Watchers Page 50

Later, bedding down in a motel because he was too tired to close the temporary field office tonight and go home to Orange County, Lem Johnson thought about what Cliff had said. Loyalty. One hell of a lot of loyalty.

Lem wondered if he had ever felt such a strong bond of loyalty to anyone as the Cornells and Garrison Dilworth apparently felt toward the retriever. He tossed and turned, unable to sleep, and he finally realized there was no use trying to switch off his inner lights until he satisfied himself that he was capable of the degree of loyalty and commitment that he had seen in the Cornells and their attorney.

He sat up in the darkness, leaning against the headboard.

Well, sure, he was damn loyal to his country, which he loved and honored.

And he was loyal to the Agency. But to another person? All right, Karen.

His wife. He was loyal to Karen in every way-in his heart, mind, and gonads.

He loved Karen. He had loved her deeply for almost twenty years.

“Yeah,” he said aloud in the empty motel room at two o'clock in the morning, “yeah, if you're so loyal to Karen, why aren't you with her now?”

But he wasn't being fair to himself. After all, he had a job to do, an important job.

“That's the trouble,” he muttered, “you've always-always-got a job to do.”

He slept away from home more than a hundred nights a year, one in three. And when he was home, he was distracted half the time, his mind on the latest case. Karen had once wanted children, but Lem had delayed the start of a family, claiming that he could not handle the responsibility of children until he was sure his career was secure.

“Secure?” he said. “Man, you inherited your daddy's money. You started out with more of a cushion than most people.”

If he was as loyal to Karen as those people were to that mutt, then his commitment to her should mean that her desires ought to come before all others. If Karen wanted a family, then family should take precedence over career. Right? At least he should have compromised and started a family when they were in their early thirties. His twenties could have gone to the career, his thirties to child-rearing. Now he was forty-five, almost forty-six, and Karen was forty-three, and the time for starting a family had passed.

Lem was overcome with a great loneliness.

He got out of bed, went into the bathroom in his shorts, switched on the light, and stared hard at himself in the mirror. His eyes were bloodshot and sunken. He had lost so much weight on this case that his face was beginning to look downright skeletal.

Stomach cramps seized him, and he bent over, holding onto the sides of the sink, his face in the basin. He'd been afflicted only for the past month or so, but his condition seemed to be worsening with startling speed. The pain took a long time to pass.

When he confronted his reflection in the mirror again, he said, “You're not even loyal to your own self, you as**ole. You're killing yourself, working yourself to death, and you can't stop. Not loyal to Karen, not loyal to yourself. Not really loyal to your country or the Agency, when it comes right down to it. Hell, the only thing you're totally and unswervingly committed to is your old man's crackpot vision of life as a tightrope walk.”


That word seemed to reverberate in the bathroom long after he'd spoken it. He had loved and respected his father, had never said a word against him. Yet today he had admitted to Cliff that his dad had been “impossible.” And now-crackpot vision. He still loved his dad and always would. But he was beginning to wonder if a son could love a father and, at the same time, completely reject his father's teachings.

A year ago, a month ago, even a few days ago, he would have said it was impossible to hold fast to that love and still be his own man. But now, by God, it seemed not only possible but essential that he separate his love for his father from his adherence to his father's workaholic code.

What's happening to me? he wondered.

Freedom? Freedom, at last, at forty-five?

Squinting into the mirror, he said, “Almost forty-six.”



Sunday, Travis noted that Einstein still had less of an appetite than usual, but by Monday, November 29, the retriever seemed fine. On Monday and Tuesday, Einstein finished every scrap of his meals, and he read new books. He sneezed only once and did not cough at all. He drank more water than in the past, though not an excessive amount. If he seemed to spend more time by the fireplace, if he padded through the house less energetically . . . well, winter was swiftly settling upon them, and animals' behavior changed with the seasons.

At a bookstore in Carmel, Nora bought a copy of The Dog Owner's Home Veterinary Handbook. She spent a few hours at the kitchen table, reading, researching the possible meanings of Einstein's symptoms. She discovered that listlessness, partial loss of appetite, sneezing, coughing, and unusual thirst could signify a hundred ailments-or mean nothing at all. “About the only thing it couldn't be is a cold,” she said. “Dogs don't get colds like we do.” But by the time she got the book, Einstein's symptoms had diminished to such an extent that she decided he was probably perfectly healthy.

