Watchers by Dean Koontz


  “Yes,” Lem agreed.

  Instinctively he sensed The Outsider had made this bed; somehow, its alien presence was still in the chamber. He stared at the bucket, wondering where the creature had acquired it. Most likely, along the way from Banodyne, it had decided it would eventually find a burrow and hide for a while, and it had realized it would need a few things to make its life in the wild more comfortable. Perhaps breaking into a stable or barn or empty house, it had stolen the bucket and various other things that Bockner now revealed with his flashlight.

  A plaid flannel blanket for when the weather turned cooler. A horse blanket, judging by the look of it. What caught Lem’s attention was the neatness with which the blanket had been folded and placed on a narrow ledge in the wall beside the entrance.

  A flashlight. This was on the same shelf that held the blanket. The Outsider had exceedingly good night vision. That was one of the design requirements with which Dr. Yarbeck had been working: in the dark, a good genetically engineered warrior would be able to see as well as a cat. So why would it want a flashlight? Unless . . . maybe even a creature of the night was sometimes afraid of darkness.

  That thought jolted Lem, and suddenly he pitied the beast as he had pitied it that day he had watched it communicating by crude sign language with Yarbeck, the day it had said that it wanted to tear its own eyes out so it would never have to look at itself again.

  Bockner moved the beam of his own flashlight and focused it on twenty candy wrappers. Apparently, The Outsider had stolen a couple family packs of candy somewhere along the way. The strange thing was that the wrappers were not crumpled but were smoothed out and laid flat on the floor along the back wall—ten from Reese’s peanut butter cups and ten from Clark Bars. Perhaps The Outsider liked the bright colors of the wrappers. Or perhaps it kept them to remind itself of the pleasure that the candy had given it because, once those treats were gone, there was not much other pleasure to be had in the hard life to which it had been driven.

  In the farthest corner from the bed, deep in shadows, was a pile of bones. The bones of small animals. Once the candy was eaten, The Outsider had been forced to hunt in order to feed itself. And without the means to light a fire, it had fed savagely on raw meat. Perhaps it kept the bones in the cave because it was afraid that, by disposing of them outside, it would be leaving clues to its whereabouts. By storing them in the darkest, farthest corner of its haven, it seemed to have a civilized sense of neatness and order, but to Lem it also seemed as if The Outsider had hidden the bones in the shadows because it was ashamed of its own savagery.

  Most pathetically of all, a peculiar group of items was stored in a niche in the wall above the grassy bed. No, Lem decided, not just stored. The items were carefully arranged, as if for display, the way an aficionado of art glass or ceramics or Mayan pottery might display a valuable collection. There was a round stained-glass bauble of the sort that people hung from their patio covers to sparkle in the sun; it was about four inches in diameter, and it portrayed a blue flower against a pale-yellow background. Beside that bauble was a bright copper pot that had probably once contained a plant on the same—or another—patio. Next to the pot were two things that surely had been taken from inside a house, perhaps from the same place where The Outsider had stolen the candy: first, a fine porcelain study of a pair of red-feathered cardinals sitting on a branch, every detail exquisitely crafted; second, a crystal paperweight. Apparently, even within the alien breast of Yarbeck’s monstrosity, there was an appreciation of beauty and a desire to live not as an animal but as a thinking being in an ambience at least lightly touched by civilization.

  Lem felt sick at heart as he considered the lonely, tortured, self-hating, inhuman yet self-aware creature that Yarbeck had brought into the world.

  Last of all, the niche above the grass bed held a ten-inch-high figure of Mickey Mouse that was also a coin bank.

