'Belly-crawl with me, Shep.' He raised his voice above the cacophony. 'Belly-crawl, come on, let's scoot!'
Shepherd hugged the floor, head turned toward Dylan but eyes closed. 'Ice.'
The living room featured two south-facing windows, and four that presented a view to the west. The glass in the south wall had dissolved in the first instant of the barrage, but the west windows remained intact, untouched even by ricochets.
'Make like a snake,' Dylan urged.
Shep remained frozen: 'Ice, ice, ice.'
Relentless raking volleys punched the south wall, penetrated to the living room, chopping wooden furniture into kindling, smashing lamps, vases. Scores of rounds punched upholstered furniture, each with a thick flat slap that unnerved Dylan, maybe because this might be what flesh sounded like when a bullet tore into it.
Although his face was inches from Shep's face, Dylan shouted, partly to be sure he was heard above the din of gunfire, partly in the hope of stirring Shep to action, partly because he was angry with his brother, but mostly because he seethed again with that righteous rage he had first felt in the house on Eucalyptus Avenue, furious about the bastards who always had their way by force, who resorted to violence, first, second, last, and always. 'Damn it, Shep, are you going to let them kill us the way they killed Mom? Cut us down and leave us here to rot? Are you going to let them get away with it again? Are you, Shep, damn you, Shep, are you?'
Lincoln Proctor had killed their mother, and these gunmen were opposed to Proctor and to his life's work, but as far as Dylan was concerned, Proctor and these thugs were on the same team. They just wore different unit patches in the army of darkness.
Stirred either by Dylan's passion and anger, or perhaps by the delayed realization that they were besieged, Shep stopped chanting ice. His eyes popped open. Terror had found him.
Dylan's heart double-clutched, shifting first into neutral when it skipped a beat or two, then shifting into higher gear, because he thought Shep would fold them, right here and now, without Jilly, who had reached the front hall.
Instead, Shepherd decided to make like a snake. He polished the floor with his belly as he squirmed from the dining room doorway into the downstairs hall, angling across the northeast quadrant of the living room.
Raised on his forearms, locomoting on his elbows and on the toes of his shoes, the kid moved so fast that Dylan had trouble keeping up with him.
Chips of plaster, splinters of wood, chunks of foam padding, and other debris rained on them as they crawled. Between them and the south wall, a reassuring bulk of furniture absorbed or deflected the lower incoming rounds, while the rest passed over them.
Bullets whistled overhead, the sound of fate sucking air through its teeth, but Dylan didn't yet hear any shrieking shards of whirling shrapnel, neither cyanide nor any other flavor.
A thin haze of plaster dust cast a dream pall over the room, and pillow feathers floated in the air, as thick as in a henhouse roiled by a fox.
Shep snaked into the hallway and might have kept going into the study if Jilly had not been lying prone at the foot of the stairs. She wriggled backward, blocked him, grabbed him by the loose seat of his jeans, and redirected him to the steps.
When not stopped by furniture or otherwise deflected, bullets penetrated the front hall through the open door to the living room. They also slammed into the south wall of the hallway, which was also the north wall of the living room. Impact with this second mass of wood and plaster stopped some rounds, but others punched through with plenty of killing force left.
Wheezing with fear more than with exertion, grimacing at the alkaline taste of plaster dust, gazing up from the floor, Dylan saw scores of holes in that wall. Some were no larger than a quarter, but a few were as big as his fist.
Bullets had hacked chips and chunks out of the handrail. They hacked another and another as he watched.
Several balusters had been notched. Two were shattered.
Those rounds that made it through the wall and past the stair railing were finally stopped by the north wall of hallway, which became the stairwell wall. Therein, the powerful rounds had spent the last of their energy, leaving the plaster as pocked and drilled as the backstop to a firing squad.
Even if Jilly and the brothers O'Conner, like a family of snake-imitating sideshow freaks, ascended the steps with a profile as low as that of a descending Slinky toy, they weren't going to be able to reach the first landing unscathed. Maybe one of them would make it alive and whole. Maybe even two, which would be irrefutable proof of guardian angels. If miracles came in threes, however, they wouldn't be miracles anymore; they would be common experience. Jilly or Shep, or Dylan himself, would be killed or gravely wounded in the attempt. They were trapped here, flat on the floor, inhaling plaster dust with a gasp, exhaling it with a wheeze, without options, without hope.
Then the gunfire abated and, within just three or four seconds, stopped altogether.
