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Authors: Laura Disilverio

Tags: #mystery

3 Malled to Death (13 page)

BOOK: 3 Malled to Death
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While Jay fetched her cookie, Kyra looked from me to him and waggled her brows, clearly picking up on some new vibe between us. I frowned her down and had a smile back on my face by the time Jay handed her an oatmeal raisin cookie and a cup of coffee. We chit-chatted about the scene the movie company had filmed that morning—apparently having Ethan splash into the fountain had excited all onlookers, especially when he emerged with his shirt soaked transparent—and then a line formed for cookies and Kyra and I walked off.

“Are you coming to my bout tomorrow evening?” she asked.

Kyra had taken up roller derby a couple years back and I got a kick out of watching her skate. “Wouldn’t miss it,” I assured her. “Dinner after?”

“Absolutely. I want to hear all about what’s going on between you and Mr. Chunky Chocolate Chip.”

I felt myself blushing and was furious. “Nothing’s going on.”

Kyra laughed. “You can’t kid a kidder, Eej. How was he?”

“We didn’t—There might have been a kiss,” I finally admitted.

“A kiss?” She shook her head, grinning. “If he can light you up like this with just a kiss, I can’t imagine—”

“Then don’t.” I’d spent most of the day trying not to imagine, not very successfully. More imaginings finagled their way into my head and I must have blushed again because Kyra shook her head, chuckling. To distract her, I told her about my conversation with Grayson Bleek and my almost-encounter with Jesse Willard.

“I’ll bet he’s around here somewhere,” Kyra said.

She could be right. Clearly, something about the mall made Jesse feel comfortable; either that or it was the only place he could find to sleep at night that was heated. “Keep your eyes open,” I suggested.

“Always. Gotta dash.” She was gone in a blur of terra-cotta.

I wandered up to the security office to ensure that Joel was going to meet me at the Y after his shift, and check the cameras to see if I could spot anything suspicious around the time Jay was shot. I studied the images from all the garage cameras from fifteen minutes before Jay got shot until fifteen minutes after, but saw nothing but the white van, plate not visible, gliding from the lower level to the top, then out of the garage. Looking for something? Waiting for someone? Whatever it was doing, I didn’t see anything that suggested someone in the van was responsible for shooting Jay. In fact, I never even saw Jay, who must have been deliberately avoiding the cameras. Hm. I headed out to do forty-five minutes of upper-body weight training before Joel arrived at the pool.

When Joel arrived, we swam for half an hour before he begged to stop. He was improving slowly, but still hung onto the end of the pool to rest after every third lap. He hauled himself out of the pool, belly hanging over the waistband of his Hawaiian-print swim trunks, curly hair flattened by water and dripping down his brow. “I saw in the log that you almost caught an intruder in the storeroom last night,” he said. “I wish it had been me. Nothing exciting ever happens on my shifts.”

I wrapped myself in a towel so it hid my leg. Joel had, of course, seen the scars and twisted muscle before, but I was still self-conscious about it. “It wasn’t very exciting.” I gave him the details.

“Willard probably did it,” he said, shaking his head like a dog and flinging water onto me. “Sorry. I know you like him, but he was
there.

“It depends on when she got stabbed,” I said, keeping my voice low. “If she was attacked in the evening sometime, then I don’t see how it could have been Willard. It’s not like he would have hung around all night after stabbing her and then run out when I showed up in the morning. If she was attacked in the morning . . .” Jesse Willard looked like a much more viable suspect if Zoë had been stabbed only a short time before I stumbled over her. “But she wasn’t. She was wearing the same clothes.”

“How can we know when she was stabbed for sure?” Joel asked, his voice a bit too loud so an old gentleman in a Speedo, carrying a kickboard, gave us a funny look.

“We can’t,” I said, hating that we didn’t have access to any forensic data. “The police will know by now, though. Stomach contents will have told them if she ate dinner—”

Joel turned vaguely green at the mention of stomach content analysis, but I kept on, “—and the pathologist might be able to narrow down the time of the attack by how much blood she lost or something.” There hadn’t been a lot of blood at the scene, maybe because the murderer had cleaned some of it up, but also, I suspected, because most of her bleeding had been internal.

“So she could have been there all night?”

“Um-hm. I think so. She might have been unconscious most of the time, though, and unable to get help.” I felt chilled at the idea and huddled into my towel. What a horrible way to die . . . alone, cold, in pain, lying on a tiled floor in the dark.

I shook myself and changed the subject. “How’s it going with you and Sunny?”

