Man on a leash, p.16

Man on a leash, page 16

 

Man on a leash
 


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  “Thank you, Eric.” Her head was still lowered. She sobbed once and went on shakily, “I—I’m so ashamed—”

  “Of what? You didn’t break.”

  “B-but I almost did. You’ll never know how close it was. I ha-have to tell you. I wanted to throw myself on the ground and grab them by the legs and b-beg them to send you alone. Kill you—save me. Oh, Christ—”

  “Well, you didn’t, kid, and that’s where they start from when they give out the medals. Wanting to but not doing it.” He felt like a sadist for not telling her there was a faint ray of hope even yet because it was Carroll Brooks who was bringing the money, but it was too soon to begin the charade. He glanced at his watch. It was three fifteen. Far too soon. That great extemporizer with the chain-lightning mind wouldn’t even have reached Barstow yet, and it would wreck everything if he said a word before they were irretrievably committed to the delivery. They’d call it off, and they’d have to go through the whole thing again somewhere else with another man bringing the money. And they wouldn’t be beyond the point of no return until after Carroll had made the change of vehicles and recrossed the highway, headed north. He didn’t have the faintest idea when that would be because he didn’t know how far east of Barstow they were. They could be in Nevada for all he knew. He’d have to wait until Carroll went by here to be sure. It would only take a few words, anyway, to plant the doubt.

  Maybe he could whisper it right against her ear. No. Let it ride. He didn’t know how many bugging devices there were in the car, what kind they were, or how sensitive. And it was only the slimmest of hopes anyway. Maybe it would be even crueler to mention it.

  Her hands were tightly clasped together. She took a deep, shaky breath and said, “It was different back in the room. It was unreal—it wasn’t actually going to happen—and now it has.” She shook her still-lowered head. “I’m almost afraid to breathe.”

  “No. Forget that,” he said—with more confidence than he felt. “It’s set up for electrical detonation and won’t go off unless he does it.” He saw they’d brought her purse. It was on the seat between them. He fumbled it open with his right hand and brought out the cigarettes. Shaking one out, he located her lighter, fired it up, and held it between her lips. She puffed and inhaled deeply. If she had anything to do, he thought, it would help.

  “You’re in charge of reading the odometer,” he said. “Check it now and add five point three so you can watch it and tell me when it’s coming up.”

  “Right.” She took another puff of the cigarette, and when he removed it, she lowered her face and tried to wipe the tears from her cheek by dabbing it against her sleeve. He transferred the cigarette to his other hand and found a tissue in her purse. When he blotted at them, she smiled wanly. “You know, I think you are a gentle man. Maybe I won’t tell your girl to get the hell out before it’s too late.”

  He made no reply. He was studying the desolate and sun-blasted country around them, trying to guess where Kessler would be. Judging from the time and the shadows of the few cacti around them, they must be facing approximately north. They seemed to be on the floor of an immense valley, perfectly flat except for an occasional small hill or rocky ridge and, a few miles farther west, three higher hills shaped like truncated cones. He could be on one of those, he thought; he’d want to be as high as possible, but still not on anything isolated and conspicuous. He turned to look back. It was rougher there, in the distance, at least, a naked badland of much higher ridges and towering buttes, but that might be on the other side of the highway. Ahead of them, at a distance he guessed must be ten miles or so, the country began to rise again and break up into a lunar landscape of desolate ridges and canyons.

  He could see nothing to the right because of the hill behind which they were concealed. He leaned down to look up through the window and saw it wasn’t much more than a stony hummock some twenty feet high and perhaps a hundred yards long dotted with big boulders and here and there a cactus struggling for survival in the flinty ground.

  He wondered if the other side might be where the charge was placed to drop a rock slide in front of Carroll’s car so he’d have to walk back to the highway, as Kessler had said. The terrain here, however, was so flat he could drive around it, so it must be farther back. His thoughts broke off then. A car was coming. It couldn’t be this soon, could it? No, it was approaching from the north. Well, even in this Godforsaken place there must be a little traffic on the roads. It went on by, traveling fast.

