Watchers by Dean Koontz


  In the dream, he was wandering in the wooded canyons of the Santa Ana foothills of Orange County, the same woods in which he had first met Einstein. He had gone there with Einstein again, and with Nora, but now he had lost them. Frightened for them, he plunged down steep slopes, scrambled up hills, struggled through clinging brush, calling frantically for Nora, for the dog. Sometimes he heard Nora answering or Einstein barking, and they sounded as if they were in trouble, so he turned in the direction from which their voices came, but each time he heard them they were farther off and in a different place, and no matter how intently he listened or how fast he made his way through the forest, he was losing them, losing them—

  —until he woke, breathless, heart racing, a silent scream caught in his throat.

  Friday, August 6, was such a blessedly busy day that Travis had little time to worry about hostile fate. First thing in the morning, he telephoned a wedding chapel in Las Vegas and, using his American Express number, made arrangements for a ceremony on Wednesday, August 11, at eleven o’clock. Overcome by a romantic fever, he told the chapel manager that he wanted twenty dozen red roses, twenty dozen white carnations, a good organist (no damn taped music) who could play traditional music, so many candles that the altar would be bright without harsh electric light, a bottle of Dom Perignon with which to conclude events, and a first-rate photographer to record the nuptials. When those details had been agreed upon, he telephoned the Circus Circus Hotel in Las Vegas, which was a family-oriented enterprise that boasted a recreational-vehicle campgrounds behind the hotel itself; he arranged for camp space beginning the night of Sunday, August 8. With another call to an RV campgrounds in Barstow, he also secured reservations for Saturday night, when they would pull off the road halfway to Vegas. Next, he went to a jewelry store, looked at their entire stock, and finally bought an engagement ring with a big, flawless three-carat diamond and a wedding band with twelve quarter-carat stones. With the rings hidden under the seat of the truck, Travis and Einstein went to Nora’s house, picked her up, and took her to an appointment with her attorney, Garrison Dilworth.

  “Getting married? That’s wonderful!” Garrison said, pumping Travis’s hand. He kissed Nora on the cheek. He seemed genuinely delighted. “I’ve asked around about you, Travis.”

  Surprised, Travis said, “You have?”

  “For Nora’s sake.”

  The attorney’s statement made Nora blush and protest, but Travis was pleased that Garrison had been concerned about her welfare.

  Fixing Travis with a measured stare, the silver-haired attorney said, “I gather you did quite well in real estate before you sold your business.”

  “I did all right,” Travis confirmed modestly, feeling as if he were speaking with Nora’s father, trying to make the right impression.

  “Very well,” Garrison said. “And I also hear you’ve invested the profits rather well.”

  “I’m not broke,” Travis admitted.

  Smiling, Garrison said, “I also hear you’re a good, reliable man with more than your share of kindness.”

  It was Travis’s turn to blush. He shrugged.

  To Nora, Garrison said, “Dear, I’m delighted for you, happier than I can say.”

  “Thank you.” Nora favored Travis with a loving, radiant look that made him want to knock on wood for the first time all day.

  Because they intended to take a honeymoon of at least a week or ten days following the wedding, Nora did not want to have to rush back to Santa Barbara in the event her real-estate agent found a taker for Violet Devon’s house. She asked Garrison Dilworth to draw up a power of attorney, giving him authority to handle all aspects of such a sale in her name during her absence. This was done in less than half an hour, signed and witnessed. After another round of congratulations and best wishes, they were on their way to buy a travel trailer.

  They intended to take Einstein with them not only to the wedding in Vegas but on the honeymoon. Finding good, clean motels that would accept a dog might not always be easy where they were going, so it was prudent to take a motel-on-wheels with them. Furthermore, neither Travis nor Nora could have made love with the retriever in the same room. “It’d be like having another person there,” Nora said, blushing as bright as a well-polished apple. Staying in motels, they would have to rent two rooms—one for them and one for Einstein—which seemed too awkward.

