Watchers by Dean Koontz


  They left the room, thanked Dr. Selbok for his cooperation, and went down to the hospital’s parking garage. Dawn had not yet arrived, and the cavernous concrete structure was empty, desolate. Their footsteps echoed hollowly off the walls.

  Their cars were on the same floor, and Walt accompanied Lem to the green, unmarked NSA sedan. As Lem put the key in the door to unlock it, Walt looked around to be sure they were alone, then said, “Tell me.”

  “Can’t.”

  “I’ll find out.”

  “You’re off the case.”

  “So take me to court. Get a bench warrant.”

  “I might.”

  “For endangering the national security.”

  “It would be a fair charge.”

  “Throw my ass in jail.”

  “I might,” Lem said, though he knew he would not.

  Curiously, though Walt’s doggedness was frustrating and more than a little irritating, it was also pleasing to Lem. He had few friends, of which Walt was the most important, and he liked to think the reason he had few friends was because he was selective, with high standards. If Walt had backed off entirely, if he had been completely cowed by federal authority, if he’d been able to turn off his curiosity as easily as turning off a light switch, he would have been slightly tarnished and diminished in Lem’s eyes.

  “What reminds you of a dog and an ape and has yellow eyes?” Walt asked. “Aside from your mama, that is.”

  “You leave my mama out of this, honky,” Lem said. Smiling in spite of himself, he got into the car.

  Walt held the door open and leaned down to look in at him. “What in the name of God escaped from Banodyne?”

  “I told you this has nothing to do with Banodyne.”

  “And the fire they had at the labs the next day . . . did they set it themselves to destroy the evidence of what they’d been up to?”

  “Don’t be ridiculous,” Lem said wearily, thrusting the key into the ignition. “Evidence could be destroyed in a more efficient and less drastic manner. If there was evidence to destroy. Which there isn’t. Because Banodyne has nothing to do with this.”

  Lem started the car, but Walt would not give up. He held the door open and leaned in even closer to be heard above the rumble of the engine: “Genetic engineering. That’s what they’re involved with at Banodyne. Tinkering with bacteria and virus to make new bugs that do good deeds like manufacture insulin or eat oil slicks. And they tinker with the genes of plants as well, I guess, to produce corn that grows in acidic soil or wheat that thrives with half the usual water. We always think of gene tinkering as being done on a small scale—plants and germs. But could they screw around with an animal’s genes so it produced bizarre offspring, a whole new species? Is that what they’ve done, and is that what’s escaped from Banodyne?”

  Lem shook his head exasperatedly. “Walt, I’m not an expert on recombinant DNA, but I don’t think the science is nearly sophisticated enough to work with any degree of confidence on that sort of thing. And what would be the point, anyway? Okay, just supposing they could make a weird new animal by fiddling with the genetic structure of an existing species—what use would there be for it? I mean, aside from exhibition in a carnival freak show?”

  Walt’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t know. You tell me.”

  “Listen, research money is always damn tight, and there’s fierce competition for every major and minor grant, so no one’s going to be able to afford to experiment with something that has no use. Get me? Now, because I’m involved here, you know this has to be a matter of national defense, which would mean Banodyne was squandering Pentagon money to make a carnival freak.”

  “The words ‘squander’ and ‘Pentagon’ have sometimes been used in the same sentence,” Walt said dryly.

  “Be real, Walt. It’s one thing for the Pentagon to let some of its contractors waste money in the production of a needed weapons system. But it’s altogether another thing for them to knowingly hand out funds for experiments with no defense potential. The system is sometimes inefficient, sometimes even corrupt, but it’s never outright stupid. Anyway, I’ll say it one more time: This entire conversation is pointless because this has nothingto do with Banodyne.”

  Walt stared in at him for a long moment, then sighed. “Jesus, Lem, you’re good. I know you’ve got to be lying to me, but I half think you’re telling the truth.”