  They waited. It was 4 P.M ... 4:30. The sun beat down. Heat waves shimmered above the desert floor, distorting everything in the distance. He looked around and saw Paulette had her eyes closed, her lower lip clenched between her teeth, silently crying. He put a hand on her arm and squeezed. She nodded thank you but didn’t trust herself to try to speak.

  It was five. A quarter of six.

  They heard him coming.

  * * *

  It had to be. The car was coming up from the south. As it approached at moderate speed, he was conscious that he was holding his breath. It was going past now on the other side of the hummock. Still going. Maybe they’d called it off— Then it came, two short blasts of the horn. He exhaled softly as he hit the ignition switch and started up, automatically checking the odometer again as he’d already done a half dozen times before. It would read 87.7 at the stopping point.

  The ground ahead was uneven and rock-strewn, and he eased forward at a crawl, feeling the tightness in his throat at every lurch and sway. It wasn’t the dynamite as such or even the detonating caps he was thinking of. They’d be cushioned. It was that relay. How strong was the current that was keeping it pulled over against the tension of its spring? Well, it would be cushioned, too, he thought.

  They came around the end of the hummock and onto the road. It wasn’t even graded, just a track running north across the level floor of the desert. The old pickup truck was ahead, a little less than a quarter mile and going very slowly, waiting for him. As he closed the distance, it began to pick up a little. Now? he thought. No, wait’ll you pass and be absolutely sure it’s Carroll. And it’d be a lot more effective if he could get Paulette to give him a cue to lead into it. Coming on cold with it could have a very phony ring, and Kessler, whatever else he was, was no fool.

  The pickup was pulling off now. It stopped a scant twenty feet from the road. Romstead slowed. The driver was hatless, and he’d taken off his sunglasses as he leaned out the window to wave, a man with prematurely gray hair and a lean, alert face stamped with a questing intelligence. During their college years Brooks had wanted to be an actor; his only drawback was an inability, or unwillingness, to learn lines, when it was so much more fun to make them up himself. Give him one cue, and he’d ad-lib the whole play. Romstead sighed.

  He slowed a little as the pickup fell in behind them. They had only four miles now to the transfer point. The road ran straight ahead across absolutely flat terrain unbroken by any irregularity except for another low hummock or stony ridge far ahead. Kessler had chosen his spot well. With his telescope he could see for miles in any direction across a landscape where nothing could be concealed. They and the pickup were the only vehicles anywhere in the immensity of it. Three miles.

  Okay, he thought; air time. He began to whistle “Sweet Georgia Brown,” drumming the beat on the wheel. Paulette Carmody raised her head and stared at him in horrified disbelief. He grinned and winked and cupped an ear in the listening gesture.

  “My God, aren’t you even scared?” she asked.

  “Relax,” he replied. He had no idea where the bug was, but it didn’t matter. He’d be heard. And of course, there’d be another in the trunk to monitor Brooks. “They’re not going to blow it while the money’s still in the pickup, that’s for sure. And I don’t think they’re going to blow it afterward either.”

  She swallowed, and moistened her lips. He could see her wanting desperately to hope but not daring to. “What—what do you mean?”

  “Intelligenc
e slipup. Theirs is pretty good, but they didn’t go quite far enough. They investigated you, and Jerome Carmody, and me and my background, but they should have done just a little checking into Brookie’s background, too.”

  Two point six to go. Her eyes were imploring. Her lips formed “Please,” but nothing came out. He went on. “That’s the reason I kept nudging him on with that bat sweat about its being impossible, that the FBI would find a way to ring in one of their men. I wanted him to insist on Brooks and get him. You see, Brookie and I used to be a team in an outfit that forgot more dirty tricks last week than Kessler’ll know in a lifetime—”

  She nodded, and said in a small voice. “I thought so. The CIA.”

  “You said it; I didn’t. Anyway, we operated in Central and South America because we’re both bilingual in Spanish and English. We’ve been through kidnappings before—from both sides of the fence, whether you agree with it or not. So I don’t think they’re going to blow this car. I know what I’d do if they had Brookie, and our minds always seemed to operate along the same lines. I would have told you before, but it had to wait till they were committed. They can’t call it off now, so they’re stuck with Brookie. Right, Kessler?”

