Until she got pregnant, Lauren Caylor and her husband worked side by side in the high-pressure offices of one of Los Angeles’s most prestigious law firms. They moved out of LA for the sake of their daughter, but their marriage couldn’t stand the slow pace of suburban life, and their love withered away. Now married to a wonderfully understanding man named Richard, Lauren’s life is a suburban ideal—and it is about to be destroyed.
It starts one afternoon when she notices a car following her home from work. Next, a pair of recluses moves into the house across the street, sending Richard into a strange panic. When it becomes clear that their family is being threatened, Richard promises to take action. But Lauren is beginning to fear that her husband may be the one who can’t be trusted.
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About the Author
Lomax would star in four more novels, including Blood Stone (1988), The Dead of Winter (1989), and Grave Doubt (1995). In the early 1990s, Allegretto began writing standalone novels, including the Christmas suspense story Night of Reunion (1990) and the fast-paced family thriller The Watchmen (1991).
Read an Excerpt
By Michael Allegretto
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1991 Michael Allegretto
All rights reserved.
Lauren Caylor was not alarmed by the man, but she was intrigued.
She'd stepped out of the air-conditioned, fluorescent-lit confines of the San Miguel municipal building into the warm, hazy California sunshine, glad the workday was over. It had been long and tedious, and most of her time had been spent hunched over a drafting table. She'd entered the parking lot with her fellow workers—planners, civil engineers, technicians, drafters, and secretaries. They'd waved and dispersed to their cars.
As Lauren had made her way across the warm asphalt lot, one car caught her attention. Not the car, actually, but the enormous, white bird dropping that graced its shiny, dark blue hood.
Bombed by a monster sea gull, she'd thought, smiling.
And that's when she'd seen the man.
He was sitting at the wheel, hiding his face behind a paperback book.
Lauren assumed he was waiting to pick up a city employee after work, perhaps his wife. But there were people walking past him and car engines revving up throughout the parking lot, and the man seemed totally unconcerned. He just sat, roasting in the mid-May afternoon sun with his engine off and the windows up, reading a book.
Lauren walked to her car, glancing back once at the man. His face remained buried in his book.
She climbed in her four-year-old Honda Civic and quickly cranked down the windows to let out the sun-baked air. Then she drove slowly from the parking lot, falling in line with the other cars turning into the parkway, which was flanked by majestic palm trees.
At the intersection of Santa Rosa Avenue Lauren turned left toward the Pacific Ocean. It was barely discernible a mile away, showing itself as a hazy blue line between treetops and white stucco buildings. The Spanish-style homes that fronted the avenue were set well back from the street and protected by low stone walls covered with lush vines and wild roses. Lauren passed before them, staying in the flow of traffic until she reached Ocean Boulevard.
As she turned left, she glanced in her side-view mirror.
The dark blue car with the bird dropping on the hood was entering the boulevard behind her.
Lauren was surprised that the car had caught up with her so quickly, since when she'd left the lot the driver had seemed engrossed in his book, apparently still waiting for someone. But now he was close by, partially hidden in the traffic behind her.
She continued along Ocean Boulevard, bounded by the sea on the right and by restaurants and condos on the left.
Lauren wondered if she was acquainted with the man's passenger, whoever it was he'd picked up after work. She tried to look, but the car was now totally hidden in traffic. So Lauren shrugged and did what she usually did when she drove along this stretch of roadway—she let her gaze sweep over the ocean and the smooth, soothing sandy beach.
A mile later the nearest car behind her pulled over to turn. The movement in the mirror caught Lauren's eye. And now she saw that the dark blue car was directly behind her.
The driver was alone.
Lauren frowned. She couldn't help feeling mildly annoyed by the continued presence of the car. Forget about it, she told herself, it means nothing. She focused her full attention on the traffic before her, which seemed to grow thicker with each passing block. A few miles later she approached her intersection. She eased into the left-hand lane, waited for a break in the oncoming traffic, and turned.
She looked into her mirror. The dark blue car was turning behind her.
Lauren felt a brief chill. Is this guy following me?
Don't be ridiculous, she told herself. Although she knew there were lots of crazies around. And some of them were vicious. She'd seen plenty of news stories about women being raped and sometimes murdered by total strangers.
But not by this man, Lauren thought, looking in the rearview mirror. He probably takes this route home every day, just as I do.
She drove a few more blocks, then turned right, toward Emily's school. The dark blue car did not turn, but continued straight ahead and passed out of sight.
Lauren smiled wryly, feeling relieved—and a bit foolish. She looked at herself in the rearview mirror and brushed a stray strand of light brown hair from her forehead.
"You read too many mysteries," she said aloud.
Lauren slowed the car, looking for a place to park among the sedans and station wagons that lined the curb. She found a space near the end of the block, where the yellow school buses were now boarding children. Of course, her daughter was not one of them. At five and a half years of age Emily was not, in Lauren's opinion, old enough to ride a school bus.
