The crooked staircase, p.19
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       The Crooked Staircase, p.19

         Part #3 of Jane Hawk series by Dean Koontz
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  Jane carried her tote down to the garage. She didn’t turn on the lights, but found her way to the workbench with her small LED flashlight. She put the tote on the bench and took the spray bottle of chloroform from it and slipped the bottle into a jacket pocket.

  A stepladder hung on the wall. She took it down and opened it under the ceiling fixture that would light automatically when the garage door began to ascend. The fixture was a high-security model, sealed so that the cover could not be unscrewed. She retrieved a hammer from the tool collection, climbed the ladder, smashed the hard plastic fixture, and smashed the LED bulb beneath. After putting the ladder and hammer away, she used a push broom to sweep the debris into a corner.

  She opened the door on the section of the storage cabinets that stood empty, through which she’d earlier accessed the vault where the attaché cases of cash had been stored. She didn’t step inside right away, but switched off the flashlight and waited in the dark for the sound of the limo in the driveway.

  In all likelihood, Hendrickson would have a gun. Jane and Gilberto were armed as well, but the last thing they wanted was a close-quarters firefight.

  So she had a plan. Plans were comforting. As long as you always remembered that even the best plans seldom unfolded as intended.

  As soon as Gilberto drove into the garage, he would use a remote control to close the big door, and he’d get out of the limo, leaving the engine running and the ventilation system set not on air-conditioning or heat, but on fresh air. As the segmented door lowered, the incoming sunshine would diminish, and he would proceed to the front of the vehicle, open the hood, and switch on his own small flashlight.

  Because the passenger-compartment doors would be locked with the master control, Hendrickson would be unable to exit the limo.

  When the big door fully closed, the subterranean garage would fall into complete darkness. At that point, Jane would step out of the cabinet and make her way to Gilberto.

  Because of the privacy panel between the passenger compartment and the driver’s seat, Hendrickson would not be able to see what was happening at the front of the Cadillac. At that moment, if not before, he would know that he’d fallen into a trap, but he wouldn’t be able to see anyone to shoot at through the side or rear windows.

  He might start firing wildly, blowing out windows, but that seemed unlikely. He would want to conserve his ammunition for the moment when he finally had a target.

  By the time Jane arrived at the car, Gilberto would have identified the air intake for the ventilation system. She would spray most of the remaining chloroform into that aperture. Maybe the concentration of the chemical within the vehicle would not be such that Hendrickson would entirely lose consciousness, but it was all but certain that he’d at least be disoriented and easily disarmed.

  But now, no slightest thread of light was woven through the black fabric of the garage. Jane stood in the dark, and the dark stood in her, the latter being the darkness of both her past actions and lethal potential. And looming over all was the other darkness that her restless mind could not escape considering: the darkness beyond the world, into which had been taken her mother and her husband, perhaps there to await her, into which she’d sent bad and brutal men, perhaps there to await her.

  7

  South of the airport, the limousine accelerates on MacArthur Boulevard, past business parks where some of the nation’s most successful corporations have offices. The grounds are beautifully landscaped. But seen through the heavily tinted windows, the trees lack full color, and the lawns appear bronze. The sleek glass buildings darkle skyward and seem to torque, as if some heretofore unknown cosmic force is passing in waves of distortion through the world, leaving behind a grim new reality.

  Booth Hendrickson is accustomed to having subordinates at his disposal: armed men comfortable with extreme violence; platoons of attorneys to use the law as a bludgeon; entire bureaucracies adept at destroying his enemies with ten thousand paper cuts.

  Sometimes in the act of coitus and more often in dreams, he thinks of himself as a cunning wolf in human form. Although he has no doubt that he is always the leader of those with whom he runs, he is no lone wolf and is at his best in a pack, where there is power in numbers and a shared sense of purpose, rightness, destiny.

  The pistol in his hand, a Kimber Ultra CDP II in 9 mm, weighs less than two pounds even with eight rounds in the magazine and one in the chamber. It is all he can rely on in the absence of a pack.

