Read 3 Malled to Death Online

Authors: Laura Disilverio

Tags: #mystery

3 Malled to Death (3 page)

Four

• • • 

I sprinted toward
the north end of the mall and the theater wing, wishing I had my Segway when my knee began to ache and jabbed spines of pain into my thigh and lower leg. As I ran, I keyed my radio to notify the office.

I expected to get Joel, but Coco’s voice crackled through my radio. “Hello?” She cut off. Seconds later, her voice came on again. “Stupid radio. I—Can you hear me?”

“This is Officer Ferris,” I said, making a mental note to give Coco another lesson on radio operation. “I heard what sounded like a shot—”

“Yes. Joel—” She cut off again. Static followed, but I was pretty sure she said something about the police.

I spotted six or seven cops as I neared the theater wing and I picked up the pace, worried something serious had happened, until I realized they were the movie extras. The way they were milling around, one of them licking an ice cream cone, told me nothing tragic had occurred. Drawing a deep, exasperated breath, I passed them and limped into the hall. The first thing I saw was Ethan with his arm around a pretty young woman who was sobbing like her fiancé had told her he was becoming a priest and moving to Papua New Guinea. I scanned the area but didn’t see anything resembling a threat. A few people were gathered around a handsome actor in a cop costume. Others, including Joel, watched Ethan comfort the distraught woman.

She had her face buried against his chest, and he stroked the glossy brown ringlets that fell in a mass to just below her shoulders. The sight made me prick with slight discomfort. “There, there, Zoë,” he said. “It’s not your fault.”

The woman raised her head, doe eyes drenched with tears, and I saw she was a bit older than I had assumed from her slim build, maybe thirty-five.

“The weapons are my responsibility, Ethan,” she said in a tear-roughened voice. “It
is
my fault, even if I didn’t pull the trigger.”

I beckoned to Joel and he scurried over, relief lighting his face.

“What happened?” I asked. “I heard a gunshot—”

“Me, too,” he said enthusiastically, clearly excited by the opportunity to cope with an event more interesting than a shopper who couldn’t locate her car. “I was on my way back to the office after visiting the men’s room—” He caught my look and gave a sheepish smile. “Right. Concise. I heard what I thought was a gunshot and I phoned it in and hurried down here. Turns out it was a blank,” he summed up. “One of the fake cops was messing with his gun and it went off.”

I nodded. “What’s wrong with her?” I jerked my head toward the woman in Ethan’s arms.

Joel shrugged. “Dunno.”

I approached Ethan and Zoë, who was now hiccupping and blowing her nose under my father’s direction. “I won’t let them fire you, Zoë, so no more tears. Your face is getting blotchy.”

She started to say something, but he put a finger against her lips and she shushed. I raised my brows. Noticing me, Ethan smiled without a hint of self-consciousness. Zoë gave me an assessing look from behind the curtain of ringlets that had fallen over her eyes, said, “Thanks, Ethan,” and walked toward the exit. Before Ethan could say anything, there was commotion at the far end of the hall, where doors led to the parking lot, and two police officers burst into the building. It took me a moment to realize they were real Vernonville PD officers. Any shopper with a cell phone, startled by the shots, could have called them, I realized.

“We had a report of shots fired,” said the first cop, a strong-looking blonde. Her eyes scanned the crowd and landed on Ethan. “Are you Ethan Jarrett?” Awestruck fan voice momentarily replaced her cop voice.

Rolling my eyes, I told Joel to corral a couple of the production company’s security men, identifiable by their black polo shirts, khaki slacks, and the wraparound sunglasses they had pushed atop their heads or hanging from lanyards around their necks, and keep curious shoppers from crowding into the hall. I approached the VPD officers, introduced myself, and explained the situation as I understood it. A couple of movie people verified the story Joel had told me and a gun was produced for the cops’ inspection. I left them to it, and cornered my father.

“Anything else I should know?” I asked.

He shook his head. There was a wet spot on his shoulder from the woman’s tears. “It was an accident, EJ, like I told Zoë. She blames herself because she’s the props person and the gun shouldn’t have been fired, even though it was only loaded with blanks.”

“Who fired the gun?”

Ethan pointed toward the actor I’d noticed earlier, now leaning against the wall like he wished he could sink through it. “I don’t know his name.”

“He was aiming at Ethan,” a new voice said.

