Watchers by Dean Koontz


  him, downing half the contents of the dish, and he did not regurgitate what he had eaten. He was now entirely off intravenous fluids.

  But he still dozed a lot. And his responses to Travis and Nora were only those of an ordinary dog.

  After lunch, as they were sitting with Jim at the kitchen table, having a final cup of coffee, the vet sighed and said, “Well, I don’t see how this can be put off any longer.” From an inner pocket of his old, well-worn corduroy jacket, he withdrew a folded sheet of paper and put it on the table in front of Travis.

  For a moment, Nora thought it was the bill for his services. But when Travis unfolded the paper, she saw that it was a wanted flyer put out by the people looking for Einstein.

  Travis’s shoulders sagged.

  Feeling as if her heart had begun to sink down through her body, Nora moved closer to Travis so they could read the bulletin together. It was dated last week. In addition to a description of Einstein that included the three-number tattoo in his ear, the flyer stated the dog would most likely be found in the possession of a man named Travis Cornell and his wife, Nora, who might be living under different names. Descriptions—and photographs—of Nora and Travis were at the bottom of the sheet.

  “How long have you known?” Travis asked.

  Jim Keene said, “Within an hour after I first saw him, Thursday morning. I’ve been getting weekly updates of that bulletin for six months—and I’ve had three follow-up calls from the Federal Cancer Institute to make sure I’ll remember to examine any golden retriever for a lab tattoo and report it at once.”

  “And have you reported him?” Nora asked.

  “Not yet. Didn’t seem any point arguing about it until we saw whether he was going to pull through.”

  Travis said, “Will you report him now?”

  His hound-dog face settling into an expression that was even more glum than usual, Jim Keene said, “According to the Cancer Institute, this dog was at the very center of extremely important experiments that might lead to a cancer cure. Says there that millions of dollars of research money will have been spent for nothing if the dog isn’t found and returned to the lab to complete their studies.”

  “It’s all lies,” Travis said.

  “Let me make one thing very clear to you,” Jim said, leaning forward in his chair and folding his large hands around his coffee cup. “I’m an animal lover to the bone. I’ve dedicated my life to animals. And I love dogs more than anything else. But I’m afraid I don’t have a lot of sympathy for people who believe that we should stop all animal experimentation, people who think medical advancements that help save human lives are not worth harming one guinea pig, one cat, one dog. People who raid labs and steal animals, ruining years of important research . . . they make me want to spit. It’s good and right to love life, to dearly love it in all its most humble forms. But these people don’t love life—they revere it, which is a pagan and ignorant and perhaps even savage attitude.”

  “This isn’t like that,” Nora said. “Einstein was never used in cancer research. That’s just a cover story. The Cancer Institute isn’t hunting for Einstein. It’s the National Security Agency that wants him.” She looked at Travis and said, “Well, what do we do now?”

  Travis smiled grimly, and said, “Well, I sure can’t kill Jim here to stop him—”

  The vet looked startled.

  “—so I guess we’ve got to persuade him,” Travis finished.

  “The truth?” Nora asked.

  Travis stared at Jim Keene for a long time, and at last said, “Yeah. The truth. It’s the only thing that might convince him to throw that damn wanted poster in the trash.”

  Taking a deep breath, Nora said, “Jim, Einstein is as smart as you or me or Travis.”

  “Smarter, I sometimes think,” Travis said.

  The vet stared at them, uncomprehending.

  “Let’s make another pot of coffee,” Nora said. “This is going to be a long, long afternoon.”

  Hours later, at ten minutes past five, Saturday afternoon, Nora and Travis and Jim Keene crowded in front of the mattress on which Einstein lay.

  The dog had just taken a few more ounces of water. He looked at them with interest, too.

  Travis tried to decide if those large brown eyes still had the strange depth, uncanny alertness, and undoglike awareness that he had seen in them so many times before. Damn. He was not sure—and his uncertainty scared him.

  Jim examined Einstein, noting aloud that his eyes were clearer, almost normal, and that his temperature was still falling. “Heart’s sounding a little better, too.”

  Worn out by the ten-minute examination, Einstein flopped onto his side and issued a long weary sigh. In a moment, he dozed again.

  The vet said, “He sure doesn’t seem much like a genius dog.”

  “He’s still sick,” Nora said. “All he needs is a little more time to recover, and he’ll be able to show you that everything we’ve said is true.”

  “When do you think he’ll be on his feet?” Travis asked.

