Watchers by Dean Koontz


  “So am I,” he said, embracing her, kissing her.

  “Then you better cool off,” she said, pulling away from him. “Little ears are listening.”

  “Einstein? He has big ears.”

  In the bathroom, he found Einstein standing on the counter, drinking out of a sinkful of cold water that Nora had drawn for him.

  “You know, fur face, for most dogs, the toilet is a perfectly adequate source of drinking water.”

  Einstein sneezed at him, jumped down from the counter, and padded out of the bathroom.

  Travis had no means of shaving, but he decided a day’s growth of beard would give him the look he needed for the work he would have to do this evening in the Tenderloin district.

  They left the motel and ate at the first McDonald’s they could find. After lunch, they drove to a local branch of the Santa Barbara bank where Travis had his checking account. They used his computer-banking card, his Mastercard, and two of his Visa cards to make cash withdrawals totaling fourteen hundred dollars. Next they went to an American Express office, and using one of Travis’s checks and his Gold Card, they acquired the maximum allowable five hundred dollars in cash and forty-five hundred in traveler’s checks. Combined with the twenty-one hundred in cash and traveler’s checks left over from their honeymoon, they had eighty-five hundred in liquid assets.

  During the rest of the afternoon and early evening, they went shopping. With credit cards, they bought a complete set of luggage and purchased enough clothes to fill the bags. They got toiletries for both of them and an electric razor for Travis.

  Travis also bought a Scrabble game, and Nora said, “You don’t really feel in the mood for games, do you?”

  “No,” he replied cryptically, enjoying her puzzlement. “I’ll explain later.”

  Half an hour before sunset, with their purchases packed tightly in the spacious trunk of the Mercedes, Travis drove into the heart of San Francisco’s Tenderloin, which was the area of the city that lay below O’Farrell Street, wedged between Market Street and Van Ness Avenue. It was a district of sleazy bars featuring topless dancers, go-go joints where the girls wore nothing at all, rap parlors where men paid by the minute to sit with nude young women and talk about sex and where more than talk was usually accomplished.

  This degeneracy was a shocking revelation to Nora, who had begun to think of herself as experienced and sophisticated. She was not prepared for the cesspool of the Tenderloin. She gaped at the gaudy neon signs that advertised peep shows, female mud wrestling, female impersonators, gay baths, and massage parlors. The meaning of some of the billboard comeons at the worst bars baffled her, and she said, “What do they mean when the marquee says “Get a Wink at the Pink’?”

  Looking for a parking place, Travis said, “It means their girls dance entirely nude and that, during the dance, they spread their labia to show themselves more completely.”

  “No!”

  “Yes.”

  “My God. I don’t believe it. I mean, I do believe it—but I don’t believe it. What’s it mean—‘Extreme Close-Up’?”

  “The girls dance right at the customers’ tables. The law doesn’t allow touching, but the girls dance close, swinging their bare breasts in the customers’ faces. You could insert one, maybe two, but not three sheets of paper between their nipples and the men’s lips.”

  In the back seat, Einstein snorted as if with disgust.

  “I agree, fella,” Travis told him.

  They passed a cancerous-looking place with flashing red and yellow bulbs and rippling bands of blue and purple neon, where the sign promised LIVE SEX SHOW.

  Appalled, Nora said, “My God, are there other shows where they have sex with the dead?”

  Travis laughed so hard he almost back-ended a carload of gawking college boys. “No, no, no. Even the Tenderloin has some limits. They mean ‘live’ as opposed to ‘on film.’ You can see plenty of sex on film, theaters that show only pornography, but that place promises live sex, onstage. I don’t know if they deliver on the promise.”

  “And I don’t care to find out!” Nora said, sounding as if she were Dorothy from Kansas and had just wandered into an unspeakable new neighborhood of Oz. “What’re we doing here?”

  “This is the place you come to when you’re trying to find things they don’t sell on Nob Hill—like young boys or really large amounts of dope. Or phony driver’s licenses and other counterfeit ID.”

