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Authors: Aimee Thurlo

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“Was the car anywhere near a medicine hogan?”
“About half a mile uphill and west from one,
according to Officer Curtis,” Justine said.
All this time she’d clung to the faint hope that their intel was wrong and Agent Thomas hadn’t gone anywhere near a Sing. But reality now shattered that fragile illusion. “Give me the exact location and meet me there. Call Tache, too. I want him to process the scene.”
Directions on the Rez didn’t always entail the use of street names and house numbers.
In this particular case, she had to proceed south down the highway leading to Gallup for around twenty-five miles on good road, turn west for another ten toward the Chuska Mountains, then continue another few miles on a primitive dirt track that would be hell this time of year even with the scant rains. The entire area was lined with overgrown trails that had at one time served as roads to the
mines that had been in operation during the ’50s and ’60s.
The drive took her nearly an hour. It was just past two o’clock when she parked beside Justine’s dusty white department vehicle at the top of a small piñon- and juniper-lined canyon in the rocky foothills. The terrain was rough, and she’d nearly gotten stuck during the last half mile because she’d kept to the vehicle tracks of those who’d
arrived ahead of her.
Justine was already on the scene, standing beside the dark blue FBI unit, and waved as Ella exited her SUV. Officer Tache, in the department’s crime-scene van, had nearly caught up to Ella just before they’d left the surfaced road, and Ella could now hear the low gears and bouncing tires as the officer approached from a rocky outcrop to her right.
The familiar scent of
pine resin, fresh sagebrush, and late summer flowers reminded Ella that her father’s mother, her
nálí,
had lived not too far from here. This had been a place of happy memories for her at one time, but now the area held only echoes of tragedy and danger.
Ella brought out her evidence kit, donning a set of latex gloves so she wouldn’t leave her own prints behind. When a body was part of a crime
scene, two pairs were usually worn by the Navajo officers in order to prevent touching anything that had touched the dead—a taboo even most modernist Navajos respected.
Not waiting for Tache, Ella climbed down the rock strewn slope, picking her way around the footprints and vehicle tracks that would need to be recorded and processed. As they approached Agent Thomas’s vehicle, Ella saw that it
had been damaged.
“Vandalism, or the result of an attack?” Ella asked, then saw the answer for herself as she came up to it. Both headlights had been smashed, along with the windshield, and someone had scratched “F-BItes” into the surface of the hood using a rock, apparently. Another rock was still embedded in the windshield.
“No sign of the agent. I did a spiral search for about a hundred yards
while I was waiting for you, and called out several times,” Justine said. “But the truth is he could be anywhere. There are a lot of mines around here.”
Ella nodded, checking the ground carefully from several viewpoints, like a golfer lining up a putt. “There were two groups of people here,” Ella said, waving her arm in the immediate area around the vehicle. “At least five individuals. Two people
arrived on foot but, later, there was also an SUV or a pickup here. There was a struggle, too,” she said pointing to the tracks on the ground. “See the undisturbed boot marks by the driver’s door where Thomas first got out? He was okay until he started to come back to his vehicle, then he was jumped.”
“Someone must have caught Thomas looking in on the ceremony and sent two helpers to deal with
him.”
“Those larger footprints—two sets—are over the smaller ones, which means they were here last. It’s anyone’s guess who vandalized the sedan. In some places there are so many tracks it’s difficult to make heads or tails out of them. Take plenty of photos, Ralph,” Ella said to Tache, who’d just arrived carrying a big box that held his cameras and other gear.
Officer Tache, a slender, glum-looking
man who rarely smiled, nodded. “Right, boss. Anyone else coming I should know about? Want me to put up the tape?”
“Don’t bother. We’re on a rush job right now. We need to find something quickly that’ll lead to locating the Anglo FBI agent.”
Tache nodded and brought out his camera, getting to work immediately while Justine continued to examine the agent’s vehicle.
Studying the area of the struggle
about six feet from the sedan, Ella found a few drops of blood on the sand. She waved first to Tache, who took a few photos, then had Justine come over and bag a sample.
