Read 3 Malled to Death Online

Authors: Laura Disilverio

Tags: #mystery

3 Malled to Death (10 page)

I set the Segway in motion with a jerk and continued on to the office, puzzled by my encounter with Helland. Was he really concerned about me, or was he subtly encouraging me to look for Jesse Willard? Every now and then I thought he found me interesting, even attractive. Then I’d do or say something to make him angry and he’d turn into an iceberg. I couldn’t figure the man out.

Thirteen

• • • 

After parking the
Segway, I strolled into the security office and stopped. In my year-plus at Fernglen, I’d walked in on Captain Woskowicz hurling the coffeepot at someone, on two officers trading punches over a high school football game (their sons played for rival schools), and, once, on a night shift guard having sex with her boyfriend. I’d never seen anything like this. Joel stood on a chair with Coco crouched in front of him. She was apparently pinning up the hem of the red pants he wore. They had a black stripe down the side and looked very Mountie. The effect was spoiled by the bolero-style jacket and a flat-brimmed hat that looked like something an Argentinean gaucho would wear, complete with a rope that cinched under the chin. Joel shot me a “help me” look and I bit back the giggles that threatened to erupt.

Coco looked over her shoulder when she heard me come in. “Oh, hi, EJ. You’re just in time. What do you think?” She rose, teetering on lavender pumps that matched her silk blouse.

I studied Joel while he blushed crimson with embarrassment. “I think Joel’s missing out on a lucrative career as a model.” He turned redder, if that was possible, and I took pity on him. “Coco, I think we have more important things to worry about than costumes . . . I mean uniforms.”

“But I know I only got hired because I talked about my ideas for new uniforms during the interview,” she said, an anxious pucker between her brows.

One of the panel had asked me about uniforms, too; I’d thought she was joking. “I think the interviewers must have noted how your . . . creativity could be an asset to the security office,” I said.

Joel gazed at me with admiration and surreptitiously climbed off the desk while Coco was distracted. “Ow!” He bent to remove a straight pin that had jabbed his ankle.

“Really?” Coco looked uncertain.

“Really,” I said firmly, refusing to voice my doubts. “How about we talk about how to limit the disruption tomorrow when the movie crew resumes filming? They’re shooting that scene where my—where Ethan Jarrett ends up in the fountain.”

Joel snuck off to change while I went over some ideas with Coco, who approved them all. We agreed that Harold would man the office and watch the monitors, and our other on-duty officers would be stationed near the mall entrances to ensure that no one unauthorized got in. Coco would be a “floater,” moving from station to station and troubleshooting problems that came up. Hopefully, there wouldn’t be any because I was pretty sure her troubleshooting abilities began and ended with choosing piping or rickrack as a decorative accent. I would liaise with the movie security people and make sure our efforts meshed with theirs. I told her what little more I knew about the homicide investigation and hinted that she might want to update Curtis Quigley. She went off to do that as Joel came in and sank with a huff into his chair.

“That hat was almost as bad as the pillbox,” he said. “I’m serious—I’ll quit.”

To distract him, I told him about Tab Gentry’s run-in with Bree Spurrier.

That perked him up. He swiveled to face me. “Gentry did it!” he announced.

I gave him a look from under my brows. I’d been trying for the better part of a year to get Joel to consider all the evidence before leaping to a conclusion.

“No, think about it,” he said before I could object. “This guy Gentry thinks Zoë got him fired. He said so. There’s your motive: revenge. He’s a man, so he could easily have been in the men’s room: opportunity.”

“And Zoë happened to wander into the men’s room where he whipped out a knife and stabbed her?”

Joel gave that half a second’s thought. “He lured her in.”

“‘Hey, little girl, you want a piece of candy?’”

“Not like that,” Joel said huffily. “Maybe he cried out, like he was sick or something. Or maybe he was coming out, saw her, and dragged her in.”

“Barely possible,” I conceded. “What about the means?”

He drew fuzzy caterpillar brows together.

“The knife. Did he pull it out of his pants pocket?”

Chewing on his lower lip, Joel paused to think of a plausible reason for Tab Gentry to have a knife on him. “It was part of his costume,” he said triumphantly.

“We could check on that,” I said. “I don’t know why it would be, but we could ask.”

Joel crossed his arms over his chest with a satisfied smirk.

