The crooked staircase, p.20
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       The Crooked Staircase, p.20

         Part #3 of Jane Hawk series by Dean Koontz
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  When Hendrickson’s call is answered on the second ring, he announces himself not by name but by a seven-digit identifier. He specifies the guard-gated community in which Simon lives, gives the address of the house, and finishes by saying, “Blackbird is there now but not for long.”

  Their code name for Jane Hawk is Blackbird.

  “I’m five minutes out. Get me backup.”

  Booth Hendrickson relishes—thrives on—the power and the perks of his position. But he delights as well, perhaps equally, in the trappings of such clandestine work, the code names and passwords and hush-hush and hugger-mugger, the secrets within secrets, the ciphers and signals and signs. There’s a quality of play about it all, which is exhilarating to one who, throughout his blighted childhood, was never allowed much playtime.

  When he terminates the call, he tucks the iPhone in a coat pocket, which incenses the cowgirl. “That’s my phone. I paid for that phone.”

  “Be good, you’ll get a new one free from the government.”

  “I want that one. Gimme it.”

  “Take the next exit.”

  “Hey, asshole, this is America.”

  “America is over and done,” he declares, putting the gun to her head again.

  “The hell it is.”

  “Take this exit!”

  12

  Jane had been in the blind-black garage when Gilberto Mendez called. Having carjacked some woman, Hendrickson would most likely get his captive’s cellphone, which upended the entire plan.

  A minute later, upstairs in the kitchen, she recovered the lunchbox-size Medexpress carrier she had left there on first touring the house and once more hurried to the garage, where she switched on the lights.

  Although she’d come to the house on foot, she didn’t have time to hike out of the community and all the way back to her Explorer Sport, which she’d left near an all-night supermarket in a shopping-center parking lot.

  Rolls-Royce, Lamborghini, Mercedes GL 550.

  In a workbench drawer, Jane found the key to the Mercedes SUV.

  From the perfboard display of tools, she took two screwdrivers, one with a regular blade, one with a Phillips head.

  13

  With State Highway 73 behind them, racing west on Newport Coast Drive, weaving lane to lane, the cowgirl leans into the steering wheel, jaws clenched as though she’s afflicted with tetanus. As argumentative as she has been, she is that silent now.

  Her silence is at first welcome, but then suspicious. Booth Hendrickson dislikes her even more than he dislikes other people, and he attributes her silence to the feverish scheming of a birdbrain twit.

  “Don’t do anything stupid,” he advises.

  “Fascist bastard.”

  “Just drive. Get around these cars. Lay on the horn.”

  She hammers the horn but says, “Nazi turd.”

  Hendrickson doesn’t take such insults lightly. No one has ever called him a fascist or a Nazi until now; those are words he uses against others. “Honey, if you dress like a rodeo shitkicker, better not be calling other people names.”

  “Communist bloodsucker.”

  “What’s with the ridiculous half-size Stetson?” he counters. “Couldn’t you afford the grown-up cowgirl look?”

  “It’s a uniform, you asswipe. I work in a theme restaurant. And I recognize your type.”

  “My type?”

  “Big-talkin’ cheap-tippin’ Commie-Nazi jerk.”

  He wants so badly to hit her with the pistol, break out a couple teeth, but instead he snatches up his Department of Justice ID and shakes it at her and says, “Take the next right turn.”

  “You ever really work a day in your life?” she asks.

  “Right turn!”

  She brakes hard, fishtails the car, slides onto the new street, as if she’s the offspring of demolition-derby drivers. “You sucked on your mama’s teat till you could suck on a government teat.”

  If they weren’t one minute away from the front gate to the guarded community in which Simon lives, one minute away from nailing Jane Hawk, he would shoot this impudent bitch. Instead, in a voice he wishes were more in his control, he says, “Drive as if your life depends on it.”

