The crooked staircase, p.10
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       The Crooked Staircase, p.10

         Part #3 of Jane Hawk series by Dean Koontz
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  “Or maybe you’re some kind of prig,” Petra said, pausing to look Jane up and down. “Some tight-assed prude, you don’t do girls, don’t do boys, don’t even do yourself. Well, chickee, you better damn well drink, ’cause I won’t even talk to some self-righteous teetotaler let alone get naked with her. Or him. Or it.”

  She turned away from Jane and went to the fourth refrigerator. She opened the door and withdrew a tall chilled bottle of Belvedere.

  As the refrigerator door swung shut, Petra returned with the vodka and stopped near the island and cocked her head, regarding Jane with perplexity and disdain. “Girl, you’re fully bitchin’ top to bottom. A face for the movies, a goddess body and all. But here you are, no makeup, lifeless hair, dressed one step up from thrift-shop chic. Do you work just hours and hours every day, trying so hard to look ordinary? Are you so screwed up, you want to be homely? You must have some crazy damn story. I want to hear your story and all. Tell me your story.” With that she spoke to the house computer: “Anabel, lights out!”

  In the last luminous moment between the command and the response, Jane saw the girl swing the Belvedere, and in the instant that darkness fell through the kitchen, she heard the glass shatter against the granite top of the island. The broken rim of the thick-walled long-necked bottle would make a disfiguring, even deadly, weapon.

  29

  Here in the final hours of Friday, just one employee staffs the QuickMart. According to the clip-on badge attached to the pocket of his white shirt, his name is Tuong, and he tells them his last name is Phan, so he’s Vietnamese American, a neat well-barbered young man of perhaps twenty-two, soft-spoken, polite. Carter Jergen imagines that Tuong, like so many of his ethnicity, works hard at two jobs and intends one day to have a business of his own. Though he might just as likely be working his way through his sixth year in college, aiming for an MBA or an advanced degree in computer science.

  Whatever Tuong’s flaws may be, stupidity isn’t one of them. In spite of his humility, his keen intelligence is so obvious that it’s almost a visible aura. Nor does he have any animus toward authority, because people of his community generally go to college to acquire useful knowledge, not to learn how to man the barricades in a rage against whatever. When Tuong insists that he has no idea as to the location of the security-system video recorder, Jergen does not for a moment doubt him.

  Radley Dubose, however, would not trust the pope’s description of the weather if they stood together under a cloudless sky that the pontiff called sunny. Not for the first time, hulking on the public side of the cashier’s station, Dubose shakes his NSA credentials in Tuong’s face, as a painted-and-feathered shaman might shake a brace of dried snake heads at the superstitious members of his flock to scare them into submission. He warns of the dire consequences of refusing to cooperate with federal agents in urgent pursuit of a terrorist.

  In fact, the cables from all the security cameras, inside and outside the convenience store, are buried in the walls. Dubose himself is unable to follow them to the recorder.

  He bullies the clerk. “It’ll be in a back room, in the office or storeroom or something. It’ll be as obvious as a cockroach on a wedding cake.”

  “We don’t sell wedding cakes,” says Tuong.

  As if Dubose doesn’t grasp that the American-born clerk’s first language is English, which maybe he does not, his response is thick with frustration and contempt. “Of course you don’t sell wedding cakes. It’s a freakin’ convenience store. I’m talking metaphor.”

  “Or was it simile?” Tuong wonders.

  “Was it what?”

  “Anyway,” Tuong says, “we don’t have cockroaches. We receive only praise from the health inspector.”

  Entertained by this confrontation, Jergen plucks a candy bar from a counter display, peels back the wrapper, and takes a bite with a pleasure akin to that of sitting stage-side in a fine dinner theater.

  “This isn’t about cockroaches, it’s about—”

  Daring to interrupt the big man, apparently having as much fun as Jergen, Tuong says earnestly, “It’s about not having cockroaches. We are very proud of our cleanliness.”

