The crooked staircase, p.22
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       The Crooked Staircase, p.22

         Part #3 of Jane Hawk series by Dean Koontz
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  “The kids ever have nightmares?”

  “Yeah, but not about the dead.”

  She left him in the kitchen with Hendrickson and returned to the Suburban to get her tote, the attaché case, and the Medexpress carrier.

  When she returned to the kitchen, Gilberto had adjusted the gurney, jacking up the back end, so Hendrickson remained strapped across his arms and legs, but reclining at a forty-five-degree angle rather than lying flat.

  “A mortician doesn’t need this feature,” Gilberto said, “but they make gurneys mostly for the living, and this is how they come these days. Useful for you, I think.”

  She checked Hendrickson’s pulse, but she didn’t at once take the red neckerchief off his face.

  Gilberto made coffee, strong and black, and poured it for himself and Jane, without sugar.

  Carmella had left a homemade ricotta pie to cool on a wire rack. Jane ate a large slice as a belated breakfast, while Gilberto adjourned to another room to speak with his wife by phone.

  By the time Jane finished eating, Hendrickson was muttering to himself. She washed her plate and fork, put them away, refreshed her mug of coffee, and took the scarf off his face.

  When he opened his pale-green eyes, he was still floating on currents of chloroform, unaware that he was strapped down, in no condition to puzzle out her identity, not even fully aware of his own. He smiled dreamily up at her as she stood beside him. In a lotus-eater voice of indolent contentment, he said, “Hey, sexy.”

  “Hey,” she said.

  “I got a use for that pretty mouth.”

  “I bet you do, big guy.”

  “Bring it on down here.”

  She licked her lips suggestively.

  He said, “Uncle Ira is not Uncle Ira.”

  “Who is he, then?”

  Hendrickson smiled patronizingly. “No, that’s not what you’re supposed to say.”

  “What am I supposed to say, big guy?”

  “You just say, all right.”

  “All right,” she said.

  “Blow me, gorgeous.”

  She puckered up and blew in his face.

  “Funny,” he said and laughed softly and drifted off into the shallows of unconsciousness.

  Half a minute later, when he opened his eyes again, they were clearer, but he still smiled at her and recognized no danger. “I know you from somewhere.”

  “Want me to refresh your memory?”

  “I’m all ears.”

  “You people killed my husband, threatened to rape and kill my little boy, and have been trying to kill me for months.”

  Slowly his smile faded.

  24

  While Sanjay and Tanuja ate a late breakfast together at the kitchen table, their conversation ranged over a wide spectrum of subjects, as usual, including the novelette that Tanuja was in the middle of writing. Coming in from researching the rain the previous evening, she had slipped and fallen, and now she chewed her food judiciously, on the left side of her mouth, to give the split lip a chance to heal. Sanjay asked how she felt. She said she felt fine, that at least she hadn’t broken a tooth. She asked what had happened to his right ear, which was when he realized that something must be wrong with it. As if the injury hadn’t existed until she spoke of it, he felt a soreness, the heat of inflamed tissue. He touched the helix of his ear, the outer rim; and under the skin, loose fragments of broken cartilage ground together like shards of glass. He winced when his touch induced a throbbing in the flesh, and for a moment it seemed not to be his own hand torturing the ear but the hand of some man seated near him, though no one else was present except he and Tanuja. In his mind’s eye, he saw an unfamiliar kitchen, dark but for the quivering light from three sinuous tongues of candle flame. In that strange place, Tanuja stood in a doorway, looking back at him with something like sorrow, as she was led away…led away, leashed and collared like a dog. The image assaulted Sanjay vividly, and yet flickered out as if it had been an illusion of shadow and candlelight. A still small voice said that it meant nothing, nothing at all. When he tried to summon that other kitchen to mind again, he couldn’t. He must have said something or his face contorted in a grotesque expression, because with concern his sister asked what was wrong. He assured her nothing was wrong, nothing at all, just that the injury to his ear puzzled him, as if he’d been sleepwalking, fell, and injured himself without waking. This led to a discussion of somnambulism, which Tanuja had once used as a plot device. By the time they moved on to another subject, the source of his injured ear no longer mattered to either of them because it meant nothing, nothing at all.

  After breakfast, Tanuja retreated to her office to work on the novelette, and Sanjay returned to his computer. A leisurely meal with his sister, accompanied by a spirited conversation, always inspired him when he returned to writing, but not today. Something had been different about their colloquy this time. He had not felt fully engaged, and she seemed distracted, too. It was almost as if there was something that she needed to tell him, but she could not bring herself to speak of it, though each had always been frank with the other, each a sympathetic sounding board.

  Troubled, he called to the screen the stream-of-consciousness pages he’d written earlier and began to read them. The text was so feverish, nonlinear, and bizarre that he couldn’t imagine a magazine that would be interested in it, and there was no market for a book-length manuscript of this nature. Although he strove to make of his work a kind of art, he wrote to entertain, and he did not write what would not sell. Yet he had done just that this morning, not merely as an exercise, but with passion. And now, as he read the pages, this story of a man who failed to save a child and by his failure in some way brought an end to all innocence—and freedom—seemed to be some kind of allegory, a symbolical narrative in which nothing was what it appeared to be, written in a deep code, which even he, the writer, could not translate. Spiritualists believed in something called automatic writing, when a medium opened the door of his mind to any spirit that wished to communicate by way of him; what then flowed from pen to paper or keyboard to screen was the work not of the medium, but of an unknown entity speaking through the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead. But Sanjay wasn’t a spiritualist and didn’t believe in automatic writing; he could not account for these pages with that explanation.

