Watchers by Dean Koontz


  “Can you feel it, too?” Travis asked.

  SOMETIMES.

  “Do you feel it now?”

  YES. FAR AWAY.

  “Very far away,” Travis agreed. “Hundreds of miles. Can it really feel you and track you from that far away?”

  EVEN FARTHER.

  “Is it tracking you now?”

  COMING.

  The chill in Travis grew icier. “When will it find you?”

  DONT KNOW.

  The dog looked dejected, and he was shivering again.

  “Soon? Will it feel its way to you soon?”

  MAYBE NOT SOON.

  Travis saw that Nora was pale. He put a hand on her knee and said, “We won’t run from it the rest of our lives. Damned if we will. We’ll find a place to settle down and wait, a place where we’ll be able to prepare a defense and where we’ll have the privacy to deal with The Outsider when it arrives.”

  Shivering, Einstein indicated more letters with his nose, and Travis laid out the tiles: I SHOULD GO.

  “What do you mean?” Travis asked, replacing the tiles.

  I DANGER YOU.

  Nora threw her arms around the retriever and hugged him. “Don’t you even think such a thing. You’re part of us. You’re family, damn you, we’re all family, we’re all in this together, and we stick it out together because that’s what families do.” She stopped hugging the dog and took his head in both hands, met him nose to nose, peered deep into his eyes. “If I woke up some morning and found you’d left us, it’d break my heart.” Tears shimmered in her eyes, a tremor in her voice. “Do you understand me, fur face? It would break my heart if you went off on your own.”

  The dog pulled away from her and began to choose lettered tiles again: I WOULD DIE.

  “You would die if you left us?” Travis asked.

  The dog chose more letters, waited for them to study the words, then looked solemnly at each of them to be sure they understood what he meant: I WOULD DIE OF LONELY.

  part two

  GUARDIAN

  Love alone is capable of uniting living beings in such a way as to complete and fulfill them, for it alone takes them and joins them by what is deepest in themselves.

  —Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

  Greater love hath no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.

  —The Gospel According to Saint John

  chapter eight

  1

  On the Thursday that Nora drove to Dr. Weingold’s office, Travis and Einstein went for a walk across the grassy hills and through the woods behind the house they had bought in the beautiful California coastal region called Big Sur.

  On the treeless hills, the autumn sun warmed the stones and cast scattered cloud shadows. The breeze off the Pacific drew a whisper from the dry golden grass. In the sun, the air was mild, neither hot nor cool. Travis was comfortable in jeans and a long-sleeved shirt.

  He carried a Mossberg short-barreled pistol-grip pump-action 12-gauge shotgun. He always carried it on his walks. If he ever encountered someone who asked about it, he intended to tell them he was hunting rattlesnakes.

  Where the trees grew most vigorously, the bright morning seemed like late afternoon, and the air was cool enough to make Travis glad that his shirt was flannel. Massive pines, a few small groves of giant redwoods, and a variety of foothill hardwoods filtered the sun and left much of the forest floor in perpetual twilight. The undergrowth was dense in places: the vegetation included those low, impenetrable thickets of evergreen oaks sometimes called “chaparral,” plus lots of ferns that flourished because of the frequent fog and the constant humidity of the seacoast air.

  Einstein repeatedly sniffed out cougar spoor and insisted on showing Travis the tracks of the big cats in the damp forest soil. Fortunately, he fully understood the danger of stalking a mountain lion, and was able to repress his natural urge to prowl after them.

  The dog contented himself with merely observing local fauna. Timid deer could often be seen ascending or descending their trails. Raccoons were plentiful and fun to watch, and although some were quite friendly, Einstein knew they could turn nasty if he accidentally frightened them; he chose to keep a respectful distance.

  On other walks, the retriever had been dismayed to discover the squirrels, which he could approach safely, were terrified of him. They froze with fear, stared wild-eyed, small hearts pounding visibly.

  WHY SQUIRRELS AFRAID? he had asked Travis one evening.

  “Instinct,” Travis had explained. “You’re a dog, and they know instinctively that dogs will attack and kill them.”

  NOT ME.

  “No, not you,” Travis agreed, ruffling the dog’s coat. “You wouldn’t hurt them. But the squirrels don’t know you’re different, do they? To them, you look like a dog, and you smell like a dog, so you’ve got to be feared like a dog.”

  I LIKE SQUIRRELS.

  “I know. Unfortunately, they’re not smart enough to realize it.” Consequently, Einstein kept his distance from the squirrels and tried hard not to terrify them, often sauntering past with his head turned the other way as if unaware of them.

