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Wish You Were Here
By Tom Holt
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Format:ebook (Digital original) $3.99
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around September 4, 2012. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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It was a busy day on Lake Chicopee, where an eclectic bunch of sightseers and tourists had the strange local residents rubbing their hands with delight. Among them was a young man from England, who was there because he knew about the legend of the ghost of Okeewana and what she promised.
‘Yes,sir,’said the tiresome old man, leaning back in his rocking chair, ‘that there’s Lake Chicopee right enough. Ain’t no other lake like it in all of Iowa.’
Below them, the lake lounged motionless in the late morning sun like a well-fed cat in a window-seat. Because it’s surrounded on all four sides by the crests of the Chicopee Hills, the wind seldom ruffles its surface, making it one giant mirror. Accordingly, unless you look closely, you don’t actually see a lake; just a ring of ingrowing mountains and stalagmite pine trees surrounding an oval of blue. That, perhaps, was what the old man was referring to; or maybe he had something else in mind.
‘Thanks,’ muttered the motorist, glancing sideways at his watch. ‘So to get to Oskaloosa we just follow this road until it brings us out on the . . .’
‘They do say,’ the tiresome old man continued, lighting his corn-cob pipe and blowing smoke in the motorist’s face, ‘that this here lake’s haunted.’
The motorist coughed pointedly. In New York, blowing tobacco smoke in someone’s face would get you arrested for assault with a deadly weapon. ‘Is that so?’ he said, trying his best to load each syllable with patent lack of interest. ‘If I just follow this road as far as . . .’
‘By an ole Injun spirit,’ the tiresome old man said, ‘name of Okeewana or some such. Now I lived in these parts all my life and I never seen her, but who’s to say, huh? Who’s to say?’
A scowl swept across the motorist’s face like an empty polythene bag windblown across an empty car park. ‘Who indeed? Look, I don’t want to seem rude, but . . .’
‘They do say -’ The tiresome old man leaned forward, giving the motorist a unique opportunity to study at first hand the effects on tooth enamel of sixty years of chewing tobacco and industrial-grade bourbon whiskey - ‘that if you’re lucky and meet that ole spirit and jump in the lake after her, she’ll grant you anything you truly wish fer.’
‘And if you’re really lucky,’ he added, with an evil grin, ‘you drown first.’
When the motorist’s car had disappeared over the skyline - going the wrong way, but some folks just won’t stop to listen - the tiresome old man smiled indulgently, shook himself like a wet cat and turned into a beautiful young girl. Then she stood up, disappeared the rocking chair, the quaintly tumbledown timberframe house and the white picket fence, and ran down to the shores of the lake. Duty done; time for a swim.
However long it was that she’d been here - it seemed like for ever, which is no time at all - in all that time she’d never grown tired of swimming in the lake. Sometimes she would be an otter, floating on her back or scudding like a sleek brown torpedo a few inches under the roof of the water, letting the bubbles stream after her like a dragon’s tail. At other times she’d be a trout or a duck, occasionally a human; it all depended on the weather and the time of year, the mood she was in, whether she was working or off duty. There were all manner of delightful things to be in a lake; and that was only on this side of the surface. Underneath the reflection, on the mirror’s flipside, the possibilities were, of course, infinite.
Today, it was her fancy to be a water-beetle. Having first scanned air and water for unfriendly birds and fish, she took a deep breath, drew down her mind into the tiny parameters of beetlehood and found herself balancing on legs thinner than her own eyelashes, standing on the surface of the water. It was a tricksy metamorphosis - the difficulty being how to get any purchase on the meniscus of the lake, rather like ice-skating with a single six-inch nail strapped point downwards on each foot instead of a nice wide blade - but the exhilarating effect of being able to scamper over the surface of an element that usually prided itself on always getting the last word generally made up for the time expended in mastering the art. As soon as that first, inevitable wave of shape-changer’s panic had died away she began to feel the sheer bliss of unlimited choice, with nothing to interfere with her pleasure except a very slight breeze setting up a few trivial ripples, and the occasional wolf-whistle from the male water-beetles hanging round a belly-up dead fish a few yards further out. This, she reflected, is the life.
Her mind, or at least the tediously sentient part of it, was on the point of floating away when her insect vision caught sight of a human shape making its way down the southern slope of the encircling hills. A customer. Damn. With a faint buzz she opened her wing-case, spread her wings and sawed up off the surface of the water, making a noise like a tiny Japanese motorcycle engine.
