Special Investigator Ella Clah stood in the doorway to her living room, nibbling on a slice of honeydew melon from her brother’s garden. It was still early in the morning, but her mother was already helping Valerie Yazzie finish the velveteen wedding outfit Valerie’s daughter would wear on her wedding day in less than a week.
Ella’s mother looked up and smiled at her. Rose Destea was, like her daughter, taller than most Navajo women, and only a dozen or so pounds heavier than Ella. “Take a break from all that paperwork you brought from the police department and have a decent breakfast. That’s not the way to start a morning you’re supposed to have off.”
Ella shrugged. “There’s a lot of work to get done. We’ve had some major changes in the department. Our new police chief wants things done his way. He’s determined to recapture the faith people had in us once.”
Valerie Yazzie shook her head. The middle-aged Navajo woman wore a perpetual frown that had, through the years, become ingrained in her features. “There were so many we trusted we shouldn’t have. It’s hard to forget how they betrayed the tribe.”
“But the department is clean now, and Big Ed Atcitty is going to make sure it stays that way. He’s an excellent leader, and tough, but fair.” Ella bit off another piece of the juicy melon and swallowed. “We’re just having to do a lot of work fast to put the changes he wants into effect.”
“What you find difficult, daughter, is doing things someone else’s way,” Rose said with a smile. “You’ve always had definite opinions on how things should be handled.”
Ella smiled grudgingly. “Well, I suppose that’s true.”
Rose turned her attention back to the hem she was pinning. “This is going to be such a lovely wedding dress!”
“You’ll be making one for your own daughter before too long,” Valerie commented mischievously, nodding toward Ella. “She will want to trade in her gun belt for a cradle board sooner or later.”
Ella choked on the piece of melon and reached to the kitchen counter for a napkin. “Don’t count on it.”
Rose sighed and looked at Valerie. “See how she is? I’ve just about given up hope.” She paused, then with a tiny smile added, “but not quite.”
As the telephone rang and interrupted them, Ella gave the phone company a mental high-five. She’d been literally saved by the bell. “I’ll take that.”
“You might as well,” Rose muttered. “It’s probably for you. They won’t leave you alone, even on your morning off. I never get any calls in my own home anymore.”
Ella chose not to comment. It was an old argument. Her mother couldn’t understand her dedication to police work and the incredible sense of purpose it gave her. In truth, she found it difficult to explain to anyone. Only another cop could understand that addiction to the incredible highs and lows of the work; the need to restore order to a world that resisted at every turn. Ella walked down the hall to her room, closed the door, and answered the phone.
“Hold for Police Chief Atcitty, please,” said the crisp voice of Big Ed’s secretary.
Ella sat on the edge of her bed, waiting. More than eight months had passed since she’d resigned from the FBI and moved back to the Rez to stay with her widowed mother. She gazed around her room, lost in memories. Most of what was around her was less than a year old. The fire, months back, had spared the house but ruined everything she’d left behind from her youth. All traces of the girl she’d once been were gone now, and she had more than a decade’s worth of new memories and new mementos to replace them. She stared pensively at her framed FBI diploma and gilded marksmanship trophies on the shelf. Last in line was a recent photo showing her being sworn in as a tribal police officer.
Ella was hard pressed to say which of her career achievements filled her with the most un-Navajo-like pride, but she was definitely proud of her new job. It had been created especially for her, here on the Navajo Rez, and it required her own special skills. She was special investigator for the Navajo Police, and answered only to Big Ed. The job gave her the autonomy she’d dreamed of throughout her career, though on the downside, the paperwork load was pretty incredible.
“Shorty, you there?” a familiar gravelly voice asked.
“Yes, Big Ed. What’s going down?” Ella was getting used to the nickname Big Ed had given her, although she stood a head taller than her boss and most other Navajo men as well.
Big Ed had been given his nickname because he was shaped like a barrel with arms. Stories around the station claimed Big Ed had never been knocked off his feet by a perp. She believed them.
