Man on a leash, p.13

Man on a leash, page 13


Man on a leash

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  “It’s my fault,” he said. “I blew it from every angle. If I hadn’t shot off my mouth—”

  “Will you stop it? None of it is your fault. I was the primary target all along. From the little I overheard, you’re just going to pick up the ransom.”

  “How much?”

  “Two million.”

  He whistled. “How do they expect to get it?”

  “I don’t know. They didn’t discuss it much, except one of them suggested they avail themselves of the facilities while they had me there alone with you drugged and knocked out. The other one told him to shut up and attend to business. That’s when the two million was mentioned. You could be swimming in it, he said, in that bracket. Wall-to-wall tail is the elegant way he put it.”

  “Then there were just two of them?”

  “That’s all I saw.”

  “Was one of them Kessler? Or would you be able to recognize his voice?”

  “I might. But they were both too big, six feet or over. One had a hush-puppy accent, Texas, I think.”

  “So there are three of them, at least.”

  She gestured toward the wall. “Plus Hotpants.”

  “Did you get a look at their car?”

  “No. I think it must have been down the hill in back, at your father’s place. After they slugged you and injected that stuff in your arm, they held me and gave me a shot of it, too. Then the one who seemed to be in charge sent Tex off to get the wheels. Tex was the one who was smitten by my desirability. Or maybe availability is the word. Anyway, the stuff didn’t take effect right away, and I was still with it to some extent when I heard the car pull up in front; but by the time they’d lugged you out there and then come back for me. I was out. I have some kind of vague impression of about half-way waking up somewhere along the line and the two of us were lying on a mattress in the back of what might have been a panel truck. We were stopped, and they seemed to be giving you the needle again. But the whole thing might have been a dream.”

  “No. There are two punctures.”

  “But why the drugs at all? They could have just tied us up.”

  “So we wouldn’t be able even to make a guess which direction we were driven or for how long. We could be twenty miles west of Coleville or four hundred miles south. I think we’re in the Sierra or the foothills, for what that’s worth, which is nothing.”

  “Do you suppose they’re going to do the same thing again, send you into the bank for the money the way they did your father?”

  “Apparently. It worked the other time, so maybe they think they can get away with it again.”

  “But there’s one thing I still don’t understand. His hands were free, of course, so why couldn’t he—”

  “Time,” he said. He explained. “He’d have been blown up before he could even start to get out of it.”

  “But, Eric, part of the junk must have been somewhere else on him. In his coat, maybe, so there’d have to be interconnection wires he could yank loose.”

  “Yeah, I “know—” he began, but at that moment the intercom came to life.

  “Of course he could have pulled the circuits apart,” a voice said. “But that was the last thing on earth he wanted. Believe me.”

  They looked at each other. The question was obvious in Romstead’s eyes. She shrugged. It could be Kessler, but she wasn’t sure.

  Romstead turned toward the intercom. “Why?”

  “You know anything about electrical circuits or electronics?” the voice asked.

  “Very little,” Romstead said bleakly.

  “Well, your old man did. He got it right away when I showed him the circuit.”

  “You want me to ask, is that it?”

  “I don’t care if you do or not, but I think you ought to understand what you’re up against. The detonator was on the back contact of the relay. Failsafe in reverse.”

  “All right, whatever that means.”

  “It means, quite simply, that the thing wasn’t intended to be detonated by the radio signal. It was the radio signal that kept it from detonating, if you’re still with me. He was on a leash.”

  Romstead got it then, the full horror of it and the helplessness his father must have felt. He couldn’t run, because if he went beyond the range of the transmitter he’d blow up automatically. If the police grabbed Kessler, or if he himself got close enough to grab him or knock him out, the same thing would happen.

  “The spark supply was self-contained,” the voice went on. “A bank of charged capacitors. Perfectly harmless as long as the detonating circuit was open, but if the radio circuit failed for any reason, the relay fell open and completed the detonating circuit through the back contact. Neat device.”

