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Authors: Tim Pratt

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BOOK: Briarpatch by Tim Pratt
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The tourists were yelling, and Darrin hated every member of the human race at that moment. Someone spoke calmly to a 911 operator on a cell phone, and Darrin’s hatred subsided as suddenly as it had erupted, replaced by a cold aura of shock and disbelief. The woman he’d loved—still loved—the woman who’d hurt him as no one else ever had, was dead, by her own decision. Darrin pushed his way through the massing crowd and stumbled along the walkway, camera dangling forgotten around his neck, looking nowhere, at nothing, not even within.


A week after Bridget left him, five months and three weeks before he watched her die, Darrin agreed to go out with his friend Nicholas. He picked Darrin up on a Saturday afternoon, and the enforced joviality began right away. “I never liked that bitch,” he said. “You’re better off without her.”

“Doesn’t feel that way.” Darrin gazed out the window as Nicholas piloted his gleaming SUV across the bridge into San Francisco.

“You just need some distractions. I’m going to introduce you to this one girl, Echo? She’s hot like
. I don’t know if she’s a keeper, but she’ll take your mind off your troubles.”

“I appreciate that, but I’m not ready to date anybody yet. It’s too soon.”

“Suit yourself, but just say the word when you want to meet her. You
be ready at some point, bro. You’ll bounce back.”

Nicholas passed him a flask, and Darrin took a long drink of the bourbon inside—he wasn’t much of a drinker, but the veil of inebriation was tempting. He was somewhere between buzzed and drunk by the time Nicholas found parking in a garage a few blocks from the strip club. They ambled down stained and trash-strewn sidewalks, Nicholas guzzling from the flask to catch up with Darrin, now that driving didn’t require his sober attention. They’d rented a room in a nearby hotel so they could get as drunk as they pleased. Nicholas entertained hopes of picking up a couple of entrepreneurial strippers to bring back to the room, but Darrin suspected that was mere wishful thinking—and anyway, he was more likely to wind up crying on a stripper’s shoulder than enjoying her company.

A humourless bouncer checked their IDs, and as Nicholas paid the cover, Darrin wondered when, exactly, he’d become the sort of guy who went to strip clubs before the sun even went down. His weekends with Bridget had been far more sedate. After they moved in together they’d settled into a comfortable routine, spending most Saturdays and Sundays puttering around the apartment, or they had a late lunch at the Coffee Mill, or caught a matinee at the Grand Lake Theater, or walked to the farmer’s market by Lake Merritt. He’d been happy then. Apparently Bridget hadn’t been. He should have seen it coming, maybe—she always said she wanted to have adventures, but he’d never been much for spur-of-the-moment road trips or choosing a random direction and going as fast as they could with no destination in mind. Bridget
his destination, the one passion he never got bored with, and once she was part of his life all his other time-filling strategies had seemed pointless. He’d drifted away from urban exploring, geocaching, biking, and had become something of a homebody. Maybe she’d gotten sick of his home and his body both—but she could have
to him. Instead, she’d just gone.

Darrin got his hand stamped with a purple blob, and the bored attendant explained that, due to the quirks of San Francisco strip club laws, they didn’t serve alcohol in the club with fully-nude dancers. Their considerable cover charge, however, entitled Darrin and Nicholas to move freely between this all-nude club and its sister establishment across the street, where they could get booze, but where the dancers were legally obligated to keep their panties on.

“Let’s catch a dance or two,” Nicholas said, “then head over to drink a few beers, and just ping-pong back and forth until we can’t walk anymore.”

Darrin nodded, though he’d never seen Nicholas so drunk he had to stop partying, even in college. Darrin would sip as Nicholas chugged, but he’d still be the one who couldn’t stand up at the end of the night, while Nicholas sailed along, just getting louder, more boisterous.

They took seats at the edge of the stage—the club was nearly empty this early in the evening—and watched a young blonde dancer finish her set. Various scantily clad women circulated in the crowd, but Darrin avoided their eyes. He hadn’t been close to any woman but Bridget in years, and it felt unfaithful to even contemplate a lap dance.

Nicholas seemed to know what Darrin was thinking—he had a knack for that; it was part of what made him good at office politics—and he slapped him on the back. “Cheer up, bro. You need this. Don’t waste another minute thinking about Bridget. I told you I saw her in San Francisco with some Eurotrash-looking fucker. She’s already moved on. Hell—she moved

Darrin winced, and Nicholas had the good grace to look sheepish. “Sorry, man, that was harsh. But I want you to enjoy yourself. Get out of your own head.”

