Watchers by Dean Koontz


  “Can’t say.”

  “National security?”

  “That’s right.”

  The spruces and pines and sycamores rustled in the breeze, and he thought he heard something moving furtively through the brush.

  Imagination, of course. Nevertheless, Lem was glad that both he and Walt Gaines were armed with reliable pistols in accessible shoulder holsters.

  Walt said, “You can keep your lip zipped if you insist, but you can’t keep me totally in the dark. I can figure out a few things for myself. I’m not stupid.”

  “Never thought you were.”

  “Tuesday morning, every damn police department in Orange and San Bernardino counties gets an urgent request from your NSA asking us to be prepared to cooperate in a manhunt, details to follow. Which puts us all on edge. We know what you guys are responsible for—guarding defense research, keeping the vodka-pissing Russians from stealing our secrets. And since Southern California’s the home of half the defense contractors in the country, there’s plenty to be stolen here.”

  Lem kept his eyes on the woods, kept his mouth shut.

  “So,” Walt continued, “we figure we’re going to be looking for a Russian agent with something hot in his pockets, and we’re happy to have a chance to help kick some ass for Uncle Sam. But by noon, instead of getting details, we get a cancellation of the request. No manhunt after all. Everything’s under control, your office tells us. Original alert was issued in error, you say.”

  “That’s right.” The agency had realized that local police could not be sufficiently controlled and, therefore, could not be fully trusted. It was a job for the military. “Issued in error.”

  “Like hell. By late afternoon of the same day, we learn Marine choppers from El Toro are quartering the Santa Ana foothills. And by Wednesday morning, a hundred Marines with high-tech tracking gear are flown in from Camp Pendleton to carry on the search at ground level.”

  “I heard about that, but it had nothing to do with my agency,” Lem said.

  Walt studiously avoided looking at Lem. He stared off into the trees. Clearly, he knew Lem was lying to him, knew that Lem had to lie to him, and he felt it would be a breach of good manners to make Lem do it while they maintained eye contact. Though he looked crude and ill-mannered, Walt Gaines was an unusually considerate man with a rare talent for friendship.

  But he was also the county sheriff, and it was his duty to keep probing even though he knew Lem would reveal nothing. He said, “Marines tell us it’s just a training exercise.”

  “That’s what I heard.”

  “We’re always notified of training exercises ten days ahead.”

  Lem did not reply. He thought he saw something in the forest, a flicker of shadows, a darkish presence moving through piny gloom.

  “So the Marines spend all day Wednesday and half of Thursday out there in the hills. But when reporters hear about this ‘exercise’ and come snooping around, the leathernecks suddenly call it off, pack up, go home. It was almost as if . . . whatever they were looking for was so worrisome, so damn top-secret that they’d rather not find it at all if finding it meant letting the press know about it.”

  Squinting into the forest, Lem strained to see through steadily deepening shadows, trying to catch another glimpse of the movement that had drawn his attention a moment ago.

  Walt said, “Then yesterday afternoon the NSA asks to be kept informed about any ‘peculiar reports, unusual assaults, or exceedingly violent murders.’ We ask for clarification, don’t get any.”

  There. A ripple in the murkiness beneath the evergreen boughs. About eighty feet in from the perimeter of the woods. Something moving quickly and stealthily from one sheltering shadow to another. Lem put his right hand under his coat, on the butt of the pistol in his shoulder holster.

  “But then just one day later,” Walt said, “we find this poor son of a bitch Dalberg torn to pieces—and the case is peculiar as hell and about as ‘exceedingly violent’ as I ever hope to see. Now here you are, Mr. Lemuel Asa Johnson, director of the Southern California Office of the NSA, and I know you didn’t come choppering in here just to ask me whether I want onion or guacamole dip at tomorrow night’s bridge game.”

  The movement was closer than eighty feet, much closer. Lem had been confused by the layers of shadows and by the queerly distorting late-afternoon sunlight that penetrated the trees. The thing was no more than forty feet away, maybe closer, and suddenly it came straight at them, bounded at them through the brush, and Lem cried out, drew the pistol from his holster, and involuntarily stumbled backward a few steps before taking a shooter’s stance with his legs spread wide, both hands on the gun.

  “It’s just a mule deer!” Walt Gaines said.

  Indeed it was. Just a mule deer.

  The deer stopped a dozen feet away, under the drooping boughs of a spruce, peering at them with huge brown eyes that were bright with curiosity. Its head was held high, ears pricked up.

