A Killing at the Creek: An Ozarks Mystery: Chapter 25


WHEN ELSIE RETURNED to her office, she encountered Ashlock, leaning against the locked door.

“How’d it pan out?” he asked.

She rolled her head back on her neck. “Bound him over. By the skin of our teeth.” Turning the key in the lock, she opened the office door. “Want to come in?”

He paused, as if debating the invitation. Stepping inside, he said, “Just for a minute.”

“Better shut the door,” she said over her shoulder, as she pulled open her file cabinet and dropped the Monroe file inside. “Yocum’s down the hall.”

He pulled the door shut behind him. Then he turned the deadbolt.

She shot him a quizzical glance.

“Privacy,” he said, indicating the lock. In a casual tone, he asked, “You did a good job in court. Hell of a good job.”

“Thanks,” she said shortly, avoiding his eye.

“How have you been?”

“Good. I’ve been good.”

“You sure look good.” Crossing to her, he grasped her arm. At the contact, she looked up, and their eyes locked. He pulled her closer, and without stopping to consider, she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him hungrily. His tongue played with hers, and she could feel through the fabric of his pants that he was hard as a rock.

Stumbling together toward her desk, he pressed her up against it, stopping to knock the papers to the floor with a sweep of his arm. Elsie pulled his shirt from his pants as he jerked her skirt up to her waist and tore her underwear away from her body, ripping the fabric off at the crotch.

“Oh God,” she whispered as her rubbed her flesh. She reclined on the desktop as he fumbled with his zipper. Just as he freed his erection, a knock sounded at the door.

“Elsie? You in there?”

They both froze. Ashlock was panting. “Don’t answer,” he said in a harsh whisper, pressing himself against her opening.

The knock came again, a persistent rap. In a louder voice, they heard Stacie say: “Chuck needs you.”

In the room, they remained silent, but for their ragged breathing.

Stacie’s voice came through the door a third time, petulant now. “I saw you go in. I know you’re in there. I can hear you.”

Ashlock groaned, and backed away. Sitting up, Elsie said, “Hold on a minute. I’m looking for something.”

They tugged their clothes into place, Elsie smoothing her skirt with a shaking hand. Elsie stepped over to the door and unlocked it. Taking a deep breath, she swung the door open and greeted Stacie with a smile.

Stacie looked over Elsie’s shoulder at Ashlock, and her eyes widened. He slipped past the women without a word. As he retreated down the hallway, Elsie saw that his shirttail was hanging out.

Stacie interrupted her thoughts: “Chuck and Madeleine need to see you.”

“Huh?” Elsie said, still a little breathless.

“Chuck and Madeleine,” Stacie said, with impatience. “They’re in Madeleine’s office.”

Elsie nodded, stepping in the hall and pulling her door closed. As she walked down the hallway to Madeleine’s office, she was aware of a disconcerting throb between her legs. Reaching the closed door, she tried the doorknob. It was open, for once. Taking a second to tuck her hair behind her ears, she pushed the door open, and popping in head first, Elsie said with a jaunty air, “What’s cooking?”

Chuck glanced at her wrinkled skirt. Elsie slipped onto the couch, keeping her knees tightly clenched together.

Madeleine was focused on the computer screen at her desk. Clicking the computer mouse, she said, “Chuck says you handled the preliminary hearing this morning.”

Elsie nodded. “Yes indeed. Got that boy bound over.”

“Barely,” Madeleine murmured, her eyes still glued to the computer screen.

Elsie’s temper flared, but she didn’t rise to the bait. “We had a little surprise. PD’s out, Yocum’s in.”

“That’s what I heard.” Madeleine turned away from the computer, pulled a leather handbag from a desk drawer, and peered inside the purse. “I have a connection of sorts to the Yocums. A personal connection.” She fished in the handbag and pulled out a lipstick, examined the color in the tube, and dropped it back in the bag.

Elsie squinted at her, and when Madeleine didn’t continue, Elsie offered, “PEO?”

Madeleine looked at her in surprise. “What?”

“Your connection. Is it PEO?”

Madeleine’s brows knit together. “Yes, in fact, it is. How did you know?”

“Just a hunch.”

“Well, it makes it a little ticklish for me. Peggy is my PEO sister. And that makes Billy my brother, after a fashion. How are you in tune with PEO, Elsie?” In a doubtful voice, she asked, “Is your mother a member?”

