Watchers by Dean Koontz


  house with Violet and, on venturing out, had looked at little more than her own shoes, she was seeing the town for the first time. It both charmed and thrilled her.

  At one o’clock, in Alameda Park within sight of the pond, she sat on a bench near three ancient and massive date palms. Her feet were getting sore, but she did not intend to go home early. She opened the paper bag and began lunch with the yellow apple. Never had anything tasted half as delicious. Famished, she quickly ate the orange, too, dropping the pieces of peel into the bag, and she was starting on the first of the oatmeal cookies when Art Streck sat down beside her.

  “Hello, prettiness.”

  He was wearing only blue running shorts, running shoes, and thick white athletic socks. However, he clearly hadn’t been running, for he wasn’t sweating. He was muscular with a broad chest, deeply tanned, exceedingly masculine. The whole purpose of his attire was to display his physique, so Nora at once averted her eyes.

  “Shy?” he asked.

  She could not speak because the bite she had taken from the oatmeal cookie was stuck in her mouth. She couldn’t work up any saliva. She was afraid she would choke if she tried to swallow the piece of cookie, but she couldn’t very well just spit it out.

  “My sweet, shy Nora,” Streck said.

  Looking down, she saw how badly her right hand was trembling. The cookie was being shaken to pieces in her fingers; bits of it dropped onto the paving between her feet.

  She had told herself that she would go for a daylong walk as a first step toward liberation, but now she had to admit there had been another reason for getting out of the house. She had been trying to avoid Streck’s attentions. She was afraid to stay home, afraid that he’d call and call and call. But now he had found her in the open, beyond the protection of her locked windows and bolted doors, which was worse than the telephone, infinitely worse.

  “Look at me, Nora.”

  No.

  “Look at me.”

  The last of the disintegrating cookie fell from her right hand.

  Streck took her left hand, and she tried to resist him, but he squeezed, grinding the bones of her fingers, so she surrendered. He put her hand palm-down on his bare thigh. His flesh was firm and hot.

  Her stomach twisted, and her heart thumped, and she did not know which she would do first—puke or pass out.

  Moving her hand slowly up and down his bare thigh, he said, “I’m what you need, prettiness. I can take care of you.”

  As if it were a wad of paste, the oatmeal cookie glued her mouth shut. She kept her head down, but she raised her eyes to look out from under her brow. She hoped to see someone nearby to whom she could call for help, but there were only two young mothers with their small children, and even they were too far away to be of assistance.

  Lifting her hand from his thigh, putting it on his bare chest, Streck said, “Having a nice stroll today? Did you like the mission? Hmmm? And weren’t the yucca blossoms pretty at the courthouse?”

  He rambled on in that cool, smug voice, asking her how she had liked other things she’d seen, and she realized he had been following her all morning, either in his car or on foot. She hadn’t seen him, but there was no doubt he had been there because he knew every move she had made since leaving the house, which frightened and infuriated her more than anything else he had done.

  She was breathing hard and fast, yet she felt as if she could not get her breath. Her ears were ringing, yet she could hear every word he said too clearly. Though she thought she might strike him and claw at his eyes, she was also paralyzed, on the verge of striking but unable to strike, simultaneously strong with rage and weak with fear. She wanted to scream, not for help but in frustration.

  “Now,” he said, “you’ve had a real nice stroll, a nice lunch in the park, and you’re in a relaxed mood. So you know what would be nice now? You know what would make this a terrific day, prettiness? A really special day? What we’ll do is get in my car, go back to your place, up to your yellow room, get in that four-poster bed—”

  He’d been in her bedroom! He must have done it yesterday. When he was supposed to have been in the living room fixing the TV, he must have sneaked upstairs, the bastard, prowling through her most private place, invading her sanctuary, poking through her belongings.

  “—that big old bed, and I’m going to strip you down, honey, strip you down and fuck you—”

  Nora would never be able to decide whether her sudden courage arose from the horrible realization that he’d violated her sanctuary, whether it was that he had spoken an obscenity in her presence for the first time, or whether both, but she snapped her head up and glared at him and spat the wad of uneaten cookie in his face. Flecks of spittle and damp spatters of food stuck on his right cheek, right eye, and on the side of his nose. Bits of oatmeal clung in his hair and speckled his forehead. When she saw anger flash into Streck’s eyes and contort his face, Nora felt a surge of terror at what she’d done. But she was also elated that she had been able to break the bonds of emotional paralysis that had immobilized her, even if her actions brought her grief, even if Streck retaliated.