  “Oh,” she said. “Oh, yes, I see. This area is controlled by the underworld, by people like the Corleones in The Godfather.”

  “I’m sure the mob owns more of these places than not,” he said as he maneuvered the Mercedes into a parking space at the curb. “But don’t ever make the mistake of thinking the real mob is a bunch of honorable cuties like the Corleones.”

  Einstein was agreeable to remaining with the Mercedes.

  “Tell you what, fur face. If we’re real lucky,” Travis joked, “we’ll get you a new identity, too. We’ll make you into a poodle.”

  Nora was surprised to discover that, as twilight settled over the city, the breeze off the bay was chilly enough for them to need the nylon, quilt-lined jackets they had bought earlier in the day.

  “Even in summer, nights can be cool here,” he said. “Soon, the fog rolls in. The stored-up heat of the day pulls it off the water.”

  He would have worn his jacket even if the evening air had been mild, for he was carrying his loaded revolver under his belt and needed the jacket to conceal it.

  “Is there really a chance you’ll need the gun?” she asked as they walked away from the car.

  “Not likely. I’m carrying it mainly for ID.”

  “Huh?”

  “You’ll see.”

  She looked back at the car, where Einstein was staring out the rear window, looking forlorn. She felt bad leaving him there. But she was quite certain that even if these establishments would admit dogs such places were not good for Einstein’s moral welfare.

  Travis seemed interested solely in those bars whose signs were either in both English and Spanish or in Spanish only. Some places were downright shabby and did not conceal the peeling paint and the moldy carpeting, while others used mirrors and glitzy lighting to try to hide their true roach-hole nature. A few were actually clean and expensively decorated. In each, Travis spoke in Spanish with the bartender, sometimes with musicians if there were any and if they were on a break, and a few times he distributed folded twenty-dollar bills. Since she spoke no Spanish, Nora did not know what he was asking about or why he was paying these people.

  On the street, searching for another sleazy lounge, he explained that the biggest illegal migration was Mexican, Salvadoran, Nicaraguan— desperate people escaping economic chaos and political repression. Therefore, more Spanish-speaking illegals were in the market for phony papers than were Vietnamese, Chinese, or those in all other language groups put together. “So the quickest way to get a lead on a supplier of phony paper is through the Latino underworld.”

  “Have you got a lead?”

  “Not yet. Just bits and pieces. And probably ninety-nine percent of what I’ve paid for is nonsense, lies. But don’t worry—we’ll find what we need. That’s why the Tenderloin doesn’t go out of business: people who come here always find what they need.”

  The people who came here surprised Nora. In the streets, in the topless bars, all kinds could be found. Asians, Latinos, whites, blacks, and even Indians mingled in an alcoholic haze, so it seemed as if racial harmony was a beneficial side effect of the pursuit of sin. Guys swaggered around in leather jackets and jeans, guys who looked like hoods, which she expected. But there were also men in business suits, clean-cut college kids, others dressed like cowboys, and wholesome surfer types who looked as if they had stepped out of an old Annette Funicello movie. Bums sat on the pavement or stood on corners, grizzled old winos in reeking clothes, and even some of the business-suit types had a weird glint in their eyes that made you want to run from them, b
ut it seemed as if most of the people here were those who would pass for ordinary upstanding citizens in any decent neighborhood. Nora was amazed.

  Not many women were on the streets or in the company of the men in the bars. No, correct that: there were women to be seen, but they looked more lascivious than the nude dancers, and only a few of them seemed not to be for sale.

  At a topless bar called Hot Tips, which had signs in both Spanish and English, the recorded rock music was so loud Nora got a headache. Six beautiful girls with exquisite bodies, wearing only spike heels and sequined bikini panties, were dancing at the tables, wriggling, writhing, swinging their breasts in the sweaty faces of men who were either mesmerized or hooting and clapping. Other topless girls, equally pretty, were waitressing.

