Man on a leash, page 12
Paulette fell silent and took a sip of her drink.
“He didn’t make any threats of any kind against the old man?” Romstead asked.
She shook her head. “Not that I know of.”
Revenge could have been a motive, of course, along with the quarter million dollars, and he was thinking of that lactose poured in his father’s mouth, in conjunction with another thing she’d said.
“You said he had a sadistic sense of humor. How was that?”
“Oh, nutty practical jokes, things like that, with the electronics junk he was always experimenting with. Real tiny bugging devices almost as far out as the old gag about the bugged martini olive. Wiring a girl’s room in a cathouse was a big laugh. And then the creepy things he remote-controlled by radio—”
“Remote control?” Romstead interrupted. He frowned.
“Sure, you know. Like those model airplanes people fly with little transmitters that make ‘em bank and turn and loop-the-loop. Of course, he didn’t invent the idea; it’s been around for years, but he added his own touches. He was a little hipped on the whole subject, as a matter of fact, and used to brag he could radio-control anything if you paid him enough.
“For example, he bought a couple of battery-operated toy cars and tore them down and rebuilt them with radio controls for starting and stopping and turning. Then he paid a kid in Manila to kill him two of those big gruesome rats on the docks there—I mean, they’re something else. Any tomcat crazy enough to tackle one of ‘em, I’d give you the tomcat and eight points. He tanned the skins and built foam-rubber bodies for the cars and sewed the skins over them. Talk about freezing your blood, to see those two things coming at you in formation. He used to take them ashore with him; they say he could empty a whorehouse in ten seconds.”
Romstead felt the hair stabbing the back of his neck. His mind was racing now as all the bits and pieces began to fall into place. He thought of the terrified little burro fleeing out across the flat with its clattering beer cans, and then exploding ... “The subhuman son of a bitch,” he said.
He hadn’t realized he’d spoken aloud until Paulette looked at him blankly and said, “What?”
“Don’t you see? That’s what nobody’s ever been able to figure out—how the old man could be forced to go into the bank alone and cash that check. You’ve just told me.”
“Eric, darling,” she said, “you’re farther around the bend than Kessler. You don’t remote-control a man, and certainly not that one.”
“Oh, yes, you can,” he replied, “if the threat is right. Tell me, didn’t Kessler wear glasses?”
“Yes. He was myopic, I think. How’d you guess?”
“The color of his eyes has changed. He’s wearing tinted contacts.” Dying the hair was routine, of course, and there were drugs that would darken the skin. He must be out on parole, so he’d violated it and skipped from wherever he was supposed to be, which meant he’d been up to something criminal all along. He’d run into Jeri at that electronics supply place where she worked, and even if she hadn’t recognized him, he remembered her—
Romstead’s thoughts broke off as he realized Paulette was asking him something over and over.
“Eric, for God’s sake, what do you mean, if the threat is right?”
“A radio-detonated explosive device on him somewhere, probably in the crotch. Having somebody by the balls is not just an expression.”
“But why couldn’t he tell somebody?”
“You just told me that too. He was bugged. Whatever he said to anybody or anybody said to him was being piped right into the ear of the bastard with the control transmitter. Kessler. Got up as a hippie with hair down to his shoulders to hide the plug in his ear. I’ve got to call Brubaker.”
The chief deputy might be home by now, but he could try the office first. He flipped the directory open to the emergency numbers and picked up the receiver. Before he could start to dial, the tone went off. He jiggled the switch. Nothing.
“Your phone’s gone dead,” he said.
Paulette Carmody looked up in surprise. “That’s funny. It was all right a half hour ago.” She put down her drink. “I’ll try the bedroom extension.”
She went through the foyer toward the bedroom wing and came back in a moment, shaking her head. “Dead as Kelsey’s jewels.”
The lights went out all over the house, and then those in the pool. The faint humming of the air conditioner stopped. In blackness and total silence he thought he heard a door open somewhere and at the same time the sharp indrawn breath of an incipient outcry from Paulette. He reached for her, got a hand over her mouth, and pushed her down to the floor beside the sofa.
He placed his lips against her ear and whispered, “Stay down.” Feeling her head move as she nodded, he pushed away from her and stood up, trying to remember the dimensions of the room and the placement of all its furniture. He didn’t know which door it was he’d heard, but it was most likely the one at the other end of the kitchen; the electric panel with its switches and circuit breakers would probably be in the garage.
His eyes hadn’t had time to adjust yet, and the blackness was still impenetrable as he began to feel his ,way toward the wall by the kitchen doorway. He stopped to listen. He was on carpet, but if somebody were traversing the tile floor of the kitchen he should make some sound. The silence was unbroken. He stepped forward again, his hands groping for contact with the wall. Then the light burst in his face. Paulette screamed behind him.
It was white, focused, and blinding for an instant, the beam of a six-cell flashlight, and just below it and extending slightly into the beam were the ugly twin tubes of a sawed-off shotgun. He froze where he was, a good six feet from the ends of the barrels, and he could make out a little of the shadowy form behind the light. The man was clad in a black jump suit and black hangman’s hood. He’d made no sound on the kitchen floor because he was wearing only socks. They were black, too. Paulette screamed again. There must be another one behind him.