“I need you to drive over to what we’ve always called Red Flint Pass, though it’s getting yet another name now. Maybe you know it as Washington Pass. A college history class was supposed to meet there. Seems someone murdered Kee Dodge out there before his students arrived.”
“Kee Dodge, the historian?”
“Yeah. His students showed up this morning for class and, from what I hear, stumbled upon the body. Get over there and take up the case. I’d like a preliminary report before lunch. I’ve called the M.E. She’ll meet you there along with our crime-scene team. We have a patrol officer in the area already. He’ll give you whatever backup you need.”
“I’m out the door, Big Ed.”
Ella reached for her gun belt and adjusted the pancake holster so that it lay flat against her waist. Beneath a jacket, her weapon barely showed, and that was great for plainclothes work. Fitting her .22 backup pistol inside her custom-made boot strap, she strode out of her room.
“I have to be going now. I’m not sure when I’ll be back,” Ella called out to her mother, waving to Valerie as she passed through the living room.
“So, what else is new?” Rose said with a sigh. “Just be careful.”
Ella went to her navy blue unmarked Jeep. It was the perfect vehicle for the kind of rough terrain that comprised most of the Navajo nation. She took the map from the glove compartment and checked the route. It would be a fifty-minute ride at posted speeds, but she could knock a good ten minutes off that in a hurry. She opted for the hurry, knowing that a fresh crime scene would yield the most information.
The drive south on Highway 666 was almost a straight line, but once she turned west at Sheep Springs, Ella had to slow down a bit. Soon the road turned to gravel, and her Jeep left a long, serpentine dust trail as it climbed the mountain road.
When Ella arrived, several vehicles were already parked on both sides of the road. Jimmy Frank, a young but experienced patrolman, was questioning one student. Her gaze then shifted to the half-dozen young adults some distance away, silently awaiting their turn to be questioned. They were dressed casually in jeans, like college students anywhere. Jimmy was going with established procedures, not letting the words of one witness shape another’s.
She studied the officer for a moment. Jimmy was in his early thirties, yet he looked so different from the way he had at sixteen, except for the slight belly that pushed against his shirt, hinting at what would come with middle age.
As Ella approached the crime scene, she noted the body was facedown next to the driver’s side of a pickup parked about fifteen feet off the road. The students and patrolman were staying as far away from it as possible, although Officer Frank had positioned himself facing the scene so he could ask relevant questions while keeping the crime scene under observation. Logic and cultural beliefs were destined to continue clashing inside them for another generation at least. Ella knew that she would not be the last to have to try and live in two overlapping worlds. Even among the new generation of Navajos, fear of the chindi remained, though most would outwardly deny it.
Ella nodded to Jimmy, who continued his interview, keeping the witnesses away from the scene. Walking in a slow, inward spiral around the pickup, Ella studied the ground around the crime scene, making a visual search for evidence. Carefully selecting where she stepped, she finally arrived at the body. There were no recognizable tracks here on the hard ground so close to the road.
As Ella got her first close-up look at the corpse, bile rose to the back of her throat. Blood had begun to cake the gravelly earth beneath the head and neck of the body. The victim’s skull had been bludgeoned, and the soft, pulpy matter from within the wound mingled with sharp pieces of bone, giving it the appearance of carelessly ground beef.
Ella forced herself to gulp several deep lungfuls of air, grateful that her sense of smell was the least stimulated by what she saw. She crouched next to the body, forcing herself to think clearly and calmly, relying on her training and the memory that this was not the worst corpse she’d ever seen. Kee lay chest down. From what she could see, he’d been strangled with leather shoelaces, probably after being hit on the head with some kind of tool or club. From the look of the head wound, the strangling had probably been a waste of time.
Although Dodge’s back was to her, his face was turned to the right. She noted that his right eye was being held open by an object that had been imbedded in it. It was a piece of something hard and white, discolored at the entry point by blood and aqueous fluid. She leaned closer, trying to figure out what it was, suppressing a shudder.
