Watchers by Dean Koontz


  Later, after the cake was baked and iced, Nora retreated to her bedroom at the southwest corner of the second floor.

  When Violet Devon had been alive, this had been Nora’s sanctuary in spite of the lack of a lock on the door. Like all the rooms in the large house, it had been crammed with heavy furniture, as if the place served as a warehouse instead of a home. It had been dreary in all other details as well. Nevertheless, when finished with her chores, or when dismissed after one of her aunt’s interminable lectures, Nora had fled to her bedroom, where she escaped into books or vivid daydreams.

  Violet inevitably checked on her niece without warning, creeping soundlessly along the hall, suddenly throwing open the unlockable door, entering with the hope of catching Nora in a forbidden pastime or practice. These unannounced inspections had been frequent during Nora’s childhood and adolescence, dwindling in number thereafter, though they had continued through the final weeks of Violet Devon’s life, when Nora had been a grown woman of twenty-nine. Because Violet had favored dark dresses, had worn her hair in a tight bun, and had gone without a trace of makeup on her pale, sharp-featured face, she had often looked less like a woman than like a man, a stern monk in coarse penitential robes, prowling the corridors of a bleak medieval retreat to police the behavior of fellow monastics.

  If caught daydreaming or napping, Nora was severely reprimanded and punished with onerous chores. Her aunt did not condone laziness.

  Books were permitted—if Violet had first approved of them—because, for one thing, books were educational. Besides, as Violet often said, “Plain, homely women like you and me will never lead a glamorous life, never go to exotic places. So books have a special value to us. We can experience most everything vicariously, through books. This isn’t bad. Living through books is even better than having friends and knowing . . . men.”

  With the assistance of a pliable family doctor, Violet had kept Nora out of public school on the pretense of poor health. She had been educated at home, so books had been her only school as well.

  In addition to having read thousands of books by the age of thirty, Nora had become a self-taught artist in oils, acrylics, watercolors, pencil. Drawing and painting were activities of which Aunt Violet approved. Art was a solitary pursuit that took Nora’s mind off the world beyond the house and helped her avoid contact with people who would inevitably reject, hurt, and disappoint her.

  One corner of Nora’s room had been furnished with a drawing board, an easel, and a cabinet for supplies. Space for her miniature studio was created by pushing other pieces of furniture together, not by removing anything, and the effect was claustrophobic.

  Many times over the years, especially at night but even in the middle of the day, Nora had been overcome by a feeling that the floor of the bedroom was going to collapse under all the furniture, that she was going to crash down into the chamber below, where she would be crushed to death beneath her own massive four-poster bed. When that fear overwhelmed her, she had fled onto the rear lawn, where she sat in the open air, hugging herself and shuddering. She’d been twenty-five before she realized that her anxiety attacks arose not only from the overfurnished rooms and dark decor of the house but from the domineering presence of her aunt.

  On a Saturday morning four months ago, eight months after Violet Devon’s death, Nora had abruptly been seized by an acute need for change and had frantically reordered her bedroom-studio. She carried and dragged out all the smaller pieces of furniture, distributing them evenly through the other five crowded chambers on the second floor. Some of the heavier things had to be dismantled and taken away in sections, but finally she succeeded in eliminating everything but the four-poster bed, one nightstand, a single armchair, her drawing board and stool, the supply cabinet, and the easel, which was all she needed. Then she stripped off the wallpaper.

  Throughout that dizzying weekend, she’d felt as if the revolution had come, as if her life would never be the same. But by the time she had redone her bedroom, the spirit of rebellion had evaporated, and she had left the rest of the house untouched.

  Now this one place, at least, was bright, even cheerful. The walls were painted the palest yellow. The drapes were gone, and in their place were Levolor blinds that matched the paint. She had rolled up the dreary carpet and had polished the beautiful oak floor.

  More than ever, this was her sanctuary. Without fail, upon passing through the door and seeing what she had wrought, her spirits lifted and she found some surcease from her troubles.

  After her frightening encounter with Streck, Nora was soothed, as always, by the bright room. She sat at the drawing board and began a pencil sketch, a preliminary study for an oil painting that she had been contemplating for some time. Initially, her hands shook, and she had to pause repeatedly to regain sufficient control to continue drawing, but in time her fear abated.

  She was even able to think about Streck as she worked and to try to imagine just how far he might have gone if she had not managed to maneuver him out of the house. Recently, Nora had wondered if Violet Devon’s pessimistic view of the outside world and of all other people was accurate; though it was the primary view that Nora, herself, had been taught, she had the nagging suspicion that it might be twisted, even sick. But now she had encountered Art Streck, and he seemed to be ample proof of Violet’s contentions, proof that interacting too much with the outside world was dangerous.

