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What of Terry Coniston?
By Brian Garfield
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1971 Brian Garfield
All rights reserved.
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.
The file didn't give away much. He sorted photos, scrutinizing their faces one by one.
Georgie Rymer, Floyd's brother. Wire-thin, pouched eyes, gaunt features with a bovine expression. According to the notes Georgie was a hopeless heroin addict who'd been in and out of institutions. In the photo he stood hollow-chested over his string bass, used up, a mere bookmark to indicate the place where a man had once been.
Theodore Luke, the drummer, perched heavy on his throne behind a set of drums and cymbals: a thick muscular grotesque, his face averted in all the photos. It was a disfigured, wrecked face, the result of a childhood car crash and inept plastic surgery.
Mitchell Baird, guitar: a newcomer, shown only in the most recent of the stills. He stood, a bit awkward, off to one side of the bandstand, aware he was still an outsider. Mitch Baird was twenty-three, the youngest of them. Chunky, sandy-haired, nice-looking in a varsity way: an aimless college dropout from a decent family. Orozco's stringers had traced him easily. He had drifted into trouble, joining a folk-rock band in New Mexico, getting busted at an afterhours party for possession of marijuana. First offenses usually rated suspended sentences but Mitch Baird had been unlucky: he had drawn a stiff-necked superior court judge who'd imposed a six-month sentence on him. Evidently a junkie in prison had steered him to the Rymers and he had joined the band a month or two ago in Tucson.
The only picture of the fifth member of the gang was a blurred old snapshot from a small-town junior high school album. She had been fourteen, looking eighteen; she was twenty-four now. Her name was Billie Jean Brown. The snapshot made it hard to tell; she looked plump, an unattractive girl with colorless hair and large breasts, a pouting mouth, small eyes set close together. Her relationship to the four men in the band was uncertain and if she belonged exclusively to any one of them it had escaped Orozco's detectives. Possibly a groupie—community property, a camp-follower passed from hand to hand by the four musicians.
What sort of eerie luck had brought these five to kidnap Terry Conniston at just the right point in time to create an advantage for Oakley?
Orozco came up from the barn. The car swayed when he got in. He closed the door and wiped his face, and held one hand palm-out toward the blast of the air-conditioner. "Feels good."
"You didn't find anything."
Orozco opened his right hand. In the palm were two objects: an inch-long piece of black-rubber tubing and a folded packet of oilpaper the size of a paper matchbook.
Oakley said, "Heroin?"
Oakley took the oilpaper from him and had a look. "Yes."
"Dorty stuff," Orozco said. "Why you figure they lef' it behind?"
"They wouldn't have had any more use for it, would they?"
Orozco shrugged. Oakley said, "What's that other thing?"
"Strip of rubber insulation from a wire."
"Yeah. Maybe they had ignition trouble with one of the cars."
"That tells us a lot," Oakley grumbled. "All right, let's put more men to work in Mexico. They must have left a trail."
"Cost you more money," Orozco said. "Pretty soon you'll use up enough to cover the whole damn ransom."
"That would take twenty years. A half million dollars, Diego?"
"Okay. Listen, Carl, we got to have a talk about the ranch."
"It ain't Conniston's now."
"That's right. It's mine."
"It ain't yours," Orozco murmured. "It belongs to them chicanos."
Oakley put the big car in gear and rolled into the central powder of the street. "I've got other things on my mind, Diego. Some other time."
"We been hearing that for a honnerd years—'some other time.'"
"We'll talk about it when we get this business settled." The tires crunched pebbles; the air-conditioner thrummed softly. The Cadillac gathered speed on the road going north, laying back a plume of dust. Oakley had a sour pain in his stomach. He kept wondering about the three who had survived, the three who had got away with the five hundred thousand dollars. Had they gone in a bunch or separated?
And what of Terry Conniston?CHAPTER 2
For Mitch Baird it began not with the kidnapping but with the liquor store incident.