  And he did retaliate swiftly, brutally. He still held her left hand, and she was unable to wrench free. He squeezed hard, as he had done before, grinding her bones. It hurt, Jesus, it hurt. But she did not want to give him the satisfaction of seeing her cry, and she was determined not to whimper or beg, so she clenched her teeth and endured. Sweat prickled her scalp, and she thought she might pass out. But the pain was not the worst of it; the worst was looking into Streck’s disturbing ice-blue eyes. As he crushed her fingers, he held her not merely with his hand but with his gaze, which was cold and infinitely strange. He was trying to intimidate and cow her, and it was working—by God, it was—because she saw in him a madness with which she would never be able to cope.

  When he saw her despair, which evidently pleased him more than a cry of pain could have done, he stopped grinding her hand, but he did not let go. He said, “You’ll pay for that, for spitting in my face. And you’ll enjoy paying for it.”

  Without conviction, she said, “I’ll complain to your boss, and you’ll lose your job.”

  Streck only smiled. Nora wondered why he did not bother to wipe the bits of oatmeal cookie from his face, but even as she wondered about it she knew the reason: he was going to make her do it for him. First, he said, “Lose my job? Oh, I already quit working for Wadlow TV. Walked out yesterday afternoon. So I’d have time for you, Nora.”

  She lowered her eyes. She could not conceal her fear, was shaken by it until she thought her teeth would chatter.

  “I never do stay too long in a job. Man like me, full of so much energy, gets bored easy. I need to move around. Besides, life’s too short to waste all of it working, don’t you think? So I keep a job for a while, till I’ve got some money saved, then I coast as long as I can. And once in a while I run into a lady like you, someone who has a powerful need for me, someone who’s just crying out for a man like me, and so I help her along.”

  Kick him, bite him, go for his eyes, she told herself.

  She did nothing.

  Her hand ached dully. She remembered how hot and intense the pain had been.

  His voice changed, became softer, soothing, reassuring, but that frightened her even more. “And I’m going to help you, Nora. I’ll be moving in for a while. It’s going to be fun. You’re a little nervous about me, sure, I understand that, I really do. But believe me, this is what you need, girl, this is going to turn your life upside down, nothing’s ever going to be the same again, and that’s the best thing could happen to you.”

  2

  Einstein loved the park.

  When Travis slipped off the leash, the retriever trotted to the nearest bed of flowers—big yellow marigolds surrounded by a border of purple polyanthuses—and walked slowly around it, obviously fascinated. He went to a blazing bed of late-blooming ranunculuses, to another of impatiens, and his tail wagged faster with each discov
ery. They said dogs could see in only black and white, but Travis would not have bet against the proposition that Einstein possessed full-color vision. Einstein sniffed everything— flowers, shrubbery, trees, rocks, trash cans, crumpled litter, the base of the drinking fountain, and every foot of ground he covered—no doubt turning up olfactory “pictures” of people and dogs that had passed this way before, images as clear to him as photographs would have been to Travis.

  Throughout the morning and early afternoon, the retriever had done nothing amazing. In fact, his I’m-just-an-ordinary-dumb-dog behavior was so convincing that Travis wondered if the animal’s nearly human intelligence came only in brief flashes, sort of the beneficial equivalent of epileptic seizures. But after all that had happened yesterday, Einstein’s extraordinary nature, though seldom revealed, was no longer open to debate.

  As they were strolling around the pond, Einstein suddenly went rigid, lifted his head, raised his floppy ears a bit, and stared at a couple sitting on a park bench about sixty feet away. The man was in running shorts, and the woman wore a rather baggy gray dress; he was holding her hand, and they appeared to be deep in conversation.

  Travis started to turn away from them, heading out toward the open green of the park to give them privacy.

  But Einstein barked once and raced straight toward the couple.

  “Einstein! Here! Come back here!”

  The dog ignored him and, nearing the pair on the bench, began to bark furiously.

  By the time Travis reached the bench, the guy in running shorts was standing. His arms were raised defensively, and his hands were fisted as he warily moved back a step from the retriever.

  “Einstein!”

  The retriever stopped barking, turned away from Travis before the leash could be clipped to the collar again, went to the woman on the bench, and put his head in her lap. The change from snarling dog to affectionate pet was so sudden that everyone was startled.

  Travis said, “I’m sorry. He never—”

  “For Christ’s sake,” said the guy in running shorts, “you can’t let a vicious dog run loose in a park!”

  “He’s not vicious,” Travis said. “He—”

  “Bullshit,” the runner said, spraying spittle. “The damn thing tried to bite me. You enjoy lawsuits or something?”

  “I don’t know what got into—”

  “Get it out of here,” the runner demanded.

