Authors: Helen Nielsen
a division of F+W Media, Inc.
For Rex Dale Tranter
HE GLASS AND
steel shaft of the new Pacific Guaranty Savings and Loan building soared an impressive 50 floors into the smog above one of southern California’s most promising earthquake faults. Characteristic of its age, it could only be described as an architectural triumph of the school of contemporary affluence. In the teak panelled office of the president, Bernard Amling sat behind the expanse of his uncluttered desk and watched the digital clock record the hour: 4.25. It was time to get started. He touched a button on the inter-com.
“Mary, can you spare a minute?” he asked.
There was no answer. After several seconds he released the button and tried another.
“Paul, is Mary in your office?”
Again there was no response. Amling’s fingers moved to the last button on the machine. This time the acknowledgment was almost instantaneous.
“Garage, Mr Amling. Are you ready for your car?”
“Not yet, Karl,” Amling said, “but it’s nice to know there’s still someone in the building. Has Miss Sutton left for the day?”
“Miss Sutton? She sure has, Mr Amling. About twenty minutes ago. She said something about wanting to get up to Mammoth before a new snow closed the highway. The weathermen on my TV down here just predicted four or five inches over the weekend.”
“Mammoth,” Amling repeated. “I should have thought of that. Mary’s a real ski buff—and I’m sure that’s why I couldn’t raise Mr Corman on the inter-com either.”
The garage man emitted a knowing chuckle. “That’s right, Mr Amling. Mr Corman pulled out about five minutes after Miss Sutton. Everywhere that Mary goes—”
“I’m aware of the office gossip, Karl. Now listen, you will be on duty Monday morning, won’t you?”
“Where else? Seventeen years on the job and only three days absent when my wife died—”
“I’ll take your word for it. I haven’t been with Pacific as long as you have. Now here’s what I want to tell you. I’ve got to make a quick trip to Mexico City tonight. Something’s come up at the monetary conference. I should be back before the end of next week if all goes well. When Miss Sutton comes in on Monday, I want you to tell her that I have a special file for the SEC men in my office safe. She has the combination.”
“SEC men,” Karl repeated slowly. He must have been writing it all down.
“Miss Sutton knows they are coming,” Amling added. “They may not make it until my return, but you can’t keep the federal government waiting. In the event they do come Miss Sutton will have all the information they want in that file.”
“Got it!” Karl responded. “But, Mr Amling, there’s just one thing. Mr McClary’s car is still down here. He must be in his office if you want to call him.”
“I don’t want to call him, Karl. Mr McClary heads the real estate division. He knows nothing about securities. All I want is for you to give my message to Miss Sutton. And Karl, you might as well go on home now. It’s Friday. We’ve closed for the day.”
“Thank you, Mr Amling,” Karl said, “but I’m in no hurry. I’ve got nothing much to go home to and there’s this sportscaster on the TV here—”
Amling switched off the inter-com connection and pushed back his chair. When he walked to the window he could see the threatening sky that bore out the promise of snow in the mountains and, probably, rain in the city. He remembered the eagerness with which Carole, his wife, had forced the raincoat on him when he left the house nine hours earlier. It was the new one—black, lightweight and trench style. A birthday present from his sons.
“They’ve been listening to the weather reports for two weeks, just waiting for even a hint of rain. You’ve got to take it, Barney, even if you only carry it on your arm.”
And so he had slipped it on over his dark-grey business suit, added a charcoal fedora with the brim snapped at an exaggerated angle and snarled, Bogart fashion, “Play it again, Sam”. He could still hear ten-year-old Jake’s shrieks of laughter and see the almost smile on Kevin’s boyish but going-on-sixteen face.
Amling went to his personal closet and took out the raincoat, folded it carefully and placed it over the back of an upholstered side chair. He then took from the closet an ever-packed garment-bag that always hung in preparation for emergency trips. He lowered the zipper enough to check the contents: a midnight-blue suit that could double as a tuxedo, a tweed sports coat and a pair of slacks. Two pairs of shoes were in the bottom of the bag, shirts and a change of underwear in the inner pocket, shaving and dental aids in the outside flap. Closing the bag, he hung it over the chair with the raincoat. He took down his hat from the shelf and placed it on his head at a normal angle that left a fringe of blond hair showing at his ears, and then, from the back of the closet, he removed a brown cowhide flight-bag that was already packed and locked. He placed the bag on the carpeted floor next to the chair.
