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Christmas At Timberwoods
By Fern Michaels
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2011 MRK Productions
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTimberwoods Mall was ablaze with Christmas cheer. Busy shoppers fought their way from store to store with good-natured directness; garlands of evergreens hung from on high, artificially scented to add to the delicious atmosphere of the holidays. The glittering displays, the noisy fun of the puppet shows and animated seasonal displays, the Christmas train that carried its young passengers in a wide circle around the promenade level, and the general feeling of goodwill and peace on earth were all enhanced by the piped-in Christmas carols.
Heather Andrews, head security manager, turned away, feeling a little overwhelmed. She left the high balcony where she'd been keeping an eye on the crowds and retreated to the relative calm of her office to make herself some coffee. The ritual of making it was soothing, even though the caffeine jolt she was after would be the exact opposite.
Premeasured pod in the basket. Filtered water in the upper part. Glass pot, ready and waiting. Flip, click, push the button.
She went to her desk with a cup of the fresh-brewed coffee and sat down in her swivel chair with a sigh, taking a sip and glancing out of habit at a bank of video monitors that offered views of every aspect of the gigantic mall and the swarm of shoppers. The system was state-of-the-art. One click of a mouse could narrow the focus to individual faces, enabling her and the security team to keep an eye on suspicious characters and record their activities.
Bryan, her assistant, came in with a sheaf of printed reports. Heather sat up straight.
"Sorry. Didn't mean to startle you," Bryan said.
She looked intently into the monitors, following the progress of a female figure. "You didn't. I just saw someone I knew on the video feed."
"Bad guy or good guy?"
"Not a guy. A girl." She swiveled the monitor around so Bryan could see. "Angela Steinhart."
"Who? Uh, I mean, the last name is familiar," Bryan corrected himself.
"It's on the plaque at the entrance. You see it every workday, genius. Her father's architecture firm built this mall," Heather said crisply. "Angela designed some of our best Christmas displays this year, and she hasn't even graduated from college yet. Check out the number of people around that one."
She switched the focus from Angela at the outer edge of the crowd, and zoomed in on a charming Victorian skating scene featuring larger-than-life mice in vintage costumes. Bright-eyed children and their parents looked on as the animated mice twirled and did figure eights.
"Nice," Bryan said in a bored way. "I'd rather watch hockey myself. But at least she paid her debt to society."
Heather knew he was referring to Angela's arrest for shoplifting a few years ago, and she wasn't going to go into it. As far as she was concerned, Angela had redeemed herself for that single misdemeanor offense. Besides, the mall's case, such as it was, had been on the shaky side.
Bryan placed the reports on her desk. "Here you go. Have yourself a merry little meltdown."
"Thanks." Heather took another sip of coffee and swiveled to glance at the monitors again. Angela had drifted on to another one of the displays she'd designed, an even more popular one than the skating mice. Surrounded by a low hedge of artificial greenery, huge silver and gold angels lifted glass trumpets to their lips and silently proclaimed the season of hope and joy. The greenery was decorated with tiny paper angels, handcrafted by children and put there during a sponsored project with the local schools. Each kid had added a wish for peace on earth or something like that, printed in crayon, on the wings of the angels.
Heather couldn't read the wishes on her monitor, but she knew generally what they were—she'd supervised the paper-angel installation and helped herd the kids in and out of the mall. Good community relations, or so said Felex Lassiter, head of publicity. The teachers and the moms and dads who'd volunteered for the day had been happy to have the kids think about something else besides getting presents.
Angela seemed to be studying the paper angels. Maybe she was finding inspiration for next year's displays, Heather thought idly. She picked up a page on top of the stack without reading it. She looked up at Bryan. "Hey, when are you taking that skiing vacation? I forgot to note it down."
"My flight to Colorado leaves tomorrow morning and I'm not coming back until after New Year's. You and the team are going to have to hold the fort without me."
"I don't know how we'll manage," she said dryly, then sighed. "Have a good time. Don't break a leg."
He gave her a broad grin and closed the door after himself with a soft click.
Heather riffled through the security reports, not seeing anything that required immediate action. For the briefest of seconds, she turned her attention back to the monitors, noticing absently that Angela Steinhart had disappeared from view, before she began to study the paperwork in front of her.
Continuing on her way through the mall, Angela stayed close to the walls so as to avoid the holiday shoppers thronging near the shop windows and filling the corridors. Wide-wheeled strollers and carry-carts added to the confusion of people struggling to manage bulky purchases and swinging bags, but the overall mood was cheerful, almost oblivious.
A faint shiver ran up Angela's spine, even though the indoor air was warm. She forced herself to keep on going, rising through the multileveled mall on a series of escalators framed in glass and steel.
