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Authors: Tim Pratt

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Briarpatch by Tim Pratt (31 page)

BOOK: Briarpatch by Tim Pratt
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Arturo was reminded, then, that Echo was crazy. But, still. “That was some good drivin’ back there.”

Echo took off her sunglasses, tossed them onto the floor, and looked at him. She grinned. “You too, old man.”

The landscape flickered, the vastness suddenly replaced by grassy hills strewn with bits of classical-looking ruins, tilted pillars and broken arches. The clouds were dark against the blue sky, their edges limned with brightness from the concealed sun. The Wendigo climbed up to the top of a high hill, and Arturo stopped it. From this vantage, they could see, off in the distance, a sort of crack in the sky, with honey-coloured light filtering down, illuminating a valley as if with a spotlight.

“That looks like the light that came from the headlights,” Echo said. “But weaker, like it’s shining through dirty glass.”

“Yeah, I been here before. It’s a place where you can sorta glimpse that better world Ismael told you about, stand in the reflection of a reflection of its light, filtered and indirect. Lotta skeletons down there of people who starved to death starin’ up at the light. Supposedly if you can make it to the land of light, you don’t starve to death, or else you don’t need your body, or somethin’. I’ve heard different stories.”

“Fuck it,” Echo said. “Let’s keep moving.”

But the Wendigo’s engine suddenly shut off, and Arturo couldn’t get her started again. He was afraid the battery was dead, but, no, the radio and dash lights and dome light all still came on. The Wendigo had just decided to stop here.

“What’s this?” Echo reached into the glove compartment and drew out what looked like a hand-drawn treasure map. She showed it to Arturo, and there was a little kid’s drawing of a car, with a dotted line leading in a winding path through little cartoon pillars and hills toward an X—marking who knew what kind of spot.

“I guess we’re walkin’ from here,” Arturo said.

“This will lead us to Ismael?”

Arturo shrugged. “This will lead us wherever the Wendigo wants us to go.”

“You better not be fucking with me, car,” she said. “I’ll slash your tires and rip out your spark plugs. I know a lot about cars, and I can make it so nobody could even rebuild your engine, got it?”

Arturo managed not to laugh, which was probably for the best, since Echo seemed totally sincere in threatening the Wendigo. “Let’s go.” She unlocked her door and climbed out, shotgun in hand.

Not quite daring to hope, Arturo tried to start the Wendigo, because escaping from Echo before she found Ismael would be nice. But the car didn’t respond. It wanted him to accompany Echo a little farther, it seemed. Ah, well. Arturo had trusted the Wendigo this far. He got out of the car and joined Echo at the summit of the hill, and together they looked at the distant pool of honeyed light.

Darrin Gets Jumped

1

Darrin followed Ismael into a horrible dark nothing place that stank of hot asphalt. The only feature in the black sky was distant threads of a different and glistening quality of darkness.

“This way!” Ismael shouted, and grabbed Darrin by the wrist, dragging him through the empty place. The stench was so overwhelming Darrin stopped breathing in self-defence. Each step was heavy, as if the air itself were thickening. The dark threads grew larger and wider, and after a moment of confused staring Darrin realized they were coming
toward
him, somehow, that what he’d taken as some nightmarish dark-energy aurora was actually something else, a phenomenon with physical substance. There was a sound like a clatter of ball bearings falling into a metal bucket.

They blundered through a side-passage and into cooler air, and though this new place was in twilight, it seemed positively incandescent compared to the place they’d just been. Darrin looked around at the field where they’d landed, covered by shifting mists, more like something from a horror movie than any real fog he’d ever encountered. He sank down onto the tough, wiry grass, sucking gulps of damp air. Ismael sat beside him, hugging his arms around himself. “What was that?” Darrin said.

“We were in no danger,” Ismael said. “Not . . . immediate danger. If we’d lingered, perhaps . . . well.”

Darrin waited a moment and then sighed. “When human beings have conversations, Ismael, often one human asks a question, and the other one
answers
.”

“I am not certain I am human,” Ismael said. “Nor you. But, yes.
That
was supposed to be our last stop before the scenic overlook I want to show you. It used to be a sandy beach, with a profusion of tiny cobalt blue crabs, and the flash of mermaid tails off in the blue-green water. It was a pleasant place, but . . . not very plausible. I fear it has dissolved. It happens, sometimes, in the briarpatch. Worlds rise and fall. Most of the places I visit are stable, but others have only a tentative existence, and it can be difficult to tell ahead of time if a particular area is in danger of fading away. Unravelling.”

