Besides, if she had to die far too young with a brain full of nanomachines, because of a brain full of nanomachines, she wanted to leave as pretty a corpse as possible – assuming that she didn't take a head shot that left her face as distorted as a portrait by Picasso.
Negative Jackson, vortex of pessimism, reached the top of the ladder and discovered that the attic was high enough to allow her to stand. Through a few screened vents in the eaves, filtered sunlight penetrated this high redoubt, but with insufficient power to banish many shadows. Raw rafters, board walls, and a plywood floor enclosed a double score of cardboard boxes, three old trunks, assorted junk, and considerable empty space.
The hot, dry air smelled faintly of ancient roofing tar and strongly of uncountable varieties of dust. Here and there, a few cocoons were fixed to the sloped planks of the ceiling, little sacs of insect industry vaguely phosphorescent in the murk. Nearer, just above her head, an elaborate spider web spanned the junction of two rafters; though its architect had either perished or gone traveling, the web was grimly festooned with four moths, their gray wings spread in the memory of flight, their body shells sucked empty by the absent arachnid.
'We're doomed,' she murmured as she turned to the open trapdoor, dropped to her knees, and peered down the ladder.
Shep stood on the bottom rung. He gripped a higher rung with both hands. Head bowed as if this were some kind of prayer ladder, he appeared reluctant to climb farther.
Behind Shep, Dylan glanced through the open closet door, into the guest bedroom, no doubt expecting to see men on the porch roof beyond the windows.
'Ice,' said Shep.
To Jilly, Dylan said, 'Coax him up.'
'What if there's a fire?'
'That's damn poor coaxing.'
'It's a tinderbox up here. What if there's a fire?'
'What if Earth's magnetic pole shifts?' he asked sarcastically.
'That I've got plans for. Can't you push him?'
'I can sort of encourage him, but it's pretty much impossible to push someone up a ladder.'
'It's not against the laws of physics.'
'What're you, an engineer?'
'I've got bags and bags of ice up here, sweetie,' she lied. 'Push him, Dylan.'
'Plenty of ice up here, Shep. Come on up here with me.'
Shep wouldn't move his hands. He clung stubbornly to his perch.
Jilly couldn't see Shepherd's face, only the top of his bowed head.
From below, Dylan lifted his brother's right foot and moved it to the next rung.
Unable to get the image of the dead moths out of her head, and growing desperate, Jilly gave up on the idea of coaxing Shep to the attic, and instead hoped to break through to him by transforming his monologue on ice into a dialogue.
'Ice,' he said.
She said, 'Frozen water.'
Dylan lifted Shepherd's left foot onto the higher rung to which he'd already transferred the right, but still Shepherd wouldn't move his hands.
'Sleet,' Jilly said.
Far down in the house, on the ground floor, someone kicked in a door. Considering that the volleys of gunfire must have reduced the outer doors to dust or to lacy curtains of splinters, the only doors requiring a solid kick would probably be inside the house. A search had begun.
'Floe,' Jilly said.
Another crash downstairs: This one reverberated all the way up through the house, trembling the floor under Jilly's knees.
Below, Dylan closed the closet door, and their situation seemed markedly more claustrophobic.
Just when she suspected that Shepherd was about to respond to her, Jilly exhausted her supply of synonyms for ice and words for types of ice. She decided to change the nature of the game, adding a word to Shepherd's ice as if to complete a thought.
Shep said, 'Ice.'
'Berg,' said Jilly.
All this talk of ice made the attic hotter, hotter. Dust on the rafters, dust on the floor, dust drifting in the air seemed about to combust.
'Hockey. You ought to be embarrassed, sweetie, taking the easy half of the game, always the same word.'
Shepherd had raised his bowed head. He stared at the section of the ladder rung exposed between his clenched hands.
Downstairs: more crashing, more breaking, a quick nervous burst of gunfire.
'Cream. Shep, how much fun would it be to work a puzzle that only had one piece?'
As she slipped new words into his head, ice no longer ricocheted around in there all by itself. A subtle change occurred in his face, a softening, suggesting a relaxation of this obsession. She felt sure she wasn't imagining it. Pretty sure.
