Watchers by Dean Koontz

  “All right,” she said, letting go of his head. “Let’s start.”

  Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, for hours at a time, they leafed through scores of publications, showing Einstein pictures of all kinds of things—people, trees, flowers, dogs, other animals, machines, city streets, country lanes, cars, ships, planes, food, advertisements for a thousand products—hoping he would see something that would excite him. The problem was that he saw many things that excited him, too many. He barked at, pawed at, woofed at, put his nose to, or wagged his tail at perhaps a hundred out of the thousands of pictures, and his choices were of such variety that Travis could see no pattern to them, no way to link them and divine meaning from their association to one another.

  Einstein was fascinated by an automobile ad in which the car, being compared to a powerful tiger, was shown locked in an iron cage. Whether it was the car or the tiger that seized his interest was not clear. He also responded to several computer advertisements, Alpo and Purina Dog Chow ads, an ad for a portable stereo cassette player, and pictures of books, butterflies, a parrot, a forlorn man in a prison cell, four young people playing with a striped beach ball, Mickey Mouse, a violin, a man on an exercise treadmill, and many other things. He was tantalized by a photograph of a golden retriever like himself, and was downright excited by a picture of a cocker spaniel, but curiously he showed little or no interest in other breeds of dogs.

  His strongest—and most puzzling—response was to a photo in a magazine article about an upcoming movie from 20th Century-Fox. The film’s story involved the supernatural—ghosts, poltergeists, demons risen from Hell—and the photo that agitated him was of a slab-jawed, wickedly fanged, lantern-eyed demonic apparition. The creature was no more hideous than others in the film, less hideous than several of them, yet Einstein was affected by only that one demon.

  The retriever barked at the photograph. He scurried behind the sofa and peeked around the end of it as if he thought the creature in the picture might rise off the page and come after him. He barked again, whined, and had to be coaxed back to the magazine. Upon seeing the demon a second time, Einstein growled menacingly. Frantically, he pawed at the magazine, turning its pages until, somewhat tattered, it was completely closed.

  “What’s so special about that picture?” Nora asked the dog.

  Einstein just stared at her—and shivered slightly.

  Patiently, Nora reopened the magazine to the same page.

  Einstein closed it again.

  Nora opened it.

  Einstein closed it a third time, snatched it up in his jaws, and carried it out of the room.

  Travis and Nora followed the retriever into the kitchen, where they watched him go straight to the trash can. The can was one of those with a foot pedal that opened a hinged lid. Einstein put a paw on the pedal, watched the lid open, dropped the magazine into the can, and released the pedal.

  “What’s that all about?” Nora wondered.

  “I guess that’s one movie he definitely doesn’t want to see.”

  “Our own four-footed, furry critic.”

  That incident occurred Thursday afternoon. By early Friday evening, Travis’s frustration—and that of the dog—were nearing critical mass.

  Sometimes Einstein exhibited uncanny intelligence, but sometimes he behaved like an ordinary dog, and these oscillations between canine genius and dopey mutt were enervating for anyone trying to understand how he could be so bright. Travis began to think that the best way to deal with the retriever was to just accept him for what he was: be prepared for his amazing feats now and then, but don’t expect him to deliver all the time. Most likely the mystery of Einstein’s unusual intelligence would never be solved.

  However, Nora remained patient. She frequently reminded them that Rome wasn’t built in a day and that any worthwhile achievement required determination, persistence, tenacity, and time.

  When she launched into these lectures about steadfastness and endurance, Travis sighed wearily—and Einstein yawned.

  Nora was unperturbed. After they had examined the pictures in all of the books and magazines, she collected those to which Einstein had responded, spread them out across the floor, and encouraged him to make connections between one image and another.

  “All of these are pictures of things that played important roles in his past,” Nora said.

  “I don’t think we can be certain of that,” Travis said.

  “Well, that’s what we’ve asked him to do,” she said.

  “We’ve asked him to indicate pictures that might tell us something about where he’s come from.”

