Breathless Page 1

Author: Dean Koontz

Genres: Horror , Thriller

PART ONE

Life and Death

One

A moment before the encounter, a strange expectancy overcame Grady Adams, a sense that he and Merlin were not alone.

In good weather and bad, Grady and the dog walked the woods and the meadows for two hours every day. In the wilderness, he was relieved of the need to think about anything other than the smells and sounds and textures of nature, the play of light and shadow, the way ahead, and the way home.

Generations of deer had made this path through the forest, toward a meadow of grass and fragrant clover.

Merlin led the way, seemingly indifferent to the spoor of the deer and the possibility of glimpsing the white flags of their tails ahead of him. He was a three-year-old, 160-pound Irish wolfhound, thirty-six inches tall, measured from his withers to the ground, his head higher on a muscular neck.

The dog’s rough coat was a mix of ash-gray and darker charcoal. In the evergreen shadows, he sometimes seemed to be a shadow, too, but one not tethered to its source.

As the path approached the edge of the woods, the sunshine beyond the trees suddenly looked peculiar. The light turned coppery, as if the world, bewitched, had revolved toward sunset hours ahead of schedule. With a sequined glimmer, afternoon sun shimmered down upon the meadow.

As Merlin passed between two pines, stepping onto open ground, a vague apprehension—a presentiment of pending contact—gripped Grady. He hesitated in the woodland gloom before following the dog.

In the open, the light was neither coppery nor glimmering, as it had appeared from among the trees. The pale-blue arch of sky and emerald arms of forest embraced the meadow.

No breeze stirred the golden grass, and the late-September day was as hushed as any vault deep in the earth.

Merlin stood motionless, head raised, alert, eyes fixed intently on something distant in the meadow. Wolfhounds were thought to have the keenest eyesight of all breeds of dogs.

The back of Grady’s neck still prickled. The perception lingered that something uncanny would occur. He wondered if this feeling arose from his own intuition or might be inspired by the dog’s tension.

Standing beside the immense hound, seeking what his companion saw, Grady studied the field, which gently descended southward to another vastness of forest. Nothing moved … until something did.

A white form, supple and swift. And then another.

The pair of animals appeared to be ascending the meadow less by intention than by the consequence of their play. They chased each other, tumbled, rolled, sprang up, and challenged each other again in a frolicsome spirit that could not be mistaken for fighting.

Where the grass stood tallest, they almost vanished, but often they were fully visible. Because they remained in motion, however, their precise nature was difficult to define.

Their fur was uniformly white. They weighed perhaps fifty or sixty pounds, as large as midsize dogs. But they were not dogs.

They appeared to be as limber and quick as cats. But they were not cats.

Although he’d lived in these mountains until he was seventeen, though he had returned four years previously, at the age of thirty-two, Grady had never before seen creatures like these.

Powerful body tense, Merlin watched the playful pair.

Having raised him from a pup, having spent the past three years with little company other than the dog, Grady knew him well enough to read his emotions and his state of mind. Merlin was intrigued but puzzled, and his puzzlement made him wary.

The unknown animals were large enough to be formidable predators if they had claws and sharp teeth. At this distance, Grady could not determine if they were carnivores, omnivores, or herbivores, though the last classification was the least likely.

Merlin seemed to be unafraid. Because of their great size, strength, and history as hunters, Irish wolfhounds were all but fearless. Although their disposition was peaceable and their nature affectionate, they had been known to stand off packs of wolves and to kill an attacking pit bull with one bite and a violent shake.

When the white-furred creatures were sixty or seventy feet away, they became aware of being watched. They halted, raised their heads.

The birdless sky, the shadowy woods, and the meadow remained under a spell of eerie silence. Grady had the peculiar notion that if he moved, his boots would press no sound from the ground under him, and that if he shouted, he would have no voice.

To get a better view of man and dog, one of the white creatures rose, sitting on its haunches in the manner of a squirrel.

Grady wished he had brought binoculars. As far as he could tell, the animal had no projecting muzzle; its black nose lay in nearly the same plane as its eyes. Distance foiled further analysis.

Abruptly the day exhaled. A breeze sighed in the trees behind Grady.

In the meadow, the risen creature dropped back onto all fours, and the pair raced away, seeming to glide more than sprint. Their sleek white forms soon vanished into the golden grass.

The dog looked up inquiringly. Grady said, “Let’s have a look.”

