Read The Code of the Hills Online

Authors: Nancy Allen

The Code of the Hills

BOOK: The Code of the Hills
7.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Dedication

To the center of my universe:

Randy, Ben, and Martha

Contents

Epigraph

Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.

But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority

over the man, but to be in silence.

1
T
IMOTHY 2:11–1
2

Prologue

T
IFFANY PICKED UP
the tiny pink plastic brush and ran it through the Barbie's silky hair. Smoothing the blond hairdo with her hand, she turned the new doll around to closely inspect every detail of its face and figure. She'd never owned a new Barbie before, just had to make do with cast-­off dolls her older sisters passed down: old Barbies with missing clothes and limbs and ragged hair.

This doll was a Christmas gift, but it had to be a secret, because Tiffany's daddy wouldn't like it. Daddy didn't hold with Christmas; he said it was a waste of money. When it came to presents and such, they kept their mouths shut if they knew what was good for them.

But the PTA ladies from Tiffany's school delivered a basket on Christmas Eve, when Daddy was out. Mom wouldn't have been allowed to open the door to them if he was home, because Daddy and Uncle Al didn't like ­people snooping around.

So when they spied the new Barbie in the box sitting on top of the canned goods, her mom told her to grab it and get it out of sight, because Daddy would take it back to the store and swap it for money if it was still in its plastic box.

Tiffany got it out in the nick of time, right before Tiffany's daddy and Al came home with a bottle. The men sat on the front steps, drinking and laughing until the liquor ran out. Then the fighting started, and Daddy beat Al up pretty good. Storming from the house with his face dripping blood, Al yelled about getting even. Mom said the commotion was likely to bring the police down on them. Then Daddy said he'd teach her a lesson about back-­sassing.

Tiffany ran upstairs so she wouldn't have to watch it. She took the Barbie to bed with her and stuck it under her T-­shirt for safekeeping.

The next afternoon, on Christmas Day, Tiffany hid with her new Barbie, whispering secrets into her plastic ear. Huddled against the tattered back of the couch, she heard heavy footsteps stride through the living room. Tiffany froze, hardly daring to breathe, as her dad stomped into the kitchen.

The feet returned to the living room. She could see his scuffed toes when she peeked under the couch.

“Where the hell is Charlene?” he demanded.

Tiffany's mom called from the kitchen. “She's out back. What do you want her for?”

“I want a rubdown.”

“She don't like to,” her mom responded in a hoarse whisper, tiptoeing into the room. The silence that followed was terrible. Tiffany could imagine the expression on his face. When he said, “I ain't gonna tell you again,” her mom went to the kitchen window and called for Charlene.

Charlene came inside. When he took her to the bedroom and shut the door, she didn't put up a fight. It was just as well. Charlene would have to do it anyway, and she'd buy trouble if she made a fuss. Still, noises came from behind the door. Tiffany stuck her fingers in her ears and hid her face on her knees. She could stay right in that spot and no one would know she was there. She wouldn't make a sound.

Chapter One

T
HE RINGING
W
O
K
E
Elsie from a restless sleep. She rolled over on her side, registering a nagging headache, a terrible thirst, and a sense of chagrin. Dear God, she thought, I'll never drink again.

Fumbling for the phone on her bedside table, she checked the caller ID:
P
R
I
V
A
T
E
. “Forget it,” she said, and rolled back over.

She closed her eyes and tried to drift off again, but her thirst wouldn't let her rest. Soda, she thought. It might jump-­start her recovery.

Groaning, she tossed off her quilt and trudged into the kitchen. Opening the refrigerator door, she pushed aside a jar of Hellmann's to reach for her medicine: the box containing shiny silver cans of Diet Coke.

With a sigh of relief, she pulled one from the box and popped the top. It slid down her throat tasting like the nectar of the gods, and she gulped gratefully.