She climbed out of the car and walked toward the building, a long, two-story brick edifice whose sterile lines were camouflaged by ivy and eucalyptus trees. The activities inside, though, were anything but sterile. In fact, Oceanside Day School had a reputation for solid yet progressive instruction.
Lauren had researched the schools in San Miguel before enrolling Emily. The public schools were fine, particularly the middle and upper schools, but for the lower grade levels Lauren had been most impressed by the teachers she'd met at Oceanside. They seemed bright and open and good-natured. Thoroughly professional. Best of all, they appeared to be genuinely interested in children.
Oceanside was open to any child whose parents could afford the reasonable tuition. But Lauren's income was modest, so she'd been forced to discuss the issue with her ex-husband, Paul Webb. He'd agreed to increase his child support payments to cover the cost of the school. Of course, first he'd had to complain and criticize, but Lauren had expected that.
"Aren't there better schools than Oceanside?" he'd said.
"If you mean more expensive, yes."
"What's wrong with Fairview?"
Fairview was the in school for status-minded people living in San Miguel. It was a good school, but the tuition was outrageous—high enough to keep out children from all but upper-income families.
"Nothing's wrong with it," Lauren had answered. "I just think Oceanside is better."
"What happens when all her friends from the neighborhood go to Fairview and Emily goes somewhere else? She'll be an outcast."
"Baloney. Half of her friends will be going to Oceanside. Besides, she'll make new friends."
"Yeah, well, I don't want my daughter corrupted by other kids who live God knows where."
Lauren didn't bother looking for her daughter in the sea of faces that swept past her as she entered the building. She knew Emily would be waiting inside. It was school policy: A student could not leave with an adult who hadn't first been identified as a parent or legal guardian, unless prior arrangements had been made in writing.
Last year this policy had been voted on, passed overwhelmingly by the parents and teachers. It was a terrible fact, Lauren knew, that children were sometimes kidnapped from schools. And although it had never happened at Oceanside, everyone agreed it was better to take preventive measures now rather than to wait for a tragedy.
Lauren entered the large kindergarten room.
Worktables, chairs, and floor pillows were arranged in clusters, and books and toys were stacked on shelves along one wall. The remaining walls were hung with chalkboards and cork boards to which had been pinned drawings and finger paintings. Two small girls and a boy were sitting at a low, round table. A young, blond-haired woman was helping the children put together a jigsaw puzzle from oversize pieces.
Lauren stood for a moment just inside the doorway, watching her daughter.
Emily wore red sneakers, blue pants, and a yellow shirt featuring Garfield the cat. She was kneeling on her chair, leaning over the table, her golden-brown hair hanging just off her shoulders. She held a jigsaw piece in one hand, and the tip of her tongue was tucked in the corner of her mouth. Suddenly her face brightened with a smile. Lauren smiled too.
"It goes right there," Emily said, reaching out and putting the piece in place. Then she looked up and saw Lauren.
"Hi, Mommy! Look what we're making."
"Hi, Emily. Miss Wilson."
"Hello, Mrs. Caylor."
Lauren stepped over to the table, where a picture of a colorful hot-air balloon was taking shape.
"Hey, that's pretty," Lauren said.
"I put that one in," Emily said proudly, touching a piece with her finger.
"Good for you."
"Well, I put that one in," the other girl told Lauren.
"Oh yeah?" the boy said, and all three children began giggling and pointing to each and every piece, some of them not even in the puzzle yet, saying, "I put that one."
"Didn't you help?" Lauren asked Miss Wilson.
After Emily said good-bye to her teacher and friends, Lauren walked her outside, opened the car door for her, and helped her fasten her seat belt. During the twenty-minute drive home she talked with Emily about her day in school and learned that the most notable event had been the appearance of a puppy.
"A first-grade teacher brought it to our room," Emily said. "She let us pet it. It was white and it had black spots and it was so soft. It went pee on Johnny Baskin's shoe."
Lauren tried not to smile. "Poor Johnny."
"Yeah. He cried. But it was sort of funny. That puppy was so cute. And I got to hold it."
Lauren waited, knowing what was coming.
"Can we have a puppy?"
"We already have Amos."
"But he's a big dog. Can't we have a puppy?"
"Gee, honey, I don't know." Lauren was thinking of soiled carpets, chewed furniture, and the pee on Johnny Baskin's shoe. "I don't think so right now," she said. "Maybe after we move."
"Are we going to move?"
"Well, maybe. You know that Richard and I have talked about it."
"Then can we have a puppy?"
"Why don't we discuss it with Richard."
Lauren turned onto Larkdale Way. Palm trees stood at attention along both sides of the gently curving street, and the houses were separated by manicured lawns and flowering bushes. Halfway down the block Lauren turned into their driveway. She clicked the remote control, waited for the double garage door to open, then slowly steered the Honda inside. After she helped Emily out, she reached for the switch to close the garage door.
A dark blue car slowly passed the house.
Lauren frowned and stepped toward the yawning opening of the garage. She watched the car disappear around the curve in the street.
"Mommy, what are you doing?"