  “I am telling the truth.”

  “You’re good. So tell me . . . what about Weatherby, Yarbeck, and the others? Got their killer yet?”

  “No.” In fact, the man Lem had put in charge of the case had reported that it appeared as if the Soviets had used a killer outside of their own agencies and perhaps outside of the political world entirely. The investigation seemed stymied. But all he said to Walt was, “No.”

  Walt started to straighten up and close the car door, then leaned down and in again. “One more thing. You notice it seems to have a meaningful destination?”

  “What’re you talking about?”

  “It’s been moving steadily north or north-northwest ever since it broke out of Banodyne,” Walt said.

  “It didn’t break out of Banodyne, damn it.”

  “From Banodyne to Holy Jim Canyon, from there to Irvine Park, and from there to the Keeshan house tonight. Steadily north or north-northwest. I suppose you know what that might mean, where it might be headed, but of course I daren’t ask you about it or you’ll heave me straight into prison and let me rot there.”

  “I’m telling you the truth about Banodyne.”

  “So you say.”

  “You’re impossible, Walt.”

  “So you say.”

  “So everyone says. Now will you let me go home? I’m beat.”

  Smiling, Walt closed the door at last.

  Lem drove out of the hospital garage to Main Street, then to the freeway, heading home toward Placentia. He hoped to make it back into bed no later than dawn.

  As he piloted the NSA sedan through streets as empty as midocean sealanes, he thought about The Outsider heading northward. He’d noticed the same thing himself. And he was convinced that he knew what it was seeking even if he did not know where, precisely, it was going. From the first, the dog and The Outsider had possessed a special awareness of each other, an uncanny instinctual awareness of each other’s moods and activities even when they were not in the same room. Davis Weatherby had suggested, more than half seriously, that there was something telepathic about the relationship of those two creatures. Now, The Outsider was very likely still in tune with the dog and, by some sixth sense, was following it.

  For the dog’s sake, Lem hoped to God that was not the case.

  It had been evident in the lab that the dog had always feared The Outsider, and with good reason. The two were the yin and yang of the Francis Project, the success and the failure, the good and the bad. As wonderful, right, and good as the dog was—well, The Outsider was every bit as hideous, wrong, and evil. And the researchers had seen that The Outsider did not fear the dog but hated it with a passion that no one had been able to understand. Now that both were free, The Outsider might single-mindedly pursue the dog, for it had never wanted anything more than to tear the retriever limb from limb.

  Lem realized that, in his anxiety, he had put his foot down too hard on the accelerator. The car was rocketing along the freeway. He eased back on the pedal.

  Wherever the dog was, with whomever it had found shelter, it was in jeopardy. And those who had given it shelter were also in grave danger.

  chapter six

  1

  Through the last week of May and the first week of June, Nora and Travis—and Einstein—were together nearly every day.

  Initially, she had worried that Travis was somehow dangerous, not as dangerous as Art Streck but still to be feared; however, she’d soon gotten through that spell of paranoia. Now she laughed at herself when she remembered how wary of him she had been. He was sweet and kind, precisely the sort of man who,
according to her Aunt Violet, did not exist anywhere in the world.

  Once Nora’s paranoia had been overcome, she’d then been convinced that the only reason Travis continued to see her was because he pitied her. Being the compassionate man he was, he would not be able to turn his back on anyone in desperate need or trouble. Most people, meeting Nora, would not think of her as desperate—perhaps strange and shy and pathetic, but not desperate. Yet she was—or had been—desperately unable to cope with the world beyond her own four walls, desperately afraid of the future, and desperately lonely. Travis, being every bit as perceptive as he was kind, saw her desperation and responded to it. Gradually, as May faded into June and the days grew hotter under the summer sun, she dared to consider the possibility that he was helping her not because he pitied her but because he really liked her.

  But she couldn’t understand what a man like him would see in a woman like her. She seemed to have nothing whatsoever to offer.

