A Killing at the Creek: An Ozarks Mystery: Chapter 19


DESPITE THE BRIGHT Monday sun shining outside, the interior of the third floor courtroom was dim. The venetian blinds at the windows were drawn and shut; the courtroom door was locked, and yellowed fabric blinds had been pulled down to cover the glass panels of the entry. One of the fluorescent bulbs in the overhead light fixture flickered, threatening to cast the room into darkness.

Judge Barnes, who handled the juvenile cases, sat at the bench, mulling over the paperwork in a file. At the counsel table before him, Tanner Monroe sat with his guardian ad litem, Maureen Mason, at his side. Hank Cox, the chief juvenile officer, stood near the bench, waiting for the judge to speak.

Judge Barnes looked up, his face grim. “Where are the boy’s parents?”

“We gave Mr. Monroe’s mother notice of the hearing, your honor. Sent it to her address by registered mail; she received it,” Hank said. Hank Cox was in his late fifties, with graying hair and a goatee, but his face still bore the marks of his good-­looking youth. A thirty-­year veteran of the juvenile office, he spoke with confidence. He dredged through papers resting at his spot on the left end of the counsel table; finding what he sought, he handed it to the judge.

The judge examined it briefly. “Mrs. Mason, can you tell me why the boy’s mother isn’t present?”

Maureen stood, rising nimbly for a woman of her girth. “I attempted to contact her by phone, your honor. Multiple times, and I left messages. She didn’t respond.”

The judge looked over his glasses, focusing on Tanner. “What about your father, young man?”

Tanner Monroe shrugged, a slight movement of his shoulders. His face was frozen, with the look of shell shock.

“Speak up, please. Have you talked with your parents since you’ve been in juvenile custody?”

“No.” The word was uttered in a whisper; Tanner cleared his throat and spoke again. “No, man.”

Maureen Mason laid a hand on his arm. “Address him as ‘judge.’ Or ‘your honor.’ ”

Tanner jerked his arm away from her touch. “I want to talk to Lisa.”

Seated in the back row of the courtroom gallery, Lisa Peters stood and took a hesitant step toward the counsel table, but the judge waved her back. “Mr. Monroe, you need to consult with your guardian, Mrs. Mason. Miss Peters works for the juvenile office, and they have filed a petition to transfer you to Circuit Court, to be prosecuted for murder as an adult under the general law. Do you understand?”

“Not Lisa,” Monroe said.

“Yes, Mr. Monroe; she is a part of that office, she works with Mr. Cox here. And they have presented me with a report, asking for your transfer, because of the seriousness of the crime that you are alleged to have committed; and because the alleged offense involved viciousness, and force, and violence.”

“Vicious?” Tanner echoed. He twisted around, turning to face Lisa at the back of the room. “You called me vicious?”

Lisa slumped in her seat on the wooden bench. Her face crumpled.

Hank Cox spoke up. “Your honor, the juvenile office had no choice in the matter. We have included copies of the police reports, with the evidence obtained from the school bus, tying Tanner Monroe to the murder of Glenda Fielder. It is imperative that he be transferred out of juvenile, to the custody of the Circuit Court and the care of the county jail. Especially now, after the death of Barry Bacon.”

Judge Barnes cut him off, his voice sharp. “Hold on, now. Are you trying to say that this young man is responsible for the death of the Bacon boy?”

Hank took a step back from the bench. “Well, no,” he said, as Tanner shook his head and whispered, “Shit.”

“Because your report doesn’t contain either evidence or allegations that Mr. Monroe had a hand in that death.”

Tanner spoke from his seat. “What are they trying to say? Like I could tie a sheet around the dude’s neck and make him jump off the chair?”

Maureen Mason moved in close to Monroe and hissed in his ear, but he shook her off.

Hank said, “Your honor, I apologize; I don’t mean to bring up matters outside of the scope of this hearing. We are not alleging that the death of Barry Bacon is a murder committed by the juvenile, Tanner Monroe; we are only addressing the crime of murder perpetrated against Glenda Fielder.”

