Watchers by Dean Koontz

  fifty, trim and attractive, with shaggy silver-blond hair and blue eyes. Vince told her his name was John Parker, that he was with the FBI, and that he needed to speak with her and her husband in regards to a case currently under investigation.

  “Case?” she said. “What case?”

  “It involves a government-financed research project on which you were once involved,” Vince told her, for that was the opening line that he had been told to use.

  She examined his photo ID and Bureau credentials carefully.

  He was not concerned. The phony papers had been prepared by the same people who had hired him for this job. The forged documents had been provided ten months ago to assist him on a hit in San Francisco, and had served him well on three other occasions.

  Though he knew the ID would meet with her approval, he was not sure that he, himself, would pass inspection. He was wearing a dark blue suit, white shirt, blue tie, and highly polished black shoes—correct attire for an agent. His size and his expressionless face also served him well in the role he was playing. But the murder of Dr. Davis Weatherby and the prospect of two more murders within the next few minutes had wildly excited him, had filled him with a manic glee that was almost uncontainable. Laughter kept building within him, and the struggle to repress it grew more difficult by the minute. In the drab green Ford sedan, which he had stolen forty minutes ago expressly for this one job, he had been seized by a fit of the shakes induced not by nervousness but by intense pleasure of an almost sexual nature. He’d been forced to pull the car to the side of the road and sit for ten minutes, breathing deeply, until he had calmed down a bit.

  Now, Elisabeth Yarbeck looked up from the forged ID, met Vince’s eyes, and frowned.

  He risked a smile, though there was a danger of slipping into uncontrollable laughter that would blow his cover. He had a boyish smile that, by its marked contrast with his size, could be disarming.

  After a moment, Dr. Yarbeck also smiled. Satisfied, she returned his credentials and welcomed him into her house.

  “I’ll need to speak with your husband, too,” Vince reminded her as she closed the front door behind them.

  “He’s in the living room, Mr. Parker. This way, please.”

  The living room was large and airy. Cream-colored walls and carpet. Pale-green sofas. Big plate-glass windows, partly shielded by green awnings, provided views of the meticulously landscaped property and of houses on the hills below.

  Jonathan Yarbeck was stuffing handfuls of wood chips in among the logs that he’d piled in the brick fireplace, getting ready to light a fire. He stood up, dusting his hands together, as his wife introduced Vince. “. . . John Parker of the FBI.”

  “FBI?” Yarbeck said, raising his eyebrows inquiringly.

  “Mr. Yarbeck,” Vince said, “if there are other members of the family at home, I’d also like to speak with them now, so I don’t have to repeat myself.”

  Shaking his head, Yarbeck said, “There’s just Liz and me. Kids are away at college. What’s this all about?”

  Vince drew the silencer-equipped pistol from inside his suit jacket and shot Jonathan Yarbeck in the chest. The attorney was flung backward against the mantel, where he hung for a moment as if nailed in place, then fell atop the brass fireplace tools.


  Elisabeth Yarbeck was briefly frozen by astonishment and horror. Vince quickly moved on her. He grabbed her left arm and twisted it up behind her back, hard. When she cried out in pain, he put the pistol against the side of her head and said, “Be quiet, or I’ll blow your fuckin’ brains out.”

  He forced her to accompany him across the room to her husband’s body. Jonathan Yarbeck was facedown on top of a small brass coal shovel and a brass-handled poker. He was dead. But Vince did not want to take chances. He shot Yarbeck twice in the back of the head at close range.

  A strange, thin, catlike sound escaped Liz Yarbeck—then she began to sob.

  Because of the distance and the smoky tint on the glass, Vince did not believe even the neighbors could see through the big windows, but he wanted to deal with the woman in a more private place. He forced her into the hall and headed deeper into the house, looking in doors as they went until he found the master bedroom. There, he gave her a hard shove, and she sprawled on the floor.

  “Stay put,” he said.

  He switched on the bedside lamps. He went to the big sliding-glass doors that opened onto the patio and began to close the drapes.

  The moment his back was turned, the woman scrambled to her feet and ran toward the hall door.

  He caught her, slammed her up against the wall, drove a fist into her stomach, knocking the wind out of her, then threw her to the floor again. Lifting her head by a handful of hair, he forced her to look him in the eyes. “Listen, lady, I’m not going to shoot you. I came here to get your husband. Just your husband. But if you try to slip away from me before I’m ready to let you go, I’ll have to waste you, too. Understand?”

