A Killing at the Creek: An Ozarks Mystery: Chapter 36


VERNON WANTUCK UNLOCKED the door to the interview room at the McCown County jail. His beefy hand gripped Tanner Monroe’s shoulder. But as the jailer prepared to push the boy inside with a hard shove, he paused. The room was already occupied by a tall man with wire-­rimmed spectacles. Wantuck dropped his hand from the boy’s shoulder.

“Doctor,” Vernon Wantuck said, in a hearty voice.

The man rose, setting a typewritten report aside. “Mr. Wantuck.”

“Doc Salinas, I’ve got a live one for you. This is him, Tanner Monroe.” To Monroe, Wantuck said, “Sit down.”

Tanner shuffled in his cuffs and sat in a folding chair, facing the doctor across a metal table. “Do I get to lose the cuffs?” Monroe asked.

Wantuck laughed. “I think me and Doc Salinas would just as soon keep them cuffs on you, boy.” He walked back through the door. “I’ll post a jailer outside, Doc. Just knock when you’re ready.”

The doctor inclined his head in response. He didn’t speak until Wantuck left the room and shut the door behind him.

“Tanner Monroe, I’m Dr. Salinas.”

The juvenile pushed his chair back, making the metal legs screech against the concrete floor. “Okay.”

“The state has asked me to conduct a mental evaluation of you. To determine whether you are fit to stand trial, whether you understand the nature of the charges against you and can assist in your defense.”

“I know all that. I’ve been through this before.”

The doctor raised a hand, a signal that he wanted to continue. “And to determine whether you have a mental disease or defect that prevents you from understanding the nature of your actions, or confining them to the requirements of law.” The doctor paused. “I know that sounds technical, especially to someone so young. I can break it down for you, explain it in a different way.”

“I’m not stupid.”

The doctor reached for a pad of paper. “Did you think that I implied that? When I offered to explain?”

“I’m just saying let’s cut through the bullshit. I know what the evaluation is all about. I did it before. With that other doctor, the one my old dickwad lawyer hired.”

“Who is your lawyer?”

“Yocum.”

“What’s his first name?”

“Shit, man, I dunno. Old man Yocum. He’s like a hundred years old.”

“Do you understand that he has been appointed to represent you on a murder charge?”

“Yeah. I get that.”

“Do you understand that the state is prosecuting you for the murder of a woman who was driving a bus, who picked you up and gave you a ride?”

The boy rolled his head back on his neck and gave a weary sigh. “How many times do I have to say it? I didn’t kill her. I. Did. Not. Do. It.”

The doctor studied Tanner, not evidencing any judgment in his expression. He bent his head and scrawled a note on his pad. Under his breath, Tanner whispered, “Stupid bitch.”

Dr. Salinas looked up. “What’s that?”

“Nothing.”

“Did you just say ‘stupid bitch’?”

Tanner shifted in his seat, slumping against the metal chair back. “Yeah. Forget it.”

“Who were you referring to? The bus driver—­the woman who gave you a ride?”

“Okay. Yeah.”

“You just told me you didn’t kill her. So, what are your feelings about her?”

“Feelings? I didn’t even know her.”

“But her untimely death. How do you feel about that?”

“She’s not anybody to me. Just a bitch driving a bus.”

Suddenly, Monroe laughed, his face transformed by mirth. When Dr. Salinas stared at him, Monroe covered his mouth.

“Can you tell me what struck you as funny?” When Monroe shook his head, the doctor said, “Please. I’d like to hear it.”

“I was just remembering something. From way back.”

“Tell me.”

Tanner sighed, a long-­suffering sound. “Okay. I was a kid in foster care—­for a pretty long stretch, that time. I had to take the school bus to school—­big yellow one, just like the one I ended up in. But it was St. Louis.”

“And?”

“And the bus driver was a stone bitch. Goddamn, I can still see her face.”

“What was so bad about her? What did she do?”

“She hated me. I got no fucking idea why, she just did. She rode me every day, chewed me out for nothing.”

The doctor nodded, and Tanner continued the story, anger kindling in his face. “She started skipping my bus stop on the way home, just to jack me around. Made me ride around an extra thirty minutes on that bus, just to fuck with me.”

The doctor tapped his pad with his pen. “If the driver didn’t like you, why would she want to extend your time on the bus?”

“Shit, man, don’t ask me to explain it. I can’t get inside that cunt’s head. So one day, after school, I was kind of needing to piss the minute I got on the bus. I was just a kid, man—­maybe third grade. Could’ve been second. And she drove and drove. I came up and asked her to let me off, take me to my street. She passed right by it. Told me to sit my butt down.

“I held it as long as I could, then finally let go. I couldn’t help it; I pissed my pants, right there in the seat.”