  By four o’clock, they found what they were looking for: a middle-size, silvery, Quonset-shaped Airstream with a kitchenette, a dining nook, a living room, one bedroom, and one bath. When they retired for the night, they could leave Einstein in the front of the trailer and close the bedroom door after themselves. Because Travis’s pickup was already equipped with a good trailer hitch, they were able to hook the Airstream to the rear bumper and haul it with them as soon as the sale was concluded.

  Einstein, riding in the pickup between Travis and Nora, kept craning his head around to look out the back window at the gleaming, semicylindrical trailer as if amazed at the ingenuity of humankind.

  They shopped for trailer curtains, plastic dishes and drinking glasses, food with which to stock the kitchenette cabinets, and a host of other items they needed before they hit the road. By the time they returned to Nora’s house and cooked omelets for a late dinner, they were dragging. For once there was nothing smartass about Einstein’s yawns; he was just tired.

  That night, at home in his own bed, Travis slept the deep, deep sleep of ancient petrified trees and dinosaur fossils. The dreams of the previous two nights were not repeated.

  Saturday morning, they set out on their journey to Vegas and to matrimony. Seeking to travel mostly on wide divided highways on which they would be comfortable with the trailer, they took Route 101 south and then east until it became Route 134, which they followed until it became Interstate 210, with the city of Los Angeles and its suburbs to the south of them and the great Angeles National Forest to the north. Later, on the vast Mojave Desert, Nora was thrilled by the barren yet hauntingly beautiful panoramas of sand, stone, tumbleweed, mesquite, Joshua trees, and other cacti. The world, she said, suddenly seemed much bigger than she had ever realized, and Travis took pleasure in her bedazzlement.

  Barstow, California, was a sprawling pit stop in that enormous waste-land, and they arrived at the big RV campgrounds by three that afternoon. Frank and Mae Jordan, the middle-aged couple in the next camper space, were from Salt Lake City and were traveling with their pet, a black Labrador named Jack.

  To Travis’s and Nora’s surprise, Einstein had a terrific time playing with Jack. They chased each other around the trailers, took playful nips at each other, tangled and tumbled and sprang up and went chasing again. Frank Jordan tossed a red rubber ball for them, and they sprinted after it, vying to be the champion retriever. The dogs also made a game of trying to get the ball away from each other and then holding on to it as long as possible. Travis was exhausted just watching them.

  Einstein was undoubtedly the smartest dog in the world, the smartest dog of all time, a phenomenon, a miracle, as perceptive as any man—but he was also a dog. Sometimes, Travis forgot this fact, but he was charmed every time Einstein did something to remind him.

  Later, after sharing charcoal-grilled hamburgers and corn on the cob with the Jordans, and after drowning a couple of beers in the clear desert night, they said goodbye to the Salt Lakers, and Einstein seemed to say goodbye to Jack. Inside the Airstream, Travis patted Einstein on the head and told him, “That was very nice of you.”

  The dog cocked his head, staring at Travis as if to ask what the devil he meant.

  Travis said, “You know what I’m talking about, fur face.”

  “I know, too,” Nora said. She hugged the dog. “When you were playing games with Jack, you could have made a fool of him if you’d wanted to, but you let him win his share, didn’t you?”

  Einstein panted and grinned happily.

  After one last nightcap, Nora took the bedroom, and Travis slept on the fold-out sof
a bed in the living room. Travis had thought about sleeping with her, and perhaps she had considered allowing him into her bed. After all, the wedding was less than four days away. God knew, Travis wanted her. And although she surely suffered slightly with a virgin’s fear, she wanted him, too; he had no doubt of that. Each day, they were touching each other and kissing more often—and more intimately—and the air between them crackled with erotic energy. But why not do things right and proper since they were so close to the day? Why not go to their marriage bed as virgins—she as a virgin to everyone, he to her?

  That night, Travis dreamed that Nora and Einstein were lost in the desolate reaches of the Mojave. In the dream, he was for some reason legless, forced to search for them at an agonizingly slow crawl, which was bad because he knew that, wherever they were, they were under attack by . . . something . . .

  Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday in Las Vegas, they prepared for the wedding, watched Einstein playing enthusiastically with other campers’ dogs, and took side trips to Charleston Peak and Lake Mead. In the evenings, Nora and Travis left Einstein with his books while they went to stage shows. Travis felt guilty about leaving the retriever alone, but by various means Einstein indicated that he did not want them to stay at the trailer merely because the Strip hotels were so prejudiced and shortsighted as to refuse to allow well-behaved genius dogs into the casinos and showrooms.

  Wednesday morning, Travis dressed in a tuxedo, and Nora wore a simple calf-length white dress with spare lace trim at the cuffs and neckline. With Einstein between them, they drove to their wedding in the pickup, leaving the unhitched Airstream at the campgrounds.

  The nondenominational, commercial chapel was the funniest place Travis had ever seen, for the design was earnestly romantic, solemn, and tacky all at the same time. Nora thought it was hilarious, too, and upon entering they had trouble suppressing their laughter. The chapel was tucked in among neon-dripping, glitzy, high-rise hotels on Las Vegas Boulevard South. It was only the size of a one-story house, pale-pink stucco with white doors. Engraved in brass above the doors was the legend YE SHALL GO TWO BY TWO . . . Instead of depicting religious images, the stained-glass windows were aglow with garishly rendered scenes from famous love stories including Romeo and Juliet, Abelard and Heloise, Aucassin and Nicolette, Gone with the Wind, Casablanca—and, unbelievably, I Love Lucy and Ozzie & Harriet.

  Curiously, the tackiness did not deflate their buoyant mood. Nothing could diminish this day. Even the outrageous chapel was to be prized, remembered in every gaudy detail to be vividly recalled over the years, and always to be recalled fondly because it was their chapel on their day and therefore special in its own strange way.

  Dogs were not ordinarily admitted. But Travis had generously tipped the entire staff in advance to insure that Einstein would not only be allowed inside but would be made to feel as welcome as anyone.

  The minister, the Reverend Dan Dupree—“Please call me Reverend Dan”—was a florid-faced, potbellied fellow, a strenuous smiler and gladhander who looked like a stereotypical used-car salesman. He was flanked by two paid witnesses—his wife and her sister—who were wearing bright summery dresses for the occasion.

  Travis took his place at the front of the chapel.

  The woman organist struck up “The Wedding March.”

  Nora had expressed a deep desire to actually walk down the aisle and meet Travis rather than just beginning the ceremony at the altar railing. Furthermore, she wanted to be “given away,” as other brides were. That should have been her father’s singular honor, of course, but she had no father. Nor was anyone else at hand who would be a likely candidate for the job, and at first it seemed that she would have to make the walk alone or on the arm of a stranger. But in the pickup, on their way to the ceremony, she had realized that Einstein was available, and she had decided that no one in the world was more suited to accompany her down the aisle than the dog.

  Now, as the organist played, Nora entered the back of the nave with the dog at her side. Einstein was acutely aware of the great honor of escorting her, and he walked with all the pride and dignity he could muster, his head held high, his slow steps timed to hers.

  No one seemed disturbed—or even surprised—that a dog was giving Nora away. This was, after all, Las Vegas.

  “She’s one of the loveliest brides I’ve ever seen,” Reverend Dan’s wife whispered to Travis, and he sensed that she was sincere, that she did not routinely bestow that compliment.

  The photographer’s flash blinked repeatedly, but Travis was too involved with the sight of Nora to be bothered by the strobe.

  Vases full of roses and carnations filled the small nave with their perfume, and a hundred candles flickered softly, some in clear glass votive cups and others on brass candelabras. By the time Nora arrived at his side, Travis was oblivious of the tacky decor. His love was an architect that entirely remade the reality of the chapel, transforming it into a cathedral as grand as any in the world.

  The ceremony was brief and unexpectedly dignified. Travis and Nora exchanged vows, then rings. Tears full of reflected candlelight shimmered in her eyes, and Travis wondered for a moment why her tears should blur his vision, then realized that he, too, was on the verge of tears. A burst of dramatic organ music accompanied their first kiss as man and wife, and it was the sweetest kiss he had ever known.

