Watchers by Dean Koontz


  full, unrestricted current of life rushed through her for the first time.

  She had known what Violet Devon had done to her, but knowing was not enough to help her overcome that grim upbringing. She needed to hear her aunt condemned by someone else. Travis had already denounced Violet, and Nora had felt some small release at hearing what he said. But that had not been enough to free her because Travis hadn’t known Violet and, therefore, spoke without complete authority. Garrison knew Violet well, however, and his words released Nora from bondage.

  She was trembling violently, and tears were trickling down her face, but she was unaware of both conditions until Travis reached out from his chair to put one hand consolingly upon her shoulder. She fumbled in her purse for a handkerchief. “I’m sorry.”

  “Dear lady,” Garrison said, “don’t apologize for breaking through that iron shell you’ve been in all your life. This is the first time I’ve seen you show a strong emotion, the first time I’ve seen you in any condition other than extreme shyness, and it’s lovely to behold.” Turning to Travis, giving Nora time to blot her eyes, he said, “What more did you hope to hear me say?”

  “There are some things Nora doesn’t know, things she ought to know and that I don’t believe would violate even your strict code of client privilege if you were to divulge them.”

  “Such as?”

  Travis said, “Violet Devon never worked yet lived reasonably well, never in want, and she left enough funds to keep Nora pretty much for the rest of her life, at least as long as Nora stays in that house and lives like a recluse. Where did her money come from?”

  “Come from?” Garrison sounded surprised. “Nora knows that, surely.”

  “But she doesn’t,” Travis said.

  Nora looked up and saw Garrison Dilworth staring at her in astonishment. He blinked and said, “Violet’s husband was moderately well-to-do. He died quite young, and she inherited everything.”

  Nora gaped at him and could barely find sufficient breath to speak. “Husband?”

  “George Olmstead,” the attorney said.

  “I’ve never heard that name.”

  Garrison blinked rapidly again, as if sand had blown in his face. “She never mentioned a husband?”

  “Never.”

  “But didn’t a neighbor ever mention—”

  “We had nothing to do with our neighbors,” Nora said. “Violet didn’t approve of them.”

  “And in fact,” Garrison said, “now that I think about it, there might have been new neighbors on both sides by the time you came to live with Violet.”

  Nora blew her nose and put away her handkerchief. She was still trembling. Her sudden sense of release from bondage had generated powerful emotions, but now they subsided somewhat to make room for curiosity.

  “All right?” Travis asked.

  She nodded, then stared hard at him and said, “You knew, didn’t you? About the husband, I mean. That’s why you brought me here.”

  “I suspected,” Travis said. “If she’d inherited everything from her parents, she would have mentioned it. The fact that she didn’t talk about where the money came from . . . well, it seemed to me to leave only one possibility—a husband, and very likely a husband with whom she’d had troubles. Which made even more sense when you think about how down she was on people in general and on men in particular.”

  The attorney was so dismayed and agitated that he could not sit still. He got up and paced past an enormous antique globe that was lighted from within and seemed made of parchment. “I’m flabbergasted. So you never really understood why she was bitterly misanthropic, why she suspected everyone of having her worst interests at heart?”

  “No,” Nora said. “I didn’t need to know why, I guess. It was just the way she was.”

  Still pacing, Garrison said, “Yes. That’s true. I’m convinced she was a borderline paranoid even in her youth. And then, when she discovered that George had betrayed her with other women, the switch clicked all the way over in her. She got much worse after that.”

  Travis said, “Why did Violet still use her maiden name, Devon, if she’d been married to Olmstead?”

  “She didn’t want his name anymore. Loathed the name. She sent him packing, very nearly drove him out of the house with a stick! She was about to divorce him when he died,” Garrison said. “She had learned about his affairs with other women, as I’ve said. She was furious. Ashamed and enraged. I must say . . . I can’t entirely blame poor George because I don’t think he found much love and affection at home. He knew the marriage was a mistake within a month of the wedding.”

  Garrison paused beside the globe, one hand resting lightly on top of the world, staring far into the past. Ordinarily, he did not look his age. Now, as he gazed back across the years, the lines in his face seemed to deepen, and his blue eyes appeared faded. After a moment he shook his head and continued:

  “Anyway, those were different times, when a woman betrayed by a husband was an object of pity, ridicule. But even for those days, I thought Violet’s reaction was overblown. She burned all his clothes and changed the locks on the house . . . she even killed a dog, a spaniel, of which he was fond. Poisoned it. And mailed it to him in a box.”

  “Dear God,” Travis said.

