Stratus Fear

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Chapter Ten

I decided to by-pass the office and opt for home, if only to unwind before I had to gear up again. When I entered the apartment I noticed Rogue had left me a brief note on our message board we had tacked up on the wall. The board served as a cover for a sizable chink in the plaster, the result of the last tremor that hit us a couple of years back.

Hey, babe. Be back in a couple of days.

The words glowed back at me, this time in green neon from the gel pen he had chosen to scrawl on the board. Rogue never revealed the details of these short but lucrative trips and I learned never to ask if I didn’t want to find myself embroiled in legal technicalities.

Slipping off my jacket and shoes, I stretched along the sofa until I found a comfortable niche and relaxed. Unfortunately, my euphoria was short-lived when my comlink buzzed on my wrist. One glance at the display informed me that the boss wanted me. With a groan, I sat up and went to transfer his relay to a more secluded place so that Bender would not see the disheveled status of my apartment behind me. I used the small link in the kitchen. “Hello, Bender,” I greeted with a forced smile.

“Hey.” The captain’s ruddy face glared back at me, his little eyes peering over puffy contours of flesh, the eye bags from lack of sleep because of the job. “So, where have you been, Cadye?”

“Doing my job,” I told him firmly. “I went out to the Senesco Institute to get some info on the Gavin McAllister case.”

“And did you?”

“Yes, and I’ll tell you all about it in the report which I will have for you first thing tomorrow morning.”

“Yeah, yeah, okay. Right now, I need you to check with Sergeant Farah over at the hospital. She says there’s something strange going on over there and she could use your help.”

I donned a disapproving frown. I thought I had graduated beyond the street-level grunt work through my training and experience. Now I expected prime cases like Gavin McAllister’s murder, not some hospital case, probably some drunk who’d been knifed in a bar brawl. Besides, Sergeant Farah had enough smarts to handle those kinds of cases on her own.

When I made my displeasure known, Bender worked his fat lips into a half-scowl and half pout, if ex-Marines knew how to pout. “Just go over and see what you can do. Give her some input and then get back to your own work.”

This time my sigh offered my reluctant but duty-bound acquiescence. What could I do? If anything, I’d go see what Libby needed and then I’d high tail it back here to start my report. I had a lot of information to cover, including my interview with Mendell Joffe this afternoon. “Okay, Bender. I’ll go but I won’t be happy. Which hospital?”

There were at least five within the immediate area; although Providence Community Medical Center served most of the walk-in emergency trade, and that’s the one Bender indicated. “Just for the record, Cadye,” he added before signing off, “You don’t always need to be happy to work a case.”

I offered a simple smile. “You’re right, Bender. So from now on I’ll be downright pissy and let you know all about it.” With that bit of professional wisdom, I powered down and made him vanish from both the screen and my mind.

I decided to take the Metro over to the hospital, a much faster mode of transportation than my old buggy, and easier on my nerves. I wouldn’t have to fight the rush hour traffic. Even in this day and age, people still insisted on clogging the major travel arteries—all three levels of metro-duct, land and sky—with their personal vehicles. I used my second-hand ’98 Lando hover mainly for work and for shopping, certainly not to cruise around and waste precious energy and time. Once Rogue called me by that proverbial title of Little Old Lady from Pasadena who only drove her car on Sundays. Of course, I countered by informing him that he no longer had permission to use mine. But Rogue being Rogue secured his own cruiser whenever he needed one, whether legally or not. Again, I never asked.

Now as I rode the transport, I sat back in my seat and replayed the afternoon’s revelations. I hadn’t expected to meet Mendell Joffe today, but when Dane returned, he told me the CEO would be happy to see me right away. Sometimes we rely too much on expectations, and I’m just as guilty as the next guy when it came to assumptions. I expected Mendell Joffe to come with a posh, elegant office. I found his office elegant, yes, but also stark. His only concession to art came in framed diplomas, dual undergraduate and graduate degrees in bio-sciences and business from Johns Hopkins University. Both sat on the credenza near his desk while an antique ship’s clock hung on the bronze-marble wall. It seemed to be made of polished rosewood and trimmed in gilt, very stately.