  All right, yes, she had a self-image problem. Maybe she was not really as hopelessly drab and dull as she felt. Still, Travis clearly deserved—and could surely have—better female companionship than she could provide.

  She decided not to question his interest. The thing to do was just relax and enjoy it.

  Because Travis had sold his real-estate business after the death of his wife and was essentially retired, and because Nora had no job, either, they were free to be together most of the day if they wanted—and they were. They went to galleries, haunted bookstores, took long walks, went on longer drives into the picturesque Santa Ynez Valley or up along the gorgeous Pacific coast.

  Twice they set out early in the morning for Los Angeles and spent a long day there, and Nora was as overwhelmed by the sheer size of the city as she was by the activities they pursued: a movie-studio tour, a visit to the zoo, and a matinee performance of a hit musical.

  One day Travis talked her into having her hair cut and styled. He took her to a beauty parlor that his late wife had frequented, and Nora was so nervous that she stuttered when she spoke to the beautician, a perky blonde named Melanie. Violet always cut Nora’s hair at home, and after Violet’s death, Nora cut it herself. Being tended by a beautician was a new experience, as unnerving as eating in a restaurant for the first time. Melanie did something she called “feathering,” and cut off a lot of Nora’s hair while somehow still leaving it full. They did not allow Nora to watch in the mirror, did not let her get a glimpse of herself until she was blown dry and combed out. Then they spun her around in the chair and confronted her with herself, and when she saw her reflection, she was stunned.

  “You look terrific,” Travis said.

  “It’s a total transformation,” Melanie said.

  “Terrific,” Travis said.

  “You’ve got such a pretty face, great bone structure,” Melanie said, “but all that straight, long hair made your features look elongated and pointy. This frames your face to its best advantage.”

  Even Einstein seemed to like the change in her. When they left the beauty shop, the dog was waiting for them where they had left him tethered to a parking meter. He did a canine double-take when he saw Nora, jumped up with his front paws on her, and sniffed her face and hair, whining happily and wagging his tail.

  She hated the new look. When they had turned her to the mirror, she’d seen a pathetic old maid trying to pass for a pretty, vivacious young thing. The styled hair was simply not her. It only emphasized that she was basically a plain, drab woman. She would never be sexy, charming, with-it, or any of the other things that the new hairstyle tried to say she was. It was rather like fastening a brightly colored feather duster to the back end of a turkey and attempting to pass it off as a peacock.

  Because she did not want to hurt Travis’s feelings, she pretended to like what had been done to her. But that night she washed her hair and brushed it dry, pulling on it until all the so-called style had been tugged from it. Because of the feathering, it did not hang as straight and lank as it had previously, but she did the best with it that she could.

  The next day, when Travis picked her up for lunch, he was clearly startled to find that she had reverted to her previous look. However, he said nothing about it, asked no questions. She was so embarrassed and afraid of having hurt his feelings that, for the first couple of hours, she was not able to meet his eyes for more than a second or two at a time.

  In spite of her repeated and increasingly vigorous demurrals, Travis insisted on taking her shopping for a new dress, a bright and summery frock that she could wear to dinner at Talk of the Town, a dressy restaurant on West Gutierrez, where he said you could sometimes see some of the movie stars who lived in the area, members of a film colony second only to that in Beverly Hills-Bel Air. They went to an expensive store, where she tried on a score of dresses, modeling each for Travis’s reaction, blushing and mortified. The saleswoman seemed genuinely approving of the way everything looked on Nora, and she kept telling Nora that her figure was perfect, but Nora couldn’t shake the feeling that the woman was laughing at her.

