Watchers by Dean Koontz


  Looking around at the wallowing boats and wind-chopped water, feeling as if he was moving instead of standing still in a moving world, a little queasy, Lem said, “Yeah . . . my dad was a great guy in his way, but he was also . . . impossible.”

  Hank Gorner shouted, “Hey!” He was running along the dock from the Cheoy Lee where he and Cliff had been stationed all day. “I’ve just been on with the Guard cutter. They’re playing their searchlight over the Amazing Grace, intimidating a little, and they tell me they don’t see Dilworth. Just the woman.”

  Lem said, “But, Christ, he’s running the boat!”

  “No,” Gorner said. “There’s no lights in the Amazing Grace, but the Guard’s searchlight brightens up the whole thing, and they say the woman’s at the wheel.”

  “It’s all right. He’s just below deck,” Cliff said.

  “No,” Lem said as his heart started to pound. “He wouldn’t be below deck at a time like this. He’d be studying the cutter, deciding whether to keep going or turn back. He’s not on the Amazing Grace.”

  “But he has to be! He didn’t get off before she pulled out of the dock.”

  Lem stared out across the crystalline-clear harbor, toward the light near the end of the northern breakwater. “You said the damn boat swung out close to the north point, and it looked as if he was going north, but then he suddenly swung south.”

  “Shit,” Cliff said.

  “That’s where he dropped off,” Lem said. “Out by the point of the northern breakwater. Without a rubber boat. Swimming, by God.”

  “He’s too old for that crap,” Cliff protested.

  “Evidently not. He went around the other side, and he’s headed for a phone on one of the northern public beaches. We’ve got to stop him, and fast.”

  Cliff cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted the first names of the four agents who were positioned on other boats along the docks. His voice carried, echoing flatly off the water, in spite of the wind. Men came running, and even as Cliff’s shouts faded away across the harbor, Lem was sprinting for his car in the parking lot.

  The worst happens when you least expect it.

  As Travis was rinsing dinner dishes, Nora said, “Look at this.”

  He turned and saw that she was standing by Einstein’s food and water dishes. The water was gone, but half his dinner remained.

  She said, “When have you known him to leave a single scrap?”

  “Never.” Frowning, Travis wiped his hands on the kitchen towel. “The last few days . . . I’ve thought maybe he’s coming down with a cold or something, but he says he feels fine. And today he hasn’t been sneezing or coughing like he was.”

  They went into the living room, where the retriever was reading Black Beauty with the help of his page-turning machine.

  They knelt beside him, and he looked up, and Nora said, “Are you sick, Einstein?”

  The retriever barked once, softly: No.

  “Are you sure?”

  A quick wag of the tail: Yes.

  “You didn’t finish your dinner,” Travis said.

  The dog yawned elaborately.

  Nora said, “Are you telling us you’re a little tired?”

  Yes.

  “If you were feeling ill,” Travis said, “you’d let us know right away, wouldn’t you, fur face?”

  Yes.

  Nora insisted on examining Einstein’s eyes, mouth, and ears for obvious signs of infection, but at last she said, “Nothing. He seems okay. I guess even Superdog has a right to be tired once in a while.”

  The wind had come up fast. It was chilly, and under its lash the waves rose higher than they had been all day.

  A mass of gooseflesh, Garrison reached the landward end of the north flank of the harbor’s northern breakwater. He was relieved to depart the hard and sometimes jagged stones of that rampart for the sandy beach. He was sure he had scraped and cut both feet; they felt hot, and his left foot stung with each step, forcing him to limp.

  He stayed close to the surf, away from the tree-lined park that lay behind the beach. Over there, where park lamps lit the walkways and where spotlights dramatically highlighted the palms, he would be more easily seen from the street. He did not think anyone would be looking for him; he was sure his trick had worked. However, if anyone was looking for him, he did not want to call attention to himself.

  The gusting wind tore foam off the incoming breakers and flung it in Garrison’s face, so he felt as if he was continuously running through spiders’ webs. The stuff stung his eyes, which had finally stopped tearing from his dunk in the sea, and at last he was forced to move away from the surf line, farther up the beach, where the softer sand met the lawn but where he was still out of the lights.

  Young people were on the darkish beach, dressed for the chill of the night: couples on blankets, cuddling; small groups smoking dope, listening to music. Eight or ten teenage boys were gathered around two all-terrain vehicles with balloon tires, which were not allowed on the beach during the day and most likely weren’t allowed at night. They were drinking beer beside a pit they’d dug in the sand to bury their bottles if they saw a cop approaching; they were talking loudly about girls, and indulging in horseplay. No one gave Garrison more than a glance as he hurried by. In California, health-food-and-exercise fanatics were as common as street muggers in New York, and if an old man wanted to take a cold swim and then run on the beach in the dark, he was no more remarkable or noteworthy than a priest in a church.

