What of Terry Coniston?
Open Road Integrated Media ebook
C H A P T E R One
Carl Oakley walked out of the sagging barn and blinked when the hard sunshine hit his face. He snugged the dark glasses against the bridge of his nose and stood, feet apart and arms akimbo, squinting up the sun-bright dusty street of this dead and gone town that had once been called Soledad.
His right shoe intersected a narrow tire track faintly traced in the gravelly dust. Too narrow for the big car, Oakley judged; it must have been Terry’s rump-jolting little sports car that left this print. He squatted on his haunches, elbows on knees, and brooded upon the dim track. It pointed into the barn, or away from the barn; in any case the barn was empty.
Beyond doubt this was where they had held her. There in the barn they had concealed the cars.
He rose to his feet with easy coordination and looked up the length of the ghost street. Beyond the abandoned wreckage of the buildings, two hundred yards away at the head of the town, Diego Orozco’s obese shape waddled slowly, head down, looking for sign. Carl Oakley shook his head. You won’t find anything more. They were a smart bunch—we won’t find anything they didn’t want us to find.
Five of them—four men and a girl—had kidnaped Terry Conniston. They had brought her here.
Oakley made a slow full turn on the balls of his feet, sweeping the horizons, the weathered tumbledown shacks, the drought bleached desert. He was a tall man with a swimming-pool tan and a neat head of hair peppered with gray. His shoulders and waist were just beginning to put on a layer of office fat. His face, photogenic as an actor’s, looked young and frank—always an asset in the courtroom. He was forty-six.
He put a cigar in his mouth, unlit. The hollow dark maw of the old barn loomed, sinister with empty shadows. It had likely been one of the highest-priced snatch cases since the Lindbergh caper, he reflected, but even the police and the FBI weren’t in on it. Oakley couldn’t afford to let them find out. It would cost him twenty times what the kidnapers had got. Nobody knew about it—nobody but Orozco and the two back at Conniston’s ranch.
The old general store still had its roof intact. He gave it narrowed scrutiny. Was that where they’d held her? Trussed her with ropes? Had they fed her? Ignored her? Done unspeakable things? Here, perhaps, where the earth was scuffed, they had battled among themselves, leaving one dead. A quarrel over the spoils? And the second one, dead but not by violence—murder, disease, accident?
Terry Conniston: where was she? What had they done to her (or she to them, knowing Terry)?
They had been amateurs. Carl Oakley was a good country lawyer with a healthy respect for professionalism: it graveled him that a crew of second-rate musicians could bring it off. The untidiness of it disturbed him.
Let them have the ransom; the money, after all, had been Earle Conniston’s and Earle couldn’t complain. But Oakley had to know whether Terry was alive. And if she was alive where was she? What had happened to the last three members of the gang?
Oakley’s orderly mind recognized the probabilities. They had probably killed her, probably buried her somewhere out there in the desert. But Orozco’s hired chicanos had combed the district. They had found the two bodies but Terry hadn’t turned up.
The awful uncertainty hung over him like a blade, poised and motionless but ready to cut. If she was still alive she could make bad trouble. Very bad trouble.
His glance traveled past the town to Orozco, fat and dogged as an ox, keening the earth with eyes like microscopes. Oakley removed the cigar from his mouth, feeling the heat; he dragged the back of his hand across his lips. It was time to call Orozco off. There was nothing more to be found here.
He sang out, calling Orozco down, and walked slowly toward the car, shoes scuffing the dust. Orozco met him by the car. “I didn’t find nothing yet.”
“You won’t. It’s been too long—the trail’s gone too cold.”
“This here desert can preserve things a long time,” Orozco said with his faint trace of accent. He was huge and disordered in Levi’s and khaki shirt, the vast balloon of his belly making a precarious arc pendulant over his belt. He wore a black moustache, like a bandit, and a little round hat.
Orozco said, “We still got two–three hours of good daylight. You sure you want to go back?”
“We’re not going to find anything,” Oakley insisted, his voice climbing to an unreasonable pitch.
“Well, you don’t know that till you finish looking.”
Oakley had bitten the cigar cleanly in two. He spat out the wet end and jammed what was left into the corner of his mouth. “Where’d they go, Diego? What did they do to her?”
“I don’ know, Carl. I honestly don’ know.” Orozco lifted his fat arm southward toward the hazy peaks. “Maybe Mexico yonder. That’s where I’d go with all that money. No more than a fifteen-mile walk from where we’re standing—easy enough to crawl through the fence.”
“No. They wouldn’t have taken Terry with them if they’d gone on foot. Besides, the money was damn heavy. And if they went on foot, what happened to the cars? They had two cars here. Crap.”
“Why should they take Terry with them?”
“I don’t know, but they didn’t leave her here, now, did they?”
“Okay, okay. I got no answers yet, Carl. I wan’ to have one more look in that barn.”
The fat man walked away. Oakley got into the Cadillac, started the engine and turned on the air-conditioning. He had parked in the shade but that had been morning; the sun had moved around. The car was an oven. Next time I park inside the barn. Next time: but what was there to come back for?
He removed his hat and picked up the manila file folder from the seat, opened it and flipped through to the photograph he wanted. He sat inspecting it with dry hot air from the dashboard blower roughing up his hair. Floyd Rymer looked out of the photograph, straight at the camera, with a hard challenge and a hint of a secret smile. The whole mystery always came right back to Floyd Rymer: Floyd lay curled at the bottom of Oakley’s mind like a sleepy reptile waiting under a sun-baked rock.
He wished he knew a little more about Floyd’s baffling character. Private detectives across the country—Orozco’s correspondents—had spent the past eighteen hours and a good sum of Oakley’s money prowling Floyd Rymer’s history; all they had turned up were dry vital statistics and a few clouded hints. Floyd had been born in Cincinnati to a family of Depression-poor alcoholics and gone through thirty years with hardly a ripple to mark his backtrail—a singularly anonymous figure, considering the force of his arrogant personality. No one was likely to forget him; but there wasn’t anything useful in what anyone remembered of him.
Oakley’s file had been flown in last night by Lear Jet from Phoenix. It contained six onionskin pages, typewritten, and a dozen glossy publicity stills of Floyd’s nightclub combo. For at least three years it had been billed as The Rymers—booked around the circuit of second-string clubs from El Paso to Seattle. The picture on his lap was a good likeness of Floyd according to the scribbled marginal remarks. Floyd slouched hip-shot against his electric organ with his hands in the hip pockets of tight trousers. It was a long spare figure, sinewy-masculine. Shaggy black hair, tousled and thick, running down into heavy sideburns; brutal hooded eyes, pale gray or blue, with a calm air of cold disdain: amoral, predatory, taut with flashing hunger. Floyd looked like a creature who couldn’t be reasoned with, appealed to, even frightened: a chilled primitive being, logical but emotionless, untouchable by the things that would affect ordinary people—wholly unpredictable because, his likeness implied, none of the usual rules would apply. The photo recalled to Oakley’s mind the young captured SS officers he had seen in France in 1944.