Watchers Page 16

Later in the afternoon, he drove his van to Irvine and located Banodyne Laboratories. Banodyne was set against the backdrop of the Santa Ana Mountains. The company had two buildings on a multiple-acre lot that was surprisingly large in an area of such expensive real estate: one L-shaped two-story structure and a larger V-shaped single story with only a few narrow Windows that made it look fortresslike. Both were very modern in design, a striking mix of flat planes and sensuous curves faced in dark green and gray marble, quite attractive. Surrounded by an employee parking lot and by immense expanses of well-maintained grass, shaded by a few palms and coral trees, the buildings were actually larger than they appeared to be, for their true scale was distorted and diminished by that enormous piece of flat land.

The fire had been confined to the V-shaped building that housed the labs. The only indications of destruction were a few broken windows and soot Stains on the marble above those narrow openings.

The property was not walled or fenced, so Vince could have walked onto it from the street if he had wished, although there was a simple gate and guard booth at the three-lane entrance road. Judging by the guard's sidearm and by the subtly forbidding look of the building that housed the research labs, Vince suspected the lawns were monitored electronically and that, at night, sophisticated alarm systems would alert watchmen to an intruder's presence before he had taken more than a few steps across the grass. The arsonist must have been skilled at more than setting fires; he must also have had a wide knowledge of security systems.

Vince cruised past the place, then turned and drove by from the other direction. Like spectral presences, cloud shadows moved slowly across the lawn and slid up the walls of the buildings. Something about Banodyne gave it a portentous-perhaps even slightly ominous-look. And Vince did not think that he was letting his view of the place be unduly colored by the research that he knew to have been conducted there.

He drove home to Huntington Beach.

Having gone to Banodyne in the hope that seeing the place would help him decide how to proceed, he was disappointed. He still did not know what to do next. He could not figure out to whom he could sell his information for a price worth the risk he was taking. Not to the U.S. government: it was their information to begin with. And not to the Soviets, the natural adversary, for it was the Soviets who had paid him to kill Weatherby, the Yarbecks, the Hudstons, and Haines.

Of course, he couldn't prove he had been working for the Soviets. They were clever when they hired a freelancer like him. But he had worked for these people as often as he had taken contracts from the mob, and based on dozens of clues over the years, he had decided they were Soviets. Once in a while he dealt with people other than the usual three contacts in L.A., and invariably they spoke with what sounded like Russian accents. Furthermore, their targets were usually political to at least some degree-or, as in the case of the Banodyne kills, military targets. And their information always proved more thorough, accurate, and sophisticated than the information he was given by the mob when he contracted for a simple gangland hit.

So who would pay for such sensitive defense information if not the U.S. or the Soviets? Some third-world dictator looking for a way to circumvent the nuclear capabilities of the most powerful countries? The Francis Project might give some pocket Hitler that edge, elevate him to a world power, and he might pay well for it. But who wanted to risk dealing with Qaddafi types? Not Vince.

Besides, he possessed information about the existence of the revolutionary research at Banodyne, but he did not have detailed files on how the Francis Project's miracles had been accomplished. He had less to sell than he'd first thought.

However, in the back of his mind, an idea had been growing since yesterday. Now, as he continued to puzzle over a potential buyer for his information, that idea flowered.

The dog.

At home again, he sat in his bedroom, staring out at the sea. He sat there even after nightfall, after he could no longer see the water, and he thought about the dog.

Hudston and Haines had told him so much about the retriever that he'd begun to realize his knowledge of the Francis Project, although potentially explosive and valuable, was not one-thousandth as valuable as the dog itself. The retriever could be exploited in many ways; it was a money machine with a tail. For one thing, he could probably sell it back to the government or to the Russians for a bargeload of cash. If he could find the dog, he would be able to achieve financial independence.

But how could he locate it?

All over southern California, a quiet search-almost secret yet gigantic- must be under way. The Defense Department would be putting tremendous manpower into the hunt, and if Vince crossed paths with those searchers, they would want to know who he was. He could not afford to draw attention to himself.

Furthermore, if he conducted his own search of the nearest Santa Ana foothills, into which the lab escapees had almost surely fled, he might encounter the wrong one. He might miss the golden retriever and stumble upon The Outsider, and that could be dangerous. Deadly.