In the pantry off the kitchen, Einstein used the Scrabble tiles to tell them:


Stooping beside the dog, stroking him, Travis said, “I guess you ought to know better than anyone.”


Replacing the tiles in their Lucite tubes, Travis said, “Well, because it means-healthy.”


Travis thought about the metaphor-fit as a fiddle-and realized he was not sure why it meant what it did. He asked Nora, and she came to the pantry door, but she had no explanation for the phrase, either.

Pawing out more letters, pushing them around with his nose, the retriever asked: WHY SAY SOUND AS A DOLLAR?

“Sound as a dollar-meaning healthy or reliable,” Travis said.

Stooping beside them, speaking to the dog, Nora said, “That one's easier. The United States dollar was once the soundest, most stable currency in the World. Still is, I suppose. For decades, there was no terrible inflation in the dollar like in some other currencies, no reason to lose faith in it, so folks said, 'I'm as sound as a dollar.' Of course, the dollar isn't what it once was, and the phrase isn't as fitting as it used to be, but we still use it.”


“Because . . . we've always used it,” Nora said, shrugging.


Gathering up the tiles and sorting them back into their tubes, Travis said, “No, in fact, horses are fairly delicate animals in spite of their size. They get sick pretty easily.”

Einstein looked expectantly from Travis to Nora.

Nora said, “We probably say we're healthy as a horse because horses look strong and seem like they shouldn't ever get sick, even though they get sick all the time.”

“Face it,” Travis told the dog, “we humans say things all the time that don't make sense.”

Pumping the letter-dispensing pedals with his paw, the retriever told them:


Travis looked at Nora, and they both laughed.

Beneath YOU ARE A STRANGE PEOPLE, the retriever spelled: BUT I LIKE YOU ANYWAY.

Einstein's inquisitiveness and sense of humor seemed, more than anything else, to indicate that, if he had been mildly ill, he was now recovered.

That was Tuesday.

On Wednesday, December 1, while Nora painted in her second-floor studio, Travis devoted the day to inspecting his security system and to routine weapons maintenance.

In every room, a firearm was carefully concealed under furniture or behind a drape or in a closet, but always within easy reach. They owned two Mossberg pistol-grip shotguns, four Smith & Wesson Model 19 Combat Magnums loaded with .357s, two .38 pistols that they carried with them in the pickup and Toyota, an Uzi carbine, two Uzi pistols. They could have obtained their entire arsenal legally, from a local gun shop, once they purchased a house and established residence in the county, but Travis had not been willing to wait that long. He had wanted to have the weapons on the first night they settled into their new home; therefore, through Van Dyne in San Francisco, he and Nora had located an illegal arms salesman and had acquired what they needed. Of course, they could not have bought conversion kits for the Uzis from a licensed gun dealer. But they were able to purchase three such kits in San Francisco, and now the Uzi carbine and pistols were fully automatic.

Travis moved from room to room, checking that the weapons were properly positioned, that they were free of dust, that they did not need to be oiled, and that their magazines were fully loaded. He knew that everything would be in order, but he just felt more comfortable if he conducted this inspection once a week. Though he had been out of uniform for many years, the old military training and methodology were still a part of him, and under pressure they surfaced more quickly than he had expected.

Taking a Mossberg with them, he and Einstein also walked around the house, stopping at each of the small infrared sensors that were, as much as possible, placed inconspicuously against backdrops of rocks or plants, snug against the trunks of a few trees, at the corners of the house, and beside an old rotting pine stump at the edge of the driveway. He had bought the components on the open market, from an electronics dealer in San Francisco. It was dated stuff, not at all state-of-the-art security technology, but he chose it because he was familiar with it from his days in Delta Force, and it was good enough for his purposes. Lines from the sensors ran underground, to an alarm box in one of the kitchen cupboards.

