Authors: Aimée Thurlo
Al's voice shifted slightly to that quick toneâthe one that Charlie knew was a tell for his brother when he was hiding something. “No bar hopping, bro?” Charlie asked, trying to bring him out. It was a time when his brother was drinking heavily.
Al laughed, and there was a short pause. “Naw, we took in a few movies at one of the big theaters, but when it came to booze we brought enough with us in our luggage to last. Don't rat me out to the campus cops.”
Charlie laughed back, wondering if Al was saying this for him or for Nedra. He also wondered if Nedra knew the tellâthat Al was lying about something.
Charlie wasn't in the mood to start something with his brother, so he let it go. “If you think of anyone or anything that may have blown your cover, let me know, Al. I'm still keeping my nose in this. Gordon and I don't have any plans at the moment, but one way or the other, we're going to continue cranking up the heat until we figure out who knocked off the silversmith.”
“Copy that, Charlie. Just be careful, okay?”
“You too, Al, and take care of yourself, Nedra, and the boys. Fasthorse and his people take everything personal, you know.”
“Yeah. And thanks again for bailing me out, little brother.”
“Sure,” Charlie said. “Later.”
“Later,” Al replied, and ended the call.
Charlie set down the phone, took a deep swallow of Coke, then stirred up the lasagna in the plastic dish. It was cold, but he was hungry and another pass in the microwave would turn the lasagna into shoe leather. He dug in immediately, trying to figure out what to do next. He wasn't a cop, and he needed help from a fresh outlook. Maybe Dad.
The long, dry ridge known as Hogback loomed in the distance as Charlie slowed to make the right-hand turn off Highway 64. The private road led to his parents' home a few miles east of the Rez border. The drive from Albuquerque had been smooth and he'd made good time on the sections of newer highway off tribal land.
Jake and Ruth were holding down the fort and Gordon was keeping an eye on them while he made this quick run back to his own home grounds.
Charlie had woken in the morning with the thought that maybe his dad could help them come up with a strategy that would enable them to nail Clarence and his mother before any more harm was done.
His mom sounded excitedâhis last visit had been almost a year agoâbut she ordered him to bring a suit and tie. They were attending some kind of tribal event that evening and they wanted to show him off.
Charlie had cringed at the thought, but Mom had finally agreed to introduce him only as their youngest son, nothing else. He'd only been back to the Rez twice since that god-awful parade, and though he knew the tribe had to have its heroes, he sure didn't feel like one. Doing your job didn't make you a hero. In his mind that was supposed to be reserved for someone who went way above and beyond what was expected of themâbeyond bravery.
All he'd discovered while in the Army was that he was skilled at taking prisoners and destroying the enemy. The only thing he could be proud of, if such a thing really mattered, was that at least he hadn't personally killed anyone who wasn't trying to kill him back. If only he could forget about having to turn over his captives to civilians who'd turned around and done God-knows-what to them.
His mom and dad's retirement home was off the Rez, barely, and it wasn't where they'd actually raised their kids. Charlie had grown up in Shiprock up on the northern mesa, in one of those old brick apartments left over from when the days when the government maintained boarding schools for Navajo children from remote communities.
Dad was a lawyer and had been a tribal judge for over twenty years while Mom taught at the elementary school just up the hill from the family apartment. They'd eventually made enough to be able to buy a home, which meant it had to be off-Rez. Both were now retired and doing well, apparently.
As he approached the metal gate, it swung open, courtesy of an electric motor powered by a battery and solar panel atop a post. Dad had been installing it last visit and he'd helped.
The double garage was open, and as he drove into the graveled driveway, Dad rose up from the footstool beside the engine compartment of the old VW Bug he was working on and walked out onto the gravel.
Dad,” Charlie greeted the equivalent of hello as he parked to the right of the garage, making sure he wouldn't block the drive. He stepped out and met his father halfway.
He and his dad, Alfred Senior, looked alike in facial features and stature, tall and slender, while Al Junior was shorter and barrel-chested, like so many Navajo men. Jayne and Mom were even smaller, almost delicate, and, fortunately, a lot better looking.
“Didn't take you that long, Charlie,” his dad commented with a grin. “Looks like you made every light,” he added, shaking his hand firmly. It was an old jokeâthere were less than six stoplights in the two hundredâplus mile drive once out of Albuquerque proper.
“Wind at my back, Dad,” he responded. Both of them loved to drive, work on cars, and ride horses. Growing up in the community of Shiprock, the entire family had gone on trail rides up and down the San Juan River bosque on weekends. During summer, at least into high school, all three siblings rode at least an hour or two each day.
The horses were long gone now, a distant, pleasant memory when the Henrys had been the all-first American family. They'd worked hard, had good jobs, and were better off than most Navajos, or even most New Mexicans for that matter.
“Where's Mom?” Charlie asked, then heard a door slam inside the garage. Out came his mother, a hard-gentle woman who was as loving as she was firm with her children. Charlie blamed her razor-sharp eyes on her thirty years in an elementary school classroom. He and Al had never gotten away with anything for long, at least with Mom, but it was Dad who really watched out for Jayne. She was, no question about it, Dad's favorite, and had been completely spoiled until she reached puberty. After that, her father was truly the judgeâat least when it came to boys dating his princess.
Mom's hug began a dozen feet away and was as warm as it was loving. “So glad you're hereâand safe, Charlie. I just spoke to Al, who's healing well, and he said you've both been involved with some very dangerous people. He's a police officer, but I thought when you left the Army you were done with all thatÂ â¦ violence.”
