Watchers by Dean Koontz


  4

  Vince Nasco had never anticipated, back in November, that he would need a full month to get a whack at Ramon Velazquez, the guy in Oakland who was a thorn in the side of Don Mario Tetragna. Until he wasted Velazquez, Vince would not be given the names of people in San Francisco who dealt in false ID and who might help him track down Travis Cornell, the woman, and the dog. So he had an urgent need to reduce Velazquez to a hunk of putrifying meat.

  But Velazquez was a goddamn shadow. The man did not make a step without two bodyguards at his side, which should have made him more rather than less conspicuous. However, he conducted his gambling and drug enterprises—infringing on the Tetragna franchise in Oakland—with all the stealth of Howard Hughes. He slipped and slithered on his errands, using a fleet of different cars, never taking the same route two days in a row, never meeting in the same place, using the street as an office, never staying anywhere long enough to be made, marked, and wiped out. He was a hopeless paranoid who believed everyone was out to get him. Vince couldn’t keep the man in sight long enough to match him with the photograph that the Tetragnas had supplied. Ramon Velazquez was smoke.

  Vince didn’t get him until Christmas Day, and it was a hell of a mess when it went down. Ramon was at home with a lot of relatives. Vince came at the Velazquez property from the house behind it, over the high brick wall between one big lot and the other. Coming down on the other side, he saw Velazquez and some people at a barbecue on the patio near the pool, where they were roasting an enormous turkey—did people barbecue turkeys anywhere but in California?—and they all spotted him immediately though he was half an acre away. He saw the bodyguards reaching for weapons in their shoulder holsters, so he had no choice but to fire indiscriminately with his Uzi, spraying the entire patio area, taking out Velazquez, both bodyguards, a middle-aged woman who must have been somebody’s wife, and an old dame who had to be somebody’s grandmother.

  Ssssnap.

  Ssssnap.

  Ssssnap.

  Ssssnap.

  Ssssnap.

  Everyone else, inside and outside of the house, was screaming and diving for cover. Vince had to climb the wall back into the yard of the house next door—where nobody was home, thank God—and as he was hauling his ass over the top, a bunch of Latino types at the Velazquez place opened fire on him. He barely got away with his hide intact.

  The day after Christmas, when he showed up at a San Francisco restaurant owned by Don Tetragna, to meet with Frank Dicenziano, a trusted Family capo who answered only to the don himself, Vince was worried. The fratellanza had a code about assassinations. Hell, they had a code about everything—probably even bowel movements—and they took their codes seriously, but the code of assassination was maybe taken a little more seriously than others. The first rule of that code was: You don’t hit a man in the company of his family unless he’s gone to ground and you just can’t reach him any other way. Vince felt fairly safe on that score. But another rule was that you never shot a man’s wife or kids or his grandmother in order to get at him. Any hit man who did such a thing would probably wind up dead himself, wasted by the very people who had hired him. Vince hoped to convince Frank Dicenziano that Velazquez was a special case—no other target had ever eluded Vince for a month—and that what had happened in Oakland on Christmas Day was regrettable but unavoidable.

  Just in case Dicenziano—and by extension, the don—was too furious to listen to reason, Vince went prepared with more than a gun. He knew that, if they wanted him dead, they would crowd him and take the gun away from him before he could use it, as soon as he walked into the restaurant and before he knew the score. So he wired himself with plastic explosives and was prepared to detonate them, wiping out the entire restaurant, if they tried to fit him for a coffin.

  Vince was not sure if he would survive the explosion. He had absorbed the life energies of so many people recently that he thought he must be getting close to the immortality he had been seeking—or was already there— but he could not know how strong he was until he put himself to the test. If his choice was standing at the heart of an explosion . . . or letting a couple of wiseguys pump a hundred rounds into him and encase him in concrete for a dunk in the bay . . . he decided the former was more appealing and, perhaps, offered him a marginally better chance of survival.

  To his surprise, Dicenziano—who resembled a squirrel with meatballs in his cheeks—was delighted with how the Velazquez contract had been fulfilled. He said the don had the highest praise for Vince. No one searched Vince when he entered the restaurant. At a corner booth, as the first men in the room, he and Frank were served a special lunch of dishes not on the menu. They drank three-hundred-dollar Cabernet Sauvignon, a gift from Mario Tetragna.

  When Vince cautiously raised the issue of the dead wife and grandmother, Dicenziano said, “Listen, my friend, we knew this was going to be a hard hit, a demanding job, and that rules might have to be broken. Besides, these people were not our kind of people. They were just a bunch of wetback spics. They don’t belong in this business. If they try to force their way into it, they can’t expect us to play by the rules.”

  Relieved, Vince went to the men’s room halfway through lunch and disconnected the detonator. He didn’t want to set the Plastique off accidentally now that the crisis was past.

