The crooked staircase, p.35
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       The Crooked Staircase, p.35

         Part #3 of Jane Hawk series by Dean Koontz
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  Jergen finds some consolation that Dubose uses a fork to eat his cheese omelet rather than resorting again to his fingers or putting his face right down in the food.

  “They haven’t used a credit card,” Dubose says. “Let’s see if the plates on the Rover were scanned anywhere since last night.”

  The manner in which Dubose eats is no more mortifying than the fact that, in addition to the bacon that comes with his omelet, he has requested four additional orders, twelve slices, which have been served in an obscene pile on a separate plate. When the waitress put down that mess of pork fat, she made some comment to the effect that he must be hungry, whereupon the inimitable West Virginian winked at her lasciviously and said, “Darlin’, I’m a man of voracious appetites.”

  As if the Ritz-Carlton was the most natural place in the world to respond to an attractive woman with vulgarity. The Ritz-Carlton!

  Working in the NSA’s archives of scanned plates, Dubose sets up time parameters and enters the license number of the Land Rover, but no police car or other government vehicle equipped with 360-degree plate-scanning capability has transmitted those tags in the past twelve hours.

  Confounded, the big man leans back in the booth, his forehead corrugating as he contemplates his next step, and of course he must have another strip of bacon to grease the wheels of his mind.

  As Jergen listens to the lip smacking, he considers commenting to the effect that, until this moment, he hasn’t realized Dubose indulges in cannibalism.

  But there’s no point in getting snarky. Dubose is incapable of embarrassment. Besides, he’ll only come back with some retort about Boston Brahmins or prep school or Harvard or the Hasty Pudding Club that he imagines to be witty.

  Dubose says, “We know from the car she had to abandon in Texas, Hawk has a sophisticated source for forged plates. They show up as a legitimate registration in state files.”

  Having finished his berries, Carter Jergen blots his lips with the satisfyingly substantial cloth napkin. Before picking up his cup of tea, he says, “Perhaps she gave the Washingtons a set of plates, complete with registration papers in another name, so if they ever had to go on the run, they could swap them out for the real plates.”

  “Great minds think alike,” Dubose says, “and so do yours and mine.”

  “But if we don’t have those plate numbers or the phony name in which she registered the Land Rover, we’re still nowhere.”

  The big man picks up two slices of bacon, folds the double thickness into his mouth in one wad, and works his brute jaws as though he is enjoying a chaw of tobacco.

  After he swallows, he says, “Maybe I have an idea.”

  17

  Near Coso Junction, Jane pulled off U.S. Highway 395 and into a rest area with public lavatories. Hers was the only vehicle in the lot.

  The naked blue sky at the start of their journey had taken on a more modest aspect as they’d come north. Now it was a monkish gray to every horizon, looming low, with some last spell of winter weather pending.

  As if the flock she’d seen earlier had reckoned her route and come ahead to wait for her, nine ravens perched at regular intervals on a power line.

  She cut the zip-ties off Booth Hendrickson and let him use the men’s room. She went with him and waited while he washed his hands, and she walked him back to the Explorer. She zip-tied him again, wrist to wrist and through the belt, as before.

  Sufficiently confident of her control, she left him alone in the SUV. As she walked to the women’s facilities, the nine ravens sat solemn and portentous on the wire, gazing down at her, working their long, gray beaks in a mute chorus.

  When she returned, Hendrickson sat exactly as she had left him, as docile as a good dog but not as engaged. He spoke only if spoken to and seemed to be slowly drifting away into an internal landscape from which he might at some point fail to return. She was convinced that his condition had far less to do with a malfunctioning control mechanism than with a psychological withdrawal or disintegration.

  They continued through the northwest corner of the Mojave, passing out of it at Owens Lake. By the time they reached Lone Pine, where she stopped for fuel and food, they were at an elevation of 3,700 feet and headed toward a different world, with the Sierra Nevada to the west and the Inyo National Forest on both sides.

