Watchers by Dean Koontz


  an arm or a leg, will knock down the biggest, meanest man and keep him down. He’ll feel as if he’s been hit by a cannonball. I’ve taken firearms training from the best, and I’ve done regular target practice over the years to keep my edge. I really know what I’m doing, and I’ll be able to handle myself in there. Besides, we can’t just call the cops, can we? Because whatever they find in there is going to raise eyebrows, lead to a lot of questions, and sooner or later they’ll have you back in that damn lab again.”

  Einstein was clearly unhappy with Travis’s determination, but the dog padded up the front steps to the stoop and looked back as if to say, All right, okay, but I’m not letting you go in there alone.

  Nora wanted to go in with them, but Travis was adamant that she remain in the front yard. She reluctantly admitted that—since she lacked both a weapon and the skill to use it—there was nothing she could do to help and that she would most likely only get in the way.

  Holding the revolver at his side, Travis joined Einstein on the stoop and inserted his key in the door.

  7

  Travis disengaged the lock, pocketed the key, and pushed the door inward, covering the room beyond with the .357. Warily, he stepped across the threshold, and Einstein entered at his side.

  The house was silent, as it should have been, but the air reeked of a bad smell that did not belong.

  Einstein growled softly.

  Little of the fast-fading sunlight entered the house through the windows, many of which were partly or entirely covered with drapes. But it was bright enough for Travis to see that the sofa’s upholstery was slashed. Shredded foam padding spilled onto the floor. A wooden magazine rack had been hammered to pieces against the wall, gouging holes in the plaster-board. The TV screen had been smashed in with a floor lamp, which still protruded from the set. Books had been taken off the shelves, torn apart, and scattered across the living room.

  In spite of the breeze blowing in through the door, the stench seemed to be getting worse.

  Travis flicked the wall switch. A corner lamp came on. It did not shed much light, just enough to reveal more details of the rubble.

  Looks like somebody went through here with a chainsaw and then a power mower, he thought.

  The house remained silent.

  Leaving the door open behind him, he took a couple of steps into the room, and the crumpled pages of the ruined books crunched crisply underfoot. He noticed dark, rusty stains on some of the paper and on the bone-white foam padding, and suddenly he stopped, realizing the stains were blood.

  A moment later, he spotted the corpse. It was that of a big man, lying on his side on the floor near the sofa, half-covered by gore-smeared book pages, book boards, and dust jackets.

  Einstein’s growling grew louder, meaner.

  Moving closer to the body, which was just a few feet from the dining-room archway, Travis saw that it was his landlord, Ted Hockney. Beside him was his Craftsman toolbox. Ted had a key to the house and Travis had no objections to his entering at any time to make repairs. Lately there had been a number of repairs required, including a leaky faucet and broken dishwasher. Evidently, Ted had walked down the block from his own house and entered with the intention of fixing something. Now Ted was broken, too, and beyond repair.

  Because of the ripe stink, Travis first thought the man must have been killed at least a week ago. But on closer inspection, the corpse proved to be neither bloated with the gas of decomposition nor marked by any signs of decay, so it could not have been there for very long. Perhaps only a day, perhaps less. The hideous stench had two other sources: for one thing, the landlord had been disemboweled; furthermore, his killer had apparently defecated and urinated on and around the body.

  Ted Hockney’s eyes were gone.

  Travis felt sick, and not only because he had liked Ted. He would have been sickened by such insane violence regardless of who the dead man had been. A death like this left the victim no dignity whatsoever and somehow diminished the entire human race.

  Einstein’s low growling gave way to ugly snarling punctuated with hard, sharp barks.

  With a nervous twitch and a sudden hammering of his heart, Travis turned from the corpse and saw that the retriever was facing into the nearby dining room. The shadows were deep in there because the drapes were drawn shut over both windows, and only a thin gray light passed through from the kitchen beyond.

  Go, get out, leave! an inner voice told him.

  But he did not turn and run because he had never run away from anything in his life. Well, all right, that was not quite true: he had virtually run away from life itself these past few years when he had let despair get the best of him. His descent into isolation had been the ultimate cowardice. However, that was behind him; he was a new man, transformed by Einstein and Nora, and he was not going to run again, damned if he was.

  Einstein went rigid. He arched his back, thrust his head down and forward, and barked so furiously that saliva flew from his mouth.

  Travis took a step toward the dining-room arch.

  The retriever stayed at Travis’s side, barking more viciously.

