Watchers by Dean Koontz


  “He was right,” she said.

  Einstein returned from the living room at a run and went straight to the pantry, switching on the lights and pumping the pedals that released lettered tiles.

  “Maybe he has an idea about disposing of the body,” Nora said.

  As Nora gathered up the leftover iodine, alcohol, gauze, and tape, Travis painfully pulled on his shirt and went to the pantry to see what Einstein had to say.

  THE OUTSIDER IS HERE.

  Travis slammed a new magazine into the butt of the Uzi carbine, put an extra in one pocket, and gave Nora one of the Uzi pistols that was kept in the pantry.

  Judging by Einstein’s sense of urgency, they had no time to go through the house, closing and bolting shutters.

  The clever scheme to gas The Outsider in the barn had been built upon the certainty that it would approach at night and reconnoiter. Now that it had come in daylight and had reconnoitered while they were distracted by Vince, that plan was useless.

  They stood in the kitchen, listening, but nothing could be heard above the relentless roar of the rain.

  Einstein was not able to give them a more precise fix on their adversary’s location. His sixth sense was still not working up to par. They were just lucky that he had sensed the beast at all. His morning-long anxiety had evidently not been related to any presentiment about the man who had come home with Nora but had been, even without his knowledge, caused by the approach of The Outsider.

  “Upstairs,” Travis said. “Let’s go.”

  Down here, the creature could enter by doors or windows, but on the second floor they would at least have only windows to worry about. And maybe they could get shutters closed over some of those.

  Nora climbed the stairs with Einstein. Travis brought up the rear, moving backward, keeping the Uzi aimed down at the first floor. The ascent made him dizzy. He was acutely aware that the pain and weakness in his injured shoulder was slowly spreading outward through his entire body like an ink stain through a blotter.

  On the second floor, at the head of the stairs, he said, “If we hear it come in, we can back off, wait until it starts to climb toward us, then step forward and catch it by surprise, blow it away.”

  She nodded.

  They had to be silent now, give it a chance to creep into the downstairs, give it time to decide they were on the second floor, let it gain confidence, let it approach the stairs with a sense of security.

  A strobe-flash of lightning—the first of the storm—pulsed at the window at the end of the hall, and thunder cracked. The sky seemed to have been shattered by the blast, and all the rain stored in the heavens collapsed upon the earth in one tremendous fall.

  At the end of the hallway, one of Nora’s canvases flew out of her studio and crashed against the wall.

  Nora cried out in surprise, and for an instant all three of them stared stupidly at the painting lying on the hall floor, half thinking that its poltergeist-like flight had been related to the great crash of thunder and the lightning.

  A second painting sailed out of her studio, hit the wall, and Travis saw the canvas was shredded.

  The Outsider was already in the house.

  They were at one end of the short hall. The master bedroom and future nursery were on the left, the bathroom and then Nora’s studio on the right. The thing was just two doors away, in Nora’s studio, demolishing her paintings.

  Another canvas flew into the hallway.

  Rain-soaked, muddied, battered, still somewhat weak from his battle with distemper, Einstein nevertheless barked viciously, trying to warn off The Outsider.

  Holding the Uzi, Travis moved one step down the hall.

  Nora grabbed his arm. “Let’s not. Let’s get out.”

  “No. We’ve got to face it.”

  “On our terms,” she said.

  “These are the best terms we’re going to get.”

  Two more paintings flew out of the studio and clattered down on top of the growing pile of wrecked canvases.

  Einstein was no longer barking but growling deep in his throat.

  Together, they moved along the hall, toward the open door of Nora’s studio.

  Travis’s experience and training told him they ought to split up, spread out, instead of grouping into a single target. But this was not Delta Force. And their enemy was not a mere terrorist. If they spread out, they would lose some of the courage they needed to face the thing. Their very closeness gave them strength.

  They were halfway to the studio door when The Outsider shrieked. It was an icy sound that stabbed right through Travis and quick-froze his bone marrow. He and Nora halted, but Einstein took two more steps before stopping.

  The dog was shuddering violently.

  Travis realized he, too, was shaking. The tremors aggravated the pain in his shoulder.

  Breaking fear’s hold, he rushed to the open door, treading on ruined canvases, spraying bullets into the studio. The weapon’s recoil, though minimal, was like a chisel chipping into his wound.

