The crooked staircase, p.40
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       The Crooked Staircase, p.40

         Part #3 of Jane Hawk series by Dean Koontz
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  “Some guy named Fennel Martin.”

  “What kind of name is Fennel?”

  “Hell if I know. But he’s still in the local phonebook at the same address that’s on the registration.”

  The rhythmic sound of a rotary wing draws their attention to the window. As the glass begins to hum with vibrations, they step outside into the parking lot and use their hands as visors and look to the west, where the helicopter angles down out of the sun.

  7

  Jane used the spray paint so often that she worried the can might be empty before they reached the house at the bottom of the serried caverns, leaving critical final turns unmarked. She formed smaller arrows on the walls.

  Most of the chambers through which they passed were marked with runes, but only a few of the larger ones contained bones. The least disturbing was nevertheless a dramatic display in a space decorated instead with pictographs that were perhaps far older than the runes. The contents also might have been older, suggesting that more than one ancient culture had used this place to memorialize their skill as hunters of both animals and humans. The skulls of three mastodons were elevated above Jane on pedestals of stacked stone, immense and chalk-white in the probing lights, shadows shifting in the sockets as if eyes of some immaterial nature still looked out from the empty craniums and across thousands of years of time. The enormous tusks, clearly having been broken out of the skulls in order to get them through the narrower passages, had somehow been reattached, curving in majestic threat.

  In two successive chambers, hundreds of human skulls were arranged on ledges, like some collection of grotesque beer steins, most bearing evidence of ritualistic murder in the form of pikes made of chert or obsidian, one in each forehead, bristling like a horn, perhaps pounded into the skull with a crude hammerstone. Those not featuring pikes had been accessorized with the open-jawed sharp-fanged skulls of rattlesnakes inserted in the place of human eyes, demonic visages configured thus bizarrely with what meaning it was impossible to say.

  Hendrickson was transfixed by the sight of those evil-eyed totems, the papery bone of long-ago severed serpent heads issuing with silent hisses from skulls unmasked of faces.

  “Let’s go, let’s go,” Jane urged, chilled and weary of both body and spirit. “Let’s get to the bottom of this place.”

  He didn’t respond, but addressed himself as Anabel had lectured him forty years earlier, his quiet voice reverberant in the cavernous sarcophagus. “Here’s the truth, boy, the one truth. Take or be taken from, use or be used, rule or be ruled, kill or be killed.”

  “Booth, do you hear me?”

  He said nothing.

  “Play Manchurian with me.”

  “Repeat after me, you ignorant little shit. Repeat after me, boy, repeat after me. Say this, say—do unto others before they can do unto you. Say it and mean it. Say it until your throat is raw, until your voice fails.”

  More adamantly, Jane commanded, “Booth, play Manchurian with me. Now.”

  After a hesitation, he muttered, “Yes, all right. All right. Yes.”

  “You must do what I tell you.”

  “Yes, Mother.”

  “What did you say?”

  “Yes, Mother. All right.”

  “Look at me. Booth, look at me now.”

  Hendrickson turned from the display of skulls, his face devoid of expression. As if he saw serpents in her stare, he bowed his head and lowered his eyes. “Yes. Of course. This way. It’s not far now.”

  “Who am I, Booth?”

  “Who are you?”

  “That’s what I asked.”

  “You’re Jane Hawk.”

  “Why did you call me ‘Mother’?”

  “Did I?”

  “Yes.”

  “I don’t know. You’re not her. You’re you. I don’t know.”

  She studied him. Then: “Lead me to the bottom of this place.”

  A plank bridging a wide cleft, a corridor of dripping stone, umbilicals of light quivering forward along the puddled floor…

  Two chambers from the bottom, a tumbled collection of small skeletons, discarded as if with contempt, didn’t bear consideration, for they were not the remains of some elfin race out of Tolkien, but the bones of children that might have been the offspring of enemies conquered and killed with genocidal intent.

