Authors: Laura Disilverio
“Lovely to meet you, Coco,” he said, making her flush an even deeper pink, if that was possible. “I dropped in because I received a letter that makes me uneasy and I thought I should let your officers know.”
Good one, Ethan, I thought, as Coco said, “Oh, of course. A letter? Um, what kind of letter?” She pushed a red curl off her forehead and managed to look about as capable as a kitten of dealing with threats to the mall’s security.
Ethan pulled a sheet of paper from the pocket of his police uniform. Unfolding it, he held it at arm’s length—still too vain to wear reading glasses, I noted—and read, “‘Stop making movies that glorify violence and capitalist materialism or we’ll stop you.’” He lowered the page and looked at us expectantly.
My brow puckered. He was serious. When he’d first mentioned a letter, I’d thought he was making it up to explain being in the security office. “When did you get this, Eth—Mr. Jarrett?” I moved in to read the letter as he held it out. I didn’t want to touch it and risk screwing up any fingerprints that weren’t already obliterated by Ethan handling it. I scanned the page. No greeting, no signature, just like he read it. Large-font black letters on a generic white page with a black-and-white graphic of a knife dripping blood. Crossing to my desk, I pulled out a nine-by-twelve envelope and held it open. Ethan slid the page in.
“This morning,” he said. “It was in my trailer when I came in, on the floor, as if it’d been pushed under the door.”
Great. The stars’ trailers, along with a makeup trailer and various others, were parked in the mall parking lot. A temporary chain-link fence ringed them, but it wouldn’t stop a curious Boy Scout from getting in, never mind someone more determined.
“Do you get a lot of letters like that?” Coco asked.
Ethan gave her a wry smile. “A fair number. It comes with the territory. Most of my fan mail is complimentary, but every now and then I get a letter from someone who doesn’t like my movies or what they stand for. I don’t let the cowards who write anonymous letters intimidate me.” He stood straighter, as if he thought he really was a cop ready to protect truth, justice, and the American way.
“That’s so brave,” Coco said.
“Very brave,” I said briskly. “Let me walk you back to the set, Mr. Jarrett, and ask you a few more questions on the way.”
“Good idea, EJ,” Coco said. “We’re responsible for Mr. Jarrett’s safety while he’s at Fernglen and I’d hate for anything to happen to him. You can be, like, his bodyguard.”
I almost gagged and Joel choked back a laugh. “The movie company has its own security personnel,” I reminded Coco. “I’m sure they’re sufficient to protect Mr. Jarrett and the other cast members if they stay on the set.”
And quit wandering around my mall, I added internally.
• • •
I herded Ethan
out of the security office before Coco could come up with some other harebrained idea.
“She’s cute,” Ethan observed.
He was apparently talking about Coco. I felt myself flush with anger. “‘Cute’ doesn’t cut it when you’re talking about security,” I bit out.
He chuckled. “Come on, EJ. We’re talking about a suburban mall, not the front lines in Afghanistan. I’m sure she’ll do fine.” Belatedly recognizing, perhaps from my stiffness, my silence, or the way I wouldn’t meet his eyes, that he’d offended me, he added, “Of course, she won’t do near as good a job as you’d have done. Any idea why they didn’t hire you?”
“Because this place is just like Hollywood. Cuteness and connections get you farther than competence.” Not wanting to discuss it further, I asked, “Are you worried about this note, Ethan?”
“Hell, no,” he said with a laugh. “I get bushels of mail every week and there’s always something from a woman who wants to marry me and have my babies or a nutter who thinks my movies are undermining American’s values or some such rot. I only brought it along because I thought you might find it amusing with that bit about ‘capitalist materialism,’ because that must refer to the mall, don’t you think? Frankly, I find the ones from lovelorn women much scarier than this. I’ve gotten a couple of ‘love’ letters—” He broke off with an artistic shudder.
