Stratus Fear

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Chapter Eighteen

I started my day on a high note and kept it about the same contralto level, even as I slugged through the unusually high amount of traffic going to Terre Celeste. I wanted to believe it had to do with an estrogen high, that rare physical occurrence to put me in a decent mood. Then again, it could be the fact the sun had actually burned off the industrial crud this morning and now shone in all of its glory. But if I really dug deep enough, found and pushed my reality button, then I’d have to admit Dane Merrick’s kiss last night had done serious emotional damage to my psyche and body.

And all of this before I had my first cup of coffee for the day. My usual caffeine fix occurred at the precinct; but now I was on my own and that meant I had to forgo a few civilized niceties in order to get down to the nitty gritty. Although, on Terre Celeste, the nitty and the gritty were neatly swept up and thrown down the garbage shuttle before it could mar the pristine surfaces of marble and glass, the million-dollar pools, the walkways and doorways, the trim and pampered lawns, and the sophisticated glitz and glamor of its residents. Thankfully, today I could bypass most of the phoniness and get right to the heart of who made those residences run as smooth as milk and honey for a fraction of what milk and honey cost nowadays.

When I finally made it through the main gate, I veered to the right and cruised along until I found Nova Lane, the street where the de la Vegas resided. Their house—or what’s called a Mexican hacienda—offered a palatial mix of pale adobe, Spanish tiling and wood beams. After I parked along the horseshoe driveway, I sauntered over to the grille gate with its fancy ironwork curlicues and then rang the outside bell. As I waited, I peered through the grating and spied the elegant courtyard within, complete with leafy citrus trees, a couple of palms, and plenty of flowering bushes in fiesta colors. I smelled honeysuckle, hibiscus and lemon, heady enough to tickle my nose.

A woman’s voice came over the intercom and told me to come on through; and with a buzz and click of the gate, I entered this estival splendor, walking and gawking until I came to the double front doors made of heavy and rare cottonwood. As soon as I spied the de la Vega housekeeper, Dolores Rico, I knew I should never let clichés get in the way of my precepts. I had expected a somewhat heavyset woman with espresso eyes, nut brown skin, chubby cheeks and chicory hair pulled up in a severe bun, wearing a nondescript maid’s uniform and orthopedic shoes. Instead, I found myself staring at a tall, curvaceous woman in a mini-pinafore over a fuchsia tube top and stiletto heels, her honey-brown hair layered in a shag cut and streaked red on either side of her oval face. Besides her big, silver chandelier earrings, Dolores wore a variety of tattoos, long sleeves of hearts, flowers and Day of the Dead motifs on both porcelain arms and garland bracelets around her slim ankles.

Hola,” she greeted with a wide smile, her green eyes highlighted by a thick application of midnight eye liner.

“Well, hello,” I answered, hoping I didn’t look too confused, or discombobulated. “I’m Detective Parrish with the LA police. I called you yesterday.”

“Yes, detective, I’ve been expecting you. Come on inside.” Dolores stood aside to allow me to enter.

I took a few steps across the tiled foyer, my gaze traveling up to the fancy hammered tin chandelier above my head and then eye level with the carved wood refectory table. A large ceramic vase on top held an aromatic arrangement of pink and yellow mimosa blossoms. I stopped at the table to let Dolores take the lead.

“Let’s go the sunroom,” she suggested and began to walk down the two tiled stairs to the sunken living room. “It’s much more pleasant. Would you like coffee?” She paused to turn back, her pencil-thin eyebrows raised in expectation.

“No thank you,” I lied politely. “I had my caffeine fix for the day.”

Dolores chuckled. “I understand that. But me…I’m a coffee junkie, especially when I make espresso. But let’s go sit down so we can talk in private.”

“Are the de la Vegas at home?” I hadn’t seen any vehicles in the double drive next to the house, but that didn’t mean anything.

“Oh, no. Mr. de la Vega leaves early every day for his office downtown. He does something with import and export. Now, Mrs. de la Vega serves on the board of the Museo Latino de Historia, the Latin heritage museum. She often goes with the curator to Mexico to look for Mexican art and antiques, and she left yesterday for Tarahumara. So, besides Enrique, the gardener who is out back trimming the hedges, we’re all alone in the house.”

“Ah, hah.” I could have sounded more professional, but nothing else came to me as I began to follow Dolores through the living room. Actually I’d already checked on the de la Vegas, and knew Fidel owned a Mexican furniture and pottery mart that took up a block of prime downtown real estate, while Sarina de la Vega volunteered as a procurer of Mexican folk art for the museum Dolores just mentioned.

So, naturally their casita reflected their roots and interests. Besides the thick, white stucco walls, Mexican tiling spanned the floor, with an occasional colorful sisal rug here and there, and large viga beams ran the length of the ceiling. The furniture came in light-green stressed wood, with handmade Mexican folk art painted on cabinets. Several gilt bird cages hung near the open patio doors and housed colorful parrots who squawked and trilled at intervals. And yet, I had to believe this beautiful façade was nothing but a cover for the synthetic makeup beneath, foam bricks for adobe, covered rebar for the beams and three-ply recycled board over wire frames for the furniture.

