Man on a leash, p.3

Man on a leash, page 3

 

Man on a leash
 


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  “Doesn’t look very promising,” Romstead said. “But what was the other effect you referred to?”

  “On probating the will and settling the estate. The whole thing’s at a standstill, for the reason that we don’t know how much the estate is.”

  “I see what you mean. For federal tax purposes?”

  “Sure. It would make a big difference. And the tax people don’t accept figures like give-or-take-a-quarter-million-dollars. As far as they’re concerned, the last person to have possession of that money was your father, and if that wasn’t the case, it’s up to him—or us, that is—to prove otherwise. If he bought something with it, whatever he bought has to be appraised and the arrived-at value added to the tax-liable value of the estate. If it was stolen from him between the time he drew it out and the time he died, that might change the picture, but we’d have to prove it was stolen, and when, where, and by whom, and if we were in a position to do all that, we could probably recover it anyway.

  “Practically all of your father’s worth is in securities; the only real property he owned is his place here, which consists of ten acres, the dwelling and other structures, and furnishings. Total assessed value, about seventy-five thousand dollars. You inherit that, along with the car, plus whatever’s left after taxes, bequests to the San Francisco Opera Association, the San Francisco Symphony, and three women in Europe and the Far East that I gather are old girlfriends. If the other money’s never recovered, but is still taxed, that’ll be roughly eighty thousand.

  “So as it stands now, you’ll get a little over a hundred and fifty thousand dollars instead of the four hundred thousand dollars it would have been.”

  Romstead nodded. “Well, that’s considerably better than a kick in the ass with a frozen boot. I didn’t expect anything.” He went on. “But about that money—how’d he draw it out? He surely didn’t keep anything like that in a checking account?”

  “Oh, no. He asked his broker to sell securities in that amount and deposit the proceeds in the bank.”

  “In person or over the phone?”

  “On the phone.”

  “What day was this?”

  “July sixth, I think—just a minute.” Bolling pressed a lever and spoke into the intercom. “Rita, will you bring me that file on Captain Romstead?”

  The gray-haired, rather matronly secretary came in with a file folder and went back out, closing the door. Bolling consulted some of the papers in it. “His brokers are a small firm, Winegaard and Stevens; it was Winegaard who handled his business. Your father called him just at seven A.M. on Thursday, July sixth—that’s local time, of course, which would be the opening of the New York Stock Exchange. He read him a list of securities to sell and asked him to deposit the proceeds in his checking account at the Northern California First National Bank, which is practically next door on Montgomery Street. He said to sell it all at the market opening and to expedite the deal as much as he could; he needed the money not later than the following Wednesday, which would be the twelfth. The deposit would still have to clear, of course, before it could be drawn on.”

  “Then did he alert the bank?”

  “Yes. On Monday, the tenth, he called and talked to Owen Richter, one of the officers he knew personally. Told him about the upcoming deposit, asked him to clear it as fast as he could, and told him he was going to want it in cash, so they’d be prepared.”

  “Did he ask Richter to call him when it cleared?”

  “No. He said he’d call back himself. Which he did, Wednesday morning. The money was there, so he came in and picked it up.”

  “Was he alone?”

  “Yes. I specifically asked Richter about that. He said there was nobody with him at all. He seemed to be perfectly all right, rational and sober. He got a little abrasive when Richter tried to talk him out of taking it in cash, and he didn’t offer any further explanation except that it was for a business deal; but both of these are entirely characteristic of the captain in the best of circumstances. He seldom explained anything, and he had a very low tolerance for unsolicited advice.”

  Romstead nodded, puzzled. “And Winegaard didn’t get any further explanation either?”

  “No.” Bolling smiled faintly. “I doubt he expected much; he’d dealt with your father a long time. The only thing he objected to was the selection of the stocks to sell.”

  “How was that?”

