A Killing at the Creek: An Ozarks Mystery: Chapter 22

ELSIE AWOKE FROM a sodden sleep. Lying under a wrinkled sheet, she fought through the fog of the night with her eyes squeezed shut. Please, she thought, please let me be in my own bed.

And let me be alone. All alone.

Peeking through her eyelashes, she was comforted by the familiar sight of the dusty light fixture hanging over her bed. Sitting up with a sigh, she threw off the sheet and assessed the magnitude of her hangover. She shook her head, hoping to clear it, but without success.

It was going to be a rocky day, she thought, as she grappled for her eyeglasses on the bedside table..

Shuffling toward the kitchen, she shrieked at the sight of Noah Strong with his feet on the kitchen table, nursing a cup of coffee.

He laughed at her reaction. Aping her expression, he squealed in falsetto, “Help! Police!”

“Shit,” she said, pushing her glasses higher up the bridge of her nose.

“There’s a man in my apartment! Call the cops!”

She trudged into the kitchen and picked up a cup from the dish drainer. Pouring coffee from the pot he’d brewed, she said, “What are you doing here, Noah?”

“That’s a nice way to greet your hero. The guy who drove your drunk ass home last night.”

“Oh fuck,” she muttered.

“And put you to bed. Got you out of your work clothes and shoes.” He reached for her as she walked past, catching her hand and pulling her onto his lap.

Elsie set the coffee cup on the table and squirmed away from him and into the other chair. Wishing most desperately that she didn’t have to ask, she said, “Did we do anything?”

“Like what?”

She turned on him with a flash of temper. “Don’t mess with me.”

“Did we watch TV? No ma’am we did not.”

She picked up the coffee with a shaking hand as her anxiety spiked. She would not repeat the question. She would retain a shred of dignity.

With a sigh, she shifted in the kitchen chair, observing that there was no telltale twinge of tenderness; and after a dry spell, Noah’s attentions would have left a morning-­after reminder. She relaxed a trifle.

He nudged her. “Since you’re having some recall problems, you might not realize that you don’t have a car outside in the parking lot.”

Elsie breathed in and out, carefully. He had the whip hand this morning, and was clearly enjoying it. In a polite voice, she said, “Would you mind if I take a quick shower before we go pick it up?”

 

WHEN ELSIE SAW the elevator door closing she made a run for it, dashing down the courthouse hallway. The doors shut just as she reached it. Panting, she headed for the marble stairway. As she trudged the two flights, she left damp fingerprints on the brass handrail.

Stacie looked up when Elsie pushed through the door of the Prosecutor’s Office. “You’re late.”

A glance at the clock behind Stacie’s head confirmed it. Elsie considered crafting a clever excuse, but she couldn’t muster the wit.

“It’s just one of those days, Stacie. One of those old days, as my mom says.”

Stacie leaned over the desk, and in a stage whisper, she said, “Someone’s waiting for you. She’s been sitting outside in the rotunda since the courthouse opened.”

Elsie felt the cloud over her head expand. “I don’t have any appointments this morning.”

“Well, you’ve got one now. I checked the calendar. You’re not in court till one. I said you’d see her at nine.”

Oh Lord, Elsie thought. It was only minutes before her surprise appointment. “Well, okay. I guess.”

Elsie sank into her chair, surveying the paperwork on her desk. New police reports had been stacked on top of a stack of Missouri cases she’d printed out. “I need a vacation. A summer vacation.”

“Ms. Arnold?”

A woman appeared in her doorway. Elsie rose, startled; she thought Stacie planned to announce the stranger first.

“Yes?”

“I been waiting for you.”

The woman walked into the office, pulling a black roller bag behind her. Not a briefcase, Elsie noted. When citizens came into the office armed with a briefcase, she could expect a long harangue.

The woman settled into the chair across from Elsie’s desk. As she pulled the black bag to her side, Elsie studied her. She wore a battered hat adorned with a cluster of orange flowers; it sat askew on thinning black hair sprinkled with gray. Despite the morning heat, a pilled pink scarf was knotted around her neck.

Elsie managed a smile. “What can I do for you?”

The woman turned piercing blue eyes on Elsie. “There’s something I can do for you.”

Unsettled, Elsie fumbled as she turned to a blank page on a legal pad. Uncapping a pen, she said, “Your name?”

“I been to the desert on a horse with no name.”

Oh shit. Crazy. Elsie glanced at the bag resting at the woman’s side. She had been through security. If the bag contained a weapon or an explosive, they would have detected it.

“That’s interesting. Now what’s your name, ma’am?”

The woman just smiled in reply, revealing a set of teeth with several molars missing. She bent over the black bag and wrestled with a broken zipper.

Here we go, Elsie thought. The bag would surely contain a collection of paperwork compiled to convince the Prosecutor’s Office to file a frivolous charge.