Where the mysterious animals had gamboled, the grass was bent and tramped. No bare earth meant no paw prints.

Merlin led his master along the trail until the meadow ended where the woods resumed.

A cloud shadow passed over them and seemed to be drawn into the forest as a draft draws smoke.

Gazing through the serried trees into the gloom, Grady felt watched. If the white-furred pair could climb, they might be in a high green bower, cloaked in pine boughs and not easily spotted.

Although he was a hunter by breed and blood, with a Sherlockian sense of smell that could follow the thinnest thread of unraveled scent, Merlin showed no interest in further pursuit.

They followed the tree line west, then northwest, along the curve of meadow, circling toward home as the quickening air whispered through the grass. They returned to the north woods.

Around them, the soft chorus of nature arose once more: birds in song, the drone of insects, the arthritic creak of heavy evergreen boughs troubled by their own weight.

Although the unnatural hush had relented, Grady remained disturbed by a sense of the uncanny. Every time he glanced back, no stalker was apparent, yet he felt that he and Merlin were not alone.

On a long rise, they came to a stream that slithered down well-worn shelves of rock. Where the trees parted, the sun revealed silver scales on the water, which was elsewhere dark and smooth.

With other sounds masked by the hiss and gurgle of the stream, Grady wanted more than ever to look back. He resisted the paranoid urge until his companion halted, turned, and stared downhill.

He did not have to crouch in order to rest one hand on the wolfhound’s back. Merlin’s body was tight with tension.

The big dog scanned the woods. His high-set ears tipped forward slightly. His nostrils flared and quivered.

Merlin held that posture for so long, Grady began to think the dog was not so much searching for anything as he was warning away a pursuer. Yet he did not growl.


When at last the wolfhound set off toward home once more, he moved faster than before, and Grady Adams matched the dog’s pace.

Two

Authorities raided the illegal puppy mill late Saturday afternoon. Saturday night, Rocky Mountain Gold, an all-volunteer golden-retriever rescue group, took custody of twenty-four breeder dogs that were filthy, malnourished, infested with ticks, crawling with fleas, and suffering an array of untreated infections.

Dr. Camillia Rivers was awakened by a call on her emergency line at 5:05 Sunday morning. Rebecca Cleary, president of Rocky Mountain Gold, asked how many of the twenty-four Cammy might treat in return for nothing but the wholesale cost of what drugs were used.

After looking at the nightstand photo of her golden, Tessa, who had died only six weeks earlier, Cammy said, “Bring ’em all.”

Her business partner and fellow vet, Donna Corbett, was in the middle of a one-week vacation. Their senior vet tech, Cory Hern, had gone to visit relatives in Denver for the weekend. When she called the junior tech, Ben Aikens, he agreed to donate his Sunday to the cause.

At 6:20 a.m., a Rocky Mountain Gold caravan of SUVs arrived at the modest Corbett Veterinary Clinic with twenty-four goldens in as desperate condition as any Cammy had ever seen. Every one was potentially a beautiful dog, but at the moment they looked like the harbingers of Armageddon.

Having endured their entire lives in cramped cages, not merely neglected but also abused, having been forced without vet care to bear litter after litter to the point of exhaustion, they were timid, trembling, vomiting in fear, frightened of everyone they encountered. In their experience, human beings were cruel or at best indifferent to them, and they expected to be struck.

Eight members of the rescue group assisted with bathing, shaving fur away from hot spots and other sores, clipping knots out of coats, deticking, and other tasks, all of which were complicated by the need continually to calm and reassure the dogs.

Cammy was unaware that the morning had passed until she checked her wristwatch at 2:17 in the afternoon. Having skipped breakfast, she took a fifteen-minute break and retreated to her apartment above the veterinary facility, to have a bite of lunch.

For a long time, Donna Corbett had run the practice with her husband, John, who was also a veterinarian. When John died of a heart attack four years earlier, Donna divided their large apartment into two units and sought a partner who would be as committed to animals as she was and as John had been, who was willing to live the work.

The Corbetts viewed veterinary medicine less as a profession than as a calling, which was why Cammy didn’t need to consult with her partner when agreeing to treat the puppy-mill dogs pro bono.

After quickly putting together a cheese sandwich, she opened a cold bottle of tea sweetened with peach nectar. She ate lunch while standing at her kitchen sink.