If Bridget really had left Darrin for another man, that was almost enough to make him want to fuck someone in pure retaliation. He hated how petty and squalid and insecure this whole situation made him feel. Nicholas passed him a fat roll of one-dollar bills. “They don’t like you sitting this close to the action without paying for the privilege, so start throwing some bills around.” He leered at a dancer and waved a dollar bill at her, beckoning her closer, and Darrin did his best to ignore her glassy eyes and focus on her more obvious assets.

Two hours and several drinks later Darrin finally felt better, or at least, he felt less; his problems were still there, but they floated in a knot some distance away, easily ignored, like a balloon on a very long string. The club was more crowded then, with additional dancers as well as customers. Nicholas leered cheerfully and catcalled the dancers on stage while Darrin vaguely smiled. Drunkenness had drowned whatever stirrings of libido he might have felt.

“I’m not quite seeing double anymore.” Nicholas said. “Let’s go back to the land of beer and mere boobies for a while.”

A moment later they emerged onto the street, into a world of headlights, parking meters, bright signage, and the silver coin of the moon shining above it all. Halfway across the street to the beer-and-breasts bar, Nicholas grabbed Darrin’s arm. A car swerved around them and honked, but Nicholas didn’t even flinch, just gripped Darrin’s arm and stared across the street. “Motherfucker,” he said at length.

Darrin looked around, trying to shake the tendrils of drunkenness from his brain, but the movement only scrambled his visual field, headlights leaving traceries of light in the air, fissures of shadow spreading on the street, and for a moment he caught the briefest glimpse of a high bridge, moon-coloured, delicate and immense, arching over the city and across the sky. Nicholas pulled him toward the opposite curb, and the bridge—was it just a trick of the light? A reflection off the clouds?—disappeared. “There’s that motherfucker,” Nicholas said, satisfaction mingling with fury in his voice.

Darrin’s hindbrain generated little pulses of fear and confusion. Nicholas stalked toward two people leaning against a wall near the topless club. The woman was young, hollow-eyed, blonde hair too stringy and dirty to trigger Darrin’s Bridget-recognition sensors. The man was short, thin, black-jacketed, scarf wound around his throat, long-faced and pale in a way that made Darrin think of portraits of dead kings, a face that might be called soulful or dolorous or melancholy, even at rest. “That’s the guy I saw Bridget with,” Nicholas said, and it was like a splash of chill water on Darrin’s brain. He straightened, stared, and stopped, standing by the curb. Nicholas apparently felt no hesitation, existential or practical, and he raised his voice to say, “Hey, I want to talk to you!”

The dirty-blonde turned and walked away on her high heels. The pale man only looked at Nicholas, not even expectant, hands in his pockets.

“You’ve been fucking around with my friend’s girl,” Nicholas said, and the man glanced at Darrin for the first time.

“Oh?” His voice held neither challenge nor even, really, curiosity.

“Do you know Bridget?” Darrin took a step forward, sober enough suddenly to ask the next, and only important, question: “Can you tell me where she is?”

“It’s not my place to tell you, Darrin,” he said, but he was looking at Nicholas.

“You’ll tell him all right,” Nicholas said, all bearish menace, and Darrin felt a surge of affection for him. He could be crass and unsubtle, but Nicholas was a good friend—he might not
for Darrin, but he’d certainly get into a fight for him. Nicholas moved forward, to grab or shove or throttle the man, Darrin never knew. The pale man flicked his wrist, and a long black baton appeared in his hand, matte and telescopic, hidden in a sleeve or pocket in its collapsed state but now opened into three feet of menace. “Stop,” he said, and Nicholas did, holding up his hands, saying “It’s cool, I just want to talk to you.”

“Please.” Darrin was unable to keep a note of pleading from his voice. “Can you, would you, at least give her a message? Tell her to call? I need to talk to her. The way she left, without a word, I—”

“She doesn’t want to talk to you.”

“Please, Mr., ah . . .”

“Plenty,” he said, a word that made no sense, until he elaborated, pinned it down as a name: “I’m Ismael Plenty.”

“Bridget never mentioned you.” Darrin swallowed. “Was she . . . seeing you?”

“She didn’t leave you for me, Darrin. She left you for herself, and that’s why she’ll never come back.”

