Watchers by Dean Koontz


  “Unless, of course, you hoped to get back sooner.”

  “No, no,” he said. “I planned on making a day of it.”

  “This is very kind of you.”

  Travis raised one eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

  “You know.”

  “I’m afraid I don’t.”

  “Helping me step out into the world,” she said. “Giving up your time to help someone . . . like me. It’s very generous of you.”

  He was astonished. “Nora, let me assure you, it’s not charity work I’m involved in here!”

  “I’m sure a man like you has better things to do with a Sunday afternoon in May.”

  “Oh, yes,” he said self-mockingly, “I could have stayed home and given all my shoes a meticulous shining with a toothbrush. Could have counted the number of pieces in a box of elbow macaroni.”

  She stared at him in disbelief.

  “By God, you’re serious,” Travis said. “You think I’m here just because I’ve taken pity on you.”

  She bit her lip and said, “It’s all right.” She looked down at the dog again. “I don’t mind.”

  “But I’m not here out of pity, for God’s sake! I’m here because I like being with you, I really do, I like you very much.”

  Even with her head lowered, the blush that crept into her cheeks was visible.

  For a while neither of them spoke.

  Einstein looked up at her adoringly as she petted him, though once in a while he rolled his eyes at Travis as if to say, All right, you’ve opened the door of a relationship, so don’t just sit there like a fool, say something, move forward, win her over.

  She scratched the retriever’s ears and stroked him for a couple of minutes, and then she said, “I’m okay now.”

  They left the little park and strolled past the shops again, and in a while it was as if her moment of panic and his clumsy proclamation of affection had not happened.

  He felt as if he were courting a nun. Eventually, he realized that the situation was even worse than that. Since the death of his wife three years ago, he had been celibate. The whole subject of sexual relations seemed strange and new to him again. So it was almost as if he were a priest wooing a nun.

  Nearly every block had a bakery, and the wares in the display windows of each shop looked more delicious than what had been for sale in the previous place. The scents of cinnamon, powdered sugar, nutmeg, almonds, apples, and chocolate eddied in the warm spring air.

  Einstein stood on his hind feet at each bakery, paws on the windowsill, and stared longingly through the glass at the artfully arranged pastries. But he didn’t go into any of the shops, and he never barked. When he begged for a treat, his soulful whining was discreetly low, so as not to bother the swarming tourists. Rewarded with a bit of pecan cake and a small apple tart, he was satisfied and did not persist in begging.

  Ten minutes later, Einstein revealed his exceptional intelligence to Nora. He had been a good dog around her, affectionate and bright and well-behaved, and he had shown considerable initiative in chasing and cornering Arthur Streck, but he had not previously allowed her a glimpse of his uncanny intelligence. And when she witnessed it, she did not at first realize what she was seeing.

  They were passing the town pharmacy, which also sold newspapers and magazines, some of which were displayed outside in a rack near the entrance. Einstein surprised Nora with a sudden lurch toward the pharmacy, tearing his leash out of her hand. Before either Nora or Travis could regain control of him, Einstein used his teeth to pull a magazine from the rack and brought it to them, dropping it at Nora’s feet. It was Modern Bride. As Travis grabbed for him, Einstein eluded capture and snatched up another copy of Modern Bride, which he deposited at Travis’s feet just as Nora was picking up her copy to return it to the rack.

  “You silly pooch,” she said. “What’s gotten into you?”

  Taking up the leash, Travis stepped through the passersby and put the second copy of the magazine back where the dog had gotten it. He thought he knew exactly what Einstein had in mind, but he said nothing, afraid of embarrassing Nora, and they resumed their walk.

  Einstein looked at everything, sniffing with interest at the people who passed, and he seemed immediately to have forgotten his enthusiasm for matrimonial publications.

  However, they had taken fewer than twenty steps when the dog abruptly turned and ran between Travis’s legs, jerking the leash out of his hand and nearly knocking him down. Einstein went directly to the pharmacy, snatched a magazine out of the rack, and returned.

  Modern Bride.

  Nora still did not get it. She thought it was funny, and she stooped to ruffle the retriever’s coat. “Is this your favorite reading material, you silly pooch? Read it every month, do you? You know, I’ll bet you do. You strike me as a complete romantic.”

  A couple of tourists had noticed the playful dog and were smiling, but they were even less likely than Nora to realize there was a complex intention behind the animal’s game with the magazine.

  When Travis bent down to pick up Modern Bride, intending to return it to the pharmacy, Einstein got to it first, took it in his jaws, and shook his head violently for a moment.

  “Bad dog,” Nora said with evident surprise that Einstein had such a devilish streak in him.

  Einstein dropped the magazine. It was badly rumpled, and some of the pages were torn, and here and there the paper was damp with saliva.

