Black Thunder: New Excerpt

Black Thunder by Aimee and David Thurlo Cover
Black Thunder by Aimee and David Thurlo
A construction crew found the first body. The cops found three more, in a cluster that lay on both sides of the border of the Navajo Reservation.

Because some of the bodies were buried outside the Rez, Navajo Police Special Investigator Ella Clah and her team must work a delicate joint investigation with the New Mexico police. Identifying the dead isn’t easy—some had been buried for years—and at first the cases look to be nothing but dead ends. Then one of the bodies turns out to be that of a missing man who was believed to have embezzled funds from his construction firm and suspicions focus on the man’s partner.

With no obvious links between any of the corpses and the anniversary of their deaths fast approaching, Ella feels frustrated by the investigation’s lack of progress. Unless they can find what connects these victims, someone else may soon be killed. Ella’s ability to concentrate is battered by worries about her teenage daughter, who has been skipping school, and her mother, who is cooking up a storm, a sure sign that trouble is brewing in the household.

 

 
Chapter 1

Tribal Police Investigator Ella Clah stood next to her department’s cruiser, a dusty, white SUV that had more miles on it than a Two Grey Hills sheep­dog. As she stood beneath the shade of the Quick Mart sta­tion’s island, watching the dollar amount shoot past fifty as the pump fed regular into the tank, her second cousin and partner, Justine Goodluck, was busy cleaning the wind­shield.

“It’s been so quiet lately,” Justine said. “I hate slow days. I’d rather be up to my ears in an investigation than catching up with paperwork. It’s nine in the morning and it already feels like we’ve been on duty all day.”

“I hear you,” Ella answered. “At least we’re not behind a desk.”

Justine stopped working on the windshield and looked directly at Ella. Although among Traditionalists that would have been considered extremely rude, tribal cops had learned to walk the line between the old and the new, adapting to a reservation in transition.

“What’s eating you, partner?” Justine asked. Seeing Ella shrug, Justine added, “Don’t try to tell me it’s nothing. We’ve known each other too long.”

There were many advantages to working with a close partner but the ability to second- guess each other was often a two-edged sword. With some partnerships, familiarity bred contempt, as the old saying warned. Yet Justine and she had found a middle ground. Though they weren’t what Ella’s daughter would have termed BFFs, they’d become attuned to each other in a way that gave them a distinct advantage out in the field.

Ella was still thinking of how to answer that when a call came over their radio. “S.I. Unit One, see the clerk at the First United Bank on Highway 64, east of the bridge. He re­ports a man posing as Chester Kelewood is trying to cash a two-hundred-dollar check. The clerk will try to stall the subject until you arrive.”

Ella hung the gas nozzle back onto the pump and reached inside the open window to pick up the mike. “Unit One re­sponding,” Ella said as Justine paid the bill.

“We’re less than a mile from there,” Justine said, slip­ping behind the wheel. “How do you want to handle this?”

Ella began accessing information on the MDT, Mobile Dispatch Terminal. As her partner eased out into down­town Shiprock traffic, she answered, “Chester Kelewood has been on our missing person’s list since last June second, and in these situations the bank always flags their accounts. Let’s go in silent and try to get next to this scam artist before he catches on.”

A few minutes later, Justine dropped Ella off near the bank’s front door, then headed for the closest parking slot. As Ella approached the entrance, an anxious-looking man stepped outside—not Kelewood, judging from the image she’d just viewed on the terminal. She hesitated, wondering if this was the suspect or just another patron.

His gaze shifted to the badge clipped to her belt and a second later, he spun around and bolted down the sidewalk.

“That’s him!” a man in the foyer yelled.

Ella raced after the man, who darted around the corner of the building.

Although he’d only had a slight lead, the man moved like the wind, fear of arrest undoubtedly motivating him. He reached the back corner of the bank, then disappeared down the alley to his left.

Just as Ella appeared in the alley, he reached a six-foot cinder- block wall. Seeing her closing in, he scrambled clum­sily over the top.

Ella followed, jumping up, then over. This was a lot easier than the ten-foot barrier at the county police academy’s ob­stacle course. Dropping to her knees to absorb the shock of landing, she searched the perimeter and quickly spotted the suspect. The Navajo man was hightailing it down a dirt road.

She hit Justine’s speed-dial number on her cell phone, slowing just enough to make the call. “Justine, I’m in pur­suit. Drive down the ditch road and try to cut him off. He’s heading north through the brush.”

