Watchers by Dean Koontz


  2

  As the summer wore on, Travis was amazed by the swift progress Nora made in teaching Einstein to read.

  By the middle of July, they graduated from her homemade primer to children’s picture books by Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, Phil Parks, Susi Bohdal, Sue Dreamer, Mercer Mayer, and many others. Einstein appeared to enjoy all of them immensely, though his favorites were by Parks and especially—for reasons neither Nora nor Travis could discern—the charming Frog and Toad books by Arnold Lobel. They brought armsful of children’s books home from the city library and purchased additional stacks of them at the bookstore.

  At first, Nora read them aloud, carefully moving a finger under each word as she spoke it, and Einstein’s eyes followed along as he leaned in toward the book with undivided attention. Later, she did not read the book aloud but held it open for the dog and turned the pages for him when he indicated—by a whimper or some other sign—that he had finished that portion of the text and was ready to proceed to the next page.

  Einstein’s willingness to sit for hours, focusing on the books, seemed proof that he was actually reading them and not just looking at the cute drawings. Nevertheless, Nora decided to test him on the contents of some of the volumes by posing a number of questions about the story lines.

  After Einstein had read Frog and Toad All Year, Nora closed the book and said, “All right. Now, answer yes or no to these questions.”

  They were in the kitchen, where Travis was making a cheese-and-potato casserole for dinner. Nora and Einstein were sitting on chairs at the kitchen table. Travis paused in his cooking to watch the dog take the quiz.

  Nora said, “First—when Frog came to see Toad on a winter’s day, Toad was in bed and did not want to come outside. Is that right?”

  Einstein had to sidle around on his chair to free his tail and wag it. Yes.

  Nora said, “But finally Frog got Toad outside, and they went ice-skating.”

  One bark. No.

  “They went sledding,” she said.

  Yes.

  “Very good. Later that same year, at Christmas, Frog gave Toad a gift. Was it a sweater?”

  No.

  “A new sled?”

  No.

  “A clock for his mantel?”

  Yes, yes, yes.

  “Excellent!” Nora said. “Now what shall we read next? How about this one. Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

  Einstein wagged his tail vigorously.

  Travis would have enjoyed taking a more active role in the dog’s education, but he could see that working intensely with Einstein was having an enormously beneficial effect on Nora, and he did not want to interfere. Indeed, he sometimes played the curmudgeon, questioning the value of teaching the pooch to read, making wisecracks about the pace of the dog’s progress or its taste in reading matter. This mild naysaying was just enough to redouble Nora’s determination to stick with the lessons, to spend even more time with the dog, and to prove Travis wrong. Einstein never reacted to those negative remarks, and Travis suspected the dog exhibited forbearance because he understood the little game of reverse psychology in which Travis was engaged.

  Exactly why Nora’s teaching chores made her blossom was not clear. Perhaps it was because she had never interacted with anyone—not even with Travis or with her Aunt Violet—as intensely as she had with the dog, and the mere process of extensive communication encouraged her to come farther out of her shell. Or perhaps giving the gift of literacy to the dog was extremely satisfying to her. She was by nature a giving person who took pleasure in sharing with others, yet she had spent all of her life as a recluse without a single previous opportunity to express that side of her personality. Now she had a chance to give of herself, and she was generous with her time and energy, and in her own generosity she found joy.

  Travis also suspected that, through her relationship with the retriever, she was expressing a natural talent for mothering. Her great patience was that of a good mother dealing with a child, and she often spoke to Einstein so tenderly and affectionately that she sounded as if she were addressing her own much-loved offspring.

  Whatever the reason, Nora became more relaxed and outgoing as she worked with Einstein. Gradually forsaking her shapeless dark dresses for summery white cotton slacks, colorful blouses, jeans, and T-shirts, she seemed to grow ten years younger. She had her glorious dark hair redone at the beauty salon and did not brush out all the styling this time. She laughed more often and more engagingly. In conversation, she met Travis’s eyes and seldom looked shyly away from him, as she had done previously. She was quicker to touch him, too, and to put an arm around his waist. She liked to be hugged, and they kissed with ease now, although their kissing remained, for the most part, that of uncertain teenagers in the early stages of courting.