  Dubose’s fists are like two five-pound hams at the ends of his arms. “I’m going back there and look for the recorder. Understand me?” Before the clerk can respond, Dubose says, “You have a gun under the counter?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Do you know how to use it?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Do you know how to leave it right the hell where it is?”

  “At all times,” Tuong says, “that’s what I prefer.”

  “Let me tell you, boy, if you ever pull a gun on a federal agent, you’ll be in a shitstorm.”

  “I will let you tell me.”

  “Tell you what?”

  “About the shitstorm.”

  Dubose looks as if he will tear out Tuong’s lungs through his esophagus. “Time’s wasting. I don’t speak stupid, and I can’t wait around for a translator. I’m coming back there.”

  Tuong Phan watches deadpan as Dubose steps to the end of the service counter, opens a gate, and goes through a door to a hall that serves whatever rooms lay beyond the clerk’s domain.

  He looks at Carter Jergen. “I’ll call Mr. Zabotin and ask him where the recorder is.”

  “Who’s Zabotin?” Jergen wonders.

  “Ivan Zabotin owns this QuickMart franchise and three others.”

  “Give him my congratulations on keeping this place cockroach-free,” Jergen says and takes another bite of the candy bar.

  Tuong Phan smiles and picks up the phone.

  30

  Faux frost of moonlight crystalizing on the window glass, green numbers softly glowing on the oven clocks like some enigmatic code by which the immediate future might be read…

  Otherwise, this seemed to be the ultimate darkness, the outer dark of souls in oblivion, the air scented with spirits, shards of glass splintering under Petra’s shoes with a sound like grinding-gnashing teeth. Thin cries issued from her each time she slashed savagely, blindly with the broken vodka bottle, counting on her familiarity with the kitchen layout to give her the advantage until, by some stroke of benighted luck, she might find a face and gouge it and permanently blind her adversary.

  In the first instant of darkness, Jane had chosen not to fire her pistol. Even at close range, she was less likely to hit than miss, while the muzzle flare would reveal her precise location. Besides, she didn’t want to kill this drunk and disturbed party girl unless she had no other choice.

  Instead, she backed off and shouted to the house-control system that had so readily obeyed Petra—“Anabel, lights on!”—though to no effect. Quickly, by touch, she found the second large granite-topped island and sprang onto it, out of the pathways that the other woman knew so well. Three feet above the floor, at the approximate middle of the seven-foot-long, five-foot-wide slab, Jane poised on one knee, as if genuflecting, left hand flat on the polished stone to provide a sense of stability in the disorienting blackness. With the Heckler in her right hand, she strained to listen as someone sightless might listen to the nuances of sound that escaped the notice of the sighted.

  In the cloud of astringent vodka fumes, Petra Quist cast aside any remaining prudence and forethought. Her anger escalated to an animal frenzy. She struck out even more wildly, grunting and cursing and flinging at Jane every obscene name in the vile lexicon shared by the worst woman-hating men. The thick, weaponized bottle clinked, clanked, clinked as it rapped off one thing or another, and then cracked harder against granite, spalling off chips that spilled across the polished stone with a faint, brief burst of fairy music.

  When Jane sensed that her stalker had passed by, she pivoted toward the ranting voice. Having recalled the precise wording with which Petra had first commanded the house, she rose to her feet as she sai
d, “Anabel, follow me with light,” and a bright downwash cast away all shadows.

  At a corner of the island, Petra glanced up in surprise, her face distorted by rage. She remained beautiful, although this was far different from the comeliness that had turned heads during an evening of club-hopping. This was instead a terrible and fearsome beauty, as Medusa might have looked under her serpent tresses just as, by her stare alone, she excited a man into stone.

  Jane kicked, and the party girl cried out when her right forearm took the blow. The broken bottle flipped out of her grasp, its glass teeth glittering as it arced onto a gas cooktop, where it fragmented and rattled down into the cast-iron drip pans.

