Authors: Laura Disilverio
• • •
Detective Helland swept
me behind him and drew his weapon. Every cop in the vicinity now had a gun in his or her hand. Two of them had started toward where Ethan’s voice had come from. Terrified that some trigger-happy cop would shoot my dad, I grabbed Helland’s wrist. He shook me off with a furious look.
“It’s a movie,” I said urgently. “They’re filming a movie.”
Helland lowered his weapon slightly. “You’re sure?” His voice was tight.
I nodded so hard my chestnut hair swished around my face. “Absolutely. That was Ethan Jarrett.”
He gave me an inscrutable look, told his team to stand down, and motioned me toward the set. He knew Ethan was my dad because my family had descended en masse on the hospital when Grandpa had been shot and I’d been concussed stopping a murderer a few weeks back.
“Why the hell are they filming a movie here?” Helland asked as we walked.
“Good question,” I muttered.
A security man with his muscled arms crossed over his chest stopped us as we approached the set. “You can’t—”
Detective Helland flashed his badge and shouldered past him.
“The woman—Zoë Winters,” I said. “I’m pretty sure she worked for the movie company.”
“Nice of you to mention it,” he said, sarcasm lacing the words.
“I didn’t know who it was until you said her name,” I said, stung. “It’s not like—”
Anya Vale screamed—I could pick out her piercing scream even if a troop of gibbons was howling—and Helland winced. “What was—”
“The heroine,” I said, pointing to where the beautiful star was rushing down the escalator again. We watched as the stuntwoman dove over the edge and Ethan appeared, gun in hand, to charge up the down escalator after the hit man. The actor leveled his gun and fired at Ethan, who staggered as if hit and rolled backwards over the escalator’s handrails to land on the inflated mat below.
“He does his own stunts?” Helland asked with a hint of admiration.
“Usually. My mom hates it.” I started to tell him about the man I’d seen come out of the restroom, sure he’d want to find him for questioning, if nothing else. “I saw—”
“Who’s in charge of this circus?” Helland cut me off.
I nodded my head at Van, sitting with his elbows propped on his knees, his feet tucked around the legs of the canvas chair he sat on. “DIRECTOR” was spelled out across the back in red letters.
Ethan rolled off the mat, ignoring hands outstretched to help him, and Van said, “Cut. Good fall, Ethan. Now we need—”
Before he could finish, Helland moved forward, somehow bypassing assistants and security people and stage managers who moved to stop him. He showed the director his badge, and gasps and whispers sounded from those close enough to see. Van peered at Helland’s ID closely, as if to assure himself it wasn’t a prop. “What’s this—”
“I’m afraid you’ll have to shut down for a while,” Helland said. “There’s been a homicide. We’ll need to interview your cast and crew. You are?”
“Elias Vandelinde.” He paused, as if waiting for Helland to comment on his movies or his Oscars or to ask for an autograph. When Helland merely lifted one brow, Van continued testily, “We have a schedule. And time is money. If another gangbanger got shot, it’s nothing to do with—”
Clearly, Van’s people had briefed him on recent events at the mall.
“It’s not a gang member,” Helland said in his level voice, “and I’m afraid you have no option but to cooperate.”
“Who died?” a reedy voice called before Van could raise further objections.
Helland turned to survey the crowd, trying to identify the speaker. Before he could say anything, a woman’s voice said, “Oh, my God, no! It’s Zoë. It’s Zoë, isn’t it?” A woman pushed toward Helland, her eyes beseeching. In her early fifties maybe, she had gray-streaked brown hair corkscrewing to her shoulders, wire-rimmed glasses over anxious eyes, and wore a loose-fitting dress that partially disguised an extra twenty or thirty pounds. “She should be here, but she’s not. Tell me it’s not Zoë.”
When Helland didn’t respond, she burst into noisy tears and covered her face with her hands. I wondered who she was and how she knew the victim was Zoë, when Helland hadn’t even mentioned the victim’s gender. Helland looked at me, a slightly harassed expression on his usually impassive face, and said, “I need a room for interviews, and also someplace to corral these people while they’re waiting for us to talk to them. Also—”
“Security camera footage, our patrol schedules, and a corned beef sandwich,” I finished for him, letting a hint of sarcasm color the final words. He’d once asked me to fetch him a sandwich. I hadn’t done it, but the memory still annoyed me. “I know the drill.”