Ella stared at the object, moving to within a foot of the face. Though she heard the gasp that came from the students who had turned to watch her, she never looked up. Her gaze was fastened on the object she was now certain was a piece of bone. That was a trademark of skinwalkers, yet something didn’t feel right about this. Bone ammunition was their signature, true, but this was too garish. It was almost too flagrant a warning sign.
Relying instinctively on her training to make sense of what she was seeing, Ella mentally categorized the crime as “staged.” The killer had spent time trying to leave an obvious impression in the mind of the investigator. The killer could have continued to bash his victim’s skull to a pulp, but instead he’d chosen to deliver a coup de grâce through strangulation. Speculating about the object imbedded in the victim’s eye, she wondered if perhaps he’d needed to preserve the face to complete the gruesome picture. This crime had definitely been planned in detail.
Next Ella shifted her attention a few feet to her right and carefully studied the pattern drawn on the ground with ashes. It was approximately two feet wide. The ashes appeared to have been trickled through someone’s fingers in the manner used for a dry or sand painting. She could make out some figures in the center, but she didn’t recognize any of them.
Hearing another vehicle approaching, Ella stood and walked carefully around the truck. As she watched, the medical examiner’s wagon pulled up and a middle-aged Navajo woman of ample proportions emerged. Dr. Carolyn Roanhorse slid her large black briefcase off the front seat, then strode briskly toward Ella.
Ella watched Carolyn approach. The woman was in her mid-fifties and had a cool, businesslike demeanor that Ella liked, although Ella had always suspected it was more a defense than anything else. Carolyn’s job as medical examiner had made her a near pariah within the tribe. Few Navajos wished to be around someone who might carry ghost sickness.
Carolyn nodded to Ella in greeting, then followed her to crouch low beside the corpse. She gave the body a quick onceover. “Nasty way to die. Probably took a while.”
The statement, typical of Carolyn, also met her official obligation to pronounce the obvious. “What do you make of that object in the victim’s eye?” Ella decided to ask.
Carolyn studied it, then glanced up. “The same thing you did, I’ll bet.”
Ella met Carolyn’s gaze. “Okay. Before you get too involved over here, would you mind glancing at this?” Ella pointed to the dry painting.
Carolyn stood up reluctantly and stepped over for a closer look. “That’s out of my area of expertise, but I do know only skinwalkers do dry paintings in ashes. Whoever did those figures, however, must be a real beginner,” she said bluntly. “I can’t even guess what they’re supposed to be.”
“Yeah,” Ella agreed with a wry smile.
Carolyn moved back to the body. “You think this has something to do with the skinwalkers who were involved in your father’s murder?”
“Some of them are still at large, so I suppose it’s possible, but I’d have to have more proof before I’d reach that conclusion.” Ella ran a hand through her shoulder-length black hair, pushing it away from her face. “Personally, I’m hoping this crime has a conventional motivation behind it, like revenge or jealousy. Because if it is skinwalkers, then this is just the beginning.”
Carolyn retrieved her tape recorder from the bag. “I’ll do my best to get you some answers soon.”
Ella’s thoughts were racing. She had no wish to battle a resurgence of skinwalkers, Navajo witches. Her mind flashed to the morning she’d seen her father’s mutilated body, then on to the final battle she’d barely survived.
A group of skinwalkers, including her police chief father-in-law, had killed him to gain power and protect their interests. In the end, her father-in-law also died, and her cousin Peterson Yazzie, a powerful skinwalker, had been captured and jailed.
She’d learned a lot about herself back then—like the utter reliability of the sense that was now telling her that other crimes would follow this one. Her search for answers would take her down many unexpected roads before the truth was revealed. But, if it was in Ella’s power, the human animal responsible for this brutality would be brought to justice.
