Watchers by Dean Koontz


  His voice echoed back and forth through the deserted tract.

  Ken said, “You want to look around?”

  “Shit, no,” Teel said. “But let’s do it.”

  Ken still did not believe anything was wrong at Bordeaux Ridge. The pickup could have been left behind at the end of the day. After all, other equipment remained on the tract overnight: a couple of Bob-cats on a long-bed truck, a backhoe. And it was still likely that the reported screaming had been kids playing.

  They grabbed flashlights from the car because, even if electric service to the tract had been connected, there were no lamps or ceiling lights in the unfinished structures.

  Resettling their gunbelts on their hips more out of habit than out of any belief that they would need weapons, Ken and Teel walked through the nearest of the partially framed houses. They were not looking for anything in particular, just going through the motions, which was half of all police work.

  A mild and inconstant breeze sprang up, the first of the day, and blew sawdust ghosts through the open sides of the house. The sun was falling rapidly westward, and the wall studs cast prison-bar shadows across the floor. The last light of the day, which was changing from gold to muddy red, imparted a soft glow to the air like that around the open door of a furnace. The concrete pad was littered with nails that winked in the fiery light and clinked underfoot.

  “For a hundred and eighty thousand bucks,” Teel said, probing into black corners with the beam of his flashlight, “I’d expect rooms a little bigger than these.”

  Taking a deep breath of sawdust-scented air, Ken said, “Hell, I’d expect rooms as big as airport lounges.”

  They stepped out of the back of the house, into a shallow rear yard, where they switched off their flashes. The bare, dry earth was not landscaped. It was littered with the detritus of construction: scraps of lumber, chunks of broken concrete, rumpled pieces of tarpaper, tangled loops of wire, more nails, useless lengths of PVC pipe, cedar shingles discarded by roofers, Styrofoam soft-drink cups and Big Mac containers, empty Coke cans, and less identifiable debris.

  No fences had yet been constructed, so they had a view of all twelve backyards along this street. Purple shadows seeped across the sandy soil, but they could see that all the yards were deserted.

  “No signs of mayhem,” Teel said.

  “No damsels in distress,” Ken said.

  “Well, let’s at least walk along here, look between buildings,” Teel said. “We ought to give the public something for their money.”

  Two houses later, in the thirty-foot-wide pass-through between structures, they found the dead man.

  “Damn,” Teel said.

  The guy was lying on his back, mostly in shadow, with only the lower half of his body revealed in the dirty-red light, and at first Ken and Teel didn’t realize what a horror they’d stumbled across. But when he knelt beside the corpse, Ken was shocked to see that the man’s gut had been torn open.

  “Jesus Christ, his eyes,” Teel said.

  Ken looked up from the ravaged torso and saw empty sockets where the victim’s eyes should have been.

  Retreating into the littered yard, Teel drew his revolver.

  Ken also backed away from the mutilated corpse and slipped his own gun out of his holster. Though he had been perspiring all day, he felt suddenly damper, slick with a different kind of sweat, the cool, sour sweat of fear.

  PCP, Ken thought. Only some asshole stoned on PCP would be violent enough to do something like this.

  Bordeaux Ridge was silent.

  Nothing moved except the shadows, which seemed to grow longer by the second.

  “Some angel-dust junkie did this,” Ken said, putting his fears about PCP into words.

  “I was thinking the same thing,” Teel said. “You want to look any farther?”

  “Not just the two of us, by God. Let’s radio for assistance.”

  They began to retrace their steps, warily keeping a watch on all sides as they moved, and they did not go far before they heard the noises. A crash. A clatter of metal. Glass breaking.

  Ken had no doubt whatsoever where the sounds came from. The racket originated inside the closest of the three houses that were nearing completion and that would serve as sales models.

  With no suspect in sight and no clue as to where to begin looking for one, they would have been justified in returning to the patrol car and calling for assistance. But now that they’d heard the disturbance in the model home, their training and instinct required them to act more boldly. They moved toward the back of the house.

  A plyboard skin had been nailed over the studs, so the walls were not open to the elements, and chicken wire had been fixed to the tar-papered boards, and half the place was stuccoed. In fact, the stucco looked damp, as if the job had been started only today. Most of the windows were installed; only a few cutouts were still covered with tattered sheets of opaque plastic.

  Another crash, louder than the first, was followed by the sound of more glass shattering inside.

  Ken Dimes tried the sliding glass door that connected the rear yard and the family room. It was not locked.