“In your dreams.”
He gave me the lifted brow and I thought I caught the tiniest hint of a smile. Was he baiting me? I wasn’t sure the man had a sense of humor, but every now and then he surprised me with a look or comment that hinted that he wasn’t as humor-free as he appeared. Maybe he even laughed uncontrollably at Three Stooges movies, like most of the men I knew. I started to tell him once again about the man I’d seen leaving the bathroom, but he turned away as uniformed cops came forward and began taking people’s names and contact information. With the movie cops in dark navy uniforms, and the VPD officers in a slightly lighter blue uniform, it looked like a cop convention had landed at the mall. The Keystone Kops, I thought, hoping all the police, real and faux, kept their weapons holstered for the duration.
• • •
“Tell me there
hasn’t been another . . . incident, EJ,” Curtis Quigley pleaded minutes later when I dropped by his office to give him a report. His British accent, which rumor had it he’d adopted during a semester abroad in college, was more noticeable when he was nervous. His assistant Pooja hadn’t wanted to be the bearer of bad news, so Quigley was still in the dark when I arrived. He might not shoot messengers, but he whined at them a lot.
Quigley had perfected the head-in-the-sand approach to life; I’d bet his mother had had to slip medications into his apple juice to get him to swallow them. The unpalatable things in life went down better smeared with peanut butter or drowned in juice. Nothing was going to make murder go down easier. Quigley twiddled his cuff link, which flashed a pale orange when it caught the light. “Nothing . . . major has happened, has it?” he repeated.
“Um . . .”
He winced. “An accident of some sort?” he asked hopefully.
Sinking into his chair, he heaved a put-upon sigh. “I don’t understand. None of the other FBI malls has murder-of-the-month issues. Sure, some of them have gang problems, and one in Texas got blown up when the gas line ruptured, but my mall is the only one with dead bodies littering the place.” He flapped his hands aimlessly, as if to show how widespread the bodies were. “Do you know how bad it looks at board meetings when I have a murder or two to report every quarter? ‘Profits were down three point one percent for the first quarter,’” he said as if making a presentation, “‘and bodies were up two hundred percent.’” He ended on a bitter note.
“Only three of them were actually at the mall,” I offered helpfully. “Weasel and Captain Woskowicz were killed off the premises, so technically—”
“You know I hate it when you get technical on me, EJ,” he said querulously. He craned his neck to peer around me. “Where’s Ms. MacMillan?”
I was hoping he’d overlook Coco’s absence since I had no idea where she was. Certainly, as the director of security, she should have been updating Quigley. I was tempted to say, “Who knows?” but couldn’t make myself throw her under the bus. “Since I found the body,” I improvised, “she thought it was best that I fill you in.”
“Hmph.” He listened as I told him about finding Zoë in the restroom, about the cops’ arrival, and about the kind of support we’d need to offer them.
“But they’ll be out of here before we need to open, right?”
“No.” I refused to sugarcoat the truth. “They may not even let us open.” Although it felt like two days had passed, it had only been an hour and a bit since I’d walked into the restroom and found Zoë. It was still an hour until mall opening time . . . if the mall was going to open today.
Quigley made a strangled sound. “Not open! But it’s Tuesday. A weekday. Malls are always open on Tuesdays. What will shoppers think?”
Quigley could have printed up one of those rubber bracelets with “WWST” on it, as that question pretty much drove his life.
“I’m calling the chief of police right now to make sure he understands that our priority at this mall is the customers,” Quigley said. “If the police need to investigate, that’s fine, but they can do so—discreetly—while the kind of commerce that made this country great takes place. It’s the American worker’s right to spend his—or her—hard-earned dollars any way and at any time he pleases that sets us apart from the Third World.”
I wasn’t sure that buying Victoria’s Secret lingerie and upscale kitchenware was what made this country great, but Quigley was clearly moved by his own speech. When he stabbed the intercom on his phone and asked Pooja to get him the chief of police, I made my escape.
I bumped into Coco MacMillan in the hall. She was clearly returning from somewhere since she dangled her car keys in one hand and her purse in the other. “Gosh, it seems busy around here,” she observed brightly. “Are all those cop cars in the parking lot for the movie?”
