The crooked staircase, p.45
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       The Crooked Staircase, p.45

         Part #3 of Jane Hawk series by Dean Koontz
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  Parked in front of Room 12 is a bespoke Range Rover created by Overfinch North America, a vehicle with major performance upgrades, a carbon-fiber styling package, and a dual-valve titanium exhaust system; it’s a recent perk for certain members of the revolution. The Range Rover means Gottfrey’s two most senior agents—Christopher Roberts and Janis Dern—have checked in.

  Counting Egon Gottfrey and the two men who are at this moment conducting surveillance of the entrance to Hawk Ranch, ten miles east of Worstead, the team of nine is complete.

  In this operation, they are not using burner phones, not even Midland GXT walkie-talkies, which are often useful. In some parts of the country, Texas being one, there are too many paranoid fools who think elements of the government and certain industries conspire in wicked schemes; some are in law enforcement or were in the military, and they spend countless hours monitoring microwave transmissions for evidence to confirm their wild suspicions.

  Or so the Unknown Playwright would have us believe.

  As Gottfrey continues his walk through town, no longer to confirm the presence of his team, merely to pass time, the sinking sun floods the streets with crimson light. The once-pale limestone buildings are now radiant by reflection, but they appear to be built of translucent onyx lit from within. The very air is aglow, as if all the light in the invisible spectrum—infrared and other—is beginning to manifest to the eye, as though the illusion that is the world will burst and reveal what lies under this so-called reality.

  Egon Gottfrey is not merely a nihilist who believes there is no meaning in life. He’s a radical philosophical nihilist who contends that there is no possibility of an objective basis for truth, and therefore no such thing as truth, but also that the entire world and his existence—everyone’s existence—are a fantasy, a vivid delusion.

  The world is as ephemeral as a dream, each moment of the day but a mirage within an infinite honeycomb of mirages. The only thing about himself that he can say exists, with certainty, is his mind wrapped in the illusion of his physical body. He thinks; therefore, he is. But his body, his life, his country, and his world are all illusion.

  On embracing this view of the human condition, a lesser mind might have gone mad, surrendering to despair. Gottfrey has remained sane by playing along with the illusion that is the world, as if it is a stage production for an unknowable audience, as if he is an actor in a drama for which he’s never seen a script. It’s marionette theater. He is a marionette, and he’s okay with that.

  He’s okay with it for two reasons, the first of which is that he has a sharply honed curiosity. He is his own fanboy, eager to see what will happen to him next.

  Second, Gottfrey likes his role as a figure of authority with power over others. Even though it all means nothing, even though he has no control over events, just goes along to get along, it is far better to be one through whom the Unknown Playwright wields power rather than one on whom that power is brought to bear.

  3

  The room illumined only by the netherworld glow of the TV, the vaguest reflections of moving figures on the screen throbbing across the walls like spectral presences…

  Ancel sitting stiffly in his armchair, stone-faced in response to Sunday Magazine’s lies and distortions, the program mirrored in his gray eyes…

  Clare couldn’t stay in her chair, couldn’t just watch and listen and do nothing. She got up and paced, talking back to the screen: “Bullshit” and “Liar” and “You hateful bastard.”

  This was nothing like any previous edition of Sunday Magazine. Always before it had avoided both puff pieces and vitriolic attacks, striving for balance, at times almost highbrow. But this. This was the worst kind of tabloid exploitation and alarmism. This special, “The Beautiful Monster,” had one intention—to paint Jane as an evil angel, a traitor to her country, who wasn’t only capable of horrific violence but who also perhaps took pleasure in wanton murder.

  At the half-hour break, the program host teased the blockbuster revelation that they had been selling in the promos for days. In a portentous voice, he promised to feature it in the next segment.

  As the first commercial played, Clare perched on a footstool and closed her eyes and wrapped her arms around herself, chilled. “What is this, Ancel? This isn’t journalism, not one iota of it.”

