Watchers Page 17

Now, as the chopper's blades fell silent, Walt Gaines said, “Can't figure why the murder of a grizzled old canyon squatter would interest you feds.”

“Good,” Lem said. “You're not supposed to figure it, and you really don't want to know.”

“Anyway, I sure didn't expect you'd come yourself. Thought you'd send some of your flunkies.”

“NSA agents don't like to be called flunkies,” Lem said.

Looking at Cliff Soames, Walt said, “But that's how he treats you fellas, isn't it? Like flunkies?”

“He's a tyrant,” Cliff confirmed. He was thirty-one, with red hair and freckles. He looked more like an earnest young preacher than like an agent of the National Security Agency.

“Well, Cliff,” Walt Gaines said, “you've got to understand where Lem comes from. His father was a downtrodden black businessman who never made more than two hundred thousand a year. Deprived, you see. So Lem, he figures he's got to make you white boys jump through hoops whenever he can, to make up for all those years of brutal oppression.”

“He makes me call him 'Massah,' ” Cliff said.

“I don't doubt it,” Walt said.

Lem sighed and said, “You two are about as amusing as a groin injury. Where's the body?”

“This way, Massah,” Walt said.

As a gust of warm afternoon wind shook the surrounding trees, as the canyon hush gave way to the whispering of leaves, the sheriff led Lem and Cliff into the first of the cabin's two rooms Lem understood, at once, why Walt had been so jokey. The forced humor was a reaction to the horror inside the cabin. It was somewhat like laughing aloud in a graveyard at night to chase away the willies.

Two armchairs were overturned, upholstery slashed. Cushions from the sofa had been ripped to expose the white foam padding. Paperbacks had been pulled off a corner bookcase, torn apart, and scattered all over the room. Glass shards from the big window sparkled gemlike in the ruins. The debris and the walls were spattered with blood, and a lot of dried blood darkened the light-pine floor.

Like a pair of crows searching for brightly colored threads with which to dress up their nest, two lab technicians in black suits were carefully probing through the ruins. Occasionally one of them made a soft wordless cawing Sound and plucked at something with tweezers, depositing it in a plastic envelope.

Evidently, the body had been examined and photographed, for it had been transferred into an opaque plastic mortuary bag and was lying near the door, waiting to be carried out to the meat wagon.

Looking down at the half-visible corpse in the sack, which was only a vaguely human shape beneath the milky plastic, Lem said, “What was his name?”

“Wes Dalberg,” Walt said. “Lived here ten years or more.”

“Who found him?”

“A neighbor.”

“When was he killed?”

“Near as we can tell, about three days ago. Maybe Tuesday night. Have to wait for lab tests to pinpoint it. Weather's been pretty warm lately, which makes a difference in the rate of decomposition.”

Tuesday night . . . In the predawn hours of Tuesday morning, the breakout had occurred at Banodyne. By Tuesday night, The Outsider could have traveled this far.

Lem thought about that-and shivered.

“Cold?” Walt asked sarcastically.

Lem didn't respond. They were friends, yes, and they were both officers of the law, one local and one federal, but in this case they served opposing interests. Walt's job was to find the truth and bring it to the public, but Lem's job was to put a lid on the case and keep it clamped down tight.

“Sure stinks in here,” Cliff Soames said.

“You should've smelled it before we got the stiff in the bag,” Walt said. “Ripe.”

“Not just . . . decomposition,” Cliff said.

“No,” Walt said, pointing here and there to stains that were not caused by blood. “Urine and feces, too.”

“The victim's?”

“Don't think so,” Walt said.

“Done any preliminary tests of it?” Lem asked, trying not to sound worried. “On-site microscopic exam?”

“Nope. We'll take samples back to the lab. We think it belongs to whatever came crashing through that window.”

Looking up from the body bag, Lem said, “You mean the man who killed Dalberg.”

“Wasn't a man,” Walt said, “and I figure you know that.”

“Not a man?” Lem said.

“At least not a man like you or me.”

“Then what do you think it was?”

“Damned if I know,” Walt said, rubbing the back of his bristly head with one big hand. “But judging from the body, the killer had sharp teeth, maybe claws, and a nasty disposition. Does that sound like what you're looking for?”