As she’d been working with the folks from Rocky Mountain Gold, two calls had come in, one regarding a sick cow. She referred the caller to Dr. Amos Renfrew, who was the best cow doc in the county.

The second inquiry came from Nash Franklin, regarding a horse at High Meadows Farm. Because the situation wasn’t urgent, Cammy would pay Nash a visit later in the afternoon.

She had nearly finished the cheese sandwich when Ben Aikens, her vet tech, rang her from downstairs. “Cammy, you’ve got to see this.”

“What’s wrong?”

“These dogs. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Be right there.” She shoved the last piece of the sandwich into her mouth and chewed it on the run.

Puppy-mill breeders were routinely so physically and emotionally traumatized by their abuse that the new experiences of freedom—open spaces; cars; steps, which they never before climbed or descended; strange noises; soap and water; even kind words and gentle touching—could induce a dangerous state of shock. Most often, the cause of shock was chronic dehydration or untreated infections, but there were times when Cammy could attribute it to nothing else but the impact of the new, of change.

If they could be cured of their diseases and conditions, the dogs would need months of socializing, but in time they would find their courage, regain the joyful spirit that defined a golden, and learn to trust, to love, to be loved.

Descending the exterior stairs from her apartment, she prayed that all these dogs might survive and thrive, that not one of them would be lost to infection or disease, or shock.

Cammy entered the clinic by the front door. She hurried through the small waiting room, along a hallway flanked by four examination cubicles, and through a swinging door into the large, tile-floored open space that included treatment stations and grooming facilities.

Awaiting her was a sight far different from the crisis she had anticipated. Every one of these brutalized dogs appeared to have shed its anxiety, to have suppressed already the memories of torment in favor of embracing a new life. Tails wagging, eyes bright, grinning that fabled golden grin, they submitted happily to belly rubs and ear scratches from the Rocky Mountain Gold volunteers. They nuzzled one another and explored the room, sniffing this and that, curious about things that a short while ago frightened them. None lay in cataplexic collapse or hid its face, or cowered, or trembled.

This unlikely sight had startled Cammy to a stop. Now, as she moved farther into the room, Ben Aikens hurried to her.

Ben, twenty-seven, had a perpetually sunny disposition, but even for him, his current mood seemed unusually buoyant. He was virtually shining with delight. “Isn’t it fantastic? You ever seen anything like it? Have you, Cammy?”

“No. Never. What happened here?”

“We don’t know. The dogs were like before, anxious, distressed, so pitiful. Then they—Well, they—They went still and quiet, all of them at once. They lifted their ears, all of them listening, and they heard something.”

“Heard what?”

“I don’t know. We didn’t hear it. They raised their heads. They all stood up. They stood so still, motionless, they heard something.”

“What were they looking at?”

“Nothing. Everything. I don’t know. But look at them now.”

Cammy reached the center of the room. The rescued animals were everywhere engaged in the spirited behavior of ordinary dogs.

When she knelt, two goldens came to her, tails wagging, seeking affection. Then another and another, and a fifth. Sores, scars, ear-flap hematomas, fly-bite dermatitis: None of that seemed to matter to the dogs anymore. This one was half blind from an untreated eye infection, that one limped from patellar dislocation, but they seemed happy, and they were uncomplaining. Ragged, tattered, gaunt, freed from a life of cruelty and abuse less than twenty-four hours earlier, they were suddenly and inexplicably socialized, neither afraid any longer nor timid.

Rebecca Cleary, head of the rescue group, knelt beside Cammy. “Pinch me. This has got to be a dream.”

“Ben says they all stood up at once, listening to something.”

“At least a minute. Listening, alert. We weren’t even there.”

“What do you mean?”

“Like they weren’t aware of us anymore. Almost … in a trance.”

Cammy held a retriever’s head in her cupped hands, rubbing its flews with her thumbs. The dog, so recently fearful and shy, accepted the face massage with pleasure, met her eyes, and did not look away.

“At first,” Rebecca said, “it was eerie …”

The animal’s eyes were as golden as its coat.

“… then they became aware of us again, and it was wonderful.”

The dog’s eyes were as bright as gems. Topaz. They seemed to have an inner light. Eyes of great beauty—clear, direct, and deep.

Three

The unpaved turnoff was where he expected to find it, two hundred yards past Milepost 76 on the state highway. He coasted almost to a stop, afraid that his hopes would not be fulfilled, but then he wheeled the Land Rover right, onto the one-lane road.

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