Watchers Page 23

“Tracy,” Lem said, “I can't tell you what it was. I've signed a secrecy oath. If I violated it, I could be put in jail, but more important . . . I wouldn't have much respect for myself.”

She frowned, finally nodded. “I guess I can understand that.”

“Good. Now tell me everything you can about your assailant.”

As it turned out, she had not seen much because the night was dark and her flashlight had illuminated The Outsider for only an instant. “Pretty big for an animal . . . maybe as big as me. The yellow eyes.” She shuddered. “And its face was . . . strange.”

“In what way?”

“Lumpy . . . deformed,” the girl said. Though she had been very pale at the start, she grew paler now, and fine beads of sweat appeared along her hairline, dampening her brow.

Walt was leaning on the footrail of the bed, straining forward, intensely interested, not wanting to miss a word.

A sudden Santa Ana wind buffeted the building, startling the girl. She looked fearfully at the rattling window, where the wind moaned, as if she was afraid something would come smashing through the glass.

Which was, Lem reminded himself, exactly how The Outsider had gotten to Wes Dalberg.

The girl swallowed hard. "Its mouth was huge . . . and the teeth . .

She could not stop shaking, and Lem put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “It's okay, honey. It's over now. It's all behind you.”

After a pause to regain control of herself, but still shivering, Tracy said, “I think it was kind of hairy . . . or furry . . . I'm not sure, but it was very Strong.”

“What kind of animal did it resemble?” Lem asked.

She shook her head. “It wasn't like anything else.”

“But if you had to say it was like some other animal, would you say it was more like a cougar than anything else?”

“No. Not a cougar.”

“Like a dog?”

She hesitated. “Maybe . . . a little bit like a dog.”

“Maybe a little bit like a bear, too?”


“Like a panther?”

“No. Not like any cat.”

“Like a monkey?”

She hesitated again, frowned, thinking. “I don't know why . . . but, yeah, maybe a little like a monkey. Except, no dog and no monkey has teeth like that.”

The door opened from the hall, and Dr. Selbok appeared. “You're already past five minutes.”

Walt started to wave the doctor out.

Lem said, “No, it's okay. We're finished. Half a minute yet.”

“I'm counting the seconds,” Selbok said, retreating.

To the girl Lem said, “Can I rely on you?”

She matched his gaze and said, “To keep quiet?”

Lem nodded.

She said, "Yeah. I sure don't want to tell anybody. My folks think I'm mature for my age. Mentally and emotionally mature, I mean. But if I start telling wild stories about . . . about monsters, they're going to think I'm not so mature after all, and maybe they'll figure I'm not responsible enough to take care of the horses, and so maybe they'll slow down the breeding plans. I won't risk that, Mr. Johnson. No, sir. So as far as I'm concerned, it was a loco coyote. But . .


“Can you tell me . . . is there any chance it'll come back?”

“I don't think so. But it would be wise, for a while, not to go out to the stable at night. All right?”

“All right,” she said. Judging by her haunted expression, she would remain indoors after dusk for weeks to come.

They left the room, thanked Dr. Selbok for his cooperation, and went down to the hospital's parking garage. Dawn had not yet arrived, and the cavernous concrete structure was empty, desolate. Their footsteps echoed hollowly off the wails.

Their cars were on the same floor, and Walt accompanied Lem to the green, unmarked NSA sedan. As Lem put the key in the door to unlock it, Walt looked around to be sure they were alone, then said, “Tell me.”


''I'll find out."

“You're off the case.”

“So take me to court. Get a bench warrant.”

“I might.”

“For endangering the national security.”

“It would be a fair charge.”

“Throw my ass in jail.”

“I might,” Lem said, though he knew he would not.

Curiously, though Walt's doggedness was frustrating and more than a little irritating, it was also pleasing to Lem. He had few friends, of which Walt was the most important, and he liked to think the reason he had few friends was because he was selective, with high standards. If Walt had backed off entirely, if he had been completely cowed by federal authority, if he'd been able to turn off his Curiosity as easily as turning off a light switch, he would have been slightly tarnished and diminished in Lein's eyes.

“What reminds you of a dog and an ape and has yellow eyes?” Walt asked. “Aside from your mama, that is.”