  The dress Travis liked best was from the Diane Freis collection. Nora couldn’t deny that it was lovely: predominantly red and gold, though with an almost riotous background of other colors somehow more right in combination than they should have been (which apparently was a trait of Freis’s designs). It was exceedingly feminine. On a beautiful woman it would have been a knockout. But it just was not her. Dark colors, shapeless cuts, simple fabrics, no ornamentation whatsoever—that was her style. She tried to tell him what was best for her, explained that she could never wear such a dress as this, but he said, “You look gorgeous in it, really, you look gorgeous.”

  She let him buy it. Dear God, she really did. She knew it was a big mistake, was wrong, and that she would never wear it. As the dress was being wrapped, Nora wondered why she had acquiesced, and she realized that, in spite of being mortified, she was flattered to have a man buying clothes for her, to have a man take an interest in her appearance. She never dreamed such a thing would happen to her, and she was overwhelmed.

  She couldn’t stop blushing. Her heart pounded. She felt dizzy, but it was a good dizziness.

  Then, as they were leaving the store, she learned that he had paid five hundred dollars for the dress. Five hundred dollars! She had intended to hang it in the closet and look at it a lot, use it as a starting point for pleasant daydreams, which was all fine and dandy if it had cost fifty dollars, but for five hundred she would have to wear it even if it made her feel ridiculous, even if she did look like a poseur, a scrubwoman pretending to be a princess.

  The following evening, during the two hours before Travis was to pick her up and escort her to Talk of the Town, she put the dress on and took it off a half dozen times. She repeatedly sorted through the contents of her closet, searching frantically for something else to wear, something more sensible, but she didn’t have anything because she had never before needed clothes for a dressy restaurant.

  Scowling at herself in the bathroom mirror, she said, “You look like Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie.”

  She suddenly laughed because she knew she was being too hard on herself. But she couldn’t go easier on herself because that was how she felt: like a guy in drag. In this case, feelings were more important than facts, so her laughter quickly soured.

  She broke down and cried twice, and considered calling him to cancel their date. But she wanted more than anything to see him, no matter how horribly humiliating the evening was going to be. She used Murine to get the red out of her eyes, and she tried the dress on again—and took it off.

  When he arrived at a few minutes past seven, he looked handsome in a dark suit.

  Nora was wearing a shapeless blue shift with dark-blue shoes.

  He said, “I’ll wait.”

  She said, “Huh? For what?”

  “You know,” he said, meaning, Go change.

  The words came out in a nervous rush, and her excuse was limp: “Travis, I’m sorry, th
is is terrible, I’m so sorry, but I spilled coffee all over the dress.”

  “I’ll wait in here,” he said, walking to the living room archway.

  She said, “A whole pot of coffee.”

  “Better hurry. Our reservation is for seven-thirty.”

  Steeling herself for the amused whispers if not outright laughter of everyone who saw her, telling herself that Travis’s opinion was the only one that mattered, she changed into the Diane Freis dress.

  She wished she had not undone the hairstyle that Melanie had given her a couple of days ago. Maybe that would help.

  No, it would probably just make her look more ludicrous.

  When she came downstairs again, Travis smiled at her and said, “You’re lovely.”

  She didn’t know whether the food at Talk of the Town was as good as its reputation or not. She tasted nothing. Later, she could not clearly remember the decor of the place, either, though the faces of the other customers— including the actor Gene Hackman—were burned into her memory because she was certain that, all evening, they were staring at her with amazement and disdain.

  In the middle of dinner, evidently well aware of her discomfort, Travis put down his wineglass and leaned toward her and said quietly, “You really do look lovely, Nora, no matter what you think. And if you had the experience to be aware of such things, you’d realize that most of the men in the room are attracted to you.”

  But she knew the truth, and she could face it. If men really were staring at her, it was not because she was pretty. People could be expected to stare at a turkey with a feather duster trying to pass itself off as a peacock.

  “Without a trace of makeup,” he said, “you look better than any woman in the room.”

  No makeup. That was another reason they were staring at her. When a woman put on a five-hundred-dollar dress to be taken to an expensive restaurant, she made herself look as good as possible with lipstick, eyeliner, makeup, skin blush, and God knew what else. But Nora had never even thought about makeup.

