Watchers by Dean Koontz

  She didn’t know what to say. He had come out of nowhere, somehow knowing about Einstein, and he was a lunatic, and there seemed to be nothing she could do. She was as angry about the unfairness of it as she was afraid. They had made careful preparations for The Outsider, and they had taken elaborate steps to elude the government—but how were they supposed to have prepared for this? It wasn’t fair.

  Silent again, he stared at her intently for a minute or more, another eternity. She could feel his icy green gaze on her as surely as she would have felt a cold, fondling hand.

  “You don’t know what I’m talking about, do you?” he said.


  Perhaps because he found her pretty, he chose to explain. “I’ve only ever told one person before, and he made fun of me. His name was Danny Slowicz, and we both worked for the Carramazza Family in New York, biggest of the five Mafia Families. Little muscle work, once in a while killing people who needed killed.”

  Nora felt sick because he was not merely crazy and not merely a killer but a crazy professional killer.

  Unaware of her reaction, switching his gaze from the rain-swept road to her face, he continued. “See, we were having dinner in this restaurant, Danny and me, washing down clams with Valpolicella, and I explained to him that I was destined to lead a long life because of my ability to acquire the vital energies of people I wasted. I told him, ‘See, Danny, people are like batteries, walking batteries, filled with this mysterious energy we call life. When I off someone, his energy becomes my energy, and I get stronger. I’m a bull, Danny.’ I says, ‘Look at me—am I a bull or what? And I got to be a bull ’cause I have this Gift of being able to take the energy from a guy.’ And you know what Danny says?”

  “What?” she asked numbly.

  “Well, Danny was a serious eater, so he kept his attention on his plate, face in his food, until he scarfs a few more clams. Then he looks up, his lips and chin dripping clam sauce, and he says, ‘Yeah, Vince, so where’d you learn this trick, huh? Where’d you learn how to absorb these life energies?’ I said, ‘Well, it’s my Gift,’ and he said, ‘You mean like from God?’ So I had to think about that, and I said, ‘Who knows where from? It’s my Gift like Mantle’s hitting was a gift, like Sinatra’s voice was a gift.’ And Danny says, ‘Tell me this—suppose you waste a guy who’s an electrician. After you absorb his energy, would you all of a sudden know how to rewire a house?’ I didn’t realize he was putting me on. I thought it was a serious question, so I explained how I absorb life energy, not personality, not all the stuff the guy knows, just his energy. And then Danny says, ‘So if you blew away a carnival geek, you wouldn’t all of a sudden get the urge to bite the heads off chickens.’ Right then I knew Danny thought I was either drunk or nuts, so I ate clams and didn’t say any more about my Gift, and that’s the last time I told anyone until I’m here telling you.”

  He had called himself Vince, so now she knew his name. She did not see what good it would do her to know it.

  He had told his story without any indication that he was aware of the insane black humor in it. He was a deadly serious man. Unless Travis could deal with him, this guy was not going to let them live.

  “So,” Vince said, “I couldn’t risk Danny going around telling anyone what I’d told him, because he’d color it up, make it sound funny, and people would think I was nuts. The big bosses don’t hire crazy hit men; they want cool, logical, balanced guys who can do the work clean. Which is what I am, cool and balanced, but Danny would have had them thinking the other way. So that night I slit his throat, took him to this deserted factory I knew, cut him into pieces, put him in a vat, and poured a lot of sulfuric acid over him. He was a favorite nephew of the don’s, so I couldn’t take a chance of anyone finding a body that might be traced back to me. Now, I got Danny’s energy in me, along with a lot of others.”

  The gun was in the glove box.

  Some small hope could be taken from the knowledge that the gun was in the glove box.

  While Nora was visiting Dr. Weingold, Travis whipped up and baked a double batch of cookies with peanut-butter chips. Living alone, he had learned to cook, but he had never taken pleasure in it. During the past few months, however, Nora had improved his culinary skills to such an extent that he enjoyed cooking, especially baking.

  Einstein, who usually hung around dutifully throughout a baking session, in the anticipation of receiving a sweet morsel, deserted him before he had finished mixing the batter. The dog was agitated and moved around the house from window to window, staring out at the rain.

  After a while, Travis got edgy about the dog’s behavior and asked if something was wrong.

  In the pantry, Einstein made his reply.


  “Sick?” Travis asked, worried about a relapse. The retriever was recovering well, but still recovering. His immune system was not in condition for a major new challenge.


  “Then what? You sense . . . The Outsider?”


  “But you sense something?”


  “Maybe it’s the rain.”


  Relieved but still edgy, Travis returned to his baking.

  The highway was silver with rain.

  The daytime fog grew slightly thicker as they drove south along the coast, forcing Nora to slow to forty miles an hour, thirty in some places.

