Stratus Fear

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Chapter Fourteen

I should have known better, but it never occurred to me to check out Dane Merrick before our dinner arrangement. If I had been doing my job, I would know all about Mr. Merrick before I arrived to meet him at the restaurant, not that I suspected him of any wrong doing; or worse, expected him to change drastically from the charming and sophisticated front man for a respected institute to a total sleaze bag during his down time. On the contrary, Dane proved his worth all around. If I had any doubts at all they quickly vanished when he poured my first glass of the hundred dollar Campasino wine, a rich red blend of herbs and spices, elegant yet subtlety provocative like the man before me. To go along with his attractive package, he wore an indigo blue jacket with a silky gray shirt and pleated dark slacks. Perhaps it was the wine or the ambiance; or hell even him, but I swore the flickering light of our table candle actually produced a dazzling glint off his front teeth.

As we dined on ravioli stuffed with veal, ricotta and palm hearts, and dressed in a heavenly tomato sauce with real garlic and basil, I let him do most of the talking while I busied myself with the process of eating. Dane offered a fascinating personal history; and I nodded frequently to let him know I remained captivated by his recitation even as I inhaled my $200 dinner. Of course, I took mental notes, as much as I could cram into my heavily food-sedated brain, that is until the effort proved too stimulating and took away from my rapturous eating endeavors. I did find out that Dane had been born in the Midwest and raised in Connecticut by his mother, a college professor, after his parents divorced when he was nine years old. He had started off as a medical student but switched to business in midstream at Harvard where he graduated with a B.S. degree in systems management and went on to earn a MBA. An avid fan of baseball and soccer, Dane also enjoyed the finer things in life, nice clothes, good food, exotic locales as well as educational vacations…and women in general with no real preference for coloring, height, weight, etc., as long as she presented a neat, attractive and professional picture, with wit and intelligence right up there as turn-ons.

Oh well and oh hell, I sighed to myself as I washed down the manicotti with another slug of wine, figuring those exacting qualifications left me out of the running, not that I put myself up for grabs by any stretch of those heady requirements. After all, Dane Merrick was a suspect in the McAllister case, but I also considered him an acquaintance who just happened to call and ask me to join him for dinner. Case closed, at least on a more personal level.

“Would you look at me?” Dane mentioned casually as he poured the last of the wine. “Here I am going on and on about myself, and you haven’t said much of anything, Cade.”

I blinked, still stuck on his first sentence, would you look at me? I couldn’t stop looking at him. “Well,” I finally managed after swallowing my last pasta bite and clearing my throat. “I honestly don’t have as interesting a background as you do, Dane. I’m afraid I come in a rather standard package.”

“Nonsense, Cade.” As he spoke, he dabbed the corners of his sexy mouth with the linen napkin. “For you to advance to the level of detective means you possess skill, tenacity and intelligence; and I know you to be smart, talented, independent and resourceful.”

“Really?” I burst out without thinking. “How can you tell in just two meetings?”

Dane leaned across the table, his gaze holding mine with steady intent. The soft lighting picked up the topaz and emerald highlights in his dazzling hazel orbs. “I can read it in your eyes, detective. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying that the eyes are the window to the soul.”

“Hum, yes,” I murmured, having heard that somewhere before, in some past life when I had been a less astute and fascinating person, but I didn’t tell him that.

“Well then, just tell me some basics.”

That could be a problem as I sorted through my grab bag of likes, dislikes and life experiences. I finally settled on my some of my preferences, Mexican food, for one, and jelly beans when I could get the real candy treats and not those soy imitations. I even revealed that I actually liked the color pink, and my musical preferences ran towards a fusion of jazz and fab rock, with some country-western thrown in for easy listening. As for movies, I preferred romantic comedies but I could settle for action-adventure with a decent plot. Then, as I wound down my life history, I mentioned that my family came from Maryland and I spent summers at my grandparents’ lake house in upper New York State.

Dane donned a curious look. “Okay, so how did you get out here?”

Shifting in my chair, I cleared my throat. “My dad was transferred to the National Aeronautics research laboratory near the air force base, and that’s about all I can tell you, sorry.”

“Ah, hah. Top secret stuff, huh?”

“Something like that. Believe it or not, I started out as a law student at UCLA and ended up at the police training academy.”

“So, how long have you been a cop?” God, he had a beautiful smile, even when he added a little smirk or a twitch of cleverness.

