Still breathing hard, Travis got to his feet and looked east into the woods. Evergreens, sycamores, a few larches. Shadows like swatches of dark cloth were fastened here and there by golden pins and needles of light. Brush. Briars. Climbing vines. A few well-worn toothlike formations of rock. He saw nothing out of the ordinary.
When he reached down and put a hand upon the retriever’s head, the dog stopped growling, as if it understood his intention. Travis drew a breath, held it, and listened for movement in the brush.
The cicadas remained silent. No birds sang in the trees. The woods were as still as if the vast, elaborate clockwork mechanism of the universe had ceased ticking.
He was sure that he was not the cause of the abrupt silence. His passage through the canyon had not previously disturbed either birds or cicadas.
Something was out there. An intruder of which the ordinary forest creatures clearly did not approve.
He took a deep breath and held it again, straining to hear the slightest movement in the woods. This time he detected the rustle of brush, a snapping twig, the soft crunch of dry leaves—and the unnervingly peculiar, heavy, ragged breathing of something big. It sounded about forty feet away, but he could not pinpoint its location.
At his side, the retriever had gone rigid. Its floppy ears were slightly pricked, straining forward.
The unknown adversary’s raspy breathing was so creepy—whether because of the echo effect of the forest and canyon, or because it was just creepy to begin with—that Travis quickly took off his backpack, un-snapped the flap, and withdrew the loaded .38.
The dog stared at the gun. Travis had the weird feeling that the animal knew what the revolver was—and approved of the weapon.
Wondering if the thing in the woods was a man, Travis called out: “Who’s there? Come on out where I can see you.”
The hoarse breathing in the brush was now underlaid with a thick menacing gnarl. The eerie guttural resonance electrified Travis. His heart beat even harder, and he went as rigid as the retriever beside him. For interminable ticking seconds, he could not understand why the noise itself had sent such a powerful current of fear through him. Then he realized that what frightened him was the noise’s ambiguity: the beast’s growl was definitely that of an animal . . . yet there was also an indescribable quality that bespoke intelligence, a tone and modulation almost like the sound that an enraged man might make. The more he listened, the more Travis decided it was neither strictly an animal nor human sound. But if neither . . . then what the hell was it?
He saw the high brush stirring. Straight ahead. Something was coming toward him.
“Stop,” he said sharply. “No closer.”
It kept coming.
Now just thirty feet away.
Moving slower than it had been. A bit wary perhaps. But closing in nevertheless.
The golden retriever began to growl threateningly, again warning off the creature that stalked them. But tremors were visible in its flanks, and its head shook. Though it was challenging the thing in the brush, it was profoundly frightened of a confrontation.
The dog’s fear unnerved Travis. Retrievers were renowned for boldness and courage. They were bred to be the companions of hunters, and were frequently used in dangerous rescue operations. What peril or foe could provoke such dread in a strong, proud dog like this?
The thing in the brush continued toward them, hardly more than twenty feet away now.
Though he had as yet seen nothing extraordinary, he was filled with superstitious terror, a perception of indefinable but uncanny presences. He kept telling himself he had chanced upon a cougar, just a cougar, that was probably more frightened than he was. But the icy prickling that began at the base of his spine and extended up across his scalp now intensified. His hand was so slick with sweat that he was afraid the gun would slip out of his grasp.
Travis pointed the .38 in the air and squeezed off a single warning shot. The blast crashed through the forest and echoed down the long canyon.
The retriever did not even flinch, but the thing in the brush immediately turned away from them and ran north, upslope, toward the canyon rim. Travis could not see it, but he could clearly mark its swift progress by the waist-high weeds and bushes that shook and parted under its assault.
For a second or two, he was relieved because he thought he had frightened it off. Then he saw it was not actually running away. It was heading north-northwest on a curve that would bring it to the deer trail above them. Travis sensed that the creature was trying to cut them off and force them to go out of the canyon by the lower route, where it would have more and better opportunities to attack. He did not understand how he knew such a thing, just that he did know it.
His primordial survival instinct drove him into action without the need to think about each move he made; he automatically did what was required. He had not felt that animal surety since he had seen military action almost a decade ago.
Trying to keep his eye on the telltale tremble of the brush to his right, abandoning his backpack and keeping only the gun, Travis raced up the steep trail, and the retriever ran behind him. Fast as he was, however, he was not fast enough to overtake the unknown enemy. When he realized that it was going to reach the path well above him, he fired another warning shot, which did not startle or deflect the adversary this time. He fired twice into the brush itself, toward the indications of movement, not caring if it was a man out there, and that worked. He did not believe he hit the stalker, but he scared it at last, and it turned away.
