A Killing at the Creek: An Ozarks Mystery: Chapter 30


AFTER JUDGE CALLAWAY left the bench, Elsie followed Chuck out of the courtroom, holding herself so tightly that her jaw hinge locked up. Rounding the rotunda on the second floor, Chuck pointed to the back entrance of the Prosecutor’s Office and said: “First stop: Madeleine.”

Elsie ignored him. She dodged into the stairway and tore down the steps, nearly tripping over her own feet. On the ground floor, she made for the exit, pushing the ancient oak door open wide and letting the sun blind her. For a moment she stood, sucking the hot air into her lungs, with her eyes squeezed shut and her face turned up to the sky.

Jeanette, the court reporter, brushed past her.

“That was some hearing, huh?” the woman asked with a laugh.

Elsie nodded, her head bobbing like a toy on a string.

“I’ve got to get back in a hurry and work up the transcript for the court file. Wouldn’t want to be you today. You’re going to be famous.”

Elsie stared at the woman’s back as she marched away, her heels clicking a beat on the hot concrete. She tried to summon a surge of anger toward the reporter, but it wouldn’t come. The words she’d spoken were the Lord’s own truth.

A weathered pair of park benches rested on the edge of the courthouse lawn where it met the street. I’ve got to sit down, Elsie thought, making her way toward them. I need to sit and think.

She lowered herself onto the planks, taking care to keep her bare skin from touching the peeling slats of wood. All she needed to make the day complete was a splinter in her ass.

A distinctive stink registered, and she looked around warily, to find the source. It was near at hand; a trash receptacle beside the bench was topped by a metal ashtray wriggling with maggots.

“Jesus.” She groaned, scooting away from the odor; but as she thought the afternoon couldn’t be more uncomfortable, she saw Lisa Peters coming toward her on the walk.

Lisa walked toward Elsie at a determined clip and planted herself in front of her, as if daring her to leave. Elsie looked up into her face, but the sun was so bright she had to squint.

“What?” Elsie said.

“It wasn’t personal.”

“Shit,” Elsie said, her voice almost a sigh.

Lisa stood rooted to the spot, clutching a big white Sonic Drive-­In cup to her chest. “Really, I want you to know: I think you do a good job. I understand the prosecutor’s role, what you do. And Chuck. But I was under oath.”

Elsie rubbed her eyes; the sun was too bright. “Yeah.”

“I swear to God,” Lisa said, dropping onto the bench beside her. “I wouldn’t throw a rock at you. I’ve come to have a lot of respect for you.”

“You didn’t have a choice,” Elsie said.

“I didn’t have a choice,” Lisa said, as if Elsie hadn’t spoken.

They sat in unhappy silence until Elsie pointed at the storefront across the street.

“Do you remember the old Ben Franklin? Or are you too young?”

“Kinda. It was a craft store, right?”

“No, that was just at the end, before it closed down for good. It was a five-­and-­dime before that, the real thing. Great candy. And weird shit. Random stuff.” The women gazed at the porcelain tiles that still covered the two-­story structure. “Somebody should do something with that property.”

“The square is dead.”

“Don’t tell the Chamber of Commerce.”

“Chamber of Blow Jobs.”

For the first time that day, Elsie laughed out loud. It felt like a tonic. She turned to Lisa and said, “Don’t worry. I’m not going to stick pins in a voodoo doll because you did what you had to do.”

“Really, I want you to know: I think you do a good job. But I was under oath.”

“I know.”

“I was; I had to tell the truth. I’m sorry you had such a terrible time in there. But I did the only thing I could do. You knew I didn’t like the way that statement went down. I was straight with you about it.”

Elsie started to speak, but thought better of it.

“I just told the truth. That’s all.” Making a face, Lisa said, “It smells like death,” then took a long pull on a Sonic Drive-­In cup.

Elsie settled back on the seat, scooting back far enough to feel the wood warm her thighs. She knew Lisa didn’t have a choice. She’d been under subpoena; when questioned, she answered truthfully. “Apt description. It’s maggots.” She nodded toward the offending trash can.

Lisa leaned in the direction of the can, appearing to examine the vermin. Nodding, she said, “It’s the heat. Flies love the month of July. Nothing you can do about it.”

