A Killing at the Creek: An Ozarks Mystery: Chapter 21


WITH A SHOVE, Elsie pushed the door of the Baldknobbers bar open wide. When she stepped in from the blazing summer sun, the darkened room blinded her for a moment. She paused, blinking, as her eyes adjusted.

A poke at her back got her moving.

“What the hell are you blocking the door for?” Breeon groused. “Quit standing like a statue; I want out of this heat.”

As the women slid into an empty booth, the cool air rattling out of the air-­conditioning unit ruffled the damp hair at Elsie’s neck. She slid her finger behind the thick vinyl window shade and peeked outside.

“I don’t see anyone coming,” she said in a small voice.

Breeon gave her with a skeptical look. “You’re expecting a crowd? For your thirty-­second birthday?” When Elsie shrugged in response, Breeon said, “But hon, you didn’t get the word out. This won’t be some kind of big celebration.”

Elsie dropped the window blind, extinguishing the ribbon of light and restoring the cavelike atmosphere.

“I didn’t expect anything big,” she replied, a shade defensive. “I just thought word might get around. ­People might want to drop by.”

“I told you: you should’ve gone over to your parents’ house for supper.”

“Nah. Don’t feel like it. Seems kind of pitiful.”

In fact, Elsie had agreed only a ­couple of days prior to eat dinner with her parents on her birthday. But when Marge called to ask Elsie’s preference as to icing on the cake—­buttercream or seven-­minute frosting—­the conversation turned to Tanner Monroe.

“How is the case going against that poor boy?” Marge had asked.

“You mean Monroe? He cut a woman’s throat, Mother. How about the poor victim? Glenda Fielder is dead, thanks to Tanner Monroe.”

“I have my reservations. I saw him on TV, on the Joplin news channel. He looks like a boy I had in class last year.”

Elsie started to get riled. “Don’t blur the lines, Mom. He’s not anyone you had in class in Barton. He’s a product of the St. Louis public schools. So it’s not your fault.”

“I didn’t suppose it was my fault,” Marge had said, tartly. “Lord. It’s not a matter of looking for fault.”

“As a matter of fact, it is. That’s what criminal law is about: figuring out who’s at fault, who committed the crime. And making them pay the penalty.”

“Are you lecturing me? I don’t like your tone. It sounds like you’re trying to pick a fight. Honestly, Elsie, you are cross as two sticks these days.”

Elsie’s face flushed with a combination of heat and hurt feelings as she said, in a snippy voice, “Then maybe I shouldn’t force my company on you and Dad this week.”

“Now honey, you’re being ridiculous.”

“I’m going to go out with the courthouse ­people. With Bree. I’ll check in with you guys sometime this weekend. ’Bye.” She hung up without letting her mother respond and proceeded directly to Bree’s office to beg for a birthday date.

So they sat at the Baldknobbers, two women in a battered booth.

After they waved a signal to Dixie, two mugs of Bud Light appeared, droplets of moisture coursing down the sides of the chipped glass. “Happy birthday, Elsie,” Dixie said, displaying a gap-­toothed grin.

“See,” Breeon said as the old barmaid sprinted away, “Dixie showed up for your birthday bash.”

After swallowing a healthy measure of the mug’s contents, Elsie idly sorted through the packets in the sugar dispenser, putting them in order: blue, pink, white.

Breeon sipped at her beer. “Who are you wanting to see? Someone in particular?”

Shrugging, Elsie plucked a stray NutraSweet and jammed it into place with its mates. “Didn’t really think about it.”

Surveying her with a skeptical look, Breeon shook her head. “Liar. You’re ruminating. Over Ashlock.”

Elsie’s chin jerked up. Cutting her eyes away from Breeon, she gave her head a resolute shake. “Nope.”

“Don’t bullshit me.”

“I’m not ruminating. I don’t ruminate.”

“You’re doing it right this minute.”

“Goddamn,” Elsie said in a huff, “don’t tell me how I feel.”

The front entrance opened, and the silhouette of a man appeared in the light. Elsie froze, straining to identify him; but after a glance, she knew it wasn’t Ashlock.

Chuck Harris strolled in and crossed over to their table, loosening his tie.

“I can’t see a damned thing in here,” he said.

Glad for the interruption, Elsie shot him a wry grin. “It’s a beautiful day; let’s go someplace dark.”

Pulling a chair up to the end of the booth, he asked, “What are you all up to?”

“I was about to leave,” said Bree.

Elsie swung toward her with an injured look. “What?”

“Baby, I told you I could only stay for one.”

With a dose of self-­pity, Elsie said, “I knew I should’ve picked another place. You hate the Baldknobbers.”

“Well, you’re right about that. I expect a Klan meeting to convene any minute,” Breeon said, grasping her bag and rifling the contents. “But the fact is, Taylor will be home at six, straight from soccer; she’ll be wanting her supper.” Setting a five-­dollar bill on the table, she slid out of the booth. “Settle up with Dixie. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Elsie started to rise from her seat, but Breeon pushed her back down with a smile. “Let the chief assistant buy you another round. And happy birthday, hon. You’re still just a baby.”