“Roger that,” Justine replied, then hung up.

Ella continued pursuit into the bosque, the wooded area that lined the riverbanks. She knew she couldn’t match his sprint speed in a 440 or less, but she was sure she could wear him down cross-country, providing she could keep him within sight or track him. Even as she processed this thought, the man raced fifty yards down the road, then cut right and disappeared into a clump of twelve-foot-high wil­lows, red and gray-green from their early summer growth.

Less than ten seconds behind, she ducked in after him. Ella could hear his labored breathing and the thump of his boots on the sand as he ran parallel to the San Juan River,here only about a hundred yards wide. Although there were steep bluffs on the opposite shore, on this side there were many possible exits back along the north bank. She’d have to be careful he didn’t slip back into town. Hopefully, Justine would see him if he crossed the ditch road.

The path the suspect had chosen kept him close to the river. The chase required constant swerving and twisting to avoid getting whipped by the long willow branches or trip­ping on a tuft of salt grass. Ella found herself constantly ducking and throwing up her right or left arm to avoid be­ing, literally, bush whacked.

She’d already eased into her long-distance running rhythm: two strides, inhale, two strides, exhale. She knew from her regular conditioning runs that she’d be able to keep up this pace for miles. Even with the heavy ballistic vest she always wore under her shirt, she’d catch up sooner or later. Unfortunately, the moment he realized that, he might turn on her, so she’d have to be ready.

Still on his tail, she remained alert, forcing herself to keep her breathing smooth and regular. Even if she hadn’t been able to hear him crashing through the brush like an enraged bull, his tracks were easy to follow. Soon she no­ticed that he was angling steadily toward the river. The bluffs a quarter mile farther down were lower and receded from the banks, leaving easier access to the shore and possi­ble escape. Maybe he’d decided to swim for it next—though it was probably more of a deep wade or wallow unless he dropped into a pool or undercut in the bank.

Suddenly Ella stopped hearing his footsteps. She slowed to a brisk walk and listened carefully. Almost instinctively, she reached up to touch the turquoise badger fetish hanging from a leather strap around her neck.

Her brother, Clifford, a medicine man, or hataalii as they were known to the Diné, the Navajo People, had given her the Zuni-made fetish years ago as a gift. Since that time, she’d noticed that the small carving invariably became hot whenever danger was near. Right now it felt uncomfortably warm. Though she’d never been able to explain it, she sus­pected that the heat it emitted might have something to do with her own rising body temperature in times of crisis. Either way, she’d learned to trust the warning.

Ella stopped and slowly turned around in a circle, detect­ing the acrid scent of sweat—not her own. Before she could pinpoint it more accurately, a man burst out from behind a salt cedar, yelling as he swung a big chunk of driftwood like a baseball bat.

Ella ducked and the wood whooshed over her head, missing her skull by inches. Before he could take another swing, Ella drew her weapon and aimed it at her assailant.

“Drop the stick, buddy, now!” she ordered.

The man dropped the branch, but dove to his right, roll­ing into some tall grass. Then, leaping back to his feet, he sprinted away.

“Crap!” Ella holstered her gun and took off after him again. No way this jackrabbit was going to get away from her.

Running out of steam, the panting suspect tried to leap a fallen cottonwood branch, but caught his toe, or misjudged the jump. He fell to the sand, face-first.

Ella caught up to him a second later, but he swung around, still on his knees, and dove for her feet. He grabbed her boot and twisted her leg, trying to knock her down. Ella broke free and recaptured her balance just as the guy leaped up and lunged.

Ella kicked him in the chest with her heavy boot.

The impact stopped him in his tracks, and he gasped. He was wobbling back and forth, but somehow he stayed on his feet. He took a step back, then held up his fists, waving them to and fro like a fighter working out in a gym as he took a bob-and-weave defense.

Ella kept her fighting stance. “Stop. I’m a cop. Don’t fight me. You’ll go down.”

“You wish,” the Navajo man yelled, his face beet red from exertion.

“Have it your way,” Ella said, and reached for the canis­ter of Mace on her duty belt. She had it halfway up before his fists suddenly opened up. Showing his palms and out­spread fingers, he took a step back.

“No, stop! I’m allergic to that stuff. Really. I give up.” Ella immediately spun him around and cuffed him. “If you run for it again, I’ll Taser your ass.”