She wasn’t the only one to have noticed the newcomer. On the opposite side of the lake, high up in the branches of a tall pine tree, Talks to Squirrels shaded his eyes with his hand and did some complicated mental arithmetic.
Range: seven hundred and fifty yards. Windspeed: five, maybe seven miles per hour. Allowance for thermal currents rising off the warm surface of the lake: well, his best guess would have to do, so say five degrees. In which case, let x equal the coefficient of drag . . .
With an ease that mere quartz could never hope to achieve, his mind sifted the numbers, made the corrections, compensated for the effect of air-pressure on an irregularly knapped obsidian arrowhead spinning anticlockwise against the wind on a sunny day and gave him the precise angle and the exactly quantified weight of draw on the bowstring that would have allowed him, if he was still alive, which he wasn’t, goddamnit, to stick an arrow smack bang in the middle of the intruder’s eyebrows. In his mind’s eye he could see the spiralling flash of the arrow’s fletchings against the blue sky, the pear-shaped curve of its descent, and (short pause, while his mind’s eye changed lenses) the look of dumb incredulity on the sucker’s face as he realised he’d suddenly and unexpectedly been taken dead. Hah! I’d have had you, you bastard, except for a technicality.
Remember the furious indignation you used to feel when you were young and the teacher kept you in after school for something you hadn’t actually done? Quite. Think how much worse it must be to be kept in after life.
And it hadn’t been his fault, damnit; because they’d started it, with their treaties and railroads and forked-tongue promises. Fair enough, he hadn’t exactly loathed every minute he’d spent in the armed struggle for his nation’s liberty; but so what? How can it be wrong to enjoy doing well a job that has to be done? A skilled woodworker making a fine job of a difficult piece of carpentry is allowed to feel good about it; so why not a warrior? Hadn’t been any of this fuss before they arrived. Great Spirits, but what wouldn’t he give for just one more shot. Just one.
He sighed, and the world of the living would have heard the wind softly mussing the branches of the tree. While he’d been calculating and pondering on his wrongs, the scumbag had moved. Range now seven hundred and twenty yards, windspeed now dropping, let y be the effect of the archer’s paradox. Ah, shit, it just isn’t fair . . .
If only he hadn’t fallen in the goddamn lake.
The beetle had landed.
It shook itself and studied the newcomer. Was he, it wondered, the observant type, the sort of man who’d notice a timberframe house with picket fence, stoop and rocking chair and realise that it hadn’t been there a moment ago? Probably not; a dreamer, if ever it had seen one. Quite liable to fall in the lake of his own accord, simply by not looking where he’s going.
Still, duty called. A heartbeat later, he tasted the bitterness of tobacco in the back of his throat, breathed out a thin plume of smoke through his nose and set the chair rocking.
‘Howdy,’ he said.
The young man looked up. For an instant the tiresome old man wondered if perhaps he’d underestimated the lad, because there was just a tiny flicker of puzzlement in his eyes as he looked up and saw the house for the first time. But if his subconscious mind had noticed anything, it kept it to itself.The young man blinked, said, ‘Hello,’ in an unfamiliar accent, and turned back to stare at the lake.
Unfamiliar? No, it was just that the tiresome old man hadn’t heard it for a very long time. A Britisher, by the Spirits; a direct descendant, maybe, of the dim-witted clowns who’d passed this way three hundred years or so since.
Hum. Unlikely to be a direct descendant of that lot. Where they’d gone, people don’t have descendants. A relative, maybe. Sixteenth cousin thirty-two times removed, something like that. A collector’s piece, at any rate.
‘Mighty fine view of the lake you get from here,’ the tiresome old man observed. A blue cloud rose over his head and hung there for a moment.
‘They do say,’ continued the tiresome old man, ‘that this here lake’s haunted.’
‘Haunted by an ole—you do?’
The young man nodded. ‘That’s why I’m here,’ he said.
‘Gosh darn,’ muttered the old man, taken aback. For technical reasons too complicated to explain, he knew he wasn’t dreaming; but to get a mark who’d actually come here on purpose - hell, if he was inclined to be paranoid he’d be looking for a trap of some sort. ‘Yup,’ he continued lamely, ‘the ole Injun spirit of Lake Chicopee . . .’
‘Okeewana,’ the young man recited, ‘Daughter of the West Wind. If you throw yourself in the lake, she grants you your heart’s desire.’ He made a peculiar noise with surplus breath and his teeth, which the old man recognised as a sigh of rapture. God damnit! ‘I saved up for two years to come here,’ he added. ‘In the Post Office. You know, I still can’t believe I’m actually here.’