  “Character assassination. Propaganda. These people she’s up against, they’re veins of rot runnin’ through government and tech companies, hell-bent to destroy her before she can tell her story.”

  “You think people are still going to defend her after this?”

  “I do, Clare. These fools are hammerin’ too hard, makin’ her out to be some girl version of Dracula and Charles Manson and Benedict Arnold rolled into one.”

  “A lot of stupid people will believe it,” Clare worried.

  “Some stupid. Some gullible. Not everyone. Maybe not most.”

  She said, “I don’t want to watch any more of this.”

  “Neither do I. But that’s not a choice, is it? We’re one with Jane. They blow up her life, they blow up ours. We’ve got to see what’s left of us when this show is done.”

  After the break, Sunday Magazine harked back to Jane’s photo taken on completion of her Bureau training at Quantico, where she’d met Nick when he was assigned to Corps Combat Development Command at the same base. There were wedding photographs: Nick in his Marine dress uniform, Jane in a simple white bridal gown. Such a stunning couple.

  Seeing her lost son and his bride so happy, so vibrant, Clare was overcome with emotion.

  The narration moved to film of Nick receiving the Navy Cross, which was one step below the Medal of Honor, Jane looking on with such love and pride.

  Clare got up from the footstool and went to Ancel and sat on the arm of his chair and put a hand on his shoulder, and he put a hand on her knee and squeezed and said, “I know.”

  The narrator began to talk of Nick’s suicide the previous November.

  He and Jane had been at home in Alexandria, Virginia, preparing dinner, having a little wine. Their boy, Travis, was on a sleepover with another five-year-old in the neighborhood, so that his parents might have a romantic evening. Nick went to the bathroom…and didn’t return. Jane found him clothed, sitting in the bathtub. With his Marine-issue combat knife, he’d cut his neck deeply enough to sever a carotid artery. He left a note, the first sentence in his neat cursive, which deteriorated thereafter: Something is wrong with me. I need. I very much need. I very much need to be dead.

  More than four months had passed since that devastating call from Jane. Clare’s tears now were as hot as her tears then.

  “That,” the narrator solemnly intoned, “was Jane Hawk’s story, and the investigation by the Alexandria police confirmed every detail. In the days following Nick’s death, friends say Jane became obsessed with what she believed was an inexplicable rise in suicides nationwide. She discovered that thousands of happy, accomplished people like her husband, none with a history of depression, were taking their lives for no apparent reason. On leave from the FBI, so deep in grief that friends worried for her mental health, she began to research this disturbing trend, which soon consumed her.”

  Suddenly it seemed that the tenor of the show might change, that all the terrible things said about Jane in the first half hour might be considered from a more sympathetic perspective, raising doubts about the official portrayal of her as traitorous and cruel.

  The program turned to a university professor, an expert in suicide prevention. He claimed that nothing was unusual about the increase in suicides over the past two years, that the rate always fluctuated. He claimed that the percentage of affluent, apparently happy people killing themselves was still within normal parameters.

  “That can’t be right,” Clare said.

  Next came an expert in criminal psychology, a woman with hair pulled tightly back in a chign
on, as lean as a whippet, eyes owlish behind black-framed round lenses, wearing a severely tailored suit that matched the severity of her manner as she discussed what was known of the subject’s difficult childhood.

  Jane. A piano prodigy from the age of four. Daughter of the famous pianist Martin Duroc. Some said Duroc was demanding, distant. She was estranged from him. Jane’s mother, also a talented pianist, committed suicide. Nine-year-old Jane discovered the bloody body in a bathtub. Eight years later, Duroc remarried in spite of his daughter’s objection. A decade later, Jane declined a scholarship to Oberlin, rejecting a music career to pursue one in law enforcement.

  “And it’s intriguing to consider her six years at the FBI,” the psychologist said. As the camera moved close on her face to capture the pale solemnity of her expression, she lowered her voice as if imparting a confidence. “During her time in the Bureau, Jane was assigned to cases under the purview of Behavioral Analysis Units Three and Four, which deal with mass murderers and serial killers. She participated in ten investigations with eight resolutions. For a young woman who might have a long-harbored grudge against men, being immersed in the world of murderous male sociopaths, required to think like them in order to find and apprehend them, the experience could have had profound traumatic effects on her psychology.”