  While Travis spoke in Spanish with the bartender, Nora noticed some of the customers looking at her appraisingly. They gave her the creeps. She kept one hand on Travis’s arm. She couldn’t have been torn away from him with a crowbar.

  The stink of stale beer and whiskey, body odor, the layered scents of various cheap perfumes, and cigarette smoke made the air as heavy as that in a steambath, though less healthful.

  Nora clenched her teeth and thought, I will not be sick and make a fool of myself. I simply will not.

  After a couple of minutes of rapid conversation, Travis passed a pair of twenties to the bartender and was directed to the back of the lounge, where a guy as big as Arnold Schwarzenegger was sitting on a chair beside a doorway that was covered by a densely beaded curtain. He was wearing black leather pants and a white T-shirt. His arms seemed as large as tree trunks. His face looked as if it had been cast in cement, and he had gray eyes almost as transparent as glass. Travis spoke with him in Spanish and passed him two twenties.

  The music faded from a thunderous din to a mere roar. A woman, speaking into a microphone, said, “All right, boys, if you like what you see, then show it—start stuffin’ those pussies.”

  Nora twitched in shock, but as the music rose again, she saw what was meant by the crude announcement: the customers were expected to slip folded five- and ten-dollar bills into the dancers’ panties.

  The hulk in black leather pants got off his chair and led them through the beaded curtain, into a room ten feet wide and eighteen or twenty feet long, where six more young women in spike heels and bikini panties were getting ready to take over from the dancers already on the floor. They were checking their makeup in mirrors, applying lipstick, or just chatting with each other. They were all (she saw) as good-looking as the girls out front. Some of them had hard faces, pretty but hard, though others were as fresh-faced as schoolteachers. All were the kind of women that men probably had in mind when they talked about girls who were “stacked.”

  The hulk led Travis—and Travis led Nora, holding her hand—through that dressing room toward the door at the other end. As they went, one of the topless dancers—a striking blonde—put a hand on Nora’s shoulder and walked beside her.

  “Are you new, honey?”

  “Me? No. Oh, no, I don’t work here.”

  The blonde, who was so well-endowed that Nora felt like a boy, said, “You got the equipment, honey.”

  “Oh, no,” was all Nora could say.

  “You like my equipment?” the blonde asked.

  “Oh, well, you’re very pretty,” Nora said.

  To the blonde, Travis said, “Give it up, sister. The lady doesn’t swing that way.”

  The blonde smiled sweetly. “If she tries it, she might like it.”

  They went through a door, out of the dressing room and into a narrow, shabby, poorly lit hallway before Nora realized she had been propositioned. By a woman!

  She did not know whether to laugh or gag. Probably both.

  The hulk took them to an office at the back of the building and left them, saying, “Mr. Van Dyne will be with you in a minute.”

  The office had gray walls, gray metal chairs, filing cabinets, and a gray metal desk that was battered and scarred. No pictures or calendars hung on the bare walls. No pens or notepads or reports were on the desk. The place looked as if it was seldom used.

  Nora and Travis sat on the two metal chairs in front of the desk.

  The music from the bar was still audible but no longer deafening. When she caught her breath, Nora said, “Where do they all come from?”

  “Who?”

  “All those pretty girls with their perfect boobs and tight little bottoms and long legs, and all of them willing to . . . to do that. Where do so many of them come from?”

  “There’s a breeding farm outside of Modesto,” Travis said.

  She gaped at him.

  He laughed and said, “I’m sorry. I keep forgetting how innocent you are, Mrs. Cornell.” He kissed her cheek. His stubble scratched a little, but it was nice. In spite of wearing yesterday’s clothes and not having shaved, he seemed as clean as a well-scrubbed baby compared to the gauntlet they had run in order to reach this office. He said, “I should answer you straight because you don’t know when I’m joking.”

  She blinked. “Then there isn’t a breeding farm outside Modesto?”