Lem could not be baited.

For a moment, no one spoke.

A fresh piny breeze came through the shattered window, blowing away some of the noxious stench.

One of the lab men said, “Ah,” and plucked something from the rubble with his tweezers.

Lem sighed wearily. This situation was no good. They would not find enough to tell them what killed Dalberg, though they would gather sufficient evidence to make them curious as hell. However, this was a matter of national defense, in which no civilian would be wise to indulge his curiosity. Lem was going to have to put a stop to their investigation. He hoped he could intervene without angering Walt. It would be a real test of their friendship.

Suddenly, staring at the body bag, Lem realized something was wrong with the shape of the corpse. He said, “The head isn't here.”

“You feds don't miss a trick, do you?” Walt said.

“He was decapitated?” Cliff Soames asked uneasily.

“This way,” Walt said, leading them into the second room.

It was a large-if primitive-kitchen with a hand pump in the sink and an old-fashioned wood-burning stove.

Except for the head, there were no signs of violence in the kitchen. Of course, the head was bad enough. It was in the center of the table. On a plate.

“Jesus,” Cliff said softly.

When they had entered the room, a police photographer had been taking shots of the head from various angles. He was not finished, but he stepped back to give them a better view.

The dead man's eyes were missing, torn out. The empty sockets seemed as deep as wells.

Cliff Soames had turned so white that, by contrast, his freckles burned on his skin as if they were flecks of fire.

Lem felt sick, not merely because of what had happened to Wes Dalberg but because of all the deaths yet to come. He was proud of both his management and investigatory skills, and he knew he could handle this case better than anyone else. But he was also a hardheaded pragmatist, incapable of underestimating the enemy or of pretending there would be a quick ending to this nightmare. He would need time and patience and luck to track down the killer, and meanwhile more bodies would pile up.

The head had not been cut off the dead man. It was not as neat as that. It appeared to have been clawed and chewed and wrenched off.

Lem's palms were suddenly damp.

Strange . . . how the empty sockets of the head transfixed him as surely as if they had contained wide, staring eyes.

In the hollow of his back, a single droplet of sweat traced the course of his Spine. He was more scared than he had ever been-or had ever thought he could be-but he did not want to be taken off the job for any reason. It was vitally important to the very security of the nation and the safety of the public that this emergency be handled right, and he knew no one was likely to perform as well as he could. That was not just ego talking. Everyone said he Was the best, and he knew they were right; he had a justifiable pride and no false modesty. This was his case, and he would stay with it to the end.

His folks had raised him with an almost too-keen sense of duty and responsibility. “A black man,” his father used to say, "has to do a job twice

as well as a white man in order to get any credit at all. That's nothing to be bitter about. Nothing worth protesting. It's just a fact of life. Might as well protest the weather turning cold in winter. Instead of protesting, the thing to do is just face facts, work twice as hard, and you'll get where you want to go And you must succeed because you carry the flag for all your brothers." As a result of that upbringing, Lem was incapable of less than total, unhesitating commitment to every assignment. He dreaded failure, rarely encountered it, but could be thrown into a deep funk for weeks when the successful conclusion of a case eluded him.

“Talk to you outside a minute?” Walt asked, moving to the open rear door of the cabin.

Lem nodded. To Cliff, he said, “Stay here. Make sure nobody-pathologists, photographer, uniformed cops, nobody-leaves before I've had a chance to talk to them.”

“Yes, sir,” Cliff said. He headed quickly toward the front of the cabin to inform everyone that they were temporarily quarantined-and to get away from the eyeless head.

Lem followed Walt Gaines into the clearing behind the cabin. He noticed a metal hod and firewood scattered over the ground, and paused to study those objects.

“We think it started out here,” Walt said. “Maybe Dalberg was getting wood for the fireplace. Maybe something came out of those trees, so he threw the hod at it and ran into the house.”

They stood in the bloody-orange late-afternoon sunlight, at the perimeter of the trees, peering into the purple shadows and mysterious green depths of the forest.

Lem was uneasy. He wondered if the escapee from Weatherby's lab was nearby, watching them.

“So what's up?” Walt asked.

“Can't say.”

“National security?”

“That's right.”

