Ella stood at the window, watching the last rays of the fading sun arc across the land in blood red sheets, changing the soft earth tones of the New Mexican desert into crimson hues. The rugged mesas floated among a soft haze created by the dust that lingered in the air, easing the stark outlines of the sagebrush- and juniper-dotted canyons.
At least the morning hours today had been hers to enjoy. Gathering medicinal herbs with her mother and learning about the Plant People, had left her with a sense of connectedness to the Dineh, one she hadn't felt in a long time. And while the late afternoon had been an adventure she didn't want to repeat again soon, it certainly could have gone a lot worse, as it had for the person she'd come to interview.
Now, as she waited in the hospital lobby for her crime scene officer, the rush of excitement and adrenalin she'd felt earlier finally started to vanish along with the sunlight.
There had been a time when serious crime had not been a problem here on the Rez, but those days were long gone. The outside world had crept in, leaving its mark on them all. Admittedly, crime often took a different form here, one unique to the Navajo Nation. The spiritual and material worlds were too intertwined in The People's thinking for it to be otherwise. Yet, lately it seemed that even that distinction was becoming less pronounced.
As round-faced Sergeant Tache came into the lobby, Ella turned and faced him. Like herself and a half dozen other specialists and detectives on the Tribal force, Tache wore civilian clothes, which in the Four Corners usually meant western boots, snaps instead of buttons on a colorful print shirt, and jeans. Big silver belt buckles were also almost standard. Only the sidearm and badge he wore clipped on his belt would identify him as a police sergeant, and even those would usually be hidden from casual view by his Levi jacket.
"I got your message from the dispatcher and came right over," she said. "We still haven't found the other two perps or that brown Chevy. Are the doctors finally going to let us interview the prisoner? I tried to get him to waive his right before, but he's a tough nut to crack."
"His attorney was here when he came out of recovery ten minutes ago and they've been talking ever since. The nurses had him moved upstairs to Room Two-oh-two, so I stationed an officer outside and cuffed the prisoner to the bed. I can tell you what else we've learned about him on the way up there."
"Then let's go."
Tache's expression was somber as he walked with her to the elevator. He stared ahead, organizing his thoughts, and when he spoke, his words were measured and well thought-out. Ella had expected no less from this man who was an integral part of their generally successful crime scene investigations team. Tache had been the first officer to arrive after the bank robbery that afternoon, and had been the last one to leave the crime scene two hours later.
"The County Sheriff wants to move the prisoner to the jail in Farmington as soon as possible, but that's up to Big Ed and the Tribal attorneys. It probably won't be for twenty-four hours anyway, according to the doctor who briefed me. By the way, the fingerprint results confirm the ID you made from the mug files. He's Joey Baker, all right."
"I also caught a glimpse of the female, who wasn't wearing a mask. I believe she's Baker's wife, Barbara," Ella added. "Anything on the man with the shotgun?"
Tache nodded. "According to Baker's file, another Anglo named Jim Shepherd was convicted along with Joey Baker and Barbara about five years ago for armed robbery. They've all been living in Farmington for the past year or so since their early good-time releases from prison."
Ella nodded to the officer in the tan uniform stationed by the hospital room door, then went inside with Tache. Baker, a muscular, dirty-blond man with several tattoos, was sitting up on the bed, resting against the elevated mattress and several pillows. He was handcuffed to the bed by his right wrist. The moment he saw Ella Baker swore, his stare filled with hatred. She ignored his mad-dogging, a move typical of criminals looking for someone to blame when the law caught up to them.
Ella shifted her gaze to the other Anglo man in the room. He was wearing an expensive gray suit and standing to the right of the bed. With one raised eyebrow, she silently asked him to identify himself. From the silk tie and sharkskin boots, she guessed he was a lawyer.
"I'm Martin Miller," he said fluidly. "I'm Mr. Baker's counsel, and you must be Special Investigator Ella Clah, the ex-FBI agent and arresting officer."
Ella nodded, and Miller continued. "Tread carefully, officer. My client and I fully expect to file a civil suit against your department. Mr. Baker has been threatened, shot, and harassed, all for having the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"While threatening citizens with a loaded handgun, wearing a ski mask, and robbing a bank," Ella added, amused. "You better find an attorney who can cut a deal, Baker, or at least someone with a stronger grip on reality. I hope that's not your whole story. That defense won't work on a five-year-old."
