Watchers Page 11

Vince said, “What you've got here is two choices: die easy or die hard. You tell me what I want to know, and I let you die easy, quick and painless. You get stubborn on me, and I can draw it out for five or six hours.”

Dr. Hudston stared. Except for bright ribbons of fresh blood that banded his face, he was very white, wet and sickly pale like some creature that swam eternally in the deepest reaches of the sea.

Vince hoped the guy wasn't catatonic. “What I want to know is what you have in common with Davis Weatherby and Elisabeth Yarbeck.”

Hudston blinked, focused on Vince. His voice was hoarse and tremulous “Davis and Liz? What are you talking about?”

“You know them?”

Hudston nodded.

“How do you know them? Go to school together? Live next door at one time?”

Shaking his head, Hudston said, “We. . . we used to work together at Banodyne.”

“What's Banodyne?”

“Banodyne Laboratories.”

“Where's that?”

“Here in Orange County,” Hudston said. He gave an address in the city of Irvine.

“What'd you do there?”

“Research. But I left ten months ago. Weatherby and Yarbeck still work there, but I don't.”

“What sort of research?” Vince asked.

Hudston hesitated.

Vince said, “Quick and painless-or hard and nasty?”

The doctor told him about the research he had been involved with at Banodyne. The Francis Project. The experiments. The dogs.

The story was incredible. Vince made Hudston run through some of the details three or four times before he was finally convinced the story was true.

When he was sure he had squeezed everything out of the man, Vince shot Hudston in the face, point-blank, the quick death he'd promised.


Back in the van, driving down the night-draped Laguna Hills, away from the Hudston house, Vince thought about the dangerous step he had taken. Usually, he knew nothing about his targets. That was safest for him and for his employers. Ordinarily he didn't want to know what the poor saps had done to bring so much grief on themselves, because knowing would bring him grief. But this was no ordinary situation. He had been paid to kill three doctors-not medical doctors, as it turned out now, but scientists-all of them upstanding citizens, plus any members of their families who happened to get in the way. Extraordinary. Tomorrow's papers weren't going to have enough room for all the news. Something very big was going on, something SO important that it might provide him with a once-in-a-lifetime edge, with a shot at money so big he would need help to count it. The money might come from selling the forbidden knowledge he had pried out of Hudston. . . if he could figure out who would like to buy it. But knowledge was not only saleable; it was also dangerous. Ask Adam. Ask Eve. If his current employers, the Sexy-voiced lady and the other people in L.A., learned that he had broken the most basic rule of his trade, if they knew that he had interrogated one of his victims before wasting him, they would put out a contract on Vince. The hunter would become the hunted.

Of course, he didn't worry a lot about dying. He had too much life stored up in him. Other people's lives. More lives than ten cats. He was going to live forever. He was pretty sure of that. But . . . well, he didn't know for certain how many lives he had to absorb in order to insure immortality. Sometimes he felt that he'd already achieved a state of invincibility, eternal life. But at other times, he felt that he was still vulnerable and that he would have to take more life energy into himself before he would reach the desired state of godhood. Until he knew, beyond doubt, that he had arrived at Olympus, it was best to exercise a little caution.


The Francis Project.

if what Hudston said was true, the risk Vince was taking would be well-rewarded when he found the right buyer for the information. He was going to be a rich man.


Wes Dalberg had lived alone in a stone cabin in upper Holy Jim Canyon on the eastern edge of Orange County for ten years. His only light came from Coleman lanterns, and the only running water in the place was from a hand pump in the kitchen sink. His toilet was in an outhouse with a quarter-moon carved on the door (as a joke), about a hundred feet from the back of the cabin.

Wes was forty-two, but he looked older. His face was wind-scoured and sun-leathered. He wore a neatly trimmed beard with a lot of white whiskers. Although he appeared aged beyond his true years, his physical condition was that of a twenty-five-year-old. He believed his good health resulted from living close to nature.

Tuesday night, May 18, by the silvery light of a hissing Coleman lantern, he sat at the kitchen table until one in the morning, sipping homemade plum wine and reading a McGee novel by John D. MacDonald. Wes was, as he put it, “an antisocial curmudgeon born in the wrong century,” who had little, use for modern society. But he liked to read about McGee because McGee swam in that messy, nasty world out there and never let the murderous currents sweep him away.

