Stratus Fear

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Chapter Twenty-four

“Do I look any older?” Fauna had put a hopeful bent on her question to Arianna.

The seasoned hostess obliged by giving her new recruit a serious appraisal. “I would say you look slimmer and definitely more statuesque.”
Fauna sighed appreciatively. “Oh, good! I had hoped for some change in my body size.”

“Well, you look very lovely and elegant to me.” Arianna asked the girl to stand tall and turn around. The gown Fauna wore reflected her coloring, a strapless pale mauve with platinum lamé inlays along the flowing skirt. She also wore platinum heels and earrings of Alexandrite, her makeup a subtle blend of bisque and rose to emphasis her best facial features. And to add sheen and body to her hair, Fauna had chosen a rich mahogany coloring.

Arianna smiled. “I think you’re ready, Faun.”

The young woman shivered. “Oh, I hope so.” She had kept her hands hidden behind the billows of her dress, unwilling to stare at them again or show her mentor that they had aged more than she had in total. Some eraser cream and makeup had hidden most of the spots and lines; but as soon as she could, Fauna planned to contact Talitha Rusk or Devon Brand and ask them why her hands had begun to look like this, like hands of an elderly lady. Then again, maybe they weren’t so bad. She could put more cream on them tonight and wear beauty gloves to keep them soft and pliant. Yet, somewhere in the recesses of her distant memory, Fauna recalled her grandmother. The lady had lived to be seventy-six and her hands had been crippled with arthritis, her fingers gnarled and the backs of her hands wrinkled and mottled. Now Fauna had a sinking feeling that she would suffer the same fate unless she took control now. Her life and her livelihood depended on it. Talitha would just have to give her another injection, but something this time to reverse the aging process.

“Are you ready to meet your new employer?” Arianna asked with a proud smile.

Fauna tried to emulate her teacher, but she knew her smile came out cheap and shoddy, when she needed to be elegant and poised. “Yes, yes I am, Arianna. I’m ready.”

“And what’s our motto?”

“To serve and assist with kind hearts, able hands and willing bodies.”

“Well then—” Arianna placed her arm around the girl’s bare shoulders, sprinkled with powder that glittered and smelled of amber musk. She gave Fauna a maternal hug. “Let’s get you started.”

When I checked my comlink, I found three messages, one from Libby Farah, another from good old Koz, and surprisingly, a call from Ginger Spice. Nothing from Rogue, but in a way I felt glad. I had no idea what to say to him, whether I should admit my indiscretion or say nothing. Of course, that wasn’t fair to him, but not to me either. Since the events of last night, I had been seriously thinking of parting company with Rogue and going my own way. Okay, so I might not be head over heels in love with him, but he had represented comfort, warmth, security, just like my old bathrobe did when wrapped around me, so inviting and familiar. Dane represented the new robe I wore last night, richly soft, decadent and sensuous. Of course, I shouldn’t compare either man to a bathrobe. When it came right down to it, Rogue has been something nice to come home to.

Then again I could get a pet, a real live dog, cat, bird, or hamster, even their android versions. They would essentially provide the same kind of comfort and companionship. In the past, the sex part had weighed heavily in Rogue’s favor; but as I get older, the need for genuine love and affection seems to outweigh the craving for the physical aspects of sex (although, what happened last night with Dane had certainly put sex back on the map for me). I could keep on telling myself that I can hack it alone with an occasional love interest to fan the flames of desire. And for those times in between, Gavin McAllister’s sex toys could keep me occupied.

Anyway, Rogue and I had a good stretch together, but I didn’t see it going anywhere, certainly not in terms of permanency, like marriage and a family, not that I hoped it would happen with Dane. In fact, this morning after Dane plied me with coffee and croissants on the terrace, we decided to keep our avenues open; if we get together again fine, if not, the world wouldn’t come to an end, at least not for me.

