Watchers by Dean Koontz


  At the door, Nora appeared, still buttoning her blouse, which was damp because she had not taken time to towel off before dressing. Her wet hair hung straight.

  In a voice choked with emotion, she said, “Oh, fur face, no, no.”

  She wanted to stoop and touch the retriever, but there was no time to delay. Travis said, “Bring the pickup alongside the house.”

  While Nora sprinted to the barn, Travis folded the blanket around Einstein as best he could, so only the retriever’s head, tail, and hind legs protruded. Trying unsuccessfully not to elicit another whimper of pain, Travis lifted the dog in his arms and carried him out of the bathroom, across the kitchen, out of the house, pulling the door shut behind him but leaving it unlocked, not giving a damn about security right now.

  The air was cold. Yesterday’s calm was gone. Evergreens swayed, shivered, and there was something ominous in the way their bristling, needled branches pawed at the air. Other leafless trees raised black, bony arms toward the somber sky.

  In the barn, Nora started the pickup. The engine roared.

  Travis cautiously descended the porch steps and went out to the driveway, walking as if he were carrying an armload of fragile antique china. The blustery wind stood Travis’s hair straight up, flapped the loose ends of the blanket, and ruffled the fur on Einstein’s exposed head, as if it were a wind with a malevolent consciousness, as if it wanted to tear the dog away from him.

  Nora swung the pickup around, heading out, and stopped where Travis waited. She would drive.

  It was true what they said: sometimes, in certain special moments of crisis, in times of great emotional tribulation, women are better able to bite the bullet and do what must be done than men often are. Sitting in the truck’s passenger seat, cradling the blanket-wrapped dog in his arms, Travis was in no condition to drive. He was shaking badly, and he realized that he had been crying from the time he had found Einstein on the bathroom floor. He had seen difficult military service, and he had never panicked or been paralyzed with fear while on dangerous Delta Force operations, but this was different, this was Einstein, this was his child. If he had been required to drive, he’d probably have run straight into a tree, or off the road into a ditch. There were tears in Nora’s eyes, too, but she didn’t surrender to them. She bit her lip and drove as if she had been trained for stunt work in the movies. At the end of the dirt lane, they turned right, heading north on the twisty Pacific Coast Highway toward Carmel, where there was sure to be at least one veterinarian.

  During the drive, Travis talked to Einstein, trying to soothe and encourage him. “Everything’s going to be all right, just fine, it’s not as bad as it seems, you’ll be good as new.”

  Einstein whimpered and struggled weakly in Travis’s arms for a moment, and Travis knew what the dog was thinking. He was afraid that the vet would see the tattoo in his ear, would know what it meant, and would send him back to Banodyne.

  “Don’t you worry about that, fur face. Nobody’s going to take you away from us. By God, they aren’t. They’ll have to walk through me first, and they aren’t going to be able to do that, no way.”

  “No way,” Nora agreed grimly.

  But in the blanket, cradled against Travis’s chest, Einstein trembled violently.

  Travis remembered the lettered tiles on the pantry floor: FIDDLE BROKE . . . AFRAID . . . AFRAID.

  “Don’t be afraid,” he pleaded with the dog. “Don’t be afraid. There’s no reason to be afraid.”

  In spite of Travis’s heartfelt assurances, Einstein shivered and was afraid—and Travis was afraid, too.

  2

  Stopping at an Arco service station on the outskirts of Carmel, Nora found the vet’s address in a phone book and called him to be sure he was in. Dr. James Keene’s office was on Dolores Avenue at the southern end of town. They pulled up in front of the place at a few minutes before nine.

  Nora had been expecting a typically sterile-looking veterinary clinic and was surprised to find that Dr. Keene’s offices were in his home, a quaint two-story Country English house of stone and plaster and exposed timbers with a roof that curved over the eaves.

  As they hurried up the stone walk with Einstein, Dr. Keene opened the door before they reached it, as if he had been on the lookout for them. A sign indicated that the entrance to the surgery was around the side of the house, but the vet took them in at the front door. He was a tall, sorrowful-faced man with sallow skin and sad brown eyes, but his smile was warm, and his manner was gracious.

  Closing the door, Dr. Keene said, “Bring him this way, please.”

  He led them swiftly along a hallway with an oak parquet floor protected by a long, narrow oriental carpet. On the left, through an archway, lay a pleasantly furnished living room that actually looked lived-in, with footstools in front of the chairs, reading lamps, laden bookshelves, and crocheted afghans folded neatly and conveniently over the backs of some chairs for when the evenings were chilly. A dog stood just inside the archway, a black Labrador. It watched them solemnly, as if it understood the gravity of Einstein’s condition, and it did not follow them.

