The crooked staircase, p.18
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       The Crooked Staircase, p.18

         Part #3 of Jane Hawk series by Dean Koontz
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  The park contained a playing field on which a group of young girls were already darting through a game of soccer. Majestic old oaks, crowned like a conclave of kings, shaded tables and benches on a picnic ground. In a parking lot by a lake shimmering as if it were a pool of mercury, the white Cadillac stood where Jane had promised he would find it. With whatever explanation, the owner of the limo company had ordered an employee to leave it there.

  The vehicle wasn’t locked. After putting on a pair of driving gloves to ensure he would leave no fingerprints, Gilberto opened the door, lifted the floor mat, and found an electronic key taped there. When he settled behind the wheel, he hesitated to close the door, ostensibly because a newly sprung breeze stirred the jasmine espaliered across the wall of a nearby park-maintenance building and carried its fragrance to be savored. In truth, he delayed because it seemed that when he closed the door, he might be shutting himself off from his future, from his wife and daughters, from the unborn son he might never see.

  The scent of jasmine, however, was the olfactory equivalent of a white bird in flight against a golden dawn. He said, “Semper fi,” and closed the door and started the engine.


  At eight-thirty that morning, Jane Hawk had been awakened by the alarm function of her wristwatch. She got off the sofa and went to the window in Simon Yegg’s study. She stood for a while in the early light, which elsewhere fell on her child and on the grave of her husband, and to her it was the light of a love that conjoined them regardless of distance and time, in life and death. She felt no need for further sleep, nor any weariness.

  In the bathroom connected to the study, she washed her face and adjusted her raven-haired wig. She removed her colored contacts and floated them in solution in their carrying case, and with the end of that eclipse, her eyes were bluer than oceans when she met them in the mirror.

  She went downstairs to the theater, where Simon lay bound and reeking of urine. As if emptying his bladder had stimulated his liver to produce a flood of bile, his face swelled with rage, both pale and florid like the mottled scales of some exotic serpent. His bloodshot eyes welled with such festered and virulent malignity that they could not have appeared more alien if they’d had the vertical irises of a snake’s eyes.

  At the sound of her approach, he spewed bitter curses and threats. When she stepped into view, Simon strained mightily against the restraints that had foiled him all night, rattling the wheeled board under him.

  As she stood over him, watching, he seethed at her, told her what parts of her anatomy he would cut off while she still lived and into which of her orifices he would cram what he butchered from her.

  Strangely, his ordeal had only strengthened his sociopathic certainty that he was the axis around which the universe turned, that he couldn’t die because his death would be not just the end of him, but the end of all. The suffering that he currently endured was perhaps, to his way of thinking, some test of fortitude prescribed by the unknown masters of the game of life, and he would pass it and triumph and break her as she could never hope to break him.

  His fury seemed demonic and therefore inexhaustible, and it burned undiminished when he recognized the crucial change in her appearance, though he was stricken speechless. Her height, her strong but slender form, and her raven hair were as before, but he evidently didn’t recognize her similarities to his mother until her eyes, too, were as those of Anabel.

  “Blue,” he said, as if some alchemic wonder had been performed, a base substance transmuted into the equivalent of gold. And though fury still drew his face taut and made his jaw muscles bulge, though his pulse was visible in his temples, he continued to be silenced by whatever psychotic computations consumed him.

  “I came to tell you,” Jane said, “that if anything goes wrong with this and it turns out your brother was alerted by some trick of yours, there will be consequences. At the very least, I’ll come back here with a hammer and kneecap you. If anything bad happens to the friend who’s helping me or if Booth calls down the troops on this place, I’ll take the time to shoot off your pecker, and I’ll be smiling all the way out of the house as I listen to you screaming down the path to Hell.”

  So many conflicting emotions contested with his anger that his face had a kaleidoscopic quality, features shifting ceaselessly into subtle new arrangements. His eyes were slitted and glassy, feverish, avoiding her now, settling on various points within his view but fixing on nothing for longer than a second.

  Jane ceased to be able to read him. As if it were a moon within his skull, Simon’s mind had turned toward her its cold and cratered dark side, on which no light reflected.

  He lay in tortured silence until she had nearly reached the back of the theater, and then he called to her as if her name were the same as a smutty word for vagina. He made an obscene promise of extreme and personal violence, but she was not moved because she had heard the same from others who, like him, were all talk and no performance.


  When Booth Hendrickson disembarks from the Gulfstream V and sees the white Cadillac limousine awaiting him in the Southern California sun, the vehicle is both an affront and a warning.

  In his estimation, a white limo is for weddings, proms, and bachelorette parties, for bar mitzvah boys to horse around in with their friends between the synagogue and the reception that follows.

  People of accomplishment and serious purpose should be met by a black car with windows tinted even darker than the law allows—and in his case, always by a stretched black Mercedes. Simon’s contract with the Department of Justice requires that his stable include two Mercedes limousines for those of high rank who might have business between San Diego and Los Angeles.