  On July 14, Nora received news that lifted her spirits even higher. The Santa Barbara District Attorney’s Office called to tell her that it was not going to be necessary for her to appear in court to testify against Arthur Streck. In light of his previous criminal record, Streck had changed his mind about pursuing a plea of innocence and waging a defense against charges of attempted rape, assault, and breaking and entering. He had instructed his attorney to plea-bargain with the D.A. As a result, they dropped all charges except assault, and Streck accepted a prison sentence of three years, with a provision that he serve at least two years before being eligible for parole. Nora had dreaded the trial. Suddenly she was free, and in celebration she got slightly tipsy for the first time in her life.

  That same day, when Travis brought home a new stack of reading material, Einstein discovered there were Mickey Mouse picture books for children and comic books, and the dog was as jubilant about that discovery as Nora was about the resolution of the charges against Arthur Streck. His fascination with Mickey and Donald Duck and the rest of the Disney gang remained a mystery, but it was undeniable. Einstein couldn’t stop wagging his tail, and he slobbered all over Travis in gratitude.

  Everything would have been rosy if, in the middle of the night, Einstein had stopped going through the house from window to window, looking out at the darkness with obvious fear.

  3

  By Thursday morning, July 15, almost six weeks after the murders at Bordeaux Ridge, two months after the dog and The Outsider had escaped from Banodyne, Lemuel Johnson sat alone in his office on an upper floor of the federal building in Santa Ana, the county seat of Orange County. He stared out the window at the pollutant-rich haze that was trapped under an inversion layer, blanketing the western half of the county and adding to the misery of hundred-degree heat. The bile-yellow day matched his sour mood.

  His duties were not limited to the search for the lab escapees, but that case constantly worried him when he was doing other work. He was unable to put the Banodyne affair out of mind even to sleep, and lately he was averaging only four or five hours of rest a night. He could not tolerate failure.

  No, in truth, his attitude was much stronger than that: he was obsessed with avoiding failure. His father, having started life dirt-poor and having built a successful business, had inculcated in Lem an almost religious belief in the need to achieve, to succeed, and to fulfill all of one’s goals. No matter how much success you had, his dad often said, life could pull the rug right out from under you if you weren’t diligent. “It’s even worse for a black man, Lem. With a black man, success is like a tightrope over the Grand Canyon. He’s up there real high, and it’s sweet, but when he makes a mistake, when he fails, it’s a mile-long drop into an abyss. An abyss. Because failure means being poor. And in a lot of people’s eyes, even in this enlightened age, a poor miserable failed black man is no man at all, he’s just a nigger.” That was the only time his father ever used the hated word. Lem had grown up with the conviction that any success he achieved was merely a precarious toehold on the cliff of life, that he was always in danger of being blown off that cliff by the winds of adversity, and that he dared not relent in his determination to cling fast and to climb
to a wider, safer ledge.

  He wasn’t sleeping well, and his appetite was no good. When he did eat, the meal was inevitably followed by severe acid indigestion. His bridge game had gone to hell because he could not concentrate on the cards; at their weekly get-togethers with Walt and Audrey Gaines, the Johnsons were taking a beating.

  He knew why he was obsessed with closing every case successfully, but that knowledge was of no help in modifying his obsession.

  We are what we are, he thought, and maybe the only time we can change what we are is when life throws us such a surprise that it’s like hitting a plate-glass window with a baseball bat, shattering the grip of the past.

  So he stared out at the blazing July day and brooded, worried.

  Back in May, he had surmised that the retriever might have been picked up by someone and given a home. It was, after all, a handsome animal, and if it revealed even a small fraction of its intelligence to anyone, its appeal would be irresistible; it would find sanctuary. Therefore, Lem figured locating the dog would be harder than tracking down The Outsider. A week to locate The Outsider, he had thought, and perhaps a month to lay hands on the retriever.

