Man on a leash, page 15
“You’ll be glad to hear that Jerome Carmody and the bank have agreed to the two million,” he said, “and to the terms of delivery.”
“What about the police?” Romstead asked. “And the FBI?”
“They swear they haven’t called them in, and there’s nothing in any of the papers or on TV; but of course they have. I have no doubt that right now whole roomfuls of them are playing the telephone tapes over and over and tearing their hair out in handfuls trying to get voice patterns or something in the background. A cordless vibrator against the throat doesn’t help them much.”
Keep going, Romstead thought; embroider. Egomania’s about all we’ve got going for us—egomania and greed.
“At first we thought of having Jerome Carmody deliver the money,” Kessler’s voice went on, “but we found out he’s got a serious heart condition, and I don’t want somebody crapping out on a freeway at seventy miles an hour with two million dollars of my money in his car—”
“You ought to guard against that streak of sentimentality,” Paulette interrupted.
“Shut up, if you want to hear this. So we decided on Brooks. He works for the bank, so the bank is simply delivering your own money to you. Two of us have seen him up close, so they can’t run in an FBI ringer on us.
“They have the pictures and the facts of life as they are. You’ll be on the leash, with enough explosive in the car to blow it all to hell and only the transmitted radio signal keeping the detonating circuit from closing and setting it off. I’m using a lower frequency this time for longer range of operation and so there’ll be no reception blind spots when you’re behind hills or in canyons. And I won’t be at the transmitter; that’ll be in another part of the forest and remote-controlled itself. They can locate it with direction finders and get up there where it is with mules in five or six hours, but why would they? If they turn it off, they’ll kill you. They’ve been warned that any deviation at all from the procedure I’ve given them and you’ll go up, and they know that anywhere along the line we can get a look at the vehicle to be sure it’s Brooks in it.
“Delivery of the money will be in the Mojave Desert between Barstow and Las Vegas. If any other vehicle follows him off the highway or if there’s a plane or helicopter in sight anywhere the deal is off and we go back to square one and start over—”
“All right,” Romstead interrupted. “Let’s say they give you that—Brooks alone, nobody following him. You’ve got enough clout at this point that they probably have to. But for Christ’s sake, use your head. In the first place, you should know as well as I do that Brooks is going to be in constant contact with the FBI by radio. The United States government has access to maybe a little electronics expertise itself. Second, the car, whatever it is, is going to be carrying a homing device of some kind so they can track it with direction finders, and in the third place—and this is the one you can’t beat—wherever you take delivery you’re going to be quarantined. You’re going to be surrounded on all sides to the point of saturation, by police, sheriffs deputies from a half dozen counties, and FBI agents. They’ll block every exit a jackrabbit could squeeze through. And don’t think they can’t.”
“Of course they can.” Kessler sounded amused. “Blockade, cordon, or whatever you want to call it, is one of the oldest law enforcement tactics in the world, and it works—provided you know what area to blockade. They won’t, until it’s too late, and it’s a long way from Barstow to Las Vegas. Over a hundred and fifty miles to be exact ... All right, pass him the maps.”
This latter was obviously addressed to whoever was on the other side of the mirror. Romstead went over by the chest. The panel slid open. Oil company highway maps of California and Nevada were deposited on top of the chest, followed by a large sheet of white paper folded several times and some thumb tacks. The panel closed, and Romstead heard the latch being fastened.
“Unfold the large map, and thumbtack it to the wall,” Kessler ordered, “so you can follow this.”
Romstead unfolded it. It was meticulously hand-drawn and inked, and he assumed it was a large-scale blowup of some section of the highway from Barstow to Las Vegas. He stuck it to the wall between the beds with the tacks.
“Those highway maps you’ve got don’t show all the desert roads,” Kessler said. “Mine does, even the ungraded ones. It’s drawn to scale, and I’ve run all those roads myself, the ones we’re going to use. It extends for thirty miles east and west along a section of Highway Fifteen east of Barstow and covers the area from ten miles south to twenty miles north of the highway, or nine hundred square miles in all.
“Now. Brooks doesn’t know yet where he’s supposed to go, only that he’s to use an open Toyota Land Cruiser so we can see there’s no FBI joker concealed in it. Ten minutes before he’s due to leave the bank with the money he’ll get a phone call, the last one, which will throw all the Efrem Zimbalist Juniors into a third-degree flap trying to trace it. It will be long-distance-dialed from one of a room-long bank of pay phones at Los Angeles International by a girl in a wig and dark glasses, and the message will take five seconds, so lots of luck—”
“Accomplished young lady,” Paulette Carmody murmured. “She operates vertically, too.”
Kessler paid no attention. He went on. “It’ll simply tell him to go to Barstow, which will take less than four hours, and register at the Kehoe Motel under the name of George Mellon. There’s a package there for him that was delivered two days ago by a parcel service with instructions to hold for arrival. It’s a radio receiver, single channel, crystal-controlled. The object of all this scrimshaw, of course, is to keep the Zimbalists from getting hold of it enough in advance of when he has to use it so they can find out what frequency it’s tuned to. They’ll descend on the Kehoe the minute they hear this, of course, and they’ll have the receiver before Brooks gets there; but there’s still not time, and they wouldn’t have the lab facilities in Barstow anyway. There’s a note with it telling Brooks to proceed east on Highway Fifteen with the phones plugged into the receiver for further instructions.”