  Hendrickson is certain that Simon would never offend him like this. Therefore, the car is more than just transportation. It is a message to the effect that the morning will not unfold as expected.

  Beside the prom wagon stands a chauffeur, not either of the two usually sent for him, both of whom are also unofficial muscle. This guy wears a black suit, as all Simon’s drivers are attired. However, he also wears a black two-peaked cap with a short shiny bill, though those who have driven Hendrickson previously wore no hat. He also sports a pair of wraparound sunglasses, which ordinarily a driver would not put on until behind the wheel, if at all.

  The inescapable conclusion is that the hat is meant to conceal the driver’s hairline, which can be a helpful identifying factor if later one needs to look through mug books of suspects’ photographs. The sunglasses are part of his disguise as well, a simple way to conceal his eye color, to make it difficult to discern and remember the set of his eyes, the shape of his nose.

  “Mr. Hendrickson?” the chauffeur inquires.

  Resisting an urge to lament the car, Hendrickson says, “Yes.”

  “My name is Charles. I hope you had a restful flight, sir.”

  “Good weather all the way.”

  Charles opens the rear door of the limo. “If you’ll wait in the comfort of the car, sir, I’ll get your luggage from the steward.”

  “I have only two bags and a laptop. I’ve been sitting all the way across the continent. I’d rather stand a few minutes and enjoy the fresh air.”

  “Yes, sir, of course,” Charles says, and proceeds to the jet, where the steward has appeared at the top of the portable stairs.

  As far as the open door allows Hendrickson to see, no one waits for him in the passenger compartment of the limo. He warily surveys the tarmac surrounding the private-aircraft terminal—the parked planes, the variety of battery-powered service vehicles attending them, mechanics and luggage handlers and embarking passengers—seeking those who might be shanghaiers in league with the chauffeur, but he sees no one who appears particularly suspicious, because all of them look suspicious.

  A few people notice him, which means they are not individuals of concern. Any operative wh
o has him under surveillance will be at pains to avoid looking at him. No doubt he attracts their interest because he’s tall, handsome, with a stylish mane of salt-and-pepper hair, the very image of success, authority, and erudition.

  Inevitably, he thinks back to the missing chardonnay and the inappropriate pinot grigio. Could it be that some drug was given to him in the wine? To what purpose? Perhaps it is some new delayed-effect sedative that requires five or six hours to work, that will drop him into a sudden, helpless sleep when he’s in the limo and at the mercy of the driver. Or perhaps the damn stuff lingers in the system an inordinately long time; so that when he unwittingly drinks another doctored beverage hours later, the two will combine in his blood to form both a sedative and a truth serum, compelling him to divulge all his secrets while in a drugged sleep.

  That scenario might seem unlikely, even absurd, to a layman unfamiliar with the technological advances that have occurred in the fields of espionage and national security during the past decade. But Booth Hendrickson is well aware that, week by week, the unlikely is waxing into fact, and the impossible is waning into the probable.

  He regrets not having bodyguards.

  For three reasons, he doesn’t travel with security. First, in spite of all his power, his face is unknown to the general public. He doesn’t need to worry about being accosted by some deranged proponent of limited government or an earnest but disturbed advocate for the proposition that animals should be allowed to vote, or any of the other human debris that is becoming an ever larger part of the population. Second, the men on a security detail might testify in court about where Booth goes and with whom he speaks; a man in his position can’t risk constant witnesses. Third, he carries a gun, knows how to use it, and has confidence in his innate—if untested—talent for physical violence and derring-do.

  Anyway, fretting about the pinot grigio is most likely a step too far into the paranoia zone. For all her cleverness, Jane Hawk can’t have breached the security around the Bureau’s jets, which are hangared in a location unknown to most agents. Besides, providing pinot grigio in place of the wanted chardonnay only calls attention to the substitution; if Hawk or anyone else meant to drug him, they would have used the chardonnay.

  Unless…unless a difference in the acid-alkaline balance between the chardonnay and the pinot grigio makes the former an inappropriate medium for the drug.

  The chauffeur and the Gulfstream steward together transfer the luggage from the jet to the trunk of the limousine, except for the laptop, which is given to Hendrickson at his request.

  He watches the two men with an eye for any evidence that they have known each other prior to this encounter, for any small sign of familiarity that indicates collusion. He sees none, but that might mean only that they are well practiced in deceit.

  This is a world of dissemblers and imposters, and Hendrickson’s mission particularly requires him to swim in a sea of duplicity and subterfuge. Paranoia isn’t only justifiable but essential if he is to survive. The trick is not to allow healthy paranoia to escalate into panic.

  The steward wishes him well before departing, and the chauffeur steps to the open rear door of the limousine, intending to close it once Hendrickson has entered the vehicle.