  At a diner, she bought takeout—four cheeseburgers and two Diet Cokes. Hendrickson didn’t want any food, but she cut his zip-ties again and ordered him to eat, and so he did.

  The day had grown colder. She kept the engine running while they ate, for heat and music. Arthur Rubinstein playing Beethoven: Sonata No. 21 in C Major, op. 53.

  This time, she didn’t secure his hands. He was drained of all potential for independent action and seemed to be a shell of a man.

  They returned to the highway with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 18 in E-flat Major, op. 31, no. 3, and as they continued north, she found herself wanting only Rubinstein, arguably the greatest pianist who ever lived. It was said that the composer Franz Liszt might have been greater, although he lived before recordings could be made.

  She understood why only Rubinstein would suit her now. Her destination was a place of such evil that perhaps even if she came back alive, she would come back changed, in some way diminished by the experience. Although she was a pianist of much less talent than Rubinstein, she was able to hear the pure joy with which he played, to feel the joy with which he embraced life, and she wanted to have as much of his music as she could in these last few hours before Tahoe, while she could still be so profoundly moved by it.

  As the highway led steadily into higher elevations, the sky descended, and the sun receded so that its position could not be discerned behind the uniform gray shroud. A breeze rose, harrying shapes of dust and chaff across the road, stitching the air with dead pine needles.

  An hour past Lone Pine, as they were approaching Bishop, an electronic highway sign advised that, due to weather conditions ahead, California Highway Patrol required that all vehicles bound for Mammoth Lakes and points north must apply tire chains.

  She stopped at a service station and bought plastic chains and was third in line to have them installed.

  Hendrickson had closed his eyes. He seemed to be sleeping. His lips moved as if he were forming words, but no sound escaped him.

  After the chains were in place, she pulled the SUV aside but didn’t at once return to the highway. Before beginning the final long leg of the trip, she intended to place a quick call to Gavin and Jessica, which was when she learned that her burner phone had lost its charge.

  In almost three months, she had only twice before become so overwhelmed by events that she’d forgotten to keep the cellphone charged. She felt derelict, though the sudden worry that overcame her was excessive, a superstitious response to a simple oversight. Travis would not be taken from her just because she had let the phone go dead. He was safe with Gavin and Jessie. He was happy and safe with his pony and the German shepherds.

  The charging station was already plugged into the dashboard port, nestled in a cup holder. She fitted the cellphone to it. Depending on weather conditions, she would stop to make the call at either Mammoth Lakes or, farther on, at the tiny town of Lee Vining.

  Rubinstein was playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, op. 23, with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra.

  Eyes still closed, Hendrickson whispered, “Heads inside heads, eyes inside eyes…”

  18

  From the restaurant, they return to Dubose’s room, where he sits at a small table by an ocean-view window to work on the laptop, while Jergen sits across from him, waiting to hear what idea has managed to fire from synapse to synapse in that bacon-fogged brain.

  “Last night, both those chopper jockeys said the Land Rover was last seen heading what direction?”

  “Southwest,” Jergen says.
r />   “Southwest,” Dubose agrees. “Let’s have a look at Google Maps.”

  Jergen doesn’t want to move his chair around the table and snug it up against Dubose in order to see the screen. He’d feel like a little boy watching Daddy do important things. He stares out at the sparkling Pacific and listens to his partner walk him through it.

  This is how it progresses: First, Gavin Washington will know what unparalleled resources are available to his pursuers and will suspect he has little time to go to ground before every police car in the state will be on the lookout for a vintage white Land Rover with his plate number. So assume he has a set of forged plates and uses them. The vehicle still is what it is. He remains at risk. This Google map. Now that Google map. All right, if Washington doesn’t drastically change direction when out of sight of the helo crew, he powers through the wilds of the Cleveland National Forest, heading for the county line. He probably crosses over into San Diego County somewhere between De Luz and Fallbrook, no longer in the national forest but in a decidedly rural area. The first paved road he comes to is a county highway, S13, a two-lane blacktop. An offshoot of S13 connects with Interstate 15, but he’s going to avoid such a heavily patrolled major highway even in the quiet hours just after dawn. He’s going to stay as long as possible on tertiary roads, where he’s least likely to cross the path of a cop. He can stay on S13 past Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps facility that occupies a big piece of the coast, and then follow a series of county roads that can take him south and east to the international crossing at Tecate.