“Great,” he said. “She went to the agility show with me last weekend and was amazed at what the dogs could do. One of the shelties I trained came in third, so it was a great day. He’s a smart dog and still young—he’ll win the next time out. Sunny’s cooking me dinner on Saturday night,” he added, the words muffled by the towel he was using to dry his hair.

“Dinner at her place,” I teased. “Very significant.”

The tops of his ears showed red as he lowered the towel. I took pity on him and asked if he’d watched the filming today. He grew animated describing how great it was when the actor playing the hit man fired at Ethan, blasting him backwards into the fountain. “They did it, like, nine times,” Joel said, awed. “And in between times they had to redo Mr. Jarrett’s makeup, and dry his hair, and put him into a new uniform. It was really cool. You should have seen the water splash everywhere. Like this.”

He stood suddenly and flung himself backwards into the pool, arms spread wide. He landed with a painful splat and the water swelled more than fountained, sloshing over the pool’s edge to soak the hem of my towel.

I applauded while another lap swimmer paused to stare at us and the lifeguard blew her whistle.

Seventeen

• • • 

The next morning,
I arrived at the mall half an hour before my shift started, awakened by nightmares again. I couldn’t keep going without sleep, I knew, but I despised the sleep meds my psychiatrist had prescribed soon after my return from the desert and I was reluctant to call him. Downing some of the hot brew in the office coffeepot, I told Edgar that I’d arranged for us to watch the filming on set later that day. He was almost speechless with gratitude, promising to meet me at Colonial Beach at eleven. Joel had agreed to cover for me while I took a long lunch. Coco came in then, a couple hours earlier than usual, and I cleared my absence with her.

“Oh, yeah, sure,” she said, seeming a bit distracted. She patted her red hair into place and tucked what looked like a large portfolio more securely under her arm. “I’m . . . I’ve . . . I’ll be out for a while around lunch myself. Um, have the police caught whoever it was that killed that woman yet? Mr. Quigley says I’m supposed to keep him informed and he’d like to hear that the killer’s behind bars.” She looked at me hopefully.

I was sure we’d all like to hear that, but I didn’t think Quigley putting pressure on Coco was going to make it happen. “I haven’t heard anything more,” I said. “You could ask the detective in charge of the case, though.”

“Oh, no,” Coco said involuntarily. “He makes me nervous.”

“You shouldn’t let him intimidate you,” I said, feeling some sympathy for her. Helland sometimes intimidated me and I wasn’t a newly-graduated-from-college kid working at her first real job. “As the director of security, you certainly have a right to be kept informed about the police investigation.”

“Could you ask him?” Coco said.

“Of course. I can go now if you’ll watch the monitors.”

• • • 

Moments later, I
glided to a stop in front of the storefront the police were using as a temporary command post, smelling a hint of perfume that seeped from beneath the door. I sneezed. The door was shut and locked and no lights glowed within. It
was
still a little before seven, I realized, nodding at a couple of mall walkers as they power walked past me. I’d check back later. As I was turning to go, a woman hurried up. She didn’t look like a walker. Dressed in a turquoise pencil skirt and a black bolero jacket, she had burgundy-colored hair, obviously dyed, and wore pointy-toed black heels. I guessed her to be in her late twenties.

“Are you the police?” she asked, eyeing my uniform doubtfully.

I introduced myself. “I’m not sure when the police will be here today. Do you know where their headquarters is downtown?”

“I don’t have time to trek downtown,” she said impatiently. “And when I called down there to say I had information about Zoë Winters, whoever I talked to told me the detective in charge was
here
.” She had a pointy nose and chin and her face was pinched with either anxiety or irritation. “Can’t I talk to you?”

I desperately wanted to hear what this woman had to say about Zoë. “Well . . .”

“It’s you or no one,” she said, stretching the beaded bracelets on her wrist. “I’m catching a plane in two hours for a weeklong conference in Manchester. England.”

“Sure,” I capitulated. “Let me call Detective Helland and tell him you’re here.”

“Fine, but I’m out of here no later than seven-thirty, whether he’s here or not.”

Dialing Helland’s number, I got his voicemail and left a message, sure he would be furious, but unable to think of a better way of handling the situation.

“Any chance of finding some caffeine around here?” the woman asked before I could say anything.

“Sure.” I led her toward The Bean Bonanza, which always opened early to accommodate the walkers. It was a smart business strategy, I thought, judging by the short line of people waiting for their caffeine fix. The woman introduced herself as Astrid Jelinek while we waited our turn, and when we had our cups of steaming coffee, we sat at one of the two white-topped bistro tables Suzie put out for customers who wanted to linger over their coffee.

Conscious of Astrid checking her watch, I dove right in. “You know something about Zoë’s murder?” I asked.

