A Killing at the Creek: An Ozarks Mystery: Chapter 6


DRIVING IN THE heat at the end of the workday, Elsie signaled a turn at the grocery; she knew without doubt that her cupboard was bare. Her refrigerator contained two cans of beer and a bottle of salad dressing. But before taking the turn, she changed her plan; ignoring the blare of an angry horn as she veered back into the traffic, she headed for her parents’ house.

George and Marge Arnold lived in the old section of Barton, a short drive from the town square where the county courthouse sat. Elsie pulled her Ford Escort along the curb beside her childhood home, a sturdy brick colonial built in the 1920s. Trudging through the wall of humidity outside, she reached the side door and walked into the kitchen. Her mother stood at the counter, chopping cabbage on a cutting board.

“Hey, Mom,” Elsie said as she pulled a kitchen chair from the table and sat. Seeing the flush on her mother’s face, she shook her head. “You’re killing yourself in here. You could get stuff for coleslaw in a bag at the store. Ready-­made.”

Swiping at a trickle of sweat at her hairline, Marge scoffed. “I wouldn’t set that store-­bought business on my table. It’s full of preservatives. Who knows what all they put in there.” Huffing a tired breath, she added, “I’d give you a hug, but I’m sopping wet. Let’s go cool down a minute.”

Elsie didn’t argue; the temperature in the kitchen was stifling. She followed her mother into the living room, where a window air conditioner blasted cool air. Elsie’s parents had toyed with the notion of installing central air in the old house for many years, but the trouble and expense involved in retrofitting a century-­old house had caused them to decide against the update. It was a family joke that the house would be air-­conditioned when the Arnolds won the Missouri lottery.

Marge pulled a pair of French doors shut, closing the living room off from the rest of the house to maintain the temperature. Settling into her recliner with a sigh of relief, she said, “All right, then. I want to hear how your manslaughter preliminary went. Walk me through the whole thing.”

“Didn’t happen.”

Marge’s brow rose. “Continued?”

Elsie shook her head. “Waived. They had a plea bargain worked out.” Kicking off her shoes, she stretched out on the sofa.

“What on earth? You worked all weekend on it,” Marge said, leaning forward in her chair to protest. When Elsie shrugged, Marge settled back. “So you’re happy with that? You seem all right.”

“Yeah, sure; whatever.” Smiling with satisfaction, Elsie rolled on her side and faced her mother.

Marge studied her. “Something’s up. It’s not like you to be so casual about losing hold of that case. You worked like a dog on it, hardly came up for air.”

A laugh bubbled out of Elsie; she couldn’t contain it. She felt like a grade school kid with a good report card to show. “I’ve got bigger fish to fry.”

Marge gasped. “No.”

“Yep.”

“What? A murder case. Am I right—­is that it?”

The excitement in Elsie’s chest inched up another notch; telling the news was part of the thrill. “Big old case, and I’m in. Not first chair; not even second. But I’m in.”

Pushing back on the arms of her recliner, Marge released the footrest.

“Is this some new crime? In Barton? The batteries on my radio are dead. I haven’t listened to the news all day.”

Elsie’s voice dropped to a near whisper, as if she were telling a secret. “It’s not in Barton; it was out in the county. A woman was found in a creek bed with her throat cut.”

“Oh,” Marge moaned, shaking her head. “Terrible. Good Lord.”

“And they’ve apprehended a suspect already.”

With a sober expression, Marge nodded. “That’s fast.”

“Yeah.” With a shade of hesitation, Elsie added, “It’s a juvenile.”

Marge’s brows drew together over her eyeglasses, giving her face a forbidding look. “A juvenile.”

Elsie remained silent, waiting for her mother’s assessment. It occurred to her, later than it might have, that her mother’s thirty years as a middle school teacher would color her reaction to the news.

“How old?” Marge asked, after a pause.

“Fifteen.”

A look of profound sadness passed over Marge’s face. She closed her eyes. “Fifteen,” she repeated. “A boy.” It wasn’t a question.

It nettled Elsie a little. Clearly, the focus of her mother’s sympathies didn’t rest with the woman in the creek, or Elsie’s triumphant assignment. “Yes. It’s a male suspect.” Keeping her voice casual, she added, “A man.”

Marge said, “A fifteen-­year-­old is not a man.”

Elsie looked away. This was not how she hoped her announcement would be received.

Returning the footrest of the recliner to a seated position with a decisive clunk, Marge rose. “I’d best make up some dressing, so the slaw can chill by suppertime.”

Elsie hopped off the couch. “Oh, I’m not staying.”

“What? I thought for sure you’d eat with us. Your dad will be home any second.”

Elsie shrugged. “Sorry.” She couldn’t handle the reproach in her mother’s eyes, not tonight. Right now, she needed the wind in her sails. Her case depended on it.

Her mother followed her into the kitchen, pleading as Elsie retrieved her purse. “Don’t run out like this. I’ve got a pork roast in the Crock-­Pot. Your dad will be so disappointed.”

“Tell him I said hi,” Elsie said, waving goodbye with a brisk flip of her hand. The hurt in her mother’s voice gave her a mean sense of satisfaction, but the feeling faded as she recalled that she had nothing to eat at home, and her debit card was tapped out.

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