  But after a while, when her sketch was half finished, Nora began to think that she had misinterpreted everything Streck had said and done. Surely he could not have been making sexual advances toward her. Not toward her.

  She was, after all, quite undesirable. Plain. Homely. Perhaps even ugly. Nora knew this was true because, regardless of Violet’s faults, the old woman had some virtues, one of which was a refusal to mince words. Nora was unattractive, drab, not a woman who could expect to be held, kissed, cherished. This was a fact of life that Aunt Violet made her understand at an early age.

  Although his personality was repellent, Streck was a physically attractive man, one who could have his choice of pretty women. It was ridiculous to assume he would be interested in a drudge like her.

  Nora still wore the clothes that her aunt had bought for her—dark, shapeless dresses and skirts and blouses similar to those that Violet had worn. Brighter and more feminine dresses would only call attention to her bony, graceless body and to the characterless and uncomely lines of her face.

  But why had Streck said that she was pretty?

  Oh, well, that was easily explained. He was making fun of her, perhaps. Or, more likely, he was being polite, kind.

  The more she thought about it, the more Nora believed that she had misjudged the poor man. At thirty, she was already a nervous old maid, as fear-ridden as she was lonely.

  That thought depressed her for a while. But she redoubled her efforts on the sketch, finished it, and began another from a different perspective. As the afternoon waned she escaped into her art.

  From downstairs the chimes of the ancient grandfather clock rose punctually on the hour, half-hour, and quarter-hour.

  The west-falling sun turned more golden as time passed, and as the day wore on the room grew brighter. The air seemed to shimmer. Beyond the south window a king palm stirred gently in the May breeze.

  By four o’clock, she was at peace, humming as she worked.

  When the telephone rang, it startled her.

  She put down her pencil and reached for the receiver. “Hello?”

  “Funny,” a man said.

  “Excuse me?”

  “They never heard of him.”

  “I’m sorry,” she said, “but I think you’ve got the wrong number.”

  “This is you, Mrs. Devon?”

  She recognized the voice now. It was him. Streck.

  For a moment, she could not speak.

  He said, “They never heard of him. I called the Santa Barbara police and asked to speak with Officer Devon, but they sai
d they don’t have an Officer Devon on the force. Isn’t that odd, Mrs. Devon?”

  “What do you want?” she asked shakily.

  “I figure it’s a computer error,” Streck said, laughing quietly. “Yeah, sure, some sort of computer error dropped your husband from their records. I think you’d better tell him as soon as he gets home, Mrs. Devon. If he doesn’t get this straightened out . . . why, hell, he might not get his pay-check at the end of the week.”

  He hung up, and the sound of the dial tone made her realize that she should have hung up first, should have slammed down the handset as soon as he said that he’d called the police station. She dared not encourage him even to the extent of listening to him on the phone.

  She went through the house, checking all the windows and doors. They were securely locked.


  At McDonald’s on East Chapman Avenue in Orange, Travis Cornell had ordered five hamburgers for the golden retriever. Sitting on the front seat of the pickup, the dog had eaten all of the meat and two buns, and it had wanted to express its gratitude by licking his face.

  “You’ve got the breath of a dyspeptic alligator,” he protested, holding the animal back.

  The return trip to Santa Barbara took three and a half hours because the highways were much busier than they had been that morning. Throughout the journey, Travis glanced at his companion and spoke to it, anticipating a display of the unnerving intelligence it had shown earlier. His expectations were unfulfilled. The retriever behaved like any dog on a long trip. Once in a while, it did sit very erect, looking through the windshield or side window at the scenery with what seemed an unusual degree of interest and attention. But most of the time it curled up and slept on the seat, snuffling in its dreams—or it panted and yawned and looked bored.

  When the odor of the dog’s filthy coat became intolerable, Travis rolled down the windows for ventilation, and the retriever stuck its head out in the wind. With its ears blown back, hair streaming, it grinned the foolish and charmingly witless grin of all dogs who had ever ridden shotgun in such a fashion.

  In Santa Barbara, Travis stopped at a shopping center, where he bought several cans of Alpo, a box of Milk-Bone dog biscuits, heavy plastic dishes for pet food and water, a galvanized tin washtub, a bottle of pet shampoo with a flea- and tick-killing compound, a brush to comb out the animal’s tangled coat, a collar, and a leash.

  As Travis loaded those items into the back of the pickup, the dog watched him through the rear window of the cab, its damp nose pressed to the glass.

  Getting behind the wheel, he said, “You’re filthy, and you stink. You’re not going to be a lot of trouble about taking a bath, are you?”

