Stratus Fear

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Chapter Five

When I returned to my own neighborhood in Century City, I passed a few kids playing laser tag in the street. They couldn’t be much more than twelve or thirteen, just the age when kids wanted to experience living on the edge. Technically such a sport as laser tag is illegal because lasers can kill if you’re hit directly, but I had neither the desire nor legal inclination to put an end to their fun. If they want to kill each other, so be it. One or two less pubescent boys destined for a life of criminal activity wouldn’t cause much of a dent in the crime rate.

So, ignoring them, I walked into my faded and crumbling apartment building and then made my way up the rickety stairs. We had an elevator but it rarely worked. I couldn’t complain too much, since I was one of the lucky ones who had a semi-decent place to call home. Most people nowadays had to make due living in substandard housing, in their vehicles or at the myriad of community-run shelters. Whole tent cities had sprung up all over the San Fernando Valley thanks to our rampant inflation that seemed to go on and on without a glimmer of hope that it would end soon. The return of prosperity seemed a long-forgotten dream.

But now, with each and every step I climbed, my mood picked up accordingly, especially when I anticipated having real food tonight. I just hoped Rogue had made it home to share it with me. We lived on the fourth floor, our studio apartment furnished in second-hand chic. To make it more personal, I used a rice-paper screen to section off our bedroom area from the living area, and placed rice-paper lantern shades over the bare bulbs. Our “functional” kitchen took up one-half of the rear brick wall, followed by our small, round dining table and two chairs. Rogue told me we could do better, but he preferred a quiet, laid-back lifestyle so no one could accuse us of flaunting our successes—not that we had many.

If I had to describe my lover’s profession, I’d have to say a purveyor of goods and services, all had for the right price. Suffice to say he operates just outside the legal limits of commerce, that murky and elusive area known as the Black Market. He can also hack into any computerized system; and as per the wish of a client, find out and manipulate the most sensitive of information. Most of the time, Rogue does it just for the thrill and the challenge of the assignment, with any monetary compensation running a poor second.

By rights as an officer of the law, I should arrest him on a number of charges; but I’ve come to ignore many such infractions when it suits my purpose. I look the other way, and Rogue does the same with me.

Over the years—almost three to be exact—we have known flush times and lean times. Rogue loves to gamble, winning big at times while other times he craps out totally. Still, we get by, and I’ve managed to acquire a little monetary nest egg just in case we encounter a rough patch, or if Rogue really does go to jail.

Now as I entered our place I found Rogue stretched along the sofa, his attention riveted to a soccer game on the IMAX screen. When he noticed me he touched the holo-remote control and turned off his sports program.

“Hello, love,” he greeted, sitting up. “What have you got there?”

After plunking the bags down on the table I quickly pulled out the food stuffs. First came the wrapped steak, then the salad components, and last but not least the champagne and wines. Rogue’s gaze grew big and glossy with amazement.

“My Gawd, Cadye-ee, you’ve finally made the big haul!”

Rushing over to me, he took hold of the steak and weighed it between his hands. Once in a great while, Rogue could score some “real” meat in the way of a chicken liver or a ham hock, but that was only when the market became glutted with extra animal parts, and that had only happened twice in five years.

Now he glowed with excitement. “Lovey, this is the finest piece of meat I’ve seen in almost forever. What did you do to get it, darling, hold up a stall jockey?” In underground lingo the term stall jockey meant someone who operated a clandestine storefront for the purpose of black market sales.

I grinned. “Better yet. I raided an apartment on Terre Celeste, and since the owner has departed to greener pastures I knew he wouldn’t mind if I helped myself to a little of his bounty.”

After carefully returning the meat and wrapper to the table, Rogue slid his arm around my waist and gave me a sly look. “Dead is he?”

“Very dead,” I confirmed. “Murdered by a sharp blow to his head.”

“Ah, too bad for him but wonderful for us.” Releasing me he stood back and pondered the fate of the meat. “This piece deserves a good charcoal grilling, but since we lack a grill, I guess it’s the broiler.”

I watched as Rogue grabbed our cutting board and a large carving knife from the utensil drawer. Then placing the meat on the board, he judiciously severed the steak in two, its flesh still a robust pink and marbled. Finished, he glanced up at me with the same excitement I still harbored. “How do you want yours, baby?”

