Watchers Page 9

She hung up.

What's wrong with me? she wondered. Why can't I tell him to go away and stop bothering me?

Maybe her speechlessness grew from a secret desire to hear a man-any man, even a disgusting specimen like Streck-call her pretty. Although he was not the kind who would be capable of tenderness or affection, she could listen to him and imagine what it would be like to have a good man say sweet things to her.

“Well, you're not pretty,” she told herself, “and you never ever will be, so stop mooning around. Next time he calls, tell him off.”

She got out of bed and went down the hall to the bathroom, where there was a mirror. Following Violet Devon's example, Nora did not have mirrors anywhere in the house except the bathrooms. She did not like to look at herself because what she saw was saddening.

This one night, however, she wanted to take a look at herself because Streck's flattery, though cold and calculated, had stirred her curiosity. Not that she hoped to see some fine quality that she had never seen before. No. From duckling to swan overnight . . . that was a frivolous, hopeless dream. Rather, she wanted to confirm that she was undesirable. Streck's unwanted interest rattled Nora because she was comfortable in her homeliness and solitude, and she wanted to reassure herself that he was mocking her, that he would not act upon his threats, that her peaceful solitude would endure. Or so she told herself as she stepped into the bathroom and switched on the light.

The narrow chamber had pale-blue tile from floor to ceiling with a white-tile border. A huge claw-foot tub. White porcelain and brass fixtures. The large mirror was somewhat streaked with age.

She looked at her hair, which Streck said was beautiful, dark, glossy. But it was of one shade, without natural highlights; to her, it wasn't glossy but oily, although she had washed it that morning.

She looked quickly at her brow, cheekbones, nose, jaw line, lips, and chin. She tentatively traced her features with one hand, but she saw nothing to intrigue a man.

At last, reluctantly, she stared into her eyes, which Streck had called lovely. They were a dreary, lusterless shade of gray. She could not bear to meet her own gaze for more than a few seconds. Her eyes confirmed her low opinion of her appearance. But also . . . well, in her own eyes she saw a smoldering anger that disturbed her, that was not like her, an anger at what she had let herself become. Of course, that made no sense whatsoever because she was what nature had made her-a mouse-and she could do nothing about that.

Turning from the mottled mirror, she felt a pang of disappointment that her self-inspection had not resulted in a single surprise or reevaluation. Immediately, however, she was shocked and appalled by that disappointment. She stood in the bathroom doorway, shaking her head, amazed by her own befuddled thought processes.

Did she want to be appealing to Streck? Of course not. He was weird, sick, dangerous. The very last thing she wanted was to appeal to him. Maybe she wouldn't mind if another man looked on her with favor, but not Streck. She should get on her knees and thank God for creating her as she was, because if she were at all attractive, Streck would make good on his threats. He'd come here, and he'd rape her . . . maybe murder her. Who knew about a man like that? Who knew what his limits were? She wasn't being a nervous old maid when she worried about murder, not these days: the newspapers were full of it.

She realized that she was defenseless, and she hurried back to the bedroom, where she had left the butcher's knife.


Most people believe psychoanalysis is a cure for unhappiness. They are sure they could overcome all their problems and achieve peace of mind if only they could understand their own psychology, understand the reasons for their negative moods and self-destructive behavior. But Travis had learned this was not the case. For years, he engaged in unsparing self-analysis, and long ago he figured out why he had become a loner who was unable to make friends. However, in spite of that understanding, he had not been able to change.

Now, as midnight approached, he sat in the kitchen, drank another Coors, and told Einstein about his self-imposed emotional isolation. Einstein sat before him, unmoving, never yawning, as if intently interested in his tale.

“I was a loner as a kid, right from the start, though I wasn't entirely without friends. It was just that I always preferred my own company. I guess it's my nature. I mean, when I was a kid, I hadn't yet decided that my being friends with someone was a danger to him.”

Travis's mother had died giving birth to him, and he knew all about that from an early age. In time her death would seem like an omen of what was to come, and it would take on a terrible importance, but that was later. As a kid, he wasn't yet burdened with guilt.

Not until he was ten. That was when his brother Harry died. Harry was twelve, two years older than Travis. One Monday morning in June, Harry talked Travis into walking three blocks to the beach, although their father had expressly forbidden them to go swimming without him. It was a private cove without a public lifeguard, and they were the only two swimmers in sight.