  The dog yawned.

  By the time Travis pulled into the driveway of his four-room rented bungalow on the northern edge of Santa Barbara and switched off the pickup’s engine, he was beginning to wonder if the pooch’s actions that morning had really been as amazing as he remembered.

  “If you don’t show me the right stuff again soon,” he told the dog as he slipped his key into the front door of the house, “I’m going to have to assume that I stripped a gear out there in the woods, that I’m just nuts and that I imagined everything.”

  Standing beside him on the stoop, the dog looked up quizzically.

  “Do you want to be responsible for giving me doubts about my own sanity? Hmmmmm?”

  An orange and black butterfly swooped past the retriever’s face, startling it. The dog barked once and raced after the fluttering prey, off the stoop, down the walkway. Dashing back and forth across the lawn, leaping high, snapping at the air, repeatedly missing its bright quarry, it nearly collided with the diamond-patterned trunk of a big Canary Island date palm, then narrowly avoided knocking itself unconscious in a head-on encounter with a concrete birdbath, and at last crashed clumsily into a bed of New Guinea impatiens over which the butterfly soared to safety. The retriever rolled once, scrambled to its feet, and lunged out of the flowers.

  When it realized that it had been foiled, the dog returned to Travis. It gave him a sheepish look.

  “Some wonder dog,” he said. “Good grief.”

  He opened the door, and the retriever slipped in ahead of him. It padded off immediately to explore these new rooms.

  “You better be housebroken,” Travis shouted after it.

  He carried the galvanized washtub and the plastic bag full of other purchases into the kitchen. He left the food and pet dishes there, and took everything else outside through the back door. He put the bag on the concrete patio and set the tub beside it, near a coiled hose that was attached to an outdoor faucet.

  Inside again, he removed a bucket from beneath the kitchen sink, filled it with the hottest water he could draw, carried it outside, and emptied it into the tub. When Travis had made four trips with the hot water, the retriever appeared and began to explore the backyard. By the time Travis filled the tub more than half full, the dog had begun to urinate every few feet along the whitewashed concrete-block wall that defined the property line, marking its territory.

  “When you finish killing the grass,” Travis said, “you’d better be in the mood for a bath. You reek.”

  The retriever turned toward him and cocked its head and appeared to listen when he spoke. But it did not look like one of those smart dogs in the movies. It did not look as if it understood him. It just looked dumb. As soon as he stopped talking, it hurried a few steps farther along the wall and peed again.

  Watching the dog relieve itself, Travis felt an urge of his own. He went inside to the bathroom, then changed into an older pair of jeans and a T-shirt for the sloppy job ahead.

  When Travis came outside again, the retriever was standing beside the steaming washtub, the hose in its teeth. Somehow, it had managed to turn the faucet. Water gushed out of the hose, into the tub.

  For a dog, successfully manipulating a water faucet would be very difficult if not impossible. Travis figured that an equivalent test of his own ingenuity and dexterity would be trying to open a child-proof safety cap on an aspirin bottle with one hand behind his back.

  Astonished, he said, “Water’s too hot for you?”

  The retriever dropped the hose, letting water pour across the patio, and stepped almost daintily into the tub. It sat and looked at him, as if to say, Let’s get on with it, you dink.

  He went to the tub and squatted beside it. “Show me how you can turn off the water.”

  The dog looked at him stupidly.

  “Show me,” Travis said.

  The dog snorted and shifted its position in the warm water.

  “If you could turn it on, you can turn it off. How did you do it? With your teeth? Had to be with your teeth. Couldn’t do it with a paw, for God’s sake. But that twisting motion would be tricky. You could’ve broken a tooth on the cast-iron handle.”

  The dog leaned slightly out of the tub, just far enough to bite at the neck of the bag that held the shampoo.

  “You won’t turn off the faucet?” Travis asked.

  The dog just blinked at him, inscrutable.

  He sighed and turned off the water. “All right. Okay. Be a wiseass.” He took the brush and shampoo out of the bag and held them toward the retriever. “Here. You probably don’t even need me. You can scrub yourself, I’m sure.”

  The dog issued a long, drawn-out woooooof that started deep in its throat, and Travis had the feeling it was calling him a wiseass.

  Careful now, he told himself. You’re in danger of leaping off the deep end, Travis. This is a damn smart dog you’ve got here, but he can’t really understand what you’re saying, and he can’t talk back.

  The retriever submitted to its bath without protest, enjoying itself. After ordering the dog out of the tub and rinsing off the shampoo, Travis spent an hour brushing its damp coat. He pulled out burrs, bits of weeds that hadn’t flushed away, unsnarled the tangles. The dog never grew impatient, and by six o’clock it was transformed.

