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Authors: Laura Disilverio

Tags: #mystery

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BOOK: 3 Malled to Death
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He trailed off as if to say that any job was better than no job, even one in a mall with more homicides per annum than some small towns. “What are you studying, Fernando?”

“Literature. I want to teach high school.”

“Better you than me.” I gave a mock shudder. “Facing down a roomful of teenagers takes more courage than most any job I can think of.”

Fernando laughed and I leaned forward to start the Segway, thinking about what he’d said. That led me to think about Jesse Willard, and I wondered if Helland had found the young vet at home. I hoped once again that he had an alibi for whatever the pertinent time turned out to be. On the thought, I spotted a woman I thought might be Margot Chelius slumped on a bench near The Bean Bonanza, the coffee kiosk. She held a cup in her hands and was staring into it as if expecting revelations to waft upward with the steam.

I glided to a halt beside her, but she didn’t even look up until I said, “Margot Chelius?”

She raised her head and her eyes met mine, but there was a pause, like the gap between shouting into a canyon and waiting for the echo to come back, before she said, “Yes?”

Dismounting the Segway, I offered her my hand, saying, “I’m EJ Ferris. I found Zoë. I heard you were close and I wanted to tell you how sorry I am for your loss.”

She shook my hand automatically, her grip as weak and dispirited as her expression. “Oh.” She studied my face. “Was she really still alive when you found her?”

I nodded. “For a moment. I did what I could, but . . .”

“Did she say anything?”

“I think she was unconscious.”

“Oh.” She looked down into her coffee cup again, seeming to forget she still held my hand. I pulled it away gently and that brought her head up. “We fought, you know. Yesterday. The last words we said to each other were angry ones.” Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes, fogging the lower half of her wire-rimmed glasses.

I joined her on the bench, not wanting to loom over her and intimidate her. “When was that?” I asked softly.

“Right before production wrapped for the day, about six. I’m the key costumer for this movie and I had just retrieved the police uniform from Tab Gentry, the poor kid who shot off the gun, when Zoë stopped by. She saw the uniform and made a remark about Tab being an idiot who deserved to get fired. I didn’t know the kid well, but it was only an accident, after all, and I told her she was being too harsh. Well, that set her off and we argued. If you’ve got a significant other, you know how it is.” She gave me a tired smile. “You start off disagreeing about one thing, and then you find yourselves squabbling about who didn’t clean up the breakfast dishes or who feeds the cats more often. It was nothing, silliness.”

Drinking half the coffee remaining in her cup, she looked up and said, “But it’s the last memory I have of her.”

“You weren’t worried when she didn’t come back to your hotel room last night?” I imagined the cast and crew were being housed in a nearby hotel since most of them weren’t from this area. My mom and dad had rented a magnificent home near Mount Vernon, but I didn’t imagine a props master and a key costumer—whatever that was—could afford similar accommodations.

“We didn’t share a room,” Margot said.

I flushed. “I’m so sorry. I heard that you . . . that you and she—”

“Oh, we were partners,” Margot said, taking pity on my embarrassment, “but we liked our own space. We had connecting rooms, but after our argument, I wasn’t too surprised when Zoë didn’t join me last night. I spent the evening reading poetry—Do you know the poet Mary Oliver? She writes such lovely, uplifting poems!—and then went to bed early, maybe nine thirty or so.”

Was she a shade too quick offering an alibi? Not that reading poetry—alone—and sleeping—alone—made for much of an alibi.

“I didn’t hear the TV in Zoë’s room, or hear her bumping around at all, so I don’t think she was back before I fell asleep. Sometimes she did that,” Margot said unhappily. “Stayed out, chatted someone up at a bar, when we’d had words. She was younger than I am,” she added, “and so much prettier. I knew other women came on to her sometimes, but I didn’t say anything. I don’t know if she ever . . . She loved me, though. I never doubted that.”

Rising, Margot let her cup fall into a nearby trash can. She took a step away from me, then turned back, long skirt flapping around her calves with the sharpness of her movement. “Find out who did this to her,” she said, a muscle jumping at the corner of her mouth. “She didn’t deserve to die like that, in pain, lying on a bathroom floor. No one does.”

“The police—” I started.