  At the rear of the large house, on the left side of the hall, the vet took them through a door into a clean white surgery. Lined along the walls were white-enameled and stainless-steel cabinets with glass fronts, which were filled with bottles of drugs, serums, tablets, capsules, and the many powdered ingredients needed to compound more exotic medicines.

  Travis gently lowered Einstein onto an examination table and folded the blanket back from him.

  Nora realized that she and Travis looked every bit as distraught as they would have if they’d been bringing a dying child to a doctor. Travis’s eyes were red, and though he was not actively crying at the moment, he continually blew his nose. The moment she had parked the pickup in front of the house and had pulled on the hand brake, Nora had ceased to be able to repress her own tears. Now she stood on the other side of the examination table from Dr. Keene, with one arm around Travis, and she wept quietly.

  The vet was apparently used to strong emotional reactions from pet owners, for he never once glanced curiously at Nora or Travis, never once indicated by any means that he found their anxiety and grief to be excessive.

  Dr. Keene listened to the retriever’s heart and lungs with a stethoscope, palpated his abdomen, examined his oozing eyes with an ophthalmoscope. Through those and several other procedures, Einstein remained limp, as if paralyzed. The only indications that the dog still clung to life were his faint whimpers and ragged breathing.

  It’s not as serious as it seems, Nora told herself as she blotted her eyes with a Kleenex.

  Looking up from the dog, Dr. Keene said, “What’s his name?”

  “Einstein,” Travis said.

  “How long have you owned him?”

  “Only a few months.”

  “Has he had his shots?”

  “No,” Travis said. “Damn it, no.”

  “Why not?”

  “It’s . . . complicated,” Travis said. “But there’re reasons that shots couldn’t be gotten for him.”

  “No reason’s good enough,” Keene said disapprovingly. “He’s got no license, no shots. It’s very irresponsible not to see that your dog is properly licensed and vaccinated.”

  “I know,” Travis said miserably. “I know.”

  “What’s wrong with Einstein?” Nora said.

  And she thought-hoped-prayed: It’s not as serious as it seems.

  Lightly stroking the retriever, Keene said, “He’s got distemper.”

  Einstein had been moved to a corner of the surgery, where he lay on a thick, dog-size foam mattress that was protected by a zippered plastic coverlet. To prevent him from moving around—if at any time he had the strength to move—he was tethered on a short leash to a ringbolt in the wall.

  Dr. Keene had given the retriever an injection. “Antibiotics,” he explained. “No antibiotics are effective against distemper, but they’re indicated to avoid seco
ndary bacteriological infections.”

  He had also inserted a needle in one of the dog’s leg veins and had hooked him to an IV drip to counteract dehydration.

  When the vet tried to put a muzzle on Einstein, both Nora and Travis objected strenuously.

  “It’s not because I’m afraid he’ll bite,” Dr. Keene explained. “It’s for his own protection, to prevent him from chewing at the needle. If he has the strength, he’ll do what dogs always do to a wound—lick and bite at the source of the irritation.”

  “Not this dog,” Travis said. “This dog’s different.” He pushed past Keene and removed the device that bound Einstein’s jaws together.

  The vet started to protest, then thought better of it. “All right. For now. He’s too weak now, anyway.”

  Still trying to deny the awful truth, Nora said, “But how could it be so serious? He showed only the mildest symptoms, and even those went away over a couple of days.”

  “Half the dogs who get distemper never show any symptoms at all,” the vet said as he returned a bottle of antibiotics to one of the glass-fronted cabinets and tossed a disposable syringe in a wastecan. “Others have only a mild illness, symptoms come and go from one day to the next. Some, like Einstein, get very ill. It can be a gradually worsening illness, or it can change suddenly from mild symptoms to . . . this. But there is a bright side here.”

  Travis was crouched beside Einstein, where the dog could see him without lifting his head or rolling his eyes, and could therefore feel attended, watched over, loved. When he heard Keene mention a bright side, Travis looked up eagerly. “What bright side? What do you mean?”

  “The dog’s condition, before it contracts distemper, frequently determines the course of the disease. The illness is most acute in animals that are ill-kept and poorly nourished. It’s clear to me that Einstein was given good care.”

  Travis said, “We tried to feed him well, to make sure he got plenty of exercise.”

  “He was bathed and groomed almost too often,” Nora added.

  Smiling, nodding approval, Dr. Keene said, “Then we have an edge. We have real hope.”

  Nora looked at Travis, and he could meet her eyes only briefly before he had to look away, down at Einstein. It was left to her to ask the dreaded question: “Doctor, he’s going to be all right, isn’t he? He won’t—he won’t die, will he?”

