Man on a leash, p.2

Man on a leash, page 2

 

Man on a leash
 


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  Romstead mentally braced himself and took the two large glossies Brubaker held out. The first was a full-length view of a man lying on his back in a sordid litter of trash: empty bottles, newspapers, a headless doll, charred magazines, and rusting cans, and beyond him, just above the rumpled mane of white hair, a burst sofa cushion and some twisted and half-rotted shoes. It was his father. He was clad in a dark suit, light shirt, and tie, and his ankles were hobbled with a short length of rope. His hands and forearms were under him, twisted behind his back. There were no visible signs of violence except that there was something in his mouth and on his face.

  The second was a close-up, just the head and shoulders, taken in the same location. The eyes were open, staring blankly upward with the dry and faintly dusty look of death. The mouth was spread wide, apparently having been pulled open while the substance, whatever it was, was poured in until it overflowed in a small mound. It looked like flour or confectioners’ sugar. There was more of it in the nostrils and on the chin and some on the ground on each side of the face. Romstead’s eyes were bleak as he pushed the two photos together and handed them back.

  “That’s him. But what is that stuff in his mouth?”

  “Lactose,” Brubaker said. “We had it analyzed.”

  “Lactose?”

  “More commonly known as milk sugar.”

  “But why? Some psychopath’s idea of good clean fun?”

  “Oh, the message seems to be clear enough, but why us? We’re just old country boys.”

  “I think you’ve lost me,” Romstead said.

  “Don’t you know what they use it for?”

  “No—” Romstead began. Then he gestured impatiently. “Oh, for Christ’s sake!”

  “Exactly. To cut heroin. I’d say he tried to burn somebody, only he did it to the wrong crowd.”

  “What the hell kind of pipe dream is this? He never touched the stuff in his life. He was a shipmaster.”

  “I know that. But how many retired ship captains you ever hear of—or any other working stiff on a salary—that managed to save a million dollars?”

  2

  Romstead stared in disbelief. “Million dollars? He didn’t have anything like that.”

  “You don’t seem to know anything about your father at all.”

  “Oh, I don’t doubt he was pretty well fixed for his retirement—but not these boxcar figures you’re talking about.”

  “Listen!” Brubaker picked another sheet out of the file and scanned it for what he sought. “On July twelfth, just two days before he wound up on the city dump here, he went into his bank on Montgomery Street in San Francisco and drew out two hundred and fifty thousand dollars—”

  “What?”

  “In cash. Said he needed it for a business deal. Now you tell me what kind of business transaction you need currency for.”

  Romstead sighed. “Okay, the whole thing’s crazier than hell, but go on.”

  “Right. Early in the morning of July fourteenth two men on a garbage truck found his body there. Two of us went out first and then called the county coroner. Your father’s wallet was still in one of the inside pockets of his coat, with all his identification in it and about forty dollars in cash. His legs were hobbled together with that rope so he could walk but not run, and his hands were bound behind him with two-inch adhesive tape. He was still a powerful man for his age—sixty-six, wasn’t it?—but a gorilla couldn’t have broken that tape the way they had it wound on there.

  “As soon as we started digging that lactose out of his mouth, we found that his lower lip was cut, one lower incisor was broken, and the one next to it was gone altogether. We’d already found the entrance wound in the back of the head, of course— You want all this medical who-struck-John about the trajectory?”

  “No. Just a rough translation.”

  “What it amounted to was that the bullet had entered fairly high up in the back of the head and exited through the rear part of the palate and on out the mouth. As tall as he was, it meant that unless the gunman was standing on a stepladder, your father was on his knees. It doesn’t show in the pictures, but there was some carbon on the knees of his pants from those charred magazines, and there was another, secondary wound on top of his head, the scalp split open as if he’d been hit with something.

