Stratus Fear

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Chapter Seven

As I sat at my desk, I idly tapped my stylus pen against my chin. All the data gleaned from Gavin McAllister’s computer stared back at me from their multiple placements on my portable android screen. Rogue had been able to crack the pass code and unlock the files themselves, but except for a daily schedule of appointments, McAllister’s reports and other sundry data meant nothing to me or Rogue. A lot of it had to do with mathematical formulas and configurations, company planning statements, and what appeared to be medical reports. To those of us unfamiliar with math and medicine as a whole, this data proved useless until we had a better grasp of the type and scope of McAllister’s work.

Of course, I made a search on the universal network but came up with a one-page site for the Senesco Institute, an introductory piece written in public relations hype. Thus, I contacted the institute directly and set up an appointment for tomorrow afternoon with the gentleman on the news last night, Bishop Dane Merrick, the company’s frontline PR man. From there, my mission became a simple one: to penetrate the layers of corporate accessibility and talk to the person in charge of operations, or as the old saying went, get the scoop directly from the horse’s mouth. I just hoped the horse in question had an amiable and cooperative nature.

Earlier I had put in a request for an additional officer to help me with the data processing, and Bender, in a rare gesture of cooperation, let me have Sergeant Libby Farah for a few days. I knew she would be a big help, and when she showed up at my cubby hole, I gave her the list of names gleaned from McAllister’s e-files. With her usual crisp and efficient manner, Libby told me she’d have IDs available later this afternoon. I certainly didn’t doubt her estimation, and wished her well.

Now as I continued to peruse the additional data before me, one particular item caught my interest in McAllister’s daily log, what seemed to be a regular meeting scheduled for Wednesday afternoons. McAllister made a consistent note of K.K. @ the MLC, 9:30. KK could be someone’s name, the MLC the initials for some place, group or business, the numbers a simple time notation, but I still had no inkling as to 9:30 a.m. or p.m.

I wanted to ask Arianna if she was familiar with any of this information; but instead of phoning her, I decided to return to the Elysian Towers. I found face-to-face interviews to be the most effective method of judging someone’s veracity or lack thereof. Simple facial expressions, involuntary ticks, a tone of voice, the intensity of a gaze, and other nervous gestures spoke volumes.

So far I felt that I had successfully pegged Arianna as a cooperative and innocent bystander/witness, her countenance, mannerisms and general nature considered serene, honest and definitely pleasing. And although I felt she provided forthright information, there still could be some facts she had simply forgotten or lost in the transition before and after the murder of her boss and lover, and the emotional ride from contentment to sorrow. I just needed to nudge her in the right direction. My visit would be impromptu, thus preempting a desire to rehearse for our interview ahead of time. Of course, I hadn’t planned to catch her in the middle of some subversive act; but simple human nature dictated that as we anticipate any kind of encounter, we tend to go over what we want to say and do, thus eliminating the element of surprise and that crucial moment of open, honest vulnerability. For some reason I looked forward to experiencing Arianna’s naked state…of mind that is.

Rogue had called earlier and asked he could bring me some lunch. Unfortunately, I had to decline his offer, my time now stretched to the limits. It would take me a good hour or so to get from our dusty level to the tastefully rich plane of God’s elite.

“You’ll be home tonight?” I meant it as a question in need of a response, not as a statement of fact. Many nights I came home to an empty apartment because Rogue had gone off on one of his “business trips,” sometimes for days at a time. Of course, he would leave me a note, but his miniscule explanations still left me wondering where and what he was doing.

“For you, darling,” he answered now with a tone dripping sweet homily. “I’ll be home, waiting patiently for your arrival. In fact, I’ll even rustle us up some dinner, chef’s choice.”

Of course, after last night’s feast, any and everything that crossed my plate from now on would pale in comparison, Rogue’s too.

“I look forward to it, darling,” I cooed in return. I don’t know why but I felt a streak of comfortable affection, prompted no doubt by our steamy shag session last night. “So, I’ll see you around six or seven.” I couldn’t be any more precise than that.

