Watchers by Dean Koontz

  with the progress they had made, beginning to feel the exhaustion that their excitement had masked—and frowning at each other in puzzlement.

  She spoke softly. “Do you think Einstein’s capable of lying, making up wild stories like children do?”

  “I don’t know. Can dogs lie, or is that just a human skill?” He laughed at the absurdity of his own question. “Can dogs lie? Can a moose be elected to the presidency? Can cows sing?”

  Nora laughed, too, and very prettily. “Can ducks tap-dance?”

  In a fit of silliness that was a reaction to the difficulty of dealing intellectually and emotionally with the whole idea of a dog as smart as Einstein, Travis said, “I once saw a duck tap-dancing.”

  “Oh, yeah?”

  “Yeah. In Vegas.”

  Laughing, she said, “What hotel was he performing at?”

  “Caesar’s Palace. He could sing, too.”

  “The duck?”

  “Yeah. Ask me his name.”

  “What was his name?”

  “Sammy Davis Duck, Jr.,” Travis said, and they laughed again. “He was such a big star they didn’t even have to put his entire name on the marquee for people to know who was performing there.”

  “They just put ‘Sammy,’ huh?”

  “No. Just ’Jr.’ ”

  Einstein returned from the window and stood watching them, his head cocked, trying to figure out why they were acting so peculiar.

  The puzzled expression on the retriever’s face struck both Travis and Nora as the most comical thing they had ever seen. They leaned on each other, held each other, and laughed like fools.

  With a snort of derision, the retriever went back to the window.

  As they gradually regained control of themselves and as their laughter subsided, Travis became aware that he was holding Nora, that her head was on his shoulder, that the physical contact between them was greater than any they had allowed themselves before. Her hair smelled clean, fresh. He could feel the body heat pouring off her. Suddenly, he wanted her desperately, and he knew he was going to kiss her when she raised her head from his shoulder. A moment later she looked up, and he did what he knew he’d do—he kissed her—and she kissed him. For a second or two, she did not seem to realize what was happening, what it meant; briefly, it was without significance, sweet and utterly innocent, not a kiss of passion but of friendship and great affection. Then the kiss changed, and her mouth softened. She began to breathe faster, and her hand tightened on his arm, and she tried to pull him closer. A low murmur of need escaped her—and the sound of her own voice brought her to her senses. Abruptly, she stiffened with complete awareness of him as a man, and her beautiful eyes were wide with wonder—and fear—at what had almost happened. Travis instantly drew back because he knew instinctively that the time was not right, not yet perfect. When at last they did make love, it must be exactly right, without hesitation or distraction, because for the rest of their lives they would always remember their first time, and the memory should be all bright and joyous, worth taking out and examining a thousand times as they grew old together. Although it was not quite time to put their future into words and confirm it with vows, Travis had no doubt that he and Nora Devon would be spending their lives with each other, and he realized that, subconsciously, he’d been aware of this inevitability for at least the past few days.

  After a moment of awkwardness, as they drew apart and tried to decide whether to comment on the sudden change in their relationship, Nora finally said, “He’s still at the window.”

  Einstein pressed his nose to the glass, staring out at the night.

  “Could he be telling the truth?” Nora wondered. “Could there have been something else that escaped from the lab, something that bizarre?”

  “If they had a dog as smart as him, I guess they might have had other things even more peculiar. And there was something in the woods that day.”

  “But there’s no danger of it finding him, surely. Not after you brought him this far north.”

  “No danger,” Travis agreed. “I don’t think Einstein understands how far we came from where I found him. Whatever was in the woods couldn’t track him down now. But I’ll bet the people from that lab have mounted one hell of a search. It’s them I’m worried about. And so is Einstein, which is why he usually plays at being a dumb dog in public and reveals his intelligence only in private to me and now you. He doesn’t want to go back.”

  Nora said, “If they find him . . .”

  “They won’t.”

  “But if they do, what then?”

  “I’ll never give him up,” Travis said. “Never.”


