Watchers by Dean Koontz


  Einstein let go of him and raced out of the room, slipping on the slick linoleum. He returned with the directory in his jaws.

  Only as Travis took the phone book did he realize that he had expected the dog to understand his request. The animal’s extraordinary intelligence and abilities were now things that Travis took for granted.

  With a jolt, he also realized that the dog would not have brought the directory to him in the living room if it had not understood the purpose of such a book.

  “By God, fur face, you have been well named, haven’t you?”

  6

  Although Nora usually ate dinner no earlier than seven, she was hungry. The morning walk and the glass of brandy had given her an appetite that even thoughts of Streck could not spoil. She didn’t feel like cooking, so she prepared a platter of fresh fruit and some cheese, plus a croissant heated in the oven.

  Nora usually ate dinner in her room, in bed with a magazine or book, because she was happiest there. Now, as she prepared a platter to take upstairs, the telephone rang.

  Streck.

  It must be him. Who else? She received few calls.

  She froze, listening to the phone. Even after it stopped, she leaned against the kitchen counter, feeling weak, waiting for the ringing to start again.

  7

  When Nora Devon did not answer her telephone, Travis was ready to go back to the evening news on TV, but Einstein was still agitated. The retriever leaped up against the counter, pawed at the directory, pulled it to the floor again, took it in his jaws, and hurried out of the kitchen.

  Curious about the dog’s next move, Travis followed and found him waiting at the front door with the phone book still in his mouth.

  “What now?”

  Einstein put one paw on the door.

  “You want to go out?”

  The dog whined, but the sound was muffled by the directory in his mouth.

  “What’re you going to do with the phone book out there? Bury it like a bone? What’s up?”

  Although he received answers to none of his questions, Travis opened the door and let the retriever out into the golden, late-afternoon sunshine. Einstein dashed straight to the pickup parked in the driveway. He stood at the passenger door, looking back with what might have been impatience.

  Travis walked to the truck and looked down at the retriever. He sighed. “I suspect you want to go somewhere, and I suspect you don’t have in mind the offices of the telephone company.”

  Dropping the directory, Einstein jumped up, put his forepaws against the door of the truck and stood there, looking over his shoulder at Travis. He barked.

  “You want me to look up Miss Devon’s address in the phone book and go there. Is that it?”

  One woof.

  “Sorry,” Travis said. “I know you liked her, but I’m not in the market for a woman. Besides, she’s not my type. I already told you that. And I’m not her type, either. Fact is, I have a hunch nobody’s her type.”

  The dog barked.

  “No.”

  The dog dropped to the ground, rushed at Travis, and took hold of one leg of his jeans again.

  “No,” he said, reaching down and grabbing Einstein by the collar. “There’s no point chewing up my wardrobe, because I’m not going.”

  Einstein let go, twisted out of his grasp, and sprinted to the long bed of brightly blooming impatiens, where he started to dig furiously, tossing mangled flowers onto the lawn behind him.

  “What’re you doing now, for God’s sake?”

  The dog kept digging industriously, working his way through the bed, back and forth, apparently bent on totally destroying it.

  “Hey, stop that!” Travis hurried toward the retriever.

  Einstein fled to the other end of the front yard and commenced digging a hole in the grass.

  Travis went after him.

  Einstein escaped once more to another corner of the lawn, where he began ripping out more grass, then to the birdbath, which he tried to undermine, then back to what was left of the impatiens.

  Unable to catch the retriever, Travis finally halted, gasped for breath, and shouted, “Enough!”

  Einstein stopped digging in the flowers and raised his head, snaky trailers of coral-red impatiens dangling from his mouth.

  “We’ll go,” Travis said.

  Einstein dropped the flowers and came out of the ruins, onto the lawn— warily.

  “No tricks,” Travis promised. “If it means that much to you, then we’ll go see the woman. But God knows what I’m going to say to her.”

  8

  With her dinner platter in one hand and a bottle of Evian in the other, Nora went along the downstairs hallway, comforted by the sight of lights blazing in every room. On the upstairs landing, she used her elbow to flick the switch for the second-floor hall lights. She would need to include a lot of lightbulbs in her next grocery order because she intended to leave all the lights burning day and night for the foreseeable future. It was an expense she did not in the least begrudge.

