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Authors: Tim Pratt

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Briarpatch by Tim Pratt (32 page)

BOOK: Briarpatch by Tim Pratt
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“So what did he promise you, Echo?” Darrin said. Arturo was creeping closer to her, a look halfway between terror and concentration on his face, and Darrin thought maybe he wasn’t a willing travelling companion.

“He promised me entertainment,” Echo said. “That I wouldn’t be
bored.
There’s nothing in the world worse than being bored. Just ask Ismael—that’s why he wants to go live in magical la-la land, because it’s all just too fucking tedious. And then he tried to take off without paying me.”

“Don’t be so tiresome, Echo,” Ismael said, with his full weight of weariness. “Just shoot me and have done with it.”

Arturo made a grab for her shotgun, but Echo must have sensed his approach, because she pivoted smoothly on her heel and drove the gun stock hard into his gut. Arturo gasped and folded up, falling to the ground and rolling partway down the hill. Echo didn’t even look at him, just turned back to Ismael. She walked down the hill, coming within killing range . . . for those who could be killed. “You want me to shoot you, Ismael? So you can pop out of here and land someplace safe and warm? No, I got bored trying to kill you a couple of days ago. But there are
other
ways to hurt you. Like taking away your latest playmate.”

Echo swung the gun up, aimed it point-blank at Darrin’s chest, and pulled the trigger.

The last thing Darrin heard wasn’t the gunshot, but Bridget screaming “No!”

3

At first, Orville thought the gunshot had somehow
disintegrated
Darrin, because he disappeared instantly when Echo fired. But there was no wounded body, no body at all, and Echo said “God damn it!” and stalked toward Ismael, who was backing away again.

Bridget went to the place where Darrin’s body should have been and began pawing at the ground, as if looking for some sign of him, making a long low keening noise.


All
you fucking briar-patch babies can do that? You never
told
me Darrin was unkillable!” Echo pumped the slide on the shotgun again, ejecting the spent shell. “Damn you, Ismael, I’m tired of shooting things I can’t kill.”

“Do it,” Ismael said. “Do it, do it,
shoot
me!”

“Oh, you’d like that, wouldn’t you, your get-out-of-shit free card,” Echo said. “No way. I think I’ll run you down and tie you up and see how much I can hurt you without triggering your flight mechanism.”

Ismael turned and ran past a tumble of broken columns. Echo cursed and gave chase.

The middle-aged man with the walrus moustache limped toward Orville, wincing with each step. Orville had never been good at processing lots of new information quickly, but since Echo had hit this guy in the stomach and left him on the ground, he was probably no friend of hers, right? “Hey,” the man said. “While she’s chasin’ him, what do you say you and me and your ghostly friend get out of here?”

Bridget looked up from her study of the ground. “Who . . . who are you?”

“Name’s Arturo. Me and Darrin were drinkin’ buddies.”

“You were with Echo,” Bridget said, rising.

“Yeah, and I’d rather
not
be with Echo again, so maybe we should get a move on, huh?”

Bridget looked at Orville, and after a second he realized she was looking to him for guidance—seeing Darrin shot (or shot
at
, anyway), and watching him disappear, had unhinged her a little, it seemed, and done something to her usual forward-charging confidence. “I don’t know who to trust,” Bridget said.

Orville had never considered himself a good judge of character. He tended to think the worst of people, and was generally not disappointed. But this man—Arturo—wanted to take them away from the crazy woman with the gun, and that seemed fairly trustworthy to Orville. Maybe there was some complex conspiracy afoot, the kind that Ismael and Echo had worked on Darrin, but Orville had a hard time imagining that someone would expend that kind of energy to fuck with
his
head. “Okay,” he said. “I think we should go with him, Bridget.” To Arturo: “Do you know a quick way out of this place?”

“The Wendigo knows,” Arturo said. “Come on, my car is this way.”

“You’ve got a car?” Bridget said, incredulous.

“It’s sort of a car,” Arturo said, setting off away from the direction Echo had gone. “It’s a car that drives through the briarpatch. I can’t find my way around this place worth a damn on foot, I get lost every time.”

Orville looked back over his shoulder, toward the shining light in the sky, the oval of illuminated ground in the distance. He’d been looking forward to another look at that light, but staying alive was better than standing in the reflection of something beautiful. He hurried along after Arturo. “How did you know Bridget was a ghost?”