Beyond the bedroom window, the cloud-armored night sky and the sea flowed together in blackness as dark as the far side of the moon.


On Thursday, one day after Einstein cornered Arthur Streck in Nora Devon's kitchen, Streck was arraigned on charges of breaking and entering, assault and battery, and attempted rape. Because he had previously been convicted of rape and had served two years of a three-year sentence, his bail was high; he could not meet it. And since he could not locate a bondsman who would trust him, he seemed destined to remain in jail until his case came to trial, which was a great relief to Nora.

On Friday, she went to lunch with Travis Cornell.

She was startled to hear herself accept his invitation. It was true that Travis had seemed genuinely shocked to learn of the terror and harassment she had endured at Streck's hands, and it was also true that to some extent she owed her dignity and perhaps her life to his arrival at the penultimate moment. Yet years of indoctrination in Aunt Violet's paranoia could not be washed away in a few days, and a residue of unreasonable suspicion and wariness clung to Nora. She would have been dismayed, maybe even shattered, if Travis had suddenly tried to force himself upon her, but she would not have been surprised. Having been encouraged since early childhood to expect the worst from people, she could be surprised only by kindness and compassion.

Nevertheless, she went to lunch with him.

At first, she did not know why.

However, she did not have to think long to find the answer: the dog. She wanted to be near the dog because he made her feel secure and because she'd never before been the recipient of such unrestrained affection as Einstein lavished on her. She had never previously been the object of any affection from anyone, and she liked it even if it came from an animal. Besides, in her heart Nora knew that Travis Cornell must be completely trustworthy because Einstein trusted him, and Einstein did not seem easily fooled.

They ate lunch at a café that had a few linen-draped tables outside on a brick patio, under white- and blue-striped umbrellas, where they were permitted to clip the dog's leash to the wrought-iron table leg and keep him with them. Einstein was well-behaved, lying quietly most of the time. Occasionally he raised his head to gaze at them with his soulful eyes until they relinquished scraps of food, though he was not a pest about it.

Nora did not have much experience with dogs, but she thought that Einstein was unusually alert and inquisitive. He frequently shifted his position in order to watch the other diners, with whom he seemed intrigued.

Nora was intrigued with everything. This was her first meal in a restaurant, and although she had read about people having lunch and dinner in thousands of restaurants in countless novels, she was still amazed and delighted by every detail. The single rose in the milk-white vase. The matchbooks with the establishment's name embossed on them. The way the butter had been molded into round pats with a flower pattern on each, then served on a bowl of crushed ice. The slice of lemon in the ice water. The chilled salad fork was an especially amazing touch.

“Look at this,” she said to Travis after their entrées had been served and the waiter had departed.

He frowned at her plate and said, “Something wrong?”

“No, no. I mean . . . these vegetables.”

“Baby carrots, baby squash.”

“Where do they get them so tiny? And look how they've scalloped the edge of this tomato. Everything's so pretty. How do they ever find the time to make everything so pretty?”

She knew these things that astonished her were things he took for granted, knew that her amazement revealed her lack of experience and sophistication, making her seem like a child. She frequently blushed, sometimes stammered in embarrassment, but she could not restrain herself from commenting on these marvels. Travis smiled at her almost continuously, but it was not a patronizing smile, thank God; he seemed genuinely delighted by the pleasure she took in new discoveries and small luxuries.

By the time they finished coffee and dessert-a kiwi tart for her, strawberries and cream for Travis, and a chocolate éclair that Einstein did not have to share with anyone-Nora had been engaged in the longest conversation of her life. They passed two and a half hours without an awkward silence, mainly discussing books because-given Nora's reclusive life-a love of books was virtually the only thing they had in common. That and loneliness. He, seemed genuinely interested in her opinions of novelists, and he had some fascinating insights into books, insights which had eluded her. She laughed more in one afternoon than she had laughed in an entire year. But the experience was so exhilarating that she occasionally felt dizzy, and by the time they left the restaurant she could not precisely remember anything they had actually said; it was all a colorful blur. She was experiencing sensory overload analogous to what a primitive tribesman might feel if suddenly deposited in the middle of New York City, and she needed time to absorb and process all that had happened to her.

