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Authors: Tim Pratt

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Briarpatch by Tim Pratt (38 page)

BOOK: Briarpatch by Tim Pratt
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The people muttered, but they obeyed, as they’d been taught to obey, and they dispersed.

“Take me,” Ismael said. “I’m sorry I doubted you, please, take me.”

“Yeah, take him,” Echo said. “Get him out of my sight.”

Darrin nodded, and took Ismael’s hand. The passageway to the light appeared before them, and Darrin gestured to let Ismael lead the way.

6

“I hope we can trust Echo to do her part,” Arturo said, sitting behind the wheel of the Wendigo with his dark glasses on. They were parked in a little nothing place, a barely there weedy lot of a spot on the outskirts of the briarpatch. The Wendigo’s headlights—the high beams—were on, shining toward the passage to Marin, in the plausible world, mimicking the light of Ismael’s hoped-for salvation.

It was a dirty trick, but whatever got the job done.

“There they are,” Orville said. He was standing outside the car, holding a rag that reeked of chemicals.

“Don’t hold it over his nose too long,” Bridget said. “We don’t want to risk giving him a lethal dose and losing him.”

Ismael walked into the headlights, his arms held before him, eyes open wide to the brightness. He looked incandescently happy.

Orville, wearing dark sunglasses, circled around, crept up behind Ismael, and clamped the chloroformed rag over his nose. Ismael struggled, but only weakly—the lights were a great soporific. Once Ismael slumped, unconscious, held up by Orville and Darrin, Arturo flipped off the headlights. Orville took a roll of duct tape and started binding Ismael’s hands and feet.

Arturo opened the back seat and swept out the recent accumulation of receipts, menus, and ticket stubs. They needed the whole car clear to fit everyone. Bridget could technically sit in somebody’s lap, but it was like having a dust devil pressed up against you, and nobody enjoyed the sensation. Orville and Darrin manhandled the unconscious Ismael into the back seat.

“Getting in, Darrin?” Bridget asked.

“I need to check on something first,” Darrin said. “Take the long way, would you, Arturo? I’ll meet you on the bridge.”

“Sure thing,” Arturo said, and started the car.

7

Nicholas lay in a ditch by the road, hidden by bushes, and listened for the approach of bears. It was quiet out there, but bears could be quiet. His pants were wet with urine, and he wondered if the bears could smell it.

The bushes rustled. Nicholas took the pistol Ismael had given him—a square-bodied, round barrelled old Luger—from its shoulder holster and held it out awkwardly before him.

“Hi Nicholas,” Darrin said. “I thought you should know. You aren’t immortal. Ismael lied to you.”

“Fuck you, Darrin,” Nicholas whispered. “Ismael knows secrets.”

Darrin sighed. “Okay. Suit yourself. Just be careful. Don’t do stupid things because you think you can’t die. I’ve got . . . mixed feelings about this whole immortality business myself.”

“Be quiet,” Nicholas hissed. “What if those bears hear you?”

“Nicholas, I
brought
the bears. Now give me your gun.”

“No.”

“Give me the gun, or I’ll call the bears.”

“You wouldn’t. Me and you, we—”

“Please,” Darrin said. “Don’t try me.”

Nicholas whimpered. “What, are you going to shoot me?” He threw the gun at Darrin’s feet. “Shit, go on, I deserve it, right? I don’t care, I’m
immortal
.” Nicholas started crying, tears dripping from his face into the dirt, and he didn’t even know why.

“I won’t shoot you, Nicholas,” Darrin said. “I just need to check on something.” He picked up the Luger, and left without another word.

Everybody Gets What’s Coming to Them

1

“I’m scared,” one of Ismael’s liberated cultists said on their long walk through the woods, on the far edge of the territories Echo had claimed for her own. “I want to go back to my cot.”

“You don’t need a cot,” Echo said, riding her bear, once a common street mugger, who preferred now to stay in bear form all the time. “You haven’t known comfort ’til you’ve spent a cold night curled up with a bunch of bears. It doesn’t get any warmer than that.”

“I guess.” The woman trudged along with the half dozen others Echo had convinced to join her.

Echo grinned. They’d all get used to it. The dead queen bee’s hypnagogic honey would help them adjust. Even with all the bees dead, there was enough honey to last for years, and it was better than any drug Echo had ever tried. Being the queen of bears would keep her occupied for a long time, probably, and if she ever got bored, hell—there was a whole wide world out there to fuck with, right? And maybe she’d encounter Ismael, wandering around with his stupid fake map, and get to mess with him, too.