  This special day, their interest in squirrels and deer and birds and raccoons and unusual forest flora was minimal. Even views of the Pacific did not intrigue them. Today, unlike other days, they were walking only to pass the time and to keep their minds off Nora.

  Travis repeatedly looked at his watch, and he chose a circular route that would bring them back to the house at one o’clock, when Nora was expected to return.

  It was the twenty-first of October, eight weeks after they had acquired new identities in San Francisco. After considerable thought, they had decided to come south, substantially reducing the distance that The Outsider would have to travel in order to put its hands on Einstein. They would not be able to get on with their new lives until the beast found them, until they killed it; therefore, they wanted to hasten rather than delay that confrontation.

  On the other hand, they did not want to risk returning too far south toward Santa Barbara, for The Outsider might cover the distance between them faster than it had traveled from Orange County to Santa Barbara last summer. They could not be certain that it would continue to make only three or four miles a day. If it moved faster this time, it might come upon them before they were ready for it. The Big Sur area, because of its sparse population and because it was a hundred ninety air miles from Santa Barbara, seemed ideal. If The Outsider got a fix on Einstein and tracked him down as slowly as before, the thing would not arrive for almost five months. If it doubled its speed somehow, swiftly crossing the open farmland and the wild hills between there and here, quickly skirting populated areas, it would still not reach them until the second week of November.

  That day was drawing near, but Travis was satisfied that he had made every preparation possible, and he almost welcomed The Outsider’s arrival. Thus far, however, Einstein said that he did not feel his adversary was dangerously close. Evidently, they still had plenty of time to test their patience before the showdown.

  By twelve-fifty, they reached the end of their circular route through the hills and canyons, returning to the yard behind their new house. It was a two-story structure with bleached-wood walls, a cedar-shingled roof, and massive stone chimneys on both the north and south sides. It boasted front and rear porches on the east and west, and either vantage point offered a view of wooded slopes.

  Because no snow ever fell here, the roof was only gently pitched, making it possible to walk all over it, and that was where Travis made one of his first defensive modifications to the house. He looked up now, as he came out of the trees, and saw the herringbone pattern of two-by-fours that he had fixed across the roof. They would make it safer and easier to move quickly across those sloped surfaces. If The Outsider crept up on the house at night, it would not be able to enter by the downstairs windows because, at sundown, those were barricaded with interior locking shutters that Travis had installed himself and that wou
ld foil any would-be intruder except, perhaps, a maniacally determined man with an ax. The Outsider would then most likely climb the porch post onto the front or rear porch roof to have a look at the second-floor windows, which it would find also protected by interior shutters. Meanwhile, warned of the enemy’s approach by an infrared alarm system that he had installed around the house three weeks ago, Travis would go onto the roof by way of an attic trapdoor. Up there, making use of the two-by-four handholds, he would be able to creep to the edge of the main roof, look down on the porch roof or on any portion of the surrounding yard, and open fire on The Outsider from a position where it could not reach him.

  Twenty yards behind and east of the house was a small rust-red barn that backed up to the trees. Their property included no tillable land, and the original owner apparently erected the barn to house a couple of horses and some chickens. Travis and Nora used it as a garage because the dirt driveway led two hundred yards in from the highway, past the house, directly to the double doors on the barn.

  Travis suspected that, when The Outsider arrived, it would scout the house from the woods and then from the cover of the barn. It might even wait in there, hoping to catch them by surprise when they came out for the Dodge pickup or the Toyota. Therefore, he had rigged the barn with a few surprises.

  Their nearest neighbors—whom they had met only once—were over a quarter-mile to the north, out of sight beyond trees and chaparral. The highway, which was closer, was not much traveled at night, when The Outsider was most likely to strike. If the confrontation involved a great deal of gunfire, the shots would echo and reecho through the woods and across the bare hills, so the few people in the area—neighbors or passing motorists— would have trouble determining where the noise originated. He ought to be able to kill the creature and bury it before someone came nosing around.

  Now, more worried about Nora than about The Outsider, Travis climbed the back-porch steps, unlocked the two dead bolts on the rear door, and went into the house, with Einstein close behind him. The kitchen was large enough to serve also as the dining room, yet it was cozy: oak walls, a Mexican-tile floor, beige-tile counters, oak cabinets, a hand-textured plaster ceiling, the best appliances. The big plank table with four comfortable padded chairs and a stone fireplace helped make this the center of the house.

  There were five other rooms—an enormous living room and a den at the front of the first floor; three bedrooms upstairs—plus one bath down and one up. One of the bedrooms was theirs, and one served as Nora’s studio where she had done a little painting since they moved in—and the third was empty, awaiting developments.

