The crooked staircase, p.30
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       The Crooked Staircase, p.30

         Part #3 of Jane Hawk series by Dean Koontz
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  25

  The previous night, Gilberto had enjoyed eight hours of sleep, unlike Jane, who had gotten four hours. But as he leaned back in his kitchen chair and massaged the nape of his neck with one hand, he looked as tired and world-weary as she felt. She had asked him to impersonate a chauffeur; she regretted that he’d been drawn so much deeper into this. Most of all, she was sorry that he’d been required to witness the enslavement of a fellow human being, even if one so lacking in humanity as this specimen.

  At 8:45 P.M., and again at nine o’clock, Jane said to Hendrickson, “Play Manchurian with me,” which was the trigger sentence programmed into the earlier generations of control mechanisms, like the one with which he’d been injected. Twice, he sat in silence, head bowed, either lost in thought or in a cataleptic trance that might be the end destination of his psychological collapse.

  The third time, at 9:20, he lifted his head and said, “All right,” and waited expectantly.

  Of course, he’d known the trigger sentence and the proper reply before he’d been injected. He could be faking.

  She had devised a test that involved a sterilized scalpel from the mortuary’s instrument collection and a command for Hendrickson to cut one thumb.

  When the moment came, however, she knew too much about his past suffering to require of him a test of pain.

  She said, “Are you tired, Booth?”

  “Oh, yes.”

  His ashen face, his bloodshot eyes, his pale lips were those of a man at the limit of his resources.

  “Are you very tired?” she asked.

  “Very. I’ve never been so tired.”

  “While we were waiting for the control mechanism to implant, was everything you told me true?”

  “Yes.”

  “Entirely true? Even about…Tahoe?”

  “Yes. True.”

  “And now you’re very tired. So I’m going to order you to sleep and keep sleeping until I wake you by touching your right shoulder and saying your name. Do you understand?”

  “Yes.”

  “Sleep,” she said.

  He slumped in the chair, and his head lolled to one side, and he seemed to sleep.

  26

  Whether this was her second or third vodka-and-Coke in the past few hours, she didn’t know. She didn’t care. She wanted only to stop thinking about the crooked staircase, about the terrible task that lay ahead, and be able to get four or five hours of sleep.

  In the low light of a silk-shaded lamp, she and Gilberto sat in living-room armchairs, facing each other. He had poured for himself a generous portion of Scotch weakened by a single ice cube.

  Hendrickson remained asleep and tethered to the chair in the kitchen. They had left brighter lights on for him than they wanted for themselves.

  Minutes earlier, after a call from Gilberto, his older brother, Hector, and Hector’s seventeen-year-old son, Manuel, had stopped by, and Gilberto had gone downstairs to give them a key so they could retrieve Jane’s SUV. They knew only that an unnamed friend had left it parked in the lot of a supermarket the previous day and needed it to be brought here.

  Gilberto swirled the Scotch just enough to clink the dwindling ice cube against the glass. “I thought my war was over years ago.”

  “It’s all one war,” she said, “and it’s never over. But you have a haven here. Still no reason to be afraid of the dead.”

  “Only the living.” He took a drink. “Long way to Lake Tahoe.”

  “If I catch some sleep, hit the road by four, I’ll be there by noon, maybe one o’clock if the weather sucks.”

  “With him riding beside you.”

  “I need him.”

  “But can you really trust him?”

  “Not to turn on me, yeah. But if his psychological collapse gets any worse than it is now, he might not be as useful as I hope.”

  “They know you have him.”

  “But you heard him—they don’t know I walked away from Napa with samples of the control mechanism.”

  “He didn’t know. Maybe others do.”

  “I’m betting they don’t. And given the need-to-know rule, they won’t notify the couple that maintains the Tahoe house when Anabel isn’t there. Hell, they’re just old people, plebs, plodders, rabble, two-legged cattle.”

