Watchers by Dean Koontz


  What’s wrong with them? Lem wondered.

  This was not remotely like any scenario he had imagined. He was prepared for panic, anger, despondency, and many other things, but not for this strange apathy. They did not seem to care that he had at last tracked them down.

  He said, “Aren’t you interested in how we located you?”

  The woman shook her head.

  Cornell said, “If you really want to tell us, go ahead and have your fun.”

  Frowning, puzzled, Lem said, “Well, it was simple. We knew that Mr. Dilworth had to’ve called you from some house or business within a few blocks of that park north of the harbor. So we tied our own computers into the telephone company’s records—with their permission, of course—and put men to work examining all the long-distance calls charged to all the numbers within three blocks of that park, on that one night. Nothing led us to you. But then we realized that, when charges are reversed, the call isn’t billed to the number from which the call is placed; it appears on the records of the person who accepts the reversed charges—which was you. But it also appears in a special phone-company file so they’ll be able to document the call if the person who accepted the charges later refuses to pay. We went through that special file, which is very small, and quickly found a call placed from a house along the coast, just north of the beach park, to your number here. When we went around to talk to the people there—the Essenby family—we focused on their son, a teenager named Tommy, and although it took some time, we ascertained that it had, indeed, been Dilworth who used their phone. The first part was terribly time-consuming, weeks and weeks, but after that . . . child’s play.”

  “Do you want a medal or what?” Cornell asked.

  The woman picked up another apple, quartered it, and began to strip off the peel.

  They were not making this easy for him—but then his intentions were much different from what they would be expecting. They could not be criticized for being cool toward him when they did not yet know that he had come as a friend.

  He said, “Listen, I’ve left my men at the end of the lane. Told them you might panic, do something stupid, if you saw us coming in a group. But why I really came alone was . . . to make you an offer.”

  They both met his eyes at last, with interest.

  He said, “I’m getting out of this goddamn job by spring. Why I’m getting out . . . you don’t have to know or care. Just say that I’ve gone through a sea change. Learned to deal with failure, and now it doesn’t scare me any more.” He sighed and shrugged. “Anyway, the dog doesn’t belong in a cage. I don’t give a good goddamn what they say, what they want—I know what’s right. I know what it’s like being in a cage. I’ve been in one most of my life, until recently. The dog shouldn’t have to go back to that. What I’m going to suggest is that you get him out of here now, Mr. Cornell, take him off through the woods, get him somewhere that he’ll be safe, then come back and face the music. Say that the dog ran off a couple of months ago, in some other place, and you think he must be dead by now, or in the hands of people who’re taking good care of him. There’ll still be the problem of The Outsider, which you must know about, but you and I can work up a way to deal with that when it comes. I’ll put men on a surveillance of you, but after a few weeks I’ll pull them, say it’s a lost cause—”

  Cornell stood up and stepped to Lem’s chair. With his left hand he grabbed hold of Lem’s shirt and hauled him to his feet. “You’re sixteen days too late, you son of a bitch.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “The dog is dead. The Outsider killed him, and I killed The Outsider.”

  The woman laid down her paring knife and a piece of apple. She put her face in her hands and sat forward in her chair, shoulders hunched, making soft, sad sounds.

  “Ah, Jesus,” Lem said.

  Cornell let go of him. Embarrassed, depressed, Lem straightened his tie, smoothed the wrinkles out of his shirt. He looked down at his pants— brushed them off.

  “Ah, Jesus,” he repeated.

  Cornell was willing to lead them to the place in the forest where he had buried The Outsider.

  Lem’s men dug it up. The monstrosity was wrapped in plastic, but they didn’t have to unwrap it to know that it was Yarbeck’s creation.

  The weather had been cool since the thing had been killed, but it was getting rank.

  Cornell would not tell them where the dog was buried. “He never had much of a chance to live in peace,” Cornell said sullenly. “But, by God, he’s going to rest in peace now. No one’s going to put him on an autopsy table and hack him up. No way.”

  “In a case where the national security is at stake, you can be forced—”

  “Let them,” Cornell said. “If they haul me up before a judge and try to make me tell them where I buried Einstein, I’ll spill the whole story to the press. But if they leave Einstein alone, if they leave me and mine alone, I’ll keep my mouth shut. I don’t intend to go back to Santa Barbara, to pick up as Travis Cornell. I’m Hyatt now, and that’s what I’m going to stay. My old life’s gone forever. There’s no reason to go back. And if the government’s smart, it’ll let me be Hyatt and stay out of my way.”