  Lem’s pity swelled because he knew why the bank had appealed to The Outsider. At Banodyne, there had been experiments to determine the depth and nature of the dog’s and The Outsider’s intelligence, to discover how close their perceptions were to those of a human being. One of the experiments had been designed to probe their ability to differentiate between fantasy and reality. On several occasions, the dog and The Outsider had separately been shown a videotape that had been assembled from film clips of all kinds: bits of old John Wayne movies, footage from George Lucas’s Star Wars, news films, scenes from a wide variety of documentaries—and old Mickey Mouse cartoons. The reactions of the dog and The Outsider were filmed and, later, they were quizzed to see if they understood which segments of the videotape were of real events and which were flights of the imagination. Both creatures had gradually learned to identify fantasy when they saw it; but, strangely, the one fantasy they most wanted to believe in, the fantasy they clung to the longest, was Mickey Mouse. They were enthralled by Mickey’s adventures with his cartoon friends. After escaping Banodyne, The Outsider had somehow come across this coin bank and had wanted it badly because the poor damn thing was reminded of the only real pleasure it had ever known while in the lab.

  In the beam of Deputy Bockner’s flashlight, something on the shelf glinted. It was lying nearly flat beside the coin bank, and they almost overlooked it. Cliff stepped onto the grass bed and plucked the gleaming object out of the wall niche: a three-inch-by-four-inch triangular fragment of a mirror.

  The Outsider huddled here, Lem thought, trying to take heart from its meager treasures, trying to make as much of a home for itself as was possible. Once in a while it picked up this jagged shard from a mirror and stared at itself, perhaps searching hopefully for an aspect of its countenance that was not ugly, perhaps trying to come to terms with what it was. And failing. Surely failing.

  “Dear God,” Cliff Soames said quietly, for the same thoughts had apparently passed through his mind. “The poor miserable bastard.”

  The Outsider had possessed one additional item: a copy of People magazine. Robert Redford was on the cover. With a claw, sharp stone, or some other instrument, The Outsider had cut out Redford’s eyes.

  The magazine was rumpled and tattered, as if it had been paged through a hundred times, and now Deputy Bockner handed it to them and suggested they page through it once more. On doing so, Lem saw that the eyes of every person pictured in the issue had been either scratched, cut, or crudely torn out.

  The thoroughness of this symbolic mutilation—not one image in the magazine had been spared—was chilling.

  The Outsider was pathetic, yes, and it was to be pitied.

  But it was also to be feared.

  Five victims—some gutted, some decapitated.

  The innocent dead must not be forgotten, not for a moment. Neither an affection for Mickey Mouse nor a love of beauty could excuse such slaughter.

  But Jesus . . .

  The creature had been given sufficient intelligence to grasp the importance and the benefits of civilization, to long for acceptance and a meaningful existence. Yet a fierce lust for violence, a killing instinct second to none in nature, was also engineered into it because it was meant to be a smart killer on a long invisible leash, a living machine of war. No matter how long it existed in peaceful solitude in its canyon cave, no matter how many days or weeks it resisted its own violent urges, it could not change what it was. The pressure would build within it until it could no longer contain itself, until the slaughter of small animals would not provide enough psychological relief, and then it would seek larger and more interesting prey. It might damn itself for its savagery, might long to remake itself into a creature that could exist in harmony with the rest of the world, but it was powerless to change what it was. Only hours ago, Lem had pondered how difficult it was for him to become a different man from the one his father had raised, how hard it was for any man to change what life had made him, but at least it was possible if one had the determination, willpower, and time. However, for The Outsider change was impossible; murder was in
the beast’s genes, locked in, and it could expect no hope of re-creation or salvation.

  “What the hell is this all about?” Deputy Bockner asked, finally unable to repress his curiosity.

  “Believe me,” Lem said, “you don’t want to know.”

  “What was in this cave?” Bockner asked.

  Lem only shook his head. If two more people had to die, it was a stroke of good fortune that they had been murdered in a national forest. This was federal land, which meant much simpler procedures by which the NSA could assume authority in the investigation.

  Cliff Soames was still turning the fragment of mirror over and over in his hand, staring at it thoughtfully.

  Looking around the eerie chamber one last time, Lem Johnson made a promise to himself and to his dangerous quarry: When I find you, I won’t consider trying to take you alive; no net or tranquilizer guns, as the scientists and the military types would prefer; instead, I’ll shoot you quick and clean, take you down fast.