  Reverend Dan popped the Dom Perignon and, at Travis’s direction, poured a glass for everyone, the organist included. A saucer was found for Einstein. Slurping noisily, the retriever joined in their toast to life, happiness, and love eternal.

  Einstein spent the afternoon in the forward end of the trailer, in the living room, reading.

  Travis and Nora spent the afternoon at the other end of the trailer, in bed.

  After closing the bedroom door, Travis put a second bottle of Dom Perignon in an ice bucket and loaded a compact-disc player with four albums of George Winston’s most mellow piano music.

  Nora drew down the blind at the only window and switched on a small lamp with a gold cloth shade. The soft amber light lent the room an aura rather like that of a place in a dream.

  For a while they lay on the bed, talking, laughing, touching, kissing, then talking less and kissing more.

  Gradually, Travis undressed her. He’d never before seen her unclothed, and he found her even more lovely and more exquisitely proportioned than he had imagined. Her slender throat, the delicacy of her shoulders, the fullness of her breasts, the concavity of her belly, the flare of her hips, the round sauciness of her buttocks, the long smooth supple sleekness of her legs—every line and angle and curve excited him but also filled him with great tenderness.

  After he undressed himself, he patiently and gently introduced her to the art of love. With a profound desire to please and with full awareness that everything was new to her, he showed Nora—sometimes not without delicious teasing—all the sensations that his tongue, fingers, and manhood could engender in her.

  He was prepared to find her hesitant, embarrassed, even fearful, because her first thirty years of life had not prepared her for this degree of intimacy. But she harbored no trace of frigidity and was eager to engage in any act that might pleasure either or both of them. Her soft cries and breathless murmurs of excitement delighted him. Each time that she sighed climactically and surrendered to a shudder of ecstasy, Travis became more aroused, until he was of a size and firmness that he had never attained before, until his need was almost painful.

  When at last he let his warm seed flower within her, he buried his face in her throat and called her name and told her that he loved her, told her again and again, and the moment of release seemed so long that he half thought time had stopped or that he had tapped an inexplicable well that could never be exhausted.

  With consummation achieved, they held each other for a long time, silent, not needing to talk. They listened to music, and in a while they finally spoke of what they felt, both physically and emotionally. They drank some champagne, a
nd in time they made love again. And again.

  Although the constant shadow of certain death looms over every day, the pleasures and joys of life can be so fine and deeply affecting that the heart is nearly stilled by astonishment.

  From Vegas, they hauled the Airstream north on Route 95, across the immense Nevada barrens. Two days later, on Friday, August 13, they reached Lake Tahoe and connected the trailer to the electric and waterlines at an RV campsite on the California side of the border.

  Nora was not quite as easily overwhelmed by each new scenic vista and novel experience as she had been. However, Lake Tahoe was so stunningly beautiful that it filled her with childlike wonder again. Twenty-two miles long and twelve miles wide, with the Sierra Nevadas on its western flank and the Carson Range on the east, Tahoe was said to be the clearest body of water in the world, a shimmering jewel in a hundred amazingly iridescent shades of blue and green.

  For six days, Nora and Travis and Einstein hiked in the Eldorado, Tahoe, and Toiyabe National Forests, vast primeval tracts of pine, spruce, and fir. They rented a boat and went on the lake, exploring paradisiacal coves and graceful bays. They went sunning and swimming, and Einstein took to the water with the enthusiasm indigenous to his breed.

  Sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the late afternoon, more often at night, Nora and Travis made love. She was surprised by her carnal appetite. She could not get enough of him.

  “I love your mind and your heart,” she told him, “but, God help me, I love your body almost as much! Am I depraved?”

  “Good heavens, no. You’re just a young, healthy woman. In fact, given the life you’ve led, you’re emotionally healthier than you’ve any right to be. Really, Nora, you stagger me.”

  “I’d like to straddle you instead.”

  “Maybe you are depraved,” he said, and laughed.

  Early on the serenely blue morning of Friday the twentieth, they left Tahoe and drove across the state to the Monterey Peninsula. There, where the continental shelf met the sea, the natural beauty was, if possible, even greater than that at Tahoe, and they stayed four days, leaving for home on the afternoon of Wednesday, August 25.

