Watchers by Dean Koontz


  His waitress was about twenty, white-blond, pretty, and as deeply tanned as Vince. She had the hip look and sound of a beach girl, and she started coming on to him right away, while taking his order. He figured she was one of those sand nymphs whose brain was as sun-fried as her body. She probably spent every summer evening on the beach, doing dope of every description, spreading her legs for any stud who vaguely interested her— and most of them would interest her—which meant that, no matter how healthy she looked, she was disease-ridden. Just the idea of humping her made him want to puke, but he had to play out the role he’d chosen for himself, so he flirted with her and tried to look as if he could barely keep from drooling at the thought of her naked, writhing body pinned under him.

  At five minutes past two, Vince had finished lunch, and the only other customers in the place were Pantangela and the two marshals. One of the waitresses had left for the day, and the other two were in the kitchen. It could not have been better.

  The beach bag was on the booth beside him. He reached into it and withdrew the Uzi pistol.

  Pantangela and the marshals were talking about the Dodgers’ chances of getting in the World Series.

  Vince got up, stepped around to their booth, and sprayed them with twenty to thirty rounds from the Uzi. The stubby, high-tech silencer worked beautifully, and the shots sounded like nothing more than a stuttering man having trouble pronouncing a word that began with a sibilant. It went down so fast that the marshals didn’t have a chance to reach for their own weapons. They didn’t even have time to be surprised.

  Ssssnap.

  Ssssnap.

  Ssssnap.

  Pantangela and his guardians were dead in three seconds.

  Vince shuddered with intense pleasure, and was briefly overcome by the wealth of life energy that he had just absorbed. He could not speak. Then in a tremulous and raspy voice, he said, “Thank you.”

  When he turned away from the booth, he saw his waitress standing in the middle of the room, frozen in shock. Her wide blue eyes were fixated on the dead men, but now her gaze shifted slowly to Vince.

  Before she could scream, he emptied the rest of the magazine into her, maybe ten shots, and she went down in a rain of blood.

  Ssssnap.

  “Thank you,” he said, then said it again because she had been young and vital and, therefore, of more use to him.

  Concerned that someone else would come out of the kitchen—or maybe someone would walk past the restaurant and look in and see the waitress on the floor—Vince stepped quickly to his booth, snatched up the beach bag, and jammed the Uzi pistol under the towel. Putting on his mirrored sunglasses, he got out of there.

  He was not worried about fingerprints. He had coated the pads of his fingers with Elmer’s glue. It dried nearly transparent and could not be noticed unless he turned his hands palms-up and called people’s attention to it. The layer of glue was thick enough to fill the minute lines in the skin, leaving the fingertips smooth.

  Outside, he walked to the end of the block, turned the corner, and got into his van, which was parked at the curb. As far as he could tell, no one gave him a second look.

  He went to the ocean, looking forward to some time in the sun and an invigorating swim. Going to Redondo Beach, two blocks away, seemed too bold, so he followed the Coast Highway south to Bolsa Chica, just north of where he lived in Huntington Beach.

  As he drove, he thought about the dog. He was still paying Johnny The Wire to keep tabs on animal pounds, police agencies, and anyone else who might be dragged into the search for the retriever. He knew about the National Security Agency’s bulletin to veterinarians and animal-control authorities in three states, and he also knew that the NSA had so far had no luck.

  Maybe the dog had been killed by a car, or by the creature that Hudston had called “The Outsider,” or by a coyote pack in the hills. But Vince didn’t want to believe it was dead because that would mean an end to his dream of making a huge financial killing with the dog either by ransoming it back to the authorities or selling it to a rich showbiz type who could work up an act with it, or by finding some means of using the animal’s secret intelligence to pull a safe and profitable scam on unsuspecting marks.

  What he preferred to believe was that someone had found the dog and had taken it home as a pet. If he could just locate the people who had the dog, he could buy it from them—or blow them away and just take the mutt.

  But where the hell was he supposed to look? How was he supposed to find them? If they were findable, the NSA would surely reach them first.

  Most likely, if the dog was not already dead, the best way to get his hands on it was to find The Outsider first and let that beast lead him to the dog, which Hudston had seemed to think it would. But that was not an easy task, either.

