A Killing at the Creek: An Ozarks Mystery: Chapter 31


WHEN ELSIE OPENED the door of Billy Yocum’s storefront office on the town square, a chime jangled to herald her arrival. She looked up and saw a tarnished brass bell dangling overhead.

Elsie heard a toilet flush, and a moment later, an ancient secretary appeared. The woman shuffled toward Elsie, squinting through tortoiseshell glasses.

“It’s Elsie, isn’t it? Little Elsie Arnold.”

“Hey, Veda.” Elsie gave her a smile. Veda Wilson had served as Yocum’s secretary for decades.

The woman shook a finger at her. “I used to babysit your mama.”

Elsie nodded. “Yes, ma’am, I know. You’ve told me.” Veda Wilson reminded Elsie of the babysitting connection each and every time Elsie encountered her.

“She was such a nice girl. And smart! Why, she could read the newspaper in first grade.”

“She’s still reading that paper, Veda. Every morning. Say, Veda, is Billy around?”

“Yes, indeed. Let me stick my head in his office.” Veda stepped over to a closed door; without bothering to knock, she literally stuck her head inside. “Billy, she’s here.”

His voice boomed into the outer office. “And who’s this ‘she’?”

“Billy, it’s Elsie. Elsie Arnold. Marge’s girl.”

“Have her take a seat. I’ll be out in a minute.”

Elsie dropped into a chair of mustard yellow vinyl, thinking that the delay was a power play on Billy’s part. She stretched her legs in front of her, settling in for a long wait, and started to simmer. She did not intend to waste her afternoon in Yocum’s office; he was at the very top of her shit list, even over Madeleine and Ashlock. Elsie hadn’t deigned to look at Yocum since the motion to suppress hearing a fortnight ago, much less speak to him; but he’d surprised her with a phone call that morning, demanding in a curt voice that she come by his office after lunch. He said he had important news to share. And before she could protest, he hung up.

Elsie picked through the magazines on the table beside her chair. They were Mrs. Yocum’s discarded issues of Good Housekeeping and Southern Living, with the address labels still intact. On a lower shelf of the side table, she saw a stack of old yearbooks: Barton High, Home of the Mountaineers! She picked up the one on top, bearing a worn green cover with the year set forth in faded gold: 1960.

“Jesus,” she whispered, flipping through the black and white pages of Yocum’s glory days. In the senior class photo, the caption revealed he was president; she spotted him on the basketball team; and the debate team ran a half-­page photo of Billy, a staged pose, with his arms crossed as he scowled at his opponent. Two pages later, she found the prize: Billy sitting on a hay bale beside a girl wearing a gown of layers of tulle: Barnwarming King and Queen.

Elsie guffawed at the picture, drawing a curious stare from Veda. As she closed the yearbook and slipped it back in place with the others, she nearly upset a huge pottery ashtray. Elsie pushed it back to safety by the magazines. It was a vintage jewel of speckled aqua, with room for a dozen smokers to ash and rest their cigarettes and extinguish butts. It held a matching lighter. Elsie picked it up and flicked it, but it didn’t work.

“You itching for a smoke, Miss Arnold?” Billy stood in the doorway of his office, regarding her with a raised brow.

She jammed the lighter back into its spot. “Lord, no, Billy. I’ve never smoked.” The statement was not entirely true. “I was just wondering—­why do you have that thing out here? They just passed that new smoking ordinance. You’re violating city law.”

“I don’t plan on using it.”

“Then what’s it here for?” In a mocking tone, she said, “Sentimental reasons?”

“It was a gift. When I opened my law practice. A gift from my late father.”

Aw, shit, Elsie thought. Billy Yocum always played the dead family card on her. She had no comeback; she followed Billy into his office and settled into a bloodred club chair that faced his desk. He sat across from her, staring, his right hand toying with a paperweight that sat atop a manila file folder.

“Billy. What did you call me over here for? I’m busy.”

“I have a report to share with you.” Billy set the paperweight aside and opened the folder, pulling a stapled sheaf of papers from the top of a pile. As Elsie watched, jiggling her foot with impatience, Yocum scanned the document through his bifocals.

At length, she interrupted his silent reading. “Billy, you could send that to me. E-­mail me, and attach it. Or fax it. You could send it U.S. mail, if you’re not in a hurry. Or, I don’t know, maybe just drop it off with Stacie. That’s how I got your last important motion.”

Yocum continued to examine the papers. Elsie stood. Her voice was snappish when she spoke. “I’m heading out, Billy. I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit here and watch you read. I’ll tell you the truth: I’m not really in the mood to hang with you, after that hatchet job in Callaway’s court.”

She nearly reached the door when Yocum’s voice stopped her. “My client suffers from mental illness. Mr. Monroe.”

Elsie turned, scrutinizing him with a wary eye. “What’s this? What happened to Other Dude Done It?”

Billy didn’t answer. His eyes were trained on the document.

Elsie said, “If Tanner Monroe didn’t cut the woman’s throat; if, as you and your client contend, another person did the deed, then what does it matter whether he’s crazy or not?”

Billy Yocum replaced the document in the file folder and closed it, carefully setting the paperweight on top. “Then you have no interest in the content of my medical report.”