  At the end of lunch, Frank gave Vince the list. Nine names. “These people—who are not all Family people, by the way—pay the don for the right to operate their ID businesses in his territory. Back in November, in anticipation of your success with Velazquez, I spoke to these nine, and they’ll remember that the don wants them to cooperate with you in any way they can.”

  Vince set out the same afternoon, looking for someone who would remember Travis Cornell.

  Initially, he was frustrated. Two of the first four people on the list could not be reached. They had closed up shop and gone away for the holidays. To Vince, it seemed wrong that the criminal underworld would take off for Christmas and New Year’s as if they were schoolteachers.

  But the fifth man, Anson Van Dyne, was at work in the basement beneath his topless club, Hot Tips, and at five-thirty, December 26, Vince found what he was after. Van Dyne looked at the photograph of Travis Cornell, which Vince had obtained from the back-issue files of the Santa Barbara newspaper. “Yeah, I remember him. He’s not one you forget. Not a foreigner looking to become an instant American like half my customers. And not the usual sad-assed loser who needs to change his name and hide his face. He’s not a big guy, and he doesn’t come on tough or anything, but you get the feeling he could mop up the floor with anyone who crossed him. Very self-contained. Very watchful. I couldn’t forget him.”

  “What you couldn’t forget,” said one of the two bearded boy wonders at the computers, “is that gorgeous quiff he was with.”

  “For her, even a dead man could get it up,” the other one said.

  The first said, “Yeah, even a dead man. Cake and pie.”

  Vince was both offended and confused by their contributions to the conversation, so he ignored them. To Van Dyne, he said, “Is there any chance you’d remember the new names you gave them?”

  “Sure. We got it on file,” Van Dyne said.

  Vince could not believe what he had heard. “I thought people in your line of work didn’t keep records? Safer for you and essential for your clients.”

  Van Dyne shrugged. “Fuck the clients. Maybe one day the feds or the locals hit us, put us out of business. Maybe I find myself needing a steady flow of cash for lawyers’ fees. What better than to have a list of a couple of thousand bozos living under phony names, bozos who’d be willing to be squeezed a little rather than have to start all over again with new lives.”

  “Blackmail,” Vince said.

  “An ugly word,” Van Dyne said. “But apt, I’m afraid. Anyway, all we care about is that we are safe, that there aren’t any records here to incriminate us. We don’t keep the data in this dump. Soon as we provide someone with a new ID
, we transmit the record of it over a safe phone line from the computer here to a computer we keep elsewhere. The way that computer is programmed, the data can’t be pulled out of it from here; it’s a one-way road; so if we are busted, the police hackers can’t reach our records from these machines. Hell, they won’t even know the records exist.”

  This new high-tech criminal world made Vince woozy. Even the don, a man of infinite criminal cleverness, had thought these people kept no records and had not realized how computers had made it safe to do so. Vince thought about what Van Dyne had told him, getting it all sorted out in his mind. He said, “So can you take me to this other computer and look up Cornell’s new ID?”

  “For a friend of Don Tetragna’s,” Van Dyne said, “I’ll do just about anything but slit my own throat. Come with me.”

  Van Dyne drove Vince to a busy Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. The place must have seated a hundred and fifty, and every table was occupied, mostly by Anglos rather than Asians. Although the joint was enormous and was decorated with paper lanterns, dragon murals, imitation rosewood screens and strings of brass wind chimes in the shapes of Chinese ideograms, it reminded Vince of the kitschy Italian trattoria in which he had murdered the cockroach Pantangela and the two federal marshals last August. All ethnic art and decor—from Chinese to Italian to Polish to Irish—were, when boiled down to their essence, perfectly alike.

  The owner was a Chinese man in his thirties, who was introduced to Vince simply as Yuan. With bottles of Tsingtao provided by Yuan, Van Dyne and Vince went into the owner’s basement office, where two computers stood on two desks, one out in the main work area and the other shoved into a corner. The one in the corner was switched on, though nobody was working at it.

  “This is my computer,” Van Dyne said. “No one here ever works with it. They never even touch it, except to open the phone line to put the modem in operation every morning and to close it at night. My computers at Hot Tips are linked to this one.”

  “You trust Yuan?”

  “I got him the loan that started this business. He owes me his good fortune. And it’s pretty much a clean loan, nothing that can be linked to me in any way, or to Don Tetragna, so Yuan remains an upstanding citizen who’s of no interest to the cops. All he does for me in return is let me keep the computer here.”

  Sitting in front of the terminal, Van Dyne began to use the keyboard. In two minutes he had Travis Cornell’s new name: Samuel Spencer Hyatt.

  “And here,” Van Dyne said as new data flickered up. “This is the woman who was with him. Her real name was Nora Louise Devon of Santa Barbara. Now, she’s Nora Jean Aimes.”

