Watchers by Dean Koontz


  “This dog got a name?”

  “No name.”

  “I’ll check it out. Anything else?”

  “That’s it. When can you put it together?”

  “I’ll call you in the morning. Early.”

  Vince nodded. “And depending on what you turn up, I might need you to keep tracking these things on a daily basis.”

  “Child’s play,” Johnny said, spinning around once in his black leather chair, then jumping to his feet with a grin. “Now, I’m gonna fuck Samantha. Hey! You want to join in? Two studs like us, going at her at the same time, we could reduce that bitch to a little pile of jelly, have her begging for mercy. How about it?”

  Vince was glad for the weird green lighting because it covered the fact that he had gone ghost-pale. The idea of messing around with that infected slut, that diseased whore, that rotting and festering round-heeled pump, was enough to make him sick. He said, “Got an appointment I can’t break.”

  “Too bad,” Johnny said.

  Vince forced himself to say, “Would’ve been fun.”

  “Maybe next time.”

  The very idea of the three of them going at it . . . well, it made Vince feel unclean. He was overcome by a desire for a steaming-hot shower.

  6

  Sunday night, pleasantly tired from a long day in Solvang, Travis thought he would fall asleep the moment he put his head on his pillow, but he did not. He couldn’t stop thinking about Nora Devon. Her gray eyes flecked with green. Glossy black hair. The graceful, slender line of her throat. The musical sound of her laughter, the curve of her smile.

  Einstein was lying on the floor in the pale-silver light that came through the window and vaguely illuminated one small section of the dark room. But after Travis tossed and turned for an hour, the dog finally joined him on the bed and put his burly head and forepaws on Travis’s chest.

  “She’s so sweet, Einstein. One of the gentlest, sweetest people I’ve ever known.”

  The dog was silent.

  “And she’s very bright. She’s got a sharp mind, sharper than she realizes. She sees things I don’t see. She has a way of describing things that make them fresh and new. The whole world seems fresh and new when I see it with her.”

  Though still and quiet, Einstein had not fallen asleep. He was very attentive.

  “When I think about all that vitality, intelligence, and love of life being suppressed for thirty years, I want to cry. Thirty years in that old dark house. Jesus. And when I think of how she endured those years without letting it make her bitter, I want to hug her and tell her what an incredible woman she is, what a strong and courageous and incredible woman.”

  Einstein was silent, unmoving.

  A vivid memory flashed back to Travis: the clean shampoo smell of Nora’s hair when he had leaned close to her in front of a gallery window in Solvang. He breathed deep and could actually smell it again, and the scent accelerated his heartbeat.

  “Damn,” he said. “I’ve only known her a few days, but damn if I don’t think I’m falling in love.”

  Einstein lifted his head and woofed once, as if to say it was about time that Travis realized what was happening, and as if to say that he had brought them together and was pleased to take credit for their future happiness, and as if to say that it was all part of some grand design and that Travis was to stop fretting about it and just go with the flow.

  For another hour, Travis talked about Nora, about the way she looked and moved, about the melodic quality of her soft voice, about her unique perspective on life and her way of thinking, and Einstein listened with the attentiveness and genuine interest that was the mark of a true, concerned friend. It was an exhilarating hour. Travis had never thought he would love anyone again. Not anyone, not at all, and certainly not this intensely. Less than a week ago, his abiding loneliness had seemed unconquerable.

  Later, thoroughly exhausted both physically and emotionally, Travis slept.

  Later still, in the hollow heart of night, he came half awake and was dimly aware that Einstein was at the window. The retriever’s forepaws were on the windowsill, his snout against the glass. He was staring out at the darkness, alert.

  Travis sensed that the dog was troubled.

  But in his dream, he had been holding Nora’s hand under a harvest moon, and he did not want to come fully awake for fear he would not be able to regain that pleasant fantasy.

  7

  On Monday morning, May 24, Lemuel Johnson and Cliff Soames were at the small zoo—mostly a petting zoo for children—in sprawling Irvine Park, on the eastern edge of Orange County. The sky was cloudless, the sun bright and hot. The immense oaks did not stir a leaf in the motionless air, but birds swooped from branch to branch, peeping and trilling.

  Twelve animals were dead. They lay in bloody heaps.

  During the night, someone or something had climbed the fences into the pens and had slaughtered three young goats, a white-tailed deer and her recently born fawn, two peacocks, a lop-eared rabbit, a ewe and two lambs.

  A pony was dead, though it had not been savaged. Apparently, it had died of fright while throwing itself repeatedly against the fence in an attempt to escape whatever had attacked the other animals. It lay on its side, neck twisted in an improbable angle.

  The wild boars had been left unharmed. They snorted and sniffed continuously at the dusty earth around the feeding trough in their separate enclosure, looking for bits of food that might have spilled yesterday and been missed until now.

