The crooked staircase, p.17
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       The Crooked Staircase, p.17

         Part #3 of Jane Hawk series by Dean Koontz
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  He doesn’t know who chose these new key words. The sentence is from Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Jack Finney, a 1955 novel, twice filmed well, about an alien life form that perfectly mimics specific people, takes their place, and disposes of them. The analogy is not as apt as is the reference to the Condon novel, but not every Arcadian is as keen of wit as the late Dr. Shenneck.

  Sanjay responds a fraction of a second before Tanuja, but both say, “Yes, all right,” which is the correct programmed response.

  The brain implant has self-assembled, and the twins now possess only the illusion of free will.

  “Lovely,” says Jergen, pleased that after the long pursuit and so much inconvenience, the conversion of the Shuklas into adjusted people has ended well.

  Brother and sister appear to be as alert as ever, but they are in a kind of trance, where they will remain until Jergen or Dubose releases them with the words Auf Wiedersehen, which in German mean “until we meet again.”

  Jergen says, “You must do precisely as you’re told. Do you understand?”

  The twins reply—“Yes”—in unison.

  Dubose releases them from their collars and leashes.

  As instructed by Carter Jergen, the Shuklas wash the dishes and glassware they used for their dinner and put everything away. They neither speak to each other nor exchange a glance, as efficient as two ants operating according to genetically prescribed roles.

  “We’re going to drive you home now,” Jergen tells them.

  “All right,” they reply.

  One of the candles gutters out. Jergen extinguishes the other two, and the Shuklas carry the warm glasses out of the building, so that nothing too unusual will be found in the morning, thus focusing the attention of the police largely on the rectory, where Reverend Gordon M. Gordon’s material body lies in the absence of his soul.

  52

  Dressed more demurely in jeans and a sweater, Petra Quist was once more graceful, her brief regression to childlike awkwardness behind her.

  She wheeled the Rimowa bag with her right hand and carried the attaché case in her left, preceding Jane into the garage and to the Cadillac Escalade, the least attention-getting vehicle in Simon’s collection. She loaded the suitcase through the tailgate but put the money on the front passenger seat.

  “Use the Cadillac only for a few hours,” Jane advised, “until you’re where you can rent a car. You should be safe then. I’ll make sure Simon doesn’t even think about looking for you. His brother and the people the brother’s involved with—they don’t have a reason to be interested in Simon’s ex-girlfriend. They’re no threat to you.”

  Petra regarded Jane for a long moment, her expression that of someone puzzling over the meaning of a line spoken in a foreign language. “I tried to slash you with a broken bottle.”

  “You were drunk.”

  “But I would have…”

  “I more than paid you back. How’s your jaw?”

  Petra touched the bruise with her fingertips. “Not too bad. But the thing is, like, I don’t know how to say thank you.”

  Jane smiled. “Yes, you do. Don’t backslide. Find a new way. Be truly happy. If I were you, I’d stay away from the glamorous places, the glamorous businesses you’ve been in. That’s not life. It’s only an imitation of life. Find a place that’s real, some town that looks like it came out of a fifties sitcom, with people who might even be who they seem to be.”

  “Never before in my whole life did anyone do something for me without wanting something bigger in return.”

  As Petra walked around to the driver’s door and opened it, Jane followed. “You don’t mean never in your life.”

  “I do, I mean it, and it’s true.”

  Hearing a trace of melancholy in the girl’s voice, Jane found it necessary to say, “None of my business, but do you know…when it all started going bad for you?”

  “Oh, yeah. Yeah. I know the year. I know the day, the hour. A long, long time ago.”

  “Maybe it’s good that you know. If it was a mystery, if it was forgotten…well, you can’t exorcise a demon if you don’t know its name.”

  “And even then, maybe you can’t exorcise it.”

  “Maybe you can’t. But you don’t know till you try.”

  Petra nodded. She started to speak, stopped herself. Then in a voice thick with emotion that she was clearly intent on repressing, she said, “Nice shoes.”

  “They’re nothing special. Just Rockport walkers.”