We got into the elevator, and a pair of middle-aged women stopped their conversation to stare in awe at Ethan Jarrett. He gave them a smile that reduced them to pools of hormones. Neither had worked up the courage to ask for an autograph by the time we reached the ground floor, but I knew they’d be telling their families all about their encounter with a movie star at dinner that night. They were so starstruck that they forgot to get off the elevator and the doors closed with them still inside.
“Don’t you ever get tired of that?” I asked.
I shook my head, smiling to myself. We arrived at the theater wing and the movie set moments later and I got in one last question. “Was the letter in an envelope?”
“Nope. It came like that.”
A petite, fortyish woman with a black pageboy that swished at her jawline hustled toward us, clearly intent on reclaiming Ethan. A younger, ginger-haired woman with a clipboard followed in her wake, looking anxious.
“Ethan,” the first woman said, “we need to talk about the script.” She gave me a sharp-eyed glance that dismissed me. “I’m not happy with the action sequence in the fountain scene.”
“I’ve been thinking about that, too, Bree,” Ethan said. “Maybe if we played it more like we did the pool scene in
, only change it so—”
“They’re ready for you in makeup, Mr. Jarrett,” Clipboard Woman cut in. “Oh, and I put some tulips in your trailer because I know how you enjoy them. The peach-colored ones you like. And Van wants to see you right away. He said . . .”
The threesome moved out of earshot and I returned to the main part of the mall, stopping by the food court for a cup of coffee on my way back to the office. Fernglen Galleria is laid out in a big X, with the food court located on the ground floor where the four wings come together. Department stores anchored each wing, and kiosks selling everything from sunglasses to calendars to skin potions sprouted in the middle of the wide halls. Lots of glass in the roof gave the mall a light, airy feel, and encouraged the luxuriant hostas and ferns and other greenery in huge stone planters that inspired the mall’s name. The plant service that keeps the greenery clipped back and watered must have visited recently, since the leaves glistened and the smell of wet earth rose from the containers. I inhaled it and felt myself relax. Somehow, I always ended up tense when Ethan was around.
As had become my habit recently, I patronized Legendary Lola Cookies, owned by mall newcomer Jay Callahan. I told myself it was because the aroma of fresh-baked peanut butter cookies was so appealing, but I was afraid it was because Jay Callahan was so appealing. Wearing a long-sleeved orange Lola’s shirt that clashed with his dark auburn hair, he smiled as I approached. The tee shirt skimmed his hard chest muscles and biceps and was tucked into faded jeans that gave him a casual, boy-next-door sort of vibe. A vibe mitigated by an air of watchful alertness and hazel eyes that seemed to take in everything around him.
“My favorite mall cop, doing her appointed rounds. ‘Neither rain nor sleet nor—’”
“That’s the postal service,” I said, accepting a steaming cup of coffee and handing him cash. I sniffed the aromatic brew gratefully.
“Big doings this week, huh?” he said, nodding toward the theater end of the mall.
I twirled a forefinger. “Whoop-de-doo.”
He laughed. “You don’t sound excited about having a movie crew at Fernglen. Old hat to you, I guess.”
Jay was one of the few mall employees who knew that Ethan Jarrett was my dad. He’d seen us together when Ethan dropped by the mall a few weeks back and assumed we were having a romantic relationship. Not wanting him to think I was involved with a married man—or any man, for that matter—I’d told him the truth.
“I didn’t spend much time hanging around Ethan’s sets when I was growing up,” I said, sipping the coffee. “To give him credit, he did his best to keep Clint and me away from the acting world, said we needed to get a college education and make our own decisions about what we wanted to do with our lives. He and Mom thought it was too easy to get caught up in the trappings of stardom—they didn’t want me or Clint becoming actors only because we wanted to be famous.”
“I guess they got their wish, with one cop in the family and one investigative reporter. No one seeking the limelight.”