  “Charles,” Hendrickson says, “I’m sure you know the itinerary and schedule.”

  “Yes, sir. First to Mr. Yegg’s house for lunch. Then to Pelican Hill Resort at three o’clock for check-in.”

  He can conceive of no excuse to avoid boarding the limousine. And if it is in fact Jane Hawk at work here, he must go along with this to some extent and not fumble the opportunity to capture or kill her.

  As he settles in the plushly upholstered seat, the door closes with a solid thunk.


  Jane, in Simon Yegg’s study, at his desk, using his computer, entered the telecom company’s network by a back door.

  Just then her disposable phone rang.

  She picked it up from the desk. “Yes?”

  She recognized Gilberto’s voice when he said, “He’s landed. I’m watching the plane be taxied onto the apron.”

  “You have the remote?”

  “It was in the cup holder where you said it would be.”

  “Let’s make it happen.”

  The mortician hung up, and Jane returned her attention to the computer screen, to the exquisite architecture of the telecom provider’s integrated systems.

  Before she’d gone on leave from the FBI following Nick’s death, she had known a sweet, funny, white-hat hacker who was employed by the Bureau—Vikram Rangnekar. From time to time, Vikram took a ride into black-hat territory when instructed to do so by the director or by some highly placed person in the Department of Justice. In spite of Jane being a married woman, Vikram had an unrequited crush on her and delighted in showing her what he had created—“my wicked little babies”—with the sanction of his superiors.

  Although Jane had been a by-the-book agent who never resorted to illegal methods, she couldn’t resist learning who was corrupt over at Justice and what they were up to. She allowed Vikram to take her on tours of his black-hat installations, which was, for him, the equivalent of a male peacock spreading and shaking its magnificent tail of iridescent feathers. Some of his wicked little babies were back doors by which he could easily and secretly invade the computer networks of every major telecom provider. By various means, he’d installed a rootkit, a powerful malware program, in each of those companies’ systems. The rootkit functioned at such low levels that Vikram could navigate those networks without leaving tracks; and the most skilled IT-security specialists would be unlikely to detect his activity even while he was buccaneering through their systems.

  He had shown Jane how to exploit those back doors, and for all his peacocking, he had received only a kiss on the cheek—which it seemed was more than he’d expected.

  Because every computer had an identifier built into it and could be located in real time by track-to-source programs, she did not own a laptop or other computer, not since she had gone on the run. For the same reason, she used only disposable cellphones.

  Two days earlier, in short sessions, sitting at the public-access computers in a series of libraries, she had opened Vikram’s back doors and had gone searching those company records for Booth Hendrickson’s telecom accounts. The Department of Justice provided a smartphone for him, and he owned a second that he paid for himself.

  Now, with Simon’s computer, Jane entered those account files and deleted Hendrickson’s private number, terminated it with extreme prejudice, which should at once have caused a cascade of changes through the strata of the company’s system, resulting in immediate deactivation of the number and cancellation of service. She turned her attention next to the account provided to him by the Department of Justice.


  As the Cadillac limousine pulls away from the terminal, Booth Hendrickson requests that the driver close the partition between himself and the passenger cabin. Booth needs to make an urgent phone call, for which he requires privacy.

  If the driver is an imposter and if he suspects that perhaps Booth has identified him as such, he nevertheless complies with the request.

  Booth and Simon have different worthless fathers, therefore different surnames. They have taken pains to obscure that they are half brothers, lest some diligent inspector general at Justice—or at another department where Booth exercises authority—might one day discover that tens of millions of dollars in public funds have been, by contract, funneled into Simon’s various enterprises by his kin, in violation of several federal statutes.

  He and Simon tend to discuss everything face-to-face. When they speak by phone, which is rare, they either rely on disposables or Booth uses his personal smartphone, never the one provided by the Department of Justice.

  Now he discovers that the preferred phone is not working. The screen brightens
but is blank: no telecom name, no signature music.

  With no other choice, he tries his business phone, but with the same result.

  He is not carrying a disposable.

  The days when limousines provided a phone in the passenger cabin are long gone.

  As the Cadillac slows to a stop at a traffic light, Hendrickson tries the door beside him. Of course it’s locked. Safety regulations and insurance-company provisions require that a limousine driver control the locks on the passenger compartment when the vehicle is in transit and release them only when parked, lest some idiot drunk or willful child should open a door and spill out into traffic.

  Although Booth has his laptop, he entertains no illusion that he will be able to send a text message precisely as, by chance, they pass through the spillover zone from an unsecured Wi-Fi network. And even if he can send a text message, no one will read it in time to help him, as Simon’s house is but fifteen minutes from the airport.

  He withdraws the pistol from the shoulder holster under his suit coat.


  As Simon earlier revealed to Jane, the limo driver customarily brought Booth directly into the garage, rather than drop him at the front door. The brothers were discreet about their relationship and preferred that Booth not be seen by neighbors.

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