Stratus Fear

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Chapter Twenty-eight


For the past sixty seconds I had been running my hand over the doorbell scanner but to no avail. Now I tried knocking. No answer either. As my anxiety increased, I tried pushing lightly on the door. It automatically slid open in response to my touch with no locking mechanism or security scan in place. This did not bode well. Retrieving my seldom-used Colt automatic from my shoulder bag, I cautiously walked into the darkened apartment.

“Koz?” I tried again. My voice sounded hollow as it pinged off the silent bookcases and antique furniture. I moved in cautiously; but once I decided that the living room held no lurking intruders, I walked over to the floor-length lamp and turned it on. Then I gasped. The place had been ransacked. Books and papers lay everywhere, tables knocked over and chair cushions overturned and ripped apart. Even Koz’s busts of his heroes had toppled from their pedestals, Copernicus, Einstein and Galileo all lay in alabaster chunks along the floor. But what had happened to the man himself?

Carefully stepping through the mess, I proceeded to his big oak desk and found him lying face down behind it. I went to him immediately, knelt beside him, and felt for a pulse but found none. Then I noticed the small pool of blood beneath his head. Very gingerly I turned his head and saw the left side had been bashed in, the dark blood making an obscene blot in his white hair. I knew for certain that Koz hadn’t fell and hit his head. No, someone had bludgeoned him to death, a clear case of murder. But for what? The information Koz planned to give me? Provocative, he said, and deeply disturbing. What else could it be? I glanced around to see if I could spot the murder weapon. It could have been anything, even one of the busts. Holding my breath, I eased Koz’s head back in position.

Then I called Harrison Sebring on his personal comlink. This was his district after all, although he had little man power to go around, and I briefly wondered if he could cope with another murder. I just hoped he’d let me in on the investigation. It was the least I could do for the man who had played Santa Claus for me.

While I waited, I made a tentative sweep of the apartment. I had no idea what to look for. Koz could have saved his information on Senesco several different ways, from disc cube to hologram. Whoever had done this had monkeyed with Koz’s andron, at least from what I could observe without actually touching the machine. Taking out my cubic drive, I set up a laser keyboard and programmed in Koz’s password, Socrates63, given to me just in case I needed to use his computer system. My heart sank when I found that the killer had deleted all of Koz’s files. How did he know the password? I shivered violently when I realized what had happened. The murderer had forced the scientist to reveal his password under threat of death, although death had been inevitable. Had Koz known it, too? He must have.

I tried to shake that unsettling image from my head. My friend’s research, his life’s work had been neatly deleted. But I also knew Koz kept hard copies of his work because he never trusted digital information stored in any form.

“Digitized information is nothing but binary units,” he once told me. “You can’t touch, see or smell the results. It’s different when you can actually type solid, dependable words on onion skin paper. Now that’s real.” I asked him if the paper really smelled like onions, and he laughed. No, he told me, it was the illusion that counted.

I shifted my attention to his books scattered along the floor. The killer had rifled through the pages just to be thorough, but I wouldn’t know if he found what he was looking for. I kept thinking of the killer as a he, but he could be a she, too. Renata Tijeras alias Talitha Rusk came to mind. Well, that would up to Sebring to find out, with a little help from me, of course.

Now I kept my mind focused on finding what Koz had wanted to give me. Perhaps he had left me a clue. It made sense given his paranoid mentality and his secret penchant for spy thrillers. It would be just like him to leave me a cryptic message in case he couldn’t personally hand over his findings. I sighed heavily. Again, I wouldn’t know what to look for.

Sebring arrived then with two crime scene technicians. While they got busy, Harrison pulled me into Koz’s small kitchen so I could give him my statement. As I did so, I noticed my friend had started to make our sandwiches. Slices of rye bread lay open on his wooden cutting board with the soy-mayonnaise jar close by. He had even purchased a real beefeater tomato, now sliced neatly, and a little head of lettuce, a bit wilted, but edible, all to accompany his premium garlic bologna. Pickle rounds, the good kosher kind, sat in a glass bowl. My heart sank down to my knees, and I had to hold back the tears as I sniffed the pickles. Christ Almighty! I wanted desperately to get the bastard who did this to such a kind and gentle old soul.

Harrison asked if I had any clue as to the killer, but I shook my head. I felt I couldn’t reveal any of it yet, not until I had it down pat and the DA had warrants. All I could think of was that Koz had snooped a little too far, and someone at Senesco had noticed enough to set off the alarm. From there the powers-that-be decided they needed to destroy the retired scientist’s damning information, including the man who had discovered their secrets. Ruthless, heinous, barbaric, cold-blooded. The words kept popping up in my mind, all apt descriptions of Mendell Joffe and his cohorts—including Dane.

Harrison had been shaking his head slowly as he worked information into his disc. He probably wanted to believe that this had been a random act of violence, that some kid or kids had decided to rob Koz’s apartment, found the man at home and then killed him. Crimes like that happened all the time down below, but remained almost nonexistent up here in this rarified sanctuary of the rich and famous. Harrison added that places like Alpha Village—going up now in droves and attracting a new, unproved clientele—could easily become targets for petty crime. If you could call murder petty.

When he finished, he looked at me again, his expression and tone still in the officious range. “Now, Detective Parrish, can you tell if anything has been taken?”

Shrugging, I told him Koz had so much stuff that it would take me several days to go through the mass of books and papers to see if anything was missing. And I would have to rely on my memory to boot. The best person to ask would be Koz’s cleaning lady who came once a week, and had been doing so for almost two years. After so much time on the job, she must have a fairly good idea of what was what amongst the clutter. Harrison then asked for her name as I knew he would, and I tried to recall it. I had seen her two or three times when I visited Koz and he had mentioned her name, so I should know it; but when I could only conjure up her image, that of a stout, no-nonsense woman with salt and pepper hair and a Baltic face, I proposed that the Alpha Village management actually employed the housekeeping staff, and Harrison could find out through them.

Out of my peripheral vision I noticed the bursts of vivid lights from the camera system the techs used now in the living room, a professional grade flash, an infrared, and a blue light. Finished for the moment, Harrison wanted to join his crew, and assumed I would follow along.

Instead I hung back and made my excuses. “If you don’t mind, I need to get some fresh air and collect my thoughts. But if you need me for anything, just give me a call.”

Harrison nodded thoughtfully, understanding what I meant. Earlier I explained my relationship to the dead man, and the detective knew this killing hit home for me. He also expected me to want to be involved and would give me that latitude. Harrison Sebring didn’t believe in hogging the limelight or harbor resentment and suspicion towards outside help. In fact, he appreciated it.

“Oh, by the way,” he added before I left. “Sergeant Farah gave us the information on Gavin McAllister. I’m glad that’s cleared up, at least from this end. Please give her my thanks again.”

“Will do,” I said with a thin smile. I didn’t mention that we had closed on Gavin McAllister, too, and his killer, but I still needed proof that Senesco’s elite management—Joffe, Hendricks, and even Merrick—had sanctioned McAllister’s murder. Not to mention Renata Tijeras and anyone else who played a role in such heinous crimes.

And now with Koz’s death, I itched to indict them all.

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