Elsie edged back to her chair. “I’m interested, sure. What’s the diagnosis?”

Billy sighed. Shaking his head, he said, “My client is a troubled young man.”

She smiled in response, genuinely amused. “No shit.”

“Miss Arnold, could you please refrain from using vulgar language in my office?”

Resentment washed over Elsie like the tide. “Oh please. Excuse the fuck out of me, Billy. I thought I was talking to the guy who accused Ashlock of ‘dicking’ me in open court.”

Billy leaned back in his chair with a patient expression. “Miss Arnold, you fancy yourself a litigator. I’d expect you to understand trial tactics.”

Behind Billy’s head was a shelf containing two prizes: a plaque from the Missouri Trial Attorneys Association, naming him the Trial Lawyer of the Year in 1982; and the trophy for Division 1 High School basketball in 1960. She imagined the satisfaction she would derive from knocking the treasures to the floor.

“It was personal. You crossed the line, Billy.”

“Miss Arnold, you have some hard lessons to learn. Not the least of which is how to stand clear of that line. You walk right into the line of fire, you know that?” He tapped the file folder with his index finger. “Antisocial personality disorder.”

Elsie made a hissing noise, waving her hand in dismissal. “Is that the best you can do? Every inmate in the Department of Corrections can claim that disorder; just means they commit crimes. You were better off with ODDI.”

Yocum adjusted his glasses, smiling broadly. “I guess you’ll find that out soon enough.”

She didn’t like his expression. “What do you mean?”

“At trial. You’ll learn about our defense pretty soon now.”

“What do you mean? We won’t go to trial for months yet. We’re way down on the docket.”

“I’m filing a motion. Veda just typed it up. Maybe you should be there when the judge takes it up.”

Her face flushed; he always kept her off-­balance. “Billy, what’s going on?”

“My wife and I are taking our fortieth wedding anniversary trip. She wants to see the castles of Europe.”

“Judge Callaway isn’t going to rush a murder case to trial so you can go on vacation.”

“Oh goodness, no. He’ll do it for the safety and security of a minor. My client is in the general population at the county jail; did you know that?”

Elsie felt a twinge of angst; she’d supposed they’d placed Monroe in some kind of protective custody, away from the other inmates. “I don’t know the particulars.”

“He’s in grave danger, on a daily basis. I’d think such a wrinkle would occur to you. You purport to be greatly disturbed by sex crimes against young victims.”

She almost winced. “If there’s a problem, you should talk to Vernon Wantuck at the jail. He’d listen to you.”

“Oh, I think I’ll take it up with Judge Callaway. I believe I will.”

Elsie’s head started spinning; if they were looking at a trial date in the near future, she needed to start anticipating the defense’s hand. “Hey, Billy, who’s your doctor? Who did the mental eval on Monroe?”

“Dr. Boone. In Springfield.”

“That quack?” Elsie recognized the name; Dr. Boone was a psychologist in private practice who was popular with the criminal defense bar, due to his propensity to declare criminal defendants unfit to stand trial and unable to comprehend that their behavior was wrong. “Boone thinks everyone is crazy. He’d diagnose me with antisocial personality disorder.”

Yocum didn’t reply; he just looked at Elsie with his brow lifted.

“Don’t you dare,” she said. “Don’t say it. We’re on thin ice as it is, you and me.”

“Miss Elsie, you can’t read my mind. And you mustn’t be disposed to paranoia. Such an unattractive quality in a woman.”

She stood in a huff. “Give me the goddamned report, and a copy of your new motion. And I’ll get out of here before you make me lose my temper.”

He patted the manila folder with a blue-­veined hand; on his fourth finger, he wore a Mason’s ring sporting a large faceted ruby.

“I think I’ll take your suggestion, Miss Arnold. I’ll send this motion to you and Mr. Harris through the U.S. Postal Ser­vice. It should reach you next week. If Veda gets it in the mail in the next day or two.”

Elsie didn’t bother to reply. She walked away from Billy and made for the exit. Before she reached the door, Veda called to her.

“Elsie, honey, hold up. I’ve got something for you.”

Elsie turned. “Is it the new motion in the Monroe case? I’d like to see that.”

“No, I don’t have that ready for Billy to see. This is something else.” Veda lifted a stack of envelopes that appeared to hold the morning mail.

“Really, Veda, I’m in an awful hurry.”

“Well now, I had it right here.” She opened the top drawer of her desk and began to paw through it. “I had it just a minute ago.”

“Mrs. Wilson, I’m sorry, but—­”

“She was just here. Just right here with it.”

As Elsie burned with impatience, Veda scoured the drawer a second time, breaking off the search with a laugh. Reaching for the blue Kleenex box on her desk, she said, “I put it right on top so I wouldn’t lose it. Sometimes I think I must be getting the old-­timers.”

Veda extended an open hand; when Elsie saw what it held, she quailed. It was a tarot card. The Fool.

She didn’t want to touch it, but Veda held it out with an expectant face.

“A woman was looking in here for you, but she wouldn’t wait. She said to give this to you. Said you’d understand.”

Elsie examined the worn card, its cardboard edges soft and frayed. The Fool was stepping off a cliff. Because the Fool didn’t look to see where he was going.

These days, it felt like she was doing the same thing.


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