The crooked staircase, p.13
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       The Crooked Staircase, p.13

         Part #3 of Jane Hawk series by Dean Koontz
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  “Have you asked him why?”

  “He doesn’t know why. He says it doesn’t matter, it’s nothing. But it’s something to me.”

  Leaning forward, touching the girl’s hand again, Jane said, “Sometimes they hurt us most when they don’t know they’re hurting us at all. In fact, that’s why it hurts—because they don’t even know us well enough to understand.”

  “That’s some true shit. How can he be in my arms—in me—and call me, you know, a machine name?”

  “Do you know, with the program he has,” Jane explained, “each homeowner can customize the service name of the house computer?”

  The party girl’s blue eyes were clear, her stare direct, but she was still peering at the world from the bottom of a martini glass. A frown of puzzlement. “What’s that mean or matter?”

  “He could name it anything from Abby to Zoe. So he named it after some woman he knows.”

  Whatever might happen here in the next few hours, Petra must realize that she had no future with Simon, and yet she reacted in a proprietary manner. “What damn woman? Why didn’t he tell me about the bitch?”

  “If I were you, I’d ask him. Hell, I’d make him tell me. But, listen, sweetie, maybe this is important. Exactly when does he call you Anabel?”

  “I told you, like only sometimes in the sack.”

  “When he climaxes?”

  “No. Well, I’m not sure, but I don’t think ever then.” Her gaze turned to the zip-tie that secured her left hand to the chair. “When he slaps me, clamps a hand around my throat, when he’s rough…”

  Her voice feathered away into silence, and it seemed as if her mind had taken wing through a dark woods of memory.

  In time, Petra said, “Yeah, when he calls me Anabel, there’s always this anger. It’s a little scary, but it’s not me he’s angry with. I always thought he was angry with himself. For not, you know, being able. Mostly he’s super ready, though sometimes not. But I’m hearing him now, how he sounds, and maybe it’s not all anger, maybe mostly hatred. So bitter how he says her name, and then he’s rough with me, and if he’s rough enough, then he’s ready and able.”

  “Able to get an erection,” Jane clarified.

  “Poor Simon,” said Petra with seeming sympathy. “How awful for him when he’s got trouble with it.”


  In the wake of some nameless catastrophe that had extinguished the lights of the city and its surrounding settlements, fires leaped in man-made craters, and undulatory ashes rose on hot currents into a night watched over by a sinister smiling moon, but mostly there was darkness and smoke and a greasy odor not to be contemplated. Bier carriers bore the deceased upon their weary shoulders and Brahmans officiated in the otherworldly light, as sweating cremators in loincloths stoked the flames. Here in the shamshan ghat, where dead bodies were burned, uncountable mourners roamed less than half-seen, to whom Tanuja must be as shadowy as they were to her, cries of grief issuing from their shadow mouths. She was in Mumbai again, not as a child, but as a woman, yet somehow it was the night her parents had perished in the plane crash. And though the plane had gone down far from India, she knew they were inexplicably here, among these victims of this unnamed cataclysm. Although they must be dead, Tanuja grew ever more desperate to find dear Baap and Mai, for it was urgent that, in death, they reach out to Sanjay, as she at the moment could not, reach out and warn him that he was in great peril.

  Waking from the dream, she needed a moment to realize she was lying on the restroom floor. She smelled hot candle wax and orange-scented soap.

  The man who had Tasered her stepped into view and stood over her and reached down, offering assistance. She didn’t want to touch him, but when she shied from his hand, he seized her by the wrist and yanked her into a sitting position.

  “Get off your ass,” he said, “or I’ll drag you out of here by your hair.”

  She found her strength, rose, swayed, regained her equilibrium, and put one hand to her neck to learn the nature of something that constricted her. A collar. Her attacker pulled on a lead, and the collar tightened. While she had lain unconscious, he’d put her on a leash, as if she were a dog.