After Breeon departed, Elsie caught Chuck regarding her with a quizzical look. “What?” she asked in a cross voice.

“How old are you?”

She bristled. “Why do you need to know?”

He laughed, tipping back in his chair. “Just an innocent question. You’re the one announcing your birthday like it’s a state holiday.”

“I know. You’re right.” She tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear, grateful that she’d stopped sweating. “I’m thirty-­two. Does that sound old?”

“Nah.” Dixie delivered a beer bottle, and he took a swallow. “Younger than me.”

Still morose, she studied her beer mug, wiping the condensation with her fingertip. Her glum mood had actually taken her by surprise; she hadn’t expected to be troubled by the arrival of another birthday. She supposed her gloomy reaction stemmed from the recent breakup with Ashlock. But that notion was irritating, as well. She had never been the girl who defined herself by romantic relationships, unlike some of her friends, who scrambled from adolescence on to have a boyfriend perpetually in place.

It had never been Elsie’s way. As she sat at the barroom table, she reflected. She knew that her life was full, that she was doing important work, that each day provided an opportunity to contribute something significant. But she missed Ashlock. His departure left a void that ached. She allowed herself a moment of longing before she shut the feeling down. Ashlock was gone: history. Out the door.

Maybe she should order another beer, she decided. Looking around the empty bar, she reasoned that there would be no crowd to witness her excess. That was a rare gift in a town the size of Barton.

“Dixie! How about a pitcher over here!”

Chuck switched seats, scooting onto the cracked cushion Bree had vacated. When the pitcher arrived, Elsie shared it, swilling with increasingly fuzzy good cheer as she and Chuck gossiped about the local defense bar in general, and Billy Yocum in particular.

An hour passed. Flushed and pleasantly numb, Elsie polished off another mug, and wiped the beer from her mouth with an incongruously dainty swipe. Lowering her voice to a stage whisper, she leaned across the table and asked, “So what does Madeleine think?”

Chuck’s brow furrowed. She noted, with some annoyance, that he looked irritatingly sober. Draping his arm over the back of the booth, he responded in a cool tone. “About what?”

“About the report. The one Ashlock brought over yesterday.”

He shrugged, poker-­faced, noncommittal. “I don’t know that I’m authorized to discuss it.”

She flushed, stung. “I’m cocounsel, you idiot.”

“You have a tendency to overestimate the importance of your role in this case.”

Her eyes flashed. She felt aggrieved, like a boil was rising deep inside her chest, aching to pop. “Fine. Don’t say a thing about it. Hide that double-­edged sword.”

He shot her a look. “Why do you say that?”

Gotcha, she thought. Nonchalantly, she asked, “Say what?”

“That it’s a double-­edged sword. Madeleine was really excited about it. The DNA in the semen ties the juvenile to the victim, discounts his story.”

Splashing another measure of beer into her mug, Elsie nodded sagely. “Yep. Sure does.”

“So the kid is a liar, because his statement says nothing about having sex with the deceased. And when he claims he was just lying around in the back of the bus, saw nothing, knows nothing, did nothing—­we attack his veracity. And,” he finished triumphantly, “we spice up the facts, get the jury fired up about the rape.”

Elsie stared at him over the rim of her mug. Gesturing with it, she inadvertently splashed beer on the table. “That’s it. There’s your problem.”

When he didn’t respond, she added, “Who raped who?”

“Whom. Who raped whom. But whatever. I don’t get your point. The bus driver is dead; she’s the victim, the violent one is the kid.”

“Precisely.” She slammed the mug on the table with a resounding clunk. “He’s a kid. Fifteen. Below the age of consent. Any defense lawyer worth his salt will throw that back on the prosecution.”

She watched dismay etch his features as he registered the import of Elsie’s statement. She continued, “The defense will maintain that the dead woman forced or coerced the juvenile to have sex with her. It’s not an unbelievable claim; he’s fifteen, she was a middle-­aged woman. They’ll say: Why would a young boy want to have sex with an old broad?”

As Chuck leaned away from her, she drove the point home, adding, “And if they play their cards right, they can make the jury believe that he killed her to defend himself from a rapist, a pedophile. Raise a reasonable doubt, anyway.”

“Bullshit,” he exploded, but Elsie cut him off with a laugh.

“Damn, Chuck, there’s no point in getting mad at me. I’m trying to help you, by anticipating what the defense will do. Read the tea leaves, guess their hand. I always do that, when I’m going to trial.”

He looked away, refusing to meet her eye. Why was he reacting so angrily? She was trying to help, to do her job and make a contribution as third chair. They sat in unhappy silence for a tense moment, before he bent sideways, pulling his wallet out with a jerk. “Time to go.”

Oh hell, I’ve pissed him off, she thought.

“Okay,” she said, pawing through her purse, “let me find my debit card.”

She was still fumbling with her wallet when he slipped a bill under his half-­full mug and stood to go. “Tell Dixie to keep the change.” Then he made for the door.