  From outside, Teel studied the family room through the glass. Although some light still entered the house by way of undraped doors and windows, shadows ruled the interior. They could see that the family room was deserted, so Teel eased through the half-open door with his flashlight in one hand and his Smith & Wesson clutched firmly in the other.

  “You go around front,” Teel whispered, “so the bastard doesn’t get out that way.”

  Bending down to stay below window level, Ken hurried around the corner, along the side of the house, around to the front, and every step of the way he half-expected someone to jump on him from the roof or leap out through one of the unfinished windows.

  The interior had been Sheetrocked, the ceilings textured. The family room opened into a breakfast area adjoining the kitchen, all of it one large flowing space without partitions. Oak cabinets had been installed in the kitchen, but the tile floor had not yet been put down.

  The air had the lime odor of drywaller’s mud, with an underlying scent of wood stain.

  Standing in the breakfast area, Teel listened for more sounds of destruction, movement.

  Nothing.

  If this was like most California tract homes, he would find the dining room to the left, beyond the kitchen, then the living room, the entrance foyer, and a den. If he went into the hallway that led out of the breakfast area, he would probably find a laundry room, the downstairs bath, a coat closet, then the foyer. He could see no advantage of one route over another, so he went into the hall and checked the laundry first.

  The dark room had no windows. The door was standing half-open, and the flashlight showed only yellow cabinets and the spaces where the washer and dryer would be placed. However, Teel wanted to look at the section behind the door, where he figured there was a sink and work area. He pushed the door all the way open and went in fast, swinging the flashlight and the gun in that direction. He found the stainless-steel sink and built-in table that he expected, but no killer.

  He was more on edge that he had been in years. He could not keep the image of the dead man from flickering repeatedly through his mind: those empty eye sockets.

  Not just on edge, he thought. Face it, you’re scared shitless.

  Out front, Ken jumped across a narrow ditch and headed for the house’s double entrance doors, which were still closed. He surveyed the surrounding area and saw no one trying to escape. As twilight descended, Bordeaux Ridge looked less like a tract under development than like a bombed-out neighborhood. Shadows and dust created the illusion of rubble.

  In the laundry room, Teel Porter turned, intending to step into the hall, and on his right, in the group of yellow cabinets, the two-foot-wide, six-foot-high door of a broom closet flew open, and this thing came at him as if it were a jack-in-the-box, Jesus, for a split second he was sure it must be a kid in a rubber fright mask. He could no
t see clearly in the backsplash of the flashlight, which was pointed away from the attacker, but then he knew it was real because those eyes, like circles of smoky lamplight, were not just plastic or glass, no way. He fired the revolver, but it was aimed ahead, into the hall, and the slug plowed harmlessly into the wall out there, so he tried to turn, but the thing was all over him, hissing like a snake. He fired again, into the floor this time—the sound was deafening in that enclosed space— then he was driven backward against the sink, and the gun was torn out of his hand. He also lost the flashlight, which spun off into the corner. He threw a punch, but before his fist was halfway through its arc, he felt a terrible pain in his belly, as if several stilettos had been thrust into him all at once, and he knew instantly what was happening to him. He screamed, screamed, and in the gloom the misshapen face of the jack-in-the-box loomed over him, its eyes radiantly yellow, and Teel screamed again, flailed, and more stilettos sank through the soft tissue of his throat—

  Ken Dimes was four steps from the front doors when he heard Teel scream. A cry of surprise, fear, pain.

  “Shit.”

  They were double doors, stained oak. The one on the right was secured to the sill and header by sliding bolts, while the one on the left was the active door—and unlocked. Ken rushed inside, caution briefly forgotten, then halted in the gloomy foyer.

  Already, the screaming had stopped.

  He switched on his flashlight. Empty living room to the right. Empty den to the left. A staircase leading up to the second floor. No one anywhere in sight.

  Silence. Perfect silence. As in a vacuum.

  For a moment Ken hesitated to call out to Teel, for fear he would be revealing his position to the killer. Then he realized that the flashlight, without which he could not proceed, was enough to give him away; it did not matter if he made noise.

  “Teel!”

  The name echoed through the vacant rooms.

  “Teel, where are you?”

  No reply.

  Teel must be dead. Jesus. He would respond if he was alive.

  Or he might just be injured and unconscious, wounded and dying. In that case, perhaps it would be best to go back to the patrol car and call for an ambulance.

  No. No, if his partner was in desperate shape, Ken had to find him fast and administer first aid. Teel might die in the time it took to call an ambulance. Delaying that long was too great a risk.

  Besides, the killer had to be dealt with.