  Lem stared at him a long time. Then: “Yeah, if they’re smart, I think they’ll do just that.”

  Later that same day, as Jim Keene was cooking dinner, his phone rang. It was Garrison Dilworth, whom he had never met but had gotten to know during the past week by acting as liaison between the attorney and Travis and Nora. Garrison was calling from a pay phone in Santa Barbara.

  “They show up yet?” the attorney asked.

  “Early this afternoon,” Jim said. “That Tommy Essenby must be a good kid.”

  “Not bad, really. But he didn’t come to see me and warn me out of the goodness of his heart. He’s in rebellion against authority. When they pressured him into admitting that I made the call from his house that night, he resented them. As inevitably as billy goats ram their heads into board fences, Tommy came straight to me.”

  “They took away The Outsider.”

  “What about the dog?”

  “Travis said he wouldn’t show them where the grave was. Made them believe that he’d kick a lot of ass and pull down the whole temple on everyone’s heads if they pushed him.”

  “How’s Nora?” Dilworth asked.

  “She won’t lose the baby.”

  “Thank God. That must be a great comfort.”

  2

  Eight months later, on the big Labor Day weekend in September, the Johnson and Gaines families got together for a barbecue at the sheriff’s house. They played bridge most of the afternoon. Lem and Karen won more often than they lost, which was unusual these days, because Lem no longer approached the game with the fanatical need to win that had once been his style.

  He had left the NSA in June. Since then, he had been living on the income from the money he had long ago inherited from his father. By next spring, he expected to settle on a new line of work, a small business of some kind, in which he would be his own boss, able to set his own hours.

  Late in the afternoon, while their wives made salads in the kitchen, Lem and Walt stood out on the patio, tending to the steaks on the barbecue.

  “So you’re still known at the Agency as the man who screwed up the Banodyne crisis?”

  “That’s how I’ll be known until time immemorial.”

  “Still get a pension though,” Walt said.

  “Well, I did put in twenty-three years.”

  “Doesn’t seem right, though, that a man could screw up the biggest case of the century and still walk away, at forty-six, with a full pension.”

  “Three-quarter pension.”

  Walt breathed deeply of the fragrant smoke rising off the charring steaks. “Still. What is our country coming to? In less liberal times, screwups like you would have been flogged and put in the stocks, at least.” He took another deep whiff of the steaks and said, “Tell me again about that moment in their kitchen
.”

  Lem had told it a hundred times, but Walt never got tired of hearing it again. “Well, the place was neat as a pin. Everything gleamed. And both Cornell and his wife are neat about themselves, too. They’re well-groomed, well-scrubbed people. So they tell me the dog’s been dead two weeks, dead and buried. Cornell throws this angry fit, hauls me out of my chair by my shirt, and glares at me like maybe he’s going to rip my head off. When he lets go of me, I straighten my tie, smooth my shirt . . . and I look down at my pants, sort of out of habit, and I notice these golden hairs. Dog hairs. Retriever hairs, sure as hell. Now could it have been that these neat people, especially trying to fill their empty days and take their minds off their tragedy, didn’t find the time to clean the house in more than two weeks?”

  “Hairs were just all over your pants,” Walt said.

  “A hundred hairs.”

  “Like the dog had just been sitting there minutes before you came in.”

  “Like, if I’d been two minutes sooner, I’d have set right down on the dog himself.”

  Walt turned the steaks on the barbecue. “You’re a pretty observant man, Lem, which ought to’ve taken you far in the line of work you were in. I just don’t understand how, with all your talents, you managed to screw up the Banodyne case so thoroughly.”

  They both laughed, as they always did.

  “Just luck, I guess,” Lem said, which was what he always said, and he laughed again.

  3

  When James Garrison Hyatt celebrated his third birthday on June 28, his mother was pregnant with his first sibling, who eventually became his sister.

  They threw a party at the bleached-wood house on the forested slopes above the Pacific. Because the Hyatts would soon be moving to a new and larger house a bit farther up the coast, they made it a party to remember, not merely a birthday bash but a goodbye to the house that had first sheltered them as a family.