  He was lying, of course. She was the one he was being paid to hit, and the husband had to be removed simply because he was there. However, it was true that Vince was not going to shoot her. He wanted her to be cooperative until he could tie her up and deal with her at a more leisurely pace. The two shootings had been satisfying, but he wanted to draw this one out, kill her more slowly. Sometimes, death could be savored like good food, fine wine, and glorious sunsets.

  Gasping for breath, sobbing, she said, “Who are you?”

  “None of your business.”

  “What do you want?”

  “Just shut up, cooperate, and you’ll get out of this alive.”

  She was reduced to urgent prayer, running the words together and sometimes punctuating them with small desperate wordless sounds.

  Vince finished closing the drapes.

  He tore the phone out of the wall and pitched it across the room.

  Taking the woman by the arm again, he pulled her to her feet and dragged her into the bathroom. He searched through drawers until he found first-aid supplies; the adhesive tape was just what he needed.

  In the bedroom once more, he made her lie on her back on the bed. He used the tape to bind her ankles together and to secure her wrists in front of her. From a bureau drawer, he got a pair of her flimsy panties, which he wadded up and stuffed into her mouth. He sealed her mouth shut with a final strip of tape.

  She was shaking violently, blinking through tears and sweat.

  He left the bedroom, went to the living room, and knelt beside Jonathan Yarbeck’s corpse, with which he had unfinished business. He turned it over. One of the bullets that had entered the back of Yarbeck’s head had punched out through his throat, just under his chin. His open mouth was full of blood. One eye was rolled back in his skull, so only the white showed.

  Vince looked into the other eye. “Thank you,” he said sincerely, reverently. “Thank you, Mr. Yarbeck.”

  He closed both eyelids. He kissed them.

  “Thank you.”

  He kissed the dead man’s forehead.

  “Thank you for what you’ve given me.”

  Then he went into the garage, where he searched through cabinets until he found some tools. He selected a hammer with a comfortable rubberized handle and a polished steel head.

  When he returned to the quiet bedroom and put the hammer on the mattress beside the bound woman, her eyes widened almost comically.

  She began to twist and squirm, tried to wrench her hands loose of the looped adhesive tape, to no avail.

  Vince stripped out of his clothes.

  Seeing the woman’s eyes fix on him with the same terror with which she had regarded the hammer, he said, “No, please, don’t worry, Dr. Yarbeck. I’m not going to molest you.” He hung his suit jacket and shirt on the back of a chair. “I have no sexual interest in you.” He slipped out of his shoes, socks, and trousers. “You won’t have to suffer that humiliation. I’m not that sort of man. I’m just removing my clothes to avoid gettin
g blood all over them.”

  Naked, he picked up the hammer and swung it at her left leg, shattering her knee. Perhaps fifty or sixty hammer strikes after he began, The Moment arrived.


  Sudden energy blasted through him. He felt inhumanly alert, acutely sensitive of the color and texture of everything around him. And he felt far stronger than ever before in his life, like a god in a man’s body.

  He dropped the hammer and fell to his bare knees beside the bed. He put his forehead on the bloodied bedspread and took deep breaths, shuddering with pleasure so intense it could almost not be borne.

  A couple of minutes later, when he had recovered, when he had adjusted to his new and more powerful condition, he got up, turned to the dead woman, and bestowed kisses on her battered face, plus one in the palm of each of her hands.

  “Thank you.”

  He was so deeply moved by the sacrifice she had made for him that he thought he might weep. But his joy at his own good fortune was greater than his pity for her, and the tears would not flow.

  In the bathroom he took a quick shower. As the hot water sluiced the soap from him, he thought about how lucky he was to have found a way to make murder his business, to be paid for what he would have done anyway, without remuneration.

  When he had dressed again, he used a towel to wipe off the few things he had touched since entering the house. He always remembered every move he’d made, and he never worried about missing an object in the wipe-down and leaving a stray fingerprint. His perfect memory was just another part of his Gift.

  When he let himself out of the house, he discovered that night had fallen.

  chapter three


  Throughout the early part of the evening, the retriever exhibited none of the remarkable behavior that had stirred Travis’s imagination. He kept a watch on the dog, sometimes directly, sometimes out of the corner of his eye, but he saw nothing that engaged his curiosity.

  He made a dinner of bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches for himself, and he opened a can of Alpo for the retriever. It liked the Alpo well enough, consuming the stuff in great gulps, but it clearly preferred his food. It sat on the kitchen floor beside his chair, looking at him forlornly as he ate two sandwiches at the red Formica-topped table. At last he gave it two strips of bacon.

