Read 3 Malled to Death Online

Authors: Laura Disilverio

Tags: #mystery

3 Malled to Death (8 page)

“Look.” Helland bent sideways at the waist, cocked his head, and gestured toward the floor.

I assumed a similar posture and tried to see what he was indicating. The bleach smell was stronger this close to the floor. It took me a moment, but then I saw a swirly pattern on the tile that occupied only a narrow swath of the floor leading from two feet in front of where we stood to the stall where I’d found Zoë.

Helland caught the comprehension in my eyes and nodded. “The murderer tried to clean up. We found bloody paper towels in the bin. He or she stabbed the victim there”—he pointed—“and dragged her into the stall, presumably so she wouldn’t be found too quickly. Then he had to erase the blood trail.”

The thought of a blood trail nauseated me and I took a deep breath. “Did you find her purse?”

Helland nodded. “Yes, in the trash. Her wallet and cell phone were gone. So it could have been a robbery gone wrong, but I have trouble seeing a garden-variety mugger taking the time to wipe up the blood and set out the ‘Closed’ signs.”

“No, a mugger would have panicked and run for the nearest exit,” I agreed. “A rapist?”

“No sign of sexual contact.”

My shoulders relaxed. “Did you find anything else?”

Helland gave a disgusted snort. “Too much. It’s a public restroom in a mall. We’ve got enough latents and hairs and miscellaneous body fluids—including a used condom from the trash—”

Ew, I thought. The idea of having sex propped against a urinal made me gag.

“—to keep every crime lab technician in the state employed full time for the rest of the year.” Snapping off his latex gloves, he led the way out of the bathroom and I followed, happy to escape the white-tiled tomb.

“I don’t think she left the mall last night.” I told him what I’d noticed about her clothes on the camera. I didn’t mention seeing my mother and didn’t even feel guilty about it—well, not very—because I knew my mother didn’t have anything to do with Zoë’s death, especially if Zoë had died last night, long before the cameras caught Mom headed toward this hall.

He gave me the arched brows I always got from him when he was semi-impressed with my findings. “Good catch. I don’t suppose your father mentioned anyone connected with the movie who might have had a grudge against Ms. Winters?” Helland asked a shade too casually as we lingered in the main corridor, watching a young mother push a stroller built for triplets.

I eyed him cynically, understanding now why he had been relatively forthcoming in the restroom. He thought I might have an inside track with the movie people. I told him what I’d learned—not much—from Ethan and threw in what Margot had told me for good measure.

“That matches what she told us,” he said. “If you hear anything more—”

Before he could leave, I asked him the question I’d been dying to ask: “Have you talked to Jesse Willard?”

Helland’s face closed down. “We’re still looking for him.”

I bit my lip, not knowing what to say. Jesse not being home, which is how I interpreted Helland’s comment, looked bad. Helland’s cell phone rang before I could ask what Mr. Willard had said—not that Helland would’ve told me—and he moved off with a brief nod as he answered it. I stood for a moment, admiring the way his broad shoulders looked under his jacket, before I realized what I was doing and took off a little too fast on my Segway, startling an old gentleman with a walker.

I might find Detective Anders Helland somewhat appealing physically, but that was it. No way was I interested in a relationship with the man. He was too sure of his own abilities, too quick to discount others’. Mine, I admitted. He knew I’d been a military cop until I got injured and medically retired, and yet he persisted in treating me like I was a clueless mall security officer who didn’t know the first thing about police procedure. I had to admit that my prideful side would be happy to beat him to the solution on this case, even though, strictly speaking, murder investigations didn’t fall into my job jar. Okay, they weren’t in my job jar no matter how one viewed it.

But I
was
the mall security office’s liaison with the production company and the movie people. And if I
happened
to learn something useful while hanging around the set, liaising . . .

I put the pedal to the metal (figuratively speaking, since the Segway didn’t have pedals), and resumed my patrol of the mall. The customers and merchants deserved my usual attention, even though there was a movie being filmed on the premises and a homicide investigation going on. I’d pencil in some hard-core liaising for when I got off shift.

