The crooked staircase, p.27
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       The Crooked Staircase, p.27

         Part #3 of Jane Hawk series by Dean Koontz
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  She opened the kitchen door. Travis had begun to wipe crumbs off the dinette table with a damp dishcloth, after which he would dry the table with a dish towel. Diligent about the simple chores he was given, the boy focused intently on the table, his face serious and his tongue protruding between his teeth. Just then turning away from the dishwasher, Gavin saw Jessie in the doorway. She gestured at him to join her on the porch.

  11

  Hendrickson dunked the lemon drop cookies in his Coke. But he ate the chocolate chip cookies dry, taking small bites all the way around the circumference of each one and then around again, until there remained just the center, a miniature cookie, that he could pop into his mouth whole. He ate more of these treats than anyone but a hyperactive child or a fat man of gargantuan appetite could have consumed, and all the while he did not look at either of his captors, did not speak a word.

  Jane nursed her vodka-and-Coke, watching Hendrickson gimlet-eyed, wondering if his apparent regression into childlike behavior was real or feigned. If it was a performance, what did he have to gain by it? Nothing that she could imagine. If he’d decided not to tell her more about the Arcadians or about his work on their behalf, he didn’t need to fake a psychological implosion; he could simply clam up. He knew she wasn’t capable of physically torturing him. Anyway, when his control mechanism began to function in a few hours, she could demand that he tell her all, and he would not be able to resist. Which argued that whatever was happening to him must be real, either triggered by his terror and despair over his coming enslavement or as a consequence of the nanoconstructs failing to properly assemble without causing brain damage.

  She worried that a mental collapse might render him a poor subject for interrogation even after the control mechanism had fully and correctly inserted itself. What good would it be to insist he divulge what he knew if mentally he had regressed to some childlike condition in which he remembered nothing past the age of ten?

  She decided to press him for more information now. “You’ve told me all the names in your cell. But as connected as you are, there must be other people you suspect of being Arcadians.”

  “You said I could have cookies.”

  “And you have them.”

  “But I need another Coke.”

  “I’ll get it,” Gilberto said.

  To Hendrickson, Jane said, “Talk to me while you eat.”

  “Okay. If you say so. But what happened to Simon?”

  “Your brother? I left him alive.”

  “But what happened to him? What did you do?”

  “What do you care?”

  He lowered his voice almost to a whisper and spoke with evident distress. “I need to know.”

  As Gilberto returned with a cold can of cola and put it on the table, he looked down upon Hendrickson’s bent head for a moment and then glanced at Jane as though to be sure that she realized how disconnected their captive had become. With a nod, she assured him that she understood.

  If Jane had become for Hendrickson the symbol of ultimate power, and if he had, as she’d earlier thought, always been a man who longed for greater power at the same time that he yearned to submit to it, then she was best advised to keep him fearful of her.

  “I broke Simon. Broke him and made him cooperate in your kidnapping. I left him tied up in his fancy theater, lying in his own piss.”

  He said nothing and put down a half-eaten cookie.

  “What do you think about that?” Jane prodded.

  Hendrickson muttered something.

  “I can’t hear you,” she said.

  He whispered, “Simon was always the strong one.”

  “I wasn’t that impressed with your Simon.” She paused for vodka-and-Coke. “Come on now, tell me, who do you suspect might be Techno Arcadians?”

  After a silence, he said, “Well, first of all, there’s one more I know is.”

  Jane frowned. “You said you’d named all you knew.”

  “I named everyone in my cell.”

  “Who is the other?”

  Hendrickson licked his lips. He glanced at her and quickly away. “Anabel. My mother. She’s one. One of them. She was Bertold Shenneck’s first investor. Even before D. J. Michael. She’s one. Anabel.”

  12

  When Gavin came onto the porch, Jessie was already standing in the backyard, gazing at a starless sky in which the moon’s ascent could be confirmed by only a pale shapeless blur pressing against the crackle-glazed cloud cover like some spirit at a winter-frosted window. He went to her.

  “Hear that?” she asked. “It’s heading east, but I think it’s been circling.”

  Wearing her standard prosthetics, she stood with her legs more widely spread than she would have if they had been real, to ensure her balance. Her hands were fisted on her hips, and as she peered into the obscure heavens, her posture and expression were a challenge, as though she had taken umbrage at some injustice and, having brought it to the attention of a higher power, was waiting now for a cosmic correction to be effected. Jessie had high expectations of everyone, including Providence and herself, and this was one of the things he most loved about her.

  He listened until he determined that the aircraft had changed directions. “Sounds northbound now.”

  “Bet it turns west in a couple minutes. Thinking back on it, maybe there’s been a plane up there all day.”

  “It would have to refuel. Change crews.”

  “So maybe there’s been two of them, spelling each other.”

  Every time an owl hooted from its oak-tree perch, mourning doves sheltering in the stable eaves cooed nervously, though their fragile but deep-set nests put them beyond reach of the larger, predatory bird.

  As Gavin listened to the plane, the disquiet of the doves infected him, though his foreboding arose from a threat more serious than a great horned owl.

