Man on a leash, p.4

Man on a leash, page 4

 

Man on a leash
 


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  “Oh, I see.” She gestured. “I thought perhaps the suitcase was yours.”

  “No.” He shrugged. “I just assumed it was his. It was sitting there when I came in.” Ma’am, there’s nobody here but us chickens, and you know we wouldn’t have searched it. “I wish I could offer you a drink or something.”

  “You know, I could use a beer. He always kept some Tuborg in the refrigerator.”

  “I’ll see.” He went out into the kitchen. There were several bottles of beer. He listened intently for the sound of the latches, but her continued chatter would have covered it if there were any. Somehow he’d have to get a peek into that straw handbag. He found some glasses and a bottle opener and poured the beer. He went back, and on the opposite side of the case from her there was just a fraction of an inch of brown silk showing where she hadn’t got all the robe back in. He handed her the glass and sat down.

  “Thank you, Eric.” She smiled. “As I was saying, he was the most fascinating man I ever met—”

  “You’d better run it through a laundromat before you wear it again,” he said.

  “What?” Just for a second the confusion showed. “I don’t understand— Wear what?”

  “The doily. It’s been shut up in a suitcase for two weeks with a box of cigars. It’ll smell like the end of a four-day poker game.”

  “Well!” The outrage was just about to become airborne when it collapsed in a gurgle of amusement that gave way to laughter. “Oh, crap! So you had found it.” She lifted the hairpiece from her handbag, sniffed it, made a face, and dropped it back.

  “It was a stupid thing to try, anyway,” he said. “Brubaker’s bound to have seen it when he searched the house, and he’ll know you were the only one who had a chance to get it back.”

  She shrugged, took a pack of filter cigarettes from the handbag, and lighted one. “Brubaker could already make a damned good guess whose it is, but he’s not about to.”

  “Why not?”

  “He’d have to be ready to prove it, for one thing, unless he likes the odor of singed tail feathers. Also, he’d have to be damned sure it had anything to do with what happened to your father. Which it didn’t.”

  “That remains to be seen. But he could sure as hell sweat some answers out of you about what the old man was doing in San Francisco and why he needed that money.”

  She shook her head. “I wasn’t in San Francisco with him.”

  “Sure. You just loaned him the rug. He was going to audition for a job at Finocchio’s—”

  “Oh, I was with him, all right, but it was in Las Vegas.”

  “What? I mean—when?”

  “Before he went to San Francisco. We drove down on the Fourth—”

  “Hold it. You say you drove? Which car?”

  “His.”

  “How far is it?”

  “Four hundred and five miles. We checked it.”

  “Excuse me a minute.” He strode out to the garage and opened the door of the Mercedes to check the figures again: 13,937 less 13,073 was—864. Twice 405 was 810. That left only 54 miles unaccounted for.

  “What is it?” She had come out and was standing in the kitchen doorway.

  He indicated the service sticker. “He couldn’t have driven the car to San Francisco. Or even to Reno to take a plane.” He repeated the figures. “So how did he get there?”

  “Maybe somebody else drove him to the airport.”

  “You’d think whoever it was would have said so by this time. Anyway, Brubaker checked the airlines; he had no reservation any time in that period.”

  She frowned. “Well, we’d better tell him. I didn’t know about this mileage bit.”

  “I’ll do it. Maybe he won’t lean on me for the name.”

  “Oh, hell, that’s all right. I mean, if it’s important to the investigation. I’m not married, now. Or running for the school board.”

  “Was the car this dusty when you got back?” he asked.

  “I don’t know,” she said. “It was dark. But I don’t see why it would have been; we certainly didn’t drive on any country roads, going or coming, and it wasn’t dusty like that when we got there.”

  He nodded. Then a good part of that 54 miles had been on a dirt road. They went back to the living room, and he retrieved his beer. “How long did you stay in Las Vegas?” he asked.

