Her stricken gaze remained fixed on the ceiling as if she were unaware that help had arrived. Her obliviousness had the quality of a trance.
As he repeated her name, Dylan wondered if she might have been drugged. She seemed to be in a semiparalytic state and unaware of her surroundings.
Then, without glancing at him, she spoke urgently between teeth more than half clenched: 'Run.'
With the bat raised in his right hand, he remained acutely aware of the open hallway door and of the two closed doors, alert for any sound, movement, swell of shadow. No threat arose on any side, no brutish figure that clashed with the daisy wallpaper, the yellow drapes, and the luminously reflective collection of satin-glass perfume bottles on the dresser.
'Ill get you out of here,' he promised.
He reached for her with his free hand, but she didn't take it. She lay stiff and shaking, attention still focused fearfully on the ceiling as if it were lowering toward her, a great crushing weight, as in one of those old movie serials featuring a villain who built elaborate machines of death when a revolver would have done the job better.
'Run,' Becky whispered with a note of greater desperation, 'for God's sake, run.'
Her shaking, her paralysis, her frantic admonitions rattled his nerves, which were already rattling like hailstones on a tin roof.
In those old serials, a calculated dose of curare might reduce a victim to the helpless condition of this woman, but not in the real world. Her paralysis was probably psychological, though nonetheless hampering. To lift her off the bed and carry her from the room, he would have to put down the baseball bat.
'Where's Kenny?' he whispered.
At last her gaze lowered from the ceiling, toward the corner of the room in which one of the closed doors waited.
'There?' he pressed.
Becky's eyes met his for the first time... and then at once shifted again toward the door.
Warily Dylan moved around the foot of the bed, crossing the remainder of the room. Kenny might come at him from anywhere.
Bedsprings sang, and the girl grunted as she exerted herself.
Turning, Dylan saw Becky no longer lying face-up, saw her risen to her knees, and rising still, all the way to her feet upon the bed, with a knife in her right hand.
* * *
Tonk. Twang. Plink.
Eating up trouble as though it were custard, but not pleased by the taste, Jilly reached the archway on the tonk, found the light switch on the twang. On the plink, she bathed the threat in light.
The furious beating of wings almost caused her to reel backward. She expected the tumult of doves or pigeons that had spiraled around her by the side of the highway, or the blinding blizzard of birds that she alone had seen while in the Expedition. But the flock made no appearance, and after the briefest spate of flapping, the wings fell silent.
Kenny wasn't sharpening knives. Unless he proved to be crouched behind an armchair or a sofa, Kenny wasn't even present.
Another series of metallic sounds drew her attention to a cage. It hung five or six feet off the floor, supported by a base similar to that of a floor lamp.
With tiny taloned feet, a parakeet clung to the heavy-gauge wire that formed the bars of its habitat; using its beak, the feathered prisoner plucked at those same restraints. With a sweep of its fluid neck, the parakeet strummed its beak back and forth across a swath of bars as if it were a handless harpist playing a glissando passage: zzziiinnnggg, zzziiinnnggg.
Her tattered reputation as a warrioress having been further diminished by mistaking a parakeet for a mortal threat, Jilly retreated from this moment of humiliation. Returning to the stairs, she heard once more the bird's vigorously feathered drumming of the air, as though it were demanding the freedom to fly.
The rap and rustle of wings so vividly recalled her paranormal experiences that she resisted an urge to flee the house, and instead fled up toward Dylan. The bird grew quiet by the time she reached the midpoint landing, but remaining in flight from the memory of wings, she hurried to the upper floor with too little caution.
* * *
Fake fear had washed out of Becky's blue eyes, and a mad glee had flooded into them.
She launched herself off the bed in a frenzy, slashing wildly with the knife. Dylan twisted out of her way, and Becky proved to have more enthusiasm for murder than practice at it. She stumbled, nearly fell, barely escaped skewering herself, and shouted, 'Kenny!'
Here came Kenny through the door that Becky had not indicated. He had certain qualities of an eel: lithe and quick to the point of sinuousness, lean but muscular, with the mad pressure-pinched eyes of a creature condemned to live in cold, deep, rancid waters. Dylan half expected Kenny's teeth to be pointed and backward-hooked like the teeth of any serpent, whether on land or in water.
He was a young man with flair, dressed in black cowboy boots, black jeans, a black T-shirt, and a black denim jacket brightened by embroidered green Indian designs. The embroidery matched the shade of the feather in the cowboy hat that had been perched atop the suitcases in the bedroom across the hall.
'Who're you?' Kenny asked Dylan, and without waiting for an answer, he demanded of Becky, 'Where the hell's the old bitch?'
The white-haired woman in the candy-striped uniform, home from a hard day's work, was no doubt the old bitch for whom these two had lain in wait.
'Who cares who he is,' Becky said. 'Just kill him, then we'll find the old pus bag and gut her.'
The shackled boy had misunderstood the relationship between his brother and the girl. Cold-blooded conspirators, they intended to slaughter Grandma and little brother, perhaps steal whatever pathetic trove of cash the woman had hidden in her mattress, toss Kenny's two suitcases in the car, and hit the road.
They might make a stop farther along the street at Becky's house to pick up her luggage. Maybe they intended to kill her family, too.
Whether or not their plan subsequent to this snafu would prove successful, right now they had Dylan in a pincer play. They were well positioned to dispatch him quickly.
Kenny held a knife with a twelve-inch blade and two wickedly sharp cutting edges. The rubber-coated, looped handle featured a finger-formed grip that appeared to be user-friendly and difficult to dislodge from a determined hand.
Less designed for war than for the kitchen, Becky's weapon would nevertheless chop a man as effectively as it might have been used to dismember a chicken for a stew pot.
Considerably longer than either blade, the baseball bat provided Dylan with the advantage of reach. And he knew from experience that his size warned off punks and drunks who might otherwise have taken a whack at him; most aggressive types assumed that only a brute could reside within the physique of a brute, when in fact he had the heart of a lamb.
Perhaps Kenny hesitated also because he didn't understand the situation any longer, and worried about murdering a stranger without knowing how many others might also be in the house. The homicidal meanness in those eely eyes was tempered by a cunning akin to that of the serpent in Eden.
Dylan considered trying to pass himself off as a police officer and claiming that backup was on the way, but even if the lack of a uniform could be explained, the use of a baseball bat instead of a handgun made the cop story a hard sell.
Whether or not a drop of prudence seasoned the drug-polluted pool of Kenny's mind, Becky was all intense animal need and demon glee, certain not to be dissuaded for long by the reach of the bat or by her adversary's size.
With one foot, Dylan feinted toward Kenny, but then spun more directly toward the girl and swung the bat at the hand in which she held the knife.
Becky was perhaps a high-school gymnast or one of the legions of ballerina wannabes on whom multitudes of loving American parents had squandered countless millions with the certainty that they were nurturing the next Margot Fonteyn. Although not talented enough for Olympic competition or for the professional dance theater, she proved to be quick, limber, and more coordinated than she had appeared to be when she'd flung herself off the bed. She fell back, avoiding the bat with a cry of premature triumph – 'Ha!' – and at once sprang to her right to get out of the way of the backswing, half crouching to contract her leg muscles, the better to move with power when she decided how to move.
Under no illusions that Kenny's better judgment would ensure his continued hesitancy if an ideal opening appeared, Dylan borrowed some moves from Becky, though he probably looked less like a failed ballerina than like a dancing bear. He rounded on the embroidered cowboy just as Kenny came in for the kill.
The kid's moray eyes revealed not the feral ferocity of Becky, but the calculation of a sneak and the incomplete commitment of a coward who was bravest with a weak adversary. He was a monster, but not the savage equal of his blue-eyed squeeze, and he made the mistake of slipping in for the kill instead of lunging full-out. By the time Dylan turned toward him, the bat arcing high, Kenny should have been rushing forward with enough momentum to duck under the bat and drive the blade home. Instead, he flinched, juked back, and fell victim to his lack of nerve.
With a Babe Ruth crack, the bat broke Kenny's right forearm. In spite of the looped handle and formed grip, the knife flew out of his hand. Kenny seemed almost to lift off his feet, as though he were a two-base hit if not an out-of-the-park home run.
As the screaming kid failed to take flight and instead dropped like a bunt, Dylan could sense Becky coming at his back and knew that a dancing bear could never outmaneuver a psychotic ballerina.
* * *
As she reached the next-to-the-last step, Jilly heard someone shout 'Kenny!' She halted short of the upstairs hall, unsettled that the cry had come neither from Dylan nor from a thirteen-year-old boy. Urgent and shrill, the voice had been female.
She heard other noises, then a man's voice, likewise not Dylan's and not that of a boy, though she couldn't discern what he said.
Having come to warn Dylan that young Travis was up here with Kenny, but also having followed to help him if he needed help, she couldn't freeze on these steps and yet retain her self-respect. For Jillian Jackson, self-respect had been won with considerable effort through a childhood that, except for the example set by her mother, had provided fertile ground for seeds of self-doubt and excessive self-effacement. She would not here relinquish what she had struggled so long and hard to capture.
Hurrying out of the stairwell, Jilly saw a spill of soft light coming from an open door on the left, brighter light issuing from a door farther along on the right – and doves erupting through a closed window at the end of the hallway, a vision of doves that left the panes intact in their wake.
The birds made no sounds – no coos or cries, nor the faintest thrum of wings. When they exploded around and over her, cataracts of white feathers, a thousand piercing gazes, a thousand yawning beaks, she didn't expect to feel them, but she did. The breeze stirred by their passage was spicy with incense. Their wing tips brushed her body, arms, and face.
Staying close to the left wall, she moved quickly forward into a storm of white wings as dense as the feathery blizzard that earlier had swept across the Expedition. She feared for her sanity, but she didn't fear the birds, which meant her no harm. Even if they had been real, they would not have pecked or blinded her. She sensed that they were in fact proof of augmented vision, although even as this thought occurred to her, she had no idea what augmented vision might be; for the moment it was a thing she understood instinctively, emotionally, rather than intellectually.
Although she could not be harmed by these phenomena, the timing of the birds' appearance couldn't have been worse. She needed to find Dylan, and real or not, the birds were a hindrance to the search.
'Ha!' exclaimed someone close at hand, and an instant later, Jilly felt on her left the open doorway that the seething flock had hidden from her view.
She stepped across the threshold, and the birds vanished. Before her lay a bedroom revealed by a single lamp. And here was Dylan, too, armed with a baseball bat, bracketed by a young man – Kenny? – and a teenage girl, both brandishing knives.
The bat cut the air with a whoosh, the young man screamed, and the wickedly sharp knife, tumbling free, clattered against a walnut highboy.
When Dylan swung the bat, the teenage girl behind him tensed, for an instant tightening down in her crouch. As Kenny shrieked in pain, the girl drew her knife back in striking position, certain to spring forward and bury it in Dylan before he could turn to deal with her.
On the move even as the girl uncoiled out of her crouch, Jilly shouted, 'Police!'
Monkey-agile, the girl whipped around but also sidestepped to avoid turning her back on Dylan, to keep him in sight.
Her eyes were as blue as any sky adorned with cherubim on any chapel ceiling, but also radiant with dementia surely spawned by psychosis-inducing drugs.
A Southwest Amazon at last, but too squeamish to risk destroying the girl's eyes, Jilly aimed lower with the instant ant death. The nozzle on the can that she'd found in the pantry had two settings: SPRAY and STREAM. She had set it on STREAM, which would reach ten feet, according to the label.
Perhaps because of her excitement, her homicidal exhilaration the girl was breathing through her mouth. The stream of insecticide went straight in, like an arc of water from a drinking fountain, moistening lips, bathing tongue.
Although instant ant death had a notably less severe effect on a teenage girl than it would have on an ant, it wasn't received with lip-smacking delight. Less refreshing than cool water, this drink at once took all the fight out of the girl. She flung the knife aside. Gagging, wheezing, spitting, she staggered to a door, yanked it open, slapped at the wall switch until the lights came on, revealing a bathroom. At the sink, the girl cranked on the cold water, cupped her hands, and repeatedly flushed out her mouth, sputtering and choking.
On the floor, groaning, crying with a particularly annoying note of self-pity, Kenny had curled up like a shrimp.
Jilly looked at Dylan and shook the can of insecticide. 'From now on, I'm going to use this on hecklers.'
'What did you do with Shep?'
'The grandmother told me about Kenny, the knives. Aren't you going to say "Thanks for saving my butt, Jilly"?'
'I told you not to leave Shep alone.'
'He's all right.'
'He's not all right, out there by himself,' he said, raising his voice as though he had some legitimate authority over her.
'Don't you shout at me. Good lord, you drove here like a maniac, wouldn't tell me why, bailed out of the truck, wouldn't tell me why. And I'm supposed to – what? – to sit out there, just shift my brain into neutral like your good little woman, and wait like a stupid turkey standing in the rain with its mouth open, gawking at the sky, until it drowns?'