I turned to see the skinny woman with the clipboard who had greeted my dad earlier. Ginger-colored hair hung lankly to her narrow shoulders and was held back by an Alice band. Hazel eyes made a striking contrast to her pale, lightly freckled skin. She would have been plain, in a mousy sort of way, if it weren’t for her eyes. Worry sounded in her voice as she repeated, “He almost hit Ethan.”

I remembered a news story about an actor being killed on a movie set back in the ’90s by the wadding discharged by a gun loaded with blanks. Most people didn’t realize that there was actually a discharge when a blank fired, and it could be lethal at short range.

“Is that true?” I looked from Ethan to the actor against the wall. He was gnawing on a fingernail and looked more like he should’ve been cast in a Disney movie than a cop thriller.

“It was an accident,” Ethan said firmly, giving the woman a look.

She rolled her lips inward, but didn’t argue. “Can I get you anything, Ethan? A Pellegrino? Maybe a sandwich. I had the caterers stock the roasted portabellas you like.”

Before Ethan could answer, the director, Van Something, I vaguely recalled, clapped his hands and began to restore order to the set with the help of a tall, bald, black man who seemed to be acting as a stage manager. The movie company’s public relations woman was talking to the cops and shepherding them gently toward the empty storefront where the producers had set up an office. Figuring there was nothing more for me to do, I crooked a finger at Joel, who was chatting with a pretty extra in a cop uniform, and we left.

“It looks like fun,” he said, as we left the chaos of the movie set behind us.

“What does?”

“Making movies.”

It struck me as nothing short of torture: hours of waiting around to film a scene, hours spent sitting still as a cactus while people plastered your face with gook and fussed with your hair, a lifetime spent worrying about every ounce or wrinkle or gray hair that might limit your appeal and, thus, your employability. I didn’t say any of that. “Ethan seems to enjoy it.”

“He’s nice,” Joel said, shortening his longer stride to stay with me. “It was good of him to try and make that props woman feel better.”

“He
is
nice,” I agreed. Despite Ethan’s obsession with fame and appearance and the like, he was a kind man. Even when he most exasperated me, I didn’t lose sight of how lucky I was to have him as a father. His interaction with Zoë, though, had seemed like more than casual kindness; it felt like he knew her pretty well. I was being silly, I told myself, biting the inside of my cheek. He’d probably worked with her before and they were friends. As far as I knew, Ethan had always been faithful to my mom, despite tabloid stories suggesting otherwise. Recently, papers had begun writing stories about my parents’ long-lasting marriage in a town where divorces followed weddings about as quickly as sitcom cancellations followed low ratings, and I’d felt proud of them.

When the elevator brought us to the second floor, I told Joel to return to the security office to brief Coco on the incident, and I headed to Merlin’s Cave. My friend Kyra Valentine had taken over the store for a year while her aunt Harmony, who owned the shop, took a sabbatical in Nepal or Kathmandu or some such. Merlin’s Cave sold a variety of magic-related items, as well as New Agey stuff, books on spiritualism of all sorts, herbal teas, table fountains, mood lamps, and CDs by people I’d never heard of playing instruments I couldn’t name.

“EJ! It’s about time,” Kyra greeted me as I came through the door. She strode toward me, making a funny tinkling sound.

A six-foot-tall black woman who was an Olympic track athlete, she had taken up roller derby a while back and was the last person I’d have pictured running a woo-woo store like Merlin’s Cave. However, she was also a savvy marketer who was sincerely fond of her aunt Harmony, so she’d managed to adjust her style to fit her surroundings (and her customers’ expectations). Today, she wore a gold lamé broomstick skirt, a white tee shirt printed with gold stars, and an ankle bracelet that was the source of the clinking. Her dark hair crinkled loose to her shoulders and I caught the flash of gold hoop earrings that could have encircled a softball.

A customer dithered between a couple of table fountains, and Kyra told her, “Let me know if I can help you,” before dragging me behind the counter that stood toward the rear of the store. “Is it true that one of those movie people got shot?” she asked, keeping her voice low. “Not your dad, I hope.”

I’d first met Kyra when I was eleven and we were in Vernonville to visit my grandma and grandpa Atherton, so she knew all about my family. “No one got shot,” I said, with an exasperated huff. Einstein thought light was the speediest thing in the universe, but gossip put light to shame. “An extra goofing around with his prop fired a blank.”

“Is that all?”

“You’d prefer a terrorist invasion? Blood, gore, and dead bodies littering the corridors?”

