Watchers Page 12

Near dawn he came half awake and realized that Einstein was at the bedroom window again, keeping watch. He murmured the retriever's name and wearily patted the mattress. But Einstein remained on guard, and Travis drifted off once more.



The day following her encounter with Art Streck, Nora Devon went for a long walk, intending to explore parts of the city that she had never seen before. She had taken short walks with Violet once a week. Since the old woman's death, Nora still went out, though less often, and she never ventured farther than six or eight blocks from home. Today, she would go much farther. This was to be the first small step in a long journey toward liberation and self-respect.

Before setting out, she considered having a light lunch later at a restaurant chosen at random along the way. But she had never been in a restaurant. The prospect of dealing with a waiter and dining in the company of strangers was daunting. Instead, she packed one apple, one orange, and two oatmeal cookies in a small paper bag. She would eat lunch alone, in a park somewhere. Even that would be revolutionary. One small step at a time.

The sky was clear. The air was warm. With vivid green spring growth, the trees looked fresh; they stirred in a breeze just strong enough to take the searing edge off the hot sunlight.

As Nora strolled past the well-kept houses, the vast majority of which were in one style of Spanish architecture or another, she looked at doors and windows with a new curiosity, wondering about the people who lived within. Were they happy? Sad? In love? What music and books did they enjoy? What food? Were they planning vacations to exotic places, evenings at the theater, visits to nightclubs?

She had never wondered about them before because she had known their lives and hers would never cross. Wondering about them would have been a waste of time and effort. But now.

When she encountered other walkers, she kept her head down and averted her face, as she had always done before, but after a while she found the Courage to look at some of them. She was surprised when many smiled at her and said hello. In time, she was even more surprised when she heard herself respond.

At the county courthouse she paused to admire the yellow blossoms of the Yucca plants and the rich red bougainvillea that climbed the stucco wall and twined through the ornate wrought-iron grille over one of the tall windows.

At the Santa Barbara Mission, built in 1815, she stood at the foot of the

front steps and studied the handsome façade of the old church. She explored the courtyard with its Sacred Garden and climbed the west bell tower.

Gradually, she began to understand why, in some of the many books she had read, Santa Barbara had been called one of the most beautiful places on earth. She had lived there nearly all her life, but because she had cowered in the Devon house with Violet and, on venturing out, had looked at little more than her own shoes, she was seeing the town for the first time. It both charmed and thrilled her.

At one o'clock, in Alameda Park within sight of the pond, she sat on a bench near three ancient and massive date palms. Her feet were getting sore, but she did not intend to go home early. She opened the paper bag and began lunch with the yellow apple. Never had anything tasted half as delicious. Famished, she quickly ate the orange, too, dropping the pieces of peel into the bag, and she was starting on the first of the oatmeal cookies when Art Streck sat down beside her.

“Hello, prettiness.”

He was wearing only blue running shorts, running shoes, and thick white athletic socks. However, he clearly hadn't been running, for he wasn't sweating. He was muscular with a broad chest, deeply tanned, exceedingly masculine. The whole purpose of his attire was to display his physique, so Nora at once averted her eyes.

“Shy?” he asked.

She could not speak because the bite she had taken from the oatmeal cookie was stuck in her mouth. She couldn't work up any saliva. She was afraid she would choke if she tried to swallow the piece of cookie, but she couldn't very well just spit it out.

“My sweet, shy Nora,” Streck said.

Looking down, she saw how badly her right hand was trembling. The cookie was being shaken to pieces in her fingers; bits of it dropped onto the paving between her feet.

She had told herself that she would go for a daylong walk as a first step toward liberation, but now she had to admit there had been another reason for getting out of the house. She had been trying to avoid Streck's attentions. She was afraid to stay home, afraid that he'd call and call and call. But now he had found her in the open, beyond the protection of her locked windows and bolted doors, which was worse than the telephone, infinitely worse.

“Look at me, Nora.”


“Look at me.”

The last of the disintegrating cookie fell from her right hand.

Streck took her left hand, and she tried to resist him, but he squeezed, grinding the bones of her fingers, so she surrendered. He put her hand palm down on his bare thigh. His flesh was firm and hot.

Her stomach twisted, and her heart thumped, and she did not know which she would do first-puke or pass out.