  Still buoyed by the brandy, she began to sing softly to herself as she headed for her room: “Moon River, wider than a mile . . .”

  She stepped through the door. Streck was lying on the bed.

  He grinned and said, “Hi, babe.”

  For an instant she thought he was a hallucination, but when he spoke she knew he was real, and she cried out, and the platter fell from her hand, scattering fruit and cheese across the floor.

  “Oh my, what an awful mess you’ve made,” he said, sitting up and swinging his legs over the edge of the bed. He was still wearing his running shorts, athletic socks, and running shoes; nothing else. “But there’s no need to clean it up now. There’s other business to take care of first. I been waiting a long time for you to come upstairs. Waiting and thinking about you . . . getting primed for you . . .” He stood. “And now it’s time to teach you what you’ve never learned.”

  Nora could not move. Could not breathe.

  He must have come to the house directly from the park, arriving before she did. He had forced entry, leaving no trace of a break-in, and he’d been waiting here on the bed all the time she’d been sipping brandy in the kitchen. There was something about his waiting up here that was creepier than anything else he had done, waiting and teasing himself with the promise of her, getting a kick out of listening to her putter around downstairs in ignorance of his presence.

  When he was finished with her, would he kill her?

  She turned and ran into the second-floor hallway.

  As she put her hand on the newel post at the head of the stairs and started down, she heard Streck behind her.

  She plunged down the steps, taking them two and three at a time, terrified that she was going to twist an ankle and fall, and at the landing her knee nearly buckled, and she stumbled but kept going, leaped down the last flight, into the first-floor hall.

  Seizing her from behind, catching the baggy shoulders of her dress, Streck spun her around to face him.

  9

  As Travis swung to the curb in front of the Devon house, Einstein stood on the front seat, placed both forepaws on the door handle, bore down with all of his weight, and opened the door. Another neat trick. He was out of the truck and galloping up the front walkway before Travis had engaged the hand brake and switched off the engine.

  Seconds later, Travis reached the foot of the veranda steps in time to see the retriever on the porch as he stood on his hind paws and hit the doorbell with one forepaw. The bell was audible from inside.

  Climbing the steps, Travis said, “Now, what the devil’s gotten into you?”

  The dog rang the bell again.

  “Give her a chance—”

  As Einstein hit the button a third time, Travis heard a man shout in anger and pain. Then a woman’s cry for help.

  Barking as ferociously as he had done in the woods yesterday, Einstein clawed at the door as if he actually believed he could tear his way through it.

&nb
sp; Pressing forward, Travis peered through a clear segment in the stained-glass window. The hallway was brightly lit, so he was able to see two people struggling only a few feet away.

  Einstein was barking, snarling, going crazy.

  Travis tried the door, found it locked. He used his elbow to smash in a couple of the stained-glass segments, reached inside, fumbled for the lock, located it and the security chain, and went inside just as the guy in running shorts pushed the woman aside and turned to face him.

  Einstein didn’t give Travis a chance to act. The retriever bolted along the hallway, straight toward the runner.

  The guy reacted as anyone would upon seeing a charging dog the size of this one: he ran. The woman tried to trip him, and he stumbled but did not fall. At the end of the corridor, he slammed through a swinging door, out of sight.

  Einstein raced past Nora Devon and reached the still-swinging door at full tilt, timing his approach perfectly, streaking through the opening as the door rocked inward. He vanished after the runner. In the room beyond the swinging door—the kitchen, Travis figured—there was much barking, snarling, and shouting. Something fell with a crash, then something else made an even louder crash, and the runner cursed, and Einstein made a vicious sound that gave Travis a chill, and the din grew worse.

  He went to Nora Devon. She was leaning against the newel post at the bottom of the stairs. He said, “You okay?”

  “He almost . . . almost . . .”

  “But he didn’t,” Travis guessed.

  “No.”

  He touched the blood on her chin. “You’re hurt.”

  “His blood,” she said, seeing it on Travis’s fingertips. “I bit the bastard.” She looked toward the swinging door, which had stopped moving now. “Don’t let him hurt the dog.”

  “Not likely,” Travis said.

