Watchers by Dean Koontz


  Hudston and Haines had told him so much about the retriever that he’d begun to realize his knowledge of the Francis Project, although potentially explosive and valuable, was not one-thousandth as valuable as the dog itself. The retriever could be exploited in many ways; it was a money machine with a tail. For one thing, he could probably sell it back to the government or to the Russians for a bargeload of cash. If he could find the dog, he would be able to achieve financial independence.

  But how could he locate it?

  All over southern California, a quiet search—almost secret yet gigantic—must be under way. The Defense Department would be putting tremendous manpower into the hunt, and if Vince crossed paths with those searchers, they would want to know who he was. He could not afford to draw attention to himself.

  Furthermore, if he conducted his own search of the nearest Santa Ana foothills, into which the lab escapees had almost surely fled, he might encounter the wrong one. He might miss the golden retriever and stumble upon The Outsider, and that could be dangerous. Deadly.

  Beyond the bedroom window, the cloud-armored night sky and the sea flowed together in blackness as dark as the far side of the moon.

  2

  On Thursday, one day after Einstein cornered Arthur Streck in Nora Devon’s kitchen, Streck was arraigned on charges of breaking and entering, assault and battery, and attempted rape. Because he had previously been convicted of rape and had served two years of a three-year sentence, his bail was high; he could not meet it. And since he could not locate a bondsman who would trust him, he seemed destined to remain in jail until his case came to trial, which was a great relief to Nora.

  On Friday, she went to lunch with Travis Cornell.

  She was startled to hear herself accept his invitation. It was true that Travis had seemed genuinely shocked to learn of the terror and harassment she had endured at Streck’s hands, and it was also true that to some extent she owed her dignity and perhaps her life to his arrival at the penultimate moment. Yet years of indoctrination in Aunt Violet’s paranoia could not be washed away in a few days, and a residue of unreasonable suspicion and wariness clung to Nora. She would have been dismayed, maybe even shattered, if Travis had suddenly tried to force himself upon her, but she would not have been surprised. Having been encouraged since early childhood to expect the worst from people, she could be surprised only by kindness and compassion.

  Nevertheless, she went to lunch with him.

  At first, she did not know why.

  However, she did not have to think long to find the answer: the dog. She wanted to be near the dog because he made her feel secure and because she’d never before been the recipient of such unrestrained affection as Einstein lavished on her. She had never previously been the object of any affection from anyone, and she liked it even if it came from an animal. Besides, in her heart Nora knew that Travis Cornell must be completely trustworthy because Einstein trusted him, and Einstein did not seem easily fooled.

  They ate lunch at a café that had a few linen-draped tables outside on a brick patio, under white- and blue-striped umbrellas, where they were permitted to clip the dog’s leash to the wrought-iron table leg and keep him with them. Einstein was well-behaved, lying quietly most of the time. Occasionally he raised his head to gaze at them with his soulful eyes until they relinquished scraps of food, though he was not a pest about it.

  Nora did not have much experience with dogs, but she thought that Einstein was unusually alert and inquisitive. He frequently shifted his position in order to watch the other diners, with whom he seemed intrigued.

  Nora was intrigued with everything. This was her first meal in a restaurant, and although she had read about people having lunch and dinner in thousands of restaurants in countless novels, she was still amazed and delighted by every detail. The single rose in the milk-white vase. The matchbooks with the establishment’s name embossed on them. The way the butter had been molded into round pats with a flower pattern on each, then served on a bowl of crushed ice. The slice of lemon in the ice water. The chilled salad fork was an especially amazing touch.

  “Look at this,” she said to Travis after their entrées had been served and the waiter had departed.

  He frowned at her plate and said, “Something wrong?”

  “No, no. I mean . . . these vegetables.”

  “Baby carrots, baby squash.”

  “Where do they get them so tiny? And look how they’ve scalloped the edge of this tomato. Everything’s so pretty. How do they ever find the time to make everything so pretty?”

  She knew these things that astonished her were things he took for granted, knew that her amazement revealed her lack of experience and sophistication, making her seem like a child. She frequently blushed, sometimes stammered in embarrassment, but she could not restrain herself from commenting on these marvels. Travis smiled at her almost continuously, but it was not a patronizing smile, thank God; he seemed genuinely delighted by the pleasure she took in new discoveries and small luxuries.