Taking him by the arm, she informed him of his rights as she guided him east toward the dirt road that paralleled the bosque along the irrigation ditch. As he stumbled along she asked him for his name, but all she got was a request for an attorney.

By the time they reached the road, a patrol cruiser was waiting, having come from the north. Justine was inching up from the south in her unit, less than fifty yards away. Ella looked at the uniformed officer climbing out of the cruiser. She recognized Mark Lujan, a young cop with about four years on the tribal force. “Thanks, Lujan, but I’ve got him now. My partner and I will take him in,” she said, see­ing Justine climbing out of the SUV.

“Let the officer take him, boss,” Justine said, leaning her head out of the SUV. “We’ve got another call.”

“What’s happening, partner?” Ella asked, climbing into the vehicle.

Justine turned the SUV around, then spoke as they drove toward the highway. “A Navajo crew was replacing fence posts on the Navajo Nation side of the border, just the other side of Hogback, when they found a body.”

“On tribal land— they’re sure of that?” Ella reached for a tissue from the glove box, then wiped away the perspi­ration from her brow with one hand and redirected the air-conditioning vent toward her face and neck.

“Yeah, from what I was told. They called 911 and dispatch called us immediately.”

There was no direct route to the site. When they passed through the wide, river-cut gap in the Hogback, the long, steep-sided outcrop towering above the desert for miles, Justine had to continue east off the Rez. Their intended route required them to circle back to the northwest along the old highway, which came much closer to the spinelike ridge.

There was a dirt track that ran along the north-south fence line through an old field and former marsh, and the ride was extra rough. Trees and brush dotted the area, thickly in some places, and it took a while to spot the tribal truck, which was in a low spot. The tailgate of the oversized pickup was down and the bed filled with coils of wire and fence posts.

“Where’s the crew?” Ella asked, looking around.

“Way over there,” Justine said, gesturing with her chin, Navajo-style, toward a shady spot beneath an old cotton­wood at least a hundred feet northwest of the pickup.

Ella wasn’t surprised. As a detective on the Navajo Rez, she usually didn’t have to worry that a murder scene would be contaminated by the Navajo public. Whether they were Traditionalists, New Traditionalists, or Modernists, fear of the chindi was a fact of life here.

The chindi, the evil in a man, was said to remain earth­bound waiting for a chance to create problems for the liv­ing. Contact with the dead, or their possessions, was a sure way to summon it to you, so avoidance was the usual strat­egy.

The foreman, a short, muscular Navajo in jeans and a pale blue tribal-issue shirt, came to meet them as they parked and stepped out of the SUV. His yellow straw cowboy hat was stained with dust and sweat. It was getting hot already here in northwest New Mexico. “We called you as soon as we realized what we were digging up. You can see what’s left of a human hand down there. It’s over by that spot where we were taking out some fill dirt.”

“Thanks. We’ll handle it from here,” Ella said.

Justine joined Ella and they approached the location he’d pointed out. A shovel had been left beside the area where sand had been scooped out, probably to fill around a newly planted fence post about ten feet away. The original ground had been eroded by heavy rain and the old post still lay nearby, the wood badly rotted.

Ella and Justine moved carefully, stepping only in the fresh shoe and boot prints left by the work crew and mak­ing sure no other potential evidence was disturbed.

“Our crime scene team is on the way,” Justine said, look­ing down at the dark, leathery-looking, dried out remnants of what was clearly a human’s right hand. “Benny’s driving the van. Ralph Tache wants in on this, too. He said he can’t dig—doctor’s orders—but he can collect evidence and doc­ument the scene.”

“I don’t know about that,” Ella said, giving Justine a look of concern. “I’m not sure Ralph’s ready. This could be labor intensive, and we’ll have to do it all by hand. We can’t bring in a backhoe, and all that bending over . . .”

“Ralph’s had a lot to deal with after all those surgeries. That pipe bomb incident at the college did more than just put him in the hospital. But he’s spent months in rehab, and needs to get back to work, Ella. His doctor’s given permis­sion for him to resume field duty, and the chief agreed. Let him have this assignment. He’s not cut out for a desk job, and we need our best personnel on this.”

Ella nodded. Although Ralph had already made it clear he wasn’t ready to take up his bomb squad work again, he wanted to get out of the station and take part in fieldwork.

“After all those months of recovery and therapy, I thought for a while he’d just take an early retirement and go on to consulting work,” Ella said. “He was a veteran cop when I joined the department.”