  Throughout their trip, the joy of matrimony was so all-consuming that the miracle of Einstein’s humanlike intelligence did not occupy their thoughts as much as previously. But Einstein reminded them of his unique nature when they drew near to Santa Barbara late that afternoon. Forty or fifty miles from home, he grew restless. He shifted repeatedly on the seat between Nora and Travis, sat up for a minute, then laid his head on Nora’s lap, then sat up again. He began to whimper strangely. By the time they were ten miles from home, he was shivering.

  “What’s wrong with you, fur face?” she asked.

  With his expressive brown eyes, Einstein tried hard to convey a complex and important message, but she could not understand him.

  Half an hour before dusk, when they reached the city and departed the freeway for surface streets, Einstein began alternately to whine and growl low in his throat.

  “What’s wrong with him?” Nora asked.

  Frowning, Travis said, “I don’t know.”

  As they pulled into the driveway of Travis’s rented house and parked in the shade of the date palm, the retriever began to bark. He had never barked in the truck, not once on their long journey. It was ear-splitting in that confined space, but he would not stop.

  When they got out of the truck, Einstein bolted past them, positioned himself between them and the house, and continued barking.

  Nora moved along the walkway toward the front door, and Einstein darted at her, snarling. He seized one leg of her jeans and tried to pull her off balance. She managed to stay on her feet and, when she retreated to the birdbath, he let go of her.

  “What’s gotten into him?” she asked Travis.

  Staring thoughtfully at the house, Travis said, “He was like this in the woods that first day . . . when he didn’t want me to follow the dark trail.”

  Nora tried to coax the dog closer in order to pet him.

  But Einstein would not be coaxed. When Travis tested the dog by approaching the house, Einstein snarled and forced him to retreat.

  “Wait here,” Travis told Nora. He walked to the Airstream in the driveway and went inside.

  Einstein trotted back and forth in front of the house, looking up at the door and windows, growling and whining.

  As the sun rolled down the western sky and kissed the surface of the sea, the residential street was quiet, peaceful, ordinary in every respect—yet Nora felt a wrongness in the air. A warm wind off the Pacific elicited whispers from the palm and eucalyptus and ficus trees, sounds that might have been pleasant any other day but which now seemed sinister. In the lengthening shadows, in the last orange and purple light of the day, she also perceived an indefinable menace. Except for the dog’s behavior, she had no reason to think that danger was near at hand; her uneasiness was not intellectual but instinctual.

  When Travis returned from the trailer, he was carrying a large revolver. It had been in a bedroom drawer, unloaded, throughout their honeymoon trip. Now, Travis finished inserting cartridges into the chambers and snapped the cylinder shut.

  “Is that necessary?” she asked worriedly.

  “Something was in the woods that day,” Travis said, “and though I never actually saw it . . . well, it put the hair up on the back of my neck. Yeah, I think the gun might be necessary.”

  Her own reaction to the whispering trees and afternoon shadows gave her a hint of what Travis must have felt in the woods, and she had to admit that the gun made her feel at least slightly better.

  Einstein had stopped pacing and had taken up his guard position on the walkway again, barring their approach to the house.

  To the retriever, Travis said, “Is someone inside?”

  A quick wag of the tail. Yes.

  “Men from the lab?”

  One bark. No.

  “The other experimental animal you told us about?”

  Yes.

  “The thing that was in the woods?”

  Yes.

  “All right, I’m going in there.”

  No.

  “Yes,” Travis insisted. “It’s my house, and we’re not going to run from this, whatever the hell it is.”

  Nora remembered the magazine photograph of the movie monster to which Einstein had reacted so strongly. She did not believe anything even remotely like that creature could actually exist. She believed that Einstein was exaggerating or that they had misunderstood what he had been trying to tell them about the photo. Nevertheless, she suddenly wished they had not only the revolver but a shotgun.

  “This is a .357 Magnum,” Travis told the dog, “and one shot, even if it hits
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