When he finished the book at one o'clock, Wes went outside to get more wood for the fireplace. Wind-swayed branches of sycamores cast vague moonshadows on the ground, and the glossy surfaces of rustling leaves shone dully with pale reflections of the lunar light. Coyotes howled in the distance as they chased down a rabbit or other small creature. Nearby, insects sang in the brush, and a chill wind soughed through the higher reaches of the forest.

His supply of cordwood was stored in a lean-to that extended along the entire north side of the cabin. He pulled the latch-peg out of the hasp on the double doors. He was so familiar with the arrangement of the wood in the storage space that he worked blindly in its lightless confines, filling a sturdy tin hod with half a dozen logs. He carried the hod out in both hands, put it down, and turned to close the doors.

He realized the coyotes and the insects had all fallen silent. Only the wind still had a voice.

Frowning, he turned to look at the dark forest that encircled the small clearing in which his cabin stood.

Something growled.

Wes squinted at the night-swaddled woods, which suddenly seemed less well illuminated by the moon than they had been a moment ago.

The growling was deep and angry. Not like anything he had heard out there before in ten years of nights alone.

Wes was curious, even concerned, but not afraid. He stood very still, listening. A minute ticked by, and he heard nothing further.

He finished closing the lean-to doors, pegged the latch, and picked up the hod full of cordwood.

Growling again. Then silence. Then the sound of dry brush and leaves crackling, crunching, snapping underfoot.

Judging by the sound, it was about thirty yards away. Just a bit west of the outhouse. Back in the forest.

The thing grumbled again, louder this time. Closer, too. Not more than twenty yards away now.

He could still not see the source of the sound. The deserter moon continued to hide behind a narrow filigree band of clouds.

Listening to the thick, guttural, yet ululant growling, Wes was suddenly uneasy. For the first time in ten years as a resident of Holy Jim, he felt he was in danger. Carrying the hod, he headed quickly toward the back of the cabin and the kitchen door.

The rustling of displaced brush grew louder. The creature in the woods was moving faster than before. Hell, it was running.

Wes ran, too.

The growling escalated into hard, vicious snarls: an eerie mix of sounds that seemed one part dog, part pig, part cougar, part human, and one part something else altogether. It was almost at his heels.

As he sprinted around the corner of the cabin, Wes swung the hod and threw it toward where he judged the animal to be. He heard the cordwood flying loose and slamming to the ground, heard the metal hod clanging end Over end, but the snarling only grew closer and louder, so he knew he had missed.

He hurried up the three back steps, threw open the kitchen door, stepped inside, and slammed the door behind him. He slipped the latch bolt in place, a security measure he had not used in nine years, not since he had grown accustomed to the peacefulness of the canyon.

He went through the cabin to the front door and latched it, too. He was Surprised by the intensity of the fear that had overcome him. Even if a hostile animal was out there-perhaps a crazed bear that had come down from the mountains-it could not open doors and follow him into the cabin. There was no need to engage the locks, yet he felt better for having done so. He was operating on instinct, and he was a good enough outdoorsman to know that instincts ought to be trusted even when they resulted in seemingly irrational behavior.

Okay, so he was safe. No animal could open a door. Certainly, a bear couldn't, and it was most likely a bear.

But it hadn't sounded like a bear. That's what had Wes Dalberg so spooked:

it had not sounded like anything that could possibly be roaming those woods. He was familiar with his animal neighbors, knew all the howls, cries, and other noises they made.

The only light in the front room was from the fireplace, and it did not dispel the shadows in the corners. Phantoms of reflected firelight cavorted across the walls. For the first time, Wes would have welcomed electricity.

He owned a Remington 12-gauge shotgun with which he hunted small game to supplement his diet of store-bought foods. It was on a rack in the kitchen. He considered getting it down and loading it, but now that he was safely behind locked doors, he was beginning to be embarrassed about having panicked. Like a greenhorn, for God's sake. Like some lardass suburbanite shrieking at the sight of a fieldmouse. If he had just shouted and clapped his hands, he would most likely have frightened off the thing in the brush. Even if his reaction could be blamed on instinct, he had not behaved in accordance with his self-image as a hard-bitten canyon squatter. If he armed himself with the rifle now, when there was no compelling need for it, he'd lose a large measure of self-respect, which was important because the only opinion of Wes Dalberg that Wes cared about was his own. No gun.