  Gilberto shuddered. “What he said about why they make some kill themselves and just enslave others…”

  Hendrickson’s explanation was engraved in Jane’s memory. The ones who would turn society in the wrong direction, we hate them and believe they deserve to die. Some of those we enslave are just for our pleasure, like the girls of Aspasia. Others will run the world at our direction while we remain concealed behind them, and they are all ignorant fools who deserve to be enslaved.

  After they took a moment of solace in their drinks, Gilberto said, “People in power…in my dad’s day, they weren’t full of contempt for the rest of us.”

  “Power corrupts.”

  “It’s something more than that. Power has always corrupted.”

  “It’s all the damn experts,” she said. “We stopped governing ourselves, turned it over to experts.”

  He frowned. “It’s a complex world. People running it have to know what they’re doing.”

  “These experts don’t have any real-world experience worth shit. They’re elitists. They’re all theory but no real-world experience. Self-described intellectuals.”

  “Well, I guess maybe I know the type. Just turn on the TV.”

  “This British historian, Paul Johnson, he wrote a great book about them,” Jane said. “It’ll scare the piss out of you.”

  “I’m already scared pretty much pissless.”

  “They’re uberconformists, live in a bubble of the like-minded. Contemptuous of common sense and regular people.”

  “Plebs, plodders, the great unwashed like us.”

  “But people matter more than ideas. Nick mattered more than any idiot theory. My boy, your kids—they matter more.”

  “You see it changing?”

  That was a question she had asked herself. The honest answer wasn’t comforting. “It’s gotten worse for a couple centuries.”

  “We gotta hope, though.”

  “Hope,” she agreed. “And resist.”

  27

  Carter Jergen says, with delight, “Sometimes a charitable act is rewarded with a kick in the teeth.”

  For weeks, in search of the hidden boy, agents had been tracking down every relative of Nick’s and Jane’s even to the ex-spouse of a second cousin. Every former Marine with whom Nick had served. The families of the victims of the serial killers Jane had caught or killed, with the expectation that she might have bonded with one of those families. Her old college friends. Anyone she might trust with her child. To no avail.

  Because neither Nick nor Jane was a showboat, their support of organizations serving veterans didn’t come to the attention of the searchers until so many other, more likely avenues of inquiry had been exhausted. And suddenly, in the photo collections of the fundraising events of those organizations, there they were at this marathon, at that wheelchair-sports weekend, at this gala—often in the company of Gavin and Jessica Washington, smiling and happy and obviously with friends.

  As Carter Jergen pilots the Range Rover between the colonnades of live oaks, he says, “No rest for the weary.”

  “It’s the price of success,” Radley Dubose replies. “We kicked ass on the Shukla job, so they drop this on us a day later. Doesn’t bother me. I like being wanted. You ever think what’ll happen if we start screwing up?”

  “No Christmas bonus?”

  “It’ll be you and me getting needles in the arm like we did the Hindu writer kids.”

  “Not in a million years,” says Jergen, surprised that even as stunted a specimen as Dubose
is so cynical. “We don’t eat our own.”

  That statement elicits a patronizing smile. “No cannibalism among the Brahmins? I went to an Ivy League school, remember. I saw what I saw. I know what I know.”

  Oversized and self-satisfied, Dubose now reminds Jergen of yet another cartoon character—Popeye. I saw what I saw, I know what I know, I yam what I yam.

  “Not every Ivy Leaguer is an Arcadian or could be. Or should be,” Jergen says.

  “Certainly not a lot of them at the University of Pennsylvania. It’s distressing that Penn’s even considered Ivy League.”

  Being a Harvard man and proud of it, Carter Jergen is pretty sure he’s being mocked with that Penn comment, but now they arrive at the Washington residence. Time to get down to business.

  The house is a cozy-looking place with a generous front porch. All the lights are on. There’s a barnlike building to the left and a stable beyond that, both dark.

  What most interests Carter Jergen is the truck that the first responders arrived in, which is parked near the porch steps. It’s a Hennessey VelociRaptor 6 × 6, a bespoke version of the four-door Ford F-150 Raptor with new axles, two additional wheels, supertough-looking off-road tires, and a ton of other upgrades. It’s black, it’s amazing, it’s a fabulous truck.