“Former cop,” I said morosely. I’d applied at—and been rejected by—over twenty police departments since getting injured and medically retired from the air force. Being a mall cop was a stopgap measure at best; I certainly didn’t consider it real policing, even though I’d gotten to stick my nose into a couple of murder investigations since I’d been at Fernglen.
“How’s the new director of security working out?” Jay asked, refusing to participate in my pity party.
I both liked and hated that about him. Would it have hurt him to say, “I’m sure you’ll get on with a police department soon”?
“She’s very nice,” I said, looking at him over the rim of the mug.
“But she doesn’t have a clue about the security business.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You didn’t need to. It leaps to the eye. Pink shoes with five-inch platform heels, and lacy blouses don’t add up to an image of lean, mean security professional. She doesn’t know the first thing about surveillance systems, lockdown procedures, or self-defense and hand-to-hand combat.”
I almost grinned. I’d suspected from the day Jay arrived a couple months back that he was more than the owner of a cookie franchise. His familiarity with the details of security work further confirmed my suspicions, which had been aroused by finding him staking out the garage at oh-dark-thirty on several occasions.
“To be fair,” I said, even though I didn’t want to be, “there’s not a lot of call for krav maga or sharpshooting at Fernglen. She’s more likely to need counseling skills for talking to parents of shoplifting teens or negotiating shift schedules with the security officers. Not that there’s any evidence she’s got any skills that don’t involve bobbins and hemlines.” My words sounded petty even to me, and I winced.
Jay took the half-empty mug from my hand to top it off, his fingers brushing mine and lingering for a moment. “The job should have been yours.” His hazel eyes met mine.
His words salved my wounded pride. “I’m not sure I really wanted it, anyway.” That was true. Part of me had hesitated to apply for the job, worried that I’d get comfortable in it and stop trying to find a way back to the career field—policing—that I really felt called to.
“So quit with the dog-in-the-manger act, okay?”
I clunked my mug on the counter, sloshing coffee on the glass. Ow. Jay’s tone was gentle, but his words stung. Was I being a bit dog-in-the-mangerish about the job? My pride had been injured when the hiring committee picked Coco over me, but hadn’t I been the teensiest bit relieved? Yes. I couldn’t keep blaming Coco MacMillan for landing a job I hadn’t wanted wholeheartedly. Well, I could, but. I gave a rueful smile.
“How about—” Jay started, but yelling from deeper in the food court interrupted him.
“Now!” a man’s voice demanded loudly. A loud crash followed, like a chair had been flung over. “I want it now!”
Exchanging a quick glance with Jay, I hurried toward the commotion, wishing, not for the first time, that the FBI board authorized us to carry a weapon more intimidating than pepper spray.
• • •
I wove through
the tables and chairs that clogged most of the real estate in the food court. It was set out in a horseshoe shape with Lola’s on the outside edge opposite a pretzel vendor on the other side of the opening. Different fast-food places ringed the interior of the horseshoe, with picture windows at the far end looking out on a peaceful pasture that was shortly to become a golf resort called Olympus. Strong sunshine—a nice break from the gloomy gray skies we’d had the last week—poured through the windows and illuminated dried swish marks left by the janitor’s mop. Only a few shoppers sipped coffees or munched bagels at the tables this early and all of them were staring at the man pounding on the counter of the burger place.
“I want a cheeseburger right now!”
A nervous-looking girl stood behind the counter, her blue-and-white-striped paper cap askew, and said, “Sir, we don’t serve our lunch menu until eleven o’clock. If you could wait a few—”
“I’m hungry.” The man was tall and bulky in a plaid lumberjack shirt and jeans. Brown stubble covered his scalp, the hair so short I could make out the livid scar behind his right ear even from this distance. He was young—maybe Joel’s age—and I noticed he was shoeless, his feet covered only by thick gray socks. He pounded his fist on the Formica-topped counter again, jolting a metal straw dispenser off the edge; it clanked to the floor and spewed straws.
I approached from the man’s left, righting the overturned chair, and said, “Jesse, what’s up?” I made sure he could see me coming, didn’t try to take him by surprise.
