Watchers Page 6

For a dog, successfully manipulating a water faucet would be very difficult if not impossible. Travis figured that an equivalent test of his own ingenuity and dexterity would be trying to open a child-proof safety cap on an aspirin bottle with one hand behind his back.

Astonished, he said, “Water's too hot for you?”

The retriever dropped the hose, letting water pour across the patio, and stepped almost daintily into the tub. It sat and looked at him, as if to say, Let's get on with it, you dink.

He went to the tub and squatted beside it. “Show me how you can turn off the water.”

The dog looked at him stupidly.

“Show me,” Travis said.

The dog snorted and shifted its position in the warm water.

“If you could turn it on, you can turn it off. How did you do it? With your teeth? Had to be with your teeth. Couldn't do it with a paw, for God's sake. But that twisting motion would be tricky. You could've broken a tooth on the cast-iron handle.”

The dog leaned slightly out of the tub, just far enough to bite at the neck of the bag that held the shampoo.

“You won't turn off the faucet?” Travis asked.

The dog just blinked at him, inscrutable.

He sighed and turned off the water. “All right. Okay. Be a wiseass.” He took the brush and shampoo out of the bag and held them toward the retriever. “Here. You probably don't even need me. You can scrub yourself, I'm sure.”

The dog issued a long, drawn-out woooooof that started deep in its throat, and Travis had the feeling it was calling him a wiseass.

Careful now, he told himself. You're in danger of leaping off the deep end, Travis. This is a damn smart dog you've got here, but he can't really understand what you're saying, and he can't talk back.

The retriever submitted to its bath without protest, enjoying itself. After ordering the dog out of the tub and rinsing off the shampoo, Travis spent an hour brushing its damp coat. He pulled out burrs, bits of weeds that hadn't flushed away, unsnarled the tangles. The dog never grew impatient, and by Six o'clock it was transformed.

Groomed, it was a handsome animal. Its coat was predominantly medium gold with feathering of a lighter shade on the backs of its legs, on its belly and buttocks, and on the underside of the tail. The undercoat was thick and soft to provide warmth and repel water. The outer coat was also soft but not as thick, and in some places these longer hairs were wavy. The tail had a slight upward curve, giving the retriever a happy, jaunty look, which was emphasized by its tendency to wag continuously.

The dried blood on the ear was from a small tear already healing. The blood on the paws resulted not from serious injury but from a lot of running over difficult ground. Travis did nothing except pour boric-acid solution, a mild antiseptic, on these minor wounds. He was confident that the dog would experience only slight discomfort-or maybe none at all, for it was not limping-and that it would be completely well in a few days.

The retriever looked splendid now, but Travis was damp, sweaty, and stank of dog shampoo. He was eager to shower and change. He had also worked up an appetite.

The only task remaining was to collar the dog. But when he attempted to buckle the new collar in place, the retriever growled softly and backstepped out of his reach.

“Whoa now. It's only a collar, boy.”

The dog stared at the loop of red leather in Travis's hand and continued to growl.

“You had a bad experience with a collar, huh?”

The dog stopped growling, but it did not take a step toward him.

“Mistreated?” Travis asked. “That must be it. Maybe they choked you with a collar, twisted it and choked you, or maybe they put you on a short chain. Something like that?”

The retriever barked once, padded across the patio, and stood in the farthest corner, looking at the collar from a distance.

“Do you trust me?” Travis asked, remaining on his knees in an unthreatening posture.

The dog shifted its attention from the loop of leather to Travis, meeting his eyes.

“I will never mistreat you,” he said solemnly, feeling not at all foolish for speaking so directly and sincerely to a mere dog. “You must know that I won't. I mean, you have good instincts about things like that, don't you? Rely on your instincts, boy, and trust me.”

The dog returned from the far end of the patio and stopped just beyond Travis's reach. It glanced once at the collar, then fixed him with that uncannily intense gaze. As before, he felt a degree of communion with the animal that was as profound as it was eerie-and as eerie as it was indescribable.

He said, “Listen, there'll be times I'll want to take you places where you'll need a leash. Which has to be attached to a collar, doesn't it? That's the only reason I want you to wear a collar-so I can take you everywhere with me. That and to ward off fleas. But if you really don't want to submit to it, I won't force you.”