Romstead broke in. “It won’t do any good. They’ll be in front of him and behind him, and even if they can’t pick up the channel themselves, they’ll see where he leaves the highway.”
“Sure.” Kessler went on. “But it takes time to surround an area of several hundred square miles. And when they do, they’re going to surround the wrong area. Brooks is going to leave the highway headed south, but you’re going to be waiting for him on the opposite side, to the north. In that six hundred square, miles.”
Romstead whistled soundlessly. That was going to be rough to handle if he could pull it off. But how could he?
“The radio message,” Kessler went on, “will simply tell him to take that exit I’ve got marked A on the map and proceed five point eight miles straight down that road, where he will receive further instructions. But not by radio this time. One of us will have him under visual surveillance with a telescope—we’ll have two of them in operation, with our own communications setup. If anybody follows him off the highway, the whole deal is off. And after a little over four miles he’s in very rough country and completely out of sight of the highway.
“When the five point eight turns up on his odometer, there will be a pickup truck parked a little distance off the road, just a dusty, beat-up old truck like a thousand others in the area. It’s stolen, and so are the plates. The ignition key will be in it, along with a note and a change of clothes, Levi’s, blue shirt, and rancher’s straw sombrero. He’s to leave his Toyota there, change clothes, transfer the two suitcases of money to the truck, and go on in it. After a mile he takes a road to the right; four and a half miles farther on there’ll be another road running right again, back toward the highway. He’ll cross the highway at that exit I’ve got marked B and continue on to where he’ll meet you in a little over six miles. Even if the highway is still running bank to bank with FBI men, they’ll never recognize him.”
“Sure he will,” Kessler agreed. “Only now they’re completely useless. I’ve been monitoring that whole end of the spectrum with some very sophisticated gear, and before he’s even left the highway the first time, I’ll know his communications and beacon frequencies. And from the time he starts south, before the transfer, I’ll be sitting right on both of them with a couple of wide-band jamming signals. Communications blackout.”
He’d long since lost all track of time, but Romstead guessed they’d been off pavement for more than an hour now. They must be approaching the pickup area from the back. The road was rough, with a great many turns, and they were driving fast, bouncing and swaying while dust filtered into the vehicle, whatever it was, and rocks and gravel clattered against the undercarriage. The heat was stifling, very near to unbearable. He was blindfolded and gagged, his hands cuffed behind him, and his ankles were bound with rope. Paulette Carmody was beside him. They were lying on a mattress in what he believed was the bed of a pickup truck with a steel or aluminum cover. He had raised his feet when he was first shoved in, hours ago, and had felt the cover above them, too low to be the roof of a panel truck. A panel would be conspicuous out here, anyway, where everybody had a pickup.
They hadn’t used the sedative drugs this time, he supposed, because there could be no certainty he’d regain consciousness in time. They were efficient, all right; he had to admit that in spite of the rage and the desire to get his hands on Kessler and kill him. Sometime later today it would be seventy-two hours since they’d been kidnapped, and not once had he seen one of the four of them as anything but a shadowy figure in a black hood; he couldn’t describe any of their vehicles, the exterior of either of the buildings, or even the interior except for one room that would be completely done over after the thing was pulled off.
He wondered at these precautions, since it was certain they’d be killed anyway for knowing Kessler’s identity. More embroidery? A flair for drama? Or did they think he was stupid enough to be lulled by all this window dressing into an idiot’s belief that they would be turned loose afterward? No, he decided, it was more likely the others had insisted on it in case he should escape, as impossible as that might be. He didn’t know any of them, though he had a hunch that Top Kick might be the Delevan that Murdock had mentioned, the corrupt private detective who’d done a stretch in San Quentin for extortion.
They were slowing. The vehicle came almost to a stop, turned, and began to crawl, swaying and lurching over uneven ground as though they had left the road. This continued for a minute or two, and then they stopped. The noise of the motor ceased. He heard a door slam on another car nearby. They must be there. One of them had driven the deadly two-door sedan, and this was their rendezvous point. He heard the driver of their vehicle get out and then the sound of voices, though he could make out nothing that was said. Then the tailgate of the pickup was dropped, and he heard the door being opened.
“We’re here.” It was Top Kick’s voice. “All out.”
He heard Paulette being helped out; then they were hauling on his legs. He managed to get his feet on the ground and stand, swaying awkwardly and stretching cramped muscles after the hours of constriction. He could feel the sun beating on his head now as it had on the metal cover over them.
“Pit stop,” Top Kick said. “You’re going to be in that car quite awhile. This way, Mrs. Carmody; nobody’ll watch.”
“You’re shore you don’t need no help?” Tex asked. He’d be my second choice, Romstead thought, after Kessler. Just five minutes alone in a locked room.
“Get on with those antennas,” Top Kick ordered. “We haven’t got all day.” So they’d removed them for the trip. Smart. Anybody might notice a car with two whip antennas.
