Authors: Laura Disilverio
• • •
Wednesday began with
a chance encounter in the mall parking lot. I’d spent a virtually sleepless night, awakened every time I dozed off by images of Zoë on the bathroom floor. Only, in my dreams the floor was coated with wall-to-wall blood. The third time that I drifted into the same dream and dragged myself awake, at four fifteen, I crawled out of bed and huddled in the chair by the window, a blanket draped around my shoulders. Fubar joined me for a while, and I stroked his rusty fur, waiting for morning. I’d spent too many nights like this after returning from Afghanistan, and I hoped that finding Zoë wasn’t going to send me back to the ugly place I’d been in then.
As I walked toward the mall entrance, I spotted someone trudging toward a car parked a few rows away. A chilly wind blew, making it feel more like winter than spring, and I huddled into the bomber jacket I was using until I could replace my uniform Windbreaker. I knit my brow, trying to place the man’s walk, and then realized it was Mr. Willard, Jesse’s father. What in the world was he doing here three hours before mall opening time?
“Mr. Willard!” I hailed him.
He turned, showing me a startled face, but started toward me when he recognized me. His gait was little more than a shuffle and he seemed to have aged since I last saw him two days ago. “Officer Ferris,” he said. He tucked a long plaid scarf more securely around his neck.
“Has Jesse turned up?”
He shook his head, the weight of his worry making it sag forward. “No. I was looking for him.”
He nodded, and the wind tugged his comb-over loose so his bald spot shone palely. “For some reason, Jesse liked it here. He worked here as a teenager, you know.”
I shook my head. “I didn’t know that. Where?”
“The food court. He flipped burgers at some place that went out of business a couple years back. I think it was where that Chinese food place is now. He and his friends hung out here a lot. Maybe that’s why he keeps coming back now that he’s . . . out of the military. The police came to see me, you know. They didn’t say it in so many words, but they think he had something to do with that woman’s murder.” He pressed his thin lips together and gave me a searching look. “They said you saw him.”
“Yes. I’m sorry.” I wasn’t sure what I was apologizing for. Seeing Jesse? Giving his name to the police?
“If he found her, saw her . . . if there was blood, it probably scared him,” Mr. Willard said. “He was always squeamish about blood—couldn’t stand the sight of a scraped knee as a kid, even—and since the IED . . .”
He didn’t need to explain to me how gory the aftermath of an improvised explosive device detonation could be. I’d lived it firsthand. I wasn’t remotely squeamish, but I still had nightmares about the explosion, the screams, the smells of burning asphalt and torn metal and dirt.
“He’s been walking here every morning,” Willard said. “That’s why I came now.”
The night guard at Fernglen unlocked the main door at four thirty every morning so mall walkers could exercise before starting their commutes to D.C. or Richmond. The few times I’d worked the night shift, I’d been amazed by how many people wanted to racewalk through the mall’s halls, especially during the winter when it was dark and cold. “Is that why he was here yesterday—to walk?”
“Um-hm. I dropped him off. He was going to ride the bus home.”
“Does he drive? Does he have a car?”
“He’s not supposed to,” Mr. Willard said. “He’s had a couple of seizures as a result of his brain injuries, but he’s not incapable of driving, if that’s what you’re asking. His car is still at home.”
“I’ll keep an eye out for him,” I promised Mr. Willard, impulsively squeezing his hand. “He’ll be okay. Even if he’s sleeping rough somewhere, the temps aren’t going below forty at night.”
“I’m not worried about that. The kid’s a survivalist—what he didn’t learn from the Boy Scouts and books as a lad, the army taught him. No, I’m worried about—” He drew in a deep breath and let it out in a sharp huff. “Can you help him, Officer Ferris?”
He’d startled me. “Help Jesse?”
He bobbed his head rapidly. “Yes. Prove he didn’t do it so he can come home again. He didn’t hurt that woman—I know he didn’t, but the police suspect him. You’re here all the time; you can discover the real killer.”
He ignored my protest. “I’m going to be late. Please call me if you find Jesse.”
As I watched him plod toward his car, I thought about his undefined worries. He could be worried about Jesse’s mental state if he’d stumbled over the injured Zoë. Or he could have darker, better-left-unexpressed worries about the nature of Jesse’s encounter with Zoë, despite his conviction that his son hadn’t killed her. Trying to suppress those thoughts myself—I didn’t want Jesse to be guilty of harming Zoë—I hurried into the mall’s warmth, thinking it would be nice to clear Jesse’s name if I could.
