Watchers by Dean Koontz

  rustling again and, worse, an eerie growling that was unlike the sound of any animal she’d ever heard before.

  She began to turn, might have run for the house then, but in the stable Goodheart whinnied shrilly, as if in fear, and kicked at the board walls of his stall. She pictured a leering psycho going after Goodheart with hideous instruments of torture. Her concern for her own welfare was not half as strong as her fear that something terrible would happen to her beloved breeder of champions, so she sprinted to his rescue.

  Poor Goodheart began kicking even more frantically. His hooves slammed repeatedly against the walls, drummed furiously, and the night seemed to echo with the thunder of an oncoming storm.

  She was still about fifteen yards from the stable when she heard the strange guttural growling again and realized that something was coming after her, bearing down on her from behind. She skidded on the damp grass, whirled, and brought up her flashlight.

  Rushing toward her was a creature that had surely escaped from Hell. It let out a shriek of madness and rage.

  In spite of the flashlight, Tracy did not get a clear look at the attacker. The beam wavered, and the night grew darker as the moon slipped behind a cloud, and the hateful beast was moving fast, and she was too scared to understand what she was seeing. Nevertheless, she saw enough to know it was nothing she had ever seen before. She had an impression of a dark, misshapen head with asymmetrical depressions and bulges, enormous jaws full of sharp curved teeth, and amber eyes that blazed in the flashlight beam the way a dog’s or a cat’s eyes will glow in a car’s headlights.

  Tracy screamed.

  The attacker shrieked again and leaped at her.

  It hit Tracy hard enough to knock the breath clear out of her. The flash-light flew from her hand, tumbled across the lawn. She fell, and the creature came down on top of her, and they rolled over and over toward the stable. As they rolled, she flailed desperately at the thing with her small fists, and she felt its claws sinking into the flesh along her right side. Its gaping mouth was at her face, she felt its hot rank breath washing her over, smelled blood and decay and worse, and she sensed that it was going for her throat—she thought, I’m dead, oh God, it’s going to kill me, I’m dead, like the cat—and she would have been dead in seconds, for sure, if Goodheart, less than fifteen feet away now, had not kicked out the latched half-door of his stall and bolted straight at them in panic.

  The stallion screamed and reared up on its hind feet when it saw them, as if it would trample them underfoot.

  Tracy’s monstrous attacker shrieked again, though not in rage this time but in surprise and fear. It released her and flung itself to one side, out from under the horse.

  Goodheart’s hooves slammed into the earth inches from Tracy’s head, and he reared up again, pawing at the air, screaming, and she knew that in his terror he might unwittingly trample her skull to mush. She threw herself out from under him, and also away from the amber-eyed beast, which had disappeared in the darkness on the other side of the stallion.

  Still, Goodheart reared and screamed, and Tracy was screaming as well, and dogs were howling all over the neighborhood, and now lights appeared in the house, which gave her hope of survival. However, she sensed that the attacker wasn’t ready to give up, that it was already circling the frantic stallion to make another try for her. She heard it snarling, spitting. She knew she would never reach the distant house before the thing dragged her down again, so she scrambled toward the nearby stable, to one of the empty stalls. As she went, she heard herself chanting, “Jesus, oh Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus . . .”

  The two halves of the Dutch-style stall door were bolted firmly together. Another bolt fastened the entire door to the frame. She unlatched that second bolt, pulled open the door, rushed into the straw-scented darkness, shut the door behind her, and held it with all the strength she possessed, for it could not be latched from inside.

  An instant later, her assailant slammed into the other side of the door, trying to knock it open, but the frame prevented that. The door would only move outward, and Tracy hoped the amber-eyed creature was not smart enough to figure out how the door worked.

  But it was smart enough—

  (Dear Lord in Heaven, why wasn’t it as dumb as it was ugly!)

  —and after hitting the barrier only twice, it began to pull instead of push. The door was almost yanked out of Tracy’s grasp.

  She wanted to scream for help, but she needed every ounce of energy to dig in her heels and hold the stall door shut. It rattled and thumped against the frame as her demonic assailant wrestled with it. Fortunately, Goodheart was still letting loose shrill squeals and whinnies of terror, and the assailant was also shrieking—a sound that was strangely animal and human at the same time—so her father could have no doubt where the trouble was.

  The door jerked open a few inches.

  She yelped and pulled it shut.