For a long time they faced each other as the retriever mulled over the situation. Travis continued to hold the collar out as if it represented a gift rather than a demand, and the dog continued to stare into his new master's eyes. At last, the retriever shook itself, sneezed once, and slowly came forward.

“That's a good boy,” Travis said encouragingly.

When it reached him, the dog settled on its belly, then rolled onto its back with all four legs in the air, making itself vulnerable. It gave him a look that was full of love, trust, and a little fear.

Crazily, Travis felt a lump form in his throat and was aware of hot tears scalding the corners of his eyes. He swallowed hard and blinked back the tears and told himself he was being a sentimental dope. But he knew why the dog's considered submission affected him so strongly. For the first time in three years, Travis Cornell felt needed, felt a deep connection with another living creature. For the first time in three years, he had a reason to live.

He slipped the collar in place, buckled it, gently scratched and rubbed the retriever's exposed belly.

“Got to have a name for you,” he said.

The dog scrambled to its feet, faced him, and pricked its ears as if waiting to hear what it would be called.

God in heaven, Travis thought, I'm attributing human intentions to him. He's a mutt, special maybe but still only a mutt. He may look as if he's waiting to hear what he'll be called, but he sure as hell doesn't understand English.

“Can't think of a single name that's fitting,” Travis said at last. “We don't want to rush this. It's got to be just the right name. You're no ordinary dog, fur face. I've got to think on it a while until I hit the right moniker.”

Travis emptied the washtub, rinsed it out, and left it to dry. Together, he and the retriever went into the home they now shared.


Dr. Elisabeth Yarbeck and her husband Jonathan, an attorney, lived in Newport Beach in a sprawling, single-story, ranch-style home with a shake-shingle roof, cream-colored stucco walls, and a walkway of Bouquet Canyon stone. The waning sun radiated copper and ruby light that glinted and flashed in the beveled glass of the narrow leaded windows flanking the front door, giving those panes the look of enormous gemstones.

Elisabeth answered the door when Vince Nasco rang the bell. She was about fifty, trim and attractive, with shaggy silver-blond hair and blue eyes. Vince told her his name was John Parker, that he was with the FBI, and that he needed to speak with her and her husband in regards to a case currently Under investigation.

“Case?” she said. “What case?”

“It involves a government-financed research project on which you were Once involved,” Vince told her, for that was the opening line that he had been told to use.

She examined his photo ID and Bureau credentials carefully.

He was not concerned. The phony papers had been prepared by the same People who had hired him for this job. The forged documents had been provided ten months ago to assist him on a hit in San Francisco, and had served him well on three other occasions.

Though he knew the ID would meet with her approval, he was not sure that he, himself, would pass inspection. He was wearing a dark blue suit, white shirt, blue tie, and highly polished black shoes-correct attire for an agent. His size and his expressionless face also served him well in the role he was playing. But the murder of Dr. Davis Weatherby and the prospect of two more murders within the next few minutes had wildly excited him, had filled him with a manic glee that was almost uncontainable. Laughter kept building within him, and the struggle to repress it grew more difficult by the minute. In the drab green Ford sedan, which he had stolen forty minutes ago expressly for this one job, he had been seized by a fit of the shakes induced not by nervousness but by intense pleasure of an almost sexual nature. He'd been forced to pull the car to the side of the road and sit for ten minutes, breathing deeply, until he had calmed down a bit.

Now, Elisabeth Yarbeck looked up from the forged ID, met Vince's eyes, and frowned.

He risked a smile, though there was a danger of slipping into uncontrollable laughter that would blow his cover. He had a boyish smile that, by its marked contrast with his size, could be disarming.

After a moment, Dr. Yarbeck also smiled. Satisfied, she returned his credentials and welcomed him into her house.

“I'll need to speak with your husband, too,” Vince reminded her as she closed the front door behind them.

“He's in the living room, Mr. Parker. This way, please.”

The living room was large and airy. Cream-colored walls and carpet. Pale-green sofas. Big plate-glass windows, partly shielded by green awnings, provided views of the meticulously landscaped property and of houses on the hills below.

Jonathan Yarbeck was stuffing handfuls of wood chips in among the logs that he'd piled in the brick fireplace, getting ready to light a fire. He stood up, dusting his hands together, as his wife introduced Vince. “. . . John Parker of the FBI.”