  As he headed north, Garrison scanned the park to his right in search of pay phones. They would probably be in pairs, prominently illuminated, on islands of concrete beside one of the walkways or perhaps near one of the public comfort stations.

  He was beginning to despair, certain that he must have passed at least one group of telephones, that his old eyes were failing him, but then he saw what he was looking for. Two pay phones with winglike sound shields. Brightly lighted. They were about a hundred feet in from the beach, midway between the sand and the street that flanked the other side of the park.

  Turning his back to the churning sea, he slowed to catch his breath and walked across the grass, under the wind-shaken fronds of a cluster of three stately royal palms. He was still forty feet from the phones when he saw a car, traveling at high speed, suddenly break and pull to the curb with a squeal of tires, parking in a direct line from the phones. Garrison didn’t know who they were, but he decided not to take any chances. He sidled into the cover provided by a huge old double-boled date palm that was, fortunately, not one of those fitted with decorative spotlights. From the notch between the trunks, he had a view of the phones and of the walkway leading out to the curb where the car had parked.

  Two men got out of the sedan. One sprinted north along the park perimeter, looking inward, searching for something.

  The other man rushed straight into the park along the walkway. When he reached the lighted area around the phones, his identity was clear—and shocking.

  Lemuel Johnson.

  Behind the trunks of the Siamese date palms, Garrison drew his arms and legs closer to his body, sure that the joined bases of the trees provided him with plenty of cover but trying to make himself smaller nevertheless.

  Johnson went to the first phone, lifted the handset—and tried to tear it out of the coinbox. It had one of those flexible metal cords, and he yanked on it hard, repeatedly, with little effect. Finally, cursing the instrument’s toughness, he ripped the handset loose and threw it across the park. Then he destroyed the second phone.

  For a moment, as Johnson turned away from the phones and walked straight toward Garrison, the attorney thought that he had been seen. But Johnson stopped after only a few steps and scanned the seaward end of the park and the beach beyond. His gaze did not appear to rest even momentarily on the date palms behind which Garrison hid.

  “You damn crazy old bastard,” Johnson said, then hurried back toward his car.

  Crouched in shadows behind the palms, Garrison
grinned because he knew whom the NSA man was talking about. Suddenly, the attorney did not mind the chill wind sweeping off the night sea behind him.

  Damn crazy old bastard or geriatric James Bond—take your pick. Either way, he was still a man to be reckoned with.

  In the basement switching room of the telephone company, Agents Rick Olbier and Denny Jones were tending the NSA’s electronic tapping and tracing equipment, monitoring Garrison Dilworth’s office and home lines. It was dull duty, and they played cards to make the time pass: two-hand pinochle and five-hundred rummy, neither of which was a good game, but the very idea of two-hand poker repelled them.

  When a call came through to Dilworth’s home number at fourteen minutes past eight o’clock, Olbier and Jones reacted with far more excitement than the situation warranted because they were desperate for action. Olbier dropped his cards on the floor, and Jones threw his on the table, and they reached for the two headsets as if this was World War II and they were expecting to overhear a top-secret conversation between Hitler and Göring.

  Their equipment was set to open the line and lock in a tracer pulse if Dilworth did not answer by the sixth ring. Because he knew the attorney was not at home and that the phone would not be answered, Olbier overrode the program and opened the line after the second ring.

  On the computer screen, green letters announced: NOW TRACING.

  And on the open line, a man said, “Hello?”

  “Hello,” Jones said into the mike on his headset.

  The caller’s number and his local Santa Barbara address appeared on the screen. This system worked much like the 911 police emergency computer, providing instant identification of the caller. But now, above the address on the screen, a company’s rather than an individual’s name appeared: TELEPHONE SOLICITATIONS, INC.

  On the line, responding to Denny Jones, the caller said, “Sir, I’m pleased to tell you that you have been selected to receive a free eight-by-ten photograph and ten free pocket prints of any—”

  Jones said, “Who is this?”

  The computer was now searching data banks of Santa Barbara street addresses to cross-check the ID of the caller.

  The voice on the phone said, “Well, I’m calling in behalf of Olin Mills, sir, the photography studio, where the finest quality—”

  “Wait a sec,” Jones said.