Ella stepped carefully over to the graveled road, then walked to the small group of students. Officer Frank had them all together now, so he must have finished taking their statements. Ella could see the open distrust in their faces. She wasn’t sure if it was because she’d been near the body, or because many in the area still considered her an outsider because of her long absence from the Rez.
Jimmy Frank glanced up, then walked over to meet her halfway. “I’ve already questioned them, one at a time. Their stories are pretty much the same. They all arrived within ten minutes of the scheduled class time. The victim held his lectures at different sites around the Rez in keeping with each day’s subject. Although his knowledge of tribal history wasn’t based on formal education, the consensus is that no one knew more about Navajo history than D—the victim. His family had protected and preserved the stories handed down for generations. The Navajo People have lost a great treasure with his death.”
“Did anyone witness the crime, see anyone who could have been the perpetrator, or see anyone who wasn’t supposed to be here?”
“No. Regina Henderson and Norma Pete were the first to get here. They claim everything was just as we see it now. No cars came their way as they arrived, or passed by since then. The perp must have gone down the other side of the mountain, or left on foot. By the time they discovered the body and backed off, Travis Charley arrived. He stayed here to meet the other students while the girls drove back to Sonostee to call us in.”
Ella decided to speak to Regina and Norma while Officer Frank marked off the crime scene with yellow tape. Norma, the smaller and younger of the two girls in their late teens, was crying into a soggy handkerchief. Ella noted that Norma reeked of dime-store perfume. It was better than most smells at a crime scene, however. “I’m sorry that you two had to see this,” Ella said sympathetically.
Norma looked up out of red, tear-filled eyes. “It was awful. Now I’m going to have to go to a hataalii. I know I’m going to have dreams about this. I just know it! And what about his”—she dropped her voice—“you know—chindi,” she mouthed. “I don’t believe in ghost sickness, but you just never know. I mean I’ve heard the stories—”
“Stop it, Norma,” Regina said sharply. Nervously she toyed with the single strand of heishi beads she wore over her denim blouse. “You’re scaring yourself silly. Don’t talk about it anymore.” She looked up at Ella. “We already told the officer everything we know or saw. Can we go?”
Out of the corner of her eye, Ella saw the white crime-scene unit’s van pulling up. Unlike the resources she’d gotten used to during her days in the FBI, the tribe’s resident crime-scene unit was composed of only two people and very limited equipment. Round-faced Sergeant Ralph Tache was the photographer and assistant investigator, and Detective Harry Ute, a cadaverously thin Navajo with a perpetual glum expression, was the crime-scene investigator who’d collect most of the evidence.
Ella’s gaze shifted back to the students, who all seemed eager to leave. One of the girls reached down to pick up her bookbag, set on the ground just outside the yellow tape boundary. Ella saw her waist-length black hair drape around her, shielding her tear-streaked face. They were all scared, and so was she, truth be told. This death would have implications that would carry far beyond the murder itself. All things were interconnected. That Navajo belief was part of all of them. Evil had surfaced, but now balance needed to be restored. And that was her job, and her contribution to the tribe.
As Ella saw the young woman crouch by the bookbag, she noticed a piece of freshly chewed gum on the ground. Someone had obviously spat it out. “Does that belong to anyone here?” she asked the group, pointing to the gum.
The students all shook their heads, then glanced at each other curiously. Finally Ella looked at Officer Frank. The officer pointed to his mouth. “Still got mine. You can have it.” He gave her a weak smile.
“Make sure one of the team preserves that discarded gum as evidence,” she instructed Jimmy softly, refusing to smile back. “It may have belonged to the victim, but if it didn’t…”
Ella allowed her gaze to drift over the students. They shifted nervously and stepped down onto the road, farther away from the yellow tape “fence.” Obviously none of them wanted to stay a second longer than was necessary. She couldn’t blame them. Ella had learned to shield herself mentally from the horrors of police work but, to them, this was a nightmare or worse.