  After seven years during which she and her brother had been ensnared by their aunt and uncle, the devious Chatterjees, freedom was no less essential than air to Tanuja Shukla. She prided herself on being a woman who coped with any situation, who was not easily alarmed. But a fright akin to panic now seized her. Heart knocking as though she’d run miles, she fumbled for the clasp on the collar but could not release it.

  “Leave the candle,” her captor said. “Don’t think you can throw it in my face. We’re going to the kitchen. You know the way.”

  As they approached the open door to the hallway, she shouted a warning to Sanjay, and her keeper slapped her hard upside the head. She cried out again—“Sanjay, run! Run!”—and the man whipped the end of the leash across her face.

  “Don’t be stupid,” he said. “It’s too late.”

  Stepping out of the restroom, Tanuja hoped desperately he’d not meant that her beloved brother had been captured, but instead that Sanjay had already escaped, that it was too late for them to get their filthy hands on him.

  With the lavatory behind them, darkness shrouded the first hallway, which seemed like a passage to jahannan, where demons bred and all hope must be shed. She knew they entered the intersection of the two halls when to the left she saw a doorway defined by a faint aura of wick light: the kitchen.

  When she crossed that threshold, her keeper at her back, she saw this was indeed jahannan, and she wept silently at the sight of Sanjay sitting at the table in defeat. His shirt was torn, his hair disarranged, as if he’d struggled against the hulking man who stood beside his chair. In the glow of the two remaining candles, Tanuja could see the collar around his neck, the leash drawn taut down the back of his chair and tied securely to the stretcher bar between the two back legs.


  “I’m sorry about this, but it’s necessary,” Jane said as from her tote bag she withdrew a prepared ball of gauze and a roll of duct tape. “Although I don’t think Simon could hear you from the foyer upstairs, I can’t risk you calling out a warning. Once I’ve got him in the theater, I’ll come back and strip off the tape, take out the gag, so you’ll be more comfortable.”

  “You can trust me,” Petra said. “I get it now—my situation.”

  “That sure was quick, huh? ‘I was blind, but now I see.’ ”

  “I’m not scamming you. I really get it. The only way out for me is your way.”

  “I believe you do get it, kid. But you’ve got Simon under your skin.”

  “No. That’s over.”

  “He hits you, chokes you, gets rough with you in I don’t know what other ways, but when you’re sitting here alone, without me to focus you on that one way out, you’ll slip loose from your common sense and drift back toward him.”

  The girl was sufficiently self-aware not to argue. She said only, “Maybe not.”

  “ ‘Maybe’ isn’t good enough.”

  As though a hangover now pincered its way through her skull hours ahead of schedule, the girl’s face paled under its light coat of foundation and powder blush. She had lip-printed the most recent martini glasses with much of her Maybelline; and the natural pink of her mouth now grayed a little as if with the memory of her night on the town, of all that she had drunk and said and done.

  “Later,” Jane promised, “when I’ve opened his safe and put his money in front of you, I’ll let you have a look at him and decide whether you want him…or the cash and a new start. I can try to trust you then. Because when I’ve finished with him, I think you’ll rather have the money.”

  “What are you going to do to him?”

  “That depends on Simon. Whether it’s a cakewalk or a firewalk is up to him. Now let me put
this gauze in your mouth. If you try to bite me, I’ll slap you harder than Simon does, and I’ll damn sure leave a mark or three.”

  Petra opened her mouth, but then turned her head aside. “Wait. I have to go potty. I need to pee.”

  “There’s no time for that. You’ll have to hold it.”

  “How long?”

  “Until you can’t anymore.”

  “That is so wrong.”

  “It is. It’s wrong,” Jane agreed. “But with Simon arriving soon, that’s the way it has to be.”

  “You’re a total bitch.”

  “You’ve said as much several times before, and I haven’t once disagreed—have I? Now open your mouth.”

  Petra took the gauze gag without trying to bite.

  Jane patched the girl’s mouth shut with a rectangle of duct tape and then wound a longer strip twice around her head to secure the first.


