By the Light of the Moon Page 42


Something stung Jilly's forehead, and as she raised her right hand, something bit her palm, too, before she could press it to the higher wound, causing her to cry out in pain, in shock.


Even in this dusty dimness, she saw the first drops of blood flung from her fingertips when she convulsively shook them. Droplets spattered darkly against the cardboard boxes in a pattern that no doubt foretold her future.


From her stung brow, curling down her right temple, a fat bead of blood found the corner of that eye.


One, three, five, and more rounds smashed up through the floor, closer than the first cluster.


Shepherd grabbed Jilly's uninjured hand.


She didn't see him pinch or tweak, but the attic folded away from them, and brightness folded in.


Low rafters flared into high bright sky. Knee-caressing golden grass slid firmly underfoot as attic flooring slipped away.


Sounding as brittle and juiceless as things long dead, clicking flitters of startled grasshoppers shot every which way through the grass.


Jilly stood with Shep and Dylan on a hilltop in the sun. Far to the west, the sea seemed to wear a skin of dragon scales, green spangled with gold.


She could still hear steady gunfire, but muffled by distance and by the walls of the O'Conner house, which she saw now for the first time from the outside. At this distance, the structure appeared less damaged than she knew it must be.


'Shep, this isn't good enough, not far enough,' Dylan worried.


Shepherd let go of Jilly and stood transfixed by the sight of blood dripping from the thumb and first two fingers of her right hand.


Two inches long, roughly a quarter of an inch wide, a splinter had pierced the meaty part of her palm.


Ordinarily the sight of blood wouldn't have weakened her knees, so perhaps her legs trembled less because of the blood than because she realized this wound could have been – should have been – far worse.


Dylan slipped a supporting hand under her arm, examined her forehead. 'It's just a shallow laceration. Probably from another splinter, but it didn't stick. More blood than damage.'


Below the hill, beyond the meadow, in the yards surrounding the house, three armed men stood sentinel to prevent their quarry from somehow escaping through battlefield barrages and through the cordon of killers that searched the bullet-riddled rooms. None of the three appeared to be looking toward the hilltop, but this bit of luck would not hold.


While Jilly was distracted, Dylan pinched the splinter in her hand and plucked it free with one sharp pull that made her hiss with pain.


'We'll clean it out later,' he said.


'Later where?' she asked. 'If you don't tell Shepherd where to fold us, he's liable to take us on a trip somewhere we don't dare go, like back to the motel in Holbrook, where you can bet they're waiting for us – or maybe even back into the house.'


'But where is safe?' Dylan wondered, momentarily blank.


Maybe the blood on her hand and on her face reminded her of the desert vision in which she'd been splashed by a wave of white wings and worse. Into the hard reality of this desperate day, the dreamy portents of imminent evil suddenly intruded.


Rising out of the wheatlike smell of dry grass came the sweet spicy fragrance of incense.


At the house, the muffled popping of gunfire rapidly declined, ceased altogether, while here on the hilltop arose the silvery laughter of children.


By one tell or another, Dylan recognized her condition, knew that she was surfing a swell of paranormal perception, and said, 'What's happening, what do you see?'


Turning toward the mirthful music of the children's voices, she found not those who made the laughter, but saw instead a marble font of the kind that held holy water in any Catholic church, abandoned here on the grassy hilltop, canted like a tombstone in an ancient graveyard.


Movement beyond Shep caught her attention, and when she shifted her focus from the font, Jilly discovered a little girl, blond and blue-eyed, perhaps five or six years old, wearing a lacy white dress, white ribbons in her hair, holding a nosegay of flowers, solemn with purpose. As the unseen children laughed, the girl turned as though in search of them, and as she rotated away from Jilly, she faded out of existence—


'Jilly?'


—but turning into existence and toward her, precisely where the little girl had been standing, appeared a fifty-something woman in a pale-yellow dress, wearing yellow gloves and a hat with flowers, her eyes rolled so far back in her head that only the whites showed, her torso pocked by three hideous bullet wounds, one between the breasts. Although dead, the woman walked toward Jilly, an apparition as real in blazing summer sunlight as any that had ever haunted beneath a moon, reaching out with her right hand as she approached, as though seeking aid.