Ella glanced at Jimmy, who was placing one of the crime team’s wire and plastic “flags” near the lump of gum. “You’ve got a way to contact each of them if needed?” she asked.
Officer Frank nodded. “I know where to find them, and I’ve taken their statements.”
On the outside, she would have asked if he’d recorded all their addresses. But here on the Rez, street addresses weren’t always practical. Some of these kids probably lived in areas where the closest mesa was the only identifiable landmark.
“We may need to talk to some of you again later,” she told them calmly, “but for now you can go.”
The students hurried back to their vehicles, but one of the boys approached Ella. “I saw the ashes on the ground,” he said softly. “Is that business starting again? I’d hoped you’d gotten them all last year.”
Ella saw the touch of fear in his eyes and knew that whatever she answered now would be carried via gossip all around the Rez. She measured her words carefully. “It’s too early to know, but this killer definitely wants to manipulate our conclusions. That’s one reason to distrust all these signs he’s left behind. We can’t take the word of a killer, can we?”
The boy seemed to consider her statement, then finally nodded. “Yes, that makes sense.”
“Don’t play into his hands by allowing him to use fear against us.”
“That’s already happened,” he said with a shrug. “People will talk about this. That’s just the way it is. But they’ll only talk in whispers, so maybe gossip won’t spread as quickly.”
Ella realized he was right. “Will you let the other students know what’s going on? Tell them not to give the killer any more publicity or credibility than he’s already managed to get.”
“I can try,” he said doubtfully, then went to his truck.
Ella watched the young man for a moment as he walked away. Maybe he’d be able to influence the others and stop the gossip from spreading like wildfire. At the very least, it had been worth a try.
She shifted her attention to the job at hand and watched Sergeant Tache collect the freshly chewed gum with tweezers. His face was masked in neutrality as if he was trying hard to keep anyone from reading his thoughts. In Tache’s case, however, that normally meant he was totally focused on his work. “Get lots of close-ups of that dry painting done in ashes over there. I’m going to need to do some research to figure out what it’s supposed to mean, if anything,” Ella directed him.
“You’ve got it,” the sergeant answered. “Anything else?”
“I want both of you to go over the area with the usual fine-tooth comb. I want to make sure we don’t miss anything that’ll help us nail this animal.”
Hearing Carolyn clip out a request that sounded more like an order, Ella turned around. Carolyn’s tone overcame Officer Frank’s reluctance, and he stopped to help her lift the bag containing the corpse into the medical examiner’s station wagon. With the body now securely inside, Carolyn slammed and locked the rear doors, then called to Ella.
Ella joined her. “You ready to roll?”
Carolyn nodded. “I’ll have a preliminary report for you by tomorrow afternoon. The time of death, maybe this afternoon. We’re not exactly backlogged at the moment.”
“Thanks. I’ll need all the help I can get on this one.” Ella met Carolyn’s steady gaze. “I’ve got a feeling we’re not exactly going to find the killer’s misplaced driver’s license around here. But if we can get a lab to test the gum we discovered, and find it was left by the killer instead of the victim, the saliva on it could confirm a suspect’s presence at the scene. That, of course, presupposes we have a suspect in mind to compare it to—which we don’t, at the moment. Unfortunately, from what I can tell, the killer was really careful not to leave behind anything else we can use. Certainly not the murder weapon, or even footprints.”
“Let’s see what the victim can tell us. At least there we have something to work with.” As Carolyn slipped behind the wheel of the M.E. vehicle, she caught the look Officer Frank gave her. “You know, I was never one to run with the pack, but there are times when the personal isolation of this job really sucks.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean.”
“At least you’re starting to gain a little acceptance,” Carolyn said.
“No, not really. I may get close, but I’ll never be ‘in’ completely. The department, for one, will never really welcome me with open arms. In a way, I suppose I can understand that.”
“You can?” Carolyn’s eyebrows dipped.