I pondered that request a moment. I only had steak once in my life, when at the age of sixteen I accompanied my parents to a formal dinner party where filet mignon had been served. “I think just until the cow dies a dignified death.”

“Medium rare it is.”

While he prepared the steak, I rummaged through our nearly-bare cupboards. “Sorry that I only have dehydrated potato flakes to go along,” I admitted, “but I skipped the gentleman’s freezer tonight. Perhaps tomorrow I can make a bigger haul, the mother load.”

“You did a great job as is, darling. In fact, you’re a pincher after me own heart.” As I cut the celery and carrot over the lettuce leaves I was unaware of his movements behind me until he grabbed me by the waist, twirled me around, and then hugged me to this chest. Even as his mouth sought mine for a brief kiss, I still reeled under his touch.

Rogue still manages to produce a tumble of emotions, that warm rush of arousal combined with the tingling sensation of desire, and without the soap opera romanticism that always makes me want to gag. He knows how to give and take with premium finesse, always at the right time and in the right places.

Not too bad for a kid who grew up in the East End of London without a male presence to guide him. Rogue’s mum divorced his father when Rogue was only three, and she raised her only child on the wages she made as a barmaid. Rogue never really knew his dad, and had no interest in finding his old man as an adult. When not pouring pints at the pub, Jem Grayfalk acted in local theater productions, often bringing her boy along for rehearsals. By the time Rogue reached the age of thirteen, he had already become well versed in the art of back stage seduction, plying his charms on the young actresses who played ingénue parts. He worked on instinct and honed his craft by seducing as many young ladies as possible, eventually graduating to the more experienced, older actresses.

I entertained a certain amount of skepticism when he first told me that story; but he quickly proved me wrong by demonstrating his potent abilities. Needless to say I fell in love with his charms, a brash mix of clever impulsiveness, suave manipulation and profound intelligence. That boyish glint in his blue eyes is just one of his many endearments. He also possesses a strong, attractive face, a passionate mouth, and a head of rich dark curls.

No wonder when we met I had to have more of him.

Now when we parted to finish preparing our meal I felt a pang of regret; although Rogue assured me that we would take up later where we left off. Within minutes my feelings and thoughts elevated to a salivating state of utter bliss as I smelled the steak under the broil. It was not until we finished half of our exquisite meal that I broached the subject of Gavin McAllister’s personal files. “I’m positive,” I stated after a heavenly mouthful of salad, “that he used a password and probably encrypted his information.”

“So where’s the problem, dear heart?” With a teasing look Burt savored a bit of his half of the steak, cooked to medium rare perfection and washed down with the superb red wine. “Let me have a crack at his machine after dinner and I’ll present you with the finished product for dessert.”

“Ohm,” I purred, “as much as I appreciate the offer, I’d prefer dessert in bed.”

He donned that clever smile of his, a cross between the mischievous and the innocent. “Oh, you will, lovey, you will, including the whipped cream and cherries on top.”

I had to laugh, although secretly I wished I had whipped cream to slather all over his body.

We topped off our meal with a glass of champagne and then sat back sated, happy and aglow with sensory overload. I wished this gorgeous, full feeling would last forever or at least until fall when I received my review and hopefully a raise in pay. Maybe then we could afford more than a chicken wing or a piece of ham, but the whole damned chicken and pig for a change. With a groan, I forced myself to stand and clear the dishes off our little kitchen table.

“Don’t worry about that now, love.” Rogue came over and snatched the plates from my hands and set them on the sink drain board. “Come over here,” he coaxed and took me by the hand.

He brought me over to the big loft window that overlooked the heart of the city, and then wrapped his arms around my shoulders as we stood and gazed out. But instead of focusing on the twinkling lights of the city streets below he shot his gaze upwards, past where the night sky ended for us and the golden rim of Terre Celeste began. Thankfully, a Santa Ana wind had blown in earlier to flush away the thick, yellow haze that continually settles over the city during the day. We have the yellow muck and those above always count on clear, blue skies. It wasn’t fair, certainly, but none of us on Terre Cite had the means or the funds to bring about a more equitable climate, a blue sky now and then, a clear, light rain instead of globs of dirt.