“Almost ten years. I started out on the beat patrol, about three years of that before I took the sergeant’s exam and passed. From there, I was in vice for awhile, narcotics, gang prevention and now homicide. I guess you could say I’ve had a very well-rounded career.”

“You certainly come highly qualified. Do you know how many homicides you’ve worked?”

“In the past couple of years?” Glancing up, I made a quick tally. In a city like this, people killed each other every day of the week. Yet to make sure we didn’t get burned out on violent death, my squad rotated with three others to pick up cases, giving murder an equal opportunity shake. “Oh, I guess about eighty-nine or so. Mr. McAllister makes it an even ninety if I’m counting right.”

Dane whistled, highly impressed I supposed. As I waited for him to add something, he simply sat up straight in his chair and nodded thoughtfully. “I have a suggestion,” he ventured at last. “I think we should stick to neutral subjects from now on. Of course, I realize that I’ve placed you in an awkward position, Cade. You shouldn’t reveal facts of your case and I shouldn’t ask any questions pertaining to such.”

With my fork, I absently ran the tines along the top of my last heavenly pasta pillow. Perhaps some analyst would say I was making decisive tracks, a physical output of my inner mental turmoil…or something to that effect. “I try to keep my work on a confidential level,” I confirmed, “although I’m allowed to talk about my cases if the conversation leans in the right direction, as in providing information that might help me.”

“In that case, I can be of service. I found out this afternoon that Gavin McAllister planned to go public with the new serum we’ve developed, even after he and Mendell had discussed the pros and cons of unveiling the serum before we’re done testing it completely.”

“Oh?” Interesting how Mendell Joffe failed to mention that tidbit. “When did this take place?”

Dane glanced thoughtfully at our waning candle, nibbling his lip, too, no doubt composing what he wanted to tell me, or should tell me. “Last week, I believe. I only discovered Gavin’s plans when I went through some of his office files.” His gaze settled back on me. “Of course, I immediately went to Menlo Joffe with the information, and he confirmed the meeting. In the end, he and Gavin agreed to hold off until we felt a hundred percent satisfied with our results.”

Menlo? I assumed it was a nickname for Mendell. “I see. So do you want to tell me what those results would be, or even what the serum is reported to do?” With that, I picked up my last pasta piece, popped it in my mouth, and chewed quickly, not bothering to savor the taste this time around.

“I’d prefer not to answer that right now, detective, if only because we’re still in the testing stage and I’d hate to let out information that’s not backed by our data.” Dane nudged his attractive lips into a confident half smile. “Oh, it’s not that I’m trying to be elusive or anything like that, but you can understand my need to keep things under wraps until we get the green light so to speak to go public.”

“Yes, I understand.” Conscious now that I had been dabbing at my chin with my napkin, I tossed the damned thing back in my lap. “Of course, you must also realize you’ve just given me an excellent motive for Mr. McAllister’s murder. Perhaps, Mr. Joffe couldn’t trust his colleague not to go ahead with what he proposed.”

“You think Menlo had Gavin bumped off?” Sitting back, Dane provided both a comfortable pose and a little laugh. “Oh, I’m not trying to be cynical or skeptical, Cade, but it does seem rather incongruous and even preposterous considering what Mendell, and even myself, wish to accomplish. We’re in business to save and prolong life, not take it away. But you do present a viable consideration.”

This time I leaned forward, careful not to drag the lacy cuffs of my blouse across my plate. “I have to look at everything and take it all seriously. And that means I have to examine the pros and cons, whether you or I consider it preposterous or even a waste of time. Of course, you and your partners could make my job easier by providing the information I asked for. So far, Mr. Joffe and Mr. Hendricks have not been forthcoming.”

“Let me see what I can do for you on that score, detective. But believe me, we’re not trying to hide anything or put up road blocks to hinder your investigation.” Dane’s gaze suddenly darted to the right and past the table next to us where an older couple sat drinking wine. Then, just as suddenly, he returned to me. “But for now, Cade, I say we get out of here and go some place more conducive to conversation, or at least some place that gives us a chance to relax a little.”

I placed my napkin on my plate, almost clean except for a couple of sauce ribbons I failed to pick up with my yummy bread stick. “I couldn’t agree with you more.”