Maybe she could even figure out a way to invade Ismael’s beloved better world, and put out those lights for good. If she could get some sunglasses like the ones Arturo had, and get them fitted on the bears. . . .

The future was bright. Echo had never been happier than she was right then, and she’d spent most of her life being pretty happy indeed.

2

Nicholas groaned when his phone rang. He’d come home from the bear-related disaster, having spent an hour cowering in the bushes, and collapsed into bed. Everything had gone to shit, and now someone was calling him. He looked at the clock. Jesus, he’d slept all day. It was nearly twilight. He fumbled for the phone. “Yeah, who is it?”

“Mr. Cloke,” said a worried-sounding voice. “This is Martin, with building security. There are, ah, some people here to see you. They’re not on your list, but they’re very insistent.”

“Tell ’em to fuck off,” Nicholas growled. “I don’t pay to live in a secure building to deal with shit like this.”

“Ah, Mr. Cloke, we’d really like you to come speak to them. They refuse to leave.”

“Who are they?”

“There are about forty people downstairs, Mr. Cloke,” Martin said, and Nicholas finally heard the fear in his voice. “They’re all wearing white, and they have shaved heads. They’re saying something about bears, that bears kidnapped some of their friends? And other things, sir. They say you have all their money? The police are on their way, but they’ll need to talk to you as well—”

Nicholas hung up the phone and sank back into bed. He covered his face with his hands.

Five floors below him people began shouting his name. They sounded pissed. His phone rang again.

3

Harczos sat on the moon-coloured bridge, near the light, wearing sunglasses and holding a crossbow in his lap. Darrin wore a pair of shades from the Wendigo, so he could see Harczos clearly, though he would have been lost in the glare to anyone with unshaded eyes.

“Harczos,” Darrin said, standing a dozen feet away from the man. “I wondered if I’d find you here.”

Harczos nodded. “Darrin. Did you think I wouldn’t know? The way you reacted in the orchard, when I told you I’d denied Ismael the light? I knew you’d try to bring that monster here, and give him peace. And when you do, I will shoot him with this crossbow, and he will be lifted away to safety, and feel the pain of his salvation denied. It’s what he deserv—”

Darrin drew the Luger and fired at Harczos’s chest. Harczos didn’t even have time to look startled. He just vanished, crossbow and all. Darrin tossed the pistol off the side of the bridge. He sighed. Harczos might have shot Darrin as soon as he arrived, but Darrin had counted on the man’s love for talk. “Sorry, friend,” Darrin said. He had just made an enemy, he knew, one who would travel in the same circles with him forever. But Darrin didn’t have a choice—he had to save the world from Ismael’s influence while he was still human enough to care.

Darrin turned his back on the light and waited for the Wendigo to arrive.

4

“We had to trick you,” Orville said. “Because you wouldn’t believe we were telling the truth.”

“You weren’t telling the truth,” Ismael said. He’d stopped trying to fight his way out of the moving car, at least. “And now you’ve got me inside this
thing
, this Wendigo. You people don’t know what this thing is. It’s so wrong it makes my teeth ache.”

“It’s okay, Ismael,” Bridget said. “You’ll be out of the car soon. My own temptation was to put you in a hole in the ground with plenty of water and a year’s supply of dog food to eat, but you’ve probably suffered worse. Hurting you isn’t any good. So we’re going to give you what you want.”

“And why would you do that?”

“To get rid of you!” Arturo said.

Ismael subsided, and stared past Orville, out the window.

“It’s the bridge,” Orville said.

Ismael looked. “So it is.” The silver bridge appeared below them, at the base of a long low hill, and the Wendigo rolled down and smoothly onto the moon-coloured expanse. They crested the top of the bridge, and Arturo put on the brakes, and turned off the engine.

“There you go.” Orville gestured at the light. “We’re here, on a bridge, between one thing and another. It’s your better world. Just walk there.”

“It’s a trick,” Ismael said. “You’ll let me get halfway and then you’ll shoot me in the back, you’ll send me
away
, you won’t let me reach it, just like Harczos did, he taunted me—”

“Just go.” Orville opened his door.

Ismael twisted, and slipped his legs out, and Orville cut the tape binding his ankles. Ismael tried to kick him, and Orville stepped back, frowning. “You don’t have to do that.”

