Watchers by Dean Koontz

  Lem wondered if he had ever felt such a strong bond of loyalty to anyone as the Cornells and Garrison Dilworth apparently felt toward the retriever. He tossed and turned, unable to sleep, and he finally realized there was no use trying to switch off his inner lights until he satisfied himself that he was capable of the degree of loyalty and commitment that he had seen in the Cornells and their attorney.

  He sat up in the darkness, leaning against the headboard.

  Well, sure, he was damn loyal to his country, which he loved and honored. And he was loyal to the Agency. But to another person? All right, Karen. His wife. He was loyal to Karen in every way—in his heart, mind, and gonads. He loved Karen. He had loved her deeply for almost twenty years.

  “Yeah,” he said aloud in the empty motel room at two o’clock in the morning, “yeah, if you’re so loyal to Karen, why aren’t you with her now?”

  But he wasn’t being fair to himself. After all, he had a job to do, an important job.

  “That’s the trouble,” he muttered, “you’ve always—always—got a job to do.”

  He slept away from home more than a hundred nights a year, one in three. And when he was home, he was distracted half the time, his mind on the latest case. Karen had once wanted children, but Lem had delayed the start of a family, claiming that he could not handle the responsibility of children until he was sure his career was secure.

  “Secure?” he said. “Man, you inherited your daddy’s money. You started out with more of a cushion than most people.”

  If he was as loyal to Karen as those people were to that mutt, then his commitment to her should mean that her desires ought to come before all others. If Karen wanted a family, then family should take precedence over career. Right? At least he should have compromised and started a family when they were in their early thirties. His twenties could have gone to the career, his thirties to child-rearing. Now he was forty-five, almost forty-six, and Karen was forty-three, and the time for starting a family had passed.

  Lem was overcome with a great loneliness.

  He got out of bed, went into the bathroom in his shorts, switched on the light, and stared hard at himself in the mirror. His eyes were bloodshot and sunken. He had lost so much weight on this case that his face was beginning to look downright skeletal.

  Stomach cramps seized him, and he bent over, holding onto the sides of the sink, his face in the basin. He’d been afflicted only for the past month or so, but his condition seemed to be worsening with startling speed. The pain took a long time to pass.

  When he confronted his reflection in the mirror again, he said, “You’re not even loyal to your own self, you asshole. You’re killing yourself, working yourself to death, and you can’t stop. Not loyal to Karen, not loyal to yourself. Not really loyal to your country or the Agency, when it comes right down to it. Hell, the only thing you’re totally and unswervingly committed to is your old man’s crackpot vision of life as a tightrope walk.”


  That word seemed to reverberate in the bathroom long after he’d spoken it. He had loved and respected his father, had never said a word against him. Yet today he had admitted to Cliff that his dad had been “impossible.” And now—crackpot vision. He still loved his dad and always would. But he was beginning to wonder if a son could love a father and, at the same time, completely reject his father’s teachings.

  A year ago, a month ago, even a few days ago, he would have said it was impossible to hold fast to that love and still be his own man. But now, by God, it seemed not only possible but essential that he separate his love for his father from his adherence to his father’s workaholic code.

  What’s happening to me? he wondered.

  Freedom? Freedom, at last, at forty-five?

  Squinting into the mirror, he said, “Almost forty-six.”

  chapter nine


  Sunday, Travis noted that Einstein still had less of an appetite than usual, but by Monday, November 29, the retriever seemed fine. On Monday and Tuesday, Einstein finished every scrap of his meals, and he read new books. He sneezed only once and did not cough at all. He drank more water than in the past, though not an excessive amount. If he seemed to spend more time by the fireplace, if he padded through the house less energetically . . . well, winter was swiftly settling upon them, and animals’ behavior changed with the seasons.

  At a bookstore in Carmel, Nora bought a copy of The Dog Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook. She spent a few hours at the kitchen table, reading, researching the possible meanings of Einstein’s symptoms. She discovered that listlessness, partial loss of appetite, sneezing, coughing, and unusual thirst could signify a hundred ailments—or mean nothing at all. “About the only thing it couldn’t be is a cold,” she said. “Dogs don’t get colds like we do.” But by the time she got the book, Einstein’s symptoms had diminished to such an extent that she decided he was probably perfectly healthy.

  In the pantry off the kitchen, Einstein used the Scrabble tiles to tell them: FIT AS A FIDDLE.

  Stooping beside the dog, stroking him, Travis said, “I guess you ought to know better than anyone.”


  Replacing the tiles in their Lucite tubes, Travis said, “Well, because it means—healthy.”


