Stratus Fear

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Chapter Twenty-two

Nursing my drink, I sat back and tried to relax. The mauve walls of the Midnight Lace club had started to get on my nerves, the same for the music blasting from all sides and the spot lights doing a flashy swirl around the room as one dancer after another came on stage to do her bit. They all seemed to perform the basic moves, a shimmy and a shake, a pout and a wiggle, and then a sexy walk up and down the elevated runway before mounting a dance disk that hovered overhead. Strobes whirled around the bases of the disks and added to the general light show. I recognized the dancer who had just come on stage as Cherry Jubilee, tall, well-built, and with scads of titian hair. She wore a shiny red outfit and a train of white tulle decorated with cherry polka-dots. The costume barely covered her enormous tits, but that seemed to be the general idea. Tonight I had seen more shapely legs, tight asses and big breasts than I would care to remember. And these girls knew how to strut their stuff.

I had just finished interviewing the whole lot of them gathered together in the backstage dressing room, more of a long space with individual cubicles, dressing tables with lighted mirrors and wardrobe caddies filled with sparkling and brightly colored costumes. Over all, I found the dancers quite amiable and even fun to be around. They held no artifice beneath those skimpy outfits, and they never appeared as anything but what they were, strippers, or maybe exotic dancers, but certainly not of professional status. To do that, Ginger Spice told me, you had to study dance for years and years and nobody here had the discipline let alone the money to take lessons. You learned as you danced, especially the kind of moves the customers liked. And when you learned that, you made it your routine.

I liked them all, Peppa Shaker, Delisha Delights, Passionette, Ginger Spice, Cherry Jubilee, just to name a few. They came in all different colors, shapes and sizes, from the svelte to the voluptuous, from the blonde to the raven haired, from the chocolate-skinned to the palest flesh, and everything else in between.

It had been common knowledge that Gavin McAllister had been seeing Tora Goodlove a little less than six months. He would come here to the dressing area before the show to see her, snuggle a bit, do a little kissing and fishing for a feel. Then he would either leave or return with a few other men. The girls swore they never met Gavin’s entourage, but Tora once told them that Gavin frequently entertained clients as a sales rep for a company. Good cover that, I thought with a smirk.

Tora also revealed that her beau stayed in a suite at the Royal Palms Hotel, and she recruited two other colleagues to help host a party there for his clients one evening with entertainment also provided. When I asked who had volunteered for party duty, Passionette told me that the two had been Fauna Vixen and Athena Amore. Fauna had just quit after five months on the job, and Athena had worked at the club for about a year before she left almost two months ago.

I tucked that bit of information away for the moment, and then asked about the gifts Tora received from her beau. Ginger Spice went over to one of the dressing cubicles and returned with a padded, red satin box. “This is where Tora kept her treasures.” As she spoke, Ginger undid the filigree gold clasp on the box with her glittery pewter nails.

When she finished, I took the box from her and made a mental note of the contents. Tora kept an assortment of costume jewelry, cheap and flashy. But when I held up the gold chain with its small diamond heart pendant I knew I had the real deal here.

“That was her prized possession,” Ginger told me. “She only wore it when Gavin came to pick her up after the show and take her out to dinner or somewhere.” According to the girls, the other types of presents Gavin bestowed upon Tora represented your standard romantic enticements, boxed candy, flowers, perfume and lingerie. Corny but effective.

While I snaked the necklace back in the box, I asked if everyone knew Sassy N’Sweet, alias Simbi Grover. All the girls nodded in the affirmative, some donning sad faces. Yes, Simbi had danced here up until a few days ago. They all heard about her husband’s passing and planned to solicit donations to help with the funeral expenses.

I decided to change direction. “Now what about these recruiting teams that show up here?”

Yes, the gals knew about the recruitment practices of a personnel and marketing firm called Megastar Placement Services. A man and woman would show up, catch the acts, and then come backstage if they found a dancer they liked. Athena had been recruited earlier, and Fauna had been chosen this last time.

“I guess she got recruited as a companion,” Ginger Spice ventured. “I think she really wanted the job so she did her best on stage that night.”

