Watchers by Dean Koontz


  “So I’m Nora Jean Aimes? But if her birth certificate’s on record, so is her death certificate. If someone wanted to check—”

  Van Dyne shook his head. “In those days, both birth and death certificates were strictly paper documents, no computer files. And because it squanders more money that it spends wisely, the government has never had the funds to transfer records of the precomputer era into electronic data banks. So if someone gets suspicious about you, they can’t just search out the death records on computer and learn the truth in two minutes flat. They’d have to go to the courthouse, dig back through the coroner’s files for that year, and find Nora Jean’s death certificate. But that won’t happen because part of our service involves having Nora Jean’s certificate removed from public records and destroyed now that you’ve bought her identity.”

  “We’re into TRW, the credit-reporting agency,” one of the twin Spielberg look-alikes said with obvious delight.

  Nora saw data flickering across the green screens, but none of it had any meaning for her.

  “They’re creating solid credit histories for our new identities,” Travis told her. “By the time we do settle down somewhere and put in a change of address with the DMV and TRW, our mailbox will be flooded with offers for credit cards—Visa, Mastercard, probably even American Express and Carte Blanche.”

  “Nora Jean Aimes,” she said numbly, trying to grasp how quickly and thoroughly her new life was being built.

  Because they could locate no infant who had died in the year of Travis’s birth with his first name, he had to settle for being Samuel Spencer Hyatt, who had been born that January and had perished that March in Portland, Oregon. The death would be expunged from the public record, and Travis’s new identity would stand up to fairly intense scrutiny.

  Strictly for fun (they said), the bearded young operators created a military record for Travis, crediting him six years in the Marines and awarding him a Purple Heart plus a couple of citations for bravery during a peacekeeping-mission-turned-violent in the Middle East. To their delight, he asked if they could also create a valid real-estate broker’s license under his new name, and within twenty-five minutes they cracked into the right data banks and did the job.

  “Cake and pie,” one of the young men said.

  “Cake and pie,” the other echoed.

  Nora frowned, not understanding.

  “Piece of cake,” one of them explained.

  “Easy as pie,” the other said.

  “Cake and pie,” Nora said, nodding.

  The blonde with copper-penny eyes returned, carrying driver’s licenses imprinted with Travis’s and Nora’s pictures. “You’re both quite photogenic,” she said.

  Two hours and twenty minutes after meeting Van Dyne, they left Hot Tips with two manila envelopes containing a variety of documents supporting their new identities. Out on the street, Nora felt a little dizzy and held on to Travis’s arm all the way back to the car.

  Fog had rolled through the city while they had been in Hot Tips. The blinking lights and flashing-rippling neon of the Tenderloin were softened yet curiously magnified by the mist, so it seemed as if every cubic centimeter of night air was awash with strange lights, with an aurora borealis brought down to ground level. Those sleazy streets had a certain mystery and cheap allure after dark, in the fog, but not if you’d seen them in daylight first and remembered what you had seen.

  In the Mercedes, Einstein was waiting patiently.

  “Couldn’t arrange to have you turned into a poodle, after all,” Nora told him as she buckled her seat belt. “But we sure did ourselves up right. Einstein, say hello to Sam Hyatt and Nora Aimes.”

  The retriever put his head over the front seat, looked at her, looked at Travis, and snorted once as if to say they could not fool him, that he knew who they were.

  To Travis, Nora said, “Your antiterrorist training . . . is that where you learned about places like Hot Tips, people like Van Dyne? Is that where terrorists get new ID once they slip into the country?”

  “Yeah, some go to people like Van Dyne, though not usually. The Soviets supply papers for most terrorists. Van Dyne services mostly ordinary illegal immigrants, though not the poor ones, and criminal types looking to dodge arrest warrants.”

  As he started the car, she said, “But if you could find Van Dyne, maybe the people looking for us can find him.”

  “Maybe. It’ll take them a while, but maybe they can.”

  “Then they’ll find out all about our new identities.”

