Watchers by Dean Koontz


  Garrison’s gaze shifted from the dog to Travis. “Dead man?”

  “Travis didn’t kill him,” Nora said.

  Garrison looked at Einstein again.

  “Neither did the dog,” Travis said. “But I’ll be wanted as a material witness, something like that, sure as hell.”

  “Mmmmm,” Garrison said, “why don’t we go into my study and get this straightened out?”

  He led them through an enormous and only half-lit living room, along a short hallway, into a den with rich teak paneling and a copper ceiling. The maroon leather armchairs and couch looked expensive and comfortable. The polished teak desk was massive, and a detailed model of a five-masted schooner, all sails rigged, stood on one corner. Nautical items—a ship’s wheel, a brass sextant, a carved bullock’s horn filled with tallow that held what appeared to be sail-making needles, six types of ship lanterns, a helmsman’s bell, and sea charts—were used as decoration. Travis saw photographs of a man and woman on various sailboats, and the man was Garrison.

  An open book and a half-finished glass of Scotch were on a small table beside one of the armchairs. Evidently, the attorney had been relaxing here when they had rung the doorbell. Now, he offered them a drink, and they both said they would have whatever he was having.

  Leaving the couch for Travis and Nora, Einstein took the second armchair. He sat in it, rather than curling up, as if prepared to participate in the discussion to come.

  At a corner wet bar, Garrison poured Chivas Regal on the rocks in two glasses. Although Nora was unaccustomed to whiskey, she startled Travis by downing her drink in two long swallows and asking for another. He decided that she had the right idea, so he followed suit and took his empty glass back to the bar while Garrison was refilling Nora’s.

  “I’d like to tell you everything and have your help,” Travis said, “but you really must understand you could be putting yourself on the wrong side of the law.”

  Recapping the Chivas, Garrison said, “You’re talking as a layman now. As an attorney, I assure you the law isn’t a line engraved in marble, immovable and unchangeable through the centuries. Rather . . . the law is like a string, fixed at both ends but with a great deal of play in it—very loose, the line of the law—so you can stretch it this way or that, rearrange the arc of it so you are nearly always—short of blatant theft or cold-blooded murder—safely on the right side. That’s a daunting thing to realize but true. I’ve no fear that anything you tell me could land my bottom in a prison cell, Travis.”

  Half an hour later, Travis and Nora had told him everything about Einstein. For a man only a couple of months shy of his seventy-first birthday, the silver-haired attorney had a quick and open mind. He asked the right questions and did not scoff. When given a ten-minute demonstration of Einstein’s uncanny abilities, he did not protest that it was all mere trickery and flummery; he accepted what he saw, and he readjusted his ideas of what was normal and possible in this world. He exhibited greater mental agility and flexibility than most men half his age.

  Holding Einstein on his lap in the big leather armchair, gently scratching the dog’s ears, Garrison said, “If you go to the media, hold a press conference, blow the whole thing wide open, then we might be able to sue in court to allow you to keep custody of the dog.”

  “Do you really think that would work?” Nora asked.

  “At best,” Garrison admitted, “it’s a fifty-fifty chance.”

  Travis shook his head. “No. We won’t risk it.”

  “What have you in mind to do?” Garrison asked.

  “Run,” Travis said. “Stay on the move.”

  “And what will that accomplish?”

  “It’ll keep Einstein free.”

  The dog woofed in agreement.

  “Free—but for how long?” Garrison asked.

  Travis got up and paced, too agitated to sit still any longer. “They won’t stop looking,” he admitted. “Not for a few years.”

  “Not ever,” the attorney said.

  “All right, it’s going to be tough, but it’s the only thing we can do. Damned if we’ll let them have him. He has a dread of the lab. Besides, he more or less brought me back to life—”

  “And he saved me from Streck,” Nora said.

  “He brought us together,” Travis said.

  “Changed our lives.”

  “Radically changed us. Now he’s as much a part of us as our own child would be,” Travis said. He felt a lump of emotion in his throat when he met the dog’s grateful gaze. “We fight for him, just as he’d fight for us. We’re family. We live together . . . or we die together.”

  Stroking the retriever, Garrison said, “It won’t only be the people from the lab looking for you. And not only the police.”

  “The other thing,” Travis said, nodding.

  Einstein shivered.

  “There, there, easy now,” Garrison said reassuringly, patting the dog. To Travis, he said, “What do you think the creature is? I’ve heard your description of it, but that doesn’t help much.”

  “Whatever it is,” Travis said, “God didn’t make it. Men made it. Which means it has to be a product of recombinant-DNA research of some kind. God knows why. God knows what they thought they were doing, why they wanted to build something like that. But they did.”

