Watchers Page 5

Infrequently, a woman answered; she had a sexy voice, throaty and yet girlish. Vince had never seen her, but he had often tried to imagine what she looked like.

Now, when the soft-spoken man finished reciting the number, Vince said, 'It's done. I really appreciate your calling me, and I'm always available if you have another job." He was confident that the guy on the other end of the line would recognize his voice, too.

“I'm delighted to hear all went well. We've the highest regard for your Workmanship. Now remember this,” the contact said. He recited a seven-digit telephone number.

Surprised, Vince repeated it.

The contact said, “It's one of the public phones at Fashion Island. In the open-air promenade near Robinson's Department Store. Can you be there in fifteen minutes?”

“Sure,” Vince said. “Ten.”

“I'll call in fifteen with the details.”

Vince hung up and walked back to the van, whistling. Being sent to another public telephone to receive “the details” could mean only one thing: they had a job for him already, two in one day!


Later, after the cake was baked and iced, Nora retreated to her bedroom at the southwest corner of the second floor.

When Violet Devon had been alive, this had been Nora's sanctuary in spite of the lack of a lock on the door. Like all the rooms in the large house, it had been crammed with heavy furniture, as if the place served as a warehouse instead of a home. It had been dreary in all other details as well. Nevertheless, when finished with her chores, or when dismissed after one of her aunt's interminable lectures, Nora had fled to her bedroom, where she escaped into books or vivid daydreams.

Violet inevitably checked on her niece without warning, creeping soundlessly along the hall, suddenly throwing open the unlockable door, entering with the hope of catching Nora in a forbidden pastime or practice. These unannounced inspections had been frequent during Nora's childhood and adolescence, dwindling in number thereafter, though they had continued through the final weeks of Violet Devon's life, when Nora had been a grown woman of twenty-nine. Because Violet had favored dark dresses, had worn her hair in a tight bun, and had gone without a trace of makeup on her pale, sharp-featured face, she had often looked less like a woman than like a man, a stern monk in coarse penitential robes, prowling the corridors of a bleak medieval retreat to police the behavior of fellow monastics.

If caught daydreaming or napping, Nora was severely reprimanded and punished with onerous chores. Her aunt did not condone laziness.

Books were permitted-if Violet had first approved of them-because, for one thing, books were educational. Besides, as Violet often said, “Plain, homely women like you and me will never lead a glamorous life, never go to exotic places. So books have a special value to us. We can experience most everything vicariously, through books. This isn't bad. Living through books is even better than having friends and knowing . . . men.”

With the assistance of a pliable family doctor, Violet had kept Nora out of public school on the pretense of poor health. She had been educated at home, so books were her only school as well.

In addition to having read thousands of books by the age of thirty, Nora had become a self-taught artist in oils, acrylics, watercolors, pencil. Drawing and painting were activities of which Aunt Violet approved. Art was a solitary pursuit that took Nora's mind off the world beyond the house and helped her avoid contact with people who would inevitably reject, hurt, and disappoint her.

One corner of Nora's room had been furnished with a drawing board, an easel, and a cabinet for supplies. Space for her miniature studio was created by pushing other pieces of furniture together, not by removing anything, and the effect was claustrophobic.

Many times over the years, especially at night but even in the middle of the day, Nora had been overcome by a feeling that the floor of the bedroom was going to collapse under all the furniture, that she was going to crash down into the chamber below, where she would be crushed to death beneath her own massive four-poster bed. When that fear overwhelmed her, she had fled onto the rear lawn, where she sat in the open air, hugging herself and shuddering. She'd been twenty-five before she realized that her anxiety attacks arose not only from the overfurnished rooms and dark decor of the house but from the domineering presence of her aunt.

On a Saturday morning four months ago, eight months after Violet Devon's death, Nora had abruptly been seized by an acute need for change and had frantically reordered her bedroom-studio. She carried and dragged out all the smaller pieces of furniture, distributing them evenly through the other five crowded chambers on the second floor. Some of the heavier things had to be dismantled and taken away in sections, but finally she succeeded in eliminating everything but the four-poster bed, one nightstand, a single armchair, her drawing board and stool, the supply cabinet, and the easel, which was all she needed. Then she stripped off the wallpaper.

