A Killing at the Creek: An Ozarks Mystery: Chapter 37

EARLY IN THE morning on August 10, Elsie stood in the bathroom of her apartment, studying her appearance in the mirror. Though she masked the dark smudges under her eyes with concealer, they still showed through. She pulled out the wand again, applying a thicker coat.

“Now I look like a raccoon,” she said aloud. She rubbed the cosmetic cream smeared under her eyes with her fingertips, reflecting that the jury might be sympathetic toward a prosecutor who looked sleep deprived.

Because, in fact, she was. Though Elsie had fallen into her bed at three o’clock that morning, sleep eluded her, a typical pretrial occurrence. With her eyes trained on the ceiling, she ran through the testimony in her head, worried about the weak spots in the evidence, and fretted over the defendant’s youth. When her alarm buzzed at six o’clock, she hadn’t slept a wink.

Digging through her cosmetic bag in search of a lipstick that might counteract her pallor, she thought she heard her cell phone ring. Elsie paused, turning her head toward the living room of her apartment. Because the phone was at the bottom of her purse, the ring was muted, but it was calling her.

Groaning, she ran to grab the phone, unearthing it just as it fell silent. She checked the number of the caller: Chuck Harris. What’s gone wrong? she wondered, a seed of worry germinating in her head. Then her landline started ringing. Snatching it up, she said, “Chuck?”

A bleak voice greeted her. “Elsie? That you?”

“Who else would it be?” she said. “What’s up?”

“God, Elsie, I hate to do this to you, really. I’m not going to be able to make it today.”

Her heart began to hammer in her chest. She pulled up a kitchen chair and dropped into it. “What do you mean, you can’t make it? This is your case. We’re picking the jury today.”

His voice came through the receiver with a plaintive note. “God, I know. I can’t believe it. But I’m sick. I didn’t sleep all night.”

Elsie’s face hardened. No illness short of death could excuse a trial attorney from showing up for a jury trial. “What’s the matter with you?” she demanded.

“You don’t want me to go into it, I promise. It’s diarrhea. The trots. And it’s bad.” When Elsie didn’t respond, Chuck added, “I must’ve gotten a case of food poisoning.”

You must’ve gotten a case of cold feet, Elsie thought. She sighed, and speaking in a calm, reasonable tone, said, “You’ve got to pull it together, Chuck. Run to CVS and get a bottle of Pepto-­Bismol. That’ll plug you up. You have to be in court today; you’re doing voir dire and the Opening Statement. You’ve got direct examination for the first witness.”

His voice growing stronger, Chuck snapped, “What is wrong with you? I can’t go to trial with food poisoning. Do you want me to sit at the counsel table and shit my pants?”

The line fell silent. Elsie fumed on her end of the wire, cursing him in her head, with the full utilization of her extensive vocabulary. She tried to wait him out, but time was precious. Elsie spoke first, saying, “Please don’t do this to me, Chuck.”

“Elsie, you’re just going to have to man up,” he replied, and terminated the call without waiting for her response.

She sat frozen for a moment on the kitchen chair, absorbing the reality that she would have to go it alone. She felt light-­headed; she put her head on her knees and tried to control her breathing and bring her heart rate under control.

She jerked up from her seat, eyes ablaze. “Man up? Man? Motherfucker. How dare you talk to me about manning up.” The reaction got her back in fighting mode. She ran into the kitchen, grabbed a can of Diet Coke from the refrigerator and stuffed it into her overloaded bag, then headed for the door.

“Man it up your ass,” she muttered as the door slammed shut.

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