Stratus Fear

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Chapter Four

I walked with Sebring to the living room where we parted; and when he exited the apartment I took a seat on the sofa next to Arianna Ravel. She had been so patient, just sitting there while techs and detectives came and went, answering difficult questions put to her by men who ignored her grief. I had watched her initial interview at Bender’s office, and by her open, candid answers I figured Arianna spoke the truth.

As much as I hated to do it, I still had to go through the motions, ask the same questions. Arianna didn’t even balk at yet another round of queries. In fact, she responded in the same vein as her recorded interview—all with unabashed honesty. She repeated her story, and that jived with what I knew. As she spoke I studied her face. Despite her seemingly calm veneer I sensed her sorrow simmering just below, but she knew how to hold it in until she could find a quiet private moment to let it all out. Still, she maintained a quiet beauty with smooth creamy skin and delicate features.

She had long tapered fingers and no doubt a slim body beneath the robe. Under any other circumstances she would have dressed for the occasion but death had caught her unawares before she could change into something more suitable. Earlier I had noticed a sleek copper-colored dress draped over male clothing on the bedroom chair and I assumed it belonged to her. It suited her, lovely and elegant. I attributed her poise and self-control to her training as a companion to the rich. I wouldn’t go into the details of her employment tonight; but if I needed to steer my inquiries in that direction, I would ask Morrison downstairs for details.

When I pressed her for details about Gavin McAllister’s background, she simply shook her head. “I’m sorry, detective, but Gavin rarely spoke about his past, and nothing about his family history. In a way, I think he was embarrassed about his background.”

“Oh, how so?”

Arianna shrugged her slender shoulders. “It’s nothing tangible really, just a feeling I had. Oh, I don’t mean that Gavin wanted to cover up something bad in his past, but I sensed that he preferred not to talk about his humble beginnings. Instead, he focused on his accomplishments, wanted he wanted to do.”

“And what was that?” I prompted when she paused and glanced upwards, her eyes shrouded with both a mist of memories and a fog of sorrow.

“He just wanted…to help people. That’s all.”

In my book that constituted quite a lot. When her gaze drifted again, I figured I had taxed her long enough. So, finished with the interview, I asked if I could look around the rest of the apartment. Arianna nodded cordially, and then added, “Is it all right now if I enter the bedroom?”

I didn’t see why not. Unfortunately she would have to deal with the aftermath, the blood soaked linens and rug. If I had my druthers I would burn it all, right down to the mattress and the bed frame. For a brief moment I wondered about her relationship with the dead man. Did they engage in sex on a regular basis? Did she sleep curled up next to her employer or turn her back to him so she could claim her own space?

Arianna interrupted my interlude with another question. “May I ask, Detective Parrish, for your first name?”

“Oh, sure. It’s Cadye.”

She offered a sweet smile. “That’s a beautiful name. Are you married?”

“No I’m not.” I didn’t want to stray off the course by providing any of my own personal history. “Now, Ms. Ravel…”

“Please call me Arianna.”

“All right, Arianna. As I do a scan of the apartment, I might have to collect evidence. Do you want a receipt for the things I take?”

She shook her head. “I don’t think that’s necessary. Of course, everything here belonged to Gavin. I really have no authorization.”

“Well, I’ll make an inventory anyway.”

My gaze flitted over to the office area where Gavin McAllister’s andron computer sat on the polished desk top, one of the more expensive models, a thin, sleek, square machine in mica-gray. I figured he kept his personal data there and maybe some business information as well. The built-in shelves looked promising, with slim, gold-plated compact cases, the kind that housed vidiocoms, stacked neatly. They probably contained some movies, too, the Hollywood kind or home grown. Of course, there might be some intimate footage of Gavin McAllister engaged in sex with or without Arianna, the tangle of limbs, the positions assumed to provide ultimate camera coverage, the fast pummeling of body parts, the whispers of secrets. Videos such as these always provided an in-depth character analysis of their owner.

And that had me wondering, too, about the billionaire. Had Gavin ever engaged in pillow talk with his partner, revealing details of his work? Of course, Arianna had answered those same initial questions in the negative. She swore she hadn’t been privy to his business dealings and knew nothing about his involvement with the Senesco Institute; although she had met some his colleagues, and what names she could remember had been given to Officer Sebring. Arianna hadn’t said as such, but she had been employed strictly as a companion and a mistress, without those legal privileges afforded a wife—her duties only to please and serve her master.

“Now,” I advised, “I’ll make that quick sweep of the apartment and leave you alone. I’m sure you’ve had enough of us poking and prodding and getting in the way.”

Her eyes took on a sad look again. “Just as long as you find out who killed Gavin.”

