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Stratus Fear

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Chapter Two

The woman looked dead to me, dead for about six to eight hours.

In real time she had been an exotic dancer named Tora Goodlove—alias Jocelyn Mora—who had unceremoniously expired on her kitchen floor. First, I was amazed that an exotic dancer could make enough to afford an apartment like this—a bit tacky but clean and presentable—and live here all by herself without a roommate or two or three or four. Most spreads like this, be they a one bedroom or a studio flat, often contained up to twelve people. Needless to say, living space here around here remained scarce, so scarce that a lot of people went homeless and slept wherever a space looked promising. Whole tent cities had seemed to spring up overnight as well as car communes where people lived in their vehicles. But I digress…

According to the preliminary physio-neuro scan, Tora Goodlove died from heart failure, this diagnosis confirmed by the county coroner, Dr. Chaudburi. I still had a hard time picturing the scenario: Ms. Goodlove arriving home about two, pouring a glass of water from the distilled water bottle in the cooler, drinking it, and then keeling over dead on her kitchen floor, the empty glass still in her hand. But since I’m not a qualified forensics pathologist I had to go with Dr. Chaudburi’s diagnosis. Hopefully in the next day or two he would have a more detailed postmortem to deliver.

Now I just made cursory observations. Tora Goodlove possessed a leonine head of blue-black hair, no doubt dyed to make her look sultry and mysterious. Up close I noticed the little crow’s feet around her gray-green eyes and the double parenthesis around her mouth. She still wore her heavy make-up, including silver glitter eye shadow. The same type of glitter had been sprinkled along her arms, shoulders and on her breast bone. She wore something that looked like a sarong, its material of ebony chiffon and studded with silver grummets. The dress hugged her voluptuous curves and covered her ample bosom. I pegged her for about forty-one or two until I took a look at her identification card. her age had recorded as a mere 28. Huh.

I glanced at her feet next. Her spiky platform heels in snake skin had to be murder to walk in let alone allow for more vigorous movement, but as a strip tease dancer she probably sucked up the pain in order to ooze raw sex appeal. I wondered how much she made a night as men drooled and ogled while she performed some sort of exotic routine at a nightclub called The Midnight Lace Club. She probably shed the dress, leaving her thong intact since the law prohibited dancers from taking it all off. Of course, I had no intention of lifting the hem of her dress in order to check for underwear. Lap dancing seemed de rigeuer in these places as well, and if Tora Goodlove indulged in such she might have made a neat bundle. Her purse sat on the kitchen table and contained close to five hundred bucks. From tips? If so, it didn’t seem too shabby a way to make a living if you didn’t mind rubbing guys’ crotches and giving them hard-ons every night. I guess you could call it degradation by the dollar.

Still, Tora Goodlove probably lived a full life, not necessarily clean but steady. Anyone who made it to their forties had a good chance of living well into their fifties, sixties and maybe even seventies. Sure it doesn’t seem like much time to do what one wants to do to make a dent in the world, but after the H2N2 virus pandemic hit the world, mutated our genetic growth hormones, and literally cut longevity in half, we took what we could of life and tried to make it as meaningful as possible in our short time spans. In the meantime we prayed that medical science would soon find a cure to return the aging process to its normal run time, thus allowing us to live to a hundred years+ like they did in the old days.

Now whether Tora Goodlove had kin or not would be determined by the office drones back at the station. My job consisted of gleaning the facts and then producing an official disclaimer: natural, unattended death. Still, I couldn’t rid myself of the feeling that this lady had been quietly and efficiently murdered. Had anyone tested the liter bottle of water for traces of poison?

As I made note of the possibility my wrist scam bleeped into life, and I knew instinctively that it had to be my squad boss, Keefe Bender, or just Bender as we affectionately call him. I slipped off to the side so I could talk in peace. Sure enough, the big beefy face of my captain took up the little screen.

“Cadye,” he began using my Christian name, “I have a case here, a very important case, that needs all of our attention and that includes you. But I can’t say anything more until you come to my office. I need you here pronto. How soon can you get here?”