Mitch had been nervous all day. The band had been out of work for two weeks and he had joined only a few weeks before that, and a trio was easier to sell than a quartet, and if anybody had to be sacrificed, he'd be it. He needed a job and jobs were hard to find.
Mitch drove the old Pontiac into the shopping center lot and parked in front of the liquor store. Floyd Rymer said, "Let's just stop in a minute and get a bottle of tiger sweat." Floyd got out of the car and walked inside and because it was too hot to sit in the car Mitch followed him in.
There were two customers in the place, a man and a girl, not together. Floyd Rymer looked at each of them, looked at the clerk, and stopped to browse a Cutty Sark display, waiting for the customers to leave. Mitch looked out the window, thinking it might be a good idea to quit before he got fired. Pull up stakes and try somewhere else—San Francisco maybe, or Las Vegas.
He picked at the front of his shirt, pulling it loose from his chest and enjoying the store's frigid air-cooling. Outside it was a sultry August evening, thick with sweat. The low sun threw shards of painful brightness that drenched the shopping center in deep surrealist hues. A light traffic of air-conditioned cars, windows up, whistled along the boulevard, pulling in and out of gas stations, car lots, pizzarias, Fat Boy drive-ins. Nothing moved very fast; the hour before sunset was the worst time for driving. Tucson was laid out east to west and driving the boulevards put the blinding sun in everyone's eyes. If you weren't driving into it you were driving into fragmented reflections from the brittle chrome and plate glass that lined the strip city's thoroughfares.
One of the customers, a potbelly in a T-shirt, counted his change and wedged a six-pack of beer under his arm and left. The other customer, the plump-hipped girl with hair in curlers, was having a sotto voce conversation with the pimply counter clerk. The clerk said something gruff; the girl turned to leave. She stopped at the door and said, "Now don't be late pickin' me up, hear?"
The girl reached for the door handle. Her glance went by Floyd Rymer, stopped, went back to him—an automatic female appraisal. Floyd had that effect on them—it annoyed Mitch, it heightened his feeling of being left out of something important. Mitch was not bad-looking; why should the girl look twice at Floyd but not at him?
Floyd's amused self-assured eyes met the girl's; the girl sucked her lip and looked awkwardly away. She hurried out, hips churning.
The clerk said, "How about the boobs on her?"
Floyd said, "Big tits make them look like cows."
"That's your opinion. How're you makin' it, Floyd?"
"Alas," said Floyd, and spread his hands before him.
"I've been expecting you to drop by."
Floyd smiled with his teeth and shaped his right hand into a mock pistol—thumb up, index finger pointed at the clerk, the other fingers curled back. "It's time, Leroy."
The clerk's acned face shifted toward Mitch: "What about him?"
"He's with me."
Mitch said, "What?"
Floyd ignored him and wagged his pistol-finger at the clerk. "Empty it out, Leroy."
The clerk edged behind the cash register and hit the No Sale key. The drawer slid open with a tinkle and clack. Floyd said, "Have a look out the window, Mitch, see if anyone's coming this way."
"Look, we're robbing the store. We don't want to be interrupted, do we."
"Wait a minute—we're what?"
"We're wasting wind," Floyd said and backed up two paces to look past Mitch through the window. "Go ahead, Leroy, it'll be all right."
The clerk shook open a paper bag and scooped cash into it from the register drawer. He pushed the drawer shut, furtive in haste; handed the bag to Floyd and stepped swiftly away.
"How much?" Floyd asked.
"About seven hundred." Leroy bit a fingernail. "I don't guess you'll forget what to do with my share."
Floyd gave him a dry look and said after a moment, "You remember what we looked like?"
"There was three of them, Officer. This great big guy had the gun. They had nylon stockings or something over their faces but I'm sure they was Mexicans. I seen them take off in a green pickup truck."
Excerpted from What of Terry Coniston? by Brian Garfield. Copyright © 1971 Brian Garfield. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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