  By the time they finished coffee and dessert—a kiwi tart for her, strawberries and cream for Travis, and a lemon tart that Einstein did not have to share with anyone—Nora had been engaged in the longest conversation of her life. They passed two and a half hours without an awkward silence, mainly discussing books because—given Nora’s reclusive life—a love of books was virtually the only thing they had in common. That and loneliness. He seemed genuinely interested in her opinions of novelists, and he had some fascinating insights into books, insights which had eluded her. She laughed more in one afternoon than she had laughed in an entire year. But the experience was so exhilarating that she occasionally felt dizzy, and by the time they left the restaurant she could not precisely remember anything they had actually said; it was all a colorful blur. She was experiencing sensory overload analogous to what a primitive tribesman might feel if suddenly deposited in the middle of New York City, and she needed time to absorb and process all that had happened to her.

  Having walked to the café from her house, where Travis had left his pickup truck, they now made the return trip on foot, and Nora held the dog’s leash all the way. Einstein never tried to pull away from her, never tangled the leash around her legs, but padded along at her side or in front of her, docile, now and then looking up at her with a sweet expression that made her smile.

  “He’s a good dog,” she said.

  “Very good,” Travis agreed.

  “So well behaved.”

  “Usually.”

  “And so cute.”

  “Don’t flatter him too much.”

  “Are you afraid he’ll become vain?”

  “He’s already vain,” Travis said. “If he were any more vain, he’d be impossible to live with.”

  The dog looked back and up at Travis, and sneezed loudly as if ridiculing his master’s comment.

  Nora laughed. “Sometimes it almost seems he can understand every word you’re saying.”

  “Sometimes,” Travis agreed.

  When they arrived at the house, Nora wanted to invite him in. But she wasn’t sure if the invitation would seem too bold, and she was afraid Travis would misinterpret it. She knew she was being a nervous old maid, knew she could—and ought to—trust him, but Aunt Violet suddenly loomed in her memory, full of dire warnings about men, and Nora could not bring herself to do what she knew was right. The day had been perfect, and she dreaded extending it further for fear something would happen to sully the entire memory, leaving her with nothing good, so she merely thanked him for lunch and did not even dare to shake his hand.

  She did, however, stoop down and hug the dog. Einstein nuzzled her neck and licked her throat once, making her giggle. She had never heard herself giggle before. She would have clung to him and petted him for hours if her enthusiasm for the dog had not, by comparison, made her wariness of Travis even more evident.

  Standing in the open door, she watched them as they got into the pickup and drove away.

&n
bsp; Travis waved at her.

  She waved, too.

  Then the truck reached the corner and began to turn right, out of sight, and Nora regretted her cowardice, wished she’d asked Travis in for a while. She almost ran after them, almost shouted his name and almost rushed down the steps to the sidewalk in pursuit. But then the truck was gone, and she was alone again. Reluctantly, she went into the house and closed the door on the brighter world outside.

  3

  The Bell JetRanger executive helicopter flashed over the tree-filled ravines and balding ridges of the Santa Ana foothills, its shadow running ahead of it because the sun was in the west as Friday afternoon waned. Approaching the head of Holy Jim Canyon, Lemuel Johnson looked out the window in the passenger compartment and saw four of the county sheriff’s squad cars lined up along the narrow dirt lane down there. A couple of other vehicles, including the coroner’s wagon and a Jeep Cherokee that probably belonged to the victim, were parked at the stone cabin. The pilot had barely enough room to put the chopper down in the clearing. Even before the engine died and the sun-bronzed rotors began to slow, Lem was out of the craft, hurrying toward the cabin, with his right-hand man, Cliff Soames, close behind him.

  Walt Gaines, the county sheriff, stepped out of the cabin as Lem approached. Gaines was a big man, six-four and at least two hundred pounds, with enormous shoulders and a barrel chest. His corn-yellow hair and cornflower-blue eyes would have lent him a movie-idol look if his face had not been so broad and his features blunt. He was fifty-five, looked forty, and wore his hair only slightly longer than he had during his twenty years in the Marine Corps.

  Although Lem Johnson was a black man, every bit as dark as Walt was white, though he was seven inches shorter and sixty pounds lighter than Walt, though he had come from an upper-middle-class black family while Walt’s folks had been poor white trash from Kentucky, though Lem was ten years younger than the sheriff, the two were friends. More than friends. Buddies. They played bridge together, went deep-sea fishing together, and found unadulterated pleasure in sitting in lawn chairs on one or the other’s patio, drinking Corona beer and solving all of the world’s problems. Their wives even became best friends, a serendipitous development that was, according to Walt, “a miracle, ’cause the woman’s never liked anyone else I’ve introduced her to in thirty-two years.”