  He moves from the forward-facing seat to the longer starboard-facing bench on his left and slides toward the driver’s compartment.

  When the limo stops at a traffic light, if he fires four times through the partition, into the back of the chauffeur’s head…

  No. If he kills the driver, Booth will remain trapped in this locked compartment. Lacking a foot on the brake and with a corpse slumped against the steering wheel, the car will drift into oncoming traffic.

  Maybe he can break out the privacy panel in the center of the partition. Reach through and put a gun to the driver’s head. Demand that he unlock the doors.

  But what if the panel doesn’t give easily? What if it doesn’t give at all? Or what if he can break out the panel—but the instant that he reaches through, the alerted driver Tasers him to shock the pistol out of his hand or slashes him with a knife?

  He puts the Kimber on the seat.

  He tries both of his phones again. Neither works.

  The limo is cruising at fifty miles per hour, maybe faster. In minutes they will be at Simon’s house.

  If Jane Hawk is there—and she will be there; he’s certain now that she will be there—she’ll interrogate him. She’s captured and grilled several other Arcadians, individuals who seemed too cunning to be taken prisoner, too tough to be cracked, and she’s broken them all, gotten from them what she wanted.

  She’s even gotten to David James Michael, the billionaire who was a founder of the Techno Arcadian movement, although he had been wrapped in multiple layers of security. If she can take down D.J. in spite of all his resources, she can get her hands on anyone.

  Until now, Hendrickson has never felt more than fleetingly vulnerable in his adult life, not since his mother ruthlessly forged him throughout his childhood. She has made him into the closest thing to one of Nietzsche’s race of supermen that any mortal can be. Anabel has bent poor Simon, cracked him, almost broken him. Made of far stronger stuff than his half brother, Booth was the ideal base material she needed to shape a son of steel.

  In addition, he hasn’t felt vulnerable because he has never imagined that Jane Hawk can know of his role in the conspiracy. He now realizes there’s one way she might have deduced his involvement. But that is for later consideration.

  If she captures him, she will not break him. Not him. If she is an irresistible force, she will find that he is an immovable object.

  Nevertheless, he prefers to escape her clutches and avoid the unpleasantness that other Arcadians have experienced at her hands. The only reason to let himself be taken to her is to kill her. But he isn’t likely to be able to do that when she has orchestrated his abduction and enjoys the advantage.

  He pockets the dead phones and picks up the pistol just as a cloud moves off the sun and a stream of warm light pours through a cutout in the limousine roof. The square of glass—or acrylic—hinged on one side and seated in a rubber gasket to seal out foul weather, is not a sunroof, but an escape hatch.

  Some years earlier, a party of six or eight women, out for a birthday celebration, had instead been chauffeured into tragedy, not in one of Simon’s cars, but in that of another company. A fire had broken out in the undercarriage and in a flash penetrated the passenger compartment. For whatever reason, the driver had not pulled off the highway fast enough in response to the women’s screams, had not been quick enough to unlock the doors. In less than a minute, all were afire; no
ne survived. Since then, new limousines in California were required to have escape hatches.

  Exiting by that route will be fraught with risk. Besides, he regrets that he is wearing a suit, a shirt, and a tie by Dior Homme, with Paul Malone shoes, an ensemble that cost him more than $5,400. Some if not all of these garments will be damaged.

  He holsters the pistol.

  Once more the limo slows, possibly for a red traffic light.

  In expectation, Hendrickson rises from the seat and stands in a crouch, swaying with the movement of the vehicle, getting a grip on the handle that will release the escape hatch.

  The car comes to a full stop.

  He twists the handle. The hatch drops open.

  When he stands to his full height, his head and shoulders are out of the limo. He straddles the cabin, one foot on a seat, one on the bar, rattling the glassware and dislodging cubes from the ice bin as he thrusts farther out of the car. Gets his arms through the hatch. Levers up. Drags himself onto the roof.