  “That night and the next day. I think we started back around eleven P.M. Anyway, he let me off at my place just a few minutes before five A.M.” She sighed. “Forty hours with about two hours’ sleep. God, I’m glad I didn’t have to try to keep up with him when he was twenty-eight—”

  “Wait a minute,” Romstead interrupted. “That’d have to be five A.M., the sixth?”

  “Hmmmm—yes, that’s right.”

  Just two hours, he thought, before he’d called Winegaard with that sell order. “Well, look, did he go in the bucket in Las Vegas? I mean, on the cuff, for really big money?”

  She smiled. “God, no. I doubt he lost twenty dollars. Gambling—or that kind of gambling—bored him to death. He said anybody with any respect for mathematics would have to be insane to think he could beat a house percentage and a limit. He just liked the shows, and the fact that nobody ever goes to bed—to sleep, anyway.”

  “Well, did he tell you he was going to San Francisco?”

  “No.”

  “That’s funny. No mention of it at all?”

  “Not a word. If it’d been anybody else, it would have puzzled hell out of me. I mean, if he was planning to take off again just as soon as we got home, you’d think he’d have said something about it, just to make conversation if nothing else, but that’s the way he operated.”

  “But nobody knows for sure when he did leave.”

  “Oh, it was within a few hours. Don’t ask me how in hell he could do it, but he was gone again before noon.”

  “How do you know?”

  “That’s when I woke up. When I started to unpack my bags, I noticed the fall was missing, so I called to see if I’d put it in his by mistake. No answer. I tried again several times in the afternoon and gave up.”

  “Well, did he say anything about a business deal?”

  “Absolutely nothing. But then he wouldn’t have; he never did.”

  “You know Brubaker’s theory? That he was mixed up in the drug traffic.”

  “Bullshit.”

  “I’m glad you don’t believe it. But I guess we’re in the minority.”

  “Darling, I have no illusions at all about your old man; I’ve known him longer than you think I have. He was arrogant, pigheaded, and intolerant, he had the sex drive and the fidelity of a stallion, and any woman who could stay married to him for fifteen years the way your mother did could qualify for instant sainthood; but he wasn’t a criminal.”

  “You knew him before he moved here?”

  “Umh-umh. He saved my life, a few years back.”

  “How’s that?”

  “It sounds a little kooky, out here in the sagebrush, but would you believe a rescue at sea?” She glanced at her watch and stood up. “But I’ve got to run. If you’ll stop by when you get through here, I’ll hammer together a couple of bloody Marys and a bite of lunch and tell you about it.”

  “I’d love to. Thank you.”

  He went out with her and down the walk. As she started to get into the Continental, there was a sudden wild clatter of the pipes in the cattle guard beyond them, and a dusty green Porsche came snarling up the drive. It pulled off and stopped on the other side of her. When the driver emerged and slammed the door, there was more an impression he had simply removed the car like an article of clothing and tossed it aside rather than got out of it, and Romstead thought of the old joke about one of the Rams’ linemen: When he couldn’t find a place to park his VW, he just carried it around with him.

  While he wasn’t quite that big, he would have made an ominous hunk of linebacker staring hungrily across the big butts at a quarterback. He was pushing forty now, Romstea
d thought, and a little gone to belly, but not too much, and the pale eyes were mean as he padded around the rear of the Continental. Something was riding him.

  “I tried to call you,” he said to Paulette Carmody. “Carmelita said you were down here. Figures.”

  “Lew,” she began the introduction, “this is Eric—”

  He cut her off. “I know who he is.” The eyes flicked contemptuously across Romstead and dismissed him along with the rest of the scenery. “Have you seen Jeri?”

  “Mr. Bonner.” The tone was sweetly dangerous. “May I present—” She broke off herself then. “Jeri? You mean she’s here in town?”

  “She came in last Tuesday. But when I woke up awhile ago, she was gone. No note or anything.”

  “I’ll see you up at the house,” Paulette said.

  “Right.” Before he turned away, Bonner swept Romstead with that flat stare again. “Going to take over the family business?”

  “Shut up, Lew!” Paulette snapped. Romstead stared thoughtfully after him but said nothing. The Porsche shot back down the drive.