  Half an hour after they entered the stairhead, they arrived at the bottom of the crooked staircase, where there waited what once must have been a cave that opened onto a last slope leading to the lake, by which this subterranean complex could be accessed. The mouth of the cave had been sealed off with mortared brick in which stood a steel door like that in the stairhead building.

  Jane discarded the spray paint and set her light on the floor.

  Hendrickson focused his beam on the keyway while she used the lock-release gun to disengage the deadbolt.

  Beyond lay the promised room.

  8

  Two agents arrive by helicopter. Two more are on their way by ground transport.

  Jergen and Dubose leave the airborne pair to deal with the now cooperative local authorities, to clean up the scene, and to bag the bodies. The waiting helo, which sits in a corner of the parking lot, will spirit the corpses away.

  Except for a few locals who witnessed the incident, it will be as though nothing untoward occurred. There will be no press or TV coverage of the shootings in little Borrego Springs. No one will ever report that Gavin and Jessica Washington were killed here. There will be no autopsy, no coroner’s report in any jurisdiction. Another plausible story will be concocted to account for their deaths, which will be framed as a tragic accident.

  Now Dubose and Jergen, having administered tragic accidents to quite a few people over the years, set out in the VelociRaptor for the address at which they hope to find Fennel Martin, owner of the Honda sedan with the out-of-date license plates and the long-expired registration. Dubose drives.

  Just beyond the town limits, Martin’s home is a house trailer elevated on a foundation of concrete blocks, in the shelter of two big Indian laurels from which shadows yearn eastward. In the shade stands a white-painted metal table and four mismatched patio chairs. A small apron of lawn is long dead, and what grass has not withered away is thatched like a well-worn tatami mat.

  Under a carport attached to the trailer stands a two-door Jeep Wrangler Sport maybe six or seven years old.

  Steps formed of concrete block serve the door. Jergen and Dubose select their FBI credentials rather than those of the NSA, because the average citizen doesn’t know what the NSA is, but still has some respect for the FBI. Dubose knocks.

  The man who opens the door must have seen them arrive. He looks past them to the VelociRaptor and with a note of wonder asks, “Man, what is that? Is that a Ford F-150?”

  “It used to be,” says Dubose as he holds up his Bureau ID. “Are you Fennel Martin?”

  The guy stares wide-eyed at Dubose’s ID, and then he looks at Jergen, and Jergen holds up his ID, and the guy says, “Really FBI? Wow. What’s this about?”

  “Are you Fennel Martin?” Dubose asks again.

  The man is in his late thirties, lean and tan, with shoulder-length hair and a day’s worth of beard, wearing flip-flops and jeans and a Smashing Pumpkins T-shirt. The average guy living on the edge of the law or a step outside of it usually is either arrogant and obstinate, making no effort to conceal his contempt, or else goes wobbly in the presence of police and presents himself as meek and compliant in the hope of appearing to be a model citizen. This man’s reaction is neither of those. He seems genuinely astonished that FBI agents would appear at his door, perplexed, and just a little bit excited, as if a dull Sunday has suddenly become interesting.

  “Yeah, that’s me. I’m Fennel.”

  Dubose says, “We’d like to ask you a few questions about
a car, Mr. Martin.”

  “A car? Sure. Man, I’m all about cars. What car is it?”

  “May we come in, Mr. Martin? This might take a while.”

  “Well, the thing is, the place is kind of a mess,” Martin says. He points at the white table and the folding chairs in the shade of one of the Indian laurels. “Let’s sit there. Can I get you guys a couple beers?”

  “That’s very cordial of you, Mr. Martin. But we can’t drink on duty.” Dubose puts away his ID. “And we’d rather come inside.”

  To Fennel Martin’s surprise, Dubose grabs him by the crotch, squeezing hard, and by the throat and lifts him an inch off the floor and carries him backward into the house trailer.