  “They’re so used to people in these canyons that they’re almost tame,” Walt said.

  Lem let out a stale breath as he holstered his pistol.

  The mule deer, sensing their tension, turned from them and loped away along the trail, vanishing into the woods.

  Walt was staring hard at Lem. “What’s out there, buddy?”

  Lem said nothing. He blotted his hands on his suit jacket.

  The breeze was stiffening, getting cooler. Evening was on its way, and night was close behind it.

  “Never saw you spooked before,” Walt said.

  “A caffeine jag. I’ve had too much coffee today.”

  “Bullshit.”

  Lem shrugged.

  “It seems to’ve been an animal that killed Dalberg, something with lots of teeth, claws, something savage,” Walt said. “Yet no damn animal would carefully place the guy’s head on a plate in the center of the kitchen table. That’s a sick joke. Animals don’t make jokes, not sick or otherwise. Whatever killed Dalberg . . . it left the head like that to taunt us. So what in Christ’s name are we dealing with?”

  “You don’t want to know. And you don’t need to know ’cause I’m assuming jurisdiction in this case.”

  “Like hell.”

  “I’ve got the authority,” Lem said. “It’s now a federal matter, Walt. I’m impounding all the evidence your people have gathered, all reports they’ve written thus far. You and your men are to talk to no one about what you’ve seen here. No one. You’ll have a file on the case, but the only thing in it will be a memo from me, asserting the federal prerogative under the correct statute. You’re out from under. No matter what happens, no one can blame you, Walt.”

  “Shit.”

  “Let it go.”

  Walt scowled. “I’ve got to know—”

  “Let it go.”

  “—are people in my county in danger? At least tell me that much, damn it.”

  “Yes.”

  “In danger?”

  “Yes.”

  “And if I fought you, if I tried to hang on to jurisdiction in this case, would there be anything I could do to lessen that danger, to insure the public safety?”

  “No. Nothing,” Lem said truthfully.

  “Then there’s no point in fighting you.”

  “None,” Lem said.

  He started back toward the cabin because the daylight was fading fast, and he did not want to be near the woods as darkness crept in. Sure, it had only been a mule deer. But next time?

  “Wait a minute,” Walt said. “Let me tell you what I think, and you just listen. You don’t have to confirm or deny what I say. All you’ve got to do is hear me out.”

  “Go on,” Lem said impatiently.

  The shadows of the trees crept steadily across the bristly dry grass of the clearing. The sun was balanced on the western horizon.

  Walt paced out of the shadows into the waning sunlight, hands in his back pockets, looking down at the dusty ground, taking a moment to collect his thoughts. Then
: “Tuesday afternoon, somebody walked into a house in Newport Beach, shot a man named Yarbeck, and beat his wife to death. That night, somebody killed the Hudston family in Laguna Beach—husband, wife, and a teenage son. Police in both communities use the same forensics lab, so it didn’t take long to discover one gun was used both places. But that’s about all the police in either case are going to learn because your NSA has quietly assumed jurisdiction in those crimes, too. In the interest of national security.”

  Lem did not respond. He was sorry he had even agreed to listen. Anyway, he was not taking direct charge of the investigation into the murders of the scientists, which were almost surely Soviet-inspired. He’d delegated that task to other men, so he’d be free to concentrate on finding the dog and The Outsider.

  The sunlight was burnt orange. The cabin windows smoldered with reflections of that fading fire.

  Walt said, “Okay. Then there’s Dr. Davis Weatherby of Corona Del Mar. Missing since Tuesday. This morning, Weatherby’s brother finds the doctor’s body in the trunk of his car. Local pathologists hardly arrive at the scene before NSA agents show up.”

  Lem was slightly unnerved by the swiftness with which the sheriff evidently gathered, coordinated, and absorbed information from various communities that were not in the unincorporated part of the county and were not, therefore, under his authority.

  Walt grinned but with little or no humor. “Didn’t expect me to have made all these connections, huh? Each of these things happened in a different police jurisdiction, but as far as I’m concerned this county is one sprawling city of two million people, so I make it my business to work hand in glove with all the local departments.”

  “What’s your point?”

  “My point is that it’s astonishing to have six murders of upstanding citizens in one day. This is Orange County, after all, not L.A. And it’s even more astonishing that all six deaths are related to urgent matters of national security. So it arouses my curiosity. I start checking into the backgrounds of these people, looking for something that links them—”

  “Walt, for Christ’s sake!”