  That was not only the safest plan. It would also be an act of compassion and mercy.

  4

  By the first of August, Nora sold all of Aunt Violet’s furniture and other possessions. She had phoned a man who dealt in antiques and secondhand furniture, and he had given her one price for everything, and she had accepted it happily. Now—except for dishes, silverware, and the furniture in the bedroom that she had made her own—the rooms were empty from wall to wall. The house seemed cleansed, purified, exorcised. All evil spirits had been driven out, and she knew she now had the will to redecorate entirely. But she no longer wanted the place, so she telephoned a real-estate agent and put it on the market.

  Her old clothes were gone, too, all of them, and she had an entirely new wardrobe with slacks and skirts and blouses and jeans and dresses like any woman might have. Occasionally, she felt too conspicuous in bright colors, but she always resisted the urge to change into something dark and drab.

  She still had not found the courage to put her artistic talent on the market and see if her work was worth anything. Travis nudged her about it now and then, in ways he thought were subtle, but she was not ready to lay her fragile ego on the anvil and give just anyone a chance to swing a hammer at it. Soon, but not yet.

  Sometimes, when she looked at herself in a mirror or noticed her reflection in a sun-silvered store window, she realized that, indeed, she was pretty. Not beautiful, perhaps, not gorgeous like some movie star, but moderately pretty. However, she did not seem to be able to hold on to this breakthrough perception of her appearance, at least not for long, because every few days she would be surprised anew by the comeliness of the face looking back at her from the mirror.

  On the fifth of August, late in the afternoon, she and Travis were sitting at the table in his kitchen, playing Scrabble, and she was feeling pretty. A few minutes ago, in the bathroom, she’d had another of those revelations when she had looked in the mirror, and in fact she had liked her looks more than ever before. Now, back at the Scrabble board, she felt buoyant, happier than she would have once believed possible—and mischievous. She started using her tiles to spell nonsense words and then vociferously defended them when Travis questioned their legitimacy.

  “ ‘Dofnup’?” he said, frowning at the board. “There’s no such word as ‘dofnup.’ ”

  “It’s a triangular cap that loggers wear,” she said.

  “Loggers?”

  “Like Paul Bunyan.”

  “Loggers wear knit caps, what you call toboggan caps, or round leather caps with earflaps.”

  “I’m not talking about what they wear to work in the woods,” she explained patiently. “ ‘Dofnup.’ That’s the name of the cap they wear to bed.”

  He laughed and shook his head. “Are you putting me on?”

  She kept a straight face. “No. It’s true.”

  “Loggers wear a special cap to bed?”

  “Yes. The dofnup.”

  He was unaccustomed to the very idea that Nora would play a joke on him, so he fell for it. “Dofnup? Why do they call it that?”

  “Beats me,” she said.

  Einstein was on the floor, on his belly, reading a novel. Since graduating with startling swiftness from picture books to children’s literature like The Wind in the Willows, he had been reading eight and ten hours a day, every day. He couldn’t get enough books. He’d become a prose junkie. Ten days ago, when the dog’s obsession with reading had finally outstripped Nora’s patience for holding books and turning pages, they had tried to puzzle out an arrangement that would make it possible for Einstein to keep a volume open in front of him and turn the pages himself. At a hospital-supply company, they had found a device designed for patients who had the use of neither arms nor legs. It was a metal stand onto which the boards of the book were clamped; electrically powered mechanical arms, controlled by three push buttons, turned the pages and held them in place. A quadriplegic could operate it with a stylus held in his teeth; Einstein used his nose. The dog seemed immensely pleased by the arrangement. Now, he whimpered softly about something he had just read, pushed one of the buttons, and turned another page.

  Travis spelled “wicked” and picked up a lot of points by using a double-score square, so Nora used her tiles to spell “hurkey,” which was worth even more points.

  “ ‘Hurkey’?” Travis said doubtfully.

  “It’s a favorite Yugoslavian meal,” she said.

  “It is?”

  “Yes. The recipe includes both ham and turkey, which is why they call it—” She couldn’t finish. She broke into laughter.