  Other surviving animals, unlike the boars, were skittish.

  Park employees—also skittish—were gathered near an orange truck that belonged to the county, talking with two Animal Control officers and with a young, bearded biologist from the California Department of Wildlife.

  Crouching beside the delicate and pathetic fawn, Lem studied the wounds in its neck until he could no longer tolerate the stench. Not all of the foul odors were caused by the dead animals. There was evidence that the killer had deposited feces and sprayed urine on its victims, just as it had done at Dalberg’s place.

  Pressing a handkerchief against his nose to filter the reeking air, he moved to a dead peacock. Its head had been torn off, as had one leg. Both of its clipped wings were broken, and its iridescent feathers were dulled and pasted together with blood.

  “Sir,” Cliff Soames called from the adjoining pen.

  Lem left the peacock, found a service gate that opened into the next enclosure, and joined Cliff at the carcass of the ewe.

  Flies swarmed around them, buzzing hungrily, settling upon the ewe, then darting off as the men fanned them away.

  Cliff’s face was bloodless, but he did not look as shocked or as nauseated as he had been last Friday, at Dalberg’s cabin. Perhaps this slaughter didn’t affect him as strongly because the victims were animals instead of human beings. Or perhaps he was consciously hardening himself against the extreme violence of their adversary.

  “You’ll have to come to this side,” Cliff said from where he crouched beside the ewe.

  Lem stepped around the sheep and squatted beside Cliff. Though the ewe’s head was in the shadow of an oak bough overhanging the pen, Lem saw that her right eye had been torn out.

  Without comment, Cliff used a stick to lever the left side of the ewe’s head off the ground, revealing that the other socket was also vacant.

  The cloud of flies thickened around them.

  “Looks like it was our runaway, all right,” Lem said.

  Lowering his own handkerchief from his face, Cliff said, “There’s more.” He led Lem to three additional carcasses—both lambs and one of the goats—that were eyeless. “I’d say it’s beyond argument. The damn thing killed Dalberg last Tuesday night, then roamed the foothills and canyons for five days, doing . . .”

  “What?”

  “God knows what. But it wound up here last night.”

  Lem used his handkerchief to mop the sweat off his dark face. “We’re only a few miles north
-northwest of Dalberg’s cabin.”

  Cliff nodded.

  “Which way you think it’s headed?”

  Cliff shrugged.

  “Yeah,” Lem said. “No way of knowing where it’s going. Can’t begin to outthink it because we haven’t the slightest idea how it thinks. Let’s just pray to God it stays out here in the unpopulated end of the county. I don’t want to even consider what could happen if it decides to head into the easternmost suburbs like Orange Park Acres and Villa Park.”

  On the way out of the compound, Lem saw that the flies were gathered on the dead rabbit in such numbers that they looked like a piece of dark cloth draped over the carcass and rippling in a light breeze.

  Eight hours later, at seven o’clock Monday evening, Lem stepped up to the lectern in a large meeting room on the grounds of the Marine Air Station at El Toro. He leaned toward the microphone, tapped it with a finger to be sure it was active, heard a loud hollow thump, and said, “May I have your attention, please?”

  A hundred men were seated on metal folding chairs. They were all young, well-built, and healthy-looking, for they were members of elite Marine Intelligence units. Five two-squad platoons had been drawn from Pendleton and other bases in California. Most of them had been involved in the search of the Santa Ana foothills last Wednesday and Thursday, following the breakout at the Banodyne labs.

  They were still searching, having just returned from a full day in the hills and canyons, but they were no longer conducting the operation in uniform. To deceive reporters and local authorities, they had driven in cars and pickups and Jeep wagons to various points along the current search perimeter. They had gone into the wilds in groups of three or four, dressed as ordinary hikers: jeans or khaki pants in the rugged Banana Republic style; T-shirts or cotton safari shirts; Dodger or Budweiser or John Deere caps, or cowboy hats. They went armed with powerful handguns that could be quickly concealed in nylon backpacks or under their loose T-shirts if they encountered real hikers or state authorities. And in Styrofoam coolers, they carried compact Uzi submachine guns that could be brought into service in seconds if they found the adversary.

  Every man in the room had signed a secrecy oath, which put him in jeopardy of a long prison term if he ever divulged the nature of this operation to anyone. They knew what they were hunting, though Lem was aware that some of them had trouble believing the creature really existed. Some were afraid. But others, especially those who had previously served in Lebanon or Central America, were familiar enough with death and horror to be unshaken by the nature of their current quarry. A few oldtimers went as far back as the final year of the Vietnam War, and they professed to believe that the mission was a piece of cake. In any event, they were all good men, and they had a wary respect for the strange enemy they were stalking, and if The Outsider could be found, they would find it.