  “—and I discover they all work—or did work—for something called Banodyne Laboratories.”

  Lem was not angry. He couldn’t get angry with Walt—they were tighter than brothers—but the big man’s canniness was maddening right now. Lem said, “Listen, you’ve no right to conduct an investigation.”

  “I’m sheriff, remember?”

  “But none of these murders—except Dalberg here—falls into your jurisdiction to begin with,” Lem said. “And even if it did . . . once the NSA steps in, you’ve no right to continue. In fact, you’re expressly forbidden by law to continue.”

  Ignoring him, Walt said, “So I look up Banodyne, see what kind of work they do, and I discover they’re into genetic engineering, recombinant DNA—”

  “You’re incorrigible.”

  “There’s no indication Banodyne’s at work on defense projects, but that doesn’t mean anything. Could be blind contracts, projects so secret that the funding doesn’t even appear on public record.”

  “Jesus,” Lem said irritably. “Don’t you understand how damn mean we can get when we’ve got national security laws on our side?”

  “Just speculating now,” Walt said.

  “You’ll speculate your honky ass right into a prison cell.”

  “Now, Lemuel, let’s not have an ugly racial confrontation here.”

  “You’re incorrigible.”

  “Yeah, and you’re repeating yourself. Anyway, I did some heavy thinking, and I figure the murders of these people who work at Banodyne must be connected somehow to the manhunt the Marines conducted on Wednesday and Thursday. And to the murder of Wesley Dalberg.”

  “There’s no similarity between Dalberg’s murder and the others.”

  “Of course there’s not. Wasn’t the same killer. I can see that. The Yarbecks, the Hudstons, and Weatherby were hit by a pro, while poor Wes Dalberg was torn to pieces. Still, there’s a connection, by God, or you wouldn’t be interested, and the connection must be Banodyne.”

  The sun was sinking. Shadows pooled and thickened.

  Walt said, “Here’s what I figure: they were working on some new bug at Banodyne, a genetically altered germ, and it got loose, contaminated someone, but it didn’t just make him sick. What it did was severly damage his brain, turn him into a savage or something—”

  “An updated Dr. Jekyll for the high-tech age?” Lem interrupted sarcastically.

  “—so he slipped out of the lab before anyone knew what happened to him, fled into the foothills, came here, attacked Dalberg.”

  “You watch a lot of bad horror movies or what?”

  “As for Yarbeck and the others, maybe they were eliminated ’cause they knew what happened and were so scared about the consequences that they intended to go public.”

  Off in the dusky canyon, a soft, ululant howl arose. Probably just a coyote.

  Lem wanted to get out of there, away from the forest. But he felt that he had to deal with Walt Gaines, deflect the sheriff from these lines of inquiry and consideration.

  “Let me get this straight, Walt. Are you saying the United States government had its own scientists killed to shut them up?”

  Walt frowned, knowing how unlikely—if not downright impossible— his scenario was.

  Lem said, “Is life really just a Ludlum novel? Killed our own people? Is it National Paranoia Month or something? Do you really believe that crap?”

  “No,” Walt admitted.

  “And how could Dalberg’s killer be a contaminated scientist with brain damage? I mean, Christ, you yourself said it was some animal that killed Dalberg, something with claws, sharp teeth.”

  “Okay, okay, so I don’t have it figured. Not all of it, anyway. But I’m sure it’s all tied in with Banodyne somehow. I’m not entirely on the wrong track—am I?”

  “Yes, you are,” Lem said. “Entirely.”

  “Really?”

  “Really.” Lem felt bad about lying to Walt and manipulating him, but he did it anyway. “I shouldn’t even tell you that you’re chasing after false spoor, but as a friend I guess I owe you something.”

  Additional wild voices had joined the eerie howling in the woods, confirming that the cries were only those of coyotes, yet the sound chilled Lem Johnson and made him eager to depart.

  Rubbing the nape of his bull neck with one hand, Walt said, “It doesn’t have anything at all to do with Banodyne?”

  “Nothing. It’s just a coincidence that Weatherby and Yarbeck both worked there—and that Hudston used to work there. If you insist on making the connection, you’ll just be spinning your wheels—which is fine by me.”

  The sun set and, in passing, seemed to unlock a door through which a much cooler, brisker breeze swept into the darkening world.

  Still rubbing his neck, Walt said, “Not Banodyne, huh?” He sighed. “I know you too well, buddy. You’ve got such a strong sense of duty that you’d lie to your own mother if that was in the best interests of the country.”