When the bag opened, Elsie leaned across her desk to confirm that her guess was correct. But the bag contained a wad of wrinkled clothing; mismatched shoes; a yellow wrapper around a portion of a McDonald’s cheeseburger; and a folded newspaper. The McCown County Record, Elsie suspected. She wondered whether she was looking at the sum total of the woman’s worldly goods.

The woman bent over the suitcase, pawing through the clothes. When she straightened in her seat, she held a deck of cards in her hand.

“I’m Cleo. I’ve been sent to help you.”

Cleo set the deck of cards on Elsie’s desk with a flourish. They were tarot cards.

Elsie pushed her chair away from the desk, waving a hand in dismissal. “I don’t need my fortune told, thanks. Don’t have a penny on me. Can’t pay you.”

Cleo ignored her. She shuffled the deck and placed the cards in a rectangular pattern on the desk.

In a sharp voice, Elsie said, “I’m serious. This is a workplace. I’ve got stuff I need to do.”

Cleo studied the cards, nodding. She pointed at one of the cards, which depicted a young man on a horse. Tapping it with a grimy fingernail, she said, “There he is.”

Elsie rose from her chair, determined to remove the intruder. “You have to leave.”

Cleo tapped the card again. “Don’t you want to hear? About the boy?”

Elsie froze. “The boy?”

Cleo picked up the card. “The Knight of Swords. It’s the boy.”

She reached into the black suitcase and retrieved the newspaper. As Cleo smoothed the front page on the desk, Elsie saw that it was the issue reporting Tanner Monroe’s certification hearing, with a photo of the boy in handcuffs, lying on the floor of the courthouse hallway.

Cleo set the tarot card beside the newspaper photo. There was no resemblance; still, seeing the pictures side by side was eerie, Elsie thought.

With a knowing look, Cleo repeated, “The boy.”

Elsie swallowed, wishing she’d stopped at Sonic for a Diet Coke. “Do you have some information about the Monroe case?”

Bending over the cards, Cleo studied them without answering. Elsie watched the woman, her impatience increasing and nerves jangling.

“If you have any pertinent information, I’d like to hear it. But if this is some kind of joke, you need to move on out of here and let me get to work.”

Cleo shoved the undealt cards in the battered deck toward Elsie and said, “Draw.”

Irritation shot through her; Elsie wanted to knock the cards off the desk and watch them fly through the air.

“This is ridiculous.”

Cleo tapped the deck with her index finger. Elsie looked away; the sight of the woman’s dirty hand was unsettling.

“Draw.”

Blowing out a frustrated breath, Elsie picked the top card from the deck, hoping she wouldn’t catch a nasty bug from the cardboard rectangle. She examined the card briefly, then held it up so Cleo could see it.

Cleo nodded. “The Fool.”

“Are we done here?”

“The Fool stands on the precipice. He doesn’t look to see the dangers ahead.” Cleo took the card from Elsie’s hand. “This is you.”

“Okay, that’s it. Out.”

Cleo settled back in her chair. “I’ve done it over and over again. It comes out the same every time.” She picked up another card. “You’re trying to imprison the Knight, but you can’t. See? The Hanged Man.” She waved the card close to Elsie’s face.

Elsie jerked away. Rising, she walked to her office door and swung it open. “You need to leave.”

Taking no notice of the dismissal, Cleo went on. “You want to be his destruction.” She sighed, looking at the card with an expression of regret. “It’s not your place. He’ll do it to himself, if it’s meant to be. He’s been at the mercy of the dark forces.”

Elsie leaned against the doorframe, crossing her arms. “Appreciate the advice. We’re all done here.”

“You’ll leave the boy alone. The Knight.”

“Cleo? Ma’am? Appointment is over. I’m serious. I’ll call security.”

Cleo chuckled, picking up the tarot cards in an unhurried fashion and returning them to the black suitcase. “It’s okay. I’m used to it. No one wants to hear the truth.”

Get her out, get her out, pounded in Elsie’s head. When Cleo rose from her chair with a grunt, Elsie crossed her arms, willing the woman to hurry through the door and out of Elsie’s sight. “Have a nice day,” she said, hoping it would conclude the interview.

“No one wants to hear. No one really wants to know. Gypsies, tramps, and thieves, that’s what the ­people of the town call us.”

Is that a song? Elsie wondered, watching the woman make her way down the hall. She shut her door with a bang and turned the lock. Crossing to the small refrigerator sitting near her closet, she prayed that it would hold a silver can of medicine. Squatting down, she opened the door and shoved a bag of withering apples to the side. There it was: a single can of Diet Coke.

Elsie sighed with pleasure as she popped the tab, closing her eyes to savor the first cold swallow.

The crazy woman’s voice lingered in her head. The Fool, she thought.

It was true enough. Waking up with Noah Strong in her apartment, for heaven’s sake. The Fool, indeed.

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