Suddenly, Dolores stopped and stared at me with her keen, bright eyes. “Oh, no, no,” she rebuffed as if reading my mind. “Everything here is very real. Mr. de la Vega found this villa on a Chihuahua rancho and brought it back adobe brick by adobe brick. And he spared no expense with the decorating to make this a truly authentic Hispanic showcase.”

“Oh, sure…I can definitely see that.” I averted my gaze from the housekeeper and scanned the retablos—wooden display cases with portraits of saints—along the walls. “And it’s very lovely, even breathtaking.”

“Yes. All of the house and the grounds as well reflect a real hacienda Mexicana. This way, por favor, detective.”

The sun room ran the length of the large, airy kitchen, all the patio doors and windows opened to allow those rare slants of sunlight, while a comfortable breeze tickled the wind chimes under the eaves. Dolores and I took white cafe chairs around the matching table with a glass top. Up and down the room, large terra cotta pots contained more of the colorful and aromatic flora and a little niche fountain gurgled happily, set in the pale peach stucco wall and framed by mosaic tile. Beyond the back patio, more native plants and trees offered fragrant shade and a canopy for the occasional life-size statue, a rearing stallion, a proud rooster, a Madonna with real day lilies in her white hand. Off to the left, the sparkling waters of the pristine kidney-shaped swimming pool looked good enough to drink. Now if I had a Carta Blanca beer I’d swear I had been transported to the courtyard of a Mexican cantina, to a wonderful, exotic place, of peace and calm, of paradise. The de la Vegas were certainly fortunate to have this, and Dolores probably felt fortunate to work here as well.

This time my hostess offered iced tea, flavored with agave nectar and garnished with real lime wedges, the limes grown in the back yard. And this time I agreed to the refreshment, if only because the pool water and thought of a beer had made me thirsty. I waited until she returned with a pitcher and two tumblers, made of hand-blown Mexican glass, the thick bases tinged an emerald green. Then, after she poured our drinks, I took a few appreciative sips before I finally got down to business.

With my comlink, I switched on the headshot holo of Buckley Grover and allowed Dolores to take a careful look. “Do you recognize this man as the one who came to clean the pool two days ago?”

She shook her head slowly as she continued to stare at Buckley. “No, not really. The one who came had longer, black hair, bushy brows and darker eyes.”

I recited Buckley’s height and weight to see if the stats nudged Dolores’ memory. “That sounds about right,” she murmured in speculation. “It could be him.”

When I thought I saw a flicker of a strong maybe, I decided to try something and fetched my drawing stylus. And while I worked, I mentioned he might have worn a disguise, a wig and maybe cosmetic lenses. Now I’m not much of an artist but I didn’t have to be a Picasso to scribble on more hair, darken the brows and eyes.

Sitting back in her chair, Dolores nodded. “Yes, that just might be him.”

“Did he tell you his name, talk to you any?”

Now she shook her head decisively. “No, no. He came to do his job, did it, and left, earlier than usual, but I didn’t go after him and ask why. He looked as if he finished; and I just noticed him from the kitchen window over here. Maybe he gave me a nod, but I’m not sure of that.”

“So, he’s the regular pool man?”

“No, no. This man came once before, but he’s new to the job. Our usual service tech was blond and a little stockier, muscular.” Dolores raised her slender shoulders for emphasis, plumping up the tattoos on her upper arms.

I nodded as I sipped my tea. “And what about Enrique? Would he have talked to the pool man?”

“Not on Tuesday. Enrique takes Tuesdays off. You see, the pool man comes when Enrique is not here, only because Mr. de la Vega doesn’t like to have two maintenance men working at the same time.”

I smiled. “I suppose it’s like the old saying, too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth.”

Dolores laughed again. “Yes, I suppose. In fact, Enrique likes to tell other workers what to do, so it’s better if he’s not here when they come to work.”

As I clicked off the holo, I tried not to let my excitement bubble too close to the top. I’ve had leads before, good, solid leads, but they also went bust on me before I even had a chance to follow through, so I’ve learned to be careful, take it slow and easy. Now, after I drained my tea, I put voice to the question that had tickled me since I first met Dolores. “By the way, how did you get into the housekeeping business if you don’t mind my asking?”

Instead of a laugh this time, Dolores offered a smile. “I don’t mind. And of course, I don’t look like a maid. Actually, a friend of mine knew that Mrs. de la Vega needed a housekeeper and so I applied and got the job.” She gave a little shrug. “I’ve been here almost three years and I have to say I prefer this to my old job. Here I have freedom, and the de la Vegas allow me to make decisions about the household operations.”

When I donned a look of interest, she immediately went on before I had a chance to prompt her further. “I used to be a dancer, you know, one of those exotic dancers.”

“I guess at one of those clubs down below.”