  Holding the revolver in front of him, trying to take confidence from the powerful weapon, Travis eased forward another step, treading cautiously in the treacherous rubble. He was only two or three steps from the archway. He squinted into the gloomy dining room.

  Einstein’s barking resounded through the house until it seemed as if a whole pack of dogs must be loose in the place.

  Travis took one more step, then saw something move in the shadowy dining room.

  He froze.

  Nothing. Nothing moved. Had it been a phantom of the mind?

  Beyond the arch, layered shadows hung like gray and black crepe.

  He wasn’t sure if he had seen movement or merely imagined it.

  Back off, get out, now! the inner voice said.

  In defiance of it, Travis raised one foot, intending to step into the archway.

  The thing in the dining room moved again. This time there was no doubt of its presence, because it rushed out of the deepest darkness at the far side of that chamber, vaulted onto the dining-room table, and came straight at Travis, emitting a blood-freezing shriek. He saw lantern eyes in the gloom, and a nearly man-size figure that—in spite of the poor light— gave an impression of deformity. Then the thing was coming off the table, straight at him.

  Einstein charged forward to engage it, but Travis tried to step back and gain an extra second in which to squeeze off a shot. As he pulled the trigger, he slipped on the ruined books that littered the floor, and fell backward. The revolver roared, but Travis knew he had missed, had fired into the ceiling. For an instant, as Einstein scrambled toward the adversary, Travis saw the lantern-eyed thing more clearly, saw it work alligator jaws and crack open an impossibly wide mouth in a lumpish face, revealing wickedly hooked teeth.

  “Einstein, no!” he shouted, for he knew the dog would be torn to pieces in any confrontation with this hellish creature, and he fired again, twice, wildly, from his position on the floor.

  His cry and the shots not only brought Einstein to a halt but gave the enemy second thoughts about going up against an armed man. The thing turned—it was quick, far quicker than a cat—and crossed the unlighted dining room to the kitchen doorway. For a moment, he saw it silhouetted in the murky light from the kitchen, and he had the impression of something that had never been meant to stand erect but was standing erect anyway, something with a misshapen head twice as large as it ought to have been, a hunched back, arms too long and terminating in claws like the tines of a garden rake.

  He fired again and came closer to the mark. The bullet tore out a chunk of the door frame.

  With a shriek, the beast disappeared into the kitchen.

  What in the name of God was it? Where had it come from? Had it really escaped from the same lab that had produced Einstein? But how had they made this monstrosity? And why? Why?

  He was a well-read man: in
fact, for the last few years, most of his time was devoted to books, so possibilities began to occur to him. Recombinant-DNA research was foremost among them.

  Einstein stood in the middle of the dining room, barking, facing the doorway where the thing had vanished.

  Lurching to his feet in the living room, Travis called the dog back to his side, and Einstein returned quickly, eagerly.

  He shushed the dog, listened intently. He heard Nora frantically calling his name from the yard out front, but he heard nothing in the kitchen.

  For Nora’s benefit, he shouted, “I’m okay! I’m all right! Stay out there!”

  Einstein was shivering.

  Travis could hear the loud two-part thudding of his own heart, and he could almost hear the sweat trickling down his face and down the small of his back, but he could hear nothing whatsoever to pinpoint that escapee from a nightmare. He did not think it had gone out the back door into the rear yard. For one thing, he figured the creature did not want to be seen by a lot of people and, therefore, only went outside at night, traveled exclusively in the dark, when it could slip even into a fair-sized town like Santa Barbara without being spotted. The day was still light enough to make the thing leery of the outdoors. Furthermore, Travis could sense its presence nearby, the way he might sense that someone was staring at him behind his back, the way he might sense an oncoming thunderstorm on a humid day with a lowering sky. It was out there, all right, waiting in the kitchen, ready and waiting.

  Cautiously, Travis returned to the archway and stepped into the half-dark dining room.

  Einstein stayed close at his side, neither whining nor growling nor barking. The dog seemed to realize that Travis needed complete silence in order to hear any sound the beast might make.

  Travis took two more steps.

  Ahead, through the kitchen door, he could see a corner of the table, the sink, part of a counter, half of the dishwasher. The setting sun was at the other end of the house, and the light in the kitchen was dim, gray, so their adversary would not cast a revealing shadow. It might be waiting on either side of the door, or it might have climbed onto the counters from which it could launch itself down at him when he entered the room.