  Johnny The Wire was also still providing him with information about particularly violent killings of people and animals throughout southern California. Vince knew about the slaughter at the Irvine Park petting zoo, the murder of Wes Dalberg, and the men at Bordeaux Ridge. Johnny had turned up the rash of reports about mutilated pets in the Diamond Bar area, and Vince had actually seen the TV news story about the young couple who had encountered what they thought was an extraterrestrial in the wilds below Johnstone Peak. Three weeks ago, two hikers had been found horribly mauled in the Angeles National Forest, and by hacking his way into the NSA’s own computers, Johnny had confirmed that they had taken over jurisdiction in that case, too, which meant it had to be the work of The Outsider.

  Since then, nothing.

  Vince was not ready to give up. Not by a long shot. He was a patient man. Patience was part of his job. He would wait, watch, keep Johnny The Wire at work, and sooner or later he would get what he was after. He was sure of it. He had decided that the dog, like immortality, was part of his great destiny.

  At Bolsa Chica State Beach, he stood for a while with the surf pounding against his thighs, staring out at the great dark masses of surging water. He felt as powerful as the sea. He was filled with scores of lives. He would not have been surprised if electricity had suddenly leaped from his fingertips the way thunderbolts flashed from the hands of the gods in mythology.

  Finally, he threw himself forward, into the water, and swam against the powerful incoming waves. He went far out before turning parallel to the shore, swimming first south and then north, keeping at it until, exhausted, he at last allowed the tide to carry him back to shore.

  He dozed for a while in the hot afternoon sun. He dreamed of a pregnant woman, her stomach large and round, and in the dream he strangled her to death.

  He often dreamed of killing children or, even better, the unborn children of pregnant women because it was something he longed to do in real life. Child murder was, of course, much too dangerous; it was a pleasure he had to deny himself, though a child’s life energy would be the richest, the purest, the most worthy of absorption. Too dangerous by far. He couldn’t indulge in infanticide until he was certain he had achieved immortality, whereupon he would no longer need to fear the police or anyone else.

  Although he often had such dreams, the one he woke from on Bolsa Chica Beach struck him as more meaningful than others of its type. It felt . . . different. Prophetic. He sat yawning and blinking in the westering sun, pretending not to notice the bikinied girls who were giving him the eye, and he told himself that this dream was a glimpse of pleasure to come. One day he would actually feel his hands around the throat of a pregnant woman like the one in the dream, and he would know the ultimate thrill, receive the ultimate gift, not only her life energy but the pure, untapped energy of the unborn in her womb.

  Feeling like a million bucks, he returned to his van, drove home, showered, and went out to dinner at the nearest Stuart Anderson steak house, where he treated himself to filet mignon.

  6

  Einstein bolted past Travis, out of the kitchen, across the small dining room, disappearing into the living room. Carrying the leash, Travis went after
him. Einstein was hiding behind the sofa.

  Travis said, “Listen, it’s not going to hurt.”

  The dog watched him warily.

  “We’ve got to take care of this before we go off to Vegas. The vet will give you a couple of shots, vaccinate you against distemper and rabies. It’s for your own good, and it really won’t hurt. Really. Then we’ll get you a license, which we should’ve done weeks ago.”

  One bark. No.

  “Yes, we will.”

  No.

  Crouching, holding the leash by the clip with which he would attach it to the collar, Travis took a step toward Einstein.

  The retriever scrambled away. He ran to the armchair, leaped up, and stood on that observation platform, watching Travis intently.

  Coming slowly out from behind the sofa, Travis said, “Now, you listen up, fur face. I’m your master—”

  One bark.

  Frowning, Travis said, “Oh, yes, I am your master. You may be one damn smart dog—but you’re still the dog, and I’m the man, and I’m telling you that we’re going to the vet.”

  One bark.

  Leaning against the dining-room archway, arms folded, smiling, Nora said, “I think he’s trying to give you a taste of what children are like, in case we ever decide to have any.”

  Travis lunged toward the dog.

  Einstein flew off his perch and was already out of the room when Travis, unable to halt, fell over the armchair.

  Laughing, Nora said, “This is vastly entertaining.”

  “Where’d he go?” Travis demanded.

  She pointed to the hallway that led to the two bedrooms and bath.

  He found the retriever in the master bedroom, standing on the bed, facing the doorway. “You can’t win,” Travis said. “This is for your own good, damn it, and you’re going to have those shots whether you like it or not.”

