In rural McCown County, Missouri, a young pregnant woman is found beaten to death in a trailer park. The only witness to the murder is Ivy, her six-year-old daughter, who points to her mom’s boyfriend—father of the unborn child. County prosecutor Madeleine Thompson promises the community justice, and in the Ozarks, that can only mean one thing: a death sentence.
When Madeleine’s first choice for co-counsel declines to try a death penalty case, she is forced to turn to assistant prosecutor Elsie Arnold. Elsie is reluctant to join forces with her frosty boss, but the road to conviction seems smooth—until unexpected facts about the victim arise, and the testimony of the lone eyewitness Ivy becomes increasingly crucial. Against Elsie’s advice, Madeleine brings in the state attorney general’s office to assist them, while cutthroat trial attorney Claire O’Hara joins the defense.
Elsie will not let the power of prosecution—of seeking justice—be wrested from her without a fight. She wants to win the case, and to avenge the death of the mother and her unborn child. But as the trial nears, Elsie begins to harbor doubts about the death penalty itself. Meanwhile, the child Ivy is in greater danger than anyone knows.
Oh my God. Let this be over, Elsie thought, doodling on the page of a legal pad. Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Elsie Arnold had been tied up in Judge Carter’s court for nearly two hours that morning, representing the State of Missouri in a preliminary hearing. The criminal defendant was charged with robbery in the first degree. Only Judge Carter, Elsie thought, would be coldhearted enough to subject her to a robbery prelim on the Tuesday after Labor Day weekend.
Public Defender Josh Nixon was grilling the bank president, Donna Hudson, in cross-examination.
“So you were present at the time of the alleged robbery?”
“Yes—I said so. In my office.”
“But isn’t it true that, if you were shut up in your office, you did not have occasion to hear whether the defendant threatened any harm?”
“The buzzer sounded. I heard it.” The woman sat stiff, with righteous indignation in every wrinkle of her face.
“The alarm, right? But you didn’t hear any statements made by the defendant, did you? Because you remained safely in the back of the bank.”
“I saw the bomb.”
A comical grin grew on the defense attorney’s face; Elsie closed her eyes so she wouldn’t have to see it.
“The bomb?” he repeated.
“The box. The box with the tape.”
The criminal complaint filed by the prosecution did not allege that the defendant had threatened the bank employee with a bomb. The criminal charge stated that the defendant threatened the use of what appeared to be a bomb.
“Describe this box, please.”
“It was a box, about this size,” she said, making a rectangle shape with her hands. “And it was covered with duct tape.”
“Did the defendant detonate this deadly bomb? This dangerous instrument you described?”
The banker eyed the defense attorney with resentment. “You know what happened.”
“Tell me. For the record.”
“The bank teller gave him the money. Everything in her drawer. He ran out, left that box on the counter.”
“Then what happened?”
“The bomb squad came and took over.”
“What did they do? If you know.”
“They exploded it.” The lines deepened around the woman’s mouth. “They blew it up. And the mess went everywhere.”
“Mess? What kind of mess?”
Elsie wanted to cover her ears to block out the answer that was coming.
“The chocolate, the cherries.”
Josh Nixon leaned on the empty jury box, nodding sagely. “So the bomb was not a bomb at all? It was—what did you say?”
“A box of candy. Chocolate-covered cherries. Wrapped in duct tape.”
“And for the record, Ms. Hudson: was the money recovered? The money from the bank teller’s drawer?”
“Yes, it was. But—”
Before she could complete her sentence, the defense attorney turned his back to her, cutting the witness off. “No further questions,” he said, and walked back to the counsel table. Nixon slid into his seat, stretching his long legs out in front of him and tucking his longish sun-streaked hair behind his ear. He hadn’t bothered to don a tie.
Judge Carter, a slim man in his forties with prematurely silver hair, peered at Elsie over his glasses. “Redirect?”
Elsie stood at the counsel table, looking at the bank president with an encouraging face. “But did it appear to be a bomb? When the defendant threatened the teller with it?”
“Objection,” Nixon said, sitting up straight. “The witness wasn’t present, has no way of knowing other than hearsay!”