  By eleven o’clock that night, Deputy Porter’s headless corpse and the mutilated body of the construction foreman had been removed from Bordeaux Ridge by the coroner’s men. A cover story had been concocted and delivered to the reporters at the police barricades, and the press had seemed to buy it; they had asked their questions, had taken a couple of hundred photographs, and had filled a few thousand feet of videotape with images that would be edited down to a hundred seconds on tomorrow’s TV news-cast. (In this age of mass murder and terrorism, two victims rated no more than two minutes’ airtime: ten seconds for lead-in, a hundred seconds for film, ten seconds for the well-coiffed anchorpersons to look respectfully grim and saddened—then on to a story about a bikini contest, a convention of Edsel owners, or a man who claimed to have seen an alien spacecraft shaped like a Twinkie.) The reporters were gone now, as were the lab men, the uniformed deputies, and all of Lemuel Johnson’s agents except Cliff Soames.

  Clouds hid the fragment moon. The kliegs were gone, and the only light came from the headlamps of Walt Gaines’s car. He had swung his sedan around and aimed his lights at Lem’s car, which was parked at the end of the unpaved street, so Lem and Cliff would not have to fumble around in the dark. In the deep gloom beyond the headlamps, half-framed houses loomed like the fossilized skeletons of prehistoric reptiles.

  As he walked toward his car, Lem felt as good as he could feel under the circumstances. Walt had agreed to allow federal authorities to assume jurisdiction without a challenge. Although Lem had broken a dozen regulations and had violated his secrecy oath by telling Walt the details of the Francis Project, he was sure Walt could keep his mouth shut. The lid was still on the case, a bit looser than it had been, perhaps, but still in place.

  Cliff Soames reached the car first, opened the door, and got in on the passenger’s side, and as Lem opened the driver’s door he heard Cliff say, “Oh, Jesus, oh God.” Cliff was scrambling back out of the car even as Lem looked in from the other side and saw what the uproar was about. A head.

  Teel Porter’s head, no doubt.

  It was on the front seat of the car, propped so it was facing Lem when he opened the door. The mouth hung open in a silent scream. The eyes were gone.

  Reeling back from the car, Lem reached under his coat and pulled his revolver.

  Walt Gaines was already out of his car, his own revolver in hand, running toward Lem. “What’s wrong?”

  Lem pointed.

  Reaching the NSA sedan, Walt looked through the open door and let out a thin, anguished sound when he saw the head.

  Cliff came around from the other side of the car, gripping his gun, with the muzzle pointed straight up. “The damn thing was here when we arrived, while we were in the house.”

  “Might still be here,” Lem said, anxiously surveying the darkness that crowded them on all sides, beyond the beams from the patrol car’s headlights.

  Studying the night-swaddled housing development, Walt said, “We’ll call in my men, get a search under way.”

  “No point to it,” Lem said. “The thing will take off if it sees your men returning . . . if it’s not gone already.”

  They were standing at the edge of Bordeaux Ridge, beyond which lay miles of open land, foothills and mountains, out of which The Outsider had come and into which it could disappear again. Those h
ills, ridges, and canyons were only vague forms in the meager glow of the partial moon, more sensed than seen.

  From somewhere down the unlighted street came a loud clatter, as if a pile of lumber or shingles had been knocked over.

  “It is here,” Walt said.

  “Maybe,” Lem said. “But we’re not going to go looking for it in the dark, not just the three of us. That’s what it wants.”

  They listened.

  Nothing more.

  “We searched the whole tract when we first got here, before you arrived,” Walt said.

  Cliff said, “It must’ve kept one step ahead of you, making a game of dodging your men. Then it saw us arrive, and it recognized Lem.”

  “Recognized me from the couple of times I visited Banodyne,” Lem agreed. “In fact . . . The Outsider was probably waiting here just for me. It probably understands my role in all this and knows I’m in charge of the search for it and the dog. So it wanted to leave the deputy’s head for me.”

  “To mock you?” Walt said.

  “To mock me.”

  They were silent, peering uneasily at the blackness within and around the unfinished houses.

  The hot June air was motionless.

  For a long while, the only sound was the idling engine of the sheriff’s car.

  “Watching us,” Walt said.

  Another clatter of overturned construction materials. Nearer this time.

  The three men froze, each looking a different direction, guarding against attack.

  The subsequent silence lasted almost a minute.