“Someday very soon,” Rogue promised as he pressed his finger to the top of the grime-encrusted window, “we’re going to have all the good things we want, including a beautiful house right up there. We’re going to be somebody, lovey, a couple with money and loads of class. And everyone will respect us for our sinfully rich lifestyle. We’ll have diamond studded furniture, solid gold bathroom fixtures, and two hovers for each of us, sporty and aero-dynamic, yours in platinum, mine in sterling silver.”

I simply nodded. After today my estimation of glam city and its affluent residents had slipped a few notches, and I entertained a few doubts about moving on up to the big time. For one, we’d be creating a new set of headaches on top of the old. Like the gangsters of old, many of the profiteers had tried to infiltrate the second tier because they had the money, but instead of being accepted by Terre Celeste’s discerning citizens and welcomed into their exclusive clubs, they had been shunned as riff raff and literally run out of town. To be accepted as one the chosen few meant you had to have an honest pedigree and a clean slate—at least to begin with. But if Rogue wanted to fantasize about diamond encrusted recliners and 14-carat gold toilets, I couldn’t deny him the opportunity.

Now his hands slid down to my waist and tugged me back against him. I could feel his warm, meat-infused breath on my neck and I shivered with growing desire. Unfortunately I still had work to do.

“The andron,” I murmured as a reminder, “I need that information.”

“Later,” Rogue whispered. “Let’s have the cake now and save the icing for later.”

“How much later?” Giggling, I raised my fingers to caress his smooth cheek.

“Oh, give it about an hour or so, just so we can digest our meals.”

Turning my head, I glanced up to meet his gaze. I loved the fact that Rogue stood about a half a foot taller than me, coming in at six-foot-four. On him it looked real good, but my five-foot-eight frame had given me lots of trouble back in school. The boys never liked to dance with a girl who towered over them, especially one with braces and a skinny bod. I didn’t fill out and gain the right curves until college, but I still thanked the fates for allowing me to blossom, albeit very late in life. I wore my hair about shoulder-length up until late last year when I decided a shorter ’do would be less of a hassle. Rogue hadn’t liked it at first, but grew to love my auburn shag, calling my hair sexy and sassy, a perfect compliment to my amber eyes.

Now I smiled fondly at my lover and friend. “Sure we won’t get cramps if we take a dip too soon?”

Rogue offered his signature roguish grin. “I’ll risk it if you will.”

“All right, but be gentle with me. I’ve had a long, hard day.”

He chuckled. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ll play the violin for you, a song of sorrow and woe.”

“Hey, after that luscious meal I have no more sorrow and I’m woe-be-gone. Besides, you don’t play the violin.”

“Blimey, I can always learn!” His years of living here in America and adapting the lingo had more or less eradicated his Cockney-Brit accent, but occasionally Rogue liked to revive it when it suited his purposes.

Now our discussion promptly ended when he whirled me around, swept me up in his arms, and headed for our generous bed behind the screen. Once there, Rogue threw me down on the foam-spring mattress, nothing gentle or innocent about it. He needed that quick, rough attitude to spur his arousal, and I gladly relented to his savage strength. Wrestling with me, he managed to hustle my tank top over my head and pull it off. In turn, I flipped him over, almost pinning him to the bed, until his mouth closed over my breast and his hand flew between my legs. I started to burn, the heat almost impossible.

“You are balmy,” I gasped, out of breath. “Let me have a time out.”

“No can do, baby.” With a wicked grin, he worked my polymer slacks down my hips to my knees, trapping my legs so I couldn’t lash back at him. He found me already wet as his fingers played me to an easy ascension. His lips closed over my nipple, tugged and prodded while his hand nudged me to the peak.

I fell hard and fast, right into a violent wave that consumed and tossed me helplessly towards the next crest. When I called out his name, told him to take me now, Rogue simply laughed, gripped my hands and drew them over my head.

“No can do,” he told me again, his breath now thick and ragged as he stared down at me, a glint of humor and lust in his cagey gaze.