“Her murder?” She jolted coffee from her cup to the table and blotted it with a napkin. “God, no. I don’t know anything about who killed her or anything like that. I saw the request on the news and I felt I needed to come forward. You know, the one about people with information about Zoë Winters—not that I knew her last name, but I recognized the photo they showed—contacting the police if they’d seen her after six p.m. on Monday.”

“You saw her that night?” I leaned forward with anticipation. “Where? What were the circumstances?”

“Well, I work for an investment firm and sometimes after work a few of us stop by Cowgirls for a drink. It’s only a couple blocks from the office.”

I knew the place by reputation only. It was a lesbian bar run by a woman who used to be a congressional staffer. “You met Zoë there?”

“Uh-huh. My friends were leaving, and I was thinking about going myself, when Zoë walked in.” A small smile played around her mouth and, for the first time, I noticed the faint scent of cigarettes that hung about her. She must be a smoker. “The sight of her about knocked me off my bar stool.” She met my gaze unflinching. “We went home together. My place.”

“What time was that?” I asked, taking notes.

“Eleven, maybe? Before midnight, anyway.”

“When did she leave?”

“The next morning. Early. Said she had to be back on the set.”

“Do you remember what time?”

“Six-ish? I wasn’t really too awake. Told her to help herself to a bagel or a boiled egg and rolled over.”

“Were you expecting to see her again?”

Astrid shrugged. “You know how it is.”

I didn’t, but I let it go. “What did you talk about? Did she say anything that made you think she was worried about something, scared of someone?”

Astrid’s pointy pink tongue poked out to lick her lips. “We talked about the usual stuff. ‘What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?’ ‘What do you do?’ You know.” She smiled crookedly, as if making fun of the whole pickup thing.

Astrid kept crediting me with knowledge I didn’t have. “Did she mention her girlfriend?”

“Marlo? Yeah. She came up.”

“Margot. In what context?”

“Zoë said they’d had a fight, that she felt smothered, misunderstood, didn’t know if she wanted to stay with Margot. I took it all with a grain of salt, figured it was the martinis talking. She put away three or four before we ever left Cowgirls, and then we fixed another pitcher at my place. Speaking of which . . .” She shook three aspirin out of a container from her purse and drank them down with a swallow of coffee. “Can’t say I’m looking forward to a transatlantic flight today. Anyway, now you know everything I know about Zoë’s last night”—her smile faltered—“and you can relay it to Detective Whoever. He can give me a call when I get back from England if he’s got any other questions. I’d appreciate it if he’d contact me at work, though,” she said, handing over a business card, “since my partner wouldn’t understand about Zoë.”

I opened my eyes wider. “Any chance she knows about Zoë?” I imagined a scenario where Astrid’s lover encountered Zoë leaving their house and followed her to the mall . . .

“He. None. He’s waiting for me in England.”

Smiling wryly, she stood to go, just as Detective Helland came striding over, face impassive. “You must be the detective,” Astrid said, giving him an appreciative once-over. “Sorry I can’t stay to chat, but I’ve got a plane to catch.” Nodding toward me, she said, “She knows everything I know.” She whisked away before Helland could stop her.

“Don’t say anything,” I said before Helland could unload on me. “It was let her talk to me or lose out on her information.”

“I gathered that from your phone message,” he said mildly. “I was going to thank you.”

“Oh. Well, you’re welcome.” Tension drained out of me as I realized he wasn’t going to lambaste me for tampering with a witness or sticking my nose where it didn’t belong.

A smile lurked in his eyes, making me suspect he knew what I was thinking.

“What did she say?”

I gave him a detailed report on Astrid’s encounter with Zoë as we walked back toward his temporary office. “So, it looks like she wasn’t killed until Tuesday morning,” I said. That put Jesse Willard back in the frame and I didn’t like that.

“We knew that. She had a bagel with cream cheese for breakfast no more than half an hour before she died.”

“With the timeline narrowed down like that, we can go over all the camera data and see when she arrived at the mall,” I said.

“Already done.” He offered no further details.

Of course. He had the manpower available to look at data from all the cameras. “And did you also figure out who else was in the mall that early?”

“Way too many people,” he said, clearly not happy about it. “Just about everyone on the movie crew since they were filming so early.”

“Ah.”

We continued in silence until arriving at the former perfume shop. I remembered to hand over Astrid’s business card. “Oh, I almost forgot. I talked with Grayson Bleek yesterday—he’s now the props master in addition to being the weapons master—and he told me about overhearing a fight between Zoë and Margot the afternoon before she died. In addition, he had one of the flyers like Ethan Jarrett got, the one from the antiviolence, anti-mall faction.”

