A powerful debut thriller set in the Ozark hills, about a young female prosecutor trying to do right by her vulnerable clients-but by breaking their silence, she herself may fall victim to THE CODE OF THE HILLS.
Elsie Arnold may not always have it all together, but a raucous night at the bar now and then is just how she blows off steam after a long week of hard-fought trials. When she is chosen to assist on a high-profile incest case, Elsie is excited to step up after four years of hard work as an attorney for the prosecutor’s office, and ready to realize her ambition of becoming the Ozarks’ avenging angel. There might even be media attention.
But as soon as Elsie she begins to sink her teeth into the State of Missouri vs. Kris Taney, things start to go wrong -which is when her boss dumps the entire case on her. The star witness and victim’s brother, who has accused Taney of sexually abusing his three daughters, has gone missing. The three girls, ages six, 12, and 15, may not be fit to testify, their mother won’t talk, and the evidence is spotty. To make matters worse, it seems that some people in town don’t want Elsie to lock Taney up – judging by the death threats and chicken parts left for her to find.
Elsie is determined to break the code of silence and find out what really happened, refusing to let a sex offender walk, but the odds – and maybe the community – are against her. Even as Elsie fights the good fight for her clients, she isn’t so different from them: her personal life is taking a one-two punch as her cop boyfriend becomes more and more controlling. And amidst all of the conflict, the safety of the three young Taney girls hangs in the balance.
Tiffany 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.
The ringing woke 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: PRIVATE. “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.
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 bar.
“Highly recommended for terrific command of suspense, authenticity and utterly engaging central character, prosecutor Elsie . . . some of the best courtroom scenes I’ve ever read, some of the nastiest people encountered in fiction and for all that, it’s illuminated by passion and kindness . . . a truly marvelous debut.” — FRANCES FYFIELD, AUTHOR OF GOLD DIGGER
Nancy Allen is a member of the law faculty in the College of Business at Missouri State University. She practiced law for 15 years, serving as Assistant Missouri Attorney General and as Assistant Prosecutor in her native Ozarks. When Nancy began her term as prosecutor, she was only the second woman in Southwest Missouri to serve in that capacity. During her years in prosecution, she tried over 30 jury trials, including murder and sexual offenses, and she served on the Rape Crisis Board and the child protection team of the Child Advocacy Council. THE CODE OF THE HILLS is her first novel.