A Killing at the Creek: An Ozarks Mystery: Chapter 34

A HORSEFLY INVADED Judge Callaway’s courtroom through one of the screened windows. Elsie heard the buzz before she saw it; twisting around in her chair, she looked up and watched it zigzag around the room.

Judge Callaway was seated at the bench, flipping through the pages of Billy Yocum’s motion. “Billy,” he said, “what are you thinking about this?”

“Your honor,” Billy said, rising to his feet, “my client is only fifteen years old. The county jail is a perilous environment for him. He is in danger of attack from all sides. I could elaborate, but”—­with a courtly nod at the court reporter—­“there is a lady present.”

At the prosecution table, Chuck leaned close to Elsie and whispered, “He doesn’t mean you.”

“Shut up,” she said.

The judge said, “Billy, this is a change of tune. The defense generally pleads for more time.”

Billy nodded. “Your honor, that’s true. But we have an uncommon case here. My first concern has to be the safety of this child.” He pointed at Tanner Monroe, who sat cuffed at the counsel table.

Elsie glanced over at Monroe and heard him mutter: “I’m not a child. Jesus fucking Christ.”

Billy put a hand on the young man’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze; the gesture looked supportive, but Elsie guessed that Yocum’s fingers were digging in hard enough to deliver a message. Yocum then walked around the table and blocked Monroe from the judge’s view. Elsie smiled, in spite of herself; Yocum was a smart old dude.

“So we entreat the court, with all due respect, to try the case without delay. In the interest of my client’s safety. And the interest of justice. And you know, Judge Callaway”—­Billy grinned, baring his piano-­key teeth—­“I’m not getting any younger.”

The horsefly had targeted Elsie. It buzzed in angry circles around her head. She ducked, an involuntary response, but it dive-­bombed her. She waved a frantic arm to shoo it away.

“Ms. Arnold?” Judge Callaway said, as Chuck hissed, “What are you doing?”

She dropped her hand to the table. “There’s a fly in here,” she said.

The judge tuned back to Yocum. “So Billy, what are you asking for, time-­wise?”

“Your honor, the court knows I’ll be unavailable in the fall, due to Peggy and my anniversary celebration. But I think I can see my way to freeing up some time before then. In the summer, Peggy and I generally spend time at our place on Table Rock Lake. But she and I had a talk, and she is willing to make a sacrifice on behalf of my client. Peggy can’t sleep at night for worrying about that boy.”

The horsefly moved to the defense table. It circled before it landed on the file in front of Yocum’s empty chair. Elsie watched in fascination as it walked along the varnished surface of the tabletop.

The juvenile’s hand moved so swiftly that it made her blink. He caught the fly in his hand and looked over at Elsie. Cocking his brow, he lifted his fist in triumph.

Elsie watched his hand, curious to see what he would do next. Monroe squeezed his fist; she could see his fingers clench. Then he opened his hand and let the fly drop onto the tabletop.

It wasn’t quite dead. It flopped around, its buzz muted to a death rattle. Monroe toyed with it, pushing it with his index finger.

He had new letters tattooed on his fingers, and she could almost make them out. She leaned toward the defense table, scooting her chair in his direction.

“Ms. Arnold?”

She jerked back, sitting up straight. Judge Callaway was looking at her with a disgruntled expression. “Ms. Arnold, could we have your attention? You’re representing the state of Missouri here today, aren’t you?”

“Yes, your honor.” She offered the judge an apologetic smile, resisting the urge to glance back at Monroe’s hand. At her side, Chuck looked at her with disbelief.

“Are you high? Pull your head out of your ass,” he hissed.

“Okay,” she whispered.

“Get your shit together.”

“I’m fine. Hush.”

Judge Callaway was leafing through his black leather-­bound calendar. “Billy, if I move some things around, I can give you four days in August.”

“I’ll take it.”

Chuck jumped up. “Judge, that’s awful soon. We’ll have to check and see whether the state’s witnesses can be available on such short notice.”

“Get them here. You’re set for trial.”

Chuck walked up to the bench, holding papers from the file. “Judge, the defense just sent me a mental evaluation of the defendant, claiming he has a personality disorder. We’ll need to have a doctor examine him on behalf of the state.”

“Then do it. I expect Mr. Monroe has plenty of free time for the appointment.”

“Judge, it will take some time to arrange it.”

“Mr. Harris, we have a fifteen-­year-­old in lockup at the McCown County jail, and the defense is ready to proceed. Get your case in order.”

“Judge Callaway,” Chuck said, his voice bordering on a whine, “We need to know whether the defendant is changing his plea from ‘Not Guilty’ to ‘Not Guilty by Reason of Mental Disease or Defect.’ ”

Yocum ambled up to the bench, chuckling. “Thinking about it,” he said.

Elsie glanced back at the defense table, anxious to see Monroe’s reaction to the insanity discussion. He was holding the fly by a broken wing. When he saw her looking, he said, “I’m not crazy.”

But she didn’t respond. Because over Monroe’s head, she saw a woman’s face pressed against the glass panel of the courtroom door. Elsie recognized the hat with the crushed orange flowers: it was Cleo, the fortune-­teller. She was staring at Elsie.

“Shit,” Elsie whispered. Before she could look away, Cleo pointed a finger at her.


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