  Jim thought about that, then said, “Maybe tomorrow. He’ll be very shaky at first, but maybe tomorrow. We’ll just have to see.”

  “When he’s on his feet,” Travis said, “when he’s got his sense of balance back and is interested in moving around, that ought to indicate he’s clearer in his head, too. So when he’s up and about—that’s when we’ll give him a test to prove to you how smart he is.”

  “Fair enough,” Jim said.

  “And if he proves it,” Nora said, “you’ll not turn him in?”

  “Turn him in to people who’d create this Outsider you’ve told me about? Turn him in to the liars who cooked up that baloney wanted flyer? Nora, what sort of man do you take me for?”

  Nora said, “A good man.”

  Twenty-four hours later, on Sunday evening, in Jim Keene’s surgery, Einstein was tottering around as if he were a little old four-legged man.

  Nora scooted along the floor on her knees beside him, telling him what a fine and brave fellow he was, quietly encouraging him to keep going. Every step he took thrilled her as if he were her own baby learning to walk. But what thrilled her more was the look he gave her a few times: it was a look that seemed to express chagrin at his infirmity, but there was also a sense of humor in it, as if he were saying, Hey, Nora, am I a spectacle—or what? Isn’t this just plain ridiculous?

  Saturday night he had eaten a little solid food, and all day Sunday he had nibbled at easily digestible vittles that the vet provided. He was drinking well, and the most encouraging sign of improvement was his insistence on going outside to make his toilet. He could not stay on his feet for long periods of time, and once in a while he wobbled and plopped backward on his butt; however, he did not bump into walls or walk in circles.

  Yesterday, Nora had gone shopping and had returned with three Scrabble games. Now, Travis had separated the lettered tiles into twenty-six piles at one end of the surgery, where there was a lot of open floor space.

  “We’re ready,” Jim Keene said. He was sitting on the floor with Travis, his legs drawn up under him Indian-style.

  Pooka was lying at his master’s side, watching with baffled dark eyes.

  Nora led Einstein back across the room to the Scrabble tiles. Taking his head in her hands, looking straight into his eyes, she said, “Okay, fur face. Let’s prove to Dr. Jim that you’re not just some pathetic lab animal involved in cancer tests. Let’s show him what you really are and prove to him what those nasty people really want you for.”

  She tried to believe that she saw the old awareness in the retriever’s dark gaze.

  With evident nervousness and fear, Travis said, “Who asks the first question?”

  “I will,” Nora said unhesitatingly. To Einstein, she said, “How’s the fiddle?”

  They had told Jim Keene about the message that Travis had found the morning Einstein had been so very ill—FIDDLE BROKE—so the vet understood what Nora was asking.

&nbs
p; Einstein blinked at her, then looked at the letters, blinked at her again, sniffed the letters, and she was getting a sick feeling in her stomach when, suddenly, he began to choose tiles and push them around with his nose.

  FIDDLE JUST OUT OF TUNE.

  Travis shuddered as if the dread he had contained was a powerful electric charge that had leaped out of him in an instant. He said, “Thank God, thank you, God,” and he laughed with delight.

  “Holy shit,” Jim Keene said.

  Pooka raised his head very high and pricked his ears, aware that something important was happening but not sure what it was.

  Her heart swelling with relief and excitement and love, Nora returned the letters to their separate piles and said, “Einstein, who is your master? Tell us his name.”

  The retriever looked at her, at Travis, then made a considered reply.

  NO MASTER. FRIENDS.

  Travis laughed. “By God, I’ll settle for that! No one can be his master, but anyone should be damned proud to be his friend.”

  Funny—this proof of Einstein’s undamaged intellect made Travis laugh with delight, the first laughter of which he had been capable in days, but it made Nora weep with relief.

  Jim Keene looked on in wide-eyed wonder, grinning stupidly. He said, “I feel like a child who’s sneaked downstairs on Christmas Eve and actually seen the real Santa Claus putting gifts under the tree.”

  “My turn,” Travis said, sliding forward and putting a hand on Einstein’s head, patting him. “Jim just mentioned Christmas, and it’s not far away. Twenty days from now. So tell me, Einstein, what would you most like to have Santa bring you?”

  Twice, Einstein started to line up the lettered tiles, but both times he had second thoughts and disarranged them. He tottered and thumped down on his butt, looked around sheepishly, saw that they were all expectant, got up again, and this time produced a three-word request for Santa.