  “Yeah, I know. But they’re tough, they last, they do the job.”

  Jane said, “All you can ask of a shoe.”

  Looking up from the Rockports, Petra said, “I’ll never forget this. This, right now.”

  “Neither will I,” Jane said.

  Petra got in the Escalade and closed the door and started the engine. Using a remote control, she raised the segmented roll-up.

  With the engine noise racketing off the low concrete ceiling and the walls, Jane watched the Cadillac cruise out into the night.

  53

  In a trance state, the twins are told by Radley Dubose to sleep until they are awakened by their names. They sit in the backseat of the Range Rover, in their safety harnesses, eyes closed. Her head is tipped slightly to the right. His chin rests on his chest. Although they must be exhausted after such a long and stressful night, theirs is a most unnatural sleep, commanded upon them, and perhaps their dreams, if any, are of a kind that no one but adjusted people can experience.

  Jergen drives east, out of the more populated cities of west county, toward the rural hills and canyons in the east, taking the Shuklas home.

  Their Hyundai Santa Fe Sport, which they had abandoned at the burned-out ruins of Honeydale Stables, had earlier been returned to the garage at their house. A crew had removed every trace of the events in their kitchen, including the liberal splashes of hornet-killing insecticide that the girl had used to free her brother from Lincoln Crossley and the others.

  Soon the twins will begin the final chapter of their lives, a murderous frenzy that will make big news and imprint their names on the public mind as the names of monsters. Tanuja’s recent novel, which is not a bestseller yet but has generated buzz and has the potential—according to the Hamlet-list program—to shape an entire generation’s moral perspective, will be forever anathema, despised and unread.

  Jergen glances at Dubose. “You mind telling me something?”

  “She was good. Lubricious, you would say at Harvard.”

  “I assumed she was good.”

  “So why ask?”

  “Why not wait for her control mechanism to be operative?”

  “Spare me the phony New England gentility.”

  “I don’t know what you mean.”

  “Son of a Boston Brahmin, so refined that he’s mystified by the crude behavior of the backwoods boy.”

  “Once she was adjusted, she would’ve obeyed your every command. You could have avoided the struggle.”

  Dubose turns and tilts his bearish head and regards Jergen from under a ledge of brow, his expression so rich with sarcasm that no words are necessary to convey his meaning.

  “So I guess I’m to infer,” says Jergen, “that the struggle made it better for you.”

  “There you go.”

  “Well, I don’t know.”

  “You never had it that way? Don’t bullshit me.”

  “Never,” says Jergen. “I like things easy.”

  “But the way she is now, it’d be like doing it with a robot.”

  “A very attractive robot.”

  “Then when we get them back to their place, go for it.”

  “No offense, Radley, but not just after you’ve been in there.”

  This elicits from Dubose a rare laugh, low and sour. “Isn’t it a little weir
d to be so fastidious after everything we did tonight?”

  “Well, just the same, I’ll pass. Anyway, we only did our job.”

  Dubose says, “Making the world a better place.”

  54

  Jane Hawk had slept late Friday morning and taken a nap in the afternoon, in preparation for all that she’d done in the past twelve hours. By four-thirty Saturday morning, after saying good-bye to Petra Quist, she wanted a few hours’ sleep to be ready for Booth Hendrickson when he arrived in Orange County from Washington, six hours hence. But she was wound tight, not in the least drowsy.

  Simon Yegg, with no hope of freeing himself, marinated in his own juices in the theater. She had no need to watch over him.

  In the kitchen, cautious of the shattered glass, she found another bottle of Belvedere, Coca-Cola, and an ice maker full of cubes in the shape of half moons. She built a drink and carried it into the study, where she turned on the desk lamp.

  Near the lamp stood an iPod. She considered reviewing its playlist, but music might mask other sounds that she needed to hear.