“Sure. First, I’m former FBI, and second, I’m a woman. Face it, that last part alone would have created problems. Guys, no matter what P.D. they serve in, tend to resent the presence of women. Look at it this way: They put on their badges, and that becomes their trademark. They want the world to believe they’re the biggest, baddest guys around, and the crooks should all be shaking in their boots.
“Then they see someone else wearing a badge, only she’s prettier to look at, and undoubtedly smells nicer. It sorta smashes the tough-guy image they cherish in their little hearts.”
Carolyn laughed out loud. “When you put it that way, I can understand it too.” Ignoring the look Officer Frank shot in their direction, Carolyn put the wagon in gear and drove off.
Ella stayed, supervising the team as they gathered evidence, placing everything inside brown paper bags. She finished her sketch of the body and surrounding area, making note of the exact distances at the bottom of the page as the detectives measured and called them out. Later the drawing would be redone to scale. Although they’d have extensive photographic records, photos sometimes gave a distorted view of the scene since measurements weren’t included with each photo.
Two hours later, the crime-scene unit packed up their equipment and the scant evidence they’d gathered and headed back to the station. Officer Frank waited as Ella walked outward from the place the body had been in an expanding spiral, searching one last time for anything that might have been missed. Ella couldn’t help but notice that the officer was giving her a wide berth.
Jimmy shifted, visibly ill at ease. “If you don’t need me anymore, I’ll head back to the station and file my report.”
Ella nodded, her gaze taking in the area methodically. Absently, she hoped Jimmy was happier with other sorts of crime scenes.
“Are you going to stick around long? There’s not much left to do here now.”
“I’ll be leaving in a few minutes,” she answered. “Thanks for your help. You handled everything like the pro I know you are.”
Jimmy shrugged, smiled briefly, then went to his unit and drove off.
Ella watched, lost in thought, until his car disappeared from view. An eerie silence suddenly descended over the area. Even the birds were quiet. She suppressed the prickling of her skin that slowly traveled up her arms and neck. Something felt wrong. She shifted her gaze to study everything, missing nothing. That sixth sense most cops developed was working overtime now. The atmosphere of the place had changed, and it was not her imagination. There was a foulness, an inexplicable something, that touched her heart with icy fear.
Ella placed her hand on the butt of her weapon, her body tense, and started moving slowly back toward her Jeep. No threat appeared. Still, she stayed close to the vehicle, knowing the engine block would provide the best cover around.
Then she heard the faint rustle of someone moving slowly through the brush. Her gaze fastened on the piñons to her right. She crouched down on one knee, pistol now in hand, and waited.
The seconds seemed to stretch into eternities, but something told her to stay right where she was. She trusted that instinct; she had learned the hard way. Her eyes trained on the trees ahead, she waited.
Then she heard a faint padding of steps across the dew-hardened top crust of sand. Abruptly a coyote stepped out into the clear and stood watching her, less than twenty yards away.
It was strangely fearless, not knowing she had her gun aimed at its lungs. The creature fixed its strange yellow eyes on her. Then it bared its teeth and growled sharply just once, as if telling her to back off. The sound penetrated her like a needle to the marrow. Her finger moved onto the trigger but she didn’t fire.
For a second, both she and the creature stood their ground, the animal not knowing or caring that she held its life under her fingertip. Then, abruptly, the coyote turned and disappeared into the brush.
Ella stood up slowly, sweat pouring down her body. It was only an animal. She shouldn’t have let it rattle her. She walked in the direction the coyote had gone, wondering what had brought it here. They usually stayed away from the road, unless there was a dead animal to scavenge upon. She studied its tracks, but only found a few where it had been standing. The animal had walked through the one area of solid sandstone around, making it almost impossible to track him.
She turned around and stared downhill, at the desert floor, which stretched toward distant mountains. Was it skinwalkers, or just nerves? She wasn’t sure anymore. Experience had taught her one thing: Out on the Rez things were never quite what they seemed.
Copyright © 1996 by Aimée & David Thurlo