  “No. There’s all kinds of girls who do it. Girls who hope to break into showbiz, go to L.A. to be movie stars but can’t make it, so they drift into places like this in L.A. or they come north to San Francisco or they go to Vegas. Most are decent enough kids. They see this as temporary. Very good money can be made fast. It’s a way to build up a stake before taking another crack at Hollywood. Then there are some, the self-haters, who do it to humiliate themselves. Others are in rebellion from their parents, from their first husbands, from the whole damn world. And some are hookers.”

  “The hookers meet . . . johns here?” she asked.

  “Maybe, maybe not. Some probably dance to have an explicable source of income when the IRS knocks on their doors. They report their earnings as dancers, which gives them a better chance of concealing what they make from turning tricks.”

  “It’s sad,” she said.

  “Yeah. In some cases . . . in a lot of cases, it’s damn sad.”

  Fascinated, she said, “Will we get false IDs from this Van Dyne?”

  “I believe so.”

  She regarded him solemnly. “You really do know your way around, don’t you?”

  “Does it bother you—that I know places like this?”

  She thought a moment. Then: “No. In fact . . . if a woman’s going to take a husband, I suppose he ought to be a man who knows what to do in any situation. It gives me a lot of confidence.”

  “In me?”

  “In you, yes, and confidence that we’re going to get through this all right, that we’re going to save Einstein and ourselves.”

  “Confidence is good. But in Delta Force, one of the first things you learn is that being overly confident can get you killed.”

  The door opened, and the hulk returned with a round-faced man in a gray suit, blue shirt, and black tie.

  “Van Dyne,” the newcomer said, but he did not offer to shake hands.

  He went around the desk and sat in a spring-backed chair. He had thinning blond hair and baby-smooth cheeks. He looked like a stockbroker in a television commercial: efficient, smart, as well-meaning as he was well groomed. “I wanted to talk to you because I want to know who’s spreading these falsehoods about me.”

  Travis said, “We need new ID—driver’s licenses, social security cards, the whole works. First-rate, with full backup, not junk.”

  “That’s what I’m talking about,” Van Dyne said. He raised his eyebrows quizzically. “Where on earth did you get the idea that I’m in that sort of business? I’m afraid you’ve been misinformed.”

  “We need first-rate paper with full backup,” Travis repeated.

  Van Dyne stared at him, at Nora. “Let me see your wallet. And your purse, miss.”

  Putting his wallet on the desk, Travis told Nora, “It’s okay.”

  Reluctantly, she put her purse beside the wallet.


  “Please stand and let Caesar search you,” Van Dyne said.

  Travis stood and motioned for Nora to get up as well.

  Caesar, the cement-faced hulk, searched Travis with embarrassing thoroughness, found the .357 Magnum, put it on the desk. He was even more thorough with Nora, unbuttoning her blouse and boldly feeling the cups of her bra for a miniature microphone, battery, and recorder. She blushed and would not have permitted these intimacies if Travis had not explained to her what Caesar was looking for. Besides, Caesar remained expressionless throughout, as if he were a machine without the potential for erotic response.

  When Caesar was finished with them, they sat down while Van Dyne went through Travis’s wallet and then through Nora’s purse. She was afraid he was going to take their money without giving them anything in return, but he appeared to be interested in only their ID and the butcher’s knife that Nora still carried.

  To Travis, Van Dyne said, “Okay. If you were a cop, you wouldn’t be allowed to carry a Magnum”—he swung out the cylinder and looked at the ammunition—“loaded with magnums. The ACLU would have your ass.” He smiled at Nora. “No policewoman carries a butcher’s knife.”

  Suddenly she understood what Travis meant when he’d said he was carrying the revolver not for protection but for its value as ID.

  Van Dyne and Travis haggled a bit, finally settling on sixty-five hundred as the price for two sets of ID with “full backup.”

  Their belongings, including the butcher’s knife and revolver, were returned to them.