“Darrin told me Bridget was dead. Which means, if she’s still here, she must be a ghost, or somethin’ like that.” He paused. “Or else Darrin was wrong. Funny how that didn’t occur to me right away, even though it makes more sense. Not that this place makes sense, necessarily.”

“No, I’m dead,” Bridget said. “It just didn’t stick.”

“What happened to Darrin?” Orville asked, expecting it to be a rhetorical question, and was surprised when both Arturo and Bridget started to speak. They both stopped, and Arturo laughed. “You take this one,” he said.

“Ismael is immortal,” Bridget said. “Which you knew. But it’s more than a matter of not getting cancer or aging or whatever. He’s protected from death by murder or accident, too. If he’s about to die, some sort of self-defence mechanism kicks in, and he’s transported instantly to somewhere else in the briarpatch, somewhere safe. And, I guess, Darrin is the same way.” She shook her head. “All the time I was with him, I had no idea he was a . . . a
magical
person.”

Arturo grunted. “He seemed like a pretty good guy to me. Ismael seems like an asshole. Those are more important than whether they’re magical. They’re briarpatch babies, people who were just plausible enough to exist at all.”

A gunshot sounded far behind them, and they all hunched instinctively, even Bridget, who had nothing to fear from a shotgun. “Do you think Echo tried to shoot Ismael?” Orville whispered. “Or did Ismael get the gun away from her?”

“Who knows?” Arturo said. “She only had two shells, though, so she’s all out of ammo now. But even if she can’t come over here and shoot us, I don’t much want to see her again. Let’s hustle.” They went on, toward a series of gradually rising hills.

“Are you a briarpatch baby, too?” Bridget asked.

“Nah. I’m just a poor slob who used to be a mechanic.” He puffed a little as he spoke, out of breath. “A little while after my wife died, I found the Wendigo, and I’ve been drivin’ around with it ever since.”

“Just driving around?” Bridget asked. “Or trying to get somewhere?” She glanced back, toward the receding oval of light.

“I’m not lookin’ for that place with the light. Don’t worry about that. I do have a purpose, though.”

“What’s that?”

“Lookin’ for my Marjorie.”

“Your wife?” Orville asked. “The one who died?”

“Yup. But just because she’s dead doesn’t mean I can’t find her again.” He inclined his head toward Bridget.

“How did she die?” Bridget asked.

“It was a car thing,” Arturo replied.

They walked in silence for a moment. Then Orville said “What does
that
mean?”

Arturo looked over his shoulder at Orville, his shaggy eyebrows raised. “Well. I found her in the garage, in the car, with the motor runnin’. Dead from the carbon monoxide.”

“Suicide,” Bridget said.

Arturo stopped, turned to face her, and said, “I don’t
know
.” His hands were balled into fists, and Orville instinctively took a step forward, as if to protect Bridget, but of course Arturo couldn’t hurt her. Arturo relaxed, took a step back, and sighed. “Marjorie wasn’t always as careful as she could’ve been. Maybe she just started the car to run some errands and got distracted, looked for somethin’ in her purse, dropped somethin’ on the floor, started listenin’ to somethin’ on the radio—she had this funny thing, she wouldn’t listen to the radio when she drove, said it was too dangerous, because she might get distracted while drivin’, so sometimes she’d sit and listen to the end of a program before she drove off. So maybe she just didn’t think about being in the closed garage, and passed out and died. There wasn’t a note or nothin’, so I can’t know for sure.”

“Unless you can find her and ask,” Bridget said.

“We were happy,” Arturo said. “I want to be happy again. And I won’t be until I see her.” He walked off again, faster, leaving them behind, and Orville exchanged a glance with Bridget. She shrugged. They went after him, up the hill, and there was a big boat of a car parked on the grass, improbable as a cherry on top of a cheeseburger.

“Meet the Wendigo,” Arturo said, leaning against the side of the car.

“This car . . . it can go anywhere?” Bridget asked.

“All over the briarpatch and beyond.” He patted the hood. “I’ll drop you guys off wherever you want.” He paused. “Well, anywhere the Wendigo wants, I guess, but it sometimes takes requests.”

“If you’re going looking for Marjorie,” Bridget said slowly. “Do you think we could . . . tag along? Darrin is out there somewhere, lost, and he doesn’t know his way around like Ismael does. If you’re searching for someone anyway . . .”