  Einstein lifted one hind leg and peed on the bed.

  Astonished, Travis said, “What in the hell are you doing?”

  Einstein stopped peeing, stepped away from the puddle that was soaking into the quilted bedspread, and stared defiantly at Travis.

  Travis had heard stories of dogs and cats expressing extreme displeasure by stunts like this. When he had owned the real-estate agency, one of his saleswomen had boarded her miniature collie in a kennel for two weeks while away on vacation. When she returned and bailed out the dog, it punished her by urinating on both her favorite chair and her bed.

  But Einstein was not an ordinary dog. Considering his remarkable intellect, the soiling of the bed was even more of an outrage than it would have been if he had been ordinary.

  Getting angry now, moving toward the dog, Travis said, “This is inexcusable.”

  Einstein scrambled off the mattress. Realizing the dog would try to slip around him and out of the room, Travis scuttled backward and slammed the door. Cut off from the exit, Einstein swiftly changed directions and dashed to the far end of the bedroom, where he stood in front of the dresser.

  “No more fooling around,” Travis said sternly, brandishing the leash.

  Einstein retreated into a corner.

  Closing in at a crouch, spreading his arms to prevent the dog from bolting around either side of him, Travis finally made contact and clipped the leash to the collar. “Ha!”

  Huddled defeatedly in the corner, Einstein hung his head and began to shudder.

  Travis’s sense of triumph was short-lived. He stared in dismay at the dog’s bowed and trembling head, at the visible shivers that shook the animal’s flanks. Einstein issued low, almost inaudible, pathetic whines of fear.

  Stroking the dog, trying to calm and reassure him, Travis said, “This really is for your own good, you know. Distemper, rabies—the sort of stuff you don’t want to mess with. And it will be painless, my friend. I swear it will.”

  The dog would not look at him and refused to take heart from his assurances.

  Under Travis’s hand, the dog felt as if he were shaking himself to pieces. He stared hard at the retriever, thinking, then said, “In that lab . . . did they put a lot of needles in you? Did they hurt you with needles? Is that why you’re afraid of getting vaccinations?”

  Einstein only whimpered.

  Travis pulled the reluctant dog out of the corner, freeing his tail for a question-and-answer session. Dropping the leash, he took Einstein’s head in both hands and forced his face up, so they were eye-to-eye.

  “Did they hurt you with needles in the lab?”

  Yes.

  “Is that why you’re afraid of the vet?”

  Though he did not stop shuddering, the dog barked once: No.

  “You were hurt by needles, but you’re not afraid of them?”

  No.

  “Then why are you like this?”

  Einstein just stared at him and made those terrible sounds of distress.

  Nora opened the bedroom door a crack and peeked in. “Did you get the leash on him yet, Einstein?” Then she said, “Phew! What happened in here?”

  Still holding the dog’s head, staring into his eyes, Travis said, “He made a bold statement of displeasure.”

  “Bold,” she agreed, moving to the bed and beginning to strip off the soiled spread, blanket, and sheets.

  Trying to puzzle out the reason for the dog’s behavior, Travis said, “Einstein, if it’s not needles you’re afraid of—is it the vet?”

  One bark. No.

  Frustrated, Travis brooded on his next question while Nora pulled the mattress cover from the bed.

  Einstein trembled.

  Suddenly, Travis had a flash of understanding that illuminated the dog’s contrariness and fear. He cursed his own thickheadedness. “Hell, of course! You’re not afraid of the vet—but of who the vet might report you to.”

  Einstein’s shivering subsided a bit, and he wagged his tail briefly. Yes.

  “If people from that lab are hunting for you—and we know they must be hunting furiously because you have to be the most important experimental animal in history—then they’re going to be in touch with every vet in the state, aren’t they? Every vet . . . and every dog pound . . . and every dog-licensing agency.”

  Another burst of vigorous tail wagging, less shivering.

  Nora came around the bed and stooped down beside Travis.

  “But golden retrievers have to be one of the two or three most popular breeds. Vets and animal-licensing bureaucrats deal with them all the time. If our genius dog here hides his light under a bushel and plays dopey mutt—”

  “Which he can do quite well.”

  “—then they’d have no way of knowing he was the fugitive.”

  Yes, Einstein insisted.