  He had issued bulletins to every animal pound and veterinarian in California, Nevada, and Arizona, urgently requesting assistance in locating the golden retriever. The flyer claimed that the animal had escaped from a medical research lab that was conducting an important cancer experiment. The loss of the dog, the bulletin claimed, would mean the loss of a million dollars of research money and countless hours of researchers’ time—and might seriously impede the development of a cure for certain malignancies. The flyer included a photograph of the dog and the information that, on the inside of its left ear, it bore a lab tattoo: the number 33-9. The letter accompanying the flyer requested not only cooperation but confidentiality. The mailing had been repeated every seven days since the breakout at Banodyne, and a score of NSA agents had been doing nothing but phoning animal pounds and vets in the three states to be certain they remembered the flyer and continued to keep a lookout for a retriever with a tattoo.

  Meanwhile, the urgent search for The Outsider could, with some confidence, be confined to undeveloped territories because it would be reluctant to show itself. And there was no chance that someone would think it was cute enough to take home. Besides, The Outsider had been leaving a trail of death that could be followed.

  Subsequent to the murders at Bordeaux Ridge east of Yorba Linda, the creature had fled into the unpopulated Chino Hills. From there it had gone north, crossing into the eastern end of Los Angeles County, where its presence was next pinpointed, on June 9, on the outskirts of semirural Diamond Bar. The Los Angeles County Animal Control Authority had received numerous—and hysterical—reports from Diamond Bar residents regarding wild-animal attacks on domestic pets. Others called the police, believing the slaughter was the work of a deranged man. In two nights, more than a score of Diamond Bar’s domestic animals had been torn to pieces, and the condition of the carcasses left no doubt in Lem’s mind that the perpetrator was The Outsider.

  Then the trail went ice-cold for more than a week, until the morning of June 18, when two young campers at the foot of Johnstone Peak, on the southern flank of the vast Angeles National Forest, reported seeing something they insisted was “from another world.” They had locked themselves in their van, but the creature had tried repeatedly to get in at them, going so far as to smash a side window with a rock. Fortunately, the pair kept a .32 pistol in the van, and one of them opened fire on their assailant, driving it off. The press treated the campers as a couple of kooks, and on the evening news the happy-talk anchorpersons got a lot of mileage out of the story.

  Lem believed the young couple. On a map, he traced the thinly populated corridor of land by which The Outsider could have gone from Diamond Bar to the area below Johnstone Peak: over the San Jose Hills, through Bonelli Regional Park, between San Dimas and Glendora, then into the wilds. It would have had to cross or go under three freeways that cut through the area, but if it had traveled in the deep of night, when there was little or no traffic, it could have passed unseen. He shifted the hundred men from Marine Intelligence into that portion of the forest, where they continued their search in civilian dress, in groups of three and four.

  He hoped the campers had hit The Outsider with at least one shot. But no blood was found at their campsite.

  He was beginning to worry that The Outsider might evade capture for a long time. Lying north of the city of Los Angeles, the Angeles National Forest was discouragingly immense.

  “Nearly as large as the entire state of Delaware,” Cliff Soames said after he had measured the area on the wall map pinned to the bulletin board in Lem’s office and had calculated the square miles. Cliff had come from Delaware. He was relatively new to the West and still had a newcomer’s amazement at the gigantic scale of everything at this end of the continent. He was also young, with the enthusiasm of youth, and he was almost dangerously optimistic. Cliff s upbringing had been radically different from Lem’s, and he did not feel himself to be on a tightrope or at risk of having his life destroyed by just one error, by a single failure. Sometimes Lem envied him.

  Lem stared at Cliff s scribbled calculations. “If it takes refuge in the San Gabriel Mountains, feeding on wildlife and content with solitude, venturing out only rarely to vent its rage on the people living along the periphery of the preserve . . . it might never be found.”

  “But remember,” Cliff said, “it hates the dog more than it hates men. It wants the dog and has the ability to find it.”

  “So we think.”

  “And could it really tolerate a wild existence? I mean, yeah, it’s part savage, but it’s also smart. Maybe too smart to be content with a hardscrabble life in that rugged country.”

  “Maybe,” Lem said.

  “They’ll spot it soon, or it’ll do something to give us another fix on it,” Cliff predicted.

  That was June 18.

  When they found no trace of The Outsider during the next ten days, the expense of keeping a hundred men in the field grew insupportable. On June 29, Lem finally had to relinquish the Marines that had been put at his disposal and send them back to their bases.

  Day by day, Cliff was heartened by the lack of developments and was willing to believe that The Outsider had suffered a mishap, that it was dead, that they would never hear of it again.