No more able to move than if she had been rooted to the ground, Jilly shrank from the ghostly touch, thrust out her bleeding hand to ward off contact, but when the dead woman's fingers touched her hand – with a sense of pressure, coldness – the apparition vanished.


'It's going to happen today,' she said miserably. 'Soon.'


'Happen? What?' Dylan asked.


Far away a man shouted, and another man answered in a shout.


'They've seen us,' Dylan said.


The vast aviary of the sky contained just one bird, a circling hawk gliding silently on currents high above, and no birds erupted into flight from the grass around them, yet she heard wings, at first a whispery flutter, then a more insistent rustle.


'They're coming,' Dylan warned, speaking not of birds but of assassins.


'Wings,' Jilly said, as the whisking thrum of invisible doves rapidly grew more turbulent. 'Wings.'


'Wings,' said Shepherd, touching the bloody hand with which she had tried to fend off the dead woman, and which she still held out before her.


The chop-chop-chop of automatic gunfire, real to this place and time, was answered by the more deliberate crack of high-powered rifles that only she could hear, by shots fired in another place and in a time yet to come – but coming fast.


'Jilly,' said Shepherd, startling her by the use of her name, which he had never before spoken.


She met his lotus-green eyes, which weren't in the least dreamy, nor at all evasive as they had been in the past, but clear and direct and sharp with alarm.


'Church,' said Shepherd.


'Church,' she agreed.


'Shep!' Dylan urged, as bullets kicked up plumes of dirt and torn grass from the hillside less than twenty feet below them.


Shepherd O'Conner brought here to there, folded the sunshine, the golden grass, the flying bullets, and unfolded a cool vaulted space with stained-glass windows like giant puzzles fully solved.


42


The nave of this Spanish baroque church, huge and old and lovely – currently undergoing a little restoration – featured a long central barrel vault, deep groin vaults on two sides, and a long center-aisle colonnade of massive thirty-foot columns that stood on ornately sculpted six-foot pedestals.


The crowd in the church, perhaps three hundred, was dwarfed by the space and by the dimensions of the architectural elements. Even dressed in finery, they could not compete with the colorific cascades of light flung down upon them by the backlit western windows.


The pipework of the scaffolding – erected for the restoration of the painted-plaster frieze that enhanced three walls of the nave – blocked little of the jewel-bright glory of the windows. Incoming sunlight pierced sapphire, ruby, emerald, amethyst, and adamantine-yellow shapes of glass, scattering gems of light across half the nave and dappling portions of the center aisle.


Within ten racing heartbeats of arrival, Dylan swept the great church with his absorbent gaze, and knew a thousand details of its ornamentation, form, and function. As testament to the depth of the baroque design, knowledge of a thousand details left him as ignorant of the structure as an Egyptologist would be ignorant of a newfound pyramid if he studied nothing more than the six feet of its pinnacle not buried in Sahara sands.


Following a quick survey of the church, he lowered his attention to the pigtailed girl, perhaps nine years old, who had been exploring the shadowy back corner of the massive nave into which Shepherd had folded them. She gasped, she blinked, she gaped, spun around on one patent-leather shoe, and ran to rejoin her parents in their pew, no doubt to tell them that either saints or witches had arrived.


Although redolent of incense, as in Jilly's visions, the air shivered neither with music nor with a tumult of wings. The hundreds here assembled spoke in murmurs, and their voices traveled as softly as the fragrance of incense through these columned spaces.


Most of those in the pews sat in the front half of the church, facing the sanctuary. If any had been turned in their seats to talk with people in the rows behind them, they must not have glimpsed the infolding witchery, for no one stood to get a better look or called out in surprise.


Nearer, tuxedoed young men escorted late arrivals down the center aisle to their seats. The escorts were too busy – and arriving guests were too caught up in anticipation of the pending event – to take notice of a miraculous materialization in one far, shadowy corner.


'A wedding,' Jilly whispered.


'This is the place?'


'Los Angeles. My church,' she said, and sounded stunned.


'Yours?'


'Where I sang in the choir when I was a girl.'


'When does it happen?'


'Soon,' she said.


'How?'


'Shot.'


'More damn guns.'


'Sixty-seven shot... forty dead.'


'Sixty-seven?' he asked, staggered by the number. 'Then there can't be one lone gunman.'


'More than one,' she whispered. 'More than one.'


'How many?'