The spruces and pines and sycamores rustled in the breeze, and he thought he heard something moving furtively through the brush.

Imagination, of course. Nevertheless, Lem was glad that both he and Walt Gaines were armed with reliable pistols in accessible shoulder holsters.

Walt said, “You can keep your lip zipped if you insist, but you can't keep me totally in the dark. I can figure out a few things for myself. I'm not stupid.”

“Never thought you were.”

“Tuesday morning, every damn police department in Orange and San Bernardino counties gets an urgent request from your NSA asking us to be prepared to cooperate in a manhunt, details to follow. Which puts us all on edge. We know what you guys are responsible for-guarding defense research, keeping the vodka-pissing Russians from stealing our secrets. And since Southern California's the home of half the defense contractors in the country, there's plenty to be stolen here.”

Lem kept his eyes on the woods, kept his mouth shut.

“So,” Walt continued, “we figure we're going to be looking for a Russian agent with something hot in his pockets, and we're happy to have a chance to help kick some ass for Uncle Sam. But by noon, instead of getting details, we get a cancellation of the request. No manhunt after all. Everything's under control, your office tells us. Original alert was issued in error, you say.”

“That's right.” The agency had realized that local police could not be sufficiently controlled and, therefore, could not be fully trusted. It was a job for the military. “Issued in error.”

“Like hell. By late afternoon of the same day, we learn Marine choppers from El Toro are quartering the Santa Ana foothills. And by Wednesday morning, a hundred Marines with high-tech tracking gear are flown in from Camp Pendleton to carry on the search at ground level.”

“I heard about that, but it had nothing to do with my agency,” Lem said.

Walt studiously avoided looking at Lem. He stared off into the trees. Clearly, he knew Lem was lying to him, knew that Lem had to lie to him, and he felt it would be a breach of good manners to make Lem do it while they maintained eye contact. Though he looked crude and ill-mannered, Walt Gaines was an unusually considerate man with a rare talent for friendship.

But he was also the county sheriff, and it was his duty to keep probing even though he knew Lem would reveal nothing. He said, “Marines tell us it's just a training exercise.”

“That's what I heard.”

“We're always notified of training exercises ten days ahead.”

Lem did not reply. He thought he saw something in the forest, a flicker of shadows, a darkish presence moving through piny gloom.

“So the Marines spend all day Wednesday and half of Thursday out there in the hills. But when reporters hear about this 'exercise' and come snooping around, the leathernecks suddenly call it off, pack up, go home. It was almost as if . . . whatever they were looking for was so worrisome, so damn topsecret that they'd rather not find it at all if finding it meant letting the press know about it.”

Squinting into the forest, Lem strained to see through steadily deepening shadows, trying to catch another glimpse of the movement that had drawn his attention a moment ago.

Walt said, “Then yesterday afternoon the NSA asks to be kept informed about any 'peculiar reports, unusual assaults, or exceedingly violent murders.' We ask for clarification, don't get any.”

There. A ripple in the murkiness beneath the evergreen boughs. About eighty feet in from the perimeter of the woods. Something moving quickly and stealthily from one sheltering shadow to another. Lem put his right hand under his coat, on the butt of the pistol in his shoulder holster.

“But then just one day later,” Walt said, “we find this poor son of a bitch Dalberg torn to pieces-and the case is peculiar as hell and about as 'exceedingly violent' as I ever hope to see. Now here you are, Mr. Lemuel Asa Johnson, director of the Southern California Office of the NSA, and I know you didn't come coppering in here just to ask me whether I want onion or guacamole dip at tomorrow night's bridge game.”

The movement was closer than eighty feet, much closer. Lem had been confused by the layers of shadows and by the queerly distorting late-afternoon sunlight that penetrated the trees. The thing was no more than forty feet away, maybe closer, and suddenly it came straight at them, bounded at them through the brush, and Lem cried out, drew the pistol from his holster, and involuntarily stumbled backward a few steps before taking a shooter's stance with his legs spread wide, both hands on the gun.

“It's just a mule deer!” Walt Gaines said.

Indeed it was. Just a mule deer.

The deer stopped a dozen feet away, under the drooping boughs of a spruce, peering at them with huge brown eyes that were bright with curiosity. Its head was held high, ears pricked up.

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