He returned to his desk and opened the top drawer. From this drawer he took a passport and an airline ticket still enclosed in the airline envelope. These he placed in the inside pocket of his jacket. He took out his wallet and checked the contents: ten crisp $100 notes and two twenties. He pocketed the wallet and compared his wrist watch to the desk clock: 4.33.
He looked over his desk one last time and then picked up the large silver watch case that had been his father’s before it was converted into a two-panel picture frame. One of the pictures was a snapshot he had taken of Carole on their eighteenth wedding anniversary last May. It was surprising how little she had changed since their marriage. The other snap was one of the boys together with Jake grinning happily and Kevin giving an unconscious impression of John Wayne just before cleaning out the saloon. He snapped the case shut and tried to fit it into his breast pocket but the new reading glasses were in the way. He tucked it inside a vest pocket where it didn’t even make a bulge.
He stared at the telephone for several seconds and then decided in favour of the call. He dialled his own number and waited. It was Kevin who answered on the fourth ring.
“Oh, it’s you, Dad,” Kevin said when he recognized the voice.
“I’d like to speak to your mother,” Amling said.
“You can’t. She’s out. She had to take Jake to the dentist and they haven’t come back yet. Can I give her a message?”
“You can,” Amling said. “Tell her that I have to make an emergency flight tonight. I’ll be back early next week.”
“She won’t like that. You were going to that country club thing tomorrow night.”
“I know, but this can’t wait. Tell her to call Eric and go with him. And Kevin, while I’m away, take care.”
“Oh, wow!” Kevin muttered.
“I mean it. I’m leaving you in charge of the family. Remember that.”
“Hey, how far are you going on this flight—to Peking or Moscow?”
“All right, so I came on heavy,” Amling admitted. “Just hang loose. Does that sound better?”
Amling put down the telephone quickly because he didn’t want to talk to Kevin any more. He was glad, in a way, that Carole hadn’t been at home when he called because it would have been more difficult to explain the trip to her and he didn’t have much time. He stood then, for a moment, taking stock of his desk and the office, a kind of mental inventory to see if he was forgetting any needed thing. Not that silver-framed photo, surely, of a Barney Amling of fifteen years ago in a pro-football uniform with his arm drawn back to rifle a pass to some unseen receiver halfway down the length of the field. Barney Amling with the cocky grin, too much hair and two good legs that had made him one of the fastest running backs in the history of the game. He didn’t need the trophies and plaques that had stood him in good stead in the business world after his left leg was shattered in a mid-field collision that ended his gridiron career when Kevin was still in rompers. He had room for only one more piece of equipment for this journey.
He took a key chain out of his pocket and unlocked the lower drawer of the desk. From it he took a .38 Smith and Wesson revolver with a two-inch barrel. He checked the cartridge chamber, found it fully loaded, and slipped the gun into his jacket pocket.
Four minutes later, Amling stepped out of the automatic elevator at the garage level and walked towards the silver Continental that was parked a few yards beyond the attendant’s glass-enclosed office. He carried the raincoat and garment bag over his left arm and the flight-bag in his right hand. He limped slightly walking on the cement—the limp was rarely noticeable on the deep carpeting of his office—and felt the gnawing pain in his knee that always came back with the rainy season.
The door to the garage-attendant’s office stood open and the sportscast on the portable TV was in progress. Karl stepped to the door and called out:
“Mr Amling, let me help you with your bags.”
“No need,” Amling called back. “Everything’s under control.”
He reached the Continental, unlocked the trunk and tossed the flight-bag and the wardrobe inside. He locked the trunk and was getting into the front seat of the car when Karl turned up the volume on the TV set.
“… this is the boy the old-timers are calling another Barney Amling,” the sportscaster was saying, “so you can’t belittle this squad’s chances at the Rose Bowl. He’s as fast as Amling at his prime and his completed passes are almost up to Barney’s record …”
“Did you hear that Mr Amling?” Karl yelled. “They haven’t forgotten you.”
Amling grinned, waved his hand and then slammed the car door on the distraction. Karl resumed an attitude of rapt obeisance before the television screen as the Continental nosed its way out of the garage.
