Watchers Page 10

She was so wrenchingly innocent of the world and its ways, so unaccustomed to dealing with people, that she couldn't function unless she restricted herself to the house, to a private world without human contact. She knew nothing about social interaction. She had not even been capable of holding a polite conversation with Garrison Dilworth, Aunt Violet's attorney-Nora's attorney now-during their meetings to settle the estate. She had answered his questions as succinctly as possible and had sat in his presence with her eyes downcast and her cold hands fidgeting in her lap, crushingly shy. Afraid of her own lawyer! If she couldn't deal with a kind man like Garrison Dilworth, how could she ever handle a beast like Art Streck? In the future, she wouldn't dare have a repairman in her home, no matter what broke down; she would just have to live in ever-worsening decay and ruin because the next man might be another Streck-or worse. In the tradition established by her aunt, Nora already had groceries delivered from a neighborhood market, so she did not have to go out to shop, but now she would be afraid to let the delivery boy into the house; he had never been the least aggressive, suggestive, or in any way insulting, but one day he might see the vulnerability that Streck had Seen

She hated Aunt Violet.

On the other hand, Violet had been right: Nora was a mouse. Like all mice, her destiny was to run, to hide, and to cower in the dark.

Her fury abated just as her cramps had done.

Loneliness took the place of anger, and she wept quietly.

Later, sitting with her back against the headboard, blotting her reddened eyes with Kleenex and blowing her nose, she bravely vowed not to become a recluse. Somehow she would find the strength and courage to venture out Into the world more than she'd done before. She would meet people. She would get to know the neighbors that Violet had more or less shunned. She would make friends. By God, she would. And she wouldn't let Streck intimidate her. She would learn how to handle other problems that came along as well, and in time she would be a different woman from the one she was now. A promise to herself. A sacred vow.

She considered unplugging the telephone, thus foiling Streck, but she was afraid she might need it. What if she woke, heard someone in the house, and was unable to plug in the phone fast enough?

Before turning out the lights and pulling up the covers, she closed the lockless bedroom door and braced it shut with the armchair, which she tilted under the knob. In bed, in the dark, she felt for the butcher's knife, which she'd placed on the nightstand, and she was reassured when she put her hand directly upon it without fumbling.

Nora lay on her back, eyes open, wide awake. Pale amber light from the streetlamps found its way through the shuttered windows. The ceiling was banded with alternating strips of black and faded gold, as if a tiger of infinite length were leaping over the bed in a jump that would never end. She wondered if she would ever sleep easily again.

She also wondered if she would find anyone who could care about her- and for her-out there in the bigger world that she had vowed to enter. Was there no one who could love a mouse and treat it gently?

Far away, a train whistle played a one-note dirge in the night. It was a hollow, cold, and mournful sound.


Vince Nasco had never been so busy. Or so happy.

When he called the usual Los Angeles number to report success at the Yarbeck house, he was referred to another public phone. This one was between a frozen-yogurt shop and a fish restaurant on Balboa Island in Newport Harbor.

There, he was called by the contact with the sexy, throaty, yet little-girl voice. She spoke circumspectly of murder, never using incriminating words but employing exotic euphemisms that would mean nothing in a court of law. She was calling from another pay phone, one she had chosen at random, so there was virtually no chance that either of them was tapped. But it was a Big Brother world where you didn't dare take risks.

The woman had a third job for him. Three in one day.

As Vince watched the evening traffic inching past on the narrow island street, the woman-whom he had never seen and whose name he didn't know-gave him the address of Dr. Albert Hudston in Laguna Beach. Hudston lived with his wife and a sixteen-year-old son. Both Dr. and Mrs. Hudston had to be hit; however, the boy's fate was in Vince's hands. If the kid could be kept out of it, fine. But if he saw Vince and could serve as a witness, he had to be eliminated, too.

“Your discretion,” the woman said.

Vince already knew that he would erase the kid, because killing was more useful to him, more energizing, if the victim was young. It had been a long time since he'd blown away a really young one, and the prospect excited him.

“I can only emphasize,” the contact said, driving Vince a little nuts with her breathy pauses, “that this option must be exercised with all due speed. We want the deal concluded tonight. By tomorrow, the competition will be aware of what we're trying to swing, and they'll get in our way.”