“Those things in the sky, the dark threads, that noise . . .”

“The sound of a world being unmade,” Ismael said. “A probability wave collapsing. The act of God forgetting. A few moments later, and we would not have been able to enter that place at all. As it is, we did not pass through to the place I expected.” Ismael rose and brushed grass off his pants. “But I do know this place. Come. The overlook is not far from here either.”

Darrin stood up. He still had a lot to learn about life in the briarpatch. But it was extraordinary, wasn’t it? He’d never hungered for frontiers quite as desperately as Bridget, but he’d always enjoyed discovery, and seeing places no one else had ever seen, or at least, hadn’t seen for a very long time. Ismael wasn’t an ideal travelling companion, but in a place like this, confronted with these shifting wonders, there was no chance of sleepwalking through his life, and that was a welcome change from the slough of despond he’d been slogging through these past months.

“This way.” Ismael set off through the horror-movie mist. They crested a hill, and the mists swirled away as they reached higher ground. Darrin gasped at the spectacle before them. A dark chasm stretched below, so wide he couldn’t see the far side, spanned by a massive suspension bridge with black metal support towers the size of skyscrapers. Twinkling green lights dotted the structure, revealing the graceful arcs of its shape. But there was something wrong. . . .

“That bridge,” Darrin said. “It doesn’t have a deck. There are towers, and dangling cables, but there’s nothing to walk or drive across.”

“Yes,” Ismael said.

“I’ve seen photos of the Bay Bridge when it was being constructed, before they built the deck, and it was like this. But . . . who’s building this? Will it ever be finished?”

“That bridge
is
finished,” Ismael said. “It is all that it will ever be. It is simply not a bridge the likes of you or I are permitted to cross.” He sounded sad. He always sounded sad, but this seemed deeper, less weary, more profound.

“Ismael—” Darrin began. He didn’t know what he was going to say. Ismael didn’t give him a chance to say anything.

“Come, let us go. This is a dark place.” Ismael beckoned, and started down the far side of the hill. Darrin looked at the strange dark span of the bridge—a bridge he could never cross, as far as he could imagine; and where would it lead, if he could? Then he went after Ismael, into a hole in the base of a hill, and into yet another world.

2

Perhaps an hour later, if time could be trusted in the briarpatch, Ismael said “Here. We’re here.”

“Here” was pleasant enough, green grass and marble ruins, hills and a deep blue sky. “There,” Ismael pointed, and Darrin saw something like a spotlight shining from the sky, a beautiful golden light pouring down onto some blessed bit of earth.

“It looks like the light we get in summer afternoons, in the living room,” Darrin said. “Bridget used to curl up on the couch by the window and look out at the light. She said it even made dirty rainwater in the gutters look beautiful.”

“She went into that light,” Ismael said. “Come, we’ll go closer, and you can stand in it, and understand why she felt it was worth giving up everything to reach.”

Mesmerized even from afar, Darrin followed as Ismael picked his way down the slope, past chunks of marble. Then something glistened, among the clouds, and Darrin stopped. “Wait, what’s that?” He gestured, and a cloud moved, and there it was, the perfect arc of the moon-coloured bridge Darrin had first glimpsed in San Francisco all those months ago. It began somewhere beyond the horizon, and its far end disappeared into the golden light seeping from the sky.

“What?” Ismael shaded his eyes, looking up. “I don’t see—”

Darrin reached out and touched Ismael on the back of the neck. Ismael gasped, and reached up to clasp Darrin’s hand to his neck, as if afraid he would take it away. “What a lovely bridge,” Ismael said, voice shaking. “Do you see how it stretches to the light?”

Darrin eased his hand away, and left Ismael blinking and staring. “I hope that, in time, I will be able to see paths only you can see,” Ismael said after a moment. “I have always been able to pass my gift for sight on to others. The way, in fairy stories, the fairies can give second sight to mortals, and allow them to see the secret world. My old friend Harczos, he believed fairy stories were told about people like us, visitors from the briarpatch, and this may be true. But Harczos was never able to grant me his vision. When he touched me, I could see the corridors and stairways he perceived, and when I touched him, vice-versa, but neither was contagious in the usual sense. We saw many of the same things, but we each perceived passages the other did not. Perhaps you and I will, hmm, rub off on one another? You will see what I see, and I will see what you see? I can hope. Until then, we will hold hands for the difficult crossings, yes?”