  She was an accomplished pianist, as had been her murdered mother, and as her mother-murdering father still was. Just recently, he’d toured to the acclaim of adoring fans when, if the truth were known, he ought to have been rotting in prison for the past nineteen years. To Jane, music had always been nearly as essential as food—listening to it and bringing it forth from a Steinway. She might have tried to make a career of recordings and concerts, except that a grand piano, with its lid raised by the prop stick, too often reminded her of an open coffin, her mother’s coffin, an association not conducive to a performance of concert-hall quality.

  She didn’t need analysis or Freudian jargon to understand why she had chosen instead a career in law enforcement.

  As she sipped the vodka and Coke, she withdrew half of a broken cameo locket from a pocket of her jeans: a woman’s face in profile, carved from soapstone, embedded in a silver oval. Her lovely little boy, Travis, found it on the water-washed stones beside the creek behind the house where he was being secretly sheltered by friends.

  Travis had convinced himself that the woman on the locket was the very image of his mother. To him it was an omen of her ultimate triumph and return to him, but also a talisman that would protect her from all harm as long as she carried it.

  To Jane, this piece of a locket with half a hinge attached was enchanted and precious not because she believed that it had magical powers, but because it had been given to her by her child, Nick’s son, who had been conceived in love and brought into the world with the hope he would find in it the wonder, the joy, and the truth of things that make a life worth living. When she held the locket and closed her eyes, she could see Travis as clearly as if he were in the room with her—the shy little boy who shared the precise shade of his father’s blue eyes, with tousled hair, a sweet smile, and the intelligence that sometimes made him seem like a little man waiting patiently to be done with childhood.

  Maybe it was the vodka or maybe the locket that soon settled a calm on her. When she finished the drink, she returned the cameo to her pocket and set the alarm feature on her wristwatch. She rose from the desk and turned off the lamp and stretched out on the sofa.

  She asked that her dreams, if any, be bright visions of her child. But for a girl who had, at the age of nine, discovered her mother’s bloody corpse in a bathtub and almost nineteen years later found her husband in a similar condition, dreams were more often dark than bright.

  55

  More than forty thousand feet above the surface of the earth, with the sun behind the plane, a distant and receding darkness in the west beyond the curve of the planet…The reassuring drone of two powerful Rolls-Royce turbofan engines, almost ninety thousand pounds of craft and fuel cruising well in excess of five hundred miles per hour, a grand defiance of gravity…

  The scrabbling multitudes of humanity toiled far below, feverish in their often pointless and nearly always misguided strivings, unaware of the change fast coming to their world.

  This is a thrilling time to be alive, especially if you are Booth Hendrickson, the lone passenger in a Gulfstream V configured to carry fourteen in addition to crew. He finds it rewarding to be known by the grandees of Washington and their grubbing minions not merely as an attorney highly placed in the Department of Justice, but also as a go-to man who can arrange discreet off-the-record meetings between highly placed officials in any of the security services and law-enforcement agencies, and with selected other pooh-bahs in the maze of bureaucracies. It is even more satisfying to be within the inner circle of the Techno Arcadians, of whom 98 percent of those grandees, minions, and pooh-bahs are ignorant, his power in fact far greater than they know.

  Not a little of the satisfaction comes from the perks that he is able to bestow upon himself, such as this splendid aircraft. The Gulfstream is owned by the FBI and, as specified in the original appropriations bill, is intended especially to facilitate urgent investigations involving acts of terrorism. Such is Hendrickson’s authority that he needs merely to claim—without supporting details or documentation—that his business is both urgent and related to uncovering some nefarious scheme involving white supremacists or Islamic radicals, and the jet is his.

  He has just received a late breakfast prepared and served by the steward. A crab omelet made with duck eggs. A serving of sliced potatoes deep-fried in coconut oil. Buttery baby carrots al dente and flavored with thyme. Brioche toast.

  The food is delicious, but the wine disquiets him. When making flight arrangements the previous afternoon, he’d specified Far Niente chardonnay for breakfast. He is served instead a pinot grigio of only moderate distinction, and it is a shade too sweet to accompany the omelet.

  Although the steward is apologetic, he has no explanation for how this could have happened. There is no chardonnay aboard, and Hendrickson must make do with the pinot grigio. Instead of the two glasses that he might have allowed himself, he drinks only one.

