Watchers Page 41

For the next two and a half hours, as they drove north to Salinas and then on to San Jose, Nora dozed fitfully. When not sleeping, she took comfort in the empty miles they were putting behind them. On both sides of the highway, vast stretches of farmland seemed to roll on to infinity under the frost-pale light of the moon. When the moon set, they drove long stretches in unrelieved darkness before spotting an occasional light at a farm or a cluster of roadside businesses.

The yellow-eyed thing had tracked Einstein from the Santa Ana foothills in Orange County to Santa Barbara-a distance of more than one hundred and twenty-five air miles, Travis had said, and probably close to three hundred miles on foot in the wilds-in three months. Not a fast pace. So if they went three hundred air miles north from Santa Barbara before finding a place to hole up in the San Francisco Bay area, maybe the stalker would not reach them for seven or eight months. Maybe it would never reach them. Over how great a distance could it sniff out Einstein? Surely, there were limits to its uncanny ability to track the dog. Surely.


At eleven o'clock Thursday morning, Lemuel Johnson stood in the master bedroom of the small house that Travis Cornell had rented in Santa Barbara. The dresser mirror had been smashed. The rest of the room had been trashed as well, as if The Outsider had been driven into a jealous rage upon seeing that the dog lived in domestic comfort while it was forced to roam the wildlands and live in comparatively primitive conditions.

In the debris that covered the floor, Lem found four silver-framed photographs that had probably stood on the dresser or nightstands. The first was of Cornell and an attractive blonde. By now Lem had learned enough about Cornell to know that the blonde at his side must be his late wife, Paula. Another photo, a black-and-white shot of a man and woman, was old enough that Lem guessed the people smiling at the camera were Cornell's parents. The third was of a young boy, about eleven or twelve, also black-and-white, also old, which might have been a shot of Travis Cornell himself but which was more likely a picture of the brother who had died young.

The last of the four photos was of ten soldiers grouped on what appeared to be the wooden steps in front of a barracks, grinning at the camera. One of the ten was Travis Cornell. And on a couple of their uniforms, Lem noticed the distinctive patch of Delta Force, the elite antiterrorist corps.

Uneasy about that last photograph, Lem put it on the dresser and headed back toward the living room, where Cliff was continuing to sift through bloodstained rubble. They were looking for something that would mean nothing to the police but might be extremely meaningful to them.

The NSA had been slow to pick up on the Santa Barbara killing, and Lem had not been alerted until almost six o'clock this morning. As a result, the press had already reported the grisly details of Ted Hockney's murder. They were enthusiastically disseminating wild speculations about what might have killed Hockney, focusing primarily on the theory that Cornell kept some kind of exotic and dangerous pet, perhaps a cheetah or panther, and that the animal had attacked the unsuspecting landlord when he had let himself into the house. The TV cameras had lingered lovingly on the shredded and blood spattered books. It was National Enquirer stuff, which did not surprise Lem because he believed the line separating sensational tabloids like the Enquirer and the so-called “legitimate” press-especially electronic news media-was often thinner than most journalists cared to admit.

He had already planned and put into operation a disinformation campaign to reinforce the press's wrongheaded hysteria about jungle cats on the loose. NSA-paid informants would come forth, claiming to know Cornell, and would

vouch that he did, indeed, keep a panther in the house in addition to a dog. Others who had never met Cornell would, in identifying themselves as his friends, sorrowfully report that they had urged him to have the panther defanged and declared as it had reached maturity. Police would want to question Cornell-and the unidentified woman-regarding the panther and its current whereabouts.

Lem was confident the press would be nicely deflected from all inquiries that might lead them closer to the truth.

Of course, down in Orange County, Walt Gaines would hear about this murder, would make friendly inquiries with local authorities here, and would swiftly conclude that The Outsider had tracked the dog this far north. Lem was relieved that he had Walt's cooperation.

Entering the living room, where Cliff Soames was at work, Lem said, “Find anything?”

The young agent rose from the debris, dusted his hands together, and said, “Yeah. I put it on the dining-room table.”

Lem followed him into the dining room, where a fat ring-binder notebook was the only item on the table. When he opened it and leafed through the contents, he saw photographs that had been cut from glossy magazines and taped to the left-hand pages. Opposite each photo, on the right-hand page, was the name of the pictured object printed in large block letters: TREE, HOUSE, CAR...