Interestingly enough, Dane failed to offer any comments or questions when I suggested that we stop by the Midnight Lace Club for an aperitif. I’m sure he remained curious and even skeptical of my decision, but I told him that a friend of mine recommended the club, at least to enjoy the entertainment for an hour or two. He only smiled and nodded in agreement, making me think that Dane Merrick was too easy to please. Since we arrived at the restaurant in separate vehicles, we departed in such and rendezvoused in the club parking lot adjacent to the building. A discreet sign over the doorway advertised the club, the lettering done in handsome cursive, gold against an ebony background. The double doors came in real cherry wood with glass insets and gilt etched scrollwork, thus giving the place a touch of class, at least until you got inside. Then, the fun began, the lobby carpeted in rich scarlet, and the walls done in berry, white and gold stripes.

Once inside the club proper, Dane and I placed our orders at the kitschy Art Deco white and gilt-edged bar and then searched for a table. The majority of the sleek, black bar tables and chairs had already been coveted by groups of men with just a scattering of women here and there, most the companions of the male clientele. We finally found a vacant table for two towards the back which suited me just fine; and while we waited for our drinks to arrive I scanned the area more out of personal curiosity than professional. Multi-dimensional images of the entertainment danced along the mauve walls, the girls bright, busty and lustrous; although their 30-second flickering images were meant only as advertising stimuli, promises of the busty shapes and wiggles to come. After all, the patrons expected a decent show for their money with real, live dancers, not some video shorts. With a twenty-five dollar cover charge and fifteen bucks a drink, I thought they deserved backstage passes to really mingle with the girls instead of ogle them; but since my contributions to the advancement of strip tease went on my expense account, I held no qualms about viewing the dancers from my ideal position, away from the hot stage lights and the drunk, groping patrons ready to jump on the runway.

I really hadn’t worked out a plan, at least not for tonight. I supposed I wanted to do a bit of reconnaissance work before I took on the task of interviewing the employees; but as soon as the opportunity presented itself, I planned to discreetly ask someone on the management staff when the dancers arrived for work, the idea to catch them fresh and bright before they performed those arduous feats meant to provoke and titillate.

The stage curtain, made of some dark, glittering material, came bedecked with the 3-D images of faceted diamond balls and silver stars, all twinkling merrily from the rosy spot lights. Our waitress came on the voluptuous side, her body squeezed into a black leather halter top and hip-hugger shorts held together by silver chains, a studded dog collar around her neck. As she delivered our drinks—a Midori cocktail for me, a Chivas Regal for Dane—the emcee for the evening skipped out from the wings and welcomed everyone to Midnight Lace, the Place where Passions can Surely Please! Besides his artificially slicked black hair and pencil moustache, our host came dressed in a white tux coat with a red carnation in the lapel. I pegged him for a drone right off. No one looked that plastic-coated in real life unless his or she came prefabricated. His speech gave him away as well, a bit tinny and high-pitched despite his programmed voice, supposedly a velvety alto tenor.

He proceeded to introduce the first act of the evening, a dance medley performed by all the Midnight Lace dancers. A drum roll heralded the opening of the curtain and revealed a dozen costumed young ladies standing in various provocative poses. I had never seen so many shimmering colors before, or the amounts of fluff, feathers and rhinestones artfully placed on such skimpy costumes. Only skin and hair coloring differentiated the dancers, their common denominator, or denominators as the case may be, their ample bosoms barely fitted into tight bustieres, some only a nipple away from exposure, barely hidden by a poof of ruffles or feathery boa trim. When the piped-in music began, the girls began their shake and shimmy routines with a few age-old tap dance steps thrown in to give the act some class. As I sipped my cocktail, I leaned forward to scan faces. None of their identities rang any bells; and as I suspected, Simbi Grover hadn’t shown up for work tonight.

An earlier call from Sergeant Farah told me that Buckley Grover’s condition hadn’t changed an iota and so I figured Simbi had returned to wait it out at the hospital; and in response to my query, Libby reported that Simbi had no knowledge of any navy blue canvas bag owned by her husband, in fact he never owned a duffel bag period. So much for that lead. Of course, I certainly didn’t envy Mrs. Grover, having had a frustrating day myself, most of it waiting around for Captain Bender to authorize another trip to Terre Celeste. One of the more frustrating parts of the job concerned the “hurry up and wait” routine. Everyone was anxious to solve crimes yet had to wade through the endless bureaucratic red tape, a plutonic technique as old as the hills. So, I spent my day on the link trying to place Sonny Clarke with some other service company, just to see if he had done some reconnaissance work on his own before his pool gig and subsequent hit on Gavin McAllister.