  Nothing about its doggy begging was extraordinary. It performed no startling tricks. It merely licked its chops, whined now and then, and repeatedly employed a limited repertoire of sorrowful expressions designed to elicit pity and compassion. Any mutt would have tried to cadge a treat in the same fashion.

  Later, in the living room, Travis switched on the television, and the dog curled up on the couch beside him. After a while it put its head on his thigh, wanting to be petted and scratched behind the ears, and he obliged. The dog glanced occasionally at the television but had no great interest in the programs.

  Travis was not interested in TV, either. He was intrigued only by the dog. He wanted to study it and encourage it to perform more tricks. Although he tried to think of ways to elicit displays of its astonishing intelligence, he could come up with no tests that would reliably gauge the animal’s mental capacity.

  Besides, Travis had a hunch that the dog would not cooperate in a test. Most of the time it seemed instinctively to conceal its cleverness. He recalled its witlessness and comical clumsiness in pursuit of the butterfly, then contrasted that behavior with the wit and agility required to turn on the patio water faucet: those actions appeared to be the work of two different animals. Though it was a crazy idea, Travis suspected that the retriever did not wish to draw attention to itself and that it revealed its uncanny intelligence only in times of crisis (as in the woods), or if it was very hungry (as when it had opened the glove compartment in the truck to obtain the candy bar), or if no one was watching (as when it had turned on the water faucet).

  This was a preposterous idea because it suggested that the dog was not only highly intelligent for one of its species but was aware of the extraordinarynature of its own abilities. Dogs—all animals, in fact—simply did not possess the high degree of self-awareness required to analyze themselves in comparison to others of their kind. Comparative analysis was strictly a human quality. If a dog was especially bright and capable of many tricks, it would still not be aware it was different from most of its kind. To assume this dog was, in fact, aware of such things was to credit it not only with remarkable intelligence but with a capacity for reason and logic, and with a facility for rational judgment superior to the instinct that ruled the decisions of all other animals.

  “You,” Travis told the retriever, gently stroking its head, “are an enigma wrapped in a mystery. Either that, or I’m a candidate for a rubber room.”

  The dog looked at him in response to his voice, gazed into his eyes for a moment, yawned—and suddenly jerked its head up and stared beyond him at the bookshelves that flanked the archway between the living and dining rooms. The satisfied, dopey, doggy expression on its face had vanished, replaced by the keen interest Travis had seen before, which transcended ordinary canine alertness.

  Scrambling off the sofa, the retriever dashed to the bookshelves. It ran back and forth beneath them, looking up at the colorful spines of the neatly arranged volumes.

  The rental house came fully—if unimaginatively and cheaply— furnished, with upholstery chosen for durability (vinyl) or for the ability to conceal ineradicable stains (eyesearing plaids). Instead of wood, there was lots of wood-finish Formica that was resistant to chipping, scratching, abrasion, and cigarette burns. Virtually the only things in the place reflecting Travis Cornell’s own tastes and interests were the books—both paperbacks and hardcovers—that filled the shelves in the living room.

  The dog appeared to be intensely curious about at least some of those few hundred volumes.

  Getting to his feet, Travis said, “What is it, boy? What’s got your tail in an uproar?”

  The retriever jumped onto its hind feet, put its forepaws on one of the shelves, and sniffed the spines of the books. It glanced at Travis, then returned to its eager examination of his library.

  He went to the shelf in question, withdrew one of the volumes to which the dog had pressed its nose—Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson— and held it out. “This? You’re interested in this?”

  The dog studied the painting of Long John Silver and a pirate ship that adorned the dust jacket. It looked up at Travis, then down at Long John Silver again. After a moment, it dropped back from the shelf, onto the floor, dashed to the shelves on the other side of the archway, leaped up again, and began sniffing other books.

  Travis replaced Treasure Island and followed the retriever. It was now applying its damp nose to his collection of Charles Dickens’s novels. Travis picked up a paperback of A Tale of Two Cities.

  Again, the retriever carefully studied the cover illustration as if actually trying to determine what the book was about, then looked up expectantly at Travis.

  Utterly baffled, he said, “The French Revolution. Guillotines. Beheadings. Tragedy and heroism. It’s . . . uh . . . well, it’s all about the importance of valuing individuals over groups, about the need to place a far greater value on one man’s or woman’s life than on the advancement of the masses.”

  The dog returned its attention to the tomes shelved in front of it, sniffing, sniffing.

  “This is nuts,” Travis said, putting A Tale of Two Cities back where he’d gotten it. “I’m giving plot synopses to a dog, for God’s sake!”

