Watchers by Dean Koontz


  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.

  chapter two

  1

  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 rapist 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’s 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 watchful-ness, 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 bougainvillaea 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 un-enlivened 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.

  “You decorate?” Art Streck asked.

  “No. My aunt,” Nora said. She stood by the marble fireplace, almost as far from him as she could get without leaving the room. “This was her place. I . . . inherited it.”

  “If I was you,” he said, “I’d heave all this stuff out of here. Could be a bright, cheery room. Pardon my saying so, but this isn’t you. This might be all right for someone’s maiden aunt . . . She was a maiden aunt, huh? Yeah, thought so. Might be all right for a dried-up maiden aunt, but definitely not for a pretty lady like yourself.”

  Nora wanted to criticize his impertinence, wanted to tell him to shut up and fix the television, but she had no experience at standing up for herself. Aunt Violet had preferred her meek, obedient.

  Streck was smiling at her. The right corner of his mouth curled in a most unpleasant way. It was almost a sneer.

  She forced herself to say, “I like it well enough.”

  “Not really?”

  “Yes.”

  He shrugged. “What’s the matter with the set?”

  “The picture won’t stop rolling. And there’s static, snow.”

  He pulled the television away from the wall, switched it on, and studied the tumbling, static-slashed images. He plugged in a small portable lamp and hooked it to the back of the set.

  The grandfather clock in the hall marked the quarter-hour with a single chime that reverberated hollowly through the house.

  “You watch a lot of TV?” he asked as he unscrewed the dust shield from the set.

  “Not much,” Nora said.

  “I like those nighttime soaps. Dallas, Dynasty, that stuff.”

  “I never watch them.”

  “Yeah? Oh, now, come on, I bet you do.” He laughed slyly. “Everybody watches ’em even if they don’t want to admit it. Just isn’t anything more interesting than stories full of backstabbing, scheming, thieving, lying . . . and adultery. You know what I’m saying? People sit and watch it and cluck their tongues and say, ‘Oh, how awful,’ but they really get off on it. That’s human nature.”

  “I . . . I’ve got things to do in the kitchen,” she said nervously. “Call me when you’ve fixed the set.” She left the room and went down the hall through the swinging door into the kitchen.

  She was trembling. She despised herself for her weakness, for the ease with which she surrendered to fear, but she could not help being what she was.

  A mouse.

  Aunt Violet had often said, “Girl, there are two kinds of people in the world—cats and mice. Cats go where they want, do what they want, take what they want. Cats are aggressive and self-sufficient by nature. Mice, on the other hand, don’t have an ounce of aggression in them. They’re naturally vulnerable, gentle, and timid, and they’re happiest when they keep their heads down and accept what life gives them. You’re a mouse, dear. It’s not bad to be a mouse. You can be perfectly happy. A mouse might not have as colorful a life as a cat, but if it stays safely in its burrow and keeps to itself, it’ll live longer than the cat, and it’ll have a lot less turmoil in its life.”

  Right now, a cat lurked in the living room, fixing the TV set, and Nora was in the kitchen, gripped by mouselike fear. She was not actually in the middle of cooking anything, as she had told Streck. For a moment she stood by the sink, one cold hand clasped in the other—her hands always seemed to be cold—wondering what to do until he finished his work and left. She decided to bake a cake. A yellow c
ake with chocolate icing. That task would keep her occupied and help turn her mind away from the memory of Streck’s suggestive winking.

  She got bowls, utensils, an electric mixer, plus the cake mix and other ingredients out of the cupboards, and she set to work. Soon her frayed nerves were soothed by the mundane domestic activity.

  Just as she finished pouring the batter into the two baking pans, Streck stepped into the kitchen and said, “You like to cook?”

  Surprised, she nearly dropped the empty metal mixing bowl and the batter-smeared spatula. Somehow, she managed to hold on to them and— with only a little clatter to betray her tension—put them into the sink to be washed. “Yes. I like to cook.”

  “Isn’t that nice? I admire a woman who enjoys doing woman’s work. Do you sew, crochet, do embroidery, anything like that?”

  “Needlepoint,” she said.

  “That’s even nicer.”

  “Is the TV fixed?”

  “Almost.”

  Nora was ready to put the cake in the oven, but she did not want to carry the pans while Streck was watching her because she was afraid she would shake too much. Then he’d realize that she was intimidated by him, and he would probably get bolder. So she left the full pans on the counter and tore open the box of icing mix instead.