  Jim Keene drove in from Carmel with Pooka and Sadie, his two black Labs, and his young golden retriever, Leonardo, who was usually called Leo. A few close friends came in from the real-estate office where Sam— “Travis” to everyone—worked in Carmel Highlands, and from the gallery in Carmel where Nora’s paintings were exhibited and sold. These friends brought their retrievers, too, all of them second-litter offspring of Einstein and his mate, Minnie.

  Only Garrison Dilworth was missing. He had died in his sleep the previous year.

  They had a fine day, a grand time, not merely because they were friends and happy to be with one another, but because they shared a secret wonder and joy that would forever bind them into one enormous extended family.

  All members of the first litter, which Travis and Nora could not have borne adopting out, and which lived at the bleached-wood house, were also present: Mickey, Donald, Daisy, Huey, Dewey, Louie.

  The dogs had an even better time than the people, frolicking on the lawn, playing hide-and-seek in the woods, and watching videotapes on the TV in the living room.

  The canine patriarch participated in some of the games, but he spent much of his time with Travis and Nora and, as usual, stayed close to Minnie. He limped—as he would for the rest of his life—because his right hind leg had been cruelly mangled by The Outsider and would not have been usable at all if his vet had not been so dedicated to the restoration of the limb’s function.

  Travis often wondered whether The Outsider had thrown Einstein against the nursery wall with great force and then had assumed he was dead. Or at the moment when it held the retriever’s life in its hands, perhaps the thing had reached down within itself and found some drop of mercy that its makers had not designed into it but which had somehow been there anyway. Perhaps it remembered the one pleasure it and the dog had shared in the lab—the cartoons. And in remembering the sharing, perhaps it saw itself, for the first time, as having a dim potential to be like other living things. Seeing itself as like others, perhaps it then could not kill Einstein as easily as it had expected. After all, with a flick of those talons, it could have gutted him.

  But though he had acquired the limp, Einstein had lost the tattoo in his ear, thanks to Jim Keene. No one could ever prove that he was the dog from Banodyne—and he could still play “dumb dog” very well when he wished.

  At times during young Jimmy’s third birthday extravaganza, Minnie regarded her mate and offspring with charmed befuddlement, perplexed by their attitudes and antics. Although she could never fully understand them, no mother of dogs ever received half the love that she was given by those she’d brought into the world. She watched over them, and they watched over her, guardians of each other.

  At the dark end of that good day, when the guests were gone, when Jimmy was asleep in his room, when Minnie and her first litter were settling down for the night, Einstein and Travis and Nora gathered at the pantry off the kitchen.

  The Scrabble-tile dispenser was gone. In its place, an IBM computer stood on the floor. Einstein took a stylus in his mouth and tapped the keyboard. The message appeared on the screen:

  THEY GROW UP FAST.

  “Yes, they do,” Nora said. “Yours faster than ours.”

  ONE DAY THEY WILL BE EVERYWHERE.

  "One day, given time and a lot of litters,” Travis said, “they’ll be all over the world.”

  SO FAR FROM ME. IT’S A SADNESS.

  “Yes, it is,” Nora said. “But all young birds fly from the nest sooner or later.”

  AND WHEN I’M GONE?

  “What do you mean?” Travis asked, stooping and ruffling the dog’s thick coat.

  WILL THEY REMEMBER ME?

  “Oh yes, fur face,” Nora said, kneeling and hugging him. “As long as there are dogs and as long as there are people fit to walk with them, they will all remember you.”

  AFTERWORD BY DEAN KOONTZ

  afterword

  If I am fortunate enough to live to such an advanced age that my wardrobe consists entirely of bathrobes, loose jumpsuits, bunny slippers, and adult diapers, and if I am also fortunate enough to be writing novels in that twilight of my life, I know that I can expect to receive mail from readers that says, in essence, “I love your new book, but that story you wrote when you were just a puppy, Watchers, is still the best thing you’ve ever done.” I’ll be at a book signing—accompanied by a nurse and by an attendant holding an ear trumpet, hooked to an IV drip feeding me liquefied nachos, wearing a lavishly embroidered jumpsuit more dazzling than anything Elvis ever wore during his Las Vegas period—and as readers greet me and receive their inscribed copies of my latest effort, a significant percentage of them will ask me to write a sequel to Watchers. I will smile, promise to think about it, try not to drool, and explain that I don’t believe in writing a sequel to a book unless I can be sure it will be at least the equal of the original.