The man himself looked nothing like what I imagined a CEO to be. For one, his ears seemed almost too large for the rest of his small, round face, his chin barely perceptible. And what little thinning dark hair he had left had been styled to cover the bald spot on top of his head. His fingers looked overly long and slender, his nails pale pink and buffed to half moons. And instead of the standard three-piece business suit, he wore a belted, beige leisure suit. I couldn’t figure him out, but then again, maybe I wasn’t supposed to.

Yet, Mendell Joffe had a nice welcoming smile and chocolate brown eyes that conveyed his interest in me. “Please have a seat, Detective Parrish.” He rose for a moment behind his desk, his frame just under six feet and a pound or two lighter than medium build. He indicated the nearest chair with buttery leather upholstery.

“I won’t take up too much of your time.” As I offered this polite cliché, I pulled the chair closer to the desk.

The CEO returned to his own seat, one of those executive wing-back chairs in sable leather, soft like mine, no doubt. “That’s quite all right, detective. When it comes to the murder of one of our own, I have all the time in the world to devote to you and your investigation.”

He spoke with a slight Southern accent, although I couldn’t quite place the region, not that I’m a dialect expert by any means. “You’re probably wondering,” Joffe continued with a quick dart of his eyes around the room, “why as a senior officer I do not possess more luxurious surroundings. Very simple. I’m not in the business to impress visitors, stock holders, or a board of directors. I’m here to assist and support our ground-breaking research. Any and all surplus goes to providing our employees with those things that help boost productivity.”

I noticed he didn’t wear a wedding band, nor had I spotted any framed family pictures that most married men had on their desks to remind them of home. Then again, some men preferred to keep their careers and families separate, and that extended to personal items in their offices as well. Still I had a feeling Joffe was single, not that it mattered to me.

Now I nodded. “Yes, Mr. Merrick gave me a tour earlier, and I must say I was impressed with your laboratories and employee facilities.” I left out the part about meeting the slightly off-kilter Doctor Zeff Nutter.

“Yes, I’m proud of our accomplishments.” Sitting back, Joffe donned a thin-lipped smile. “And I’m most proud of our research and development teams. They go the extra mile to find answers to our most pressing social and medical problems.”

“Yes, Mr. Merrick told me about your gene modification research to fight such diseases as cancer as well as the development of a serum to prolong life.”

“Very good, but that’s not why you’re here, detective, so we’ll dispense with the business details for now. You want to know more about Gavin McAllister.”

“Whatever you can tell me.”

“Which is probably less than what you hope to discover. Gavin worked for the institute for seven years, in which time he managed to increase our productivity records and market our research to those entities that fund such projects. In describing Gavin I would have to see he was intelligent, career-driven, motivated, shrewd, decisive, yet generous and kind. Overall, I found Gavin quite personable and highly knowledgeable. And yet, he spoke so little about his private affairs, and very rarely joined us for more impromptu employee get-togethers.”

Interestingly enough, I heard those same words spoken earlier when I interviewed the five employees Dane had hustled my way. Both the men and the women used similar terminology when describing their dead colleague. And now the CEO offered almost the same vernacular. Naturally it got me wondering about everyone who worked here. It seemed as if they had rehearsed their responses just in case the police came a-calling, which inevitably they did. I would have loved to catch a glimpse of that office memo, the one that advised personnel to remember these words: intelligent, career-driven, shrewd, motivated, generous and all-around good guy.

“As a loyal and productive employee,” Joffe continued, “we naturally found it fitting to assume and abide by his funerary plans, and we had him cremated this morning.”

That was news to me, but I hoped my expression hadn’t relayed my surprise. I would have to get with Capt. Bender and find out if McAllister had made a will with a specific rider for funerary services. Until then I decided to press on, this time with a request for more information the institute CEO would be hard-pressed not to supply.

“I wonder if I could take a look at Mr. McAllister’s personnel file, specifically his resume. I assumed he offered one when he applied for the job here.” It didn’t think my request was too over the top.

But Mendell Joffe seemed to think so, allowing a little frown to crease his otherwise smooth, pale forehead. “Well, I’m sure we can provide that for you, detective. I’ll have my executive vice president send it over to your office just as soon as he returns from his New York trip. That should be in a day or so.”