  Trying to trick the creature, hoping that it would react without hesitation to the first sign of movement in the doorway, Travis tucked the revolver under his belt, quietly picked up one of the dining-room chairs, eased to within six feet of the kitchen, and pitched the chair through the open door. He snatched the revolver out of his waistband and, as the chair sailed into the kitchen, assumed a shooter’s stance. The chair crashed into the Formica-topped table, clattered to the floor, and banged against the dishwasher.

  The lantern-eyed enemy did not go for it. Nothing moved. When the chair finished tumbling, the kitchen was again marked by a hushed expectancy.

  Einstein was making a curious sound, a quiet shuddery huffing, and after a moment Travis realized the noise was a result of the dog’s uncontrollable shivering.

  No question about it: the intruder in the kitchen was the very thing that had pursued them through the woods more than three months ago. During the intervening weeks, it had made its way north, probably traveling mostly in the wildlands to the east of the developed part of the state, relentlessly tracking the dog by some means that Travis could not understand and for reasons he could not even guess.

  In response to the chair he had thrown, a large white-enameled canister crashed to the floor just beyond the kitchen doorway, and Travis jumped back in surprise, squeezing off a wild shot before he realized he was only being taunted. The lid flew off the container when it hit the floor, and flour spilled across the tile.

  Silence again.

  By responding to Travis’s taunt with one of its own, the intruder had displayed unnerving intelligence. Abruptly Travis realized that, coming from the same research lab as Einstein and being a product of related experiments, the creature might be as smart as the retriever. Which would explain Einstein’s fear of it. If Travis had not already accommodated himself to the idea of a dog with humanlike intelligence, he might have been unable to credit this beast with more than mere animal cleverness; however, events of the past few months had primed him to accept—and quickly adapt to— almost anything.

  Silence.

  Only one round left in the gun.

  Deep silence.

  He had been so startled by the flour canister that he had not noticed from which side of the doorway it had been flung, and it had fallen in such a fashion that he could not deduce the position of the creature that had hurled it. He still did not know if the intruder was to the left or right of the doorway.

  He was not sure he any longer cared where it was. Even with the .357 in hand, he did not think he would be wise to enter the kitchen. Not if the damn thing was as smart as a man. It would be like doing battle with an intelligent buzzsaw, for Christ’s sake.

  The light in the east-facing kitchen was dwindling, almost gone. In the dining room, where Travis and Einstein stood, the darkness was deepening. Even behind them, in spite of the open front door and window and the corner lamp, the living room was filling with shadows.

  In the kitchen, the intruder hissed loudly, a sound like escaping gas, which was immediately followed by a click-click-click that might have been made by its sharply clawed feet or hands tapping against a hard surface.

  Travis had caught Einstein’s tremors. He felt as if he were a fly on the edge of a spider’s web, about to step into a trap.

  He remembered Ted Hockney’s bitten, bloodied, eyeless face.

  Click-click.

  In antiterrorist training, he had been taught how to stalk men, and he had been good at it. But the problem here was that the yellow-eyed intruder was maybe as smart as a man but could not be counted on to think like a man, so Travis had no way of knowing what it might do next, how it might respond to any initiative he made. Therefore, he could never outthink it, and by its alien nature the creature had a perpetual and deadly advantage of surprise.

  Click.

  Travis quietly took a step back from the open kitchen door, then another step, treading with exaggerated care, not wanting the thing to discover that he was retreating because only God knew what it might do if it knew he was slipping out of its reach. Einstein padded silently into the living room, now equally eager to put distance between himself and the intruder.

  When he reached Ted Hockney’s corpse, Travis glanced away from the dining room, searching for the least littered route to the front door—and he saw Nora standing by the armchair. Frightened by the gunfire, she had gotten a butcher’s knife from the kitchenette in the Airstream and had come to see if he needed help.

  He was impressed by her courage but horrified to see her there in the glow of the corner lamp. Suddenly it seemed as if his nightmares of losing both Einstein and Nora were on the verge of coming true, the Cornell Curse again, because now they were both inside the house, both vulnerable, both possibly within striking distance of the thing in the kitchen.

  She started to speak.

  Travis shook his head and raised one hand to his mouth.

  Silenced, she bit her lip and glanced from him to the dead man on the floor.