  Now, when Lem asked for their attention, they immediately fell silent.

  “General Hotchkiss tells me that you’ve had another fruitless day out there,” Lem said, “and I know you’re as unhappy about that as I am. You’ve been working long hours in rugged terrain for six days now, and you’re tired, and you’re wondering how long this is going to drag on. Well, we’re going to keep looking until we find what we’re after, until we corner The Outsider and kill it. There is no way we can stop if it’s still loose. No way.”

  None of the hundred even grumbled in disagreement.

  “And always remember—we’re also looking for the dog.”

  Every man in the room probably hoped that he would be the one to find the dog and that someone else would encounter The Outsider.

  Lem said, “On Wednesday, we’re bringing in another four Marine Intelligence squads from more distant bases, and they’ll spell you on a rotating basis, giving you a couple of days off. But you’ll all be out there tomorrow morning, and the search area has been redefined.”

  A county map was mounted on the wall behind the lectern, and Lem Johnson pointed to it with a yardstick. “We’ll be shifting north-northwest, into the hills and canyons around Irvine Park.”

  He told them about the slaughter at the petting zoo. He gave a graphic description of the condition of the carcasses, for he did not want any of these men to get careless.

  “What happened to those zoo animals,” Lem said, “could happen to any of you if you let your guard down at the wrong place and time.”

  A hundred men regarded him with utmost seriousness, and in their eyes he saw a hundred versions of his own tightly controlled fear.

  8

  Tuesday night, May 25, Tracy Leigh Keeshan could not sleep. She was so excited she felt as if she might burst. She pictured herself as a dandelion gone to seed, a puffball of fragile white fuzz, and then a gust of wind would come along and all the bits of fluff would be sent spinning in every direction— poof—to the far corners of the world, and Tracy Keeshan would exist no more, destroyed by her own excitement.

  She was an unusually imaginative thirteen-year-old.

  Lying in bed in her dark room, she did not even have to close her eyes to see herself on horseback—on her own chestnut stallion, Goodheart, to be precise—thundering along the racetrack, the rails flashing past, the other horses in the field left far behind, the finish line less than a hundred yards ahead, and the adoring crowds cheering wildly in the grandstand . . .

  In school, she routinely got good grades, not because she was a diligent student but because learning came easily to her, and she could do well without much effort. She didn’t really care about school. She was slender, blond, with eyes the precise shade of a clear summer sky, very pretty, and boys were drawn to her, but she didn’t spend any more time thinking about boys than she did worrying about her school work, not yet anyway, although her girl-friends were so fixated on boys, so consumed by the subject that they sometimes bored Tracy half to death.

  What Tracy cared about—deeply, profoundly, passionately—was horses, racing thoroughbreds. She had been collecting pictures of horses since she was five and had been taking riding lessons since she was seven, though for the longest time her parents had not been able to afford to buy her a horse of her own. During the past two years, however, her father’s business had prospered, and two months ago they had moved into a big new house on two acres in Orange Park Acres, which was a horsey community with plenty of riding trails. At the back end of their lot was a private stable for six horses, though only one stall was occupied. Just today—Tuesday, May 25, a day of glory, a day that would live forever in Tracy Keeshan’s heart, a day that just proved there was a God—she had been given a horse of her own, the splendid and beautiful and incomparable Goodheart.

  So she could not sleep. She went to bed at ten, and by midnight she was more awake than ever. By one o’clock Wednesday morning, she could not stand it any longer. She had to go out to the stables and look at Goodheart. Make sure he was all right. Make sure he was comfortable in his new home. Make sure he was real.

  She threw off the sheet and thin blanket and got quietly out of bed. She was wearing panties and a Santa Anita Racetrack T-shirt, so she just pulled on a pair of jeans and slipped her bare feet into blue Nike running shoes.

  She turned the knob on her door slowly, quietly, and went out into the hall, letting the door stand open.

  The house was dark and quiet. Her parents and her nine-year-old brother Bobby were asleep.

  Tracy went down the hall, through the living room and the dining room, not turning on lights, relying on the moonlight that penetrated the large windows.

  In the kitchen, she silently pulled open the utility drawer on the corner secretary and withdrew a flashlight. She unlocked the back door and let herself out onto the rear patio, stealthily easing the door shut behind her, not yet switching on the flashlight.

  The spring night was cool but not chilly. Silvered by moonlight above but with dark undersides, a few big clouds glided like white-sailed galleons across the sea of night, and Tracy stared up at them for a while, enj
oying the moment. She wanted to absorb every detail of this special time, letting her anticipation build. After all, this would be her first moment alone with the proud and noble Goodheart, just the two of them sharing their dreams of the future.