When the system was switched on at night, nothing larger than a raccoon could come within thirty feet of the house-or enter the barn at the back of the property-without tripping the alarm. No bells would ring, and no sirens would blare because that would alert The Outsider and might run it off. They didn't want to chase it away; they wanted to kill it. Therefore, when the system was tripped, it turned on clock radios in every room of the house, all of which were set at low volume so as not to frighten off an intruder but high enough to warn Travis and Nora.

Today, all the sensors were in place, as usual. All he had to do was wipe off the light film of dust that had coated the lenses.

“The palace moat is in good repair, m'lord,” Travis said.

Einstein woofed approval.

In the rust-red barn, Travis and Einstein examined the equipment that, they hoped, would provide a nasty surprise for The Outsider.

In the northwest corner of the shadowy interior, to the left of the big rolling door, a pressurized steel tank was clamped in a wall rack. In the diagonally opposite southeast corner at the back of the building, beyond the pickup and car, an identical vessel was bolted to an identical rack. They resembled large propane tanks of the sort people used at summer cabins for gas cooking, but they did not hold propane. They were filled with nitrous oxide, which was sometimes inaccurately called “laughing gas.” The first whiff did exhilarate you and make you want to laugh, but the second whiff knocked you out before the laugh could escape your lips. Dentists and surgeons frequently used nitrous oxide as an anesthetic. Travis had purchased it from a medical-supply house in San Francisco.

After switching on the barn lights, Travis checked the gauges on both tanks. Full pressure.

In addition to the large rolling door at the front of the barn, there was a smaller, man-size door at the rear. These were the only two entrances. Travis had boarded over a pair of windows in the loft. At night, when the alarm system was engaged, the smaller rear door was left unlocked in the hope that The Outsider, intending to scout the house from the cover of the barn, would let itself into the trap. When it opened the door and crept into the barn, it would trigger a mechanism that would slam and lock the door behind it. The front door, already locked from outside, would prevent an exit in that direction.

Simultaneous with the springing of the trap, the large tanks of nitrous oxide Would release their entire contents in less than one minute because Travis had fitted them with high-pressure emergency-release valves tied in with the alarm system. He had caulked all of the draft-admitting cracks in the barn and had insulated the place as thoroughly as possible in order to insure that the nitrous oxide would be contained within the structure until one of the doors was unlocked from outside and opened to vent the gas.

The Outsider could not take refuge in the pickup or the Toyota, for they would be locked. No corner in the barn would be free of the gas. Within less than a minute, the creature would collapse. Travis had considered using poisonous gas of some kind, which he probably could have obtained on the underground market, but he had decided against going to that extreme because, if something went wrong, the danger to him and Nora and Einstein would be too great.

Once gas had been released and The Outsider had succumbed, Travis could simply open one of the doors, vent the barn, enter with the Uzi carbine, and kill the beast where it lay unconscious. At worst, even if the time taken airing out the building gave The Outsider a chance to regain consciousness, it would still be groggy and disoriented and easily dispatched.

When they had ascertained that everything in the barn was as it should be, Travis and Einstein returned to the yard behind the house. The December day was cool but windless. The forest surrounding the property was preternaturally still. The trees stood motionless under a low sky of slate-colored clouds.

Travis said, “Is The Outsider still coming?”

With a quick wag of the tail, Einstein said, Yes.

“Is it close?”

Einstein sniffed the clean, winter-crisp air. He padded across the yard to the perimeter of the northern woods and sniffed again, cocked his head, peered intently into the trees. He repeated this ritual at the southern end of the property.

Travis had the feeling that Einstein was not actually employing his eyes, ears, and nose in search of The Outsider. He had some way of monitoring The Outsider that was far different from the means by which he would track a cougar or squirrel. Travis perceived that the dog was employing an inexplicable sixth sense-call it psychic or at least quasi-psychic. The retriever's use of its ordinary senses was probably either the trigger by which it engaged that psychic ability-or mere habit.

At last, Einstein returned to him and whined curiously.

“Is it close?” Travis asked.

Einstein sniffed the air and surveyed the gloom of the encircling forest, as if he could not decide on an answer.

“Einstein? Is something wrong?”

Finally, the retriever barked once: No.

“Is The Outsider getting close?”

A hesitation. Then: No.

“Are you sure?”


“Really sure?”

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