Despite censure, Arianna had gathered together most of the companions who occupied the apartment building. All were beautiful, intelligent and sometimes witty, selected and trained to serve their employers in many capacities, including the tending of sexual needs whether heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual in nature. Now as she served drinks Arianna allowed her guests to mingle and do as they pleased. Dreama continued to comb Isis’ long, jet-blue hair while Shalimar painted Emanuela’s toenails a deep purple. The boys, Valentine, Topher and Calypso, sat quietly in reflective and meditative poses, their states of mind the result of an earlier consumption of Serenity, the synthetic opiate drug of choice and available to them through the generosity of their employers. Easy listening music drifted through the living room, the air thick with the fragrances of scented candles, the lighting low and suggestive.

As a rule, the mingling of companions was discouraged by the management, and almost downright taboo under Morrison’s watchful eye. Still, they all needed this quiet afternoon time together just to relax, talk, gossip, and enjoy one another’s company. The chiming of the doorbell perked Arianna’s attention. Setting aside the tray, she went to answer the summons and found Detective Cadye Parrish standing on the other side of the entrance panel.

“Oh, hello, detective,” Arianna greeted amicably. “It’s nice to see you again.”

I took a few firm steps into the foyer. “I’m sorry to disturb you but I have more questions I need to ask. Can you spare the time?”

“Certainly, Cadye, come in and have a seat.” Arianna allowed me to walk on ahead, but I had the feeling she wanted to gauge my reaction while I surveyed the room of her colleagues, all young, attractive, lithe and poised, all companions to the residents here. Whatever their employers wanted, these beautiful servants delivered, from tending bar to submitting to the sexual proclivities of the residents and their guests.

I turned back to Arianna. “If you’re in the middle of something, I can always return at a later date—”

“No, please, Cadye, you’re welcome to join us.” Arianna swept a willowy arm to encompass her guests. “These are my co-workers. We try to get together as time permits just to unwind, converse, relax and update each other on the comings and goings of the complex. In a way we’re just like an extended family.”

I nodded thoughtfully. “Gossip, too, I’m sure.”

Arianna smiled thoughtfully. “Oh, yes. Let me introduce you. Of course, not everyone is here, but these are the companions whose employers work during the day or spend the day in recreational pursuits.”

My gaze flitted from person to person, although the companions remained occupied in their pursuits, giving little regard to me, the newcomer or perhaps the interloper. “I assume they are aware by now of your employer’s passing.”

“Yes, of course. That’s partially the reason why they wanted to meet here today, to share in my loss and help me with the transition to a new employer.” Arianna bowed her head slightly. “Plus, they serve as an invaluable balm to ease my loneliness.” Returning to her statuesque height, she donned an upbeat smile. “Now let me introduce you.”

Taking me by the arm, Arianna walked us over to the group and began with the young woman serving as a hair stylist, her own hair a mass of sunshine curls, her body lithe and fair, her features pert, and her eyes as deep and shimmering as a blue lake. “This is Dreama who works for Mr. Sung Lee, the owner of several Asian restaurants and a premier import/export business. Now Isis here serves as companion to Mr. Victor Rodman, the movie producer.”

Isis came in a delicate package, like a Lotus blossom, her oblique eyes the color of green tea and her hair like a shiny, ebony flow cascading down her back. As Arianna continued with her introductions I made mental notes of the companions’ identities and affiliations. Shalimar, a tall, dark beauty from Jamaica, was in service to a recording artist, while Emanuela, the most voluptuous of the group with dark, gypsy features and skin the shade of café leche, belonged to a prominent Anglo attorney. She preferred to be called Eman while on duty.

Of the male companions, Valentine seemed to be the youngest and smallest, his body slim but wiry, his hair thick and breezily tousled, his facial features compact but smooth and attractive with a hint of smoldering passion beneath his hazel eyes. Val serviced a man prominent in the fashion and beauty care industry. On the other hand, Topher, the tanned, blond and handsome middle man of the group, provided company for an older wealthy widow. The third, Calypso, sported a tall, muscular frame, sleek, ebony skin, and large smoky eyes. He served as both a companion and an exercise trainer for two women, roommates and partners in a spa and fitness franchise.

