A Killing at the Creek: An Ozarks Mystery: Chapter 15

WHEN ASHLOCK ARRIVED after two, Elsie jumped from her red vinyl casino chair and flung herself on him.

“I’m winning,” she cried. “Look, I’m up thirty bucks. Isn’t that cool? I’ll buy your lunch.”

He held her at arm’s length, scrutinizing her. “How much have you had to drink?”

Her hundred-­watt smile faltered. “I had a victory drink. Or two.”

“Two times what?” Ashlock swung on Chuck Harris, who was standing nearby. “What the hell are you two doing?”

Chuck shook his head. “I’m just killing time, playing some penny slots. But I think your girlfriend’s on a toot.”

Elsie gasped with outrage. “You liar! You ordered the first beer.”

Chuck picked up his jacket, neatly draped over the vinyl back of a red chair, and put it on. “I had a beer—­about two hours ago,” he said, buttoning the top button of his coat.

Elsie blinked with surprise. Could so much time have actually passed? She said, “That could not have been two hours ago. It feels like it’s been thirty minutes. Maybe twenty.” Sneaking a glance at the half-­full plastic tumbler nearby, she tried to calculate whether it was her second or third, but her recall was a shade fuzzy. The Jackpot poured a strong cocktail.

Ashlock shook his head, disapproval lining his face. “You smell like gin. I can’t believe this.” He turned to go, with Chuck Harris at his heels.

“Where are you guys going?” she cried.

“I’m going to talk with the manager, see what witnesses he drummed up.”

Elsie punched a button on the slot machine. “Let me cash out. I’ll come with you.”

Chuck turned back to her. With reproach, he said, “You can’t take a statement, not in the shape you’re in. Why don’t you just stay here and sober up?”

Elsie watched them as they walked away and ducked into the customer ser­vice booth. She dropped back onto her red chair, deflated.

This is all Chuck’s fault, she tried to tell herself, but she couldn’t truly believe it. She knew it was her own fault; she’d thrown her professional obligations out the window. Though she would like to blame her slipup on the tensions regarding the case, or her reaction to the bloody bus, she knew either was a shabby excuse.

Gambling was stupid, a vice she could ill afford; and she could hardly believe she had trifled with it. The gin helped. Guess that’s why they’re so obliging with the drinks, she thought, shamefaced.

Sighing, she read the voucher she held in her hand. How had she managed to turn one hundred and seventy dollars into thirty-­seven dollars? “Easy come, easy go,” she said aloud.

The friendly cocktail waitress walked by again, stopping when she saw Elsie.

“You want another G&T, hon?”

“No, don’t think so,” Elsie said with an embarrassed laugh. “Hey, is there a snack bar in here?”

“Sure thing, right behind the Wheel of Fortune. Buffet is on the other wall.”

Elsie cashed in her ticket and headed to the snack bar with her fistful of small bills. Sitting with a hot dog and chips, she ruminated over her bad behavior. She’d messed up, big-­time, she knew.

Chuck might tattle on her to Madeleine, which would further complicate Elsie’s relationship with her boss. But he couldn’t do so without incriminating himself, she reasoned. At any rate, Elsie and Madeleine never enjoyed mutual admiration. If Elsie could whistle “The Missouri Waltz” while tap dancing and drinking a glass of water, Madeleine would still fail to be impressed.

But aside from the specter of Madeleine’s displeasure, she knew for a fact that Ashlock was mad at her; that stung. She valued Ashlock’s good opinion almost as much as his affection, and as she moped over her hot dog, she feared she had threatened both.

“Your luck run out, hon?”

Startled, Elsie looked up to see who had spoken. Her cocktail friend stood at the snack bar, eating a soft pretzel.

“Give me a little cup of Velveeta, Earl,” the woman told the man at the counter.

“No,” Elsie said, in reply to her question. “I mean, I made some money on the slots.”

“Then why are you looking blue?”

“I’m in the doghouse.” Elsie made a face. “Drinking on the job.”

The waitress laughed, walking up to Elsie’s table in her high-­heeled shoes, and taking a seat beside her. “Oh my. It feels good to get off my feet for a minute. These old shoes are killers.”

“I bet.”

“If the boss saw me sitting on my butt, I’d be in the doghouse with you. But he’s in a closed-­door meeting.” She turned around to see that the door to customer ser­vice was still secured, then whispered to Elsie, “With some cops.”

Elsie nodded, pulling her chair closer to the woman as her brain clicked into investigative mode. “What’s up?”

The woman shrugged. “No one knows. Some big secret deal. Probably about that bloody bus.”

Elsie smiled to encourage her. “Tell me about that.”

The woman said, “It hasn’t even hit the papers around here, but there was this kid, living in a bloody school bus parked right out there in the parking lot. At the Jackpot. Can you believe that?”

Elsie inched closer, trying to keep her expression neutral, and continued to dig. “Did you ever see the kid?”

The woman shifted in her seat. “You better believe I saw him. He hit me up on two different days, trying to get served. Nervy little shit. Didn’t look a day over sixteen. Wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

“Was he alone?”

“Yeah. When I saw him.”

Inwardly, Elsie cheered as she calculated the impact the waitress’s testimony would have on the boy’s “mystery kidnapper” claims. Nodding, her eyes glued to the woman, Elsie said, “What did he look like?”

“Nothing special. Not that big. Strong, though. Stronger than he looked.”

“How do you know that?”

The waitress dipped a hunk of the pretzel in the bright orange cheese sauce, stirring the bread around the cup.

“Because he hit on me. Here I am, old enough to be his mother. But when I was walking to my car after my shift last week, he sure enough hit on me.”

She sucked the cheese off the pretzel, leaning in to whisper in Elsie’s ear. Elsie could smell Velveeta on her breath.

“Wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

An expression flickered over the woman’s face, but disappeared so quickly, Elsie couldn’t read it. Was it a look of simple annoyance? Or had Elsie seen a gleam of pride?


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