A Killing at the Creek: An Ozarks Mystery: Chapter 3


THE JUNE SUN was already hot at 9:00 A.M. when they pulled up to the scene. It was in a lonely spot, a dry creek bed under a one-­lane bridge on a farm road that didn’t see much traffic.

Chuck Harris and Elsie exited his car and walked over to the deputy who stood nearby. Joe Franks, a short, wiry man in his fifties, had been with the Sheriff’s Department for over a decade, even prior to the election of the current county sheriff. He smoked a cigarette as he jotted notes on an incident report form.

“Who’s this dude?” Harris asked Elsie before they reached the deputy. Harris hadn’t been in Barton long enough to know the deputy by sight.

“Joe Franks,” she whispered.

“Hey, Joe,” Harris greeted him, clapping him on the shoulder like a long-­lost pal, “what you got here?”

“Body down in the creek bed. Dead as a doornail. Throat cut.”

Harris let out a low whistle. “No shit.”

Franks eyed Elsie with interest. “Why’d they send you out here, hon? You’re gonna run your hose.”

“Not wearing any,” Elsie replied shortly, containing a flash of irritation. Often it seemed that southwest Missouri was still mired in the past century, when law enforcement was strictly a boys’ club.

A tall, solidly built plainclothes detective sporting aviator sunglasses ducked under the crime scene tape and approached them. Chuck Harris waved in greeting.

“Hey, Ashlock! Did Madeleine manage to hustle you out here? She said she hoped the Barton PD would keep an eye on the county sheriff’s office—­JK, Joe.”

Bob Ashlock was the chief of detectives at the Barton City Police Department, and Elsie’s current flame. In fact, the two of them had spent some quality time together at her apartment less than twenty-­four hours prior, engaging in the kind of activities that put them in a happy place . . . but at the moment, Bob looked grim.

Chuck addressed him again: “What did you see down there? How long has the body been there, you think?”

“The coroner says a ­couple of days, maybe more. Franks, you better get down there and collect what you need before the doctor fucks up the crime scene.” He glanced at Elsie and said, “Pardon my French, Elsie.”

Elsie winked at him and brushed the apology aside with a wave of her hand, as Harris exclaimed, “Hell, Ashlock, don’t worry about Elsie. Have you been around her? She swears like a sailor!”

Ashlock turned on him with a look that would make a sensible man quail. “Yep. A whole lot.”

Harris turned to gaze down through the bushes at the trickle of the dry creek. “What do you make of the dead guy?”

“There’s no dead guy down there.”

“Say what?”

“Nope. Victim is female.”

“No shit!”

Elsie’s brow wrinkled as she tried to recall whether the news had reported an abduction in the area. “Do you think she’s a local, Ash? Because I don’t remember anything about a woman going missing lately.”

Ashlock shook his head. “Identity won’t be a mystery in this case; she’s got a license, a chauffeur’s ID in her pocket. Michigan license says her name is Glenda Fielder. I’m going to call the information in to Patsy at the department, so she can cross-­check it on the database.”

“Did the ID have a picture?” Elsie asked.

Ashlock nodded.

“Well, does it look like her?”

He squinted at the sun, as if trying to blot out an image. “Not anymore.”

Chuck followed Ashlock as he turned and walked to his car, peppering him with conversation as Ashlock leaned against the car door and pulled out his cell phone to dial the police station.

Elsie wandered past the shoulder of the road, to the area roped off with crime scene tape. Drawn by a morbid curiosity, she paused at the tape, which bore the familiar order, DO NOT CROSS. With a sense of bravado, she thought, I’m part of the investigation. I’ll go wherever I want.

Elsie ducked under the tape and walked briskly down the rocky grade to the creek, where several officers were milling around. A sign identified the spot as Muddy Creek, though currently, with rain scarce at this time of year, it had dried up to a feeble trickle of water.

The smell struck Elsie as a warning, but it was too late; she stumbled so close to the creek bed, where the dead woman lay, that she could reach out and touch her, if she dared. She flinched from the grotesque sight: the woman’s body was swollen, her face bloated beyond recognition. Elsie focused involuntarily on the corpse’s sightless eyes and the gaping slash under her chin, extending from ear to ear.

She tried not to scream, but a shriek burst out before she could stifle it. Blindly, Elsie backpedaled until she fell on her backside; she turned over and scrambled on her hands and knees to bring herself to a standing position and run for the road, away from the creek and the horrible sight.