“Well,” the man with the shotgun said, “if you want to carry the big son of a bitch—”
Romstead started to turn his head. A fiery blossom of pain exploded inside it. The light in front of his eyes receded to some great distance and then went out.
* * *
He opened his eyes, winced, and closed them again as he fought off waves of nausea. In a moment he tried once more. It appeared to be daylight wherever he was—faint daylight, to be sure, but at least he could see. He was lying fully clothed except for coat and tie on a narrow and too-short bed covered with a blue chenille spread, looking up at what appeared to be a varnished knotty-pine ceiling. He was a light drinker, and only a very few times in his life had he consumed enough to have a hangover; but he was conscious of some woolly and unfocused impression that this must be the distilled essence of all the hangovers in history. His mind was beginning to function a little now, however, and he remembered the man with the shotgun and Paulette Carmody’s warning cry. He put a hand up to his head. There was a painful lump at the back of it, and his hair was matted with dried blood.
He looked at his watch. When he could get the face of it to swim into focus he saw it was ten minutes of nine, A.M.? he wondered. But it had to be; it was daylight. How in hell could he have been unconscious for—what was it—fifteen hours?
He gave up on that and turned his head, accepting the stab of pain he knew this was going to cost. Just beyond him was another narrow bed, the other of the set of twins and similarly covered with a blue chenille spread. Paulette Carmody lay on it, asleep, blond hair tousled and the wrinkled dress halfway up her thighs. Beyond her, at the end of a room which appeared to be all varnished pine, was the window from which the light was coming, what there was of it. It was barred. A small air conditioner was set in the bottom of it, and outside it the louvered shutters were closed.
Barred? He turned his head to the right. There was a door at that end of the room, armored with a thin plate of steel bo
He swung his feet to the floor and sat up. Pain clamped its viselike grip on his head again, and he was assailed by vertigo. He tried to stand but fell back on the side of the bed. There was no feeling in his feet at all and no control over the muscles in his ankles. Apparently he’d been lying for a long time with his feet extending over the end of the bed, their own weight and that of the heavy brogues cutting off most of the circulation. He leaned down, managed to worry the shoes off, and began to massage them. They were swollen and as devoid of sensation as blocks of wood at first, but in a minute he could feel the pinpricks of returning circulation.
He could stand now. He swayed once and then lurched drunkenly over to the door that was ajar. It was a bathroom. There was a small window at the back of it, but it was covered with two vertical strips of two-by-two angle iron bolted at top and bottom. He stared at it numbly for a moment and then went over to the steel-faced door at the front of the room. He tried the knob. It was locked. And probably bolted on the outside, too, he thought. There was a faint humming sound from the air conditioner in the other window, but otherwise, the silence was total.
He went back to the window and examined it. They weren’t bars, as he’d thought at first, but lengths of two-by-two angle iron the same as those across the bathroom window. Only here, in order to clear the air-conditioner controls, they’d bolted horizontal lengths to the wall at top and bottom and then welded three vertical strips to them. The bolts were half-inch, he thought, the steel was quarter-inch stock, and the welds looked solid. He caught one of the vertical strips, put a foot against the wall, and heaved back. Nothing happened except that it made his head pound. You couldn’t budge it with a crowbar, he thought.
He held a hand in front of the air-conditioner grille. It was only the fan that was turned on, for ventilation. He put his face between two of the vertical angle irons, as near the window as he could get, and looked downward with the slope of the louvers outside. At first all he saw was the top of the external portion of the air conditioner. There was sunlight on it. The surface was weather-stained, and he could see dust on it and several pine needles. He moved over to the edge of the window, looked slantingly downward past the air-conditioner box, and saw a few feet of stony ground, the half-exposed root of a tree, and more pine needles.
Wherever they were, he thought, it wasn’t in the desert. Pines didn’t grow there, at least not at low altitudes. He turned back to the room. When Paulette Carmody woke up, maybe she could tell him what had happened and where they were. They surely hadn’t slugged her, too. She had turned again in her sleep, and the dress was now up around her hips. He pulled the spread off the other bed and covered her legs with it. She was going to have enough to cope with when she woke up, without being embarrassed on top of it.
He went back into the bathroom. The floor was badly worn linoleum but seemed to be clean. There was a commode and a washbasin with rust streaks under the spigots. Above the basin was a cloudy mirror. An old-fashioned tub with claw feet stood in a rear corner next to the window. There was a louvered shutter outside the window, the same as the one in the bedroom, so it was scarcely twilight inside the room. He flicked a switch, and a light came on above the mirror. A rack held a supply of towels, and there was a wrapped bar of soap on the side of the basin. He turned on the cold-water tap and washed his face. It made him feel a little better. The water was icy, which seemed further evidence they must be in the Sierra or at least in the foothills. And the place must be completely isolated, far from any traveled road. He hadn’t heard a car yet.
