Ella Clah sat alone in her booth in a northeast L.A. coffee shop. The laminated menu lay untouched near the end of the narrow table. She knew it by heart, having come here practically every afternoon for the past year. It was close to the Southwestern Museum, a place she visited frequently.
It was a little after five, too early for dinner, but she didn't feel like going home just yet. Today her bureau office had finally closed the fraud case they'd been working on for the last six months. Most of the other agents were celebrating at The Watering Hole, a favorite bar just a short walk from their downtown L.A. office. Ella wondered if she'd made a mistake by not going with them.
She had a reputation for being a loner, and, in truth, she rarely socialized with her fellow agents. It wasn't the company she minded; it was all the drinking. She'd seen too much of it on the reservation where she'd grown up. Though the sale of alcohol was prohibited on the Navajo Nation, alcoholism was widespread.
She stared at the red tile flooring, lost in thought. Her life on the Rez seemed like a century ago. In the last six years, she'd moved four times. The bureau kept her on the move and away from her home in northwestern New Mexico. She'd known about and welcomed the policy, which was meant to protect agents and their integrity, to keep agents far from investigations that might involve friends and family. The job-required travel helped Ella make a break with her past and start a new and different life.
Ella watched the oleander bush in the coffee shop's courtyard sway in the hot Santa Ana wind. Tempers were short when the weather was like this. She glanced around the room, silently noting the faces of the few patrons who sat in the booths and at the tiny oak tables. Only Jeremy Jackson, the manager, seemed unaffected by the seasonal breeze. Ella had known him for months and had yet to see him in a bad mood.
Jeremy was slowly working his way toward her booth. The tall, lanky, black man's easy stride matched his casual style. He stopped by every customer, greeting each as congenially as if they were old friends, making each feel special. He was good at his job. Business had doubled at the hole-in-the-wall coffee shop since he'd taken it over.
Jeremy skirted the last few empty tables and slid into the seat across from Ella, flashing a wide grin.
"Hey, Ella. Heard on the news the local FBI office broke open a big telephone fraud operation today. You in on that?"
"Why're you celebrating alone again, lady?"
"You're here," she said, smiling.
"Yeah, working, as usual." He shrugged. "You'd be happier if you had someone special. I know. That's why I keep getting married." He smiled.
"Well, maybe five will be your lucky number," she answered, chuckling.
Jeremy glanced toward the entrance as the tiny bell above the door rang and a man walked into the shop. "Damn. Not again. This guy getting to be a real pain."
"Trouble?" Her view of the newcomer was blocked by the cigarette machine near the entryway.
"Nah, he's harmless, just a headache. He applied for a job about a month ago. I hired someone else, but he keeps coming back, trying to get me to change my mind."
"He must really want the job."
"No, it's more than that. I get the idea he's racist as hell and didn't like getting turned down by a black man. I better go talk to him." Jeremy walked across the room.
Ella saw the man clearly as he stepped into the middle of the diner to meet Jeremy. The guy had brown hair, brown eyes, and was no more than average in height, almost painfully ordinary. Still, eight years of fieldwork for the bureau had honed Ella's instincts to a fine point. Something made her study him more carefully.
His short-sleeved white shirt and tan corduroy pants, though clean and neat, were threadbare. He was restless, shuffling from one sneakered foot to the other, as if the wait for Jeremy was unendurable. His nervous smile seemed to flicker on and off like a neon sign. As her gaze drifted down, she noted the zippered gym bag he was clutching in a white-knuckled grip.
Instincts weren't always on target, but without even thinking about it, Ella reached beneath her cotton blazer, feeling for her nine-millimeter Sig.
Then she saw the lines of tension around the man's face vanish as he spoke to Jeremy, and she breathed a sigh of relief. She was wound too tightly, that's all. Not everyone who looked nervous was a psycho in the making.
When she heard him laugh at something Jeremy said, Ella sat back to enjoy the hamburger platter the waitress had brought her. She was off duty, for pete's sake! It was time to stop acting and thinking like a federal cop.
She bit into a forkful of french fries seasoned with ketchup. Before she could swallow, the sharp crack of a gunshot sliced through the air and the glass mirror behind the cash register counter shattered into jagged slivers.
Ella peeked around the booth partition, simultaneously reaching for her gun. Staff and customers screamed as the creep fired wildly, shattering dishes and blasting food.
She blocked out the chaos, searching for a way to get off a clear shot and bring down the perpetrator. But the man had stepped back toward the entrance, and the row of booths blocked her view. All she could see was his hand and weapon. Looking low, between the chairs and the bottoms of tables, she saw Jeremy lying still on the tiled floor, blood pumping onto the terra-cotta tiles. The gunman's gym bag, unzipped, lay open, and Ella could see that it held spare magazines for his handgun.