  “I guess we’ll have to buy it now,” Travis said.

  Panting, the retriever sat on the sidewalk, cocked his head, and grinned up at Travis.

  Nora remained innocently unaware that the dog was trying to tell them something. Of course, she had no reason to make a sophisticated interpretation of Einstein’s behavior. She was unfamiliar with the degree of his genius and did not expect him to perform miracles of communication.

  Glaring at the dog, Travis said, “You stop it, fur face. No more of this. Understand me?”

  Einstein yawned.

  With the magazine paid for and tucked into a pharmacy bag, they resumed their tour of Solvang, but before they reached the end of the block, the dog began to elaborate on his message. He suddenly gripped Nora’s hand gently but firmly in his teeth and, to her startlement, pulled her along the sidewalk to an art gallery, where a young man and woman were admiring the landscape paintings in the window. The couple had a baby in a stroller, and it was the child to whom Einstein was directing Nora’s attention. He wouldn’t let go of her hand until he had forced her to touch the pink-outfitted infant’s chubby arm.

  Embarrassed, Nora said, “He thinks your baby’s exceptionally cute, I guess—which she certainly is.”

  The mother and father were wary of the dog at first but quickly realized he was harmless.

  “How old’s your little girl?” Nora asked.

  “Ten months,” the mother said.

  “What’s her name?”

  “Lana.”

  “That’s pretty.”

  Finally, Einstein was willing to release Nora’s hand.

  A few steps away from the young couple, in front of an antique shop that looked as if it had been transported brick by brick and timber by timber from seventeenth-century Denmark, Travis stopped, crouched beside the dog, lifted one of its ears, and said, “Enough. If you ever want your Alpo again, cut it out.”

  Nora looked baffled. “What’s gotten into him?”

  Einstein yawned, and Travis knew they were in trouble.

  In the next ten minutes, the dog took hold of Nora’s hand twice again and led her, both times, to babies.

  Modern Bride and babies.

  The message was painfully clear now, even to Nora: You and Travis belongtogether. Get married. Have babies. Raise a family. What’re you waitingfor?

  She was blushing furiously and seemed unable to look directly at Travis. He was somewhat embarrassed, too.

  At last Einstein seemed satisfied that he had gotten his point across, and he stopped misbehav
ing. Until now, if asked, Travis would have said that a dog could not look smug.

  Later, at dinnertime, the day was still pleasantly warm, and Nora changed her mind about eating inside, in an ordinary restaurant. She chose a place with sidewalk tables under red umbrellas that were, in turn, sheltered by the boughs of a giant oak. Travis sensed that she was not now intimidated by the prospect of a real restaurant experience but wanted to eat in the open air so they could keep Einstein with them. Repeatedly throughout dinner, she looked at Einstein, sometimes glancing surreptitiously at him, sometimes studying him openly and intently.

  Travis made no reference to what had happened and pretended to have forgotten the whole affair. But when he had the dog’s attention, and when Nora was not looking, he mouthed threats at the mutt: No more apple tarts. Choke chain. Muzzle. Straight to the dog pound.

  Einstein took every threat with great equanimity, either grinning or yawning or blowing air out his nostrils.

  5

  Early Sunday evening, Vince Nasco paid a visit to Johnny “The Wire” Santini. Johnny was called “The Wire” for several reasons, not least of which was that he was tall and lean and taut, and he looked as if he was constructed of knotted wires in various gauges. He also had frizzy hair the shade of copper. He had made his bones at the tender age of fifteen, when to please his uncle, Religio Fustino, don of one of New York’s Five Families, Johnny had taken it upon himself to strangle a freelance shit-and-coke dealer who was operating in the Bronx without the permission of the Family. Johnny used a length of piano wire for the job. This display of initiative and dedication to the principles of the Family had filled Don Religio with pride and love, and he had wept for only the second time in his life, promising his nephew the eternal respect of the Family and a well-paid position in the business.

  Now Johnny The Wire was thirty-five and lived in a million-dollar beach house in San Clemente. The ten rooms and four baths had been remade by an interior designer commissioned to create an authentic—and expensive—private Art Deco retreat from the modern world. Everything was in shades of black, silver, and deep blue, with accents of turquoise and peach. Johnny had told Vince that he liked Art Deco because it reminded him of the Roaring Twenties, and he liked the twenties because that was the romantic era of legendary gangsters.