  Travis switched on the kitchen lights. Although the house seemed isolated, they were only two hundred yards from the highway, and power poles followed the line of their dirt driveway.

  “I’m having a beer,” Travis said. “You want anything?”

  Einstein padded to his empty water dish, which was in the corner beside his food dish, and scooted it across the floor to the sink.

  They had not expected to be able to afford such a house so soon after fleeing Santa Barbara—especially not when, during their first call to Garrison Dilworth, the attorney informed them that Travis’s bank accounts had, indeed, been frozen. They had been lucky to get the twenty-thousand-dollar check through. Garrison had converted some of both Travis’s and Nora’s funds into eight cashier’s checks as planned, and had sent them to Travis addressed to Mr. Samuel Spencer Hyatt (the new persona), care of the Marin County motel where they had stayed for nearly a week. But also, claiming to have sold Nora’s house for a handsome six-figure price, he had sent another packet of cashier’s checks two days later, to the same motel.

  Speaking with him from a pay phone, Nora had said, “But even if you did sell it, they can’t have paid the money and closed the deal so soon.”

  “No,” Garrison had admitted. “It won’t close for a month. But you need the cash now, so I’m advancing it to you.”

  They had opened two accounts at a bank in Carmel, thirty-odd miles north of where they now lived. They had bought the new pickup, then had taken Garrison’s Mercedes north to the San Francisco airport, leaving it there for him. Heading south again, past Carmel and along the coast, they looked for a house in the Big Sur area. When they had found this one, they had been able to pay cash for it. It was wiser to buy than rent, and it was wiser to pay cash rather than finance the house, for fewer questions needed to be answered.

  Travis was sure their ID would stand up, but he saw no reason to test the quality of Van Dyne’s papers until necessary. Besides, after buying a house, they were more respectable; the purchase added substance to their new identities.

  While Travis got a bottle of beer from the refrigerator, twisted off the cap, took a long swallow, then filled Einstein’s dish with water, the retriever went to the walk-in pantry. The door was ajar, as always, and the dog opened it all the way. He put one paw on a pedal that Travis had rigged for him just inside the pantry door, and the light came on in there.

  In addition to shelves of canned and bottled goods, the huge pantry contained a complex gadget that Travis and Nora had built to facilitate communication with the dog. The device stood against the rear wall: twenty-eight one-inch-square tubes made of Lucite, lined up side by side in a wooden frame; each tube was eighteen inches tall, open at the top, and fitted with a pedal-release valve at the bottom. In the first twenty-six tubes were stacked lettered tiles from six Scrabble games, so Einstein would have enough letters to be able to form long messages. On the front of each tube was a hand-drawn letter that showed what it contained; A, B, C, D, and so on. The last two tubes held blank game tiles on which Travis had carved commas—or apostrophes—and question marks. (They’d decided they could figure where the periods were supposed to go.) Einstein was able to dispense letters from the tubes by stepping on the pedals, then could use his nose to form the tiles into words on the pantry floor. They had chosen to put the device in there, out of sight, so they would not be required to explain it to neighbors who might drop in unexpectedly.

  As Einstein busily pumped pedals and clicked tiles against one another, Travis carried his beer and the dog’s water dish out to the front porch, where they would sit and wait for Nora. By the time he came back, Einstein had finished forming a message.

  COULD I HAVE SOME HAMBURGER? OR THREE WEENIES?

  Travis said, “I’m going to have lunch with Nora when she gets home. Don’t you want to wait and eat with us?”

  The retriever licked his chops and thought for a moment. Then he studied the letters he had already used, pushed some of them aside, and reused the rest along with a K and a T and an apostrophe that he had to release from the Lucite tubes.

  OK. BUT I’M STARVED.

  “You’ll survive,” Travis told him. He gathered up the lettered tiles and sorted them into the open tops of the proper tubes.

  He retrieved the pistol-grip shotgun that he’d stood by the back door and carried it out to the front porch, where he put it beside his rocking chair. He heard Einstein turn off the pantry light and follow him.

  They sat in anxious silence, Travis in his chair, Einstein on the redwood floor.

  Songbirds trilled in the mild October air.

  Travis sipped at his beer, and Einstein lapped occasionally at his water, and they stared down the dirt driveway, into the trees, toward the highway that they could not see.

  In the glove compartment of the Toyota, Nora had a .38 pistol loaded with hollow-point cartridges. During the weeks since they had left Marin County, she had learned to drive and, with Travis’s help, had become proficient with the .38—also with a fully automatic Uzi pistol and a shotgun. She only had the .38 today, but she’d be safe going and coming from Carmel. Besides, even if The Outsider had crept into the area without Einstein’s knowledge, it did not want Nora; it wanted the dog. So she was perfectly safe.

