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Authors: Laura Disilverio

Tags: #mystery

3 Malled to Death (19 page)

BOOK: 3 Malled to Death
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“Worse. It scares me.”

Grandpa put his hand over mine where it rested on the Segway’s steering bar. “Me, too. And your mom.”

“Did it come from the studio? Was there an envelope?”

Grandpa looked grim. “This one didn’t come from the studio. Someone left it in their mailbox—no envelope or stamp, no return address.”

“Their mailbox? That means—”

“That TMD is here. That she knows where Ethan and your mom are staying.”

My fingers tightened reflexively on the steering bar. “She must have known there was a better than even chance that Mom would check the mail first and would find her note. She might even have wanted Mom to find it, to think that Ethan was—Maybe she’s trying to break up my folks’ marriage.” The thought made me clench my teeth in anger.

“I think it’s worse than that, Emma-Joy,” Grandpa said. “When I was talking to your mother this morning, she mentioned again how close the bullets came to her. What if the shooter wasn’t aiming at Ethan? What if
she
was gunning for Brenda?”

Twenty-seven

• • • 

I leaned back
and the Segway rocked. “You really think—? Did you warn Mom?”

“I didn’t want to scare her. I put a word in Con’s ear; he and his crew will stick to her like burrs on a spaniel.”

“We need to give this to the police,” I said, indicating the pink note I still held. “I know your FBI friend has already gone over it, but the Vernonville PD needs to be aware. They can alert the cops in the Mount Vernon area to keep an eye on Mom and Ethan’s house.”

A shopper with an armload of bags bumped Grandpa and I realized the mall corridor was hardly the best place to have this conversation. “Look, Grandpa, I get off work at five today. That’s”—I checked my watch—“an hour and twenty minutes. Meet me at my place so we can think this through. Don’t do anything until we’ve talked,” I added, not sure what he might get up to, but pretty sure it would be outrageous and possibly felonious.

“Emma-Joy!” He pretended to be hurt, but his eyes sparked with mischief. He sobered almost immediately, the threat to my parents being too real to joke about. “Will do. I’ll take the note to the police while you finish up your shift.”

I handed him the note and he walked off. I continued my patrol, my mind whirring. A shoplifter could have carted off an elliptical machine from Pete’s Sporting Goods right under my nose and I wouldn’t have noticed. Having cruised through the entire mall, I returned to the security office. Joel was there, watching the monitors, and he hastily closed out a game of computer solitaire.

I ignored his guilty look. “Where’s Vic and Josie Rae?”

“Josie Rae wanted to go on patrol, so Vic asked me if I minded doing dispatch,” Joel said. “They’re cruising the parking lots.”

I wasn’t sure having a kid along on patrol was a good idea, but before I could say anything, Joel added, “Vic called Coco and asked her, and Coco said it was okay.”

Rolling my eyes, I sat. Chances were, nothing would happen while Vic and her daughter patrolled the parking lots and garages in the security office’s green-and-white Chrysler, but I thought letting kids do ride-alongs set a poor precedent. However, I wasn’t the boss. Pulling up the online logbook, I hastily typed in a few entries, one eye on the clock, planning to dart through the door the minute the second hand ticked over to five o’clock. I cursed under my breath when I accidently hit the Delete key and had to start over.

“What’s up, EJ?” Joel asked after a few minutes.

“Nothing,” I snapped.

He retired into wounded silence and I was mad at myself for hurting his feelings. I rolled my chair back a few inches and faced him. “I’m sorry, Joel,” I said. “I’m a bit uptight.” What would it hurt to tell him about the letter? “Ethan got a fan letter from a fan who doesn’t sound like she’s playing with a full deck.” I quoted it from memory.

Joel’s brown eyes widened. “Wow.”

“That’s one way to put it.”

“Did you ever see the movie
The Fan
?” he asked. “Wesley Snipes is a baseball player and Robert De Niro is his biggest fan. He sells hunting knives and—”

I stopped him with a wince. “I don’t need to hear about anything that combines knives and deranged fans right now,” I said.

“Sorry.” He looked contrite but bounced back a second later. “So, who do you think it is? I mean, it’s got to be somebody connected with the movie, doesn’t it?”

“Why?” I asked, giving it some thought.

“Well, because why else would TMD be here? She must be involved with the movie.”

“Maybe she follows him from location to location,” I said, the thought making my stomach hurt.

Joel leaned forward with his forearms on his pudgy thighs, not one whit discouraged. “Okay. Right. Then how did she know where your parents are staying?” He answered his own question before I could. “I suppose she could have followed him home from the set. I mean, that limo is pretty obvious, and it’s not like he’s the president where there’s two or three decoy cars taking off at the same time to fool assassins.”