Kyra pretended to consider it, pursing her full lips. “I guess not. There’s nothing romantic about terrorists. Maybe a jewelry store heist or a sophisticated ring of art thieves.”

“Right. They’d be here to steal the quarter-carat diamond rings and tennis bracelets, or the Thomas Kinkade prints from the frame store.” It’s not like Fernglen had a Tiffany’s; we had three jewelry stores and a framing store that sold prints and a handful of original canvases by local artists. “I suppose you think Brad Pitt would be part of the gang. You’ve watched too many
Ocean’s
movies.”

“I was thinking more along the lines of Pierce Brosnan,” Kyra admitted. “He was yummy in
The Thomas Crown Affair
.” She shivered dramatically.

I eyed her, catching a note of discontent beneath her banter. “You’re bored with the store, aren’t you?” I said after a moment.

She gave me a rueful look. “Does it show?” Without waiting for an answer, she batted at a stars-and-moon mobile over the cash register, setting it whirling. “I love Aunt Harmony and I want to help her out, but being cooped up in this . . . this
cave
is driving me batty. I don’t know how I’ll last a year.”

“Why don’t you hire someone to help part-time?” I asked. “Then you wouldn’t have to spend so many hours here.”

Before agreeing to help her aunt, Kyra had sold the rights to a software program she’d created. It did something to help coaches and event planners schedule sporting tournaments and competitions and she’d made a mint on it. The company that had bought the rights had also paid her to consult, and before coming to Fernglen she’d been on the road a lot, so I could understand why being confined to the shop made her antsy.

“The store doesn’t make enough to hire someone else,” she said. “In fact, I don’t know how Aunt Harmony saved enough for her trip.”

“You could hire someone out of your own pocket, if you wanted to, couldn’t you?”

She turned to me with an arrested look. “I could,” she said slowly. “Aunt Harmony wouldn’t have to know I was using my own money.” She gave me a sudden squeeze. “EJ, you’re a genius.”

“Excuse me,” the customer said, holding up a tiered fountain still plugged into the wall. Water sloshed to the carpeted floor. “Can I use Kool-Aid in this instead of water?”

• • • 

I got off
shift at three and stopped by the Y to swim on my way home. We work staggered shifts at the mall to ensure the most coverage during the mall’s busy times, and I was almost always on days, which meant I worked from seven a.m. to three p.m. Swimming flushed the day’s tension from my muscles, and I was feeling pleasantly relaxed when I parked my Miata in front of the patio home I’d bought when I moved to Vernonville over a year ago.

As I got out of the car, my knee collapsed under me and I sprawled on the ground. Damn it! This was my knee’s way of showing me it objected to the sprinting I’d done earlier in response to the gunshot. Pushing aside the niggling worry that my leg wasn’t getting stronger, I pushed to my hands and knees and found myself face to face with a large rust-colored cat with a mangled ear and shortened tail.

“Mrrow?”

Fubar wasn’t used to finding me at his level. “Hi, cat,” I said, patting him. He purred for two nanoseconds before trotting to the front door and letting it be known he’d like his personal servant to open it. Never mind that he had a cat flap around back he could use anytime. Lurching to my feet, I continued to the door, unlocked it, and let Fubar in. He streaked past me, headed for the kitchen and his dinner bowl.

“You’re welcome,” I called after him. I picked up the mail dumped in the front hall and flipped through it, both disappointed and relieved to see there was nothing from any of the police departments I’d sent applications to recently. No news was good news, right? I considered my options for the evening. Try a new clam chowder recipe and play my guitar for a while? Spend time on the phone trying to locate the college kid who’d started tiling my kitchen floor to earn money for Spring Break but who might have been kidnapped in Cancún because I hadn’t heard from him in weeks? I had decided on Option A, when my phone rang and Grandpa Atherton’s voice boomed through the line.

My mom’s dad, he’d been getting steadily louder the last few months and I wondered if his hearing was going. No surprise, if so, since he was in his eighties. A retired CIA operative, he managed to keep his hand in the spook world somehow. I suspected he was being paid under the table by any number of agencies who needed someone they could trust to plant listening devices, do surveillance, set off incendiaries, keep track of diplomats they didn’t trust, and who knows what else. I didn’t know about a lot of his off-the-books activities, which was probably just as well because the ones I heard about frequently involved ER visits or near-run escapes from the legitimate authorities.

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