“Harry got caught in an undertow,” Travis told Einstein. “We were in the water together no more than ten feet apart, and the damn undertow got him, sucked him away, but it didn't get me. I even went after him, tried to save him, so I should've swum straight into the same current, but I guess it changed course just after it snatched Harry away, 'cause I came out of the water alive.” He stared at the top of the kitchen table for a long moment, seeing not the red Formica but the rolling, treacherous, blue-green sea. “I loved my big brother more than anyone in the world.”

Einstein whined softly, as in commiseration.

“Nobody blamed me for what happened to Harry. He was the older one. He was supposed to be the most responsible. But I felt . . . well, if the undertow took Harry, it should've taken me, too.”

A night wind blew in from the west, rattled a loose windowpane.

After taking a swallow of beer, Travis said, “The summer I was fourteen, I wanted very badly to go to tennis camp. Tennis was my big enthusiasm then. So my dad enrolled me in a place down near San Diego, a full month of intense instruction. He drove me there on a Sunday, but we never made it. Just north of Oceanside, a trucker fell asleep at the wheel, his rig jumped the median, and we were wiped. Dad was killed instantly. Broken neck, broken back, skull crushed, chest caved in. I was in the front seat beside him, and I came out of it with a few cuts, bruises, and two broken fingers.”

The dog was studying him intently.

“It was just like with Harry. Both of us should have died, my father and me, but I escaped. And we wouldn't have been making the damn drive if I hadn't agitated like hell about tennis camp. So this time, there was no getting around it. Maybe I couldn't be blamed for my mother dying in childbirth, and maybe I couldn't be pinned with Harry's death, but this one . . . Anyway, although I wasn't always at fault, it began to be clear that I was jinxed, that it wasn't safe for people to get too close to me. When I loved somebody, really loved them, they were sure as shit going to die.”

Only a child could have been convinced that those tragic events meant he was a walking curse, but Travis was a child then, only fourteen, and no other explanation was so neat. He was too young to understand that the mindless violence of nature and fate often had no meaning that could be ascertained. At fourteen, he needed meaning in order to cope, so he told himself that he was cursed, that if he made any close friends he would be sentencing them to early death. Being somewhat of an introvert to begin with, he found it almost too easy to turn inward and make do with his own company.

By the time he graduated from college at the age of twenty-one, he was a confirmed loner, though maturity had given him a healthier perspective On the deaths of his mother, brother, and father. He no longer consciously thought of himself as jinxed, no longer blamed himself for what had happened to his family. He remained an introvert, without close friends, partly because he had lost the ability to form and nurture intimate relationships and partly because he figured he could not be shattered by grief if he had no friends to lose.

“Habit and self-defense kept me emotionally isolated,” he told Einstein.

The dog rose and crossed the few feet of kitchen floor that separated them. It insinuated itself between his legs and put its head in his lap.

Petting Einstein, Travis said, “Had no idea what I wanted to do after college, and there was a military draft then, so I joined up before they could call me. Chose the army. Special Forces. Liked it. Maybe because . . . well, there was a sense of camaraderie, and I was forced to make friends. See, I pretended not to want close ties with anyone, but I must have because I put myself in a situation where it was inevitable. Decided to make a career out of the service. When Delta Force-the antiterrorist group-was formed, that's where I finally landed. The guys in Delta were tight, real buddies. They called me 'The Mute' and 'Harpo' because I wasn't a talker, but in spite of myself I made friends. Then, on our eleventh operation, my squad was flown into Athens to take the U.S. embassy back from a group of Palestinian extremists who'd seized it. They'd killed eight staff members and were still killing one an hour, wouldn't negotiate. We hit them quick and sneaky-and it was a fiasco. They'd booby-trapped the place. Nine men in my squad died. I was the only survivor. A bullet in my thigh. Shrapnel in my ass. But a survivor.”

Einstein raised his head from Travis's lap.

Travis thought he saw sympathy in the dog's eyes. Maybe because that was what he wanted to see.

“That's eight years ago, when I was twenty-eight. Left the army. Came home to California. Got a real-estate license because my dad had sold real estate, and I didn't know what else to do. Did real well, maybe 'cause I didn't care if they bought the houses I showed them, didn't push, didn't act like a salesman. Fact is, I did so well that I became a broker, opened my own office, hired salespeople.”

