A Killing at the Creek: An Ozarks Mystery: Chapter 10


ELSIE WALKED INTO the Baldknobbers bar shortly after five, grateful for the frosty air blasting from the window air conditioner. The bar was an old dive, the type of establishment that kept the windows covered day and night. Upon entering, she peered through the smoky haze for Ashlock, but didn’t spy him. With a wave at Dixie, the longtime barmaid, she headed for a booth. As she dropped her purse on the seat, she recognized a familiar figure at the bar.

Walking up alongside Chuck Harris, she tapped him on the arm. “Happy Tuesday.”

He glanced up, glum, and hunched back over his beer mug. “Right.”

“What’s the matter?”

“She’s gonna dump it on me. I can see it coming.”

“Huh?”

“That case with the kid. What a dog.”

Elsie slid onto the bar stool beside him. “I understand, I’ve been ruminating about it myself. But maybe we’re just borrowing trouble, Chuck. We’re still putting the evidence together; Monroe’s not even certified yet. If the case doesn’t look strong enough to convict, Madeleine surely won’t file.”

“Of course she’ll file. A dead woman in the county, and a kid in the bloody bus? She has to file. And then we’ll have that piece-­of-­shit case.”

She didn’t respond. Staring blindly at the mirror behind the bar, she struggled with her own reservations.

Chuck continued, “He didn’t confess. No jury will convict a fifteen-­year-­old of murder without a confession.”

Soberly, Elsie nodded. “It would’ve been handy if the kid confessed. But suspects usually don’t; we both know that. And his statement has holes in it.” She leaned in close to him, and in a determined tone, said, “We need to follow the trail of the bus, to disprove the kid’s story about the other passenger. You and me. And Ashlock.”

Chuck traced the water ring his beer mug made on the wooden bar. “This really isn’t your case, Elsie. Madeleine told me that in no uncertain terms. You’re just the water boy; the case is assigned to me and Madeleine. Which actually means it’s all on me.”

Elsie sat back on the bar stool, fighting a surge of resentment. Madeleine was already creating obstacles. If Elsie was to have a meaningful role in the case, she would have to make it happen.

“Let me go to Oklahoma,” she urged. “I’m good with witnesses; I can establish rapport, start piecing the puzzle together. I’ll be a lot of help.”

“How? How do you prove a negative? How do you show that the ‘mystery man’ never existed?”

Overlooking their conflict earlier in the day, Elsie put an arm around his shoulder and gave him a squeeze. “That’s what we’ve got to figure out. We’ll do it. And if we can’t disprove the mystery man, well, it’s important to find that out, too. We’ll put our heads together. With Ashlock.”

“Do you know what she said to me this afternoon?”

Lord, no telling, Elsie thought, but she kept her voice even. “Madeleine? No, what did she say?”

“She said, if the evidence points to the kid, she’s filing murder in the first degree. In the first.”

Elsie was taken aback. “You mean, she’s made her mind up, even before we see what kind of evidence of pre-­deliberation they’ll find?”

“Yeah. She told me that with a bloody school bus and a woman victim and a slit throat, deliberation should be assumed. The jury won’t be caught up on details.”

“Premeditation isn’t a detail.”

“You think I don’t know that?”

Elsie stared down at the scarred wooden bar without seeing it. “Maybe she’s right. The weapon, the method of killing her; it would have to be intentional, require forethought. Anyway, we can always include the option of second degree murder in the jury instructions, if it comes to that.”

Chuck groaned softly into his beer mug. “Here it comes. I’ll be holding the bag, with an overcharged murder case against a fifteen-­year-­old kid.”

“Lucky for him he’s fifteen,” Elsie said.

“Huh?”

“If he was sixteen on the date of the crime, and he was convicted of first degree murder, he could get the death penalty. Since he’s fifteen, they’ll just lock him up and throw away the key. Life imprisonment without eligibility for parole.”

“I know that,” Chuck said, snappish. “Don’t lecture me. Sometimes you act like you’re the Oracle at Delphi.”

The side door of the bar opened and a flash of daylight blinded Elsie. She shielded her eyes with her hand and made out the outline of Detective Ashlock. “Ash!” she called, with a wave.

As he walked over, she saw he wasn’t smiling. He approached the bar, asking Elsie pointedly, “Aren’t we sitting at a table?”

“Sure. Got one.” With a final pat, Elsie said to Chuck, “Talk to you later.”

Walking to the booth, she felt Ashlock’s hand pressed possessively at the small of her back. When she scooted into the booth, though, he sat across from her.

“Is something the matter?” she asked.

“Why do you say that?” Looking around, he signaled Dixie to come to the table.

“You were a little rude to the new chief assistant. Didn’t say hello.”

“I guess that’s because I don’t like him too much.”

Elsie examined him as Dixie came up to take their order. “You’re jealous.”

“You want a beer, honeybun?” Dixie asked her.

“Corona for me,” Elsie said.

Ashlock smiled at Dixie. “Coke.”

Leaning back in the booth, Elsie observed that Ashlock offered up a smile for Dixie, but had not yet spared one for her. A little nettled, she said, “You’re no fun.”

“You’re surely shining a spotlight on all my bad qualities this evening. Rude. No fun. Jealous.”

She slipped her foot out of her shoe and propped it upon his thigh, under the table across from her.

“You’ve got nothing to be jealous of, Ash.”

When he didn’t answer, she slipped her toes under his leg and nudged him.