  He gaped at her in astonishment. “You are putting me on. You are putting me on! Nora Devon, what’s become of you? When I first met you, I said to myself, ‘Now, there’s the grimmest-damn-most-serious young woman I’ve ever seen.’ ”

  “And squirrelly.”

  “Well, not squirrelly.”

  “Yes, squirrelly,” she insisted. “You thought I was squirrelly.”

  “All right, yeah, I thought you were so squirrelly you probably had the attic of that house packed full of walnuts.”

  Grinning, she said, “If Violet and I had lived in the south, we’d have been straight out of Faulkner, wouldn’t we?”

  “Too weird even for Faulkner. But now just look at you! Making up dumb words and dumber jokes, conning me into believing them ’cause I’d never expect Nora Devon, of all people, to do any such thing. You’ve sure changed in these few months.”

  “Thanks to you,” she said.

  “Maybe thanks to Einstein more than me.”

  “No. You most of all,” she said, and abruptly she was stricken by that old shyness that had once all but paralyzed her. She looked away from him, down at her tray of Scrabble tiles, and in a low voice she said, “You most of all. I’d never have met Einstein if I hadn’t met you. And you . . . cared about me . . . worried about me . . . saw something in me that I couldn’t see. You remade me.”

  “No,” he said. “You give me too much credit. You didn’t have to be remade. This Nora was always there, inside the old one. Like a flower all cramped up and hidden inside a drab little seed. You just had to be encouraged to . . . well, to grow and bloom.”

  She could not look at him. She felt as if a tremendous stone had been placed on the back of her neck, forcing her to bow her head, and she was blushing. But she found the courage to say, “It’s so damn hard to bloom . . . to change. Even when you want to change, want it more than anything in the world, it’s hard. Desire to change isn’t enough. Or desperation. Couldn’t be done without . . . love.” Her voice had dropped to a whisper, and she was unable to lift it. “Love is like the water and the sun that make the seed grow.”

  He said, “Nora, look at me.”

  That stone on her neck must have weighed a hundred pounds, a thousand.

  “Nora?”

  It weighed a ton.

  “Nora, I love you, too.”

  Somehow with great effort, she lifted her head. She looked at him. H
is brown eyes, so dark as to be almost black, were warm and kind and beautiful. She loved those eyes. She loved the high bridge and narrow line of his nose. She loved every aspect of his lean and ascetic face.

  “I should have told you first,” he said, “because it’s easier for me to say it than it is for you. I should have said it days ago, weeks ago: Nora, by God, I love you. But I didn’t say it because I was afraid. Every time I let myself love someone, I lose them, but this time I think maybe it’ll be different. Maybe you’ll change things for me the way I helped change them for you, and maybe this time luck’s with me.”

  Her heart raced. She could barely get her breath, but she said, “I love you.” “Will you marry me?”

  She was stunned. She did not know what she’d expected to happen, but certainly not this. Just hearing him say he loved her, just being able to express the same sentiments to him—that was enough to keep her happy for weeks, months. She expected to have time to walk around their love, as if it were a great and mysterious edifice that, like some newly discovered pyramid, must be studied and pondered from every angle before she dared to undertake an exploration of the interior.

  “Will you marry me?” he repeated.

  This was too fast, recklessly fast, and just sitting there on a kitchen chair she got as dizzy as if she had been spinning around on a carnival ride, and she was afraid, too, so she tried to tell him to slow down, tried to tell him they had plenty of time to consider the next step before taking it, but to her surprise she heard herself say, “Yes. Oh, yes.”

  He reached out and took both her hands.

  She cried, then, but they were good tears.

  Lost in his book, Einstein had nevertheless been aware of what was transpiring. He came to the table, sniffing at both of them, rubbing against their legs, and whining happily.

  Travis said, “Next week?”

  “Married? But it takes time to get a license and everything.”

  “Not in Las Vegas. I can call ahead, make arrangements with a wedding chapel in Vegas. We can go next week and be married.”