I know the feeling, the old man said to himself. I can’t believe you’re actually here either. Still; the thing to bear in mind when dealing with mortals is never to give them an even break. ‘Where you from, son?’ he asked, and blew a smoke-ring.
‘Brierley Hill,’ the lad replied. He couldn’t be more than twenty-five; tall, unfinished-looking, the sort of man who doesn’t look like he’s dried properly until he’s about forty. Looking at him, the old man felt an overwhelming urge to fold him up and put him neatly away. Somehow, he made the world look untidy. ‘That’s near Birmingham,’ the lad went on. ‘England.’
‘Is that so?’ Birmingham? After my time. Tentatively, he probed the youth’s mind for an image of the place; the result was strange, to say the least. Hell, whatever will they think of next? ‘Well, you sure’s tarnation a long way from home here, bud. Is she like you figured she’d be?’
‘No.’ The lad shook his head. ‘It’s better. It’s really - you know, amazing. All that water and stuff.’
So what did you expect to find in a lake? Porridge? ‘And you reckon you know all ’bout ole Okeewana,’ he continued, feeling ever so slightly as if he was advising his grandmother to bore a small hole in the pointed end, taking care not to crack the shell. ‘They do say . . .’
‘It’s been my ambition, like,’ the boy went on. ‘Ever since I was twelve. I got this book out of the library, Myths And Legends Of Many Lands. All in there, it was.’ He paused, and seemed to be bracing himself as if to confess some dreadful sin. ‘I like all that stuff, mythology and things.’
‘You do, huh?’
He nodded. ‘I think it’s great. I think I like the Aztecs best, but you can fly here direct from Birmingham and anyway, I can’t speak Spanish. Plus the exchange rate’s better. My mum works in a travel agent’s.’
The old man frowned. Following the kid’s train of thought was a bit like trying to find the end of a rainbow with your eyes shut. ‘They do say,’ he persevered, ‘that if you was to jump in this here lake . . .’
He paused. He could feel vibes.
Talks To Squirrels! Put that thing down, for pity’s sake, before you injure somebody.
Hell, ’Kee, I’m only practising. All I can do these days, practise.You should know that, better than me.
Cut it out, Squirrels, before I cut it out for you. And maybe later, if you’re good—
Huh.You always say that.
Actually, I’ve got a good feeling about this one. And if it does come off, you can have first crack at him. Promise. Honest Injun.
’Kee, that wasn’t funny the first time you said it.
The youth was looking at him curiously, as if he could hear echoes of the unspoken words. The old man pulled himself together.
‘Sorry, kid,’ he said, rallying gamely. ‘Reckon I was miles away. When you been living here long as me, you get so’s you think you hear things that ain’t there, if you know what I mean. And just now, darn it if I wasn’t sure as I could hear that ole spirit calling to me . . .’
Thanks to his unique insight into what goes on under the surface of lakes, the old man actually did know the look on a fish’s face just before it takes the baited hook; a sort of stupid, greedy, well-bugger-me-there’s-lunch-just-hanging-there sort of a grin that generally tends to dissipate any sympathy you might have for the fish. Just such a look was spreading over the lad’s face, swiftly and indelibly as blackcurrant squash on a white rug. Yessir, got me a sucker, rejoiced the old man’s soul, as it slowly began to turn the reel.
And lay off the Tom Sawyer stuff, will you, ’Kee? You’re about as convincing as a five-dollar Rolex Oyster, and you’re giving me a pain.
‘Really?’ the kid was saying. ‘You can actually, like, hear her? That’s unreal.’
‘Hey, son, you can hear her for yourself if you just mosey on down to the edge of the water.’
There are some fish so gullible you don’t need to bait the hook. They’re the ones who look up at the three-sixty-degree sky and say to themselves, Hey, wonder what it must be like up there, and wouldn’t it be just great to find out if only I could find some way out of all this boring old water. They’re the ones who say, a fraction of a second before the gaff cracks them on the head, that it’s one small tail-flip for a fish but a giant splosh for fishkind.
‘Wow!’ said the kid. ‘You know, I might just do that.’
With a big silly grin all over his face, he set off down the hill. The old man watched him go, sighed a little, and shook himself.
‘Yes,’ said the editor, leaning back in his chair and loosening his tie. ‘That’s one hell of a story.’
The editor swivelled his chair round and scrolled back through the text on the screen. Occasionally he paused to nod his head, grin and catch his breath.
