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Authors: Tom Holt

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Wish You Were Here

BOOK: Wish You Were Here
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Table of Contents
 
Tom Holt
was born in 1961, a sullen, podgy child, much given to brooding on the Infinite. He studied at Westminster School, Wadham College, Oxford, and the College of Law. He produced his first book,
Poems by Tom Holt
, at the age of thirteen, and was immediately hailed as an infant prodigy, to his horror. At Oxford, Holt discovered bar billiards and at once changed from poetry to comic fiction, beginning with two sequels to E.F. Benson's Lucia series, and continuing with his own distinctive brand of comic fantasy. He has also written an historical novel set in the fifth century BC,
The Walled Orchard
, and has collaborated with Steve Nallon on
I, Margaret
, the (unauthorised) biography of Margaret Thatcher.
 
Somewhat thinner and more cheerful than in his youth, Tom Holt is now married and lives in Chard, Somerset, just downwind of the meat-canning factory.

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Copyright

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

Copyright © Tom Holt 1998

Cover illustration by Lauren Panepinto. Cover copyright © 2012 by Hachette Book Group, Inc.

All rights reserved. In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher is unlawful piracy and theft of the author's intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at [email protected] Thank you for your support of the author's rights.

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First US e-book edition: September 2012

ISBN: 978-0-316-23344-6

Also by Tom Holt
Expecting Someone Taller
Who's Afraid of Beowulf?
Flying Dutch
Ye Gods!
Overtime
Here Comes the Sun
Grailblazers
Faust Among Equals
Odds and Gods
Djinn Rummy
My Hero
Paint Your Dragon
Open Sesame
Wish You Were Here
Only Human
Snow White and the Seven Samurai
Valhalla
Nothing But Blue Skies
Falling Sideways
Little People
The Portable Door
In Your Dreams
Earth, Air, Fire and Custard
You Don't Have to be Evil to Work Here, But It Helps
Barking
The Better Mousetrap
May Contain Traces of Magic
Blonde Bombshell
Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Sausages
Doughnut
For John and Mary Creasey
and Joe Bethancourt:
Sweet Charioteers.
CHAPTER ONE
 
 
‘Y
es,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.'
‘Look—'
‘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
. . .
BOOK: Wish You Were Here
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