  Streck came farther into the big kitchen, moving casually, very relaxed, looking around with an amiable smile, but coming straight toward her. “Think I could have a glass of water?”

  Nora almost sighed with relief, eager to believe that a drink of cold water was all that had brought him here. “Oh, yes, of course,” she said. She took a glass from the cupboard, ran the cold water.

  When she turned to hand it to him, he was standing close behind her, having crept up with catlike quiet. She gave an involuntary start. Water slopped out of the glass and splattered on the floor.

  She said, “You—”

  “Here,” he said, taking the glass from her hand.

  “—startled me.”

  “Me?” he said, smiling, fixing her with icy blue eyes. “Oh, I certainly didn’t mean to. I’m sorry. I’m harmless, Mrs. Devon. Really, I am. All I want is a drink of water. You didn’t think I wanted anything else—did you?”

  He was so damned bold. She couldn’t believe how bold he was, how smart-mouthed and cool and aggressive. She wanted to slap his face, but she was afraid of what would happen after that. Slapping him—in any way acknowledging his insulting double entendres or other offenses—seemed sure to encourage rather than deter him.

  He stared at her with unsettling intensity, voraciously. His smile was that of a predator.

  She sensed the best way to handle Streck was to pretend innocence and monumental thickheadedness, to ignore his nasty sexual innuendos as if she had not understood them. She must, in short, deal with him as a mouse might deal with any threat from which it was unable to flee. Pretend you do not see the cat, pretend that it is not there, and perhaps the cat will be confused and disappointed by the lack of reaction and will seek more responsive prey elsewhere.

  To break away from his demanding gaze, Nora tore a couple of paper towels from the dispenser beside the sink and began to mop up the water she had spilled on the floor. But the moment she stooped before Streck, she realized she’d made a mistake, because he did not move out of her way but stood over her, loomed over her, while she squatted in front of him. The situation was full of erotic symbolism. When she realized the submissiveness implied by her position at his feet, she popped up again and saw that his smile had broadened.

  Flushed and flustered, Nora threw the damp towels into the wastecan under the sink.

  Art Streck said, “Cooking, needlepoint . . . yeah, I think that’s real nice, real nice. What other things do you like to do?”

  “That’s it, I’m afraid,” she said. “I don’t have any unusual hobbies. I’m not a very interesting person. Low-key. Dull, even.”

  Damning herself for being unable to order the bastard out of her house, she slipped past him and went to the oven, ostensibly to check that it was finished preheating, but she was really just trying to get out of Streck’s reach.

  He followed her, staying close. “When I pulled up out front, I saw lots of flowers. You tend the flowers?”

  Staring at the oven dials, she said, “Yes . . . I like gardening.”

  “I approve of that,” he said, as if she ought to care whether he approved or not. “Flowers . . . that’s a good thing for a woman to have an interest in. Cooking, needlepoint, gardening—why, you’re just full of womanly interests and talents. I’ll bet you do everything well, Mrs. Devon. I mean everything a woman should do. I’ll bet you’re a first-rate woman in every department.”

  If he touches me, I’ll scream, she thought.

  However, the walls of the old house were thick, and the neighbors were some distance away. No one would hear her or come to her rescue.

  I’ll kick him, she thought. I’ll fight back.

  But, in fact, she was not sure that she would fight, was not sure that she had the gumption to fight. Even if she did attempt to defend herself, he was bigger and stronger than she was.

  “Yeah, I’ll bet you’re a first-rate woman in every department,” he repeated, delivering the line more provocatively than before.

  Turning from the oven, she forced a laugh. “My husband would be astonished to hear that. I’m not too bad at cakes, but I’ve still not learned to make a decent piecrust, and my pot roast always turns out bone-dry. My needlepoint’s not half bad, but it takes me forever to get anything done.” She slipped past him and returned to the counter. She was amazed to hear herself chattering on as she opened the box of icing mix. Desperation made her garrulous. “I’ve got a green thumb with flowers, but I’m not much of a housekeeper, and if my husband didn’t help out—why, this place would be a disaster.”

  She thought she sounded phony. She detected a note of hysteria in her voice that had to be evident to him. But the mention of a husband had obviously given Art Streck second thoughts about pushing her further. As Nora poured the mix into a bowl and measured out the required butter, Streck drank the water she had given him. He went to the sink and put the empty glass in the dishpan with the dirty bowls and utensils. This time he did not press unnecessarily close to her.

  “Well, I better get back to work,” he said.