Ignoring him, I mused, “It would help if we knew what kind of knife the killer used. Fat chance of Detective Helland sharing that information, though.”

• • • 

In any event,
I didn’t need Detective Helland to supply the information. Grandpa Atherton came through with it. He flagged me down as I cruised past the movie theater wing on one of my patrols. I didn’t recognize him at first in his police costume, and had to admit the makeup experts had done a good job making him look almost plausible as a cop. Either he was wearing a wig or they’d cut his hair to military standards and dyed it brown; a cop’s hat covered most of it anyway, as Grandpa had predicted. Tinted glasses fuzzed the deep crow’s-feet around his eyes, and a glued-on mustache drew attention away from the grooves bracketing his mouth. A spray tan also contributed to the more youthful effect. He still looked like a cop on the brink of retirement, but at least he didn’t look like he’d been drawing a pension in a Florida old-age home for a quarter century.

“Will you be posing for before and after photos?” I asked with mock admiration as I glided to a stop. I put on an announcer’s voice: “‘Knock twenty years off your age with Movie Magic Miracle Cream! Only nineteen ninety-five, plus shipping and handling.’”

“I might, at that,” he said, unperturbed. “I might have to get me a membership at one of those tanning joints. Spray tans only, of course.”

I made gagging noises and he chuckled. “Enough, Emma-Joy. I’ve got something important to pass along. The police were all over the movie set this morning. With a search warrant.”

That sobered me up. “Really? Why?”

“Looking for knives.” He wriggled his nose as if his mustache itched. “Switchblades. Apparently, half the thugs in that movie had switchblades to carry as part of their costumes. There’s some scene later in the movie where two of ’em have a knife fight.”

I whistled softly. “That must mean a switchblade killed Zoë. Did the actors take the knives home with them?”

Grandpa shook his head. “No. I wondered the same thing, so I asked around, discreetly. The knives got turned into Zoë Winters each day after shooting wrapped.”

“Were they all accounted for?”

Grandpa shrugged bony shoulders. “Don’t know. The police weren’t saying. Rumor has it they took all the knives away with them and the director was spitting mad, saying it would delay the filming schedule.”

“Who’s in charge of the weapons now that Zoë’s dead?”

“She had an assistant. Guy named Grayson Bleek. Haven’t met him yet, but I will when he gives me my weapon for the next scene.” He patted his empty holster.

A garbled call came from the hallway behind us and Grandpa swiveled his head. “Gotta go, Emma-Joy. They’re busing us to some warehouse outside Richmond to film a scene this afternoon. I’ve got all my lines memorized. ‘Stop! Police!’ and ‘You don’t want to do that, kid,’ and ‘Book him, Danno.’”

“You do not say ‘Book him, Danno,’” I objected.

He grinned. “I’m chatting up one of the writers, seeing if she can work it in.”

I rolled my eyes and rolled away.

• • • 

Eating a salad
back at the security office, I was surprised to see Edgar Ambrose come through the door. He wore a Green Bay Packers sweatshirt over bike shorts that encased powerful thighs and showed off hairy calves. A sheen of sweat on his midnight-colored scalp made me think he’d been working out. “What are you doing here, Edgar?” I asked. “Isn’t it nap time for you?” He was scheduled to work the midshift, which started at eleven p.m., so normally he slept during the day.

“Uh, I have a favor to ask, EJ.” He looked uncharacteristically ill at ease.

Joel returned with a full carafe of water for the coffeemaker and gave Edgar a curious look.

“Sure.”

“About my shift . . . would you switch?” When I didn’t answer immediately, he added, “Just for tonight. It’s the movie. I’ve got my portfolio”—he waved a binder I hadn’t noticed—“and I want a shot at showing it to Mr. Vandelinde.”

“And you’re unlikely to run into him on the midshift.”

“Right.” He smiled his appreciation of my understanding, showing his gold canine tooth. “He made the Deadly Revenge series in the ’90s.”

He said it as if Vandelinde had sculpted
The Thinker
or painted the Sistine Chapel. I was tickled by his obsession with acting, because I’d never thought of him as being a performer, so I said, “Sure.”

He heaved a sigh of relief. “I owe you.”

As he left, I thought through my schedule. I could take a nap after work, before dinner with Mom and Ethan, and then come straight back to the mall. I’d be a little tired, but I’d powered through with less sleep on patrol in Afghanistan, so I knew I could do it. The mall was notoriously quiet at night, so my biggest problem would be staying awake, not like in the desert where I’d had to worry about al-Qaeda ambushing us or the like.