He kept running. He was eager to reach the canyon rim, where the trees were thin along the ridge top, where the brush was sparse, and where a brighter fall of sunlight did not permit concealing shadows.
When he arrived at the crest a couple of minutes later, he was badly winded. The muscles of his calves and thighs were hot with pain. His heart thumped so hard in his chest that he would not have been surprised to hear the echo of it bouncing off another ridge and coming back to him across the canyon.
This was where he had paused to eat some Oreos. The rattlesnake, which earlier had been sunning on a large flat rock, was gone.
The golden retriever had followed Travis. It stood beside him, panting, peering down the slope they had just ascended.
Slightly dizzy, wanting to sit and rest but aware that he was still in danger of an unknown variety, Travis looked down the deer trail, too, and scanned what underbrush he could see. If the stalker remained in pursuit of them, it was being more circumspect, climbing the slopes without disturbing the weeds and bushes.
The retriever whined and tugged once at Travis’s pants leg. It scurried across the top of the narrow ridge to a declivity by which they could make their way down into the next canyon. Clearly, the dog believed they were not out of danger and ought to keep moving.
Travis shared that conviction. His atavistic fear—and the reliance on instinct that it invoked—sent him hurrying after the dog, over the far side of the ridge, into another tree-filled canyon.
Vincent Nasco had been waiting in the dark garage for hours. He did not look as if he would be good at waiting. He was big—over two hundred pounds, six-three, muscular—and he always seemed to be so full of energy that he might burst at any moment. His broad face was placid, usually as expressionless as the face of a cow. But his green eyes flashed with vitality, with an edgy nervous watchfulness—and with a strange hunger that was like something you expected to see in the eyes of a wild animal, some jungle cat, but never in the eyes of a man. Like a cat, in spite of his tremendous energy, he was patient. He could crouch for hours, motionless and silent, waiting for prey.
At nine-forty Tuesday morning, much later than Nasco expected, the dead-bolt lock on the door between the garage and the house was disengaged with a single hard clack. The door opened, and Dr. Davis Weatherby flicked on the garage lights, then reached for the button that would raise the big sectional door.
ight there,” Nasco said, rising and stepping from in front of the doctor’s pearl-gray Cadillac.
Weatherby blinked at him, surprised. “Who the hell—”
Nasco raised a silencer-equipped Walther P-38 and shot the doctor once in the face.
Cut off in midsentence, Weatherby fell backward into the cheery yellow and white laundry room. Going down, he struck his head on the clothes dryer and knocked a wheeled metal laundry cart into the wall.
Vince Nasco was not worried about the noise because Weatherby was unmarried and lived alone. He stooped over the corpse, which had wedged the door open, and tenderly put one hand on the doctor’s face.
The bullet had hit Weatherby in the forehead, less than an inch above the bridge of his nose. There was little blood because death had been instantaneous, and the slug had not been quite powerful enough to smash through the back of the man’s skull. Weatherby’s brown eyes were open wide. He looked startled.
With his fingers, Vince stroked Weatherby’s warm cheek, the side of his neck. He closed the sightless left eye, then the right, although he knew that postmortem muscle reactions would pop them open again in a couple of minutes. With a profound gratefulness evident in his tremulous voice, Vince said, “Thank you. Thank you, Doctor.” He kissed both of the dead man’s closed eyes. “Thank you.”
Shivering pleasantly, Vince plucked the car keys off the floor where the dead man had dropped them, went into the garage, and opened the Cadillac’s trunk, being careful not to touch any surface on which he might leave a clear fingerprint. The trunk was empty. Good. He carried Weatherby’s corpse out of the laundry room, put it in the trunk, closed and locked the lid.
Vince had been told that the doctor’s body must not be discovered until tomorrow. He did not know why the timing was important, but he prided himself on doing flawless work. Therefore, he returned to the laundry room, put the metal cart where it belonged, and looked around for signs of violence. Satisfied, he closed the door on the yellow and white room, and locked it with Weatherby’s keys.
He turned out the garage lights, crossed the darkened space, and let himself out the side door, where he had entered during the night by quietly loiding the flimsy lock with a credit card. Using the doctor’s keys, he re-locked the door and walked away from the house.