She pulled a few cards from her wallet, but couldn’t find the Visa. Had she left it somewhere? she wondered unhappily. She knew she had no cash; she had scraped bills and change together to buy a burger at the courthouse coffee shop earlier that day. Rummaging through the contents of her bag a second time, she failed to notice a man approach the table.

Looking up, she beheld Noah Strong slipping into the seat Chuck had vacated. Despite the beer haze, an alarm went off in her head: Noah was a blast from the past, a boyfriend from the bad old days before Ashlock.

But he looked divine. A sunburned face with the features of a Nordic god, and hair bleached by the sun. His freckled shoulders were on display in a cotton tank shirt. Wearing a wife beater, she thought. Fitting.

“Hey there,” he said, more loudly than necessary. He was grinning with a bluster she recognized as false confidence. She knew Noah well; too well, she thought ruefully.

“Hey,” she replied, refusing to meet his eye. Grabbing her bag with a sudden jerk, she added, “I’m heading out.”

He looked away, toward the bar where Dixie was leaning on an elbow, smoking a cigarette. “Dixie,” he called, holding up two fingers.

Elsie paused. “You meeting someone?”

“Nope.”

“Drinking double fisted?”

His mouth crooked into a one-­sided grin, an expression she once adored. “Hope not.”

Shrugging, she refused to take the bait. Even with her beer buzz, she had her guard up. Squinting up at the rotating ceiling fan, she commenced a calculation of his failings. His many, many shortcomings.

At length, he broke the silence. “Happy birthday, Elsie,” he said, softly.

The tone, as much as the sentiment, initiated an unexpected and unwelcome reaction. Unaccountably, she teared up.

“Elsie? You okay?”

To her horror, a tear welled up and rolled down her face. She knocked it away, wiping furiously at her nose, which she feared would swell like a boxer’s beak.

“Fuck,” she breathed.

Dixie strolled up with two frosty cans of Budweiser and set them down. “You’uns want a glass?”

Noah shook his head, while Elsie turned toward the corner of the booth, to pull herself together. Ridiculous, she thought. Idiotic.

The Bud can popped with a hiss, and Noah pushed it in front of her. What the hell, she thought, picking up the can and taking a swig.

Setting the can down, she looked sharply at him. “How’d you hear?” She suspected that Noah had learned about her split with Ashlock; which meant Ashlock was talking shit about her at the PD. That would account for Noah’s surprise birthday appearance. After all those months apart, he was sniffing around, to pick her up on the rebound.

“Hear what?” He was casual, innocent as a lamb, turning the can with his fingertips.

She made a scornful face. “Oh please,” she said, tipping her beer for another swallow. “The talk.”

Shaking his head, he said, “Only talk I’ve heard is about the kid.”

A spark of interest flared, in spite of herself. “What’s that?”

Shifting into the corner of the booth, Noah settled his broad back against the wall. He drank before he answered. “Everybody’s pissed you’re not in charge.”

She sat up straighter; he had garnered her complete attention. “How’s that?”

“Nobody thinks she’ll keep after it.” There was no need to ask who “she” was. “And nobody at the department thinks her little fag chief assistant has the balls to see it through.”

She squinted; her contact lenses seemed fuzzy. Maybe the beer was drying her eyeballs. “He’s not gay.”

Noah’s response was a cross between a snort and a cough. “Dixie!” he shouted, waving his empty can, but she ducked into the kitchen behind the bar.

A perverse impulse prompted Elsie to defend Chuck. “He isn’t. He’s just big city, that’s all.”

His teeth shone like a Cheshire cat. “Big city.”

“You know, metrosexual. Fancy haircut, expensive clothes.”

“Hair gel,” he suggested.

“Yeah.”

“My point exactly.”

She flushed with resentment. Though she wanted to shut him down with a biting retort, she could only come up with: “You’re stupid.”

Dixie appeared at Elsie’s shoulder with a plastic basket, lined with wax paper. She set the basket in front of Elsie with a flourish. It held a sizzling cheeseburger; and in the top bun, which was shiny with grease, someone had stuck a single birthday candle. Its short wick was lighted.

Dixie nudged Noah. “Are we singing?”

“No.” He gave the basket a little push toward Elsie, his hand brushing hers. “Make a wish, baby.”

Panic seized her; she thought, Who is he calling baby? “What is this?” she snapped.

“I saw your car, and I remembered. Wish I had a real present. But I know you love the cheeseburgers here at the Bald. You used to tell me you craved them, sometimes.”

She scooted out of the booth. “That’s nice of you; thanks. But I’m going now.”

“Wait.” He seized her arm. It wasn’t a painful touch, but it held her in place. “You’ve got to eat something, or you’re going to regret it. And honey, you’re in no shape to drive.”

Reflexively, she tried to jerk from his grasp, but he held on. Glancing back at the basket, she saw that the bun now had a quantity of melted pink wax on its surface. Still, it smelled delicious.

She relaxed and slid back into the seat. “I need the ketchup and mustard.”

He reached behind him, swiping condiments from the next booth. With a smile, he said, “Eat. I’ll give you a ride home.”

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