The crooked staircase, p.24
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       The Crooked Staircase, p.24

         Part #3 of Jane Hawk series by Dean Koontz
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  Travis giggled. “That’s bushwa.”

  “Oh, is it? Since when did you become a bushwa expert?”

  “You married her ’cause you love her.”

  Gavin rolled his eyes. “What man wouldn’t love a woman with such sandwiches?”

  He heard a curious buzzing noise in the distance, like a power tool of some kind, but when he cocked his head to hear it better, the sound faded away.

  “How’s your sunscreen holding up, Travis?”

  “I’m not burned or nothing.”

  “We’ll apply some more before we set out for home.”

  Gavin was from birth as dark as fire-scorched mahogany, but the boy had Celtic in him and needed to culture a spring tan slowly.

  “I wish I was black like you.”

  “Tell you what—we’ll make you an honorary brother tonight after dinner.”

  “How’s that work?”

  “We put some Sam Cooke on the stereo and some shoe polish on you, and we say the magic words.”

  “That’s so silly.”

  “I’ll tell you something true that’ll sound even sillier.”

  “Like what?”

  “There used to be whales swimming around these parts.”

  “More bushwa, Uncle Gavin.”

  “All this parched land and even far east into the true desert used to be a great, deep sea.”

  “When?”

  “Well, not last month. But four million years ago, for sure. They found baleen whale fossils in these parts. If you’d been out here eating chicken sandwiches four million years ago, you might have ended up like Jonah in the belly of Leviathan.”

  The buzzing noise returned, and this time it grew steadily louder.

  “What’s that?” asked Travis.

  “Let’s have a look.”

  Gavin got up and moved through the open grove, away from the creek, to the tree line. The buzzing seemed to originate overhead. Using his hand as a visor, he shielded his eyes from the sun, but he didn’t need to search the heavens for the sound.

  Cruising at perhaps fifteen miles an hour, the quadcopter drone came from the east, below the canyon wall, like a ten-pound insect, a camera slung beneath it on a stabilization gimbal.

  Although these canyons and hills seemed remote, they were not far from civilization. Many of Orange County’s scores of cities extended fingers into wild territory. On the other hand, he and Travis were not just around the corner from a housing tract of a thousand homes. They had never encountered a drone out here before.

  There were numerous legitimate purposes for the intrusive damn things. Realtors filmed for-sale properties with them, and surveyors made good use of them. But this was permanent open space, land that would never be given over to houses or office buildings or shopping malls.

  “What’s it doing?” Travis asked as the drone approached.

  They were standing in the last shade of the trees. Gavin said, “Step back,” drawing the boy with him deeper into the cover of the cottonwood branches, where they lost sight of the buzzing craft—and could not be seen.

  “What’s it doing?” the boy asked again.

  “Probably some techno geek playing with his newest toy.”

  “Way out here?”

  “Better out here, where he won’t screw up and fly it into someone’s car windshield. Come on, let’s get back to lunch before ants get what’s left of our sandwiches.”

  They returned to the blanket in the cool shade.

  The open grove allowed space between the trees. If the drone had flown directly over the woods, the grazing horses might not have been entirely screened from above.

  Gavin could still hear the buzzing craft in the distance. He finished his sandwich in two bites and then brought the horses to a nearby tree. He tied them to lower branches, where they now stood in full shade.

  “Don’t want them getting overheated,” he told the boy. “We have brownies for dessert, if you’re interested.”

  “I would’ve married Aunt Jessie just for her brownies.”

  “Back off, cowboy. I saw the lady first.”

  Gavin could hear two drones now, one more distant than the other. One perhaps tracking south to north, the other east to west. There might even have been three.

  “There’s more of them,” Travis said.

  “A whole damn club of geeks maybe having themselves some kind of tournament,” said Gavin, leaning back against a tree trunk, pretending to be unconcerned.

  He wondered why he needed to pretend. His explanation was most likely the correct one. His and Jessie’s friendship with Nick and Jane had been a relatively short one and discreet. In the two and a half months they had been sheltering Travis, not one of the legions searching for the boy’s mother had connected them to her.

  In fact, if those hunting for Jane had suddenly linked Gavin and Jessica to her, the bastards wouldn’t be chasing him and Travis with drones. They would be at the house right now, with Jessie in custody, waiting for man and boy to ride home, into their clutches.

  29

  When Jane entered the kitchen, Gilberto Mendez had not returned to his dinette chair and coffee. He stood by the sink, his spine straight and shoulders back and face solemn, perhaps as he stood at the entrance to one of his viewing rooms when he welcomed mourners to their last sight of a loved one.

  Booth Hendrickson was still strapped to the gurney, in a three-quarter sitting position. Gilberto had stuffed a roll of gauze in his mouth and firmly sealed his lips with duct tape.

  Even denied his voice, the Department of Justice magnifico was able to convey his contempt by keeping his chin raised, his eyes narrowed, and his brow smooth. Jane sensed that, behind the tape, his mouth was puckered in a pout of pure disdain.

  She stood beside the gurney, staring at him, testing her conviction, giving herself one last chance to take another course rather than the one to which she had committed earlier. But she had no second thoughts.