Libby’s message told me she had some information about the Royal Palms Hotel. Good girl. I had called her last night and asked her to check out the hotel, or more specifically, their guest records and corporate bookings to see if they had a running agreement with Megastar Placement Services. Since I planned to see Libby shortly, I would return the other two calls, Ms. Spice first. I hoped I wouldn’t be disturbing her too early in the day. I’m not sure what kind of hours nightclub dancers keep, but she answered on the third buzz, a little breathless but seemingly alert. Without all the glitzy makeup, she looked younger and even prettier.

“Oh, hello, detective,” she greeted with a cheery smile. “Thanks for calling me back. You were asking about those two other dancers last night. Well, I found Tora’s address and phone disc where she had stuck it in her dressing table drawer. She must have kept in touch with Athena Amore because she had keyed in the girl’s name and address in her log. No phone number though. I didn’t find anything on Fauna, but if you want Athena’s address, I can give it to you now.”

“Yes, please. I appreciate it.” My recorder clicked on as she recited the particulars; and as she did so, I thought I heard a man’s voice in the background, a bit garbled but still audible. He had been urging Ginger to come to bed.

When I had the information, I thanked her for her trouble, planning to end our conversation so she could join her man in bed. I know how it feels now, that tingly excitement when a man urges you to come give him some loving.

But I had to wonder if the dancer would hit me up for something in return. Most people who offer information to the cops usually wanted monetary compensation. I can’t say I blame them, and we usually try to accommodate those who give us stuff that pans out. Most of the snitches we use come from the dregs of society, and they make their living selling information in order to live, not that Ginger fell into that category. Instead, she simply told me good luck and that she would see me around some time.

“In fact,” she continued. “If you ever come back to the club, I’ll make sure you get your drinks at half price.”

“Thanks, Ginger. I appreciate it that, too. And maybe I’ll see you sooner than you think.”

“Well, if you ever want to change careers,” she added with a clever smile. “We could always use another girl. You got the bod, officer, and probably the moves, too, if you learn how to work it.”

I thought I heard her big breasts shake as she said that, and I had to laugh. “Well, gee, thanks, but I’m not sure I’m ready for the limelight as yet.” I also had to wonder what my stage name would be, Pistol-Packing Mama or Handy Cuffs?

When I called Koz, he gave me a hearty greeting, his face a bit flushed with excitement. “I have something for you,” he prompted with a sweet semi-smile. “Of course, I want to share it with you in person. Why don’t you stop by this evening around six? I can whip up some sandwiches and pour you a glass of brandy. I have the good stuff, extra, extra old.”

Laughingly I agreed, even though I’m not fond of brandy, but for Koz I’d drink bath water. “Sounds good. Want me to bring anything to go along with the brandy and sandwiches?”

“Just you, my dear. I called upon an old friend of mine who graciously provided the information I requested. I think you’ll find it all useful and provocative, if not a bit disturbing.”

“Can’t you give me a little hint now, just something to let me know I’m on the right track?”

“Ah, ah, ah, Cadye, tonight. I’ll see you then.”

Of course, Koz had piqued my interest tenfold, and he knew it. But I also knew he liked to keep his scientific and investigative work a secret until the right time. He wouldn’t divulge anything more until we met face-to-face tonight, even if I told him it was a matter of supreme importance to the police. Over the years, he tended to believe in conspiracy theories. The government had spies everywhere, listening and recording. In a way, I couldn’t blame Koz. He had been working on very sensitive material for the space program, a government miasma that had its own internal problems involving a lot of backbiting, back stabbing, secretive experiments, and leaked information. Everyone had blamed everyone else, and still do. So, I guess Koz was entitled to his paranoia.

I tried to give him a stern, impatient look, but figured I came off more like a petulant child. “Well then, Koz darling, I’ll just have to wait until tonight, even though you’re an old bugger.”

Now he gave me an avuncular grin. “And you’re still my favorite girl.”

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