Watchers Page 55

Jim Keene looked on in wide-eyed wonder, grinning stupidly. He said, “I feel like a child who's sneaked downstairs on Christmas Eve and actually seen the real Santa Claus putting gifts under the tree.”

“My turn,” Travis said, sliding forward and putting a hand on Einstein's head, patting him. "Jim just mentioned Christmas, and it's not far away.

Twenty days from now. So tell me, Einstein, what would you most like to have Santa bring you?"

Twice, Einstein started to line up the lettered tiles, but both times he had second thoughts and disarranged them. He tottered and thumped down on his butt, looked around sheepishly, saw that they were all expectant, got up again, and this time produced a three-word request for Santa.


They didn't get to bed until two in the morning because Jim Keene was intoxicated, not drunk from beer or wine or whiskey but from sheer joy over Einstein's intelligence. “Like a man's, yes, but still the dog, still the dog, wonderfully like, yet wonderfully different from, a man's thinking, based on what little I've seen.” But Jim did not press for more than a dozen examples of the dog's wit, and he was the first to say that they must not tire their patient. Still, he was electrified, so excited he could barely contain himself. Travis would not have been too surprised if the vet had suddenly just exploded.

In the kitchen, Jim pleaded with them to retell stories about Einstein: the Modern Bride business in Solvang; the way he had taken it upon himself to add cold water to the first hot bath that Travis had given him; and many more. Jim actually retold some of the same stories himself, almost as if Travis and Nora had never heard them, but they were happy to indulge him.

With a flourish, he snatched the wanted flyer off the table, struck a kitchen match, and burned the sheet in the sink. He washed the ashes down the drain. “To hell with the small minds who'd keep a creature like that locked up to be poked and prodded and studied. They might've had the genius to make Einstein, but they don't understand the meaning of what they themselves have done. They don't understand the greatness of it, because if they did they wouldn't want to cage him.”

At last, when Jim Keene reluctantly agreed that they were all in need of sleep, Travis carried Einstein (already sleeping) up to the guest room. They made a blanket-cushioned place for him on the floor next to the bed.

In the dark, under the covers, with Einstein's soft snoring to comfort them, Travis and Nora held each other.

She said, “Everything's going to be all right now.”

“There's still some trouble coming,” he said. He felt as if Einstein's recovery had weakened the curse of untimely death that had followed him all of his life. But he was not ready to hope that the curse had been banished altogether. The Outsider was still out there somewhere . . . coming.



On Tuesday afternoon, December 7, when they took Einstein home, Jim Keene was reluctant to let them go. He followed them out to the pickup and stood at the driver's window, restating the treatment that must be continued for the next couple of weeks, reminding them that he wanted to see Einstein once a week for the rest of the month, and urging them to visit him not only for the dog's medical care but for drinks, dinner, conversation.

Travis knew the vet was trying to say he wanted to remain a part of Einstein's life, wanted to participate in the magic of it. “Jim, believe me, we'll be back. And before Christmas, you'll have to come out to our place, spend the day with us.”

“I'd like that.”

“So would we,” Travis said sincerely.

On the drive home, Nora held Einstein in her lap, wrapped in a blanket once more. He still did not have his old appetite, and he was weak. His immune system had taken severe punishment, so he would be more than usually susceptible to illness for a while. He was to be kept in the house as much as possible and pampered until he had regained his previous vigor- probably after the first of the year, according to Jim Keene.

The bruised and swollen sky bulged with saturated dark clouds. The Pacific Ocean was so hard and gray that it did not appear to be water but looked more like billions of shards and slabs of slate being continuously agitated by some geological upheaval in the earth below.

The bleak weather could not dampen their high spirits. Nora was beaming, and Travis found himself whistling. Einstein studied the scenery with great interest, clearly treasuring even the somber beauty of this nearly colorless winter day. Perhaps he had never expected to see the world outside Jim Keene's office again, in which case even a sea of jumbled stone and a contusive sky were precious sights.