  Egomaniac, Romstead thought. He was capable of talking himself into the gas chamber just to prove how brilliant he was. But that was of little help here.

  “Now we’re all agreed you’re a genius,” Romstead said, “do we have to have the burro?”

  “No, we haven’t got another burro. We’ve got some good sixteen millimeter footage of that one, though, if you need convincing.”

  Romstead said nothing. The bed was beginning to creak again on the other side of the wall. The voice went on, “Not necessary, anyway. You don’t think we’re stupid enough to try the same thing again in the same way, do you? This is a whole new operation with a different approach. Do you want some breakfast?”

  “Oh, God,” the girl said on the other side of the wall. Romstead looked at Paulette Carmody. She shook her head and looked away.

  “We appreciate it,” Romstead said, “but not with the present entertainment.”

  There was a chuckle from the intercom. “Boy, have you got hangups. Well, we’re going to bring you out in a little while for the pictures we have to have.”

  The headboard of the other bed was beginning to bump the wall once more. “Fast turnaround; no down time at all,” Paulette Carmody said. “Or she’s taking them in relays.” She went into the bathroom and closed the door. He heard her flush the toilet and turn on the water in the basin. After the final shriek she came out again.

  “And I always loved sex,” she said. “Do you suppose I’ll ever be capable of it again?”

  “Sure,” Romstead replied. “Barnyard matings never bothered you before, did they?”

  She lighted another cigarette. “It’s a wonder the great genius didn’t put a TV camera in here so they could watch us as well as listen.”

  “Oh, we’re being watched.” He gestured toward the front wall. “The mirror’s a phony.”

  She looked at it with interest. “You mean like those they’re supposed to have in some of the casinos? How does it work?”

  “You just have to have more light on the front side than the back. It’s probably in a closet out there, or there’s a curtain over it.”

  “Oh. What was all that about a burro?”

  He explained about finding the skeleton with its broken ribs. “It was a demonstration, to put the old man in a receptive frame of mind. They strapped a bundle of dynamite to the poor little bastard, tied some tin cans to his tail to make him run, and then blew him up several hundred yards away.”

  “Oh, my God! How sick can you get? And they took movies of it?”

  “So he says.”

  “But how could they get them developed?”

  “Some bootleg lab that does processing for stag movies.”

  She gave him a speculative glance. “For an ex-jock and a prosaic businessman, you seem to know some of the damndest things.”

  He shrugged. “I read a lot.”

  “Yes, but I wonder what.”

  He made no reply. Two million dollars, she’d said; he’d had no idea she was that wealthy, but Kessler must have, and apparently he was right. His intelligence operations must have improved since they’d kidnapped his father. He thought of Jeri; maybe that had been her job and she’d bungled it. But how in hell did they expect to collect any such sum and get away with it, when the FBI wou
ld be turning over every rock west of the Mississippi? He, Romstead, was supposed to pick up the ransom, she’d said. What did that mean? Go into the bank, as the old man had? No, this was supposed to be something entirely different. The only things for sure were that it would be somewhere on the border line between brilliance and insanity, it would involve electronics, and at the end of it, unless he could find some way out of here, he’d be dead, the same as his father.

  He wondered if they’d rented this place or if they’d bought it with some of the two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. No doubt after it was over, they’d remove the bars, the steel plate, the mirror, and all the rest of it, and plug up the holes, but if they knew anything about the FBI, they’d better do a good job. With two million paid in ransom and two people dead, the country was going to be sifted, and sifted very fine.

  There was the sound of a latch being released, and the narrow panel above the chest of drawers slid open. A hand reached in holding a pair of handcuffs and two strips of black cloth. It deposited these on top of the chest. Then the twin barrels of the sawed-off shotgun protruded from the opening, and a voice said, “Romstead, go to the back of the room and face the window.”