"My client has explained to me that the actual bank robber assaulted him outside the bank, and forced him to go inside at the barrel of a shotgun." Miller added.
"Then why was your client wearing a mask? Surely the 'real robber' wouldn't have cared if Baker's face was seen. Another point, your client was the one giving all the orders, waving around a pistol loaded with fourteen rounds of live ammunition," Ella countered smoothly. "And the pistol functions perfectly, right?" She turned to Tache, who nodded in agreement.
"I was told what to say," Baker said, a smug look on his face. "And he said the pistol didn't work."
Ella watched Baker. Something about this man was making her skin crawl. She knew from his behavior in the bank that he was calm and cruel, and enjoyed baiting people. But that, in itself, was not unusual for a criminal. There was something else about him, something more elusive, that was sending signals to her brain.
"I don't have to remind you that I certainly didn't shoot myself," Baker added with a confident grin. "It was the actual criminal who did that."
"Sergeant Tache has helped me identify the other two members of your gang," Ella said meeting his gaze and holding it. "You seem to share a history of crimes with them. Want to change your story any before I continue?"
"My gang? I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Your wife Barbara, who fired at me several times with a handgun, was the driver of the getaway car. The man with the shotgun was James Shepherd. They're the ones who shot you, remember? If I hadn't pulled you down behind that planter, you might be in the morgue now instead of that bed."
"My wife? Barb was the one who dropped me off, if that's what you mean," Baker said, his eyes never wavering from Ella's. "And Shepherd? Well, I do know him, he shares our rental home, but he's been busy lately looking for a job, and I haven't seen him all day. It's true we've made mistakes in the past, but that's behind us now. We all served our sentences. You can't pin this on us. I was a victim of a criminal today, just like the other people at that bank."
He was sticking to his lies, hoping to find anything to contradict so he could get them on the defensive. Ella felt Baker's open challenge, and figured it was time to try and rattle that composure a bit. "Your wife and your friend are out there on the run in a disabled car, with every officer within a hundred miles looking for them. You'd be better off helping us locate them before they come up against a group of well-armed officers. We already have enough physical evidence and testimony to convict you. Don't let the next piece of news you hear be an account of your wife's death."
"That's enough." Miller held up his hand. "You're badgering my client, and he's been nothing but patient with you, despite his life-threatening injuries. This interview is finished. If the district attorney has any charges to file against Mr. Baker, then I should be told about them now so I can have adequate time to prepare his defense."
"I'm aware of the law, counselor," Ella replied, forcing her tone to remain casual. She started to say more, when she caught a glimpse of Officer Justine Goodluck standing just inside the door. Two years ago, her second cousin had been assigned to her crime team, and since that time, Ella had never had reason to regret it.
Excusing herself, Ella sent Tache to check on hospital security while she met with her assistant in the hall. Justine's handgun, holstered at her belt beside the open front of a blue satin rodeo jacket, seemed disproportionately large for the slender young woman's figure. But, despite her youthful appearance, Justine was all business.
"Any more news on the two perps still at large?" Ella asked.
"Not yet, but you know we had roadblocks up within five minutes of the call, and extra officers are out searching every mile of road in the area. Hopefully, those two shots you put in their engine block screwed up something. Even if they didn't, there's no way they'll make it out of the county, much less the state. By now, I'm sure they know it, too." Justine's voice was confident.
Ella considered the matter silently for several moments before speaking. "It's possible they may not be trying to leave the Rez anyway. I'm certain that the woman who drove the getaway car is Baker's wife. She may yet decide to try and spring her husband. Have Tache stick close around here. He's seen the photos, so he should be able to recognize Shepherd and the woman. If he spots either of them, tell him to call for backup if at all possible before taking action."
"I'll have another guard posted here, too," Justine said, "and coordinate things with Sergeant Tache."
As her cell phone beeped, Ella reached for the unit clipped to her belt. The reception was poor from her location, so she moved farther down the corridor until the static cleared.
"The dispatcher asked me to notify you," came the voice of the on-duty officer. "Sergeant Neskahi has been patrolling along the Colorado state line. A few minutes ago, he requested that Angel Hawk, the air ambulance, be sent to the site of an auto accident on a side road just south of the Colorado border, a half mile off of Highway Six-six-six."
"Understood. But what's that got to do with me? That's hospital business."
"There's something fishy about the call. Neskahi has been with the department for years. It's not like him to screw up a ten code. But he kept referring to a ten-thirty-one as a trauma victim pickup."