  The would-be slasher collapsed onto her back, rolled over, and scrambled up even as Jane came off the island and slammed into her, driving her backward into one of the refrigerators. Petra didn’t know how to fight, but she knew how to resist furiously: twisting, as torsional as an eel; clawing violently if ineffectively, her nail-shop acrylics snagging and snapping off; thrusting her head forward, trying to bite Jane’s face.

  A knee driven into Petra’s crotch didn’t half paralyze her as it would have a man, but a blow to the pelvis bruised her vulva and sent such a shock through her body core that she shuddered and briefly lost the ability to resist. Jane upswept a forearm under that perfectly molded chin, the full brute force of her shoulder hard behind it. Petra’s eyes rolled to white like those of a doll, and the back of her head rapped the refrigerator door, whereupon Jane stepped back just enough to allow the woman to slide down the stainless steel and sit on the floor, chin on her ample breasts, unconscious.

  31

  Perhaps the presence of Radley Dubose standing at the front counter in QuickMart does not discourage incoming customers as much as would a blood-smeared clown with a chain saw, but Carter Jergen suspects that the number of those who suddenly decide to shop elsewhere is only slightly fewer than would have been put off by a psychotic circus performer. Radley is big; he appears arrogant and angry; and although he doesn’t telepathically transmit the words National Security Agency, anyone with a minimum of street smarts realizes that he possesses the legal authority to kick ass and a desire to do so as often as possible.

  Ivan Zabotin, owner of the franchise, prefers not to have Tuong Phan, the clerk, deal with people as important as federal agents. He takes twenty minutes to get from his home to the market, however, and though he is apologetic, his expressed regrets only further incense Dubose.

  Zabotin is a small man with a large head and delicate hands, which makes him seem strangely like a bearded child. Speaking clear but accented English, having emigrated from Russia, where his parents must have been oppressed by the Communists and where he apparently came of age in the marginally less dangerous society that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, he obviously fears and distrusts government. As he asks to see their credentials, studies that ID, and then escorts them toward the office at the back of the building, he smiles nervously and nods and is deferential without being so meek that his respect might seem to have an underlying note of mockery.

  “Over there in Mother Russia, you were what?” Dubose asks. “Some kind of oligarch?”

  “ ‘Oligarch’?” the startled Zabotin echoes. “No, no, no. No, sir. My people, our living blood was sucked out by the oligarchs.”

  “You own a lot of franchises,” Dubose says. “So how does that happen if you didn’t arrive in America on a three-hundred-foot yacht with a billion dollars in dirty cash?”

  Zabotin’s legs seem to go weak, and he pauses at the door to the office. “My wife and I arrived with less than little. Worked hard, saved, invested. A QuickMart franchise is not a billion.”

  “You have four of them,” Dubose says in the grave accusatory tone of a Star Chamber judge, as if the well-known cost of such a franchise is a quarter of a billion.

  Zabotin turns to Jergen, seeking relief from this unreason, but Jergen meets the stare without expression. Because neither he nor Dubose can convincingly fake sympathy, they never play good cop, bad cop. The best that Zabotin will get is indifferent cop, bad cop.

  Anxious to hurry them out of his establishment, Zabotin sits at a laminate-topped office desk and boots up the computer, explaining that the security-system recorder is shelved in the walk-in safe, but the video from any of the six cameras can be accessed from here and played back on this monitor.

  Jergen specifies the three exterior cameras mounted above the front entrance to the store and gives Zabotin the precise time at which the Shukla twins, on foot, turned the corner from the main boulevard earlier in the evening.

  On the desk stand framed photos of the owner and a woman who is most likely his wife, as well as others of their daughter, two sons, and the family dog. Among the photos are also a cast-plastic model of the Statue of Liberty and a brass holder with a six-by-four-inch starched-fabric flag that is always at full fly.

  While the proprietor seeks the requested video and Jergen stands at his side to watch, Radley Dubose, brow furrowed, picks up the framed photographs one at a time. He intently studies the faces of the wife and children, as if committing them to memory.

  Zabotin is acutely aware of Dubose’s interest in his family. His attention flickers between the screen and the big hands that seem almost to fondle the photographs.

