A Killing at the Creek: An Ozarks Mystery: Chapter 33

ELSIE’S OFFICE FACED the west side of the town square. At five o’clock, the sun beat through the glass with a vengeance, setting her face on fire. She reached up to pull the string that closed the metal blinds, but they refused to close all the way; the blinds were half a century old, and though she fought with the string, stripes of white sunlight peeked through.

She settled in her chair and opened the State v. Monroe file. With the trial speedily approaching, Chuck had assigned their roles and divvied up tasks. He announced that he would do voir dire and jury selection, Opening Statement, Closing Argument, and examination of key witnesses: Ashlock, the coroner, and the crime lab witnesses who would testify about the forensic evidence. The autopsy, DNA, fingerprints, blood, and hair would be his territory. The glamour jobs, Elsie thought.

She was assigned the county deputies who assisted Ashlock at the scene, and the Oklahoma witnesses. And Chuck had ordered Elsie to initiate contact with everyone on the witness list, to let them know that trial was approaching.

The grunt work.

She picked up the phone at her desk and dialed the first name on her to-­do list: a McDonald’s employee in Vinita, Oklahoma, named Camryn Hornbuckle. When the phone picked up on the other end, Elsie sat up straight in her chair, preparing to speak.

“ ‘Hey, this is Cammie. I’m not here right now. Leave me a message, okay? I’ll get back with you.’ ”

Elsie sighed. She hung up the phone without comment; she’d learned from hard experience that it was unlikely she’d get a callback if she left a message to call the Prosecutor’s Office. Too scary, she supposed. She would try again later.

The second McDonald’s witness was male: Jeff Bartlesby. When she dialed his number, an electronic robot voice informed her that it had been disconnected.

She slammed the receiver down. “Well, that’s just great. Shit.”

Her coworkers were leaving; Elsie heard their voices in the hallway. Stacie was bickering with the traffic clerk about their carpool.

Breeon appeared in the doorway of Elsie’s office with her purse dangling from her shoulder. “Are you hanging around? You should know by now: they don’t pay us any overtime.”

Elsie pointed at the open file. “Monroe case. Trying to line up my out-­of-­state witnesses.”

Breeon said, “Go on home. Give yourself a little downtime. You can make those calls later, after you’ve had something to eat.”

Shaking her head, Elsie sad, “Chuck wants me to get right on it.”

Breeon’s face took on an expression of mock sobriety. “Then you get to work, girl. Chuck knows best.”

Elsie and Breeon exchanged a look. They had privately exchanged notes on the new chief assistant’s skill set.

“Hey,” Elsie said, her voice dropping to a whisper, “I saw Chuck going off into the sunset with the new juvenile officer. Lisa Peters.”

“The one who testified at the suppression hearing?”

“Yeah. Red hair.”

Bree shrugged. Elsie said, “Well? Doesn’t that seem strange?”

“Why? She had to testify.”

“No, that’s not what I mean.”

“Then what? They’re both single, both working for the county, new to town. Makes sense they’d hook up.”

“But they couldn’t stand each other. They acted like mortal enemies when they first met.”

Breeon laughed. “Then it was bound to happen. Tale as old as time. I’ll see you tomorrow, sis.”

After Breeon left, the office felt empty as a tomb. The only sound was the white noise of the air-­conditioning unit under Elsie’s window, masking the traffic on the square.

She checked her next witness: Jewel Winston, the cocktail waitress at the Jackpot Casino. With a wry smile, Elsie remembered her coup when she discovered the woman’s story; but the smile faded. “Fucking Ashlock,” she whispered.

The witness’s phone picked up on the first ring. “Who’s this?” a voice demanded.

Elsie grabbed a pen. “Ms. Winston?”

“Who wants to know? What area code is this? Where’s 417? I don’t know a soul with a 417 number.”

“This is Elsie—­”

“If you’re selling something, you can forget it.”

“No no no—­not selling a thing, honest. Ms. Winston, this is Elsie Arnold; we met at the Jackpot. I’m the prosecutor from Missouri who took your statement, remember? About Tanner Monroe, the young man in the bloody bus.”