“Hey,” she said.

As her foot inched its way to his crotch, he grabbed her ankle and cracked a smile.

“You’re incorrigible,” he said.

“Since when do you need to worry about being the focus of my attention? You know I’m hooked.”

He didn’t reply, but his eyes crinkled at the corners. With a devilish expression, she leaned across the table and said in a stage whisper, “Let’s play the game where you’re taking me to the home for wayward girls.”

When he responded with a laugh, she smiled, glad to see him restored to good humor. Dixie bustled up, setting their drinks in front of them. Picking up her beer bottle, Elsie tilted it toward Ashlock.

“First swallow?” she offered, but he shook his head. Elsie took a long drink from the neck of the cold bottle.

“My mom called today,” she said. “She and Dad want to know if we’re coming over for dinner on my birthday. It’s two weeks away, but she’s already wanting to set the table and plan the menu.”

He squeezed her foot under the table with a warm hand. “What do you want?”

“Well, I hate to disappoint Marge and George. They’re chomping at the bit. But I’d really like to go out, just you and me. There’s a new steakhouse in Monett. ­People are talking it up.”

“Sounds good. We’ll check it out.”

Elsie watched as Ashlock toyed with his glass, turning it in a circle with his fingers. “Hey,” she said. “What’s up?”

He let out a tired breath. “Just got off the phone with the next of kin. Glenda Fielder’s niece.”

“You mean the deceased didn’t have any closer relations? Just a niece?”

“That’s right. Never married, parents long gone, one brother who passed in a car wreck a ­couple of years back. The niece wasn’t a bad source, though. They were pretty close, considering.”

“What did she say?”

“For one thing, she said her aunt was bitching about the employer: the transport company had been leaning on the workers to speed up delivery time. She had to drive through the night to make her deadlines. That’s why she picked up hitchhikers; it helped her to stay awake.”

“Okay, that makes some sense anyway,” Elsie said. “I couldn’t figure out why on earth she’d pick up a hitchhiker. It’s a hell of a gamble.”

Peering over Ashlock’s shoulder, she saw Chuck leave his bar stool and head toward the men’s room. “Finally. He’s in the bathroom; I can tell you the buzz.”

“What buzz?”

Leaning across the table, she spoke in a hushed voice. “Bree got the goods on our new chief assistant.”

“How’s that?”

“She’s got a friend, an old law school buddy, who works in the Jackson County office. Bree was on the phone with him last night, and the guy asked what we thought about Chuck.”

“And?”

“He told Bree that Chuck was in hot water in Kansas City. He was nailing one of the secretaries. The girl thought it was a big romance; and when she figured out it was just recreational on his part, she threatened to file a Title VII complaint with the EEOC for sexual harassment.”

Ashlock was nonplussed. “This story doesn’t surprise me, for some reason.”

“Chuck’s dad is some big-­time lawyer up there; we already knew that. And he had political ambitions for Chuck. So he called Madeleine, and they agreed that Chuck would come down here and work until the dust settled in Jackson County.”

“How does he know Madeleine?”

“Politics, maybe? They’re both Republicans. Or maybe it’s the money magnet.” She picked up her beer bottle and took another swallow. “In my experience, rich ­people always seem to find each other. Like bees to honey.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Like flies on shit.”

When Chuck emerged from the restroom, Elsie changed the subject. “School’s out,” she said. “The elementary across from my apartment is quiet as the tomb. So I was wondering: When are the kids coming?”

Ashlock had three children from a prior marriage. They lived in the Bootheel of Missouri with their mother, but Ashlock did everything in his power to exercise his visitation schedule: every other weekend, a handful of holidays, and a portion of the summer. Though Elsie and Ashlock had been keeping company since the winter months, she had yet to meet them.

When he didn’t answer immediately, she asked again: “When will you get them?”

His face became neutral. “I’ll pick them up in July. They’ll be here a month.”

“That’s great. Can’t wait. I’m looking forward to seeing them while they’re here.”

He nodded, but his face was noncommittal. Elsie persisted.

“There’s great stuff to do here in the summer. We can go to Silver Dollar City; I love the roller coasters, all the wild rides. I’ve been there a million times; we won’t even need a map.” She took a quick swallow of beer, and added, “And the Ozark Empire Fair will start the end of July; we’ll take them to that. Marvelous carny stuff: the food, the games, the old-­fashioned carnival rides. It’s a hoot.”

“We’ll see,” he said.

Elsie knew she’d been shut down. Hurt, she glanced around the bar, ready to change the subject. She saw Chuck Harris order another drink; he was still sitting alone.

“I think the chief assistant is a little blue,” Elsie whispered, her eyes on Harris’s back. “He’s flipped out about the murder case.”

Ashlock flashed a look of impatience. “What’s he got to flip out about? We’re still putting it together.”

“He says it’s going to be a weak case, a loser. And Madeleine is going to dump it on him.”

“He’s a punk. A spoiled kid. If the Juvenile Court certifies Monroe to stand trial as an adult, I bet Harris never touches that case. Watch out, sweetheart.”

At his word of warning, Elsie focused on Ashlock, her brows drawn together.

He said, “When the going gets tough, your boss Madeleine and her number one man are going to scatter like chickens.”

“Hmmm.” She leaned forward. “So how do you think the murder case looks?”

He reached for her bottle and took a quick swig. “Ain’t no telling. Not till I get to Oklahoma.”


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