A Killing at the Creek: An Ozarks Mystery: Chapter 28

ELSIE SHIFTED IN her seat at the front desk of the battered women’s center, wishing that someone would see fit to donate a decent office chair. Her job, one Sunday morning each month, involved manning the phone at the front desk, which she was glad enough to do. But the rickety chair, which might have been part of the old building’s original furnishings, was well beyond its golden years, and had been designed for a smaller posterior than Elsie’s.

She’d begun volunteering regularly at the Battered Women’s Center of the Ozarks since the close of the State v. Taney case, a hard-­fought trial where Elsie secured a life sentence for a man charged with sexual abuse of his daughters. Her work at the desk was not difficult. She was essentially a doorman. While sometimes the hours dragged, she found insight and inspiration when she talked to the residents about their problems and met their children.

Gazing idly about the lobby of the old hotel, she was struck again by the beauty that remained in the crumbling building. The walnut stairway leading to the second floor still gave an air of grandeur, and the porcelain tile, though cracked and missing in places, showed the painstaking workmanship of the century before.

The lobby was empty that Sunday, because the director had loaded most of the women onto a van to attend a nearby church ser­vice. Those who remained were either sleeping or caring for their children. At 9:00 A.M. it was unusually quiet. Elsie wished she had thought to bring a Sunday newspaper. Or a magazine. Or maybe a paperback romance novel with a lurid cover.

Rattling the remaining ice cubes in her McDonald’s cup, she stretched her legs and propped them up on the desk. Elsie had just found a comfortable position when the front door opened, and a woman in sunglasses, her brown hair cut in a shiny bob, strode up to the desk.

“You’re Elsie Arnold,” the woman said with surprise.

“Yes,” Elsie said, a little guardedly; the woman seemed familiar, but with her Jackie O sunglasses blocking much of her face, it was hard to tell. “What can I do for you today?” After a beat, Elsie added, though it seemed unlikely, “Are you checking in with us this morning?”

The woman laughed. Pushing her glasses atop her head, she said, “Heavens no, Elsie; I’m Caroline Applegate. Bob Ashlock’s friend.”

Elsie didn’t need further introduction. She remembered Caroline Applegate, a family law attorney from a nearby county, who had dated Ashlock before he and Elsie got together. Covertly checking her out, Elsie was discouraged by what she observed. The woman was dressed in a crisp sleeveless blouse, and shorts that displayed a good pair of legs. Bet she works out, Elsie thought, grudgingly. Shit.

Conjuring a polite voice, Elsie said, “Nice to see you again, Caroline.”

“I’m here to see a client,” Caroline said confidingly, with a regretful expression. “So sad.”

“Yeah,” Elsie said dryly, “everybody here is pretty sad.”

The woman plucked a tiny speck from her immaculate blouse. “I know I’m not properly dressed. But I’m going to Branson with Bob today, so I thought I’d swing by here and get my client’s signature on her divorce petition. It just worked out,” she said, in a manner that was decidedly perky.

“Client’s name?” Elsie said, deadpan, phone in hand. She did not want to hear about Caroline Applegate’s jaunt through the hills with Ashlock. The wound was too fresh.

“Sammie Phillips,” Caroline whispered. As Elsie spoke into the second floor intercom, Caroline looked around, relaxed, adjusting her handbag on her shoulder.

Elsie hung up the phone. “She’ll be right down. In a minute,” Elsie added; Sammie Phillips had sounded like she was brushing her teeth when she acknowledged Elsie’s call.

“Good,” Caroline said, “I need to wrap this up and hit the road. Bob and I are taking the kids to Branson.”

Elsie looked up, shocked and hurt, despite herself. “You’re going to Branson? With the kids?”

“To the Titanic exhibit. They are so excited.” Making a wry face, she added, “Bob suggested that we take them to Silver Dollar City. But I talked him out of it. I think the Titanic is much more educational.” Leaning into Elsie, she added, in a confiding stage whisper, “And much cooler.”

Tears pricked in Elsie’s eyes; she bit down on the inside of her cheek to dispel them. For a terrible moment, she feared that Caroline Applegate would see the tears shining in her eyes, so she tried to devise a fitting retort, but nothing came to mind. All she could think of was that Ashlock had offered Caroline Applegate the Silver Dollar City trip with his kids that Elsie had wanted; Elsie should be in the car, driving through the green hills en route to southwest Missouri’s hokey tourist wonderland, not Caroline Applegate. Caroline didn’t even want to go to Silver Dollar City. She thought it was too hot.

Elsie rubbed her nose, hard, thinking: Fucking Ashlock, stupid fucking Ashlock, fuck you.

Looking back at Caroline Applegate, the woman appeared to be awaiting a response. Elsie bared her teeth in an artificial smile. “So, how’s Ash doing these days?”

Caroline rolled her eyes. “Oh, that poor man. I ran into him at the farmers’ market on a Saturday. He wanted to pick up some tomatoes, but didn’t seem like he knew what on earth to do: red or pink or yellow or green. I gave him a hand.”

I bet you did, Elsie thought.

“And then I came onto the most beautiful white peaches, just luscious. So I made a pie, and I ran it by the house.”

Yellow peaches make a better pie. My mother says so. But Elsie pinched her lips together.

Caroline set her handbag on the desk and unzipped it, rooting inside. “Those poor babies. You’d think those kids had never seen a homemade pie. Bob was so grateful.” She smiled at Elsie, with triumph reflecting off each shiny tooth in her head. “He was so sweet. So sweet! And the kids begged me to stay for supper. You know.”

You’re gloating, Elsie thought. Rubbing salt in the wound and having fun doing it. “Wow, what a great story,” Elsie said, shaking her head. “But I have a ton of stuff to get back to here. So, you have a great time in Branson.”

“Oh, I will. Can’t have a bad time in Branson. It’s got everything.”

Elsie nodded her head sagely. “Branson can be very educational.”

“Want me to tell Bob hi for you?”

Bitch, Elsie thought. “Sure. Whatever.” In a light tone, she added, “Eat a funnel cake for me.”

Caroline Applegate laughed in response as her client appeared on the stairs. Watching as the women crossed the room to a furnished corner of the lobby, Elsie decided: If Ashlock could move on, so could she. It was over. Completely over.

Except for the aftermath. The motion to suppress hearing was set for next week.


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