'Age. You know what, sweetie? Even if I've got the harder half of this game, it's a bunch more fun than listening to synonyms for feces.'
A faint smile found his lips, but almost at once he breathed it away with a trembling exhalation.
Shepherd shifted his right hand to a higher rung, then his left. Then to a still higher rung. 'Ice.'
Shepherd moved his feet without assistance from his brother.
Downstairs the doorbell rang. Even in a squad of professional killers, there had to be a bonehead joker.
Shepherd climbed, climbed. 'Ice.'
'Tea, ax, breaker, man, chest, water,' Jilly said, talking him up the last rungs and into the attic.
She helped him off the ladder, to his feet, away from the trapdoor. She hugged him and told him he was terrific, and Shep didn't resist, though he did say, 'Where's all the ice?'
Down in the closet, Dylan switched off the light. He climbed quickly in the darkness. 'Good work, Jackson.'
'De nada, O'Conner.'
On his knees in the gloom, Dylan folded the accordion ladder upward, as quietly as possible reloading it onto the back of the trapdoor, which he would then pull shut. 'If they aren't upstairs yet, they're coming,' he whispered. 'Take Shep over there, the southwest corner, behind those boxes.'
'Where's all the ice?' Shepherd asked too loudly.
Jilly hushed him as she guided him across the shadow-choked attic. He wasn't tall enough to rap the lowest rafters with his forehead, but his big brother would have to duck.
In lower realms the wrecking crew crashed into another room.
A man shouted something unintelligible. Another man returned his shout with a curse, and someone barked with laughter.
A hardness, a roughness, a swagger of presumption in these voices made them sound less like men to Jilly, more like the never quite defined shapes in a nightmare chase, which pursued sometimes on two feet, sometimes on four, alternately howling like men and crying like beasts.
She wondered when the cops would come. If they would come. Dylan had said the nearest town was miles away. The closest neighbor lived half a mile south of here. But surely somebody had heard the gunfire.
Of course the assault had started just five minutes ago, maybe six, and no rural police force would be able to answer such a remote call sooner than another five minutes, more likely ten.
'Where's all the ice?' Shepherd asked as loudly as before.
Instead of hushing him again, Jilly answered in a soft voice with which she hoped to set an example: 'In the refrigerator, honey. That's where all the ice is.'
Behind stacked boxes in the southwest corner, Jilly encouraged Shep to sit beside her on the dusty floor.
Filtered through a screened fresh-air vent, a blush of daylight revealed a long-dead bird – a sparrow, perhaps – reduced by time to papery bones. Beneath the bones were trapped a few feathers that drafts had not stirred to other corners of the attic.
The bird must have stolen in here on a chilly day, through some chink in the eaves, and must have been unable to find its way out. Perhaps having broken a wing battering against rafters, certainly exhausted and hungry, it had waited for death by the screened vent, where it could see the sky.
'Where's all the ice?' Shepherd asked, this time lowering his voice to a whisper.
Worried that the kid had not come as far out of his ice corner as she had thought when he climbed the ladder, or that he was sliding into it once more, Jilly pressed forward with her new game, seeking dialogue. 'There's ice in a margarita, isn't there, sweetie? All slushy and nice. Man, I could use one now.'
'Where's all the ice?'
'In a picnic chest, there'd be ice.'
'Where's all the ice?'
'Christmas in New England, there'd be ice. And snow.'
Moving gracefully and quietly for such a large man, Dylan loomed out of the deeper darkness swaddling the center of the attic, into the bird light that dimly illuminated their refuge, and sat next to his brother. 'Still the ice?' he asked worriedly.
'We're going somewhere,' Jilly assured him with more confidence than she felt.
'Where's all the ice?' Shep whispered.
'Lots of ice in a skating rink.'
'Where's all the ice?'
'Nothing but ice in an icemaker.'
Boots met doors on the second floor. Rooms were breached with crash and clatter.
Whispering yet more discreetly, Shepherd said, 'Where's all the ice?'
'I see champagne in a silver bucket,' Jilly said, matching his quiet tones, 'crushed ice packed around the bottle.'
'Where's all the ice?'
'North Pole has a lot of ice.'
