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Authors: Tim Pratt

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BOOK: Briarpatch by Tim Pratt
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Plenty. His name was Ismael Plenty, Bridget’s lover, probably, and a witness to her suicide. Had he driven her to the bridge? (She’d always hated driving in San Francisco.) Had he helped her plan it, or tried to talk her out of it, or just come along because he got his kicks from watching people die?

Darrin frowned. He would find this man—how many Ismael Plentys could there be in the city? He would find him, and demand an explanation, and this time he’d be prepared, so Ismael couldn’t just whip out an ASP baton and refuse to answer any questions. Bridget’s abandonment and death would trouble Darrin always, but if he could understand why, he might be able to get past it, eventually. And this way, at least, he’d be doing
something
. Action was the best therapy.

But he couldn’t start searching for Ismael yet. He couldn’t deal with
anything
yet. He left the apartment and walked the half a block down to Park Boulevard, passing Arturo’s paper-jammed car, hurrying through the crosswalk and over to the grab-and-stab. The clerk, a Middle Eastern man Darrin was on friendly-nod-hello terms with, didn’t raise an eyebrow when Darrin bought a bottle of vodka and a jug of orange juice, though Darrin didn’t think he’d ever bought alcohol there before, his own vices being more of the potato-chips-and-ice-cream variety.

“You hear about the shooting?” the clerk said as he handed Darrin his change, and Darrin shook his head. “Just a few blocks from here, someone got shot. You saw the flier, about the muggings?” Darrin hadn’t, so the clerk pulled it down from the window and handed it over. The flyer was blurrily photocopied on yellow paper, produced by some community group Darrin had never heard of, and it warned area residents to beware. “Something like thirty people have been mugged in the past month,” the clerk said. “Two men wait in their car late at night, and when they see you heading toward your apartment, they come out and hold you up at gunpoint and take your money. They made one woman take them inside her apartment and they raped her, and last night they shot somebody.”

Darrin blinked. He didn’t think of his neighbourhood as dangerous not compared to many places in Oakland. It was near the high school, so there were occasional break-ins, petty thefts, cars being stolen for joyrides if they weren’t secured against casual theft. There were million-dollar homes in his neighbourhood; it was a nice residential area. In Oakland nice areas nestled right against bad neighbourhoods though, and for muggers, it probably made more sense to rob people in relatively prosperous areas. “Are the police doing anything about it?”

The clerk shrugged. “They say they have more patrols in the area, but I haven’t seen any. By the time the police get involved the muggers usually move to a new neighbourhood anyway. Just be careful walking around at night.”

“Thanks, I will.” Darrin took his bag. Just what he needed. More fear. He’d go home, lock his doors, turn off his phone, and drink screwdrivers all afternoon. And tomorrow morning, assuming he wasn’t too hungover, he’d figure out how to find Ismael Plenty, and get answers from him by any means necessary.

Echo’s Got a Gun

1

“I know where he was.” Ismael Plenty didn’t bother opening his eyes. He’d had a terrible headache ever since watching Bridget jump earlier that morning, and no amount of water or caffeine had served to make the pounding go away, so now he lay on the threadbare velvet couch in his front room with his eyes closed, letting the pain inhabit him, letting it strengthen his resolve. “Darrin was at the Golden Gate, watching Bridget jump. That’s why he wasn’t home when you visited.”

“Holy shit,” Echo Reins said, her voice closer than before, and Ismael opened his eyes to find her face just inches from his own, her pale green eyes gazing at his face. Her breath smelled of spice tea and honey.

“Do you mind?” Ismael said mildly. “You know I don’t like people in my personal space.”

Echo belched unselfconsciously into his face, sniffed, and flopped down on the armchair. “How’d he know to go to the bridge today?”

Ismael shrugged. “I don’t think he knew, not consciously. It’s just further proof that he’s a child of the briarpatch, led by impulses he can’t understand. Or else it was simply coincidence.”

“Coulda been fate,” Echo said, but Ismael ignored her, knowing she was just trying to provoke a reaction.
Fate
. He wished there were such a thing as fate. Then he’d be able to believe there might be some sort of
conclusion
in his life, preferably sometime before the heat death of the universe. No, Ismael knew that in this world and any other you had to make your own fate.