  Using the fog as an excuse, could she slow the truck enough to risk throwing open her door and leaping out? No. Probably not. She would have to let their speed drop below five miles an hour in order not to hurt herself or her unborn child, and the fog simply was not dense enough to justify reducing speed that far. Besides, Vince kept the revolver pointed at her while he talked, and he would shoot her in the back as she turned to make her exit.

  The pickup’s headlamps and those of the few oncoming cars were refracted by the mist. Halos of light and scintillant rainbows bounced off the shifting curtains of fog, briefly seen, then gone.

  She considered running the truck off the road, over the edge in one of the few places where she knew the embankment to be gentle and the drop endurable. But she was afraid she would misjudge where she was and, by mistake, drive off the brink into a two-hundred-foot emptiness, crashing with terrible force into the rocky coastline below. Even if she went over at the right point, a calculated and survivable crash might knock her unconscious or induce a miscarriage, and if possible she wanted to get out of this with her life and the life of the child within her.

  Once Vince started talking to her, he could not stop. For years he had husbanded his great secrets, had hidden his dreams of power and immortality from the world, but his desire to speak of his supposed greatness evidently had never diminished after the fiasco with Danny Slowicz. It was as if he had stored up all the words he had wanted to say to people, had put them on reels and reels of mental recording tape, and now he was playing them back at high speed, spewing out all this craziness that made Nora sick with dread.

  He told her how he had learned of Einstein—the killing of the research scientists in charge of various programs under the Francis Project at Banodyne. He knew of The Outsider, too, but was not afraid of it. He was, he said, on the brink of immortality, and gaining ownership of the dog was one of the final tasks he had to complete in order to achieve his Destiny. He and the dog were destined to be together because each of them was unique in this world, one of a kind. Once Vince had achieved his Destiny, he said, nothing could stop him, not even The Outsider.

  Half the time, Nora didn’t understand what he was saying. She supposed that if she did understand it, she would be as insane as he clearly was.

  But though she did not always grasp his meaning, she knew what he intended to do to her and to Travis once he had the retriever. At first, she was afraid of speaking about her fate, as if putting it into words would somehow make it irrevocable. At last, however, when they were no more than five m
iles from the dirt lane that turned off the highway and led up to the bleached-wood house, she said, “You won’t let us go when you’ve got the dog, will you?”

  He stared at her, caressing her with his gaze. “What do you think, Nora?”

  “I think you’ll kill us.”

  “Of course.”

  She was surprised that his confirmation of her fears did not fill her with greater terror. His smug response only infuriated her, damping her fear while increasing her determination to spoil his neat plans.

  She knew, then, that she was a radically changed woman from the Nora of last May, who would have been reduced to uncontrollable shudders by this man’s bold self-assurance.

  “I could run this truck right off the road, take my chances with an accident,” she said.

  “The moment you pulled on the wheel,” he said, “I’d have to shoot you and then try to regain control.”

  “Maybe you couldn’t. Maybe you’d die, too.”

  “Me? Die? Maybe. But not in anything as minor as a traffic accident. No, no. I’ve got too many lives in me to go that easily. And I don’t believe you’ll try it anyway. In your heart of hearts, you believe that man of yours will pull a sharp one, save you and the dog and himself. You’re wrong, of course, but you can’t stop believing in him. He won’t do anything because he’ll be afraid of hurting you. I’ll go in there with a gun in your belly, and that will paralyze him long enough for me to blow his head off. That’s why I’ve only got the revolver. It’s all I need. His caring for you, his fear of hurting you, will get him killed.”

  Nora decided it was very important that she not let her fury show. She must try to look frightened, weak, utterly unsure of herself. If he underestimated her, he might slip up and give her some small advantage.

  Taking her eyes off the rainy highway for only a second, she glanced at him and saw that he was staring at her not with amusement or psychopathic rage, as she would have expected, and not with his usual bovine placidity, either, but with something that looked very much like affection and maybe gratitude.

  “I’ve dreamed for years of killing a pregnant woman,” he said, as if that was a goal no less worthwhile and commendable than wanting to build a business empire or feed the hungry or nurse the sick. “I have never been in a situation where the risk of killing a pregnant woman was low enough to justify it. But in that isolated house of yours, once I’ve dealt with Cornell, the conditions will be ideal.”

  “Please, no,” she said shakily, playing the weakling, though she didn’t have to fake the nervous quiver in her voice.

  Still speaking calmly but with a trace more emotion than before, he said, “There’ll be your life energy, still young and rich, but in the instant you die, I’ll also receive the energy of the child. And that’ll be perfectly pure, unused, a life that’s unsoiled by the many contaminants of this sick and degenerate world. You’re my first pregnant woman, Nora, and I’ll always remember you.”