Lauren flipped a switch and the big door slid down and clicked shut. She opened the side door of the garage and found Amos standing there waiting for them, his long tail swinging slowly from side to side. He was a brindled greyhound, an old dog, big and gentle, a racer in his youth. Richard had saved him from being destroyed—the fate of most greyhounds too old for racing. He'd acquired the dog three years ago, about a year after he'd moved to San Miguel and before he and Lauren had met. When Lauren had first seen Amos, she'd resisted having him around. He was scary-looking, like a stretch-model, tiger-striped Doberman. She'd soon realized her fear was unfounded—Amos was as laid back as they come. And although he would never bite anyone, Lauren felt he afforded protection: His very size would scare away a potential thief or mugger.
"Hi, Amos." Emily put her arm around the dog's neck, her shoulder not much higher than his.
Lauren crossed the small concrete patio and unlocked the back door of the house. Without waiting to be let in, Amos pushed through his dog door, a rectangle cut in the bottom part of the door and covered with a heavy rubber flap.
When Lauren opened the door, Amos was there to greet them again in the service porch. Lauren scratched his ears and led the way past the washer and dryer and the laundry sink to the kitchen, an airy room with oak counters and wide windows overlooking the backyard. There were hanging copper pots, leafy plants in terra-cotta pots, and a skylight in the ceiling, which added to the sense of openness. Lauren dropped her purse and keys on the counter.
"Shall we take Amos for a walk before dinner?"
Before Emily could answer, Amos began prancing like a yearling, recognizing the word "walk." He turned to Emily and licked her face.
"Hey, Amos, watch out!"
Lauren grinned. "Why don't you put him on his leash while I change clothes?"
Lauren passed from the kitchen through the family room and down the hallway to the master bedroom. It felt stuffy, so she slid open a window. After she'd slipped off her low-heeled shoes and skirt and put them away, she took off her blouse and bra and pantyhose and dropped them on the bed. Laundry, she thought. Then she laid out a pair of panties, blue warm-up pants, scruffy white running shoes, and a white cotton T-shirt with LA Dodgers printed in blue across the chest.
She padded barefoot into the adjoining bathroom and washed off her light makeup, patted her face with a fluffy towel, then quickly brushed out her shoulder-length hair. With courage and resolve she stepped onto the bathroom scale.
A hundred and fifteen, she read. What happened to a hundred and ten?
She gave herself a cursory once-over in the long mirror.
Everything still looks pretty firm, she thought, for a thirty-year-old broad anyway. Then she patted herself on the thigh and decided that she and Emily should take a long walk.
After Lauren dressed, she carried her keys through the house to the front door, where she found Emily and Amos waiting in the entry-way. The big dog wouldn't stand still.
"All set?" Lauren asked.
"Amos is being goofy."
Lauren laughed. "He's just anxious to go."
Amos barked once in confirmation.
Lauren pulled the door closed behind her, making sure it was locked, then followed Emily and Amos down the front walk.
"Which way, Mommy?"
"Let's go right."
Emily and Amos stepped lively, heading south on the sidewalk that paralleled Larkdale Way. Lauren trailed behind them.
Then she stopped dead in her tracks and stared across the street.CHAPTER 2
The house across the street had been vacant for eight months.
It was owned by Madge Grey, whose husband, Cecil, had died last fall after a long illness. Madge had moved to Tucson to live with her sister, and she'd put her house up for sale. It had remained vacant all these months, Lauren believed, because it was priced too high for the present housing market.
And regrettably, the property had deteriorated under the none-too-watchful eye of the property management company employed by Madge Grey. The single-story white stucco home still looked to be in good condition, but the yard had been neglected. The management company occasionally sent someone to mow and water the lawn, but they didn't do it often enough. And as far as Lauren could tell, no one had fertilized the grass, sprayed for weeds, or trimmed the trees and bushes since Madge moved out.
What had surprised Lauren—and pleased her as well—was the missing For Sale sign. And there was a car parked in the carport beside the house.
"Finally," she said under her breath, "new neighbors to clean up the place."
As Lauren turned to follow Emily and Amos, she saw movement in the front window across the street. Overgrown bushes obscured much of the window, but Lauren could see that the living room drapes were slightly parted and someone was peeking out. She had a partial view of a face, but she couldn't tell whether it was a man or a woman.
Then the drapes fell back into place—nearly: There remained a thin, dark line down the middle, an opening of no more than a finger's width. Lauren had the uneasy feeling that whoever was in the Greys' house was watching her.
Terrific, she thought, catching up with Emily and Amos. Our new neighbors are weirdos.
Lauren enjoyed walking through their neighborhood. All the yards were well tended and lush with vegetation. And the neighbors were friendly, always ready with a wave and a hello. Lauren knew many of them by name, even those living several blocks away—after all, she'd been strolling these streets ever since she moved here from Los Angeles.
That was six years ago.
Excerpted from The Watchmen by Michael Allegretto. Copyright © 1991 Michael Allegretto. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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