A Killing at the Creek: An Ozarks Mystery: Chapter 11


ON WEDNESDAY, ELSIE took time to bolt down lunch at the downtown Dairy Queen, and sped back to work in the punishing heat of her car, air-­conditioning vents blasting. The heat in southwest Missouri was reaching record highs, though it was not yet July. Her phone buzzed as she neared a stoplight; she rummaged in her purse and checked the text. It was from Ashlock, inquiring about lunch.

She nearly missed the green light, replying to the text: Sorry! Too late! A horn blared behind her and she felt a moment’s remorse for texting while driving. It was a bad practice, she knew.

“I’ll never do it again,” she swore.

After a few blocks, the phone hummed again. Snatching it up, she read, See U 2nite? She texted back Yes! and pushed Send before she realized she had broken her vow.

“Busted a resolution. Again.” She sat up straight as she pulled into the courthouse lot, tugging her damp blouse from the vinyl seat back. Addressing herself in the rearview mirror with a jaunty expression, she added, “Aw, well.”

She took the elevator instead of the stairs in a vain attempt to cool down. Entering the reception area shortly before one, she passed the receptionist, Stacie, a cute local girl who made an attractive first impression for ­people entering the Prosecutor’s Office. Stacie looked the part but had minimal interest in the clerical particulars of her position.

Poking a fork into a Tupperware container, Stacie said to Elsie, “You’re in Division 2.”

“I most certainly am not,” Elsie said.

“You are. There’s a change of venue hearing in there, and you’re doing it.”

“I don’t even have a case with a change of venue motion pending.”

“No, but Chuck does. He handed the hearing off to you.” Stacie looked up from her lunch, twirling her fork in pasta salad. “Ask him if you don’t believe me.”

“I’ll fucking ask him right this fucking minute,” Elsie muttered, heading down the hallway to the chief assistant’s office. As she drew near, she saw Chuck slip out the door with his jacket on his arm.

“Where do you think you’re going?” she asked.

“I’m going to lunch, Wicked Witch. That’s what you sound like at the moment.”

He hooked his jacket over his shoulder and moved to continue down the hallway, but Elsie blocked him.

“Why aren’t you heading to Judge Callaway’s court to handle your change of venue?”

“Because you’re such a good lawyer, I have complete confidence in your ability to handle it.” He flashed a brilliant smile. Elsie noted that he seemed fully recovered from the fit of pique he’d suffered at the Baldknobbers the night before. Her momentary sympathy for him dissolved accordingly.

“You’re trying to butter me up, but I’m immune,” she warned.

“How could you be immune to hearing what a really great lawyer you are?” In a plaintive tone, he added, “Please do this for me, Elsie, okay? I’m dead on my feet. I was in there all morning on a motion for new trial, and I am wore slick.”

Elsie frowned. She knew why Chuck was pushing his hearing onto her. Judge Callaway was notorious for his prejudice against air-­conditioning. Even on the hottest days of summer, he insisted on keeping the windows open and the air-­conditioning off. The Division 2 courtroom was stifling from early June through mid-­September. Longer, if there was an Indian summer.

“I’ll get faint in there,” she complained.

“What about me? I have to wear a tie and jacket.”

Elsie shook her head, unmoved. “It’s your case.”

“I wrote notes for it, everything you need to know, from A to Z. It’ll be a breeze,” he said, reaching out and massaging her shoulder. “Please?”

“How’s the bailiff today?”

Emil Elmquist, the Division 2 bailiff, had the same contempt for deodorant that his boss had for temperature control. In the summer, Emil’s body odor was legendary.

“Not so fresh, I must confess. Grab the counsel table at the far end of the courtroom.”

“Oh Lord,” she groaned.

“Tell you what,” Chuck said, backing away from her. “If you do me this little favor, I’ll talk Madeleine into taking you along with me tomorrow.”

“Along where?”

“To Oklahoma.”

Elsie’s interest perked up. “You’re going tomorrow? I think I’m free.”

“Okay, then. Ashlock is scheduled to collect evidence off the bus at the Tulsa Highway Patrol headquarters. Plus, he’s tracking the kid’s trail, and Madeleine’s sending me along.”