  Travis thought about the metaphor—fit as a fiddle—and realized he was not sure why it meant what it did. He asked Nora, and she came to the pantry door, but she had no explanation for the phrase, either.

  Pawing out more letters, pushing them around with his nose, the retriever asked: WHY SAY SOUND AS A DOLLAR?

  “Sound as a dollar—meaning healthy or reliable,” Travis said.

  Stooping beside them, speaking to the dog, Nora said, “That one’s easier. The United States dollar was once the soundest, most stable currency in the world. Still is, I suppose. For decades, there was no terrible inflation in the dollar like in some other currencies, no reason to lose faith in it, so folks said, ‘I’m as sound as a dollar.’ Of course, the dollar isn’t what it once was, and the phrase isn’t as fitting as it used to be, but we still use it.”


  “Because . . . we’ve always used it,” Nora said, shrugging.


  Gathering up the tiles and sorting them back into their tubes, Travis said, “No, in fact, horses are fairly delicate animals in spite of their size. They get sick pretty easily.”

  Einstein looked expectantly from Travis to Nora.

  Nora said, “We probably say we’re healthy as a horse because horses look strong and seem like they shouldn’t ever get sick, even though they get sick all the time.”

  “Face it,” Travis told the dog, “we humans say things all the time that don’t make sense.”

  Pumping the letter-dispensing pedals with his paw, the retriever told them: YOU ARE A STRANGE PEOPLE.

  Travis looked at Nora, and they both laughed.

  Beneath YOU ARE A STRANGE PEOPLE, the retriever spelled: BUT I LIKE YOU ANYWAY.

  Einstein’s inquisitiveness and sense of humor seemed, more than anything else, to indicate that, if he had been mildly ill, he was now recovered.

  That was Tuesday.

  On Wednesday, December 1, while Nora painted in her second-floor studio, Travis devoted the day to inspecting his security system and to routine weapons maintenance.

  In every room, a firearm was carefully concealed under furniture or behind a drape or in a closet, but always within easy reach. They owned two Mossberg pistol-grip shotguns, four Smith & Wesson Model 19 Combat Magnums loaded with .357s, two .38 pistols that they carried with them in the pickup and Toyota, an Uzi carbine, two Uzi pistols. They could have obtained their entire arsenal legally, from a local gun shop, once they purchased a house and established residence in the county, but Travis had not been willing to wait that long. He had wanted to have the weapons on the first night they settled in
to their new home; therefore, through Van Dyne in San Francisco, he and Nora had located an illegal arms salesman and had acquired what they needed. Of course, they could not have bought conversion kits for the Uzis from a licensed gun dealer. But they were able to purchase three such kits in San Francisco, and now the Uzi carbine and pistols were fully automatic.

  Travis moved from room to room, checking that the weapons were properly positioned, that they were free of dust, that they did not need to be oiled, and that their magazines were fully loaded. He knew that everything would be in order, but he just felt more comfortable if he conducted this inspection once a week. Though he had been out of uniform for many years, the old military training and methodology were still a part of him, and under pressure they surfaced more quickly than he had expected.

  Taking a Mossberg with them, he and Einstein also walked around the house, stopping at each of the small infrared sensors that were, as much as possible, placed inconspicuously against backdrops of rocks or plants, snug against the trunks of a few trees, at the corners of the house, and beside an old rotting pine stump at the edge of the driveway. He had bought the components on the open market, from an electronics dealer in San Francisco. It was dated stuff, not at all state-of-the-art security technology, but he chose it because he was familiar with it from his days in Delta Force, and it was good enough for his purposes. Lines from the sensors ran underground, to an alarm box in one of the kitchen cupboards. When the system was switched on at night, nothing larger than a raccoon could come within thirty feet of the house—or enter the barn at the back of the property— without tripping the alarm. No bells would ring, and no sirens would blare because that would alert The Outsider and might run it off. They didn’t want to chase it away; they wanted to kill it. Therefore, when the system was tripped, it turned on clock radios in every room of the house, all of which were set at low volume so as not to frighten off an intruder but high enough to warn Travis and Nora.

  Today, all the sensors were in place, as usual. All he had to do was wipe off the light film of dust that had coated the lenses.

  “The palace moat is in good repair, m’lord,” Travis said.

  Einstein woofed approval.

  In the rust-red barn, Travis and Einstein examined the equipment that, they hoped, would provide a nasty surprise for The Outsider.