Ten

• • • 

When I got
off work at three o’clock, the production office was virtually empty, the movie theater wing quiet. Only the thin woman with the clipboard was in the office, stuffing envelopes. Cardboard boxes stacked two deep surrounded her on three sides, and an open box gaped on the table in front of her. She looked up when I entered, tucking a section of curly, ginger-colored hair behind her ear. Her gaze scanned me from head to toe. “That uniform’s all wrong. If you’re looking to be cast as an extra, you need to talk to—”

“I don’t want to be in the movie,” I said, laughing. “I work here. EJ Ferris.” I held out my hand.

She blushed. “Oh, right. Sorry. Iona Moss. I saw you with Ethan yesterday, didn’t I?” Hazel eyes appraised me.

“Yes.”

She waited for me to elaborate, but I stayed silent. After a moment, she bent and used a box cutter to rip through the tape on another box in one efficient motion. She hauled out a stack of colorful brochures and began slipping them into envelopes. If she had to empty all the boxes, she was in for a long evening.

“I was actually looking for Bree Spurrier,” I said, remembering that Ethan had mentioned she was the second assistant director who was in charge of the extras.

“I thought you didn’t want to be in the movie,” Iona said suspiciously.

“I’m trying to find Tab Gentry.”

“Oh. Well, Bree’s not here. We had to change the schedule around when they found . . . when Zoë . . . Bree’s shooting some short exterior scenes on the Occoquan.”

The Occoquan was a scenic river north of here, up I-95, that ran through a picturesque town of the same name. I’d have to wait to talk to her until she got back. “Okay, well—”

“What were you and Ethan talking about anyway?” Iona asked, her curiosity finally getting the better of her. Her eyes flicked up to meet mine for a moment, before she returned her gaze to the envelopes. “I mean, I’ve worked a couple of movies with him and he’s never been one to get chummy with . . .”

She drifted off and I wondered if she was having trouble coming up with a word that wasn’t too derogatory. The help? The little people? Non-movie people? Ethan wasn’t a snob, but I knew he took his acting seriously and didn’t allow himself a lot of distractions when he was working, so Iona was probably right that he didn’t usually wander around chatting up strangers on location. I didn’t see any harm in assuaging her curiosity. “He got a crank letter he thought he should turn over to us in the security office.”

Iona dropped a stack of brochures. “Not another note from that nut-job woman who calls herself ‘Truly, Madly, Deeply’? I thought she’d finally given up.”

“No,” I said. “It wasn’t from her. Who is she?”

Iona bent to pick up the brochures, raking them toward herself with long arms. “Oh, I probably shouldn’t have said anything. But Delia and I—she was Ethan’s assistant until she got married—were friends and she used to show me the notes from this woman. They were always written on pink stationery and went on about how she loved Ethan and she was the only woman who truly appreciated him, and how she couldn’t wait until they could be together forever. She always signed them ‘Truly, Madly, Deeply,’ so we called her TMD for short. Delia said Ethan laughed them off, but they gave me the creeps.”

Her description of them gave me the creeps, too; I needed to talk to Ethan about his fan mail. “Thanks for letting me know.” I remembered something from yesterday. “You said Gentry was aiming at Mr. Jarrett when the gun went off . . . ?” I let my voice trail up into a question.

Shifting uncomfortably, Iona said, “Well, it seemed like that to me, like he was pointing the gun at Ethan. But he told the police he was only goofing around and hadn’t really meant to
aim
at anyone.”

“Did he have a problem with Mr. Jarrett?”

Iona shook her head. “Oh, no. Everyone loves Ethan. He’s the kindest, most wonderful man. Everyone thinks so.” Her eyes shone with the fervor of a disciple.

“Including Zoë Winters?” I tried to keep my voice neutral but apparently didn’t succeed.

“Why do you ask it like that?” A slight frown rumpled Iona’s brow. “There wasn’t anything going on between them, if that’s what you’re hinting at. Ethan
wouldn’t
.”

I could have smacked myself for being so obvious. “Good to know.”

I turned to leave, and Iona called after me, “If you want to talk to Tab, I heard the payroll guy tell him he could pick up his paycheck first thing in the morning.”

“Could you give me a call if you see him?” I scribbled my name and number on the back of an envelope when she nodded.

I thanked her and left, detouring to Ethan’s trailer on my way. I was determined to apologize for this morning’s comments. No one answered when I knocked and I figured he might be filming at Occoquan. As I turned away, a familiar figure came out of the wardrobe trailer parked kitty-corner to Ethan’s. White hair riffled in the wind. Grandpa Atherton. He was saying something over his shoulder to someone in the trailer and started when he turned around to find me in his path.