  He hit nothing, heard nothing scream, saw no sign of the enemy.

  The floor in there was littered with a dozen mangled paintings and glass from the broken window by which the thing had entered after climbing onto the front porch roof.

  Waiting, Travis stood with his legs spread wide. The gun in both hands. Blinking sweat out of his eyes. Trying to ignore the seething pain in his right shoulder. Waiting.

  The Outsider must be to the left of the door—or behind it on the right, crouched, ready to spring. If he gave it time, maybe it would grow tired of waiting and would rush him, and he could cut it down in the doorway.

  No, it’s as smart as Einstein, he told himself. Would Einstein be so dumb as to rush me through a narrow doorway? No. No, it’ll do something more intelligent, unexpected.

  The sky exploded with thunder so powerful it vibrated the windows and shook the house. Chain lightning sizzled through the day.

  Come on, you bastard, show yourself.

  He glanced at Nora and Einstein, who stood a few steps away from him, with the master bedroom on one side of them and the bathroom on the other side, the stairs behind them.

  He looked again through the doorway, at the window glass among the debris on the floor. Suddenly he was certain that The Outsider was no longer in the studio, that it had gone out through the window, onto the roof of the front porch, and that it was coming at them from another part of the house, through another door, perhaps out of one of the bedrooms, or from the bathroom—or maybe it would explode at them, shrieking, from the top of the steps.

  He motioned Nora forward, to his side. “Cover me.”

  Before she could object, he went through the doorway, into the studio, moving in a crouch. He nearly fell in the rubble, but stayed on his feet and spun around, ready to open fire if the thing was looming over him.

  It was gone.

  The closet door was open. Nothing in there.

  He went to the broken window and cautiously looked out onto the roof of the rain-washed porch. Nothing.

  Wind keened over the dangerously sharp shards of glass still bristling from the window frame.

  He started back toward the upstairs hall. He could see Nora out there, looking in at him, scared, but gamely clutching her Uzi. Behind her, the door to the future nursery opened, and it was there, yellow eyes aglow. Its monstrous jaws cracked wide, full of teeth far sharper than the wicked glass shards in the window frame.

  She was aware of it, started to turn, but it struck at her before she had a chance to fire. It tore the Uzi out of her hands.

  It had no chance to gut her with its razor-edged six-inch claws because, even as the beast was tearing the pistol out of her hands, Einstein charged it, snarling. With catlike quickness, The Outsider shifted its attention from Nora to the dog. It whipped around on him, lashed out as if its long arms were constructed with more than one elbow joint. It snatched Einstein up in both horrendous hands.

  Crossing the studio to the ha
ll door, Travis had no clear shot at The Outsider because Nora was between him and that hateful thing. As Travis reached the doorway, he cried out for her to fall down, to give him a line of fire, and she did, immediately, but too late. The Outsider scooped Einstein into the nursery and slammed the door, as if it were an evil nightmare-spawned jack-in-the-box that had popped out and popped back in with its prey, all in the blink of an eye.

  Einstein squealed, and Nora rushed the nursery door.

  “No!” Travis shouted, pulling her aside.

  He aimed the automatic carbine at the closed door and emptied the rest of the magazine into it, punching at least thirty holes in the wood, crying out through clenched teeth as pain flared through his shoulder. There was some risk of hitting Einstein, but the retriever would be in worse danger if Travis did not open fire. When the gun stopped spitting bullets, he ripped out the empty magazine, took a full magazine from his pocket and slammed that into the gun. Then he kicked open the ruined door and went into the nursery.

  The window stood open, curtains blowing in the wind.

  The Outsider was gone.

  Einstein was on the floor, against one wall, motionless, covered with blood.

  Nora made a wrenching sound of grief when she saw the retriever.

  At the window, Travis spotted splashes of blood leading across the porch roof. Rain was swiftly washing the gore away.

  Movement caught his eye, and he looked toward the barn, where The Outsider disappeared through the big door.

  Crouching over the dog, Nora said, “Oh my God, Travis, my God, after all he’s come through and now he has to die like this.”

  “I’m going after the son-of-a-bitching bastard,” Travis said ferociously. “It’s in the barn.”