“She’s not an assassin,” I said, fear for Ethan making my tone sharp.

“Sorry. Of course not. Only . . . do you think she killed Zoë?”

I drew my breath in with a hiss. “Why would someone obsessed with Ethan kill Zoë?” Even as the words left my mouth, the memory of my dad comforting Zoë popped into my head. He’d had his arm around her, had spent some time reassuring her about her job. Could a woman who thought she loved Ethan, who was convinced they had some sort of relationship, have taken his kindness the wrong way? Have interpreted it as romantic interest in Zoë? It seemed ridiculously far-fetched to me, but I was no expert on stalkers. I knew someone who might be, though . . .

Ignoring Joel’s curious look, I pulled out my cell phone, blipped through my stored numbers, and found one I hadn’t called in several months. After the IED and the surgeries, during my rehab time, I’d spent time with a shrink who was supposed to help me come to terms with the changes in my body and my life and help with any residual PTSD. We’d had weekly sessions for several months, which had eventually tapered off to biweekly and then monthly as I got better. I hadn’t spoken to him since late last year, but his number was still in my phone. I crossed my fingers as I dialed, aware that I probably wouldn’t get him on a Sunday unless he’d gotten stuck with the weekend on-call shift at Fort Belvoir’s Community Hospital.

I didn’t get Dr. Duvvoori on the line; I got an answering service. I left a message, emphasizing that it was
not
a patient emergency, and hung up. Before I could even explain the call to Joel, my phone rang.

“EJ, how are you?” Dr. Duvvoori’s smooth, calm voice greeted me. Instantly, I was transported to the comfortable club chair in his office where I’d spent many an hour during my recovery.

“I’m fine,” I assured him. “Really well.”
Except for the nightmares . . .

“Your leg?”

“Better and better.” I kept my voice cheery and didn’t tell him I was worried that my improvement had slowed, maybe even declined in the last few weeks.

“Good, good. Are you still working at the mall?”

“Yes.”

“What about your applications for police work? Are you still hoping to join a police force?”

“Absolutely.”

There was a miniscule pause before he asked, “So, what can I do for you today?”

“I’m sorry to bother you on a Sunday—you didn’t need to call back—”

“I was curious,” he said.

“Well, then, I was wondering what you know about stalkers, about what makes them tick and how they might behave.”

“Do you think you’re in danger, EJ?” Dr. Duvvoori’s voice was sharper.

“Me? No! It’s . . . it’s someone I know. And he might not be in danger himself. It’s—”

“Perhaps this would be easier in person,” Dr. Duvvoori broke in on my explanation.

“I don’t want to interrupt—”

“I’m in my office this afternoon, up to my knees in paperwork. Unless there’s an emergency, we should be able to chat without interruption. Shall I expect you in half an hour?”

I looked at the clock and did some quick calculations. Fort Belvoir was about twenty minutes up the road, barring traffic. It was a few minutes to five, but I knew Joel wouldn’t mind covering for me, and Vic Dallabetta was still here—somewhere. I could call Grandpa and tell him I was going to be later than expected . . . “Yes,” I said. “I’ll be there.”

• • • 

I poked my
head into Dr. Duvvoori’s open office door thirty-five minutes later. He was bent over a file drawer, with stacks of folders mounded around him. I tapped lightly and he looked up. “There’s an upcoming inspection,” he said, watching my eyes widen as I took in the extent of the chaos. “I must make sure all my I’s are dotted and my T’s are crossed.” He scrunched his face at the thought of the army inspector general’s emphasis on paperwork.

“I must say I don’t miss inspections,” I said, entering when he beckoned. Being back in the hospital, walking the long, linoleumed corridors sparsely peopled on a Sunday with inpatients in gowns waiting for procedures, the occasional visitor in civvies, and medical personnel in uniforms or scrubs, had made me edgy. My surgery and post-op recovery had been done at Bethesda Naval Hospital, but once I’d moved to Vernonville, I’d done a lot of my PT and follow-ups here at Fort Belvoir. It was here, in Dr. Duvvoori’s office, that I’d more or less come to terms with the loss of my military career and my altered physical capabilities.

Dr. Duvvoori rose, arcing his spine to stretch it, and stepped over a tower of folders to shake my hand. “You look well, EJ. Maybe a little tired.”

An inch shorter than me at five foot five, and maybe eight or ten years older, he had thick, dark hair parted deep on one side, kindly brown eyes, and toast-colored skin with a heavy five o’clock shadow. His left eyelid drooped a little, giving a misleading impression of sleepiness. His light green uniform shirt was crisply ironed, but a couple of extra creases on his sleeve showed a lack of expertise with an iron, something I found strangely endearing. Silver oak leaves on his shoulder tabs denoted his rank—lieutenant colonel—but he’d always preferred to be addressed as “doctor.”

