The crooked staircase, p.41
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       The Crooked Staircase, p.41

         Part #3 of Jane Hawk series by Dean Koontz
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  Fennel is sweating anew. “His bank wasn’t the same as mine.”

  “You remember that, do you? Doesn’t matter. We can track it from bank to bank. What was the amount of the check?”

  Fennel looks around as if he’s lost, as if he doesn’t recognize his own living room. “After six years it comes back to bite me? Six years? This totally sucks.”

  11

  They stood before the large LED television screen. Hendrickson pushed PLAY and handed the remote to Jane.

  In silence, the camera moved past torches standing tall in oil drums filled with sand, serpentine coils of dark smoke rising toward vent holes in the ceiling. Past the corrugated walls of the Quonset hut, firelight rippling with the contours of the metal, illuminating goggle-eyed lizards in vertical pursuit of cockroaches that could not outrun the spooling tongues. Racks of candles, hundreds of thick candles, mostly black and red, but here a cluster of canary yellow, the fluttering flames patterning everything around them with faux butterflies and causing the very air to glow as in a furnace. Voodoo veves on the concrete floor, intricate patterns drawn with wheat flour and corn meal and ashes and redbrick dust, representing astral forces here attendant.

  The scene had an inauthentic quality, as if it had been staged in imitation of true voodoo, to establish a narrative explaining the murder to come. This suspicion was confirmed when four men entered, dressed not in what voodoo priests would wear, but clad in black and hooded to maintain anonymity. At the center of all, a pale and naked man lay chained to a sacrificial altar formed by three concentric circles of stepped stone around a center post carved as a pair of twining snakes.

  Speaking to himself as Anabel had spoken to him, Hendrickson said, “There he is, the gutless wonder, the worthless piece of shit who fathered you. You’ll hear him beg. You’ll hear him beg me. You listen to him beg, boy, and learn never to beg for anything from anyone. See here what begging gets you.”

  The camera panned across a battalion of conical blue and green drums, and as it returned to the naked man, the silence gave way to the rhythmic beating of the drums, though neither the instruments nor those who played them were shown again. Stafford Hendrickson did indeed beg Anabel by name, his pleas desperate and then hysterical as the four black-garbed executioners began to effect a prolonged act of murder. Tourniquets to stem the bleeding, preventing the victim’s quick demise. A razor-sharp machete. They began with his right hand.

  Jane used the remote, and the screen went blank.

  Booth Hendrickson said, “Your daddy was a pencil-neck history geek. He loved the past in all its barbaric splendor. He loved his crooked staircase, his private archeological treasure. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of adding any part of his body to that collection. They left him to the Jamaican lizards and cockroaches until the police found the worthless bastard.”

  12

  Although Carter Jergen wants a turn driving the VelociRaptor, and although there are occasions when his partner appalls him, he has to admit there are also times when he greatly enjoys watching Radley Dubose at work, as now. In numerous subtle ways, the big man builds an air of menace, akin to how a thunderstorm builds a charge leading up to that sudden first flash of lightning. Poor Fennel Martin. The mechanic is profoundly intimidated.

  Dubose gets up from his chair and paces the small living room, seeming even bigger than usual by comparison with the humble space he occupies, the floor creaking under him. “When a car is sold in California, the seller is required by law to file a Notice of Transfer and Release of Liability with the DMV, providing among other things the new owner’s name. You never did that, Mr. Martin.”

  “He didn’t want me to. Part of the deal was I wouldn’t file a notice of transfer.”

  “You’re talking now of the mysterious Asian buyer—who never filed for a new registration, either.”

  “He was an Asian guy. I wasn’t lying about that.”

  “What was his name, Mr. Martin?”

  “He never gave me a name. He didn’t even speak English.”

  Dubose stopped pacing and turned and stared down at Fennel.

  “It’s true,” the mechanic insists. “He had it all typed out.”

  “Had what typed out?”

  “The deal he wanted to make for the Honda, the terms.”