Vince knew the “competition” must be the police. He was being paid to kill three doctors in a single day-doctors, when he had never killed a doctor before-so he knew there was something that linked them, something the cops would pick up on when they found Weatherby in the trunk of his car and Elisabeth Yarbeck beaten to death in her bedroom. Vince didn't know what the link was because he never knew anything about the people he was hired to kill, and he didn't really want to know anything. It was safer that way. But the cops would link Weatherby with Yarbeck and both of them with Hudston, so if Vince did not get to Hudston tonight, the police would be providing the man with protection by tomorrow.

Vince said, “I wonder. . . do you want the option exercised in the same way as the other two deals today? You want a pattern?”

He was thinking maybe he should burn the Hudston house to the ground with them in it to cover the murders.

“No, we absolutely do want a pattern,” the woman said. “Same as the others. We want them to know we've been busy.”

“I see.”

“We want to tweak their noses,” she said, and laughed softly. “We want to rub in the salt.”

Vince hung up and walked to the Jolly Roger for dinner. He had vegetable soup, a hamburger, fries, onion rings, coleslaw, chocolate cake with ice cream, and (as an afterthought) apple pie, all of which he washed down with five cups of coffee. He was ordinarily a big eater, but his appetite increased dramatically after a job. In fact, when he finished the pie, he wasn't full. Understandable. In one busy day, he had absorbed the life energies of Davis Weatherby and the Yarbecks; he was overcharged, a racing engine. His metabolism was in high gear; he would need more fuel for a while, until his body stored the excess life energies in biological batteries for future use.

The ability to absorb the very life force of his victim was the Gift that made him different from all other men. Because of the Gift, he would always be Strong, vital, alert. He would live forever.

He had never divulged the secret of his splendid Gift to the throaty-voiced Woman or to any of the people for whom he worked. Few people were imaginative and open-minded enough to consider seriously such an amazing talent. Vince kept it to himself because he was afraid they'd think he was crazy.

Outside the restaurant, he stood on the sidewalk for a while, just breathing deeply, savoring the crisp sea air. A chilly night wind blew off the harbor, sweeping scrap paper and purple jacaranda blossoms along the pavement.

Vince felt terrific. He believed he was as much of an elemental force as were the sea and wind.

From Balboa Island, he drove south to Laguna Beach. At eleven-twenty, he parked his van across the street from the Hudston house. It was in the hills, a single-story home slung on a steep slope to take advantage of ocean views. He saw lights in a couple of windows.

He climbed between the seats and sat down in the back of the van, out of sight, to wait until all of the Hudstons had gone to bed. Soon after leaving the Yarbeck house, he had changed out of his blue suit into gray slacks, a white shirt, a maroon sweater, and a dark-blue nylon jacket. Now, in the darkness, he had nothing to do except take his weapons out of a cardboard box, where they were hidden beneath two loaves of bread, a four-roll package of toilet tissue, and other items that gave the impression he had just been to the market.

The Walther P-38 was fully loaded. After finishing the job at the Yarbeck house, he had screwed a fresh silencer onto the barrel, one of the new short ones that, thanks to the high-tech revolution, was half the length of older models. He set the gun aside.

He had a six-inch switchblade knife. He put it in the right front pocket of his trousers.

When he had wound the wire garrote into a tight coil, he tucked it into the left inside pocket of his jacket.

He had a sap weighted with lead pellets. That went into his right exterior jacket pocket.

He did not expect to use anything but the gun. However, he liked to be prepared for any eventuality.

On some jobs he had used an Uzi submachine gun that had been illegally converted for automatic fire. But the current assignment did not require heavy armament.

He also had a small leather packet, half the size of a shaving kit, which contained a few simple burglary tools. He did not bother to inspect those instruments. He might not even need them because a lot of people were amazingly lax about home security, leaving doors and windows unlocked during the night, as if they believed they were living in a nineteenth-century Quaker village.

At eleven-forty he leaned between the front seats and looked through the side window at the Hudston house. All the lights were out. Good. They were in bed.

To give them time to fall asleep, he sat down in the back of the van again, ate a Mr. Goodbar, and thought about how he'd spend some of the substantial fees that he had earned just since this morning.