“Them.” She dismissed the police with a wave of her hand. “You’re a good listener. That counts for as much as fingerprints and DNA testing and all the scientific bells and whistles.” She sighed and her momentary burst of resolve and anger seemed to leak out of her. “Well, then.”

Without a good-bye, she started down the hall toward the production office, clogs slapping against her heels. I watched her for a few moments, until enough shoppers surged between us that I couldn’t see her clearly.


• • • 

After the morning’s
influx of security officers, the office seemed unusually quiet when I entered it minutes later. Joel sat alone at the dispatch desk. He hastily closed a magazine when I came in and pushed it aside. Coco was in her office, I assumed, from the faint noises drifting from that direction.

“What’s that humming sound?” I asked, plunking the sub sandwiches I’d brought for lunch on the empty desk and sliding one to Joel.

“Thanks. Sewing machine,” he said with an expressive look.

“Oh, no.”

He nodded grimly. “Oh, yes.”

If Coco was occupying herself by sewing up a uniform prototype when there’d been a murder in the mall, I was ready to give up on her. I unwrapped my sub and the delicious fragrance of pickles, vinegar, and tuna salad made me salivate. I bit into the sandwich, realizing I was starving. Joel started on his chips and for a short time only the sounds of crunching and chewing broke the silence.

“Is it true your father—Ethan—used to be a plumber?” Joel asked.

“Wherever did you hear that?”

Sheepishly, he drew out the magazine. Ethan smiled from the cover, his crisp hair overlaid with large type that read:
FANtastic Movie Mag

“You don’t believe the garbage they print in there, do you?” I asked.

“So he wasn’t a plumber?”

“I think he filled in for a sick friend at a home repair store for a week, and worked in the plumbing department,” I said. “Believe me, you do not want Ethan messing with your plumbing.” I had vague memories from when I was only three or four, before Ethan made it big, of him trying to hook up a dishwasher and flooding the kitchen, which meant we got to eat at Dairy Queen for two days in a row. I’d ridden on his shoulders on the walk home, dripping ice cream into his hair. The memory almost made me tear up.

“So the rest of this isn’t true, either?” Joel opened the magazine and read from an article in the middle. “‘Ethan Jarrett has the reputation, rare in Hollywood, of being a devoted family man. He’s been married to the former Brenda Atherton for over thirty years and friends report the couple is still going strong. One unnamed acquaintance said they’re as committed as storied Hollywood legends Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.’”

“That much is true,” I said.

“What about this bit where he had an alien encounter on Mulholland Drive after finishing that movie where he played the spaceship captain?”

I shot him a look. Licking a forefinger, he turned the page where grainy photos showed Ethan on a beach somewhere, and the facing page had an article about Anya Vale and
Mafia Mistress
. “She’s a hottie,” Joel said wistfully, caught by the star’s sultry gaze. “It says here she turned down the opportunity to star in the new Kenneth Branagh flick to make
Mafia Mistress
. Keira Knightley got the role Anya was up for, it says, and ‘Hollywood insiders who’ve seen the unedited film think she’ll get an Oscar nod.’” Joel looked up from the page and waited for me to comment.

“Ethan’s movie will make more money,” I said. Although he’d rather have an Oscar than another twenty million dollars, I knew.

“It’s not about the fame and money for her,” Joel said, defending his crush. “This interviewer says ‘Anya Vale wanted the opportunity’—”

“Please, Joel,” I interrupted him. “I learned when I was ten that those magazines make stuff up at will. That’s when they reported that I had Down syndrome and that my parents were keeping me hidden from the public because they were ashamed of my condition. Actually, I had mono and had to be homeschooled for half a year. Groups that lobbied for people with disabilities called for a boycott of Ethan’s movies.”

“Okay,” Joel conceded. “I see your point. But do you think you could get Ethan to sign this for me?” He slid the fan mag across the desk and I stopped it with my hand.

“Sure.” I took a long slurp of my iced tea, and asked, my argument with Ethan still on my mind, “Are you a big movie fan?”

Joel’s eyes brightened. “Oh, yeah! I’ve loved movies and television since I was a kid. I probably see forty or fifty movies a year in the theater and a bunch more on Netflix. I like all kinds. Well, I’m not really into documentaries, but sci fi, rom-com, heavy dramas, action flicks, good horror—I like them all. Everyone in my family gives me movie theater gift cards for Christmas and my birthday.”