Looking over the heads of the shoppers, she picked out her other displays and gave one last look back at the silver and gold angels, as if reassuring herself that they were still there, larger than life.
Everything seemed to be all right, but ... she wasn't. That was why she was here. Angela had to connect with someone who might understand. She had an idea who she was going to talk to but not what she would say.
Telling herself she'd worry about that when she got there, Angela glanced down at herself. Maybe she should have changed her clothes. Looking the way she did, carelessly dressed to work in her studio, she might not be taken seriously. Oh well. Either they'd listen or they wouldn't. It was as simple as that.
Angela decided she would ask to speak to the young woman in security—well, not really so young. Twenty-eight or twenty-nine would be her guess. Heather something. Angela remembered her from the day she'd been mistaken for a shoplifter and brought into the offices and searched.
Eventually the whole thing had blown over. Her father's well-known name had helped.
The reception area for the administration offices of the mall wasn't very big. Three comfortable chairs and pots of brilliant Christmas poinsettias took up most of the space. A girl slightly older than herself sitting at an undersized desk completed the small cubicle.
"I want to talk to Heather," Angela said boldly as she stared down at the young, fresh-faced receptionist.
The girl set her face in a smile and pressed a button on the phone. She spoke quietly then nodded at Angela. "Let me ask if she can see you. Take a seat, please."
Angela slumped down in one of the chairs and idly picked up a booklet from the round glass table. She blinked as she looked at an architect's drawing of the Timberwoods shopping complex, noticing the small type at the bottom. Steinhart Associates. Architects.
The receptionist had to speak twice before Angela heard her. "Miss Andrews said you can go on in."
Pushing open the door to Heather Andrews's office, Angela was greeted by a young, attractive brunette wearing a dove-gray suit. "Hello."
"Hello—ah, I'm Angela Steinhart. You probably don't remember me, but we met a few years ago when—"
Heather Andrews looked at Angela with recognition and gestured for her to sit down in the chair opposite her desk. "I do, but don't worry about that unfortunate incident. Over and done with."
Unfortunate incident. Nice way of putting it, Angela thought with relief. "I have to talk to you," she said, letting the past go.
Heather closed the office door and sat down at her desk. "What can I do for you, Angela?"
Angela looked at Heather's wide blue eyes fringed with thick, dark lashes; her smooth, pink cheeks and her bright, pretty smile beneath the short crop of dark, glossy hair. She wondered vaguely if her own life would be different if she were as pretty as Heather Andrews.
"Miss Steinhart—Angela," Heather repeated softly, "what can I do for you?"
Angela had crossed her right leg over her left and was fiddling with the frayed hem of her jeans. "I ... I came to you because I didn't know where else to go, or who else I could ... I could tell." She took a deep breath, then let it out in a rush.
Heather watched the young girl with a mixture of emotions. Here goes another lunch hour, she moaned silently. With a patience she found remarkable under the circumstances, she said, "I can see that you're upset. Why don't you start at the beginning?" She took a covert glance at her watch. Angela was obviously agitated, and there was an emotion in her eyes that Heather couldn't quite read.
It looked like fear. But what on earth did someone as privileged as this girl have to be afraid of?
Angela fished in her bulky shoulder bag. Heather noticed her bitten fingernails and ragged cuticles, and a few tiny spots of paint on her jeans. She reminded herself that creative types didn't care too much about personal appearance, envying Angela just a bit. It would be nice not to have to conform to a professional-dress code.
"I hope you don't mind my showing up like this," Angela said. "But I had to talk to you. It's about the mall," she added, her tone slightly shaky and unsure.
Heather was taken aback. "Your Christmas displays are beautiful, Angela. The customers love them—we've had nothing but positive feedback."
"Thanks, but this has nothing to do with my displays. And I know that they're popular," she admitted. "I was just at the Victorian one—it's working fine. Your technical crew is great."
"Glad to hear it from you," Heather said cheerfully. "Those skating mice are totally adorable. And the angels are spectacular. So what's on your mind?" Given the girl's nervousness, she wasn't going to say that she'd monitored Angela in the crowd around both displays.
"Look, I'll start at the beginning. Before I came here, I tried to talk to my mother, but she didn't have time to listen, and she didn't really want to. I'm going to try to catch her again when I go home."
Heather raised an inquiring eyebrow and Angela seemed to understand her unspoken question.
"My father's getting ready to go to London. He's kind of hard to pin down. Believe me when I tell you that there wasn't anywhere else for me to go."
Heather nodded, keeping a bland smile on her face. If she had to describe Angela's expression to an interested party, she'd say haunted.
"Look, my problem—if that's what it is—started when I was twelve. I see things," Angela blurted.