He'd been wanting a power ski, one of those clever machines that made it possible to water-ski without a boat. He was an ocean lover. Something about

the sea drew him; he felt at home in the tides and was most fully alive when be was moving in harmony with great, surging, dark masses of water. He enjoyed scuba diving, windsailing, and surfing. His teenage years had been spent more on the beach than in school. He still rode the board now and then, when the surf was high. But he was twenty-eight, and surfing now seemed tame to him. He wasn't as easily thrilled as he had once been. He liked speed these days. He pictured himself skimming over a slate-dark sea on power skis, hammered by the wind, jolted by an endless series of impacts with eternally incoming breakers, riding the Pacific as a rodeo cowboy would ride a bronco .

At twelve-fifteen he got out of the van. He tucked the pistol under the waistband of his trousers and crossed the silent, deserted street to the Hudston house. He let himself through an unlocked wooden gate onto a side patio brightened only by moonlight filtered through the leafy branches of an enormous sheltering coral tree.

He paused to pull on a pair of supple leather gloves.

Mirrored by moonbeams, a sliding glass door connected the patio with the living room. It was locked. A penlight, extracted from the packet of burglary tools, also revealed a wooden pole laid in the interior track of the door to prevent it from being forced.

The Hudstons were more security-conscious than most people, but Vince was unconcerned. He fixed a small suction cup to the glass, used a diamond cutter to carve a circle in the pane near the door handle, and quietly removed the cutout with the cup. He reached through the hole and disengaged the lock. He cut another circle near the sill, reached inside, and removed the wooden pole from the track, pushing it under the drawn drapes, into the room beyond.

He did not have to worry about dogs. The woman with the sexy voice had told him that the Hudstons had no house pets. That was one reason why he liked working for these particular employers: their information was always extensive and accurate.

Easing the door open, he slipped through the closed drapes into the dark living room. He stood for a moment, letting his eyes adjust to the gloom, listening. The house was tomb-silent.

He found the boy's room first. It was illuminated by the green glow of the numerals on a digital clock-radio. The teenager was lying on his side, snoring softly. Sixteen. Very young. Vince liked them very young.

He moved around the bed and crouched along the side of it, face-to-face With the sleeper. With his teeth, he pulled the glove off his left hand. Holding the pistol in his right hand, he touched the muzzle to the underside of the boy's chin.

The kid woke at once.

Vince slapped his bare hand firmly against the boy's forehead and simultaneously fired the gun. The bullet smashed up through the soft underside of the kid's chin, through the roof of his mouth, into his brain, killing him instantly.


An intense charge of life energy burst out of the dying body and into Vince. It was such pure, vital energy that he whimpered with pleasure as he felt it surge into him.

For a while he crouched beside the bed, not trusting himself to move. Transported. Breathless. At last, in the dark he kissed the dead boy on the lips and said, “I accept. Thank you. I accept.”

He crept cat-swift, cat-silent through the house and quickly found the master bedroom. Sufficient light was provided by another digital clock with green numerals and the soft glow of a night-light coming through the open bathroom door. Dr. and Mrs. Hudston were both asleep. Vince killed her first- Ssssnap.

-without waking her husband. She slept in the nude, so after he received her sacrifice, he put his head to her bare br**sts and listened to the stillness of her heart. He kissed her ni**les and murmured, “Thank you.”

When he circled the bed, turned on a nightstand lamp, and woke Dr. Hudston, the man was at first confused. Until he saw his wife's staring, sightless eyes. Then he shouted and grabbed for Vince's arm, and Vince clubbed him over the head twice with the butt of the gun.

Vince dragged the unconscious Hudston, who also slept in the nude, into the bathroom. Again, he found adhesive tape, with which he was able to bind the doctor's wrists and ankles.

He filled the tub with cold water and wrestled Hudston into it. That frigid bath revived the doctor.

In spite of being na*ed and bound, Hudston tried to push up out of the cold water, tried to launch himself at Vince.

Vince hit him in the face with the pistol and shoved him down into the tub again.

“Who are you? What do you want?” Hudston spluttered as his face came up out of the water.

“I've killed your wife and your son, and I'm going to kill you.”

Hudston's eyes seemed to sink back into his damp, pasty face. “Jimmy? Oh, not Jimmy, really, no.”

“Your boy is dead,” Vince insisted. “I blew his brains out.”

At the mention of his son, Hudston broke. He did not burst into tears, did not begin to keen, nothing as dramatic as that. But his eyes went dead- blink-just that abruptly. Like a light going out. He stared at Vince, but there was no fear or anger in him any more.

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