  Day by day, Lem sank deeper into gloom, certain that he had lost control of the situation and that The Outsider would reappear in a most dramatic fashion, making its existence known to the public. Failure.

  The only bright spot was that the beast was now in Los Angeles County, out of Walt Gaines’s jurisdiction. If there were additional victims, Walt might not even learn of them and would not have to be persuaded, all over again, to remain out of the case.

  By Thursday, July 15, exactly two months after the breakout at Banodyne, almost one month after the campers had been terrorized by a supposed extraterrestrial or smaller cousin of Bigfoot, Lem was convinced he would soon have to consider alternate careers. No one had blamed him for the way things had gone. The heat was on him to deliver, but it was no worse than the heat he had felt on other big investigations. Actually, some of his superiors viewed the lack of developments in the same favorable light as did Cliff Soames. But in his most pessimistic moments, Lem envisioned himself employed as a uniformed security guard working the night shift in a warehouse, demoted to the status of a make-believe cop with a rinky-dink badge.

  Sitting in his office chair, facing the window, staring grimly at the hazy yellow air of the blazing summer day, he said aloud, “Damn it, I’ve been trained to deal with human criminals. How the hell can I be expected to outthink a fugitive from a nightmare?”

  A knock sounded at his door, and as he swiveled around in his chair, the door opened. Cliff Soames entered in a rush, looking both excited and distraught. “The Outsider,” he said. “We’ve got a new fix on it . . . but two pe
ople are dead.”

  Twenty years ago in Vietnam, Lem’s NSA chopper pilot had learned everything worth knowing about putting down and taking off in rugged terrain. Now, remaining in constant radio contact with the L.A. County sheriff’s deputies who were on the scene already, he had no difficulty locating the site of the murders by visual navigation, making use of natural landmarks. At a few minutes after one o’clock, he put his craft down on a wide section of a barren ridge overlooking Boulder Canyon in the Angeles National Forest, just a hundred yards from the spot where the bodies had been found.

  When Lem and Cliff left the chopper and hurried along the crest of the ridge toward the gathered deputies and forest rangers, a hot wind buffeted them. It carried the scent of dry brush and pine. Only tufts of wild grass, parched and brittled by the July sun, had managed to put down roots on this high ground. Low scrub growth—including desert plants like mesquite—marked the upper reaches of the canyon walls that dropped away to the right and left of them, and down on the lower slopes and canyon floors were trees and greener undergrowth.

  They were less than four air miles north of the town of Sunland, fourteen air miles north of Hollywood, and twenty miles north of the populous heart of the great city of Los Angeles, yet it seemed they were in a desolation measuring a thousand miles across, disquietingly far from civilization. The sheriff’s deputies had parked their four-wheel-drive wagons on a crude dirt track three-quarters of a mile away—coming in, Lem’s chopper had flown over those vehicles—and they had hiked with ranger guides to the site where the bodies had been found. Now, gathered around the corpses were four deputies, two men from the county crime lab, and three rangers, and they looked as if they, too, felt isolated in a primeval place.

  When Lem and Cliff arrived, the sheriff’s men had just finished tucking the remains in body bags. The zippers hadn’t yet been closed, so Lem saw that one victim was male, the other female, both young and dressed for hiking. Their wounds were grievous; their eyes were gone.

  The dead now numbered five innocents, and that toll conjured a specter of guilt that haunted Lem. At times like this, he wished that his father had raised him with no sense of responsibility whatsoever.

  Deputy Hal Bockner, tall and tan but with a surprisingly reedy voice, apprised Lem of the identity and condition of the victims: “Based on the ID he was carrying, the male’s name was Sidney Tranken, twenty-eight, of Glendale. Body has more than a score of nasty bite marks, even more claw marks, slashes. Throat, as you saw, torn open. Eyes—”

  “Yes,” Lem said, seeing no need to dwell on these grisly details.

  The men from the crime lab pulled the zippers shut on the body bags. It was a cold sound that hung for a moment like a chain of icicles in the hot July air.