  “Well, normally, of course, if you’re liquidating part of a portfolio for some reason, you do it selectively, that is, you prune out the weak sisters, the indifferent performers, losers where you want to cut your losses, and so on. He didn’t do that. He just went straight down the list until the total added up to a little over two hundred and fifty thousand and told Winegaard to sell it all.”

  “That doesn’t make sense.”

  “No. Certainly not for a man who’d managed to make a fortune in the stock market over the years. As I say, Winegaard objected, or tried to, but he was cut off pretty sharply.”

  “I don’t get it.” Romstead shook his head. “Oh, how about the burial expenses? Are there any accounts to settle?”

  “No. They’re all taken care of.”

  “Then you paid them, as executor of the estate?”

  “No, he did. At the time he drew up his will, just shortly after he moved here, he made all the arrangements with the mortuary and paid for his own funeral in advance. Also the headstone.”

  “Why? You don’t suppose he had some warning this was going to happen?”

  “Oh, no, that wasn’t it. It was just that he took a dim view of the whole overblown ritual and what he considered the funeral industry’s exploitation of family grief. Said it’d do them good now and then to have to deal with a hardheaded businessman who was still alive. So he picked out the cheapest package they had, beat them down to the rock-bottom price, and paid it and gave me the receipt. I pointed out that since he’d probably live to a hundred and ten, he was losing the interest on the money, but he said with the chronic rate of inflation he wasn’t losing a cent. And he was right, when you stop to think of it.”

  “Yeah. And then the same man’s supposed to have gone wandering around the streets of San Francisco like some kind of nut with a suitcase full of money.”

  Bolling spread his hands. “The same man.”

  Romstead stood up. “Well, thanks for filling me in, Mr. Bolling. I won’t take up any more of your time.”

  “We’ll be in touch with you. Are you going back to San Francisco right away?”

  “Tonight, probably, or early in the morning. I’d like to drive by and see the place, if you’ll tell me how to find it.”

  “We’ll lend you a key so you can get in.” They went out into the anteroom, and Bolling took a tagged house key from a safe.

  “Just be sure everything’s locked when you leave. Go straight west here on Third Street. It’s on the right, about four miles, a ranch-style house a hundred yards back from the road, white brick and redwood with a red tile roof.”

  He went back to the motel and got the car. He wanted to call Mayo, but it was too early yet.

  3

  He checked the odometer as he made the turn into Third. After a few blocks of residential district and a close-in area of small farms and orchards, the two-lane blacktop ran unfenced through the sage with a low ridge to his right. There was very little traffic until a big Continental suddenly materialized in his rearview mirror as it overhauled him at high speed. It started to pass but braked and swung back, tailgating right under his bumper, as a pickup truck came toward them in the other lane.

  The pickup went past; the Continental burst from behind him with a shriek of rubber and went on. He caught a brief glimpse of a blond woman behind the wheel as it flashed past. She was scarcely a hundred yards ahead of him when she abruptly hit the brakes again, forcing him to slow down to keep from running up on her as she swung off the road onto a driveway running up the hill between twin lines of white-painted fence. He muttered with an
noyance. And they talked about California drivers killing themselves. There was a sprawling low-roofed ranch house at the top of the hill, and beside the road a white mailbox with the name Carmody. The mailbox was supported by a serpentine column of welded links of chain.

  A few hundred yards ahead the road curved to the right around the end of the ridge, and he saw the place. There was a cattle guard through the fence and a red gravel drive leading back to the house, which was the only one in sight as the road swung left again and disappeared over a rise a quarter mile away. He turned in.

  He stopped in front of the attached two-car garage at the right end of the house and got out. In the intense silence his shoes made a harsh grating sound on the gravel. There was a flagstone walk bordered by flower beds leading to the front door, and in front of that a considerable area of some kind of ground cover he thought was ivy. Beyond the far corner of the house was a large cottonwood. The big swing-up door of the garage was closed, and curtains were drawn over all the windows in front. The red gravel drive continued on past the side of the garage toward the rear. He walked back.

