a lot harder for you these days, now that you have Dawn?”
“Yes and no. I love my daughter more than I ever thought was possible. But being a single mom with a fulltime career is really frustrating. I try to spend as much time as I can with Dawn, but it’s never enough. It can tear you in two.”
Justine nodded slowly. “I had a feeling that’s the way things would work.” She stood up and moved around to help Ella get her spare into position and secured.
A few minutes later, Ella pulled out onto the highway, notifying dispatch of her status as she headed south. The events tonight had unsettled her far more than she’d allowed Justine to see. Deliberate jamming of police radio transmissions spoke of an operation far more complicated and deadly than a simple armed robbery of a convenience store.
Although experience told her that her questions would be answered as the investigation took its course, instinct warned her that things would get a lot worse before they got better, unless they found those answers in a hurry.
 
Copyright © 2001 by Aimée and David Thurlo