  8

  Until the words HATCH RELEASE appeared on the dashboard display simultaneously with a triple-beep warning sound, Gilberto Mendez had no indication that his passenger suspected he was being abducted. Gilberto put down the privacy panel and turned and saw kicking feet disappear through the ceiling. He heard Hendrickson on the roof, heard him coming off it and down the starboard side of the car.

  Although stopped at a red light, five vehicles back from the intersection, in the middle lane of three lanes of traffic, Gilberto threw open the door and got out, reaching under his suit coat to put a hand on the Heckler & Koch. Crazy as it would be, he nonetheless expected a worst-case scenario: Hendrickson coming around the car with a gun, a public shootout.

  But then he saw the man on the farther side of the limousine, dodging between two sedans in lane number one, hurrying forward between the waiting vehicles and the sidewalk.

  9

  Booth Hendrickson is on the run in a Dior Homme suit and Paul Malone shoes, already gasping for breath, his dignity offended, nauseated by the thought of being captured, of being subjected to torture and mockery.

  Once the venomous Hawk bitch gets to them, powerful and well-protected Arcadians like Booth Hendrickson have been found dead in a long-abandoned rat-infested factory, dead in their own heavily guarded residences, shattered and dead on a public street after a nine-story fall. There’s nothing supernatural about her; she’s just a pleb like billions of others, just a good-looking piece of tail who suffers from the delusion that she was born with rights other than those that her betters choose to bestow on her, polluting the world with her every breath. The only reason she’s been able to take down so many of Booth’s associates is because she’s gone bat-shit insane with revenge. Insanity makes her bold, fearless, unpredictable. That’s Hendrickson’s analysis—although, in the quick, maybe her kind of insanity is just as fearsome as any supernatural power.

  He hurries uphill, along the line of vehicles waiting to turn right at the intersection. He tries the front passenger door on a Tesla, startling the driver. Locked. On to a silver Lexus SUV. Yanks open the door. A little girl holding a plush-toy toad regards him wide-eyed. No good. Booth slams the door. He looks back and across lanes to the Cadillac limo, where the driver stands watching, not yet coming after him.

  He moves on to a brand of car he doesn’t know—maybe a Honda, maybe a Toyota; he has no interest in brands that aren’t advertised in the luxury-oriented magazines he reads—and he opens the front door. The driver is a twentysomething woman in jeans, cowgirl shirt with decorative stitching, red neckerchief, and something like a half-size Stetson—a cowboy hat in a car—and she appears frightened.

  Flashing his Department of Justice ID, he says, “FBI,” because no one is impressed by the letters DOJ. Anyway, the DOJ oversees the Bureau. “I need your assistance—I need your car,” he declares as he clambers into the passenger seat and pulls shut the door.

  Her fright instead proves to be righteous indignation when she snatches from the dashboard a bobble-head statue of some cartoon character Hendrickson doesn’t recognize and starts bashing him with it. “Hey, hey, hey, get out, get the hell out!”

  Infuriated that she would resist a legitimate law-enforcement official, he tears the bobble-head out of her grip and throws it into the backseat as with his right hand he draws his pistol. The traffic light turns green and car horns blare. He demands, “Turn right. Move, move, move!”

  The chauffeur appears at the driver’s door, and Booth squeezes off a shot, blowing out that window.

  Because she hasn’t seen the chauffeur, the cowgirl thinks her assailant has fired a warning shot to force her cooperation. She shouts—“Shit!”—and tramps on the gas and takes the corner in a wide turn.

  10

  Of all the people in the numerous vehicles lined up in three lanes, many must have seen Hendrickson bail out of the limousine and try to jack a car—an extraordinary moment of street theater—but no one other than Gilberto made any effort to intervene. An effort that nearly got him shot.

  Speckled with window glass, dodging cars as impatient motorists swerved around him, he hurried back to the limo and got behind the wheel and pulled shut the door. He set out in pursuit of the yellow Subaru that Hendrickson had carjacked.