“What do you make of it?” Cliff asked.

Scowling, saying nothing, Lem continued to leaf through the book, knowing it was important but at first unable to guess why. Then it hit him: “It's a primer. To teach reading.”

“Yeah,” Cliff said.

Lem saw that his assistant was smiling. “You think they must know the dog's intelligent, that it must've revealed its abilities to them? And so they . . . decided to teach it to read?”

“Looks that way,” Cliff said, still smiling. “Good God, do you think it's possible? Could it be taught to read?”

“Undoubtedly,” Lem said. “In fact, teaching it to read was on Dr. Weatherby's schedule of experiments for this autumn.”

Laughing softly, wonderingly, Cliff said, “I'll be damned.”

“Before you get too much of a kick out of it,” Lem said, “you better consider the situation. This guy knows the dog is amazingly smart. He might've succeeded in teaching it to read. So we have to figure he's worked out a means of communicating with it as well. He knows it's an experimental animal. He must know a lot of people are looking for it.”

Cliff said, “He must know about The Outsider, too, because the dog would have found a way of telling him.”

“Yes. Yet, knowing all of this, he hasn't chosen to go public. He could've sold the story to the highest bidder. But he didn't. Or if he's a crusading type, he could've called in the press and blasted the Pentagon for funding this kind of research.”

“But he didn't,” Cliff said, frowning.

“Which means, first and foremost, he's committed to the dog, committed to keeping it for his own and to preventing its recapture.”

Nodding, Cliff said, "Which makes sense if what we've heard about him is true. I mean, this guy lost his whole damn family when he was young. Lost his wife after less than a year. Lost all those buddies in Delta Force. So he became a recluse, cut himself off from all his friends. Must've been lonely as hell. Then along comes the dog . .

“Exactly,” Lem said. “And for a man with Delta Force training, staying undercover won't be difficult. And if we do find him, he'll know how to fight for the dog. Jesus, will he know how to fight!”

“We haven't confirmed the Delta Force rumor yet,” Cliff said hopefully.

“I have,” Lem said, and he described the photograph he had seen in the wrecked bedroom.

Cliff sighed. “We're in deep shit now.”

“Up to our necks,” Lem agreed.


They had reached San Francisco at six o'clock Thursday morning and, by six-thirty, had found a suitable motel-a sprawling facility that looked modern and clean. The place did not accept pets, but it was easy to sneak Einstein into the room.

Although a small chance existed that an arrest warrant might have been issued for Travis, he checked into the motel using his ID. He'd no choice because Nora possessed neither credit cards nor a driver's license. These days, desk clerks were willing to -accept cash, but not without ID; the chain's computer demanded data on the guests.

He did not, however, give the correct make or license number of his car, for he had parked out of sight of the office for the very purpose of keeping those details from the clerk.

They paid for only one room and kept Einstein with them because they were not going to need privacy for lovemaking. Exhausted, Travis barely managed to kiss Nora before falling into a deep sleep. He dreamed of things With yellow eyes, misshapen heads, and crocodile mouths full of sharks' teeth.

He woke five hours later, at twelve-ten Thursday afternoon.

Nora had gotten up before him, showered, and dressed again in the only Clothes she had. Her hair was damp and clung alluringly to the nape of her fleck. “The water's hot and forceful,” she told him.

'So am I," he said, embracing her, kissing her.

'Then you better cool off,“ she said, pulling away from him. ”Little ears are listening."

'Einstein? He has big ears."

In the bathroom, he found Einstein standing on the counter, drinking out of a sinkful of cold water that Nora had drawn for him.

“You know, fur face, for most dogs, the toilet is a perfectly adequate source of drinking water.”

Einstein sneezed at him, jumped down from the counter, and padded out of the bathroom.

Travis had no means of shaving, but he decided a day's growth of beard would give him the look he needed for the work he would have to do this evening in the Tenderloin district.

They left the motel and ate at the first McDonald's they could find. After lunch, they drove to a local branch of the Santa Barbara bank where Travis had his checking account. They used his computer-banking card, his MasterCard, and two of his Visa cards to make cash withdrawals totaling fourteen hundred dollars. Next they went to an American Express office, and using one of Travis's checks and his Gold Card, they acquired the maximum allowable five hundred dollars in cash and forty-five hundred in traveler's checks. Combined with the twenty-one hundred in cash and traveler's checks left over from their honeymoon, they had eighty-five hundred in liquid assets.

