Watchers Page 3

Davis Weatherby lived in Corona Del Mar, within sight of the Pacific Ocean. Vince had left his two-year-old Ford van three blocks from the doctor's house. The walk back to the van was very pleasant, invigorating. This was a fine neighborhood boasting a variety of architectural styles; expensive Spanish casas sat beside beautifully detailed Cape Cod homes with a harmony that had to be seen to be believed. The landscaping was lush and well tended. Palms and ficus and olive trees shaded the sidewalks. Red, coral, yellow, and Orange bougainviflaeas blazed with thousands of flowers. The bottlebrush trees were in bloom. The branches of jacarandas dripped lacy purple blossoms. The air was scented with star jasmine.

Vincent Nasco felt wonderful. So strong, so powerful, so alive.


Sometimes the dog led, and sometimes Travis took the lead. They went a long way before Travis realized that he had been completely jolted out of the despair and desperate loneliness that had brought him to the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains in the first place.

The big tattered dog stayed with him all the way to his pickup, which was parked along the dirt lane under the overhanging boughs of an enormous spruce. Stopping at the truck, the retriever looked back the way they had come.

Behind them, black birds swooped through the cloudless sky, as if engaged in reconnaissance for some mountain sorcerer. A dark wall of trees loomed like the ramparts of a sinister castle.

Though the woods were gloomy, the dirt road onto which Travis had stepped was fully exposed to the sun, baked to a pale brown, mantled in fine, soft dust that plumed around his boots with each step he took. He was surprised that such a bright day could have been abruptly filled with an overpowering, palpable sense of evil.

Studying the forest out of which they had fled, the dog barked for the first time in half an hour.

“Still coming, isn't it?” Travis said.

The dog glanced at him and mewled unhappily.

“Yeah,” he said, “I feel it too. Crazy . . . yet I feel it, too. But what the hell's out there, boy? Huh? What the hell is it?”

The dog shuddered violently.

Travis's own fear was amplified every time he saw the dog's terror manifested.

He put down the tailgate of the truck and said, “Come on. I'll give you a lift out of this place.”

The dog sprang into the cargo hold.

Travis slammed the gate shut and went around the side of the truck. As he pulled open the driver's door, he thought he glimpsed movement in nearby brush. Not back toward the forest but at the far side of the dirt road. Over there, a narrow field was choked with waist-high brown grass as crisp as hay, a few bristly clumps of mesquite, and some sprawling oleander bushes with roots deep enough to keep them green. When he stared directly at the field, he saw none of the movement he thought he had caught from the corner of his eye, but he suspected that he had not imagined it.

With a renewed sense of urgency, he climbed into the truck and put the revolver on the seat beside him. He drove away from there as fast as the washboard lane permitted, and with constant consideration for the four-legged passenger in the cargo bed.

Twenty minutes later, when he stopped along Santiago Canyon Road, back in the world of blacktop and civilization, he still felt weak and shaky. But the fear that lingered was different from that he'd felt in the forest. His heart was no longer drumming. The cold sweat had dried on his hands and brow. The odd prickling of nape and scalp was gone-and the memory of it seemed unreal. Now he was afraid not of some unknown creature but of his own strange behavior. Safely out of the woods, he could not quite recall the degree of terror that had gripped him; therefore, his actions seemed irrational.

He pulled on the handbrake and switched off the engine. It was eleven o'clock, and the flurry of morning traffic had gone; only an occasional car passed on the rural two-lane blacktop. He sat for a minute, trying to convince himself that he had acted on instincts that were good, right, and reliable.

He had always taken pride in his unshakable equanimity and hardheaded pragmatism-in that if in nothing else. He could stay cool in the middle of a bonfire. He could make hard decisions under pressure and accept the consequences.

Except-he found it increasingly difficult to believe something strange had actually been stalking him out there. He wondered if he had misinterpreted the dog's behavior and had imagined the movement in the brush merely to give himself an excuse to turn his mind away from self-pity.

He got out of the truck and stepped back to the side of it, where he came face-to-face with the retriever, which stood in the cargo bed. It shoved its burly head toward him and licked his neck, his chin. Though it had snapped and barked earlier, it was an affectionate dog, and for the first time its bedraggled condition struck him as having a comical aspect. He tried to hold the dog back. But it strained forward, nearly clambering over the side of the cargo hold in its eagerness to lick his face. He laughed and ruffled its tangled coat.