She nodded with a tinkle of her earrings. “Oh, yes; although, this one was better than most. It had more class. The Midnight Lace Club. Have you ever heard of it?”

Well, well. I hadn’t expected that little nugget of information. “Actually I have,” I admitted. “And that’s definitely a major career switch. How long had you worked there as a dancer?”

“Oh, I’d have to say about two years. Of course, it wasn’t my first choice of careers.” She arranged her smile to offer a wry skew of her lips. “I actually went to school for a degree in bio-genetics, but it proved more than I could handle, so I dropped out in my sophomore year.”

“Wow! That is quite a career change!”

“Oh, yeah. From splitting genes to ironing jeans.” She spelled each word so I would get the pun, the irony so to speak. Which I did, of course, and we both had a good laugh over that, at least until I returned to the business at hand. “By the way, when you worked at the Midnight Lace Club, did you ever meet a man named Gavin McAllister? He might have frequented the club with out-of-town guests, his way of entertaining on the company tab.”

I could see Dolores mull the dead man’s name over by darting her tongue against each cheek well, her eyes veiled by her thick mascaraed lashes. “No…no. I don’t remember the name. So many men frequented the club and we were told not to fraternize with the customers. So, to me, they became just a blur of bodies and grabby hands.”

“What about the Senesco Institute? Have you heard of it?”

Dolores shook her head in the negative. “Again no, sorry.”

Somehow Mendell Joffe had managed to keep Gavin McAllister’s murder out of the newspapers; but I assumed that whatever happened up here became juicy news to zing through the hired-help grapevine and bounce around between the residents when they got together for an association meeting. Obviously, this grapevine had never had a chance to blossom and bear fruit. Then I wondered if Dane had anything to do with putting McAllister’s murder to rest, reprogramming the information to suit the institute only, offering other entities—including law enforcement—nothing but PR-generated fluff.

Suddenly I had an idea. Even though Dolores had quit school, she must have taken biology, chemistry, calculus, and maybe pre-med classes, and perhaps still retained something of the laboratory lingo. So, I showed her the information I had copied from Dane’s disc. Dolores examined the figures, the ratios, the equations, and the medical jargon, and the way she looked all studious and hunkered over the hologram, I almost thought she was in the midst of deciphering ancient hieroglyphics. Finally she sat straight and gave me a curious look.

“Well, I’m not a hundred percent certain, but this looks like data gathered from some on-going study or experiment.” She pointed to several notations, all Greek, ancient or otherwise, to me. “These figures here appear to indicate the on-going results of a control group,” she explained, “and the other an experimental group. And these other numbers indicate the amount of whatever they had been giving the experimental group, a certain amount of milligrams at first, and then larger and larger amounts, while the control group received placebos. See right here.” She pointed to more figures and piggy-back numbers that looked like percentages. “Of course, I can’t really tell you what exactly is being recorded here, what kind of drug or drugs were administered, if, indeed, drugs were involved. Here it says something about Progerus, but I have no idea what Progerus might be.”

Well, at least it gave me something more tangible than a set of undecipherable gobble-gook. I thanked her for her help; but when Dolores made an attempt to play down her knowledge I overrode her self-deprecating efforts. She was a big help, like it or not.

As we finished our tea, I powered down from business to other, less intense subjects. I learned Dolores had been born and raised in East L.A. where her parents ran one of those Latino bodegas where the neighborhood residents could buy such items as diapers, canned goods, votive candles, fruit juice, tortillas and pints of tequila, to name just a few necessities. During her teen years, Dolores acquired her tattoos as a way to express her individuality; but when she took up exotic dancing, she used body paint to cover them so as not to detract from her goal to excite and entice using her God-given assets so that her customers would shell out the big bucks. Now in domestic service, she wore a long-sleeved black turtle neck and slacks when she served drinks and canapés during the soirees the de la Vegas occasionally hosted. In fact, Dolores attended culinary school for a year to learn how to cook gourmet meals, an asset she utilized quite often in her job. On the personal front, she had no significant other at the moment, wasn’t looking for one, and enjoyed her freedom too much to settle down, at least until the right guy came along.

In a way, I envied her life, the ability to come and go as I pleased after taking a quick sweep of the broom and a quick swipe of the dust cloth. Not that I’m a meticulous housekeeper, far from it; but it seemed the kind of routine job that distracted the mind from those endless, pressing thoughts. And it had to be far less dangerous than what I did now, unless I managed to stab myself with a paring knife while crafting those cute radish roses for garnishments.

We ended our meeting on a very casual note. Dolores now referred to me as Cadye, and I called her Dolly, the nickname she allowed only her closest friends to use. And just out of curiosity, I asked her what nom de shimmy ’n shake she went by in her dancer days. “Would you believe Lolita Amore!” Dolly admitted with a little shrewd laugh. She had even read Nabokov’s Lolita, a book I’d have to read someday. Then, before we parted in the courtyard, I told her we’d keep in touch, and Dolly assured me that if she remembered anything else she’d call my personal line immediately.

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