  Dramatic bunch of bastards, Romstead thought, with a real flair for the theater. Next thing he’ll gesture with the gun the way they do on TV. He turned and walked back, and stood facing the window. Behind him, the voice went on, “Mrs. Carmody, take these things back there. Blindfold him and handcuff his hands behind him.”

  “I don’t know how to handcuff anybody,” she replied. “I must have been absent that day at the Police Academy—”

  “Shut up and do as you’re told. The cuffs are open. All you have to do is put them around his wrists and push in until the ratchets catch. And if you’re fond of him at all, put that blindfold on right.”

  It wasn’t the same voice they’d heard on the intercom; it was a little deeper in pitch and the delivery more aggressive. There was no trace of regional accent that “he could hear, so it couldn’t be Tex. Then there were at least three. Call this one Top Kick.

  He heard her come up behind him and put his hands back. The steel rings closed over his wrists, and then she knotted the blindfold around his head. “Now stand beside him and blindfold yourself,” the voice said. Romstead heard her move and then the sound of a bolt being drawn and the turning of a lock.

  “Got him heah,” another voice said. So that was Tex. That meant he also had a gun of some kind and was covering from the door. Theatrical they might be, but they played it close to the chest when it came to taking chances, though what they thought he could do handcuffed and sightless was beyond him at the moment. The floor was bare except for a throw rug between the beds, and he could hear footsteps coming up behind him. Then another set nearer the door. They were both in the room now.

  “You jist go wheah I point you, Sugarfoot,” Tex said. His and Paulette’s footsteps retreated toward the door, and then something poked into Romstead’s back.

  “Twelve-gauge double, loaded with number two’s,” Top Kick said. Romstead made no reply. A big hand grasped his left arm above the elbow and turned him around. “Straight ahead.” They crossed the room. He already had the dimensions of that fixed in his mind, and he felt his right arm brush against the door facing just when he expected it. “Right,” Top Kick ordered, and pushed his arm. Hallway, Romstead thought, with at least two bedrooms opening onto it. He silently counted the steps. They should be opposite the mirror now, and he pushed the right elbow out just slightly and felt it brush against cloth. So it was curtained on this side.

  “Left,” Top Kick commanded. So the entrance to the bedroom hallway would be just about opposite the see-through mirror. Romstead turned and began counting again, taking the short steps that would be natural to a sighted person temporarily unable to see but at the same time would be as near exactly two feet as he could make them. He heard a refrigerator motor start up and a dripping sound that could be a leaky faucet. There was the smell of coffee in the air here and the residual odor of fried bacon. The floor was still bare, but he could no longer hear Tex and Paulette ahead of him. Then a screen door opened momentarily, stretching its spring, and Tex said, “Short step down, Honeybunch.” The screen snapped back, the latch rattling against the wood. They’d just gone out, so there must be carpet ahead. Then he was on it, twelve feet from the rear wall of the bedroom hallway.

  Three steps in on the carpet, they turned obliquely left, and after nine more Top Kick stopped him and he could feel the threshold under the toe of his shoe. Top Kick pushed the screen door open, still holding the shotgun at his back. “Down,” he said.

  So the front door of the long room was offset slightly to the left of the hallway door, and they’d had to skirt something, a table or sofa, instead of going straight across. He wondered why he was doing it; it must be purely automatic. The information would be invaluable to the FBI afterward, but who was going to give it to them?

  He stepped down carefully and felt a cocoa mat under his foot. Bare planks then for six feet, and then another two steps down onto the grating crunch of pea gravel. There was the resinous fragrance of pine in the air, but no wind at all to give him any aural indication as to how near the surrounding trees were or how dense. No sound of traffic in any direction. A bird he thought was a jay scolded them from somewhere nearby. Sunlight on his head. Remote, peaceful, he thought. Sure, great.

  “Left,” Top Kick ordered. He turned and began counting again, feeling the rasp of the gravel under his shoes. They were apparently going to another building for some reason, so this direction and distance would be the most important information of all from an investigative standpoint, assuming anybody ever received it. With aerial photography you could cover thousands of square miles in a few hours, looking for two buildings of approximately XY and XY dimensions and separated from each other by Z distance in Z-Prime direction in a clearing in some pines, breaking them down into impossibles, possibles, and probables as fast as you could develop the film.