  “No,” Travis said. He turned on the defroster and the windshield wipers to clear the condensation off the outside of the glass. “Van Dyne wouldn’t keep records. He doesn’t want to be caught with proof of what he does. If the authorities ever tumble to him and go in there with search warrants, they won’t find anything in Van Dyne’s computers except the accounting and purchasing records for Hot Tips.”

  As they drove through the city, heading for the Golden Gate Bridge, Nora stared in fascination at the people in the streets and in other cars, not just in the Tenderloin but in every neighborhood through which they passed. She wondered how many of them were living under the names and identities with which they had been born and how many were changelings like her and Travis.

  “In less than three hours, we’ve been totally remade,” she said.

  “Some world we live in, huh? More than anything else, that’s what high technology means—maximum fluidity. The whole world is becoming ever more fluid, malleable. Most financial transactions are now handled with electronic money that flashes from New York to L.A.—or around the world—in seconds. Money crosses borders in a blink; it no longer has to be smuggled out past the guards. Most records are kept in the form of electrical charges that only computers read. So everything’s fluid. Identities are fluid. The past is fluid.”

  Nora said, “Even the genetic structure of a species is fluid these days.”

  Einstein woofed agreement.

  Nora said, “Scary, isn’t it?”

  “A little,” Travis said as they approached the light-bedecked southern entrance to the fog-mantled Golden Gate Bridge, which was all but invisible in the mist. “But maximum fluidity is basically a good thing. Social and financial fluidity guarantee freedom. I believe—and I hope—that we’re heading toward an age when the role of governments will inevitably dwindle, when there’ll be no way to regulate and control people as thoroughly as was possible in the past. Totalitarian governments won’t be able to stay in power.”

  “How so?”

  “Well, how can a dictatorship control its citizens in a high-tech society of maximum fluidity? The only way is to refuse to allow high tech to intrude, seal the borders, and live entirely in an earlier age. But that’d be national suicide for any country that tried it. They couldn’t compete. In a few decades, they’d be modern aborigines, primitive by the standards of the civilized high-tech world. Right now, for instance, the Soviets try to restrict computers to their defense industry, which can’t last. They’ll have to computerize their entire economy and teach their people to use computers—and then how can they keep the screws tight when their citizens have been given the means to manipulate the system and foil its controls on them?”

  At the entrance to the bridge, no northbound toll was collected. They drove onto the span, where the speed limit had been drastically reduced because of the weather.

  Looking up at the ghostly skeleton of the bridge, which glistened with condensation and vanished in the fog, Nora said, “You seem to think the world will be paradise in a decade or two.”

  “Not paradise,” he said. “Easier, richer, safer, happier. But not a paradise. After all, there will still be all the problems of the human heart and all the potential sicknesses of the human mind. And the new world’s bound to bring us some new dangers as well as blessings.”

  “Like the thing that killed your landlord,” she said.

  “Yes.”

  In the back seat, Einstein gro
wled.

  12

  That Thursday afternoon, August 26, Vince Nasco drove to Johnny The Wire Santini’s place in San Clemente to pick up the past week’s report, which was when he learned of the murder of Ted Hockney in Santa Barbara the previous evening. The condition of the corpse, especially the missing eyes, linked it to The Outsider. Johnny had also ascertained that the NSA had quietly assumed jurisdiction in the case, which convinced Vince it was related to the Banodyne fugitives.

  That evening, he got a newspaper and, over a dinner of seafood enchiladas and Dos Equis at a Mexican restaurant, he read about Hockney and about the man who had rented the house where the murder occurred— Travis Cornell. The press was reporting that Cornell, a former real-estate broker who had once been a member of Delta Force, kept a panther in the house and that the cat had killed Hockney, but Vince knew that the cat was bullshit, just a cover story. The cops said they wanted to talk to Cornell and to an unidentified woman seen with him, though they had not filed any charges against them.

  The story also had one line about Cornell’s dog: “Cornell and the woman may be traveling with a golden retriever.”

  If I can find Cornell, Vince thought, I’ll find the dog.

  This was the first break he’d had, and it confirmed his feeling that owning the retriever was a part of his great destiny.