  For years after finishing the story of Einstein—the genetically engineered golden retriever with wildly enhanced intelligence—and his friends, I wondered if I would ever write another book that was as personally satisfying to me as this one had been. When I am writing a novel, I experience bleak spells of deep self-doubt about my work, moments of surging confidence, despair followed by joy—although there are usually more dark moments than bright. With Watchers, however, I knew only joy. The desire to write well can never be fulfilled without hard work, and Watchers involved as many hours at the keyboard and as much struggle as any book I’ve done; but in this case, all the time and effort was pure pleasure, because I was aware that I had a grip on a unique idea, special material, and a group of characters whose depth and warmth were greater than those in any book I’d written to that time. For days at a stretch, I found myself in what psychologists call a “flow state,” a condition in which one performs far beyond what previously had seemed to be the peak of one’s abilities, with greater fluency and speed and grace; it is similar to what athletes mean when they say they are “in the zone.”

  Eventually, I wrote a few books I liked as well as Watchers; but to date, as I compose this essay
, I can’t honestly say I’ve written one that I like better. I remain confident that day will come. I am an eternal optimist. I believe the greatest scientists of our time will soon discover a cure for gnarly oak fungus and perfect a process to make Brussels sprouts taste like peanut butter. I believe that one day society will become so compassionate that Big Foot will finally be able to come out of hiding and will be welcomed as a neighbor in any community in this land, as long as he showers regularly. And if that day comes, I suspect Mr. Foot will show up at a book signing to personally congratulate me when I do, at last, write a book that is a better performance than Watchers, because judging by the fleeting glimpses we’ve had of him over the years, he seems like a shy, kind soul. If I’ve misjudged him, and if he tears my arm off for lunch, I will be dismayed, but I’ll not be less optimistic and will not stop striving—albeit with only five fingers—to write a better book than this tale of Einstein.

  In an annotated bibliography in The Dean Koontz Companion, a book about my work, the bibliographer made the following observation about Watchers: “It embodies all of the major themes with which [Koontz] has been obsessed: the healing power of love and friendship; the struggle to overcome the past and change what we are; the moral superiority of the individual over the workings of the state and large institutions; the wonder of both the natural world and the potential of the human mind; the relationship of mankind to God; transcendence; and how we sustain hope in the face of our awareness that all things die.” Those are, indeed, the fundamental issues in this novel.

  For the most part, as I have written the essays for this series of editions, I have tried to keep them light and amusing, because although I take my work seriously, I never take myself seriously. The human species is a parade of fools, after all, and I am often at the front of the parade, twirling a baton. Nevertheless, for a moment here, I will wax serious (and then the car) because Watchers is so close to my heart.

  I believe that we carry within us a divinely inspired moral imperative to love, and I explore that imperative in all of my books. In Watchers, this issue is central to the story, and I even post signs announcing the theme, such as those embodied in the epigraphs that are used at the start of part two. (“Love alone is capable of uniting living beings in such a way as to complete and fulfill them, for it alone takes them and joins them by what is deepest in themselves”—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. And “Greater love hath no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends”—The Gospel According to Saint John.) We have within us the ability to change for the better and to find dignity as individuals rather than as drones in one mass movement or another. We have the ability to love, the need to be loved, and the willingness to put our own lives on the line to protect those we love, and it is in these aspects of ourselves that we can glimpse the face of God; and through the exercise of these qualities, we come closest to a Godlike state.

  With that said, my greatest hope is not that you find the themes of this novel worth analyzing, but that you find this to be a rip-roaring, rattling-good story. I hope it keeps you so far out on the edge of your chair that you have butt bruises from repeatedly falling to the floor. I hope it makes you laugh and cry. A novel can have multiple, intricately woven levels of theme and symbol, but it fails if it is not first a wonderful tale.

  When I’m ancient, if you come to one of my book signings—and see me sitting there in a pink terry-cloth bathrobe or in a jumpsuit embroidered with scenes from the life of Moe Howard of the Three Stooges—I’ll be happy to hear any kind words you whisper into my ear trumpet, even if it is only to say that my finest hour was with Watchers, this tale of a hero with a tail of his own. If Big Foot is in line near you, however, I would also ask that you do me the service of determining that he’s in a good mood and has already eaten lunch.

 
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