“I think police work’s in his blood, Ella, and he needs to reconnect.” Justine glanced down at the missing joint on her index finger, recalling the brutality of her kidnappers years ago. “We all pay a price for what we do, but police work’s a calling. That’s why we’re drawn to it so much.”

Ella said nothing. Justine was a devout Christian and her religious beliefs shaped her views. Yet no matter how Justine defined it, she lived and breathed the job, too. It was that dedication to the tribe and the department that made all of them overlook the downside—like the crappy pay and long hours.

“I’ll start with photos,” Justine said. “I want shots of the tire tracks on the dirt trail leading in. I saw two distinct, fresh sets as we were coming in, and there’s only one tribal vehicle here.”

“Good eye. I’ll get statements from the crew,” Ella said.

As she walked over to the men clustered in the shade of the cottonwood, Ella understood the wariness in their eyes. She spoke to the foreman first and he pointed out the two men who’d found the body. One of them, a stocky Navajo in his early twenties wearing a turquoise and black Shiprock High School Chieftains tee-shirt and worn jeans, stood fin­gering the leather pouch at his waist.

Recognizing the medicine bag for what it was, an essen­tial personal item for Traditionalists, Ella decided to speak to him first.

She introduced herself without using names. Tradition­alists believed that a name had power. To use it needlessly deprived its owner of a personal asset that was his or hers to use in times of trouble. Asking to see his driver’s license, she took the necessary information off that.

“I got too close to that body,” he said, explaining that he was the first to uncover the still-attached hand, and that the shovel left at the location was his. “I’m going to have a Sing done. Your brother’s the hataalii who lives on the other side of Shiprock, off the Gallup highway, isn’t he?”

“Yes, he is,” Ella answered, not surprised he’d made the connection. Despite the vastness of the Navajo Nation, theirs was a small community, and she’d been part of the tribal police department in this area for nearly fifteen years.

“I came ready for work, but this . . .” He shook his head, then kicked at a clump of dry grass with the toe of his worn lace-up work boot.

“Why did you happen to dig at that particular spot?” Ella said.

“I needed fill dirt so I picked a spot where there  wasn’t much brush. It was pretty loose and easy to scoop out, so I dug deeper. Then the shovel snagged on something that looked like a leather glove.” He swallowed hard. “I reached down to pull it out when I saw that it was a hand—still at­tached to an arm. I backed off, fast.” He avoided eye contact with Ella out of respect for Navajo ways. “Do you think the whole body is down there?” he asked in a strangled voice.

“We’ll know in a bit.”

“Do we have to stay around while you . . . dig it up?”

“Not for that long. I’ll need to take statements from everyone and make sure I know where to find each of you in case we need to talk again. Once that’s done, you’ll all be free to leave.”

“Good. I don’t want to stick around.”

Ella couldn’t help but notice that the entire crew seemed anxious to leave, even those who appeared to be Modernists—their curiosity, their more relaxed expres­sions, and the absence of medicine pouches at their belt or in hand easily identified the Modernists.

Going about her business, she spoke to the other men, but nothing new came to light. Nobody seemed to know anything about the extra set of vehicle tracks. The foreman also made it clear that he didn’t think any other tribal em­ployees had visited the site before them. Their job here to­day had been part of regular maintenance and scheduled months ago.

Shortly after the crew left, her team arrived. Ella watched Ralph Tache climb out of the van. Though he still moved slowly despite having lost at least thirty pounds in the last year, determination was etched in his deep-set eyes.

She knew that look. The need to restore order so all could walk in beauty was more than just a concept. It was the way of life on the Diné Bikéyah, Navajo country.

The crime scene team quickly cordoned off the area, us­ing the boundary fence as the eastern perimeter. They each had specialized jobs, but no one would touch the ground around the hand until every square inch had been photo­graphed from all possible angles.

While Ralph helped Justine take photos, Sergeant Joe Neskahi brought out two shovels and stood them against the van for future use.

Soon afterwards, Benny Pete and Joe surveyed the ground outside the yellow tape looking for tracks, trash, or anything out of the ordinary. If the scene needed to be expanded, they would be the first to make that determination.

Joe was a longtime member of the team, but Benny, their newest member, had fit in almost instantly. He’d come to them as a temporary transfer, then had opted to remain with their team. They’d all welcomed him after seeing his skills, particularly when it came to spotting even minute details.