With the first phase of the assault completed in no more than two minutes, the assassins to the east and south of the house were falling back. Taking cover to avoid being wounded by crossfire.
Simultaneously, to the west and north of the house, other gunmen would be approaching at a run. Phase two.
The front door, in the west wall of the house, lay immediately behind Dylan, flanked by stained-glass sidelights. The study was to their left as they faced the first landing, just beyond the stairwell wall, and the study had three windows.
In phase two, the hallway would be riddled with such a storm of bullets that everything heretofore would seem, by comparison, like a mere tantrum thrown by belligerent children.
Taunting Death had granted them a mere handful of seconds in which to save themselves, and his skeletal fingers were spread wide to facilitate the sifting of time.
These same lightning calculations must have flashed through Jilly's mind, for even as the echo of the last barrage still boomed through the house, she bolted to her feet in concert with Dylan. Without pause for even one word of strategic planning, they both reached down, grabbed Shep by his belt, and hauled him to his feet between them.
With the superhuman strength of adrenaline-flushed mothers lifting overturned automobiles off their trapped babies, they pulled Shep onto tiptoe and muscled him up the steps, against which his feet rapped, tapped, scraped, and occasionally even landed on a tread in such a way as to modestly advance the cause and assist them with a little upward thrust.
'Where's all the ice?' Shep asked.
'Upstairs,' Jilly gasped.
'Where's all the ice?'
'Damn it, buddy!'
'We're almost there,' Jilly encouraged them.
'Where's all the ice?'
The first landing loomed.
Shep hooked the toe of one foot under a tread.
They maneuvered him over it, onward, up.
'Where's all the ice?'
The stained-glass sidelights dissolved in a roar of gunfire, and many sharp bony knuckles knocked fiercely against the front door, as if a score of determined demons with death warrants were demanding admission, splitting the wood, punching holes, and vibrations passed through the staircase underfoot as round after round smashed into the risers between the lower treads.
Once they reached the landing and started to climb the second flight, Dylan felt safer, but his relief immediately proved to be premature. A bullet cracked up through a tread three steps ahead of them, and slammed into the stairwell ceiling.
He realized that the underside of this second flight of stairs faced the front door. Essentially, beneath their feet lay the back wall of a shooting gallery.
Proceeding was dangerous, retreating made no sense whatsoever, and halting in midflight meant certain death later if not sooner. So they hauled more aggressively on Shepherd's belt, Jilly with both hands, Dylan with one, dragged-heaved-bounced him up the second set of stairs, and this time 'Where's all the ice?' squeaked from him in a semifalsetto.
Dylan expected to be shot through the soles of his feet, in an arm, through the bottom of his chin, or all of the above. When they arrived in the upper hall without any of them yet resembling a morgue photo in a forensic-pathology textbook, he let go of his brother and leaned with one hand on the newel post to catch his breath.
Evidently, Vonetta Beesley, their housekeeper, had put her hand on the newel cap earlier in the day, for when Dylan made contact with her psychic trace, images of the woman flared through his mind. He felt compelled to seek her out at once.
If this had occurred the previous evening, if he hadn't learned to control his response to such stimuli, he might have plunged down the stairs, into the maelstrom below, as he had raced recklessly to Marjorie's house on Eucalyptus Avenue. Instead, he snatched his hand off the post and dialed down his sensitivity to the spoor.
Already Jilly had pulled Shepherd farther into the hall, away from the head of the stairs. Raising her voice to compete with the explosive tumult below, she pleaded with him to fold them out of here.
Joining them, Dylan saw that his brother remained icebound. The issue of ice continued to bounce around inside Shep's head to the exclusion of virtually everything else.
No formula existed to determine how long Shepherd would take to extract himself from the tar pit of this latest obsession, but wise money would have to take short odds on a long period of distraction. He was more likely to awaken to the world around him in an hour than in two minutes.
Focusing tightly on one narrow question or area of interest was, after all, another way to insulate himself when the inflow of sensory stimuli became overwhelming. In the midst of gunfire, he couldn't choose a safe corner and turn his back to the chaos behind him, but he could flee to a symbolic corner in a dark room deep in the castle of his mind, a corner that contained nothing to consider except ice, ice, ice.
'Where's all the ice?'
'When they're done downstairs,' Jilly asked, 'what's next?'
'They blast the second floor. Maybe come up on the porch roofs to do it.'