But how could he have been unconscious for that long? He’d been knocked out several times in his life but never for more than a few minutes, and he’d never heard of fifteen hours or longer except in cases of severe concussion and coma. He must have been drugged with something. His coat had been removed, and his tie, and he noticed now that the cuff of his left shirt sleeve was unbuttoned. He pulled the sleeve up and saw them immediately, two small blue puncture marks and a drop of dried blood. They’d used the tie for a tourniquet. And some junkie’s dirty needle, he thought, and then wondered if he were entirely rational even yet if he didn’t have any more to worry about under the circumstances than serum hepatitis.
He pulled open the mirrored door of the medicine cabinet. Inside were two new toothbrushes in plastic tubes, some toothpaste, a bottle of aspirin, and a water tumbler. He shook out four of the aspirin and examined them. They bore the well-known brand name and appeared to be genuine. He swallowed them, broke open one of the toothbrushes, and scrubbed vigorously at his teeth.
He came back out into the room. A curtained alcove to the left of the bathroom proved to be a closet. Several wire coat hangers dangled from a rod, and his suitcase, Paulette Carmody’s handbag, and a small overnight case were on the floor. His coat and tie were tossed across his bag. He let the curtain fall back into place and went over to the two chests of drawers against the front wall.
The intercom would be open, of course, and no doubt there was another bug somewhere in the room, or perhaps two, so after they’d muffled the intercom with a pillow and found the obvious bug, the plant, and pulled its teeth, there’d still be another recording everything they said. The mirror was obviously phony; on the other side of its dark and imperfect reflection it was a window through which they could be watched as long as the light intensity was higher on this side than on the other. He looked up. In the ceiling was a light fixture with what appeared to be a 200-watt bulb in it. It wasn’t turned on at the moment, but it would be at night. He could smash it, of course, but to what point? The spooks would simply come in with that sawed-off shotgun and tie them up.
Did the crazy bastard think he could get away with it again? It was obvious, now that it was too late, what Kessler had been looking for in his apartment; he’d even told Mayo, without realizing it. Bank statements. The hundred and seventy-two thousand dollars on deposit at the Southland Trust in San Diego, everything he had in the world except for the few hundred in the checking account in San Francisco. And now he was being programmed to go in and draw it out with a fatal third testicle of plastic explosive in a jockstrap or a stick of dynamite taped to the inside of his leg. This would be inside three or four pairs of panty hose, probably sewn to the bottom of a T-shirt, and finally covered by trousers with the belt and fly zipper jammed in some way. In ten minutes you could work your way out of it, and in one second or less you could be mutilated and dying. But what about the radio circuits and the other wires connecting them to the detonator? They must have been inside the old man’s coat somewhere, so why hadn’t he been able to get at them and disable the apparatus? His hands had been free. No doubt he’d find out, but at the moment there appeared to be no answer except that you never made any sudden and impulsive moves when somebody had you by the jewels.
But why had they kidnapped Paulette Carmody? Why, for that matter, had they gone to the trouble to bug her telephone and then close in on him while he was at her place? There didn’t seem to be any answer to these questions either. Then, for the first time, the absolute silence of the place was broken; from the other side of the wall against which the beds were placed there came a low murmur of voices and the creaking of a bed. He turned and looked at Paulette Carmody. Her eyes were open. She stared blankly at him for a moment and then put a hand up to her head, and said, “Good God!”
“They didn’t slug you too, did they?” he asked.
“No,” she said. “It must be that crap they shot into my arm. Battery solution or varnish remover.”
“I’m sorry about it,” he said.
“Getting you involved. I don’t know why they grabbed you t
“Money,” she said. She sat up with a grimace of pain and grabbed her head again, felt the disarray of her hair, and shuddered. He wanted to ask her what money and how they expected to get it, but it could wait. He brought her purse and the small overnight case from the closet and set them beside her. “There’s a bathroom,” he said. “And a toothbrush and some aspirin. Can you make it?”
She nodded. She pushed aside the bedspread he’d put over her, swung bare legs off the bed, and stood up. When she swayed drunkenly, he took her by the arm and helped her to the door of the bathroom and then passed in her purse. The creaking of the bed in the other room was increasing now, and he could hear the voices again. One of them was feminine. There began a series of little moans and gasping outcries. He cursed and hoped they’d get it over with before Paulette came out of the bathroom. They didn’t. When she emerged a few minutes later, wearing lipstick now and still running a comb through her hair, she walked right into it. There was a sudden crescendo of the lunging of the bed, its headboard banging against a wall apparently as sound-transparent as paper, and then a ragged and strangely hoarse but unmistakably feminine voice cried out, “Now, now, now! Oh, Jesus Christ, oh, God!” They looked away from each other in embarrassment as this ended in one final chaotic shriek and silence descended.
Paulette sat on the side of the bed and fished a cigarette out of her purse. “Well, at least they didn’t put it on closed-circuit TV and make us watch. Though I wouldn’t put it past the creepy dingaling.”
He gestured toward the intercom. “The room’s bugged.”
“So let him listen. What difference does it make?” she asked.
“None, now.” If her telephone had been tapped, Kessler already knew they had figured out his identity and they were doomed from the start, in spite of the window dressing of the hoods and masks.
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