  Tears shimmered at the corners of her eyes, which was not just good acting, either. Although she did believe Travis would find some way to handle this man, she was afraid that, in the turmoil, she or Einstein would die. And she did not know how Travis would be able to cope with his failure to save all of them.

  “Don’t despair, Nora,” Vince said. “You and your baby will not entirely cease to exist. You’ll both become a part of me, and in me you’ll live forever.”

  Travis took the first tray of cookies out of the oven and put them on a rack to cool.

  Einstein came sniffing around, and Travis said, “They’re too hot yet.”

  The dog returned to the living room to look out the front window at the rain.

  Just before Nora turned off the Coast Highway, Vince slid down on the seat, below the window level, out of sight. He kept the gun on her. “I’ll blow that baby right out of your belly if you make the slightest wrong move.”

  She believed him.

  Turning onto the dirt lane, which was muddy and slippery, Nora drove up the hill toward the house. The overhanging trees shielded the road from the worst of the rain but collected the water on their branches and sent it to the ground in fatter droplets or rivulets.

  She saw Einstein at a front window, and she tried to come up with some signal that would mean “trouble,” that the dog would instantly understand. She couldn’t think of anything.

  Looking up at her, Vince said, “Don’t go all the way to the barn. Stop right beside the house.”

  His plan was obvious. The corner of the house where the pantry and cellar stairs were located had no windows. Travis and Einstein would not be able to see the man getting out of the truck with her. Vince could hustle her around the corner, onto the back porch, and inside before Travis realized something was wrong.

  Maybe Einstein’s canine senses would detect danger. Maybe. But . . . Einstein had been so ill.

  Einstein padded into the kitchen, excited.

  Travis said, “Was that Nora’s truck?”


  The retriever went to the back door and did a dance of impatience— then stood still, cocked his head.

  Nora’s stroke of luck came when she least expected it.

  When she parked alongside the house, engaged the hand brake, and switched off the engine, Vince grabbed her and dragged her across the seat, out of his side of the truck because that was the side against the back end of the house and most difficult to see from windows at the front corner of the structure. Climbing from the pickup, pulling her by one hand, he was looking around to be sure Travis was not nearby; distracted, he couldn’t keep his revolver on Nora as closely as before. As she slid across the seat, past the glove box, she popped open the door and snatched up the .38 pistol. Vince must have heard or sensed something because he swung toward her, but he was too late. She jammed the .38 into his belly and, before he could raise his gun and blow her head off, she squeezed the trigger three times.

  With a look of shock, he slammed back against the house, which was only three feet behind him.

  She was amazed by her own cold-bloodedness. Crazily, she thought that no one was so dangerous as a mother protecting her children, even if one child was unborn and the other was a dog. She fired once more, point-blank, at his chest.

  Vince went down hard, face-first on the wet ground.

  She turned from him and ran. At the corner of the house she almost collided with Travis, who vaulted over the porch railing and landed in a crouch in front of her, holding the Uzi carbine.

  “I killed him,” she said, hearing hysteria in her voice, fighting to control it. “I shot him four times, I killed him, my God.”

  Travis rose from a crouch, bewildered. Nora threw her arms around him and put her head against his chest. As chilling rain beat upon them, she reveled in the living warmth of him.

  “Who—” Travis began.

  Behind Nora, Vince issued a shrill breathless cry and, rolling onto his back, fired at them. The bullet struck Travis high in the shoulder and knocked him backward. If it had been two inches to the right, it would have hit Nora in the head.

  She was almost pulled off her feet when Travis fell because she was holding him. But she let go fast enough and went to the left, in front of the truck, out of the line of fire. She got only a quick look at Vince, who was holding his revolver in one hand and clutching his stomach with the other, trying to get off the ground.

  In that glimpse before she cowered down in front of the pickup, she had not seen any blood on the man.

  What was happening here? He could not possibly have survived three rounds in the stomach and one in the chest. Not unless he actually was immortal.

  Even as Nora scrambled for the cover of the truck, Travis had been getting off his back, sitting up in the mud. Blood was visible on him, spreading across his chest from his shoulder, soaking his shirt. He still had the Uzi in his right hand, which functioned in spite of the wound in that shoulder. As Vince pulled off a wild second shot, Travis opened fire with the Uzi. His
position was no better than Vince’s; the spray of bullets snapped into the house and ricocheted along the side of the truck, indiscriminate fire.

  He stopped shooting. “Shit.” He struggled onto his feet.

  Nora said, “Did you get him?”

  "He made it around the front of the house,” Travis said, and headed that way.