“That’s what I hope to do.” Had Arianna Ravel loved Gavin McAllister? No doubt that kind of attachment was frowned upon by management and covered as a “do not” in her handbook for mistresses. But rules and regulations were meant to be broken, not so matters of the heart.

I waited for Arianna to rise and then head for the bedroom. The way she walked seemed almost like a model’s glide down a runway, her bare feet skimming the carpet. As soon as she disappeared from view, I started towards the kitchen. Now with her out of the way I could search and rifle as I pleased.

At first I couldn’t quite identify what I found wrapped neatly in the cooler, but recognition finally dawned. I was looking at a real piece of meat, a thick-cut steak no less. In school we had text books that described real food, along with pictures of various meats and the corresponding animals they came from, pork from pigs, mutton from sheep, and beef from steers. In my hazy recollection, I think I had tried a piece of real beef once, but it had been so long ago that the memory of such no longer existed.

To see and feel something so precious gave me goose bumps, and I knew I had to have it. It was like looking through a jewelry store window day after day and admiring a diamond ring, longing to have it and knowing I could never buy it; and then one day the window disappears and I can reach in and take the ring with no one the wiser. Now this piece of animal flesh represented my diamond right within my reach, and I quickly secured a canvas sack from one of the kitchen drawers, re-bundled the steak in its wax wrapper and then placed it in the bag. As much as I hate to admit it, I practice filching whenever possible. We all do it, simply because desperate times call for desperate measures, and if we want to survive, we take what we need, whether legal or not.

I knew the black market sold goods and services at outrageous prices, including real food stuffs. I also knew such commodities existed, from meat to vegetables, grown, raised and processed on farms well-guarded from the general populace. The rest of us who couldn’t afford these luxuries had to be content with synthetic products, made to look and taste like real food.

Now rummaging further I found a half a head of leafy green lettuce, a tomato, a carrot, and a stalk of celery—all promptly added to my bag along with a cold bottle of decent champagne. I could almost taste the bubbly, the memory of such a bit vague but still palatable, the occasion a cousin’s wedding a few years back when all the guests received one glass of real champagne to toast the newlyweds. Gavin McAllister kept his wine supply in a temperature-controlled vault adjacent to the kitchen, his inventory placed along special tracks and marked according to type and vintage. So, I helped myself to a couple bottles each of Bordeaux and Chenin Blanc, anticipating with chilly delight the taste of real distilled grapes tonight.

The government controlled the general alcohol supply, but you had to have a winning lottery number. Thus every month, thousands of people put in their names for a chance to purchase a single brand, from rum to rye. The government regulated pricing so the average cost of a bottle remained minimal. Yet for most people it still took a big chuck out of their incomes to secure a temporary high, a respite from their drudgery. Sure the plan cut down on the problems of alcoholism, but hadn’t made a dent in the social and economic problems the sobered population still faced, unemployment, poverty, substandard housing and homelessness.

McAllister and his ilk had the opportunity to bypass all that government red tape by dealing directly with the underground alcohol brokers. Of course, prices remained outrageous. One bottle of scotch, for instance, equaled my salary for six months. That Gavin McAllister could afford a whole “cellar” full of decent vintages meant he had more money than Croesus.

I expected Harrison Sebring would have a full income disclosure on McAllister by tomorrow morning, and I would be interested to know how the billionaire’s reported earnings stacked up to his actual worth. But in the meantime I planned to enjoy some of McAllister’s finer, tangible assets. I rather doubted that Arianna would miss such luxuries in her state of grief. So why let precious food go to waste?

Now I slipped the straps of that bag over my shoulder, and purloined two more for the stash I wanted to collect in the office nook. The andron went in promptly, along with several video discs that seemed promising by their titles, but I would have to watch them at the precinct since I had yet to purchase a video player for my personal use. What can I say? When it comes down to buying basic food supplies versus electronics, the food will always win out. Of course, my significant other, Brogan Grayfalk—or Rogue as everyone aptly calls him—swears we can live on the very basics and still be satisfied as we save money. Yet the thought of eating soy beans every day just didn’t do it for me. Rogue would certainly be surprised when I came home with such a luxurious feast.

When I readied to leave I crept up to the open master bedroom door and peered in. I had hoped to talk to Arianna before I left but she seemed nowhere in sight. Suddenly the door to the adjoining bathroom slid open, emitting her and the heady smells of soap and body lotion. She looked quite different now, wrapped elegantly in a long halter dress made of plum toile, her hair done up in a loose chignon with a couple of tendrils tickling her long, graceful neck. When Arianna spotted me, she smiled and came my way. For the heck of it, I took another glimpse of the bed and noticed she had stripped it clean of the bloody linens, the rug also absent.