  “But does he understand the game?”

  “Yes,” she said with conviction.

  The dog woofed.

  Nora lifted Einstein’s paw and put it on the photograph of the violin. “Okay, pooch. You remember a violin from somewhere, and it was important to you somehow.”

  “Maybe he performed at Carnegie Hall,” Travis said.

  “Shut up.” To the dog Nora said, “All right. Now is the violin related to any of these other pictures? Is there a link to another image that would help us understand what the violin means to you?”

  Einstein stared at her intently for a moment, as if pondering her question. Then he crossed the room, walking carefully in the narrow aisles between the rows of photographs, sniffing, his gaze flicking left and right, until he found the ad for the Sony portable stereo cassette player. He put one paw on it and looked back at Nora.

  “There’s an obvious connection,” Travis said. “The violin makes music, and the cassette deck reproduces music. That’s an impressive feat of mental association for a dog, but does it really mean anything else, anything about his past?”

  “Oh, I’m sure it does,” Nora said. To Einstein she said, “Did someone in your past play the violin?”

  The dog stared at her.

  She said, “Did your previous master have a cassette player like that one?”

  The dog stared at her.

  She said, “Maybe the violinist in your past used to record his own music on a cassette system?”

  The dog blinked and whined.

  “All right,” she said, “is there another picture here that you can associate with the violin and the tape deck?”

  Einstein stared down at the Sony ad for a moment, as if thinking, then walked into another aisle between two more rows of pictures, this time stopping at a magazine open to a Blue Cross advertisement that showed a doctor in a white coat standing at the bedside of a new mother who was holding her baby. Doctor and mother were all smiles, and the baby looked as serene and innocent as the Christ child.

  Crawling nearer to the dog on her hands and knees, Nora said, “Does that picture remind you of the family that owned you?”

  The dog stared at her.

  “Was there a mother, father, and new baby in the family you used to live with?”

  The dog stared at her.

  Still sitting on the floor with his back against the sofa, Travis said, “Gee, maybe we’ve got a real case of reincarnation on our hands. Maybe old Einstein remembers being a doctor, a mother, or a baby in a previous life.”

  Nora would not dignify that suggestion with a response.

  “A violin-playing baby,” Travis said.

  Einstein mewled unhappily.

  On her hands and knees in a doglike position, Nora was only two or three feet from the retriever, virtually face-to-face with him. “All right. This is getting us nowhere. We’ve got to do more than just have you associate one picture with another. We’ve got to be able to ask questions about these pictures and somehow get answers.”

  “Give him paper and pen,” Travis said.

  “This is serious,” Nora said, impatient with Travis as she had never been with the dog.

  “I know it’s serious,” he said, “but it’s also ridiculous.”

  She hung her head for a moment, like a dog suffering in summer heat, then suddenly looked up at Einstein and said, “How
smart are you really, pooch? You want to prove you’re a genius? You want to have our everlasting admiration and respect? Then here’s what you have to do: learn to answer my questions with a simple yes or no.”

  The dog watched her closely, expectantly.

  “If the answer to my question is yes—wag your tail,” Nora said. “But only if the answer is yes. While this test is under way, you’ve got to avoid wagging it out of habit or just because you get excited. Wagging is only for when you want to say yes. And when you want to say no, you bark once. Just once.”

  Travis said, “Two barks mean ‘I’d rather be chasing cats,’ and three barks mean ‘Get me a Budweiser.’ ”

  “Don’t confuse him,” Nora said sharply.

  “Why not? He confuses me.”

  The dog did not even glance at Travis. His large brown eyes remained focused intently on Nora as she explained the wag-for-yes and bark-for-no system again.

  “All right,” she said, “let’s try it. Einstein, do you understand the yes-no signs?”

  The retriever wagged his tail five or six times, then stopped.

  “Coincidence,” Travis said. “Means nothing.”

  Nora hesitated a moment, framing her next question, then said, “Do you know my name?”