  She moved toward the door, too, and he said, “No! Call Jim Keene and then stay with Einstein, stay with Einstein.”

  “But you’re the one who needs me. You can’t go after it alone.”

  “Einstein needs you.”

  “Einstein is dead,” she said through tears.

  “Don’t say that!” he screamed at her. He was aware that he was irrational, as if he believed Einstein would not really be dead until they said he was dead, but he could not control himself. “Don’t say he’s dead. Stay here with him, damn it. I’ve already hurt that fucking fugitive from a nightmare, hurt it bad I think, it’s bleeding, and I can finish it off myself. Call Jim Keene, stay with Einstein.”

  He was also afraid that, in all of this activity, she was going to induce a miscarriage, if she had not already done so. Then they would have lost not only Einstein but the baby.

  He left the room at a run.

  You’re in no condition to go into that barn, he told himself. You’ve got to cool down first. Telling Nora to call a vet for a dead dog, telling her to stay with it when, in fact, you could have used her at your side . . . No good. Letting rage and a thirst for vengeance get the best of you. No good.

  But he could not stop. All of his life he had lost people he loved, and except in Delta Force he’d never had anyone to strike back at because you can’t take vengeance on fate. Even in Delta, the enemy was so faceless—the lumpish mass of maniacs and fanatics who were “international terrorism”—that vengeance provided little satisfaction. But here was an enemy of unparalleled evil, an enemy worthy of the name, and he would make it pay for what it had done to Einstein.

  He raced down the hallway, descended the stairs two and three at a time, was hit by a wave of dizziness and nausea, and nearly fell. He grabbed at the banister to steady himself. He leaned on the wrong arm, and hot pain flared in his wounded shoulder. Letting go of the railing, he lost his balance and tumbled down the last flight, hitting the bottom hard.

  He was in worse shape than he had thought.

  Clutching the Uzi, he got to his feet and staggered to the back door, onto the porch, down the steps, into the yard. The cold rain cleared his fuzzy head, and he stood for a moment on the lawn, letting the storm wash some of the dizziness out of him.

  An image of Einstein’s broken, bloody body flashed through his mind. He thought of the amusing messages that would never be formed on the pantry floor, and he thought of Christmases to come without Einstein padding around in his Santa cap, and he thought of love that would never be given or received, and he thought of all the genius puppies who would never be born, and the weight of all that loss nearly crushed him into the ground.

  He used his grief to sharpen his rage, honed his fury until it had a razored edge.

  Then he went to the barn.

  The place swarmed with shadows. He stood at the open door, letting the rain beat on his head and back, peering into the barn, squinting at the layered gloom, hoping to spot the yellow eyes.

  Nothing.

  He went through the door, bold with rage, and sidled to the light switches on the north wall. Even when the lights came on, he could not see The Outsider.

  Fighting off dizziness, clenching his teeth in pain, he moved past the empty space where the truck belonged, past the back of the Toyota, slowly along the side of the car.

  The loft.

  He would be moving out from under the loft in a couple of steps. If the thing was up there, it could leap down on him—

  That speculation proved a dead end, for The Outsider was at the back of the barn, beyond the front end of the Toyota, crouched on the concrete floor, whimpering and hugging itself with both long, powerful arms. The floor around it was smeared with its blood.

  He stood beside the car for almost a minute, fifteen feet from the creature, studying it with disgust, fear, horror, and a weird fascination. He believed he could see the body structure of an ape, maybe a baboon—something in the simian family, anyway. But it was neither mostly one species nor merely a patchwork of the recognizable parts of many animals. It was, instead, a thing unto itself. With its oversized and lumpish face, immense yellow eyes, steam-shovel jaw, and long curved teeth, with its hunched back and matted coat and too-long arms, it attained a frightful individuality.

  It was staring at him, waiting.

  He took two steps forward, bringing up the gun.

  Lifting its head, working its jaws, it issued a raspy, cracked, slurred, but still intelligible word that he could hear even above the sounds of the storm: “Hurt.”

  Travis was more horrified than amazed. The creature had not been designed to be capable of speech, yet it had the intelligence to learn language and to desire communication. Evidently, during the months it pursued Einstein, that desire had grown great enough to allow it to conquer, to some extent, its physical limitations. It had practiced speech, finding ways to wring a few tortured words from its fibrous voice box and malformed mouth. Travis was horrified not at the sight of a demon speaking but at the thought of how desperately the thing must have wanted to communicate with someone, anyone. He did not want to pity it, did not dare pity it, because he wanted to feel good about blowing it off the face of the earth.