"Which it isn't. That's the code for a suspicious person," Ella said mostly to herself, her mind racing.
"Of course he had the flu last week, and he's still feeling lousy.…" "Hold on for a moment." Ella glanced at Justine. "Tell the hospital not to dispatch the air ambulance until I give the okay," she said, then turned her attention back to the officer on the phone. "What else? Did the dispatcher pick up on any other indications of trouble?"
"No. That's why we figured you'd want to make the call on this one."
"Thanks. I'll handle it from here." Ella weighed the information carefully. Sergeant Neskahi was an old hand at police work, and had worked with her on several investigations recently. Everyone made mistakes, but it didn't seem likely that the sergeant would make one of this nature. He'd worked dozens of accidents in his time as a patrol officer.
Justine jogged back from the ER desk. "Better hurry. The pilot is really pissed off. He's ready to fly and the medic is on board. The flyboy is demanding to know if we're going to accept responsibility for a delay that could end up costing lives."
Ella frowned. She had no proof that there was a problem, but she also couldn't send a civilian into a potentially dangerous situation. "I'm on my way."
Ella took a white coat from a hook by the nurse's station. Seeing what Ella had done, a young nurse by the supply cabinet came toward her and reached for the jacket. "That isn't yours."
"I'm just borrowing it. Consider it a police emergency." Ella said and glowered at her.
The woman backed up a step, then saw the badge pinned to Ella's belt and the pistol in her holster. "Bring it back, okay?"
Ella nodded once, and slipped the jacket on over her own. "I'm going along on this ride," she told Justine. "If Neskahi is in trouble, I'll be there to back him up. If it is a mistake, and there's a victim that needs to be transported, the helicopter crew can do their job and I'll ride back with the sergeant, quizzing him on the ten codes."
They hurried up the stairs to the roof and as they opened the door and stepped out, the helicopter's rotor blades picked up speed. The downwash 'whomp' seemed to send its vibrations right through Ella. "One more thing," she yelled at Justine. "Send two units to Neskahi's location right away. If there is trouble, I want to have plenty of backup."
Ella kept her head down and ran over to the shiny white and turquoise air ambulance. A silver hawk with a halo was painted on the pilot's door, and below it was the name "Angel Hawk."
The moment Ella climbed into the helicopter, she leaned forward to talk to the Navajo pilot. His jaw was set, and one look told her that this wasn't a man who liked sharing authority.
"You aren't a member of my crew, and this isn't a carnival ride. What makes you think you can go up in my chopper?" he shouted over the rotor noise.
She opened the white jacket she'd borrowed, and showed him her badge and police ID. "I'm going with you on this run. There may be more to the situation than a medical emergency."
The lanky young medic sitting on a fold-down seat in the patient treatment area placed his hand on the pilot's shoulder. "We can't afford the time to argue, boss. We have a pickup to make."
The pilot gave Ella a quick nod. "I've heard about you, Investigator Clah, so okay, you can go. Climb up front and ride with me. As soon as you have that seat belt fastened, we're going to lift off. You can fill me in on the way. If I'm heading into trouble, I want to know exactly what I'm facing."
Fighting the sudden lurch in her stomach as they took off, Ella gave the pilot a long, sideways glance. She'd never met the man before, but, then again, the reservation was a large place and the air ambulance was a very recent addition to the hospital. Also, these days she was hardly ever sent on traffic accident calls.
Ella glanced at the pilot's name tag. Jeremiah Crow. She searched her memory for the name, but came up empty. "You must be new to this corner of the Rez."
Crow nodded. "My clan has always lived in the Tuba City area. After the military I flew tourists over the Grand Canyon before the job opened up here." He glanced over at her quickly, then focused back on his dimmed instrument panel. "Now you know about me. It's time to keep your side of the bargain. And talk fast. We'll be there in just a few minutes."
Ella filled him in on what she knew, then added, "When we get there, stay alert until I give you a thumbs-up. Any other sign will mean that you're to lift off immediately."
"We'll be sitting ducks inside this chopper on the ground, even in the dark. I flew scout missions in the army. I've been shot at enough to know a little strategy pays for itself. I suggest we do a fast orbit first and illuminate the area with the spotlight. It's got an adjustable beam width, so you can assess the situation before we take action. From below it'll look as if we're searching for the best place to set this bird down."
"All right," Ella agreed. "It's a good plan. But, once we're down, if there's trouble, you stay out of it. Lift off immediately."