“No.” Elsie replied, thinking, My mother isn’t into closed societies. Marge Arnold had been encouraged to join the local chapter of the DAR, but had scoffed at the notion, saying, “Imagine what they would make of my Cherokee bloodline.”

Madeleine nodded, satisfied. “Then that settles it. You can see how uncomfortable it would be for me and Billy to be adversaries in this case. Chuck, it’s on you. Your first murder case in McCown County.” Brightly, she added, “A real chance to distinguish yourself.”

Chuck looked sick to his stomach. “Great.”

“You’ll need cocounsel, clearly. I expect you’ll want to assign the job of second chair to Elsie.”

Elsie turned to Chuck with an expectant air, excitement building in her chest. With a sidelong glance in her direction, Chuck said, “Elsie has been helping out with the case from the start.”

“Fine. And she doesn’t have any connection with Billy that creates a complication. So.”

I’m in, Elsie thought. Second chair in a murder case. And Madeleine’s out. The change of plan suited her very well indeed; she liked to keep her distance from Madeleine. Whatever Chuck’s deficiencies, he would be easier to work with than the boss.

Chuck stood. “Is that all, Madeleine?”

“Not quite. You need to look at this. It came to the office today. Addressed to me.”

Elsie and Chuck approached Madeleine’s desk as she pushed a stack of files to the side and set a single sheet of paper where they could see it. It was a piece of ruled notebook paper, upon which three words were written in pencil:

STOP WRONG DUDE

Elsie stared soberly at the block letters, before looking up to meet Madeleine’s gaze. “Where’s the envelope?” she asked.

Madeleine pushed it toward her with the tip of a manicured fingernail. A plain white envelope bore the address of Madeleine Thompson, in the same penciled capital letters.

Chuck tsked. “Looks like Tanner Monroe wants to be your pen pal, Madeleine.”

Elsie shook her head, an uneasy feeling replacing the triumph she’d enjoyed moments before. “This didn’t come from the jail.”

“Why would you say that?” Chuck demanded.

“The envelope. No return address. All correspondence originating from the jail has ‘McCown County Jail’ stamped in the left corner.”

Chuck took a step back, his hands raised. “We can have it checked for prints. That will solve the mystery. No problem.”

But Elsie didn’t share Chuck’s confidence. “If there’s a print—­and if the print is on record, and they get a hit—­we can identify the sender.” She stared at the words again. STOP WRONG DUDE.

“The postmark is here in Barton, two days ago. Who does Monroe have on the outside?” she asked.

No one replied. Chuck pulled a tissue from a box on Madeleine’s desk, and used it to pick up the envelope.

Elsie continued, “The kid is from St. Louis, doesn’t have any local connections.”

“You can check the visitors’ log at the jail,” Madeleine said. “Why don’t you go on and do that now.”

“Who would visit him? He’s a stranger in town.”

Chuck said, “Maybe Yocum sent it.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Madeleine snapped. “Yocum is a consummate professional.”

“Maybe that bleeding heart at the juvenile office is sending fan mail. Monroe’s good buddy. What’s her name? Peters?” Chuck looked to Elsie for confirmation.

“Lisa Peters doesn’t seem like the anonymous letter type,” Elsie said.

Madeleine broke in. “Excuse me. I don’t know about you all, but I have things to do today.”

Elsie and Chuck took the cue, and headed for the door. Once in the hallway, Chuck snapped his fingers. “It’s Mom.”

“What?”

“The author of the letter. It could be his mother. God, I hope she’s not a violent freak, like her kid.”

“It could be,” Elsie nodded. “It’s from someone who’s rooting for him, and he’s not a guy with a lot of close connections. It could totally be his mother.”

Dodging into his office, Chuck said, “Let’s look up her rap sheet. If she’s a killer, I’d like to be forewarned.”

Elsie stood behind Chuck’s chair while he accessed the information from their Tanner Monroe file and ran Monroe’s mother through the law enforcement database. With triumph, he pointed at the screen. “There she is. I knew it; a drug whore like her had to have a rap sheet.”

Elsie bent over his shoulder, studying the woman’s picture on the computer screen. “Jesus. She looks a lot like her kid. Doesn’t she?”

“Well, she’s his mother. What do you expect?” He pulled his keyboard to the edge of his desk. “I’ll e-­mail this over to the county jail. If they’ve seen her, I’ll let you know.”

“Okay,” Elsie said, and left the office. As she walked down the hall, she wondered how Tanner’s mother could have let him sit in jail for so long without getting in touch. But you never knew about the complexities of a mother and child relationship. Maybe she should give her own mom a call.


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