“Sure,” Darrin said, amazed to hear hope in Ismael’s voice. The world-weary immortal, burdened by centuries, finally had something to hope for. “Whatever helps me find Bridget.”

Ismael seemed to sag a little, at that. “We will find her there, ahead of us, in the light, perhaps across that silver bridge of yours.”

“Or maybe he’ll find me right here.” Bridget stepped with another man from behind a cracked marble half-dome. “And then he’ll find out what a lying sack of shit you are.”

“Bridget?” Darrin said. It looked like her, in her red coat, her expression fierce and serious. But that thing in the hotel had looked like her too, hadn’t it, and—

But no. Ismael was backing away, scowling, and muttering under his breath. Darrin didn’t hear most of it—something about spoiling things, something about the light—but he wasn’t interested in anything Ismael had to say now. He was interested in
Bridget
, here, right here before him. All the anger, all the sadness, all the acid in his gut and pounding in his head, faded away, and he only wanted to go to her. So he did, closing the distance between them in a few steps, and threw out his arms to embrace her—

—and she just slipped away, out of his arms, so smoothly he couldn’t even feel her, and he fell to his knees from the momentum.

“I’m so sorry, Darrin,” Bridget said, kneeling beside him and putting her hand against his cheek—but instead of warm flesh he felt only something like the brush of wind. “I wish I could hold your hand, feel your touch, but I can’t, I . . .”

“She’s dead,” Ismael said. “She doesn’t have a true physical form anymore, just . . . a very persistent psyche. She set her soul free and threw away her body in an attempt to reach the better world, but she failed. She did not let
everything
go. I never thought of it before, but it’s right here in front of me. She’s wearing that red coat. You gave her that coat, didn’t you, Darrin? I told her to dispose of all her meaningful possessions, but she went to the bridge, to her death, wearing a gift from you. That was what held her back, I think, or rather, it is emblematic of what held her back.
You
. You are the reason she is a lost thing now, Darrin, haunting that idiot Orville Troll.” He lifted his chin toward the man Bridget had appeared with.

“You were supposed to help me find her.” Darrin turned toward Ismael. “But you knew where she was all along. Fuck you. I’ll never help you find your way to the light.”

Ismael shrugged. “Yes, well, it’s all ruined now. But it’s not the first time my plans have failed. I am nothing if not patient. And there is always another plan, isn’t there? I had hopes for this one, but I’ve grown used to disappointment, and moving on. I’ve got my eye on a nice piece of property outside the city. I could stand to spend a little time in the country, perhaps with a few like-minded seekers. I already have some good prospects in mind, and a new approach that may prove fruitful—”

Darrin’s fury at Ismael overcame his interlaced joy and grief at seeing Bridget again. “There is no plan B.” He stalked toward Ismael. “Not for you. I’m going to make ruining your life
my
life’s work. I—”

Darrin froze when he heard the unmistakable ratcheting sound of a shotgun being pumped, and they all looked up the hill. “Sorry to break up the party,” Echo said, standing entirely too close to them, with a chrome-plated shotgun in her hands. “But I really think it’s time to talk about
my
problems.”

Arturo was there with her, improbably, standing just a few feet behind her, and Darrin was trying to wrap his head around that—was Arturo in on this, somehow, too? And what was Echo doing here?

“Darrin, honey, Ismael hired me to fuck you,” Echo said. “Is your dead girlfriend ghosting around here somewhere? She should hear this. Ismael recruited me, told me where to find you, and sent me to turn on the charm. It wasn’t hard—you were so broken up about miss blondie being gone that you just needed some comfort, and I can be good at comforting. Besides, it wasn’t too bad—I’ve been with worse.”

Darrin’s eyes stung, but he was damned if he was going to cry now. Any affection he’d had for Echo had vanished when he found her going down on Nicholas in his living room. “Did he get to Nicholas, too?”

Echo nodded. “Sure.” She gestured in Ismael’s direction with the shotgun. “He promised Nicholas eternal life, if you can believe
that
bullshit. At least, it better be bullshit, because if he has access to that kind of shit and didn’t tell
me
—”

BOOK: Briarpatch by Tim Pratt
5.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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