He kept firing, each thunderous blast deafening in the confines of the shop. The madman had either a Taurus or Beretta nine-millimeter semiauto. He'd fired off at least seven rounds; he had another seven or eight to go before he'd need to reload.
Ella worked her way closer, trying to get clear of the customers who were huddled on the floor and using the tables for cover. One woman's piercing screams rose above the gunfire. Shut up, lady. Don't give him a reason to take it out on you! Ella scrambled forward, still unable to see more than the hand and the pistol, which bucked every time it fired.
Abruptly, the shooting stopped. The intense silence that followed was unnerving. As Ella angled around a customer, the man stepped into view. She raised her pistol, determined to make a kill shot.
"Everyone against the counter," the gunman snapped, shifting position slightly. Now a metal post blocked her shot. "If you do what I tell you, you'll live to tell the story. I'm no murderer. All I want to do here today is make a point."
Before Ella could even take a breath, the gunman blasted two rounds through the table to his left; one round struck the waitress crouching there. "I said get moving! Now!"
Instead of complying, the terrified customers started screaming again. One woman tried to run to the door, but the shooter grabbed her arm, spun her around, and sent her crashing into a table. "The counter! Can't anybody here understand English?"
Ella heard sobbing from one of the two women huddled under the table in front of her. One started to obey the gunman, but the other yanked her back down.
"None of you wants to die, and I don't want to kill you," the man said calmly. "But that's what's going to happen if you don't do exactly what I say."
His voice was so matter-of-fact it sent a chill right through Ella. Gut instinct assured her he was out to make one last stand. The only adversary more dangerous than a man willing to die was one eager to find death, and this guy was a little of both.
Ella stood, carefully keeping her gun out of his line of sight, but hoping to draw the man's attention. As she did, one of the women in front of her broke loose from her companion and rushed toward the kitchen doors. The gunman started to swing around just as the middle-aged Hispanic woman slipped on spilled food and fell flat.
Before he could squeeze off a shot, Ella lunged around the customer still between them, pushing the woman into the shelter of a booth, firing as she moved. Her bullet went high, and she only managed to catch the man in the shoulder, spinning him around.
Taking a slug from a nine-millimeter hollow-point was a bit like being kicked by a horse, yet the man recaptured his balance quickly. As he returned fire, Ella ducked out of sight behind a booth. His bullet splintered into the wall just to her right.
Oblivious to pain, the lunatic dragged a woman out from under a table. Hauling her to her feet, he held her in front of him like a shield.
"Slide your gun over here, cop!" he ordered. "Then come out, or I'll blow her brains all over the floor."
The woman's terror was clear on her face, but only a tiny whimper came out of her mouth.
"You're out of time," he said calmly, raising his semi-auto to the woman's ear.
"Stop!" Ella shouted. She was as good as dead if she came out unarmed, but the hostage wouldn't have a prayer if she didn't. Ella took a deep breath and checked the .22-caliber backup pistol she kept in her boot. The tiny eleven-ounce weapon was only good for two shots, and she'd have to reach it fast. A mouse at a cat convention had a better chance than she did.
"Now!" the gunman snapped.
Ella pulled the clip out of her pistol. She wasn't going to give him any more ammunition. "Okay, relax. Here's my pistol," she said, sliding it across the floor toward him. "Let her go, and I'll come out."
"You're in no position to bargain."
The wail of sirens and screeching of tires reverberated in the street outside the small shop. She held her breath. "I'm the only hostage you'll need. I'm an FBI agent. Now let her go."
The psycho took a step forward, his pistol steady, the barrel still pressed to the woman's head. "Come out now. I won't repeat myself."
She emerged from cover slowly, half expecting to be shot where she stood. But all he did was stare at her curiously, like a rattler eyeing its next meal. She knew what he was seeing. A well-proportioned woman of slightly more than medium height, copper skin deeply tanned from her daily cross-country run, black hair and black eyes.
He threw his captive back down to the floor and casually stepped around her as she lay there, shaking.
"What the hell are you?"
The question threw her. "Huh?"
"You're not a spick or mulatto. What are you?"
She forced her voice to stay even. "Indian."
"You don't look Indian. There's no dot on your forehead. What part of India are you from?"
"New Mexico, U.S.A. I'm an American Indian--Navajo."
He smiled slowly. "Then you must hate whites. Probably as much as I hate the stinking minorities. They come here and take our jobs, like that nigger." He gestured toward Jeremy. "They make us grovel for work, forgetting that we were here first."