When they reached home, Travis left Nora in the pickup with the retriever and entered the house alone, by the back door, carrying the .38 pistol they kept in the truck. In the kitchen, where the lights had been on ever since their hasty departure last week, he immediately took an Uzi automatic pistol from its hiding place in a cabinet, and put the lighter gun aside. He proceeded cautiously from room to room, looking behind every large item of furniture and in every closet.

He saw no signs of burglary, and he expected none. This rural area was relatively crime-free. You could leave your door unlocked for days at a time without risking thieves who would take everything down to the wallpaper.

The Outsider, not a burglar, worried him.

The house was deserted.

Travis checked the barn, too, before driving the pickup inside, but it was also safe.

In the house, Nora put Einstein down and pulled the blanket off him. He tottered around the kitchen, sniffing at things. In the living room he looked at the cold fireplace and inspected his page-turning machine.

He returned to the kitchen pantry, clicked on the light with his foot pedal, and pawed letters out of the Lucite tubes.


Stooping beside the dog, Travis said, “It's sure good to be here, isn't it?”

Einstein nuzzled Travis's throat and licked his neck. The golden coat was fluffy and smelled clean because Jim Keene had given the dog a bath, in his surgery, under carefully controlled conditions. But as fluffy and fresh as he was, Einstein still did not look himself; he seemed tired, and he was thinner, too, having lost a few pounds in less than a week.

Pawing out more letters, Einstein spelled the same word again, as if to emphasize his pleasure: HOME.

Standing at the pantry door, Nora said, “Home is where the heart is, and there's plenty of heart in this one. Hey, let's have an early dinner and eat it in the living room while we run the videotape of Mickey's Christmas Carol. Would you like that?”

Einstein wagged his tail vigorously.

Travis said, “Do you think you could handle your favorite food-a few weenies for dinner?”

Einstein licked his chops. He dispensed more letters, with which he expressed his enthusiastic approval of Travis's suggestion.


When Travis woke in the middle of the night, Einstein was at the bedroom window, on his hind feet with his forepaws braced on the sill. He was barely visible in the second-hand glow of the night-light in the adjoining bathroom. The interior shutter was bolted over the window, so the dog had no view of the front yard. But perhaps, for getting a fix on The Outsider, sight was the sense on which he least depended.

“Something out there, boy?” Travis asked quietly, not wanting to wake Nora unnecessarily.

Einstein dropped from the window, padded to Travis's side of the bed, and put his head up on the mattress.

Petting the dog, Travis whispered, “Is it coming?”

Replying with only a cryptic mewl, Einstein settled down on the floor beside the bed and went to sleep again.

In a few minutes, Travis slept, too.

He woke again near dawn to find Nora sitting on the edge of the bed, petting Einstein. “Go back to sleep,” she told Travis.

“What's wrong?”

“Nothing,” she whispered drowsily. “I woke up and saw him at the window, but it's nothing. Go to sleep.”

He did manage to fall asleep a third time, but he dreamed that The Outsider had been smart enough to learn how to use tools during its six-month-long pursuit of Einstein and now, yellow eyes gleaming, it was smashing its way through the bedroom shutters with an ax.


They gave Einstein his medicines on schedule, and he swallowed his pills obediently. They explained to him that he needed to eat well in order to regain his strength. He tried, but his appetite was returning only slowly. He would need a few weeks to regain the pounds he had lost and to recover his old vitality. But day by day his improvement was perceptible.

By Friday, December 10, Einstein seemed strong enough to risk a short walk outside. He still wobbled a little now and then, but he no longer tottered with every step. He'd had all of his shots at the veterinary clinic; there was no chance of picking up rabies on top of the distemper he'd just beaten.

The weather was milder than it had been in recent weeks, with temperatures in the low sixties and no wind. The scattered clouds were white, and the sun, when not hidden, laid a warm life-giving caress on the skin.

Einstein accompanied Travis on an inspection tour of the infrared sensors around the house and the nitrous-oxide tanks in the barn. They moved a bit more slowly than the last time they had walked this line together, but Einstein seemed to enjoy being back on duty.

Nora was in her studio, working diligently on a new painting: a portrait of Einstein. He was not aware that he was the subject of her latest canvas. The picture was to be one of his Christmas gifts and would, once opened on the holiday, be hung above the fireplace in the living room.