Two pairs of footsteps went away and one came back. The bonds about his ankles were loosened so he could hobble. “Cover him while I unlock the cuffs,” Top Kick said. The handcuffs were removed and then replaced with his hands in front.
“Okay, Mrs. Carmody?” Top Kick called.
“Yes,” she replied from somewhere off to his left. They had removed her gag. Her voice was strained, and he could sense the shakiness under it. She was fighting hard to keep from breaking. “Keep him covered,” Top Kick said, and went to get her. They came back. Top Kick took him by the arm and guided him off to one side. The ground was rocky and uneven. “Fire at will, Romstead. She’s still blindfolded anyway.”
He urinated. Top Kick led him back, shuffling in his hobbles. He heard the rattle of tools against metal over to his right. Then in a minute Tex said, “Okay, the ears is on. You can do yore’s, an’ welcome to the mother-lovers.”
“Right. Watch him.”
He heard the door of the car being opened. In back of him, Tex said, “ ‘Member how he said, y’heah? Watch that relay when you turn the radio on. Be sure it pulls over an’ holds tight as a bull’s ass in flytime before you start wirin’ them caps.”
“I know how to do it,” Top Kick’s voice said from inside the car.
“I shore as hell hope you do, ole buddy, ‘cause we’d all go with you. Be hamburger for miles around.”
Romstead realized then that Paulette was right beside him. A hand groped along his arm and slid down it to his. Hers was trembling. He squeezed it. You did what you could. It wasn’t much.
“All right, the baby’s born,” Top Kick said. “Put her in.”
She was whispering, very softly, against his ear. “I won’t—I won’t break down—in front of—these goddamned animals. . . .” Then she was being led away. In a moment that car door slammed.
The shotgun prodded his back, and somebody had hold of his arm. He was led forward and stopped, and he could feel the car against his right arm. Somebody was untying his ankles. “In you go,” Top Kick said. He slid in on the seat. The door closed. The handcuffs were unlocked then, and one was resnapped about his left wrist. He heard the rattle of chain, and then the sound of the rod’s being fed through the hole in the left door. It pushed past his stomach and went on. There was the rattle of nuts and washers and then a little pop when the thin sheet metal of the door buckled slightly under the pressure of the tightening nuts as wrenches were applied. “That’s good,” Top Kick said.
Fingers worked at the knot at the back of his neck, and the gag was removed. His jaws ached, and his mouth was dry as he worked the tight ball of cloth out of his mouth.
“Leave the blindfolds on until I tell you,” Top Kick said beside him. Then, apparently to Tex, “All right, take it away.”
Romstead heard the other vehicle start up and move off, going toward their rear. In a minute it apparently stopped, for he could hear the idling motor some distance away but no longer fading.
“All right, remember what he told you,” Top Kick said. “You’re out of sight of the road here, so you won’t be able to see it either. It’s off to your right, just the other side of this hill. Brooks won’t know where you are, but he’ll be watching his odometer and when the specified mileage turns up, he honks his horn, twice, as he goes by here, if there’s nobody else in sight, ahead or behind. When you hear him, start up, go on around the end of the hill, and you’ll be on the road with him ahead of you. He’ll see you in the mirror, and after a mile he’ll pull off the road twenty or thirty feet to the right and stop. You go on by, and he’ll fall in and follow you a quarter mile behind. Check your odometer here. At five point three miles from this point you stop. Brooks has instructions to stop a hundred yards behind you. You’ll both be in the field of a telescope, and a hand will be on the switch of that transmitter that’s keeping you from blowing up, s
“He walks forward with the two suitcases, puts them in that steel box in the trunk, and latches it. If he takes one more step, up the side of the car toward you, the whole thing goes up. If he tries to pass you a gun or a tool of some kind, she blows. He’s been told all that already. So he goes back to his pickup, turns around, and heads back to the highway. It’ll be hours before he gets there; that’s been explained to you—the rock slide. He’ll have to walk most of the way.
“The rest of it’s marked on your map, the turns you make and the distances. We’ll pick you up and disarm the thing before you go out of transmitter range. It’ll be dark very shortly after then, and we’ll be out of the country in a different set of vehicles before they even find out what direction we went. Okay?”
“If you could call it that,” Romstead said.
“So you can take off the blindfolds when I sing out. Then just wait.” Footsteps receded. Sing out, Romstead thought. Ex-seaman. So far, that was the only slip Top Kick had made.
“Okay,” Top Kick called, some distance behind them. At the same moment a car door slammed, and he heard the other vehicle accelerate in low gear, going away. He yanked off the blindfold, winced at the sudden glare, and craned to look back. The vehicle was already out of sight around the curve of the hill, but he could still hear it. It had apparently turned when it came out on the road, for it seemed to be fading away in the same direction they were headed.
He looked around then. Paulette Carmody had put her head down and pulled off her blindfold with her manacled hands; but her eyes were still closed, and he could see tears on the curve of her cheek. Her hair was in disarray from removing the cloth. He reached over with his free right hand and did his awkward best to smooth it back in place. He squeezed her shoulder then and could feel her trembling.
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