I passed up the opportunity to tell him about the new nightmares. They’d go away, I was sure, when we found Zoë’s killer. “You got a new chair,” I observed, putting my hand on the back of a faux-leather upholstered wing chair in a dark wine color. “My” chair had been a forest green club chair, worn on the tweedy seat and where hundreds of heads had rested over the years.

“Sit,” Dr. Duvvoori invited, settling on a small love seat across from me rather than behind his desk. “Tell me why you’re interested in the psychology of stalking.”

Leaving nothing out—Dr. Duvvoori knew who my parents were, since it’s hard to make progress in therapy if you hold back your entire childhood—I spent fifteen minutes filling him in on what had been happening: the movie company filming at Fernglen, Zoë’s death, suspicion falling on Jesse Willard, the antiviolence flyer, the attacks on my parents and Kyra, and finally, the love letters to Ethan.

He was silent for a good minute after I finished, eyes half closed, fingers steepled in a pose I had seen often.

“I’m beginning to think the love letters are at the root of it,” I said. “Is it possible? That some woman would imagine that she and Ethan have a relationship and would go to murderous lengths to . . . protect it?” I passed him the copy Grandpa had made for me of the latest letter.

Smoothing it flat on his thigh, Dr. Duvvoori said, “It would be helpful to have the other letters to study, to see the progression from the first to the most recent. But failing that . . .” He pulled a pair of rectangular reading glasses from his pocket and read the letter through several times. Removing the glasses, he gestured with them toward the note.

“After you called, I did a little research on stalking to refresh my memory. I have only once worked with a stalker—a man ordered by the courts to receive counseling as part of his sentencing—and twice with the victims of stalking. Stalkers are predominantly men, but women stalkers are by no means unheard of. David Letterman, I believe, was victimized by a stalker for many years. Some statistics suggest that one in twelve women and one in forty-five men in the U.S. has been stalked or will be stalked.”

“That’s a lot of people. I had no idea.”

Dr. Duvvoori nodded. “Mm-hm. When you add celebrity to the mix, well, the numbers grow significantly.”

“Are stalkers violent?”

“Sometimes. Maybe half of all stalkers threaten the object of their obsessions, and that increases the risk of violence.”

“Whoever’s writing these letters hasn’t threatened my father,” I said, eager to believe there was no connection.

Tapping one finger on the letter, he said, “Ah, but she has implicitly threatened people—women—with whom your father has relationships, real, or—just as important to the stalker—perceived.”

“You say ‘perceived.’ What would make her think Ethan was having a relationship with someone? I mean, he was only casually acquainted with Zoë through work—she never visited my parents’ house or went on trips with Ethan or anything.” I shifted in the chair, trying to get comfortable. It occurred to me that it was the topic and not the chair that was making me uncomfortable, and I tried to relax.

“Oh, it wouldn’t have to be anything as significant as that,” Dr. Duvvoori said with a quick headshake. “A handshake that the stalker interpreted as lingering too long, a stray look, any word or gesture could take on completely unintended significance for the stalker. It’s my guess that she suffers from a typology known as ‘erotomania,’ where the stalker believes the object of her obsession loves her in return. She fantasizes that they have or will have a love relationship. When the victim does not respond in the way she wants, she has two choices: to blame him, which might lead to violence directed against the love object, or to blame people surrounding the victim, those she perceives as ‘coming between them’ or ‘keeping them apart.’”

I shivered. “That’s sick.”

“Exactly.” Dr. Duvvoori said it in all seriousness.

“Does the stalker ever . . . lose interest? Move on to another victim, or a real-life lover?”

“That’s not impossible, but in this case, where you think the stalker might have already attacked, even killed, women she thought threatened her relationship with Ethan Jarrett—”

“She doesn’t have a relationship with him!”

Dr. Duvvoori held up his hands in a calming motion. “You’re right, of course. I should have said, ‘her imaginary relationship’ or ‘her perceived relationship.’ At any rate, I wouldn’t expect her to back off at this point.”

His words dislodged a thought. “Does she know him? I mean, has she met him? Or is their ‘relationship’ a total fabrication, something only in the head of a woman who’s seen him in the movies, but never said hello to him?”

“I’d say she knows him. Whether he’d remember the encounter, whether it’s ongoing or was a one-time thing . . .” He shrugged. Using one finger, he handed back the letter. “I know that isn’t what you wanted to hear.”

I didn’t tell him how worried it made me for my mom and Ethan. Only the thought that they were surrounded by competent bodyguards kept me from rushing straight to their house. “Will you tell the police what you told me?” I asked.

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