We are so lucky to have with us today Aimée and David Thurlo who together write the fabulous Ella Clah series. The latest release in the series is BLACK THUNDER which Publishers Weekly called “an insightful portrait of a native culture still evolving between tradition and modernity.”
In BLACK THUNDER, the plot line focuses on crimes that could be the work of a serial killer. The story also showcases the difficulty of walking the line between traditional values handed down for generations and the pressures to adapt to an ever changing modern world.
The book is filled with action and shows a side of Ella that readers have yet to see and I hope you will enjoy this excerpt!
“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 fenceposts 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 spine-like 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 away.
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 field work.
“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 t-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 their 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 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 – based upon their curiosity, their more relaxed expressions, and the absence of medicine pouches at their belt or in hand.
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 long time 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 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.
Thank you much so much Aimée and David for coming by today! I’m also so excited to hear that you’ll be bringing us a new romantic suspense in November – WINTER HAWK’S LEGEND.
Romantic Times gave WINTER HAWK’S LEGEND four and a half stars, which is truly an honor! In this exciting romantic suspense, Holly Gates must hide out with Daniel Hawk, a fearless security expert sworn to protect her. She finds herself falling in love with him though, unlike her, he craves no home or family – just the same freedom as the great hawk.
I can’t wait to read it! For all those you are visiting today, I’m offering up a copy of my e-book ROOKIE OF THE YEAR if you leave a comment and/or tweet this:
Visit with Aimée and David Thurlo 2day #giveaway #romance #suspense @ http://www.caridad.com/blog.
Thank you all for dropping by today!