  “Come far. Now done,” it said with tremendous effort, as if each word had to be torn from its throat.

  Its eyes were too alien ever to inspire empathy, and every limb was unmistakably an instrument of murder.

  Unwrapping one long arm from around its body, it picked up something that had been on the floor beside it but that Travis had not noticed until now: one of the Mickey Mouse tapes Einstein had gotten for Christmas. The famous mouse was pictured on the cassette holder, wearing the same outfit he always wore, smiling that familiar smile, waving.

  “Mickey,” The Outsider said, and as wretched and strange and barely intelligible as its voice was, it somehow conveyed a sense of terrible loss and loneliness. “Mickey.”

  Then it dropped the cassette and clutched itself and rocked back and forth in agony.

  Travis took another step forward.

  The Outsider’s hideous face was so repulsive that there was almost something exquisite about it. In its unique ugliness, it was darkly, strangely seductive.

 
This time, when the thunder crashed, the barn lights flickered and nearly went out.

  Raising its head again, speaking in that same scratchy voice but with cold, insane glee, it said, “Kill dog, kill dog, kill dog,” and it made a sound that might have been laughter.

  He almost shot it to pieces. But before he could pull the trigger, The Outsider’s laughter gave way to what seemed to be sobbing. Travis watched, mesmerized.

  Fixing Travis with its lantern eyes, it again said, “Kill dog, kill dog, kill dog,” but this time it seemed racked with grief, as if it grasped the magnitude of the crime that it had been genetically compelled to commit.

  It looked at the cartoon of Mickey Mouse on the cassette holder.

  Finally, pleadingly, it said, “Kill me.”

  Travis did not know if he was acting more out of rage or out of pity when he squeezed the trigger and emptied the Uzi’s magazine into The Outsider. What man had begun, man now ended.

  When he was done, he felt drained.

  He dropped the carbine and walked outside. He could not find the strength to return to the house. He sat down on the lawn, huddled in the rain, and wept.

  He was still weeping when Jim Keene drove up the muddy lane from the Coast Highway.

  chapter eleven

  1

  On Thursday afternoon, January 13, Lem Johnson left Cliff Soames and three other men at the foot of the dirt lane, where it met the Pacific Coast Highway. Their instructions were to allow no one past them but to remain on station until—and if—Lem called for them.

  Cliff Soames seemed to think this was a strange way to handle things, but he did not voice his objections.

  Lem explained that, since Travis Cornell was an ex-Delta man with considerable combat skills, he ought to be handled with care. “If we go storming in there, he’ll know who we are as soon as he sees us coming, and he might react violently. If I go in alone, I’ll be able to get him to talk to me, and maybe I can persuade him to just give it up.”

  That was a flimsy explanation for his unorthodox procedure, and it did not wipe the frown off Cliff’s face.

  Lem didn’t care about Cliff’s frown. He went in alone, driving one of the sedans, and parked in front of the bleached-wood house.

  Birds were singing in the trees. Winter had temporarily relaxed its hold on the northern California coast, and the day was warm.

  Lem climbed the steps and knocked on the front door.

  Travis Cornell answered the knock and stared at him through the screen door before saying, “Mr. Johnson, I suppose.”

  “How did you . . . oh yes, of course, Garrison Dilworth would have told you about me that night he got his call through.”

  To Lem’s surprise, Cornell opened the screen door. “You might as well come in.”

  Cornell was wearing a sleeveless T-shirt, apparently because of a sizable bandage encasing most of his right shoulder. He led Lem through the front room and into a kitchen, where his wife sat at the table, peeling apples for a pie.

  “Mr. Johnson,” she said.

  Lem smiled and said, “I’m widely known, I see.”

  Cornell sat at the table and lifted a cup of coffee. He offered no coffee to Lem.

  Standing awkwardly for a moment, Lem eventually sat with them. He said, “Well, it was inevitable, you know. We had to catch up with you sooner or later.”

  She peeled apples and said nothing. Her husband stared into his coffee.

 
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