Why didn’t Ashlock tell me about Tulsa? Elsie wondered, a little injured; but maybe he would have filled her in on the plan at lunch, had she been able to meet him.

Chuck said, “I’ve got to tag along, because I’m supposed to make sure the case is airtight in case she files. Because it’s tough to convince a jury to lock a juvenile up for life.” He pretended to wipe away tears. “Boo hoo.”

Elsie followed as Chuck attempted to get away.

“What time are you going?”

“First thing in the morning. Is it a deal? You’ll get to see the bus. All bloody.”

With the back of her hand, Elsie wiped sweat from her forehead. She would have liked to shut down Chuck’s off-­putting wisecracks, but she stifled the impulse; she needed to ingratiate herself with him, so she could see what the Oklahoma evidence revealed. And she needed to prove to herself that the juvenile was a murderer, before she could prove it to a jury. “Okay. Deal.”

“Great, thanks,” Chuck said, dashing through the door before she could change her mind.

Elsie followed, walked around the courthouse rotunda, and hurried into Judge Callaway’s courtroom, eager to seize the far counsel table. The bailiff was reading the newspaper as she entered. When he saw her, he folded the pages.

“You doing the change of venue?” he asked.

“Boy oh boy, Emil. I won the prize.”

“You got witnesses in the hallway.”

“Thanks, Emil. I’ll go out there in a minute.”

Elsie flipped the file open and scanned the contents. The defendant was charged with methamphetamine production. The case had received some play in the news, because the meth lab was discovered when it set fire to a local hotel room. Still, the coverage was far from extraordinary. The file contained copies of articles from the local paper, reporting defendant’s arrest and preliminary hearing. Both articles ran photos alongside the text. One showed the smoking interior of defendant’s hotel room. The other photo depicted defendant and his attorney entering the courthouse. Elsie didn’t think either story could be branded as sensational.

Walking to the courtroom door, she poked her head out. “Any witnesses for State v. Maggard?” she called.

Several ­people raised their hands. One man rose from the bench, protesting that the subpoena didn’t make sense; he didn’t even know anyone named Maggard.

Elsie approached him, extending her hand. “Let me see your subpoena,” she said. She scanned it, nodding. “You’ve been summoned for a change of venue hearing. The defendant claims he can’t get a fair trial in McCown County.” She smiled, turning to include the citizens nearby. “I don’t mean to be mysterious, but with a change of venue motion, we don’t need to consult before you testify. The less we talk, the better.”

Elsie gave a brief overview of the basic mechanics of a change of venue hearing. Sometimes, when there was a great deal of pretrial publicity, the defendant asked the court to order that the case be tried in a county where the community had not heard so much about the facts of the case, to ensure an impartial jury.

After Elsie provided a thumbnail sketch of the hearing procedures, she walked back to the courtroom door. With a hand on the knob, she said, “I really appreciate you all coming today. It shouldn’t take long.”

“I want to get back to work as quick as I can,” said the man who’d spoken up earlier. “This still don’t make much sense to me, why I’d have to miss work for some guy I don’t know nothing about.”

Elsie gave him a conciliatory nod. “Appreciate it,” she said again. Then she returned to the courtroom, leaving the witnesses on the benches outside.

As she rummaged for a pen and legal pad at her counsel table, the defense attorney, Billy Yocum, ambled into court with his client in tow. His genial expression disappeared when he saw Elsie.

“Where’s Mr. Harris?” he asked.

“I’m filling in. How’s it going, Billy?”

Elsie and the elderly attorney had gone around a time or two. Billy Yocum was old school, a master litigator who learned the trade from his time in the Prosecutor’s Office, decades earlier. Yocum had more tricks up his sleeve than a riverboat gambler.

“Well, I don’t know. Seems like Mr. Harris should handle the hearing if he’s assigned to the case.”

“Billy, you’re just going to have to get over it. I’m all you’ve got.”

She slid back in the wooden chair, determined not to let Yocum rile her. Yocum was famous for turning tables on the prosecution, making it appear that the defense wore the white hat and the prosecution was the bad guy, rather than the other way around.