Heather stiffened imperceptibly. Uh-oh. Holiday craziness. It happened. But not usually in her secluded office. Her smile faded into an expression of concern and she merely nodded to Angela to continue.
Encouraged, the girl went on talking in a halting voice. "I used to tell my parents when I saw them—when they would listen, that is. They always explained it away as a bad dream or an upset stomach. These ... these ... things I see, they happen ... they happen to other people. At first it only happened once in a while, but then it became more often. I guess I scared my parents, too," Angela fretted. "Their answer was to take me to a shrink. This hotshot psychiatrist said I was making a bid for attention."
Heather hoped that was all there was to it. She couldn't very well diagnose whatever was ailing Angela Steinhart. She wasn't a guidance counselor or a psychiatrist, for heaven's sake. Why had Angela come to her?
"Anyway, that was all my mother had to hear. She started following the doctor's orders by ignoring me, which is what she's been doing for as long as I can remember."
That was way too much information. But there was no tactful way to simply ask Angela to leave. Heather tried not to stare too hard at the girl. "Tell me, what are these things you see?" There was an intensity about Angela that gave Heather gooseflesh. This job certainly had its drawbacks, and sitting here listening to this strange kid had just been added to the list. Everything she'd said so far seemed somehow rehearsed, like stage dialogue or a tall tale.
"Bad ones." Angela's face was now drained of color.
Heather was a little frightened for a moment or two. She considered calling for the emergency staff stationed at the clinic, but an instinct for self-preservation told her to wait. Her unexpected visitor had a lot of important connections, and it was best not to be too hasty. She had nothing to lose by letting Angela talk it out—and she could live without lunch, if it came to that. But the girl was silent, her mind obviously elsewhere as she fidgeted and looked around the room. Her gaze stopped on the video monitors.
"You can see everything from here, can't you?" Heather kept her expression neutral, hoping Angela's question was an idle one. It was possible to read a touch of paranoia into it. "Pretty much. That's just part of my job. You were saying?"
"Oh. Where was I?" Angela looked fixedly at Heather as if she had the answer.
"You were talking about things you saw sometimes."
Angela nodded and pushed a straggling lock of hair behind her ear. "Yes. Once I got so upset I didn't eat, and I ended up in the hospital."
"When was that?" Heather asked, not really wanting to know.
"A while ago the doctors said I was hypersensitive. God!" Angela exclaimed pitifully. "I wish I wasn't. But this feeling—that something bad is going to happen at the mall—is so strong. I wanted to talk to someone who works here," she said in an almost inaudible voice. "Maybe it's just me."
Heather didn't know whether to say yes or no to that. She noticed that Angela hadn't offered specifics about her current prediction.
"Angela, as far as I know, it's business as usual. Christmas is crazy, of course. But that's nothing new. I appreciate your coming to talk to me about your concerns, but if you don't mind my saying so, we all know that the holidays can be difficult for a lot of people. So," she reasoned, "it isn't just you. But it sounds to me like you might need someone who knows more than I do to talk to. You know, professional help—"
"I told you, I've had the pleasure. Several times. Different psychiatrists," Angela retorted. "They scribble prescriptions and hand you a bill. They don't listen. Not really." She scowled. "Guess I'm experiencing another one of my 'fits,' as my mother calls them."
"Angela, I—" Heather hesitated. "I don't know what to say." Tactful and true. And the best she could do.
"I want to ask you a question. When's the height of the season?"
"The week before Christmas." Angela paled as she mentally counted the days. "Today is December fifteenth."
"Yes, and Christmas Day is next Thursday. The stores are open until six on Christmas Eve," Heather said, alarmed. "Why?"
Angela rubbed her temples. "Ten days to Christmas." Her voice was a choked whisper, frightening Heather again.
"Angela, your parents—what if I went with you to discuss this? Would that help?" Heather's manner was slightly cajoling. She wanted Angela Steinhart out of her office as soon as possible, and missing lunch had nothing to do with it. Not a Christmas went by without some people going off the deep end. She hoped and prayed that Angela wasn't going to do the same thing, but it wasn't her job to psychoanalyze or open up a holiday hotline for the unstable.
"What for? They'll tell you it's a nervous condition or another of my bids for attention." Angela laughed uneasily. "My mother wants me locked up. If she finds out I've come to you, it'll give her all the ammunition she needs to have it done. Regardless of what my father wants. And do you know something? At this point, I almost don't care. Sometimes I think my mother's right. Maybe I am a lunatic."
Excerpted from Christmas At Timberwoods by Fern Michaels Copyright © 2011 by MRK Productions. Excerpted by permission of ZEBRA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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