“Emma-Joy!”

“What were you doing in there?” I asked.

He gave me a mischievous grin. “Why, getting fitted for my costume, of course.”

A feeling of foreboding settled on me. “What costume?”

“Well,” he said breezily, hooking his elbow around mine and strolling toward the gate, “I figured that when they fired the poor lad for the gun incident, they would be short one police officer. It seemed to me that it might be useful to cozy up with the people who knew Zoë best if we want to find out who killed her. I had a word with Ethan and he set it up. I look quite dashing in my police uniform, if I do say so myself.”

“Nothing happening with Mr. North Korea?” I asked, referring to his recent surveilling of North Korean businessmen for an unnamed agency.

“They pulled the plug on that,” Grandpa admitted. “I retrieved the devices early this morning. I can work full time on the murder.”

“It’s not our job to find out who killed her,” I said, conveniently forgetting that I was trying to do exactly that.

“Admit it, Emma-Joy,” Grandpa said, “you’re jealous because I can go undercover and you can’t.”

“Who’s going to believe in an octogenarian cop?” I said sulkily. He’d hit a bit too close to the truth.

“I wear a hat,” Grandpa said, “and there’s always makeup. Do you know I still have my Screen Actors Guild card from when I had a bit part in a movie back in the ’60s? It was being bankrolled by a German industrialist the Agency was interested in because—well, never mind that. Let’s just say that after he met an untimely end—we were filming in Portugal and his car went over a cliff one night—the Agency saw no need for my continued involvement and pulled me out. Now, I’ve got another shot at fame.”

“More like you’ve got another shot at getting in trouble. And who will Mom blame for that? Me.”

“Pish. I’m going to keep my mouth shut and my ears open. If I hear anything useful I’ll pass it along. In all probability, I’ll film my scenes, listen to a lot of boring Hollywood gossip about who’s in rehab or who had their face ‘done’ recently, collect my paycheck, and that will be that.”

“Hm.” That was never that when it came to Grandpa. “While you’re hanging around, you might also see if you can sound out some folks about a note Ethan got.” I recited the text of the “movies and capitalism” threat Ethan had found in his trailer.

“In his trailer, hm?” Grandpa said. “Then maybe someone from the movie had something to do with it.”

“Possible,” I agreed, “but you can’t call this tight security. Anyone could have snuck in.” I gestured to the black-shirted guard who was chatting up a buxom girl with a blond ponytail and a braying laugh; the Spanish Armada could have sailed through the gate and he wouldn’t have noticed. “Want to get dinner later?” I asked Grandpa.

“Can’t. Sorry,” he said. “Theresa and I are going to Pilates class and then to a new vegan restaurant the teacher told us about.”

Theresa Eshelman owned a day-care center and was currently Grandpa’s significant other. He’d met her at the mall. The class was new, however. “Pilates?”

“Great for my core,” Grandpa said, patting his flat abdomen. “As for the vegan restaurant . . . I figure I can always pick up a couple of tacos on my way home if the nuts and sprouts don’t fill me up.”

I laughed, kissed his cheek, and headed for my Miata. Normally I’d have stopped by the Y after work, but today I had another mission: Mom.

Eleven

• • • 

When I called
Mom and told her I’d like to drop by, she told me she had an appointment set up with a caterer, but that I could meet her there. “You can help me choose what to serve, EJ. We’re hosting a dinner Thursday for some of your father’s business associates—the boring ones who talk budgets and box office and distribution deals—and the caterer has been sweet enough to meet with me on short notice.”

No surprise there. What company was going to turn down the opportunity to cater an event at Ethan Jarrett’s house, even if they only received fifteen minutes’ notice? When Mom mentioned there’d be samples, I told her I’d meet her at the caterer’s place in Alexandria.

The drive took well over an hour, and I was crabby by the time I got out of the Miata. In a light industrial park nowhere near scenic Old Town Alexandria, the caterer’s building had all the charm of a warehouse, complete with a garage-type door for loading and unloading vans, I presumed. Mom’s Mercedes was already parked in the gravel lot so I hustled in.

