Watchers Page 34

Twenty years ago in Vietnam, Lem's NSA chopper pilot had learned everything worth knowing about putting down and taking off in rugged terrain. Now, remaining in constant radio contact with the L.A. County sheriff's deputies who were on the scene already, he had no difficulty locating the site of the murders by visual navigation, making use of natural landmarks. At a few minutes after one o'clock, he put his craft down on a wide section of a barren ridge overlooking Boulder Canyon in the Angeles National Forest, just a hundred yards from the spot where the bodies had been found.

When Lem and Cliff left the chopper and hurried along the crest of the ridge toward the gathered deputies and forest rangers, a hot wind buffeted them. It carried the scent of dry brush and pine. Only tufts of wild grass, parched and brittled by the July sun, had managed to put down roots on this high ground. Low scrub growth-including desert plants like mesquite-marked the upper reaches of the canyon walls that dropped away to the right and left of them, and down on the lower slopes and canyon floors were trees and greener undergrowth.

They were less than four air miles north of the town of Sunland, fourteen air miles north of Hollywood, and twenty miles north of the populous heart of the great city of Los Angeles, yet it seemed they were in a desolation measuring a thousand miles across, disquietingly far from civilization. The sheriffs deputies had parked their four-wheel-drive wagons on a crude dirt track three-quarters of a mile away-coming in, Lem's chopper had flown over those vehicles-and they had hiked with ranger guides to the site where the bodies had been found. Now, gathered around the corpses were four deputies, two men from the county crime lab, and three rangers, and they looked as if they, too, felt isolated in a primeval place.

When Lem and Cliff arrived, the sheriff's men had just finished tucking the remains in body bags. The zippers hadn't yet been closed, so Lem saw that one victim was male, the other female, both young and dressed for hiking. Their wounds were grievous; their eyes were gone.

The dead now numbered five innocents, and that toll conjured a specter of guilt that haunted Lem. At times like this, he wished that his father had raised him with no sense of responsibility whatsoever.

Deputy Hal Bockner, tall and tan but with a surprisingly reedy voice, apprised Lem of the identity and condition of the victims: “Based on the ID he was carrying, the male's name was Sidney Tranken, twenty-eight, of Glendale. Body has more than a score of nasty bite marks, even more claw marks, slashes. Throat, as you saw, torn open. Eyes-”

“Yes,” Lem said, seeing no need to dwell on these grisly details.

The men from the crime lab pulled the zippers shut on the body bags. It was a cold sound that hung for a moment like a chain of icicles in the hot July air.

Deputy Bockner said, “At first we thought Tranken was probably knifed by some psycho. Once in a while you get a homicidal nut who prowls these forests instead of the streets, preying on hikers. So we figured . . . knifed first, then all this other damage must've been done by animals, scavengers, after the guy was dead. But now . . . we're not so sure.”

“I don't see blood on the ground here,” Cliff Soames said with a note of puzzlement. “There'd have been a lot of it.”

“They weren't killed here,” Deputy Bockner said, then went on with his Summary at his own pace. “Female, twenty-seven, Ruth Kasavaris, also of Glendale. Also vicious bite marks, slashes. Her throat-”

Cutting him off again, Lem said, “When were they killed?”

“Best guess before lab tests is that they died late yesterday. We believe the bodies were carried up here because they'd be found quicker on the ridge top. A popular hiking trail runs along here. But it wasn't other hikers found them. It was a routine fire-patrol plane. Pilot looked down, saw them sprawled here on the bare ridge.”

This high ground above Boulder Canyon was more than thirty air miles north-northwest of Johnstone Peak, where the young campers had taken refuge from The Outsider in their van and had later fired at it with a .32 pistol on June 18, twenty-eight days ago. The Outsider would have been reckoning north-northwest by sheer instinct and no doubt would have frequently been required to backtrack out of box canyons; therefore, in this mountainous terrain it had very likely traveled between sixty and ninety miles on the ground to cover those thirty air miles. Still, that was only a pace of three miles a day, at most, and Lem wondered what the creature had been doing during the time it was not traveling or sleeping or chasing down food.

“You'll want to see where these two were killed,” Bockner said. “We've found the place. And you'll want to see the den, too.”


“The lair,” one of the forest rangers said. “The damn lair.”

The deputies, rangers, and crime-lab men had been giving Lem and Cliff odd looks ever since they had arrived, but Lem had not been surprised by that. Local authorities always regarded him with suspicion and curiosity because they were not accustomed to having a powerhouse federal agency like the NSA show up and claim jurisdiction; it was a rarity. But now he realized that their curiosity was of a different kind and degree than what he usually encountered, and for the first time he perceived their fear. They had found something-the lair of which they spoke-that gave them reason to believe this case was even stranger than the sudden appearance of the NSA would usually indicate.