“That must have been very embarrassing.”

Monroe’s chin jerked up. “She bitched me out—­can you believe that? Made me the fool right there, in front of everybody.”

Monroe fell silent, lost in reflection. Then his face lit up. “So I got home, and my foster mother wanted to know, what the fuck? So I told her. Damn, she went off.”

“She was angry with you?”

“With me? Hell, no; she was pissed at the bus driver. So she got me and her out that night, and we walked the streets of our hood, and picked up every piece of dog shit in a six-­block square. Put it in a plastic bucket.”

With more animation in his face, he continued. “And she was standing there by me the next morning, when the bus pulled up, and the door opened, my foster mother swung that bucket, and dog shit went flying. Right inside the bus, all over that driver. In her face and on her hair and everything. You should’ve seen her face.” Monroe laughed out loud.

With a shrug, he added, “They didn’t let me ride the bus after that. But it was worth it, man.”

“How did you feel about the woman? Your foster mother?”

“Her? Oh shit, man, she was kind of nuts. But she had my back. She was better than the ones who came later.” Lost in the memory, he snorted.

The doctor leaned toward Tanner, resting his forearms on the desk. “So what connection does that memory have with the deceased in this case? Glenda Fielder?”

“Huh? Nothing, I guess. No connection.” When the doctor made a note on the pad, Tanner’s voice took on a defensive note. “It’s just a story, man. You asked me.”

Dr. Salinas nodded and said, “Tell me about your family relationships.”

Monroe snorted. “That won’t take very long.”

“I’d like to hear about your parents. Tell me how you get along with them.”

“You tell me something first. We can trade some information, okay, man?” Tanner returned the legs of the chair to the floor. Leaning forward, he rested his hands on the scuffed table. “What’s it like at the state hospital?”

In a quiet voice, the doctor persisted. “From the history provided to me, I see that you lived primarily with your mother in St. Louis, but you had moved out. Did something happen that made you decide to leave home? How would you describe your relationship with your mother?”

The boy rubbed the tattoos on his left hand before balling his fingers into a tight fist. “I want to hear what it’s like. If a person ended up there, what kind of a vibe there is. You ever been there?”

Relenting, Dr. Salinas said, “I did an internship there. Years ago.”

“What kind of hospital is it? Is it pretty nice, or is it a shithole?”

“It’s a prison. Just like the Department of Corrections.”

“Yeah, I get that. But is it easy time?”

“No, I wouldn’t say so.”

“Is it better to go there? Or to DOC? That’s what I’m asking. I need a straight answer. Solid.”

The doctor watched him in silence before answering. “If an individual suffers a mental disease or defect that made him commit a crime, the state hospital is the proper place for him. Is it easy to be locked up at the mental hospital? No. Not at all. Now tell me about your mother.”

Monroe cocked his head and squinted, scrutinizing the doctor’s face. “Are you from Mexico? You look Mexican.”

The doctor offered a slight smile. “South side of Chicago.”

“Salinas sounds like a Mexican name.”

“It is.” He picked a typed document off the table and placed it next to his notepad. “Have you been having any more intestinal issues?”

“Huh?”

“Stomach trouble, bathroom trouble. Spiderwebs. You reported that spiderwebs appeared when you went to the bathroom, when you had bowel movements.”

“Where’d you get that? Have you got that other guy’s report, the one Yocum set me up with?”

Dr. Salinas sat quietly, watching.

Monroe ducked his head, thinking, toying with the fabric of his county jail scrubs. At length, he looked up at Salinas. “Yeah, I probably need to clear that up. I was fucking with that guy.” Tanner Monroe smiled broadly, exposing his protruding eyetooth. “Just messing with him.”

“Why would you do that?”

“He was a dumbshit.”

“He was hired to help you. Why would you want to mess with him?”

“For fun.”

The doctor scratched on the notepad with his pen. Looking up, he said, “You had a roommate at Juvenile Hall.” He checked his notes. “Barry Bacon.”

“Oh man—­not that douche bag.”

“Why do you call him a douche bag?”

“Okay, he was a loser—­do you like that better? I’m sick of ­people pinning that on me. Back at juvie, they all acted like it was my fault. That kid was depressed. Seriously mental. It’s not my fault if he wanted to tie a sheet around his neck and jump.”

“How did it make you feel? When he committed suicide in front of you?”

When Monroe didn’t respond, the doctor went on. “Did you want to stop him? Looking back, do you regret that you didn’t intervene?”

“I regretted it the minute he shit his pants. I was locked in there with that for hours, man. Disgusting.”

Monroe leaned back again, tipping the chair and balancing it on two legs.

“Be careful. Don’t tip over,” warned the doctor.

“I’m good,” the boy said. “I’m good. Ain’t gonna fall.”


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