Joel stuck his mug under the stream of coffee pouring from the maker. “Edgar wants to be a movie star?”

“Apparently.”

He thought about it a minute. “I can see it, I guess. He’s sort of a bigger, tougher-looking Ving Rhames. Isn’t he a bit old, though, to be trying to break in? He must be fifty.”

“I guess you’re never too old to take a stab at doing something you love.”

Fourteen

• • • 

I’d thought it
more than once, but Fernglen at night feels like a very different place than during the day. It’s not the dark so much as the quiet. It was definitely darker, with only a hint of starlight dripping through the glass panels of the ceiling, and strips of low-level lighting—another cost-cutting measure—illuminating the corridors. The lights cast huge plant shadows on the walls, hosta leaf and fern silhouettes making the place feel like a prehistoric jungle. The shops were mostly dark, although a couple of the anchor stores had security lights on that emitted a faint glow from deep in their interiors. I Segwayed through the halls shortly after midnight, feeling the effect of too much good food and wine at my parents’ house. If I sat in the security office watching the monitors, I’d be asleep faster than a five-year-old after a day at Disneyland.

Mom had avoided being alone with me in the most unobtrusive way possible after Dad’s business associates left. She made sure Ethan or Grandpa was always in the room as she caught us up on my brother Clint’s adventures—an investigative reporter, he was on his way to Libya—and mentioned casually that she’d be joining Ethan on the set the next day. Her blond hair shimmered in the candlelight from the forty or so candles of different heights ranged along the middle of the dining room table. One of the staff slid dessert plates in front of us and Mom gave her a quiet, “Thank you.”

“Why?” I forked up a mouthful of crème brûlée and let it melt on my tongue.

“It’s time to remind everyone that he’s a married man.” She cast him an affectionate look where he sat talking to Grandpa. “That woman is sending him letters again, and—”

“What woman?”

“I told you about her,” Dad broke in. “I don’t even read them, but your mom’s taken over coping with my fan mail since Delia left, making a big to-do out of nothing.” He raised his wineglass to Mom, the cut crystal glinting in the candlelight.

“She’s sick, Ethan,” Mom said. “And the tone of the letters is getting disturbing. It was one thing when she mooned on about how wonderful you are, how handsome, how talented.”

“A discerning woman,” Ethan murmured, pouring himself more of the Syrah. I covered my glass when he moved to refill it. I had to go back to work in a couple of hours.

Mom tossed a cloth napkin at Ethan. “Now she’s going on about faithfulness.”

“I’m the most faithful man in Hollywood.” He smiled at Mom.

She returned his smile and reached her hand across the table. “I know that, sweetie. That’s why you still have your manhood attached.”

Cracking a laugh, he squeezed her hand and released it. I relaxed against the padded seat back, savoring my last inch of wine and thinking how nice it was to have parents who enjoyed each other, even after thirty-four years together. I tried not to let the image of Ethan comforting Zoë, or my mother’s evasiveness about her early morning mall visit, intrude.

Grandpa leaned forward, elbows on the table. “Have you given the letters to the police? There are stalking laws.”

Ethan nodded. “Delia turned them over to the cops, oh, six or eight months ago. They looked into it, but didn’t get very far. Nothing to go on, apparently.”

“Where were they mailed from?”

“You’d have to ask Delia.” Ethan shrugged his lack of concern.

“Do you still have the note?” Grandpa asked.

“I’ll get it.” Mom rose in one fluid movement and left the room, returning in a couple of minutes with a piece of pink notepaper. “Funny. There’s no envelope with it. When the studio boxes up the fan mail and sends it, they usually clip the envelope to the letter in case you want to reply, hon. Delia sent signed photos to everyone who wrote. Maybe the envelope got lost.”

“Or the writer dropped off the note at the studio office—didn’t mail it,” Grandpa said.

“We should turn it over to the police,” I said, reaching for it. “They can compare notes with their colleagues in Malibu.”

Grandpa beat me to it, snatching the letter from Mom’s hand. “I’ve got a friend in the FBI who owes me,” he said, tucking it into the interior pocket of his navy blazer. “The police can have a go at it when she’s done with it.”