Given the traffic flow from the east side of town where I now stood and then over to the downtown area would probably give me an estimated arrival time of approximately thirty to forty minutes. When I told the captain this he merely grimaced but had to accept the inevitable.

“What about this present case, sir?” I asked. “It’s the unattended death of the dancer.”

“Hand it over—” he commanded, “—to Sergeant Farah. She can take it from there. Besides it’s all cut and dry, right?”

“Right. So, I’ll see you in about forty.”

“Make it thirty, detective. Twenty-five if you can hustle over here for the beer I’ll buy you later.”

“I’ll try.” Signing off, I glanced around the knot of techs in search of the smaller, slimmer body belonging to Libby Farah. I found her scribbling notes with her stylus on her screen pad, a somewhat old-fashioned but still viable method of information gathering.

When I walked her way she glanced up and blinked at me with oblique brown eyes. Libby is the only person I know who has tight kinky hair the color of raw honey, a face packed with exotic features and a feisty little body, all thanks to the genetic coupling of her black, brown and white ancestors. I can’t quite describe her skin color, but it’s somewhere in the vicinity of light mocha with a patina of cream on top.

I handed her my portable recorder with my verbal report. “Here you go, Farah. The captain picked you for this gig after calling me in. So have fun.”

She actually smiled. “Oh, thanks. I’ll do my best.”

“You really shouldn’t bother. This looks fairly cut and dry.” I, too, at one time had been a novice cop who took every case so seriously that I worked it every which way until I exhausted my time and energy and still had nothing to show for my efforts and frustration. Yet maybe a fresh perspective now and again would prove beneficial; and besides, I felt that Tora deserved a little more of our attention.

“I’m not so sure,” Libby countered with a punctilious look. “I plan to take it slow and careful, go over all the facts. For instance this—” Her gaze settled on the coffee table where one of the techs had unfolded a pouch on top. We were now looking at some drug paraphernalia, clean and neatly arranged, and probably used for shooting Nuance, the newest in the line of synthetic drugs. I hadn’t remembered seeing any track marks on Tora’s arms, but a lot of users opted for other body parts, some even going so far as to pump the drug right under the rib cage and close to the heart for an ultimate high. Now I heard came in liquid suspension form, so it was just as easy to take a spoonful of the stuff, much like cough syrup but with a definite kick.

“Well, good luck to you, sergeant,” I offered. “I’m sure you’ll do just fine given your exceptional record.” It never hurt to buck up the rookies. Besides, I couldn’t voice my suspicions, not yet anyway since I really had nothing tangible, just a hunch. So, from now on, I’d let Libby do all the postulating.

“Why, thank you, Parrish,” she said without expression, “I appreciate your time and your support.” Then she patted my mini-corder. “I’ll review your notes and then return this.”

“No hurry.” I wanted to tell her—maybe even warn her—that it would be the captain’s support she should worry about.

Bender would eat the sergeant for lunch the minute she reported her preliminary findings. I could almost hear his bluster ringing in my ears as he cut her down to size. “What do you mean, Farah, you suspect foul play? This is nothing but a regular croaker case. It happens all the time. So do me a favor, and wrap this up unless you can give me absolute proof that this exotic dancer died from something other than natural causes or a drug overdose.”

Bender loved to argue and get into a point-counterpoint situation in order to expand a cop’s horizons, even if it meant a knock-down, drag-out argumentative backlash. I had been there more times than I cared to remember, and now it would be Libby’s turn to suffer through what we veterans called “basic training for dummies,” named after some long ago self-help book series for the inexperienced. If she got through it, the sergeant would have really earned her stripes. Anyway, since I no longer had the case, I smiled sweetly at Libby and walked away.

Before I hiked it up to the eighth floor of the Hall of Justice, I stopped at the refreshment center to replenish my caffeine supply. Swiping my credit key, I opted for a diet Coke and felt satisfied when the slim container came to me cold and refreshing. Then I stepped on the glideway and sipped my drink as I rode up with the other pedestrians, the majority cops, but also some lawyers from the DA’s office. Civilians comprised the rest, mostly retirees in their late forties and early fifties, riding up and down to stave off boredom. Plus, the regulated air system in the building offered a cool, pleasant alternative to the stifling heat outside, a consistent danger to the elderly.

