Authors: Laura Disilverio
“If I smell like this when I go home tonight,” Helland greeted me conversationally, “I’m going to come back and strangle you.”
That startled a half laugh out of me that became a sneeze.
A uniformed policeman entered data at a computer in the far corner, but other than that we had the room to ourselves. Helland dragged a rolling chair forward with his foot and sat. He motioned me toward a padded, red-velvet-upholstered, thronelike chair I recognized as the one the mall provided for Santa at Christmas.
“Why did they bring this up?” I asked, sitting reluctantly. It was surprisingly comfy.
“I told them I wanted something more comfortable than metal folding chairs, and this is what I got. I thought maybe you’d had a hand in it.”
“Not guilty.” I raised my hands. Privately, I thought that a throne fit his lord-of-the-manor attitude.
Nodding, he got down to business, walking me through how I’d come to find Zoë in the bathroom. When I got to the part about seeing the man stumble out of the bathroom, he stopped me. “Did he say anything?”
“No, just ran to the end of the hall and out the door. I considered following him, but when I saw the blood . . .”
“You did the smart thing. What did he look like?”
I provided a description.
“That’s very detailed,” Helland said with a rare note of approval when I finished. “He shouldn’t be hard to find. We—”
“I can do better than that,” I interrupted him. “I can tell you his name.”
• • •
Part of me
was reluctant to turn Jesse Willard in, which is probably why I’d let Helland shut me up so easily when I’d tried to tell him about Jesse earlier. He was a fellow vet, trying to recover from injuries just like I was, and I hadn’t sensed that he was violent in the way whoever had stabbed Zoë was violent. Unease niggled at me, though, and I knew I should have forced Helland to listen to me at the scene. I gave him Jesse’s name and his dad’s phone number, and told him what little I knew about the man. “Traumatic brain injury is tricky,” I said. “I’ve known—”
“Thank you, Dr. Ferris,” Helland said, snapping his notebook closed.
I glared at him.
“You should have given me his name immediately.”
“I tried. You shut me up.” I sprang to my feet.
Helland rose, too. “He could be halfway to Aruba or Mexico City by now,” he said. “If you’d told me sooner, we could have put a watch on the airports and bus terminals.”
“He’s recovering from his wounds. He’s not well enough to be jetting around the world. I’ll bet you next week’s paycheck he’s at home, scared to death.”
“You’d better hope you’re right.”
The policeman in the corner gave us a covert stare, probably catching the tension in our slightly raised voices, and then went back to his typing. A civilian, maybe a movie extra, pushed at the shop door but retreated quickly when Helland glowered at him.
“Maybe Jesse stumbled over Zoë this morning,” I said, trying to sound reasonable. “Someone stabbed her earlier—maybe even late yesterday or last night—and Jesse was unlucky enough to find her. He couldn’t possibly have a motive for killing her . . . how would he even have known her?”
“As you’ve already pointed out, brain injuries are tricky.” Helland wasn’t giving an inch and I would have been frozen like an Ice Age mammoth if his eyes were the chilly ice rays they seemed.
“Do you know yet when she was stabbed?” I hoped that whenever it was, Jesse had an alibi.
“The autopsy’s barely started,” Helland said crushingly.
“When was the last time someone saw her alive?”
“Thank you for your—belated—help, Officer Ferris,” Helland said, making it clear he was dismissing me. “Someone will give you a call when your statement’s ready for signing.”
I drew myself up to my full five foot six and sucked in a deep breath, prepared to tell him what I thought of his autocratic, condescending manner. Instead, I turned on my heel and swept out of the store. I was four shops away before my knee reminded me I’d forgotten the Segway and I had to go back for it. That did not improve my mood.
Joel’s voice on the radio told me that Quigley had prevailed with the chief of police and the mall would be opening on schedule in fifteen minutes. The regular roster of mall cops was on duty, the rest having left now that the movie company had ceased filming for the day, at least at the mall. On impulse, I headed for the theater wing and the movie’s production office. Maybe Ethan would be hanging around, or someone else I could talk to about Zoë. It wasn’t my job to inquire about Zoë, I knew, but I told myself that having an “in” with the movie company, at least with Ethan, gave me an edge the police didn’t have. If I learned something important, I would share it with Detective “Thank You for Your Belated Help” Helland, I told myself virtuously.
The black-polo-shirted security guard on duty greeted me with a nod and let me pass without question. About to poke my head into the production office, where I could see several people moving around, I turned the opposite way and glided past the movie theater’s dark ticket window to the door that led to the parking lot. A bright April day sprang at me as I pushed the door open. Pale sunshine washed the mall’s exterior, and a fresh breeze made me wish my Windbreaker hadn’t gone in the ambulance with Zoë. I doubted I’d get it back.