The interior was more welcoming, with a sitting area featuring two peach-colored sofas and a large, glass-topped coffee table already piled with various food items. Brown carpet covered the floor—and disguised spills, I bet—and a conference table with flowers blooming from a vase sat behind the cozy tasting area. Twelve or fifteen elaborate wedding cakes—fake, I trusted—rested on a long buffet. I could see a large industrial kitchen through a door that opened to my left, and the whole room smelled deliciously of roasting meat. My mouth watered.

“Sorry I’m late, Mom,” I said, bending to kiss her cheek where she sat on a sofa, serene and blond. She smiled, producing crinkles at the corners of her eyes. She’d never had her face “done” like so many of her Hollywood wife counterparts, and I liked that she was comfortable with her aging self. Not that she was aging badly; she worked out with a trainer several times a week so her figure was still shapely, even though she might weigh five or ten pounds more than she had in her twenties. Additionally, she had a genius of a (mega-expensive) hair stylist who kept her shoulder-length tresses highlighted and natural-looking. Still, no one would mistake her for a thirty-year-old and she was fine with that.

“This is Christopher,” she said, gesturing to the thirtyish man with male pattern baldness who hovered nearby. He wore a pristine white chef’s jacket and I wondered if he wore it to cook or only to schmooze with potential clients. I sat on the sofa opposite my mother as she said, “He recommends the berry tarts, although I like these kiwi ones.” She passed me a plate of tiny tarts with perfect fluted edges, filled with kiwi slivers.

I popped one into my mouth. The flaky pastry and the tangy fruit seemed to melt on my tongue. “These ones,” I said definitively.

Mom laughed and Christopher half smiled. “Don’t you at least want to try the flourless chocolate torte or the green tea sherbet?”

I said yes to the torte and declined the sherbet and talked about nothing very substantial as Mom and Christopher hashed out the menu. When the caterer disappeared into the back again to write up Mom’s order and run her credit card, I pounced.

“So, you didn’t stop in to say ‘hi’ when you were at Fernglen,” I said.

Her brows arched. “How did you—? I was going to, of course, honey, but they started filming earlier than I expected and then, of course, they found that poor woman—”

“I found her.”

Mom gasped. “Oh, honey, are you okay?” She leaned forward to put a hand on my knee.

I wasn’t, actually; I kept seeing the dead Zoë on the bathroom floor. “I’m coping. Her name was Zoë Winters. Did you know her?”

Mom seemed to still, then smoothed a hand down her already perfect hair. “Um, I don’t think so. Your father may have mentioned her once or twice. She did something with props, right?”

“Exactly.” I let the silence lengthen.

“Where could Christopher have gotten to?” Mom asked, shifting as if she was going to go in search of him.

“He’s swilling champagne with the kitchen workers to celebrate your order,” I said. “He’ll be back. Why were you at the mall so early?” There. I’d asked her straight-on.

She gave me a puzzled look. “What are you getting at, EJ? You know I frequently visit your father on his sets.”

True, but. “That doesn’t explain why you were
in
the mall instead of in his trailer, or why you went down the very corridor where I found Zoë.”

“She was killed in
that
bathroom?” Mom asked, eyes opening wider. “Oh, my.”

“The men’s room.”

“Oh, I was never in—You know, I don’t like what you’re implying, EJ.” Anger and hurt showed in her eyes and tone.

• • • 

Christopher returned then,
handing my mother’s credit card to her and reiterating how happy he was to have her business. He held a large white box that contained, he said, an assortment of dessert samples for her to take home. She thanked him graciously and let him walk her to the door. I trailed half a step behind, wondering if she was using the caterer as a shield. I knew she was when she invited him to carry the box to her Mercedes and slide it gently onto the floor.

“Thanks for helping,” she said, giving me a quick hug while Christopher held her door open. “Come to dinner tomorrow night. Your father and I will need help eating all these yummy desserts. You know he won’t eat more than a morsel when he’s filming. Your grandfather’s coming, too.” Putting on her sunglasses, she slid into the car. “Ciao.”

I watched as she drove off. Christopher returned to the building without a word, and I stood alone in the parking lot, chilled by a breeze, unhappily aware that my mother hadn’t come clean with me.

Other books

Bloodless Knights by Strasburg, Melissa Lynn
Eighth Grade Bites by Heather Brewer
Days of Ignorance by Laila Aljohani
Programming Python by Mark Lutz
Wedding Girl by Stacey Ballis
Badwater by Clinton McKinzie
To Helen Back by Susan McBride
Lord Oda's Revenge by Nick Lake