Wes risked going to the living room's big window. This was an alteration made by someone who held the Forest Service lease on the cabin about twenty years ago; the old, narrow, multipane window had been taken out, a larger hole cut in the wall, and a big single-pane window installed to take advantage of the spectacular forest view.

A few moon-silvered clouds appeared phosphorescent against the velvety blackness of the night sky. Moonlight dappled the front yard, glistered on the grill and hood and windshield of Wes's Jeep Cherokee, and outlined the shadowy shapes of the encroaching trees. At first nothing moved except a few branches swaying gently in the mild wind.

He studied the woodland scene for a couple of minutes. Neither seeing nor hearing anything out of the ordinary, he decided the animal had wandered off. With considerable relief and with a resurgence of embarrassment, he started to turn away from the window-then glimpsed movement near the Jeep. He squinted, saw nothing, remained watchful for another minute or two. Just when he decided he had imagined the movement, he saw it again: something coming out from behind the Jeep. He leaned closer to the window.

Something was rushing across the yard toward the cabin, coming fast and low to the ground. Instead of revealing the nature of the enemy, the moonlight made it more mysterious, shapeless. The thing was hurtling at the cabin. Abruptly-Jesus, God!-the creature was airborne, a strangeness flying straight at him through the darkness, and Wes cried out, and an instant later the beast exploded through the big window, and Wes screamed, but the scream was cut short.


Because Travis was not much of a drinker, three beers were enough to insure against insomnia. He was asleep within seconds of putting his head on the pillow. He dreamed that he was the ringmaster in a circus where all the performing animals could speak, and after each show he visited them in their cages, where each animal told him a secret that amazed him even though he forgot it as soon as he moved along to the next cage and the next secret.

At four o'clock in the morning, he woke and saw Einstein at the bedroom window. The dog was standing with its forepaws on the sill, its face limned by moonlight, staring out at the night, very alert.

“What's wrong, boy?” Travis asked.

Einstein glanced at him, then returned his attention to the moon-washed night. He whined softly, and his ears perked up slightly.

“Somebody out there?” Travis asked, getting off the bed, pulling on his jeans.

The dog dropped onto all fours and hurried out of the bedroom.

Travis found him at another window in the darkened living room, studying the night on that side of the house. Crouching beside the dog, putting a hand on the broad furry back, he said, “What's the matter? Huh?”

Einstein pressed his snout to the glass and mewled nervously.

Travis could see nothing threatening on the front lawn or on the street. Then a thought struck him, and he said, “Are you worried about whatever was chasing you in the woods this morning?”

The dog regarded him solemnly.

“What was it out there in the forest?” Travis wondered.

Einstein whined again and shuddered.

Remembering the retriever's-and his own-stark fear in the Santa Ana foothills, recalling the uncanny feeling that something unnatural had been stalking them, Travis shivered. He looked out at the night-draped world. The spiky black patterns of the date palm's fronds were edged in wan yellow light from the nearest streetlamp. A fitful wind harried small funnels of dust and leaves and bits of litter along the pavement, dropped them for a few seconds and left them for dead, then enlivened them again. A lone moth bumped softly against the window in front of Travis's and Einstein's faces, evidently mistaking the reflection of the moon or streetlamp for a flame.

“Are you worried that it's still after you?” he asked.

The dog woofed once, quietly.

“Well, I don't think it is,” Travis said. “I don't think you understand how far north we've come. We had wheels, but it would have, had to follow on foot, which it couldn't have done. Whatever it was, it's far behind us, Einstein, far down there in Orange County, with no way of knowing where we've gone. You don't have to worry about it any more. You understand?”

Einstein nuzzled and licked Travis's hand as if reassured and grateful. But he looked out the window again and issued a barely audible whimper.

Travis had to coax him back into the bedroom. There, the dog wanted to lie on the bed beside his master, and in the interest of calming the animal, Travis did not object.

Wind murmured and moaned in the bungalow's eaves.

Now and then the house creaked with ordinary middle-of-the-night settling noises.

Engine purring, tires whispering, a car went by on the street.

Exhausted from the emotional as well as the physical exertions of the day, Travis was soon asleep.

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