The Crooked Staircase
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?”
“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.