“Someone got injured but we would have seen more blood if it had been a severe wound,” Ella said, as Justine recorded the date, time, and other identifying information on the bag’s label. “See if it matches Agent Thomas’s as
soon as you can.”
Ella’s muscles tensed, dark images filling her brain. With effort, she pushed them back, knowing that neither anger nor guilt feelings would help her now. She was here to do a job. Self-discipline was the key now and fortunately that came easily to her, particularly in circumstances like these.
“I caught a glimpse of the hogan on the way in,” Ella said. “I’m going down there
now to take a look around.”
“Watch your step,” Tache reminded. “The ground west of here is pockmarked with uranium mine shafts. You must have seen some of the old markers along the road on the way in. Most of the openings have been overgrown with brush, so make sure you don’t fall into one.”
Seeing Justine’s attempt to hush Tache up, Ella smiled. “I won’t make the same mistake twice, Ralph.
But thanks for the warning,” she said, remembering her last experience. She’d been lucky to come out of it alive, but the nightmares would haunt her for the rest of her life.
Justine picked up her own camera and walked along the narrow canyon with Ella, occasionally spotting tracks leading to and from the hogan as they scrambled over solid outcroppings, beds of coarse sand, and hard, rocky ground.
“One group came up this way, then went back down,” Ella said, then let out a harsh whistle to catch Tache’s attention. He looked over and she pointed to the ground, then saw him nod.
“I’ve never been able to whistle that way,” Justine said. “I
wanted to learn and my brother tried to teach me, but I never got the hang of it. And forget about my sisters. All they can do is scream.”
“Once Clifford
started whistling, I had to figure it out so I could do it too. It’s this sibling thing we have between us,” Ella said, and grinned.
As they approached the hogan, Ella heard a rumble of thunder and glanced up at the clouds creeping down the mountainsides. “We better move fast, photograph everything, and secure all the evidence we can.”
“Maybe it’ll just threaten to rain—the usual. But the wind
certainly won’t help.”
“No, today it’ll pour—mostly ‘cause we need it to stay dry,” Ella answered with a wry smile as they approached the medicine hogan. Ceremonial hogans were usually larger than those intended as residences, and more traditionally constructed. This eight-sided structure constructed of interlocking pine logs was topped with layered branches and a sealing layer of clay on the
roof. No blanket was hung in the simple doorway here.
Ella crouched near the hogan’s entrance, studying the tracks left on the sandy ground outside. “The ceremony was attended by a fairly large group—maybe a dozen or so people, judging from all the different sizes and types of tracks. I can see moccasins, boots, and even a few imprints from athletic shoes.”
Ella stepped inside the rounded interior,
her gaze taking everything in as Justine snapped photos. The fire pit had been used recently and the dirt floor had been cleared of any debris or plants and smoothed out. “This place has certainly been used as a medicine hogan, but I have no idea which medicine man, or men, work here. Maybe my brother will know.”
Ella studied the ashes scattered about, then picked up a bit of blackened animal
fat. “Blackening must have been part of the Sing that was done here, but all I know about this is that the black comes from charcoal. My brother will be able to tell what kinds of ceremonies incorporate that ritual and, with his help, we may be able to track down the
hataalii
who conducted it.”
Sings were based on knowledge and no one medicine man knew all them. Some could last for days and
were extremely complicated, so
hataaliis
specialized, sometimes memorizing only one ceremony.
When her cell phone rang, Ella stepped outside and answered it. Big Ed’s booming voice came through clearly.
“Our front desk just received a call from someone claiming to be Agent Thomas,” he said. “The caller, a man, said that he was injured, unable to move, and trapped in a dark place. The call was
made from a cell phone, but the transmission was weak, and faded before we could get any more details. Unfortunately, every attempt to call him back has failed. I wanted you to know right away and I’ll be calling Agent Simmons next to tell him about it. If he’s on the flight and I can’t get him, I’ll leave voice mail. Is there anything you’d like me to pass on to him, Shorty?”