  From the gray office, they followed Van Dyne into the narrow hall, where he dismissed Caesar, then to a set of dimly lit concrete stairs leading to a basement beneath Hot Tips, where the rock music was further filtered by the intervening concrete floor.

  Nora was not sure what she expected to find in the basement: maybe men who all looked like Edward G. Robinson and wore green eye shades on elastic bands and labored over antique printing presses, producing not just false identification papers but stacks of phony currency. What she found, instead, surprised her.

  The steps ended in a stone-walled storage room about forty by thirty feet. Bar supplies were stacked to shoulder height. They walked along a narrow aisle formed by cartons of whiskey, beer, and cocktail napkins, to a steel fire door in the rear wall. Van Dyne pushed a button in the door frame, and a closed-circuit security camera made a purring sound as it panned them.

  The door was opened from inside, and they went through into a smaller room with subdued lighting, where two young bearded guys were working at two of seven computers lined up on work tables along one wall. The first guy was wearing soft Rockport shoes, safari pants, a web belt, and a cotton safari shirt. The other wore Reeboks, jeans, and a sweatshirt that featured the Three Stooges. They looked almost like twins, and both resembled young versions of Steven Spielberg. They were so intensely involved with their computer work that they did not look up at Nora and Travis and Van Dyne, but they were having fun, too, talking exuberantly to themselves, to their machines, and to each other in high-tech language that made no sense whatsoever to Nora.

  A woman in her early twenties was also at work in the room. She had short blond hair and oddly beautiful eyes the color of pennies. While Van Dyne spoke with the two guys at the computers, the woman took Travis and Nora to the far end of the room, put them in front of a white screen, and photographed them for the phony driver’s licenses.

  When the blonde disappeared into a darkroom to develop the film, Travis and Nora rejoined Van Dyne at the computers, where the young men were working happily. Nora watched them accessing the supposedly secure computers of the California Department of Motor Vehicles and the Social Security Administration, as well as those of other federal, state, and local government agencies.

  “When I told Mr. Van Dyne that I wanted ID with ‘full backup,’ ” Travis explained, “I meant the driver’s licenses must be able to stand up to inspection if we’re ever stopped by a highway patrolman who runs a check on them. The licenses we’re getting are indistinguishable from the real thing. These guys are inserting our new names into the DMV’s files, actually creating computer records of these licenses in the state’s data banks.”

  Van Dyne said, “The addresses are phony, of course. But when you settle down somewhere, under your new names, you just apply to the DMV for a change of address like the law requires, and then you’ll be perfectly legit. We’re setting these up to expire in about a year, at which time you’ll go into a DMV office, take the usual test, and get brand-new licenses because your new names are in their files.”

  “What’re our new names?” Nora wondered.

  “You see,” Van Dyne said, speaking with the quiet assurance and patience of a stockbroker explaining the market to a new investor, “we have to start with birth certificates. We keep computer files of infant deaths all over the western United States, going back at least fifty years. We’ve already searched those lists for the years each of you was born, trying to find babies who died with your hair and eye colors—and with your first names, too, just because it’s easier for you not to have to change both first and last. We found a little girl, Nora Jean Aimes, born October twelfth of the year you were born and who died one month later, right here in San Francisco. We have a laser printer with virtually an infinite choice of type styles and sizes, with which we’ve already produced a facsimile of the kind of birth certificate that was in use in San Francisco at that time, and it bears Nora Jean’s name, vital statistics. We’ll make two Xeroxes of it, and you’ll receive both. Next, we tapped into the Social Security files and appropriated a number for Nora Jean Aimes, who never was given one, and we also created a history of Social Security tax payments.” He smiled. “You’ve already paid in enough quarters to qualify you for a pension when you retire. Likewise, the IRS now has computer records that show you’ve worked as a waitress in half a dozen cities and that you’ve faithfully paid your taxes every year.”

  Travis said, “With a birth certificate and legitimate Social Security number, they were then able to get a driver’s license that would have real ID behind it.”

 
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