“You leave my mama out of this, honky,” Lem said. Smiling in spite of himself, he got into the car.

Walt held the door open and leaned down to look in at him. “What in the name of God escaped from Banodyne?”

“I told you this has nothing to do with Banodyne.”

“And the fire they had at the labs the next day . . . did they set it themselves to destroy the evidence of what they'd been up to?”

“Don't be ridiculous,” Lem said wearily, thrusting the key into the ignition. “Evidence could be destroyed in a more efficient and less drastic manner. if there was evidence to destroy. Which there isn't. Because Banodyne has nothing to do with this.”

Lem started the car, but Walt would not give up. He held the door open and leaned in even closer to be heard above the rumble of the engine: “Genetic engineering. That's what they're involved with at Banodyne. Tinkering with bacteria and virus to make new bugs that do good deeds like manufacture insulin or eat oil slicks. And they tinker with the genes of plants as well, I guess, to produce corn that grows in acidic soil or wheat that thrives with half the usual water. We always think of gene tinkering as being done on a small scale-plants and germs. But could they screw around with an animal's genes so it produced bizarre offspring, a whole new species? Is that what they've done, and is that what's escaped from Banodyne?”

Lem shook his head exasperatedly. “Walt, I'm not an expert on recombinant DNA, but I don't think the science is nearly sophisticated enough to work with any degree of confidence on that sort of thing. And what would be the point, anyway? Okay, just supposing they could make a weird new animal by fiddling with the genetic structure of an existing species-what use would there be for it? I mean, aside from exhibition in a carnival freak show?”

Walt's eyes narrowed. “I don't know. You tell me.”

“Listen, research money is always damn tight, and there's fierce competition for every major and minor grant, so no one's going to be able to afford to experiment with something that has no use. Get me? Now, because I'm involved here, you know this has to be a matter of national defense, which would mean Banodyne was squandering Pentagon money to make a carnival freak.”

“The words 'squander' and 'Pentagon' have sometimes been used in the Same sentence,” Walt said drily.

“Be real, Walt. It's one thing for the Pentagon to let some of its contractors Waste money in the production of a needed weapons system. But it's altogether another thing for them to knowingly hand out funds for experiments with no defense potential. The system is sometimes inefficient, sometimes even corrupt, but it's never outright stupid. Anyway, I'll say it one more time: This entire conversation is pointless because this has nothing to do with Banodyne.” Walt stared in at him for a long moment, then sighed. “Jesus, Lem, you're good. I know you've got to be lying to me, but I half-think you're telling the truth.”

“I am telling the truth.”

“You're good. So tell me . . . what about Weatherby, Yarbeck, and the others? Got their killer yet?”

“No.” In fact, the man Lem had put in charge of the case had reported that it appeared as if the Soviets had used a killer outside of their own agencies and perhaps outside of the political world entirely. The investigation seemed stymied. But all he said to Walt was, “No.”

Walt started to straighten up and close the car door, then leaned down and in again. “One more thing. You notice it seems to have a meaningful destination?”

“What're you talking about?”

“It's been moving steadily north or north-northwest ever since it broke out of Banodyne,” Walt said.

“It didn't break out of Banodyne, damn it.”

“From Banodyne to Holy Jim Canyon, from there to Irvine Park, and from there to the Keeshan house tonight. Steadily north or north-northwest. I suppose you know what that might mean, where it might be headed, but of course I daren't ask you about it or you'll heave me straight into prison and let me rot there.”

“I'm telling you the truth about Banodyne.”

“So you say.”

“You're impossible, Walt.”

“So you say.”

“So everyone says. Now will you let me go home? I'm beat.”

Smiling, Walt closed the door at last.

Lem drove out of the hospital garage to Main Street, then to the freeway, heading home toward Placentia. He hoped to make it back into bed no later than dawn.

As he piloted the NSA sedan through streets as empty as midocean sea-lanes, he thought about The Outsider heading northward. He'd noticed the same thing himself. And he was convinced that he knew what it was seeking even if he did not know where, precisely, it was going. From the first, the dog and The Outsider had possessed a special awareness of each other, an uncanny instinctual awareness of each other's moods and activities even when they were not in the same room. Davis Weatherby had suggested, more than half seriously, that there was something telepathic about the relationship of those two creatures. Now, The Outsider was very likely still in tune with the dog and, by some sixth sense, was following it.