‘One hell of a story,’ he repeated.
‘I particularly liked,’ the editor said, ‘the way you link it all up at the end. Must have taken some doing.’
‘Ah.’ The editor rubbed his chin. Something; not a worry, not even a niggle, as such. On the other hand, the Tribune’s circulation was up four per cent and the Globe had run rings round him with the Hudson Bay radiation leak scare. Something like this could change all that. Overnight.
‘I really liked the bit where you link that guy the President’s hairdresser’s uncle was at high school with to the car smash where that ecology activist’s arm got broken, which has never been conclusively proved not to be a bungled CIA hit attempt.’ He chewed his lower lip thoughtfully. ‘That had, you know, overtones. Could mean absolutely anything.’
The editor grinned. ‘And that bit about the leading US company supplying components to the Brazilian company that supplies components to the French company that made all the filing cabinet divider cards used by Sadam Hussein during the Gulf War. Masterly. No other word for it. Their stock’s gonna go through the floor when this hits the stands.’ He frowned, and made a mental note to call his broker.
‘Yeah. It’s a pretty damn good story.’
‘Good?’ The editor gestured vaguely. ‘It makes Woodward and Bernstein look like a couple of old guys doing a gardening column.’ He frowned. ‘Just one thing,’ he added. ‘You couldn’t work in anything about Kennedy, could you? Only we haven’t had a good JFK conspiracy story for . . .’
‘OK, OK,’ grumbled the editor. ‘Three weeks is a long time in journalism.’ He flicked through the story again. ‘Here,’ he said, pointing. ‘In this bit where you link Mark Twain with the rise of the Hitler Youth. Couldn’t you kinda just squeeze it a bit and—?’
‘No?’ The editor pulled a little face. ‘Fair enough, I guess it’s your baby. All right, how about here? The part where you claim the guy who’s doing all the Senegal famine relief stuff is really Klaus von Mordwerk, the Butcher of Chartres. If you just . . .’
‘Huh? Pity. Because, you know that bit where you say his birth certificate says he was born in 1957 but it’s all a fake because really he was kidnapped by aliens who whizzed him round the galaxy at seven times the speed of light, so he only looks forty years old even though really he’s ninety-seven; if you were to imply that the same aliens were the ones who snatched Kennedy—’
The editor shrugged. ‘You know best,’ he said. ‘It’s just I hate to see an opportunity going to—’
‘That’s the follow-up. For next week.’
‘I suggest you put Chlopeki on it. She needs the experience.’
The editor nodded, and reached for a cigar. He was just about to light it when it was taken from his hand, snapped neatly in two and dropped in the bin. ‘Sorry,’ the editor said sheepishly. ‘I forgot.’
‘Which reminds me,’ the editor added. ‘That bit where you attributed Rasputin’s madness to passive smoking while he was a novice in Kiev. Do you think we could work that up into a major feature? Only, we haven’t had a passive smoking scare for, oh . . .’
‘Right. Yeah, well, we could call it a follow-up. You know; write your congressman NOW!!! kinda thing . . .’
A shrug. ‘You can if you like. Look, I’m really glad you liked the story, but I haven’t got time right now. I’ll catch up with you when I get back, OK?’
‘Back?’ The editor looked up. ‘You off somewhere?’
‘Yes.’ Linda Lachuk nodded. ‘Iowa. Looks like something big.’
‘Another one? Hey.’
‘No.’ Linda allowed herself a thin smile. ‘That one you got there’s just a bit of fun. The Iowa thing is big. See you.’
The editor opened his mouth and closed it again. ‘Hey,’ he said, ‘bigger than this? What’s the story?’
Linda shrugged. ‘You’ll see.’
‘Just a little hint?’
‘Let’s see, then.’ Linda sat down on the corner of the editor’s desk. ‘We’ve got a secret nuke installation that’s causing ecological havoc, maybe even bending the fabric of the space/time continuum, and it’s all tied in with the clandestine arms scandal, which means . . .’
‘Huh? What clandestine arms scandal?’
‘This one,’ Linda replied. ‘The big question will be, did the President know about the existence of the second-generation tapes? And then, when we bring in the women’s health issues, not to mention the cute little furry animals angle . . .’
The editor’s face slumped into a stunned grin, so that he looked like a lemming version of Cortes gazing with a wild surmise at the Grand Canyon. ‘There’s a cute little furry animals angle?’ he breathed.
‘There’s always a cute little furry animals angle,’ Linda replied casually. ‘If not express, then implied. You just gotta look for it, is all.’