  “I’m sorry,” Paulette said. “Usually he has at least as much social grace as a goat, but he’s a little off his form today.”

  Romstead shrugged. “Something’s chewing on him.”

  “It’s his sister. I’m worried about her, too.”

  “Who is he?”

  “He used to work for my husband, and before that, he played pro football, one of the Canadian teams. Owns a liquor store now.” She got into the car. “See you in a little while.”

  “Hadn’t I better skip it?” He nodded after the Porsche now disappearing around the bend in the highway. “I don’t think we’re going to grow on each other, and it’ll just be unpleasant for you.”

  “Oh, he’ll be gone before then.”

  She swung the big car and went back down the drive. Romstead returned to the house. He rinsed out the two glasses and dropped the beer bottles in the kitchen garbage can. There was another room in this wing of the house, directly back of the garage, its entrance through a doorway at the rear of the dining area. He went in.

  It was a library or den. There was another fireplace, a big easy chair with a reading lamp, a desk, and a coffee table. On the walls were more books, an aneroid barometer, some carved African masks, a bolo, a pair of spears, and several abstract paintings. A magazine rack held copies of Fortune, Time, and Scientific American. The cigars were in a closet, each box individually wrapped and sealed in plastic.

  In the other wing the small bedroom at the front of the house was apparently a guest room. The next door down the hall was a bathroom. He glanced in briefly and went on. The master bedroom was at the rear. He stepped in and stopped abruptly in surprise. After the neatness of the rest of the house it was a mess.

  It was a big room containing a king-sized double bed with a black headboard and matching night tables with big lamps on each side. One of the lamps was lighted. The drapes, the same dark green as the bedspread, were all closed. Off to his left, the door to the bathroom was ajar, and he could see a light was on in there too. Beyond the bathroom door was a large dresser, all its drawers pulled open and their contents—shirts, socks, underwear, handkerchiefs, boxes of cuff links, pajamas—thrown out on the rug.

  On top of it was a woman’s handbag, open and lying on its side, a kitchen knife, a spoon, a hypodermic syringe, and a small plastic bag containing some fraction of an ounce of a white powder. He strode on in to look at the floor on the other side of the bed. A yellow dress and a pair of scuffed and dusty pumps with grotesque square heels lay on the rug beside it. Next to them on a hassock were a slip, nylon pants, and a bra. There was no sound at all from the bathroom. He felt the hair prickle on the back of his neck as he went over and slowly pushed the door open.

  To his left was a stall shower and at the other end the commode and washbasin. The oversized tub was directly opposite, a slender leg draped over the side of it with the doubled knee of the other leg visible just beyond. He stepped on in and looked down. She was lying on her back, her head under the spigot and turned slightly to one side with the long dark-red hair plastered across her face so that little of it was visible except the chin and part of the mouth. There was about an inch of water in the bottom of the tub, but no blood and no marks of violence on her body.

  The tub had apparently been full when she fell in, but owing to an imperfectly fitting plug in the mechanical drain assembly, the water had slowly leaked out over the hours, leaving her hair to settle like seaweed across her face. There was no need to touch her to verify it; she’d been dead from the time she fell in. Had she struck her head on the spigot? There was no hair stuck to it, no blood. The heroin, he thought, or whatever that stuff was she’d shot herself with. But, hell, even somebody drugged should be able to climb out of a bathtub before he drowned. He was suddenly conscious of the passage of time and that he was wasting it in disjointed and futile speculation when he’d better be calling the police. He whirled and went out.

  4

  There was a telephone on one of the night tables. He grabbed it up, but it was dead; it had been disconnected. It was then he noticed the shards of broken glass on the rug against the far wall. He went over and parted the drapes above it. It was a casement window. She’d knocked out enough glass and then cut away part of the screen, probably with the kitchen knife, so she could reach in and unlatch it and crank it open. There was a wooden box on the ground beneath it, along with the remains of the screen. It was at the side of the house, so he hadn’t seen it when he was out back.