Since neither Mom nor Ethan objected, I let Grandpa keep it. “Your mail is certainly more interesting than mine, Ethan.” I raised my glass in a silent toast. “I get grocery circulars, Lands’ End catalogs, and credit card come-ons. You get love letters from wack-jobs and threats from antiviolence/antimaterialist activists. To the joys of stardom!” I drained my glass.

• • • 

Now, trundling down
the empty corridors, I thought a bit about the note Ethan had gotten in his trailer and wondered if the police had had any luck tracking down the group that must be responsible for it. I sighed. It was unlikely that they’d had anything to do with Zoë’s death; it hardly made sense to campaign against violence and then stab someone to make your point. Come to think of it, though, that wasn’t too different from what radical abortion foes did when they chanted “pro-life” and then went off and shot doctors. I shouldn’t assume the note writer or writers weren’t involved.

It struck me that I was letting myself get distracted. Where did every homicide investigation begin? With the victim. I didn’t know nearly enough about Zoë Winters. I had no hope of learning more about her death, since Detective Helland wasn’t going to let me see the autopsy report or share information about the knives he’d collected on the movie set, but I could probably learn more about Zoë’s life: who her friends were, what she did when she wasn’t working, whether she had any enemies or supported controversial causes. If I could talk to Margot again, or maybe the guy who was Zoë’s assistant . . . What had Grandpa said his name was? Gavin? No, Grayson something. I’d contact—

A
thump
brought my head around. There shouldn’t be any thumping in a deserted mall at almost one o’clock in the morning. I stopped and listened. The sound didn’t come again. It was probably nothing, but I purred toward the maintenance hall where I’d heard the noise. The only things back here were utility rooms and a large storage area where the mall kept holiday decorations, tables and chairs, a collapsible dais, a portable dance floor and mats for visiting dancers and tumblers, and stacks and boxes of other stuff I’d never investigated. The hall was cement-floored and the walls an institutional gray, scuffed where top-heavy dollies had banged into them. A single fluorescent bulb sputtered overhead, making a sound like a fly buzzing against a window.

I was mainly going through the motions, happy to have something more concrete to do than putt-putt up and down the hall, but that changed when I noticed one of the two doors leading to the storage room was ajar. It should’ve been closed and locked. Wanting more mobility, I got off the Segway and approached the door, moving silently and wishing I had a Taser, at least, although that would be overkill if the source of the sound turned out to be a rat or a Christmas wreath tumbling off its stack.

“Hello?” I pushed the door wide, standing off to the side.

Scuffling noises came from deep within the storage room and adrenaline flooded through me. Someone was in there! I reached a hand around the door and felt for the light switch, calling, “Fernglen Security.” I didn’t think that was likely to scare an intruder like “Stop! Police!” would’ve done. Still, you work with what you’ve got.

My questing fingers finally found the switch and light flooded the room. Rows of gray metal shelves created a maze, and I heard footsteps from deep within, and then the sound of a door opening and banging shut. Damn. Whoever it was was getting away. The long storage area had a door on its far end that opened to the outside, to facilitate delivery and movement of the larger items stored here. Moving as quickly as I could, I threaded my way through the shelf maze to the door, finding it solidly closed. I yanked it open and stared into the dark inlet that allowed access to the storage room on one side and backed to the Sears loading dock on the other. A metal Dumpster gaped open, the only object in sight. Whoever had been in the storage room had hightailed it out to the main parking lot. I listened for the sound of a car, but didn’t hear anything. He was probably halfway to the highway by now.

Pulling the door closed, I tested it to ensure it latched properly. It did. The intruder hadn’t gained access this way, so he must have entered through the doors I’d come in. Had maintenance left them unlocked? Possible, I supposed. Or someone could have slipped in and hidden while crews were moving stuff in and out. I retraced my steps slowly, looking for something out of place or missing. I couldn’t imagine a thief would find the room’s contents interesting: there couldn’t be much market for an inflatable, twenty-foot-tall jack-o-lantern or the hundred-some-odd American flags the mall hung up to celebrate the Fourth of July.