“What’s the M.E.’s ETA?” Ella called out to Justine.

“Ten minutes,” Justine called back, not looking up from her work.

Looking over at Ralph, Ella saw him taking a photo of something off in the direction of the highway. “What’d you see, Ralph?” she asked, walking over.

He shrugged. “Someone was over there, standing by a white sedan, watching us through binoculars. I saw his re­flection off the glass and it caught my eye. It was probably just a curious motorist, but you know what they say in Crime Scene 101.”

“Yeah, sometimes perps hang around to watch the po­lice work the scene—might even volunteer to help,” Ella said.

“I’ll also be taking shots of every car that stops to check us out. You never know,” he said.

“Sure would be nice to get lucky,” Ella said, “investigation- wise,” she added quickly, seeing Ralph’s eyebrows rise.

Hearing someone clear their throat directly behind her, Ella spun around. “You don’t make a lot of noise when you walk, do you?” she said, glaring at Benny.

“Sorry about that, boss,” he said. “We looked around for footprints connected to that extra set of tire tracks, but there isn’t anything fresh. The driver must not have exited the vehicle. We did find something interesting—another set of fresh prints that clearly belong to a child. They’re along the fence line and elsewhere, but not close enough to the tire impressions for the child to have been the driver or a pas­senger.”

“So the only adult prints belong to the work crew?”

“That’s right,” Benny said.

“The next thing we’ll need to do is check on kids who live in this area. Anything else?” Ella asked him.

“So far we’ve found the usual windblown debris of candy and food wrappers, paper cups, and the kind of stuff we’d normally find alongside the highway. But something struck me as particularly odd.”

“What is it?” she pressed.

“I’d rather show you,” he said.

“Lead the way.” This was going to be one of those cases where nothing fit the norm. She could feel it in her gut.

 

Chapter 2

Benny Pete came to a stop at the western edge of the crime scene tape line and looked back to where the hand had been uncovered. “Notice any­thing?”

Ella studied the area but nothing struck her as particu­larly noteworthy. Then, as she widened her focus, she saw what Benny was talking about. “The surface of the ground doesn’t look quite right.”

“Exactly,” Benny said. “I’d say someone did a lot of dig­ging, then spent time reshaping and smoothing everything over. It’s such a large section, too. Makes you wonder just how big the body beneath there is . . . or if we’ve stumbled onto some kind of graveyard.”

“It’s also been replanted with vegetation, and at differ­ent times, too,” Ella said after a beat. “The section closest to the hand is covered with tumbleweeds and goatheads. Those are the first type of plants to appear in soil that has been disturbed. That should give us a rough idea of when the grave was dug.”

“All the plants in that location seem younger and smaller than the ones farther out, too,” Benny said. “We’ll need a plant expert to help us with the time line.”

“I know just the person,” Ella said, thinking of her mother,  Rose Destea, a prominent member of the Plant Watchers.

She reached for her phone, then saw Dr. Carolyn Roan­horse’s van coming up the dirt trail. Ella put the phone away and went to meet her. Carolyn stepped down out of the van easily and without all the mobility problems she’d had in the past. It was clear that her long-term diet was working. Her old friend looked like a new woman.

“We’re still working the scene,” Ella told her. “We haven’t even begun digging up the body yet. You’re going to have to wait a bit.”

Carolyn smirked. “Terrific. I postponed my lunch just so I can sit here?” She exhaled softly. “What’s kept me on this diet all these months is making sure I don’t go hungry.”

“It’s sure working for you, though. You look great. How much more do you want to lose?”

“Another ten pounds, then I’ll switch to a maintenance diet. It was never my goal to look like a model. As far as I’m concerned, real women jiggle and come with curves.”

“I agree with you,” Ella said.

As Ella and Carolyn watched, Neskahi and Benny be­gan uncovering the body using the hand and the emerging arm of the victim to guide their progress. They placed the dirt removed on a ground cloth. Later, they’d sift through that soil, searching for evidence. Any uncovered foreign objects would be carefully recorded.

The first several inches of surface material was more dirt than soil and had clearly been mixed and disturbed by previous digging, which made the exhumation easier. Within fifteen minutes the men had removed enough earth to re­veal the remains of a naked adult human body buried face­down.