'Ahhh,' Shepherd said, and for the moment he said no more.
Jilly listened tensely as voices in rooms below replaced the boom and crack of violent search. Mummified conspirators in pyramidal tombs, speaking through their grave wrappings, could not have been less clear, and nothing said below was intelligible up here.
'Ahhh,' Shep breathed.
'We have to move along, buddy,' Dylan said. 'It's way past time to fold.'
Under them the ravaged house sank into silence, and after half a minute, the disquieting hush grew more ominous than anything that had preceded it.
'Buddy,' Dylan said, but made no further plea, as if he sensed that Shep would respond better to this silence, this stillness, than to additional pressure.
In her mind's eye, Jilly saw the kitchen clock, the pig grinning as the second hand swept around the numbers on its belly.
Even in memory, that porcine smile disturbed her, but when she wiped the image from her mind, she saw instead, equally unbidden, the Minute Minder with which Shep timed his showers. This image shook her worse than she'd been shaken by the pig, for the Minute Minder looked remarkably like a bomb clock.
Gunmen opened fire on the ceilings below, and geysers of bullets erupted through the attic floor.
Starting at opposite ends of the house but moving toward each other, gunmen fired bursts of heavy-caliber, penetrant rounds into the ceiling of the second-floor hallway. Bullets cracked through the plywood attic floor, spitting sprays of wood chips, admitting narrow shafts of pale light from below, establishing a six-foot-wide zone of death the length of this upper space. Slugs slammed into rafters. Other rounds punched through the roof and carved blue stars of summer sky in the dark vault of the attic ceiling.
Jilly realized why Dylan wanted to be in a corner, back pressed against an outer wall. The structure between them and the lower floor would be denser along the perimeter, more likely to stop at least some of the rounds from penetrating into the attic.
Her legs were straight out in front of her. She drew her knees in toward her chest, making as small a target of herself as possible, but not small enough.
The bastards kept changing magazines down below, reloading in rotation, so the assault remained continuous. The rattle-crack-boom of gunfire numbed the mind to all feeling except terror, precluded all thought except thoughts of death.
No shortage of ammunition in this operation. No reconsideration of the recklessness or the immorality of cold-blooded murder. Just the relentless, savage execution of the plan.
In the thin wash of daylight from the screened vent in the eave, Jilly saw that Shepherd's face was animated by a succession of tics, squints, and flinches, but that behind his closed lids, his eyes were not twitching as they so often did. The thunder of gunfire disturbed him, but he seemed less scared to distraction than focused intently on some enthralling thought.
The gunfire stopped.
The house popped and creaked with settling ruination.
In this certain to be brief cease-fire, Dylan dared to motivate Shepherd with the threat of what was coming: 'Gooey-bloody, Shep. Coming fast, gooey-bloody.'
Having moved out of the upstairs hall, into rooms on both sides of the house, the gunmen opened fire again.
The killers were not yet in the room immediately below the attic corner in which Jilly, Dylan, and Shep huddled. But they would visit it in a minute. Maybe sooner.
Although the brutally pounding fusillades were concentrated in two widely separate areas, the entire attic floor vibrated from the impact of scores of heavy rounds.
Wood cracked, wood groaned, bullet-struck nails and in-wall pipes twanged and clanked and pinged.
A mist of dust shook down from rafters.
On the floor the bird bones trembled as if an animating spirit had returned to them.
Freed, one of the few remaining feathers spiraled up through the descending dust.
Jilly wanted to scream, dared not, could not: throat clenched as tight as a fist, breath imprisoned.
Rapid-fire weaponry rattled directly below them, and in front of their eyes, swarms of bullets ripped through stacked storage boxes. Cardboard puckered, buckled, shredded.
As his eyes popped wide open, Shepherd thrust off the floor, stood upright, pressing back against the wall.
With an explosive exhalation, Jilly bolted to her feet, Dylan too, and it seemed the house would come apart around them, would be blown to pieces by the cyclone of noise if not first blasted and shaken into rubble by the shattering passage of this storm of lead, of steel-jacketed rounds.
Two feet in front of them, the plywood floor ruptured, ruptured, ruptured, bullets punching through from below.