The Crooked Staircase Page 1

Author: Dean Koontz

Series: Jane Hawk #3

Genres: Thriller , Fiction


At seven o’clock on that night in March, during a thunderless but heavy rain pounding as loud as an orchestra of kettledrums, Sara Holdsteck finally left the offices of Paradise Real Estate, carrying her briefcase in her left hand, open purse slung over her left shoulder, right hand free for a cross-body draw of the gun in the purse. She boarded her Ford Explorer, threw back the dripping hood of her raincoat, and drove home by way of familiar suburban streets on which the foul weather had settled a strangeness, an apocalyptic gloom that matched her mood. Not for the first time in the past two years, she felt as if somewhere ahead of her, reality itself must be eroding, washing away, so that she might come to the crumbling edge of a precipice with nothing beyond but a lightless, bottomless abyss. Silver needles of rain pleated the darkness with mystery and threat. Any vehicle that followed her more than three blocks elicited her suspicion.

The Springfield Armory Champion .45 ACP was nestled in her open purse, which stood on her briefcase, within easy reach on the passenger seat. Originally she hadn’t wanted a weapon of such a high caliber, but she had eventually realized that nothing smaller would so reliably stop an assailant. She had spent many hours on a shooting range, learning to control the recoil.

She had once lived in a gated community with an around-the-clock security guard, in a paid-off twelve-thousand-square-foot residence with a view of the Pacific Ocean. Now she owned a house one-quarter that size, encumbered by a fat mortgage, in a neighborhood with no gate, no guard, no view. Starting with little money, by the age of forty she had built a modest fortune as a Southern California real-estate agent, broker, and canny investor—but most of it had been taken from her by the time she was forty-two.

At forty-four, though bitter, she was nonetheless grateful that she hadn’t been rendered penniless. Having clawed her way to the top once before, she’d been left with just enough assets to start the climb again. This time she would not make the mistake that had led to her ruin; she would not marry.

On the street where Sara lived, storm runoff overwhelmed the drains to form shallow lakes wherever the pavement swaled. Her Ford cast up wings of water in a false promise of magical flight. She slowed and swung into her driveway. Lights glowed in some windows, controlled by a smart-house program that, after nightfall and in her absence, created the illusion of occupancy and activity. She remoted the garage door and, while it rolled up on its tracks, put her open purse in her lap. She drove inside, the drumming of rain on the roof relenting as the welcome electronic shriek of the alarm system inspired a greater sense of safety than she had felt since setting out for work that morning.

She did not switch off the engine. With the doors still locked, she kept her left foot hard on the brake, her right poised over the accelerator, and she shifted into reverse. She used the remote control again and looked from one of the SUV’s side mirrors to the other, watching the big segmented door descend. If someone tried to slip in under it, the motion detector would sense the intruder and, as a safety measure, retract the door. If that happened, the instant the roll-up cleared the roof of the Explorer, she would take her foot off the brake, stomp the accelerator, and reverse at speed into the driveway, into the street.

With luck, she might be quick enough to run down whatever sonofabitch had come after her.

The bottom rail of the door met the concrete with a soft thud. She was alone in the garage.

She shifted the SUV into park, applied the emergency brake, switched off the engine, and got out. The last exhaust fumes threaded the air. The Ford shed rain on the concrete floor and ticked as the engine cooled.

After unlocking the connecting door to the house, she stepped into the laundry room, turned to the keypad, and entered the four-number code that disarmed the security system. At once she reset the alarm to the at-home mode, which activated only the sensors at the doors and windows, leaving dormant the interior motion detectors, allowing her to move freely through the residence.

She hung her raincoat on a wall hook, where it dripped onto the tile floor. Purse slung from her left shoulder, briefcase in her right hand, she opened the inner laundry-room door and went into the kitchen, realizing an instant too late that the air was redolent with the aroma of freshly brewed coffee.

A stranger with a pistol stood at the dinette table on which rested a mug of coffee and Sara’s copy of that morning’s Los Angeles Times with its banner headline JANE HAWK INDICTED FOR ESPIONAGE, TREASON, MURDER. The barrel of the weapon was elongated by a silencer, the muzzle as dark and deep as a wormhole connecting this universe to another.

Sara halted, shocked not merely because her home had been violated in spite of all her precautions, but also because the intruder was a woman.

Twentysomething, with long black hair parted mid-forehead and tucked behind her ears, with eyes as black and direct as the muzzle of the gun, with no makeup or lipstick—and no need of any—wearing wire-rimmed glasses, dressed in a black sport coat and a white shirt and black jeans, she looked severe and yet beautiful and somehow unearthly, as if Death had undergone an image makeover and at long last revealed her true gender.

“I’m not here to hurt you,” the intruder said. “I just need some information. But first, put your purse on the counter, and don’t reach for the gun in it.”

Although Sara suspected that it would be foolish to hope to deceive this woman, she heard herself say, “Whatever you are, I’m not like you. I’m just a real-estate agent. I don’t have a gun.”

The stranger said, “Two years ago, you purchased a Springfield Armory Super Tuned Champion with a Novak low-mount fixed sight, polished extractor and ejector and feed ramp, and a King extended safety. You ordered it with an A1-style trigger precisely tuned to a four-pound pull, and you had the entire weapon carry-beveled, all its edges and corners rounded so that it won’t snag during a quick draw. You must have done a lot of research to come up with an order like that. And you must have spent many hours on a shooting range, learning to handle the piece, because then you applied for and received a concealed-carry permit.”

Sara put the purse on the counter.

“The briefcase, too,” the intruder directed. “Don’t even think of slinging it at me.”

When she did as told, Sara’s gaze fixed on a nearby drawer that held cutlery, including a chef’s French knife and a cleaver.

“Unless you’re a champion knife thrower,” the stranger said, “you’ll never be fast enough to use it. Didn’t you hear me say I don’t mean you any harm?”

Sara turned from the cutlery drawer. “Yeah, I heard. But I don’t believe it.”

The woman regarded her in silence for a moment and then said, “If you’re as smart as I think you are, you’ll warm up to me. If you’re not that smart, this will get ugly when it doesn’t need to be. Sit down at the table.”

“What if I just walk out of here?”