  “He couldn’t speak English, but he could type it?”

  “Somebody typed it for him. Whoever was really buying the car. I don’t know who. I really don’t.”

  “So somebody wanted a car that couldn’t be traced back to him. Didn’t you worry about liability, Mr. Martin? Like if they used the car in a bank robbery?”

  “He wouldn’t do that. He was a very nice man, very respectful.”

  “Who was?”

  “The Asian guy.”

  “But he wasn’t the actual buyer. The actual buyer could have been some damn terrorist going to use it as a car bomb.”

  The mechanic bends forward in the armchair, hands on his thighs, head between his knees, as if nauseated and about to spew.

  “It wasn’t used as a car bomb,” Dubose says. Fennel shudders with relief. “But we damn well have to find whoever bought it and find him fast. What aren’t you telling me, Mr. Martin? There needs to be one more piece to this story of yours if it’s to make sense.”

  In his misery, Fennel Martin speaks to the floor between his feet. “You know what it is.”

  “I know what it has to be, but I need to hear it.”

  “The guy comes to me with the terms typed out and a sort of briefcase full of cash. The Honda’s six years old then. It’s got some serious miles on it. Maybe it’s worth six thousand. There’s sixty thousand in the bag.”

  “Tax free,” Dubose says.

  “Well, shit, I guess not now.”

  After a silence, looming over Fennel, Dubose says, “So you figured, if the car was used for a crime, then you’d act surprised to find it missing, say it was stolen.”

  “Seemed like it would work. I really needed the money.”

  “Did you ever see anyone driving that car around town?”

  “Not in years. Two, maybe three times back then, I saw it parked. Never saw anyone with it. I didn’t want to see anyone. I didn’t want to know who or why.”

  “You didn’t want to risk him asking for his money back.”

  The mechanic says nothing.

  “Look at me, Mr. Martin.”

  The mechanic doesn’t raise his head. “I don’t want to.”

  “Look at me.”

  “You’ll hurt me.”

  “Even worse if you don’t look at me.”

  Reluctantly, Fennel Martin turns his head, looks up, terrified.

  Dubose says, “I’m in a mood to bust your balls. I mean that literally. You made me pull the details out of you one by one. So now you better hope there’s something useful you’ve not yet told me. Because if there isn’t, then you’ll be useless to women when I’m done with you.”

  Fennel Martin is a poster boy for pathos. “There isn’t anything more. I’m not hiding anything more. There’s nothing more.”

  “There better be.”

  “But there isn’t.”

  “Get up, Mr. Martin.”

  “I can’t.”

  “Get up.”

  “Maybe…”

  “I’m waiting.”

  “Maybe one thing. It was kind of funny. Those typed-up deal terms. They were done as bullet points. And after each bullet point, whoever he was, he typed ‘please and thank you.’ Like it said, ‘Purchase price will be sixty thousand dollars, please and thank you.’ And ‘Neither of us will report the sale, please and thank you.’ ”

  Dubose stares down at him with contempt and after a long silence wonders, “What am I supposed to do with that idiot tidbit?”

  “It’s all
I have. I didn’t even know I had that.”

  “Did you save that paper you were given?”

  “No.”

  After another silence during which the mechanic looks as if he will die from suspense, Dubose says, “Hell, you’re not worth the effort.” He walks out of the trailer.

  13

  It was one thing to see the aftermath of such brutality, another thing altogether to watch even a minute of it in progress.

  Sickened, Jane returned the DVD to its cardboard sleeve and then put it in the plastic box with the fifteen others. She trusted Booth Hendrickson’s word that two discs featured other of Anabel’s divorced husbands. One would show he who supposedly hung himself with a noose of barbed wire, except that he begged for his life before hooded men did the hanging for him. And perhaps it was the same hooded men, well paid and eager to accommodate, who videoed the other husband pleading for mercy before they set the house on fire—or in fact set him on fire and let him carry the flames through the house.