  “I guess I know what you’re thinking,” Jessie said.

  “I guess you do.”

  According to Jane, in the vicinity of all major cities that might be subject to a terrorist attack, the National Security Agency likely maintained surveillance aircraft staffed and ready to take off at a moment’s notice. They were equipped to seine from an ocean of telecom signals only those carrier waves reserved for cellphones, even specifically for transmissions from disposable phones, burner phones, within a fifty-mile radius. They were fishermen netting data out of a sea of air, able to use an analytical scanning program to search for references to an impending attack—the names of known terrorists, key words in English, Chinese, Russian, and various Middle Eastern languages—and then use track-to-source technology to pinpoint the location of those burner phones.

  Jessie said, “What if…”

  “Yeah?”

  “If the analytical program was customized to search for names like Jane, Travis, Nick…for words like Mom and love and Dad and things like that, could they nail us if she calls our burner?”

  “Us and her. But first they’d have to suspect the boy’s in this area. How could they?”

  He and Jessie rarely took Travis off the property. And as far as anyone knew, he was their nephew, Tommy, staying with them while his exhausted parents looked after his eight-year-old sister who was fighting cancer. There were only two known photos of Travis, both frequently shown on TV, one from when he was only three. The other, more recent, didn’t provide a clear image of him.

  “Anyway,” Jessie said, “if somebody thought they recognized him and reported him, this place would already be crawling with Feds.”

  “Not if maybe they checked out our story about a nephew and found it was bogus. And then discovered a link between us and Jane. They’d wait for her to call us.”

  “It’d be pretty damn expensive to pull a couple of these surveillance planes out of San Diego or L.A. just for this.”

  “Your
tax dollars at work. Anyway, say they get her burner location.”

  “Say.”

  “And say she doesn’t know they have it. So she doesn’t throw it away after calling us.”

  “They could get to her fast.”

  “Considering what’s at stake, they’ll put any resources they have into finding her.” He cocked his head and turned one ear to the northbound plane until he said, “Getting louder. I think it just turned west.”

  About two feet long from tail to ear tufts, with a four-foot wingspan, the great horned owl sailed off the oak branch and swooped down the darkness, beautiful and pale and terrible. It came toward Jessie and Gavin, eyes luminous yellow in a catlike face, passed low over them, and glided lower still. From among the carpet of crisp oak leaves, the bird snatched a soft, warm vole or a field mouse or another small earthbound creature born to the short life of easy prey.

  The owl vanished into some high roost to consume its catch in silence, but overhead the aircraft grew louder and nearer in its patient patrol.

  Gavin wondered if the drones, earlier in the day, had not been searching for them—because their location was already known—but instead had been meant to spook them just enough so that they might call Jane’s burner phone to ask her advice.

  “If she calls us,” Jessie said, “we warn her and hang up. But if this plane is what we think…”

  “They’ll know we’re on to them,” Gavin said, “and they’ll be all over this place in ten minutes.”

  He put two fingers in his mouth and whistled loud, and the dogs came running from out of the darkness.

  “So we go?” Jessie asked.

  “We go. And if it’s a false alarm, we come back.”

  She took his hand. “I don’t think we’ll be coming back soon.”

  13

  An imposing house at the end of a cul-de-sac. Soft contemporary architecture. Black slate roof, smooth rather than textured stucco, honed limestone paving, enormous sheets of glass on the view side of the residence. Palm trees and ferns. Beds of anthuriums with red heart-shaped spathes like bursts of blood in the landscape lighting.

  Sanjay Shukla parked at the curb near the residence.

  Tanuja was living her recent novel, or perhaps researching a sequel, much as she had when she stood in the rain to catalogue the feelings of her character Subhadra in the novelette she’d not yet finished writing.

  Alecto Rising, her recently published novel, magic realism with a comic edge, had received kind reviews. It concerned a young woman named Emma Dodge into whom was manifested one of the Furies, Alecto. In classic mythology, Tisiphone and Megaera and Alecto, daughters of the earth goddess Gaea, punished crimes in the name of the victims. In Tanuja’s story, Alecto descended to the earth because current-day crimes were so horrible that humanity risked annihilation if criminals were not taught to fear again the justice of the gods. Being a pagan goddess, Alecto preferred swift and harsh retribution, bloodier than not, but Emma Dodge, a twenty-eight-year-old personal shopper with a stubborn streak, at first bewildered to be sharing her body with a violence-prone divinity, had ideas of her own. In the novel, Alecto taught Emma the value of a moral code and respect for higher powers, while Emma put Alecto through an enlightenment less destructive than that of the eighteenth century, and together they devised lesson-teaching punishments as effective as evisceration but less lethal. In his usual acerbic way, Sanjay called it Death Wish Meets Pay It Forward.

  A Mercedes sedan and a BMW were parked immediately in front of the Chatterjee residence. On the last Saturday of every month, Aunt Ashima and Uncle Burt invited the same four guests to dinner and an evening of cards. Justin Vogt, the attorney who had advised them during their management of the Shukla Family Trust, following the death of Baap and Mai in the plane crash, who had helped them protect the funds they had looted from it, and his wife, Eleanor, would be there. So would Mohammed Waziri, the accountant, and his lovely wife, Iffat.