Passionette nodded. “Yeah, she really got down and dirty and the recruiters obviously liked the way she shook her booty.”

The information about this recruitment firm began to interest me more than Gavin McAllister. When I pressed for details I received just a few facts from Delisha Delights. She thought the recruiters worked for an eastern company with offices out west. Some of the girls had asked for more information, just to get in touch with the company even though they hadn’t been chosen, but both sets of agents failed to provide contact information. Hum. That seemed strange to me. Since when did salespeople not want to hype their products or services?

I figured they couldn’t be too selective, not under these circumstances. Delisha provided descriptions—at least what she could remember—of the recruiting team, a man and a woman, both attractive and friendly. I wrote down the details until I thought I had enough for now. But before I left the dressing area, I snagged the manager as he came back to inform the dancers they had twenty minutes to get their acts together. The manager happened to be the big hairy guy from last night, and like last night he answered my questions with quick one-liners. His sole duty was to manage the club for the owner, a Mr. Asaadi, who lived in San Diego. When I asked the manager if he and Mr. Asaadi approved of this Megastar placement business coming in to recruit the employees, he gave me a hunky shrug.

“Nah,” he mentioned. “These girls come in but they go right out again when they smell big money.” So much for employee retention.

I dropped one more question before the dancers scattered to perform last minute touch-ups. Did anyone know that Tora had done drugs? A half a dozen coiffed and colored heads shook vigorously. “No way,” Peppa Shaker confirmed for the group. “We can’t do our routines if we’re high. After all, we got our pride. So, we don’t touch the stuff. Tora, too. She was never into drugs, said they made you old before your time.”

Ah, hah. I’d make sure to pass this piece on to Libby Farah. Either Tora had lied or someone had assumed that by planting the drugs in her apartment we’d think she just overdosed.

I thanked everyone for their cooperation and added a twenty chip to the Grover donation fund. With their own thanks, the girls decided to buy me a free drink if I’d stay and watch the show, an offer I could hardly refuse.

Now I took random sips of my Blue Hawaiian, definitely blue and very sweet, with a fake hibiscus flower and a skewered pineapple spear—also fake—for decoration. I replayed my day and decided I hadn’t done too badly. My meeting with Dalton Hendricks came off as expected. Greeting me with a corporate smile and a firm handshake, he got right down to business and handed over all the pertinent personnel documents I wanted—and without any stipulations attached. Dalton even provided Gavin McAllister’s will, thanks to Paxton Huxley, Gavin’s attorney, who had instructed his office assistant, Ms. Bitch-of-the North, to provide a copy.

Worth approximately two-billion, Gavin McAllister had bequeathed Arianna a cool hundred-million bucks of his assets. The rest of the money would go to estate taxes and some to designated charities. But Gavin, it seemed, hadn’t left anything to the Senesco Institute. When I mentioned this obvious oversight, Hendricks just shrugged and donned that PR smile of his. People, he told me, were allowed to give their money to whomever or whatever they wished.

Well, at least Arianna had a little more to add to her retirement fund or at least buy her some nice outfits. Actually, a hundred-mil was nothing to sneeze at, and, in fact, could come in quite handy. It was certainly more than I had at the moment.

Hendricks made a big show of glancing at his watch to let me know our meeting had ended. I left my contact information should he have more to depart, but I knew—as he did—that our official question-and-answer forum had run its course.

This time, Renata Tijeras had been waiting for me when I left Hendricks’ office, her function to serve as my official escort to the lobby. She asked if I needed anything else, and when I told her I believed I had sufficient information for now, she gave me one of those bright, energetic marketing smiles to match her buttercup outfit and sunshine earrings. She even asked if we could get together soon for coffee, but I told her my time seemed fairly well taken up with the case, but I’d call if I found a minute or two to spare. When we finally came to the front desk, I handed my visitor’s badge over to Tiffin Hillary, the ever lovely and efficient receptionist. She gave me a curious look but said nothing.

Then I left the building.