  Among the other DVDs were more recent videos that recorded the injection and enslavement of a United States senator, a governor who was thought to have a future in national politics, a Supreme Court justice, the president of a major television network, the publisher of a highly respected magazine of opinion, and others who were now adjusted people. Anabel nurtured a particular animus against each; she wanted videos of their conversion for the historical record and for her own entertainment.

  With this evidence and all the additional names and details that Hendrickson had revealed, Jane would find a way to bring the Techno Arcadians to ruin, every last one of them.

  As she was putting the plastic container in her tote bag, the TV came on. The screen filled with the face of Anabel Claridge, at seventy-five still beautiful. An imperious beauty. High cheekbones, chiseled features. Hair thick and glossy, faded from black to a lustrous silver rather than white. Her eyes were as bright blue as Jane’s, as blue as Petra Quist’s eyes and the eyes of Simon’s wives, a more fierce blue perhaps, but lacking any glint of madness.

  Hendrickson stood before the TV, zombified, as Jane had left him. He had apparently inserted another DVD.

  But then Anabel said, “Booth, what are you doing there? What stupid thing have you allowed to happen?”

  “I’m sorry, Mother. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. She made me do it.”

  Anabel was broadcasting live, perhaps via Skype. Behind her a window, beyond the window a palm tree. The estate in La Jolla.

  In the grip of morbid fascination, Jane had taken a couple steps away from the desk and had evidently come into the range of the camera built into the TV.

  The matriarch’s eyes turned to her. “My son isn’t a weakling like his worthless father. My son is strong. How did you break him so fast?”

  Evidently, when Hendrickson accessed the secret space behind the medicine cabinet, he’d triggered an alarm that was phoned not to the police, but to Anabel in faraway La Jolla.

  The woman’s gaze shifted from Jane to her son. “Booth, take no chances. Big firepower. Kill her.”

  He turned away from the TV, from Jane, and started across the room toward the closet door.

  Jane said, “Booth, play Manchurian with me.”

  The gasp of shock from Anabel was proof enough that no one had known Jane had acquired ampules of the control mechanism when she’d been in Bertold Shenneck’s house in Napa Valley, weeks earlier.

  “Play Manchurian with me,” Jane repeated.

  Again he failed to respond as he worked the lever handle on the closet door.

  Jane drew her Heckler and fired twice as he darted into the closet, the first round drilling the jamb and showering him with splinters, the second passing through the diminishing gap between the jamb and the closing door, which slammed shut.

  “You ignorant skank.” Anabel’s hatred was in fact rancor, the rancidity of mind and heart evolved from cherished malignity that had been long souring, festering, now virulent and implacable. Her venomous rancor had the power to transmogrify her face from that of an elegantly aging grande dame out of the pages of Town & Country into a grotesque countenance both terrifying and beautiful, as might be the face of a fallen angel enraptured by the power to do evil. “You foolish little twat. Your control is layered over the control that I injected a month ago. Mine rules over yours. He’s mine, and he always will be.”

  No wonder he had been disintegrating psychologically. One web was woven across the other, his skull crowded with nanostructures, his free will long extinguished.

  Big firepower. He was getting a fully automatic weapon, maybe an automatic shotgun with an extended magazine.

  Anabel in distant La Jolla was a threat for another day. Booth was now.

  One way out.

  Jane holstered the pistol, grabbed the tote, and rushed to the door by which they had entered.

  As she yanked open the steel slab, a weapon spoke repeatedly inside the closet. A volley of high-powered rounds drilled the door, cracked and shrieked into furniture behind her.

  She crossed the threshold, snatched her flashlight from the floor where she had left it, switched it on, and hurried up a ramp of stone into a higher chamber. The steel door closed with a crash that echoed dire warnings through this nautilus of stone.

  14

  Wearing sunglasses against the nuclear glare of the desert sun, cruising the town, such as it is, in the VelociRaptor, looking for he knows not what, bringing to bear all the pathetic intellectual faculties he possesses and what little knowledge Princeton will have bothered to impart, Dubose drives.