Elsie barked back. “You’re the one who opened the door on this line of questioning. In your cross-examination.”
The bank president rose from her chair, the picture of aggrieved fury. “What I want to know,” she said, “is who is going to pay? For that mess? The cleaning of the bank lobby?”
Judge Carter slammed the gavel. The bank president jumped, startled, and hopped back onto her seat on the witness stand.
“Ms. Arnold—further questions?”
“Any further witnesses on behalf of the defense?”
“No,” said Nixon.
The judge turned to his clerk. “The court finds probable cause. Defendant is bound over to Circuit Court on the charge of robbery in the first degree. Arraignment to be held Friday at 9:00 A.M.”
When the judge left the bench, Josh Nixon turned to whisper with his client, a long-haired young man with a bushy mustache. The president of Bank of the Hilltop, Donna Hudson, stormed off the witness stand and bore down on Elsie.
“How could I be treated this way in a court of law?”
“No one meant to mistreat you,” Elsie said in a soothing voice. “It was just cross-examination—the defense attorney gets to ask questions. I explained that to you before.”
“But I am the victim. My family owns the bank.”
“That’s right, Donna. But the defense has the right to confront the witnesses against him.”
“Who gave that criminal the right to confront me? I am a taxpaying citizen.”
Elsie backed up a step, angling to make a getaway. “The US Constitution. Sixth Amendment.”
The banker’s eyes narrowed; Elsie sensed that the woman didn’t appreciate the finer points of the Bill of Rights.
“When will the court make him pay for the cleanup? The cleanup of the bank lobby?”
Edging closer to the door, Elsie shook her head. “Hard to say. You think this guy has any money?”
Mrs. Hudson’s unhappy expression showed that the conversation wasn’t over. But as she was about to speak again, Elsie’s friend and coworker, Breeon Johnson, hurried into the courtroom and grabbed Elsie’s arm.
“Downstairs,” Breeon said.
“Now? Right now?” Elsie asked.
“Just one darned minute,” Donna Hudson said. She opened a Louis Vuitton handbag and pulled out a Kleenex, rubbing furiously at her nose. Elsie eyed the bag with curiosity. It was probably the real article. Though as an employee of a rural county in the Ozarks, Elsie didn’t have sufficient acquaintance with designer goods to distinguish the genuine product from a knockoff.
Elsie gave Breeon an inquiring look. “Can you wait a sec?”
Breeon tugged at her arm. “Can’t wait. It’s an emergency.”
Elsie could see from Breeon’s face that she was deadly serious. “Okay,” she said. Looking back at the banker, Elsie spoke hastily. “The system is working, Mrs. Hudson. Your bank robber has been bound over; he’ll be arraigned in Circuit Court, and his case will be set for jury trial. I appreciate your cooperation, and your testimony. But I have to get downstairs.” She looked over to the door; Breeon had just vanished through it. “Something major is going on.”
“But will he pay?”
The woman’s voice rang in Elsie’s ears, and she was tired of hearing it. Turning away, she said, “Yeah. Yes, Mrs. Hudson. He’ll pay.”
“The old-fashioned way, I expect. With his liberty.”
The banker protested, her voice shrill, but Elsie departed at a fast pace, and scrambled down the worn marble staircase of the McCown County Courthouse, catching up to Breeon at the back entrance to the Prosecutor’s Office.
“What?” Elsie demanded, as Breeon punched the security buttons to access the private entrance. “What is it?”
Breeon shook her head in disgust. “Another murder. They found the body in a trailer home, right outside the city limits. Can you believe it?”
“Again?” Murder cases were rare in rural McCown County, a small community nestled deep in the Ozark hills of southwest Missouri. Elsie had handled a murder case over the summer, prosecuting a juvenile for the death of a bus driver. A second homicide, occurring within such a short period of time, would shake the entire community.
“Yeah, another woman,” Breeon said, pushing the door open. “But a young one this time.”
“Aw, shit,” Elsie said.
Breeon gave her a look, righteous anger evident in her face. “She was eight months pregnant.”
The news stopped Elsie in her tracks. “A double murder,” she whispered.