In suits, ties, and polished street shoes, neither Lem nor Cliff was properly dressed for a hike down into the canyon, but neither of them hesitated when the rangers led the way. Two deputies, the lab men, and one of the three rangers remained behind with the bodies, which left a party of six for the descent. They followed a shallow channel carved by runoff from rainstorms, then switched to what might have been a deer trail. After descending to the very bottom of the canyon, they turned southeast and proceeded for half a mile. Soon Lem was sweaty and covered with a film of dust, and his socks and pant legs were full of prickling burrs.

“Here's where they were killed,” Deputy Bockner said when he led them into a clearing surrounded by scrub pines, cottonwoods, and brush.

The pale, sandy earth and sun-bleached grass were mottled with enormous dark stains. Blood.

“And right back here,” one of the rangers said, “is where we found the lair.”

It was a shallow cave in the base of the canyon wall, perhaps ten feet deep, twenty feet wide, no more than a dozen steps from the small clearing where the hikers had been murdered. The mouth of the cave was about eight feet wide but low, requiring Lem to stoop a bit as he entered. Once inside, he was able to stand erect, for the ceiling was high. The place had a mildly unpleasant, musty smell. Light found its way through the entrance and through a two-foot-wide water-carved hole in the ceiling, but for the most part the chamber was shadowy and twenty degrees cooler than the canyon outside.

Only Deputy Bockner accompanied Lem and Cliff. Lem sensed that the others held back not out of any concern that the cave would be too crowded, but out of an uneasiness about the place.

Bockner had a flashlight. He switched it on and played the beam over the things he had brought them to see, dispelling some of the shadows and causing others to flit batlike across the room to roost on different perches.

In one corner, dry grass had been piled to a depth of six or eight inches to make a bed on the sandstone floor. Beside the bed was a galvanized bucket full of relatively fresh water carried from the nearest stream, evidently placed there so the sleeper could get a drink upon waking in the middle of the night.

“It was here,” Cliff said softly.

“Yes,” Lem agreed.

Instinctively he sensed The Outsider had made this bed; somehow, its alien presence was still in the chamber. He stared at the bucket, wondering where the creature had acquired it. Most likely, along the way from Banodyne, it had decided it would eventually find a burrow and hide for a while, and it had realized it would need a few things to make its life in the wild more comfortable. Perhaps breaking into a stable or barn or empty house, it had stolen the bucket and various other things that Bockner now revealed with his flashlight.

A plaid flannel blanket for when the weather turned cooler. A horse blanket, judging by the look of it. What caught Lem's attention was the neatness with which the blanket had been folded and placed on a narrow ledge in the wall beside the entrance.

A flashlight. This was on the same shelf that held the blanket. The Outsider had exceedingly good night vision. That was one of the design requirements with which Dr. Yarbeck had been working: in the dark, a good genetically engineered warrior would be able to see as well as a cat. So why would it want a flashlight? Unless . . . maybe even a creature of the night was sometimes afraid of darkness.

That thought jolted Lem, and suddenly he pitied the beast as he had pitied it that day he had watched it communicating by crude sign language with Yarbeck, the day it had said that it wanted to tear its own eyes out so it would never have to look at itself again.

Bockner moved the beam of his own flashlight and focused it on twenty candy wrappers. Apparently, The Outsider had stolen a couple family packs of candy somewhere along the way. The strange thing was that the wrappers were not crumpled but were smoothed out and laid flat on the floor along the back wall-ten from Reese's peanut butter cups and ten from Clark Bars. Perhaps The Outsider liked the bright colors of the wrappers. Or perhaps it kept them to remind itself of the pleasure that the candy had given it because, Once those treats were gone, there was not much other pleasure to be had in the hard life to which it had been driven

In the farthest corner from the bed, deep in shadows, was a pile of bones. The bones of small animals. Once the candy was eaten, The Outsider had been forced to hunt in order to feed itself. And without the means to light a fire, it had fed savagely on raw meat. Perhaps it kept the bones in the cave because it was afraid that, by disposing of them outside, it would be leaving clues to its whereabouts. By storing them in the darkest, farthest corner of its haven, it seemed to have a civilized sense of neatness and order, but to Lem it also seemed as if The Outsider had hidden the bones in the shadows because it was ashamed of its own savagery.

