Authors: Aimée & David Thurlo
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To Page One in Albuquerque and their wonderful staff,
especially Kay Marcotte, Patricia Montoya,
Ilene Hartfield, and Vicki Reisenbach,
who have always made Ella feel so welcome.
It was shortly after four when Ella Clah left the small, wood frame and stucco public health service clinic near the river in Shiprock. As she walked, she brushed away a strand of long black hair that stirred with the warm New Mexico breeze and drifted down in front of her eyes. Gloria Washburn, a Navajo nurse in her mid-thirties and a friend of Ella’s, remained beside
her as they crossed the narrow parking lot.
A bit nervous, Ella absently reached up to touch the stone badger fetish pendant she always wore. “And you’re sure the blood test is conclusive?” Ella asked her friend, who was almost a head shorter and thirty pounds heavier than Ella’s five-foot-ten slender frame.
Gloria nodded. “It’s pretty much one hundred percent.”
“By the way, it’s really important
to me that no one else find out about this yet. Don’t tell a soul, okay?”
“Sure, but this isn’t the type of thing that’ll just go away if you ignore it. It’s going to affect your entire lifestyle.”
“I know,” Ella said. “But first I have to get my own thoughts in order.”
“Order and then harmony,” Gloria acknowledged.
“There are times the old ways make a lot of sense,” Ella said.
by her own vehicle, an inexpensive white sedan with the PHS logo on the door panel. “Well, I’m off to make my patient visits. Some of the traditionalists over by Rattlesnake still won’t come in to the clinic. To tell you the truth, they don’t even want to see me when I come to them, but I’m pushy,” she said with a grin. “That helps.”
“Good luck.” Ella waved at Gloria then continued to where her
own unmarked police vehicle was parked. Gloria was right. Her entire life was about to be turned upside down, but there was no turning back the clock now.
Ella was pulling out onto the highway when the dispatcher’s call came in over the radio. “PD to SI Unit One.”
“SI Unit One, go ahead,” Ella answered. As Special Investigator of the Navajo Tribal Police, she had four officers she could call
upon, though only one, Officer Justine Goodluck, was permanently assigned to the SI team at the moment.
“Big Ed wants you over at LabKote, on the west side. One of the Anglo supervisors just reported a dead body in the parking lot.”
“Got anything more on that?” Big Ed Atcitty was the police chief in Shiprock, and Ella answered only to him.
“The Anglo who called it in, a Doctor Landreth, reported
it was a suicide, but Big Ed wants you to check it out. He also expects a full report from you as soon as possible.”
Ella was familiar with the relatively new Anglo-run company whose building she saw from the highway as she drove by every day. The company packaged and sold sterilized laboratory and hospital supplies. LabKote had landed a sweet deal with the tribe, leasing the building and land
for five years at very low rates, providing they would hire a certain percentage of Navajo workers for their operation.
“I’m on my way now. ETA in five minutes.”
“The county sheriff has also been called in to consult because the victim is a resident of Waterflow, off the Rez, and is not Navajo.”
“Who’ll be running the show—him or me?”
“Anything pertaining to investigations on the Rez is your
responsibility. Unless the FBI wants to take jurisdiction, you’re in charge. Big Ed made that clear.”
Ella switched on her flashers, then raced down the highway toward the center of the small reservation town. It was time to get to work and that meant setting aside the concerns that had been foremost in her mind until now. But it wasn’t easy. The news and all its implications had rocked
her world to the core.
Ella slowed to forty miles per hour, watching for cars pulling out of businesses and for pedestrians as she passed through the heart of Shiprock. She accelerated across the old steel westbound bridge, then took the curve in the road back toward the south. Traffic, mostly pickups, gave way slowly, but she didn’t have far to go.
It was late summer, and the weather had been cool. There was
a sense of purpose on the Rez now as everyone got busy harvesting and preparing for the long winter months ahead.
Reaching the turn-off, she drove quickly up the long, straight, graveled lane, surprised by how well it had been maintained. The seasonal rains usually came down in sheets for a half hour each day and roads quickly eroded, etched with deep ruts that scarred the overgrazed region called
the Colorado Plateau.
That wasn’t the case on this road that led to LabKote, however, despite the fact that this same road also carried fairgrounds traffic and was constantly in use. Ella figured that the company must have hired a private construction company to come out here and maintain the road in order to make it easier for their own employees to get through.
LabKote was housed in what had
once been the old cultural center. The employee parking lot was located outside the newly erected chain-link fence and, as she drove up, she could see an Anglo man waiting for her beside a sporty looking sedan.
Ella parked her unit several spaces away in the closest slot she could find, then walked over to meet him. He was well-tanned, slightly overweight, and could have passed for a Navajo at
a distance. As she got a closer look at him, Ella decided the man was probably Italian or maybe Middle Eastern. He certainly wasn’t from around here, and didn’t look Hispanic.