  The tail wagged, stopped.

  “Is my name . . . Ellen?”

  The dog barked. No.

  “Is my name . . . Mary?”

  One bark. No.

  “Is my name . . . Nona?”

  The dog rolled his eyes, as if chastising her for trying to trick him. No wagging. One bark.

  “Is my name . . . Nora?”

  Einstein wagged his tail furiously.

  Laughing with delight, Nora crawled forward, sat up, and hugged the retriever.

  “I’ll be damned,” Travis said, crawling over to join them.

  Nora pointed to the photo on which the retriever still had one paw. “Did you react to this picture because it reminds you of the family you used to live with?”

  One bark. No.

  Travis said, “Did you ever live with any family?”

  One bark.

  “But you’re not a wild dog,” Nora said. “You must’ve lived somewhere before Travis found you.”

  Studying the Blue Cross advertisement, Travis suddenly thought he knew all the right questions. “Did you react to this picture because of the baby?”

  One bark. No.

  “Because of the woman?”


  “Because of the man in the white lab coat?”

  Much wagging: Yes, yes, yes.

  “So he lived with a doctor,” Nora said. “Maybe a vet.”

  “Or maybe a scientist,” Travis said as he followed the intuitive line of thought that had stricken him.

  Einstein wagged a “yes” at the mention of scientist.

  “Research scientist,” Travis said.


  “In a lab,” Travis said.

  Yes, yes, yes.

  “You’re a lab dog?” Nora asked.


  “A research animal,” Travis said.


  “And that’s why you’re so bright.”


  “Because of something they’ve done to you.”


  Travis’s heart raced. They actually were communicating, by God, not just in broad strokes, and not just in the comparatively crude way he and Einstein had communicated the night that the dog had formed a question mark out of Milk-Bones. This was communication with extreme specificity. Here they were, talking as if they were three people—well, almost talking— and suddenly nothing would ever be the same again. Nothing could possiblybe the same in a world where men and animals possessed equal (if different) intellects, where they faced life on equal terms, with equal rights, with similar hopes and dreams. All right, okay, so maybe he was blowing this out of proportion. Not all animals had suddenly been given human-level consciousness and intelligence; this was only one dog, an experimental animal, perhaps the only one of his kind. But Jesus. Jesus. Travis stared in awe at the retriever, and a chill swept through him, not a chill of fear but of wonder.

  Nora spoke to the dog, and in her voice was a trace of the same awe that had briefly rendered Travis speechless: “They didn’t just let you go, did they?”

  One bark. No.

  “You escaped?”


  “That Tuesday morning I found you in the woods?” Travis asked. “Had you just escaped then?”

  Einstein neither barked nor wagged his tail.

  “Days before that?” Travis asked.

  The dog whined.

  “He probably has a sense of time,” Nora said, “because virtually all animals follow natural day-night rhythms, don’t they? They have instinctive clocks, biological clocks. But he probably doesn’t have any concept of calendardays. He doesn’t really understand how we divide time up into days and weeks and months, so he has no way of answering your question.”

  “Then that’s something we’ll have to teach him,” Travis said.

  Einstein vigorously wagged his tail.

  Thoughtfully, Nora said, “Escaped . . .”

  Travis knew what she must be thinking. To Einstein, he said, “They’ll be looking for you, won’t they?”

  The dog whined and wagged his tail—which Travis interpreted as a “yes” with a special edge of anxiety.


  An hour after sunset, Lemuel Johnson and Cliff Soames, trailed by two additional unmarked cars carrying eight NSA agents, arrived at Bordeaux Ridge. The unpaved street through the center of the unfinished housing tract was lined with vehicles, mostly black-and-whites bearing the Sheriff’s Department shield, plus cars and a van from the coroner’s office.