Ella watched the stark expanse of desert below them. The moon had risen from behind the cliffs, and a blend of dark and light shadows dotted the terrain making the familiar appear more sinister than it ever would in daylight.
As they drew close to the site of the accident, red flares burning on the highway marked the location. Jeremiah Crow looked at the scene below, then veered to the right for the promised low orbit of the area. "Looks like an accident, all right."
Ella followed the beam of the chopper's searchlight. A single black sports car was tipped over on its side, but there were no skid marks on the road leading up to it. There was no sign of spilled oil or gasoline on the pavement either. "No. There are several things that aren't quite right," she said, pointing out what she'd noticed.
Neskahi's police unit was parked a little farther down the road, and the sergeant was crouched by the figure lying on the asphalt. Just a few feet away were two civilians, both wearing jackets.
Ella fought the sudden chill that enveloped her. "There's trouble here. I can feel it."
"If I aim the searchlight right into their eyes, the people down there will never see you leave the chopper."
"Go for it." Ella took her pistol from its holster, and placed it in her jacket pocket. The feel of the cold metal against her hand was reassuring.
"I'll land between the civilians and the police car, but move fast. Whatever else is happening, the person on the ground appears to need some very real help. There's a lot of blood around the body."
"Just remember to stay in the aircraft, and keep the blades turning until I signal."
Just before the hovering copter touched down, Ella jumped out. As promised, the two civilians were pinned by the spotlight, trying to shield their eyes.
Ella circled, keeping below the road bed as much as possible. The sagebrush was taller downslope, fed by runoff from the asphalt. As she got close, she could see that the figure on the road was just a stuffed dummy made out of old clothes, and the blood was probably red paint or something like tomato sauce. Ella stepped out onto the road behind the pair.
The engine noise and prop wash from the chopper was drowning out the sounds she was making, but Ella still approached cautiously, her weapon out and ready. The civilians were both looking down toward Neskahi, and at the same time trying to shield their eyes from the glare of the spotlight
"Why in the hell doesn't he turn off that light?" The person on the left, a woman, yelled. Ella recognized the voice from earlier that day. It was Barbara Baker.
Neskahi, who'd avoided looking at the helicopter with its blinding light, turned toward the voice, and saw Ella standing less than ten feet behind the couple. He avoided any expression of recognition, but his body tensed, a signal to Ella. "Maybe it was something I said. Why don't you set down your weapons and surrender now?"
The man cursed, bringing a sawed-off shotgun out of his jacket. Neskahi leaped up, grabbing the man's weapon and yanking it up into the air as he kneed him in the groin. The shotgun went off with a roar and the man lost his grip on the weapon.
The woman yanked a pistol out of her pocket, but before she could bring it to bear, Ella was there. She kicked the weapon out of the woman's hand, spun around, and knocked the surprised woman down with a well-aimed kick to her sternum. When the woman looked up again, she was staring into the barrel of Ella's nine-millimeter pistol.
"Don't move. Don't even breathe," Ella hissed, her glance darting over to Neskahi, who now had the shotgun aimed at the woman's partner. The man lay groaning on the pavement. "You okay, Sergeant?"
"No problems here." The sergeant retrieved his own handgun from the man's jacket pocket, then handcuffed him and hauled him to his feet.
Ella turned and gave a thumbs-up toward the helicopter.
"Get that damn searchlight off me, will you?" The man turned his head away from the helicopter, which had finally shut down its engine.
"We should have known they were up to something," the woman complained as Ella handcuffed her wrists behind her back. "Your plan really sucked, you know that?"
"You were happy to tip my car over, Barb," he said, biting off the words.
Hearing the woman's identity confirmed brought a smile to Ella's lips. She quickly informed the two of their rights. "You'll be glad to know, Mrs. Baker, that your husband is going to recover. He's decided to end his life of crime and tell us everything, too." She glanced at Shepherd. "We already know, for example, that you're the one who put the Bakers up to this job, Mr. Shepherd," she added.
"Me?" Jim Shepherd's eyes grew wide. "Wait a minute--"
"Shut up, you moron," the woman yelled. "They're playing mind games." She gave Ella a hard look. "Nice try, but you're not getting any information from us."
Ella chuckled. "I have a hard time believing that. The only real question in my mind is which of you three is going to volunteer first to testify for the D.A. in exchange for reduced charges."
"They wanted Angel Hawk so they could fly to the hospital and rescue the perp you nailed at the bank," Neskahi said as they escorted the prisoners to his patrol car.