  It was less than two miles now. She had lowered her head again, and her hands were clenching and unclenching. He looked back. Carroll was hanging a steady quarter mile behind. The road, if you could call it that, ran straight on with nothing to break the monotony of the desert floor except the low stony ridge coming up on their right. The seeds of doubt should be planted now, they had a few minutes to germinate, and now it would all depend on Carroll. He reached out a hand and squeezed Paulette’s arm. She raised her head, tried to force a semblance of a smile, and checked the odometer again. He glanced at it. It read 86.8. Nine-tenths to go.

  He looked off to the left toward the three hills that resembled truncated cones. One of those was bound to be where Kessler was. There was no real elevation anywhere off to the right, and anyway that hummock or ridge was coming up on that side not more than two hundred yards off the road—

  Panic hit him then for an instant, along with a surge of guilt and rage at his own stupidity. Maybe it was already too late, and he’d killed the friend behind him. He’d been so intent on the other thing he’d missed it entirely. He’d blown it. The odometer read 87.1, and the .1 was already past the center and moving up. He cut the throttle and rode the brake. It would look like a crash stop to them, so he said, “Damn! Almost overran it.”

  Paulette Carmody jerked her head around and was opening her mouth to speak when he got a finger to his lips and gave a violent shake of the head. He looked at the odometer again as they came to a full stop, and then at the nearest point on the ridge. Call it nine hundred yards. Maybe he’d saved it. Just maybe. The rifle would be sighted in for two hundred, and changing the elevation on the scope was guesswork without a few rounds to check it, but the man, whichever one he was, was plenty good. He’d seen some of his work.

  How in hell could he have fallen for that rock-slide story? He’d heard the car go off toward the north, hadn’t he, and then a little later another car go by them headed south? Kessler couldn’t keep that communications frequency jammed for very long at a time or the FBI would use their direction finders to zero in on his jamming transmitter, and anyway they had to keep Carroll from getting back to the highway for longer than any hour or two. He should have seen all that, but he’d been too wrapped up in some way to save his own neck.

  He looked back through the settling dust of their passage. The pickup was stopped a hundred yards behind them, and Carroll Brooks was getting out.

  Pal, he thought, this could be the biggest role you ever played; just pick up your cues and ad-lib the hell out of it.

  12

  Paulette was still looking at him imploringly. He pointed toward the ridge and crooked his index finger in a triggering motion. She shuddered and closed her eyes, and he realized she was very close to the edge. This kind of tension continued long enough could break anybody. He looked back again. Carroll had the two big suitcases out now; he picked them up and started toward them. They seemed to be heavy; well, no doubt they were. Two million dollars, in any denominations, would be a lot of tightly packed paper. Shadows were lengthening; it would be dark in less than an hour.

  He was getting closer. Fifty yards now. Romstead stuck his head out the window and called, “¿Que tal, amigo? Hace muchos anos.” Carroll didn’t know a word of Spanish, but his reply, if any, wouldn’t be distinguishable at that distance. The other appeared to shake his head, but he said nothing. He came on.

  He was at the back of the car now. He put the suitcases down. “Been a long time, Brookie,” Romstead said out the window. He never called him Brookie. “That crummy barrio back of Lake Titicaca, wasn’t it?” Carroll was the only one he’d ever told about it.

  “When they sent Ramirez back to us in two boxes and a rolled poncho?” Brooks asked. “Who could ever forget it?” He was ready. He raised the lid of the trunk. No doubt he’d seen the pictures and knew what the steel box was for, but another look at it would help. And he’d be speaking right into the bug.

  “What did you use?” Romstead asked. “Thermite or acid?”

  “Acid,” Brooks replied with no hesitation at all. “Fooling around with ignition hardware for thermite gets too complicated.”

  “Nitric?” Romstead, winking at him in the mirror.