  Recently some Arcadians in the NSA and Homeland and elsewhere have been assigned impressive vehicles, mostly bespoke Range Rovers created by Overfinch North America, with performance upgrades, a carbon-fiber styling package, a dual-valve titanium exhaust system, and other cool stuff. Jergen has envied the hell out of them.

  But this. This truck is another level of perk altogether.

  There are two men waiting on the back porch. They’re wearing slim-fit Ring Jacket suits, which manage to look casual in spite of the exquisite Neapolitan tailoring, and their seven-fold Cesare Attolini ties are in playful soft-polka-dot patterns.

  Jergen feels underdressed in a black T-shirt, Diesel Black Gold denim jacket with embroidered scorpions, and black Dior Homme jeans, but he is, after all, a field op, not a front-office guy.

  Dubose’s outfit is unspeakable, suitable for knocking around in small-town West Virginia and not much else.

  The back door of the house is closed, but Jergen can hear old music from before his time, a song titled “Get a Job.”

  The men on the porch don’t give their names. They are brisk, almost brusque. They succinctly lay out the situation.

  It became known at 4:00 P.M. on Friday that Gavin and Jessica Washington were harboring the five-year-old son of Jane Hawk. A decision was made to establish surveillance of the entrance to their private lane and to monitor the house by remotely opening the mics in their phones, computers, and TVs, as well as with the cameras in their computers and TVs. As their televisions did not have Internet links, they proved useless.

  At 3:00 A.M. Saturday, NSA electronic-surveillance aircraft out of Los Angeles, rebased to Orange County airport, began spelling each other over the valley, fishing for all incoming and outgoing burner-phone traffic with the hope of identifying a call from Jane Hawk to the Washingtons and using track-to-source to locate her.

  At 7:20 P.M., after dinner, the Washingtons and the boy agreed to play Old Maid. They accompanied the game with classic doo-wop music. Their conversation was unremarkable, partly obscured by the music. After a while, when they turned up the volume of the iPod, they couldn’t be heard talking. It was assumed either that they were speaking softly and the music drowned out their conversation or that they’d run out of things to say to one another.

  After a series of quieter tunes—“Sincerely” by the Moonglows, “Earth Angel” by the Penguins, and “Only You” by the Platters—the suspicion arose that the Washingtons and the boy were no longer in the house. An operative was sent on foot from the county road to reconnoiter. He circled the house, peering in windows, subsequently entered, and confirmed that the house was deserted. The deck of Old Maid cards on the table had not been removed from the box.

  Four vehicles are registered to Gavin and Jessica Washington. Three are currently in the garage. A rebuilt and customized ’87 Land Rover is missing, and it apparently has no GPS. A back gate in the ranch fencing, left open, suggests that the three became aware of surveillance and fled overland.

  A team of specialists is en route. On arrival, they will take the house and other buildings apart in search of clues as to Jane Hawk’s activities or whereabouts. Meanwhile, Jergen and Dubose are tasked with pursuing the Washingtons and the boy overland, assisted by an aerial night-search helicopter which is currently incoming.

  In fact, no sooner has the aerial unit been mentioned than the helo roars overhead, shaking the long branchlets of the live oaks and stirring up whirling masses of dry leaves that chitter like a plague of locusts before it moves off toward the open gate.

  One of the agents in a Ring Jacket suit holds a vehicle key, and a thrill passes through Carter Jergen as he looks at the hulking black Hennessey VelociRaptor 6 × 6.

  The second agent in a Ring Jacket suit produces a clipboard, and it is necessary for Dubose and Jergen to sign one document that relinquishes the Range Rover and a second that acknowledges their possession of the VelociRaptor as their new official vehicle.

  “On the front seats in the truck,” the agent says, “you’ll find night-vision gear. You have direct voice communication with the helo crew to coordinate the search.”

  Jergen makes the mistake of letting Dubose sign the documents first. By the time Jergen signs them, the backwoods boy has the key. Smiling, he says, “I’ll drive.”