I moved back to the living area and waited for her. Again she seemed to glide into the room, her feet now shod in lavender mules with gold trim and petite heels.

“Are you ready to leave, detective?” she asked, gravitating towards the foyer.

“Yes, I think I have everything I need for tonight.” Interestingly enough, Arianna seemed to ignore my stash or even bother to ask about what I had taken. “Will you be available if I have any more questions?”

“You mean will I be here?” She allowed her smile to slip, her gaze to darken for a moment. “I’m not sure about my immediate future. With Gavin’s death my contract has essentially run out. So now it will be up to Morrison to make the decision if I stay or go. It also depends on the new tenant if he wants me or not.”

“What if a married couple or a family moves in?”

“Oh, not on this floor. Morrison makes sure to rent to unattached people who have sizable incomes. They gladly pay extra for those special services that I and my coworkers perform.”

“Oh, I see.” Actually what I saw constituted prostitution on an upscale level. Arianna, and no doubt those others, served as the sex objects for hire, and Morrison acted as the pimp. Such an operation remained illegal down below, but up here this “special” service added a touch of class. Here the wealthy made up the rules to suit themselves, if not to profit from them.

Despite my aversion to such blatant profiteering, I’d probably want to live in the lap of luxury, too, if I had a billion bucks to spare. Of course, I, like most of my comrades down under, hate the concept that the rich have their own set of rules and expect preferential treatment. In fact, they demand it, stepping on and squashing those little people who abide by the general precepts of right and wrong. On Terre Celeste the cops and the judiciary system remain token concepts. No one here commits crimes of any report; and if someone does cross the line of propriety it’s looked upon as a minor transgression. Murder only exists among the unwashed masses. The civilized people of Terra Celeste do not go around killing their neighbors, their spouses, their mistresses, their business colleagues—until today.

Now Arianna pressed the side panel and opened the front door for me. As I walked out I told her to try and have a quiet, restful evening.

“I hope so,” she with little wistful sigh.

Officer Creed Wendell had abandoned his post, not that I minded. I didn’t care to come up with an explanation should he have asked about my bulky totes. Same with Morrison; but when I made it to the lobby, the drone had left the front desk. Soft mood music caressed my ears and tickled my senses. Coupled with the rococo décor, the red and gold, the place reminded me of a bordello boudoir. Well, it certainly seemed to fit the kind of trade that went on here. Just to wet my curiosity, I walked behind the front desk and took note of the android cube on the secondary desk beneath the countertop.

With a push of the display bar I received a complete list of residents here at Elysian Towers. I noted the penthouse belonged to a famous actress, although she used her husband’s name on the list. Of course, with the facetious Morrison around she shouldn’t have to worry about unwanted publicity seekers clamoring for her attention. I recognized several other prominent names, both male and female: a financial consultant whose best-selling books told people how to make millions, a human rights activist-attorney, a popular female talk show host, and the editor of a women’s e-zine that sold savvy sex to the masses. Impressive to say the least. When I thought I heard the elevator returning to the lobby, I quickly turned off the android and headed for the front entrance.

Dusk had since appeared as I walked outside, the air cool and fragrant. Floodlights along the fountain rim highlighted the cascading waters in rainbow hues, the monolith sculpture tall and commanding. The restaurant across the street, Chez Ville, seemed to be doing a thriving business with couples seated along the outside patio, chic urban couples wearing the latest designer outfits, and sporting the latest in hair styles. They drank cosmopolitan cocktails made with sweet liqueurs in hues of chartreuse, rose, melon and mango.

A few walked by the apartment tower, some giving me looks of quiet disgust. In a way, I wanted to inform them of my status as a lowlife from down below. It would certainly put a scare in them, knowing that people like me still wandered about their hallowed neighborhoods at night. But it wouldn’t do any good to incite their disdain, especially when they found out my identity. They hated cops more than lowlifes, called us bottom feeders, worse than lawyers.

By now the parking garage had filled up as tenants returned home from a day at work. As soon as I found the cruiser I noticed the little red square disc attached to my driver’s window. Shit! Some industrious parking attendant had given me a ticket. Sure enough. When I pressed the disc the gentleman in question came into view and informed me that I did not possess the prerequisite parking pass. I could either go to the municipal court and pay the fine of a hundred bucks or schedule a hearing with the judge who presided over traffic violations.

More than annoyed now, I stowed my bags in the back seat of the cruiser and angrily tore the disc off my window. It would do no good to toss it in the trash since the jerk had all the details now, never checking any further to find out that the unmarked cruiser belonged to the Los Angeles police department and that I had every right to be here, to park here, too. Oh well. I would give the ticket to Captain Bender and let him deal with it.

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