  To celebrate, he ordered more seafood enchiladas and beer.

  13

  Travis, Nora, and Einstein stayed Thursday night at a motel in Marin County, north of San Francisco. They got a six-pack of San Miguel at a convenience store and take-out chicken, biscuits, and coleslaw from a fast-food restaurant, and ate a late dinner in the room.

  Einstein enjoyed the chicken and showed considerable interest in the beer.

  Travis decided to pour half a bottle in the new yellow plastic dish they had gotten the retriever during their shopping spree earlier in the day. “But no more than half a bottle, no matter how much you like it. I want you sober for some questions and answers.”

  After dinner, the three of them sat on the king-size bed, and Travis unwrapped the Scrabble game. He put the board upside down on the mattress, with the playing surface concealed, and Nora helped him sort all the lettered game tiles into twenty-six piles.

  Einstein watched with interest and did not seem even slightly woozy from his half-bottle of San Miguel.

  “Okay,” Travis said, “I need more detailed answers than we’ve been able to get with yes-and-no questions. It occurred to me that this might work.”

  “Ingenious,” Nora agreed.

  To the dog, Travis said, “I ask you a question, and you indicate the letters that are needed to spell out the answer, one letter at a time, word by word. You got it?”

  Einstein blinked at Travis, looked at the stacks of lettered tiles, raised his eyes to Travis again, and grinned.

  Travis said, “All right. Do you know the name of the laboratory from which you escaped?”

  Einstein put his nose to the pile of Bs.

  Nora plucked a tile off the stack and put it on the portion of the board that Travis had left clear.

  In less than a minute, the dog spelled BANODYNE.

  “Banodyne,” Travis said thoughtfully. “Never heard of it. Is that the entire name?”

  Einstein hesitated, then began to choose more letters until he had spelled out BANODYNE LABORATORIES INC.

  On a pad of motel stationery, Travis made a note of the answer, then returned all the tiles to their individual stacks. “Where is Banodyne located?”

  IRVINE.

  “That makes sense,” Travis said. “I found you in the woods north of Irvine. All right . . . I found you on Tuesday, May eighteenth. When had you escaped from Banodyne?”

  Einstein stared at the tiles, whined, and made no choices.

  “In all the reading you’ve done,” Travis said, “you’ve learned about months, weeks, days, and hours. You have a sense of time now.”

  Looking at Nora, the dog whined again.

  She said, “He has a sense of time now, but he didn’t have one when he escaped, so it’s hard to remember how long he was on the run.”

  Einstein immediately began to indicate letters: THATS RIGHT.

  “Do you know the names of any researchers at Banodyne?”

  DAVIS WEATHERBY.

  Travis made a note of the name. “Any others?”

  Hesitating frequently to consider possible spellings, Einstein finally produced LAWTON HANES, AL HUDSTUN, and a few more.

  After noting all of them on the motel stationery, Travis said, “These will be some of the people looking for you.”

  YES. AND JOHNSON.

  “Johnson?” Nora said. “Is he one of the scientists?”

  NO. The retriever thought for a moment, studied the stacks of letters, and finally continued: SECURITY.

  “He’s head of security at Banodyne?” Travis asked.

  NO. BIGGER.

  “Probably a federal agent of some kind,” Travis told Nora as she returned the letters to their stacks.

  To Einstein, Nora said, “Do you know this Johnson’s first name?”

  Einstein gazed at the letters and mewled, and Travis was about to tell him it was all right if he didn’t know Johnson’s first name, but then the dog attempted to spell it: LEMOOOL.

  “There is no such name,” Nora said, taking the letters away.

  Einstein tried again: LAMYOULL. Then again: LIMUUL.

  “That’s not a name, either,” Travis said.

  A third time: LEMB YOU WILL.

  Travis realized the dog was struggling to spell the name phonetically. He chose six lettered tiles of his own: LEMUEL.

  “Lemuel Johnson,” Nora said.

  Einstein leaned forward and nuzzled her neck. He was wiggling with pleasure at having gotten the name across to them, and the springs of the motel bed creaked.

