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Man on a Leash
By Charles Williams
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1973 Charles Williams
All rights reserved.
Dawn was just breaking when he pulled into town after the late-night drive from San Francisco, and it would be hours yet before officialdom was astir. A boy in an all-night service station worried the spattered insects off his windshield while the tank was being filled and told him how to find the cemetery. It was about two miles south of the city limits, he said, and if he wondered why an out-of-state license wanted to visit Coleville's burying ground at this strange hour, he made no mention of it.
Romstead wasn't sure himself, since he had no flowers to deposit on the grave and would have felt too uncomfortable and self-conscious in such a lavender gesture anyway, knowing the Rabelaisian laughter this would have evoked in the departed. Maybe he simply had to see the grave before he could accept it.
Certainly Sergeant Crowder's few facts over the telephone had sounded as improbable as a bad television script, and the big stud was indestructible anyway. Nobody who'd survived waterfront brawls, typhoons, picket-line battles, a lifetime of exuberant and extramarital wenching, torpedoings, western ocean gales, and fourteen months on the Murmansk run in World War II could have got himself killed in this plastic desert town on the edge of nowhere. And not merely killed, Crowder had said, but executed.
"Six ten," the boy said. Romstead passed him the credit card. He made out the slip, imprinted it with the card, and then broke stride, looking up suddenly as the name struck him in the midst of this boring and automatic routine. He seemed about to say something but changed his mind, filled in the license number, and passed the clipboard in through the window. Romstead signed and drove out.
The business district was only six or eight blocks, with traffic lights at three of the intersections. South of it were several motels, all showing vacancy signs, a residential area of modest houses and green lawns, and then a highway maintenance depot and some oil storage tanks. For a mile or so beyond the city limits there were small irrigated farms on both sides of the highway, but after the blacktop climbed a slight grade out of the valley, he was in open rangeland again. Almost immediately he saw the cemetery ahead of him and slowed.
It was on the slope of a rocky hillside to the right, with a row of stunted cedars along the fence in front and a pair of fieldstone pillars framing the entrance. He pulled off and stopped, and when he cut the engine and got out, he was aware of profound silence and the odor of sage. It was full daylight now, the sky washed with pink and gold above the waste of flinty hills and desert scrub to the east, while to westward the thrusting escarpments of the Sierra stood out sharply in the clear desert air. The cooling engine made a loud ticking sound in the hush, and miles overhead an invisible jet drew its contrail across the sky. He sighed and shook his head as he walked over to the entrance. It was a hell of a morning to be dead.
The iron grillwork gates were closed but not locked. Then, when he was already inside and walking slowly up the avenue between the rows of graves, it suddenly occurred to him there was no way to identify it when he found it. There wouldn't be any headstone yet. How could there be, since he was the only one to place an order, and he hadn't even known about it until eight hours ago?
But surprisingly there was one. Just ahead and to his left was the raw mound of a new grave, the only one in sight from here, and when he approached, he saw the simple inscription chiseled into the granite slab at the head of it:
He walked over and stood looking down at this final resting place of what had possibly been the world's most improbable parent, not quite sure what his feelings were. There was no profound sense of grief or loss, certainly, for a man he'd seen so few times in his life. It was more a sense of wonder, he thought, at all that vast energy's having been stilled at last or the incongruity of prosaic burial in a country cemetery so far from the sea when anything less than a Viking funeral pyre would have been an anticlimax.
Mayo had asked him once about his relationship with his father. The question had surprised him, for he hadn't even thought about it in years, and now that he did the best answer he could give her was that aside from mutual respect, he didn't think there had ever been any. From the onset of puberty both had grown up in a totally male environment where self-sufficiency was a prerequisite to survival—the one at sea and the other in a succession of military schools and the locker rooms of college jocks—so it would never have occurred to either of them that young men really needed anybody. As a girl, of course, she couldn't believe this or understand it, and he had despaired of trying to explain it to her.
He stood for another minute or two, his face impassive, feeling somehow lacking that there didn't seem to be anything to say or do. Then he lifted one hand in a slight gesture that might have been a farewell and turned and walked back to the car. The sun was coming up now, and he remembered the line from Ecclesiastes. A hamfisted ex-jock quoting the Preacher, he thought; the old man would say he'd gone fruit.
Executed? What in hell had Crowder meant by that? And by whom? Then he shook his head impatiently. Racking his brains was a sheer waste of time until he could talk to somebody who had the answers. He drove back to town.