“Please, where is she?” Darrin took another tentative step toward him.

tedious.” Ismael sounded like he was agreeing with someone. He shook his head, but in exasperation, probably, rather than in answer to Darrin’s question.

“You’d better tell him,” Nicholas said, and the man merely sighed. Diplomatic channels exhausted, Nicholas lunged, grabbing for the baton. Ismael ducked, squatted, and brought the weapon around in a hard flat arc, slamming it against the back of Nicholas’s leg, right in the meaty part of the calf. Nicholas fell backwards with a look of drunken outrage, and Ismael straightened up. He stepped lightly toward Darrin, baton cocked back, and said “Next.”

.” Darrin launched himself at Ismael without even thinking. He wasn’t a confrontational person by nature, but he wasn’t going to back off after his best friend was attacked. Fortunately, his rush took Ismael by surprise, and when they collided, Ismael fell hard—he couldn’t have weighed more than 120 pounds, barely more than Bridget—his baton clattering on the sidewalk. Darrin reared back to kick him, and Ismael scuttled away.

“Enough,” Ismael said, and ran for the safety of a narrow alleyway. Darrin started to pursue, venturing in a few steps after him, but came to his senses—this could only get uglier if he escalated things, but oh, how he wanted to escalate. He returned to Nicholas, who was rising and wincing. “Fucker,” he said. “Did you see which way he went?”

“Yeah, he ran into—” Darrin started to gesture toward the alley, but let his hand fall. There was no alley, just a wall, and Darrin wondered just how drunk he was to hallucinate an escape route where there wasn’t one. Where had Ismael really gone? “He . . . just ran off,” Darrin finished.

“Hell.” Nicholas tugged up his pant-leg, looking at his calf. “It’s bruising already. Fucker had an ASP baton, I’ve seen those at gun shows, the guy who sells blackjacks and brass knuckles has them. He could’ve broken my goddamn leg.”

“You okay?” Darrin helped Nicholas up, letting him lean against him.

“Wish I could’ve whipped that guy’s ass for you.” Nicholas’s voice was all regret and chagrin, his anger gone along with Ismael.

Darrin nodded. Now that his adrenaline was starting to fade, he didn’t feel fear or anger or outrage but simple grey exhaustion. “This didn’t turn out to be as much fun as I’d hoped,” Darrin said. “I appreciate it, but maybe we should just give tonight up as a loss.”

Nicholas stood straighter. “Fuck no. I’m all right, that prick just knocked the wind out of me. I ever see him again I’m gonna shove that baton up his ass and open it
. Come on, I need some painkiller. Beer will have to do.”

“Nicholas, I don’t know . . .”

His friend gave him a wounded look. “Don’t let this night end with me getting beat up on the street, huh? I’d be a lot happier if the last thing I saw tonight was a great set of tits instead of that fucker Ismael’s pasty face.” Nicholas grinned, and Darrin let himself laugh.

“All right, you win, one more dance.”

“One more
dance, maybe, I haven’t even bought you some time in the champagne room yet.” Nicholas limped toward the bar, and Darrin paused by the wall where—he could have sworn—the alley had been. Was there a crack, a shadow, a suggestion of a narrow escape? No, nothing at all, and Darrin turned away.

Orville Jumps, Too


On the Golden Gate Bridge in the morning in October, Orville Troll stood with his hands on the rail looking down at the waters of the bay, and worried about messing things up again. This would be his last endeavour, and he wanted to do it right, if only to prove he was capable of completing one momentous act in his life without failing. He imagined climbing over the guardrail, tangling his legs in the railing or snagging his coat, slipping and cracking his head against metal, knocking himself unconscious and tumbling in a rag-doll pinwheel down to the bay below. Sure, he’d still die, the result would be the same, but he wanted to go wide-eyed and conscious to death, wanted to look up at the sky and watch the world that had so reliably mistreated him for the past thirty years disappear. So he ran through the physical moves in his head, visualization intended to overcome his innate clumsiness, a lifetime of slips and falls having broken his confidence. He would swing first one leg over the rail, then the other, keeping his grip on the rail with his hands. He would turn to face the bay. A deep breath, because a moment like that, a no-turning-back moment, deserved a breath of contemplation. Then he’d release the rail, step forward, and fall, straight as a plumb bob, and dash himself to death on the water below.

BOOK: Briarpatch by Tim Pratt
9.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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