Stratus Fear

All Rights Reserved ©

Chapter Twenty-five

We had a break in the case. Simbi Grover had finally allowed Libby Farah to search the motel room. In Buckley Grover’s gym bag stashed behind the dresser, the sergeant found a crowbar with minute specks of blood on the tip; and once forensics matched the blood type and DNA with Gavin McAllister, we had our killer. Mrs. Grover swore she knew nothing about the crowbar or that her husband had been involved in a murder. She had a few thousand bucks on hand, but she also swore that Buckley had earned the money legitimately through odd jobs. Libby would pass on this information to Detective Harrison Sebring on Terre Celeste so he could close his end of the case.

But we still had Buckley Grover’s death to contend with down here. Had he been killed deliberately to silence him forever, or could he have been a victim of an accidental drug mix-up? A motive for McAllister’s death hadn’t been established yet, but we did have the murder weapon and now the deceased murderer.

Returning to her notes, Libby ran down the information she had gathered on the Royal Palms Hotel. Some entity called The Genesis Group had booked the Hospitality Suite at the Royal Palms, paying half of the going rate for a six months lease, the rent paid directly to the hotel bank account. That came to $15,000 a month for a suite and no-frill amenities, the hotel itself falling somewhere between seedy and stellar. The hotel manager, a droid named Pierre, insisted that he had no other information on the client, but he did hint that a duo of representatives used the suite on a regular basis and that various young women came and went. “Something to do with recruitment,” he revealed to Libby with a knowing wink (her notation). “But that’s all I know.”

“Do you think those club dancers and this Genesis Group are involved somehow?” Libby asked with a hint of skepticism in her voice. She still needed a bit of convincing before she followed me down the path of enlightenment.

Thus, I told the sergeant to keep plugging away with the hope we would find a connection somewhere, somehow. I didn’t get this far without playing my hunches, something she would learn with experience. “Yes, I do,” I confirmed. We had been sitting at my desk at the precinct, my newly cleaned desk. Someone had taken the liberty of clearing away the mess on the desktop and re-filing my files. Oh well, maybe I didn’t work here anymore. “As the evidence stacks up, it keeps pointing to the Senesco Institute. I can’t confirm the who, how or why yet, but I feel certain they all connect, Senesco, this Genesis Group, Megastar Placement Services, and the Midnight Lace Club. Now, we just have to come up with enough evidence to pull everything and everybody together.”

“I’ll draw up a chart if you like,” Libby volunteered. Since she was good with details, I told her to have at it. In the meantime, I would continue along the Gavin McAllister route if she’d keep on the Tora Goodlove and Buckley Grover deaths.

“Anything new on the drug that killed Grover?” I asked casually, expecting very little in return.

“The coroner is still working on it,” Libby informed me. “He’s fairly positive that it’s not a street drug. He believes it’s a new kind of synthetic drug, an experimental compound, although he can’t identify the properties as yet.”

I sat back in my chair and tented my fingers. This case still looked a bit fuzzy and disjointed as we tried to make the right connections, but I knew it would eventually come into focus if we just kept tuning and tweaking.

Libby continued, “The hospital security chief is checking into the possibility that someone had slipped into the isolation ward posing as a doctor or technician. When he questioned the regular hospital staff everyone swore that he or she hadn’t given Grover anything but what his attending physician prescribed, and that was only an intravenous glucose drip and a sedative.”

“Hum.” I sat straight again. “The hospital security chief needs to tighten up his procedures. I bet someone posing as a health professional walked right in and slipped Grover something in his IV drip. Clean and neat. Now we just have to identify this angel of death.”

“I’m on it,” Libby confirmed with a tight expression. When she set her mind to the task at hand, she gave it her utmost attention, working long, hard hours to produce tangible, undisputable results. I had no doubt she’d do it this time as well.

So we left it at that. Now I glided along the freeway to South Los Angeles where Athena Amore lived. Of course, the dancer may have upped and moved by now, since the information Ginger gave me was at least two months old. Career-minded girls of that caliber never stayed in one place or even one city for very long. We had been a mobile society since the invention of the automobile, made even more desirable now by our newest forms of transportation. We can simply zip around the globe or blast off to space, a trip to the moon an easy one-day journey. Yet I couldn’t picture Athena living as a terra-farmer on one of the moon colony farms. No, she had to be around here someplace. Hollywood and a chance for stardom remained a powerful incentive to stay, just in case that impossible dream came true.