  When he turned off MacArthur Boulevard onto Bison, he saw the Subaru ahead of him, closer than he expected, moving erratically from lane to lane.

  The burner phone that Jane had provided lay on the seat beside him. Driving with one hand, he keyed in the number of her burner.

  She took the call. “Yeah?”

  “Somehow he knew. He went out the emergency hatch in the roof.”

  “Where are you?”

  “He carjacked this woman. I’m following. On Bison, headed toward Jamboree.”

  “She’ll have a phone,” Jane said.

  “Yeah. You better split.”

  “Splitting,” she said. “Call you in a few minutes.”

  11

  The cowgirl is agitated, which is understandable, and she’s frightened, which she ought to be, but more than anything, she’s angry, glancing at him with exasperation so hot that he can almost feel it.

  “Make a U-turn,” he tells her. “Here, do it, here!”

  She swings the car toward a break in the median, and now they are heading back down Bison toward MacArthur Boulevard, where the traffic light ahead of them is red.

  “You trashed my window. That’s gonna cost me.”

  Her purse is resting between her thigh and the console. When Hendrickson takes it, she tries to snatch it back.

  He raps her knuckles sharply with the barrel of the pistol. “Just drive, damn it.”

  “That’s my money, you can’t have it.”

  “I don’t want your money. I’m FBI.”

  “Gimme my money.”

  “I only want your phone. I’m FBI!”

  “Get your own freakin’ phone.”

  “Keep your hands on the wheel.”

  She grabs for the iPhone.

  He jams the pistol against her neck. “Are you stupid?”

  “You kill me, who drives?”

  “I will, sitting in your blood.”

  “You’re no FBI.”

  “What’re you stopping for?”

  “You think maybe for the red light?”

  “Screw the red light. Keep going.” When she doesn’t tramp the accelerator, he moves the pistol from her throat to her temple. “Now, bitch!”

  Six lanes of traffic, three westbound and three eastbound, flash past on MacArthur. She lays on the horn as she takes the plunge, as if anyone will hear it in time to stop. Although Booth commands her to do this, he at once regrets his imprudence, fording this Amazon of traffic not with the stout heart of an adventurer, but in sudden fright. His alarm is so primitive that a h
urtling eighteen-wheeler seems like a living leviathan that will scoop them into its maw and swallow them. Horns blare, brakes shriek, but they reach the farther shore after just two near misses, so maybe his luck is changing.

  “Take 73 south,” he orders.

  “Why? Where?”

  He raps the side of her head with the barrel of the pistol hard enough to hurt, to knock a little sense into her. “You don’t need to know where. Faster, damn it, put the pedal down.”

  As they descend the entrance ramp to State Highway 73, he quickly makes a call with her iPhone, keying in the emergency number for a multi-agency task force dubbed J-Spotter, which is coordinating efforts to apprehend Jane Hawk. It’s a rare example of cooperation between five entities that otherwise jealously guard their jurisdictions: the FBI, Homeland Security, the NSA, the CIA, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Their vast combined resources—money, personnel, satellites, aircraft, vehicles, armaments—in combination with local police departments, allow them to put a team in the vicinity of any Hawk sighting anywhere in the country within half an hour, perhaps in some locations as soon as ten minutes.

  “FASTER!” Hendrickson shouts.

  “I’m already speedin’.”

  “Doesn’t matter. I’m FBI.”

  “That’s steamin’ bullshit,” she says, but she’s sufficiently frightened of the gun to put the car up to eighty.

  The heads of the five agencies in the coalition aren’t aware that the impetus to create J-Spotter came from Techno Arcadians in their ranks, and that members of the conspiracy fully control the task force. While the stated purpose of this effort is to arrest Jane Hawk and prosecute her for murder, treason, and other trumped-up charges, the Arcadians intend to inject her with a control mechanism to learn who might have been assisting her, and then kill her in such a way as to make her death appear to be the result of natural causes.

 
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