When Travis and Einstein came out of the barn, into the yard, he said, “Is it getting closer?”

Upon being asked that question, Einstein went through his usual routine, though with less exertion, less sniffing of the air, and less study of the shadowy forest around them. Returning to Travis, the dog whined anxiously.

“Is it out there?” Travis asked.

Einstein gave no answer. He merely surveyed the woods again-puzzled.

“Is it still coming?” Travis asked.

The dog did not reply.

“Is it nearer than it was?”

Einstein padded in a circle, sniffed the ground, sniffed the air, cocked his head one way and then the other. Finally he returned to the house and stood at the door, looking at Travis, waiting patiently.

Inside, Einstein went directly to the pantry.


Travis stared at the word on the floor. “Muzzy?”

Einstein dispensed more letters and nosed them into place.


“Are you talking about your ability to sense The Outsider?” A quick tail wag: Yes.

“You can't sense it any more?”

One bark: No.

“Do you think ... it's dead?”


“Or maybe this sixth sense of yours doesn't work when you're sick-or debilitated like you are now.”


Gathering up the lettered tiles and sorting them into the tubes, Travis thought for a minute. Bad thoughts. Unnerving thoughts. They had an alarm system around the property, yes, but to some extent they were depending on Einstein for an early warning. Travis should have felt comfortable with the precautions he had taken and with his own abilities, as a former Delta Force man, to exterminate The Outsider. But he was tormented by the feeling that he had overlooked a hole in their defenses and that, come the crisis, he would need Einstein's full powers and strength to help him deal with the unexpected.

“You're going to have to- get well as fast as you can,” he told the retriever. “You're going to have to try to eat even when you have no real appetite. You're going to have to sleep as much as you can, give your body a chance to knit up, and don't spend half the night at the windows, Worrying.”


Laughing, Travis said, “Might as well try that, too.”


“Where'd you get that idea?”


Travis said, “A shot of whiskey dropped into a glass of beer.”

Einstein considered that for a moment.


Travis laughed and ruffled Einstein's coat. “You're a regular comedian, fur face.”


“I bet you could.”


“You certainly would be.”


He hugged the dog, and they sat in the pantry laughing, each in his own way.

In spite of the joking, Travis knew that Einstein was deeply troubled by the loss of his ability to sense The Outsider. The jokes were a defensive mechanism, a way to hold off fear.

That afternoon, exhausted from their short walk around the house, Einstein slept while Nora painted feverishly in her studio. Travis sat by a front window, staring out at the woods, repeatedly going over their defenses in his mind, looking for a hole.

On Sunday, December 12, Jim Keene came out to their place in the afternoon and stayed for dinner. He examined Einstein and was pleased with the dog's improvement.

“Seems slow to us,” Nora said fretfully.

“I told you, it'll take time,” Jim said.

He made a couple of changes in Einstein's medication and left new bottles of pills.

Einstein had fun demonstrating his page-turning machine and his letter-dispensing device in the pantry. He graciously accepted praise for his ability to hold a pencil in his teeth and use it to operate the television and the videotape recorder without bothering Nora and Travis for help.

Nora was at first surprised that the veterinarian looked less sad-eyed and sorrowful than she remembered. But she decided his face was the same; the only thing that had changed was her perception of him. Now that she knew him better, now that he was a friend of the first rank, she saw not only the glum features nature had given him but the kindness and humor beneath his somber surface.

Over dinner, Jim said, “I've been doing a little research into tattooing- to see if maybe I can remove the numbers in his ear.”

Einstein had been lying on the floor nearby, listening to their conversation. He got to his feet, wobbled a moment, then hurried to the kitchen table and jumped into one of the empty chairs. He sat very erect and stared at Jim expectantly.

“Well,” the vet said, putting down a forkful of curried chicken that he'd lifted halfway to his mouth, “most but not all tattoos can be eradicated. If! know what sort of ink was used and by what method it was embedded under the skin, I might be able to erase it.”

“That would be terrific,” Nora said. “Then even if they found us and tried to take Einstein back, they couldn't prove he's the dog they lost.”

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