  As Tanuja got out of the Hyundai, the skulls strung round her neck clicked softly, one against another.

  The house faced onto a canyon that declined to the sea; and the sea had effused a fog into the canyon, so that the darkness of that void had given way to a pallid and amorphous mass that now began to overflow, questing between the houses with its many ghostly hands.

  She drew a deep breath of the pleasantly cool night air and surveyed the street, which curved around an oval island—planted with japonica bushes and three mature coral trees—before doubling back on itself.

  Of the six houses on the cul-de-sac, four were dark, including two immediately to the east of the Chatterjee property and the one adjacent to it on the west side.

  For a moment, Tanuja came unmoored from her purpose and did not know why she found herself in this place. Alecto Rising was written and published, and she had no need to research it. Anyway, how was it possible to research what it felt like to share one’s body with a pagan divinity? Such a thing could not be researched, only imagined.

  From the nearby canyon rose the ululation of coyotes in the frenzied pursuit of prey. She had heard these cries often before. Although the sound always had the power to ice the spine, the chill she felt this time was not related to pity for whatever terrified creature might be fleeing through the night. This time, the coldness in her marrow was spawned by a sudden ability to vividly imagine the horror of being in the grip of a blood delirium, of being the chaser rather than the chased, of life lived in the regimentation of a pack, where the frenzy of one became the frenzy of all.

  Be at peace, she told herself. Saturday night is for fun. There is fun to be had. Do whatever you feel you must do to be happy, and tomorrow you will write your best work ever.

  Sanjay came around the Hyundai to her side, and her concern greatly diminished with his arrival. She did not know where this research would take her after they went to the house and rang the bell, but that was, after all, why one conducted research—to see where it might lead.

  He had opened the tailgate to retrieve the reciprocating saw and the orange extension cord. She had forgotten about those items. She couldn’t imagine to what purpose they would be applied.

  Well, they were just tools. One needed tools to accomplish any task, whatever it might be.

  “No. Not yet,” he said, and he closed the tailgate.

  Already, under the streetlamps, the blacktop glistened with a condensation of fog, and wetness mottled the sidewalk, and the grass was diamonded, and the glossy red spathes of the anthuriums dripped.

  14

  Except for the years that he’d been in the Marines and two years after, Gilberto had lived above the funeral home ever since his mother had brought him home from the hospital as an infant in a bassinet. He had slept most nights knowing there was at least one dead person downstairs—often two, sometimes three—and some of his earliest memories were of venturing into a viewing room when no one was there, to stand on tiptoe by the casket and look at the deceased fresh from the embalming room in the basement. By the time he was eleven, he was observing his father at work, assisting in what small ways he could. He had seen people who’d died of natural causes at ninety, who had been eaten away by cancer at fifty, who had been killed in a bar fight at thirty, who had died in a car crash at sixteen, who had been beaten to death by an abusive parent at six, all those and many more. He had seen them, and later he had prepared their poor bodies with the respect and tenderness that his father had taught him. In all the years of his life with the dead, Gilberto had never been frightened of being in the company of a corpse or of a corpse itself. He had only fond memories of these rooms above a mortuary, memories of love and conviviality.

  For the first time, this Saturday in March, fear had come upon him here, and more than once. The previous evening, when Jane had told him about the nanomachines and the Arcadian conspiracy, he had believed her and had felt an existential dread unl
ike any that he’d known since being away at war. But now observing her interrogation of Booth Hendrickson, both prior to the injection and after, as they anticipated the man’s coming conversion, Gilberto had been chilled to the core.

  Jane’s techniques, persistence, and self-control made the interrogation a riveting experience for Gilberto, but in spite of her unrelenting—even merciless—pursuit of the truth, he had not been shaken by anything she did. In fact, he was grateful she was on the right side of this business, because if she’d been one of them, she would have been a damn formidable enemy.

  Hendrickson was another matter. The arrogance of the man from the DOJ, his contempt for the rights of others, for the lives of others, his utopia that would be the darkest dystopia for most of humanity…More than once, the guy sent shivers through Gilberto.

  And now, as his personality seemed to deteriorate, either under the extreme stress brought on by his inevitable conversion into one of his adjusted people or because something was going wrong with the control mechanism implantation, Hendrickson’s voice and his manner and his revelations about his mother stiffened the fine hairs on the back of Gilberto’s neck. Since the control mechanism had not yet woven itself fully across and into the man’s brain, there was a possibility that his breakdown was a performance, that he had some trick in mind, though it was difficult to see what he could hope to achieve by such a deception. Besides, there was a creepy reality to his emotional devolution.

  Jane wanted to know a great deal about the estate in La Jolla, where Anabel Claridge currently resided, and then about the estate in Lake Tahoe, to which the woman would move on May first and remain until October.

  “She likes Tahoe not for its winter sports, but for its summer beauty,” Hendrickson said, and he emitted a mutterance of laughter, bitter and restrained, which he refused to explain. In fact, he denied having laughed at all, and he seemed to be sincere in his denial.

 
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