  But why in the name of God had she broken in here to shoot herself with that junk? He looked then at the scattered contents of the dresser drawers, at the mute evidence of her frenzy, and felt a little chill between his shoulder blades. But, damn it, Brubaker had searched the house. For Christ’s sake, get going, he told himself. He ran out to the car.

  He was out on the highway before he remembered he hadn’t even closed the front door of the house. Well, it didn’t matter. He made a skidding turn off the road and shot up the driveway toward the Carmody house, wondering now what the urgency was, since the woman was dead and had been since last night or maybe even the night before. Bonner’s Porsche was parked in the circular blacktop drive under the big trees in front. He pulled up behind it and hurried up the walk to punch the bell. He heard it chime inside, and in a moment the door was opened by a pleasant dark-haired woman with liquid brown eyes.

  “Could I use your phone?” he asked.

  “I’ll ask,” she said. “What is your name?”

  “Romstead.” At that moment Paulette appeared in the small entry behind her. “Why, Eric, come on in.”

  He stepped inside. “I’ve got to use your phone. Something’s happened.”

  Paulette smiled at the maid. “It’s all right, Carmelita, I’ll take care of it.” Carmelita disappeared. Paulette led him through a doorway at the left into a long living room with a picture window and French doors at the back of it opening onto a flagstone deck and a pool. Bonner was sitting at a table under a big umbrella. He saw them and got up.

  The phone was on a small desk across the room. He grabbed the directory, looked inside the cover for the emergency numbers, and dialed.

  “What is it?” Paulette asked. “What happened?”

  “There’s a woman in the house. Dead.”

  “Oh, my God! Where?”

  “Back bedroom. In the tub, drowned—”

  “Sheriffs department. Orde,” a voice answered.

  “Could I speak to Brubaker?”

  “Just a minute.” There were a couple of clicks.

  “Brubaker.”

  “This is Eric Romstead,” he said. “I’m calling from Mrs. Carmody’s. I’ve just come from my father’s place, and there’s a dead woman in the bath—”

  His arm was grabbed by a big paw, and he was whirled around. It was Bonner, his face savage. “How old is she? What did she look like?”

  Romstea
d jerked his arm away. “I don’t know how old she is.” He got the instrument back to his ear to hear the chief deputy bark, “—the hell is going on there? Dead woman in whose bathroom—?”

  “Captain Romstead’s. She broke in a window.”

  “We’ll be there in five minutes. Stay out of the house!”

  He dropped the phone back on the cradle. Bonner lashed out at him, “God damn you, what did she look like?”

  “I don’t know,” Romstead said. “Except she had red hair.”

  The big man wheeled and ran for the doorway. “Brubaker said to stay out,” Romstead called, but he was gone. The front door slammed. Before he and Paulette could reach the walk outside, there was a snarl from the Porsche’s engine and a shriek of rubber, and he was tearing down the drive. They got into Romstead’s car and ran down the hill onto the highway. By the time they’d turned in through the cattle guard the Porsche had already come to a stop, and Bonner was running in the front door. He stopped behind the other car, but they did not get out. When he looked around at her, there were tears in her eyes.

  “Maybe it’s not,” he said.

  “Yes,” she said. “She was one of the most beautiful girls I ever saw, and she had dark red hair.”

  “Was she on drugs? There was a needle in there.”

  “He was afraid she was.”

  “Where did she live?”

  “San Francisco.”

  “She knew the old man?”

  “Yes. How well, I don’t know, but she was with my husband and me on that sailboat when he picked us up at sea. Could you tell what happened to her? Did she fall in the tub and knock herself out, or what?”

  “I don’t know,” he said. “But my guess would be an overdose.” He told her about the packet of heroin, or whatever it was, and the way the dresser had been ransacked.

  “I don’t get it,” she said, baffled. “I just don’t believe it—”

  She broke off then as Bonner emerged from the house and walked slowly toward his car. They got out, but there was no need to ask.

  “I’m so sorry, Lew,” Paulette said.

 
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