Ella and Justine came forward to help. From what Ella could see, most of the closely cropped hair was still attached to the dried out, dark brown, leathery skin on the skull. In the back of the head and slightly higher than ear level were two nickel-sized holes. The size and shape immediately sug­gested bullet wounds, and from their location, she thought of an execution-style murder. This person didn’t die an acci­dental death.

Ella stood. “People, work very carefully,” she announced, looking into every face to make her point clear. “We’re deal­ing with a murder here, and I don’t want to lose a single piece of possible evidence.”

After the body was completely uncovered, still intact, Justine took another series of photographs. They carefully widened the excavation so they could place a thirty-inch-wide piece of plywood next to the body. Then, working together, the four team members slid the body onto the board and lifted it to the ground beside a stretcher.

The M.E. came up, bag in hand, and while everyone watched, she examined the body for several minutes, concen­trating on the skull. Then she looked up. “Help me turn the body over, people, then give me some more room to work.”

Benny and Joe assisted, working carefully to ensure the body remained intact, then moved out of the way to let Jus­tine take more photographs of what was clearly a male.

Ella stared at what had once been a living, breathing hu­man being. There was no way anyone would be able to make an ID without forensics now. Even if the body hadn’t been decomposed, the destruction caused by two exiting bullets would have made facial recognition nearly impossible.

Ella moved away and watched her friend work. As she did, she caught the appreciative looks Benny and Joseph gave Carolyn as she knelt down beside the body. Ella bit back a smile. Her friend had always been a beautiful woman, but was even more so now. There was a new grace to her movements.

“The victim was shot twice,” Carolyn said, speaking into her digital recorder and confirming Ella’s earlier and obvious assessment.

Justine came up and stood beside Ella. “The body was buried deep enough to keep scavengers from uncovering the body and to prevent it from being washed out in any­thing less than a flood,” she said.

“That means the grave took some time to dig,” Ella said. “I noticed that some of the harder-packed sediment was broken apart in big chunks. To get through that layer the dig­ger must have used a pick. He came prepared.”

Ella told Justine about the plants around the crime scene. “I’m going to call Mom and see what she can tell us about this.”

The phone rang several times before her mother finally picked up.  Rose sounded winded.

“You okay, Mom?” Ella asked quickly.

“Yes, I was just trying out a new,  whole-wheat bread recipe. I wanted to give your daughter something more nu­tritious than store-bought.”

“She; doesn’t really mind the regular stuff, Mom.”

“Well, I do,” Rose snapped, then with a sigh, continued. “I’m sorry. I’m just trying to get this right. Was there some­thing you needed?”

Ella wasn’t sure what had been bothering Rose lately, but her mom simply hadn’t been able to relax. Although Rose no longer worked for the tribe surveying native plants, she hadn’t followed through with her initial plan to just take it easy and enjoy her retirement. Ella suspected part of it was due to the fact she’d been laid off so abruptly. Tribal funds  were so tight that even the police department was operating on an austerity budget.

“I’d like to run something past you, Mom,” Ella said. “It concerns the Plant People.” Ella described the plants she could see closest to the grave site. “So how long ago would you say the ground here was disturbed?”

“It sounds like you’ve got a crop of second-generation tumbleweeds sprouting up, so I’d say last summer,” she said. “Snakeweed comes afterwards, and grasses are usu­ally the last to appear.”

“Thanks, Mom.”

“If you need more specific information, bring me some photos and I’ll see what I can do for you.”

“I will, Mom.” Ella hung up, then stared at the phone for a moment, lost in thought.

“Something wrong?” Justine asked, coming over.

“Mom hasn’t been acting right lately,” Ella said, then shook her head, brushing aside the distraction. “That’s for another time. Right now I need to focus.”

Justine nodded, then called Ella’s attention to the gen­eral layout of the site. “This spot is hidden from the high­way and that old secondary road that curves around close to the Hogback,” Justine said. “That means the suspect had time to work, even in the daytime.”

“All the brush between here and the roads also gave him a sound buffer. No one driving by would have been able to see that the ground had been disturbed, either, not unless they happened to stop and then go walking through this area. All things considered, the suspect chose a good place to do their dirty work.”

“The victim was shot twice in the head, and maybe elsewhere. We may be talking about more than one sus­pect.”

“That’s certainly a possibility.” Ella saw Carolyn rise to her feet and pick up her gear. The next step, getting the body into a bag and placed inside the van, usually sent every­one running for cover, but not today.

“Look at that,” Ella said in a hushed whisper. “Both Benny and Joe want to help her.”