  28

  Gilberto insisted that he keep a watch on Hendrickson, even though the man was now controlled and sleeping in the kitchen chair to which his ankles were zip-tied.

  “I’ll sleep when you leave. I couldn’t sleep anyway with him here. Even before you had to…inject him, the guy was a strange piece of work, miswired. Now he’s like a zombie or something. Makes my skin crawl.”

  Hector and his son had brought Jane’s Ford Explorer Sport from Newport Coast and parked it alongside the funeral home. Gilberto carried her suitcase to the guest room.

  Jane was too tired to shower, but she showered anyway because she wanted to be on the road as soon as possible after she woke in the morning. She set the alarm clock for 3:00 A.M.

  She switched off the bedside lamp and stretched out and put her head on the pillow.

  The bedroom lay at the front of the apartment, overlooking the street. The single window featured draperies, but she had neglected to draw them shut. Now she didn’t have the energy to cross the room and close them.

  The faintest glow of streetlamps patinated a portion of the ceiling with tarnished silver. In the light of passing vehicles, the skeletal shadow of an ancient sycamore, not yet leafed for spring, swooned across the ceiling and the walls, its direction depending on whether the traffic was racing east or west, toppling again and yet again, each time in silence, into darkness.

  During the past few months, whether Jane slept fitfully or soundly, she had always dreamed, as though each day was so crammed with events that she needed twenty-four hours to properly consider the meaning of them, to let the unconscious mind review them and either counsel her with scenarios of reassurance or ring loud its alarms.

  Now she dreamed of being on the road, behind the wheel, traveling through a country of the mind with illogical geography, snow-draped forests of evergreens melting into red-rock deserts, cityscapes blurring into lonely shorelines. Nick sat beside her, Travis in the backseat, and sometimes her mother was alive again and sitting at Travis’s side, and all was well, until Nick said, I think to myself, I play to myself, and nobody knows what I say to myself. When she looked at him, he wasn’t Nick any longer; he was Booth Hendrickson with eyes closed, sleeping as she had ordered him to sleep, until he turned his head toward her and opened his eyes, which were
as pure white as hard-boiled eggs. Nobody knows, he repeated, and he was holding a hypodermic syringe, which he stabbed into her neck.

  1

  Sans headlights, with the dashboard instruments fully dimmed, Radley Dubose drives the big 800-horsepower VelociRaptor into the glowing green night.

  Also wearing night-vision goggles, Carter Jergen rides shotgun, faking an enthusiasm for the position that he doesn’t feel. Venting his frustration would achieve nothing, except give pleasure to the West Virginia vulgarian.

  Although daylight might better facilitate the search, they are able to detect signs of the Land Rover’s passage: a length of tire tracks through softer earth; a swath of broken weeds the width of a vehicle; here, parallel lines of crushed grass; and here, chunks of sod torn out where tires briefly spun for purchase.

  The problem is that no uninterrupted trail of spoor exists. The signs are scattered along the route the Washingtons have taken, but between them are long stretches of hard and barren land where only a legendary Indian scout of another century might be able to discern evidence of their passage. It is easy to misread a spoor and turn in the wrong direction, vainly seeking another tire track.

  Which is where the night-search helicopter comes in handy. With both look-down and look-ahead night-vision cameras that display on the advanced-glass cockpit, the copilot is able to scan for traces of the Land Rover’s progress, zoom in as mere goggles can’t, and capture even subtle telltales.

  In addition to its night-vision cameras, the chopper has the ability to sweep the terrain below for infrared sources, which also display on the cockpit glass. Because the day had been merely warm, because an overcast had formed during the afternoon, and because nightfall is hours behind them, the land has given up most of its stored heat; it does not present a bright, distracting background to the copilot. The heat signatures of coyotes are easy to distinguish from those of deer, and those of deer from those of any human being on foot. If the helicopter gets close enough to scan the Land Rover, the vehicle’s heat signature will be a blazing beacon in this otherwise untraveled wilderness.

 
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