  “The ground was too hard and there’d already been too many people milling around to make out any tracks, but the logical supposition was that he’d been taken out of a car, duck-walked over to the edge of the dump, slugged and knocked to his knees, and then held while he was shot in the back of the head like a Chinese execution. A real homey crowd. Could have been two of ‘em, or three, or even more. We started sifting the place and found tooth fragments and finally the slug itself. It was too beat-up for any chance of ever matching it to any particular gun, but we could arrive at the caliber. It was a thirty-eight, which of course is no help at all; there are thousands of ‘em everywhere.

  “We’re pretty sure he must have been blindfolded when they took him out there, and then they removed it because it was something that might possibly be traced. He was too big a bull to go quietly when he saw where they were taking him; there’d have been some bruises and torn clothing and plowed-up scenery before they ever got him there, even tied up the way he was.”

  Brubaker paused to relight his cigar. He puffed and dropped the match in the ashtray. Romstead winced, trying to push the too-vivid scene out of his mind. “When did he leave here?” he asked.

  “Nobody knows for sure. He lived out there alone and came and went as he pleased and seldom told anybody anything—though I wouldn’t bet there weren’t a few women around here could fill in a lot more blanks than they’ll ever admit. Your old man must have been one hell of a swordsman when he was younger—say only around sixty—and from what I gather, he hadn’t slowed down a great deal.

  “Sometimes he drove to San Francisco, and sometimes he just went over to Reno and took the plane. We checked the airlines, and they have no record of a reservation for him any time in July at all, so he must have driven all the way. As far as we can pin it down, the last time he was seen here was on the Fourth, when he had his car serviced at his usual place, the Shell station on Aspen Street.

  “When he planned to be gone more than a few days, he usually made arrangements with a kid named Wally Pruitt to go out to the place and check on it now and then, make sure the automatic sprinklers were working, and so on, but this time Wally says he didn’t call him, so apparently he wasn’t intending to stay long when he left or else he just forgot—”

  The phone rang. “Excuse me,” Brubaker said, and picked it up. “Brubaker ... Oh, good morning ... Yeah, he did. As a matter of fact, he’s here in my office right now ... Okay, I’ll tell him. You’re welcome.”

  He hung up. “That was your father’s lawyer, Sam Bolling. He’s been trying to get hold of you, too, and he’d like to see you as soon as we’re through here.”

  “Right,” Romstead said. “Thanks.”

  “His office is in the Whittaker Building at Third and Aspen. It was through Sam, as a matter of fact, that we first learned about the money and also that your father had an apartment in San Francisco. He’s the executor of the estate, and as soon as he learned Captain Romstead was dead, he notified the tax people, the banks, any possible creditors, all that legal bit. The bank in San Francisco told him about that whopping withdrawal, and he immediately notified us. He was worried about the money, of course, but we already had a pretty good idea nobody was ever going to find it.

  “We asked the San Francisco police to check out his apartment while we searched the house here to see if we could turn up any trace of it just on the off chance he still hadn’t consummated the so-called deal. There was no money in either place, but we did find evidence of just about what we expected—or that is, San Francisco did. All we found in the house was a thousand Havana cigars stashed in a closet. But the apartment was the payoff.

  “It had just been thoroug
hly cleaned, with the exception of one item he overlooked. In a closet there was an empty suitcase that had some white powder spilled in the lining. The police vacuumed it and had the stuff analyzed. It was heroin, all right, and it had been cut with milk sugar.

  “So there you are. All the evidence says he must have been mixed up in smuggling junk when he was going to sea and still had connections. Somebody brought in a consignment for him, he drew out that money to pay for it, but before he sold it as pure heroin to the next bunch of bastards along the pipeline, he cut it, or cut part of it, to increase the take. Sound business procedure, I suppose, as long as you don’t do it to the wrong people. He apparently did, and they caught up with him after he got back here.”

  “No,” Romstead said. “I don’t buy it. Maybe in a lot of ways he wouldn’t qualify as Husband of the Year or the thoroughly domesticated house pet, but junk—no.”