  She gave him a calculatedly distracted smile, and nodded. She began to hum softly as she returned to her own task, as if untroubled.

  He crossed the kitchen and pushed open the swinging door, then stopped and said, “Your aunt really liked dark places, didn’t she? This kitchen would be swell, too, if you brightened it up.”

  Before she could respond, he went out, letting the door swing shut behind him.

  In spite of his unasked-for opinion of the kitchen decor, Streck seemed to have pulled in his horns, and Nora was pleased with herself. Using a few white lies about her nonexistent husband, delivered with admirable equanimity, she had handled him after all. That was not exactly the way a cat would have dealt with an aggressor, but it was not the timid, frightened behavior of a mouse, either.

  She looked around at the high-ceilinged kitchen and decided it was too dark. The walls were a muddy blue. The frosted globes of the overhead lights were opaque, shedding a drab, wintry glow. She considered having the kitchen repainted, the lights replaced.

  Merely to contemplate making major changes in Violet Devon’s house was dizzying, exhilarating. Nora had redone her own bedroom since Violet’s death, but nothing else. Now, wondering if she could follow through with extensive redecoration, she felt wildly daring and rebellious. Maybe. Maybe she could. If she could fend off Streck, maybe she could dredge up the courage to defy her dead aunt.

  Her upbeat self-congratulatory mood lasted just twenty minutes, which was long enough to put the cake pans in the oven and whip up the icing and wash some of the bowls and utensils. Then Streck returned to tell her the TV set was repaired and to give her the bil
l. Though he had seemed subdued when he left the kitchen, he was as cocky as ever when he entered the second time. He looked her up and down as if undressing her in his imagination, and when he met her eyes he gave her a challenging look.

  She thought the bill was too high, but she did not question it because she wanted him out of the house quickly. As she sat at the kitchen table to write the check, he pulled the now-familiar trick of standing too close to her, trying to cow her with his masculinity and superior size. When she stood and handed him the check, he contrived to take it in such a way that his hand touched hers suggestively.

  All the way along the hall, Nora was more than half-convinced that he would suddenly put down his tool kit and attack her from behind. But she got to the door, and he stepped past her onto the veranda, and her racing heart began to slow to a more normal pace.

  He hesitated just outside the door. “What’s your husband do?”

  The question disconcerted her. It was something he might have asked earlier, in the kitchen, when she had spoken of her husband, but now his curiosity seemed inappropriate.

  She should have told him it was none of his business, but she was still afraid of him. She sensed that he could be easily angered, that the pent-up violence in him could be triggered with minor effort. So she answered him with another lie, one she hoped would make him reluctant to harass her any further: “He’s a . . . policeman.”

  Streck raised his eyebrows. “Really? Here in Santa Barbara?”

  “That’s right.”

  “Quite a house for a policeman.”

  “Excuse me?” she said.

  “Didn’t know policemen were paid so well.”

  “Oh, but I told you—I inherited the house from my aunt.”

  “Of course, I remember now. You told me. That’s right.”

  Trying to reinforce the lie, she said, “We were living in an apartment when my aunt died, and then we moved here. You’re right—we wouldn’t have been able to afford it otherwise.”

  “Well,” he said, “I’m happy for you. I sure am. A lady as pretty as you deserves a pretty house.”

  He tipped an imaginary hat to her, winked, and went along the walk toward the street, where his white van was parked at the curb.

  She closed the door and watched him through a clear segment of the leaded, stained-glass oval window in the center of the door. He glanced back, saw her, and waved. She stepped away from the window, into the gloomy hallway, and watched him from a point at which she could not be seen.

  Clearly, he hadn’t believed her. He knew the husband was a lie. She shouldn’t have said she was married to a cop, for God’s sake; that was too obvious an attempt to dissuade him. She should have said she was married to a plumber or doctor, anything but a cop. Anyway, Art Streck was leaving. Though he knew she was lying, he was leaving.

  She did not feel safe until his van was out of sight.

  Actually, even then, she did not feel safe.

  2

  After murdering Dr. Davis Weatherby, Vince Nasco had driven his gray Ford van to a service station on Pacific Coast Highway. In the public phone booth, he deposited coins and called a Los Angeles number that he had long ago committed to memory.

  A man answered by repeating the number Vince had dialed. It was one of the usual three voices that responded to calls, the soft one with a deep timbre. Often, there was another man with a hard sharp voice that grated on Vince.

  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!

 
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