  A shudder passed through Clare, the sense of some abomination coming. She thrust up from the arm of Ancel’s chair. “What the hell does that mean?”

  On the screen now: J. J. Crutchfield. The narrator recounted the sordid story of this killer who had kept the eyes of his women victims in jars of preservative. Jane had wounded and captured him.

  And now: narration over video of the isolated farm where two vicious men had raped and murdered twenty-two girls. Here the agent working the case with Jane had been shot to death, and it had fallen to her, alone in the night, to counterstalk the two murderers who were stalking her. She had taken out both of them, killing the second in the former hog pen that was the graveyard of their victims.

  More video from that night, outside the farmhouse, after the police arrived. Jane conferring with officers in the crosslight of patrol cars, strikingly beautiful, like an avenging goddess, but hair wild, uplit face made subtly ominous by a mascara of shadows.

  Sunday Magazine froze the video on a close-up that did not deny her beauty but that suggested…What? A disturbing hardness about her? A potential for cruelty? Madness?

  Walking along a street in Alexandria, the town where Nick and Jane had lived, the program host addressed the camera. “How thin is the line between heroism and villainy?”

  “Don’t be stupid,” Clare said. “They aren’t separated by a thin line. They’re different countries, an ocean apart.”

  Ancel sat silent and grim-faced.

  “When a good person,” the host said, “badly damaged by profound childhood trauma, for too long is immersed in the dark world of serial killers…might she lose her way?”

  He stopped in front of the Alexandria police headquarters.

  “After the events of recent weeks that have made Jane Hawk front-page news, the police department that originally certified her husband’s death a suicide has quietly reopened the case. The body has been exhumed. A subsequent autopsy and extensive toxicological tests reveal that Nicholas Hawk had a powerful sedative in his system and that the angle and nature of the lethal cut in his neck are not consistent with a self-administered knife wound.”

  Clare felt cold in heart and blood and bone. Such a world of deceit. Such bold, shameless lies. Nick’s remains had been cremated. Only his ashes were buried in Arlington National Cemetery. There was no body to exhume.

  4

  Sunday Magazine was not on Jane’s radar.

  Hours earlier, she had survived an ordeal near Lake Tahoe that had almost been the end of her, leaving her shaken and desolate. She had obtained evidence of murder that might help her break open the conspiracy that had taken Nick’s life and so many others, but she’d gotten it at considerable emotional, psychological, and moral cost.

  Through a cold day darkened by storm clouds and blinded by torrents of snow, she drove south, then west, out of the Sierra Nevada, out of the blizzard—and, after many miles, out of that darkness of spirit, into grace and gratitude for her survival.

  In Placerville, she paid cash for one night at a generic motel, using her Elizabeth Bennet driver’s license as ID, because she was wearing the chopped-everywhichway black wig and excess makeup and blue lipstick that made her Liz.

  She bought deli sandwiches and a pint of vodka at a nearby market and got Coca-Cola and ice from the motel vending alcove and took a shower as hot as she could tolerate and ate the sandwiches while sitting in bed, listening to Mariah Carey on the radio. She drank a vodka-and-Coke and was finishing her second drink, grateful to be alive, when her burner phone rang.

  She intended to call Gavin and Jessica Washington down in eastern Orange County, the friends with whom she had secreted her son, Travis, the only place in the world where he was not likely to be found. If the boy fell into the hands of her enemies, they would kill him because they knew that his death would at last break her. When the disposable phone rang, she thought it must be Gavin or Jessie; no one else had the number.

  But it was Travis. “Mommy? Uncle Gavin and Aunt Jessie went for groceries, and they never came back.”