• • •
I’d completed a
circuit of the mall and done some paperwork by nine o’clock when Joel came in. The phone rang as he walked through the door and he dove for it, dropping the handset as he fumbled to take off bulky gloves. I rolled my eyes at him. “Fernglen Galleria Security, Officer Rooney speaking,” he said, managing to sound both very young and professional at the same time. He handed me the phone.
“This is Iona Moss,” a woman whispered. “You wanted me to let you know when Tab Gentry got here. Well, he’s here. And it looks like he wants to cause trouble.”
“On my way,” I said, hanging up.
Telling Joel where I was headed, I hopped on the Segway and took off for the elevator. Arriving at the movie wing minutes later, I could hear yelling. I dismounted and hurried around the corner. The actor I’d noted yesterday, a man in his midtwenties, tall and handsome in an all-American-boy sort of way, was yelling at a petite woman wearing jeans and a photographer’s vest. I realized I’d seen her Monday when I’d escorted Ethan back to the set. She’d wanted to talk to him about some fountain scene. They stood in the doorway of the production office. Three or four onlookers tried to appear as if they weren’t paying attention, but their bodies all angled toward the twosome having words.
“All I’m asking for is another chance, Bree,” Tab Gentry pleaded.
The petite woman, who must be Bree Spurrier, the second assistant director, shook her head, dark pageboy swaying against her cheeks. “I can’t, Tab. Our insurers—”
“Damn the insurers! Did you know the cops came to talk to me yesterday? All but accused me of killing Zoë because she got me fired.” He looked around wildly, and ran a hand through his thick, wheat-blond hair.
“Zoë didn’t get you—”
“The hell she didn’t! No one wanted to fire
because Ethan Jarrett, our big star”—he sneered the words—“was cuddling her, telling her it wasn’t her fault. It was an accident. No one even got hurt.” His voice had changed from accusing to pleading. “I need the work, Bree.”
With a shake of her head, the dark-haired woman turned her back on him to enter the office. Gentry’s hand flashed out and grabbed her shoulder, jerking her back half a step. Two of the beefy movie security men belatedly realized they should be doing something and started forward even as I came up behind the pair and said, “Mr. Gentry?”
Distracted, he turned and looked at me. “Who are you?”
“My name’s EJ Ferris.” I offered my hand, and he automatically removed his hand from Bree’s shoulder to shake.
Bree scooted into the office and pulled out her cell phone. I had a feeling she was calling the police. The security guys surged forward, about to latch onto Gentry, but I gave them a look that told them to let me handle it. They’d had their chance.
“You really don’t want to do this. I know it’s disappointing and unfair, but you don’t want to make things worse by getting the police involved.” I nodded to Bree where she was talking on her phone. “Don’t burn your bridges, and they may hire you for another project. Why don’t you let me buy you a cup of coffee?”
Gentry looked from me to Bree to the looming security guards. “I don’t want any damned coffee,” he snarled. He pivoted and half stalked, half jogged toward the mall exit. I let him go, although the security guards followed him to the door.
“You handled that well,” a voice behind me said. “Better than I did.”
I turned to see that Bree Spurrier had emerged from the office. Crinkles at the corners of her eyes suggested she was older than I’d first thought, maybe in her late forties. Thin lips, slightly chapped, were drawn into a tight smile. Her slight frame seemed weighted down by the bulky vest, even though it looked like the pockets were mostly empty.
I shrugged. “When you’ve dealt with drunken soldiers, a disappointed actor isn’t much to take on. EJ Ferris.”
We shook hands.
“Drunken soldiers?” she asked.
I gave her the
version of my career: “I used to be an air force cop.”
“Really?” She looked at me with interest. “Isn’t that unusual for a woman?”
“Not these days.”
“How do you come to be working in a mall, if you don’t mind my asking?” She tilted her head, reminding me of a grackle eyeing a worm.
I felt uncomfortable with her probing, but said, “I was injured. I’m recuperating.”
