Stratus Fear

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Chapter Twelve

At home and alone, I poured a glass of the red wine and settled on the sofa for a run-through of what I had thus far. From Harrison Sebring’s information, I learned that one company had brought up workers to Terre Celeste on the day Gavin McAllister died. The business in question serviced in-ground pools, those delightful and de rigueur additions to sophisticated backyards. Hoyt Newton, the general manager of Aqua-Clean Pool Services, Inc., used a dozen of his regular employees and hired on a worker named Sonny Clarke as a relief tech. The manager even offered a detailed description of his temp employee; but of course, I had no idea if it matched that of Buckley Grover’s makeup since his rapid aging had distorted his youthful features. Libby had asked Simbi Grover for a photo of Buckley before the transformation, but the dancer told the sergeant that she would have to go through the family belongings now in a storage unit. Until then, I had to work with what I had, a so-so description of the man, late twenties, and average height, a somewhat slim build, brown hair, and hazel eyes. He also sported a defining tattoo of a boa constrictor coiled around a naked lady between his shoulder blades—a sexist declaration any wife would be proud of. From what I found out, all the pool techs wore pale-blue nylon coveralls with detachable sleeves and leg cuffs for warm weather, so that counted out the body art unless Sonny had taken off his whole uniform while he worked.

According to Hoyt Newton, all the workers had been given a specific residence to service, and the man calling himself Sonny Clarke had been assigned to the outdoor pool attached to the palatial estate of Fidel and Sarina de la Vega, their property about a block away from the Elysian Towers. Each pool man carried an assigned equipment case, but they also brought along their own personal carry-ons with their lunches and drinks. Again, according to Fiedler and some of the other employees, Sonny Clarke had carried his own nondescript duffel bag in navy blue.

Had Clarke worked for the company before? Fiedler thought so, at least for a week or two, but he would have to check the employee rosters to make sure. Of course, I would have to call around and see if Clarke had registered for work with some other service companies. Then again, if I made nice, maybe I could get Libby Farah to take over the job and check out the employment agencies while she was at it, particularly the state employment office.

As per routine, the aquatic techs—as they were called—started work at ten in the morning and ended at three in the afternoon. Once finished each worker waited at the curb of their assigned residence and Hoyt Newton made the rounds to pick them up with the company van. For some reason that day had been particularly hot and busy, and Newton couldn’t remember if he had gathered up all thirteen aquatic techs. It was not until they returned to the company offices back down here and Newton inventoried the equipment that he realized he had either one tool case too many or one employee short, the latter being the correct answer after a quick double-check.

A discreet inquiry had been made with the de la Vega service staff, but the head housekeeper noted that Mr. Clarke had left earlier than usually, around one p.m., his shirt intact and a work bag in each hand. She thought nothing of it since he seemed to have completed his work promptly. Hoyt Newton, too, thought nothing more about Clarke since the man had returned the company’s tool case. Occasionally, a temp employee for whatever reason would skip out before the end of the work day, and so would forfeit his pay. The manager noted the main reasons for this, A) laziness on the part of the employee, B) the job hadn’t been what the employee expected, and C) the job proved too much to handle. I added a fourth reason, the escape from boredom and the monotony of skimming dead bugs and leaves from the otherwise pristine pool. And despite company rules and trades-people protocol, I’d jump into that delicious, refreshing water and kiss work and rank good-bye. The owner of Aqua-Clean Pool himself would have to fish me out with a big butterfly net or zap me with a long prod. At least Clarke had the courtesy to return the tool case, probably during the time Fiedler had left the van to eat his own lunch where he wouldn’t be noticed at the large, central-area park called Fountain Acres.

I remembered passing by the park, a very large expanse of green grass, verdant trees, and beds upon beds of blooming flora. A massive tiered fountain took over the center of attention, gushing forth from beneath a canopy of white steel girders designed to look like some kind of ribbed dome. Free-standing metal sculptures made by renowned artists took up sentry duty between the soccer and tennis courts, the baseball diamonds, and playground equipment. If you wanted to get lost in such green splendor you could do so quite adroitly and with no one the wiser. But somehow Clarke had made it back to Terre Cite without checking out at the main gate. He certainly couldn’t have walked on through, and that meant he either had access to a vehicle or someone else gave him a ride. I opted for the ride.

So towards that end Detective Sebring had been diligently running down the myriad of drivers—residents and visitors alike—who drove their vehicles to and fro on a daily basis. I certainly didn’t envy his job. And since his deputies hadn’t found the murder weapon, we had to assume that Clarke took it with him, probably stashed in his personal bag. Tomorrow morning I would find Simbi and ask her if Bucky owned a dark blue duffel. If he did, well, I’d take it to our crime lab for analysis. Hopefully we could find some trace evidence to link someone to the crime, be it Sonny Clarke or Buckley Grover, or a combination thereof. Sonny Clarke hadn’t roused any official interest yet, the name neither too obvious nor too overdone to invite scrutiny. Of course, I could be reaching well beyond my territory, but I certainly wouldn’t get anywhere if I kept within the safer limits of conjecture. This case had just too many balls to bounce around with most going out of bounds.