Her gaze sought answers in the heavenward-curving voussoirs of the serried vaults, but then slid down the polished marble columns to the life-size sculptures of saints that formed the dados of the pedestals.


'At least two,' she said. 'Maybe three.'


'Shep is scared.'


'We're all scared, buddy,' Dylan replied, which at the moment was the best that he could do by way of reassurance.


Jilly seemed to study the friends and family of bride, of groom, as though by sixth sense she could deduce, from the backs of their heads, whether any of them had come here with violent intentions.


'Surely the gunmen wouldn't be wedding guests,' Dylan said.


'No... I think... no....'


She took a few steps toward the back of the unoccupied pews in the last row, her interest rising from the assembled guests to the sanctuary beyond the distant chancel railing.


An arc of columns separated the nave from the sanctuary and also supported a series of transverse arches. Beyond the columns lay the choir enclosure and the high altar, with pyx and tabernacle, behind which towered a monumental downlighted crucifix.


Moving to Jilly's side, Dylan said, 'Maybe they'll come in after the wedding begins, come in shooting.'


'No,' she disagreed. 'They're here already.'


Her words were ice to the back of his neck.


She turned slowly, searching, searching.


At the pipe organ in the sanctuary, the organist struck the first notes of the welcoming hymn.


Evidently, workmen involved in the restoration of the painted plaster frieze had left windows or doors open, thereby admitting some temporary tenants to high apartments. Frightened from roosts in the ribs of the vaults and from carved-marble perches on the ornate capitals of the columns, doves swooped down into the nave, not the multitudes that Jilly had foreseen, but eight or ten, a dozen at most, arising from different points overhead but joining at once into a flock this side of the chancel railing.


The wedding guests exclaimed at this white-winged spectacle, as though it must be a planned performance preceding the nuptials, and from several delighted children arose a singular silvery laughter.


'It's starting,' Jilly declared, and a sculpting terror wrought her blood-streaked face.


In gyres the flock flew through the church, from bride's family to groom's to bride's again, progressing toward the back of the nave even as they explored both sides of it.


A quick-witted usher raced down the aisle to the back of the nave, under the scaffolding, through the open doors into the narthex, no doubt intending to prop open a pair of entry doors to provide the winged intruders with an unobstructed exit.


As though synchronized to the hymn, the birds soared, dived, and swooped in their blessing circles from the chancel to the rear of the nave. Drawn toward the draft caused by the open door, charmed toward a glimpse of sunlight not filtered through stained glass, they went where the usher had induced them, out and away, leaving only a few luminous white feathers adrift in the air.


At first transfixed by a feather rising on a thermal current, Jilly's gaze abruptly flew to the scaffolding in the aisle on the west side of the nave, then to the scaffolding in the east aisle. 'Up there.'


The apex of each arched window lay about twenty feet above the church floor. The top of the scaffolding thrust two feet higher, to service the three-foot-tall band of carved and painted plaster that began at approximately the twenty-four-foot mark.


That work platform, where on weekdays craftsmen and artisans conducted restoration, was perhaps five feet wide, nearly as wide as the aisle below it, constructed of sheets of plywood secured to the horizontal ribs of pipe that formed the scaffold cap. The height, combined with the gloom that prevailed in the vaulted upper reaches of the church, where the work lights were not aglow, prevented them from seeing who lurked in those cloistered elevations.


The back wall of the nave lacked windows; however, the frieze continued there, as did the scaffolding. Ten feet away, just to the right of Shepherd, a ladder was built into the scaffold: rungs of pipe coated with fine-grooved rubber.


Dylan went to the ladder, touched a rung above his head, and felt at once, like a scorpion sting, the psychic spoor of evil men.


Having hurried with him to the ladder, Jilly must have seen a dire shift in his expression, in his eyes, for she said, 'Oh, God, what?'


'Three men,' he told her, taking his hand off the ladder rung, repeatedly flexing and clenching it to work out the dark energy that had leeched into him. 'Bigots. Haters. They want to kill the entire wedding party, the priest, as many of the guests as they can get.'


Jilly turned toward the front of the church. 'Dylan!'


He followed her stare and saw that the priest and two altar boys were already in the sanctuary, descending the ambulatory from the high altar to the chancel railing.


From a side door at the front, two young men in tuxedoes entered the nave, crossed toward the center aisle. The groom, the best man.

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