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Authors: Laura Disilverio

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3 Malled to Death (14 page)

BOOK: 3 Malled to Death
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“We have a well-trained staff of security officers dedicated to providing a safe shopping experience. Would the producers of
Mafia Mistress
be filming here this week if Fernglen were unsafe?”

Quigley gave me a big thumbs-up behind the reporter’s back for mentioning the movie.

“I notice you’re not wearing a weapon, Miss, uh, Officer, uh—”

“Officer Ferris.”

He edged closer. “Right. What’s up with that? Wouldn’t the public be safer if the security force was armed?”

Little did he know how much more in danger the public would be if Coco and Joel and some of our other officers carried guns.

“Our lack of weapons is a testament to how safe Fernglen is,” I improvised. “But that’s a policy issued by the corporation that owns Fernglen, so Mr. Quigley is the best one to address that.”

I blew out a long breath as the reporter and camera turned to Quigley once again. Mouthing “later” at Pooja, I ducked out and caught my breath in the hall. I hated being on camera. I didn’t have a performing gene in my body, much to Ethan’s dismay. The one time I’d tried out for a school play to make him happy, I’d been more wooden than the stage floor.

Wary of Quigley pulling me back into the office to answer more questions, I jumped on the Segway and left on my patrols. Having the movie company more or less in residence was distracting people from the murder and I heard more conversation about Ethan and
Mafia Mistress
than about poor Zoë. I deliberately Segwayed down utility corridors and into off-the-beaten-path nooks and byways, keeping an eye out for Jesse. It’d been a blow to learn Zoë died Tuesday morning because it made Jesse a more viable suspect. He came early to walk, ran into her, something set him off, and . . . The scenario was too plausible for my comfort. If only Jesse would come forward, give his side of the story. The morning zipped by and it was time to leave for the set and the filming of the big love scene before I knew it. Radioing Joel to make sure he was still okay with covering for me, I hurried to the parking lot and my Miata and headed for the boat dock.

Eighteen

• • • 

Colonial Beach is
a small beach town east of Vernonville on the Potomac River, not too far up from where it empties into Chesapeake Bay. During the summer, the small, sandy beach is crowded with umbrellas, sun worshipers, and kids paddling in the water. On a brisk spring day, the river gleamed more stainless steel than blue, and the only people in sight were huddled into fleeces and Windbreakers, obviously hoping to catch a glimpse of someone famous. Gulls wheeled overhead, keening, and I spotted a blue heron hunched by the water’s edge as I swung into the parking lot. Trees leafed out in soft spring green bounded the lot, and gravel crunched underfoot as I made my way to the dock where the dumpy tugboat knocked gently against tire bumpers.

The black-shirted guards kept the small crowd back as the movie crew set up for the shoot, which was taking place on the deck of the tugboat, ostensibly on a pile of sails, although I couldn’t figure out why a tugboat would have sails on board in the first place. Not my worry, I decided, spotting Mom in a webbed chair at the edge of the dock. She invariably showed up on the set when Ethan filmed love scenes. I’d once asked her if the love scenes bothered her, but she shook her head. “It’s so unromantic, so unsexy,” she said. “All those people around, cameras practically in the actors’ faces sometimes. And it’s so cold on the set.” She shivered. “Your father doesn’t do full nudity, either, although he loves showing off his six-pack.”

I gave my name to the guards and they checked a clipboard before letting me through. I crossed the uneven terrain to Mom, wishing I’d taken the time to change out of my uniform. “What’s that?” I asked, nodding toward the length of sky blue trailing from her needles. The knitting was new—she’d taken a few lessons in the winter and now took her latest project with her any time she anticipated having to wait around.

“A blanket, I think,” she said, inspecting her work.

“You think?”

“Well, so far I can only do rectangles or squares, so if it’s long and skinny it’s a scarf, but if it’s long and wide it’s a blanket. This is my third one; I’m donating them to the hospital where we helped fund the neonatal ward.”

A gasp and a murmur went up from the crowd and I looked over to see that Ethan had appeared on the tugboat deck, surrounded by a shifting swarm of makeup artists, lighting people, and others. “Don’t they usually do love scenes in private, on closed sets?” I asked Mom, sinking to the grass at her feet.