  14

  Jane, in the stolen Mercedes SUV, thirty seconds from the front gate, was brought to a halt by a double-hopper truck pulling into the street from a vacant lot where excavation was under way for the construction of a house. Each of its twin hoppers was mounded with a few tons of dirt that inescapably reminded her of recent graves not yet grassed. The driver had to maneuver the big vehicle back and forth to get it fully into the uphill lane, and only then did Jane have room to risk oncoming traffic and get around the behemoth.

  She topped the hill, crossed the crest, and sped down the other side, into the exit lane for the front gate. The electronic eye that monitored oncoming vehicles seemed slow on the uptake, so that she came to a full stop before the barrier began to roll aside. Trees had recently been trimmed, and a fragment of a yellowed palm frond had blown into the recessed track, so that the gate wheels stuttered against it, chewed at it, and finally began to roll through it.

  Jane believed that, with free will and fortitude, anything within the laws of nature could be accomplished. She did not believe in luck, good or bad. But at moments like this, when obstructions were repeatedly raised at the most inconvenient times during the most urgent tasks, a chill of recognition whispered through her, for she discerned intention behind the impediments put in her way, could feel the mystery of the world’s dark governance beyond what was to be seen.

  She drove through the open gate, past the guardhouse, between flanking colonnades of towering palm trees, fast along the entry drive that connected the community to the public road. She arrived at the stop sign just as the yellow Subaru appeared to her left, coming downhill at high speed.

  15

  By the Subaru’s erratic movements, Gilberto had deduced that, in spite of Hendrickson’s gun, there must be a continuing battle of wills being fought between him and the driver, if not also to some degree an ongoing physical contest. At first, he’d been able to see the woman and her kidnapper seeming to strike each other. But then the bright-yellow car spun 180 degrees on Bison and plunged recklessly through the cross traffic on MacArthur Boulevard. By the time he followed in the limo, with a modicum of caution, onto State Highway 73, they were well ahead of him. Although the Subaru didn’t weave from lane to lane as before, it sometimes drifted onto the shoulder before returning to the pavement.

  Rather than try to close the gap that had opened between him and the car, Gilberto remained as far back as he dared, hoping that Hendrickson might not realize he was being tailed. There was every reason to expect that, having split the scene in such a dramatic fashion, the man assumed his escape to be complete and was too preoccupied with his resisting hostage to discover otherwise.

  Gilberto considered using his burner phone to call 911 and report the carjacking. But he would be siccing the cops on a kidnapper that he himself had kidnapped. There were maybe ten thousand ways that could go wrong for him.

  Besides, he quickly realized that Hendrickson was heading toward the southern end of Newport Beach, where Hendrickson’s brother lived in one of the several guard-gated communities in a neighborhood known as Newport Coast. He was trying to get to Jane before she ghosted away from Simon Yegg’s place.

  Gilberto considered phoning her, decided against it. She’d be moving fast, her hands full. Anyway, she didn’t need a warning. She already expected that Hendrickson would have used his hostage’s phone to report her location to the battalions searching for her.

  When the Subaru left State Highway 73 at Newport Coast Drive without reducing speed, in fact accelerating with much blowing of its horn, Gilberto closed part of the gap between them.

  16

  In h
is phone call to Jane, Gilberto hadn’t mentioned the make or color of the car that Hendrickson had jacked. But as she braked at the stop sign and saw the lemon-yellow Subaru streaking along the descending curve of pavement, coming in from her left as fast as any angry hornet, there was about it an aura of menace, a threat of ruin, that spoke to the ear of her intuition. And behind it, farther uphill, in immediate confirmation, came a white Cadillac limousine.

  If Hendrickson at first intended to have his captive driver swing hard right into the entrance lane, he must have recognized the GL 550 as from his brother’s collection. The car braked and began to turn, but then corrected, aiming for the Mercedes.

  Jane reacted just quickly enough, shifting into reverse. Brief banshee wails issued from the tires of both vehicles as the Mercedes smoked backward on the blacktop and as the Subaru imprinted skid marks before rocking to a stop athwart the two-lane community drive.