"My people were here thousands of years before yours. You have no quarrel with me."
"Nice try, but forget it. You slant arguments to your own advantage, just like everyone else. The cavalry should have killed all you off a hundred years ago."
A man's voice boomed through a bullhorn before she could answer. "The building is completely surrounded by police officers. Set down your weapons and come out with your hands up."
She saw the gunman tense, checking the door. She wasn't sure how he could ignore the wound in his shoulder. He didn't seem fazed by it in the slightest. Maybe he was high on something. "Let the customers go. They'll only complicate things for you. They're afraid, and you can't predict what any of them will do."
He seemed to consider it. "No," he said finally. "I have more leverage with them here."
He looked down at the woman he'd held hostage, then trained his weapon on Ella. "Get all these people facedown on the floor and tie them up." He started walking toward her.
"With what?" The blood stain on his shirt had spread. The river of crimson flowed downward, coloring his tan slacks.
"Cords from the curtains, their belts, whatever. And hurry it up. Otherwise I'll shoot a few more." He stopped just short of arm's length away and wiggled the barrel of his Beretta.
Ella looked at the frightened group. Four customers and the cook were still unharmed. She'd do her best to keep it that way. With the gunman a few steps behind her, she knelt beside the woman he had used as a shield. The onetime hostage wore slacks with an elastic waist, no belt.
"You want me to tie her up? Then give me a knife so I can cut some cords from the blinds."
"What kind of a fool do I look like? Give you a knife?" He laughed coldly.
"Then get the cords yourself, if you want her tied up." Ella hoped he would stand next to the window. A sharpshooter could take him out in the blink of an eye.
"Okay, forget tying them up," he snapped. "I'm not going anywhere near the windows. Those cops outside can't wait to blow me away." He turned to the huddled group. "Lie facedown on the floor and stay there."
The same cop's voice boomed over the loudspeaker again, echoing loudly in the small shop. "I'm going to call you on the telephone. Pick it up and we can talk."
The psycho motioned Ella to the phone. "You answer it. Tell them that I'll kill everyone here if they move in."
Ella picked up the ringing phone and identified herself, repeating the message word for word. There was a hesitation, then the officer, in a terse, drill sergeant's tone, ordered her to repeat her I.D.
After another short pause, the officer spoke again. "I'll ask the young man," Ella said clearly into the receiver, taking the opportunity to let the police know what they were up against. She turned back to the shooter. "They want to know what your demands are."
"I want…I just want what's due me. A job, respect," he muttered, then glanced up and met her eyes. "Tell them to call back in five minutes. Then hang up."
She complied, itching for the opportunity to reach for her gun. "You can't get a job or respect like this. Think about what you're doing."
"What do you know about it? The feds hired you, didn't they? Probably had some sort of quota to take ten Indians that day. I tried to join the police force once, but they wouldn't take me. Too busy hiring people like you and this loser." He took a step toward Jeremy and nudged his body hard with his boot.
Jeremy twitched and she heard him groan softly. He was still alive! Ella moved toward the black man without thinking.
"Stand still!" the gunman clipped.
She froze. "Relax." She held his gaze and straightened to her full five-foot-six height. "I've never taken anything away from you or anyone else. I worked my butt off for everything I've ever had, believe it."
"You people get all kinds of financial help and advantages white folks never have."
"Advantages? Like hauling all your water thirty miles in old oil drums? Riding a bus sixty miles a day to get to school? Not even a fan to cool you on a hundred-degree day because you have no electricity at home? Those don't qualify as advantages in my book, but that's a big portion of the Rez, pal. The only reason we have a Rez at all was because the land was so poor nobody else wanted it."
"So why didn't you stay where you belong and make things better?"
"My job makes its own contribution. People belong wherever they can make a place for themselves. That's something you should have learned."
"There's no place for me."
"There can be." This guy intended to die and take as many of them with him as possible. She knew that with a certainty that alarmed her. She had to keep him talking until a chance came to act. "What's your name? Mine's Ella Clah."
"Joe what? You have a last name?" The lifelessness in his gaze stunned her. She had to be very careful not to push him too far.
"Tell me about your family, Joe."
"I don't have one anymore," he snapped. "Now shut up and lie down on the floor with the others."
If she could distract him for just a few seconds--that's all the time she'd need to get her backup pistol.
The phone began ringing again. "Do you want me to get that for you?" she asked, an idea forming in her mind.
"Yeah, but make it quick. Tell them I'm not ready to talk to them yet."