Throughout that dizzying weekend, she'd felt as if the revolution had come, as if her life would never be the same. But by the time she had redone her bedroom, the spirit of rebellion had evaporated, and she had left the rest of the house untouched.

Now this one place, at least, was bright, even cheerful. The walls were painted the palest yellow. The drapes were gone, and in their place were Levolor blinds that matched the paint. She had rolled up the dreary carpet and had polished the beautiful oak floor.

More than ever, this was her sanctuary. Without fail, upon passing through the door and seeing what she had wrought, her spirits lifted and she found some surcease from her troubles.

After her frightening encounter with Streck, Nora was soothed, as always, by the bright room. She sat at the drawing board and began a pencil sketch, a Preliminary study for an oil painting that she had been contemplating for Some time. Initially, her hands shook, and she had to pause repeatedly to regain sufficient control to continue drawing, but in time her fear abated.

She . was even able to think about Streck as she worked and to try to imagine just how far he might have gone if she had not managed to maneuver

him out of the house. Recently, Nora had wondered if Violet Devon's pessimistic view of the outside world and of all other people was accurate; though it was the primary view that Nora, herself, had been taught, she had the nagging suspicion that it might be twisted, even sick. But now she had encountered Art Streck, and he seemed to be ample proof of Violet's contentions, proof that interacting too much with the outside world was dangerous.

But after a while, when her sketch was half finished, Nora began to think that she had misinterpreted everything Streck had said and done. Surely he could not have been making sexual advances toward her. Not toward her.

She was, after all, quite undesirable. Plain. Homely. Perhaps even ugly. Nora knew this was true because, regardless of Violet's faults, the old woman had some virtues, one of which was a refusal to mince words. Nora was unattractive, drab, not a woman who could expect to be held, kissed, cherished. This was a fact of life that Aunt Violet made her understand at an early age.

Although his personality was repellent, Streck was a physically attractive man, one who could have his choice of pretty women. It was ridiculous to assume he would be interested in a drudge like her.

Nora still wore the clothes that her aunt had bought for her-dark, shapeless dresses and skirts and blouses similar to those that Violet had worn. Brighter and more feminine dresses would only call attention to her bony, graceless body and to the characterless and uncomely lines of her face.

But why had Streck said that she was pretty?

Oh, well, that was easily explained. He was making fun of her, perhaps. Or, more likely, he was being polite, kind.

The more she thought about it, the more Nora believed that she had misjudged the poor man. At thirty, she was already a nervous old maid, as fear-ridden as she was lonely.

That thought depressed her for a while. But she redoubled her efforts on the sketch, finished it, and began another from a different perspective. As the afternoon waned she escaped into her art.

From downstairs the chimes of the ancient grandfather clock rose punctually on the hour, half-hour, and quarter-hour.

The west-falling sun turned more golden as time passed, and as the day wore on the room grew brighter. The air seemed to shimmer. Beyond the south window a king palm stirred gently in the May breeze.

By four o'clock, she was at peace, humming as she worked. When the telephone rang, it startled her.

She put down her pencil and reached for the receiver. “Hello?”

“Funny,” a man said.

“Excuse me?”

“They never heard of him.”

“I'm sorry,” she said, “but I think you've got the wrong number.” “This is you, Mrs. Devon?”

She recognized the voice now. It was him. Streck.

For a moment, she could not speak.

He said, "They never heard of him. I called the Santa Barbara police and

asked to speak with Officer Devon, but they said they don't have an Officer Devon on the force. Isn't that odd, Mrs. Devon?"

“What do you want?” she asked shakily.

“I figure it's a computer error,” Streck said, laughing quietly. “Yeah, sure, some sort of computer error dropped your husband from their records. I think you'd better tell him as soon as he gets home, Mrs. Devon. If he doesn't get this straightened out . . . why, hell, he might not get his paycheck at the end of the week.”

He hung up, and the sound of the dial tone made her realize that she should have hung up first, should have slammed down the handset as soon as he said that he'd called the police station. She dared not encourage him even to the extent of listening to him on the phone.

She went through the house, checking all the windows and doors. They were securely locked.


At McDonald's on East Chapman Avenue in Orange, Travis Cornell had ordered five hamburgers for the golden retriever. Sitting on the front seat of the pickup, the dog had eaten all of the meat and two buns, and it had wanted to express its gratitude by licking his face.