“He has the right to defend himself, dear,” his dad commented softly. “But let's move on. How about some coffee, son? Looks like you could use a jolt to open your eyes.”
Charlie nodded. “And a cinnamon roll?” he asked hopefully, looking at his mom.
She smiled. “That's my Charlie.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
An hour later, Charlie was back outside, sitting on the ground beside his father, who was static timing the old VW with a ten millimeter socket wrench, a small light that was alligator clamped to an electrical contact, and a big open-end wrench clenching the pulley nut.
“So you're looking to tie together all these incidentsâthe robbery, the shooting, the grave robbing, and the necklaceâto this Night Crew?” his dad asked, turning the small distributor slightly until the light came on.
“What am I doing wrong, Dad? There seems to be some pieces missing,” Charlie said, tightening the nut on the distributor with the ten mil wrench.
“You're right, it all has to tie together. I think what you need to find out here is why the first crime took placeâthe robbery and the killing of the silversmith,” his dad replied, snapping the distributor cap back in place.
“Well, the Night Crew, Fasthorse's people, specialize in carjackings, mostly. You don't think this was just a robbery gone bad?”
His dad shook his head. “There's more to it, a deeper motive, I'm guessing. Actually, this gives me an idea. Clarence's mother, Sheila Mae Ben, used to manage one of the tribal casinos.”
“Yes, sir. She's got an MBA or something. But she lost that job, right?”
“Officially, she resigned, but there's more to it than that, Charlie. Did you know I sit on the tribal casino advisory board?”
Charlie shook his head. “I knew you're on several tribal boards, but I didn't know about that one.”
“The tribal president appointed me to that position about six months before Sheila was forced out. It was all kept confidential to avoid a tribal scandal.”
“Why? Was she stealing from the casino?”
“There was never any suggestion of that. No, there was a potential scandal. Sheila was recorded having sex with a man on her office desk,” his dad added.
“On? So, did the guy claim sexual harassment?”
“No, the man, a Navajo and also well known, didn't work for the tribe and had never applied for a casino job. There's more. This sexual encounter was recorded on an illegal, hidden camera and the recording was sent anonymously to the tribal president. A threat was made. Get rid of her or the recording would be posted on the Internet.”
“She was set up?”
“Exactly. It was clearly a case of blackmail, and because of that, I voted against letting her go. But the majority of the board was worried the recording would end up on the Internet, so they voted in favor of damage control. We all knew she'd been framed, but there was a lot of pressure from the tribal president, who was coming up for reelection. The blackmailer won out. Sheila was given a choiceâtake a generous severance package and resign, or be shown the door. Either way, she had to go. The board agreed to do everything possible to keep this from going public, and Sheila was paid well to cooperate. She also knew that if word got out, her reputation would be ruined, even if she won in court.”
Charlie nodded. “So she got screwedâtwiceâin exchange for a golden parachute. What happened to the man involved?”
“His face was blurred in the video, but everyone knew who it was. There was enough to see, especially from his unique silver buckle with the initials âC.B.' He already had a reputation as a womanizer. Still, he faced no consequences whatsoever. No questions were ever asked.”
“Ahh, now I see the silversmith connection. That explains why Mr. Cordell Buck is dead. Payback is a bitch. But I'm guessing he got more than the obvious for helping set up Sheila. After she was forced out, who got her job running the casino?”
“The silversmith's cousin and Sheila's assistant at the time, Nolan Bitsillie. Nolan also happens to be one of the tribal president's biggest financial backers.”
“Politics. What a surprise.”
His dad sat there for a moment, staring into space. Charlie was familiar with the thousand-yard stare from his years of deployment, but these spaced-out moments from Alfred Senior always ended with profound conclusions.
Charlie waited patiently.
“You need to be careful this evening, son. She's going to be there.”
“Sheila Mae Ben is a guest at this tribal thing we're going to tonight?” Charlie would have stayed away, had this been a few days ago, but it was pointless now that the woman and her son already knew who he was. Al had escaped, for now, and he really doubted any of the Night Crew that still remained would try to harm a retired tribal judge with his father's reputation.
Al Senior nodded. “Sheila's a big contributor to the tribal small business association, which provides members of the tribe with start-up loans. Despite her leaving the casino, I've heard she's done quite well in her private business operations, like that restaurant in Albuquerque she operates with her son.”
“That ties in with one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you,” Charlie said, proceeding to summarize what he and Gordon had learned the past week or so, leaving out their illegal activities. Charlie had always been pragmatic, but his father was a stickler when it came to breaking the law. It was important he didn't know anything that might put him in a compromising position.
When he was finished, his dad shrugged. “Clearly there's a lot you left outâlike how you know all this. I'm not going to ask you about that, but the fact is that if you hadn't been there at the right time, your sister-in-law Nedra would be a widow. I don't agree with all your methods and decisions, especially the violence, but I respect what you've done and are trying to accomplish in the name of justice. You've got my support. So what are your plans tonightâwith that woman there? It's clear she knows who you are and what you're trying to do.”
“Al's not coming, right?”
His dad shook his head. “The tribal department wants him to keep a low profile. He's staying at home.”
“With a loaded weapon handy, I hope.”
“Back to my question, son. What are your plans?”
“I think I need to keep it neutralâpretend nothing is wrong, be social, not say or do anything that'll put either of us on the spot.”