The crooked staircase, p.28
The Crooked Staircase, p.28Part #3 of Jane Hawk series by Dean Koontz
Hendrickson spoke of the La Jolla property readily enough, but his mood changed when answering questions about the place in Tahoe, which he called “the forge.” When closed in Anabel’s absence, the forge was overseen by the live-in groundskeeper, Loyal Garvin, and his wife, Lilith, who was the housekeeper. In her younger days, Anabel had spent nine months of the year at the forge, and the boys had sometimes lived the entire year there.
“Why do you call it ‘the forge’?” Jane asked.
“Because she called it that.” Hendrickson stared into his glass of cola as if the shapes of melting ice cubes were the equivalent of a Gypsy’s tea leaves.
“Was it a forge at one time?”
“It was her forge.”
“What do you mean by ‘forge’?”
He looked up from his drink and met her eyes but quickly looked away as he said, “What do you mean by it?”
“Blacksmiths. A furnace for heating metal and hammering it into shape. Forging horseshoes and swords and whatnot.”
That bitter, ironic laugh quickened from him and away. “In this case—whatnot.”
“By which you mean?”
After a hesitation, he said, “Mostly boys. She forged sons there.”
“You and Simon?”
“Didn’t I just say?”
“Forged you into what?”
“The kind of men she wanted.” His nostrils flared and he turned this way and that, sniffing. “Do you smell that?”
“Smell what?” Jane asked.
“I don’t smell anything.”
Hendrickson had no trouble looking at Gilberto; it was only Jane’s stare that intimidated him. “Do you smell spoiled meat, Charles?”
“No,” Gilberto said.
“Sometimes,” Hendrickson said, “bad smells no one else can detect…that’s a symptom caused by a control mechanism threading itself through the brain.”
After a silence, Jane said, “How did your mother forge you? Just what do you mean?”
“She had her ways. She had her very effective ways. We aren’t permitted to talk about that.”
“I’m giving you permission.”
“It’s not yours to give. We can’t talk about that. Never. Not ever. We can’t ever talk about that.”
If it was known that Gavin and Jessie were harboring Travis, they had to assume that their landline phones and their smartphones had been accessed remotely and were acting as infinity transmitters. Every word spoken in the house would now be monitored in real time by Jane’s enemies.
When they stepped into the kitchen from the back porch, Travis was sweeping the floors with a Swiffer. Duke and Queenie considered the fluffy Swiffer pad to be a toy. For a minute, there was a chaos of dogs panting and whimpering with excitement, of tails whacking cabinets and chair legs, and of a boy giggling as he struggled to preserve the pad from teeth and claws, managing at last to stow it in the broom closet.
When Travis turned to them, Gavin made a V of two fingers, pointed them at his eyes and then at the boy’s eyes, which was a prearranged signal that meant Big trouble, so focus on me.
Travis became instantly alert.
“Hey, kiddo, you want to play cards, Old Maid?” Jessie asked.
“Yeah, I like those funny old games. They’re cool.”
Gavin pointed with a forefinger, drew a circle in the air to include the entire room, and tugged at his right earlobe, which the boy would know meant, They’re all around us, listening.
“I’ll get some drinks,” Jessie said.
“I’d like a beer,” Gavin said.
“Beer for me, too,” said Travis.
“You wish,” Jessie told the boy as she moved to the iPod that stood on the counter with a pair of Bose speakers. “Heineken for the big guy, root beer for the wise guy.”
“I gotta use the bathroom,” Travis said.
“Me, too,” Jessie said, “but I gotta have music, too.”
Gavin said, “Pure tragedy that I was born too late for doo-wop. Give me some Hank Ballard, some Platters, some Del Vikings.”
As he and Travis moved away into the house, music rose loud in the kitchen.
The only computer with an Internet connection was in Gavin’s office. It had a camera. He’d covered the lens with a piece of blue painter’s tape. But rumors abounded that computers made in the past two years, which his had been, contained a second, hidden camera—a so-called Orwell eye—that looked out from behind the screen.
He hadn’t worked today. The computer was off. But it remained plugged into a wall outlet, so that the unit-ID package received a trickle charge, and its locater continuously issued an identifying signal. Did technology exist enabling them to invade his computer, turn it fully on while connecting it to the Internet, and activate its Orwell eye, much as they could turn any telephone mic into a surveillance device?
He didn’t know. He couldn’t risk going into his office.
Three televisions in the house. New models might have been a problem, but they didn’t have new. The small one in the kitchen was probably fifteen years old; it had belonged to Jessica’s mother. Those in the family room and master bedroom were eight years old, bought right after their marriage. No cameras and no Internet capability in those three.
Duke and Queenie raced ahead of him, up the stairs, their lowered tails dragging across the carpet runner, alert to the fact that some crisis was at hand.
Gavin’s smartphone lay on the dresser. He would have to leave it there. Jessie would need to abandon hers as well.
The only phone they would be taking was the burner that Jane had given them. They didn’t dare use it while they might be within range of the sky fisher circling the valley, but eventually they would be in the clear.
Primed for action but finding none immediate, Duke and Queenie departed in a soft thunder of paws, perhaps to seek Travis.