  “And it seems to have an uncanny ability to track you.”

  “To track Einstein,” Nora said.

  “So we’ll keep moving,” Travis said. “And we’ll go a long way.”

  “That’ll require money, but the banks don’t open for more than twelve hours,” Garrison said. “If you’re going to run, something tells me you’ve got to head out tonight.”

  “Here’s where we could use your help,” Travis told him.

  Nora opened her purse and withdrew two checkbooks, Travis’s and her own. “Garrison, what we’d like to do is write a check on Travis’s account and one on mine, payable to you. He’s only got three thousand in his checking, but he has a large savings account at the same bank, and they’re authorized to transfer funds to prevent overdrawing. My account’s the same way. If we give you one of Travis’s checks for twenty thousand—backdated so it appears to’ve been written before all this trouble—and one of mine for twenty, you could deposit them into your account. As soon as they clear, you’d buy eight cashier’s checks for five thousand apiece and send them to us.”

  Travis said, “The police will want me for questioning, but they’ll know I didn’t kill Ted Hockney because no man could’ve torn him apart like that. So they won’t put a lock on my accounts.”

  “If federal agencies are behind the research that produced Einstein and this creature,” Garrison said, “then they’ll be hot to get their hands on you, and they might freeze your accounts.”

  “Maybe. But probably not right away. You’re in the same town, so your bank should clear my check by Monday at the latest.”

  “What’ll you do for funds in the meantime, while you’re waiting for me to send you the forty thousand?”

  “We’ve got some cash and traveler’s checks left over from the honeymoon,” Nora said.

  “And my credit cards,” Travis added.

  “They can track you by credit cards and traveler’s checks.”

  “I know,” Travis said. “So I’ll use them in a town where we don’t intend to stay, and we’ll scoot out fast as we can.”

  “When I’ve purchased the cashier’s checks for forty thousand, where do I send them?”

  “We’ll be in touch by phone,” Travis said, returning to the couch and sitting at Nora’s side. “We’ll work something out.”

  “And the rest of your assets—and Nora’s?”

  “We’ll worry about that later,” Nora said.

  Garrison frowned. “Before you leave here, Travis, you can sign a letter giving me the right to represent you in any legal matters that may arise. If anyone does try to freeze your assets, or Nora’s, I can beat them off if at all possible—though I’l
l keep a low profile until they connect me with you.”

  “Nora’s funds are probably safe for a while. She and I haven’t told anyone but you about the marriage. The neighbors will tell the police I left in the company of a woman, but they won’t know who she is. Have you told anyone about us?”

  “Just my secretary, Mrs. Ashcroft. But she’s not a gossip.”

  “All right, then,” Travis said. “I don’t think the authorities will find out about the marriage license, so they might take quite a while to come up with Nora’s name. But when they do, they’ll discover you’re her attorney. If they monitor my accounts for canceled checks in the hope of learning where I’ve gone, they’ll know about the twenty thousand I paid to you, and they’ll come looking for you—”

  “That doesn’t give me the slightest pause,” Garrison said.

  “Maybe not,” Travis said. “But as soon as they connect me to Nora and both of us to you, they’ll be watching you closely. As soon as that happens . . . then the next time we call, you’ll have to tell us at once, so we can hang up and break off all contact with you.”

  “I understand perfectly,” the attorney said.

  “Garrison,” Nora said, “you don’t have to involve yourself in this. We’re really asking too much of you.”

  “Listen, my dear, I’m almost seventy-one. I still enjoy my law practice, and I still go sailing . . . but in truth I find life a bit on the dull side these days. This affair is just what I need to get my ancient blood flowing faster. Besides, I do believe you have an obligation to help keep Einstein free, not just for the reasons you mentioned but because . . . mankind has no right to employ its genius in the creation of another intelligent species, then treat it like property. If we’ve come so far that we can create as God creates, then we have to learn to act with the justice and mercy of God. In this case, justice and mercy require that Einstein remain free.”

  Einstein raised his head from the attorney’s lap, gazed up admiringly, then nuzzled his cold nose under Garrison’s chin.

  In the three-car garage, Garrison kept a new black Mercedes 560 SEL, an older white Mercedes 500 SEL with pale-blue interior, and a green Jeep that he used primarily to drive down to the marina, where he kept his boat.

  “The white one used to belong to Francine, my wife,” the attorney said as he led them to the car. “I don’t use it much anymore, but I keep it in working order, and I drive it often enough to prevent the tires from disintegrating. I should have gotten rid of it when Franny died. It was her car, after all. But . . . she loved it so, her flashy white Mercedes, and I can remember the way she looked when she was behind the wheel . . . I’d like you to take it.”

  “A sixty-thousand-dollar getaway car?” Travis said, sliding one hand along the polished hood. “That’s going on the run in style.”

  “No one will be looking for it,” Garrison said. “Even if they do eventually connect me with you two, they won’t know I’ve given you one of my cars.”

  “We can’t accept something this expensive,” Nora said.

  “Call it a loan,” the attorney told her. “When you’re finished with it, when you’ve gotten another car, just park this one somewhere—a bus terminal, an airport—and give me a call to tell me where it is. I can send someone to collect it.”

  Einstein put his forepaws on the driver’s door of the Mercedes and peered into the car through the side window. He glanced at Travis and Nora and woofed as if to say he thought they would be foolish if they turned down such an offer.

  9

  With Travis driving, they left Garrison Dilworth’s house at ten-fifteen Wednesday night and took Route 101 north. By twelve-thirty they passed through San Luis Obispo, went by Paso Robles at one o’clock in the morning. They stopped for gasoline at a self-service station at two o’clock, an hour south of Salinas.

  Nora felt useless. She was not even able to spell Travis at the wheel because she did not know how to drive. To some extent, that was Violet Devon’s fault, not Nora’s, just one more result of a lifetime of seclusion and oppression; nonetheless; she felt utterly useless and was displeased with herself. But she was not going to remain helpless the rest of her life. Damn it, no. She was going to learn to drive and to handle firearms. Travis could teach her both skills. Given his background, he could also instruct her in the martial arts, judo or karate. He was a good teacher. He had certainly done a splendid job of teaching her the art of lovemaking. That thought made her smile, and slowly her highly self-critical mood abated.

  For the next two and a half hours, as they drove north to Salinas and then on to San Jose, Nora dozed fitfully. When not sleeping, she took comfort in the empty miles they were putting behind them. On both sides of the highway, vast stretches of farmland seemed to roll on to infinity under the frost-pale light of the moon. When the moon set, they drove long stretches in unrelieved darkness before spotting an occasional light at a farm or a cluster of roadside businesses.

  The yellow-eyed thing had tracked Einstein from the Santa Ana foothills in Orange County to Santa Barbara—a distance of more than one hundred and twenty-five air miles, Travis had said, and probably close to three hundred miles on foot in the wilds—in three months. Not a fast pace. So if they went three hundred air miles north from Santa Barbara before finding a place to hole up in the San Francisco Bay area, maybe the stalker would not reach them for seven or eight months. Maybe it would never reach them. Over how great a distance could it sniff out Einstein? Surely, there were limits to its uncanny ability to track the dog. Surely.

  10

  At eleven o’clock Thursday morning, Lemuel Johnson stood in the master bedroom of the small house that Travis Cornell had rented in Santa Barbara. The dresser mirror had been smashed. The rest of the room had been trashed as well, as if The Outsider had been driven into a jealous rage upon seeing that the dog lived in domestic comfort while it was forced to roam the wildlands and live in comparatively primitive conditions.

  In the debris that covered the floor, Lem found four silver-framed photographs that had probably stood on the dresser or nightstands. The first was of Cornell and an attractive blonde. By now Lem had learned enough about Cornell to know that the blonde at his side must be his late wife, Paula. Another photo, a black-and-white shot of a man and woman, was old enough that Lem guessed the people smiling at the camera were Cornell’s parents. The third was of a young boy, about eleven or twelve, also black-and-white, also old, which might have been a shot of Travis Cornell himself but which was more likely a picture of the brother who had died young.

  The last of the four photos was of ten soldiers grouped on what appeared to be the wooden steps in front of a barracks, grinning at the camera. One of the ten was Travis Cornell. And on a couple of their uniforms, Lem noticed the distinctive patch of Delta Force, the elite antiterrorist corps.

  Uneasy about that last photograph, Lem put it on the dresser and headed back toward the living room, where Cliff was continuing to sift through bloodstained rubble. They were looking for something that would mean nothing to the police but might be extremely meaningful to them.

  The NSA had been slow to pick up on the Santa Barbara killing, and Lem had not been alerted until almost six o’clock this morning. As a result, the press had already reported the grisly details of Ted Hockney’s murder. They were enthusiastically disseminating wild speculations about what might have killed Hockney, focusing primarily on the theory that Cornell kept some kind of exotic and dangerous pet, perhaps a cheetah or panther, and that the animal had attacked the unsuspecting landlord when he had let himself into the house. The TV cameras had lingered lovingly on the shredded and blood-spattered books. It was National Enquirer stuff, which did not surprise Lem because he believed the line separating sensational tabloids like the Enquirer and the so-called “legitimate” press—especially electronic news media—was often thinner than most journalists cared to admit.