My locator drone took me down Olivera Street and then over to a couple of side streets before stopping in front of a series of crumbling stucco apartment buildings. The neighborhood had certainly seen better days—and nights. Graffiti artists had honed their skills on any available surface, and garbage blew lazily down the street from a rare breeze. Actually, clouds had started to roll in, the kind that just might herald some much-needed rain.

Once I found an available spot along the curb, I parked and then made sure to engage both locking systems. I took a preliminary pace in front of the apartment building where Athena supposedly resided. Spanish music wafted from the Mexican restaurant and bodega across the street along with the aroma of frying onions and chilies. I heard voices from inside the building, a mother yelling at her kids in Spanish, and another voice, that of a man’s, yelling at someone, too, probably his wife or girlfriend. I recognized the words “cerveza,” beer, and “puta” meaning whore.

At one time the building had a security buzzer to open the front door, but now the door, scarred and sagging, stood wide open. Some of the mailboxes in the lobby had been smashed open and never repaired, the tiled floor stained with things I’d rather not think about. According to the address given me, Athena lived in 4B, and I figured that had to be on the fourth floor. Like my own building, this place had no glideway or elevator and so I had to hike the four flights. By the time I got to the top, I had to suck in air like a vacuum cleaner at high speed. Back to the gym for me. I found 4B opposite 4A, the hallway dank, dark and smelling of vomit.

I knocked on the apartment door and waited. Several seconds went by before it opened only to the length of a security chain. Someone stared at me from the sliver of space with a pale, cloudy eye.

“Yes?” The woman spoke in a quavering tremolo.

“Hello. Are you Athena Amore?”

“Who wants to know?”

I donned what I hoped to be a pleasant and non-threatening smile. “I’m a friend of Tora Goodlove and Ginger Spice. They said I could find you here.”

“Tora’s dead,” the woman announced flatly. “So go away.”

“Actually—” I showed her my police ID scan. “I’m a detective investigating Ms. Goodlove’s death. Ginger gave me your address from a disc Tora kept of addresses and phone numbers. I assume you two were friends, and I’d like to speak with you about Tora if I could. I promise I won’t stay long.”

The eye kept staring at me, weighing its options. Finally, the door eased shut and I heard the chain withdraw. A moment later the door opened again, wider. The woman stood just behind it. “All right, come in.”

As I stepped inside the dark interior, I heard the woman move off to the side, probably to turn on a light. Instead, she spoke to me through the darkness. “I have to keep it like this, so just stay where you are. So, what do you want to know?” She moved again, this time to shut the door behind me with a soft click. The apartment smelled musty, and something else, medicinal in nature, both mixed with neglect. I smelled the woman, too, as she passed by, but her aroma hinted at decay and perhaps encroaching death.

I didn’t know how much time she would give me so I hoped to hit on the most important questions. “What can you tell me about Tora? How long did you know her?”

“Since I started working at the club, no, even before that. If you know Tora, then you know what I’m talking about when I say the club. She actually got me the job. And she was a good friend, until she got mixed up with those people.”

I ventured a name. “Gavin McAllister?”

She didn’t say anything for a moment. “Yes,” she admitted then. “He was one.”

“And who were the others? Can you tell me?”

Again, she paused, considering what she wanted to tell me, and what not to mention. “What the fuck,” she relented at last. “I have nothing to lose now. Maybe for her, Tora, I can do something. They killed me, too, only it’s been a slow tortuous death. At least with Tora she went fast. A heart attack, they said.”

I heard her move slightly, her breathing coming faster now, although it sounded raspy and hollow like someone who had lost a lot of lung power.

“Do you go to a doctor?” I asked, changing the subject for a moment.

“No,” she stated flatly. “Anyone who looks at me knows I’m dead already.”

I seemed to understand now her need for the darkness. “The others. Can you name names?”

“I can do more than that.”

As she talked, I listened, not even bothering with my recorder. I would remember every word for a long, long time. When she finally paused to catch another strained breath, I asked the inevitable. “Why didn’t you call the police?”

“Why?” she echoed without a punch of emotion. “Because it wouldn’t have done any good. After I got sick and talked to those people at the institute, they came to me and made me sign an affidavit. Then they gave me money to keep silent. A lot of money.”

Even in the dark, I knew she must live in a rat hole. “So, why didn’t you move to more comfortable quarters? Hire a nurse?”

“What for? I’m dying and no one can alter that or make death more comforting. And what good would a fancy house on Terre Celeste do me? No, I gave all the money to charity. They need it more than I do.”