  Only the vaguest smoky-red light penetrated the windows now, for the day was being swallowed by the night. Ken had to rely entirely on the flash-light, which was not ideal because, each time the beam moved, shadows leaped and swooped, creating illusory assailants. Those false attackers might distract him from real danger.

  Leaving the front door wide open, he crept along the narrow hall that led to the back of the house. He stayed close to the wall. The sole of one of his shoes squeaked with nearly every step he took. He held the gun out in front of him, not aimed at the floor or ceiling, because for the moment, at least, he didn’t give a damn about safe weapons procedure.

  On the right, a door stood open. A closet. Empty.

  The stink of his own perspiration grew greater than the lime and wood-stain odors of the house.

  He came to a powder room on his left. A quick sweep of the light revealed nothing out of the ordinary, though his own frightened face, reflected in the mirror, startled him.

  The rear of the house—family room, breakfast area, kitchen—was directly ahead, and on his left was another door, standing open. In the beam of the flashlight, which suddenly began to quiver violently in his hand, Ken saw Teel’s body on the floor of a laundry room, and so much blood that there could be no doubt he was dead.

  Beneath the waves of fear that washed across the surface of his mind, there were undercurrents of grief, rage, hatred, and a fierce desire for vengeance.

  Behind Ken, something thumped.

  He cried out and turned to face the threat.

  But the hall to the right and the breakfast area to the left were both deserted.

  The sound had come from the front of the house. Even as the echo of it died away, he knew what he’d heard: the front door being closed.

  Another sound broke the stillness, not as loud as the first but more unnerving: the clack of the door’s dead bolt being engaged.

  Had the killer departed and locked the door from the outside, with a key? But where would he get a key? Off the foreman that he had murdered? And why would he pause to lock up?

  More likely, he had locked the door from inside, not merely to delay Ken’s escape but to let him know the hunt was still under way.

  Ken considered dousing the flashlight because it pinpointed him for the enemy, but by now the twilight glow at the windows was purple-gray and did not reach into the house at all. Without the flashlight, he would be blind.

  How the hell was the killer finding his way in this steadily deepening darkness? Was it possible that a PCP junkie’s night vision improved when he was high, just as his strength increased to that of ten men as a side effect of the angel dust?

  The house was quiet.

  He stood with his back to the hallway wall.

  He could smell Teel’s blood. A vaguely metallic odor.

  Click, click, click.

  Ken stiffened and listened intently, but he heard nothing more after those three quick noises. They had sounded like swift footsteps crossing the concrete floor, taken by someone wearing boots with hard leather heels—or shoes with cleats.

  The noises had begun and ended so abruptly that he had not been able to tell where they were coming from. Then he heard them again—click, click, click, click—four steps this time, and they were in the foyer, moving in this direction, toward the hall in which he stood.

  He immediately pushed away from the wall, turning to face the adversary, dropping into a crouch and thrusting both the flashlight and the revolver toward where he had heard the steps. But the hallway was deserted.

  Breathing through his open mouth to reduce the noise of his own rapid respiration, which he feared would mask the movements of the enemy, Ken eased along the hall, into the foyer. Nothing. The front door was closed all right, but the den and the living room and the staircase and the gallery above were deserted.

  Click, click, click, click.

  The noises arose from an entirely different direction now, from the back of the house, in the breakfast area. The killer had fled silently out of the foyer, across the living room and dining room, into the kitchen, into the breakfast area, circling through the house, coming around behind Ken. Now the bastard was entering the hall that Ken had just left. And though the guy had been silent while flitting through the other rooms, he was making those noises again, obviously not because he had to make them, not because his shoes clicked with every step the way Ken’s shoes squeaked, but because he wanted to make the noises again, wanted to taunt Ken, wanted to say: Hey, I’m behind you now, and here I come, ready or not, here I come.

  Click, click, click.

  Ken Dimes was no coward. He was a good cop who had never walked away from trouble. He had received two citations for bravery in only seven years on the force. But this faceless, insanely violent son of a bitch, scurrying through the house in total darkness, silent when he wanted to be and making taunting sounds when it suited him—he baffled and scared Ken. And although Ken was as courageous as any cop, he was no fool, and only a fool would walk boldly into a situation that he did not understand.

  Instead of returning to the hall and confronting the killer, he went to the front door and reached for the lever-action brass handle, intending to get the hell out. Then he noticed the door hadn’t merely been closed and dead-bolted. A length of scrap wire had been wound around the handle on the fixed door and around that on the active door, linking them, fastening them together. He would have to unwind the wire before he could get out, which might take half a minute.

  Click, click, click.