The retriever's friskiness and the frenzied wagging of its tail had an unexpected effect on Travis. For a long time his mind had been a dark place, filled with thoughts of death, culminating in today's journey. But this animal's unadulterated joy in being alive was like a spotlight that pierced Travis's inner gloom and reminded him that life had a brighter side from which he had long ago turned away.

“What was that all about back there?” he wondered aloud.

The dog stopped licking him, stopped wagging its matted tail. It regarded him solemnly, and he was suddenly transfixed by the animal's gentle, warm brown eyes. Something in them was unusual, compelling. Travis was half-mesmerized, and the dog seemed equally captivated. As a mild spring breeze rose from the south, Travis searched the dog's eyes for a clue to their special Power and appeal, but he saw nothing extraordinary about them. Except. . . well, they seemed somehow more expressive than a dog's eyes usually were, more intelligent and aware. Given the short attention span of any dog, the retriever's unwavering stare was damned unusual. As the seconds ticked past and as neither Travis nor the dog broke the encounter, he felt increasingly peculiar. A shiver rippled through him, occasioned not by fear but by a sense that something uncanny was happening, that he was teetering on the threshold of an awesome revelation.

Then the dog shook its head and licked Travis's hand, and the spell was broken.

“Where'd you come from, boy?”

The dog cocked its head to the left.

“Who's your owner?”

The dog cocked its head to the right.

“What should I do with you?”

As if in answer, the dog jumped over the truck's tailgate, ran past Travis to the driver's door, and climbed into the pickup's cab.

When Travis peered inside, the retriever was in the passenger's seat, looking straight ahead through the windshield. It turned to him and issued a soft woof, as if impatient with his dawdling.

He got in behind the wheel, tucked the revolver under his seat. “Don't believe I can take care of you. Too much responsibility, fella. Doesn't fit in with my plans. Sorry about that.”

The dog regarded him beseechingly.

“You look hungry, boy.”

It woofed once, softly.

“Okay, maybe I can help you that much. I think there's a Hershey's bar in the glove compartment . . . and there's a McDonald's not far from here, where they've probably got a couple hamburgers with your name on them. But after that . . . well, I'll either have to let you loose again or take you to the pound.”

Even as Travis was speaking, the dog raised one foreleg and hit the glove-compartment release button with a paw. The lid fell open.

“What the hell-”

The dog leaned forward, put its snout into the open box, and withdrew the candy in its teeth, holding the bar so lightly that the wrapping was not punctured.

Travis blinked in surprise.

The retriever held forth the Hershey's bar, as if requesting that Travis unwrap the treat.

Startled, he took the candy and peeled off the paper.

The retriever watched, licking its lips.

Breaking the bar into pieces, Travis paid out the chocolate in morsels. The dog took them gratefully and ate almost daintily.

Travis watched in confusion, not certain if what had happened was truly extraordinary or had a reasonable explanation. Had the dog actually understood him when he had said there was candy in the glove box? Or had it detected the scent of chocolate? Surely the latter.

To the dog, he said, “But how did you know to press the button to pop the lid open?”

It stared, licked its chops, and accepted another bit of candy.

He said, "Okay, okay, so maybe that's a trick you've been taught. Though it's not the sort of thing anyone would ordinarily train a dog to do, is it? Roll over, play dead, sing for your supper, even walk on your hind feet a little ways . . . yeah, those're things that dogs are trained to do . . . but they're not trained to open locks and latches.

The retriever gazed longingly at the last morsel of chocolate, but Travis withheld the goody for a moment.

The timing, for God's sake, had been uncanny. Two seconds after Travis had referred to the chocolate, the dog had gone for it.

“Did you understand what I said?” Travis asked, feeling foolish for suspecting a dog of possessing language skills. Nevertheless, he repeated the question: “Did you? Did you understand?”

Reluctantly, the retriever raised its gaze from the last of the candy. Their eyes met. Again Travis sensed that something uncanny was happening; he shivered not unpleasantly, as before.

He hesitated, cleared his throat. “Uh . . . would it be all right with you if I had the last piece of chocolate?”

The dog turned its eyes to the two small squares of the Hershey's bar still in Travis's hand. It chuffed once, as if with regret, then looked through the windshield..

“I'll be damned,” Travis said.

The dog yawned.

Being careful not to move his hand, not holding the chocolate out, not calling attention to the chocolate in any manner except with words, he addressed the big tattered dog again: “Well, maybe you need it more than I do, boy. If you want it, the last bit's yours.”