My jacket was scant loss compared to the loss of a human life, I thought somberly, as I Segwayed into the parking lot which housed several long trailers that gleamed silver in the sunlight. A temporary chain-link fence cordoned them off from the rest of the parking lot, and another black-shirted guard kept the curious away from the one gate. Cars had started arriving in the lot as opening time approached, and people eyed the trailers, some stopping to stare or take pictures. I found Ethan’s trailer by reading the names stenciled on the doors. His was directly across from Anya Vale’s. The talented screamer emerged from her trailer as I knocked on Ethan’s door, and she gave me a raised-brow look. The Chinese crested dog trailed her, venturing one sharp bark when he saw me. The puff at the end of his tail quivered.
I fought the urge to offer an explanation, and turned my back on her as Ethan opened the door with a pleased, “EJ!”
He caught my hand to pull me in, and the door clunked shut behind us. I’d been in similar trailers a few times before, when I’d visited my father on the set as a kid and a young teen, but it had been a while. I was struck anew by the degree of luxury that could be crammed into an aluminum tube on wheels. Granite and burled wood, high-end appliances in the kitchenette, leather-covered chairs and sofa, and a fifty-plus-inch television screen made the trailer feel like an exclusive men’s club or den in a private mansion. A humidor and a wine cooler added to the impression. I knew the closed door to the rear hid a similarly appointed bedroom and bathroom.
“It’s horrible the way you have to rough it on location,” I said, smiling.
“I make do.” He had changed out of his cop uniform and wore the kind of jeans that looked almost as good on Brett Favre in his commercials, and a movie-logo tee shirt. “I heard you found Zoë,” he said, giving me a concerned look. “Are you okay?”
“I’ve been better,” I admitted. I sank into a leather club chair that almost swallowed me in its cushy depths. “How about you? You knew her, after all.”
“We worked a couple of films together,” he said, tugging at one earlobe. “She was good at her job and a lot of fun.”
How much fun?
I wondered, surveying him from beneath half-lowered lids.
Zoë was gay. I offered my dad an unspoken apology for having suspected there was more to his relationship with Zoë than friendship. An image of Zoë snuggled against Ethan’s chest popped into my head and it occurred to me that she might have swung both ways. We sat in silence for a moment, and then I said, “I keep feeling like I should have done more.”
“I heard she was stabbed?”
I nodded. “That’s what it looked like. When did you last see her?”
He moved to a blender in which several kinds of fruit and ice sat waiting. Pouring in some brown powder and adding some crinkly green strands, he said, “I’m fixing a protein shake. Want one?”
“What’s the green stuff?”
“Seaweed. I read that it’s a great source of organic vitamins and omegas.” Ethan had become a card-carrying health-food nut about five years back when a doctor took him to task for high cholesterol and borderline high blood pressure.
When I shook my head to decline the shake, he pulsed the blender for thirty seconds or so, poured the glop into a crystal goblet more suitable for a vintage cabernet, and joined me in the seating area.
“Zoë?” I prompted.
“Hm. She disappeared for a while after the gun incident, but I saw her later that afternoon—three-ish? Or four? We discussed what kind of gun I’d use for my backup, in the ankle holster. It’s important in the scene where—never mind. Zoë doubled as the weapons master on this shoot, in addition to being the props master, which shouldn’t have been a problem since the script doesn’t call for any machine guns or rocket launchers or similar weapons. Just garden-variety nine mils and thirty-eights and the like. I’m wondering, though, if she was overtasked.”
“What does a weapons master do?”
“Chooses and acquires the weapons for the shoot, issues them to the cast members immediately before shooting scenes that require them, and retrieves them when the scene is in the can. Sometimes the weapons master will do some training for the cast—teach them how to hold a saber at the right angle, say, or look realistic aiming a gun.”
“So . . . was the incident yesterday really her fault? Was she in trouble over it?” I was wondering if there was any chance Zoë had stabbed herself, committed suicide. I hadn’t seen a knife in the bathroom, but it could well have been underneath her.
Ethan shook his head. “No. She followed procedures. The idiot who fired the gun should have known better. He’s been fired.”
“Really?” I perked up. Could the actor have blamed Zoë for his firing? “What was his name?”
Ethan shrugged. “I don’t know all the extras, EJ, or the actors with bit parts.”
“Who would know his name, or where to find him?”