“I didn’t know. What’s the best movie you’ve seen lately?”

He named a film already being called an Oscar contender and seemed prepared to analyze each beat of the script and all the camera work for me. I stopped him with a simple question: “Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why do you like movies?” I crumpled my sandwich wrapper and chips bag into a ball and lobbed them into the trash can.

Giving me a look like I was a simpleton, Joel said, “Because they take you away, don’t they? They create a different world and put you in it for a couple of hours. It’s almost like time travel or falling through a worm hole or apparating.”

Joel had watched far too much science fiction and fantasy.

He took a big bite of his sandwich and chewed as if he needed to fuel his thoughts. He swallowed. “I’m not putting it very well, but at movies it’s like I can worry about being eaten by a
T. rex
or crashing my Formula One car or ending up with Jennifer Aniston for a while, instead of worrying about work stuff or if I’ll ever be able to afford new wheels. I hate that van.”

Joel drove the used family van his parents had given him.

“You can escape from reality for a while.”

“Exactly!” He beamed at me as if I were the class dullard who’d finally come up with the right answer.

I guess I’d known that movies, like books, provide an escape from day-to-day realities, but I wasn’t much of one for ducking out on reality, so I hadn’t really considered that they might offer a welcome, even necessary, break to many people. I bit the inside of my cheek and regretted that I’d taken Ethan’s work for granted for so long and focused on the business end of it, since that’s what I saw at home, rather than the product he created that gave pleasure to so many. Maybe I should see a movie. I tried to think when I’d last seen one and thought it might have been in Afghanistan.

Time to get back to work. “I know it’s not as fast-paced as the latest Ethan Jarrett movie, but have you looked at the footage from our cameras?”

Joel shook his head and mumbled around a mouthful of chips, “Waiting for you.”

I motioned for him to cue up the camera data from last night and we watched it. There were no cameras in the bathrooms, of course, and none in the utility hall where there was nothing to shoplift, so we were reduced to studying the passersby in the main corridor who could have turned into that hall, looking for Zoë.

“The cops don’t know yet when she was attacked, but I talked to a woman who saw her about six last night, so we can start then,” I said. Joel fast-forwarded and we studied the images. They were black-and-white and they moved jerkily since Fernglen’s cameras only recorded images every few seconds. Still, we could make out shoppers as they passed, schlepping shopping bags, and teens slumping by, killing time.

“There’s a lot of cops,” Joel observed after we’d been watching for nearly half an hour with the images hurrying past on fast-forward.

I’d noticed that myself. “Actors,” I clarified. The kicker was that they all looked way too much alike on our recording. With the hats they wore, I couldn’t even tell which were men and which were women. The Vernonville Police Department might have technicians who could determine relative heights, if they did some measurements in our halls or studied shadows or something, but I had trouble telling one from another.

“Look, there’s Zoë,” I said, pointing to a figure on the screen.

Joel paused the video and leaned in, slacks fabric straining across his plump thighs, to study the woman. “Yep,” he agreed.

We looked for her for the next ten minutes, but the camera didn’t catch her returning to the theater wing. “She had her purse with her,” I pointed out. “Maybe she was leaving for the day. Freeze that.” I pointed to the clearest picture of Zoë. “She’s wearing the same outfit she had on when I found her. She never left the mall last night.” I was excited by the realization, wondering if the police had figured that out.

Joel reversed until we found Zoë again and we kept track of the people we saw who could have followed her into the restroom area, if, in fact, she went down that hall. There were a dozen, three of them “cops.” Based on the length of time between them walking toward the restroom and then returning from it, we figured that seven of the twelve visited the bathroom. Of course, we didn’t even know for sure that they’d turned into the restroom hallway, but it seemed a reasonable guess. The rest of the figures never reappeared, so they either went elsewhere in the mall or left it altogether. It would take hours reviewing images from the other cameras to see if we could spot one or more of those people somewhere else in the mall, or leaving it via one of the two dozen exits. The prospect made me wish for an easy needle-in-the-haystack type of task. The police might have the manpower for it, but I didn’t think they’d learn anything useful. Joel tapped his mouse and the images zipped by on fast-forward.