As she revealed these details, Arianna glanced at me from time to time, but I kept my expression neutral, neither shocked nor interested in the sexual preferences of the other residents here. Each companion in turn, diverted his or her attention temporarily to me with a simple nod of polite acknowledgement. Only Eman offered a revealing and tantalizing peak at her personal life, her speech peppered with a zesty, tangoed accent. “I am a child prodigy,” she professed, “I began with the piano, but my music teacher seduced me. Of course, I fell in love with sex and now I make love like a tigress in heat.” She ended with a guttural roll of her tongue and the sensuous purr of that wild tiger.

Smiling, I continued to survey the room, pairing each companion with his or her employer, just for reference. Another young woman, with a tray of little sandwiches in her hands, came out of the kitchen and paused behind the fascinating quartet of Shalimar, Isis, Dreama and Eman. She didn’t share the others good looks, in fact, had more of a full-figured shape, her hair and eyes a plain brown. Always the proper hostess, Arianna made sure to introduce us. “And this is Faun. She’s what we call a companion-in-training, new to our little group.”

I simply nodded at Faun who just blinked back. Then I addressed Arianna. “Well, you certainly have a good representation of race, identity and culture here, a man or woman for every taste.”

“The management strives to offer a variety of companions to suit the tenants’ needs.” With the swish of her flowing hem, Arianna started for the bar, a nook decorated in sleek chrome and icy white Lucite. Glass shelves held a variety of liquor bottles in all sizes and colors while crystal cocktail glasses sparkled in the recessed lighting. “May I fix you something to drink, Cadye?”

I shook my head. “No, sorry, I’m still on duty. Can we talk in a more private area? I won’t take up too much of your time.”

“Of course.” Arianna molded her lips in a candid smile. “If you don’t mind we can talk in the bedroom.” Or what had been the scene of the crime. But Arianna had been quick to strip away the detritus of murder and replaced it with the soft, baby-blue linen accouterments of serenity and peace. She took a seat on the bed. “Now what can I do for you, Cadye?”

Taking a casual stance, I leaned against the dresser and consulted my notes. “Last evening Officer Sebring took several things from the nightstand drawers, among them ‘implements of sexual enhancement.’ His words not mine.” Glancing up, I formed a half-smile.

Arianna laughed sweetly and rose from the bed. “That’s a polite way of putting it! Gavin enjoyed his ‘implements of sexual enhancement’ from time to time.”

“I suppose you want them back.”

“Actually, they belonged to Gavin.” Arianna batted her long lashes, her eyes of polished amber beneath satin lids. “They’re really not mine, but you can claim them if you like.”

I never missed a beat. “I’ll think about it, Arianna. Now I’d like to know if Mr. McAllister entertained other sexual partners here.”

For the first time the companion’s lovely expression slipped a notch. “To tell you the truth, I really don’t know. There were times when Gavin gave me the night off, and I would leave the apartment to attend a show, a movie, or meet friends for drinks. I have to admit that I enjoyed my free time as much as my time spent with Gavin; but when I returned later on in the evening, I always found him alone, usually asleep.” She shrugged her slim shoulders. “Of course, he could have easily entertained visitors without my knowledge. He certainly didn’t tell me what he did with his time in my absence.”

Nodding, I scrolled to the information I wanted and held out my visual pad. “Please take a look at this notation in Mr. McAllister’s personal planner. Perhaps you can help identify who or what he means.”

Coming over to face me, Arianna accepted the notebook I handed her and carefully considered the information. Then, glancing up, she shook her head. “Sorry, but these initials mean nothing to me. Of course, Gavin often went down below…I mean to Terre Cite on business, or so I assumed. Oh, but wait a minute!” She suddenly brightened with a thought. “I remember him mentioning that he met with some associates at a nightclub along the Sunset Strip. These associates from out of town wanted to experience a certain form of entertainment.”

I helped spur Arianna’s memory. “Could it have been strip tease dancing or some other provocative routines?”

Arianna glanced at the ceiling. “Gavin alluded to the kind of raunchy stage shows offered at these clubs, but went no further than that. I suppose he wanted to spare my sensibilities, but I certainly don’t offend that easily.”

