Table of Contents
A piercing scream cut through the air-conditioned halls . . .
This was getting old. There was enough screaming going on at Fernglen this morning to make me think I’d wandered into a haunted house attraction or teen slasher flick by mistake. Why did a gecko or garter snake elicit so much fear? Maybe, I decided, because it was out of context in a mall, unexpected. If you were gardening or hiking through a state forest, you’d be half-thinking you might see a lizard or snake, so it wouldn’t startle you as much. At the mall, the scariest thing you expected to see was the total on your credit card receipt.
Following the continued screeching, I hooked a sharp left into the Dillard’s wing. A young woman with a stroller stood halfway down the hall, arm outstretched and finger pointed rigidly at Diamanté’s display window. Her mouth opened wide as she screamed, the sound changing to a gasping attempt at words when she saw me approaching. “It’s . . . it’s . . . it’s . . .” she huffed.
“It’s nothing to be afraid of, ma’am,” I said in my most comforting voice. A peek into the stroller showed me an infant in head-to-toe pink, sleeping through her mommy’s hysteria. “It’s harmless. Just a—” I swiveled to look in the window, hoping to be able to say, “just an iguana,” or “just a corn snake.”
But it wasn’t a corn snake or an iguana or even Agatha. It wasn’t a reptile at all. It was a man. A naked man. A completely naked, completely dead man.
THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA
Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)
Penguin Books Ltd., 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
Penguin Group Ireland, 25 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd.) Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia
(a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty. Ltd.)
Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi—110 017, India Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, Auckland 0632, New Zealand
(a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd.)
Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty.) Ltd., 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa
Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with the author
Berkley Prime Crime mass-market edition / August 2011
Copyright © 2011 by Laura DiSilverio.
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.
ISBN : 978-1-101-51725-3
Berkley Prime Crime Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.
PRIME CRIME and the PRIME CRIME logo are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
For all wounded warriors,
in thanks for your service and sacrifices
I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Mr. Ed Beane, director of security at Chapel Hills Mall, and his deputy, Robert Bullard, for cluing me in on what real mall cops do. Any errors in this book—procedural, operational, or otherwise—are mine, and attributable to the needs of the plot or my lack of understanding.
I also want to thank my good friend Lester Sharpless for giving me a tutorial on roller derby, a sport I’d want to try if I didn’t know my aging bones and joints would make me very, very sorry.
As usual, thanks to the women who critique my writing efforts: Joan Hankins, Marie Layton, Amy Tracy, and Lin Poyer. Thanks also to my agent, Paige Wheeler, and her team at Folio Literary Management, and my editor, Michelle Vega, and all the folks at Berkley Prime Crime, especially my energetic and enthusiastic publicist, Kaitlyn Kennedy, and Ben Perini and Rita Frangie, who created this book’s gorgeous cover.
My writing would not be possible, satisfying, or fun without the love and support of my beloved husband and daughters, and a host of friends full of goodwill and encouragement. Special thanks to Jill Gaebler, Cindy Stauffer, Retha Bosley (the source of Anders Helland’s name), Katie Smith, Hans VonMilla, Patrick Butler, Fred and Ellen Gortler, Tim and Christy Mulligan, and Linda Major, who have gone out of their way to convince their friends, librarians, and local booksellers that my books are worth reading. I am truly blessed by your friendship.
It amazed me
how a few hundred feet of tile floors and narrow halls amplified a scream.
With the Fernglen Galleria empty of shoppers at this early hour, the terror-stricken wail ricocheted off the tiles, so I couldn’t quite tell where it was coming from. The fear in the sound got to me, though, and I pivoted my Segway, the two-wheeled electric vehicle I used to patrol miles of mall corridors and parking areas, and zoomed past the fountain, the frozen escalator by the food court, and a wing of stores with their grilles down.
“Ai-yi-yi!” came the screech again.