  She crossed the patio, went around the swimming pool, where the reflection of the moon rippled gently in the chlorinated water, and stepped out onto the sloping lawn. The dew-damp grass seemed to shimmer in the lambent lunar beams.

  Off to the left and right, the property line was defined by white ranch fencing that appeared vaguely phosphorescent in the moonglow. Beyond the fences were other properties of at least an acre and some as large as the Keeshan place, and all across Orange Park Acres the night was still but for a few crickets and nocturnal frogs.

  Tracy walked slowly toward the stables at the end of the yard, thinking about the triumphs that lay ahead for her and Goodheart. He would not race again. He had placed in the money at Santa Anita, Del Mar, Hollywood Park, and other tracks throughout California, but he had been injured and could no longer race safely. However, he could still be put to stud, and Tracy had no doubt that he’d sire winners. Within a week they hoped to add two good mares to the stable, and then they’d take the horses immediately to a breeding farm, where Goodheart would impregnate the mares. All three would be brought back here, where Tracy would care for them. Next year two healthy colts would be born, and then the young ones would be boarded with a trainer near enough so Tracy could visit constantly, and she’d help out with their training, learn all there was to learn about rearing a champion, and then—and then—she and the offspring of Goodheart would make racing history, oh yes, she was quite confident of making racing history—

  Her fantasizing was interrupted when, about forty yards from the stables, she stepped in something mushy and slippery, and nearly fell. She didn’t smell manure, but she figured it must be a pile left by Goodheart when they’d had him out in the yard last evening. Feeling stupid and clumsy, she switched on the flashlight and directed it at the ground, and instead of manure she found the remains of a brutally mutilated cat.

  Tracy made a hissing sound of disgust and instantly switched off the flashlight.

  The neighborhood was crawling with cats, partly because they were useful for controlling the mouse population around everyone’s stables. Coyotes regularly ventured in from the hills and canyons to the east, in search of prey. Although cats were quick, coyotes were sometimes quicker, and at first Tracy thought a coyote had dug under the fence or leaped over it and had gotten hold of this unfortunate feline, which had probably been prowling for rodents.

  But a coyote would have eaten the cat right on the spot, leaving little more than a bit of tail and a scrap or two of fur, for a coyote was a gourmand rather than gourmet and had a ravenous appetite. Or it would have carried the cat away for leisurely consumption elsewhere. Yet this cat had not looked even half-eaten, merely torn to pieces, as if something or someone had killed it merely for the sick pleasure of rending it apart . . .

  Tracy shuddered.

  And remembered the rumors about the zoo.

  In Irvine Park, which was only a couple of miles away, someone apparently had killed several caged animals in the small petting zoo two nights ago. Drug-crazed vandals. Thrill killers. The story was just a hot rumor, and no one was able to confirm it, but there were indications that it was true. Some kids had bicycled out to the park yesterday after school, and they’d not seen any mangled carcasses, but they’d reported that there seemed to be fewer animals in the pens than usual. And the Shetland pony was definitely missing. Park employees had been uncommunicative when approached.

  Tracy wondered if the same psychos were prowling Orange Park Acres, killing cats and other family pets, a possibility that was spooky and sickening. Suddenly, she realized that people deranged enough to slaughter cats for the sheer fun of it would also be sufficiently twisted to get a kick out of killing horses.

  An almost crippling pang of fear flashed through her as she thought of Goodheart out there in the stable all by himself. For a moment, she could not move.

  Around her, the night seemed even quieter than it had been.

  It was quieter. The crickets were no longer chirruping. The frogs had stopped croaking, too.

  The galleon clouds seemed to have dropped anchor in the sky, and the night appeared to have frozen in the ice-pale glow of the moon.

  Something moved in the shrubbery.

  Most of the enormous lot was devoted to open expanses of lawn, but a score of trees stood in artfully placed groups—mostly Indian laurels and jacarandas, plus a couple of corals—and there were beds of azaleas, California lilac bushes, Cape honeysuckles.

  Tracy distinctly heard shrubbery rustling as something pushed roughly and hurriedly through it. But when she switched on the flashlight and swept the beam around the nearest plantings, she could not see anything moving.

  The night was silent again.

  Hushed.

  Expectant.

  She considered returning to the house, where either she could wake her father to ask him to investigate, or she could go to bed and wait until morning to investigate the situation herself. But what if it was only a coyote in the shrubbery? In that case, she was in no danger. Though a hungry coyote would attack a very young child, it would run from anyone Tracy’s size. Besides, she was too worried about her noble Goodheart to waste any more time; she had to be sure that the horse was all right.

  Using the flashlight to avoid any more dead cats that might be strewn about, she headed toward the stable. She had taken only a few steps when she heard the
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