“The second AD.” At my enquiring look, he added, “The second assistant director, Bree Spurrier. She’s in charge of the extras.” He took a long swallow of his health drink and gazed at me over the rim of the glass. “Why are you asking? I’m sure the police have already talked to her.”
“I’m sure they have,” I said, ducking the question. “Did Zoë have enemies that you know of? Were there any on-set feuds?”
Setting the goblet down with a clink, he reached across the table for my hand. “EJ—”
“Don’t say it, Dad,” I said, prying myself out of the chair. I wasn’t up for another lecture on how much better suited I was to a life as a movie producer than a cop or security officer. “This murder happened in my mall and I’ve got a right to look into it.” Detective Helland might not agree with that statement, but his druthers weren’t driving my priorities.
“You haven’t called me ‘Dad’ in years,” Ethan said.
“Because you hate it.”
With a half smile of acknowledgement, Ethan said, “I don’t know about enemies—can’t imagine Zoë having any—but you might talk to Margot. Margot Chelius. She’d know more about Zoë than anyone else. I think they’ve lived together the last eight or ten years.” He described the woman who had broken down when she realized Zoë was the homicide victim.
“Thanks.” I leaned down to kiss his forehead.
He caught my hand. “You know, you could take advantage of the production crew being here to learn more about what my company does. I could arrange for you to shadow—”
I yanked my hand away. “Ethan! How many times do I have to tell you I’m not interested in coming back to L.A.? I don’t want to work in an industry that’s all about make-believe, pretend, making a buck by catering to teenage boys’ desires to see starlets chopped up in 3-D splendor, that discards women when the first wrinkle appears, and ignores the fact that there’s
war happening in the world. I want to make a
, not make movies. Why can’t you respect that?”
He drew back, studying my face, his hurt expression making me regret lashing out. Still, it was about the hundredth time he’d tried to foist his career path on me and I was tired of the same conversation.
“It doesn’t much sound like you respect what I do, either,” he said quietly, turning away.
His words took me aback. I bit the inside of my cheek, not knowing what to say. Before I could think of something, he said, “I’ve got to run lines with Anya. I’ll see you soon, hm?” He didn’t turn around, but busied himself stowing his health drink ingredients back in the refrigerator.
I opened the door and clanked down the two metal steps to the parking lot. More people were around now and I nodded at a few I vaguely recognized, including the actor playing the hit man. I replayed the exchange with my dad in my mind, flinching at the knowledge that I’d hurt him. I thought about his quiet accusation. Was I contemptuous of his work? Maybe a little, I admitted. I wasn’t denying that he worked hard—he put in long hours and frequently read scripts or did character research on weekends—but did I think his efforts were meaningless? I put the question aside to ponder later and tried to think of a way to apologize, even though I’d only dissed his chosen career this once, while he had tried over and over again to pry me away from the military and policing. I realized ruefully that this came pretty close to the “he started it” defense of a kindergartner.
With the mall now open, I pushed my Ethan troubles to the back corner of my mind and returned to my patrols after checking in with Joel. My morning ritual consisted of cruising the halls, chatting with shopkeepers and clerks, and generally checking to make sure that everything was as it should be. It bothered me slightly that I’d referred to Fernglen as “my” mall while talking with Ethan; I didn’t want to be invested in the mall, didn’t want to feel any attachment that would make it hard for me to shake the mall’s dust from my feet if—
—I got an offer from a police department. I’d applied for two more jobs—one with the Kansas City PD and one with a Montana sheriff’s office—last week, and I was keeping my fingers crossed that I’d get an interview.
Word of the murder had filtered through the mall community and I ducked a lot of questions about the victim and the circumstances from mall workers. I verified that the victim had been found in the downstairs men’s room not far from the theater wing, figuring the crime scene tape gave that away anyway. When I ran into Fernando Guzman, one of our janitorial crew, I asked him what time he’d cleaned that bathroom yesterday.
His gray green uniform contrasted pleasingly with his tanned skin and brown eyes. “Before opening, like always, EJ,” he said, hands clenching and unclenching on the rim of the gray rubber trash bin he was pushing. “The
asked me the same thing and I told them I was done in there by eight thirty or nine.”
“Did you leave the ‘Closed’ sign up?”
Fernando shook his head, black hair flopping across his brow. “No. I leaned it against the walls, under the sinks,
So the murderer, or anyone else, could have set the sign out to keep men out of the restroom. “Thanks, Fernando.”
.” He shook his head. “There are too many deaths in this mall, EJ. My wife says it is an unlucky place. She wants me to find other work. I ask her where else I’m supposed to find a job in this economy? I am working on my college degree, but until I finish . . .”