“All right, then; so long as we’re clear. Present your argument, Mr. Cox.”

As the chief juvenile officer launched into his rhetoric, Tanner turned again in his seat, locking eyes with Lisa Peters at the other end of the room.

 

THAT MORNING, ELSIE was assigned to Associate Circuit Court, on the same floor as Tanner Monroe’s hearing to stand trial as an adult. Seated at the counsel table, she craned her neck and peered through the window of the courtroom door, looking for signs of activity. Monroe’s certification hearing would be concluding soon, and there was certain to be a buzz when it was over.

Veteran traffic attorney Roger Carr sat across from her, whispering intently in his client’s ear. Elsie watched the exchange with impatience; she wanted to wrap this up, so she could head into the hallway and check on the status of the certification.

The door to the courtroom opened and she glanced over, hoping that it was a citizen scheduled for a small claims matter, or a child support complaint; something that would not require her attention.

The bailiff ambled to the door, where a young woman stood, holding a pink subpoena. He looked at the slip of paper through his bifocals, then intoned, “Elsie?”

Ah, shit, she thought, rising from her chair. She walked over to the woman with an autopilot smile. “What do we have here?”

The woman held out the subpoena, her eyes flashing. “I’m a victim.”

Elsie took her in with a glance: a pretty woman, full-­figured in the Ozarks corn-­fed way, with curly brown hair pulled into a high ponytail. The subpoena was directed to Thelma James, a witness in the misdemeanor assault case of State v. Bud Douglas.

“You see, Ms. James, the time on this subpoena says 9:00 A.M. It’s past ten now,” Elsie said in a low voice. “You weren’t here when the judge called the case. He dismissed it.”

“What? Are you kidding me?”

Elsie edged away from the door, so the woman could make her exit. “You were the complaining witness. I couldn’t proceed without you.” She could see the indignation building in Ms. James’s face. Elsie repeated, matter-­of-­factly, “You weren’t here.”

“My fiancé’s shift isn’t over till nine. He has the truck. What was I supposed to do? Hitchhike?”

Elsie glanced at the subpoena again, to get the name right. “Thelma,” she began, but the woman cut her off.

“He grabbed my tit. Do you understand?”

Despite herself, Elsie glanced down. They were substantial.

“I was at the Blue Top, having a beer after Dad’s chemo. Bud came up, all concerned, and asked after Dad. Then he stuck his hand in my blouse and grabbed my tit.”

The defense attorney jumped up from the counsel table and pointed a finger at Thelma. “He apologized,” Roger Carr cried.

The woman wheeled on Carr. “Not to me! He apologized to my boyfriend.” Looking back at Elsie, she said, “Motherfucker drove to our house the next day, had the nerve to come knocking on the door. He wanted to apologize—­to my boyfriend.” Pointing at her chest, she said, “These are mine. I’m not anybody’s property.”

“You’re right. Of course.” She took Thelma’s arm and steered her to the door. “Listen, I can fix this. The judge dismissed without prejudice. I can refile the charge.”

Still standing, Roger wailed, “What do you want from Bud? He’s sorry.”

“Oh, he’ll be sorry. That’s for sure.” Thelma looked back at Elsie, a challenge in the line of her jaw. “So you’ll fix it?”

“I can refile. But next time, Thelma, you have to be at court on time.”

The woman turned to go, but before she walked out, she called to the counsel table where Roger Carr sat. “You tell him he’s a piece of shit. Tell him I said so.”

Carr caught Elsie’s eye and shrugged, then turned back to his client and resumed their whispered conversation. Elsie stared at the door for a moment, longing to make an escape and check out the progress next door. She walked back to the counsel table and leaned over the back of her chair. “Roger.”

He glanced at her, but continued talking in his client’s ear.

“Roger. Is he going to plead? To the hit and run?”

The defense attorney smacked the counsel table with an open hand; the sound made Elsie jerk away.