“I heard Joe say that Carolyn’s looking hot. And he wasn’t referring to the temperature.”

“He’s lucky she didn’t hear him. Otherwise, he would have been leaving here in a second body bag,” Ella said.

While Benny and Joe carried the body to the wagon, Carolyn walked over and gave Ella a wan smile. “They used to turn tail when I asked for help. Now I get volunteers.”

“Men are taking notice of our slimmed-down M.E.,” Ella said.

Carolyn sighed. “Suddenly less is more . . . appealing. But I’m still me. Nothing’s changed on the inside.”

“Packaging matters. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is.”

Carolyn nodded. “Did I tell you that the new Anglo doctor has asked me out—twice.”

Ella smiled. “The tall blond with the big shoulders and killer smile?”

“Yeah,” Carolyn said with a tiny grin. “Imagine that, huh?”

“You going to take him up on the offer?”

“I don’t know. I’ve been down that road before,” she said, making a veiled reference to her former husband. “Some of these Anglo doctors come to the area filled with ideals, but seldom stick around.”

“So what’s one date? You don’t have to marry the guy. Just go have fun.”

“Maybe you’re right.”

“How are things with you and Ford going?” Carolyn asked.

“We’re still dating, and I care about him a lot, but . . . ,” Ella responded.

“Let me guess. You’re not sure if you want to become a conservative preacher’s wife,” Carolyn answered, lowering her voice. “And that’s what he requires? Reverend Tome’s got a domineering personality.”

“And I know what I want.”

 

p “Is it the religion, him, or just uncertainty in general?”

Seeing Joe and Benny closing up the van, Ella decided to use the opportunity to duck the question. She didn’t re­ally know how to answer it anyway. Quickly she focused back on the case. “Anything preliminary you can tell me?”

“He was shot twice, that I know about, in the back of the skull. I recovered two jacketed hollow-point bullets just be­neath the body, so the vic was killed where he lay.”

“That’s cold. Being forced to lay down in your own grave,” Ella replied.

“Exactly. The exit wounds confirm the paths of the bul­lets. This was an execution, not a crime committed in the heat of passion,” Carolyn said.

“That should help us get into the mind of the killer. Any idea how long the body has been there? Months, years?”

“Judging from the soil and climate, and what I’ve learned from studies done at some body farms, I’d say it has been there around a year, give or take. I’ll have to do more tests and confirm the research, but I think my estimate will be close. Of course if we knew the name of the victim and when they went missing . . .”

“No chance of fingerprints?”

Carolyn shook her head. “Nope, the usual gang of de­composition critters pretty much consumed the friction ridges and smoothed everything out. But I’ll get DNA samples once I start my autopsy.”

While Ella walked with her friend to the van, Ralph and Justine finished taking photographs and set up wood-framed wire screens to sort through the loose earth that had sur­rounded the body.

Ella held the van door open for Carolyn while she stowed her medical bag. “Go out and have some fun with the new doc. Then you can tell me all about it.”

As Carolyn drove off, Benny came up to Ella. “Maybe she should have stuck around. I’ve taken another look at the ground and I have a sinking feeling that there are more bodies here—maybe three or four.”

 

 

“Yeah. I also did a little probing with a screwdriver and noticed that some spots seem to be undisturbed, hard packed. Those lie between the three or four softer, worked-over places. Like squares on a checkerboard,” Benny said. “Some hard, some soft, but in a pattern.”

“Any additional digging is going to be a hit or miss proposition—that is, unless there are bodies in each soft spot,” she said.

“I spoke to Joe about it and he brought a metal detector from the van that’ll pick up dense metal three feet down,” he said, gesturing to the sergeant. “That might help us lo­cate the presence of bullets—if other vics were killed here in the same way.”

Ella watched as Neskahi searched the ground, sweep­ing the loop of the long-handled device back and forth like a weed cutter.

“He’s going to find bottle caps and all kinds of trash, so we’ll still have to do a lot of careful exploratory digging,” Benny said.

“We need more technology,” Ella said. “I have an idea that may speed things up.”

Ella made a call to the station and put in a request for a ground-penetrating radar device. Although their department didn’t have one, county did, and an official request would soon go out.

“Do you think we’ll get to use the new unit county re­cently purchased?” Benny asked, looking over to Neskahi, who had just unearthed a beer can.