  There was a wide expanse of flagstone terrace here, extending between the two wings of the house and outward toward the rear. Farther back were a redwood shed, which was probably the pump house for the well, and then a white-painted corral fence and a small barn. At the top of the sloping hillside to his right he could see some trees and part of a patio wall which must be the rear of the Carmody place.

  He went back around in front and let himself in with the key Bolling had given him. There was a small vestibule just inside, floored with dark ceramic tile. The air was stale, as in a house closed and unoccupied for a long time, and underlaid with the ghosts of uncounted cigars. The back of the entry-way opened into one end of the living room, while a door on the right led to the kitchen, which was along the front of the house. Another door on the left connected with a hallway along the bedroom wing.

  He crossed the kitchen and opened the door at the far end of it. The garage had no windows, and the light was poor. He flicked a switch, doubtful that anything would happen, but two overhead lights came on. The pump, he thought; they’d had to leave the power on because of the water system and the automatic sprinklers. The car was a blue Mercedes. It bore a heavy coating of powdery white dust, and the windshield was smeared with spattered insects. It had been on a long trip at high speed, all right, but he frowned, wondering how it had got that dusty driving to San Francisco. Well, maybe it had been that way before the trip.

  There was no doubt Brubaker had already done it, but he opened the left front door and checked the lubrication record stuck to the frame. “Jerry’s Shell Service, Coleville, Nevada,” it said, and the date of the last service was July 4, 1972. Oil change and lubrication at 13,073. He leaned in and read the odometer. It stood at 13,937. That was more than 800 miles. San Francisco was—call it 270, round trip 540. So the old man had driven another 300 miles somewhere in that time between July 4 and 14. Well, that could be anything—or nothing.

  He switched off the lights and went back into the kitchen, pushing the button in the doorknob to relock the door. There was another entrance to the combined living room and dining room from this end of the kitchen. It was a long room with a deep shag carpet, and most of the opposite wall was covered by drawn white drapes. At the right were a dining table and then a teak buffet and a long sofa sitting back to back to divide it from the living-room area. In the latter there were two large armchairs and a coffee table and a white brick fireplace, but the first and overall impression was of books, record albums, and hi-fi equipment.

  He started toward that end of the room, but as he passed the end of the sofa, he saw a piece of luggage sitting on it. There was a faintly jarring incongruity about it in this otherwise neat and well-ordered room, and he stopped, for some reason remembering his question to Brubaker on whether there had been any sign of a fight. Why would somebody with a seaman’s passion for a-place-for-everything-and-everything-m-its-place leave his suitcase in the living room?

  It was a small streamlined case of black fiber glass with no identification on it of any kind. He flipped the latches. It was unlocked. On top was a folded brown silk dressing gown. He lifted it out of the way and poked through the contents beneath it: pajamas, a rolled pair of socks, a laundered shirt in plastic, a couple of ties, a pair of shorts, and a plastic bag containing a soiled shirt and some more underwear. At the bottom were a zippered leather toilet kit, a half-empty box of Upmann cigars, and some books of paper matches variously advertising a San Francisco restaurant, a Las Vegas hotel, and a savings and loan association. He shrugged. There was nothing of interest here, and Brubaker had no doubt already searched it anyway.

  But why was it here? He idly lifted one of the aluminum tubes from the cigar box, twisted off the cap, and slid the cigar out. It was encased in a thin curl of wood veneer and then a tightly rolled paper wrapper. He removed these and sniffed it. He’d smoked cigars for a brief period in his early twenties before he’d given up smoking altogether, but even after all these years he could still appreciate the aroma. He went out into the kitchen, found a knife in one of the drawers, cut the tip off it, and lighted it with one of the paper matches.

  He took a deep, appraising puff, removed it from his mouth, let the smoke out slowly, and gestured with judicial approval. If you had to kill yourself, do it in the imperial manner; arrive at the operating room for the thoracotomy on a stretcher of royal purple borne by Nubian slaves. He picked up the silk robe to put it back in the bag; something slithered out of its folds, something golden and soft that might have been the pelt of some unfortunate honey-colored animal or the scalp of a Scandinavian settler. It was a hairpiece; a fall, he thought, was the correct terminology.

