A Killing at the Creek: An Ozarks Mystery: Chapter 2

ALL IN THE world Elsie Arnold wanted was a murder case.

She was late for the Monday morning staff meeting at the McCown County Prosecutor’s Office, but she didn’t feel a bit guilty about it. She’d burned the midnight oil all weekend in preparation for a Monday afternoon preliminary hearing for a manslaughter case. She was as ready as she’d ever be, but the heel of her shoe had ripped the hem out of her skirt when she was getting dressed, costing precious minutes on the hunt for scotch tape. When she couldn’t find it she substituted safety pins, jamming them through the fabric, cursing all the while.

The manslaughter assignment was a major breakthrough for Elsie’s career: her first death case. It was a major step, a badge of honor. But a vehicular homicide was not a murder.

All I want, thought Elsie, as she trod the worn marble steps in the interior of the old stone courthouse, all I want is a goddamned murder.

Elsie certainly didn’t wish any harm to befall her fellow citizens of McCown County, Missouri. She appreciated the quiet community nestled in the Ozark hills; she had chosen to return to her hometown after law school, back to the hills where she was born and raised. It was not the big city, like St. Louis or Kansas City or Little Rock, where murder cases were a common tragedy. Even with the middling crime rate, Elsie had a fine record as assistant county prosecutor; but she hadn’t handled a murder case, and was conscious of the hole in her experience.

She bypassed the front door of the office, displaying the name of her boss, Prosecuting Attorney Madeleine Thompson, in bold letters, and slipped in the back way. The meeting was under way; she could see the attorneys clustered on the sofa in the boss’s private office. Elsie squared her shoulders and entered the meeting with what she hoped was a confident air.

All eyes were on her. The new chief assistant, Chuck Harris, flashed an electric smile her way. He struck her as a wolf in pin-­striped clothing.

“ ‘A diller, a dollar, a ten o’clock scholar,’ ” he said.

“The hell you say,” Elsie retorted. “It’s barely past eight.”

“Eight-­fifteen,” said her boss. Madeleine double-­checked the time on her Rolex watch, regarding Elsie with an ill-­humored expression.

Elsie and Madeleine were not on the best of terms these days. Madeleine viewed her position as a political stepping stone, having been appointed, not elected, by the prior governor as a political favor to her wealthy husband, the local John Deere distributor. Her entitled attitude constantly irked Elsie, who was passionately dedicated to her job in law enforcement.

“Don’t even start with me,” Elsie said, approaching the sofa where her friend Breeon sat hip to hip with three other attorneys. There was no vacant seat in the crowded office, so she dropped her purse and the big accordion file she’d been carrying and leaned against the door frame. “I lived here this weekend. Should’ve had a cot and a hot plate in my office, I logged in so many hours.”

Her comment was met with silence. Elsie began to backpedal; she didn’t want to sound like a complainer, not when she had finally been assigned a death case.

“Of course, I didn’t mind being here, because I’m ready for the prelim. ‘Ready for my close-­up, Mr. DeMille.’ Do you think the TV stations will cover it?”

Madeleine looked at Chuck, her chief assistant, and back at Elsie. “We need to bring you up-­to-­date, Elsie. There’s been a change of direction.”

Elsie eyed her warily, like a dog guarding a bone. “What do you mean?”

“The defendant is waiving preliminary. He’s going to plead.”

Elsie took an involuntary step forward. “Nobody told me!” Her chest clutched as she felt her case slip away.

Chuck said, “We just worked it out, Elsie. His defense attorney only okayed it late last night.” His tone was conciliatory, with a hint of condescension.

“Why were you talking to him without me? This is my case,” Elsie said hotly.

“It’s my case,” Madeleine said shortly. “I’m the county official, the one appointed by the governor. They’re all my cases. We’ve had this conversation before, I think.”

“Well, hell,” Elsie muttered. “Guess I’ll tell the judge there’s a plea.”

“Don’t bother,” Madeleine said. “Chuck will do it. He’ll appear on the waiver and take up the plea.”

Elsie felt her blood boiling.

She tried not to resent Chuck’s position as chief assistant, but it was tough. When the spot opened up recently, both Elsie and her friend Breeon Johnson had made a bid for it; either of the two women seemed a likely choice, from their stellar trial records. Madeleine overlooked both of them and brought Chuck Harris in from the Jackson County office in Kansas City, Missouri. Predictably, Chuck’s father was a big shot in Republican politics. Since that disappointment, Elsie knew that Breeon was considering leaving the office and moving back to St. Louis, but Elsie would remain in McCown County. The Ozarks was her home.

Madeleine continued, “Chuck worked out the plea bargain; he got the deal.” The ring of her cell phone interrupted the exchange. As she answered, Chuck turned to Elsie; he had the good grace to look a little abashed.

“Hey, Elsie, sorry about your lost weekend. But you know, all the good work you did was important. The defendant knew we were ready. That’s why I was able to get this plea bargain.”

Madeleine waved a manicured hand at them in irritation; moving the phone away from her mouth, she snapped, “Can’t hear over you.”

The office fell silent. Madeleine grimaced with distaste as she listened to the voice on the other end of the phone. “Who found it?” she asked.

She listened silently for several moments while her staff watched. “No,” she said into the phone, “I can’t get out there, Shelby. I’ll just send someone else.”

Shelby Choate was the county sheriff. Something’s up, thought Elsie.

“Did you call anyone from the Barton City Police Department?” Madeleine asked. Elsie could hear the crackle of the reply all the way across the room. “I know, Shelby; I know it’s outside the city. You all can still work together.”

Madeleine spun slowly back and forth in her chair while the lawyers watched and waited.

“Don’t worry, I will; I’ll get someone out there to take a look. I’ll send my new first assistant. I don’t know if you all have met yet; his name is Chuck Harris.”

Chuck Harris’s chin jerked up. No, he mouthed, waving his hand to catch Madeleine’s attention. Not me.

She ended the call and sat up straight in her chair, looking the picture of professionalism; a snowy white collar and cuffs peeked out from her smartly fitted jacket. To Elsie’s eye, her boss’s garb was a costume, designed to look like a character from Law & Order.

The head of a safety pin scraped Elsie’s thigh. She shifted to escape the sting.

“Someone outside the city limits stumbled onto a dead body dumped under a bridge in the county. Sheriff Choate wants someone from the office to take a look at the scene. I told him you’d go on out, Chuck.”

“I’ve got the manslaughter appearance.” Harris rose from his chair and made for the door.

“Not until one o’clock. You’ve got all morning.”

Elsie seized the chance. “I’ll go.”

Chuck turned back to face the boss. “I’m wearing my good suit,” he exclaimed. “They’ll have me tracking through cow pies.”

“I don’t mind. I’ll go. I’m free.”

“I’m sending you, Chuck,” Madeleine said, without a glance in Elsie’s direction. “You’ve only been in the office for a ­couple of weeks. You need to make contact with the sheriff, work with the law enforcement personnel.”

She stood, making a neat stack of her notes to signal the end of the meeting. “Meanwhile, I’ve got a meeting with the head of the statewide Republican party this morning, so I am”—­firmly shutting a desk drawer—­“all. Tied. Up.”

She flashed an artificial smile to no one in particular and dismissed the staff, saying, “Let’s get to work.”

Elsie followed behind Harris as he headed for his office and flung his door open wide.

“I’m serious about coming along. I’ll help out. You can bounce your ideas off of me.” When he rolled his eyes, she said tersely, “Hey. You owe me. You took my manslaughter right out from under my nose. Now, you take me to see this dead guy.”

Harris considered, frowning as he looked at her.

“Okay,” he said. “Let’s go.”

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