  Crying and laughing at the same time, she said, “All right.”

  “Terrific,” Travis said, grinning.

  Einstein wagged his tail furiously: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

  5

  On Wednesday, the fourth of August, working on contract for the Tetragna Family of San Francisco, Vince Nasco hit a little cockroach named Lou Pantangela. The cockroach had turned state’s evidence and was scheduled, in September, to testify in court against members of the Tetragna organization.

  Johnny The Wire Santini, computer hacker for the mob, had used his high-tech expertise to invade federal computer files and locate Pantangela. The cockroach was living under the protection of two federal marshals in a safe house in, of all places, Redondo Beach, south of L.A. After testifying this autumn, he was scheduled to be given a new identity and a new life in Connecticut, but of course he was not going to live that long.

  Because Vince would probably have to waste one or both of the marshals to get at Pantangela, the rubout was going to bring a lot of heat, so the Tetragnas offered him a very high price—$60,000. They had no way of knowing that the need to kill more than one man was a bonus to Vince; it made the job more—not less—attractive.

  He ran surveillance on Pantangela for almost a week, using a different vehicle every day to avoid being spotted by the cockroach’s bodyguards. They did not often let Pantangela outside, but they were still more confident of their hiding place than they should have been because three or four times a week they allowed him to have a late lunch in public, accompanying him to a little trattoria four blocks from the safe house.

  They had changed Pantangela’s appearance as much as possible. He had once had thick black hair that he had worn longish, over his collar. Now his hair was cut short and dyed light brown. He’d had a mustache, but they’d made him shave it off. He had been sixty pounds overweight, but after two months in the care of the marshals, he had lost about forty pounds. Nevertheless, Vince recognized him.

  On Wednesday, August 4, they took Pantangela to the trattoria at one o’clock, as usual. At ten minutes past one, Vince strolled in to have his own lunch.

  The restaurant had only eight tables in the middle and six booths along each side wall. It looked clean but had too much Italian kitsch for Vince’s taste: red- and white-checkered tablecloths; garish murals of Roman ruins; empty wine bottles used as candleholders; a thousand bunches of plastic grapes, for God’s sake, hanging from lattice fixed to the ceiling and meant to convey the atmosphere of an arbor. Because Californians tend to eat an early dinner, at least by Eastern standards, they also eat an early lunch, and by ten past one, the number of diners had already peaked and was declining. By two o’clock, it was likely that the only customers remaining would be Pantangela, his two bodyguards, and Vince, which was what made it such a good place for the hit.

  The trattoria was too small to bother with a hostess at lunch, and a sign told guests to seat themselves. Vince walked back through the room, past the Pantangela party, to an empty booth behind them.

  Vince had given a lot of thought to his clothes. He was wearing rope sandals, red cotton shorts, and a white T-shirt on which were blue waves, a yellow sun, and the words ANOTHER CALIFORNIA BODY. His aviator sunglasses were mirrored. He carried an open-topped canvas beach bag that was boldly lettered MY STUFF. If you glanced in the bag when he walked past, you’d see a tightly rolled towel, bottles of tanning lotion, a small radio, and a hairbrush, but you wouldn’t see the fully automatic, silencer-equipped Uzi pistol with a forty-round magazine hidden in the bottom. With his deep tan to complement the outfit, he achieved the look he wanted: a very fit but aging surfer; a leisure-sotted, shiftless, and probably harebrained jerk who would be beaching it every day, pretending to be young, and still self-intoxicated when he was sixty.

  He only glanced uninterestedly at Pantangela and the marshals, but he was aware of them giving him the once-over, then dismissing him as harmless. Perfect.

  The booths had high padded backs, so from where he sat he could not see Pantangela. But he could hear the cockroach and the marshals talking now and then, mostly about baseball and women.

  After a week of surveillance, Vince knew that Pantangela never left the trattoria sooner than two-thirty, usually three o’clock, evidently because he insisted on an appetizer, a salad, a main course, and dessert, the whole works. That gave Vince time for a salad and an order of linguini with clam sauce.

 
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