  9

  The steel door at the bottom of the serried caverns opened into a room measuring about thirty by thirty feet. It was furnished as a study or home office in an elegant soft-contemporary style. Immense U-shaped desk and wall of cabinets in matching blond-finished wood. Armchair with a footstool and reading lamp. Sofa. The necessary occasional tables. There was as well an entertainment wall with a music system and a large TV.

  According to Hendrickson, of the two interior doors, one led to a full bath, the other to a closet. Opposite the steel door by which they entered, another steel door led out of these quarters onto the extensive grounds behind the main house, which overlooked the lake.

  From the exterior, the stone-walled building was said to look like modest servants’ quarters and to match the style of the main house. But in here, there were telltale indications of a secret purpose. The windows were fitted with locking shutters of steel plate that could not have been penetrated by common burglars. And the door to the grounds had a feature that the door to the caverns did not: three four-inch-wide steel bars that extruded from the jamb, across the width of the door, when the deadbolt was engaged from outside. The door featured no obvious escutcheon or keyway; it was locked and unlocked only by a keypad on this side and another on the exterior wall.

  All this was as Hendrickson had told her after she injected him in Gilberto’s kitchen, and as he had confirmed after the nanomachine control had assembled.

  “Let’s do this fast,” she said. “Get me those DVDs.”

  Hendrickson had said there was an alarm system for the main house but none here. He insisted that Anabel would not want police responding to any attempted break-in of this building.

  Nevertheless, Jane wanted to be done and gone in five minutes.

  Initially she had intended to take Hendrickson with her, to use him as an example of nanoweb control, to convince some uncorrupted authority—if she could find one—of the truth of this technology. But his psychological deterioration, which seemed to be continuing, made that plan untenable. She would have to leave him here.

  Jane followed him into the large bathroom, which was entirely clad in honey-colored marble: ceiling, walls, floor, shower stall. The tub and sink were carved from blocks of the same material, and all the fixtures were gold-plated. Anabel had quarters in the main house; but when she wanted a bathroom here, it must be exquisitely appointed. The color of honey. For the queen bee.

  Hendrickson pressed on the fluted, gilded frame of the mirror above the sink, releasing a touch latch, and the mirror swung like a door. Within were the four shelves of a medicine cabinet, stocked with the usual items. When he pulled on the second and third shelves simultaneously, the interior of the cabinet came forward on rails, revealing a space beyond. From that hidden compartment, he withdrew a rectangular plastic box and handed it to her.

  As Hendrickson rolled the interior of the cabinet back into place and closed the mirrored door, Jane flipped up the lid on the plastic box. Within were sixteen DVDs in cardboard sleeves. On each sleeve, a first name had been printed with a black felt-tip pen.

  She said, “Your father’s name was—”

  “Stafford. Stafford Eugene Hendrickson.”

  In the study again, she found the DVD marked STAFFORD. She put the box on the desk. She hesitated to give the disc to Hendrickson. “You’ve really seen this?”

  His face was slack and his voice without color, as though he had traveled into some gray kingdom of the soul, where he could no longer feel anything strongly. “Of course. Many times. We watched it together many times, Mother. Back then, it was on videotape. We didn’t have DVDs then, did we? You had to transfer them to DVD.”

  She needed to be sure these discs contained what he’d said they did. She gave the DVD of his father to him. “Play this for me.”

  “Yes. All right.”

  He took it to the entertainment center.

  In the years during which Jane had worked with the Bureau’s Behavioral Analysis Units 3 and 4, she had been assigned to cases involving serial killers. When she had tracked their squamous kind to the snake holes they called home, as always she did, she had seen things that could never be purged from memory, that returned to her on sleepless nights. A firm faith in the rightness of this made world and in the promise of the human heart was required to look upon the works of those supremely evil individuals without losing hope for humanity in its entirety. That faith had sometimes been bruised, but never broken.

  Yet she steeled herself for what would appear on this large-screen television. She intended to watch only enough of it to confirm that Hendrickson’s description of it was accurate.