  He had already planned and put into operation a disinformation campaign to reinforce
the press’s wrongheaded hysteria about jungle cats on the loose. NSA-paid informants would come forth, claiming to know Cornell, and would vouch that he did, indeed, keep a panther in the house in addition to a dog. Others who had never met Cornell would, in identifying themselves as his friends, sorrowfully report that they had urged him to have the panther defanged and declawed as it had reached maturity. Police would want to question Cornell—and the unidentified woman—regarding the panther and its current whereabouts.

  Lem was confident the press would be nicely deflected from all inquiries that might lead them closer to the truth.

  Of course, down in Orange County, Walt Gaines would hear about this murder, would make friendly inquiries with local authorities here, and would swiftly conclude that The Outsider had tracked the dog this far north. Lem was relieved that he had Walt’s cooperation.

  Entering the living room, where Cliff Soames was at work, Lem said, “Find anything?”

  The young agent rose from the debris, dusted his hands together, and said, “Yeah. I put it on the dining-room table.”

  Lem followed him into the dining room, where a fat ring-binder notebook was the only item on the table. When he opened it and leafed through the contents, he saw photographs that had been cut from glossy magazines and taped to the left-hand pages. Opposite each photo, on the right-hand page, was the name of the pictured object printed in large block letters: TREE, HOUSE, CAR . . .

  “What do you make of it?” Cliff asked.

  Scowling, saying nothing, Lem continued to leaf through the book, knowing it was important but at first unable to guess why. Then it hit him: “It’s a primer. To teach reading.”

  “Yeah,” Cliff said.

  Lem saw that his assistant was smiling. “You think they must know the dog’s intelligent, that it must’ve revealed its abilities to them? And so they . . . decided to teach it to read?”

  “Looks that way,” Cliff said, still smiling. “Good God, do you think it’s possible? Could it be taught to read?”

  “Undoubtedly,” Lem said. “In fact, teaching it to read was on Dr. Weatherby’s schedule of experiments for this autumn.”

  Laughing softly, wonderingly, Cliff said, “I’ll be damned.”

  “Before you get too much of a kick out of it,” Lem said, “you better consider the situation. This guy knows the dog is amazingly smart. He might’ve succeeded in teaching it to read. So we have to figure he’s worked out a means of communicating with it as well. He knows it’s an experimental animal. He must know a lot of people are looking for it.”

  Cliff said, “He must know about The Outsider, too, because the dog would have found a way of telling him.”

  “Yes. Yet, knowing all of this, he hasn’t chosen to go public. He could’ve sold the story to the highest bidder. But he didn’t. Or if he’s a crusading type, he could’ve called in the press and blasted the Pentagon for funding this kind of research.”

  “But he didn’t,” Cliff said, frowning.

  “Which means, first and foremost, he’s committed to the dog, committed to keeping it for his own and to preventing its recapture.”

  Nodding, Cliff said, “Which makes sense if what we’ve heard about him is true. I mean, this guy lost his whole damn family when he was young. Lost his wife after less than a year. Lost all those buddies in Delta Force. So he became a recluse, cut himself off from all his friends. Must’ve been lonely as hell. Then along comes the dog . . .”

  “Exactly,” Lem said. “And for a man with Delta Force training, staying undercover won’t be difficult. And if we do find him, he’ll know how to fight for the dog. Jesus, will he know how to fight!”

  “We haven’t confirmed the Delta Force rumor yet,” Cliff said hopefully.

  “I have,” Lem said, and he described the photograph he had seen in the wrecked bedroom.

  Cliff sighed. “We’re in deep shit now.”

  “Up to our necks,” Lem agreed.

  11

  They had reached San Francisco at six o’clock Thursday morning and, by six-thirty, had found a suitable motel—a sprawling facility that looked modern and clean. The place did not accept pets, but it was easy to sneak Einstein into the room.

  Although a small chance existed that an arrest warrant might have been issued for Travis, he checked into the motel using his ID. He’d no choice because Nora possessed neither credit cards nor a driver’s license. These days, desk clerks were willing to accept cash, but not without ID; the chain’s computer demanded data on the guests.

  He did not, however, give the correct make or license number of his car, for he had parked out of sight of the office for the very purpose of keeping those details from the clerk.

  They paid for only one room and kept Einstein with them because they were not going to need privacy for lovemaking. Exhausted, Travis barely managed to kiss Nora before falling into a deep sleep. He dreamed of things with yellow eyes, misshapen heads, and crocodile mouths full of sharks’ teeth.

  He woke five hours later, at twelve-ten Thursday afternoon.

  Nora had gotten up before him, showered, and dressed again in the only clothes she had. Her hair was damp and clung alluringly to the nape of her neck. “The water’s hot and forceful,” she told him.

 
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