  “Okay,” Vince said. “Now wipe them off your records.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Erase them. Take them out of the computer. They’re not yours any more. They’re mine. Nobody else’s. Just mine.”

  A short while later, they were back at Hot Tips, which was a decadent place that revolted Vince.

  In the basement, Van Dyne gave the names Hyatt and Aimes to the bearded boy wonders who seemed to live down there around the clock, like a couple of trolls.

  First, the trolls broke into the Department of Motor Vehicle computers. They wanted to see whether, in the three months since acquiring new identities, Hyatt and Aimes had settled down somewhere and filed a change of address with the state.

  “Bingo,” one of them said.

  An address appeared on the screen, and the bearded operator ordered a printout.

  Anson Van Dyne tore the paper off the printer and handed it to Vince.

  Travis Cornell and Nora Devon—now Hyatt and Aimes—were living at a rural address on Pacific Coast Highway south of the town of Carmel.

  5

  On Wednesday, December 29, Nora drove into Carmel alone for an appointment with Dr. Weingold.

  The sky was overcast, so dark that the white seagulls, swooping against the backdrop of clouds, were by contrast almost as bright as incandescent lights. The weather had been much the same since the day after Christmas, but the promised rain never came.

  Today, however, it came in torrents just as she pulled the pickup into one of the spaces in the small parking lot behind Dr. Weingold’s office. She was wearing a nylon jacket with a hood, just in case, and she pulled the hood over her head before dashing from the truck into the one-story brick building.

  Dr. Weingold gave her the usual thorough examination and pronounced her fit as a fiddle, which would have amused Einstein.

  “I’ve never seen a woman at the three-month mark in better shape,” the doctor said.

  “I want this to be a very healthy baby, a perfect baby.”

  “And so it shall be.”

  The doctor believed that her name was Aimes and her husband’s name was Hyatt, but he never once indicated disapproval of her marital status. The situation embarrassed Nora, but she supposed that the modern world, into which she had fluttered from the cocoon of the Devon house, was liberal-minded about these things.

  Dr. Weingold suggested, as he had done before, that she consider a test to determine the baby’s sex, and as before she declined. She wanted to be surprised. Besides, if they found out they were going to have a girl, Einstein would start campaigning for the name “Minnie.”

  After huddling with the doctor’s receptionist to schedule the next appointment, Nora pulled the hood over her head again and went out into the driving rain. It was coming down hard, drizzling off a section of roof that had no gutters, sluicing across the sidewalk, forming deep puddles on the macadam of the parking lot. She sloshed through a miniature river on her way to the pickup, and in seconds her running shoes were saturated.

  As she reached the truck, she saw a man getting out of a red Honda parked beside her. She didn’t notice much about him—just that he was a big guy in a small car, and that he was not dressed for the rain. He was wearing jeans and a blue pullover, and Nora thought: The poor man is going to get soaked to the skin.

  She opened the driver’s door and started to get into the truck. The next thing she knew, the man in the blue sweater was coming in after her, shoving her across the seat and clambering behind the wheel. He said, “If you yell, bitch, I’ll blow your guts out,” and she realized that he was jamming a revolver into her side.

  She almost yelled anyway, involuntarily, almost tried to keep on going across the front seat and out the door on the passenger’s side. But something in his voice, brutal and dark, made her hesitate. He sounded as if he would shoot her in the back rather than let her escape.

  He slammed the driver’s door, and now they were alone in the truck, beyond help, virtually concealed from the world by the rain that streamed down the windows and made the glass opaque. It didn’t matter: the doctor’s parking lot was deserted, and it could not be seen from the street, so even out of the truck she would have had no one to whom to turn.

  He was a very big man, and muscular, but it was not his size that was most frightening. His broad face was placid, virtually expressionless; that serenity, completely unsuited to these circumstances, scared Nora. His eyes were worse. Green eyes—and cold.

  “Who are you?” she demanded, trying to conceal her fear, sure that visible terror would excite him. He seemed to be balanced on a thin line. “What do you want with me?”

  “I want the dog.”

  She had thought: robber. She had thought: rapist. She had thought: psychopathic thrill killer. But she had not for a moment thought that he might be a government agent. Yet who else would be looking for Einstein? No one else even knew the dog existed.

  “What’re you talking about?” she said.

  He pushed the muzzle of the revolver deeper into her side, until it hurt.

  She thought of the baby growing within her. “All right, okay, obviously you know about the dog, so there’s no point playing games.”

  “No point.” He spoke so quietly that she could hardly hear him above the roar of the rain that drummed on the roof of the cab and snapped ag
ainst the windshield.

  He reached over and pulled down the hood of her jacket, opened the zipper, and slid his hand down her breasts, over her belly. For a moment she was terrified that he was, after all, intent on rape.