“This is a waste of time,” I said. “You’d think that the cameras would be more helpful, wouldn’t you?” The cameras were mainly a deterrent to shoplifters and vandals; using them after the fact to try and track down a perpetrator was too manpower- and time-intensive to be practical, especially with their poor resolution and the fact that only two-thirds of the cameras positioned around the mall even recorded. Still, we’d had to look—we could’ve gotten lucky.

I was turning away from the screen when a figure caught my eye. Leaning forward, I rubbed at an imaginary smudge on the monitor so Joel wouldn’t notice my interest. It couldn’t be . . . I slid my eyes sideways to see if Joel had noticed, but he was peering into his chip bag to see if he’d overlooked any corn chips. Casually, I stopped the video, noting the time stamp—oh-six-thirty—and popped the DVD out. I didn’t know what my mom had been doing at Fernglen so early this morning, but I intended to find out.

Joel would have found it suspicious if I’d rushed out of the office, so I filled him in on what I’d learned from Ethan and Margot Chelius while he used a damp forefinger to pick up the chip crumbs from the bag and transfer them to his tongue.

“She did it,” he said immediately, brown eyes alight. “The girlfriend. They fought, she lost it, she followed her to the bathroom and—” He mimed thrusting a knife.

“With the knife she happened to have in her purse?” I said skeptically.

“Hm.” Joel looked crestfallen at having his theory shot down so quickly. He thought for a moment and perked up. “Let’s say the Margot woman was lying to you. She and Zoë were having trouble. Zoë was cheating on her. She brought the knife with her, waited for her chance, and stabbed her in the bathroom. Then she walked away and left her to die. Man, that’s cold.” He shook his head, soft brown curls bobbing.

“It could have happened that way,” I conceded, “but we have zero evidence to prove it. It could as easily have been a mugger seizing his chance. Zoë fought back, refused to give up her purse—whatever—and he stabbed her. Or it could have been a rape attempt.” That thought silenced me for a moment. “There’s no proof to support that, either,” I said finally. “We could sit here and make up theories all day long, but until we have some hard evidence, that’s all we’ll have—theories.”

“It’s not our job to find evidence,” Joel pointed out.

“I know.” That fact frustrated me and I pushed my chair back a little too hard as I stood. It teetered and I grabbed it before it fell. Papers fluttered from the desk to the floor and I leaned down to pick them up. The first was the shift schedule for next week, but the second was the manila envelope containing the letter Ethan had brought in yesterday. Without touching it, I slid it out and read it again: “Stop making movies that glorify violence and capitalist materialism or we’ll stop you.”

Eyes widening, I read it aloud to Joel.

He blinked at me. “You don’t think—?”

I didn’t know, but I knew the police needed to see this letter. “Back in a mo,” I told Joel, halfway out the door to see the detective I already knew would take the opportunity to abuse me for not giving him the letter earlier.

• • • 

“Why the hell
didn’t you bring this to me when you first received it?” Detective Helland asked when I tracked him down at the crime scene. A uniformed cop had stopped me from entering, but when Helland gave the okay, he had me sign in on a clipboard and let me through. I’d approached the bathroom cautiously and put on the pair of paper booties Helland indicated before inching into the men’s room and handing him the envelope. He stood with his back to the sinks, fluorescent lights glinting on his blond hair, blue booties on his feet taking away a bit from his authoritarian appearance as he read the letter.

“There hadn’t been a homicide then,” I said, “and you know there’s nothing the VPD could have done with no signature or mailroom stamp or specific threat. But you’re right: I should have turned it over to the police when Ethan brought it in. He was so dismissive of it, though, that I didn’t take it as seriously as I should have. He gets tens of thousands of letters annually, and some of them are from kooks, he says. My mom used to keep a scrapbook of the looniest ones, but she gave that up years ago. Too depressing, she said, to think that there were so many people out there who couldn’t differentiate between a movie and reality and who apparently had so little in their lives that they had to obsess about a man they’d never met.”

Helland nodded and slipped the letter back into the envelope, the latex gloves making his fingers awkward. “I’ll send this to the lab. I doubt we’ll get anything useful off it, but you never know. Tell Mr. Jarrett if he gets any more—”

“I will.” I looked around the bathroom, trying to figure out what Helland was searching for. Surely, the crime scene team was done, or we wouldn’t be standing here, potentially muddying the evidentiary waters.

BOOK: 3 Malled to Death
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