Unfortunately, I came up empty on that score, but I did hit a high note when I contacted Morrison, the condo manager. He remembered a man who had come to fix the air conditioning unit back in April, but seemed more interested in skulking around the place as if on the prowl—Morrison’s words not mine. And although the manager hadn’t remembered the guy’s name he at least gave me a fairly decent description of the workman – average height, average built, brown hair a bit greasy and long in back, round face, thin mouth, and smallish brown eyes. The guy wore a slate-blue work uniform, the ring impression around his left ring finger lighter in color than the rest of his flesh, where perhaps a wedding band might have been. The description roughly fit Buckley Grover, but I would have to show Morrison the Grover photograph to make a positive ID.

Now as I settled back in my seat I glanced at my “date” and noted that Dane seemed rather enthralled with the dance routine on stage. A half dozen bedecked poles had appeared on stage and now six of the girls began to gyrate and rub the poles, their bodies up, down and twisted around with a definite sexual bent; and while they performed their pole dances, the other six had begun to walk-dance along the runway, causing the crowded male population on either side to howl, whistle and stretch their hands toward the prancing models, almost in reach of their fantasies but not quite attainable since the girls came equipped with what appeared to be thin wands but were actually electric prods to keep the most of the rowdy lechers in line – a nice touch that. I almost wished I owned one myself.

As my gaze continued to pan the area, I caught sight of a club employee a big, beefy man in a double-breasted maroon suit coat standing stiffly to the rear and out of the traffic flow of waitresses and horny customers. Then, letting Dane know that I’d be right back, I made a beeline towards the restrooms, but discreetly dodged past the curtained alcove that shielded the restroom doors from view and inched over to the wrestler-turned-, his barrel arms clasped in front of him. When I tapped his shoulder, he barely shifted his dark eyes my way, his face still immobile with either boredom or inward reverie. “Yeah?” he queried, looking down at me as if I represented a nasty bug that he’d be glad to squish.

I told him who I was and that I needed to speak to the dancers as soon as possible since it involved a police investigation; although I skipped the homicide angle for now. I also added that I preferred to interview all the female employees together, so did I need an okay from the management to do so?

The big man shook his head. “Naw. Come back tomorrow at six-thirty. All the girls get in around then and that’s the best time to talk to them together. Otherwise, they do their thing and then take a powder. Okay?”

I nodded, partly in agreement, partly in relief. “Okay, yeah, thanks. Will you be available as well?”

He raised one dark, plushy eyebrow that threatened to join his partner to the left. “I guess so. Is it about Tora? Poor kid.”

“Well, yes. I need some more information.”

“Then come by at six-thirty tomorrow. We’ll all be here.”

“What about the club manager?”

He rolled his big shoulders in a shrug. “He’s usually around.” With that he turned back to scanning the crowd, a strong indication that our conversation had come to an end.

So, I thanked him again and then made my way back to the table where Dane still sat sipping his drink. When he spotted me, he smiled and offered a little wave of encouragement; but when I joined him he asked if I wouldn’t mind leaving now.

“No problem,” I told him, regaining my seat. “We can leave whenever you’re ready.”

“It’s not that I find the stage show lacking in entertainment quality and potential, but I think we should go some place where it’s more conducive to one-on-one talk.”

Now I raised my brows, skinny and fairer by far. “You’re right. What do you suggest?”

“My place, if you don’t mind. I’d like to show you what I’ve done with a fairly limited budget. Most people don’t understand why I prefer to live down here; but after the see my apartment they begin to understand.”

His suggestion intrigued me in more ways than one, but his smile seemed genuine enough with no hidden agendas behind his personable veneer…not that I would have minded otherwise.

Thus, my smile came quite naturally. “All right. Lead on.”

Dane told me to follow him, but he gave me his address just in case we got separated in traffic. Before we left, he placed some money on the table, what appeared to be five twenty dollar bills. Five times twenty always comes out to one hundred, at least that’s what I’ve learned in school. Therefore, I didn’t argue over the tab since he had been the one to ask me out originally and I felt dating etiquette still applied even though we couldn’t consider this a date in the usual sense of the word. What this might or might not be had to be classified as a meeting of two people for the purpose of consuming food and making casual conversation, at least it seemed that way to me …for tonight anyway.

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