  Instantly the attacker yanked it partway open again and held it ajar, striving to pull the door wider even as she struggled to reclose it. She was losing. The door inched open. She saw the shadowy outline of the malformed face. The sharply pointed teeth gleamed dully. The amber eyes were faint now, barely visible. It hissed and snarled at her, and its pungent breath was stronger than the scent of straw.

  Whimpering in terror and frustration, Tracy drew back on the door with all of her strength.

  But it opened another inch.

  And another.

  Her heart was hammering loud enough to muffle the first shotgun blast. She didn’t know what she’d heard until a second shot boomed through the night, and then she knew her father had grabbed his 12-gauge on the way out of the house.

  The stall door slammed shut in front of her as the attacker, frightened by the gunfire, let go of it. Tracy held fast.

  Then she thought that maybe, in all the confusion, Daddy might believe that Goodheart was to blame, that the poor horse had gone loco or something. From within the stall she cried out, “Don’t shoot Goodheart! Don’t shoot the horse!”

  No more shots rang out, and Tracy immediately felt stupid for thinking her father would blow away Goodheart. Daddy was a cautious man, especially with loaded guns, and unless he knew exactly what was happening, he wouldn’t fire anything but warning shots. More likely than not, he’d just blasted some shrubbery to bits.

  Goodheart was probably all right, and the amber-eyed assailant was surely hightailing it for the foothills or the canyons or back to wherever it had come from—

  (What was that crazy damn thing?)

  —and the ordeal was over, thank God.

  She heard running footsteps, and her father called her name.

  She pushed open the stall door and saw Daddy rushing toward her in a pair of blue pajama bottoms, barefoot, with the shotgun cradled in his arm. Mom was there, too, in a short yellow nightie, hurrying behind Daddy with a flashlight.

  Up near the top of the sloped yard stood Goodheart, the sire of future champions, his panic gone, unhurt.

  Tears of relief sprang from Tracy at the sight of the unharmed stallion, and she stumbled out of the stall, wanting to go have a closer look at him. With her second or third step, a fiercely hot pain flamed along her entire right side, and she was suddenly dizzy. She staggered, fell, put one hand to her side, felt something wet, and realized that she was bleeding. She remembered the claws sinking into her just before Goodheart had burst from his stall, frightening off the assailant, and as if from a great distance she heard herself saying, “Good horse . . . what a good horse . . .”

  Daddy dropped to his knees beside her. “Baby, what the hell happened, what’s wrong?”

  Her mother arrived, too.

  Daddy saw the blood. “Call an ambulance!”

  Her mother, not given to hesitation or hysterics in time of trouble, turned immediately and ran back toward the house.

  Tracy was getting dizzier. Creeping in at the edges of her vision was a darkness that was not part of the night. She wasn??
?t afraid of it. It seemed like a welcoming, healing darkness.

  “Baby,” her father said, putting a hand on her wounds.

  Weakly, realizing she was slightly delirious and wondering what she was going to say, she said, “Remember when I was very little . . . just a little girl . . . and I thought some horrible thing . . . lived in my closet . . . at night?”

  He frowned worriedly. “Honey, maybe you’d better be still, be quiet and still.”

  As she lost consciousness, Tracy heard herself say, with a seriousness that both amused and frightened her, “Well . . . I think maybe it was the boogeyman who used to live in the closet at the other house. I think maybe . . . he was real . . . and he’s come back.”


  At four-twenty Wednesday morning, only hours after the attack at the Keeshan house, Lemuel Johnson reached Tracy Keeshan’s hospital room at St. Joseph’s in Orange. Quick as he was, however, Lem found Sheriff Walt Gaines had arrived ahead of him. Walt stood in the corridor, towering over a young doctor in surgical greens and a white lab coat; they seemed to be arguing quietly.

  The NSA’s Banodyne crisis team was monitoring all police agencies in the county, including the police department in the city of Orange, in whose jurisdiction the Keeshan house fell. The team’s night-shift leader had called Lem at home with news of this case, which fit the profile of expected Banodyne-related incidents.

  “You relinquished jurisdiction,” Lem pointedly reminded Walt when he joined the sheriff and doctor at the girl’s closed door.

  “Maybe this isn’t part of the same case.”

  “You know it is.”

  “Well, that determination hasn’t been made.”

  “It was made—back at the Keeshans’ house when I talked with your men.”

  “Okay, so let’s say I’m just here as an observer.”

  “My ass,” Lem said.

  “What about your ass?” Walt asked, smiling.

  “It’s got a pain in it, and the name of the pain is Walter.”

  “How interesting,” Walt said. “You name your pains. Do you give names to toothaches and headaches as well?”