  The computer verified the identity of the telephone subscriber who placed the call: Dilworth was getting a sales pitch, nothing more.

  “I don’t want any!” Jones said sharply, and disconnected.

  “Shit,” Olbier said.

  “Pinochle?” Jones said.

  In addition to the six men who had been at the harbor, Lem called in four more from the temporary HQ at the courthouse.

  He stationed five along the perimeter of the oceanside park, a few hundred yards apart. Their job was to watch the wide avenue that separated the park from a business district, where there were a lot of motels but also restaurants, yogurt shops, gift shops, and other retail enterprises. All of the businesses had phones, of course, and even some of the motels would have pay phones in their front offices; using any of them, the attorney could alert Travis and Nora Cornell. At this hour on a Saturday evening, some stores were closed, but some of them—and all of the restaurants—were open. Dilworth must not be permitted to cross the street.

  The sea wind was stiffening and growing chillier. The men stood with their hands in their jackets, heads tucked down, shivering.

  Palm fronds were rattled by sudden gusts. Tree-roosting birds shrilled in alarm, then resettled.

  Lem sent another agent to the southwest corner of the park, out by the base of the breakwater that separated the public beach from the harbor on the other side. His job was to prevent Dilworth from returning to the breakwater, climbing it, and sneaking back across the harbor to phones in another part of the city.

  A seventh man was dispatched to the northwest corner of the park, down by the waterline, to be sure Dilworth did not proceed north onto private beaches and into residential areas where he might persuade someone to allow him to use an unmonitored phone.

  Just Lem, Cliff, and Hank were left to comb through the park and adjoining beach in search of the attorney. He knew he had too few men for the job, but these ten—plus Olbier and Jones at the telephone company—were the only people he had in town. He could see no point ordering in more agents from the Los Angeles office; by the time they arrived, Dilworth would either have been found and stopped—or would have succeeded in calling the Cornells.

  The roofless all-terrain vehicle was equipped with a roll bar. It had two bucket seats, behind which was a four-foot-long cargo area that could accommodate additional passengers or a considerable amount of gear.

  Garrison was flat on his stomach on the floor of the cargo hold, under a blanket. Two teenage boys were in the bucket seats, and two more were in the cargo hold on top of Garrison, sprawled as if they were sitting on nothing more than a pile of blankets. They were trying to keep the worst of their weight off Garrison, but he still felt half crushed.

  The engine sounded like angry wasps: a high, hard buzzing. It deafened Garrison because his right ear was flat against the cargo bed, which transmitted and amplified every vibration.

  Fortunately, the soft beach provided a relatively smooth ride.

  The vehicle stopped accelerating, slowed, and the engine noise dropped dramatically.

  “Shit,” one of the boys whispered to Garrison, “there’s a guy ahead with a flashlight, flagging us down.”

  They drew to a halt, and over the whispery idling of the engine, Garrison heard a man say, “Where you boys headed?”

  “Up the beach.”

  “That’s private property up there. You have any right up there?”

  “It’s where we live,” Tommy, the driver, responded.

  “Is that so?”

  “Don’t we look like a bunch of spoiled rich kids?” one of them asked, playing wiseass.

  “What you been up to?” the man asked suspiciously.

  “Beach cruisin’, hangin’ out. But it got too cold.”

  “You boys been drinking?”

  You dolt, Garrison thought as he listened to the interrogator. These are teenagers you’re talking to, poor creatures whose hormonal imbalances have thrown them into rebellion against all authority for the next couple of years. I have their sympathy because I’m in flight from the cops, and they’ll take my side without even knowing what I’ve done. If you want their cooperation, you’ll never get it by bullying them.

  “Drinking? Hell no,” another boy said. “Check the cooler in back if you want. Nothing in it but Dr. Pepper.”

  Garrison, who was pressed up against the ice chest, hoped to God the man would not come around to the back of the vehicle and have a look. If the guy got that close he would almost surely see there was something vaguely human about the shape under the blanket on which the boys were sitting.

  “Dr. Pepper, huh? What kind of beer was in there before you drank it all?”

  “Hey, man,” Tommy said. “Why’re you hassling us? Are you a cop or what?”

  “Yeah, in fact, I am.”

  “Where’s your uniform?” one of the boys asked.

  “Undercover. Listen, I’m disposed to let you kids go on, not check your breath for liquor or anything. But I have to know—did you see an old white-haired guy on the beach tonight?”

  “Who cares about old guys?” one of the boys asked. “We were looking for women.”

  “You’d have noticed this old character if you’d seen him. He’d most likely have been wearing swim trunks.”

