Carmel, California, February. The man, windbreaker open at the top, exposing his thick neck, forced the screaming girl inside the one-storey log cabin. One large hand gripped her long blonde hair, the other shoved at the small of her back.
Joel Dyson, one-time society journalist, now a successful member of the notorious international paparazzi, crouched in the undergrowth at the edge of the clearing in the wood. His film camera was aimed at the struggling man and woman as they disappeared through the open door. He had their faces perfectly recorded on film.
The cabin door slammed shut from the inside. The crude edifice was perched in the centre of the clearing, shut off from the outside world by the dense screen of encircling trees. The shutters were closed across the windows but Dyson could still hear the girl's screams of terror.
He glanced down at the ground where his tape recorder was in motion, the revolving tape registering the horrific screaming which suddenly stopped. Had the man struck her in the face to shut her up? There was a loaded pause which Dyson found more disturbing than what he had seen and heard earlier. The stillness of the wintry forest had a menacing atmosphere. Something warned Dyson the silence was ominous.
He had his film camera ready for another close-up when the cabin door opened. He expected two people to emerge, but only the man appeared. He came out, closed the door, rammed a key into the lock, turned it, tossed the key on to the roof. Why had he done that?
The answer surfaced a moment later as smoke drifted out from behind one of the shutters, then the window burst into flames. God! He was leaving her there to burn to ashes. Dyson caught the expression on the man's face, a look of vicious satisfaction, his skin streaming with sweat despite the cold of the early morning. Instinct made Dyson switch off the recorder, haul the tape free, ram it into the pocket of his duffle coat. The man was staring towards Dyson's hiding place. Grabbing a gun from inside his belt, he walked slowly towards where Dyson was crouching.
Had he detected some movement? Dyson had the man's face in his film lens again and the expression was grim, determined. A full-length shot now, showing the gun. Dyson saw the cabin suddenly flare into a raging inferno. Roof ablaze, about to collapse on the girl inside who must be unconscious, maybe dead? The quiet crackle of the flames erupted into a roar.
The man paused, glanced back. Dyson's camera had recorded his initial advance, the pause, the cabin flaring into a funeral pyre. The man turned towards the undergrowth, began that familiar slow deliberate tread. Time to get the hell out of it. Alive if possible. Dyson was thoroughly scared.
Still crouching, he backed away from the undergrowth screen. Camera looped over his shoulder, the tape nestling safely in his pocket. He reached a copse of trees, stood up, resisted the temptation to run. The ground was littered with dry leaves. For the moment his flight was covered by the powerful roar of the dying cabin. He had to get as far away as possible before his flight made too much noise. It was a long way to his Chevy parked inside the woods out of sight of the nearby road.
He paused, heard the deliberate tramp of heavy feet on the leaves behind him coming closer. And there would be others the man could call on – if he dared risk that. On the edge of panic Dyson reached the foot of a tall pine tree. No one ever thinks of looking up.
'It's my last chance to survive…'
Dyson said the words to himself as he shinned agilely from branch to branch. Higher and higher. He had to reach the cover of the foliage. Clawing at branches he heaved himself inside the prickly cover, straddled a stout branch with both legs, waited, terrified.
Through a small hole in the dense screen he could see down to the base of the giant pine. The man appeared, wiped sweat off his left hand on his denims, his right hand gripping the. 38 Police Special. Dyson froze when the man paused at the base of the pine, head cocked to one side, listening. In the next minute Joel Dyson knew he could be dead, his body toppling down through the network of branches until it landed at the killer's feet. With the film camera looped over his arm, the tape in his pocket. It would be all over.
The cold was penetrating Dyson's duffle coat, his hands were frozen. The man below seemed impervious to the temperature made worse by trails of a mist off the Pacific Ocean which were now drifting amid the trees. Dyson forced himself to remain motionless. He'd begun to wonder whether his actions had been worth it – even for so great a potential prize, a vast fortune.
For a few seconds his thoughts filled his mind paralysed with fear. He looked down, blinked. The man had gone. He heard the heavy footsteps withdrawing, crunching dried leaves, retreating towards the cabin which must now be a pile of smoking embers.
Dyson checked his watch. 8 a.m. He compelled himself to stay motionless in his hiding place for half an hour. The man could have set a trap, moving away a short distance and then waiting. But in the deathly silence of the mist-bound forest Dyson had heard the sinister footsteps fading away and no sound of anyone returning.
'Move now,' he told himself, 'before he seals off the whole area…'
Despite the veils of grey mist Dyson had no trouble making his way back to the parked Chevy. He walked rapidly, treading on soft moss wherever he could. At intervals he paused, listening for any signs of pursuit. Nothing. He hurried towards the parked car.
As he threaded his way between the tree-trunks Dyson came alive again, thinking furiously. The nearest airport was San Francisco International. But they'd be watching and waiting there, he felt sure. Far safer to drive the much longer route south through California to Los Angeles Airport. The all-powerful forces the man controlled wouldn't expect him to take that route.
From LA he could catch a flight to London. There he could transfer to another flight direct to Zurich in Switzerland. Julius Amberg, president of the Zurcher Kredit Bank, owed him. Dyson's mind went back several years.
Bob Newman, the famous international foreign correspondent, had done him a bigger favour than he'd realized at the time. Dyson had taken some embarrassing photos of Amberg with his mistress in Geneva. He'd been going to sell them to Der Spiegel. Amberg was hitting the headlines at that time, acting as go-between in a big financial takeover.
'Give those pics to Amberg,' Newman had urged. 'He is a powerful man and you might need his help one day. Forget the money just for once, Joel – important allies are worth their weight in gold…'
Reluctantly, Dyson had agreed. Now Amberg could repay the 'debt' by holding the film and the tape in his vault. What safer place in the world to hide a fortune?
As he came closer to his Chevy Dyson checked in his mind any loopholes in his plan. He voiced his thoughts aloud in a bare whisper.
'The Chevy was hired in Salinas. They'll take time tracing the car, the description and registration number. I'll dump it in LA. By the time they track it I'll be long gone…'
He approached the concealed vehicle cautiously. They might just have found it. God knew there were enough of them – and professionals to their fingertips…
An hour later he was driving south along the coastal highway, crossing the bridge at Big Sur. Hardly any traffic. To his right the wind off the ocean blew against the side of the car. Huge waves created a curtain of white surf rising thirty feet high. Dyson had reached Santa Barbara when the shock hit him.
The tape recorder! In his haste to escape the man he had left the machine on the ground. It wouldn't take them long to visit his insurance company – to check the serial number of the machine with his insurance policy. Jesus! They'd then have a positive identification of who had crouched in the undergrowth near the cabin. Up to that moment Dyson had half-cherished the illusion it would take them time to finger him.
It was a very worried Joel Dyson who reached Los Angeles, crawled with the traffic, handed in his Chevy and took a cab to the airport. Here he walked into another piece of bad luck.