“Really?” She arched thin brows. “That’s very interesting. You know, there’ve been a couple of movies made about the Iraq/Afghanistan wars, but they’ve all been from the male point of view. Yeah, I know a woman directed
The Hurt Locker
,” she said, as if I were going to object, “but it was about men, the male experience of war. Your story intrigues me. Maybe there’s a movie in it. How did you say you got hurt and what, exactly, were the nature of your injuries? Let’s get some coffee.” She pointed to an urn at the end of a long table laden with Danishes, bagels, and muffins.
“I’m really not movie material,” I said, appalled by the idea. “And I’ve got to get back to work. But thanks for the offer.”
I was about to make good my escape when Ethan’s voice hailed me from down the hall. “EJ!”
Bree’s eyebrows snapped together at his familiarity. “Where do you know—”
“Morning, Bree,” Ethan said, as he joined us. He looked rested and ready for filming, made up and costumed. The famous smile lit up the whole hall, and I was relieved that he seemed to have put our last conversation behind him. “Eej—”
“Mr. Jarrett,” I said, giving him a look to ward off the hug I saw coming. “I gave that letter you were worried about to the police, but they haven’t gotten back to me yet. Have you received another one?”
“Not me,” Ethan said, “but some other folks have.” He handed me a couple of flyers with the same “stop glorifying violence” message as on Ethan’s letter.
Bree’s shoulders relaxed at this simple explanation for my being acquainted with one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. “I need to talk to you about this morning’s scene with Anya,” she said to Ethan. “I’m not sure about the kiss—”
“In a minute,” Ethan said, throwing one arm over my shoulders and steering me out of earshot.
Before he could say anything, I said, “I’m really sorry about what I said yesterday. I was thoughtless and—”
He interrupted me. “Zoë’s murder made us both edgy. Let’s forget it. You’re coming for dinner tonight, right? We’ll send the limo.”
I had a feeling that we should continue the conversation we’d started, get our feelings out on the table, but I caved to his “let’s forget it” because I hated being at odds with him. “Great,” I said.
Ethan moved off to join Bree, and I noticed Iona Moss staring at us through the plate glass window of the store-cum-office. I smiled, but she turned away without responding. Hm. Maybe the light was hitting the window wrong and she hadn’t seen me. I Segwayed back to the main part of the mall and spent a couple of hours doing my mall cop thing: I helped a young mother with three toddlers find her car, told a shopper with a Siberian husky that animals weren’t allowed in the mall, broke up a loud argument between a man and his wife over his need to own every Craftsman tool ever invented, and summoned maintenance to de-bubble the fountain after some hooligan dumped half a bottle of dish soap into it.
I was about to make tracks for the office when a man stepped in front of my Segway. Detective Helland. I resisted the urge to run him down. Instead, I stopped. “Yes?”
His ice blue eyes surveyed me with a hint of approval. “I hear you defused a tense situation this morning.”
“I persuaded Tab Gentry not to tube his chances of ever working in the industry again, if that’s what you mean.” I shrugged. It had been no big deal.
“The officers who arrived after you left, responding to a call from a Ms. Spurrier, got told how wonderful you were.”
I couldn’t tell if he was mocking me or complimenting me.
“I wanted to let you know we’ve given the production company permission to resume filming tomorrow, and you can reopen that bathroom; we’re done with it.”
I knew it would be a long darn time before I felt comfortable using that particular restroom. Come to think of it, Zoë had been in the men’s room, not the women’s room, so I wouldn’t have to worry about it. I wondered if the fact that she was killed in the men’s room meant the killer was a man. Before I could give that any thought, Helland spoke.
“I talked to Mr. Willard again. We still haven’t located Jesse.”
I stayed silent, not sure why he was telling me this.
“Mr. Willard seems to think Jesse might show up here.” Helland met my gaze straight-on and I realized, apropos of nothing, that he was a very unfidgety guy—no tics or habitual gestures. “If he does, you need to remember that he’s a murder suspect.”
Drawing myself up to my full five foot six, I said coldly, “I’ll be sure to let you know immediately if I run into him.” I might like Jesse, but I knew I couldn’t protect him. “I—”
“I know you will,” Helland said, surprising me. “I was expressing concern for your safety. I know you feel some sympathy for the guy—hell, I feel some sympathy for him—but I don’t want you trying to talk him into turning himself in or engaging him in any way. He might have killed a woman . . . we don’t want to give him the opportunity to make it two.” Without giving me a chance to respond, he walked off.