There was silence on the other end. Elsie said, “Ms. Winston? You remember?”

At length, the woman responded. In a reluctant voice, she said, “Yeah. Back in June, I think.”

Smiling into the phone, Elsie said, “That’s right. You gave me excellent information; and you identified the photo of Tanner Monroe. He’s been charged with the murder of the bus driver.”

“But he’s a kid, isn’t he? Is this a juvenile thing?”

“No, it’s a criminal case in Circuit Court. Because of the serious nature of the crime, Mr. Monroe has been certified to stand trial as an adult.” She started speaking in a rush, afraid she might be interrupted. “And the case is being set for trial—­soon. So I’m touching base to let you know you’ll be called to testify.”

Silence again. While Elsie waited, she tapped her pen in a nervous rhythm.

“I don’t know.”

Elsie closed her eyes. Dragging reluctant witnesses to the stand was a common prosecutorial chore, but it never grew easier. “Ms. Winston, you’ll be under subpoena. It’s an important responsibility, a civic duty. This is a murder case. You know, the victim was a woman about your age.” She paused for a moment, to let the last statement sink in. “It’s crucial that the jury hear what you know.”

“I don’t think I can get off work.”

Elsie’s voice was brisk, her tone positive. “Not a problem. Your employer has to let you off; they don’t have any choice. A subpoena is an order of the court.”

Ms. Winston dropped her voice; Elsie had to strain to hear. “Okay, here’s the thing. I don’t trust that kid. You say he’s a murderer. What if he gets out? He’ll come after me, cut my throat next. I’m just not going to take that risk.”

“He’ll be in prison, Ms. Winston.” I hope, she added to herself.

“He could escape.”

“Well, that’s unlikely.” With her pen, Elsie made rapid notes by Jewel Winston’s name: RELUCTANT WITNESS—­get her back in the fold.

“Plus I can’t afford it. The gas will break me. And I don’t have anyplace to stay.”

“Don’t you worry about that. The county will pay for your transportation”—­and she added another note: Get deputy to drag her ass down here—­“and we’ll provide hotel accommodations. We have a real nice place on the highway: the Motel Rancho. It’s like a Hampton Inn.” Liar, her conscience whispered. The Rancho was an old mom-­and-­pop strip motel, a survivor of the Route 66 era. “It has a pool,” she added cheerfully.

“If I want to swim, I can do it at my apartment. Right here in Oklahoma.”

Elsie changed tactics. “Ms. Winston, I don’t want to fuss with you. You’ll be such a fantastic witness—­the jury will love you. Because you’re glamorous, and you communicate so well.”

Flattery worked sometimes when reassurance failed.

Ms. Winston warmed up a shade. “I’d like to help out. Really. I’m just thinking it’s not in my best interest.”

“Ms. Winston, we’re going to take good care of you. Are you still working at the Jackpot?”

“Yeah.”

“And your contact info: I know I have the right phone number; how about your address? Still on Will Rogers Drive?”

Elsie heard the sigh: resignation. Acceptance. “Yeah. Still there.”

“Excellent. I’ll be back in touch when I have the firm date, so you can put it on your calendar.”

Grudgingly, Jewel Winston said, “Okay, I guess.”

As they rang off, Elsie made stars by Jewel Winston’s name in purple ink, reflecting that she’d need to get the woman into the courtroom even if she had to hogtie her. Because Jewel had a role even more important than establishing the juvenile’s solo presence at the casino.

Jewel Winston would have to rehabilitate the victim.

Elsie knew Billy Yocum would zero in on the DNA evidence and use it against them. He would bludgeon the victim with the evidence, use it to portray her as a pedophile, a woman who preyed on boys.

She had to get Jewel up on the witness stand, because Jewel could help to minimize the fallout. “Jewel,” Elsie said to the phone, “you’ll need to paint a picture for the jury. That Tanner Monroe would fuck any old gal in granny panties.”

She just hoped that the jury would buy it.

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