He had countless tactics that infuriated her. At jury trials, after wrangling an evidentiary point before the judge at the bench—­and outside of the jury’s hearing—­Yocum would invariably claim victory for the jurors’ benefit. Whether the judge ruled in Elsie’s favor, or in Yocum’s, the old attorney would swing back toward the bench on the way to the counsel table with a jubilant: “Thank you, your honor! The defense appreciates your excellent ruling on that issue.”

The first time it occurred, Elsie just stared at him with her mouth open, like she was catching flies; Yocum had managed to make himself look like a victor on an evidentiary point he had, in fact, lost to Elsie.

Now that she was educated to the trick, she had become adept at beating him to the punch, chiming in with her own words of appreciation on behalf of the state, and punctuating the statement with an expressive wink to the jury. She had developed an array of nonverbal cues in her years as a trial lawyer and prided herself on her ability to connect on an unspoken level with the jurors. No one in the Ozarks could match her on that score—­with the possible exception of Billy Yocum.

The bailiff emerged from the judge’s chambers and asked whether the parties were ready.

“All set,” said Elsie.

“Yes, sir,” said Yocum. “Tell Judge Callaway we can start any time.”

The bailiff disappeared and Yocum’s client, a disheveled young man, said, “Does he stink?”

“Hush,” Yocum replied.

The judge emerged from chambers. Elsie stood as the bailiff cried, “All rise!” After Judge Callaway took his seat, he invited the parties to do the same.

Opening the file, Judge Callaway said, “What you got here, gentlemen?”

Elsie frowned.

The judge caught his gaffe and corrected himself, while Emil snickered in his bailiff’s chair.

“I apologize, Ms. Arnold. I was expecting Mr. Harris. You all ready?”

Billy Yocum rose slowly from his chair and drawled, “As a courtesy, I’d be glad to give the state the chance to go first.”

Elsie jumped up, her blood pressure shooting up in response to Yocum’s suggestion. “Your honor, this is defendant’s motion. We didn’t ask for a change of venue. If defendant doesn’t have any evidence in support of his motion, he should say so, and we can free up the court’s time.”

Yocum turned to her, laughing. “Judge, tell the prosecutor to settle down. It’s too hot to get riled up over nothing. My witnesses are right outside; I’ll be glad to call them. I guess Miss Arnold’s not particularly concerned about inconveniencing the witnesses for the state.” As an aside, he said to Elsie, “Those benches out there are mighty hard.”

Elsie gave him a sour look. Billy Yocum always knew how to get her goat.

The judge said, “Call your witness, Billy.”

Yocum called a Mrs. Cooper to the stand, a pleasant-­looking middle-­aged woman, wearing church clothes. Under examination, she told the court that she had read about the case in the newspaper and seen it on TV, and she’d already made up her mind about defendant’s guilt. Because of the news coverage, she couldn’t be impartial. The man could not get a fair trial in McCown County, she added.

“No further questions,” Yocum said, favoring the woman with a courtly nod.

Elsie stood. Advancing toward the witness stand, she asked, “Ma’am, are you acquainted with the defendant?”

“Never met him.”

“How about his attorney, Mr. Yocum?”

“No.”

Elsie paused, puzzled. Yocum would not call a witness to the stand for a change of venue hearing unless she was certain to be in his pocket.

“You don’t know Mr. Yocum from church? Rotary? From a civic organization?”

“No,” the woman said, as Yocum objected: “Asked and answered.”

“Sustained,” the judge murmured, eyes closed. He looked ready for a nap.

Elsie studied the witness for a moment. Oozing respectability, the woman was clearly a law-­abiding citizen. She could not be connected to the meth business, or the defendant sitting next to Billy Yocum.

“Where do you work?”

“I’m a homemaker.”

Elsie smiled. Gotcha, she thought.

“Are you acquainted with Mr. Yocum’s wife? Peggy?”

The woman flushed. Glancing at the defense attorney, she said, “Yes.”

“How do you know Mrs. Yocum?”

“We’re in PEO together.”

“Ah,” said Elsie, nodding sagely, “that’s a sorority, right?”

Pursing her lips, the woman answered, “It is a philanthropic educational organization.”

Elsie knew better. And she knew she couldn’t ask what “PEO” stood for; it was a closely guarded secret of the society. The old gal could tell Elsie, but then she’d have to kill her.

“Did Mrs. Yocum ask you to appear today?”