  It seemed highly unlikely that the technological genius didn’t know this himself, so the fact that he didn’t seem to care was as chilling as the rest of it.


  There were twenty-one steps in the pea gravel, and then he felt a header under his foot. Then five steps across hard-baked ground, and they were on gravel again. Top Kick turned him in a left oblique, and in three steps he felt concrete under his shoes, and simultaneously the sunlight was off his head. Left again, which should put them about ninety degrees from their original direction, and eight steps back. “Hold it,” Top Kick ordered. He stopped. Garage, he guessed, oriented in the same direction as the house and approximately fifty-five feet from it. He heard the creaking of springs as an overhead door came down. Right on.

  “Interesting trip,” Paulette said beside him. “Like a sorority initiation, and about as intelligent.”

  “Shut up,” Top Kick said. “And turn around, both of you.”

  He did an about-face and heard Paulette turn beside him. Top Kick should be in front of him now, but another gun prodded his back. “Like the monkey said in the lawn mower, don’t make no sudden moves, ole buddy.” Tex. Somebody was throwing rope around his ankles, hobbling him. He thought of the photograph of his father and was swept with cold rage for an instant but controlled it.

  “I’m still here, Romstead,” Top Kick said in front of him then. “All right, unlock the cuffs.” He felt the handcuffs being lifted. They clicked open. “Put your hands in front of you,” Top Kick ordered. He held them out. “You too, Mrs. Carmody.” The cuffs closed over his wrists again, and he heard another pair click shut beside him. The pictures, he thought. Realism, artistic detail, the director’s touch. Footsteps receded across the concrete. He heard the rustle of cloth somewhere.

  “All right, turn them on.” This was the intercom voice, presumably Kessler. “And take off the blindfolds.”

  There was a soft swishing of cloth right beside him. Tex, o
r whoever it was behind him now, was removing Paulette Carmody’s blindfold. He felt fingers working at the knot of his own. Then, from the middle distance somewhere in front, a feminine voice said, “You mean you really would ball that old thing?”

  “What an adorable child,” Paulette said.

  “Who-eee, would I?” It was Tex behind him, all right. “Be like ridin’ a Braymer bull.” He went on, in imitation of a rodeo announcer, “—comin’ out of chute number five on Widow-maker—”

  “Get on with it,” Top Kick ordered somewhere off to his right. “For Christ’s sake, don’t you ever think of anything else?”

  The blindfold came off then. He blinked, momentarily unable to see anything in the almost painful glare of light burning into his face. Then he could make out that there were four of them, high-intensity floods on standards, two in front and two off to his right. Everything beyond them was indistinct and shadowy, though he could vaguely make out the swing-up door of a two-car garage directly facing him. To his left was a car, a two-door sedan several years old, and on the other side of it, across that whole wall, was a backdrop that appeared to have been made from a cheap plastic dropcloth sprayed with a thin coat of green paint. He looked around in back and saw the wall behind them was covered the same way. He had to admit for the second time that for all their theatricality they didn’t miss a bet. They knew as well as he did that the second set of people to see these pictures was going to be a room full of FBI special agents, and they weren’t going to see a hell of a lot. No knotholes, no distinctive grain patterns, stains, old nails, or anything that would identify the place later.

  He looked to the right. Tex or Top Kick was standing just far enough back to be well out of the picture, holding the sawed-off shotgun. Six feet two, at least, and heavy in the shoulders, wearing a black jumpsuit and a black hood. By squinting his eyes against the glare he could just make out three more shadowy figures now, slightly behind the lights in front and on his right. One was obviously the girl, not over five five, the second could very easily fit Kessler’s description as to build, while the third was as big as the man with the shotgun. They all were dressed the same way.

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