  Garrison said, “Violet took back her maiden name because she didn’t want his anymore. The thought of carrying George Olmstead’s name through life repelled her, she said, even though he was dead. She was an unforgiving woman.”

  “Yes,” Nora agreed.

  His face pinched with distaste at the memory, and Garrison said, “When George was killed, she didn’t bother to conceal her pleasure.”

  “Killed?” Nora half expected to hear that Violet had murdered George Olmstead yet had somehow escaped prosecution.

  “It was an auto accident, forty years ago,” Garrison said. “He lost control on the Coast Highway driving home from Los Angeles, went over the edge where, in those days, there wasn’t a guardrail. The embankment was sixty or eighty feet high, very steep, and George’s car—a large black Packard—rolled over several times on the way down to the rocks below. Violet inherited everything because, though she had initiated divorce proceedings against him, George had not gotten around to changing his will.”

  Travis said, “So George Olmstead not only betrayed Violet but, in dying, left her with no target for her anger. So she directed that anger at the world in general.”

  “And at me in particular,” Nora said.

  That same afternoon, Nora told Travis about her painting. She had not mentioned her artistic pursuits before, and he had not been in her bedroom to see her easel, supply cabinet, and drawing board. She was not sure why she had kept this aspect of her life a secret from him. She had mentioned an interest in art, which was why they had gone to galleries and museums, but perhaps she had never spoken of her own work because she was afraid that, on seeing her canvases, he would be unimpressed.

  What if he felt that she had no real talent?

  Aside from the escape provided by books, the thing that kept Nora going through many grim, lonely years was her painting. She believed that she was good, perhaps very good, though she was too shy and too vulnerable to voice that conviction to anyone. What if she was wrong? What if she had no talent and had been merely filling time? Her art was the primary medium by which she defined herself. She had little else with which to sustain even her thin and shaky self-image, so she desperately needed to believe in her talent. Travis’s opinion meant more to her than she could say, and if his reaction to her painting was negative, she would be devastated.

  But after leaving Garrison Dilworth’s office, Nora knew that the time had come to take the risk. The truth about Violet Devon had been a key that had unlocked Nora’s emotional prison. She would need a long time to move from her cell, down the long hall to the outside world, but the journey would inevitably continue. Therefore, she would have to open herself to all the experiences that her new life provided, including t
he awful possibility of rejection and severe disappointment. Without risk, there was no hope of gain.

  Back at the house, she considered taking Travis upstairs to have a look at a half dozen of her most recent paintings. But the idea of having a man in her bedroom, even with the most innocent intentions, was too unsettling. Garrison Dilworth’s revelations freed her, yes, and her world was rapidly broadening, but she was not yet that free. Instead, she insisted that Travis and Einstein sit on one of the big sofas in the furniture-stuffed living room, where she would bring some of her canvases for viewing. She turned on all the lights, drew the drapes away from the windows, and said, “I’ll be right back.”

  But upstairs she dithered over the ten paintings in her bedroom, unable to decide which two she should take to him first. Finally she settled on four pieces, though it was a bit awkward carrying that many at once. Halfway down the stairs, she halted, trembling, and decided to take the paintings back and select others. But she retreated only four steps before she realized that she could spend the entire day in vacillation. Reminding herself that nothing could be gained without risk, she took a deep breath and went quickly downstairs with the four paintings that she had originally chosen.

  Travis liked them. More than liked them. He raved about them. “My God, Nora, this is no hobby painting. This is the real thing. This is art.”

  She propped the paintings on four chairs, and he was not content to study them from the sofa. He got up for a closer look, moved from one canvas to another and back again.

  “You’re a superb photorealist,” he said. “Okay, so I’m no art critic, but by God you’re as skilled as Wyeth. But this other thing . . . this eerie quality in two of these . . .”

  His compliments had left her blushing furiously, and she had to swallow hard to find her voice. “A touch of surrealism.”

  She had brought two landscapes and two still lifes. One of each was, indeed, strictly a photorealist work. But the other two were photorealism with a strong element of surrealism. In the still life, for example, several water glasses, a pitcher, spoons, and a sliced lemon were on a table, portrayed in excruciating detail, and at first glance the scene looked very realistic; but at second glance you noticed that one of the glasses was melting into the surface on which it stood, and that one slice of lemon was penetrating the side of a glass as if the glass had been formed around it.

  “They’re brilliant, they really are,” he said. “Do you have others?”

  Did she have others!

  She made two additional trips to her bedroom, returning with six more paintings.

  With each new canvas, Travis’s excitement grew. His delight and enthusiasm were genuine, too. Initially she thought that he might be humoring her, but soon she was certain he was not disguising his true reaction.