Making her way to the living room, Elsie thought she'd check to see whether she'd made the morning news. Reporters from the local TV stations had been at the courthouse when the jury returned its guilty verdict in the felony assault trial she'd won the night before. She squinted at the digital clock on her cable box: 8:46
A
.
M
. She'd missed it; the morning news ran at eight o'clock on Saturday.

Well, hell, she thought. Looking around, she surveyed the damage that a week of neglect had wreaked in her apartment. Though she couldn't see clearly without her contact lenses, it was easy to make out the dirty coffee cups, the congealed pizza on the coffee table, and the stacks of files and wadded sheets of discarded arguments for the prosecution littering the floor.
Maybe
I'll clean up today
, she told herself, adding,
later
. She was too tired to contemplate labor. The hangover was an unwelcome reminder that thirty-­one was not twenty-­one. She felt as old as the hills.

Elsie headed to the bathroom in search of her glasses. Digging through a drawer of jumbled cosmetics, she was conscious of the bitter taste that the Diet Coke failed to wash away. The taste brought back memories of the prior night, and she grimaced at the thought. After the jury had returned its guilty verdict in her hard-­fought trial, she had joined a group of cops at Baldknobbers bar. Flush with victory, she led the pack in rounds of beer, downing one Corona after another.

What began as uproarious fun had taken a downhill turn when her boyfriend, Noah Strong, a patrolman for the Barton, Missouri, Police Department, copped an attitude. She'd been going out with him for nearly a year, had always nursed a weakness for a pretty face, and Noah's was certainly a pleasure to gaze upon. At six-­foot-­four, with golden hair and blue eyes, he was every red-­blooded midwestern girl's wet dream. His blinding white smile could melt butter—­that is, when he chose to turn it on. He'd shown a tendency in recent months to become moody.

While Elsie and her trial witnesses—­Detective Bob Ashlock and county deputies Joe Franks and Kyle Wistrom—­were bellied up to the bar rehashing the evidence, Noah wandered over to the pool table. She was not inclined to follow; this was her party, after all. She and Ashlock crowed as they recounted his testimony to the deputies.

Elsie said, “In cross-­ex, defendant's attorney tried to take the hide off Ash, but it can't be done.”

“What'd he say?” asked Franks.

Ashlock waved a hand in dismissal, but Elsie merrily gave the account. “He tried to make out that Ash tampered with the tape of the defendant's admission.”

“You're shitting me. Who is the guy?”

“Someone from a defense firm in Springfield. A St. Louis guy.” Elsie took another swig from her bottle. “So Ash said, ‘I would never tamper with evidence. But maybe the police do that kind of thing where you're from.' ”

“Wish I'd seen it,” said Franks. “Did the lawyer have one of those St. Louis accents?”

Ashlock said, “Well, he sure didn't sound like an Ozarks boy.”

When Elsie twisted around on her bar stool to check on Noah, she saw him giving a woman from the crime lab way too much help with her pool cue.

“Uh-­oh,” she said, “looks like I need to check out the competition.” Deputy Franks snickered. Though she and Noah had been an item for some time, Elsie knew that he still had a reputation as a ladies' man.

She slid off her bar stool and headed over, concentrating to walk a straight line. As she approached, Noah and his pool partner hastily parted, the woman fleeing to the other side of the pool table. Elsie slipped an arm around Noah's waist and asked, “Am I going to have to get in a catfight over you?”

He glanced away, defensively. “I'm just playing pool.”

“Looks like you're playing,” she said. She lifted her beer bottle to her lips and drained it.

He bent over the pool table and knocked a striped ball into a pocket. “You could've come over here, hung out with me, instead of holding court at the bar.” Indicating her empty bottle, he added, “You're getting pretty shit-­faced.”

“Well, yeah,” she responded, stung. “That's why I came. I'm trying to relax.” She noted that Noah's pool partner had joined a group at a table by the door but continued to glance over at Noah. “Hey, baby, who's your little friend?” she said to him. “She's checking you out.”

Noah tossed the pool cue on the table. “That's it.” He snatched his jacket from a nearby chair and left in a huff. Elsie watched him go, surprised by his sensitivity. Surely she was the one with the right to have her nose out of joint.