“Could you give us a minute? Would you mind? We’re conferring.”

“Absolutely. You bet.” She stepped away from her chair so swiftly that it teetered. “I’ll step out in the hall, give you guys some privacy.”

As she pushed open the door, the bailiff called to her from his seat near the judge’s chambers. “Where are you off to? Judge will be out here in just a minute.”

She paused in the open doorway, her hand on the knob. “I’ll be right outside here. Just on the other side of the door.”

Roger Carr rose from his seat. “You can’t run off. I’ve got another case set downstairs. I need to wrap this up.”

He was still protesting as she shut the door behind her. Scanning the hallway, she saw that the blinds were drawn in the juvenile courtroom. That was the sign that Juvenile Court was still in session. The proceedings were closed.

Chuck Harris was pacing back and forth in the hallway. Elsie hurried over to him.

“What’s up, Chuck?” she said.

He paused, then slumped onto a wooden bench set against the wall. “Fuck if I know. What’s taking so long?” he asked.

She shook her head. “I’ve never been involved in the certification process. Makes sense it would take a while.”

He shot a glance at her. “Why aren’t you in court?”

“I am. I’m doing some traffic stuff, but it’s about all pled out. I thought I’d come over here and see what’s cooking.”

He nodded. Elsie joined him on the bench and they sat quietly for a moment, Harris drumming his fingers on the wooden seat. When the courtroom door opened, she felt him jerk.

Lisa Peters burst through the door and sped past them, eyes downcast. Chuck jumped up and grabbed her arm.

“Well?”

“It’s done.”

“And?”

“They’re transferring him to the county jail. He’ll be tried as an adult.”

Her face was tearstained. Elsie leaned forward on her seat and said, “You doing all right, Lisa?”

Hesitantly, Lisa nodded, then hung her head. In a low voice, she said, “Hank made the case for it for our office. But I didn’t fight it, after everything that’s happened. But I just don’t know. He swears he didn’t kill her. I don’t know if I’ve done the right thing.”

Elsie and Chuck exchanged glances. Rising from her seat, Elsie put an arm around the juvenile officer’s shoulders. “This day was bound to come. You gave him the benefit of the doubt as long as you could, Lisa.”

Lisa exhaled, still looking down. “I shouldn’t blame him for what happened to Barry; there’s no evidence that he had anything to do with it.”

“No,” Elsie agreed, adding dryly, “But he sure didn’t seem too torn up about it.” She nudged Lisa. “Sure wanted that cupcake.”

An image of the hanging body of Barry Bacon flashed before Elsie, and she flinched. It would be a long time before that memory faded.

The trio turned as the courtroom door opened again. An ancient bailiff led Tanner Monroe into the hallway. The boy’s face was stony, his hands shackled behind his back. Elsie and Chuck stepped back to let them pass, but Lisa Peters approached him, laying a hand upon his shoulder.

“You’ll get a fair trial, Tanner. An attorney’s going to come see you real soon.”

In a flash, Monroe shoved Lisa with his torso, backing her against the iron banister built beside a steep stairwell.

“Stop him,” Elsie cried over Lisa’s shrieks, as Chuck ran into the nearby courtroom.

The old bailiff moved in slow motion, struggling to pull the boy back, but Monroe resisted; shaking the bailiff off with ease, he pressed his groin against Lisa and bent her backward over the banister. With his face thrust against hers, he said, “You said you were looking out for me. You said you were my friend.”

A deputy ran from the courtroom, waving a Taser, shouting at the juvenile to back away. Tanner ignored the order. He stuck out his tongue and licked Lisa’s face, from the point of her chin to the top of her forehead. She twisted her head away, backing over the banister at a dangerous angle.

“You sold me out,” he said, his last words before the electric volt was placed against his neck.

As he lay on his stomach on the hallway floor, twitching, Elsie could see markings on two of his fingers. Like jailhouse tattoos, she thought.

It looked like they spelled: “LP.”


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