In the back of the clothes closet stood two prepacked suitcases prepared for just such an emergency as this. He set them by the bed.
From the lowest of the three drawers in his nightstand, he took a Galco shoulder system. The harness had a clover-shaped Flexalon back plate that allowed the four points of the suede harness to swivel independently of the others for a tight but comfortable fit, which he quickly achieved. From the same drawer, he withdrew a Springfield Armory TRP-Pro .45 ACP. Seven-round magazine. Five-inch barrel. Thirty-six-ounces loaded. It used to be the FBI’s pistol for their SWAT Hostage Rescue Team, and maybe it still was.
He pulled on a sport coat cut for concealed carry and snatched up the suitcases and went downstairs to the kitchen, where Travis was already standing by the back door with a smaller suitcase of his own. The dogs were with the boy, collared and leashed and standing at attention, tails still and bodies taut.
Jessie was singing “Little Darlin’ ” along with the Diamonds on the iPod. She sounded carefree. She wore a woman-friendly belt-fixed rig that allowed the butt of the Colt Pony Pocketlite .380 ACP to ride low on the hip for comfort.
On the table stood a briefcase she’d retrieved from a concealed compartment at the back of the pantry. It contained ninety thousand in cash that Jane had stripped away from various bad guys over the past couple months and had left here, plus another twenty thousand of their own funds they had withdrawn from the bank in small enough amounts to avoid calling attention to themselves, in preparation for just such an emergency as this.
The Diamonds finished their tune, and in the silence between selections, as he went to the back door, Gavin said, “You have the Marcels on deck?”
“Relax, Mr. Romance, ‘Blue Moon’ was our honeymoon song, if you remember.”
“Oh, I do remember. Vividly. Vividly,” he said as Joe Bennett and the Sparkletones came on strong with “Black Slacks.”
He eased open the door and carried the two suitcases outside. Travis stayed behind with Jessie and the dogs, while Gavin hurried to the stand-alone garage near the stables.
Although Sanjay knew that he was awake, he felt as if he were moving through a dream or through a sequence in a noir film designed to convey a dreamlike quality. Something directed by Michael Curtiz or Fritz Lang. Maybe John Huston. Pools of light under streetlamps, reminiscent of the hard light focused on suspects being grilled in otherwise shadowy interrogation rooms. The shifting fog suggesting that reality was fluid, that nothing was what it seemed to be, that his motives were shrouded even from himself. And the night, always the night beyond the lamplight, behind the fog. The night resonated with some darkness in himself that brought him here with intentions that, curiously, were revealed to him only one move at a time, as if he were merely a chess piece with no purpose of his own, a pawn animated by some unknown player’s strategy.
When he and Tanuja arrived at the front door, he almost rang the bell, but then realized that he had no need to announce their arrival. From a coat pocket, he removed a key. Perplexed, he stared at it in the soft glow of the stoop light. It lay on his palm as if it had been conjured there. Then he murmured, “The rapist gave it to me last night,” although his words did not relieve his perplexity.
He turned to Tanuja, and her gaze rose from the key to his eyes. “What did you say, chotti bhai?” she asked, raising one hand to the right corner of her mouth.
“I don’t know. Maybe…nothing,” he said. “Nothing that meant anything.”
“Nothing,” she agreed.
Next move: He slipped the brass key into the keyway of the deadbolt, and the lock relented. And then the next: He pushed open the door.
Tanuja crossed the threshold, and Sanjay followed her into a foyer with a golden-marble floor, pale-peach walls, and a modern chandelier with ropes of lighted crystals cascading like dreadlocks.
He quietly closed the door and put away the key and looked around at the matching antique chinoiserie sideboards to the left and right, each bearing a cut-crystal bowl of fresh white roses.
“Mausi Ashima has always had exquisite taste,” said Tanuja.
If the plane cruising the valley was what they believed it to be, there was surely surveillance out on the county road, at the entrance to their property, to record whatever vehicles came and went. But Gavin doubted there would be anyone posted closer than that. The gated private lane leading here was over two hundred feet long and flanked by colonnades of old live oaks, which screened the house and other structures from the public highway. To get much closer, the watchers would have to risk being seen; they no doubt preferred to keep their interest secret until they might snatch Jane’s next phone call from the air, track it to its source—and then swoop in to grab the boy.
The garage was a rebuilt barn without windows. Gavin didn’t worry about switching on the lights after he stepped inside and closed the door behind him.
The building contained a complete automotive workshop as well as four vehicles, including his prized street rod, an apple-green ’48 Ford pickup that he’d chopped, channeled, and sectioned. She was hot and fast, but she wasn’t suitable for their current escape plan. The ’40 Mercury coupe on which he’d recently begun work was without a functioning engine and lacked wheels. Jessie’s Explorer would have been adequate if Ford hadn’t downsized Explorers years earlier. The getaway fell to the other all-wheel drive, an ’87 Land Rover that he’d rebuilt from near ruin and that contained no GPS locater by which it could be tracked.
He stood on a step stool to lash the suitcases to a roof rack, making sure they were secured enough to stay in place through any adventure other than maybe a double rollover.