Stumbling a little, she returned to the bar, where Franks had a fresh beer waiting for her. “My hero,” she said with a forced laugh, trying to keep her game face intact as she swilled it down.

After that, her recall became fuzzy. She knew the party ended when she slipped on a slick spot on her way to the restroom and landed on her back on the dirty barroom floor. Her tumble earned her a hasty departure and a ride home from Ashlock.

Now, cringing at the recollection, she wished she hadn't played the drunken fool with Bob Ashlock there.

Ashlock was an old-­fashioned law-­and-­order pro, a straight arrow. He was powerfully built, like a boxer, and conveyed authority with his erect military posture, no-­nonsense manner, and the jut of his square Irish jaw. Juries loved him, and she liked and respected him immensely. Not forty yet, he had already served as Chief of Detectives for the Barton P.D. for nearly eight years, following a stellar decade on patrol. In her four years in the Prosecutor's Office, his careful investigative work and ease on the witness stand had turned the tide for her in many cases.

As she sat on her couch, wondering what she would say when she encountered Ashlock at the courthouse, and contemplating how long Noah would pout, her cell phone rang. “Leave me alone,” she muttered, even as she grabbed her purse and fumbled to answer.

“Hello,” she said without enthusiasm, wondering what inconsiderate oaf would call a working girl before nine o'clock on a Saturday morning.

“Elsie, it's Madeleine. I've been trying to reach you.”

No, no, no, no.
An early morning call from her boss, Madeleine Thompson, was not likely to be good news. She slumped down on the couch and squeezed her eyes shut. “Hey, Madeleine, what can I do for you?”

“Will you be coming into work today?”

Elsie was speechless for a moment. “Madeleine, it's Saturday.”

“I know what day it is. Did you plan on coming in?”

“Well, no, I didn't,” she said. She heard an apologetic note in her voice, and hated herself for it. “I just finished up the jury trial on that assault case last night. I've been burning the midnight oil all week. I thought I'd take it easy today.”

“Is that right? I've been over here at the courthouse since eight o'clock. I'm working on the Taney case. Do you know who Taney is?”

“Sure. He's the guy who was messing with his daughters. The new incest case.”

“That's the one.” Madeleine's tone grew friendlier. “I need a second chair on this case, I think. I made a commitment to the voters in McCown County to aggressively pursue these abuse cases. Everyone says you have a real gift for handling young witnesses and developing rapport with children. Elsie, I want to bring you on board to assist me.”

“Great.” She sat up straight on the couch, feeling a twinge of excitement; she certainly believed in locking up sex offenders. It was the reason she'd decided on law school in the first place. And she wasn't above appreciating that the Taney case had already sparked media attention. It would be high profile, and she was flattered to be chosen to assist. If her boss had expressed an interest in the outcome of the trial she won yesterday, she would be even more flattered.

“The preliminary hearing is next week,” Madeleine said, “but we have a witness interview scheduled at ten o'clock. Can you be here in thirty minutes?”

“Sure, thirty minutes is no problem,” Elsie replied, and then added, “I got a guilty verdict last night. The jury recommended twenty years.”

“Oh. Too bad you didn't get more prison time. Well, see you in half an hour.”

When the call was over, Elsie stared at the phone in her hand. “Bitch.” She shuffled to the bathroom and had picked up her toothbrush when she was struck by a recollection that nearly made her drop it. She didn't have her car. It was in the parking lot of Baldknobbers.

B
Y THE TIME
the taxi delivered her to the courthouse, thirty minutes had long since expired. She paid the driver, slammed the taxi door and sped down the sidewalk to the old courthouse in the center of the Barton town square. Nestled in the Ozark hills, Barton was the county seat, and its courthouse was a local jewel. Built on classical lines, with a low dome over a rotunda, the white stone courthouse had been the pride of McCown County since its construction in 1905. Other counties in the Ozarks had opted to move to new court facilities in recent years to deal with challenges of modern technology and security, but McCown County refused to budge.