  To the dog, Travis said, “What do you mean? Are you saying they would be able to identify you?”

  Yes.

  “How?” Nora wondered.

  Travis said, “A mark of some kind?”

  Yes.

  “Somewhere under all that fur?” Nora asked.

  One bark. No.

  “Then where?” Travis wondered.

  Pulling loose of Travis’s hands, Einstein shook his head so hard that his floppy ears made a flapping noise.

  “Maybe on the pads of his feet,” Nora said.

  “No,” Travis said even as Einstein barked once. “When I found him, his feet were bleeding from a lot of hard travel, and I had to clean out the wounds with boric acid. I’d have noticed a mark on one of his paws.”

  Again, Einstein shook his head violently, flapping his ears.

  Travis said, “Maybe on the inner lip. They tattoo racehorses on the inner lip to identify them and prevent ringers from being run. Let me peel back your lips and have a look, boy.”

  “Einstein barked once—No—and shook his head violently.

  At last Travis got the point. He looked in the right ear and found nothing. But in the left ear, he saw something. He urged the dog to go with him to the window, where the light was better, and he discovered that the mark consi
sted of two numbers, a dash, and a third number tattooed in purple ink on the pink-brown flesh: 33-9.

  Looking over Travis’s shoulder, Nora said, “They probably had a lot of pups they were experimenting with, from different litters, and they had to be able to identify them.”

  “Jesus. If I’d taken him to a vet, and if the vet had been told to look for a retriever with a tattoo . . .”

  “But he has to have shots.”

  “Maybe he’s already had them,” Travis said hopefully.

  “We don’t dare count on that. He was a lab animal in a controlled environment where he might not have needed shots. And maybe the usual inoculations would’ve interfered with their experiments.”

  “We can’t risk a vet.”

  “If they do find him,” Nora said, “we simply won’t give him up.”

  “They can make us,” Travis said worriedly.

  “Damned if they can.”

  “Damned if they can’t. More likely than not, the government’s financing the research, and they can crush us. We can’t risk it. More than anything else, Einstein’s afraid of going back to the lab.”

  Yes, yes, yes.

  “But,” Nora said, “if he contracts rabies or distemper or—”

  “We’ll get him the shots later,” Travis said. “Later. When the situation cools down. When he’s not so hot.”

  The retriever whined happily, nuzzling Travis’s neck and face in a sloppy display of gratitude.

  Frowning, Nora said, “Einstein is about the number-one miracle of the twentieth century. You really think he’s ever going to cool down, that they’ll ever stop looking for him?”

  “They might not stop for years,” Travis admitted, stroking the dog. “But gradually they’ll begin to search with less enthusiasm and less hope. And the vets will start forgetting to look in the ears of every retriever that’s brought to them. Until then, he’ll have to go without the shots, I guess. It’s the best thing we can do. It’s the only thing we can do.”

  Ruffling Einstein’s coat with one hand, Nora said: “I hope you’re right.”

  “I am.”

  “I hope so.”

  “I am.”

  Travis was badly shaken by how close he had come to risking Einstein’s freedom, and for the next few days he brooded about the infamous Cornell Curse. Maybe it was happening all over again. His life had been turned around and made livable because of the love he felt for Nora and for this impossible damn dog. And now maybe fate, which had always dealt with him in a supremely hostile manner, would rip both Nora and the dog away from him.

  He knew that fate was only a mythological concept. He did not believe there was actually a pantheon of malevolent gods looking down on him through a celestial keyhole and plotting tragedies for him to endure—yet he could not help looking warily at the sky now and then. Each time he said something even slightly optimistic about the future, he found himself knocking on wood to counter malicious fates. At dinner, when he toppled the salt shaker, he immediately picked up a pinch of the stuff to throw it over his shoulder, then felt foolish and dusted it off his fingers. But his heart began to pound, and he was filled with a ridiculous superstitious dread, and he didn’t feel right again until he snatched up more salt and tossed it behind him.

  Although Nora was surely aware of Travis’s eccentric behavior, she had the good grace to say nothing about his jitters. Instead, she countered his mood by quietly loving him every minute of the day, by speaking with great delight about their trip to Vegas, by being in unrelievedly good humor, and by not knocking on wood.

  She did not know about his nightmares because he did not tell her about them. It was the same bad dream, in fact, two nights in a row.

 
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