  MICKEY MOUSE VIDEOS.

  They didn’t get to bed until two in the morning because Jim Keene was intoxicated, not drunk from beer or wine or whiskey but from sheer joy over Einstein’s intelligence. “Like a man’s, yes, but still the dog, still the dog, wonderfully like, yet wonderfully different from, a man’s thinking, based on what little I’ve seen.” But Jim did not press for more than a dozen examples of the dog’s wit, and he was the first to say that they must not tire their patient. Still, he was electrified, so excited he could barely contain himself. Travis would not have been too surprised if the vet had suddenly just exploded.

  In the kitchen, Jim pleaded with them to retell stories about Einstein: the Modern Bride business in Solvang; the way he had taken it upon himself to add cold water to the first hot bath that Travis had given him; and many more. Jim actually retold some of the same stories himself, almost as if Travis and Nora had never heard them, but they were happy to indulge him.

  With a flourish, he snatched the wanted flyer off the table, struck a kitchen match, and burned the sheet in the sink. He washed the ashes down the drain. “To hell with the small minds who’d keep a creature like that locked up to be poked and prodded and studied. They might’ve had the genius to make Einstein, but they don’t understand the meaning of what they themselves have done. They don’t understand the greatness of it, because if they did they wouldn’t want to cage him.”

  At last, when Jim Keene reluctantly agreed that they were all in need of sleep, Travis carried Einstein (already sleeping) up to the guest room. They made a blanket-cushioned place for him on the floor next to the bed.

  In the dark, under the covers, with Einstein’s soft snoring to comfort them, Travis and Nora held each other.

  She said, “Everything’s going to be all right now.”

  “There’s still some trouble coming,” he said. He felt as if Einstein’s recovery had weakened the curse of untimely death that had followed him all of his life. But he was not ready to hope that the curse had been banished altogether. The Outsider was still out there somewhere . . . coming.

  chapter ten

  1

  On Tuesday afternoon, December 7, when they took Einstein home, Jim Keene was reluctant to let them go. He followed them out to the pickup and stood at the driver’s window, restating the treatment that must be continued for the next couple of weeks, reminding them that he wanted to see Einstein once a week for the rest of the month, and urging them to visit him not only for the dog’s medical care but for drinks, dinner, conversation.

  Travis knew the vet was trying to say he wanted to remain a part of Einstein’s life, wanted to participate in the magic of it. “Jim, believe me, we’ll be back. And before Christmas, you’ll have to come out to our place, spend the day with us.”

  “I’d like that.”

  “So would we,” Travis said sincerely.

  On the drive home, Nora held Einstein in her lap, wrapped in a blanket once more. He still did not have his old appetite, and he was weak. His immune system had taken severe punishment, so he would be more than usually susceptible to illness for a while. He was to be kept in the house as much as possible and pampered until he had regained his previous vigor— probably after the first of the year, according to Jim Keene.

  The bruised and swollen sky bulged with saturated dark clouds. The Pacific Ocean was so hard and gray that it did not appear to be water but looked more like billions of shards and slabs of slate being continuously agitated by some geological upheaval in the earth below.

  The bleak weather could not dampen their high spirits. Nora was beaming, and Travis found himself whistling. Einstein studied the scenery with great interest, clearly treasuring even the somber beauty of this nearly colorless winter day. Perhaps he had never expected to see the world outside Jim Keene’s office again, in which case even a sea of jumbled stone and a contusive sky were precious sights.

  When they reached home, Travis left Nora in the pickup with the retriever and entered the house alone, by the back door, carrying the .38 pistol they kept in the truck. In the kitchen, where the lights had been on ever since their hasty departure last week, he immediately took an Uzi automatic pistol from its hiding place in a cabinet, and put the lighter gun aside. He proceeded cautiously from room to room, looking behind every large item of furniture and in every closet.

  He saw no signs of burglary, and he expected none. This rural area was relatively crime-free. You could leave your door unlocked for days at a time without risking thieves who would take everything down to the wallpaper.

  The Outsider, not a burglar, worried him.

  The house was deserted.

  Travis checked the barn, too, before driving the pickup inside, but it was also safe.

  In the house, Nora put Einstein down and pulled the blanket off him. He tottered around the kitchen, sniffing at things. In the living room he looked at the cold fireplace and inspected his page-turning machine.

  He returned to the kitchen pantry, clicked on the light with his foot pedal, and pawed letters out of the Lucite tubes.

  HOME.