"You'll be better off if you give them something to work with. How about medical attention for your shoulder? You'll also need safe passage out of the city." She had to make him think of life instead of death. That could shift the odds in their favor.
"Passage to where?" he muttered under his breath. "Just do as I say," he ordered loudly. "Tell them I'm not ready to talk."
As she stepped around the athletic bag on the floor near him, she glanced inside. Adrenaline shot through her as her heart slammed against her rib cage. Besides spare clips for his pistol, the bag also contained explosives. It didn't take an Einstein to guess his next move. The moment the SWAT team fired in tear gas or stormed the place, they'd all go up in a ball of fire and smoke. There wouldn't be enough left for the coroner to I.D.
As Ella approached the phone, he followed closely, glancing at the wounded with clinical detachment.
"Why don't you release them?" she suggested pleasantly.
"They're absolutely no good to you here, and the cops might see it as a gesture of goodwill and ease up a bit."
"No. Tell them that we've got two wounded hostages. If they try anything, I'll finish them off. That'll keep them on their toes."
What it would do was get them to act faster, but arguing with him wasn't going to get her anywhere. He was on the edge as it was.
Grabbing at the phone, being deliberately clumsy, she knocked it off the desk. As the instrument clattered to the floor, the gunman flinched and brought the Beretta to within a foot of her head. "My fault," she said quickly. "I'm just nervous."
"Pick it up."
Ella bent down, slid her hand into her boot, and palmed the tiny derringer. Turning, she extended her right arm into his surprised face, and fired twice.
Somebody screamed, but it wasn't Joe. She'd hit him with both rounds in the left eye. His mouth opened, but he was dead before his body reached the floor.
Ella heard a soft whimper, and saw the injured waitress trying to crawl away from the corpse. "It's okay. It's over." She didn't blame the woman for wanting to move. Though personally she didn't share the Navajo belief in the chindi, the evil in a man that remained earthbound after death, bodies still gave her the creeps.
"Don't move around too much," she cautioned, crouching at the waitress's side. "I'll have a medical team here in a flash." From the amount of blood on her clothes, Ella was surprised the woman hadn't gone into shock.
"Thank God it's over," one of the men said, struggling to stand.
"No! Everyone stay down and don't move until the SWAT team says it's okay," Ella announced. "When they come in they won't know who any of us is. They could shoot somebody by mistake."
She grabbed the receiver from the floor. The cop had held on. "It's over, guys. The perp is down. Come on in, we need two med teams fast!"
She pocketed the derringer and moved to Jeremy's side. A bullet had pierced his rib cage. He was unconscious, but his breathing was steady. He'd make it. She'd seen others come through worse and Jeremy was a fighter. "Hang in there, buddy."
Within seconds, cops were all over the coffee shop. Ella stood aside, watching the paramedics work while the officers helped the unharmed hostages to their feet and took their statements.
Ella leaned against the wall, relieved that the only life lost had been the gunman's.
A plainclothes detective came to take her statement, commenting, "You'll undoubtedly get a commendation for what you did. This could have been a real bloodbath." His gaze fell on the bag with the ammunition and explosives. Its contents had already been rendered safe by a SWAT team ordnance specialist. "He was ready for a siege."
"Worse. He wanted to become a martyr, one guy fighting the system."
The coffee shop patrons were being led out by police officers. Most flashed grateful smiles or asked to shake her hand. One elderly woman stopped and gave her a hug. "Thank you so very much," she said, in tears. "I'll be praying for you--and for that poor man's soul."
As the woman left, Ella spotted her partner entering the diner. "Dennis, I'm over here." She waved briefly.
Dennis Anderson looked like the ex-Marine, ex-college quarterback he'd been before getting into law enforcement. With his well-fitting suit and regulation dark glasses, he had FBI agent stamped all over him.
"So much for your quiet supper after a tough day," he commented. "Lucky for the patrons that this is your favorite hangout."
She nodded slowly, her gaze drifting over to one of the pools of blood that had started to congeal on the tile floor. "What are you doing here? Don't tell me you were in the neighborhood and decided to drop by."
"The special agent in charge asked me to find you. He's been trying to raise you on the radio."
"What's the boss want with me?"
"He was probably trying to verify your whereabouts. My guess is that he got a call that you were involved in a hostage situation."
"Yeah, that makes sense."
"Let me give you a ride downtown to the bureau offices. You're in no shape to drive. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but you look like shit warmed over."
"Gee, thanks. I think you look like crap too," she countered with a wry grin.
"I'm serious. Finish giving the detective your statement, then let's get rolling."
