A Killing at the Creek: An Ozarks Mystery: Chapter 41


ELSIE GASPED AS realization hit home. “Oh my God.” She turned to the judge. “It’s a Perry Mason moment.” The juvenile had just confessed in court. Never say never, she thought.

“Emil, keep the jury shut up in the jury room until I call you. And I want the courtroom cleared.” The judge waved his arm like an orchestra conductor. “Wanda,” he said to his clerk, who sat in a low chair on his right, “get those two deputies out in the hallway; they can escort the defendant back to jail. We are in recess. Billy, Ms. Arnold—­I want to see you in chambers in ten minutes.”

Seeking confirmation, Elsie tugged at Yocum’s coat sleeve. “Billy, your client confessed. Duress isn’t a defense.”

Yocum turned on her with an inscrutable face. “Ms. Arnold, thank you for the insight. You may be surprised to hear this, but I’ve been up to snuff on the criminal law since before you were born.”

He shuffled over and hefted his satchel, not glancing at his client, who was cursing the deputies who shackled him.

Elsie leaned against the bench, thinking. That’s why Yocum went with the insanity defense. He knew. Knew he couldn’t put the kid on the stand and have him reveal his version of how the killing went down. Duress wouldn’t work.

Yocum was a smart old dog, she grudgingly admitted.

She grabbed her files and pushed through the door shortly after Tanner Monroe’s departure. A throng awaited her.

The television reporter had succeeded in securing her camera crew. With the camera zooming into Elsie’s face, she heard the woman ask, “Ms. Arnold, what will happen next?”

Elsie gave her head a weary shake. “Can’t comment. Sorry.”

There was a follow-­up question, but Elsie didn’t hear it; Stacie pulled her aside and whispered, “Madeleine’s office, now.”

Elsie suppressed an oath.

The state’s witnesses who had been sitting on the benches outside the courtroom jumped up, surrounding her on all sides. Only Ashlock remained in his seat on the bench, but she sensed his presence, as if he emitted radar she couldn’t avoid. Glancing in his direction, she could see, even with her view partially blocked by the bodies clustered around her, that he was wearing her favorite suit: a navy blue gabardine. She had unzipped those trousers on many occasions.

“Elsie.” It was the crime lab expert, a man she had worked with on a prior case. “What’s going on in there? Is it a mistrial?”

“No mistrial. The rule is still in effect; you all need to be careful, don’t discuss the case.”

A stout woman in khaki pants shoved her way toward Elsie. “I just got here, just got in from Michigan. What the hell is going on?”

Phyllis Garrison, my ace in the hole, Elsie thought, as she extended a hand. “So nice to meet you, Ms. Garrison. I’m Elsie; we spoke over the phone.” To the assembled group, Elsie said, “We’ve had some drama today, and the defense attorney and I will be meeting with Judge Callaway in a few minutes. Right now, nothing’s changed. We’ll cool our heels and be ready to go.”

She smiled at the group. Seeing Jewel Winston at the fringes, Elsie offered a friendly nod. “Ms. Winston, I sure appreciate your attendance here today. I know it’s inconvenient.”

Jewel huffed a long-­suffering breath. She wore a cocktail dress with sequins and gold beading at the neck. Elsie had instructed her to dress nicely, in clothing she would wear to church. Briefly, Elsie wondered how her guidance could have gone awry.

A young man stepped up. “I got to talk to you, ma’am.”

Elsie longed to break away and lock herself in her office, but she stifled the urge. “Yes, sir. Have we talked on the phone?”

“Yeah. I’m Jeff Bartlesby; I work at the McDonald’s in Vinita. I told you I seen that bus, and I did. In the parking lot. But there’s something you got to know.”

He was sweating, and his breath smelled like he had a bad case of nerves. The young man looked over Elsie’s shoulder with a clear desire for privacy, but the crowded hallway couldn’t provide it. Elsie peered around, to ensure they couldn’t be overheard by other witnesses, or by the press.

“I seen the guy,” he whispered. “The guy in court, who drove the bus. He waved a knife at me.”

Now you tell me, asshole, Elsie thought, but she mustered a reassuring smile. “That’s helpful, Jeff, really. Thanks for being so forthcoming.”

“It’s that, before, I didn’t want to be involved. But I can’t lie in the court. It would be a sin to swear on the Bible and lie.”

No Bible swearing in court these days, Elsie thought, but felt no need to disabuse Mr. Bartlesby of the notion. “You’re doing the right thing,” she said, and stepped past him to confront the next person waiting on her: Cleo.

“Oh no,” Elsie said, raising a hand to cut her off.

“Ms. Arnold,” Cleo began, reaching out in supplication, but Elsie sidestepped her.

“No time, Cleo. Honestly. I don’t have a second to spare.”

Cleo’s hand snaked out and she grabbed Elsie’s arm. “Listen here,” Cleo said.

Elsie stared down at the grimy hand grasping her forearm; she tried to shake it off, but Cleo held her in an iron grip.

“Ma’am,” Elsie said in a firm voice, “you need to back off. Right now.”

Cleo jerked Elsie close with a twist of the arm she held, squeezing so hard Elsie feared she’d cut off her circulation. “I warned you,” Cleo whispered.

“What is wrong with you?”

“I warned you, clear as day, I told you he was the wrong one. The wrong one, the Knight, the wrong dude. Told you and told you.”

In letter after letter, Elsie thought. Mystery solved. Anger coursed through her; the woman had caused Elsie a good deal of trouble and worry over the summer months.

“Don’t be leaving me any more cryptic messages. You are no longer welcome in the Prosecutor’s Office; you stay clear of me. I’m not interested in your psychic fortunes. And I’m not your ‘Queen of Swords.’ ”

A momentary flash of confusion crossed the woman’s face, followed by fury. “You’re the Fool. Going after the Knight, when I warned you against it. I told you it wasn’t him. And I should know. He’s mine. He’s my boy.”

Elsie edged away, hoping the woman would release her. She’s crazy, she thought, the real thing. The woman was delusional. Thinking she was Tanner Monroe’s mother, when she wasn’t, she couldn’t be. Elsie had seen a photo of Tanner’s mother, and it bore no resemblance to Cleo. “Okay, I’m the Fool. Or I can be both, if you want. The Fool and the Queen of Swords.”

With surprising strength, Cleo pulled her back, so suddenly that Elsie stumbled. “Fool,” the woman whispered, her face so close that Elsie could see the gaps made by her missing teeth. “I’m the Queen of Swords.”

With her free hand, Cleo reached into her fabric hat band, under the crushed orange flowers, and pulled out a small metal object.

It was a double-­edged razor blade.

Elsie tensed wildly but could not budge Cleo’s viselike grip. In a move that seemed both slow and instantaneous, Cleo pinched the razor between her fingers and slashed at Elsie’s throat. Elsie felt a sting; with a reflex gesture, as if in a dream, her hand reached for her neck. It was wet. When she took her hand away, it was red with blood.

A hubbub started around them, but the sound was dulled by roaring in her ears. As she sank to her knees, she saw Ashlock tearing down the hall toward them, but he seemed to be moving in slow motion, like a scene on a movie screen. Cleo loomed over Elsie, her arm raised, but Ashlock tackled her, knocking her back and pinning her to the floor.

Elsie saw the orange flowers as the hat fell from Cleo’s head and rolled across the floor. Ashlock seized her wrist and the razor blade skittered away. Elsie’s last thought, before she blacked out, was that they needed to find that blade. Bag it and tag it and preserve it as evidence.

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