  The noise in the kitchen subsided as Travis pushed through the swinging door. Two ladder-back chairs had been knocked over. A large blue-flowered ceramic cookie jar lay in pieces on the tile floor, and oatmeal cookies were scattered across the room, some whole and some broken and some squashed. The runner was sitting in a corner, his bare legs pulled up, hands crossed defensively on his chest. One of the man’s shoes was missing, and Travis suspected the dog had gotten hold of it. The runner’s right hand was bleeding, which was evidently Nora Devon’s work. He was also bleeding from his left calf, but that wound appeared to be a dog bite. Einstein was guarding him, staying back out of range of a kick, but ready to tear at the runner if the guy was foolish enough to attempt to leave the corner.

  “Nice job,” Travis told the dog. “Very nice indeed.”

  Einstein made a whining sound that indicated acceptance of the praise. But when the runner started to move, the happy whine turned instantly to a snarl. Einstein snapped at the man, who jerked back into the corner again.

  “You’re finished,” Travis told the runner.

  “He bit me! They both bit me.” Petulant rage. Astonishment. Disbelief. “Bit me.”

  Like a lot of bullies who’d had their way all of their lives, this man was shocked to discover he could be hurt, beaten. Experience had taught him that people would always back down if he pressed them hard enough and if he kept a crazy-mean look in his eyes. He thought he could never lose. Now, his face was pale, and he looked as if he was in a state of shock.

  Travis went to the phone and called the police.

  chapter five

  1

  Late Thursday morning, May 20, when Vincent Nasco returned from his one-day vacation in Acapulco, he picked up the Times at the Los Angeles International Airport before taking the commuter van—they called it a limousine, but it was a van—back to Orange County. He read the newspaper during the trip to his townhouse in Huntington Beach, and on page three he saw the story about the fire at Banodyne Laboratories in Irvine.

  The blaze had broken out shortly after six o’clock yesterday morning, when Vince had been on his way to the airport to catch the plane to Acapulco. One of the two Banodyne buildings had been gutted before the fire-men had brought the flames under control.

  The people who had hired Vince to kill Davis Weatherby, Lawton Haines, the Yarbecks, and the Hudstons had almost certainly employed an arsonist to torch Banodyne. They seemed to be trying to eradicate all records of the Francis Project, both those stored in Banodyne files and those in the minds of the scientists who had participated in the research.

  The newspaper said nothing about Banodyne’s defense contracts, which were apparently not public knowledge. The company was referred to as “a leader in the genetic-engineering industry, with a special focus on the development of revolutionary new drugs derived from recombinant-DNA research.”

  A night watchman had died in the blaze. The Times offered no explanation as to why he had been unable to flee the fire. Vince figured the guy had been killed by intruders, then incinerated to cover the murder.

  The commuter van ferried Vince to the front door of his townhouse. The rooms were cool and shadowy. On the uncarpeted floors, each footstep was hard and clearly defined, echoing hollowly through the nearly empty house.

  He had owned the place for two years, but he had not fully furnished it. In fact, the dining room, den, and two of the three bedrooms contained nothing except cheap drapes for privacy.

  Vince believed that the townhouse was a way station, a temporary residence from which he would one day move to a house on the beach at Rincon, where the surf and the surfers were legendary, where the vast rolling sea was the overwhelming fact of life. But his failure to furnish his current residence had nothing to do with its temporary status in his plans. He simply liked bare white walls, clean concrete floors, and empty rooms.

  When he eventually purchased his dream house, Vince intended to have polished white ceramic tile installed on the floors and walls in every one of its big rooms. There would be no wood, no stone or brick, no textured surfaces to provide the visual “warmth” that other people seemed to prize. The furniture would be built to his specifications, with several coats of glossy white enamel, upholstered in white vinyl. The only deviations that he would permit from all those shiny white surfaces would be the necessary use of glass and highly polished steel. Then, there, thus encapsulated, he would at last feel at peace and at home for the first time in his life.

  Now, after unpacking his suitcase, he went down to the kitchen to prepare lunch. Tuna fish. Three hard-boiled eggs. Half a dozen rye crackers. Two apples and an orange. A bottle of Gatorade.