Ismael was crying, his hands still taped in front of him. “It’s a trick. You’re going to take it away from me.”

Darrin walked toward them from the light, and seeing him, Ismael hissed. “Liar.”

Darrin looked at Ismael’s face, twisted with hate and longing, and managed to feel pity for him.

Bridget went to Ismael. “Let us untie your wrists. We’ll let you go in with your hands free.”

“I meant you no harm, Bridget,” Ismael said. “I only tried to give you what you wanted. Why are you part of this charade?”

“It’s okay.” she said.

Orville came over, warily, and cut the tape on Ismael’s wrists. He didn’t try to strike this time, just stared at his feet, not even looking at the light.

Bridget leaned over, and whispered in his ear. He lifted his head, eyes wet and hopeful. “I did,” he said. “I really did mean well. I just wanted to spare you all the pain I suffered.”

She whispered something else. It hurt Darrin’s heart to see her being tender with this man, and reminded him of the way she’d left him for Ismael’s promises.

“Yes,” Ismael said. “I’ll go, if you go with me.”

“Bridget!” Orville said, and Darrin stepped forward. She’d looked for the light for so long. If she went in, would she ever come out again?

She looked back at them. “It’s okay, guys.” She walked toward the light, Ismael shuffling along beside her. A moment before they disappeared into the light, Ismael lifted his head and looked at the splendour before him.

“It’s truly beautiful.”

And then they were gone. Orville sat down on the hood of the Wendigo. “Is . . . is she going to come back? Or do you think she’ll stay in there, in the light?”

“It’s not like it’s a bad place,” Arturo said, chewing the ends of his moustache. “I mean, it’s not my idea of heaven, but . . .”

Darrin stared at the light. Having turned his back on it once, it was easier for him to look at now. Orville said it was the same way for him, and Arturo had seen the Wendigo’s high beams often enough to develop a degree of immunity to the light’s considerable charms.

In his heart, Darrin had finally let Bridget go. He felt ten pounds lighter, and though there was sadness at his core, it was a manageable sadness, at last.

And then Bridget emerged, first the red of her jacket visible. She came back alone, and her eyes were wet. She was a ghost, and she was crying. “It was beautiful in there,” she said. “But I couldn’t bear the thought of spending eternity melting into Ismael, and having him melt into me.” She shook her head. “There at the end . . . he said to tell you ‘Thank you.’ He said to tell you he was sorry.”

“Let’s go,” Darrin said.

“Where to?” Orville said.

“Um,” Arturo said. “There’s an envelope on the Wendigo’s dashboard. It wasn’t there a minute ago.” Arturo lifted it out. “It’s addressed to you, Darrin.”

Darrin took the envelope from Arturo’s outstretched hand. There was a single sheet of paper inside, with a few typewritten lines. Darrin nodded, and crumpled the letter in his hand. “Let’s go,” he said. “I’ll drive.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Arturo said.

Darrin shrugged. “It’s what the note said I should do.” Arturo looked worried. “It’s okay, man,” Darrin said. “I really think it’s okay. Come on.”

5

“It’s the bridge to the land of the dead,” Darrin said.

“Yeah. I can see that.” Bridget was standing beside him. “Did that note from the Wendigo tell you to bring me here?”

Darrin shook his head. “It didn’t mention you at all. But I thought you should see it. You were always looking for the next thing, you know? The next horizon, the undiscovered country.” He gestured toward the deckless bridge in the mist. “There you go. It’s there. I just wanted you to know the way.”

“I . . . don’t know if I’m ready to cross that yet,” Bridget said. She looked over at Orville, something well beyond friendship and tenderness in her gaze, and for the first time Darrin realized that Orville’s love for her might be reciprocated. In which case, they weren’t doomed after all, just . . . very unconventional. “I think I’d like to hang out in the world a little while longer. Orville here’s never had the vanilla challah French toast with caramelized bananas at the Blackberry Bistro, and I want to be there the first time he eats them. I want to see him try for the world series of poker, too, even if he says he won’t let me cheat for him.”

“Sure,” Darrin said. “But you know where this place is, if the time ever comes.”

“I can find it again, anytime you want, Bridget,” Orville said, and the kindness in his voice was enough for Darrin to feel a surge of warmth in sympathy.

“I need to talk to Arturo,” Darrin said. “You guys . . . thank you for your help. I couldn’t have done it without you. I . . . maybe I’ll see you around?”

BOOK: Briarpatch by Tim Pratt
11.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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