  The more he read, the more he was affected by what he read, and the more urgently he felt impelled to continue writing this…this testament, until he came to a moment in the narrative that he did not recall writing, that affected him more powerfully than either the words or the action could explain. The two lead characters, man and child, were born to parents who had emigrated from India. As the child lay dying, he said to the man who had so utterly failed him, “Peri pauna,” which meant “I touch your feet,” which was something that you said—and did—to someone you venerated, for someone who had earned the greatest respect, for someone before whom you felt such profound love that you humbled yourself completely. Sanjay’s eyes were hot with tears. The screen before him blurred. For a while, he wept quietly, prodigiously, struggling to understand what this incomplete story, this flood of words might mean.

  It seemed there would be no end either to his tears or to his desperate desire for enlightenment. But eventually the well of tears was drained, and his burning eyes were as dry as they were sore. His need to understand what he had written faded. It had meant nothing, nothing at all. He sat staring at the screen, at the lines of words that had a short time ago seemed to be crazed poetry crammed full of mysterious meaning expressed in elaborate patterns of symbols. Now they were just words, a witless gush of language, perhaps resulting from a low-grade fever related to an infection, perhaps suggesting a transient ischemic attack, one of those ministrokes caused by a temporary interruption of blood supply to a part of the brain, rare in someone his age but not utterly without precedent
.

  Nothing. The words meant nothing. Nothing at all.

  Sanjay deleted what he’d written.

  He opened another document. The manuscript he had been working on for three months.

  To settle himself into the mood of the novel and the voice of its narrator, he read the most recently composed chapter. Soon he had recaptured the feel of it. He wrote a new sentence. Another. Eventually he had a paragraph that worked well, and he was doing what he most enjoyed, the work he felt born to do.

  If there had been a ragged strangeness about the morning, his memory trimmed it into the neatness of ordinary experience.

  The next paragraph began with an elegant metaphor that surprised and pleased him, and already he was in the flow—

  His smartphone rang. He took the call.

  A man said, “Uncle Ira is not Uncle Ira.”

  “Yes, all right,” said Sanjay.

  “I will tell you what must happen this evening, and you will receive these instructions with equanimity. You will be neither afraid nor despairing. You will listen without emotion and will not ever question the rightness of what must occur. Do you understand?”

  “Yes.”

  “When I end this call, you’ll have no conscious awareness that it ever took place. You will return to whatever you were doing when I phoned. But you will act according to the instructions that you’ve been given. Do you understand?”

  “Yes.”

  The man spoke for several minutes. He concluded with the words “Auf Wiedersehen, Sanjay.”

  “Good-bye,” he replied.

  The next paragraph began with a metaphor that surprised and pleased him, and already he was in the flow, himself again and back in form, in a dance with his favorite partner—the English language.

  25

  The black hair is the only element of disguise, and her blue eyes are as striking as Booth Hendrickson has heard them described by others who have been in her company and survived.

  A solemn-looking block of a man, the chauffeur himself sans cap and sunglasses, in his unfortunate off-the-rack black suit, sits in a dinette chair. His hair is black, as are his eyes, and the coffee in his mug is so dark that it might have been water dredged from the river Styx. Clearly he is meant to be intimidating, the crudest kind of muscle, a high-school dropout with an IQ barely high enough to allow him to drive a car and pull a trigger. Booth Hendrickson can’t be intimidated by such a man, who would no doubt define faux pas as “the father of my enemy.” He has used dozens like this thug and, when necessary, has gotten rid of them to avoid any link between himself and what he’s ordered them to do. Intelligence and wit will always triumph over brute strength; intelligence, wit, and powerful connections, the last of which Booth has in abundance.

  Again, he looks up into the eyes of Jane Hawk and meets her sky-blue stare and this time does not look away. “I phoned in your location, Simon’s house. Maybe you skipped minutes before the hammer came down, but they’re tracking you a thousand different ways and closing fast.”

  “A thousand, huh? Surely that’s hyperbole.”

  He smiles. “I like to hear pretty girls use big words. Which improve-your-vocabulary-in-thirty-days course did you take? Did it include the term lèse majesté? If not, you would be well advised to look it up.”

  “A high crime committed against a sovereign state. Treason,” she says. “But it isn’t applicable. You Techno Arcadians aren’t a sovereign state. You’re seditionists, totalitarians drunk on the promise of absolute power. You’re the treasonist.”

  That she knows they call themselves Techno Arcadians disturbs him, but he’s not surprised that she has clawed this fact out of one of the people she’s kidnapped and interrogated.

  With the slightest theatrical touch, she takes an iPhone from a jacket pocket and places it on the table as if it’s a Fabergé egg.