For the dog's sake, Lem hoped to God that was not the case.

It had been evident in the lab that the dog had always feared The Outsider, and with good reason. The two were the yin and yang of the Francis Project, the success and the failure, the good and the bad. As wonderful, right, and good as the dog was-well, The Outsider was every bit as hideous, wrong, and evil. And the researchers had seen that The Outsider did not fear the dog but hated it with a passion that no one had been able to understand. Now that both were free, The Outsider might single-mindedly pursue the dog, for it had never wanted anything more than to tear the retriever limb from limb.

Lem realized that, in his anxiety, he had put his foot down too hard on the accelerator. The car was rocketing along the freeway. He eased back on the pedal.

Wherever the dog was, with whomever it had found shelter, it was in jeopardy. And those who had given it shelter were also in grave danger.



Through the last week of May and the first week of June, Nora and Travis- and Einstein-were together nearly every day.

Initially, she had worried that Travis was somehow dangerous, not as dangerous as Art Streck but still to be feared; however, she'd soon gotten through that spell of paranoia. Now she laughed at herself when she remembered how wary of him she had been. He was sweet and kind, precisely the sort of man who, according to her Aunt Violet, did not exist anywhere in the world.

Once Nora's paranoia had been overcome, she'd then been convinced that the only reason Travis continued to see her was because he pitied her. Being the compassionate man he was, he would not be able to turn his back on anyone in desperate need or trouble. Most people, meeting Nora, would not think of her as desperate-perhaps strange and shy and pathetic, but not desperate. Yet she was-or had been-desperately unable to cope with the world beyond her own four walls, desperately afraid of the future, and desperately lonely. Travis, being every bit as perceptive as he was kind, saw her desperation and responded to it. Gradually, as May faded into June and the days grew hotter under the summer sun, she dared to consider the possibility that he was helping her not because he pitied her but because he really liked her.

But she couldn't understand what a man like him would see in a woman like her. She seemed to have nothing whatsoever to offer.

All right, yes, she had a self-image problem. Maybe she was not really as hopelessly drab and dull as she felt. Still, Travis clearly deserved-and could surely have-better female companionship than she could provide.

She decided not to question his interest. The thing to do was just relax and enjoy it.

Because Travis had sold his real-estate business after the death of his wife and was essentially retired, and because Nora had no job either, they were free to be together most of the day if they wanted-and they were. They went to galleries, haunted bookstores, took long walks, went on longer drives into the picturesque Santa Ynez Valley or up along the gorgeous Pacific coast.

Twice they set out early in the morning for Los Angeles and spent a long day there, and Nora was as overwhelmed by the sheer size of the city as she was by the activities they pursued: a movie-studio tour, a visit to the zoo, and a matinee performance of a hit musical.

One day Travis talked her into having her hair cut and styled. He took her to a beauty parlor that his late wife had frequented, and Nora was so nervous that she stuttered when she spoke to the beautician, a perky blonde named Melanie. Violet always cut Nora's hair at home, and after Violet's death, Nora cut it herself. Being tended by a beautician was a new experience, as unnerving as eating in a restaurant for the first time. Melanie did something she called “feathering,” and cut off a lot of Nora's hair while somehow still leaving it full. They did not allow Nora to watch in the mirror, did not let her get a glimpse of herself until she was blown dry and combed out. Then they spun her around in the chair and confronted her with herself, and when she saw her reflection, she was stunned.

“You look terrific,” Travis said.

“It's a total transformation,” Melanie said.

“Terrific,” Travis said.

“You've got such a pretty face, great bone structure,” Melanie said, “but all that straight, long hair made your features look elongated and pointy. This frames your face to its best advantage.”

Even Einstein seemed to like the change in her. When they left the beauty shop, the dog was waiting for them where they had left him tethered to a parking meter. He did a canine double-take when he saw Nora, jumped up with his front paws on her, and sniffed her face and hair, whining happily and wagging his tail.

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