  Apparently, James Keene was aware that his naturally glum face and drooping eyes presented, merely in repose, an expression that did little to inspire confidence. He cultivated a warm smile, a soft yet confident tone of voice, and an almost grandfatherly manner that, although perhaps calculated, seemed genuine and helped balance the perpetual gloom God had seen fit to visit upon his countenance.

  He came to Nora, put his hands on her shoulders. “My dear, you love this dog like a baby, don’t you?”

  She bit her lip and nodded.

  “Then have faith. Have faith in God, who watches over sparrows, so they say, and have a little faith in me, too. Believe it or not, I’m pretty good at what I do, and I deserve your faith.”

  “I believe you are good,” she told him.

  Still squatting beside Einstein, Travis said thickly, “But the chances. What’re the chances? Tell us straight?”

  Letting go of Nora, turning to Travis, Keene said, “Well, the discharge from his eyes and nose isn’t as thick as it can get. Not nearly. No pus blisters on the abdomen. You say he’s vomited, but you’ve seen no diarrhea?”

  “No. Just vomiting,” Travis said.

  “His fever’s high but not dangerously so. Has he been slobbering excessively?”

  “No,” Nora said.

  “Fits of head-shaking and chewing on air, sort of as if he had a bad taste in his mouth?”

  “No,” Travis and Nora said simultaneously.

  “Have you seen him run in circles or fall down without reason? Have you seen him lie on his side and kick violently, as if he were running? Aimless wandering around a room, bumping into walls, jerking and twitching—anything like that?”

  “No, no,” Travis said.

  And Nora said. “My God, could he get like that?”

  “If he goes into second-stage distemper, yes,” Keene said. “Then there’s brain involvement. Epileptic-like seizures. Encephalitis.”

  Travis came to his feet in a sudden lurch. He staggered toward Keene, then stopped, swaying. His face was pale. His eyes filled with a terrible fear. “Brain involvement? If he recovered, would there be . . . brain damage?”

  An oily nausea rippled in Nora. She thought of Einstein with brain damage—as intelligent as a man, intelligent enough to remember that he had once been special, and to know that something had been lost, and to know that he was now living in a dullness, a grayness, that his life was somehow less than what it had once been. Sick and dizzy with fear, she had to lean against the examination table.

  Keene said, “Most dogs in second-stage distemper don’t survive. But if he made it, there would, of course, be some brain damage. Nothing that would require he be put to sleep. He might have lifelong chorea, for instance, which is involuntary jerking or twitching, rather like palsy, and often limited to the head. But he could be relatively happy with that, lead a pain-free existence, and he could still be a fine pet.”

  Travis almost shouted at the vet: “To hell with whether he’d make a fine pet or not. I’m not concerned about physical effects of the brain damage. What about his mind?”

  “Well, he’d recognize his masters,” the doctor said. “He’d know you and remain affectionate toward you. No problem there. He might sleep a lot. He might have periods of listlessness. But he’d almost certainly remain housebroken. He wouldn’t forget that training—”

  Shaking, Travis said, “I don’t give a damn if he pisses all over the house as long as he can still think!”

  “Think?” Dr. Keene said, clearly perplexed. “Well . . . what do you mean exactly? He is a dog, after all.”

  The vet had accepted their anxious, grief-racked behavior as within the parameters of normal pet-owner reactions in a case like this. But now, at last, he began to look at them strangely.

  Partly to change the subject and dampen the vet’s suspicion, partly because she simply had to know the answer, Nora said, “All right, but is Einstein in second-stage distemper?”

  Keene said, “From what I’ve seen so far, he’s still in the first stage. And now that treatment has begun, if we don’t see any of the more violent symptoms during the next twenty-four hours, I think we have a good chance of keeping him in first stage and rolling it back.”

  “And there’s no brain involvement in first stage?” Travis asked with an urgency that again caused Keene to furrow his brow.

  “No. Not in first stage.”

  “And if he stays in first stage,” Nora said, “he won’t die?”

  In his softest voice and most comforting manner, James Keene said, “Well, now, the chances are very high that he’d survive just first-stage distemper—and without any aftereffects. I want you to realize that his chances of recovery are quite high. But at the same time, I don’t want to give you false hope. That’d be cruel. Even if the disease proceeds no further than first stage . . . Einstein could die. The percentages are on the side of life, but death is possible.”

  Nora was crying again. She thought she had gotten a grip on herself. She thought she was ready to be strong. But now she was crying. She went to Einstein, sat on the floor beside him, and put one hand on his shoulder, just to let him know that she was there.