“I wonder if this might be enough to push him,” Ismael mused, closing his eyes again. “I think he got a glimpse into the briarpatch after I attacked that useful oaf Nicholas—I swear he saw the alley I disappeared into—but if all it took was a cheap surge of adrenaline to send him into the liminal world, he’d be a seasoned traveller by now. I still think despair is the key. He’s lost his job, his financial stability, his mobility, and now he’s seen his true love take her own life, so if he’s not over the edge yet, he’s surely teetering.”

“How’d that go, anyway?” Echo said. “With blondie’s leap, I mean? Did she see the light?”

“I didn’t notice a pinprick of light.” Ismael massaged his temples. That failure was part of the reason his head hurt. Bridget had been a good prospect, but he’d fucked it up somehow, hadn’t prepared her well enough, and as a result she’d probably just died, the way anyone did, without passing into the light of a better world. He might have felt guilty, if the weight of one more pointless death could be felt on his already bloodstained conscience, but as it was, Bridget was just a very small drop in a very large bucket. “No, I think she botched it, poor thing.”

“But she was such a good prospect!” Echo said. “At least her death will help spur Darrin to follow his path.”

Ismael opened one eye. “Stop it. Don’t do that.”

Echo looked at him, all wide-eyed innocence, and she really was adorable and fuckable all at once, perky and eager-to-please, but Ismael knew it was all pretence, that the real Echo—if there was such a thing, deep down underneath—was eager to please only herself. “Don’t do what?”

“Parrot back something I’ve said to you before in order to make me think you’re intelligent and insightful. I don’t forget the things I’ve told you, Echo. My memory is flawless.”

“And that’s your greatest tragedy,” Echo said, and it was another parrot-trick, turned only slightly mocking by her tone, but he ignored the jab, because giving Echo the satisfaction of annoying him would only encourage her.

“Yes, well,” Ismael started. “It’s true. Darrin might provide another way, if we can push him, if we can make him run. He might reveal pathways I can’t see on my own.”

“I dunno if he’ll run, but he’s still
walking
all the damn time. All he does all day is walk walk walk and snap snap snap, taking pictures of trees and stairs and graffiti and drains.”

“He is seeking something,” Ismael said, surprised at the touch of hope he heard in his voice. “He is practicing psychogeography, though I doubt he’s ever heard the term.”

“Psychogeography, huh? What, you mean like trying to read the city’s
mind
? I can imagine what’s on Oakland’s mind.”

“It’s not urban telepathy, but you’re . . . close. Cities have moods, and modes, and people can sense those moods. Everyone is unconsciously shunted along particular paths through the city, appropriate to their class, level of income, race, professional interests. Every individual’s personal map represents only a fraction of the real city, with the rest simply unregarded. In a way, there are a thousand unseen cities hidden in every city you think you know, parts of the terrain you never encounter, neighbourhoods you never even notice. Psychogeographers attempt to free themselves from their unconscious constraints of habit and propriety, either playfully or seriously, and engage wholly with the city as it is. They
explore
. Such attention to reality, rather than the imposed mental map everyone carries with them, is good training for the greater acts of exploration I hope Darrin will undertake. With enough wandering, a man of his . . . talents . . . could discover parts of the city no one has seen for
centuries
, pockets of forgotten terrain. And once he’s gone that far, it will be trivial to send him one step farther. He may nearly be ready.”

“So do we finally get to move on? Not that being a spy and playing girlfriend with Darrin isn’t fun, and since he’s been walking so much he’s even got a nice tight butt, it’s just I thought the whole point of me making him a little happy again was so we could make him even
more
sad later. Can I dump him yet?”

“He just saw the love of his life die, so I don’t think a simple breakup will be enough of an . . . escalation anymore,” Ismael mused. “We need to do something more extreme.”

“What do you have in mind?”

“Perhaps something involving Nicholas. He still trusts Nicholas, and a betrayal from that unexpected direction might urge him completely out of this world, and into the briarpatch.”

“You mean tell Darrin the real reason he lost his job, or . . .”

Ismael opened both eyes. “I meant something rather more carnal and immediate, actually. Something to shock Darrin. I expect Nicholas will go along with the idea. He’ll put up a protest, but I’m sure we can persuade him.”

“Heh,” Echo said. “I’ve seen Nicholas look at me. I think I can guarantee he’ll go along with it.”

“Good girl.”

“But it’ll cost you.”

Ismael knew what she wanted. But he said, “Money’s not a problem,” hoping perhaps he was wrong, that she was just looking for straightforward remuneration.

“Money’s never been a problem for me. That’s not what I mean. I want to try another experiment.”

“We just
did
this,” Ismael said, irritated. “Last week, with gasoline, the backyard still stinks of it.”