  When Lem was about to speak, The Outsider shrieked. The cry was alien, chilling. This time they could identify the direction from which it came: out in the open land, in the night beyond Bordeaux Ridge.

  “It’s leaving now,” Lem said. “It’s decided we can’t be lured into a search, just the three of us, so it’s leaving before we can bring in reinforcements.”

  It shrieked again, from farther away. The eerie cry was like sharp fingernails raked across Lem’s soul.

  “In the morning,” he said, “we’ll move our Marine Intelligence teams into the foothills east of here. We’ll nail the damn thing. By God, we will.”

  Turning to Lem’s sedan, evidently contemplating the unpleasant task of dealing with Teel Porter’s severed head, Walt said, “Why the eyes? Why does it always tear out the eyes?”

  Lem said, “Partly because the creature’s just damned aggressive, blood-thirsty. That’s in its genes. And partly because it really enjoys spreading terror, I think. But also . . .”


  “I wish I didn’t remember this, but I do, very clearly . . .”

  On one of his visits to Banodyne, Lem had witnessed a disturbing conversation (of sorts) between Dr. Yarbeck and The Outsider. Yarbeck and her assistants had taught The Outsider a sign language similar to that developed by the researchers who attempted the first experiments in communication with the higher primates, like gorillas, back in the mid-1970s. The most successful gorilla subject—a female named Koko, which had been the center of countless news stories over the past decade—was reputed to have attained a sign-language vocabulary of approximately four hundred words. When Lem had last seen it, The Outsider boasted a vocabulary considerably larger than Koko’s, though still primitive. In Yarbeck’s lab, Lem had watched as the man-made monstrosity in the large cage had exchanged complicated series of hand signals with the scientist, while an assistant had whispered a running translation. The Outsider had expressed a fierce hostility toward everyone and everything, frequently interrupting its dialogue with Yarbeck to dash around its cage in uncontrolled rage, banging on the iron bars, screeching furiously. To Lem, the scene was frightening and repellent, but he was also filled with a terrible sadness and pity at the plight of The Outsider: the beast would always be caged, always a freak, alone in the world as no other creature—not even Weatherby’s dog—had ever been. The experience had affected him so deeply that he still remembered nearly every exchange of sign language between The Outsider and Yarbeck, and now a pertinent part of that eerie conversation came back to him:

  At one point The Outsider had signed: Tear out your eyes.

  You want to tear out my eyes? Yarbeck signed.

  Tear out everyone’s eyes.


  So can’t see me.

  Why don’t you want to be seen?


  You think you’re ugly?

  Much ugly.

  Where did you get the idea you’re ugly?

  From people.

  What people?

  Everyone who see me first time.

  Like this man with us today? Yarbeck signed, indicating Lem.

  Yes. All think me ugly. Hate me.

  No one hates you.


  No one’s ever told you that you’re ugly. How do you know that’s what they think?

  I know.

  How do you know?

  I know, I know, I know! It raced around its cage, rattling the bars, shrieking, and then it returned to face Yarbeck. Tear out my own eyes.

  So you won’t have to look at yourself?

  So won’t have to look at people looking at me, the creature had signed, and Lem had pitied it then, deeply, though his pity had in no way diminished his fear of it.

  Now, standing in the hot June night, he told Walt Gaines about that exchange in Yarbeck’s lab, and the sheriff shivered.

  “Jesus,” Cliff Soames said. “It hates itself, its otherness, and so it hates its maker even more.”

  “And now that you’ve told me this,” Walt said, “I’m surprised none of you ever understood why it hates the dog so passionately. This poor damned twisted thing and the dog are essentially the only two children of the Francis Project. The dog is the beloved child, the favored child, and The Outsider has always known that. The dog is the child that the parents want to brag about, while The Outsider is the child they would prefer to keep locked securely in a cellar, and so it resents the dog, stews in resentment every minute of every day.”

  “Of course,” Lem said, “you’re right. Of course.”

  “It also gives new meaning to the two smashed mirrors in the upstairs bathrooms in the house where Teel Porter was killed,” Walt said. “The thing couldn’t bear the sight of itself.”