The retriever looked at him.

Still not moving his hand, keeping it close to his own body in a way that implied he was withholding the chocolate, he said, “If you want it, take it. Otherwise, I'll just throw it away.”

The retriever shifted on the seat, leaned close to him, and gently snatched the chocolate off his palm.

“I'll be double-damned,” he said.

The dog rose onto all fours, standing on the seat, which brought its head almost to the ceiling. It looked through the back window of the cab and growled softly.

Travis glanced at the rearview mirror, then at the side-mounted mirror, but he saw nothing unusual behind them. Just the two-lane blacktop, the narrow berm, the weed-covered hillside sloping down on their right side. “You think we should get moving? Is that it?”

The dog looked at him, peered out the rear window, then turned and sat with its hind legs tucked to one side, facing forward again.

Travis started the engine, put the truck in gear, pulled onto Santiago Canyon Road, and headed north. Glancing at his companion, he said, “Are you really more than you appear to be . . . or am I just cracking up? And if you are more than you appear to be . . . what the devil are you?”

At the rural eastern end of Chapman Avenue, he turned west toward the McDonald's of which he'd spoken.

He said, “Can't turn you loose now or take you to a pound.” And a minute later, he said, “If I didn't keep you, I'd die of curiosity, wondering about you.”

They drove about two miles and swung into the McDonald's parking lot.

Travis said, “So I guess you're my dog now.”

The retriever said nothing.



Nora Devon was afraid of the television repairman. Although he appeared to be about thirty (her age), he had the offensive cockiness of a know-it-all teenager. When she answered the doorbell, he boldly looked her up and down as he identified himself-“Art Streck, Wadlow's TV”-and when he met her eyes again, he winked. He was tall and lean and well-scrubbed, dressed in white uniform slacks and shirt. He was clean-shaven. His darkish-blond hair was cut short and neatly combed. He looked like any mother's son, not a rap**t or psycho, yet Nora was instantly afraid of him, maybe because his boldness and cockiness seemed at odds with his appearance.

“You need service?” he asked when she hesitated in the doorway.

Although his question appeared innocent, the inflection he put on the word “service” seemed creepy and sexually suggestive to Nora. She did not think she was overreacting. But she had called Wadlow TV, after all, and she could not turn Streck away without explanation. An explanation would probably lead to an argument, and she was not a confrontational person, so she let him inside.

As she escorted him along the wide, cool hallway to the living-room arch, she had the uneasy feeling that his good grooming and big smile were elements of a carefully calculated disguise. He had a keen animal watchfulness, a coiled tension, that further disquieted her with every step they took away from the front door.

Following her much too closely, virtually looming over her from behind, Art Streck said, “You've got a nice house here, Mrs. Devon. Very nice. I really like it.”

“Thank you,” she said stiffly, not bothering to correct his misapprehension of her marital status.

“A man could be happy here. Yeah, a man could be very happy.”

The house was of that style of architecture sometimes called Old Santa Barbara Spanish: two stories, cream-colored stucco with a red-tile roof, verandas, balconies, all softly rounded lines instead of squared-off corners. Lush red bougainvillea climbed the north face of the structure, dripping bright blossoms. The place was beautiful.

Nora hated it.

She had lived there since she was only two years old, which now added up to twenty-eight years, and during all but one of them, she had been under

the iron thumb of her Aunt Violet. Hers had not been a happy childhood or, to date, a happy life. Violet Devon had died a year ago. But, in truth, Nora was still oppressed by her aunt, for the memory of that hateful old woman was formidable, stifling.

In the living room, putting his repair kit beside the Magnavox, Streck paused to look around. He was clearly surprised by the decor.

The flowered wallpaper was dark, funereal. The Persian carpet was singularly unattractive. The color scheme-gray, maroon, royal blue-was unenlivened by a few touches of faded yellow. Heavy English furniture from the mid-nineteenth century, trimmed with deeply carved molding, stood on clawed feet: massive armchairs, footstools, cabinets suitable for Dr. Caligari, credenzas that looked as if they each weighed half a ton. Small tables were draped with weighty brocade. Some lamps were pewter with pale-gray shades, and others had maroon ceramic bases, but none threw much light. The drapes looked as heavy as lead; age-yellowed sheers hung between the side panels, permitting only a mustard-colored drizzle of sunlight to enter the room. None of it complemented the Spanish architecture; Violet had willfully imposed her ponderous bad taste upon the graceful house.

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