Which was true, the editor admitted, as he recalled Linda’s own stunningly innovative slant on the farm subsidies story. Who else, he asked himself, would have dreamed of leading with a full-page close-up of the cutest little mouse you ever saw, under the screamer: CONDEMNED TO DIE!! (‘If secret plans now being rushed through Congress are allowed to go ahead, millions of cute furry mice like Wilbert will be ruthlessly exterminated as callous farmers sadistically prepare grain silos for expected megabuck bumper har vests . . .’) He closed his eyes, and grinned. ‘Way to go, Linda,’ he said. ‘I can hardly wait.’
Linda nodded and stood up; and the editor reflected, not for the first time, that for one person to be so incredibly successful, so stunningly beautiful, so completely integrated and at one with her lifestyle, wasn’t perhaps the way it was supposed to be with human beings. Maybe, he surmised, she’s got this really awful-looking painting in her attic. Or maybe not. If she had, she’d have made a story out of it long since.
With an ethnic rights angle to it, probably. Not to mention the cute little furry animals.
Ninety feet above the surface of the lake, the duck air-braked, banked sharply and turned.
Because a part of its mind, unused even after all this time to lightning-fast changes of body, was still being a tiresome old man with a corn-cob pipe, the duck made its way slowly down the sky, taking care not to pull a wing muscle or dislocate an arthritic joint. The rest of its mind used the response-time lag to assess the situation and demand to know, one last time, where the catch was. Too easy, it screamed. Nobody, not even a goddamn Brit, is this daffy. It’s got to be a set-up or something.
Got to be.
But, the duck reflected as it lowered its undercarriage and aquaplaned a silvery gash through a reflected mountain, if there’s a catch, buggered if I can see it. Not that I’m in any position to pontificate right now, what with being a duck and all. Stupider creatures than ducks are hard to find, if you leave out the sort of life-form you can comfortably fit on a microscope slide.
Having gathered its wings in tidily to its sides and preened them with its bill, it turned to face the shore and settled itself down to watch. Any minute now, there was going to be a loud splash.
Four. Three. Two. One.
When the kid stopped flying through the air and touched down on the water, he fell through the reflection of a rocky outcrop on the south-western crest of the hills, smashing it into thousands of tiny shards of image. As he struggled to keep his head above water, each shard was further fragmented, making the surface of the lake a mosaic of tiny bits of hillside, each one perfectly mirrored but no longer making up a whole recognisable anything. When the kid finally realised that the swimming techniques he’d learned in the municipal swimming baths of the West Midlands didn’t seem to work in the admittedly unusual waters of Lake Chicopee, the reflection healed up over his head with surprising speed. Four and a half seconds after the first splash, the ripples had stopped and the mirror was unbroken once more.
You get seven years for breaking conventional mirrors. That’s a conditional discharge and an apology from the judge compared to the penalty for disturbing this one.
Glug. A last few air bubbles floated up and burst.
The duck put its head down, and dived.
Oh God, Wesley Higgins said to himself as the water filled his lungs, I’m drowning.
Entirely against his will, he breathed in water through his nose. It felt -
Good. Odd, that. Hell, it felt healthy. Fresh, clean water and plenty of exercise. Just what the doctor ordered.
Hang about. I’m not drowning. I’m bloody well floating. I’m floating on top of the water.
Surely not; but it felt like floating. Mind you, the water in his lungs felt like air, so who was he to judge? Every scrap of logic remaining in his oxygen-starved brain yelled at him that this was Death; if not the real thing, then an introductory free sample designed to encourage him to sign on for the full course of treatment. No way he could still be alive.
And yet here he was. Floating on his back, like a damn Poohstick. And alive too, by every indication he could monitor. For a start, don’t drowned people float face down, just a few inches under the surface? He’d read somewhere - at school, probably - that they do.
He opened his eyes and saw the sky, oval-encircled by a rampart of hills and a fuzzy ring of trees. All perfectly normal, except -
Except that they were all back to front, turned through a hundred and eighty degrees, mirror-fashion. For two pins, he could make himself believe that his body, the long, embarrassing thing he’d shuffled around in all these years, really was bobbing along upside down on the surface of the lake. And here he was, floating serenely on the underside and staring at the sky. And breathing the water.
Query: was the water safe to breathe in these parts, or should he have brought along an aqualung full of Perrier?
Did they even have Perrier in Heaven?
- On Sale
- Sep 4, 2012
- Page Count
- 352 pages