"Barb is Joey Baker's wife. He told us she'd come for him. Baker, in fact, told us a great deal. This guy is Jim Shepherd. They've all served time for armed robbery as part of a losing team."
"Joey ratted us out! That piece of--" Shepherd leaned forward in his seat, cursing.
"Shut up, you idiot. If you keep talking, you'll send us all to prison until we're too old to chew solid food."
"Lady, you're headed for a cell no matter what he says," Ella said calmly. "But a little attitude adjustment of your own might help you reduce that sentence."
After they canceled the backup that was still on the way, Ella saw Jeremiah Crow and the young medic standing near the figure on the ground. Crow glanced over at her and shook his head in disgust.
Neskahi caught the gesture. "That's how they lured me into stopping. The woman caught me completely off guard with her little act. She was crouched down low, faking CPR on the dummy, yelling her head off like it was dying. From a distance it's hard to tell that's just a bunch of old clothes stuffed with weeds."
"Where was Shepherd hiding? In the brush?"
"He was beside the car, playing dead. It wasn't the same vehicle described in the robbery, so I thought it might be legit."
"They either hijacked this car or had it hidden on a back road, planning on making a switch after the robbery. Most Navajos could never afford one of these imported models," Ella said.
"Well, Sergeant, looks like you just caught yourself two bank robbers." Jeremiah Crow smiled.
"How did you know?" the woman asked Ella from inside the car. "I was listening to the officer's call, and he never gave us away."
"Oh, yes he did. In cop-speak he told us plenty," Ella answered, letting the robbers continue to wonder.
Ella walked with Jeremiah Crow and his medic back to the helicopter. "You guys can return now. I'll drive back with the sergeant and the prisoners. Thanks for your help and cooperation. And the ride."
"No problem." Jeremiah cracked a smile. "It was…interesting."
Ella stood back as Angel Hawk took off and quickly disappeared into the dark. In another minute, all she could see were the blue and red running lights, and then they, too, faded away.
Neskahi was already behind the wheel when she returned to the vehicle. As her gaze drifted over the somber pair in the backseat, she felt an incredible sense of satisfaction. It was at times like these that she realized how much she loved police work. It was a rush to know that she'd helped rid society of a few predators, if only for a few years at a time.
Although the trip back took half an hour to cover the distance that had taken ten minutes in the chopper, it was a lot quieter and easier on the stomach. Five minutes from Shiprock, Neskahi's radio crackled to life.
Hearing her call sign, Ella picked up the mike and depressed the button on the side. "Go ahead, PD."
"I'm patching through a transmission from Angel Hawk. There was a ten-forty-five the chief wants you to know about directly from the source. Go Channel six for this one."
Ella felt her skin grow clammy. A10-45 was an auto accident with injuries. "Go ahead, Angel Hawk," she said, clutching the mike so hard her fingers tingled.
"Shortly after you released Angel Hawk, we were dispatched to transport an accident victim south of Shiprock on Highway Six-six-six." Jeremiah's voice was low, but clear. "Rose Destea is at the hospital now, getting prepped for emergency surgery. She's your mother, right?"
Ella couldn't breathe. It was as if her throat had suddenly locked. She fought a momentary feeling of vertigo. "What's her condition?" she managed in a whisper thin voice.
"I'm on my way."
Ella glanced at Neskahi as she replaced the mike. "Drop me off at the hospital on the way in. Then take these two on to the station."
"Done." Neskahi pressed down on the accelerator, and switched on the emergency lights and siren.
Collecting all the willpower she could muster, Ella forced her body to stop shaking. Her mother…in a traffic accident. Critical. Her mind raced, creating one hideous scenario after another.
She struggled to push the images away and succeeded. Yet, as her thoughts became still, fear, black and encompassing as the night surrounding them, engulfed her.
Copyright © 1998 by Aimée and David Thurlo Aimée Thurlo and David Thurlo are the authors of the Ella Clah novels, Blackening Song, Death Walker, Bad Medicine, Enemy Way, Shooting Chant, Red Mesa, Changing Woman, and Tracking Bear. Their other mystery novels include Bad Faith and Second Sunrise.
Aimée is a native of Havana, Cuba. David grew up on the Navajo Reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico and recently retired from teaching. They have been writing and publishing fiction for at least a decade.
Aimée and David Thurlo live in Corrales, New Mexico, with a varied and ever-changing menagerie.