  In the distance, very far away now, something shrieked, something that was not of God’s creation.

  chapter seven


  During the rest of June, Nora did some painting, spent a lot of time with Travis, and tried to teach Einstein to read.

  Neither she nor Travis was sure that the dog, although very smart, could be taught such a thing, but it was worth a try. If he understood spoken English, as seemed to be the case, then it followed that he could be taught the printed word as well.

  Of course, they could not be absolutely certain that Einstein did understand spoken English, even though he responded to it with apt and specific reactions. It was remotely possible that, instead, the dog did not perceive the precise meanings of the words themselves but, by some mild form of telepathy, could read the word-pictures in people’s minds as they spoke.

  “But I don’t believe that’s the case,” Travis said one afternoon as he and Nora sat on his patio, drinking wine coolers and watching Einstein frolic in the spray of a portable lawn sprinkler. “Maybe because I don’t want to believe it. The idea that he’s both as smart as me and telepathic is just too much. If that’s the case, then maybe I should be wearing the collar and he should be holding the leash!”

  It was a Spanish test that appeared to indicate the retriever was not, in fact, even slightly telepathic.

  In college, Travis had taken three years of Spanish. Later, upon choosing a career in the military and signing on with the elite Delta Force, he’d been encouraged to continue those language studies because his superiors believed the escalating political instability in Central and South America guaranteed that Delta would be r
equired to conduct antiterrorist operations in Spanish-speaking countries with steadily increasing frequency. He had been out of Delta for many years, but contact with the large population of California Hispanics had kept him relatively fluent.

  Now, when he gave Einstein orders or asked questions in Spanish, the dog stared at him stupidly, wagging his tail, unresponsive. When Travis persisted in Spanish, the retriever cocked his head and whuffed as if to inquire if this was a joke. Surely, if the dog was reading mental images that arose in the mind of the speaker, he would be able to read them regardless of the language that inspired those images.

  “He’s no mind reader,” Travis said. “There are limits to his genius— thank God!”

  Day after day, Nora sat on the floor of Travis’s living room or on the patio, explaining the alphabet to Einstein and trying to help him to understand how words were formed from those letters and how those printed words were related to the spoken words that he already understood. Now and then, Travis took charge of the lessons to give Nora a break, but most of the time he sat nearby, reading, because he claimed not to have the patience to be a teacher.

  She used a ring-binder notebook to compile her own primer for the dog. On each left-hand page, she taped a picture cut from a magazine, and on each right-hand page she printed, in block letters, the name of the object that was pictured on the left, all simple words: TREE, CAR, HOUSE, MAN, WOMAN, CHAIR . . . With Einstein sitting beside her and staring intently at the primer, she would point to the picture first, then to the word, pronouncing it repeatedly.

  On the last day of June, Nora spread a score or more of unlabeled pictures on the floor.

  “It’s test time again,” she told Einstein. “Let’s see if you can do better than you did on Monday.”

  Einstein sat very erect, his chest puffed out, his head held high, as if confident of his ability.

  Travis was sitting in the armchair, watching. He said, “If you fail, fur face, we’re going to trade you in on a poodle that can roll over, play dead, and beg for its supper.”

  Nora was pleased to see that Einstein ignored Travis. “This is not a time for frivolity,” she admonished.

  “I stand corrected, professor,” Travis said.

  Nora held up a flash card with TREE printed on it. The retriever went unerringly to the photo of a pine tree and indicated it with a touch of his nose. When she held up a card that said CAR, he put a paw on the photo of the car, and when she held up HOUSE, he sniffed at the picture of a colonial mansion. They went through fifty words, and for the first time the dog correctly paired every printed word with the image it represented. Nora was thrilled by his progress, and Einstein could not stop wagging his tail.

  Travis said, “Well, Einstein, you’re still a hell of a long way from reading Proust.”

  Rankled by Travis’s needling of her star pupil, Nora said, “He’s doing fine! Terrific. You can’t expect him to be reading at college level overnight. He’s learning faster than a child would.”

  “Is that so?”

  “Yes, that’s so! Much faster than a child would.”

  “Well then, maybe he deserves a couple of Milk-Bones.”

  Einstein dashed immediately into the kitchen to get the box of dog biscuits.

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