  “Sulphuric.” Brooks set the first suitcase in very carefully, as though it contained eggs. “Two liters in each bag, side by side in scored flasks. If he blows it, he’s going to have two million dollars’ worth of beautiful green slime.”

  “With bubbles,” Romstead said. “Hold the second bag a minute. There’s a sniper on that ridge. I goofed and didn’t get it in time. His rifle will be sighted in for two hundred yards, and I make it between eight and nine, but he’s an artist. He won’t open up till you’ve got the trunk closed, so slam it fast, hit the dirt on this side of the car, and I’ll back up and give you cover to the truck.”

  “No.” Brooks shook his head. “He’d blow it sure as hell then. To get me. If I make it back to the highway, he’s had it.”

  “I don’t think he will,” Romstead said.

  Brooks was lifting in the other case. He closed the lid of the steel box as though he had all the time in the world. “Don’t bet on it,” he said. He slammed the trunk shut then, whirled, and started to run, bent low and zigzagging.

  He apparently caught the rifleman as much by surprise as he did Romstead, for he’d covered nearly twenty yards before the first shot came. A puff of dust erupted just ahead of him but a good ten feet short of the road, followed by the crack of the gun up on the ridge. By this time Romstead had jammed the car into reverse and was trying to overhaul him. There was a second explosion of dirt in the road itself but still five feet short as Brooks veered wildly to the right. Romstead was closing now, but he saw he was going to do more harm than anything. The way Brooks was hurtling back and forth across the road in his evasive tactics he’d be more likely to run over him than help him. He had less than thirty yards to go now anyway.

  There was the sound of another shot, but Romstead couldn’t see where it had hit; it must have gone high. Then Brooks went down, still twelve or fifteen feet short of the truck. The sound of the shot followed. Romstead cursed and slammed the car into reverse again, but Brooks was up almost instantly. He was hobbling and holding his left leg. He lunged for the door of the pickup, and as he yanked it open, the glass in it shattered. He made it behind the wheel. The pickup sprang forward in a wide turn, bouncing over the uneven ground off the road, and then was accelerating as it drew away.

  There was no telling how badly he was hurt or whether he might pass out from loss of blood before he could make it to the highway. Romstead’s face was savage as he slammed the car into gear. It leaped forward. He gunned it and heard rubber shriek. He didn’t know whether the rifleman would try to get him or not. If it
were Top Kick he might; he’d know how to disarm the explosive charge. He could take it over here, though it was dangerously close to where the country would be swarming with police ten miles to the south. And Tex was stupid enough, on the other hand, for anything to be possible. They were doing sixty-five when they came abreast of the near end of the ridge. He became conscious then that Pauline was shouting something at him, over and over.

  “Aren’t you going back? For the love of God, aren’t you going back?”

  “No,” he said. Then the wing window shattered just in front of her. A hole appeared in it, it cracked in a crazy pattern like a spider web, and fragments of glass showered into the car. She screamed, took a long, shuddering breath, and screamed again. She slumped forward. Romstead heard another bullet strike the car somewhere else as they tore ahead. They couldn’t go back. The minute he started to turn around, Kessler would blow it. He’d have nothing to lose then, acid or no acid, because the money would be gone anyway, and he’d have everything to gain. They knew who he was, and even if he got out of here, the FBI would pick him up within days. But as long as he was going ahead, into their country, they’d hesitate to blow it.

  At least for a few more minutes, he thought. Then they’d begin to have second thoughts about it, whether anybody would destroy two million dollars as casually as that; once this credibility gap appeared, it would widen, and he had to break his way out of the car before it did because they’d be able to hear what he was up to. Of course, there was an excellent chance that what he was going to do would blow it up anyway, but after a certain point you’d reached saturation in the possibilities for disaster, so one more didn’t matter much.

  He looked back. He couldn’t see the pickup anymore, but there was too much dust to be sure it hadn’t stopped or gone off the road. There appeared to be no other dust plume behind them yet, but again you couldn’t be certain of that either through the shifting curtains of their own. Rougher country was just ahead; somewhere in there he should find what he was looking for.

 
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