“Not exactly.” I gave her the same report I’d given Quigley, ending with, “You were watching the monitors, Ms. MacMillan. What did you see?”
She preceded me into the office, where Joel sat talking to Harold Wasserman. It looked like they were downloading the camera data for the police.
“Not two minutes after you all left, I remembered I had a dermatology appointment so I had to rush out. It took me months to get that appointment. I couldn’t miss it!”
I felt helpless in the face of her . . . what? Naïveté? Lack of work ethic? General cluelessness? She was my boss—not the other way around—so I couldn’t chew her out like I would have one of my airmen who did something similar. “There’s got to be someone in the office all the time,” I said in a nonaccusatory voice. At least, I thought it was nonaccusatory until she burst into tears.
I backed away.
“It’s my fault that woman’s dead, isn’t it? She’s dead because I wanted to get my t-tattoo removed!”
“What tat—” Joel started, but I shushed him with a look.
Patting Coco awkwardly on the back, I said, “It’s not your fault. It’s no one’s fault but the murderer’s. We don’t know when she was attacked. It might have been long before we even came into work today.”
“Like last night?” She looked up, eyes reddened and face tear-stained.
“Or even before that.” I was thinking about the “Closed for Cleaning” sign and wondering if one of the janitorial staff had left it up, or whether the murderer had put it out to keep anyone from finding Zoë. “We won’t know until after the autopsy’s done.” And probably not then, either, since “share” was a four-letter word as far as Detective Helland was concerned. He was about as likely to give me the results as he was to post them on YouTube.
“I’m terrible at this job,” Coco said, blotting her eyes on a hankie Harold handed her.
“Yes, you are,” I said. Both men glared at me, and Coco looked taken aback, but I went on, “Anyone would be who hadn’t had any training or experience. But you don’t have to stay terrible. You can learn.”
“EJ could teach you,” Joel piped up. “She’s taught me everything I know about security work.”
“There’s a recommendation for you,” Harold said drily, and we all laughed. In his sixties, Harold was retired from a career as an engineer and had turned to mall cop work only to avoid having to babysit his twin grandsons. The odor of cigarettes drifted off him and I figured he was between attempts to quit. He’d tried at least five times since I’d been at Fernglen.
Coco looked torn, as if she wanted to ask for help but thought it was beneath her dignity as the boss. I was darn glad I wasn’t twenty-three anymore. Although, at her age, I’d been an air force cop for almost five years and had already done one tour in the sandbox, as we not-so-affectionately called Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Is there a book I could read?” she asked.
Mall Cops for Dummies
,” Harold said. “I think they made a movie out of it.” Mustache twitching, he turned back to the monitors.
“If you ever want to know something, just ask,” I told Coco.
She sighed with relief, probably glad that I wasn’t pushing. “Yeah, okay, thanks. Um, do we have to do anything about this murder?”
On the words, the glass door swung open and Detective Helland stepped in. His eyes swept the room before focusing on me. “I need your statement,” he said. “The back office?” He started toward the director of security’s office, which he had used briefly following Captain Woskowicz’s death.
“This is the new director of security,” I said loudly, stopping him. “Coco MacMillan, meet Detective Helland.”
Helland summed her up instantly, his gaze skimming her black-and-white polka-dotted dress, the pink belt and shoes, and her guileless face. He shot me a look but said only, “Nice to meet you, Ms. MacMillan. Downstairs, then.”
That was directed at me. Not wanting him to think I was at his beck and call, I said, “I’ll meet you there in five minutes.”
He nodded and left.
“Well!” Coco said, apparently half offended, half intrigued. “Is he always that . . . that abrupt?”
• • •
“There” was the
empty storefront I’d arranged for him and his team to use during the investigation. On the lower level, it faced the main corridor, not too far from the utility hall where I’d found Zoë. I noted with approval that the maintenance staff had already set up tables and chairs as I’d requested, and Helland’s team had supplied computers and peripherals. On the downside, the space was close to where the movie crew had set up and I imagined the frenetic comings and goings would be distracting. The place also reeked, I discovered, sneezing as I came through the door. It had most recently housed a perfume shop and, judging by the painfully floral scent that pervaded the room, some of the product line had been spilled on the carpet.