  Dropping its big forepaws down to the next shelf, the retriever panted and snuffled over the literature on that row. When Travis did not pull any of those books out for inspection, the dog tilted its head to get into the shelf, gently gripped a volume in its teeth, and tried to withdraw it for further examination.

  “Whoa,” Travis said, reaching for the book. “Keep your slobber off the fine bindings, fur face. This one’s Oliver Twist. Another Dickens. The story
of an orphan in Victorian England. He gets involved with shady characters, the criminal underworld, and they—”

  The retriever dropped to the floor and padded back to the shelves on the other side of the archway, where it continued to sniff at those volumes within its reach. Travis could have sworn it even gazed up wistfully at the books that were above its head.

  For perhaps five minutes, in the grip of an eerie premonition that something of tremendous importance was about to happen, Travis followed the dog, showing it the covers of a dozen novels, providing a line or two of plot description of each story. He had no idea if that was what the precocious pooch wanted him to do. Surely, it could not understand the synopses he provided. Yet it seemed to listen raptly as he spoke. He knew he must be misinterpreting essentially meaningless animal behavior, attributing complex intentions to the dog when it had none. Still, a premonitory tingle coursed along the back of his neck. As their peculiar search continued, Travis half-expected some startling revelation at any moment—and at the same time felt increasingly gullible and foolish.

  His taste in fiction was eclectic. Among the volumes he took off the shelves were Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Two books by Richard Condon and one by Anne Tyler. Dorothy Sayers’s Murder Must Advertise and Elmore Leonard’s 52 Pick-Up.

  At last the dog turned away from the books and went to the middle of the room, where it padded back and forth, back and forth, clearly agitated. It stopped, confronted Travis, and barked three times.

  “What’s wrong, boy?”

  The dog whined, looked at the laden shelves, walked in a circle, and peered up at the books again. It seemed frustrated. Thoroughly, maddeningly frustrated.

  “I don’t know what more to do, boy,” he said. “I don’t know what you’re after, what you’re trying to tell me.”

  The dog snorted and shook itself. Lowering its head in defeat, it returned resignedly to the sofa and curled up on the cushions.

  “That’s all?” Travis asked. “We’re just giving up?”

  Putting its head down on the sofa, it regarded him with moist soulful eyes.

  Travis turned from the dog and let his gaze travel slowly over the books, as if they not only offered the information printed on their pages but also contained an important message that could not be as easily read, as if their colorful spines were the strange runes of a long-lost language and, once deciphered, would reveal wondrous secrets. But he could not decipher them.

  Having believed that he was on the trembling edge of some great revelation, Travis felt enormously let down. His own frustration was considerably worse than what the dog had exhibited, and he could not merely curl up on the sofa, put his head down, and forget the whole thing as the retriever had done.

  “What the hell was that all about?” he demanded.

  The dog looked up at him, inscrutable.

  “Was there any point to all of that stuff with the books?”

  The dog stared.

  “Is there something special about you—or have I popped the pull-tab on my brain and emptied it?”

  The dog was perfectly limp and still, as if it might close its eyes at any moment and doze off.

  “If you yawn at me, damn you, I’ll kick your butt.”

  The dog yawned.

  “Bastard,” Travis said.

  It yawned again.

  “Now there. What does that mean? Are you yawning on purpose because of what I said, because you’re playing with me? Or are you just yawning? How am I to interpret anything you do? How am I to know whether any of it has meaning?”

  The dog sighed.

  With a sigh of his own, Travis went to one of the front windows and stared out at the night, where the feathery fronds of the large Canary Island date palm were backlit by the vaguely yellow glow of the sodium-vapor streetlamps. He heard the dog get off the sofa and hurry out of the room, but he refused to inquire into its activities. For the moment, he could not handle more frustration.

  The retriever was making noise in the kitchen. A clink. A soft clatter. Travis figured it was drinking from its bowl.

  Seconds later, he heard it returning. It came to his side and rubbed against his leg.

  He glanced down and, to his surprise, saw the retriever was holding a can of beer in its teeth. Coors. He took the proffered can and discovered it was cold.

  “You got this from the refrigerator!”

  The dog appeared to be grinning.


  When Nora Devon was in the kitchen making dinner, the phone rang again. She prayed it would not be him.

  But it was. “I know what you need,” Streck said. “I know what you need.”

  I’m not even pretty, she wanted to say. I’m a plain, dumpy old maid, so what do you want with me? I’m safe from the likes of you because I’m not pretty. Are
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