A Killing at the Creek: An Ozarks Mystery: Chapter 27

IT WAS PAST five when Elsie received the summons: Madeleine wanted to see her in her office. Immediately.

She approached the closed door of Madeleine’s office with leaden feet, knowing that an ugly scene would soon ensue. Leaning her forehead against the wooden door for support, Elsie gave a tentative rap with her knuckles.

“Get in here.” The voice shot through the wooden barrier.

Elsie fixed a rueful grin on her face before she turned the knob. Entering with a diffident air, she saw that Chuck had already arrived and was seated in a chair at Madeleine’s side. Sheets of paper bearing yellow stripes of highlighter were scattered on Madeleine’s desk; the motion, Elsie supposed.

She took a seat on the sofa facing Madeleine’s desk. The hot seat, she thought. She’d occupied that spot many times.

No one spoke. Chuck looked at Madeleine, awaiting her lead. Elsie tried to wait them out, shifting on the sofa cushion and pulling the hem of her skirt to the tops of her knees.

Madeleine continued to stare, pursing her lips and peering over her reading glasses. The beaded chain that hung from the frames glinted in the light from the window behind Madeleine’s head. Elsie focused on the chain, thinking, Don’t speak, mustn’t say anything, gotta keep my mouth shut. She knew it would be foolhardy to break the silence. She knew it.

After thirty seconds, she broke. Pointing at the desk, Elsie said, “Have you ever seen anything so terrible in your life?”

Madeleine picked up a page of the motion and let it dangle from her fingers as she leaned back in her chair. “This?” she said in a blank tone. “You mean this?”

“Yeah.” Elsie’s voice cracked a little, and she coughed to clear it. “That motion is nuts. I’ve never seen anything so unprofessional in my whole career. In my life.”

At that, Madeleine brayed with laughter, in a cackle that was so unexpected, it made Elsie jerk in her seat. Chuck also seemed taken aback, but he broke into a halfhearted chuckle in concert with the boss.

Madeleine tossed the paper in Elsie’s direction. “You’re a riot. You’ve never seen anything so unprofessional? That’s hilarious.”

Unaccountably, Elsie wondered whether Madeleine could see up her dress. She clutched her knees together at the thought.

“Because I don’t think it would be perceived as an unprofessional motion,” Madeleine drawled. “I think what’s unprofessional is the conduct described in the motion.”

Stay cool, Elsie counseled herself. This moment couldn’t last forever; it would pass. Folding her hands together in her lap, Elsie affected an aggrieved look.

Madeleine said, “You can guess the conduct I’m talking about.”

Elsie waited for her to continue, but Madeleine paused. She and Chuck focused on Elsie, two sets of eyes boring into her.

“Can’t you guess?”

Elsie figured playing dumb would be a bad idea. “I assume you’re talking about the romantic allegations.”

“Allegations of a romantic and sexual nature. Sexual.”

At that, Chuck’s eyes darted away, scouring the ground. He’s embarrassed, Elsie thought; embarrassed because she referred to sex. What a hoot. If anyone has the right to be embarrassed, it’s me.

Elsie rubbed her nose, buying a moment to compose her thoughts. “Madeleine, it’s not a secret that Ash and I were seeing each other for a while.”

“Certainly not a secret now. It’s a matter of public record.”

Righ­teous indignation shot some blood into Elsie’s system. “Come on, Madeleine; let’s get a grip. We’re not teenagers doing it in the gravel at Peckers’ Beach. I think Bob Ashlock and I are entitled to pursue adult relationships.”

“Not when it interferes with your professional responsibilities. You have tainted a murder case. Do you realize that?”

“No. I don’t agree.” Elsie looked to Chuck for support, but it was not forthcoming. His eyes were still glued to the rug. She pushed on. “All that’s happened is Billy Yocum has found a way to stir up some trouble. He’s pulling a rabbit out of his hat. If it wasn’t this, he’d use something else.”

Madeleine pulled her reading glasses off her nose and toyed with the beaded chain. “You make it so easy.”

“What? How do you mean?” Elsie braced herself; the answer would not be flattering.

“You make it so easy for the defense to find an Achilles’ heel. What on earth were you doing in that interview with the defendant?”

Elsie turned to Chuck, waiting for him to speak up and take responsibility. He was toying with a loose thread on his jacket, wrapping it around his finger. She watched him give it a tug and flip the thread onto the carpet.

He’s not going to say anything, she thought, dumbfounded.

A spark of anger kindled in her chest. “Chuck?”

He inclined his head in her direction, but didn’t meet her eye. “What?”

“Chuck, we were both there. At the interrogation.”

He sighed and waved his hand in a placating gesture. “True. I was there, Madeleine.”

Madeleine held up the motion. “Chuck’s name appears once in this document. Exactly one time. Whereas your name, Elsie,” and she commenced flipping the pages, “pops up on every page.”

Story of my life, Elsie thought, slumping in the chair. Story of my fucking life. She took a deep breath and blew it out before asking, “So what are we going to do?”

Madeleine tossed the motion across her desk. “What you always do.”

“What do you mean?”

Madeleine’s face twitched, then she laughed without mirth. “What you always do. Storm in like a bull in a china shop and hope for the best.”

Chuck reached over and picked the crumpled motion off the varnished top of Madeleine’s desk. “Do you want me to handle this, Madeleine?”

“No.” Madeleine’s cell phone buzzed and she picked it up, a clear sign that the meeting was at an end. Before she answered the call, she said, “Elsie made the bed. Let her lie in it.”


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