  “I wouldn’t call you an expert witness,” Brubaker pointed out. “You’ve practically admitted you didn’t know a damn thing about where he was or what he was doing.”

  “No, but I don’t see that you’ve got any evidence, anyway. Who says that suitcase was his? You know as well as I do he wasn’t using that apartment alone. Christ, with his track record there could have been a half dozen girls in and out of it at one time or another, any one of ‘em a possible junkie or with a junkie boyfriend on the side.”

  “And I suppose he was just keeping those forty boxes of Upmann cigars for some girl? Maybe she didn’t want her mother to know she smoked.”

  Romstead gestured impatiently. “Cigars are not heroin.”

  “No, but they’re contraband.”

  “Only in the United States. He smoked ‘em all the time. Said tobacco had no politics.”

  Brubaker removed his own cigar and looked at it. “And I have to smoke these goddamned ropes.” He shrugged. “Oh, well, if Castro was chairman of the Republican National Committee, I still couldn’t afford his cigars.”

  “Well, look,” Romstead said. “It seems to me there’s a big hole in your reasoning somewhere. If he bought this crap for a quarter million dollars, as you say, and then sold it to somebody else at a profit, he must have got more than forty dollars for it. It wasn’t at the house, and it wasn’t in the apartment, so what happened to it?”

  “Those hoods got it, obviously. The same time they got him.”

  “It must have been at the house, then, if they came up here looking for him. Was there any sign of a fight?”

  “None at all. But don’t forget, he was playing with professionals. They don’t come on like Laurel and Hardy.”

  “You’re convinced of that? Then there’s not much chance of catching them?”

  There was a sudden darkening of anger in the chief deputy’s face, gone just as quickly as he got it under control. “Jesus Christ, Romstead, I know how you feel, but look at the hole we’re in. It wasn’t anybody here that killed your father. We’re just a geographical accident; all we’ve got is a dead body and jurisdiction. Everything leading up to the crime and everybody connected with it came from a metropolitan area in another state.

  “The police down there are cooperating with us all they can, but they’re shorthanded and overworked the same as everybody else, and every detective on the force has got his own backlog of unsolved cases as long as a whore’s dream. Our only chance is to keep questioning people, the same as we have been ever since it happened, till we locate somebody who saw that car that night, to get some kind of description of it, a place to start. Your father had an unlisted telephone number and a post office box address, so they had to ask somebody to find out where he lived.”

  Brubaker began to put the file back into the folder. There were several questions Romstead wanted to ask, but they could be answered by Bolling just as well or maybe better. “We’ll let you know when we come up with anything,” Brubaker concluded.

  Romstead stood up, and they shook hands. “Thanks for your time.”

  “Not at all. Incidentally, who’s the owner of that boat you were on?”

  “A man named Carroll Brooks. You can reach him at the Southland Trust Bank in San Diego.”

  Brubaker shrugged. “Just standard routine.”

  “No sweat.” Romstead went out and walked over to Aspen Street, trying to collect his thoughts. What in God’s name had the old man intended to do with a quarter million dollars in cash, even assuming he had that much in the first place? Why’d he bought a farm here, or ranch, or whatever it was, and then rented an apartment in San Francisco? The whole thing seemed to get murkier by the minute.

  * * *

  Bolling’s office was on the third floor of the Whittaker Building, a large corner room with windows on two sides. The desk was a massive one of some dark wood, the carpet was gray, and there were two leather armchairs. The walls were lined with identically bound volumes of an extensive law library. Bolling himself appeared to be well into his sixties, but erect, with a homely, angular face and sparse white hair. The eyes were a sharp and piercing blue. He smiled as he got up from behind the desk. “By God, you’re almost as big as he was.”

  “Not quite,” Romstead said.

  “Somehow I expected you to be darker, since your mother was Cuban, but you look exactly like him.”

  “She was blond, too.”

  “He said you were quite a baseball player.”

  “Prep school and in college,” Romstead replied.

  “Professional, too, I understand.”