“Lots of people got those, maybe everyone on the movie crew,” he said. “The lab’s turned up nothing. They’re photocopied on standard paper with nothing distinctive about them. We’ve been unable to link the message to anything similar from any known group. Unless they put out another communiqué or identify themselves in some way, we’re at a dead end there. Tell me what Bleek said.”

I filled him in and the corners of his mouth pulled down. “We’ll have to interview Mr. Bleek. He didn’t mention the fight to us, as far as I know. Thanks, EJ.”

“Anytime.”

We parted more amicably than usual and I returned to the office and Coco. She was on the phone when I walked in, saying, “Yes, I’ll be there right at twelve thirty. Thank you for the opportunity to interview—” She caught sight of me and her eyes widened. She hung up hurriedly.

So, Coco was already looking for another job? Her stint as director of security hadn’t lasted long. Not that I blamed her; it was clear she wasn’t cut out for security work. It wasn’t my business so I didn’t say anything. “Detective Helland didn’t have anything new to offer,” I told her, “except the information that Zoë was killed in the morning.”

“Oh, uh, thanks for checking, EJ,” Coco said, gathering up her portfolio and smoothing down the apricot-colored skirt that hugged her hips tightly and flared when it hit her knees, ending slightly above her ankles. Tan peep-toe, platform boots reached almost to the skirt’s hem. Not good for chasing perps was my reaction to the outfit, even though I was sure it must be the height of fashion. I admitted to a twinge of envy over the high-heeled boots, however. I’d always enjoyed shoes, but my knee couldn’t stand the pressure and instability of heels anymore.

Coco caught me staring. “My own design,” she said, pirouetting for me.

“It’s distinctive,” I said and she beamed.

“I hope you won’t tell anyone,” she said, lowering her voice, “but I’m interviewing for a job at a fashion house today. I know you overheard me on the phone. I don’t know if I’ll get it—the competition will be
brutal
—so I don’t want to upset the apple cart here, okay?”

“Sure,” I said. Who was I to throw stones at her for interviewing for jobs that suited her better? I’d filled out four more applications with police departments around the country this past weekend. “I won’t say anything.”

Looking relieved, she hurried back to her office, probably to practice answers to potential interview questions: “My design influences? Chanel—I was named for her, after all, and Frank Lloyd Wright. The most important advance in the fashion industry? Polyester, definitely.” I smiled at my own whimsy and headed across the hall to brief Quigley on the non-progress in the murder investigation. As I pushed open the glass doors to the mall operations office, I knew I’d picked a bad time. Quigley stood in front of the aerial photograph of Fernglen Galleria that hung over a blue sofa in the waiting area. Fiddling with his cuff links, he looked dapper but very uncomfortable as an on-air reporter stuck a microphone in his face. A cameraman stood several feet away, camera trained on Quigley.

“. . . do you think of reports calling Fernglen Galleria the Death Mall? By our count, there have been four bodies found on the property in under two months.”

Quigley sputtered. “It’s preposterous. I want to assure the shopping public that Fernglen is an absolutely safe place to shop. When people indulge in dangerous, illegal practices or associate themselves with gangs—”

He was talking about the young man found dead of a drug overdose in our garage during a previous murder investigation, and the gangbanger killed elsewhere and left outside the mall a few weeks back.

“—their deaths are not unexpected and cannot in any way be construed as being related to Fernglen. I shop here myself. If I had a wife or a daughter, I’d encourage her—them—to shop here. Fernglen Galleria is a perfectly safe shopping destination for all your home and fashion needs.”

Pooja, Quigley’s assistant, watched from her desk, brown eyes gleaming. She caught my eye and bit back a smile.

The reporter, a slick-looking young man with blond hair falling across his forehead and a suit that almost outdappered Quigley, asked, “What steps are you taking to protect the customers brave enough to shop at Fernglen?”

“We’re, uh—” Quigley looked around wildly and his gaze landed on me. Despite my head shakes, he beckoned me forward. “EJ Ferris is a senior member of our security force and a former military police officer. Why don’t we let her answer that question?”

The reporter turned toward me, holding out the mike, and the camera swiveled my way. Taking advantage of being out of the limelight for a moment, Quigley pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and swabbed his forehead. Even though I was furious with Quigley for putting me on the spot, I answered calmly, “Fernglen’s security practices are solid, modeled on cutting-edge techniques and using completely adequate technology.” Okay, our camera system was practically antique, and only a fraction of the cameras were hooked up, but I knew Quigley would can me if I in any way suggested to the television audience that Fernglen could benefit from security upgrades.

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