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Authors: Aimée & David Thurlo

Blackening Song

 

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Contents

Title Page

Copyright Notice

Dedication

Authors’ Note

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Also by Aimée & David Thurlo

Copyright

 

To Tony Hillerman because he never forgot what it was like in the trenches, and gave us a hand when we needed one.

Thanks, Tony, you’re one in a million.

AUTHORS’ NOTE

The rituals described herein have been abbreviated and altered slightly out of respect for the Navajo people.

ONE

Ella Clah sat alone in her booth in a northeast L.A. coffee shop. The laminated menu lay untouched near the end of the narrow table. She knew it by heart, having come here practically every afternoon for the past year. It was close to the Southwestern Museum, a place she visited frequently.

It was a little after five, too early for dinner, but she didn’t feel like going home just yet. Today
her bureau office had finally closed the fraud case they’d been working on for the last six months. Most of the other agents were celebrating at The Watering Hole, a favorite bar just a short walk from their downtown L.A. office. Ella wondered if she’d made a mistake by not going with them.

She had a reputation for being a loner, and, in truth, she rarely socialized with her fellow agents. It
wasn’t the company she minded; it was all the drinking. She’d seen too much of it on the reservation where she’d grown up. Though the sale of alcohol was prohibited on the Navajo Nation, alcoholism was widespread.

She stared at the red tile flooring, lost in thought. Her life on the Rez seemed like a century ago. In the last six years, she’d moved four times. The bureau kept her on the move and
away from her home in northwestern New Mexico. She’d known about and welcomed the policy, which was meant to protect agents and their integrity, to keep agents far from investigations that might involve friends and family. The job-required travel helped Ella make a break with her past and start a new and different life.

Ella watched the oleander bush in the coffee shop’s courtyard sway in the
hot Santa Ana wind. Tempers were short when the weather was like this. She glanced around the room, silently noting the faces of the few patrons who sat in the booths and at the tiny oak tables. Only Jeremy Jackson, the manager, seemed unaffected by the seasonal breeze. Ella had known him for months and had yet to see him in a bad mood.

Jeremy was slowly working his way toward her booth. The
tall, lanky, black man’s easy stride matched his casual style. He stopped by every customer, greeting each as congenially as if they were old friends, making each feel special. He was good at his job. Business had doubled at the hole-in-the-wall coffee shop since he’d taken it over.

Jeremy skirted the last few empty tables and slid into the seat across from Ella, flashing a wide grin.

“Hey,
Ella. Heard on the news the local FBI office broke open a big telephone fraud operation today. You in on that?”

She nodded.

“Why’re you celebrating alone again, lady?”

“You’re here,” she said, smiling.

“Yeah, working, as usual.” He shrugged. “You’d be happier if you had someone special. I know. That’s why I keep getting married.” He smiled.

“Well, maybe five will be your lucky number,” she
answered, chuckling.

Jeremy glanced toward the entrance as the tiny bell above the door rang and a man walked into the shop. “Damn. Not again. This guy getting to be a real pain.”

“Trouble?” Her view of the newcomer was blocked by the cigarette machine near the entryway.

“Nah, he’s harmless, just a headache. He applied for a job about a month ago. I hired someone else, but he keeps coming back,
trying to get me to change my mind.”

“He must really want the job.”

“No, it’s more than that. I get the idea he’s racist as hell and didn’t like getting turned down by a black man. I better go talk to him.” Jeremy walked across the room.

Ella saw the man clearly as he stepped into the middle of the diner to meet Jeremy. The guy had brown hair, brown eyes, and was no more than average in height,
almost painfully ordinary. Still, eight years of fieldwork for the bureau had honed Ella’s instincts to a fine point. Something made her study him more carefully.

His short-sleeved white shirt and tan corduroy pants, though clean and neat, were threadbare. He was restless, shuffling from one sneakered foot to the other, as if the wait for Jeremy was unendurable. His nervous smile seemed to flicker
on and off like a neon sign. As her gaze drifted down, she noted the zippered gym bag he was clutching in a white-knuckled grip.

Instincts weren’t always on target, but without even thinking about it, Ella reached beneath her cotton blazer, feeling for her nine-millimeter Sig.

Then she saw the lines of tension around the man’s face vanish as he spoke to Jeremy, and she breathed a sigh of relief.
She was wound too tightly, that’s all. Not everyone who looked nervous was a psycho in the making.

When she heard him laugh at something Jeremy said, Ella sat back to enjoy the hamburger platter the waitress had brought her. She was off duty, for pete’s sake! It was time to stop acting and thinking like a federal cop.

She bit into a forkful of french fries seasoned with ketchup. Before she could
swallow, the sharp crack of a gunshot sliced through the air and the glass mirror behind the cash register counter shattered into jagged slivers.