“I’m hoping. I’ve heard it’s state-of-the-art. Their tech could save us a week’s worth of digging, and in this heat I’m all for quick answers,” Ella answered.

“I’d like to get a better overview of the scene,” Benny said, “I’m going to climb up the Hogback a ways, then look back in this direction. Maybe I can spot some features we just can’t see from ground level. Unless you can call up a helicopter?”

“That’ll never happen, but I’ll go with you. Two pairs of eyes and all that. Let me find some privacy so I can shed this ballistic vest. No sense in climbing with all that extra weight in this heat.”

The steep, slippery climb up the essentially bare-faced, spinelike ridge was even harder than Ella had expected. Although they’d chosen the lateral route with the most foot­holds and handholds instead of going straight up, the climb was still precarious. The nearly sixty-degree outcrop was solid sandstone broken into large and small slabs, and ex­tended for miles north and south, undulating like a dragon’s tail.

The cracks were far apart, and often the bedrock was covered with loose material and windblown dust that made each footstep slippery and dangerous. Rocks continually shifted under her boots. After sliding downward a few feet across naked rock, twice in a row, she decided not to go any higher.

Keeping the tips of her boots firmly lodged in a narrow joint and leaning into the cliff, she turned her body around as much as possible and looked to the east. She could see up the valley for miles from here. Spotting Joe still sweeping the ground with the metal detector, she oriented herself further by finding the fence line and posts.

From where she was, Ella could see three other areas that  were a shade lighter than the surrounding topsoil. The former marsh to the south toward the river had been dried up for years. Yet change had come slowly and the darker sediment was contrasted by three roughly rectangular lighter spots around the uncovered grave. The vegetation was also a little out of phase, as they’d noticed before, though at this distance that was apparent only in color shifts.

“Tell me what you see, Benny,” Ella said, turning her head. Never a fan of heights, staring down a nearly vertical drop was making her dizzy.

“I see three other spots that look suspicious, two farther south of the grave, and one almost due east, just across the fence,” Benny called out, clinging to the rocks a few feet below and behind her.

“Yeah, that’s what I saw, too. One of those is on the county’s side, so that’s going to bring us a brand-new set of problems.”

Carefully retrieving her handheld from her jacket pocket, Ella directed Justine to the various sites so they could be marked with numbered flags. She then instructed her and the other officers to expand the crime scene to include the new areas, and to call the M.E. again.

“Let’s get back down,” Ella called out to Benny after he confirmed the placement.

They worked their way slowly, and there was a ten­dency to slide. The footing seemed even more precarious on the way down, but maybe that was only because they  were both eager to finish their descent.

Ella breathed a sigh of relief the second she hit solid ground. Benny, who’d slid the last ten feet on his behind, landed a few steps away from her. Reaching for her cell phone as they walked back toward the site, Ella wasted no time calling FBI agent Dwayne Blalock and San Juan County Sheriff Paul Taylor to give them the news. Jurisdictional matters required special handling, though, for practical rea­sons, the officers present would have to pass back and forth over boundaries as needed.

Neskahi met them before they reached the yellow tape line and held up a plastic evidence pouch with another bul­let. “Nine millimeter, probably from the same pistol as the other two. I found this about two feet down in the place Justine marked next to the current grave. I also have some hits from other, deeper locations. I marked them.”

“Good. We can start digging where you found the bul­let, but we’ll wait for radar on the rest. We don’t want to risk tainting evidence if there are other bodies here.”

 

Justine was at one of the sections they’d been able to identify from higher ground, the same spot where Neskahi had dug up the bullet. She pointed to six small yellow flag­tipped markers she’d placed in a crude rectangle about three by six feet. “I did some probing with a piece of wire, and outlined the area of soft ground. This is almost exactly the same size as the grave we dug up already.”

“Body size,” Ralph added, coming up with more markers.

“At least it’s on our side of the county line. Let’s get the tools.”

As her team came over, she could sense their uneasi­ness. The possibility of mass graves could make even the staunchest Modernist edgy. Few Navajos willingly entered an area the chindi had claimed, but duty bound them now. They’d each battle their own demons and do what had to be done.

 

Copyright © 2011 by Aimee and David Thurlo


Aimée and David Thurlo have written more than fifteen Ella Clah novels, in addition to numerous romantic suspense novels and other mysteries. David was raised on the Navajo Reservation and taught school there for many years. Aimée was born in Cuba. The Thurlos live in Corrales, New Mexico.

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