Which was how he had met Paula. She was a tall blond beauty, bright and amusing, and she could sell real estate so well that she joked about having lived an earlier life in which she had represented the Dutch colonists when they had bought Manhattan from the Indians for beads and trinkets. She was smitten with Travis. That's what she'd told him: “Mr. Cornell, sir, I am smitten. I think it's your strong, silent act. Best Clint Eastwood imitation I've ever seen.” Travis resisted her at first. He did not believe he would jinx Paula; at least, he didn't consciously believe it; he had not openly reverted to childhood superstition. But he did not want to risk the pain of loss again. Undeterred by his hesitancy, she pursued him, and in time he had to admit he Was in love with her. So in love that he told her about his lifelong tag game With Death, something of which he spoke to no one else. “Listen,” Paula said, “you won't have to mourn me. I'm going to outlive you because I'm not the type to bottle up my feelings. I take out my frustrations on those around me, so I'm bound to shave a decade off your life.”

They had been married in a simple courthouse ceremony four years ago, the summer after Travis's thirty-second birthday. He had loved her. Oh God, how he had loved her.

To Einstein, he said, “We didn't know it then, but she had cancer on our wedding day. Ten months later, she was dead.”

The dog put its head down in his lap again.

For a while, Travis could not continue.

He drank some beer.

He stroked the dog's head.

In time he said, “After that, I tried to go on as usual. Always prided myself in going on, facing up to anything, keeping my chin up, all that bullshit. Kept the real-estate office running another year. But none of it mattered any more. Sold it two years ago. Cashed in all my investments, too. Turned everything into cash and socked it in the bank. Rented this house. Spent the last two years . . . well, brooding. And I got squirrelly. Hardly a surprise, huh? Squirrelly as hell. Came full circle, you see, right back to what I believed when I was a kid. That I was a danger to anyone who gets close to me. But you changed me, Einstein. You turned me around in one day. I swear, it's like you were sent to show me that life's mysterious, strange, and full of wonders- and that only a fool withdraws from it willingly and lets it pass him by.”

The dog was peering up at him again.

He lifted his beer can, but it was empty.

Einstein went to the fridge and got another Coors.

Taking the can from the dog, Travis said, “Now, after hearing the whole sorry thing, what do you think? You think it's wise for you to hang around with me? You think it's safe?”

Einstein woofed.

“Was that a yes?”

Einstein rolled onto his back and put all four legs in the air, baring his belly as he had done earlier when he had permitted Travis to collar him.

Putting his beer aside, Travis got off his chair, settled on the floor, and stroked the dog's belly. “All right,” he said. “All right. But don't die on me, damn you. Don't you dare die on me.”


Nora Devon's telephone rang again at eleven o'clock.

It was Streck. “Are you in bed now, prettiness?”

She did not reply.

“Do you wish I was there with you?”

Since the previous call, she had thought about how to handle him and had come up with several threats she hoped might work. She said, “If you don't leave me alone, I'll go to the police.”

“Nora, do you sleep in the nude?”

She was sitting in bed. She sat up straighter, tense, rigid. “I'll go to the police and say you tried to . . . to force yourself on me. I will, I swear! will.”

“I'd like to see you in the nude,” he said, ignoring her threat. “I'll lie. I'll say you r-raped me.”

“Wouldn't you like me to put my hands on your breasts, Nora?”

Dull cramps in her stomach forced her to bend forward in bed. “I'll have the telephone company put a tap on my line, record all the calls I get, so I'll have proof.”

“Kiss you all over, Nora. Wouldn't that be nice?”

The cramps were getting worse. She was shaking uncontrollably, too. Her voice cracked repeatedly as she employed her final threat: “I have a gun. I have a gun.”

“Tonight you'll dream about me, Nora. I'm sure you will. You'll dream about me kissing you everywhere, all over your pretty body-”

She slammed the phone down.

Rolling onto her side on the bed, she hunched her shoulders and drew up her knees and hugged herself. The cramps had no physical cause. They were strictly an emotional reaction, generated by fear and shame and rage and enormous frustration.

Gradually, the pain passed. Fear subsided, leaving only rage.

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