  Evidently she wants him to ask about it, but he will not. They are in a contest of wills, and he knows how to play these games.

  He says, “Who’s accused of treason and executed for it depends on who controls the press and courts. You don’t. Anyway, treason in pursuit of a perfect society is heroic.”

  Her puzzlement is exaggerated, a mocking expression. “A perfect society with people enslaved by brain implants?”

  He smiles and rolls his head back and forth on the gurney. “Not enslaved. They’re given peace, released from worry, given direction they can’t otherwise find in their lives.”

  As she unzips a leather tote bag that is standing on the table, Booth glances at the iPhone, wondering what she wants him to ask about it, so that he might ask something entirely different, if he mentions it at all.

  The phone becomes a secondary consideration when, from the tote, she extracts a large pair of scissors and smiles as she works the gleaming blades.

  She says, “Given direction, huh? Are there a lot of people who can’t figure out how to live their lives—they’re adrift, lost?”

  “Don’t play devil’s advocate with me, Jane. You know as well as I do, millions waste their lives with drugs, booze. They can’t find their way. They’re indolent and ignorant and unhappy. By adjusting them, we give them a chance to be happy.”

  “Really? Is that what you’re doing, Boo? Giving them a chance to be happy? Gee, I don’t know. It still looks like slavery to me.”

  He pretends disinterest in the scissoring blades. He sighs. “Candidates for adjustment aren’t chosen by race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. No particular group is targeted. It can’t be slavery if the purpose of every adjustment is to increase the amount of contentment and happiness in the world.”

  “So you’re quite the humanitarian, Boo. Maybe even a Nobel Peace Prize in your future.”

  Booth intensely dislikes being called Boo. That is a nickname with which he’d been mocked in his youth. She may have discovered this or intuited it. She thinks that by needling him, ridiculing him, she can unnerve him, just as she will try to unnerve him with the scissors and perhaps other sharp instruments. But he endured so much mockery as a child that he is inured to it. And as for being cut or tortured, she will discover that he has more courage than she supposes and the endurance of stone. Besides, he knows she prides herself on operating as much as possible within traditional moral boundaries and will not stoop to physical torture.

  “Not every ‘adjusted’ person is on your Hamlet list,” she says. “But those who are—exactly how are they made happier by killing themselves?”

  “I don’t select them. The computer does.”

  “The computer model.”

  “That’s right. It selected your husband because he was likely to have a wrongheaded political career after leaving the Marines.”

  “Who designed the computer model?”

  “Some exceedingly smart people.”

  “Like Bertold Shenneck and David James Michael.”

  “Smarter than you and me, Janey,” he assures her, though he is an intellectual equal to those men and certainly her superior.

  She says, “Shenneck, Michael—both dead. How smart could they have been?”

  He does not deign to answer that snarky non sequitur.

  He realizes they have taken off his suit coat. It lies jumbled on a counter, where it has been tossed as if it’s a rag. They should have had enough decency to ensconce a Dior suit coat in a closet, on a hanger. The wide strap across his thighs will surely leave severe wrinkles diagonal to the pleats in his pant legs.

  Using the scissors to point at the iPhone on the table, Jane Hawk says, “Are you wondering about the phone?”

  “What’s to wonder about? It’s just a phone, Janey.”

  “It’s the one you took from the woman you carjacked.”

  Booth shrugs in his restraints, but a sudden excitement stirs in him, which he must conceal.

&nb
sp; “You used that phone to contact your people and call them down on me,” she says. “Now I have the number you inputted.”

  “Which is worth nothing to you.”

  “Really? Nothing? Think about it, Boo.”

  He’s thinking about it, all right. When he called J-Spotter, the team automatically stored the number of that phone. Now that he has gone missing, they can use the number to quickly obtain the unique locater signal the phone produces. It is essentially a GPS transponder that will allow them to track her to this place sooner than later.

  She looks at the chauffeur and works the scissors, and he smiles at her, as if he knows what’s coming.

  She moves closer to the gurney, clicking the scissors, trying to get Booth to ask what she’s going to do with them, but of course he does not ask.

  When she pulls on a thick lock of his hair and cuts off a three- or four-inch length, Booth is surprised and displeased. “What the hell?”

  “To remember you by,” she says, but then drops the hair on the floor. “Though I’m afraid I’ve spoiled your perfect…What do you call it?”

  “What do I call what?”

  “Your ’do. Your stylish hairdo. What do you call it?”

  “Don’t be ridiculous.”

  “Do you call it a haircut?”

  “I don’t call it anything.”

  “No, you wouldn’t call it a haircut. Too common. You probably call it a coiffure. A man of your stature goes to a coiffeuse to be coiffed.”

  A small laugh escapes the black-suited thug, whether genuine or part of a practiced routine is hard to tell.

  “How much do you pay when you go to the coiffeuse, Boo?”

  “Mockery doesn’t work with me,” he assures her.

  “Do you pay a hundred dollars?”

  Booth does not reply.

  “I’ve insulted him,” she says to the thug at the table. “Must be two hundred at least, maybe three.”

  Booth realizes he is staring at the iPhone on the table. He looks away from it, lest she see his interest.

 
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