  Then he stopped nuzzling Nora and spelled DARK LEMUEL.

  “Dark?” Travis said. “By ‘dark’ you mean Johnson is . . . evil?”

  NO. DARK.

  Nora restacked the letters and said, “Dangerous?”

  Einstein snorted at her, then at Travis, as if to say they were sometimes unbearably thickheaded. NO. DARK.

  For a moment they sat in silence, thinking, and at last Travis said, “Black! You mean Lemuel Johnson is a black man.”

  Einstein chuffed softly, shook his head up and down, swept his tail back and forth on the bedspread. He indicated nineteen letters, his longest answer: THERES HOPE FOR YOU YET.

  Nora laughed.

  Travis said, “Wiseass.”

  But he was exhilarated, filled with a joy that he would have been hard-pressed to describe if he had been required to put it into words. They had been communicating with the retriever for many weeks, but the Scrabble tiles provided a far greater dimension to their communication than they had enjoyed previously. More than ever, Einstein seemed to be their own child. But there was also an intoxicating feeling of breaking through the barriers of normal human experience, a feeling of transcendence. Einstein was no ordinary mutt, of course, and his high intelligence was more human than canine, but he was a dog—more than anything else, a dog—and his intelligence was still qualitatively different from that of a man, so there was inevitably a strong sense of mystery and great wonder in this interspecies dialogue. Staring at THERES HOPE FOR YOU YET, Travis thought a broader meaning could be read into the message, that it could be directed at all humankind.

  For the next half an hour, they continued questioning Einstein, and Travis recorded the dog’s answers. In time they discussed the yellow-eyed beast that had killed Ted Hockney.

  “What is the damned thing?” Nora asked.

  THE OUTSIDER.

  Travis said, “ ‘The Outsider’? What do you mean?”

  THATS WHAT THEY CALLED IT.

  “The people in the lab?” Travis asked. “Why did they call it The Outsider?”

  BECAUSE IT DOES NOT BELONG.

  No
ra said, “I don’t understand.”

  TWO SUCCESSES. ME AND IT. I AM DOG. IT IS NOTHING THAT CAN BE NAMED. OUTSIDER.

  Travis said, “It’s intelligent, too?”

  YES.

  “As intelligent as you?”

  MAYBE.

  “Jesus,” Travis said, shaken.

  Einstein made an unhappy sound and put his head on Nora’s knee, seeking the reassurance that petting could provide him.

  Travis said, “Why would they create a thing like that?”

  Einstein returned to the stacks of letters: TO KILL FOR THEM.

  A chill trickled down Travis’s spine and seeped deep into him. “Who did they want it to kill?”

  THE ENEMY.

  “What enemy?” Nora asked.

  IN WAR.

  With understanding came revulsion bordering on nausea. Travis sagged back against the headboard. He remembered telling Nora that even a world without want and with universal freedom would fall far short of paradise because of all the problems of the human heart and all the potential sicknesses of the human mind.

  To Einstein, he said, “So you’re telling us that The Outsider is a prototype of a genetically engineered soldier. Sort of . . . a very intelligent, deadly police dog designed for the battlefield.”

  IT WAS MADE TO KILL. IT WANTS TO KILL.

  Reading the words as she laid out the tiles, Nora was appalled. “But this is crazy. How could such a thing ever be controlled? How could it be counted on not to turn against its masters?”

  Travis leaned forward from the headboard. To Einstein, he said, “Why is The Outsider looking for you?”

  HATES ME.

  “Why does it hate you?”

  DONT KNOW.

  As Nora replaced the letters, Travis said, “Will it continue looking for you?”

  YES. FOREVER.

  “But how does something like that move unseen?”

  AT NIGHT.

  “Nevertheless . . .”

  LIKE RATS MOVE UNSEEN.

  Looking puzzled, Nora said, “But how does it track you?”

  FEELS ME.

  “Feels you? What do you mean?” she asked.

  The retriever puzzled over that one for a long time, making several false starts on an answer, and finally said, CANT EXPLAIN.

 
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