  In the northwest corner of the shadowy interior, to the left of the big rolling door, a pressurized steel tank was clamped in a wall rack. In the diagonally opposite southeast corner at the back of the building, beyond the pickup and car, an identical vessel was bolted to an identical rack. They resembled large propane tanks of the sort people used at summer cabins for gas cooking, but they did not hold propane. They were filled with nitrous oxide, which was sometimes inaccurately called “laughing gas.” The first whiff did exhilarate you and make you want to laugh, but the second whiff knocked you out before the laugh could escape your lips. Dentists and surgeons frequently used nitrous oxide as an anesthetic. Travis had purchased it from a medical-supply house in San Francisco.

  After switching on the barn lights, Travis checked the gauges on both tanks. Full pressure.

  In addition to the large rolling door at the front of the barn, there was a smaller, man-size door at the rear. These were the only two entrances. Travis had boarded over a pair of windows in the loft. At night, when the alarm system was engaged, the smaller rear door was left unlocked in the hope that The Outsider, intending to scout the house from the cover of the barn, would let itself into the trap. When it opened the door and crept into the barn, it would trigger a mechanism that would slam and lock the door behind it. The front door, already locked from outside, would prevent an exit in that direction.

  Simultaneous with the springing of the trap, the large tanks of nitrous oxide would release their entire contents in less than one minute because Travis had fitted them with high-pressure emergency-release valves tied in with the alarm system. He had caulked all of the draft-admitting cracks in the barn and had insulated the place as thoroughly as possible in order to insure that the nitrous oxide would be contained within the structure until one of the doors was unlocked from outside and opened to vent the gas.

  The Outsider could not take refuge in the pickup or the Toyota, for they would be locked. No corner in the barn would be free of the gas. Within less than a minute, the creature would collapse. Travis had considered using poisonous gas of some kind, which he probably could have obtained on the underground market, but he had decided against going to that extreme because, if something went wrong, the danger to him and Nora and Einstein would be too great.

  Once gas had been released and The Outsider had succumbed, Travis could simply open one of the doors, vent the barn, enter with the Uzi carbine, and kill the beast where it lay unconscious. At worst, even if the time taken airing out the building gave The Outsider a chance to regain consciousness, it would still be groggy and disoriented and easily dispatched.

  When they had ascertained that everything in the barn was as it should be, Travis and Einstein returned to the yard behind the house. The December day was cool but windless. The forest surrounding the property was preternaturally still. The trees stood motionless under a low sky of slate-colored clouds.

  Travis said, “Is The Outsider still coming?”

  With a quick wag of the tail, Einstein said, Yes.

  “Is it close?”

  Einstein sniffed the clean, winter-crisp air. He padded across the yard to the perimeter of the northern woods and sniffed again, cocked his head, peered intently into the trees. He repeated this ritual at the southern end of the property.

  Travis had the feeling that Einstein was not actually employing his eyes, ears, and nose in search of The Outsider. He had some way of monitoring The Outsider that was far different from the means by which he would track a cougar or squirrel. Travis perceived that the dog was employing an inexplicable sixth sense—call it psychic or at least quasi-psychic. The retriever’s use of its ordinary senses was probably either the trigger by which it engaged that psychic ability—or mere habit.

  At last, Einstein returned to him and whined curiously.

  “Is it close?” Travis asked.

  Einstein sniffed the air and surveyed the gloom of the encircling forest, as if he could not decide on an answer.

  “Einstein? Is something wrong?”

  Finally, the retriever barked once: No.

  “Is The Outsider getting close?”

  A hesitation. Then: No.

  “Are you sure?”


  “Really sure?”


  At the house, as Travis opened the door, Einstein turned away from him, padded across the back porch, and stood at the top of the wooden steps, taking one final look around at the yard and at the peaceful, shadowed, soundless forest. Then, with a faint shiver, he followed Travis inside.

  Throughout the inspection of the defenses during the afternoon, Einstein had been more affectionate than usual, rubbing against Travis’s legs a great deal, nuzzling, seeking by one means or another to be petted or patted or scratched. That evening, as they watched television, then played a three-way game of Scrabble on the living-room floor, the dog continued to seek attention. He kept putting his head in Nora’s lap, then in Travis’s. He seemed as if he would be content to be stroked and have his ears gently scratched until next summer.

  From the day of their first encounter in the Santa Ana foothills, Einstein had gone through spells of purely doggy behavior, when it was hard to believe that he was, in his own way, as intelligent as a man. Tonight, he was in one of those moods again. In spite of his cleverness at Scrabble—in which his score was second only to Nora’s, and in which he took devilish pleasure forming words that made sly references to her as yet unnoticeable pregnancy—he was nonetheless, this night, more of a dog than not.

  Nora and Travis chose to finish the evening with a little light reading— detective stories—but Einstein did not want th
em to bother inserting a book in his page-turning machine. Instead, he lay on the floor in front of Nora’s armchair and went instantly to sleep.