  “I’ve got a headache right now, and its name is Walter, too.”

  “That’s too confusing, my friend. Better call the headache Bert or Harry or something.”

  Lem almost laughed—he loved this guy—but he knew that, in spite of their friendship, Walt would use the laughter as a lever to pry himself back into the case. So Lem remained stone-faced, though Walt obviously knew that Lem wanted to laugh. The game was ridiculous, but it had to be played.

  The doctor, Roger Selbok, resembled a young Rod Steiger. He frowned when they raised their voices, and he possessed some of the powerful presence of Steiger, too, because his frown was enough to chasten and quiet them.

  Selbok said the girl had been put through tests, had been treated for her wounds, and had been given a painkiller. She was tired. He was just about to administer a sedative to guarantee her a restful sleep, and he did not think it was a good idea for policemen of any stripe to be asking her questions just now.

  The whispering, the early-morning hush of the hospital, the scent of disinfectants that filled the hall, and the sight of a white-robed nun gliding past was enough to make Lem uneasy. Suddenly, he was afraid that the girl was in far worse condition than he had been told, and he voiced his concern to Selbok.

  “No, no. She’s in pretty good shape,” the doctor said. “I’ve sent her parents home, which I wouldn’t have done if there was anything to worry about. The left side of her face is bruised, and the eye is blackened, but there’s nothing serious in that. The wounds along her right side required thirty-two stitches, so we’ll need to take precautions to keep the scarring to a minimum, but she’s in no danger. She’s had a bad scare. However, she’s a bright kid, and self-reliant, so I don’t think she’ll suffer lasting psychological trauma. Still, I don’t think it’s a good idea to subject her to an interrogation tonight.”

  “Not an interrogation,” Lem said. “Just a few questions.”

  “Five minutes,” Walt said.

  “Less,” Lem said.

  They kept at Selbok, and at last they wore him down. “Well . . . I guess you’ve got your job to do, and if you promise not to be too insistent with her—”

  “I’ll handle her as if she’s made of soap bubbles,” Lem said.

  “We’ll handle her as if she’s made of soap bubbles,” Walt said.

  Selbok said, “Just tell me . . . what the devil happened to her?”

  “She hasn’t told you herself?” Lem asked.

  “Well, she talks about being attacked by a coyote . . .”

  Lem was surprised, and he saw Walt was startled, too. Maybe the case had nothing to do with Wes Dalberg’s death and the dead animals at the Irvine Park petting zoo, after all.

  “But,” the physician said, “no coyote would attack a girl as big as Tracy. They’re only a danger to very small children. And I don’t believe her wounds are like those a coyote would inflict.”

  Walt said, “I understand her father drove the assailant off with a shotgun. Doesn’t he know what attacked her?”

  “No,” Selbok said. “He couldn’t see what was happening in the dark, so he only fired two warning shots. He says something dashed across the yard, leaped the fence, but he couldn’t see any details. He says that Tracy first told him it was the boogeyman who used to live in her closet, but she was delirious then. She told me it was a coyote. So . . . do you know what’s going on here? Can you tell me anything I need to know to treat the girl?”

  “I can’t,” Walt said. “But Mr. Johnson here knows the whole situation.”

  “Thanks a lot,” Lem said.

  Walt just smiled.

  To Selbok, Lem said, “I’m sorry, Doctor, but I’m not at liberty to discuss the case. Anyway, nothing I could tell you would alter the treatment you’d give Tracy Keeshan.”

  When Lem and Walt finally got into Tracy’s hospital room, leaving Dr. Selbok in the corridor to time their visit, they found a pretty thirteen-year-old who was badly bruised and as pale as snow. She was in bed, the sheets pulled up to her shoulders. Though she had been given painkillers, she was alert, even edgy, and it was obvious why Selbok wanted to give her a sedative. She was trying not to show it, but she was scared.

  “I wish you’d leave,” Lem told Walt Gaines.

  “If wishes were filet mignon, we’d always eat well at dinner,” Walt said. “Hi, Tracy, I’m Sheriff Walt Gaines, and this is Lemuel Johnson. I’m about as nice as they come, though Lem here is a real stinker—everybody says so—but you don’t have to worry because I’ll keep him in line and make him be nice to you. Okay?”

  Together, they coaxed Tracy into a conversation. They quickly discovered that she’d told Selbok she’d been attacked by a coyote because, though she knew it wasn’t true, she didn’t believe she could convince the physician— or anyone else—of the truth of what she’d seen. “I was afraid they’d think I’d been hit real hard on the head, had my brains scrambled,” she said, “and then they’d keep me here a lot longer.”