The women sat in silence, side by side, until Elsie roused herself from her inertia and said, “There’s always something.”

Lisa sucked on the red straw. “How’s that?”

“About maggots. My mom told me. Her family didn’t have a garbage disposal when she was a kid, so maggots were fierce in the summer. But my grandmother sprinkled 20 Mule Team Borax in the garbage cans. Flies don’t like borax.”

Lisa nodded, looking genuinely impressed. “That’s good to know.”

Elsie let out a short laugh. “Honest to God, my mother knows some crazy shit.”

“Okay. Give me another one.”

Elsie lifted her hand to shield her eyes from the sun. “Sunburn.”

“What about it?”

“Apple cider vinegar for sunburn. She’d pour it on me in the tub. I bitched about the smell, but it works like magic.”

Lisa nodded. “That’s a good one. But I’ve heard it before.”

Taking the challenge, Elsie inched closer to Lisa. “What about leg cramps? Charley horses? Mom puts a bar of soap under the fitted sheet. I never had trouble with muscle cramps in the night when I lived at home.” To herself, she added, “I ought to do that now.”

“That sounds like an old wives’ tale. There could be a million other reasons to explain the phenomenon.”

Elsie did not deign to reply.

Lisa went on, “I always heard gin and tonic is good for muscle cramps.”

“Gin and tonic is good for what ails you,” Elsie said, but remembering the cocktails that led to her casino war with Ashlock, she fell silent.

Lisa sighed. “I can’t help it, I worry about him.”

“Tanner Monroe?”

“Oh yeah. Tanner Monroe. My first assigned juvenile case. What a kickoff.” She held out her Sonic cup. “Have a drink.”

Elsie shook her head. “No, thanks.”

Lisa ignored the refusal; she put the drink in Elsie’s hand. “It’s cherry.”

Elsie stared at the cup. She had no desire to share the cherry slush; she was not a germophobe, but she wasn’t ready to smoke the ceremonial peace pipe with Lisa, if that was what the cup represented.

“I’m not thirsty,” she said, but Lisa snorted.

“If you don’t suck on that straw right this second, you ain’t got a hair on your ass.”

That caused Elsie to crack a smile; she’d always liked that expression. Obligingly, she sucked on the straw.

Fire poured down her throat and made her eyes water. “Shit,” she choked, “you should’ve warned me.”

Lisa cut her eyes at Elsie with a conspiratorial look. “Vodka. I needed a big dose of something after that court hearing.”

Elsie shuddered, the aftereffect of the unexpected shot. “Do you think you’re okay?”

“I’ll survive.”

Narcissistic little shit, Elsie thought. Maybe you should try to survive being the Hester Prynne of McCown County.

“Lisa, what I meant was—­are you okay to drive?”

“I’ve got a ride. I’m waiting.”

Elsie rested against the back of the park bench. The vodka must have deadened her sense of smell; the maggots were more bearable. “Give me another bite of that snake.”

Lisa offered the cup, saying, “You’re sure you’re not hating my fucking guts?”

“Just a little. Less than I was.” At the sight of Lisa’s anxious face, Elsie laughed. “Aw, shit, hon; he had you in a spot. I can’t hate a girl for telling the truth when she’s under oath.” Elsie hand back the cup. “Because I’m not like that.”

“I finally figured that out.” Lisa lifted the lid and showed Elsie the icy remains. “We’re down to the slushy stuff.” She tipped the cup and took a mouthful.

Looking away, Elsie said, “Sometimes I wish I’d never heard of Tanner Monroe.”

Lisa choked and gagged. After spitting a chunk of ice on the sidewalk, she said. “Hey, sista. I’m thinking that every single day.”

A voice cut across the courthouse lawn. “Peters! Petie!”

Both women looked around to see Chuck Harris standing under a shade tree near the side entrance of the courthouse, loosening his tie. He jerked his thumb toward the employee parking. “Ready?”

“Gotta go,” Lisa said, tossing her Sonic cup into the maggoty waste can. She strutted up to Chuck, and as they walked off together, Lisa’s hand slipped around Chuck’s waist.

Elsie’s jaw unlocked and she stared at the pair, openmouthed. “Fuck me running,” she whispered.

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