  Moving from canvas to canvas and back again, he said, “Your sense of color is excellent.”

  Einstein accompanied Travis around the room, adding a soft woof after each of his master’s statements and vigorously wagging his tail, as if expressing agreement with the assessment.

  “There’s such mood in these pieces,” Travis said.

  “Woof.”

  “Your control of the medium is astonishing. I’ve no sense that I’m looking at thousands of brushstrokes. Instead, it seems as if the picture just appearedon the canvas magically.”

  “Woof.”

  “It’s hard to believe you’ve had no formal schooling.”

  “Woof.”

  “Nora, these are easily good enough to sell. Any gallery would take these in a minute.”

  “Woof.”

  “You could not only make a living at this . . . I think you could build one hell of a reputation.”

  Because she had not dared to admit how seriously she had always taken her work, Nora had often painted one picture over another, using a canvas again and again. As a consequence, many of her pieces were gone forever. But in the attic she had stored more than eighty of her best paintings. Now, because Travis insisted, they brought down more than a score of those wrapped canvases, tore off the brown paper, and propped them on the living-room furniture. For the first time in Nora’s memory, that dark chamber looked bright and welcoming.

  “Any gallery would be delighted to do a show of these,” Travis said. “In fact, tomorrow, let’s load some of them into the truck and take them around to a few galleries, hear what they say.”

  “Oh no, no.”

  “I promise you, Nora, you won’t be disappointed.”

  She was suddenly in the clutches of anxiety. Although thrilled by the prospect of a career in art, she was also frightened by the big step she would be taking. Like walking off the edge of a cliff.

  She said, “Not yet. In a week . . . or a month . . . we’ll load them in the truck and take them to a gallery. But not yet, Travis. I just can’t . . . I can’t handle it yet.”

  He grinned at her. “Sensory overload again?”

  Einstein came to her and rubbed against her leg, looking up with a sweet expression that made Nora smile.

  Scratching behind the dog’s ears, she said, “So much has happened so fast. I can’t absorb it all. I keep having to fight off attacks of dizziness. I feel a little bit as if I’m on a carousel that’s whirling around faster and faster, out of control.”

  What she said was true, to an extent, but that was not the only reason she wished to delay going public with her art. She also wanted to move slowly in order to have time to savor every glorious development. If she rushed into things, the transformation from reclusive spinster to a full-fledged participant in life would go too fast, and later it would be just a blur. She wanted to enjoy every moment of her metamorphosis.

  As if she were an invalid who had been confined since birth to a single dark room full of life-support equipment, and as if she had just been miraculously cured, Nora Devon was coming cautiously out into a new world.

  Travis was not solely responsible for Nora’s emergence from reclusion. Einstein had an equally large role in her transformation.

  The retriever had obviously decided that Nora could be trusted with the secret of his extraordinary intelligence. After the Modern Bride and baby business in Solvang, the dog gave her glimpse after glimpse of his undoglike mind at work.

  Taking his lead from Einstein, Travis told Nora how he had found the retriever in the woods and how something strange—and never seen—had been pursuing it. He recounted all the amazing things the dog had done since then. He also told her of Einstein’s occasional bouts with anxiety in the heart of the night, when he sometimes stood at a window and stared out at the darkness as if he believed the unknown creature in the woods would find him.

  They sat for hours one evening in Nora’s kitchen, drinking pots of coffee and eating homemade pineapple cake and discussing explanations for the dog’s uncanny intelligence. When not cadging bits of cake, Einstein listened to them with interest, as if he understood what they were saying about him, and sometimes he whined and paced impatiently, as if frustrated that his canine vocal apparatus did not permit him to speak. But they were mostly spinning their wheels because they had no explanations worth discussing.

  “I believe he could tell us where he comes from, why he’s so damn different from other dogs,” Nora said.

  Einstein busily swept the air with his tail.

  “Oh, I’m sure of it,” Travis said. “He’s got a humanlike self-awareness. He knows he’s different, and I suspect he knows why, and I think he’d like to tell us about it if he could only find a way.”

  The retriever barked once, ran to the far end of the kitchen, ran back, looked up at them, did a frantic little dance of purely human frustration, and finally slumped on the floor with his head on his paws, alternately chuffing and whining softly.

  Nora was most intrigued by the story of the night that the dog had gotten excited over Travis’s book collection. “He recognizes that books are a means of communication,” she said. “And maybe he senses there’s a way to
use books to bridge the communications gap between him and us.”

  “How?” Travis asked as he lifted another forkful of pineapple cake.

  Nora shrugged. “I don’t know. But maybe the problem was that your books weren’t the right kind. Novels, you said?”