A check with the national crime data base hadn’t turned up a Buckley Grover or a Sonny Clarke as a past offender, and neither had Simbi Grover, née Florence. One family member did come up though, Simbi’s younger brother, Levon Florence, now serving a ten-year sentence at the lunar penal colony for armed robbery resulting in manslaughter, even though he had been only an accomplice, not the primary shooter. Tough break for Levon, and for his sister, too. From what I gathered about the Grover family circumstances, the family had once lived in a car, and therefore the likelihood of Simbi purchasing the hefty shuttle ticket to take her up to see her brother remained very slim—not unless she came into some money, a nice healthy chuck of such brought home by her workman husband, the poor slob who now lay aging and maybe even dying in a hospital bed. With hubby out of the way, she might just make that trip to the moon after all... I had never been there myself and had no desire to make the trip. Besides the penal colony, a few farming colonies had been set up to cultivate new food sources through terra gardening. So, you basically had inmates who had committed violent crimes on earth and farmers whose main interests remained in their massive hot houses, not exactly my kind of vacation spot.

As I swirled the wine in my juice glass, I had to wonder about motives and opportunities in the Grover case. I knew nothing of science and medicine, or even a rudimentary knowledge of poisons. What if Simbi planned to get rid of her husband after he brought home that sizable amount of cash? Yet I had a hard time believing the exotic dancer had a working knowledge of biotech science, enough to give Buckley something to make him age rapidly. No, that kind of know-how belonged to Dr. Nutter and the Senesco group, the scientists, lab technicians and even the management team of Mendell Joffe, Dane Merrick, Dalton Hendricks…and Gavin McAllister. Of course, dead men told no tales, at least not overtly or loud enough for a layperson like me to take notice. But I had information technology on my side and once I gathered the pertinent data, I could be just as savvy as any killer out there.

The pool man as killer angle looked good to me, if only because I conked out pursuing other avenues, especially ones involving those of executive status. My call to Mr. Paxton Huxley, McAllister’s attorney, got me as far as the man’s office assistant. She told me Mr. Huxley had gone to San Francisco on business and would be back this weekend. In the meantime, she would give him my message as soon as he called in. Just for the heck of it, I asked her if she could route me a copy of Mr. McAllister’s will. She would be doing me a great favor by cutting corners and moving things right along. Of course, this glorified secretary had no authority to do such and she would have to wait for Mr. Huxley’s instructions.

“What about a memorial service for the late Mr. McAllister? Do you know anything about that?”

I heard her sniff on her end, and if sniffs can be snooty and condescending hers surely qualified. After a beat, she offered a short and chilly rebuttal. “No, detective. I have no idea. Good day.” With that, she ended the conversation, and then probably added a cruel and haughty laugh at my expense. Good day, indeed. I could laugh just as high-handed as she could.

But now instead of laughter, the high trill of my comlink startled me out of my reverie and I almost spilled my drink. After scrambling to sit up, I traded my wine glass for the phone and gave a breathless husky hello. The ID display hadn’t registered a specific name and location, but it still could be Rogue calling from some anonymous phone link.

“Good evening,” a male voice greeted back. “Is this Detective Parrish, Cadye Parrish?”

Despite the mental haze brought on by exhaustion and alcohol, I finally registered Dane Merrick’s sexy, throaty alto tenor. “Yes, yes, this is she.”

“I’m not calling at an inopportune time, am I, Cadye?”

“No, I’m still semi-conscious.” Sitting straight, I tried to pull myself together, even though he couldn’t see my disheveled state on the mini-link, not unless I wanted him to. Of course, my curiosity compelled me to put him on the big display; and when I did his larger-than-life smile almost melted my heart.

“Ah, yes, that’s better,” Dane commented as he gazed straight at me. “I hope you’ve found some time to relax this evening.”

“Somewhat.” I leaned forward, my hands pressed to my knees. “I guess you could call it part work and part rest. But right now rest is preferable to work.” As I tried a gallant smile, my gaze shot to my juice glass with an inch of wine left, visible on the nearby table. If Dane noticed, he chose not to make a comment, bless him.

“I whole heartily endorse relaxation whenever possible. In fact, detective—” His smile broadened. “I was wondering if you take time off for dinner once in awhile.”

I nodded. “I try to whenever hunger calls.”

“Then how about pairing your hunger with mine? Actually, I’m talking about having dinner together, tomorrow evening, that’s if I’m not overstepping my boundaries or yours.”

