A Killing at the Creek: An Ozarks Mystery: Chapter 16

NO ONE SPOKE as the Barton police vehicle made its way back toward Missouri. Behind sunglasses, Ashlock’s eyes were trained on the road. In the backseat, Chuck Harris worked the crossword from the Tulsa World newspaper.

Elsie held a legal pad on her lap, smoothing the top page. The gin and tonic buzz was gone, replaced by a guilty sense of accomplishment. A triumphant smile played on her mouth.

She broke the silence. “Good thing I found that cocktail waitress. She’s the only witness we nailed down.”

Her companions maintained an unhappy reticence.

She continued, “It’s not your fault that the Jackpot manager wouldn’t cooperate. Looks like he led you guys on a wild-­goose chase.”

No response.

Elsie was determined to wrest an acknowledgment of her coup from her companions in the vehicle. She held up the notepad containing the woman’s signed statement. Tucked inside the pages, a copy of the juvenile’s mug shot bore the waitress’s initials, marked in blue ink.

Displaying the statement so that Ashlock could not ignore it, she said, “Do you think I missed my calling? Maybe I should’ve been a cop.”

“Maybe you should’ve been a barfly,” Chuck offered from the backseat.

Elsie paused, waiting in vain for Ashlock to come to her defense. When no retort came, she turned partway around in her seat to face Harris.

“The grapes. The grapes are very sour, I think.”

“The grapes at the winery? Fermented grapes?” Chuck quipped.

“Damn,” she said, turning back around and facing forward in the passenger seat. “Give me a fucking break. I saved the day.”

Ashlock still didn’t speak. Elsie fidgeted for several long moments, considering how to best break the ice. She decided to do the right thing, and admit her gaffe. Surely if she owned up to her misconduct, he would relax and be restored to good humor.

At length, she said, “Hey, Ash. Sorry about the slipup. The gin. You know I’d never want to let you down.”

He spoke at last, keeping his eyes on the road. “You lucked out. But it was stupid and irresponsible.”

Uncomfortable, she shifted in her seat. “I know. I said it was.”

“Maybe you should stick to the courtroom.”

Maybe you should stick it up your ass, she thought. After all, everything had turned out okay. And he could hardly be totally surprised at her blunder; she had a history of looking for trouble, as Ashlock knew perfectly well. Exhaling a frustrated breath, she asked, “How long do you want me to grovel?”

“I just want you to understand.”

“I do. I understand.” With a rush of anger, mixed with guilt, she said, “You used to be nicer to me. You know that?”

When he didn’t acknowledge her, she knew she should back off. But she turned to him and increased the volume of her voice. “You used to be nicer to me, before I was sleeping with you.”

Shaking his head, he said, “Not the time or the place.” Signaling a right turn, he took an exit off I–44.

“Why are you pulling off? You said no one at this McDonald’s could identify him, when you asked them this morning.”

Ashlock parked the car near the entrance of the McDonald’s they had visited earlier in the day. Unbuckling his seat belt, he said, “There was a McDonald’s cup in the bus. Just a hunch. I’m going in to check it out.” Looking through his mirrored glasses, he said, “I won’t need any assistance. You two can stay in the car.”

He slammed the door shut and strode toward the entrance.

Elsie and Chuck looked at each other.

“Trouble in paradise?”

“Yeah. Afraid so,” Elsie said.

“He’ll get over it.”

Elsie nodded in agreement, surprised at Chuck’s sympathetic tone.

After a brief silence, Chuck observed, “He’s kind of controlling, huh? Typical cop.”

“He’s not, really,” Elsie said, thinking, Is he? Didn’t used to be.

Chuck clucked his tongue. With a grimace, he said, “Typical. I’ve been around a lot of cops. They’re not bad guys, they’re just bad for women. Not very good relationship material.”

Shifting in her seat, Elsie searched for a response to defend Ashlock. “I don’t think you can make a blanket generalization like that. About an entire profession.”

Troubled, she perused the waitress’s witness statement again. It was a lucky find, because the woman established that she had encountered the juvenile on multiple occasions, and the boy was always alone. No mystery man, no kidnapper, no hulking figure with a knife at the boy’s back. The waitress’s testimony would contradict Tanner Monroe’s claim that he was a prisoner of the “other dude” who purportedly committed the murder.

Despite the tension with Ashlock, holding the witness statement in her hands gave Elsie a sense of relief. It lessened the anxiety that had been nagging at her, when she wondered whether it was possible that Tanner Monroe was innocent of the crime. She skimmed the casino waitress’s statement yet again. It did not mesh with the story provided by Monroe. And they couldn’t both be telling the truth. Either Tanner Monroe was, as he claimed, the prisoner of the “other dude” who killed Glenda Fielder; or Monroe was the “nervy little shit” that the waitress described, acting alone.

“So the other casino employees had nothing to say?” she asked Chuck.

“Got nothing. Zip.”

The casino employees who met with Ashlock and Chuck in the manager’s office told a different story from the waitress; they maintained, individually and collectively, that they could not identify the juvenile. Although the manager acknowledged that the bus sat in the casino lot for several days, he steadfastly refused to provide further information.

Ashlock’s search of the bus had netted an important find, however. In addition to blood and hair samples on the bus, he discovered a bloody knife wedged under the driver’s seat. The weapon was bagged and tagged, soon to undergo testing at the Barton Police Department.

Elsie slipped the waitress’s witness statement into a file folder as she thought about the knife. The knife would tell the tale, she thought. It was surely the weapon used to cut Glenda Fielder’s throat; and the forensic results would determine that with certainty. If that knife could also be tied to Tanner Monroe, through prints or other tests, she would put all her doubts to bed and shut the door on them. She would set herself to the task of convicting the boy of murder, and go after that conviction, whole hog.

While Elsie and Chuck waited for Ashlock to return from the Oklahoma McDonald’s, Elsie opened the passenger side door, hoping to catch a passing afternoon breeze. Glancing in the backseat, she saw that Chuck appeared to be asleep. She dug ice from the bottom of her Coke cup, and rubbed a melting cube along her neck. It seemed that Ashlock had been gone a long time.

She considered going in after him, but then he appeared, walking to the car with a leisurely stride. She couldn’t read his face, partially hidden by the sunglasses.

He opened the car door, slid inside, and put the key in the ignition.

“Well?” she said.

He started the car and put it in gear.

“Any luck?” she asked.

He nodded. “There’s a little dark-­haired girl, works at the counter. She didn’t positively ID the mug shot. But she said it resembled a kid who was in last week.”

In the backseat, Chuck roused himself. “Good job, Ashlock. What about a second passenger? The ‘other dude’?”

“She said the kid she remembers was alone. Hung around after he ate, played video games.”

Elsie reached over and gave Ashlock’s arm a happy squeeze. “Ash, that’s great. It knocks the stuffings out of his claim. Does anybody back her up?”

“Her coworker, the blonde I talked to this morning, still claims she can’t remember. The girl acts like a scared rabbit. But I got another witness, a guy who works in the kitchen.”

“What did he say?” Elsie asked.

“He identified the bus. He said he was on break, smoking a cigarette in the parking lot, and noticed that school bus had blood stains down the back. Thought it was strange.”

“What else does he know?”

“Nothing. Never saw the driver.”


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