I couched my next question carefully. “The senior management of Senesco. Are they all involved?”

“Yes,” she said after a pause. “All of them. They have to be in order to continue their evil without attracting the authorities. I don’t know their specific names and I doubt I could identify any of them. I only knew Gavin McAllister. He made Tora believe he cared for her when all he wanted was to use her as one of the test subjects in their on-going experiments.”

“How did you find out all of this?”

“Gavin told me. In the end, he wanted to stop them. He hated what happened to Tora…and then me.”

I put the names out there for her to consider. “Talitha Rusk and Devon Brand. Those are the only two who recruit?”

“As far as I know. They come from the institute though, and use the recruitment service as a cover. Unfortunately, I don’t know their real identities as I told you. But Gavin said they’re part of top management.”

I tried to temper my amazement and my revulsion. I didn’t want her to cut me off suddenly if she thought I sounded too incredulous, not when I had her primed to give me such damning information. “Can you tell me your name?” I asked.

“I used to be Grace Paquin. Tora gave me the name of Athena Amore. She said it suited me. Maybe it did at first, with the men and the parties. The recruiters promised me the world, everything I ever wanted. All I had to do was take their drug. I never thought I was a part of any experiment. But when I started to get sick and then learned the truth, I knew they had used me from the start. They wanted to see how I would look and act after they shot me up with their poison. I was their guinea pig, just another test subject…gone bad.”

Grace Paquin’s voice had been growing hoarse and weak, and I knew she would have to end our session soon. “Tora was lucky to go so fast. I’m one of the unfortunate ones who had health and good looks. I even had dreams. They took that all away, but the worst part is I let them.”

“But why won’t you go to the police now?” I urged. “The Senesco people can’t do anything more to you.”

Grace sighed as if the weight of the world had suddenly descended on her poor aching shoulders. “I can’t. Let someone else do it. There must be plenty of other…victims.”

I wanted to tell her that it took people like her to get the wheels of justice in motion. Waiting for someone else to do it, meant more delays and more deaths. Still, I couldn’t blame her. After what she went through, Grace Paquin probably just wanted to die in peace.

The silence seemed to close in on me, as dark and forbidding as this small space where we stood in the apartment. My vision hadn’t adjusted to the darkness, probably because Grace had blocked out the light completely from the windows. I never thought darkness could weigh a person down, but it did me, like a lead block waiting to suffocate me. Plus, it was hot in here, hot and stifling. “I’m sorry,” I said lamely to shake off this feeling of claustrophobic dread. “I promise I’m going put away those who did this to you and Tora and all the others.”

“Prison isn’t enough,” she said without emotion. “They need to be given their own poison and suffer a slow death like I’m doing. If you saw…well, you would understand. Maybe you should see.”

Before I could say anything, Grace flicked on a lamp. The sudden light blinded me for a moment and I had to blink to adjust my vision; but when I did, I let out a gasp and stepped back. I couldn’t avert my gaze even if I wanted to. I had to look at her, this living skeleton. Well, not quite. She still had flesh, but very pale and paper thin, stretched over knotty bones. If she had once been attractive, I couldn’t see even a hint of it now. Her face looked as if it had shrunk inward, with barely a jawline, her cheeks concave and her eyes bulbous, like pop eyes, because she barely had eyelids, and no eye lashes, not even eye brows. She did have wisps of white hair though, but not enough to cover her head of translucent skin. I glanced down and observed her thin body wrapped in an old housecoat, her legs nothing but sticks and mottled black and blue, her feet encased in scuffed slippers. When Grace raised her thin arm, her hand and fingers looked like bare, gnarled branches. Then she tried to smile with the tremble of thin lips over rotted teeth.

“I’m horrifying aren’t I? Sorry. But you wouldn’t really understand unless you saw the end product for yourself. So, this is what those at Senesco Institute think of as advanced science, the miracle drug to make people live longer. Oh, I’m alive all right, but not the way they expected.”

“I’m so sorry,” I muttered and kept on muttering as I fumbled for the door knob. I had to get out of here. When I found it and turned to open the door, Grace added, “Ask Ginger to show you my publicity photo when I was young and beautiful…only two months ago.”

Continue Reading Next Chapter

About Us

Inkitt is the world’s first reader-powered publisher, providing a platform to discover hidden talents and turn them into globally successful authors. Write captivating stories, read enchanting novels, and we’ll publish the books our readers love most on our sister app, GALATEA and other formats.