  Keene was becoming slightly impatient with—and thoroughly baffled by—their tumultuous emotional response to the bad news. A new note of sternness entered his voice as he said, “Listen, all we can do is give him top-flight care and hope for the best. He’ll have to remain here, of course, because distemper treatment is complex and ought to be administered under veterinary supervision. I’ll have to keep him on the intravenous fluids, antibiotics . . . and there’ll be regular ant
iconvulsants and sedatives if he begins to have seizures.”

  Under Nora’s hand, Einstein shivered as if he had heard and understood the grim possibilities.

  “All right, okay, yes,” Travis said, “obviously, he’s got to stay here in your office. We’ll stay with him.”

  “There’s no need—” Keene began.

  “Right, yes, no need,” Travis said quickly, “but we want to stay, we’ll be okay, we can sleep here on the floor tonight.”

  “Oh, I’m afraid that’s not possible,” Keene said.

  “Yes, it is, oh yes, entirely possible,” Travis said, babbling now in his eagerness to convince the vet. “Don’t worry about us, Doctor. We’ll manage just fine. Einstein needs us here, so we’ll stay, the important thing is that we stay, and of course we’ll pay you extra for the inconvenience.”

  “But I’m not running a hotel!”

  “We must stay,” Nora said firmly.

  Keene said, “Now, really, I’m a reasonable man, but—”

  With both hands, Travis seized the vet’s right hand and held it tightly, startling Keene. “Listen, Dr. Keene, please, let me try to explain. I know this is an unusual request. I know we must sound like a couple of lunatics to you, but we’ve got our reasons, and they’re good ones. This is no ordinary dog, Dr. Keene. He saved my life—”

  “And he saved mine, too,” Nora said. “In a separate incident.”

  “And he brought us together,” Travis said. “Without Einstein, we would never have met, never married, and we’d both be dead.”

  Astonished, Keene looked from one to the other. “You mean he saved your lives—literally? And in two separate incidents?”

  “Literally,” Nora said.

  “And then brought you together?”

  “Yes,” Travis said. “Changed our lives in more ways than we can count or ever explain.”

  Held fast in Travis’s hands, the vet looked at Nora, lowered his kind eyes to the wheezing retriever, shook his head, and said, “I’m a sucker for heroic dog stories. I’ll want to hear this one, for sure.”

  “We’ll tell you all about it,” Nora promised. But, she thought, it’ll be a carefully edited version.

  “When I was five years old,” James Keene said, “I was saved from drowning by a black Labrador.”

  Nora remembered the beautiful black Lab in the living room and wondered if it was actually a descendant of the animal that had saved Keene— or just a reminder of the great debt he owed to dogs.

  “All right,” Keene said, “you can stay.”

  “Thank you.” Travis’s voice cracked. “Thank you.”

  Freeing his hand from Travis, Keene said, “But it’ll be at least forty-eight hours before we can be at all confident that Einstein will survive. It’ll be a long haul.”

  “Forty-eight hours is nothing,” Travis said. “Two nights of sleeping on the floor. We can handle that.”

  Keene said, “I have a hunch that, for you two, forty-eight hours is going to be an eternity, under the circumstances.” He looked at his wristwatch and said, “Now, my assistant will arrive in about ten minutes, and shortly after that we’ll open the office for morning hours. I can’t have you underfoot in here while I’m seeing other patients. And you wouldn’t want to wait in the patient lounge with a bunch of other anxious owners and sick animals; that would only depress you. You can wait in the living room, and when the office is closed late this afternoon, you can return here to be with Einstein.”

  “Can we peek in on him during the day?” Travis asked.

  Smiling, Keene said, “All right. But just a peek.”

  Under Nora’s hand, Einstein finally stopped shivering. Some of the tension went out of him, and he relaxed, as if he had heard they would be allowed to remain close by, and was immensely comforted.

  The morning passed at an agonizingly slow pace. Dr. Keene’s living room had a television set, books, and magazines, but neither Nora nor Travis could get interested in TV or reading.

  Every half hour or so, they slipped down the hall, one at a time, and peeked in at Einstein. He never seemed worse, but he never seemed any better, either.

  Keene came in once and said, “By the way, feel free to use the bathroom. And there’s cold drinks in the refrigerator. Make coffee if you want.” He smiled down at the black Lab at his side. “And this fella is Pooka. He’ll love you to death if you give him a chance.”

  Pooka was, indeed, one of the friendliest dogs Nora had ever seen. Without encouragement, he would roll over, play dead, sit up on his haunches, and then come snuffling around, tail wagging, to be rewarded with some petting and scratching.

  All morning, Travis ignored the dog’s pleas for affection, as if petting Pooka would in some way be a betrayal of Einstein and would insure Einstein’s death of distemper.

 
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