I assumed he meant Dalton Hendricks. “Oh, I would hate to bother him with something so insignificant. But if I could connect me with your personnel manager, or even Mr. McAllister’s office assistant, I’m sure it wouldn’t be a problem to obtain a copy of—.”

The CEO actually interrupted me. “Mr. McAllister had no office assistant.” He delivered this in a brisk tone, each word distinct. Then, clearing his throat, he continued, “Now, any other time I would be happy to oblige you, detective, but we’re undergoing major changes here, complete management reorganization. Although, I assure you I will see to it personally that you receive all the pertinent information as soon as possible.”

“But your soon as possible is not my idea of ASAP. I work on the moment, and the more time that elapses the more I lose of the crime scene.”

“Yes, yes, I understand you are under pressure, detective, and I assure you I’ll do whatever I can to help within the limits of my own discretion.” As he spoke, Joffe clasped his hands together and nervously exercised his fingers, five against five, back and forth like pushups for digits. When he finished, he dropped his hands to his sides and sat back.

I pressed on, unimpressed by his executive stance. “As much as you don’t know about your senior vice president, do you have plans for Mr. McAllister’s body once the coroner releases him?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact. As per Gavin’s wishes, I will have him cremated.”

“And how do you know he wanted to be cremated?”

“It’s in his will. His attorney has that information; although, I assumed you knew that already.”

“No, I didn’t. I’ll contact his attorney this afternoon.” Now I felt the blood rise in my face. I should have done some more checking or at least have asked Dane. Mendell Joffe had one up on me and he knew it.

“His name is Paxton Huxley, the attorney,” Joffe informed me as he relaxed his thin shoulders and offered a faint smile. “Of the law firm Balcones, Hartz and Huxley. They’re in the city directory.”

“Thank you.”

This appeared to be the end of the discussion and so I rose to leave, confident I would get no more out of him after his prompt dismissal. Maybe this Mr. Huxley would have more to offer, but I figured that if Arianna knew so little about Gavin McAllister, the man she lived and slept with, I rather doubted any of his co-workers or associates could offer any more significant facts about the dead man. Curious too, McAllister was supposedly a member of senior management but had no office personnel. Could his work have been so highly sensitive and confidential that he couldn’t trust any office help, even a drone?

Now I retrieved one of my business discs and set it down on his desk. All Joffe had to do was plug it in and bring up my contact info on his telecom. After I thanked him for his time, I turned to leave but just before I hit the door I swerved back and asked. “One of Gavin McAllister’s duties involved entertaining clients, whom I assumed to be potential donors. He often took them to a night spot called Midnight Lace, a club actually where women dance and perform erotic acts for money. Are you aware of this, Mr. Joffe?”

The man barely blinked, although I heard a small intake of breath, as if he had been measuring and weighing how he wanted to respond to my surprise pop quiz. This sudden line of enquiry hadn’t been covered in the general response memo I’m sure. When he finally answered, the CEO included a brief smile along with his confident reply. “Yes, detective, I was quite aware of such arrangements. Depending on the type of clients we wished to entertain, Gavin utilized a variety of venues, including restaurants, sporting events and night clubs. He was very thorough in itemizing his monthly expense accounts and I had every confidence in his choices and his discretion.”

I wondered if Gavin had reported any lap dance expenses and tips, filing it all under Miscellaneous Entertainment, sub-titled Sex A-Feel. Instead of accompanying me to the door, Joffe remained behind his desk and offered a parting farewell with his fervent hope that I would solve the case very soon.

Once in the outer office, I expected to see the CEO’s assistant, a male drone who seemed the quiet and officious type; but instead of him or even Dane Merrick, I found myself all by my lonesome. By trial and error I tackled the maze of hallways and finally found the lobby where Ms. Hillary actually gave me a winsome smile and bid me a customer-friendly farewell: Thank you for visiting the Senesco Institute. Please come again.”

Trading my visitor’s badge for my own solicitous smile, I told her I would probably do just that—and very soon. She didn’t say a word when I pocketed my badge.

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