  “He still seems a little draggy,” she said to Travis.

  “He ate all his dinner, though. And we did have a long day.”

  The dog’s breathing, as it slept, was normal, and Travis was not worried. Actually, he was feeling better about their future than he had for some time. The inspection of their defenses had given him renewed confidence in their preparations, and he believed they would be able to handle The Outsider when it arrived. And thanks to Garrison Dilworth’s courage and dedication to their cause, the government had been stymied, perhaps for good, in its efforts to track them down. Nora was painting again with great enthusiasm, and Travis had decided to use his real-estate license, under the name of Samuel Hyatt, to go back to work once The Outsider had been destroyed. And if Einstein was still a little draggy . . . well, he was certainly more energetic than he had been for a while and was sure to be himself by tomorrow or the day after, at the latest.

  That night, Travis slept without dreaming.

  In the morning, he was up before Nora. By the time he showered and dressed, she was up, too. On her way into the shower, she kissed him, nibbled on his lip, and mumbled sleepy vows of love. Her eyes were puffy, and her hair was mussed, and her breath was sour, but he would have rushed her straight back into bed if she had not said, “Try me this afternoon, Romeo. Right now, the only lust in my heart is for a couple of eggs, bacon, toast, and coffee.”

  He went downstairs and, starting in the living room, opened the interior shutters to let in the morning light. The sky looked as low and gray as it had been yesterday, and he would not be surprised if rain fell before twilight.

  In the kitchen, he noticed that the pantry door was open, the light on. He looked in to see if Einstein was there, but the only sign of the dog was the message that he had spelled out sometime during the night.


  Oh shit. Oh Jesus.

  Travis stepped out of the pantry and shouted, “Einstein!”

  No bark. No sound of padding feet.

  The shutters still covered the kitchen windows, and most of the room was not illuminated by the glow from the pantry. Travis snapped on the lights.

  Einstein was not there.

  He ran into the den. The dog was not there, either.

  Heart pounding almost painfully, Travis climbed the stairs two at a time, looked in the third bedroom that would one day be a nursery and then in the room that Nora used as a studio, but Einstein was not in either place, and he was not in the master bedroom, not even under the bed where Travis was desperate enough to check, and for a moment he could not figure out where in the hell the dog had gone, and he stood listening to Nora singing in the shower—she was oblivious of what was happening—and he started into the bathroom to tell her that something was wrong, horribly wrong, which was when he thought of the downstairs bath, so he ran out of the bedroom and along the hall and descended the stairs so fast he almost lost his balance, almost fell, and in the first-floor bath, between the kitchen and the den, he found what he most feared to find.

  The bathroom stank. The dog, ever considerate, had vomited in the toilet but had not possessed the strength—or perhaps the clarity of mind—to flush. Einstein was lying on the bathroom floor, on his side. Travis knelt next to him. Einstein was still but not dead, not dead, because he was breathing; he inhaled and exhaled with a rasping noise. He tried to lift his head when Travis spoke to him, but he did not have the strength to move.

  His eyes. Jesus, his eyes.

  Ever so gently, Travis lifted the retriever’s head and saw that those wonderfully expressive brown eyes were slightly milky. A watery yellow discharge oozed from the eyes; it had crusted in the golden fur. A similar sticky discharge bubbled in Einstein’s nostrils.

  Putting a hand on the retriever’s neck, Travis felt a laboring and irregular heartbeat.

  “No,” Travis said. “Oh, no, no. It’s not going to be like this, boy. I’m not going to let it happen like this.”

  He lowered the retriever’s head to the floor, got up, turned toward the door—and Einstein whimpered almost inaudibly, as if to say that he did not want to be left alone.

  “I’ll be right back, right back,” Travis promised. “Just hold on, boy. I’ll be right back.”

  He ran to the stairs and climbed faster than before. Now, his heart was beating with such tremendous force that he felt as if it would tear loose of him. He was breathing too fast, hyperventilating.

  In the master bathroom, Nora was just stepping out of the shower, naked and dripping.

  Travis’s words ran together in panic: “Get dressed quick we’ve got to get to the vet now for God’s sake hurry.”

  Shocked, she said, “What’s happened?”

  “Einstein! Hurry! I think he’s dying.”

  He grabbed a blanket off the bed, left Nora to dress, and hurried downstairs to the bathroom. The retriever’s ragged breathing seemed to have gotten worse in just the minute that Travis had been away. He folded the blanket twice, to a fourth of its size, then eased the dog onto it.

  Einstein made a pained sound, as if the movement hurt him.

  Travis said, “Easy, easy. You’ll be all right.”

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