  The creep who collared Tanuja was no prize, but he didn’t scare her as much as did his partner. The bigger man stood maybe six feet five and weighed about 230 pounds, but it wasn’t just his formidable size that disturbed her. His cold stare impaled her with his contempt. He was graceful for such a giant, but his every move was oiled with arrogance, as if during all the years since he had been born into the world, he’d never seen one smallest reason to doubt he was superior to everything and everyone in it. He radiated a potential for sudden violence no less than did a tiger with its ears pricked and nostrils flared and fangs bared as it watched a lame gazelle.

  The dishes, champagne glasses, and ampules having been cleared from the table, they were replaced now with rubber tubing to be used as a tourniquet and foil-wrapped antiseptic wipes with which to sterilize the point of injection.

  Tanuja sat catercorner to Sanjay, as she had when they’d been eating, now bound neck to stretcher bar as he was. Her dear chotti bhai said he was sorry, as though by some mistake solely his, he’d brought these two down on them.

  The giant advised them to be quiet if they didn’t want to have their tongues cut out, and although the threat was over the top, no feverish imagination was required to envision him fulfilling it with the deft use of a scalpel.

  The smaller man, blond with blue eyes, had a prep-school air, though he appeared to be in his thirties. Now he placed on the table an insulated cooler identical to the one that Linc Crossley’s buddy with caterpillar eyebrows had brought to their house earlier in the night. After slipping his hands into a pair of cotton gloves, the preppy took from the cooler two hypodermic syringes, a few plastic-wrapped objects that Tanuja could not identify, and then a nine-inch-square stainless-steel box that was maybe eight inches deep. When he opened the lid of the box, dry ice exhaled a frosty breath that winnowed away in the warm air and candlelight.

  Tanuja felt as if she were dreaming a nightmare that she had dreamed before.

  From the steel box, the preppy withdrew six insulated sleeves with Velcro closures. He shut the box and stripped off the gloves.

  Sanjay tried to pull away when the big man began to tie the tourniquet around his right arm, but resistance only earned him a blow to the face with the heel of the giant’s hand, which snapped Sanjay’s head back and stunned him as might have any other man’s point-blank punch with a tightly closed fist.

  Tanuja saw a thread of blood issue from one of her brother’s nostrils. She tried to get up, but the leash secured her to the chair so that she couldn’t stand.

  The preppy turned on the kitchen lights so that his partner might better see the target blood vessel in Sanjay’s arm.

  With the efficiency of a trained phlebotomist, the big man used the hypodermic needle to insert a cannula in the vein, then set the needle aside. He punctured the seal on the first of the cold ampules and fitted it to the valve on the cannula. He held the ampule in an elevated position and opened the valve to whatever setting might be required. By intravenous infusion, the cloudy amber fluid began to move from the glass ampule into Sanjay’s bloodstream, its nature unknown, its purpose unfathomed.

  Tanuja urgently wanted to know what, to understand why, but there was no point in asking, for these men would not tell her, and there was nothing to be gained by screaming because no one would hear her in time, nor any way to resist that would long forestall whatever fate filled those ampules. She felt ten years old again, in fresh receipt of the news of their parents’ long fall from the sky, in the shadow of her smiling aunt Ashima Chatterjee, for whom a sister’s untimely death was less a grievous loss than a golden opportunity. As a child, she had found the world mysterious and forbidding, wound through with more darkness than light, had perceived threats coiled everywhere from the attic to the space under her bed, from an open woods at noon to the front yard at night. Sanjay, too, had early on been of a noirish sensibility, and yet it was because of him that Tanuja had over time been able to put her countless fears behind her, to reconceive the world as a place of wonder brimming with magical possibilities, to have such conviction in that revised conception that her career as a writer flowered from it. By his kindness, by his caring, by his patient and wise instruction, her little brother, with two minutes less experience of this life, had been her therapist, her spiritual guide, teaching her the truth and power of free will to make of this world more than it seemed to be, more even than it was, and thereby purge the darkness of all threat and find in it as much magic as in the light. Only a year or so ago, she had realized that Sanjay’s noirish point of view had remained, primarily, the way he perceived this life; though he believed in free will and was never in a mood as dark as any in his writing, he didn’t see a world with wonder brimming and magical possibilities, as he had so passionately, persistently encouraged her to see it. In a family with too much stoicism, with too little love expressed—and, following the plane’s fall into the sea, with no love at all—Sanjay openly adored his sister; he was troubled that so much frightened her and so little enchanted. One day he resolved to banish her fears and see her grow in happiness. He had pretended that the vision of a wondrous world, full of miracles and marvels, was his to share, and he had championed it with such enthusiasm that his pretense had become her truth, her unshakable conviction. She and Sanjay had been conceived in the same moment, had come into the world together, and she could not imagine her life unspooling past the moment when her chotti bhai no longer breathed. As she watched the third ampule drain through the cannula into her brother’s arm, Tanuja welcomed the infusion of the remaining three into herself, for regardless of what might now have been done to Sanjay, she must follow him into the unknown and, if given the chance, be for him what he had always been for her.

