Authors: Christina Dodd
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Because I'm Watching
is fondly dedicated to retired Air Force Major Roger B. Bell, who critiques and edits, who advises me on cars, planes, firearms, and the military. Virtue Falls is alive because of you.
And to Joyce Bell, a wonderful writer and a friend forever.
Thank you both!
Two years ago
Old Broadmoor neighborhood of Colorado Springs
Upstairs at her desk, Madeline Hewitson heard the back door open and close. She stopped typing.
“Hey, honey, it's me!” he called.
She smiled. “Welcome back!” she answered.
He was home.
Easton Robert Privet was the best thing that had ever happened to her, and he was home. His law office was in downtown Denver; after they got together she had offered to move into his high-rise condo and spare him the commute to the suburbs. But without being told, he had understood that to write interesting, riveting novels she needed to concentrate. She needed space around her, the sounds of birds, the smell of grass, a place to plant some flowers. He had bought an estate in a gated community with a guard and hourly security patrols because again, he understood she needed to feel safe.
What he didn't understand was that
made her feel secure.
Her brother Andrew was a good guy, but he'd grown impatient with her. He had told her to grow up, to get over her depression and her terror.
Not Easton. When she woke at night, rigid with fear, he was there to cradle her, to whisper encouragement:
The monster is gone. You were brave. You risked your own life to try to save themÂ â¦ because of you, the monster is dead.
Maddie traced the dark stain that marred the smooth grain of her walnut desktop.
It wasn't surprising that it was there; it was surprising there wasn't more.
Andrew said she should have the desk refinished, have the bloodstain removed. But to Maddie, that would be a desecration, so every day as she wrote, she would touch the stain, acknowledge the passing of her friends, and try very hard to forgive herself for not dying, too.
After witnessing those deaths, she had not imagined she would ever find the courage to live again. But Easton had given her that courage. He saw past the brave front she presented to the world, to the cowering girl caught in a cycle of fear and self-loathing, and he loved her. He had helped her break free of the past. With him, she was learning to move forward.
She shut her laptop and stood, ready to head downstairs. Easton had left early this morning on a business trip, one of those fly-out, fly-in things that he did on a regular basis. He seldom talked about where he was going; he took his pledge of client confidentiality seriously, and this morning when he woke her to kiss her good-bye, he had looked unusually grave. So it had been one of
cases, probably an ugly child-custody situation.
He'd landed at Colorado Springs Airport about an hour ago, called, and told her he would pick up dinner somewhere. They would eat, he'd ask how the book was coming, she'd ask how his day had gone. He would say, “Fine,” even when it hadn't, and she would keep it light and cheery. Everything about living with Easton was so normal, so all-American white-bread average, and so much more than she had ever hoped for.
Downstairs, she heard him speaking to someone in that special, soothing tone he used when addressing a frantic client.
She sat back down in her chair. When he was on the phone, he didn't want her listening in. She put her fingers on the keyboard and prepared to sink back into the story.
He gave a half shout followed by an odd, off-pitch squawk.
She found herself on her feet, staring toward the stairway. “Easton?” she called.
“Easton?” She owned a pistol. Easton had bought it for her twenty-fourth birthday. Easton had said it would make her feel secure to own a pistol, to learn how to use it. She had learned, and she kept itÂ â¦ close. She groped in the desk drawer and brought out her Smith & Wesson 642 revolver.
She didn't feel secure right now.
She released the safety and edged toward the door. “Easton? What's wrong?”
Still no answer.
The outer door opened again. It didn't close.
It was winter in Colorado Springs. Easton might go back out to his car. But he would never forget to close the door after himself.
Call the cops. Call the cops. Call the cops call the cops call the cops.
She scurried back to the desk. Without looking away from the door, she picked up the phone, fumbled it, caught it. She pressed the top entry on the autodial and when the 911 operator answered, she said, “I think there's something wrong with my fiancÃ©.”
“Who is this?”
“MaddieÂ â¦ Madeline Hewitson.”
“Can you tell me more, Madeline?”
Maddie stood, listening to the silence.
“Madeline! What do you think is wrong?”
As it was meant to do, the snap in the operator's voice brought Maddie's attention back to the call. “He made a funny noise. Now he's not answering me. I thinkÂ â¦ I think there might be an intruder.”