  Vince figured he was approaching immortality, almost there, if he had not already arrived. He was in need of—at most—only a few more lives, and his only concern was that he would be snuffed out when he was that close to his Destiny. As a result, he took precautions. Like the latest and most expensive model Kevlar bulletproof vest. He was wearing one under his sweater, which was what had stopped the four shots the bitch had tried to pump into him. The slugs had flattened against the vest, drawing no blood whatsoever. But, Jesus, they had hurt. The impact had knocked him against the wall of the house and had driven the breath out of him. He felt as if he had lain on a giant anvil while someone repeatedly pounded a blacksmith’s hammer into his gut.

  Hunched over his pain, hobbling toward the front of the house, trying to get out of the way of the damn Uzi, he was sure he was going to be shot in the back. But somehow he made it to the corner, climbed the porch steps, and got out of Cornell’s line of fire.

  Vince took some satisfaction in having wounded Cornell, though he knew it wasn’t mortal. And having lost the element of surprise, he was in for a protracted battle. Hell, the woman looked to be almost as formidable as Cornell himself—a crazy Amazon.

  He could have sworn there was something of the timid mouse in the woman, that it was her nature to submit. Obviously, he misjudged her—and that spooked him. Vince Nasco was not accustomed to making such mistakes; mistakes were for lesser men, not for the child of Destiny.

  Scuttling across the front porch, certain that Cornell was coming fast behind him, Vince decided to go into the house instead of heading for the woods. They would expect him to run for the trees, take cover, and reconsider his strategy. Instead, he’d go straight into the house and find a position from which he could see both the front and rear doors. Maybe he’d take them by surprise yet.

  He was passing a large window, heading for the front door, when something exploded through the glass.

  Vince cried out in surprise and fired his revolver, but the shot went into the porch ceiling, and the dog—Jesus, that’s what it was, the dog—hit him hard. The gun flew out of his hand. He was knocked backward. The dog clung to him, claws snagged in his clothes, teeth sunk in his shoulder. The porch railing disintegrated. They tumbled out into the front yard, into the rain.

  Screaming, Vince hammered at the dog with his big fists until it squealed and let go of him. Then it went for his throat, and he just knocked it off in time to prevent it tearing open his windpipe.

  His gut still throbbed, but he hitched and stumbled back to the porch, looking for his revolver—and found Cornell instead. Bleeding from his shoulder, Cornell was on the porch, looking down at Vince.

  Vince felt a great wild surge of confidence. He knew that he had been right all along, knew that he was invincible, immortal, because he could look straight into the muzzle of the Uzi without fear, without the slightest fear, so he grinned up at Cornell. “Look at me, look! I’m your worst nightmare.”

  Cornell said, “Not even close,” and opened fire.

  In the kitchen Travis sat in a chair, with Einstein at his side, while Nora dressed his wound. As she worked, she told him what she knew about the man who had forced his way into the truck.

  “He was a damn wild card,” Travis said. “No way we could ever have known he was out there.”

  “I hope he’s the only wild card.”

  Wincing as Nora poured alcohol and iodine into the bullet hole, wincing again as she bound the wound with gauze by passing it under his armpit, he said, “Don’t worry about making a great job of it. The bleeding’s not that bad. No artery’s been hit.”

  The bullet had gone through, leaving a hideous exit wound, and he was in considerable pain, but for a while yet he would be able to function. He would have to seek medical attention later, maybe from Jim Keene to avoid the questions that any other doctor would surely insist on having answered. For now, he was only concerned that the wound be bound tight enough to allow him to dispose of the dead man.

  Einstein was battered, too. Fortunately, he had not been cut when he smashed through the front window. He did not seem to have any broken bones, but he had taken several hard blows. Not in the best of shape to begin with, he looked bad—muddy and rain-soaked and in pain. He would need to see Jim Keene, too.

  Outside, rain was falling harder than ever, pounding on the roof, gurgling noisily through gutters and downspouts. It was slanting across the front porch and through the shattered window, but they did not have time to worry about water damage.

  “Thank God for the rain,” Travis said. “No one in the area will have heard the gunfire in this downpour.”

  Nora said, “Where will we dump the body?”

  “I’m thinking.” And it was hard to think clearly because the pain in his shoulder throbbed up and into his head.

  She said, “We could bury him here, in the woods—”

  “No. We’d always know he was there. We’d always worry about the body being dug up by wild animals, found by hikers. Better . . . there’re places along the Coast Highway where we could pull over, wait until there’s no traffic, drag him out of the bed of the truck, and toss him over the side. If we pick a place where the sea comes in right to the base of the slope, it’ll carry him out, move him away, before anyone notices him down there.”

  As Nora finished the bandage, Einstein abruptly got up, whined. He sniffed the air. He went to the back door, stood staring at it for a moment, then disappeared into the living room.

  “I’m afraid he’s hurt worse than he seems to be,” Nora said, applying a final strip of adhesive tape.

  “Maybe,” Travis said. “But maybe not. He’s just been acting peculiar all day, ever since you left this morning. He told me it smelled like a bad day.”

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