• • •
It was misting by the time Amling reached the freeway. He switched on the windshield wipers three times during the drive to the Harbor Heights development. It was a 30-minute trip under the best of circumstances and so this journey took a bit longer. But it was still light enough when he reached the gates to the construction area for the guard in the gatehouse to recognize him and wave a gesture of admittance. The mist had stopped but the sky was still grey and mobile over the wind-lashed sea that came into view as the Continental neared its destination. The development was half completed. The cheaper houses had been built months ago and most of them were already sold. “Cheaper” in Vincent Pucci’s terms was a base price of $59,000 and up. The $75,000 houses were all on the ocean side of the highway and most of these were in the framing stage. Amling drove past these and angled down a new road to the Shoreside section where the high-rise condominiums the zoning board had fought in vain, as every legal action against Pucci was fought in vain, were now under construction. Work had stopped for the weekend. Heavy equipment was scattered across the terrain waiting a Monday morning resumption of use, and a large cement mixer stood ready in the unpaved section of what would be a huge parking-lot. Amling parked near the edge of the pavement and got out of the car.
Because it wasn’t raining at the moment, he left the raincoat folded on the front seat next to the hat he had removed while driving. He closed the car door and surveyed his surroundings. He was the first to arrive and that gave him an advantage. The only evidence of life in the vicinity was the gateman, now out of sight behind the last rise, and, in the opposite direction, one of the old frame houses that once dotted the shoreline about 300 yards away. This last holdout against Pucci’s bulldozers gave evidence of occupancy by the vibrating rock rhythm that now reverberated across the beach. Amling knew the property. It was owned by an ageing spinster who not only refused to sell to Pucci but insulted the dignity of his project by leasing the premises to a group of pop musicians. Condemnation proceedings were under way but the group was hard at work with all amplifiers on the go, and Amling smiled at the thought of a group of kids not much older than Kevin challenging the might of Pucci’s millions. He didn’t like Pucci. There were rumours that he had underworld connections, and he did operate with the ruthless confidence of a man who knew where and how to apply pressure. He obtained building materials when they were unobtainable by other contractors; he got building permits and quick, approving inspections that indicated palms were being crossed with bribe money whenever necessary. But Vincent Pucci’s credit was unimpeachable. Pacific Guaranty had never lost a dime on him, and that was more than many Savings and Loan associations could say about investments in the late sixties. These new apartments would sell. Corporations would buy them to house visiting clients; individuals would buy for residence or investment. There was only so much coastline property and, sooner or later, the landlocked sought the sea. When they sought, they would pay Pucci’s prices.
That was the way of the business world and nobody knew it better than Barney Amling who, if not for that leg injury that ended his first career, might at this time of his life be coaching one of those elevens vying for a chance at the Rose Bowl. He would have liked that better than what he was now doing. What he was doing was waiting in the gloomy twilight for the man he had to kill.
Barney Amling had never deliberately killed anyone before. He was in college when the Korean mess got under way, and deferment was easy to come by for a star athlete who could fill the stadium every Saturday. He had gone into pro’ football directly after graduation and married Carole as soon as the ink was dry on his contract. His aggressions had gone into socially acceptable channels, and that made him one of the lucky ones. He thought about that as he walked to the edge of the paved area and tested the earth with his toe. There had been just enough rain to make it accessible to the spade in the trunk of his car. It was worked and ready for the paving that would be poured on Monday according to Pucci’s undeviating schedule.
He turned around and looked back at the road by which any car would have to approach the site. He was completely calm. It was like in the old days when he dropped back to throw a long pass with the certain sense that he could do whatever was required of the moment. Nothing was coming up the road but he did hear the wail of sirens coming from the direction of the highway. Instead of receding in the distance the sound grew louder. Whatever the source—ambulance, fire engine, or police car—it had turned in at the Pucci building site gate and was approaching the beach. Once past the gateman’s post, the road forked in opposite directions—one branch leading to the area where Amling waited and the other sloping off towards the old frame house on the shore. He ran across the parking-lot and climbed up on a section of foundation framing where he could see the beach from a better perspective. One police car had already come to a screeching halt near the entrance to the house. Two more were close behind. Men spilled out of the cars—uniformed police and plainclothes officers—and converged on the source of rock music that blended with the dying sounds of the sirens. Someone shouted. The door to the house burst open and the police poured inside. Moments later a skinny lad with long hair ran from the rear of the house and sprinted up the beach. There was a shouted warning followed by a pistol shot, but the boy still ran. One of the plainclothes officers took up the chase. When the runners on the beach disappeared from view, Amling climbed up to the next level of foundation forms and tried to locate them again. The boy must have found cover in the scraggy brush that lined the cliff above the strand. Neither he nor his pursuer could be seen. But no more sounds of music came from the old house and the police cars, nosed like so many hunting dogs with quarry at bay, sat silent with only the flashing of their roof lights to indicate a raid was in progress.