  Before Dubose puts down the photo of Zabotin and his wife, he licks the thumb of his right hand and carefully smears it across the glass over her face, as if to clear away a smudge and have a better look at her. But then, one by one, he returns to the pictures of the daughter and those of the two sons, all of them seemingly under the age of eleven or twelve, and he repeats this unsettling act in a ritualistic manner, licking the thumb and wiping it over each face, as if by an unspoken bewitchment he is marking not merely their images but they themselves, asserting some occult power over them.

  Dubose’s behavior so disturbs Ivan Zabotin that his fingers fumble on the keyboard, and he must correct his errors en route to summoning the needed video.

  Although Jergen finds his partner cartoonish, he is also never less than intrigued by the man. Sometimes Dubose might be Yosemite Sam, but at other times he more resembles a character from one of those edgy comic books like Tales from the Crypt.

  And here, on the screen, out of the west and out of the recent past, come the fugitive brother and sister, approaching hand in hand along the sidewalk, both of them looking this way and that, as if expecting to be assaulted from one quarter or another, as indeed they ought to expect.

  When they pass beyond view, Zabotin finds them in the video archives of the second camera, which covers the parking lot and the street beyond it, then locates them once more in the east-facing-camera. They walk away into the dripping night, pause at the nearby corner to wait for the pedestrian-control signal to flash from DON’T WALK to WALK, and then continue east across the intersection. On that southeast corner, they stop for a moment, perhaps surveying the way ahead, considering their options.

  Judging by the absence of business signs and a convocation of shadows in that next block, the commercial area gives way to some kind of mixed-use zone.

  The twins enter a crosswalk again, proceeding to the northeast corner of the four-way intersection, where they continue directly east, past what appear to be two stately old houses.

  Although Zabotin has sprung for high-definition cameras, they are intended only for short-range surveillance. As the Shukla twins venture farther from the QuickMart, they seem to deliquesce as if they were never of real substance, but only a pair of rain spirits now dissolving in the aftermath of the storm. The many reflective wet surfaces of the newly washed scene, flaring and scintillant in the rush of vehicle headlights, conspire with the shadows, which swell and shrink and shiver in the same sweeping beams, transforming the fugitives from flesh into fading mirage.

  In the last moment of visibi
lity, the twins appear to turn left, off the sidewalk, moving toward a puzzling geometry of colored lights that are not a business sign.

  “Scan backward and play those few seconds again,” Carter Jergen says. Zabotin does as told, and Jergen reviews that brief piece of video not once but four times before, at his direction, the Russian émigré freezes the image at the penultimate moment. Jergen taps the screen with a forefinger. “These look like car shapes. But what are those weird lights beyond them?”

  “Stained glass,” Zabotin says. “Church windows.”

  “What church?”

  “Mission of Light.”

  Jergen looks at Radley Dubose, and the big man says, “Why would they go to ground in a church?”

  “People in trouble have taken sanctuary in churches as long as there’ve been churches.”

  Dubose shakes his head. “Not anybody I know.”

  Eager to be done with this, Ivan Zabotin swivels in his chair to face Jergen. “Sir, Mr. Agent Jergen, what else, what anything, can I do for you?”

  “You’ve been very helpful, Mr. Zabotin. All you need to do now is forget we were ever here. This is a matter of national security. Were you to discuss our visit with anyone, even with your wife, you could be charged with a felony.” That is bullshit, but Zabotin pales. “A felony punishable by up to thirty years in prison.”

  “Thirty-five,” Dubose amends.

  “Nothing happened here, nothing to tell anyone,” Zabotin assures them, his brow now stippled with tiny beads of perspiration.

  Jergen and Dubose leave the QuickMart mogul at his desk and return to the front of the store.

  At the cash register, Tuong Phan reminds Jergen, “You owe for that candy bar you ate.”

  “I didn’t like it,” Jergen replies, and he takes another of the same from the counter display. “It tasted like shit.”

 
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