  Nodding, embarrassed, Travis turned to Einstein and saw that the woman had coaxed the retriever onto the bench. Einstein was sitting with her, facing her, his forepaws in her lap, and she was not merely petting him but hugging him. In fact, there was something a little desperate about the way she was holding on to him.

  “Get it out of here!” the runner said furiously.

  The guy was taller, broader in the shoulders, and thicker in the chest than Travis, and he took a couple of steps forward, looming over Travis, using his superior size to intimidate. By being aggressive, by looking and acting a little dangerous, he was accustomed to getting his way. Travis despised such men.

  Einstein turned his head to look at the runner, bared his teeth, and growled low in his throat.

  “Listen, buddy,” the runner said angrily, “are you deaf, or what? I said that dog’s got to be put on a leash, and I see the leash there in your hand, so what the hell are you waiting for?”

  Travis began to realize something was wrong. The runner’s self-righteous anger was overdone—as if he had been caught in a shameful act and was trying to conceal his guilt by going immediately and aggressively on the offensive. And the woman was behaving peculiarly. She had not spoken a word. She was pale. Her thin hands trembled. But judging by the way she petted and clung to the dog, it wasn’t Einstein that frightened her. And Travis wondered why a couple would go to the park dressed so differently from each other, one in running shorts and the other in a drab housedress. He saw the woman glance surreptitiously and fearfully at the runner, and suddenly he knew that these two were not together—at least not by the woman’s choice—and that the man had, indeed, been up to something about which he felt guilty.

  “Miss,” Travis said, “are you all right?”

  “Of course she’s not all right,” the runner said. “Your damn dog came barking and snapping at us—”

  “He doesn’t seem to be terrorizing her right now,” Travis said, meeting and holding the other man’s gaze.

  Bits of what appeared to be oatmeal batter were stuck on the guy’s cheek. Travis had noticed an oatmeal cookie spilling from a bag on the bench beside the woman, and another one crumbled on the ground between her feet. What the hell had been going on here?

  The runner glared at Travis and started to speak. But then he looked at the woman and Einstein, and he evidently realized that his calculated outrage would no longer be appropriate. He said sullenly, “Well . . . you should still get the damn hound under control.”

  “Oh, I don’t think he’ll bother anyone now,” Travis said, coiling the leash. “It was just an aberration.”

  Still furious but uncertain, the runner looked at the huddled woman and said, “Nora?”

  She did not respond. She just kept petting Einstein.

  “I’ll see you later,” the runner told her. Getting no response, he refocused on Travis, narrowed his eyes, and said, “If that hound comes nipping at my heels—”

  “He won’t,” Travis interrupted. “You can get on with your run. He won’t bother you.”

  Several times as he jogged slowly across the park to the nearest exit, the man glanced back at them. Then he was gone.

  On the bench, Einstein had settled down on his belly with his head on the woman’s lap.

  Travis said, “He’s sure taken a liking to you.”

  Without looking up, smoothing Einstein’s coat with one hand, she said, “He’s a lovely dog.”

  “I just got him yesterday.”

  She said nothing.

  He sat down on the other end of the bench, with Einstein between them. “My name’s Travis.”

  Unresponsive, she scratched behind Einstein’s ears. The dog made a contented sound.

  “Travis Cornell,” he said.

  At last she raised her head and looked at him. “Nora Devon.”

  “Glad to meet you.”

  She smiled, but nervously.

  Though she wore her hair straight and lank, though she used no makeup, she was quite attractive. Her hair was dark and glossy, her skin flawless, and her gray eyes were accented with green striations that seemed luminous in the bright May sunshine.

  As if sensing his approval and frightened of it, she immediately broke eye contact, lowered her head once more.

  He said, “Miss Devon . . . is something wrong?”

  She said nothing.

  “Was that man . . . bothering you?”

  “It’s all right,” she said.

  With her head bowed and shoulders hunched, sitting there under a ton-weight of shyness, she looked so vulnerable that Travis could not just get up, walk away, and leave her with her problems. He said, “If that man was bothering you, I think we ought to find a cop—”

  “No,” she said softly but urgently. She slipped out from under Einstein and got up.

  The dog scrambled off the bench to stand beside her, gazing at her with affection.

  Rising, Travis said, “I don’t mean to pry, of course—”

  She hurried away, heading out of the park on a different path from the one the runner had taken.

  Einstein started after her but halted and reluctantly returned when Travis called to him.

  Puzzled, Travis watched her until she disappeared, an enigmatic and troubled woman in a gray dress as drab and shapeless as the garb of an Amish lady or a member of some other sect that took great pains to cloak the female figure in garments that would not lead a man into temptation.