“Yes.” She shifted in the chair, as if the seat had become uncomfortable; she knew the cat was out of the bag.

“What did Mrs. Yocum say or do?”

“Well. It seems like she showed me the newspaper article, and asked me to read it. We talked about the case a little bit. We agreed he couldn’t get a fair trial here.”

“Where did this conversation take place?”

“At the PEO meeting. During luncheon.”

Elsie glanced out into the hallway. Two other women waited on the bench that the present witness had vacated. They looked like her clones, from their lacquered silver hair, right down to their pantyhose.

“Are you acquainted with any other witnesses who will appear today on defendant’s behalf?”

“Objection! Calls for speculation!”

“Overruled,” said the judge, with a meaning look at Yocum.

The witness hesitated. “Yes.”

“Are they outside?”

“Uh-­huh.”

“What are their names?”

The witness provided the names of two women.

“How do you know them?”

“PEO.”

Elsie leaned against the jury box, smiling at the witness. “So essentially, Mrs. Yocum came to PEO with newspaper clippings, and drummed up three witnesses for her husband’s hearing.”

The woman opened her mouth to respond, but shut it as Yocum shouted, “Objection! How dare you?”

The judge said, “Sustained.”

Yocum waved a dramatic arm in Elsie’s direction. “She has attacked the integrity of my wife. My wife, for God’s sake.”

“Settle down, Billy.” The judge no longer looked sleepy.

“I demand that the prosecutor be censured.”

Elsie rolled her eyes.

The judge said, “You got any witnesses other than the PEO ladies, Billy?”

“Your honor, my witnesses are of the highest character.”

The judge nodded. “That’s true. But if the remaining testimony is going to be a repetition of the current witness, how about if I take judicial notice that you had three witnesses to testify to that effect.” He twirled his gavel. “That suit everybody?”

“Yes, your honor,” Elsie piped up.

Yocum didn’t answer immediately. He made a show of consulting with his client. After they huddled together for a long moment, the attorney said, “As a courtesy to those fine ladies outside, for their comfort and convenience, we will accept the judge’s generous proposal.”

The judge dismissed the witness, and she departed in haste.

Judge Callaway pointed his gavel at Elsie. “Any witnesses on behalf of the state?” he asked.

Elsie stood, pulling the damp skirt off the back of her thighs. She wondered what temperature the courtroom would register. The back of her blouse was soaked; she could feel it.

The judge, cloaked in a voluminous black robe, looked comfortable, cool as a cucumber, she thought. His high forehead bore no beads of sweat, his shirt collar was dry. Maybe it helps that he’s bald, she decided. Or maybe he’s made of ice. The defense attorneys found that pleas for mercy on their client’s behalf almost always fell on deaf ears in Callaway’s court. The nickname they coined for him was “Maxaway,” because he often imposed the maximum penalty and rarely granted probation.

“The state has seven witnesses outside, Judge,” she said.

Lazily, he stretched and leaned back in his chair. “Well, let’s hear what one or two of them have to say.”

Got it, Elsie thought. The judge didn’t want any overkill.

She called three witnesses. Two of them had never heard of the defendant or his charge. They told the court they could be impartial, if called as jurors for the case. The third witness thought he’d seen something about it on television. He remembered a fire at a hotel. Under questioning, he assured the court that he could put the news coverage out of his mind, and decide the case on the evidence alone.

By the time her third witness stepped down, the heat made huge sweat rings under Elsie’s arms, and her hair was damp with perspiration. She asked the judge whether she might put on further evidence: he shook his head.

“I have to wrap this up,” he said. “We have a court en banc meeting at three. Defendant’s motion for change of venue is overruled. Court is adjourned.”

After the judge departed, Elsie turned to the defense attorney. “Always a pleasure, Billy.”

His tone was hostile as he said, “I won’t forget that remark about my wife.” Without waiting for a response, he turned to his client.

Flush with the satisfaction of her victory, Elsie said to his back, “I figured you were going to call her next. Or your mother, maybe. Is your mother out there in the hall?”

He wheeled back, outraged. “My mother passed away when I was a boy. Have some respect.”

“Oh. Sorry.” Elsie blushed, but her face was already red with heat.

I never know when to shut up, she thought, as Yocum stormed out with his client.


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