And speaking of time… I glanced at my watch and noted that I had been sitting here at the club for well over an hour. Exhaustion began to kick in, above and beyond the blue curacao liqueur that burned all too sweet. I had been idly watching the dancers, Ginger first, and then Passionette followed by Peppa Shaker. All three performed their routines with the grace of gymnasts in heat, their costumes stretched to the limits of decency, particularly between the legs.

I remember asking the girls what they planned to do with Tora’s belongings, and Ginger informed me that Tora’s things, including her costumes, would be sold if no relatives came forward to claim them, the money used for the Grover funeral fund. Even the diamond necklace would be resold to a reputable jeweler. I imagined they could get at least two thousand for it; and maybe it would help make a dent in the funeral expenses, depending on what the grieving widow wanted to do with her husband—or what was left of him.

A headache had been creeping up on me and now pounded full force as the music and lights kept beating a steady, gnawing rhythm in my head. As I rose from the table I plunked down a five chip for the gratuity and then tried to find the easiest way out of the crowd. Men seemed to be coming out of the woodwork, drinking, laughing, jostling, and generally making asses of themselves as the liquor flowed and the dancers stirred up the crowd with their sensuous appeal.

Taking in a determined breath, I wended my way through the testosterone-charged confluence and received a couple of well-placed slaps and pats for my effort. One man pitched forward and spilled his beer down my front. I jumped back in shock while he continued to stumble on without a word of apology. Now I wanted my freedom, bad enough to jab my fist into any crotch that stood between me and the exit. From the corner of my eye I caught a flash of neon pink and sparkling red as the next dancer strutted the runway. I thought she might be Passionette but the swirls of lights and artificial smoke that had been piped in to enhance her routine made it difficult to see beyond the edge of the runway.

Someone had the nerve to butt me from behind and send me pitching forward. I reached out to grab the closest guy in front of me, and if I had to take him down with me I would. Suddenly, an arm hooked around my waist and pulled me back to safety. When I jerked my head up, I found myself staring into the handsome and smiling face of Dane Merrick.

“Whoa, there,” he greeted and helped me to my feet again. “Gotcha you just in the nick of time!”

“Thanks!” Suddenly self-conscious, I tried to smooth down both my frazzled hair and nerves. I could barely move my mouth to speak. “Wha…what are you doing here?”

“Looking for you,” he laughed, his arm still around my waist. “For some reason I knew you’d be here.”

“Well, this isn’t my usual hangout, not that I have a usual hangout.”

“I figured that, but I took a chance anyway.”

My gaze met his. “And here you are.”

“And here I am. But tell you what, let’s get out of here.”

“I second the motion.”

Releasing my waist, he moved us forward with a nudge of his solid shoulder and a well-placed elbow. We finally managed to push our way to the exit and then out to the sidewalk. The cool air felt heavenly, even though my dress now stuck to my front and made me smell like a brewery.

I tried a little laugh as I pulled fabric away from my sodden breasts. “I can’t believe it’s true! You are my knight in shining armor!”

“Hey, what are knights for if not to save a damsel in distress?”

“Well, I certainly appreciate the rescue.” We began a slow walk in the direction of the club’s parking lot.

“Where to now?” he asked.

“Home for a much-needed shower. Probably to bed after that. You know this exotic dancing routine takes a lot out of me.”

He laughed. “That’s not your beer all over your front, is it?”

“Oh, no, some nice guy gave me his drink, and all I had to do was stand there and take it.”

“And I bet he never even apologized.”

I stopped to stare at him. “You’re amazing.”

“No, just astute. I’d say a hearty dark lager with just a tad of smoked hops.”

Now I had to laugh. “Well, whatever it is it’s coming right off.”

“Then allow me to be of assistance again. I offer my shower with its multiple spa jets, along with my fine selection of toiletries. Now all you have to do is follow me home in order to partake of such amenities.”

Why did his invitation sound so good to me? Probably because even if he hadn’t offered, I would have followed him anyway. I squeezed his arm with growing anticipation. “All right, sir, you lead and I’ll follow.”

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