She offered an adroit smile. “I just never took a great deal of interest in the way he entertained business associates, especially if it involved the provocative display of women nude or semi-nude. Oh, I’m not prudish in the least, but as a woman, I find that kind of entertainment rather…silly. Although, I assume that the women who perform in these clubs find some sort of enjoyment or fulfillment from it.”

Now I had to smile. “They have to be exhibitionists at heart, I think. Thank you, Arianna. That bit of information might prove more helpful than you think.”

“I certainly hope so.” As Arianna returned my display, she slipped her arm around mine and then tugged me close so that our hips touched. “Now, you must join us, at least for hors d’oeuvres. I made tea sandwiches and blini wraps, and we have petit fours, too.”

The thought of real food again definitely aroused my interest and appetite. “I’d love to, Arianna. Thank you.”

A sudden, loud commotion from the next room interrupted our little tête-à-tête. We quickly approached the living area and found Morrison standing near the first group of women, his face mottled with anger and indignation. Isis had melted into Dreama’s arms, her slender shoulders rising and falling with her sobs. Eman spoke up as she stood on a nearby table, her long index finger pointed accusingly at the drone. “He did it! He slapped Isis, the bastardo!

“What’s going on here?” After releasing me, Arianna strode indignantly up to Morrison with the sway of her gown’s silky folds.

Morrison huffed and puffed as the taller woman looked down at him. “You know as well as I do that employee fraternization is strictly off limits!”

Arianna crossed her arms. “I don’t remember reading such in the bylaws.”

“Well, it’s there. Too much fraternization promotes dissent and incites revolt.”

As I joined the duo, my gaze continued to focus on the smarmy manager. “Morris…can I call you Morris? No one is doing anything illegal here. Look around you! Does this look like a den of iniquity, filled with counter-revolutionaries?”

“Well…no,” Morrison blustered.

“It looks to me that everyone here is enjoying a nice, relaxing get-together before they have to go back to work. You can understand the need for a little relaxation now and again, can’t you, Morris?”

“Sure, of course—”

“Then you should leave and allow everyone to enjoy what little time they have left.” As I spoke, I took firm, decisive steps forward, causing the drone to do a shuffle in retreat. “And if you’re a good boy, Arianna might give you a special treat for your generous allowance.”

Morrison donned a florid smile. “Oh, all right. Something a little extra would be nice.” He needn’t mention what everyone in the building already knew, that the insipid manager gladly accepted kickbacks in exchange for his silence about certain activities that occurred with salacious frequency, no particular floor of the twelve-story tower immune to the comings and goings of its randy residents.

Arianna went to the bedroom and returned moments later. “Here you go,” she murmured upon returning and handed the manager a fifty dollar bill. “Let’s forget all about what goes on here, shall we?”

“Yes, yes…of course.” He slipped the bill into his coat pocket, his gaze already brimming with what his bonus would buy, not much, but enough to satisfy him for now. Then, spinning around, he ambled as fast as he could towards the entrance.

As soon as he left, the group whistled and clapped, their appreciative gazes aimed collectively at me and their hostess. Isis, who had recovered from her blow, added a couple of thank-yous for our efforts.

“I appreciate what you’ve done, Cadye,” Arianna offered, her smile warm and gracious. “In fact, I owe you one.”

“No you don’t,” I countered. “You already gave me what I need in the way of information. But you probably shouldn’t have fed Morrison’s greed.”

Arianna let out a little sigh. “It’s what we have to do around here to survive. We take some, we lose some. Besides, it was Gavin’s money from his rainy day stash.”

I absently twirled the ends of my hair, a habit I indulged in every once in awhile while I engaged my thought processes. The snippy drone might turn out to be a problem I’d much rather not have to deal with. “Well, let’s hope it keeps Morris’ trap shut for awhile. Maybe I’ll have a little talk with him before I leave.” Now my gaze swept around the room in search of more interesting fare. “You mentioned the possibility of wraps and cakes earlier. Does the offer still stand?”

Smiling once more, Arianna swept her hand towards the bar. “Right this way, detective.”

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