“Yes. See if he
can get the Bureau to try and pick up the GPS signal from Thomas’s cell phone. Maybe his battery still has enough juice to home in on. If you can’t reach Simmons, call the Albuquerque office. That’s all I can offer at this stage,” she said, and told him what they’d found. “But once I have something more definite, we’ll pass it along.”
“It’s your call.”
Sensing Justine’s curiosity, Ella folded
up her cell phone and briefed her partner quickly. “We’ve got to pick up the pace. If the caller was really Andy Thomas, then he’s injured and trapped, so there’s no telling how long he’ll be able to hold on.”
W
orking quickly, Ella helped Justine and Tache collect the evidence around the missing agent’s sedan. Search dogs had been called, but they and their handlers were still en route, and the air now felt thick with moisture. Rain wasn’t far.
“There are more footprints leading to the west where the mine shafts begin. Do you think Agent Thomas fell into a hole trying to escape?” Justine
asked. “That might block out any signals he’s sending, or cause interference, at least.”
Tache made a low, guttural sound. “If he’s underground, he’s screwed. I heard there are more than a hundred uranium and coal mines along these mountains and, these days, their exact locations are anyone’s guess. That knowledge, along with the maps, was lost when the mining companies went out of business.”
“Don’t be so quick to give up on Agent Thomas. You both know I fell into one of those and I’m still here,” Ella said.
“Yeah, but that was different. We all had a pretty good idea where you were. It was just a matter of getting you back out,” Tache said.
Ella exhaled softly. Ralph made it sound so simple, but to her, it had been like an extended visit to the eighth circle of hell. Every second
she’d fought to claw her way out of the mine shaft had felt like an eternity.
Those memories were now as much a part of her as the beat of her own heart. She could still recall the terror she’d felt. Knowing that if Agent Thomas was trapped in a mine shaft he’d be going through the same ordeal renewed her energy. She knew what it was like to cling to hope when the odds were stacked against you
and how fear became like an undertow that dragged you down into a fathomless well of despair.
Feeling a sudden gust of wind, Ella focused on her surroundings once more. Without warning, the dark gray clouds that had covered the sky opened up and a thunderous rain began pounding the ground. “Call off the search dogs,” Ella told Justine as she zipped up her jacket, then glanced at Tache. “Take
one last, fast look around. If there’s any evidence left at all, we have to find it
now
.”
They searched again quickly but within a few minutes it became obvious that to continue would be fruitless. “Saddle up. We’re not going to be able to find anything else for a while. Go back to the station with what we have,” Ella called out over the noise of the downpour, then joined them as they ran through
the mud to their vehicles.
Back in her unit, watching as Tache, then Justine, used their four-wheel drives to work their vehicles out of the water-soaked ground, Ella called Big Ed on the phone and gave him an update. Her boss was disappointed when he learned of the rain, but could see the storm from the station all the way back in Shiprock.
“Shorty, I had to leave a message for Simmons, but
I got the Bureau to try again with their GPS system. They couldn’t get a peep from Thomas’s phone. If that call from Agent Thomas was the real thing—and we have no reason to doubt that at this point—then that Anglo boy is in a world of trouble.”
“I can find him,” Ella said firmly. “But I’m going to need search teams out here scouring the ground and peeking down mine shafts while I follow up on
other leads. The rain looks like it’ll be ending before long, but make sure they’re equipped with four-wheel drive.”
“Right. I’ll get some people into the area even if I have to
import them from the county,” Big Ed said. “I still haven’t gotten through to Simmons. My phone’s been ringing off the hook here. Try to call the man yourself and give him a rundown,” he said. “You have the number?”
Ella swallowed the bad taste in her mouth. “Yes, sir. I’ll get on it now.”
Not wanting the call to hang over her, Ella decided to get it over with. She’d hoped to be able to leave voice mail, then hang up and drive back to the highway with both hands on the steering wheel, but it wasn’t to be. Unlike Big Ed, she got Simmons on the first ring.