He'd better get a place to stay. The chances were he'd be here all day, and he should try to get some sleep before he made the drive back. Upcoming on the right was the Conestoga Motel, which seemed as likely a prospect as any. He swung in and stopped under the porte cochere in front of the office. Beyond the glass wall a row of slot machines lay in wait for the tourist with the patient inevitability of snares in a game trail, and a woman with blue-white hair sipped coffee and flipped through a newspaper at the desk. She looked up with a smile as he entered. Yes, there was a vacancy.
"And a king-size bed, if you'd like one," she added, with a not entirely objective appraisal of his size.
"Fine." He began filling in the registration card while she plucked a key from the pigeonholes behind her.
"How long will you be staying, Mr.—"
"Romstead," he replied. "Just one day, probably."
"Oh." As the boy in the service station had, she glanced up sharply and appeared on the point of saying something, but did not. "I see." The smile was still there, but something had gone out of it; it was now straight out of the innkeeper's manual. He passed over the American Express card, wondering at this seemingly unanimous response to the name around here. Well, the old man had never been one to blush unseen, even in larger places than Coleville, and whatever his hangups might have been, awe of community opinion wasn't one of them.
He signed the slip and went out with the key. Room 17 was on the ground floor at the rear of the U which enclosed the standard small swimming pool and sun deck with patio furniture and umbrellas. Several of the cars parked before the units were being loaded now as travelers prepared to hit the road again.
The day's heat was beginning, but the room was cool, dim behind the heavy green drapes, smelled faintly of some aerosol gunk masquerading as fresh air, and was wholly interchangeable with a million others along the concrete river. He dropped the bag on a luggage rack and switched on a light. Sitting on the side of the bed, he reached for the thin directory beside the telephone. It covered the whole county, rural subscribers and the other small towns in addition to Coleville, but there was no Gunnar Romstead in it, no Romstead of any kind. Unlisted phone, he thought. The yellow pages revealed there were two mortuaries in town, but no monument works or stonecutter. The stone no doubt had come from Reno then, but he could probably find out from the sheriff's office and see if there were any accounts to settle.
He shaved and showered and came out of the bath scrubbing himself vigorously with the towel, a heavyset figure of a man with haze-gray eyes, big, beat-up hands, and an all-over leathery tan except for a narrow strip about his middle. He ran a comb through the sun-streaked blond hair without noticeably improving an indifferent haircut, shrugged, and tossed the comb back into the toilet kit.
He put on slacks and sport shirt. It was only a short walk to the center of town; there was no need to take the car. He went up the sidewalk under the increasing weight of the sun, accustomed to it and scarcely noticing it but aware at the same time of the unfamiliar dryness of the air and the faint odors of dust and sage. Not many of the places of business were open yet, and the pace was unhurried along the street.
Just ahead was a coffee shop with a couple of newspaper vending racks in front. One of them held the San Francisco Chronicle. He fished in his pocket and was about to drop in the coins when he saw it was yesterday's; it was too early yet for today's. Something half forgotten nudged the edges of his mind as he went inside and ordered coffee. What was it? And where? Then he remembered, and grinned, but with a faint tightness in his throat.
It was in New York. He'd got permission from the military academy he attended in Pennsylvania to come down to meet his father for a day while his ship was in port. They'd had lunch somewhere, and afterward out on the sidewalk his father had flagged a taxi to take them to the ball game at Yankee Stadium. As it was pulling to the curb, he dropped a coin in a vending machine for a newspaper. There was no sign on it warning that it was out of order, but it refused to open, and punching the coin return was of no avail. It didn't work either. Passersby turned to gawk at this familiar scene of man's being bilked by another complacent, nickel-grabbing machine, and while somebody else might have given it a shake and retreated muttering, his father stepped back, calmly shoved a size-12 English brogue through the glass front, lifted out his paper, folded it under his arm, and strolled over to the cab while he, Eric, watched aghast in his cadet's uniform. By the time he'd got into the cab and they pulled away his father was already immersed in the financial section, and when he ventured some doubt about the legality of this direct action, the old man had looked up, puzzled.
"What? Oh—Son, never expect anything free in this world; you pay for everything you get. But at the same time make sure they give you every goddamned thing you pay for."
The sheriff's office was on the ground floor at the rear of the new courthouse and city hall, a long room with a wide double doorway. A blond girl came out carrying a sheaf of papers and nodded as he went in. There was a railing just inside, and beyond it five or six desks and banks of filing cabinets. At the back of the room were two barred windows and a door that presumably led to the alley and the parking area for official cars. From an open doorway into another room at the left there issued the sound of static and the short, staccato bursts of police-band voices. There was a corridor at the right end of the room, and next to it a bulletin board, a case containing shotguns and rifles, and a small table holding a percolator and some coffee cups. A dark-haired man of about thirty was typing at one of the desks near the railing. He got up and came over.