  “I thought Shenneck and D. J. Michael were the two heads of the snake, but they’re gone and the snake is still alive. I need to know the true power behind these Arcadians of yours, the one who sits on the ultimate throne. I need to know a lot of other things.”

  Hendrickson shook his head, no, playing the tough guy who would deny her even in this moment of his extreme peril.

  “I could interrogate you like I have others, but you’re as good a liar as the devil himself. I can’t afford to be deceived, sent on some wild-goose chase or into a trap.”

  If it might be possible to convey a smirk with one’s mouth concealed, Hendrickson smirked.

  “There’s only one way I can trust what you tell me.”

  He raised an eyebrow.

  “In January, we were still living in our house in Virginia, two months after Nick died. A scary thing happened. I’m at the computer, researching strange suicides. Travis is in his room, playing with LEGO blocks. I don’t realize some sonofabitch used a lock-release gun to get into the house. He’s in my boy’s room with him.”

  Hendrickson’s brow was not as smooth as it had been.

  “This guy charms Travis with funny stories. Sends him to me to ask what ‘natsat’ means, then ‘milk plus.’ I think it’s some little kid’s game. But they’re words from A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. It had a big effect on me in college, helped me go FBI. Travis comes in again, says Mr. Droog is in his room, so then I get it. In the novel, drug-crazed ultraviolent thugs are called droogs. Travis says Mr. Droog is going to teach him a fun game called rape.”

  Hendrickson’s eyes were pale-green pools of venom.

  “So I keep Travis close, get my gun, search the house, find no one, just the open back door,” Jane continued. “Just then the phone rings. It’s Mr. Droog. He tells me if I keep investigating Nick’s death and all these
suicides, they’ll snatch my boy and ship him off to ISIS or Boko Haram to be used as a sex slave until those savages get tired of passing him around. He says they might even do the same with me, so my son and I will have to witness each other’s abuse and degradation.”

  She closed her eyes and took a deep breath because speaking about this, especially to this man, stirred in her a lust for violence that she dared not indulge.

  She looked down on Hendrickson again. “This Mr. Droog had a distinctive mid-tenor voice, certain speech patterns that I told myself I’d never forget. Never. And I haven’t forgotten you, Mr. Droog. When you came fully out of the chloroform, by the time you told me how much you liked to hear pretty girls use big words like hyperbole, I knew you. I knew you.”

  She went to the refrigerator and took from it the Medexpress container and brought it to the table. An inset digital display on the face of the carrier read thirty-nine degrees Fahrenheit, which was the interior temperature, well within the preservation zone for the contents.

  From her leather tote, she took a length of rubber tubing to be used as a tourniquet, a foil-wrapped sterile wipe, and a hypodermic syringe.

  Through gauze gag and duct tape, Hendrickson made interrogatory sounds that might have been words forming an urgent question.

  Jane opened the Medexpress container. The CryoMAX modular cold packs were still largely frozen.

  She took from the container three generous ampules of cloudy amber fluid nestled in insulated sleeves, each bearing the same batch number, intended to be injected in the same session. They were some of the samples that she had taken from Bertold Shenneck’s house in Napa County, earlier in the month, when she and an ally invaded the weekend-getaway home of the inventor of the nanomachine control mechanism.

  She had wanted the samples as evidence. They were more than evidence now. They were an invaluable tool and a terrible justice.

  The sounds Hendrickson produced were no longer interrogatory, but instead exclamatory, a muffled but strenuous protest.

  “I do regret this, but there’s no other way with you,” she said. “No other way to get the truth, and I desperately need the truth, Mr. Droog. Fortunately, Shenneck gave me what I need to squeeze the truth out of you.”

  He began to thrash in his restraints, rocking the gurney, but there was no escape from the straps.

  She waited until he’d exhausted himself, and then she picked up the scissors and began to cut away the right sleeve of his white shirt.

  He tried to resist, but was ineffective.

  The cut sleeve came away and slithered to the floor.

  Gooseflesh stippled his bare arm. His pale forehead glistened with a fine beadwork of sweat.

  30

  This must not be allowed to happen. This is an outrage. He is who he is, and he is not a candidate for adjustment.

  No one has told him that she might have ampules containing control mechanisms. Which means no one knows about them.

  It’s known the crazy bitch took money from Shenneck’s safe in the Napa house, and it’s suspected she made off with his research files on flash drives, because he worked when in Napa as well as when in his labs in Menlo Park. But no one knows she’s gotten her hands on ampules containing control mechanisms.

  Shenneck wasn’t supposed to have those in such an unsecured location. They should have been stored in Menlo Park. What the hell was the demented asshole thinking? The recklessness, the arrogance, the sheer stupidity! The syphilitic sonofabitch probably meant to use them on his hot wife, Inga, as domineering a witch as ever rode a broom. Maybe he meant to convert her into his personal version of an Aspasia girl.

  This is intolerable. Unthinkable. This must not be allowed to happen. He is who he is. He is who he is, and she’s a vulgar pleb, operating out of her league. She’s gotten this far on sheer dumb luck, that’s all.