  Instead, he said, “This Weingold is a gynecologist-obstetrician. So what’s your problem? You have some damn social disease or are you pregnant?” He almost spit out the words “social disease,” as if merely pronouncing those syllables made him sick with disgust.

  “You’re no government agent.” She spoke entirely from instinct.

  “I asked you a question, bitch,” he said in a voice barely louder than a whisper. He leaned close, digging the gun into her side again. The air in the truck was humid. The all-enveloping sound of rain combined with the stuffiness to create a claustrophobic atmosphere that was nearly intolerable. He said, “Which is it? You got herpes, syphilis, clap, some other crotch rot? Or are you pregnant?”

  Thinking that pregnancy might gain her a dispensation from the violence of which he seemed so capable, she said, “I’m going to have a baby. I’m three months pregnant.”

  Something happened in his eyes. A shifting. Like movement in a subtle kaleidoscopic pattern that was composed of bits of glass all the same shade of green.

  Nora knew that admitting pregnancy was the worst thing she could have done, but she did not know why.

  She thought about the .38 pistol in the glove compartment. She could not possibly open the glove box, grab the gun, and shoot him before he pulled the trigger of the revolver. Still, she’d have to remain constantly on the lookout for an opportunity, for a laxness on his part, that would give her a chance to go for her own weapon.

  Suddenly he was climbing on top of her, and again she thought he was going to rape her in broad daylight, in the veiling curtains of rain but still daylight. Then she realized he was just changing places with her, urging her behind the wheel while he moved into the passenger’s seat, keeping the muzzle of the revolver on her the whole time.

  “Drive,” he said.

  “Where?”

  “Back to your place.”

  “But—”

  “Keep your mouth shut and drive.”

  Now she was at the opposite side of the cab from the glove box. To get to it, she would have to reach in front of him. He would never be that lax.

  Determined to keep a rein on her galloping fear, she now found that she had to rein in despair as well.

  She started the truck, drove out of the parking lot, and turned right in the street.

  The windshield wipers thumped nearly as loud as her heart. She wasn’t sure how much of the oppressive sound was made by the impacting rain and how much of it was the roar of her own blood in her ears.

  Block by block, Nora searched for a cop—although she had no idea what she should do if she saw one. She never had to figure it out because no cops were anywhere to be seen.

  Until they were out of Carmel and on the Pacific Coast Highway, the blustering wind not only drove rain against the windshield but also flung bristling bits of cypress and pine needles from the huge old trees that sheltered the town’s streets. South along the coast, as they headed into steadily less populated areas, no trees overhung the road, but the wind off the ocean hit the pickup full force. Nora frequently felt it pulling at the wheel. And the rain, slashing straight at them from the sea, seemed to pummel the truck hard enough to leave dents in the sheet metal.

  After at least five minutes of silence, which seemed like an hour, she could no longer obey his order to keep her mouth shut. “How did you find us?”

  “Been watching your place for more than a day,” he said in that cool, quiet voice that matched his placid face. “When you left this morning, I followed you, hoping you’d give me an opening.”

  “No, I mean, how did you know where we lived?”

  He smiled. “Van Dyne.”

  “That double-crossing creep.”

  “Special circumstances,” he assured her. “The Big Man in San Francisco owed me a favor, so he put pressure on Van Dyne.”

  “Big man?”

  “Tetragna.”

  “Who’s he?”

  “You don’t know anything, do you?” he said. “Except how to make babies, huh? You know about that, huh?”

  The hard taunting note in his voice was not merely sexually suggestive: it was darker, stranger, and more terrifying than that. She was so frightened of the fierce tension that she sensed in him each time he approached the subject of sex that she did not dare reply to him.

  She turned on the headlights as they encountered thin fog. She kept her attention on the rain-washed highway, squinting through the smeary windshield.

  He said, “You’re very pretty. If I was going to stick it into anyone, I’d stick it into you.”

  Nora bit her lip.

  “But even as pretty as you are,” he said, “you’re like all the others, I’ll bet. If I stuck it into you, then it’d rot and fall off because you’re diseased like all the others—aren’t you? Yeah. You are. Sex is death. I’m one of the few who seem to know it, even though proof is everywhere. Sex is death. But you’re very pretty . . .”

  As she listened to him, her throat got tight. She was having difficulty drawing a deep breath.

  Suddenly his taciturnity was gone. He talked fast, still soft-voiced and unnervingly calm, considering the crazy things he was saying, but very fast: “I’m going to be bigger than Tetragna, more important. I’ve got scores of lives in me. I’ve absorbed energies from more than you’d believe, experienced The Moment, felt The Snap. It’s my Gift. When Tetragna’s dead and gone, I’ll be here. When everyone now alive is dead, I’ll be here because I’m immortal.”

 
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