  Riding shotgun, wearing sunglasses, more concerned about their situation than he cares to admit, Carter Jergen says, “We never did get lunch. Where should we have dinner? At the quaint Mexican bar and grill, the taco house, a vending machine at some tacky motel?”

  “If he sold it to someone who lived in town,” Dubose says, “then he would have seen the Honda more than twice over the years.”

  “Possibly,” Jergen acknowledges.

  “Definitely. Someone local bought it, but not someone in town. Someone willing and able to pay a boatload of money to avoid having a car registered in his name.”

  “I wouldn’t call sixty thousand a boatload.”

  “It was a boatload to Fennel Martin.”

  “We never did ask him what’s with the name Fennel.”

  “I did. While you were putting Ginger in the toilet.”

  Jergen winced. “Bathroom.”

  “His mother, she’s big into herbal medicine, says eat enough fennel every day, you add twenty years to the average lifespan, so she doesn’t just feed it to him, she names him for it.”

  “How old is his mother?”

  “She died when she was thirty-two. What we’re going to do is we’re going to cruise around the valley while we have a few hours of light, have a look.”

  “Look for what?”

  “Something. Anything. You got an iPhone picture of the Honda?”

  “Yes.”

  “We’ll show it to some people we see here and there. Maybe one of them will know it. For a Honda, it’s a peculiar shade of green.”

  This is too much for Jergen, this claim of Sherlockian mastery of esoteric detail. “You know twelve-year-old Honda colors?”

  “I love Hondas. My first car was a Honda.”

  Dubose still seems as if he stepped out of a comic book, but the difference this time is that Carter Jergen is beginning to feel as though he’s losing substance from association with this hulk and will wind up, himself, like a fumbling detective in some Saturday-morning TV cartoon show.

  15

  In the reeling and seesawing beam, the smooth wet flowstone seeming to throb, like the peristalsis of some monstrous esophagus trying to swallow her as she struggled upward…Climbing open-mouthed to minimize the gasp a
nd wheeze of respiration, listening intently for sounds of pursuit, which will precede the gunfire…

  Out of the cave that adjoined the room where the face of Anabel floated on the LED screen, through the first of the caverns, Jane’s quick footsteps were soft on dry stone, squelching on the wet. She came next into the chamber where, on both sides, the skeletons of children were heaped in a timeless testament to hate and cruelty. The path through that boneyard of innocents brought her to a lich-gate formed from slabs of stone tumbled in one or more ancient quakes. Three passages provided a choice. As she took the one marked by a white arrow of paint, from below came the thunder of the steel door slamming shut, doomful echoes ringing off the stone to all sides of her.

  He was in the crooked staircase and climbing.

  Bite on the fear. There was a boy to live for.

  Pressing forward, she passed through a corridor of sweating stone, droplets of water falling cold on her face, and in the next cavern arrived at a plank that bridged a fissure perhaps more than seven feet wide. When she reached the farther side of the bridge, she put her tote down and probed the cleft with her light. It was about thirty feet deep, with sloped walls that would allow a swift and safe descent of the farther side and a clamberous ascent of this nearer face. He would need a few minutes to transit that territory, precious time in which she could get a safer distance ahead of him.

  She put the flashlight on the floor, the beam fanning across the stone to the crude bridge. She knelt and lifted her end of the plank out of the notch in which it rested, and pulled hard, dragging it from the other notch on the farther side. The heavy length of wood slipped from her hands, clattering into the cleft, knocking leaden-bell sounds from the walls of stone.

  On her feet again, she snatched up the tote with its precious evidence, plucked the flashlight from the floor, and switched it off. She looked back toward the dripping corridor, to the lich-gate at the farther end of it, beyond which light swept back and forth in the tomb of the innocents. Now that Hendrickson had entered the labyrinth, he was coming faster than she had hoped, with whatever fully automatic weapon he possessed.

 
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