  He fired once toward the hallway without even looking and ran in the opposite direction, crossing the empty living room. He heard the killer behind him. Clicking. Coming fast in the darkness. Yet when Ken reached the dining room and was almost to the doorway that led into the kitchen, intending to make a break for the family room and the patio door by which Teel had entered, he heard the clicking coming from in front of him. He was sure the killer had pursued him into the living room, but now the guy had gone back into the lightless hallway and was coming at him from the other direction, making a crazy game of this. From the sounds the bastard was making, he seemed just about to enter the breakfast area, which would put only the width of the kitchen between him and Ken, so Ken decided to make a stand right there, decided to blow away this psycho the moment the guy appeared in the beam of the light—

  Then the killer shrieked.

  Clicking along the hallway, still out of sight but coming toward Ken, the attacker let out a shrill inhuman cry that was the essence of primal rage and hatred, the strangest sound that Ken had ever heard, not the sound a man would make, not even a lunatic. He gave up all thought of confrontation, pitched his flashlight into the kitchen to create a diversion, turned away from the approaching enemy, and fled again, though not back into the living room, not toward any part of the house in which this game of cat and mouse could be extended, but straight across the dining room toward a window that glimmered vaguely with the last dim glow of twilight. He tucked his head down, brought his arms up against his chest, and turned sideways as he slammed into the glass. The window exploded, and he fell out into the rear yard, rolling through construction debris. Splintery scraps of two-by-fours and chunks of concrete poked painfully into his legs and ribs. He scrambled to his feet, spun toward the house, and emptied his revolver at the broken window in case the killer was in pursuit of him.

  In the settling night, he saw no sign of the enemy.

  Figuring he had not scored a hit, he wasted no time cursing his luck. He sprinted around the house, along the side of it, and out to the street. He had to get to the patrol car, where there was a radio—and a pump-action riot gun.

  3

  On Wednesday and Thursday, the second and third of June, Travis and Nora and Einstein searched diligently for a way to improve human-canine communications, and in the process man and dog had almost begun to chew up furniture in frustration. However, Nora proved to have enough patience and confidence for all of them. When the breakthrough came near sunset on Friday evening, the fourth of June, she was less surprised than either Travis or Einstein.

  They had purchased forty magazines—everything from Time and Life to McCall’s and Redbook—and fifty books of art and photography, and had brought them to the living room of Travis’s rental house, where there was space to spread everything out on the floor. They had put pillows on the floor as well, so they could work at the dog’s level and be comfortable.

  Einstein had watched their preparations with interest.

  Sitting on the floor with her back against the vinyl sofa, Nora took the retriever’s head in both hands and, with her face close to his, their noses almost touching, she said, “Okay, now you listen to me, Einstein. We want to know all sorts of things about you: where you came from, why you’re smarter than an ordinary dog, what you were afraid of in the woods that day Travis found you, why you sometimes stare out the window at night as if you’re frightened of something. Lots more. But you can’t talk, can you? No. And so far as we know, you can’t read. And even if you can read, you can’t write. So we’ve got to do this with pictures, I think.”

  From where he sat near Nora, Travis could see that the dog’s eyes never wavered from hers as she spoke. Einstein was rigid. His tail hung down, motionless. He not only seemed to understand what she was telling him, but he appeared to be electrified by the experiment.

  How much does the mutt really perceive, Travis wondered, and how many of his reactions am I imagining because of pure wishful thinking?

  People have a natural tendency to anthropomorphize their pets, to ascribe human perceptions and intentions to the animals where none exist. In Einstein’s case, where there really was an exceptional intelligence at work, the temptation to see profound meaning in every meaningless doggy twitch was even greater than usual.

  “We’re going to study all these pictures, looking for things that interest you, for things that’ll help us understand where you came from and how you got to be what you are. Every time you see something that’ll help us put the puzzle together, you’ve got somehow to bring it to our attention. Bark at it or put a paw on it or wag your tail.”

  “This is nuts,” Travis said.

  “Do you understand me, Einstein?” Nora asked.

  The retriever issued a soft woof.

  “This will never work,” Travis said.

  “Yes, it will,” Nora insisted. “He can’t talk, can’t write, but he can show us things. If he points out a dozen pictures, we might not immediately understand what meaning they have for him, how they refer to his origins, but in time we’ll find a way to relate them to one another and to him, and we’ll know what he’s trying to tell us.”

  The dog, his head still trapped firmly in Nora’s hands, rolled his eyes toward Travis and woofed again.

  “We ready?” Nora asked Einstein.

  His gaze flicked back to her, and he wagged his tail.

 
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