"Good morning. Can I help you?"
"I'd like to speak to the sheriff," Romstead replied. "Is he in yet?"
"No. He's got to go to court today; he may not be in at all. But if it's a complaint, I can take it. My name's Orde."
"No complaint," Romstead said. "It's about Captain Romstead."
"And you are?"
"Eric Romstead. He was my father."
There was no reaction this time unless it was the total lack of any expression at all, which was probably professional. Romstead went on, "There was a wire from your office. I called last night from San Francisco and talked to a man named Crowder."
"Yeah. Well, Crowder doesn't come on till four, but the man you want to see is Brubaker, chief deputy. He's in charge of the case. Just a minute."
He went back to his desk and spoke into the phone. He replaced the instrument and nodded. "Just have a seat there. He'll be with you in a couple of minutes."
There was a bench along the wall beside the doors. Romstead sat down. A teletype clattered briefly in the communications room. Orde lit a cigarette and stared at the form in his typewriter.
"What happened anyway?" Romstead asked.
"Didn't Crowder tell you?"
"Just that he'd been shot. Executed is the word he used."
"Crowder watches a lot of TV." Orde leaned back in the swivel chair and dropped the book of matches onto the desk. "But then I guess you can't argue with it, even if it is a little Hollywood. He was found on the city dump, shot in the back of the head. I'm sorry."
"But for Christ's sake, who did it?"
"We don't know. Except that it was real professional and some action he brought here with him. We could have done without it."
This made no sense at all, of course, and Romstead was about to point it out but did not. He'd come this far to get the facts from somebody who knew what he was talking about, so he could wait a few more minutes. At that moment the door opened at the rear of the room, and a white-hatted deputy came in, ushering ahead of him an emaciated middle-aged man whose face was covered with a stubble of graying whiskers. The latter looked around once with an expression that managed to be sly and hangdog at the same time and then down at the floor as he shuffled forward when the deputy released his arm and gestured toward the chair by Orde's desk. "Park it, Wingy."
"Not again?" Orde asked.
"Again," the deputy replied.
The prisoner sat down, still looking at the floor, and began to pat his clothing for nonexistent cigarettes. Orde tossed the pack across the desk.
"Who'd he unveil it for this time?" he asked. "The League of Women Voters?"
"Rancher's wife out on the Dennison road." The deputy sighed and went over to the table to pour a cup of coffee. "I wish to Christ I had one I was that proud of."
The prisoner was now patting his pockets for matches. Orde tossed him the book. "Here." He shook his head as he rolled a new form into his typewriter and spoke in the tone of one addressing a wayward child.
"Wingy, someday you're going to wave that lily at some woman's got a cleaver in her hand, and she's going to chop it off and stuff it in your ear."
A phone rang. Orde punched a button on the desk and answered it. "Okay," he said. He looked over at Romstead and gestured toward the corridor. "That was Brubaker. Second door on the left."
"Thanks." Romstead let himself in through the gate in the railing and went up the hallway. The door was open. It was a small office. Brubaker was at the desk with his back to a closed Venetian blind, removing the contents of a thick manila folder. He stood up and held out his hand, a heavy, florid-faced man with spiky red hair graying at the temples. The handshake was brusque and his manner businesslike, but he smiled briefly as he waved toward the chair in front of the desk.
"You're a hard man to get hold of." He sat down, picked up his cigar from a tray on the desk, and leaned forward to study the material from the envelope. "We've been trying to run you down for two weeks."
"I was out of town," Romstead said. "I just got back last night."
"I know. We got your address from your father's attorney. We kept trying to call you and finally asked the San Francisco police to check your apartment. The manager said he didn't know where you were. Crowder's note here says you were on a boat somewhere. You a seaman, too?"
"No," Romstead replied. "Just some cruising and fishing in the Gulf of California. A friend of mine had a motor-sailer down there, and we brought it back to San Diego. I flew up to San Francisco last night, and your wire was waiting for me along with the other mail."
"So you were on this boat at the time? Where?"
"If it was two weeks ago, we'd have been somewhere around Cape San Lucas."
"The southern tip of Baja California."
"I see. What do you do for a living?"
"Nothing at the moment. I've been in Central America for the past twelve years but sold my business there about four months ago."
"And what was that?"
"Boats. I had the distributorship in Costa Rica for a line of fiber glass powerboats—runabouts, fishermen, cruisers, and so on."
"And when's the last time you saw your father?"
"About four years ago. I came up to Southern California to visit the plant, and his ship was in Long Beach. I went aboard, and we had a couple of drinks."
Excerpted from Man on a Leash by Charles Williams. Copyright © 1973 Charles Williams. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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