Most pathetically of all, a peculiar group of items was stored in a niche in the wall above the grassy bed. No, Lem decided, not just stored. The items were carefully arranged, as if for display, the way an aficionado of art glass or ceramics or Mayan pottery might display a valuable collection. There was a round stained-glass bauble of the sort that people hung from their patio covers to sparkle in the sun; it was about four inches in diameter, and it portrayed a blue flower against a pale-yellow background. Beside that bauble was a bright copper pot that had probably once contained a plant on the same-or another-patio. Next to the pot were two things that surely had been taken from inside a house, perhaps from the same place where The Outsider had stolen the candy: first, a fine porcelain study of a pair of red-feathered cardinals sitting on a branch, every detail exquisitely crafted; second, a crystal paperweight. Apparently, even within the alien breast of Yarbeck's monstrosity, there was an appreciation of beauty and a desire to live not as an animal but as a thinking being in an ambience at least lightly touched by civilization.

Lem felt sick at heart as he considered the lonely, tortured, self-hating, inhuman yet self-aware creature that Yarbeck had brought into the world.

Last of all, the niche above the grass bed held a ten-inch-high figure of Mickey Mouse that was also a coin bank.

Lem's pity swelled because he knew why the bank had appealed to The Outsider. At Banodyne, there had been experiments to determine the depth and nature of the dog's and The Outsider's intelligence, to discover how close their perceptions were to those of a human being. One of the experiments had been designed to probe their ability to differentiate between fantasy and reality. On several occasions, the dog and The Outsider had separately been shown a videotape that had been assembled from film clips of all kinds: bite of old John Wayne movies, footage from George Lucas's Star Wars, news films, scenes from a wide variety of documentaries-and old Mickey Mouse, cartoons. The reactions of the dog and The Outsider were filmed and, later, they were quizzed to see it they understood which segments of the videotape were of real events and which were flights of the imagination. Both creatures had gradually learned to identify fantasy when they saw it; but, strangely, the one fantasy they most wanted to believe in, the fantasy they clung to the longest, was Mickey Mouse. They were enthralled by Mickey's adventures with his cartoon friends. After escaping Banodyne, The Outsider had some how come across this coin bank and had wanted it badly because the poor damn thing was reminded of the only real pleasure it had ever known while in the lab.

In the beam of Deputy Bockner's flashlight, something on the shelf glinted. It was lying nearly flat beside the coin bank, and they almost overlooked it. Cliff stepped onto the grass bed and plucked the gleaming object Out of the wall niche: a three-inch-by-four-inch triangular fragment of a mirror.

The Outsider huddled here, Lem thought, trying to take heart from its meager treasures, trying to make as much of a home for itself as was possible. Once in a while it picked up this jagged shard from a mirror and stared at itself, perhaps searching hopefully for an aspect of its countenance that was not ugly, perhaps trying to come to terms with what it was. And failing. Surely failing.

“Dear God,” Cliff Soames said quietly, for the same thoughts had apparently passed through his mind. “The poor miserable bastard.”

The Outsider had possessed one additional item: a copy of People magazine. Robert Redford was on the cover. With a claw, sharp stone, or some other instrument, The Outsider had cut out Redford's eyes.

The magazine was rumpled and tattered, as if it had been paged through a hundred times, and now Deputy Bockner handed it to them and suggested they page through it once more. On doing so, Lem saw that the eyes of every person pictured in the issue had been either scratched, cut, or crudely torn out.

The thoroughness of this symbolic mutilation-not one image in the magazine had been spared-was chilling.

The Outsider was pathetic, yes, and it was to be pitied.

But it was also to be feared.

Five victims-some gutted, some decapitated.

The innocent dead must not be forgotten, not for a moment. Neither an affection for Mickey Mouse nor a love of beauty could excuse such slaughter.

But Jesus .

The creature had been given sufficient intelligence to grasp the importance and the benefits of civilization, to long for acceptance and a meaningful existence. Yet a fierce lust for violence, a killing instinct second to none in nature, was also engineered into it because it was meant to be a smart killer on a long invisible leash, a living machine of war. No matter how long it existed in peaceful solitude in its canyon cave, no matter how many days or weeks it resisted its own violent urges, it could not change what it was. The pressure would build within it until it could no longer contain itself, until the slaughter of small animals would not provide enough psychological relief, and then it would seek larger and more interesting prey. It might damn itself for its savagery, might long to remake itself into a creature that could exist in harmony with the rest of the world, but it was powerless to change what it Was. Only hours ago, Lem had pondered how difficult it was for him to become a different man from the one his father had raised, how hard it was for any man to change what life had made him, but at least it was possible if one had the determination, willpower, and time. However, for The Outsider change Was impossible; murder was in the beast's genes, locked in, and it could expect no hope of re-creation or salvation.

Prev Next