  “I only lasted one season; I couldn’t hit big-league pitching. It was a way to get through school, but I couldn’t see minor-league ball as a career.”

  “You put yourself through college?”

  “Not entirely. I had a jock scholarship and worked summers, but he sent me money and would have sent more, but I didn’t need it.”

  “You’re in his will, of course. Or have you seen a copy of it?”

  “No. I didn’t even know he had one.” Romstead paused and then went on musingly. “I guess the reason I’ve never thought about it is that I must’ve always assumed he’d outlive me. I know that sounds crazy as hell—”

  “No. Not to anybody who knew him. You haven’t seen his place, of course?”

  “No. I didn’t even know about it until last night. And now I’ve just found out he had an apartment in San Francisco.”

  Bolling nodded. “He rented it about five months ago. I tried to talk him out of it, but he insisted.”

  “But why?”

  “Why did I advise against it, you mean? On account of taxes.”

  “No, I mean the whole bit. Why did he retire here, and buy a place, and then rent an apartment there?”

  “There were several reasons, actually, but the primary one, of course, was taxes. It’s easy to get to San Francisco, which he loved, but still not in California, which he detested. But the sad truth is he was bored here, and he spent more and more time in San Francisco, going over for the opera, concerts, plays, and so on, always having to get confirmed hotel reservations each time, so he decided to rent the apartment. He said that as long as his voting residence was here and he owned property here and only spent a total of a couple of months a year in San Francisco, California could go to hell for its income and inheritance taxes. He was a very stubborn man, and beyond a point there was no use arguing with him.”

  “But why this obsession with taxes? Would it have made that much difference?”

  “Well, considerable. Your father’s income was in excess of fifty thousand a year, from his retirement pay and his securities. A lot of it was political bias, however; he loathed the whole idea of the welfare state, Social Security, unemployment benefits, the welfare rolls, and so on. He was a very charming and talented man, but politically he was somewhere off to the right of the Hapsburgs and Plantagenets.”

  “And it’s true, then? He was a millionaire?”

  “Oh, yes. His net worth was considerably over a million.”

  “Well, you don’t belie
ve that crap of Brubaker’s, do you, that he was mixed up in the drug racket?”

  “No,” Bolling said. “Of course not. He said he made it in the stock market, and I see no reason to doubt it.” He reached into a drawer for a document bound in blue paper and set it before him. “I won’t bother to read you all this at the moment because a good deal of it is meaningless now until somebody finds out what happened to that two hundred and fifty thousand dollars.” He glanced up. “Brubaker told you about it?”

  Romstead nodded. “But why do you think he drew it out in cash? And what did he do with it?”

  “I couldn’t even guess,” Bolling replied. “I’ve been racking my brains for ten days, and I get absolutely nowhere. It was a stupid thing to do, and your father was far from a stupid man. But what we’re concerned with right here is that there are two immediate effects regarding the will, and one of them, I’m sorry to say, is very bad news for you. If that money is never recovered, you bear the whole loss.”

  “How’s that?” Romstead asked.

  “All the other bequests were fixed sums, and you were to get the residue of the estate.”

  Romstead tried to think of something to say, but there didn’t appear to be anything. There was a moment of silence, and then Bolling asked, “You understand what I’m saying?”

  “Oh— Sure. I guess I was just savoring the moment. How many other people have lost a quarter million dollars in a few seconds?”

  There was admiration in Bolling’s smile and shake of the head. “Well, I’m glad you don’t shatter easily.”

  “Oh, it’s not all that heroic,” Romstead protested. “You might say I didn’t have it long enough to get attached to it.”

  “Our only hope is that it may be recovered yet.”

  “Could he have deposited it in another bank? Or stashed it in a safe-deposit box?”

  “No. We’ve exhausted that possibility—with help from the police, of course. We’ve checked every bank chain in California and Nevada and even furnished a description just in case he used another name for some unknown reason. Not a trace.”

 
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