Ever since global warning became a reality about a hundred years ago, we never have a complete change of seasons or much of a variation in temperature either. In my school days, I learned that there used to be something called snow, the formation of ice crystals into fluffy, downy wet flakes that blanketed areas during the winter months. That meteorological phenomenon had ended years ago, but for those who still wanted to partake of winter sports, there’s always the fake snow generated every year by the ski resorts. For a thousand bucks a pop, you can ski on cold snow and work on a nice tan in eighty-five degree weather all at the same time.

As soon as I entered Bender’s cubicle he turned on his vid-display and had me sit down to watch the detail video the responding officers made of the crime scene. The murder victim had been identified as Gavin McAllister, who lived at the Elysian Terrace Towers, one of those swanky marble, steel and granite fortresses that housed the rich and successful, and sometimes famous. Someone had used a metal, hooked instrument to bash McAllister on the head and shatter his skull. Next up, a pretty woman with large, soulful eyes gave her testimony as she answered questions put forth by the investigating cops. She identified herself as Arianna Ravel, a resident of Elysian Towers.

Well, you had to be rich and successful to live on the second tier anyway, what they called Terre Celeste. Only people with money worked, played and fucked there. And unless someone had an official work permit to enter that hallowed tier of luxury, we the people of Terre Cite would never set foot on Terre Celeste. In fact, I heard once that a few of the wealthiest big wigs employ guards to shoot those poor suckers who try to sneak in illegally, that’s if they can foil the sensors in the invisible walls that surround the community.

Needless to say my curiosity had jumped up a few notches as I watched the video; but even more amazing, Captain Bender had actually assigned little ol’ me to the case.

“Those assholes up there,” Bender surmised, “are nothing but token cops. They don’t know shit from shingles about investigating a crime. Hell, why should they? They don’t commit crimes on Terre Celeste. Everyone up there is civilized, so civilized in fact that they have “incidents,” the kind that can be swept away with the trash. Yet if their incidents prove too big for the sweeper they ask us to do the dirty work for them.”

“And you thought of me?” I found it rather strange that he even thought of me at all.

“You’re available, Parrish, and you’re one of the lesser evils out of the whole bunch.”

Gee, his faith in his work force was touching. The boss had been sitting in his chair behind his desk as he usually did like a big square peg, but now he leaned forward, straining his gut and his temper. “I hate to take these kinds of cases,” he grumbled out of the side of his mouth, an old affectation from his days as a cigar smoker. “You know what the fuck gripes me? No one up there believes us anyway when we make an honest attempt to find out the truth, so we just go through the motions to please the big shots.” He paused to cough up some phlegm and then spit the gloppy output in the nearby waste receptacle.

“So go up there right now, Parrish, nose around, ask questions and find out more about this Gavin McAllister guy. He’s supposed to be one of the important assholes associated with something called the Senesco Institute, whatever that is.”

Grapping a small, white disc off the heap of crap on his desk, he tossed it my way. I intercepted it with a high five catch. Many years ago, Bender had been in the Marines, and he still bore the symptoms, the crew cut, the steely-eyed look of a born fighter, and the muscle strength, even though the rest of him had gone a little shabby and the stubble on his head had quietly turned gray.

“There’s your official credential to get in. Use one of the unmarked cruisers so you don’t stand out too much. I’ll expect your report first thing in the morning.”

“I’m on my way, captain.” I rose from the rickety plastic and canvas chair used as a visitor seat, one of the many that populated the department. A few years back some interpret ex-requisition officer had bought office equipment and furniture at cheap prices, and we now suffered from the poor quality as equipment failed and furniture broke apart. At least the toilets flushed…sometimes.

Now it would take me about half an hour to check out a cruiser and then a protective vest, night goggles and a special S&W tactical rifle with a precision sight scope. I had my service gun on me, but sometimes an extra firearm came in handy. Plus it never hurt to come over-prepared. Not that I planned to do much shooting up there, since murderous executives with seven figure incomes and country club memberships remained an anomaly. Yet someone up there had murdered one of their own, the answers to who and why now my official bailiwick. How lucky can a girl get?

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