Davis Weatherby lived in Corona Del Mar, within sight of the Pacific Ocean. Vince had left his two-year-old Ford van three blocks from the doctor’s house. The walk back to the van was very pleasant, invigorating. This was a fine neighborhood boasting a variety of architectural styles; expensive Spanish casas sat beside beautifully detailed Cape Cod homes with a harmony that had to be seen to be believed. The landscaping was lush and well tended. Palms and ficus and olive trees shaded the side-walks. Red, coral, yellow, and orange bougainvillaeas blazed with thousands of flowers. The bottlebrush trees were in bloom. The branches of jacarandas dripped lacy purple blossoms. The air was scented with star jasmine.
Vincent Nasco felt wonderful. So strong, so powerful, so alive.
Sometimes the dog led, and sometimes Travis took the lead. They went a long way before Travis realized that he had been completely jolted out of the despair and desperate loneliness that had brought him to the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains in the first place.
The big tattered dog stayed with him all the way to his pickup, which was parked along the dirt lane under the overhanging boughs of an enormous spruce. Stopping at the truck, the retriever looked back the way they had come.
Behind them, black birds swooped through the cloudless sky, as if engaged in reconnaissance for some mountain sorcerer. A dark wall of trees loomed like the ramparts of a sinister castle.
Though the woods were gloomy, the dirt road onto which Travis had stepped was fully exposed to the sun, baked to a pale brown, mantled in fine, soft dust that plumed around his boots with each step he took. He was surprised that such a bright day could have been abruptly filled with an overpowering, palpable sense of evil.
Studying the forest out of which they had fled, the dog barked for the first time in half an hour.
“Still coming, isn’t it?” Travis said.
The dog glanced at him and mewled unhappily.
“Yeah,” he said, “I feel it, too. Crazy . . . yet I feel it, too. But what the hell’s out there, boy? Huh? What the hell is it?”
The dog shuddered violently.
Travis’s own fear was amplified every time he saw the dog’s terror manifested.
He put down the tailgate of the truck and said, “Come on. I’ll give you a lift out of this place.”
The dog sprang into the cargo hold.
Travis slammed the gate shut and went around the side of the truck. As he pulled open the driver’s door, he thought he glimpsed movement in nearby brush. Not back toward the forest but at the far side of the dirt road. Over there, a narrow field was choked with waist-high brown grass as crisp as hay, a few bristly clumps of mesquite, and some sprawling oleander bushes with roots deep enough to keep them green. When he stared directly at the field, he saw none of the movement he thought he had caught from the corner of his eye, but he suspected that he had not imagined it.
With a renewed sense of urgency, he climbed into the truck and put the revolver on the seat beside him. He drove away from there as fast as the washboard lane permitted, and with constant consideration for the four-legged passenger in the cargo bed.
Twenty minutes later, when he stopped along Santiago Canyon Road, back in the world of blacktop and civilization, he still felt weak and shaky. But the fear that lingered was different from that he’d felt in the forest. His heart was no longer drumming. The cold sweat had dried on his hands and brow. The odd prickling of nape and scalp was gone—and the memory of it seemed unreal. Now he was afraid not of some unknown creature but of his own strange behavior. Safely out of the woods, he could not quite recall the degree of terror that had gripped him; therefore, his actions seemed irrational.
He pulled on the handbrake and switched off the engine. It was eleven o’clock, and the flurry of morning traffic had gone; only an occasional car passed on the rural two-lane blacktop. He sat for a minute, trying to convince himself that he had acted on instincts that were good, right, and reliable.
He had always taken pride in his unshakable equanimity and hardheaded pragmatism—in that if in nothing else. He could stay cool in the middle of a bonfire. He could make hard decisions under pressure and accept the consequences.
Except—he found it increasingly difficult to believe something strange had actually been stalking him out there. He wondered if he had misinterpreted the dog’s behavior and had imagined the movement in the brush merely to give himself an excuse to turn his mind away from self-pity.
He got out of the truck and stepped back to the side of it, where he came face-to-face with the retriever, which stood in the cargo bed. It shoved its burly head toward him and licked his neck, his chin. Though it had snapped and barked earlier, it was an affectionate dog, and for the first time its bedraggled condition struck him as having a comical aspect. He tried to hold the dog back. But it strained forward, nearly clambering over the side of the cargo hold in its eagerness to lick his face. He laughed and ruffled its tangled coat.
The retriever’s friskiness and the frenzied wagging of its tail had an unexpected effect on Travis. For a long time his mind had been a dark place, filled with thoughts of death, culminating in today’s journey. But this animal’s unadulterated joy in being alive was like a spotlight that pierced Travis’s inner gloom and reminded him that life had a brighter side from which he had long ago turned away.
“What was that all about back there?” he wondered aloud.