The stubborn insistence on maintaining the old courthouse was emblematic of the character of the town. Barton was a community largely untouched by the progress of the twenty-­first century. Founded by poor farmers eking a hard living from the rocky soil of the Ozark hills, Barton had short brushes with industry for periods of relative prosperity: mining in the 1800s was followed by the railroad, and when the lead and zinc mines tapped out and rail travel slowed, the torch passed to a paper cup factory that settled in Barton in the 1950s—­because of the cheap local labor force, it was said. But in the 1980s the plant relocated to Mexico, leaving McCown County where it had begun: a community of rural hill ­people, as suspicious of government intervention as the moonshiners from whom they descended, wary of politics in general and liberals in particular.

The character of the community made Elsie's job as prosecutor easier in some ways, harder in others. While McCown County jurors were law-­and-­order enthusiasts as a rule, they also clung to stubborn notions that became stumbling blocks in the courtroom. They would not credit testimony from a state's witness who used drugs, and they were hard on women who imbibed in barrooms or dressed provocatively. McCown County jurors also balked at prosecutions against seemingly upstanding members of the community, believing that the businessman's son, the churchgoer, or the hardworking farmer could not be guilty of a criminal charge. And always, they rejected the word of an outsider.

Fumbling with the big courthouse key, Elsie slipped inside, bypassed the elevator, and ran up two flights of worn marble steps to the county prosecutor's main office. When she entered Madeleine's office, she was breathing hard. Her boss greeted her with a look of disapproval. “You look terrible. What took you so long?”

“Car trouble,” Elsie replied. The one thing that could make her rotten mood worse was hearing how terrible she looked. She dropped into a chair facing Madeleine, who sat behind her impossibly tidy desk. “Is the witness here yet?”

“No, and I don't expect him for a minute. Here,” she said, tossing a slim file across her desk, “you'll need to review this quickly before he gets here.” As Elsie reached for the file, Madeleine stood up and pulled a bejeweled key chain from her handbag. She was exquisitely dressed in a winter white suit with a pearl brooch, not a hair of her smartly bobbed head out of place. Madeleine had been a beauty in her day, Elsie knew from the glamour shots in her office; but as she entered middle age, she had permitted a plastic surgeon to tinker with her face, and with her Botox-­injected forehead, collagen lips, and eyebrows pulled up a bit too high, she'd developed a scary look.

Elsie looked at her with surprise. “Where are you going?”

Madeleine paused just long enough to give her an imperious glance. “I have a meeting. I'm having brunch with the president of the Rotary. We're planning a fund-­raiser for the Girls' Club.”

“But what about our case preparation?”

“You need to get to work on it.” Madeleine pulled on a pair of expensive tan leather gloves, picked up the Burberry trench coat draped over a chair and gave it a shake. “Call me this afternoon and tell me how it's going. I want to hear about the witness. But don't interrupt me at this meeting.” Then she swept out of the room.

Elsie had never really liked her boss, but now Madeleine dropped even lower in her estimation. Madeleine Thompson had obtained her political position through a gubernatorial appointment, which the prior governor bestowed out of gratitude to her husband, a generous longtime supporter. As a young attorney in the 1980s, Madeleine was the first woman to practice law in McCown County and showed great promise, taking on criminal appointments and representing them with panache. But then she'd married the local John Deere distributor. In rural Missouri, the only person with more money than the John Deere distributor was the man with two dealerships. Madeleine's husband had three. She quit practicing.

BOOK: The Code of the Hills
7.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Wolf Totem: A Novel by Rong, Jiang
The Prettiest Feathers by John Philpin
Slavery by Another Name by Douglas A. Blackmon
A Man Lies Dreaming by Tidhar, Lavie
Hitched by Karpov Kinrade
Three Good Deeds by Vivian Vande Velde
Below the Belt by Sarah Mayberry
Darker by Ashe Barker
When I Forget You by Noel, Courtney