He turned to face me, confusion and anger on his once-handsome face. A burn scar stretched smooth and red over one temple and cheekbone, and no hair grew where his right eyebrow had been. Both eyes, luckily, had escaped damage when an IED blew up the army supply truck he’d been driving in eastern Afghanistan. Like me, he’d been medically retired from the military. Unlike me, he’d suffered a head injury—traumatic brain injury—that made it hard for him to concentrate and left him prey to mood swings; at least, that’s what his father had told me a couple weeks ago when Jesse first turned up at the mall and caused a ruckus by splashing water out of the fountain onto passing shoppers. He’d said he was trying to stop them from burning and I’d wondered what kind of hellish memory he was reliving.
“EJ,” the young man said now, recognizing me.
“Where’s your dad?” I asked, scanning the area for signs of the elder Mr. Willard, who usually accompanied his son to the mall . . . and everywhere else, I suspected.
“I’m hungry,” Jesse said again, single brow drawing in toward his nose.
“Hey, big guy, come have some cookies.” The voice came from behind me and I realized Jay Callahan had followed me.
“I want a burger.”
“We don’t serve lunch until—”
I stopped the counter girl with a look.
“Peanut butter chocolate chunk, fresh out of the oven,” Jay said. He smiled at the younger man. “Come on.”
After another moment’s thought, Jesse followed Jay toward Lola’s, his heavy limp a reminder of how lucky I really was. “I’ll find his father,” I said in a low voice as Jay passed me. “Thanks.”
Keying the radio attached near my left shoulder, I called Joel at the dispatch desk and got him to find the card Jesse’s dad had given me when it became apparent Jesse, for whatever reason, was attracted to Fernglen. Other than the splashing incident, Jesse had been unobtrusive, occasionally wandering into shops, sometimes sitting for hours on one of the benches, usually near the fountain. I’d chatted with him several times, exchanging stories of our experiences in Afghanistan. He was funny when his head wasn’t hurting, making me laugh with stories about a stray mutt his unit had adopted.
“He’s not violent,” Mr. Willard had assured me anxiously, his thin face drawn and gray, “but sometimes he gets agitated. It’s the pain, and not being able to think the way he used to. Call me if there’s any trouble.”
Please don’t call the police
, had been the unspoken subtext. I called the number Joel read off to me and heard relief in Willard’s voice when I told him his son was in the food court.
“He left this morning before we were up,” he said. “I’ve been looking all over for him. I’ll be there in five.”
“Great.” I joined the two men where they sat at a table in front of Lola’s, cookie crumbs gritting the slick surface. “Your dad’s on his way,” I told Jesse.
“He worries about me,” he said, brown eyes somber. “Mom, too.”
“It’s their job,” Jay said. “Parents get paid extra to worry, or so I’ve been told.”
Jesse managed a half smile. “Yeah, well, they’re supposed to get to stop worrying at some point, right? Like after a kid moves out on his own?”
I thought of how frantic my mom and dad had been when I’d first returned from Afghanistan, how my mom was at the hospital every day, how Ethan kept trying to get me to work for him where he could keep an eye on me and be sure no one was shooting at me. “I don’t think parents ever quit worrying,” I said.
“Crappy job, then,” Jesse observed, and Jay cracked a laugh.
The men started talking sports and less than a minute later Mr. Willard hurried up, tan trench coat unbuttoned and flapping around his knees. “Jesse.”
The younger man smiled, a flash of strong white teeth at odds with his ruined face. “Pop.”
“Ready to go?”
“How’s your headache?” Mr. Willard asked as they walked away. Jesse answered in an angry tone, but I couldn’t hear the words.
“That’s tough,” Jay said, looking after the pair.
“Makes me feel damn lucky,” I agreed.
sounded, jerking our heads toward it.
“Gunshot,” Jay said grimly.
I was already halfway down the hall.