“FBI?” Yarbeck said, raising his eyebrows inquiringly.

“Mr. Yarbeck,” Vince said, “if there are other members of the family at home, I'd also like to speak with them now, so I don't have to repeat myself.”

Shaking his head, Yarbeck said, “There's just Liz and me. Kids are away at college. What's this all about?”

Vince drew the silencer-equipped pistol from inside his suit jacket and shot Jonathan Yarbeck in the chest. The attorney was flung backward against the mantel, where he hung for a moment as if nailed in place, then fell atop the brass fireplace tools.


Elisabeth Yarbeck was briefly frozen by astonishment and horror. Vince quickly moved on her. He grabbed her left arm and twisted it up behind her

back, hard. When she cried out in pain, he put the pistol against the side of her head and said, “Be quiet, or I'll blow your fuckin' brains out.”

He forced her to accompany him across the room to her husband's body. Jonathan Yarbeck was face-down on top of a small brass coal shovel and a brass-handled poker. He was dead. But Vince did not want to take chances. He shot Yarbeck twice in the back of the head at close range.

A strange, thin, catlike sound escaped Liz Yarbeck-then she began to sob.

Because of the distance and the smoky tint on the glass, Vince did not believe even the neighbors could see through the big windows, but he wanted to deal with the woman in a more private place. He forced her into the hall and headed deeper into the house, looking in doors as they went until he found the master bedroom. There, he gave her a hard shove, and she sprawled on the floor.

“Stay put,” he said.

He switched on the bedside lamps. He went to the big sliding-glass doors that opened onto the patio and began to close the drapes.

The moment his back was turned, the woman scrambled to her feet and ran toward the hall door.

He caught her, slammed her up against the wall, drove a fist into her stomach, knocking the wind out of her, then threw her to the floor again. Lifting her head by a handful of hair, he forced her to look him in the eyes. “Listen, lady, I'm not going to shoot you. I came here to get your husband. Just your husband. But if you try to slip away from me before I'm ready to let you go, I'll have to waste you, too. Understand?”

He was lying, of course. She was the one he was being paid to hit, and the husband had to be removed simply because he was there. However, it was true that Vince was not going to shoot her. He wanted her to be cooperative until he could tie her up and deal with her at a more leisurely pace. The two shootings had been satisfying, but he wanted to draw this one out, kill her more slowly. Sometimes, death could be savored like good food, fine wine, and glorious sunsets.

Gasping for breath, sobbing, she said, “Who are you?”

“None of your business.”

“What do you want?”

“Just shut up, cooperate, and you'll get out of this alive.”

She was reduced to urgent prayer, running the words together and sometimes punctuating them with small desperate wordless sounds.

Vince finished closing the drapes.

He tore the phone out of the wall and pitched it across the room.

Taking the woman by the arm again, he pulled her to her feet and dragged her into the bathroom. He searched through drawers until he found first-aid Supplies; the adhesive tape was just what he needed.

In the bedroom once more, he made her lie on her back on the bed. He Used the tape to bind her ankles together and to secure her wrists in front of

her. From a bureau drawer, he got a pair of her flimsy panties, which he wadded up and stuffed into her mouth. He sealed her mouth shut with a final strip of tape.

She was shaking violently, blinking through tears and sweat.

He left the bedroom, went to the living room, and knelt beside Jonathan

Yarbeck's corpse, with which he had unfinished business. He turned it over.

One of the bullets that had entered the back of Yarbeck's head had punched

out through his throat, just under his chin. His open mouth was full of blood.

One eye was rolled back in his skull, so only the white showed.

Vince looked into the other eye. “Thank you,” he said sincerely, reverently. “Thank you, Mr. Yarbeck.”

He closed both eyelids. He kissed them.

“Thank you.”

He kissed the dead man's forehead.

“Thank you for what you've given me.”

Then he went into the garage, where he searched through cabinets until he found some tools. He selected a hammer with a comfortable rubberized handle and a polished steel head.

When he returned to the quiet bedroom and put the hammer on the mattress beside the bound woman, her eyes widened almost comically.

She began to twist and squirm, tried to wrench her hands loose of the looped adhesive tape, to no avail.

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