"Sorry, Agent Anderson," the police detective said, joining them. "But we'll need Agent Clah to come down and help wrap this up for our captain. I doubt she'll be going anywhere until very late tonight."
"How about extending a little professional courtesy here? She can come in tomorrow."
"No way. The captain wants to get a full account while it's all fresh in her mind. He wants any statement he releases to the public to be complete and accurate. We also need your weapons for a ballistic comparison," he said to Ella, holding out his hand.
"Wait a second," Dennis Anderson clipped. "Our agents are required to be armed at all times."
"Then the bureau can drop off replacements at the station," the detective countered.
Ella glanced at Dennis. "A derringer and my Sig. Both are bureau-approved, so they'll have replacements."
Dennis nodded. "I'll make sure new weapons are waiting for you when you leave."
"Thanks, Dennis," Ella answered.
"Come on," the detective said, glancing at Ella. "I'll give you a ride downtown."
"No, thanks. I'll follow you in my car." She was tired, and in no mood to be agreeable. Besides, once they were finished with her, she didn't intend to hang around, waiting for a lift back to her vehicle. She'd go home, call her boss, then sleep for the next twelve hours.
* * *
It was close to midnight by the time the honchos in the downtown L.A. station had asked their last question. Ella drove carefully to her apartment, concentrating on staying awake.
Bone weary, she inserted the key in the lock of the thick metal door and turned the heavy deadbolt back with a thud. As she stepped into the room, Ella heard the beep of her answering machine.
"Now what?" she mumbled, automatically sweeping her gaze around the kitchen/dining/living room of her tiny apartment to see if anything had been disturbed. Her little color TV and cassette player were still in place. They would be the first things taken. Break-ins were an everyday occurrence in the city, and her instincts never slowed, even at home. Navajos learned as children that the world was a dangerous place, and Los Angeles was a perfect example.
Ignoring the incessant beep and flashing red light of the machine, Ella took a precautionary stroll around the place before slipping off her holster and dropping the new pistol onto the bed.
Except for a few photos of her family on her tiny desk, the furnished apartment was pretty much as it had been the day she moved in. Neat, clean, and simple, the way she liked it. Ella kicked off her shoes and strolled back into the other room, stopping at her machine. There were two messages, at least one probably from her office.
Pressing the rewind button, she reached for the volume control and turned it up. "Ella?" the message began, then there was a sound that could have been a sob. Ella's heart fell into her stomach, and she turned up the volume even more. She hated those in-the-middle-of-the-night calls; they were never good news.
There was a long pause, then the message continued. "This is your mother…there's been…something terrible has happened…uh…please call me right away…"
Without waiting for the next message, Ella turned off the machine and grabbed the phone, punching out the numbers automatically. Her hand was shaking, and she had to redial twice. Finally there was a distant sound of ringing, as if she were really listening to the family phone back in New Mexico. Her mother picked up on the second ring.
"Hello. Ella? Is that you?" Her mother's voice was weak and strained.
"Yes, I just got home. What's wrong?" Ella tried not to let the fear show in her voice. "Has Dad been in an accident?"
"No, not an accident. It's…" Rose began sobbing, and Ella's mouth suddenly went very dry. "Could you come home? He's been murdered."
"I'm coming, Mom, right away. I'll call back in a few minutes and let you know when. Bye." Ella hung up and started thumbing through the yellow pages, her hands shaking so badly she could barely hold on to it. This was the first time her mother had ever asked her for anything.
Then she remembered the second message. Setting down the phone book, open to the airline section, she played the other message. Just as she'd figured, it was the special agent in charge, asking her to call as soon as she got in.
Dialing, Ella tried to clear her throat. Whatever it was would have to wait. No matter the cost, job or no job, she was going to New Mexico tomorrow.
Copyright © 1995 by Aimée and David Thurlo Aimée and David Thurlo have been married for more than thirty years and have been writing novels together for nearly that long, in a variety of genres including romance, young adult, and mystery. They have three ongoing mystery series, the Sister Agatha series, starring a cloistered nun, the Lee Nez series, featuring a Navajo vampire who teams up with a female FBI agent to fight crimes that have elements of the supernatural, and their flagship series, the critically-acclaimed Ella Clah novels. Several Ella Clah novels, including Tracking Bear, Red Mesa, and Shooting Chant, have received starred reviews from Booklist.
David Thurlo was raised on the Navajo Indian Reservation and later taught school in Shiprock, also on the Rez. Aimée, a native of Havana, Cuba, has lived in New Mexico for more than thirty years. The Thurlos share their home with dogs, horses, and various pet rodents. They have written more than fifty novels which have been published in more than twenty countries.