Bile rose in her throat and she was afraid she would vomit, horrifying as that would be: she’d spent the past four years demonstrating to this very group of cops that she was tough as nails. As she ran up the shoulder of the road, she could see Ashlock and Chuck Harris in her peripheral vision, but she didn’t stop; she headed for a tree and braced herself against it, trying desperately not to be sick.

A calm voice came up behind her. “You all right, sweetheart?”

Elsie shook her head, unable to speak, because she was crying, and talking would make it worse.

Ashlock put a supporting arm around her and walked her a short way into a wooded stretch, away from the road.

“You’ve never seen a dead body like that, have you?”

She shook her head again.

He talked on, in a soothing tone, “If you need to, just let it come on up. No one can see.”

Elsie tried, bending over a knee-­high patch of Queen Anne’s lace, but nothing happened. She wiped tears from her cheeks with both hands. “I’m so embarrassed.”

He pulled her into his arms and rubbed her back. “Now, that’s silly. First time anyone sees a sight like that, it makes them sick. It’s a shock, a terrible thing to witness. Every cop I ever knew lost their lunch at their first murder scene.”

Elsie felt better, if only marginally. She sniffled; she needed a Kleenex in the worst way.

“But I feel so unprofessional.”

“Baby, this isn’t your profession. You’re a lawyer, not a cop. I’m supposed to be out here in the weeds with the dead body. You’re supposed to be in the courtroom, putting the defendant away.”

He stroked loose tendrils of blond hair away from her face. “Am I right?”

She reflected a moment. Actually, he was right. She nodded.

“You ready?”

She sighed. “Yeah, we better go back,” she said with regret. She wished she could linger, leaning against Bob Ashlock in the shade of the old hedge apple tree. But they both had work to do.

They walked side by side through the high weeds and up to the spot where the police cars were parked on the shoulder of the road. Chuck Harris hopped off the hood of his car.

“Where’d everybody go? Did I miss something?”

Ashlock looked to Elsie, but she just shrugged nonchalantly, unwilling to confess her skittishness to Chuck Harris.

Harris looked from one to the other, suspicious. “What?”

“I needed to use the restroom. Ashlock was showing me where they are,” she said casually.

Skeptical, Chuck said, “There’s no bathrooms out there.”

Elsie smiled at Ashlock. “City boy,” she scoffed.

“Well,” Chuck said, digging for his keys, “I’ve got to get out of this heat. Bob, can we meet somewhere? We should go over the information, so I can fill Madeleine in this afternoon.”

“Okay. It’s about time for a lunch break.”

Lunch, Elsie thought, a cold sweat breaking out on her upper lip. Her stomach twisted.

“Where should we go?”

Ashlock considered for a moment. “The Wagon Wheel isn’t too far. And we’ll be hitting it before noon, so we should be able to get right in.”

“Okay. Come on, Elsie,” Chuck said, double-­clicking the unlock button on his key chain. “You can give me directions.”

Elsie looked longingly at Ashlock, wishing she could hop into his City of Barton sedan, and tell Chuck Harris to find the Wagon Wheel himself with his damned GPS.

But Ashlock shrugged and said, “I could stand to change into a fresh shirt. I’ll see you there.”

Elsie slid carefully into the passenger seat of Harris’s car. It had been sitting in full sun on her side, and the hot vinyl nearly took the hide off her. Fiercely, she wished herself out of that hot seat, and into the company of Bob Ashlock.

“Detective Ashlock seems okay,” Harris observed. “Not a dumbshit like most of these hicks from around here.”

“I’m one of these ‘hicks from around here,’ by the way.”

“Yeah, I figured. No offense, Elsie. But you’ve got to understand that this is a big change for me, coming down here to southwest Missouri. I’m from the Jackson County office; I was raised in Kansas City.”

“Kansas City. Kansas City’s a cow town, right?”

He shot her a look. “Do you ever get up to the Plaza?”

“Not lately,” Elsie replied. Grudgingly, she’d be forced to admit that the Kansas City Plaza was pretty doggone fabulous. “You need to take a turn here.”

“So you think Ashlock is a good man to work this murder up for us?”

“No question. The best.”

“You know him pretty well?”

“Uh-­hmm.” Elsie nodded, thinking, Every inch of him.

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