Ella peeked around the booth partition, simultaneously reaching for her gun. Staff and customers screamed as the creep fired wildly, shattering dishes and blasting food.

She blocked out the chaos, searching for a way to get off a clear shot and bring
down the perpetrator. But the man had stepped back toward the entrance, and the row of booths blocked her view. All she could see was his hand and weapon. Looking low, between the chairs and the bottoms of tables, she saw Jeremy lying still on the tiled floor, blood pumping onto the terra-cotta tiles. The gunman’s gym bag, unzipped, lay open, and Ella could see that it held spare magazines for
his handgun.

He kept firing, each thunderous blast deafening in the confines of the shop. The madman had either a Taurus or Beretta nine-millimeter semiauto. He’d fired off at least seven rounds; he had another seven or eight to go before he’d need to reload.

Ella worked her way closer, trying to get clear of the customers who were huddled on the floor and using the tables for cover. One woman’s
piercing screams rose above the gunfire.
Shut up, lady. Don’t give him a reason to take it out on you!
Ella scrambled forward, still unable to see more than the hand and the pistol, which bucked every time it fired.

Abruptly, the shooting stopped. The intense silence that followed was unnerving. As Ella angled around a customer, the man stepped into view. She raised her pistol, determined to
make a kill shot.

“Everyone against the counter,” the gunman snapped, shifting position slightly. Now a metal post blocked her shot. “If you do what I tell you, you’ll live to tell the story. I’m no murderer. All I want to do here today is make a point.”

Before Ella could even take a breath, the gunman blasted two rounds through the table to his left; one round struck the waitress crouching
there. “I said get moving!
Now!

Instead of complying, the terrified customers started screaming again. One woman tried to, run to the door, but the shooter grabbed her arm, spun her around, and sent her crashing into a table. “The counter! Can’t anybody here understand English?”

Ella heard sobbing from one of the two women huddled under the table in front of her. One started to obey the gunman,
but the other yanked her back down.

“None of you wants to die, and I don’t want to kill you,” the man said calmly. “But that’s what’s going to happen if you don’t do exactly what I say.”

His voice was so matter-of-fact it sent a chill right through Ella. Gut instinct assured her he was out to make one last stand. The only adversary more dangerous than a man willing to die was one eager to find
death, and this guy was a little of both.

Ella stood, carefully keeping her gun out of his line of sight, but hoping to draw the man’s attention. As she did, one of the women in front of her broke loose from her companion and rushed toward the kitchen doors. The gunman started to swing around just as the middle-aged Hispanic woman slipped on spilled food and fell flat.

Before he could squeeze
off a shot, Ella lunged around the customer still between them, pushing the woman into the shelter of a booth, firing as she moved. Her bullet went high, and she only managed to catch the man in the shoulder, spinning him around.

Taking a slug from a nine-millimeter hollow-point was a bit like being kicked by a horse, yet the man recaptured his balance quickly. As he returned fire, Ella ducked
out of sight behind a booth. His bullet splintered into the wall just to her right.

Oblivious to pain, the lunatic dragged a woman out from under a table. Hauling her to her feet, he held her in front of him like a shield.

“Slide your gun over here, cop!” he ordered. “Then come out, or I’ll blow her brains all over the floor.”

The woman’s terror was clear on her face, but only a tiny whimper
came out of her mouth.

“You’re out of time,” he said calmly, raising his semi-auto to the woman’s ear.

“Stop!” Ella shouted. She was as good as dead if she came out unarmed, but the hostage wouldn’t have a prayer if she didn’t. Ella took a deep breath and checked the .22-caliber backup pistol she kept in her boot. The tiny eleven-ounce weapon was only good for two shots, and she’d have to reach
it
fast.
A mouse at a cat convention had a better chance than she did.

“Now!” the gunman snapped.

Ella pulled the clip out of her pistol. She wasn’t going to give him any more ammunition. “Okay, relax. Here’s my pistol,” she said, sliding it across the floor toward him. “Let her go, and I’ll come out.”

“You’re in no position to bargain.”

The wail of sirens and screeching of tires reverberated
in the street outside the small shop. She held her breath. “I’m the only hostage you’ll need. I’m an FBI agent. Now let her go.”

The psycho took a step forward, his pistol steady, the barrel still pressed to the woman’s head. “Come out
now.
I won’t repeat myself.”

She emerged from cover slowly, half expecting to be shot where she stood. But all he did was stare at her curiously, like a rattler
eyeing its next meal. She knew what he was seeing. A well-proportioned woman of slightly more than medium height, copper skin deeply tanned from her daily cross-country run, black hair and black eyes.

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