Ella put the vehicle in gear and drove slowly, inching
her way along the slippery path, phone in her left hand. Steering with her right, she filled him in on the discovery of Thomas’s car and the phone call, and the attempt to find his cell phone using the GPS signal.
“My guess is that it was probably a crank who found, or stole, Thomas’s phone and is now playing games with the police,” Simmons said. “But, on second thought, nix that. It’s too much
of a coincidence—a guy making a call like that without knowing Thomas is missing.” He paused, then added, “Thing is, if it isn’t Thomas, then the caller may be one of those who saw him last night, so you’ve got to follow it through.”
“Can you get me what’s needed to make a trace if we get another call?” Ella asked. “And keep someone monitoring in case Thomas’s GPS starts working?”
“I’ll make
sure we have someone listening in for his GPS signature, but I’m not sure if I can get a tech for you to trace a call from a civilian’s cell phone, or Thomas’s if his GPS sender is down. Operations like that require a full-time tech and state-of-the-art equipment. Very expensive.” Simmons said.
“How much is Andy Thomas worth?” Ella had already had enough of Simmons to last a lifetime.
“Yeah.
Well, okay. I’ll make a call. We may be able to get what we need through the Albuquerque office. They have access to some hardware, with all the research labs around New Mexico.”
“The sooner the better, Agent Simmons.” Ella considered telling him about her plans to talk to her brother and follow up on the Sing, but decided against it. She’d call him when she had answers, not possibilities. “I
better get back to it, then,” she said, intending to hang up. But he spoke again.
“Right now I’m waiting to take off to Denver, and from there I’m on to D.C., but I’m available to you twenty-four/seven. Make sure you keep me updated, particularly if you get another one of those phone calls allegedly from Thomas. Just remember, don’t assume anything. Something like that bears closer scrutiny.”
Ella put her cell phone down and concentrated on manhandling the SUV through a small arroyo which had water flowing in the bottom. But Simmons’s last phrase stuck in her mind. Most people would have said something simple like “is worth following up” or maybe just a simple, “keep digging.” But “bears closer scrutiny”? Who the heck sounded like a Sherlock Holmes dictionary when they talked?
The
phrase continued to bug her and, within seconds, she suddenly remembered why. Back in her Bureau days, like many green FBI agents, she’d worked hard to try to get assigned to the Los Angeles Bureau where the action was. Careers had been made at posts like that, or in Washington D.C., or New York City. But she’d faced tough competition for the one available opening that happened to pop up just at the
right time.
Gregory Simmons, already a seasoned agent, had been one of those also angling for the job. They’d both interviewed with the special agent in charge informally at first and, as she’d waited for her turn to speak, Simmons had told the SAC that a post in the L.A. Bureau should belong only to the best, and any candidate who “wasn’t worthy of close scrutiny” wasn’t worth having. He’d then
listed his years of experience and impressive qualifications, capping that off by saying that he’d taken no shortcuts. He’d met the highest standards at the Bureau through his own merits and hard work alone, not via the back door.
Everyone in the room had known he was referring to the minority recruitment program. At that moment, more than anything,
she’d wanted to grace him with an elbow smash
to the hinge of his jaw.
She’d gone through the official interview that had followed, wondering if the SAC was part of the “old school”—in which case he probably disapproved of women agents and she was out of the running—or if she really had a shot at the spot To her own surprise she was offered the assignment and, after that, she never saw Simmons again. Although she’d forgotten all about him,
she was dead certain he hadn’t forgotten her.
Thirty minutes later, Ella arrived at her brother’s place, which was farther north and a few miles from her mother’s home. Clifford’s medicine hogan was about one hundred feet from his house, and she could tell that he and Loretta were both at home. His pickup and her old beat-up white sedan were parked on either side of the front entrance to their
home. Since the Sing the agent had interrupted hadn’t been done here, she was fairly certain that her brother hadn’t been the
hataalii
who’d conducted it. But he might know who had.
Ella pulled off the dirt track and parked, then got out of her unit and looked around. There was a small cloud of dust rising from the direction she’d just come. It was either another vehicle or, more likely, a dust
devil crossing the road. If they got lucky they’d have rain tonight in this area too, and that would settle some of that dust. She could see another promising thunder-boomer still building over the dry deserts to the southeast.