  But where was she?

  Travis wished he had gone with her. But after thirty years of de
pendency and fear, solo trips into Carmel were one of the means by which she asserted—and tested—her new strength, independence, and self-confidence. She would not have welcomed his company.

  By one-thirty, when Nora was half an hour late, Travis began to get a sick, twisting feeling in his gut.

  Einstein began to pace.

  Five minutes later, the retriever was the first to hear the car turning into the foot of the driveway at the main road. He dashed down the porch steps, which were at the side of the house, and stood at the edge of the dirt lane.

  Travis did not want Nora to see that he had been overly worried because somehow that would seem to indicate a lack of trust in her ability to take care of herself, an ability that she did, indeed, possess and that she prized. He remained in his rocking chair, his bottle of Corona in one hand.

  When the blue Toyota appeared, he sighed with relief. As she went by the house, she tooted the horn. Travis waved as if he had not been sitting there under a leaden blanket of fear.

  Einstein went to the garage to greet her, and a minute later they both reappeared. She was wearing blue jeans and a yellow- and white-checkered shirt, but Travis thought she looked good enough to waltz onto a dance floor among begowned and bejeweled princesses.

  She came to him, leaned down, kissed him. Her lips were warm.

  She said, “Miss me terribly?”

  “With you gone, there was no sun, no trilling from the birds, no joy.” He tried to say it flippantly, but it came out with an underlying note of seriousness.

  Einstein rubbed against her and whined to get her attention, then peered up at her and woofed softly, as if to say, Well?

  “He’s right,” Travis said. “You’re not being fair. Don’t keep us in suspense.”

  “I am,” she said.

  “You are?”

  She grinned. “Knocked up.”

  “Oh my,” he said.

  “Preggers. With child. In a family way. A mother-to-be.”

  He got up and put his arms around her, held her close and kissed her, and said, “Dr. Weingold couldn’t be mistaken,” and she said, “No, he’s a good doctor,” and Travis said, “He must’ve told you when,” and she said, “We can expect the baby the third week of June,” and Travis said stupidly, “Next June?” and she laughed and said, “I don’t intend to carry this baby for a whole extra year,” and finally Einstein insisted on having a chance to nuzzle her and express his delight.

  “I brought home a chilled bottle of bubbly to celebrate,” she said, thrusting a paper bag into his hands.

  In the kitchen, when he took the bottle out of the bag, he saw that it was sparkling apple cider, nonalcoholic. He said, “Isn’t this a celebration worth the best champagne?”

  Getting glasses from a cupboard, she said, “I’m probably being silly, a world-champion worrier . . . but I’m taking no chances, Travis. I never thought I’d have a baby, never dared dream it, and now I’ve got this hinkey feeling that I was never meant to have it and that it’s going to be taken away from me if I don’t take every precaution, if I don’t do everything just right. So I’m not taking another drink until it’s born. I’m not going to eat too much red meat, and I’m going to eat more vegetables. I never have smoked, so that’s not a worry. I’m going to gain exactly as much weight as Dr. Weingold tells me I should, and I’m going to do my exercises, and I’m going to have the most perfect baby the world has ever seen.”

  “Of course you are,” he said, filling their wineglasses with sparkling apple cider and pouring some in a dish for Einstein.

  “Nothing will go wrong,” she said.

  “Nothing,” he said.

  They toasted the baby—and Einstein, who was going to make a terrific godfather, uncle, grandfather, and furry guardian angel.

  Nobody mentioned The Outsider.

  Later that night, in bed in the dark, after they had made love and were just holding each other, listening to their hearts beating in unison, he dared to say, “Maybe, with what might be coming our way, we shouldn’t be having a baby just now.”

  “Hush,” she said.

  “But—”

  “We didn’t plan for this baby,” she said. “In fact, we took precautions against it. But it happened anyway. There’s something special about the fact that it happened in spite of all our careful precautions. Don’t you think? In spite of all I said before, about maybe not being meant to have it . . . well, that’s just the old Nora talking. The new Nora thinks we were meant to have it, that it’s a great gift to us—as Einstein was.”

  “But considering what may be coming—”

  “That doesn’t matter,” she said. “We’ll deal with that. We’ll come out of that all right. We’re ready. And then we’ll have the baby and really begin our life together. I love you, Travis.”

  “I love you,” he said. “God, I love you.”

  He realized how much she had changed from the mousy woman he’d met in Santa Barbara last spring. Right now, she was the strong one, the determined one, and
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