  The kitchen had a small table and one chair in the corner, but he ate upstairs in the sparsely furnished master bedroom. He sat in a chair at the window that faced west. The ocean was only a block away, on the other side of the Coast Highway and beyond a wide public beach, and from the second floor he could see the rolling water.

  The sky was partially overcast, so the sea was dappled with sunshine and shadows. In some places it looked like molten chrome, but in other places it might have been a surging mass of dark blood.

  The day was warm, though it looked strangely cold, wintry.

  Staring at the ocean, he always felt that the ebb and flow of blood through his veins and arteries was in perfect sympathy with the rhythm of the tides.

  When he finished eating, he sat for a while in communion with the sea, crooning to himself, looking through his faint reflection on the glass as if peering through the wall of an aquarium, although he felt himself to be within the ocean even now, far beneath the waves in a clean, cool, endless world of silence.

  Later in the afternoon, he drove his van to Irvine and located Banodyne Laboratories. Banodyne was set against the backdrop of the Santa Ana Mountains. The company had two buildings on a multiple-acre lot that was surprisingly large in an area of such expensive real estate: one L-shaped two-story structure and a larger V-shaped single story with only a few narrow windows that made it look fortresslike. Both were very modern in design, a striking mix of flat planes and sensuous curves faced in dark green and gray
marble, quite attractive. Surrounded by an employee parking lot and by immense expanses of well-maintained grass, shaded by a few palms and coral trees, the buildings were actually larger than they appeared to be, for their true scale was distorted and diminished by that enormous piece of flat land.

  The fire had been confined to the V-shaped building that housed the labs. The only indications of destruction were a few broken windows and soot stains on the marble above those narrow openings.

  The property was not walled or fenced, so Vince could have walked onto it from the street if he had wished, although there was a simple gate and guard booth at the three-lane entrance road. Judging by the guard’s sidearm and by the subtly forbidding look of the building that housed the research labs, Vince suspected the lawns were monitored electronically and that, at night, sophisticated alarm systems would alert watchmen to an intruder’s presence before he had taken more than a few steps across the grass. The arsonist must have been skilled at more than setting fires; he must also have had a wide knowledge of security systems.

  Vince cruised past the place, then turned and drove by from the other direction. Like spectral presences, cloud shadows moved slowly across the lawn and slid up the walls of the buildings. Something about Banodyne gave it a portentous—perhaps even slightly ominous—look. And Vince did not think that he was letting his view of the place be unduly colored by the research that he knew to have been conducted there.

  He drove home to Huntington Beach.

  Having gone to Banodyne in the hope that seeing the place would help him decide how to proceed, he was disappointed. He still did not know what to do next. He could not figure out to whom he could sell his information for a price worth the risk he was taking. Not to the U.S. government: it was their information to begin with. And not to the Soviets, the natural adversary, for it was the Soviets who had paid him to kill Weatherby, the Yarbecks, the Hudstons, and Haines.

  Of course, he couldn’t prove he had been working for the Soviets. They were clever when they hired a freelancer like him. But he had worked for these people as often as he had taken contracts from the mob, and based on dozens of clues over the years, he had decided they were Soviets. Once in a while he dealt with people other than the usual three contacts in L.A., and invariably they spoke with what sounded like Russian accents. Furthermore, their targets were usually political to at least some degree—or, as in the case of the Banodyne kills, military targets. And their information always proved more thorough, accurate, and sophisticated than the information he was given by the mob when he contracted for a simple gangland hit.

  So who would pay for such sensitive defense information if not the U.S. or the Soviets? Some third-world dictator looking for a way to circumvent the nuclear capabilities of the most powerful countries? The Francis Project might give some pocket Hitler that edge, elevate him to a world power, and he might pay well for it. But who wanted to risk dealing with Qaddafi types? Not Vince.

  Besides, he possessed information about the existence of the revolutionary research at Banodyne, but he did not have detailed files on how the Francis Project’s miracles had been accomplished. He had less to sell than he’d first thought.

  However, in the back of his mind, an idea had been growing since yesterday. Now, as he continued to puzzle over a potential buyer for his information, that idea flowered.

  The dog.

  At home again, he sat in his bedroom, staring out at the sea. He sat there even after nightfall, after he could no longer see the water, and he thought about the dog.

 
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