The dog stopped licking him, stopped wagging its matted tail. It regarded him solemnly, and he was suddenly transfixed by the animal’s gentle, warm brown eyes. Something in them was unusual, compelling. Travis was half-mesmerized, and the dog seemed equally captivated. As a
mild spring breeze rose from the south, Travis searched the dog’s eyes for a clue to their special power and appeal, but he saw nothing extraordinary about them. Except . . . well, they seemed somehow more expressive than a dog’s eyes usually were, more intelligent and aware. Given the short attention span of any dog, the retriever’s unwavering stare was damned unusual. As the seconds ticked past and as neither Travis nor the dog broke the encounter, he felt increasingly peculiar. A shiver rippled through him, occasioned not by fear but by a sense that something uncanny was happening, that he was teetering on the threshold of an awe-some revelation.
Then the dog shook its head and licked Travis’s hand, and the spell was broken.
“Where’d you come from, boy?”
The dog cocked its head to the left.
“Who’s your owner?”
The dog cocked its head to the right.
“What should I do with you?”
As if in answer, the dog jumped over the truck’s tailgate, ran past Travis to the driver’s door, and climbed into the pickup’s cab.
When Travis peered inside, the retriever was in the passenger’s seat, looking straight ahead through the windshield. It turned to him and issued a soft woof, as if impatient with his dawdling.
He got in behind the wheel, tucked the revolver under his seat. “Don’t believe I can take care of you. Too much responsibility, fella. Doesn’t fit in with my plans. Sorry about that.”
The dog regarded him beseechingly.
“You look hungry, boy.”
It woofed once, softly.
“Okay, maybe I can help you that much. I think there’s a Planters peanut bar in the glove compartment . . . and there’s a McDonald’s not far from here, where they’ve probably got a couple hamburgers with your name on them. But after that . . . well, I’ll either have to let you loose again or take you to the pound.”
Even as Travis was speaking, the dog raised one foreleg and hit the glove-compartment release button with a paw. The lid fell open.
“What the hell—”
The dog leaned forward, put its snout into the open box, and withdrew the candy in its teeth, holding the bar so lightly that the wrapping was not punctured.
Travis blinked in surprise.
The retriever held forth the peanut bar, as if requesting that Travis unwrap the treat.
Startled, he took the candy and peeled off the paper.
The retriever watched, licking its lips.
Breaking the bar into pieces, Travis paid out the treat in morsels. The dog took them gratefully and ate almost daintily.
Travis watched in confusion, not certain if what had happened was truly extraordinary or had a reasonable explanation. Had the dog actually understood him when he had said there was candy in the glove box? Or had it detected the scent of peanuts? Surely the latter.
To the dog, he said, “But how did you know to press the button to pop the lid open?”
It stared, licked its chops, and accepted another bit of candy.
He said, “Okay, okay, so maybe that’s a trick you’ve been taught. Though it’s not the sort of thing anyone would ordinarily train a dog to do, is it? Roll over, play dead, sing for your supper, even walk on your hind feet a little ways . . . yeah, those’re things that dogs are trained to do . . . but they’re not trained to open locks and latches.”
The retriever gazed longingly at the last morsel, but Travis withheld the goody for a moment.
The timing, for God’s sake, had been uncanny. Two seconds after Travis had referred to the peanut bar, the dog had gone for it.
“Did you understand what I said?” Travis asked, feeling foolish for suspecting a dog of possessing language skills. Nevertheless, he repeated the question: “Did you? Did you understand?”
Reluctantly, the retriever raised its gaze from the last of the candy. Their eyes met. Again Travis sensed that something uncanny was happening; he shivered not unpleasantly, as before.
He hesitated, cleared his throat. “Uh . . . would it be all right with you if I had the last piece?”
The dog turned its eyes to the two small squares of the Planters bar still in Travis’s hand. It chuffed once, as if with regret, then looked through the windshield.
“I’ll be damned,” Travis said.
The dog yawned.
Being careful not to move his hand, not holding the candy out, not calling attention to the treat in any manner except with words, he addressed the big tattered dog again: “Well, maybe you need it more than I do, boy. If you want it, the last bit’s yours.”
The retriever looked at him.
Still not moving his hand, keeping it close to his own body in a way that implied he was withholding the candy, he said, “If you want it, take it. Otherwise, I’ll just throw it away.”
The retriever shifted on the seat, leaned close to him, and gently snatched the treat off his palm.
“I’ll be double-damned,” he said.
The dog rose onto all fours, standing on the seat, which brought its head almost to the ceiling. It looked through the back window of the cab and growled softly.