The Crooked Staircase Page 2

“Then I’ll have to hurt you a little, after all. But you’ll have brought it on yourself.”

The intruder’s face—the strength of its features, the clarity of its lines, its refinement—was as purely Celtic as any face in Scotland or Ireland. But those eyes, so black that the pupils and irises were as one, seemed to belong in a different countenance. The contrast was somehow unsettling, as if the face might be a mask, its every expression unreliable, while the truth that otherwise might be read in her eyes remained secreted in their darkness.

Although Sara had promised herself that she would never again be intimidated by anyone, after a brief staring match, she sat where she’d been told to sit.


The tropical stillness of the storm succumbed to a sudden wind that cast shatters of rain against the windows.

Jane Hawk sat across from Sara Holdsteck and put her Heckler & Koch .45 Compact on the kitchen table. Sara looked weary, which was not surprising, considering all that she had been through in the past two years. Weary but not defeated. Jane was familiar with that condition.

“Your Springfield Champion is a sweet weapon, Sara. But don’t carry it in your purse. Change the way you dress. Get in the habit of wearing a sport coat. Carry the gun in a concealed shoulder rig where you can draw it quickly.”

“I hate guns. It was a big step for me just to get one.”

“I understand. But switch to a shoulder rig anyway. And get real about security systems like the one you had installed here.”

Skirling wind rattled rain hard against the glass, disquieting Sara, so that she looked at each of the two kitchen windows as if she expected to see some face of inhuman configuration, conjured by the storm.

Returning her attention to Jane, she said, “Get real about my security system? What’s that mean?”

“Do you know that all alarm companies in any city or region use the same central station to monitor the systems they install?”

“I thought each company monitored its own.”

“Not the case. And certain government agencies have secret—basically illegal—back doors to all those central stations across the country. Do you understand what I mean by ‘back doors’?”

“A way into the company’s computer the company doesn’t know about.”

“I used a back door to your security provider and reviewed your account. Learned where your alarm keypads and motion detectors are located, the password you use when you accidentally trigger an alarm and call in a cancellation, the location of the battery that backs up the system during a power failure. Useful stuff for any bad guy to know. Though he’d still need the four-digit disarming code.”

Two words belatedly brought a scowl to Sara’s face. “?‘Government agencies’? I’ve had enough of them. Which are you with?”

“None. Not anymore. Sara, the alarm company isn’t supposed to have that disarming code. It’s something only the homeowner should know. You should program it yourself with the primary keypad. But like a lot of people, you didn’t want to bother following the steps in the manual, so you asked the installer to program it for you. Which he did. And noted it in your account file. Where I found it.”

As if the weight of her mistake pressed on her, Sara slumped lower in her chair. “I’ve been living defensively for a long time, but I don’t claim to be perfect at it.”

“Maybe you need to be better, but you don’t want to be perfect at it. Only the insane are perfect in their paranoia.”

“Sometimes I think I’ve already gone half-crazy, the way I live. I mean, the worst happened more than two years ago. Nothing since.”

“But in your gut, you know…at any time he might decide you’re a loose end that needs to be tied off.”

Sara glanced again at the windows.

“Would you like to lower the blinds?” Jane asked.

“I always do when I come home after dark.”

“Go ahead. Then sit down again.”

Having closed the blinds, Sara returned to her chair.

Jane said, “I got in here using an automatic lock-picking gun supposedly sold only to police. Turned off the alarm with your code, reset it in the at-home mode, and settled down to wait.”

“I’ll change the code myself. But, who are you?”

Instead of answering, Jane said, “You were on top of the world, selling high-end houses, damn good at it, never a complaint from a client. Then suddenly you’re hit with three very public lawsuits, all within two weeks, alleging fraudulent activities.”

“The allegations weren’t true.”

“I’m aware of that. Then came a seemingly unrelated IRS audit. But not an ordinary audit. One conducted with the assumption of criminal intent, accusations of money laundering.”

The memory triggered indignation that drew Sara up straight in her chair. “The IRS agents who came to pore through my books, they were armed. As if I was some dangerous terrorist.”

“Armed auditors aren’t supposed to flaunt their weapons.”

“Yeah, well, they made damn sure I knew they were packing.”

“To intimidate you.”

Sara squinted as if to focus more intently on Jane’s face. “Do I know you? Have we met before?”

“Doesn’t matter, Sara. What matters is that I despise the same people you despise.”

“Like who would that be?”

From a jacket pocket, Jane produced a photograph of Simon Yegg and dealt it across the table as if it were a playing card.

“My husband,” Sara said. “Ex-husband. The vicious shit. I know why I despise him, but why do you?”

“Because of the crew he hangs with. I want to use him to get to them. In the process, I can make him profoundly sorry he did to you what he did. I can humble him.”


Tanuja Shukla was standing in the deep front yard, in the rain and the dark, soaked and chilled and lonely and wildly happy, when the assassins arrived, although of course she didn’t at once realize they were assassins.

Twenty-five and obsessively creative from early childhood, Tanuja had been writing a novelette in which a rain-drenched night provided atmosphere but also served as a metaphor for loneliness and spiritual malaise. After watching the downpour from a window of her second-floor study, she seized the opportunity to immerse herself in the elements, the better to know what her lead character felt during a long journey on foot in a storm. Other writers of literary fiction with elements of fantasy found most research unnecessary, but Tanuja believed that a skeleton of truth needed to provide the structure underlying an author’s muscular invention—the fantasy—and that the two must be bound together by tendons of accurate facts and well-observed details.

Her twin brother, Sanjay, who was two minutes younger than Tanuja and considerably more acerbic, had said, “Don’t worry. When you die of pneumonia, I’ll finish writing your story, and the last pages will be the best of it.”

Tanuja’s jeans and black T-shirt were saturated, at first clinging like one of those weighted blankets meant to alleviate anxiety, but then seeming to dissolve so that she felt as if she were unclothed except for her blue sneakers, naked in the storm, vulnerable and alone, exactly how the character in her novelette felt. As she mentally catalogued the physical details of this experience for later use in fiction, she was more content than she had been all day.

The house stood at the end of a two-lane road, on three acres in the eastern hills of Orange County horse country, though there were no longer horses on this acreage. White-painted wire-infilled board fencing encircled the property. Sixty or seventy yards west of the house, a gate of the same materials barred entrance to the long driveway.

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