His hand worked between us to unzip and unleash. Then, thrusting himself inside of me, he surged over my body. With a grunt and a pull, I released my hands from his grip so that I could give back as good as he gave. I ripped away the shirt fabric so I could caress the smooth flesh of his chest, my mouth needing to take his. Our kiss became a greedy play of lips and tongues, until he broke free to taste my flesh with lavish greed, from chin to throat, from neck to shoulder. I shuddered and bucked beneath him; and when he rammed harder, I hooked my legs around his waist and forced him deep inside. I continued with wild piston thrusts of my hips, his strokes hard and rough.

He plowed into me like a wild man, keeping me open by pinning down my thighs with his strong hips. I experienced a system overload, my senses scrambled, and my breathing in tatters. He had placed my body under siege, holding my mouth and loins captive to his onslaught; and the more I arched to him in surrender, the more I experienced the most sensitive and exquisite pleasure, almost akin to pain.

“Now,” Rogue murmured, pausing, “you can take me down and out with you.”

Then, tensing, he shot forward just as I met him at the peak. We fell together in a glorious shudder of limbs, our fingers clenched tightly to each other’s slick flesh, our hearts revved to a rapid-fire beat.

It took some time before we both settled back to a normal pattern of breathing, of living. All the while the fan next to us whipped out air and flowed across our hot, spent bodies. Several tries later I propped myself up on my elbows and contemplated a nice, soothing shower. As if heeding my non-vocal desire, Rogue climbed off the bed and headed for the bathroom. Moments later I heard the steady stream of water as it hit the fiberglass tub.

According to our leasing agent, this building had to be at least a hundred years old, its stucco and brick façade still sturdy despite the wear and tear from the harsh pollution. Over the years a few upgrades had been implemented to keep the place running at maximum efficiency, including an overhaul of the plumbing system. Yet, despite their aqua-dynamic, insta-flow design, our pipes still moaned and groaned on occasion, the water output dependent on residential usage during certain times of the day and night. Right now I felt certain we could count on a nominal flow of warm water, at least for the next fifteen minutes. So, shoving myself off the bed I joined Rogue in the shower-tub unit. This time we took it slow and easy, our caresses meant to clean and cool, not excite.

When finished, we both stepped into the drying tube and allowed the warm air to tickle and prickle our skin. I stayed in the bathroom to tend to my hair while Rogue donned a pair of white undershorts and went to tackle McAllister’s computer at the dining table. For a moment, I stood in the doorway and watched him work, the flesh of his back stretched smooth and lean over hard muscle. He tended to hunker over his work as his intensity increased, his gaze narrowed to slim slits as he concentrated, the glow of the computer screen usually painting his handsome face a gray-green. During this time, I knew not to disturb him but go my own way until he deigned to join me once more.

Therefore, I put on my short, scrubby robe—certainly not as pretty and stylish as Arianna’s wrap, but just as warm and comfortable—poured a glass of white wine, and then settled on the sofa to watch the nightly news. Of course Gavin McAllister’s murder claimed the top spot, even though most people down here wouldn’t think a bigwig’s death from up there merited a mention.

The woman broadcaster said something about the Senesco Institute, and I perked up to listen. Her report quickly segued to a spokesman for the institute who claimed McAllister had served as a senior vice president in charge of advancing the institute’s research and development program. That was about it, a somewhat vague report filled with a lot of public relations hype; although I did make a note of the spokesman’s name, Bishop Dane Merrick. I planned to speak with someone at the institute anyway, and Mr. Merrick seemed to be the one I would begin with, and then work my way up the corporate ladder. From experience, I knew the person in charge of a company’s public relations always took the front line position, all smiles and good will and full of double-speak. Still, I needed to form a much bigger and better picture of Gavin McAllister, the private man and the corporate professional—and do it with a modicum of investigative speed if I wanted to solve his murder any time soon.

Sometime during the course of a late movie, I must have fallen asleep, my journal and pen since slipped to the floor. The next thing I knew Rogue was walking me back to the bedroom, my mind and body in a quasi-somnambulate state. Sleep—the need for deep and dreamless slumber—claimed my attention now, my curiosity about what he found in Gavin McAllister’s machine put on hold until the morning.

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