“I got something new.” Echo unzipped the duffel bag at her feet. She withdrew a gleaming chrome-plated pump-action shotgun and pressed the barrel against her cheek. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

Ismael shuddered. He didn’t like guns. He’d seen too many people taken to pieces by guns, including people he’d cared about, back in the old days, when he still sometimes cared about people in more than the abstract. And self-inflicted gunshot wounds were either too unreliable or too quick a death to be useful for transition to the better world—they didn’t provide the crucial moments of contemplation that pills, bridge-jumps, and slit wrists did. “Where did you get that? It looks like a toy.”

Echo shrugged. “Boosted a Mercedes last week, and this was in the trunk, in a locked box. Probably belonged to gangbanger royalty or something. I tried it out, but I just shot at a wall in an old house in West Oakland. I want to shoot something
good
.”

“So I’ll buy you a side of beef. You can blast it to pieces. Blood and meat everywhere. Surely that will be more satisfying than shooting me.”

“You need me to drive Darrin over the edge, so you’ll do what I want,” Echo said, absolutely confident. People almost always did what Echo wanted, but at least Ismael was aware of her manipulations.

“Fine,” Ismael said.

“Now?”

“No better time.” He heaved himself off the couch. Perhaps this experience would make his headache go away, or at least make him stop thinking about Bridget’s failure—his
own
failure. He led the way through the narrow, furniture-crowded hallway, through the essentially empty kitchen, out the back door and down the three low steps to the overgrown weedy backyard. An absurdly high wooden fence screened him from his neighbours, the welcome legacy of some privacy-obsessed former owner. The sun was bright but not hot—the rain hadn’t settled in for its six-month stay just yet, but fall was cusping—and Ismael wished he’d remembered to wear dark glasses. He paused by a rusted-through wheelbarrow, gazing at the sagging, spider-filled tool shed, the shredded trampoline, and the broken birdbath with its puddle of black water at the centre. Ismael considered his backyard a metaphor for his life. Parts of it had been nice enough, perhaps, once, but it was all rundown and pathetic now, and there was no telling when or if the debris would ever be carted off to the trash heap.

“Why do you always call these ‘experiments’?” Ismael asked, looking ahead but sensing Echo and her shotgun behind him. “It’s not as if the results are in doubt.”

“But
maybe
,” Echo said, with relish, “
maybe
this time it will be different. The shotgun fires lots of little pellets, after all, so
maybe
some of them will strike home, maybe enough of them to do so some real damage.”

“If so, I would die,” Ismael said.

“Well, yes. Which would be kind of a thrill for both of us, right?”

“Yes.” Ismael turned to face her. “I suppose so. Go ahead.”

Echo took a stance, legs spread, feet planted firmly, and lifted the shotgun before her, pointed at Ismael’s chest. She was very close to him, and by reaching out and leaning forward a bit, Ismael could have stuck his finger in the gun’s barrel. She pumped it, grinning, clearly loving the sound of the impeccably working machinery of death. “See you, babe,” Echo said, and fired.

Ismael heard the incredibly loud crash of gunfire, and then the world swirled and dipped. He fell in every direction at once as dark and light streaked interchangeably past his eyes, and then he was upright again, leaning against a dirty shelf, and, of course, utterly unharmed. As always, when death or even serious injury seemed imminent, some secret reflex kicked in, shunting him through the briarpatch to safety. A spider scuttled over his hand—probably something poisonous, not that it mattered—and he realized where he was. Ismael kicked at the wooden door, which swung open, and stepped out into his backyard.

Echo stood, shaking her hand vigorously back and forth. It was probably numb from the recoil. “Hey, you didn’t go far at all this time.”

“Yes,” Ismael said. When Echo had attempted to set him on fire the week before, Ismael had fled deep into the briarpatch, and emerged nearly two miles away beneath an overpass, perhaps because there was a chance the fire would fill the whole back yard, making closer re-entry too dangerous? Or was that ascribing thought and consciousness to what he believed was mere mindless instinctual self-preservation? Perhaps the places where he re-emerged were simply random. This time he’d been dumped right back into the baseline world, but other times he’d had to journey for a while in the briarpatch to find his way out again, and there seemed no reason or pattern to the nature of his escapes. He’d had a long time, and many brushes with death, to look for such a pattern, even before Echo came along and started trading attempted murder for her services. “Are you satisfied, now?” he asked her.

BOOK: Briarpatch by Tim Pratt
13.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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