  As she unwraps the hypodermic, it occurs to Booth that perhaps some Arcadians know she’s in possession of control mechanisms but haven’t told him. Depending on what cell you’re in, what position you fill, you’re told only what it’s deemed you need to know. But he thought he knew everything, the ultimate insider. If someone decided that such knowledge was reserved for those above his station…There is no honor anymore. No integrity. Treachery is everywhere. Machinations, hollowness, treachery, and ruinous disorders! This can’t be allowed to happen.

  31

  Jane unwrapped the hypodermic needle. She prepared it and the cannula.

  She tied the rubber tube around his biceps and drew it tight. With one fingertip, she palpated the veins in his forearm until she found one suitably prominent.

  She tore open the foil packet and used the antiseptic wipe on the injection site.

  Sounds of an entirely different character than before issued from Booth Hendrickson, a miserable beseeching noise.

  The fingers of his upturned hand were spread and trembling, reaching out as best the strap allowed, much as a penniless and frightened beggar might seek alms.

  She met his intense stare, and with his eyes he implored her not to continue, seeking the mercy that he had never extended to anyone.

  The muffled cries escaping him now were as pitiable as the whimpers of a gravely injured dog.

  Gilberto came to Jane’s side. “I’ll do it. I have training.”

  “No. Not you. Not this of all things,” she murmured. “This is only on my shoulders, no one’s but mine.”

  As Jane prepared the first big ampule for intravenous infusion, Hendrickson began to cry like a frightened child lost and alone in a dark woods. The woods were his life as he had made it for himself, and the dark was the darkness of a soul so long untended that the wick of it had withered until it couldn’t be lit to bring forth any guiding hope.

  She hesitated to administer the first ampule. She shuddered violently, as though an icy and invisible presence had for a moment occupied the same space in which she stood before moving through her on its way into some nameless void.

  The human heart was deceitful above all things, hers no less than any other. In this perilous mission in which she found herself, the days were hard and the nights were lonely, and only two motors drove her onward: first, her love for her child and for her lost husband; second, the conviction that in the perpetual struggle of good and evil, the latter must be resisted without fail. But there was a temptation to use the weapons of evil against it, and in so using them to risk becoming the very thing that she was sworn to resist. She couldn’t say without doubt that her heart yearned more for justice than for vengeance, and it was in the self-deception regarding motive that the long descent of the soul began. In the end, she could only depend on her belief—and her heart’s faith—that her love for Travis and Nick was greater than her hatred for Hendrickson and his allies, because love and only love inoculated her against evil’s infection.

  In memory she heard Mr. Droog on the telephone that day in January: Sheerly for the fun of it, we could pack the little bugger off to some Third World snake pit, turn him over to a group like ISIS or Boko Haram, where they have no slightest qualms about keeping sex slaves. Some of those badasses…are terribly fond of little boys as much as they are of little girls….You’re more to my taste than your son, but I wouldn’t hesitate to pack you off with him and let those Boko boys who swing both ways have a twofer. Tend to your own business instead of ours, and all will be well.

  Now she met Hendrickson’s pale-green eyes again and said, “Come Hell or not, you are my business.”

  It was no small thing to deprive a man of his free will, even if he believed that denying others autonomy over their minds and bodies was his right as well as the road to Utopia.

  She served the first course of the three-ampule infusion and then the second.

  Because a scream would no longer avail him of any hope of rescue and because she sensed that it was her obligation to reg
ard his face complete, even to receive his bitter curses, as she reduced him from a man to a marionette, she stripped the duct tape from his mouth and allowed him to expel the sodden wad of gauze.

  He didn’t curse her, after all, didn’t speak or even weep.

  When she opened the valve to feed the third dose into the cannula, she met her captive’s eyes once more. He appeared to be horrified, stricken. But then a subtle change came over him, and it seemed that in his eyes welled something like awe, as if he were gazing up not at a motherless widow desperate to save the life of her child at any cost, but as if she were some fierce aboriginal goddess, embodiment of ultimate power, figure of mystery and wonder. And there was about him an air of deliverance, as though his lust for power, which would now never be fulfilled, could as well be satisfied by giving himself to power, as though his burning desire to have every knee bend before him was but the mirror image of his heart’s other and equal desire to live on his knees and kiss the ruler’s ring.

  A fresh chill gripped Jane, but instead of shivering her as had the previous one, it coiled in her bones to stay awhile.

  1

  Gavin and Travis, facing each other from opposite ends of the blanket, each with his back against a tree, finished the brownies and sat listening to the canyon wrens issuing a long series of clear whistles that cascaded through the cottonwood shade. Man and boy were comfortable with each other in conversation and in silence.

  In less than three months, Gavin had come to feel not just protective of Travis but also fatherly toward him. And Jessica was as smitten with him as if she had conceived him and brought him into the world. Any wound that Travis suffered would be their wound. If anything happened to him in their care, the years that remained for them would be years of grief aging into settled sorrow, and even the bright moments of life would be shot through with shadows.

  The boy said, “I’m kind of gettin’ sleepy here.”

  “Take a nap, kiddo. We’re not in a hurry to be anywhere.”

 
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