  Lem said nothing.

  “All right,” Walt said. “I’ll drop it. Your case from here on. Unless more people in my jurisdiction get killed. If that happens . . . well, I might try to take control of things again. Can’t promise you that I won’t. I’ve got a sense of duty, too, you know.”

  “I know,” Lem said, feeling guilty, feeling like a total shit.

  At last, they both headed back to the cabin.

  The sky—which was dark in the east, still streaked with deep orange and red and purple light in the west—seemed to be descending like the lid of a box.

  Coyotes howled.

  Something out in the night woods howled back at them.

  Cougar, Lem thought, but he knew that now he was even lying to himself.

  4

  On Sunday, two days after their successful Friday lunch date, Travis and Nora drove to Solvang, a Danish-style village in the Santa Yne
z Valley. It was a touristy place with hundreds of shops selling everything from exquisite Scandinavian crystal to plastic imitations of Danish beer steins. The quaint architecture (though calculated) and the tree-lined streets enhanced the simple pleasures of window-shopping.

  Several times Travis felt the urge to take Nora’s hand and hold it while they strolled. It seemed natural, right. Yet he sensed that she might not be ready for even such harmless contact as hand-holding.

  She was wearing another drab dress, dull blue this time, nearly as shapeless as a sack. Sensible shoes. Her thick dark hair still hung limp and unstyled, as it had been when he’d first seen her.

  Being with her was pure pleasure. She had a sweet temperament and was unfailingly sensitive and kind. Her innocence was refreshing. Her shyness and modesty, though excessive, endeared her to him. She viewed everything with a wide-eyed wonder that was charming, and he delighted in surprising her with simple things: a shop that sold only cuckoo clocks; another that sold only stuffed animals; a music box with a mother-of-pearl door that opened to reveal a pirouetting ballerina.

  He bought her a T-shirt with a personalized message that he would not let her see until it was ready: NORA LOVES EINSTEIN. Though she professed she could never wear a T-shirt, that it wasn’t her style, Travis knew she would wear it because she did, indeed, love the dog.

  Perhaps Einstein could not read the words on the shirt, but he seemed to understand what was meant. When they came out of the shop and unhooked his leash from the parking meter where they’d tethered him, Einstein regarded the message on the shirt solemnly while Nora held it up for his inspection, then happily licked and nuzzled her.

  The day held only one bad moment for them. As they turned a corner and approached another shop window, Nora stopped suddenly and looked around at the crowds on the sidewalks—people eating ice cream in big homemade waffle-cookie cones, people eating apple tarts wrapped in wax paper, guys in feather-decorated cowboy hats they’d bought in one of the stores, pretty young girls in short-shorts and halters, a very fat woman in a yellow muumuu, people speaking English and Spanish and Japanese and Vietnamese and all the other languages you could hear at any Southern California tourist spot—and then she looked along the busy street at a gift shop built in the form of a three-story stone-and-timber windmill, and she stiffened, looked stricken. Travis had to guide her to a bench in a small park, where she sat trembling for a few minutes before she could even tell him what was wrong.

  “Overload,” she said at last, her voice shaky. “So many . . . new sights . . . new sounds . . . so many different things all at once. I’m so sorry.”

  “It’s all right,” he said, touched.

  “I’m used to a few rooms, familiar things. Are people staring?”

  “No one’s noticed anything. There’s nothing to stare at.”

  She sat with her shoulders hunched, her head hung forward, her hands fisted in her lap—until Einstein put his head on her knees. As she petted the dog, she began gradually to relax.

  “I was enjoying myself,” she said to Travis, though she did not raise her head, “really enjoying myself, and I thought how far from home I was, how wonderfully far from home—”

  “Not really. Less than an hour’s drive,” he assured her.

  “A long, long way,” she said.

  Travis supposed that for her it was, in fact, a great distance.

  She said, “And when I realized how far from home I was and how . . . different everything was . . . I clenched up, afraid, like a child.”

  “Would you like to go back to Santa Barbara now?”

  “No!” she said, meeting his eyes at last. She shook her head. She dared to look around at the people moving through the small park and at the gift shop shaped like a windmill. “No. I want to stay a while. All day. I want to have dinner in a restaurant here, not at a sidewalk café but inside, like other people do, inside, and then I want to go home after dark.” She blinked and repeated those two words wonderingly, “After dark.”

  “All right.”

 
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