Having walked to the café from her house, where Travis had left his pickup truck, they now made the return trip on foot, and Nora held the dog's leash all the way. Einstein never tried to pull away from her, never tangled the leash around her legs, but padded along at her side or in front of her, docile, now and then looking up at her with a sweet expression that made her smile.

“He's a good dog,” she said. “Very good,” Travis agreed. “So well behaved.”


“And so cute.”

“Don't flatter him too much.”

“Are you afraid he'll become vain?”

“He's already vain,” Travis said. “If he were any more vain, he'd be impossible to live with.”

The dog looked back and up at Travis, and sneezed loudly as if ridiculing his master's comment.

Nora laughed. “Sometimes it almost seems he can understand every word you're saying.”

“Sometimes,” Travis agreed.

When they arrived at the house, Nora wanted to invite him in. But she wasn't sure if the invitation would seem too bold, and she was afraid Travis would misinterpret it. She knew she was being a nervous old maid, knew she could-and ought to-trust him, but Aunt Violet suddenly loomed in her memory, full of dire warnings about men, and Nora could not bring herself to do what she knew was right. The day had been perfect, and she dreaded extending it further for fear something would happen to sully the entire memory, leaving her with nothing good, so she merely thanked him for lunch and did not even dare to shake his hand.

She did, however, stoop down and hug the dog. Einstein nuzzled her neck and licked her throat once, making her giggle. She had never heard herself giggle before. She would have clung to him and petted him for hours if her enthusiasm for the dog had not, by comparison, made her wariness of Travis even more evident.

Standing in the open door, she watched them as they got into the pickup and drove away.

Travis waved at her.

She waved, too.

Then the truck reached the corner and began to turn right, out of sight, and Nora regretted her cowardice, wished she'd asked Travis in for a while. She almost ran after them, almost shouted his name and almost rushed down the steps to the sidewalk in pursuit. But then the truck was gone, and she was alone again. Reluctantly, she went into the house and closed the door on the brighter world outside.


The Bell JetRanger executive helicopter flashed over the tree-filled ravines and balding ridges of the Santa Ana foothills, its shadow running ahead of it because the sun was in the west as Friday afternoon waned. Approaching the head of Holy Jim Canyon, Lemuel Johnson looked out the window in the passenger compartment and saw four of the county sheriff's squad cars lined up along the narrow dirt lane down there. A couple of other vehicles, including the coroner's wagon and a Jeep Cherokee that probably belonged to the victim, were parked at the stone cabin. The pilot had barely enough room to put the chopper down in the clearing. Even before the engine died and the sun-bronzed rotors began to slow, Lem was out of the craft, hurrying toward the cabin, with his right-hand man, Cliff Soames, close behind him.

Walt Gaines, the county sheriff, stepped out of the cabin as Lem approached. Gaines was a big man, six-four and at least two hundred pounds, with enormous shoulders and a barrel chest. His corn-yellow hair and cornflower-blue eyes would have lent him a movie-idol look if his face had not been so broad and his features blunt. He was fifty-five, looked forty, and wore his hair only slightly longer than he had during his twenty years in the Marine Corps.

Although Lem Johnson was a black man, every bit as dark as Walt was white, though he was seven inches shorter and sixty pounds lighter than Walt, though he had come from an upper-middle-class black family while Walt's folks had been poor white trash from Kentucky, though Lem was ten years younger than the sheriff, the two were friends. More than friends. Buddies. They played bridge together, went deep-sea fishing together, and found unadulterated pleasure in sitting in lawn chairs on one or the other's patio, drinking Corona beer and solving all of the world's problems. Their wives even became best friends, a serendipitous development that was, according to Walt, “a miracle, 'cause the woman's never liked anyone else I've introduced her to in thirty-two years.”

To Lem, his friendship with Walt Gaines was also a miracle, for he was not a man who made friends easily. He was a workaholic and did not have the leisure to nurture an acquaintance carefully into a more enduring relationship. Of course, careful nurturing hadn't been necessary with Walt; they had clicked the first time they'd met, had recognized similar attitudes and points of view in each other. By the time they had known each other six months, it seemed they had been close since boyhood. Lem valued their friendship nearly as much as he valued his marriage to Karen. The pressure of his job would be harder to endure if he couldn't let off some steam with Walt once in a while.

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