“Only if there’s nudity,” Mom said, apparently unruffled at the thought of her husband making out with one of the most beautiful women in the world. “Your father has to take off his shirt, though; I wouldn’t want to do that on a brisk day like today.”

She was right. The wind had picked up and it was chillier here at the water’s edge than it was in Vernonville. I tried to imagine how the makeup people would camouflage goose bumps.

“Yo, EJ!”

Edgar’s voice pulled my head around and I spotted him behind the barriers holding back the crowd. He towered over the security guards as they checked a clipboard and then let him in. He trundled toward us and I introduced him to Mom, taking care to refer to her as Mrs. Jarrett.

She greeted him warmly and invited him to join us. He beamed when he caught sight of her knitting and said, “Great blanket.” She excused herself a moment later and wandered down to the set to exchange a few words with Ethan. She did nothing crass like kiss him in public, but the way they interacted made their intimacy obvious. Go, Mom, I thought, as Anya Vale came onto the set, dressed in a summery dress that was ripped and torn, showing a lot of leg and cleavage. I guess your clothes take a beating when you’re on the run from a contract killer and miscellaneous gangbangers and mafia thugs. Margot Chelius, denim skirt flapping around her legs, pencil tucked behind her ear, fussed with the way Anya’s tattered skirt fell, tugging at the garment until she was satisfied.

Mom retraced her steps, someone yelled for quiet, and the filming began. I’d seen it all before, so I got more of a kick out of watching Edgar’s reaction than the scene itself. His head swiveled from the acting, to the camera people, to Vandelinde who leaned forward from a classic director’s chair, watching as Ethan swung Anya onto the boat seemingly without effort, and she clung to him, bosom heaving in finest bodice-ripper-novel style. There was a moment of meaningful eye contact and cameras on the boat’s deck moved in closer. It always amazed me that actors could summon up any vestige of seeming intimacy with dozens of people on set, doing their jobs or hanging around.

Anya’s upturned face, beautiful and vulnerable, full of yearning, invited Ethan’s kiss and . . . yada-yada. I found it vaguely embarrassing to be watching my father caress a woman in public, especially when she stripped away his shirt, displaying his muscled back and six-pack in all their glory. Her hand trailed down his chest. I looked around, spotting Iona Moss not far from the action, clipboard hugged to her chest, gaze fixed on the stars as they tumbled awkwardly onto the nest of sails. She made a note about something. My gaze also snagged on Grayson Bleek conferring with the movie’s villain, handing him a revolver moments before he fired at Ethan and Anya from a vantage point on the tug’s cabin. Grayson nodded, as if pleased with how the actor handled himself, or with how the revolver worked.

Vandelinde yelled, “Cut!” and makeup and wardrobe people moved in to prep the stars before they did another take.

“You’re sure you want to do this?” I asked Edgar. “It’s a lot of ‘hurry up and wait,’ and then a lot of repetition.” I wouldn’t be able to stand all the inaction associated with acting; I noted the irony with an inward smile.

Edgar nodded, firming his mouth and thrusting his chin out a hair. “I love acting,” he said.

I resolved to get Ethan to find a way to hook Edgar up with Vandelinde.

They filmed the love scene five more times before finally moving on to the next scene. When the shots rang out this time, Ethan scooped Anya into his arms and dumped her unceremoniously over the side of the tugboat before diving in after her. Onlookers gasped as the stars disappeared into the water with a splash. I shivered sympathetically; I wouldn’t want to take a dip in the Potomac in April . . . brrr. The finished movie would have the pair drifting down river, eluding the killer before coming ashore on the opposite bank. Today, they were supposed to climb right out of the river.

The seconds ticked by, but Ethan and Anya didn’t reappear. I began to get antsy and edged toward the river, as did my mother. Elias Vandelinde stood and scanned the water. None of us could see beyond the tugboat. Everyone headed toward the Potomac, all of us moving faster the nearer we got, like the flowing water held a magnetic charge that pulled us in. Where was Ethan? Had he hit his head or injured himself diving in? It had been too long. I was going in. I slipped off my shoes, conscious of Mom beside me, fingers pressed to her lips. A cameraman on the boat, who was hanging over the railings on the water side, pointed. “There they are.”