“I’m Doctor Landreth—Ph.D., not medical,” he said. “I’m the general manager here. That’s Kyle Hansen, one of our engineers,” he said pointing to the body inside the car. “He usually came out here this time of day for a
cigarette break but, when he didn’t come back today, we had Jimmie Herder, one of our security guards, go check on him. He found the body less than fifteen minutes ago and we called the police right away.”
As Ella approached the car, she put on her latex gloves automatically, her eyes on the scene. Like most Navajos she had an ingrained aversion to death, but she’d never let traditions interfere
with her work. However, as was becoming customary, she put on a second pair over the first. Many Navajo officers did this so they wouldn’t even have to touch gloves that had touched the body, or the dead person’s possessions.
Ella studied everything as she approached. Both car doors were closed, but the driver’s side window was open and the body was slumped behind the steering wheel. The victim’s
bloody head had rolled to the right, glazed eyes staring sightlessly ahead. A nine-millimeter handgun lay on the asphalt below the victim’s left arm, which dangled outside the car. Ella stood by the door and looked inside. An open pack of cigarettes was on the dashboard and, from where she stood, she could see the tip of one blood soaked, unlit cigarette peeking out from beneath the sole of one
of his shoes.
She looked at the victim’s right hand and noticed, among the gore, what appeared to be nicotine stains on two fingertips.
Ella discovered two shell casings on the ground on the driver’s side, and circled each with a piece of white chalk. She then stood up and stepped back, looking at the overall area.
“Is there a problem?” Landreth asked, seeing her searching the area around the
“Please step back,” she asked, not answering. “You might accidentally disturb a crucial piece of evidence.”
Another man came out of the gate, a tall Anglo wearing khaki pants and a light blue print sports shirt. At his waist was a nine-millimeter Beretta in a black leather holster, and on his belt a leather case like those tradesmen used for large folding knives. If he’d had a badge, he
could have been mistaken for an undercover cop.
She looked up, a question in her eyes.
“I’m Walter Morgan, director of security here at LabKote. Need any help, Officer…?
“Special Investigator Clah. And, yes, I’d appreciate it if you keep everyone well back from the scene. I’m conducting an investigation here.”
“Certainly, Officer Clah. Happy to be of assistance.” Morgan turned and gestured
to Landreth, who took a few more steps back. The security chief seemed comfortable and confident, almost the opposite of Landreth, and Ella assumed he was probably ex-military.
Moments later, she still hadn’t found any matches or a lighter, despite a careful search. It was a small detail, but things that didn’t fit always put her on the alert. Unfortunately, until the medical examiner finished
her work, Ella knew she wouldn’t be able to check the victim’s pockets and beneath the car seat.
“Did anyone disturb the crime scene at all after the body was found?” Ella asked, realizing it was time to get out the yellow tape and block off the crime scene.
Morgan looked at Landreth and shrugged. The general manager answered. “I don’t believe so, but why does that matter anyway? He committed
suicide. That’s clear to anyone with eyes. The gun’s in his hand, or was, before it fell to the ground. This isn’t a crime scene.” Landreth took a step forward, pointing at the pistol.
“Suicide is a crime. Now please move back,” she said again, then focused on the body. Dealing with Anglos in the public sector could be frustrating. The ones accustomed to being in charge seldom relinquished authority
Morgan shook his head at Landreth, and pointed toward the gate.
“I’ll block off the area with yellow tape,” she heard a man’s voice suddenly boom out from somewhere behind her. “They’ll understand perimeters better that way.”
Ella turned her head and saw Sheriff Paul Taylor approaching from his white cruiser. She’d met Taylor once at a law enforcement fund-raiser, but they’d only spoken
a few words. Taylor was in his late fifties and had thick but graying hair under his felt cowboy hat. Despite his laid-back rural lawman demeanor, the sheriff’s pale blue eyes were eagle sharp and she’d gotten the impression he seldom missed anything.
“You certainly got here fast. I just arrived myself.”
“I was just leaving Kirtland after refereeing a post–fender bender shoving match,” he said.
“I’ll be back in a minute. Let me get the yellow tape and isolate the scene from non-Navajos.”
Ella looked around for the LabKote people, and saw Landreth walking back toward the building. Morgan followed, a few steps behind. She focused her attention back on the sheriff.
Taylor had obviously learned from experience that it was unnecessary to keep Navajos away from dead people. They stayed away
on their own. By the time Taylor began to cordon off the area, Ella had put in a call for Ralph Tache, the crime scene photographer, and the two others on her crime team, Sergeant Harry Ute and Officer Justine Goodluck, Ella’s cousin. Any shooting had to be investigated, and this one, if her hunch was right, would need to be carefully evaluated before the reports were filed.