  The hateful rakshasa finished the first phase of his demonic task by removing the cannula from Sanjay’s arm. He didn’t bother to press a Band-Aid over the needle puncture, but allowed a button of blood to form in the crook of the elbow and a scarlet thread to slowly unravel from it, like a misplaced stigmata.

  Tanuja didn’t resist—nor did she allow them the satisfaction of seeing her fear—as the preppy applied the tourniquet to her right arm. He palpated the visible veins to find the most generous one and swabbed the skin with the sterilizing pad.

  The big man came around the table, carrying another cannula, the second hypodermic, and three large ampules.


  At twenty-three minutes past midnight, headlights swept off the street and arced onto the circular driveway, followed by a gleaming black Cadillac limousine with heavily tinted windows. The long car motored to the portico with surprisingly little engine noise, as menacing as it was elegant. The quiet limo seemed even somewhat eerie at this hour and in these circumstances, as if skull-faced Death had traded in his classic horse-drawn carriage for a modern conveyance and would step out with a silver scythe, wearing not a hooded cloak but a Tom Ford suit.

  Standing back from the foyer window, Jane Hawk watched as the chauffeur opened
a starboard door and Simon Yegg appeared. He was attired not in a suit but in red-and-white sneakers, tan chinos, a brightly striped rugby shirt, an unzipped leather jacket, and a pink baseball cap with a large number three on it: a forty-six-year-old white guy who thought he could pull off the look of a cool black rapper half his age.

  The limo glided away as Simon unlocked the deadbolt. The alarm sounded as he stepped into the house.

  Jane stood on the hinge side of the door, concealed from him.

  “Anabel, disarm security. Five, six, five, one, star.” The alarm fell silent, and Anabel informed him that it was disarmed, whereupon he said, “Anabel, follow me with light.”

  As the chandelier brightened, Simon Yegg closed the door and saw Jane holding the six-ounce plastic bottle at arm’s length. She sprayed his nose and mouth with chloroform, and he dropped with a swish of clothing, like a basketball through a net, although when he hit the floor, he had no bounce in him.

  She hadn’t been able to use chloroform with the girl because she’d needed to interrogate her in a timely manner. She had hours to devote to Yegg if she needed them.

  Chloroform was highly volatile. To be sure that he remained unconscious, she put a double thickness of paper towels over his face, trapping the fumes. He wasn’t having a breathing problem.

  At the security-system keypad, Jane set the alarm in the HOME mode. She returned to the front door, engaged the Schlage deadbolt, and peered out the window. The limousine was long gone. In the pale penumbra of a streetlamp, a slinking coyote turned its luminous yellow eyes toward the house, as if it sensed her watching.

  Muscular, five feet ten, weighing about 180 pounds, Simon posed a greater logistics problem than had Petra Quist. There were always ways to accomplish such tricky tasks, however, and in this case, the problem himself had thoughtfully provided her with the solution. From the garage, she had earlier brought up the mechanic’s sled. She rolled it to his side and locked the wheels.

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