I sagged with relief as Ethan appeared, slogging his way around the stern in waist-deep water, carrying Anya. Cameras whirred as reporters captured the image. People hesitated at the water’s edge, but I lunged forward to help. My knee buckled and I caught myself with a hand on the damp grass. Edgar plunged past me into the river, taking the burden of Anya away from Ethan. Clearly conscious, she moved away from Edgar as soon as he set her on the riverbank. Six people stood ready with towels, and Anya and Ethan disappeared behind a wall of fluffy combed cotton. Edgar had to make do with a single towel tossed his way.

Still toweling his hair dry, Ethan came to where Mom stood. “What happened?” she asked, hugging him, not caring that he left a damp imprint on her blouse.

He shrugged. “I think Anya bumped her head when I tossed her overboard. She seemed disoriented, was drifting toward the middle of the river instead of swimming for the shore.”

I looked toward Anya where she sat surrounded by crew members. Iona was swabbing a bump on the star’s forehead with disinfectant and sticking a small bandage over it. “Nothing makeup won’t cover easily,” she announced.

Anya shot her a look that suggested she didn’t like having her injury dismissed so cavalierly. “I could have drowned,” she said in her throaty voice. “Ethan saved my life.” Inky hair streamed wetly down her face and lay plastered against the white swell of breasts emerging from her soaked dress. She looked like an exotic mermaid. All she needed was a clamshell brassiere, à la Ariel. The paparazzi seemed captivated and pointed their zoom lenses her way.

Ethan made a face. “No such thing.” He shouldered his way into a dry shirt Margot held out for him and thanked her. “You’d have gotten yourself to shore if I hadn’t been there.”

“Nevertheless.” She blew him a kiss. Cameras whirred, flashes strobing, and I knew the morning’s headlines would feature the incident.

I looked around for Edgar and spotted him shaking hands with Vandelinde. Maybe the director was thanking him for his help. Relieved that Ethan was okay, I said good-bye to him and my mom, and then waited for Edgar when he signaled to me. He powered up the slight incline and caught up to me, his whole face beaming, wet clothes giving off a dank river odor.

“Van says he thinks he’s got a role for me in his next film.” Edgar announced it like he’d won a Nobel prize. His gold tooth gleamed. “A bit part, but it’s a start. I’m going to Hollywood!”

I high-fived him, thinking he sounded like an
American Idol
hopeful. I hoped he fared better than most of them. “Way to go, Edgar! I hope you like it.”

“What’s not to like?”

I could have given him an alphabetized and indexed list, starting with “arrogance” and ending with “zombies,” but I needed to get back to Fernglen before Coco and Joel decided I was AWOL.

Nineteen

• • • 

I ran into
Coco in the parking lot. We exchanged semiguilty glances at having exceeded our lunch hours by so long, and I asked, “How was the interview?”

She held up her hand and twined two fingers together. “Fingers crossed.”

I couldn’t decide if I wanted Coco to get the job or not. She knew nothing about security, but she wasn’t obstructive, like Woskowicz had been, and I was virtually running operations from behind the scenes. On the other hand, if she left, I could compete for the director of security job again, only I wasn’t sure I wanted to. Should I take it as a sign that I hadn’t gotten the job and consider other options, as Grandpa Atherton had been urging? I pushed the thoughts away, deciding I would deal with them when the time came. I realized I was being selfish and decided I wanted Coco to get the new job, since it was clearly what she wanted.

Unaware of my thoughts, Coco babbled about the interview, detailing how she’d answered each question, as we took the elevator up and walked to the office. “—and when I told them that Coco Chanel was one of my strongest influences, they—”

“What about Frank Lloyd Wright?”

“Who?”

Before I could explain that I was joking, Harold Wasserman looked up from the monitors and told Coco that Curtis Quigley had been looking for her. A nervous expression settled on her face and she scuttled across the hall to the management offices.

“Anything going on?” I asked Harold.

“Not so’s you’d notice.”

My eyes idly scanned the monitors, noting a gaggle of teens who might bear watching, two tween girls apparently chasing each other on heelies, those annoying shoes where wheels pop out of the soles, and a woman texting as she walked, unaware that she was about to plow into the fountain.