  He and Einstein continued their walk through the park. Later, they went to the beach, where the retriever seemed astounded
by the endless vistas of rolling sea and by the breakers foaming on the sand. He repeatedly stopped to stare out at the ocean for a minute or two at a time, and he frolicked happily in the surf. Later still, back at the house, Travis tried to interest Einstein in the books that had caused such excitement last evening, hoping this time to be able to figure out what the dog expected to find in them. Einstein sniffed without interest at the volumes Travis brought to him—and yawned.

  Throughout the afternoon, the memory of Nora Devon returned to Travis with surprising frequency and vividness. She did not require alluring clothes to capture a man’s interest. That face and those green-flecked gray eyes were enough.

  3

  After only a few hours of deep sleep, Vincent Nasco took an early-morning flight to Acapulco, Mexico. He checked into a huge bayfront hotel, a gleaming but soulless highrise where everything was glass, concrete, and terrazzo. After he had changed into ventilated white Top-Siders, white cotton pants, and a pale-blue Ban-Lon shirt, he went looking for Dr. Lawton Haines.

  Haines was vacationing in Acapulco. He was thirty-nine years old, five-eleven, one hundred and sixty pounds, with unruly dark brown hair, and he was purported to look like Al Pacino, except that he had a red birthmark the size of a half-dollar on his forehead. He came to Acapulco at least twice a year, always stayed at the elegant Hotel Las Brisas on the headland at the eastern end of the bay, and frequently enjoyed long lunches at a restaurant adjacent to the Hotel Caleta, which he favored for its margaritas and its view of Playa de Caleta.

  By twelve-twenty in the afternoon, Vince was seated in a rattan chair with comfortable yellow and green cushions at a table by the windows in that same restaurant. He’d spotted Haines on entering. The doctor was at another window table, three away from Vince, half-screened by a potted palm. Haines was eating shrimp and drinking margaritas with a stunning blonde. She was wearing white slacks and a gaily striped tube-top, and half the men in the place were staring at her.

  As far as Vince was concerned, Haines looked more like Dustin Hoffman than like Pacino. He had those bold features of Hoffman’s, including the nose. Otherwise, he was exactly as he’d been described. The guy was wearing pink cotton trousers and a pale-yellow shirt and white sandals, which seemed, to Vince, to be taking tropical resort attire to an extreme.

  Vince finished a lunch of albondiga soup, seafood enchiladas in salsa verde, and a nonalcoholic margarita, and paid the check by the time Haines and the blonde were ready to leave.

  The blonde drove a red Porsche. Vince followed in a rental Ford, which had too many miles on it, rattled with the exuberance of percussion instruments in a mariachi band, and had fragrant moldy carpet.

  At Las Brisas, the blonde dropped Haines in the parking lot, though not until they stood beside her car for at least five minutes, holding each other’s asses and soul-kissing in broad daylight.

  Vince was dismayed. He expected Haines to have a stronger sense of propriety. After all, the man had a doctorate. If educated people did not uphold traditional standards of conduct, who would? Weren’t they teaching manners and deportment in the universities these days? No wonder the world got ruder and cruder every year.

  The blonde departed in her Porsche, and Haines left the lot in a white Mercedes 560 SL sports coupe. It sure wasn’t a rental, and Vince wondered where the doctor had gotten it.

  Haines checked his car with the valet at another hotel, as did Vince. He tailed the doctor through the lobby, out to the beach, where at first they seemed embarked on an uneventful stroll along the shore. But Haines settled down beside a gorgeous Mexican girl in a string bikini. She was dark, superbly proportioned, and fifteen years younger than the doctor. She was sunbathing on a lounge, her eyes closed. Haines kissed her throat, startling her. Evidently, she knew him, for she threw her arms around him, laughing.

  Vince walked down the beach and back, then sat on the sand behind Haines and the girl, with a pair of sunbathers interposed between them. He was not concerned that Haines would notice him. The doctor seemed to have eyes only for choice female anatomy. Besides, in spite of his size, Vince Nasco had a knack for fading into the background.

  Out on the bay, a tourist was taking a parachute ride, hanging high in the air behind the towboat. Sun fell like an endless rain of gold doubloons on the sand and the sea.

  After twenty minutes, Haines kissed the girl on the lips, and on the slopes of her breasts, then set off back the way he had come. The girl called out, “Tonight at six!” And Haines said, “I’ll be there.”

  Then Haines and Vince went for a pleasure drive. At first Vince thought Haines had a destination in mind, but after a while it seemed they were just heading aimlessly down the coast road, taking in the scenery. They passed Revolcadero Beach and kept going, Haines in his white Mercedes, Vince following as far back as he dared in his Ford.

 
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