  To Lem, his friendship with Walt Gaines was also a miracle, for he was not a man who made friends easily. He was a workaholic and did not have the leisure to nurture an acquaintance carefully into a more enduring relationship. Of course, careful nurturing hadn’t been necessary with Walt; they had clicked the first time they’d met, had recognized similar attitudes and points of view in each other. By the time they had known each other six months, it seemed they had been close since boyhood. Lem valued their friendship nearly as much as he valued his marriage to Karen. The pressure of his job would be harder to endure if he couldn’t let off some steam with Walt once in a while.

  Now, as the chopper’s blades fell silent, Walt Gaines said, “Can’t figure why the murder of a grizzled old canyon squatter would interest you feds.”

  “Good,” Lem said. “You’re not supposed to figure it, and you really don’t want to know.”

  “Anyway, I sure didn’t expect you’d come yourself. Thought you’d send some of your flunkies.”

  “NSA agents don’t like to be called flunkies,” Lem said.

  Looking at Cliff Soames, Walt said, “But that’s how he treats you fellas, isn’t it? Like flunkies?”

  “He’s a tyrant,” Cliff confirmed. He was thirty-one, with red hair and freckles. He looked more like an earnest young preacher than like an agent of the National Security Agency.

  “Well, Cliff,” Walt Gaines said, “you’ve got to understand where Lem comes from. His father was a downtrodden black businessman who never made more than two hundred thousand a year. Deprived, you see. So Lem, he figures he’s got to make you white boys jump through hoops whenever he can, to make up for all those years of brutal oppression.”

  “He makes me call him ’Massah,’ ” Cliff said.

  “I don’t doubt it,” Walt said.

  Lem sighed and said, “You two are about as amusing as a groin injury. Where’s the body?”

  “This way, Massah,” Walt said.

  As a gust of warm afternoon wind shook the surrounding trees, as the canyon hush gave way to the whispering of leaves, the sheriff led Lem and Cliff into the first of the cabin’s two rooms.

  Lem understood, at once, why Walt had been so jokey. The forced humor was a reaction to the horror inside the cabin. It was somewhat like laughing aloud in a graveyard at night to chase away the willies.

  Two armchairs were overturned, upholstery slashed. Cushions from the sofa had been ripped to expose the white foam padding. Paperbacks had been pulled off a corner bookcase, torn apart, and scattered all over the room. Glass shards from the big window sparkled gemlike in the ruins. The debris and the walls were spattered with blood, and a lot of dried blood darkened the light-pine floor.

  Like a pair of crows searching for brightly colored threads with which to dress up their nest, two lab technicians in black suits were carefully probing through the ruins. Occasionally one of them made a soft wordless cawing sound and plucked at something with tweezers, depositing it in a plastic envelope.

  Evidently, the body had been examined and photographed, for it had been transferred into an opaque plastic mortuary bag and was lying near the door, waiting to be carried out to the meat wagon.

  Looking down at the half-visible corpse in the sack, which was only a vaguely human shape beneath the milky plastic, Lem said, “What was his name?”

  “Wes Dalberg,” Walt said. “Lived here ten years or more.”

  “Who found him?”

  “A neighbor.”

  “When was he killed?”

  “Near as we can tell, about three days ago. Maybe Tuesday night. Have to wait for lab tests to pinpoint it. Weather’s been pretty warm lately, which makes a difference in the rate of decomposition.”

  Tuesday night . . . In the predawn hours of Tuesday morning, the breakout had occurred at Banodyne. By Tuesday night, The Outsider could have traveled this far.

  Lem thought about that—and shivered.

  “Cold?” Walt asked sarcastically.

  Lem didn’t respond. They were friends, yes, and they were both officers of the law, one local and one federal, but in this case they served opposing interests. Walt’s job was to find the truth and bring it to the public, but Lem’s job was to put a lid on the case and keep it clamped down tight.

  “Sure stinks in here,” Cliff Soames said.

  “You should’ve smelled it before we got the stiff in the bag,” Walt said. "Ripe.”

  “Not just . . . decomposition,” Cliff said.

  “No,” Walt said, pointing here and there to stains that were not caused by blood. “Urine and feces, too.”

  “The victim’s?”

  “Don’t think so,” Walt said.

  “Done any preliminary tests of it?” Lem asked, trying not to sound worried. “On-site microscopic exam?”

  “Nope. We’ll take samples back to the lab. We think it belongs to whatever came crashing through that window.”

  Looking up from the body bag, Lem said, “You mean the man who killed Dalberg.”

  “Wasn’t a man,” Walt said, “and I figure you know that.”