“Excuse me?” A man’s voice sounded from the doorway, and Harold and I looked around as the woman banged her shin against the fountain wall and her phone went kerplunk into the basin.

A middle-aged man stood there: medium height and build, balding, khaki slacks with blue shirt.

“Yes?” I asked, moving toward him.

“There’s a man, in the first floor bathroom—”

I winced, hoping he wasn’t going to say anything inappropriate was going on. We’d had one instance the first week I started working here of a teen being propositioned in one of the men’s rooms.

“He’s just sitting there, on the floor, crying. I think he might be ill. Mentally.” Concern blanketed the man’s face as he hovered on the threshold.

“Thank you for letting us know,” I said. “Which bathroom?” I asked the question, even though I already knew what he was going to say.

“The one down that little hall past Macy’s before you get to the movie theaters,” he said, backing out of the door. Clearly, he didn’t want to get further involved.

“Thank you, sir,” I said sincerely. He nodded and disappeared. “Harold, call the police and tell them Jesse Willard is in the bathroom. I’ll try to detain him until they get here.”

“What makes you think it’s him?” Harold asked, dialing.

“I just know.”

Skimming through the halls on the Segway, I wished, not for the first time, that it had lights and a siren to drive people out of my path. Luckily, the mall wasn’t too crowded on a Friday afternoon, and in under five minutes I reached the bathroom where I’d found Zoë. A man emerged wiping his hands on his jeaned thighs.

“Excuse me, sir,” I stopped him and got off the Segway. “Is there anyone in there?”

He made a disgusted face. “Yeah, some nut job.”

Mr. Empathetic. He hurried away before I could ask anything else.

Ignoring the fact that it was a men’s room, I pushed into the bathroom and immediately spotted Jesse Willard slumped against the far wall, holding his head and rocking from side to side.

“Jesse?” I called softly.

He lifted his head and I saw his wet cheeks. Anguish darkened his eyes . . . physical or emotional, I couldn’t tell.

“Are you okay?”

“Head. Hurts.” He bowed his head again and continued rocking. His fingers dug into his scalp and made white divots in the almost-bare flesh. I’d seen soldiers in that kind of pain before and I radioed Harold. “Call for an ambulance, too.”

“Right. The police are on their way.”

I wished he hadn’t mentioned the police on our unsecure radios, but it was too late to do anything about it now. Instead, I dampened a paper towel with cold water and brought it to Jesse, knowing it was woefully inadequate. My back against the wall, I slid to the floor beside him. “Here.”

He took the paper towel and pressed it against his forehead, not looking at me.

“An ambulance is coming,” I told him. “They’ll have medicine to help with the pain.”

At that his eyes flitted toward me and he struggled to stand. “They’ll put me in jail. They’ll think I did it.” He was taller than I was, and heavier, but he seemed almost frail as he sought a way out.

“Did what, Jesse?”

“She was bleeding. I tried to stop it, tried to help her . . . it was like when Sergeant Newsome got hit. A piece of metal went right through her vest. All that blood . . . Mortar rounds were going off all around us. One must have hit a gas tank because there was an explosion, a fireball. We could feel the heat. The noise—” He pressed his hands over his ears. After a moment, he looked up, gaze flitting from one corner of the room to the next, and then he froze. “Incoming!” He flung an arm around my shoulders and carried me to the floor with him.

My nose pressed against the cold tile, and the harsh scent of cleanser bit at my nostrils. I fought down a momentary panic at his weight atop me, pressing me down, and tried to calm him. “It’s okay, Jesse. We’re at the mall. Your dad’s on his way. It’s going to be okay.”

“The mall.” He raised himself up on one elbow and looked around. I sighed with relief as his weight lifted off me. “She was right there.” He pointed under the stall door and fell silent.

Struggling to sit up, I saw that his gaze was far away and I didn’t know if he was seeing Zoë Winters again, or Sergeant Newsome, the victim of a firefight in the desert, I presumed. “Did you see anyone else that morning?” I asked. “Was there anyone here when you found Zoë in the stall?”

He was shaking his head when the door burst open with such force it banged into the wall. Jesse threw himself on top of me again, mashing me to the floor.

“Hands up,” the first officer yelled. I couldn’t see him, but I knew from his tone of voice that he had his weapon out. “Get off her.”