  “He won’t try crossing at Tijuana,” says Dubose. “He’s just too hot for that.”

  “All of Mexico is too hot for him,” Jergen says. “He and that legless bitch have guns, remember. They won’t risk going into Mexico with weapons and wind up being held for ransom by some corrupt Federales.”

  “Exactly right,” Dubose says, as if he’s already thought of the gun problem.

  So the fugitive’s options narrow down like this: First, he’s going to want to stay away from major population centers until he has a chance to repaint the Land Rover to make it match whatever color is specified on the forged registration, after which he will be less likely to draw police attention. Which means that he must have some relatively secluded location where this can be done. He will most likely go inland, into San Diego County’s least populated territory—and there’s a lot of it. He might make his way south on S13 and then switch to the first eastbound route, which is State Highway 76, a more significant road than S13, though still tertiary.

  Because S13 follows the east perimeter of Camp Pendleton, there will be military-base security cameras at points along that length of the highway. Jergen fetches his laptop from his room, returns with it, and plugs it in. He slips into the NSA’s massive data trove through a back door with which Arcadians in the agency have provided him. He summons archived video from Pendleton’s S13 cameras during the early hours of this morning. He fast-forwards in search of a southbound vintage Land Rover.

  Meanwhile, Dubose is considering State Highway 76, which passes through some lonely territory to the east. He soon finds two points of interest along that route.

  19

  The little blue stucco house was as humble inside as out. During the building of the bunker and associated structures, Cornell lived here, overseeing the Filipinos, whose language he’d learned. In addition to his talent for devising hugely popular apps, he had a talent for languages; he spoke six fluently. The living room, study, one of two bedrooms, and kitchen were furnished with discount-warehouse goods that were mismatched but serviceable.

  “It sure is dusty,” Travis said as he followed Gavin and Jessie through the house, while the dogs explored on their own with the usual canine curiosity.

  “He never comes here anymore,” Gavin said. “Every month, when I visit, I check the place, you know, make sure there aren’t plumbing problems, water leaks, confirm that all the appliances are working. But I never have time to do much housecleaning.”

  “Or inclination,” Jessie said. She wiped a finger across a kitchen counter and held it up to reveal a beard of dust.

  “We can have it tidy in no time,” Gavin said. “We’ll tie rags to the dogs’ tails. And this boy here—why, we can work him till he drops, while we sit on the porch with glasses of iced tea.”

  “That’s bushwa, for sure,” Travis said.

  20

  Sequined with sunshine, the sea glimmers to shore in rhythmic waves and breaks on the alabaster beach in boas of sparkling foam, while on this side of the window, Carter Jergen fast-forwards through video of the county road along the eastern flank of Camp Pendleton, until he freezes an image in early light. “Got him! Right here it is, the same freakin’ Land Rover. I’ll be damned if it isn’t.”

  “Of course it is,” Dubose says.

  He doesn’t bother to look when Jergen turns the laptop toward him, as though his theory of Gavin Washington’s actions could not possibly be proven wrong, as though Jergen has been given make-work to keep him busy while Dubose does the heavy thinking.

  “Meanwhile,” Dubose says, “I’ve been studying State Highway 76. If he’s got some private place, some rural hidey-hole, he’s headed for, that’s the route he’s most likely to take. You’ll find two cameras at the junction of 76 and County Highway 16, at the town of Pala.”

  “ ‘Pala’? I never heard of Pala.”