  Lem was dismayed to see that the press had already arrived. Both print journalists and television crews with minicams were being kept behind a police line, half a block from the apparent scene of the murder. By quietly suppressing details of the death of Wesley Dalberg in Holy Jim Canyon and of the associated murders of the scientists working at Banodyne, and by instituting an aggressive campaign of disinformation, the NSA had managed to keep the press ignorant of the connections among all these events. Lem hoped that the deputies manning these barriers were among Walt Gaines’s most trusted men and that they would meet reporters’ questions with stony silence until a convincing cover story could be developed.

  Sawhorses were lifted out of the way to let the unmarked NSA cars through the police line, then were put into place again.

  Lem parked at the end of the street, past the crime scene. He left Cliff Soames to brief the other agents, and he headed toward the unfinished house that appeared to be the focus of attention.

  The patrol cars’ radios filled the hot night air with codes and jargon— and with a hiss-pop-crackle of static, as if the whole world were being fried on a cosmic griddle.

  Portable kliegs stood on tripods, flooding the front of the house with light to facilitate the investigation. Lem felt as if he were on a giant stage set. Moths swooped and fluttered around the kliegs. Their amplified shadows darted across the dusty ground.

  Casting his own exaggerated shadow, he crossed the dirt yard to the house. Inside, he found more kliegs. Dazzlingly bright light bounced off white walls. Looking pale and sweaty in that harsh glare were a couple of young deputies, men from the coroner’s office, and the usual intense types from the Scientific Investigation Division.

  A photographer’s strobe flashed once, twice, from farther back in the house. The hallway looked crowded, so Lem went around to the back by way of the living room, dining room, and kitchen.

  Walt Gaines was standing in the breakfast area, in the dimness behind the last of the hooded kliegs. But even in those shadows, his anger and grief were visible. He had evidently been at home when he had gotten word about the murder of a deputy, for he was wearing tattered running shoes, wrinkled tan chinos, a brown- and red-checkered short-sleeve shi
rt. In spite of his great size, bull neck, muscular arms, and big hands, Walt’s clothes and slump-shouldered posture gave him the look of a forlorn little boy.

  From the breakfast area, Lem could not see past the lab men and into the laundry room, where the body still lay. He said, “I’m sorry, Walt. I’m so sorry.”

  “Name was Teel Porter. His dad Red Porter and I been friends twenty-five years. Red just retired from the department last year. How am I going to tell him? Jesus. I’ve got to do it myself, us being so close. Can’t pass the buck this time.”

  Lem knew that Walt never passed the buck when one of his men was killed in the line of duty. He always personally visited the family, broke the bad news, and sat with them through the initial shock.

  “Almost lost two men,” Walt said. “Other one’s badly shaken.”

  “How was Teel . . . ?”

  “Gutted like Dalberg. Decapitated.”

  The Outsider, Lem thought. No doubt about it now.

  Moths had gotten inside and were bashing against the lens of the klieg light behind which Lem and Walt stood.

  His voice thickening with anger, Walt said, “Haven’t found . . . his head. How do I tell his dad that Teel’s head is missing?”

  Lem had no answer.

  Walt looked hard at him. “You can’t push me all the way out of it now. Not now that one of my men is dead.”

  “Walt, my agency works in purposeful obscurity. Hell, even the number of agents on the payroll is classified information. But your department is subject to full press attention. And in order to know how to proceed in this case, your people would have to be told exactly what they’re looking for. That would mean revealing national defense secrets to a large group of deputies—”

  “Your men all know what’s up,” Walt countered.

  “Yes, but my men have signed secrecy oaths, undergone extensive security checks, and are trained to keep their mouths shut.”

  “My men can keep a secret, too.”

  “I’m sure they can,” Lem said carefully. “I’m sure they don’t talk outside the shop about ordinary cases. But this isn’t ordinary. No, this has to remain in our hands.”

  Walt said, “My men can sign secrecy oaths.”

  “We’d have to background-check everyone in your department, not just deputies but file clerks. It’d take weeks, months.”

  Looking across the kitchen at the open door to the dining room, Walt noticed
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