“I’m okay,” I shouted, my voice muffled. “He’s protecting me from you.” Tremors from Jesse vibrated through me and I felt like crying as I realized how terrified he was. “He’s not going to hurt me.”

“Hands where I can see them
now
,” the cop said as if he hadn’t heard a word I’d said.

I wormed out from beneath Jesse, showing my palms to the officer who was barely into his twenties, with pale skin and a long nose.

I was shaking with fury. “That is not necessary,” I said, raising my torso by pushing up on my elbows. Jesse shifted his weight and crab-walked backwards until his back was against the wall. He buried his head in his arms. “You’re scaring him. He doesn’t have a weapon.” I was nearly certain. “He needs an ambulance. He’s in pain.”

Detective Helland appeared behind the young cop, took in the scene at a glance, and holstered his own weapon. “Put it away,” he told the other cop.

“But—”

A sharp look from Helland’s icy eyes cut him off.

“I’ve got it,” Helland said. “Wait for the ambulance outside.” The other officer backed out the door and I heard radios squawking and conversation from several voices. “Jesse Willard, I presume?”

I nodded, biting my lower lip.

“Did he hurt you? Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. He thought he was saving me from incoming mortar rounds.” I kept my voice matter-of-fact, but Helland must have heard something because he offered me a hand. After a second’s hesitation, I grabbed it and let him pull me to my feet.

His eyes scanned my face, but he only asked, “Is he okay?”

“His head hurts,” I said. “I don’t know what all—”

Jesse lurched to his feet, hands still clutching his head, and Helland stiffened. I put a hand on Jesse’s arm. “Can you walk out of here if I help you?”

I couldn’t tell if he heard me because he took two steps toward the stall where I’d found Zoë and pushed the door open. “She’s gone,” he said sadly.

“Yes.”

“So many gone.” Without warning, Jesse hauled back and punched the stall door. The force of the punch dented the metal door inward and probably broke a couple bones in his hand. He stood quietly, head drooping, after delivering the one powerful punch.

To his credit, Helland didn’t immediately reach for his gun or cuffs. He held a hand up behind him to stop the uniformed cops from storming in. They backed out again, reluctantly. “I think the ambulance is here,” he said. “Let’s get you some pain meds.”

With me on one side and Helland on the other, Jesse shambled out of the bathroom. The EMTs had arrived and one of them led him away. With a nod of his head, Helland detailed one of the cops to stay with Jesse.

“What will happen to him now?” I asked.

Helland looked down his aquiline nose at me. “When the docs have done their thing, I’ll talk to him about Zoë Winters.”

“He’s confused. He mixes up the present day with things that happened in the war. I think when he found Zoë it freaked him out. He was talking about the blood and getting her mixed up with some sergeant who got hurt—probably killed.”

Helland nodded. “He’ll need a psych eval.” He gave me a considering look. “It’s possible, maybe even likely, that he didn’t ‘find’ Zoë, that he was having some sort of PTSD episode there in the bathroom, and she walked in to see if he needed assistance. He mistook her for an enemy soldier, or felt threatened in some way, and he lashed out.”

“With the knife he coincidentally had on him? A knife from the movie set?”

Helland paused only a moment before saying, “It’s possible Zoë had the knife with her for some reason. She drew it to protect herself, he grabbed it from her and stabbed her. Additionally, the ME’s report says the knives we found on the set fit the wound, but it doesn’t exclude the possibility that another knife was used. We haven’t recovered the murder weapon.”

I sucked in a deep breath and blew it out. What he’d said about Zoë maybe having the knife with her blew holes in my belief that Jesse couldn’t have committed the crime because he didn’t have access to the knives. “May I call his father?”

After a momentary hesitation, Helland nodded. He started toward the exit, but stopped after a couple of steps and turned. His gaze settled on my face and a slightly rueful smile curved his lips. “You have a good heart.”

Without waiting for a reply, he strode briskly to the door and passed through it, letting sunlight into the dim hall. I stared after him, feeling ridiculously warmed by his comment and simultaneously confused. I’d been pretty much convinced that Helland found me a nuisance, maybe even disliked me. Of course, he could think I was kind
and
a nuisance, I supposed; the two weren’t mutually exclusive.

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