  Jane swung her legs off the bed, stood, and felt as if she were standing for the attention of a hangman, a noose tight around her neck and a trapdoor under her feet. At once she sat down, dizzy with dread.

  He had been with Gavin and Jessie for more than two months. If something happened to them, he was alone. Five years old and alone.

  Her heart as loud as a cortege drum, but much faster than the meter of mourning, reverberating in blood and bone…

  Travis was a little toughie being strong like he knew his dad would have been, scared but self-controlled. Jane was able to get the situation from him. Gavin and Jessie had realized they were under surveillance, had somehow been connected to Jane. In their Land Rover, with Travis and two German shepherds, they escaped from their house into the dark desert hills. They were pursued—“This crazy-big truck and like even a helicopter, Mom, a helicopter that could see us in the dark”—but they avoided capture. They drove to a bolthole, long ago approved by Jane, in the Borrego Valley, south of Borrego Springs. After settling in a small house on acreage owned by a man named Cornell Jasperson, Gavin shaved his head and Jessie changed her appearance with a wig and makeup, and they went into town to buy supplies. They meant to be back in two hours. Eight had now passed.

  They must be dead. They would not have allowed themselves to be captured, and they would never have shirked their responsibility to look after Travis. Gavin and Jessie were ex-Army, two of the best and most reliable people Jane had ever known.

  She loved them like a brother and sister before she left her child in their care, and she loved them yet more for their unfailing commitment to Travis. Even in these dark times of so much terror and death, when each day brought new threats and sorrows, new shocks to mind and heart, she had not become inured to loss. This one pierced her, a psychic bullet that would have dropped her into tears and numbing grief if her child had not been in such jeopardy.

  She didn’t tell Travis they were dead. She could discern by the catch in his voice that he suspected as much, but there was nothing to be gained by confirming his fear. She needed to project calm and confidence, to give him reason for courage.

  “Where are you, sweetheart? In the house where they left you?”

  If he was still in the house where Gavin and Jessie had meant to hole up with him, he was more likely to be found sooner.

  “No. Me and the dogs, we walked over to Cornell’s place like we were supposed to if there was trouble.”

  Cornell lived off the grid. He was not likely to be linked to Gav
in and Jessie soon. Travis might be safe there for two or three days, though not much longer. The word might was a gut punch.

  “Honey, you’ll be safe with the dogs and Cornell until I can come for you. I will come for you, sweetie. Nothing can stop me.”

  “I know. I know you will.”

  “Are you all right with Cornell?”

  “He’s kind of weird, but he’s nice.”

  Cornell was a brilliant eccentric whose eccentricities were complicated by a mild form of autism.

  “There’s no reason to be afraid of Cornell. You do what he tells you, sweetie, and I’ll come for you just as soon as I can.”

  “Okay. I can’t wait, but I will.”

  “We can’t talk even on burner phones again. It’s too dangerous now. But I’ll come for you.” She got to her feet and was steady this time. “Nobody ever loved anyone more than I love you, Travis.”

  “Me, too. I miss you all the time a lot. Do you have the lady I gave you?”

  The lady was a cameo, the face of a broken locket that he had found and that he thought important because, to his mind if not to hers, the profile carved in soapstone resembled Jane.

  It was on the nightstand with other objects—switchblade, butane lighter, penlight, small canister of Sabre 5.0 pepper spray, four zip-ties each held in tight coils by a rubber band—the tools and simple weapons and instruments of restraint that she had cleaned out of the pockets of her sport coat before hanging it up. Plucking the cameo off the nightstand, she said, “It’s in my hand right now.”

  “It’s good luck. It’s like everything is gonna be all right if you just always have the lady.”

  “I know, baby. I have her. I’ll never lose her. Everything will be all right.”

  5

  Before dinner, Egon Gottfrey returns to his motel to see if the courier has arrived from the laboratory in Menlo Park, California.

  Waiting for him at the front desk is a large white Styrofoam chest of the kind that might contain mail-order steaks or a dozen pints of gelato in exotic flavors.

 
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