Arturo rubbed his chin and chewed his moustache. “Look,” he said finally. “The Wendigo goes where it wants. It has its own, whatcha call them, search protocols, I guess. If you guys want to tag along, I don’t see any reason why not. It gets lonely on the road. But the briarpatch is a big place. So . . . don’t get your hopes up, okay?”

“Okay,” Bridget said. She turned to Orville. “Is that okay with you? I thought this would be over by now, Orville, that you’d have your life back. I’m so sorry I still need you. But I’m afraid for Darrin. I need to find him, I need to
explain
. Seeing him, it was like getting hit in the chest by a truck. I need to talk to him, and try to make things right.”

Orville thought about it. What could he say? He couldn’t say no, because Bridget couldn’t go anywhere without him, and if he tried to have a normal life with a mournful ghost following him around, what luck would he have?

“Count me in.”

“Okay,” Arturo said. He looked at the Wendigo and sighed. “I guess we’re goin’ to have to clean out the back seat, though. It would probably feel kinda weird having a ghost sit in your lap.” He opened the rear door, and a mountain of white and yellow paper cascaded onto the grass.

4

Echo pursued Ismael through the ruins. After a couple of minutes spent running over hill and through pillars, she realized she’d left her ride out of the briarpatch behind. If Arturo had any sense—and he struck her as a fairly sensible guy—he was long gone by now. Which meant Ismael was Echo’s only way out of this place. “Stop,” she shouted. “Come on, Ismael, let’s just talk, we’ve got some shit to work out!”

Up ahead, Ismael stopped running and stood still in a little clearing, before a still-standing marble arch. Elated—but thinking,
How could he be so stupid?
— Echo raced toward him.

And stopped a few feet behind him, when she saw the bears.

There were twice as many bears as there had been in the rocky desert, with the same mixture of black bears, grizzlies, and that one towering polar bear in the lead. Shit―Even the
animals
around here could navigate the briarpatch? Life was so unfair. The bears spread out to flank Ismael, and Echo turned to run back the way she’d come, hoping she was upwind and as-yet-unnoticed.

But no.

Bears were closing in from behind her, hemming them both in.

“So, Ismael,” Echo said. “I hope you’ve got some fancy bear-charming tricks to get us out of this mess.”

Ismael turned to look at her. His eyes were furious and cold. “You are a spoiled, petulant woman, and I hope you die a painful death, with nothing but darkness waiting for you on the other side.”

“Save the sweet nothings for later.” The bears were still closing in. “We’ve got a situation here.”

“Yes,” Ismael said. He ran toward the polar bear—its shoulder was almost as high as he was tall—and punched it, hard, between the eyes. Echo gasped—was that some kind of Vulcan nerve-pinch for bears, was it like punching a shark in the snout, something that hurt bad enough to send the animal running? She didn’t really know shit about bears, except what she’d seen on a couple of nature documentaries, which was how she’d known a bunch of them was called a “sloth.” These didn’t seem slothful.

The polar bear roared and reared up on its hind legs, and Echo shrank back, her bowels clenching.

Ismael looked back at her and, improbably, grinned.

Then the polar bear fell upon him, enormous paw swinging down to strike.

Ismael, of course, disappeared, and the polar bear fell forward comically, then shook its head, and roared again in frustration.

“Oh, fuck
him
,” Echo said, which brought her to the polar bear’s attention again. It flickered and became the albino man.

“You,” he said. “You tricked us, you hurt us, you hurt me.” The other bears around him flickered, becoming people again, some men, some women, some tattooed, some mud-streaked, some with thick body hair woven with ribbons.

“You must not
hurt
—” the albino began, but Echo just lifted the shotgun and pulled the trigger. The gun kicked satisfyingly, and the bear-man’s head turned into a red cloud, blood and tissue spattering the people gathered around him. God, that felt
good
, after all those failed shootings, those people who didn’t even get hurt, she’d finally blown a motherfucker away.

Killing the polar bear didn’t exactly solve her problems—the shotgun was empty now—but it gave her the confidence needed to
deal
with her problem. The bear-people were just staring at her, and at their dead leader’s pretty-much-headless corpse, all of them stunned into silence. Echo laid the shotgun across her shoulder and put her other hand on her hip. “So,” she said. “Let me tell you how it’s going to be.” She was out of ammunition, but she’d bluffed her way through a lot of bad situations. Maybe not
this
bad, but it was worth a try.

BOOK: Briarpatch by Tim Pratt
6.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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