  To Johnny The Wire, crime was not just a means to make money, not simply a way to rebel against the constraints of civilized society, and not only a genetic compulsion, but it was also—and primarily—a magnificent romantic tradition. He saw himself as a brother of every eye-patched hook-handed pirate who ever sailed in search of plunder, of every highwayman who had robbed a mail coach, of every safecracker and kidnapper and embezzler and thug in all the ages of criminal endeavor. He was, he insisted, mystical kin to Jesse James, Dillinger, Al Capone, the Dalton boys, Lucky Luciano, and legions of others, and Johnny loved them all, these legendary brothers in blood and theft.

  Greeting Vince at the front door, Johnny said, “Come in, come in, big guy. Good to see you again.”

  They hugged. Vince didn’t like hugging, but he had worked for Johnny’s Uncle Religio when he’d lived back in New York, and he still did a West Coast job for the Fustino Family now and then, so he and Johnny went back a long way, long enough that a hug was required.

  “You’re looking good,” Johnny said. “Taking care of yourself, I see. Still mean as a snake?”

  “A rattlesnake,” Vince said, a little embarrassed to be saying such a stupid thing, but he knew it was the kind of outlaw crap that Johnny liked to hear.

  “Hadn’t seen you in so long I thought maybe the cops busted your ass.”

  “I’ll never do time,” Vince said, meaning that he knew prison was not part of his destiny.

  Johnny took it to mean that Vince would go down shooting rather than submit to the law, and he scowled and nodded approval. “They ever get you in a corner, blow away as many of ’em as you can before they take you out. That’s the only clean way to go down.”

  Johnny The Wire was an astonishingly ugly man, which probably explained his need to feel that he was a part of a great romantic tradition. Over the years Vince had noticed that the better-looking hoods never glamorized what they did. They killed in cold blood because they liked killing or found it necessary, and they stole and embezzled and extorted because they wanted easy money, and that was the end of it: no justifications, no self-glorification, which was the way it ought to be. But those with faces that appeared to have been crudely molded from concrete, those who resembled Quasimodo on a bad day—well, many of them tried to compensate for their unfortunate looks by casting themselves as Jimmy Cagney in Public Enemy.

  Johnny was wearing a black jumpsuit, black sneakers. He always wore black, probably because he thought it made him look sinister instead of just ugly.

  From the foyer, Vince followed Johnny into the living room, where the furniture was upholstered in black fabric and the end tables were finished in glossy black lacquer. There were ormolu table lamps by Ranc, large silver-dusted Deco vases by Daum, a pair of antique chairs by Jacques Ruhlmann. Vince knew the history of these things only because, on previous visits, Johnny The Wire had stepped out of his tough-guy persona long enough to babble about his period treasures.

  A good-looking blonde was reclining on a silver-and-black chaise longue, reading a magazine. No older than twenty, she was almost embarrassingly ripe. Her silver-blond hair was cut short, in a pageboy. She was wearing Chinese-red silk lounging pajamas that clung to the contours of her full breasts, and when she glanced up and pouted at Vince, she seemed to be trying to look like Jean Harlow.

  “This is Samantha,” Johnny The Wire said. To Samantha, he said, “Toots, this here is a made man that nobody messes with, a legend in his own time.”

  Vince felt like a jackass.

  “What’s a ‘made man’?” the blonde asked in a high-pitched voice she’d no doubt copied from the old movie star Judy Holliday.

  Standing beside the longue, cupping one of the blonde’s breasts and fondling it through the silk pajamas, Johnny said, “She doesn’t know the lingo, Vince. She’s not of the fratellanza. She’s a valley girl, new to the life, unaware of our customs.”

  “He means I’m no greaseball guinea,” Samantha said sourly.

  Johnny slapped her so hard that he nearly knocked her off the chaise longue. “You watch your mouth, bitch.”

  She put a hand to her face, and tears shimmered in her eyes, and in a little-girl voice, she said, “I’m sorry, Johnny.”

  “Stupid bitch,” he muttered.

  “I don’t know what gets into me,” she said. “You’re good to me, Johnny, and I hate myself when I act like that.”

  To Vince, it appeared to be a rehearsed scene, but he supposed that was just because they’d been through it so many times before, both privately and publicly. From the shine in Samantha’s eyes, Vince could tell she enjoyed being slapped around; she smart-mouthed Johnny just so he’d hit her. Johnny clearly liked slapping her, too.

  Vince was disgusted.

  Johnny The Wire called her a “bitch” again, then led Vince out of the living room and into the big study, closing the door behind them. He winked and said, “She’s a little uppity, that one, but she can just about suck your brains out through your cock.”

  Half-sickened by Johnny Santini’s sleaziness, Vince refused to be drawn into such a conversation. Instead, he withdrew an envelope from his jacket pocket. “I need information.”

  Johnny took the envelope, looked inside, thumbed casually through the wad of hundred-dollar bills, and said, “What you want, you got.”