“You've got the breath of a dyspeptic alligator,” he protested, holding the animal back.

The return trip to Santa Barbara took three and a half hours because the highways were much busier than they had been that morning. Throughout the journey, Travis glanced at his companion and spoke to it, anticipating a display of the unnerving intelligence it had shown earlier. His expectations were unfulfilled. The retriever behaved like any dog on a long trip. Once in a while, it did sit very erect, looking through the windshield or side window at the scenery with what seemed an unusual degree of interest and attention. But most of the time it curled up and slept on the seat, snuffling in its dreams- or it panted and yawned and looked bored.

When the odor of the dog's filthy coat became intolerable, Travis rolled down the windows for ventilation, and the retriever stuck its head out in the wind. With its ears blown back, hair streaming, it grinned the foolish and charmingly witless grin of all dogs who had ever ridden shotgun in such a fashion.

In Santa Barbara, Travis stopped at a shopping center, where he bought Several cans of Alpo, a box of Milk-Bone dog biscuits, heavy plastic dishes for pet food and water, a galvanized tin washtub, a bottle of pet shampoo With a flea- and tick-killing compound, a brush to comb out the animal's tangled coat, a collar, and a leash.

As Travis loaded those items into the back of the pickup, the dog watched him through the rear window of the cab, its damp nose pressed to the glass. Getting behind the wheel, he said, “You're filthy, and you stink. You're not going to be a lot of trouble about taking a bath, are you?” The dog yawned.

By the time Travis pulled into the driveway of his four-room rented bungalow on the northern edge of Santa Barbara and switched off the pickup's engine, he was beginning to wonder if the pooch's actions that morning had really been as amazing as he remembered.

“If you don't show me the right stuff again soon,” he told the dog as he slipped his key into the front door of the house, “I'm going to have to assume that I stripped a gear out there in the woods, that I'm just nuts and that I imagined everything.”

Standing beside him on the stoop, the dog looked up quizzically.

“Do you want to be responsible for giving me doubts about my own sanity? Hmmmmm?”

An orange and black butterfly swooped past the retriever's face, startling it. The dog barked once and raced after the fluttering prey, off the stoop, down the walkway. Dashing back and forth across the lawn, leaping high, snapping at the air, repeatedly missing its bright quarry, it nearly collided with the diamond-patterned trunk of a big Canary Island date palm, then narrowly avoided knocking itself unconscious in a head-on encounter with a concrete birdbath, and at last crashed clumsily into a bed of New Guinea impatiens over which the butterfly soared to safety. The retriever rolled once, scrambled to its feet, and lunged out of the flowers.

When it realized that it had been foiled, the dog returned to Travis. It gave him a sheepish look.

“Some wonder dog,” he said. “Good grief.”

He opened the door, and the retriever slipped in ahead of him. It padded off immediately to explore these new rooms.

“You better be housebroken,” Travis shouted after it.

He carried the galvanized washtub and the plastic bag full of other purchases into the kitchen. He left the food and pet dishes there, and took everything else outside through the back door. He put the bag on the concrete patio and set the tub beside it, near a coiled hose that was attached to an outdoor faucet.

Inside again, he removed a bucket from beneath the kitchen sink, filled it with the hottest water he could draw, carried it outside, and emptied it into the tub. When Travis had made four trips with the hot water, the retriever appeared and began to explore the backyard. By the time Travis filled the tub more than half full, the dog had begun to urinate every few feet along the whitewashed concrete-block wall that defined the property line, marking its territory.

“When you finish killing the grass,” Travis said, “you'd better be in the mood for a bath. You reek.”

The retriever turned toward him and cocked its head and appeared to listen when he spoke. But it did not look like one of those smart dogs in the movies. It did not look as if it understood him. It just looked dumb. As soon as he stopped talking, it hurried a few steps farther along the wall and peed again. Watching the dog relieve itself, Travis felt an urge of his own. He went inside to the bathroom, then changed into an older pair of jeans and a T-shirt for the sloppy job ahead.

When Travis came outside again, the retriever was standing beside the steaming washtub, the hose in its teeth. Somehow, it had managed to turn the faucet. Water gushed out of the hose, into the tub.

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