  As Travis quietly stepped through the rubble, he was stricken by a feeling that the intruder had gone out the back of the house and was coming around the side, heading for the front door, risking being seen by neighbors in the gloom of twilight, intending to enter behind them, swift and fast. Nora was standing between Travis and the front door, so he would not have a clear shot at the creature if it came that way; hell, it would be all over Nora one second after it reached the door. Trying not to panic, trying not to think of Hockney’s eyeless face, Travis moved more quickly across the living room, risking the crackle of some debris underfoot, hoping those small noises would not carry to the kitchen if the intruder was still out there: Reaching Nora, he took her by the arm and propelled her toward the front door, out onto the stoop and down the stairs, looking
left and right, half-expecting to see the living nightmare rushing at them, but it was nowhere in sight.

  The gunshots and Nora’s shouting had drawn neighbors as far as their front doors all along the street. A few had even come outside onto porches and lawns. Somebody surely would have called the cops. Because of Einstein’s status as a much-wanted fugitive, the police seemed almost as grave a danger as the yellow-eyed thing in the house.

  The three of them piled into the pickup. Nora locked her door, and Travis locked his. He started the engine and backed the truck—and the Airstream—out of the driveway, into the street. He was aware of people staring.

  The twilight was going to be short-lived, as it always was near the ocean. Already, the sunless sky was blackish in the east, purple overhead, and a steadily darkening blood-red in the west. Travis was grateful for the oncoming cover of nightfall, although he knew the yellow-eyed creature would be sharing it with them.

  He drove past the gaping neighbors, none of whom he had ever met during his years of self-imposed solitude, and he turned at the first corner. Nora held Einstein tightly, and Travis drove as fast as he dared. The trailer rocked and swayed behind them when he took the next couple of corners at too great a speed.

  “What happened in there?” she asked.

  “It killed Hockney earlier today or yesterday—”

  “It?”

  “—and it was waiting for us to come home.”

  “It?” she repeated.

  Einstein mewled.

  Travis said, “I’ll have to explain later.” He wondered if he could explain. No description he gave of the intruder would do it justice; he did not possess the words necessary to convey the degree of its strangeness.

  They had gone no more than eight blocks when they heard sirens in the neighborhood that they had just left. Travis drove another four blocks and parked in the empty lot of a high school.

  “What now?” Nora asked.

  “We abandon the trailer and the truck,” he said. “They’ll be looking for both.”

  He put the revolver in her purse, and she insisted on slipping the butcher’s knife in there, too, rather than leave it behind.

  They got out of the pickup and, in the descending night, walked past the side of the school, across an athletic field, through a gate in a chain-link fence, and onto a residential street lined with mature trees.

  With nightfall, the breeze became a blustery wind, warm and parched. It blew a few dry leaves at them and harried dust ghosts along the pavement.

  Travis knew they were too conspicuous even without the trailer and truck. The neighbors would be telling the police to look for a man, woman, and golden retriever—not the most common trio. They would be wanted for questioning in the death of Ted Hockney, so the search for them would not be perfunctory. They had to get out of sight quickly.

  He had no friends with whom they could take refuge. After Paula died, he had withdrawn from his few friends, and he hadn’t maintained relationships with any of the real-estate agents who had once worked for him. Nora had no friends, either, thanks to Violet Devon.

  The houses they passed, most with warm lights in the windows, seemed to mock them with unattainable sanctuary.

  8

  Garrison Dilworth lived on the border between Santa Barbara and Montecito, on a lushly landscaped half acre, in a stately Tudor home that did not mesh well with the California flora but which perfectly complemented the attorney. When he answered the door, he was wearing black loafers, gray slacks, a navy-blue sports jacket, a white knit shirt, and half-lens tortoise-shell reading glasses over which he peered at them in surprise but, fortunately, not with displeasure. “Well, hello there, newlyweds!”

  “Are you alone?” Travis asked as he and Nora and Einstein stepped into a large foyer floored with marble.

  “Alone? Yes.”

  On the way over, Nora had told Travis that the attorney’s wife had passed away three years ago and that he was now looked after by a housekeeper named Gladys Murphy.

  “Mrs. Murphy?” Travis asked.

  “She’s gone home for the day,” the attorney said, closing the door behind them. “You look distraught. What on earth’s wrong?”

  “We need help,” Nora said.

  “But,” Travis warned, “anyone who helps us may be putting himself in jeopardy with the law.”

  Garrison raised his eyebrows. “What have you done? Judging by the solemn look of you—I’d say you’ve kidnapped the president.”

  “We’ve done nothing wrong,” Nora assured him.

  “Yes, we have,” Travis disagreed. “And we’re still doing it—we’re harboring the dog.”

  Puzzled, Garrison frowned down at the retriever.

  Einstein whined, looking suitably miserable and lovable.

  “And there’s a dead man in my house,” Travis said.

 
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