  He is not a superstitious man. He does not have any regard for portents of calamity, for omens foretelling either good or evil. He doesn’t accept the existence of gods or fate, or luck. He believes only in himself, in the efficacy of raw power, and in the plastic nature of a material world that can be bent to a strong man’s will.

  Nevertheless, as he finishes breakfast with mandarin orange slices under shavings of dark chocolate, the disquiet inspired by the wine only grows. He listens to the Rolls-Royce engines for any change in pitch that might suggest some mechanical problem in its early stages.

  After the meal, when he tries to work on his laptop, he can’t resist consulting a variety of sources for weather reports, in expectation of turbulence ahead. Hour by hour, all the way across the country, although he repeatedly counsels himself that this apprehension is groundless, he can banish it only temporarily.

  He finds himself repeatedly reviewing news stories about the recent bizarre death of a billionaire who was a founder of the Arcadians. He revisits digitally archived evidence of Jane Hawk’s presence at the site in San Francisco where the death of that man occurred in spite of heavy security. Because this is evidence that he has studied previously and from which he can’t possibly gain new insights, he must admit that this bitch of bitches has gotten under his skin.

  When Hendrickson arrives in California, as he disembarks from the jet at the private-craft terminal at the Orange County airport and sees his limousine and driver waiting on the tarmac, which his status allows, his apprehension swells into alarm. His half brother, Simon, seems to have sent him a subtle message that all is not what it appears to be.

  In fact, it is so subtle that no one else would recognize it as a warning, a shrewdly conceived and softly rung alarm only brothers might hear. And perhaps only brothers who had survived a mother like theirs and been bonded by the experience.

  Suddenly the situation requir
es vigilance, tactical elegance, and cunning. Hendrickson acknowledges some fear, but he is also electrified by the possibility that Jane Hawk has made a grave mistake. If someone is trying to get at him through Simon, it is surely Jane Hawk, because she recently became aware that Hendrickson is a Techno Arcadian, one of the most effective spears of the revolution.

  If he plays this right, if he stays calm, stays cool, he may be the one to kill her.

  1

  At eight forty-five that Saturday morning, Gilberto Mendez—former Marine, mortician, about-to-be chauffeur impersonator—had parked his Chevy Suburban in a quiet residential neighborhood, under a lacy pepper tree beaded with tiny pink corns, where he could be sure there were no traffic cameras.

  He wore well-polished black shoes, a black suit, a crisp white shirt, a black tie, and a double-peaked black cap with a short bill. The pants were of a suit purchased a month previously, but the matching coat was from two years earlier, when he had been forty pounds above his ideal weight instead of just twenty. The extra room in the coat allowed for the concealment of the shoulder rig and the Heckler & Koch .45 Compact that Jane had given him.

  Setting out on foot for a public park five blocks away, he thought that he looked somewhat out of place, though none of the people he encountered—sweating runners, smiling dog walkers, kids on skateboards—gave him a second look.

  The sky was the very blue of the birthing blanket that his wife, Carmella, had purchased in anticipation of their fourth child, whom she now carried into her third trimester. The rain of the previous night had washed a brighter green into the trees, more dazzling colors into the flowers, and the lawns were almost as unreal as artificial turf.

  This was a wonderful day to be alive, which was a thought that perhaps occurred to a mortician more often than to people in other lines of work. In a certain Middle East hellhole, he had known a day when a devout chaplain questioned the value of it or even the value of all days that time had thus far dealt out or ever would. Gilberto was not as devout as that good man, yet there were moments in even the most terrible hours when he saw the beauty of the world that the worst of humanity’s actions couldn’t obscure—an enchanting pattern of purple shadow and soft light on the stone floor of an ancient courtyard, a white bird in flight against a golden dawn—and such moments assured him there would be days when all darkness, not just that of night, would remain at bay. Although he carried a firearm into this bright morning, it was a wonderful day to be alive, in part because he would again fulfill that sacred warrior’s pledge—semper fi—made not just to country, but also to freedom and to comrades in arms.

 
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