  The study was the only room in the house untouched by Art Deco. It was strictly high-tech. Sturdy metal tables were lined up along three walls, and eight computers stood on them, different makes and models. Every computer had its own phone line and modem, and every display screen was aglow. On some screens, programs were running; data flickered across them or scrolled from top to bottom. Drapes
were drawn over the windows, and the two flexible-neck work lamps were hooded to prevent glare on the monitors, so the predominant light was electronic-green, which gave Vince a peculiar feeling of being under the surface of the sea. Three laser printers were producing hard copies with only vague whispering sounds that for some reason brought to mind images of fish swimming through ocean-floor vegetation.

  Johnny The Wire had killed half a dozen men, had managed bookie and numbers operations, had planned and executed bank robberies and jewelry heists. He had been involved in the Fustino Family’s drug operations, extortion rackets, kidnapping, labor-union corruption, record and videotape counterfeiting, interstate truck hijacking, political bribery, and child pornography. He had done it all, seen it all, and although he had never exactly been bored by any criminal undertaking, no matter how long or often he had been involved in it, he had grown somewhat jaded. During the past decade, as the computer opened exciting new areas of criminal activity, Johnny had seized the opportunity to move where no mafia wiseguy had gone before, into challenging frontiers of electronic thievery and mayhem. He had a gift for it, and he soon became the mob’s premier hacker.

  Given time and motivation, he could break any computer security system and pry through a corporation’s or a government agency’s most sensitive information. If you wanted to run a major credit-card scam, charging a million bucks’ worth of purchases to other people’s American Express accounts, Johnny The Wire could suck some suitable names and credit histories out of TRW’s files and matching card numbers from American Express’s data banks, and you were in business. If you were a don under indictment and about to go to trial on heavy charges, and if you were afraid of the testimony to be given by one of your cronies who had turned state’s evidence, Johnny could invade the Department of Justice’s most well-guarded data banks, discover the new identity that had been given the stool pigeon through the Federal Witness Relocation Program, and tell you where to send the hit men. Johnny rather grandly called himself the “Silicon Sorcerer,” though everyone else still called him The Wire.

  As the mob’s hacker, he was more valuable than ever to all the Families nationwide, so valuable that they didn’t even mind if he moved to a comparative backwater like San Clemente, where he could live the good beach life while he worked for them. In the age of the microchip, Johnny said, the world was one small town, and you could sit in San Clemente—or Oshkosh—and pick someone’s pocket in New York City.

  Johnny dropped into a high-backed black leather chair equipped with rubber wheels, in which he could roll swiftly from one computer to the next. He said, “So! What can the Silicon Sorcerer do for you, Vince?”

  “Can you tap into police computers?”

  “It’s a snap.”

  “I need to know if, since last Tuesday, any police agency in the county has opened a file on any particularly strange murders.”

  “Who’re the victims?”

  “I don’t know. I’m just looking for strange murders.”

  “Strange in what way?”

  “I’m not exactly sure. Maybe . . . somebody with his throat torn out. Somebody ripped to pieces. Somebody all chewed up and gouged by an animal.”

  Johnny gave him a peculiar look. “That’s strange, all right. Something like that would be in the newspapers.”

  “Maybe not,” Vince said, thinking of the army of government security agents that would be working diligently to keep the press in the dark about the Francis Project and to conceal the dangerous developments on Tuesday at the Banodyne labs. “The murders might be in the news, but the police will probably be suppressing the gory details, making them look like ordinary homicides. So from what the papers print, I won’t be able to tell which victims are the ones I’m interested in.”

  “All right. Can do.”

  “You’d also better prowl around at the County Animal Control Authority to see if they’re getting any reports of unusual attacks by coyotes or cougars or other predators. And not just attacks on people, but on livestock—cows, sheep. There might even be some neighborhood, probably on the eastern edge of the county, where a lot of family pets are disappearing or being chewed up real bad by something wild. If you run across that, I want to know.”

  Johnny grinned and said, “You tracking down a werewolf?”

  It was a joke; he did not expect or want an answer. He had not asked why this information was needed, and he would never ask, because people in their line of work did not poke into each other’s business. Johnny might be curious, but Vince knew that The Wire would never indulge his curiosity.

  Vince was unnerved not by the question but by the grin. The green light from the computer screens was reflected by Johnny’s eyes and by the saliva on his teeth and, to a lesser extent, by his wiry copper-colored hair. As ugly as he was to begin with, the eerie luminescence made him look like a revived corpse in a Romero film.

  Vince said, “Another thing. I need to know if any police agency in the county is running a quiet search for a golden retriever.”

  “A dog?”

  “Yeah.”

  “Cops don’t usually look for lost dogs.”

  “I know,” Vince said.

 
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