  Sitting on the edge of the girl’s bed, Lem said, “Tracy, you don’t have to worry that I’ll think you’re scrambled. I believe I know what you saw, and all I want from you is confirmation.”

  She stared at him disbelievingly.

  Walt stood at the foot of her bed, smiling down at her as if he were a big, affectionate teddy bear come to life. He said, “Before you passed out, you told your dad you’d been attacked by the boogeyman who used to live in your closet.”

  “It was sure ugly enough,” the girl said quietly. “But that’s not what it was, I guess.”

  “Tell me,” Lem said.

  She stared at Walt, at Lem, then sighed. “You tell me what you think I should’ve seen, and if you’re close, I’ll tell you what I can remember. But I’m not going to start it ’cause I know you’ll think I’m looney tunes.”

  Lem regarded Walt wit
h unconcealed frustration, realizing there was no way to avoid divulging some of the facts of the case.

  Walt grinned.

  To the girl, Lem said, “Yellow eyes.”

  She gasped and went rigid. “Yes! You do know, don’t you? You know what was out there.” She started to sit up, winced in pain as she pulled the stitches in her wound, and slumped back against the bed. “What was it, what was it?”

  “Tracy,” Lem said, “I can’t tell you what it was. I’ve signed a secrecy oath. If I violated it, I could be put in jail, but more important . . . I wouldn’t have much respect for myself.”

  She frowned, finally nodded. “I guess I can understand that.”

  “Good. Now tell me everything you can about your assailant.”

  As it turned out, she had not seen much because the night was dark and her flashlight had illuminated The Outsider for only an instant. “Pretty big for an animal . . . maybe as big as me. The yellow eyes.” She shuddered. “And its face was . . . strange.”

  “In what way?”

  “Lumpy . . . deformed,” the girl said. Though she had been very pale at the start, she grew paler now, and fine beads of sweat appeared along her hairline, dampening her brow.

  Walt was leaning on the footrail of the bed, straining forward, intensely interested, not wanting to miss a word.

  A sudden Santa Ana wind buffeted the building, startling the girl. She looked fearfully at the rattling window, where the wind moaned, as if she was afraid something would come smashing through the glass.

  Which was, Lem reminded himself, exactly how The Outsider had gotten to Wes Dalberg.

  The girl swallowed hard. “Its mouth was huge . . . and the teeth . . .”

  She could not stop shaking, and Lem put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay, honey. It’s over now. It’s all behind you.”

  After a pause to regain control of herself, but still shivering, Tracy said, “I think it was kind of hairy . . . or furry . . . I’m not sure, but it was very strong.”

  “What kind of animal did it resemble?” Lem asked.

  She shook her head. “It wasn’t like anything else.”

  “But if you had to say it was like some other animal, would you say it was more like a cougar than anything else?”

  “No. Not a cougar.”

  “Like a dog?”

  She hesitated. “Maybe . . . a little bit like a dog.”

  “Maybe a little bit like a bear, too?”


  “Like a panther?”

  “No. Not like any cat.”

  “Like a monkey?”

  She hesitated again, frowned, thinking. “I don’t know why . . . but, yeah, maybe a little like a monkey. Except, no dog and no monkey has teeth like that.”

  The door opened from the hall, and Dr. Selbok appeared. “You’re already past five minutes.”

  Walt started to wave the doctor out.

  Lem said, “No, it’s okay. We’re finished. Half a minute yet.”

  “I’m counting the seconds,” Selbok said, retreating.

  To the girl Lem said, “Can I rely on you?”

  She matched his gaze and said, “To keep quiet?”

  Lem nodded.

  She said, “Yeah. I sure don’t want to tell anybody. My folks think I’m mature for my age. Mentally and emotionally mature, I mean. But if I start telling wild stories about . . . about monsters, they’re going to think I’m not so mature after all, and maybe they’ll figure I’m not responsible enough to take care of the horses, and so maybe they’ll slow down the breeding plans. I won’t risk that, Mr. Johnson. No, sir. So as far as I’m concerned, it was a loco coyote. But . . .”


  “Can you tell me . . . is there any chance it’ll come back?”

  “I don’t think so. But it would be wise, for a while, not to go out to the stable at night. All right?”

  “All right,” she said. Judging by her haunted expression, she would remain indoors after dusk for weeks to come.

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