During the rest of the afternoon and early evening, they went shopping. With credit cards, they bought a complete set of luggage and purchased enough clothes to fill the bags. They got toiletries for both of them and an electric razor for Travis.

Travis also bought a Scrabble game, and Nora said, “You don't really feel in the mood for games, do you?”

“No,” he replied cryptically, enjoying her puzzlement. “I'll explain later.”

Half an hour before sunset, with their purchases packed tightly in the spacious trunk of the Mercedes, Travis drove into the heart of San Francisco's Tenderloin, which was the area of the city that lay below O'Farrell Street, wedged between Market Street and Van Ness Avenue. It was a district of sleazy bars featuring topless dancers, go-go joints where the girls wore nothing at all, rap parlors where men paid by the minute to sit with nude young women and talk about sex and where more than talk was usually accomplished.

This degeneracy was a shocking revelation to Nora, who had begun to think of herself as experienced and sophisticated. She was not prepared for the cesspool of the Tenderloin. She gaped at the gaudy neon signs that advertised peep shows, female mud wrestling, female impersonators, g*y baths, and massage parlors. The meaning of some of the billboard come-ons at the worst bars baffled her, and she said, “What do they mean when the marquee says 'Get a Wink at the Pink'?”

Looking for a parking place, Travis said, “It means their girls dance entirely nude and that, during the dance, they spread their labia to show themselves more completely.”



“My God. I don't believe it. I mean, I do believe it-but I don't believe it. What's it mean-'Extreme Close-Up'?”

“The girls dance right at the customers' tables. The law doesn't allow touching, but the girls dance close, swinging their bare br**sts in the customers' faces. You could insert one, maybe two, but not three sheets of paper between their ni**les and the men's lips.”

In the back seat, Einstein snorted as if with disgust.

“I agree, fella,” Travis told him.

They passed a cancerous-looking place with flashing red and yellow bulbs and rippling bands of blue and purple neon, where the sign promised LIVE SEX SHOW.

Appalled, Nora said, “My God, are there other shows where they have sex with the dead?”

Travis laughed so hard he almost back-ended a carload of gawking college boys. “No, no, no. Even the Tenderloin has some limits. They mean 'live' as opposed to 'on film.' You can see plenty of sex on film, theaters that show only pornography, but that place promises live sex, on stage. I don't know if they deliver on the promise.”

“And I don't care to find out!” Nora said, sounding as if she were Dorothy from Kansas and had just wandered into an unspeakable new neighborhood of Oz. “What're we doing here?”

“This is the place you come to when you're trying to find things they don't sell on Nob Hill-like young boys or really large amounts of dope. Or phony driver's licenses and other counterfeit ID.”

“Oh,” she said. “Oh, yes, I see. This area is controlled by the underworld, by people like the Corleones in The Godfather.”

“I'm sure the mob owns more of these places than not,” he said as he maneuvered the Mercedes into a parking space at the curb. “But don't ever make the mistake of thinking-the real mob is a bunch of honorable cuties like the Corleones.”

Einstein was agreeable to remaining with the Mercedes.

“Tell you what, fur face. If we're real lucky,” Travis joked, “we'll get you a new identity, too. We'll make you into a poodle.”

Nora was surprised to discover that, as twilight settled over the city, the breeze off the bay was chilly enough for them to need the nylon, quilt-lined Jackets they had bought earlier in the day.

“Even in summer, nights can be cool here,” he said. “Soon, the fog rolls in. The stored-up heat of the day pulls it off the water.”

He would have worn his jacket even if the evening air had been mild, for he was carrying his loaded revolver under his belt and needed the jacket to Conceal it.

“Is there really a chance you'll need the gun?” she asked as they walked away from the car.

“Not likely. I'm carrying it mainly for ID.”


“You'll see.”

She looked back at the car, where Einstein was staring out the rear window, looking forlorn. She felt bad leaving him there. But she was quite certain that even if these establishments would admit dogs such places were not good for Einstein's moral welfare.

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