  Stooping beside the dog, Travis said, “It’s sure good to be here, isn’t it?”

  Einstein nuzzled Travis’s throat and licked his neck. The golden coat was fluffy and smelled clean because Jim Keene had given the dog a bath, in his surgery, under carefully controlled conditions. But as fluffy and fresh as he was, Einstein still did not look himself; he seemed tired, and he was thinner, too, having lost a few pounds in less than a week.

  Pawing out more letters, Einstein spelled the same word again, as if to emphasize his pleasure: HOME.

  Standing at the pantry door, Nora said, “Home is where the heart is, and there’s plenty of heart in this one. Hey, let’s have an early dinner and eat it in the living room while we run the videotape of Mickey’s Christmas Carol. Would you like that?”

  Einstein wagged his tail vigorously.

  Travis said, “Do you think you could handle your favorite food—a few weenies for dinner?”

  Einstein licked his chops. He dis
pensed more letters, with which he expressed his enthusiastic approval of Travis’s suggestion.

  HOME IS WHERE THE WEENIES ARE.

  When Travis woke in the middle of the night, Einstein was at the bedroom window, on his hind feet with his forepaws braced on the sill. He was barely visible in the second-hand glow of the night-light in the adjoining bathroom. The interior shutter was bolted over the window, so the dog had no view of the front yard. But perhaps, for getting a fix on The Outsider, sight was the sense on which he least depended.

  “Something out there, boy?” Travis asked quietly, not wanting to wake Nora unnecessarily.

  Einstein dropped from the window, padded to Travis’s side of the bed, and put his head up on the mattress.

  Petting the dog, Travis whispered, “Is it coming?”

  Replying with only a cryptic mewl, Einstein settled down on the floor beside the bed and went to sleep again.

  In a few minutes, Travis slept, too.

  He woke again near dawn to find Nora sitting on the edge of the bed, petting Einstein. “Go back to sleep,” she told Travis.

  “What’s wrong?”

  “Nothing,” she whispered drowsily. “I woke up and saw him at the window, but it’s nothing. Go to sleep.”

  He did manage to fall asleep a third time, but he dreamed that The Outsider had been smart enough to learn how to use tools during its six-month-long pursuit of Einstein and now, yellow eyes gleaming, it was smashing its way through the bedroom shutters with an ax.

  2

  They gave Einstein his medicines on schedule, and he swallowed his pills obediently. They explained to him that he needed to eat well in order to regain his strength. He tried, but his appetite was returning only slowly. He would need a few weeks to regain the pounds he had lost and to recover his old vitality. But day by day his improvement was perceptible.

  By Friday, December 10, Einstein seemed strong enough to risk a short walk outside. He still wobbled a little now and then, but he no longer tottered with every step. He’d had all of his shots at the veterinary clinic; there was no chance of picking up rabies on top of the distemper he’d just beaten.

  The weather was milder than it had been in recent weeks, with temperatures in the low sixties and no wind. The scattered clouds were white, and the sun, when not hidden, laid a warm life-giving caress on the skin.

  Einstein accompanied Travis on an inspection tour of the infrared sensors around the house and the nitrous-oxide tanks in the barn. They moved a bit more slowly than the last time they had walked this line together, but Einstein seemed to enjoy being back on duty.

  Nora was in her studio, working diligently on a new painting: a portrait of Einstein. He was not aware that he was the subject of her latest canvas. The picture was to be one of his Christmas gifts and would, once opened on the holiday, be hung above the fireplace in the living room.

  When Travis and Einstein came out of the barn, into the yard, he said, “Is it getting closer?”

  Upon being asked that question, Einstein went through his usual routine, though with less exertion, less sniffing of the air, and less study of the shadowy forest around them. Returning to Travis, the dog whined anxiously.

  “Is it out there?” Travis asked.

  Einstein gave no answer. He merely surveyed the woods again— puzzled.

  “Is it still coming?” Travis asked.

  The dog did not reply.

  “Is it nearer than it was?”

  Einstein padded in a circle, sniffed the ground, sniffed the air, cocked his head one way and then the other. Finally he returned to the house and stood at the door, looking at Travis, waiting patiently.

  Inside, Einstein went directly to the pantry.

  MUZZY.

  Travis stared at the word on the floor. “Muzzy?”

  Einstein dispensed more letters and nosed them into place.

  MUFFLED. FUZZY.

  “Are you talking about your ability to sense The Outsider?”

 
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