“Is your addressâ”
Maddie put the phone down on the desk, raised the pistol to the fist-in-palm position, and using the gun as a pointer, again started to move toward the door. But a movement in her peripheral vision caught her attention, made her glance out the window. A man hurried down the sidewalk. She could only see him from above; he wore a broad-brimmed black hat and a long, dark, businessman's coat. But the coat was open. It was flapping in the wind.
That wasn't right. In this weather, everyone huddled into themselves, their coats securely fastened.
That wasn't right.
Then he was out of sight.
She stuck her head out the doorway, glanced down the hallway, pulled back, and leaned against the wall. Her heart pounded painfully. Tears gathered in the corners of her eyes. Her hands shook in violent tremors.
She had to go down. She had to reassure herself that EastonÂ â¦ that he was okay.
She edged out of her office and with her back against the wall, she slid toward the stairs.
Easton was okay. Maybe he'd fallen and hurt himself. Maybe he'd forgotten the food in the car. MaybeÂ â¦ maybe there was a reason the cold north wind blasted through the open door and up the stairs, ruffling her hair and taking her breath.
Hurry! She needed to hurry!
But it was all she could do to lift one foot, then the other. She descended to the short landing near the bottom. She stopped there. The steps loomed as if they went up instead of down. Beyond was the kitchen where Easton wasÂ â¦ had beenÂ â¦
She stopped to quiet her breathing.
Everything was fine. She was overreacting.
She sidled over to the entry and peered into the sleek kitchen.
The room was empty. She didn't see anything unusual. Except the outside door was open. And a crimson stain on the tile floorÂ â¦ was moving, filling the lines of grout, and flowing toward her.
And that odor. She recognized the odor. It smelled like nighttime, like dust under her bed, like broken pleading and a man's smooth voice, oozing with pleasure as he vivisected her friends.
She heard a noise, a scratching.
She froze in place, her breathing silent and shallow.
He was going to find her. He was going to kill her.
Then a thump.
Another thump. A movement from behind the island. Red-stained fingers groped the corner of the cabinet as if seeking her.
She recognized the ring. His ring. Easton's ring.
Yet still, for one long terrible moment, she hesitated.
The door was open.
She was afraid.
She didn't want to seeÂ â¦
Then she ran toward him, rounded the corner of the island, saw her friend, her lover, stretched out on the floor in a spreading puddle of blood, his throat cut.
His eyes were open, but death's gray blanket had already covered him.
She knelt. She took his hand. “Easton,” she whispered. “Easton.”
But she didn't speak too loudly, in case the killer was still nearby.
When the police arrived, she still held the pistol in her hand.
Electronics are working. First test run. Subject afraid, insane, malleable.
Virtue Falls, Washington
Jacob Denisov sat in his upright chair in his living room, staring into the dark. If he kept his eyes open and stared with precisely the right concentration, without movement or thought, the pain didn't break through. It took work, but for months now, he had practiced, and he had gotten pretty good.
No pain slashing at his skull, trying to get out, to explode, to manifest itself in wild screams and violence that never stopped until he broke everythingÂ â¦ especially himselfÂ â¦
No North Korea. No deaths. No fault. The world beyond the dark did not exist. He floated in bleak eternity and only the stench of guilt lingered, ceaselessÂ â¦
The phone rang.
It rang again.
Five rings and the answering machine picked up.
“Jakie.” It was his mother's voice, loving, but with a sprinkling of fear and a dollop of exasperation. “I know you're there. Pick up the telephone.”
His mother was a morning person. That was when she did her best nagging. So the sun must be up.
She continued, “Just tell me you're all right. That's all you have to do, tell me you haven't died sitting in the dark in that house, brooding about a past you cannot change.”
“Jakie, are you eating right? You are a big man, like your father. You should be eating right.”
Jacob knew she wasn't done yet.
“Jakie, on Sunday, Father Ilovaiski asked about you. He said he was praying for you. Doesn't that feel good, to know he's praying for you?” As it did when she grew excited, her Russian accent strengthened. “When you come home to Everson and go to church with me, you will be healed. I'll fix you your favorite mealâthe black bread, the stroganoff, the pirozhkiâand the family will rejoice at the return of the prodigal son.”