  Groomed, it
was a handsome animal. Its coat was predominantly medium gold with feathering of a lighter shade on the backs of its legs, on its belly and buttocks, and on the underside of the tail. The undercoat was thick and soft to provide warmth and repel water. The outer coat was also soft but not as thick, and in some places these longer hairs were wavy. The tail had a slight upward curve, giving the retriever a happy, jaunty look, which was emphasized by its tendency to wag continuously.

  The dried blood on the ear was from a small tear already healing. The blood on the paws resulted not from serious injury but from a lot of running over difficult ground. Travis did nothing except pour boric-acid solution, a mild antiseptic, on these minor wounds. He was confident that the dog would experience only slight discomfort—or maybe none at all, for it was not limping—and that it would be completely well in a few days.

  The retriever looked splendid now, but Travis was damp, sweaty, and stank of dog shampoo. He was eager to shower and change. He had also worked up an appetite.

  The only task remaining was to collar the dog. But when he attempted to buckle the new collar in place, the retriever growled softly and back-stepped out of his reach.

  “Whoa now. It’s only a collar, boy.”

  The dog stared at the loop of red leather in Travis’s hand and continued to growl.

  “You had a bad experience with a collar, huh?”

  The dog stopped growling, but it did not take a step toward him.

  “Mistreated?” Travis asked. “That must be it. Maybe they choked you with a collar, twisted it and choked you, or maybe they put you on a short chain. Something like that?”

  The retriever barked once, padded across the patio, and stood in the farthest corner, looking at the collar from a distance.

  “Do you trust me?” Travis asked, remaining on his knees in an unthreatening posture.

  The dog shifted its attention from the loop of leather to Travis, meeting his eyes.

  “I will never mistreat you,” he said solemnly, feeling not at all foolish for speaking so directly and sincerely to a mere dog. “You must know that I won’t. I mean, you have good instincts about things like that, don’t you? Rely on your instincts, boy, and trust me.”

  The dog returned from the far end of the patio and stopped just beyond Travis’s reach. It glanced once at the collar, then fixed him with that uncannily intense gaze. As before, he felt a degree of communion with the animal that was as profound as it was eerie—and as eerie as it was indescribable.

  He said, “Listen, there’ll be times I’ll want to take you places where you’ll need a leash. Which has to be attached to a collar, doesn’t it? That’s the only reason I want you to wear a collar—so I can take you everywhere with me. That and to ward off fleas. But if you really don’t want to submit to it, I won’t force you.”

  For a long time they faced each other as the retriever mulled over the situation. Travis continued to hold the collar out as if it represented a gift rather than a demand, and the dog continued to stare into his new master’s eyes. At last, the retriever shook itself, sneezed once, and slowly came forward.

  “That’s a good boy,” Travis said encouragingly.

  When it reached him, the dog settled on its belly, then rolled onto its back with all four legs in the air, making itself vulnerable. It gave him a look that was full of love, trust, and a little fear.

  Crazily, Travis felt a lump form in his throat and was aware of hot tears scalding the corners of his eyes. He swallowed hard and blinked back the tears and told himself he was being a sentimental dope. But he knew why the dog’s considered submission affected him so strongly. For the first time in three years, Travis Cornell felt needed, felt a deep connection with another living creature. For the first time in three years, he had a reason to live.

  He slipped the collar in place, buckled it, gently scratched and rubbed the retriever’s exposed belly.

  “Got to have a name for you,” he said.

  The dog scrambled to its feet, faced him, and pricked its ears as if waiting to hear what it would be called.

  God in heaven, Travis thought, I’m attributing human intentions to him. He’s a mutt, special maybe but still only a mutt. He may look as if he’s waiting to hear what he’ll be called, but he sure as hell doesn’t understand English.

  “Can’t think of a single name that’s fitting,” Travis said at last. “We don’t want to rush this. It’s got to be just the right name. You’re no ordinary dog, fur face. I’ve got to think on it a while until I hit the right moniker.”

  Travis emptied the washtub, rinsed it out, and left it to dry. Together, he and the retriever went into the home they now shared.


  Dr. Elisabeth Yarbeck and her husband Jonathan, an attorney, lived in Newport Beach in a sprawling, single-story, ranch-style home with a shake-shingle roof, cream-colored stucco walls, and a walkway of Bouquet Canyon stone. The waning sun radiated copper and ruby light that glinted and flashed in the beveled glass of the narrow leaded windows flanking the front door, giving those panes the look of enormous gemstones.

  Elisabeth answered the door when Vince Nasco rang the bell. She was about
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