  He looked at it helplessly for a moment and then sighed. That certainly didn’t raise any doubts it was the old man’s case; if you looked at it in the light of history, it merely confirmed it. No doubt his mother, unless she’d forsworn the practice early in the game, could have suited up an average sorority by filtering the old rooster’s bags for lipsticks, mascara pencils, pants, bras, and earrings. While it sure as hell could help answer a great many questions if you knew the identity of this molting San Francisco roommate and where she was now, at the moment it was of no help at all. He dropped the fall back in, folded the robe over it, and closed the bag. He wondered if Brubaker had spotted it and then decided he wouldn’t be much of a cop if he hadn’t.

  Big hi-fi speakers were mounted in the corners of the living room opposite the sofa. They’d been housed in some dark wood he thought was ebony. The components—turntable, FM tuner, and amplifier—were mounted on teak shelves in the center of the same wall, themselves encased in the same wood as the speakers. Above and on both sides were shelves of operatic and symphonic albums, several hundred of them at a conservative guess. Most of the balance of the wall space was taken up with books. Romstead walked over and ran his eye along the rows, lost in admiration for the far-ranging and cultivated mind of a man whose formal education had ended at the age of fourteen. Though mostly in English, there were some in German and French and his native Norwegian, and they ranged from novels and biography to poetry and mathematics.

  His thoughts broke off suddenly at the sound of a car coming up the drive, scattering gravel. He stepped out into the kitchen and parted the curtains above the sink just as it slid to a stop behind his and the driver got out and slammed the door. It was the hell-for-leather Valkyrie in the Continental.

  She was five eight, at least, a statuesque figure of a woman clad in a peasant blouse and skirt in a flamboyant combination of colors and snugged in at their juncture around a surprisingly slender waist considering the amplitude of the bust above and rounded hips below. The tanned legs were bare, and her shoes appeared to consist principally of cork platforms an inch and a half thick. She carried an oversized straw handbag in the crook of her left arm and moved with a self-assured sexy swing as she came toward the fla
gstone walk. Romstead noted the shade of the rather carelessly swirled blond hair, and his eyes were coldly speculative as he let the curtain fall back in place. In a moment the doorbell chimed. He went out into the vestibule and opened the door. She looked up at him; the blue eyes went wide, and she gasped.

  “Oh, no! Even the cigar!”

  He removed it from his mouth. “I stole it,” he said. “It belongs to the United States Customs.”

  “Well, that figures, too.” She gave a flustered smile then that didn’t quite match the eyes. “Excuse me, I don’t know what I’m saying, you startled me so, the very image of him—I mean younger, naturally—but when you just loomed up there at me puffing on the same cigar—oh, heavens, I’m Paulette Carmody, your next-door neighbor.”

  “How do you do,” he said. “Won’t you come in?”

  She preceded him into the living room and sat down on the sofa right beside the suitcase with no apparent notice of it while girlish chatter continued to pour forth like whipped cream from a ruptured aerosol can.

  “—just now heard you were in town, and then it struck me, I mean, that car I’d passed on the road, it did have California tags, and I was just positive I’d seen San Francisco on the dealer’s license plate holder, and I said I’ll bet anything that was Eric—”

  She had crossed her legs,, revealing an interesting expanse of golden thigh, and Romstead reflected that if the front of that peasant blouse were cut any lower, she’d better never lean down or frothy conversation wouldn’t be the only thing to well forth. He wondered about it. Maybe she was a harmless fluff-brain, but he didn’t think so. She was forty to forty-five, and she’d been around. There were intelligence and tough-mindedness in there somewhere. He listened with grave courtesy while she said what an awful thing it had been and she wanted him to know how sorry she was.

  “Are you moving in?” she asked then.

  “Oh, no,” he replied. “I just borrowed a key to have a look.”

 
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