  Gun in both hands, Hendrickson erupted from the car, clearly intending to open fire on Jane, but only then becoming aware of the limousine, a juggernaut in the wake of the Subaru. He squeezed off two shots at the Caddy. Starburst pocks appeared in the smooth sweep of windshield. A third round entirely dissolved the glass.

  Jane put the Mercedes in park, exited fast and low, using the door as a shield, drawing her Heckler.

  Hendrickson hitched and stumbled sideways, out of the path of the incoming limo.

  The grinding of disc brakes and the shriek of tires molting skins of rubber on the pavement raised the expectation of a violent crash. But the impact of car and car was almost discreet: a crisp crumpling of metal, the crack of fractured plastic, the tinkle of shattered headlights cascading across the roadway.

  As Jane came out from behind the open door of the Mercedes, she was relieved to see Gilberto scramble from the limousine, his pistol in hand. Two of them against Hendrickson, drawing down on him from different directions. The bastard would have to surrender.

  Good. The last thing she wanted to do was kill him. She had other uses for him.

  As Hendrickson reeled away from the crash and regained his balance, Jane was about to order him to drop the gun when the driver of the Subaru—booted, jeaned, wearing a rhinestone-cowboy shirt—intervened. Something like a scaled-down Western hat fell from the woman’s head as she launched at Hendrickson and leaped onto his back. Her long legs clamped around his middle, as if this were a rodeo ring and he the bull that must be ridden. The impact staggered him, almost took him to his knees, and the gun flew from his grip. His rider pulled fiercely on his mane of hair with her left hand and pounded on the side of his face with her right.

  Gilberto scooped the weapon off the blacktop before Hendrickson could retrieve it.

  Jane holstered her pistol and withdrew the bottle of chloroform from a jacket pocket.

  If Hendrickson had ever been trained in physical combat, he remembered nothing he’d been taught. Bent under the weight of his assailant, he weaved in a circle, trying to reach back and tear her off, like some mad turtle offended by its own shell. His strength quickly deserted him, and he collapsed onto his side, taking his rider with him.

  Even as Hendrickson went down, Jane dropped to her knees before him. He rolled his head and glared up at her, his patrician features distorted so grotesquely by rage that he resembled a gargoyle fallen from a high parapet. His mouth twisted in a snarl, but before one word of invective could escape him, she sprayed him with chloroform, and he passed out.

  17

  As if he’d read Jane’s mind, Gilberto hurried to the GL 550, boarded it, pulled a U-turn, and reversed toward Jane where she knelt beside Hendrickson.

  Having been witness to car crash, gunfire, and struggle, the guard in the community gatehouse, about seventy feet away, might already be on the phone to the police. If Hendrickson had reported Jane’s whereabouts with his hostage’s cellphone, far more dangerous specimens than the local cops were on the way.

  Hendrickson had no sooner passed out, nose and mouth wet with chloroform, than the scrappy girl in Western garb, clambering over him, extracted an iPhone from one of his coat pockets.

  “I need that phone,” Jane said as the GL 550 braked behind her.

  The cowgirl said, “I worked hard for it. You ever work hard or you just shoot people for what you want?”

  “I’ll buy it,” Jane said, putting up the tailgate of the 550.

  “Buy it? Like that makes any sense.”

  The girl stepped aside while Jane rolled Hendrickson onto his back and Gilberto took hold of him by the ankles.

  “Ten thousand bucks.” Jane and Gilberto lifted Hendrickson into the back of the SUV. “Throw in that red scarf, and I’ll pay cash.”

  “It’s not a scarf, it’s a neckerchief. What’re you doin’ with that bastard?”

  “You don’t want to know.” Jane asked Gilberto to get three packets from the attaché case on the front seat.

  The girl glared at Hendrickson in the cargo space of the SUV. “He belongs in jail, what he did to me.”

  Gilberto appeared with three banded blocks of cash and gave one to the girl at Jane’s direction.

  “Ten thousand for the phone and the neckerchief,” Jane offered.

  The girl’s eyes narrowed with suspicion.

  “It’s real, and it’s not hot money. You’ll have to trust me.”