  “Yeah. Fiction.”

  She said, “Maybe what we need is books with pictures, images he can react to. Maybe if we gathered up a lot of picture books of all kinds, and magazines with pictures, and maybe if we spread them out on the floor and worked with Einstein, maybe we’d find some way to communicate with him.”

  The retriever leaped to his feet and padded directly to Nora. From the expression on his face and from the intent look in his eyes, Nora knew that her proposal was a good one. Tomorrow, she would collect dozens of books and magazines, and put the scheme into operation.

  “It’s going to take a lot of patience,” Travis warned her.

  “I’ve got oceans of patience.”

  “You may think you have, but sometimes dealing with Einstein gives a whole new meaning to the word.”

  Turning to Travis, the dog blew air out of his nostrils.

  The prospects for more direct communication looked bleak during the first few sessions with the dog on Wednesday and Thursday, but the big breakthrough was not long in coming. Friday evening, June 4, they found the way, and after that their lives could never be the same.

  2

  “. . . reports of screaming in an unfinished housing tract, Bordeaux Ridge—”

  Friday evening, June 4, less than an hour before nightfall, the sun cast gold and copper light on Orange County. It was the second day of blistering temperatures in the mid-nineties, and the stored heat of the long summer day radiated off the pavement and buildings. Trees seemed to droop wearily. The air was motionless. On the freeways and surface streets, the sound of traffic was muffled, as if the thick air filtered the roar of engines and blaring of horns.

  “—repeat, Bordeaux Ridge, under construction at the east end—”

  In the gently rolling foothills to the northeast, in an unincorporated area of the county adjacent to Yorba Linda, where the suburban sprawl had only recently begun to reach, there was little traffic. The occasional blast of a horn or squeal of brakes was not merely muffled but curiously mournful, melancholy in the humid stillness.

  Sheriff’s Deputies Teel Porter and Ken Dimes were in a patrol car—Teel driving, Ken riding shotgun—with a broken ventilation system: no air-conditioning, not even forced air coming out of the vents. The windows were open, but the sedan was an oven.

  “You stink like a dead hog,” Teel Porter told his partner.

  “Yeah?” Ken Dimes said. “Well, you not only stink like a dead hog, you look like a dead hog.”

  “Yeah? Well, you date dead hogs.”

  Ken smiled in spite of the heat. “That so? Well, I hear from your women that you make love like a dead hog.”

  Their tired humor could not mask the fact that they were weary and uncomfortable. And they were answering a call that didn’t promise much excitement: probably kids playing games; kids loved to play on construction sites. Both deputies were thirty-two, husky former high school football players. They weren’t brothers—but, as partners for six years, they were brothers.

  Teel turned off the county road onto a lightly oiled dirt lane that led into the Bordeaux Ridge development. About forty houses were in various stages of construction. Most were still being framed, but a few had already been stuccoed.

  “Now there,” Ken said, “is the kind of shit I just can’t believe people fall for. I mean, hell, what kind of name is ‘Bordeaux’ for a housing tract in Southern California? Are they trying to make you believe there’s going to be vineyards here one day? And they call it ‘Ridge,’ but the whole tract’s in this stretch of flatland between the hills. Their sign promises serenity. Maybe now. But what about when they pitch up another three thousand houses out here in the next five years?”

  Teel said, “Yeah, but the part that gets me is ‘miniestates.’ What the fuck is a miniestate. Nobody in his right mind would think these are estates—except maybe Russians who’ve spent their lives living twelve to an apartment. These are tract homes.”

  The concrete curbs and gutters had been poured along the streets of Bordeaux Ridge, but the pavement had not yet been put down. Teel drove slowly, trying not to raise a lot of dust, raising it anyway. He and Ken looked left and right at the skeletal forms of unfinished houses, searching for kids who were up to no good.

  To the west, at the edge of the city of Yorba Linda and adjacent to Bordeaux Ridge, were finished tracts where people already lived. From those residents, the Yorba Linda Police had received calls about screaming somewhere in this embryonic development. Because the area had not yet been annexed into the city, the complaint fell into the jurisdiction of the Sheriff’s Department.

  At the end of the street, the deputies saw a white pickup that belonged to the company that owned Bordeaux: Tulemann Brothers. It was parked in front of three almost-completed display models.

  “Looks like there’s a foreman still here,” Ken said.

  “Or maybe it’s the night watchman on duty a little early,” Teel said.

  They parked behind the truck, got out of the stiflingly hot patrol car, and stood for a moment, listening. Silence.

  Ken shouted, “Hello! Anybody here?”

 
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