  “Tonight?” Tommy said. “It’s almost December, man. You feel that wind?”

  “Maybe he was wearing something else.”

  “Didn’t see him,” Tommy said. “No old guy with white hair. Any you guys see him?”

  The other three said they had not seen any old fart fitting the description they had been given, and then they were
allowed to drive on, north from the public beach, into a residential area of seaside homes and private beaches.

  When they had rounded a low hill and were out of sight of the man who had stopped them, they pulled the blanket off Garrison, and he sat up with considerable relief.

  Tommy dropped the other three boys off at their houses and took Garrison home with him because his parents were out for the evening. He lived in a house that looked like a ship with multiple decks, slung over a bluff, all glass and angles.

  Following Tommy into the foyer, Garrison caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror. He looked nothing like the dignified silver-haired barrister known by everyone in the city’s courts. His hair was wet, dirty, and matted. His face was smeared with dirt. Sand, bits of grass, and threads of seaweed were stuck to his bare skin and tangled in his gray chest hair. He grinned happily at himself.

  “There’s a phone in here,” Tommy said from the den.

  After preparing dinner, eating, cleaning up, and then worrying about Einstein’s loss of appetite, Nora and Travis had forgotten about calling Garrison Dilworth and thanking him for the care with which he had packaged and shipped her paintings. They were sitting in front of the fireplace when she remembered.

  In the past, when they had called Garrison, they had done so from public phones in Carmel. That had proved to be an unnecessary precaution. And now, tonight, neither of them was in the mood to get in the car and drive into town.

  “We could wait and call him from Carmel tomorrow,” Travis said.

  “It’ll be safe to phone from here,” she said. “If they’d made a link between you and Garrison, he’d have called and warned us off.”

  “He might not know they’ve made a link,” Travis said. “He might not know they’re watching him.”

  “Garrison would know,” she said firmly.

  Travis nodded. “Yeah, I’m sure he would.”

  “So it’s safe to call him.”

  She was halfway to the phone when it rang.

  The operator said, “I have a collect call for anyone from a Mr. Garrison Dilworth in Santa Barbara. Will you accept the charges?”

  A few minutes before ten o’clock, after conducting a thorough but fruitless search of the park and beach, Lem reluctantly admitted that Garrison Dilworth had somehow gotten past him. He sent his men back to the courthouse and harbor.

  He and Cliff also drove back to the harbor to the sport yacht from which they had based their surveillance of Dilworth. When they put in a call to the Coast Guard cutter pursuing the Amazing Grace, they learned that the attorney’s lady had turned around well short of Ventura and was heading north along the coast, back to Santa Barbara.

  She entered the harbor at ten thirty-six.

  At the empty slip belonging to Garrison, Lem and Cliff huddled in the crisp wind, watching her bring the Hinckley smoothly and gently into its mooring. It was a beautiful boat, beautifully handled.

  She had the gall to shout at them, “Don’t just stand there! Grab the lines and help tie her up!”

  They obliged primarily because they were anxious to speak with her and could not do so until the Amazing Grace was secured.

  Once their assistance had been rendered, they stepped through the railing gate. Cliff was wearing Top-Siders as part of his boater’s disguise, but Lem was in street shoes and not at all sure-footed on the wet deck, especially as the boat was rocking slightly.

  Before they could say a word to the woman, a voice behind them said, “Excuse me, gentlemen—”

  Lem turned and saw Garrison Dilworth in the glow of a dock lamp, just boarding the boat behind them. He was wearing someone else’s clothes. His pants were much too big in the waist, cinched in with a belt. They were too short in the legs, so his bare ankles were revealed. He wore a voluminous shirt.

  “—please excuse me, but I’ve got to get into some warm clothes of my own and have a pot of coffee—”

  Lem said, “God damn it.”

  “—to thaw out these old bones.”

  After a gasp of astonishment, Cliff Soames let out a hard bark of laughter, then glanced at Lem and said, “Sorry.”

  Lem’s stomach cramped and burned with an incipient ulcer. He did not wince with pain, did not double over, did not even put a hand on his gut, gave no indication of discomfort because any such sign from him might increase Dilworth’s satisfaction. Lem just glared at the attorney, at the woman, then left without saying a word.

  “That damn dog,” Cliff said as he fell into step at Lem’s side on the dock, “sure inspires one hell of a lot of loyalty.”

  Later, bedding down in a motel because he was too tired to close the temporary field office tonight and go home to Orange County, Lem Johnson thought about what Cliff had said. Loyalty. One hell of a lot of loyalty.

 
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