  The chocolate mousse dessert, though surely delicious, tasted like library paste to her and repeatedly stuck in her throat.

  She and Travis had talked for long hours during the past couple of weeks, and they had found it surprisingly easy to reveal intimate feelings and thoughts to each other. She had learned why he was alone in spite of his good looks and relative wealth, and he had learned why she harbored a low opinion of herself. So when she could not choke down any more of the mousse, when she implored Travis to take her home right away, he said softly, “If there’s any justice, Violet Devon is sweating in Hell tonight.”

  Shocked, Nora said, “Oh, no. She wasn’t that bad.”

  All the way home, he was silent, brooding.

  When he left her at her door, he insisted she set up a meeting with Garrison Dilworth, who had been her aunt’s attorney and now took care of Nora’s minor legal business. “From what you’ve told me,” Travis said, “Dilworth knew your aunt better than anyone, so I’d bet dollars to doughnuts he can tell you things about her that will break this goddamn stranglehold she has on you even from the grave.”

  Nora said, “But there’re no great dark secrets about Aunt Violet. She was what she appeared to be. She was a very simple woman, really. A sort of sad woman.”

  “Sad my ass,” Travis said.

  He persisted until she agreed to make the appointment with Garrison Dilworth.

  Later, upstairs in her bedroom, when she tried to take off the Diane Freis, she discovered she didn’t want to undress. All evening, she had been impatient to get out of that costume, for it had seemed like a costume on her. But now, in retrospect, the evening possessed a warm glow, and she wanted to prolong that glow. Like a sentimental high school girl, she slept in the five-hundred-dollar dress.

  Garrison Dilworth’s office had been carefully decorated to convey respectability, stability, and reliability. Beautifully detailed oak paneling. Heavy royal-blue drapes hung from brass rods. Shelves full of leather-bound law books. A massive oak desk.

  The attorney himself was an intriguing cross between a personification of Dignity and Probity—and Santa Claus. Tall, rather portly, with thick silver hair, past seventy but still working a full week, Garrison favored three-piece suits and subdued ties. In spite of his many years as a Californian, his deep and smooth and cultured voice clearly marked him as a product of the upper-class Eastern circles in which he had been born, raised, and educated. But there was also a decidedly merry twinkle in his eyes, and his smile was quick, warm, altogether Santalike.

  He did not distance himself by staying behind his desk, but sat with Nora and Travis in comfortable armchairs around a coffee table on which stood a large Waterford bowl. “I don’t know what you came here expecting to learn. There are no secrets about your aunt. No great dark revelations that will change your life—”

  “I knew as much,” Nora said. “I’m sorry we’ve bothered you.”

  “Wait,” Travis said. “Let Mr. Dilworth finish.”

  The attorney said, “Violet Devon was my client, and an attorney has a responsibility to protect clients’ confidences even after their death. At least that’s my view, though some in the profession might not feel such a lasting obligation. Of course, as I’m speaking to Violet’s closest living relative and heir, I suppose there’s little I would choose not to divulge—if in fact there were any secrets to reveal. And I certainly see no moral constraint against my expressing an honest opinion of your aunt. Even attorneys, priests, and doctors are allowed to have opinions of people.” He took a deep breath and frowned. “I never liked her. I thought she was a narrow-minded, totally self-involved woman who was at least slightly . . . well, mentally unstable. And the way she raised you was criminal, Nora. Not abusive in any legal sense that would interest the authorities, but criminal nonetheless. And cruel.”

  For as long as Nora could recall, a large knot had seemed to be tied tight inside of her, pinching vital organs and vessels, leaving her tense, restricting the flow of blood and making it necessary for her to live with all her senses damped down, forcing her to struggle along as if she were a machine getting insufficient power. Suddenly, Garrison Dilworth’s words untied that knot, and a
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