The rocky ground here, well above the river valley to the north and east, wasn’t much good for farming. There was dirt and sand, but no real soil. Only stunted grass,
sage and rabbitbrush, and a few scrawny junipers grew here, but she loved the area. This was the land that the tribe had originally given their family. On the reservation no one except the tribe
owned
land, but allottees could hold on to what they’d been given for as long as they remained on the Rez and in possession of the land.
Leaning against the door of her unit, Ella waited for her brother
to extend an invitation for her to approach. It was a
courtesy many Navajos, mostly traditionalists, still granted their neighbors.
Minutes passed and Loretta, Clifford’s wife, came out to the front porch. Loretta was a beautiful Navajo woman with long, black hair and almost Asian features. Nearly ten years younger than her husband, she was nevertheless a staunch traditionalist and usually dressed
in long skirts and simple blouses, like the ones she was wearing today.
Loretta waved at Ella and called out. “My husband’s not in the medicine hogan, sister-in-law. He went to gather herbs in the moist spots along the cliffside. There’s a place where water stands long after the summer rains. It’s one of his favorite sites.”
“I know where that is,” Ella called back, and with a wave, walked across
the road in the general direction of the hogan, knowing it would be easier to hike up the path that ended there than drive—and it would take less time, which was even more important at the moment.
Despite Clifford’s skill as an outdoorsman, he left tracks just like anyone else unless he was deliberately trying to hide his passage. Today, his path of travel was distinctive and she knew it would
be no problem catching up to him.
The long, low mesa where she was headed could be seen for miles. Nearly vertical in places, the flat-looking summit held piñon and juniper trees in greater abundance than down below. At the base of the cliffs were boulders that had broken away from the mesa, depositing a jumble of large and small sandstone rocks—what geology teachers called a talus slope.
In
some places water rushing past at the base of the cliffs, following much-appreciated rainstorms, had worn small hollows and exposed bedrock, or deposited sediments into cool, shady spots. The drainage of water off the mesa in places had created temporary waterfalls and resulted in intermittent pools where children could cool their toes on the hottest summer days. Around these spots the soil retained
more moisture, making them fertile spots for vegetation.
As she made her way along the base of the mesa, which extended for miles in a general north-south direction, Ella began to experience a vague uneasiness that soon penetrated to the forefront of her thoughts. At first, it was nothing more than the uncertain but creepy feeling that someone was watching her. Then the badger fetish at her
neck began to feel hot—a sure sign that she was in danger. She’d never been able to figure out why the fetish her brother had given her always grew warm when she was in trouble, but that warning had never failed her, so she’d learned not to discount it.
Ella stopped behind cover and studied the area around her. Something wasn’t right. She wasn’t sure what that was, exactly, but her instincts
were telling her to stay sharp. She started to move forward, then froze to the spot. Intuition told her to wait, and that instinctive knowledge could be trusted. It came from that part of her that never lowered its guard, that always weighed actions against words, never quite trusting anyone or anything. Cop radar.
Ella waited, listening. She couldn’t hear or see anything out of place but she
knew in her gut something or someone was out there. Not wanting to lead danger right to her brother, Ella circled around, staying behind cover. If it were an animal, like a mountain lion that had wandered down from the mountains in search of prey, she’d soon spot it, providing she remained watchful long enough. Patience was the key.
Like a skilled hunter, her passage through the underbrush was
as silent as snowfall. Ella doubled back, then pivoted randomly, attuned to everything from the scent of sage in the air to the birds, lizards, and occasional cottontail that scurried out of her way. After exhausting everything in her bag of tricks and finding nothing, she headed back along the mesa trail that would take her to where Clifford was. If nothing else, she was certain she’d lost whoever
or whatever had been following her.
Although her approach had been silent, her brother looked up as soon as she got within twenty-five yards, a worried frown on his face. His gaze took in the area around them in a split second.
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