Moving her hand slowly up and down his bare thigh, he said, “I'm what you need, prettiness. I can take care of you.”

As if it were a wad of paste, the oatmeal cookie glued her mouth shut. She kept her head down, but she raised her eyes to look out from under her brow. She hoped to see someone nearby to whom she could call for help, but there were only two young mothers with their small children, and even they were too far away to be of assistance.

Lifting her hand from his thigh, putting it on his bare chest, Streck said, “Having a nice stroll today? Did you like the mission? Hmmm? And weren't the yucca blossoms pretty at the courthouse?”

He rambled on in that cool, smug voice, asking her how she had liked other things she'd seen, and she realized he had been following her all morning, either in his car or on foot. She hadn't seen him, but there was no doubt he bad been there because he knew every move she had made since leaving the house, which frightened and infuriated her more than anything else he had done.

She was breathing hard and fast, yet she felt as if she could not get her breath. Her ears were ringing, yet she could hear every word he said too clearly. Though she thought she might strike him and claw at his eyes, she was also paralyzed, on the verge of striking but unable to strike, simultaneously strong with rage and weak with fear. She wanted to scream, not for help but in frustration.

“Now,” he said, “you've had a real nice stroll, a nice lunch in the park, and you're in a relaxed mood. So you know what would be nice now? You know what would make this a terrific day, prettiness? A really special day? What we'll do is get in my car, go back to your place, up to your yellow room, get in that four-poster bed-”

He'd been in her bedroom! He must have done it yesterday. When he was supposed to have been in the living room fixing the TV, he must have sneaked upstairs, the bastard, prowling through her most private place, invading her sanctuary, poking through her belongings.

“-that big old bed, and I'm going to strip you down, honey, strip you down and f*ck you-”

Nora would never be able to decide whether her sudden courage arose from the horrible realization that he'd violated her sanctuary, whether it was that he had spoken an obscenity in her presence for the first time, or whether both, but she snapped her head up and glared at him and spat the wad of uneaten cookie in his face. Flecks of spittle and damp spatters of food stuck on his right cheek, right eye, and on the side of his nose. Bits of oatmeal Clung in his hair and speckled his forehead. When she saw anger flash into Streck's eyes and contort his face, Nora felt a surge of terror at what she'd done: But she was also elated that she had been able to break the bonds of emotional paralysis that had immobilized her, even if her actions brought her grief, even if Streck retaliated.

And he did retaliate swiftly, brutally. He still held her left hand, and she was unable to wrench free. He squeezed hard, as he had done before, grinding her bones. It hurt, Jesus, it hurt. But she did not want to give him the satisfaction of seeing her cry, and she was determined not to whimper or beg, so she clenched her teeth and endured. Sweat prickled her scalp, and she thought she might pass out. But the pain was not the worst of it; the worst was looking into Streck's disturbing ice-blue eyes. As he crushed her fingers, he held her not merely with his hand but with his gaze, which was cold and infinitely strange. He was trying to intimidate and cow her, and it was working- by God, it was-because she saw in him a madness with which she would never be able to cope.

When he saw her despair, which evidently pleased him more than a cry of pain could have done, he stopped grinding her hand, but he did not let go. He said, “You'll pay for that, for spitting in my face. And you'll enjoy paying for it.”

Without conviction, she said, “I'll complain to your boss, and you'll lose your job.”

Streck only smiled. Nora wondered why he did not bother to wipe the bits of oatmeal cookie from his face, but even as she wondered about it she knew the reason: he was going to make her do it for him. First, he said, “Lose my job? Oh, I already quit working for Wadlow TV. Walked out yesterday afternoon. So I'd have time for you, Nora.”

She lowered her eyes. She could not conceal her fear, was shaken by it until she thought her teeth would chatter.

“I never do stay too long in a job. Man like me, full of so much energy, gets bored easy. I need to move around. Besides, life's too short to waste all of it working, don't you think? So I keep a job for a while, till I've got some money saved, then I coast as long as I can. And once in a while I run into a lady like you, someone who has a powerful need for me, someone who's just crying out for a man like me, and so I help her along.”

Kick him, bite him, go for his eyes, she told herself.

She did nothing.