“No, not at all.” I held no qualms about dining with a person-of-interest in a murder investigation, if he didn’t mind dining with a member of the police force.

Dane’s smile dimmed. “Of course, I haven’t asked if you’re involved with someone.”

I shook my head faster than I could contemplate my situation. Why I had no idea, but it might have to do with the fact Rogue’s image failed to appear at the proper moment, technically freeing me up for other interesting pursuits. “It’s no problem,” I finally answered.

“Good. I usually work until six or seven. Would eight o’clock be too early for you?”

“No, not at all.”

“I’d come to fetch you but it probably would be easier just to meet at La Testa-Rossa, on Hollywood. Are you familiar with the restaurant?”

“Yes, I hear it has an excellent reputation and a wonderful menu of mixed ethnic food.” In fact, La Testa-Rossa had become one of those trendy bistros everyone raved about down here—at least until the enthusiasm for high-end cuisine wore off, or drained everyone’s nondiscretionary pocket change.

“I thought it would be a good bet.” His smile returned in full gorgeous force. “So, I pronounce it a date.”

My heart racing, I tried to put voice to my eager, daring thoughts. “I’m looking forward to it.” Not exactly provocative but sincere.

“Until tomorrow evening then…Cade. Wait a minute, can I call you Cade, or is it strictly Cadye? Cade, I like the sound of that, like the gentle cascade of a waterfall.”

“Yes, yes,” I murmured. “Please.”

“Then you have a good evening, Cade, and pleasant dreams.”

“You, too, Dane. Good night.” Sheesh, I sounded like a tongue-tied school girl, but at least he had signed off and disappeared before my flush had become highly visible, the color of my wine, a deep, warm carmine. Now the idea of returning to work struck me as purely academic. I’d do better to take a bath and try to get some sleep, if I could do so without conjuring up Dane Merrick and that dazzling smile of his. Cade. I like the sound of your name, like the gentle cascade of a waterfall.

I needed to write that down in my journal. But another buzz of my comlink brought me back down from those wonderful soft clouds. Libby had sent me a photograph of Buckley Grover along with a message: Here’s your mug shot, Cadye. With a sigh, I realized I was back to Cadye again. The sergeant hadn’t included any update, but I had to give her an A+ for effort and resourcefulness. Somehow she had managed to wrangle a photo of Buckley Grover from the exhausted Simbi. Of course, I had only a headshot now, but I preferred it to a video any day, since a still image makes identifying a person so much easier.

Dear, sweet, Libby. Despite our bouts of witty repartee and competitive camaraderie, we actually worked well together. Of course, Libby remained aware of my living situation, while I knew virtually nothing about her personal life, that’s if she had one. Now I brought up Bucky’s photos and gave them a critical perusal, the young and the old. Before his remarkable aging act, the guy possessed an oval almost chucky face, a cleft chin and wide, expressive eyes of gray-green. His hair capped his head in longish tangled waves, a color I would call burnt wheat. When I thought of his wife, Simbi, I wondered what Bucky had to offer such a willowy and attractive woman like her, certainly not good looks on his end. As the old saying went, opposites attract, and Bucky and Simbi seemed to occupy either end of the spectrum. If the opportunity came up, I’d like to take a gander at their kids. Children of mixed race couples usually possessed the best of both worlds, and I found such kids extremely stunning; although with this set of genes, I hoped the Grover progeny leaned towards their mother while bypassing most of the lesser traits of their father. Then again, could Bucky’s fast aging process be a genetic defect? Somehow I doubted it, especially since the doctors attending him hadn’t noted any inherited abnormalities, which proved good news for the kids.

At least I had a decent head shot of a young Bucky to show Morrison the apartment manager and maybe even Arianna just to see if one or the other or both had noticed him hanging around before and/or during the day of the murder. I wouldn’t bother with the old man image. No sense scaring the shit out of people when I had to explain. Then again, how could I explain something no one, not even the specialists, had yet to understand? Anyway, it meant another trip up to Terre Celeste, a visit I could take or leave at this stage; although I might take the opportunity to interview the Villarreal housekeeper to see if she had anything more pertinent to add. Plus, I could return the video discs I had snagged on my first visit. As I suspected, the videos offered a colorful selection of pornography, cleverly labeled as Conference 1, 2, 3, etc. The movies were nothing exceptional, just your average porn flicks, the women with huge boobs and frontal nudity and the men with tight ass muscles and their backsides to the camera. None of the actors resembled Gavin McAllister or Arianna Ravel, so I figured McAllister had purchased them at a porn warehouse to show his guests or dates or whoever, a fun evening with cocktails, canapés and cock suckers. Of course, I thought about saving one disc for Rogue, but I knew he preferred the real deal, my average boobs to his average ass, no props needed.

With that settled, I saved Bucky’s photo in my comlink and called it a night.

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