I turned down the narrow hall that led to the restrooms. Fernando Guzman, a member of the mall’s maintenance staff, danced wildly around his wheeled gray trash can, flailing a mop this way and that. He looked like a demented warlock performing an incantation around an outsized rubber cauldron. He caught sight of me.
Get it off me.”
It was then I spotted the dragon on his head. Bearded dragon, that is. An Australian lizard. I only knew that because Kiefer, owner of the mall’s reptile store, Herpetology Hut, made a point of instructing me about a different critter every time I stopped to check up on things. This bearded dragon was only about eight inches long. Gazing at me incuriously from unblinking black eyes set into a triangular head, it seemed remarkably unperturbed by Fernando’s gyrations.
I got off my Segway and approached Fernando, making calming motions with my hands. “Chill, Fernando. Just hold still.”
He stopped doing his impression of a broken windmill in a hurricane and stood almost still, shaking slightly. “Is it poisonous?” His eyes widened until white showed all the way around his brown irises.
“No.” At least, if it was, Kiefer hadn’t mentioned it. The thought made me hesitate for a second, and I tucked my hair behind my ear in a nervous gesture I’d had since childhood. I reached one hand toward the lizard.
Fernando, anxious to help, stooped down. The reptile, finding itself eye to beady eye with me, hissed and puffed out the spiny ruff under its chin. Aah, so that’s why they called it a “bearded” dragon. Its fierceness gave me pause. Maybe I should call for backup, get someone to fetch Kiefer. But, no, he probably wasn’t even at the store yet.
“Get it, EJ,” Fernando pleaded.
It’s a lizard, I admonished myself, not a camel spider. The dinner-plate-sized arachnids had creeped me out in Iraq. Just grab the damn thing. My hand flashed out and closed around the reptile. Its skin felt rough on my palm. Trying to be gentle, I lifted it away from Fernando’s head, keeping a firm grip despite its wiggly attempts to free itself. It tangled its little claws in Fernando’s thick, black hair, making him wince as I pulled it free.
Thank you,” Fernando said fervently, straightening. He backed up a couple steps and eyed the lizard warily.
“I live to serve,” I said wryly. “How’d this guy get on your head, anyway?” The lizard had gone still in my hand, its tail draped up my arm.
“I bend to pick up some trash, here.” Fernando pointed to a spot under the fire extinguisher. “Next thing I know, that . . . that monster leap on my
.” He raked his fingers through his hair, as if trying to eradicate the feel of the lizard’s feet on his scalp.
I brought the lizard closer to my face and stroked its back gingerly with one finger. It was kind of cute in a scaly, reptilian sort of way. “How’d you end up here, dragon? Don’t you belong in a nice, secure cage at the Herpes Hut, eating insects or dandelion leaves or Purina Lizard Chow?”
The dragon hissed.
Leaving Fernando to continue his duties, I held the lizard against my chest with one hand while trying to steer the Segway with the other. I reflected that in my thirteen months as a member of the Fernglen Galleria Security Force, I’d never dealt with an animal incident. Lost kids, drug deals, shoplifting, vandalism, car theft—yes. Escaped reptiles—no. The work might not give me the adrenaline rush that patrolling the streets of Kabul or Baghdad with my military unit had, but it was still police work, of a sort, and I couldn’t expect much better with a knee and lower leg mangled by shrapnel from an IED blast. The lizard nudged between the buttons of my crisp white uniform shirt, recalling my attention. I jumped and the Segway veered.
“Off-limits, buddy,” I said, pulling Mr. Nosy back as his claws snagged on my bra’s lace trim. I straightened out the Segway as I came around the corner into the Macy’s wing where the Herpes Hut was located. Kiefer Jones ran toward me, dreadlocks flopping against his shoulders with every step. He wore a plaid flannel shirt unbuttoned over a red “My Snake Has A Reptile Dysfunction” tee shirt and jeans. His twenty-something face wore a scowl.