'Maybe they come inside,' she said.
'Ice, ice, ice.'
'We've got to get him off this ice,' Jilly worried.
'That'll only happen with time and quiet.'
'We're not screwed.'
'You got a plan?' she demanded.
Dylan's only plan, which Jilly in fact suggested, had been to get above the gunfire. Now he realized that the gunfire would come to them wherever they went, not to mention the gunmen.
The ferocious clatter-bang downstairs, the fear of a stray bullet finding its way up the stairwell or even through the ceiling of the lower hall and the floor of the upper hall: All this made concentrating on tactics and strategy no easier than lassoing snakes. Once again, circumstances thrust upon Dylan a deeper understanding of how his brother must feel when overwhelmed by life, which in Shep's case was nearly all the time.
Okay, forget about the money he kept in a lockbox. The Beatles had been right: Money can't buy you love. Or stop a bullet.
Forget about the 9-mm pistol that he'd bought after his mother's murder. Against these assailants' artillery, the handgun might as well have been a stick.
'Ice, ice, ice.'
Jilly coaxed Shepherd to skate out of the ice and rejoin them, so he could fold them to someplace safe, but with his eyes closed and thought processes frozen, he remained resistant to sweet talk.
Time and quiet. Although they couldn't buy much time, every minute gained might be the minute during which Shep would come back to them. Deep quiet was beyond attainment during this jihad, but any reduction in the bang and clangor would help the kid find a way out of that corner of ice.
Dylan crossed the hallway and threw open the door to the guest bedroom. 'In here.'
Jilly seemed to be able to tug Shepherd along in a reasonably fast shuffle.
The impact of the fierce barrage sent shudders upward through the walls of the house. The second-floor windowpanes rattled in their frames.
Moving ahead of Jilly and Shep, Dylan hurried into the bedroom, to a walk-in closet. He switched on the light.
A cord dangled from a pull-down trapdoor in the closet ceiling. He yanked on the cord, lowering the trap.
Downstairs, the deafening volume of gunfire, which had sounded like the fiercest moment during the Nazi siege of Leningrad, as Dylan had once seen it portrayed on the History Channel, abruptly grew louder.
He wondered how many major splintering hits the wall studs could sustain before structural damage became critical and one or another corner of the house sagged.
'Ice, ice, ice.'
Arriving at the closet door with Shep, referring to the ungodly racket on the lower floor, Jilly said, 'We got a double scoop of Apocalypse now.'
'With sprinkles.' A ladder in three folded segments was mounted to the back of the trapdoor. Dylan lowered it.
'Some of Proctor's experimental subjects must've developed weird talents a lot scarier than ours.'
'What do you mean?'
'These guys don't know what we can do, but they're so wet-pants scared of what it might be, they want us seriously dead, faster than fast.'
Dylan hadn't thought about that. He didn't like thinking about it. Before them, Proctor's nanobots had evidently produced monsters. Everyone expected him and Jilly and Shep to be monsters, too.
'What?' Jilly asked disbelievingly. 'You want us to go up that freakin' ladder?'
'It's the attic.'
'The attic is death, a dead end.'
'Everywhere we can go is a dead end. This is the only way we can buy some time for Shep.'
'They'll look in the attic.'
'Not right away.'
'I hate this,' she declared.
'You don't see me dancing.'
'Ice, ice, ice.'
Dylan said to Jilly, 'You go first.'
'You can coax Shep from the top while I push from below.'
The gunfire ceased, but the memory of it still rang in Dylan's ears.
Jilly said, 'Crap.'
The attic limited their options, put them in the position of trapped rats, offered them nothing but gloom and dust and spiders, but Jilly ascended the sloped ladder because the attic was the only place they could go.
As she climbed, her shoulder-slung purse banged against her hip and briefly got hooked on the long scissoring hinges from which the ladder was hung. She had lost the Coupe DeVille, all her luggage, her laptop, her career as a comedian, even her significant other – dear adorable green Fred – but she was damned if she'd give up her purse under any circumstances. It contained only a few dollars, breath mints, Kleenex, lipstick, compact, a hairbrush, nothing that would change her life if kept or destroy it if lost, but supposing that she miraculously survived this visit to Casa O'Conner, she looked forward to freshening her lipstick and brushing her hair because at this dire moment, anyway, having the leisure to primp a little appealed to her as a delicious luxury on a par with limousines, presidential suites in five-star hotels, and Beluga caviar.