Off to one side, a low stack of blue mats, the kind gymnasts used, was slightly askew. A flash of red caught my eye. I approached and found a half-full can of Coke. Had someone from maintenance set it down, maybe days ago, and forgotten about it? Or . . . I searched around the mats and saw something lodged between them and the wall. Reaching into the crevice, I pulled out a jacket. A dark green jacket like the one I’d seen Jesse Willard wearing yesterday when he fled the mall. It didn’t take me two seconds to realize Jesse had been hiding here, safe and warm, while his father and the police searched for him. It took me only a further two seconds to do what I knew I needed to: phone the police.

• • • 

The unkind side
of me had been hoping the operator who took my report would wake Detective Helland and get him out of bed at two in the morning; however, it was a pair of patrol cops who showed up to see where I’d found Jesse Willard and retrieve his jacket.

“We’ll search the area,” one of them promised me.

I knew they wouldn’t find Jesse. In the almost half an hour it had taken the officers to arrive, he could have gotten anywhere in Vernonville or its environs, or driven halfway to Richmond or D.C. if he had a vehicle. “You might check at his house,” I suggested.

“Yes, ma’am, we’ll do that.”

“And make sure Detective Helland knows. Mr. Willard is a sus—a witness in one of his cases.”

“I’m sure he’ll be by in the morning to talk to you,” the skinny cop said, nudging a mat into line with his foot.

They left and I finished my patrol before drifting back to the office. I felt strangely let down. I knew it was the aftereffect of the adrenaline surge and the brief chase. Watching a whole lot of nothing on the monitors, I rubbed my knee, which hadn’t liked the twisty-turny running I’d done through the storage room, and felt my eyelids drifting down. I forced myself to get up and make a pot of strong coffee, hoping the caffeine would keep me awake. Writing up the incident in our online logbook kept me occupied for fifteen minutes, but then I started to get sleepy again. I didn’t know how Edgar did this night after night.

I glimpsed movement on the cameras and made myself focus. It was a van cruising through the garage. I perked up a little bit. In all probability, it was an early-bird commuter using our garage for a day’s free parking while he rode into work with a buddy, but three thirty was a bit early for even the most Type A worker bee. The van motored out of the camera’s view and I wondered if it had parked or left the garage. Drug deals on mall property were not unheard of, and I decided that a quick reconnoiter in the brisk morning air was just the ticket for keeping me awake.

I Segwayed to the garage entrance by Macy’s and entered the dark space. Even without cars, it felt crowded, with low ceilings and lots of concrete pillars smeared with red and green and blue paint from cars whose drivers had cut a corner too close. Dim lights glowed from over the elevator and the “EXIT” sign near the stairs, and from wall fixtures mounted every fifty feet or so. That still left a lot of room for shadows. I thought I heard an engine growling from the other side of the garage and down a level, so I descended the ramp on my Segway, letting it run at top speed—about twelve miles per hour—enjoying the motion and the feel of the wind tugging at my hair.

A couple of cars sat trunk-in to the wall on the lower level and I felt their hoods as I passed them. Cold. They’d been here for hours. It wasn’t unusual for people to leave cars in the garage overnight or for a couple of days, although we didn’t encourage the practice. I knew of at least one instance where a man had been meeting his mistress here, leaving his SUV, and driving to her place in her car so no one would spot his ride outside her place or at a motel. I suspected he wasn’t the only one using the garage to facilitate illicit rendezvous. I cruised through both levels of the garage, which had exits on the north and south sides, but saw no one. Whoever it was had gone. No biggie.

I emerged into the predawn morning and looked up at a night sky spattered with stars. We’re far enough from D.C. and Richmond to escape most of their light pollution, and I trundled along at a slow pace for some moments, face to the sky. If I tuned out the faint sounds of traffic from nearby streets, it was almost like being in Afghanistan, where the stars seemed so much closer to the earth than they usually do here. Maybe that was because there was no humidity in the desert, imposing a moisture veil between me and the stars. After a few more seconds of stargazing, I started to shiver and reminded myself that I needed to replace my uniform Windbreaker.

Back inside, my fingers tingled from the warmth. It was almost four thirty, and I decided to scoot over to the main entrance where the mall walkers congregated to remind them that we weren’t opening that morning because of the filming. We’d posted signs for a couple of weeks, but experience had taught me that there would be people standing outside the doors, inches from the signs, expecting to be let in as usual. Four people stood waiting for me to open the mall and all of them grumbled when I explained that we weren’t allowing walkers this morning.

“I can’t have a banana chocolate chip muffin with my latte this morning if I don’t burn three hundred calories walking first,” one woman moaned.

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