  “It’s a little pissant town. But they have one of the early California missions there, and it’s been restored. It’s considered worth surveilling the intersection there to have after-the-fact evidence in case of terrorism. I don’t know why.”

  “All the missions are of historic value,” Jergen says.

  “Petrified dinosaur dung is of historic value, but we don’t keep a camera on every pile of it.”

  Jergen is appalled, but it’s not the first time a statement by Dubose has appalled him. “Well, ISIS and all those off-with-your-head types love to destroy historic buildings and erase the past.”

  “What matters to me is the now,” Dubose opines. “I live in the now. Anyway, check out those Pala cameras. They’ll be in the NSA archives, too. See if the Rover went by there within maybe half an hour of when it should have turned off S13.”

  Jergen needs ten minutes to retrieve an image of the Land Rover passing the junction of State Highway 76 and County Highway S16. This kind of catch always thrills him. It’s like magic. “Got him!” he declares.

  “Of course you do,” says Dubose, again ignoring Jergen’s laptop to focus on what he’s doing on his own. “Now, about fourteen miles past Pala, County Highway 6 turns north off Highway 76 to the even tinier pissant town of Palomar Mountain. Two low-profile cameras at the junction. Because of Palomar Observatory. Again, don’t ask me why.”

  “They have the two-hundred-inch Hale telescope,” Jergen says. “It’s an important national asset. They study the stars, the universe.”

  “The stars haven’t changed in, like, several million centuries. Says here Palomar opened in the 1930s. If they need so many years to study what never changes, then some of these guys are sitting around up there smoking weed and jerking off.”

  Sometimes it seems as if perhaps Dubose says things he doesn’t really believe, just to see if he can get Jergen to pop a cork. But Jergen tries his best not to respond in a way that will give the hillbilly hulk satisfaction.

  Without responding, he seeks out the archived video from the cameras at the highway junction south of Palomar.

  21

  The cleaning supplies under the kitchen sink were a few years old but still effective. While Jessie and Travis set about giving the kitchen a preliminary scrub, Gavin went through the connecting door into the single-stall garage and turned on the light.

  Cornell had abandoned his Honda four years earlier, when he moved into his secret residence to read through Apocageddo
n. Since then, he’d come out only once a week to get his mail; when Gavin visited, Cornell gave him the paid bills to post. Cornell no longer drove anywhere. In spite of his millions, he had purchased the car used; though twelve years old, its odometer registered only 47,566 miles. According to Cornell, he’d driven less than two thousand of those, traveling in and out of Borrego Springs to shop at Center Market and Desert Pantry during the construction of his end-of-the-world bunker. He didn’t like to drive. He felt the speed at which an automobile could travel was deeply unnatural.

  On his once-a-month visits, Gavin had looked after the Honda, keeping it in good running order, against the day when his cousin might decide that society wasn’t going to collapse after all. Ever since he and Jessie had taken in Travis, he’d had another reason to take care of the sedan: so they could use it in a pinch.

  After he had driven the Honda out of the garage and parked it beside the house, the fullest recognition of what had happened hit him. He needed to sit for a while in the yard, on the stump of an Indian laurel that had been cut down ages ago, in the shade of the palm trees planted later. If their comfortable life wasn’t gone forever, it was gone for at least as long as Jane’s crusade lasted and perhaps longer. If she failed, their lives would not only be less comfortable, but would unspool day after day in an atmosphere of tension, even dread.

  Of course, if Jane failed, not just he and Jessie, but most of the country—in time, most of the world—would fall into a darkness without exit. Three months earlier, he would not have found credible the notion of a future in which an elite class with unprecedented power ruled a fearful population, some enslaved by nanoimplants, others intimidated into obedience by the millions who were thus programmed. Those millions could in minutes be transformed from your friendly neighbors into ruthless killers who would slaughter anyone identified as a rebel, including their own parents, even their own children. Now he was finding it difficult to believe that such a future would not happen. By comparison, an army of the walking dead would be a feeble force.

 
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