Her hand ached dully. She remembered how hot and intense the pain had been.

His voice changed, became softer, soothing, reassuring, but that frightened her even more. “And I'm going to help you, Nora. I'll be moving in for a while. It's going to be fun. You're a little nervous about me, sure, I understand that, I really do. But believe me, this is what you need, girl, this is going to turn your life upside down, nothing's ever going to be the same again, and that's the best thing could happen to you.”


Einstein loved the park.

When Travis slipped off the leash, the retriever trotted to the nearest bed of flowers-big yellow marigolds surrounded by a border of purple polyanthuses-and walked slowly around it, obviously fascinated. He went to a blazing bed of late-blooming ranunculuses, to another of impatiens, and his tail wagged faster with each discovery. They said dogs could see in only black and white, but Travis would not have bet against the proposition that Einstein possessed full-color vision. Einstein sniffed everything-flowers, shrubbery, trees, rocks, trash cans, crumpled litter, the base of the drinking fountain, and every foot of ground he covered-no doubt turning up olfactory “pictures” of people and dogs that had passed this way before, images as clear to him as photographs would have been to Travis.

Throughout the morning and early afternoon, the retriever had done nothing amazing. In fact, his I'm-just-an-ordinary-dumb-dog behavior was so convincing that Travis wondered if the animal's nearly human intelligence came only in brief flashes, sort of the beneficial equivalent of epileptic seizures. But after all that had happened yesterday, Einstein's extraordinary nature, though seldom revealed, was no longer open to debate.

As they were strolling around the pond, Einstein suddenly went rigid, lifted his head, raised his floppy ears a bit, and stared at a couple sitting on a park bench about sixty feet away. The man was in running shorts, and the woman wore a rather baggy gray dress; he was holding her hand, and they appeared to be deep in conversation.

Travis started to turn away from them, heading out toward the open green of the park to give them privacy.

But Einstein barked once and raced straight toward the couple.

“Einstein! Here! Come back here!”

The dog ignored him and, nearing the pair on the bench, began to bark furiously.

By the time Travis reached the bench, the guy in running shorts was standing. His arms were raised defensively, and his hands were fisted as he warily moved back a step from the retriever.


The retriever stopped barking, turned away from Travis before the leash Could be clipped to the collar again, went to the woman on the bench, and Put his head in her lap. The change from snarling dog to affectionate pet was so sudden that everyone was startled.

Travis said, “I'm sorry. He never-”

“For Christ's sake,” said the guy in running shorts, “you can't let a vicious dog run loose in a park!”

not vicious,“ Travis said. ”He-"

Bullshit,“ the runner said, spraying spittle. ”The damn thing tried to bite me. You enjoy lawsuits or something?"

don't know what got into-"

Get it out of here," the runner demanded.

Nodding, embarrassed, Travis turned to Einstein and saw that the woman had coaxed the retriever onto the bench. Einstein was sitting with her, facing her, his forepaws in her lap, and she was not merely petting him but hugging him. In fact, there was something a little desperate about the way she was holding on to him.

“Get it out of here!” the runner said furiously.

The guy was taller, broader in the shoulders, and thicker in the chest than Travis, and he took a couple of steps forward, looming over Travis, using his superior size to intimidate. By being aggressive, by looking and acting a little dangerous, he was accustomed to getting his way. Travis despised such men.

Einstein turned his head to look at the runner, bared his teeth, and growled low in his throat.

“Listen, buddy,” the runner said angrily, “are you deaf, or what? I said that dog's got to be put on a leash, and I see the leash there in your hand, so what the hell are you waiting for?”

Travis began to realize something was wrong. The runner's self-righteous anger was overdone-as if he had been caught in a shameful act and was trying to conceal his guilt by going immediately and aggressively on the offensive. And the woman was behaving peculiarly. She had not spoken a word. She was pale. Her thin hands trembled. But judging by the way she petted and clung to the dog, it wasn't Einstein that frightened her. And Travis wondered why a couple would go to the park dressed so differently from each other, one in running shorts and the other in a drab housedress. He saw the woman glance surreptitiously and fearfully at the runner, and suddenly he knew that these two were not together-at least not by the woman's choice- and that the man had, indeed, been up to something about which he felt guilty.

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