  Deputy Bockner said, “At first we thought Tranken was probably knifed by some psycho. Once in a while you get a homicidal nut who prowls these forests instead of the streets, preying on hikers. So we figured . . . knifed first, then all this other damage must’ve been done by animals, scavengers, after the guy was dead. But now . . . we’re not so sure.”

  “I don’t see blood on the ground here,” Cliff Soames said with a note of puzzlement. “There’d have been a lot of it.”

  “They weren’t killed here,” Deputy Bockner said, then went on with his summary at his own pace. “Female, twenty-seven, Ruth Kasavaris, also of Glendale. Also vicious bite marks, slashes. Her throat—”

  Cutting him off again, Lem said, “When were they killed?”

  “Best guess before lab tests is that they died late yesterday. We believe the bodies were carried up here because they’d be found quicker on the ridgetop. A popular hiking trail runs along here. But it wasn’t other hikers who found them. It was a routine fire-patrol plane. Pilot looked down, saw them sprawled here on the bare ridge.”

  This high ground above Boulder Canyon was more than thirty air miles north-northwest of Johnstone Peak, where the young campers had taken refuge from The Outsider in their van and had later fired at it with a .32 pistol on June 18, twenty-eight days ago. The Outsider would have been reckoning north-northwest by sheer instinct and no doubt would have frequently been required to backtrack out of box canyons; therefore, in this mountainous terrain it had very likely traveled between sixty and ninety miles on the ground to cover those thirty air miles. Still, that was only a pace of three miles a day, at most, and Lem wondered what the creature had been doing during the time it was not traveling or sleeping or chasing down food.

  “You’ll want to see where these two were killed,” Bockner said. “We’ve found the place. And you’ll want to see the den, too.”

  “Den?”

  “The lair,” one of the forest rangers said. “The damn lair.”

  The deputies, rangers, and crime-lab men had been giving Lem and Cliff odd looks ever since they had arrived, but Lem had not been surprised by that. Local authorities always regarded him with suspicion and curiosity because they were not accustomed to having a powerhouse federal agency like the NSA show up and claim jurisdiction; it was a rarity. But now he realized that their curiosity was of a different kind and degree than what he usually encountered, and for the first time he perceived their fear. They had found something—the lair of which they spoke—that gave them reason to believe this case was even stranger than the sudden appearance of the NSA would usually indicate.

  In suits, ties, and polished street shoes, neither Lem nor Cliff was properly dressed for a hike down into the canyon, but neither of them hesitated when the rangers led the way. Two deputies, the lab men, and one of the three rangers remained behind with the bodies, which left a party of six for the descent. They followed a shallow channel carved by runoff from rain-storms, then switched to what might have been a deer trail. After descending to the very bottom of the canyon, they turned southeast and proceeded for half a mile. Soon Lem was sweaty and covered with a film of dust, and his socks and pant legs were full of prickling burrs.

  “Here’s where they were killed,” Deputy Bockner said when he led them into a clearing surrounded by scrub pines, cottonwoods, and brush.

  The pale, sandy earth and sun-bleached grass were mottled with enormous dark stains. Blood.

  “And right back here,” one of the rangers said, “is where we found the lair.”

  It was a shallow cave in the base of the canyon wall, perhaps ten feet deep, twenty feet wide, no more than a dozen steps from the small clearing where the hikers had been murdered. The mouth of the cave was about eight feet wide but low, requiring Lem to stoop a bit as he entered. Once inside, he was able to stand erect, for the ceiling was high. The place had a mildly unpleasant, musty smell. Light found its way through the entrance and through a two-foot-wide water-carved hole in the ceiling, but for the most part the chamber was shadowy and twenty degrees cooler than the canyon outside.

  Only Deputy Bockner accompanied Lem and Cliff. Lem sensed that the others held back not out of any concern that the cave would be too crowded, but out of an uneasiness about the place.

  Bockner had a flashlight. He switched it on and played the beam over the things he had brought them to see, dispelling some of the shadows and causing others to flit batlike across the room to roost on different perches.

  In one corner, dry grass had been piled to a depth of six or eight inches to make a bed on the sandstone floor. Beside the bed was a galvanized bucket full of relatively fresh water carried from the nearest stream, evidently placed there so the sleeper could get a drink upon waking in the middle of the night.

  “It was here,” Cliff said softly.

 
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