  “Not a man?” Lem said.

  “At least not a man like you or me.”

  “Then what do you think it was?”

  “Damned if I know,” Walt said, rubbing the back of his bristly head with one big hand. “But judging from the body, the killer had sharp teeth, maybe claws, and a nasty disposition. Does that sound like what you’re looking for?”

  Lem could not be baited.

  For a moment, no one spoke.

  A fresh piny breeze came through the shattered window, blowing away some of the noxious stench.
r />   One of the lab men said, “Ah,” and plucked something from the rubble with his tweezers.

  Lem sighed wearily. This situation was no good. They would not find enough to tell them what killed Dalberg, though they would gather sufficient evidence to make them curious as hell. However, this was a matter of national defense, in which no civilian would be wise to indulge his curiosity. Lem was going to have to put a stop to their investigation. He hoped he could intervene without angering Walt. It would be a real test of their friendship.

  Suddenly, staring at the body bag, Lem realized something was wrong with the shape of the corpse. He said, “The head isn’t here.”

  “You feds don’t miss a trick, do you?” Walt said.

  “He was decapitated?” Cliff Soames asked uneasily.

  “This way,” Walt said, leading them into the second room.

  It was a large—if primitive—kitchen with a hand pump in the sink and an old-fashioned wood-burning stove.

  Except for the head, there were no signs of violence in the kitchen. Of course, the head was bad enough. It was in the center of the table. On a plate.

  “Jesus,” Cliff said softly.

  When they had entered the room, a police photographer had been taking shots of the head from various angles. He was not finished, but he stepped back to give them a better view.

  The dead man’s eyes were missing, torn out. The empty sockets seemed as deep as wells.

  Cliff Soames had turned so white that, by contrast, his freckles burned on his skin as if they were flecks of fire.

  Lem felt sick, not merely because of what had happened to Wes Dalberg but because of all the deaths yet to come. He was proud of both his management and investigatory skills, and he knew he could handle this case better than anyone else. But he was also a hardheaded pragmatist, incapable of underestimating the enemy or of pretending there would be a quick ending to this nightmare. He would need time and patience and luck to track down the killer, and meanwhile more bodies would pile up.

  The head had not been cut off the dead man. It was not as neat as that. It appeared to have been clawed and chewed and wrenched off.

  Lem’s palms were suddenly damp.

  Strange . . . how the empty sockets of the head transfixed him as surely as if they had contained wide, staring eyes.

  In the hollow of his back, a single droplet of sweat traced the course of his spine. He was more scared than he had ever been—or had ever thought he could be—but he did not want to be taken off the job for any reason. It was vitally important to the very security of the nation and the safety of the public that this emergency be handled right, and he knew no one was likely to perform as well as he could. That was not just ego talking. Everyone said he was the best, and he knew they were right; he had a justifiable pride and no false modesty. This was his case, and he would stay with it to the end.

  His folks had raised him with an almost too-keen sense of duty and responsibility. “A black man,” his father used to say, “has to do a job twice as well as a white man in order to get any credit at all. That’s nothing to be bitter about. Nothing worth protesting. It’s just a fact of life. Might as well protest the weather turning cold in winter. Instead of protesting, the thing to do is just face facts, work twice as hard, and you’ll get where you want to go. And you must succeed because you carry the flag for all your brothers.” As a result of that upbringing, Lem was incapable of less than total, unhesitating commitment to every assignment. He dreaded failure, rarely encountered it, but could be thrown into a deep funk for weeks when the successful conclusion of a case eluded him.

  “Talk to you outside a minute?” Walt asked, moving to the open rear door of the cabin.

  Lem nodded. To Cliff, he said, “Stay here. Make sure nobody— pathologists, photographer, uniformed cops, nobody—leaves before I’ve had a chance to talk to them.”

  “Yes, sir,” Cliff said. He headed quickly toward the front of the cabin to inform everyone that they were temporarily quarantined—and to get away from the eyeless head.

  Lem followed Walt Gaines into the clearing behind the cabin. He noticed a metal hod and firewood scattered over the ground, and paused to study those objects.

  “We think it started out here,” Walt said. “Maybe Dalberg was getting wood for the fireplace. Maybe something came out of those trees, so he threw the hod at it and ran into the house.”

  They stood in the bloody-orange late-afternoon sunlight, at the perimeter of the trees, peering into the purple shadows and mysterious green depths of the forest.

  Lem was uneasy. He wondered if the escapee from Weatherby’s lab was nearby, watching them.

  “So what’s up?” Walt asked.

 
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