When he returned to the kitchen, the Coasters were rollicking through “Yakety Yak,” while Jessie and Travis were talking cards as if they were actually playing Old Maid. For the entertainment of eavesdroppers, Gavin sang a few bars, while he grabbed the boy’s suitcase and Jessie’s blade-runner prosthetics, which he carried to the garage and put on the floor in the backseat of the Land Rover.
When he returned to the house for the last time, the Monotones were fully into “The Book of Love.”
Travis said, “I gotta go to the bathroom.”
“You just went,” Jessie said.
“Yeah, well, I didn’t went enough.”
“Okay, and I swear we won’t look at your cards when you’re out of the room.”
Jessie carried the briefcase containing $110,000, and the boy stayed close by her side all the way to the garage.
Gavin followed behind with Duke and Queenie. The dogs sprang into the Rover through the tailgate.
The horses would be all right for the night. In the morning, he would call someone and arrange to have the stallion, mare, and pony professionally stabled for a month. He had to believe that this bad business would be finished in a month. One way or another, it would be finished.
Tanuja was herself, Tanuja Shukla, born in Mumbai, reborn in America, orphaned when her beloved parents fell out of the sky, but she was also Emma Dodge, born in Long Beach, now a personal shopper for wealthy women in Bel Air and Beverly Hills, as chronicled in the recent novel published by Random House. She was as well Alecto, a daughter of Gaea, one of the Furies, having stepped safely down the long sky through which dear Baap and Mai had fallen, to cohabit Tanuja’s body and to share the pages of the story of Emma Dodge. Tanuja-Emma-Alecto, triune entity, stood in the grand foyer of the Chatterjee residence, for the moment uncertain of her purpose. As a writer, Tanuja used her free will to create whole worlds, in one of which she’d shaped Emma, who possessed no free will, and borrowed Alecto from unknown writers who had created her millennia earlier. For all her reputation as a divinity, Alecto possessed no more free will than Emma, both being fictional, and yet in this still point between the past and the future, to bring this moment of indecision to a necessary end, it was Alecto who rose to the occasion.
Gazing at her reflection in one of the mirrors that hung above the chinoiserie sideboards in the foyer, Tanuja saw not the author of Alecto Rising, but Alecto herself, dark eyes encircled by darker eye shadow, lips black, and when she put a hand to those lips, the fingernails were black as well. Within fierce Alecto, she saw the shadow of another divinity from another pantheon entirely, Kali in her terrible Chandi aspect, wearing a necklace of human skulls. In fact, there were shadows within Kali, shades of uncounted vengeful deities from all of pagan history, gathered now in Tanuja, and she their avatar, brought here, this night, to do their will, not her own, and so she turned from the mirror when she heard voices and laughter elsewhere in the house.
From the dark garage into the dark night, without the aid of headlights, Gavin drove not along the lane toward the county road, but instead to the back gate in the property fence and out into the wildland, into which he and Travis had ridden their horses earlier in the day.
Travis sat belted in the backseat. Jessica rode shotgun, literally, with a 12-gauge racked stock-down in a dashboard-mounted clamp directly in front of her.
Under the starless overcast, through which the moon was only a ghostlight, the rough land lay crisp and clear before Gavin, though it was rendered an otherworldly green by the night-vision goggles that had been stowed under the driver’s seat and that he now wore.
These were not average night-vision devices like the Bushnell Equinox Z or ATN Viper X-1. They were ATN PVS7-3 goggles, MIL-SPEC Generation 4 gear used by all branches of the U.S. military, and although they were available for purchase by civilians, they cost north of $60,000. Jane had provided a pair for this sole purpose. Gavin didn’t think she had bought them, and he was discreet enough not to ask how she’d obtained them.
The device gathered all the available light—even infrared that
Off-road at night in rough terrain, they could not have risked headlights and taillights, which in this unpopulated and untraveled terrain would have made a spectacle of their escape, especially to an aerial observer. The blush of red brake lights reflecting off slopes of scree and through fields of blond grass would be less noticeable from a distance, but Gavin nonetheless strove to minimize the use of brakes.
The engine noise might betray them on departure, but less so after the first mile. Any agent on the ground would be hard put to get an accurate fix on the Rover’s location in this stark country of discontinuous hills and zigzagging canyons scored into the land less by erosion than by thousands of years of earthquakes, which provided a maze of hard surfaces off which sound could ricochet until it seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere.
“We’re drivin’ blind,” the boy said from the backseat.
“You and I are,” Jessie said, “but not my man here.”
“Clear as noon to me,” Gavin said, though in fact the view through the goggles disturbed him.
The strange green light robbed all things of their true color, as though before him lay an alien moon in a universe where the laws of electromagnetic radiation were far different from those of the world on which he’d been born. This radiance seemed also to drown everything that it illuminated, the qualities of light and water married in its effect, the semidesert now submerged in a sea, the Land Rover a submarine at great depth, under terrible pressure.
The Crooked Staircase by Dean Koontz / Thrillers & Crime / Mystery & Detective / History & Fiction / Horror / Science Fiction / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes