Shepherd opened the refrigerator door again, and peering into it, he said, 'Cold. We're all cold.'


The black glass oven doors watched, watched like hooded eyes.


Dark bottles in a wine rack seemed to have Molotov potential.


Flesh crawled, fine hairs quivered, a chill settled on the nape of her neck when she imagined the steel teeth gnashing silently in the throat of the garbage disposal.


No. Absurd. No spirit possessed the room. She didn't need an exorcist.


Her sense of alarm – actually a presentiment of death, she realized – was so powerful and growing so rapidly that she desperately needed to discover a cause for it. She superstitiously projected her fear onto inanimate objects – pig clock, oven doors, garbage-disposal blades – when the real threat lay elsewhere.


'We're all cold,' said Shep at the open refrigerator.


This time, Jilly heard those three words differently from the way she had heard them before. She remembered Shepherd's talent for reeling off synonyms, and now she realized that they might have the same meaning as We're all dead. Cold as a corpse. Cold as the grave. Cold and dead.


'Let's get out of here now, fast,' she urged.


Dylan said, 'I've got to get the money in the lockbox.'


'Forget the money. We'll die trying to get the money.'


'That's what you see?'


'That's what I know.'


'Okay, all right.'


'Let's fold, let's go, hurry!'


'We're all cold,' said Shep.


37


Tick-tock, pig clock. Gleaming little eyes squinting out of folds of pink fat. That knowing leer.


Forget the damn clock. The pig clock isn't a threat. Focus.


Dylan returned to his brother, closed the refrigerator door for the third time, and drew Shep toward Jilly. 'We've got to go, buddy.'


'Where's all the ice?' Shep asked, deeper into this obsession than Jilly had seen him in any other. 'Where's all the ice?'


'What ice?' Dylan asked.


This clairvoyance, this foreshadowing talent was still new to Jilly, as frightening as it was new, as unwanted as it was new, and she had not been channeling it properly.


'Where's all the ice?' Shepherd persisted.


'We don't need ice,' Dylan told him. 'Buddy, you're starting to scare me here. Don't freeze up on me.'


'Where's all the ice?'


'Shep, be with me now. Listen to me, hear me, stay with me.'


By struggling to identify the cause of her alarm, letting her suspicion hop from object to object, place to place, she had not been allowing the alarm to direct the compass needle of her intuition. She needed to relax, to trust this strange precognition and let it show her precisely what to fear.


'Where's all the ice?'


'Forget about the ice. We don't need ice, buddy. We need to get out of here, all right?'


'Nothing but ice.'


Inevitably, Jilly's attention was drawn toward the windows, and the deep backyard beyond the windows. The green grass, the garage, the golden meadow behind the garage.


'Nothing but ice.'


Dylan said, 'He's fixated on this ice thing.'


'Get him off it.'


'Nothing but ice,' said Shepherd. 'Where's all the ice?'


'You know Shep by now. There's no getting him off it until he wants to get off. The thing keeps... ricocheting around in his head. And this seems worse than usual.'


'Sweetie,' she said, her gaze riveted on the windows, 'we have to fold. We can get you some ice after we fold.'


'Where's all the ice?'


Dylan put a hand under his brother's tucked chin, raised his head. 'Shep, this is crucial now. You understand crucial? I know you do, buddy. It's crucial that we fold out of here.'


'Where's all the ice?'


Glancing at Shepherd, she saw that he refused to relate to his brother. Behind his closed lids, his eyes moved ceaselessly.


When Jilly returned her attention to the backyard, a man knelt on one knee at the northwest corner of the garage. He sheltered in shadows. She almost didn't spot him, but she was sure he hadn't been there a moment ago.


Another man ran in a crouch from the cover of the meadow to the southwest corner of the garage.


'They're here,' she told Dylan.


Neither of these men wore desert-resort pastels, but they were of a type with the faux golfers in Arizona. They were big, they were purposeful, and they weren't going door to door to preach salvation through Jesus.


'Where's all the ice?'


As far as Jilly was concerned, the scariest thing about them was the headset that each man wore. Not just earpieces but also extension arms that placed penny-size microphones at their mouths. This high degree of coordination argued that the assault force had to be larger than two men, and further suggested that these weren't just your ordinary knee-breaking, contract-kill thugs, but thugs with a keen sense of organization.


'Where's all the ice?'


The second man had covered the ground between meadow and garage. He crouched at the southwest corner, half concealed by a shrub.


She expected them to come well armed, so their guns were only the second scariest thing about them. Big weapons. Sort of futuristic looking. Probably what were called assault rifles. She didn't know much about firearms, didn't need to know much to be a comedian, even in front of the most unruly audience, but she figured that these guns were capable of firing a gazillion rounds before they needed to be reloaded.


'Where's all the ice?'


She and Dylan had to buy time until Shepherd could be persuaded that the way to get cake and ice would be to fold the three of them someplace that offered both.


'Get away from the windows,' Jilly warned, retreating from those that faced the backyard. 'Windows are... windows are death.'


'Every room has windows,' Dylan worried. 'Lots of windows.'


'Basement?'


'Isn't one. California. Slab construction.'


Shep asked, 'Where's all the ice?'


Jilly said, 'They know we're here.'


'How could they know? We didn't come in from outside.'


'Maybe a listening device, planted in the house earlier,' she suggested. 'Or they spotted us with binoculars through the windows.'


'They sent Vonetta home,' he realized.


'Let's hope that's all they did to her.'


'Where's all the ice?'


The thought of harm having come to his housekeeper cast an ashen pallor over Dylan's face as the recognition of his own mortal danger had not. 'But we only folded out of Holbrook half an hour ago.'


'So?'


'We must have surprised the hell out of the guy in the motel room, the one who saw us go.'


'He probably needed clean underwear,' she agreed.


'So how could they have even figured out what folding was in just half an hour, let alone alerted people here in California?'


'These guys didn't come here on an alert sent out half an hour ago. They staked out this house when they didn't know where we were, before the Arizona goons confirmed we were in Holbrook, hours before they went into the motel after us.'


'So they connected you to the Coupe DeVille and me to you last night, pretty quick,' Dylan said. 'We've always been just a few hours ahead of them.'


'They didn't know we'd come back here soon or ever. They were just here waiting, hoping.'


'Nobody was running surveillance on the house this morning when Shep and I folded onto that hilltop back there.'


'They must've gotten here not long after that.'


'Ice,' said Shep, 'ice, ice, ice, ice.'


The guy on one knee in the shadows, the other guy half hidden by the shrub, talking on their headsets, were probably not talking just to each other, but were chatting with a cozy knitting circle of like-minded assassins surrounding the house, exchanging tips on weapons maintenance, garroting-wire techniques, and recipes for nerve poison, while synchronizing their watches and coordinating their murderous attack.


Jilly could have tapped her veins for the ice Shep wanted. She felt defenseless. She felt naked. Naked in the hands of fate.


'Ice, ice, ice, ice, ice.'


In her mind's eye, she considered the slowly drifting shards of glass, the bullet crawling through the air. She said, 'But by now this team has talked to the team in Arizona, bet your ass, talked to them sometime in the past fifteen or twenty minutes, so they know we can do the old herethere boogie.'


Dylan's mind was spinning as fast as hers: 'In fact, maybe one of Proctor's previous experimental subjects pulled the same trick, so they have seen folding before.'


'The idea of a bunch of nano-whacked ginks running around with superpowers scares the hell out of them.'


'Who can blame 'em? Scares the hell out of me,' Dylan said, 'even when the ginks are us.'


'Ice, ice, ice.'


Jilly said, 'So when they come, they're going to come in fast and blast the crap out of the house, hoping to kill us before we know they're here and can do our folding routine.'


'This is what you think or what you know?'


She knew it, felt it, saw it. 'They're using armor-piercing rounds that'll punch straight through the walls, through masonry, through anydamnthing.'


'Ice, ice, ice.'


'And worse than armor-piercing rounds,' she continued. 'Lots worse. Stuff like... explosive rounds that throw off cyanide-coated shrapnel.'


She had never read about such hideous weapons, had never heard about them, but thanks to the new nanobot-engineered connections in her brain, she foresaw their use here. She heard ghost voices in her head, men's voices talking about details of the attack at some point in the future, perhaps policemen sifting through the ruins of the house later today or tomorrow, perhaps the killers themselves engaged in a little nostalgic reminiscence about bloody destruction conducted with perfect timing and homicidal flair.


'Cyanide shrapnel, and God knows what else,' she continued, and shuddered. 'When they're finished with us, what Janet Reno did to the Branch Davidians will seem like a friendly Christian taffy pull.'


'Ice, ice, ice.'


With a new urgency, Dylan confronted Shep. 'Open your eyes, buddy, get out of that hole, out of the ice, Shep.'


Shepherd kept his eyes closed.


'If you ever want cake again, Shep, open your eyes.'


'Ice, ice, ice.'


'He's not close to coming around yet,' Dylan told Jilly. 'He's lost in there.'


'Upstairs,' she said. 'It's not going to be a picnic up there, but the downstairs is going to get chopped to pieces.'


Out at the garage, the guy stood up from the shadows, and the other guy stood up from the masking shrub. They started toward the house. They were coming at a run.


38


Jilly said, 'Upstairs!' and Dylan said, 'Go!' and Shepherd said, 'Ice, ice, ice,' and a kink in Dylan's mental wiring brought to mind that old dance-party hit 'Hot, Hot, Hot' by Buster Poindexter, which might have struck him as funny under more congenial circumstances and if the idea of 'Hot, Hot, Hot' as suitable death-throe music had not been so ghastly.


The stairs were at the front of the house, and two doors led out of the kitchen, one into the dining room, one into the lower hall. The second route would have been the safer of the two, less exposed to windows.


Jilly didn't realize the hall option existed because that door was closed. She probably thought it was a pantry. She hurried out of the kitchen, into the dining room, before Dylan thought to direct her the other way.


He was afraid to take the hallway because he figured she might look back, fail to see him following her, and return here in search of him and Shep, or at least falter in her flight. A lost second might mean the difference between life and death.


Urging, pushing, all but lifting his brother, Dylan harried him forward. Shep shuffled, of course, but faster than he was accustomed to shuffling, still fretting about ice, ice, ice, the repetitions coming in threes, and he sounded more aggrieved with every step, unhappy about being driven like a wayward sheep.


Jilly had already reached the living room by the time Dylan and Shep got out of the kitchen. Shepherd balked slightly at the door, but he allowed himself to be herded forward.


Entering the dining room, Dylan half expected to see ten-year-old Shep working a puppy puzzle. As much as he had wanted to get out of that hateful night in the past, it seemed preferable to the present, which offered only the most fragile of bridges to any future whatsoever.


Shep protested his brother's insistent prodding – 'Ice, don't, ice, don't, ice, don't' – and after crossing the dining room, he grabbed at the next doorjamb with both hands.


Before Shepherd could get a firm grip, before he could spread his legs and wedge his shoes against the jamb, Dylan shoved him into the living room. The kid stumbled and dropped to his hands and knees, which proved to be a fortuitous fall, for in that instant the gunmen opened fire.


The woodpecker-fast rapping of submachine guns – even noisier than they were in movies, as hard and loud as jackhammers knocking steel chisels through high-density concrete – shattered the stillness, shattered the kitchen windows, the dining-room windows. More than two submachine guns, perhaps three, maybe four. Underlying this extreme rapid fire came the lower-pitched, more reverberant, and slower-paced reports of what might have been a heavier-caliber rifle, something that sounded as though it had enough punch to knock the shooter on his ass with recoil.


At the first rattle of gunfire, Dylan pitched forward onto the living-room floor. He knocked Shepherd's arms out from under him, dropping the kid off his hands and knees, flat on the tongue-and-groove maple.


'Where's all the ice?' Shepherd asked, as though unaware of the ceaseless fusillades pumping into the house.


Following the shattering of the windows, following the ringing cascades of glass, wood splintered, plaster cracked, bullet-rapped pipes sang plonk-plonk-plonk in the walls.


Dylan's heart raced rabbit-fast, and he knew what small game animals must feel like when their pastoral fields became killing grounds on the first day of hunting season.


The gunfire seemed to come from two directions only. Out of the east, toward the rear of the house. And out of the south.


If assassins were on all four sides of the structure – and he was sure they were – then to the west and north, they were lying low. They were too professional to establish a crossfire that might kill them or their comrades.

Source: www_Novel12_Com