  10

  When Jergen follows Dubose and the wheezing Fennel Martin into the house trailer, he discovers why their host prefers to sit at the table in the yard to answer questions. The girl might be thirty, an ash-blond cutie.

  Their explosive entrance surprises her. She thrusts up from the sofa, hastily buttoning her open blouse, though not hastily enough that Jergen has no chance to admire the fullness of her figure.

  Approaching her, smiling in a friendly sort of way, he says, “What’s your name, dear?”

  “Who are you? What’re you doing to him? You’ve hurt him.”

  Jergen flashes his Bureau ID, but the girl doesn’t appear to be reassured by it.

  Still smiling, he says, “He’ll be okay. That’s nothing. Things happen, that’s all. Tell me your name, dear.”

  “Ginger.”

  “Ginger, can you show me where the bathroom is, please?”

  “Why?”

  “I want you to stay in the bathroom while we’re having a chat with Mr. Martin. But I need to be sure there’s no window big enough for you to climb out.”

  “There isn’t.”

  “It’s not that I don’t believe you, Ginger. I do believe you. But I need to see for myself. It’s the way I was trained. We go through a lot of training in the FBI. I’m just following protocol. You understand?”

  “No. I guess. Yeah.”

  “So let’s go see the bathroom.”

  The window is very small and near the ceiling. He puts down the lid of the toilet and gestures for her to sit there.

  “Where is your phone, Ginger?”

  “In my purse. On the table by the sofa.”

  “Good. You wouldn’t want to be calling anyone. Just wait here, and we’ll be gone in no time.”

  She is trembling. “I’ll wait. I’m okay with waiting.”

  Jergen steps into the hallway, looks back at her. “Fennel’s not going to be ready for sex, after all. But when we’re gone, you can play cards or something.”

  Jergen closes the door and returns to the living room, where the fan of the Smashing Pumpkins is sitting in an armchair.

  Fennel’s tan now has a gray undertone. Sweat slicks his face, jewels his eyebrows. With his right hand, he gently cups his crotch.

  Dubose has moved a side chair to sit in front of their host.

  Jergen perches on the edge of the sofa.

  Dubose says, “Fennel, we need some truth, and we need it fast.”

  Fennel sounds th
irteen when he says, “You aren’t FBI.”

  “What I don’t need,” Dubose explains, “is your stupid opinions and commentary. I’ll ask questions, you’ll answer them, and we’ll be on our way. Earlier, you said, ‘I’m all about cars.’ Which means?”

  “I’m a mechanic. I have a place in town. It’s not much, but I stay busy.”

  “You take cash to fake smog checks so dirty cars can pass inspection?”

  “What? Shit, no. I have a business license to protect.”

  “You build secret compartments in the bodywork, so some asshole can run fifty kilos of heroin in from Mexico?”

  Fennel glances at Jergen. “I think maybe I need an attorney.”

  “Don’t answer my questions,” Dubose explains, “and what you’ll need is a testicle transplant. Before you bullshit me, consider maybe I already know the truth.”

  The mechanic is too frightened to lie, but afraid that honesty will not avail him. “I run a clean business, man. I swear.”

  Dubose frowns and bites his lower lip as if he’s disappointed in Fennel. “You once owned a green Honda. What happened to it?”

  Fennel is surprised it’s about this. And maybe alarmed. “I sold her. She was cheap, ran good, but she was the opposite of sexy.”

  “When was that?”

  “I don’t know exactly. Like maybe six years ago.”

  “Who’d you sell it to?”

  “This guy. Some guy.”

  “Don’t remember his name?”

  “No. Not after so long.”

  “What did he look like?”

  “He was Asian.”

  “What Asian—Chinese, Japanese, Korean?”

  “I don’t know. How would I know?”

  “You put an ad in the paper, on some Internet site?”

  “No. Just a sign outside my shop.”

  “What’s your bank?”

  “Bank? Wells Fargo. What’s my bank matter?”

  “I’ll need the account number. And the amount of the check.”

 
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