  “Who trusts anyone anymore?” Nevertheless the girl handed over the iPhone. She slipped off the kerchief and surrendered that, too.

  “This other twenty thousand,” Jane said, as she put the scarf over Hendrickson’s face and sprayed it lightly with chloroform, “is for saying my friend here wasn’t Hispanic. He was a tall, blond white dude. And this wasn’t a white GL 550, it looked silver. And this guy wasn’t chloroformed. We abducted him at gunpoint.”

  Although she took the twenty thousand that Gilberto offered, the girl appeared fretful. “What’s it called—lying for money?”

  “It’s called politics,” Jane said. “Better hide the cash.”

  As Gilberto hurried to the driver’s door and Jane closed the tailgate, the girl stuffed two packets in her bra and shoved the third down the front of her jeans, into her underpants. “If you’re gonna hurt that Commie-Nazi piece of shit, hurt him some for me.”

  “Deal.”

  “Who are you, anyway?”

  “Dorothy,” Jane lied.

  The girl said, “I’m Jane.”

  “Of course you are,” Jane said, climbed into the passenger seat, and closed the door.

  18

  They drove north on the Pacific Coast Highway, where ragged blankets of grass and scrub covered the sandy soil to the left of the road. Beyond that rough and prickly shore, a pale beach smoothed into a sea glinting with infinite knives of sunlight, but shadowed by its ceaseless heavings.

  In Corona del Mar, with the sea lost to sight, they heard the first siren, saw the flashing lightbar atop a southbound Newport Beach police cruiser. Traffic deferred to it, and the siren waned.

  The residential neighborhood west of the Coast Highway was known as the Village: picturesque streets of lovely houses leading down toward a bluff where parks overlooked the ocean. Gilberto pulled to the curb in a quiet block, and while he remained behind the wheel with the engine running, Jane got out with the two screwdrivers she had taken from the garage at Simon Yegg’s house.

  Border to border, from sea to shining sea, police cars and other government vehicles had for some time been equipped with 360-degree license-plate-scanning systems that recorded the numbers of the vehicles around them, whether parked or in motion, transmitting them 24/7 to regional archives, which in turn shared the information with the National Security Agency’s vast intelligence troves in its million-square-foot Utah Data Center.

  Authorities could track a fugitive by a license-plate number if the vehicle happened to be scanned
often enough during its journey from point A to point Z. Now that Jane’s original plan had been upended by events, she and Gilberto needed to transfer Booth Hendrickson from the Mercedes to Gilberto’s Chevrolet Suburban and then ditch the superhot GL 550. But they didn’t dare do so if a series of scans would later allow the Arcadians to connect the two vehicles and put the entire Mendez family on a kill-or-convert list.

  Driving without the SUV’s tags, they were at some risk, but the alternative was more certain to lead to disaster.

  An ordinary screwdriver was sufficient to detach the license plates. Jane removed them boldly, without looking around furtively, as if she had a perfectly legitimate reason for doing so.

  More sirens arose in the distance. The sky resounded with the chop-chop-chop of the rotary wing of a helicopter. In fact, when she looked up, she saw one helo to the west, following the shoreline, a standard police aircraft, and a larger chopper—with a military profile—coming in from the northeast, both heading south toward Newport Coast.

  She got into the Mercedes. She tucked the license plates and the screwdrivers under the seat. “Let’s scoot.”

  This vehicle was still a deathtrap. They had to be rid of it soon. The authorities would quickly learn that she had escaped in Simon’s GL 550. Ten minutes after that, by satellite, they would be tracking its position by the locater built into its GPS.

  19

  Like a vision out of Edgar Allan Poe’s most fevered and eerie imaginings, the three-story building thrust against the sky as if it were the House of Usher heaving up from the tarn that once claimed it, a night scene concurrent with the bright daylight all around, yet resistant to the sun’s revelation. Hulking, shadow-filled and shadow-casting, soot-stained and fissured, its shattered windows looking in upon cavernous darkness, partly collapsed yet looming with menace, it was like some haunted palace through which a hideous throng stormed ceaselessly in silence.

 
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